The past week has been a difficult one. In the span of a few days, terrorists killed 17 people in France. The four Jewish citizens at the kosher grocery store were buried in Israel for fear that their graves would be desecrated, yet another fearful sign of Europe's growing anti-semitism. In Nigeria, two *thousand* people were killed because of hatred, and intolerance, a fact even more bothersome because it's quite possible that many of you are hearing that for the first time right now. The world is in mourning.Read More
So how do you spell Hannukah?
There actually is a correct way: Chet, nun, vav, kaf, hey. But in English, there's disagreement. Some prefer to spell it phonetically, starting it with a "ch." Some, like myself, like the simplicity of a sole "h" to begin the name. But there are so many variations even beyond that; One or two n's? Do you use a solo "k" or do you need a "ck" combinationt? And how do we end the English nomenclature of our Festival of Lights? With an a? an ah? A friend told me that she learned that you can spell it any way you want so long as the word has 8 letters.Read More
When Emily walked down the aisle at our wedding one week ago, our guests saw me collapse into a ball of emotion, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m guessing that most assumed it was because of the power of the moment, seeing my bride for the first time in her wedding dress. As a matter of fact, friends of mine had an ‘over/under’ bet as to how long it would take until I lost it. Most put me at about 3 minutes. ‘Under’ was the way to go.
Yes, Emily was amazingly beautiful. Yes, I was full of emotion as I gazed out onto friends and family. But there’s more to the story. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise, you may know what I mean when I tell you that she ‘spooked’ me. She got me good. Real good.
To explain, I need to talk about wedding planning, and our choice of first dance.
Emily and I had an idea to put the first dance up to a vote for our guests. Each of us would pick a song that was a surprise to the other, the guests would vote, and the DJ would play that song.
I picked The Luckiest by Ben Folds, and she picked For the Longest Time by Billy Joel. Her and I are a bit competitive, and we both were sure that we had the winning song. We asked a few close friends what they thought (without telling each other the song), and without question, everyone picked Emily’s. Another one lost. Sigh.
Months later, we went to see the movie About Time.
It’s a romantic comedy with a beautiful message, and without giving away anything, the end gets very emotional. As is typically the case during such moments, Emily looked at me, gently teasing me … Are you crying again?
As the last few minutes of the movie played, Ben Fold’s The Luckiest played underneath. And I lost it. Completely. I explained to Emily that this was the song I had picked as our first dance, and it makes me think of her, and it’s beautiful … etc, etc …
Fast forward to more wedding planning:
I am in a klezmer band in Athens, and our violinist is also a marvelous vocalist. She sings an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Erev Shel Shoshanim, a traditional Hebrew love song. It is often sung as the bride walks down the aisle. For months Emily said that she didn’t love that song, and would prefer if the band sang another song.
Finally, she gave in, knowing that I really love the version that my band sings. I was so excited as I visualized Emily coming down the aisle to this beautiful melody.
Just three days before the wedding, I practiced with the band, as I would be rapping to Emily (Rabbi’s Delight, a take on Rapper’s Delight) in between a marvelously energetic 40-minute hora. At that practice, I mentioned how excited I was to hear Erev Shel Shoshanim on my wedding day.
Unbeknownst to me, Emily had surreptitiously gotten the band to switch out Erev Shel Shoshanim with The Luckiest.
I realized something was amiss when I noticed that the words sung were not in Hebrew. It took me a few seconds, but all eventually came clear. And then, enter afore-mentioned collapsing.
Here are the words to this beautiful song. I will forever think of them and my even-more beautiful bride. I am indeed The Luckiest.
I don't get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns
The stumbles and falls brought me here
And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it everyday
And I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
What if I'd been born fifty years before you
In a house on the street where you live?
Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike
Would I know?
And in a wide sea of eyes
I see one pair that I recognize
And I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
I love you more than I have
Ever found a way to say to you
Next door, there's an old man who lived to his 90's
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away
I'm sorry, I know that's a strange way
To tell you that I know we belong
That I know that I am
I am, I am the luckiest
With the war in Gaza hitting a fever pitch, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum wrote a prayer for peace. Within the prayer, she recited the names of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children. She urged her congregation not to *harden our hearts* to suffering, wherever it occurs.Read More
Tonight I ask, what is behind this curtain, the *parochet* that opens to reveal the insides of our holy ark?
Lawrence Kushner, the fantastic kabbalist and author, tells a story from his days as a pulpit rabbi at Congregation Beth-El located in Sudbury, Massachusetts.Read More
If you have ever studied Roman mythology, you may recall the god, Janus. Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. He is also known as the god of doorways and time. Our secular month of January serves as his namesake, and of course January is the month when we celebrate a different kind of new year.Read More
Our struggle is not the absence of miracles. Our struggle is our inability to recognize the miracles that surround us. But on this day of Rosh Hashanah, we rail against this perceptual blindness. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our religious prescription lenses by which we look out and see the world.Read More
A poor woman had two children, and all of them were starving. One morning, the woman came upon a perfectly round egg. The children squealed with delight, excited that they would finally eat.
The mother said, "Now children ... we musn't be hasty! If we wait, the egg will hatch and it will be a chicken. And we won't cook the chicken, because if we wait, the chicken will have more eggs, and then we'll have a bunch of chickens. And we can go to the market and sell the chickens for a cow. And then, we'll wait some more, and we'll trade the cow's milk for chickens and goats and hens ... and we'll have a whole farm and enough food to feed all of us so that we'll never go hungry again!
And in her excitement, wouldn't ya know it, the woman drops the egg ....
So it is with us - all of us have good intentions. Most of the time, we WANT to do the right thing. We want to work out, we want to eat healthier, we want to be nicer to that one person that gets on our nerves ... But as we all know, there is a gap between the loftiness of our intentions and our ability to bring those intentions to fruition.
This week's Torah portion teaches the same lesson.
The parsha of Pinchas starts with God saying to Pinchas, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
Earlier, we read that Pinchas snuck into the tent of a fellow Israelite, and his new Mideonite bride. Mideonites were not well respected ... Pinchas, upset that his clansman married a non-Jew, decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills the Israelite man and his wife.
Now, this is highly problematic. Pinchas kills two people, and for THIS God reflects that Pinchas turned back God's wrath from the Israelites?
The story also troubles me for its implicit harsh judgement of intermarried couples, many who make up the backbone of congregations across the country, including our own.
So why praise Pinchas to the point of having an entire Torah portion named after him?
I think it's because unlike the old lady in our story, Pinchas did not deliberate. He acted. and as God later tells him, he acted zealously.
There are many elements of Pinchas' action that are objectionable to one degree, or downright horrid to another. But, he teaches us a few very important lessons regarding Judaism.
1) It is a religion of action. We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. A VERY small majority of these commandments relate to how we should feel, or what we believe. The vast majority revolves around visible actions that we do with our body. As a matter of fact, I once learned that the reason that some Jews "shuckle" while davening, is to remind themselves that after prayer is over, they need to actualize the words of prayer. We do that with our bodies - through action.
2) You are enough. In Judaism, there are no theological intermediaries, such as in Catholicism. You can be your own teacher, your own rabbi. Now, that should be balanced with a healthy dose of intellectual rigor and community discourse, but as a Jew, YOU decide how to live Jewishly.
3) Judaism is intensely emotional and personal. Larry Hoffman, one of my favorite professors, said to us time and again, "Theology is autobiography." Judaism is filled with intellectual activity. We have the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries, the Midrash .... There is always more to learn, another class to take, a book to read. But more to the point, it's not a religion to be learned, but to be lived. Pinchas' zealousness shows that Judaism is not just about the rote recitation of prayer, or the habitual practice of commandments. It is about meaning, spirituality, passion ... zealousness.
I do want our beliefs to be filled with joy, spirituality and warmth. But more importantly, I want our lives to be filled by the actions we take. Then, we will never be hungry again.
This has been a difficult week.
Last Shabbat, we prayed for the safety of three Israeli teens. On June 12, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach disappeared after leaving their yeshiva. World jewry came together in solidarity as we prayed for their safe return. Their bodies were discovered on Monday.
Two days later, tragedy struck again. 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder was kidnapped near his home in East Jerusalem. A few hours after this kidnapping, police found his burnt body.
While planning for their sons funerals, the three Israeli families requested that there be no talk of retribution or revenge. However, during the funeral service for these three lost sons, hundreds of Jewish nationalists marched in Jerusalem, shouting "death to the Arabs." As one of my colleagues remarked, This is not my Israel.
Naftali Fraenkel, the uncle of one of the slain Israeli boys, renounced this sort of retribution and revenge: There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood.
The three Israeli students belonged to a yeshiva headed by the renowned teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Steinsaltz said, Our boys were killed because they were Jews. Therefore, to best honor their memories - indeed, to confront evil, we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.
This week's Torah portion contains a poignant parallel to these recent, painful events.
The prophet Balaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jews. Balaam is the most renowned prophet in the land, and Balak knows that the curse that tumbles forth from Balaam's mouth will transform into a harsh reality for the Israelites.
I'm going to summarize an amazingly fantastic story, but when the time comes to curse the Israelites, there is a startling occurrence. There he is, looking down upon the Israelite nation, his enemy ... and instead of cursing the Israelites, his words are something else entirely: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov - How good are your tents O, Jacob, and your dwellings, O Israel.
Every morning when Jews gather together in friendship and prayer, we sing these words that first came out of the mouth of a sworn enemy of the Israelites. The beautiful blessing that we recite was meant to be a curse.
Deuteronomy tells us: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue. The word for justice, tzedek is repeated twice. Our rabbis teach that the word's repetition is there to remind us that when we pursue justice, it must be done with justice. with mercy. with love.
In Judaism, the ends do not justify the means. Revenge and retribution may satisfy our baser instincts, but they are not the right thing to do, and certainly not the Jewish thing to do.
It is my prayer that both Arabs and Jews recognize the painful futility of escalating violence and hatred. It is my prayer that we mourn the lives of these four boys by heeding Rabbi Steinsaltz advice and live proud, authentic Jewish lives.
When experiencing these feelings of rage and anger, hurt and hopelessness, it is easy to join the cacophony of voices that contribute to the edifice of curses ... of hatred and revenge. or retribution. Or, we can pursue justice with justice. If we all did this, we too would turn our curses into blessings. May this be God's will
Tonight, I'm going to talk about Korach. Korach was a first cousin to Moses and Aaron. He challenged their authority, claiming that the priesthood should belong to him. The story ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his 14,000 followers. Korach does not display violence. He doesn't threaten his Israelite community.
Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you lord it over us as well? Besides, you haven't brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of field of vineyard.
Korach is a political dissenter. He doesn't like how his cousins Moses and Aaron are leading the people, and he thinks that he can do better. Incidentally, many elements of his speech are used in modern political discourse. Korach accurately reflects that Moses has not yet brought the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. He mixes a truth into his argument in his attempt to persuade the Israelites.
This tale of Korach is a disturbing portion in our Torah. It is another story in which a punishment seems to vastly outmeasure the crime. Moses forces Korach to compete in an elaborate test that will show who indeed has God's favor. The test ends with the earth opening up to engulf Korach and his followers. Making things even more problematic, it was not just Korach's followers that died; the households and families of Korach's supporters befell the same tragedy.
We've talked in the past about the Jewish concept of Tzidduk HaDin, the judgement of God. A better understanding would be 'the rationalizations of God's judgments.' Rabbis create midrashim and backstories in order to justify a divine action that would otherwise seem cruel, harsh, unfair, unethical, or irrational. These are examples of Tzidduk HaDin. And there are many such examples that relate to Korach.
But tonight let's look only at the passage from the Torah, and not from rabbis' later commentary. At the worst, Korach is arrogant and full of hubris, but I don't think that he deserves to die. Kol v'chomer, all the more so, 14,000 of his followers and their families certainly did not deserve to die.
So, what do we do?
I'm not going to even attempt to fit this story into our notions of what is right and what is wrong. It's a problematic text. Last week, God punishes an entire generation of Israelites, telling them that only the next generation can enter Israel. He does this because after sending twelve leaders to scout the land, ten of them come back filled with fear and anxiety. Time and again large groups of people are punished for the actions of a few.
But this is the message - well, actually the meta-message - that I want to leave you with tonight. The problematic nature of these stories are intentional. They aren't there to necessarily make us fear God. These stories aren't there to make us think that God is cruel. And although others would argue with me, they also aren't part of the Torah as a catalyst for our observance of Mitzvot. They are there to make us talk about them. They are there to make us question. To inspire us to converse, discuss, argue, comment ... to learn.
Our Torah is filled with these problematic tales not because we have a jealous, angry, capricious God, but because God wants us to think about them. God wants us to think about our morals. These stories help to create our Jewish identities precisely because they are problematic and difficult.
The Torah is not a "feel-good" book. There are certainly stories of comfort and inspiration, moments of tenderness and love, relationships that display compassion and selflessness.
Taken as a whole, however, I think that the Torah is problematic. I apologize in advance for this pun, but the Torah being problematic is not a problem. In fact, it is exactly what makes it so precious. The problematic nature of our stories, whether they be Korach, the story of the 12 spies, Abraham sacrificing Isaac or God flooding the Earth, causes us to look inward for our own interpretations. They also cause us to look outward so that we can learn from others' perspectives. Put another way, our written Torah leads us to both find and create a different Torah.
During every single evening service, Jews recite the Hashkivenu prayer. Within the service, we recite it between the Mi Chamocha and the Amidah. It is a petitionary prayer in which we ask God to be able to rest peacefully through the night and wake up to life the next morning, renewed. On Shabbat, the last line of the prayer is lengthened. Tonight we ended the prayer with the words, Who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of his people Israel, and upon Jerusalem. On Shabbat, quite possibly the holiest holiday in Judaism, we specifically pay special attention to the protection of Jerusalem and to Israel.
This Sunday evening is Yom Hazikaron, and Monday evening marks the beginning of Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first is the Israeli Day of Remembrance, and the second is the Israeli Independence Day.
Yom Hazikaron is not like our American Memorial Day. It is not a day for vacation travel or for enjoyable socializing. Almost every high school in Israel has a "memorial room" where they can pay tribute to alumni that lost their lives fighting for their country. Schools have special assemblies, everyone dressed in white shirts and blue pants.
A siren blasts throughout the country at 11:00am, marking the beginning of a two-minute standstill. All activity comes to an end. Drivers slowly stop their vehicles and stand on the side of the road to observe this two-minute silence. Radio and television stations broadcast stories of Israeli soldiers and heroes.
In Israel, almost every Israeli knows someone that has been killed while serving their country. This day of Yom Hazikaron is not only nationalistic and patriotic; it is intensely personal.
And as the afternoon hours turn into the evening, a shift happens. The mood changes from somber to celebratory, as the nation turns away from the painful memories and toward the celebration of statehood. During Yom Ha'atzmaut, the entire country celebrates its pride in being Am Yisrael.
These days are a time for us to reflect upon our relationship with Israel.
It's true that Jewish attitudes toward Israel are different than they were in 1948. Just within our Jewish communities in America, there is divisiveness and anger regarding different opinions on Israel. There are lots of Jews today that do not sense a connection between their strong Jewish identities on the one hand and Israel on the other. In recent years, liberal and conservative jews have had problems with the Israeli orthodox establishment. The issues surrounding the Women of the Wall have highlighted gender inequalities that prohibit women from expressing their Jewish selves.
A relationship with Israel is not simple. It can be complex, problematic and frustrating. But as with any other meaningful relationship, these difficulties should not and can not cause us to separate.
The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote this about God, but it pertains perfectly to Israel:
For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God - that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God or you can be against God. But you can not be a Jew without God.
We can not be Jews without Israel.
My relationship to Israel makes me a stronger Jew. For those of us who have been blessed enough to be able to travel there, one feels a deep sense of spirituality and connection... We hike Masada, pray at the Western Wall, watch the awesome array of stars in the Negev desert amidst the Bedouins ... these are more than tourist activities. They are a part of our history and our homeland.
The name of our homeland, Israel, is of course taken from the name that God confers upon Jacob - Yisrael. It means one who struggles with God. As we know all too well, Israel is a place of struggle. Jacob was given this birthright because he struggled with God until daybreak. I remind myself of this story when I think of the tensions and struggles regarding the land of Israel.
Like Jacob, we too receive blessing by facing these issues. Visit Israel. Talk to Israelis. Read the news. Open yourself up to the messy, difficult, beautiful and holy country that is our homeland of Israel.
Our liturgy tonight has various references to Jerusalem and Israel. Israel is never far from our hearts. We may not physically live in its land, but it is a part of us nonetheless. We are Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel shall live.
Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, God teaches us: You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This is such a powerful theme of Passover because it asks us to remember our history and then intentionally use that history as our inspiration for moving forward. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and therefore have an all-too-clear understanding of what it is like to be persecuted and hated. And precisely because of that historical experience, You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him.
On Passover, we are meant to be joyous about not only our freedom, but about our responsibility to help insure freedom for others.
This Shabbat should be joyous. We are in the middle of Chol HaMoed Pesach, the intermediate days of Passover. Tonight is the 4th day of the Omer, the period of 49 days linking the joyous freedom of Passover with the holiness of Shavuot.
And yet, it sometimes feels as if we are still in Egypt, entrapped into stereotypes, closed-mindedness and hatred.
Last Sunday, as Jews around the world were preparing to celebrate Passover on Monday evening, a man walked into the Jewish Community Center in Kansas and city and shot and killed three people. He wanted to kill Jews. He had posted thousands of hate messages on different web sites and blogs. He thought Jews ran the country. He talked about the fact that Jews destroyed health care in America.
Slate magazine goes into detail about his history of hate. I was shocked to learn that since 9/11, extremists motivated by Al Qaeda's ideology have killed 23 American citizens. But that number is dwarfed by those Americans killed by extremists that were already known to be affiliated with ideologies and groups such as white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants. These individuals have killed 34 Americans.
A few days after this incident, there were reports coming out of the Ukraine that seemed to be other-wordly. Leaflets were handed out in the city of Donetsk starting with the words, Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality. The language ordered Jews to register themselves as Jews, or else have their assets seized, face deportation or have their citizenship revoked.
After a few days of muddled information, news broke today that these leaflets did not come from the government. They were the manifestations of an elaborate prank coordinated by a local hate group. Nonetheless, these leaflets certainly illicit a particularly strong response from Jews.
I can not offer any logical answers to these harsh, painful realities. There is no sermon, no text, no Torah passage that can make sense of hate crimes. But, Judaism does teach us how to respond.
Judaism teaches us, implores us even - that we can not respond to hate with hate. As the Torah says, we can not hate a neighbor in our heart, even if the reverse is not true. Deuteronomy screams at us, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - justice, justice shall you pursue! Our rabbis teach us that the word for justice is repeated twice to remind us that even as we seek out justice, we must do so with justice.
The Exodus from Egypt is but one story of freedom and emancipation. The Israelites' emancipation was but one moment in history. In times like these I think that Passover should not talk about The Exodus, but rather An Exodus ... For there are many more miracles that need to be performed ... Across our world there are many people that still need to be freed. Whether it is from the oppressive rule of a cruel dictatorship or the kind of slavery that chains people to preconceived ideas and stereotypes, we must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, precisely so that we will never again be slaves in Egypt.
In America, we live mostly blessed lives as Jews. We are able to join together with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters to condemn hatred and violence, oppression and closed-mindedness. Because we know what it is like to be strangers in the land of Egypt, we need to act so that hate crimes do not happen. against. anyone. Blacks, LGBTQ individuals, gypsies, Latinos, people with disabilities, women, liberals, conservatives ... many people have been attacked and vilified because of the color of the skin, their sexual orientation, their nationality or their religious heritage. We Jews do not own a claim on persecution. But we can own a claim in helping to end persecution. We can be a light onto the nations.
This is indeed a bittersweet Shabbat. We are reminded far too often that we live in an unjust world. But let us also remember that it is our job to change the world. You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
(tell story about everyone bowing in synagogue … )
We do things that we're used to. We have a “usual” drink at the coffee shop, we sit in the same seat at meetings and conferences ... we tend to go to bed around the same time every night. Our lives are filled with regular patterns of behavior - some conscious, some subconscious.
And Judaism is no different. During Shabbat, we want to sing the songs that we grew up with - the melodies that our grandparents sang with us. We say the exact same prayers at almost every single service. The repetitive nature of Jewish ritual and prayer solidifies our minhagim, our customs. It's not a surprise then, that deviation from our habits can cause strife. Intellectually, we know that change is hard, but necessary. But emotionally and spiritually, it's difficult to let go. In times like these we may exclaim, Who moved my Matzah?!
Passover is a complex holiday filled with friendship and joy, spirituality and lots of kosher for Passover foods. Passover teaches many things. It teaches about freedom, and our responsibility to be a light onto the nations as we help insure freedom for others. It teaches about the importance of history - the entire holiday is a historical remembrance to Moses and the Israelites that fled Egypt. Pesach is also a tribute to God, praising and thanking God for freeing us with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand. The holiday focuses on the exodus from Egypt, Mitzrayiim. In Hebrew, the word Mitzrayiim is a combination of three words – Mi, Tzar, and Im. Mi means from, and im signifies something plural. The word tzar means narrow place. Mitzrayiim means “from the narrow places.” On Passover, we do not only celebrate the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt. We also allow emancipate ourselves from the shackles of our own narrow places. Above all its messages and inspirations, Passover both allows us and teaches to break from some of our habits - our Mitzrayim ... This is clear if we think for a moment on the central question that we ask at the seder table: Why is this night different than all other nights?
The Exodus is not a one time event. Each of us is imprisoned.. Perhaps we are trapped by our own expectations, and do not allow ourselves to see beyond them. Perhaps we are trapped into continuing a pattern of strained relationships and resentments.
Habits are good. Judaism with its 613 Mitzvot teaches us that habits are necessary. But whatever the habit is, if we continue to do it, it needs to be for reasons that are relevant and meaningful now, and not because that's the way it's always been done.
And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. Within this parsha located in the middle of Leviticus, we read what has come to be known as the holiness code. It is a section of Leviticus in which God commands mitzvah after mitzvah. Some are moral, some are ritualistic, and some are theologically problematic. Toward the beginning of this holiness code, our Torah says the following:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to the Israelite people and say to them:
I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you
dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
My rules alone shall you observe.”
Even after the Exodus, after the joy of freedom, God still commands us.
Judaism is not about complete and utter freedom. Being Jewish, Reform Judaism included, does not mean that we can think and do whatever we want. Our holiday of freedom, Passover reflects this. Passover moves us along a journey toward something other then freedom. 49 days after Passover we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. Passover leads us toward Shavuot, in which we celebrate the responsibility of performing God’s laws. Freedom is only the beginning of our journey.
There’s something else here though. In the above verses, God commands, but there is more to it than “Do my laws or else.” God cautions us from being like the congregants in the fabled synagogue of our joke, bowing without insight or knowledge. God's words urge us not to be trapped in the Mitzrayiim of habit, of rote ritual, and of sheer obedience to the power of "what we're used to."
There's an interesting bit of wordplay with regard to the Hebrew word, minag, meaning custom. It's letters are mem, nun, gimmel. If we reverse the letters, using gimmel, nun, mem, we have the word gehenom, which is akin to the Christian conception of hell. This wordplay reminds us again that whereas traditions and customs are extremely important, sometimes we must allow room for change ...for a new tradition. Otherwise, we are trapped.
During the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot we count the omer. This period is a bridge of time spanning the two holidays. The laws in our Torah are also a bridge between the reliance on the past and the beginning of new insights and rituals for our future. As we celebrate Passover in just a few days and begin counting toward Shavuot, let us make that bridge as wide as possible. Let it lead us toward new insights, new traditions, and new minhagim for our faith and community. And let it lead us to the holiness of Mount Sinai and to our Torah.
You may remember that earlier in Exodus, God commands the building of the tabernacle. The measurements are precise and exacting - a certain number of cubits for this ... a specific color for that ... God doesn't just tell the Israelites to build something: God gives specific measurements. An architect would have been happy to get these divine blueprints.
One of my favorite mitzvot is from these instructions. God commands that the inside of the holy of holies be covered in the finest of gold. At first blush, this may seem relatively un-interesting. It's the holy of holies - of course it should be lined with gold! But upon reflection, I don't think it's all that obvious.
Think about your home for a moment. I'm guessing that your most treasured possessions are on display in your living room or den. They're public. They're not hidden away in a drawer for no one to see. In fact, friends probably comment on these items as they come into your home for the first time.
But this is not true with the holy of holies. Not everyone gets to see it. In fact, only one person gets to see it - that one person being the high priest. And not only that, he only gets to see it on one day a year - Yom Kippur!
And yet, despite the fact that this rich display of gold is barely seen, it is to be drenched in the richness of gold.
One commentator reflects that God did not command this willy-nilly. The interpretation echoes my kindergarten teacher: It's what is on the inside that counts. And as Exupery wrote in the Little Prince, One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye. The building of the Tabernacle teaches us that outside behaviors must mirror inner beauty. What we say and what we do are commingled. Private theological thought is not completely separate from public speech and action.
This week we study the Levitical portion of Metzorah. This is the 2nd portion in a row that tells of skin lesions, bodily discharges and diseases ... that's what this portion seems to be about. But beneath its challenges we can find real possibilities for learning and growth.
Part of this Torah portion discusses a sickness of a house. Scaly outbreaks can appear on walls or on the floor. Cracks in the foundation can rock the home back and forth. There is a parallel drawn between the sickness of a person and the home in which that person lives. As with a person, there is a quarantine process - no one can live in the house while it is "unclean." There are rituals that are outlined in which the priest can declare the house clean, just as the priest does with individuals struck with the sickness of tzara'at, which was the focus of last week's portion.
You may remember that our rabbis make a beautiful link between the gossip of our tongues and different physical manifestations of sickness. Lashon Hara, the evil tongue, is the cause of these ailments. Our rabbis warn us to be careful of gossip, and there are many many laws surrounding this important topic.
But just when we wrap our heads around our rabbis' connection of physical disease with gossip, we see something else. Can it be that ... houses get sick?
In the tabernacle, we have something beautiful and pure that no one sees. A home is like the holy of holies in that it is special ... private. No one knows what happens "behind closed doors." Here too, the Torah challenges us to consider a link between our private selves and our public selves. There is a connection between what happens inside the home and the appearance of that home to others. Sure, none of us are going to come home to find our houses covered in plague-infested goo. But surely we can understand a broken home, an unhealthy home ... an unhappy home.
Ultimately, I think that this section of Metzorah reminds us that outward manifestations do not matter unless they are matched with purity of intention.
The hebrew word for purity is T'horah. The word is used often in this portion, and it's not always clear whether it refers to physical cleanliness or spiritual cleanliness. This is because they are intertwined.
These stories from the Torah remind us that despite our vain efforts to put up "good appearances," it does not diminish sickness from entering our homes - and this is might be a spiritual sickness that indeed does come from Lashon Hara - from hurtful speech.
Our souls are like the holy of holy. They are each capable of being lined with the finest gold. And just like the holy of holies, no one can see it. Unless of course, our language and our actions reflect it toward them, and toward each other.
Everything happens for a reason.
Many of us have probably said this, and if not, we’ve certainly heard it. Someone loses a job, ends a relationship, or the Bulldawgs lose a game. And to make sense of these sorts of things, we have this ubiquitous response, Well … everything happens for a reason.
We want things to be meaningful – to make sense. And sometimes we justify what happens to us (and to those around us) by alluding to some larger reality, or truth, or meaning, or comfort. We say Everything happens for a reason to assuage our anger or fear, or guilt, or sadness. It points to a higher “meaning” that reminds us that although this experience may be sad, there’s a treasure that’s waiting to be discovered behind it. And so, we are comforted that perhaps the world isn’t a harsh place of suffering and randomness, but rather purpose and meaning.
Judaism is filled with this sentiment. There is a Jewish concept of Tziduk HaDin”that I want to talk about tonight. You probably know both words; Tziduk comes from the same root as Tzedakah. And Din is the same word we use when we talk about a Beit Din; a Jewish court. Tziduk HaDin, then, is the justification of God’s judgment, or the righteousness of God’s judgment.
Here’s an example: God floods the Earth and kills every single human being on the planet, except for Noah and his immediate family. Rather than denounce God for enacting a cruel, destructive act, we maintain that humanity was selfish and mean, not respecting God or each other. And in so doing, we do Tziduk HaDin – we justify God’s actions.
This week’s Torah portion has what might be the most egregious, painful example of Tziduk HaDin.
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, approach the altar, and they make a sacrifice to God. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.
They had not been asked to make a sacrifice. They had not been commanded. This is akin to you surprising your spouse or a friend by taking them out to a favorite restaurant. The “strange fire” the Torah speaks of alludes to an incorrect practice; they did not perform the sacrifice correctly. They made a mistake.
So what happens?
Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them. They died at the instance of the Eternal.
God killed them.
If we were to read commentaries and midrashim, we would read that Nadav and Abihu were surreptitiously staging a coup d’état, attempting to steal power and prestige from their uncle Moses and their father, Aaron. We would learn that they were selfish, desiring God’s blessing for themselves. They were not leading the people with the spiritual wholesomeness of their father and uncle. And so, because of the reasons listed above, they got what they deserved.
But here’s the thing; the Torah does not say that. There is nary a hint of the kind of malignancies that our rabbis are trying to inculcate into our understanding. The two sons simply approached the altar, without being asked, and performed a sacrifice, and may have gotten it not quite 100% correct.
Aaron's sons deviated from the law. Think about this for a moment ... don't each of us deviate from Jewish law when we drive to synagogue on Friday night? Tonight, we are also playing instruments. From the pshat, the plain meaning of the Torah portoin, Aaron's sons are not troublemakers. They are two Jews trying to experience holiness in the best way that they know to do. We are Nadav and Abihu. We also try our best ... And sometimes what we do may in face also be "strange fire."
The story of Aaron's sons challenges us that perhaps we should refrain from our inclinations to find order and meaning in our lives. Sometimes, things don't make sense. Perhaps sometimes, God does something mean ... or wrong ... or immoral. Tziduk HaDin is an easy way out. Instead, let's embrace the ambiguity of our tradition. Let us accept the inconsistencies, the stories that may not make sense ... these are a part of our Jewish identities. It is up to us to create the meanings from them. In that sense, maybe everything does happen for a reason after all.
Judaism has lots of interesting, unique, perhaps even esoteric rituals. But the most interesting that I've learned revolves involves a sofer, a Torah scribe. The ritual involves Amalek, an awful enemy of the Jewish people. Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, Amalek attacked the Israelites from behind, killing the elderly along with defenseless women and children. There is an incredibly amount of midrashic material on Amalek, especially considering the few brief passages that mention him by name.
But let us get back to the ritual I was speaking about: When a sofer begins to write a Torah, he takes a scrap of kosher k'laf, parchment, and writes the Hebrew word, Amalek. Immediately after inscribing the word, the sofer scribbles back and forth on the word until the word is illegible. Only then does he proceed to begin to write the Torah.
Tonight is Shabbat Zachor - the Shabbat of memory. It occurs on the Sabbath before Purim. On this night, we read from Parashat Tzav, our current portion in Leviticus. But because this is the Shabbat before Purim, we also add an extra portion from Deuteronomy. The additional verses have to do with the aforementioned Amalek, and his heinous cruelty toward the Israelites.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies in the land that God is giving you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Let's fast forward to Purim. The villain of the Purim story, Haman ... let's try that again ... Haman (pause for boos) is descended from Amalek. Our Megillah of Esther tells us that he is an Amalekite. And so, we also read these verses from Deuteronomy concerning Amalek.
