By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
When people think of Rabbi Harold Kushner – the Conservative rabbi who passed away Friday at age 88 – they often associate him with the best-selling 1981 book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And correctly so. That was a wonderful example of sharing Jewish wisdom with the larger world. If that had been his only teaching, Dayeinu – that would have been enough of a career accomplishment.
While I did read that book years ago, it’s not how I think of him as a teacher. That’s because I am grateful to learn from him in a very real way every single week – and you might too without even realizing it.
He was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash commentary below the line (Drash). So if you are ever in shul following the Torah reading with the Humash, and your eyes wander to the bottom of the page, you are reading Kushner. These comments and insights share timeless treasures from the Torah verses. These short sentences instantly help us understand sometimes cryptic passages and stories. And they add holiness to those precious words.
Here is but one example from this week’s reading, Emor. The topic is the role of priests and how to maintain their ritual purity. The Torah says “and you must treat [the Priests] as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy” (Lv. 21:8).
Let me quote Kushner’s comment on that idea:
“Rabbis and cantors are no different from other Jews. They have no special powers; no obligations devolve on them that do not apply to all Jews. ‘Ten shoemakers can make a Minyan but nine rabbis can’t.’ Nonetheless, they are considered Klei Kodesh – instruments of holiness – because, through their knowledge and teaching and by life, character, and commitments, they show the way to a life of holiness.”
Rabbi Kushner was a mensch and certainly did not intend to glorify himself with those words. But those same words certainly apply to him. Many of us – plenty of rabbis included – have followed his lead to a life of holiness.
While he has sadly passed away, his words endure forever for they are printed for all of us to read. I and many other Jews who read the Humash every week will continue to learn from his wisdom without end.
May his memory be a blessing.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
From Parashat Kedoshim, the second of our two parshiyot we read this Shabbat, we learn this golden rule from Vayikra 19:18: V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha, Love your neighbor as yourself.
In the midst of the Holiness Code that spans Chapters 17-26, this biblical quote potentially sums up the entirety of the Torah, as it is written: “One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!’”
When we look at verse 18 in its entirety, this Talmudic story brings out the meaning of this verse that much more: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.” At the heart of the Holiness Code in the central book of the Torah, we are reminded by this verse that we have the potential to understand the holiness of God through our personal experiences and our interpersonal relationships.
In certain traditional Jewish circles, children start their Torah learning not with the book of Genesis, but with the book of Leviticus. But by truly understanding Vayikra 19:18, we are also reminded of the beginning of the Torah, when God created us B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, we were each given holiness, that spark of the divine that dwells within every human being.
In the middle of this biblical book detailing the various sacrifices offered by our Israelite ancestors, we find this golden rule nestled among these details. We are reminded that while our prayers have now replaced these korbanot, these offerings, that at the heart of it all, we can find holiness: holiness within ourselves and empathy towards others. Loving ourselves and thinking of how our thoughts, words and actions can affect others can help each of us to make choices that will help us increase in holiness, ultimately emulating the divine holiness given to each of us back at the beginning of the Torah.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
This past week we observed Yom HaShoah and this Shabbat, we will read from parshat Tazria-Metzora. The latter was my Bar Mitzvah portion 16 years ago. Back then, I wrote my first D’var Torah which connected the double parasha to the Holocaust, and what follows are those words I wrote in 2007, which continue to be relevant even today. I hope this #ThrowbackThursday is enjoyable to you, and you should feel free to share it with a B’nai Mitzvah student you know, who might especially get a kick out of seeing what their Hazzan was thinking about at their age. May this also serve as a reminder that deep insights can be learned from those who study Torah at any age, and those insights can remain inspiring even as they continue to grow.
Today’s Torah portion is Parashat Tazria Metzora which comes to us from the Book of Vayikra. Tazria Metzora is a double portion that focuses on the ritual purity and impurity of the Israelites’ bodies, clothing and homes.
Parashat Tazria begins by talking about the laws of human contamination. It talks about how a woman is impure at the time of childbirth and teaches us the specific rituals needed in order to become ritually pure again. The parasha continues with specific information on inflammations, burns on the skin, and an affliction similar to leprosy, called Tzara’at, which would appear on the head or face.
