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The JCRC's Rabbi in Residence, Abbi Sharofsky, provides our community with an engaging commentary on the week’s Torah portion.
Parashat Chayei Sarah
Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” – Genesis 23:3-4
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, opens with Abraham finding a suitable piece of land for burying Sarah. Abraham will eventually be buried in the same location. This poignant vignette exemplifies the mitzvah of kavod ha-met, honoring of the deceased, Abraham burying Sarah in a space that was designated for her and her family members demonstrated his love and respect for her. Like Abraham, we too bury our loved ones with dignity, in respectful and well-maintained spaces.
Vandalism of a cemetery upsets that sense of dignity. Any kind of vandalism in a religious space – Jewish or another faith— is scary and painful. Those feelings, along with grief and anger, are even stronger when it occurs at a cemetery, a place where we entrust the bodies of those we love when their souls are no longer part of this earth.
Earlier this month, a Jewish cemetery, Temple Israel, in northeastern Omaha was vandalized. The vandals knocked over 75 headstones, causing more than $50,000 in damage to the cemetery and an immeasurable amount of anguish and pain to the community.
Derogatory language and pictures on a house of worship can be painted over, cleaned up, and a community can come together to show its strength in the face of hate. Toppled headstones are harder to fix, both physically and emotionally. Such attacks demonstrate not just a measure of disrespect to the current community, but an attempt to erase our very heritage, to defile the memory of those who came before us. It is an act of violence against those who cannot defend themselves. When Jews and their allies come together to restore and rebuild, and to challenge the hate and coldness that fuel this type of vandalism, they are not only defending our community but also fulfilling the obligation first undertaken by Abraham to honor his adored wife Sarah.
The LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Genesis 18:1-3
One of my most formative experiences in rabbinical school was clinical pastoral education (CPE). In addition to my formal training, after my ordination I completed a year-long residency at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manhattan. Although I was initially intimidated by this most sensitive and critical of clerical duties, I quickly grew to enjoy being a spiritual care provider: I like the energy of acute care settings, and I love working with people of all religions, challenging myself to deeply explore my own faith in order to help others.
Visiting the sick, bikkur holim, is one of the mitzvot demonstrated in this week’s Torah reading, Vayera. Abraham is recovering from his circumcision and relaxing by his tent when three people – messengers from God – appear at his door. They are visiting him at a very vulnerable point. He may still be in pain from the procedure, trying to understand the physical and psychological change it imposed and to digest the weight of the new responsibility it symbolized. Yet Abraham rushes to stand and greet the visitors. Why is he so eager to welcome these people? Why are we commanded to visit the ill at such a difficult time, and why do people want us there?
Many of the patients I saw in my pastoral practice were like Abraham. They sat up in bed, adjusted their covers and cleared space in their rooms. They apologized for their disheveled hair and their hospital gown. Some offered leftovers from their meal trays. They appreciated my interest in them, and even if they didn’t want to talk with me at great length, they were glad I stopped by.
Bikkur holim is a two-directional mitzvah. It involves the visitor making the effort to see the person who is infirmed, demonstrating that the visitor cares about that person’s well-being. It is also a chance for the infirmed person to take control of their space. Tidying up, concern over appearance, even offering leftovers, were signs of welcoming me into their space and lives. One very powerful lesson from my CPE experience was that a patient always had the right to say no to my visit. The chaplain is one of the few people in the hospital that a patient can send out of their room and with whom they can reasonably refuse to speak. It is important, I was taught, to give the patient that control at a time when everything else seems beyond their control.
Abraham’s brief interaction with his visitors had a lasting impact and influenced relationships for generations to come. Although I am no longer professionally engaged in pastoral care on a day-to-day basis, I will always value this pivotal aspect of my rabbinic calling. Each time I visit a patient, I have the opportunity to impact a person’s life and allow that person to impact my life. When we open ourselves to vulnerable moments as these, we have the chance to create lasting change for ourselves and others.
Parashat Lech L’cha
And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!’ God said, ‘Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.’ Genesis 17:18-20
I received an email reminder Sunday afternoon about a Monday meeting, asking participants what type of meat-based sandwiches from a local restaurant they preferred for lunch. I immediately wrote back, thanking the meeting organizer and requesting a vegetarian option, as I keep kosher and do not eat meat from non-kosher establishments. Our host’s response came within minutes –it was of course not a problem.
