Derech Tzofeh (“The Path of the Scout”) offers commentaries on Judaism from all diverse Jewish Scouting sources to incorporate the values inspired by the Torah, Talmud and Mishnah and relate them to the Scouting program.
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October 15, 2021 – Parsha Lech Lecha
This week, I study in memory of my dear mother, Ethel Poliakoff Block, Etel bas Avraham, whose jahrzeit is tonight and tomorrow. She was a wonderful supporter of Scouting, and was the sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of many Scouts.
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, starts the story of the Jewish people with the first Jews, Abram (from av Aram, the “father” or “elder of Aram,” the land of his birth) and Sarai (“my princess”). Later in the parasha, God will change their names to Abraham and Sarah. The parasha also introduces several themes we will see repeated in the Torah.
At the end of last week’s parasha, Abram’s father, Terah, begins a journey. He takes Abram, Sarai and Lot – Terah’s grandson and Abram’s nephew – from Ur Kasdim to the land of Canaan. On the way, they stop in Haran and settle there, where Terah dies. Lech Lecha begins with Abram, Sarah and Lot in Haran, where God tells Abram, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
On the trip, while in Shechem, there is a famine, and Abram and his family travel to Egypt. Because Sarai is beautiful, Abram fears he will be killed so someone powerful can take her as a wife, so he tells Sarai to say she is his sister. Pharaoh is told of Sarai’s beauty, and he treats Abram well, but he takes Sarai to the palace. Because Pharaoh acted inappropriately, God punishes Pharaoh and his family and servants with a plague, and he comes to understand why he is being punished. Pharaoh becomes angry with Abram for lying about Sarai being his sister, and throws Abram and his family out of Egypt.
Abram and Lot both acquire many cattle and sheep, and it is difficult for all of them to live in the same pastures. Abram tells Lot to choose one part of the land in which to live, and Abram will live in another part. Lot decides to live in the valley of the Jordan River, near the city of Sodom.
There is a war in the Jordan valley, and Lot is captured. Abram takes 318 disciples, whom he has taught to worship God, and saves Lot. The king of Sodom offers Abram some of the spoils of war, but he refuses them, for fear that people will say the king of Sodom made Abram wealthy, instead of God.
God promises Abram he will inherit the land of Canaan. Abram asks for a sign, and God instructs Abram to cut three cows, three goats and three rams in half, and to arrange the pieces in two rows, together with a turtledove and a dove. This event is called the “Covenant of the Parts.” Abram then falls into a deep sleep. God says to Abram:
“Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth. As for you, you shall come to your ancestors in peace, you shall be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then.” (Genesis 15: 13-16)
Because Sarai is childless, she encourages Abram to take her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife, which Abram does, and Hagar bears a son, Ishmael.
God makes a covenant with Abram that he will be a father of a multitude of nations and changes Abram’s name to Abraham (taken from av hamon, “father of a multitude”). Abram and his male descendants are to seal this covenant by brit milah – circumcision – and he and Ishmael and all the men in his household are circumcised. God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah (from “my princess” to “princess” because instead of being a princess of Abraham’s household, she became a princess of a multitude).
Those who know the stories of the Torah may have noticed some of the themes I mentioned at the beginning.
– God sends people on journeys.
– God tests the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
– Often the journeys are intended to leave civilization so the people can become civilized.
– When there is a famine, people leave the land that was promised us by God that nourishes the spirit (Canaan) and go to a land where there is food for the body but not the spirit (Egypt).
– The Matriarchs have difficulty having children.
– The Patriarchs are very independent and want to partner with God, not kings who worship idols.
– God tells Abram that his descendants will be slaves in a foreign land but will be freed after 400 years.
– God changes people’s names in connection with great plans or accomplishments.
Be looking for these themes as we go through the rest of the Torah.
October 8, 2021 – Parsha Noach
This week, we read Parasha Noach – the story of Noah.
At the end of Parasha Bereishis, God says he has seen the evil ways that have been taken up by both humans and animals, and he is going to destroy all living beings, except Noah and his family. So God commands Noah to build an ark to hold those people and animals who are to be saved. This task takes 120 years, which gives people plenty of time to see what Noah is doing and get the idea that they should repent and change their ways. Unfortunately, no one repents or changes, and the world is destroyed by the flood that lasts for 40 days and nights.
After the flood, subsequent generations thrive in a world where everyone speaks the same language. The people sought glory for themselves and forgot their purpose of serving God. They thought that, if they built a great tower they could keep God from dispersing them. But God ends their efforts by causing everyone to speak separate languages, which makes it impossible to continue the building project.
One of the many interesting features of the parasha is that it starts and ends with a genealogy of Noah. The opening sentence of the parasha is “These are the offspring of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.” The last two chapters outline the generations of Noah’s children again, starting with the eldest, Japheth, and ending with the youngest and most righteous, Shem. Shem is the ancestor of Abraham.
The rabbis discuss the bookending of Noah’s generations in the parasha. Some say that Noah was only righteous when compared to the other people in his generation, who were evil. Others say that, if Noah had lived in Abraham’s generation, Noah would have been even more righteous because he would have lived among other righteous people, like Abraham and Sarah.
The rabbis do not come to a consensus on this subject, but the discussion reminds us that, if we want to live a good life, we would do well to think about those who came before us and those who will come after us. We want to take our best characteristics of the past and “be prepared” to improve them.
If there are things in your life that are great – your habits, talents, relationships with family and friends – use those and strengthen them so that future generations will say “she made the most of her life”. If your habits, the use of your talents and your relationships do not help you stay healthy, be helpful, and act productively, then change them so that future generations will say “she had the strength to overcome the obstacles that faced her”.
Yours in Scouting,
October 1, 2021 – Parsha Bereishit
I hope everyone had wonderful holidays during the last several weeks, and has begun the New Year with joy. (That reminds me, I need to stop writing 5781 on my checks.)
This week, we again start the weekly cycle of Torah portions, with Parasha Bereishis. Of course, we think of it as the creation of the universe. Did you realize it is also the creation of the Boy Scouts?
In the very first chapter of the Torah God makes everything there is just by saying things. “God said, ‘Let there be light’”. (v. 3) “God said, “Let there be a firmament [the heavens]’”. (v. 6)
In fact, Pirke Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), a book of the Mishnah, explains, “With ten Divine Statements the world was created. And what does this come to teach? Is it not evident that it could have been created with one Divine Statement?” (5:1)
In his commentary on this verse, the great Italian Torah scholar Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550) points out that certainly God could have created everything with just one utterance. Instead, God chose to use a series of creations progressing to the creation that was in God’s image and likeness, Mankind. (Genesis 1:26) Sforno explains our job is to assist God by trying to perfect oneself and the world, thereby trying to be in God’s image and likeness.
As Jews, we do this by trying to live by the Torah. Scouting takes many Torah principles and puts them into a form – the Scout Oath, Law and Slogan – that young people of all faiths can accept and use as guides for living. Just as the Torah helps us perfect ourselves and the world, so does Scouting.
It’s OK that we are not perfect. God’s method of creation was meant for us to keep improving ourselves. So as you work on perfecting your practice of the Scout Oath and Law, you are continuing the work God began with creation.
September 24, 2021 – Shabbat of Sukkot (Intermediate Days)
We are in the middle of the festival of Sukkot, when we get to camp out in our makeshift huts and recall the kinds of booths our ancestors lived in during the Jewish people’s travels in the Wilderness.
It’s interesting how Sukkot is just a few days after Yom Kippur, and how they are counterpoints to one another.
• On Yom Kippur, we eat nothing and spend an evening and the next day in a well-constructed synagogue or temple. On Sukkot, we eat nice meals, but spend our time in the makeshift sukkah.
• On Yom Kippur, we think about big issues that have long-term effects, such as what we may have done that hurt other people or how we broke God’s commandments, and how we can go about fixing those mistakes. On Sukkot, we think about immediate issues, such as whether it will be pleasant while we eat dinner in the sukkah, or whether it will rain or be hot, making it difficult to live in the sukkah for a few hours or the coming day.
• On Yom Kippur, though we may be in a large sanctuary, we turn our thoughts inward and think about them privately. On Sukkot, we invite guests to enjoy our meals in our small sukkah. In fact, many people have the custom of Ushpizin, in which we invite famous guests into our sukkah for our evening meal (just like we invite Elijah the Prophet into our homes on Pesach). These guests are the seven “faithful shepherds” of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David.
• On Yom Kippur, we downplay our possessions and our attention to ourselves – we do not wear leather shoes, do not “anoint” (like wearing cologne or perfume), and many people wear white clothes, which are rather plain, as a sign of purity. On Sukkot we decorate the sukkah with fruit, flowers and flags, and have the nicest Arbah Minim (four species) we can buy – a beautiful etrog (a large lemon-like fruit) and a long date palm branch around which are bundled myrtle and willow branches.
• Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Sukkot is called Ziman Simchasenu, the Time of Our Gladness.
So, first we went through Yom Kippur, where we fasted, gave up certain comforts and prayed for forgiveness for the mistakes we made. These are spiritual things. Now, on Sukkot, we are more involved in our physical world.
Both are important and need attention. And they are connected. You gave up physical things – food, nice clothes, comfortable shoes – to get in touch with your spirit. Now, as you get in touch with good food, the companionship of friends and the outdoorsy surroundings of your sukkah, do you also feel spiritually uplifted? Maybe we need to have things – and to get away from things – in order to be well-rounded spiritually.
Chag sameach (happy holiday) and Shabbat shalom,
September 17, 2021 – Parasha Haazinu
I hope everyone had a meaningful Yom Kippur.
We tend to put a lot of importance on the “last” things we hear from people.
You may have spent weeks in class studying a subject, but when your teacher tells you there will be a test next week and says “be sure to study these topics” you listen very closely.
Your troop may have practiced certain skills for several weeks in preparation for a campout, but when your senior patrol leader gives you final instructions before a patrol competition, pay special attention.
A famous person may have written volumes and spoken thousands of words during his or her career, but we place extra meaning on the person’s “last words”.
This week, in Parasha Haazinu, we receive the last words of Moses. Next week, we will learn the last blessings that our great teacher gave the Children of Israel, but this week, we receive our his last thoughts about what he considered most important.
These last words are in the form of a song of 43 stanzas. I think the best summary are several sentences at the beginning (Deuteronomy 32:3-6):
When I call out the Name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to our God.
The Rock! Perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; a God of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.
Corruption is not His – the blemish is His children’s, a perverse and twisted generation.
Is it to the Lord that you do this, O vile and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Master? Has he not created you and firmed you?
These stanzas introduce the theme of the song: God is perfect, righteous and fair. When the Children of Israel abandon the Torah and worship other gods or treat people wickedly, bad things happen. The Israelites must take responsibility for these consequences.
As the many-times-great grandchildren of the Children of Israel, we should pay special attention to Moses’ last words. The Torah teaches us to worship God and to be fair, kind and just as taught by the Torah God has given us. We are responsible for doing these things.
