Parashat Ki Tavo Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
What do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "mitzvah?"
In every day speech, it's not unusual to hear someone (Jewish) say "He did a real mitzvah?" or "Would you like to do a mitzvah?"
When we talk about "doing a mitzvah," we are talking about doing a good deed. Performing some act of kindness for someone else.
Now . . . what do you think of when you hear (or read) the word "commandment?"
You might think of the Ten Commandments: one God; no idols; Shabbat; honoring parents; no adultery, etc. It's also not unusual to think of commandment as the reason we do ritual things like pray, keep kosher, light Shabbat candles.
It is fascinating to me that these two terms "mitzvah" and "commandment" should evoke such different associations . . . because they are Hebrew and English translations of each other. A mitzvah is a commandment. A commandment is a mitzvah.
The opening verses of this week's parashah / Torah portion shows us exactly how "mitzvah" and "commandment" are, indeed, the same.
"When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before Adonay your God: 'I have cleared out the consecrated portion [that tenth of yield] from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments.... Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel....'"
The "mitzvah" of taking care of the vulnerable people in our society is the "commandment" to give a tenth of one's income to support the community [the Levite who had no land and therefore no income but who maintained the religious structures upon which everyone in the community depended] and the vulnerable [the stranger who was vulnerable because he or she had no communal ties and the widow and orphan who did not have the resources to maintain themselves].
The concept of mitzvah/commandment is an enriching one, for it puts into our hands the power to transform a myriad of actions into moments of "kedushah", moments of sanctity. A check to the Rhode Island Free Clinic, or Crossroads, or Amos House, or The Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry becomes a sacred act, a mitzvah. Paying your synagogue dues is analogous to supporting the Levite and is, thus, a sacred act. Putting others ahead of ourselves, sharing our resources, supporting the community that ties us together are all acts of kedushah, sacred acts.
May we stand together as God looks down from heaven, secure in our knowledge that we have done as God has commanded us and that we are deserving of God's blessing.
Parashat Ki Tetze Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Every Shabbat morning, two different texts are read: the parashah, the Torah portion taken from the first five books of the Torah (Breishit/Genesis through D'varim/Deuteronomy) and the haftarah, taken from the second section of the Hebrew bible, Nevi'im/Prophets.
This week, the haftarah is a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It concludes with these verses:
In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.
"To Me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
Since the very first moment of divine revelation, prophets, poets, and psalmists have attempted find adequate imagery to convey the quality of the relationship between God and us. It's an elusive goal, especially when you consider that we barely understand ourselves, never mind having much real knowledge of God!
In these few verses, we witness God struggling with overwhelming emotion: "In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment . . ." As we have succumbed to our own human weaknesses, a wave of anger and disappointment wash over our Creator . . . who then recovers, remembers, and promises: "my unfailing love for you will not be shaken."
A challenge to us lies behind these words: what have we done (or not done) that brings our Creator, who loves us eternally and compassionately, to the brink of such overwhelming emotion?
A consolation for us is offered to us in these words: no matter how outrageously we may behave, God will recover, will unfailingly love us, will stand by our eternal "brit shalom", our covenant of peace.
We may approach these coming Days of Awe with solemnity and humility . . . but there is no need for dread. Our God waits to embrace us, strengthen us and inspire us . . . and that's a promise.
Parashat Shoftim Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
The name of this week's parashah (Torah portion) is "Shoftim" which is Hebrew for "judges." The parashah opens with instructions and guidelines to those appointed as judges; issues like how many witnesses are required to secure a conviction, standards of judgment, recourse if a case should prove too difficult, and more.
Included in this passage is one verse that has taken on a life of its own for its power and inspirational vision:
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
"Justice, justice shall you pursue--in order that you will live and inherit the land which Adonay your God gives to you."
Most certainly the "p'shat," the surface meaning of this verse is majestic and uplifting. When read with the consciousness of the Divine Source of our Torah, we try to develop an eye for deeper layers of meaning. Over the millenia, rabbinic commentators have come to consensus on a number of methodologies for revealing these near-infinite layers of meaning.
One of these methods involves looking for unusual wording or apparently superfluous words in a verse. Take our verse, for instance. Would our understand of God's expectation of us to pursue justice be substantially altered if the verse read: "Justice shall you pursue. . ." instead of "Justice, justice shall you pursue . . ."?
Perhaps not. At which moment rabbinic ears perk up! Here's a marker designating a place to dig for deeper meaning! We've got the same word repeated for no apparent reason! Why?
We should be undaunting and thorough in our pursuit of justice.
We should make sure that justice is not reserved for one sector of society.
We should make sure that the pursuit of justice takes place on every level of human endeavor and by every one.
And, perhaps, the repetition of the word "justice" is meant to draw our attention to that word. So let's take a look:
צֶדֶק / tzedek
In Hebrew, words are formed around a three-letter root. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, plurals and etymologically and conceptually related words are formed through the manipulation of vowels and the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Other Hebrew words formed around this same three-letter root include:
צָדִיק / tzadik = a righteous person
צְדָקָה / tz'dakah = charity
I would suggest that the repetition of the word צֶדֶק / tzedek in our verse comes to direct us to the other words based on the same root. We are to understand that the pursuit of justice is a vision to be internalized by any person who strives to live righteously, to live by eternally uplifting, divine values.
Parashat Re'eh Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So we're going to have separate pots for foods with milk and foods with meat.
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So after we eat meat, we're going to wait three hours before we eat anything dairy.
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So we're going to wash our meat and dairy pots, dishes and utensils with separate sponges.
God said to Moshe: Oh, go do what you want!!
One of the three times in the Torah that the verse "You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk," appears in the Torah is in this week's parashah. Re'eh also contains a list of the criteria for determining whether an animal (split hooves and chews its cud) or sea creature (fins and scales) is kosher (proper) for consumption.
