Kedoshim and Passover: Stranger and Strangee

break chainIt all stems from this week, you know.  The whole “how to treat other people” thing comes straight from this week of Passover.  We were slaves.  We were redeemed from slavery.  We have to remember what that was like, to be in a strange land, and to remember how we were treated, and …..Don’t Do That To Anyone Else Ever Again.

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. I am Adonai our God.”  (Lev. 19:33-34)

This comes from this week’s parasha, Kedoshim.  It’s known as the “Holiness Code.”  It’s interesting to note that the “Holiness Code” isn’t focused on the Holy of Holies, the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wildnerness, where the goings-on are known only to the priests.   The parasha marks a major turning point in the whole book of Yayikra (Leviticus).  We move from rules about how to behave in the Tabernacle to how to behave in our society.  We spend the rest of the book not talking about distinctions between pigeons and rams, but between honorable behavior and dishonorable behavior.  Between honest weights in business and dishonest weights.  And all because, we were strangers in Egypt and now we’re not, and Adonai is our God, the One who freed us from the land of Egypt.  The two ideas are inextricably linked.  In fact, the text sets it up at the beginning of this parasha:  “You shall be holy because I Adonai your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2)   God says, “Look – I took you out of slavery, so you should know what it’s like to be enslaved.  I didn’t like it when you were slaves, and if you are to be holy like Me, you’re not going to like it when others are enslaved, especially by you.   Got it?”

This week, many of us sat around a Seder table, telling the story.  There are almost 2000 different kinds of Haggadot (plural  of Haggadah) on the market.  The experience of liberation is looked at from almost 2000 different perspectives, not including our own personal ones.  But at its core, this is a story of taking our national history and making it our guide for how to live in this world with others.

Kedoshim isn’t telling us how to handle our personal business because it’s personal.  It’s because for Kedoshim, for Torah, for Jewish life, how we live our personal lives is the way we build our communal lives.  When someone is living among us as a “stranger” that person is vulnerable.  Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said we can’t wrong the stranger because our power is so much greater than his. “He is in your land, under your authority.”

We say each year that we each should feel as if we personally went out from Egypt, and how we live every day since stems from that experience.  The way we treat others in our community who are not from our community is the way we live holy lives.  This is true, whether it’s Israel or Chicago.  This is true whether we’re the stranger or the strangee, but especially if we’re the strangee.  This is true whether we were the first to come to this land, or the most recent.  This is simply true, and it all stems from this week of Passover.  And it gets really, really hard to keep remembering this.

But that’s why we have Passover and Torah and the Holiness Code.  That’s why we read over and over about how we know what it was like to live in a narrow, squeezed, hard-to-breathe-free place. So we never, ever make anyone else live that way, either.  Period.


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Acharei Mot: Passover and Leviticus

ladleWell this is odd.  This week’s parasha, Acharei Mot, is all about….Yom Kippur?  It’s spring.  We’re getting ready for Passover. Yom Kippur?

Yes – we read this week about Aaron and the priests making expiation for the transgressions of the Israelites.  That involves a couple of goats, a bit of cleansing blood and a whole lot of washing. One of the goats comes before Aaron, he lays his hands on it, confesses the transgressions and sends it out to the wilderness, getting rid of the people’s iniquities.  Then, Aaron is supposed to bathe and do his laundry, the usual recipe for making the difference between being in a state of “tamei” and “tahor”…unclean and clean.

Which brings us to Passover.  Washing? Clean and unclean? Yes, that’s Passover all right.

I’m not exactly making expiation for transgressions, unless we’re talking about how rotten a housekeeper I am.  True.  And for that,  I pay and pay.  I admit it, every Passover, as I alternately praise and curse the holiday that brings me face to face with my shortcomings.

On the other hand, I love Passover.  I love having the full table, the food, my Mom’s tzimmis, my grandmother’s Passover muffins.

I think this is where Leviticus and Passover overlap.  Leviticus is ritual, planned actions, distinguishing between lines, where tamei and tahor come up against each other.  The goat is sent off to the wilderness, like I send the regular dishes off to the garage, not because they’re “dirty” but because it’s not their time to be used. I am making a distinction. The special, unique, Passover dishes come out around now like the new spring flowers (finally!).

Passover officially begins with my grandmother’s pot and ladle with the little pieces of red tape that indicated “meat”.  They were used once a year, for one week, for fifty years.  When I lift that pot out of the box that’s been brought upstairs, a line has been crossed and the special time has begun.

Torah does not prefer a life without distinctions.  Passover is a time of distinctions.  Clean and unclean.  Fifty one weeks and one week.  Regular dishes and the ones in the box.  The state of my house the rest of the year doesn’t bother me for that one week, and so Passover remains one of my favorite times.

I have to get back to cleaning.  .  I hope you have something really special that you only use during Passover.  If you don’t, start this year.  Wishing you a sweet Passover.



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Metzora: Shave for the Brave

superman sammy“On the seventh day, he shall shave off all his hair” (Lev. 17:9)

This is Leviticus, so this instruction is given after someone has been in an “impure” state, and needs to move to a “pure” state.  Impure/pure tamei/tahor/impure/pure.  Disease/health/disease/health.

There’s a whole ritual for the leper, the one who needs to be separated from the camp, so he can be cleansed, cured, brought back into the community.  And it involves shaving all his hair off.  Torah may have thought that the priest could diagnose, treat and cure disease but some diseases don’t work that way.  Some just grab you and separate you and never give you back.  Like cancer.

Last night I witnessed “Shave for the Brave” at the 2014 Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s professional rabbinic association.   For those who don’t know, there was a little boy named Sam. Superman Sam.  Sam Sommer, and his parents are Phyllis and Michael Sommer.  He had David, Yael and Solly as siblings.  And he had thousands of us who took his story into our hearts.  Sam got sick.  Sam lost his hair. Sam had to stay separated.  But them Sam died, and no kind of burnt offerings would change that.

Last night there was a different kind of offering.  Last night, rabbis from all over the country shaved their heads, not to cure Sam, but to help put an end to that kind of sadness for other families.  Those brave men and women offered up their hair to raise the money to keep the research going to find the answers to the painful puzzle that is childhood cancer.

I stood and bore witness to that moment.  There was joy.  There was sadness. There was love. There was support and there was hope.  There was loss and there was laughter.  Pictures were taken and thousands watched the live stream.  There were over 50 newly-bald, suddenly cold heads on the last morning of the conference.  And there were over $500,000 more dollars in the coffers of St. Baldricks Foundation that will fund years of research in pediatric cancer.

Metzora teaches us there is a way to take what is tamei/impure and make it tahor/pure.  Phyllis and Michael Sommer took Sam’s story and made us look.  They wouldn’t let us look away.  And they found a way to take what was unfathomably tamei and find some purity in it.  You can still help.  Go to the foundation’s website and do what you can.

In Sam’s name, in Sam’s memory, in Sam’s honor….thank you.

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Tazria: Life in context

elijah chairOh, Tazria, you strange and troublesome parasha.  Coming as you do, a couple of weeks before Passover, as I wonder why I bother with the burdensome details and literal and figurative heavy lifting of getting ready for Pesach, I read, “Adonai spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people….on the eight day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Lev 12:1, 3)

Why circumcise a Jewish baby boy?  Because the Torah said so, you just read it.  Like not eating pork, it says so. Right there.  Torah doesn’t say to switch dishes for Passover, true; (male) Rabbinic interpretation gave us that particular responsibility.  But if both kinds of activities, the brit, (the circumcision on the 8th day), and the laws of Passover, seem significantly counter-intuitive, we are right back at the “Why?”

For me, this is a pretty short discussion.  We had a son? He had a brit.  We may question other things, but not that.

Torah tells us that God told Abraham to circumcise himself when he entered into the covenant, so we bring baby boys into that unique relationship to God, right from the start. That statement of faith “works”, if you are operating from within that framework.  But the controversy over whether and why grows, as laws that ban the practice are presented in Europe, San Francisco and even Israel.   More and more Jewish parents of Jewish baby boys are questioning the brit milah.  On the surface, there is no logical reason to take a perfect newborn and alter him.  By the same token, there is no logical reason to abstain from a perfectly tasty piece of bacon.  Back-explaining about these laws by talking about penile health and trichinosis are irrelevant; these choices are made because of faith and identity.  It’s nice that refrigeration has made pork safer to eat, and medical science has found evidence that circumcision may be “healthier” for the baby as he grows, but that’s not why it’s done.

There are those that say we shouldn’t be making a decision for a baby that he can’t make for himself.  Or that we shouldn’t impose a value system on a baby without consent.  Truth is, as parents we do both all the time.   As Rabbi Daniel Greyber wrote in his blog, (

“By raising our children to make choices for themselves, we are imposing a system of beliefs upon them: one that says they should make up their own mind.  There is no escape from making decisions for our children, so we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the question is not whether or not we are coercing our children into a value system, but rather which value system we are imposing upon them.”

We begin to form our children’s identities from the minute they breathe on their own.  Of course, as they grow, it becomes a conversation, but we “impose” on them from the beginning with our dreams.   As that young boy grows, he may decide his involvement with his Jewish identity is strong, needs to be challenged, tenuous or even non-existent.  But he will always know his parents thought enough of that history, that heritage, that identity to bring him into the world with context.  He’s not floating in an undifferentiated, pre-Creation chaos.  He has a foundation, whether his parents consider it a tradition or a law, whether they consider it a connection to God or a connection to a people.   His parents have grounded him in time and place, past and future.

In that joyous and difficult moment, that baby knows that life will be filled with joy and difficulty, even pain, but comfort, too. So yes, Tazria, these two weeks before Pesach, I will rejoice in the inexplicable but comforting challenges of identity – and go back to the Passover dishes.

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Shemini: Drawing a line

line-in-the-sandThis is where I draw the line.

And that’s Leviticus. The end.

Well, that would make for a pretty short blog posting here, so I’ll elaborate.

Leviticus (Vayikra) is all about drawing lines between things – this is ok, this is not. We are told to be on the lookout all the time, making and acknowledging distinctions.  In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we are presented with one of the most well-known and yet highly misunderstood sets of distinctions – the laws of kashrut, or what is permitted to eat and what isn’t.

Back up just a bit.  Earlier in the parasha, we read about all sorts of different offerings the people were bringing to the Tabernacle.  Goats, sheep, etc.  And Aaron, the high Priest, along with his sons, are instructed as to how to handle these offerings – what they should eat, and where it should be eaten (inside or outside.)  Then we hear of a fire “going out from Adonai” that consumes the offering.  Immediately after that, we read of another kind of fire – a  “strange fire” that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring into the Tabernacle.  Bad move.  We don’t exactly know what that strange fire was, but it wasn’t good.  Another fire went out from Adonai and zapped Nadav and Avihu

Clearly there was a distinction between different kinds of fires, a deadly distinction.  This parasha makes other distinctions.  After the detailed descriptions of what makes a kosher animal and what makes an unkosher animal, the text says we are to make a separation between the unclean and the clean, “hamavdil bein ha-tamei uv’ein ha-tahor”  When I read that, I was reminded of the phrase that ends the Havdalah ceremony.  This is the short ritual that divides Shabbat and from the rest of the week.  We say, “Blessed is God…..who separates the holy from the ordinary”, “hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol”  (extra points for seeing the connection between “hamavdil” and “havdalah”…same root v-d-l)

Many translations have the opposite of “holy” as “profane”, as in, “Who separates the holy from the profane”  But that’s a pretty bad translation.  There is nothing profane about Tuesdays, they’re just not Shabbat.  Yet the text about kosher animals specifically states that some animals are “tamei” (unclean) and others are “tahor” (clean.)  Why not use similar language in these two settings?

I think it’s because clean/unclean are temporary states of being.  We learn from Leviticus that we can move between the status of clean and unclean and back again, depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing.  Clean/unclean is a fluid part of life.  No one is essentially or inherently unclean and through the ordinary course of our lives, we expect that at times we will be (figuratively) in or out of the camp.  But Torah gives us a way of sanctifying the move back to “clean” status, and Leviticus spends a lot of time instructing us on how to do just that.

But Shabbat is permanently in the status of holy.  It’s essence is holy, unlike us whose essence is not what moves between clean and unclean – just our temporary, body status.   Shabbat is never ordinary, Shabbat is never un-holy.  The distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week doesn’t change, so we wouldn’t use the changeable, Leviticus language of clean and unclean for Havdalah.     Only the holy language will do, relegating the rest of the week to non-Shabbat status.  Not bad, but not Shabbat.  Not profane, but not Shabbat.

The Torah teaches us to be careful with our language, and Leviticus specifically teaches us to be discerning in our words and deeds.  Finding our way between the clean and unclean, finding the holy and the ordinary – this is what we look for.

