Shoftim: Pursuing Justice for the Environment

FullSizeRender(175)(1)In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses demands of the Jewish people,  צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף, Justice, justice shall you pursue” (16:20).

It also includes the following. “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down.” (20:19)

This injunction to protect fruit trees is a foundation of bal tashchit (do not destroy) and  “is the halakhic basis of an ethic of environmental responsibility,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Chabad.org explains that bal tashchit, “underscores the Divine imperative for us to take matters concerning the preservation of our environment very seriously.”

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Re’eh: Meat and Poverty

Re'eh Ratatouille

Re’eh Ratatouille

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, it is written, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul” (12:20).  Follows is a list of animals that cannot be consumed and the commandment not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Further along in the Torah portion, it is written, “If there will be among you a needy person. . . you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother” (15:7).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that, “It was through agriculture that the Torah pursued its religious and social programme. It has three fundamental elements. The first was the alleviation of poverty.”

In our current society, what is the connection between eating meat and people living in poverty? The people in the US who are raising animals for food consumption are needy people. Continue reading

Matot-Massei: Concentric Circles

Matot-Massei: Roasted onions

Matot-Massei: Roasted onions

I received a basket of enormous, homegrown onions from a family friend. Layers of thick dirt muted the rich golden tones of the onions. Each one had just been picked and a mass of dried out, dusty stalks, like wild hair, was sprouting from the bulbs.  I wasn’t sure what to do with so many onions until I read this week’s parsha, Matot-Massei.  I prepared a simple roasted onions side dish. These concentric circles of onion are delicate, rich in flavor and easy to prepare. This week I offer many different thoughts about the onions and how the dish relates to themes in the parsha. Continue reading

Korach: From Rebellious to Sacred

Korach: Pancakes with strawberry compote

Korach: Pancakes with strawberry compote

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about rebellious Israelites, led by Korach. While his complaints about the status of Moses and Aaron might seem like the words of an early democratic activist, his intentions were actually self-serving. He is “the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people” (Etz Hayim, p. 860). He led a group of Israelites in opposition to not only Moses and Aaron but “that of Torah, and ultimately, God.” (Etz Hayim, p. 860). Rabbi Samuel Barth notes, “The sin of Korah was in thinking of himself as “outside the community”; he betook himself and his followers from being part of the People of Israel, and they became a faction, catalysts for further factionalization.”

Rabbi Moshe Bryski, on Chabad.org writes that Korach lived his life yearning for a different one, jealous of others. He comments that “A person who sees the essence of life as serving the will of His Creator does not expend useless energy craving places where the grass is greener. He finds meaning, purpose, joy and fulfillment in the place where the grass is greenest of all: his own.”

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Shelach: Fear or Trust?

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Shelach: Milk and honey rice pudding

In this week’s parsha, Shelach, Moses sends the 12 spies to scout out the land of Canaan. Upon their return, they recount that the land does flow with milk and honey. But, they also were fearful of its inhabitants, explaining that they cannot conquer them. They tell Moses that it is a land filled with people that “devours its settlers. All the people we saw in it are men of great size. . . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13: 32-33).

The Israelites are crushed and wish that they had never left their enslaved lives in Egypt. Only Caleb and Joshua are unwavering in their faith that God can deliver them to the land. God is enraged by their lack of faith, fear: How long will this people provoke Me? How much longer will they not believe in Me after all the signs I have performed in their midst?(14:11). God declares that none of this generation of Israelites (except Caleb and Joshua’s families) will enter the land.

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Naso: Blessings and Unity

Naso: Ful Medames

Naso: Ful Medames

In this week’s parsha, Naso, God says to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
The Lord bless you and protect you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (6:23-27)

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Bamidbar: Centering in the Wilderness

Bamidbar: bourekas and greens

Bamidbar: bourekas and greens

Bamidbar is both the name of the fourth book of the Torah (referred to in English as Book of Numbers) and this week’s portion. After receiving the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, Bamidbar/Numbers tells the Israelites journey through the wilderness.   A wild landscape conjures images of unrefined, undeveloped, unknown. Our own journeys might have similar descriptions: intimidating, challenging, mysterious. During the Israelites journey, “we will see much adventure, crisis and turmoil take place in the darkness of the wilderness,” writes Yael Shy.

Despite their years in the wilderness, though, the Israelites have a guide to center and direct them: the Tabernacle that they transport. It is always placed in the middle of the Israelites as they walked and camped. Etz Hayyim commentary notes, “The tabernacle was the first thing one saw on leaving home and the first thing one looked for on returning home” (p.774). Continue reading

Emor: Not Cutting Corners

Emor: Kaleidescope scapes, carrots, garbanzo beans

Emor: Kaleidescope scapes, carrots, garbanzo beans

At the beginning of Emor it is written, They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shall they shave the edge of their beard, nor shall they make cuts in their flesh” (21:5).

And, in the middle of a description about the holiday of Shavuot, comes the following: When you reap the harvest of your Land, you shall not completely remove the corner of your field during your harvesting, and you shall not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. [Rather,] you shall leave these for the poor person and for the stranger. I am the Lord, your God.” (23:22).

Both of the facial beard and field corners are called payot.

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Shemini: Integration

Shemini: Couscous and tomato stew

Shemini: Couscous and tomato stew

A version of this originally appeared on the Joy of Kosher
In this week’s parsha, Shemini, on the 8th day Aaron (reluctantly), and his sons become Kohanim.  After Aaron’s sacrificial offering, he and Moses “bless the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.”

Thereafter, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu proceed to offer a sacrifice to God, but bring “alien fire.” Thus, “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them: thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” After their deaths, Aaron was instructed by Moses, “you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and pure; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” Continue reading

Ki Tisa: Anxiety and Desire

Ki Tisa: Smashed potatoes with turmeric

Ki Tisa: Smashed potatoes with turmeric

In this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, an epic moment occurs when Moses descends Mount Sinai with the tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments and finds the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. He throws down the tablets, shattering them.  How can one understand the Israelites creation and worship of the Golden Calf? Were their actions actually predictable and expected?

Yael Shy of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality describes the Israelites feelings then as “The Fire of Anxiety.” She writes, “When Aaron throws the gold in the fire, the people are filled with terror and anxiety. Moses has been gone for over a month. They are terrified of being abandoned, of being alone.“ Continue reading