Friday, May 5, 2017

Why Holiness Isn't Boring

         I used to think that reading about holiness in Leviticus was rather boring. That changed when I was able to reframe my relationship with the text after an in depth study of the first few sentences of chapter 19, also known as the holiness code.  
In Leviticus19:2 God tells Moshe: “Speak to the whole  Israelite community (kol adat) and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God am holy.” 
So what’s unusual here? We’re used to God telling Moshe to speak to the people of Israel but not to the whole Israelite community. That’s new. That’s inclusive – men, women, and children– everyone is included in the term community. 
Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom writes that this is the only place in Leviticus where the term eda occurs in what he called a commission speech - a speech with instructions that are to be heard by every responsible Israelite – and that’s enough to show its importance. 
Other commission speeches containing eda (another form of adat) occur in two places in Exodus: one regarding the preparation of the paschal sacrifice (Exodus 12:3) and another for assembling the building materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:1).
Milgrom goes on to say that the word eda “unambiguously means the entire people Israel … Its unique placement here underscores the importance of the prescriptions that follow: they are quintessentially the means by which Israel can become a holy nation.”
         The verse continues: “...and you, Moshe, will say to them, you [second person plural] shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God, am holy.” 
         So why are we to be holy? Because God is holy. Yes, but what does that mean? We already know that the command to holiness for the people Israel is an inclusive one because it is being given to everyone. And the commandments that come after, commandments that tell us how to behave in order to be holy – to keep Shabbat, to honor one’s parent, tonnot worship idols– are given to us as a group.  The verbs that are used are in the plural.
One might think that such important commandments would be addressed in the singular to one person at a time, or if in the plural, than to small groups of people, not to everyone all at once.  Research suggests that the commandments are written this way to show that any Jew can attain the highest principles of Judaism, can observe the mitzvot and strive for daily holiness – that’s nicely egalitarian.               
         There are commandments that do use singualar verbs. One should note that those with singular verbs are specifically actions between people (bein adam l’chavero) whereas the actions with the plural verbs are related to actions that reflect on God (bein adam l’makom).
         In the commandment to be holy because our God is holy, the verb used is t’hiyu, which means, “you [in the plural] will be.”
         One way to emulate God is to be holy like God. How? We act in holy ways by fulfilling mitzvot that encourage godliness to the world. Our parasha brings us a little closer to figuring out how to do that – through inclusion and equality and the equal opportunity commission of mitzvot.

This dvar appears in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Washington Jewish Week. But it's based on a dvar I wrote years ago in Rabbinical School about holiness. I was prompted to revisit that dvar because of all the turmoil going on in the world today. Particularly in our country, in our government. 

I think it's important for us all to remember that we are put here to emulate the Awesome One Above through bringing acts of holiness into the world. Particularly in the face of insanity. And hopelessness. And craziness. It's the only way we can keep our own sanity and hope and integrity. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbah Arlene



Sunday, March 12, 2017

Purim thoughts 2017

Purim. A holiday when we wear masks and disguises. Our outsides get to take a break from all the posturing that it does on a daily basis. Our innermost selves are allowed to run riot for a day.

Is one aspect of ourselves better than the other? I don't think so. I think sometimes our insides and our outsides get mixed up and we forget what is real. We forget what is truth. And we forget just what is important enough to fight for even if the result is that we make ourselves vulnerable.

May this holiday of Purim remind us of the importance of acknowledging our core and give us the courage to make ourselves vulnerable - especially when we are fighting for something we believe in.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is Seeing really believing?

Parshat Bo  Exodus  10:1-13:16  

While there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not a complete truth. For while it frequently takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to integrate it into our psyche and believe in its authenticity, the belief doesn’t always kick in immediately. We see things and don’t believe them. 
On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing.
That’s what is happening in this part of the Torah. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes. Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites. 
In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, an 18th century rabbi and one of the founders of the Hassidic movement, wrote that a Tzaddik, a righteous person, would need to see such wonders of the Creator only once and be impressed, ecstatic and understand. A rasha (a bad guy like Pharaoh) would need to be told over and over, by a Tzadik (in this case Moses), of God’s wonders and of God’s goodness, and even would forget once time passes. 
Such is the story in a nutshell of Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the release of the Israelites and the attempt to recapture them. Pharoah believes for a moment and denies reality once again.
This story is familiar not just because we tell it each year as part of the Torah reading cycle and then again at Passover. It is familiar because the moral of the story represents a universal truth. Seeing is not always believing, at least not at first sight, even for good people.  Along with sight we need to be convinced intellectually and experientially so that not only do we believe, but also remember that belief and lesson throughout our lives. 
The parsha ends by introducing us to tefillin (phylacteries) (Exodus 13:9). We wear the leather boxes and straps on our heads and on our arms and hands. They contain words of Torah and serve as a physical reminder of our belief in God, of our beginnings as a people and of the need to remember the important things in life and to teach and act on them in each generation.  
Abstract concepts such as the need for dignity, respect, acceptance and freedom cannot remain abstract if we remember and retell them on a regular basis. It is only when we live the lessons learned, when we become Noam Elimelech’s tzaddik, and not only believe but also actuate these lessons in life, that the negatives of history will not repeat. 

