by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה׳ אֱלֹ-הֵיכֶֽם׃
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your G-d am holy.”
This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins with this commandment. If I were an Israelite, just weeks out of slavery, and was told to “be holy because G-d is holy,” I would be completely confused. In fact, as a 21st Century adult, the commandment is vague at the very least. What does it mean to “be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy?”
Fortunately, the following verses sketch out the ways (and some means) to “be holy.” Here are a few:
Many of these admonitions are punctuated by “I am the Lord your G-d.” This is G-d telling us, “this is how to act. And if you do so, you’ll be walking the path I’m trying to show you. This is what it means to be holy.” This is what it means to be in the image of God (b’tzelem elokim)
Of course the list is punctuated by the most famous of these ethical constructs, “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your neighbor as yourself.) Called the “Golden Rule” by many traditions, a version of this was (“what is hateful to you don’t do to anyone else”—or words to the that effect) attributed to Rabbi Hillel when he was asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot. “All the rest (meaning the rest of the Torah) is commentary. Go study.”
The Torah (translated, “teaching”) is our guide. Our ultimate textbook for being holy, for being in G-d’s image, walking in G-d’s ways. For “being” Torah. And Kedoshim, a few chapters to the left of the Torah’s exact center (where the human heart lies in our anatomy), is, quite literally, it’s at its heart.
by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
“To be honest…” I’ve got a problem this phrase. I’ve noticed people say these three words a lot. Have you said them recently? Every time I hear them, I think to myself, “why do these words need to be said”? Shouldn’t I assume that the words coming out of your mouth are honest? Why would I assume otherwise? These words lead us to believe that any other words that have been said or will be said may actually not be truthful. What kind of society does that mean that we live in? In a time where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to discern fact from fiction, when one of the richest people in the world can just buy an entire social media enterprise on a whim, honesty feels more important than ever.
There is a beautiful midrashic teaching going back to the third day of creation, the day that the grasses and vegetation were created. The verse says, “And The Holy One said, let the Earth sprout vegetation” (Breishit 1:11). The word for vegetation (grass) in Hebrew is Deshe. Rav Mordecai Yaffe (1500’s Prague) teaches that it shouldn’t only be read on face value as “vegetation.” Rather, “DeShE” is an acronym for: Din (justice), Shalom (peace), and Emet (Truth). These three things are the roots of the earth, the foundations of human existence and the conditions by which humanity can exist. Without them, there is war amongst humanity, and desolation.
You may be familiar with the teaching from Pirkei Avot that the world stands on three things, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, worship, and lovingkindness). Here is another three-legged support system for the world: Justice, Peace, and Truth. Without any of these three, the world devolves back into chaos. And although these three were planted like grass before human beings were even created, they can’t last on their own! They need to be cared for, sustained, watered, and lifted up.
We learn in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot,
“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which you human beings shall live (Lev. 18:5)
Reb Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, lived in Ukraine in the 1800s. He notices the letters in Atem (you) are more than just letters. They are the letters of Emet, truth. That’s what it really means to v’chai bahem, to live by the commandments. To lift up truth, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, and to make sure that all human beings are free to live in peace.
We just celebrated Earth Day last week. So this Shabbat, may we take this message to heart and strive to care for justice, peace, and truth the same way we care for the vegetation on the earth.
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
“THREE, TWO, ONE . . . !” In most situations, when we are excited about something, we count down. However, as we began to do on Saturday night, when it comes to the Omer, we count up. As the Torah tells us, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
After being freed from Egyptian slavery, during Passover we move with great anticipation towards our next pivotal experience as a people, Revelation on Mt. Sinai. This is literally meant to be an uplifting experience as Moses climbs the mountain and elevates the status of the people to be a sacred people, a nation of priests. We count up as a spiritual metaphor for climbing in holiness as we create our sacred covenant with G-d.