This theme is one we could well use as a guide in the coming year. I hope you follow Moses’ advice and have a year of good things.
Shana tova and Shabbat shalom!
September 10, 2021 – Yom Kippur
Shanah Tovah – Happy New Year!
This week’s parasha is Vayeilech, in which we learn about some of the things that happen on the last day of Moses’ life. On that day, Moses installs Joshua as his successor. Because Yom Kippur is next Wednesday night and Thursday, instead of studying Vayeilech, we prepare for Yom Kippur with one of my favorite divrei Torah, by Eagle Scout Jordan Block.
Yom Kippur is coming. We’re currently in the special time between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur called the Ten Days of “Repentance” – this is an approximation of the Hebrew word t’shuvah. These days are designated to get forgiveness from other people and to forgive them as part of the process of getting forgiveness from God. Someone once asked me a fascinating question: “What responsibility do I have to forgive someone who asks for forgiveness? What if their request isn’t satisfying or if my forgiveness isn’t genuine?”
Maimonides says that if one person wrongs another, the wrongdoer has to compensate and appease the wronged person. If the wronged guy refuses to be appeased and doesn’t forgive, the wrongdoer has to come back and ask again with friends of the wronged person, even a second and third time. If the wronged person refuses to be appeased entirely and will not forgive, he becomes the sinner, and the wrongdoer has no more sin. Maimonides goes on to say it is forbidden to be obdurate (hardhearted) and not allow yourself to be appeased. You should forgive sincerely and willingly even if you were greatly troubled and hurt.
You should expect a sincere apology. Forgiveness is difficult in many situations and sometimes even impossible. However, it is greatly to your benefit and to his benefit to forgive someone. Therefore, it makes sense to do whatever you can to forgive someone. When he asks insincerely, you might say, “I want to forgive you, but it’s hard because …” and hopefully you can help him understand how you feel. That way, he can sympathize or empathize and come to ask sincerely.
It’s very important to forgive sincerely, because if one doesn’t it leaves a tear in the fabric of reality called an averah. Basically, a piece of the world was destroyed, and the two parties have a chance to repair it together. If they don’t, God will want an answer as to why they didn’t repair the world. If the wrongdoer didn’t ask sincerely, it’s his responsibility, and if the wronged person didn’t forgive, it’s his responsibility. Furthermore, it seems bigger for the wronged person. If he forgives, he can fix something he didn’t even break and get credit for that, but if he doesn’t forgive, he not only misses that opportunity, but he breaks something else, and he’ll have to answer for both of those.
Finally, what can such a person do on Yom Kippur? God treats us with midah k’neged midah, measure for measure. If the wronged person who has not forgiven later asks God for forgiveness, why should he deserve it? God may say, “Forgiveness? What does forgiveness have to do with you? You don’t forgive. I should forgive you?”
So, too, with someone who forgives even without a good reason, God can forgive with no good reason. In fact, God taught us a formula to ask for Divine forgiveness, with the beautiful prayer we chant when we take out the Torah on the Festivals, called the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: “Hashem, Hashem, El Rachum V’chanun … ” – “Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations. Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses.” (Exodus 34:6-7). God taught Moses this prayer after the Children of Israel worshipped the Golden Calf, only six weeks after God gave the Ten Commandments.
Even if it’s hard, you should try to do as God does for humankind, and forgive.
September 3, 2021 – Parsha Nitzavim
“On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, …”
The Scout Oath. You’ve said it a hundred times at meetings. You promise to do your duty to God, your country, and yourself, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people, and to keep yourself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
Sometimes when we don’t act according to the Scout Oath or Law, someone will remind us that we’ve promised to act in a certain way, and we are obligated to carry out that promise. But can we be obligated to do something when we don’t make a promise?
Sure can. It happened about 3,000 years ago, and is described in this week’s parasha, Nitzavim.
The parsha begins by Moses gathering the people together. It’s the day before he dies. He says “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord, your God.” He goes on to describe everyone who is gathered there – the heads of tribes, elders, officers, men, children, women, those who have converted and the people who draw water and chop wood. With everyone together, he has the people reaffirm their covenant with God – that the Jews will be God’s people, and will be rewarded with a good life in Israel. If they go astray and begin to believe that the good things they enjoy are due to their own work, and not God, and wander to idol worship, they will be cursed by being removed from the Land of Israel.
Having brought together all the Children of Israel, from the most distinguished to the most humble, Moses then joins together those in front of him with those to come until the end of time: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this curse, but with whomever is here, standing with us today before the Lord, our God, and with whomever is not here with us today.”
Moses ends by explaining that the Torah’s commandments are not far away: “It is not in heaven … Nor is it across the sea. … Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”
So, our ancestors accepted this covenant for themselves and for us generations ago. Even today, the parents of Jewish baby boys reaffirm the covenant for their sons with a bris and make similar promises at the naming of a baby girl.
But it’s up to us – you and me – to carry out what our parents and grandparents for thousands of years have promised us to do.
Next week we will start the new year. This is a good time to think about what it means to be Jewish, and pick some things that will reaffirm the promise of the generations to live a Jewish life: Give charity, do acts of kindness, thank God for the good things you have, study the Torah portion.
After all, Moses had confidence – he said you could do it!
August 27, 2021 – Parsha Ki Savo
This week, in parasha Ki Savo, the Torah instructs us about the mitzvah of Bikurim, the First Fruits. Each year after entering the Land of Israel, each family is to bring some of the first of its harvest to the kohen at the Temple. The First Fruits come only from the seven special foods associated with the Land – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. The offering is a symbol that everything we have is to be dedicated to God’s service, in thanks for God having given us everything we have.
So in return for getting everything we have, how much do we have to offer as thanks? The Mishnah (Peah 1:1) teaches that there is no minimum amount required in offering the Bikurim. The requirement is that the offering must be from the First Fruits, not that it has to be a lot of the First Fruits.
The importance of the Bikurim being the first of the harvest relates to the idea that the first of anything holds special importance. First is new to us. We are excited to experience it. First shows us that our efforts to create something have been successful. So we recall that God has blessed us by being our partner in creation, and we thank God for this gift.
This is a great lesson as we start the new year soon.
When we experience new things, we should recognize that God has brought us to these events. If they are enjoyable – make a new friend, learn a new game, get a new book – it will be easy to thank God for them.
If they are difficult – meet someone who is sick, study a hard subject, have someone do something mean to us – we have an opportunity to think about what value we can get out of the experience and that we should be thankful for it thought that may be hard. Perhaps we have learned a lesson, or grown stronger, or worked together with a friend to get through a problem.
Maybe the new experience will give us an opportunity to do a Good Turn. Remember, no minimum amount required.
August 20, 2021 – Parsha Ki Seitzei
Did you ever ask your Scoutmaster a question and were told “Have you asked your patrol leader?”
Or maybe you told one of the other leaders you wanted to learn how to tie a certain kind of knot, and got the response “Is that in the Boy Scout Handbook?”
Perhaps these discussions left you unhappy or frustrated. After all, the adults you talked to probably knew the answer. Why did they send you away?
Because if they told you, all they would accomplish is to give you information, without anyone really learning anything.
When you get information from your patrol leader, he either knows and gets to practice explaining things to you, or he has to learn so he can teach you, or the two of you learn it together. When you find out something for yourself, as when you read a book, you not only learn the new skill, you also learn something about the process of learning. Next time you want information, instead of thinking you have to go to one of the adults, you know that the troop’s youth leaders and your Boy Scout Handbook are sources of information you can use.
One of the most interesting lessons of this week’s parasha, Ki Seitzei, uses the same principle. The Torah (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) teaches us the mitzvah that before you take young birds you must first send away the mother bird.
The reason for this seems pretty simple – even animals love their young and try to protect them. If the mother bird sees her young being taken away, she will be very distressed, even more so than if the young are removed while she is off and she comes back to see her young are gone.
The Sages of the Talmud suggested that God gave us this mitzvah because God has mercy on the mother bird. The Ramban disagreed, and explained that God gave us this mitzvah not because of Divine feelings of mercy, but so that mankind will learn to be merciful. If people are allowed to do cruel things – like taking away the young birds while the mother watches – they will act cruelly in other things. If people learn to respect the feelings of the mother bird, it will be a lesson for dealing with every living thing.
So, sometimes a lesson or a mitzvah is just about doing a specific thing. Sometimes it is about how to do everything.
August 13, 2021 – Parsha Shoftim
This week’s portion is Parasha Shoftim (judges), which begins with a description of various community officers, like judges, whom the Children of Israel will appoint when they enter the Land. Very impressive, to have a job description written by God.
But God understood that authority needed limits. When America’s Founding Fathers (surely after consulting with the Founding Mothers) wrote the Constitution, they included checks and balances, by which each of the three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – would impose limits on each other so that no branch became too powerful. The limits God put on the officers were to make sure their power was used within the Jewish constitution, the Torah.
In this same vein, the portion teaches that while the leading judges acting together as the Great Sanhedrin were empowered to interpret what the Torah meant, the most learned of the sages was not permitted to hand down a ruling that contradicted the Great Sanhedrin.
Even the king would have limits on what he could do. The Torah tells us that the people will set over themselves a king whom God shall choose. But there were limitations. The king had to be Jewish. He could not have too many horses, or too many wives, or too much gold and silver.
The Torah’s explanation of two of these prohibitions gives us a clue to the deeper meaning of why they are prohibited.
- The limitation on not having too many horses was to keep the nation from returning to Egypt. This meant not only that Israel should avoid traveling to Egypt to buy horses; Egypt was the land where the people lived in a low spiritual state, and God wanted their spiritual lives to be elevated.
- The prohibition against too many wives was to keep the king’s heart from turning astray. God knew that, when the kings married many wives, some of them would be idol-worshippers and influence the king and the people to worship idols.
- So, too, an excess of gold and silver would turn the king away from his job of serving the people through the words of the Torah, and become diverted to amassing riches.
The final rule was that the king had to write two copies of the Torah, one to be kept in his treasury and one to accompany him at all times. With the Torah at his side, the king would attend to his true purpose, to “observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:19)
The king is given wealth and status, so that he could carry out the Torah.
What powers and gifts have you been given, and how do you use them?
August 6, 2021 – Parsha Re’eh
In Parasha Re’eh, we learn again that God has brought the Children of Israel to their new land to be holy, and to avoid the practices of the Canaanites. God gives several commandments, through Moses.
God knows the people will be attracted to idol worship, and commands the Israelites to adhere strictly to certain rules everyone must follow when doing certain “everyday” things.
First, to make sure the Israelites are not tempted by the customs of idolatry and out of respect for the holiness of the land, God instructs them to destroy all the idols and their altars, “sacred” pillars and trees, and even avoid using the idols’ names.
