The Real Deal – Parshat Eikev 5780

When I applied to the University of Michigan for undergrad, I didn’t expect to get in. I had low test scores and a low-ish GPA (3.3). The application process was cutthroat, and most people in my high school with above perfect GPAs and excellent AP scores were concerned about their futures, so what chance did I have? I was sure a rejection letter was heading my way, so you can imagine my surprise when the acceptance letter came in the mail. You can bet that in addition to the letter, I also received a few glares from fellow students in my graduating class who’d been wait-listed or rejected, yet reached higher academic achievement than I had. How had this actually happened? 

While I don’t know exactly what singled me out, I have a feeling it was the authenticity in my application. It painted a true picture of who I was and who I wanted to be. On my application I indicated I wanted to be a Judaic Studies major. I had spent six months in Israel during high school, my volunteerism showed a commitment to my synagogue, and my essay spoke about my Jewish identity. Plus, my grades told the story: high grades in classes on world religion, social studies, and history, and lower grades on math and science. It was clear that I meant what I said, and I have to believe that’s why I was admitted. 

The happy ending to this story is that I excelled at U of M. I was a Judaic Studies major, I took classes I loved, and it was clearly the right place for me. I mean, I became a rabbi, didn’t I?

This week we read Parshat Eikev. We learn of the blessing and reward you will receive if you keep the laws of the Torah and the obligation to remove those from the community who don’t follow the laws. The Torah recaps the lessons learned from the Golden Calf, the breaking of the first set of tablets, and Moshe’s prayer for the people. We finally receive the second section of the Shema, followed by a clear warning to guard the Torah and its commandments. 

As God is trying to give the final sets of laws and get the Israelite nation ready to enter into the land of Israel, God is also trying to figure out who the Israelite people really are. Chapter 8, verse 2 reads: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that he might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” God tests the trust and loyalty of the Israelites.

Rashbam comments by asking, was this a test to their faith because they would never be sure the manna would appear the next day, or was the test to see if they would remain grateful to God even if they knew their food supply was assured?

When we’re true to ourselves and the journey we’re on, the path becomes clear. The Israelite journey had plenty of bumpy patches. Many times they thought about opting out and going back to Egypt, and yet they managed to hold fast to their belief in what could come next.  

Parshat Eikev is one of many reminders in the Torah to be true to your inner self. Be your most authentic self, rather than what you think other people want from you. And of course, go Blue! 

Always Learning – Parshat Vaetchanan 5780

Parenting is full of obligations we have to our children. I want to teach them to be kind and compassionate. I want to teach them to be productive members of society and to take care of themselves. I want to teach them the alphabet and the alef-bet and help them reach all the appropriate learning milestones so they can succeed in life. The truth is there will always be much more to learn than I have time to teach, or in the case of math, can’t teach them myself. I rely heavily on our awesome community and fantastic teachers to provide the basics, but I know that at the end of the day, there is always more to learn, even as adults.

The idea that you can never really know it all can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not a quick learner, and yet Judaism is based around the concept of being a lifelong learner. This week we read Parshat Vaetchanan, the second section of text in the book of Deuteronomy. It is perhaps one of the most famous texts in our Torah. Moses requests to enter the land of Israel, but God remains firm in the punishment of forbidding Moses from stepping foot in the Promised Land. The Torah sends out a caution to observe the commandments therein and reaffirms that idols are prohibited, which we learn in the Shema, stating there is only one God. We also receive the second giving of the Ten Commandments and are told to teach these words to our children. 

In chapter 5, verse 1 we read, “Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully!” The obligation to learn and to understand is not just based in childhood. It is an obligation that is lifelong. Even if we don’t learn everything we need for the world in a traditional educational setting, we have an obligation as adults to continue the process. 

Being a lifelong learner means understanding that we are never complete, that our knowledge base is never full, and that we can always open our minds and learn more about the world and learn from other people. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that we are all simultaneously learners and seekers. Knowledge is to be enjoyed and pursued throughout our lifetimes and everywhere we happen to find ourselves.

What will you learn this year?

One and the Same – Parshat Devarim 5780

As children’s brains develop and they learn to understand the world, they move from black and white divisions to more nuanced categories and combinations. I remember when I was a child myself how at first there were clear separations. People celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas. New friends were either boys or girls. People had curly hair or straight hair, or they were tall or short. You get the idea. At this young age, we’re not trying to exclude or narrow our world view. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We’re trying to understand as much of the world as possible, we simply don’t have enough context yet to understand all the complexities. But as children, these identifiers act as ways in which we do or don’t identify with people, and those who fit into a different category become “other.” As adults, we have enough experience to realize that every human being is different because that’s how we were created by God. When we run into problems is when we slip back into that “other” way of thinking. 

Throughout the Torah we hear about the different tribes and groups of people that comprise the Israelites and the ones they meet along their journey. Usually this serves to differentiate the new nation from others, but occasionally, the Israelites are reminded of their commonalities. 

This week in our parshah we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism – the belief in one God – and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books. 

In chapter two, we read about the Israelites as they proceed to the Promised Land. Until now, Israel’s encounters with other nations have been mostly negative. From enslavement in Egypt to war with Amalek, Sihon, and Og, they’ve had a rough go when encountering other communities. However, in verses four and five, a different description is laid out: “And charge the people as follows: you will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them.” 

This is the first time that another nation is referred to as “kinsmen” for the Israelites since they’ve left Egypt. Perhaps it’s because they need to learn to live at peace with others now that they will have their own land and established territories. Regardless of the specific reason, this is a clear sign of how Israel has matured as a people, and it hints at their capability of finally continuing on their own as a new nation in partnership with other people, and not just with God. As our connected world seems more and more divided, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that social progress is moving from stranger to kinsmen and not the other way around. 

Walking Through Fire – Parshat Matot-Masei 5780

How much of your emotional response is automatically written on your face? When I’m angry, embarrassed, or generally uncomfortable, I get flushed. My body temperature seems to go up, and it’s a sensation like I have to put out the fire. But this happens on its own; I can’t control it. I know when it starts because my ears begin to feel hot, and then I know the redness is coming. It’s true – I don’t have a great poker face. I show my colors plainly, and they are red and pink and hot. The good news is this change means I’m processing or working through things. Emotional “fire” can transform people mentally just as actual fire transforms things chemically. Whatever rage or fury I’m feeling in the moment, I know I’ll have the opportunity to think or behave differently and learn from that when it passes.

This transforming and purifying property of fire is mentioned in the Torah too. This week we read the final sections of text from the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Parshiyot Matot and Masei begin with the discussion of the different vows Israelites might make, and then they detail the requests of the various tribes as they get ready to enter the Promised Land. The chapters end with the final placements of all the tribes as they prepare to divide their land inheritance. 

The text talks specifically about the purification of warriors and captives. The methods of purification are similar to what we use today to purify bodies and vessels: water and fire. In Jewish tradition, whether it’s the purification of a deceased body before it goes to burial or the purification of a living body in the cleansing waters of the mikveh (ritual bath) we still follow this procedure. And now, as we try to prevent the spread of disease, water and hand washing in particular are on our minds and more important than perhaps they have ever been.

Judaism also purifies with fire. Any item that can withstand the heat is to be passed through fire on its way to becoming pure or neutral. This is the ritual we still use for kashering (making kosher) cooking tools.

Whether we’re transforming a pot from dairy use to meat use or transforming ourselves from passive to actively engaged, heat is an agent of change. I might not enjoy having my ears turn red, but it usually means I need to check myself, possibly tread carefully, and grow from that experience. Shabbat shalom.

Moral Courage – Parshat Pinchas 5780

If we’re supposed to be guided by our morals, what happens when one person’s (or community’s) morals conflict with another’s? We all have so much in common with each other, but these days we’re divided by extremes on every issue. If you bring up a particular topic, you risk the response of someone ready to shout it down, or, just as unhelpful, it’s met with confirmation bias, which means it will be interpreted according to other people’s preexisting beliefs, not seen as new information to consider.

Personally, my integrity comes from many places, but primarily from my Jewish traditions. The commandments of the Torah and the values of Jewish living guide me in my decision making and understanding of the world around me. This has been true of Jews living an observant life since the time of the Torah.

This week’s parshah, Pinchas, puts moral courage on display. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those that defied the prohibition of idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and the holidays. 

Chapter 25, verses 17-18 read: “Assail the Midianites and defeat them – for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you – because of the affair of Peor.” Why were the Midianites against the Isarelites? We’re told it’s originally because the Israelites had different ways of worship from the other nations that surrounded them. But beyond that, the Israelites didn’t engage in hostile takeovers; they did not rape and pillage or even encourage each other to engage in dishonest acts to prove superior. They stood on a moral ground that made them stand out from everyone else. Because of this, other nations tried to trick and disadvantage the Israelites and pull them away from their moral compass.

Parshat Pinchas stands as a reminder that personal moral courage isn’t automatic. It takes hard work to build it up, and it’s almost always tested by those who lack similar convictions. It’s our responsibility as Jews to use that sense of justice we’ve built up for so long.