Different Perspectives. One People. One God.

Parashat Bamidbar 5781 / פרשת בְּמִדְבַּר
Torah Portion: Numbers 1:1-4:20

This has been a trying week in Israel, to say the least. Rockets flying from Gaza and, earlier today, from Syria are a direct threat to the civilians whom they are targeting not just in the border towns with Gaza but in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Today I checked in with members of our CAA community who have family in Israel. Thank God all their family members are safe, but with frequent explosions and sirens splitting the air around them, they are forced to stay close to safe rooms and bomb shelters and many are fearful and stressed. Meanwhile, Israel’s response has been swift and decisive. Though the IDF has been literally laser focused on military and operational targets in Gaza and it continues its practice of announcing strikes on large buildings, its airstrikes have tragically and yet unavoidably resulted in the loss of civilian lives.

Those of us familiar with Israel’s modern history should not be surprised by this turn of events. After all, we are all too familiar with the cycle by which Israel is attacked by rockets from Gaza, Israel responds by demolishing Hamas’s military infrastructure, and then we all wait several years while Iran resupplies Hamas, at which time a fresh round of fighting begins, just with even more lethal technology than before. What is different this time around, though, is that the cities and neighborhoods that have always represented the ideal of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel are now being rocked by clashes fueled by extremists on both sides. Earlier today an Arab rioter torched a theater in the northern coastal town of Acco, a theater run by Arabs and Jews who consider themselves one family.

Back here, my inbox has been flooded with messages from every imaginable Jewish organization promoting their point of view and appealing for my support. It has just been crazy! As I’ve tried to find learn about the situation, I’ve been overwhelmed by all these often-contradictory voices. Even with my rabbinical association listserv my Reconstructionist colleagues debate how to approach this week’s conflict. But you know what they say: two Jews, three opinions.

What are we to think about what is happening? How are we to feel? How do we balance hesed and gevurah – lovingkindness and mercy with justice and might? Are we allowed to criticize Israel for its decisions or feel empathy for any of the families in Gaza who’ve lost loved ones, whether they are combatants or not? Do we side with Jewish settlers or with the Palestinians in the village of Sheikh Jarrah in their dispute over who has the stronger legal claim to the properties in which many hundreds of Palestinians have been living for decades?

The answer to these questions is that we must allow there to be space for all views. The Jewish camp is expansive, after all, and encompasses many perspectives. We see this exemplified beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar

This week we begin reading a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar or Numbers. Bamidbar comes from the first verse of the book where we read, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” It is called Numbers because it opens with God telling Moses to take a census of all the men from all the tribes who are eligible for military service. In essence, we read of the military preparations of the Israelites as they embark on their then 38-year journey toward the very land making headlines this week.

What strikes me about Parashat Bemidbar is not so much the census as the placement of each of the tribes around the Ark of the Covenant. Each tribe inhabits a space to the north, south, east or west of the ark to protect it and themselves from would be aggressors. Implicit in the placement of each tribe is that each tribe would be responsible for either warding off aggressors who might attack its domain or back up the other tribes in their struggles. At the same time, all the tribes would also be oriented toward that which bound them together, the Torah.

In the Eytz Hayim chumash (p. 774) we read: “A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.” Even though Judah had its job to do, it remained focus on Israel’s covenant with God and with the community.

I know Israel can be a divisive topic and that we won’t all hear or respond to this week’s news the same way. We will have our differences. We will all bring our own perspective to the reality before us, just as each tribe would view the Ark from whichever vantage point it occupied on the march through the wilderness.

My hope is that wherever we stand, we will listen to all the voices around us and engage in civil debate but that we will follow the example of Judah and always orient ourselves toward one another, remembering our shared history, our shared values, and our One God.

May we all pray for the welfare of the State of Israel and those charged with defending it. May we pray for the safety of our loved ones and all innocents in the region. And may we live to see the day when all humanity will awaken to its common destiny, when all warfare and bloodshed will cease, when Peace will reign over all the earth and God’s name will truly be One.

Envisioning the Jubilee in America

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5781 / פרשת בְּהַר־בְּחֻקֹּתַי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1-27:34

 

Parashat Behar, the first half of this week’s double Torah portion, contains a visionary statement about land ownership and social justice that continues to speak to us today:

You shall count off seven weeks of years… so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud… you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

Put plainly, every 50 years in biblical Israel the land would revert to its original owner, ensuring that no landowner could wield too much wealth or power over others and that no person would become permanently impoverished.[1] Rather than owning land outright, farmers purchased long-term leases, at the end of which, they handed the land back over to the families or individuals who had taken possession of the land at or shortly after entering into the Land of Israel after 40 years of wandering. They then let the land lie fallow for a year and sowed it only in the following year, having faith that God would provide for their needs during those years of waiting (Lev. 15:20-22).

