“Dispelling the dark with the lights of Chanukah“
Torah Commentary on Parshat Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1–40:23
As Published in the Jewish News
After all our efforts to separate Chanukah and Christmas, pushing back against the tide of assimilation, our constant declarations that these are completely different, unrelated, and distinct holidays, and despite their chronological proximity … it’s no accident that both holidays are celebrated at this time of year. It’s no mere coincidence that both are associated with the lighting of lights, stringing lights on trees, around homes, or placing lights in windows. Because, in fact, Christmas and Chanukah are related through a common symbol.
Before there was a Christmas, and before there was Chanukah, there was another festival at this time of year. At the time of the winter solstice, when the days reach their shortest duration and the nights their longest, our prehistoric ancestors celebrated a festival. Fearful that the day would continue to dissolve into one endless night and that the sun would never return, they exercised rites of sympathetic magic to bring the day back, so they lit bonfires. These were lights on earth offered up in hopes of rekindling the lights of the sky. Fearful of the night demons that would fly free on the longest night of the year, they huddled around blazing hearths. And they celebrated the victory of the little light against the massive darkness. The lighting of lights brought the return of day.
It was an attractive symbol for our Maccabean and Rabbinic ancestors. No longer afraid of physical darkness, they perceived in the solstice a symbol of a spiritual darkness: all the forces of the world aligned to extinguish the light of Torah. Antiochus’ Hellenism was all-encompassing. Everyone was turning to Greek culture, except a small band of country priests led by Mattathias and his sons. The story of the small cruse of oil that burned eight days is not a fairy tale, nor a distraction from the Maccabees’ accomplishments; it is a metaphor. It was a miracle that a small bit of light dispelled a great deal of darkness. It is meant to show that the Jews of the time were committed to the light of Torah, all the darkness of Hellenism was repelled and the nation redeemed. So they seized the symbols of the ancient pagan festival, but changed their meanings: The lights in our windows this Chanukah are meant not to chase away solstice darkness, but to reaffirm our commitment to the light of Torah in a world of spiritual darkness.
Ironically, the same thought struck our Christian cousins. For them, it was the darkness of sin that encompassed the world — the human inability to act with pure conscience and selflessness. And only God’s true grace, through the coming of Jesus, could save humankind. Christians believe Jesus entered the world and his light dispelled the darkness of sin. Our Christian cousins also seized upon the solstice festival as a symbol. They celebrated the joyful coming of light into a darkened world, the coming of hope into a world of despair, the promise of day in a world of night. They believe in the miraculous birth of the messiah-child. And they used the same ancient pagan symbols, lights in their windows, lights in their hearths, to symbolize it.
For Jews, the lights of Chanukah symbolize the constant rebirth of the Torah, even amidst our most pressing darkness. For Christians, the lights of Christmas symbolize the redeeming arrival of Jesus into a world blinded by the oppressive darkness of sin. Each represents God’s great act of love; what Jews call “rachamim” and Christians call “grace.” But they are different kinds of lights and different kinds of love.
We must choose which lights to light this holiday. This is not a choice among factual accounts of the world. Even those of us totally committed to Judaism and to Jewish activism must admit that a peek at almost any morning newspaper might sway us to the Christian assertion that humanity is bogged down in sin and unable to redeem itself. But neither conception is empirically true or false. Each reflects an orientation — an approach to the world — and our role in it is a choice among core values.
We choose which lights to kindle. At stake is our commitment to redemption and how it might happen. At stake is what we are meant to do for its sake. At stake is our fundamental perception of the human ability to perfect the world into God’s kingdom. At stake is our conception of our world, and our role in its perfection. The question of which lights to kindle really asks us: Which world do we choose to live and do Jewish in? Which role in that world do you embrace? Being a Jew means to act now and receive God’s rachamim, God’s compassion, later.
“Lessons learned on my trip to Morroco — there is hope”
Torah Commentary on Parshat Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18
As Published in the Jewish News
Last week, I traveled to Rabat, Morocco, to gather with fellow Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders as part of an “American Caravan for Peace.” This meeting in Morocco was a follow-up experience to meetings I had in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in May 2017. These difficult conversations and relationship-building exercises with faith leaders with whom I fundamentally disagree on many issues are critically important if I want to do my part to help work toward constructive paths forward together in our respective communities, even here in the Valley of the Sun.
During my visit in Morocco, I learned a lot about the Jewish community. Moroccan Jews constitute an ancient community, immigrating to the region as early as 70 CE. Until the 1950s, the majority of Morocco’s Jews were still living in Morocco. After Israel’s independence in 1948, and due to domestic strife in the 1950s, the next several decades saw waves of Jewish emigration to Israel, France and Canada. By the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the majority of Morocco’s Jewish population had emigrated.
I also learned about the actions of the Moroccan King Mohammed V. During World War II, King Mohammed V kept the lives and property of the Moroccan Jews under his protection and did not subject them to the Vichy Laws. Later on, in response to anti-Jewish rhetoric in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel, Mohammed V warned Muslims not to hurt Moroccan Jews, reminding them that Jews had always been protected in Morocco.
During my time in Morocco, we traveled together, rabbis, pastors and imams, to the final resting place of King Mohammed V. We were reminded that there is and can be friendship and mutual respect between the vast majority of Jews, Muslims and Christians who advocate for religious freedom, not fanaticism.
Abraham was laid to rest by both of his sons together. There is hope for the future in this story of the past. There is hope for our future from leaders like the kings of Morocco. There is hope for the future in the meetings that are happening today between leaders of different faiths. I know this because I am taking part in it.
“The first step toward ‘I’m sorry’ starts with ‘I’”
Torah Commentary on Leviticus 16:1–34, Leviticus 23:26–32, Numbers 29:7–11
As Published in the Jewish News
Yom Kippur is about teshuvah: looking at ourselves. It’s about asking ourselves serious questions. It’s too easy to blame someone else or define ourselves by what somebody else does or does not do.
In Rabbi Larry Kushner’s book “God Was in This Place & I, I Did Not Know,” he opens with a story about giving a class of pre-school students a tour of the sanctuary. He lost track of time and realized, as the teacher was motioning that school was almost over, that he had yet to talk about the ark.
Not wanting to rush through its sacred contents, he decided to leave it for another time. Yet later he learned from the teacher that the lack of closure on their tour left the children obsessed with what was behind the curtain.
Kushner writes, “One kid, doubtless a budding nihilist, thought it was empty. Another, apparently already a devotee of American television consumer culture, suggested that behind the curtain was ‘a brand new car!’ Another correctly guessed that it held scrolls of the Torah. But one kid, the teacher insists, said, ‘You’re all wrong. When the rabbi opens that curtain next week, there will just be a mirror.’”
That’s kind of the way I like to imagine Yom Kippur. A day where we look at ourselves. Teshuvah. Mirroring. Reflecting. Seeing yourself as you really are. The “I” that only you can see. And if we can do that, if we can look at ourselves in the mirror, if we can be honest with ourselves and accept what we see, then although it’s not clear that the universe will be appreciably better at the end of the day, it’s a good bet that we will.
Jewish tradition tells the story of a man who, so filled with a pursuit of justice, set out to repair the world. Of course, it did not take him long to realize that this was far too large a task for any one man. So he redefined his mission to his village, but there too he saw that it was beyond his capabilities. So he turned toward his family, thinking, “Surely I can bring about change in the behaviors of my wife and children,” but we know all too well the impossibility of such a task. It was then, of course, that he realized that there was only one place where he could effectively bring about change: in himself. So says our tradition: “When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world.”
Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, once commented on the nature of the game: “Baseball teaches us how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball … errors are part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.” It’s no different with life. Being flawed is what makes us human. Our only alternative, then, is to embrace our imperfections. Admit them. Accept them.
Teshuvah expects us to seriously examine who we are. We are not good and we are not evil. Rather, we have the ability to do good and we have the ability to do evil. And when the latter happens, teshuvah is the means by which we bring about reconciliation, both with ourselves, as well as with others.
And that is how we start with “I” and end with “I’m sorry.”
“This year, put the ‘yo’ in ‘oy'”
Torah Commentary on Parshat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19
As Published in the Jewish News
We all have problems. The problems we face are of various kinds: personal, interpersonal, societal and global. What keeps us from confronting our problems — even when we can’t ignore them or avoid them, even when they keep getting bigger and bigger, ruining our sleep — is fear.
Fear makes us recoil; it pushes our defensive buttons; it makes us distrust others. The basic animal response to fear is fight or flight. We escape or we attack. Research at the Institute for Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University has shown that “one-third to one-half of human beings seem genetically predisposed toward emphasizing the danger of threats over the possibilities of new experiences.”
We are wired and from early on, trained to be suspicious, fearful (“don’t talk to strangers”). Anger and raw emotion rush naturally. But we also have the capacity to step back, to reflect on options and move forward. When we are open to attacks from lions and bears, fight-or-flight makes sense. But if our problems are not lions and bears; rather loss, pain and difficulty, we cannot run away.
Our faith tradition can be an antidote to fear. The most oft-repeated assurance in the Bible is “al tirah” — “do not be afraid, because I am with you.” “I am here” is God’s most reassuring response. When we visit a person in pain, or at a time of loss, we do not come to offer answers or explanations; we come to offer our presence, our care, our love, to say, “Here I am.”
Israel’s former president and prime minister, Shimon Peres (z”l — of blessed memory), even though he occupied many important positions in government, was not a successful politician. He lost many elections and was often overshadowed by his rival Yitzhak Rabin. Yet Peres endured and endeared himself, living to be the last of Israel’s founding fathers and luminaries until his death.
Peres understood that failure is something to overcome rather than to brood over; to engage rather than let it define you.
He said: “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, [yet] they live very different lives.”
He proposed that “when you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is look for the third.”
He believed that “we should use our imagination more than our memory,” and that “it is better to dream than to remember.”
Peres reminded us that “there are two things that cannot be achieved unless you close your eyes a little: love and peace. If you want perfection, you won’t obtain either of them.”
During this Hebrew month of introspection, and in tribute to Shimon Peres’ legacy, let us ask ourselves:
How will we deal with the opportunities that arise from problems?
How will we seize the possibility hidden in a difficult situation?
How will we live with problems we cannot solve but just manage?
How will we live with questions we cannot fully answer?
What will we choose to remember?
What will we dare to dream and imagine?
There is a large sculpture installed on the waterfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park. As you cross the bridge from one side of the waterfront, the sculpture reads “OY!” From the other side, it reads “YO!” When life’s oy’s come, as they inevitably will, let us respond to them with an affirmative “yo!”
And, as the High Holy Days quickly approach, let us dream, hope and imagine a new year of opportunity and possibility; a year abundant in blessings of joy, goodness and the promise of shalom. And may, this year, we all be able to put the “yo!” in the “oy!”
“We are not ‘hard of hearing,’ rather ‘hard of listening’”
Torah Commentary on Parshot Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
As Published in the Jewish News
Alittle girl comes home from Hebrew school, eager to show her mother a drawing. Her mother is washing dishes.
“Mommy, guess what?” she squeals, waving the drawing.
Without looking up, her mother responds, “What?”
“Guess what?” repeats the little girl.
Again the mother asks, “What?”
“Mommy, you’re not listening.”
Still not shifting her focus from the dishes, she says, “Sweetie, yes, I am.”
“But Mommy, you’re not listening with your eyes.”
We are failing in the art of listening. We are so engrossed in our daily lives, so head-down and task-oriented, that we not only forget to listen with our eyes, we fail to open our ears.
Our world is made up of friends and family members whose souls struggle to be heard. They have stories they want to share about who they are and how much they have in common, but they can’t find anyone to listen.
This week’s Torah portion commands us “Shema.” We translate it as “hear.” Yet its root and meaning is not “to hear,” rather the higher value, the greater mitzvah — we are commanded to listen.
We find the word shema again as the first word on the scroll of a mezuzah, where we are commanded again to listen before we enter a room because what follows is important; so important that we nail it to the doors of our entry ways to remind us that listening is more important than talking.
Hearing is the easy part. Hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is a conscious choice. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning. Listening leads to understanding. Listening requires not only your ears, but your eyes, your heart, your mind — indeed L’shma nefesh we must listen with our soul, our complete being.
Most people are not “hard of hearing,” rather they are “hard of listening.”
Listening isn’t knowing answers. Acknowledging another human being is not about giving advice; it is about giving attention.
Ever hear a magician say, “abracadabra”? It’s Aramaic. It means “I create as I speak.” People’s words are their most personal creations, coming straight from their minds and going directly into the listener’s ears, yearning to find a home in our heart.
When one truly listens, he or she gives more than can be imagined, for the listener holds sacred a piece of the speaker’s soul. What an honor it is to listen!
A 19th-century Chassidic rabbi once said, “Human beings are God’s language.” The way we speak says something about us, but the way we listen says everything about us. Rabbi Harold Kushner added, “When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people. Any path is easier to travel when you have somebody’s hand to hold.”
There is deep pain in our world right now and it is the pain of isolation and loneliness. We can soften some of that pain. We can put our phone down. Turn off our televisions. Or just stop what we are doing and listen to our friend or loved one with intention and empathy.
Let’s return to that mother in her kitchen with her daughter. The mother was now listening to her daughter. She put down her dishes and lifted up her eyes, she leaned down, got close to see the creation in the child’s hand. The child was saying, “Abracadabra, I create as I speak!”
The mother focused on her words, she listened with her eyes and her ears and her heart and her soul whispered, “Hineini — here I am!”
“The Magic of Hershel Potter-Stein”
Torah Commentary on Korach, Numbers 16:1-17:15
As Published in the Jewish News
How many of you use magic on a daily basis? I mean, how many of you, when you wish to disarm someone, take out your wand and yell out, “Expelliarmus” or “Expecto Patronum”? Or how many of you, when you forget your keys in your car, take out your wand and say, “Abracadabra”?
The word “abracadabra” is actually Aramaic — the same language as the Kaddish and the Kol Nidrei prayer, and it means, basically, “I will create as I speak.” It’s about making something out of nothing, just as God spoke, “Let there be light,” and the world came to be.
Miraculous events are reported in many places within the Torah. Ten plagues are sent to punish the stubborn Pharoah. The Red Sea parts before the fleeing Israelites and drowns the pursing Egyptians. Manna is sent to feed the wandering Israelites on their journey through the desert. Water flows from a rock when Moses strikes it. A donkey speaks to her master. In this week’s Torah portion, the earth opens up and swallows Korah, Dathan and Abiram.
How are we to understand such incidents that defy the laws of nature? Isn’t that the definition of magic? We also read in our Torah, “Beware of being lured into their ways” (Deuteronomy 12:30). This prohibition on mimicking the customs of other nations has disallowed us from all sorts of behavior, be it language, dress, music, artwork, etc. We have been concerned that following “their ways” would make us like them, relinquishing our own special ways and unique mission.
But are all of “their ways” a concern? Can we learn nothing from others? What can we learn from the magic of Harry Potter, I wonder? Take, for instance, the Harry Potter Alliance, a social action group that urges Potter fans “to spread love, the greatest form of magic, and fight the Dark Arts in the real world…”
The group has tackled issues like global warming (“denying global warming is like denying Voldemort’s return”), the seal hunt in Canada (“we are responsible for the care of magical creatures”) and Walmart’s practices (with the YouTube video “Harry Potter and the Dark Lord Waldemart”).
In fact, it has been suggested that the story of Harry Potter is the story of the Jewish people. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz wrote: “Harry is Jewish. … Voldemort isn’t an evil wizard, but he does represent the forces of evil. He is Egyptian slavery. He is the Syrian-Greeks. He is Haman. He is the Roman persecution. He is the Spanish Inquisition. He is pogroms and Crusades and the Holocaust and the intifada. He thought he had destroyed the Potter family, but … they survived in Harry, much the same way the Jewish people lives on in you.”
Maybe if someone translates the series into Yiddish, changes Harry’s name to Hershel and relocates the story to Brooklyn, skeptics out there will find that Jewish inspiration comes from many different places.
A Rabbi, an Imam, and a Pastor…
As published in the Arizona Republic
Tell me if you heard this one before: A Rabbi, an Imam, and an Evangelical Pastor board a plane and fly to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Ok, you got me. This is no joke. At the invitation of Sheikh Bin Bayyah, of the United Arab Emirates, I and nine other rabbis, ten evangelical pastors, and ten imams were invited to Abu Dhabi in early May 2017 to gather and discuss religious freedom. For three full days we listened, probed, questioned, argued, discussed, and work-shopped an action plan for constructive paths forward in our respective communities, like here in the Valley of the Sun.
Why? Because we have a problem. We, Jews, Evangelicals and Muslims do not trust each other. We have irrational fears of each other based on misunderstandings, misconceptions and stereotypes of the other. And the first step to problem-solving is admitting it.
Stereotypes are part of life, but the level of negativity in stereotypes tends to reflect the level of tension in the society in which the stereotypes exist. When people of different cultures, religions, or nations live in fear or resentment of one another, negative stereotypes grow quickly. The emotions and stereotypes then feed off each other and the situation worsens.
The first step to break this vicious cycle is to learn about the other’s faith tradition. When we do so, we will see how we have been interconnected since the time of Abraham. We have much in common: our ancient belief in monotheism, cultural similarities, and, as minority religions in America, experiences with assimilation and discrimination. In the 21st century, we cannot continue to segregate ourselves in our churches, mosques and synagogues. Only through education, of ourselves and each other, can we take the necessary steps towards understanding.
The next step to better understanding is to personally experience each other by engaging in sincere and honest relationship building. One way is by breaking bread together. Over a meal, dialogue inevitably happens. Dialogue means listening and learning from the other. It does not mean seeking out the opportunity to teach or change the other. As we communicate, the misinformation we have accumulated is discarded. We recognize our own biases and build honesty, trust, and appreciation. We may still find areas of disagreement, but at least we will have first-hand knowledge of the facts.
And once we are in dialogue, important relationships begin. Trust develops. We begin to see the other when we spend time peeling back the layers of what we project out. We learn to hear the other and recognize the humanity in the other. And when this happens, when we can see and hear the other, not just as someone we tolerate, but as someone with whom we can partner, we realize the incredible impact we can do; together, right here in our shared community.
Faith traditions are ultimately about relationships. That is why the meetings in Abu Dhabi and continued relationship building here in the Valley of the Sun are so important. Many of the ideas we explored and will explore are the same…it is our perspective that is different. But by continuing the conversations, we have the opportunity to acknowledge our perspectives so that we may learn from each other. We are not trying to convince anyone of each other’s truth. We are merely sharing our perspective and working towards a common good. If we don’t, the forces of division will win the day. I pray we will all work together, despite our theological differences, find a common moral vision, and create a world that will be stable and peaceful for future generations.
How Can Jews Be Both an Ethnic Group and a Religion?
As published in the Arizona Jewish Life Magazine
Judaism is not just a religion. Judaism is a civilization with a language, a land and a religion.
We have always been passionate about God, Holiness and Morality. In that respect, Judaism resembles a religion. But, I believe, Judaism goes well beyond that. Being a Jew involves identifying with a specific people, with their history, culture and identity. Often, Jewish religion and Jewish identity find themselves at odds. Look into, for instance, the writings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, most especially his book Judaism as a Civilization to see this conflict at work.
According to Maslow, the first level in the hierarchy of needs is physiological. We have bodies, and we need basic ingredients for our bodies to survive. We need food; we need water; we need shelter. We need air to breath and a place to sleep and a way to meet our biological needs. And we need good health, the ability of our bodies to work correctly. The Rabbis recognized this idea from the very beginning. They said Im Ain Kemach Ain Torah. “Without flour, there can be no Torah.” The Baal Shem Tov tells the story of a pious man who ran a soup kitchen for the poor of the community. He provided meals, but first he had these poor people gather in a sanctuary for prayers. The Baal Shem Tov walked in on this, and challenged him. “Why are you making those hungry people pray?” The man answered, “I am worried about their souls.” The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Better you should worry about their bodies and your own soul.” Judaism is built on the idea that we need to care for the bodies of others and our own souls.
Most religions speak about compassion, feeding the hungry and helping the poor. But in a way Judaism is different. Other religions emphasize heaven, some other spiritual world. It is the spiritual that is important, not the physical. To our Christian and Muslim friends, this physical world, the world of our bodies, is an inferior world. They ask, “Will you get to heaven?” I have never seen the words on a synagogue sign, “Will you get to Heaven?” Eastern religions also de-emphasize this physical world. Buddhism teaches that this world is Duhka – suffering. We move beyond suffering by letting go of the things of this world. The goal is to live the endless circle of samsara, death and rebirth in this world, and to reach nirvana. Only Judaism teaches that this physical world is where the action is. This physical world is where we can do mitzvot.
For thousands of years, attempts have been made to define “Judaism.” The word “Judaism” denotes a full civilization; the total actualities, past and present, of the historic group of human beings known as the Jewish people. For some, Judaism may also stand for something more limited: the spiritual aspect of that civilization. Understood in this way, we understand Judaism in seven threads that cannot be untangled:
- A doctrine concerning God, the universe and human beings;
- A morality for the individual and society;
- A regimen of rite, custom and ceremony;
- A body of law;
- A sacred literature;
- Institutions through which “Jews” find expression;
- A people, Israel, connected to a land.
Two thousand years ago, a pagan challenged Rabbi Hillel to summarize Judaism while he stood on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded: “That which is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” In conclusion, Judaism is more than the sum of its parts.
Time Travel Through Torah
Torah Commentary on Tazria-Metzora
As published in the Jewish News
As I study Torah, I sometimes imagine myself a time traveler, trying to glean some awareness of the lives of my Israelite ancestors without the perspective of my own contemporary view of the world. This week’s torah portion, Tazria–Metzora, provides me with a challenging journey through time.
What is this talk of uncleanness following childbirth, blood purification, different time periods based on the birth of a boy or a girl, and sin offerings after the birth of a child?
Today, the birth of a child, boy or girl, is cause for rejoicing; there is no talk of uncleanness, purification, or sin offerings. But since I have traveled back through time, it is no longer “our day”; therefore, I must try to understand the meaning of these rituals in the world I have just entered.
Regarding the different time periods for boys and girls, traditional interpreters assumed that this was because the birth of a girl creates some kind of double impurity, possibly because girls contain the latent capacity for menstruation and reproduction. In the new Women’s Torah Commentary, we learn that in ancient Israel, baby girls arguably faced lives filled with more risks than did baby boys. Israel was a society in which economic value accrued primarily to sons. They remained party of their fathers’ households even when they married, inherited their families’ ancestral lands, and cared for their aging parents. In contrast, there is evidence to suggest that girls were sometimes thought of as expandable. In times of need, famine, and war, baby girls might suffer hunger and neglect, or even be abandoned and left to die.
The priestly authors seem to be concerned about this situation and try to avert such tragedies by ensuring that baby girls stay in their mothers’ protective care for an extended period of time. This not only allows mother and daughter to bond tightly, but also ensures that the child is nursed and cared for. Thus, this troubling passage can be understood not as discrimination against woman but as a way to promote God’s loving community – and to guarantee that women and men, both created in the divine image, are nurtured and protected.
The little we know of conception and pregnancy in this world of long ago makes each birth seem like a miracle. In later generations, our rabbis will speculate that the awe and mystery that surround the act of bringing forth new life, as well as God’s Presence during this miracle, demanded offerings of gratitude and thanksgiving in the form of sacrificial offerings. We see that childbirth immerses one into a different world, where recovery from the physical stresses of childbirth and the care needed by a newborn demand total attention and time away from the activities and needs of the rest of the community. Does that help to explain why a new mother is considered tamei, most often translated as “unclean”? Contact with the mikdash, the “sanctuary,” and its sacred objects and rituals requires wholehearted dedication. Can this be possible for one whose newborn child also demands total devotion? Tamei, then, no longer connotes uncleanness but a state of inaccessibility to what is considered sacred by the community as a whole.
Rabbi Judith Abrams’s study of Talmud inspired me to connect to Torah in this way. Challenging myself to see the world through a women’s point of view with the bits and pieces of text available helps me to imagine and to appreciate that world. As a Reform Jew, I am not obligated to re-create their world in my time, only to use their lives to inspire and inform my life. My brief excursion into the world of Tazria has reminded me that childbirth demands its own sacred time and space, no matter where and when it happens.
“A Facebook Discussion”
Torah Commentary on Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:26
As published in the Jewish News
Even rabbis wrestle with the meanings found in the Book of Leviticus. The following is a Facebook thread I was in with a group of rabbis regarding the Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of the Book of Leviticus.
Initial post: I’d like to make a general request that we refrain from beginning our teachings this week by denigrating this book. Sometimes it’s done rudely (“Many people run and hide when they are asked to speak about this inscrutable book”). Sometimes it’s done a bit more subtly (“Leviticus and its subject matter must seem distant and unapproachable to most modern Jews”). I just don’t think that we should be putting down the Torah. I think Vayikra is awesome, sermonically. For example, the theme of primacy of sacrifice – giving up something of value. Of trying to only give our best. Or the meaning of life itself – blood and such. The idea of trying to do something for a God who needs nothing. The need to find some way to draw near. The need to validate and sanctify the messy, ugly parts of our lives.
Commentator 1: I began Torah study today by introducing the book as perhaps the most important because of its focus on holiness and its position, literally at the center of the Torah.
Commentator 2: Yes, we can say that holiness is important, but, at the root, we have to acknowledge that the focus on the corporeal acts that are no longer relevant to the modern mind. If you want students to care – you have to acknowledge it will be a leap of faith.
Commentator 1: Maybe. I think there’s real power in just teaching the lesson. Just open with, “Leviticus still speaks to our most fundamental needs,” and you’re off and running! But if you really want to acknowledge our different perspectives, fine – just wait to do it. Don’t open with it.
Commentator 2: What I meant was, don’t do this: “Leviticus is hard for us to understand, because it comes from such a different world. But, we can interpret it thusly.” I think that undermines our teaching, since it starts with the struggle, and makes the teaching whatever it is, secondary. Instead, I would go with: “Leviticus means XYZ. … Now, of course we can get caught up in the gory details, and the different ways our ancestors saw the world. … But, at its core, we can still relate.
When we wrestle with Torah, we find blessings, just as our ancestor Jacob did. For me, Leviticus has become my favorite book of Torah to study and teach. We have to stop focusing on the physicality of sacrifice and understand the ancient Israelite attempt to make everyone responsible for promoting God’s presence in the community.
And I find it as a powerful example of what it means to be part of an evolutionary and revolutionary tradition. Far too many of our folks don’t even realize much of what we do as Jews has evolved from the sacrificial cult.
It is Leviticus that teaches us the power of sacrifices, offerings, holiness and how to live beyond ourselves. It is Leviticus that presents us with an image of a society in which the growing inequity between rich and poor is regulated and even reset periodically. It is Leviticus that gives us a Jewish structure for time: feast days and fast days and Shabbat. It is Leviticus that says we attain a higher state of spirituality when we temper our appetites for food, sex and material gain. I always love these weeks of sinking our teeth into this book.
‘One Quarter of 1 Percent’
Torah Commentary on Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
as Published in the Jewish News
Miracles are, well, miraculous. In the darkest times, they represent our deepest hopes, but are contrary to our expectations. And, for the most part, they happened so long ago that the only record we have of them is a single book called the Bible that has no cross-references, no proof and no pictures. This means that those of us who like concrete scientific examples find miracles very hard to believe. We want something we can see and touch.
How is this for a modern miracle? In the Valley of the Sun, the Jewish population is estimated to have surged over the past decade to well over 100,000 households. That’s not the miracle. You might find it a little surprising, but it is hardly a miracle.
So, let’s put the microscope on the whole United States. Jews make up approximately 2 percent of the U.S. population. When you think of 2 percent as a proportion, and then think about all the Jews have accomplished in this country – including a Jewish vice-presidential nominee – it is pretty amazing. But is it miraculous? Maybe not.
So now, let’s imagine the population of the whole world – that is everybody, everywhere, from New York to Singapore. The proportion of Jews becomes even smaller: one-quarter of 1 percent. That’s our worldwide presence, yet we are still here. We, the people who gave the world the Bible, and who set a code of justice that still guides civilized nations around the planet. We, the people who have lived under despotic rulers, in countless nations, and have outlived them all. We, the people who are mentioned on an ancient stone, on which King Mesha declared, “Israel is totally destroyed,” (and who later excavated that stone from an ages-old ruin). We, the people who stood up to Rome, and who, these days, vacation in Italy. We, the people who once were forced to convert our religion or be murdered. We, the people who were targeted for complete destruction by Hitler. We are still here. Am Yisrael Chai – the People of Israel still lives.
I imagine that if you asked anyone whether an ancient civilization of small proportion could survive in the mainstream of society – without being killed off, without assimilating away into the larger population, for 4,000 years – they would probably say it is impossible. And what is the word we use for something impossible, which actually happens? A miracle. Our people’s survival is undoubtedly one of the greatest miracles this world has ever seen.
I hope this makes you feel wonderful and special, because you are. Think of our tiny numbers in the world, and remember: there are not thousands or millions waiting behind us to take our place. No, we Jews are precious – to each other, to our community and to God because there really aren’t very many of us working to keep Judaism alive. Here’s another question: what difference does one drop of water make in an ocean? For most, virtually none. But that same drop of water in a teaspoon – i.e., your help, work, contribution of time, caring, ideas – reverberates through the Jewish world like a tidal wave.
Four thousand years ago, a solitary man named Abraham made an agreement with God. He agreed to follow a different path, the path that led to Judaism, and God promised to walk alongside him. If Abraham could see us here today, talking about him, he would fall to the ground in praise of God, the Worker of Miracles. A single Jew changed the world, and now it is our turn. Please remember this miracle, this one-quarter of 1 percent. In spite of our size, Jews have celebrated more of the world’s birthdays than almost any other people. With God’s help – and your help – we will live to see many, many more.
‘The Importance of Giving’
Arizona Jewish Life
We asked Rabbi Jeremy Schneider, the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and president of the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis, to answer questions regarding giving and Judaism.
Why is the act of giving so important in Judaism?
The obligation of giving comes from the Torah: “Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Hundreds of years later, the Talmud taught: “Tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined” (Bava Batra 9b). From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedakah is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedakah just as everyone today is assessed a tax.
By way of “too much information,” let me add: the Torah legislated that Jews give 10% of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12), and an additional percentage of their income annually (Leviticus 19:9-10). Hundreds of years later, after the Temple was destroyed and the annual tithe levied upon each Jew for the support of the priests and Levites was suspended, the Talmud ordered that Jews were to give at least 10% of their annual net earnings to tzedakah (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor, 7:5)
Is there a difference between doing tzedakah and giving to a charity?
Our tradition has built an edifice of law and practice and tradition to express this notion of giving and taking. It is called tzedakah, which is often translated as “charity.” The truth, though, is that it is not charity. Charity comes from the word meaning “affection” or “love.” Now, while there may be affection and love in tzedakah – the word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word that means “righteousness.” Doing tzedakah is engaging in a righteous act, whether we are feeling charitable or not.
How has the culture of giving in Judaism changed from the past to present day? Are there different trends (i.e., synagogues, Jewish organizations, Israel, Soviet Jews, Darfur, abused children, food banks)?
Sure there are different trends – look at Jewish federations! And with the internet, etc., we tend to give directly to those causes we choose – it’s true not just with Jewish life.
What advice do you give to people who aren’t financially able to give?
Give of the heart. The true gifts of our hearts, what I call the three Ss: soulfulness, supportiveness and being surrounded by community.
Those who suffer understand the importance of being understood. They need others to be soulful; soulful of their own blessings, soulful of their gifts, soulful of the words they utter and soulful that though misery may love company, those in pain need respect and love to give them strength to break out. That is the tzedakah of the heart.
Maimonides tells us, “If a poor person requests money from you, and you have nothing to give him, speak to him consolingly.” This is like the story of a beggar who asked a man for money. The man had no money to give to the beggar, so he said to the beggar, “Brother, I have nothing to give you.” The beggar thanked the man. The man asked, “Why did you thank me? I have given you nothing?” The beggar responded, “You called me brother.”
We need to be supportive even if we are sometimes disinclined to be, for we don’t know how the tzedakah from our heart will change a life. There is the story from the Talmud about Rabbi Tarfon, who was the wealthiest rabbi of the Talmudic era and, interestingly enough, not in the habit of giving substantially to the poor. The Talmud tells the story this way:
One time, Rabbi Akiva asked him: “Would you like me to be your agent in buying a town or two?” “Certainly,” replied Rabbi Tarfon. Rabbi Tarfon then brought 4,000 gold dinars, which Rabbi Akiva took and distributed to the poor. Sometime later, Rabbi Tarfon sought out Rabbi Akiva and asked him: “Where are the towns that you bought for me?” Rabbi Akiva took him by the hand and brought him to the school that the money had built. A student quoted a verse from Psalms that says, “Happy is the one who gives freely to the poor; his tzedakah lasts forever.” Rabbi Akiva said: “This is the property which I bought for you.” Rabbi Tarfon hugged Rabbi Akiva and said: “You are my teacher and my leader, a real rabbi to me.”
I love that story. Rabbi Akiva was gentle, he was loving, he was respectful and instead of telling Tarfon what he needed to do, he led him to a place that changed the lives of so many for so many generations and changed Tarfon’s life as well.
And, finally, the tzedakah of the heart which is expressed in community. When we suffer, we have an instinctive need to feel protected and warmed and told that we are loved. I am amazed at some of the letters of appreciation that we get at the temple because of the efforts of our front office, our staff, our tzedakah projects and so forth. It is incredible to know how much the gifts of our hearts bring comfort and joy.
Tzedakah is not limited to the giving of money, although that is certainly part of it. Our real tzedakah is the gift that comes from the need we feel deep inside to want to give a gift, no matter how small or how insignificant we may think it is.
‘Learning From the Past’
Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52
Years ago, while in Israel, I visited Jordan. My last stop was Mount Nebo, which according to tradition is the site of Moses’ death and burial. I stood gazing toward a distant Israel barely visible through the afternoon haze.
The fields in the valley beneath me were lush. Crops were ready for harvest, and orchard trees were heavy with fruit. This was the land of milk and honey that Moses had dreamed about – the land that was meant to fulfill the yearnings experienced over 40 years of wandering. But Moses would only view this land, which was part of an ancient covenantal promise, from a distance. He would never descend into the lush valley, cross the river and taste the sweetness of Israel.
As I stood among the trinket sellers and souvenir hawkers, I imagined what Moses’ personal sadness must have been like. I thought of him: torso slightly stooped with age; voice raspy but still strong and secure. I saw a Moses with sad, tearful eyes and envisioned him deep in thought as he prepared to speak his final words to the people. I imagined myself among the multitude of Israelites, fearful of losing our leader and uncertain of what would happen on the march to Israel. I was finally able to comprehend Moses’ deep longing for the land, and imagine the message he gave to the people of Israel. He implored them to remember their history and their special relationship with God, who guided and cared for their ancestors. Moses advises them to ask their parents to tell them about their past.
“Remember the days of old. Consider the years of ages past. Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)
Moses knew that the survival of Judaism depended upon the people remembering their history and sharing it with future generations. Our personal stories can also become a part of the ongoing saga of the Jewish people. Remembering and recording our family history tells us who we are in relationship to those who came before us. While our parents and our grandparents are alive, we would be wise to follow the advice given by Moses in this week’s Torah portion.
It is quite feasible that one of the reasons why Judaism has managed to survive for more than 3,000 years is because of Moses’ insistence that the people remember their history. We have only to turn to the sacred books of Judaism to read about the patriarchs and matriarchs, the revelation at Mount Sinai, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and many other ancient tales that recount our history.
We have much to learn about the past. Even though we may be resourceful and technologically advanced, there is still much we can learn from our parents and grandparents. Ultimately, we are a product of all of the generations that preceded us. If we take the opportunity to uncover and listen to their stories, we will come to know ourselves in new and different ways. Every event touches not only those who witnessed it but also their children and their children’s children. Our identity is shaped, at least in part, by our family history.
Our most treasured history is learned at home, the place where our most powerful memories reside. Make a list of things you would like to know about what life was like for your parents or grandparents when they were your age. Interview them and record their answers. Create a family tree. Research the names of family members. Find help at a Jewish genealogical site such as jewishgen.org. Ask your parents or grandparents to tell you stories about their childhood. Write those down and create a “Family History Book.”
‘Give a Spiritual Bandage to Those Around You’
Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32
This week’s portion is arguably one of the most disturbing in the entire Torah. In the portion, Korach, a Levite, along with Datan and Aviram, and 250 chieftains, rebel against Moses. They question Moses’ authority and question who has entitled Moses to speak on behalf of the Israelite people.
God does not take the rebellion lightly. Korach and all his followers and their households are vanquished. The earth opens up and “swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them …” (Numbers 16:32-33).
In contemporary life, as in biblical times, we are often faced with difficult people who we wish would just disappear, as in the case of Korach. How often have we wished that the certain nemesis in our life would simply cease being and leave us alone? It’s not that easy. We are forced to mitigate and negotiate differences between friends, family and co-workers. None of us has the Samantha Stevens of “Bewitched” power to wrinkle our noses and make something vanish.
Instead, sometimes, I have found it effective to come to understand the source of the difficulty and work from there.
Reb Leibl Wolf recommends the following meditation:
“Bring to mind someone you may harbor a grudge against, distrust or just have a bad feeling towards. Revisit the circumstances that may have brought this about. Introduce a new element: what must have been the shortcoming that caused that person to hurt you or be insensitive to you. Picture that shortcoming as a wound with a trickle of blood flowing out. That person’s behavior/words were the result of a wound – an emotional wound. You may not know how that wound was inflicted – even possibly self-inflicted. Just be aware: When a person hurts you, they are hurting. Heal them with love, empathy and compassion. Visualize these three being bandages that you strap over the other’s wound.”
In short, this meditation teaches us that when someone inflicts emotional pain on another, they themselves are certainly hurting. We, as compassionate beings, try to heal their pain with love, empathy and compassion.
This Shabbat, try dispensing a little “first aid.” Try providing a spiritual bandage to those wounded around you.