Towering Humility: Parashat Shoftim


Parashat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

As Moses continues to prepare the Israelites for their future without him, he does not only scold and warn them. He also seeks to reassure them. He promises that God will continue to send the people prophets who will give them guidance as they need it: “A prophet, from your midst, from your brethren, like me, shall the Eternal, your Almighty God, raise up for you.” (Deut. 18:15)

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What We Want to See: Parashat R’eh

eyes_have_itParashat R’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

The eyes have it. Moses begins this Torah portion by exhorting us: “See! (R’eh) I am placing before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26) We are meant to look and see this starkly distinguished contrast. We should be able to see that God’s way is equal to blessing and that abandoning God is equal to a curse. We should be able to see this simple dichotomy with our own eyes. Continue reading

Expansive Gratitude: Parashat Eqev


Parashat Eqev
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

So that the Children of Israel may eagerly anticipate entering the Promised Land, a land he knows that he, himself, will never enter, Moses describes the land of Israel in glowing terms. It is a gorgeous, good land, abundant in many types of produce, so that the Israelites, once there, will never lack for anything. (Deut. 8:7-9) Moses becomes excited and predicts our good fortune and our gratitude for it: ”And you shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless the Eternal, your Almighty God, for the good land that God gave to you!” (v. 10) This elated vision expresses Moses’ own fullness of heart in his contemplation of our future.

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Loving With All Our Might: Parashat Va’et`hanan/Shabbat Nahamu

Arms open

Parashat Va’et`hanan/Shabbat Nahamu
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

“Love the Eternal, your Almighty God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5) This verse from the Sh’ma is glossed by our Sages: “’Love …your God … with all your soul…’ – even when God takes away your soul.” (Sifrei  32)

Thus the Sh’ma became the final declaration of love and devotion to God, spoken by faithful Jews at the time of their death, whether by natural causes or as martyrs. Even in the bitter moment when God has refused to answer our prayers and grant us more life, we are called upon to love God with everything we still have. And so many Jews over the years have fulfilled that commandment, with all their hearts. Continue reading

Expansive Justice: Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon

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Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

These are trying times. Many of us feel that we are unprepared for the crises that have engulfed us. We feel that our expectations have been cruelly and suddenly shattered. We turn to our Torah for sustenance and guidance.

As Moses begins his long and final speech to the Israelites, he chooses to start by reminding them of their past and how they got to their present situation. While it should have taken a mere eleven days to get from Sinai (Horeb) to Israel, it took forty years, instead. (Deut. 1:2) So, too, we need to remind ourselves that we have not reached the present moment in our country and society in an instant. Our present situation is the result of long and accumulated choices and experiences. I share with you my comments on this Torah portion from 7 years ago (- Torah Sparks, 2011). I feel that they could easily be speaking about our present moment:

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Three Simple Jews: Parashat Mattot/Mas`ei


Parashat Mattot/Mas`ei 

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Our double Torah portion, the reading that brings this fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, to a close, opens with the laws of taking vows. The text of the Torah is very emphatic about the sacred nature of an oath. Under no circumstances may a person violate or ignore a vow once he has made it. But the Torah does offer one class of exceptions. The vows of women who live under the authority of a male head of household – daughters in their father’s house and wives in their husband’s house – are subject to the approval or nullification of that male authority. This is a classic example of the Torah’s reflecting the patriarchal nature of ancient society.  The very words that women uttered were subject to the overriding power of their male masters.

This inherent bias against women’s equality must be acknowledged. But let us move on to recognize anther corollary of these legal provisions. A fair reading of this text implies that only women might have the possibility of their vows getting cancelled. There is no provision for a male to cancel his vow. Even God does not seem capable of cancelling a Divine vow. This is alluded to by Moses when he recalls that God had vowed not to let the Israelites enter the Promised Land until they had wandered for forty years and perished in the wilderness. (Num. 32:10-11)  So it is remarkable that the cancellation of vows (by men) is a well-recognized feature of Jewish law, occupying extensive attention in rabbinic literature. It even serves as the basis for what is, for many, the most moving moment in the Jewish calendar – Kol Nidrei.

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Swept Along: Parashat Pinhas



Parashat Pinhas
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

We often divide our Torah texts into two groups, legal and narrative. But there is a type of text found more than once in the Torah, that does not quite fit so neatly into that set of categories. These are texts of lists, very often lists of people’s names. The Book of Numbers takes its name because it includes such texts, lists that record the numbers of Israelites in the wilderness. We have such a list in our Torah portion. It conveys the final census of the Israelites, according to tribe and clan, right before they are to enter the Promised Land.

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See Truly: Parashat Balaq

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Children at a tent encampment in Tornillo, Texas. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Parashat Balaq
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

“And Bil`am saw that it is good in the eyes of the Eternal One to bless Israel…And he lifted his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of the Almighty came upon him.” (Numbers 24:1-2)

As many close readers of this Torah portion have remarked, a constant motif running through the narrative is that of seeing. After many variations on the theme of seeing are played out in the story, we have come, in the verse cited above, to this culminating episode, where Bil`am, a “seer” who has been blinded until now by his ambition and greed, finally sees the truth. As a result he is filled with the Divine spirit and he pours out a blessing upon Israel, a blessing that we recite to this very day.

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Threshold of Life and Death: Parashat Huqqat


Parashat Huqqat
Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Many events are crowded into this Torah reading. Most of them touch upon death. Miriam and Aaron’s deaths are recorded. The Israelites complain that they dread dying of thirst in the wilderness. People die in battle. Unspoken is the deathly background of all these stories: The Israelites have been slowly dying off for years during their wanderings. Indeed, they have reached the last year of God’s 40-year sentence that they wander and perish in the desert. Anyone now alive will be able to look forward to entering the Promised Land.

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Vineyards of Souls: Parashat Qorah


Parashat Qorah
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

After the rebellion of Qorah and his allies is put down, the standing of the tribe of Levi, and the priestly clan within that tribe, is strengthened. And with the reaffirmation of the Levitical standing comes a reaffirmation of their additional responsibilities. The priests are set aside to be the exclusive officiants in the rituals of the sanctuary. They stand between God and Israel. Their Levite cousins stand in between, as well. They serve both the priests and the people.

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