Don’t Look Back! Parshat Ki Tavo

One of the most beautiful and popular verses in Torah is found in this week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. In the midst of showering the People of Israel with blessings, G-d declares, “You will blessed when you come, and blessed when you go.”

Rashi illuminates the meaning of the blessing to each individual: “May your departure from the world be as free of sin as was your entry into the world.” Imagine that. The degree to which a person is free from sin at his entry into the world is 1,000 percent. Sounds a bit fantastic, no?

As the director of Aleph NE, I have seen up close the struggles of incarcerated men and women and the great challenges that face them “when they come and when go,” at the time of their arrest and, surpassingly, to a more difficult degree, upon their eventual release.

What the system calls “re-entry” into mainstream society after having served time behind bars is for some even more difficult than the actual prison itself. And that hardship is something I have reflected upon endless times, pondering the resemblance that it has to so many of the personal struggles faced by all people — free or not — in day-to-day life.

“Re-entry” is a wonderful English translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuva.” While some mistranslate Teshuva as penitence, it actually means “return.” The fact that we refer to penitence as return implies that cleaning up our act and shedding past sins is not an entry into to a clean and innocent life, rather it is a re-entry — a return — back to a clean and innocent life. It implies that every person has a clean and innocent core that remains unflawed by sinful experiences and patiently awaits the person’s return to his or her natural state of goodness.

When G-d sees fit to send His angels to pluck a person from the clutches of their own destructive behavior, the person has one job: Don’t look back. Look ahead to the bright and meaningful future and move, move, move!

To every person re-entering a peaceful society with valuable experience from their ordeals, Torah challenges: If, after a torturous ordeal, you still have hopes and dreams, it is because you were blessed when you came into the ordeal. But now as you are released from its grip, it’s up to you to ensure that you are also blessed when you leave. Are you are taking lessons from the past with you? Or are you simply taking the past with you? The two are easily confused, so proceed with caution. And when in doubt, don’t turn around, don’t look back, and leave the past in the past where it belongs.

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director at the Aleph Institute-North East Region.

The External War, the Internal War Parshat Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, “When you go out.” It is a reference to violence and war. “When you take the field, [literally, “When you go out,”] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive …” (Deuteronomy 21:10).

Our biblical forebears were actually quite militant, and the religion they believed in sometimes sanctioned extremely  violent behaviors. Our ancestors carved out political independence that lasted for centuries, conquered neighboring peoples and even vanquished the great Greek armies of Antiochus, which we commemorate every year in the religious festival of Chanukah. But the Judean armies lost two massive and catastrophic wars against the Roman Empire that cost and uprooted millions of Jewish lives. As a result, the survivors reconstituted Jewish life in ways that avoided military  engagement.

That created a dilemma with regard to the militant parts of our sacred scripture. What are we to do with all the calls in the Tanach to battle our many enemies? Perhaps the verses referring to war at the obvious external level were intending to convey a deeper, and less obvious, spiritual message.

Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter’s “S’fat Emet” (“The Language of Truth”) uses the opening sentence to our Torah portion as a reference to the daily struggle of making it through to the end of the workweek. “In everything there is a point of divine life, but it is secret and hidden. Throughout the days of the week we are engaged in a battle and struggle to find that point.” In other words, there is meaning to our daily, often mundane struggles, and it is our job to uncover that meaning.

The “S’fat Emet” also sees our opening verse as a reference to the constant struggle to fight the yetzer hara or “evil inclination,” a kind of personification of the negative  impulses that we all feel. This is the internal war. We are only human, and it is virtually  impossible to always overcome our tendency to do the wrong thing.

If we think we can handle it all alone, we are fooling ourselves. And I think that is how the “S’fat Emet” understood God’s intervention in delivering it into our hand. We cannot do it single-handedly. But when we acknowledge our limitations, we are better positioned to allow the overwhelming goodness that is God-within to give us the strength to do what should be done.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los  Angeles. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

Meeting the King Parshat Shoftim

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiWhat is the essence of the exalted Hebrew month of Elul, the auspicious 30-day period of time prior to the Days of Awe in which, according to Chasidic philosophy, “The King is in the field,” when God is, as it were, more accessible to us than throughout the year?

How might we best prepare ourselves to meet the King while He is “in the field?” I  believe that the story of Velvel, a Soviet refusenik I met in Riga, Latvia in the month of Elul 5730 (1970), offers an  answer to this question.

In the late 1960s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, asked me to be his shaliach, his “emissary,” to  establish centers of Torah learning in several cities in the Soviet Union.

On Friday a night in Riga, I met a man named Velvel in the city’s main synagogue. Velvel told me that there was nothing he wanted more than a new tallit, since the tallit that he had received when he turned bar mitzvah was in tatters. I gave one to him discreetly, which brought an ear-to-ear smile to his otherwise forlorn face.

The next day, during Shabbat morning services at the synagogue, as the cantor led the Torah processional through the cavernous, mostly empty sanctuary, Velvel drew near and lifted the tzitzit of the brand-new tallit in order to touch them to the Torah scroll and then kiss them.

The cantor, seeing Velvel, dramatically stopped the procession and stared at Velvel with disdain. Velvel reciprocated, keeping his arm extended in the direction of the Torah scroll.

The minute-long staring match went on for what seemed forever, with neither the cantor (who it turns out was also a KGB agent) nor Velvel giving an inch. Abruptly, Velvel screamed at the cantor in  Yiddish:

“Ich hob nit kein moyreh! (I am not afraid!) You’ve already taken everything that you can take away from me! When I began to come to shul and I lost my job as a result, my wife left me, and she took the children with her. I have no job; I have no family. The only thing I have is my Jewish tradition. The only thing I have is this tallit. I am not afraid!”

The cantor, lowering his eyes in acknowledgment of Velvel’s position, resumed the procession. Slowly and triumphantly, Velvel touched the Torah with the tzitzit and delicately kissed them. Ultimately, we have nothing in life except for God, His Torah, and His commandments. Nothing else truly matters.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Stepping Up to Help Those in Need Parshat Re’eh

This week’s reading, Parshat Re’eh, includes the laws of kashrut and how to observe the three harvest festivals:  Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot. I will be focusing on another theme from the reading, however: tithing. Tithing is when farmers take 10 percent of their yield and donate it to the priests and the poor. This is a version of tzedaka. Tzedaka comes from the root tzedek, which means righteousness. In this case, the right thing to do is to help people in need.

Tzedaka comes from the root tzedek, which means  righteousness. In this case, the right thing to do is to help people  in need.

 

The Torah portion expands on the idea of tzedaka: “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your kinsman.  Rather, you must open your hand. … Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return, the Lord your G-d 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.”

This past year, our congregation, Chevrei Tzedek, volunteered at an urban farm in and around Clifton Park called Real Food Farm. It is located in a challenged part of Baltimore on lots that used to be old abandoned houses. The farm sells the food they grow in food deserts to people who normally could not afford  to purchase fresh food at a  reasonable cost. This farm is a part of a growing movement to educate and provide access to healthy and affordable food for the disadvantaged.

I spent time at the farm harvesting, painting, mulching, planting and weeding. During the hot summer days, I thought more about how I could drive just miles from my house and be in a totally different environment with people of different races and different socioeconomic backgrounds. We, the Jewish community, need to step up for neighborhoods that are so close to us and still need help. The Torah is trying to remind us that we shouldn’t take our food for granted.

Choosing the Path of Parshat Re’eh Parshat Re’eh

This Shabbat we read the parshah of Re’eh and my haftorah is from the prophet Isaiah,  recited on Rosh Chodesh. This new month is Rosh Chodesh Elul. The word Elul is an acronym for the Hebrew spelling, meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” It can be interpreted as how people love each other or the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Parshat Re’eh opens up with the famous quote, “See this day I set before you blessing and curse.” This is saying that the Israelites who follow the mitzvot of the Torah will earn a blessing, and those who don’t will be cursed. According to  the Torah, the nation is  commanded to worship only the one God of Israel when they are entering the land and to destroy the foreign idols. And if they do not, they will be cursed. But who is actually bringing the curse? Is it God or the people? We can ask this question about our own lives even today.

Does an individual bring down curses upon him or herself by his or her behavior? These “natural consequences” can feel like curses: for example, when a person insults or harms another person and is then punished for his behavior by losing a friend or having to pay for his negative actions.  He or she feels a lot of regret for what they have done and may wonder why they feel cursed.

In the haftorah we read about the return of the Jewish people from Babylon to the land of Israel. The theme of this haftorah for this special Shabbat also refers to God’s creation of the world and to God’s promise to the Jewish people to remember God’s special relationship with them.

In creation, the moon represents light. When we perform mitzvot we bring light into the world. My mitzvah project is volunteering at the Baltimore Humane Society, where I help out with the small animals that are in their care. The mitzvah of Tzaar Baalei Hayim is an important mitzvah to follow because God created animals when God created the world, and we should not hurt God’s creations. When we observe God’s mitzvot, we have chosen the path of blessing.

Julia Willis is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

The Divine Commands of Creation Parshat Eikev

“V’haya im shamoa — If then, you listen, yes, you really heed My commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in its season. … You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle — and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17, translation influenced by that of Everett Fox).

God is not nature, and nature is not God, but God created a world in which nature is the conduit for God’s bounty, the bounty of Creation.

 

This section of our Torah portion is known as V’haya im Shamoa, and is included in the daily and Shabbat morning service in traditional prayer books right after the Shema and V’ahavta prayers. Reform siddurim omit it, perhaps because it feels a bit simplistic. The message seems to contradict our understanding of  nature and weather: If you obey God’s commandments, nature will be good to you, but if you stray and serve other gods, the Eternal will punish you through acts of nature.

I would suggest a different understanding.

God is not nature, and nature is not God, but God created a world in which nature is the conduit for God’s bounty, the bounty of Creation. And nature is sustained by God’s commandments. Nature functions through the divine commands of Creation..

We humans also function through divine commands, through the divine commands of Creation. We live and love, eat, move, even think — according to natural laws of atomic activity and molecular movement. Our bodies all obey God’s laws in order to subsist, to survive — to live.

If we truly listen, yes, really heed God’s commandments to protect the earth through reasonable consumption, by being modest in our exploitation of nature. If we serve God with all our heart and soul by utilizing clean energy and preserving our precious natural resources, then we will be blessed with a world in which climate change will not shut up the skies or  release rain in torrents, both of which are increasing causes  of natural disaster throughout the world.

 

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los
Angeles. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

A Celebration of B’nai Yisrael

Today, we read Parshat Va’etchanan. We see the beautiful words of the Shema that tells all of B’nai Yisrael that there is only one God. Earlier, when God commanded Moses to talk to the rock so it would give water again, Moses got angry. Instead of talking to the rock, he hit the rock with his staff. Then God punished him by forbidding Moses from ever entering the land of Canaan. This is like when a child does not follow directions and gets punished.

Moses does not want B’nai Yisrael to lose their traditions or their Jewish identity by being merged with another religious group. God does not want them to be  absorbed into another  religion.

 

Now, since Moses was  allowed to win a victory in Transjordan, B’nai Yisrael would have the bank of the Jordan River. Moses pleaded with God to let him cross into the Promised Land, but God said he could not cross because of his sin at the rock, and he could only see the land from  a mountaintop. Moses then warns the Israelite people not to engage in idol worship and reminds them about when they received the Ten Commandments. This reminds me of an older brother explaining to a younger brother what he should not do so that he can avoid punishment and instead do what is right.

Moses also sets Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan as refuge cities for those who commit unintentional homicide. This is like a parent earmarking a separate safe place for their child — to sit on the steps or stand in the corner for punishment — when they have done something  unintentionally wrong.

Moses also tells B’nai Yisrael not to spare the people currently living in Canaan. They are not to intermarry with them because the Israelites are God’s treasured people. They will be loved by God if they keep the covenant and the commandments. Moses does not want B’nai Yisrael to lose their traditions or their Jewish identity by being merged with another religious group. God does not want them to be  absorbed into another religion. God wants B’nai Yisrael to be unique.

Garrett Rifkind is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

What Exactly Do We Mourn?

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiThe bleakest fast of the Hebrew calendar is on the ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem (in 586 BCE, and 70 CE). We begin preparing ourselves to feel the enormity of the loss three weeks before, from the 17th of Tammuz, with a sunrise-to-sunset fast on the date the Roman armies breached the wall around Jerusalem. Then, from the 17th of Tamuz until Tisha B’Av, Jewish law ordains a moratorium on all group festivities, with no haircuts, no shaving (although some may continue to shave until the  beginning of Av) or listening to music.

A world  without  compassionate righteousness and just  morality is a world that  cannot endure.

 

What is it about the loss of the Temple that engenders such national mourning? I would submit that the Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national  mission: to be God’s witnesses, and thereby serve as a light unto the nations, bringing  humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw the Temple as the living example from which all nations could learn how to perfect society. With the loss of the Temple, we ceased to be “players” on the world stage; we lost the means by which our message was to be promulgated. And a world without compassionate righteousness and just morality is a world that cannot endure.

When Jacob leaves his ancestral home, fleeing Esau’s wrath, and dreams his dream at Beth El, he envisions a ladder rooted in the earth and reaching up to the heavens — a veritable Holy Temple. Jacob identifies the ladder as “the house of God, at the gates of the heavens,” and Rashi, citing the Talmudic sages, insists that the ladder extended to the Temple Mount.

In the Book of Exodus, at the Song of the Sea, the Israelites sing of being brought to and planted within the Temple Mount, when the Temple of the Lord will be prepared by divine hands, and the Lord will reign throughout the world. And when King Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem, he beseeches G-d to answer the prayers of the gentiles who shall come from far away “for Your name’s sake,” so that “all the nations of the earth may recognize Your name, as does Your nation Israel” (I Kings 8:41-43).

The second chapter of Isaiah pictures the Temple exalted above the mountains, inspiring the nations to “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.” Indeed, we yearn for our Temple, which will inspire the world to accept a G-d of love, morality, compassion and peace.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

Embracing the Journey Parshat Matot-Masei

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiUndoubtedly, the Exodus stands as the central event of our  nation’s collective consciousness, an event that we invoke daily in the Shema, on the Sabbath, on festivals and after every meal. Still, when we consider the detail that our portion of Masei devotes to recording all 42 stops of the 40-year desert sojourn, we’re a little taken aback.

This week, I would like to concentrate on the commentary of Nahmanides. Apparently, he is troubled not only by the delineation of each stage of the journey, but also by the additional declaration that “Moses wrote their goings forth,  according to their stations, by the commandment of God” (Numbers 33:1-2). These words suggest that the actual recording of these journeys has  importance. In approaching the issue, Nahmanides first quotes Rashi, who says that Moses “set his mind to write down the travels. By doing this, he intended to inform  future generations of the loving kindness of God … who protected His nation despite their manifold travels.”

Nahmanides concludes, “The recording of the journeys was a Divine commandment,  either for reasons mentioned above, or for a purpose the  secret of which has not been revealed to us.” Nahmanides seems to be prompting us to probe further.

I would submit that the secret he refers to may indeed be the secret of Jewish survival. After all, the concept of ma’aseh avot siman l’banim — that the actions of the fathers are a sign of what will happen to the children — was well known to the sages, and one of the guiding principles of Nahmanides’s biblical commentary.

Perhaps the Jews didn’t invent history, but they understood that the places of Jewish wanderings, the content of the Jewish lifestyle, and the miracle of Jewish survival are more important than those hieroglyphics which exalt and praise rulers and their battles. The “secret” Nahmanides refers to may not only be a prophetic vision of our history, but a crucial lesson as to what gave us the strength, the courage and the faith to keep on going, to keep on moving, to withstand the long haul of exile.

Fundamental to our history as a nation is that we are constantly traveling — on the road to the Promised Land, on the journey towards redemption. That direction was given to us at the dawn of our history: in Hebron, with the Cave of the Couples, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and their gracious hospitality to everyone, their righteous compassion and just morality; and in Jerusalem, the city of peace. Even as we move down the road of time, we must always recall the place of our origin.

 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Names We Should Always Remember Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 27:1-11

Kushner,-Rabbi-StevenThe story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11) has all of the earmarks of a Jane Austen novel: the disenfranchisement and injustices borne by women surrounding the question of inheritance rights; the formal but respectful articulation of the grievances of those women; the dramatic and triumphant vindication of their plight and plea.

The story starts out revolving around the issue of land allotments in anticipation of the Israelites settling the land of Canaan. The idea of owning property, of having something permanent that would endure into the future and could be handed down from generation to generation was a central value. But it applied only to men.

Zelophehad died leaving no sons. His five daughters — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — approach Moses and present their case. Moses refers the question to God. God responds affirmatively to their request: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.”

The words of God are powerfully articulated. The expression of affirmation, the Hebrew word kein, which in today’s vernacular is the simple and unequivocal “yes,” is the first word of the verse. It is followed by their identities, b’not zelophehad, “daughters of Zelophehad,” and concludes with the verb dovrot, “speak.” Literally: “Yes, the daughters of Zelophehad speak.” Concise and poetic, it is stated without ambiguity. And it comes from the ultimate Authority.

We can have little doubt as to the importance of this tale. Particularly in the modern era, these five women will be a source of strength and inspiration to those who espouse a liberal and progressive interpretation of Judaism.

To be sure, while hardly a reversal to the male-dominated emphasis of biblical Judaism, this story is nevertheless a dramatic affirmation of the voice of the woman in Torah. Unlike the previous challenges to Moses, especially those in this Book of Numbers, the daughters of Zelophehad are not dissenters or rebels, they merely seek a redress of legitimate grievances. It is little wonder that these five daughters will become role models for the modern Jewish woman.

Because of their situation and subsequent plea, the daughters of Zelophehad effect a reform, an adaptation to the Halacha, “law,” as dictated by shifting realities. More than simply seeking clarification, they bring about change.

May we all be blessed to have dear ones who will do for us what Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah did for their father, Zelophehad. What’s in a name? A life.

 

Rabbi Steven Kushner is spiritual leader of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.