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Covenant

When Imploring Fails to Give Us What We Want

In Parashat Va-et’chanan, Moses tells how he pleaded with God to let him enter the Promised Land and how that request was denied. In the passages that follow, Moses offers us an example of how to persevere despite the deep disappointment of not attaining one’s dreams.

D'var Torah By: 
Moses’ Final Lesson
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick

In Va-et'chanan, Moses gazes on the Promised Land and comes to grips with the fact that he will not enter it. He uses his remaining time to confer instruction and blessing on the Israelites who will carry his teachings forward after his passing.

The Moral Imperative of the Stranger

Man helps a stranger up the hill demonstrating tikkun olam

In Parashat Mishpatimwe find the Israelites in the midst of the Revelation at Sinai, experiencing the communal wonder and intensity of their encounter with God. Mishpatim, which means “laws,” dives into the details. The Revelations in Mishpatim are among the words Moses writes down on stone when he and Aaron ascend the mountain. Scholars call these laws the Book of the Covenant or Sefer HaB’rit. It’s the Torah’s first pass at the legal details that govern Jewish living.

D'var Torah By: 
Laws that Lead Us to Act with Compassion
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Matt Zerwekh

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Translated into English, the meaning of Parashat Mishpatim is “Laws,” but I would suggest we also refer to this Torah portion with the word rachmanut, “compassion.” The laws set forth in Parashat Mishpatim give us clear guidance as to our treatment of the segments of society to which we do not belong — the slave, the poor, the widow, the orphan. It point isn’t only that we should remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, for that only calls for empathy — an understanding of the other.

Radical Inclusion at Sinai

We have arrived. All of the stories; all the of the generations between Adam and Eve, and the matriarchs and patriarchs; and 400 years of slavery in Egypt now culminate in the Israelites’ triumphant redemption. They all lead to this singular moment: the Revelation at Sinai. In Parashat Yitro, Moses guides the Israelite people to Mt. Sinai where they encounter God, experiencing all the drama and glory of Revelation.

Biblical commentators consistently note that one of the exceptional aspects of the Revelation at Sinai is that it is a communal revelation. Every previous moment of revelation in the Torah consists of God speaking privately to an individual or two — Noah, Abraham, Moses, and so on. Private revelation is the most common in other religions as well: an individual experiences God and then shares that revelation more broadly.

D'var Torah By: 
Worthy Guardians for Years to Come
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Maurice A. Salth

At Mount Sinai God was pleased to hear the vast multitude of diverse Israelites say in one united voice: “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8) and God wanted additional assurance that they would follow through on this commitment. God told them: “I require worthy guarantors that you will observe Torah.” And the people of Israel replied: “Sovereign of the Universe, our ancestors will be our guarantors.” God was unimpressed. “Your guarantors need guarantors themselves, for they have not been without fault,” said Adonai. And so they responded: “Our prophets will guarantee it.” God retorted: “I have found fault with them also.” Thus the people offered this pledge: “Let our children be our guarantors.” And with a smile God concurred: “These are excellent guarantors, because of them I will give it to you” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:4). The b’rit, “covenant,” advances and Torah is revealed.

The Making of a Covenant with Men and Women

Almost 25 years after God calls Abram to leave his home in Mesopotamia and go to the land of Canaan, God formally establishes a covenant with him (Genesis 17:4ff.). Like that established with Noah, his descendants, and all living beings (9:8ff.), it is unconditional, everlasting, includes blessings and promises, and carries with it a sign decided upon by God. However, unlike the rainbow, placed in the clouds and passively received by humanity, the sign of God's covenant with Abraham — male circumcision — is something with which Abram and his descendants, not God, are entrusted. They are to circumcise their sons and other male children in their household on the eighth day after birth as a physical sign of the covenant. The punishment for failing to do so is severe. "An uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin," says God, " … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant" (17:14).

D'var Torah By: 
A Series of Tests that Lead to the Covenant
Davar Acher By: 
Bruce Kadden

The covenant God establishes with Abram in Genesis 17 originates in God's call to Abram at the beginning of Parashat Lech L'cha: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will pronounce doom on those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-3).

As enticing as these promises are, it must have taken significant courage for Abram to set out from Haran for an unspecified land. But without asking a single question, Abram went forth from Haran with Sarai, his nephew Lot and their possessions for the land of Canaan.

Learning Lessons From and With God

In many ways, Parashat Noach is filled with as many theological problems as answers. Chief among them is why after creating the world and all living things, God destroys "all that lives under the heavens" (Genesis 6:17). The reason that God gives is the "violence" or "lawlessness" (chamas) of humankind. Yet what about such godly virtues as patience, love, and forgiveness? Apparently, God possesses less of them than one might wish. Does saving Noah, his family, and a male and female of all living species in order to ensure continued reproduction make up for God's actions? Is saving them a sign of mercy or of pragmatism?

D'var Torah By: 
Learning Lessons From and With God
Davar Acher By: 
Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus

Most of us are introduced to the Noah story as a fable for children. The adorable images of animals two-by-two, the ark floating on the rising waters, the dove with the olive branch in her beak — all these lead up to the beautiful rainbow in the sky, and they all lived happily after. Would that it were so. In her insightful d'var Torah, Dr. Umansky ponders the theological problems we confront in Parashat Noach, much deeper than the pediatric version we are so often presented. 

On Repentance and Seeking Peace Above and Below

"And Moses went (Vayeilech) and spoke these words to all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:1). This opening marks the beginning, not only of the parashah, but also of the long death scene for Moses that will not be completed until the very end of the Torah two portions hence. Traditional commentators noticed an unusual locution. Usually the Torah reads "And Moses spoke … " Only here does it say "And Moses went and spoke … "

D'var Torah By: 
God Goes with Us On the Road to Repentance
Davar Acher By: 
Sarah Weissman

Dr. Firestone beautifully suggests that vayeilech Moshe, "Moses went," means that Moses went to the Israelites before his death and spoke words of t'shuvah, encouraging the people to repent, and to pursue peace between each other and between each of them and God. Just a few verses later, the word "to go" appears again, only this time it is God who "goes."

Collective Responsibility, One for All and All for One

Nitzavim comes in the cycle of Torah readings just before Rosh HaShanah and is particularly appropriate for the High Holidays because it stresses the importance of repentance. The tone of the passage is at once both lofty and terrifying.

It begins with Moses' inspiring address to the entire people of Israel shortly before he is to die, "You stand this day (Atem nitzavim hayom), all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).

D'var Torah By: 
The Whole of the Community Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
Davar Acher By: 
Daniel Septimus

And as we rapidly approach the High Holiday season, it is even more fitting that we evaluate what being in a community means to each one of us, just as Dr. Firestone so poignantly identifies in his well-articulated d'var Torah for this week.

Our Torah portion this week, Nitzavim, begins, atem nitzavim hayom, kul'chem. "You stand this day, all of you." Moses is speaking to the Israelite community one last time before they enter the Promised Land and before he dies. He is holding every member of the community accountable for their actions.

Monotheism and the Problem of Truth

"You shall have no other gods beside Me!" This is the first of Aseret HaDib'rot, literally the "Ten Declarations" or "Ten Commandments" found in this week's parashah, Va-et'chanan (see Deuteronomy 5:2-18; we recited a slightly different version earlier in the year in Parashat Yitro, Exodus, chapter 20). Aseret HaDib'rot lays out the central terms of an exclusive covenant between God and Israel. After a brief prologue in which God self-identifies as the One who freed Israel from Egyptian bondage, the first declaration occurs in the form of a command that Israel take no other gods in addition to the God of Israel: "You shall have no other gods beside Me!"

D'var Torah By: 
Relentless Striving for Truth Helps Us Connect to God
Davar Acher By: 
Dan Moskovitz

My teacher Dr. Revuen Firestone raises critical questions in his commentary on this week's parashah: Is there one "Truth" (with a capital T)? Can there be multiple truths? He concludes, as our Torah teaches, that some truths are beyond our understanding, some answers will always elude us. But we are duty bound as Jews to pursue them even if we are "striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

The Roots of the Amicus Brief

Following the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim brings us a diverse collection of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. Included in the parashah is a section of text that has become relevant to a topic that is highly contested in our day.

Next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law. It will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Supreme Court has heard an abortion case.

D'var Torah By: 
Being Present in a World of Distractions
Davar Acher By: 
Daniel J. Feder

In a world of distracted people and shortened attention spans, there is a verse in Mishpatim that helps us regain our focus. This striking verse is from Exodus 24:12: "The Eternal One said to Moses, 'Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there . . . ' "

The meaning seems straightforward in the English translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary1; it seems easy for our modern minds to comprehend. But this verse provides a great example of how a close reading of the Hebrew verse can yield a different perspective.

Beyond the Noise

The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.

When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.

D'var Torah By: 
The Gift of Sinai Is in Our Standing Together
Davar Acher By: 
Jill Perlman

In Yitro, we find ourselves at the base of Sinai encountering God as one people, as we receive Torah. It is a sacred moment meant to reverberate down the generations. We were all there. We all stood at Sinai.

Revelation is a gift. It disrupts our senses and prepares us for something entirely new. However, revelation of any kind, especially the sacred kind, doesn't just fall in our laps. We come to Sinai; Sinai doesn't come to us. The story of Sinai teaches us to prepare ourselves—for Revelation could be around the corner at any moment if our eyes are open.

One of the most profound gifts of Sinai as a model is that it teaches us that we need not travel alone on our spiritual journeys. When we gathered at the base of the mountain, we didn't show up alone. We arrived as one community.

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