Table Talk:
1.  Tefillin are the ultimate aide de memoire, having physical, intellectual and philosophical aspects to them. Can you think of any other items or activities that function in a similar way? 

2. How does belief work in your life to shape the things that you do and are willing to go out of your way for?  

This Dvar Torah was published in the Washington Jewish Week Vol. 53, No. 5   2/2/17

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Be the One to Stand Up!

Ethics of Our Fathers 2:6

Hillel used to say: 
A brutish man cannot fear sin; 
an ignorant man cannot be pious, 
nor can the shy man learn, 
or the impatient man teach. 
He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise. 
In a place where there are no men strive to be a man. 

~~ Or, in words for today ~~

iIf there is no one willing to stand up and take responsibility, 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Miketz/Chanukah - A Single Person Can Make a World of Difference

Torah Portion Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

A common greeting for Chanukah is “Chag Urim Sameach,” meaning happy holiday of lights. The Haftarah that we read on the first Shabbat of Chanukah is Zechariah 2:14-4:7. It contains mention of Zechariah’s vision of the menorah and its lamps or branches that stood and will stand again in the rebuilt Temple.  As we are all well aware, light is a pervasive theme of Chanukah, in fact of most traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice.  Light banishes the long night’s darkness during the winter months. Light spreads hope and openness and transparency. One looks into a flame and becomes mesmerized by the beauty and paradox of a constant light that is ever changing.

I experience a sense of awe, possibility and hope every time I kindle the Chanukah candles and gaze at their flames. There is something about fire. It is powerful and dangerous, yet also cleansing and mesmerizing. The light of the smallest candle can fill a space so much larger than itself. It tells us to take courage, to peer into the darkness, into the cracks and corners of our world and our lives. It illuminates the possibilities of our lives. It reminds me that if the flame of one little candle can breathe such potential, imagine the impact that each of us can make.

One person can make a difference. Witness the legacy of Joseph in the four Torah portions, including this week’s Miketz , that tell his story.  He goes from being  a bratty younger brother who is sold to slavers, is imprisoned in Egypt, becoming its second highest leader, saving the country from famine and finally, forgives his brothers for trying to kill him. If one person can do all of that, just imagine the difference that many people standing as one can make!

The Haftarah, meanwhilie, contains a prophecy about rebuilding the Temple. The prophecy that will be fulfilled in large part due to the pragmatic pluralism practiced by Cyrus the Great over the areas that he governed. Cyrus’ position was to respect and allow the traditions of the people of his empire. It helped keep the peace and ensured that taxes would be received. In many ways this attitude is model of governing for our world today.

Zechariah contains the famous words Lo b’Chayil v’lo b’koach, ki im b’ruchi amar Adonai Tzva’ot “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.” (4:6)

This verse contains a powerful message both for Chanukah and for our world today. We recognize this timelessness and timeliness nightly in the second blessing over the Chanukah candles: bayamim ha-hem -- in those days, bazman hazeh – in this time. It takes more than armies and war and physical strength to make change and to live a good life. It requires faith – in God, in a higher power, in the goodness and possibility of mankind.  When I see the words “but by My Spirit” it tells me that I must nourish a personal godliness while recognizing that the godliness I see in others may be very different from my own.  It requires the moral strength of having one’s own belief while at the same time holding space and respect for others without feeling threatened.

That is what Chanukah represents to me, that Judaism is a constant light that is ever-changing. The faith we hold, the traditions that imbue our lives with meaning, those same traditions that we often fight against, the sense that being a Jew means something – to me this is the answer to the Sages question in the Talmud, MaiHanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Food for Thought: 
1. What does the concept of “light” mean to you?
2. Chanukah was a time of conflict not only against an oppressive ruler but it also was a civil war dealing with religious practices and ideas and the reality of assimilation. Who were the real winners of the Chanukah story?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Vayetze - A seasonal hint: Jacob didn’t ask for so much stuff

Parshat Vayetze  (Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

I always think of this time of year as a time of transition. The trees are almost finished shedding their leaves and the air is charged with the smell of winter. We ourselves are transitioning from the vestiges of the High Holiday season of teshuva and gratitude to the modern world’s all too long season of consumption.  

In Vayetze, we read of the famous Jacob’s Ladder and his receiving of God’s blessing. He vows his loyalty and faith to God, “.... If God will be with me ...and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to put on ... then shall the Lord be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

While Jacob could have asked for anything, he asks only for bread and clothing. Radak, a 12th century commentator, wrote that Jacob asked only for the bare necessities of life. He didn’t even ask for water because one can find water to drink, on (and in), the earth.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, puts it even more starkly, saying that Jacob asked for the essentials, no more and no less. 

As often happens, the Parsha’s message is remarkably relevant for this time of year. We have entered into the season of consumption. Do we really need all that we buy, all that we own? 

I look around my house and I can see so much that I do not need. The mass of possessions in my home make me feel spiritually and creatively stifled as well as embarrassed. Who am I to require so much “stuff?” I know that I am not the only one to be in this situation nor am I the first. Proverbs 30:8  states “... give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me my allotted bread...”  This implies that all we need are the basic necessities lest we are so deprived that we need to resort to theft and so sated that we forsake God.  

For some, Jacob’s request of bread and clothing may seem like too little in a world filled with so much and with people who have so much ambition. The Sages also recognized the simplicity of this request and instructs us to translate the word bread to mean Torah (Breisheit Rabbah). There is no stinginess in considering the Torah as a bare necessity of life; in fact it signifies depth and largess for our souls.   

Each morning in Shacharit we recite the following prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.” The Sages would recite this prayer as they were putting on their shoes. Why? Because shoes were made of leather and therefore a luxury. If one could afford shoes then one’s other basic needs were being met. Today one could argue that in our world of plenty shoes are a necessity and if a luxury, then a low-level one at that. But we must remember that while we are in a time of perceived plenty and invented want, there are many who do not have enough bread to eat nor the money for sufficient clothing. 

Let us take Jacob’s example and realign our lives.  Let us be content with the material basics and aspire to spiritual riches. Let us share what we have with those who are in need. Let us turn this season of consumption into what our lives and time are meant to represent – generosity and caring. 

A version of this dvar has been published in the Washington Jewish Week, December 8, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Multitasking in the Torah: to study and to observe - Bechukotai

Parashat Bechukotai  Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34

     The first verse of Bechukotai (Lev 26:3) reads: “Im Bechukotai teilchu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru v’asitem otam” which is translated as “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments...” There is so much here in this one brief and unfinished sentence!
     It contains two different sets of words, bechukotai (statutes) and mitzvotai (commandments) and then teilchu (follow), tishmoru (observe), and v’asitem (do).
     First we have two types of laws. A chok is a statute for which we do not know the reason. A mitzvah is a commandment or code of law, and is the general category under which all laws fall. 
     Then we have a set of action words: teilchu, tishmoru and v’asitem.  Rashi (11th century) comments that “Follow my laws” would seem to mean “Observe my commandments.” Seems redundant, doesn’t it? We are taught, however, that the Torah doesn’t waste words. So what is the reason in this verse? Rashi explains that “follow my laws” means that one should labor in the study of Torah and “keep my commandments” means that one should actually perform the commandments. His proof text for this distinction is from Deut 5:1 “Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully.”  
     So what is this verse telling us? The most obvious explanation is that it is a set up for the rest of the parsha – the over 40 verses that lay out the rewards for following God’s commandments and the negative consequences if we do not.  We are given another explanation in verse 13, a frequent Torah explanation found in the Torah: ... because “I am the Lord your God.” Therefore we must follow, observe and do all that we are told to do. One practical explanation and one theological explanation; neither however satisfy the reason for the specific words found in this verse. 
     My understanding of the verse is as follows: We are not automatons. God created us with free will, intellect and curiosity. It is quite difficult for us to simply “do” anything. Rashi’s explanation begins to make even more sense.  The verse is telling us that the proper way to keep the commandments and to observe God’s laws is to study them and to understand them as best as we can.  Simultaneously, we must also do them. This isn’t an and/or situation. We follow, study, observe, and do the commandments all at the same time. 
     We observe God’s laws even if they don’t make sense to us while at the same time learning as much as we possibly can about them to satiate that intense craving for knowledge that God instilled in us as humans. What a wonderful life lesson this is. Sometimes we just have to do what we are told, even or especially if we don’t understand the why of the request. But knowledge, and particularly the ability to acquire knowledge, is a powerful thing.  So we learn as much as possible to teach us the following lesson: sometimes we can understand what is being asked of us and sometimes we can’t, despite our best efforts. But if we believe and know that we’ve done the best learning and exploring that we can, then we will be able to accept this obligation as well as the attendant consequences. It’s what it means to live a life as a Jew. 

Food for Thought:
~Are there times in your life when you’ve been told to do something that you thought made no sense? 
~Did you do it anyway? How did you feel about it? 
~Did you try to ultimately learn the reason for the request? 
~I discovered a wonderful website called The Famous Abba.  Tin a post titled “Chukim, mishpatim and ice cream” it lays out the differences between these Torah laws in a way that is funny and for children. Check it out -

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