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We’ve nearly made it! We have entered the final stretch of our Jewish year, the last week of 5775. We stand on the precipice of the year to come, which will serve as the first full year, and certainly the first High Holy Day season, that we stand together as the Reform Temple of Rockland. Exciting times certainly lie ahead of us. Though there is plenty of work to be done and scores of challenges ahead of us, I am hopeful that, working together as a community, we will ultimately see the fruits of our labors and ensure the survival of our synagogue and Reform Jewery in Rockland County for the next generation.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), our ancestors also find themselves on the brink of something new and exciting. Moses gathers the people together, the descendants of the generation that came out of Egypt, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses declares to them that now they are entering the brit – the Covenant of God. What is perhaps most intriguing about this particular moment (which we also read again on Yom Kippur) is that Jewish tradition teaches us that all generations of Jews were present at this critical moment in our history – past, present and future – meaning that you and I were also there! Additionally, Moses explains to the people that the commandments, the Laws of the Torah, should be accessible to all who choose to examine them. Nothing in Jewish tradition should be out of reach, and each person who actively seeks and engages in the study of Torah should be able to find deeper meaning within it as well as a guide to a richer life.
Whether we were standing together thousands of years ago preparing to enter the Promised Land and the Covenant of God, or whether we are standing together today preparing to enter a New Year and preparing to reinvent our community by drawing upon the experiences of two historic Jewish institutions, what has not changed is our connection to Torah, to Jewish values and tradition, and to one another. Though our interpretations may vary from Jew to Jew, we share something truly unique and special. We should not ignore this gift, the gift of Torah, and we should do our best to make it relevant to each of our lives today. This is what Reform Judaism is all about. And if we use it as the foundation for the Reform Temple of Rockland, then we should be blessed, as our ancestors were blessed, with a blessed future.
L’shana tova um’tukah – may this be a wonderful, sweet and blessed New Year.
Rabbi Michael S. Churgel, RJE
As we are completing 5775 and about to commence 5776, and we are reflecting on the past year and on our lives, a question arises: What is expected of us?
Our Torah this week (Parashat Ki Tavo 26:1-29:8) allows for an interesting answer. We read, “Now if you obey the Eternal your God to observe faithfully all the divine commandments…” (Deut. 28:1) On the surface, this looks like a rather parve, innocuous opening. However, the Midrassh, in Deuteronom Rabbah (Ki Tavo 7:4) offers a brilliant analogy and teaching.
Rabbi Simeon bar Halafta said: If one learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has not learnt at all. It is like the case of a king who had a garden which he let out to two tenants, one of whom planted trees and cut them down, while the other neither planted any trees nor cut any down. With whom is the king angry? Surely with him who planted trees and cut them down. Likewise, whosoever learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has never learnt at all…. Hence, the force of our verse, “…to observe faithfully all the divine commandments.”
Let’s overlook the issue of comparing punishments – it’s not important – and note the message of Rabbi Simeon. We may have higher expectation of those who are learned, and who are expected to behave more righteously. Yet, the Midrash and the parable make it eminently clear that anyone of us can plant and cut trees – anyone of us can develop our capabilities and utilize our learning. It is deplorable when one does not act on one’s learning and on the teachings of our Tradition. Such is not merely the precinct of the scholars and the sages; it is the birthright and the capacity of every one of us, and such is the rationale of the synagogue: to teach and engage and empower the Jew to participate in the Jewish enterprise of contributing to the betterment of the world.
…whosoever learns the words of the Torah and does not fulfil them, his punishment is more severe than that of him who has never learnt at all…
May the New Year be one of learning… and even more: may it be one of doing!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn
How responsible, or entwined, are we in one another’s affairs?
For instance, what happens if you build a new house, upon which there is a flat roof, and you erect a fence around that roof to prevent someone from falling, and yet, someone falls from the roof? Who is responsible? You, for it is your home and your roof and your fence, or the man, who despite the fence, which was presumably of proper height and sufficiently sturdy, still managed to fall?
Such are the questions which our Torah portion (Parasahat Ke Teitze, Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19) raises. It states explicitly, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deut. 22:8)
Clearly, this is a verse which either an insurance broker, or a roofing contractor, would love. Yet, the questions of communal safety, personal responsibility, personal indemnification, and enduring guilt all find traction with us today. Building codes are designed for two reasons – to safeguard the stability and safety of the edifice, and to release the community from responsibility for potentially allowing a deficient structure from being erected. Essentially, John Donne was correct: we are all engaged in what anyone of us is doing, the bell tolls for thee.
Ultimately, this is the most essential concern of civilization. When we were cavemen, living in our own little world, the well-being of the Neanderthal on the next mountain was of little concern. Yet, once we began to live together, sharing meadows, rivers, walls, roofs and driveways, we impact one another, and are so impacted. Civilization is the process of creating boundaries, regulations, ethics and mores by which people can live together – be it branding our cattle, erecting stop signs, establishing health codes, placing TSA agents at airports or placing body cameras on policemen.
The Torah’s little instruction about placing a fence on a flat roof has far greater implications. It is a command to take responsibility for how we live together, and then living accordingly.
Rabbi Douglas Kohn
So many of us are familiar with the magnificent phrase early in this week’s Torah portion, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20
Yet, many are unfamiliar with the phrase which follows that opening declaration. The verse continues, “Justice, justice shall you pursue… that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”
In our portion (Parashat Shotim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9), we read laws pertaining to the administration of civil and criminal law. Our outstanding verse is often used by clergy to preach for justice, civil rights, decency, and righteousness. Yet, the Torah was not directing us towards such global concepts; it was concerned with a very specific matter, namely, the conduct of judicial appointees.
Judges were commanded to adjudicate properly. Why? Not to attain the lofty concepts of justice or righteousness, but “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the eternal your God is giving you.” Rashi, our 12th century Torah commentator instructed in his commentary to this verse, “The appointment of honorable judges is sufficient to keep Israel alive and to settle them upon their land.”
Fundamentally, the manner in which disputes in our community are settled characterizes our essential nature. When judges are biased – whether towards the rich or towards the poor, towards their neighbor or towards another – the integrity and trust of the community is undermined. We only thrive in our land when we feel that we are treated impartially and respectfully, and that one has recourse to a just court when a dispute arises.
Hence, as much as this powerful verse stirs each of us, and has become a foundational ethic of Jewish life, it has a special charge for those selected to arbitrate the law. Imagine a world with partial judges and biased courts! Justice, justice shall you pursue!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn
…Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles…
Of course, we associate the words with Fiddler, love, and Motel the Tailor. Or… we could ask the ponderous question, “What of miracles, after all?”
To which we read in this week’s Torah portion (Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), “If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner, who gives you a sign or a portent…do not heed the words of that prophet or dream-diviner…” (Deut. 13:2, 4)
Torah consistently preaches against following the words of false prophets, yet, what of miracles, the currency of the false-prophet? Are miracles offensive by nature? After all, wasn’t our escape from Pharaoh due to the waters “miraculously” parting? Didn’t Moses and Aaron conduct signs and portents – miracles – when demonstrating God’s will and turning the Egyptian waters to red?
Over the years, I have taught that Jewish teachings assert that a miracle is not something contrary to nature – a four-headed horse – but a miracle is that which conforms directly to nature – the sun rising each morning, or the majesty of a birth. Thus, a Jewish understanding of a miracle is awareness of how wonderful is the normative world, not how one can contravene that normal. The Torah’s charge to reject the assertions of a dream-teller or a miracle-maker is a reminder to stay to the true and empirical.
A thousand years ago, the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, asserted the same. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides taught,”…a miracle cannot prove that which is impossible; it is useful only as a confirmation of that which is possible.”
Which brings us back to Motel the Tailor… the wonder and the miracle is not that two lovers might meet, but that two lovers should absolutely meet. Such is the normative order of the world. That which is possible… is the miracle!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn
I worry about religious triumphalism – that those of various religious groups believe or adhere to the notion that their religion is superior to all others. Such have given rise to religious wars for millennia, and to the Crusades and recently, to religious terrorists. Some have mistakenly argued that the Bible supports such concepts. Simply read that God would destroy Israel’s adversaries, and it is easy to contend that Jews and Judaism are chosen to be the triumphalistic tradition. That is, until one reads this week’s portion.
This week we read a very complex section (Parashat Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9). In short, as the Israelites were trekking in the desert, they neared Moab, whose king feared that the Israelites would destroy them, so he sent emissaries to engage Balaam, a pagan oracle, to curse the Israelites. However, Balaam was skeptical. The Torah indicates that “God came to Balaam and said, ‘What do these people want of you?'” (Numbers 22:a9) After conversing with God, Balaam would end up blessing us instead of cursing us.
What a curveball! It is fascinating that just when the reader is expecting a pagan enemy to curse the Jews, asserting his own religious triumphalism and damning our people, that not only he reverses course, but more importantly, God has a direct communication with the pagan soothsayer! How interesting! God – who spoke face to face with Moses and who called out to Abraham, actually “came to Balaam” and consulted the pagan idol-worshipper! The message to me is that we should be very careful with our sense of entitlement and religious privilege. We may be “The Chosen People,” yet we are not the only people. There are some within the religious world, and even within the Jewish religious world, who ignore and even condemn those of any other tradition other than their own. This seemingly sacred arrogance only leads to the vitriol and violence which has littered the pages of history.
And then we turn to the pages of this week’s Torah portion, and we read that God has a tete-a-tete with the religious opposition! May we be as open-minded as was God!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn