Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?
This is the essential question posed by the first chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, about the sacrificial Temple service for Yom Kippur as described in Acharei Mot.
On all other holidays we only offer one chatat, one sin offering with a goat. Why on this holiday do we offer two, a goat and an ox?
You were wondering the same thing, weren’t you?
Rabbi Kook teaches some wonderful Torah here:
The ox is a symbol of great strength. Oxen were traditionally used for construction and cultivating land. The ox’s strength was harnessed to till the earth, to transport goods, and other constructive purposes.
Good intentions are not always enough. Even when we mean well, we sometimes cause harm. Acharei Mot and Yom Kippur encourage us to acknowledge and learn from our ‘constructive’ as well as our ‘destructive’ mistakes, so that we can continue to grow as human beings. We are truly strong, in more ways than we realize, which is why in this case, two offerings are better than one.
 Gold from the Land of Israel: A new light on the weekly Torah portion from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, by Rabbi Chanan Morrison, pg. 198-99.
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
My running joke (for years now) has been to stand before my congregation and begin each sermon with the words: “this week’s Torah portion just happens to be one of my favorites!” Most of the time, I really mean it. Almost every parasha is one of my favorites.
Then there is Tazria.
With its intense focus on ritual purity and impurity following bloody, oozy, or pus-filled emissions from childbirth and skin disease, what do we make of Tazria?
A little disclaimer before writing anything else: Tazria is, indeed, to my great surprise, becoming one of my favorites. Here is one reason why.
Early on in the portion, during the description of blood flow following childbirth, is the command for baby boys to be circumcised on the eighth day. (Lev. 12:3)
Circumcision remains one of the most primal and difficult mitzvot we observe. In Hebrew, it is referred to as berit milah – literally ‘cutting the covenant.’ This is the only way for a boy to enter the covenant. Girls, according to the tradition, are already perfect, and no procedure is necessary to change their covenantal status, but not so boys. There are many valid feminist critiques of the distinction made between boys and girls this way, and perhaps that will be the topic for a later blog.
For now, however, I can’t stop thinking about the bris of my son - fourteen years ago.
Make no mistake. For both my wife and I, his circumcision was a SACRIFICE. Never mind that we Jews have been doing this for thousands of years. Never mind that we had hired a mohelet who was a board certified pediatric surgeon. As a mom, Shauna struggled to even be in the room, and truth be told, when the mohelet offered me the scalpel to make the cut myself (traditionally the father’s obligation, now usually passed along to the mohel) – I almost passed out.
We, as parents, were making a commitment. It meant something. And while I do not advocate for a similar surgical procedure for girls, I miss the level of commitment that comes from a naming ceremony compared to a bris.
A legend: the evil Roman Governer Tyranus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, “If God hates the uncircumcised, why does He [sic] create man in an uncircumcised state?” Rabbi Akiva answered: “Does the earth yield bread?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria 5 - summarized - full text below)
What did Akiva mean? It takes effort to ‘bring forth bread from the earth.’ And if making bread requires such effort, then chal v’homer, how much the more so does the creation of a sanctified, covenantal life?
The question is not ‘in what state are we born?’ but ‘what will we do with the life we have been given?’
Complete Text of the Midrash:
Tyranus Rufus to Akiva: "Whose works are better, those of God or of man?"
Akiva: "Those of man."
Tyranus Rufus: "But look at the heavens and the earth! Can a human being make anything like that?"
Akiva: "Creating heaven and earth is beyond human capacity. Give me an example drawn from matters that are within human scope."
Tyranus Rufus: "Why then do you practice circumcision"
Akiva: "I knew you would ask this question. That is why I said in advance that the works of man are better than those of God."
Akiva then placed ears of corn and cakes before the governor.
Akiva: "The unprocessed corn is the work of God. The cake is the work of man. Is it not more pleasant to eat cake than raw ears of corn?"
Tyranus Rufus: "If God really wants us to to practice circumcision, why did He not arrange for babies to be born already circumcised?"
Akiva: "God gave the commands to Israel to refine our character."
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
The great tragedy of Shemini is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Here is how Torah describes their very first day “on the job” as priests of Israel:
And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each of them his fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Lev. 10:1-2)
To put it mildly, this seems a little harsh. Their great transgression was that they offered “alien fire,” meaning fire that God did not command. Why would they do this? Apparently, they were so moved by zeal for God that they went beyond what God actually commanded. Why is this so wrong? What possible lesson does Torah intend for us here?
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik taught that there are two different approaches to religious observance, which he called Jewish and pagan. In the Jewish approach, we are guided not by emotion, but by the discipline of our covenantal obligations to God. Over time, through the discipline of practice, we gain deeper and more fulfilling spiritual meaning and sustenance. The Jewish path is, in his view, one in which our actions are limited by the boundaries of the commandments. The pagan approach, is the polar opposite to Judaism. It begins will zeal and excitement, which leads us to change our practice to suit our emotions. Over time, he argues, this approach ends with disillusionment. (Chumash Mesurat HaRav, Lev. 10:1-2)
I think there is some truth to his argument. However, rigidity in observance does not come without its own pitfalls. There is another lesson to be learned from the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu. Zeal can easily lead to zealotry, which is but another name for religious extremism. Jewish tradition argues that God wants us to take a middle path. God requires our devotion, but within limits. When we go beyond those limits we dance with the possibility of becoming extremists, of becoming filled with the self-righteousness that leads us to disapprove of and eventually to demonize everyone who is not like us. This can happen not only when we go beyond the letter of the law in our practice, but when we make the letter of the law so rigid as to forget the spirit of the law.
