Passover 2016

seder-plateThere really is only one thing to write about this whole week – in case you’ve been under a pile of chametz, it’s Passover this Shabbat. So, not only does the parasha schedule change, but our entire outlook and surroundings change, too.  Even if you don’t do the whole changing dishes thing, you’re still shopping differently, cooking differently, eating differently.

There is a change – an obvious break from the regular.  We make internal shifts, too.  After all the cleaning and cooking, we move from the narrowness (metzar/Mitzrayim/Egypt) to liberation, an exhalation.  We try to remove our own personal “chametz”…the stuff that’s puffing us up, that’s keeping us beholden and enslaved.  That’s harder than scrubbing any floor, I’ll tell you.

There is one thing that has been bouncing around my head all day,  though (at -2 days and counting).  Today the Federal Reserve announced that (finally) a woman was going to be on USA currency.  Harriet Tubman will be on the front of the $20 bill.  Interestingly, the slave owner and perpetrator of the Cherokee Trail of Tears,  Andrew Jackson,  is going to the “back of the bus”, I mean, the back of the bill.

How fitting.  The woman who brought countless slaves to freedom, this honor is bestowed upon Harriet Tubman, known as the Moses of her people.  She led them out of their oppressive slavery, north to freedom.   She heard her people cry out, and wasn’t satisfied to have escaped herself.  She had to bring the others out,too.

Friday we will tell the story, our story of freedom.  We must remember to tell the story of others.  Every story of freedom is ours, as is every story of slavery. For  “we were slaves in Egypt”.  And we know, we know.

And, since we learn daily from the Torah of musical theater, I offer this to you from “Once on this Island”

We tell the story

Life is why we tell the story

Pain is why we tell the story
Love is why we tell the story
Grief is why we tell the story
Hope is why we tell the story
Faith is why we tell the story
You are why we tell the story
So I hope that you will tell this tale tomorrow
It will help your heart remember and relive
It will help you feel the anger and the sorrow and forgive
For all the ones we leave and we believe
Our lives become the stories that we weave

Happy and Sweet Passover to you and your dear ones.


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Shemini: translating the sand

line-in-the-sandOur hearts are torn by the events described in Chapter 10 of Leviticus,in this week’s parasha Shemini.

The High Priest Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed when they enter the Tabernacle with “a strange fire” to offer to God.  The young priests were consumed by the fire of God.  Aaron was silent in the face of this loss, and the bodies were removed from the front of the sanctuary.

Moses  gives the remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, some pubic mourning instruction and the unequivocal injunction against drinking on the job, and then says, “you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the unclean and the clean”  (Lev 10:10)

The translation is extremely disturbing.  The Hebrew reads, “bein hakodesh u’vein hachol”.  The word “kodesh” is often translated as holy, but also means separate, kept apart.  The word “chol” however, means sand.  Simple, ordinary sand, that you find in the wilderness.  This is a phrase we hear in the Havdalah ceremony, the short, sweet set of prayers that ends Shabbat.  Said on Saturday nights, the wine and candles remind us of how we brought Shabbat in, and the spices give us the sensory element to keep a little bit of Shabbat with us into the work week.  And then we say, “Blessed are you, God, who separates the kodesh from the chol.” So the opposite of holy is sand?   No, the opposite of holy is ordinary.

Holy things happened in that space in the wilderness where the Mishkan stood.  That was holy sand, because holy things happened there, things that couldn’t happen anywhere else, things that were separate from the rest of the communal space.  But the sand that was just next to the Mishkan?  It wasn’t profane sand, it was just sand.  What happens in a place is what makes it holy or unholy, ordinary or special.

So what does it mean in the context of Leviticus?  As a primer for the priests, and ultimately, for us all, Leviticus teaches that it is our job in this world to acknowledge, to distinguish, to discern between that which adds to the unique and spiritual and goodness of the world, and that which drains that goodness away.  We must be aware of our surroundings, perhaps in a way that Nadav and Avihu were not.  We are to separate ourselves from that which diminishes the holy moments in our lives, whether they are small or great.  But there’s a difference between the un-clean-ness and the ordinary. There’s nothing wrong with sand; it’s just not the holy sand. There’s nothing wrong with Wednesdays; it’s just not Shabbat.  It’s what we see around us, and what we try to do with the ordinary that can make it holy, and it’s our job to tell the difference.