There were two practical outcomes of the Jubilee (“yovel” in Hebrew). One was that families who had been evicted from their land due to foreclosure now had the opportunity to begin anew. They could return to their land, work it, and reestablish their credit. Another practical outcome was that “indentured Israelites, compelled to live on the estates of their creditors, would be free to return to their own homes” and regain their freedom.[2] In essence, the Jubilee amounted to a socio-economic reboot, a time to resort to the good old days when our ancestors appreciated that, after all is said and done, God is the true owner of the land and we are merely tenants.

One translation of these verses from the Torah is famously preserved upon the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell itself was ordered by the Pennsylvania assembly in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution, which among other things assured its inhabitants of freedom of conscience. Later in its history the bell was aptly adopted by abolitionists as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement and ironically, after the Civil War, as a symbol of unity for the United States.[3]

Though the Hebrew word “d’ror” translated as “liberty” on the Liberty Bell, is better translated as “release,” the role of the Liberty Bell in history successfully captures the values inherent in the celebration of the Jubilee. Undoubtedly, the ancients would not have intended this form of release as a precedent for releasing foreign slaves, but rather only fellow Israelites. Still, the evolution of civilization has brought us to see all people as fully human and worthy of release from servitude.

The move from the “release” of debt mentioned in Torah to the freedom of slaves came very late in history, was met with much resistance, and may not even have been inevitable. Yet the progression from “release” to abolition makes moral and theological sense. All humans are created in God’s image, after all. Therefore, all humans are entitled to dignity and basic human rights. The line from the ancient Near East to 19th century America is not hard to draw.

But who would have thought that a symbol for the abolition of slavery could also be embraced by former slaveholders as a symbol of national unity? Not only were slave owners giving up what they perceived to be their rightful “property,” but they were also giving up their land. Were it not for the industrial revolution, the land would have been virtually worthless without a means to cultivate it and bring its yield to market. And, yet, as evidenced by Jefferson Davis’s visit to the bell in 1885, the ideas represented by the bell did, indeed, morph into a call for unity and reconciliation.[4]

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British mandate, might have foreseen such a development. “Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel…”[5] During his chief rabbinate Kook battled against Jewish opposition to Zionism as well as against forces of divisiveness within the Orthodox world. The Jubilee, for Rav Kook, represented a time when division would cease, a moment of reconciliation and brotherhood for all Jews.

If the Jubilee of the Torah could be a moment of reconciliation for Israel, than the Jubilee as represented by the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell might also serve as a reminder to all Americans after the Civil War that they were one nation. Just as biblical Israel saw their possession of the Land as Divinely ordained, so too did the founders of our nation consider the ground on which they stood to be a gift from God. For biblically knowledgeable survivors of the Civil War and their descendants, then, the Liberty Bell’s allusion to the Jubilee may have inspired them to cooperate and forgive and restore the “New Jerusalem” back to God.[6]

What does this lesson from the Torah and our own history books teach us? Just this: to the extent that the Jubilee presents a model for social justice in America, we have a lot of work to do to realize that vision. In the year 2021, we see an America divided politically, socially and economically. While we may all be free, we have yet to enjoy anything close to equality in the workplace or in the halls of decision-making. Moreover, we are as divided by ideology as ever. Equality and national unity remain elusive.

It is not realistic or, some would say, desirable in our country to enact the kind of reboot that the Torah dictates. After all, the “American dream” is as much about personal prosperity as it is about compassion. The truth is that these divergent ends will always stand in tension with one another. Americans don’t want to give up what they’ve earned, but neither will those in need be able to get by without the assistance of their neighbors.

Still, we need not accept a stalemate. The words of the Torah present us with an ideal for America. Circumstances may dictate against the full realization of that ideal in our day, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to overcome social-economic disparity and religious and political divisions. As our sages taught us, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it altogether” (Pirkei Avot). At the very least, we can work to diminish the consequences of our divided society by ensuring that that the poor are cared for and given opportunities for economic advancement and by holding our lawmakers accountable for working together as civilly as possible for the common good. That would be a step forward.

In our liturgy we pray for a day when all suffering will be alleviated and all the world will live in peace. On that day, on the Jubilee of Jubilees, we will surely hear the loud blast of the shofar. Though that day may be further off than we can imagine, let us, nonetheless, dedicate our lives toward making it a possibility.

© Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2021

 

[1] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 738.

[2] Ibid., p. 172.

[3]http://www.ushistory.org/libertybell/ accessed 5/8/11

[4] An interesting footnote to history is that Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, visited the bell in 1885 in Biloxi, Mississippi, during one of its seven trips around the country from 1885 to 1915. In his remarks paying homage to the bell, Davis called for national unity: “I think the time has come when reason should be substituted for passion and when men who have fought in support of their honest convictions, shall be able and willing to do justice to each other.” See http://www.independencehall-americanmemory.com/the-liberty-bell/liberty-bell-journey-to-new-orleans/

[5] Etz Hayim, p. 738.

[6] Both the Puritans and the pioneers of the American frontier saw themselves as fulfilling the prophetic vision for a “New Jerusalem.” See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/puritans.html for the Puritan argument and

[6]http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/Quaderno/Quaderno5/Q5.C7.Taylor.pdf for the pioneer argument.

