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Liberty and Freedom From Religion in America

This week's double portion, B''har/ B'chukotai includes this famous phrase that appears on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof" (Leviticus 25:10). The bell holds specialy significance for Americans, especially American Jews.

D'var Torah By: 
Steadying the Hand of Our Neighbor
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Craig Axler

The phrase on the Liberty Bell is just one of the many maxims woven throughout B'har/B'chukotai that promote the establishment of a just society.Another, is Leviticus 25:35: "If your kin, being in straits, come under your authority, and are held by you as though resident aliens, let them live by your side." 

Giving Gifts of Free Will

As the Torah continues the Israelites’ dramatic, people-building saga, Parashat T’rumah approaches the story from a new angle. Instead of developing the literary adventures of a no-longer-nascent people or focusing on the striking events at Mt. Sinai, this week’s Torah portion is about the details. And these details are not the specifics of community-building or daily life. Rather, they concern, in painstaking minutiae, the construction of the Tabernacle. This is a parashah about holiness, and in the case of Parashat T’rumah, the holiness is in the details.

D'var Torah By: 
How to Move the Right Heart at the Right Time
Davar Acher By: 
Cantor Erin R. Frankel

In Parashat T'rumah, Exodus 25:1-2 relates that, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved,” the text manages to be both inclusively open and exclusively specific. We tend today to read this invitation as an equalizer; no matter the gift, God will accept it. 

Finding the Strength to Look Beyond the Horizon

Here's one of the few facts I remember from my high school physics class: Because the surface of the earth is curved, the farthest distance a person can see is about four or five miles. Everything beyond that, even with the best telescope, is obscured from view.

Four to five miles! For some people (not me) that's a short, early morning run. Our vision is so limited! Our perspective is so circumscribed. So much lies beyond our horizons at any given moment.

The same is true in our daily lives. So often we become accustomed repeated patterns and habits of mind that help us tread water, but move us no further. We tacitly accept the idea of inexorable fate — it's our lot to struggle, we can't change it. The weight of the present prevents us from imagining alternative futures. We lose sight of alternatives — of a different world beyond our present circumstances — a world just around the corner, beyond the horizon.

Moses appears to fall victim to the same trap in this week's Torah reading, Parashat B'haalot'cha.

D'var Torah By: 
How Can We Vanquish Fear to Make Way for Positive Emotions?
Davar Acher By: 
Geoff Mitelman

From an evolutionary perspective, fear makes a lot of sense. If you're not at least a little scared that a saber-tooth tiger might eat you, you're probably not going to survive long enough to pass on your genes. Aggression, too, is pretty obvious - we want to defend our territory and our precious resources from other people who might take them from us.

So negative emotions, which trigger the "fight or flight" response, are easy to understand. A harder question is why we have positive emotions. What's the role of happiness or play or joy?

Love Is Not Enough: The Demands of Relationship with God

Another name for this week's Torah portion is Parashat HaToch'chah — the portion of reproach. It contains a list of curses so terrible that traditionally the Torah reader chants them quickly and in a hushed tone so as not to call attention to them. And no one wants that aliyah! The curses are the punishment for disobedience, and they must have truly struck fear in the hearts of our ancestors.

The curses come just after the promise of blessing — if we follow God's ways. Rain in abundance, good crops, peace, victory, and fertility are all ours if, as the portion begins, ". . . you walk in my statutes and guard my commandments and do them" (Leviticus 26:3). We might mistakenly feel the parashah is about the classic "reward and punishment." But I see it differently. I see it as an apt closing for the Book of Leviticus, which began with a call to relationship — Vayikra — and ends again with a call to relationship. God's message can be interpreted as, "If you are a true partner with Me then our relationship will be healthy, but if you ignore Me, spite Me, hurt Me, and leave Me, how can we possibly go on together?"

D'var Torah By: 
Finding an Enduring and Absolute Relationship with God
Davar Acher By: 
P.J. Schwartz

The Book of Leviticus, the shortest Book of the Torah, comes to a close in this week's parashah, B'chukotai. While previous chapters in Leviticus painstakingly outline various laws and rituals that are essential to the newly formed Israelite community, the final chapters of Leviticus provide us insight into the relationship our ancestors had with God. As readers, we learn that following God's commandments would result in various blessings for our ancestors, while disobedience would result in harsh punishment. Biblical scholars describe this as retribution — obedience and faithfulness would lead to the promises of land, progeny, and wealth God established with Abraham, while straying away from God's commandments and being unfaithful would "wreak misery" upon the people (Leviticus 26:16).

Finding Holiness in the Rare Leopard as well as the Common Bird

"I hope you are excited for the birds!" our guide said to us.

We had just arrived in Tanzania for a safari, and suddenly, I was concerned that we had been assigned to the wrong jeep. "Oh, we're not birdwatchers," I explained. "We came for the regular safari — lions, leopards, rhinos — that sort of thing." I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the rarest and most exotic animals on the planet. Leopards, for example, are famously difficult to spot, and the black rhino is so endangered that there are thought to be only about 5,000 left on the planet.

"But we like birds, too," my husband assured the guide. "We're excited to see them." The guide nodded in approval. "Some people tell me, 'Nicholas, we came all this way for the rhinos and leopards! Don't waste our time with all these birds!' "

The next day I got my first glimpse at why people might be excited for the winged creatures when Nicholas showed us what was, perhaps, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen up close. The feathers on its back were the colors of a peacock, iridescent blue and teal and navy. It was tiny — the size of a small songbird with a belly like a robin, a rich orangey-red, and bright white eyes against a black head. "He's beautiful," I said. "Suberb starling!" Nicholas instructed, while I admired the colors. "Superb" really was the right word. I felt lucky that we had caught a glimpse at such a stunning, unusual being.

