Parsha of the Week

Nitzavim

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

 

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

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

INTIMIDATION ACKNOWLEDGED, I WILL PROCEED.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ki Tavo

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article by Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem explains some of the complexity and includes a hopeful perspective on the recent election, as we continue to navigate what it means to come to the land.

Ki Tetze

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

In this week’s parsha, Ki Tetze, there are many rules. Rules for wartime and rules for peace; rules for society, and rules for families. Israeli journalist and Torah commentator, Sivan Rahav-Meir, connects one of the rules to politics. Citing the verse, “Observe and do what comes out of your mouth” (Deut. 23:24), she shares what she calls “a well-known expression in Israeli politics.” The expression is: “I made a promise, but I never promised to keep it” (Sivan Rahav-Meir, #Parasha, p.287). In contrast, she goes on to say: “the Torah tells us… fulfill the words that leave your mouth, and respect your words and your promises.”

We are into election season now, both in Canada and in Israel. Speaking to my nine year old daughter this morning as we were observing the newly-sprouted signs for candidates, she asked about what the job of being a political representative entailed. We talked about debating and decision-making, representing one’s community and trying to make the country better. My daughter, who started a debate club at her school, thought this sounded like the best job in the world. Her enthusiasm reminded me of all the good people in politics, who really do say what they mean and mean what they say, as the Torah tells us to do.

As we come closer to the elections, may this week’s parsha remind us to hold our leaders to our values of honesty, transparency, and integrity. May they use their words well and make their promises wisely. And may we do the same, as we try to model respectful discourse for the next generation of leaders.

Shoftim

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

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, establishes a system of justice for our ancestors, for when they reached the Promised Land. Famously, it includes the line: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” – tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Deut. 16:20). For centuries, commentators have asked: why is the word “justice” repeated? There are, of course, many answers. But the one that jumps out at me this year is as follows:

Justice alone is not enough, because there are many types of justice, just as there are many types of truth. Every regime has its own justice. Therefore the Torah stresses, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” – namely, justice that is just, where both the means and the end are just. (Derashot el Ami)

It can be so easy to convince ourselves that the end justifies the means, whether in politics or private life. But I’ve been rereading the philosopher Martin Buber this summer (inspired by Adam Kirsch’s review of a new Buber biography, in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/06/modernity-faith-and-martin-buber). Buber emphasizes the central importance of dialogue, between human beings and God, and between human beings and each other. He comes up with the idea that there are two different kinds of relationship: I-It, and I-Thou. I-It relationships are instrumental, in which the Other is a means to an end; in I-Thou relationships, one treats the Other, and the very connection, as an end in itself.

Shoftim is always read at the beginning of the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. It’s a good time to think about our relationships. How do we treat other people in our lives, from the person we buy coffee from to those who are closest to our hearts? How do we treat the institutions with which we interact (for example, when you come into Temple to pay your dues)? I am moved by the idea that not using others as means to an end is not just about civility; it is about justice. It’s a timely teaching as we come close to the New Year.

Re’eh

28 Av 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

Deuteronomy continues with the third section of Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, called Re’eh.

Moses warns the Israelites not to turn to idolatry; he reviews the laws about sacrifices, and reviews the list of kosher animals. Moses then turns to tithing and taking care of the poor.

“You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field.” (Dt. 14:22) Note that there are some religious communities that expect even their young people to donate 10% of their income to the church. This is where that concept originates.

The Torah goes on to say, “There shall be no needy among you – since the Eternal your God will bless you in the land which the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.” (Dt. 15:4) Commentators are clear that this verse is to be understood as an exhortation: “There really shouldn’t be any needy among you.” However, the Torah also is realistic, and knows that poverty will always exist. To that end, Moses also tells the Israelites to take care of their own.

If, however, there is a needy person among you….do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. …. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Dt. 15:7-11)

This seems like one of the most basic Jewish values – helping those who are not as fortunate as we are. The Talmud scholar Chofetz Chayyim (1838-19330 wrote that in the World to Come, we will be asked about the commandments we kept or didn’t keep – but “it will be a great and terrible thing” if we did not keep the commandment to help those in need. He continues by reminding us that there will come a moment in everyone’s life when someone will come to you for help. At that moment, you will have a choice – to help or not, to fulfill this basic Jewish value or not. Another big idea of this Torah portion is that we have the ability to make moral choices; the ability to choose to do the right thing is what differentiates us from animals.

Ekev

21 Av 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

But, he continues with a warning:

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

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

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

Devarim

7 Av 5779
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

Matot

22 Tammuz 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balak

8 Tammuz 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

Korach

29 Sivan 5779
Rachael Pass, Summer Rabbinic Intern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

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

Beha’alotecha

11 Sivan 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bamidbar

26 Iyar
Rabbinic Intern Rachael Pass

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

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

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

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

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

Behukkotai

18 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

Behar

11 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

Emor

5 Iyar 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kedoshim

27 Nisan 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acharei Mot

20 Nisan 5779
By Rabbi Ellen Greenspan

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

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

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

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

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

Metzora

8 Nissan 5779
by Rabbi Grushcow, D.Phil.

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

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

I thought of this scene when reading Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s commentary on this week’s parsha, Metzora. The Torah portion deals with how someone with skin disease, tzaraat (often assumed to be leprosy) is treated. The treatment involves isolati