The story of Noah is the story of a new beginning – brought about by the crashing ending of the first beginning. Everything that God began – the entire world – is destroyed out of God’s disgust with its corruption. A new beginning starts with Noah emerging from the ark.
A Playlist of Light and Dark
Since I will be away for this coming Shabbat, when we are scheduled to read the first portion of the Torah – B’reshit – In the Beginning, I would like to share this playlist of musical selections that I feel are connected to some of the themes of this rich Torah portion.
Parashat V’zot Ha-b’rakhah/Bereshit
The Torah ends with blessing – v’zot ha-b’rakhah, Moses’ very last words of blessing to the tribes of Israel – and it also begins with blessing – almost.
Actually, the first four days of Creation pass by without any mention of this action or state of being. Nothing is blessed on those day. It is only on the fifth day of Creation that we first encounter blessing. Then God blesses all the creatures brought into being on that day, the fish in the seas and the birds of the skies. God says, “Be fruitful and multiply!” (Gen. 1:22) And then blessing is found in the sixth day, as well. God blesses the newly created human beings with the same blessing of fruitfulness. Continue reading
Sukkot/Sh’mini Atzeret/Simhat Torah
The festival of Sukkot is called “the Season of our Rejoicing – z’man simhateinu.” What is the cause – the source – of our rejoicing? What are we supposed to be happy about?
As I have explained on numerous occasions, this description of Sukkot parallels but is also different from the descriptions we have assigned to the other two pilgrimage festivals, Passover and Shavuot. Sukkot does not commemorate a specific occurrence such as the Exodus (Passover is z’man herutenu – the Time of Our Freedom) or the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot is z’man matan Toratenu – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah).
Parashat Ha’azinu/Yom Kippur
This year the Torah reading for this first Shabbat of the new year, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, is Ha’azinu. This is not always the case. Sometimes it is the Torah reading preceding this one, Va-yelekh. But the one constant reading is the prophetic portion that gives this Shabbat its name – Shabbat Shuvah – for the first word of the haftarah is “Shuvah – Return!” (Hosea 14:2)
The theme of teshuvah – returning, repenting – is central to this period, the Ten Days of Repentance. Whether the Torah reading is Va-yelekh or Ha’azinu (as it is this year) we can find connections to this essential concern. We are urgently called to return to God and abandon our transgressive ways. What do we wish to receive from God in return? The most obvious answer is “forgiveness.” Indeed, we ask God to forgive us over and over again in the prayers for this season. But another response or result is also presented to us by our Torah reading and haftarah. In addition to forgiveness we seek healing.
Parashat Nitzavim/ Vayelekh/ Rosh Ha-Shanah
“For this commandment that I charge you with today is not too mysterious for you or alien (- literally: far away). She is not in the heavens, for you to say, ‘Who shall ascend for us to the heavens and take it for us and teach it to us so that we can fulfill her (la`asotah – literally: to do it, to make it)?’ And she is not across the sea, for you to say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us and take it for us and teach it to us so that we will fulfill her (la`asotah)?’ But the matter is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to fulfill it (la`asoto).” (Deut. 30:11-14) Continue reading
Parashat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Our Torah portion tells us that following the Torah is the path of blessing, while abandoning Her is the path of curses. After enumerating many blessings that promise us material wellbeing, we find: “Blessed are you in your entering and blessed are you in your leaving.” (Deut. 28:6) What do these generalized phrases refer to?
Interpreters tend to see this “coming and going” as a reference to our daily business (Ibn Ezra) or as a reference to going out to war and returning safely from it (Hizquni). But the problem with these interpretations is that the order of the phrases would then be expected to be reversed: First we go out (- to war, to work) and then we come back in (to our homes). We begin from our homes and go out of them and return to them.
Parashat Ki Tetze
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
According to traditional enumerations of the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, our portion includes 74 ordinances, more than any other portion. These mitzvot encompass the full range of the Torah’s concerns for how we are to meet the challenge of our paradoxical beings, made up, as we are, of both physical and spiritual natures.
A particularly telling instance of this concern is found in the Torah’s warning regarding the proper treatment of executed criminals:
“Should there be a person guilty of a capital crime, and he is executed, you shall hang him from a tree. But do not let his corpse hang on the tree overnight. Rather, make sure to bury him that very day, for it is a Divine curse to be hung. Thus, you will not defile your land that God Your Almighty gives you as an estate.” (Deut. 21:22-23)
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
During this time of controversy and contestation regarding the proper place of a police force within society, I offer these thoughts that I first shared in Torah Sparks of 2015:
Our Torah portion begins with the command: “You shall appoint judges (shoftim) and officials (shotrim) for your tribes … and they shall judge (v-shaftu) the people with fair justice.” (Deut. 16:18) The command is understood to require the establishment of a just judicial system for society.
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” This is an old saying that describes how people avoid making changes for fear of failure and fear of the unknown. We tend to feel that it is better to hold on to the problems we know – and endure – than to possibly create new problems with which we will not know how to cope. The wisdom of such a view is certainly debatable and deeply questionable.
But what about “the God you know” rather than “the devil you know”? In our Torah portion Moses repeatedly warns Israel not to stray “to go after other gods that you do not know.” (Deut. 11:28 – and see also Ch. 13, vv. 3, 7 and 14) The implication is clear. We should remain faithful to “the God we do know.”