Lech l’cha literally means “Go for” or “to yourself” (perhaps, “within” yourself). As Rashi says, “Go for your own benefit, for your own good.” A spiritual quest is often one made alone, away from the comforts and influences found in one’s home. Avram begins a journey of religious awakening away from the possible objections of his father, taking a road that is at once unfamiliar to him and foreign to his family. More
Adam and Eve are cast out of tranquility. Civilization is set in motion. Very soon thereafter, things go awry. Humanity becomes corrupt and lawless. The Holy One decides to begin anew by wiping out life on earth with a great flood. Noah and his sons build an ark, and his wife, Na’amah, and her daughters-in-law make it habitable. They fill it with pairs of animals from every kingdom of life. More
God creates the universe from nothingness over six days, concluding with the creation of Shabbat on the seventh day (yes, God works on Shabbat, but only for a millisecond). Day One: Light; Day Two: Separation of the waters above and below the earth; Day Three: Seas, Dry Land, Vegetation; Day Four: Sun, Moon, Stars; Day Five: Sea Creatures and Flying Creatures; Day Six: Land Creatures and Humans; Day Seven: Shabbat and rest. More
This is the weekend before Passover. Tonight and tomorrow we are called to observe Shabbat HaGadol, “The Great Sabbath.” Its origin is found in the special Haftarah and its reference to “Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (gadol) and awesome day of God” (3:23).
The prophet speaks of the day of redemption in the future. Passover, in the Haggadah, represents the redemption of the past and serves as the archetype for the future redemption. In fact, 1700 years ago Rabbi Yehoshua says: “In Nisan the world was created … the bondage of our ancestors ceased in Egypt; and in Nisan they will be redeemed in time to come.” (Rosh HaShanah 11a) More
What did we do when we were wandering across an ancient desert toward an unknown Homeland? What did we do when we were struggling to discover the deeper dimensions of our freedom and possibility? Predictably, we made a building which could serve as the spiritual focus of a growing community; an edifice from which we were to forge an identity as a religious people. And how did that process begin? Then, as now, it began with a Building Fund.
This parashah initiates the very first Building Fund to allow us to manifest the materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle – the Sanctuary – which would travel with us through that ancient terrain. More
We begin this New Year with beginning of the second Book of our Torah: Shemot, most often translated Exodus,when in fact it means Names. Besides the names of our ancestors listed in chapter one, the heroines of chapters one and two are five women. Two have their names recorded. Three others do not.
Shifra and Pua are the midwives who refuse to kill male Hebrew newborns for Pharaoh. There are three other women who play heroic roles in these first two chapters whose names are not given: the baby’s mother, the baby’s sister (or near relative) and Pharaoh’s daughter who saves Moses and raises him as her own. More
Shabbat Table Talks
Your Suffering May Turn Tragedy into Blessing
Saturday, August 24, 2013
50th Torah Portion, the 7th portion of Deuteronomy – Ki Tavo
26:1-29:8 (121 verses)
The Israelites are instructed to express their gratitude to God for their bountiful harvests and freedom from slavery by tithing 10 percent of their crops for the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. They are told to display God’s commandments on large stones for all to see. The Levites proclaim an awesome array of curses that dwarf the catalogue of blessings preceding them. Moses reminds the Israelites of the miracles they witnessed in the Wilderness and commands them to observe the terms of the Covenant so that they may succeed in all that they undertake.
The Deuteronomic code ends with this portion. The last four parashiot is Moses’ final speech of farewell.
Blessings and curses form a special framework for our theology and are found on three other occasions in our Torah (Exodus 23:20 ff., Leviticus 26, and Deuteronomy 11:26 ff.). For centuries many have ventured to comment on this most troubling aspect of our faith. We are faced with a cosmic disconnect as to whether God takes an active role in human history bestowing blessings and curses or that God takes no such role in our lives. If God plays no role in punishing evil and rewarding the good, then these promises, blessings and curses are empty and meaningless.
Instead of resolving this confusion for you, I would like to offer a religious activist approach to suffering. The Talmud in its very first Tractate, Berachot instructs, if a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. (The question is asked, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?”) We can expand this verse to mean, when we are witness to the sufferings of others, one’s own conduct should be examined. My approach to this is that we examine our own conduct in either case, not in order to assign blame or search for sin; rather to pursue how we take this tragedy as a catalyst to give greater meaning to our covenantal relationship with God and our commitment to healing our world.
Our covenantal spirit may become crushed, and we paralyzed when tragedy befalls us. On the other hand the “curse” of the tragedy ought to broaden and deepen our commitment even more, energizing us toward moral renewal and healing. The weight of the world is not on the back of God. The weight of the world is on our shoulders to bear.
We can at any time have the discussion together about the mystery of suffering of the innocent. But the real tragedy and curse to our soul is if we allow that mystery from preventing us to be God’s vehicle for blessing.
- Who are those in your world who have turned tragedy into blessing?
- Next time you are suffering, use the instruction from the Talmud and answer, “Are your sufferings welcome to you” for self-examination?
Focus: Each morning arise to perform one additional conscious blessing during the day
l’shana tova tikateivu,
Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
“Just” Your Behavior
by Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
48th Torah Portion, 5th in Deuteronomy
Shoftim 16:18 (97 verses)
Saturday, August 10, 2013 (4 Elul 5773)
Moses details the two most important characteristics of a judge: Remain objective and have the strength to refuse bribes. A judge is also supposed to write his own sefer Torah and carry it with him at all times. Moses emphasizes that only God’s justice can be trusted. He instructs the people about the difference between true and false prophets. Finally, he reviews the laws covering manslaughter, murder, how to conduct a war properly, and the ritual of the red heifer.
This week begins the days of preparation for the High Holy Days. It is Elul, the month to review the cheshbon hanefesh, “account of your soul.” This is the time to take a look at the forces and contours of your own inner landscape. You might want to look at your personality and how it affects the pursuit of personal goals and relations with others. You might want to look at how your emotions affect your daily life, like your anger. Do you have too much or too little? Have you been generous enough with your time, talents and money? Is it arrogance which is puffing up your ego like a peacock, or do you have the opposite tendency, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of too readily?
Let’s see how our Torah portion provides insight on how to achieve greater self-understanding.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20). Our Torah portion this week admonishes us to pursue justice, to be wary of injustices in the world. The very repetition of the word “justice” unlocks opportunities for us to expand the application of justice in our time and in our lives. When Moses exclaimed “Justice, Justice…,” and when we hear these words we must feel we are being addressed individually. Each time Moses cried “Justice,” the word is directed at the heart of each of us, enjoining us to act as a moral being. It tugs at our consciousness and our kishkes, our “guts,” to look seriously at the causes that cry out for us to take a stand for what is right and just, certainly; but also it is a call to look at our own behavior.
The ends do not justify the means. Just because your cause is just does not mean that your behavior, the way you “pursue” it, is just. This is an opportunity to watch over your ways and overcome bad habits and bad traits. From Proverbs we learn, “Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established” (4:26), and “Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return, return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).
Rabbi Mendel of Satanov has outlined 13 Middot (character traits) in his book Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (1812). We are to walk a path with positive actions in all of these areas: Equanimity, Patience, Order, Decisiveness, Cleanliness, Humility, Righteousness, Frugality, Diligence, Silence, Calmness, Truth, and Separation. A good explanation of each can be found at www.rivertonmussar.org/route-of-mussar/middot-chart.
God, through Moses, enjoins us to powerful action. You are told to “pursue” justice. You live in an imperfect world, in which your own lives are imperfect. As you pursue justice in your community and in your world do not ignore the dynamic possibility of allowing for the emergence of justice in your personal lives and behaviors. And so, as the month of Elul, the month of spiritual preparation before our holiest days of the year dawns on you, our tradition calls upon you—for thirty days—to dig deep, to look inside, and to tap the root source of your very souls.
1. How do you define acting “justly” at home? Does your partner agree that you are acting justly? Your children?
2. How do we determine that we are acting justly?
3. How many of the Middot do you feel are important? Are they a positive part of your life?
4. Of what consequence is it that some of these character traits are negative?
5. Are these negative traits a consequence for others as well?
Become sensitive to the 13 Middot by becoming aware of your behavior patterns and potentially damaging behavior. Rework your problematic soul traits toward the positive. One way of observing your behavior is by charting. List the traits on a chart with the days of the week running across the top. 0 = neutral, + = positive action, – = negative action.
Watch for the Old Lady
47th Torah Portion, 4th in Deuteronomy
Re’eh 11:26-16:17 (126 verses)
Saturday, August 3, 2013
God places both blessing and curse before the Israelites. They are taught that blessing will come through the observance of God’s laws. Moses’ third discourse includes laws about worship in a central place; injunctions against idolatry and self-mutilation; dietary rules; and laws about tithes, debt remission, the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves and firstlings. Moses reviews the correct sacrifices to be offered during the festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot.
Upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were to pronounce blessings on Mount Gerizim and curses on the mountain on the opposite side, Mount Ebal. These instructions are repeated in chapter 27. So they would find the mountains easily, directions are given in chapter 11 verse 30, “Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the way which is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.”
Commenting on the words, “beyond the way,” the Talmud (Sotah 33b) sees in this geographic compass, a moral compass. These are not simply directions to a place. They are directions on “how” to get to a particular place. “The Way” is important. In their zeal and eagerness to get to their appointed destination they might become oblivious to nature, insensitive to the world around them, and even wantonly destructive as they proceeded forward. Isaiah reminds us, “Holy, holy, holy! Adonai of the multitudes, whose glory fills the entire world” (6:3). The entirety of our world and reality can be an experience of God. It is not just the doing of a particular task that is important. God is not found just in doing good in the world, nor is God some booming voice or looming presence in our world. God is found within the essence of nature and in the “still small voice” of our response to it. The spiritual compass is our directional compass. If we are running to perform a precept, we must be careful not to bump into people on the way; we must be careful what we are trampling in our haste to do good.
Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883) was the founder and spiritual father of the Musar (strict ethical behavior) movement. His disciples were preparing to bake matzah for Passover. Eager to please their rebbe by attending strictly to the various complicated details associated with the making of matzah, they asked the rebbe what they should be on the lookout for. Rabbi Yisrael perceptively told them, “There is an old lady there who has to drag the water that is used to knead the dough. Make sure that she is not abused.”
Often we are so set on arriving at our destination that we forget the journey and those we “meet” along the way. Our spiritual compass directs us to our deed (the destination). That deed by the way is with the understanding that our intent is aligned with God’s intent. This is not so easy as it sounds. Finally, our compass directs us on a way where we are aware of our environment and the people we meet upon the way. Do not neglect your responsibility to be attentive to the people and the very real wonders around you. The rebbe’s instructions reminded his students that it was not the making of matzah; but the awareness of the old lady which ultimately serves God’s purpose. There are countless opportunities to fulfill our responsibilities, but the Torah instructs us not to do so if at the same time we are being unresponsive to the people and the circumstances that surround us.
- What do you suppose you are missing as you run off to work in the morning or when you return home?
- When getting things done at home or work, who is the “old lady dragging the water” whom you are abusing or ignoring?
Read Rabbi Alvin Fine’s poem, A Sacred Pilgrimage – “…Victory lies not at some high place along the way, but by making the journey, stage by stage….”