Next, God commands that offerings will only be made at the site God chooses for the Tabernacle. Over time, there were permitted national altars at Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Gibeon and finally, Jerusalem. During periods before and after the Tabernacle was in place at Shiloh, and before the Temple at Jerusalem, even when there were national altars, certain optional offerings could be made at private altars, but not required offerings like the sin offering and the guilt offering.
God expands the law regarding the use of kosher animals as food, and commands that, even though required offerings of animals cannot be made at private altars, people could use kosher animals for food at their homes.
God also warns the people against copying the idol worship and other practices of the Canaanites.
Finally, God commands the people to avoid false prophets, and also a city where many people are encouraging the others to worship idols.
One lesson of this parasha is the importance of one’s surroundings – the people we spend time with, the customs and ceremonies we follow, and even the food we eat. God recognized we are all influenced by the people and things around us, and commanded us to avoid people doing things that copied idol worship or lessened the importance of holy things, such as the required offerings. Our everyday activities and habits form who we are. If we are around people doing things that are mean or hurtful to others, or bad for the community, we may end up doing the same things.
We can “help other people at all times” by talking to our neighbors about acting appropriately or, if they refuse, by being careful not to adopt their poor practices.
July 30, 2021 – Parsha Eikev
This week, in Parasha Eikev, Moses continues his farewell speech to the Israelites, which includes reminders of the people’s actions during their journey in the Midbar (Wilderness) and warnings about how the people are to live when they enter the Land of Israel.
Moses explains the people are to remember the entire road they traveled – the events that occurred during 40 years in the Midbar. God’s purpose was “to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)
The test Moses then mentions is the manna, the food that descended with the dew every morning and burned off during the course of the day. “He afflicted you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna that you did not know, nor did your fathers know … .” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
How is the manna a test?
Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, also known as the Ramban) explains the manna was a trial because it was an unusual food. It was new to the Israelites – and the whole world. Their fathers had not known it. It was not like other food. One could only gather enough for his or her family, and any part not eaten that day spoiled. There was nothing else to eat. The manna was not only a gift from God, but also a daily reminder each Israelite was entirely dependent on God.
The Israelites were to learn that in the land flowing with milk and honey, where they would work in farming and raising sheep and cattle, the good soil, abundant rain and sunshine were all provided by God, just as the manna had been. A few sentences later, Moses warns the people not to think their work alone has made them wealthy, but was the work of God who gave them strength, in order to fulfill the covenant God made with the Patriarchs to give their children the land.
The lesson I take from the parasha is to be proud of what we are able to accomplish, and at the same time always remember God is the source of our strength and talents that allow us to do good things. In this way, we pass the same test our ancestors did more than 3,000 years ago.
This is d’var Torah is taken from themes developed by the famous Torah teacher, Dr. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), in her book New Studies in Devarim.
July 23, 2021 – Parsha Va’Eschanan
In this week’s parasha, Va’Eschanan, Moses continues his review of events that happened in the Wilderness as part of the Exodus from Egypt.
Recall God had forbidden Moses to enter the Land of Israel, because he had not followed God’s instructions in asking for water from a rock in the Wilderness of Zin. Even though Moses is aware he has been forbidden to enter Israel, he so loves the land and wants to see it that he asks if he may cross the Jordan River and enter the land. God becomes angry with Moses, and tells him “Do not speak to Me of this matter again.”
Moses then goes back to reviewing the laws the Israelites are to obey when they enter the land. Among those are two very important sets of law we know well: the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) and the opening sentence and first paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4, and 5-9).
There is even a commandment about teaching one’s children – we recite it every year at the Passover Seder:
When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” You shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as He has commanded us.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-25) [Translation by Sefaria.org]
Now, if it was not a good idea for Moses to anger his Heavenly Father, we don’t want to do anything to anger our early fathers – or mothers or grandparents or other adults we live with – by asking a trick question, like “What are the laws God enjoined upon you?” But you will impress them by pointing out this passage as a way, here in August, we can Be Prepared for next spring’s Passover!
Just don’t mention anything about cleaning out the chometz.
July 16, 2021 – Parsha Devarim
This week, I write in memory of my dear father, Norman Block, Nachum ben Nachman haLevi, whose jahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) is next week. Though he was never registered as a Scout, he was the brother-in-law, father, grandfather and great-grandfather of many Scouts, and he lived the Scout Oath and Law every day.
We are about to experience a fascinating period of a few days, during which we learn of both the beginning and the end of the Jewish people’s life in the Land of Israel during ancient times. And it all has to do with words.
On Shabbat, we read the first portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, Parasha Devarim. In it, Moses repeats most of the mitzvot (commandments) the Israelites will need in order to live in the land. The parasha begins Eleh devarim – “These are the words” – “that Moses spoke to all of Israel”. After a few sentences explaining part of the journey through the Wilderness, Moses teaches the people God’s commandment to enter Israel and take control of the Land: “See, I have given the Land before you. Come and possess the Land that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their children after them.”
The other event we will mark is the destruction of the Second Temple. That tragedy happened on Tisha B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. Not only was the Temple destroyed, during the next several decades, many of the Jews were killed, driven out of Israel or sold into slavery. The Jewish people lost control of our Land.
There are many theories about when the Exodus occurred. Many writers suggest it was about 3,500 years ago. We have good records for when the Second Temple was destroyed – the year 70 of the Common Era, or almost 2,000 years ago. So we were in control of our Land for about 1,500 years.
Tisha B’Av is also the date of several other terrible events. Our tradition teaches that was the day that the Meraglim (spies) brought back their misleading report (more words!) about the Land of Canaan and discouraged the Israelites from entering the Land – only Caleb and Joshua gave an accurate report about the Land. The First Temple was also destroyed on that day (there are disagreements on whether the year was 587 or 425 Before the Common Era). On Tisha B’Av 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain. And on Tisha B’Av 1914 World War I began, which was terrible itself but also led to World War II and the killing of 6 million Jews.
The Talmud and other sources give various reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple, but the reason discussed most frequently is that the people had baseless hatred (in Hebrew, sinat chinam) for each other. To explain baseless hatred, the Talmud (Gittin 56a) tells the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza, where a person mistakenly showed up to a party given by a host who considered him an enemy. Even though the guest offered to pay for the entire party to avoid being embarrassed, the host threw him out. The guest then told a false story to the Romans that made the rest of the Jews look disloyal, and this caused the destruction of the Temple. Notice that both the host and the guest used words – devarim – to hurt others.
The Torah teaches us both the host and the guest were wrong in their use of words. We should not embarrass anyone nor should we lie. Put in Scouting terms, we should be Kind, Courteous and Trustworthy.
Our founder, Lord Baden-Powell, had very practical advice about the wrongs that words can cause. As to letting someone be embarrassed, he wrote, “It does not matter how small the good turn may be – even if it is only to … say a good word for somebody who is being badly spoken of.”
B-P gave wrote this about words in a 1910 essay: “If our lads were trained as a regular habit to see the other fellow’s point of view before passing their own judgement on a dispute, what a difference it would at once make in their manliness of character! Such lads would not be carried away, as is at present too commonly the case, by the first orator who catches their ear on any subject, but they would also go and hear what the other side has to say about it, and would then think out the question and make up their own minds as men for themselves.”
So before judging other people or embarrassing them, be Kind, Courteous and Trustworthy and ask yourself if there might be other points of view to be considered.
Notes: B-P’s advice regarding a good turn comes from a letter to a London boys’ club, 1910, quoted in the collection of B-P writings, Footsteps of the Founder, by Mario Sica, p. 66. The quote about seeing the other fellow’s point of view is from the June 1912 edition of the British Scout Association’s Headquarters Gazette.
July 9, 2021 – Parshot Mattos and Masei
This week we read two parashot, Mattos and Masei.
Much of Parasha Mattos is about the neder, or vow, and that once made, it must be kept. The neder is not a promise to do something, but rather is a promise prohibiting oneself from using or enjoying something, or forbid someone else from using his or her property. The commentary in the Artscroll Chumash explains the neder changes the status of the object – what was once permitted to a person is now prohibited.
The second part of Parasha Mattos tells of the battle against the adult Midianites, who had tried to get the Israelites to worship idols. Their idol worship and their sin in trying to lure the Israelites into idol worship were a threat to the goal of making the land of Israel into a place where the Israelites could worship God.
Parasha Mattos also tells how the tribes of Gad and Reuben, and half the tribe of Manasseh, would not take lands across the Jordan River for their homes, but would take lands east of the river, which had good pasture for grazing cattle. Those tribes would build cities for their families and herds of cattle, and then would join the rest of the Israelites in removing the idol worshipping tribes from Canaan.
Parasha Masei talks about the boundaries of the land which will become Israel, and the process of dividing it among families by lot. Masei also gives instructions about cities for the Levites, who served God by helping in the Temple and living throughout the land to teach Torah. Because the Levites had no large area that would belong to them, they were given smaller areas throughout Israel to build cities, together with fields surrounding the cities for fields and vineyards.
Finally, Parasha Masei discusses the cities of refuge, where people who had accidentally killed someone could go and be safe from revenge by the victim’s family.
The discussion of the neder, where an object’s status changes, is an introduction to the rest of Mattos and Masei. God changes the status of the land of Canaan so that it can become the land of Israel. It is no longer to be a place where people worship idols and take justice into their own hands. The land will become a holy place governed by laws based on a moral code – the Torah.
We also have the ability to change the status of the places we inhabit. We can make our homes, schools, and campsites places of holiness governed by a moral code. While our neighbors, schoolmaters and fellow Scouts may not all follow Torah, any of them will react well when you follow the 12 points of the Scout Law.
July 2, 2021 – Parsha Pinchas
Recently, I had the good fortune to spend six weeks in Israel, visiting two of my sons and their families, and welcoming a new grandson. My long stay reminded me of our connection to Eretz Yisrael, and because of that I want to post a favorite Derech Tsofeh of mine for this week’s parasha from a few years ago.
This week’s parasha, Pinchas, includes a favorite episode of mine from the wanderings in the Wilderness.
As the Children of Israel prepare to enter the Land that God has promised to their ancestors, God has Moses and Elazar the Kohen take a census, and gives instructions for determining how to divide the Land. Within each tribe, the Land shall be divided among the men who are 20 years old and older, by lot.
The daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, came to Moses and Elazar and explained their father died in the Wilderness and had no sons. They ask why the name of their father should be omitted because he had no sons. Moses asks God, and learns the daughters are to be given a possession in Israel.
The first lesson I find in this parasha is about the love of the Land of Israel. In describing the census, the Torah states “And of these, there was no man of those counted by Moses and Aaron the Kohen, who counted the Children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai.” This was the census taken almost 40 years earlier, after the evil report of the Meraglim (Spies) about what they found in the Land, that resulted in the people crying they wanted to return to Egypt. Their complaining was answered by God decreeing none of them would see the Land except Caleb and Joshua, who gave a true report. Rashi (commentary to Numbers 26:64) explains that it was only the men who wanted to return to Egypt, and that the women said “Give us a possession” in the Land of Israel. Because of their love of the Land, the women were not prohibited from entering the Land.
The other lesson I learn is the proper way to look at the opportunity to perform amitzvah. Because of their love of the Land, the daughters of Zelophehad ask why should the name of their father be omitted (yigarah) because he had no sons? Rashi (commentary to Numbers 27:1) points out that the daughters were righteous (they were fifth-generation granddaughters of Joseph, who also loved the Land), and thus wanted a share of the Land not out of greed, but because they held the Land as precious.
Something similar happened in Parasha Behalotacha, where men who had become ritually unclean by attending to a dead person were not allowed to make the Passover offering. They asked, “Why should we be diminished (nigarah) by not making God’s offering?”
These words from the same root garah show that all of these people felt left out or diminished by not being able to perform a mitzvah. The mitzvot are opportunities to connect to the holy; not using them leaves us out of something very important. So, when you have the chance to do a mitzvah, don’t be left out!
June 25, 2021 – Parsha Balak
In Parashat Balak this week, we learn of the efforts of the king of the Moabites, Balak, to keep the Children of Israel from taking Moab. He has heard of the Amorites’ defeat at the hands of the Israelites and sends messengers to hire the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.
Balaam warns Balak’s messengers that he can only speak what God tells him, but King Balak insists that Balaam pronounce a curse.
Balaam rides his donkey to where he is to meet Balak. On the road, the donkey sees an angel in the roadway, and tries to turn aside, first going into a field and then making Balaam’s leg hit a wall. Balaam, who does not see the angel, begins to beat the donkey. The donkey speaks and God opens Balaam’s eyes. Balaam sees the angel and apologizes for coming to curse the Israelites. The angel tells him to continue, but warns that he will only be able to speak the words God gives him.
Balaam tries twice to curse the Israelites, but each time God causes him to bless the Jews. Balak brings Balaam to the edge of the Wilderness. Balaam understands that God wants him to bless the Israelites, and God gives him the power of prophecy. He sees the tribes encamped together in peace and harmony and utters the now famous prophetic poem that begins, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
Balaam knew that he could only speak as God commanded him, and he was bright enough to realize that God had been blessing the Israelites and was not likely to curse them. Balaam warned Balak about this again and again, but Balak insisted Balaam keep cursing the Israelites. Balak was so wrapped up in the result he wanted that he could not recognize the reality of the situation.
Sometimes we get so consumed with pursuing a goal we lose sight of what is actually happening around us. Unfortunately, this is often the case when we are pursuing the wrong goal. If something is not working after many tries, perhaps we should consider whether what we are trying to do is the right thing.
June 18, 2021 – Parsha Chukas
I study today in memory of my friend and teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Sholom, San Antonio, Texas, for 50 years. He passed away today. A seventh generation rabbi, he was a Torah scholar and community leader. He will be greatly missed.
In parasha Chukas this week, we learn a great lesson through the failure of Israel’s greatest leader.
Miriam has passed away, and the well of water that accompanied the people in her merit is no more. The people begin to complain about the lack of food and water.
God tells Moses to take his staff – the one he used to perform miracles such as striking the Nile to turn it to blood and striking a rock at Horeb to bring forth water for the Israelites – and to take Aaron and speak to a rock for water for the people.
Moses gathers the grumbling people and says “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it twice with his staff. The rock yields abundant water and the Israelites and their animals all drink.
God tells Moses and Aaron that because they “did not believe Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel,” they will not lead the people into the Land of Israel.
There is much discussion about exactly what mistake Moses and Aaron made to cause them such a fate – to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom for 40 years but not to merit to enter the Land.
Rabbi Scheinberg taught that this incident teaches the high standard to which a leader will be held. The leader of God’s people must be held to a very high standard, and if the leader does not meet that standard, it is appropriate the consequence is greater than would be given to a person who has not been entrusted with such responsibility.
The lesson for those of us who are followers is to understand this burden of great leaders, and follow them in a way that will not cause them to fail in their leadership.
June 11, 2021 – Parsha Korach
The founder of the Order of the Arrow, Dr. E. Urner Goodman, used to say that leaders could either lead up or down. In Parasha Korach this week, we read about leaders who led down – in more ways than one.
Korach is from one of the most distinguished families among the Children of Israel. He is a member of the tribe of Levi, and the cousin of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Together with three members of the tribe of Reuben – Datan, Aviram and On – he begins complaining about the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Their complaint is that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much leadership. Korach also complains Aaron’s family should not be priests. He recruits 250 “men of renown” who are not Levites to join him.
Korach plays on the people’s sadness that they will not be allowed to enter Canaan because they believed the false report of the ten Meraglim (spies) who said the Canaanites were giants and thus the Israelites would not be able to conquer the land. Not only does he stir up discontent, he lies by complaining that Moses has led the people away from Egypt, calling it “a land flowing with milk and honey” – he describes the land where they were enslaved by using the same words that God uses to describe the Land of Israel!
Then Moses gives the rebels a challenge. Tomorrow they are to each bring a fire pan with incense on it to the Tent of Meeting. Moses and Aaron will do the same.
It is a dramatic scene the next day. All the people (called the “assembly”) come and the Shechinah (the cloud that represents God’s glory) appears. God tells Moses and Aaron to stand aside and watch as all the people are destroyed. Once again, Moses intervenes, asking “shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire assembly?” God tells Moses to have the people move away from the tents of Korach, Dathan and Aviram. (On had left the rebellion, at the urging of his wise wife.) God then causes a pit to open in the ground, and it swallows Korach, Dathan and Aviram and their families. The 250 men of renown who followed Korach and brought pans of incense are consumed by fire.
So you see, physically, Korach led his followers down to the inner reaches of the Earth. He led them down spiritually as well. Many of our rabbis say Korach was jealous that although he was a Levite, he did not have an important position. The rabbis also explain Korach’s followers from the tribe of Reuben were jealous because Reuben’s importance as the firstborn had been lost to the tribe of Levi, which exhibited leadership by not worshipping idols in Egypt or the Golden Calf. Had Korach, Dathan, Aviram and On been true leaders, they would have only been concerned with the welfare of those they led.
In the midst of rebellion led by Korach, the bad leader, we see true leadership exemplified by Moses. Though many questioned his authority, Moses helped the people by imploring God not to punish anyone but those causing the trouble. In the face of someone bringing the people down, Moses strives to lead upward.
June 4, 2021 – Parsha Shelach
This week’s Derech Tzofeh comes from Bruce Chudacoff, past president of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. It is adapted from his weekly Torah comments for his Temple in North Port, Florida.
This week is Shabbat Shelach. It’s a made-for-Scouting Torah portion and Haftorah. The Israelites had not left Egypt very long before they reached the edge of the Promised Land. Moses had no idea what our people were facing in Canaan. He was a general, leading an Israelite army into a potential battle. He decided, at God’s urging, to find out what was there before he led the Israelites into the Promised Land.
God told him, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.”
Moses did just what a good Senior Patrol Leader would do. First, he thought out his problem. He needed to know what the people would face when they entered the land. He chose twelve scouts to go throughout Canaan and see what was there. He made a list of instructions for the scouts so they would know what to do and how to do it and a list of questions for them to answer.
Having planned the scouting mission first, Moses was ready to start it. He gave the twelve scouts very specific instructions on what to do. Had Moses been doing this today of course, he could have just sent out some drones to get the information. But in those days, scouts had no vehicles, no drones, no binoculars. All they had was their eyes and ears.
The scouts spent 40 days on their mission. They checked out the crops that the Canaanites and the Amalekites were growing and brought back grapes that looked pretty good. They reported to the entire congregation of the Israelites. They agreed that the Promised Land was flowing with milk and honey, just as promised. But then they said the cities were big and well-fortified, the inhabitants were fierce and there were giants there. All but Caleb and Joshua made this report. Moses and all the Israelites relied on the report of the majority of the scouts and decided that this was not the time to go into the Promised Land. As a result, the Israelites wandered through the wilderness for another 38 or so years and it was a new generation that entered the land.
The Haftorah for this week is from Joshua. It recounts the spy mission he sent two spies on. The spies are sent to Jericho and return with a correct report. The result is a stunning success. Like Moses, Joshua relies on and acts on the report of the spies. The Israelites enter the Promised Land and prosper.
We can learn much that applies to Scouting from these two stories. The most successful activities begin with a good plan. A good leader makes that plan with others who are experienced and have knowledge of what to do, just like Moses did with God’s help.
We also learn that it is important to teach the right skills and practice them. Moses chose people who had experience and were leaders themselves to go on the reconnaissance mission. He trained them for their mission by telling them what to do and how to do it.
Practice always helps make things better and that is the way we operate a successful Scout unit. We plan, we teach the right skills, we practice and then we carry out the plan. Moses’ and Joshua’s scouts carried out their two missions. They scouted out the land and found out what was there. They came back and reported.
Here is where we learn another important lesson for Scouting, the importance of reporting back correctly. Scouts always have others depending on them. In a Scouts BSA, Venturing or Exploring unit, each Scout needs to carry out his or her responsibilities because the rest of the unit depends on what they say and do. If someone makes an incorrect report, the whole unit can suffer from it, just as the Israelites did when ten of the twelve scouts reported back incorrectly.
As Scouts, we follow the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. While the consequences of our actions, both in and out of Scouting, usually aren’t as significant as those of Moses’ scouts and Joshua’s spies, it is important for us to always do what is right. The ripples from our actions can spread far and wide. We want to be like Caleb and Joshua and like Joshua’s spies, carry out our Scouting responsibilities and always be as accurate and forthright as possible.
Yours in Scouting,
May 28, 2021 – Parsha Beha’alotekha
This week’s commentary comes from Bruce Chudacoff. Bruce has just completed eight years as chairman and president of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting – Mazel Tov!
This week is Shabbat Beha’alotekha. It contains instructions on how to prepare the Levites for their tasks as the assistants to the priests. The second Passover takes place (the first was the night of the Tenth Plague) and the Lord provides for those who cannot participate on the right night by creating a second Passover a month later.
More instructions are given. First of all, trumpets are made to signal the Israelites. There are specific signals for when to assemble, when to break camp, when to leave and how to go.
Moses is finding that being the sole leader of over 600,000 people is just too much for him to handle. God instructs him to assemble seventy elders to share the burdens of leadership. Another incident occurs. Miriam and Aaron decide that they should be equal to Moses in the leadership of the Israelites.
There are a few great lessons in this Torah portion for all of us as Scouts. We can apply them to our camping experiences but they have meaning for us in everything we do.
Moses was appointed the leader of the people. Miriam and Aaron tried to take his authority away. We see that once someone is put in charge, a senior patrol leader, the person in charge of a camping trip, the person making arrangements for an event, that person needs to be respected and his or her leadership needs to be followed. You may prefer to do things your way but that is not the Scout way just as it was not the way of our ancestors.
Moses found out the hard way that leadership can be a great burden. The Lord showed him how to obtain help so his leadership could produce positive results. The appointment of seventy elders provided Moses with a way to share the burdens of day-to-day life while still maintaining his authority. In Scouting, we recognize the wisdom of appointing helpers. We have a senior patrol leader and patrol leaders; we have a cook and assistants; we have one person in charge of the camping trip, a quartermaster to make sure we have the right equipment, someone to buy the food, someone to work on the transportation and travel permits if we need them, someone to check health forms and so on. Scouting teaches the lesson that Moses had to learn for himself; don’t take on the whole job by yourself. These lessons are of greater importance as we enter adult society. No leader can succeed without surrounding himself or herself with competent helpers who help to carry out the leader’s vision.
The Torah portion teaches us something else of major importance – preparation and planning are central to success. At the beginning of the portion, the priests prepare the Levites for their service at the Tabernacle. They all know what their jobs are in advance and are purified so they can perform them properly. We all need to be told what our individual jobs for an activity will be ahead of time and then we have to practice them so we are ready to carry out our assigned tasks at the right time.
The Torah also teaches us the importance of clear communication. They didn’t have cell phones in Biblical times, so trumpets had to do the work of notifying the people when it was time to take certain steps. We learn the importance of communication from these instructions. Yes, we too can use trumpets or bugles at camp as long as we communicate and let everyone know what our signals mean. We can also use a cell phone or other communications devices to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to our events.
There’s a lot to learn when we try to visualize the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness and in early Israel. Just as Moses had to learn how to be a good leader by sharing the load, the people had to learn that a good leader needs to be trusted and followed. Planning, training and communication are keys to success in Scouting, just as they were in the wilderness.
May 20, 2021 – Parshat Naso
This week’s d’var Torah is from Rabbi Susan Elkodsi, Rabbi at the Malverne Jewish Center, Malverne, NY, and chaplain at the last World Scout Jamboree.
All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting–those recorded came to 8,580. Each one was given responsibility for his service and porterage at the command of the LORD through Moses, and each was recorded as the LORD had commanded Moses. (Bamidbar 4:46-49)
I’ve often joked that “Jews don’t camp, 40 years in the desert was enough.” And here the Israelites are Ba-midbar, in the wilderness, or desert, on a huge trek on their way to the Promised Land, a campout they soon learn will last another 38 years.
In 2019, I was honored to serve as a chaplain at the World Scout Jamboree in 2019, where I saw what an enormous undertaking it was, and the tremendous amount of planning and organization that was done. Yes, there were a few glitches, but it was amazing how things managed to move so smoothly, and how many people were moved from once place to another. This involved way more logistics involved than the average troop campout, so imagine the idea of hundreds of thousands of Israelites in the wilderness doing this, but without the computers, smartphones and technology we have today.
Parshat Naso begins with instructions for the Levites of the Gershon and Merari clans who assist the kohanim with the porterage, assembly, and disassembly of the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness. I think the Mishkan might just be the first-ever Eagle project; donations needed to be solicited, all kinds of things needed to built and created out of a variety of materials, and everyone needed to participate.
Naso tells us that each of the three “troops” of Levites were responsible for different tasks, which were specifically spelled out.
We can look at parashat Naso as a huge campout or Klondike, and consider the process that we, as Scouts, go through when planning a troop, crew or other outing. Duty rosters? Check. Gear needs to be transported, tents and cooking equipment need to be set up, taken down, cleaned and stowed, and everyone has to pitch in (pun intended). God created task lists, and each of the groups had specific duties. This ensured that things were done properly, and that no one was fighting over a task, and everything followed a schedule and instructions. Each Levite learned his job, and since the period of service for a Levite was between the ages of 30 and 50, each had to pass his knowledge to and train the next generation.
In our Scouting and “regular” lives, how do we relate to an ancient text like this? What can we learn from them? Parshat Naso teaches us the importance of dividing and assigning tasks in order for projects to go smoothly, and the importance of making sure to do things properly the first time. As a youth-led organization, Scouts BSA teaches scouts to be mentors, to work together as a team, and to take pride in a job well done.
Scouts and Jews are expected to behave in ways that bring honor to themselves and the community, and both the Torah and the 12 Points of the Scout Law are the trails we follow to become strong examples to the world.
May the Supreme Scoutmaster bless you and protect you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God’s face always be turned towards you, and may the Holy One of Blessing give you peace! Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
May 13, 2021 – Parshat Bamidbar
This week’s d’var Torah is from Rabbi Art Vernon, Rabbi at Congregation Shaaray Shalom, West Hempstead, NY, and National Chaplain, NJCOS.
Parashat Bamidbar finds the Israelites in the wilderness, still at Mt. Sinai, but making preparations to head toward the Promised Land. One of the preparations is taking a census of able-bodied men in case the Israelites need to defend themselves. The Torah specifies that males age twenty and older should be counted. At that time, twenty years old was considered adulthood. Can you imagine taking on the responsibilities of adulthood at age 20 today? I think some of you may be able to do that. Notice that females were not counted. Today, we would also count females as we include females in Scouting.
Another preparation is organizing the line of march, the order of the tribes as they proceed through the wilderness. The tribes are told to follow the leader carrying their flag with their insignia. Each tribe has its own flag with its own insignia. Sort of like we have in Scouting. Our flags have our Unit number on them, which identifies what group we are part of. But our insignia is the same for all of us, the fleur-de-lis. Perhaps you have been in a Council or civic event in which many Scout units participated, each assembled behind their own Scout flag.
Why is the fleur-de-lis the symbol and insignia of Scouting? It was a common symbol on maps and on compasses, indicating the North, and it still is! It represents focus, direction and steadfastness, all qualities that we value in Scouting. Today, when we learn orienteering, everyone has a compass. Back then, usually only the leader or a couple of people had a compass and led the group. So, the fleur-de-lis can also be a symbol of leadership. One of our goals in Scouting is to help each of our youth members, all of you, to become leaders in Scouting and leaders in the community and the world when you are older. Just as there are many opportunities to be a leader in Scouting, from the Patrol, to the Unit and to the Council, so too there will be many opportunities to lead when you are older. We hope that your experience in Scouting prepares you to be a leader later in life. I took advantage of all the leadership training and service opportunities available in Scouting when I was youth member, and I was well-prepared to take on leadership roles throughout my life. May the fleur-de-lis of Scouting lead you to your true North!
Rabbi Art Vernon
May 6, 2021 – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
This week’s d’var Torah is from Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser, Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and Past National Chaplain, NJCOS.
Parshat Bechukotai (read together with Parshat Behar this Shabbat) imagines a number of dark, unhappy, and frightening fates that, sadly, can be all too real. We read in Leviticus 26:37, “With no one pursuing them, they shall stumble over one another….”
This past week, on the usually cheerful if minor holiday of Lag Ba-Omer, the Jewish world witnessed just such a tragedy. After celebrating the holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel – and after honoring the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by visiting his tomb there to mark his yahrzeit on that day – 45 of the many thousands joining in the celebration died in a crushing “stampede” of worshippers leaving the sacred site. Many more were injured. Happy pilgrims to Mount Meron — “with no one pursuing them, stumbled over one another” – with terrible consequences. Among the victims were the very young together with their elders, Yeshiva students, and a number of rabbis.
The tragic loss of life is especially bitter given its timing. The Omer period between Passover and Shavuot is traditionally associated with the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiba’s students in a plague. Lag Ba-Omer (the 33rd day of this period) is celebrated to mark the end of that plague. Lag Ba-Omer represents new life and hope and safety… and the holiday honors students and teachers and scholars of Torah.
On this Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai, we honor the memory of those whom we lost at last week’s Lag Ba-Omer celebration. May their memory be a blessing. We continue to pray for those recovering from their injuries.
Such dark events are difficult for us all to understand and to accept… but they are especially tough for young Scouts who are practiced in the ways of kindness, compassion, empathy, and reverence. It is sad that – on such occasions – young people are confronted with news of pain and loss. In these very sad days, we do well to remember the final message Scouting founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell left for his fellow Scouts:
“I believe that God put us on this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life… Try to leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your time comes to die you can die happy in feeling at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. ‘Be Prepared’ in this way to live happy and to die happy; stick to your Scout Promise always – even after you have ceased to be a boy – and God help you do it.”
“I believe…” Baden-Powell said. “I believe – Ani Ma’amin” were among the last words sung by the Lag Ba-Omer pilgrims just before that awful accident on Lag Ba-Omer. “Ani Ma’amin: I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even if he takes a long time – still – I believe.” We continue to believe… even in the saddest of times. For, as Parshat Bechukotai assures us (Leviticus 26:12)… “I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you will be My People.”
May we know no further sadness. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
April 30, 2021 – Parshat Emor
This week’s d’var Torah is from Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Executive Director, Institute for Jewish Studies, Chicago.
Several years ago my children and I went to the Field Museum in Chicago. While we had been there before and seen the dinosaur bones and the dioramas of mammoths and mastodons, on this occasion we went into an exhibit called “Evolving Planet.” In vivid form, the exhibit took us through the major geological periods of earth’s development, from the formation of the planet through its cooling, to the emergence of the first life forms, and through the hundreds of millions of years of development of organisms, up to the present day.
I don’t know what was different about this visit to a natural history museum. I had been to many before. But somehow during this visit I felt in a profound way just how tiny and insignificant our lives are. When you think about the history of the earth in terms of six billion years, or even just (!) the 250 million years since the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and you consider that what we know of human civilization is only a few thousand years old, it puts whatever accomplishments or failures you’ve had into perspective.
Time has enormous power to do that. “To everything there is a season,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Viewed against the vast expanse of the existence of the universe, our lives can indeed seem insignificant. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as Kohelet also says. What is the point of each of these discrete moments, if ultimately no one will remember us?
And yet Parshat Emor reminds us that time can and does maintain significance, if we are willing to acknowledge it. “These are the festivals of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times.” (Lev. 23:4) The Rabbis learn from this verse a key element that distinguishes Shabbat from the other holidays: While Shabbat is God’s, and happens every seven days of its own accord, the festivals are dependent on the proclamation of the new moon by the Rabbinic court. That is, the power to set the time of the festivals resides in human hands, within limits set by God.
Marking time is the first act of Jewish life. “This shall be the first of the months,” God tells Moses and Aaron in Egypt (Ex. 12:2). Before the Exodus can happen, God requires a human action–marking time. The festivals depend on our proclamation and recognition, to such an extent that the Talmud records that one year, when the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than the angels expected it, God told the angels to come back tomorrow in order to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.
However small our lives may seem, however insignificant our actions appear in the grand course of universal history, the Torah reminds us of the uniqueness, the immense power of our creation in God’s image. We have the power to order our world, to mark time and to make moments of significance, moments of meaning. And that reality is just as powerful and real as the billions of years of history that have come before us.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
April 23, 2021 – Parshot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim
This week, we learn the dual portions Acharei Mot and Kedoshim (holy things). The parasha is an elaboration on mitzvot that God has already given the Jewish people in the Ten Commandments: I am God. Do not worship idols. Respect your father and mother. Observe Shabbat.
The parasha also teaches us to be honest, preserve justice, avoid gossip and not bear a grudge.
The parasha contains some chukim – laws that do not have an obvious reason, but that we observe because God commands us to do so. These include not eating the fruit of a tree for its first three years and dedicating the fruit of the fourth year to God, and not planting seeds of mixed kinds in the same field.
One mitzvah that fascinates me is “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” Our Sages explain that this mitzvah has several parts:
(1) Do not mislead people. If your Mom has said no video games at night and little brother Avi asks you if it’s OK to play them after dinner, don’t tell him it’s OK to play.
(2) Do not help someone commit a sin even when he knows he is doing wrong. If Mom has told Avi not to play video games tonight and he says he’s going to play anyway, do not get the game system out of the closet for him.
(3) Do not do anything that would encourage someone to sin. If Mom has grounded Avi from video games, don’t play them in front of him.
This looks like you have to take responsibility for what your brother does. Are you your brother’s keeper? You bet you are! Remember how Cain asked this question of God when God questioned Cain about the death of Abel? That’s what God is reminding us of with the second part of this commandment: “You shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” God knows how we treat people, even when we think no one is watching.
Shabbat shalom (and take care of your siblings),
This summary is based on Rabbi Shmuel Gordin’s discussion in Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra.
April 16, 2021 – Parshot Tazria-Metzora
In the double portion of Tazria-Metzora, having completed the building of theMishkan (Tabernacle) and the inauguration of the Kohanim and the Mishkan itself, the Torah turns us to learning the laws of ritual purity (tuma) and impurity (tahara).
Many of these laws no longer apply, because we no longer have the Temple. The laws are confusing to us today. What does it mean to be pure and impure? Does it relate to our clothing being soiled? Is it like the idea of Clean in the Scout Law – to be clean in thought, word and deed?
The Torah talks about the impurity that relates to events like giving birth and the spiritual illness of tzaraas where the skin becomes discolored and flaky (often inaccurately described as leprosy) and even how tzaraas can be in clothing or a person’s home. It also describes how to become ritually pure again.
I get some help in understanding tuma and tahara by a commandment that seems out of place. Near the beginning of Tazria, at the start of the discussion of ritual cleanliness, God again instructs us on the mitzvah to circumcise infant boys (brit milah) on the eighth day after birth. We first received this commandment in Genesis (17:11-14). This time, in addition to the instruction that it be on the eighth day, we learn that the brit milah must be during daytime, when the Sun’s light can be seen (recall that in the Jewish calendar, days start at sundown).
There have been some other interesting eighth days in the Torah. Adam received rest in the holiness of Shabbat on the seventh day, after having sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on the sixth day. With the new gift of fire from God at the beginning of the eighth day, Adam was able to enter the world of work with fire to help him, but it was up to him and all humanity after him to decide how to use fire – for good or evil. Last week, in Parasha Shemini, we learned of the inauguration of the Mishkan on the eighth day of celebration, with holy services dedicated to God. On that eighth day, the Jewish people showed they had decided to be loyal to God, which was in question because of the sin of the Golden Calf.
Now in Tazria we again learn that on the eighth day of a boy’s life, he is brought into the covenant Abraham made with God 3,700 years ago – the Jewish people will worship God and God will make them a great nation.
The number seven represents nature’s completion – God finished work on the universe in six days and completed the natural world by creating Shabbat for rest on the seventh day. So the number eight signifies something that goes beyond nature. A baby boy, having been with us for a week, on his eighth day has his brit milah to elevate him from the natural world to a spiritual level. So, too, Adam’s spirit was lifted by the gift of fire when used for good, and the Mishkan brought spirituality to the Jewish people. All these things occurred on an eighth day.
You often have a spiritual experience at the start of an eighth day – on a weekend campout. Saturday night (the start of the next day in Jewish practice), after a great Shabbat outdoors with your troop, as the darkness brings a new week, the embers of the campfire die out, the last notes of your closing song float away, your Scoutmaster gives you an inspirational thought, and you experience a wonderful spirit. Take that spirit home with you and pass it along to everyone you meet and use it in everything you do.
April 9, 2021 – Parsha Shemini
During the last few weeks, we have learned about the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that would serve as the place where the Children of Israel would worship God, the offerings to be made there, and the duties of the Kohanim (priests) in performing the services. Last week, in Parasha Tzav, we learned about the first seven days of the eight-day celebration of the first services in the Mishkan.
Now, in Parasha Shemini, we learn of the final day of celebration. As the service began, Moses summoned his brother, Aaron, the High Priest, to make the offerings. He said to Aaron, “God has commanded you to do this.” (Vayikra 9:7) Our Sages interpreted this verse to mean that Aaron hesitated to approach the Altar, and Moses had to encourage him.
Aaron was ashamed to come forward, because of his sin in making the Golden Calf. Moses explained to him God knew of his sin, but still wanted Aaron to serve as High Priest. Because Aaron showed shame, many rabbis point out this is just the sort of person God wanted ministering to the people, because he was humble and recognized he had shown poor judgment.
The parasha ends with another example of humility – God gave us the laws of kosher animals, including mammals, fish, birds and insects. After giving these laws, God explained “For I am the Lord your God … you shall become holy, for I am holy.” (Vayikra 11:45)
Even though God gave humanity control over the animals as far back as the Garden of Eden, if we are to be holy in what we eat there are certain rules we must follow. What we eat is not only meant to nourish our bodies, but also our souls.
These verses teach me God values humility, and humility comes from understanding the things we have – whether they be personal attributes such as a nice singing voice, athletic coordination, hands capable of making beautiful pictures, or the gift of telling a funny story – are best used not only for our own benefit, but with respect for others. The singer who leads people in a tune to raise their spirits, the athlete who encourages others who are trying to play better, the artist who creates something to give joy to a friend and the comic who brightens someone else’s day – these people recognize why they have been given special talents.
April 2, 2021 – Parsha Beshalach
I hope everyone is having a good Passover. This week, because Shabbat is the seventh day of Passover, our Shabbat Torah reading is a special reading, from Parasha Beshalach. It is my pleasure to reprise a favorite d’var Torah from Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Eagle Scout and executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
The first time I remember seeing an orchestra conductor was when I was about three years old. My mom had taken me along to one of my older brothers’ band concerts, and something about the conductor just mesmerized me. For years after that, as I became a musician myself, my dream was to conduct an orchestra.
When I was 16, that dream finally came true: I had my first chance to conduct an orchestra at a summer music camp. I remember walking up to the podium, taking the baton, and stepping up in front of the 100+ other musicians. Here I was ready to fulfill my dream.
And then a doubt hit my like a ton of bricks: “What if they don’t play?” I asked myself. What if I raise up my hands and bring them down, and the musicians just sit there? The thought had never occurred to me before. But in that instant, I learned one of the most essential leadership lessons of my life: Leadership comes down to trust. And in that moment, I had to trust three things: myself, the music, and my fellow musicians. I had to take a leap of faith.
I did take that leap, and of course the orchestra responded. They didn’t want to embarrass me. They didn’t want me to fail. They wanted me to succeed, and they wanted to play the music. But I had to remind myself of that.
Trust is the first thing we learn about as Scouts. It’s the first point of the Scout Law! That’s because, as we learn so often in Scouting, trust is at the heart of leadership.
We find this lesson multiple times in Parshat Beshallach. This parsha describes the Israelites crossing the Red Sea as they flee from the Egyptians, who want to bring the Israelites back to slavery. Most famously, perhaps, we have in this parsha the story of Nachshon, the brave leader who takes the first steps into the sea, confident that God will keep God’s promise to split the sea so the Israelites can cross safely. It isn’t until Nachshon steps in—all the way up to his neck—that the sea splits. It’s as though God was waiting for a leader to show trust, andNachshon was that leader who trusted.
Similarly, after the Israelites cross the sea, they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua leads the people, and Moses ascends a mountaintop overlooking the battle. The Torah reports that when Moses raised his arms, the Israelites would prevail, but when he lowered them, they would lose. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) asks a question on this: Could it really be that it was all about whether or not Moses raised his hands? No, answers the Mishnah: “Whenever Israel would look upward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would prevail; and if not, they would fail.” That is, when Israel trusted God, they would be victorious; but when they didn’t trust in God (and in each other) they would lose.
As we celebrate five years of Derech Tsofeh, this is a great lesson to carry with us. All leadership is built on our ability to trust, and to build and maintain trust with those we lead. That’s why the Scout Law begins with the word Trustworthy. Trust is the foundation from which springs all the rest of our work in Scouting and in life.
Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
March 26, 2021 – Parsha Tzav
This week’s parasha, Tzav, teaches us an important lesson about continuity.
Tzav continues the Book of Leviticus’s instructions about the Kohanim (Priests) and the holy services to be conducted in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and later the Temple. God gives us instructions about several of the offerings made in the Mishkan. The last several passages are about the week-long inauguration of the Mishkan, when the Kohanim stayed there both day and night for seven days. (Judaism’s second “lock-in” event, after the original Passover.)
The second sentence of the parasha tells us: “This is the law of the burnt-offering: It is the burnt-offering on the flame, on the Altar, all night until the morning, and the fire of the Altar should be kept aflame on it.” (Leviticus 6:2)
There are two lessons here. First, the burnt offering was to burn all night. Second, the fire on the Mizbeach (Altar) was to burn all night. The Kohanim had to place sufficient wood on the Mizbeach during the day so that the fire could burn all night. But the Kohanim did not light the fire, because the fire came from the Altar itself. (Midrash Rabbah, Tzav, Section 5). This eternal fire is linked to other fires in theMishkan, including the fire on the Incense Altar, the light in the Western Wall and the Menorah. It is also the inspiration for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame that hangs in front of the Holy Ark in every synagogue and temple. And it reminds us of the candles we light to begin Shabbat, the High Holy Days and the three festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot.
Generations of rabbis have seen these constant lights as symbols of the Jewish people’s eternal connection to God, the Torah and our Judaism. Just as the Altar generated fire for the offerings, our Torah generates the life of our people.
Next time you look at the Ner Tamid, think about all the generations of Jews who came before you centuries ago.
Then realize that, if you do your part, Jews will be looking at a Ner Tamid centuries from now.
March 19, 2021 – Parsha Vayikra
This week, Parasha Vayikra teaches us all about the korbanot (offerings) that were offered in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The korbanot are a little hard for modern people to understand. A person who needed to atone for a sin he committed by accident would bring a kosher animal to the Mishkan. The person would rest his hands on the animal’s head (this act is called s’michah) and confess (vidui) the sins for which he wanted to atone. A priest would slaughter the animal. The kosher parts of the animal would be cooked and eaten by the priests and their families, and the other parts would be burned on the altar.
