Parashat Ki Teitzei Torah Reading: D'varim/ Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
Week after week, month after month, year after year, we return to the text of the Torah . . . the gift from God that our liturgy tells us is an expression of God's love for us. Among the many blessings this gift brings us is a treasure trove of values, helping us to prioritize our lives.
Just such a value is accessible to us in this week's parashah / Torah Portion. The people of Israel are, in the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy, being prepared for their entry into the land of Israel. In this context, the people are presented with a list of contingencies which provide military exemptions for those of age and ability to serve. The young man who is married for less than a year and/or has yet to build a home for his family is exempt from military service.
The message for us, living in a country where there is no compulsory military service? That family is important. Really important. Establishing and providing for your family in fact trumps other obligations.
Author Jessica Gribetz, in her rich sourcebook: Wise Words: Jewish Thoughts and Stories Through the Ages, outlines for us the essence of family for our people:
The family forms and defines us. Within its borders, our principles, ethics, self-worth and aspirations blossom or wither. Parents seek to replicate or refashion their own upbringing, hoping only for the best. But the best differs for each of us. I have only to look at my four girls, each with her own singular beauty, talents, and traits, to know that there is no one way to love and nurture. Our home is a hothouse and each flower has its needs. . . . Our biblical forefathers are presented to us, warts and all--because the message is not to deny human nature but to overcome its darker side.
Yes, one can make a case for the dysfunctionality of the families of Genesis an Exodus: parents showing favoritism for children (Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob) or being ready to sacrifice a child as an act of allegiance to an unseen God (Abraham), or simply a remote and uninvolved parent (Moses). Perhaps these glimpses into the imperfect family lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs have been preserved in order to provide us with role models who are as real and human as we are. In order to encourage us to overcome the darker side of our characters and to strive to provide for our families an environment in which each member of the family can thrive.
This imagery of family . . . of the context in which each individual can grow and follow his or her own path, in which love and nurturing are available in many different ways, is also my vision of community. This is my vision for our Torat Yisrael family.
Parashat Re'eh Torah Reading: D'varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
This week's Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar: "Three times a year--on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesah), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)--all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you."
I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Brad Artson, for the lovely insight that these verses teach us that celebration means giving and sharing as well as receiving. Rabbi Artson cites the Talmud that the gift one brings to God should be: "(Gittin 59a), "in accordance with one's own acumen." In other words, there is not one standardized gift that is acceptable to God when we come to celebrate the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot . . . or, indeed, any time we come together to pray, celebrate or learn. But rather the gift of spirit, devotion and engagement that we bring must be uniquely meaningful to each of us whatever our "acumen," whatever our level of Hebrew, of knowledge, or commitment.
I feel that there is another exceptional element to the gifts we bring to God when we gather before God not empty-handed: I have very vivid memories of my parents handing me a few coins to bring to Sunday School for me to donate to "Keren Ami," a fund for the very young state of Israel. The gift I brought was actually given to me from others, from my parents, with the understanding that I would, in turn, give that gift to others.
The dynamic of the gifts we bring to God is a bit different . . . for the gifts we offer God at the time of our celebrations with God are the gifts that God blessed us with in the first place! Our spirits, our families and friends, our community . . . these are all our blessings. And it is in community, sitting with family and friends, opening our hearts to God that we give share with God the joy of our Festivals and the peace of our Sabbaths.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.