This idea, of “rising in holiness” (Ma’alin B’kosesh), does not just apply to the Omer and the Sinai moment. Rather, it was adopted as a rabbinic principle that we should strive to embrace at all times in our lives. Jews should always seek those activities that help us to rise in holiness. We should strive to constantly count up! In ritual life that could mean attending more services, observing one more law, or increasing one’s Jewish learning. In ethical life this could mean increasing tzedakah, attempting to improve one’s virtues, or adding more volunteer hours. Regardless, it is during this period of the Omer that we make a concerted effort to rise in holiness as we count up from Exodus to Sinai. Therefore, for each week of the Omer, our Siddur Lev Shalem frames our effort to better ourselves using a theme from the Kabbalistic sefirot. This serves to aid us in our personal journey to rise in holiness. Please join along with us each evening at minyan as we count the Omer, or please use your siddur to do so privately at home, starting this week using this link: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/firstweekoftheomer.pdf
May we all rise in holiness together as we count up during the period of the Omer! Hag Sameah!
by Rabbi Alex FreedmanLeaders-supplement-2022 (1)
Here are four new Passover questions I have for you:
Leading the Seder conversation is a challenge. Let the Seder Supplement help you.
I prepared this updated handout to spark a table discussion. (A big thank you to Abby Lasky for the graphic design).
The Seder Supplement has two front-and-back pages. A few verses from the Torah tell the story of Moses calling for all the Israelites to be freed, not just some. Other verses use the pain of Israelite slavery as an engine to protect the strangers in their communities for all time. Both texts speak of equality.
The second page includes different quotes about equality, inspired by the Torah. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures, these quotes spur us to think about equality in a more sophisticated way.
This first handout is for all the guests; print out a bunch for the table (or share the PDF with virtual guests) to start a conversation. Also print out one copy of the second handout for the Seder leader. This contains my insights on the Torah study, in order to dive a little deeper. It also includes a series of Seder trivia questions to keep things interesting throughout the night.
The Haggadah text itself is a conversation-starter, but sometimes it needs to be unlocked. That’s what the Seder Supplement is intended to be. The word “Haggadah” itself means “Telling the story.” So does the Hebrew word “Maggid,” the longest section of the Seder. The Torah tells us “You shall tell your child on that day [of a future Passover holiday], ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I left Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8). The challenge – and ultimate satisfaction – is to create an experience and conversation that makes it feel as if we ourselves taste both slavery and freedom. So we’ve got to talk about it. The conversation itself is the experience of renewed liberation. After all, only free people can speak freely.
If you’re hosting, feel free to make copies for your guests (in-person and virtual) and adapt to your needs. The hardest part is starting a meaningful conversation. Once it begins, however, it’s as sweet as Haroset.
No Seder leader can control what the guests will say and who will participate. But every Seder leader can prepare for success by organizing in advance questions, stories, songs, games, and topics for discussion.
This Passover, let’s liberate the conversation too.
by Hazzan Jacob Sandler
Parshat Metzora, like its sister parasha Tazria, further discusses the Tzara’at, and the process for regaining ritual purity once affected by it. We learn from the Rabbis that Tzara’at is a spiritual ailment manifesting on the skin of a person. Connecting to the case of Miriam who experienced this disease after speaking ill of Moses’ wife, the Rabbis asserted that it was lashon haRa that caused the Tzara’at. So, it isn’t just skin deep. But Metzora informs us that Tzara’at can also infect our houses. Not only does it go further inward, but tzara’at can spread further outwardly as well.
Leviticus 14:34-35 reads, “When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as a possession, and I place* a lesion of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession, and the one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the kohen, saying, ‘Something like a lesion has appeared to me in the house’…”
Rashi notes that the Hebrew in verse 34 ‘venatati’ literally means “and I give [a lesion, etc.]” He explains that this is good news! The Canaanites hid treasures in the walls of their homes, so when a lesion of Tzara’at appeared, it would cause the Israelites to remove those stones and find it. While I’m sure not every case of tzara’at came with hidden treasure, there’s an opportunity to imagine that when inconveniences or great challenges come into our lives, we should keep our eyes open to the gift God is giving us just behind affected stones.
