Parsha of the Week

//Parsha of the Week
Parsha of the Week 2017-10-16T12:48:05+00:00

Parsha of the Week

5778

Noah

26 Tishrei 5778
Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil.

Somehow, whenever we come towards Parshat Noah, it’s rainy. This week is no exception! But we sometimes forget that this week’s Torah portion contains much more than the story of Noah and the flood. Another prominent story is that of the Tower of Babel. After the flood, people come together to bring a tower to reach to the sky, seemingly in competition with God. God disrupts the project by making it so that everyone speaks a different language. With the workers unable to communicate, the construction comes to a halt.

How are we to understand this divine action? Is God really afraid of human competition? Or is the Torah teaching us something about the value of diverse languages?

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger writes:

“They could no longer understand one another’s speech,” and so was created the impetus for the diversity of human culture and language that we know today. God, it appears, at least according to the biblical account, is an avowed multiculturalist!

But what role was this tower meant to play in the efforts of the prevailing culture to remain united and unchallenged? According to the famed biblical exegete and 19th- century Jewish leader Rabbi Naphtali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin, “they would use the structure as a watchtower to observe and keep control of all their residents … From there they sent out emissaries to maintain surveillance over all their domain [what we might call secret police!] and under them served military officers to punish all violators and throw them into the furnace.”

Rabbi Berlin, traditionally referred to by his acronym, the Netziv, is keenly aware of, and extremely wary of, the slippery slope leading from unity to totalitarianism. However laudable it may appear, cultural unity is always on the verge of cultural conformity which stifles creative thought and the free expression and exchange of opinions and cutting edge knowledge. The overvaluing of unity almost inevitably leads to group-speak and to a dangerous tyranny of the majority. Rather, God wants human beings to spread out and to spread their wings. He actively encourages individualism – free thought, dissension and innovation.

In other words, God’s disruptive action leads to a diversity not only of language, but of thought and purpose. The world is richer, and freer, when we each speak with a different voice.

In the context of Montreal, the city of “vivre ensemble” – diverse in language, religion, and culture, this teaching has great wisdom for today. I encourage you to take advantage of the many opportunities at Temple this fall to learn: learn a new language with our Yiddish classes beginning tonight, or a new culture through Bollywood dancing as part of “Mind, Body, and Spirits” on Monday nights; or come to the series on “Inside Religion, Outside the Box” to hear from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders who have gone against the grain; or join the conversation with interfaith couples on Tuesday night. In our community, we embrace diversity both within the Jewish world and beyond it. We might not build a tower to the sky with all these different voices, but we will build a better community, and a better world.


Bereshit

19 Tishrei 5778

Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

So…I know I am a rabbi…but still… I marvel at the wisdom of the Jewish calendar. This Wednesday night and Thursday, we conclude our almost-month-long period of fall holidays. The month seems long, but it all makes a lot of sense. Here’s how it goes:

The season begins with Rosh Hashanah, our New Year’s celebration. We hear the rousing call of the shofar; we eat apples and honey, and we wish our friends and family a sweet new year.

The calendar then offers us ten days to think about how we can improve our behaviour and our lives in the new year. At the conclusion of those ten days, we spend Yom Kippur fasting (as we are able), and praying for forgiveness. Jewish tradition tells us that righteousness and wholeness are within reach; we all have the ability to do teshuvah, to change our lives for the better.

After the long day of Yom Kippur, spent indoors and looking inwards, we are forced outside for the harvest festival of Sukkot. We erect a flimsy, temporary dwelling that reminds us of the fragility of life – but also of the beauty of the world around us. We are meant to relax in the sukkah, eat good food, look at the stars, and enjoy the company of family and friends.

A week later, we arrive at Simchat Torah, the festival on which celebrate the annual cycle of Torah readings by reading the very end of the Book of Deuteronomy and starting over again with Bereshit, (Genesis). In addition, on Simchat Torah, we change the seasonally related insert in the Gevurot prayer. Since Passover, we have been giving thanks to God with the words “morid hatal,” (for making the dew fall). This week, we substitute the words “mashiv haruach umorid hagashem,” (for making the wind blow and the rain fall). It seems quite fitting that I am watching the rain fall as I type these words. (Although, in the northeast of North America, we can have rain in any season, this is not true in Israel. A friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem posted on Facebook that it rained in Jerusalem last night – which is truly reason for celebration).

Join us for our Simchat Torah celebration, (7 PM Wednesday evening), when we dance with our Torah scrolls to the freilach sounds of klezmer music. Then we make a circle in the Community Hall and unroll one Torah around the whole room. It is a fascinating and moving experience; all ages are welcome to participate!

Our month-long holiday cycle comes to a conclusion this Shabbat when we read the story of creation in Bereshit, the very first Torah portion in the Torah.

Chag Sameach!


Rosh Hashanh Sermons by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Erev Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Hashana day I

5777

Ha’azinu

27 Elul 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

As we ready ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, beginning this Wednesday night, we will find ourselves with the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. Maybe you’ve been coming to Temple for years, or maybe this is your first time. Maybe you recognize old words and old tunes, but this year, they will have new meaning because of things that have changed in your life. The start of a new year is meant to give us time to reflect on what is most important. The words are not always easy and the experience isn’t always easy.  I can almost guarantee you that there will be moments when you are uncomfortable or bored; and I can almost guarantee you that there are times you will be lifted up and inspired. For most Jews, if we needed to have an official relationship status with the High Holy Days, it would be: “it’s complicated.” But for me, and I hope for you, these days are incredibly worthwhile.

To help get ready, let me offer you this prayer by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler, which he wrote as an alternative U’Netaneh Tokef. I’ll be sharing it from the bima as well:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is teshuva, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.


Nitzavim

20 Elul 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

I am mindful of writing this commentary on September 11. Sixteen years ago, I was living in New York City, and I heard the sounds of the sirens of the firetrucks racing down the West Side Highway, past my apartment in the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. Many of them never returned.

That day was a day of horror beyond what any New Yorker had previously imagined. And for a brief time, it brought us all together. I remember walking to my local grocery store in a daze, and buying large quantities of spaghetti and sauce, so anyone stranded in our neighbourhood would have something to eat and somewhere to go. It wasn’t heroic in the slightest; it was just a basic human act, knowing none of us wanted to be alone.

That year and every year following, the synagogue I served in New York would ask members of our local firehouse to join us at a  9/11 memorial Shabbat service. The fire station was a block away from the synagogue, and some of our security staff worked there as well as with us – but we had never before realized the extent of our interdependence and interconnection.

The Torah this week also speaks about togetherness. As the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses addresses them as a group with these words:

You are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God–your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every person in Israel; your wives, your children, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water–so that you may pass into the covenant of Adonai your God…and not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with he who is present, standing here with us today before Adonai our God, and with him who is not here with us today. (Deut. 29:91-11, 13-14).

Strangely, perhaps, it is easier to realize our shared humanity in times of tragedy, when we are all in it together. The weeks and months that followed 9/11 reminded us of the usual divisions in New York Society – between rich and poor, documented and undocumented, city and suburbs. But the Torah reminds us that it is essential to remember our connectedness in good times as well as bad, at milestone moments and in everyday interactions alike. One of the highest forms of praise I hear at funerals are tributes to people who start conversations with everyone from doormen to CEO’s. Why? Because they know that everyone has a story, and everyone wants to be heard.

As we come to the High Holy Days, we will be in close physical proximity with each other –God willing, and thanks to you, our pews will be crowded. I challenge us to see the shared humanity in everyone we encounter, from the security guard at the door to the person sitting beside you. And then, when we leave our shared space at the end of the service, may we see the humanity in others as well.


Ki Tavo

22 Av 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

As we reach this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are coming towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is giving the Israelites instructions for what to do when they finally reach the Promised Land. In one verse, he insists: “This day the Eternal your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 26:6). There’s a wonderful teaching based on this verse by the great Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, picking up on an insight from the medieval French commentator, Rashi (I love how the conversation crosses time and space!). It goes like this:

Each day the commandments should appear to you as new, as if that very day you had been commanded them (Rashi). So [King] David said, “Do not cast me aside in old age” – do not allow me to age in my service of God. Would that my observance of the commandments will always be with enthusiasm, and never by rote.

I thought of this interpretation this week, when we held our annual lunch for Temple members over the age of eighty. Our oldest member present is 107, and many have been members since they were children, for over eighty years. All of them care deeply about Temple, and many have helped build our congregation. Most recently, some have started Inquiring Minds at Temple, a monthly discussion group for seniors; others have gotten involved in Member Connections, and our proposal to collect oral histories. We are also identifying and learning from our “Super Seniors,” the ninety people over the age of ninety in our congregation. What a gift to be around so much accumulated life experience, perspective, and wisdom! What I think inspires me most, though, is in keeping with the Baal Shem Tov’s commentary. It is their openness, and their willingness to stay part of Temple’s community even as it changes. They know that to live is to change, and that we may occasionally get set in our ways (whatever our age) but we are never too old to learn and grow. May this be a lesson to all of us, coming into the New Year.

Ki Teitzei

http://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/ki-teitzei

Re’eh 

22 Av 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Last Friday, we had a number of first-timers at Shabbat services. A young adult interested in our conversion course; a couple visiting Montreal from the States; two families coming to celebrate the naming of new babies. But there was another first-timer with whom I spoke after the service. He told me how hard it had been for him to leave his house that evening, to come into a room of strangers. He was in a hard place in his life, without family and without community. Coming to our Shabbat service did not change everything for him, of course – but he was glad that he had mustered the courage to make it through the doors.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who I met in Jerusalem this summer, reflects on this week’s parsha in a way that resonates with this man’s experience. She writes about the challenge of the Jewish holiday calendar, which can be like an emotional roller coaster, with different feelings summoned at different times. For instance, in Re’eh, our Torah portion, we are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot, the harvest festival in the fall:

V’samachta b’hagecha, the Torah instructs; you shall be joyful in your festival. How, many commentators have asked—how on Earth can Jewish law command a person to feel happy? And if you can’t get there? Then what? You’re a sinner for feeling heartbroken or blue that day? If we could all easily turn on the joy fountain on command, our culture would look very different — entire very profitable industries are built around selling happiness in some form or another. How does it work to command people, in a religious context, to feel a feeling?

But then, Ruttenberg examines the Torah more closely, and suggests it is saying something entirely different. We are not commanded to be joyful, she says; we are commanded to rejoice. “That is,” she writes, “you should do a series of actions. You should come together with your family, your workers, and the various people in your community who are vulnerable…  the commandment to be joyful is really a commandment to throw a party, to have a celebration, to bring people together, all the while making sure that even those most on the margins of society are included… So this commandment isn’t to “feel joyful,” but rather to get out into community and celebrate.  And, this text seems to suggest, that act of celebration will lead to feelings of joy — as a consequence of doing a good thing…”

She concludes: “We all have evenings when we feel miserable and wretched, and are tempted to hide at home under the bed. But sometimes the doing leads to the feeling — sometimes when we haul ourselves out, put on some presentable clothing and go to the dinner or party or other social obligation, we discover that being out in community, being together with others in a loving space filled with good cheer does, in fact, raise our spirits.  Sometimes getting out in the world and enjoying what the world has to offer can bring us to this feeling of exaltation.”

For some, it will always be more of a struggle. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can make every day a challenge. But whether that is our reality, or simply a bad week or a long day, we do better when we come together – and when we are truly attentive to everyone who comes through those doors. That’s the wisdom which doesn’t just help us rejoice on sukkot; it also makes our community a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace for all who enter.

Note: You can find Rabbi Ruttenberg’s full commentary here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/you-shall-be-joyful/.

Tisha B’Av

By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
8 Av 5777

Tonight, Tisha B’Av begins, the day on which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and many other tragedies in Jewish history. Traditionally, it is a fast day – the only sunset-to-sunset fast other than Yom Kippur. Some early leaders of the Reform movement suggested that Tisha b’Av should be abolished, because the destruction of the Second Temple led to new creativity in Judaism, and the transmission of Judaism’s message to the wider world. Reform synagogues are often called “Temples” to assert that our religion has evolved over the past two thousand years, and we are not holding our breath for a return to a Temple in Jerusalem, replete with animal sacrifices and priests.

We may not want the Temple to be rebuilt, but we can still mourn its destruction. Having just returned from a month in Jerusalem, I feel the meaning of this day deeply. I left as the political situation was escalating, with the heat of violence accompanying the heat of the summer. I do not fear for Israel’s existence, but I do fear for the tensions that have no easy solutions, that divide Jew from Jew and all the peoples who live there. As is often said, Israel is in a tough neighbourhood, and living in difficult times.

Tisha b’Av provides a spiritual response to the political and historical reality of danger and destruction. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and one of my teachers this summer, writes about the modern meaning of this ancient day. In his book, “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” he says: “…a key to survival is the assignment of a place to collect the darkness; without the Ninth of Av, we would either spend the year in mourning or would desperately strive to forget all the accumulated catastrophes.”

If you can, join us at 7:00 tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Temple. We will hear music from Rona Nadler and an ensemble of professional musicians, in a program created especially for this day. I’ll share some teachings from my summer of study at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We will inhabit some of the darkness of our past and our fears for the future, and then emerge together with hope.

Devarim

1 Av 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. Deuteronomy reviews many of the laws that have already been given to the Israelites and recounts some of the experiences during their wanderings, stories that are familiar to us from earlier books of the Torah. “Deuteronomy looks towards Israel’s life in the land of Israel, where a society pursuing justice and righteousness, living in harmony with God and enjoying His bounty, can be established…. The Torah’s humanitarianism is most developed in Deuteronomy’s concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged.”[1]

The book, and this week’s Torah portion, is called Devarim, “words.” The first verse begins: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel….” Let us remember that Moses begins his career by pleading with God that he does not want the position of leadership that the Eternal One offers him. “Moses said to God, “Please, O Eternal One, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10) Moses goes on to say, “Please…make someone else Your agent.” (Ex. 4:13)

The midrash tells us that, after 40 years of leading the Israelites, Moses has become an eloquent “man of words.” The transformation is not due to any change in his abilities, but rather to his growth as a leader, and to his enthusiastic commitment to the people of Israel and to the message he has to convey. (Dt. R. 1:1)

This is an important message for all of us. Transformation is possible. We can all develop and change. Growth requires dedication and commitment. Sometimes the road will be challenging, and it will be tempting to give up. It is easier to stay in one place. The hardest part is taking the first step, but ultimately, change is most often positive.

This week, we also observe Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month of Av, which some see as the very first step in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah, which is still, (or just – depending on your point of view), seven weeks away. It is never too early to think about teshuvah, (lit. “repentance), turning, changing direction, taking the first step towards a goal, towards transformation.

[1] Lieber, David L, Ed. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 980.

Matot-Masei

23 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we read the double portion of Matot-Masei, the last two Torah portions in the book of Numbers.

In Numbers 35:9–15, God commands the people to create cities of refuge in the Promised Land. The notion behind the cities of refuge – where one could claim asylum or sanctuary – is a construct that has found itself reinterpreted throughout the ages. In the biblical text, the cities of refuge act as a sanctuary for one who committed a murder, but who had done so unintentionally. The issue here is blood vengeance. Numbers 35:16–21 goes on to explain that a person committing murder should be put to death, (since murder violates the sixth commandment). Furthermore, a member of the family of one who was intentionally murdered has the right to act as the executioner. The relative carrying out this duty is called the go-eil hadam, the blood-avenger. However, if the murder happened by accident, then the murderer is allowed a trial, and the assembly shall decide whether or not the killer should die, (Numbers 35:22–24). If the assembly rules in the person’s favor, the murderer shall live in one of the cities of refuge until the High Priest dies. At this point, the person is free to return home (Numbers 35:28). If the assassin sets foot outside the city before then, he opens himself up to the retribution exacted by the blood-avenger. (Note that Deuteronomy 19 also deals with cities of refuge, murder, and manslaughter. There it makes no mention of the High Priest).

In the United States today, (and some other parts of the world), the term “sanctuary city” has a much different meaning: it designates cities in which law enforcement is not allowed to ask about immigration status when arresting a person. (To read more about American sanctuary cities, click here).

Sometimes we encounter a biblical law that is difficult for us to relate to in modern society, and we are left trying to figure out how it applies to us. Sometimes, we simply dismiss the laws – such as those governing slaves and indentured servants, goring oxen, or fulfilling vows – we simply say, “that was then and this is now,” or we try to find spiritual or allegorical meanings. With the cities of refuge, however, the situation is different. While the function of the cities may have changed throughout time, the intention behind them has remained similar: to protect those who need protection.


Pinchas

16 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is called Pinchas. It is the third in a series of three stories of rebellion, corruption and violence. The first was in the portion called Korach, (which we read on June 24th), in which Korach foments a political rebellion against Moses. The second was last week in Parashat Balak, when Balak hires Bilaam to curse the Israelites, (although his quest fails when God directs Bilaam’s prophecy). This week we are confronted with the violent zeal of Pinchas who murders two people he thinks are profaning God’s name with their lewd behavior. Of all the troubling incidents in the Torah, the one involving Pinchas at the beginning of this week’s portion tops them all.

However, when we read further in the portion, we find some comfort in the story of the daughters of Zelophechad. Zelophechad dies without leaving any male heirs, so his five daughter join together and bring their case to Moses. As a result, the laws of inheritance are changed so daughters can inherit land from their fathers.

Later in the portion. God appoints Joshua to lead the people after Moses – and we have a resounding affirmation that the demagoguery of Korach, the desire of Balak to have Bilaam curse the Israelites, and the violence of Pinchas are not the “right” way. Peaceful adjudication of complaints and a peaceful of transition of power are.


Balak

11 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, found in the last third of the book of Numbers, is called Balak.

Balak, a Moabite king, concerned about the huge number of Israelites amassed on the plain opposite his land, poised to enter the land promised to them by God. In order to stop them, Balak engages the services of a sorcerer, Balaam. He offers to reward Balaam generously if he will curse the people of Israel in order to impede or even prevent their progress. Balaam tries to refuse, but Balak won’t hear of it. Eventually, Balaam agrees to do Balak’s bidding, but says to Balak, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Num. 22:38) Of course, God causes blessings rather than curses to come out of Balaam’s mouth – not just once, but four times.

Let us look at just one phrase from the first of Balaam’s blessings:

“…There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” (Num. 23:9).

One might ask why “dwelling apart” and not being “reckoned among the nations” is a blessing. This reflects the age-old dilemma of the Jewish people. In order to survive, Jews have often lived apart from our neighbors. At the same time, in the Diaspora, we want to be accepted and recognized as citizens in the countries in which we live.

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, (1215-1293), stressed the importance of the Jewish people maintaining their own identity. He divides this verse into two sections. The uniqueness and greatness of the people of Israel come about when the people of Israel “dwell apart.” It is when they become totally assimilated, living “among the nations” with no distinct identity, that they will not be “reckoned among the nations” anymore. That is, if we become a people like all other peoples, we will no longer have anything to contribute to the world.

In most modern, North American Jewish communities, we have been quite successful at maintaining our distinct identity as a people while also effectively integrating into society. What do you think? How much should we “dwell apart,” and how integrated should we be? How would you prefer to live your life?


Chukat

4 Tamuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, called Chukat, Miriam dies, and once again, the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water in the desert. They rail against Moses and Aaron, and God tells them to take the rod and order a rock to yield water. In his frustration, Moses strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it. Water does come forth, but God punishes Moses and Aaron because Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be permitted to enter the Promised Land. The site of this incident is called Meribah, “the waters of strife.”

Needless to say, the commentators have a field day, wondering why God metes out such a severe penalty for what doesn’t seem to be such a serious “crime.” Some commentators point to earlier sins as the real cause for this punishment. Aaron’s cardinal sin was the construction of the Golden Calf. Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster and broke the first set of tablets, among other transgressions. Ramban suggests that Moses and Aaron forgot that they were role models for the Israelites. By showing their anger and frustration, the Israelites might be lead to believe that uncontrolled anger is acceptable, especially in a leader. Nehama Leibowitz points out that although God does not show anger at the people’s need for water, because of Moses’ behaviour, the Israelites might imagine God to be an angry deity, devoid of compassion for the people.

This portion leads me to consider the ways in which we all are role models in one way or another, no matter our age or position in life. Each one of us can learn from the actions of our biblical ancestors that it is important to think before we act, and when we do act, to ponder the consequences of our actions.


Korach

25 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Korach is a Torah portion focused on an internal dispute in the Jewish community. One commentator suggests that it’s always timely, because there are always disputes among Jews… plus ça change! But within it, there is a great insight. After the dispute between Moses and Korach, his challenger, we read something about sacrifices. Strangely, the offering to which the Torah refers is described as “a covenant of salt” (Num. 18:19). In his commentary, Rabbi Tronk of Kutno makes the following observation: “Just as salt causes an item which is pickled to decrease in size, yet at the same time ensures that it will not be spoiled… the person [bringing an offering] may lose something belonging to him, but giving these offerings helps ensure that he will keep that which is his.”

What does this mean? When we give something – whether it be financial contributions to your community, or gifts to your family, or even taxes to the government – we do so in hope that we get something in return. We may have less in our pockets, but at its best, our giving helps preserve our values. We keep Temple’s doors open to all who come in; we maintain and deepen our relationships; we help build a fairer society. We often focus on how much we can accumulate. The Torah is counter-cultural in challenging us to focus on quality over quantity. The question isn’t how much we have; the question is how to ensure that what we value, lasts.


Sh’lach

Eliana Fischel
Rabbinic student

Last week, I slipped while on a hike. While I was physically fine, the slip shook me enough that I was nervous for the rest of the climb. My fiancé, with whom I was climbing, began to encourage me to continue up the mountain. “That was a great step!” he would say. I was appreciative of his support, but I couldn’t help but think “That was not such a great step. I was climbing much better before and he is just being nice.”

This week’s parashah explores this dichotomy between encouragers and naysayers. As the name of the parashah, Sh’lach, suggests, Moses sends a leader of each of the tribes to scout out the Land of Israel. The scouts return with a mixed report. The majority of the scouts see only giants and enemies: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak (Numbers 13:32-33)”. Interestingly, Caleb and Joshua perceived the land differently. They state, “The land, which we passed through to spy out, is an exceedingly good land (Numbers 14:7)”.  By looking at these contradictory statements, we could easily label Caleb and Joshua as idealistic, perhaps blind, optimists, but instead, I think, we can analyze the nature of the other scouts’ complaints so that they shed light on what Caleb and Joshua were experiencing.

The other scouts stated that Nephilim filled the land. This is the second mention of these semi-divine creatures in the Torah. They first appear in Genesis as part of an introduction to Noah. These Nephilim are products of the sons of God and the daughters of man (Genesis 6:4)–an example of a breach in boundaries that, somehow, seeped into the land and corrupted the physical Earth (Genesis 6:11). It was the combination of this human and physical corruption that led to the flood.

Perhaps the scouts in Sh’lach have this story in mind.  They see the Nephilim and assume the land is corrupt, as well. They bring their historical baggage to this moment. Caleb and Joshua, however, see this instance as a new experience. They are able to separate the Nephilim from the land. Their minds are not corrupted by previous experience; rather they are able to see the land anew.

My great step up the mountain, which really was a great step independent of the steps I took previously, is just one example of this cognitive difficulty. How many times do we let previous experiences cloud our judgment of the here and now? How many times have we let past arguments seep into current ones? Past interactions color our perception of another? As we begin this week, may we honor our past, but try to see reality as it is. Before we jump to our judgments, assume our assumptions, let us take a step back and take in all the necessary information. Perhaps then we can see that that the Earth is not corrupt and we can walk into a new land of opportunity and growth.


Behaalotecha

11 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, Moses reminds the people about the observances of the festivals. It’s worth asking why we need a reminder – it’s true that the Jewish calendar can be confusing (just as an FYI, the High Holy Days are “on time” this year!), but for our ancestors who didn’t have any other calendars to juggle, why couldn’t they just figure it out? As we reach the end of the school year and I find myself trying to keep track of the schedules not only of the synagogue but also two schools, plus dance and theatre rehearsals, I envy the simplicity of earlier times!

Still, our ancestors needed reminders. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes:

Keen student of the human heart that he was, Moses knew that learning is ever renewed, or it is lost. Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and ingestion that is a permanent accompaniment to human life. Mistakenly viewing learning as conquest leads to the gradual loss of competence in a professional field — that is why so many professions require continuing education to be able to remain active, why professors and rabbis need regular opportunities to renew themselves through study, even sabbaticals. Knowledge and wisdom do not merely grow stale. They dissipate if not made fresh each day.

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah understood that point, insisting that, “It is for our own good that we learn Torah and forget it; because if we studied Torah and never forgot it, the people would struggle with learning it for two or three years, resume ordinary work, and never pay further attention to it. But since we study Torah and forget it, we don’t abandon its study.”

As the school year ends and summer begins, I’m looking forward to returning to Jerusalem  as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Hartman Institute in July. It will give me a chance to renew my learning and being back new things to share. But whether you will be in a formal classroom or in the classroom of the great outdoors, I hope that for you too, the summer will be a time of renewal.


Naso

4 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Parshat Naso is famous for its inclusion of the priestly blessing, which we invoke at many significant moments in Jewish life. We find a variant on it in the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof, which goes like this: “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame. May you come to be In Israel a shining name.” The original, though, goes like this: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s presence turn to you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26). In many families (including my own), this blessing is used to bless the children at the table on Friday nights. However, like most things in Judaism, it’s good for children – but not only for children. The evocation of divine protection, presence, and peace is powerful for adults as well. My youngest daughter once used the same words to bless me after I blessed her, and I was taken aback by how moved I was by the experience.

The challenge is, sometimes we don’t feel worthy of blessing. I can’t tell you how many people say to me, “Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew,” or “Rabbi, I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I’ve been to synagogue.” But blessing isn’t a reflection on someone’s qualifications. Rather, blessing is meant to be transformative. To be blessed is to be reminded of one’s potential; it inspires us to be our best selves, and tells us we are not alone. Rabbi Ron Aigen, of blessed memory, shares the teaching that the Hebrew word for blessing, bracha, comes from an ancient Sumerian word for grain which is about to burst. Blessing is about where we are now and where we will go, not about where we have been.

The Modzhitzer Rebbe pays attention to the verse introducing the blessing: “So shall you bless the children of Israel.” He writes: “Bless the Jewish people as you find them. Do not look for the best or the most important, not for the greatest scholars or for the most righteous. Every person deserves to be blessed.” May we hold onto this message this week.


Bemidbar

26 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah: Numbers. The English name “Numbers” is used because the book begins with a census of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Hebrew name, “Bemidbar,” means “in the wilderness” – according to Jewish tradition, the books and portions are named according to the first significant word. When we put these names together, though, I think we can find a deeper meaning. The name “Numbers,” and the fact of the census, suggests that every person counts. The name “Bemidbar” tells us about the location – at the time the book is set, the Israelites are in the desert, between Egypt and the Promised Land. The question becomes: Who are we when we are in the wilderness? How to we make a good name for ourselves in challenging circumstances?

The commentator, Bet Aharon, notes the details in the portion: “Every person of the children of Israel will pitch at his own standard, with the ensign of his father’s house.” He writes: “Every one must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him: had there been someone just like him, there would be no need for him. Indeed, every single person is someone new in the world, and it is his duty to improve his ways, until we have all attained perfection.”

In other words, we each have a role to play. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the modern teacher of Jewish mysticism, says something similar: “And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now.”

Our Torah portion makes us ask: Who are we? What kind of name do we make for ourselves? How do we count?

Behar-Bechukotai

19 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Recently, I had the pleasure of going to the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Niagara. It’s a little gem of a museum, located in the house in which William Lyon Mackenzie began his political involvement. The house contains everything from centuries-old printing presses to a Linotype machine. What was most moving, to me, was the press on which the Emancipation Act was printed in 1793 – the first official act to free slaves in North America.

Not long before, Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk was working and writing in Germany. Commenting on this week’s parsha, he picks up on these key words: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). He then asks: why is this addressed to all the inhabitants of the land, and not just those who are enslaved? “Because in any country where freedom is incomplete, even if this is the case with only some of the people, all the people are enslaved. One only feels freedom when there is no slavery in the country whatsoever. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master.”

Over two hundred years ago, our Jewish and Canadian ancestors knew about the fundamental dignity and freedom of all human beings. Thousands of years ago, our Torah knew it as well. What a lesson for us to remember, and on which to act: as long as anyone is enslaved – by law or by poverty, by discrimination or oppression – none of us are free.

Emor

Rabbi Ellen Greenspan
12 Iyar

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

In the middle of the section about the holidays, we find this one verse that is a bit off topic:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.” (Lev. 23:22)

Since, as city (or suburban) dwellers, we do not live an agrarian lifestyle, this idea of leaving behind produce for the poor to glean might not speak to us. However, coming off the high of yesterday’s Mitzvah Morning, I think this verse is very relevant to us, even though we are not farmers. We came together as a Temple community to make our world – our local community – a better place. We made 170 sandwiches that for the Open Door soup kitchen; we made about 65 bags of granola that will be donated to Share the Warmth. We assembled 45 gift bags of toiletries and other personal items for clients of Auberge Shalom; sometimes women show up at a shelter without even a toothbrush. We collected clothing for Dress for Success, wrote letters to Israeli soldiers, and made cards for cancer patients. It was an amazing morning filled with activity, camaraderie and fun. If you missed this year’s Mitzvah Morning, save the date for next year’s…. May 6, 2018!

In conclusion, I want to return to the notion of gleaning, because it is actually a concept that still exists. When I was a student rabbi, I served a small synagogue in southern Oregon. I would fly up from Los Angeles once a month, and I would always stay with congregants. One woman lived on the edge of commercial fruit orchards. The company had a policy that after they had harvested the fruit, neighbours could go into the fields and glean. It is one of the memories I have from that year – gleaning delicious pears from the trees. Have you ever had a Comice pear? If not… make it a point to look for one this fall. They are the best pears I have ever had!


Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

8 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This double portion is the Torah equivalent of an emotional and spiritual roller coaster. We go from an opening recognition of the tragic, shocking death of Aaron’s two sons, straight into a description of the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual, and followed by the great holiness code – in which timeless ethical injunctions (for example, “love your neighbour as yourself”) are interspersed with laws that seem very much the product of their time (e.g. against mixing wool and linen, and the ban on sexual relations between men). What is a reader to do?

It is not entirely unlike the experience of being in Israel this time of year. Today Israelis mark Memorial Day, in which fallen soldiers are mourned; and tonight, Independence Day celebrations begin – and all this soon after Yom HaShoah. How are we to move so quickly from one story to the next: from commemoration to celebration? How do we follow a tradition in which our most sacred passages are intermingled with those which have done great harm? How does a small, young country both grieve and dance within 48 short hours?

At our Goldbloom symposium on indigenous youth yesterday, we heard some wisdom that I think we can draw on, in answer to these questions. Indigenous traditions, like Jewish traditions, value storytelling and memory alongside law. Chief Abel Bosum, of the Cree people, even used Jewish imagery in his talk (which you can see in full by clicking here). He spoke about how, for his people, their nation-to-nation treaty has been as fundamental to them as receiving the Torah at Sinai has been to us. Then, he pointed out that the process of reaching fair settlements has taken them forty years… “and I wonder if that number resonated with this audience.”  At the same time, he spoke very openly about the challenges still facing indigenous peoples in Canada. We all have our time in the wilderness, and our hope for the Promised Land. Past, present, and future exist alongside one another, as do moments of sadness and moments of joy, texts that resonate and texts that alienate. To be human, to be whole, is to hold all these realities together, and make sense of them together.

One other insight from yesterday can help give us direction, as we grapple with the complexity of our tradition, our world, and our own lives. Jason Lewis, a Concordia professor who is doing incredibly innovative work with a group that he founded, called Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, focused on the importance of imagination – and how important it is for aboriginal youth, and all human beings, to have a sense of what is possible. He spoke about how there is a lot of talk about the importance of the past and the pressing needs of the present, and how all this is essential. At the same time, he suggested, we need to create space to talk about the future; to start not from a place of deficiency, but of resilience and strength. “There are not a lot of moments,” he said, “in which our kids are asked, “What are you dreaming about?””

The Torah, at its heart, contains the dream of a just society; our story, at its heart, contains the dream of a world that is whole. May our commemorations and celebrations, our strengths and our struggles, all help us dream those dreams.


Yom HaShoah

28 Nissan 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, instead of commenting on the parsha, let me share a few words about Yom HaShoah, which we observe today. I had the opportunity to speak this morning at the commemoration with Mayor Coderre at City Hall. Together with other community representatives and a survivor, we spoke about the importance of memory and our city’s vision of “vivre ensemble,” building bridges instead of walls.

The story I shared was a parable from the Maggid of Dubnow, from 18th century Poland. It dates from before the Holocaust, but its message resonates on this day of remembrance. The Maggid describes a village in which, whenever there was a fire, all the villagers would come together and roll up their sleeves to put it out. Then one day, one of the villagers went to the big city. There, he observed that when there was a fire, bells rang and sirens sounded, and the fire got put out. When he returned to the village, he shared this new system, which was then implemented. Soon enough, a fire started in the village, bells rang and sirens sounded, but the fire continued unabated, destroying half the town. “I don’t understand!” the villager exclaimed to the people of the city, “why does your system work for you, but not for us?” The city dweller replied: “Do you really think that the bells and sirens put out the blaze? They only alert the people that there is a fire… it is up to us to work together to put it out.”

