D’var Torah: B’shallach 5779 / 2019

Offered at Temple B’nai Brith – Kingston, PA, USA

Shabbat shalom! Thanks for welcoming me to your congregation on this erev Shabbat. And for giving me the chance to share a few thoughts on this week’s Torah portion, B’shallakh, from the book of Exodus. We are right in the middle of what might be the biggest drama of the entire Torah narrative. The 10 plagues have devastated ancient Egypt, and finally Pharaoh has released the Hebrews. Our parashah starts with one of the most famous sacred stories in the world – the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the march across the exposed sea floor by the Hebrew slaves, along with other escapees and refugees from the iron furnace of Pharaoh’s tyranny.

In this week’s parashah, the Hebrews have made it to the shores of the sea, but they are pinned down, trapped between the waters and Pharaoh’s army. You know what happens. God splits the sea. Pharaoh orders his charioteers to pursue. They give chase, but God causes the wheels of their chariots to get stuck in the mud, and then, once the Hebrews have arrived on the other shore of the sea, God releases the waters of the Sea of Reeds and many of Pharaoh’s finest warriors are drowned. When the Hebrews realize that they have been rescued for good, one of their prophets, Miriam, the sister of Moses, leads the women in song and dance to celebrate.

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A tambourine (or, if you like, a timbrel) celebrating the Song at the Sea by artist Betsy Platkin Teutsch. Click on the image to learn more about her work.

This story has had a huge impact on Jewish thought and Jewish values. And it has influenced many other religious traditions too, as well as the world of Western art and culture. And perhaps most importantly, without this story, we would never have gotten to see Yul Brynner look straight into the camera lens and, in realizing his defeat, say: “The Hebrews god . . . is God.” Or something close to that.

Tonight I’d like to focus on the ways that water, blood, and childbirth imagery animate so much of the Exodus drama, finally culminating in the spectacular rescue at the Sea of Reeds. I’ll start with childbirth.

Continue reading “D’var Torah: B’shallach 5779 / 2019”

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Thou Shalt Not Write People Off (Tazria-Metzora 5778)

The double-portion of Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1 – 15:33) presents a series of ritual purity instructions for Israelite priests, starting with procedures for women who have recently given birth, and shifting to the rules priests must follow to identify, quarantine, inspect, and ultimately, readmit to the community people with an ancient skin disease called tzara’at. In my first years working with b’nai mitzvah students, I repeatedly

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This article appeared in the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Torah library in April 2018.

witnessed the disappointment of kids upon learning that Tazria-Metzora was their parashah. I would try to reassure them that, with help, they really would be able to find something relevant to their lives within these verses. The cultural distance, confusion, and even revulsion that many experience when encountering these parts of Leviticus are tough to overcome. And yet, with some cultural translation and an open mind, Leviticus can teach us a lot.

Our parashah offers us a good example in Leviticus 14, which describes the process by which priests would examine people to determine if they had tzara’at. If yes, then the afflicted person was placed outside the community in quarantine. Priests would then repeatedly visit to check on whether their skin was healing. When a priest verified a complete healing, he would then perform a purification ritual for the person involving two birds and a bowl of water – one of those bloody, non-rational Levitical rituals that often make us squirm. But if we can put our scientific Western mindset aside for a moment, we can explore the potential spiritual lessons for us in this part of Leviticus. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Write People Off (Tazria-Metzora 5778)”

Exploring Connections btw Midrash & New Testament

I just had the pleasure of presenting a two-part series on connections between Midrash and New Testament writings to an interfaith audience in Corvallis, Oregon. We met at the Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal), and a local synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, co-sponsored the course. (Shout outs to Rev. Simon Justice and Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of the respective congregations!) Members of at least 3 other Christian churches in the area attended as well.

I used PowerPoint slideshows and I think they were really effective.

I’m using my blog to share links to them on Slideshare.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can find them here:

 

I’m interested in getting feedback, or in coming to your community to teach. It works great with a Jewish, Christian, or interfaith group.
thanks!

Al Regel Achat / Judaism on One Foot

I’m thinking about possibly starting an online Jewish education venture that would involve me creating a series of 4 to 6 minute long YouTube videos offering a quickie overview of different Jewish texts, historical figures, etc.  I know that there are already a few things out there, like the fabulous G-dcast, but I think there’s a niche I could establish that would help a lot of people and possibly generate some good career opportunities for me.

A couple years ago I was monkeying around with this concept and I created this “Overview of Sacred Jewish Texts” video, which is too long, muddled, and visually uninteresting to quite fit the bill.

I like the idea of creating videos that make Jewish texts, from the different books of the Torah to various rabbinic texts, accessible to the general public. My vision is to create videos that are not dumbed down, but that remain committed to high degrees of comprehension from viewers who are newcomers. Each video would end with a screen shot of recommended links to other online resources that viewers can use to expand upon what they’ve learned in my videos. I’d call that the “Now go and learn…” feature, echoing the ancient sage, Hillel, who is responsible for both the “on one foot” and the “go and learn” memes in Judaism.

I’m interested in what kinds of grants I might be able to apply for. Perhaps I should go ahead and create a starter set of these videos and then seek additional funding. I don’t know. Interested in others thoughts in the comments here or privately.

Here’s another example of a video I created that seeks to help people use a structured method to writing a d’var Torah (a sermon) on the weekly Torah portion.

Again, I feel it’s a bit dry, but I wonder if anyone out there would be willing to comment or send me private feedback as to whether something like this would be useful.

Thanks everyone!