Commentaries for 5779

Shabbat Shuva 5779 VaYeilech; Are Services Spectator Sports?

Dvarim 31; Hoshea 14:2-10 & Yoel 2:15-27 & Micah 7:18-20

Here we are at the Shabbat of Return between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time when all Jews are encouraged to go to services to participate and not be spectators. This is said to be particularly important for this Shabbat of return for many reasons such as: to better the success of our atonement experience; to assure getting a minyan [quorum] when many are tired out by the Rosh HaShanah experience with lots of family and services; to encourage greater participation in synagogue events; etc. One reason spread by some Rabbis is that complete attendance by all Jews everywhere on Shabbat Shuva would bring the Moshiach!

Obviously any business adventure needs to find adequate funding in order to continue. Often a paid ticket is requested to attend either through regular dues or via ticket sales. [To a certain extent this is counter-productive as the process to get a financial exemption frequently is a demeaning and embarrassing experience.]

So how do the religious groups try to draw in attendance? One option is to make the event into a spectacle. Some use new music, songs, and jokes to make the service “different” and more “enjoyable”. Particularly disturbing in traditional views is when the congregation claps after each song and joke. Are they treating services like a movie or a theatre play? Have these services and others where there is little if any “audience” participation become like spectator sports?

Are there any discussions about the service contents afterwards? Do any reflections on repentance and amends occur in these folk during the Ten Days of Awe? Do older folk participate more than the youth? How do you plan to participate?

We are all connected. If our youth are brought up as spectators, who will be responsible for our communities in the future? May we all find our ways to repent, make amends, and return to the mitzvot! Shabbat Shalom!

Please submit this week the names of loved ones you want added to the memorial remembrance list for 5779!

Shabbat HaAzinu 5779 ; History in a Song; Dvarim 32; 2 Samuel 22

When you read a history book, how long does it take for your attention to wander and drift? If you read or heard the history as an ode or song, would you be able to be more attentive?

So, too, people of every generation seem to be able to retain information from poems and songs more easily than by rote story or prose. Is that why In Torah we get the third version of our history as a poetic song from Moshe? It summarizes our history for those people about to enter the Promised Land, about to be faced with the spectacle of twelve pillars.

What are the events that you remember most vividly in your life? Why do you think these events were most memorable?

We are now in a season of attempting redress of our past errors, of forgiving others for their past errors [if we do not, we give them power over us to hurt us], and of resolving to improve our adherence to the Law, the Mitzvot. What could happen to make this season most memorable for us?

As a parent lies on the cusp between life and death at this time, this season will certainly be a most memorable one… Yet is there a lesson of improvement that will come from this experience? Or just sorrow and grief?

May we all have a memorable season leading us onto a path toward betterment! Tzom kal… Gmar Chatima Tova… and then Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! 

Shabbat Bereishit 5779 ; Beginning; Bereishit 1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5 - 43:10

Beginnings. Once more, Torah reading starts from creation, the beginning. A New Year, a New Beginning without our loved ones who passed from this plane of existence before the final securing of the gates for the year at the end of Sukkot after the last of sins were shed symbolically by the beating of the willow branches.

This year was so warm and dry that the willow branches quite easily lost their leaves representing the last of our sins. Did we feel purified and ready for a new beginning after we beat those willow branches on Hoshanah Rabah [seventh day of Sukkot]?

We will not be restarting Creation with this New Year of 5779. However we need to wonder if we will be unwinding creation this year. How will the creatures of the world fare? Will they be allowed a new beginning during this upcoming year? What devastation of plant life will occur? What will the world look like when we arrive at the beginning of 5780 in about a year?

In the meantime we have the opportunity now to begin again with ever improving approaches to tikun olam, repair of the world. Will you embrace that opportunity? If so, how? If not, why?

May we all begin along a path, embraced to lead us all to contributing to Tikun Olam! 

 Shabbat Shalom!

Apologies for no commentary last week during Sukkot due to Rabbi Adele’s sitting with her failing and then deceased Mother in Tennessee. Baruch Dayan HaEmet! Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Noach 5779 ; Drowning; Bereishit 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5

Drowning. We all often say that we are drowning in debt, drowning in grief, drowning in obligations and responsibilities, drowning in politics, and so on. What are our feelings when we feel we are drowning? Do we feel fear, anger or loss? Do we feel guilt that maybe we made wrong choices which led us into such a drowning mess?

Certainly it would not be a surprise if people drowning in the Mabul, the Great Flood, experienced regret that they had not chosen to listen to Noach’s warnings. They would have blamed themselves for choosing to abuse Noach and for disregarding what he said. Would they have regretted the unethical paths they had chosen to follow during their lives? - or even realized the evils they had done?

So, too, in modern times we have many choices to make. If some of us choose to follow unethical paths, will it make a difference to the world? If some of us choose greed, power, profits, and selfishness will it adversely impact the future of the world?

This week a United Nations report came out that makes it clear that global warming and climate change are progressing faster than previously predicted. It points out that we have very little time, maybe 11 or 12 years, to counteract the effects before the warming becomes runaway and massive destructive forces will be released: irreversible destructive forces.

Can we make choices that will halt the runaway climate effects? If not us, who can? Will we be faced with another worldwide catastrophe due to our bad choices just like the people of the world faced when they chose not to believe Noach’s warnings?

It is a terrifying time. What can you choose to do to help stop such a catastrophe? An ark is not enough... Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Lech Lecha 5779 ; Listening; Bereishit 12:1-17:27; Isaiah 40:27-41:16

We are often told to “go with the flow”. Is that another way of saying that we should listen to the world around us? Was that what Avram did when he decided to go west to Chauran? Ur had been taken over by Elamites who did not like Semites at all. Was that why one of Avram’s brothers “died”? The Elamite invasion was a good reason for camel caravan traders and Semites to settle elsewhere.

Yet trade does not stay around one city. It radiates east/west and north/south. The family however probably did not want to continue to trade given the Elamites’ nastiness to the East. So where was Avram to go? His brother went north to Padan-Aram and Haran for good grazing and water resources. Avram went south with his nephew, Lot, towards Canaan. He listened to the world around him. We are told that he listened to HaShem who guided him to make choices to be safe.

Still, Avram made choices of his own based on his self-confidence to use his resources according to what he felt was ethical. He saved peoples taken into slavery along with his nephew, Lot, and refused to take from the spoils of the conflict.

Avram listened to his ethical conscience. Do we listen to our ethical consciences? Do we act on what we hear in an ethical/ moral fashion? Are we in listening mode to the world around us and to HaShem? Should we be hearing the death cries of the animals and the forests, of the oceans and their denizens? Should we be listening?

Shabbat Shalom!

We are supposed to be nation building. That is getting harder in the present atmosphere. Perhaps the upcoming elections will help get us back on track. We at Beit Torah ( encourage all to vote so that maybe we can build a BETTER FUTURE.

VaYera 5779 ; Building; Bereishit 18-21; II Kings 4:1-37

It seems that this week’s portion of Parashat VaYera has many unconnected parts. We have messengers telling Avraham that Sarai will have a son and that Sodom will be destroyed. Then Avraham and Sarah visit Abimelech and do the sister-wife ploy again. In the meantime, Lot saves the messengers from assault by town folk and then flees the town/city before its destruction. Then when Yitzchak is born, Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael expelled.

Yet all these events have the common theme of building family and assets. To wit:

We have Avraham building his family through Sarah with the birth of Yitzchak and through Ishmael who, although expelled, built a well-to-do tribe with his Egyptian relatives. After escaping the destruction of the plains, Lot also built his legacy into two great nations. Lot’s daughters decided to build that future for their family by getting Lot drunk enough to impregnate them as they hid from the destruction of the five cities of the plains.

