Friday, March 23, 2018

Parashat Tzav

     Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav. Like much of the Book of Leviticus, this parasha describes sacrifices: the different types of offerings one might bring for different reasons, how thoroughly burnt they are to be, how the priests are to dress for different stages of the sacrifice ritual, and so on. Reading through Leviticus it can feel like there is no end to these arcane rules!

     One such rule is of an offering for thanksgiving, that is a sacrifice made to God as a show of gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed upon the person bringing the offering. There is one sort of burnt offering, also described in this parasha, that must be completely incinerated as an offering totally to God. But most of the sacrifices brought to the Mishkan, and later to the Temple, were only set to the aish tamid, the ever-burning flame, enough to cook the meat, which the priests and their families could then eat. This is especially equitable in the time of the Temple, when all the other tribes of Israel are allotted land to farm to tend and be their livelihoods, but the tribe of Levi is not allowed to own any land or farm for their own sustenance. Some of these sacrifices may be kept for a couple days, for the priests and their families alone to enjoy at their leisure until they’ve eaten it all or it’s gone bad from lack of refrigeration. However, the thanksgiving sacrifice must be eaten the same day it is offered up. Anything still left the following morning must be burnt thoroughly.

     Portuguese Rabbi Abravenel of the 15th century comments on this that it is because gratitude fills us with the urge to share with others, to pay-it-forward so to speak. So the urgency of having to eat this whole sacrifice in one evening encourages the priests and their families to invite their more distant relatives, their friends, and their neighbors to join in the feast with them, to share their joy and blessings. To some extent, this should be a natural instinct. Think of a time when you have been shown generosity or simply lucked out with something and you found yourself feeling immensely grateful with your bounty. Didn’t you feel the urge to share that with your loved ones? To say, “Wow, this is truly more than I really need right now, what an opportunity to celebrate X with my family or to be able to give a little extra to Y Tzedakkah cause this month).”

     But lest we forget, or we ignore that voice of yetzer hatov inside us, the Torah takes the precaution to command such a sharing with the rules of the thanksgiving offering. And for those of us who may lean more toward the “Let me use this as an opportunity to celebrate with my family,” and possibly forget the “Let me give a little extra to those in need” the Torah later commands us concerning our festival feasts: “You shall rejoice in your festival with your children, your employees, the strangers in your midst, the orphans and the widows.”

     As we look forward to celebrating the Passover holiday, let us prepare by inviting in those who may not have much to eat or celebrate at this time. Although our sign-up for Hava Seder, Needa Seder has passed, I’m sure if you realized tonight, perhaps during this d’var Torah, that you indeed have another seat at your seder, you could still talk to Jillian or Howard and get your name on the list. When we call out at the beginning of the Seder, “Let all who are hungry, come and eat!” and as we open the door to welcome in the Prophet Elijah, let these be more than metaphor. As Philip will tell you from our firsthand experience, opening your home to strangers can certainly make your Seders more … interesting, but for sure they will be memorable holidays you won’t ever forget, and you will have done a mitzvah, both in the colloquial sense of a good deed and in the literal sense of a commandment.
May you keep the aish tamid, the eternal flames, of gratitude ever-burning in your hearth, heart, and home, and may you share the warmth of your offerings with all those around you. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Parashat Vayikra - Family Service

     Shabbat Shalom! This week, we start a new book of the Torah: Leviticus. In Hebrew, the Book of Leviticus is called Vayikra. The first Torah portion in each new book is named after the book we are beginning to read, so this week’s Torah portion is called Parashat Vayikra, for the first few words are “Vayikra el Moshe // And God called to Moses.”

     Now that the Israelites are out of Egypt, and Moses has descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and they have all built the Mishkan, God calls to Moses a lot. God and Moses are having one-on-one check ins for pretty much the rest of the Torah, with few interludes of stories about what else is happening among the people. In Leviticus, a lot of what God needs to tell Moses about is how to properly use the Mishkan they have just finished building as a place to come close to God. In Hebrew, the word for “sacrifices” or “offerings” comes from the same root as the word “to draw near”, because back in the desert, giving sacrifices or making a physical offering to God was how people could feel close to God.

     Nowadays, we don’t have a Mishkan and we don’t give sacrifices or any kind of physical offering to God. Instead, we pray. Although we like to pray all together when we gather on Friday nights, or during Sunday School Tefillah, or on holidays, or whenever else we might find ourselves all together in this room, any of us can actually pray almost anywhere at any time.

     The Talmud, a big old book of rabbis arguing with each other, says that when the Torah uses the same phrase over and over again in this parasha to describe the different types of offerings as all being “a sweet smell”, it’s to teach us that whether a person could afford to give a whole cow as their offering, or they could only give a bird, or maybe they didn’t have any livestock to give and could only bring flour, it was the act of bringing it that makes it sweet to God. God sees that each person brought what they could, and even if it was different from what another person brought, it was just as acceptable for God.

     This is true about our prayers, too, which have completely replaced the sacrifices for the last 2000 years. Whether you know all the words to the prayers in the Siddur, or you just like to bop along to the tunes. Whether you pray silently on your own every night, or you only prayer once in a while when someone is leading you in a service, each prayer you offer is accepted by the Divine Power that hears us all. That doesn’t mean that everything you ask for in your prayers will be granted, but I believe that the Holy One listens and knows when we pray, and will shine a light on our pathways through life, a light that shines brighter if you know to look for it.

     May the offerings of your heart be sweet to the Divine Spirit, and may you feel close to each other in holiness, tonight and always. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Parashat Vayekehel

Shabbat Shalom! I mentioned the idea of teamwork and consensus last week, and again in this week’s Torah portion of Parashat Vayek’hel-Pekudei we see the importance of working as a collective in order to create a kehillah kedosha, a community in which holiness with dwell.
The Israelites are told to all bring an offering to God, toward building the Mishkan, and all who have some sort of skill to contribute, should help with the building, sewing, sculpting, and putting together of all the pieces of the Midrash. The Torah tells us everyone came, those with wise hearts, the men and the women, and they brought so much that Moses had to ask them to stop bring gifts. Bezalel and Ohaliav are singled out by name, first by God and then appointed in front of all the Israelites by Moses, to be the overseers of this project, one as the master architect and the other as the master artisan. But truly it is the people’s efforts to build up something holy out of their love for their community and for God that creates God’s home in the desert.
I think this outpouring of collective work and devotion to building their holy dwelling space is beautiful. First of all, for so much of this section of the Torah, we are told that Moses speaks only to the men or counts only the men. Here we are told that not only that men and women both come, but Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman says that when the Torah says, “They came, the men along with the women,” it means that the women were the first to flow forth with their gifts and skills and the men followed.
Meanwhile, a Midrash Rabbah teaches that “when Moses said, ‘Whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the offering for G‑d,’ and did not say it directly to the princes, they were displeased at not being asked to bring. So they thought: Let the people bring what they will, and we shall make good whatever they omit. But all Israel entered with zeal into the work of the Mishkan, and joyfully and enthusiastically brought all the donations. The princes then wished to bring their donations but could not, because Moses had already given orders: ‘Let neither man nor woman bring any more...’ The princes were distressed, and said: ‘Seeing that we were not privileged to participate in the offerings to the Mishkan, let us give towards the garments of the high priest . . .’”. That is why only after the Torah describes the throngs of people bringing their gifts and their skills to the building of the Mishkan, the Torah tells us also that the heads of all the tribes contributed precious lapis lazuli to the creation of the priest’s garments and tools to be used inside the finished Mishkan.
This has been our past, and this will be our future. There have been generations and models of leadership where one person really takes the reins. A leader who does all the work and tries to carry the burden of building a holy, loving community may be selfless, hardworking, and earnest, all good things. But they may also be tired, and missing the bigger picture. We are remembering now that it takes all of us to bring the Divine in the center of our community. It takes everyone sharing their gifts and their skills, contributing to the community, to the physical space, and to the spiritual well-being of both. Only when we work in the collective, when we have decentralized leadership, where many people may be the point person or the leader in disparate areas of creating the space and community we want, can we all move forward together, with God at our center. Together, may we create Sanctuary within and among ourselves, and together may we build this world with love.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Parashat Ki Tisa following a Megillah Reading

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach! Though tonight we are continuing the festive celebrations of the wonderful holiday of Purim, let’s not lose track of our Parashat HaShavua, which this week is Ki Tisa. In this Torah portion, the Israelites are told to each contribute a half shekel of silver into the coffers of the Sanctuary. Their teamwork and collective offerings aren’t always for the best, as this parasha also contains the famous narrative of the Golden Calf, but one thing you can say is that they at least seem to know how to work together and reach consensus as a group. They are on a path toward freedom but it is a long and scary path and in the meantime, they are often quite certain they will die in the desert. When the Israelites and the mixed multitudes come together and make decisions about what will best aid them on this path, when they all give equally toward the endeavor, they are showing up for themselves and each other. They are teaching us, their descendants, a model for collective liberation. When Esther needs to muster up the strength to use her unique position to save her people, she asks all of the Jews of Shushan, as well as all of her non-Jewish handmaids to fast with her for three days. None of the others have the power and position to take action as she can, but they can all support her, and show their solidarity with her efforts by doing as she does and sacrificing their bodily contentment for a time in order to contribute to her prayers and garnering of positive vibes. Each of us has different positions and access to privileges in life. We may find ourselves in moments of being Aaron or Moses, collecting the contributions for the greater good, or Esther, asking for help and allyship, and more often, we may find ourselves in the role of the people, just trying to get along and make our community and the world the best it can be. May we all use our positions with wisdom and compassion, and play our roles to the best of our abilities, to work for collective liberation of all people. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Purim Sameach.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Parashat Tetzaveh and Shabbat Zachor

    Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion of Parashat Tetzaveh continues with the rules of how the Israelites should construct the Mishkan. This parasha even gets into the nitty gritty of exactly how the priests should dress when serving in the Mishkan, and how those garments should be made. The parasha opens, as I read, with the instructions for the Ner Tamid.
As I was reading Rabbi Shai Held’s chapter on this parasha from his book, Heart of Torah, earlier this week, I realized something I never really had before. I had always understood the Ner Tamid to be the “eternal lamp,” like our ever-burning bulb above the bima. But it turns out, this tradition that has been passed down through generations and become such a key part to our Jewish structures throughout the world and across eras, is based on a commentary on the Book of Numbers from sometime around the 5th century. The Midrash Sifrei on Parashat Beha’alotcha suggests that “tamid,” “eternal,” means that the Western Light was to burn all the time, and from that lamp, all the other lamps in the Mishkan or the Temple were lit each night. This speculation inspired the Ner Tamid that came to be in every synagogue for the last several hundred years.
However, as Rabbi Held pointed out in his drash on Parashat Tetzaveh, the second sentence of the parasha actually says really explicitly, “Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting … to burn from evening until morning before the Lord.” I suppose I used to read that to mean that at evening and morning they would have to refill the oil to keep the lamp eternally burning, but perhaps it means exactly as it says: the Ner Tamid needed to be lit every night. That’s it’s eternal aspect, every night for every generation. But what if it only actually burned through the night? What does that come to teach us? Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, a contemporary Reform rabbi, shifts the attention from how long the lamp stays lit for, to the act of lighting it, saying, “This is a light that we are commanded to kindle before God in order to express our presence before God, our standing ready to serve as partners in the work of holiness and the work of creation.”
