Author Archives: Dvora Weisberg

Dvora Weisberg

About Dvora Weisberg

Dvora Weisberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics and Director of the Beit Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Strength In Numbers

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In this parashah, Moses announces to the people his impending death and confirms that Joshua will lead the people across the Jordan to conquer the land that God is giving them. He then tells them that once every seven years, on the festival of Sukkot, they shall gather together and "read this teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel" (Deuteronomy 31:11). Why is this instruction included here, rather than with other laws relating to the festivals or the conduct of life in the land?

The Israelites are about to lose the only leader they have ever known. Moses offers them Joshua, his God-approved successor. He reminds them that they will have leadership beyond that of Joshua. "The Lord God marches with you…the Lord…will not fail you or forsake you" (Deuteronomy 31:6ff.). Still, Moses senses that the Israelites are afraid; life without Moses is difficult to face. So he reminds them that, in addition to God and human leadership, they have two sources of strength, Torah and community. These sources of strength are, unlike any human leader, perpetual and, unlike God, are perceived as being highly accessible.

There are times when a community is uncertain that its human leadership can meet its needs. While God is described as the leader of the Jewish people, there may be moments when we feel distant from God. At these times, we may find our greatest strength lies in our ties to each other.

A ceremony like the one mandated in this parashah reinforces the sense of unity the community needs. A large gathering of Jews often raises the spirits of the individuals involved and gives them a renewed sense of purpose. The public reading of the Torah reminds the Israelites of the goals that they are committed to as a community, reintroducing the blueprint for repairing the world to those who are mandated to carry it out.

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Renewing Love

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

One of the famous commandments found in this parashah is also, on the surface, one of the strangest in the Torah. Moses instructs Israel: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). We usually think of love not as something people do on command, but as an emotion that enters the human heart unbidden. How, then, can the Torah expect us to fulfill a commandment to love God?

In reality, of course, love is not exclusively a spontaneous phenomenon. We may fall in love without meaning to or trying to. But sustaining love, as anyone involved in an ongoing loving relationship can attest, requires continuous thought and effort. The lover must make conscious efforts to demonstrate his or her love. People in love must find time to renew their love and keep it fresh.

The same holds true for love of God. By commanding us to love God, the Torah teaches–as a Chasidic master puts it–that each person’s inner nature includes the ability to love God. To transform that love from potential to actual requires a conscious and ongoing effort.

Much like love for another person, we develop love for God by taking specific actions that demonstrate our feelings. We show love for God through the performance of mitzvot (commandments) at all times and places. This passage commanding love of God instructs us to adhere to God’s word "at home and . . . away, when you lie down and when you get up" (6:7). The demands of living according to the Torah involve both intellect and emotion, mind and heart. The regular, fixed times for performing the actions that demonstrate that love ensure that we constantly nurture it. They thus build an enduring devotion to God that qualifies as love.

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Protecting The Sacredness Of Life

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In this parashah, God directs Moses to set aside cities "to serve…as cities of refuge to which a killer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee" (Numbers 35:11). The Torah distinguishes between intentional murder and accidental killing. The former is punishable by death and the sentence is carried out by the victim’s closest relative.

When death is accidental, the killer may seek protection in the city of refuge; if he leaves the city, the deceased’s relative may kill him with impunity. The Israelites are told, "You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land…in which I Myself abide" (35:33ff.). God cannot dwell in a land defiled.

If blood defiles the land, why distinguish between intentional and accidental homicide? If blood is a pollutant, why allow capital punishment? If one who kills accidentally is spared capital punishment and may flee to a city of refuge, why may the victim’s relative kill him if he leaves the city? Why does the Torah forbid monetary compensation in the case of murder, insisting that the killer be executed?

Whether or not we agree with the penalties set here, it is clear that several values are at work. The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another’s humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so the murderer has hopelessly compromised his own humanity. Murder is an outrageous crime; to accept monetary compensation would be to place a fixed value on that which is priceless. In the case of accidental death, the community may protect the killer, but the gravity of his act must be recognized through exile.

The Torah cannot prevent human beings from killing each other. It reminds us, however, that each human life has infinite value and that no life can be taken without consequences.

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Through Weakness And Strength

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The Israelites are about to experience a great transformation. After 40 years in the wilderness, they are to enter "a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains…of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates…where [they] will lack nothing" (Deuteronomy 8:7ff.). On the east bank of the Jordan, Moses instructs them, "When you have eaten your fill give thanks to…God" (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Is the reminder necessary? Could the Israelites, eating from the bounty of the land, forget who enabled them to enjoy it?

Moses fears that the Israelites will indeed quickly forget the lessons of the Exodus and the wilderness. The land, which should serve as a constant reminder of God’s goodness to them, may soon be regarded as the spoils of war. God does not begrudge the Israelites the fine houses, the abundant herds and harvests, the gold and silver of their new land.

The parasha does not denounce the Israelites’ acquisition of wealth. Rather it cautions them, "Beware lest you forget…God… and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’" (8:14ff.). Wealth is dangerous when it leads its possessors to become self-absorbed and self-congratulatory.

It is easy to acknowledge our need for others when we are living in a wilderness, when survival is only possible through cooperation. When we find ourselves in possession of wealth, when we are capable of meeting our needs, we are eager to deny the uncertainty and dependency of the past.

The Israelites who will enter Canaan are reminded that their survival in the desert and their possession of the land are inescapably linked. Just as they acknowledged the power of God when they were weakest, so must they remember God’s role in their continuing success.

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Preserving The Covenant

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In this parasha, God details the rewards for observing the commandments and the punishments for rejecting them. If Israel is faithful to the covenant, God will grant the people rich harvests and peace in their land. If Israel disregards the covenant, the people will experience famine and disease, and will be overwhelmed by their enemies.

These passages are both understandable and disturbing. When two parties make an agreement, they may outline the incentives for honoring the contract and the penalties for breaching it. Israel and God have made a covenant. Why shouldn’t there be incentive clauses or penalties?

On the other hand, the covenant is not a business agreement; it marks the entrance into a deeply committed relationship. Is there any need for incentives, let alone threats? Furthermore, the covenant binds God as well as Israel. If incentives and penalties are appropriate, why are there none directed at God?

The covenant is clearly a reciprocal arrangement, with its core being not particular commandments but relationship. "I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your God" (Leviticus 26:12). The preservation of this relationship is the true incentive for upholding the covenant. The gravest consequence of disobedience would be the severing of the bonds between God and Israel.

God appears to be in control of the covenant. God initiates the covenant and spells out reward and punishment. But God needs Israel as much as Israel needs God. If Israel derives its identity from its relationship with God, so too is God known in relationship to Israel.

Furthermore, however Israel behaves, God promises, "I will not repudiate them or spurn them…annulling My covenant with them: for I am the Lord their God" (26:44). God cannot reject the covenant. The incentive clauses are directed at Israel because only Israel has the power to break the covenant.

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Reaching Out To The Isolated

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The parashah opens with a description of the ritual for purifying a metzora, an Israelite stricken with a skin disease. The metzora is required to dwell outside the Israelite camp until the affliction has passed. On the day on which the metzora is eligible for purification, the Torah records that "he shall be brought to the priest" (Leviticus 14:2).

The next verse, however, reports that "the priest shall go outside the camp" to the place where the metzora has dwelt alone during his sickness. The classical commentaries explain the apparent contradiction by noting that the priest must go out to the metzora since the latter cannot return to the camp until the purification ritual has been performed.

To the commentators’ explanations for the priest’s behavior, we can add another insight. The metzora, as a result of contracting a disfiguring disease, has been exiled from the community. While this precaution may have risen from the desire to prevent the spread of a contagious disease, it undoubtedly left the metzora feeling emotionally, as well as physically, alone.

Rejoining the Community

Cured of his illness, the metzora is now permitted to rejoin the community, but the period of isolation may have left him angry and withdrawn. The priest goes out to meet the metzora in part to draw him back into the community. Reentering the community is a gradual process, reflecting the difficulty the metzora experiences reconnecting with other human beings.

Our communities include individuals who for one reason or another feel isolated. We cannot ignore these people or contribute to their feelings of estrangement. Fear of their afflictions is no excuse for causing them further pain. Just as the priest goes out to meet the metzora, so too we must reach out to those in our midst who have been excluded, drawing them back into a caring community.

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Private And Communal Judaism

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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Leviticus, chapter 8, describes the consecration of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary carried in the Sinai desert, and of Aaron and his sons as priests. Moses assembles the entire congregation and performs the rituals that imbue the mishkan and the priests with holiness. Then he instructs Aaron and his sons:

You shall not go outside the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed…. You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge–that you may not die–for so I have been commanded. (Leviticus 8:33-35)

This period of isolation undoubtedly gave the priests time to contemplate their new status. Time spent away from their fellow Israelites may have strengthened their sense of connectedness to God. Their responsibilities as priests would set them apart from other Israelites; thus their consecration involved a physical separation from the people.

At the same time, they were aware that on the eighth day they were to leave the Tent of Meeting and rejoin the people. The priests were consecrated to serve God in part through their relations with the entire nation. They were to "teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them" (10:11).

Each of us struggles to achieve a balance between the private and public aspects of our Judaism. At times, we feel the need to be alone, to experience Judaism on a personal level, through prayer, study or contemplation. Such moments may strengthen us. But we must always be aware that the community is gathered outside waiting for us. We can never lose our sense of connection to others. Being a "kingdom of priests" requires that each of us employ our Jewish experience to teach others.

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The Challenge Of Changing

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center. 

When the parashah opens, "Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned" (Genesis 37:1). Jacob, like his father before him, is living with his family in the Land of Canaan. And, like Isaac before him, Jacob has problems with his children.

Jacob was raised in a home in which each parent favors one of the children. This favoritism deeply damaged Jacob and Esau’s relationship, eventually forcing Jacob to flee his home.

Repeating the Behavior

Yet Jacob is repeating the same dangerous behavior with his sons. Jacob "loves Joseph best of all sons," and every member of the family knows it. Joseph is conscious of his position and constantly reminds his brothers of it. His brothers in turn are deeply resentful of Joseph’s status and the dreams that indicate his future is as bright as his present. How can Jacob be oblivious to these tensions, especially having experienced a similar situation himself?

Jacob’s behavior demonstrates how much easier it is to repeat known patterns, even destructive ones, than to create new ones. Jacob may recognize that his parents‘ favoritism adversely affected their children, but he knows no other model for relationships. He repeats his parents’ behavior with both his wives and his children, and thus lives in a household full of resentment and jealousy. Jacob never learns; years later we see him favoring Benjamin and still later preferring one grandson over another.

The Torah teaches us that changing one’s behavior is never easy. Jacob has become Israel, but he remains in many ways the same. Change requires more than rejecting old ways; it requires us to actively search out new ways to behave, ways that create positive relationships with those around us.

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Overcoming Envy

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

After years of contention, Jacob and Esau are reconciled. Their relationship is somewhat awkward, and they will never be the closest of brothers. Still, for the first time each can accept the other as he is; each can see the other’s wealth without coveting it. What has changed? How can two people who tricked and threatened to kill each other embrace?

jacob and esauDuring their boyhood, Esau and Jacob were in fierce competition. Each was beloved by one parent, but felt the other was the favored child. Each wanted what the other had. Esau, skilled in providing himself with game, wanted Jacob’s pottage. Jacob, reportedly a simple man, wanted the greatness promised by birthright and blessing. Nothing was worthwhile unless it belonged to the other. Esau only values his birthright and blessing after Jacob has acquired them. They are children competing for their parents’ attention and gifts. Each is too needy to acknowledge the other’s needs.

Reunited

When they are reunited, Esau and Jacob have overcome their neediness. Each has a family, retainers and possessions acquired through his own efforts. Jacob, who has always gained at Esau’s expense, offers him a gift. Esau refuses, saying, “I have enough, my brother; let what have remain yours” (Genesis 33:9). Jacob insists, claiming, “God has favored me and I have plenty” (33:11). Each of the brothers is now able to recognize how much he has; secure in themselves, they have no need to envy each other.

Each of us is constantly striving to achieve some goal. Absorbed in our efforts, we sometimes lose sight of how much we already have. We envy the achievements of others rather than appreciate our own. Only when we learn to value what we are can we live at ease with others. Esau and Jacob can be reconciled when they realize in the words of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Forebears), “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”

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Strengthening Bonds

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Reprinted with permission from Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning And Leadership.

After instructing the Israelites to observe the seven-day festival of Sukkot, the Torah continues, "On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion" (Leviticus 23:36). What is the significance of this festival? It is not part of Sukkot and the Torah provides no clue as to what prompts the establishment of the holiday.

A midrash provides insight into the rabbis’ understanding of the festival. Playing on the word atzeret, a solemn gathering, God says to the Israelites who have assembled for Sukkot: Let me keep you near me (atzarti etchem etzli), like a king who invited his children to a feast for a number of days. When it was time for them to leave, he said, "Children, please stay with me another day; it is hard for me to let you go."

Israel is so dear to God that God wants to prolong the festival, a time when the two are especially close. We may feel exhausted after the High Holidays and a week of Sukkot, but God is eager for a little more of our company.

We express an emotion similar to God’s through our recitation of Yizkor [the memorial prayer for deceased relatives] on Shemini Atzeret. We are unwilling to let go of the people we love, even after their deaths. When we recite Yizkor, we are saying to them, "Stay with us; it’s hard for us to let you go." No amount of time together is enough; the more intense the relationship the harder the separation.

Relationships are exhausting; at times, one party or the other wants to pull back and rest. On Shemini Atzeret, the tradition teaches us, God reaches out to strengthen the bond with Israel. We too can reach out on the holiday, not only to the dead but to the living as well, drawing others closer to us.

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