Avraham’s and Sarah’s sojourn with Abimelech helped build their resources and assets as well. Given the timing of the events, many have asked if that sojourn also contributed to the building of Sarah’s family, but Abimelech denied it vociferously and paid off Avraham handsomely to agree with him while keeping peace despite water disputes.

Clearly building families is very important to our people. What have you built for the future? Will it improve the world or just provide short term gratification for your desires? How important is family to you? Community? Country? World? What are you presently building?

Shabbat Shalom!

At this time of mourning and reflection, we get to read a portion of Torah that deals with rebuilding and going on after the death of a loved one. We at Beit Torah ( mourn along with so many others the loss of those murdered in recent anti-colored and anti-Semitic attacks. If only that mourning were universal...

Chayei Sarah 5779 ; Re-Building; Bereishit 22:1-25:18; I Kings 1:1-31

How do we go on after a death? We re-build. After Sarah died at the beginning of this week’s portion of Parashat Chayei Sarah [the life of Sarah], her son Yitzchak married his independent [perhaps headstrong] cousin, Rivka. She had readily agreed to the marriage proposal when asked both by Eliezer and by her family. We rarely read in Torah about needing a woman’s permission to do anything let alone marriage. Something to ponder. Further we read that Yitzchak took Rivka to his mother’s tent and was comforted then after his mother’s death.

Ishmael, Sarah’s adopted son, also kept building his family. He, like Yaacov after him, ended up as a father to twelve tribes.

So now we need to figure out how to apply the lesson of this portion to the deaths happening at this time. How do we rebuild after the death of a family member? How do we rebuild after the racist murder of black women in a grocery? How do we rebuild after a mass murder on Shabbat in a synagogue?

The shock, the numbness, the fear, the emptiness in the aftermath, and perchance the anger at the unfairness of it all: All that pent-up emotion just begs for an outlet. What though is an appropriate vent for those emotions? Crying? Prayers? Withdrawal from usual activities? Planning for revenge? Trying to prevent such deaths from occurring in the future?
Yet how can that be done? Donate to stroke research? Work to ban assault style weapons? Work for stricter laws against hate speech?

Have you ever needed to rebuild after the death of someone you cared about? What did you do to bounce back and go forward – to rebuild your life?
May we all have the strength to find a way to successfully rebuild. May we be able to go forward after a major loss such as death in the family, in our community, or among others we care about! ...and would should be caring about every living soul...
Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  Repeating

Do we find ourselves repeating what our parents did when responding to certain situations? Do we repeat the actions we have seen or heard about in stories or liturgy? We at Beit Torah ( pray that any repeats are done after careful consideration of whether they are ethically solid and consistent with the Mitzvot. Yet repeating seems to be a human way to respond to similar situations as we read in this week's portion:

Toldot 5779 ; Repeating; Bereishit 25:19-28:9; Malachai 1:1-2:7

We all approach life based on our experiences of what we have done and seen as well as the stories which have inspired us such as in family histories, movies, theatre, liturgy, etc. So, too, we read in this week’s portion of Parashat Toldot that such approach was the case of Yitzchak and Rivka who heard the stories about the successful sister-wife ploy used twice by Avraham and Sarah! What they didn’t count on was that family stories were also passed down in Abimelech’s family. So when they tried the sister-wife ploy again, Abimelech called them on it. Despite this, they updated the water strife agreements and parted amicably.

Similarly, they later repeated the practice of Avraham and Sarah in which the younger [more deserving] son received the physical and spiritual inheritance from their parents. Yitzchak received instead of Ishmael and Yaacov instead of Esau. So, too, King David’s son Solomon became King instead of his older brother, Adonijah.

In the Haftorah from last week about the last days of King David, Adonijah was trying to become King before David died. Was it general conduct among those who felt entitled to try to depose their fathers or was it a repeat recalling how Yaacov’s son Reuven tried to take over the tribe before Yaacov died?

Have you ever based your actions on family stories you have heard? Have you ever voted for or against what your parents would have voted without considering the issues at hand? Are stories in Torah to be emulated or should they be evaluated to decide if one should repeat them or not?

As we are often told, if we do not remember history, we are doomed to repeat it – be it for good or for ill. May we all be wise enough to figure out which stories of the past are worthy of being repeated!

                                                               Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Journeying

A new chapter, a new journey after our recent elections. What will that journey hold? We at Beit Torah ( pray that it will include a return to decorum, civility, politeness, and respect without any lashon haRah! As for Yaakov [Jacob]:

VaYetzei 5779 ; Journeying; Bereishit 28:10-32:3; Hosea 11:7-14:10

In the wake of his discord with his brother Esau, Yaakov [Jacob] now begins a series of journeys after fleeing his parents’ home in this week’s portion of Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei [and he went forth]. Yaakov journeyed to find faith in HaShem as he journeyed to his Uncle Laban to find refuge from his brother. He journeyed into love and marriage, multiple wives and fatherhood.

Yaakov’s full acceptance of the children of both his wives and their concubines underscores how Ishmael was indeed a full son of Avraham, Avraham’s older son. Still Esau marrying a daughter of Ishmael did not reduce the bitterness of his parents, Yitzchak and Rivka, over Esau’s turning away from their teachings.

Yaakov journeyed into successfully breeding goats and sheep for specific characteristics. He journeyed into fighting corruption in the business dealings with is Uncle. He, with the help of his wives, journeyed into the politics of ownership by removal of the deeds of that time, the family idols, so that Laban could not claim ownership of his daughters and their offspring and, later, by a peace treaty delineating the boundaries between them.

Finally he journeyed back to the land of his parents, still in great fear of his brother and the potential of continued enmity. Next week we will read about how the two brothers reacted to each other after more than 14 years.

How has your life been a journey? Did you ever journey forward without a clue as to what would meet you along the way? Traveling on a wing and a prayer? May all your journeys be safe ones in health and peace!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Reconciling/ Protecting/ Sending

It seems to be a human thing that we do not listen carefully to others or that we presume things about them based on our biases or ... so that relationships with friends and particularly with family members often sour and seem irreparable. Yet we expect that family should be there for us... or do we? We at Beit Torah ( try to be a family to all, a place to go to just in case... However Yaacov only had one brother to turn to as we read in this week's parashah of VaYishlach:

VaYishlach 5779 ; Reconciling/ Sending/ Protecting; Bereishit 32:4-36:43; Ovadia 1:1-21

We have all heard the wisdom that you can not pick your family though you can pick your friends. Yet if family relationships have gone sour, how does one determine if reconciliation is called for?

In Yaacov [Jacob]’s case, he needed desperately to make peace with his brother, Esau, as he could no longer stay in the lands of Uncle Laban without great risk to his and his families welfare. He had to return to the land of his parents.

Yet both he and his brother had fears of how meeting with each other would turn out. Both were ready for the worst case scenario: Yaacov by splitting his entourage into two camps, thereby protecting at least some of them while sending one camp to meet Esau while holding the other one back in safety; Esau by bringing a large number of troops with him. Were their intentions pure when trying to reconcile? We can not be sure about Esau who offered to accompany Yaacov’s folk to a distant location. Wisely, Yaacov refused and went to camp closer [Sukkot] where the young of the children and the flock could more easily and safely rest up from the arduous journey. Yet future interactions seemed amicable.