Nadab and Abihu teach us that true d’vekut, our ability to be one with God, requires us to dance a delicate dance, with pitfalls and dangers on every side. This is not to say that we should not try. Rather, the opposite is true. It’s just that we should approach the path with confidence in the direction it leads us, and with humility to help us stay on course.
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Pekudei concludes the book of Exodus with a beginning rather than an end. How Jewish! This week we read the description of the completed mishkan (tabernacle) and the descent of God’s Presence upon it as an impenetrable cloud by day and a fire by night, “in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout their journeys.” (Ex. 40:38)
Our parasha opens with a rather strange turn of phrase: the mishkan is called mishkan ha-eidut. (Ex. 38:21) Some translators call this “the Tabernacle of the Covenant” or “of the Pact.” That would make a lot of sense given the context of the verse. However the word eidut literally translates as ‘witnessing’ or ‘testimony’ and is not at all related to the Hebrew word for covenant (brit). Why, at this of all moments, does the text read mishkan ha-eidut?
According to Rabbi Shimon, the mishkan itself stands as witness, proclaiming to every person that God has forgiven the sin of the Golden Calf. (Midrash, Shemot Rabbah, 51:4) While the tradition emphasizes that this message was delivered to the world, I like to think that it was intended especially for us.
The mishkan is, among other things, the place more than any other where the Israelites encountered the reality of God as they wandered through the Wilderness. It was commanded from on high, but built by people.
We, like the ancient Israelites, regularly fall into the trap of worshipping the work of our hands – our own ‘golden calfs.’ This is the path of hevel, of futility and emptiness. The mishkan for God in our midst is a testimony – both of our errors and of God’s forgiveness. This is not only the message of the High Holy Days, but of every day.
We can repeat the mistakes of the past, or learn from them and return to our Source, using our hands to create not idols but sanctuaries in time and space.
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Keep the Sabbath, or else! This is the tenor of Exodus 31:14: “And you shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy to you: those who desecrate it, die – he shall die. For all who perform labor upon it, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of its people.”
To put it mildly, you might find this language a little … harsh. Today many Jews work on Shabbat, and do not die. How then can we understand or relate to this verse?
Perhaps the Israelites themselves executed transgressors thousands of years ago (see Ex. 35:2), or fines were assessed equivalent to a human life (as in the Talmud, Shabbat 70a). Personally, I don’t want to live in a community where the death penalty looms over our heads to enforce religious observances. As for paying a fine, I struggle (despite what I was taught as an economics major) with the very concept that we can assign a monetary equivalent for the value of a human life.
So can this commandment have a hold on us today? How?
Shabbat is a precious gift – a gift from God, directly to each and every one of us. We need Shabbat. Even God needed to take a day of rest after six days of creation! When we ignore the Shabbat, we not only spurn this precious gift, but we also hurt ourselves. Shabbat is a time for refreshing our souls, pausing from our creative acts during the week and enjoying life. It is a time devoted to God, to our loved ones, to our innermost selves. Each week that we let pass without a Shabbat, without this holy time devoted to what matters most in life, a little piece of us dies.
Thankfully, it is never too late. If we want to restore what we have lost, the gates are always open. So don’t let this Shabbat get away, or the next one. After all, aren’t you worth it?
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
From the Burning Bush to the Plagues in Egypt, Moses is forced to face and then to overcome his self-doubt. Never mind that he has just interacted with the Creator of the Universe, never mind that his eventual success is guaranteed by God over and again: Moses struggles to believe – in himself.
“And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying: ‘Behold, the Children of Israel have not hearkened to me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, and I am of uncircumcised lips?’” (Ex. 6:12)
Va’era gives us a glimpse into the making of a Jewish hero. Moses focuses on his own shortcomings, and on his initial failure. He sees himself as unfit for the task. After all, how can he be God’s spokesman with a speech impediment (uncircumcised lips)? How can he convince Pharaoh if the Israelites themselves won’t listen?
God’s answer is as simple as it is true. To paraphrase, God tells Moses to ‘get back in there’ and provides specific instructions about what to do and details ways that God will help. In other words, if we let our fear of failure drive our decisions, then we will surely fail. If we look at the obstacles before us and seek solutions to overcome them, we will surely succeed. If we keep ourselves focused on the end goal, then every failure along the way is a necessary lesson along our path to eventual success. God may not use these specific words, but this is exactly what Torah teaches over the course of the entire Exodus narrative.
As the inheritors of this precious tradition, we can recognize ourselves in this story. Whatever our self-doubts may be, we can follow Moses’ lead: with clarity of vision and with God’s help, anything is possible.
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Timing is everything.
Every New Year is about new beginnings, new chances for success (both personal and professional), new possibilities. This week, just after we celebrate the secular New Year, we will begin a new book of Torah. Parashat Shemot opens with the darkness of slavery, but ends by pointing us squarely towards a brighter future. The journey to the Promised Land will be anything but easy, yet, with time and persistence we eventually arrive. As we read Shemot this Shabbat, let us look forward to the New Year with the realism and optimism of Torah. Let’s identify the specific obstacles that lie ahead so that we can meet and beat them, and let’s also keep faith – faith with God and with ourselves. With God's help we truly can make each new tomorrow brighter.
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Three Torah portions. Three dreams. In VaYetze Jacob dreamed of an angelic ladder reaching to heaven, and discovered God where he least expected. In VaYeshev Joseph dreamed that his entire family would one day bow down to him, prophesying a future in which he would be God's instrument for their very survival. The dreams of Miketz, however, are of a different flavor.
Pharaoh dreams two dreams in our parasha. In his first dream, Pharaoh sees seven 'ill-favored' and gaunt cows devour seven healthy and plump cows. Then he dreams that seven withered ears of grain devour seven 'goodly' ears. Although his dreams are prophetic in the way that Joseph's were, Pharaoh was not able to interpret them. Only Joseph was able to understand the dreams as a prediction of seven years of famine that will follow seven years of plenty.
Yet Joseph is not the only Jew who would eventually interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century rabbi also known as the Sefat Emet (the language of truth), offered an intriguing observation. He connected Pharoah's first dream to one of the great challenges of human beings: controlling our inner urge to do wrong. In his close reading of the text, the Sefat Emet observed that the lean cows act in three different ways;
And, look, another seven cows came up after them out of the Nile, foul to look at and meager in flesh, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the foul-looking meager-fleshed cows ate up the seven fair-looking fat cows ... (Gen. 41:3-4, translation by Robert Alter - I have added the bold font)
The Sefat Emet taught that the foul-looking cows represent our Yetzer haRah, our inclination to evil, and the inclination to evil follows the same three steps as the cows in its determination to conquer us. First it comes up after us, to examine our actions. Then it stands by us, growing closer and creating a sense of familiarity and even comfort until, finally, it swallows us up completely.
How do we stop it? He doesn't say, at least not in this commentary. Perhaps just the knowledge itself is our best defense.
Twenty-one years have passed since Jacob fled for his life from his twin brother Esau. Now, on his own, with a large family to protect, Jacob sends messengers to Esau in an attempt at reconciliation. When they return to Jacob they report, “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is actually coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Gen. 32:7) Jacob divides his camp, so that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. He then sends servants ahead, each with a different herd to present to Esau as tribute – presenting gift after gift in what must have been a bewildering array. Yet, despite Jacob's generosity, Esau continued to advance with his four hundred men. It is only when Jacob and Esau meet face to face the next day, that they are able to make peace.
What do we learn from this?
Americans grow up learning a sense of pride in self-sufficiency. “If you want the job done right, do it yourself.” However, Judaism teaches the opposite. We might say: “If you want the job done right, get help and work together.” Here, in YaYigash, is an exception. Jacob sends emissaries to make peace with Esau, but they fail because when it comes to reconciling our differences nobody can do that for us. Relationships are personal; only we can cultivate them, nourish them or repair them. Our friends might be able to arrange a meeting, but only we can mend our fences.
In a few days, families all over the United States will gather around their tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. Perhaps we can use this opportunity to learn from Jacob and Esau and bring even more peace into our homes.
Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
Some things just stick with you. For me, one of those things is a little gem of a book written by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It's called "God was in this Place & I, i did not know," and the entire book is about a single verse of Torah, Genesis 28:16. In it, Rabbi Kushner shares seven different interpretations of the verse, each one more fascinating and challenging that the last.
The verse is a direct quotation from Jacob, who at the opening of this week's Torah portion reaches rock bottom. In last week's portion, Jacob triumphantly purchased the birthright of succession from his brother Esau for a bowl of lentils, and then successfully stole Esau's blessing of inheritance by tricking their blind father Isaac. However, the moment Esau finds out, he determines to kill his brother, and Jacob flees for his life. At the opening of VaYetze, Jacob finds himself in the middle of the Wilderness with only the clothing on his back and a rock for a pillow. That night he dreams of angels climbing and descending along a nearby ladder that extends to heaven. When he awakes, he says: "God was in the Place and I, i did not know." (Gen. 28:16)
Rabbi Kushner observes that until this moment, Jacob focused his entire life on ... Jacob. Jacob is so full of himself, that there is no room for anyone else. It is only when he loses everything, when his "I" is diminished and becomes an "i" that Jacob discovers one of the most important teachings of Torah: even in those places where we seem totally alone, God is with us.
For those of us who struggle to see the Divine Presence in our world, we can take a lesson from Jacob: all we need to do is to look inside ourselves and then make a little room.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras