Friday, April 20, 2018

Family Shabbat: Parashat Tazria-Metzora

Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.
Hayom echad v’esrim shehem sh’losha shavuot la’omer.
Today is the 21st day, that is three weeks, of the Omer. Today’s realm is Malchut She’b’Tiferet, or Majesty within Compassion. In the Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, this day is attributed to the Witch of Endor, a woman of humble livings who is cast out by society for her divination. It is this divination that also leads King Saul to her door. She summons the spirit of his old mentor, the prophet Samuel, to give him guidance one last time as Saul himself is also seeing the end of his reign and his ultimate reunion with Samuel. The Witch, despite her lowly status in society shows the greatest majesty of compassion as she comforts the sick king in his final days.

In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, we read about some terrible skin diseases and the way our ancient people interpreted them. In the second half of this double parasha, the Metzora part, the Torah explains that one of the diseases was a punishment for arrogance. In Leviticus 14:4, we are told that in order to cleanse someone afflicted with the skin disease of Metzora, the priest needed to gather ceder wood and hyssop grass. A Midrash asks, “Why these two plants? Because he has praised himself as a cedar tree... he should humble himself like a blade of grass.” The Chasidic masters add on this: “If the point is that he should show humility, why does he bring both a cedar and hyssop? But the true meaning of humility is not to be broken and bowed, but to be humble even as one stands straight and tall.” Just like the Witch of Endor, even one who is humble and humbled, can still do their job and do great things with a calm and majestic air, to carry with them the strength of the cedar and the soft flexibility of the hyssop.

This means that in school, you can be proud of the work you do, the Spelling Bees you win, the art you make that gets showcased, the role you got in the school play. But you don’t need to brag about it. And if you haven’t won a spelling bee or gotten the lead in the play yet, you can still be proud of being exactly who you are. You can carry yourself with the quiet air of self-satisfaction and just know that you are doing the best you can, and everyone around you is probably doing the best that they can too. It’s good to feel proud of yourself, and to show your friends and your family you’re happy for them when they do something to be proud of as well. And just like sometimes you might need reassurance that you’re on the right track and doing your best, you might want to reach out to a classmate you see struggling and reassure them in the same way.

And old Jewish saying goes, “A person should have two pockets in his coat. One should contain the Talmudic saying (Sanhedrin 37a), ‘A person is commanded to declare: For my sake the world was created.’ In his second pocket he should keep the verse (Genesis 18:17), ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” May we always remember that we are doing our best, and we can always strive to do better. May we always be humble yet self-assured. And most of all, may we always find majesty in our compassion.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Parashat Shemini // End of Passover // 7th day of the Omer

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach to those still observing one more day of Pesah! Before talking Torah, it is also time to count the Omer. The blessing and counting formula can be found on page 570.
ברוך אתה יי אלוקינו מלך/רוח  העולם אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציונו על ספירת העומר
Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech/ruach  ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.
Blessed are you, adonai, our God, ruler/spirit of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commanded us regarding the counting of the omer.
היום שְׁבִיעִית יום שהם שבוע אחד בעומר.
Hayom shevi’it yom, she’heim shavuah echad b’omer.
Today is 7 days, that is one week of the omer.
The mystical realm of this day of the omer, is Malchut sh’b’chesed, or majesty within love. Rabbi Jill Hammer assigns this day and this realm to the Shunamite woman of II Kings, who assists the prophet Elisha and insists she needs no reward or repayment. Still, Elisha prays to God that she be given a son as an honor due to her regal treatment of him. She does indeed bare a son, and he grows up, but one day while still young, he gets sunstroke and dies in her lap. She doesn’t ask Elisha for anything more, but merely reminds him that she had insisted she didn’t need anything. Now, she has heartbreak.
This story of a prophet is not the Haftarah for this week, but as I was reading from The Five Books of Miriam, a commentary offering imagined insight from the silent women of the Biblical stories, on the Reform Torah reading for this week, it struck a chord. For those who observe an eighth day of Passover, this Shabbat remains a holiday reading. The Torah reading comes from Deuteronomy and the Haftarah from Isaiah. For the Reform movement, we have returned to the Torah-proscribed seven days of Passover, which means the holiday concluded tonight at sundown and the Shabbat reading picks back up where we left off in the chronological Torah readings. The Parashat Shemini is broken into two halves to be read on this week and next, as is the Haftarah from II Samuel. In Parashat Shemini, two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, bring an offering of “strange fire” to the newly constructed and finally finished Mishkan. They have been given very precise directions about the sacrifices to be made at the Mishkan, and they have watched their father, the High Priest, do it just so. And yet, in their passion or their haste or whatever it is that possessed them in that moment, they chose to bring forth something that was not within the specific set of rules about the sacrifices. A fire of God bursts forth from the altar and consumes them. The Five Books of Miriam wonders how their mother, Elisheva, felt. She is rarely mentioned at all throughout the Torah, and is conspicuously absent from the scene and the ensuing scenes in which Aaron and his two remaining sons are told by Moses not to grieve publicly for Nadav and Avihu. In the modern Midrash, she wonders about Moses’s command to her husband and sons: does it apply to her? Is she allowed to mourn? She shoulders her burden with grace and all the women of her tribe sing songs of lamentation for her and with her. She does not cry out in anger against God or Moses or pray for her sons to return to her. She behaves with the same majesty as the Shunamite woman. It is notable that this is Midrash and we can never really know how Elisheva mourned. We know how the Shunamite woman handled the death of her son, yet we don’t know her name or that of the boy. The information doled out in the text is sometimes just enough to elicit further questions, interpreting, and deeper understanding. That is why we are commanded throughout the days of Passover, year after year, to retell stories we think we know, to ask more questions, to interpret, to reach new understandings.
The nameless Shunamite woman is further honored when Elisha revives her son from the dead, yet Nadav and Avihu remain dead. We can never know why they were punished so harshly, just as we can never know for certain if there were Egyptians among those who suffered the Plagues that were abolitionists. But we can ask our questions, learn more deeply, and honor our ancestors by living with the same measure of grace, majesty, and wisdom that the women of our stories often demonstrated.
As we conclude our holiday, let us always hold room in our hearts and minds for nuance, remembering that there will always be mysteries to us. We can never be all knowing but we can always know more, and in that knowledge and wisdom, we can find a wellspring of hope and support from our tradition and faith. We cannot shield ourselves from the harshness of life, even the unintentional consequences of well-meaning actions can turn our worlds around, but we have the strength and merit to push forward, as Jews have always done for millenia. May we go forth with majesty in love and kindness. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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.