“And the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt, and Moses took the bones of Joseph with him…” (Exodus 13:18-19)
What were the weapons that the Israelites took with them? Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, nephew and student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, teaches that the armament was comprised of the bones of Joseph. More
Last Saturday night, 20 of your fellow members came together to observe the memorial observance of Tisha B’Av. On this day, we refrain from eating, we refrain from joyous activity, and we gather for prayer, study, reflection, and the reading of the book of Lamentations as we reflect on what the destruction – by others – of our most holy Temple means to us thousands of years later. We learn from our study of Talmud that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, “baseless hatred”, we had for each other. The rabbis, interestingly, do not blame the Babylonians (586 BCE) or the Romans (70 CE), but teach that we brought the destruction upon ourselves. More
Rashi comments on 1:12, when Moses complains, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering?” The “trouble” refers to the habit of litigants in a court case who, perceiving that they were losing, would say, “I have more witnesses, I have more proof,” thus bottling up the legal system. The “burden” refers to the incessant mockery of Moses: the misguided assumptions by the ignorant that Moses was contemplating and plotting evil against them. Finally, the “bickering” refers to contentiousness and threats of revenge for imagined wrongs. More
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13), closes the Book of Numbers. We find the Jews at the end of their journey on the border of the Promise Land. As I was reviewing the commentaries, I could not help but see the parallel between the Israelites’ journey and the journeys of present-day migrants making their way to our border. Many are leaving past “enslavements” behind to find their promised land. We have an obligation to hear them out and be sure they are cared for while they wait to discover whether they can be a part of the American Dream you and I have realized or whether they need to return. More
Shmitah: A Sabbath for A Year Making a Difference for Your Lives
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
What if, all of a sudden the machinations of industry came to a screeching halt? What would happen if, starting today all the plows, combines were locked up in farmers’ sheds all across our nation? No harvesting of corn, wheat. No trucks or trains to carry produce to market. Nothing on the shelves of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Basha’s or Safeway. Imagine the impact.
By tradition, that is exactly what is supposed to be happening starting today. We are in the seventh year of our seven-year sabbatical cycle, known as the shmitah year. In Leviticus, God commanded that every seventh year you will give the land “a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of God. You shall not plant your field, or prune your vines. You shall not harvest your crops or gather any grapes from your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for your land.”
While standing at Sinai, our ancestors were also told: When you enter the land of Israel, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat.” From these two passages we learn that we are to give the land a rest and that we are to take care of the poor amongst us.
You won’t starve. Well, maybe a little. Jews may not eat anything planted or grown during the shmitah year. They may eat only from perennial plants or wild edibles — these are the vegetables and fruits you do not have to plant every year (fruit from trees, tomatoes, avocados, berries, and the like). Also, if anything happens to grow on your farmland anyone may take crops growing untended on those private lands. Finally, personal debts must be forgiven if the debtor so requests.
Okay, this is partly my fault. I should have warned you. I should have been like Joseph and told you to prepare and store away food during the year. What was I thinking last year on Rosh HaShanah when I spoke to you about a different way of thinking about God in your lives?
Actually, you are fine. This law only applies to Israel. This is how observant Jews in the Holy Land have observed shmitah for centuries. It is of some interest to note that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar agreed to relieve Jews of taxes during shmitah.
Nor have Jews starved over the centuries every seven years either. This would also be bad for those who depend on produce from Israel to feed other European countries. Fruits and vegetables grown in Israel may be consumed and sold during the shmitah year when it is derived from five sources:
Produce grown during the sixth year, to which the laws of the seventh year do not apply.Produce grown on land owned by non-Jewish (typically, Arab) farmers in Israel.Produce grown on land outside the halachic boundaries of Israel (chutz la’aretz).Produce which grows spontaneously for the benefit of the entire community (otzar beit din).Produce grown in greenhouses or in hydroponic farms. They are not literally being grown on the land.
So Israel has found ways to observe the commandment without undue sacrifice. While planting is forbidden during the shmitah year, some watering, pruning and weeding is allowed. Seven years ago, some 3,500 Israeli farmers observed shmitah and rested 400,000 dunams (about 100,000 acres) of land, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Let me give you an example of how this is done on an orthodox kibbutz. Kibbutz Lavi (located in the lower Galilee) has divided its fields that grow wheat, corn, barley, chickpeas and citrus. Some fields are being left as is — left fallow. In a second set of fields the kibbutz has been planting wheat vigorously over the past month. This will be harvested during the shmitha year at the end of the Spring. A third category of land is sold to Arabs. Israeli Arabs are not restricted by shmitah. The farmers at Kibbutz Lavi will have time this year to focus on education, their families, and on fortifying their spiritual energies.
Different Jewish communities in the United States are looking at shmitah beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land and the agriculture restrictions placed on it this year. There are some Jewish leaders who are viewing shmitah as an opportunity to take another look at our relationship to the environment, property and social inequality. This year, not only in Israel, but in Jewish communities around the world, there will be a concerted effort in some circles to extend the principles of shmitah beyond the letter of the law.
Let’s take a look at it first just in terms of Sabbatical. Just as the weekly Sabbath allows us the opportunity to renew ourselves and reminds us of our obligations to God, shmitah gives the land a chance to regain its strength.
The practice of shmitah reminds us that regaining the physical strength of the land is similar to the physical renewal our bodies gained through rest.
Similarly, as Shabbat is a celebration of the Exodus and of Creation, we are reminded both that we are free to rest because God redeemed us from slavery, and that we are partners with God in maintaining Creation.
In the same way that Shabbat calls us to take a break from the work week and recall our divine link, shmitah calls for a collective break from the race of modern life for a year. During that time we are to focus on community, culture and spirit. In this way, our yield — like the land — will become greater over the many years ahead.
Let’s consider how shmitah can open our eyes. It is a series of obscure, ancient concepts about how we relate to land, to food, about inequality in our community, the nature of work, rest in our lives, cooperation with those who are not our intimate friends, and our relationship to debt. Every one of those issues are central to our lives today in 2014. Shmitha can be a remarkable source of inspiration, impetus for change, and the medium for unprecedented cooperation for us this year.
Part of the value of shmitah is sharing. In the Bible you open up your fields in the shmitah year, and everyone can come and benefit. What grows on your farmland this year is not yours. You may not harvest it for yourself. It is to be shared by anyone who wants or needs it. Most of us don’t have fields, literally, but what is your field? What is your expertise, your source of your livelihood that you could share more widely?
We can envision a world in which our material and spiritual needs are met in a deep, reciprocal, sustainable, and satisfying way. This can be a year where we can rehearse, for one year, what it would be like to live a life of “enoughness” for ourselves and for our neighbors. And when the year is over, the sustainable practice need not be over. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, co-founder of the Sova Project in Baltimore suggests in her February third Blog on this subject that we can “re-enter the other six years taking what we have learned and put it into practice in our everyday lives.” The significance of shmitah is not only renewal but that we have a break in our usual patterns. When we stop and examine our bad habits, we can then review what habits we value, and which ones suit our purposes.
Next week, on October 2, there will be a panel discussion on shmitah called “Give It A Rest,” taking place at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley. I don’t imagine many of you can make it, but perhaps we can begin our own shmitah discussion about what we need to “Give A Rest” to.
This year, Israelis are taking a fresh look at shmitah and how its emphasis on social justice can be more fully expressed beyond land and harvest restrictions. Earlier this year a group of activists led by a former Knesset member, Rabbi Michael Melchior, approached the Ministry of Welfare seeking about $27.5 million for debt relief for some 10,000 families. The request was approved.
In keeping with the environmentalist precepts behind shmitah, Israel’s Ministry of the Environment has proposed a yearlong moratorium on fishing in the Sea of Galilee to replenish depleted fish stocks.
I propose that each of us make New Year’s resolutions based on shmitah. Shmitah encompasses three areas of essential ethical behavior and unavoidable engagement: food/environment, money and people — a daily encounter. So, I propose you make your resolutions in these three areas by asking yourselves two questions:
1. How is my behavior at this moment contributing to — or detracting from — a more equitable and enduring world?
2. What changes in society should we implement to bring about a more equitable and enduring world during the other six years?
Ever since Sinai, the observance of shmitah has largely been limited to the land of Israel. But this year, through a confluence of reasons — the growing crises of environmental degradation, climate destabilization, radical wealth inequality, the global obesity epidemic, global food insecurity and the false promise of the marketplace that having more things will yield more happiness — this year we must ask: How shall we, those of us guided by Torah, live a year of shmitah? How can we understand, honor and observe the deeper meaning and ethic of the shmitah year, both as individuals and as a community? This leap is difficult, I know, and that is why shmitah comes only once every seven years. The first step is to commit to living intentionally this shmitah year.
This Rosh HaShanah, as we prepare to welcome in a sweet new year by dipping slices of apples into honey (both organically and locally grown), this Rosh HaShanah I am inviting you to think deeply about developing a strategy about how to look differently at food/environment, money and people. This is the beginning of our shmitah conversation,
On Yom Kippur afternoon, our conversation is Being in Rythmn. I hope that many of you will be there to share your ideas on how we as a religious community can live with less and share more with others. Let’s be mindful of the values of shmitah and how its principles can inform each of us on how we can make a difference in the world. Shanah Tovah.
 Leviticus 25:1-7
 Exodus 23:11
As we near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, our ancestors are standing on the edge of the Promised Land. After 40 years of wandering, suffering and instructions from God and Moses, they are ready to take the plunge. But with that step into the land “flowing with milk and honey” comes great responsibility.
You are standing this day,all of you before Adonai your God, your heads, your tribes, your elders andyour officers, indeed, even all the people of Israel (Deut. 29:9).
3500 years ago our people were committing themselves to the covenant established with their parents and grandparents at Sinai. For us this is a teaching “to stand up before God.” Whenever the need arises to take action in behalf of a cause, to wage the good fight, we are called to “stand up” for those who are unable or unwilling to stand up for what is right. Of course, our response is often, “Why choose me, of all people? Leave it to the rabbis, the leaders of the community…. What can an ordinary person like myself do?
Tonight, like every Friday night, we will offer our prayers for peace and for God to eliminate enmity from our midst. Does it happen by magic? Does it happen because we wish or pray for it? Tonight, we should cherish the meditation in our prayerbook written by Nachman of Bratzlav. “Pray, as if everything depends on God. Act, as if everything depends on me.”
We are called upon to arise before Adonai your God. We are called, all of us to stand, ready for action from the heads of our tribes down to the hewer of wood and the drawer of water (Deuteronomy 29:10. This is a call to unite and realize that redemption is not in the hands or the sole responsibility of our leaders.
We watch the new and we are disillusioned or angry. Dissolusioned that our leaders have not found a peaceful solution in Ukraine, in Iraq. Angry that innocent lives – Americans and others – have been lost to negligence or just violence. We applaud the military solution to Ebola in Africa, and wonder when the fighting will stop in Gaza and Israel.
Children are fleeing violence and death from Central America. The Climate change, the unemployment rate, the economy seem to confuse us, and yet many remain seated.
You are standing here this day…before God – You can make a difference by yourself or together with others, taking the higher moral instruction given 3500 years ago. Threats, obstructions need not deter you from bringing serenity and peace, perhaps not on a global level; but in your own home and in your own community.
Take whatever good feelings, inspiration, moral direction you have that informs your life into your own transactions in the world and stand up and bring some of that goodwill into a world that needs you.
Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim
Congregation Or Chadash
Why the Comma?
Friday, May 30, 2014
GeorgeBurns once said, “The secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning, agood ending and then having the two as close together as possible.” I will trymy best to deliver a good sermon tonight.