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Tzav: The holy touch

touch“Anything that touches these shall become holy.” (Lev 6:11)

“Anything that touches its flesh shall become holy…” (Lev 6:17)

I guess Leviticus teaches us that you can catch cooties from something. Or someone.  In Leviticus, there are two ways of being, two statuses:  Holy or not.  Tamei or tahor – clean or unclean.  You’re either on your way to being one or the other, or just arrived at being one or other.  So you can get holy from touching something that’s holy, or make something that is holy, unholy if you’re in that status and come into contact with something that …. Oy.

It’s easier to accept the idea that you can sully something that’s pure by bringing it into direct contact with what’s unclean. Think about the practice of kashrut, keeping kosher.  For those who follow these guidelines, using that meat knife to cut some cheese renders it unfit for meat again.  You can’t just wash it away, but perhaps there are some rituals you can perform to bring it to its former state.  Or, if you’re a vegetarian, dropping a beef bone into the soup, even if you fish it right back out again, renders the soup unacceptable.

But the idea of transferring holiness is a more remarkable transformation.  You can “catch” holiness.  Holy vessels can make other vessels holy.  Can holy people make other people holy?

When you associate with people whose outlook on life whose actions and speech find the holiness in life, then you will tend to look for and find the same holiness, the joy and light.  It’s much like when our parents told us to hang out with the “nice” kids, hoping it would rub off, and hanging with the troublemakers would get us into trouble.

This section of Leviticus is filled with eye-glazing instructions and details about the kinds of offerings brought, which are to be eaten, which can only be eaten by Aaron and his sons, which can’t be eaten at all, and more.  But hiding in the text is the idea that holiness can be transferred, not just impurity.  You can change your status, your outlook, your way of engaging the world by what surrounds you, what touches you.  The power of touch.  Simple touch can convey a whole new way of being.  This isn’t metaphorical; it’s actual, real touch.

Touch can elevate, heal, and warm, holy.  Touch can be cruel, painful, debasing, and wholly unholy.

Consider the power of touch in your world.  Be the holy that gets transmitted, and be near the holy in the world.


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Vayikra: Dash or sprinkle?

sprinkle dashWelcome to the Mishkan, please line up with your personal offering.   Be it an offering of thanks, atonement, well-being, trespass or sin,  there is one thing common to what the priest does when you step up and slaughter the offering.  The priest will spread blood around the Tabernacle, the holy place.  There are lots of ways to spread something liquid around a space, and the text specifies two, through the verbs “hizah” (sprinkle) and “zarku” (dash).  They’re used in very specific instances.  For offerings of atonement or expiation, the priest dips his finger in the blood and he will sprinkle it seven times around the space.  For offerings of well-being, “shleimim”, the priest dashes the blood around the space.

The Torah uses “shleimim”, translated as “well-being”. It comes from the same root word as “shalom”, peace, but can also mean wholeness.  Rashi (11th c France) calls it “peace offerings”, in that these kinds of offerings spread peace around the world.  Rashbam (12th c France) calls it “fulfillment”, and Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) translated the word as a “soul that is complete.”

The sprinkling is used for sin offerings, whether they are from the community or the priest himself, whether it was an intentional act or an unintentional act.  Regardless, the priest has to literally get his hands dirty for these kinds of offerings.  He must dip a finger into the bowl that caught the blood, and not only sprinkle it around the holy space, but also spread some on the horns of the altar.  Picture this – dipping his finger seven times into the bowl, choosing where he will aim, and then carefully place more on the horns of the altar. It takes time and concentration.