Our tradition, and our history, teach us that we must go beyond words to actions. To remember, to bear witness to the Holocaust, is not simply to say: “Never Again.” It is to sound the alarm wherever we see danger, then act to extinguish the fires of hatred wherever they may be found.

I encourage you to read this article from today’s Montreal Gazette, featuring the story of our congregant, Eva Kuper, and the actions which led to her survival:

http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/allison-hanes-surviving-the-holocaust-and-bearing-witness.

Also, please join us this coming Shabbat, as our Music Director, Rona Nadler, will share a Yiddish sermon-in-song, and at which we will light memorial candles for Yom HaShoah.


Chol-Hamo Eid Pesach

Read this week Torah portion here.


Tzav

By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Tzav, gives us a great reminder for our upcoming Passover seders.

Like much of Leviticus, it deals with the rituals of sacrifice. One detail concerns the priest picking up the ashes from one daily burnt offering, to make way for the next. Rabbi Menahem ha-Bavli, a Sephardic Jewish scholar who lived in the land of Israel in the 16th century, has a psychological insight which I think is helpful:

One of the 613 commandments is to take up the ashes each day, namely to remove the ashes of the sacrifice which has been burned. This is symbolic, and teaches us that after a person who sins brings his sacrifice to God and confesses on it, one may not mention his sin to him any more. Instead, we are committed to erase all traces of the sin and forget it.

In many Jewish homes, we focus on ridding the house of chametz. We take any bread products and remove them, whether it’s to the basement or a sealed-off cabinet or the local food bank (I’m aiming to make my annual pilgrimage to the NDG Food Depot later this week). Then, we come to the seder table, and see people we sometimes haven’t seen for months, or even since the previous year’s seder. It’s easy to bring with us the crumbs of resentment: remembrances of past behaviours which were painful or caused conflict. It’s hard to look at each other with new eyes, open to the changes that the intervening time may have wrought.

Pesach gives us the chance, not just to clean out the remnants of chametz, but also the negative remnants of the past. We have an opportunity, as with the tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, to rid ourselves of what burdens us – in our relationships with others and with ourselves. The Torah teaches us that Nissan, the month in which Passover falls, is the first month of the year. May we use it as an opportunity for new beginnings.


Vayikra

29 Adat 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, begins with God calling Moses. It’s actually one of those Biblical books where there is a significant difference between the Hebrew and English/Latin names. The Hebrew title, taken from the first word of the book, refers to calling. The English title, drawn form the substance of the book, refers to priests – and certainly, Leviticus contains many discussions of priestly ritual. For many of us, it is the biblical book which is the hardest to access, with its emphasis on sacrifices and other practices which are absent from our lives today.

But when we look at the Hebrew name, Vayikra, we see that the heart of the book is the relationship between humanity and the divine. God calls us, and we respond. Last Thursday, I had the honour and pleasure of inviting three rabbinic colleagues to join me in conversation at Temple. Rabbi Scheier from Shaar Hashomayim, Rabbi Moses from Shaare Zion, Rabbi Fishman from Beth Tikvah and I spoke about a book by our shared teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, called Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. In the book, Rabbi Hartman defines sacred scripture in a way which I think is not only accurate, but profound:

In any relationship, mutual commitment and coexistence require the ability to communicate, and God’s relationship with humanity is no different… Scripture is ultimately a form of God talking. A good thumbnail definition might be: Scripture is a divine response, in human language, to the deep spiritual yearning of God and humanity to live in relationship with one another. (Hartman, 113).

So the question which Vayikra would have us pose might not be, “what do we make of all these sacrifices and Levitical laws?” Rather, our task might be to ask how we, in our time, communicate with God, as our ancestors also aspired to do. For the rabbis who reshaped Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, sacrifice was replaced by prayer, study, and acts of lovingkindness. Do those answers still hold for us? If so, how can we engage more fully in those areas? And if not, what other responses might we develop, in the ongoing, existential search for communication, connection, and inspiration?


Vayakhel-Pekude

22 Adar, 5777
By Rabbi Grushcow

Vayakhel-Pekudei, the final two portions of Exodus (which are read together this week), are full of material details. The topic is the creation and dedication of the Tabernacle, the Israelites’ sanctuary in the desert. We are told that the master craftsman was named Bezalel, and that he had the knowledge and understanding to work with gold and silver.

Rabbi Yehuda Laib Zlotnik, (1887, Plock, Poland – 1962, Jerusalem, Israel), lived in Montreal from 1920-1936 and headed an Orthodox Zionist movement here before going on to South Africa and Israel. He gives us an insightful commentary on Bezalel’s talents:

People commonly say: “The biggest problem is how to obtain money. Once a person has it, he will know what to do with it.” But that is a mistake… money can elevate a person and money can bring him down to the deepest depths. With money one can build the Sanctuary, and with money one can construt a golden calf. Thus we are told that God inspired Bezalel “in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge – to devise artistic works, to work in gold and in silver” (Ex. 35:32). One needs a great deal of wisdom and understanding to know how to use gold and silver properly.

As we come into tax season, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we use our money. Do we waste it? Do we use it to provide for our loved ones, and contribute to a greater good? Does our money make the world better and more beautiful? Does it make a lasting difference? Rabbi Zlotnik reminds us to pay at least as much attention to how we use our money as to how we earn it. The Canadian government’s tax credits for charitable contributions may help inspire us to think beyond ourselves – but our Torah does too.

Ki Tissa 

15 Adar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha is very dramatic. It describes Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, and how the people were waiting for him to come back down. The drama comes when he is later than expected. Looking for a leader, the Israelites build a golden calf and declaring it a God.

What a slap in the face! Yet, it seems that God may overreact, with thousands of Israelites being struck down as a direct result of their sin. What was really so bad about the golden calf? One couldn’t expect the Israelites to leave the idolatry of Egypt entirely behind. We can understand how they might have felt lost and scared, and as a result, looked for the reassurance of a physical, tangible god. Why was this such a serous sin?

There’s a rabbinic midrash which compares the fallout from the golden calf to the ritual for a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery (Num. 5:11-31). In addition to procedural similarities, for the rabbis, this made sense. Idolatry and adultery were analogous and serious. Why? Because both involve betrayal and disloyalty. Both involve breaking faith.

At the heart of the sin of the golden calf was a rupture of the relationship with God, just as adultery can be seen as a rupture in a relationship between spouses. This insight invites questions. Where are we loyal and disloyal in our lives? Do the decisions we make reflect our primary commitments and values? Do we remember who or what should come first in our lives, or do we get distracted by other desires? Do we have our priorities right?

The sages said we should remember the sin of the golden calf every day. May we do so, not in shame, but in hope; hope that our actions reflect our most important relationships, and our best selves.


Tetzaveh/Purim

8 Adar 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

The connection between this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, and Purim is not obvious, but as I looked over the parasha, I found some parallels.

The missing “character” from the Purim story, from the entire Book of Esther, is God. In the same way, this week’s Torah portion never mentions the one person who has been a constant since we began the book of Exodus – Moses. In fact, this is the only parasha in the whole Torah, (outside the book of Genesis, which takes place before Moses’ birth), that never mentions the name of Moses.

Some say that God is working behind the scenes in the Book of Esther. Mordecai suggests that maybe Esther “attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Est. 4:14). Esther responds by asking the Jews of Shushan to “fast in my behalf.” (Est. 4:16). Mordecai does not say, “Maybe God put you here,” but perhaps he implies it. In addition, Esther does not use the word “pray” – but the act of fasting could be seen as a substitute for praying to God.

God may be absent from the Book of Esther to empathize the faith and courage of one strategically placed woman and her uncle Mordechai. Similarly, commentators suggest that Moses is absent from this week’s Torah portion to allow the spotlight to fall on Aaron and his priestly duties.

The second parallel I want to make between this week’s Torah portion and the holiday of Purim concerns clothing. Exodus chapter 28 gives us an elaborate description of the priestly garments worn by Aaron and his sons. The attire is ornate and colourful, made of “gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.” (Ex. 28:6). On the hem of the robe, “make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around.” (Ex. 28:33). Nehama Leibowitz says they needed these beautiful, elaborate garments because Aaron and his sons cannot serve God in ordinary, everyday clothes.

Clothes are important – and on Purim, we wear costumes that conceal our identity. They permit us, on this one day of the year, to be someone else. This custom honours the fact that Esther hid her identity to become Queen. When Haman wanted to wipe out the Jews, Queen Esther, who was concealing her identity, used her role – her regal costume – to save her people from harm.

Put on your costume and join us for one or all of our Purim celebrations. (Click here to read about all we are doing at Temple for Purim)! Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim!


Terumah

1 Adar 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

As we come to the end of February, which is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, (JDAIM), 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 portable shrine that will house the Tablets of the Ten Commandments throughout the Israelite’s wanderings. The very beginning of this week’s parasha makes clear that all the Israelites 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).

Everyone is invited to contribute, but at the same time, no one is required to participate. Donating is voluntary; you have to want to give. The following verses, (Ex. 23:3-7), give a list of specific items, but I am reading it more like a list of ideas. “If you are not sure what to bring, here are some suggestions.” The Torah recognizes that everyone has something to contribute, no matter one’s age, one’s ability, one’s station in life. And a few Torah portions from now, we learn that the response of the people is overwhelming, and eventually Moses has to tell the Israelites they cannot accept any more gifts, (Ex. 35:6).

According to Tzenah Urenah, (a Yiddish translation and commentary on the Torah), this week’s Torah portion follows the giving of the Ten Commandments, because God’s presence rests in a place of charity, where people are willing to give of themselves. This speaks to our desire, at Temple, to welcome everyone regardless of their background – the stranger, the widow, the orphan, anyone who doesn’t look or think like us – and to acknowledge that our community is the richer because of their presence among us. Let us continue to build an inclusive community at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom that reflects our values, our generosity and our diversity.


Mishpatim

24 Shevat 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

After several weeks of dramatic Torah portions, this week offers a significant change in tone. Until now, the Torah, (and not only the portions of the last few weeks), has mostly been a narrative with only occasional references to laws that dictate behaviour. From now on, the emphasis is reversed. Most of the rest of the Torah presents rules by which the Israelites are to live, with only infrequent narrative breaks.

Judaism is based not only on major pronouncements like the Ten Commandments, but on the hundreds of minor ways in which we are called on to sanctify our relationships with other people. Ramban, (the medieval Spanish commentator also known as Nachmanides), sees this parasha as an extension of the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet.” To properly obey that commandment, he says, we need to know our rights – what is ours and what belongs to our neighbour. Our standards for the way we treat others must be based not only on the desire to live in an orderly society, but also on the recognition that we are all created in the image of God and that God is present in every person and in every relationship.

Torah School students prepared welcome cards for Temple’s sponsored Syrian family.

This is a fitting week to welcome the first of two Syrian refugee families to our community, because the importance of welcoming the stranger is emphasized in this week’s Torah portion. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry…” (Ex. 22:20-22)

We are supposed to remember what if feels like to be oppressed. Throughout the Torah, and in our modern liturgy, we are reminded that once we were slaves, and therefore, we are to treat strangers, widows, orphans and other marginal members of society the way we would want to be treated in similar circumstances. The decency of our society is measured by the way we care for our least powerful members. As I listened to discussions in Torah School this past Saturday and watched our students make cards of welcome for our Syrian families, I was gratified to think that our empathetic children will remember the message of this Torah portion and grow up to be compassionate adults.


Yitro

17 Shevat 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week the Torah portion offers us another rather dramatic and very significant Torah portion. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt; they crossed the Sea of Reeds, and were given manna to eat. Now what?

In this week’s portion, the Israelites are transformed from a band of freed slaves to a nation, from a not-very-unified group of Israelites to Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. Imagine what it must have been like for the Israelites; in Egypt, they were used to being told what to do – when to eat, when to sleep, when to work. Now, suddenly, they are free, with no one but Moses to guide them. It must have been terrifying.

The Israelites need laws; they need a framework for living – and so Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments from God. Although much can be said about the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah portion begins with an interaction between Moses and the portion’s namesake – Yitro.

The Torah portion is called Yitro – Jethro in English – who was Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro observes Moses helping the Israelites manage their personal quarrels and disputes. Yitro says: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone?” (Ex. 18:14) When Moses explains that the people come to him “when they have a dispute….and I decide between one person and another,” (Ex. 18:16), Yitro very wisely says to Moses, “You will surely wear yourself out…the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18).

Yitro convinces Moses that he really does need assistance. Moses appoints “capable men out of all Israel,” (Ex. 18:24), to help him out. “And they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.” (Ex. 18:26).

As you might expect, traditional commentaries make much of this interaction. In one Midrash, Rabbi Judah wonders if Moses – in taking on all the Israelites’ problems by himself – believes he is superior to his people or even to God. Does he think that he alone has the wisdom to advise them? Does Yitro admonish Moses because he thinks Moses is losing his humility? In another passage in the same Midrash, (Mechilta, Amalek IV), Rabbi Joshua comments that Yitro’s warning to Moses is a practical one. He is afraid that Moses has taken on too much and is concerned for his well-being.

So…is this Torah portion advising us on the importance of self-care? (Go to the gym; get a massage; take a vacation)! Or teaching us a lesson about leadership styles? (Don’t try to do it all yourself; ask for help; no one expects you to be Superman/Superwoman). Perhaps, we, the readers, must decide.


Beshalach

10 Shvat 5777
By  Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is one of the most exciting, dramatic, even cinematic in the whole Torah. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, approach the Red Sea. The sounds of Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit cause panic among the Israelites and makes them realize they are trapped. The former slaves cry bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt that you brought us to die here?” (Ex. 14:11). Moses prays to God for deliverance, and is told, “Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it.” (Ex. 14:15-16).

Moses raises his rod; the sea splits, and the Israelites cross the sea on dry land.  Then, they behold the final act of the Exodus drama: the sea crashes down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As Pharaoh once drowned Israelite babies in the Nile, so now the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea. The Israelites raise their voices in song. “Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai? Who is like you, O God?” They had been slaves. Suddenly, overnight, they receive the gift of freedom.

That is how the Torah tells the story. But, when the rabbis of the Talmud retell the story, they add an element. From the rabbis of the Talmud we have a midrash, a vignette, that helps us read between the lines of the story in the Torah. The people cry out; Moses prays, and God commands. But, when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again, carefully repeating God’s words to himself. And again, nothing. We can imagine the panic growing within him. He raises his rod again and again, but the sea does not move. Beads of perspiration rise on his forehead; the people’s screams of terror rise all around him; Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd comes one man, identified by the midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince from the tribe of Judah. To the astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps into the water.

“Are you crazy?  What are you doing?” shouts his family. He knows exactly what he is doing. He understands, as no one else does, not even Moses, why the sea would not split. He understands that their redemption to this point has been an act of God. God chose Moses, and God sent the plagues; God shattered Pharaoh’s arrogance, and now God has brought the Israelites to the shores of the sea. But now, God is waiting to see if but one Israelite will take the task of redemption into his (or her) own hands. Will anyone be willing to risk him/herself to finish the process of liberation?

So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches his waist. His family’s screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching in wonder. He continues to wade out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon’s life in peril, the sea parts, and the people of Israel cross safely.

This story is not found in the Torah. It was written later by the rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah’s story of the exodus, they felt that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to come, someone must jump into the water. Someone with vision and courage must be willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history to bring us out of slavery. Perhaps the first miracle was Nachshon’s courage, which enabled the second miracle, the parting of the sea, to occur. The midrash implies that Nachshon was able to effect Moses’ hand – which was really God’s hand – and make the sea split at a particular moment in time.

According to the midrash, Moses could not have not have succeeded without Nachshon. We must remember that life is not always easy. The waters will not always be smooth as we navigate our chosen paths. Sometimes the waters will seem cold and dangerous, the currents strong and unpredictable. As we encounter storms in our lives, let us remember Nachshon and take the risk of jumping into the water in order to affect change.


Bo

3 Shvat
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion speaks of the final three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn. They are the worst of the ten. The locusts leave the land barren, with no source of sustenance; the darkness isolates each person from each other, leaving them no sense of where or who they are; and the killing of the firstborn leaves every home in mourning.

I write this in the wake of Sunday night’s horrific attack on a mosque in Ste. Foy, which left six people dead and many more wounded. Such an  act of terror and religious targeting is sadly familiar to us as Jews – and certainly the last thing we would want to see in our own province. I fear that we are at the cusp of a time of darkness, here, across North America, and around the world, and at the heart of that darkness is the refusal of people to see one another as full human beings. Pharaoh hardened his heart out of fear, and countless people suffered.

A Chasidic commentary explains the “thick darkness” of the ninth plague as follows: “If a person does not see his fellow, or does not want to see him, there is darkness in the world.” It is our sacred task, and challenge, to stand up against this darkness. Here, I am inspired by the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Whether it is by showing up at tonight’s vigil in support of our Muslim neighbours; or giving our sponsored Syrian families the best welcome we can, as they try to restart their lives; or refusing to be silent bystanders, and actively building bridges of dialogue and understanding – whatever we do, let us do it with light and with love.


Va’era

25 Tevet
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, began the great story of the Israelites’ slavery in, and redemption from, Egypt, with the bravery of five extraordinary women – Shifrah and Puah, the midwives; Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; and Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter. This week, we read of Moses’ leadership, his and Aaron’s confrontation with Pharaoh, and the beginning of the plagues. In the middle of all this, we get a genealogy. It’s a little surprising; what’s not surprising is that there is a lot of commentary trying to explain it! I was struck by an explanation by Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz (1565-1630). Writing about the tribe of Levi and how they named their children, he notes: “The tribe of Levi were never enslaved… [but] they wished to be part of the suffering Levites. What did they do? They at least gave their sons names that reminded them of the exile… From this we learn that a person must particiate in the distress of a community, even if it does not affect him personally.”

Reading this, I thought about the importance of solidarity. How we, as Jews, count on non-Jews to be our allies when we are discriminated against; how other groups count on us (as when we made interfaith alliances during the debate over the Charter of Quebec Values); and how many of us carry multiple identities, and count on our various communities to help us feel supported and whole. There is a prayer from the Jewish Fund for Justice in our Shabbat siddur (prayer book) which also seems apt:

I can stay the tears of others, if I can see myself
As diminished of their sorrows.

I can hasten time when everyone will be able
to rejoice in freedom,

And if I can see myself as the companion,
of those fighting against oppression,

I can honour the struggle of people everywhere
to gain dignity and deliverance from bondage.

When I look at myself in the mirror
who will I see?


Shemot

18 Tevet
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The beginning of the book of Exodus is full of extraordinary characters. We meet Moses and Miriam, a wicked Pharaoh and his heroic daughter. But two of the lesser-known characters also are extraordinary. We encounter Shifra and Puah only in this parsha. Yet, were it not for them, the exodus from Egypt would never have happened, because the Jewish people would have disappeared.

When the new Pharaoh decrees that all male Israelite babies are to be killed, his edict is undermined by two women, Shifra and Puah. Shifra and Puah are described as “Hebrew midwives,” but the Hebrew, like the English, is ambiguous: are they themselves Hebrews, or are they Egyptian midwives who help the Hebrew women give birth? If the answer is the latter, then their actions are even more remarkable. They defy Pharaoh by letting the baby boys live, and when Pharaoh challenges them, they fool him by feeding in to his own racism and xenophobia. “The Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptians,” they tell him. “They give birth like animals, and so we don’t even have time to know about it.” One of my teachers, Rabbi Al Axelrad, speaks of Shifra and Puah as models of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance – when he was the rabbi of Brandeis University, he even established a student award in their honour.

A Chasidic commentary picks up on the description of the midwives as being God-fearing (Ex. 1:21). The Ishbitzer Rebbe writes: “When one fears a person, one cannot remain calm, because fear is the opposite of being calm. However, fear of Heaven brings calm to the soul… because they [the midwives] feared Heaven, they did not have any fear of Pharaoh’s decrees.”

Easier said than done! I don’t think it’s ever easy to stand up to those in power, even when you know you’re doing the right thing. But in this secular new year, I hope that Shifra and Puah can inspire us: to stand up for justice, and to fight for those who are vulnerable, even if it requires opposing the powers that be. As we begin a new book of the Torah, may their courage, and their confidence, be our own.


Vayechi

11 Tevet 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is the last portion in the book of Genesis. In the portion, Jacob is about to die. Knowing his death is imminent, he calls his sons and grandsons for a final blessing. This deathbed “blessing” is a combination of prayer, blessing, curse, warning, memory and hope. Here is just one of the blessings Jacob offers:

And he [Jacob] blessed [Ephraim and Menasheh, the sons of Joseph], saying “by you shall Israel invoke blessing upon their children, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” (Gen. 48:20)

When parents bless their children on Shabbat, we bless our daughters in the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Why not bless our sons in the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What was the special merit of Ephraim and Menasheh?

One answer is that they were brought up in a foreign land, in Egypt, and did not assimilate; they upheld the traditions of the Israelites.

Another answer is that, according to tradition, Ephraim and Menasheh are the only siblings in the Torah who do not fight, who get along with each other.

Regardless of the specific words we say, blessing our children on Shabbat can become a beautiful family tradition, an intimate way of connecting with your children each week. You can use the traditional blessings, or you can use your own words to tell them how special they are.

Click here for the traditional blessings we say to our children on Friday night. Click here for a blog post about “riffing” on the traditional blessings.


Vayigash

5 Tevet 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is the second-to-last portion in the book of Genesis, and the story of Joseph and his brothers draws to a conclusion.

This portion continues with the themes of repentance, t’shuvah, and forgiveness. It is the first time that one human being forgives another. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with these words:

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)

Joseph does not explicitly use the word “forgive,” but he reassures them that their actions have resulted in something positive. He gives credit to God – but maybe he is also reminding them that his childhood dreams have some true. Joseph understands that reconciliation is better than revenge. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers because they, themselves, have shown regret for their actions.

Forgiveness and repentance go hand in hand. We are capable of change, (repentance), and we are capable of forgiving others. We are not condemned to repeat the past. When we repent, we show that we can change. The future is not predestined. We can make it different from what it might have been.

As Jews who also live in a secular world, we celebrate the start of the new (secular) year. May 2017 be a year of growth and change for each of us. The future is not predestined. We have the power to effect change – for ourselves, personally, and for the world in which we live.

Happy New Year.


Miketz

26 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, in Parashat Miketz, we continue the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph, having correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream foreshadowing the famine that would besiege the region, now serves in a position of authority, in charge of distributing the bounty the Egyptians have stored during the years of plenty.

Joseph’s brothers come to him seeking grain rations and don’t recognize him as their brother, their father’s beloved son, whom they sold into slavery. But, Joseph recognizes them immediately. At first, he considers revenge, accusing them of being spies; eventually he agrees to help them, but requires them to jump through some hoops first.

Joseph engages in a game of cat and mouse when he decides to detain Simon, (the brother who had suggested that Joseph be killed), while the rest return home with rations for their households. He demands that when they return for more food that they bring their youngest brother Benjamin.

Does Joseph want to torment his brothers? I would argue that he wants to see if they have changed. Repentance, t’shuvah, is more than regret. It includes finding oneself in a similar situation and responding differently. Joseph needs to know whether his brothers will leave Simon to languish in prison or whether they will return for him.

This notion of t’shuvah applies to Joseph, too. For twenty years, he has dreamed of getting even with his brothers. Now that he has that power and ability, he realizes that he does not really want revenge. He wants his family back. Revenge is almost always sweeter in contemplation than in reality.


Vayeshev

19 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In Vayeshev, we begin to read a cycle of stories about Joseph, Jacob’s son. Of all the characters in Genesis, Joseph may be closest to us. Unlike the patriarchs and matriarchs, he doesn’t speak with God directly; and, like us, he lives as a minority within a majority, non-Jewish culture.

Also like us, Joseph isn’t perfect (in this, he resembles the other biblical characters as well!). He’s proud and boastful, using his status as favoured son to lord over his brothers. It’s not entirely surprising that they throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery!

But Joseph has some remarkable qualities. First and foremost, he is a dreamer. He has a vision for how the world might be, and what role might be his to play. Second, when his fortunes change for the worse, he changes for the better. He begins to care, not just about his own dreams but the dreams of others: the baker and cupbearer he meets as fellow prisoners, and ultimately, the Pharaoh himself.

Joseph’s story is read as we come towards Chanukah, and I think the messages overlap. The Maccabees were dreamers too – they lit the spark of a rebellion with their vision of how things should be. But if they were only a small group with a dream, that spark wouldn’t have caught flame; it wouldn’t have grown into a movement that led to independence and reshaped the Jewish world.

On Chanukah, we light more candles each of the eight nights. Why? To bring more light to dark days, certainly, but also because true holiness requires community. It’s better to have one light shining in darkness than none; and better still to have many. As we enter into Chanukah and move towards 2017, may we work to bring  more dreams, more light, and more community to our world.


Vayishlach

12 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob has two significant encounters: First, with some kind of divine being, who he wrestles at night; and second, with his brother, Esau, who he had not seen since their conflict many years before.

The classic commentators note that Jacob, wisely, prepares to meet his brother in three different ways. He prays to God for help (spiritual and otherwise!), he sends gifts to appease his brother before they meet, and he strategizes for war.

Preparation is always a good idea. When we know we are going into a situation, we want to do our best to be ready. But it’s worth noting that Jacob’s encounter with Esau ends up to be positive – and even anticlimactic. Rather than war, Jacob is met with peace. His brother doesn’t attack him; he embraces him.

The real challenge, it turns out, was Jacob’s unexpected encounter with the angel the night before his reunion with his brother. He comes out of this struggle with success; he defeats the angel, and wins a blessing and a new name. Did Jacob’s practical preparations for meeting Esau also help him be ready for this nighttime struggle? Quite possibly. But part of being prepared in a deeper sense is to expect the unexpected. We never know what, or when, the true struggle will be, or when the most profound challenges will come.

Last weekend, I had the honour of returning to Rodeph Sholom, the congregation in New York City where I served for the first nine years of my rabbinate. I was there to celebrate the 25 years of service of my mentor and friend, Rabbi Robert Levine. Together with other previous assistant and associate rabbis, I reflected on how patient Rabbi Levine, and the congregation as a whole, were with all of us recently-ordained rabbis. We came to the synagogue when we were new to the rabbinate, and relatively new to life. We didn’t yet know what challenges lay ahead. Years later, we each have weathered different struggles. It is these unanticipated encounters with life which have made us who we are. Along the way, we have learned how to be there even more fully for the congregations we serve, as we share the common journey of what it means to be a human being.

As we each go forward in life, may we prevail in challenges both anticipated and unanticipated. May we learn from all our encounters, and rise up as prepared as we can be for whatever comes next. May we win new blessings, and earn new names.


Vayetze

5 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, contains the story of the dream Jacob has in the desert. Jacob sets out for Haran and when he rests for the night, he places his head upon a rock and goes to sleep. He lies down in what he assumes to be a God-forsaken place and unexpectedly has one of the great visions of the Hebrew Bible. “A stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai…” (Gen. 28:12-13) Jacob’s response, upon waking, strikes me as quite natural. He says, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16)

Verse 12 describes the angels of God going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream. If you think carefully about the words, it becomes clear that the sequence is wrong. If angels reside in heaven, shouldn’t they be coming down and then going back up? Traditional rabbinic commentary offers several explanations. One suggests that since Jacob is about to leave the land of Israel, one group of angelic escorts was returning to Heaven and another was descending to watch over him as he begins his travels abroad. Another possibility is that the angels symbolize the nations of the world, whose power ascends and descends during the course of history.

And yet another interpretation says that the angels do not reside in heaven at all. They live on earth; they are ordinary human beings. And like ordinary human beings, like all of us, they shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth. The trick is to remember, after you descend, what you understood when you were high on the ladder.

Although the midrash tells us that we, like the angels, go back and forth between heaven and earth, the fact is that Judaism demands that we live in this world, and that we concern ourselves with both the joys and the problems of the society in which we live. Judaism sees only one world, which is material and spiritual at the same time. The material world is always potentially spiritual. For Judaism, all things – including and especially such seemingly non-spiritual and material things as garbage, dirt, and sweat – are not impediments TO but dimensions OF spirituality. Our tradition tells us, “The whole world is full of God.” The hard part is to keep that awesome truth in front of us at all times. Our responsibilities as angels, as messengers of God, means helping to solve the problems of the world in whatever small ways are available to us. Our B’nei Mitzvah students and their families put this responsibility front-and-center yesterday by helping out in the soup kitchen at MADA. To see some pictures of the class at MADA, click here.


Toldot

27 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

“These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).

The rabbis who commented on the opening words of our parsha were anxious. The presenting problem was the repetition: if the Torah has already stated that Isaac is Abraham’s son, why is this assertion repeated twice in a single verse?

Their concern seems to go beyond literary criticism. It did not escape the notice of the ancient rabbis that Isaac’s parentage was suspect. His father, Abraham, was one hundred years old when he was born, and his mother, Sarah was ninety. To make matters worse, Sarah finally conceived, after years of barrenness, after she was taken to be the wife of King Avimelech of Gerar, in one of the three infamous sister-wife episodes in Genesis (Gen. 20).

One of the most creative midrashic responses to this concern is a passage in which Sarah breast feeds Isaac publicly – and then goes on to nurse all other babies who are present, to prove her fertility and fecundity (Genesis Rabbah 53:9, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 87a). But there is another creative response which focuses on Isaac’s appearance:

“They were still murmuring and saying: Sarah at ninety years old might give birth, but can a child be born to Abraham, one hundred years old? Immediately the appearance of Isaac’s face changed and resembled Abraham’s. Everyone opened their mouths and said: Abraham begat Isaac.” (BT Baba Metzia 87a)

In another, similar source, it is Abraham himself who has suspicions about Isaac’s paternity, even in utero. Here, the midrash suggests that God commands an angel to make the fetus resemble his father, to prove that Isaac is indeed Abraham’s son (Tanhuma Buber, Toldot 1).

From our modern perspective, these midrashim may seem outlandish. But it seems to me that there is something here for us to learn.

As modern, liberal Jews, we have our own concerns about authenticity and transmission. When Jews are depicted in the media, they do not look like you or me; almost invariably, the photos taken from the streets of London or Montreal show our Chasidic cousins in their ultra-Orthodox garb – even though there is no doubt that Abraham didn’t dress like a Polish Chasid! Often, when Jews speak with me about their encounters with more traditional rabbis, they are pleased and astonished not to have been judged. I don’t judge them either, but somehow it feels more authentic not to be judged by a rabbi with a beard and a hat.

Even more problematically, many of our congregants doubt their own identities. Especially for those of us in countries without a Reform majority (ie everywhere outside the United States), our way of doing Jewish – and being Jewish – is often undermined.

Outside appearance may be the easiest way to establish identity, but I would argue that it’s not the most authentic. There are plenty of people who resemble their parents on the outside, but whose characters couldn’t be more different. And there are plenty of children who aren’t biologically related to their parents who carry forward their deepest values. So too do Jews of all origins and all denominations have the potential to carry forward the legacy of Abraham and Sarah. I am less interested in whether we look like them, and more interested in whether we act like them. Are we hospitable enough to open our tents? Are we brave enough to take a journey into the unknown? Are we hopeful enough to bring new life into the world? These are the questions that matter.

In their heart of hearts, I imagine the ancient rabbis knew this too. Superficial similarities can quiet external sceptics, and even quell our internal doubts. But the most profound challenging of parenting, and Judaism, is not transmitting how we look; it is transmitting who we are, and how we transform our world for good.

This Parsha was also published in Torah Around the World


Chayei Sarah

20 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, gives us room to reflect on the qualities that matter most, in leadership and in life.

When Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, the servant finds Rebecca through a simple test. He waits by the well, after long travels, and says that the woman who offers him something to drink – and also gives water to his camels – is the right woman to become a matriarch of the Jewish people. The commentators ask: this action shows kindness, but how did the servant know her other qualities were good? Because, they say, when someone has a good heart, all the other positive qualities are included as well. Good-heartedness – kindness and compassion, for humans and for animals – is a defining quality. I remember once seeing a tombstone with the inscription: “Goodness was baked in her bones.” What an ideal to which to aspire!

We also learn something about leadership. I’m currently reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger, and he makes an argument that in many cultures, there are different types of leaders who emerge in times of war and times of peace, or even in the immediacy of a crisis and its wake (he uses the example of those who rise to the fore when a coal mine collapses and miners are trapped inside, and those who take the lead in the days following, when the trapped miners need to navigate their longer-term survival). But the commentator Yalkut Yehudah suggests that Abraham was different. He writes:

There are people who excel in greatness when there is peace in the world, and who develop their talents in creativity and construction, in administering and running matters calmly and deliberately, but when there is turmoil in the world one cannot find them making any mark on it. On the other hand, there are people whose greatness emerges during wars and revolutions. That is when they show their exceptional greatness. As soon as things calm down, though, they leave the stage. But Abraham was the leader of the world both in times of peace and calm, and at times of upheaval, like the captain of a ship who leads it through the storms.

Mr. Rogers famously said: “Look for the helpers.” Inspired by this week’s parsha, may we look for the good-hearted people who act with kindness, and may we look for true leaders – and may we further be inspired to bring out those qualities in ourselves.


Vayera

13 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is about vision. Abraham gets a vision of three messengers, telling him of Isaac’s coming conception and birth; he also is told, after Isaac is born, to go to a place of vision, Har haMoria, to offer that son up to God.

One could make the case that this story comes from a time of child sacrifice, to make a statement, when God tells Abraham to untie his son, that this is not the offering God wants. The context, to us, is foreign.

And yet: there is an idea here which calls to us still. To be a person of vision, the Torah suggests, sometimes requires sacrifice. Sometimes, it requires going out on a limb, standing by your principles without knowing the end result.

For many of us, especially in the United States but also around the world, the recent election raises questions of what we stand for. What is our vision for a world of justice and dignity, pluralism and peace? How do we stand by people who are vulnerable? How do we as Jews know when we ourselves are at risk? How do we act, inspired by our best selves, when faced with our fears?

I thought it might be helpful to share the statement of the North American Reform movement on the election results. We are not a partisan movement; we recognize that our membership includes a wide range of political beliefs. At the same time, we have a vision, going back to Abraham, for how the world should be – and what mission we are called upon to fulfill. If you’re interested, read here.

Please know that I’m here for conversation and counsel, as we try to bring our progressive Jewish values to a rapidly changing world.


Lech Lecha

6 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Imagine waking up one morning and being told: “Go! Pack your bags; take your family, and leave this place. Don’t worry about where you’re going; just go.”

This, essentially, is what happens to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. God says to Abram, “Lech lecha; go forth from your native land.”  And here, Israel’s history begins. We are a people with a history of wandering; Abraham is the very first wandering Jew. What does Abram’s experiences say to us?

Let’s start with the question that commentators have been asking throughout history: “Did Abraham really hear God’s voice?” Needless to say, some scholars conclude “yes,” and others say “no.” Those who believe that God really did speak to Abram see that conversation as the true genesis of our people. According to them, “God did speak [to Abraham], and God’s relationship to Abraham’s children, [to us], and to the land of Canaan was secured.” (Plaut, p. 93)

Others interpret God’s challenge differently. Abraham believed he heard God’s voice, and he acted in accordance with that belief.

Even those of us who cannot accept the possibility that God spoke directly to a human being must agree that Abraham was motivated by something…a voice he called God. Abraham acted on his comprehension of the Divine. We, his descendants, must now appropriate Abraham’s experience and make it our own. We must listen to the voice that speaks to us, as did our biblical ancestors – from Adam and Eve to Moses. It is not easy to hear God’s voice in today’s world, yet, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Judaism is not only a religion of doing-and-speaking; it is also a religion of listening. [It] is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.

In my opinion, it is not hard to see God in the world around us, simply by observing the beauty of the world around us. Maybe you do not agree that it is God – but our ancestors did. As the days grow shorter, may you find quiet moments to listen – and to hear the voice of God, the silent music referred to by the psalmist:

The heavens declare the glory of God
The skies proclaim God’s handiwork
Day to day they pour forth speech,
Night to night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech, there are no words….
Yet their music carries throughout the earth.

(Ps. 19:1-5)


Noach

30 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Noach, contains the famous story of the flood. It is striking – and heart-rending – to realize that a few short chapters after God creates the world, God is ready to destroy it. The Torah recounts, quite poignantly, that God regretted making humanity because of the evil we had done. What was the nature of this evil? The rabbis imagine all kinds of immorality, mistreatment of animals and human beings. The hope comes in, of course, with the survival of Noah and his family, and a group of animals intended to perpetuate their species. A rabbinic legend also recounts that Naamah, Noah’s wife, preserves all the plants and seeds, so they too can continue after the flood. Then, God gives the rainbow as a covenant with humanity. With the rainbow come some basic rules about how to create a sustainable, ethical society – and the promise that God will never again destroy the world with water.

This story leads me to think immediately about adding mistreatment of the environment to the list of sins leading to destruction; and to hope, under threat of melting icebergs and global warning, that water will not again be a force of complete and utter destruction. But there also is an important teaching here about societal, human ethics. Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Berlin, in commenting on the dove sent forth from the ark to see if there is dry land, offers this teaching:

“The Jewish people is compared to a dove, and the way it is treated is the way to judge whether there is justice in the world, or whether the world deserves another flood.”

For him, the Jews are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. How we are treated is an indicator of the moral state of the world. By this view, for example, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and on campus is a warning to us about the direction of society. To this, I would add that the treatment of all vulnerable minorities can be seen in a similar light. How do we respond refugees? Do we use indigenous cultures for costumes? Do we treat women as full human beings? How are visible minorities seen by police? The list goes on. The parsha, and the commentary, remind us that when we are trying to figure out the state of the world, we know, as Jews, to pay attention to those who are vulnerable. If we and other minorities are unsafe, the world is not on a good path. It becomes our responsibility to try to redirect and rebuild, working for that covenant of peace.

Bereishit

22 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Here we are! On the other side of all the fall holy days, and ready to begin the Torah cycle anew. On Sunday night, we danced with the Torah and unrolled it around the Community Hall, reading the end of Deuteronomy (Moses’ death, at the edge of the Promised Land), and Genesis (the creation of the world). Parallel to this, in our own Jewish lives, one year has ended, and another year has begun.

So what do we make of this new beginning? The Talmud says that all beginnings are hard – which can be comforting, to those beginning a new job or a new school, or a new chapter in life. But what wisdom can we get from how the Torah begins?

Let me speak simply about the first letter of the first word, “bereishit.” Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, begins with the letter “bet” – which is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph-bet – get it?). Why start with the second letter instead of the first? Many commentators suggest that this is to keep us humble. Even when we are starting fresh, our sages tell us, we aren’t really beginning at the beginning. Even Genesis has a backstory which we may not know or understand. The rabbis of the midrash went so far as to imagine that God created and destroyed many worlds before this one, and when God created our world, God said: “I’m not making any more – take care of it!” Certainly this is a timely message for today, as we see signs of global environmental crisis and change, as well as human conflict. But on a very personal level too, it’s a good reminder. In every encounter we have with others – and even sometimes with ourselves – we rarely know the whole story. In this way, Genesis’ beginning with “bet” reminds us to approach every situation with an open mind.

Genesis also encourages us to develop open hearts. The last letter of Deuteronomy is “Yisrael” (the people of Israel) which ends with the letter “lamed.” When you join that with the “bet” of Bereishit, you get the Hebrew word “lev,” which means “heart.” Why? To teach us that true understanding of the Torah can only come through the heart. It’s a great lesson for us as liberal Jews. We are distinguished by our intellectual, rational approach to Judaism – and this approach is of immense value. It lets us understand that the Torah was written in a particular time and place, and that any living religion requires innovation. We are meant to use our heads in our religious and spiritual lives. But Bereishit reminds us that we also have to use our hearts. Religion isn’t real if it doesn’t touch us, if it doesn’t relate to the struggles and joys of our lives. I know I felt this over the Days of Awe; hopefully you did too.

We go forward into a new year, then, with open minds and open hearts.

In this spirit, I’d encourage you, if you’re able, to make a new year’s commitment that will reflect this openness. Join our Torah study Shabbat mornings at 9:00 am, or the course I’m doing on Jewish spirituality which begins tonight. And please know I’m here for any questions or conversations you would like to have.

Sukkot

17 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Sukkot is my favorite holiday. After the intensity of the High Holy Days – ten days of introspection and reflection – it feels good to have a holiday that forces us to get outside.

During Sukkot, we are commanded to build a sukkah and dwell in it during the week long holiday. The sukkah must be a temporary structure, with a roof of natural materials through which you can see the sky. It says in Leviticus 23:42-45: “You shall live in Sukkot – booths – in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.” It is also thought that farmers would erect booths as temporary dwelling places in the fields during the harvest season.

The rabbis compared the building of a sukkah to the building of a world. We take natural materials and construct our own space. Although it may be a bit rickety, still we build it, and then we fulfill the command to dwell in it – or at the very least, eat in it. The temporary nature of the sukkah reminds us that life is fragile. The hope is that once we have experienced the frailty of the sukkah, we gain a heightened appreciation for both the spiritual and physical comforts we enjoy on a regular basis.

Sukkot is also known to as z’man simchateinu – the time of our happiness. A rather strange name for a holiday. Why is Sukkot specifically called the holiday of happiness? Aren’t all holidays happy?

How many of us spend time thinking “oh, I’ll really be happy when “blank” happens”? And when that blank is filled in, another one inevitably replaces it. “I would really be happy if….” Happiness seems to be so elusive.

Sukkot is supposed to be the ultimate answer to that fill-in-the-blank. Sukkot offers us a chance to reflect on the fragility of life – and to give thanks for the abundant blessings we have. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we go inside, literally and figuratively. The Jewish calendar gives us a time to “go inside” – to reflect on our own lives and think about how we can improve the way we live them.

On Sukkot, we go outside. We build a fragile sukkah – but hopefully, we won’t just build a sukkah. The sukkah is a model for building a better world – a world connected to the heavens, a world that reflects the image of God. It is our responsibility to care for the world in which we live, to care for God’s creation, to leave a legacy for those who come after us.


Ha’azinu

8 Tishrei 5777

Read this week Torah portion here.


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

This week we share Rabbi Grushcow’s Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, click here.


Ha’azinu

27 Elul 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

As we ready ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, beginning this Wednesday night, we will find ourselves with the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. Maybe you’ve been coming to Temple for years, or maybe this is your first time. Maybe you recognize old words and old tunes, but this year, they will have new meaning because of things that have changed in your life. The start of a new year is meant to give us time to reflect on what is most important. The words are not always easy and the experience isn’t always easy.  I can almost guarantee you that there will be moments when you are uncomfortable or bored; and I can almost guarantee you that there are times you will be lifted up and inspired. For most Jews, if we needed to have an official relationship status with the High Holy Days, it would be: “it’s complicated.” But for me, and I hope for you, these days are incredibly worthwhile.

To help get ready, let me offer you this prayer by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler, which he wrote as an alternative U’Netaneh Tokef. I’ll be sharing it from the bima as well:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is teshuva, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is tefilah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.


Nitzavim

20 Elul 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

I am mindful of writing this commentary on September 11. Sixteen years ago, I was living in New York City, and I heard the sounds of the sirens of the firetrucks racing down the West Side Highway, past my apartment in the Bronx to downtown Manhattan. Many of them never returned.

That day was a day of horror beyond what any New Yorker had previously imagined. And for a brief time, it brought us all together. I remember walking to my local grocery store in a daze, and buying large quantities of spaghetti and sauce, so anyone stranded in our neighbourhood would have something to eat and somewhere to go. It wasn’t heroic in the slightest; it was just a basic human act, knowing none of us wanted to be alone.

That year and every year following, the synagogue I served in New York would ask members of our local firehouse to join us at a  9/11 memorial Shabbat service. The fire station was a block away from the synagogue, and some of our security staff worked there as well as with us – but we had never before realized the extent of our interdependence and interconnection.

The Torah this week also speaks about togetherness. As the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses addresses them as a group with these words:

You are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God–your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every person in Israel; your wives, your children, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water–so that you may pass into the covenant of Adonai your God…and not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with he who is present, standing here with us today before Adonai our God, and with him who is not here with us today. (Deut. 29:91-11, 13-14).

Strangely, perhaps, it is easier to realize our shared humanity in times of tragedy, when we are all in it together. The weeks and months that followed 9/11 reminded us of the usual divisions in New York Society – between rich and poor, documented and undocumented, city and suburbs. But the Torah reminds us that it is essential to remember our connectedness in good times as well as bad, at milestone moments and in everyday interactions alike. One of the highest forms of praise I hear at funerals are tributes to people who start conversations with everyone from doormen to CEO’s. Why? Because they know that everyone has a story, and everyone wants to be heard.

As we come to the High Holy Days, we will be in close physical proximity with each other –God willing, and thanks to you, our pews will be crowded. I challenge us to see the shared humanity in everyone we encounter, from the security guard at the door to the person sitting beside you. And then, when we leave our shared space at the end of the service, may we see the humanity in others as well.


Ki Tavo

22 Av 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

As we reach this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are coming towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is giving the Israelites instructions for what to do when they finally reach the Promised Land. In one verse, he insists: “This day the Eternal your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 26:6). There’s a wonderful teaching based on this verse by the great Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, picking up on an insight from the medieval French commentator, Rashi (I love how the conversation crosses time and space!). It goes like this:

Each day the commandments should appear to you as new, as if that very day you had been commanded them (Rashi). So [King] David said, “Do not cast me aside in old age” – do not allow me to age in my service of God. Would that my observance of the commandments will always be with enthusiasm, and never by rote.

I thought of this interpretation this week, when we held our annual lunch for Temple members over the age of eighty. Our oldest member present is 107, and many have been members since they were children, for over eighty years. All of them care deeply about Temple, and many have helped build our congregation. Most recently, some have started Inquiring Minds at Temple, a monthly discussion group for seniors; others have gotten involved in Member Connections, and our proposal to collect oral histories. We are also identifying and learning from our “Super Seniors,” the ninety people over the age of ninety in our congregation. What a gift to be around so much accumulated life experience, perspective, and wisdom! What I think inspires me most, though, is in keeping with the Baal Shem Tov’s commentary. It is their openness, and their willingness to stay part of Temple’s community even as it changes. They know that to live is to change, and that we may occasionally get set in our ways (whatever our age) but we are never too old to learn and grow. May this be a lesson to all of us, coming into the New Year.

Ki Teitzei

http://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/ki-teitzei

Re’eh 

22 Av 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Last Friday, we had a number of first-timers at Shabbat services. A young adult interested in our conversion course; a couple visiting Montreal from the States; two families coming to celebrate the naming of new babies. But there was another first-timer with whom I spoke after the service. He told me how hard it had been for him to leave his house that evening, to come into a room of strangers. He was in a hard place in his life, without family and without community. Coming to our Shabbat service did not change everything for him, of course – but he was glad that he had mustered the courage to make it through the doors.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who I met in Jerusalem this summer, reflects on this week’s parsha in a way that resonates with this man’s experience. She writes about the challenge of the Jewish holiday calendar, which can be like an emotional roller coaster, with different feelings summoned at different times. For instance, in Re’eh, our Torah portion, we are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot, the harvest festival in the fall:

V’samachta b’hagecha, the Torah instructs; you shall be joyful in your festival. How, many commentators have asked—how on Earth can Jewish law command a person to feel happy? And if you can’t get there? Then what? You’re a sinner for feeling heartbroken or blue that day? If we could all easily turn on the joy fountain on command, our culture would look very different — entire very profitable industries are built around selling happiness in some form or another. How does it work to command people, in a religious context, to feel a feeling?

But then, Ruttenberg examines the Torah more closely, and suggests it is saying something entirely different. We are not commanded to be joyful, she says; we are commanded to rejoice. “That is,” she writes, “you should do a series of actions. You should come together with your family, your workers, and the various people in your community who are vulnerable…  the commandment to be joyful is really a commandment to throw a party, to have a celebration, to bring people together, all the while making sure that even those most on the margins of society are included… So this commandment isn’t to “feel joyful,” but rather to get out into community and celebrate.  And, this text seems to suggest, that act of celebration will lead to feelings of joy — as a consequence of doing a good thing…”

She concludes: “We all have evenings when we feel miserable and wretched, and are tempted to hide at home under the bed. But sometimes the doing leads to the feeling — sometimes when we haul ourselves out, put on some presentable clothing and go to the dinner or party or other social obligation, we discover that being out in community, being together with others in a loving space filled with good cheer does, in fact, raise our spirits.  Sometimes getting out in the world and enjoying what the world has to offer can bring us to this feeling of exaltation.”

For some, it will always be more of a struggle. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can make every day a challenge. But whether that is our reality, or simply a bad week or a long day, we do better when we come together – and when we are truly attentive to everyone who comes through those doors. That’s the wisdom which doesn’t just help us rejoice on sukkot; it also makes our community a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace for all who enter.

Note: You can find Rabbi Ruttenberg’s full commentary here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/you-shall-be-joyful/.

Tisha B’Av

By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
8 Av 5777

Tonight, Tisha B’Av begins, the day on which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and many other tragedies in Jewish history. Traditionally, it is a fast day – the only sunset-to-sunset fast other than Yom Kippur. Some early leaders of the Reform movement suggested that Tisha b’Av should be abolished, because the destruction of the Second Temple led to new creativity in Judaism, and the transmission of Judaism’s message to the wider world. Reform synagogues are often called “Temples” to assert that our religion has evolved over the past two thousand years, and we are not holding our breath for a return to a Temple in Jerusalem, replete with animal sacrifices and priests.

We may not want the Temple to be rebuilt, but we can still mourn its destruction. Having just returned from a month in Jerusalem, I feel the meaning of this day deeply. I left as the political situation was escalating, with the heat of violence accompanying the heat of the summer. I do not fear for Israel’s existence, but I do fear for the tensions that have no easy solutions, that divide Jew from Jew and all the peoples who live there. As is often said, Israel is in a tough neighbourhood, and living in difficult times.

Tisha b’Av provides a spiritual response to the political and historical reality of danger and destruction. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and one of my teachers this summer, writes about the modern meaning of this ancient day. In his book, “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” he says: “…a key to survival is the assignment of a place to collect the darkness; without the Ninth of Av, we would either spend the year in mourning or would desperately strive to forget all the accumulated catastrophes.”

If you can, join us at 7:00 tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Temple. We will hear music from Rona Nadler and an ensemble of professional musicians, in a program created especially for this day. I’ll share some teachings from my summer of study at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We will inhabit some of the darkness of our past and our fears for the future, and then emerge together with hope.

Devarim

1 Av 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah. Deuteronomy reviews many of the laws that have already been given to the Israelites and recounts some of the experiences during their wanderings, stories that are familiar to us from earlier books of the Torah. “Deuteronomy looks towards Israel’s life in the land of Israel, where a society pursuing justice and righteousness, living in harmony with God and enjoying His bounty, can be established…. The Torah’s humanitarianism is most developed in Deuteronomy’s concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged.”[1]

The book, and this week’s Torah portion, is called Devarim, “words.” The first verse begins: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel….” Let us remember that Moses begins his career by pleading with God that he does not want the position of leadership that the Eternal One offers him. “Moses said to God, “Please, O Eternal One, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10) Moses goes on to say, “Please…make someone else Your agent.” (Ex. 4:13)

The midrash tells us that, after 40 years of leading the Israelites, Moses has become an eloquent “man of words.” The transformation is not due to any change in his abilities, but rather to his growth as a leader, and to his enthusiastic commitment to the people of Israel and to the message he has to convey. (Dt. R. 1:1)

This is an important message for all of us. Transformation is possible. We can all develop and change. Growth requires dedication and commitment. Sometimes the road will be challenging, and it will be tempting to give up. It is easier to stay in one place. The hardest part is taking the first step, but ultimately, change is most often positive.

This week, we also observe Rosh Chodesh Av, the beginning of the month of Av, which some see as the very first step in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah, which is still, (or just – depending on your point of view), seven weeks away. It is never too early to think about teshuvah, (lit. “repentance), turning, changing direction, taking the first step towards a goal, towards transformation.

[1] Lieber, David L, Ed. Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary. The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 980.

Matot-Masei

23 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we read the double portion of Matot-Masei, the last two Torah portions in the book of Numbers.

In Numbers 35:9–15, God commands the people to create cities of refuge in the Promised Land. The notion behind the cities of refuge – where one could claim asylum or sanctuary – is a construct that has found itself reinterpreted throughout the ages. In the biblical text, the cities of refuge act as a sanctuary for one who committed a murder, but who had done so unintentionally. The issue here is blood vengeance. Numbers 35:16–21 goes on to explain that a person committing murder should be put to death, (since murder violates the sixth commandment). Furthermore, a member of the family of one who was intentionally murdered has the right to act as the executioner. The relative carrying out this duty is called the go-eil hadam, the blood-avenger. However, if the murder happened by accident, then the murderer is allowed a trial, and the assembly shall decide whether or not the killer should die, (Numbers 35:22–24). If the assembly rules in the person’s favor, the murderer shall live in one of the cities of refuge until the High Priest dies. At this point, the person is free to return home (Numbers 35:28). If the assassin sets foot outside the city before then, he opens himself up to the retribution exacted by the blood-avenger. (Note that Deuteronomy 19 also deals with cities of refuge, murder, and manslaughter. There it makes no mention of the High Priest).

In the United States today, (and some other parts of the world), the term “sanctuary city” has a much different meaning: it designates cities in which law enforcement is not allowed to ask about immigration status when arresting a person. (To read more about American sanctuary cities, click here).

Sometimes we encounter a biblical law that is difficult for us to relate to in modern society, and we are left trying to figure out how it applies to us. Sometimes, we simply dismiss the laws – such as those governing slaves and indentured servants, goring oxen, or fulfilling vows – we simply say, “that was then and this is now,” or we try to find spiritual or allegorical meanings. With the cities of refuge, however, the situation is different. While the function of the cities may have changed throughout time, the intention behind them has remained similar: to protect those who need protection.


Pinchas

16 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is called Pinchas. It is the third in a series of three stories of rebellion, corruption and violence. The first was in the portion called Korach, (which we read on June 24th), in which Korach foments a political rebellion against Moses. The second was last week in Parashat Balak, when Balak hires Bilaam to curse the Israelites, (although his quest fails when God directs Bilaam’s prophecy). This week we are confronted with the violent zeal of Pinchas who murders two people he thinks are profaning God’s name with their lewd behavior. Of all the troubling incidents in the Torah, the one involving Pinchas at the beginning of this week’s portion tops them all.

However, when we read further in the portion, we find some comfort in the story of the daughters of Zelophechad. Zelophechad dies without leaving any male heirs, so his five daughter join together and bring their case to Moses. As a result, the laws of inheritance are changed so daughters can inherit land from their fathers.

Later in the portion. God appoints Joshua to lead the people after Moses – and we have a resounding affirmation that the demagoguery of Korach, the desire of Balak to have Bilaam curse the Israelites, and the violence of Pinchas are not the “right” way. Peaceful adjudication of complaints and a peaceful of transition of power are.


Balak

11 Tammuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, found in the last third of the book of Numbers, is called Balak.

Balak, a Moabite king, concerned about the huge number of Israelites amassed on the plain opposite his land, poised to enter the land promised to them by God. In order to stop them, Balak engages the services of a sorcerer, Balaam. He offers to reward Balaam generously if he will curse the people of Israel in order to impede or even prevent their progress. Balaam tries to refuse, but Balak won’t hear of it. Eventually, Balaam agrees to do Balak’s bidding, but says to Balak, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Num. 22:38) Of course, God causes blessings rather than curses to come out of Balaam’s mouth – not just once, but four times.

Let us look at just one phrase from the first of Balaam’s blessings:

“…There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” (Num. 23:9).

One might ask why “dwelling apart” and not being “reckoned among the nations” is a blessing. This reflects the age-old dilemma of the Jewish people. In order to survive, Jews have often lived apart from our neighbors. At the same time, in the Diaspora, we want to be accepted and recognized as citizens in the countries in which we live.

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, (1215-1293), stressed the importance of the Jewish people maintaining their own identity. He divides this verse into two sections. The uniqueness and greatness of the people of Israel come about when the people of Israel “dwell apart.” It is when they become totally assimilated, living “among the nations” with no distinct identity, that they will not be “reckoned among the nations” anymore. That is, if we become a people like all other peoples, we will no longer have anything to contribute to the world.

In most modern, North American Jewish communities, we have been quite successful at maintaining our distinct identity as a people while also effectively integrating into society. What do you think? How much should we “dwell apart,” and how integrated should we be? How would you prefer to live your life?


Chukat

4 Tamuz 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, called Chukat, Miriam dies, and once again, the Israelites are complaining about the lack of water in the desert. They rail against Moses and Aaron, and God tells them to take the rod and order a rock to yield water. In his frustration, Moses strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to it. Water does come forth, but God punishes Moses and Aaron because Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be permitted to enter the Promised Land. The site of this incident is called Meribah, “the waters of strife.”

Needless to say, the commentators have a field day, wondering why God metes out such a severe penalty for what doesn’t seem to be such a serious “crime.” Some commentators point to earlier sins as the real cause for this punishment. Aaron’s cardinal sin was the construction of the Golden Calf. Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster and broke the first set of tablets, among other transgressions. Ramban suggests that Moses and Aaron forgot that they were role models for the Israelites. By showing their anger and frustration, the Israelites might be lead to believe that uncontrolled anger is acceptable, especially in a leader. Nehama Leibowitz points out that although God does not show anger at the people’s need for water, because of Moses’ behaviour, the Israelites might imagine God to be an angry deity, devoid of compassion for the people.

This portion leads me to consider the ways in which we all are role models in one way or another, no matter our age or position in life. Each one of us can learn from the actions of our biblical ancestors that it is important to think before we act, and when we do act, to ponder the consequences of our actions.


Korach

25 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Korach is a Torah portion focused on an internal dispute in the Jewish community. One commentator suggests that it’s always timely, because there are always disputes among Jews… plus ça change! But within it, there is a great insight. After the dispute between Moses and Korach, his challenger, we read something about sacrifices. Strangely, the offering to which the Torah refers is described as “a covenant of salt” (Num. 18:19). In his commentary, Rabbi Tronk of Kutno makes the following observation: “Just as salt causes an item which is pickled to decrease in size, yet at the same time ensures that it will not be spoiled… the person [bringing an offering] may lose something belonging to him, but giving these offerings helps ensure that he will keep that which is his.”

What does this mean? When we give something – whether it be financial contributions to your community, or gifts to your family, or even taxes to the government – we do so in hope that we get something in return. We may have less in our pockets, but at its best, our giving helps preserve our values. We keep Temple’s doors open to all who come in; we maintain and deepen our relationships; we help build a fairer society. We often focus on how much we can accumulate. The Torah is counter-cultural in challenging us to focus on quality over quantity. The question isn’t how much we have; the question is how to ensure that what we value, lasts.


Sh’lach

Eliana Fischel
Rabbinic student

Last week, I slipped while on a hike. While I was physically fine, the slip shook me enough that I was nervous for the rest of the climb. My fiancé, with whom I was climbing, began to encourage me to continue up the mountain. “That was a great step!” he would say. I was appreciative of his support, but I couldn’t help but think “That was not such a great step. I was climbing much better before and he is just being nice.”

This week’s parashah explores this dichotomy between encouragers and naysayers. As the name of the parashah, Sh’lach, suggests, Moses sends a leader of each of the tribes to scout out the Land of Israel. The scouts return with a mixed report. The majority of the scouts see only giants and enemies: “The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak (Numbers 13:32-33)”. Interestingly, Caleb and Joshua perceived the land differently. They state, “The land, which we passed through to spy out, is an exceedingly good land (Numbers 14:7)”.  By looking at these contradictory statements, we could easily label Caleb and Joshua as idealistic, perhaps blind, optimists, but instead, I think, we can analyze the nature of the other scouts’ complaints so that they shed light on what Caleb and Joshua were experiencing.

The other scouts stated that Nephilim filled the land. This is the second mention of these semi-divine creatures in the Torah. They first appear in Genesis as part of an introduction to Noah. These Nephilim are products of the sons of God and the daughters of man (Genesis 6:4)–an example of a breach in boundaries that, somehow, seeped into the land and corrupted the physical Earth (Genesis 6:11). It was the combination of this human and physical corruption that led to the flood.

Perhaps the scouts in Sh’lach have this story in mind.  They see the Nephilim and assume the land is corrupt, as well. They bring their historical baggage to this moment. Caleb and Joshua, however, see this instance as a new experience. They are able to separate the Nephilim from the land. Their minds are not corrupted by previous experience; rather they are able to see the land anew.

My great step up the mountain, which really was a great step independent of the steps I took previously, is just one example of this cognitive difficulty. How many times do we let previous experiences cloud our judgment of the here and now? How many times have we let past arguments seep into current ones? Past interactions color our perception of another? As we begin this week, may we honor our past, but try to see reality as it is. Before we jump to our judgments, assume our assumptions, let us take a step back and take in all the necessary information. Perhaps then we can see that that the Earth is not corrupt and we can walk into a new land of opportunity and growth.


Behaalotecha

11 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, Moses reminds the people about the observances of the festivals. It’s worth asking why we need a reminder – it’s true that the Jewish calendar can be confusing (just as an FYI, the High Holy Days are “on time” this year!), but for our ancestors who didn’t have any other calendars to juggle, why couldn’t they just figure it out? As we reach the end of the school year and I find myself trying to keep track of the schedules not only of the synagogue but also two schools, plus dance and theatre rehearsals, I envy the simplicity of earlier times!

Still, our ancestors needed reminders. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes:

Keen student of the human heart that he was, Moses knew that learning is ever renewed, or it is lost. Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and ingestion that is a permanent accompaniment to human life. Mistakenly viewing learning as conquest leads to the gradual loss of competence in a professional field — that is why so many professions require continuing education to be able to remain active, why professors and rabbis need regular opportunities to renew themselves through study, even sabbaticals. Knowledge and wisdom do not merely grow stale. They dissipate if not made fresh each day.

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah understood that point, insisting that, “It is for our own good that we learn Torah and forget it; because if we studied Torah and never forgot it, the people would struggle with learning it for two or three years, resume ordinary work, and never pay further attention to it. But since we study Torah and forget it, we don’t abandon its study.”

As the school year ends and summer begins, I’m looking forward to returning to Jerusalem  as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Hartman Institute in July. It will give me a chance to renew my learning and being back new things to share. But whether you will be in a formal classroom or in the classroom of the great outdoors, I hope that for you too, the summer will be a time of renewal.


Naso

4 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Parshat Naso is famous for its inclusion of the priestly blessing, which we invoke at many significant moments in Jewish life. We find a variant on it in the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof, which goes like this: “May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame. May you come to be In Israel a shining name.” The original, though, goes like this: “May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s presence turn to you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26). In many families (including my own), this blessing is used to bless the children at the table on Friday nights. However, like most things in Judaism, it’s good for children – but not only for children. The evocation of divine protection, presence, and peace is powerful for adults as well. My youngest daughter once used the same words to bless me after I blessed her, and I was taken aback by how moved I was by the experience.

The challenge is, sometimes we don’t feel worthy of blessing. I can’t tell you how many people say to me, “Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew,” or “Rabbi, I’m embarrassed at how long it’s been since I’ve been to synagogue.” But blessing isn’t a reflection on someone’s qualifications. Rather, blessing is meant to be transformative. To be blessed is to be reminded of one’s potential; it inspires us to be our best selves, and tells us we are not alone. Rabbi Ron Aigen, of blessed memory, shares the teaching that the Hebrew word for blessing, bracha, comes from an ancient Sumerian word for grain which is about to burst. Blessing is about where we are now and where we will go, not about where we have been.

The Modzhitzer Rebbe pays attention to the verse introducing the blessing: “So shall you bless the children of Israel.” He writes: “Bless the Jewish people as you find them. Do not look for the best or the most important, not for the greatest scholars or for the most righteous. Every person deserves to be blessed.” May we hold onto this message this week.


Bemidbar

26 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah: Numbers. The English name “Numbers” is used because the book begins with a census of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Hebrew name, “Bemidbar,” means “in the wilderness” – according to Jewish tradition, the books and portions are named according to the first significant word. When we put these names together, though, I think we can find a deeper meaning. The name “Numbers,” and the fact of the census, suggests that every person counts. The name “Bemidbar” tells us about the location – at the time the book is set, the Israelites are in the desert, between Egypt and the Promised Land. The question becomes: Who are we when we are in the wilderness? How to we make a good name for ourselves in challenging circumstances?

The commentator, Bet Aharon, notes the details in the portion: “Every person of the children of Israel will pitch at his own standard, with the ensign of his father’s house.” He writes: “Every one must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never anyone exactly like him: had there been someone just like him, there would be no need for him. Indeed, every single person is someone new in the world, and it is his duty to improve his ways, until we have all attained perfection.”

In other words, we each have a role to play. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the modern teacher of Jewish mysticism, says something similar: “And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now.”

Our Torah portion makes us ask: Who are we? What kind of name do we make for ourselves? How do we count?

Behar-Bechukotai

19 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Recently, I had the pleasure of going to the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Niagara. It’s a little gem of a museum, located in the house in which William Lyon Mackenzie began his political involvement. The house contains everything from centuries-old printing presses to a Linotype machine. What was most moving, to me, was the press on which the Emancipation Act was printed in 1793 – the first official act to free slaves in North America.

Not long before, Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk was working and writing in Germany. Commenting on this week’s parsha, he picks up on these key words: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). He then asks: why is this addressed to all the inhabitants of the land, and not just those who are enslaved? “Because in any country where freedom is incomplete, even if this is the case with only some of the people, all the people are enslaved. One only feels freedom when there is no slavery in the country whatsoever. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master.”

Over two hundred years ago, our Jewish and Canadian ancestors knew about the fundamental dignity and freedom of all human beings. Thousands of years ago, our Torah knew it as well. What a lesson for us to remember, and on which to act: as long as anyone is enslaved – by law or by poverty, by discrimination or oppression – none of us are free.

Emor

Rabbi Ellen Greenspan
12 Iyar

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

In the middle of the section about the holidays, we find this one verse that is a bit off topic:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God.” (Lev. 23:22)

Since, as city (or suburban) dwellers, we do not live an agrarian lifestyle, this idea of leaving behind produce for the poor to glean might not speak to us. However, coming off the high of yesterday’s Mitzvah Morning, I think this verse is very relevant to us, even though we are not farmers. We came together as a Temple community to make our world – our local community – a better place. We made 170 sandwiches that for the Open Door soup kitchen; we made about 65 bags of granola that will be donated to Share the Warmth. We assembled 45 gift bags of toiletries and other personal items for clients of Auberge Shalom; sometimes women show up at a shelter without even a toothbrush. We collected clothing for Dress for Success, wrote letters to Israeli soldiers, and made cards for cancer patients. It was an amazing morning filled with activity, camaraderie and fun. If you missed this year’s Mitzvah Morning, save the date for next year’s…. May 6, 2018!

In conclusion, I want to return to the notion of gleaning, because it is actually a concept that still exists. When I was a student rabbi, I served a small synagogue in southern Oregon. I would fly up from Los Angeles once a month, and I would always stay with congregants. One woman lived on the edge of commercial fruit orchards. The company had a policy that after they had harvested the fruit, neighbours could go into the fields and glean. It is one of the memories I have from that year – gleaning delicious pears from the trees. Have you ever had a Comice pear? If not… make it a point to look for one this fall. They are the best pears I have ever had!


Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

8 Iyar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This double portion is the Torah equivalent of an emotional and spiritual roller coaster. We go from an opening recognition of the tragic, shocking death of Aaron’s two sons, straight into a description of the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual, and followed by the great holiness code – in which timeless ethical injunctions (for example, “love your neighbour as yourself”) are interspersed with laws that seem very much the product of their time (e.g. against mixing wool and linen, and the ban on sexual relations between men). What is a reader to do?

It is not entirely unlike the experience of being in Israel this time of year. Today Israelis mark Memorial Day, in which fallen soldiers are mourned; and tonight, Independence Day celebrations begin – and all this soon after Yom HaShoah. How are we to move so quickly from one story to the next: from commemoration to celebration? How do we follow a tradition in which our most sacred passages are intermingled with those which have done great harm? How does a small, young country both grieve and dance within 48 short hours?

At our Goldbloom symposium on indigenous youth yesterday, we heard some wisdom that I think we can draw on, in answer to these questions. Indigenous traditions, like Jewish traditions, value storytelling and memory alongside law. Chief Abel Bosum, of the Cree people, even used Jewish imagery in his talk (which you can see in full by clicking here). He spoke about how, for his people, their nation-to-nation treaty has been as fundamental to them as receiving the Torah at Sinai has been to us. Then, he pointed out that the process of reaching fair settlements has taken them forty years… “and I wonder if that number resonated with this audience.”  At the same time, he spoke very openly about the challenges still facing indigenous peoples in Canada. We all have our time in the wilderness, and our hope for the Promised Land. Past, present, and future exist alongside one another, as do moments of sadness and moments of joy, texts that resonate and texts that alienate. To be human, to be whole, is to hold all these realities together, and make sense of them together.

One other insight from yesterday can help give us direction, as we grapple with the complexity of our tradition, our world, and our own lives. Jason Lewis, a Concordia professor who is doing incredibly innovative work with a group that he founded, called Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, focused on the importance of imagination – and how important it is for aboriginal youth, and all human beings, to have a sense of what is possible. He spoke about how there is a lot of talk about the importance of the past and the pressing needs of the present, and how all this is essential. At the same time, he suggested, we need to create space to talk about the future; to start not from a place of deficiency, but of resilience and strength. “There are not a lot of moments,” he said, “in which our kids are asked, “What are you dreaming about?””

The Torah, at its heart, contains the dream of a just society; our story, at its heart, contains the dream of a world that is whole. May our commemorations and celebrations, our strengths and our struggles, all help us dream those dreams.


Yom HaShoah

28 Nissan 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, instead of commenting on the parsha, let me share a few words about Yom HaShoah, which we observe today. I had the opportunity to speak this morning at the commemoration with Mayor Coderre at City Hall. Together with other community representatives and a survivor, we spoke about the importance of memory and our city’s vision of “vivre ensemble,” building bridges instead of walls.

The story I shared was a parable from the Maggid of Dubnow, from 18th century Poland. It dates from before the Holocaust, but its message resonates on this day of remembrance. The Maggid describes a village in which, whenever there was a fire, all the villagers would come together and roll up their sleeves to put it out. Then one day, one of the villagers went to the big city. There, he observed that when there was a fire, bells rang and sirens sounded, and the fire got put out. When he returned to the village, he shared this new system, which was then implemented. Soon enough, a fire started in the village, bells rang and sirens sounded, but the fire continued unabated, destroying half the town. “I don’t understand!” the villager exclaimed to the people of the city, “why does your system work for you, but not for us?” The city dweller replied: “Do you really think that the bells and sirens put out the blaze? They only alert the people that there is a fire… it is up to us to work together to put it out.”

Our tradition, and our history, teach us that we must go beyond words to actions. To remember, to bear witness to the Holocaust, is not simply to say: “Never Again.” It is to sound the alarm wherever we see danger, then act to extinguish the fires of hatred wherever they may be found.

I encourage you to read this article from today’s Montreal Gazette, featuring the story of our congregant, Eva Kuper, and the actions which led to her survival:

http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/allison-hanes-surviving-the-holocaust-and-bearing-witness.

Also, please join us this coming Shabbat, as our Music Director, Rona Nadler, will share a Yiddish sermon-in-song, and at which we will light memorial candles for Yom HaShoah.


Chol-Hamo Eid Pesach

Read this week Torah portion here.


Tzav

By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Tzav, gives us a great reminder for our upcoming Passover seders.

Like much of Leviticus, it deals with the rituals of sacrifice. One detail concerns the priest picking up the ashes from one daily burnt offering, to make way for the next. Rabbi Menahem ha-Bavli, a Sephardic Jewish scholar who lived in the land of Israel in the 16th century, has a psychological insight which I think is helpful:

One of the 613 commandments is to take up the ashes each day, namely to remove the ashes of the sacrifice which has been burned. This is symbolic, and teaches us that after a person who sins brings his sacrifice to God and confesses on it, one may not mention his sin to him any more. Instead, we are committed to erase all traces of the sin and forget it.

In many Jewish homes, we focus on ridding the house of chametz. We take any bread products and remove them, whether it’s to the basement or a sealed-off cabinet or the local food bank (I’m aiming to make my annual pilgrimage to the NDG Food Depot later this week). Then, we come to the seder table, and see people we sometimes haven’t seen for months, or even since the previous year’s seder. It’s easy to bring with us the crumbs of resentment: remembrances of past behaviours which were painful or caused conflict. It’s hard to look at each other with new eyes, open to the changes that the intervening time may have wrought.

Pesach gives us the chance, not just to clean out the remnants of chametz, but also the negative remnants of the past. We have an opportunity, as with the tashlich ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, to rid ourselves of what burdens us – in our relationships with others and with ourselves. The Torah teaches us that Nissan, the month in which Passover falls, is the first month of the year. May we use it as an opportunity for new beginnings.


Vayikra

29 Adat 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, begins with God calling Moses. It’s actually one of those Biblical books where there is a significant difference between the Hebrew and English/Latin names. The Hebrew title, taken from the first word of the book, refers to calling. The English title, drawn form the substance of the book, refers to priests – and certainly, Leviticus contains many discussions of priestly ritual. For many of us, it is the biblical book which is the hardest to access, with its emphasis on sacrifices and other practices which are absent from our lives today.

But when we look at the Hebrew name, Vayikra, we see that the heart of the book is the relationship between humanity and the divine. God calls us, and we respond. Last Thursday, I had the honour and pleasure of inviting three rabbinic colleagues to join me in conversation at Temple. Rabbi Scheier from Shaar Hashomayim, Rabbi Moses from Shaare Zion, Rabbi Fishman from Beth Tikvah and I spoke about a book by our shared teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, called Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. In the book, Rabbi Hartman defines sacred scripture in a way which I think is not only accurate, but profound:

In any relationship, mutual commitment and coexistence require the ability to communicate, and God’s relationship with humanity is no different… Scripture is ultimately a form of God talking. A good thumbnail definition might be: Scripture is a divine response, in human language, to the deep spiritual yearning of God and humanity to live in relationship with one another. (Hartman, 113).

So the question which Vayikra would have us pose might not be, “what do we make of all these sacrifices and Levitical laws?” Rather, our task might be to ask how we, in our time, communicate with God, as our ancestors also aspired to do. For the rabbis who reshaped Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, sacrifice was replaced by prayer, study, and acts of lovingkindness. Do those answers still hold for us? If so, how can we engage more fully in those areas? And if not, what other responses might we develop, in the ongoing, existential search for communication, connection, and inspiration?


Vayakhel-Pekude

22 Adar, 5777
By Rabbi Grushcow

Vayakhel-Pekudei, the final two portions of Exodus (which are read together this week), are full of material details. The topic is the creation and dedication of the Tabernacle, the Israelites’ sanctuary in the desert. We are told that the master craftsman was named Bezalel, and that he had the knowledge and understanding to work with gold and silver.

Rabbi Yehuda Laib Zlotnik, (1887, Plock, Poland – 1962, Jerusalem, Israel), lived in Montreal from 1920-1936 and headed an Orthodox Zionist movement here before going on to South Africa and Israel. He gives us an insightful commentary on Bezalel’s talents:

People commonly say: “The biggest problem is how to obtain money. Once a person has it, he will know what to do with it.” But that is a mistake… money can elevate a person and money can bring him down to the deepest depths. With money one can build the Sanctuary, and with money one can construt a golden calf. Thus we are told that God inspired Bezalel “in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge – to devise artistic works, to work in gold and in silver” (Ex. 35:32). One needs a great deal of wisdom and understanding to know how to use gold and silver properly.

As we come into tax season, we have the opportunity to reflect on how we use our money. Do we waste it? Do we use it to provide for our loved ones, and contribute to a greater good? Does our money make the world better and more beautiful? Does it make a lasting difference? Rabbi Zlotnik reminds us to pay at least as much attention to how we use our money as to how we earn it. The Canadian government’s tax credits for charitable contributions may help inspire us to think beyond ourselves – but our Torah does too.

Ki Tissa 

15 Adar 5777
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha is very dramatic. It describes Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, and how the people were waiting for him to come back down. The drama comes when he is later than expected. Looking for a leader, the Israelites build a golden calf and declaring it a God.

What a slap in the face! Yet, it seems that God may overreact, with thousands of Israelites being struck down as a direct result of their sin. What was really so bad about the golden calf? One couldn’t expect the Israelites to leave the idolatry of Egypt entirely behind. We can understand how they might have felt lost and scared, and as a result, looked for the reassurance of a physical, tangible god. Why was this such a serous sin?

There’s a rabbinic midrash which compares the fallout from the golden calf to the ritual for a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery (Num. 5:11-31). In addition to procedural similarities, for the rabbis, this made sense. Idolatry and adultery were analogous and serious. Why? Because both involve betrayal and disloyalty. Both involve breaking faith.

At the heart of the sin of the golden calf was a rupture of the relationship with God, just as adultery can be seen as a rupture in a relationship between spouses. This insight invites questions. Where are we loyal and disloyal in our lives? Do the decisions we make reflect our primary commitments and values? Do we remember who or what should come first in our lives, or do we get distracted by other desires? Do we have our priorities right?

The sages said we should remember the sin of the golden calf every day. May we do so, not in shame, but in hope; hope that our actions reflect our most important relationships, and our best selves.


Tetzaveh/Purim

8 Adar 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

The connection between this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, and Purim is not obvious, but as I looked over the parasha, I found some parallels.

The missing “character” from the Purim story, from the entire Book of Esther, is God. In the same way, this week’s Torah portion never mentions the one person who has been a constant since we began the book of Exodus – Moses. In fact, this is the only parasha in the whole Torah, (outside the book of Genesis, which takes place before Moses’ birth), that never mentions the name of Moses.

Some say that God is working behind the scenes in the Book of Esther. Mordecai suggests that maybe Esther “attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Est. 4:14). Esther responds by asking the Jews of Shushan to “fast in my behalf.” (Est. 4:16). Mordecai does not say, “Maybe God put you here,” but perhaps he implies it. In addition, Esther does not use the word “pray” – but the act of fasting could be seen as a substitute for praying to God.

God may be absent from the Book of Esther to empathize the faith and courage of one strategically placed woman and her uncle Mordechai. Similarly, commentators suggest that Moses is absent from this week’s Torah portion to allow the spotlight to fall on Aaron and his priestly duties.

The second parallel I want to make between this week’s Torah portion and the holiday of Purim concerns clothing. Exodus chapter 28 gives us an elaborate description of the priestly garments worn by Aaron and his sons. The attire is ornate and colourful, made of “gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.” (Ex. 28:6). On the hem of the robe, “make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around.” (Ex. 28:33). Nehama Leibowitz says they needed these beautiful, elaborate garments because Aaron and his sons cannot serve God in ordinary, everyday clothes.

Clothes are important – and on Purim, we wear costumes that conceal our identity. They permit us, on this one day of the year, to be someone else. This custom honours the fact that Esther hid her identity to become Queen. When Haman wanted to wipe out the Jews, Queen Esther, who was concealing her identity, used her role – her regal costume – to save her people from harm.

Put on your costume and join us for one or all of our Purim celebrations. (Click here to read about all we are doing at Temple for Purim)! Chag Purim Sameach. Happy Purim!


Terumah

1 Adar 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

As we come to the end of February, which is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, (JDAIM), 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 portable shrine that will house the Tablets of the Ten Commandments throughout the Israelite’s wanderings. The very beginning of this week’s parasha makes clear that all the Israelites 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).

Everyone is invited to contribute, but at the same time, no one is required to participate. Donating is voluntary; you have to want to give. The following verses, (Ex. 23:3-7), give a list of specific items, but I am reading it more like a list of ideas. “If you are not sure what to bring, here are some suggestions.” The Torah recognizes that everyone has something to contribute, no matter one’s age, one’s ability, one’s station in life. And a few Torah portions from now, we learn that the response of the people is overwhelming, and eventually Moses has to tell the Israelites they cannot accept any more gifts, (Ex. 35:6).

According to Tzenah Urenah, (a Yiddish translation and commentary on the Torah), this week’s Torah portion follows the giving of the Ten Commandments, because God’s presence rests in a place of charity, where people are willing to give of themselves. This speaks to our desire, at Temple, to welcome everyone regardless of their background – the stranger, the widow, the orphan, anyone who doesn’t look or think like us – and to acknowledge that our community is the richer because of their presence among us. Let us continue to build an inclusive community at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom that reflects our values, our generosity and our diversity.

 


Yitro

17 Shevat 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week the Torah portion offers us another rather dramatic and very significant Torah portion. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt; they crossed the Sea of Reeds, and were given manna to eat. Now what?

In this week’s portion, the Israelites are transformed from a band of freed slaves to a nation, from a not-very-unified group of Israelites to Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. Imagine what it must have been like for the Israelites; in Egypt, they were used to being told what to do – when to eat, when to sleep, when to work. Now, suddenly, they are free, with no one but Moses to guide them. It must hav

e been terrifying.

The Israelites need laws; they need a framework for living – and so Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments from God. Although much can be said about the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah portion begins with an interaction between Moses and the portion’s namesake – Yitro.

The Torah portion is called Yitro – Jethro in English – who was Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro observes Moses helping the Israelites manage their personal quarrels and disputes. Yitro says: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone?” (Ex. 18:14) When Moses explains that the people come to him “when they have a dispute….and I decide between one person and another,” (Ex. 18:16), Yitro very wisely says to Moses, “You will surely wear yourself out…the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Ex. 18:18).

Yitro convinces Moses that he really does need assistance. Moses appoints “capable men out of all Israel,” (Ex. 18:24), to help him out. “And they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.” (Ex. 18:26).

As you might expect, traditional commentaries make much of this interaction. In one Midrash, Rabbi Judah wonders if Moses – in taking on all the Israelites’ problems by himself – believes he is superior to his people or even to God. Does he think that he alone has the wisdom to advise them? Does Yitro admonish Moses because he thinks Moses is losing his humility? In another passage in the same Midrash, (Mechilta, Amalek IV), Rabbi Joshua comments that Yitro’s warning to Moses is a practical one. He is afraid that Moses has taken on too much and is concerned for his well-being.

So…is this Torah portion advising us on the importance of self-care? (Go to the gym; get a massage; take a vacation)! Or teaching us a lesson about leadership styles? (Don’t try to do it all yourself; ask for help; no one expects you to be Superman/Superwoman). Perhaps, we, the readers, must decide.


Beshalach

10 Shvat 5777
By  Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is one of the most exciting, dramatic, even cinematic in the whole Torah. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, approach the Red Sea. The sounds of Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit cause panic among the Israelites and makes them realize they are trapped. The former slaves cry bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt that you brought us to die here?” (Ex. 14:11). Moses prays to God for deliverance, and is told, “Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it.” (Ex. 14:15-16).

Moses raises his rod; the sea splits, and the Israelites cross the sea on dry land.  Then, they behold the final act of the Exodus drama: the sea crashes down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As Pharaoh once drowned Israelite babies in the Nile, so now the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea. The Israelites raise their voices in song. “Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai? Who is like you, O God?” They had been slaves. Suddenly, overnight, they receive the gift of freedom.

That is how the Torah tells the story. But, when the rabbis of the Talmud retell the story, they add an element. From the rabbis of the Talmud we have a midrash, a vignette, that helps us read between the lines of the story in the Torah. The people cry out; Moses prays, and God commands. But, when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again, carefully repeating God’s words to himself. And again, nothing. We can imagine the panic growing within him. He raises his rod again and again, but the sea does not move. Beads of perspiration rise on his forehead; the people’s screams of terror rise all around him; Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd comes one man, identified by the midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince from the tribe of Judah. To the astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps into the water.

“Are you crazy?  What are you doing?” shouts his family. He knows exactly what he is doing. He understands, as no one else does, not even Moses, why the sea would not split. He understands that their redemption to this point has been an act of God. God chose Moses, and God sent the plagues; God shattered Pharaoh’s arrogance, and now God has brought the Israelites to the shores of the sea. But now, God is waiting to see if but one Israelite will take the task of redemption into his (or her) own hands. Will anyone be willing to risk him/herself to finish the process of liberation?

So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches his waist. His family’s screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching in wonder. He continues to wade out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon’s life in peril, the sea parts, and the people of Israel cross safely.

This story is not found in the Torah. It was written later by the rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah’s story of the exodus, they felt that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to come, someone must jump into the water. Someone with vision and courage must be willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history to bring us out of slavery. Perhaps the first miracle was Nachshon’s courage, which enabled the second miracle, the parting of the sea, to occur. The midrash implies that Nachshon was able to effect Moses’ hand – which was really God’s hand – and make the sea split at a particular moment in time.

According to the midrash, Moses could not have not have succeeded without Nachshon. We must remember that life is not always easy. The waters will not always be smooth as we navigate our chosen paths. Sometimes the waters will seem cold and dangerous, the currents strong and unpredictable. As we encounter storms in our lives, let us remember Nachshon and take the risk of jumping into the water in order to affect change.


Bo

3 Shvat
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion speaks of the final three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn. They are the worst of the ten. The locusts leave the land barren, with no source of sustenance; the darkness isolates each person from each other, leaving them no sense of where or who they are; and the killing of the firstborn leaves every home in mourning.

I write this in the wake of Sunday night’s horrific attack on a mosque in Ste. Foy, which left six people dead and many more wounded. Such an  act of terror and religious targeting is sadly familiar to us as Jews – and certainly the last thing we would want to see in our own province. I fear that we are at the cusp of a time of darkness, here, across North America, and around the world, and at the heart of that darkness is the refusal of people to see one another as full human beings. Pharaoh hardened his heart out of fear, and countless people suffered.

A Chasidic commentary explains the “thick darkness” of the ninth plague as follows: “If a person does not see his fellow, or does not want to see him, there is darkness in the world.” It is our sacred task, and challenge, to stand up against this darkness. Here, I am inspired by the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Whether it is by showing up at tonight’s vigil in support of our Muslim neighbours; or giving our sponsored Syrian families the best welcome we can, as they try to restart their lives; or refusing to be silent bystanders, and actively building bridges of dialogue and understanding – whatever we do, let us do it with light and with love.


Va’era

25 Tevet
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, began the great story of the Israelites’ slavery in, and redemption from, Egypt, with the bravery of five extraordinary women – Shifrah and Puah, the midwives; Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; and Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter. This week, we read of Moses’ leadership, his and Aaron’s confrontation with Pharaoh, and the beginning of the plagues. In the middle of all this, we get a genealogy. It’s a little surprising; what’s not surprising is that there is a lot of commentary trying to explain it! I was struck by an explanation by Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz (1565-1630). Writing about the tribe of Levi and how they named their children, he notes: “The tribe of Levi were never enslaved… [but] they wished to be part of the suffering Levites. What did they do? They at least gave their sons names that reminded them of the exile… From this we learn that a person must particiate in the distress of a community, even if it does not affect him personally.”

Reading this, I thought about the importance of solidarity. How we, as Jews, count on non-Jews to be our allies when we are discriminated against; how other groups count on us (as when we made interfaith alliances during the debate over the Charter of Quebec Values); and how many of us carry multiple identities, and count on our various communities to help us feel supported and whole. There is a prayer from the Jewish Fund for Justice in our Shabbat siddur (prayer book) which also seems apt:

I can stay the tears of others, if I can see myself
As diminished of their sorrows.

I can hasten time when everyone will be able
to rejoice in freedom,

And if I can see myself as the companion,
of those fighting against oppression,

I can honour the struggle of people everywhere
to gain dignity and deliverance from bondage.

When I look at myself in the mirror
who will I see?


Shemot

18 Tevet
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The beginning of the book of Exodus is full of extraordinary characters. We meet Moses and Miriam, a wicked Pharaoh and his heroic daughter. But two of the lesser-known characters also are extraordinary. We encounter Shifra and Puah only in this parsha. Yet, were it not for them, the exodus from Egypt would never have happened, because the Jewish people would have disappeared.

When the new Pharaoh decrees that all male Israelite babies are to be killed, his edict is undermined by two women, Shifra and Puah. Shifra and Puah are described as “Hebrew midwives,” but the Hebrew, like the English, is ambiguous: are they themselves Hebrews, or are they Egyptian midwives who help the Hebrew women give birth? If the answer is the latter, then their actions are even more remarkable. They defy Pharaoh by letting the baby boys live, and when Pharaoh challenges them, they fool him by feeding in to his own racism and xenophobia. “The Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptians,” they tell him. “They give birth like animals, and so we don’t even have time to know about it.” One of my teachers, Rabbi Al Axelrad, speaks of Shifra and Puah as models of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance – when he was the rabbi of Brandeis University, he even established a student award in their honour.

A Chasidic commentary picks up on the description of the midwives as being God-fearing (Ex. 1:21). The Ishbitzer Rebbe writes: “When one fears a person, one cannot remain calm, because fear is the opposite of being calm. However, fear of Heaven brings calm to the soul… because they [the midwives] feared Heaven, they did not have any fear of Pharaoh’s decrees.”

Easier said than done! I don’t think it’s ever easy to stand up to those in power, even when you know you’re doing the right thing. But in this secular new year, I hope that Shifra and Puah can inspire us: to stand up for justice, and to fight for those who are vulnerable, even if it requires opposing the powers that be. As we begin a new book of the Torah, may their courage, and their confidence, be our own.


Vayechi

11 Tevet 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is the last portion in the book of Genesis. In the portion, Jacob is about to die. Knowing his death is imminent, he calls his sons and grandsons for a final blessing. This deathbed “blessing” is a combination of prayer, blessing, curse, warning, memory and hope. Here is just one of the blessings Jacob offers:

And he [Jacob] blessed [Ephraim and Menasheh, the sons of Joseph], saying “by you shall Israel invoke blessing upon their children, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” (Gen. 48:20)

When parents bless their children on Shabbat, we bless our daughters in the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Why not bless our sons in the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What was the special merit of Ephraim and Menasheh?

One answer is that they were brought up in a foreign land, in Egypt, and did not assimilate; they upheld the traditions of the Israelites.

Another answer is that, according to tradition, Ephraim and Menasheh are the only siblings in the Torah who do not fight, who get along with each other.

Regardless of the specific words we say, blessing our children on Shabbat can become a beautiful family tradition, an intimate way of connecting with your children each week. You can use the traditional blessings, or you can use your own words to tell them how special they are.

Click here for the traditional blessings we say to our children on Friday night. Click here for a blog post about “riffing” on the traditional blessings.


Vayigash

5 Tevet 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is the second-to-last portion in the book of Genesis, and the story of Joseph and his brothers draws to a conclusion.

This portion continues with the themes of repentance, t’shuvah, and forgiveness. It is the first time that one human being forgives another. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with these words:

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45: 4-8)

Joseph does not explicitly use the word “forgive,” but he reassures them that their actions have resulted in something positive. He gives credit to God – but maybe he is also reminding them that his childhood dreams have some true. Joseph understands that reconciliation is better than revenge. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers because they, themselves, have shown regret for their actions.

Forgiveness and repentance go hand in hand. We are capable of change, (repentance), and we are capable of forgiving others. We are not condemned to repeat the past. When we repent, we show that we can change. The future is not predestined. We can make it different from what it might have been.

As Jews who also live in a secular world, we celebrate the start of the new (secular) year. May 2017 be a year of growth and change for each of us. The future is not predestined. We have the power to effect change – for ourselves, personally, and for the world in which we live.

Happy New Year.


Miketz

26 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, in Parashat Miketz, we continue the story of Joseph in Egypt. Joseph, having correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream foreshadowing the famine that would besiege the region, now serves in a position of authority, in charge of distributing the bounty the Egyptians have stored during the years of plenty.

Joseph’s brothers come to him seeking grain rations and don’t recognize him as their brother, their father’s beloved son, whom they sold into slavery. But, Joseph recognizes them immediately. At first, he considers revenge, accusing them of being spies; eventually he agrees to help them, but requires them to jump through some hoops first.

Joseph engages in a game of cat and mouse when he decides to detain Simon, (the brother who had suggested that Joseph be killed), while the rest return home with rations for their households. He demands that when they return for more food that they bring their youngest brother Benjamin.

Does Joseph want to torment his brothers? I would argue that he wants to see if they have changed. Repentance, t’shuvah, is more than regret. It includes finding oneself in a similar situation and responding differently. Joseph needs to know whether his brothers will leave Simon to languish in prison or whether they will return for him.

This notion of t’shuvah applies to Joseph, too. For twenty years, he has dreamed of getting even with his brothers. Now that he has that power and ability, he realizes that he does not really want revenge. He wants his family back. Revenge is almost always sweeter in contemplation than in reality.


Vayeshev

19 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In Vayeshev, we begin to read a cycle of stories about Joseph, Jacob’s son. Of all the characters in Genesis, Joseph may be closest to us. Unlike the patriarchs and matriarchs, he doesn’t speak with God directly; and, like us, he lives as a minority within a majority, non-Jewish culture.

Also like us, Joseph isn’t perfect (in this, he resembles the other biblical characters as well!). He’s proud and boastful, using his status as favoured son to lord over his brothers. It’s not entirely surprising that they throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery!

But Joseph has some remarkable qualities. First and foremost, he is a dreamer. He has a vision for how the world might be, and what role might be his to play. Second, when his fortunes change for the worse, he changes for the better. He begins to care, not just about his own dreams but the dreams of others: the baker and cupbearer he meets as fellow prisoners, and ultimately, the Pharaoh himself.

Joseph’s story is read as we come towards Chanukah, and I think the messages overlap. The Maccabees were dreamers too – they lit the spark of a rebellion with their vision of how things should be. But if they were only a small group with a dream, that spark wouldn’t have caught flame; it wouldn’t have grown into a movement that led to independence and reshaped the Jewish world.

On Chanukah, we light more candles each of the eight nights. Why? To bring more light to dark days, certainly, but also because true holiness requires community. It’s better to have one light shining in darkness than none; and better still to have many. As we enter into Chanukah and move towards 2017, may we work to bring  more dreams, more light, and more community to our world.


Vayishlach

12 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob has two significant encounters: First, with some kind of divine being, who he wrestles at night; and second, with his brother, Esau, who he had not seen since their conflict many years before.

The classic commentators note that Jacob, wisely, prepares to meet his brother in three different ways. He prays to God for help (spiritual and otherwise!), he sends gifts to appease his brother before they meet, and he strategizes for war.

Preparation is always a good idea. When we know we are going into a situation, we want to do our best to be ready. But it’s worth noting that Jacob’s encounter with Esau ends up to be positive – and even anticlimactic. Rather than war, Jacob is met with peace. His brother doesn’t attack him; he embraces him.

The real challenge, it turns out, was Jacob’s unexpected encounter with the angel the night before his reunion with his brother. He comes out of this struggle with success; he defeats the angel, and wins a blessing and a new name. Did Jacob’s practical preparations for meeting Esau also help him be ready for this nighttime struggle? Quite possibly. But part of being prepared in a deeper sense is to expect the unexpected. We never know what, or when, the true struggle will be, or when the most profound challenges will come.

Last weekend, I had the honour of returning to Rodeph Sholom, the congregation in New York City where I served for the first nine years of my rabbinate. I was there to celebrate the 25 years of service of my mentor and friend, Rabbi Robert Levine. Together with other previous assistant and associate rabbis, I reflected on how patient Rabbi Levine, and the congregation as a whole, were with all of us recently-ordained rabbis. We came to the synagogue when we were new to the rabbinate, and relatively new to life. We didn’t yet know what challenges lay ahead. Years later, we each have weathered different struggles. It is these unanticipated encounters with life which have made us who we are. Along the way, we have learned how to be there even more fully for the congregations we serve, as we share the common journey of what it means to be a human being.

As we each go forward in life, may we prevail in challenges both anticipated and unanticipated. May we learn from all our encounters, and rise up as prepared as we can be for whatever comes next. May we win new blessings, and earn new names.


Vayetze

5 Kislev 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, contains the story of the dream Jacob has in the desert. Jacob sets out for Haran and when he rests for the night, he places his head upon a rock and goes to sleep. He lies down in what he assumes to be a God-forsaken place and unexpectedly has one of the great visions of the Hebrew Bible. “A stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing beside him and said, “I am Adonai…” (Gen. 28:12-13) Jacob’s response, upon waking, strikes me as quite natural. He says, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16)

Verse 12 describes the angels of God going up and down the ladder in Jacob’s dream. If you think carefully about the words, it becomes clear that the sequence is wrong. If angels reside in heaven, shouldn’t they be coming down and then going back up? Traditional rabbinic commentary offers several explanations. One suggests that since Jacob is about to leave the land of Israel, one group of angelic escorts was returning to Heaven and another was descending to watch over him as he begins his travels abroad. Another possibility is that the angels symbolize the nations of the world, whose power ascends and descends during the course of history.

And yet another interpretation says that the angels do not reside in heaven at all. They live on earth; they are ordinary human beings. And like ordinary human beings, like all of us, they shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth. The trick is to remember, after you descend, what you understood when you were high on the ladder.

Although the midrash tells us that we, like the angels, go back and forth between heaven and earth, the fact is that Judaism demands that we live in this world, and that we concern ourselves with both the joys and the problems of the society in which we live. Judaism sees only one world, which is material and spiritual at the same time. The material world is always potentially spiritual. For Judaism, all things – including and especially such seemingly non-spiritual and material things as garbage, dirt, and sweat – are not impediments TO but dimensions OF spirituality. Our tradition tells us, “The whole world is full of God.” The hard part is to keep that awesome truth in front of us at all times. Our responsibilities as angels, as messengers of God, means helping to solve the problems of the world in whatever small ways are available to us. Our B’nei Mitzvah students and their families put this responsibility front-and-center yesterday by helping out in the soup kitchen at MADA. To see some pictures of the class at MADA, click here.


Toldot

27 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

“These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).

The rabbis who commented on the opening words of our parsha were anxious. The presenting problem was the repetition: if the Torah has already stated that Isaac is Abraham’s son, why is this assertion repeated twice in a single verse?

Their concern seems to go beyond literary criticism. It did not escape the notice of the ancient rabbis that Isaac’s parentage was suspect. His father, Abraham, was one hundred years old when he was born, and his mother, Sarah was ninety. To make matters worse, Sarah finally conceived, after years of barrenness, after she was taken to be the wife of King Avimelech of Gerar, in one of the three infamous sister-wife episodes in Genesis (Gen. 20).

