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Topic: Shmita

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Shemini: Respecting the Sanctity of Life, by Rabbi Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld

Back in my teen years, at our pre-Prom gathering at my friend’s house, I didn’t eat any of the shrimp cocktail that she had put out for us to eat. She praised my self-discipline. To me, though, this seemed natural as it was an essential part of our religious tradition.  One thing that defines us as Jews is the requirement to give thought to what we put in our mouths. This act of restricting our eating can help us work towards creating a world where we show respect for the sanctity of life helping create an ideal expressed in the Torah.  Originally, the Torah’s ideal was for us to be vegetarians. In the creation story, humans are only allowed to eat fruits and vegetables: “God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29) The Torah later compromises by allowing us to eat meat. As imperfect beings who also need protein, God permits us to have meat. Yet, since eating requires the act of taking another’s life, restrictions are put upon what animals we are allowed to eat.  Our parsha, […]

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Tzav: Hiddur Mitzvah – Are My Hands Clean? by Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem

We named our daughter Hadar.  She was born on Shabbat of parashat Tzav which contains a small and precious passage detailing the garments with which Moshe adorns Aharon for his service at the Temple.  The name Hadar shares a root with the word hiddur – beautification. In naming her Hadar we were invoking a blessing that she, like the women who spun, dyed and wove those sacred vestments, be forever engaged in the work of bringing beauty into the world. Furthermore, we were invoking the sensibility within Hadar, and within our family, of hiddur mitzvah – the beautification of a mitzvah (commandment). This concept of beautifying a mitzvah traditionally refers to the objects of ritual practice, to the sacred objects through which we choreograph our Judaism—a sukkah, a lulav, a tallit, parchment, ink, quill, a mezzuzah, a chuppah etc. In my practice as both a studio and socially engaged conceptual artist, I am consistently examining and redefining the meaning of hiddur mitzvah. Over 25 years ago when my return to an engaged Jewish life was taking shape through artmaking and my studies at the intersection of Judaism and ecology, I was introduced to the song, Are My Hands Clean? by […]

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Vayikra: Call Them In, by Rabbi Gila Caine

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ “And He called to Moshe and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying….” (Lev. 1:1) Why first call and then speak? Why not go right to speaking? Talmud suggests that in this, the Torah was trying to teach us etiquette, that a person should not say anything to another person before calling him first (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 4b). But why is this good etiquette and what can we learn here as we work to promote a Shmita conscious and Earth focused culture? Moshe is called to speak within the Tent of Meeting, a place built by the community in a bid to create a sacred center for themselves. Incidentally, that place is also representative of Creation itself, and by taking care of their sacred Center, Am-Israel is also taking care of the world. But that’s for another time. For now, it is important to notice that when Adonai wants to speak to Moshe, God first calls to him and by doing so is teaching us an important lesson in bringing people into the causes and places we deem important. We can’t assume people hear us. And even when they hear us, […]

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Vayakel-Pekudei: Work on Your Connection by Eli Weinbach

Rest requires work. Without putting in the prep time, we may find that a day off is spent thinking about what has yet to be done. Without planning, vacation may not be much more exciting than staying home. Extended conversation with friends about where to go for dinner cuts into dinner time if plans aren’t made ahead of time. When hosting a guest, we make sure their stay is easy, but that ease is the result of extra work. Vayakhel and Pekudei are accounts of work done by the Israelites to ensure that God would have a resting place in their midst. Moses gives many instructions, and Betzalel the architect orchestrates production with his assistant Ohaliab. The population is galvanized to contribute either their materials or time. In the final chapter of Exodus, the monumental work is finished. The nation watches with baited breath, and their hard work is rewarded. The Shechina descends upon the newly built Mishkan (Exodus 40:35), and divine respite in the physical realm is achieved. All that planning and work seems like so little when the payoff arrives. An immanent God! The Most Holy, right in the middle of the camp! And all that had to […]

