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This week, we will be reading from Parashat Lech-Lecha. Lech-Lecha is the third portion in the book of Genesis, and in many ways, is the beginning of our story as a Jewish people. It starts with God calling Avram and telling him to leave everything he knows, to head out to a land that God will show him. Avram does this and takes along his wife Sarai, their nephew Lot, and all the people they had acquired. Later commentators understand the Hebrew here to mean, all the people they have ‘converted’ to monotheism.
It is a beautiful passage about belief and taking a leap of faith. Much of our tradition and subsequent interpretations focus on the notions of deep abiding personal relationships with God, as well as seeking out the spiritual and holy in the world. But just a little later on in the same parasha, Lot, Avram’s nephew was kidnapped. By this point Avram was very wealthy and very powerful, and he mustered his men and went to battle in order to redeem his nephew.
Avram may have been a deeply God-loving man, but he was also a clan leader and warrior. For two thousand years we tended to de-emphasize this part of our tradition because we lived at the mercy of nations greater than us. It was only with the establishment of the Yishuv and later the nation of Israel, that we began to reclaim these stories of military might.
It is a central tension we have lived with ever since. We are a religion with a deep and profound desire to bring about shalom, peace in the world. Thereby fulfilling the vision of Isaiah and Micah. At the same time, we cannot ignore our past history or the reality of the modern world, which demands a strong military and sometimes a strong military response to threats and violence.
The lingering question is: how do we make sense of all of this? Avram was a man of peace. Prior to his nephew being captured, there was an ongoing war of four kings against the five. For thirteen years, Avram stayed neutral until his nephew was kidnapped. And even after defeating his enemies, Avram declined to receive any of the spoils of war.
Avram did not seek war, but instead he sought out the highest Jewish value, Pikuach Nefesh, to save a life. From this we can gain a sense of a Jewish perspective on war. As is written in the Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues by Nachum Amsel, … “war is permitted in Judaism, but only under limited conditions. And even when permitted, there are laws and values that must be adhered to while fighting” (pg. 310).
This is why our tradition says, even while making war, one must pursue peace. This may not be the most satisfactory answer to one of the greatest ethical quandaries, but it is a good guide for whenever contemplating military actions.
Shabbat is designed to be a time of peace, and we pray for peace to reign upon all of the earth. Until such a time, we aspire to be a people of peace, understanding that peace can sometimes come at a high cost. But nevertheless, peace is the highest goal, and war should only be an option of last resort, when all others fail.
As it says in Psalm 29:11, “May God grant strength to God’s people; may God bless God’s people with peace.” May we continue to be blessed with strength and might, but only for the pursuit of peace.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will start our Torah journey anew with the reading of Beresheet. Often times, a discussion of Beresheet focuses on the intersection or incompatibility of science and religion. This is due to the statement of the earth being created in six days. However, rather than engage in that conversation on origins of creation or of Adam and Eve, I thought it might be fun to look at another challenging issue in Genesis: age.
Near the end of Beresheet, it tells us “all the days that Adam lived came to 930 years; then he died” (Genesis 5:5). Adam’s son Seth lived to be 912 years old. Enosh was 905, and Methuselah was the longest lived at 969 years. Just to name a few. As an aside, Noah lived to be 950 years old. He was over 500 years old at the time of the flood.
The question is: did these men live to be this old, or are these numbers symbolic? Or do these numbers follow some form of scheme or mnemonic we simply have failed to comprehend? The reality is, we simply do not know. What we do know is that “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). What we do know is that 120 has become the symbolic number for a good and full life. And there are human beings today who have lived close to those number of years.
There is another possibility with regards to the reading of ages in the Torah. Adam and Eve, until the incident with the fruit of all knowledge (most likely a fig and not an apple), were immortal. By living in the Garden of Eden, they could never die. But they could also never experience the joy of having children nor could they understand the human condition.
It was only after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden that their lives became closer to mortal. The further away we get from the Garden of Eden in our stories, the shorter the life spans become until the time of Moses. Moses, who, among other things, now also serves as the embodiment of mortality.
On this Shabbat where we think about the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the age of Judaism, and the age of humanity, let us not lose sight of the fact that age is just part of life’s greater journeys. In this sense, age is more than just a number. As a writer noted: “There’ll be two dates on your tombstone and all your friends will read them. But all that is going to matter is that little dash between them.” We, like Adam, Methuselah, and Moses, only have so much time. So let’s make the most of it.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
Tonight begins Shabbat Shuva, which always falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Most of the liturgy is the same as it is every Shabbat. However there are certain liturgical changes to note that we are in the Ten Days of Repentance. For example, on Shabbat Shuva, we continue to recite Zochreinu during the Amidah. There is also a special haftarah reading from Hosea 14.
The literal translation for Shabbat Shuva is Shabbat of Return. Part of the reason for this is because the haftarah begins with the word ‘return’. Therefore there is special emphasis placed on the concept of Teshuvah.
Teshuvah is typically translated to mean ‘repentance’. However, this translation really does not capture the true meaning of the word. Another example is tzedakah. Tzedakah is often translated to mean ‘charity’. The problem with this translation is charity is often something that is considered optional, and the giver typically feels good about what they are doing. Tzedakah, on the other hand, finds its roots in the word tzedek or justice. Doing tzedakah is more than just an act of charity, it is an act of rebalancing the world towards what is right. Therefore there is a compulsory element to it. We do not simply engage in tzedakah because it ‘feels good,’ instead we do it because that is what we are supposed to do. We are obligated to rebalance the scales by creating a more just and righteous society.
So too with teshuvah. Repentance is about apologizing. Teshuvah contains elements of that, but it is also about turning (shuv). It is about turning back to ways of Godliness and holiness. This means teshuvah is truly a never-ending process. We are all imperfect creatures prone to making mistakes. Judaism places an emphasis on learning from our mistakes and striving to make repairs, amends, and then turning away from old habits.
Creation is a never-ending process in our tradition. We are partners with God in the process of creation. To make the world a little more whole means we need to always be striving towards acts of tzedakah and teshuvah.
On this Shabbat may we all find new ways to make meaning out of Shuva. May we continue to be inspired to turn towards our best selves as we prepare to enter into the final days of the YamiimNoraim, the High Holy Days.
But as an aside, if we still don’t get it right, we have until the end of Sukkot. So there are always more opportunities to do what is just and right. All we need to do is be willing to take the first steps in the correct direction.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
In this week’s double portion, Nitzvaiim-Vayeilech, we find a very troubling passage. “All the nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do this to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?’ They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal, God of their ancestors, made with them upon freeing them from the land of Egypt’” (Deuteronomy 29:23-24).
It appears to be part of the human condition to ascribe natural disasters to human actions, or, more specifically, to moral failures. One of the underlying theologies of the Deuteronomist and the Prophets is that the Israelites lost the land because of their failures to keep the covenant as described in the aforementioned passage.
In the past several weeks we have seen two catastrophic hurricanes as well as an earthquake in Mexico, just to name a few. The communities impacted in South Mexico, Texas and Florida will take months and even years to recover, if ever.
In a way, it is comforting to explain these tragedies on moral failures because it gives us mere mortals the illusion of control. But it is a troubling theology. This perspective means that God arbitrarily punishes and rewards communities. The wicked suffer along with the innocent.
The beginning passage would actually disagree with this theology. The prophets and the Deuteronomist always believed in holding the community of Israel accountable for her actions, but they never subscribed to random destruction.
This is perhaps expressed best in I Kings 19 in a story of Elijah, “And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but God was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire – a still small voice” (I Kings 19:11-12).
Where can we look to find God in the face of natural disasters? Certainly not in the disasters themselves. Perhaps instead we see God in the first responders and the communities that rally around each other. We find God in the people who help out their neighbors and the communities unaffected who offer their generosity in support. God can be found in the still, small voice. The Holy cry that reminds us not to place moral blame in times of great tragedy, but rather to seek out humanity and help out all those in need.
We are continuing to collect donations of gift cards to send to the communities in Houston and South Florida. Any gift will be directed to those affected regions and given out to those in need.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, Moses reminds the Israelites how after they cross over the Jordan River, representatives of the tribes will stand either on Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Ebal offering up either blessings or curses upon the Israelites as they pass through. After hearing each specific curse, the Israelites were to respond with, “Amen.”
