D’var Torah: Rabbi Ed Gelb (Behar)

In parshat Behar, the concept of shmitah (one year in 7 of letting the land lay fallow) and Yovel (return of property to original owners) is introduced.  The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God.  This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world.  Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concept still retains meaning.

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord”.  This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land and not just using the land for ourselves.   When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.

In regard to the “Yovel”, the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth is beneficial.   However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an ends, we can impact our communities in big ways.  The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident”.  It means that we are not permanent.  It is a way to remind us of our mortality and that you cannot take it with you.  Also, our heritage is that we were once landless slaves and we need to always keep faith with those who are poor.    The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.

Judaism is a practical religion.  We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success.  However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way.  A way that enhances God’s presence in the world.  Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today..

Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah

D’var Torah: Amy Newman (Emor)

In Parashat Emor, the Torah teaches about “moadei hashem”, the “appointed seasons of God”:  the festivals that fall throughout the year, and the weekly Shabbat. The text mentions Shabbat and festivals side by side, but there are differences between these two types of sacred time.

Long before there was a people of Israel, God declared Shabbat holy. Humans don’t set the date of Shabbat; it has been fixed on the calendar since the time of creation. In the Friday night kiddush blessing, we describe God as “mekadesh hashabbat”, God sanctifies the Shabbat; the holiness of Shabbat originates with God.

Regarding the festivals – Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot – the Torah says “These are the appointed seasons of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” They don’t just happen; the people must announce them. The Torah specifies dates for most holidays, but it was the task of the court to determine the beginning of a new month based on the appearance of the moon. Only after the month had begun did the people know when the holiday would fall. Without human participation, there could be no festival. In the kiddush blessing on festivals, we describe God differently than we do on Shabbat; we say that God is “mekadesh yisrael v’hazmanim”, God sanctifies Israel and the seasons. God has entrusted people with the holy work of managing the calendar.

God created Shabbat long before God had a covenantal relationship with Israel, and God did (and does) the work of making Shabbat holy. In the early days of our nation – the childhood of the Jewish people – we weren’t ready to partner with God in proclaiming the festival dates. It was fitting that God took care of us like children, and didn’t ask too much. And it seems appropriate that centuries later, once the relationship between God and the people was more sophisticated, and we were bound to each other by covenant, God entrusted us with the high-stakes tasks of determining dates of festivals.

Our Jewish lives are punctuated by both types of sacred time: the Shabbat that God gave us, and the festivals that we create in partnership with God. When I think about work of raising and teaching Jewish children, I find guidance in these models. I hope we are blessed with opportunities to work in partnership with our children and students to create holy space, time, and ideas.

Amy Newman, Grade 7 and 8 Tanach, Schechter Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia Plumb (Kedoshim)

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parshiot.  Its first verse led to major change in my life:  קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.   This verse is the root of Mussar, a genre of Jewish literature from the 11th century that tries to answer the question of how to fulfill the commandment from the verse. Studying and following Mussar has helped me change the way I behave toward others and toward myself.  I am a better parent, child, partner and rabbi because of what I have learned from Mussar.

So, what is Mussar?  It is a Jewish method to help us become holier people.   What does it mean to be holy and how do we achieve it? Bahya Ibn Pakuda, a Spanish theologian, the original Mussar thinker, said that holiness starts in our souls.   How do we build holy souls, you ask? Mussar says that we work on character traits to help us feel and behave better. Let’s take an example from the Torah: ‘You shall look after the poor and needy’.  According to Mussar, giving to the poor is part of the trait of hesed, loving kindness. We all have the ability to show loving kindness, but sometimes we give it more than at other times. According to Mussar, in order to be holy, we should show hesed as often as we can to others, and to ourselves.  Hesed toward ourselves is as important as doing acts of kindness for others. Mussar says that if we feel badly about ourselves, and berate ourselves again and again, that is not holiness. At the same time, if we hide our sins from ourselves and deny our faults, then we are not holy either. Holiness is finding a balance between our strengths and our weaknesses. We also need to find a balance with hesed. Of course, it is good to give tzedakah but the Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t give so much money away that we can’t pay the dentist bill. In other words, we can’t give so much away that we go broke ourselves.

Holiness comes from finding the right balance between giving and receiving, between looking after others and looking after ourselves.  This Shabbat, I hope you find holiness, peace and joy.

Rabbi Marcia Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila