Read the Rabbi’s weekly Drashot
Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, Sept. 13
Judaism is a religion of teleological history. The Jewish people have been on a collective journey, beginning with Exodus from Egypt, continuing through the present day, and moving toward a time in the future when the world will be redeemed and justice, mercy and equality will define human relations. Each of us in each generation is a link in that chain. This week’s Torah portion reminds us of our beginnings. “You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” This is the Jewish “master story” in a nutshell. We were once enslaved. With God’s help we were redeemed and enjoyed the fruits of freedom. This is also our mission in life as Jews, to help bring the blessings of freedom and redemption to the world. In our generation, indeed in every generation, we are commanded to live and act in a way that all mankind can be redeemed. This is our burden and our blessing.
Ki Teitze – Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, Sept. 6
What is a society’s obligation to the poor and needy? The Torah seems clear, “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow — in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-22) Our Torah seems clear, whether loaning money or providing support, we are obligated to help the poor. Judaism assumes that our experience of Egyptian slavery will give us a special empathy for the needy and God expects us to act on that empathy and help the poor and the neediest among us.
Shoftim – Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, Aug. 30
For Judaism, society must be founded on justice (tzedekin Hebrew). Our word for giving money istzedakah.It does not mean charity, although that is how it is often translated. Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which comes from the word for heart, cor, and means altruistic love. Charity is connected to the heart and giving charity is based on how we feel. Buttzedakahis based on the divine call to make the world more just. Thus we are obligated to give money to help the poor. That is how we create a more just society. In this week’s Torah portion we read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Our rabbis wondered why the word justice is repeated twice. They answered that this teaches us that justice must be applied fairly to all whether it is to our advantage or our disadvantage; personal interest or gain can play no part. A society that treats all its members with justice will grow and thrive because everyone will feel they have a fair chance to succeed. A society that treats some of its members better than others will ultimately collapse as resentment and mistrust cause the bonds of social solidarity to erode.
Re’eh – Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, Aug. 23
Judaism forbids idolatry, as we read this week, “If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, “Let us follow and worship another god” … do not “heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the Lord your God is testing you to see whether you really love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” What does it mean to worship false gods? We can answer this question by exploring what it means to worship God. The simplest answer is the one given by Hillel to the Roman soldier who asked Hillel to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel answered, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah.” We worship God when we treat our neighbors, and by extension our families and communities, with kindness, respect and empathy. We worship idols when we care more about ourselves than we do others, when we care more about material success than moral integrity, and when we ignore the needs of others. Hillel’s last words to the Roman were, “now go and learn.” Let us learn true service by studying Torah and serving the needs of others.
Ve’etchanan – Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, Aug. 9
Our congregation is a “big tent.” We have members who believe in God and see their Jewish practice as based on that belief. We have other members who belong because they see themselves as part of the Jewish people and seek a way to engage in Jewish life. We have other members who participate because they want to be part of a Jewish community. Whether they believe in God or not, they believe in Jewish community. There is room for all of our beliefs at Temple Beth Hillel. But each of us, regardless of our belief system, receive the most when we give the most of what we each have to offer. This is reflected in this week’s Torah portion, where we read, “But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.” Each of us has needs, for community, for acceptance, for service, and each of us has gifts. As this week’s Torah portion reminds us, when we give fully of ourselves, we receive more than we could ever imagine.
Masei – Numbers 33:1 – 36:13 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, July 26
What is mercy? In a society of zero tolerance, do we understand nuance anymore? Our Torah is criticized for promulgating a harsh form of justice, with the death penalty for many crimes that we never consider to justify execution. But this week the Torah shows remarkable subtlety, even in the extreme case of murder. First it stipulates a difference between murder, which is intentional, and manslaughter. Manslaughter is defined this way, “But if he pushed him without malice aforethought or hurled any object at him unintentionally, or inadvertently dropped upon him any deadly object of stone, and death resulted…” (Numbers 36:22-25) Further, a murderer, one who kills intentionally, can only be executed if convicted on the testimony of two or more witnesses, “the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death.” (Numbers 36:30) Thus the burden of proof in ancient Israel is higher than in our country today. Our Torah teaches us the need for discernment and understanding, even in the most difficult situations and that there are no simple solutions to society’s problems.
Matot – Numbers 30:2 – 32:42 – The Torah portion (parashat ha shavuah) for Shabbat, Saturday, July 19
In Judaism words matter. After all, God created the universe through speech. God spoke and the universe came into existence. So what we say is important. We spent this year studying the Talmud’s rules regulating speech and learned how much the rabbis wanted us to avoid hurting other people through speech. This week, at the beginning of our Torah portion we read, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3) To the authors of the Bible and our rabbis spoken words were facts; they changed reality. So they took vows seriously. They encouraged people not to make vows, but if someone made a vow they were obligated to keep it up. Their word was their bond. In our society today we debase speech. We hide our meaning and our intentions behind vague and confusing words. Perhaps we would all be better off if we said what we meant and meant what we said… and paused and weighed our words before we spoke.
A blessing in Hebrew is a bracha. It is the building block of Jewish prayer. Maimonides (Egypt 12th century), said that every Jew should recite 100 blessings a day. This isn’t so hard if you pray the statutory services in the evening, morning and afternoon. Why this focus on blessings? One reason is that blessings can help us be fully present to the moment, such as when we say the blessing over bread before we eat. Another reason is that blessings help us focus on the needs of others, as when we ask for God’s blessing and healing for those who are ill. This week, King Balak of Moab hires the prophet Bila’am to curse the Israelites. But despite Balak’s promise of generous financial compensation, in the end Bila’am just cannot do it. When he sees the camp of the Israelites, he blesses them instead. We know this blessing, “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel,” because we recite them at the beginning of every morning service. Blessings can be a reflection of reality, as in the case of Bila’am whose blessing recognizes the holiness of the Israelites or it can create a more positive reality like when we see the best in others when we bless our children, or bless one another.