Today is twelve days, which is one week and five days of the Omer in the year 5782. הוד שבגבורה, Hod ShebeGevurah, Temple of Strength; splendor within power. Today, the 27th day of Nisan, is also Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, the Day to Remember The Shoah and The Heroism, the Catastrophe when one-third of Jews were murdered during World War II.
Choosing Hope, Strength, and Steadfast Support
Life has taken many turns for all of us. No one has had time to fully process the ways in which our lives have changed in the last few years. However we approach the seasons ahead, the fragility of human life is stark and clear.
It is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. While I welcome all people into spiritual community, my soul is grounded in the pursuit of HaShem. I cannot tell you I know God. There is no way for me to comprehend the Source of Life. I can say, my faith in God is strong. God is my Rock and my Shield.
Building my Sanctuary for Strength
A core reason I am on the cusp of rabbinic ordination is that I feel most complete in a sanctuary. My best self bursts forward in Jewish community generally and prayer spaces specifically. This is the consciousness I work to live into throughout the day, regardless of where I am.
So today, I will contemplate how I build that sanctuary within me. How I make it possible to feel surrounded by El Shaddai, God of Protection, God of Breasts.
Sometimes, we shy away from strength. We demure and deflect. This is a week to own the power within us and connect to the strength around us. As brave Amazon workers on Staten Island reminded us, the people united can never be defeated.
Similarly, there are many people who have been hurt by organized religion and believe that individual spirituality superior to collective endeavors. Yet, the thing I have learned above all else during this pandemic is that we humans are social animals. We are our best selves in community.
Let’s reinvent our synagogues and develop the spaces we need for our individual and collective spiritual growth. Am Yisrael Chai! The people Israel live!
Join me and the Temple Beth David community on a wide-ranging conversation about the place of the Bible in progressive Judaism. The video is about 90 minutes long. This is a six part series, though each session stands alone.
On Shabbat, February 26, at 10am Pacific, we will meet for a class in the “Bissel of Judaism” series I created.
We are focusing on The Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism. No prior reading or knowledge required to join the session. Go to the Temple Beth David website and click on the orange flyer that looks like the above image to join our Zoom meeting.
The course participants asked for a reading assignment to prepare them for our next class.
For our class discussion we will be using a Sefaria source sheet. This sheet includes three passages of Talmud. I hope they feel meaningful and relevant.
Below is the introductory chapter from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, zt”l, masterpiece The Essential Talmud. Please note: the below PDF is only the first chapter of the book, pages 3-8. I highly recommend purchasing the book. This copyrighted material is shared for educational purposes only, under fair use guidelines.
I was asked to create a six part class for Temple Beth David of Temple City giving an overview of Judaism. I started with a sketch of Jewish history before the rabbis. This was intended to be introductory material to the focus of the class: how a particular concept was incorporated into Judaism. Below is a video of the class.
Though I am nearing the end of my formal studies, my goal is continuous transformation. I pray for the continuous expansion of my ability to engage people across knowledge levels with the richness of Jewish civilization — from history, to spiritual concepts, to how all of this is relevant to our lives.
Tonight is unusual – the last time Kabbalat Shabbat and New Year’s Eve occurred together was in 2011.
Ezra Furman, a Jewish musician, said it best in a tweet. They wrote:
I like having both too.
I would like to take a few minutes now to connect this week’s Torah portion to being on the cusp of a secular new year. That is, as time moves forward, how are we living into our foundational stories? And what does this week’s story reveal to us about building a future for ourselves, individually and collectively?
God’s True Name is spelled yud, hay, vav, hay. In scholarly circles The Name is described as the Tetragrammaton, which simply means the four-letter word.
As Jews, we traditionally never pronounce The Name and cover it up with the word Adonai, which means “my Lord.” Adonai is most often translated as “Lord.”
Claiming that God’s Most Essential Name is “Lord” has, unfortunately, left many of us disconnected from the Source of Life. It is a pious cover for revelation. A way to indicate God rules over us. The word “Lord” denies individual choice and freedom.
