Torah Study Notes 7-25-15

July 25. 2015

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz (RB)

p. 1164

Deuteronomy 2:3   The Second Telling. Moses has been reminding the people of the travails of their journey and preparing them for battle as they enter the land. This establishes the foundation of the covenantal relationship. Deuteronomic theology – The P author emphasizes the line of Aaron but the theology is that goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. This can extend to natural events like rain or draught; having children or being unable to have them, military victory or loss. Note that Moses did not go into the promised land because he would have achieved god-like status. We don’t even know where he is buried. Compare to the American view of George Washington.

A repetition of the stories of the spies being sent into Israel.  “The land is flowing with milk and honey.” The people panicked and wanted to go back to Egypt. Only Joshua and Caleb get to cross into the land.

2:1 Then the Eternal one said to me… As you pass through the lands of Esau pay for anything that you take. Remember Isaac’s promise to his two sons – Esau received land because of his kindness to his father. SF: There is a moral element here – the Israelites are not to be marauders or brigands. RB: That changes somewhat in the future. This is also reminiscent of Abraham paying for the burial of Sarah. There payment helped to secure a claim of ownership.

2: 8 “We then moved on…” Do not harass the Moabites – their lands are for the descendants of Lot. Moabites are the ancestor of Ruth who is the ancestor of David.   See map on page 1158.

2:10  A history of the land. LL: This is a dangerous theology. It becomes more extreme in Protestantism where wealth is considered a blessing and poverty akin to sin. LB:  We are not as far from this as we would like to be. Consider the Book of Job where this issue – among others – is explored. There are Rabbis who have blamed the Holocaust on Reform Judaism and intermarriage. SB: There are structural flaws in our system that permit the wealthy to become wealthier and make it very difficult for the poor to break out of poverty. LL: We try to erect a safety net to ameliorate the effect of pure capitalism but perhaps that is not enough.

2:13 Cross the wadi Zered… The sojourn in the desert was a time of preparation and purification.  Note we don’t know how time was kept – or how long a year was. The ability to mark time is arguably a symbol of freedom – we shape time to our convenience. Richard L: I never see “approximately: or “about” in reference to an interval of time. It is always very precise.

2:16 When all the warriors among the people had died off… we pass through Moab and Ar.

2:20 The lands of the Ammonites – many people were pushed out and supplanted. LL: We are in murky waters here. We are being told that there has been an ebb and flow of peoples in these lands. How is the entry of these people special? Also, this recitation might be considered a justification for what is about to happen. Clearly this is an extension of God’s promise to Abraham. But compare the American displacement of the native Americans.


Torah Study Notes 7-11-15

July 11, 2015

Classes are led by Rabbi Leah Berkowitz who is referred to herein as “RB.

p. 1078

We will be talking today about “chutzpah” or audacity – sometimes referred to in a negative context. It could be termed a form of Interpersonal menchlekeit; the willingness to step out of your assigned space to do what needs to be done – a holy chutzpah. Who do we admire for his or her chutzpah? It can have different implications from Donald Trump to MLK. This is a mussar concept of cultivating traits in a way to achieve an appropriate balance – like a level with the bubble in the middle.

Read text from handout (reproduced below) re understanding humility in terms of the space you occupy. Note also the Midrash commentary.

27:1 The daughters of Zelophehad here step out of their allotted space. AF: This is analogous to a realm of responsibility. “Give us a holdings among our fathers kinsman…” This is the land being assigned by God to each of the clans. Note that land cannot be permanently alienated. The chronology of generations recited here does not bear close scrutiny. A problem posed is that of marriage – at which time the land would usually pass to that other clam. Recall Monty Python and The Holy Grail “She has huge tracts of land!.” Having the land would constitute a dowry and make the daughters more attractive to suitors. Moses has to decide this application.

27: 5 He takes the question to God who rules in favor of the daughters. A general rule is established as to the descent of property and who should inherit. RL: Will the same rules laid out for men apply to woman?  RB: The rules don’t just apply to men. They set out the lands for the tribes without reference to sex.  AF: How does primogeniture work when the oldest son is physically or mentally unfit? RB: The Tanach is not kind to people with disabilities – they cannot be priests for example. JB: Is this unusual that Moses has gone to God rather than vice-versa? RB: There are three other instances where this has happened – see handout. LL: Note that we should not equate slavery and land ownership in Egypt with that in the South in America. There were substantive differences. Here, the women have established a legal precedent. Note that many of the practices in Genesis are rejected or undermined in Numbers and Deuteronomy.  ZA: The Orthodox tend to skip over this section.  Also, children were considered a financial asset – until the past few hundred years. We will see that they are subsequently required to marry within the clan – so that the tribe would retain the land.

Closing prayer is sung.

Rabbi Berkowitz

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz’s Letter to the Community

By Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz

In the Jewish tradition, we welcome people into our community in two different ways. We usually say “Shalom,” which means “peace.” We can also say “Bruchim Ha-baim!” which means, “Blessed is the one one who has come to us!”

This second greeting reflects my feelings as I join the Vassar Temple community as rabbi. I am truly blessed to be a part of the 167-year history of Poughkeepsie’s Reform Jewish community. I am grateful to the leadership of Vassar Temple for engaging me as their next rabbi, and for Rabbis Emerita Steve Arnold and Paul Golomb for providing me with so much support during this transition. I know that I will continue to rely on their wisdom and guidance as we move forward into our next chapter.

There is a legend that our ancestor Abraham lived in a tent that was open on all four sides. Why would someone want to live in a home with so many openings? It doesn’t seem very practical, what with the heat, the dust storms, and the wild animals that must have been roaming about! Our tradition tells us that Abraham’s goal in living this way was that no person in need of food or spiritual sustenance should ever have to walk around in circles looking for the entrance.

Abraham’s radical hospitality doesn’t end there. Not content to sit patiently in his tent, Abraham ran out to greet travelers on their way. He met people where they were and learned their needs. There is one legend that he actually built multiple houses along the road, so that people wouldn’t have to come to his tent to get what they needed!

I share this story with you because it crystallizes what I hope to do as the next rabbi of Vassar Temple. My goal is for the Jewish community to be a tent that is open on all sides, ready to welcome both our long-term members and the strangers in our midst. I aim to create multiple points of entry into the synagogue and into Jewish life: through meaningful worship, inspiring learning, and the passionate pursuit of justice.

I also strive to remove any barriers to entry that people may see in their path. Vassar Temple is, and will continue to be, a place where people and families of all shapes, sizes, and orientations are welcome. We open our tent to those who are part of interfaith families, those who grew up Jewish, and for those who seek to be part of the Jewish people but don’t know where to begin.

Moreover, like Abraham pitching tents along the highway, I believe that the synagogue community can be a resource to those who have not even found their way to our tent. I know that Vassar Temple will continue to be a presence in the city of Poughkeepsie, both through our commitment to social action and by bringing our sacred traditions out of our “tent” and into the greater community.

I hope that in the weeks, months, and years to come, we will have many opportunities to say to one another: Bruchim HaBaim, “Blessed is the one who has come in to our tent!”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the spiritual leader of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY. She blogs at Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz Blog. Please visit our website at