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A Strong Ladder to Spiritual Awareness

Parashat Vayeitzei opens with Jacob journeying from Beersheba to Haran. As the sun sets, he decides to spend the night outside in “the place,” hamakom, where he happens to be, resting his head on one of the stones that he has found there. The biblical text doesn’t tell us the name of this place. Presumably, Jacob himself does not know it. Yet it becomes clear in the next few verses that where exactly this place is and what it is called isn’t important. For after Jacob wakes up the next morning from a dream in which he encounters God, he comes to the life-changing realization that the Eternal is present in this place. “God is here although I didn’t know it initially,” Jacob thinks to himself. “Indeed, this awe-inspiring place is none other than the house of God” (paraphrasing Genesis 28:16-17).

D'var Torah By: 
The Challenge of Striving for Spirituality
Davar Acher By: 
Lisa J. Grushcow

How do we feel God’s presence? It’s easy to envy Jacob’s dream, and his waking realization that he has been close to the Divine.

Arthur Green, in his Introduction to the Zohar, describes mystical experiences as, “striving toward oneness, a breaking down of illusory barriers to reveal the great secret of the unity of all being.” I think about Jacob’s experience in that light. It is a moment in which he understands that he is part of something bigger, and that his life’s journey has meaning.

Family Discord and Distrust

Friendships among siblings can be close and long-lasting. Many times, however, they are difficult to achieve or sustain. This week's parashah provides insight into the latter.

D'var Torah By: 
A Struggle from Birth and Throughout a Lifetime
Davar Acher By: 
Lisa Kingston

In Parashat Tol'dot, Jacob certainly appears as if he is born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Being born into the prophecy that Dr.

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.

The Gift of God's First Creation

The more complicated our lives become, the more difficult it is to count our blessings. At times, we may become overwhelmed by feelings of anger, loneliness, frustration, despair, or sorrow. We may be wracked by physical pain or unable to free ourselves from serious bouts of depression. As in this week's Torah portion, B'reishit, darkness precedes light and chaos precedes order. Metaphorically, we may have so much on our plates that we can't decide what to do first and when we do, may frequently lose focus. Sometimes I begin my day by saying to myself: "I have so much to do, I wish today were 48 instead of 24 hours." Consequently, I rush to accomplish as much as I can, often feeling harried and dissatisfied, not fully able to enjoy moments for which in hindsight, I wasn't fully present. When we begin the cycle of Torah readings each year, however, I am reminded that God's first creative act, even before God brought the sky and earth into being, was to create light. Darkness already existed on the face of "chaotic waters" (Genesis 1:2). Yet as God's spirit glided over it, God created light, choosing not to inject the light into the darkness, but rather to create it as a distinct entity which God proclaims to be good (1:3).

D'var Torah By: 
Defining the Boundaries of the First Day
Davar Acher By: 
David E. Levy

A few years ago at my in-law's congregation, I sat in the pew pondering the art and architecture that surrounded me. I've been inspired to do this more often, due to a great podcast called 99% invisible, whose core premise is uncovering "... all the thought that goes into the things we don't think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world." 

On the walls of the synagogue are seven murals, each listing a day of Creation. What intrigued me was that unlike the Torah text for every other day of Creation, the text for the first day where "God divided the light from the darkness" doesn't say "the first day." (see Genesis 1:4-5). Many translations of the Bible do say "the first day," however, the Hebrew tells a different story. The Hebrew text says yom echad literally "day one," not yom rishon the Hebrew phrase for "Sunday" and the "first day." Why the discrepancy? For every other day of Creation it follows the ordinal numbers second, third, and so on, until we get to the seventh day, which is just called Shabbat. But on the first day we see the cardinal number: why?

The External War and the Internal War

This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).

This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."

D'var Torah By: 
Understanding Ourselves as Part of the Ein Sof
Davar Acher By: 
Beni Wajnberg

In deciphering the meaning of our portion's call to violence and war (Deuteronomy 21:10), Rabbi Firestone cites the 19th century Chasidic teacher, the S'fat Emet, who understood the opening sentence of the parashah as referring to the daily struggles we face in life. He quotes the S'fat Emet's contention that, "In everything there is a point of divine life, but it is secret and hidden. Throughout the days of the week we are engaged in a battle and struggle to find that point ... "

To Die in the Exercise of Your Passion

On Wednesday, August 7th, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out onto a steel wire strung across the 130-foot gap between the tops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — close to 1,350 feet above the ground. After a 45-minute performance he was asked, "Weren't you afraid that you were going to die?" While conceding, he replied, "If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion."

Parashat Sh'mini contains the important and troubling story of Nadab and Abihu. It is the eighth day of the ceremony of consecrating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the priests. Aaron and his sons have been sacrificing animals all week long. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes the offerings, and all is going according to plan. Suddenly Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron's sons, bring an additional offering of incense, which had not been commanded. They are immediately consumed by Divine fire; their bodies are dragged out of the Mishkan while Aaron remains silent.

D'var Torah By: 
Strange Fire in Our Time
Davar Acher By: 
Ari S. Lorge

When are you a priest? When are you a prophet? These questions present a constant tension for liberal Jews. When do we maintain what was passed down to us? When do we strike out on a bold new path? In Covenant & Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks lifts up the priests Nadab and Abihu, and their "strange fire," as examples of those who misunderstood their role and moment. Sacks uses the images of priest and prophet to set out a tension, as he writes: "The priest serves God in a way that never changes over time. . . . The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time."The priest attests to what is enduring and ritualized, while the prophet must be spontaneous and take his or her own initiative.

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.

In Place of God? In God’s Place?

After a natural calamity or terrorist attack an understandable question presents itself: Where is God in all this?

D'var Torah By: 
Be a Place Where God Is
Davar Acher By: 
Laura Geller

Joseph's response to his brothers seems to suggest that whatever happens is meant to happen: "Am I in place of God? Though you intended me harm, God intended it for good . .

Leadership and Letting Go

Can you say chutzpah? How about arrogance? Or is ignorance a more appropriate word for people behaving badly?

D'var Torah By: 
Breaking the Cycle of Dysfunction
Davar Acher By: 
Neal Katz

I remember learning the beautiful phrase "spiritual bacteria," from Rabbi Sam Stahl in San Antonio, Texas.

Joseph the Educator

In this week's Torah portion, Mikeitz, Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, receives a visit from his brothers

D'var Torah By: 
Joseph’s Tears
Davar Acher By: 
Adriane Leveen

Rabbi Goldberg points out that Joseph forgives his brothers only after they have illustrated their repentance for the wrong they did to him.

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