Subtle Changes – Parshat Vaetchanan

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I feel like a lot of parenting is making small changes to daily life that (hopefully) add up to a big shift in behavior. When we had infants, we’d notice that a five-minute shift in bedtime routine could change an entire sleep pattern. As they got older, we learned the sweet spot for nap time and changed our schedule accordingly to fit that need. And when Shiri’s weekday morning routine became problematic, we changed our screen time rule to only once per week. Each shift was minimal in the grand scheme of the work of being a parent, and yet those subtle differences totally changed the way that our family interacts.

There are plenty of examples of minimal changes that produce maximum reward. Trying to stick to a budget? Just making your own coffee two days a week can add up to some major savings compared to the daily latte. Working on weight loss? Trading one junk snack for a vegetable is remarkable. Working on getting more sleep? Five extra minutes of screen-free downtime before bed makes all the difference in the world. Subtle, small tweaks lead to major positive results, and we see the same phenomenon in the Torah.

Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again 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.

Significantly, the text contains the Ten Commandments. But this is the second time that Moshe shares the commandments with the Israelites, and while the intention and meaning of the commandments largely remain the same, there are a few notable tweaks. Instead of “honoring your father and mother” it reads “revere your mother and father.” Instead of “remember the Sabbath day” it reads “keep the Sabbath day.” Small changes in words that lead to significant interpretive differences. The order of mother and father is switched, as is the verb, to remind us that we should both honor and revere both parents. “Remember” versus “keep” Shabbat is a subtle change that tells us about how we should both guard sacred time and plan ahead for it.

Visually there’s not much difference. You have to be a careful, close, and critical reader of these texts to actually notice the changes that were made. However, these subtle tweaks to the text lead to broad positive outcomes in the society that is being built. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that it’s sometimes the small changes that are most effective over time.

How Lucky You Are – Parshat Vaetchanan 5778

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There are countless conversations I’ve had with people in generations before me about how lucky I am to live in the world today, and I feel similarly about my kids’ lives. It seems that every new generation has certain things easier and faster. Need to know information? Google it, or even better, let Alexa tell you. Back in my day – who’d have ever thought I’d be saying “back in my day” – I had to use the card catalog and encyclopedias to find information. These days, if you want to find something to watch on TV, just speak into the remote. Believe it or not, I remember being the remote, getting up to tune the knob to another channel. These advances in technology give the older generation some perspective, but sometimes it’s difficult for the younger generations to understand just how lucky they are, especially when forced to suffer inconveniences like a dead iPhone or when there is actually “nothing” on TV.

Technology aside, the phenomenon of generational comparisons goes back to Moses in the Torah. The Israelites are constantly pointing out how much better life was before they left Egypt; they don’t yet grasp how lucky they are to be free. Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moses to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moses then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

The text begins with the following words from Moses:

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness . . . Let me, I pray cross over and see the good land.”

Moses begins by asking to see the land of Israel. He does this publicly, in front of the nation. Several commentators pick up on how out of character this is for him. Moses rarely pleads on his own behalf, always for the greater community. Yet here he is facing his own mortality and the fact that his mistake has cost him seeing the land of Israel, and he is heartbroken.

Perhaps, as one final lesson to the Israelites, Moses is trying to teach remorse for sins and show them the true blessing of living in a free land, which he won’t experience. Perhaps he’s showing them that you should never lose hope about what may come and that even our deepest prayers may be eventually answered. Whatever the impetus for this plea, it’s a reminder that each generation walks a unique path. It may not always be easy to see in the moment, but we are all blessed to live in the world today.

Sinai Moments – Parshat Vaetchanan 5777

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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

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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.