I didn’t think it would be a problem because the host was my colleague Hurunnessa Fariad, the head of Outreach and Interfaith at All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center). As our group ate lunch, Hurunnessa and I talked about other commonalities in our lives and faiths. We are both religiously observant, wearing head coverings that make our beliefs easily identified (a hijab for her, kippah for me). We explained practices like prayer, burial rites, and marriage with our Christian colleagues, demonstrating the similarities between Judaism and Islam. We talked about the experiences of women in our respective faiths: the misconceptions and the work that must be done. As I ate falafel from an Afghani restaurant and then attended afternoon prayers in the largest mosque and Muslim community in our area, I had a feeling of belonging akin to sitting in the home of a cousin. Which makes sense, because in many ways we are.
Parashat Lech L’cha introduces us to the complex relationship among Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. Hagar, at Sarah’s request, conceives a child with Abraham. Sarah becomes jealous and sends Hagar away, leaving the woman pregnant and alone in the wilderness. God speaks to Hagar, telling her she will have a son who will be named Ishmael. Abraham struggles with the friction between Hagar and her child, and Sarah and her son not yet conceived but promised by God. He asks God to bless the offspring of both women, hoping for a compromise between the two, not knowing this hope would be sustained for generations to come.
Families often struggle and argue but ultimately, in times of great need, they can unite. We know that there is a deep and at times painful history between Muslims and Jews, and there are moments when we must agree to disagree, but at every instance that is possible we must show up for each other. Hurunnessa attended Shabbat services a few weeks ago to commemorate the tragic events at Tree of Life synagogue, and it was far from her first time in a Jewish space. Jews in turn speak out when Islamophobia surfaces and targets our Muslim neighbors and friends. That, after all, is what you do for family.
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.” Genesis 9:16
A teacher of mine once remarked on the absurdity, in his opinion, of using Noah’s ark as a decorative motif for children’s spaces. Why is a story of destruction, emotional turmoil, and family betrayal portrayed in bright cartoon characters? Why commercialize the few verses about animals and skip over the main reason of the flood – God destroying the world? Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, especially because the unicorns never made it on the ark.
Typically, I focus on the deeper, more problematic aspects of a text like this one. Noah did not stand up for his friends and community, saving only his family from destruction. Noah’s sons have a complicated dynamic with their father and each other, resulting in feuding nations in future generations. These are a few of the complexities in this Torah reading and I appreciate learning and teaching about them.
But not today. Today I want a rainbow. I want the bright, colorful outcome of a storm, the sign that better things are coming. Life is filled with ups and downs; some we can control and most we cannot. For me, the enduring lesson of this Torah portion is God’s promise that the whole world will not end, no matter how bad the situation seems in the moment.
The rainbow was the symbol of God’s promise to not destroy the earth, not wipe out humanity because it isn’t proceeding according to plan. It was the sign of the first covenant made between God and humans. It is here where we first see a reciprocal relationship and God acknowledging accountability in this joint endeavor of Creation. It not only reminds humans of their role, it serves as a reminder to God of God’s obligation to humanity to not wipe us out, not destroy us, and have patience as we mess up time and time again.
“What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” Genesis 4:10
Of all the powerful stories contained in this week’s parsha, Bereishit, the dramatic narrative of Cain and Abel, the original Biblical fratricide, stands out as a compelling validation of the power of restorative justice.
After Cain murders his brother Abel for unknown reasons, God confronts him. Cain flippantly responds, denying his responsibility for the crime and for his brother’s fate writ large. God then curses Cain so that farming is difficult, and he must wander the earth.
God could have killed Cain or allowed him to be killed. Instead, his punishment is to be banished from God’s presence. He will become a nomad, living at the mercy of others, a terrifying thought for Cain. However, in an interesting twist, God places a mark on Cain, so that he remains unharmed and has the opportunity to repent and learn from his actions,
Reading this story right after the High Holy Days serves as a reminder that teshuva – the work of righting the wrongs in our hearts and in our lives – does not end with the final shofar blast on Yom Kippur. It is an ongoing process and we must be ready to participate. At times, we are like God, asking of ourselves, “What happened?” “How did this happen?” and “What did you do?” There are also times when we resemble Cain, responding with denials, deception, and failure to take responsibility.
It is at those times when we must reject Cain’s willful negation of his obligation to his brother. Yes, we are responsible for our own actions, and for each other. We must care for and be attuned to the suffering and needs of our fellow humans. We must pursue justice and equality for all people. The process of teshuva is not only about apologizing, but making the necessary changes so that history, Biblical and otherwise, does not repeat itself.
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” ~ Leviticus 23:42
“I found instructions online and we can get the materials at a hardware store. How bad could it be?” ~ My family
Jews have constructed sukkot for thousands of years. They were discussed in the Torah and usedthroughout the Temple periods in Jerusalem. Today they are widely available for purchase online in “pop up” and “E-Z” varieties. A quick search for “sukkah” on Amazon yielded 521 results, ranging from sukkah-building kits to sukkah decorations to a t-shirt that says “I’d rather be sitting in my sukkah. #FeastofTabernacles.” There’s a carry-on sukkah -- including a kosher bamboo mat for the roof – that can be set up in five to ten minutes and sukkotcomplete with plastic windows, reinforced canvas and plastic sides, click together poles, and murals painted on the sides, all available for sale at several online shops, shipped right to your front door.
Not my front door, however. This year is not only my first at the JCRC, it’s the first time my family is living outside Manhattan and we finally have our own space to build a sukkah. We tried the DIY – do it yourself – approach, building a sukkahfrom scratch using internet instructions. My husband took the lead in the design, engineering, construction, and trips to the hardware store. As of two hours before Sukkot, he was on his fourth trip in four days.
Our sukkah is not perfect. It is not as sturdy as the ones bought online, and after the first two days of Sukkot, it’s leaning to one side and half of the wood beams and cornstalks used for the skach, the “not really a roof” of the sukkah, are falling down. But it’s ours and each person in our family, including our kids, helped build it. We are delighting in eating our meals in our sukkah, enjoying the cool night air and the joy that comes with sitting in one’s own perfectly imperfect sukkah.
Parashat Vayeilech - 5780
God said to Moses, “The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him. Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting.” Deuteronomy 31:14
Leadership transitions are complicated, as we see in this week’s Torah portion, Vayelech. Moses knows his life is ending and he will not lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel. Joshua will take up the mantle of leadership. However, before Joshua can lead, Moses needs to be able to step aside.
Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), also known as the Netziv, in his Torah commentary Haamek Davar, compared the Israelites’ change in leadership to the daily cycle of the sun setting and the moon rising:
Just as the moon only shines when the sun is about to set, similarly, Yehoshua was unable to shine while Moshe’s light was still shining strongly… Once Moshe’s light began to set, Yehoshua’s light began to shine. This is what the verse means, “Your time is approaching to die,” and therefore it is the right time for you to place your spirit onto Yehoshua.
The setting sun has a beauty all its own, painting the sky with its last rays of light, allowing the moon to glow. Rather than attempt to “outshine” each other, Moses and Joshua model a peaceful and timely transition of power. No one can lead forever and there comes a time in every community, every organization, every country, when the power dynamic shifts and a new leader steps into place.
Historically the transfer of secular government power has at times imperiled Jewish diaspora communities. American Jews are blessed to live in a country that has always prided itself on mastering peaceful leadership transitions, living the example set by Moses and Joshua.
“You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions…” Deuteronomy 29:9-11
The Jewish people are assembled, standing and waiting, anxious, tired, hungry, and unsure of themselves in this setting. Every moment that passes brings them closer to an unknown future in the Promised Land.
Parshat Nitzavim focuses on Moses’ speech to the Israelites at the end of his life. He knows that one chapter of the Israelites’ story is ending, and another will begin. He includes everyone in this moment, not only the leadership. Everyone is present at this moment of transition, to be reminded of their place in a covenantal relationship with God.
During the next two weeks Jews worldwide will gather for High Holy Day services, some in familiar spaces they attend every week, some stepping into a synagogue for the first time in a year. They will stand together, listening, praying, and thinking about the next hour, the next week, and the next year. We will move from one year to the next, not knowing what the future will bring.
Nitzavim emphasizes that even in a point of transition, we stand with community. Community is what sustained the Israelites as they journeyed in the wilderness and it is what sustains us today. The emphasis on “all of you” reminds us that we are not alone in in this moment and in this space, not alone in our vulnerability, not alone in accepting the responsibility to live up to our highest ideals and aspirations in the year to come.
Parshat Ki Tavo
“You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…’” Deut. 26:5
Sound familiar? These verses play a central role in the narrative of the Passover seder, establishing the Israelites as slaves in Egypt and recounting the miracle of their exodus. They also highlight a concept present throughout much of this week’s Torah reading: : gratitude.