"A very common bird!" Nicholas exclaimed. "We will see many of them!"

And so we did. In addition to a few gorgeous leopards, one spectacular rhino walking in the distance, and a week's worth of other exotic wildlife, we saw superb starlings every day: on shrubs, on dead tree stumps, flying by our jeep, walking around every picnic area, even perched outside every bathroom that we stopped at. It was one of the most delightful surprises of the safari: I never tired of them: every single time, those birds took my breath away. Everywhere we went, their presence ensured that there was beauty.

Beautiful, colorful, and rare things are the subject of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayak'heil, which continues the Book of Exodus' long description of the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites are asked to bring their most valuable belongings: precious metals, expensively dyed colorful thread, spices and oils, gemstones of every variety, even dolphin skins (Exodus 35:5-9). With all of these materials, the community's craftsmen will make the most precious of all physical spaces: a place where God will dwell in the people's midst.

D'var Torah By: 
The Shocking Science of Mental Rest
Davar Acher By: 
Erica Asch

People would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts. That's right - a scientific study showed that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to administer mild shocks to themselves rather than to sit and do nothing but think.1 Given the myriad of distractions we face daily, from social media to nonstop news coverage, it's no wonder we are not very good at disengaging mentally. But, the ability to quiet our thoughts is actually quite important.

Rabbi Kalisch points out that this week's parashah emphasizes that Shabbat is so important even the holy work of building the Tabernacle must be halted. I would take it one step further. Our Shabbat rest actually elevates the work we do during the rest of the week. Mental rest is vital. Letting our minds wander for as little as five minutes can lead to greater creativity.In fact, procrastination can help us come up with unexpected solutions.3 Mental down time is key to our spontaneity, originality, and creativity. Being bored, it turns out, actually makes us more brilliant.4

Finding God in Large and Small Spaces

Anyone who has lived in New York City is familiar with the challenges of "small-space living." When I was apartment hunting in New York, I looked at one apartment where the kitchen was so small, the refrigerator was placed directly in front of the kitchen sink. In order to wash your dishes, the real estate agent explained, you could just stand off to the side and reach in. In the apartment I ended up taking, one of the bedrooms could only fit a bed — no other furniture at all. Luckily, my roommate was short enough to be able to stand underneath a loft bed to access a desk and a dresser.

Since I left New York, though, the concept of small-space living has come into vogue. HGTV, for example, currently airs three series on the glamour of living in spaces with an average size of 180 square feet. An article describes, "For some, the tiny house movement has become a way of life, adjusting to a smaller space and fewer possessions, with a goal of saving money and focusing on relationships and experiences."1

Just a few years after leaving New York City, when my husband and I moved into our not-so-tiny house, I remember wondering how we would ever fill the space. It was so much bigger than any of the apartments I'd lived in. I quickly got used to life in a house, and I'll admit that I much prefer it to the tiny apartment with the side-access sink. But a beautiful midrash on this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'rumah, suggests that God might think about things a little differently.

D'var Torah By: 
The Heart Is the Key to Holiness
Davar Acher By: 
Nancy Wechsler

Rabbi Kalisch beautifully points out that neither a tiny New York apartment nor a sprawling home guarantee sacred space. Houses of worship or breathtaking mansions are not hallowed dwellings based upon physical structure alone. Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 34:1 creates the foundational text that God does not require or even desire a palace, for even a small space created with loving hearts is perfectly suitable the Holy One.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a, the Rabbis draw a parallel between loving hearts of a couple's bed and the Mishkan. We read:

When love is strong, a couple can make their bed on [the width of] a sword-blade, however, when love is no longer present, a bed of sixty cubits does not provide sufficient room. This is alluded to in the verses: Of the former age when Israel was loyal to God, it is said, 'And I will meet with you and speak with you from above the Ark-cover' (Ex. 25:22). And further it is taught: The Ark measured nine hand-breadths high and the cover was one hand-breadth; ten in all. Again it is written, as for the House that King Solomon built for the Eternal, the length thereof was three score cubits, the breadth thereof twenty cubits and the height thereof thirty cubits. But of the latter age when they had forsaken God, it is written: 'Thus says the Eternal, "The Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool. Where is the House that you may build for Me?" '(Isa. 66:1).

In Which the People and the Land Are Redeemed

As we have made our way through the Book of Leviticus, we have often noted how boundaries have been crossed—between the inside and outside of the body in issues of

D'var Torah By: 
Redemption in Our Land in Our Time
Davar Acher By: 
Greg Weisman

The journey through the Book of Leviticus, which comes to a close this week with the double portion B'har/B'chukotai, is one that prepares the Israelites to dwell in the Land of Israel.

Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazeik

As we complete each book of the Torah, it is customary to repeat the words "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik." These words, understood as "Congratulations!" act

D'var Torah By: 
Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazeik : The Only Answer We Have
Davar Acher By: 
Joshua M. Davidson

The phrase Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik can also mean "Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another."

Building the Sacred

The Torah is filled with great drama. Moviemakers and even animators turn to the text repeatedly for its stunning visual imagery and profound drama.

D'var Torah By: 
On Matters of the Heart
Davar Acher By: 
Michelle Young

In this week's Torah portion, Vayak’heil, Moses assembles the entire Israelite community and tells them what God has commanded.

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