Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Human Rights Day

No Comments 07 December 2016

As we observe International Human Rights day this week, which falls on the reading of Parashat VaYetze, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann reminds us of the call, both ancient and modern, to walk in the path of justice and holiness. Continue Reading

General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: Together and Apart

No Comments 30 November 2016

What are the requirements of a strong and meaningful marriage? What about between nations, communities and peoples? In his Dvar Torah to Parashat Toldot this week, Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb inspires us to learn from Rebecca and Isaac. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: See my suffering

1 Comment 23 November 2016

Parashat Hayyei Sarah has been used by many to justify the denial of human rights to the Palestinian residents of Hebron. In her dvar Torah to it, Rabbi Amy Klein shows us how Hayyei Sarah can also provide us with strength and resolve to seek justice for those suffering as a result of our failures.  Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Our Mother’s Milk

No Comments 16 November 2016

When Sarah learns she is with child, she laughs and others join her. In is dvar Torah to Parashat Vayira, Rabbi Paul Arberman explores what the significance is of this laughter. Why does it play a critical role in making the world a more just place? 

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Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: The Silencing of Women

No Comments 09 November 2016

In many ways, the world looks very different from the world of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. But, as we see in this Dvar Torah by Rabbi Gail Diamond to Parashat Lech Lecha, the abuse, objectification, and silencing of women continues to remain as much a plague on society today as it was for our ancestors.  Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: One Language – Utopia and Change

No Comments 01 November 2016

In her commentary to Parashat Noah, Rabbi Dalia Marx looks at the story of the tower of Babel — what does it mean to have one language? From where does this desire come from, and how can it both bring us together and tear us apart? Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Beginning with Human Rights

No Comments 26 October 2016

This his commentary to this week’s Torah portion of Bereishit,  Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom reminds us of our responsibility to respect the human rights of all mankind, and calls on us to refuse to erase from our memories some of the worst violations of human rights our nation has committed.  Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Dvar Torah for Shabbat of Sukkot: Vanity of Vanities — All is Vanity

No Comments 20 October 2016

 In this week’s dvar Torah for the Shabbat of Sukkot, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann reminds us that in addition to being a time of joy and family, Sukkot is also a time to remember the fleeting nature of life and all that is part of it.  Continue Reading

General, Parasha / E-Letter

Shabbat Shuva/Yom Kippur Dvar Torah: Between One Individual & Another

No Comments 06 October 2016

%22God will return to us when we return to God, we are told, and the way to God is through correcting our ways and opening our hearts to our fellow human beings%22-3

By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

A popular rabbinic saying in Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yoma, 87b (quote below)  regarding the relationship between Yom Kippur and the process of teshuva (repentance or turning around) tells us that Yom Kippur atones for sins between God and the individual, but it does not atone for sins between one individual and another until a person makes amends to the other against whom  they have sinned.  Only after an interpersonal tikkun (repair or healing) does Yom Kippur complete the spiritual process. What is true for the individual is also true within a community and even between nations. Reconciliation is a necessary step, without which there can be neither peace– not in the community and not between nations –  nor peace of mind for the individual sinner. The relationship of that individual, that community or that people to God remains flawed.

“For sins between man and God Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow. R. Elazar ben Azarya derived [this from the verse]: ‘From all your sins before God you shall be cleansed’ (Vayikra 16:30)

The Gemara (87a) continues:

“R. Yitzchak said: Whoever aggravates his fellow even through words is required to placate him. R. Yosi bar Chanina said: Whoever beseeches forgiveness from his friend should not beseech him more than three times.  And if he died, [the offender] brings ten people and must stand them by his grave and he says, ‘I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and so-and-so whom I wounded.’”

The ten days of penitence or “turning” from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur are a ritual-liturgical expression  of this rabbinic insight. The focus of the slichot (forgiveness) prayers, and particularly of the vidui (confession) repeatedly recited in this period, is on sins between people much more than on ritual transgression.

RHR, influenced by a humanist or universalist interpretation of Judaism, has expanded the confessional prayers in our annual pre- Yom Kippur materials (coming soon…) to include sins against others beyond “the tribe.” We believe  this is in keeping with the universalist tone of many of the High Holyday prayers – celebrating the creation of the world or/and humankind. They remind us again and again of the vision of one humanity, worshipping the one true God, and standing together in judgment before the Holy One. The Aleinu (“For Us”) prayer – originally written for the “Days of Awe”, but now recited throughout the year – is a central example of this religious vision. There is indeed a particularist element in this prayer that causes some of us discomfort but the ultimate vision is nevertheless one of humanity standing before God:

“And so we hope in You our God, soon to see Your splendor, sweeping idolatry away…perfecting earth by Your kingship so that all mankind will invoke Your name…, bringing all the earth’s wicked back to You, repentant…”

The words of the prophets (Isaiah, Hosea) read in last week’s and this week’s haftara also make it clear that teshuva must be a two-way process. God will return to us when we return to God, we are told, and the way to God is through correcting our ways and opening our hearts to our fellow human beings.

As we celebrate and prepare ourselves spiritually for this new  year, let us find the place within our souls from which to continue our holy work. Let us create a place of inner peace, reconciled with our own limitations, our human frailty, while striving for reconciliation with those against whom we have sinned, but nevertheless filled with hope for the future .

G’mar Hatima Tova – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life!

YehielRabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights.

Read previous Torah commentaries 

General, Parasha / E-Letter

Rosh Hashanah Dvar Torah: Let the New Year and its Blessings Begin!

No Comments 29 September 2016


By Rabbi Prof Yehoyada Amir

The cyclicality of the year connects the month of Elul with Tishrei. The last day of Tishrei is the eve of the New Year, the Day of Judgment, on which all creatures pass before God as in a census. (Mishna, Rosh Hashanah, 1,2). Elul is a period of preparation and intentionality, a period of Slichot (prayers of forgiveness) and introspection that leads us up to the heights of the Days of Awe. The heat of the summer points to the autumn; meditations on that which has passed are woven with hopeful and anxious thoughts about the coming year. The acceptance of responsibility for our deeds in the past casts upon us even heavier responsibility regarding the future. What is the meaning of this cyclicality? What does it mean that at the end of Elul we declare that a New Year begins and that we want to sanctify it?

The ancient world knew two ways of calculating time, that of the lunar calendar and that of the solar one. The solar calendar defines a year as the time it takes the earth to rotate around the sun. The ancients indeed did not know to speak in such terms, assuming as they did that the sun rotates around us. Nevertheless, they did know to calculate accurately that period. The solar year is divided into twelve parts, almost perfectly equal, called months. Whoever follows the solar calendar is aligned to the existential changing pattern of the seasons. A festival set according to this calendar will always occur in the same season and can carry agricultural connotations as well as expressing the human connection with nature. Such a calendar prevailed in Second Temple times in the life of  “The Book of Jubilees” sect. Their year had 364 days, 52 weeks. Every date always fell on the same day of the week. Every festival always occurred in the same season. A person was subject to an exact cycle supposedly determined by the days of creation.

The second approach is that of the lunar calendar.  Here the year is determined by the rotation of the moon around the earth, a visible rotation that is very easy to follow. Twelve such rotations are defined as a year. This is a simple and very natural means of calculation that doesn’t require astronomical knowledge and makes it possible for every person to sense the rhythm of time. However, the lunar year is significantly shorter than the solar and those who hold by it soon enough lose any connection between their festivals and the seasons. That is the nature of the Muslim calendar, in which the festivals can have no seasonal aspect, in which the religious-ritual cycle is detached from the earthly processes, from sensations aroused by summer, winter, spring and autumn.

The calendar instituted by rabbinical Judaism holds by both methods at the same time. The month it is devoted to is the lunar; the year is also determined by the lunar months but once every few years an additional month (Adar 1) is added in order to make up for the missing days and to establish the connection between the festivals and the seasons. Passover will always be in the spring; Shavuot will always fall during the harvest season; the High Holy days and Sukkoth will herald annually the coming of autumn. This is a complex system creating numerous challenges. It requires cultural and religious decisions.  In the past they have been placed before the Beth Din (religious court); nowadays they are decided through complicated astronomical and halachic calculations.

By Gregory H. Revera - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Gregory H. Revera – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Astronomically, the lunar month is 29 and a half days. Therefore every month requires a decision whether the next month will begin at the end of 29 or 30 days. The Muslim world, which continues to act according to the decisions of religious courts, is acquainted with the reality that faced the ancient rabbis in which one court would decide that the new month starts today while another court declared it to be  tomorrow. For those desiring to ensure ritual unity and communal solidarity in every place, this is a serious challenge that gave rise to quite a few controversies and struggles. In addition to this, we have the question as to which year will be considered a leap year. So, according to one decision, certain days are to be considered Passover during which there is a stringent rule against eating or possessing leavened products (Hametz) whereas according to an alternative decision exactly the same days would fall in the middle of Adar, and would be celebrated as the cheerful but serious Purim festival.

The disadvantage created by this complexity is more than made up for by the gain in deeper meaning the Jewish calendar gives to time. Human beings are subject to time and its change. The day ends with the setting of the sun and the appearance of the stars; the month begins when the new moon rises; the year’s cycle repeats itself and starts again every time anew at the height of the autumn season.

Our days are numbered from birth to death and it is not ours to change this rhythm. But time is nevertheless in our hands. The Sabbath will indeed keep coming regularly after the six days of striving but the festivals will fall on the days we decide.

Rabbi Akiva comments about the verse “The following are God’s appointed holy days that you will designate in their appointed times” (Leviticus 23:4), and says, “Whether they are designated in their proper time, or not at their proper time, I have no holy days save these” (Mishna, Rosh Hashanah, 2,9). The festival is a Divine gift, a command of the revelation, but when exactly it will be celebrated – that human beings determine. One possible decision will make a particular day Yom Kippur, make it the Holy of Holies of the Hebrew calendar, a different decision – the story from which these words of the greatest of the Mishna (Tannaitic) sages are taken tells us – will render it the status of an ordinary weekday in which a person “goes with his staff and bag”. The holiness of Yom Kippur which has the power to atone and renew our lives, the stance of a person before the open gates of heaven – all these are dependent on human decision, even a mistaken one.

This is the issue of the close connection between the month of Elul and that of Tishrei, between looking back at the year that has ended, and looking forward, filled with hope, into the coming year. Since Rosh Hodesh is supposed to be set by the Beth Din in Jerusalem, the Mishna commands that emissaries be sent to the Diaspora to announce when the new month began. Nevertheless, this practice is only applied, the Mishna decides, in those months in which a festival falls. Only in these does the declaration of the month have an implication as to when that festival falls. Elul is the exception. There are neither festivals, nor any fast days during the month but its conclusion heralds the New Year. It is essential the Jews in every place know exactly when Elul starts so they can know that the two days of Rosh Hashanah come at the end of the 29 days of this month. The messengers who go out to announce the beginning of Elul “Because of Rosh Hashanah” (Mishna, 1,3) – prepare the various communities for the moment when the Days of Awe arrives.

Through the many generations the partnership in determining the time and its meaning was limited to the ritual life of Jews. The sense that they, not only their God, determined the rhythm of time and its festivals is to be found at the heart of the blessing, describing God as He “who sanctifies Israel and the festivals.” The other dimensions of existence and time were to a large extent dependent on the rhythm dictated to them by the surrounding non-Jewish society, in which the Jews had a peripheral status. Business times, timing of political processes, the beat of the economy and the dynamic of scientific development – all these were beyond their control. The hallowed responsibility for religious time served as a kind of compensation for the inability to take responsibility for the dimensions of worldly life. In a place where the Jew was not a real party to the setting of worldly time he/she clung to his/her partnership with God in setting religious-ritual time.

The Zionist decision, the revolutionary decision to create an independent sovereign framework, a society of Jewish majority, changed this reality in the most profound way. We took upon ourselves – whether fully consciously or not – a responsibility that our ancestors did not experience. We are senior partners in this process, with responsibility for all aspects of the rhythm of our lives. For us the partnership with God in deciding religious-ritual time is essentially a reminder that we have taken into our hands responsibility for our time and its rhythm in the economy and society, politics and culture. It is in our hands, our responsibility, to either strive for economic-social justice; or to permit the concentration of wealth and capital in the hands of the few and to allow the deepening of poverty for expanding sections of the population. In our hands, our responsibility, to either ensure real partnership for all the communities and ethnic groups in Israeli society, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, adherents of this tradition or that; or to continue to permit cancerous racism to raise its head and destroy our lives. It is in our hands, our responsibility, to either  renew our pursuit of  peace, (and truly offer our hand to our neighbors/adversaries in our mutual land); or to continue to fall into the pit of the occupation and to perpetuate discrimination, repression and terrorism.

Just as in the religious-ritual context, partnership does not mean that we are the only ones in the arena; that others do not have their share in the responsibility as well. It is not all in our hands. Even if we do everything we can to fulfill the commandment to pursue peace and justice, we might not always be able to achieve that fully. But just as in the religious-ritual realm, the awareness of our limitedness should never reduce our own responsibility – for better or for worse. Indeed, it is not ours to complete the task, but we are not free to desist from it.

This year was difficult and complex. We felt pain and had to traverse numerous obstacles as we walked our path. We struggled with dilemmas. Much of what we were accustomed to was uprooted. This was the case not only on a global scale, but in Israel and also in the holy task that we in RHR have taken upon ourselves. As Elul comes to an end we begin to feel the blessing of having persevered and having placed many of these challenges and obstacles and much of the pain behind us. Now, entering the gates of Tishrei, we look forward in hope, planting new seeds, awarding time with the holiness of our faith, stepping forward towards the renewed and renewing Mitzva. We know all too well that this depends on us, on our deeds and on our decisions. We therefore promise ourselves, before God, and say: “Let the New Year and its blessings begin!”

Rabbi Yehoyada AmirRabbi Prof Yehoyada Amir is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and a senior lecturer at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem

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Special thanks to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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