Thursday, March 31, 2016

Parashat Shemini

This week I have the unusual task of delivering a d'var Torah on both Friday night and Saturday. The crowds at each service are pretty different, Friday night being mostly an older group, and Saturday morning being mostly the Religious School students and their parents. The blessing and core Torah of both drashes are the same, but there are significant differences in their deliveries, so I'm sharing them both. 

            Shabbat Shalom! Last week, we celebrated Purim. Now, soon enough, it will be Pesah. Wine is a central symbol in Jewish tradition: the only beverage that gets its own blessing, it is used as a representation of creation, abundance, God’s blessing, and more. We use it for bringing in the Shabbat, saying a Kiddush over at least a symbolic sip of wine even if a full glass doesn’t accompany our Sabbath dinner (although, often it does that as well!), we use it in our Havdallah service to say goodbye to Shabbat, not only to take another symbolic sip but also to extinguish the Havdallah candle. And of course, for the two nearest holidays to this time of year, it plays a particularly central role. At Passover, our seder marks four distinctive times to refill our wine glasses, which depending on the size of your pour, could amount to close to a bottle per person over the course of the evening. At Purim, according to the Talmud, one should drink until one can no longer tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.” However, the Talmud also tells the following story: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were celebrating Purim together, and they got so drunk that Rabbah rose up and butchered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, sober and vexed, Rabbah prayed for a miracle, and Rabbi Zeira was brought back to life. The next year, Rabbah asked Rabbi Zeira if he would like to celebrate Purim together again. Rabbi Zeira said, “One cannot count on a miracle every time.” Party on with caution.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” Rashi explains that these verses refer specifically to one who has become drunk through wine, though he permits the priests to drink watered down wine before performing their duties, assuming their thinking does not become impaired. He, along with several other commentators, also agree that no one should teach while intoxicated, for the laws of ritual and the mitzvot of the Torah are very holy and to make a mistake in teaching these matters could have terrible consequences for the whole community. The line in this section of Parashat Shemini which specifies, “that you may not die,” indicates that while teaching under the influence is generally discouraged for anyone, a priest who does so may face capital charges since his duties are of utmost importance and should be undertaken and taught with a sober and clear mind.
            Jewish tradition’s relationship to wine could be confusing to one who is not very careful with their own limits. We are told to use it in all our rituals, and that it is one of the central ingredients to making holidays festive, but then we are told not to imbibe too much before performing those rituals or teaching others about the holiday. We are told to drink to excess on Purim, but then told this awful story about two rabbis who did and one ended up killing the other. There is sometimes a silence around the problem of alcohol abuse in Jewish communities, and the tradition offers much ambivalence when it comes to tackling the question of substance use in Jewish society. This is why my colleague from the Academy for Jewish Religion has founded Beit Yosef. Still in its beginning stages, Beit Yosef is modeled after Beit Teshuvah on the West Coast, and seeks to be the first East Coast addiction recovery program that comes from a specifically Jewish focus. Eventually, I think Beit Yosef plans on offering in-patient rehabilitation as Beit Teshuvah does, but as of right now there is no facility on the East Coast to offer that. Founder Rabbi Ellie Shemtov has her own personal reasons for establishing Beit Yosef and naming it as such, and you can find her story at, but what rings out to me is that it comes from a teaching from a 14th century rabbi, Yosef Caro, who responded to the Talmudic decree to drink to excess on Purim with a resounding no. In his first book of Jewish law, called Beit Yosef, he said, “It’s written in Orhat Hayim [a volume of an earlier book of Jewish law] ‘one is obligated to mellow himself with wine,’ but not to become inebriated. This is totally prohibited. There is no greater sin than this. It causes sexual immorality and the spilling of blood and other sins besides these.”

            May we have merriment, abundance, and show appreciation for all of creation. May we also keep clear minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

            Shabbat Shalom! Think about a time when you were daydreaming in class and then a teacher noticed and called on you. You suddenly snap to attention, but you actually have no idea what’s going on, so you just answer with whatever comes into your head first. Maybe it is complete nonsense and is entirely related to what you were daydreaming about instead of what the teacher was talking about. Maybe you really tried to remember what the last thing you heard was before you started daydreaming so that you could offer a real answer anyway, but what you say is so far off from where the class has gotten while you were daydreaming that it still completely gives you away. Maybe you don’t even try, and you just answer some smart aleck thing because you know you’re busted anyway and why not go for broke.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” The great medieval rabbi and Torah commentator, Rashi, offers some explanations about the wine and the drinking, and the other sages agree with him about how clear headed people should be when taking on their holy tasks. I hope I can assume none of you are drinking wine in school, but I think the lesson still carries over to other ways of clouding our minds. When you are in school, you are carrying out holy tasks of learning, of preparing yourself for life, and of teaching others your own special knowledge. We all have something to learn and something to teach, and if we are not fully present in mind as well as body, then we miss important opportunities to learn and to teach. Maybe this is why God spoke these words directly to Aaron about his special task as High Priest, even though God usually spoke to Moses: so that Aaron would know that he has to take his role seriously and to understand that he is every bit as important as Moses.
            Of course, we can’t constantly be in teaching and learning mode. Sometimes, it is ok to let our minds go blank, or to do things that are just for us, our own ways of enjoying life without regard to what they teach us or how others are viewing us in that moment. The key to all of this is to know when to do which. May our lives be full of fun and appreciation for all of creation. May we keep open minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Parashat Tzav

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav, an explanation for the priests on proper sacrifice rituals. There are five basic types of sacrifices: a burnt offering, a meal offering, an offering for well-being, a sin offering, and a guilt offering. Last week’s parasha really explains what they are and when each is merited, while this week focuses on how the priests are to carry out the sacrifices. But the language remains ambiguous enough that some of our great rabbis of old still needed to explain what some of these sacrifices meant in their commentaries on this portion as well. For example, for the offerings of well-being, this portion seems to make distinctions of three types of sacrifices of “well-being”. The first, which has its own ritual for the priests, is an offering of thanksgiving and the rabbis explain that it is required to be brought to the priests by someone who has recovered from illness, returned from a long or dangerous journey, or otherwise experienced something particularly good following a period of uncertainty. The other two have the same ritual for the priests but are still somewhat distinct. There’s a votive offering, which the rabbis explain is made in fulfillment of a vow, the vow being made of freewill but the offering to fulfill it being obligatory. And there’s a freewill offering that is an entirely spontaneous act of pure devotion.
            We no longer deal in animal sacrifices or priestly rituals, but these distinctions in the sacrifices of well-being really spoke to me as I was preparing this parasha for this Shabbat. Imagine you make a complete recovery from a terrible illness, and you didn’t call your friends and family who had been worried about you. They’d of course be relieved when they heard you were well, but they might also be a little frustrated and/or confused that you didn’t tell them sooner. Imagine if it were OBLIGATORY that you notify people at your earliest possible convenience, that you celebrate your health, that you shout from the rooftops how grateful you are to be healthy again! It might be pretty annoying, actually, if we were forced to always express expected emotions all the time, but think of it as cultivating an attitude of gratitude, of creating a practice for yourself to actively show your thanks for small miracles every day. Imagine you are in a great mood one day, for no particular reason. You haven’t just gotten over an illness, or been on a journey, or even have a vacation coming up anytime soon. It’s just a nice day, the weather is good, and you woke up on the right side of the bed. And you say to yourself, “I should spread some cheer today.” You think you will be extra polite to strangers on the commute to work today, you’ll compliment a colleague, give your kid an extra couple dollars on their allowance this week, maybe even donate some tzedakah midweek just because you feel so fortunate on this lovely day. But then the traffic is bad, or your colleagues weren’t particularly impressive that day, or you simply forget about the extra dollars by the time you hand over the allowance. Again, it might be impractical to DEMAND you follow through on all those things, but think about how much better life would be for everyone if we set our minds to really complete our promises to ourselves to be more sharing, caring, and courteous. Now imagine, you’re just walking down the street, and you come upon a homeless person. You are suddenly filled with a great sense of gratitude for all you have and spontaneously give the homeless person a couple dollars or buy them lunch.

            In some ways, these are all still sacrifices. They require time, energy, intention, and possibly even money, depending on which manifestation you choose to show your gratitude for your own well-being. Like all sacrifices, though, they are for a greater good. They enrich your life, help you to appreciate what you have, spread your joy and wealth at least a little to those around you, and I believe that they do express love and thanksgiving for God, even if they are not offered directly to God the way the Temple sacrifices were. May we all endeavor to show our gratitude a little more openly, and share what we have with others. In this way, may we find ways to give modern day sacrifices that spread a little extra Divine joy over the world. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