One of the most creative midrashic responses to this concern is a passage in which Sarah breast feeds Isaac publicly – and then goes on to nurse all other babies who are present, to prove her fertility and fecundity (Genesis Rabbah 53:9, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 87a). But there is another creative response which focuses on Isaac’s appearance:

“They were still murmuring and saying: Sarah at ninety years old might give birth, but can a child be born to Abraham, one hundred years old? Immediately the appearance of Isaac’s face changed and resembled Abraham’s. Everyone opened their mouths and said: Abraham begat Isaac.” (BT Baba Metzia 87a)

In another, similar source, it is Abraham himself who has suspicions about Isaac’s paternity, even in utero. Here, the midrash suggests that God commands an angel to make the fetus resemble his father, to prove that Isaac is indeed Abraham’s son (Tanhuma Buber, Toldot 1).

From our modern perspective, these midrashim may seem outlandish. But it seems to me that there is something here for us to learn.

As modern, liberal Jews, we have our own concerns about authenticity and transmission. When Jews are depicted in the media, they do not look like you or me; almost invariably, the photos taken from the streets of London or Montreal show our Chasidic cousins in their ultra-Orthodox garb – even though there is no doubt that Abraham didn’t dress like a Polish Chasid! Often, when Jews speak with me about their encounters with more traditional rabbis, they are pleased and astonished not to have been judged. I don’t judge them either, but somehow it feels more authentic not to be judged by a rabbi with a beard and a hat.

Even more problematically, many of our congregants doubt their own identities. Especially for those of us in countries without a Reform majority (ie everywhere outside the United States), our way of doing Jewish – and being Jewish – is often undermined.

Outside appearance may be the easiest way to establish identity, but I would argue that it’s not the most authentic. There are plenty of people who resemble their parents on the outside, but whose characters couldn’t be more different. And there are plenty of children who aren’t biologically related to their parents who carry forward their deepest values. So too do Jews of all origins and all denominations have the potential to carry forward the legacy of Abraham and Sarah. I am less interested in whether we look like them, and more interested in whether we act like them. Are we hospitable enough to open our tents? Are we brave enough to take a journey into the unknown? Are we hopeful enough to bring new life into the world? These are the questions that matter.

In their heart of hearts, I imagine the ancient rabbis knew this too. Superficial similarities can quiet external sceptics, and even quell our internal doubts. But the most profound challenging of parenting, and Judaism, is not transmitting how we look; it is transmitting who we are, and how we transform our world for good.

This Parsha was also published in Torah Around the World


Chayei Sarah

20 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, gives us room to reflect on the qualities that matter most, in leadership and in life.

When Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, the servant finds Rebecca through a simple test. He waits by the well, after long travels, and says that the woman who offers him something to drink – and also gives water to his camels – is the right woman to become a matriarch of the Jewish people. The commentators ask: this action shows kindness, but how did the servant know her other qualities were good? Because, they say, when someone has a good heart, all the other positive qualities are included as well. Good-heartedness – kindness and compassion, for humans and for animals – is a defining quality. I remember once seeing a tombstone with the inscription: “Goodness was baked in her bones.” What an ideal to which to aspire!

We also learn something about leadership. I’m currently reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger, and he makes an argument that in many cultures, there are different types of leaders who emerge in times of war and times of peace, or even in the immediacy of a crisis and its wake (he uses the example of those who rise to the fore when a coal mine collapses and miners are trapped inside, and those who take the lead in the days following, when the trapped miners need to navigate their longer-term survival). But the commentator Yalkut Yehudah suggests that Abraham was different. He writes:

There are people who excel in greatness when there is peace in the world, and who develop their talents in creativity and construction, in administering and running matters calmly and deliberately, but when there is turmoil in the world one cannot find them making any mark on it. On the other hand, there are people whose greatness emerges during wars and revolutions. That is when they show their exceptional greatness. As soon as things calm down, though, they leave the stage. But Abraham was the leader of the world both in times of peace and calm, and at times of upheaval, like the captain of a ship who leads it through the storms.

Mr. Rogers famously said: “Look for the helpers.” Inspired by this week’s parsha, may we look for the good-hearted people who act with kindness, and may we look for true leaders – and may we further be inspired to bring out those qualities in ourselves.


Vayera

13 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is about vision. Abraham gets a vision of three messengers, telling him of Isaac’s coming conception and birth; he also is told, after Isaac is born, to go to a place of vision, Har haMoria, to offer that son up to God.

One could make the case that this story comes from a time of child sacrifice, to make a statement, when God tells Abraham to untie his son, that this is not the offering God wants. The context, to us, is foreign.

And yet: there is an idea here which calls to us still. To be a person of vision, the Torah suggests, sometimes requires sacrifice. Sometimes, it requires going out on a limb, standing by your principles without knowing the end result.

For many of us, especially in the United States but also around the world, the recent election raises questions of what we stand for. What is our vision for a world of justice and dignity, pluralism and peace? How do we stand by people who are vulnerable? How do we as Jews know when we ourselves are at risk? How do we act, inspired by our best selves, when faced with our fears?

I thought it might be helpful to share the statement of the North American Reform movement on the election results. We are not a partisan movement; we recognize that our membership includes a wide range of political beliefs. At the same time, we have a vision, going back to Abraham, for how the world should be – and what mission we are called upon to fulfill. If you’re interested, read here.

Please know that I’m here for conversation and counsel, as we try to bring our progressive Jewish values to a rapidly changing world.


Lech Lecha

6 Cheshvan 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Imagine waking up one morning and being told: “Go! Pack your bags; take your family, and leave this place. Don’t worry about where you’re going; just go.”

This, essentially, is what happens to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. God says to Abram, “Lech lecha; go forth from your native land.”  And here, Israel’s history begins. We are a people with a history of wandering; Abraham is the very first wandering Jew. What does Abram’s experiences say to us?

Let’s start with the question that commentators have been asking throughout history: “Did Abraham really hear God’s voice?” Needless to say, some scholars conclude “yes,” and others say “no.” Those who believe that God really did speak to Abram see that conversation as the true genesis of our people. According to them, “God did speak [to Abraham], and God’s relationship to Abraham’s children, [to us], and to the land of Canaan was secured.” (Plaut, p. 93)

Others interpret God’s challenge differently. Abraham believed he heard God’s voice, and he acted in accordance with that belief.

Even those of us who cannot accept the possibility that God spoke directly to a human being must agree that Abraham was motivated by something…a voice he called God. Abraham acted on his comprehension of the Divine. We, his descendants, must now appropriate Abraham’s experience and make it our own. We must listen to the voice that speaks to us, as did our biblical ancestors – from Adam and Eve to Moses. It is not easy to hear God’s voice in today’s world, yet, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Judaism is not only a religion of doing-and-speaking; it is also a religion of listening. [It] is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.

In my opinion, it is not hard to see God in the world around us, simply by observing the beauty of the world around us. Maybe you do not agree that it is God – but our ancestors did. As the days grow shorter, may you find quiet moments to listen – and to hear the voice of God, the silent music referred to by the psalmist:

The heavens declare the glory of God
The skies proclaim God’s handiwork
Day to day they pour forth speech,
Night to night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech, there are no words….
Yet their music carries throughout the earth.

(Ps. 19:1-5)


Noach

30 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Noach, contains the famous story of the flood. It is striking – and heart-rending – to realize that a few short chapters after God creates the world, God is ready to destroy it. The Torah recounts, quite poignantly, that God regretted making humanity because of the evil we had done. What was the nature of this evil? The rabbis imagine all kinds of immorality, mistreatment of animals and human beings. The hope comes in, of course, with the survival of Noah and his family, and a group of animals intended to perpetuate their species. A rabbinic legend also recounts that Naamah, Noah’s wife, preserves all the plants and seeds, so they too can continue after the flood. Then, God gives the rainbow as a covenant with humanity. With the rainbow come some basic rules about how to create a sustainable, ethical society – and the promise that God will never again destroy the world with water.

This story leads me to think immediately about adding mistreatment of the environment to the list of sins leading to destruction; and to hope, under threat of melting icebergs and global warning, that water will not again be a force of complete and utter destruction. But there also is an important teaching here about societal, human ethics. Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Berlin, in commenting on the dove sent forth from the ark to see if there is dry land, offers this teaching:

“The Jewish people is compared to a dove, and the way it is treated is the way to judge whether there is justice in the world, or whether the world deserves another flood.”

For him, the Jews are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. How we are treated is an indicator of the moral state of the world. By this view, for example, the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and on campus is a warning to us about the direction of society. To this, I would add that the treatment of all vulnerable minorities can be seen in a similar light. How do we respond refugees? Do we use indigenous cultures for costumes? Do we treat women as full human beings? How are visible minorities seen by police? The list goes on. The parsha, and the commentary, remind us that when we are trying to figure out the state of the world, we know, as Jews, to pay attention to those who are vulnerable. If we and other minorities are unsafe, the world is not on a good path. It becomes our responsibility to try to redirect and rebuild, working for that covenant of peace.

Bereishit

22 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Here we are! On the other side of all the fall holy days, and ready to begin the Torah cycle anew. On Sunday night, we danced with the Torah and unrolled it around the Community Hall, reading the end of Deuteronomy (Moses’ death, at the edge of the Promised Land), and Genesis (the creation of the world). Parallel to this, in our own Jewish lives, one year has ended, and another year has begun.

So what do we make of this new beginning? The Talmud says that all beginnings are hard – which can be comforting, to those beginning a new job or a new school, or a new chapter in life. But what wisdom can we get from how the Torah begins?

Let me speak simply about the first letter of the first word, “bereishit.” Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, begins with the letter “bet” – which is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph-bet – get it?). Why start with the second letter instead of the first? Many commentators suggest that this is to keep us humble. Even when we are starting fresh, our sages tell us, we aren’t really beginning at the beginning. Even Genesis has a backstory which we may not know or understand. The rabbis of the midrash went so far as to imagine that God created and destroyed many worlds before this one, and when God created our world, God said: “I’m not making any more – take care of it!” Certainly this is a timely message for today, as we see signs of global environmental crisis and change, as well as human conflict. But on a very personal level too, it’s a good reminder. In every encounter we have with others – and even sometimes with ourselves – we rarely know the whole story. In this way, Genesis’ beginning with “bet” reminds us to approach every situation with an open mind.

Genesis also encourages us to develop open hearts. The last letter of Deuteronomy is “Yisrael” (the people of Israel) which ends with the letter “lamed.” When you join that with the “bet” of Bereishit, you get the Hebrew word “lev,” which means “heart.” Why? To teach us that true understanding of the Torah can only come through the heart. It’s a great lesson for us as liberal Jews. We are distinguished by our intellectual, rational approach to Judaism – and this approach is of immense value. It lets us understand that the Torah was written in a particular time and place, and that any living religion requires innovation. We are meant to use our heads in our religious and spiritual lives. But Bereishit reminds us that we also have to use our hearts. Religion isn’t real if it doesn’t touch us, if it doesn’t relate to the struggles and joys of our lives. I know I felt this over the Days of Awe; hopefully you did too.

We go forward into a new year, then, with open minds and open hearts.

In this spirit, I’d encourage you, if you’re able, to make a new year’s commitment that will reflect this openness. Join our Torah study Shabbat mornings at 9:00 am, or the course I’m doing on Jewish spirituality which begins tonight. And please know I’m here for any questions or conversations you would like to have.

Sukkot

17 Tishrei 5777
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Sukkot is my favorite holiday. After the intensity of the High Holy Days – ten days of introspection and reflection – it feels good to have a holiday that forces us to get outside.

During Sukkot, we are commanded to build a sukkah and dwell in it during the week long holiday. The sukkah must be a temporary structure, with a roof of natural materials through which you can see the sky. It says in Leviticus 23:42-45: “You shall live in Sukkot – booths – in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.” It is also thought that farmers would erect booths as temporary dwelling places in the fields during the harvest season.

The rabbis compared the building of a sukkah to the building of a world. We take natural materials and construct our own space. Although it may be a bit rickety, still we build it, and then we fulfill the command to dwell in it – or at the very least, eat in it. The temporary nature of the sukkah reminds us that life is fragile. The hope is that once we have experienced the frailty of the sukkah, we gain a heightened appreciation for both the spiritual and physical comforts we enjoy on a regular basis.

Sukkot is also known to as z’man simchateinu – the time of our happiness. A rather strange name for a holiday. Why is Sukkot specifically called the holiday of happiness? Aren’t all holidays happy?

How many of us spend time thinking “oh, I’ll really be happy when “blank” happens”? And when that blank is filled in, another one inevitably replaces it. “I would really be happy if….” Happiness seems to be so elusive.

Sukkot is supposed to be the ultimate answer to that fill-in-the-blank. Sukkot offers us a chance to reflect on the fragility of life – and to give thanks for the abundant blessings we have. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we go inside, literally and figuratively. The Jewish calendar gives us a time to “go inside” – to reflect on our own lives and think about how we can improve the way we live them.

On Sukkot, we go outside. We build a fragile sukkah – but hopefully, we won’t just build a sukkah. The sukkah is a model for building a better world – a world connected to the heavens, a world that reflects the image of God. It is our responsibility to care for the world in which we live, to care for God’s creation, to leave a legacy for those who come after us.


Ha’azinu

8 Tishrei 5777

Read this week Torah portion here.


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

This week we share Rabbi Grushcow’s Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, click here.


5776

Nitzavim

23 Elul 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, called Nitzavim, we approach the end of the book of Deuteronomy. It is also the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, so the time is right to examine our own relationship with Judaism and to contemplate our commitment to and involvement in the community.

The first verse of the portion, (Dt. 29:9), begins, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God…” I added the emphasis. (No italics or bold print in the Torah)! The words “all of you” are important, because the whole community is greater than the sum of its parts. As individuals, we have our own strengths and weaknesses, but when we join together, the assets and good qualities of each are reinforced and magnified. Together, we can accomplish things that one or two people, alone, cannot do. This one little phrase emphasizes that no one should say “it is not my responsibility.” Everyone must do his/her share.

In these beginning verses of Nitzavim, Moses reminds the Israelites of the covenant with God that they inherited from their ancestors. Then we get to Dt. 29:13-14, which are probably my favourite verses in the whole Torah: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” This last phrase is generally interpreted to refer to all of us! The souls of all future Jews were present at Sinai.

This, of course, begs the question, “if you were not there to agree to it, do you have to accept the covenant?” One answer is that even in our personal lives, we are influenced by our ancestors. Our parents make choices for us that impact who we are and who we become. On the other hand, whether we are Jews-by-Birth or Jews-by-Choice, the way we live our lives is all about finding the path that is right for us.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I pray that the High Holy Day season will be one of renewal for all of us. May your reflections on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bring you closer to God. Let us remember that every single member of the community has something to contribute. And that all of us were there at Sinai – and are part of the ancient covenant our ancestors made with God.

L’shanah tovah.


Ki Tetzei

16 Elul 5776

By Taylor Baruchel, Temple congregant, who is a rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem

“When you search for me” the book of Jeremiah tells us”, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, so says the Eternal (Jeremiah 29:13). The month of Elul is all about searching; for the divine, for truths, for perspective. Elul gives us the chance to act as deep-sea divers in our own souls, and emerge all the wiser for it.  That is, if you are up to the avodah, the spiritual work, this sort of reflection requires…

We find a similar theme in this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo: Moshe tells the People of Israel, “you have seen everything that the Eternal did before your eyes in the land of Egypt…Your eyes beheld the great signs and wonders, but God did not give you a heart to comprehend, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:2-3).

But what is there to understand, see and hear, really? One does not need to be a Neuro-surgeon to appreciate the awesome events that kick started the Exodus. Surely the splitting of the sea is as amazing an event that would stir the senses of any people. What then does Moshe mean when he tells the nation that the Eternal “did not give you a heart to comprehend, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day”?

Moshe explains that it is possible to be immersed in miracles and still not recognize the greatness that surrounds you. People can experience miraculous revelations but unless they focus their hearts and minds their lives will remain unchanged. It is not enough to see miracles or be blessed with good fortune. Moshe calls on us to do the personal and spiritual work necessary to recognize the myriad miracles around us daily. We must bring them into our lives, into our very being. Only then can we walk through life with ears to hear, eyes to see and a truly understanding heart.

A meaningful Elul to you all and L’Shana Tovah U’Metukah from Jerusalem!


Ki Tetzei

9 Elul 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Ki Tetzei, this week’s portion, ends with an imperative: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt: how, when you were tired and weary, he did not fear God but fell upon you on the way and attacked the stragglers in your rear… blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19)

Over the centuries, the figure of Amalek has been transformed within Judaism, to include all of our enemies. Amalek becomes Haman, and Haman becomes Hitler. The command to remember Amalek reminds us, in the words of philosopher George Santayana, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” As I write this on the day after the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, there is no question in my mind that it is incumbent upon us to remember and recognize evil, and fight it wherever it is found.

We have plenty of external enemies – but not all our enemies are external. Rabbi Alan Lew suggests that we use this time to consider our own patterns, which show us to be enemies of ourselves. From a spiritual point of view, he asks, “What is the recurring disaster in our life? What is the unresolved element that keeps bringing us back to this same moment over and over again? What is it that we keep getting wrong? What is it that we persistently refuse to look at, fail to see?” In addition to this self-examination, Rabbi Lew suggests that sometimes, we need to let go of our own desire for vindication; to look at situations where we experience conflict, and find ways to carry our share of the blame. This, he suggests, is part of the path to forgiveness.

The historical point of view is essential; as an historian as well as a rabbi, I know that our communal future depends on bearing witness to our past. As a fallible human being, and as a spiritual seeker, I also know that sometimes our individual pasts can leave us stuck in old patterns, unable to move forward. The challenge of this parsha, and of this time of year, is discerning what needs remembering, and what needs renewing. May we all have strength and insight in this holy work!


Shoftim

3 Elul 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion, Shoftim, comes at the beginning of the new month of Elul – the time when we prepare for the Days of Awe. Rabbi Alan Lew, in his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, draws out some of the deeper meaning of this parshah. He talks about being in a cabin with his son, an entomologist, and how while he was looking out the window, his son was focused on the active world of bugs on the window pane itself.  He writes: “It was clear this window wasn’t just something through which to view the world; it was a world in itself, a place with a life of its own.” So too, Lew suggests, this Torah portion – and this time of year – are about mindfulness. He draws on Chasidic commentaries which teach that the judges that Shoftim tells us to establish at our gates are also meant to be us judging ourselves, at the gates of our own souls. This self-examination requires “a shifting of our gaze from the world itself to the window through which we see it.”

Shoftim is, on the surface, about how to create a just society; how we are to establish judges and officials, and create fair rules. This in itself would be enough of a challenge! But it is also about the need to reflect on how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. What are we focused on? What distracts us? What are we missing, as we go about our day-to-day routines? In Lew’s words, “Judges you shall put in all our gates. This is how Teshuvah [repentance] begins. When Elul comes around again, watch the window. Keep a mindful eye on the gates of the soul.”

We have a month between now and Rosh Hashanah. Whether it is by coming and studying the story of Jonah (the world’s most reluctant prophet) with me, or being moved by the music and discussion at Selichot, or finding your own practice, I encourage you to take this time and use it well. There’s a lot to see, and a lot to do, as we get ready for High Holy Days.


Re’eh

18 Av 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Re’eh, includes core teachings about tzedakah. “Tzedakah,” often mistranslated as “charity,” comes from the word “tzedek,” meaning “righteousness. In other words, in Judaism, giving tzedakah is “doing the right thing.” The commentators ask why, if this is such an important commandment, there is no blessing associated with it. Many answers are given: for example, we don’t want to say a blessing over an action that requires someone else’s misfortune. But the explanation which speaks to me most comes from Rabbi Mendl of Rimanov, who taught: “A person has to be totally at ease with himself and joyful in order to recite a blessing. In most cases, a person is not totally at ease with giving away his money…”

This time of year, there are many requests. Synagogues and schools all are asking for contributions, on top of all the expenses that come with a new season. Rabbi Mendl’s insight seems right to me. Not every cheque we write will feel comfortable to us – we will probably be imagining, as we write it, all the other places our money could go. But doing the right thing is not always comfortable. Whether it is standing up for what you believe, or supporting a cause you know is important, doing the right thing often has a cost (whether or not it is financial). As we do tzedakah with our money this fall, may we hear in our minds Moses’ words at the end of Deuteronomy: “chazak v’amatz” – “be strong and of good courage.” Even someone who receives tzedakah, the rabbis teach, also is obligated to give. It may not be comfortable, but it is holy.


Ekev

18 Av 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

On the Jewish calendar, this is the right time of year to focus on what our priorities are, and how we spend our time. In many of our personal calendars, the move from summer to fall raises those questions as well. Whether it is getting children ready for school, or by the passage of seasons reminding us of the passage of time, it’s a good time to think about how we are living our lives.

This week’s parsha, Ekev, speaks of what will happen when the Israelites come to the land, and anticipates the accumulation of wealth: “when your hers and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied” (Deut. 8:13). There is in Itturei Torah in which a wealthy man boasts to the sage, the Hafetz Hayyim, that God had given him great wealth, and there was nothing he lacked. The Hafetz Hayyim then suggested that the man should devote some time each day to studying Torah. The man replied, “I don’t have time for it.” “If so,” said the Hafetz Hayyim, “you are the poorest of the poor, because if your time is not your own, what do you have?”

How do we spend our time? Is it truly our own? What keeps us from making the choices we want to make in our lives? The Hafetz Hayyim’s response helps us remember the importance of being intentional about our choices. Our calendars reflect our values, and for most of us, it’s a constant struggle to get the balance right. I hope that as we turn the corner into September, you will take advantage of the opportunities we have – in services and in classes at Temple – to ask big questions, and search for good answers.


Va-et’chanan

Read this week Torah portion here.


Deuteronomy

4 Av 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, we begin to read the fifth and final book of the Torah: Deuteronomy. It contains Moses’ final words to the Israelites before he dies, after which they go ahead towards the promised land.

It’s his last chance to teach them and to tell them their story. As we might expect, Moses wants to motivate his people to succeed in this next stage of their journey. He warns us of how God will punish us if we don’t listen, and describes the rewards that will come if we do.

This type of theology – known as “Deuteronomistic” – can be hard to swallow. Most of us don’t believe that wrongdoing is always punished, and goodness rewarded; and all of us know plenty of bad things that have happened to good people. So what can we learn from this? One insight is that Moses is adding morality to history. He pushes us to see that our stories have meaning, and we can learn from our mistakes. Our actions do have consequences, even if they aren’t always clear.

These insights have particular relevance for Tisha b’Av, the fast day which begins this Saturday night. It commemorates the destruction of the Temple, and other major tragedies in Jewish history. The ancient rabbis, who witnessed this destruction firsthand, taught us that even tragedy has meaning. They taught that we should emerge better people, with a renewed commitment to each other and our world.

In this spirit, we will be exploring themes of destruction and recovery, resilience and hope. Saturday night at 7:00, under Rona Nadler’s musical direction, we will experience study and music for Tisha b’Av. Beginning the final book of the Torah, commemorating Tisha b’Av… All these things are meant to remind us to pay attention to our choices and our lives. We are getting closer to the High Holy Days, when we will reflect on our own stories and find meaning to go forward into a new year. I encourage you to take these last weeks of summer, and the opportunities afforded by the Jewish calendar, to begin that journey now.


Masei

26 Tamuz 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah portion is the final one in the book of Numbers. It has special resonance for me as I’ve just returned from a month in Jerusalem, immersed in Torah study. It also has been a month of travel; we went to Israel via Amsterdam, and took a few days to explore the city and see the Anne Frank House; and coming back, we went through Paris (not the city, alas, but you can learn a lot by watching comings and goings for six hours in an airport!).

The portion begins with these words: “These were the marches of the Israelites who started from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Eternal….” (Numbers 33:1-2). In her commentary, Abigail Dauber Sterne asks why the Torah goes on to enumerate all the many stops on the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. Two opposing explanations are given by the classic commentators. One midrash suggests that the stages of the journey are given to remind the Israelites of all the miracles God performed for us; another says that the listings were to remind the Israelites of all the places they provoked God’s anger. Coming off of 24 hours of travel, I can relate to both these explanations; there were infuriating moments, caused by the challenges of 21st century travel; and moments of deep gratitude for safe departures and arrivals. Dauber Sterne suggests another explanation:

The Torah is emphasizing the value of travel. By repeating the Israelites’ itinerary, the text draws attention to all the places that the Israelites have been and to all the experiences they have had. In essence, the Torah is saying that there is inherent value to journeys, to life experiences. Whether these experiences are one’s great triumphs and miracles or whether they are one’s trials and failures, they are, in and of themselves, important. For every individual, every family, and every nation, our collected experiences create who we are and what is meaningful to us.

As we come closer to the High Holy Days in the fall, I look forward to sharing some of the experiences and insights from my summer journeys to – and within – Israel (and I hope you’ve been following my blog entries as well!). From celebrating at a Bedouin wedding to dealing with a flat tire on the way to Beer Sheba, from studying with two hundred rabbis to meeting with fledgling Reform communities, it was an extraordinarily full month. In the meantime, I hope that your summer journeys also are sources of experience and insight. I look forward to sharing our stories.


Matot

19 Tammuz 5776
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is called Matot. This portion is often paired with next week’s portion, but because we follow the Israeli cycle of Torah readings, this year we read Matot this week and the second of this pair, Mas’ei, next week. As you may be aware, since the Shabbat after Passover, (observed in many synagogues as the 8th day of the holiday), we have been one Torah portion ahead of every other synagogue in Montreal. On August 13th, with the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy, we come back into sync.

Matot begins with an exhortation concerning vows. Etz Hayim, the chumash, (Torah commentary), published by the Conservative Movement, introduces the portion this way:

The Bible stresses the power and solemnity of words, from the opening verses of the Torah, in which God creates a world with words, to the commandment to distance oneself from falsehood, to the repeated emphasis against insulting the convert or the physically handicapped. This emphasis continued in postbiblical Judaism. A word is not merely a sound; it is real, it has substance, with the power to hurt or to heal, to elevate or to denigrate. The seriousness with which the Torah takes vows and promises is the basis of the words with which the service begins on the eve of Yom Kippur….

            The power of speech is one of the unique gifts of a human being, a power we share with no other creature. In these rules governing vows and oaths, we see that human beings, like God, have the power to make things holy by words, by proclaiming them holy. By uttering words, an Israelite can impose an obligation on himself or herself as binding as God’s commands in the Torah. (p. 941)

In our day, we are confronted with words non-stop. Twitter and Facebook feeds, twenty-four-hour news access, insistent text messages from friends and family…even advertising on bus shelters and metro platforms. As I watch the American political landscape shift, I am reminded constantly that words matter. It is our responsibility to filter the vitriolic political rhetoric and to try and discern the truth. The author Jodi Picoult once wrote: “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”

As we consider this week’s Torah portion, let us remember that words have power and that we should use them wisely.


Pinchas

12 Tammuz 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion is called Pinchas, but I will skip over the story of Pinchas and the rather unpleasant incident in which he is involved. A bit later in the portion, we meet the daughters of Zelophehad who make a huge contribution to the rights of women.

Just before these five women make their appearance, the Torah once again describes the taking of a census. (Wait…wasn’t there a census at the beginning of the book of Numbers? Why do we need another one? Rashi suggests that after so many lives were lost following the incident of the spies in Shelach Lecha, and the rebellion of Korach, this census is an act of love, “like a shepherd numbering his flock after wolves have attacked it”).

In any case…this census is followed by the story of the daughters of Zelophehad who approach Moses with a problematic case. “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, which banded together against the Eternal, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:3-4)

The midrash notes that after so much complaining, yearning for Egypt, and immoral behaviour, here are Israelite women who yearn for nothing more than a family home in the Promised Land. “For forty years in the wilderness, the men tore down fences and the women repaired them.” (Num. R. 21:10)

Moses turns to God. “What shall I do with these women?” God sides with the daughters of Zelophehad. “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen…further, if a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Num. 27: 7-8).

This rather bold act of the daughters of Zelophehad influences the development of Jewish law; its impact has been felt even in modern times. Jewish law originally excluded daughters from inheritance when there were surviving sons. In the 16th century, Moses Isserles permitted fathers to give their daughters a gift of half their sons’ share in their estate. And, in 1943, the chief rabbinate of Palestine ruled that in Israel, daughters inherit on an equal footing with sons.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad offers a compelling lesson for all who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is the example they set for women: to take our lives into our own hands, to stand up for what we know is right, to follow our dreams wherever they may lead.

Every single one of us has capacity to shape history, even – as did the daughters of Zelophehad – to influence Jewish tradition, advocate for peace and to instigate change.


Balak

5 Tammuz 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, found in the last third of the book of Numbers, is called Balak.

Balak is a Moabite king. He is very concerned about the huge number of Israelites amassed on the plain opposite his land, poised to enter the land promised to them by God. In order to stop them, Balak engages the services of a sorcerer, Balaam. He offers to reward Balaam generously if he will curse the people of Israel in order to impede or even prevent their progress. Balaam tries to refuse, but Balak won’t hear of it. Eventually, Balaam agrees to do Balak’s bidding, but says to Balak, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Num. 22:38) Of course, God causes blessings rather than curses to come out of Balaam’s mouth.

As I reflect on the devastating violence confronting American cities during the last few months, weeks and days, I find some comfort in the words Balaam utters. He knows that the Israelites are human beings who have every right to live peacefully with their neighbors. Balaam says:

How can I damn whom God has not damned,

How doom when the Eternal has not doomed:

As I see them from the mountain tops,

Gaze on them from the heights,

There is a people that dwells apart,

Not reckoned among the nations,

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Number the dust-cloud of Israel?

May I die the death of the upright,

May my fate be like theirs!

(Num. 23:8-10)

To Balak’s dismay, Balaam speaks three more times in a similar vein, including the words of Ma Tovu, recited as he stands on a hilltop looking down on the Israelites:

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,

Your dwellings, O Israel!

Like palm-groves that stretch out,

Like gardens beside a river,

Like aloes planted by the Eternal,

Like cedars beside the water;

…..

Blessed are they who bless you,

Accursed they who curse you!

(Num. 24: 5-6, 9)

Despite the fact that they were uttered by a non-Israelite sorcerer, these words have become part of our liturgy, part of our inheritance as Jews. The Baal Shem Tov suggests that the Jewish people have survived in the Diaspora not despite the enmity of our neighbours, but because of it. Whatever the reason for our survival, we must use our experience as outsiders to oppose violence, to fight for justice and right, to advocate for the right of all people to live in peace. In the words of Elie Wiesel, z”l, there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.


Chukat

28 Sivan 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, called Chukat, contains a variety of different scenarios, all ripe for interpretation. The portion begins by describing the method of purification after coming into contact with a corpse that requires the use of a “red heifer.” Also in this portion Miriam dies, and the Israelites complain, (yet again), about the lack of water. God tells Moses to get water from a rock by speaking to it; when Moses hits the rock instead of speaking to it, Moses is condemned to die in the wilderness. After a confrontation with the king of Edom, the Israelites complain – yes, again! – that they have no bread, no water, and that they are bored with manna.

This time, God’s response to the Israelites’ complaints is very curious. “The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died,” (Num. 21:6). Some translate seraph as “fiery,” and some use “venomous.” But either way, this is so peculiar! What happens next is unusual, too.

The Israelites go to Moses and admit that they have “sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord to take the serpents away from us,” (Num. 21:7). Moses goes to God, and God tells him to make a statue of a copper snake, and anyone who looks at the statue will be healed from his/her snake bite. Build a statue of a snake? Aren’t idols forbidden in the Israelite (Jewish) tradition? Is this snake statue an idol? God is the one who tells Moses to build the snake statue; God certainly doesn’t intend it as a God-substitute.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, the snake embodies the evil inclination. Perhaps the fiery snake in this portion represents the voice of doubt and fear that is plaguing the Israelites. By building the snake-statue, God suggests that the Israelites confront their fears. The path away from Egypt is fraught with challenges; the road to freedom is littered with obstacles, but these hurdles should not serve to deflect them from the path to their goal. Rather, the trials should only make the destination – the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey – seem even more appealing.

We can all take this lesson to heart: when we are faced with challenges, don’t let the voices of fear and doubt cause us to stray from our path. Watch an animated version of this d’var torah by clicking here.


Korach

21 Sivan 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, called Korach, Moses and Aaron face yet another rebellion. This time, things get much more personal as Korach and his followers try to usurp the authority of Moses and Aaron. “You have gone too far! For 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?” (Num. 16:3).

Ramban speculates that after recent events, (in the Torah portions of the last few weeks), the people are demoralized and are easily convinced by Korach to support him. Although Korach is able to rally the Israelites to follow him, it seems that each faction has its own agenda; they are only united in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. Korach and his followers define themselves by what they oppose, rather that by a vision of what the future may hold.

The story ends well for Moses and Aaron. The Talmud tells us that “The world exists on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel,” (B. Hul. 89a). Korah and his fellow rebels are not able to restrain themselves, and, as a result, God causes the earth to open up and swallow Korach and his followers.

In these challenging times, we have the responsibility to speak out against injustice and to work towards our vision of a better world for our children and grandchildren. We must restrain ourselves and avoid acting impulsively, but we must take action. We cannot act alone; we must build bridges with our allies and work towards the day when, in the words of Judy Chicago, “everywhere will be called Eden once again.” Read the whole poem by clicking here.


Sh’lach Lecha

14 Sivan 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, called Sh’lach Lecha, finds the Israelites at the border of Canaan, poised to enter the Promised Land. The portion tells the story of the twelve spies (or scouts) that Moses sends to collect information about the land that lies before them.

Upon their return, ten of the spies offer a pessimistic, negative report of the dangers that lie ahead. Their report reflects their own fear of the unknown and their lack of confidence in their own strength and abilities. Only Caleb and Joshua offer a positive report; they related that the land is abundant, beautiful and flowing with milk and honey. They believe the Israelites can, indeed, fulfill their destiny and take possession of the land. The Israelites will not be persuaded by the two; they are convinced that the negative reports are the true ones. They lose their faith in God, and they challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As a result, God decides that they are not worthy of the responsibilities and privileges that come with freedom. The Israelites who were freed from Egypt will never see the Promised Land. Only the next generation, those born into freedom will enter the Land of Israel.

Nehama Leibowitz suggests that sin of the ten scouts is that they repudiate their trust in God, suggesting that divine help wold not enable the Israelites to prevail. They also reject the leadership of Moses and Aaron and the positive reports of Caleb and Joshua – leaders who place their confidence in God.

The daily news cycle reminds us that we face an uncertain future. Can faith in God and belief in the power of the Jewish community help us to surmount the evil in the world and imagine a time when things will be different? Faith in God is only one element. We need to remember the message of Caleb and Joshua, and face the world with optimism and energy – even when we are facing the unknown. It takes all of us, working together as a community to make the world a better place. As the old Israeli folk song says, “you and I can change the world.” It will take a lot of hard work, but we owe it to our children to seek out the positive voices and do the work of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, together.

B’ha’alotecha

8 Sivan 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s parsha, B’haalotecha, we begin with the description of the menorah that stood in the desert Tabernable, and later the Temple in Jerusalem. Let me take a moment to clear up something confusing: The Temple menorah had seven flames, while the Chanukah menorah has nine. The Chanukah menorah commemorates the miracle of the oil which lasted eight days… to light the seven-armed Temple menorah!

All this being said, the imagery of lighting fires is powerful, no matter how many flames we light. Rashi writes that the lamps were to be lit “until the flame arises by itself.” I love that image – that our role is to help something catch fire, so that we create something which keeps going of its own accord.

The imagery, however, is not always positive. This past week we were witnesses to two very painful and terrible conflagrations: the shooting and murder of four people in a Tel Aviv café, and the shooting and murder of fifty people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Both of these were acts of hated, and a sobering reminder of how the fires of hate can spread. Hateful words – anti-Semitic, homophobic – all too easily turn into hateful acts, and the fires that are lit in this way are hard to put out.

What can we do in response? We can be allies, standing by Israel, and standing by those who are targeted for being LGBT (lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender).  And we can light positive fires in response – flames that illuminate, rather than destroy. Flames by whose light we can see that each and every human being is made in the image of God. This past Saturday night, we lit the flames of learning, as we celebrated the studies of out confirmation students, and had sessions of study and creativity for people of all ages. We started something which lasted until midnight, and I would venture to say, far beyond.

As we enter the heat of summer, may we use our energy to start good fires, and help to extinguish the flames of hate. Let me close with a different kind of Torah, courtesy of Tennessee Williams. His words inspire me; I hope they are meaningful to you as well:

“The world is violent and mercurial– it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love– love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter;  being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Naso

29 Iyar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we find the Priestly Blessing:

May God bless you and keep you

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you

May God’s face turn to you, and give you peace.

From my childhood, I remember the cohanim (those of priestly descent) standing in front of my Conservative congregation, pulling their prayer shawls over their heads, and stretching out their arms to intone this blessing. It felt like an important, impressive moment in the service, awe-inspiring to a child, and probably to the adults as well. At Temple, we say this blessing often: over bnei mitzvah boys and girls, as they stand at the cusp of adulthood; for converts, just out of the mikvah; and for couples approaching the chuppah. It can be especially meaningful in interfaith contexts, because it comes from a sacred source that Jews and Christians share. And it can carry its meaning to the most intimate Jewish setting: the home, where parents can bless their children with these words on Shabbat.

We don’t always notice the words which introduce this blessing. They read as follows:

“Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying: “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel, saying to them:” (Num. 6:23).

The Modzhitzer Rebbe teaches that this means, “bless the Jewish people as you find them. Do not look for the best or the most important, nor for the greatest scholars or righteous men, for every Jew [and I would add, every person] deserves to be blessed.”

So often, we focus on those we identify as “the best” in their categories. Last year, I was named by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” I was grateful for the recognition, but I know plenty of inspiring rabbis who never make that list. The Torah and its commentary this week suggest that we should shift our focus. Everyone is deserving of recognition and of blessing. As our tradition teaches us, when we are blessed, we then bless others. When we see ourselves as worthy of being blessed, we can extend that blessing to the world. May God bless and keep us all.

B’midbar

22 Iyar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah: Numbers, or in Hebrew B’midbar (“in the wilderness”). Last week, we completed the book of Leviticus in a tremendous way: with fifteen adult bnei mitzvah chanting from the Torah, and sharing their insights and wisdom with the congregation. It was an impressive accomplishment, the culmination of a year of dedicated study. It is always worth celebrating when a thirteen year old boy or girl ascends to the Torah and leads the community in prayer; but it also has a special meaning when those taking on this responsibility choose to do so themselves, as adults. Some are parents of young children; others well into retirement. Each of them made the commitment to learn, to connect, and to grow. Everyone who came to that service left inspired.

So how does the accomplishment of our adult bnei mitzvah connect with our parsha? The first verse of Numbers says, “And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” Why, our sages ask, was the Torah given in this way? Because, Shem Mi-Shmuel suggests, “The Torah was given in fire, and in water, and in the desert – [and] these three elements symbolize how a person should acquire the Torah.” Fire signifies enthusiasm and passion; water signifies cool rationality; and the desert signifies sacrifice. The members of our adult bnei mitzvah class had abundant enthusiasm; they integrated the modern approach of progressive Judaism; and they made a serious commitment of time and energy to their studies. Not everyone will take on such a task (though if you’re interested, let me know – I hope to do this again in two years!). But each of us does have the ability to muster the best resources of our hearts, minds, and schedules to connect with the wisdom we call Torah.

 

Bechukotai

16 Iyar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, contains a lot of material that is difficult to read. The parsha describes, very graphically, how God will punish us for not obeying the commandments. It is a theology that most of us reject, because it leads very quickly to seeing someone suffering, and assuming they have sinned.

However, just because we may disagree with what we may read in the Torah, doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned. This year, I have been inspired by the group of fifteen adult bnei mitzvah who have been coming together to study every week. Almost every week, one of the students has given a dvar Torah, wrestling with that week’s portion. And every time they have done so, no matter how difficult the text, they have found meaning.

It seems fitting, then, that the great commentator Rashi reads “walking in God’s statutes” (Lev. 26:3) as “toiling in Torah study.” Torah study is very different than simply following rules; it requires really rolling up one’s sleeves, and engaging with material that is thousands of years old – and yet, contains wisdom for our times. “Turn it and turn it,” the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “for everything is in it.” Our adult bnei mitzvah will be called to the Torah this coming Saturday morning, May 28 at 9:15 am. Then they will continue their study – not as intensively, but they will continue nonetheless. Their example – and this week’s parsha – reminds us that Judaism is about learning and questioning. I encourage you to find your questions, and come learn.

 Behar

8 Iyar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, contains the challenging commandment for the sabbatical year. Basically, the idea is this: the land can be farmed for six years, but must lie fallow for the seventh. It has often been observed that crop rotation, and letting the land rest, makes good agricultural sense. But the Torah acknowledges the practical problem: “What will we eat in the seventh year?” (Lev. 25:20).

The great Hasidic teacher, the Kotzker rebbe, once had a student who shared with him his fear that he would not be able to sustain himself and his family. “Pray to God,” said the Kotzker, “to send you sustenance.” To this, the student replied, “I don’t know how to pray.” “If that is indeed so,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “it is of even greater concern than your lack of money to keep you alive.”

On the one hand, the story is problematic; I would be remiss if someone came to me, worried about their physical survival, and I told them to pray their problems away. I’m not at all convinced that God works that way, or that “the prosperity gospel” (as it is called in some circles) is a Jewish concept. God isn’t here to make us wealthy. But on the other hand, there’s a part of the story which resonates. Our needs are not only physical; as human beings, we need spiritual sustenance as well. If we don’t have any notion of how to approach God, or even, regardless of our (dis)belief, to let our souls reach up to something beyond the self – that is of concern. So often, I think we walk around with a notion that religion and prayer are narrowly-defined; but religion and prayer provide a framework for existential questions. To care deeply about justice and injustice, the meaning of life, the connections between us – all this makes us human and whole.

The funeral last week of Rabbi Ron Aigen, of blessed memory, reminded me of some of these existential questions. I pray for him, his family and community; I pray to return to my own professional and personal life with a renewed sense of what matters. At the end of the day, the most important harvest is not what ends up in our stomach; that is the Kotzker rebbe’s wisdom. May it also be our own.

Emor

1 Iyar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

For the next few weeks, our cycle of Torah readings will match the one which is followed in Israel – but be different from that which is followed by Orthodox and Conservative diaspora Jews. This difference is attributable to the quirks of the Jewish calendar. Because the eighth day of Passover was on a Saturday this year, those who celebrate eight days didn’t get back to the regular Torah cycle until the week after; the rest of us are a week ahead. By way of explanation, the Torah tells us to observe Passover for seven days – the extra, eighth day was added millennia ago, when there were questions about the accuracy of sighting the moon and setting the calendar, especially outside the Land of Israel. Now that we can make those calculations more precisely, Reform Jews do what Jews in the Land of Israel have always done, namely, follow the biblical command to observe Passover for seven days, while other diaspora Jews still keep the extra day, because of the practices that have accrued around it.

So, all that being said, this week we are reading from Parshat Emor. The opening verse says as follows: “The Eternal spoke to Moses: “Speak to the priests the sons of Aaron, and say to them…” (Lev. 21:1). Here’s the question: Why the specification of Aaron’s sons, the next generation of priests? Shouldn’t they just follow what was told to their father? Rabbi Leibush Harif makes this argument: “The sanctity of the priests derives from the fact that they are descendants of Aaron. But simply being descended from Aaron is not enough – they must have their own merits as well… they should not remain content with being the sons of Aaron… tell them I am addressing them personally, and they must do everything possible to ascend in holiness on their own.”

I love this teaching because it reminds us that no one can simply ride the coattails of a previous generations; each of us must reach for holiness and be worthy of our roles ourselves.

As I share this teaching, I think of Rabbi Ron Aigen, now of blessed memory. Rabbi Aigen served Dorshei Emet, the Reconstructionist synagogue of Montreal, faithfully for forty years. When I was at McGill as a student in the late 1990s, Dorshei Emet was my synagogue, and Rabbi Ron was my rabbi. Since returning, he became a colleague – but he continued to teach me and inspire me with his love of Torah; passion for Israel and Jewish life; utter commitment to his congregation; and embrace of clal Yisrael (the broader Jewish community). He was someone who was constantly striving to ascend in holiness, never riding on the coattails of his own experience or seniority. He truly was a spiritual seeker, and that made him a great rabbi and teacher, family man and friend. He will be deeply missed. Along with many others, I’ll be at his funeral tomorrow morning, Tuesday May 10 at 10:00 am at Dorshei Emet. May his memory be for blessing, inspiring each of us – no matter what denomination we are in – to reach as high as we can to be our best Jews, and our best selves.


Yom Hashoah reflections

21 Nisan 5776
by Harry Rajchgot

“For years it lay in an iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure just what it was. I knew I carried slippery, combustible things more secret than sex and more dangerous than any shadow or ghost. Ghosts had shape and name. What lay inside my iron box had none. Whatever lived inside me was so potent that the words crumbled before they could describe. I caught glimpses of destruction. The safe world fell away and I saw things no little girl should see. Blood and shattered glass. Piles of skeletons and blackened barbed wire with bits of flesh stuck to it. Hills of suitcases, mountains of children’s shoes. Whips, pistols, knives, and needles.”

Thus begins Helen Epstein’s book Children of the Holocaust. I am the son of Holocaust survivors. I was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in southern Germany in 1946, where my parents’ flight from the evil of the Nazis ended after the war. Although they were not themselves incarcerated in concentration camps, they were survivors nonetheless. My parents had escaped into the Soviet Union shortly after the war’s start, and this was what saved them. They met there, and I and my brother are the result. My father lost almost everyone in his family: parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces. My mother lost a brother and his family, but another brother and a sister survived and emigrated to Israel after that country’s War of Independence was won. I do not know many of their names, because my parents avoided speaking of the past and of the war until I was much older, and I avoided asking questions because I sensed the dark wall behind which the answers lay. It was an active ignorance, an attempt by a child to protect his parents from their pain by not venturing into that dark place.

There were 9 million Jews in all of Europe in1939, just before the start of war. Of approximately 3 million Poland’s Jews, where my parents lived, 90% had been killed by the war’s end. Some fled to the Soviet Union, and tried to outrun the invading the Nazis. Some hid in the forests and mountains, in holes in the ground, in sewers, on farms, in fields, in convents and small villages, in closets, attics, cellars, barns, or in other secret spaces. A few were saved by the grace and valour of their neighbours, whom we now call the Righteous Among The Nations. This happened all over Europe, everywhere the German death machine extended its reach. In all some 6 million of our people living in Europe were gone by war’s end, two thirds of all the Jews of Europe. The Nazi killing machine had been very efficient, a brutal complex industrial apparatus, designed with one purpose. The concentration camps the Nazis built swallowed up families, towns, traditions, an ancient culture, a way of life, and for many, the belief in God.

My father spent the time between one day’s work and the next depressed, anxious, overwhelmed by loss, unable to sleep, angry with the past, with the Germans who had destroyed his family, and the Poles who had denounced his family to those Germans, and had chased him away with threats in his shtetl when he returned to his family’s house after the war. Years later, racked by cancer, his mind altered by drugs, he hallucinated, and warned my brother and me that the man in the next bed was a Nazi, that German soldiers were going to take my house away. For him, the war never ended.

My mother was always afraid–of the non-Jew, of potential dangers around every corner and in every room. We were to say on any form we filled that our mother tongue was English, not Yiddish. We were not to carry in public any Jewish symbol around our necks or on our heads, as if our identity wasn’t obvious to any observer.

When I was 4, my family moved to Montreal from New Brunswick, and I lived in the mainly Jewish neighbourhood now known as the Plateau. A disconnected, disruptive, destructive world filled my head. I was simply unable to articulate it. The unspeakable and largely unspoken horrors of my family’s recent past, and our exile from a strange faroff land filled the air I breathed with the acrid smoke of dead relatives. We were strangers in a strange land, with a new language to learn, a new culture to absorb, a new landscape to recognize. It seeped into me and struggled there without my knowing it. All my friends were Jewish, and it seemed like they all had parents who had come from Europe after the war–we had that in common. My young friends and I argued about which country we would fight for–Israel or Canada– in the event of a war between them. We were a junior fifth column in the making, readying for more war, one that the Jews would win this time.

And yet, despite all this, all the challenges and grief that life had presented to them, my parents were able to bring me and my brother up, provide us love and protection, ground us with morals and common sense, give us a Jewish home, and nurture our ambitions and curiosity. It is perhaps a strange thing, but a high proportion of the children of these survivors went into the caring professions. It might be that we were trying to fulfil our mother’s dreams to become “my son the doctor”, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I believe we took on a task that was handed to us, the task of repairing the world, of tikkun olam. And so perhaps, that is what we are trying to do, to give some meaning to this senselessness that was the Holocaust.

Never again.


Passover

17 Nisan 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week filled with all things Matzah, I want to look at Matzah as a symbol. We discussed this in Torah Study on Shabbat, and I have continued to think about it.

Why do we eat Matzah for a whole week? The easy answer is because it says in the Torah, in the special Torah reading for the first day of Pesach, “In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.” (Ex. 12:18) It is a symbol of the Exodus from Egypt. “The people took their dough before it was leavened….and they baked unleavened cakes of the dough they had taken out of Egypt….” (Ex. 12:34 & 39)

Exodus 12:15 makes it seem like the Israelites were commanded to eat Matzah even before they left Egypt: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” One might argue that this is an example of the often confused chronology in the Torah, but many rabbis do not think so. On Pesach, Matzah is a symbol of both our enslavement in Egypt and our flight to freedom.

We read in the haggadah, Ha lachma anya, הא לחמא עניא   – “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Matzah is the symbol of the poverty and suffering of the Israelites while they were slaves in Egypt. Neima Novetsky, a teacher at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies writes: “why command the nation to commemorate slavery as they are in the midst of living it? Perhaps, God is sharing an important message – even when free, one cannot forget that one was once a slave. One must remember the fact and learn from it. In the haggadah, we follow Ha lachma anya with an invitation to the hungry to come and eat. Freedom comes with responsibility; since we know what it was like to be hungry, now that we have bread we must share it with others.”

Matzah is also the symbol of our redemption from slavery. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that “what transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others. Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings….Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression.”

One of my favorite poets, Marge Piercy, wrote a poem called Matzoh:

            Flat you are as a door mat

and as homely.

No crust, no glaze, you lack

a cosmetic glow.

You break with a snap.

You are dry as a twig split from an oak

in midwinter.

You are bumpy as a mud basin

in a drought.

Square as a slab of pavement,

you have no inside

to hide raisins and seeds.

You are pale as the full moon

pocked with craters.

What we see is what we get,

honest, plain, dry

shining with nostalgia

as if baked with light instead of heat.

The bread of flight and haste

in the mouth you

promise, home.

May you enjoy your week of eating matzah. May it remind you of “home” – however you define that. May it remind you of the blessings of liberation and of freedom.

Moadim L’simcha. Have a zissen Pesach, a sweet and joyful week.


 

Commentary on Exodus – Passover reading

10  Nissan 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, our Torah reading is determined by Pesach, which begins Friday night. Saturday morning, we will read from Exodus 12:

24 “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. 25 And when you enter the land that the Eternal will give you, as God has promised, you shall observe this rite. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ 27 you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'”

We don’t sacrifice a paschal lamb like our biblical ancestors did, but we do keep the festive meal, which developed into the seder. One element which has remained the same for thousands of years is the centrality of the question: “when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’”

Judaism is famous for its emphasis on questions and debate. Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?” Rabi replied: “My mother made me a scientist with-out ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.”

According to Noam Zion, the questions at the seder are “statements of wonder… The intelligent child is expected to notice the changes in the routine and inquire about them.” The point of the seder is to be unusual enough to prompt questions: Why is this night different? Those questions become the starting point for telling the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.

As anyone who has been around a child knows, once the questions start, they keep coming. And so, the seder is not simply meant to contain a circumscribed number of questions and answers; rather, it is meant to have an impact on us, such that at the end of the night, we get up from the table with more questions. Why doesn’t everyone have enough to eat? Where am I still enslaved in my own life? Why isn’t everyone free?

However traditional or untraditional your seder may be, I encourage you to ask good questions (and if you’re looking for people with whom to share the seder experience, don’t hesitate to ask that practical question as well!). Please do check this eblast and our website for the full schedule of services.


M’tzora

3 Nisan 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, and last week’s Torah portion, Tazria, are usually read together, as a double portion. This year, (5776), is a leap year[1]; in the Jewish calendar, when we have a leap year, we add a whole month (instead of just one day). There are enough Torah portions in our annual cycle of Torah readings to cover a leap year, when we have four (or even five) extra Shabbatot, (the plural of Shabbat). When it is not a leap year, certain Torah portions are read as “double portions” – as is the case, in a non-leap year, with Tazria-Metzora. Although the content is not exactly the same, the two portions deal with the same themes of skin diseases, bodily discharges, and purification following childbirth.

As I mentioned last week, we often find it hard to relate to these two Torah portions. We are not the only ones who find these portions difficult and sometimes troubling. Traditional commentators also found them complicated and often wandered far from the p’shat, the “plain meaning” of the text, to make the subject matter somewhat more comprehensible.

While some biblical scholars do see the treatment of tzaraat, (“leprosy”), by the priests as a medical issue, the overwhelming majority of Jewish commentators agree that the laws and rituals concerning this malady are not simply expressing concerns over health or sanitation. According to Nehama Leibowitz, one of the 20th century’s greatest Bible commentators, “The Torah does not adopt a medical approach but regards the disease as a symptom of spiritual imbalance.” [2] This view is in keeping with the many discussions of the rabbis of the Talmud. The most well-known explanation for tzaraat comes from the Babylonian Talmud, (Arachin 15b), when Resh Lakish states: “This shall be the law of the m’tzora, (the person with this skin disease), and this shall be the law of the one who spreads evil talk (motzi-shem-ra).” Resh Lakish takes the word m’tzora  מצרע and turns it into an acronym: מצר”ע – that stands for motzi [shem] ra, which means “spreading a bad name” – or lashon hara, gossip.

Tzaarat, leprosy, becomes a metaphor for gossip. Although this story comes later, we are told in Numbers 12 that Miriam contracts leprosy after making unkind remarks about her brother’s wife. (Remember…her brother is Moses, and Moses was said to have married a “Cushite” (read: dark-skinned) woman).

Later in our Torah portion, (Lev. 15:34), the text describes a fast-spreading infection, so virulent that it changes the color of the walls of a house. Maybe it was not a literal infection, but evil talk. We have all seen the power of social media – and how quickly news can spread. Facebook does not differentiate between our celebratory posts and rumors, between “hard news” and gossipy stories. “Viral” used to refer to an illness and nothing more…now it describes the speed with which a photo or other post spreads on social media. The play on the word m’tzora teaches us about the power of words. We can do irrevocable harm by spreading gossip, but we can also do amazing good when we use caring words.

This Shabbat is the last one before Pesach, and it is also known as Shabbat Hagadol, “the great Shabbat.” As we prepare for our metaphorical journey from Mitzrayim, Egypt, let us take time prepare mentally as well as physically. As we do our “spring cleaning,” (eventually it will be spring in Montreal), let us clean our spirits as well as our homes and resolve to speak kindly to others, welcome the outsider into our midst, and avoid spreading false “news.”

[1] For more about the Jewish calendar, click here.

[2] Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in Vayikra: Leviticus. (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), p. 128.


Tazria

25 Adar II 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week’s Torah portion, called Tazria, is all about skin diseases and bodily discharges. It is one of those Torah portions that causes many liberal Jews to wrinkle their noses and say “yuck….and we still read this because…why?”

The descriptions of various bodily eruptions and discharges and the rather harsh treatment accorded to the victims may seem disgusting and outdated on a first reading. Certainly, we cannot learn anything about the modern treatment of leprosy, known today as Hansen’s disease – but I do believe this week’s parasha has something to say to us.

The portion tells us that one afflicted with certain skin infections has to be isolated until he/she is cured. Later in the portion, we learn that if he/she is not cured after this initial isolation, then the isolation might be made permanent – almost like a punishment for having an illness that no one understood. Lev. 13:45 says: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Impure!  Impure!’”

Picture the suffering of the afflicted person, called a metzora: afflicted by a disfiguring and repulsive illness, uncertain as to its cause, despairing of any cure, the metzora is not only confronted by a medical horror, but then is also ordered to leave the settlement, with its comforts of family, familiarity and order. For the rest of his/her life, the metzora now has to live apart from the community. And, to make matters worse, the person has to wear torn clothing and walk bare-headed, which are biblical signs of mourning. He/she also has to cover his/her face. To mask shame?  Or to inspire it? And finally he/she has to publicize his/her plight by shouting “Impure!  Impure!”

The public displays of mourning are not too difficult to interpret. The metzora is in mourning – for lost health, lack of companionship, and the feeling of isolation. However, why is the victim of a disfiguring illness required to shout “Impure!  Impure!”?

According to Rashi, the metzora “informs others that he is impure and they keep away from him.” The purpose, then, of calling out, is to alert others to stay away. The metzora is required to enforce his/her own isolation. Why? During biblical times diseases like those described in this Torah portion were thought to be punishments for sins committed – in this case, perhaps, the sin of malicious talk. This notion may have begun during biblical times, but it motivated Rashi’s comment during the 12th century.  Rashi said “Since [the victim] caused a parting – through malicious talk – between husband and wife, or between friends or colleagues, he, too, shall be set apart.” Clearly, Rashi sees this proclamation of “Impure!  Impure!” as retribution, justly imposed in response to a wrong the metzora had committed in the past. This punishment, intentionally degrading, is designed to impose remorse and regret, as well as to make the metzora feel personally what was inflicted on the recipients and objects of his evil speech.

Maimonides sees a similar intent behind this legislation: “Not only those who are stricken with tzara’at, (scaly affections), but all those who are ritually impure are obligated to make known to all that they are impure in order that the others will separate from them… the impure one announces that he is impure.” Like Rashi, Rambam understands this mandatory proclamation as punishment, a way of keeping the metzora isolated and alone, a way of allowing others to maintain their ritual purity by avoiding contact with the afflicted sinner.

We know – at least intellectually – that one does not contract illnesses – from leprosy and cancer to eczema and AIDS – as a result of any wrong doing on the part of the afflicted. Yet, even today, we do not always treat those suffering from AIDS and other illnesses with the dignity they deserve.

Perhaps we can learn something from the completely different approach found in the Talmud. Massekhet Hullin understands the proclamation of “Impure!  Impure!” as, “[the victim] shall make known his affliction so that they may pray for him. Likewise, one upon whom a calamity has fallen should make it known so that others may pray for him.”

What a beautiful reading of our text. The call of “Impure!” is designed not to punish the afflicted, but to summon other people to his/her aid. Without having to ask for help explicitly, simply by mentioning the suffering, the metzora can count on fellow Jews to reach out to do something to lift the burden, to show solidarity, to express caring. The metzora calls out “impure” so as to no longer remain alone.

This is a great lesson for all of us. Judaism demands that we live lives of compassion. Our tradition commands that we respond to the voices of those in need with empathy, love, and assistance, rather than with condemnation and distance. It is not always easy to hear all the conflicting voices around us and then decide how to respond.

At Temple, we always do our best to listen to the voices of those in need and take action to the best of our abilities. We urge you to get involved in our various projects: contributing to Caring Cooks, participating in Mitzvah Morning on May 15th, and welcoming our Syrian refugee families.


Shemini

19 Adar II 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Our parsha, Shemini, begins: “On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel” (Lev. 9:1).

The midrash, Leviticus Rabbah, uses this verse as an opportunity to speak about the importance of the elders: Rabbi Akiva said, “Israel are compared to a bird – just as a bird cannot fly without wings, Israel cannot do anything without their elders.”

This gives a whole new angle on the line, “you are the wind beneath my wings…” Usually we think about that as a romantic phrase. But what if instead, we saw our elders as the wind beneath our wings, or even as our very wings? This is an area in which Judaism is very countercultural. Our culture defines beauty, strength, even intelligence, as youthful qualities. But from a Jewish point of view, the older, the better. I am reminded of Agatha Christie’s quip that the best thing about being married to an archaeologist was that the older she got, the more interested he was in her. On a more serious note, when I think of the people in whom I have found wisdom, resilience, and deep beauty, those people are my elders.

One of our congregants recently shared a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Facebook (this is yet another reason why I love being Facebook friends with my congregants – it’s not just so I can tell you what’s happening and kvell about my kids, it’s also because I learn a lot from all of you). It goes like this: “What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father. Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege.”

This week, I invite you to imagine what our world would look like if we approached aging differently, and viewed our elderly with respect. And then I invite you to act on that re-imagining. If you have elders in your life, thank them and have the privilege of helping them; if you are one, find ways to recognize those who came before, and help transmit their teachings. There is often a lot of fuss about bringing “the young people” into the synagogue. I love our younger members – and I love our older ones as well. It takes all of us together to build and sustain our sacred home.


 

Tzar

11 Adar II 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The Torah portions this time of year are very occupied with sacrifices. Ever since Leviticus was written, commentators have struggled – not only to understand the details of the laws and practices, but to find the meaning within them. In the Talmud (Yoma 23a), the following scene is described:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were equal as they ran to mount the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart… The father of the young man came and found his son still in convulsions. He said: ‘May he be an atonement for you. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.’ [His remark] comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.

In other words, the people had lost sight of what really mattered; they had forgotten that human life is much more valuable than concerns about cleanliness. There is a value to wanting to get things right, and to wanting to be the first one to the altar (as a professional priest, that is) – but that value never trumps our ethical responsibilities as human beings. As Rabbi Avi Weinstein puts it, “The Talmud reminds us that God is never reached by pushing somebody out of the way.”

This may seem very distant to us. But if we really reflect on our own behaviour, this can apply to anything from cutting someone off on the highway to walking by someone in need. This parsha gives us an opportunity to rethink our priorities, so our behaviours match our values.

The beauty of Purim, which is coming up on Wednesday night, is that it reminds us of the essentials – as well as giving us a really good story. Purim has four mitzvot, commandments:

  1. Celebrating with a feast
  2. Hearing the Megillah (the Book of Esther)
  3. Giving gifts to neighbours and friends (mishloach manot)
  4. Giving tzedakah to the poor (matanot l’avyonim)

What does it mean to be a good person in the world? Purim gives us some guidelines. Remember to celebrate when you have something worth celebrating; tell your story, and understand your history; connect with the people in your life through generosity; and respond to those in need.

Happy Purim! Hope to see you at Temple Wednesday night.


Vayikra

4 Adar II 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we begin the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, the third of the five books the Torah contains. Leviticus is considered the most challenging book of the Five Books of Moses from the perspective of modern 21st century Jews. The very first chapter of this begins with an intricate discussion of burnt offerings to be brought to the priests for a variety of circumstances, from voluntary gifts to prayers for well-being to purgation to reparation, and more. This leads to what seems to be endless chapters describing animal sacrifice, purification, and expiation rites, forbidden sexual relations and rituals for the dead and diseased, all faithfully administered by the priestly class of men.

The Reform Movement has been outright dismissive of this book. On Yom Kippur, many synagogues replace the two traditional readings from Leviticus with readings from the Book of Deuteronomy that better reflect our covenantal and moral relationship with God and humans. On our most solemn day, when the more traditional Jewish community reads about detailed sacrifices and abominations, we focus on what is far more compelling for our time.

In order to gain insight into these texts, I turned to the wisdom of a modern Reform commentator. In Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger’s introduction to the Book of Leviticus in the Reform chumash, Torah Commentary, he analyzes the context of the ancient Near East and decodes the key word: korban. He says “the English term ‘sacrifice’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to make something holy.’ ” (p. 674). Comparing the English “sacrifice” to the Hebrew korban, we immediately understand the difference. Korban comes from the root kuf-reish-bet, which means “to get close.” Our rites and rituals are designated to get us closer to holiness and God.

Our not-so-distant ancestors knew that this book is not as exciting as the rest of the biblical narratives; it has no drama, no thunder and lighting, no splitting of the sea. Leviticus is also known as Torat Kohanim, the Torah or “guide” for the kohanim, “priests,” who descend from the tribe of Levi. This book is our manual for rites and rituals.

Our great Reform tradition, particularly the more classical form, was terribly uncomfortable with these notions of sacrifice and purity rites. Yet they were not at all uncomfortable with the idea of a God present in this world. They preferred a God of justice and compassion, the God who heals and comforts.

Our Torah gives us a legacy of both. Every year as we return to Parashat Vayikra, and the Book of Leviticus as a whole, we are challenged to understand these dignified yet difficult texts.

As we step into the Book of Leviticus, we move to another level of spiritual development and pause to take stock of our journey. Genesis can be read as the descent of the soul and its contraction into physical form. As the wonderful narrative of Genesis ends, we find ourselves enslaved in Egypt, in a narrow perception of our physical reality.

Exodus then shows us the path of liberation, the awakening of the soul to its true essence. The story of Exodus ends with the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Through the Mishkan, we learn that our freedom depends on our connection to God and our willingness to make a holy space within ourselves for God to dwell.

Vayikra shows us a path to God that is described in the language of Korbanot, “sacrifices;” or bringing ourselves near to God. The biblical korbanot were a powerful and effective means of engaging all the senses, witnessing the power of Life and Death, and then sharing a sacred meal in the Presence of God. The result was experienced as total purification.

Our tradition tells us that prayer now takes the place of the sacrifices. The spiritual challenge of Vayikra is to make prayer as powerful, as intense, and as effective as the sacrificial system was for our ancestors. Here at Temple, we make every effort to create moving, uplifting and powerful worship experiences. We invite your participation in our spiritual community.

(Thank you to Rabbi Naamah Kelman for some of the ideas in this d’var torah).


Pekudei

27Adar I 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Parshat Pekudei comes at the very end of the book of Exodus. Here are the final lines:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

The book of Genesis ended with the journey of Jacob’s family from Canaan to Egypt; now, at the end of Exodus, the Israelites are on their way back. The entire book has been full of their travels, from place to place in the wilderness. One can imagine our ancestors asking, “Are we there yet?” with some regularity! Despite this desire to arrive, there is great meaning in the notion of the journey – as overused as the language may be.

The Yalkut Yehudah teaches:

“The place where they camped was also known as a journey (Rashi). Even when Jews think that they have settled in a place where they have known only peace and tranquility and they regard it as one where they have finally settled down, “that is also known as a journey” – they should bear in mind that this, too, is merely a way station, and that they may be forced to wander again.”

I don’t bring this teaching to talk about the precariousness of Jewish history, though certainly we have had many times when we have had to leave our countries and our homes. Rather, I think it tells us something about the human condition: whenever we are comfortable in our lives, we should always be aware that there could be a change around the corner. Part of the challenge of being human, then, is to know when to get up and go – and to find ways to feel God’s presence in all our choices, and in all our travels. One of the great insights of Judaism is that God is not bound to time and place, so wherever we go, and for whatever reason, we need not be alone.


Vayekhel

20 Adar I 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Parshat Vayekhel is replete with concrete descriptions of how the Tabernacle is to be built. For millennia, commentators have suggested that all this tangible detail is a response to the sin of the golden calf, the act of idolatry which we read in last week’s parsha. Basically, the idea is this: although our God cannot be seen and is not to be depicted as an image, human beings still need something they can see and touch. No matter how spiritual we may be, we live in the material world. Our parsha this week translates that reality into a focus on making the Tabernacle, the place of prayer and sacrifice, into a place that was not only holy, but beautiful.

I had the privilege last week of being scholar-in-residence at Alyth, a Reform synagogue in London. Their sanctuary is very different than ours, but it was clear to me that a lot of effort has been put into making it beautiful, as with our own. In addition to London, I also spent two days in Oxford, where I had studied years before – and there too, I was struck by the beauty of the buildings: the libraries, colleges, and chapels. Making a place beautiful says something about what we value.

What makes the Torah description remarkable is that everyone takes part: there is a skilled artisan, Betzalel, in charge of the project, but everyone has something to contribute: men and women, those who are enthusiastic and those who are skilled. The people bring so much that, famously, Moses has to ask them to stop; the campaign has been successful beyond his expectations. If only all capital campaigns had such an overwhelming response! But what matters to me most, in reading this, is how invested our ancestors were in making sure that the place where they encountered God was a place of beauty. May that pride of place inspire us, as we continue to build our sacred home.


Ki Tisa

12 Adar I 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

 This week’s Torah portion is full of interesting material for a d’var Torah – from the census mentioned at the very beginning to the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, from the building of the Golden Calf to the carving of the second set of tablets.

The instructions for building the tabernacle are interrupted by a reminder to observe Shabbat, as if to say “even though building the tabernacle is important, it does not take precedence over observing Shabbat.” A few of these verses about Shabbat were deemed so important that they became a song, V’shamru, which is part of our regular Friday night worship. We also recite V’shamru as part of the Shabbat morning kiddush.

“The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days, God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Ex. 31:16-17)

The Adult B’nai Mitzvah class has been studying Shabbat. As a homework assignment, the members of the class were asked to think about how they could make their Shabbat, (the 25 hour period from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), feel more like a day of rest. What could they do differently to mark Shabbat? As we have discussed in class, it is difficult to dedicate 25 whole hours to “rest.” But, we have also talked about how being a Reform Jew is more challenging than being a traditional Jew because we are not obligated to follow the traditional Jewish laws about Shabbat (or anything else). So, how might one mark the day of rest? What can you change in your routine to make Shabbat feel special?

The Adult B’nai Mitzvah class came up with an extremely varied and interesting list. Here are just a few of the ideas we listed:

  • Refrain from grocery shopping
  • Eat Challah
  • Avoid doing laundry
  • Have a family dinner on Friday night
  • Have a family lunch on Saturday
  • Be nice to yourself
  • Light candles

How can you make Shabbat special for you and your family? I would encourage you to try one of the ideas on this list – or come up with your own way to set Shabbat apart from the other days of the week. You will notice that “going to services” is not on this list. While we would love to see you at services, we would rather know that you are observing Shabbat in some way. Let us know what you decide!


Tetzaveh

6 Adar 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In Tetzaveh, we read about the sacrifices and ordination rituals for Aaron, the high priest, and his family. It is a Torah portion which is, in many ways, foreign. Yet there is one unlikely verse which jumps out, in a very modern way. We are told that a ram is to be sacrificed, and some of its blood is to be placed on the priests’ right ear, thumb, and big toe (Ex. 29:20). You may well wonder what could speak to us about that! But there is a wonderful commentary which goes as follows:

“These three: the ear, the hand, and the foot are what the priest and every leader must have: an ear to hear the cries of the people, to know and understand their needs and requirements; hands, not only to accept the offerings due the priests, but also to bestow a blessing on whoever needs it; and feet which hasten to run and help whoever is in need.”

I would argue that this applies not just to leaders, but every human being who wants to contribute to the greater good. We need to listen; we need to bless; and we need to run to help. There is no lack of tragedy in this world. But in every instance – whether it was 9/11 in New York City, or bombings in Paris, or terrorist attacks in Israel – our hope is kept alive by seeing those who help. This commentary reminds us that we too, each of us, are in a position every day to make a difference. It’s what we might call embodied Judaism, and it’s definitely not just about belief or prayer.

One other thought: this Shabbat, we have an extraordinary guest who will speak at services Friday night, and at lunch on Saturday. Pamela Schuller is a Jewish disabilities educator – and a comedian. In a recent article (click here to read it), she writes about how tolerance isn’t enough – and how the real task of inclusion is to recognize, and make space for, the unique gifts that everyone brings. Everyone hears differently; everyone blesses differently; everyone helps differently. All of us are needed to make our world whole.


Terumah

29 Shvat 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Terumah, is often used to teach about giving. God commands Moses to tell all the Israelites to take offerings with a willing heart to God. You may have noticed that our most recent issue of our newsletter, The Voice, also focuses on giving. It can be comforting to see that the perpetual need to ask for donations has been part of religion since the beginning. For biblical campaign, however, is a very quick one; the people actually bring more than is needed, and at a certain point, Moses has to ask them to stop. The first and only time I have experienced this phenomenon as a rabbi has been our campaign to raise funds for sponsoring refugees – which received an incredibly inspiring response. When it comes to things like the capital campaign, however, to take care of our Temple home, we are grateful for what we have received but we know we still have a way to go.

Given this context, I was struck this year by a commentary by Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. He notes the use of the word “take” (as in, “take an offering”), and here it what he says:

The verb for “take” here also means to trade or engage in business. A person who has a business does not close up his shop if one of his ventures was not successful… the same is true for the Torah and the commandments: if a person does not succeed once or twice, he must continue to work at improving himself, and not give up.

Whether it is a business venture, self-improvement, or raising money for a worthy cause, we owe it to ourselves not to give up. As we begin our week, may this idea inspire us to bend our shoulder to the wheel; in the give-and-take of the everyday, may our values be our guide.


Mishpatim

22 Shvat 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this parsha, Mishpatim, we find law upon law upon law. In the midst of it, God calls Moses up to Mount Sinai again to receive the commandments. “And the Eternal said to Moses: Come up to me on the mountain, and be there…” (Ex. 24:12).

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asks a good question about this verse, and comes up with a brilliant answer. He writes:

This seems redundant: if Moses went up to the mountain, of course he would be there. However, this is proof that a person can exert tremendous effort to reach the top of the mountain, yet without being there. He may be standing on the mountain, but his head may be elsewhere. The main thing is not the ascent but being there, and only there, and not to be below at the same time.

Last night, I went with a group of bnei mitzvah families and conversion students for our trip to Paperman’s. One of the things we spoke about was the importance of being fully present for people who mourn, or when we ourselves are mourners. Certain moments make us stop and pay attention; death is certainly among them. What the Kotzker Rebbe is teaching us is that we should try for more moments in which we are fully present. Life is not just about achieving – climbing the proverbial mountain. It is also about being where we are.


Yitro

15 Shvat 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion, Yitro, features the dramatic moment where the Jewish people stood at Sinai. It is the moment where God and the Jewish people enter into covenant together.

Although there is plenty of material here to talk about, I want to take this week to pay tribute to one of the great teachers of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz, who died last week. He was the pre-eminent theologian of the Reform movement; but on a very human level, he was also a conscientious, sensitive teacher and a mensch. He was most known for his idea of “covenant theology,” and how we might understand our connection to God in a post-modern world.

So in his honour, let me share these words from Rabbi Jordie Gerson, who was our visiting rabbi three years ago. Her recollection of Rabbi Borowitz reveals some of his insights into covenant, both the covenant we share with God, and the covenant we share with each other:

For a full year in Rabbinical School, I had the great (and enormously humbling privilege) of doing an independent study on Martin Buber with Eugene Borowitz, or Gene, as he insisted I call him. And I remember one afternoon, deep into a conversation about the I-Thou relationship, or Martin Buber’s assertion that all real living is meeting, and that God is only ever found in relationship, I looked up and saw a picture of his wife, who had died the year before. The picture was a recent one, from just a few months before her death, and she wasn’t wearing much make-up, or even particularly dressed up. “That’s a nice picture.” I said, “But I’m surprised you don’t have a wedding picture of her up…” he interrupted me then, and asked, “You mean a picture where she’s younger and more glamorous and prettier?” I nodded, guiltily.

“Jordie,” he said, “This is who she was. This is the woman I loved, the woman who took care of me and loved me for more than 50 years. And this is important to know about love: If you want to know if you’re in love, one of the ways you judge is if the relationship you’re still allowed to be you – even though it’s not the you it was before the relationship. To lose oneself in the merger of the richness of eroticism – that’s no good. But if you’re truly in love you have to somehow be your truer self – more of yourself – but you still have to be yourself.” (I know this verbatim, by the way, because I began writing it all down as he was speaking and am forever grateful that I did. It lives in the margins now of my copy of I-Thou.)

Many years later, I realized that Gene was teaching me not just about love, but about theology. Martin Buber believed that the experience of God, or Holiness, only happens when we are fully ourselves. Real connection can only happen between two differentiated wholes, two people or beings who are whole unto themselves. And so perhaps this is what Buber truly meant by all real living is meeting. What a precious gift to learn this from Dr. Borowitz, and what a blessing that we had him with us as long as we did. We are better for the life that he lived, and the truths that he taught.


Beshallach

8 Shvat 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This Torah portion, Beshallach, is famous for the Song of the Sea – sung by the Israelites as they were leaving Egypt, at the beginning of their journey to the Promised Land. One of my favourite cartoons inspired by this scene shows the importance of perspective: two Israelites standing with inner tubes around their waists, with the caption: “Not everyone believed that the waters would part.”

Here is Rabbi Larry Kushner’s take on that same perspective:

Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”

Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”

“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.

“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”

And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.

It’s very easy not to see, or not to believe. But in contrast, an ancient commentary insists that “even a maidservant saw more at the sea than all the prophets ever saw” (Rashi, based on Mekhilta). This suggests that if we are willing to open our eyes, we will see great moments; we will gain great insights. Wisdom is not just the domain of those who are set apart. Rather, it is everyday life – and the miracles of the everyday – which are most significant. Granted, not every day is like the day the Israelites crossed the sea. But how often do we ask the maidservant what she saw?


Bo

1 Shevat 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the last three plagues, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn. After the last plague, Pharaoh finally says, “Up, depart from among my people…go, worship the Eternal as you said!” (Ex. 12:31) The crossing of the Red Sea takes place in next week’s Torah portion. Come to services on Friday, January 22nd, for a fabulous musical celebration of the Exodus from Egypt.

Today, let’s look briefly at the final brutal plague:

“In the middle of the night, the Eternal struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the cattle.” Ex. 12:29

Why is this plague inflicted on every Egyptian? Our tradition teaches that we should not stand idly by when our neighbor bleeds, (Lev. 19:16). This final plague seems to support this commandment. The average Egyptian was not so innocent in the oppression of the Israelites. Even those who were not taskmasters, who did not mistreat an Israelite slave nevertheless failed to speak up in the face of the oppression and mistreatment of the Israelites. This collective punishment of the Egyptians reminds us that we, too, have the responsibility to fight oppression and to pursue justice in our world today.

One final point:

At the Torah School family service on Saturday, a student asked why God also killed the firstborn of the cattle. This is a more difficult question. Remember, that the fifth plague was “cattle disease,” (Ex. 9:6), so theoretically most of the Egyptian livestock are already dead. Many of the plagues are specifically targeted to demonstrate God’s power in the face of the Egyptian gods. Cows were sacred to the Egyptians – so perhaps this last plague is also inflicted on the cattle to hammer home this point – that the God of the Israelites is the all-powerful God.


Va-era

25 Kislev 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this week’s portion, Va-era, God calls upon Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelite people to freedom. Moses is reluctant – and that’s an understatement. Among his many objections, he insists that his speech isn’t good enough.

Commentators have debated whether that means he had a speech impediment, or simply didn’t think his Egyptian was up to the task (those of us who are less-than-bilingual in a bilingual society certainly know how that feels!). God’s response is striking. Essentially, God says to Moses: “I chose you to be my prophet, and I know what I’m doing. Stop making excuses and take on the job!”

Rabbi Neal Loevinger offers this insight, which I love:

“It’s reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful, but implanted Divine Truth into a person “slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” If Moses could rise to the occasion and speak words to Pharaoh that would change the whole course of human history, then I too can rise to the occasion and express to the world whatever sparks of Divinity I have been given.”

His comment speaks to two issues close to our communal heart. First, in keeping with our work in inclusion, he reminds us that everyone is important – and that sometimes, the person who society marginalized because of their difference is in fact the person whose wisdom we need. Second, as we come to the secular new year, it’s a great reminder: each of us has a role to play. Rather than making excuses, let’s figure out what we each can do, and what we can do together to make the world a better place.


Shemot

16 Tevet 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

This week, we read the first Torah portion in the book of Shemot, Exodus. Moses is born, grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, and meets God at the Burning Bush. The story of the redemption of the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery begins with this portion.

The story is made possible, in part, by the bravery of two women. Shifrah and Puah are the midwives who disobey Pharaoh’s command: “When you deliver the [babies of] the Hebrew women…if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live” (Ex. 1:16). We meet these women just once, and never hear of them again, so it is particularly interesting that we learn their names. The commentaries debate the identity of these two women. Were they “Hebrew midwives,” (of the Israelite nation), or “midwives to the Hebrew women,” (Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women)? We will never know the answer. But the Torah tells us they “feared God,” (Ex. 1:17). Nahum Sarna, a modern biblical scholar, suggests that Shifrah and Puah believed in the sanctity of human life. They acted out of a conviction that that there is a “Higher Power” than Pharaoh. So, they defied the Egyptian king’s command to murder the newborn baby boys of the Hebrew women. Sarna says: “Here we have history’s first recorded case of civil disobedience in defense of a moral cause.”

Pinchas Peli, another modern commentator, adds: “The case of the Hebrew midwives is proof that dissenting individuals can resist evil and thus start a whole process of liberation.”

Let us resolve, in the new year of 2016, to follow the example of Shifrah and Puah and resist the evil that threatens to overtake our world. We have the ability to change the world in both large and small ways – from helping to settle Syrian refugee families to donating toiletries for women in shelters – and more. Join your Temple community in our efforts!

 


Vayigash

25 Kislev 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In this dramatic Torah portion, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and they, along with Jacob, their father, come join Joseph in Egypt. As part of the reunion, Jacob, Joseph’s father, meets Pharaoh, Joseph’s boss. We can imagine what it felt like for Joseph, to see these worlds come together. Pharaoh inquires of Jacob, saying: “How many are the days of the years of your life?” This was not an unreasonable question, since Jacob, at that time, was 130 years old. But the commentators focus on the wording of the question: Not just, “How old are you?” but “How many are the days of your years?”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, with great insight, writes: “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years, but days…. Thus Pharaoh [with his words] reveals the deep impression the dignified behavior of Jacob has made on him.

As we come towards the secular New Year, he have the opportunity – as with Rosh Hashanah – for a time of reflection. The ancient rabbis taught that there are actually multiple new years that we can observe over the span of a single year, precisely because we need to reflect on a regular basis. As we do so, I for one will try to be open to the wisdom of the commentary above. Yes, we can and should focus on what we experience every year, and what changes (and hopefully improves) from one year to the next. But this shouldn’t detract from our focus on the everyday, on waking up each morning and living life in the best way we can.


 

Mikeitz

25 Kislev 5776
By Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, our Torah portion falls on Shabbat Chanukah. Our bima Friday night will be full of light: the Shabbat candles and the Chanukah candles together. It’s no accident, of course, that in a season of darkness, many religious traditions celebrate with light. But it’s also interesting to note how this season maps on to the cycle of Torah readings. This week, we read Mikketz, which contains a central portion of the Joseph story. Joseph is in Egypt, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man; his brothers, who tossed him in a pit, sold him into slavery, and told their father he was dead (sibling rivalry, anyone?), have come to Egypt in search of food in time of famine. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they don’t recognize him. From this ensues a series of texts that Joseph puts his brothers through, trying to see whether they have changed.

Rabbi David of Lvov, trying to understand this, writes: “The community cannot be redeemed until it recognizes its faults and makes efforts to correct them. The same is true for each individual… As long as Joseph’s brothers kept insisting, “We are true men,” they were not worthy of being redeemed… only after they realized that they were wrong [in their initial treatment of their brother]… did their redemption begin. God then filled Joseph’s heart with mercy for his brothers.”

Where do we find light? We find light in the human ability to change, and to choose a better, different path. And we find it in the ability of people who have been estranged to turn back towards each other, and give each other than second chance. Even as the light of our Chanukah menorahs shines out into the world from our windows, so may it also shine its light inside, into our hearts and our homes.


Vayeishev

18 Kislev 5776
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

 This week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Joseph story – a story many of us know well, thanks, in part to the Rice/Webber musical, but also because it is an exciting and engaging narrative.

If you have been following the Torah portions of the past few weeks, you are aware that the Torah presents us with story after story about dysfunctional families. This week’s portion is no exception.

At the beginning of the portion, we read these words: “Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” (Gen. 37:3-4)

The favoritism that Jacob shows to Joseph sets the stage for entire arc of the story, from the time his brothers toss him into the pit until the conclusion when Joseph, a minister in Pharaoh’s court, is able to save his family from famine.

Joseph is not an appealing character at the beginning of he story. He flaunts his status as the favorite son. He tells his brothers about the dreams he has, in which the brothers bow down to him. Towards the end of the portion, Joseph is framed by Potiphar’s wife, and tossed into prison. Now, we have more sympathy for Joseph. Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of Pharoah’s cup-bearer, and yet, the portion ends with Joseph languishing in prison.

While this portion offers much to ponder, I will conclude with two almost opposite nuggets:

  • We can learn much from this story about family relationships – whether we are children, parents or siblings. Our ancestors offer us a cautionary tale of how not to behave: don’t play favorites; don’t act as if you are superior; respect all your family members for their own strengths.
  • Joseph is portrayed as a dreamer. Perhaps Joseph dreams in order to escape the animosity of his brothers. Dreams give Joseph the strength survive and ultimately are the key to his success. Dreams are powerful; they allow us to imagine ourselves in different places. Dreams are useful tools for inspiring us to change our lives for the better.

Read about this week Torah portion here


Vayetze

4 Kislev
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, our Torah portion – Vayetze – hits home. Jacob, our ancestor, is running scared. He has left home in a hurry, after his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. Jacob himself is far from blameless; he manipulated his brother into giving up his birthright, and disguised himself to steal his brother’s blessing. Be that as it may, he thought he was doing the right thing (see Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ illuminating commentary here. And now he is away from his home, on the road, and alone.

In the Talmud, we learn that the evening prayer is associated with Jacob, from a moment in this week’s portion: “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set” (Gen. 28:11). He dreams an extraordinary dream, in which God gives him the divine promise. Even so, he has his doubts; God promises to be with him, and he replies, “if God will be with me…” Jacob not only prays at night, but he experiences what has been called the dark night of the soul. He is afraid, and in need of comfort.

I know this was my feeling on Friday night, as news from Paris came in. How a city of lights could be darkened; how people seeking joy could be met with death; how it feels like acts of terror are permeating our world. And then I thought of the Hashkiveinu prayer that we only say at night, and which, because of that, is connected to Jacob’s journey as well as our own. This is the (slightly modified) translation from our prayerbook. I offer it this morning in hope: that the days ahead of us will be shaped by peace and consolation.

Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace,

And raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed.

Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.

Guide us with Your good counsel; for Your name’s sake, be our help.

Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings.

Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine and sorrow.

Distance us from wrongdoing.

For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.

Guard our going and coming, to life and peace, evermore.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, whose shelter of peace is spread over us,

over all Your People Israel, over Jerusalem, and over all the world.

Amen.


Toledot

27 Cheshvan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot, contains a remarkable episode. Rebecca, who has married Isaac, is pregnant with twins after years of infertility. However, it’s not an easy pregnancy; we read that the twins were struggling within her (later rabbinic commentary suggests that Jacob kept trying to move her towards houses of study, and Esau kept trying to turn aside to idolatry, even in the womb!). Faced with this situation, she asks, im ken, lamah zeh anochi – “if this is how it’s going to be, what am I doing here?”  we read. Then: va-telech li-drosh et Adonai – she went to ask God for an explanation.

The rabbis who read this passage hundreds of years ago assumed that the text couldn’t mean what it said; rather, they said, it must be that she went to inquire of a man of God, a prophet who would tell her God’s intent. But the biblical text reaches through the millennia to tell us: Rebecca, in a difficult situation, turned to God for an answer – without needing any intermediary.

God answers her, telling her that two nations are struggling within her, and the elder (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob). It’s not an easy answer, and not one that any parent would want to hear. It also doesn’t lessen the pain of her long-awaited pregnancy. But it does give her a raison d’être; it gives her a direction, and a charge. She proceeds to do what she thinks is necessary to fulfill God’s word, and to make sense of her life. What courage that must have required – and how in keeping with the character of a woman who had the courage to go directly to God. In the midst of debates in the Orthodox world about women as rabbis (see my upcoming Rabbi 2 Rabbi column in the CJN), it’s worth noting the strength of Rebecca’s voice, resonating from biblical times to our own.


Chayei Sara

20 Cheshvan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Chayei Sarah, literally, “the life of Sarah,” begins with Sarah’s death. We then read many verses about Abraham’s efforts to purchase a place to bury her. The attention paid to her burial is characteristic of the attention Jews have always given to caring for the dead. A cemetery is meant to be one of the first institutions a Jewish community establishes; and the chevereh kadisha, those who prepare a body for burial, are seen to perform a sacred and essential task. Throughout, there are two principles that emerge: first, honouring the deceased (kibud ha-met), and second, comforting the mourners (nichum aveilim). Everything we do is meant to reinforce those two principles.

Over the millennia, Jews have buried their dead in different ways. I’ll be teaching about this in the spring (May 17, 7:00 pm), in a session on Reform Jewish approaches to death and mourning – including the question of cremation. We even teach our bnei mitzvah kids about these rituals when we take them on a field trip to Paperman’s each year. After all, when someone comes of age, they become able – and responsible – to say kaddish.

It’s fair to ask why there is so much attention in the Torah portion, and in Judaism as a whole, to how we care for those who have died. After all, is Judaism not known as a religion that emphasizes life? From a Jewish point of view, however, caring for the deceased, and those who mourn them, is central to honouring life. Just as Sarah’s death is introduced by speaking about her life; just as the mourner’s kaddish emphasizes life; so too do we, in honouring our dead, show the value of their lives. The Torah teaches us that a life should not end without attention being paid. As Abraham did for Sarah, so may we do right by those we love.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch: rabbigrushcow@templemontreal.ca, or call Sally for an appointment (514-937-3575 x 208).


Vayera

13 Cheshvan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

In Vayera, we find the beautiful scene of Abraham welcoming guests into his tent. There are many wonderful interpretations of this act, which is seen as the first instance of the mitzvah (commandment) of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests. I want to share two of them with you, one from the perspective of the person being welcomed, and one from the perspective of the person doing the welcoming.

First, the one being welcomed. Abraham sat in the door of the tent, rather than taking shelter inside. Why? One Chasidic commentator makes the following observation: There are two kinds of people in need. The first kind is comfortable coming in and asking for help. The second kind, however, find it very difficult to ask for help; even approaching the door can be hard. For this reason, those who can offer help wait outside to greet them, to make it easier for them to come in.

Second, the one doing the welcoming. Everyone who has been a host knows that there are times when you are more enthusiastic than others about the prospect of people coming over. The midrash pays attention to the fact that Abraham rushed to welcome his guests. Why? Mesilat Yesharim writes: “whoever shows externally that he is enthusiastic, influences his inner emotions as well, and thereby increases his own enthusiasm. If, however, a person carries out the commandments in a slow, ponderous manner, his enthusiasm will continue to decrease.” In other words, if we act enthusiastic, we are more likely to feel enthusiastic.

It is not uncomplicated, this business of being a guest or being a host. One of the best articles I read this past year was a parenting blog which introduced the idea of “crappy dinners” (http://www.mothering.com/articles/host-crappy-dinner-see-friends-often/). I don’t love the terminology, but I do love the concept, which is this: We don’t spend enough time with our friends, and one of the reasons is that we feel like everything has to be perfectly in order to invite someone in. But what if we trusted each other enough to invite each other over even when we’re not serving anything special, and even when we haven’t tidied up? On the one hand, this takes away some of the pleasure of entertaining – but on the other hand, it keeps the perfect from being the enemy of the good. Because after all, isn’t the point to open our tents to those in need of company and nourishment, including ourselves? I think of Susan Pinker’s important book, The Village Effect, which she spoke about recently at Temple. She makes the case that we all do better when we have other people around us, as part of a full life. Whether we are like Abraham and Sarah, rushing to prepare the best for their guests, constantly alert for company – or more like the rest of us, perhaps a little less prepared but willing to open our homes and our hearts – may we find ways to fulfil this mitzvah.


Lech Lecha

6 Cheshvan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s portion, Lech Lecha, begins with momentous words:

Chapter 12
1 The Eternal said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

2 I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”

As I read these words on the eve of our election, one central aspect of God’s promise to Abram (even before he became Abraham) jump out.

Part of being blessed, God tells Abram, includes being a blessing to others. We will see this in future chapters when Abraham stands up for other people, welcomes strangers into his tent, and tries to make peace in his own home. He is not always successful, but he always tries. His blessing from God doesn’t involve staying at home and putting his feet up, enjoying his good fortune; it means washing the dust of off others’ feet, and making the world his home.

At our symposium on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Commissioner Marie Wilson reflected on the story we tell about Abraham and Sarah’s tent, open on all sides. She told us that the Dene people in the north have been living in tents for over 30,000 years, telling similar stories of welcoming strangers and sharing their blessings with others.

Even as the story of Lech Lecha tells of the beginning of the Jewish people, may God’s blessing to Abraham remind us of our connection to others. May it continue to inspire us to make a better world, so that our good names – as individuals, Canadians, and Jews – truly are a blessing.

In that spirit, don’t forget to vote! Then let’s get up Tuesday morning, ready to keep working for a better country and a better world.


Noach

29 Tishrei
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

The story of Noah is often told as a children’s tale. When you actually open the Torah, though, it is a very harsh story. Last week, the Torah taught us about the world’s creation; this week, we read about its destruction. God quickly despairs of human behaviour, and even regrets having created us.

It’s easy to understand the despair. The past week, and especially this morning, the news from Israel has been grim. It’s hard to get one’s head around the absolute inhumanity of walking up to a stranger in the street and stabbing them, or shooting at a bus full of people.

And then, in our own country, as we focus our Sunday symposium on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, it is hard not to be utterly broken-hearted about the generations of children and the abuses they endured.

These are drastically different situations; there is no comparison, of course. But the common thread is the stunning human ability to treat each other in inhuman ways.

In response to all this, the story of Noah offers the the rainbow: a sign of the covenant between humanity and God. A promise that no matter how bad things get, we won’t give up. A commitment to be worthy of this creation we have been given. As my Rabbi Robert Levine would say, may this be God’s will – but first may it be our own.


Bereshit

24 Tishrei
By  Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

I don’t think it is an accident that we read Bereshit, the story of creation, on the Shabbat after Sukkot ends. We have just spent a week “living” outdoors, eating our meals in the Sukkah, enjoying the bounty of nature.

In Gen. 2:19, God gives Adam the responsibility of naming all the animals. If you give something a name, you then have the responsibility to care for that creature. The Midrash tells us that after Adam was created, God led him around the Garden of Eden, showing him the beautiful garden. “See how beautiful everything is that I have created. It has all been made for you. Remember this, and do not corrupt or destroy My world. For if you do, there will be no one left to save it.” (Ecc. R. 7:13). The Talmud, (Sanh. 38a), reiterates this idea that we human beings have been appointed as “caretakers” of the world.

Today, we inherit this command to care for the world, to take care of the environment. Although Adam – and the rabbis of the Talmud – never heard of recycling, I believe our tradition commands us to recycle – and to do everything else we can to protect and improve our world.

Despite reading some recent articles questioning the value of recycling, (for example http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/the-reign-of-recycling.html?_r=0) I am an ardent recycler. I learned this “skill” from my mom, who recycled way before there was curb-side pick-up. We would pile the recycling in the basement, until the bins were overflowing; then, my mom would take it to our town’s recycling center. I feel like recycling is my small contribution to protecting the beautiful creation that this week’s Torah portion celebrates.


Shabbat Sukkot

15 Tishrei
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s Torah reading is a special one, determined not by the weekly Torah cycle but by the festival of Sukkot. Although it’s raining as I write this, we began Sukkot on Sunday night with a glorious day of apple-picking and a hundred people cycling through the sukkah for our “Pizza in the Hut.” Sukkot is all about being outside, after all the hours spent in synagogue over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At first glance, the Torah portion we read for Shabbat Sukkot this Saturday is very straightforward: it includes the biblical instruction for the festival, and the description of the three pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot).

At the same time, this Torah passage connects us back to the Days of Awe. It includes the striking scene where Moses, in need of inspiration and support, hides in the cleft of a rock as God’s presence passes before him. At that moment, he calls out: “Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun” – “Eternal, Eternal! Merciful and gracious God.” These are precisely the words we use when we ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. These words will appear again in the book of Numbers (chapter 14), when Moses is asking God’s forgiveness for the lack of faith of the spies who went to see the Promised Land. In that instance, God says to Moses: “salachti ki’dvarecha” – “I have forgiven according to your word.” These words, too, appeared in our prayers on Yom Kippur.

What do we make of all this overlap? Is our Torah reading on Sukkot meant to pull us back into the heavy themes of the Days of Awe? Rather, I think, it is meant to remind us of two essential insights. First, all these weighty words originate in stories, in very human instances of faith and doubt and forgiveness. Second, forgiveness and compassion are not once-a-year themes. I like to think that the Torah reading of Sukkot is meant to remind us that we can indeed integrate these lessons into our lives. In these days following the High Holy Days, our task is to be more compassionate, more forgiving, more conscious of our own acts – and to keep working on the important relationships in our lives.


Read about this week Torah portion here


Vayelech

3 Tishrei
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our parsha is Vayelech. It’s the second-last Torah portion in Deuteronomy, and therefore the second-last portion in the Torah as a whole. You might expect that with Rosh Hashanah the Torah cycle begins anew, but that actually doesn’t happen until Simchat Torah, at the end of Sukkot. So even though we read about creation on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in our tradition, the Shabbat cycle is still in Deuteronomy.

The message in Vayelech, though, is powerful for this time of year. It’s a very short Torah portion, which contains a lot of repetition. Moses is passing his authority onto Joshua, who will lead the Israelites into the Promised land. There’s a phrase he uses frequently, and it always stays with me: chazak v’amatz – be strong and of good courage. We can imagine Moses, having experienced all the highs and lows of leadership – and many, many challenges along the way – trying to tell his younger counterpart how to make it through each day. Ultimately, it is not specific advice about particular scenarios that matters most. Moses isn’t handing Joshua a binder full of best practices. Rather, he is teaching him something about approach; he is telling him the qualities which are necessary to lead. Strength. Resilience. Hope. These are the characteristics which are key.

As we end one year and begin the next, it’s worth thinking about the key values and approaches which guide our lives. What qualities are most important to us? What did we learn from those who came before us, and what do we want to pass on to those who come after?

Shanah tovah and gmar tov – may we all be signed and sealed in the book of life.


Nitzavim

23 Elul
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

This week’s parsha, Nitzavim, will also be read on Yom Kippur. It describes the covenant that the Israelites make with God just before entering the Promised Land. The Tanya (a Chasidic work) asks why this covenant is necessary, since a covenant had already been made at Sinai. The answer?

When two friends make a covenant, it is not for the present, for a time when they are very close, but for the future, because sometimes, as time passes, their feeling of closeness dissolves. Thus the covenant is meant to have them maintain their closeness, even after those factors which brought it about no longer exist.

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, the commentary suggests, and miracles were happening every day, it was easy to maintain a closeness with God. There was a risk, however, that when they entered the land, and had to work, and experience the ordinary ups and downs of life – then they might grow distant.

