Sukkot: The Season of Our Joy

From Friday, October 2 through Thursday, October 8 this year, corresponding to the 15th through 21st of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar, we celebrate one of my all-time favorite Jewish holidays: Sukkot. Also called “the Season of Our Joy,” “the Festival of Booths,” and “the Festival of the Ingathering,” this biblically ordained festival is one of three pilgrimage festivals observed long ago by bringing offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. Sukkot, celebrated today in homes and synagogues (and by Zoom!), also commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness accompanied by God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The seven-day festival is rich with spiritual and historical meaning and is celebrated with the most engaging, evocative rituals of any holiday in the Jewish calendar. 

The signature mitzvot (commandments) of Sukkot involve the sukkah and the “four species,” or plants. In this week’s Torah portion, we read: “You will dwell in booths (sukkot) for seven days: all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths” (Leviticus 23:42). In order to fulfill the mitzvah, one must either build one’s own sukkah or visit someone else’s. A temporary structure, a sukkah can be a variety of dimensions but must be free-standing and have at least two and a half sides and a roof made only of natural materials. The roof is typically covered with just enough tree branches to allow more shade than sun and for a person sitting in the sukkah to be able to see the stars at night. Once constructed, the booth symbolizes God’s guidance and protection throughout the desert sojourn, reminds us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors live in during those years, and resembles the kinds of structures farmers would have constructed in their fields during the harvest season.

The degree to which people actually “dwell” in the sukkah varies. Since the Hebrew word for “dwell” can be translated as “sit,” most people spend short periods of time sitting in the sukkah eating meals, socializing, reading and playing games. Some people, though, do actually live in the sukkah for the entire festival. In any case, though, we are to feel joyous in the sukkah and, therefore, should refrain from spending too much time there in unpleasant weather.

During Sukkot, one also fulfills the commandment of Leviticus 23:40 to take hold of “four species”: myrtle and willow branches, palm fronds and the fruit of “goodly trees.” This fourth item is a lemon-like citron called an etrog and is held next to the other three, which are bundled together with knotted palm fronds. With these in hand, one is to “rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.” The ritual itself entails standing in the sukkah or in the synagogue during worship and waving the lulav, the name given to the set of the four species, in the four directions of the compass, up and down. In this way, we show our gratitude to God, whose presence fills the universe.

Sukkot is not just a holiday: it’s a happening! Sukkot is a festival best celebrated with friends, family and community. I’m always amazed by how many people can actually fit into even the smallest of sukkot! What’s more, to truly fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing during Sukkot, one must utilize the whole body and all the senses. There is literally something for everyone in the celebration of Sukkot: praying, building, moving, eating, enjoying the outdoors, and on and on. What’s not to love?Sukkot is not to be missed even if only by participating in Zoom services, learning online or checking out YouTube videos. Hopefully we’ll all be able to squeeze into our sukkot next year and shake, shake, shake the lulav!

Best of Parashah Ponderings: Chukat and the Game of Life

Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

(Originally published here June 26, 2015.)

This week’s parashah reads like a board game, with the Israelites moving ahead a space, hitting misfortune, moving back several spaces, and then getting lucky and moving forward toward the finish line. The opening chapter of the parashah, rather than fitting in with the game itself, feels like the game’s complicated instructions that will only make sense once you start playing the game. Much happens to the Israelites in this parashah board game for better and for worse, and by the time it is over we’ve discovered an important lesson about dealing with life’s travails.

Let’s start with the instructions. Parashat Chukat begins with the bizarre details of the ritual of the “red heifer” (Numbers 19:1-22) through which one is spiritually cleansed after having become spiritually contaminated by coming into close contact with a corpse. Part of this ritual requires someone to burn the heifer, reducing it to ashes, and as that person executes his responsibilities, he and the presiding priest are made impure. That is, their contact with the ashes of the heifer that will cleanse another person will, in the end, defile them and require them to wash their clothes and bathe their bodies in order to become clean once again.

It’s hard to make sense of this ritual. Why does it unfold the way it does? Why do the ashes purify one person and contaminate another? What did the heifer look like in actuality, and where did it come from? We cannot know the whys and wherefores of the red heifer ritual for sure because it could only be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests, and, of course, neither the Temple nor the priests themselves longer exist. It’s all a mystery beyond our comprehension, which, the rabbis teach, is exactly the point: sometimes God commands us to do things we do not understand, but the idea is to do them out of faith without questioning. Similarly, I’ve read and heard the instructions to complex board games that I simply could not understand, but I had faith that somehow by following the instructions the game would proceed as it was supposed to and things would begin to make sense. The only problem with the Red Heifer game, though, is that it’s a “game” that can’t be played anymore! How frustrating!

So, with the instructions/prelude behind us, we see that the Israelites move one step forward to Kadesh in the “wilderness of Zin” (Num. 20:1). Just as they are settling in, however, Miriam, the prophetess and Moses’ sister, dies. Then, things really spiral out of control: the Israelites find themselves without water (20:2); Moses strikes a rock twice to produce water, despite God’s explicit instruction to simply “order the rock to yield its water” (20:6-11); Moses and Aaron get the news from God that neither of them will get to cross into the Promised Land (20:12-12); the king of Edom refuses to give the Israelites passage through his territory and turns them away. In the span of just 21 verses, Israel hits upon hard times and their forward movement is halted. Unfortunately, their next advance from Kadesh to Mount Hor (20:22) is followed by a string of more setbacks: Aaron dies (20:28); Israel is attacked by the king of Arad (21:1); serpents attack the people, killing many of them (21:6). By this point, it looks like the Israelites are on a losing path.

Just then, a miracle occurs and the forward momentum kicks in once again: Israel comes upon a well at Beer and breaks out in song (21:16-20). Refreshed, Israel defeats in succession the Amorites (21:21-32) and King Og of Bashan (21:33-35), neither of whom granted Israel the right to pass through their territory in peace. Finally, the game ends with Israel making it as far as “the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho” (22:1). Victory! (Well, almost. We’ll have to wait until the Book of Joshua for the next installment of the game.)

What are we to learn from Israel’s experience in this “game”? There are two lessons. First, life can be messy, complicated and hard to understand from time to time, but we must strive to accept our reality and keep our sights set on what we deem truly important. In the case of the Red Heifer, biblical Israel enacted this ritual with all its mystery and believed that being do so they could deal with death effectively. They neither refused to follow God’s strange commandment nor stopped caring for their dead. They accepted the ritual of the Red Heifer at face value, and this allowed them to carry on. We, too, don’t need to understand our reality all the time, but we do need to work with what we’ve been given in order to move forward.

The second lesson is simply that, while life is full of setbacks, the setbacks should neither define us nor deter us from striving for success. In Chukat, lots of bad stuff happens to the Israelites. They grumble and say they wish to be back in Egypt. However, they eventually find their stride, gain confidence, and enjoy a series of major successes. The Israelites do not give up on God, and God does not give up on them.

Had we chosen to read the parashah only through the death of Aaron, we never would have come to the well at Beer. We certainly wouldn’t have seen Moses and the Israelites camping in the steppes of Moab. Were we to give up on life with every defeat — floods, acts of hatred, the death of loved ones — we would never be able to experience the great blessings God has in store for us.

As we play the game of life, it behooves us to assess our circumstances realistically, come to peace with where we’re at and keep on playing. Though we may suffer setbacks from time to time, let us recover quickly and prepare ourselves to keep progressing toward the winner’s circle, which is where, after all, we belong.

Partings Then and Now

Parashat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך

Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Thus far in the Book of Numbers, Israel has remained stationed at the base of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has taken a number of censuses: the men of fighting age; those from the tribe of Levi who will serve in the Tabernacle; and the firstborn of all Israelites, who are to be redeemed from a life of service to God. In addition, God has ordained where each of the tribes is to be situated in the camp in relation to the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle has been dedicated for use, and the Israelite’s prepare to begin their march from Mt. Sinai to the Holy Land. It is in this latter moment that we find one of the Torah’s most poignant, yet enigmatic, moments.

Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.”

“I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”

He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the LORD grants us.”

They marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:29-33)

Just before God gives Israel the signal to begin their march, Moses invites his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, here named “Hobab”, to join the Israelites as they set out for the Land of Israel. Jethro’s response is to say that he plans to go back to his native land. At that, Moses implores Jethro to come with them and to serve as their guide. Moses even promises Jethro that he will share in the bounty that God had promised for Israel.

But then… nothing. And then the sound of hundreds of thousands of Israelites moving forth. We’re left with a cliffhanger. Did Jethro go home or join the Israelites? We can’t know the answer to this with any certainty.

One midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 81:1) suggests that, at least, Jethro’s sons entered the Land. Once in the land, Israel apportioned the “choicest land of Jericho” to sons of Jethro as a holding until the tribe of Benjamin later inhabited that parcel of land following the construction of the First Temple. Perhaps Jethro was with his sons as they journeyed with the Israelites toward the land. It is also possible that his sons remained with Moses as he returned home.

What is clear from this midrash, however, is that Jethro was far from forgotten. Jethro is remembered as the father of a group of righteous gentiles who aided Israel in conquering and settling the Holy Land. Perhaps, he was also instrumental in guiding Israel safely through the perils of the wilderness. Regardless, the Israelites owed Jethro and his kin a debt of gratitude.

Whether Jethro remained with Israel in the desert or returned home is less important than the fact that Israel carried with them a memory of Jethro. The Torah recounts Jethro’s sage advice to Moses to set up a system of courts to handle all the cases that Israel would eventually bring to the Moses. The Torah recounts how Moses valued Jethro’s knowledge of the wilderness and his ability to guide Israel. And then the rabbis tell us that even in the Land of Israel, the descendants of Jethro held a privileged place. Jethro may have been gone, but he was not forgotten.

This Shabbat is my last as the visiting rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, OR. Over the past three years, this community has become like family to me in many respects. During my monthly visits from Houston, congregants have graciously hosted me in their homes for the weekend. In times of need, such as following the floods in Houston on Memorial Day in 2015, my TBS family supported my family and me morally and financially. These are people I can count on. That’s what family is all about.

In many ways, I see myself as the Jethro of TBS. I’ve been among the community these three years, but not wholly of the community. Time, distance and my family’s circumstances have dictated that we not move on with TBS into the next phase of the community’s life. Despite these realities, TBS and I have fully embraced each other just as Israel and Jethro had embraced each other.

As I now return to Houston, and TBS marches forward, I will cherish the memories of my time here and remember all that this community has done for me and all they have accomplished. I pray, too, that my memory will endure with TBS long after I have departed. If I’m lucky, I’ll be accorded even a fraction of the lasting affection that our tradition still extends to Jethro.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Reflections on Orlando

In recent days Jews worldwide celebrated the holy day of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, by reading the Book of Ruth. In the story of Ruth, we discover in the relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, the transformational power of love and faith. Rather than desert Naomi at Naomi’s time of despair, Ruth proclaims, “Wherever you go, I will go. Where you settle, I will settle. Your people will be my people. Your God, my God.” Ultimately, we learn that love and faith are the essential ingredients for making the world whole.

It is through this lens that we might view the tragedy in Orlando that happened this weekend. The gunman possessed neither love nor anything the civilized world would recognize as faith. Our response, therefore, must be nothing less than an outpouring of those two essential ingredients: love and faith. As we extend condolences to the victim’s of terror in Orlando and their families, let us redouble our efforts to bring all peoples together in the pursuit of justice, peace, and loving kindness. When anyone suffers in our world, after all, we all suffer.

At the risk of infuriating many good people who are responsible gun owners, it must also be said that its not just the dead and their families who are victims of gun violence. We are all victims in a sense: victims of those who legally or illicitly peddle in weapons of mass destruction in our cities, civilians who covet their right to own assault weapons, and lawmakers who refuse to pass reasonable legislation to restrict ownership of the most lethal weapons to the military and law enforcement communities.

That mass shootings account for less than half of 1 percent of the 6,025 people shot to death in the United States thus far in 2016 alone, according to, is no excuse to accept the status quo. 212 deaths and another 558 injuries, after all, are not insignificant numbers. Even if the numbers were half that, every life matters and deserves to be protected, including the lives of the other 10 people injured in two more mass shootings, one in Brooklyn, one in Fresno, that happened the day after the Orlando massacre.

As flags across America fly at half staff this week, let us resolve to open our hearts to all humanity, to embrace the universal Truth of goodness and brotherhood, to say lovingly and in full voice,  “Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God. Until death do us part.”

And let us pray that our nation will one day muster the courage to address effectively all aspects of gun violence, not the least of which is the availability of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Get Over Yourself! Be Holy.

Kedoshim / קדשים
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

“Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18)

This week’s parashah opens with “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What follows is essentially a handbook on how to be holy. In fact, this parashah, which contains 51 mitzvot (commandments) by a traditional counting, enumerates some of the most important mitzvot in the entire Torah. It is clear that the way become holy is by following as many of the mitzvot as possible. By doing so, we are more likely to become the most ethical, loving people we can be and also distinguish ourselves from a society whose values and norms are sometimes questionable, sometimes antithetical to the whole idea of holiness.

At the core of what it means to be holy is the teaching “love your fellow as yourself.” Hillel, paraphrasing this verse as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” says to an eager student for conversion to Judaism: “This is the entire Torah. All else is commentary!” Rabbi Akiva, a sage who lived from about 40 to 137 CE, considers loving your fellow as yourself a central principle of all of Torah. The verdict is in: loving our fellows as ourselves is key to our mission of becoming a holy people.

Exactly what the verse “love your neighbor as yourself” means, however, is open for interpretation. One interpretation comes from Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides or Ramban. This great thinker, who lived from 1195 CE to about 1270 CE and lived in Spain and Israel, offers this commentary:

One’s love for others should be equivalent to one’s love for oneself. For sometimes a person might love another in some respects but not all, treating him well (for example) with regard to money matters but not to intellectual ones. If he loved him completely, he would want him to have wealth and property, honor, knowledge and wisdom — but it is human nature that he will always want more of them for himself. The text commands that one should not nurture these petty jealousies, but love one’s fellow with the same unlimited love that one has for oneself.

Nahmanides points to the love of Jonathan, who loved David “as himself” (I Samuel 20:17). Jonathan was the son of Saul, the first king of Israel. Though Jonathan would have been the logical successor to Saul, Jonathan knew that the throne would pass to David. Rather than sabotage David’s ascent to the kingship and grab it for himself, Jonathan “eliminated all jealousy from his heart” and supported David. In other words, Jonathan’s desire for David to become king was as strong as his own desire to become king. Thus, for Nahmanides, at least, Jonathan’s love for David exemplifies the Torah’s ideal.

Among the many ways we could understand “loving our fellows,” Nahmanide’s prescription is certainly among the most difficult to achieve. It’s much easier to treat someone nicely or to not steal from them than it is to extend to them the same heartfelt wishes that you harbor for yourself without falling down the black hole of jealousy. Everyday we interact with people who have things that we wish we had: money, a nice home, a loving family, a high i.q., a winning personality, and on and on. Sometimes they lack what we are fortunate to possess. In any case, how often do we find ourselves saying to ourselves, “I wish I had that more than him or her!” or the opposite “Thank God, I don’t have that.”? The problem is that viewing through the filter of self-interest or judgment is an obstacle to the kind of love that Nahmanides is talking about.

Imagine if we suspended judgment and envy in all our relationships. Not only would we extend to others the kindness we associate with “love,” but we would also work with those against whom we harbor ill feelings to achieve outcomes that allow for the other to feel truly fulfilled. In this scenario, the other would do the same for us. This kind of love may exist in the world, but only in scattered and remote locations. True altruism rarely makes the evening news, but what a world it would be if altruism did trump self-interest in international affairs, business, and personal relationships!

Nahmanides lays down the gauntlet, challenging us to put our egos aside and offer the fullness of our beings to our family, friends and strangers in our midst. In other word, we need to get over ourselves. If we can meet this challenge, we will know what it means to love and we will be on our way to becoming holy.


© Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2014

A Seder Meal Worth the Wait

I recently gave a Powerpoint presentation on “Passover’s Magic Number: 4” in which I shared the following cartoon (


Anyone who has ever attended a Passover seder can relate to this humor. We’ve all sat through seders that seemed to go on and on even as our stomachs grumbled and we wondered when the matzah ball soup would finally be served.

As funny as this cartoon is, it hints at a serious lesson: whatever is worthwhile in life is worth waiting for. This is certainly true when it comes to freedom. In fact, this teaching about delayed gratification is deeply embedded in the story of our liberation from Egypt. The Torah’s account of the Exodus reminds us how long we were in slavery, how the night the Angel of Death passed over Egypt was a night of vigil, and how the ongoing celebration of Passover would be delayed by forty years. During the seder, too, we taste salt water, bland greens, bitter herbs, charoset (a sweet fruit and nut mixture), and of course, matzah. We wait a long time before the prepared meal, often a masterpiece that has taken days to prepare, makes its way to our tables. It is a meal worth waiting for, and wait we do. So it goes for freedom: nothing is sweeter than freedom and, boy, is it worth waiting for!

The Torah reading for the first day of Passover, when it falls on Shabbat as it does this year, comes from Exodus 21, verses 21 through 51. It is there that we read (verses 40-41): “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt.” Four hundred thirty years before the Exodus, our ancestors made their way to Egypt in search of relief from famine. There they found a government and a society that welcomed them. There they prospered. But only for a while.

Most of our sojourn in Egypt was marked by oppression and misery beginning with a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” It is legitimate to ask why we suffered for hundreds of years. I will not touch that question here. Suffice it to say, it was our reality and there wasn’t much we could do about it. We had to wait for hundreds of years before God would charge Moses with the task of confronting Pharaoh and that God would ultimately kill the first born of Egypt before Pharaoh would “let our people go.” It would have been better had we not suffered at all, but in the end our freedom was worth waiting for. This despite occasional protests from the masses that it would have been better to die as slaves in Egypt than to withstand the hardships that increased once Moses stood up to Pharaoh and that would continue through the 40 year trek through the wilderness. By the time we made it to the Land of Israel, the Israelites understood how precious their freedom was and how it was worth the wait.

Immediately following the recounting of the length of time we were in Egypt, the Torah tells us (verse 42) “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.” On the eve of our liberation, we did not simply pack our bags and leave. Our hasty departure followed a night in which our people at the pesach offering while the screams of the terrified Egyptians arose all around them. That night, a night of vigil, must have felt like an eternity. Because their liberation was delayed ever so slightly, the first taste of freedom was ever so sweeter.

What often gets lost in the telling of the Exodus is what the Torah tells us in verse 25: “And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.” When would that be? Forty years later! After the first Passover, the next one didn’t happen for another forty years. Perhaps this is because in verses 43 through 49 we learn that males could partake of the pascal offering only after they had been circumcised upon entering the Holy Land.

Or maybe the 40-year gap between the first and second Passovers existed to remind us how some things are worth waiting for. In this case, what was worth waiting for was taking possession of the land that God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Settling the land was the final act of their liberation. Imagine the feeling of stepping into the Land of Israel that first time! No one would have argued that they should return to Egypt, such was the thrill of witnessing this chapter in their people’s history.

No wonder the very first ritual our ancestors performed in Israel was the same one they had performed on the eve of the exodus. The Passover sacrifice bookended the experience of our liberation. This time, like the first time, was well worth the wait. As we sit down for our seders with family and friends in a free and open America and then delay taking our first bite of matzah, but even more so as we delay partaking of our sumptuous seder meals, let us remember all that has come before us and how special this moment is.

Let us drink four times to freedom. It was well worth the wait!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Dan

Redeeming Metzora from Gossip and Malicious Speech

Parashat Metzora / פרשת מצרע
Torah Portion: Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

One of the most fascinating sections of the Torah is found in this week’s Torah reading, Metzora, which in most years is read together with last week’s reading, Tazria. (This being a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, however, they are read separately.) In Tazria-Metzora, the Torah devotes two whole chapters of Leviticus, 13 and 14, to a discussion of an affliction called tzaraat. Tzaraat manifests differently whether it is suffered by a person, living in the walls of a home, or growing in woven cloth or skin. In all cases, the afflicted is considered tamei, loosely defined as “spiritually unclean,” and in need of purification. If the affliction does not go away, a person is isolated from the community indefinitely, and affected homes and cloth are destroyed. If the priest determines an afflicted person to be healed, on the other hand, the priest oversees two complicated rituals eight days apart to make the afflicted tahor, “spiritually clean,” and able to enter the precinct of the Tabernacle once again.

What is tzaraat? In a person, tzaraat resembles a skin disease, wrongly termed “leprosy” in most translations, the symptoms of which include “a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red” beneath the surface of the skin (Lev. 13:19). In a home or in cloth or skin, it appears as an “eruptive affection” or “plague” resembling greenish or reddish streaks. In short, tzaraat is some kind of skin disease or scary mold.

Interestingly, the Torah offers neither a cause nor an explicit cure for the affliction. Thus, rabbis and scholars from the Temple period in the late centuries of the first millennium BCE until our own day, have offered their own explanations for the outbreak of tzaraat. Most have determined that gossip and malicious speech, lashon hara in Hebrew, is the cause, basing their analysis on verses from the parasha as well as a certain folk etymology of metzora (“motzi ra” means “evil comes out” of one’s mouth). They also generalize from God’s punishment of Miriam with tzaraat following her mean-spirited speech about Moses (Numbers 12) to say that all cases of tzaraat are brought on by God as a punishment for lashon hara.

I have often taken Tazria-Metzora as an opportunity to teach on the folly of lashon hara because I believe it is vitally important to address this most prevalent of practices, which undermines the health of families, friendships and communal life. Notwithstanding my homiletic use of Tazria-Metzora in this way, I actually find it highly problematic to suggest that someone who suffers a disease does so as a result of his or her misdeeds, whatever they might be. I’m not even convinced that our biblical ancestors held that theology, though in the absence of a more sophisticated understanding of disease, they might have.

Rather than focus on the cause of tzaraat, I am drawn to the purification ritual that we find in chapter 14:

This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.

When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over flowing water (my translation). He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days (Lev. 14:2-8, translation from Jewish Publication Society).

Biblical commentators often link this ritual to the malady of lashon hara. They explain that the birds, through their chirping and chattering, symbolize the tendency to let our speech get out of control. The cedar represents the haughtiness that leads us to engage in gossip and malicious speech, with the low-growing hyssop and the crimson thread or die (or more accurately, the worm that produces the thread or die) representing being brought low as a result of our actions. While these are creative interpretations of the items used in the purification ritual, they feed into the insidious tendency to place blame for suffering on those who suffer.

I want to offer an alternative way of looking at the ritual involving birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson as a ritual of blessing and renewal following the period of affliction. One of the birds is slaughtered for its blood. Blood is the source of life. Spilling the blood dramatizes the death-like experience of one who is cut off from his/her family, friends and community. Without human connection, life is dull, at best, unbearably miserable, at worst. The one who has recovered from tzaraat has known that death-like experience. As the blood of the bird washes away in the stream of water, the death-like experience is washed away, made something of the past.

Meanwhile, the other bird is set free. The metzora, too, is set free: set free from disease, from isolation, from the prohibition from offering sacrifices to God. The healed sufferer has new wings with which to soar through life. At the same time, the live bird is marked by the blood of the one that was slaughtered. The person who suffered as the metzora may put the suffering behind him/her, but the reality is that the person, just as the bird, is somehow changed by the experience of suffering. The suffering and the isolation are now part of his/her life story, a chapter to be integrated into a larger narrative. How the person who suffered does the work of meaning-making is now up to him/her.

The cedar tree appears in Psalms and in our liturgy as a symbol of uprightness and righteousness. The righteous shall flourish like the palm (tree), shall thrive (grow tall) like a cedar in Lebanon (Psalm 92:13). The one who has suffered is and always has been among the righteous. Though brought low like hyssop physically, spiritually and psychologically, the metzora, now healed and soon to be reunited with society, regains his/her stature as a “cedar” in his/her own esteem. Those who love him/her will surely notice his/her presence, as they would a tall cedar, when he/she returns home.

Finally, we are left with the mystery of life itself. How is it that the dried body of a tiny worm give us such a magnificent dye as this crimson? From something so inconsequential comes something so beautiful. (In Christianity, this worm is a metaphor for Jesus.) This is the same crimson that would become part of the fabric of the Tabernacle itself! Perhaps the crimson is meant to have us savor life itself, cause us to marvel over the human body and its ability to overcome disease.

Together, the birds, cedar, hyssop, and crimson serve to bless the metzora with a life free from suffering, a life of righteousness. They welcome the healed back to the world with all its beauty and mystery. The water, sprayed from the cedar and hyssop upon the metzora seven times, wakes the metzora to a world of wholeness and possibility. With this ritual, there is no stigma, no presumption of wrongdoing, only blessing.

Though our studies of Tazria-Metzora will surely always remind us to guard our tongues, there is much more to discover in these odd, perhaps disturbing, readings. Our biblical ancestors were eager to pronounce the metzora “clean,” not necessarily from sin but from a kind of suffering that could only be overcome in isolation. With this ritual, our ancestors celebrated life, bestowed blessing, and welcoming back one of their own. May this be a model for us as we greet anew those in our midst who have suffered disease or estrangement and are now ready to join their voices to the chorus of life once again.


Those Sneaky Pigs

Parashat Shmini / פרשת שמיני

Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Toward the end of parashat Shemini, we read about which animals are considered kosher, i.e. permissible to be eaten when properly slaughtered: “These are the animals that can be eaten from amongst all of the animals of the land. All those that have split-hooves and chew their cud . . . [11:2-3]” Thus: cows, goats, sheep — all kosher; pigs and camels — not kosher.

While the Torah’s use of split-hooves and cud-chewing to differentiate prohibited animals from permissible animals provides an easy-to-follow guide for those new to the kosher scene, the reason for choosing split-hooves and cud-chewing as the determinative criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal is all but clear. Unfortunately, neither the rabbinic sages of the Talmud nor the great biblical commentators of the middle ages bring much light to this issue. While Maimonides posits health as a rationale for the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) over all, a rationale that has been roundly rejected over the centuries, he doesn’t ever venture a guess as to why God deems those animals with split hooves and who chew their cud as more clean than those who have just one or neither of these traits.

It is easy to say, “because God says so” to all those rules and regulations in the Torah that are beyond our comprehension, the rule about hooves and cud being one of them. I don’t entirely reject that notion. Sometimes doing something because “that’s what Jews do,” even when we don’t know why, has its own value: it can instill self-discipline and mindfulness and theoretically unite the Jewish people through uniformity of practice. Even so, I for one would like a “real” reason for this dictate.

While there might not be a practical reason for defining a kosher animal as one whose hooves are cloven and who chews its cud, there is an ethical rationale: to teach us about the importance of integrity. To this end, the pig is a case-in-point. The rabbis write: “When the pig pauses from his gluttony and lies down to rest he stretches out his foot to show his cloven hoof, and pretends that he belongs to the clean kind of animals” (Genesis Rabba 65). The pig wants us to think he’s kosher by showing us his cloven hoof. In reality, though, he fails the second test of a kosher animal: pigs don’t chew their cud. By presenting himself as a kosher animal, the pig stands out as the consummate hypocrite.

Another lesson about integrity comes from a midrash in the Talmud about why the Holy Ark was gilded with gold inside and out: “Raba said: Any scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar… woe unto the enemies of the scholars, who occupy themselves with the Torah, but have no fear of heaven!” (Yoma 72b). Clearly, the rabbis place a premium on having one’s outer being reflect one’s inner being. They consider it deplorable to present oneself as righteous and erudite while engaging in activities that debase one’s fellow human beings.

The list of people in public life who defy the rabbis’ standard of integrity is all too lengthy. Too many people in whom we place our trust show themselves to be “pigs,” appearing pure and holy but, in truth, seeking their own gratification and power. Perhaps we even know some people like this in our own lives. Perhaps, too, we find ourselves lapsing into hypocrisy and self-interest from time to time. Let’s face it: when it comes to maintaining our integrity, we can all use a reminder from time to time.

Let the Torah’s criteria for what constitutes a kosher animal be our criteria for what constitutes a “kosher” person, i.e. that our inner lives be in concert with our outer lives. This lesson alone is sufficient rationale, in my opinion, for requiring kosher animals to have split hooves on the outside and to chew their cud on the inside.



Serving the Divine with Ear, Thumb and Big Toe

Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

This week we read of the inauguration of the office of the High Priest with the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Interestingly, the word for “ordination” of rabbis that we use today is “smicha,” a term we find in our current parashah that refers to laying hands onto a sacrifice so as to transfer one’s spiritual impurities from one’s self to the animal being sacrificed. For example, we find in Leviticus chapter 8, verse 22, that Moses brought forth “the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head…”

Of course, when a rabbi is ordained today, there are no sacrifices involved. A person of authority may or may not lay hands on the head of the soon-to-be ordained rabbi, but there are no sacrifices. Rather, there are words spoken that charge the rabbi to go out among the people of Israel to teach and inspire.

The ordination of the priests and the ordination of rabbis are similar, though, in one respect: the authority who ordains them charges them to bring their whole selves to the tasks before them. To be a teacher and spiritual leader of the Jewish people requires a commitment of heart and mind, hands and feet. One’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s way of going about the world are to be directed toward the Divine.

We see this commitment symbolized in the ordination of Aaron and his sons just after the “ram of ordination” is slaughtered: “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right food” (Lev. 8:23). This ritual is then replicated for Aaron’s sons.

According to Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam, the son of the great commentator and philosopher Moses Maimonides, this ritual teaches the Kohanim, the priests, a lesson:

The blood upon the ear symbolizes that the Kohanim should always listen to and obey God’s commands. The hand is the organ that grasps things and that is active; so the blood upon the thumb symbolizes that the Kohanim should actively carry out His (sic.) will. And the foot is the organ of movement; so the blood on the big toe symbolizes that the Kohanim should always move with alacrity to serve God. (Art Scroll Stone Edition Humash on Lev. 8:34)

We are free to interpret the symbolism of the ear, thumb and big toe differently from Avraham ben Rambam, but the gist is the same: to be a priest requires whole-bodied commitment. The commitment is no different for those who would serve the Jewish people as rabbis today.

Serving the Divine with one’s whole mind and body is not something that we expect only of Kohanim and rabbis, though. This is an expectation of each and every Jew. Exodus 19:6, God directs Israel through Moses to be to God a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” While the actual priests may have been responsible for overseeing the ritual aspects of communal life, their responsibility to serve God is shared equally with the people they serve. In other words, we are all priests in a way.

The prophet Isaiah has this in mind when he asks in Isaiah 58: “Is this the fast I desire?” He goes on to make the point that God is not satisfied if everyday people go through the rituals of religious life while at the same time living in a way that demeans their fellow human beings and ignores the plight of those in need. To truly serve God entails serving all of humanity and, I would add, caring for all the natural world.

If we are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” each of us must imagine that our ears, thumbs and big toes are dedicated for sacred purposes. With our ears, we must listen for God’s “voice” in those around us, recognizing that sometimes this takes patience and discernment. With our thumbs, we must go do that which makes our world a better place for all God’s creatures. With our big toes, we are to “walk” in ways that just and righteous, modeling for the world menschlikeit (human decency) and a devotion to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Along with Aaron and his sons and those today who have devoted their professional lives to sacred service, may each of us see ourselves as ordained to serve the Holy One with our ears, thumbs and big toes.

Shabbat: Time to Curb Your Enthusiasm

Vayakhel / ויקהל
Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

This week in the Torah, the Israelites finally get around to building the Tabernacle. In Vayakhel, Moses gathers (in Hebrew vaykhel) the community and let’s the people know what has to be done. As soon as he is done speaking, the people get to work and start bringing their terumah, freewill donations of materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. By the end of the parashah, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Pact, and all the other furniture and vessels to be used by the priests are in place.

How Moses begins instructing the people is noteworthy:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35, 1-2).

Before Moses begins talking about the labor involved in building the Tabernacle, he lets the workers know that a day of rest lies ahead. Why wouldn’t Moses have given the instructions first and saved the promise of a day of rest for the end? After all, God had done just that when he revealed the instructions for the Tabernacle to Moses: God revealed the instructions and only afterward reminded Moses about the commandment to observe Shabbat.

The medieval commentators on the bible are bothered by this question as well. The preeminent commentator Rashi (1040-1105) answers the question by observing that Moses first gave the commandment about Shabbat so that the people would know that the building of the Tabernacle did not trump the Sabbath.  Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) later adds that God “has already forbidden them in the covenant to do any work on the Sabbath, but here God specifies the punishment for violating the commandment” lest the people should think that each violation of a mitzvah comes with the same punishment. In short, the sages teach us that Moses is making it clear to his followers that Shabbat is a bigger deal than even the construction of the Tabernacle and that the penalty for overlooking this reality is severe.

Given what happens when the people start to bring their offerings for the Tabernacle, I’d say Moses made a good decision. The people are so eager to contribute that Moses has to tell them: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6). As he begins his instructions the people of Israel, he thus anticipates their zeal. He imagines that the people will get so caught up in building the dwelling place for the Divine presence that they would likely work straight through the seventh day to get the job done if not warned ahead of time.

We should also recall that the construction of the Tabernacle begins immediately after Israel sins by building the Golden Calf and suffers God’s wrath as a result. It is entirely conceivable that Israel would now be so fearful of God that they would think building the Tabernacle – something God actually commands them to build, unlike the Golden Calf – would be more important than the Sabbath. Perhaps the fact that they brought a surplus of materials to the Tabernacle is a manifestation of this zeal.

I believe Moses has something else in mind as well when he begins his instructions with the commandment of Shabbat: reassuring the Israelites that labor post-Exodus is not going to be like labor pre-Exodus. As slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites experienced no respite from their backbreaking labors. The last thing Moses wanted is for the people to hear what needed to be done to build the Tabernacle and then have them exhibit a post-traumatic response that would have impeded them from fulfilling God’s command. By uttering the promise of Shabbat before giving the marching orders for the Tabernacle, Moses allays the fears of the Israelites that they are going to suffer now as they had suffered under Pharaoh

The “take away” for us from this week’s parashah is that by observing Shabbat, we are honoring God and celebrating the freedom we have to cease from our labors. Our sages believe that when we fail to observe the day of rest, we don’t actually experience a physical death but we do experience a spiritual death: by working straight through with no breaks, we lose sight of what is of ultimate importance and become detached from all that is truly valuable. If we fail to observe the Sabbath, we might as well still be in Egypt, where we were slaves, unable to escape to Sinai and grow closer to God and to those we love.

Note: I had previously posted this commentary on February 20, 2014 at