Rather than using “Lord” as the English translation of Y H V H, I will say “HaShem,” which simply means “The Name.” For me, HaShem is more forceful than Adonai.
God Appears Differently to Moses
The portion begins with God explaining to Moses the difference between The Name and how God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It reads:
God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am HaShem. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name HaShem.”
Va’era is the first word of the second sentence – it means, “I appeared.” What does it mean that God appeared one way to earlier generations and differently to Moses?
Moses as the Pinnacle of Revelation
Traditionally, Judaism understands Moses as the pinnacle, the height, of human interaction with God. Moses knew God more intimately than any human before him or since him. This is why Judaism constantly connects innovation with Moses, claiming that all was revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
(Be sure to join us in three weeks, on January 22, for more regarding the revelation at Mt. Sinai.)
Does Revelation Evolve Over Time?
But, if Moses experienced God more fully than previous generations, why should we believe that our understanding of the Divine ended on Mt. Sinai? Personally, I see this Torah portion as a proof text for the ongoing revelation of God.
What I mean is that human understanding of the nature of reality and the nature of God deepens over time. Our relationships, with each other and with God, are more complex than any previous generation.
The Jewish tradition is a roadmap for our journey. Neither humanity nor God stopped evolving on Mt. Sinai.
God Appears to Pharaoh Through Moses and Aaron
Following the revelation of God’s True Name, the Torah portion continues with Moses and Aaron taking up the mantle of leadership. God says to Moses: “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”
God explains the purpose of the ten plagues, saying: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. …And the Egyptians shall know that I am HaShem, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.”
Leaders Guide Us Towards Our Best Selves
The Israelites needed Moses and Aaron to guide them out of Egypt. Leaders help us see the possibility of a future better than today. The process takes time and commitment. We have to trust our leaders in order to be transformed by their insights.
Like Moses and Aaron, modern leaders of the Jewish people remind us that it is possible to hear the call of freedom. Leaders guide us on the journey. It is within our power to overcome adversity and to revel in deep joy, love, and gratitude.
We can choose to strive towards our best selves. We can choose leaders who help us remember our deepest truths, and to break free of our bondage.
Choosing Joy This New Year’s Eve
Yes, our lives have been altered by this pandemic in ways that we could never have imagined a few short years ago. Yet, we continue to have this community to support us along the way. Every week, we have the opportunity to join together – appreciating our common humanity, taking time to live into the deepest part of ourselves, and connect to our Cosmic Companion.
God is More Abstract than How God Appears in the Bible
We do not need a burning bush or a magic rod to connect us with HaShem. We have the souls around us and the Soul of the Universe to hold us on our journey through time.
A Prayer for God’s Appearance in 2022
As Temple Beth David steps forward into 2022, may we remember that God appears whenever we hold space for the people around us.
God appears when we comfort mourners.
God appears when we pray for the sick.
God appears when we doubt God’s presence.
God appears when we express gratitude for our food and our drinks.
God appears when we revel in the growth of our children.
God appears when we choose to create space for holiness.
When we acknowledge Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, God appears.
May God appear to you this Shabbat. May you experience joyfulness and hope as we welcome a new secular year and the unfolding future of our beloved community. Shabbat Shalom.
This week, our portion is named “Vayechi,” which means “he lived.” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss how this verb is formed, because it sheds light on the internal perspective of our Bible. Often, a verb in the Bible begins with a vav. This can indicate a conjunction – that’s a fancy word to include “and,” “but,” “however.” On the other hand, it can be a “reversing vav.” So, yichi without the vav indicates an ongoing action, or an action that will take place in the future. With the vav, we know that it was an ongoing action in the past. This is the brilliance of the Biblical mind. Their concept of time was not the same as our concept. Their verbs, their actions, are not in the past, present, or future. Rather, actions are completed, they are occurring now, or they may occur in the future. The stream of time in Biblical Hebrew is more fluid than the finite breaks of modern grammar.
This perspective also helps us understand the internal purpose of the narrative we are completing this week. For Israelites, there was never a need to record Exactly What Happened. That concept of history is not part of the BIble. Rather, each story is meant to help us deepen our understanding of our present moment and our connection to our spiritual community.
The weekly Torah portion, VaYechi
With this background in mind, please listen to the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion.
Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.
Why do we need to know that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt, in Eretz Mitzrayim? What does it mean to live? And why did our forefather’s life end in Egypt rather than in the Holy Land?
Mitzrayim: the narrow place, the place of constraint
Here’s where the Jewish mind and a strict understanding of Hebrew grammar differ. The folk etymology of the word Mitzrayim connects it to Maytzarim, which means “distress” or “constraints.” This is why you may hear me describe Egypt as the narrow place within us. Whether or not the two Hebrew words are actually connected, the Jewish mind has built on the similarity between the words to build worlds of meaning into our text.
So Jacob lived in the narrow place before he died. He didn’t have the hero’s journey of going through difficulty early in life and then experiencing complete peace before dying. Instead, he left the promised land and saw his family prosper in exile.
Jacob experienced a taste of our lives. For the most part, being Jewish in America, in this part of the diaspora, is not a cause of tsuris. Our daily lives are not filled with aggravation or chas v’shalom, fear, because of our Jewish identities.
Reflecting on December as a Jew
And yet, December in particular can be a time of increased awareness of our difference from mainstream American society. I want to be clear that I do not harbor any ill will towards Temple Beth David families who choose to celebrate Christmas. Rather, I am reflecting on what the season has meant for me, as an individual and as a mother.
My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas and helping our kids navigate this season has been a growth opportunity for me as a parent and as a spiritual leader.
I experience tension during this season. On the one hand, I am patriotic and love my neighbors. On the other hand, I am choosing to stand aside from the Christmas celebrations.
For our family, Santa Claus has loomed large over the past week, as Santa and Mrs. Claus visited our children’s public school on Wednesday. This tension, between deep gratitude for the fullness of our lives, and acknowledging that we live in the Diaspora, is reflected in the way Jacob’s life ended in physical security, though spiritually disconnected from our people’s homeland.
We must choose to fully live in each moment. Life is not always easy. Holding onto our separate identity as Jews can be difficult. Yet, ultimately, it is the most soul-nourishing gift we can give to ourselves and to our children.
Back to the Torah: blessing our children
Let’s return to the first sentence from our Torah portion.
Jacob lived 17 years in Egypt. The Midrash points out that he lived in Egypt for as long as Joseph lived with his family before being sold into slavery by his brothers. Before he dies, Jacob blesses his male offspring. He begins by blessing the children of Joseph. Jacob provides a larger blessing to the younger child, Ephraim, than he does to the older child, Menasheh. And it is from his words that the practice began to bless Jewish children at the beginning of Shabbat. Traditionally, we tell our boys “may God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” We tell our girls, “may God make you like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” What does it mean to bless our children?
That was the first question I was asked when I started rabbinical school. In truth, I dropped the class. I realized I could not wrestle with questions about Jewish practice until I started being more diligent in doing Jewish. So, I started to bless my children on Friday nights.
First, we light Shabbat candles. Then, we bless our children. After invoking our ancestors, Ephraim and Menasheh, we chant the priestly blessing. Next, we sing Shalom Aleichem, to welcome angels into our Shabbat experience. We conclude the sanctification of Shabbat with the Kiddush that Cantor Orly chanted for us this evening.
Blessing other people is an act of faith
Blessing other people is an act of faith. It is our opportunity to humbly open ourselves up to the unknown. For me, it is an opportunity to invite God into our lives. We pray that each of our children are able to truly live into the deepest part of themselves and to become who they are meant to be. I am not literally asking my kids to become the leaders of tribes, with my younger son outshining my older son. Rather, I am hoping that they will live into their Jewish souls and become the fullest version of themselves.
Our weekly blessing is a reminder that each child is a vessel of holy light. The souls we are blessed to know are shadows of the Divine. This is what it means to believe that we are all B’tzelem Elohim, we are all made in the image of God.
Embrace how we each reflect the Divine
Welcoming Shabbat is not just a time to bless children. It is also a time to kvell about all of our family members. This is why a traditional prayer book includes the Eshet Chayil passage from Proverbs 31 as part of the Friday night at-home rituals. Eshet Chayil means “a woman of strength.” We are proud of how strong our family members are. We appreciate the unique gifts each member of our community brings to this world. The ability to make a living matters. Friendships matter. Our dedication to our community matters. Each of us matters in the deepest sense of the word. We are each shadows of the Divine. We each have the opportunity to bring light into the world and to truly live. May we each embrace our journey and allow ourselves the opportunity to sink into our deepest selves.
he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them,
וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל
bowing to the ground.
The first sentence includes the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter proper name of God. Rather than writing out that holy Hebrew word, I replaced it with a ה״, indicating “HaShem” — “The Name” is the way this word is referred to when not praying or formally studying holy scripture. When praying or studying, Jews do not pronounce this name and replace it with the word “A’donai,” which is usually translated as “The LORD,” though it actually means “my Lord.” The word A’donai is often used as a name of God, even written in the Hebrew text using the letters of that word (as in the formula for a Jewish prayer). It can also be used to refer to human rulers. As my Hebrew professor, Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, is fond of reminding us: context matters.
Recognizing the Presence of God
When we choose to see what is around us and within us, we have the opportunity to bring holiness into the world. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather, felt the presence of God. He paused from his busy day to connect with God. The content of that conversation is not provided — instead, we swiftly move to Avraham interrupting that holy moment in order to greet strangers approaching his tent.
Getting wrapped up in myself
These two simple lines have torn me open in the last week, as I have wrestled with the implicit expectation within them. Perhaps, like me, you have heard that Judaism prioritizes welcoming the stranger. Yet, can you imagine interrupting your prayers in order to offer a stranger food and drink? When you are in the flow of creation, or in a rhythm at work — are you able to graciously stop yourself and joyfully welcome an interruption?
For much of my life, I prioritized becoming “the best me” I could be. I relentlessly pursued knowledge. I wanted to completely understand the world of work. So, when working as a secretary for a magazine, I religiously read Ad Age magazine. Then, when Twitter came along, I drank in the fire hose of information pouring through that medium.
I walled myself off from other people. Never intentionally. I listened to podcasts while walking with my kids. I read a book while waiting for a class to begin. These simple actions, which were full of good intentions, left me separated from the people surrounding me. Our current time of relative isolation woke me up to the ways in which I was already separated from the physical world.
Making space for God in the age of smartphones
So I choose to follow Avraham Avinu’s example. Whatever I am doing, it can wait. Choosing to be fully present to the people around me, deepens me. Experiencing a six year-old’s inner logic is a truly enlightening experience. You might notice that prayer is not my husband’s jam. Whereas, I’m happiest spending a full day, or a full week, immersed in prayer and study. Living into the beauty of traveling through life deeply connected to people unlike yourself can be soul-expanding. In addition to reflecting on Vayeira, I’ve been pondering how fast the last decade went by. Tomorrow is my tenth anniversary and yesterday was my son’s sixth birthday.
What does “God” mean?
I started by chanting the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Most of the time, Jewish sources claim that there are many barriers between human experience and God. This portion begins by declaring that God, using God’s unspeakable proper name, appeared before Avraham. Do you think God was more fully present in the world during the Bronze Age than today? Do we have the ability to sense God’s presence? Looking down at our phones, is it possible to sense spiritual shifts?
Define God to make religious experience possible
For a long time, these questions never occurred to me. Stories of our forefathers did not pierce my consciousness. The Bible felt unrelated to modern life. I avoided Jewish religious practice because I was certain that I did not believe in the judgmental God of the Bible.
Until adulthood, I did not know there are a multitude of ways to describe God from a Jewish perspective.