Originally the concept of “amen” is related to “emunah,” meaning faith or belief. Nowadays we use this word to confirm the acceptance of a prayer or blessing as in “let us all say: amen.” In the case of Ki Tavo, it was more likely an acknowledgement of the stated curse. For example, in Deuteronomy 27:19, “Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. – And all the people shall say, Amen.”
This idea is a reflection of an earlier commandment found in Leviticus, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34].
As is stated by the Religious Action Center, “This principle permeates Jewish tradition and is echoed 35 times in the Torah – the most repeated of any commandment.”
Given recent developments in the political sphere regarding DACA, it is incumbent upon as, as Jews, to recall and reflect upon what our tradition has to say regarding the stranger in our midst.
People can disagree on policy approaches when it comes to the dreamers. However, given our tradition’s emphasis on kindness towards the stranger, we should always err on the side of compassion when creating policy. For we were all, at one time, strangers in the land of Egypt.
And let us say, “Amen.”
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week’s Torah portion contains 72 of the 613 commandments. As we walk our way through the month of Elul and begin the process of spiritual preparation leading up to the High Holy days, I found the juxtaposition of two of these highlights a very interesting and important spiritual lesson.
In Deuteronomy 23:8, we read, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, in his weekly D’var Torah podcast, points out that that can be a difficult commandment to obey. After all, we remember our suffering under Egyptian slavery every day in our worship services and during the holiday of Passover. The Egyptians tried to commit genocide. It’s hard not to hate a people that have tried to destroy you.
Hate is a destructive force, though, and it hurts both parties. When we hate someone, we actually give that person even MORE power in our lives. Hate raises our blood pressure, increases stress and anxiety, can lead to headaches and poor circulation. Research shows that even one five-minute episode of anger can impair your immune system for over six hours. Can you imagine the effects of a lifetime of hate or anger? Nobody has the right to have this kind of power over us. And so we have to try to forgive – if not for the sake of the one who has hurt us, than for our own peace.
It’s all well and good to forgive, but how can we protect ourselves from being hurt again by the one whom we have so graciously granted our forgiveness? The parshah concludes with this memorable commandment, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of G-d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your G-d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your G-d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” We are supposed to remember to forget Amalek. A bizarre commandment if ever there was one. When we connect these two mitzvot, I think we can see an important insight. Perhaps the lesson is that we must forgive – we should not live a lifetime of hatred – but we must not forget. We cannot allow a toxic person to do us more harm. We must remember who they are and what they are capable of, and not give them the power to hurt us again.
Cantor Sally L. Neff
“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This famous passage from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, forms one of the core values of Judaism. Our rabbis teach in D’varim Rabbah that the pursuit of justice is even more important than ritual practice (sacrifice) and we read in Proverbs 21:3, “To do what is right and just is more desired by G-d than sacrifice.” Note that the passage doesn’t say “as much as sacrifice,” but rather “more than sacrifice.” So clearly we know, because of the repetition of the word, because of commentary, and frankly because of the entire rest of the Torah, that justice is a core Jewish value. But what does it mean to “pursue” justice?
Something that we must chase or pursue, is something that is just out of reach. It is a constant effort. It is not an easy task to bring tzedek into the world. Justice is not only the resolution of conflict, but the continual work of creating a just society, caring for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor in our midst.
Last week, there was a solar eclipse. I was blessed to be able to travel to see the full eclipse, but I have heard that my experiences were echoed throughout the country, even where only a partial was visible. At a time in our nation’s history when we are terribly divided, where once again we find that politics are tearing apart friendships and families, everyone came together to observe and celebrate this natural wonder.
It so happened that the eclipse fell on Erev Rosh Chodesh (as they all do – Rosh Chodesh is the new moon), but not just any Rosh Chodesh – but Rosh Chodesh Elul. Rosh Chodesh is always a time to think about new beginnings, but Rosh Chodesh Elul – the celebration of the final month leading into Rosh Hashanah – has even greater significance. This is when we are supposed to be performing cheshbon hanefesh – an examination of our souls. It struck me that just before Rosh Chodesh Elul in this very challenging year for our nation, the moon blocked out the sun and all was dark. But then, a diamond of light burst forth, a tiny beginning of hope.
The pursuit of justice sometimes must begin with one small act by one person, one spot of light. But the light of each person gathered together can light up the entire world. We can live in a just world, but only if we come together and pursue it.
Cantor Sally L. Neff