Whether the Ner Tamid burned eternal and from it, all the other lamps were lit nightly, or whether it also had to be lit nightly, it is the physical act of bringing light into darkness, of igniting for ourselves the presence of God in our midst. Remember that elsewhere in the Torah it describes how God led the people of Israel through the wilderness as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of flame by night. Despite the instruction to let the flames burn before the Lord, God does not need additional lights for the Divine Dwelling place on Earth. Humans need to do the lighting. Judaism is a religion of action. Our rituals are tactile. More than saying the correct prayers from the prayer book and knowing the Hebrew or using the oldest tunes, we have elements like our kippot, our tallitot, maybe even tefillin for some, our candle lighting every Shabbat and on the eve of every holiday. We are commanded in tikkun olam and constant study. It is never enough to just say words, we must act to bring God into our hearts and homes.
This Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. This is the Shabbat just before Purim, and many synagogues will read a part of Deuteronomy in addition to the Torah portion from Exodus that falls chronologically this week. Deuteronomy 27:17-19 tells us to defeat the Amalekites and to remember to blot out their names from memory. It is read on this Shabbat because it is claimed that Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. Just as we remember to blot out the names of the Amalekites, we retell the story of Haman every year, but boo and hiss and shake groggers over his name. It is not enough merely to forget about their existence. We must take actions to continuously blot out their names, as the candle that must be snuffed out. We’ll talk more about Haman and Esther and tell the whole story of the Megillah next week, but I want to mention one more thing - that Esther’s name means “I will hide” or “I will secret away,” and hers is only one of two books in the Tanakh that does not mention God.
The structure of the Mishkan and later the Temple allows for separations, which we see more of as the descriptions of its formation go on. From the Holy of Holies that no one is allowed in other than the High Priest once a year, to the Tent of Meeting that only priests are allowed to enter, to the courtyard where the people may bring their sacrifices, these separations remind us that though God is radically present, God is also mysterious and transcendent. We can approach, but we can never reach God totally. We can light the candles to shed light on some of the mysteries, but we can never see it all. This is why we must act out in our faith and perform radical acts of lovingkindness to bring about Divine miracles. Why we must find the courage of Esther, be each other’s role models and supports like Moses and Aaron. Sometimes Truth feels hidden from us, and the reality is, it is hidden from us. Even when God is radically present in a pillar of flame above the Mishkan, the Israelites still light the lamps around the the Mishkan to feel that connection to the flame, to unveil a little more of the mystery, to try to close a little more of the separation. And even when God speaks to no prophets and makes no promise to save the Jewish people of Persia, they are yet still miraculously saved. May we find God’s work in our own hands, and may we find our hands blessed to do God’s work in the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Parashat Terumah

Shabbat Shalom! A hearty yasher koach to our visiting performers tonight (that means, awesome job). As we see from their performance, literally ANY dwelling place can be a place to find God and God hears our prayers from anywhere we call out for Divine Presence.
Despite knowing that any place can be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence among us, in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, God starts telling the Israelites the very specific blueprints for how they should build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Divine dwelling place on Earth. I had a teacher once who pointed out that throughout the ancient world, other than the Israelites, most other cultures were pantheistic, they had many gods. And different locales would have different patron gods. So even if a visitor primarily served another god, and even if they were to bring their personal idols with them on their visit, they would still make an offering to the patron god of the locality they were visiting. So when the Israelites were figuring out this whole monotheistic thing, they needed a patron God that was not only at every locality, but moved about with them, someplace they could make their offerings wherever they stopped to rest, as others would have made their offerings at the local altars.
In today’s world, as we no longer make physical offerings to God, and most people around us don’t make physical offerings to the Divine power they worship either, this model isn’t necessary anymore. These blueprints were used in constructing the Mishkan and First and Second Temple, but are likely to never be used again for any practical purpose. So for me, the instruction that really lingers is one that God gives about a quarter of the way into the parasha: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”.
Now, whether that sanctuary is a movable Tabernacle, a grand and Holy Temple, a modern day synagogue or church, or the belly of a giant fish, God is asking that we make space in our lives for the Divine Presence to dwell among us. That might mean making to pray, in a house of worship or in nature, together with others or alone. That might mean building more houses of worship or planting more forests to create the physical places that we can commune with God. It could mean reaching out to each other and finding the Holiness of community and friendship. Early 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says that when two people connect to one another authentically, God is the electrical charge that surges between them. In that moment, that conversation is the Mishkan.
We can each create or even be the Divine dwelling place on Earth. All that means is to make some space for something other than ourselves. To connect with God or with other people or with nature or with some combination of the three, to appreciate this world and the abundance we have been graced with. In doing so, we create greater peace within ourselves and our communities, and enhance our care for the environment, and that peace is the Divine presence settling down among our earthly lives.
May we make ourselves a sanctuary, that we may find holiness dwelling among us. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Mishpatim, in which we receive the directive, “You shall do no harm to the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you shall not harm the widow or the orphan.” Countless times throughout Torah (well, I’m sure someone has counted them at some point, but it’s a lot and I’m not good with keeping track of numbers), God reminds us to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Sometimes it’s a reminder, as with this first occurrence, to simply not harm them. Sometimes God tells us to actively look out for them or to even love them. Sometimes the Torah reminds us to treat them equally, to have one law for all Israelites and our resident non-Jews among us. Many very smart rabbis before me have commented on this repetition to say that the Torah wouldn’t bother giving and re-giving this instruction if A) it wasn’t super important and B) if it wasn’t also a little bit hard.
If this weren’t important, God wouldn’t mention it. Or maybe it would be given once, among many other warnings about things that help give us structure to our Jewish lives and remind us to do the other more important things. Like the commandment to leave the sides of our heads or the corners of our clothing unshorn, which maybe by itself isn’t important, but it’s a ritual reminder to leave the corners of our fields unharvested so that the hungry may come and eat with dignity. Today, so many of us don’t grow payos or wear tzitzit on a regular basis, but as long we as remember to give to the hungry and honor the humanity in those less fortunate than ourselves, we are upholding the spirit of these laws. But commandment to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, is repeated so many times because it is in itself so very important to shaping our own humanity as righteous Jews as well. These categories are named specifically because of their vulnerability to exploitation. These are people who are considered outsiders to the mainstream culture, and/or who have lost their access to financial stability and their voice in the community. These are people who have lost their normal structures of support, whether familial or communal, through accident or through political strife and refugee status. In order to regain safety and health, they need a new community who will step up and help resettle them or their household affairs. They need support that is emotional, social, and physical. They need the same care that all of us need, but have fewer options from which to receive that care, and so the Torah reminds us again and again that it is incumbent on each of us to share their burdens, to build a welcoming community that has some resources to share, to look out for those who are vulnerable, to treat everyone who seeks to join our community equally, regardless of our perceived differences.
However, if this were an easy instruction to follow, we’d already be doing it, and doing it well at that. The Israelites would have been already demonstrating to God that they knew how to do it with the mixed multitudes that left Egypt for them. Neither the ancient Israelites nor we would need the constant reminders and different phrasing if God thought we could be trusted to follow the rule the first time it was given. Humans clearly have an entrenched problem with xenophobia that all communities have their own troubles overcoming, and modern Jews have serious security concerns of their own that sometimes lead to community gatekeeping. We can recognize these safety concerns and acknowledge the real roots of our fears and exclusivity, but we have to be willing to navigate them in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
Because if we do cause harm to others, especially to strangers in our communities, to widows, or to orphans God reminds us, God will hear their cries. The language in this threat is a reminder again to the reasoning: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt and you know the feelings of the oppressed.” In Parashat Shemot, it tells us that God heard the cries of the Israelites and moves to help them. So too, now, if the stranger, the widow, or orphan, cry out to God, God will move to help them as well, and the result may not be as good for those who have done the oppressing. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is quoted as saying “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” Although the Rev. Dr.’s movement was one of non-violence, some who feel they must demand their freedom with all their might have turned to violence. Imagine what a world we might live in, if they didn’t have to make those demands at all. If there was no oppression to begin with, or if those with privilege moved to cease such harm as soon as they realized they were contributing to it.
Later, in Deuteronomy, when this demand is repeating yet again, the Torah will tell us that caring for these vulnerable and exploited classes is “walking in God’s way.” The Prophet Micah tells us to act justly, love goodness, and walk with God.  May we find this path of justice, goodness, and holiness. May we act with compassion to those in need and open our doors and our arms to all who seek to be a part of our community. And May we walk with God all the days of our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.