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Yom Rivii, 1 Elul 5777

In Parshat Eikev, Deuteronomy 8: 10, we read, “When you have eaten your fill [other translations – eaten and been satisfied], give thanks to the Eternal your G-d for the good land given to you.” This sentence is part of the birkat hamazon, the traditional blessing recited after meals. The rabbis asked, “how much do you have to eat in order to be considered ‘satisfied.’” The answer is “k’zayit,” an amount the size of an olive. An olive! Can you imagine being satiated by a quantity of food the size of an olive? It is so easy to look at what we have and say, “this is not enough.” The Torah asks that we declare even a morsel to be sufficient and worthy of prayer and blessing.

In the United States, we live in a culture of plenty. We are invited to constantly shop, purchase, eat, and acquire ever more. Interestingly, we are also advised to declutter, lose weight, and live a clean, minimalist lifestyle. Caught in an endless cycle of acquisition and minimization, it is hard to find balance. The Torah teaches us that balance is in awareness, mindfulness, and gratitude. We aren’t commanded here simply to recite a blessing after we eat, but rather we are also commanded to be satisfied with what we have (even an amount the size of an olive), to open our awareness to those who have less, to the blessing of harvest, and to all that must happen before the food appears on our plates.

As the poet, Leah Goldberg wrote:
Teach me, O G-d, a blessing, a prayer
On the mystery of a withered leaf,
On ripened fruit so fair,
On the freedom to see, to sense,
To breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.

Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise,
As each morning and night
You renew Your days,
Lest my day be today as the one before;
Lest routine set my ways.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff

This week’s Torah portion contains the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. The V’ahavta is a fascinating piece of text. Here it is in the translation from our prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah:

You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart,
With all your soul, and with all your might.
Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
Impress them upon your children.
Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away,
When you lie down and when you get up.
Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;
Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Looking at this text, it would appear that it contains six commandments:

1. Love G-d
2. Teach your children about G-d
3. Recite these words at home and away
4. Recite these words before bed and upon awakening
5. Put the words on your hand and forehead (t’fillin)
6. Put the words on your doorposts and gates (mezuzah)

There is one problem. How can we be commanded to do the first of these? How can we be commanded to love? I would argue that this first one is not a commandment at all, but rather a prediction.

How do we build and develop relationships? When we meet someone whom we wish to befriend, we don’t simply ignore them and hope that a friendship will develop from our lack of communication. No, we introduce ourselves, speak with the person, find out about them, and spend time with them. Through these actions, we develop relationships and sometimes love. But, how do we learn to love G-d, who is, in so many ways, unknowable? Well, we have a little instruction manual.

 - Teach your children about G-d
 - Connect to G-d at home and away
 - Connect to G-d when you wake up and when you go to sleep
 - Put the words on your hand and forehead. Traditionally this means wear t’fillin, but it can also be interpreted symbolically. Putting the words on your hand is about action,          doing mitzvot. Putting the words on your forehead is about thought and study
 - Put the words on your doorposts – mezuzah - seeing the reminders of Jewishness as part of your home.

If you do those things, you will develop a connection and relationship with G-d and with your Judaism, and it is through relationships that love can grow.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff

The first “Back to School” catalogs began arriving in people’s mailboxes this year around the 12th of June, two weeks before school was even let out for the summer. Friends on social media were not amused (despite having laughed last year when the Christmas catalogs arrived before Halloween), but, rather, they were actively annoyed and even angry at this affront to summer. Summer is a season apart. Through long days, vacations, weekends on the beach, barbecues, and time with family, American culture leads us to see summer as a time of renewal and rebirth. It is a season that refreshes us and prepares us for the year ahead – the start of school, the ramping up of business at work, the rush and pressure of fall and winter activities. It is one of the only times during the year that people really seem to relish living in the moment. Pictures abound of toes in the sand, smiling and sweaty families, mountains, oceans, and sunsets. We rejoice in summer and we try not to think about the fall ahead.

This week’s Torah portion, Matot / Masei, is the final one in the book of Numbers, a book that chronicles almost 38 years of the wanderings of the Children of Israel on their path to Eretz Yisrael. Masei means journeys, and this section marks down the starting points of their various marchings. From this, it seems that Torah wants us to focus not only on the destination, but on the process.

At funerals, I like to read the Alvin Fine poem that begins, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey.” As we look back on a life, we remark on each achievement, each moment in that life, but we too often discount the process by which we arrive at the moment, the path to becoming the person we develop into. How frequently we become so focused on our goals or obsessed by our errors that we forget to notice what we are learning in the moment. But the entire Torah is about the journey, not the destination. We never even REACH the Promised Land in the Torah. Author Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I pray that this Shabbat, and indeed this summer, we will take a moment to reflect on the journey and, as the Torah does this week, relish every stop along the way.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat D'varim, Moses, a man who described himself at the beginning of Exodus as, “slow of speech, and slow of tongue” starts to deliver a very long sermon, his farewell speech – the Book of Deuteronomy. Just as the Jewish people has been transformed through their passage through the wilderness, so too has Moses developed into a strong and dynamic leader. Having gone through these changes, they are finally ready for the next stage of their journey. For Moses, it is the final piece – imparting his last words of wisdom, a review of their time together, and his farewell. For the people, it is a taking stock in preparation for the battles to come.

I think there is some significance to the words that start this speech. Moses tells the people that G-d spoke to them at Horeb saying, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointed out in his d’var Torah last year that these are challenging words to say to a religious group. “How often are we as communities of faith locked into, not only a place, but a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of practicing?” Old habits give us comfort and so much of faith is about comfort. The words, “but that is the way we have always done it,” have echoed with great frequency over the last few years, especially as we have transitioned from two congregations to one. Gradually, we are finding a new “how we do it” – a new minhag hamakom. It has been fascinating, beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once to watch and share in this transformation.

We read the Torah every year. Each year we cycle through the same stories, but if we pay attention, we see that they aren’t really the same after all because our changing perspectives color them in a different way. So too, I think it is good for us to say each year, “you have stayed long enough at this mountain,” to challenge ourselves to continue to redefine ourselves through social action, community building, prayer, song, and more. Each year we come to Sinai anew, and each year we seek to learn something novel about who we are as individuals, as Jews, as American citizens, and as members of a wider global community. We can’t do it the way we have always done it because the world is not the way it has always been.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Sally Neff

This week we will be reading from Parashat Pinchas. One of the challenges with reading any of our ancient texts is that we often want them to reflect our contemporary values. For example, we live in a society that, for the most part, is striving to become more egalitarian. Therefore, when we look to our tradition we hope to find stories and teachings to ground ourselves in reflection of these same values.

By this measure, the Torah does not live up to our expectations. Though truth be told, it cannot live up to our expectations. It was composed and redacted in a time and place far different from our contemporary reality.

All that being said, the Torah, nonetheless, is quite revolutionary. Though not egalitarian, it does give us insight into how our ancient tradition viewed and valued women.

This week we find the stories of Mahlah, Noa, Hoglad, Milcah, and Tirzah -- often referred to as the daughters of Zelophechad. They approached Moses because their father died in the wilderness leaving behind no sons to inherit their father’s holding. They were also concerned that their father’s name would be lost in the subsequent generation.

After consulting with God, Moses decreed that, “if a man dies without a son, you (the Israelites) shall transfer his property to his daughter…” (Num. 27:8). It then goes into greater details about the laws of inheritance.

Now we wish the text provided for the daughters whether or not there were sons. But, it was quite revolutionary for its time. Subsequent rabbis then made for allowances for daughters so that by the 16th century, fathers were allowed to give half of their sons’ share in their estate to their daughters (Shulchan Aruch H.M. 281:7).

In reading Parashat Pinchas, we find the Torah was already beginning to plant the seeds for a more egalitarian approach to Jewish living. We still have a long way to go in the Jewish world, and in our greater society especially with regards to issues of equality. But it is nice to know that our efforts are backed up by our tradition, even if our tradition does not go as far as we would like. But at least it is a step in the right direction.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff