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Topic: Shmita

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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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Miketz: Run Wild by Judry Subar

In the beginning, the world was a wild and chaotic place.  While the arc of the Genesis narrative bends relentlessly toward the taming of the chaos, progress is slow.  As the human species settles in for the long haul, its members commit all sorts of mischief.  From Cain’s fratricide to the Babel builders’ inability to deal with diversity to Simon’s and Levi’s attempt to take the law into their own hands, we observe considerable instability. When we get to Parashat Miketz, we see a pivot to a more sedate reality.  Pharaoh has a dream whose key symbols epitomize domesticated farming and ranching: cows and sheaves of grain.  Joseph organizes a welfare-state bureaucracy that meets the people’s needs.  At the end of Miketz, as Joseph and his estranged brothers edge closer to recognizing difficult truths about each other, the Egyptians and Jacob’s sons exhibit the careful etiquette that marks a society as orderly.  It’s as if all the Torah’s characters finally personify a well-ordered ideal as they follow God’s decree (Genesis 1:28) that humans should master the Earth. But Egypt’s leaders later go too far.  They use their highly structured society to abuse its weakest members, reinforcing class divisions by enslaving […]

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Vayeshev: Entitlement and Creation by Hannah Elovitz

Our story returns to tell us, “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Gen. 37:1, JPS translation). Jacob’s father and grandfather had only ever been outsiders in the land in which Jacob now shepherds his flocks along with his family. Perhaps it is no wonder that Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, starts to feel a little too comfortable there. The two dreams that Joseph famously dreams, and subsequently decides to share with his 11 brothers, both feature elements of nature bowing down to him: in the first, 11 sheaves of wheat bow down to his; in the second, the sun, moon, and 11 stars bow down to him. Unsurprisingly, his brothers are furious, and so begins the tragic event sequence that later leaves Joseph in Egyptian jail.  At least subconsciously, Joseph expected everyone and everything to bow to his will. This cautionary tale highlights the dangers of land ownership, or ownership of any material possessions. Though we may have monetarily acquired the rights to a piece of land or a car or a sheaf of wheat, they are still ultimately on loan to us. Land is not ours to rule over, but […]

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Vayishlach: Rename and Renew by Rabbi Joshua Ratner

2020 has been a year of unbelievable struggle. Between the devastating impact of Covid-19, the profound struggle for racial equality that erupted in nation-wide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the hyper-partisan election campaign that tore apart so many, 2020 is a year many of us can’t wait to finish. But I was recently reminded in this article that, even with the approval of the new Covid-19 vaccines, January 2021 will not be a panacea; any societal return to “normalcy” will not begin until well into the fall of 2021. How, then, should we continue to grapple with this interminable hardship? Does our tradition offer us tools and resources to bolster us emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually as we continue to traverse this brutal terrain? I believe one such resource can be found in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayishlach. This parashah focuses mainly on the rich narrative of Jacob’s reconciliation with his estranged brother Esau but also includes the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. After an exhaustive stalemate, the angel blesses Jacob in Genesis 32:29 with a new name, declaring: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with […]

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Vayetze: The Meaning of Seven by Aharon Ariel Lavi

Shmita is the seventh year, following six regular years — and numbers in the Torah are not incidental, but rather a channel for meaningful ideas. The first, and most renowned, appearance of the number seven is obviously the seven days of creation. Later, Noah invites seven couples of the pure animals to come to the ark, exactly seven days before the flood (Genesis 7:2-4); the ark rests on the seventeenth day of the seventh month (Genesis 8:4); Avraham forges an alliance with Avimelech by giving him seven female lambs and calling his well “Be’er Sheva” (literally: “well of seven”, Genesis 21:28-32); his son Yitzhak reaffirms the alliance in Be’er Sheva as well.  “I will work for you seven years for Rachel” says Ya’akov to Lavan, his uncle, in our parsha (Genesis 29:18). He is then deceived into marrying Leah, Rachel’s sister, and only gets to marry Rachel in exchange for an additional seven years of labor. Later, Rachel appears to be infertile, while her sister Leah gives birth to no less than six sons in a row, followed by a seventh — and final — daughter (Genesis 30:21). Only then does her younger sister become fertile.  In both cases — […]

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Toldot: What Will We Eat in the Seventh Year? Shmita, Lack, and Abundance by Justin Goldstein

While the language may be a product of recent decades, the dichotomy between an “abundance mentality” and a “lack mentality” is a core human experience. The basic principles of these two concepts reflect a question of perspective; one who embodies an “abundance mentality” sees opportunities even in life’s challenges, whereas one who embodies a “lack mentality” concentrates on the fear of not having. Even as these ideas have gained traction in recent years, we see this tension reflected in the Torah. The Torah preempts the human fear of a lack of food – “What will we eat in the seventh year?” (Lev. 25:20) and the Torah sets out a reassurance that God will provide a three-fold crop in the sixth year. Is this a miracle, or something more nuanced? In Parashat Toldot, near the conclusion of the well-known vignette wherein Isaac, in his blindness, gives a blessing intended for his eldest son, Esau, to Jacob, his younger son in disguise. Isaac blesses his son (Gen. 27:28): “May God give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fats of the earth; and an abundance of grain and fresh wine.” In his commentary on this verse, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe […]

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Chayei Sarah: What does it mean to “own” land – and why is it important? by Nigel Savage

In my twenties I bought my first apartment in London. My parents lent me £5,000 for the deposit, and I got a mortgage for the rest. It was a 2-bedroomed apartment in Golders Green. I do no disservice to my apartment if I say that it was…. a pretty ordinary apartment. Yet I clearly remember closing my front door, after my parents left to return to Manchester, and sitting down on a box – surrounded by boxes on all sides – and just being so happy. Why was that?  Well, the answer is, it was mine. But why did this make a difference? And – a different kind of question – should it have made a difference? The obverse of my feeling that day, of course, is the line attributed to Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary: “in all of human history, no-one ever washed a rental car…” Both vignettes tell the same story: ownership matters. It makes a difference. We treat things differently if we feel that they are “ours” in some sense.   And that is why, in this week’s parsha, Avraham goes out of his way – repeatedly – to buy the cave of Machepela, which is to […]

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Vayeirah: The Shaping of the Land by Eliezer Weinbach

Inherent in the concept of Shmita is an understanding that as much as we toil to shape the land, the land shapes us as well. How does it shape a person to raise children where their great-grandparents were raised? How does it impact a child to rest in the shade of a tree planted by their grandmother? How does it change a family to observe Shmita together, to support each other through a year with no harvest? What would it mean to observe many cycles of Shmita and to know from family experience that getting through each one is achievable with planning and cooperation?  The story of such a family would be filled with resilience, generosity, and trust. When we put our faith in the land, the land responds and instills in us an equal measure of faith. Last week, Abraham and Lot parted ways. Abraham gives Lot the choice of where to settle, and he chooses Sodom, in the lush valley of the Jordan, because it was “entirely watered.” It seemed to be a fertile land that would provide for him with little work. Sodom was a land where the people took without giving. They took from the land, […]

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Lech-Lecha: Environmental Refugees by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

This week’s parashah, Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) heralds the emergence of the Jewish people. The story is inaugurated by a call from God directing Abra[ha]m to uproot himself and his family, leave his homeland, his memories, his childhood, all he has known, to begin again in a place unknown.  Abram amazingly, faithfully, does so. With the divine promise of prosperity, Abram becomes a pilgrim to a new homeland. But the lines between pilgrim, wanderer and refugee quickly become blurred. Once Abraham reaches his destination, he has a difficult time finding a place to settle. He stops at Elon Moreh, but the Canaanites were there. He then moves to the east of Beth El. But he doesn’t stay there. He ups and wanders again, moving incessantly throughout the desert. Why? With God at his side, guiding his journey, why was Abram so unsettled?  Because he is a refugee. Like all those displaced by war, plague, drought, floods; those who seek a safe harbor from the trauma that forced them to leave and healing from the losses they have endured, Abram has trouble settling into a foreign land. Abram’s story is a reminder of how hard it is for the refugee, even […]

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Noah: In Search of Balance by Hannah Henza

The story of Noah is a tale that shows up in many ancient forms. But the lessons we learn from the various deluge narratives are more applicable today than perhaps ever before.  As the story opens, we are told that Noah remains singularly righteous as the rest of humanity falters. How is this possible? Just a short while ago we were being given the Garden “to tend and guard.” We were just beginning to explore the ways that humanity could spread across the land with divine blessing. So what should be done when human corruption rears its destructive head again? In this case, God provides clear instructions: Build an ark and take in the animals. This is similar to the instructions we are provided for Shmita: Prepare and gather extra produce ahead of time. As the Earth is subject to the largest reset ever imagined, Noah, his family, and God’s creation will be protected with the promise of a new world; a more righteous humanity. And yet, once they finally step out of the ark and make their new life we are immediately presented with more human failure – the Tower of Babel, an attempt by humans to build a […]

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Bereishit: The Sabbatical Paradigm by Jeremy Benstein

“And there was evening, and there was morning” (Gen. 1). Nature has rhythms. “Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night… ” (Gen. 8).  Human society too has rhythms. Or at least it did, once. Traditional societies, whether nomadic or agrarian, had their rhythms, tied to the natural ones. They depended on them, were sustained by them.  Genesis 1 tells of another rhythm: the 7-day ‘beat;’ what we call a week. In Hebrew, shavu’a, related to sheva’ – “seven.”  Or better: 6+1. Six units of work, one of rest. It must be a pretty good ratio, since it has lasted for thousands of years.  That, however, makes the “1” seem like an afterthought, a utilitarian pause to catch our breath before plunging back into the main attraction, work.  But that “1” is anything but an afterthought. It is Shabbat, the pinnacle of the week in Genesis 1. It is the cessation of creative intervention in the world in order to celebrate creation’s abundance, revel in it, share it, build our families and communities around it. We don’t rest in order to work; we work in order to be able to be worthy of Shabbat. In order […]

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Moving from the Real to the Ideal – Rabbi Dov Linzer

The Torah commands us in the laws of Shmita for the first time in Shemot 23:11: “And six years you shall sow thy land, and shall gather in the fruits thereof. But the seventh year you shall relinquish it; that the poor of your people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your oliveyard”. The Shmita year is one in which we cease our working of the land to recognize that all that we have is God’s. It is a year when the poor eat freely from the land and when all debts are released, a year of greater economic and social equality. The vision of Shmita is a utopian vision, but can it be translated into reality? The mitzvah to free one’s slaves presents a similar vision and a similar challenge. The very first in the long list of laws in Shemot states that any slave purchased must be freed following six years of servitude. This is the first law given to Bnei Israel – newly-freed slaves themselves – by God, who declared at the theophany at Mount Sinai that, “I am […]

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