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Keh

This is one of only two times in the Torah that God commands the Israelites to circumcise the foreskin flesh of every boy born into their community on his eighth day of life. Throughout Jewish history this powerful ritual has been examined, challenged, and pondered.  Why in particular did God pick this ritual as a defining symbol of male Jewish identity?  And why specifically on the eighth day?

 Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

 
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Be-midbar – Wilderness

 

Numbers 1:1-4:20

“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting….” - Numbers 1:1

 

P’shat - Explanation

Great events transpire in the wilderness. Moses experiences God’s presence in the burning bush in the wilderness. He climbs the wilderness of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. He receives the 613 mitzvot that have since formed the foundation of all Jewish law and ethics in the wilderness. The Jewish people, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, see the thunder and hear the lightening of God’s voice commanding them to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” in the wilderness.

Jewish tradition understood Be-midbar, “in the wilderness,” metaphorically.  Like our ancestors of old, we are challenged to open ourselves, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, to encountering the Divine along our own life journeys.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“The study of Torah was not intended to provide a body of knowledge, but rather a religious experience.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan understood that Torah study has always been much more than knowing Jewish history, biblical Jewish law, or who said this or did that thousands of years ago. Torah, along with “God” and “Israel, is one of the three fundamental pillars of Jewish civilization. It is the source through which each of us can transcend the sorrows of daily life, embrace the grand sweep of Jewish spiritual history, and connect with all that is holy in our lives.

Therefore, Kaplan taught, study of Torah is most effective when the words and stories become gateways to experiencing the sacred in life.  The primary purpose of studying Torah is to engage with it—to connect with the people of our biblical history and open ourselves today to furthering the sacred story. 

In this sense, “Torah” itself becomes a metaphor for all Jewish learning throughout the history of our people.  Torah represents our ongoing search for purpose in life, our commitment to strengthening Jewish peoplehood, and our quest for holiness in the commonplace. 

To Kaplan, this Torah was our primary source of spiritual meaning and religious experience—indeed, the very life blood of Jewish civilization and the foundation upon which all of Jewish life was built. “A Torah-less Judaism may hang on to life for a generation or two,” he wrote, “but its end is inevitable.”[i]  Without such a Torah, he believed, we would find ourselves wandering once again through the wilderness of spiritual life, failing to find an overarching life purpose and destined to disappear as a people.

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

The Gift of Teaching Torah

One of my favorite things to do as a rabbi is to teach Torah.  In fact, gaining insights into my own life from the ancient wisdom of Torah was what excitedly drew me to the rabbinic seminary in the first place. The opportunity to spend five years immersing myself in the language and nuance of Torah study was a gift too precious to ignore.

As I read the stories about God developing intimate relationships with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and their children after them, I longed for my own personal relationship with the Divine. “If Abraham or Jacob could feel a sense of God’s presence in the twists and turns of their lives,” I thought, “perhaps I will find a way to do the same in my life as well.” 

That’s why these words of Mordecai Kaplan have always been powerful for me. I, too, study Torah not for the sake of mere “knowledge,” but rather as a path toward a deeper understanding of the truths, value, and meaning of life itself.

A couple of years ago, a woman in my Torah study class had her own revelation.  We were reading about Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s rightful blessing, hearing Esau vow to kill him, and fleeing into the cold wilderness. That night, as he sleeps with his head upon a rock, God promises to keep Jacob safe. He awakens with one of the most profound revelations in the Torah, saying, “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.”

            We had just read Jacob’s words aloud when a woman I’d been counseling—she’d been struggling with the pain of having being sued by her brother over their father’s will after his unexpected death—voiced a thunderous “Oh my God!”

“I just realized,” she explained, “that my brother is actually another reflection of God showing up in my life. My brother’s anger isn’t about me at all. His lawsuit isn’t even about money, but about the tremendous loss he has felt since our dad’s death, knowing he’ll never hear dad tell him he loved him, believed in him, and accepted him just the way he is. Acknowledgement by our father is all he’s ever truly wanted. Wow, God was in this place today for me and I didn’t know it, until I could open my own eyes and heart to see my brother as he really is.” Her sigh of relief and insight touched us all.

            Study of Torah is our opportunity to experience the Divine—which, I suspect, is why in Pirkei Avot 5:26 Ben Bag Bag teaches in reference to the Torah, “Turn it, turn it for everything is in it.”

 

 

 

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Mon, May 25 2020 2 Sivan 5780