Parshat Bereshit: Valuing LIfe

Parshat Bereshit introduces the idea that all humankind was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Ancient and modern interpreters alike view this as a foundational concept about the value of life. 

Rabbi Akiva is cited in Pirkei Avot as teaching that “beloved is the person created in God’s image.” The awareness that we are created in God’s image is a reminder of God’s love for humankind. In another midrash Hillel Hazaken cites this concept as the halakhic source for the mitzvah to care for our physical bodies as he was on his way to wash at the bathhouse. Yet another midrash explains that when we “shame” others, we are in fact shaming the likeness of God. So, the midrashic conception of tzelem Elokim ranges from the imperative to physically care for our bodies, to acting humanely and with love toward others. In other sources, creativity and procreation are seen as enhancing the divine image, while murder is the ultimate diminishing of tzelem Elokim in this world.  

Two contemporary rabbis and great thinkers expand on these ideas. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg defines tzelem Elokim as meaning that humans are created with infinite value, equality and uniqueness which should be used to enhance human relationships and improve the world. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow writes that the concept of the Divine image is the basis for all interpersonal mitzvot, and also teaches us to relate to the physical body and pleasure positively, within the framework of Jewish law. 

Now in particular, as we grapple with loss and with loved ones struggling with emotional well-being, “tzelem Elokim” reminds us of the preciousness of every life and the duty to protect and save lives. May we all find ways to see the tzelem Elokim in ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom.

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo


Healthy Sexuality

Parshat Ki Tetze opens with a disturbing law: when a Jewish man goes to war and desires a foreign woman among the captives, he may take her home on the condition that he waits one month during which her beauty is neglected and must then marry or free her. When seen in its biblical milieu and through the eyes of the midrashic rabbis, this law teaches us a lesson about healthy approaches to sexuality and the necessity of consent, and is particularly relevant for Israeli society this week.

The Torah emphasizes the soldier’s physical desire: He takes her based solely on her physical appearance: he “sees” her, “desires” her. She is known as “eshet yefat to’ar,” a beautiful woman. The woman has no voice or choice. The Torah’s concession to human weakness in allowing this woman to be taken would be unthinkable today and would be deemed a war crime. However, in the context of antiquity, the idea of putting constraints on victorious soldiers was revolutionary and significantly limited wartime rape. The midrash further discourages this behavior. Noting the incongruous placement of this law next to a law regarding polygamy and then the rebelious son (ben sorer u-moreh), the midrash teaches, “one sin leads to another sin.” Meaning, taking the eshet yefat to’ar into one’s house will cause conflict and a catastrophic breakdown of family relationships. It might be permitted, but it is toxic for everyone involved.

The Torah and the midrash were beacons of morality in a world where a female captive had no rights, which thank G-d is no longer the case. They remind us that sexual relations without consent has disastrous effects, and healthy sexuality goes beyond mere physical attraction.


Parshat Nitzavim & Rosh Hashanah: On Renewal Opportunities

The word “hayom” (today) is repeated numerous times in parshat Nitzavim. On this final day of Moshe’s life, he gathers the people to renew the covenant with Bnei Yisrael: “You stand today, all of you, before God…” Hayom is also a significant word in Rosh Hashanah liturgy: “Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment.” Why such emphasis on the word “today”?

Rashi explains the significance of the word “today” in Nitzavim: just as an individual day consists of a cycle of darkness and then light, so too, even if we as a nation endure dark times, God is ensuring that light and peaceful times will shine again. 

The Netivot Shalom provides another interpretation. He writes that Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah both relate to the theme of renewal. In Nitzavim, the people are renewing a covenant with God. Rosh Hashanah – the day on which the world was created – is a day of “hitchadshut,” to renew ourselves and our relationship with God. This idea also connects to the daily Shema prayer, which frames each day as we say Shema in the morning and at bedtime. “And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.” The midrash Sifrei comments on this verse: These words should not be like an antiquated edict but rather should be new to us each day. Today signals that each day is an opportunity for renewal and to find new meaning in Torah and mitzvot. 
The word “hayom” also appears in the haftorah on day one of Rosh Hashanah. After years of longing for a child, Hannah gets terribly upset and decides to take action, to pray. This significant change occurs “on that day (hayom).” A new day brought Hannah new hope and her prayers were answered. May this Rosh Hashanah be a time of meaningful renewal and may all our prayers be answered on this day. Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova -Karen Miller Jackson


Parshat Ki Tavo: Service

“Those who have seemed to me to be the most happy, contented and fulfilled have always been the people who have lived the most outgoing and unselfish lives.” – Queen Elizabeth II

Parshat Ki Tavo opens with the mitzvah of “bikkurim.” The people are commanded, after they settle Israel, to bring their first fruits to the Beit Hamikdash and recite a declaration about their journey from Egypt to Israel. What was the purpose of this mitzvah? And how can we preserve its message in our lives today? 

Rashi explains that bikkurim demonstrated that a person was not “kafui tova,” ungrateful to God. Taking the first, often most precious fruits, and offering them to God, is an expression of gratitude for such bounty. Rambam writes that bikkurim are a reminder to remain humble about our success, and to remember that God is the ultimate source of such blessings. Hence, the verbal recalling of our origins as slaves in Egypt, instilling us with humility, appreciation and generosity.

The language of “bringing the fruit of the soil” recalls the story of Kayin in Bereshit. The midrash depicts Kayin as ungenerous and entitled, the opposite of bikkurim. He brought a sub-standard offering to God and fought with his brother about what belonged to him.

Martin Buber pointed out that the root נתן, to give, appears 7 times in parshat bikkurim. Recurrences of 7 in Torah are always significant. By remembering God’s generosity and “giving back” to God, one becomes more generous. Dr. Tal Ben Shachar points out that the root n.t.n is a palindrome: the more we give, the more we receive, leading to increased happiness. Perhaps this is why this section ends with rejoicing while sharing our fruits with the less fortunate. Queen Elizabeth modeled this value to the world by devoting most of her life – over seventy years – to the service of her country. May we all find ways to be generous, to serve our country and society and to express gratitude, bringing more happiness to our lives. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Photo: Queen visiting Aberfan Gallo IMages/Getty images (https://www.news24.com/you/royals/thequeen/queen-elizabeth-the-highs-and-lows-of-a-long-memorable-and-well-lived-life-20220908)


Parshat Ki Tetze: Practicing Compassion

Parshat Ki Tetze contains many mitzvot. One in particular relates to a central theme during Elul and Rosh Hashanah: fostering and praying for mercy and compassion.

What is the purpose of the mitzvah of “shiluach ha-ken,” to send away the mother bird before taking her young or her eggs? The mishna Berachot teaches that one may not add to tefilla the statement: Be merciful with us as “Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest.” One explanation in the gemara of this ambiguous statement is that it is best not to attach reasons to mitzvot. Still, many biblical commentaries see a deep connection between shiluach ha-ken and the trait of compassion.

Rambam, in Guide to the Perplexed, explains that if the Torah warns against causing such grief to birds, how much more careful should we be not to cause grief to people. The Ha’amek Davar highlights the bravery of the mother bird, who’s intuition is to stay and protect her children – an image of compassion par excellence. The word “rachamim” (mercy) is also related to the word “rechem” (womb), symbolic of the compassion a mother feels toward her child. Perhaps for this reason mothers – Sarah, Hagar, Hannah – feature prominently in Rosh Hashanah liturgy, when we pray fervently for God’s compassion.

The shofar which is blown throughout Elul, in the run up to Rosh Hashana, is also associated with rachamim. According to the midrash, God called Moshe to go back up Mount Sinai a second time on Rosh Chodesh Elul. The shofar was blown then to awaken the people to repentance and in prayer for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

By emulating the compassion God has for us in this world – be it toward others or with ourselves – we merit the words of the Talmud, “anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures will receive compassion from Heaven.” Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

*Photo excerpt from “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman


Parshat Shoftim: Seeking Great Leaders

“Leaders do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

Parshat Shoftim is a call to just and moral leadership: Appoint judges; Don’t judge unfairly; Don’t take bribes nor be partial and famously, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Who exactly is being commanded to fulfill these crucial mitzvot?

At first, it seems these words are directed at judges. However, several commentaries suggest otherwise. These verses seem to be speaking not only to leaders, but also to individuals. The Sefer Hachinuch teaches that the biblical command to appoint judges (referring to a religious court – beit din) is “incumbent on every community, in every place.” The establishment of just and moral leadership comes about partly through the people who appoint them. This idea is further reinforced by the interpretation of “צדק צדק תרדוף” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The midrash Sifrei teaches that this means you (the individual) must “seek out the finest beit din.” We, the people, can take steps to ensure true justice.

This verse is appropriately also applied to Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, compiler of the Mishna and a model of wise, compassionate and just leadership. The Talmud in Ketubot teaches “pursue justice” means: run to Rebbe’s beit din in Beit Shearim. This appears in the story of Rebbe’s last will and testament, where he practices outstanding leadership even on his deathbed. He ensures the continued honor of his widow (who was only stepmother to his children) and the honor of his household servants. He set up continuity of leadership through his sons and values fear of sin in a leader over great wisdom. He balances honor to a Torah scholar who has died (himself) alongside humility. May we be blessed with the ability to choose similar moral, just and compassionate leaders in our time. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

*Photo from https://www.europeanbusinessreview.com/effective-leadership-9-ways-to-support-your-team/


Parshat Re’eh: See and Be Seen

This week’s parsha (Re’eh) opens and closes with a keyword: To see. It begins with “Re’eh!” “See!” the choice you have before you to receive God’s blessings or curses. It ends with the mitzvah of “olat reiyah,” when the men would bring an offering and “see”/“be seen” by God in the mikdash. What is the relationship between seeing and being seen by God?