Thispast week I was one of fifty clergy from Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucsonpresenting arguments on an important social issue at a press conference. As Ientered the church I noticed a banner on the wall with a large red comma andunderneath a quote from Gracie Allen, George Burns wife. I asked, “Why the Comma?” I was told by myfriend Pastor Milligan that the comma represented the anthem of the UnitedChurch of Christ (UCC) and was inspired by Allen’s quote: “Never place aperiod where God has placed a comma.”
TheComma invites us to believe that God speaks through other people, nature,music, art, a theorem, the Bible, and in so many other ways.
TheComma reminds us of the unusual religious freedom and responsibility to engagethe Bible with our own unique experiences, questions, and ideas.
TheComma reminds us to balance our rich religious past with openness to the newideas, new people, and new possibilities of the future.
TheUCC understands, as we do, that God did not speak to us only at Mount Sinai. Weknow (or should know) that God did not only have a conversation with Abraham,with Moses and Aaron, and with the prophets. When we hold up our Torah orTanach we continue that conversation that began long ago. God is stillspeaking.
TheComma as opposed to a period represents that God is still speaking to us as aContinuing Testament of our faith and connection.
Godis still speaking to us means that we are all welcome here.
Godis still still speaking to us and through that conversation our lives canchange.
Donot cling to where Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Maimonides, Isaac Mayer Wise,and Rabbi Schneerson have brought you, for God hath yet more truth and light tobreak forth from his holy word.
Thisweek I opened my bible to the 100th Psalm. The phrases that struckmy heart —
“all the earth”,
“we are God’s people,”
“enter the gates withthanksgiving,”
“the Lord is good,”
“God’s love enduresforever.”
Encouragedby how these passages opened up to me, I understand that our religion is morethan laws, commandments and “do this’s” and “don’t do that’s.” Our vitalJudaism is about relationships, collaboration, it is for all people, it isabout thanks, goodness and love. These are the values that we make meaningfuleveryday, not just in a way a book told to do it thousands of years ago.
I wasvisiting one of our congregants in the hospital this morning and got into aconversation about kashrut. Someonein the room said, “It is hypocritical when my orthodox friends eat treif outbut not in their home.” I got very excited and so, “No. That is theirexpression of their own Jewish identity.”
Isn’tit exciting that they can still identify as Jewish and create boundries thatwork for them and are meaningful. That is the Comma, and that represents God isstill speaking.
It is truly amazingwhat can happen when we are in places, frames of mind, and environments thatencourage our reliance upon the Still speaking God. I am assured that Godspeaks to all the people equally – may we all have ears to hear, hearts to loveand hands to serve the
theComma is a new way to proclaim “Our Faith is 5,000 years old, our thinkingis not.”
Nowfor my “good ending” (I hope) for this good sermon. George Burns also said, “Happinessis having a large, loving, caring close-knit family…in another city.”
Shabbat Table Talks
By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Closeness to the Divine
By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Saturday, March 12, 2013
24th Torah portion, 1st in Leviticus – Vayikra
1:1-5:26 (111 verses)
God instructs Moses on the five different kinds of sacrifices that are to be offered in the sanctuary:
- 1.Olah, “burnt offering” is the voluntary sacrifice. The entire animal, except for the hide, is burned on the altar.
- 2.Minchah, “meal offering” is made of flour, oil, salt and frankincense that is partly burned on the altar and partly given to the priests to eat.
- 3.Zevach sh’lamim, “well-being offering” is voluntary from one’s herd, often to fulfill a vow.
- 4.Chatat, “sin offering” is obligatory in order to expiate unintentional sins. The blood of the animal is treated differently than other offerings.
- 5.Asham, “penalty offering” is another obligatory sacrifice of a ram required of one who has misappropriated property.
Sacrifice is derived from the Latin sacer, meaning “holy.” The Hebrew is korban, which means, “that which is brought near.” One is literally bringing an offering nearer to God. Isaac Abravanel (one of the great Sephardic exegetes, 1437-1508) says, “It likewise implies that the offering, when brought in the right spirit, is the medium whereby a person attains nearness to the Divine.”
As a rabbi I am often asked about God’s location –mostly why God is so distant. “What have I done to deserve this from God?” is a frequently asked question. Abravanel’s response of the “right spirit” allowing nearness to the Divine may offer us some comfort. What constitutes the “right spirit”? The answer is found in the first chapters of Vayikra.
Animals brought for the offering shall be “of the herd or flock” and “it shall be a male without blemish” (1:3). It cannot be a wild animal having some flaw. It cannot be an animal from the wild. It has to be the best of the ones in your flock and without blemish. The male is not an indication of a patriarchal system. Females may be in heat only once or twice a year, while males are available to multiply the herd at any time. The meal offering is from the finest oil and finest flour.
What does Vayikra have to say to us in the 21st century? First, one must ask, what relationship with God am I attempting to achieve? Am I thanking God for finishing a project? Have I sinned? Am I seeking to atone? Am I trying to understand my divine purpose? The greater the complexity of the question, the greater effort is necessary for korban, “nearness”, for raising our consciousness to a divine consciousness.
In the ancient world, our ancestors had to bring their choicest, their best, the finest that they had – animals and produce they worked hard to grow and to refine. Coming close to God’s mind requires the best we have to offer. That means a conscious routine of prayer, meditation, and holy efforts on a daily or–at the least–on a weekly basis (Shabbat observance, for example). On the High Holy Days we call the “right spirit” Tefillah, “prayer”, Teshuvah, “repentence”, and Tzedakah, “righteous behavior” and “charity.”
- 1.What has happened to you that keep you distant from God? (You will notice I did not ask, “Why is God distant from you?” – Is there a difference?)
- 2.What are the “blemishes” which prevent a person from being close to God? What would happen if a person temporarily removes them before entering prayer or meditation?
- 3.Does prayer bring you closer to God?
- 4.Does meditation bring you closer to God?
- 5.Do acts of kindness and mitzvoth bring you closer to God?
- 6.Is being close to God important?
- 7.If you were closer to God what would you be experiencing?
Imagine God surrounding you, filling you, every imaginable space is filled with divine energy. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and believe this is true. Sit quietly and meditate on this for five minutes. Open your eyes. What are you thinking right now?
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Tazria: Finding the Blessing in It
By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Saturday, April 13, 2013
27th Torah portion, 4th in Leviticus
Tazria-Metzora 12:1-15:33 (157 verses)
18th Day in the counting of the Omer
Tazria: God describes the rituals of purification for a woman after childbirth. God sets forth the methods of diagnosing and treating tzara’at, a skin disease, inaccurately understood to be leprosy.
Metzora: Priestly rituals to cure tzara’at when it afflicts humans are described. Rituals to rid homes of tzara’at are presented. The portion concludes with descriptions of male and female impurities.
In parashat Metzorah a strange revelation is given to the Israelites: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession . . . I [will] inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (14:34). The houses the Israelites come to occupy will be plagued with tzara’at. This seems more of a curse than a blessing. One would think the Israelites might desire to avoid arriving there altogether with this kind of promise. The Midrash provides another view:
When the Canaanites heard that the Israelites were approaching, they hid their valuables in the houses. God said: ‘I promised their forefathers that I would bring their children into a land full of all that is good,’ as it is said, And houses full of all good things (Deut. 6:10-11). What did God do? – brought plagues on one of the houses so that when he [the Israelite] would pull down the house [to rebuild it for himself], he would find treasure. 
Therefore, the promise of houses full of tzara’at turns out to be a blessing, for in the destruction of the houses, the people find riches to build more beautiful homes.The lesson gained from this Midrash is that material disadvantage is not necessarily a negative, and appearance is not necessarily reality. Those we view as successful behind big homes, fast cars and lavish lifestyle, may in fact be living behind a façade of an actual material struggle. And those who are living within their means perhaps are celebrating greater riches.
1. In your struggles do you now see what is most important in your life?
2. How often in your life has something painful or hard to endure, initially seen as a curse, turned out in the long run to be a blessing?
3. Do we look to God to provide us with blessings or do we look to ourselves to create them out of that which God has given us?
It is interesting to think that perhaps all tzara’at is a hidden resource. We need only destroy our old shells to discover . . .
Follow Rabbi Louchheim on Twitter for a daily inspirational reading: @RabbiLouchheim
Join the weekly conversation on Facebook: Rabbi Louchheim Weekly Torah Portion
 Leviticus Rabba 17:6
Long ago, our rabbis realized that the Torah is very much like a beautiful orchard. From a distance, you may see only a grouping of trees. As you approach, you notice the leaves, the blossoms, and the fruit on the individual trees. When you come even closer, you may see the skin that covers the fruit. If you are persistent and peel back the skin, your reward is a delicious treat. Just like the orchard which at a distance is only a field of trees, concealed there are layers upon layers of wonderful things.
Many of the parshiyot (weekly portions) include multiple stories and themes, and each week focuses on a different one.
Rabbi’s Shabbat Table Talk includes: 1] the title of the parasha and a citation so that you may find the full text in your own copy of the Torah; 2] a couple of paragraphs about the theme for the portion; 3] an excerpt from the Torah text that will be the focus of discussion; 4] a short drash (teaching) on the text; 5] two or three questions each for children ages 3-5 and children ages 6-8; and 6] a suggestion for deeper study geared toward sophisticated learners and those who wish to spend more time on the topic.
Make Rabbi’s Shabbat Table Talk a ritual.
Have your discussion at the same time each week.
A suggested order is: put coins in the family tzedakah box, bless the candles, bless the children, bless the wine, bless the bread, serve the seudah (meal), discuss the parasha while eating, and conclude the meal with blessings or Shabbat songs.
Although the Rabbi’s Shabbat Table Talk guide is designed to stand on its own it is strongly encouraged that you acquire a Chumash (book containing the Torah text in Hebrew and English), or other commentary which you might find useful to supplement these commentaries from Rabbi Louchheim.
Sources for good Torah commentaries:
- Torah: A Modern Commentary (Reform)
- Eitz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Conservative)
- Sparks Beneath the Surface: A Spiritual Commentary on the Torah, by Larry Kushner & Kerry Olitzky
- The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams, by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
- The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Portions
- The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Portions
- The Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, by Judith S. Antonelli
- Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses, by George Robinson
- Voices of Torah: A Treasury of Rabbinic Gleanings on the Weekly Portions, Holidays and Special Shabbatot (Reform)
You may also wish to have a discussion about the themes presented each week with others.
To join the discussion, click here: Rabbi Louchheim Weekly Torah Portion on FACEBOOK.
A venerable rabbi was teaching a class. An elderly man whom he did not know sat in the back quietly. In the middle of his teaching, one of his students who had never spoken up before contradicted the rabbi’s teaching in front of everyone. The rabbi listened patiently and nodded his approval that perhaps this […]
This past week I read an article by one of my colleagues that Reform Judaism has no guiding principles nor ideology and that individual Jews also have no ideology. Additionally, he views most Reform Jews as non-observant and lacking Hebrew comprehension, as well as lacking an understanding of Jewish history and many of its rituals. […]
Our portion begins, “Vayikach Korach,” not to be read “Korach took”; rather, “Korach divided.” He divided the people. He did not bring them together. He saw only himself, and he saw only separation. His honorable claim that all are holy – the sense of togetherness and connection to God – was expressed in a violent […]
This Torah portion provides the instructions on five types of sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle for God. The Hebrew word korban, literally meaning “bring near”, is most often translated as a “sacrifice” or an “offering.” In English these are two different things. A “sacrifice” is something you give up for God or for some greater good. An “offering” is a contribution, a gift, a presentation made to God or another person. For the modern reader (you all qualify), bringing an “offering” would seem to be a more “whole-hearted” gift.