Have you ever had a falling out with a friend or family member? Did you ever wonder whether it was worthwhile to try to reconcile? If so, how did you try to reconcile? Did it work?

Every year we encourage people to make amends and reconcile between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that all year round?

Shabbat Shalom!

In the present atmosphere of 'fake news' and deceptive announcements/ advertisements, where should we draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not?  If someone else is spreading lies, would that justify our getting down in the muck with them and spread lies as well? We at Beit Torah do not think so. What does Torah say? Perhaps we can get an idea from this week's parasha of VeYeshev:

VaYeshev 5779 ; Deceiving; Bereishit 37:1-40:23; Amos 2:6-3:8

Is deception always wrong? This week in the portion of Parashat VaYeshev, we have three stories with deception as a core element. When the brothers sent Yosef into slavery, they ended up deceiving their father, Yaakov, into thinking that Yosef had been killed by a wild beast.

When Yehudah denied Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law, a Levirate marriage, Tamar ended up deceiving him into getting her pregnant by pretending to be a harlot. This deception is apparently universally accepted as a righteous deception used to correct a wrong.

Thirdly, when Potiphar’s wife had her sexual advances rejected by Yosef, she deceived the Pharaoh's staff into thinking that Yosef had tried to sexually assault her. Based on her high status, she was believed and Yosef was incarcerated.

We are told in our readings that had the brothers not deceived their father and had Potiphar’s wife not deceived the Pharaoh's staff, then Yosef would not have become Grain Vizier to Pharaoh and our People would have succumbed to the famine. So we are faced with trying to decide when deceiving others is acceptable behaviour.

What do you think are good reasons to act deceptively? Can living by mitzvot ever allow you to deceive others? Are we permitted to pursue justice or safety through deception? Lots to ponder.

Shabbat Shalom!

Let the Light Grow 5779 Chanukah

Adele Jay

Little candles added one by one

Let the light grow stronger like the sun,

Brighter and brighter for all week long,

Filled with love and almost joyous song.

Yes, we were all saved but at what price?

Our freedom to worship is quite nice…

Yet then we denied that to others,

Leading to Herod and false brothers…

Still at this moment we can rejoice

O’er the principle of freedom’s voice,

If only we can keep in view

That all deserve these freedoms too.

Miketz 5779 ; Dreaming; Bereishit 41:1-44:17; Zechariah 2:14-4:7

What do dreams mean? Modern psychology would have us believe that dreams are expressions of our deepest desires, hopes, and fears. More ancient beliefs view dreams as prescient, predicting the future if only they can be interpretted correctly.

Earlier in Torah we read about Abimelech having a dream that Sarah was Avraham’s wife. He was able to interpret his own dreams without a dream interpretter. Hence he was considered a prophet. Are there two kinds of dreams: dreams of our hopes and fears as one kind and prophetic dreams as the other? If so, do they feel the same when dreamt?

Since Joseph was a child when he first had prophetic dreams, perhaps he needed to mature before he became a prophet who could interpret his and others’ prophetic dreams. By the time he was an adult in Pharaoh’s prison, he was able to accurately interpret dreams.

In this week’s portion of Parashat Miketz, Pharaoh had disturbing dreams. He sought a competent dream interpretter. At that point, Yoseph was remembered and came into the good graces of the Pharaoh for whom he interpretted dreams and accordingly built and managed storehouses of food for the eventual famine.

Did Yoseph realize at that point what his childhood dreams meant? Was that part of a plan to be there when the famine forced his brothers to ask to buy food in Egypt? Or- did it only occur to him when his brothers presented themselves for food?

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to predict an event that then happened? Did you take it as a prediction or recognize it only in hindsight? Do you even remember your dreams?

We all dream of a better tomorrow. What can we do better to achieve that desire?

Shabbat Shalom!

Are we our siblings' keeper? Are people all really one family? We at Beit Torah ( think that many people have forgotten that simple truth. So all the horrors of family discord do play out on the political arenas, in international relationships, even within our own communities. Does it really need to be so? What does Torah say? :

VaYigash 5779 ; Reuniting; Bereishit 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15 - 37:28

Dysfunctional and broken families can be found everywhere, unfortunately. We often hear about skeletons in the closets, abuses, or vicious infighting. Sometimes members stop interacting with each other. Should we be trying to reunite these broken families? Is such a goal realistic?

According to this week’s portion of Parashat Vayigash, not only is it desirable to reunite families but also possible. Even as Ishmael and Yitzchak worked together to honor their Father Avraham, and even as Yaacov and Esau patched up their differences, so too the sons of Yaacov and their Father reunited in joy and love. We are told that Yosef attributed the earlier family discord to divine will to enable all of the family to survive the famine in the Land.

Okay. There was a bit of drama with Yosef encouraging fear of Pharaoh with a fake theft of his chalice and with the hiding of his identity. Yet it is clear that he wanted to be reunited with his family. If you were in Yosef’s place, what thoughts would be going through your mind? Fear? Uncertainties? Hope?

Is it worth the effort to try to reunite a broken family despite fears and uncertainties? Does such an effort require all parties to work together to reunite amicably? How would you approach such an effort?

Jews have the tradition of making amends and patching up differences particularly during the Days of Awe [High Holy Days], but also nearly every month on the day before Rosh Chodesh (the start of the month) called Yom Kippur Katan, the little Yom Kippur. We at Beit Torah work towards being a family despite our differences. Let us pray that all people will see the light and try to be one peaceful, large family.
Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Blessings

Life is a constant series of ups and downs. We at Beit Torah ( try to wake each morning giving thanks for the blessings of our lives and in our lives. We pray for blessings for those in need and give thanks for the blessings of small kindnesses. Blessing and Blessings are a main focus of the last portion of Bereishit [Genesis] that we read this week. To wit:

VaYechi 5779 ; Blessing; Bereishit [Genesis] 47:28-50; 1Kings 2:1-12
Blessings are an integral part of everyone’s life. Even those who profess no religion can be heard offering a blessing of gratitude when barely escaping some unpleasantness. Blessings can also be blessings of praise of some entity [deity, person, group, etc.]

Further, Blessings can be blessings of inheritance: ethical lessons, praise of strengths, warnings of weaknesses, etc. This is what we read about this week in the last portion of Bereishit, Parashat VaYechi [and you should live].

The Israelites had settled in Goshen. Yaacov [Jacob] has become very old and nearing death. His sons gather round including the two sons of Yosef [Joseph]. As per family Hurrite tradition from Hauran of giving the inheritance responsibilities to the most deserving or the youngest, Yaacov gave Yosef a double portion by way of giving each of Yosef’s sons a portion. It is of note that the younger of Yosef’s sons was given the portion of leadership over his brother.

The format for Yaacov blessing the brothers of Yosef was one of ethical lessons warning each of his weaknesses and the adverse consequences they have brought and potentially could yet bring as well as praising each about his strengths. Then the brothers were encouraged to use these strengths in building strong tribes.

Do we focus on using our strengths to build our futures? How do we minimize the adverse effects of our weaknesses?
What do we bless in our lives? Are we thankful enough? Do we offer praise enough? What blessings are important to us in our lives?

May we all be blessed with Peace and Love…

Shabbat Shalom!

Civil rights are constantly being redefined. Rights for people of color are questioned. Rights for LGBTQ incite harsh feelings among some and often end up in court. Are the people without equal rights considered lesser beings? After all, the ERA amendment still needs another state to affirm it before becoming law! Are women lesser beings until that happens? Are these 'lesser beings' therefor somehow suffering a form of enslavement? Perhaps this week's parasha can shed a bit of light on these questions:

Shemot 5779 ; Enslaving; Shemot [Exodus] 1:1-6:1;
Sephard: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3; Ashkenaz: Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13; 29:22 - 29:23

In the USA we enjoy rights we feel entitled to and are recognized by the UN as Human Rights. When we feel our rights are endangered, we feel free to protest or write letters to public media or political leaders. Echoes of Nazi-like behaviour in our leaders should terrify us. We feel impotent to stop the huge illegal market for enslaving kidnapped women and children.

What can happen to remove rights from people? How can they be forced into servitude or slavery?

One way this could happen is described in this week’s portion of Parashat Shemot, the first portion of the book of Exodus [Shemot]. When the Israelites first came to Egypt, they were honored family members of an important Egyptian official. For a while they had a fair amount of self-rule. Yet they were still considered foreigners. Most other foreigners had come during the famine to get food. When they ran out of money, they sold themselves into servitude so that they could eat. For a while, the Egyptians let these foreigners work 3-6 months a year on Egyptian projects to pay off their debts. They were given food and shelter during these times and allowed off for their Holy Days.

Yet when the political winds changed over to a new Egyptian regime [invaders from the east?], all foreigners were considered to be a cheap source of labor and potential enemies of the state. As described in Torah, the terms of their servitude kept on getting more and more oppressive. Laws were decreed to control their procreation. Israelite rights and independence were progressively taken away.

Sound familiar? 1930’s? Present day immigrants? Present day minorities? Vietnamese refugees?

People are not perfect. What can we to do to fix these imperfections? Is it enough? Do we respect each other enough to care to do so?

Shabbat Shalom!

Is the world being plagued by an unwillingness to recognize the sanctity of life of all those born in this world? That lack of respect causes us at Beit Torah ( to be fearful for our safety, for our democracy, for our freedoms to respectfully speak, worship, and even think as we wish... Yet much more is plaguing our world even as the biblical world was plagued by a variety of horrors:

VaEra 5779 ; Plaguing; Shemot [Exodus] 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:21

What is plaguing the modern world today? Volcanoes? Tsunamis? Floods? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Fires? Droughts? Famine? Wars? Disease like Ebola?

Can we blame these disasters on any particular entity or group? Should we even bother to ask when working on repair and recovery may be far more important a task to tackle? Maybe we should just run away – but to where?

This week in the portion of Parashat VaEra, we get to view a world filled with plagues [disasters]. It was in a time during which all plagues were usually attributed to the wrath of HaShem. So Moshe and the Israelites understood that HaShem was plaguing the Egyptians in order to get the slaves freed from the abusive life they had to endure.

Still, this week’s parasha does not yet get to the release of the Israelites from Egypt. It is a cliffhanger ending with the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh.

Up until this point, the first 7 plagues could be explained by volcanic explosions such as the two preceding the massive third volcanic explosion as well as that massive one and the after explosion which destroyed half of the island of Thera not even 500 miles from Egypt. Red metal poisoning of the water from falling volcanic residues would kill the fish and cause the frogs to flee the water. Ash in the air would irritate the skin and cause it to feel like lice or other skin ailments. Insects would feed on the dead fish and later would flee before the ash laden air and seek shelter and food where-ever they could. Sufficient irritation of the skin would lead to scratching and infectious boils. Fiery hail sounds like brimstone from a massive volcanic eruption. So the vegetation and the livestock were debilitated and killed bringing wild beasts to feast on their carcasses. Likely knowing this, the Pharaoh was not impressed because a volcano was plaguing the land.

Volcanoes are only a small part of what is plaguing our times. What other plagues are challenging us? Are bigotry, hatred, or disrespect to be considered plagues? More importantly, how can we respond to these plagues? How can we recover and repair their damages? Is there a way we can prevent such plagues? The solution is probably quite complex even though we wish it were simple and easy… Shabbat Shalom!

It is well recognized that there will always be refugees seeking safety from natural disasters, political harm, or others life threatening situations. How we handle refugees shows what our ethical mettle is made of. We at Beit Torah ( wonder how the worldwide refugee problems can be handled while respect for all is maintained. There have been refugees in every generation as we read in the book of Exodus and, particularly, in this week's portion of Bo:

Bo 5779 ; Fleeing; Shemot [Exodus] 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13 - 46:28

Last week we discussed whether fleeing was a good option for escaping plagues. However there was no good place to flee to.

This week in the portion of Parashat Bo, we learn that sometimes one needs to go on a wing and a prayer. We read that Moshe told all that they had to have faith that what he instructed them was HaShem’s will so that they could be released from servitude with the goal of eventually reaching the ancestral land of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rifka, Yaacov, Leah, and Rachel.

Who were all these folk in this mixed multitude fleeing servitude? They were foreigners and the oppressed. During the seven years of famine, many foreigners moved to Egypt. When their funds to buy food were depleted, they sold themselves into servitude. So, too, the poor of the country who were already living there. Then though, when the locusts ate the last of the year’s crops, the people once again needed to rely on the pits of stored grains for food. Those pits had not been used for the time during the darkness: the thick, palpable, volcanic explosion polluted air.

Independent documentation records nine days of darkness in Egypt central/ northern regions. So three days near/ in Goshen of darkness was barely a taste of the plague.

Particulates were precipitating all over including on the tops of the bitumen/tar covered food storage pits. Toxic particulates. Now Egyptian custom was to feed the firstborn of livestock and people first from the first food portions removed from the storage pits… The people who wanted to flee ate primarily lamb.

Why would the neighbors who were staying give those fleeing their portable wealth? Were they bartering for non-portable properties in exchange? If you were fleeing, what emotions would you be feeling?

What emotions are modern refugees feeling? Syrians? Africans? Yemenites? Latin Americans? Rohinja? To where can they flee? What is the humanitarian view on these challenges? What is the Jewish view? How can these views be funded? Conundrums upon conundrums… Shabbat Shalom!

In what or whom do you trust? The government? Your clergy? Family? Friends? HaShem? When times get rough, do you lose that trust? We at Beit Torah ( find that each person has their own unique answer. Yet people tend to be fickle, trusting differently [albeit perhaps not wisely] as their life situations change. Still, people now reflect what people have always been as described in this week's portion of Parashat B'Shallach :

B’Shallach 5779 ; Trusting; Shemot [Exodus] 13:17-17:16;
Judges 4.4-5.31 Sepharadim begin with 5.1

Last week the People were faced with the choice of whether to stay in Egypt after the plagues or trust in Moshe and HaShem to flee on a wing and a prayer. Yet how far does such trust go? What did the people think that the living conditions would be as they fled? Perhaps they were not thinking or reflecting on the future. They just wanted to flee for their lives even as today’s refugees are fleeing for their lives.

So for the initial stage of flight through a lush wadi, the People did not complain as we read this week in the portion of Parashat B’Shallach. Perhaps they were more focussed on fear of the pursuing Egyptians. One would think that the trust they had placed in Moshe up to that point and through their miraculous escape from the Egyptian chariots at the Sea of Reeds would have solidified their trusting Moshe.

However rather than brave the coastal road east where there were food supplies, but also conflict between invaders [Philistines] and the locals, Moshe chose a more southernly route along the wilderness. Conditions for the People became much more challenging, especially regarding food and water. Their trust diminished and their complaints became quite loud. Many stopped trusting in Moshe and HaShem.

We still see this behaviour in people today. If they are not happy with what they have, they will protest, riot, or vote a different party in to govern even though it might make their lot in life much worse. They have no patience to think things out and evaluate possible consequences. If things are not going their way, they will try to cheat, lie, or deceive to get to the goal they want. They do not trust being honest. They do not trust they are on the best path even though they might be.

In what do you put your trust? In whom do you put your trust? Is it naive to be trusting? Beyond HaShem, is there anything or anyone who is trustworthy? May we go forward trusting that we can find the best possible path for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

How many versions of our Law are there? If we looks at the USA, each state has its own version and the Federal code is yet different as well. Local codes often expand upon or limit the codes of the county, state, or nation - sometimes for the betterment of the weal of folk and sometimes not so. Yet how did we get to such a multilayered pattern of government and jurisprudence? We at Beit Torah ( suspect that a lot was taken from the stories of the Exodus and the advice Yitro gave his son-in-law, Moshe:

Yitro 5779 ; Delegating; Shemot [Exodus] 18:1-20:23;
Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6; 9:5 - 9:6, Sephardim Isaiah 6:1-13

How Could Moshe keep things under control when shepherding hundreds of thousands of refugees across a wilderness? He had traversed that route many times alone or with a few others [such as family]. From the Sea of Reeds to the pass into what is now Arabia was a trip that would take longer the more people there were travelling. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Moshe sent his wife and children on ahead to his father-in-law’s home in Midian not far from that pass. Did he also know there was increased danger for the weakest stragglers from Amalekite bandits? Was that another reason he sent his family on ahead?

So fearful hungry and disheartened people finally cleared the narrow pass where the bandits attacked. Bickering and complaining, lamenting and weeping, they had no focus nor goal for the future. The locals [Edomites and Midianites] had no spare resources and did not want all those unruly refugees. They needed to find space further east and south to camp. What was Moshe to do?

First off then he needed to restore order and provide a framework for cooperation among the tribes and unaffiliated. How? That is when his father-in-law, Yitro, came on the scene. Bringing back Moshe’s family to Moshe allowed Yitro a chance to evaluate the mess his son-in-law had on his hands. Then he could share his knowledge of governing which basically was delegating. Different courts were to be set up within each tribe for different levels of complaints and crimes. The most difficult cases would be sent to a combined court. Only the absolutely worst or most complicated would be brought before Moshe. Delegation clearly worked.

Moshe was then able to focus on providing the laws by which the people would live and the goal for all to eventually go north and across the [Jordan] River to the ancestral homeland. This week’s portion of Parashat Yitro provides some details to the judicial system and the first version of the giving of the Law, in this case the Decalogue, ten terms to the contract [brit] with HaShem. Stay tuned for more versions of what happened at Mt. Sinai!

What laws do you abide by? Do your views of Jewish law sometimes conflict with U.S. law? If so, how? Which do you choose to follow?- or do you just delegate that choice to others?
Shabbat Shalom!

Mishpatim 5779 ; Judging; Shemot [Exodus] 21:1-24:18;

Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-6

Where do our laws come from? They just do not pop out of the air. There are earlier cultures, each with its own set of laws. We know that our ancestors were influenced early on by Hurrites, Hittites, Egyptians, Midianites, and others. Later on they will be influenced by Babylonian, Greek and Roman cultures as well as others. Each tribe has its own collection of laws.

So now that the People have heard [but not understood] the main terms of their covenant with HaShem, and now that a common judicial framework has been set up with the guidance of Yitro, Moshe needs to tailor all those past sets of laws into one common law consistent with the values and ethics that Moshe understood are desired by HaShem. These laws and a later addendum to the laws are found in this week’s portion of Parashat Mishpatim.

However the laws needed to be codified in writing. So we get a second account of how we received the law at Mt. Sinai. Moshe, Aaron and his two older sons, and seventy elders of the tribes went partly up the mountain to feast before HaShem. Did they agree then to all the laws to be held in common at this conference? Were there compromises among the leaders as to what were crimes and what punishments were appropriate?

Torah is called a living document because the laws can be interpretted and updated with the times as new facts come to be understood. Are there laws in use today that you think are not consistent with Torah Law? If so, which and why? May our laws continually mature and become more rational and compassionate!

Shabbat Shalom!

What do you do with your spare time? What do you do with your resources which are beyond your essential needs? Do you contribute to the betterment of the world around you? We at Beit Torah  encourage all to contribute their utmost to the world around the: phone help lines; volunteer help for children, the disabled, the needy, or etc.; helping the environment; and so on... Free will offerings helped the Israelites get back on track with the building of the Tabernacle as we read in this week's portion of Parashat Terumah:

Terumah 5779 ; Contributing; Shemot [Exodus] 25:1-27:19; I Kings 5:26-6:13

Children become quite attached to things: Linus blankets, stuffed toys, favorite shirts, best loved people, etc. These give them comfort and perhaps a feeling of safety, reassuring then that there is consistency in the world around them. We all hope that our children will mature and grow to realize that the most important things are those we hold dear in our hearts: compassion, respect, love…

Yes, we all need ‘things’. Our minimal survival needs rank high on that list. However once these needs are met, we tend to use the excess resources selfishly. Greed, ego, arrogance, boastfulness, materialism, bullying, and other evil inclinations all beckon to those who have resources beyond their needs. It is also important to note that resources are not just financial [e.g. money] and properties. They also include our productive skills and time. That is why so many codes of law and religion encourage contributing to the needy, encourage contributing to Tikun Olam, Repair of the World, in many fashions.

How can we repair the world? So we need to save the world ecosystem? Do we need to insure all people their minimal survival needs? So we need to beautify our environment? Do we need to encourage and teach others to embrace Tikun Olam?

A hint may be in this week’s portion of Parashat Terumah. In order to build the Tabernacle, terumot, free will offerings of gold, silver, etc. were collected. We read that these were the resources beyond their survival needs that people were contributing willingly. Hence the title of this week’s parashah.

Unfortunately the good teachings are often forgotten or ignored throughout the generations. So, for instance, taxes were levied for Temple maintenance and repair. What would you do with resources beyond what would cover your living essentials? Do you embrace Tikun Olam? Shouldn’t we all?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Illuminating

I would hope that we all work towards being the good people we think we are. Yet what guidebook do we use to determine what a good person truly is? Which Laws are the ones we need to hold close and keep in the light of our minds and hearts? We at Beit Torah ( look to Torah for guidance even as this week's parasha enjoins us to keep the Law continually in the light:

Tetzaveh 5779 ; Illuminating; Shemot [Exodus] 27:20-30:10; Ezekiel 43:10-27

Most of us all enjoy laser light shows, parades, beautiful art, and the like. They are a calming respite from the difficulties life dishes out to us. Yet they are just things, things we can survive well without if we have to, just like not having a Temple run by Cohanim, Priests.

As this week’s portion of Parashat Tetzaveh continues the description of the things in the Tabernacle and the attire of the Priests, it also describes how to sanctify them with blood and other practices. Much of what is described would nauseate the sensibilities of modern folk. The Health Departments would also be most displeased.

So what can we take to be a good modern teaching from this Parasha? It appears the first verse says it all. We need to have the Law continuously in the light. We need to keep the mitzvot illuminated and never let them recede into darkness. While there is some discussion as to whether the Ner Tamid, Eternal Light, being lit 24/7 is the right approach or whether illuminating the Law during the hours of darkness is sufficient, in both cases the Law will constantly be in the light and hopefully ever present in our minds and hearts.

Do we embrace the Mitzvot 24/7 and keep them ever in the light? Do you? Or do we hide some of the mitzvot in darkness as irrelevant, outdated, or not needed? How best can we manage Illuminating the Law at all times?