Wisdom from a teen on how to “love your fellow as your self.”

Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5781 / פרשת אַחֲרֵי מוֹת־קְדשִׁים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Every now and then I find wisdom in unexpected places that I like to share with the community, and this is one of those times. This morning I received the weekly email from Hazon, “the largest faith-based environmental organization in the U.S., which is building a movement to strengthen Jewish life and contribute to a more environmentally sustainable world for all.” The centerpiece of this email is an inspiring d’var Torah by Anna Dubey. Her by-line says that “Anna is a high school senior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City and is a founding member and Director of Public Relations of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a movement that empowers youth to fight for climate action.”

Anna draws a connection between the commandment in this week’s Torah portion to “Love your fellow as your self” (Leviticus 19:18) and one of the laws of Shmita, or the “sabbatical year,” which requires the forgiveness of debt. The Torah offers no direct guidance on how we should love others. Implicit is the idea that we love others by following those positive and negative commands in the Torah that our sages termed, ben adam l’havero” or between one person and another. In her commentary, Anna points out that forgiving debt is akin to letting go of all kinds of emotions that hold us back and that prevent others from moving forward, too. Forgiveness itself, Anna says, is “crucial for loving others and ourselves.”

I would just add that sometimes forgiveness itself is too difficult to muster. Sometimes people hurt us in ways that are not forgivable and sometimes they don’t deserve our forgiveness. (See https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2018/09/when-not-to-forgive.html.) But that doesn’t mean we have to be held hostage emotionally, psychologically and spiritually by the harm done to us. Sometimes, in fact, it is even possible to build loving relationships with those who’ve violated our trust.

As a rabbi and as a human being, I am all too familiar with the pain caused to children by neglect and abuse. What amazes me is how so many people are able to move beyond that pain. Sometimes people do forgive. Other times, they allow themselves to grieve what they lost as a result of the harm done them. Other times, they view the perpetrator with compassion, seeing in them an illness that was beyond their control. All of these are ways to let go of the grudges that can otherwise weigh on us forever. It is heartening to see that a teen understands this and is teaching us to do the same.

To read Anna’s devar Torah, click HERE.

Feathers, Wicked Speech and Covid

Parashat Tazria-Metzora / פרשת תזריע־מצרע
Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

A popular folktale tells how a rabbi once cured a townsperson of his inclination toward slander and other forms of lashon hara, harmful speech.

The rabbi advises the man to take a feather pillow into the town square and beat it with a broom until the pillow’s casing rips open and the feathers fly to and fro. The man follows the rabbi’s advice and watches as thousands of feathers fly away through the square and beyond. The man then goes back to the rabbi to report that he had done as advised.

The rabbi then tells him there’s just one more thing he must do to be cured of lashon hara once and for all: the man now has to go back to the square and collect up all the feathers. When the man realizes this would be impossible and protests, the rabbi explains that speech is like the feather pillow: once a word has been spoken, its effects are beyond the speaker’s control, and try as he may, there is no recapturing that speech.

This week’s Torah portion teaches about the need for all of us to control our speech and avoid engaging in lashon hara.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora ostensibly deals with a snow-white scaly skin affliction and parallel afflictions that grow on fabrics and on the walls of homes. The mysterious affliction is called tzaraat, and the one who has it is known as a metzora. How do our sages go from skin disease to talking about “wicked speech”? They play with the word “metzora” and say that it is short for “motzi shem ra” – speaking ill of another. Lashon hara, the rabbis say, covers speech that is true but has the potential to bring about humiliation and destroy people’s lives. Motzi shem ra is speech that is not true – defamation – that can have the same affect. When Miriam, Moses’s sister, publicly attacks Moses’s character in the Book of Numbers, God strikes her with tzaraat. Using the same word play, the sages say her punishment of tzaraat fits her misdeed of motzi shem ra, speaking ill of Moses and humiliating him.

Just as we have cures for diseases today, our biblical ancestors had cures for diseases in their day. Thus, the Torah directs the afflicted person to appear before a priest for diagnosis. If the person tests “positive,” the “treatment” includes separation from the community until the skin clears up, followed by an offering of two birds, one of which is to be slaughtered, the other of which is to be taken in the priest’s hand along with hyssop, cedar wood and crimson stuff and dipped in the blood of the slaughtered one. The water is then sprinkled on the person and the person is rendered spiritual pure once again.

Why are birds involved in this cure? The rabbis teach us that birds chirp and chatter just as the offender “chirped” and “chattered.” In other words, the punishment fits the crime. The price to pay for lashon hara is minimally the cost of two birds, one killed, the other “humiliated” by the blood stains it must bear. In real life, lashon hara has the potential to embarrass and humiliate or, worse, to destroy lives, livelihoods, and families.

As I mentioned, the effects of tzaraat are not limited to individuals. Clothing and the walls of houses are also susceptible to tzaraat. What’s more, the method to rid fabric and homes of the disease is identical to the cure for humans. Here, too, the Torah prescribes the offering of two birds. The rabbis teach that the diseased clothing, which can be seen by the public, represents the communal impact of lashon hara. An ill word, whether true or not, spoken about one person may upset a whole community, dividing it into advocates and detractors of both the speaker and the one spoken about. Closer to home, so to speak, words spoken have the potential to tear families apart. It’s as if the disease of one person mutates and covers the walls of his home and, perhaps, the walls of the one he or she has harmed. Thus, the Torah’s discussion of tzaraat suggests that the cost of lashon hara is born not just by the one who speaks it but by the speaker’s family and community, as well.

It is notable that both the story of the man who learned a lesson about speech and the Torah’s treatment of tzaraat each involve feathers, one in the form of the down stuffing of a pillow, the other in the form of the birds who provide them. When we fail to control our speech, we cause feathers to fly, blood to flow, the fabric of our being to become stained. Too often we ignore this high cost of our speech, and we aren’t even aware of the harm that we cause. It’s not only with Covid that we must remain vigilant about what comes out of our mouths, but with speech, too. Once it’s out, we have no control over where it lands.

We would be wise to heed the words of Rabbi Ben Zoma who said, “Who is strong? The one who controls his/her impulses.” When it comes to speech, truer words could never be spoken.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Safe Places and Heartache: We Stand with Aaron as We Remember Israel’s Fallen

Parashat Shmini 5781 / פרשת שְּׁמִינִי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 

Imagine a place where you go to escape the stresses of life, a safe space where you feel protected from the ordinary and extraordinary things that pursue you, that run you down. Perhaps this is the place you call your “happy place,” a place you long to visit, a filling station where your soul takes a refreshing supply of warmth and contentment like God’s breath filling the lungs of the first human beings. If God is a meaningful idea to you, imagine a place where you feel enveloped by God’s loving, calming, protecting embrace.

For nearly two millenium following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that place of refuge for Jews and the Jewish People was, in fact, Jerusalem. Despite being forbidden during long stretches from entering Jerusalem, never mind living there, Jerusalem remained in our collective imagination our place of refuge. As the Jewish people suffered atrocity after atrocity, their safe space remained a dream. Only in the late 19th century did that dream begin to morph into reality. And though slowly, slowly, young men and women made their way to the land that would become the State of Israel, at that time there was no State. Many of those young men and women, in fact, risked their lives as they sought to create a new reality for the Jewish people connected to the land of Israel. But that land would not yet provide a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Would that a Jewish homeland have been a reality in 1939, when the Nazis were “merely” pushing Jews to emigrate.

From May through June 1939, Cuba, the United States and Canada denied entry to 907 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis, most of whom were trying to flee Nazi Germany. Some six months earlier, on a terrible night we now call Kristallnacht, Jewish stores, synagogues and homes were left in shambles, Jewish life itself was upended, and it had become clear that they had to get out of Germany. We know that all 907 Jewish passengers were sent back to Germany, and we know that 255 of them were among the Six Million who perished in the Shoah.

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations voted on Resolution 181, adopting a plan to partition British Palesine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. And on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708, in a museum in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion declared the Establishment of the State of Israel. At that moment, our 2000 year old dream of returning to Zion became a reality. And despite the war that erupted earlier that day on May 14th, and despite all the wars since, the terrorist attacks, the embargos, the attempts at delegitimizing the State, the State of Israel exists as that one place where all Jews can call home. That one place in the world that is a safe place for all Jews.

Now, over time you will come to know that I believe that grave errors, tragic errors, were made in bringing about the State of Israel’s existence and that I am highly critical of its current government. You will also come to know that I adamantly support not only the idea of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland but I support Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland in the form of the State of Israel. I wrestle mightily with Israel’s history and with the confounding tensions between Israel’s expressed desire to be a fully democratic state with equal protections for all citizens and equitable distribution of resources and the desire for Israel to always be a Jewish homeland. I wrestle mightily partly because Israel is our safe space.

It is no secret that in the birthing of the State of Israel, mistakes were made by the most powerful nations of the world at that time, by the most zealous of Israel’s founders, and by Israel’s neighbors and their powerbrokers. Yet, none of that brings solace to those mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave their lives in defense of the State of Israel. And none of that will bring back the loved ones of those murdered by those who would push Israel into the sea. I know some of those mothers and fathers. I know friends of people murdered by terrorists. 

I can’t begin to know the pain and sorrow that hangs thick in the air as Israel observes Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, this coming week. 

This week we read in the Torah about the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, whose lives were cut short as they were making a sacrifice to God in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 10:1-3). Like many of Israel’s fallen soldiers, these were two young men who were novices. Some say they entered the Holy of Holies unbidden by God. Some say they were intoxicated. To Aaron and to their brothers, they were now dead, and they died doing what they thought was right, even if they went about it the wrong way. And the Torah says, “Va-yidom Aharon. Aaron’s was silent.” In creating a society that would play host to the Divine and that would become an example of righteousness for the world, Aaron’s sons were taken from him. Perhaps, he thought, this is the price of creating a safe space for God and my people.

In Israel, on Thursday, at 11 am sirens will blare for two minutes. Traffic will stop. The nation will be silent. They will stand with Aaron in that silence. And then, hours later, they will celebrate their birth, their 73rd year of independence, just as Aaron and his sons resumed their duties with a full, though broken heart.

I want to conclude with the poem, The Silver Platter, written by Natan Alterman in December 1947. He wrote these words in response to this warning by Chaim Weizman, who would become Israel’s first president: The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,

Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement

will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel.

Burn On, Not Out: What Parashat Tzav Has to Teach Us About Observing Pesach

Parashat Tzav 5781 / פרשת צַו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 

If a person today were to measure their standards of Passover preparation and observance against this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, that person would most likely be paralyzed with fear. Unlike last week’s reading which discussed sin offerings intended to atone for a variety of sins committed unintentionally, this week’s reading offers no such out. For sins involving sexual depravity, wanton disregard for mitzvot, and defilement of sacrifices in the Tabernacle there was no expiation. The Torah is very clear that the person who commits these particular sins is “to be cut off from his kin.” The term for “being cut off” is karet, in Hebrew, and it can mean anything from an untimely death for both body and soul, natural death in which the soul is banned from the World to Come, or untimely death in which the soul is given its place in the world to come.

If any of us thought our bodies and souls were on the line when we go to clean our homes for Passover or adhere to the strict dietary laws of Passover, we would either freeze or run in the other direction. 

Fortunately, the laws of Passover as we know them are nowhere to be found in this week’s Torah portion. In fact, most mitzvot relating to Passover, short of eating matzah, remembering the Exodus from Egypt and telling our children about what God did for us in bringing us out of Egypt, are not found in the Torah at all. They were developed by later generations of rabbis over hundreds of years. So if you think by not covering your countertops with contact paper you are violating Torah from Sinai, you are not. Breath easy.

When it comes to the rabbinic laws, there are more than I could possibly explain to you while standing on one foot. There are many, in fact, that I have yet to learn. Even so, are we to judge ourselves or others by the very high standards of the most halachically observant, those who strive to follow Jewish law to the nth degree? Of course not. No such thing is expected of any of us by our neighbors, our families or by God. (I can’t speak for other Jews in ultra-Orthodox sects.)

We are entitled to be authentically Jewish in ways that are relevant to us, meaningful and, perhaps most importantly, achievable. If you find no meaning in the requirement to eat kosher meat, there are other ways to show spiritual discipline, regard for life and connection to the Jewish people. Can’t find that kosher for Passover grape jelly. It’s okay!

I am clearly of the camp that says do what you can do under the circumstances in which you are living and be satisfied.

In adhering to this position, I take a cue from another part of this week’s Torah portion. In order to maintain the sacrificial system the priests had to put wood upon the altar each morning in order to keep a perpetual flame going. It is referred to as an “esh tamid.” A perpetual fire. They could not let it go out.

Maintaining the fire did not fall to one person. It was a collective effort. Not only that, it was sufficient to put only enough wood on the altar each morning to keep the flame lit. The priests were not charged with creating a perpetual conflagration or a massive bonfire. They had to do enough. And that was enough.

As Jews we are inheritors of that obligation to keep the flame lit. It is incumbent upon us to make Judaism relevant, meaningful and achievable for our children and their children in perpetuity. I believe there is something beautiful in Judaism that makes it worthwhile to perpetuate. I believe our calling to repair the world makes it essential to perpetuate.

But we are not alone. Each of us has a role to play according to our mindset and ability. We are to do our part in keeping the flame alive. If we are not able to rid our homes of every single crumb of hametz, the Jewish people will survive and probably thrive. The same with all other aspects of preparation and observance. If you buy a can of tuna or drink a Diet Pepsi that isn’t labeled “Kosher for Passover,” God won’t be offended. You won’t be cut off from your kin. And still, the flame of Judaism will continue to burn. 

I would suggest, in fact, that if any of us were to observe the laws of Passover too stringently, we would burn out. There’s no Jewish future if we all burn out. If we burn out, the fire of the Jewish People burns out. So we stoke the fire gently, within our means, and without fear of retribution or judgment from our rabbi, other Jews or from God.

In order to have a truly kosher and joyous Passover — a chag kasher v’sameach — we need to be able to relax and actually enjoy the holiday. We need to be like the Romans the ancient rabbis tried to emulate, leaning, relaxing, celebrating our freedom, soaking in the return of new life that comes with spring, and be available to one another as loving family members and supportive members of a community.

I wish each and every one of you a happy and health Pesach, no matter how you choose to celebrate the Festival of our Freedom.

Shabbat Shalom.

Heeding the Call of Leviticus: We Stand with the Asian-American Community and Women Who Are Victims of Violence

Parashat Vayikra 5781 / פרשת וַיִּקְרָא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

The following was my weekly message to Congregation Ahavas Achim on March 18, 2021.

Whenever a community is attacked and blood is shed by deranged murderers, our nation mourns with that community and with those whose loved ones perished. And so it is, once again, that the Jewish community joins all peoples of faith and conscience in expressing its sorrow and extending its support to one such community. As Jews, we, of all people, must speak out. We’ve been there. We’ve felt that loss. 

On Tuesday evening, Atlanta was rocked by a massacre in which a 21-year old lone gunman killed eight people — seven women, of which six were of Asian descent, and one man. As of Thursday morning, the police did not believe the shootings were racially motivated but had not ruled it out, nor was it clear whether state or federal officials would treat the massacre as a hate crime.  

Given the current climate in which many Americans refer to Covid-19 as “China flu” and violence against women is its own “shadow pandemic,” it makes sense that this massacre is being experienced as an attack both against Asian-Americans and against women, even if it is not ultimately declared a hate crime against either group. The shootings follow a year in which nearly 3,800 incidents of hate against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders had been reported nationally according to Stop AAPI Hate and in which some major US cities experienced a 150% spike in crimes targeting Asian-Americans. Just as importantly, this horrific incident occurred against a global backdrop in which 1 of 3 women experience violence. In other words, to dismiss as merely coincidental that the gunman’s victims were mostly Asian-American and female would be turn a blind eye to the larger scourges facing our nation and our world. 

This week, in synagogues around the world, Jewish communities will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, whose message is that we are all accountable for protecting life and creating a just world. True, on its surface the Book of Leviticus appears to be addressed primarily to the priests and Levites of Ancient Israel: much of it reads like a professional manual, providing instruction on the sacrificial system, matters of cultic purity and the observance of the Sabbath and sacred festivals. Yet, the very first word of Leviticus — vayikra, in Hebrew (lit. the Lord “called”) — is addressed not to Aaron, the high priest, but to Moses, the leader of all the people. Why? Because at its core the Book of Leviticus is a call to all of Israel to be “a holy people.” What’s more, to the extent that being a “holy people” means calling out injustice, depravity and cruelty wherever we see it, this most peculiar of all books of the bible is calling to us in this moment. 

Heeding the words of our tradition, let us all speak out when one person or one ideology targets a community to terrorize or, worse, eliminate. Let us support our leaders and officials charged with protecting the lives and rights of all human beings. Let us pray that the hearts of the hateful and lawless be turned toward peace and love. And let us embrace those who bear the brunt of bigotry and hatred in all its forms, just as we embrace those who were targeted in Atlanta this week — our Asian-American brothers and sisters and women, who suffer violence all too routinely. 

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

When All You Ever Wanted to Give Was Too Much

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781 / פרשת וַיַּקְהֵל־פְקוּדֵי
Exodus 35:1-40:38

One of my favorite comedians, Steven Wright, has this one-liner: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? Pretty funny. Right? But all Wright has done is taken an ostensibly philosophical statement and boiled it down to its most rational truth. As some might say, “Well, duh!” 

At the risk of further eviscerating Steven Wright’s witticism, I would observe that just as there are limits to what we can possess, there are also limits to what we can give. This truism is illustrated beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, as you’ll see. 

What isn’t addressed in the Torah is the emotional response of the people whose contributions are no longer needed. Just as it can be a let down to realize you can’t have everything you want, it can also be a let down when what you really want to give away is not received. What do you mean you can’t take everything? Can’t you find a place to put it? Think about that, and I’ll loop back to this question in a minute.

The story in Parashat Vayakhel goes like this: Moses gathers the whole Israelite community together and conveys to them God’s instruction to “Take from among you gifts to Adonai. Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (Ex. 35:4-5). Moses then recites an extensive list of precious materials required for the construction of the mishkan — the Tabernacle that would serve as God’s dwelling place within the midst of the nation — its assorted ritual items and the priestly robes. Gold, silver, copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense. Special gems and wood. And don’t forget the dolphin skin! (Ex. 35:5-9).

Meanwhile, Moses has put together an all-star team of architects, engineers, builders and craftspeople to take all these things and fashion a house for God according to the plans that God had provided Moses.

At the conclusion of this gathering of young and old, rich and poor, children, women and men, Moses says, “Okay, everyone. Hands in. Who’s the best? God’s the best? Go, God!” Then they all disperse to get the things they so eagerly want to bring to the mishkan. They are psyched to help build this magnificent structure that would bind them with God and with each other.

As the people bring their wheelbarrows full of lapis lazuli, acacia wood and, yes, dolphin skins, the artisans realize they have plenty of material and they say to Moses, “Moses, the people are bringing more than is needed for the job God has given us.” At which point, Moses, standing on a rock, whistles with two fingers in his mouth and proclaims, “That’s enough. Stop bringing your gifts.” The Torah adds, “So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” 

The word for “enough for them” in the Hebrew is “dayam,” similar to “dayenu,” the refrain we sing during Pesach to say that any single act that God had done for us would have been sufficient on its own. Yet, we learn in the song that God kept on giving, whereas in our story here, the Israelites had to stop. Enough was quite literally enough. Bring no more. There’s no place to put it!

So if you were standing near Moses with a cart full of turquoise, chrysolite and dolphin skins, how would you have felt? Maybe you would have felt rejected. Everyone before me got to contribute. Why shouldn’t I? I may snooze, but I don’t want to lose. Maybe you would feel angry. I went through all this work, schlepping this stuff from Egypt, not even knowing why, and now you’re saying, “Thanks, but no thanks?”

As I said at our board meeting this past week, there are so many talented and generous people who want to make a contribution to our community. Of course, we can’t use everyone’s talents and generosity all the time. There aren’t enough hours in the day and there isn’t enough space in the synagogue to be able to take advantage of all that people have to offer all at once. So community leaders are often in the unenviable position of having to say, “We have enough for now.” AND they also have the responsibility to care for those people whose “terumah offerings,” whose gifts from the heart, are not needed at that moment.

I think these last three words are key — “at that moment.” When Moses said, “Enough!” he didn’t say the gifts weren’t welcomed. They were! I’m sure Moses and the artisans were ecstatic by the outpouring of gifts. But, the artisans also specifically said, “The people are bringing more than is needed for this particular project.” 

One medieval biblical commentator, Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) from Portugal goes a step further. He says “the gold, silver and copper, as well as the silk and yarn, were kept, to make new clothes for the priests and to pay for the public sacrifices and other things that might be necessary later” (Carasik, The Commentators Bible: Exodus, p. 319). These extra gifts were critically important because they would be needed in the long-run to maintain garments and finery of the priests.

Still another medieval biblical commentator, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (about 1475-1550) from Italy, adds this: “The people’s efforts had been more than enough. Therefore, the artisans did not need to cut corners for fear they would run out of materials.” Knowing the community possessed this surplus of building materials gave the artisans peace of mind, and it’s much easier to excel at one’s work when you have peace of mind.

The message I want to convey is this: Our community needs you and the gifts, interests and generosity you have to offer. We are only as strong at the contributions that we can muster up together. Understand that we don’t have room for everything all at once, though. Okay, our treasurer surely disagrees, so let me correct myself. There is a miraculously ever-expanding vault for certain kinds of gifts, but for other kinds of gifts, we want you to know that the time will come when we’ll be able to take advantage of those special offerings. In the meantime, knowing that you are there and ready to make a difference lifts our spirits and makes our work more meaningful, enjoyable and effective.

When the Burden of Patience Became Unbearable, Our Ancestors Created a Golden Calf

Parashat Ki Tisa 5781 / פרשת כִּי תִשָּׂא
Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11-34:35

One of my favorite Hebrew words is savlanut, patience. I remember hearing it often in Israel. Savlanut. There’s more than a little irony in my association of this word with everyday Israelis because one stereotype of Israelis is that they are notoriously impatient.

On the website of a travel agency called Culture Trip, I found an article entitled 6 Things You Only Learn About Israel When You Live There. Number four on that list is “Israelis are extremely impatient”:

From incessant beeping on the roads (sometimes it seems like there’s a national competition for who can honk their car the longest and loudest), to pushing their way through lines and losing their temper in supermarkets, Israelis show their impatience and short fuse in a multitude of ways.

You can picture someone trying to make their way to the front of a line who is then nudged by someone else also trying to make their way to the front of the line. Suddenly person one turns to person two and says, “Savlanut!”

What’s most interesting to me about the word savlanut is that it derives from the three letter Hebrew root samech-bet-lamed that means “to carry a load; to endure; to suffer.” Several times in the book of Exodus the labors of the Israelite slaves were referred to as sivlot, heavy labor, heavy burden. In Lamentations, when the text says (5:7) “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt” the word for “we must bear their guilt” is savalnu.

To be patient means to carry the burden of waiting for a certain outcome. If you don’t remember what it feels like to wait for something you want or even for an outcome you don’t want, just hang out with young children and they’ll remind you. Waiting stinks. 

Sometimes patience involves real suffering. It’s not just the waiting that stinks, it’s also the inconvenience, or worse, the pain we must endure while we wait that poses the heaviest of burdens.

When I think of patience as bearing a burden, as enduring real suffering, I become much more sympathetic to our ancestors who pressed Aaron into fashioning a golden calf out of the people’s gold jewelry. In this week’s Torah portion, the people freak out because Moses hadn’t come down from receiving the Tablets of the Ten Commandments on the exact day they expected him to come down. In that moment of feeling that they lost the one person who could safely intercede on their behalf with God, they grew so insecure that it was too much to wait one more day for their leader to return. So, out of fear, they created a replacement for Moses — a calf — which was a symbol of deities which would have been familiar to them from life in Egypt or, perhaps, from their encounters with other peoples in the ancient Near East. 

The calf wasn’t an idol. They weren’t going to worship it. Biblical commentators of the middle ages wrote that ‘“the people could not have been so stupid” as to believe that this freshly manufactured image was itself a deity. Rather, it was a symbol of God’s presence, perhaps an instrument to discern God’s will. In other words, the sin of the Golden Calf was not that the people had abandoned God and had reverted to idol worship. It’s that they buckled under the burden of their patience. 

They had only left Egypt three months earlier and had just begun to develop faith in Moses and, therefore, in God. So at the moment they felt the most vulnerable, they took matters into their own hands. This really made God mad. So mad that God yelled at Moses, “Get out of my way. I’m going to kill them all!” Fortunately, Moses convinced God to be patient and to cool the Divine jets. He reminded God that God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that Israel would become as numerous as the stars of heaven. “Be patient, God. Give it time.”

Who here cannot relate to the Israelites, who had the base of Mt. Sinai, in Moses’ absence, looked at the second in command, Aaron, and said, “Enough is enough. No more waiting!”

It has been about a year since we at Ahavas Achim close our doors to in-person services. And despite the re-opening of some businesses, churches and other institutions around us, we have chosen to err on the side of caution. And we will continue to err on the side of caution, even as more and more people get vaccinated, until our hospitals no longer face the prospect of being overrun by Covid patients and our funeral homes face the prospect of being overrun by death. We have seen over and over again this past year that it’s when we as a society become impatient that we experience a surge in cases. As Jews, our priority is always the health and safety of the living. Pikuach nefesh — saving life — is the most sacred of all mitzvot. So, while it hurts to be patient a little while longer — It hurts to tell your parents not to come to your child’s bat mitzvah. It hurts not to be able to hug people you love. It hurts not to be able to wrestle with your best friend or give a classmate a high five. — it’s what we have to do.

When the time is right, we will begin to open our doors to in-person gatherings as will every other synagogue in the world. When we do, it will happen gradually, at a measured rate, to ensure that we can re-open without contributing to greater community spread and putting lives — our own and others — at risk. 

It is painful to be patient. The alternative to patience, however, comes at great risk, as we learn from this week’s Torah portion and as we have seen time and time again in our country. The reward for patience will be great. We will gather with renewed commitment to love and care for one another. We will emerge from this dark period satisfied that we did our part to end this pandemic. We will look at ourselves and realize how incredibly strong and resilient we’ve been this past year. We will do great things because we know we have already done something great together as a community. We have carried the burden of patience, and what a burden it has been.

For a little while longer, let us avoid public gatherings, let us practice wearing masks and keeping our distance, and let us continue to practice savlanut — patience.

Dressing for Honor and Splendor

Parashat Tetzaveh 5781 / פרשת תְּצַוֶּה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20-30:10

We learn in this week’s Torah portion that what we “wear” matters. It matters because our clothing says something about how we see ourselves in relation to God and the people around us.

We read in Parashat Tetzaveh, “God says to Moses, ‘V’asita vigdei-kodesh l’Aharon achicha l’chavod u’l’tiferet. Make sacral vestments for your brother, Aaron, for honor and splendor’” (Ex. 28:2).

In looking at the words, kavod and tiferet, honor and splendor, two medieval biblical commentators, Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Sforno (1475-1550), argue across the centuries about for whose benefit these vestments are to be created. Nachmanides says, “to honor the Kohanim, the High Priest, for these garments were similar to the garb of royalty.” Sforno, on the other hand, says “the vestments were for the glory of God and to lend splendor to the Kohen Gadol as the teacher of the nation, so that he would be revered by the tribes, whose names he bore on his breast and shoulders.” (Stone Edition Humash, p. 465). 

I believe there’s truth in each of these interpretations, but I also believe the garments were intended to glorify the People of Israel. In addition to showing honor and casting splendor upon God and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), these vestments also show honor to the community who helped fashion them. After all, they are the ones who contributed the gold, the gems, and yarns that went into its creation, and it was the wisest and most creative of the people who actually assembled the items into a magnificent uniform for the Kohen Gadol. Additionally, by wearing these special vestments Aaron would have been mindful of the central role he played in connecting the people to God and God to the people. With such a burden upon his shoulder, could he not help but feel the utmost respect for the People of Israel?

Now, imagine that you are Aaron, the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. You are adorned in the finery that has been sanctified for service to God and Israel. How would wearing these vestments affect the way you see yourself in relation to God and the community? This not an entirely theoretical question, for we are taught that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As such, is it not incumbent upon each of us to don the High Priest’s garb, if not physically then metaphorically?

In our role as priests, we are to wrap ourselves not in fine linen, gold and gems but in those human attributes that give glory to the Divine, that do honor to ourselves as partners with God in creation, and that show reverence for the community of humanity of which we are a part. What are these attributes? Kindness, compassion, love for our neighbor, a yearning for justice, and the passion and willingness to act to make the world whole. These are the garb of our priesthood in today’s world.

As we conjure up images of Aaron and his sons entering the Holy of Holies adorned in the magnificent robes and accessories we read about in this week’s Torah portion, let us realize that we are inheritors of a tradition of showing up dressed and ready to do the work of God and humanity. May we, too, adorn ourselves in kavod and tiferet — honor and splendor — for the sacred work that awaits us each and every day.