On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - D'varim: Leaving the Comfort Zone

Parashat D’varim, the opening portion of Deuteronomy, encourages us as individuals, congregations, and communities to avoid getting stuck in one way of thinking. Though there is comfort in the familiar, sticking to the status quo inhibits innovation. Remember that, without  innovation and risk-taking in our Reform Movement, there would be no URJ camps or women rabbis. This week, we are encouraged to appreciate how far we’ve come, and all we’ve done in our given spaces, but to also take a step forward into the future. Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss Parashat D'varim.

Four ways to listen:


Welcome to episode 29 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. So talk to us on Twitter, our handle is @URJ. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism wonders what the words are that lift us up and how we can make sure not to get locked into just one way of being. 

This Shabbat we begin a new book of the Torah, the book is D’varim in Hebrew, Deuteronomy in English, and the name of the first portion is also called D’varim. It means literally words. And the book of Deuteronomy has a lot of words. And in fact, they are some of the most inspiring speeches, talks, sermons, that have ever been given in all of human history. 

I know for those of us in North America many of us have been listening to a lot of talks during the last few weeks, and it makes us really think about, what are the talks that lift us up? that inspire us, not just once, but many times--there's something in them. Who cannot name Dr. King's I Have a Dream? And I think that we have here the sermons of the great teacher, Moses, who remember, when he started out, we're told at the very beginning of Exodus that he's a man of few words. He was very, very unconvinced that he could actually express the very heart of Jewish tradition. 

So in the opening of the parashah, we find ourselves at this moment in the midst of the Jewish people's journey through the desert, and there's an amazing, amazing teaching that comes to us, that God says to the Jewish people. “Rav-lachem shevet bahar hazeh.” God says, enough, enough of dwelling at this mountain. It's time to move on. 

Now what an amazing statement to a religious community, because how often are we as communities of faith locked into, not only a place, but a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of practicing. And here we have to be shaken out of that in a sense, either that lethargy or that commitment to the status quo. So the teaching is, appreciate how far you've come. Appreciate all that you've done in this place. But to be on a religious path means to be moving forward, to enter into new ways of thinking, new ways of practicing. 

And the Jewish people at this moment, they're unconvinced that that is exactly what they need to do. And I think each of us in our own lives, we also come to those places where we get stuck, and we think, you know what? This is what it means. And synagogues get that way and all communities. And here we have this incredible teaching saying, don't allow yourselves to get locked into one way of being. 

So think of the Jewish community before we had women rabbis. We were locked into thinking only men could be religious leaders. Think about what we did before synagogues had religious schools and all these different dimensions. Think about what we did without the centrality of Jewish summer camps. In 1951, the reform movement had a chance to buy its first camp. And a lot of the religious leaders said, why would we have a camp? 

You know, we're about religious community. We're about buildings and congregations and rabbis and leaders, summer camp, really? Think about the people who founded Birthright, who said really just bringing kids from the ages of 18 to 26 for 10 days in Israel is going to transform Jewish life? “Rav-lachem shevet bahar hazeh.”  We have to always get pushed a bit to leave the familiar, to leave the status quo, and to not just try new things, but use our best imagination. 

So on this Shabbat that we study Parashat D’varim, we also find ourselves literally hours before Tishah B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is a day of communal remembering and communal mourning. It's a day when the first and second temples were destroyed. It's the day when the expulsion from Spain took place. You know, there's all of these litanies of pain and suffering. 

And what D’varim reminds us of is that in the Torah we actually don't have history. They're not telling us objectively what happened. We have collective memory. What is it that we choose to remember about our collective journey? Do we remember only the moments of destruction, the moments of hatred and bigotry directed at us? Do we also remember the moments of resilience and rebirth and re-imagination? 

So as we enter this Shabbat, and then right after the Shabbat, we will enter Tisha B'Av. And we're called in the parashah to remember all of the stops in Jewish history. But more importantly, we're asked to remember what is its collective meaning? What do we take from it? What inspires us? What gives us the tools to live a better, more whole, more fulfilling life? And I think that's the kind of approach to Parashat D’varim which will help us approach the entire book of Deuteronomy. 

And so I ask us to think about the ways we get stuck. I'll give you just one great teaching from my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, who was one of the most brilliant and amazing teachers in all of Jewish life. He died just a couple of years ago. But he made aliyah, he moved to Israel with his five kids and his family, and he walked outside on Tishah B'Av, and he said to himself, but actually loud so others could hear, he said, why are we still mourning the destruction of the temple, the pillage of Jerusalem? Look around. Jerusalem is alive and well and vibrant. 

And he's in a sense saying, “rav-lachem.” It's enough dwelling in this one mindset. Let's move to a new way. But of course, he didn't abandon Tishah B'Av, he just pushes our thinking to re-imagine, to rethink, to see where it is that we've been, but from where we've been to have the courage to go to new places, D’varim, the words, the speeches, that inspire, that push us, that take us out of our locked, status quo, that helps us to move to a better tomorrow. 

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.