Love The Stranger: Parashat Eqev (5779 – 2019)

children_2_0Parashat Eqev (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25

Our Torah portion contains, among so many others, these amazing verses:

“For  the Eternal your Almighty God is the All Powerful of all powerful forces and the Master of all masters – the God Who is great, mighty and awesome, Who will never show favoritism nor take a bribe. Who makes sure of the fair judgment of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing. So shall you love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Have reverence for the Eternal you Almighty God, to serve Him, cleave to Him and swear in His Name.” (Deut. 10:17 – 20)

The first two verses describe God is a striking combination of seeming disparate terms. On the one hand, God is super mighty. This is a God, we are told, Who cannot be bought. But then God is described as very partial to the weak and marginal people of society. God cares so much about them that God will look out for them to make sure that justice is done on their behalf.
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Face to Face: Parashat Va’et’hanan/Shabbat Nahamu (5779 – 2019)

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Parashat Va’et’hanan/Shabbat Nahamu (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

When Moses retells the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai he introduces the second version of the Ten Commandments with a few dramatic verses: “Face to face did the Eternal speak with you on the mountain, from out of the fire. I was standing between the Eternal and you at that moment to tell you the Word of the Eternal, for you were afraid in the face of the fire and did not ascend up the mountain, saying: ‘I am the Eternal… etc.” (Deut. 5:4-6)
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Filled Heart: Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon (5779 – 2019)

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Parashat D’varim/Shabbat Hazon (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Our Torah reading, the opening of the last book of the Five Books of Moses, is always read right before Tisha B’Av (- the Ninth day of the month of Av). As I have mentioned elsewhere (- see last year’s Sparks), the Biblical moment is synchronized to be retold precisely at a moment of remembrance for events that happened long after the Torah’s time. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and the Second Temples, catastrophes that postdate Moses by many centuries. It is we who hold all these moments together in our consciousness as a Jewish people.

But it turns out that Moses also had a catastrophe to recall, one that also, according to traditional reckoning, fell on the Ninth of Av. That disaster was the mass refusal of the Jewish people to proceed into the Promised Land, a refusal triggered by the report of ten scouts who had seen the land up close. It is this tragedy that weighs on Moses as he begins speaking his “words” (- d’varim), the words that will fill this last book of the Torah. Moses recalls that crisis as he explains how Israel has found itself in its present situation, poised to enter the Land, but a full generation or more after the original date of arrival.

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Sister Spaces for Jewish Living: Parashat Mattot/Mas`ei (5779 – 2019)

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Parashat Mattot/Mas`ei (5779 – 2019)
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

The traditional annual cycle of Torah readings is paced so that certain Torah readings will fall at particular moments in the Jewish calendar.  We read two Torah portions this week in order to make sure we will read the next portion – the beginning of D’varim (Deuteronomy) on the Shabbat right before Tisha B’Av, the day of remembrance for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Thus this Torah reading system establishes an exquisite synchronicity between Biblical history, post-Biblical Jewish history and the seasons of the year as presently experienced.

But the system also allows for some leeway in how these synchronizations may be achieved. This year, for instance, as we read these two portions together, our brothers and sisters in Israel will read only one of them – Mas`ei – because they already chanted Mattot last week. How did that happen? Because, in Israel, festivals last only 7 days or one day rather than eight or two days, as they do in the Diaspora, the holiday of Passover ended a day earlier in Israel. Thus, on April 27, when we were celebrating the last day of Passover, and reading a Torah portion appropriate for that holiday, in Israel they recommenced reading from the regular Torah reading cycle. They stayed one week ahead of us until this Shabbat, when, after three whole months, we will finally catch up! Continue reading

New Leadership: Parashat Pinchas

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Parashat Pinchas
Numbers 25:10–30:1

Long-time Aide to Moses Picked as His Successor

After a period of intense speculation, the question of who would be stepping into Moses’ leadership position seems to have been settled. In a public ceremony, clearly designed to bolster the standing of his heir-apparent, Moses presented his long-time aide-de-camp, Joshua, son of Nun, before Eleazar the Priest and the entire community. He solemnly placed his hands upon his loyal protege and charged him, in God’s Name, to follow in his footsteps.

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Unbearable Riches: Parashat Balaq

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Parashat Balaq (5779 – 2019)
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

He took in the vast encampment spread out before him on the plain below. It seemed to him like some kind of Levittown of the wilderness. The open country had been tamed by well-ordered rows of prim tents, set up just so, the very model of peaceable neighborliness. And Bil`am, despite himself, was overcome with a rush of blessings that he poured out upon the people of Israel.

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Suffocating Death: Parashat Huqqat

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Parashat Huqqat (5779 – 2019)
Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

No one can avoid death or hide from death. Death is our fate and the fate of everyone we care about as well as of all those about whom we care not a bit. Death does not care whether we care about it or not, whether we care about those who die, or not. Death is our one certainty.

And death is, for the Torah, the definitive source of ritual impurity. Perhaps this tells us that certainty is death and that it is certainty whence ritual impurity springs.
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Demonize the Other: Parashat Korah

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Parashat Korah
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

The rebellion of Korah and his allies is recounted in this Torah reading. The story is incredible, of course, in its depiction of the miraculous way that the rebels meet their end. The earth swallows them all up! Another miracle, just as wondrous, is the miracle of the flowering of Aaron’s staff. I have written about both these miracles in the past.

This time I wish to highlight another incredible aspect of this story. It is incredible to me that Korah was able to mount a challenge to Moses in the first place! How could his complaints, or the complaints of his partners, Datan and Aviram, gain any traction at all among the people? Could anyone really believe that Moses was not the legitimate leader of the Israelites? Could anyone really believe that it was Moses’ fault that the Israelites have not yet entered the Promised Land?
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Spiritual Audacity: Parashat Sh’lah

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Parashat Sh’lah
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

“And they shall put upon the corner’s tassel (tzitzit) a deep-blue (t’khelet) thread, and it will become a tassel for you, and you shall see it, and you shall remember all the commandments of the Eternal, and you shall do them.” (Num. 15:38 – 39) These words, in the closing paragraph of our Torah portion,  describe and prescribe the mitzvah of tzitzit, the ritual tassels placed at the corners of a four-cornered garment. Today we call such a garment, mostly worn during prayer (- a “prayer shawl”) a tallit.  The plain sense of the Torah seems to indicate that this blue thread is what “makes” the tassel and completes the garment. Why is it so important? Our tradition answers that the blue color is evocative. It reminds us of God’s commandments because it reminds us of the infinite expanses of the sea and of the sky, and these associations lead us to contemplate our God in heaven. (yBer. 1:2) Thus the thread is like a scout, or guide, taking us along a voyage of imagination, each step drawing us along until we sense God’s commanding Presence. Continue reading

Outsider: Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha

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Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

The arrangements for moving on have all been made. The time has come. Israel’s encampment around Mount Sinai will be dismantled and begin their march to the Promised Land. This move has the potential for creating chaos among the young nation. Therefore great care has been taken to keep everyone in an ordered environment. Each tribe has been assigned its place in the encampment. And, when the camp breaks up to move on, the tribes are told exactly where they fit in the long procession trekking forward.

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