Category Archives: divrei torah

VAYEITZEI

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16th

As my flight descended into the smoke-filled air of the Sacramento Valley yesterday, I reflected on the fact that this has been a week of deadly fire.  In the past week, we have seen the news of innocent people killed by gunfire in Southern California.  We have breathed in the smoke of the deadliest fire in California history, which has killed dozens and displaced thousands of our fellow Californians, while another fire rages in the southern part of the state.  We have wept with grief and outrage at the news that Jemel Roberson, a black security guard who heroically stopped a shooting at the bar where he worked, was shot and killed by police when they arrived at the scene. We have prayed for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in the south of Israel, as deadly rocket fire rained down from Gaza, targeting civilians.  This would be a lot to absorb at any time, but coming on the heels of the antisemitic terror attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when many of us are already feeling frightened and emotionally raw, it can be especially overwhelming.

With all the smoke in the air in California, experts are recommending that people limit outdoor activity and stay inside as much as possible.  UC Davis and Sac State have both closed their campuses and canceled classes because of the smoke in the air.  The current forecast suggests air quality will improve somewhat before Shabbat, so that we won’t have to cancel shul. However, I encourage anyone with health concerns to stay home and not walk to shul as long as the air remains smoky.

Just as the physical smoke from the fires in California is unhealthy to breathe in large quantities, the psychic pollution of constantly reading article after article of grim news can also be damaging to our spiritual health. Therefore, the same way that experts advise to limit our outdoor activity due to smoky air, I am advising that those of us who are feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of terrible news, to limit the time we spend on news sites and social media. This is not about ignoring the outside world, or hiding from reality, but about limiting exposure to what is unhealthy for us.

Instead of leaving the cable news on all day, or refreshing our news feed constantly, I encourage everyone to set a limit of how much news you’re going to consume during this bad news week—a set amount of time (say 30 minutes a day) or a set number of articles (3 articles a day), and when you’ve reached that limit, instead of reading more articles, take time for self-care, and for doing something concrete to help.

We fight fire with water.  With so much fire in the world, we can respond by bringing more water into the world.  For those of us who aren’t firefighters, our job is not to bring physical water to the fires, but to bring metaphorical water.  Our tradition compares water to a number of things, but three come to mind as being particularly relevant today.

Chesed (loving-kindness) is associated with water in Kabbalah.  One way to fight the fires in the world is by performing acts of loving kindness.  We can do this directly, by helping out our neighbors, or by supporting communal efforts to respond to these crises.  The Jewish Federation of Sacramento is collecting funds and goods for families impacted by the Camp Fire. Please help contribute to this Chesed by giving online or dropping off groceries, clothing and gift cards at the Federation offices in Midtown. They are specifically looking for store gift cards as well as new towels, new clothing in all sizes (including shoes, undergarments, sweatshirts, and bras), paper cups, paper plates, paper towels, animal food, new jackets, new coats, and bottled water.

The prophet Amos said, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Justice works to fight the fires of this world in a different way than Chesed, not necessarily by alleviating immediate suffering, but by addressing the root causes of suffering in our world.  While acts of kindness and caring towards people who are suffering are essential, an equally important way to bring water to the fires of our world is to engage in work that seeks to make our world a more just, equitable and peaceful place in the long run

Lastly, Torah is compared to water.  In addition to performing acts of chesed to help those who are impacted by the literal fires in California, we can help quench the spiritual fires of the world by engaging in Torah learning.  During these difficult times, I encourage everyone to take on additional learning. If you are looking for ways to take on a realistic amount of learning, I suggest reading one chapter of Tanakh each day or studying two or three mishnayot each day to get started.

I hope you will join me in seeking to bring more water to the fires that plague our world in all of these ways. Please also join me in praying for the well-being of our firefighters, of all our fellow Californians, and of our sisters and brothers near the Gaza border.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

LECH LECHA

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19th

This week, we read how God told Avraham “Lekh Lekha Go from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the place that I will show you.” God’s instruction to Avraham to leave behind familiar and beloved surroundings and people precedes God’s promise to show Avraham a new place, which is where he is truly meant to be.

I think many of us walk through life, waiting to get to our promised land, feeling like we are not maximizing our potential, in one area or another of our lives. For some of us, that feeling might come in the form of dissatisfaction with our work life, feeling we have talents and abilities that are untapped in our careers. Others of us may feel we’re not the parents or the spouses that we could be. Something is holding us back from fully realizing our potential in that area. Maybe our sense of dissatisfaction lies in the spiritual realm: “why don’t I feel God’s presence in my life?”

Often, I think the reason we don’t live up to our potential is that we hear that Lekh Lekha call, God saying “Go!” but we want to skip the part about leaving behind the familiar and the comfortable and the expected. However, we can’t arrive before we depart. We can’t become someone new until we’re ready to cease being who we’ve always been.

I encourage each of us to ask ourselves: what are the things that I am afraid to let go of, that keep me from getting somewhere new?

This week I attended a retreat as part of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) fellowship, which I’m participating in. One the watchwords that Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the director of the fellowship, shared with us, is “Nothing has to happen. Anything can happen.” Often, we are prevented from making needed change in our lives and in our communities because our to-do lists of existing obligations keep us too busy to try anything new. If my week is already full of necessary tasks, I can’t add anything new until I first decide that some things can go.

When we can say “nothing HAS to happen,” when we decide to clear space in our lives by letting go of things we had been treating as non-negotiable, then we give ourselves the time and flexibility necessary to actually make real change. Like Avraham and Sarah, we have to leave behind the familiar before we can reach our promised land.

In that spirit, I’m going to take a break from sending out a d’var Torah to be included with the weekly bulletin between now and the end of 2018. The bulletin will continue to go out as normal, but without my message, in order to allow me to focus on other priorities. I encourage those of you who have enjoyed reading my message in the bulletin each week to join us in shul on Shabbat, where I will of course continue to share words of Torah and thoughts about the weekly parsha.

I encourage you to join me in thinking about what departures we all might make as individuals and as a community, what in our lives might let go of in order to make room for new blessings.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

NOACH

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12th

Much of Parshat Noach is taken up with genealogies.  The first line of the parshat “These are the begettings of Noah,” is the classic introduction for a genealogy throughout the book of Bereishit (see Ber. 10:1, 11:10, 11:27 for some examples).  Here though, instead of being followed by an enumeration of Noah’s children, or an account of his own birth, as we might expect, the verse stops to tell us about Noach’s moral and spiritual qualities—that he was a righteous man, that he walked with God—before going on to tell us about his children.  “Noach was a righteous whole-hearted man in his generation; in accord with God did Noach walk.  Noach begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Yefet. This structure is a bit surprising.  Why this detour before moving with the genealogy?

Rashi suggests two possible explanations.  First, he suggests the mention of Noach’s righteousness is purely parenthetical.  Since Noach was such a righteous man, the verse can’t mention Noach without telling us that, following the principle of Zekher Tzadik Livrakha “the mention of a righteous person should be a blessing.”  This explanation is a little problematic, since this is far from the only mention of Noach, and is not even the first mention of Noach, but it’s only here that the Torah talks about his righteousness.  This perhaps motivates Rashi’s second explanation—that the verse is telling us the essential, or primary legacy or “begetting” of a righteous person is not their biological offspring, but their actions.

Our tradition is a very pro-natal one.  Having and raising Jewish children is an important part of our how we perpetuate the life of our people, but Rashi is telling us that how we behave, how we act, can be just as important.  Not everyone is blessed to raise children of their own, but all of us, whether we have children or not, can have an impact on future generations through our actions.  This isn’t just true for those who serve as caretakers and educators for the next generation. All who contribute to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of our community and the larger world, have a “toldot,” a legacy, that will live on after they are gone.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

KI TAVO

FRIDAY, August 31st

Our Parsha this week includes a long passage enumerating the blessings that await us if we serve God and the curses that will follow if we do not. Among these is the warning that if we fail to obey God, “In the morning you will say, ‘if only it were evening,’ and in the evening you will say ‘if only it were morning,’ because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (Dev. 28:67) Rashi explains that this means that in the morning we will be longing for the previous evening, and in the evening, the previous morning, always longing for the past, because each moment things will be getting worse and worse. Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) disagrees, saying the plain meaning is that when the curses come upon us, we will be waiting impatiently for the future, like someone sick, wishing time would pass more quickly. Whether Rashi or Rashbam have the correct interpretation, in effect the curse is the same. Dissatisfaction with the present, expressed as longing for another time, is a curse in and of itself, regardless of external circumstances.

The great 19th century scholar, the Natziv explains that the last part of the verse, “because of the dread that your heart shall dread and the sights that your eyes shall see,” describes two different sources of suffering:  “the sights that your eyes shall see” refers to real dangers, while “the dread that your heart shall dread” means that we will imagine dreadful things even where there are none. Interestingly, the Torah mentions the imagined fears before it does the real ones. Perhaps this is because our own internal assumptions, prejudices and dispositions influence our perception of reality, more than concrete facts and experiences. This means that the curse about longing for night when it is morning and longing for morning when it is night is as much about our own state of mind as it is about negative circumstances.

When we spend our lives oscilating between nostalgia for the past and looking forward to (or dreading) the future, an experience that is all too common, we are actually experiencing one of the worst curses that can befall a human being. Dwelling on the past or future blinds us to the infinitely precious gift that is each moment, each experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  Thankfully Judaism provides a cure for this curse, in the following instruction: “A person is obligated to bless over the bad just as they bless over the good” (Mishnah Berakhot 9:5).    When, instead of longing for better times or worrying about what will happen when the good times end, we are able to express our gratitude to God for the reality of each moment, we can subvert this curse and find ourselves one step closer to redemption.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein