Behar: Holy Land

land for saleWe are still at the Mountain, and we’ve been here for a long time.

In this week’s parasha Behar, we are still at the base of Mt Sinai, hearing more about what life is going to be like once the Israelites get to the Land. And it’s the Land that Moses begins to direct his instructions. First, there will be a “Sabbath” for the land every seven years (Shmita), when the crops lie fallow. Then, every seven-times-seven years, it is the Jubilee Year, when not only the land lies fallow, but land and property revert to original owners. Like Shabbat is a re-set for the person, Shmita and Jubilee are re-sets for the society. It’s not just about the Land in an agricultural sense, it’s the Land in terms of the entire society. Rules are set out for returning property to owners, regardless of whether it’s land or houses. Follow the rules, and society will function not just smoothly, but with justice.

Who knows if the Jubilee year ever actually played as described in this parasha. But to me, the important part of the parasha is what comes after the description of the Jubilee year. The text tells of redeeming the land, or the house; what to do if someone is in bad straits and needs help redeeming his land or house. The community comes to his aid. And the text continues: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority [as in becoming an indentured servant], and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side; do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.” (Lev 25:35-36)

If your kinsman is in straits. If your neighbor is in need. The holiness of the Land is intact only so far as the holiness in your relationships with your neighbors. You don’t treat someone who is in need any differently than anyone else. You don’t ship them off to a poorhouse, but you let them live among you. You don’t take advantage of someone in need through extortion. Why? “Because I am Adonai who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:38)

This way of living is the antithesis of what happened in Egypt. People aren’t property, people have dignity, people have honor, people have value.

That’s what makes the Land holy. Holiness comes from how we treat each other. Holiness is what we do, and how we do it.


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Emor: Choose to participate

Calendar_BlueWhen is Rosh Hashanah this year? How many times have you asked that question? You know the answer is always the same, right? Rosh Hashanah is pretty much always the first of Tishrei.  Passover? Yep, always the 15th of Nisan? My dad died on 27 Tammuz, and  my anniversary this year is always Lag B’Omer, 33rd day between 2nd night of Passover and the first day of Shavuot.

Are you following me, or does it sound like an alternate reality? It is, in a way. It’s Jewish calendar life.

This week’s parasha is Emor, in which we read, “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of Adonai which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” (Lev 23:2)  The text takes us through Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “Those are the set times of Adonai that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions..” (Lev 23:37)

If you want to keep a people together, there are a couple of things you can do: have them eat the same way (rules of kosher food), and tell time differently. Jewish time goes evening to evening; “secular” time goes sunrise to sunrise. We have a whole separate calendar, and our holidays are based on it. It’s a lunar calendar, which moves the holidays around on the “regular” calendar. Except for Shabbat, our holidays are always either early or late… Somehow they’re never on time!

Except for Shabbat, almost all of our holidays are based around agricultural timing, too. They’re tied to the harvests, the seasons, the natural world. These things are going to happen on their own. The flow of the seasons is beyond us, but it’s our choice to plug into it, and plant/reap/sow/connect with that rhythm.

It’s the same with Shabbat and the holidays themselves. They will come and go, whether  we celebrate them or not. We have the choice to be a part of them. They are opportunities to connect with what’s happening naturally in a specifically Jewish way. There’s going to be another Friday every week.  We can mark that time Jewishly. Harvest seasons roll around every year; we can mark those times Jewishly.

Maybe you “do” Shabbat differently than I do, but whatever you do, you can do it on Friday night, not Thursday. However you “do” Yom Kippur, you can do it on the 10th day of Tishrei, not just any fall afternoon.

I was going to talk about how, when I got a new calendar, the fisrt thing I did was write in when the holidays were. Most of us don’t work off paper anymore, but our electronic calendars usually don’t mark when Shavuot or Sukkot are, but Chanukah and High Holidays may be. Take the next step – choose to participate in the rhythm that is uniquely Jewish.  Log on to a Hebrew calendar site, and plug in those holidays. Choose to know when the set times are, and celebrate!


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Kedoshim: The real giving tree

hand-treeI have never been a fan of banning books. I love books, and I’m even glad for the opportunity to read a book that ultimately, I don’t even like. It hones my analysis, sharpens my knowledge of what I like and what I don’t like.

But, I never read “The  Giving Tree” to my kids. Ever. Never gave it as a gift, and gave away copies we got as gifts. Basically banned it from the house.  If one can be said to “hate” a book, that’s one of them. Now, I like a lot of Shel Silverstein, so it’s not him. It’s just this book.

The tree gives and gives and gives. And make no mistake, the tree is female and the recipient is clearly male; the female exhausts herself giving of herself until there’s nothing left but a stump, and she gets nothing in return. It’s about the worst model I could imagine for my daughters and son.

This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, is pretty much the opposite of “The Giving Tree.” In Kedoshim, we read, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be set aside for as holy before Adonai, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit, that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God “ (Lev 19:23-25)

The Hebrew actually says, “you shall leave the foreskin of that fruit uncircumcised”, i.e. blocked from use. We see that phrase in other places – we are told that Moses had “uncircumcised lips”, he couldn’t speak freely. We read about those with “uncircumcised hearts” as unfeeling.  Ramban (13th c Spain) brings in other examples: someone who is circumcised of spirit is close-minded (Ezekiel), and one whose ears are circumcised can’t hear (Jeremiah) . Uncircumcised is potential unfulfilled, fruitfulness closed off, fertility blocked, progress clogged, humanity thwarted.

The tree needs to grow strong and sustainable before we can begin deriving benefit from it. We just can’t take and take and take  from the tree. It’s not good for the land, for the tree, and not good for us, “that its yield to you may be increased.” Rashi (11th c France) says the effect of observing this commandment is that the tree’s yield will be increased,it’s in our best interest to keep the tree giving forth fruit. Rashi also says this practice keeps us  from being bitter about caring for something without getting anything in return.

This text teaches us sustainability. The “Giving Tree” tree ends up a stump. The Leviticus tree ends up fruitful and alive, giving and receiving nourishment for generations to come. Sorry, Shel, but that’s a better model.a


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Tazria-Metzora: The cost of being Jewish

can you afford itTazria-Metzora – one of those parshiot (weekly Torah portions) that we either skip over or read with some sort of “yuk” factor interest. It’s all about skin diseases, impurities of the body and building (read the part about a home getting diseased), and isn’t very pleasing to read.

But something did catch my eye this time.

“If however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering.” (Lev 13:8) and later on we read, ”If however he is poor, and his means are insufficient…” (Lev 14:21), and then again,  “He shall then offer one of the turtledoves or pigeons, depending on his means, whichever he can afford, …” (Lev 14:31)

The instances for which these particular offerings are quite different – the first is for a woman who has just given birth, and the second and third for a skin condition, needing to be deemed “cleansed” by the priest. But both have a caveat of affordability. A lamb was more expensive to the individual than a pigeon, and in other cases we read that if even the pigeon is beyond one’s means, a simple flour/meal offering will suffice.

It’s expensive to be Jewish.

Well, that is, if you choose to “do” Jewish in a traditional way – separate dishes, bigger kitchens for storage of those dishes, buying only kosher products,  kosher meat, restricting errands to certain days (“but the sale ends on Saturday!”), membership, donations, and more and more.  Don’t get me started about day school. It shouldn’t be like this. Living an actively identified Jewish life shouldn’t make you feel like bankruptcy is around the corner, or that this is a club that’s only for the wealthy.

The Torah is telling us it shouldn’t be like this, either. The text is quite aware of taking one’s means into consideration when fulfilling a mitzvah, that it shouldn’t break the bank to be deemed “holy” or “acceptable” or even just part of the community.

Last month, as I stood in line at the kosher butcher to buy some food for Passover, the woman in front of me rang up a $1,000 bill for kosher meat. A thousand dollars. For a week’s worth of meat. I’ve heard this before from others, and it leaves me speechless. Far from judging what she serves her family, I’m more astounded at the expectations the community seems to have developed for what constitutes a proper observance of the holiday. I hope she’s got the money to spare; if so, good for her, but if not, I’m more concerned that she feels she has to over-extend to celebrate “the right way.”

I can’t control day school tuition, but I do know people are responding to the cost with their feet – lower enrollment. Our community, on a macro and micro level, needs to take long hard looks at the “cost” of being Jewish, and find the awareness that the Torah already has found. Inclusion in our community can’t be based on what you can afford.


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Shemini: Silence

This week, I received a wonderful dvar Torah on Shemini, and decided to share it with you. The Orot Center (Orot means “light”) is a wonderful new adult Jewish learning center, with a unique approach to learning. I’ve been studying for about 10 years with one of the founders, Jane Shapiro, and this piece is written by Rebecca Minkus Lieberman, another founder. Rebecca and Jane are remarkable thinkers, leaders, and teachers.  I hope you enjoy Rebecca’s take on one part of Shemini, when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu die suddenly in the Tabernacle. Aaron’s response is….well, read on:

As I have gotten older, I have found myself craving – needing – more silence in my days.  When my children were younger and I was at home with them, I often yearned for breaks from the constant engagement and management of their needs, pains, demands. But I don’t think that it was silence that I needed then. Just brief respites, distractions from the full-time work of being ‘on’ with them and their urgent, noisy, needy lives. But now, I know that I need periods of silence each day. I am not speaking of meditation per se, but just silence. A cessation of the doing, the talking, the noise, the ever-growing chatter of matters that need attention and tending. On those days when I forget or neglect to find moments of silence, I’m guaranteed to be more snippy, less patient, less compassionate, less able to care for, attune to, and do for others.

I have found silence to be the simplest, yet most radical tool of opening my heart. Life-giving, actually. One I try to safeguard.

 In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we encounter the painful episode of the seemingly inexplicable killing of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. After the careful construction of the sacrificial system with all of its detailed laws and parameters, these two young men offer their own “esh zarah” – an ‘alien fire’ – an offering that seemed to be spontaneous, outside of the prescribed system of required and regulated offerings to God:

“And Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”

 Every year, when we come to this parasha, this episode stops us short and raises so many difficult theological questions that plague our senses of morality and compassion.But Aaron’s response to the tragic death of his children in chapter 10, verse 3 is what I want to explore:

 “And Aaron was silent”

 The Torah does not often name peoples’ silence. Its explicit mention here is startling and important. And silence in the face of this horrible loss does not feel unusual. How else would one react to such unexpected pain and grief than with empty speechlessness? Words are inadequate at such a moment.

 The Hasidic Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ressler ( 1740 – 1806) invites us to explore the silence of Aaron more deeply:

 “There are four levels of existence: the inanimate (domem), the vegetative, the animal, and the verbal (human).  Sometimes a person has to be on the inanimate level, as in “May my self be as dust” (Berachot 17a). Thus you do not feel the pain that another is causing you, or you do not question God’s actions… This is the sense of Aaron was silent – he brought himself to the inanimate state.

Rashi says that he received a reward for his silence: the Divine word chose to speak to him directly. By lowering himself from the verbal to the inanimate level, he allowed the silent shechinah to rise up to the level of speech.”

 This silent state – domem – that Aaron moved into was the base and foundation of his being, a return to his most elemental state, one before speech enters into one’s way of living. He contracted and retreated to this place, and as a result, his silence was ‘rewarded’: it opened a channel to the Divine. His stepping away from the world of speech allowed for God to step closer towards him. The silence created a pathway to be unlocked between Aaron and the Divine.

 In the Quaker tradition, silence is a prized and usual form of sacred coming-together.  And Heather McRae-Woolf, educator and writer, writes of her experience with the sacred silence of her Quaker practice:

 As a child in Quaker Meeting, I understood that we would sit together in silence and wait. We wait for a sense of the spirit that unites us. Some of us wait for more direct messages from God, while others simply wait for calm…But a silence where you interact with your thoughts is also a sacred act, a way of owning your interior being. Sometimes you need to wade through your thoughts in order to let them settle. My presence to myself, in all its detail, gives me a platform to recognize a unifying divinity, sometimes contained in mundane messages from other people…

We are all focused on becoming present to ourselves so that we can become present to others. Our daily world is a noisy, noisy place. There are times, when life hands us loss and pain, that we are plunged into places of unexpected silence, like Aaron – muted by sorrow and the inexplicable in human life. And there are times when we can intentionally turn towards silence. Make a permanent seat for it at our table. Spread its cloth over the movement of our lives. And perhaps it will unlock something new and unexpected in our hearts. Maybe it will allow us to see and feel in textures we had not known possible.

 Gunilla Norris, poet
 Within each of us there is a silence

—a silence as vast as a universe.

We are afraid of it…and we long for it.

When we experience that silence, we remember

who we are: creatures of the stars, created

from the cooling of this planet, created

from dust and gas, created

from the elements, created

from time and space…created

from silence.

In our present culture,

silence is something like an endangered species…

an endangered fundamental.

The experience of silence is now so rare

that we must cultivate it and treasure it.

This is especially true for shared silence.

Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.

When we can stand aside from the usual and

perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.

Our lives align with deeper values

and the lives of others are touched and influenced.

Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,

to our selves. It locates us. Without that return

we can go so far away from our true natures

that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.

We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.

We endanger the delicate balance which sustains

our lives, our communities, and our planet.

Each of us can make a difference.

Politicians and visionaries will not return us

to the sacredness of life.

That will be done by ordinary men and women

who together or alone can say,

“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,

remember to care,

let us do this for our children and ourselves

and our children’s children.

Let us practice for life’s sake.”

 Shabbat Shalom.

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Shabbat HaGadol

Tzmished. If you say it outloud, it will sound like what it is. Confused. Turned around. that’s me right now, which is why some of you may have noticed that I posted a lovely Dvar Torah last week…on the wrong parasha. It wasn’t Tzav, it was Vayikra, the first parasha in the book of Leviticus. My apologies. Pre-Passover prep does that to me.

As you know, I almost always write about Torah portions. Well, this week there is a special Haftorah portion read, the chosen section from Prophets; a Haftorah is read every week along with the Torah portion. Usually, they’re linked somehow through theme, or even a word or two. The section we read this week is from Malachi, and there are a number of passages that remind us of Passover. We’re reminded of what it means to be in awe of God, and be aware of those who act opposite to God’s wishes: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 3:4 – emphasis mine.  Malachi isn’t talking about how many offerings we bring, he’s reminding us that it’s how we treat each other that makes an impact on God.

Later on, Malachi says the heralding of the “Day of Lord of Hosts” will bring Elijah to us: I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents…(Malachi 4:23-24) This passage is recalled at Seder, when we open the door for Elijah to come visit each home. My family always laughs at the idea of reconciling parents and children; truly, if that happens, it will be a Messianic age! But there’s a deeper message.

This year, as we sit around the table with friends, family, strangers, whoever you’ve gathered with, remember that how we treat each other – our children and parents, our spouses, our workers, and the most vulnerable of our society – this is what will improve our world, whether the Messiah comes or not, frankly. Our community needs every voice, every step, every vote, every phone call and email sent to those who swear falsely, cheat laborers, and subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger. Every year the Passover story, which moves us from oppression to freedom, resonates anew. It’s astounding, really, that such an old story can do that.

I leave you with the lyrics to a song from “Once on this Island”, (lyrics by Stephen Flaherty) which is enjoying a Broadway revival now:

Through the years
We tell the story
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

Hope and faith is certainly why we tell the story. May your Seder table be filled with sweetness, joy, loving faces, and a renewed purpose for why we tell the story.

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Tzav: Flexible Matza

matzahOf course, my brain is Pesach-oriented. Kitchen, cleaning, cooking, Seder, shopping, did I mention cleaning? So as I was looking at this week’s parasha, Tzav, I noticed something in the recipe section for the Priestly offerings.


Lev 6:9  “What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes, in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting.” This is the ritual of the meal offering for the Priests. Some of the offerings the Priests aren’t allowed to eat, but this one is a meal offering.  “A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken..with all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to Adonai” (Lev 6:8)

We think of matza as both the bread of affliction and the bread of hospitality. They seem to contradict each other; please come to my house and let me feed you poor slave bread?  And this Leviticus matza isn’t being eaten in a home. It’s in the Holy of Holies, in the Tent of Meeting, by the most elite of the Israelites, the Priests, not at my regular old dining room table.

There’s no mention of speed in Leviticus, either. The Priests have to wait until the seasoned meal offering’s token portion has burned up for God, and then they get the rest. It’s a really different setting from Passover – no speed baking or eating, no eating with girded loins, sandals on, ready to split, everyone in the community take some on their backs and GO!

The Priestly matza course happens after the Exodus, and we’re already in the wilderness. We’ve begun distinguishing our world.  We’ve already begun separating out the classes among the Israelites, delineating the Priestly class. We’re establishing holy places and spaces, holier people, holy time, holy behavior (when to leave the camp, do your laundry, purify, etc)

This is the genius of matza, I think. When we were slaves, it was poor slave food. When we had the promise of freedom, it was hopeful food. When we were wandering, it reminded the Priests that anyone had access to them, to the holiest of places, that even the poorest offering of slave-bread would get God’s attention, and is also good enough for the Priests to eat. To us, today, matza is the hospitality food, reminding us that all who are hungry should come in and eat, that our table is laden with the best we have to offer, and the simplest.  In fact, we “lead” with the simple food, the one staple that took us from slavery to freedom, and beyond.



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