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Changing the Plan in a Holy Way

In the double portion, Matot/Mas’ei, we read how the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked Moses for permission to settle outside the Promised Land where the land was good for raising cattle. Moses is angry at their request to change direction. 

D'var Torah By: 
Finding God in a Quiet, Sacred Space
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr

In Matot, we read how the Gadites and Reubenites request to settle outsite the Promised Land in a place that is condusive to raising cattle. The noted commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, likens their request to a “dilemma between the choice of a career — personal advancement — or the fulfillment of a mission.” 

Living in the Golden Mean

Parashat Chukat opens with the law of the parah adumah — the red heifer. It is a classic example of a commandment for which the Torah offers no explanation. How are we to understand and grapple with laws such as this that we do not understand? Perhaps we need to start not with the question, why, but with the question, why not.

D'var Torah By: 
Empathy for the Refugee at Border Crossings
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Ann Landowne

In Parashat Chukat we are reminded of the difficulties that our ancestors encountered during their passage through the wilderness. We learn that Miriam has died (Numbers 20:1) and Moses has little time to mourn. Immediately he must deal with the thirsty Israelites clamoring for water and complaining about their fate. In our tradition, the Exodus from Egypt has solidified our strong identification with the stranger and their need for protection. Here in Chukat, this story of wandering in the wilderness also increases our empathy for the refugee, separated from family, desperate and in need of assistance. It is hard for us to imagine what they have experienced on their journey but our Torah teaches us to let them in.

Hope in the Darkness of Fear

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, 12 scouts are sent into the Promised Land to bring back a report to the former slaves in the wilderness. Ten of them report that the Land flows with milk and honey, but it will be difficult to conquer. Two spies present a different point of view, projecting an energizing sense of hope over a paralyzing sense of fear.

D'var Torah By: 
The Positive Aspects of Fear
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Joshua Herman

The story of the spies in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, does reveal that most of the spies were guided by their fear in their assessment of the Land. Yes, fear is a powerful emotion. But sometimes our Torah tells us that fear can be a positive emotion as well.

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.

If Then, You Really Listen and Heed My Commandments

"V'haya im shamoa — If then, you listen, yes, you really heed My commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in its season. . . . " 

This section of our Torah portion is known as V'haya im Shamoa, and is included in the daily and Shabbat morning service in traditional prayer books right after the Shema and V'ahavta prayers. Reform siddurim omit it, perhaps it because it feels a bit simplistic. The message seems to contradict our understanding of nature and weather: if you obey God's commandments nature will be good to you, but if you stray and serve other gods the Eternal will punish you through acts of nature.

D'var Torah By: 
Have Your Fill, Yet Remain Hungry
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Ross

Rabbi Firestone offers a beautiful understanding of V'haya im shamoa, "If we truly listen . . . " If we do God's will, follow God's commandments, nature will be good to us. As our modern understanding of weather contradicts this theology, Firestone suggests we read the text as a call to sustain and protect nature.

Protection seems all at once an easy and a daunting task. The course is clear — reduce, reuse, recycle, carpool, minimize your carbon footprint — yet changing our lifestyles proves far more difficult. Why do we struggle so with the tasks essential to the survival of our world, our children, our way of life?

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 Promised Land: Not So Far Off

A synagogue is, at its best, a place where each of us can feel that sense of rootedness and connectedness, a place where despite differences of age and experience; regardless of cultural background or class or sexual orientation or physical ability; whether we are "regulars" or newcomers, all of us can feel known and appreciated.

As we complete the Book of Numbers this week, we find the Israelites yearning for just such a place. Over the last eight weeks, our Torah readings have recorded the events of their 40 turbulent years in the wilderness. As we come to the last two portions of the book, Matot and Mas'ei, the Israelites are looking to come home.

D'var Torah By: 
Making Newcomers Feel Welcome, Needed, and Wanted
Davar Acher By: 
Robert E. Tornberg

I agree with Rabbi Skloot that, "A synagogue is, at its best . . . a place where each of us can feel that sense of rootedness and connectedness, a place where despite differences . . . all of us can feel known and appreciated." This resonates with my childhood memories, and I have continued to feel that way as an adult.

But, as I read those words, I became all-too-aware of childhood friends and acquaintances for whom the synagogue did not feel like a place of "rootedness and connectedness." Further, as a Jewish professional I am aware of the growing number of Jews  — the Reubenites and Gadites we might call them — who feel disaffected, disconnected, and do not see themselves as part of "the community."

The Jewish People Comes of Age

The author Anita Diamant boldly pronounced, "This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out" ("Minhag America," HUC-JIR graduation ceremony, April 30, 2008). Her words have not lost any of their resonance in the intervening years.

Alongside her words, we might place those of Rashi, as our Torah commentator of record, on this week's Torah reading, Parashat ChukatChukat begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.

D'var Torah By: 
Growing Up Means Taking Responsibility for Our Mistakes
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Schwartzman

Rabbi Skloot's reflections on Parashat Chukat are wonderfully insightful and inspiring. Indeed, this is a great time to be Jewish in America. Yes, we have traveled a long path to find the sense of security and self-confidence that allows us as individuals and as communities to openly practice our tradition, express our beliefs and just be ourselves. The example of the parah adumah (red heifer), along with Rashi and Rabbi Skloot's comments, hit home the idea of the importance of "owning" who we are and what we stand for.

What Happens When We Just See What We Want to See?

On July 2, 2014, the prestigious science journal Nature retracted two heralded papers in the field of stem cell research, papers it had published only a few months earlier. The articles described a revolutionary process called STAP, where biologists subjected mature adult cells to physical stresses and transformed them into stem cells. Yet, in the editorial announcing the papers' retraction, Nature's editors reported that the "data that were an essential part of the authors' claims had been misrepresented" and that the authors' work was marred by "sloppiness" and "selection bias" ("Editorial: STAP retracted," Nature, vol. 511, no. 7507, July 2, 2014). All told, as the journalist Dana Goodyear has written, "a far-reaching and sensational conjecture" was "defeated by flaws that were at best irreparable and at worst unconscionable" ("The Stress Test," The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, pp. 46-57).

D'var Torah By: 
Facing the Complex Realities of Controlling a Land
Davar Acher By: 
Michael G. Holzman

I can accept Rabbi Skloot's argument, citing Shimon Bar Yochai, that the scouts led a biased journey from the start, but I question the nature of that bias. Rather than a predisposition against the Land itself, I see a bias against the entire idea of possessing the Land.

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