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Mitzvah

Aiming Higher for a Life of Human Holiness

Today, we hear a lot about power: military power, corporate power, and political power. We don’t hear as much about personal power. But, in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, a double portion, we learn about the potential for personal power. It follows Acharei Mot (“After the Death” of Aaron’s sons) and instructions about purity. In Acharei Mot, we follow the unfortunate outcome of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought an alien fire into the Tent of Meeting, which was an affront to God and Moses. Personal power isn’t a sin, but the misapplication of it can lead to horrific outcomes. In K’doshim, we open with the Holiness Code and within it a credible means to personal power that also reflects God’s holiness. 

D'var Torah By: 
The Power of the Individual
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Diana Fersko

Individual power. In his commentary, Rabbi Lyon reminds us that Acharei Mot focuses on the immense power that individuals can possess. That emphasis could not be more timely. Day after day, we see teens, galvanized by the horrors of gun violence, raising their voices in rage and protest... While we don’t know their exact age, Nadab and Abihu were also young people. Like the victims of school shootings, their end was shockingly abrupt and profoundly tragic. They led lives cut too short without justification. Commentators have worked hard for centuries to create narratives of meaning around the deaths of these young people.

Finding Unique Blessings in Every One of Us

In the double portion, Tazria/M’tzora, we have the responsibility, even if it isn’t our pleasure, to investigate texts on birth and its aftermath, bodily afflictions and emissions, skin ailments, and leprosy. They were once taboos that raised fears in the community and turned priests of their day into guardians of purity.

D'var Torah By: 
Separation as a Path to Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Baht Weiss

A country road splits into two roadsRabbi Lyon begins

Commandments and Commander: How Do We Hear and Respond?

Parashat Tzav begins with God’s instructing Moses to command the priests, and by extension, us, regarding ritual sacrifice. With the Temple in Jerusalem long gone, Reform scholars discuss the meaning of this command for us today.

D'var Torah By: 
The Many and the One
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Matthew Berger

Parashat Tzav (meaning "command") discusses the sacrifices that the priests are commanded to bring in Temple sacrifice. When we think about how we relate to those mitzvot (commandments) today, it is no wonder there is such a multiplicity of opinions. Our relationship with God can change over time. Sometimes we may feel closer to God. At other times, God may seem distant. So, too, our relationship with individual mitzvot or sacred obligations can shift over time. A single mitzvah can speak to us in one moment but not in another.

Sealed for Life or Death?

The beautiful, melodious liturgy of Yom Kippur suggests a heavenly court in which God reviews each individual and decrees the destiny of each person for the coming year. This is powerful poetry that should make us stop and think about our lives and our behavior.

D'var Torah By: 
Un’taneh Tokef: Reflecting on Your Legacy
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi P.J. Schwartz

The Un’taneh Tokef prayer is undoubtedly one of the most challenging pieces of Jewish liturgy. It encompasses traditional messages of Yom Kippur and the High Holiday season that can prove to be theologically challenging: God is judge and arbiter; Our fate has been determined, and there is nothing that we can do but accept the decree. Regardless of the theological implications found in the text, the prayer does challenge us to confront our own mortality and reflect on how we want to be remembered.

Not by Bread Alone: Strange Food from the Sky

Parashat Eikev gives us the familiar phrase, “man does not by bread alone.” Does it mean that spiritual sustenance is more important than bread? Or was it meant to teach ancient Israelites to trust in God and not stores of food? It all depends on the context.

D'var Torah By: 
The Opportunity to Enjoy What We Have
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Marc Katz

Parashat Eikev tells us that manna was created to test the Israelites by hardships (Deuteronomy 8:16). What were the hardships? Was the manna too scarce to fully satisfy a person’s hunger? Or was the uncertainty of whether the manna would fall the next day the main hardship for the Israelites? Was the manna ugly or unpleasant to eat? Ancient Sages debate this question.

What Judaism Says About the Golden Rule

For the last few years, I have been a member of a local hospital’s ethics committee.

D'var Torah By: 
Working Toward a Shared Goal of Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Aimee Gerace

In these turbulent political times, it may sometimes feel easier to withdraw, to choose to not engage with our community members around difficult topics — particularly those community members who d

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."

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?

The Complex Commandment To Be Holy

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Parashat K'doshim places before us one of the most difficult commandments in the whole Torah. It's not kashrut or Shabbat, or even the rules of sexual conduct, but rather, the admonition and the expectation to "be holy." Throughout the Torah, we are given rules and statues that tell us what to do. Here are we told what to be. A similar statement is found in Exodus 19:6, where we are commanded to be a "kingdom of priests and a holy people." But what does it mean to be holy? The parashah does not define what holiness is, nor does it tell us what it means to be holy. The guidance it gives us is in the specifics: the who, when, why, and how of the injunction.

D'var Torah By: 
The Limits on Our Pursuit of Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Gregory S. Marx

What is the definition of chutzpah? It is believing that you are better than you really are or expressing a sense of entitlement. Maybe that's not a perfect definition, but we certainly know it when we see it.

We are living, psychologists tell us, in the "age of narcissism."1 More and more people express a sense of entitlement and privilege. In America we hear of so many speaking of their rights as citizens, while fewer and fewer vote2 or serve their country in the military3. In the synagogue community, so many leaders observe a precipitous decline in volunteerism and service. Far too many seek membership in order to receive services. We expect our clergy to bless our children and officiate at various life cycle events, but all too rarely see our belonging as a way to contribute to the greater good.

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