May we all learn to live continuously in the light!
Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Let us count our contributions to the world. Are they valuable? In theory, in a democracy we all count. We at Beit Torah ( count on each other. In this week's Parasha of Ki Tisa, there is a lot of counting going on:

Ki Tisa 5779 ; Counting; Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34; I Kings 18:1-39... [Sephardim start at 18:20]

We get to do a lot of counting in this week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tisa. We count the number of able-bodied men [30:11-12]. Then we count how much head tax [30:13] was collected ostensibly to help, among other things, to build the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and its accoutrements.

The people were impatiently counting the days [32:1] that Moshe was up on the mountain. This they got to do twice. The first time, Moshe brought the first set of tablets of Law down only to discover cavorting around a gold plated idol of a calf! During this third description of what happened at Mt. Sinai, in anger Moshe threw down the stone tablets [32:19] which then shattered. Before Moshe went up the mountain to replace the broken stone tablets, lots more counting happened.

The dead were counted from Levites trying to execute the idol worshippers [32:28]. One suspects that the fighting killed many alleged idol worshippers who defended themselves, killing some Levites as well. Additionally ‘plague’ victim deaths were counted. Was that ‘plague’ from heavy metal poisoning given that the drinking water was contaminated by the burnt idol ash [32:20- note: solid metal does not burn] spread into the waters [32:35]?

After Moshe returned with the replacement tablets after forty days and nights, he shared the Law with the people including a promise from HaShem to extend kindness to the faithful for a thousand generations but also threatening to punish iniquity even unto the fourth generation of a family. We read that among other terms of the Law are included counting the days of the week so that Sabbath could be faithfully observed and counting of the weeks until the next harvest after the observance of the anniversary of escaping Egypt [Pesach].

How important to our lives is counting? IRS? Budget? Counting from one religious observance until the next? Counting the days until personal observances {birthdays, anniversaries, graduating, etc.]? Shiva and other mourning practices? Our Mitzvot ledger during Yom Kippur [day of Atonement]? Which accounting is most valuable to you? Does what you do count towards making yourself and the world better? We all count.
Shabbat Shalom!

We each try to build our lives as best we can to be safe, secure, and well cared for. Sometimes our resources are not adequate to the task. We at Beit Torah are glad we have a community to rely on for extra resources we do not have always individually - like when a couple of the folk dug me out from the snowstorm! Building a Mishkan can also be a challenge for us as we read about in this week's parasha:

VaYachel 5779 ; Shekalim; Building; Shemot [Exodus] 35:1-38:20;

II Kings 11:17 - 12:17 for Sephardim; Ashkenazim start at 12:1

So finally we get to read in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYachel about the actual building of the Mishkan [Tabernacle]]. Since we have an extra month this year, this short portion is read by itself instead of combined with next week’s portion of Pekudei. Also because of the leap year, this Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim. Shekalim were the currency of Biblical times as noted in last weeks portion where a head tax of half a shekel was levied on the able-bodied men.

Today we symbolically contribute shekalim on Purim to maintain our congregations and other Jewish institutions as well as to help support the needy especially in order to enable them to fully participate in Pesach [Passover] observances. Obviously we also contribute modern currency to these causes!

Hence having the funds to pay the construction workers helped move forward the building of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was to be the resting place for the Shechina, the Holy Presence. Yet we are taught that HaShem is everywhere. Nonetheless, many feel that they need a dedicated place to retreat to when wanting to commune with HaShem.

What kind of Mishkan can be provided to modern folk? Is a temple or synagogue sufficient? - Or – Are there too many distractions in such places to allow for effective communing?

Can we each within ourselves find a quiet place to be a Mishkan where we can commune with HaShem? What other purposes could a modern Mishkan serve?

How do you define communing with HaShem? Where is your Mishkan? May we all succeed in building an effective Mishkan for ourselves!

Shabbat Shalom!

What shines light upon our paths forward? How can we finish making plans without a guiding light? Does Torah play a part in providing that guiding light for you? We at Beit Torah ( try to help each other find our guiding lights in the presence of the Shechina, which the people in biblical times believed was centered in the Mishkan as described in the last portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Pekudei:

Pekudei 5779 ; Finishing; Shemot [Exodus] 38:21-40:38;

I Kings 7:40-50 for Sephardim; I Kings 7:51-8:21 for Ashkenazim

As we come this Shabbat to finishing the Book of Shemot [Exodus] with the portion of Parashat Pekudei, we read about the finishing of the Mishkan. What was so important about having a Mishkan [Tabernacle]? The People needed a tangible place to be the home for HaShem, so that they could feel close to and loved by HaShem. Much later, when the second Temple was in disrepair, the use of local shrines was approved by the King and the Priests. De facto, they were a forerunner of modern Temples and Synagogues.

What was in the Tabernacle of HaShem? Among other things there were the ark of the Covenant [brit], the scrolls of the laws, and the eternal flame [light] so that the laws would never be in the dark. In this enclosed place [likely with a ceiling vent], the eternal flame would have produced considerable smoke. When vented upward, it would seem like a cloud enveloping the Mishkan. At night, the flames probably would be visible for quite a distance: a cloud by day and a fire by night.

Today we have other places where we place the scrolls of Torah, most often in an ark within a synagogue [schul, temple]. A Ner Tamid [eternal light] is placed nearby [literally an eternal candle, oil or wax]. What we no longer have is the ark of the Covenant. Some claim it is in Ethiopia, as described in the book, ‘The Sign and the Seal’. Some claim it is beneath the Temple Mount. No one knows for sure.

Do we need that ark for a modern mishkan? Is it a modern mishkan where-ever there is a Torah scroll? Do we need a Torah scroll in a Tabernacle where it is believed that the Shechinah Holy Presence is?

May the Shechinah envelop us no matter where we are! Chazak, Chazak, VeNitchazek! May we each be strong and strengthen each other!  Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Zachor, Parashat VaYikra

As we approach Purim, we are exhorted to remember Amalek and stop all the evil from Amalek. Yet how can we recognize what is the evil of Amalek? Are we wise enough? We at Beit Torah [ ] encourage treating all with respect and love, hoping that can dissuade others from giving in to the temptation towards Amalekite evil as described in many places such as the Book of Esther and this week's Haftorah [ I Samuel 15:1-34]:

Zachor/ VaYikra 5779 ; Remembering; VaYikra 1:1-5:26; 1 Samuel 15:1-34

In this cycle with a leap year, we now start VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus. De facto it is a handbook for the Levites and Cohanim [Priests of the Temple]. The sacrifices and the practices of the Temple times and of the Levites are no longer used since there is no longer a Temple. Prayer and non-Temple related mitzvot [good deeds] have become the modern sacrifices as per Rabbinic decision.

However because it is a leap year, this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat when we are reminded to get rid of Amalek where-ever Amalek is found. During Purim[March 20 eve-21, 2019], too, we are remembering this for Haman and his family who were an embodiment of Amalek. In the case of Haman and his sons even as also in the case of Hitler and his henchmen, death was the way to rid the world of this aspect of Amalek. So, too, in our haftorah of 1 Samuel 15:1-34 where even though King Saul and the Israelites wanted the spoils and to spare the evil Amalekite King Agog who ordered the savage attacks on the weak and defenseless of the Israelites, Samuel took up the sword and slew Agog. He also rebuked Saul for not heeding the word of HaShem to get rid of all Amalekites.

Yet now, when we think we have found Amalek, do we need to put them to death? Were we able to rid ourselves from Amalek after WWII? Probably not as today we still see the evil of Amalek in many places. How can we recognize where and who Amalek is today? How should we rid ourselves of Amalek? Can that ever truly be accomplished?
Shabbat Shalom!

Purim reminds us Amalek must go.
Yet how do we catch them and where must they go?
Amalek’s all around us tolling evil.
Who are tools under their spell? Who's truly evil?
Still we go forward with faith and in hope.
We will stop Amalek; we can make them go!

Shabbat Shalom!

With Amalek rearing their heads in New Zealand, what can we do, what can we offer that will counter Amalek and bring us closer to HaShem? We at Beit Torah ( will ponder those questions during Purim and discuss them come Shabbat. Maybe Jeremiah had the best advise as we read this Shabbat:

Tzav 5779 ; Offering; VaYikra 6:1-8:36; Jeremiah [Prophet] 7:21-8:3, 9:22-3

This coming Shabbat, once more, we read of instructions for the Levites [including the Cohanim] on how to do the sacrificial offerings, what can be eaten by whom, and how to purify/ sanctify the leading Cohanim. Many people will start reading this portion of Parashat Tzav and shrug their shoulders saying “Why bother?”. We do not do animal or other altar sacrifices any more. It seems that this was the custom of the times for there are no commandments to do such sacrifices. While we do not mind the concept of anointing with fragrant oil, the idea of sprinkling with blood to ordain grosses out most if not all people. It should.

Recalling that Rambam taught that we should learn the facts of our world and act accordingly, blood sprinkling is a clear health hazard. Accordingly there should be no purifying, anointing, nor ordaining with blood!

So what value is this parashah? Clearly there is a concept of offerings for expiation and atonement. Then rather than throw up our hands and abandon the parashah, perhaps we should look closer at the Haftorah which speaks to our discomfort. Jeremiah was a realist [not a bullfrog], perhaps a distressed realist, but pragmatic even so. In his rebuke of the sinful people, he makes clear that burnt offerings were not commanded. He emphasized that kindness, justice, equality [charity of spirit] are the basis for getting to know HaShem and thus becoming more in Hashem’s image. Indeed, the Sage Yochanan ben Zakkai spread this concept widely after the fall of the Temples. So what can we offer in lieu of burnt offerings? What do you offer for atonement or guilt? How best can we know HaShem? How can we become more in HaShem’s image? Should we even try? Shabbat Shalom!

Purim reminds us Amalek must go.
Yet how do we catch them and where must they go?
Now Amalek’s in NZ tolling evil.
Who are tools under their spell? Who’s truly evil?
Still we go forward with faith and in hope.
We will stop Amalek; we can make them go!

Sometimes we burn with embarrassment over what our 'leaders' are doing or saying. Sometimes we are ablaze with anger. Sometimes desire burns within us to do Tikun Olam but we are not sure how. We at Beit Torah ( try not to burn the holiday goodies. The gluten free Hamantaschen were delicious! Yet whenever something may be burning we need to proceed cautiously with good fire safety as we read in this week's portion of Parashat Shemini on Shabbat Parah:

Shabbat Parah, Parashat Shemini 5779 ; Burning; VaYikra 9:1-11:47; Ezekiel 36:16-38, some Sephardim stop with 33

What color does wood burn? What color is alcohol burning? What colors do we see when various fragrant oils burn? The answers are all part of the facts of the world. They are part of what Rambam [Maimonides] taught we should know: all the available facts of the world. What color would a fire be to burn a red heifer to ash for use in purification rituals? So when you think of fire, what color do you envisage?

If the fire were with a blue or green flame, would you think it strange? If your answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have a good idea of how the People reacted when they saw Aaron’s two oldest sons’ heads aflame. This is described in a fair amount of detail in this week’s portion of Parashat Shemini even as the preparation of the red heifer ash is described in this week’s special maftir for Shabbat Parah.

When we read about the tragic event of how Aaron lost two of his sons, and if we have good knowledge of worldly facts, we realize that this is a lesson on fire safety. In other words, before you light a fire: NO excessive drinking; NO excessive dousing with alcohols and fragrant oils; NO loose, long hair; always keep an eye on the flames; and so on…

Even if we do not appreciate details of sacrifices, altar purification/sanctification, and ideas about edibles; we still can very much appreciate lessons about fire safety. After all, we are familiar with terrible fires started from candles, from flammable items [such as in clothing and hair products] and from fireworks. Speaking of fireworks: how many different colors have you seen in fireworks? Do you know what makes the colors to be different?

May we all be aflame with love of HaSHem and mitzvot but not in a bodily sense! Shabbat Shalom!

As we now enter into the month of Nissan, we proclaim to all that Pesach [Passover] is nearly upon us. We at Beit Torah ( are focussed on cleaning and cooking we need to do before the start of the feast so that we can focus on the religious practices [like the reading of the Haggadah] come the actual two days of Pesach. Yet with all the hustle and bustle, how do we manage to purify ourselves spiritually and bodily in time for Pesach? Maybe this week's parashah commentary can shed some light on this question:

Shabbat HaChodesh, Parashat Tazria 5779 ; Purifying;
VaYikra 12:1-13:59;
Yehezkel Ch. 45: 18 -25; 46:1-15 Sephardim;
Ashkenazim 45: 16-25 ; 46:18-24; Dvorah 45: 16-25 ; 46: 1-18

Once the Temples were destroyed, the Rabbinic leaders of the time had to find explanations as to why certain practices of the Cohanim [Priests] were valid. They were not versed in contagion control nor were they learned in medical practices of their times as the common view was that ‘medicine’ was made to work through religious prayer. If it was not Jewish prayer, it was considered idolatrous.

So these Rabbinic leaders decided that all was a matter of spiritual purity or lack thereof. Rambam did not approve of that approach. He knew that medical practice was not religious but rather practical application of observed healing approaches to medical conditions.

Hence when we read this week’s portion of Parashat Tazria and next week’s Metzora, we realize that the ‘spiritual impurity’ explanation really does not work for clothing, houses, and other non-living objects! Pragmatic infection and contagion control does.

Besides prayers and sacrifices, purification also needed washing in water which evolved into the use of mikvot [ritual pools]. After a person used a mikvah, that person would be checked by an attendant to verify that there was no contamination by whatever was deemed inappropriate such as loose hairs. Some even used lakes, rivers, or oceans as mikvot.

Is taking a modern bath or swimming in a pool or in natural flowing water able to accomplish the same cleansing and purification as in a mikvah? What would you do to purify your spirit so that you can be more attentive to your religious practices? How will you purify yourself to be prepared for the Feast of Pesach? For indeed we have this Shabbat now started the month of Nissan, the month of Pesach! How can we get ourselves ready to fully embrace Pesach?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  Reconciling

The theme of reconciling with others occurs throughout the year, particularly for Rosh HaShanah and for Pesach! It is not really clear to many of us how to do so. Do you have any ideas how to do so? We at Beit Torah ( think we need to pass over any discomforts or disagreements in order to be able to get together to fully observe and celebrate Pesach. Maybe our Haftorah portion and related commentary can offer further ideas:

Shabbat HaGadol, Metzora ‘79 ; Reconciling; VaYikra 14:1-15:33; Malachi 3:4-24

Here we now come to a Shabbat just one week before our Pesach Seders. The message for this Shabbat, especially from Malachi, is most clear: we need to be reconciling ourselves with HaShem AND ourselves with others, especially with family. Why? We need to reconcile so that we can truly have Pesach in our families and our communities, together, even as the Israelites were together as they fled Egypt. To do so we need to pass over real or imagined slights and reconcile with others so we all can concentrate on hearing the Pesach story and enjoying the festive meal.