Ki Tavo is known for its litany of curses that will befall the Jewish people if God’s laws and rules are not obeyed. The chapter preceding the curses, however, focuses on the formula to be said when bringing an offering of one’s harvest to the Temple. This juxtaposition reminds us that even in the times of plenty, we must take a moment to appreciate the struggles involved in reaching a moment of bounty and blessing.
These verses resonated with me at a recent interfaith meeting I attended, where I heard my colleague Anne Golightly, a lay leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discuss the truckloads of food she was preparing to receive for donation to local hunger-related charities:
“As part of Day to Serve, which is a regional initiative to elevate our level of service in the Greater Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia area, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides an offering of many pounds of food from our storehouses in Utah. This year 160,000 pounds of food will [be distributed in our region , including]20,000 pounds to the Capital Area Food Bank in DC, and 60,000 pounds to the Maryland Food Bank. Other deliveries will follow to three foodbanks in Virginia and two in West Virginia.”
Anne explained that her reason for sharing this information us was not to give accolades to her specific faith group, but rather to shine a light on the extreme need in our area. She commented:
“ We feel it's important to prepare and be self-reliant, so this warehousing of food that we also grow and produce, is a way we do that. When there are great needs beyond our own, we love to share.”
All faith communities know the feeling of journeying to a new place, creating community, and building for the future. It is a moment of pride when a community is able to say they have enough to provide for themselves and recognize the importance of offering to others, elevating their harvest from simple nourishment to an expression of sacred gratitude.
“When God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deuteronomy 25:19
The last verse of this week’s Torah portion,Ki Teitsei, captures the complexity of trauma and memory. One part of the verse tells us to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the tyrannical nation that set out to kill the Israelites in the desert. The second part commands us to not forget. Which one is it? At times, we focus all our energy on wiping out those who have or will hurt us, to the point where our pain turns into hatred. We perhaps give short shrift to the exhortation to remember the human suffering that results from any enmity, and to strive to choose differently in our own lives.
Eighteen years ago today, the world watched in disbelief as the horrific, unspeakably violent and cruel terrorist attacks of 9/11 resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent lives. We promised to never forget these victims, and to never forget the hatred that brought the world to that moment.
In fulfilling the command to remember, we must not forget who we are as Jews and as humans. We cannot use faith as a tool to exclude others rather than welcome the stranger. The command to remember did not and cannot include Islamophobia, xenophobia, and turning away the stranger. We must not get so entangled in the first part of the verse, wiping out those who hurt us, that we forget the second part.
Do not forget that hate fueled the heinous actions of that morning 18 years ago and that hate has no home here.
Do not forget the outpouring of love and solidarity in the weeks that followed,
Do not forget our obligation to honor the memories of those we lost by living out our highest ideals and not succumbing to fear and hurt.
May the memories of those precious souls always be a blessing.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” Deuteronomy 16:20
Jewish tradition teaches that there are no unnecessary words in the Torah. If a word appears twice, as it does in this week’s Torah reading there is a reason. The phrase tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” urges people to seek justice, with the doubling of the word “tzedek” making it not only a suggestion, but an imperative. As Jews, we are commanded to strive to establish a just society with equal balances and measures, rights and protections. It is not a choice.
When I arrived at the JCRC of Greater Washington two months ago I immediately saw how my work – our work – was wholly dedicated to fulfilling this core Jewish value. I recognized this as I gathered with fellow faith leaders to discuss immigration and racism. I learned about my colleagues’ legislative efforts that address hate, poverty, disability rights, and so many other issues. I lived it as I spoke to nearly 150 teachers and mental health professionals from Montgomery County Public Schools, teaching them how to better support their Jewish students and be responsive to anti-Semitism in their schools. A busy summer, and still so much work ahead.
The Hebrew letters in tzedek – tzadei – dalet – kof –also spell tzadik, a righteous person. Justice is an outward action, something we work towards for others so that we can all safely and humanely co-exist in this world. Righteousness is a virtue that comes from within, reflecting integrity, morality, honesty, compassion, and humility. At times when tzedek, justice, seems beyond reach, the Torah compels us to move beyond our comfort zones and choose to be a tzadik. As we enter the month of Elul, a time of preparation for the High Holidays may we all seek new ways to integrate our aspirations for personal growth with our obligations to our people, our community, and the world. I look forward to working with you all in pursuing this sacred mission.