D’var Torah: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal

I always loved Parshat B’reshit. It is the first chapter of the Torah and it says it all: The creation of the universe, the birth of living creatures, the fashioning of the first humans—Adam and Eve—love, marriage, jealousy, birth of children, sibling rivalry and fratricide, the formation of various tribes and nations, the insidious appearance of evil, etc. Perhaps the greatest verse is chapter 5:1: “And God created humans in His image.” Rabbi Akiva stressed the importance of this passage when he stated (Mishnah Avot 3:8), “Precious is humanity for having been created in the image of the Divine.” We are not merely animals; were are sentient, intelligent humans with the unique ability of choosing good versus evil and of developing our intellect and creating a better world.

What can one say as we scan the world and witness such brutality and cruelty among the nations? Is this the way God planned things? And what shall our reaction be when our own nation—the land that welcomed the poor and persecuted and homeless masses to its shores of freedom and opportunity would wall-off millions and designate them as “criminals, rapists, murderers, drug dealers,” etc.? Had this attitude prevailed, my ancestors never would have made it to America in the 1880s, fleeing Czarist pogroms.

We need to study B’reshit carefully, once again. We need the religious leaders of all faiths to reemphasize its great teachings and value-system. We need politicians who are not just fixed on getting reelected but who stand for the principles that made America great and a beacon to all the other nations on earth, inspiring them to copy our example. Rabbi Tanhuma said it best in this wonderful passage (Genesis Rabbah 24:7): “

Whoever curses, deprecates or degrades another human being it is as if he cursed, deprecated or degraded God, because the human being is created in His image.”

Perhaps we might send a copy of this quote to all of our religious leaders, politicians, and school principals. Maybe, then, the hopes and dreams of the Creation tale might be realized?

elan-babchuck

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Chol Hamoed Sukkot)

The Medizbozer Rebbe used to say: During the High Holidays, we find ourselves serving God with the entirety of our being. On Rosh Hashanah, we serve with our head, as memory enwreathes our mind. On Yom Kippur, we serve with the heart, as fasting strains the heart to its fullest capacity, and we open our hearts to our loved ones in seeking and granting forgiveness. And on Sukkot, we serve with our hands, as we grasp the lulav and etrog and build our sukkot from the ground up.

Indeed, the head-work and heart-work of the High Holidays can be engrossing, engaging, and exhausting to the mind and the spirit, respectively. When we truly give ourselves over to the task of searching our heads and scanning our hearts for all that ails us, inspires us, and moves us, we often find ourselves collapsed in a heap after the rush of bagels and orange juice at break-fast. And yet – tired as we may be – our work is just beginning.

As soon as the break-fast is cleaned up and we’re once again properly caffeinated, our task moves from the head and heart to the hands; it’s time to build the sukkah, grasp the lulav and etrog, and get to work.

On its own, the metaphor of our High Holiday time as a full-bodied experience is profound. But it’s the progression – head to heart to hands – that I find most compelling. What is the work of our hands if not a reflection on the passion of the spirit, the conviction of the mind? How could we possibly put our hands to work before we intellectually and instinctually understand what it is we’re trying to build?

Whether your handiwork involves building a sukkah, extending outreach to someone in need, or simply embracing a loved one, my blessing for us all is that the work of our hands flows authentically from the newly-minted memories of our minds and the deeply-rooted hopes of our hearts. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 is the Director of Innovation of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

 

D’var Torah: Ami Joseph (Haazinu)

Did you know there was a can of tuna in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the two tablets that Moses brought from Mount Sinai?

Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly tuna. It was a measure of the Manna that we ate each day in the desert, when Hashem was our miraculous sheltering sky in the daylight and a burning cloud protecting us in the night. Could you imagine opening the famous Ark of the Covenant, excited to peer inside at the writings of Moses, our teacher, with foundational words of the Torah written on stone, only to also see a small measure of food?

In the desert Moses instructed us to take as much Manna as we needed for a single day. If we took more, the extra Manna would rot. We had to have faith in Hashem that there would be food for us and for our families on the next day, without which we might not survive. Hashem was using the Manna to teach a slave people how to have faith in tomorrow, and how to behave in a community by leaving extra food for others rather than hoarding it for ourselves.

The Torah has a different word for hoarders, called ‘Asafsuf’ in BaMidbar chapter 11, when the people rebelled against Hashem’s system of Manna, and instead wanted to gorge themselves on meat and fish and poultry. The people protested to Moses, who for the first time seems to lose patience, and asks Hashem for help getting the job done. After a series of such episodes, Moses’ may have lost some measure of control when he used his staff to beat a rock for water rather than speak to it, as Hashem had commanded.

This week’s parsha of Haazinu ends with Hashem commanding Moses to climb to the top of Mount Nebo, to retire from serving the people of Israel, and to pass on from this world before the people enter the land of Israel. But the measure of Manna remained in the Ark of the Covenant and with the people of Israel as they entered their new home, intended to be an eternal reminder to have faith in tomorrow no matter the events of today.

I learned a lot of this from listening to classes of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag via the app Soundcloud.