When people talk about the offerings in the Mishkan, or later in the Temple, the discussion is often just about the slaughter and burning of the animal, but that was not the most important part of the korbanot service. The most important part was when the person who was atoning for sins placed his hands on the animals head and confessed. The point of the ceremony was to help a person change his ways. Without the s’michah and vidui, the rest of the ceremony would be just a bar-b-que.
You actually do something similar to s’michah and vidui very often. At the start of the school day and at Scout meetings, you probably put your hand over your heart or give the Scout salute and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Just like s’michah and vidui you do something symbolic with your hand, and then make a statement about your intentions.
At your Scout meeting, in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance ceremony, you may also say the Scout Oath or Law. Here again, you do something symbolic – raising your hand in the Scout Sign – and then make a statement about your intention to live by Scout principles.
Of course, during your opening exercises at school or the ceremonies to open and close your troop meetings, no one cooks anything.
Notice that you sometimes participate in other ceremonies where the point is for someone to change his or her behavior. When you hurt someone, you shake hands and say “I’m sorry” with the intent that you won’t hurt them again. In synagogue or temple, when the Torah comes close to you, you kiss your fingers, or tzitzit, or siddur, and touch the Torah covering, to convey the idea that you respect the words of God contained in the Torah, meaning you will obey them.
So, maybe the ceremonies of the korbanot are not so strange after all.
March 12, 2021 – Parshot Vayakhel and Pekudei
This week, we close the book of Shemos (Exodus) with the double portion of Vayakhel and Pekudei. The two portions are read on separate Shabbats during a leap year in the Jewish calendar.
We end as we began, with an accounting. Shemos starts with a description of the “70 souls” who entered Egypt with Jacob. Those 70 people, the original Children of Israel (Jacob’s other name) have grown to more than a million. These descendants entrusted to Moses an enormous amount of gold, silver, jewels and fine fabrics to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Moses put these materials in the hands of two very crafted artists who directed the building of the Mishkan. They were Bezalel (“In the shadow of God” – he was building the place where God’s presence, a kind of shadow, would rest) and Oholiab (“Tent of my father” – he was building a tent for his Father).
Now that the Mishkan had been completed, Moses accounted for it by describing all the things that had been made with the donated materials – the Mishkan itself, the altars and various vessels and the clothing and ceremonial vestments of the Kohen Godol (High Priest) and the other priests. He wanted to show the people all of their gifts had gone to create the Mishkan and the other things used there, and that he had not taken anything for himself.
After that, Moses gathered the Mishkan and all the vessels together, and assembled the Mishkan so the people could see it. Just as God had commanded Moses, “so did the Children of Israel perform all the labor.” (Exodus 39:43) Then Moses blessed the people.
In parasha Vayakhel, we learned of the work involved in building the Mishkan – these 39 tasks were used as the source of work we avoid on Shabbat such as shearing wool, weaving, sewing and tearing. In Hebrew this work is called melachah. But in describing the labor performed by the people to build the Mishkan, the Torah does not use the word melachah, but avodah (“service” or “worship”).
So, 70 people went into Egypt, and grew to more than a million, living as slaves for 210 years. Once freed, they gave up their wealth to build a place for God’s presence to be known. When they built it, they did not consider their efforts work, but service to God and a means of worshiping Him.
What was in it for the Children of Israel? After the Mishkan was finished, Moses installed the priests in their duties. Finally, God’s glory rested on the Mishkan which was so holy even Moses could not enter. For the rest of the wandering in the Wilderness, the Shechinah (God’s glory) rested on the Mishkan. By day it was a cloud, and at night it was fire. When the Shechinah lifted, the journey continued, and when it rested on the Mishkan, the people rested.
The people’s devoted service in building the Mishkan was rewarded by their redemption for the chet ha’egel, the sin of the golden calf. Now, they could move forward together with God toward the Land promised them by God.
March 5, 2021 – Parsha Ki Sisa
In Parashat Ki Sisa this week, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites, with the count to be made by having every adult man pay a half-shekel. “The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel.” The money is to be used for the work of building the Mishkan (Tablernacle) and will be a remembrance before God to atone for the souls of the Israelites.
What a profound lesson. In the eyes of God, everyone is of equal importance. Where participation is required, as in the census, the measure is the same for the wealthy and the poor. Furthermore, the census is taken with half-shekels to say that a person alone is incomplete. Each of us is required to do our part, and the success of the entire community depends upon each of us.
Ki Sisa also contains the lowest moment of our Jewish history – the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel. Forty days before, at Mount Sinai, God gave the people the Ten Commandments, then reminds the people of the commandment not to create gods of silver and gold. The people reach such a level of spirituality that they have the gift of prophecy. Then, Moses ascends the mountain and leaves Aaron and Hur in charge. God spends the next weeks teaching Moses the Torah.
While Moses is away on the mountain, the people begin to fear he will not return. They have come to rely on Moses to intercede with God, and they are afraid to be without a leader. They call upon Aaron to “Make us a god that will go before us” in place of Moses. Aaron has the people give him gold, he throws it into the fire, “and this calf emerged.” Then, about 3,000 people worshiped the idol.
Here we have another profound lesson. Sometimes, people lose faith in what they know is right. When that happens, their leaders must help them regain their faith. This can be very difficult. The Midrash (our traditional history) teaches us that Hur tried to stop the people, and they killed him. Perhaps Aaron helped create the calf because he was afraid that the people would kill him, as well. It might be that Aaron would have been successful in convincing the 3,000 idol-worshipers not to commit this sin. Maybe if Aaron had opposed the idea of an idol, the rest of the people would have supported him and stopped the 3,000. In the end, the 3,000 were killed.
These two incidents – the census and the Chet Ha’Egel – remind me that whether we are rich or poor, whether we are recognized as a leader or not, each of us has an important part to play in the community. Sometimes even our leaders can be confused about what they should do. It is up to each of us to tell our leaders what we think is right, to help them make the right decision.
February 26, 2021 – Purim
I hope you are having a happy Purim. Here’s a Purim Derech Tsofeh from a few years ago – one of my favorites, written with my son Jordan.
When you heard the Megillah, did you notice that its characters exemplify the twelve points of the Scout Law?
Trustworthy – The Jewish people kept Esther’s Jewish identity a secret, as she requested, so she would not be rejected by the royal court.
Loyal – Mordechai was loyal to God by not bowing down to Haman, who wore an idol to try and force the Jews into idol worship when they bowed to him.
Helpful – Hasach, one of the King’s chamberlains, went beyond his duties to assist Esther and Mordechai exchange information about Haman’s plans against the Jews.
Friendly – Charbonah, who is remembered for good, one of the King’s chamberlains, told the King that Haman was part of a plot to kill the King and now wanted to hang Mordechai.
Courteous – King Ahaseurus did not force the guests at his banquet to drink from the large ceremonial cup, which some people did not want to do.
Kind – Hegai, the chamberlain of the royal palace of the women, was kind to Esther.
Obedient – Esther followed the advice and orders of her uncle, Mordechai.
Cheerful – Mordechai, who saves the King’s life by disclosing a plot to kill him, asks for no reward and does not complain when it comes long after his good deed.
Thrifty – Esther, in preparing to meet the King, could have had any clothing or cosmetics she wanted, but only used what Hegai, the King’s chamberlain, had suggested.
Brave – Esther, who must appear before the King without being invited and is thus subject to the death penalty, goes willingly to save the Jewish people. Knowing that her actions may bring her death, she says only, “And if I perish, I perish.”
Clean – Mordechai is a very virtuous man.
Reverent – Mordechai and Esther act out of their desire to serve God and protect the Jewish people.
Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,
February 19, 2021 – Parsha Terumah
This week, in Parasha Terumah we receive God’s instructions regarding the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
During the last two weeks, God has instructed the Israelites in the basic laws of Judaism. In Parasha Yitro, God handed down the Ten Commandments. Then, in Parasha Mishpatim God gives the basic laws of community life, regarding what damages are owed by a person who hurts someone else, or harms or loses someone else’s property, or if his animal hurts a person or his property.
Now, in Parasha Terumah, God invites the people to give precious items for building the Mishkan – gold, silver, and copper, together with beautiful wool and skins to make coverings, and wood, spices and valuable stones.
God then instructs Moses on how to construct the Mishkan with wood and beautiful fabrics, and also the altars and other items to be used in the Mishkan. These include the Ark of the Covenant to hold the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments have been inscribed, the Cover for the Ark, the Table for the Showbread (special loaves of bread), the Menorah (made from a single piece of pure gold), and the Copper Altar.
God instructed the building of the Mishkan and its sacred equipment as a Sanctuary so God could dwell among the people. God manifested the Divine Presence in the form of a cloud, called the Shechina.
The instructions to the Israelites to create a place for God to dwell remind me of another creation whose form God ordained way back in Parasha Bereishis, when God said, “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” Bereishis 1:26.
So, while God created everything in the Universe, two things were endowed with a special connection to God – the Mishkan, where God’s presence, the Shechina, rested, and each person, who was made in God’s image.
Remember this when you deal with other people. We no longer have the Temple, but we encounter God’s image whenever we see or speak to another person. Be Friendly, Courteous, and Kind.
February 12, 2021 – Parsha Mishpatim
Last week, we learned of the Aseret Hadivrot – the Ten Commandments. Hadivrot also has the root deber – speak. God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel by speaking them. Some scholars translate Aseret Hadivrot as the Ten Statements. So last week’s lesson was about God’s statements.
This week, in Parashat Mishpatim, we learn about listening to God’s statements. The parasha begins with a list of detailed laws about specific matters, such as when an ox gores someone, treatment of “slaves” (really, indentured servants), murder, accidental killing, stealing, and Jewish holidays.
After Moses read all these laws “in earshot” of the Children of Israel, they responded “Everything that God has said, we will do and we will hear.” In Hebrew, the words “we will do and we will hear” are na’aseh venishema. You’ve seen the root word of venishema before – shema, as in the prayer Shema Yisrael “Hear O’Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
“We will do and we will hear” is a little confusing. It’s out of order. Usually we hear a command first, and then agree to do it.
Lord Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains this by translating venishema as “understand”. That helps some, but usually we would still expect to understand first, before agreeing to obey.
The point of this translation is that by doing things – such as obeying God’s rules – we learn to understand them. If we understand them, we make them part of the way we live, and turn these rules into things we do naturally.
Take the Scout Law – 12 great ideas for living a good life. Though sometimes we need to be reminded to be Trustworthy, Loyal and the rest, we usually act this way most of the time. The reason we act this way is that when we were young, our parents taught us these traits day by day. Over time, we learned these lessons so well that they became part of us.
At two years old, when you learned to say “I’m sorry” if you hurt someone, you probably didn’t read it in a book. Your parents told you what to do and you listened. The same goes for saying “please” and “thank you” and giving water to a thirsty pet and opening the door for someone who needs help.
Sometimes, the lesson was taught to you not by anyone saying anything, but by them doing the thing they wanted to teach you.
Learning by doing is what we do in Scouts. You saw a picture of a Scout using an axe in the Scout Handbook and your patrol leader showed you how to do it at your first campout, but when you began chopping wood yourself, you understood how it was done. You made those axe strokes a part of what you do.
By living according to good rules – like the Torah, the Scout Promise and the Scout Law – every day, they become part of us.
February 5, 2021 – Parsha Yitro
This week, we celebrate the start of the ninth year of Derech Tsofeh with a guest d’var Torah by Rabbi Art Vernon, Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, the Jewish people have arrived at Mt. Sinai on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. The Torah calls this mountain The Mountain of God.
Earlier in the Torah, Moses was told to bring the Jewish people to this place. At this special place, where God had revealed himself to Moses many years earlier, God planned to establish a special relationship with the Jewish people – a relationship that we call the Covenant. A covenant is a type of agreement in which both parties promise things to each other.
At Mt. Sinai, God promised to be the Protector and Guardian of the Jewish people and the Jewish people promised to follow the laws of the Torah. God also challenged the Jewish people to become a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. The priests were the religious leaders of the Jewish people in those days.
God really asked us to become a people that behaved in a moral and ethical manner as much as possible. If you read this portion carefully, you will discover that many things we are obligated to do as Jews are also found in the Scout Oath and Scout Law! Of course, there are also many things that are not part of the Scout Oath and Scout Law.
This Torah portion also contains a section we call the Ten Commandments, in Hebrew Aseret HaDibrot – the Ten Utterances. According to Jewish tradition, God spoke the first two commandments directly to the Jewish people, the rest of the Torah was given to Moses who taught it to the Jewish people. That is why on Shabbat we say “This is the Torah which Moses set before the Jewish people from the mouth of God through the hand of Moses”.
At Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people promised that we would teach the Torah to our children in every generation. One of the reasons the National Jewish Committee on Scouting created Maccabee, Aleph, Ner Tamid and Etz Chaim Religious Emblems is to help us adults fulfill the promise we made at Mt. Sinai!
The Commandments can be summarized as requiring faithfulness to God, honoring parents, keeping the Sabbath and respecting other people and treating them with dignity. The Ten Commandments became not only the basis of Judaism, but the basis of the Western world of which we are a part as Americans. Some people believe that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American Law!
This Torah portion is one of the most important portions in the entire Torah. It is worth reading over and over again, not just when we come to it every year in the weekly Shabbat readings.
Rabbi Art Vernon
January 29, 2021 – Parsha Beshallach
This week’s d’var comes from Rabbi David Lyon, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, Texas (founded in 1854), in honor of the anniversaries of Troop 806 (40 years) and Pack 806 (35 years), both chartered to the Brotherhood of the Congregation. This week also marks the completion of the 8th year of Derech Tsofeh.
Leaders are all around us. Some are strong and well-known; others are unsung heroes whose names are less familiar to us.
In Exodus, familiar leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are remembered easily and celebrated often. But an unsung hero named Nachshon needs to be celebrated, too.
Who was Nachshon? He was the first man among the Israelites who put his foot into the waters of the Reed Sea. Nachshon showed all the Israelites that God’s way was right, and that Moses was trustworthy. Nachshon put one foot and then the other into the waters and they began to part, just as Moses raised up the staff in his hands as God commanded him to do. The waters parted and the Israelites entered onto dry land to cross the sea and escape Egypt, forever.
In every generation there are people who must take the first step before others will follow. In Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 2:6), we learn, “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.” When a leader is needed, you might be the right person for the task.
At your age, you’ve already done more than most boys and girls who haven’t hiked or camped, learned safety and survival skills, and learned the value of integrity and honor. As Scouts, you’ve earned badges on safety, conservation, citizenship, and have performed good deeds (mitzvot).
These life skills make you ready to stand up when your family, your community, and your faith need you. Who among you hasn’t heard someone ask for help or a favor? Who hasn’t anticipated someone’s help before they asked for it? Who stepped up and made a difference because it was the right thing to do? All of you are well on your way to answer these questions with confidence.
This Shabbat, we’ll open the Torah to chant Parashat Beshallach, in Exodus 15. It has a special name, the Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam); it’s the Israelite’s victory song. It exalts God and scorns Egyptian horsemen. It asks, “Who is like You, God, among all the gods that are worshiped?” and it champions the Israelites who emerge safely and faithfully on the other side of the Reed Sea. Then Miriam picks up her timbrels and leads a dance to celebrate their freedom. The victory song was sung because of what all the people did. But it began with Nachshon.
You have a victory song to sing, too. Sometime, perhaps many years ago, a few caring adults in your community gathered together some eager young people and created your pack, troop, crew or ship. Who were the brave people who put their toes in the waters of a new unit, and formed a new group of Scouts who became friends and leaders? Perhaps you have carried on this work by asking someone to join you in Scouting.
Let’s learn from those whose names are celebrated, but let’s also learn from those whose names are unknown. Let’s honor all people who are heroes in our eyes. You can be a hero today and tomorrow, too, when you serve with honor, dignity, selflessness, faith, and mitzvot.
May you go from strength to strength.
Rabbi David Lyon
January 22, 2021 – Parsha Bo
Last week, we learned of seven plagues that God imposed upon the Egyptians.
This week, in parasha Bo, God brings three more plagues upon Egypt. First is swarms of locusts: “It covered the surface of the entire land and the land was darkened.” (Exodus 10:15) Next comes three days of a foggy darkness, followed by another three days of a darkness so deep you could feel it, and it kept people from rising up. Notice that it keeps getting dark in Egypt.
Before bringing forth the tenth and last plague on Egypt, God turns to the Children of Israel to prepare them for the freedom that they are about to receive. As slaves, the Israelites had no control over their time, as their days and weeks were governed by the rules of the slavemasters. As free people, they will have to learn to organize their time themselves.
So God instructs them that Nissan (the month they are in) will become the first month of the year in the new Jewish calendar. God says that on the 15th of the month, they are to eat a lamb as part of a family observance of the day God gave the people their freedom. On this first year only, the night before the family feast, they are to take the blood of the lamb and spread it on the door posts and lintel of their houses.
At midnight on the 14th, the spiritual darkness the Israelites have suffered for centuries ends, and the darkness that has been encroaching Egypt for weeks comes to its climax. God kills the firstborn of every Egyptian household and their cattle. Those of the Children of Israel who have adopted Egyptian ways over Judaism do not mark their homes with lamb’s blood also lose their firstborn; those who have shown their faith with the sign of the lamb’s blood are saved from tragedy.
The Egyptians felt the darkness of their sorrow, and “there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was no corpse.” (Exodus 12:30) Pharaoh is the only Egyptian firstborn left alive. He runs through the streets looking for Moses and Aaron, and tells them to rise up with the Children of Israel and leave.
The darkness of the last three plagues is symbolic of what happened to the Egyptians. The plague of darkness blinded the Egyptians, then kept them from moving. Pharaoh and his ancestors were blind and stuck from the start. Pharaoh was blind to Egypt’s debt to Joseph for saving the land during the famine. He did not recognize the rights of others when he enslaved the Israelites. He was stuck in his hate of the Children of Israel when he tried to kill their firstborn. He was unable to see God’s power so clearly exhibited by the plagues.
The Pharaohs knew right from wrong, and when they failed to let this knowledge illuminate their actions, they brought darkness to their decisions. Just like the next-to-last plague, this darkness was so all-consuming it kept the Pharaohs from rising up and doing the right thing.
Next week we start our journey of freedom.
January 15, 2021 – Parsha Va’Eira
This week, the name of our parasha, Va’Eira – “I appeared” – sets the stage for what happens throughout the rest of the portion, one of the most eventful and dramatic in all of the Torah.
Last week, Pharaoh became angry when Moses demanded that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt to worship God. Pharaoh punished the Children of Israel by decreeing that, in addition to making their usual number of bricks each day, they had to collect the straw for the bricks. Moses asks why God has allowed Pharaoh to make life even worse for the Israelites since sending Moses to deliver them.
Now, our parasha opens with God explaining that this is the way everyone – both the Israelites and the Egyptians – will know God’s power. The Israelites’ work exhausted them physically and spiritually, so they were not able to understand Moses and his mission. The Egyptians worshipped idols and did not believe in God. God tells Moses “I appeared” to the Patriarchs and promised them the land of Canaan. Now, God has appeared to the Children of Israel to redeem them from slavery and take them to Canaan. God will also do this by appearing to the Egyptians in ways to make them recognize God’s power and free the Israelites.
The things God does are the plagues. God says “I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” so that Egypt will know God.
First, Moses has Aaron stretch forth his staff over the waters of Egypt and all the water – the Nile, the irrigation canals, lakes, ponds and pitchers of water in people’s houses – all turn to blood. Neither this plague nor any of the others take place in Goshen, where the Israelites live.
Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites leave, Moses tells Aaron to stretch forth his staff, and frogs come out of all the rivers and other bodies of water.
Pharaoh continues to refuse freedom to the Israelites, Moses has Aaron stretch forth his staff, and the dust of the Earth becomes lice.
Still Pharaoh refuses, and God tells Moses to meet Pharaoh in the morning, when he goes to the Nile, and tell him that wild beasts will swarm throughout Egypt. Pharaoh does not free the Israelites, and God sends the beasts to cover Egypt.
Again God has Moses warn Pharaoh, this time that the cattle, horses, donkeys, camels and sheep of Egypt will die. Pharaoh keeps the Israelites in slavery, and the animals die.
Then God tells Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of dirt and hurl it upward in front of Pharaoh, and it became boils and blisters on every Egyptian man and beast.
God has Moses tell Pharaoh that there will be hail that will kill people, animals and crops. When Pharaoh does not listen to the warning, Moses stretches out his staff to heaven and hail mixed with fire descends on Egypt, killing everything that has not taken shelter inside.
These are the first signs and wonders by which God “appears” to the Egyptians. God’s appearance is evident by a change in nature that is so great only the Creator of Nature could cause it.
God’s way of dealing with Pharaoh teaches us a valuable lesson about our own dealings with people. We “appear” to people by our acts. It does not matter how handsome we are, or how nice our clothes look, but how we treat people that determines how they feel about us. If we do what we say we are going to do – as God did with the plagues – people learn to believe what we say. We’re Trustworthy. If we say we will do something and then break our word – as Pharaoh did by saying he would let the Israelites go and then keeping them in slavery – people quickly learned we cannot be trusted.
It will take three more plagues for Pharaoh to learn this lesson. But that’s for next week.
Derech Tzofeh, the Path of the Scout, is brought to you by the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. ©2017 Nelson R. Block. Prior Derech Tzofeh are available at the J-Scouts message repository on Yahoo! Groups.