Life is not always easy. There are global challenges like war, illness, and poverty, and there are more local challenges like managing interpersonal relationships, home repairs, or even just preparing for Pesah — c’mon, we’re all thinking about it. We can choose to see these challenges as they are at the surface, or we can dig deeper. We can look inward to see how we might live better lives to overcome the tzara’at, or we can look outward to see what silver linings and hidden treasures might be waiting for us when we meet the challenge head on and overcome them.
by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
My son Adam was born on the first day of spring, that year, the fifth of Nisan. Just before Pesach. Thirteen years later, he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, his 13th secular birthday on Shabbat HaChodesh. This Shabbat is the 18th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Shabbat HaChodesh (Shabbat of the Month, literally), but really “the” should really be capitalized and italicized so it is Shabbat of The month—the first month—according to the Torah.
It is the Shabbat that heralds in the month of Nisan—the month in which we celebrate Passover. This year, it falls on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of Nisan.
Nisan is the first month of the year. As the text (Exodus 12:2) of the HaChodesh maftir reads:
הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחׇדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
If you are scratching your head at this point, thinking at Tishrei (the beginning of which is Rosh Hashanah) is the first month, I don’t blame you. We send out New Year cards, offer “Shanah Tova” (A good year) greetings—not to mention changing the calendar from one year’s to the next. (At next Rosh Hashanah it will turn from 5782 to 5783!).
In fact, the Torah states that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are all in “Hachodesh hashevi’i”—the seventh month.
So, will the “real” New Year please stand up! Is it the first of Nisan or the first of Tishrei? No wonder you’re confused! (I won’t even go into the other “new” years in our tradition! If you want to know, feel free to give me a call or send an email.)
The answer was certainly the subject of debate among the rabbis of the Talmud, particularly Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua who argued about it in the Babylonian Talmud. Although there was agreement that the calendar has within it more than one new year.
Weighing the significance of events that took place in Nisan vs Tishrei, including the biggies: the creation of the world (Tishrei) and the redemption from exile marked by Nisan, the two Talmudic rabbis had differing perspectives: R. Yehoshua took a more nationalistic/particularlistic stance, viewing the redemption as the pivot point of our existence as a people (not to mention that Nisan is stated as the first month in the Torah.) R. Eliezer took a more universalistic approach, noting the anniversary of the creation of humanity. He believed that issues related to sin and renewal of the spirit relating to everyone pointed to Tishrei as truly the “new year.”
Certainly, both can be true. Although we mark the start of Nisan only as Shabbat Hachodesh (and with little other fanfare than most Rosh Chodesh observances), some Egyptian-Jewish communities around the world that mark the first of Nisan’s as a New Year with much more fanfare with Al-Tawhid (Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew).
And, with that, I wish you a happy season of renewal and redemption as we prepare to welcome chag ha-aviv (the festival of spring), one of the names for Pesach.
by Rabbi Alex Freedman
What if Purim and Passover weren’t two separate holidays? What if they were bookends for a single month-long process?
Rabbi David Hoffman of JTS taught me such. Notice that exactly one month separates the two – Purim is on the 14th of Adar (15th in Jerusalem) while Passover is celebrated on the 15th of Nisan.
The one-word summary of Purim is chaos. Life nearly ended for all the Jews, and then suddenly they were on top. Today Purim is marked by riotous, chaotic fun, costume, and shtick.
When we turn to Pesach, though, we encounter the opposite. In just one word, Passover is about order. The holiday is dominated by the Seder, the step-by-step dinner script whose Hebrew word means “order.” We follow time-tested processes and rules on Seder night to move us to a place where we taste slavery and freedom, literally and metaphorically.
These days drifting from Purim to Passover are themselves a step-by-step personal journey from chaos to order. How appropriate is it that this march happens during March? People can’t turn from one strong emotion to another on a dime. We need time and slow-and-steady progression. And as the days of Passover draw nearer, we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the next stage of the year.
Because these holidays are not the only bookends between which we travel. These very days we emerge from winter to the faint glow of spring. Like us, the natural world doesn’t go from 30 degrees one day to 60 the next (unless you’re in Chicago!). The weather incrementally moves in one direction. Fortunately we are also moving away from the chaos of Omicron’s peak as well. How lucky we are to have Jewish rituals, routines, and traditions – like Shabbat – that provide some order out of life’s chaos.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab
The great Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” This statement, in fact, reflects a very Jewish sentiment that we would be wise to consider seriously. Gratitude, in fact, underlies our very belief system. At the core of our tradition is faith in God. One of the implications of such a belief is that if God is our creator, the natural endowments and blessings we received at birth are not a credit to us, but to our Maker. The gift of our intelligence was not our doing. The physical prowess we may have been born with, endowed by another source. Our creativity, a blessing we received. We can choose to cultivate our gifts, or ignore them. We can use them for good, or for evil. Therein lies the measurement for a life well lived. However, the existence of so many blessings in our lives, including the physical world in which we live, cannot be credited to us. Such a realization should lead one to appreciation – to a sense of gratitude for our lives.
Our great teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the principal characteristic of religious life is a sense of wonder. This posture toward the world is an attempt to cultivate a way of seeing and relating to all of Creation. Wonder broadens our awareness to include concerns beyond the self. It pushes us to be attentive to the quiet call of God asking us to enter into partnership for the betterment of the world. Wonder keeps aflame our awareness of what Heschel refers to as “the great fellowship of all beings.” And religious wonder asks that we attempt to identify the blessings present in our own lives, despite any of the real personal challenges that we may face. Thus, there is a direct relationship between the acknowledgment of God, the wonder of the created world and the concept of gratitude.
Gratitude, therefore, is partially defined as the ability to say thank you to God and others, for it implicitly signifies our recognition that we are not at the center of the universe. It implies that we depend on each other and need each other’s help, deepening our connections. Gratitude, then, leads to humility, to compassion and to kindness. It leads to a sense of fulfillment, peace and happiness. As Cicero stated, it is the parent of all virtues. A little thankfulness can indeed go a long way.
In fact our whole religious system of blessings reflects the critical foundational importance of cultivating gratitude. We say a blessing in appreciation for all of the food we eat, fragrant smells we encounter, wondrous sights we see, wise people we meet and the list goes on. The pages of our prayer book are filled with praises that express thanks to God. “Tov Lehodot Lashem”, the Psalmist says, “It is a privilege (good) to thank God.” For we have so much for which to be thankful! So on a joyous Purim day anticipated our celebration of freedom on Passover let us cultivate our gratitude. Purim Sameah!
by Hazzan Jacob Sandler
It’s that time of year again when Jews around the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Vayikra — Leviticus. Most modern people have some degree of difficulty with this parasha because it deals primarily with the sacrificial system. Whether you salivate at the thought of a fleischig kiddush, or can’t stand the idea of harming animals as part of worship, there’s an awful lot of time spent detailing these offerings. The attention to detail is quite moving. Ours is and was a people who wanted to get it exactly right when it came to worship. Now, 2000 years since we last had a Temple for these animal sacrifices, what can we learn from this system about worship?
There were several kinds of offerings: The Olah – burnt offering, Mincha – grain offering, Hattat – sin/purification offering, Asham – guilt offering, Zevach Shelamim – the peace offering. The Zevah Shelamim also has three types: A Todah – thanksgiving, Neder – vow, and Nedavah – free-will offering.
Prayer has replaced sacrifices as the model for connecting with God, and I believe that the kinds of prayers we offer parallel these offerings like so:
The Olah was fully consumed to demonstrate complete devotion. Prayers of song and praise found in P’sukei D’Zimra allow us to raise our voices in deep devotion to God. Our voices are like the reiach nichoach (pleasing odor) of the smoke rising straight upward.
The Mincha offering was directly replaced by the Mincha service. Mincha offerings required no animals – just flour, oil and some frankincense. Similarly our mincha service is short and sweet, allowing us to check in each afternoon.
In our Tachanun prayers, we ask forgiveness and mercy for the ways in which we missed the mark. And in our Amidah, too, we pray for forgiveness for our sins. Sometimes our sins are bein adam l’Makom (between a person and God), and other times our sins are bein adam l’chaveiro (between multiple people). These prayers and supplications which give us room to reflect, apologize and seek forgiveness are mirrored by the Chatat and Asham offerings. These sought to purify us from our mistakes.
Zevach Shlamim – peace offerings included gratitude, vows and free-will offerings. Much of our liturgy focuses us on Gratitude, particularly in Hallel or Birkot HaShachar. Prayer offers us the chance to resolve to be better and can be a time when we make pledges to give Tzedakah – a feature of the Yizkor service. And the free-will offerings are analogous with the prayers of our hearts. Rather than our usual keva – fixed liturgy, I believe that the voluntary offering is much like our kavanah – our personal intentions, the prayers we say spontaneously or as needed. This way of prayer was always concurrent with sacrifices, modeled by Hannah and other pray-ers in the Tanakh.
I hope that when you come to shul this week and the weeks ahead, you can look closely at the translations, commentaries and footnotes of our Torah reading, so you might begin to see that we’re not so different from the Israelites in our quest to feel close to the Divine. We’ve simply taken a page out of every mothers’ playbook and learned to “use our words.”
By Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
No, not a new Journey cover band. Our own journeys. Each one of us. This week we conclude the book of Shemot, the epic story of a people’s fight for freedom against an oppressor much stronger than them and their journey to become a new free nation, and next week we begin the book of Vayikra, which details the holiness code for behavior and interactions of the Levites. What’s going on here? We can learn a powerful lesson from the Torah here about our own individual journeys.
The Netivot Shalom, Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky, maps out a lesson weaved from the beginning of our story up to this point. When Abraham leaves his homeland to go to a new land, he writes: Not one person has been exactly the same as one other person since the creation of the first human beings. And it happens that every person has their own destination and task that only they can achieve in their lifetime… each person has their own life path to follow, that cannot be compared to the lifepath of others. And this is all said in the language of walking (from Lech Lecha – “holech = walk”), to show that this is the task of every Jew, to always be walking and progressing forward on their path towards their destination.
Each one of us has our own journey that is entirely unique, and what is important is that we continue to progress on our own journey, always learning and growing. Jewish law is called “halacha” which can be translated as “the path” or “the way.” Our goal as human beings should be to never stop learning, never stop moving on our life pathways.
And so finally we arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei. In the very last verse we read, “For the cloud of the Holy One is on the Tabernacle throughout all their journeyings (Exodus 40:38)…” And we learn that it says, “throughout all their journeys,” with regard to the 42 stops on the journey enumerated in Parashat Mas’ei (later in the book of Numbers when we retell this story), the Ba’al Shem Tov writes: Every Jew throughout their lifetime goes through all 42 journeyings of the People of Israel. And so when it says, “These are the journeyings of the People of Israel,” it is referring to the journeyings of every single Jew, who came out of “Egypt (Mitzrayim),” which we can translate in English as “the narrow place.” Every human’s journey begins from when they exited their mother’s womb (the narrow place) to their arrival in the “land on high.”
And this is what we’ve learned in the book of Exodus, which starts with the portions on exile in Egypt and redemption, which was the birth of Israel. And then they begin on their 42 journeyings. Throughout their journeys there were times when they flourished and grew, like with the giving of the Torah, and there were times when they fell… just like every single person in their lifetime goes through moments of upward journeyings and downward journeyings, and through all of them they arrive at their purpose: to arrive at and make space for Holiness within themselves and in their lives.
So as we enter Shabbat this week, what are some ways you can open yourself up to holiness? How can you continue to learn and grow and walk on your own unique path? See you on the journey.
January – All for One and One for All
“Come together, right now, over me!” This Beatles lyric might be familiar to some, but what does it mean to come together? What does it truly look like? The Chassidic master Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the “Netivot Shalom” teaches us that throughout all of the people of Israel’s journeying, when the Torah talks about the places to which they traveled and the places in which they camped, a plural verb is used: They camped, they journeyed, etc. However, when Israel camps next to Mount Sinai, the text says, “vayichon sham Yisrael neged hahar (Exodus 19:2),” “And Israel (singular) camped in front of the mountain.”
בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃
19:1. In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.
19:2. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
The Ten Commandments are also written in singular form. Some commentators explain that this is because each person heard the Ten Commandments addressed to her/himself alone, in a way that that specific person could hear, understand, and internalize.
The Netivot Shalom offers us another explanation. He says that at the moment that the people camped at Mount Sinai and prepared for the giving of the Torah, they became, “b’lev echad k’ish echad,” “of one heart as one person.” They had joined their hearts and their souls together to become one. Not only that, each and every Israelite had to be there in order for that one heart, that one person, to be complete. Judaism comes alive when we celebrate it in community. It is only in gathering together that we can reach our fullest potential.
The Netivot Shalom usually likes to tie his teachings to Shabbat in some way, and this teaching is no exception. In this parashah we get the 4th commandment, to remember the 7th Day. Later on in the book of Shemot, it says,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃ שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַה׳
“And Moses gathered the assembly of the people of Israel together and said to them, ‘these are the things which God has commanded you to do: for six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be for you a holy rest…” (Exodus 35:1-2)
The question is what are we supposed to actually do? This quote makes it seem as though Shabbat is just about refraining from doing. Rather, the Netivot Shalom says that what we are supposed to do is to follow Moses’s example and gather the people. When we gather together in communities and congregations, that is how we deepen the holiness of Shabbat.
After the events of last Shabbat in Colleyville, it seems even more daunting and dangerous to come together in community. But even in the face of that trauma, there are so many ways that we can connect and be together, support each other and “come together”. As we enter into Shabbat this week, I invite you to think about and discuss with your family the following questions:
May we see each other and gather and pray together again soon
December 9th – Healing with Tears
You may have noticed that there’s a lot of crying in this week’s Torah portion. Most of it is coming from Joseph. In fact some commentators call Joseph “ba’al bechi,” “the master cryer.” And they are in awe of Joseph for how expressive he is with his feelings. And there is one particular instance that sticks out that the commentators focus on. It is when Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers and he and his brother Benjamin embrace for the first time.
וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל צַוָּארָיו
And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept as well.
They’re weeping tears of joy at being reunited, but also tears of sadness for all that they have lost and for all that they have missed. Rashi gives what seems like a strange commentary to this verse. He says that Joseph is weeping for the two temples that will be destroyed that will be in Benjamin’s future territory, and that Benjamin is weeping for the Mishkan in Shiloh that will be destroyed that will be in Joseph’s future territory.
And the rabbis are confused by this! Reb Yechezkel of Kozimir says, “This doesn’t make any sense! At a time of reunification and brotherhood, why would they be crying about these things that will happen in the future? And all the more so, why are they crying about these things that won’t even be happening to them, but will be happening in a territory that is inhabited by the other one’s tribe?” And the answer is this. Benjamin and Joseph knew that the reason that they were separated by their brothers was because of Sin’at Chinam, senseless hatred. They saw the future destructions that would befall the Jewish people, and knew that these also would be because of senseless hatred. It is for this reason that they wept.
As I thought about this beautiful idea, I noticed yet again the words from the Psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy: “Ohavei Adonai Sin’u Ra,” “Those who love the Divine, hate evil.” And this is what it is talking about. In a world of increasing divisiveness, it is so important that we recognize hatred and call it out. Joseph and Benjamin give us the answer to hatred. It is embrace. It is love. It is holding each other and crying together. If we can be true in our hearts, we can bring more light and joy to this world. Or zarua latzadik ul’yishrei lev simchah. Light is planted through righteousness, and joy comes to those who are true of heart. This can only happen together. It can only happen with love.
November 11th Thursday Thought:
The “I” Gets in the Way
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. In this week’s parashah, Vayeitze, Jacob runs away from Be’er Sheva, away from his brother Esau, and comes upon a certain place and stops for the night. There he has a famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and coming down. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati!” “Surely the Holy One is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Our sages teach us that every single word in the Torah is intentional and there is some meaning behind it. Rav Shimshon from Ostropol taught us to look at the last letters of each of these words: “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה” The last letters spell the word “נשמה,” “Soul.” Even though the whole world is filled with Divine Glory, the central essence of the Divine is in the soul.
But the key is “Va’anochi lo yadati,” “and I did not know it!” Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches about the verse, “אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-ה’ וּבֵינֵיכֶם (Devarim 5:5),” “I stand between the Divine and you,” I-ness, ego, self-centeredness, is the screen that separates between human and the Divine. If we are able to see through the screen of the ego, of our own self, we open ourselves up to the rest of the world, to what is greater than the self alone.
It’s not easy to see through the screen, to turn down all of the noise of everything else in our lives and find a moment of deep connection. That’s what Shabbat allows us to do if we find a time to truly allow ourselves to enter into it. This Shabbat, I pray that we find our way past the screen of “i-ness,” to find a moment of rest, a moment of divinity, a moment of true Shabbat.
