Parashat Lekh L’kha
Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
The story of the Jewish people begins with God’s call to Abram to journey to an unknown land in order to fulfill a mission – to be a blessing. While the move from Mesopotamia to Canaan is swiftly and uneventfully reported, once Abram and Sarai get to the Promised Land, life gets complicated. The pioneering couple have to meet many challenges – physical, spiritual and moral.
Abram’s faith is tested again and again. But, after Divine reassurance, the Torah reports: “And he (- Abram) had faith in the Eternal, and He (- God) accounted this for him as a righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6) Yet, right after we learn of Abram’s steadfast faith in God, the text continues: “And He said to him, ‘I am the Eternal Who took you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give this land to you to inherit it. And he said to Him, ‘My Lord, Almighty God, by what means shall I know that I will inherit it?” (vv. 7-8)
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
We introduced, on Sh’mini Atzeret, the prayer praising God for bring rain. And now we read a Torah portion that tells of the Flood. Invariably we make jokes any time it rains in our parts during this time. But these days the rains are no joke. Florida is being hit by devastating rains as I write. Scientists explain that global warming will tend to produce ever greater storms of ever greater destructive impact. The levels of the oceans will rise and cause terrible flooding. The United Nations has just released a report sounding the urgent alarm that we have very little time to turn things around so as to save the entire planet.
And our country is run by people who refuse to listen and who, in the name of economic profits, actively seek to negate any effort to save this planet.
Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
As if anticipating the “LP era,” Josef Haydn wrote, in just about three-minutes, absolutely captivating music, expressing the joy and amazement of the first humans. Adam and Eve, as they awaken to the world and to each other, are dazzled and hypnotized by God’s creation. All is “so wonderful” as they echo each other, again and again:
By Thee with bliss,
O bounteous Lord
The heav’n and earth are filled [stored]
This world, so great, so wonderful
Thy mighty Hand has framed
Sukkot/Sh’mini Atzeret/Simhat Torah/V’zot Ha-b’rakhah
Exodus 33:12 – 34:26
Numbers 29: 26-31
The “Season of Our Joy – z’man simhatenu” concludes with a flourish. We finish reading the last section of the Torah and then begin right away, again.
But the conclusion of the Torah’s text seems anything but joyous. The last Torah portion begins: “And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of the Almighty, blessed the children of Israel before his death.” (Deut. 33:1) It concludes with the report of Moses’ death: “And Moses, the servant o the Eternal, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Eternal.” (Deut. 34:5) We are told that all of Israel wept over his death for thirty days. And the last verses of the Torah tell us that, although Joshua faithfully stepped up to lead the people, Moses was uniquely great and irreplaceable. “No prophet has ever arisen in Israel like Moses.” (v. 10)
Parashat Ha’azinu/ Sukkot
Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his jewel of a book, The Sabbath, famously contrasted the Jewish tradition of architecture with the Christian tradition. We are amazed and moved by the cathedrals built through the ages. Their beauty is astounding and their presence is a constant in our image of civilization. But the Jewish people have not been so fortunate as to erect permanent structures rooted in and dominating their communities. Our architectural creations have been more modest and, tragically, too often destroyed. Rabbi Heschel celebrated, instead, the “cathedral in time” that we have maintained through the ages, the observance of Shabbat. Continue reading
Parashat Vayelekh/Yom Kippur
Deuteronomy 31:1 – 31:30
Up to this point, Moses’ long oration has been delivered before the entire assembly of Israel. This Torah portion tells us that, after the people went back to their own homes, Moses went (- Va-yelekh) after them and spoke to them some more. The shift creates an atmosphere that expresses the shift that the people are undergoing. They are losing their leader, the only leader they have ever known. But this is not only a socio-political shift; it is a profoundly personal moment. Moses has come off of his podium because he has come off of his leadership position. He speaks intimately about this loss of powers as he nears his end.
There have been many amazing and powerful moments in Moses’ career as Israel’s leader. He brought about the plagues and led Israel to freedom. He split the Red Sea. He stood above them at Mount Sinai and gave them the Torah. And on and on. These were public moments of impressive impact. But now, as the people begin to wonder how they will be able to cope with his loss, how they will be able to go on without him, Moses seeks to reassure them by subtly touching on his most unique and momentous achievement, an achievement that took place away from anyone’s sight.
Parashat Nitzavim/ Rosh Ha-Shanah
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20
This Torah reading (often joined with next week’s reading) is always read on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Ha-Shanah. Among its teachings that have great relevance to this season is the following intriguing verse: “The concealed matters are for the Eternal, our Almighty God, and the revealed matters are for us and for our children forever, to do all the words of this Torah.” (Deut. 29:28)
This verse is full of portent and mystery. It mixes the abstract with the practical. It speaks of eternity as much as about our immediate, everyday tasks. “What is hidden is God’s. What is out in the open belongs to us.” But what are these matters that are revealed or hidden? The answer is, itself, hidden. Is the reference to actions done in secret or in the open? Or to thoughts unexpressed or spoken? Or to truths beyond our ken and those we know for sure? Continue reading
Parashat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8
Moses instructs the people to perform an impressive set of acts and ceremonies upon their entering the Promised Land. They are to erect stones and write the Torah’s words upon them. They are to build an altar and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. (Deut. 27: 2-8) And they are to affirm the covenant between the people and God by proclaiming blessings and curses to the assembled masses. (vv. 11- 26)
These ceremonies are to take place right after entering the land. They are to be performed at a particular location – upon the valley between the two mountains, Eval and Gerizim, and on the slopes of those mountains. These two mountains have been mentioned earlier as being located “near the oak of Moreh.” (Deut. 11:29 – 30)
Children at a US detention facility whose parents have been separately deported. Photo by Llana Panich Linsman, courtesy of ACLU.
Parashat Ki Tetze
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
The Psalmist rejoices: “God’s Torah is perfect; it restores the soul!” (Ps. 19:8) Yet, for moderns, the Torah’s perfection is far from clear. For us the Torah seems to zigzag towards and then away from perfection. It contains many sublime and uplifting laws and demands for pursuing a life of goodness and justice. But it also includes so many laws that make us uncomfortable or that we find incomprehensible or indefensible. A number of problematic laws can be found in our Torah portion. I have discussed how we might think about specific examples of such laws in the past. (See, e.g., last year’s Sparks for this Torah portion.)
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)