Parashat Metzora continues by talking about the stages of purification and discusses the Tzara’at of the house [as well as] the measures needed to purify or destroy a contaminated house. Finally, parashat Metzora ends with what to do about normal and abnormal human discharges.
The Torah states (Lev. 14:34-45), כְּנֶגַע נִרְאָה לִי בַּבָּיִת׃. “when you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an irruptive plague upon a house… The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest [something like a plague has appeared in my house]… The priest shall order the house cleared… And the priest shall enter to examine the house. the house becomes quarantined, and when the priest returns if the affliction has spread to the walls of the house, the contaminated portions and stones are removed. If the plague again breaks out… The house shall be torn down and taken to an impure place outside the city.“ “וְנָתַץ אֶת־הַבַּיִת…אֶל־מִחוּץ לָעִיר אֶל־מָקוֹם טָמֵא׃”
In other words, the house is examined, then the house is examined again, then the priest will decide whether or not the house will be torn down.
This is so interesting and this is so challenging. Who ever heard of walls, breaking out with an affliction, and then asking the Cohannet to come and look at the house? It’s so bizarre! So, I turned to the Talmud to help me understand it.
The Rabbis in the Talmud (Mishnah Eruvin 8:2:21) said, ‘bayit ham’nuga lo haya’ בית המנוגע לא היה – a house that carries the affliction of Tzara’at does not exist, ’v’lo atid lihyot’ ולא עתיד להיות – and will not exist in the future! When I first heard this, I said to myself, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. The case of an infected house never existed, and will never exist? then why did I, and why should we, spend so much time studying about it?!?’ And the Talmud asks the same question, “lama nichtav – למה נכתב?” Why is it written in the Torah? דרוש וקבל שכר (d’rosh v’kibel s’char) – it is written in the Torah, so that we can study and expound upon it, and receive divine reward for our efforts. So I will do just that.
As our sages studied this Parsha, they concluded that Tzara’at in the house was caused by Lashon HaRa – the evil tongue – or gossip. But I would like to take this one step further. The outbreak of Tzara’at could be used as a metaphor for what could happen to a society when they don’t take notice of any kind of misconduct, even something very small.
For example, this past Sunday, we observed Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. I feel that Tzara’at could be a metaphor for what happened in Nazi Germany. The Nazis spread negative propaganda against the Jews. They used blame and lies to make it seem like the Jews were responsible for all the bad things happening in Germany and the world. Using this metaphor, the Nazis’ use of Lashon HaRa would cause the affliction of [metaphorical] tzara’at within Germany and all Nazi occupied territory.
We can draw a parallel to today’s Parsha. Nazi Germany became an infected house. Those who resisted and the Allies would be like the Kohanim. The Kohanim determined the house was impure and had to be destroyed. And as we know the Allies realized that in order to save the Jews, and all the victims of the Shoah, Hitler and the Nazis had to be destroyed.
We can all learn from this Parsha. We can learn the rituals involved in purifying a house. We can also look for ways to purify ourselves. As a people, let us all act as the Kohanim, refraining from misconduct in order to avoid the spread of tzara’at in our lives.”
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Be kind to the stranger: they may grow up to change the world, or at least yours.
If courage had a hall of fame, Shifra and Pua would stand at its entrance. These two women star at the beginning of the Passover story, whose story continues to be told on the final days of Pesach. These two women are largely unknown, which is a shame. For their example continues to lead us.
Shifra and Pua are the Hebrew midwives charged with delivering the Israelite babies. Pharaoh commands them to kill the baby boys but let the girls live. The Torah continues, “The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the King of Egypt instructed. They let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17).
When Pharoah saw Jewish babies being born, he confronted Shifra and Pua. “How could you let them live?” he cried out. They replied, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous. Before the midwife can reach them, they’ve given birth.”
Their act of bravery is the first recorded act of civil disobedience, so timely in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Are these remarkable women Jewish? I don’t believe so. “Hebrew midwives” can mean midwives for the Hebrews. Why would Pharaoh ever expect a Jewish woman to murder Jewish babies? Instead they are two Egyptian women who fear G-d more than Pharaoh, who refuse to take part in a crime against humanity. Shifra and Pua see the stranger as themselves and are thus worth saving. Who knows who these innocent babies might grow up to be?
We do. Moses was one of them. Moses, whose people would one day create in the state of Israel a Tel Aviv maternity hospital at the intersection of Shifra and Pua Streets.
There’s an inspiring story in my favorite Haggadah, called A Different Night. It goes like this:
“One Sunday morning in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, a mysterious character rode up on his bicycle and entered the Calvinist Church. He ascended the podium and read aloud the story of the midwives who saved the Hebrew babies and defied Pharaoh’s policy of genocide. “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” he asked.
“Hitler,” the congregation replied.
“Who are today’s Hebrew babies?”
“Who will be today’s midwives?”
He left the church, leaving his question hanging in the air.
During the war seven families from this little church hid Jews and other resisters of the Nazis.”
Shifra and Pua inspired these families to see the stranger as an insider, not an outsider. They changed the world for these families.
This time we recall the Exodus story, let us not only condemn Pharaoh but also praise his midwives for their unmatched bravery. The Exodus experience reveals humanity at its lowest point and at its highest.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Here are four new Passover questions I have for you:
1. Has your Seder discussion gotten stuck?
2. How do you take this ancient story and refresh it for 2023?
3. How do you engage both kids and adults?
4. How do you interest both Seder rookies and veterans?
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 Shari Imbo for the graphic design).
The Seder Supplement has two front-and-back pages. A few verses from the Torah tell the story of Pharaoh deciding to enslave the Israelites and foreshadow Egyptian oppression.
The second page includes different quotes about oppression, inspired by the Torah. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures, these quotes spur us to think about oppression 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.
Text Study: The Seeds of OppressionWhat motivates Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites? |Torah: Exodus 1:8-14
Text Study: The Seeds of OppressionWhat motivates Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites? | Torah: Exodus 1:6-14
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg
In this week’s second portion of Vayikra, parashat Tzav, Moshe and Aharon learn what to do in order to start offering the various types of Korbanot, the sacrifices, which were introduced in last week’s parashah: the olah (burnt), the minchah (gift), the hattat (sin), the asham (guilt), the milluim(inauguration), the shelamim (peace) offerings.
The final korban shelamim is unique from many of the other sacrifices. Unlike the others that were either completely burned on the mizbei’ah, the altar, or were eaten by the Kohanim, the priests, a shelamim was divided: some was burned on the mizbei’ah, some was given to the priests, and some was eaten by the people who brought it. It was shared between God, the Kohanim, and the individual who brought the shelamim.
When you hear the name of this particular sacrifice, shelamim, it has a similar sound to an even more familiar Hebrew word, shalom, peace, as they share the same shoresh, or Hebrew root: Shin-Lamed-Mem.
Rashi, our favorite French commentator from 1,000 years ago, said the following about this shelamim/shalom connection: “They are called shelamim because they bring shalom, peace, to the mizbei’ah, and to the kohanim, and to the person bringing the korban.”
This is a beautiful idea, that the sharing of this particular sacrifice allows this gift to be shared between God, the priests, and the one who brings it. There is an idea that shalom increases, according to Rashi’s understanding, when one brings a shelamim to the mizbei’ah.
While we no longer offer sacrifices on a divine altar today, we have replaced this practice with the offering of tefilot, of prayers, instead. These are our gifts to God in our modern lives.
The instructions for bringing a shelamim sacrifice include these words: yadav tevi’enah, their hands will bring it (Vayikra 7:30). Today, we pray, not by offering sacrifices or physical gifts to God on an altar, but rather by reciting prayers from the siddur, as well as the prayers of our hearts.
An idea that one can glean from yadav tevi’enah is that one should have kavanah, the intention of directing one’s own prayers to God. There is a one-to-one relationship between each of us and God. While a prayer leader prays on our behalf, we are encouraged to not let that detract from our direct and individualized personal relationships with God.
Shelamim, while related to shalom, means whole or complete. When we direct our personal prayers to the Divine, we have the opportunity to feel whole within ourselves. And with that feeling of wholeness often comes a feeling of inner peace. When we offer up our gifts, our deepest personal prayers, whether from the siddur or from our own hearts, we open up a relationship for God to give us the gift of inner peace and wholeness.