The olat reiyah was brought as part of the aliyah la-regel, the pilgrimage made on the three major festivals to the mikdash. While only men were obligated to bring an offering, women could participate in the pilgrimage and according to some sources, were even required in aliyah la-regel. The Talmud teaches that the prophet Jonah’s wife took on this mitzvah. This shows there was flexibility and potential inclusion for the women to take part in the mitzvot of aliyah la-regel. 

The language of the biblical source for the olat reiyah offering is ambiguous: “all your males shall be seen the face of God” (Devarim 16:16). Are they seeing or being seen? How can one see “pnei,” the face of God? The midrash Sifrei (re)interprets as follows: “If you do this, I will “free” (“poneh” which sounds like “pnei”) Myself of all My affairs and occupy Myself with you alone.” When we give of our time and possessions to see others and serve Hashem, God sees and blesses us. 

There are many people in our communities and society who have been feeling less seen over the last few years. In particular, educators, parents and children. The parsha is a reminder to take a moment and consider how we can see the exhaustion and frustration of both the teachers and the parents/children. As we begin the month of Elul and hopefully the new school year, we pray for a world in which everyone feels seen and is blessed with feeling valued and seen by Hashem. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson


Parshat Eikev: On Partial Observance

In Parshat Eikev Moshe continues his final speech to Bnei Yisrael. The language he uses provides a springboard for discussing how to relate to varying levels of commitment to Torah within our homes and communities.

Moshe teaches the reward for observing mitzvot: They will thrive, increase and possess the land of Israel. “All the commandment (כׇּל־הַמִּצְוָ֗ה) that I enjoin upon you today, you shall faithfully observe them (תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת)…” First the verse refers to keeping “kol hamitzvah” which appears to be in the singular and then refers to keeping all mitzvot in the plural “tishmerun.” Moreover, the meaning of the word “kol” is unclear.

Rashi, in his usual style, first comments that “kol hamitzvah” should be understood literally, as meaning “all mitzvot,” even though the word mitzvah is singular. Yet, unsatisfied with this logical interpretation, Rashi cites the midrash Tanhuma which teaches a lesson in keeping mitzvot: If you begin a mitzvah, finish it! The word “kol” is understood as “the entirety of the mitzvah,” or “the completion of the mitzvah.” If several people take part in a mitzvah, it is the one who completes it who gets the credit. When Moshe took Yosef’s bones out of Egypt, it was Bnei Yisrael who got credit for burying them in Israel since they completed the mitzvah.

Still, the midrash recognizes that Moshe’s partial completion of a mitzvah was important, even if it is not complete fulfillment. Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan is cited in the Talmud as saying that one who learns only one statute (chok) is rewarded with a share in the World-to-Come. The Kli Yakar on our pasuk states similarly that partial completeness also works at a communal level: the transition from singular to plural in the verse implies that when an individual keeps mitzvot, there is benefit and reward for the wider community.

Perhaps Moshe understood that while completeness is the ideal, recognizing the value of partial observance encourages people to grow and take part in the Jewish community. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson


Parshat Va’etchanan: Increasing Love

What do parshat Va’etchanan and the holiday of Tu B’Av (which coincide this week) have in common?

The Shema prayer — the ultimate testament of faith and commitment by the Jewish people to God — is found in parshat Va’etchanan. The first paragraph begins with a challenging command: to Love Hashem. As the midrash Sifrei asks, “How does one come to love God?!” In other words, how can the Torah command such an emotion?! The Sifrei’s answer provides insight not only into how to observe the command to love God but also into how to increase love in human relationships. The Sifrei learns from the second paragraph of Shema, “And these things that I command you this day shall be upon your heart,” that the way to fulfill ahavat Hashem is by performing mitzvot. Acts of lovingkindness and service bring us closer, so to speak, to God. 

A similar idea runs through the closing mishna in Ta’anit, which teaches that Tu B’av (and Yom Kippur) were the happiest days, since the daughters of Israel would go out to dance in the vineyards to meet their love-match. The women would all borrow dresses so as not to shame anyone who did not own a nice white garment. The mishna continues by comparing this matchmaking celebration with the wedding day of Shlomo Ha-melech in Shir Hashirim: “Go forth, daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon… on the day of his wedding…” The mishna interprets Shlomo’s wedding day as a metaphor for the bond between God and Israel: The day of Matan Torah, God’s gift to Israel and Israel’s building of the mikdash. 

The message of this mishna and the Sifrei: selflessness, acts of giving and sacrifice increase love between the Jewish people and God and in human relationships as well. Shabbat shalom and happy Tu B’Av! -Karen Miller Jackson


Parshat Devarim: Positive Words

Parshat Devarim, literally “words,” teaches that the language we choose to use can influence people’s motivation levels and feelings of optimism.

Devarim opens with naming several places where the nation traveled in the desert. However, these places were never mentioned in the Torah before. Rashi teaches that this was how Moshe rebuked the generation whose parents sinned in the desert. Moshe alludes to these events indirectly, out of respect for Israel. Instead of using words which were shaming and demotivating, Moshe models how to speak words of criticism in a way which is respectful and can have positive outcomes.

Our choice of words can also have a positive affect on our mindset and well-being. In masechet Pesachim Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi advises not to use negative language. He bases this on the fact that the Torah teaches the value of speaking positively by the addition of extra letters in the Noah narrative. Rather than calling the animals “impure,” the Torah states, “those that are not pure.” Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in his book “Rebbe,” that the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that carefully chosen words could positively influence the emotional state of ourselves and others. For instance, the Rebbe refused to call a hospital a “beit cholim” (house of the sick) but rather called it “beit refuah” (house of healing).

As Tisha B’Av approaches, we learn that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Moreover, the enmity between Qamtza and Bar Qamtza and the silence of the rabbis who were with them led to the destruction of Jerusalem. Parshat Devarim and Tisha B’Av are reminders that speaking respectfully and positively spreads ahavat chinam and optimism in our world. Shabbat Shalom🌷 -Karen Miller Jackson


Parshat Masei: Growth or Destination?

Parshat Masei begins by summarizing Bnei Yisrael’s travels throughout their forty years in the desert. Many commentaries question why the Torah repeats this list of “masaot” (journeys), when they have already been described earlier in the Torah. The answers they provide contain wisdom on finding meaning within our own life’s journey.

The midrash Tanhuma likens the repetition of the journey to a parent who takes his/her sick child to various places in search of healing. Afterwards, the parent recounts the experiences they had through each location. So too, God wants Bnei Yisrael to draw strength from hearing about overcoming hardship in their past and be reminded that they can do it again in the future. Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed teaches that re-telling the places Israel traveled highlights the miracles God provided for the Jewish people’s survival in the desert. Through preserving the memory of these miracles, future generations will find inspiration and faith. Sforno sees this as highlighting the goodness of Bnei Yisrael in the desert. He explains that the journeys are repeated “in order to compliment the Jewish people,” who followed God through a vast and dangerous desert, despite the hardship. 

These interpretations are similar to what psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as the “growth vs. fixed mindset.” Her research demonstrates that the most successful way to navigate life – including disappointments and difficulties – is by taking on new challenges and viewing setbacks as part of the journey. The fixed mindset cares only about the outcome, while the growth mindset finds value in each step of the journey. May the journeys of Bnei Yisrael inspire us to find meaning, strength and growth in our own lives. Chazak chazak ve’nitchazek. Shabbat shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

* photo from waze.com


Parshat Matot: A Parenting Model

In parshat Matot, Moshe is faced with a challenge from within bnei Yisrael. His reaction, and the discussion which follows, provides a model for healthy parenting. 

Sefer Bamidbar opens with the high hopes of entering the land of Israel. Yet, after a series of rebellions, the first generation dies out in the desert. Now, as their children are about to complete this mission, there is a moment of crisis. Two tribes, Reuven and Gad (joined by half of Menashe), request to remain on the east side of the Jordan River, because of its excellent grazing land for their livestock. Why does this seemingly innocent request yield a strong and emotional reaction from Moshe?

Moshe’s words reflect his concerns: that they won’t help their “brothers” fight for the land and that like their fathers, they will “turn the minds” of bnei Yisrael from crossing into Israel. Moshe fears that this will be a repeat of the meraglim. However, as Rabbi Nati Helfgot points out, several literary elements in this “inverted meraglim” story show that this generation is stronger and has taken their parents’ past mistakes to heart. With the spies, 10 men speak negatively and only 2 advocate for settling Israel. Here, only 2 tribes request to stay on the east of Jordan, while 10 tribes will settle Israel. Moreover, the 2 tribes state clearly that they will help fight for Israel, dispelling Moshe’s fears of rebellious motives.  

Moshe’s firm, preemptive response to bnei Reuven and Gad is understandable after the setbacks in the desert. They, in turn, show Moshe that they are different from the spies and display unity and commitment. This dynamic provides a model for parenting as well. Children will always make mistakes. The challenge for parents is finding a balance between standing firm in our values and beliefs, while also striving to be flexible and believing in our children’s ability to change and grow. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson