Parshat Vayetzei: Ha-makom & Holy Places

What makes a place holy? A look at the word “ha-makom” (the place) in Torah provides some perspective.

The word ha-makom is repeated throughout the beginning of parshat Vayetze. On Yacov’s journey from Be’ersheva to Haran: “He came upon that place (ba-makom)…” What is that place? Rashi identifies it with the unnamed place in the akedah story: Abraham “looked up and saw the place (ha-makom) from afar,” which was in the land of Moriah. Both avot experience revelation from God there. The beit hamikdash is also referred to as ha-makom in Tanach. Hence, the midrash associates “the place” with Mt. Moriah, in Jerusalem, where the Temple was built. 

However, Yacov called this place Beit-El, formerly called Luz, seemingly not in Jerusalem. Rashbam says it was a place just outside of Luz. Rashi reinforces the interpretation that the place was Mt. Moriah/Jerusalem and suggests several solutions: 1) Yacov’s famous ladder between heaven and earth extended from Be’ersheva to Beit-El and the middle of the slope was opposite Jerusalem. 2) Yacov was in Jerusalem and named it Beit-El, or 3) the ground shrunk and Mt. Moriah was miraculously transported to Luz. 

These interpretations attribute deep meaning and historical-religious significance to the holiest place in Judaism. Yacov may have been in one place, but somehow was connected or transported to “the place” – Jerusalem. Similarly, the Talmud Brachot teaches that (after the Temple was destroyed) the Shekhina resides in a Beit Knesset or wherever people congregate to pray, carry out justice or learn Torah, as God will come and bless us in “all the places where I cause My Name to be mentioned.”

Ha-Makom is also one of the names of God in rabbinic literature. When we study Torah, do justice, and pray facing Jerusalem, we too are drawing on the holiness of Ha-makom and imbuing our spaces and places with holiness. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Toldot: Long-term Optimism

How does one remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of adversity? Some insight and inspiration can be gleaned from the instances of tefilla in parshat Toldot. 

After twenty years of infertility, prayers and longing to have a child, Rivka becomes pregnant. The word for prayer here – ויעתר –  is unique. It is used twice to mean (1) Yitzchak entreats God and (2) God responds to his plea. This mirroring of language highlights that the tefillot were heard and answered. The Sages debate the deeper meaning of the word ויעתר. One interpretation: Yitzchak’s prayers become more frequent and urgent. Alternatively, it relates to the word for pitchfork (עתר). Just as a pitchfork overturns grain from place to place, so to does tefilla of the righteous change God’s decree from cruelty to mercy. Hence, this tefilla is a model for holding out hope in the face of long-term yearning and challenges.

The commentaries add another dimension to this prayer when they teach that Rivka was an integral part of the tefillot being answered. Yitzchak prays “l’nochach ishto,” in the presence of his wife. The midrash explains that they were both equally devoted and sychronized in their tefillot. Each stood in one corner, but together in the same room, highlighting the strength of davening together. Additionally, Rivka continues praying when pregnant. When the twins struggle inside her womb, she goes to “lidrosh (inquire) of Hashem.” Ramban, based on other instances of this word in Tanach, comments that in this moment of concern and crisis, she prayed to God.

This week Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd and their return to Jerusalem after many centuries – another model of long-term prayers fulfilled. Yet, our beloved Jerusalem and Israel still face challenges and adversity. Rivka and Yitzchak provide a model of tefilla as entreaty and inquiry and as a source of extended optimism as we pray our dreams of peace and security will be fulfilled. Shabbat Shalom & Chodesh tov! -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Types of Tefilla

There is a seeming paradox within Jewish prayer. If the times we pray and the words we say are fixed by halakha, how can tefilla also be flexible, individualized and filled with kavanah (intention)?! Parshat Chayei Sarah provides some insight into this question.

The Talmud, drawing on the parsha, contains a debate about the origin of the three daily prayers in Talmud Berachot. One opinion is that tefilla is modeled after the Avot: Avraham instituted shacharit, Yitzchak – mincha, and Yacov – ma’ariv. Alternatively, tefilla is based on the daily “tamid” offerings from the Beit Hamikdash. What is the difference? Tefilla which parallels the daily offerings is characterized by constancy and consistency, infusing holiness into our day at prescribed times. Tefilla modeled after the Avot conveys diversity and spontaneity in prayer. Each of the forefathers is associated with a different time of day/night for tefilla and with a distinct word for prayer in the Torah. Avraham’s prayer is called “standing.” Yitzchak’s tefilla is called “lasuach” (conversing?) and Yacov “encounters.” By drawing on both these sources of tefilla – tamid offerings and avot – the Talmud encourages us to engage with tefilla both from obligated regularity and from voluntary inspiration. 

The source of Yitzchak’s mincha prayer, found in parshat Chayei Sarah, reinforces this duality in tefilla. The verse states, “And Isaac went out “lasuaḥ in the field toward evening.” Some commentaries understand the word “lasuaḥ” as meaning “to converse,” as in “sicha” (conversation). Others see a connection between “lasuaḥ” and “sichim,” (plants and trees). Hence, Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, explains that tefilla is related to both: It is an opportunity for an individual to converse with God; and, tefilla enables a soul to blossom with renewed energy, so that a person can emerge from praying and branch out like a tree in the world.  

Tefilla as “sicha” establishes a framework for continuing to engage in regular conversation with God, while also leaving space to renew ourselves and our relationship with tefilla. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Vayera: The Meaning of Prayer

Parshat Vayera contains the first appearance of the word tefilla in Tanach. Avaraham prays (“Vayitpallel”) for Avimelech’s household and God responds to his prayer. Then, Sarah too is remembered by God and becomes pregnant after years of infertility. How does the language of “hitpallel” teach about the efficacy and purpose of prayer? Furthermore, where is Sarah’s prayer?

After the king Avimelech takes Sarah, he is stricken and the wombs of his household are closed as punishment by God, “because of the matter of (al d’var) Sarah”. Avraham prays to God for Avimelech and his family and they are healed. Bereshit Rabbah points out that this unique first expression of the word tefilla indicates that a “knot was undone” – prayer has the power to influence God’s response and yield positive results. However, the Hebrew root פ.ל.ל has another meaning in Tanakh. In Shemot, when damage is done, the reparation is determined “b’flilim,” meaning, “according to the judges.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on the connection between the word for prayer and judgment. The word “hitpallel” is reflexive – an opportunity to “assess/ judge oneself” and one’s relationship with God and the world. 

Both can be true. Tefilla is about pleading with Hashem, a way of expressing our deepest yearnings and requests to God. Tefilla is also an opportunity to self-reflect and focus on the state of ourselves and our relationship with God and others. 
What about Sarah? Does she not engage in prayer as well? In fact, the Sages teach that she prayed too. The midrash reads “al d’var” not as “the matter” of Sarah, but rather “the words (of prayer) of Sarah.” Sarah prayed to be saved and God assured her that Avimelech’s suffering and healing would be according to her word. The rabbis saw role models for tefilla in both Avraham and Sarah, who both call out to God as the source of protection and healing and are answered. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Lech Lecha: Morning Mindfulness

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I…?” – Pirkei Avot 1:14

Avraham is the paradigm of chesed and compassion, of doing for others. For this reason, it is surprising to read Rashi’s commentary on the opening words of parshat Lech Lecha. Rashi, noting the “kefel lashon,” double language, interprets the words “lech lecha” as: Go for YOURSELF. Going on this journey to an unspecified destination was for Avraham’s own benefit: “להנאתך ולטובתך.” By going forth and having faith in Hashem, Avraham will be rewarded with becoming a father, not only of his own children, but also of a great nation. The Zohar, similarly interprets “lech lecha” as “go unto yourself…to know and to fix yourself.” Before Avraham could inspire others he needed to journey inward and strengthen himself. 

A similar idea is expressed by two great thinkers on mindfulness as we awaken. Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, comments on the “Modeh ani” prayer: When we wake up and are awestruck by the vastness of the universe, we might feel small and insignificant. By emphasizing the I (ani), and drawing on our inner strength and gratitude to God, “the individual self remains undaunted, the ‘I’ finds divine confirmation and validation.” Rebbe Nachman of Breslav shares a similar thought in his commentary on the opening words of the Shulchan Aruch – that a person should awaken with zest like a lion. Rebbe Nachman, sensitive to human nature, understood that sometimes people wake up and feel unhappy with themselves, distant from God and unmotivated. Hence, he suggests finding a “nekuda tova,” a good point to focus and build on within oneself. 

This is a particularly relevant message for our time, as increasing numbers of people are feeling unhappy and unmotivated. “Modeh ani” provides an opportunity each morning to go to/for oneself and discover one’s personal uniqueness and potential. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Noah: A Window to the World

Why does God command Noah to build a “tzohar” (opening) on the ark? The tevah was meant to enclose and protect those inside so that they could survive the floods. What purpose would an opening serve? The interpretations of the “tzohar” also provide a model for how to view our homes and places of prayer today.

The word tzohar appears only once in Tanach, making it difficult to define. Rashi, citing Bereshit Rabbah, provides two explanations: 1) Some say it was a window, 2) others say it was a precious stone which provided light. Both interpretations explain how Noah and his family, who lived on the ark for an entire year, managed to have light and differentiate between day and night. Yet, there is a difference: The precious stone would not have allowed Noah to look out to the world, only to bring light inward. A window however, has a dual purpose – to let the light in and to look out and connect with the outside world. Perhaps this is why Hizkuni teaches that the tzohar was the window through which Noah later sends out the raven, to check if the waters had dried up, reconnecting with the outside.

Windows are also an important part of our prayer spaces and homes. The Talmud Berachot, based on Daniel, states that a person should only pray in a bayit with windows (and this is codified as halacha). Why? Some rishonim explain that the light, or looking to the heavens, will help enhance our kavanah in tefillah. Rav Kook provides a different reason: A person who has the most intention-filled prayers, but is disconnected from the outside world is not achieving the full purpose of tefillah. By davening in a room with a view of the outside, a person will be inspired to positively influence and do good in the world s/he inhabits. 

Like Noah’s tevah, our homes and shuls are a space to protect and nurture ourselves, to build up our emunah and enhance our tefilla, like the stone shining inward. Yet, by staying inside, our lives are incomplete. Through gazing outside we are reminded of our responsibility to the outside world. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Bereshit: Praying for the World

“Each and every blade of grass has a special song of its own.” – Naomi Shemer, based on Rebbe Nachman of Breslav

In the midst of the story of creation of the heavens and earth, before humankind was even created, parshat Bereshit provides seeds of wisdom on the fundamental value of tefillah for the world. 

In the retelling of creation in Bereshit chapter 2, just before Adam is created, the Torah states: “When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because God had not sent rain upon the earth AND there were no human beings to till the soil.” Why did God withhold the rain? And why are there two reasons given for why the grass had not grown? Rashi connects the two reasons: God withheld the rain because there were not yet human beings to be “makir tov” (to appreciate) the rain. When Adam felt the need for rain, for sustenance for the world, he prayed for rain which enabled the grass and trees to grow. 

Rashi’s commentary extracts from the creation story a number of significant elements about the nature of tefillah. Rashi characterizes Adam as praying not only for himself, but for the sake of the world. Moreover, tefillah instills within us the ability to be “makir tov,” to feel and express appreciation to God and others for the good we receive. Finally, the world was only fully created, the grass only sprouted, once Adam prayed. Rashi’s interpretation teaches that our sustenance and the subsistence of the world depends on our tefillot. 

Parshat Bereshit highlights that tefillah is integral for the world. It also enhances our ability to be “makir tov,” to express appreciation, which leads to further growth and goodness. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Simchat Torah: Celebrating Torah!

Beginnings and endings are significant. This is true in the Torah as well. On Simchat Torah we complete the Torah when we read parshat Vezot Habracha and then begin again with sections of Bereshit. Why celebrate the completion of the Torah reading cycle? And how does this correspond with Rashi’s commentary on the final verse of the Torah?  

King Solomon set a precedent for celebrating a “siyum,” completion of a book or the entire Torah. The midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9) teaches that King Solomon awoke from a dream having acquired great wisdom which he had requested, so he celebrated with great joy and thanksgiving. This early source for celebrating the completion of the Torah on Simchat Torah highlights the importance of acquiring Torah wisdom as well as personalizing, innovating and ultimately celebrating our relationship with Torah.

A similar message is found in Rashi’s interpretation of the final verse of Devarim: “And in all that strong hand and awesome power that Moses displayed before the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi, citing midrash Sifrei, associates “that strong hand” with Moshe receiving the tablets “in his hands.” And “before the eyes of Israel” with Moshe smashing the tablets “before their eyes.” Why end his commentary on this seemingly negative note, a reminder of a low point for Israel? In fact, the Talmud sees positivity in Moshe’s breaking the luchot: “asher shibarta” (which you broke) is interpreted as God saying “yashar koḥakha” (loosely: more power to you) that you broke them. Rashi’s final commentary emphasizes that Torah does not come to an end. A “Living Torah” provides the possibility to continuously receive the Torah alongside the need to sometimes break or innovate within Torah – which is affirmed by God.   

May Simchat Torah be filled with personal appreciation and communal celebration of Torah. I want to thank you all for joining me on another power parsha journey this past year and I look forward to continuing to deepen our appreciation of Torah together this upcoming year! Chag Sameach – Karen Miller Jackson
This week we begin a new Torah reading and “Power Parsha” cycle. Please encourage friends and family to join! (if you already receive it, no need to sign up). To subscribe to “Power Parsha” a short dvar Torah on the topic of parsha, mindfulness and tefilla via whatsapp click here: or via email here:

Parshat Ha’azinu and Sukkot: Rain Down on Me!

In his parting words in parshat Ha’azinu, Moshe urges Bnei Yisrael to appreciate God’s Torah through a poetic metaphor: “May my discourse come down as the rain (מטר), My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass.” What is the symbolism of the Torah being likened to rainwater? 

The midrash Sifre interprets: “Just as rain is life for the world, so too, words of Torah.” This refers to matar, good rain, also known as “rains of bracha.” Rain, like Torah, connects the earthly and the heavenly, the physical and the spiritual. It comes down from the heavens and provides sustenance, life and growth on earth. Rashi adds another dimension to this idea in his interpretation of Bereshit. God did not bring down rain until there was someone to be “makir tov,” to appreciate and pray for rain. Rain reminds us to be cognizant of good things and to express appreciation for them. So too, Moshe wants the Jewish people to appreciate the Torah. 

Rainwater and hakarat ha-tov are central themes during Sukkot as well. While dwelling in a temporary sukkah, we are reminded to be cognizant of what we have. Also, the mishna (Rosh Hashanah) teaches: “On the chag (sukkot) we are judged regarding the water.” Our actions and prayers directly influence the amount of rain received each year. In Temple times there were water libations (ניסוך המים) on Sukkot in prayer that the world “be blessed with water.” Just after sukkot we begin saying the tefilla for matar and “rains of bracha.”

By taking time on Sukkot to recognize the goodness of rain, Torah and other things, we hope and pray that this year brachot rain down on us and the world. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayelech: Power of Communal Gathering

Parshat Vayelech contains the mitzvah of “hakhel” (assembly), when the Jewish people gathered together to hear portions of the Torah read out during Sukkot at the end of the shmita year. This mitzvah could only be fulfilled when the beit hamikdash stood, yet the commentaries highlight that the essence of hakhel is particularly relevant today.

The Torah emphasizes that all are required to participate in the mitzvah of hakhel: men, women and children. Rashi comments that men came to learn, women (who were then uneducated) to hear and young children to give “s’char” (reward) to their parents who brought them. No matter one’s level of education, the Torah reading would touch the hearts of each person in some way. Rambam explains that whether a person was exceptionally learned or couldn’t understand the words, everyone stood and listened together recalling the giving of Torah at Sinai. Hakhel was inclusive of all, no matter one’s level of understanding, knowledge and commitment. 

The Kli Yakar’s interpretation of hakhel adds a timely connection to Yom Kippur: “The whole essence of hakhel is about repentance.” While the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about individual repentance, hakhel – the gathering of all – represents a rare opportunity and inspiration for communal teshuva. 

Rav Soloveitchik writes that actually there are elements of both individual and communal teshuva on Yom Kippur in the vidui (confession). The individual confession is shorter and a precursor to the more powerful and longer communal confession. Both are necessary but the tefila of “Knesset Yisrael” (gathering of Israel) binds us – with our own community, with Jews throughout history and with the whole of Israel. 

May we be blessed to feel the communal strength of “hakhel” and “Knesset Yisrael” this year. May we find ways to deepen our bonds and positive connection with the whole Jewish people. Shabbat Shalom and gmar chatima tova – Karen Miller Jackson