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Tzav: Recipes

hamentashenI have some recipe cards from my grandmother that I cherish.  Grandma wasn’t all that great a cook, although she did make some pretty mean matzah balls and brisket, and we all love her Passover muffins.   Her salmon patties…..not so much. That could have been because I really didn’t used to like fish, but I digress.  I cherish the cards less for what the recipes are for and more because they’re written out, in her handwriting, on those old fashioned ones that say, ‘From the Kitchen of……”  Those cards are a direct link to my grandmother, her tiny kosher kitchen that somehow held two sets of everything.  I remember the African violets on the windowsill, and the seat where my grandfather sat and did the crossword in pen (my mother and I still do) and the entire layout of the apartment near Damen and Peterson.  Few things are as personal as our handwriting, and when I see those cards, I see her.  We miss a lot when we download our recipes instead of passing them down.

This week’s parasha is Tzav, and there are a lot of recipes in there.  “A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken from it, with all the frankincense..” (Lev 6:8)  “A tenth of an eifa of choice flour….shall b prepared with oil on a griddle.  You shall bring it well soaked, and offer it as a meal offering..” (Lev 6:13-14)  These were the instructions on bringing offerings to God in the Tabernacle.  These were the ways people were instructed to bring themselves closer to God – the word for offering is “korban”, from the root “k-r-v”, to come closer.  In Leviticus language, this was the way to come closer to experiencing God’s presence.

I am not much of a baker.  I’m good with main dishes and things, but the exactness required of good baking is difficult for me.  There is an actual chemistry to baking, something that eludes me on most occasions.  I can have all the ingredients laid out, ready to be combined, but that doesn’t mean it’s all going to come out.   Maybe the really good recipes are the ones that have to be demonstrated, not just read.  Last year, I finally got to watch and help my mother make the strudel that has been passed down from my dad’s mother, to her.  That grandma didn’t use a recipe for the strudel; at last, one year my mom and aunt sat at her side and measured everything that went into the bowl.  Still, it took years to get it just right, which it is.

Aaron and his sons were told exactly how to handle the offerings in the Tabernacle.  Granted, it was new for all of them, but it must have been intensely collaborative between them as they took on their new roles as Priests.  “How did that work for you?”  “That was a pretty uncooperative sheep.”  “Hey, try this next time.” The instructions may have been there, but it took the doing to make it right.

Just like life.

By the way, since Purim starts this Saturday night, go find your family’s recipe for Hamentashen.  Don’t have one…here are some links to some Hamentashen recipes (I know what I just said, but you have to start somewhere!)  For fun, write them out. One of my favorite sites, Shiksa in the Kitchen ( has a lot.

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Vayikra: Seeing through the smoke

smokescreenGod called out. Vayikra.  So begins the book of Leviticus, probably the least relevant to our lives today.  Or so it would seem.The first half of Vayikra is all about “korbanot”…offerings, badly translated as sacrifices.  The word comes from the same word for close, as in getting close to God.    In our annual dance around the text, we come up to Vayikra in early spring (or what would pass for Spring, were we not in Chicago) and we must engage to find some meaning.

When God communicated with Moses the first time, God “spoke” at the Burning Bush, not “called out.”  There was nothing in between  Moses and the Bush. It may have been confusing to see a Bush burn but not burn up, but Moses could see it all clearly. Here, in Vayikra, we enter the world of smoke and ritual.  The people will begin bringing offerings of thanksgiving and atonement.  They will bring goats, bulls, birds and flour.  There will be blood and noise, and as the offerings burn up, they will fill the Tabernacle with lots of smoke.  Maybe the smoke will be “rayach n’choach” a pleasing odor to God, but the smoke and cinders will irritate the eyes and lungs of the priests and those around him.

Imagine how chaotic that Tabernacle could be when an offering took place.  The detailed instructions were like a voice cutting through the smoke, bring some order to the moment.  God had to call out instead of speak, so the Divine voice could cut through the cinders, smoke and sounds.

God called out to give instructions on how to find the holiness in daily actions.  The instructions were for the priests, of course, but the people were part of the ritual.  Without them, the priests would lack for offerings.  With the people, the holy connections are made between Israel and God.

There is smoke all around us, keeping us from clarity, keeping us from finding the holy in our daily actions.   It’s hard to know what to do next when we’re confused and can’t catch our breath.  Think about yoga; we find our breath by doing a very proscribed routine of movements.  We rely on the routine to find our way out of the confusion.  That’s the value of routine, I think.  Routines and instructions give us room for breathing and seeing clearly.

As we begin the book of Vayikra, reading the minute details of what to bring, how to bring, when to bring,  we can take the opportunity to see through the smoke around us, and find holiness within.

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