2 Minutes of Torah Study — Ki Teitze

We read in Deuteronomy: “Adonai, your God, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. Therefore your camp shall be holy so that God should not see anything unseemly among you.” (23:15)

While I take a more universalist approach, believing in a God who is concerned about the fate and welfare of all of humanity, I love the idea of God’s presence in our midst. This isn’t a new conception in Torah, for we also read:

“Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

Nor is it a new conception in rabbinic thought, as we read in the writings of Joseph Soloveitchik:

“Halakhic man declares: the higher longs and pines for the lower…

and he possesses the tools to make it so.”

The idea isn’t new, but we still have yet to embrace it in practice. Too often we, I, act in ways convenient or self-interested but far removed from our highest values. Too often I worry God would have cause to look upon our actions, mistreatment of others, our world as unseemly. 

The high holy days give us a chance to press reset, to try again. To embrace this week’s Torah portion in the modern day, we would do well to follow the teaching of Danny Siegel:

“If you always assume the person sitting next to you

is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness —

You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.

And if the person chooses not to be revealed in your time —

It will not matter.”

2 Minutes of Torah – Shoftim

Miss Torah Study this morning? Get caught up in two minutes or less and join us next Saturday morning in the WRJ room at 9:00am.

Deuteronomy Chapter 20 contains many of the laws related to how war should be waged by the ancient Israelites. Taken on their surface, these rules give us moderns pause — could our ancestors have been so cruel and callous about the taking of human life?

Our history of interpretation — and the reality of being a historical people without sovereignty for much of Jewish history — removes the fangs from our ancient text.

As but one example, in Deuteronomy we read: In the towns of the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites you shall not let a soul remain alive.

Maimonides clarifies that you have to extend an offer of peace before every war, even to these peoples…and that the command was time limited: we are now so intermarried with these nations as to nullify this decree.

Even better, though, is his notion of a three-sided siege.

“When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides but only on three in order to give an opportunity for escape to whose who would flee to save their lives.”

By suggesting a law so absurd by military standards as to be almost humorous, Maimonides telegraphs his intention to protect life during war wherever possible. Neither cruel nor callous is his, and our, interpretation of Torah. 

2 Minutes of Torah Study — Re’eh

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, offers us a choice – blessings if we follow God’s rules, or curses if we don’t. It is up to us to choose and then to accept the consequences that follow. Our behavior, ultimately, our choice, will indicate whether God rewards or punishes us.

Simple, right? We act and God responds. But the idea that we choose between blessings and curses has sparked much debate about our free will to make that decision. Can it really be that God who knows and foresees all, allows us to determine our future?

Our commentators say yes – as it is written in Pirke Avot 3:15: ‘everything is foreseen, and freewill is given.’Maimonides explains by teaching that ‘although God knows all human actions, no one is compelled…to do any particular action amongst all actions; rather, each person decides what they will do.’ In other words, it ispossible for God to both know the future and to allow it to unfold based on how we choose. Blessing or curse, it’s up to us.

The responsibility of choosing well is highlighted this Shabbat as we begin the month of Elul. This is the month leading up to the High Holidays, traditionally the time when we reflect on the past year. We think about how the choices we made impacted us. And we look ahead to the New Year and hope we choose well, that our actions bring blessing into our lives.

Re’eh Anochi notein lifneichem hayom bracha u’klala…Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse….The choice is ours.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Eikev

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“V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha…you will eat and be satisfied and bless Adonai your God” we read in this week’s Torah portion…flipping the conventional script upon its head. Soloveitchik teaches that prayer is the act of insubstantial person, lacking the wherewithal to subsist, appearing before God upon whom existence depends. Yet here it is suggested that true blessing is only offered from a position of fulfillment and comfort.

Talmud futher debates this point. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 31a, it is taught from Hanna’s prayer that an inebriated person is forbidden to pray. Yet in the Jerusalem Talmud, Terumot 1:4, we learn the opposite: one who is drunk can and must recite birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals.

It is a lesson we are to learn throughout this week’s portion, Eikev. Manna, the sustenance our ancestors at in the desert, is described as a test. Why? It is easy to cry out to God from the depths of our distress, to focus on our highest values when they are all we have. But when our needs have been met? When our material abundance has increased? When we believe life is going well? Acting in a God-like fashion, living by the commandments, becomes considerably more difficult in times of perceived prosperity.

“V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha…you will eat and be satisfied and bless Adonai your God” a reminder of who we need to be in times of plenty as well as times of scarcity.

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Va’etchanan

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Shamor V’zachor B’dibur Echad — Two commandments — Shamor, to observe; and Zachor, to remember; spoken in one word. Or so the author of L’cha Dodi, Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, wants us to believe in order to homogenize a discrepancy in our text.

In the book of Exodus, we read that we are supposed to Zachor Shabbat, to remember it. When Moses recaps the commandments in this week’s Torah portion, we are supposed to Shamor Shabbat, to observe it. The sages of our tradition derive from this two separate ways of recognizing Shabbat — one joyous: reciting the blessings, and one either freeing or restrictive: refraining from work.

The difference between these texts, however, runs a bit deeper. Both Exodus and Deuteronomy provide us with the reason we should observe these commandments, and they too are different. In Exodus, Shabbat is a remembrance of God’s creative actions; in Deuteronomy it calls attention to our Exodus from Egypt. Remember / Observe, Creation / Exodus…why the differences in Torah?

Humans are both thinking and feeling beings. Sometimes an appeal to our cognition — you are part of something larger than yourself — works, and sometimes an appeal to emotion is more compelling— with an outstretched arm you were brought to safety. Sometimes we need the structure of rules to guide our actions, and sometimes we can rely of the joy of ritual. Remember / Observe, Creation / Exodus because we are each different and can yet are embraced by our age old tradition.

2 Minutes of Torah Study — D’varim

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When we recount events, when we retell stories, we tend to do so with an agenda. Sometimes it’s about embellishment to make ourselves look better, tougher, or more virtuous: perhaps that’s how the caught fish grows from 10 to 15 to 25 inches and the walk turns out to be uphill in both directions. More often than not, however, we recount events through the lens of our interpretations, impressing upon the listener what we believe to be important…even if that differs from the full story.

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, Moses takes similar liberties. A compassion between the ordeal of the spies sent to scout the land in Numbers 13 and Deuteronomy 1 shows significant differences:

In Numbers, God sent the Tribal leaders; in Deuteronomy, Moses sent 12 unspecified people.

In Numbers, the spies were scouting the whole land to determine its worth; in Deuteronomy, they are merely looking for an expedient path.

In Numbers, the spies brought back considerable warning about the Nephalim, the giants living in the land; in Deuteronomy, they simply reported that the land was good.

Why the discrepancies?

According to Nehama Leibowitz, Moses tried to show the people that: “Every individual is responsible for the misdeeds of the group. Each one is obligated to resist evil and do good, and not excuse himself on the ground that he was influenced by his colleague or superior or leader. Each individual has ultimately to be his own leader, responsible for his every action.”

May our study of Deuteronomy ensure that we never forget this lesson.

2 Minutes of Torah Study — Matot-Masei

The Daughters of Zelophechad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah. So wise and righteous as to bring merit to their ancestors, says B’midbar Rabbah. Strong, empowered women who joined together to protest an unjust social order, writes Vanessa Ochs, professor at UVA. More righteous than the men of their generation we read elsewhere in B’midbar Rabbah. Able to affect durable, dramatic change.

Well, not so fast.

The empowered story we read in Parashat Pinchas is tempered by the end of this week’s double portion, Matot-Masei. The male leaders of Zelophechad’s daughters’ family clan point out that the geographic area of their landholdings will be diminished if the women marry outside the tribe. Moses recognizes this as just, and changes what was to be a law for all time. Yes, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah can rightfully inherit, and they can even marry whomever they please — so long as it pleased them to marry their cousins. 

In the words of Rabbi Amber Powers in Torah Queeries, interpreting Torah through a so-called “bent lens:”

“The fight for justice and equality is ongoing and not a linear path… Like the heads of the family clan in this Torah portion, there may be times when we personally stand in a place of privilege and we would risk losing something if we supported another’s fight for change. Like the daughters of Zelophekhad, there are times when we will submit to a less than fully just solution as a compromise, a temporary measure, or because we have no choice. Nevertheless, we must remain clear about our visions of justice and equality and continue to work for their fullest expression in our communities and our practices.”

2 Minutes of Torah Study – Parashat Pinchas

Sometime around the year 500CE, a new type of scholar arose who assumed responsibility for preserving, homogenizing, and transmitting the biblical text. Known as the Masorites — either from the Hebrew for “to bind” or “to hand down” — it was these scribes who added the vowels and trope marks to the text we have today. They also systematized the writing of Torah, including the “mistake” we see in Parashat Pinchas.

Notice the broken vav in the word shalom.

God promises Pinchas, a zealot who took it upon himself to mete out justice upon idolators, His “brit shalom” or “covenant of peace.” Scholars throughout time have struggled with this text, noting that ours is not a tradition where we believe the ends justify the means. The Jerusalem Talmud reports that Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men: “Rabbi Yuda said: ‘They desired to excommunicate him.’” The Kotzker Rebbe taught that it was this action that prevented him from being Moses’ successor. And the Masorites go as far as to break the vav, perhaps symbolizing either a broken trust or a broken man.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the B’al HaTurim goes futher. The broken vav is our clue that Pinchas is actually Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the prophet. They both acted zealously for God, and Eliyahu can be spelled with or without the vav (note the difference between 1 and 2 Kings). Who else can be spelled with or without a vav? Jacob the patriarch, as we see in Leviticus 26. According to B’a HaTurim, Jacob required Elijah’s vav as a security deposit until such time as he hearlds the coming of the messiah in fulfillment of God’s promise. When that happens, and only then, Elijah — Pinchas — can have his vav back.

Jacob the trickster knew better than to trust a zealot. Neither should we.

An Israeli view of the American election

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh scholar Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff returned to Temple Emanuel Wednesday, October 26. He presented “An Israeli View of the American Election” before a crowd of 70+ audience members from the South Hills.

Rabbi Schiff started out by speaking of his long history with Temple Emanuel. He made mention of the fact that Temple is the very first synagogue in the South Hills he ever spoke at and that he was very anxious to begin this series of Fall/Winter South Hills engagements back at Temple.

He began the lecture by explaining that Israeli Jews are almost the exact opposite of American Jews. According to a Pew study, 55 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves to be centrist and 37 percent conservatives while just 19 percent of American Jews label themselves conservative.

schiff-3 Although he left opinions to those in attendance, Rabbi Schiff pointed out that “Israelis want to have predictability, certainty and stability in a very unstable part of the world.” He then cited a CNN poll which stated that 42 percent of Israelis support Clinton; 24 percent support Trump and the rest are undecided. This discrepancy, given the strong conservative leanings in Israel, can be attributed to the fact that most don’t see Trump as predictable or stable.

The rabbi spoke for 45 minutes and then took questions from the audience. At the conclusion, Rabbi Mark Mahler thanked Rabbi Schiff for his presentation and said Temple hoped to bring him back in the Spring to discuss the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.


The next speaker to visit Temple will be Rabbi Gershom Sizomu as part of the South Hills Torah Weekend, November 18-19. Rabbi Sizomu is from Uganda, where he serves the Abayudava community and is a member of the Ugandan parliament. He will speak at Temple Friday night, Beth El Congregation Saturday morning, The South Hills JCC Saturday night, and will return to both Beth El and Temple for programs at the religious schools as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Rabbi Sizomu is being brought to the South Hills through a grant from South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh.

20 Days to the Election

We’ve all been inundated with ads, op-eds and Facebook posts about the election.  Now we have the chance to hear a different perspective as Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff returns to Temple Emanuel for a timely and provocative discussion “An Israeli View on the American Election.”  This is sure to be an interesting evening, so invite your friends and join us on Wednesday, October 26 at 7PM for Rabbi Schiff’s presentation followed by coffee and dessert.