May we all find that personal connection with God when we pray, and in doing so, I wish for all of us that, through the channel of prayer, we receive back that gift of inner peace within ourselves, and a whole and holy relationship with the Divine.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Chodesh Tov! Today marks the beginning of the Hebrew month Nisan – a name that actually came from the Babylonians. The original Hebrew name of this month was Chodesh Aviv – the month of Spring. With it comes the two-week warning that Passover is on its way, and in exactly 2 weeks, we’ll be gearing up for the second seder and the start of the counting of the Omer.
It’s a new month, and a new season. It’s also a new book of the Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus. The Book and parasha which bears his name speak to us about how to worship God. What offerings to bring, and when. We learn how to use that Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, the completion of which was one of the moments the Exodus was complete, as Rabbi Freedman taught us last week.
The korbanot (offerings) we read about and recall from both Tabernacle and Temple times, have long since been replaced with prayer services. Offerings of words rather than animals. Pleasing odors have been replaced by pleasing voices, and it is our prayers that bring us closer (karov) to God, ourselves, our Jewish community and the world. Karov – closeness is famously the Hebrew root of the word Korban, often translated as sacrifice or offering. A Korban is more deeply understood as a means by which we draw closer to God.
And how fitting that these Korbanot are elucidated in the Book of Vayikra which translates to “He called.” Two letters are shared in the root Vayikra (and He Called) Kuf-Resh-Alef and Korban (offering) Kuf-Resh-Bet. Calling out to one another, calling each other in, also draws us closer to each other. This connection is famously played upon in the Ashrei: Karov Hashem lechol Kor’av, lechol asher yikra’uhu be’emet – God is close to all who call Him; to all who call out to Him in truth. When we call out to God with honesty, sincerity, and integrity, we can draw closer to Hashem. So while the next few weeks will surely be filled with details about what and how to offer animals to God, I encourage each of us to consider the intentions behind these offerings, and examine how our words, our prayers, our songs can be offered up and draw us nearer to who we want to be, and nearer to God.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Precisely what was the moment when the Exodus from Egypt was complete? I think most people would answer that the Israelites’ crossing the split sea was the finish line. That physical border marked the transition in identity from slaves to free people.
But it goes deeper than that, says our tradition. A number of years ago I was a rabbi in New Jersey when I shared that the Exodus was truly complete only when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai 7 weeks later. We know this anniversary as the holiday of Shavuot, which is connected to Passover in a deep way: from the second night of Passover, Shavuot is exactly 7 weeks later, which demonstrates the deep connection between the two. The Jewish people began their physical liberation at Passover but became spiritually free only at Sinai when they received the Torah. Why? Because a people without a constitution is not a society but a mass prone to anarchy. The Torah is the Jewish people’s constitution, which outlines our holidays, values, memories, and norms. Expressing these marked the next step toward freedom.
When I shared this in New Jersey, we happened to be joined by a scholar in residence from JTS. Professor Ben Sommer was most recently from Chicago, and is a standout Bible professor. And he moved the finish line back even further than I did.
He says that it’s our portions this week – Vayakhel and Pekudei – that truly complete the story of the Exodus. This is obvious from a technical standpoint – these two portions conclude the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus. But this is true thematically as well. He says the goal of the Exodus was not only to liberate the Jewish people but to make G-d’s presence manifest in the world. And it is in these Torah readings when the Mishkan/Tabernacle was finally complete. Of course the Tabernacle served as the sanctuary, the physical manifestation of the spiritual relationship between G-d and the Israelites. It was in this space that G-d’s presence was most felt and obvious. In other words, G-d’s presence was felt in the world in a way that it simply could not be when Israel was enslaved.
I compare it to the feeling of returning home from a trip out of town. What is the moment when you ‘return home’? On one level, it’s the moment when you enter the front door again. That feels wonderful. But you are still tired and clutching your bags. The moment you are truly home is when you put your things down, sit on the couch, hug your family, and finally take a breath. In other words, it’s not a moment but a process.
The same was true for the Israelites: freedom was a process, and completing the sanctuary was an important step.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
While this saying may have originated with Alexander Pope in the 18th century, it is a tale as old as time, and its biblical origins may be found within this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa.
This week, our Mishkan-building story is interrupted by the famous communal faux pas where the Israelites, lacking their leader (as Moshe had been up on Har Sinai receiving the Torah from God for over a month), built Egel haZahav, the Golden Calf, to replace him, and/or to attract a new leader.
This incident seems out of place for the timeline of events surrounding our receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai back in parshat Yitro. But as we know, Ein Mukdam o-M’uchar baTorah, there is no early and late in the Torah. This is the very reasoning biblical commentators use to explain why something seems out of chronological order.
Using that logic, the Torah had not yet been revealed to them. That 2nd commandment, You shall have no other gods but Me, had not yet been given to them. Is it possible that the Israelites did not know that they were doing something wrong? Were they fully to blame?
The timing was such that perhaps they simply did not know that what they were doing was fully wrong or could be interpreted as sinful.
Sometimes we, too, make mistakes without realizing the errors of our ways. Whether accidentally or purposefully, transgressions happen, iniquities occur, and we still need to deal with the repercussions regardless.
Upon his descent from Har Sinai with the two tablets, Moshe smashes them in anger upon seeing the Golden Calf, then proceeds back up the mountain, where God was even angrier. It took Moshe’s convincing God not to punish B’nai Israel. God’s mercy is revealed to Moshe here, and shortly after this incident, we read the famous list of God’s 13 Middot (attributes), through which B’nai Israel are ultimately forgiven by God.
All people commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives them, and people are acting in a godlike or divine way when they forgive. This is my understanding of the famous quote: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” In the heat of the moment, it can sometimes be difficult to see the bigger picture. But by trying to emulate as many of the divine attributes as possible, we can make good choices in response to incidents that happen to us and to the people in our community.
We should take into consideration the 13 middot, those merciful and forgiving aspects of God, and always try our best to be our best. While we are fallible human beings, we always have the opportunity for self-improvement, for working on our relationship within ourselves, with one another, and ultimately with God.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
In this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh, God tells Moshe to instruct the people about the priestly garments, sacral vestments made of “Zahav, t’chelet, v’argaman, v’tola’at shani” – Gold, and blue, purple and crimson yarns.
In that list, I hear echoes of the very special materials used just last week in parashat terumah to make the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites in the wilderness. Those included Gold, silver, bronze, blue and purple and crimson among other things.
When it came to creating a sacred space for God’s presence to dwell, it took the best of the best materials. When much of the same stuff is used to make the priestly vestments, it subtly shows us the holiness of the person wearing them. It even says, “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment” Dignity and Adornment – l’chavod ul’Tifaret (Kavod and Tiferet). Respect and beauty.
We all know ‘clothes don’t make the man’ but what we wear does matter. Clothing allows us to express our individuality, or in the case of a sports jersey or other uniform, can communicate our association with a community, team or other collective. What we wear sends a message, and not only to those around us observing us, but our clothing can also send a message to ourselves. When we put on our Shabbat best, we show ourselves that Shabbat is a special day, worthy of being dressed up for — like a wedding. During the pandemic, I was on the job search, and I always wore my full suit — even the pants, belt and shoes — to my zoom interviews. Why? Nobody saw my shoes or below my waist. Would it have really mattered if I interviewed in a shirt, tie, jacket and pajama pants? I think the feeling of being in certain clothing affects how we perceive ourselves and thus impact how we act in the world.
There are many examples of the importance of our garments. Our Tallit and Tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot. On High Holidays, I wear an all-white Kittel, and a special hat called a Mitre to hearken back to the Priestly robes and headdresses — and all white to represent the purity I hope to achieve through the prayers and repentance. And perhaps most relevant with Purim just around the corner, (Monday Night and Tuesday — join us), we sometimes dress up in zany costumes as a profound reminder of how God can be concealed in everyday miracles, hidden beneath the surface of otherwise ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ events.
So what will you wear? And what do you hope your clothing will say about you to others? What will your outward appearance inspire you to be on the inside?