No single set of beliefs in Judaism
Jewish understandings of the world and God changed over time. Our civilizations were influenced by the people around us. Our intellectuals constantly communicated with Christian and Muslim scholars. Since Judaism began before the Christian idea of “religion,” we are not tied to a single set of beliefs. Instead, our culture defines us. What we do distinguishes us from other people.
Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to be an agnostic Jew. Or even an atheist Jew. My goal is not to convince you to believe like me. Rather, I hope that together we can make space for questions and disagreement.
For me, I am constantly seeking more precise ways to understand God. Yes, I want a definition of what I believe. I also need a coherent set of descriptions of God in order to sink into prayer. God is likely to be spoken about in every Jewish prayer service. So what does all the God language in prayers mean? And how does the God in prayers relate to my lived experience?
Describing God allows us to sink in prayer
Let’s try to define God. Do you see God as directly responding to prayers?
Do you think our spiritual energy can help heal the people around us and the souls within us?
Does prayer help you connect with God?
What does the formula of Jewish prayers mean to you?
Our prayer formula begins:
בָּרוּךְ אָתָּה ה״ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם
“Baruch atah A’donai, E’loheinu melech ha’olam”
Traditionally, this is translated as: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe.”
Those same Hebrew words can be understood as: “Source of Blessing are You, Ground of Being; Our God, Sovereign of spiritual reality.”
When we make space for alternative English translations of well-known Hebrew phrases, we open ourselves up to the worlds contained within each word. May we each find a word or phrase to meditate into this week, so that we can recognize when the Divine is appearing in our lives.
Several people at Temple Beth David let me know that my weekly d’var Torah does not have to follow the weekly Torah portion. I deeply appreciate the latitude this provides. On the other hand, the portion can be such a rich jumping off point for an important aspect of Judaism. Personally, there is nothing more important than sinking into the first lines of Parashat Lech L’cha. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 and 2 are a synopsis of how I view Judaism.
This week, we step forward from understanding the purpose of humanity into understanding the purpose of the Jewish people. We begin with God’s call to Avram, the man who will become Avraham.
The first two verses of chapter 12, the beginning of our Torah portion read as follows:
We could speak for hours just on these two verses. Let us begin to unwrap this origin story by recognizing the emphasis placed on moving forward. Avram is told “lech l’cha,” which could be translated as “Go to yourself” or “Surely you shall go” or, as JPS states, “Go forth.” The first significant words in this portion are a command to begin a journey.
Perhaps, like Avraham, you have completely changed your surroundings during your life. Maybe where you’re living now is nowhere near where you were born and raised. Or perhaps you’ve taken a spiritual journey and have arrived at a completely new understanding of God. Maybe you’ve been on an emotional journey and have better insight into who you are and why you’re here. As Avraham teaches us, being willing to put aside all that you know and all that makes you comfortable is the first step towards a more expansive way of being. Going on that journey — making your ego smaller, while sinking into your deepest self — can be a way to be a blessing to the world.
Let us also remember that this command to go, lech, is intricately connected to halacha. They share the same shoresh, which means that the same three-letter root connects the verb with the noun. Halacha means “the way.” Lech is the command form of the word “go (on foot), walk, depart.” So, while we have come to understand halacha as an impenetrable set of behavioral rules, its origin is as an attempt to create a Jewish way of being. In fact, for centuries halacha was not codified in a book, or described with certainty. Variations have always existed between communities. This is why so many progressive Jewish teachers consider themselves halachic Jews — they are not willing to cede the term to a particular sect of the Jewish people.
As modern seekers of community and meaning, we have the opportunity to forge our own way into the depths of the Jewish tradition. We can choose to hear the call of the Divine, to walk in the path of Avraham — to go away from what we know in order to become who we are meant to be. Avraham modeled kindness. Our next portion will begin with Avraham leaving a conversation with God in order to welcome strangers into his home.
In this portion, several people are named by God. First, He names Hagar’s son, Ishmael. That name, Ishmael, means “God listens.” The Hebrew Bible recognizes that it was not right for Hagar and Ishmael to be treated poorly. The name is given when Hagar runs away from the camp after Sarai speaks badly about her. When God appears and names her son, she is convinced to return to the camp. Later, God says to Avram, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.” This is when God makes a particular covenant for Jews. He renames Avram as Avraham. The extra “hey” is a form of God’s name, to signify that God is always with Avraham. God instructs Avraham to circumcise himself, Ishmael, and all of the males in the tribe as a physical sign of the covenant. While giving the instructions, God renames Sarai, adding a “hey” to her name as well, and she becomes Sarah.
Here in this portion is the pure description of why I choose Judaism. It is not because it is better than other ways of living. For me, Judaism is a coherent way of approaching life: as a member of a community dedicated to walking a path of goodness and truth. I am responsible for greeting people with kindness, even if they are interrupting me. It is up to me to become a blessing for my family and my community. And it is up to me to honor my foremother and live fully into my soul’s name. My name is Sarah bat Fayge Rivka v’Moshe, and like Sarah, my goal is to help the Jewish people walk the path of goodness and be a blessing to the world.
So much Jewish wisdom traces back to this portion, at a deeper level than the simple story of the flood. Before we get there, a reminder: I don’t read the Hebrew Bible as history. The events described did not need to take place for me to describe the Bible as holy and worthy of my attention. As Dr. Martin Sweeney points out, at least three other well-documented flood myths arose in Mesopotamia. I imagine a catastrophic flood wiped out many communities and myths were created to make sense of the situation. This correlates with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. Regardless of why this story exists, how can it help us live lives of deeper meaning?
An ark to save us
Noah builds an ark, teivah תֵּבָה, in Hebrew. This ark provides physical safety for Noah’s family and all of the animals who survived the flood.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, a central figure in the popularization of Jewish spirituality, reminds us that the Hebrew word for ark also means word. His meditation on this portion brings forward the worlds contained within each word we read, we speak, and we think. In the larger tradition of Torah portion commentary associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, an entire separate book is built into the Noah section. Here is a taste of how he connects the ark with spiritual salvation:
Enter the ark! The Hebrew word for ark–teivah–also means a word. If we are beset with a flood of mundane concerns, we must enter the sacred words, so that when we pray, we enter within and attach ourselves to the very letters of our prayers. When we study, we must enter within and attach ourselves to the sacred letters of the Torah.
Judaism often gets a bad rap for the particularism of our prayers. Traditionally, Jewish wisdom centered on the unique place of Jews in the meaning of the world. Let’s remember history — it was quite difficult to be Jewish. From the Romans destroying our homeland and renaming it Palestine, to Christian mobs murdering us en masse during their Crusades, to our legal second-class status throughout Christian Europe and Islamic caliphates, our leaders needed to assure us that despite the difficulty of remaining Jewish, it was extremely important to remain within the tribe.
Simultaneous with our wholehearted belief in the relationship between the Jewish people and the Divine, we have also recognized righteousness among other peoples. Early in rabbinic Judaism, we understood righteous gentiles. By observing the “Seven Noahide Commandments,” a non-Jewish person obtains righteousness and a place in the world-to-come.
The Talmud expands on the words in the Torah portion Noah.
The descendants of Noah, i.e., all of humanity, were commanded to observe seven mitzvot:
The commandment to establish courts of judgment;
Prohibition against blessing, i.e., cursing, the name of God;
The prohibition of idol worship;
Prohibition against forbidden sexual relations;
The prohibition of bloodshed;
Prohibition of robbery;
The prohibition against eating a limb from a living animal.
Please remember: Judaism sees a unique need for Jews in the world. And we recognize and lift up the righteousness of non-Jews. This is why the Noahide commandments became short-hand for describing righteous gentiles.
Choosing an ark of words
What words should we cling to? Personally, I am working towards separating myself from my social media addiction. I choose to live into deep thinking. My goal: allowing space for reading books rather than posts.
Additionally, I recognize that my words can form an ark of salvation or a battering ram of destruction.
My tone of voice matters.
Will my sharp wit respond to factually inaccurate beliefs?