October 21st Thursday Thought: Vayera
We’re exactly halfway through the month of Cheshvan, the second month on the Jewish calendar and one with no holidays in it. From the end of Simchat Torah to Hannukah (9 weeks!) we have no holidays to celebrate. Perhaps that’s why the Torah portions that we read during this time are some of the most iconic, with the most incredible stories and lessons to be learned. The creation story, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah and the adventures of our ancestors all the way through the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
We listen to and learn the incredible stories of these characters and how they navigated walking through the world in their time. They had so many flaws! Each of them made mistakes along their journeys, but they continued to strive throughout their lives to make themselves and the world better.
Amidst all of these stories, there are little gems and pearls of wisdom hidden on the pages that our chassidic masters pull out to teach us life lessons. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see Abraham arguing with God, asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find just 50 righteous people in the city. And God responds, “Im emtza Chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir… (Bresishit 18:26)” “If I find just 50 righteous people in the city…”
Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a famous chassidic rebbe, zooms in on those words “b’toch ha’ir,” “In the city” and discovers something incredibly powerful. He says, “It’s not enough to find 50 righteous people who are ‘benchwarmers’ in the study hall (i.e. studious rabbis and text learners who study in the ivory tower), rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still remain righteous! Only on the merit of those people will God save the city.”
It’s easy to be a tzadik, a righteous person, when you don’t engage with the world. It’s much harder to be out in the city, out on the streets, out engaging and interacting with human beings all the time, and still remain a tzaddik. To be righteous is to be able to interact with human beings at our worst and still find love and compassion and warmth in your heart for our fellow humans. As we enter into Shabbat this week, let’s strive to be righteous in the eyes of Rebbe Simcha Bunim and find a little more love in our hearts to spread over the world.
Sukkot Thursday Thought: Bring Your Own Spark 9/22/21
In 2013, I spent Sukkot in Los Angeles for the first time. I had moved to LA a month earlier to start a job as the artist-in-residence of a large Conservative synagogue and was living in a house directly behind the shul. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles actually has the right temperature for a Fall, outdoor holiday with celebratory evening dinners. It’s just like the ancient Israelites would have celebrated it!
I had grown up building a sukkah every year with my family, but this was the first year I would have a sukkah of my own. I was so excited, and decided I was going to design it myself and build it out of PVC pipes and tarps. I took measurements, mapped it all out, and went to Home Depot to pick up all of the supplies. A friend came over and we spent the whole day putting it all together. We were so proud of our creativity, independence, and handiwork, and I was especially proud of my design.
The next morning, I woke up and went to take a look at my beautiful sukkah, and it was in shambles on the ground. It had been a very windy night and the sukkah had blown over! The PVC pipes I had purchased were too narrow, and weren’t able to hold up the wooden beams and bamboo mats we were using for the roof. I was disappointed but undeterred. I went back to Home Depot and reinforced the side poles and put down sandbags to anchor the structure.
And it held! Seven nights and days of celebration ensued, with sukkah hops, teen programming, 20s and 30s meals, study sessions, and more. I loved getting to welcome people into my sukkah. In the Torah we read about Sukkot, “Kol Ha’ezrach b’yisrael yeishvu b’sukkot (Leviticus 23:42), Every citizen of Israel should dwell in sukkot.” The Ba’al HaTanye, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that the word “ezrach,” citizen, really comes from the language of “zericha,” shining. Every person shines and sparkles and lights up with all the goodness and the beauty. And every spark of holiness and the radiance of the mitzvot – that’s what we should bring into the sukkah.
One of the other names for Sukkot is “Z’man simchateinu, The time of our joy.” Our sages teach that “Z’man,” time, really comes from the language of “zimun v’hazmana – summons and invitation.” In this holiday we invite in joy to last us the whole year.
This Shabbat will be my first monthly visit to Beth El. I am so excited to begin this journey together this year – a journey of music, prayer, Torah, learning, and growth. I invite you to join me this Shabbat at Beth El as we celebrate the double joy of Shabbat and Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot together. Bring your individual holy spark, bring your singing voice, and we’ll create the joy of z’man simchateinu together.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom