Thursday, March 28, 2013

When You Play With Fire You Get Burned - Parashat Shemini

Aaron and his sons are now dedicated to conduct their sacred services to God. In this Parashat, Shemini, two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, enter the Tent of Meeting and apparently offer a "strange fire" to God. 

"And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each person his censer and placed fire in them and laid incense thereon and they sacrificed a strange fire before God which he had not commanded them.  And a fire came forth from before God consuming them; and they died before the Lord." (Lev 9:23,24;10:1-2)

This must have been some fire! And it sounds like they paid some price for it! The Torah describes a scene like some partying was going other words, Nadav and Avihu were probably drunk, and incapable of performing their sacred service to God. They were warned never to drink before entering the Tent of Meeting in such a condition. But, they did it anyway. And God knew. Of course God knew. They entered the Tent of Meeting and offered a "strange fire", one that God never commanded. That was pretty unexpected and shocking, and it drew more attention to them. So, God, reacted....or overreacted....and poofed them away!

OK, Nadav and Avihu were impulsive and spontaneous, and they weren't behaving like Priests. Did they deserve to die? Moses had acted pretty irrationally when he smashed the Tablets....and he wasn't incinerated. Nadav and Avihu were Priests, Leaders, and they had to be held to a different standard. 

They had to wear the proper clothes, handle the sacrifices in a certain way, and use the "commanded fire" properly. But, God needed to teach the Leaders of the community, that when you play with fire, you get burned. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

See You At The Top - Counting The Omer

For many Jews, the 2nd night of Passover begins the tradition of Sefirat Ha-Omer, the Counting of the Omer.  It's the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.  The practice of Sefirat Ha-Omer has its roots in Jewish agricultural history: Passover saw the beginning of the barley harvest, and at Shavuot, it concluded. On the 2nd day of Passover, the 1st sheaf of a barley harvest was given as a gift to God. With this gift, the worshiper also offered matzah. Then, each day was counted off, one by one, until Shavuot. On Shavuot, they brought 2 loaves of leavened bread as a sacrifice. Matzah and bread are made from the same ingredients, but they end up differently. We don't show patience with matzah, and therefore, it is not complete. With leavened bread it is different. With bread, we have to show a different kind of care and time. Bread is the finished product. Freedom.

The Rabbis of ancient days explain that the Israelites had hoped to receive the Torah immediately after crossing the Red Sea. After all, they had just left Egypt. But, they were living in Egypt for so many years that they had suffered tremendous spiritual damage. They were not yet ready to accept the gift of Torah. So, we would need to count 49 days, each day we would rise a level from the lowest level of impurity, thereby preparing to greet the Almighty on the 50th day. Each day we would rise one level higher than the day before, all the way up to the highest level, and the opportunity to receive the gift of Torah.

This year, as we move from Passover to Shavuot, let us count up the mountain together. The message of the Omer can remind us about anticipation and patience, and also making sure that everyone is counted. We should all try to make our count more meaningful as we enter this season....and I'll see you at the top.

Friday, March 22, 2013

You Must Tell Your Child On This Day

Jews around the world are preparing to celebrate the Passover holiday, which begins in just a few days.  During the Seder, we recall our ancestors' escape from slavery to freedom. The holiday is to remind us what it feels like be enslaved, and fuel our love for freedom. But, the Seder is not just dinner.  It's an opportunity to teach, to learn, and to call to action. 

"Ha lachma anya..." 
This is the bread of affliction.  Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy, come and share Pesach with us."

This is how we begin the Passover Seder.  Before it has anything to say about freedom, it begins by addressing hunger and need: "Let all who are hungry, come and eat". If one is hungry, and in need, there is no freedom.
We are told that in every generation, we must see ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt.  Therefore, we must take these lessons into our own lives. As we taste the matzah, we must try to understand the meaning of what we are saying at the Passover Seder. 
In every generation you must see yourself as created in God's image, to do God's work on earth. You must tell your child on this day, we were created to lead all peoples to freedom, to create just and equal societies where all peoples may live together in peace.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Keep The Fire Burning - Parashat Tsav

This week we're reading Parashat Tsav, and its Sacrifices again.
Why again? Sounds like last week.
Are we reading it again to make sure that we understand all of the details? There's a difference here.
Parashat Tsav is specifically aimed at the Priestly division of the Levites...the Leaders of the Community.  We could say that last week's portion was the instruction manual for the individuals of Israel (just the everyday people), and this week's is the manual for the priesthood.

It opens with a command to Moses to explain to Aaron and the priesthood their duties in regard to the Altar and the sacrifices.  Last week's highlighted the various offerings: sin, guilt, meal, and peace offerings. This week's continues discussing them, but this time from the point of view of the priests. Tsav outlines how the priest shall receive them and how they shall actually make the offerings on the altar.  Aaron and his sons are told that they must keep the flame burning continuously.  It was to be an eternal flame, therefore the ashes from the fire had to be tended to properly.  Yes, the fire burns the offerings that are placed upon it, but this fire is symbolic of much, much more.  This flame is symbolic of the burning spirit within each one of us.  This is the light that we must keep alive.  We must always offer sacrifices of prayer and deeds, and tend to the fire that burns within our own soul, so that it is never extinguished.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reaching For Something Higher Than Yourself - Parshat Vayikra

This week, we begin the Book of Leviticus. Its not one of the most glamorous books of the Torah. It’s mostly about sacrifices, skin diseases, and the rules about being a Priest.  It’s called the Holiness Code, and gives us a guide for our ethical and ritual obligations. It’s about Mitzvot and responsibilities. Leviticus is like our own personal GPS, the guidebook to life.

We begin the Book with Parashat Vayikra.  Vayikra begins by describing the instructions for offering sacrifices.  We wonder, how does this relate to us today?  Thank goodness we don’t practice anything even remotely similar to this. But, even though we no longer practice ritual sacrifices, we have found other ways to become closer to God and to achieve holiness, because that was the whole point of ritual sacrifice.

In ancient days, sacrifices were offered at specific times. Today, we offer prayer at fixed times, so that we specifically set aside some time out of our day to try to achieve that closeness to God.  Even more than prayer, performing acts of lovingkindness and doing acts of community service can help us continue to be a nation that pursues justice. Sacrificing doesn’t mean to give something up. It means to be generous, and to live with an open heart, and going beyond what you ever thought you could do. This is true holiness.

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day 2013

It's International Women's Day. This year's theme is: "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women" seeks to strengthen international community's commitment to put an end to violence against women.  Sadly, there is a pandemic of violence against women around the world.

Just yesterday, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. But, for the first time, the bill now includes expanded protections for Native Americans and immigrants and provisions for LGBT victims of domestic violence. In addition, the bill includes provisions to address sexual violence on college campuses.

This reauthorization strengthens protections and services for programs to hopefully prevent domestic violence, and includes funding for hotlines, shelters, and housing assistance. This didn't come easy. This came with a fight. But, when the American people made their voices heard, our elected officials heard listened.

In the face of such unacceptable figures, the international community must continue to be committed to address the plight of women around the world. Everyone should be able to live their lives free from fear, and be assured that they will get the care that they need. No one should feel as though they are being abandoned when they need it the most.




Monday, March 4, 2013

You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile - Parashat Vayakhel- Pekudei


 The covenant between God and the people of Israel has often been compared to a wedding: "As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." (Isaiah 62:5) Whenever we finish reading a Book of the Torah, it is a perfect time to reflect on where we have been, and the journey that lies ahead. It is with that blessing, that I dedicate this d'var Torah to my friends Amy Weinstock and Randy Kitchin, on their upcoming marriage.

 It was just Oscar Week Frenzy, and the "Fashion Police" were out.  But this Camp loving Rabbi that prefers sweats over suits, still likes to think that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart, and all, as they say, that glitters, is not gold.  It reminds me of the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, in which a vain, arrogant emperor—who was quite an average fairy tale ruler that cared too much about his clothing.  One day he heard from 2 swindlers that they would make him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth.  This cloth, they said, had a special quality that was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position.  They actually wove him an invisible suit, and when the emperor “saw” it, he pretended that he saw its beauty and took to town in the nude.  He allowed himself to be marched thru the streets, never admitting that he was unfit and stupid to see what he was (or wasn’t) wearing.  The Emperor’s obsession with appearance eventually lead to his downfall.
            This week’s Parashat, Vayakhel-Pekudei, recounts the momentous occasion of the completion of the Tabernacle, detailing the courtyard and the Tabernacle before God’s entry.  It also describes the colorful vestments and ornate breastplate the priest is commanded to wear as he presents himself to God.  God expects that Aaron will not fulfill his priestly responsibilities wearing rags, but instead wearing flashy designer apparel.  At first glance, the emphasis on the priestly fashion seems unfitting, for holy tasks ought to value inner beauty and intention over whatever one has on the outside. In fact, according to the Rambam, one of the leading scholars of the Middle Ages, Moses, unlike typical rulers, was uninterested in the self-aggandizement of amassing treasures that would be at his disposal.[1]  Based on the story’s lesson, it is not hard to find the Torah’s emphasis on the priest’s garb somewhat off putting.  Our sages, however, provide the necessary context. Exodus 39:43 tells us: “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks as the Eternal had commanded, so they had done, Moses blessed them.”  According to 11th Century Commentator, Rashi, Moses blessed the Israelites so that God’s presence would rest on their work[2].  In that blessing Moses did not just confirm the worth of all the Israelites work in laying out the pieces of the Mishkan and crafting the priests’ ornate outer wear, but also affirmed what the purpose of doing it all had been: to serve God.  What mattered more was not the final outcome, but the meticulousness of the Israelites’ efforts to reach it.  The Israelites only received Moses’ blessing because, unlike their indulgence during the Golden Calf episode, here the Israelites used their abundant resources to bring God into their midst as God asked.  Ultimately God wasn’t as concerned with Aaron’s breastplate as with why the Israelites were going to great lengths to beautify it.  Likewise, God doesn’t care what brand name we wear, but rather the attitude with which we wear it, and how else we live our lives.

And we finish another book of the Torah. On to the Book of Leviticus.

[1] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson. “The Chumash: The Stone Edition”.  Mesorah Publications. 2001.
[2] Ibid.