This teaching resonates with me on at least two levels. First, it’s a good reminder to me to look over my friendships and other relationships, asking myself where there is distance and how it might be bridged. Just this past week, I have reconnected with two friends – one with whom I studied at McGill, who is now in Boston, and the other with whom I studied at Oxford, who is now in Budapest. It was a joy to pick up some conversations where they had been left off, and find that others had new depth given the life experience that has come in between. Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time to re-examine our relationships, acknowledge what may be difficult, and appreciate what is good.

On another level, these days are also about our relationship with God. It’s easy to walk in after a year and feel estranged – estranged from the liturgy, or from community, or from the very idea of religion. I encourage us all to take these days to reconnect to this relationship as well, to explore our own beliefs, and be open to an encounter with someone, or something, beyond our single selves. For many of us, there are times in our lives we have felt close to God, and times we have felt very far.

May this be a season of openness, as we seek to reconnect and recommit to the covenant that connects us to each other.


Ki tavo

16 Elul
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Coming to Montreal from NYC, I quickly discovered how much the Montreal Jewish community is shaped by its Sephardi members. As I observed my first year, in their Manhattan Reform Jewish day school, my children never learned about the custom of eating fish heads on Rosh Hashanah…

So that is precisely the custom I thought of when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s parsha:

“The Eternal will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom — if only you obey and faithfully observe the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day” (Deut. 28:13)

I’m open to other explanations, but my understanding is that this verse explains the fish heads… The idea is to enter the new year as the head and not the tail, as people in control of our own lives, not subject to the whims of others.

This summer, I read “On the Move,” the autobiography of the renowned neurologist and author, Dr. Oliver Sacks. What was most striking to me was his ability, over the course of his life and work, not only to help others find that agency, but also to find it himself. Dr. Sacks died this past weekend. I’ll be weaving some of his words into the High Holy Days, but for now let me simply say, may his memory be for blessing. And whether it is through neurology or spirituality,  eating fish heads or doing the work of reflection, may each of us enter the new year as the head and not the tail.


Ki Tetzei

9 Elul
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, among many commandments about topics ranging from warfare to family law, we find this teaching: That which goes out of your lips you shall keep, and you shall do as you vowed to the Eternal your God, which you promised with your mouth. (Deut. 23:24)

One commentary, Adarah Le-Me’ah, has the following take on what this verse might mean: “When a person takes a vow to do something good he is certainly enthusiastic about it at the time, but as time passes his enthusiasm wanes, and even though he may fulfill his vow, he does so reluctantly. Therefore the Torah stresses that ‘you shall do’ – with the same enthusiasm as at the time that ‘you vowed’.” In other words, a promise made in the moment can be full of conviction, but life quickly interferes, and if we are not careful, we’re on to the next thing – another project, another commitment, another promise – and the vow is forgotten. It’s not malice, but it’s also not acting as our best selves. It’s worth remembering that we are only as good as our word.

As we come closer to the Days of Awe, may we pay attention to the promises that we make; may we commit only to those actions that we can fulfill with all our hearts.


Shoftim

2 Elul
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we read:

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

In this one verse, we find essential environmental teachings. We learn that even in times of war and duress, we are to pay attention to the natural world, and preserve it. Even in times of siege, fruit trees are not to be subsumed to human use. Strikingly, the reason given is not purely utilitarian (eg you don’t cut down fruit trees because then you have no more fruit). Rather, we are told that trees are defenceless; unlike people, they can’t run away from conflict; and therefore their place should be respected and protected.

What an astonishing series of teachings, especially for our own age! I recently read an article in the New Yorker about the fault line underlying the Pacific Northwest. In it, the author, Kathryn Schulz, writes: “The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism – an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.”

The Torah warns us against such short-sightedness. In the scheme of the universe, even the three thousand years of Jewish history is the blink of an eye. But within it, we can find wisdom and guidance for how to find a way forward.


Re’eh

25 Av
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Among its many topics, this week’s portion itemizes kosher and non-kosher birds. Now, before you stop reading, let me tell you that one of the reasons this part caught my eye is that I’ve recently returned from cottage country. On the lake where my parents have a cottage, there’s a small island full of heron nests. Believe it or not, they’ve already started their migration south. There are also osprey, cormorants, hawks, hummingbirds, phoebes, finches, loons, and more.

None of these birds are kosher – which isn’t a tragedy, since in my family, we are definitely better at fishing than catching birds. There are various reasons, based on issues ranging from “we don’t want to imbibe the qualities of birds of prey” to “no one has ever eaten a songbird in a kosher home before” to “how on earth would you find the hummingbird’s neck?”

One bird that is explicitly forbidden is the ra’ah, translated as “glede,” a bird of prey. The root of the word in Hebrew has to do with vision, and the sages say that this bird had such extraordinary sight that it could be in Babylon and see carrion in the Land of Israel. Why then, with such great vision, should it be declared non-kosher? Because, they say, “anyone who only sees carrion and imperfections is not kosher.”

On some level, we are what we eat. And we know we don’t want to be the kind of person who only sees bad, and not good. It’s possible to have extraordinarily good vision which is nonetheless incomplete. Last week’s portion was about expressing mindfulness and gratitude around our food. This week’s portion gives us the chance to direct some of that mindfulness towards ourselves.


Ekev

18 Av
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In parshat Ekev, we find the verse which is the source of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals: “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut. 8:10).

Years ago, I learned that the reason that the Jewish practice is to say grace after meals, instead of before, is that it’s harder to say thank you when you’re satisfied. When you’re hungry, it’s obvious that you are dependent and in need; when you’re full, it’s easy to be not only satisfied but self-satisfied.

We depend on others for our food in so many ways, and yet we so rarely think about the person who picked our fruit, packaged our meat, produced our cheese. Even more rarely do we think of the animals or land behind the people. Saying grace after meals gives us the opportunity to take a moment of reflection and gratitude. Ideally, it also helps us think more about where our food comes from, and the values behind what we eat. There’s a wonderful book called The Sacred Table, which contains a range of liberal Jewish thinking on food. It goes far beyond the question of “is it kosher?” to explore what it might mean to look at food through a Jewish lens.

Last but not least, many people are kept from birkat hamazon because it’s long and unfamiliar. As with anything, familiarity increases with use. But hundreds of years ago, the Talmud gave a one-line alternative in Aramaic, the language most people spoke and understood. It goes like this:

Brich Rachamana, Malka d’alma, morei d’hai pita.

At camp, we follow it with this English line:

You are the Source of Life for all that is, and our blessings flow through You.

Here’s the actual translation:

Praise to the Merciful, Ruler of the world, Creator of this bread.

Feel free to use this, or an alternative, as a simple way to add mindfulness and gratitude to your table.


Va’Etchanan

11 Av
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In this week’s parsha, Moses tells the Israelites to “guard your soul diligently, lest you forget.” A.S. Mann tells the following story:

Once a man came to a certain town and proclaimed that he would walk across the river on a tightrope if he was paid a hundred guilders. A large crowd gathered on the river bank to see the sight. The Baal Shem Tov, watching this, was lost in deep concentration. After, his followers asked him what he was thinking about. He replied: “I looked at the man, and saw that he was endangering his life just to earn some money, yet I have no doubt that when he was walking on the tightrope he was not thinking about the hundred guilders. After all, had he lost his concentration for even an instant, he would have immediately plunged into the river. There is no doubt that at the time, he concentrated only on the task at hand. If this is what a person must do in order to earn money, how much more must we concentrate in our daily lives on the mitzvot which we perform.

What do we pay attention to? Marge Piercy, in her poem, “The Art of Blessing the Day,” writes:

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.

The art of blessing is the art of paying attention. The art of living is the art of paying attention. Do we pay more attention to our kids or our screens, our work or our home? The answer, often, is “all of the above.” But in a world of multi-tasking, it’s worth paying attention to what we pay attention to! Next time I’m distracted, I plan to think of that tightrope walker, making his way above the river.


Devarim

4 Av
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This week, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, Devarim. I always love the shift of tone that comes with this fifth and final book of the Torah. “Devarim” means “words,” and here, we read Moses’ final words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. Here, Moses speaks in the first person, telling the story from his point of view.

One commentary Hidushei Ha-Rim, takes up an ancient tradition that when Moses spoke to the Israelites, he did so in seventy languages. Why? Because, he writes, “It is because God knew that the Jews would be scattered throughout the world and among the different nations. Moses therefore explained the Torah in seventy languages, so that in every language and among every nation there will be spark of Torah.”

I find this especially moving in a week in which we mark Tisha b’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem (from sunset on July 25 to sunset on July 26). In the face of the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple almost 2000 years ago, we affirm that the Torah was meant for the diaspora too; despite its focus on the land of Israel, it has wisdom for us wherever we are. That’s one reason why the Reform movement has always incorporated the vernacular, the languages people actually spoke, into our services. God speaks to us, and hears us, in the languages that we speak and in the places where we are.


Mattot-Masei

19 Tamuz
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Mattot-Masei is the perfect parsha for a time when many people are travelling. It begins with a travelogue of all the places where the Israelites journeyed after leaving Egypt, and before reaching the Promised Land. Why do we get the whole list? Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, writes:

“These are the stages [of the journeys] of the Israelites.” A parable: To what may it be compared? To a king whose son was ill and whom he took to a distant place to cure. As soon as they returned home the father began to enumerate all the stages, saying to him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache. So the Blessed Holy One said to him: Moses! Enumerate all the places where they provoked Me to anger. For this reason it is written: “These are the stages of the Israelites.”

From this perspective, the Torah portion isn’t just telling us about geography; it’s telling us the story of a family trip, the high points and the low points, the closeness and the challenge.

At their best, families – and religions – are about making memories, telling the stories of our lives in a way that helps our lives make sense. Rashi’s version of the story shows God’s care for the Israelites even when God was angry. Our stories, as we tell and retell them, can shed light on the most important people and moments in our lives. In the ease of snapping photos on our phones and posting them online, we don’t always take the time to craft the stories of our journeys. Whatever format you use, and whatever travels you may have, I encourage you to use this as a time to make memories, tell stories, and re-connect.

All that being said, I encourage you to keep an eye on the Temple Facebook page, as I’ll try to post pictures from URJ Camp George. I’m going to join the faculty as one of the camp rabbis at this beautiful Reform camp in Northern Ontario. Click here to get a sense of where I’ll be. I’m looking forward to connecting with kids of all ages, and many Reform colleagues, as our journey takes us into the great outdoors.


Pinchas

19 Tamuz
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Parshat Pinchas falls during the three weeks between two fasts on the Jewish calendar: the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, both of which mark tragedies in Jewish history related to the destruction of the Temple. In traditional Jewish circles, this is a period of mourning. You  may be familiar with this time because many people don’t celebrate weddings, and observe other restrictions. For those who are attuned to this aspect of the Jewish calendar, it can be a sombre but meaningful time, reminding us of the darker moments in our past. I remember observing these three weeks the summer I lived in Jerusalem, and feeling the connections to our history in a new way.

For many of us, of course, this is simply the time we experience summer, enjoying the festivals and the ability to be outside without winter coats… I know I’m looking forward to spending the remainder of July as camp rabbi, on the faculty at Camp George (our Reform summer camp in Ontario). But I want to share one teaching about Parshat Pinchas that specifically considers the different aspects of this time of year. Bnei Yisaschar writes that this parsha is read during these three weeks of mourning because the Torah portion mentions the festivals, “all of which,” he writes, “connote joy. Thus the reading instills hope on our hearts of happy times.”

Whether or not you observe the three weeks and Tisha B’Av, there is an important insight here. Even at our dark times, we are to remind ourselves that rejoicing is still possible. The opposite also is true, as we show when we break the glass at a wedding: even when we are rejoicing, we need to remember that there is suffering. To be a Jew, and to be a human being, is to be open to all aspects of existence, and find meaning and motivation in all of them.


Balak

12 Tamuz
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Balak is a fabulous parsha. It features a talking donkey (long before Shrek), a parody of a prophet, and much more. As a biblical story, it is a gem. But the insight I want to share with you this week is on a different level. The heart of the story involves a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, being hired by a king to curse the Israelites. He tries to curse them as commanded, but God puts words of blessing in his mouth instead. What are those words? Mah tovu ohaleicha Yaakov – how beautiful are your tents, oh Jacob. Sound familiar? Of all the words of blessing in the Hebrew Bible, we choose the words of a pagan prophet with which to begin our morning service. In so doing, we remind ourselves every time we gather that wisdom comes from many places, and blessings can reach us from an unexpected source. Here as everywhere, our tradition reminds us to keep our eyes – and minds – open.


Chukat

5 Tamuz
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, Moses loses his temper. There are many reasons: his sister, Miriam has died; the people are whining (yet again); and the wandering through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land gave new meaning to the question, “are we there yet?” All the same, God tells him to speak to a rock to give out water, and he hits the rocks instead – not once, but twice. For this, God tells him that he will not live beyond the wilderness.

Much can be said about whether the punishment fits the crime. Some suggest that the people will simply need a new leader to take them into the next chapter of their history. But whatever the explanation, it seems clear that Moses’ anger is a negative trait. It’s one he struggles with his whole life: killing the Egyptian taskmaster, breaking the tablets of the commandments, hitting the rock… the cases show extreme moments. But the fact is, Moses is not alone. Many of us struggle with anger too; whether it’s road rage, yelling at our kids in the morning rush, or losing patience with aging parents, all of us have buttons that can be pushed.

Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition, speaks of opening “a space between the match and the fuse” (Rabbi Perr, cited in With Heart in Mind by Alan Morinis). The idea is to develop a spiritual practice which can slow us down just enough to avert being overwhelmed by anger. One Chasidic rebbe instructed a husband and wife to hold a mouthful of water in their mouths whenever they wanted to argue. This “holy water” would give them enough time to defuse the urge to speak meanly. Another had a set of “anger clothes,” with the hope that his anger would dissipate in the time it took him to put them on.

Anger can sometimes be necessary; according to one teaching, Moses was within his rights to hit the rock once. It was the second strike that put him out (alas, he wasn’t playing baseball). I hope these teachings can help give us wisdom – and patience – as we too strive to keep our anger within bounds.


 Korach

28 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Parshat Korach tells a story of politics and passion. A man named Korach launches a rebellion against Moses in the leadership. He is the epitome of a demagogue, appealing to the people’s sense of fairness. “All the community are holy!” Korach insists, rebuking Moses. “What makes you so special?”

Centuries ago, Rashi noticed the language of the Torah here, which says, “Korach took  the people” (Num. 16:1). How did he take them? Rashi asks. “With words.” Korach knew the art of persuasion. He was articulate, confident, polished. Moses, on the other hand, was not a master communicator. He originally tried to refuse God’s call because his speech was “heavy” – which many understand to imply a speech impediment, perhaps a stutter.

So what does Moses do, faced with this challenge? He falls on his face. The commentators are divided as to why he does this. Some say he is waiting for a message for God; others imagine he is examining his own actions and culpability; still others suggest he is buying time, and hoping that the rebels will back down. But whatever we think he was doing, he pauses before he responds; he thinks before he speaks. With this simple act (and yes, according to the Torah, with God’s help), Moses prevails. Korach and his followers come to a bad end, and the more creative interpretations suggest that his voice still calls out from the depths of the earth: “Moses was right!”

What do we make of this? Perhaps to think twice when we hear a smooth talker; to remember that the person whose words are halting may be the one who has invested them with the most thought. I would encourage everyone to come to our Inclusion Shabbat this Friday, to experience what a variety of voices, and perspectives, can add to our community. That’s the leadership that can help take us forward.


Shelach

21 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In Parshat Shelach, God tells Moses to send scouts, to check out the land of Israel. They return saying that the land is bountiful but perilous, inhabited by giants. And then, in a striking line, they say: “And there we saw the giants… and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Num. 13:33).

Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk writes: The sin of the spies was in how they imagined they were seen. One can understand their statement, “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers,” for that was the way they really saw themselves. However, what right did they have to say, “and so we were in their sight?” What difference should it make how we appeared to them?

In other words, they didn’t know how they were seen by the giants; or even how God might have made them look to the giants. Most of all, others’ perceptions of us shouldn’t matter so much. Of course, in our day to day lives, we look constantly to how others perceive us: in relationships, in work, on the street. But the Kotzker Rebbe’s insight makes me think about how the two are related; namely, how our self-perception impacts how others see us. I remember walking through Grand Central Station in New York City, and noticing that some days, when I was making my way through the crowd, people made way for me; other days, I was pushed aside. It almost always had to do with how I was feeling that day: confident or ungrounded, focused or distracted. As we each go about our days this week, try to notice how your self-perception affects how you are seen in the world – and remember the greatest insight of the Torah: that each and every one of us is made in the image of God.


B’ha’alotecha

14 Sivan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This week’s parsha, B’ha’alotecha, begins with the instructions for lighting the lamps of the menorah. This is the seven-armed candelabra that was built for the wilderness Tabernacle, used for centuries in the Temple, then taken to Rome when Jerusalem was defeated in the year 70 CE. Rabbi Lerner, in his talk last Saturday on the Jews of Italy, shared a photo of the Arch of Titus in Rome, which depicts Jewish slaves forced to carry the menorah for their captors. It’s a powerful image.

So often, the images that come to mind, like the menorah on the Arch of Titus, are of the dramatic moments in our individual or communal history. In light of this, I’m struck by a commentary on how Aaron, the first high priest, lit the lamps. We read:

“And Aaron did so (Num. 8:3)…” To tell us the praise of Aaron, that he did not change (Rashi). The Kotzker Rebbe and the Gaon of Vilna explain that there was no difference between the way he performed the commandment the first time and the way he performed it thereafter for the following thirty-nine years, day after day. Each time, he felt the same enthusiasm, and the commandment never became a matter of rote to him. (Emet ve-Emunah)

So too, in our lives, may we try to keep our enthusiasm even for what easily could become rote, never taking for granted the opportunities and relationships that we have.


Read about this week Torah portion here


 Bemidbar

29 Iyar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.

Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

I relate to this week’s Torah portion in a whole new way.

This week, we begin the book of Numbers. The English name for the book comes from the fact that it begins with a census, counting the Israelites.

Having just come back from our Temple trip to Israel, counting is fresh in my mind. As group leader, I was always counting, to make sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Tzippori or Tsfat, or in the vineyard at sunset or at the idyllic Kibbutz with the puppies, or overlooking the northern borders of the country or in the winding streets of the old city of Jerusalem… You get the idea (and yes, it was a magnificent trip).

Here’s the interesting part: at the beginning of the trip, it was all about the numbers. We needed to find our sixteen people, and if we were missing someone, it took a while to figure out who it was. But by the end of the trip, if someone was missing, almost immediately, we knew who it was. Why? Because we had come to learn and to value what each person brought, so if they weren’t there, we felt their absence. We missed them in a deeper sense, and so we found them faster.

It seems to me that this is what counting is all about. Not being counted in a passive sense, but counting in an active sense. Being valued and noticed, seen and heard. It was such a privilege to share that experience with those who travelled to Israel from Temple.

I’ll be speaking more about the trip this coming Friday at services, or you can read more on our blog. Our next adventure could be an intergenerational family trip – let me know if you might be interested!


 

Bechukotai

22 Iyar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Bechukotai, the last portion in Leviticus, is full of blessings and curses – and rather more curses than blessings. It’s a difficult portion, and in some synagogues, the section with the curses (the “tochecha”) is read quickly and in a whisper. But towards the end, after the curses and blessings are done, there is a beautiful reminder: “I am the Eternal your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright” (Lev. 26:13). A teacher of mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition, recounts that the Elder of Slodobka was insistent that the students in his yeshivah dress decently and walk upright. Why? Because the outside shapes the inside. How we carry ourselves and how we dress can shape not only how others think of us, but how we ourselves think.

This is a lesson I try to convey to our bnei mitzvah students about how to sit on the bima. “Even when you’re not actively leading the service,” I tell them, “how you sit will tell people whether to pay attention or not – and it will shape your own experience as well.” On Pesach, we are told to relax and recline at the seder table, to show that we are free. The end of Leviticus gives us a different take on freedom: a free person is one who walks upright, to the best of his or her abilities. Whether in a wheelchair or with a walker, or unaided on our own two feet, there is an uprightness of the spirit which the Torah reminds us to maintain. As we make our way through each day, we are meant to show – and to know – that we are free.


Behar

15 Iyar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

When you read this, I’ll be with our Temple trip to Israel – though I’m writing before I go (do check out our blog though, to get a taste of our trip)! One of the many things that will make it a fascinating trip, this year in particular, is that 5775 (2014-15) is a sabbatical year. The institution of the sabbatical year is described in this week’s portion, Behar. Here, we are told that the land is to rest every seventh year, with no agricultural work to be done.

As you can imagine, this commandment poses quite a challenge. For the millennia that we were in exile from the land of Israel, it was mostly a theoretical question. But, since 1948, the question has been very real for those who are farmers in Israel. Click here for an article about the various ways the sabbatical, or shemitta year, is actually observed in Israel:

Whatever you think of these various approaches, there’s a great insight in this week’s parsha. With the sabbatical laws, God is reminding us that the land, and even the work of our hands, isn’t really ours; in fact, nothing we think we own is really ours. Rather, everything comes from God and returns from God – as it’s sometimes said, “we rent, God owns.” It’s a good reminder of the need for humility, and perhaps even for faith.


Torah Thoughts on Emor

8 Iyar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Emor is dominated by a description of the holidays and how they are to be observed. But at the end of this series of laws, we encounter something we rarely see in Leviticus: a story. It’s a disturbing story, about how a man, the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father, got in a fight with an Israelite in the camp. “The son of the Israelite woman,” as he is called, then says God’s divine name as a curse – he blasphemes. His punishment is death (Lev. 24:10-16).

Rashi’s explanation is unexpectedly sympathetic. He suggests that the fight started because this man – the product of what could be called a mixed marriage – was excluded from the camp. He cites a midrash, a rabbinic story, which goes like this: When this man went to pitch his tent among the tribe of Dan, his mother’s tribe, he was told that the space was reserved for those whose fathers were from that tribe. Thus insulted and excluded, he brought his case to Moses, lost, and cursed God.

This midrash, from centuries ago, tells us that concerns about inclusion are not a modern invention. There is an essential human truth here: that no one likes to be left out. And there is also deep wisdom: whoever pitches his or her tent in our camp is part of our community. In those moments, there should be no “us” and “them.”


Torah Thoughts on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

1 Iyar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Holiness. It’s a puzzling and powerful world. It has some negative implications – “holier than thou” comes to mind – but it’s also one of the greatest concepts that religion gives us. The idea of holiness suggests that there is more to life than survival, and even more than ethics. Kedoshim tihiyu, the Torah tells us, “you shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.” But what does it mean?

In Judaism, the root of the word for holiness is K-D-Sh. It’s the same root as we use for kiddush (the blessing over the wine), kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), and kiddushin (the marriage ceremony). Something that is kadosh is separate and distinct; Shabbat, for example, is holy because it’s different than the other days of the week. By the same logic, marriage is holy because it is a relationship different from all others.

Our portion this week is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Kedoshim contains the holiness code, classic commandments which include honouring the elderly; leaving the corners of the field for the poor; keeping Shabbat; not putting a stumbling block before the blind; and loving our neighbour as ourselves. The Torah teaches us that we shouldn’t just do these things because they are the right thing to do; we should do them because they get us closer to holiness, and closer to God. Holiness is aspirational – “you shall be holy” – future tense. None of us are entirely there yet. But our tradition teaches us to push ourselves to make the world different from what it currently is, and to make ourselves better than we currently are. Check out here for details on our Mitzvah Morning, this Sunday from 9:30-11:30 at Temple. I like to think of it as holiness in action.


Torah Thoughts on Sh’mini II

24 Nissan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

First, a word of explanation. For the next few months, our weekly Torah readings will be in keeping with those in Israel, but not Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in the diaspora. The reason for this is that whereas we keep seven days of Pesach (as commanded in the Torah), and returned to our weekly Torah cycle last Saturday, those who observe eight days are only returning to the regular cycle this week. Although most of the year, the same Torah portion is read whatever synagogue you are in, these few months will be different. The same thing will happen next spring again, when Pesach will also begin on a Friday night. All this to say, if you’re talking about the Torah portion with a family member or friend over these next few months, don’t be surprised if you’re talking about different topics! You’ll be able to give them a sneak preview of what’s coming up in their shul.

So, after all that, where are we? Leviticus and leprosy, bodily emissions and impurities. Our portion this week is Tazria Metzora. It’s not easy material, and I am always impressed at how our bnei mitzvah rise to the challenge every spring. When you look closely in the text and commentary, you can find great insights. One of my favourites is as follows:

In Lev. 13:3, we read that the priest – who, among other things, diagnoses skin infections – is to look at the affliction, and also at the person. Rabbi Tronk of Kutno writes: “…when one looks at a person, one should see not only his bad points – where he has been afflicted – but should look at him as a whole.” All too often, when someone is ill, we identify them only with their illness. When someone has done something wrong, we identify them only with their misdeed. This verse reminds us that our task is to see each other as whole human beings.


Torah Thoughts on Song of Songs

17 Nissan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This week, in addition to the Torah portion, we’ll be reading an excerpt from the Song of Songs on Shabbat. The traditional interpretation of the Song of Songs is that it is a love song between God and the people of Israel – but if you just pick it up and read it, it looks a lot like a love song between two human beings. The search for the beloved; desire; joy; self-confidence and self-doubt; all these emotions can be found.

We read Song of Songs around Passover because it highlights it as Chag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring. The Song is full of growth and renewal, as we see in these lyrical lines (2:10-12):

My beloved spoke, and said unto me: ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land…

May the Song, and the season, inspire us to find renewal in all aspects of our lives: our relationship with the earth, as we shed our winter layers; our relationship with each other, as we try to find the spark in connections old and new; and our relationship with the divine, as we emerge from Passover, telling the story of possibility and freedom.


Torah Thoughts on Exodus Song of Songs

10 Nissan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This week, Shabbat and the first day of Pesach coincide, with the first seder on Friday night. It’s not surprising, then, that our Torah portion is about the origins of the Pesach ritual. We read:

“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that the Eternal will give you, as God has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'” (Ex. 12:24-26).

What always jumps out at me is the anticipation of the question: “when your children ask you…” Questions are essential to the story. Over time, the Passover sacrifice was replaced by the seder, the ritual that is defined by both eating and asking. Mah nishtanah? The children ask. What’s different tonight?

In that spirit, let me share one of my favourite teachings:

Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied: “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’”

I would argue that asking good questions doesn’t just make good scientists – it makes good human beings. May we always nourish our capacity to question, as we tell and retell our most important stories, and work for a better world. Chag sameach, everyone. A zissen (sweet) Pesach.


Torah Thoughts onTzav

3 Nissan
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we have laws pertaining to different types of offering. As is often the case, one details jumps out: the priest is to remove the ashes of the burnt offerings every day. Rabbi Menachem ha-Bavli writes: “This is symbolic, and teaches us that after a person who sinned brings his sacrifice to God and confesses on it, one may not mention his sin to him anymore. Instead, we are commanded to erase all traces of the sin and to forget it.”

This is one of the hardest things to do when someone has wronged us. Even after they make amends, it can be tempting to dredge up the wrongdoing again and again. In contrast, if I may be permitted to conflate Rabbi Menachem ha-Bavli and Elsa from the movie Frozen, sometimes we have to “let it go.” A few years ago, on Selichot, we watched a great short film about forgiveness: http://jewishfoodforthought.com/?page_id=20. A father and son are in conversation about how the son is focused on someone who has wronged him. The father suggests that by not forgiving that person, the son is like a landlord, giving him free rent in his head. His anger and inability to forgive have kept the wrongdoing alive. And yet, when we ourselves do wrong, we often want so much to be forgiven and to put our mistakes behind us.

Questions of forgiveness and sin are some of the most difficult; there are no easy answers. This Torah portion, though, gives us an image and an insight that we can take with us: that when someone has done everything they can do to repent, we are commanded to do everything we can do to move forward.


Torah Thoughts on Vayikra

25 Adar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Parshat Vayikra, the beginning of Leviticus, takes us into new territory. In this Torah portion, we are introduced to the sacrificial system. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, we have not been able to offer these sacrifices. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, writing after the destruction, said that animal sacrifices were to be replaced by three things: prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness. Maimonides, in the 12th century, suggested that even if the Temple had not been destroyed, at some point we would have moved away from sacrifice in any case. According to his thinking, God commanded us to make animal sacrifices because that was familiar to us from how other people served their gods at that time. It’s a striking insight, suggesting that God meets us where we are as human beings, and that as we change, there is also a change in what God expects of us.

There’s something in all details of sacrifice, though, which is well worth holding on to. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is “korban.” The root meaning of “korban” is “l’karev,” to draw close. When our ancestors offered sacrifices to God, they were expressing a human yearning to connect with the divine. How we do that has changed. But the human instinct to connect with something greater than ourselves, endures.

Last but not least, we’ve been delving into Leviticus chapter by chapter on our Saturday morning (9:00) Torah study group since September, and there’s been a lot of spirited conversation along the way. New voices always welcome.


Torah Thoughts on Vayakhel-Pekudei

18 Adar
Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This double Torah portion ends the book of Exodus. The doubling-up happens because of the nature of the Jewish calendar; instead of a leap-day every four years, we have an occasional leap-month. On a year with the leap-month, the Torah portions are one per week; other years, like this one, some are paired. It’s an especially fitting pairing this week, as both Vayekhel and Pekudei have to do with the final stages of the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, while the Israelites were on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

In the midst of verses upon verses of details, a Hasidic commentary zooms in on this line, from Moses to the people: “These are the words which the Eternal has commanded, that you should do them” (Exodus 35:1). Here’s the commentary: “When it comes to gathering together people, there is no problem: there are countless committees and conferences, meetings and sessions, morning, noon, and night. They speak and debate, argue and discuss, without end. That was why Moses commanded, ‘that you should do them’ – the purpose of all your meetings must be action” (from Itturei Torah).

The situation sounds awfully familiar. Lots of talk, no action. The end of the book of Exodus reminds us that we are meant to be going somewhere, not just marching in circles. So, at the beginning of this week, take a moment to ask: what do I hope to actually do? What am I trying to build: in my work, in my life, in my family? What can we do together?


 Torah Thoughts on Ki Tissa

11 Adar
Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

Ki Tissa is an extraordinarily dramatic portion of the Torah. Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God. While he is up there, the Israelites worry that he’s not coming back, so they build a golden calf and start worshipping it instead of God. God tells Moses what’s happening, and wants to destroy the Israelites for this sin. Moses talks God out of it… only to be overcome with rage when he descends the mountain and sees for himself what’s going on. Furious, he drops the two tablets. There is a lot that could be said about Moses and his problems with anger management (for example, when he kills the Egyptian or strikes the rock). But there is something very powerful about what he does, and some of the commentaries even suggest that in this situation, breaking the tablets is the right thing to do. Why? Because human nature is to idolize the things we can see and touch. Whether it’s the golden calf or the pursuit of wealth, it’s easy to be tempted and go off track. By breaking the tablets, Moses is saying: even the most holy things, even the things that come from God, can be turned into idols. Sometimes, you need to let go of what you think is sacred, for the sake of remembering what really matters.

Want to learn more? Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has a tremendous commentary on this portion and the entire book of Exodus in The Particulars of Rapture. She brings together literature, psychoanalysis, and classic commentary for a very deep reading of the Torah.


Torah Thoughts on Tetzaveh

4 Adar
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

In Tetzaveh, we read about more details connected to the Tabernacle, including the construction of the menorah, and the elaborate clothing of the priests. Fortunately, the rabbinate is not based on the priesthood, so these aren’t rules I have to follow; the closest we have to the priestly outfits is how we decorate our Torah scrolls. For example, the priests wore breastplates made of precious metals and jewels, and our Torahs do too. There is one detail here that I especially love. Aaron, the high priest, wears the names of the twelve tribes of Israel in two places: on his shoulders, and over his heart. In other words, even in the hierarchical form of biblical religion, Aaron always carried all the Israelites with him, throughout his sacred work. We are told in the Torah that this is “for a memorial before the Eternal continually” (Ex. 28:29). The great Chasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, teaches: “Remembering is the source of redemption. Exile persists as long as one forgets.” What is important for us to remember? And, perhaps most challenging, what are the memories which can carry us forward, rather than keep us in the past?

 

Want to learn more? There are two books on memory in Judaism which are challenging but worthwhile: Zakhor by Yosef Yerushalmi, and Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, by Yehuda Kurtzer.


Torah Thoughts on Terumah

27 shvat
By  Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D. Phil.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom

This portion is all about God’s command to Moses and the Israelites to build a Tabernacle, a place to worship God during their time in the wilderness. The Tabernacle (in Hebrew, mishkan) was to be portable, in keeping with the idea that Judaism is a religion that we can take with us wherever we go. There are lots of measurements and specifications in the parsha which would be familiar territory for anyone involved in building. In the midst of all these details, one line jumps out: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). You would think that the line should read, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in it.” But no. God isn’t focused on the building itself, as beautiful as it is, and as much care as it warrants. Rather, the whole point of building a sacred space is to make a place for God and human beings to meet. God doesn’t want the building just for the sake of the building; rather, it’s a means to an end. The goal is connection.

Want to learn more? Check out Ron Wolfson’s book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. It’s one of my favourites.