Ah, kashrut . . . the Jewish dietary laws. There is no element of Jewish tradition that is more iconic, more misunderstood, more cherished, feared, resisted and embraced.
Airline staff have informed me that kosher food is food that has been blessed by a rabbi. If you sign up for J-Date, you will be asked two questions about your Jewish life: how frequently you attend synagogues and whether you observe kashrut or not. Members of the various congregations I've served have: told me that kosher food is healthier; have stood defensively between me and their shopping carts when we've bumped into each other in a supermarket aisle; have changed the menu of their simchah to vegetarian and fish after thinking about the disconnect of celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah with treife (not kosher) food; have invited me to kasher their kitchens; have made persuasive arguments about why the rules of kashrut should be relaxed in synagogue so that they can bring in their famous cake/soup/salad/cookies that they've made at home.
As the joke at the top of the page suggests, the laws of kashrut have multiplied exponentially beyond the few simple guidelines in the Torah. The rabbis of the late antique period who shaped the fundamental laws of kashrut were motivated by the desire to create a system of rules on which everyone would rely, to anticipate questions over which people in their markets and kitchens might puzzle, turning the food Jews eat into a common language.
Somehow, we are bumping up against kashrut a lot.
Why? Here is my list of reasons for cherishing, embracing and committing to kashrut:
1. Kashrut compels us to be mindful of what we put into our mouths. Rather than grabbing what is handy, we train ourselves to elevate our choices, to infuse what nourishes our bodies with a spiritual dimension.
2. Kashrut is our quiet rebellion. History and fate have placed us in a culture focussed on consumption, on instant gratification, on latest fads . . . kashrut is an eternal, consistent core criteria, it does not change with the seasons. Kashrut is like a mast that holds steady in constantly changing winds.
3. Kashrut: our not-so-secret handshake. It's just so Jewish. Kashrut is a way to express, and to enhance, our sense of belonging to the Jewish world. It's the way Jews eat. It's never having to be apologetic because you can't invite someone Jewish to your home. It's a way to express the Jewishness of your home and family that links you to Jews all over the world and Jews throughout history.
It's also fun, by the way. I like to cook, and I've become a more creative cook by adapting recipes to my kosher kitchen and finding things to eat in restaurants around the world.
So, if you'd like to know more, be in touch. I'm delighted to answer any questions about keeping kosher any time!
Parashat Ekev Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Announcement by The Rabbinical Assembly:
A Day of Prayer for the Gulf
Prayer for Recovery and Restoration of the Gulf
Weekend of July 30th
We rebuilt the wall until it was a continuous all around to half its height; for the people's heart was in the work.
The Louisiana Interchurch Conference and BISCO (Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing), will be sponsoring a special prayer service to be held in Houma, LA on the Gulf on July 30th. Parallel to this, we are asking our colleagues to include special prayers during Shabbat services, July 30-31 to pray for the recovery and restoration of the Gulf and its people. This particular weekend marks roughly 100 days since the explosion of April 20, 2010. We also remember in our prayers those who lost their lives in the explosion and subsequent fire and we pray for their families and all who grieve.
At one moment in this week's Torah reading, Moses attempts to fill the people of Israel with as much wisdom as possible as he prepares to send them into the Land that awaits them. These same words of wisdom echo for us today, as communities of faith around our country set aside this Shabbat as a day of prayer for another sector of God's Land: the Gulf of Mexico.
Moshe taught us: "So keep these commandments as you enter this promised land--a land that can flow with milk and honey. This is land for which God cares. The eyes of God are always upon it. If you will serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give rain and the plants will grow and be harvested and you shall eat and be satisfied."
"This is a land for which God cares."
We mark 100 days since the beginning of this toxic Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For all the progress made in controlling the situation, damage that will be decades in the repairing is now fresh in our minds and foul in the waters and beaches. Please join us this evening at our 7:30 pm service as we add our voices to those of so many other faith communities in prayer for the Recovery and Restoration of the Gulf.
May God Have Reason to Praise Us
A Prayer in Response to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill
Prayer based on verses from Psalm 104 and composed by Rabbi Amy Levin
Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty.
God wraps in light as with a garment; stretches out the heavens like a tent
God set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
The foundations of God’s earth support us, too. The splendor and majesty of Creation inspires us. The delicate balance of Your creation is ours to cherish and preserve.
You covered the earth with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
But at Your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of Your thunder they took to flight;
You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.
As the flood waters receded, Your Covenant with Noah was established, Your promise to us has stood: Your precious waters may surge and surround us, but we hold fast, the core of Your creation.
God makes springs pour waters into the ravines; they flow between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.
God waters the mountains from the upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of God’s work.
God’s work of creation is ever-renewing. Humanity’s responsibility to cherish, preserve and restore God’s creation is equally eternal.
How many are Your works, O Lord! In wisdom You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which You formed, to frolic there.
How many are our works, O Lord! Some made in wisdom. Some made in folly. The earth is full of our presence and Your teeming creatures are in our hands to thrive or to suffer, to fill Your earth or to disappear.
When You hide Your face, they are terrified; when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
When You send Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth.
When our faces are not hidden by humility and awareness of our own responsibility, we terrify Your creation: we take their breath away, they die and return to the dust. When we accept Your spirit, we nurture Your creation and have a hand in renewing the face of the earth.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in God’s works-
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to God, as I rejoice in the Lord.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in the works of God we have revered, restored and healed. Let us sing praise to God who inspires and challenges us throughout our lives. May God have reason to sing praise of us as we move from contemplation to action, caretaking, advocacy and compassion.
© Rabbi Amy Levin, Av 5770 / July 2010
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.