Archive for : torah

Shavuot: The Holiday of New Beginnings

Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that starts on Tuesday night, is a holiday of bellyaches. For a group of people known for our, ahem, “issues with lactose,” it seems almost cruel that one of the Jewish calendar’s major holidays would come along with the tradition of eating cheesecake, cheese-filled blintzes, gooey lasagna and other dairy-licious foods. (Bring on the Lactaid!)

But Shavuot is fortunately about other things too. It commemorates the day that God gave the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, which is arguably the single most important day in Jewish history. Receiving the Torah marked the beginning of an entirely new and exciting chapter for the Israelites – one that opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Shavuot is also connected to the ancient grain harvest in Israel, specifically the end of barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. During the festival, people would bring the bikkurim (“first fruits”) from their fields to the Temple in Jerusalem as thanks. Harvests mark the culmination of a season’s worth of toil, and the final bounty that comes after weeks of patience and preparation. But with every ending comes – you guessed it! A new beginning, and a new opportunity to envision the future we want to live in.

As we enter Shavuot, how can we make the most of this season of new beginnings, of newness and possibility? One way is to begin to plant seeds – both literal and metaphorical – that, with time, can bring the change we hope to see in the world. On a personal level, try making a list of three goals, hopes, or dreams you have for the coming months (or years). Ask yourself: what steps can I take now, at the beginning, to get on a path towards something great?

On a global level, support people who are following their own dreams. Here are several awesome micro-lending organizations and other orgs that let you support small farmers and business people who are making the world a better place:

  • KIVA – Support artisans, farmers, and small businesses with loans that they repay (so you can lend again and again!)
  • Slow Money – Help farmers support and finance sustainable agriculture across the country.
  • Women Advancing Microfinance – Support women in reaching their education, career and leadership goals.

How will you celebrate Shavuot’s season of new beginnings? Let us know in the comments or by tweeting @repairtheworld #shavuot.

Shabbat Service: Seeing the Familiar with Fresh Eyes

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Breishit, brings us back to the beginning of the Torah once again. “In the beginning…” it starts, launching the year-long cycle of telling and retelling our story that Jews move through every year. This week’s dvar Torah author, Leah Kaplan Robbins, writes that although there is comfort in the familiarity of this cycle – of hearing the same words over and over again, year after year – it can grow kind of stale. “The rabbis, too, struggled against the receding of the familiar, and suggested ways to make the Torah come alive anew each year,” she writes.

The “takeaway”: Robbins writes that whether one is talking about the Torah or our work in the field of service and social justice, the only way to “revive one’s passion for the familiar,” is to “[engage] with it in a new way.” This is the time of year, she writes, to “take stock” of our lives and passions, and identify what areas can use a “jump start.” In the process, we often find ourselves rejuvenated and more committed than ever before. Robbins quotes Nelson Mandela’s beautiful words, which speak to this point, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

The “to-do”: Take some time today or this coming weekend to evaluate the places in your life that may have grown familiar and stale. Think about the commitments you made – to family, friends, your community – and how you might reinvigorate them. As Kaplan writes: “Though its words are well-worn, the Torah doesn’t remain stagnant, but changes as we change, revealing new interpretations over time. As we embark on this brand new year, may we take action to bring about changes in ourselves that open our eyes to the Torah in new ways; and through its wisdom, may we find the inspiration to go out and change the world.”

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Teach Your Children Well

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Ha’azinu, starts to bring the Torah’s five books to a close. The story ends with a plea from Moses to the Israelites to “teach the words with which I charge you upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching. For this is not a trivial thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure…”

Moses, it seems, is one of the Torah’s greatest champions of education. He’s specifically focused on making sure generations after him learn the lessons and commandments of the Torah. But taken more broadly, his words read like a plea for learning in general. After all, without education, how would we transmit ideas, morals, and wisdom from one generation to the next?

The “takeaway”: This week’s dvar tzedek author, Rabbi David Singer, takes Moses’ words in yet another direction. He writes, “We would be well-served to think seriously in this new year about the ways in which we educate ourselves and our children toward dedication to the pursuit of justice, and then offer holistic opportunities to put that learning into practice in communal life.” For Singer, Moses’ words invite educators – both Jewish and not, formal and informal – to think about the role that justice plays in their curricula. Holding a lone tikkun olam event or “mitzvah day” is not enough he writes. Instead, “We must also remember to educate…For social justice to become part of the Jewish fabric of the next generation, it must be a regular act and it must be integrated into and reinforced through education.”

The “to-do”: Support organizations that promote justice and philanthropic education – like Learning to Give or AJWS’s Where Do You Give tzedakah curriculum. And think about ways that you might be a champion of justice education and learning in your school or community.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Listen to Others But Also Yourself

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Vayelech, begins in fairly familiar territory. The Israelites are at the end of their 40-year desert trek and used to their relationship with a very active and present God, who feeds them manna and demands their obedience. They are also used to having Moses and later Joshua as their leaders.

But once they enter the Land of Israel, everything changes. As this week’s dvar tzedek author Adina Roth writes, “they will transition from dependence on an overt God and strong leaders to worship of a more concealed God and rule of law dictated by weaker, short-term judges. This evolving relationship with external authority will require a cognitive shift away from simple dependence towards greater empowerment.” In other words, for the first time since leaving Egypt, they will be more in control of their own destiny.

The “takeaway”: Roth asks: “This tension between depending on external leadership or finding an inner sense of authority within ourselves and our communities is a challenge we face in civic life today. Do we place our destiny in the hands of our leaders, those with official titles of power, or do we assume responsibility ourselves for maintaining our nations’ ethical course?”

Roth writes that the “ideal power structure is a balance: On the one hand, we need to honor the fact that ‘external’ leadership does matter—elected leadership has the capacity to bring about significant change. Yet, we must not forget the force and influence of our inner shirah (song)—the power of the people to lead their own way on a just path.”

The “to-do”: In any relationship you have – whether it’s with parents, friends, partners, teachers, or a boss – be respectful and listen to them, but don’t forget to listen to your inner song as well. Strive to find the balance between your voice and theirs, and everyone will benefit.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: The Power of Inclusivity

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Nitzavim, comes at the end of the annual Torah-reading cycle. In it, there’s a description of a ceremony undertaken by the people of Israel to “enter into the covenant of Adonai [their] God.” It’s all well and good except, as dvar tzedek author, Sarah Mulhern writes, the Israelites have already “affirmed their commitment to God’s covenant before the revelation at Mount Sinai.” So…”why is Moses orchestrating a second entry into a covenantal relationship that already exists?”

The “takeaway”: Mulhern writes that some contemporary commentators explain the second covenant ceremony as a do-over, a chance to fine-tune the previous covenant to make it more inclusive to the entire community. “The covenant ceremony in Parashat Nitzavim repeatedly emphasizes inclusion and participation. The ceremony begins by declaring that all members of the community are present—“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai”—and then goes on to list the groups who are represented: “Your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.” The message is powerful: everyone – not just the most elite or the holiest – is welcome to take on the covenant.

The “to-do”: In this high holiday season, strive to find ways to nurture a sense of inclusivity and openness in all of your work or studies.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Revealing Our True, Authentic Selves

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Ki Tetze, contains an unusual commandment (actually it contains 74 commandments, but this one is particularly noteworthy): “A man’s apparel should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear a woman’s clothing, for whoever does these things is an abomination before Adonai your God.” At first glance it’s a confusing and rather offensive commandment, especially for people who identify as transgender.

But as this week’s AJWS dvar tzedek author, Sigal Samuel, writes, “according to rabbinic interpretation [however], this law is not about preventing people from wearing clothes traditionally associated with another gender. It is about preventing deception—the veiling of our true identities—and the harmful results of gaining access to restricted spaces by means of that deception. Read in this light, the verse urges us to ensure that we create spaces that are safe, appropriate and consensual for everyone.”

The “takeaway”: Put simply, the commandment can be read as a biblical encouragement to be our full, authentic selves – whoever that is – and not be afraid to share that with other people. Around the world, however, GLBTQ people have faced a great deal of discrimination while simply attempting to be who they are. Sigal writes, “For many transgender and gender non-conforming people across the globe, particularly in developing countries, this translates into crippling social and economic hardship. India, for example, is home to approximately one million transgender people. Because the majority of them are denied access to job, education and housing opportunities, they are forced to inhabit slums and engage in sex work to survive.”

And yet slowly, gains are being made – like Burma’s first International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which was held this past May.

The “to-do”: Support a world where everyone feels comfortable sharing their true and full selves, regardless of who they are or how they identify. Support the work of transgender advocacy organizations in America (like these) and abroad (like these).

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Using Our Power Wisely and Compassionately

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: In this week’s parsha (Torah portion), Eikev, Moses gives a moving presentation to the Israelite’s about God’s power. He says:

“And now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul… Adonai your God is God supreme and Adonai supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.”

In other words, Moses says, God’s kind of a big deal (except, for real).

The “takeaway”: This week’s dvar tzedek author, Rabbi David Singer, writes, “This is a provocative theological message, to be sure, and one that has crucial practical import for those of us who concern ourselves with the work of global justice.” Too often, he writes, our public discourse splits between people who want to show their power by force, and those who want to show a subtler type of power, offering “empathic aid as a means for influencing change in the world.” Many of us, he writes, are “uncomfortable with thinking of our social justice work as exercising ‘power,’ but by asking us to emulate a God who does so to overcome injustice, our tradition invites us to embrace our empathic force and not to be shy about using it.”

The “to-do”: When we help others – as volunteers, as educators, as activists – we exert a type of power in the world. Sign up for an activist training that teaches you how to lead with empathy and humility, listen to others and work with a community to help bring change for everyone.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Join in the Long, Hard Fight to End AIDS

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: In this week’s parsha (Torah portion), Dvarim, the Israelites gather on the steppes of Moab, waiting for Moses to deliver his final speech before they enter their new home in the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring moment, until Moses begins to speak and rebukes the Israelites at length about their sins in the desert.

The “takeaway”: This week’s dvar tzedek author, Leah Kaplan Robins, admits that “this oration stuns me every year…Why does Moses reiterate these facts when what [the Israelites] probably need is an inspirational message about how far they’ve come? I have always assumed that Moses simply lost control, succumbing to his bitterness that the people will enter Canaan without him.”

But, she writes, the big picture tells another story. “I’m seeing Moses’s speech in a new light this week, as my AJWS colleagues—and 49 of our grantees from around the world—are attending the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. For the 25,000 activists, scientists, NGO workers and policy makers gathering on their proverbial mountain top, it must be tempting to stoke feelings of relief at how far they’ve come since the first terrifying cases of HIV emerged in 1979. But emphasizing this progress obscures the devastating big picture.”

In other words, like Moses or today’s leaders in the fight against AIDS, sometimes one can lead best when they don’t let people get complacent, but continue to remind them exactly why they’re fighting. In the case of the AIDS epidemic, the reason for fighting is the memory of the 30 million people who’ve died of the disease, and in honor of the 33 million more currently infected.

The “to-do” Lend your support to the cause: sign this Declaration to End AIDS petition, which was created by major AIDS organizations in Washington DC.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: War is Not Healthy For Children…

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: In this week’s parsha (Torah portion), Matot-Masei, the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses if – instead of settling in Canaan with the rest of the Israelites – they can settle east of the Jordan River, where the pasture is perfect for raising their livestock. Moses doesn’t buy it, thinking they’re using farming as an excuse to avoid the battle necessary to conquer Canaan. “Your brothers are going to go to war,” he says, “and you are going to sit here?” Reuven and Gad relent, agreeing to fight in the war if they can then settle where they wish.

The takeaway: This week’s dvar tzedek author, Sigal Samuel, writes that Moses’ perhaps misread Reuven and Gad. “Although the men initially couch their request in terms of livestock, the issue of their children’s safety creeps into their speech. They explain that, while they’re off at war, “our children will dwell in the fortified cities.”

Reuven and Gad knew from experience the devastating effects war can have on children. Their stance was like a biblical take on the famous anti-Vietnam War poster in the 1960s that said, “War is not healthy for children or other living things.” Unfortunately, as Samuel writes, “we too have seen society’s most vulnerable members bear the brunt of war’s tragic consequences. According to UNICEF’s 1996 report, over the preceding decade 2 million children were killed in armed conflict, while 6 million were seriously injured or permanently disabled. This does not include the many children who became refugees, orphans or victims of rape, sexual slavery, disease or malnutrition as the result of war.” Perhaps Reuven and Gad had it right all along…

The “to-do”: Support organizations – like AJWS grantees AJEDI-Ka/Project Enfants Soldats and Friends of Orphans that are doing the vital work of rehabilitating children affected by war, throughout the world.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.