Our Torah portion this week (דברים) may have the most innocuous name of any – it can be translated as “words” or “things”. The root ד.ב.ר. appears through the Tanach and if you read from the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah you may recall a verse beginning וידבר ה’ אל … or something similar, indicating God actually speaking. Jewish tradition has a strong oral component, not only in the form of Biblical and halachic commentary (think Mishna and Gemara) but even within the texts themselves.
The power of biblical stories rests in their power to challenge us. Their goal is not to confirm our beliefs and opinions, but present us with situations that force us to consider issues of righteousness, justice, security, peace, and love in the morally murky world of human experience. Sometimes the stories are uplifting. Sometimes the stories are horrific. But they are always stories in which the heroes need to make decisions that bring good to some and evil to others.
“May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd”’ (Numbers 27:15-17). Our chapter presents the request of Moshe after he was instructed to take a glimpse of the Promised Land and should “be gathered to his nation”.
This week’s Torah portion of Balak in the Book of Numbers includes some of the best words an outsider ever delivered about our people. Balak is one of just three portions in the entire Torah named after a non-Jew; the others, of course, are Noah—Judaism doesn’t begin until Abraham, so Noah wasn’t Jewish—and Yitro, Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law.
Water is the most important substance for all life on Earth. It is also an important element in Judaism. Crossing a large body of water is a transformative step. Jacob encounters the angel of God at the Jabok cross of the Jordan River. This experience transformed him form the crooked Jacob to the one struggling with God – Israel.
In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy … Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?
In the story of the spies from this week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, we find the Torah’s version of Ted Lasso. Moses sends 12 men, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan. They are tasked with finding out how many people live in the land, if the soil was rich for farming, and if their towns were fortified. After 40 days, the men return downtrodden.
The four-Hebrew-letter name of God signifies a dual-gendered deity. That was Judaism’s best-kept secret until 1540, when kabbalists ruled that revealing esoteric lore was not only permissible but a mitzvah.
We have just celebrated the festival of Shavuot, which tradition tells us commemorates (in some ways re-enacts) the great event at Mt. Sinai. The Torah reading for Shavuot begins, Bayom hazeh (Ex. 19:1), on this day. Introducing the dramatic moment, the Torah declares that it is taking place not “on that day,” back then, a long time ago, but on this day, bayom hazeh — every day the Torah is being broadcast, waiting to be heard. An offering.
A core teaching of Jewish spiritual practice is our readiness to read the Torah in many different ways. We find meaning and significance across entire books; or we zoom in, such that an individual letter or even an accent mark fills our field of vision and discloses sacred truth. The weekly parashah is, of course, the most common “unit” for informing our reading.