You may know that the verb zachor - remember appears more than any other verb in our entire Torah. Our Torah scribe enacts this interesting ritual of writing Amalek's name and then crossing it for a few reasons. First, he is following the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek, much as we will do tomorrow when we talk about Ha ... I almost got you there.
But more importantly, the sofer does this so that he remembers that the Torah is a model for how to do good, and not evil.
These Deuteronomy verses are very interesting. They ask us to remember what Amalek did to us, but they also urge us to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. We could argue that by writing Amalek's name, we are not blotting out his memory.
As we ponder these verses one day before celebrating the holiday of Purim, we think on this interesting interplay between the importance to remember the awful deeds of our enemies on the one hand and the desire to blot out their memories on the other. Just as the sofer intentionally writes Amalek's name just to cross it out, we too say Haman's name intentionally so that we can then drown it out with our shouts and our groggers.
We Jews have long memories. We reflect on creation, we remember our ancestors. We think back to the Exodus. But whereas we reflect on the past, we are not meant to dwell in the past. We remember Haman's cruelty, but we focus our rituals on celebrating our victory over him. We remember Amalek, but yet we focus on celebration, not tragedy, when we sing Mi Chamocha.
Shabbat Zachor reminds us that memory is important, but not more important than our present or future selves. As we go into our joyous holiday of Purim, that is something worth remembering.
This week starts the beginning of the middle book of our Torah, Leviticus. The editors of the Torah were the Levites, the priestly caste that enforced all of the laws and rituals that pertained to the Israelites. It is not surprising that they placed the book about themselves smack dab in the middle of the Torah, where it would be the most prominent.
It may be prominent, but it does not come across as that exciting. Unlike Genesis and most of Exodus, Leviticus is not filled with narrative stories. There is no bravery of Abraham, courage of Moses, or journey of Jacob. Instead, it mostly consists of a litany of laws relating to one specific ritual that we don't even do anymore - sacrifice. A professor I had at Hebrew Union College once said that if the Reform movement had intellectual fortitude, it would excise Leviticus from the religious canon.
This first portion serves as an introduction to the sacrificial system. There are different sacrifices for different actions. There is a thanksgiving sacrifice, there is a penitential sacrifice, there is the Georgia Bulldawg sacrifice ....
Just as there were different sacrifices for different occasions, we now have various prayers that serve specific functions. There are prayers of gratitude, forgiveness, love, wonder, grief ... Prayers were meant to replace sacrifice. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70AD, there was no longer a central place to participate in the sacrifice of animals. Instead of drama relating to the slaughtering of an animal, we now have a certain drama to our service, with various prayers rising and falling in crescendo and diminuendo.
The rabbis were so precise about this switch, in fact, that the Amidah prayer is meant to literally replicate the moment at which the high priest would slaughter an animal.
The verb meaning to sacrifice is l'hakriv. It can also mean, to draw close or to come near. When we pray, this is what we hope to do - to draw close to ourselves, our community, our God.
And the Lord called to Moses Vayikra el Moshe. This is how this third book of Torah starts. In Biblical times, Israelites heard God's call through the performance of sacrifice. Now, we hear it through prayer.
Last week I talked about the differences between the Shabbat concept of "rest," and the idiomatic meaning of "rest."
Sacrifice deserves a similar treatment. The sacrifice that we offer today of prayer is not a sacrifice as we mean in the colloquial sense. Typically, a sacrifice is something that you are willing to let go of, or give up. But prayer is an addition that we make to and for ourselves. Full prayer requires a full presence, of being able to say I am here - Hineni, so that each of us can l'hakriv, draw closer.
If we continue to study Torah, if we continue to pray and sing, perhaps we too will hear God call out to us. And our prayer will bring us closer to ourselves and to our God.
These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)
Shabbat is extremely important to the Jewish people. One of the founders of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha'am, is often quoted as saying: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
We know that Shabbat is important; the 4th commandment is entirely devoted to its observance. We also know that it is a day of rest; there can be no work on Shabbat. But this requires a bit of semantic unpacking, as our colloquial definition of "work" and "rest" do not necessarily translate exactly to the underpinnings of Shabbat.
In this section of portions in the Torah, God commands the building of the tabernacle. It turns out that there are 39 actions that God instructs. The Israelites paint, sculpt. They light fires, they hammer and nail ... If we made a spreadsheet consisting of each instruction to the Israelites, we would see 39 verbs repeated over and over. Taken together, these 39 actions are exactly what is considered avodah - work.
This explains why you can walk 5 miles in the hot sun to synagogue on Shabbat, but you can't drive, because driving is akin to "lighting a fire." Similarly, one can't watch TV, but you can read a book. I'll put it this way: On Shabbat, Jewish law prohibits us from performing the exact 39 actions that were done when constructing the tabernacle and the mishkan.
Somewhat ironically, it actually takes quite a lot of work to celebrate Shabbat. It isn't a day of laziness. It is meant to be a day of intention and of serious engagement and learning. It is also meant to be different than the other days of the week. During the week, we build. On Shabbat, we reflect and consider. During the rest of the week, we petition God for those things lacking in our lives. On Shabbat, we only show gratitude and joy.
Why do we celebrate Shabbat?
One answer comes easily. We rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. After God's 'work-week' of the 6 days of creation, God stopped creating in order to reflect upon creation. Shabbat becomes an example of imitateo dei - the imitation of God. This point is emphasized again when the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy ... For in six days God made the heaven and earth...
But as you may know, the 10 commandments are repeated again in the book of Deuteronomy. But here, the reason for our Shabbat does not have anything to do with creation: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
For this one holiday, Shabbat, the Torah gives us two very important reasons for its observance.
We celebrate Shabbat because of our connection to God. Because we are created in the image of God, we are meant to emulate God's holiness: God creates ... we create. God is holy ... we are holy. God rests on the seventh day ... we rest on the seventh day.
But we also celebrate Shabbat because of history. The commandment in Deuteronomy teaches us that Shabbat connects us to events in our past. Shabbat helps to reconnect us with God, but also with each other, as we remember the miracles that God has performed for our ancestors, in our history ... and in our own lives.
We keep Shabbat so that we can rest and have a day that's different than the other days of the week. But we also keep Shabbat so that we stay connected to our tradition, our God and ourselves.
Jews like to touch things.
When we parade the Torah around the congregation in the hakafah, we place our prayerbook onto the Torah cover and then kiss it. Some of us will tap a finger onto a mezuzah before entering a Jewish home. Upon visiting the holy site of the Western Wall, we write down prayers and insert them compactly into the crevices scattered along the surface.
Our God can't be seen, touched, smelled or heard ... at least not in ways that we normally see, touch, smell and hear things. One of our 10 commandments even bars us from creating images of God. Theological encounter is intellectual, not sensual.
And yet, perhaps even to make up for this, Judaism has its share of sensory triggers. Even looking around our sanctuary, we notice the eternal light, the ark, the Torah ... These things are not just sanctuary-dressing. They are not only for decoration. They matter.
In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tissah, God continues to instruct Moses about the details of the holy tabernacle; the Mishkan.
God talks about the tells Moses about the "biggies" - the ark and the Torah and the Ten of Meeting. But God also gives very specific instructions about certain fragrances - stacte and onycha and galbanum. This portion can seem more like architectural blueprints than theological insights.
Toward the middle of the passage, God says:
You shall anoint the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Testimony with oil and the table and all its equipment and the menorah and its equipment and the incense altar and the altar of burnt offering and all its equipment and the basin and the its stand. And you shall make them holy. Anyone who touches them will be holy.
Anyone who touches them will be holy.
When first thinking about this verse, I thought it perplexing. Think about the Golden Calf for a moment. The Israelites performed one of the most egregious communal sins exactly because of their desire to touch God, to see God, to know God through something tangible - something they could touch.
But in this portion, God tells Moses that we should place a high value on touching various religious items. It seems difficult to blame the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf when God explicitly talks about the holiness that is conferred by touching religious objects.
Judaism is quite clear that physical objects do not hold some sort of mystical, magical power. You don't get some sort of divine reward for kissing the Torah, or for placing your hands on the Western Wall. But then, why does our Torah spend a few portions talking about entirely about physical objects and their importance?
I think that it goes back to the line God uttered a in T'rumah: Make me a sanctuary that I might dwell inside. But this is the important piece; God does not require a special tabernacle in order to dwell amongst us. WE do. When we construct a building that takes effort, sacrifice, passion, spirit and talent, we find more value in that place.
Similarly, I think that God instructs us to build the tabernacle with such precise specifications and ornamentations so that when we are present, we feel a stronger sense of community, of spirituality, and of holiness.
It's not the act of touching objects that makes us holy. But it is partially the objects that bring us together to pray, to sing, to celebrate, to mourn, to perform mitzvot, and to become the best parts of ourselves. And that is holy.
Why do we need this sanctuary? This room, with its Torahs and arks, the pews and prayerbooks, the ark and the Torah. Don't get me wrong, I love when we gather in here, especially when the heat is working ... There's a sense of community, friendship, meaning, power, spirituality -- all the reasons we want to worship in the first place. But why do we have to do it in this specific place?
In our torah portion, T'rumah, God instructs the building of the first sanctuary, the mishkan. God says:
Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering.
The Israelites bring all sorts of materials together so that they can construct the tabernacle. They bring oils, rams' skins dyed red, onyx stones, gold, silver, linen ... oh, and don't forget the goat's hair!
The Israelites bring t'rumah - gifts. They contribute to the building of their future home.
And this room is our home. This sanctuary is a gateway to our temple.
You and the other members of our synagogue sitting here tonight do not just belong to Congregation Children of Israel; you help to continually create and strengthen Congregation Children of Israel.
I think this is why God instructs the Israelites to each contribute to the mishkan. In order for God to truly dwell amongst the community, it's important that everyone in the community contributes t'rumah.
The mishkan is not a start-up company. God did not look for a small number venture capitalists to insure the building of the structure. God looked to everyone in the community.
And so, I ask each of us what our contribution is, our t'rumah. Each of us has talents, abilities and knowledge to contribute to the community. What are your gifts that you bring to us? It is these gifts that make our congregation.
After the Israelites bring a surplus of materials, God then says:
Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
I don't think God is so vain that God requires us to build a specific room where we can pray and come together. But we need a regular meeting place. The sanctuary is for us.
But it's only after we bring our gifts, our contributions, our t'rumah that God dwells amongst us. It's not that God needs us to bring physical materials of wealth and substance. God does, however, ask that we bring our most precious possession - ourselves.