d'var Esther

            Chag Purim Sameach! One of the most significant and yet least noticeable details about the book of Esther is the absence of God and prayer. When Haman demands that Mordecai bow down to him, Mordecai refuses and when asked why, he responds simply, “Because I am a Jew.” He does not expand, as one might expect, “And as a Jew, I bow only to the Almighty God of Israel.” When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews for his disrespect, he puts on sackcloth and stands outside Esther’s gate in conspicuous mourning, but he does not pray to God for help or for forgiveness for having brought this onto his people. When Esther contemplates the terrifying decision to approach the king unbidden, she fasts and asks all the people to fast with her. She does not pray to God for guidance or ask the people to pray for her protection. When the Jews are given permission to arm themselves and save themselves (killing thousands of people who may or may not have had anything to do with Haman and the plot for Jewish annihilation), they rejoice and Mordecai declares that there should be an annual holiday marking this victory, and yet again, no one gives thanks to God.
            There is a lot to learn from the Purim story: there are many layers of political satire, feminist themes, warnings against our own violent natures when given the opportunities to be in the role of aggressor, and more. But the lack of God has always been interesting to me and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s chapter on Esther: “Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World,” from her book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, offered new insight for me. Rambam says that in the messianic era, when all the tales from the books of the prophets, the stories of sin and Divine punishment, will be forgotten, the story of Esther alone will remain with the five books of Moses. To explain this claim by Rambam, Zornberg offers a parable by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner:
“Two people are charged with the task of recognizing a face in the darkness. One lights a candle and examines the face to identify it. The other, without a candle, trains himself to identify people by the sound of their voices alone. The person achieves a clearer recognition, by sight, than the other can, merely by sound. However, the second person has taught himself a new talent, of listening to the voice of the other. And when dawn breaks, the first person will extinguish his candle but will be none the wiser as a result of his nocturnal experience; while the other will emerge from it with a newly developed capacity for listening as a channel of recognition.”
Though most Bible stories show a people Israel with a candle, able to clearly see and identify God, Esther shows a Jewish leader and population who have had to learn a new capacity entirely. Zornberg calls Esther a “prophetess without revelation, [who] finds a dark light within herself.”
I feel that I’ve had the experience of being one with a candle and one whose candle has been extinguished before the dawn has broken. Throughout my late adolescence, after a spiritual experience at Jewish leadership camp, I felt called to the rabbinate and felt I had a personal relationship with God. It wasn’t that I believed in God as a person, or that I had direct conversations with God or any of the sorts of clear depictions that the Bible gives us of God. It was just that I felt there was a clear line of communications between myself and God, messages that I could clearly decipher, a path that was lit toward my future of faith and a commitment to the Jewish people. Then, around the time I was graduating college, that line of communication was cut. It took time to crawl out of the hole of depression that surrounded that severance, and it took a lot of soul searching before I found that I was still committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and I was able to form a new relationship with God. But that relationship was irrevocably altered. I developed new ways to experience faith, to find the path toward the rabbinate in darkness, to use my other senses in the darkness to identify my surroundings.

I know that many people can relate to this. In my circles of relatively unobservant Jewish friends, probably more can relate to finding God or identifying our brethren in darkness than can relate to the experience of the one with the candle. We can all draw inspiration from Esther in this. Even when we are not sure that God is with us or if God is answering our prayers, we can draw strength from the faiths and traditions of our people and make difficult choices. We can still find the courage to stand up for what is right and be ourselves and we can still rejoice with our communities when we are successful. Then we can find Divinity in the darkness. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Parashat Pekudei

            Shabbat Shalom! A few years ago, I compared the building of the Mishkan to the process of creating a perfect home in the computer game, the Sims. I still to this day enjoy playing the Sims in my downtime, and I still feel this is an apt comparison. As I said for this week’s Torah portion of Parashat Pekudei when it came around two years, the process of creating is an integral part of the gameplay. More than getting to control tiny avatars, it is the ability to create them in our image and build them homes in which we will watch them dwell, that allows our imaginations to run and is really the fun of the game for many people.
The ability to create, to truly make something with intention, is a uniquely human trait. The ancient mystic rabbis, the precursors to Kabbalah, felt that this was what it meant to be “in the image of God”: that, like God, we can create things in our own image, too, something other animals really can’t do. What distinguishes our creations from God’s, is that God has the power to create with words. God spoke and the world came into being. We have to make things with our hands. We have to think a little harder, plan a little better, be a little more careful, because as humans, we are prone to mistakes in a way that God is not. I think this is why The Torah spends 40 verses describing the construction of the universe, and something like 4,000 verses describing the construction of the Tabernacle. God’s creation is on a plane of existence we can only speculate, but we create in this world. We have human words to describe our creation, but that doesn’t make our creations any less beautiful or astounding. Our God-given abilities to build and form and shape and invent and draw and paint and sculpt are almost as miraculous as God’s ability to speak the world into being, and since we have the words to explain it, we will. We’ll talk about our creations with pride, and we’ll complement each other’s and we’ll learn from each other’s creative geniuses.
 The second verse of the portion says, “And Betzalel, the son of Ur…made all that God had commanded Moses,” which Rashi expands upon by pointing out that the text doesn’t say, “And as Moses commanded him.” Betzalel was such a wise-hearted man, a skilled craftsman, and a creative builder, that even the details which Moses did not pass on to him, he was able to build in accordance with the blueprints that Moses had been shown on Mount Sinai. Rashi uses a play on Betzalel’s name to say that he must have been “B’” (in) “tzel” (shadow) “El” (God), for it was as though Betzalel had been in the shadow of God, knowing exactly how to create the Tabernacle even with only basic instructions. The Chasidic master R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev recalls that the instruction earlier in Exodus, in Parashat Terumah, from God to Moses was to make the Mishkan “exactly as I show you,” but since Betzalel was able to make it according to his own prophetic vision and built it beautifully even without all the exact instructions, we learn that each of us is able make a dwelling place for God according to the visions of our own time and place.

Whether that time and place is a moment of quiet meditation for you, or in this sanctuary, or at your Shabbat dinner table at home, or while you paint or write or read, or when you create idealized versions of yourself and your dream-house in life simulation games, every act of creation is a connection with God, and every created moment of peace a prophetic vision. May we find our prophetic visions. May we take more time to create and to appreciate the creations of others. May we feel a little closer to our community in which Divine presence dwells. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.