Climbing the Ladder of Responsibility Parshat Vayetzei

This Shabbat, we read a haftarah from the Book of Hosea. The prophet Hosea lived during the eighth century B.C.E. under King Jeroboam II’s rule, when Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the Northern consisting of 10 tribes and the Southern consisting of two tribes. In the haftarah, Jacob is compared to the Northern Kingdom because when he leaves Canaan, he has to work for Lavan in order to marry Rachel, just like the Northern Kingdom has to serve the foreign conqueror, Assyria.

Using metaphor, the Book of Hosea focuses on the relationship between God and the people of Israel. When they abandon Him and worship idols, God admonishes the People of Israel so they understand their sins and recognize that, with repentance, God is their only Shepherd who will watch, guard and protect them. Similarly, Jacob also commits wrongdoings; for example, he deceives Isaac into securing the blessing of the first born. Consequently, Jacob flees from Israel to Charan to his Uncle Lavan, where he works as a shepherd for Lavan to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The Hebrew verbs eshmor, watch over, and va-ya-avod, serve or work, demonstrate the connection between the Torah and the haftorah. In the haftorah, Jacob is referred to as a shepherd watching over Lavan’s flock of sheep and serving Lavan to marry Rachel just as God protects Jacob’s descendants when they work as slaves in Egypt.

Before Jacob leaves the Land of Israel on his way to Charan, he has a dream in which he envisions a ladder with the angels of God going up and down. God is present and tells Jacob that He is the God of Abraham and Isaac and promises to give the Land of Israel to Jacob and his descendants.

In life, we have dreams about who we will become and what we will do. The image of the sullam, the ladder, in Jacob’s dream makes me think about a stairway, where each step moves me up and forward. But a ladder can also be dangerous. Sometimes we miss a step, slip and fall back. That is why it is important to take small, purposeful steps with thought and intention. It is also very important to remember that ours is not the only ladder. There are other ladders, and we must always look around to make sure other people are not slipping, struggling or falling. We need to be accountable for one another because all of Israel are responsible for one another.

To help those struggling to climb their ladders, I have been volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore City for the past year. Every month, I visit the center and lead a craft activity for sick children and their siblings. Families from all over the world live in the Ronald McDonald House while someone they love is seeking treatment at a local hospital. I have also sewn five blankets for new residents, and I raced in its annual 5K Red Shoe Shuffle to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House. This project has enabled me to take care of children whose journey up their ladder is filled with hardship and pain. I am doing what I can to make it just a little bit easier for them to climb.

What Would You Hold Onto — At Any Price? Parshat Vayetzei

The show “Pawn Stars” is a runaway hit on the History Channel. It tells the story of three generations of the Harrison family and their Las Vegas pawnshop. There’s Richard, the patriarch (affectionately known as the “old man”); Rick, the son (who
really runs the business); and Rick’s adult son, Corey (who wants to become a tough businessman like his father and grandfather).

The setup is simple: Every customer who walks through the door, intending to pawn or sell some family heirloom, has a tale. Sometimes the item is worthless, other times priceless. Rick can always tell the difference.

When he does pronounce that the medieval knight’s helmet is really a 19th-century reproduction, the item’s owner must make a choice: Sell it for less than the asking price or call the whole deal off. Often, customers call off the deal because the item’s sentimental value has just exceeded its actual value.

Online auction and classified advertising sites such as eBay and Craigslist are full of personal items for sale by owners who may feel anguish — and even great pain — about letting go. We’ve all known people who’ve had to sell a beloved home they could no longer afford at a steep loss because it was worth less than the price than they had paid for it. Ads to sell gold for cash are everywhere. Pawnshops continue to stay in business. Everything seems to be negotiable.

This week’s Torah portion features Esau selling his birthright for a song, without even considering its real or sentimental value. Here, the Torah presents Esau as a man who acts quickly, believing himself to be in desperate circumstances.

A question for us: Are there some things you’d never sell, under any circumstances? If your situation became so difficult that you were between rock bottom and a very hard decision, what would you hold onto no matter what, regardless of the cost?

Selling material things is one thing, but sometimes more than tangible items are put up for sale. Selling our children, for example, is an abomination; and yet that happens around the world. In many places, the sex trade sells people, many of them children, into slavery on a daily basis.

Some things just should never be for sale. Integrity, for example, or freedom or love should never have a price tag, and neither should one’s body.

In ancient cultures, the birthright was the special privilege given to the firstborn male of any patriarch. At his father’s death, the eldest son received a “double portion” of the inheritance — double what his brothers would get. This inheritance wasn’t just economic, however; it was also about leadership. Having the birthright meant exercising leadership over the family, replacing the father as the patriarch. The holder of the birthright ruled over his brothers, and the family line would be continued through him. In short, the birthright was designed to ensure the future of the family.

The story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that some things should just never be for sale and that one impulsive decision, made amid an anxious circumstance, can have devastating ramifications for the future. There are lots of examples of how this story gets repeated throughout history and in our own communities: The businessperson who compromises her integrity by pocketing huge profits at the expense of fair wages and treatment of the company’s employees. The respected leader who sells away his career and family for the momentary pleasure of an affair. The teenager who wrecks his or her future by abusing drugs just because “everyone else is doing it.” The driver who forgoes common sense by taking the wheel after an evening of drinking and winds up taking a life in a car crash.

There is always a reason for our selling out. The question is whether we are thinking clearly. The ultimate question is this: What determines the value of what is on the table? Do we allow God to determine our value or do we let anxiety drive what we feel we need? Have we sold ourselves to the God who created us, cares for us, and gives us what we need? Or are we still willing to sell ourselves so cheaply to things that don’t matter, and are we prepared to pray the ultimate price?

In ancient China, the people wanted security against the barbaric hordes to the north, so they built the Great Wall. It was so high they believed no one could climb over it and so they thought nothing could break it down. They settled back to enjoy their security. During the first hundred years of the wall’s existence, China was invaded three times. Not once did the barbaric hordes break down the wall or climb over it. Each time, they bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right through the gates. The people were so busy relying on walls of stone they forgot to teach integrity to their children.

What is worth preserving for ourselves and our children, no matter the price?

Better the Servant than the Student Parshat Chayei Sarah

“You can’t find decent help these days!” This is a common complaint heard in middle-class homes, particularly in Jewish kitchens during the season of preparations for Passover. Happily, my wife and I have been blessed, over the years, with some
excellent domestic help. Usually, they were African-American women who were not only honest, efficient and reliable, but also surprisingly knowledgeable about traditional Jewish practices.

I fondly recall a woman named Mildred. She had spent many years working as a maid for an older rabbi in the community. We’ll call him Rabbi Rosencrantz. Although I was but a young rabbi when she began working for us, I had already amassed a considerable library of sacred Jewish books, including some precious antique volumes that I had inherited from my grandfather. Needless to say, I was extremely careful about how those books were handled.

How astonished I was when I returned home late one spring afternoon to find all of my bookshelves empty. In a panic, I began to search the premises and, much to my chagrin, discovered that the books were lying in disarray on a long table in the backyard. Mildred was systemically turning them all upside down and shaking them vigorously. I couldn’t contain my disapproval and yelled, “Mildred, what on earth are you doing?”

Mildred gently replied that she was making certain that there was no chametz inside any of the books. You see, it was just before Passover, and many people carefully inspect their books for breadcrumbs or cookie bits that may have found their way into the holy volumes during the course of the year. I am generally quite careful to avoid bringing any food into close contact with the books I use, but apparently Rabbi Rosencrantz was much more meticulous about inspecting his books for chametz than I was.

When I told Mildred that she really didn’t have to do that, she responded, “Rabbi! I am not going to allow a young upstart like you to tell me how to prepare for Passover. I learned about chametz from Rabbi Rosencrantz, and he was old enough to have been your grandfather!”

No question about it. Sometimes a gentile maid can take Jewish customs more seriously than an ordained rabbi. This lesson is not a new one. It can be learned from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18). Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is the hero of the entire Chapter 24. The story of his mission to find a wife for his master’s son, Isaac, is narrated at length and in great detail. We learn of how Eliezer identified Rebecca as a proper wife for Isaac. Eliezer then reviews the story, again at length and in detail, to Rebecca’s father Bethuel and brother Laban. Finally, in verse 66, we read that Eliezer retold the story yet again, this time to Isaac himself.

The rabbis see in all this repetitive detail an indication of the Almighty’s attitude toward Eliezer’s words: “The idle conversation of the Patriarchs’ servants is more precious than the Torah of their descendants.”

A much lesser known but even more impressive illustration of the superiority of a servant’s wisdom is to be found in a passage in Talmud Tractate Moed Katan, 17a. There, the story is told of the maidservant of Rabbi Judah the Prince, usually referred to simply as “Rabbi,” or “Rebbe.”

She once observed a father disciplining his adult son by striking him. She censured the father, convinced that the son might not be able to resist reacting to the provocation by striking his father back. In her judgment, the father was thus guilty of “placing an obstacle before a blind man.” So critical was she of the father’s behavior that she placed him under a nidui, or ban, effectively excommunicating him.  The rabbinical courts of that time let three years pass before they lifted that ban.

The great medieval halachic authority, Rabbenu Asher, known as “the Rosh,” questions the courts’ failure to nullify the ban sooner, which was their usual practice in response to bans imposed by non-credentialed individuals. In response, he quotes the words of an earlier authority, Rabbi Avraham ben David, or “the Ra’avad,” who writes: “The rabbis were reluctant to overturn a ban imposed by this woman because of her superior wisdom and piety. They did not consider themselves her equal until they found an outstanding sage who was demonstrably qualified to nullify her ban!”

We can learn quite a few powerful lessons from the story of Rebbe’s maidservant; from Eliezer the servant of Abraham; and yes, even from my family’s beloved housekeeper, Mildred. First of all, we can learn the timeless lesson that we must be ready to gain knowledge from every conceivable source. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” One can learn a great deal even from unexpected sources and must revere every potential source of knowledge, even in matters of religion.

But there is another lesson to be derived from these anecdotes. There are many ways to learn. Some learn by studying books; others learn by listening to lectures. These are important tools to gain knowledge with, and they cannot be minimized.

But one also learns through experience. If one is fortunate to grow up in a home rich in spirituality, he or she will become very knowledgeable about spirituality, even if no explicit lessons were taught. A process of osmosis occurs, by which anyone who spends time in an environment in which high ideals are exemplified will absorb those ideals.

The Talmud used the example of Eliezer, and the medieval rabbis used the example of Rebbe’s maidservant, to teach us that sometimes what the “mere” servant absorbs from his experience in Abraham’s company, or her years of service in the palace of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is of greater value than the erudition of great scholars. Precious indeed is the idle conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs!

What I learned that pre-Passover day so long ago was that the capacity to learn from unexpected sources was not limited to times gone by or to lofty souls such as the biblical Eliezer and the unique personage who was Rebbe’s maidservant.

Even Mildred, who passed away long ago, had a lot to teach me.

She taught me about the importance of the scrupulous observance of Jewish customs, particularly those that have to do with Passover.

She taught me that, even with regard to matters of religious observance, one can learn a great deal from unexpected sources.

Above all, she taught me a lesson about humility. That’s a lesson that requires lifelong review.

Thank you, Mildred.

Staying Connected Parshat Vayera

Judaism values a personal connection to the Torah. It values concentration and mental discipline. Perhaps most of all, Judaism values memory. By that, I do not mean learning by rote. I mean memory in a much larger context. Judaism values memories. Judaism grooms our ability to remember and connect to the past; to use our mental capacity to learn new ideas, but never to forget our roots; to keep growing, but always to stay connected, like a tree.

As I studied my parshah, I found a personal connection to Torah. My parshah is filled with interesting stories, but one idea that I wanted to share with you touched me personally. My parshah recounts the story of God promising Avraham and Sarah that he would make them into a great nation even though they were childless at the age of 99 and 90, respectively.  Just one year later, just as God had promised, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac.

Hey, you know what? That’s a pretty good choice for a name.

This shows that God is the true worker of miracles and that we should place our trust in God. This story has personal relevance in my life as well. I’m sort of a miracle baby. Though my parents were reaching the end of their years to have children, they decided to have me. And God happily made a miracle, and here I am today.

I can’t say that it’s been an easy year, but I can say I have learned more than I ever imagined, I have gained a confidence that now lies deep within me, I have solidified my belief in God.

A similar miracle of life occurs in my haftarah. Elisha the prophet blesses a good woman, who was barren, that she should have a child. The miracle comes to fruition, but the child gets sick and dies. The woman quickly summons Elisha, who proceeds to lay his body on the boy, in what sounds a lot like CPR, and the boy is brought back to life. Again, we see the lesson that God is the one who gives life to all creatures.  It is like the words we read in the Amidah, “Baruch ata Adonai, Mechayeh HaMeytim”— “Blessed are you, O God, who gives and restores life.”

All in all, the bar mitzvah process has taught me more than I ever imagined. I have lived, learned and incorporated into my being the central values of my religion: intellectual rigor combined with a keen awareness of the power and majesty of Hashem. I can’t say that it’s been an easy year, but I can say I have learned more than I ever imagined, I have gained a confidence that now lies deep within me, I have solidified my belief in God, and I am proud to say that I am now connected to my past and very much look forward to my future as an adult member of the Jewish community.

Isaac Troy is a seventh-grade student at Krieger-Schechter Day School.

The Power of Community Parshat Lech Lecha

This Shabbat, we read Parshat Lech Lecha, and the haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. In the beginning of the haftarah, God tells the Israelites that they are His people and that they shouldn’t be afraid. God affirms His support for them, saying, “I uphold you with My victorious right hand.” Throughout the haftarah, God reminds B’nei Yisrael about the amazing things God has done for the Jewish people, and God makes many promises about gifts He will give them, like the power to reduce mountains to dust and being able to defeat any enemy of Israel.

As I studied the haftarah, I was confused about how a passage in the middle of the haftarah, which speaks of building and community, related to the rest of the haftarah portion, which focuses on God’s love of the Jewish people and the faith we have in Him. When I reread the text, I noticed that a community is coming together and encouraging each other to build a structure that will stand strong. I realized that coming together as a community is a gift that God gave us that will renew our strength. In our school community, we are rebuilding our playground, which fits perfectly with my haftarah portion. I really liked the idea of building together, so I looked further into some commentaries with my rabbi.

I discovered in the haftarah what can happen when, instead of trusting in God, the people use the gift of community to build an idol to help them deal with their fears.

Because today is such a special day for me, I prefer to look at this passage in the positive light in which I first saw it, realizing that we can learn a lesson from the message in the haftarah and apply it for good to our everyday lives. Even though the people in the haftarah are building an idol, they are also modeling a positive way of working together. As they work, the people compliment and encourage each other. We can learn from this that we too can encourage each other just like they did, only encourage each other to do something positive.

As my first mitzvah to the community as a bat mitzvah, I have formulated a project that will give us the opportunity to encourage each other and work positively together as we build our new Krieger Schechter playground.

Over the past few months, I have designed encouragement cards that will be used at the playground build this spring. Both students and adults can use the cards to write messages to compliment and encourage each other as we work together to build our very own playground.
I hope to help strengthen our community and bring us closer together and closer to God with these encouragement cards.

Trusting in God Parshat Lech Lecha

The haftarah for Parshat Lech Lecha is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah wrote during the time when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. The people feared that they would never be able to return home. They felt abandoned by God. After all, the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and their beloved Temple. The prophet Isaiah, known as the prophet of consolation and comfort, speaks to the Israelites and assures them that God has not forgotten them.

Isaiah asks them to be patient. He tells them that King Cyrus of Persia is about to conquer Babylon, and hopefully he will let the Israelites return to Israel. In fact, Isaiah was correct, and after some time King Cyrus defeated Babylonia and allowed the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.

In Isaiah’s words, God reassures the Israelites that they are not alone and should not fear, for God is with them. God will strengthen and help His people through this terrible period of exile. In addition, God will also make Israel’s enemies so weak that they will disappear, and Israel will no longer need to fear them.

My haftarah uses many comforting images to describe God’s loving relationship with Israel. For example, God reassures the people that “I will hold you by the hand.” Of course, we know that this is not literal, but it symbolizes Isaiah’s message that God is with His people, holding them and protecting them like a parent holds a child’s hand.

In today’s Torah portion of Lech L’cha, we read about how Avraham was chosen by God to be the leader of a new nation. God promises to be with Avraham and to protect him in his journey to Canaan, or Israel. Isaiah reminds the exiled Israelites that God will also be with them, as he was with Avraham.

The theme of trusting in God and having faith that things will work out is an important one. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have had to be strong and hold on to their faith, even when they might have felt hopeless.

Many times, Jewish people were expelled from their countries and were forced to find new homes. They had to be brave and hopeful, so that they could begin their lives in a safer place. Even today, Jews in Europe are feeling threatened and unsafe.

There are times when people may feel that things are hopeless and will never get better. When someone loses their job or their home, they may need to be reminded to stay strong and that God has not forgotten them. Like Isaiah, I feel that it is important to keep up hope and to trust that things will get better.

Sometimes, my swim team is not performing as well as we would like; we are disappointed in ourselves and feel like we are falling behind. But if we work hard and have a positive attitude, we can do better. We try to reassure and encourage each other.

Like Isaiah, we can each be the voice of hope and encouragement, by being positive, by helping others to overcome challenges and by believing in a brighter future.

‘Pennies for Preemies’ Parshat Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Noach, and my Haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. As a result of the flooding Israel was experiencing,Isaiah likens Israel to a barren woman whom God is ignoring. Now, Isaiah is not saying literally that Israel is a barren woman, but he is expressing that all things that seem bad can be temporary, because we can always come back to a relationship with God. In verse 7, God says, “For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back.” This means that at the end of hard times, God promises to always step in, save the day and help those who are suffering.

In verse 7, God says, “For a little while I forsook you, but with vast love I will bring you back.”

This reminds me of the stories I hear of my birth. I was born three months prematurely and was placed in the NICU at Sinai Hospital. I was only 2 pounds, 8 ounces; I could not breathe on my own. I was in the NICU for 11 weeks during which I started to be able to breathe on my own and grow and get stronger. While I was there, my family realized there was nothing for my sister or brother to do because they were too young and were spending a lot of time with my parents in the hospital. For my first birthday, my parents and grandparents raised money for a makeover on an old space in the hospital that young visitors could enjoy.  They called it Devin’s Room, and it can be used by all family members visiting the infants in the NICU. In this room, young siblings have activities, like books to read and board games and computers to play. This way, the young brothers and sisters can keep themselves busy while parents and grandparents visit in the NICU.

And now, 13 years later, I am on the bimah and have become a bar mitzvah and also am able to breathe just fine. For my bar mitzvah project I am collecting “Pennies for Preemies” to donate to Devin’s Room at Sinai Hospital. The room needs new toys and games for the families spending time in the NICU, and I would like our community to share our compassion with these families. We can be partners with God in helping people in our community in need and in helping bad situations be only temporary.

Devin Lewis is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School

‘Angelic Advice’ Parshat Bereshis

It is a lesson that I was first taught as a schoolchild, just beginning to study Torah. But, like so many other important lessons in life, I ignored it back then, only to finally learn it as an adult. But then, I learned it the hard way.

The lesson was a simple one: Don’t make important decisions without consulting others.

Self-confidence is a good thing, and it is typical of younger people. Sometimes, however, too much self-confidence can lead us astray so that we make choices in life without first discussing them with someone older or wiser, or even just with someone whose perspective is different from our own.

Admittedly, when I was a much younger man, my self-confidence often took the form of, “No one else can tell me what to do.” It was not necessarily a healthy self-confidence but instead reflected my need to assert my autonomy and independence.

Luckily, the mistakes I made by not consulting others were never disastrous. They required correction, and correction was fortunately possible. Too often, however, the failure to consult others results in mistakes that are irreversible and occasionally even tragic.

My initial exposure to this lesson was in the fourth grade. We were studying one of the earliest verses in the entire Bible, which appears in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bereshis (Genesis 1:1-6:8). The verse is a deceptively simple one. It follows a passage that describes how the Almighty, having created the entire animal world, concluded that “this was good.” He then says, “Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

Note that the Lord uses the first person plural as He contemplates creating mankind: “Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness.” Shouldn’t He have used the first-person singular? Should not verse 26 have read, “Let Me make Man in My image, after My likeness”? Whom else can the Almighty conceivably be addressing besides Himself? Dare we conclude that the One God had a partner, perhaps even several partners, in creating the human race?

These were the questions that our fourth-grade teacher, the late Theodore “Teddy” Silbermintz, who also masterfully conducted our school choir, asked us to consider. I must confess that, although we understood these questions, we were much too young to be troubled by them. But others in the course of Jewish history were profoundly
troubled by these questions.

For example, the Talmud (Megillah 9a) records that in ancient times, King Ptolemy gathered 72 Jewish elders, confined each of them to separate rooms and ordered them to translate the entire “Torah of your master Moses.” Unanimously, they carefully substituted the singular pronoun “I” for the plural pronoun “us.” They took the liberty of rendering our verse thus: “I will make man in My image, after My likeness.” By altering the original text, they assured that King Ptolemy could never again contend that two or more gods created the world. They deprived him of the ability of finding support in our Torah for his polytheistic theology.

In another Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 38b), we learn that the Sadducees, who, unlike Ptolemy, were thoroughly familiar with the accurate original text, did indeed conclude that more than one god created man. The fact is that in verse 27, the Torah “self-corrects” and reverts to the singular pronoun to preclude misinterpretations of our verse 26. But the Sadducess were apparently unimpressed by that “self-correction.”

But the question posed by the use of the plural pronoun in verse 6 remains. To answer it, our dear teacher excitedly paraphrased Rashi’s answer to us, in a language we could understand and in words that can I still recall almost verbatim:

“Despite the risk that the plural form would be misinterpreted by nonbelievers, Scripture did not refrain from sharing some practical common sense and prescribing a dose of humility. The Supreme Being consulted with His heavenly court before embarking upon an act as
crucial as the creation of mankind. We must learn that no matter how lofty is one’s position in life, he must consult with others, even ‘lesser’ others. Don’t be blinded by your ego.
Realize that others have much to offer to you as you go about making your life’s decisions. Their light may illuminate your darkness.”

As I continued to pursue Talmud study over the many decades since that fourth-grade “teachable moment,” I discovered numerous other passages conveying the identical message.

One of them is a teaching of Rabbi Hanina bar Papa (Bava Batra 75b), a teaching with prophetic implications for an urgent contemporary issue:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, sought to confine the area of Jerusalem, as it is written: “‘Where are you going?’ I asked. ‘To measure Jerusalem,’ he replied. ‘To see how long and how wide it is to be.’ But then the ministering angels objected: ‘Master of the Universe, you created so many cities in Your world for which You set limits to neither their length nor their breadth. Yet for Jerusalem, which contains Your Name, where Your Holy Temple is located, and in which the righteous are to be found, for her You set limits?’ The Lord immediately
relented: ‘Run to that young man and tell him: Jerusalem shall be peopled as a city without walls, so many shall be the men and cattle it contains’” (Zechariah 2:6-8).

One cannot help but wonder. The Lord of the Universe is the creator of heaven and earth. He is aware of all secrets and knows the future until the end of time. Does He require the input of His ministering angels to sensitize Him to Jerusalem’s honor?

Apparently, what we are to learn from this puzzling prophetic passage is the exact same lesson as Rashi teaches us in verse 26 of this week’s Torah portion. The Almighty, as it were, goes out of His way to model for us the essential importance of listening to others and not “going it alone” when decisions must be made.

The great 19th-century ethicist Rabbi Israel Salanter insists that one who neglects to consult others while making important decisions is not qualified to be a leader of a Jewish community. This is what he writes in one of his letters:

“He who stands firm and stubbornly maintains his original position without seeking the advice of others is prohibited from becoming a rabbi or rabbinical judge. If he clings to his original position and does not consider the possibility that he is in error, he is doubly negligent; not only has he stubbornly adhered to error and faulty reasoning, but he has mislead those who follow his teachings and rulings.”

There is no better way to conclude this week’s message than by quoting King Solomon, that wisest of men:

“A wise man is strength;

A knowledgeable man exerts power;

For by stratagems you wage war,

And victory comes with many advisers” (Proverbs 24:5-6).

Let’s Not Lose Sight of What’s Important Ki Tisa

This week, we read from the Torah portion Ki Tisa.  We read this portion during Sukkot because Sukkot is a celebratory holiday. This portion reminds us of the true meaning of the holiday, which is even more. It reminds us that there are consequences for our actions.

Often on Sukkot, people are joyous and throw parties. They forget that the holiday is for thanking God for the first harvest and celebrating the great gifts that God and our farms have given us. This portion shows us that we should not lose sight of what is truly important.

When the people of Israel created the golden calf, everyone was singing, dancing and partying. They forgot the holiness of Mount Sinai and all that God had done for them. The people lost sight of what was truly important. When Moses arrived and God and Moses saw what the people of Israel had done, they were outraged at the people’s ignorance. The people of Israel were punished for their actions. This story provides a warning for us today.

This portion also discusses God showing Moses God’s back. There is an expression, “You have to see it to believe it.” As Jews, our relationship with God is stronger than that. We do not see God but we still believe in God. Our bond is strong enough that we do not need to see God.

For example, idols are physical things that people pray to because they are unable to believe in a power they cannot see. They cannot understand that some things can go unseen but can still be believed in. However, exceptions can be made. Moses was rewarded for his faith in God. Every now and then, people do need incentives to keep believing. After all, we are only human.  God does not want us to end up like the people who pray to idols. So once in a while, we do need to be reminded why we should believe in God. This was the gift that was given to Moses. He was reminded that God is and always will be there.

This connects to my life because I have a similar relationship with my parents. Once in a while, after I have been doing good things, I get a reward. My parents are trying to tell me that even though they get upset at me at times, they still love me and that I should keep doing what I am doing and doing what is right.

Believing in our parents is similar to believing in God. Just like our parents, God is always there for us also. Both God and our parents can get upset, but both will always love us. Parents are merciful and kind just like God. Happy Sukkot!

Placing Our Trust in God’s Protection Divar Torah

This Shabbat, Hol Ha Moed Sukkot, we read from the Book of Ezekiel. During the holiday of Sukkot, the themes of destruction and renewal occur. The prophets associated the theme of warfare, followed by hope and redemption, with the holiday of Sukkot. They anticipated the day to come when all the nations would witness universal peace.

In today’s Haftarah, it states, “Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness.”

When Sukkot comes, and we celebrate, this is another time we know God’s greatness is with us. The sukkah represents the shelter that our ancestors experienced when they were wandering in the desert. Then and today we place our trust in God’s protection. When we go outside into nature, into the sukkah, anything can happen.

We know that these words, “and I will be exalted and sanctified,” are very important because the rabbis incorporated them into the kaddish prayer that we recite every day. In each service we find the Hatzi Kaddish, which serves as a separation between parts of the service and also the mourner’s Kaddish, which is recited with each service.

The rabbis understood the reason to praise God even in our darkest moments, including when we mourn the death of a loved one. Why would the mourner need to recall God’s greatness at a time of sorrow? Even when we feel vulnerable, the rabbis want us to understand that despite the difficulty and hardships, we realize that God will be there for us
and there will always be goodness in the world.

When there is no more war, when someone puts an end to hunger, when we find a cure for diseases such as Ebola, cancer and others — that will be one  way we know God’s greatness has come to our world. We have to learn to bring God’s presence into our world. We have to be kind to others and respect each other. Through the Torah we learn that it is our job to do mitzvot, such as donating clothes or toys that we aren’t using anymore or recycling paper instead of throwing it away. Those are other ways to bring God into our world.  By helping each other we are partners with God, and in this way we can enhance the world in which we live.

As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope to bring joy to the lives of the children at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. I am collecting books for the patients so when they read the stories, even though they are hospitalized, they can travel far through their imagination.