Who do you need to reconcile with? HaShem? Family members? Community members? How would you go about with such reconciling?

Cleaning and cooking for Pesach just do not cover it all. Neither does selling chometz [leavened products] in a timely fashion before Pesach. What else could you do to reconcile with the world before Pesach?

Pesach 5779 Thoughts

What do we pass over on our Pesach?
Do we skimp on the Seder, the cleaning, or the food restrictions?
Is Family the most important part?
Do we embrace freedoms for all or prefer comfort in fictions?
Life is not simple.

If family and food overshadow freedoms,
Why bother us with Pesach at all?
We could meet every month just to say ‘hi’, or
Could get on a huge conference call!
But where’s the meaning?

Every tradition, each practice and telling
Brings a lesson in life for all to peruse.
If we do not strive for ethics and freedom,
Do we then deserve love, respect, or abuse?
It is ours to choose…

May you choose a Happy, Healthy, Kosher Pesach however you define it!
Happy Pesach and Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

So much recent horror from hatreds, easy access to guns, mental distress, and/or bigotries leaves us all wounded and bleeding. With today's Holocaust and Heroes' Day Observance we also recognize that while all the victims were innocents, at least two were also ultimate heroes in Poway and NC. Our hearts at Beit Torah (, too, are bleeding over the needless wanton pain and death. How appropriate, therefor, is the parashah name for this week: Acharei Mot, After Death:

Acharei Mot 5779 Bleeding; VaYikra 16:1-18:30; 1 Samuel 20:18-42;
Shabbat Machar Chodesh

Our hearts are bleeding for the victims of terror and their loved ones. Our hearts are bleeding for the recent loss of congregation members as recalled in our Pesach Yiskor service along with the Holocaust victims. We are grateful to and proud of the geburim, those who fight back against hatred even at the cost of their own well-being and lives.

How appropriate a parasha we have this week: the Torah portion of Parashat Acharei Mot, After Death. While the focus is highly about blood based on the ancient beliefs that blood contained the essence and spirit of life, we understand that those are not the beliefs of today. Hence we are obligated according to the Rambam and others to update our practices according to the biological facts we have since learned, not on false assumptions.

Splashing blood on objects or people for any reason is no longer acceptable. In fact such a practice poses a health hazard. Discriminating against menstruating and postpartum women is also unacceptable. Manners of dealing with such women [or for that matter, any woman] need to be revised to be respectful and considerate. Similarly, hygiene needs for those having had contact with cadavers, including butchers, may need to be updated. As for not consuming blood, there are multiple other reasons even though we no longer believe that consuming blood will transfer the characteristics of the consumed creature to the ones who eat it [as was commonly believed by many ancient cultures].

As for letting loose a goat into the wilderness during Yom Kippur: we should all support improving genetic diversity among wildlife and strengthening ecosystems. Still, there may be better ways to achieve these goals other than goat release. On the other hand, this is more humane than the source Babylonian practice of placing sins on a convict and letting the crowd have at him…

The other goat was a sacrifice, bled and prepared accordingly. We no longer share in the bleeding of sacrifices.

Nonetheless, for what do we bleed? Are you a bleeding heart? What is a bleeding heart? For what do you bleed? Suffering people? Suffering animals? Plastic polluted oceans, air, and land? Today we are still bleeding for the victims of terror… Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!   Focussing

In these times of horrors, discrimination, and terror, we often feel the temptations of revenge. Yet how can we live ethical lives if we give in to those temptations? We at Beit Torah keep on reminding ourselves that all people need to be loved, respected, and treated as we would want ourselves to be treated. It can be quite a conundrum. In part that confusion can be resolved in this week's Parasha.  Still there are parts of the Parashah which just reinforce the conundrum and confusion:

Kedoshim 5779 Focussing; VaYikra 19:1-20:27; Amos 9:7-15;

When we try to live ethical lives [sure hope we do], on what do we focus? What core values are the basis for our lives? This week’s portion of Parashat Kedoshim [Holy objects/ things/ items/ behaviours] seems to be attempting to give that basis. Some of the things listed we would all agree with, such as:

Chapter 19 Verse 9: leave gleanings for the needy

19:10: leave fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger

19:11: you should not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another

19:13: Do not defraud your fellow nor commit robbery

19:14: Do not insult the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind

19:15: Do not render an unfair decision

19:16: Do not profit by the blood of your fellow

19:18: Love your fellow as yourself

19:29: Do not degrade your daughter and make her into a harlot

19:33: The stranger living amongst you shall be done no wrong… shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love that stranger as yourself…

19:35-6: You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have honest balances, weights, and measures…

Some we might not agree with:

20:9: If anyone insults his father or his mother, he shall be put to death.

20:10: If a man commits adultery with another man;’s wife, they both shall be put to death.

20:27: A person with a ghost or familiar spirit shall be stoned to death.

Perhaps it is best if we were to be focussing on the positive behaviours in this parashah. Which parts of this parashah do you agree with? Which parts do you think should be the basis for our ethical lives? Which parts do you think we should not include? Which parts are you focussing on?

Shabbat Shalom!

Do we want to have a justice system or do we want punishments and revenge when we feel insulted or violated? What we read about in this week's Parashah makes us wonder if the story at the end is a case of what we should NOT do. We at Beit Torah ( pray that we can always find a way to correct abuses without stepping into vengeance. After all, we are supposed to have judgements by impartial judges - or so we are told. How does this week's parashah mesh with that concept?:

Emor 5779 Telling; VaYikra 21:1- 24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31

While last week the Parasha left us a bit confused, this week’s portion of Parashat Emor only compounds the conundrum. Emor seems to be HaShem telling the Cohanim [Priests] how they are to be different from everybody else. At first the Parashah is telling about when the Cohanim are permitted to come into contact with the dead, e.g. to bury close relatives. The telling continues with restrictions on hair and skin care followed by with whom they [the men] can marry.

Today, some try to follow these Temple times restrictions, but what if a Kohane wants to be a physician, a livestock farmer, a law enforcement officer, or an undertaker? What would a Kohane lose if he were to marry a divorcee? Blessing the congregation? Leading a Pidyon HaBen [redemption of the firstborn]? Have the first aliyah for Torah readings?

The telling of the Parashah then deals with how Cohanim with physical deformities must not be allowed to do sacrifices. Yet last week we were told not to curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind. This restriction smacks of disability discrimination on top of the ever present sexism since the Exodus from Egypt or at least since Temple times.

Much of the Parashah then deals with how and what to do about sacrifices - moot now without a Temple. More pertinent are reminders telling of when the Holy Days occur albeit associated sacrifices and offerings are no longer relevant.

Even more perplexing then is the telling of the stoning to death [no longer acceptable as a punishment] of an half Israelite for blasphemy which is neither described nor defined. Is it a true story or a parable? What is meant by “blaspheme”? Is this supposed to be a teaching against intermarriage, claiming that offspring of such marriages are immoral? Is this then a teaching of bigotry against intermarriage? How does this mesh with the concept of one rule for citizen and stranger alike? Why then is there no example of an Israelite being punished for blasphemy? How is this to be combined with the interspersed concepts of eye for an eye and equal restitution for damages or death? How then can blasphemy equate to death? Perhaps this is a parable about the deadly effects speech and words can have [such as Lashon HaRah, the evil tongue]!?! May we all figure out how to resolve this confusion and conundrum!

Shabbat Shalom!