Weekly D’var: Shabbat Shuva

by | Sep 30, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Jewish Holiday, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

One of the primary themes throughout the past month of Elul and into this season of renewal, is the idea of teshuvah.  Teshuvah is one of those Jewish concepts that we talk about a lot and often assume we all understand.  We may have been told that, in order to merit atonement with Yom Kippur, we must “make” or “do” teshuvah.  We are encouraged to spend time looking back on the year, acknowledging where we have missed the mark and resolving to do better moving forward, and to make amends with those we have harmed.  But while we tend to hear about teshuvah most leading up to and throughout the High Holidays, it is a practice, and indeed a mindset, that we would do well to carry with us throughout the year.

Teshuvah is not simple.  It can be difficult to look upon our behaviours and the times that we may not have lived up to our values and ideals and hold ourselves accountable for those failings, possibly harder still to recognize where we might be heading down the wrong path in the moment and correct course.  Similarly, the word teshuvah itself is no easy thing to understand.

Many of us understand teshuvah to mean repentance, an understanding reinforced by some of our mahzorim or holiday prayerbooks.  There will be those who know that, at its root, the word translates as ‘turning’ or ‘return’; in fact, this Shabbat that falls in the midst of the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, is known in our tradition as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return.  Teshuvah does mean all of these things, both individually and simultaneously.  The layers of meaning in the word can help us to better understand its role in both the holidays and in our lives: in order to make some sort of repentance, we must turn away from certain behaviours and attitudes in order to make a return to our core values, in order to return to our true selves.

These are not the only ways to translate this important and enigmatic word.  There are so many shades of meaning in both the word itself and in the act of teshuvah that, each year, they can be found filling new sermons and articles and books, and here I am, offering yet another.

For me, what has become an important and powerful way to understand teshuvah, the way that I am able to carry it with me and to make it a real part of my life, is held in another traditional understanding of the word, that of ‘response’.  In Jewish legal matters a teshuvah is a response to a question.  Thinking of it in this way, when I look back on my behaviour, when I find myself reacting in a given situation, I can ask myself how I can respond differently and return to my true self.

These holidays are laden with rules and rituals, with expectation and obligation, but at their core, like so much of our tradition, they are calling on us to connect—to connect with ourselves, with our community and our tradition, and, of course, to connect with the divine.  How will we respond?

Shabbat Shalom.  G’mar hatima tova!

Rabbi Danny A Lutz,
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

This week’s parsha is one that is filled near to overflowing with iconic stories.  Covering Jacob’s travels to, life in, and departure from Haran, the home of his uncle (and eventually father-in-law) Laban, Vayetzei recounts the stories of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, his marriages, first to Leah, then to Rachel, the births of twelve of his children, and so much more.  

With all of this, I am struck by a couple of stories that are not explicitly in our text at all, but come to us in the form of Madrash, the traditional interpretations or explanations of our text that have come down from the sages.

The stories that have captured my interest are surrounding two verses that come at the very beginning of our text (Genesis 28:11 and 28:18) and are seeking to explain a seeming inconsistency between these verses. Just as Jacob is lying down to have his famous dream, we are told that “He took from the stones of the place and set it/them at his head and lay down in that place”, the Hebrew text being unclear on the number of stones Jacob had taken.  Verse 18, which picks up immediately after the dream, is by contrast, very clear, saying, “he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar”. 

The first explanation comes from Rashi (11th/12th c. French commentator), who explains that Jacob had taken a number of stones and arranged them around his head for protection, prompting an argument among the stones, with each asking that they have the honour of holding the righteous man’s head.  Rashi goes on to say that at this point, the holy one fused the rocks into one. 

There are a number of others that appear in the great collection of Midrash, Breishit Rabbah, each offering a different number of stones.  One of the stories counts twelve stones to teach Jacob that he would be the father of twelve tribes; another, three stones, teaching that God’s oneness would be made known through Jacob; yet another, two stones, to teach that Jacob’s progeny would be worthy to form the people Israel.

Our tradition offers us all of these understandings of a single moment in the life of Jacob, each of them teaching him a different lesson.  We can find multiple interpretations of most stories from the Torah; that is part of the beauty of Midrash.  But I am struck by the form that these midrashim take, each of them recounting a lesson learned, each examining a single moment.  In this, I am reminded of the beauty of reflection, of a life examined, reminded that, within the hustle and bustle of our lives, and despite it, each moment has so much potential to teach us.

Rabbi Danny A Lutz
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

The second line of this week’s parsha tells us that Sarah, our matriarch, died in Kiryat Arba in the land of Canaan. The first verse, and the one from which we get the name of the parsha, Chayei Sarah, describes her life; “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” Abraham has just proved his dedication to God; he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice before God, was commanded to spare him, and received a blessing. Abraham was promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand, but his wife Sarah, his partner and his children’s mother, has now died. Abraham mourns Sarah and weeps by her. His experience of deep sadness is another low point in his turbulent story. Despite being offered by the Hittites and Ephron a burial place, he insists on paying them the full amount of silver it is worth and when Abraham dies at a hundred and seventy-five, he joins Sarah in the cave on Ephron’s land.

This parsha always makes me think of the ritual of shiva, the week of mourning following the death of a loved one. Mourners are joined by their community to provide comfort and meet the needs of the family and are present as those closest to the deceased say kaddish. The mourner’s kaddish is a fascinating and beautiful exaltation, a prayer for peace and for God to hear us and keep us, something that can feel jarring and distinct from grief and loss. The value of the Jewish ritual following death is that we gather to remember and reminisce the span of a person’s existence in our lives and their affect on the world around them for good, not simply to lament their passing. We’re told in the parsha that after they are wed, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” 

Jacob Brickman
Hillels Waterloo & Laurier

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