Sinai Moments – Parshat Vaetchanan 5777


For me, all of my “Sinai moments” are tied in some way to family. If you’ve never considered your own Sinai moments before, the idea is fairly self-explanatory. These are events in your life which carry a certain power or splendor, akin to the feeling Moshe and the Israelites might have had upon receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah describes the scene as majestic, with thunder and lightning and grand theatrics. Clearly this was a moment that changed an entire people and connected them to one another and to future generations in a way they were not connected before.

We use the term now with some hyperbole, but nevertheless there are moments in our lives that affect us in monumental ways. My Sinai moments include my rabbinic ordination, my wedding day, and the days my children were born. Often these moments are joyous and uplifting, but they are undeniably powerful and life-changing. And for me, these moments were in some way, shape, or form tied back to my connection with my family, specifically those who came before me and those who might come after.

Parshat Vaetchanan, this week’s Torah portion, continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of D’varim. We’re also reminded of God denying Moshe’s entry into the Land of Israel. The Torah then reiterates that our mitzvot are the building blocks on which our society is formed. Finally, Moshe establishes three cities of refuge, and we receive the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.

Within the commandments about passing on our great tradition, God commands the following in chapter 4, verse 9:

And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb . . .

The importance of passing on our tradition from generation to generation repeats throughout the Torah, but in this instance, the Torah includes grandparents. The Babylonian Talmud picks up on this notion in tractate Berachot, page 21b:

When a child is taught Torah by a grandparent, it is as if that child received it at Sinai.

Now you understand why our momentous, awe-inspiring occasions – the ones we call Sinai moments – often center on family. A Sinai moment by definition is one generation to another sharing tradition and wisdom. I take great joy in hearing my mom share with my children the stories from the Torah that she shared with me when I was a child because it tells me the preservation of our family culture and Jewish heritage are secured. Parshat Vaetchanan simply articulates one of the Torah’s primary imperatives, which is to educate our children and future generations on the beauty of our heritage.




Original Recipe – Parshat Vaetchanan 5776

Original Recipe

On my father’s side of the family, I come from a line of what I like to call “creative in the kitchen” people.  My Nana was an excellent cook and baker, and my Uncle Larry is an executive chef who loves recipe development.  There are certain dishes that played starring roles in family meals for as long as I can remember.  If you ever want to talk food, ask me about rancho beans or my Nana’s peanut-butter-wrapped, chocolate-dipped cherries.  Those, by the way, were a featured dessert treat at our wedding reception.

I inherited this duality of a love of the classics plus a willingness to add my own spin.  No doubt the basic recipes are fantastic, but I also like to experiment in the kitchen.  That might just mean playing around with my challah recipe by adding chocolate chips or a cinnamon sugar crust if I’m in a sweet mood. For me, the recipe on its own is merely the starting point for the adventure, but in general, following the directions will lead you to the expected outcome.

The Torah provides us with a similar guideline.  It’s considered the instruction manual for living a Jewish life, or in other words, the recipe book.  But one of the biggest puzzles in Judaism is determining how much can we stray from the original recipe and still maintain the integrity of the flavor and structure of the dish, so to speak.

Parshat Vaetchanan, the Torah portion we read this week, continues with the retelling of the laws again here in the book of Deuteronomy.  We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel.  The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society.  Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.  

Here’s where we step into the kitchen.  Chapter 4, verse 2 reads, “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.”  Well, that seems clear.  Right there the Torah tells us that this is a recipe for the community to follow to a T.  And yet, as you may have noticed, the world we live in is different than the biblical world of the Torah.  No big shocker.  You just have to go back to the red heifer in Bamidbar to see that many of our original mitzvot aren’t applicable today.  So we’re left with the dilemma of how to live in a Torah-dictated, post-Torah world when we’re commanded not to change it?

The way we’re able to do this without rupturing the space-time continuum is by acknowledging the truth in the words “etz chaim hi.”  It is a tree of life.  We see the Torah as a living organism, and we have precedent for clarifying and extending the laws so that the Torah can change and evolve, adapting to present day.  The tree that is watered and pruned thrives.  The tree that is confined and starved does not.

Going back to the recipe for Jewish living, we’re not taking anything away from the Torah when we apply a modern-day philosophy.  Instead, we’re adding to the recipe to ensure its success for years to come.  Parshat Vaetchanan warns us about changing something that has lived, breathed, and inspired for so many years because it’s a good basic recipe.  But the Torah as a whole teaches us that recipes, like our laws and traditions, are the foundation.  They tie us to the past and give us a jumping-off place for the future.  Your Judaism means adding dash of this, a pinch of that.  The point is just get in the kitchen and cook.  No matter what, you’re going to make Nana proud.

Seeing is Believing – Parshat Vaetchanan 5775

Seeing is Believing

The Shema is the crux of monotheism: “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.”  It’s one of the first prayers our children learn, and we assign it a variety of rituals.  We might ask the children to make the Hebrew letter shin (showing 3 fingers) with their hands as they cover their eyes to teach that Shema begins with shin.  In our house the Shema is a part of our bedtime ritual, sending our daughter to dreamland with one last bit of Jewish faith before she falls asleep.  Traditionally, this is also the last prayer Jews will say upon their death bed.  Whatever ritual you primarily associate with the prayer, the Shema is universal among Jews, and known by many outside the Jewish religion.

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 his 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 to teach these words to our children.

There is extra attention paid to the idea that Judaism must be lived, it cannot simply be learned.  Chapter 4, verse 9 teaches, “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.  And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.”  The Torah is insistent that Judaism hinges upon experience, and it provides pathways for those who were not able to witness the Exodus firsthand.  None of us today were there at Sinai, but we certainly have the ability to live, breath, and experience Judaism on a daily basis.

The phrase “people of the book” is often used to lump together many of the so-called Abrahamic religions.  Jews, Muslims, Baptists, Methodists, and others have embraced this way of aligning ourselves with the laws that define our various traditions.  But if there was one term to distinguish Jewish tradition, you could make a strong argument for “witness.”  We are a people of witnesses, and it is demanded of us that we see and engage in the world through a Jewish lens.  That is the beauty of Jewish living.

The final letters of the first and last words of the Shema are ayin and daled.  Ayin is the last letter in the word shema, and daled is the last letter in the word echad.  Combined, they spell eid, witness.  Our parshah this week teaches us that living our lives as Jews means that we are witness to the power of experience and the power of community.  We cover our eyes to show our belief in God when we recite our central prayer, but we open our eyes in order to experience the wonder that is Jewish living and learning.

I’ll leave you with a final anecdote that is one of my favorite experiences as a rabbi so far.  The religious questions that rabbis get from kids are the best.  When is God’s birthday?  Were there dinosaurs on Noah’s ark?  An inquisitive first grader once asked me, “Why is the Shema written in the prayer book if we always cover our eyes when we say it?”  What an astute observation.  The sentiment is well represented in this week’s parshah.  Clearly, there would be no need for our main tenet of faith to be written in the siddur if we all internalized these essential words the way we teach our children to do.

[photo credit: Black & White Justice via photopin (license)]

To Learn and to Teach, to Keep and to Do – Parshat Vaetchanan 5771

For those of you who have seen my office, you know that up until a few months ago my University of Michigan flag hung proudly as the centerpiece of artwork on my wall.  In fact, I never consider myself fully settled in a new place until that flag has been put up.  But, in April the flag was moved so that a beautiful piece of art by the artist Mordechai Rosenstein could grace my office.
The piece represents my philosophy of education taken from the prayer, Ahavah Rabbah, which comes before the Shema.  It states:
לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת
. . . which means, to learn and to teach, to keep and to do.  I picked this piece of art – and more importantly this phrase – because I think it naturally and accurately teaches the fundamentals of Jewish education.  In Hebrew, the word for “teach” and the word for “learn” come from the same root.  That is to say that at our core we are all learners and teachers.  We learn by watching and listening to one another.  While we have teachers, rabbis and administrators whose job it is to actually and formally teach students, when we listen to one another, and when we share our ideas, we become teachers and others are the students.  Every day we have the opportunity to be both teachers and students.
The second half of the quotation teaches that we are “to keep and to do.”  It is our sacred obligation to guard, preserve and protect what is important to us, and at the same time take an active role in living our lives according to these customs and laws.  In keeping or guarding, we maintain that teaching spreads the tradition from one generation to the next so that it will never die.  The “doing” allows this to happen, and through practice, cements in us memories that carry us forward.
Judaism is a living religion; it is text based, but survived, maintained, taught and glorified through daily practice.  Here at Ann and Nate Levine Academy, we not only teach Judaism, but we promote living in inspired practice of our sacred heritage.  The education we provide here isn’t just from 8-4, but intended to fan the flames of the passion for learning that happens and is practiced in every aspect of life.  The value of learning is a lifelong value in Judaism.  Learning and teaching, keeping and doing are meant to kindle the spark within your soul.  This year, Levine Academy will focus on kindling the spark, the spark of learning, of Judaism and Jewish living, not only in your children, but in you as well.  We will be offering family engagement opportunities, along with parent learning across the grades.
In connection with this theme, my weekly D’var Torah will teach the Torah portion through the lens of action.  The Torah is a moving story, one that tells of generations and how their actions have brought us to this moment today.  Each week I will read and teach the parshah by way of teaching us how we can embrace living Jewishly.  I hope you’ll join me on this journey!
Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he called on Jews to take a “leap of action,” to do more than we understand so that we come to understand more than we do. I invite you to join our community of practice, a community that does more than we might understand in order to further our understanding of Judaism.    Please walk with Levine Academy on your journey, and let me know how I can help you.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: In this section each week will be one resource for you to use to learn more about the action item of the week.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  In this section each week will be an action item, a way to engage with Judaism actively and touch upon Jewish living in your own home.