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Ki Tisa: Believe in Equality and Leave the REST to G-d by Dvir Cahana

The story beats of Parshat Ki Tisa teach us two Shmita-esque concepts. The Parsha begins with the democratized call to cooperatively erect the Mishkan, where each individual was commanded to evenly contribute a half-shekel to the project. The purpose of this census, says the commentator Chizkuni, is to atone for the sin of the golden calf, found only a chapter away in this very Parsha. Examining these nation-wide aggregations of funds to build something to worship — seen in both the establishment of the Mishkan and the sin of the golden calf — will reveal their shared relationships to Shmita. Shmita conjures up the importance of rethinking ownership. It is easy to get swept away and lose sight of our humanity when each individual places the expansion of their grasp on material culture above all else. Capitalist forces have rooted the “worship of possession” so vigorously in our collective psyche that it is almost unfathomable to institutionalize a national Tzimtzum (constriction). The lesson found in the Machazit Hashekel, the half-shekel collection, is that it undermines of the value of possession. By forbidding anyone from contributing more than anybody else, the holiness of the Mishkan gets spread evenly throughout the camp. […]

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Purim: Truths Revealed Over The Past Year by Melissa Hoffman

Many of us anticipated this Purim as the approximate year-marker since our lives changed unimaginably. There’s something apt about the holiday that highlights the topsy-turvy nature of life bookending the beginning — and hopefully the beginning of the end — of the coronavirus in the United States.  Purim represents a time of finding happiness and hopefulness amidst great existential uncertainty. It’s also about hidden truths being revealed to us. In the early months of the pandemic, many of us found joy, paradoxically, in hearing tales and seeing images of rejuvenation and rebirth occurring in nature due to the sharp drop in our own activity. With humans in temporary retreat, wildlife proliferated in formerly abandoned habitats and even occupied urban spaces. As motorway traffic plummeted, a dramatic decline in carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions allowed all life to breathe more easily again. We got a glimpse of what it would look like to give the land a long-deserved Shabbat, a respite from our anthropocentric reign. Maybe we caught a glimpse of the truth that’s been drowned out by the busy-ness of our typical, frenetic day-to-day: that slowing down is a good look for the world.  A key lesson we can […]

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Terumah: Good Neighbors by Judry Subar

Breathlessly, the first third of the Torah runs through stories of creation, accounts of love and rupture in the pre-Israelite and Israelite family, reports of slavery experienced and slavery escaped, and rules governing all sorts of circumstances.  Over the course of this telling, the Torah builds theological, emotional, moral, and legal superstructures.  But then in parshat Terumah, the race to tell a human, and then national, story takes a pause.  The biblical focus turns to an infrastructure project, the building of a tabernacle as a location for divine rest. Notwithstanding the contrast between the frenetic energy of earlier biblical narratives and the calm epitomized by the idea of a holy sanctuary, two phrases appearing early in Terumah make clear that divine rest is hardly passive.  An opening passage in the parsha (Exodus 25:2) calls for donations for the construction project “מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ – me’eyt kol ish asher yidveynu libo – from every person whose heart so moves him.”  The Chatam Sofer reads this verse about a rest-evoking structure as linking heartfelt human gift-giving with God’s grant of the world to humankind, as if to suggest that God expends effort to provide us with a restful world and […]

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Mishpatim: We All Live Downstream by Adriane Leveen

“We all live downstream.” Those words, spoken by a member of a first nation community in the haunting film, The Condor and the Eagle, capture a simple truth we are too ready to forget. None of us will escape the consequences of the climate crisis. But some of us have already borne far more than their share of its tragic consequences, including severe illness and death. The film focuses on Indigenous peoples from Northern Alberta to the forests of Ecuador. Unforgettable activists bear witness to unequally borne and horrifying environmental injustice. The verses in Mishpatim strengthen a resolve to heed their call and stand in solidarity with our Indigenous neighbors. “And you shall not maltreat (תוֹנֶ֖ה – to’neh) nor oppress (תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ – til’chatzeh’nu) the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. All widows and orphans you shall not afflict. If you do afflict them so that they yell out to me I will surely hear their cries.” Exodus 22:20-22 (author’s translation) Meaning often emerges from a closer look at language. Two words in verse 20 are found elsewhere in the Torah, illustrating its persistent demand to protect and dignify others, a demand that extends to a commitment to […]

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Yitro: The Operating Manual by Deirdre Gabbay

Parshat Yitro, in the book of Exodus, contains the beginning of the story of the Revelation at Sinai. The story of Revelation begins here, but the telling unfolds in a complex, layered piece of narrative origami. The halakhic midrash of one second century commentator adds an additional fold, and centers the promise of Shmita in the telling of the courtship between G-d and Israel. The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael’s commentary on Parshat Yitro suggests that the wedding ceremony between G-d and Israel, if you will, took place the day before the Revelation; that it was on the Fifth Day of Sivan that Moses read from the book of the covenant to the children of Israel, and they responded in enthusiastic unison, “Kol asher diber Adonai na-aseh v’nishma!” as a form of “I Do!” This text suggests further that Moses read a specific section of the law to us, drawing forth this spirited assent. The midrash tells us that Moses starts his reading with Leviticus 25:1-3: “And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying … then the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years shall you sow your field, etc.”, sabbatical years, Jubilee years, blessings and curses. What is […]

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Beshalach: Redemption Song by Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein

It is Friday evening and the sun is just about the set. The synagogue is filled with a psalm and song-filled greeting for Her Majesty, the Shabbat Queen. After six long days of toiling, working, and serving,  we have finally come to Shabbat, the day of rest. People of all ages can be seen humming and moving to the beat, circling and dancing, eyes closed and wide open. They sing: “Az Yaranenu Kol Atzay Ya’ar – then all the trees of the forest will sing out (Psalm 96).” The 5th century rabbinic text Vayikra Rabbah (30:4) quotes Rabbi Acha who said: When King David sang the words “Then all the trees in the forest will sing,” he was talking about the days of redemption, when all barren trees that didn’t bear fruit will come to produce and receive what they need. This teaching not only speaks to the current month of Shvat, which celebrates the New Year of the (fruit) trees, but also to any generation longing to split seas, see the unmasked pharaohs of their time washed away, and address the many inequities facing our humanity.  The Israelite slave-uprising and rebellion reaches its climax, rising out of four-hundred years of […]

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Bo: Hyssop – The Paintbrush of Liberation, by Rabbi David Seidenberg

In parshat Bo, the destroying angel passes over the houses of the Israelites — in Hebrew “pasach al hapetach” — sparing their firstborn, and giving the Passover holiday its name in Hebrew and English. But the angel only “knows” who is in which house because it sees the sheep’s blood smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the entryway. In Exodus 12:22, Moses tells the Israelites that the way to apply the blood is by using an “agudat eizov” – a bunch of hyssop, which could be dipped into the blood like a paintbrush. Varieties of hyssop grow everywhere in the Middle East naturally, which is why hyssop is described in 1 Kings 5:13 as being rooted “in the wall.” The Psalms also describe hyssop as something that purifies (Psalms 51:9), and hyssop was used for that purpose in three rituals: sprinkling blood on a person or house cured from “tsara’at” (leprosy, Lev. 14:4-6, 14:49-51), preparing the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:6), and sprinkling those ashes mixed with “living water” on a person who had come in contact with a dead body (Num. 19:18). All these rituals helped a person transition from a state of impurity into a […]

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Vaera: Our Plagues and Our Plans by Ann Hait and Rabbi Gabe Greenberg

In Parshat Vaera, the action revolves around God’s command, through Moses, that Pharoah free the enslaved Israelites. Pharaoh’s hard-headedness and selfishness preclude him from doing so immediately, and in response, God sends a series of plagues to Egypt. Dam, tzfarde’a, kinim… In the last year, we’ve experienced our own, very real, plague. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our world, and to date has taken the lives of almost two million people worldwide. This plague has forced us to radically alter our day-to-day lives: it has limited our activities, limited our movement, and caused us to stay at home to a much larger degree. One result of our newfound immobility, interestingly, has been the degree to which we’ve been lessening our impact on the world. Just as the biblical plagues provided brief windows of enlightenment for Pharaoh, we have witnessed how the reduction in human activity over the course of this pandemic has positively impacted the environment and revitalized the Earth. Researchers from the American Geophysical Union noted at their fall meeting that “Deforestation rates are changing in some places, air pollution is diminishing and water quality is improving…in some areas since the pandemic began earlier this year.” […]

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Shemot: Talking with God by SooJi Min-Maranda

This week’s parsha, Shemot, is the same Torah portion that I read from the bima at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, MI, thirteen-and-a-half years after officially claiming Judaism as an adult b’nai mitzvah. What a wonderful opportunity to be able to turn and return to this portion again now, 7 years later. And what an auspicious number – seven years — as we enter a Shmita year beginning Rosh Hashana 2021. In my dvar back then, I spoke about Moses, who has just received God’s call. He is no doubt struck with awe and fear, but after a series of objections Moses accepts God’s mission to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. One of the things that struck me at the time was the casual nature of the conversation Moses has with God. “Vayomer Moshe el haElohim — Moses said to God.” God is referred to as Elohim — the basic name for God. The casualness of the God’s name showed me that there is no right or wrong way to talk to God. I don’t have to wait for a sign that God is ready to listen. I don’t have to wait for a sign that I […]

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Vayechi: Brotherly Love by Eli Weinbach

This week, Jacob, like his father before him, sets out to bless his progeny. The first to receive his blessings are Joseph’s sons, the brothers Ephraim and Menashe. Those who have been following since Bereshit will know that being a brother in the main story of the parsha is a fraught position. This lineage is riddled with kin-strife – Cain and Abel, Shem and Ham, Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There is a family history of choosing one son and abandoning the other. Jacob, still not fully recovered from the fallout of his own sons’ conflict, is determined to heal this intergenerational trauma. What is his advice to Joseph?  “אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי – Ephraim and Menashe will be for me as Reuben and Shmion.” (Genesis 48:5) Jacob is telling Joseph that the way forward is for brothers to be brothers. Siblings ought to love each other, not to vie for blessings or paternal adoration. Ephraim and Menashe will be like Reuben and Shmion, not like Joseph and his brothers or Jacob and Esau.  In the laws of Shmita set out in Leviticus, we are told:  “אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ […]

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Vayigash: We Need Emotional Shmita Now by Rabbi Shoshana Friedman

Deep into the Joseph story, we come to a moment that catches my breath and makes me tear up every year. Joseph, sold to slavery long ago, stands now as the viceroy of Egypt. He has designed a system of rations that saves Egypt from famine and consolidates the Pharaoh’s power. Meanwhile, his birth family is starving in Canaan, and his brothers go down to Egypt to plead for rations. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they – begging for food, and seeing a uniformed Egyptian officer before them speaking a foreign language – do not see Joseph for who he is. Joseph sets before them a series of tests. Then, after an impassioned speech from Judah, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. But first we read the line: “V’lo yuchal Yosef l’hitapek l’chol hanitzavim alav…” Joseph could no longer contain himself in front of all who stood before him (Genesis 45:1). It is the word לְהִתְאַפֵּק/l’hitapek, the root א.פ.ק/aleph.peh.kuf which arrests my attention year after year. It means to compel oneself, to restrain oneself, to hold oneself back. When Joseph can no longer do it, when he can’t contain himself anymore and finally makes himself known to his brothers, “his sobs […]

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