Director’s Reflection

headshot of Stephanie Tankel

This summer, Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Senior Staff team began a new tradition — beginning each weekly staff meeting with a brief d’var Torah, a teaching related to the weekly Torah portion. This experience aims to help us set an intention for the sacred work we do while linking us to the cycle of the Jewish people. This new practice has already proven impactful — we hear one another’s perspectives, engage in a bit of Torah study, and the clergy get to “test drive” sermon ideas!

In mid-July, I had the chance to give my first d’var Torah. While I did not pick the date knowing what the parsha (weekly portion) was in advance, I cannot imagine a more fitting week to have delivered my first Senior Staff d’var. The Torah portion, “Balak,” was perfect summer reading! It included, among many things, a talking donkey, curses gone-wrong, some beautiful liturgy, and loads of drama.

Below is a modified version of what I shared during the staff meeting. While no longer related to this actual week’s Torah reading, the message from Parshat Balak is one I have carried with me during these hot summer months.

The section I clung to most involved Balaam, a non-Israelite sorcerer sent by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites. On his way, having been warned against this task, his donkey is blocked by a sword-wielding angel. Balaam, unable to see the angel, strikes his donkey, endeavoring to move forward. Eventually, the donkey speaks, and Balaam is able to see the angel in his path, thus receiving God’s message.

In reading and re-reading the parsha, I was struck by the idea of God acting in our lives in such direct ways (unlike the poor donkey who was struck by Balaam). How many times are we told to persist, to have grit and strength and perseverance? This is really the story of the Jewish people in so many ways. And yet, there are times when, in fact, we are meant to do the opposite — to see the invisible hurdles in our way and to STOP and listen.

Summer, it seems, is both the time to listen AND to plow ahead. This season affords us that opportunity to pause. It also challenges us to progress in spite of the myth of “endless time.” Summer feels relaxed. There’s later today, there’s next week … but the days and weeks speed by, and before we know it, we’re in August, and that big project, that time to think and work has passed, and the haste resumes.

How can we look for signs of angels (or knowing donkeys) to remind us to stop? How do we balance knowing when to stop with being motivated to push ahead? Knowing the difference, knowing when to push ahead and tap into our reservoirs of courage and strength and assuredness, versus knowing when a real or metaphorical angel is in our way — that is the work. That is the challenge. And if we are lucky and blessed, an animal will speak and confirm or affirm us! More likely, though, we will rely on our intuition and the fruits of our labors — immediate or delayed. Or, we will never know. And we must trust that we STOP and GO when the time is right.

So, as summer begins her retreat into fall, let us all stop and look for angels. And let us find the strength and perseverance to move forward in their absence. Moreover, let us help those we know and love with the very same task. We are here to help our family (chosen and inherited) to see the angels and the signs, to pause or move ahead. May God or any higher power — perhaps a talking donkey — help us individually and collectively, and may we each endeavor to help one another.