Transgressions affect more than just the person guilty of the act.  And those who act within a community from a place of wholeness and fulfillment also have an effect on those around them.  Perhaps the difference between the two, however, gives a hint as to the different ways the priests treat the offerings.  Transgressions get your hands dirty.  To atone for a transgression, you need to be very specific about what you did and whom you harmed.  Time and time again, you need to make sure your regret is known to those who bore the brunt of your actions, whether it’s one person or the entire community.  There may be unintended consequences of your actions, too; the priest’s actions are a combination of sprinkling and spreading – specifically directed and unpredictable effects.

For offerings of well being, the priest must only dash the blood.  Dashing  is a much more random way of spreading something around.  You can’t aim it, or predict its pattern.   One who is fulfilled, complete, and at peace has an effect on his/her space in ways that can’t be predicted.  One who is at peace spreads that wholeness in wholly unpredictable ways.   The entire community is affected, like ripples in a pond, well beyond the initial acts.

We will all transgress and we can all aspire to act from wholeness.  Both affect those around us.   As we move through the intricacies of Leviticus, the holiness and the rituals,  we can keep in mind the kinds of impact our actions have on the community.  Rashi says the peace offerings can spread peace throughout the world.  So can the ones who brings them.

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Pikudei: Pay attention to the mix

shatnez mix“The ephod was made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen.” (Ex 39:2)

This week’s parasha, Pikudei, restates a lot of what has come before, again laying out the details of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  We’ve read this stuff before – first what God told Moses to do, then what Moses told the people, and then the people following the instructions.  The eyes glaze over, indeed.

This one verse, however, brings up something a little different.  Not that we haven’t seen it before; in Lev 19:19, we are told “You shall not put on a cloth a mixture of shatnez”, but in the Exodus verse, we learn what a shatnez cloth is – linen and wool.

What could possibly be the reason for not wearing an outfit that has both linen and wool in it?  And why would it be ok for Aaron the High Priest to do it, but not anyone else?

Explanations for the shatnez law range from “it’s ‘chok’ – a law without reason, just follow it” to Kabbalstic thoughts.  Linen and wool are from different sources, plant and animal.    Maimonides (aka Rambam, 12th c Spain) reasoned  that it was because pagan priests did it, so we shouldn’t.  One midrash takes it back to Cain and Abel.  Abel brought offerings from his flock (wool) and God liked that for no apparent reason, and Cain brought offerings from his crop (plant);  mixing the two would be mixing guilt and innocence, evil and good.  Another midrash states that God created species in the world one by one, so mixing two species would be an affront to God’s creation.

Jewish practice does like to make distinctions between things, keeping things separate. Pure and impure.  Sacred and ordinary.  Shabbat and the rest of the week.  Milk and meat.  Linen and wool.  Most non-Orthodox Jews don’t pay much attention to the laws of shatnez, but as with other seemingly arcane laws and practices, we can pour new wine into old bottles, gleaning new meaning from old rituals.

Jewish law encourages us to live intentionally. We live with many contradictions in our lives, and part of living intentionally is uncovering some of those contradictions to find harmony in our words and deeds.  For example, I choose not to eat certain “kosher” meat, because the conditions of the workers in the plant were dangerous and unethical.  Some expensive, off-season fruits arrive at in our stores only through great use of resources to import them.  Perhaps we can use the law of shatnez to think about the clothing we put on our bodies.  Those who follow shatnez pay a lot of attention to the tags sewn into seams. Perhaps we can use those same tags to pay attention to where our clothes are manufactured, under what conditions, and what the real costs of “cheap” clothes are.

Perhaps Aaron’s life as High Priest made any distinction between his actions and beliefs indistinguishable.  But for the rest of us, we probably need reminders. Whether or not you wear clothes of wool and linen or eat strawberries in the winter, we can learn from this Torah text to keep paying attention to when our actions and beliefs are in concert.


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Ki Tisa: Behind the veil

The  tablets weren’t the only things that were smashed beyond repair when Moses came down from that mountain and saw the Israelites and the Golden Calf.  Something had changed, deep down at Moses’ core, which we don’t really read about until we get to the end of the parasha, Ki Tisa.

In the beginning of the parasha, we get some of the last instructions about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, specifically, the wash basin and laver that Aaron and the other Priests were to use in purifying themselves.  Then we read about the Sabbath, and how important it was to the people and to God.  Twice we read that Shabbat is a “sign”, something tangible between God and the people, for all times.

Then comes the Calf.  Moses is up on the mountain, the people get restless, and get Aaron to build for them a god to go before them.  Moses comes down with the first set of tablets, sees the rowdy partying at the base of the mountain, around the Calf, and smashes the tablets to the ground.  Then, he has to go back up to God, and get a new set of tablets.  It is on this second trip we see the “sign” on Moses’ face,  “So Moses came down from Mount Sinai…bearing the two tablets…Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had been talking with God.” (Ex 34:29) The people shrank from him, but Moses called them back, and he told them all that he had learned on Mount Sinai this second time.  After that, when he was finished speaking, Moses put a veil over his face.  From then on, whenever Moses went in to speak with God, he left the veil off, but when he was finished, he covered his face again, when telling the people what God had said.

Perhaps it wasn’t the time up on the mountain that changed Moses and his face, it was the encounter with the people and the Calf.  Moses saw the level of betrayal the people were capable of, and perhaps he needed to veil himself from seeing it anymore.   Moses went from the height of spiritual experience talking to God, to the depths of human behavior.  The experience showed on his face, and after having witnessed the Calf, he needed to make a barrier between himself and the people.  Maybe it was so he could hold on to his experience. Maybe it was so it wouldn’t get sullied by the people who had acted so badly.

Moses’ veil may have kept the people away from the strange countenance, but it also allowed Moses to keep his time with God close to himself.  From that moment on, the veil was a “sign” too.  If Shabbat was a sign between God and the people, the veil could have been a sign between Moses and God, for all the people to see.


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Tetzaveh: Clothes make the….priest

urimIn this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we get quite a dramatic scene :  Moses is commanded to ordain his brother Aaron as High Priest, and his 4 nephews as the other Priests of the community.  Like some Biblical Project Runway, the text goes into astonishing detail about the clothes Aaron and his sons are wearing.  There are linen breeches, cut to a particular length.  There are turbans and an ephod, (sort of a sleeveless garment) a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash.    They get two braided chains of pure gold.  And then, the piece de resistance – the Urim v’Tumim.

It was a breastpiece, framed in braided gold cords, in a frame with 12 mounted stones: “carnelian, chrysolite, emerald…turquoise, sapphire, amethyst,…jacinth, agate, crystal…beryl, lapis lazuli and jasper.” (Ex:28:17-19)  The stones were to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel.

What follows is an elaborate ritual involving offerings and blood-spattering and laying of hands.

Presto:  a new Priestly class, in all their dignity and adornment.

So why didn’t Moses get the fancy clothes?  After all, Moses was the one who talked to God, brought the people out of Egypt, delivered the Ten Commandments at Sinai (after Aaron messed up with the Golden Calf, even), and Talked. To. God.  It wasn’t a matter of public vs private, since Sinai was as public as possible.  So, why such a difference between Moses and Aaron?

Aaron was embarking on a path as the principal figure for all the ritual symbols and of what would become Jewish practice.  He became one kind of leader.  Moses remained a different kind, the prophetic leader.  At this point in the text, we see a division of labor – prophet and priest.  One speaks the words of God, one performs the rituals of God.  Do the public performances of the rituals require the pomp, but the private words from God don’t?

The Israelites were in the earliest stages of developing their identity as a people.  In the middle of the wilderness, perhaps the people were going to be needing a more obvious symbol of God’s  commandments, a more ornately determined keeper of God’s rituals.  The role of the prophet was, for the time, going to be more personal, private, and although Moses retained leadership of the entire community, perhaps he knew that eventually, prophets and priests would occupy different places in the society.

We need both priests and prophets, the ones who lead the communities and the ones whose moral compass keeps us focused on God’s path.

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