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Yom Sheini, 8 Iyyar 5778

The double portions of Tazria and Metzora continue the Torah’s discussion of ritual impurities. Tzara’at, often translated as leprosy, is a plague that can afflict people’s skin, their clothing, or even their homes. If someone suspects tzara’at, a priest is summoned, and after judging various signs determines whether the person or object is tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure).

Whenever I read this Torah portion, it makes me think about how we deal with illness. Skin diseases are visible, and thus we can imagine how people presenting with leprosy must have been so easily and quickly scorned, feared, reviled, and shunned. Serious illnesses today are often less visible, and also carry the weight of far less stigma. Nobody whispers the word cancer anymore. We know it is not contagious, and we rush to be supportive of our friends, family, and community members who suffer.

Rabbi Sara Davidson Berman pointed out in her beautiful d’var Torah on this portion that the term “leper” is used today to describe anyone who is ostracized. “Who are the lepers in today’s society?” she asks. “Those with mental illness.” In times of old, our sages questioned what moral failing had caused people to come down with leprosy. Today too, mental illness is so often viewed as a personal, moral failure. Those who commit suicide are said to be “selfish.” Most people do not consider a death from suicide to be one from a disease - mental illness. Suicide is not a personal failing. It is a medical one.

Our rabbis taught that the disease of tzara’at was caused by “motzi shem ra” – spreading a bad name, or gossip. I would take the concept of spreading a bad name further. Through the misnaming or misunderstanding of mental illness as a personal failing, we add to its misery and turn symptoms into shame. A few weeks ago, a young songwriter in a facebook group spoke in a live video about her struggles with depression. I was alarmed for her, thinking about the shame and stigma that could potentially now follow her career. But, almost immediately afterwards, I thought about how truly brave she was. She is perfectly aware that mental illness comes with this stigma, but she also knows that only by discussing it as a disease will we move away from looking at it through a lens of motzi shem ra – gossip, and instead approach it with compassion, understanding, and love.

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff

This Shabbat we will be reading from parashat Tzav. In it, we find more laws regarding the sacrificial offerings. There is also the dedication of the Tabernacle as well as a ritual involving the ordination of priests. This Shabbat also happens to be Shabbat HaGadol, “The Great Shabbat.”

Shabbat HaGadol takes place on the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover. By tradition it was one of two Shabbatot that the rabbi would give a sermon. The other being Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat in-between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Shabbat HaGadol sermon was focused on the laws, customs and rituals associated with the observance of Passover. It was a way of reminding Jews how to observe the rites of Passover.

For example, by tradition you can select your lamb for sacrifice on Shabbat HaGadol. There is also another custom of reading through the hagaddah on that day in preparation for Passover. Basically, this Shabbat is about celebrating God’s creation as well as turning our hearts and minds towards the most observed of all the Jewish holidays in the home.

As a reminder, we will not be holding Shabbat evening services on Friday, March 30th so that everyone can enjoy the first night seder with their family and friends. If you wish to mention a loved one for Yahrzeit, we will be reciting their names on Saturday, March 31st at our Shabbat and Festival morning service.

And to everyone marching in New City, New York City, Washington D.C. in an effort to speak truth to power on the issue of gun violence prevention, may this truly be a Shabbat HaGadol as well. For the celebration of our redemption from Egypt is an ongoing process. None of us are free, until we are all free. Free from oppression, persecution, suffering, and violence. May your steps be as world changing as the steps our ancestors took over two thousand years ago.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Eternal One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day G-d ceased from work and was refreshed.” The text of the V’shamru prayer appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa (Ex 31:16-17). What should Shabbat look like? What does it take for us to resemble G-d, cease our everyday work, and be refreshed?

Because we sing this prayer, composers have had an opportunity over the centuries to reflect on this question and express their thoughts through music. The melody that I think of as “traditional” was written by Moshe Rothblum. Of course, despite my thinking of it as traditional, it was probably written only in the 1960s while the composer was at Camp Ramah. This is always the trouble when someone tells me to sing the “traditional” melody for something – often what they mean is something written only very recently. In any case, this melody is upbeat and joyful, and at this congregation, we have a minhag of standing up and dancing on the words “et haShabbat.” To Moshe Rothblum, the rest and rejuvenation of Shabbat come from its joyful celebration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e23FCxWFhhM

For composer Yehudi Wyner, the concept of Shabbat is much more meditative, even sublime. Although perhaps we cannot imagine hearing this music in a worship setting, to me the act of listening to it is, in itself, a prayerful, restorative, Shabbat experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6rk2QSK8Es

This melody for V’shamru, by Dan Nichols, always makes me think of “The House on Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins. Perhaps Dan is trying to help to connect us to childhood memories of Shabbat and remembering youth and camp are what connect him to feeling renewed and refreshed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NR9mM6Is56Q

Which V’shamru melody says “Shabbat” to you the most? Is it joyful, pensive, or just the one you’ve been singing since you were a child? If you have a favorite, let me know. I’d love to share it during services.

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff

Ah Leviticus. Here we go again. Leviticus is a tough book to read. It is filled with the laws of the ancient sacrifices. Most find it boring because we don't worship that way anymore, or disgusting because it reads like terrible cruelty to animals. In order to understand the book of Leviticus, we need to see it in its historical context. The people have just escaped 400 years of servitude in Egypt. After so much time immersed in a foreign culture, the ways of Egypt became embedded in their minds and hearts. Need proof? Look at the golden calf. The people did not know how to worship a G-d that they could not see or experience like the gods of Egypt. Despite having JUST witnessed G-d’s miracles through their redemption, they find that after Moses is away for only 40 days they need a concrete, visual way of worshipping G-d.

They build a golden calf so that they can have something to see. The people, at this early stage in their spiritual development. were like small children. They couldn’t understand something that they couldn’t experience with their senses. Through the sacrificial system, people could experience worship through sight, sound, smell, hearing, and touch. They were bombarded with sensory reminders of the ritual that they were enacting, and thus it was powerful and, for them, truly real.

The great scholar, Maimonides wrote in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve G-d without feeling different from all the other people surrounding them. Gradually, the people learned that “prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to G-d” because “it can be offered everywhere and by every person.”

After the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people were, in a sense, compelled to move out of their parents’ houses and grow up. They were forced to learn to experience life through metaphor, through the indefinable. They would need to find spirituality in their actions and through their prayers. Even before the Temple was destroyed, this spiritual evolution was in process. The earliest synagogues were already in existence when the Temple fell and the original forms of some of today’s prayers were by now in use. After the destruction, the Rabbis declared prayer to be a substitute for sacrifice.

Yet, prayer, done right, is still a form of sacrifice – the sacrifice of self. Prayer is a focused wish. It forces us to stop and think about the things that really matter, and putting those things in the forefront of our mind helps us work in partnership with G-d to make those things a reality. If you pray for peace every single day, are you not more likely to work to make peace a reality in the world? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that through prayer “we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty, envy.” Through prayer, we sacrifice our selfishness and greed and reach inward to that spark of the Divine within that makes us want to work for truth, mercy, and love.

There is another important piece to be taken from Leviticus and that is the power of ritual. Modern scientific studies have shown us that ritual has tremendous psychological power. Take the going to bed ritual for example. For those who have trouble sleeping, sleep doctors recommend establishing a set bedtime routine, the repetition of which trains the mind to feel tired at the appropriate time and thus to sleep more soundly. Now of course if you do the “bedtime routine” only once, you may find that it did nothing for you and assume therefore that the idea is rubbish. You will have missed an opportunity. It is in the repetition of the action where the power lies.

The same is true of most of our Jewish rituals. You may not find much meaning in lighting Shabbat candles and coming to services one night. Do it for a few years, however, and you may find that your week is left hanging without the chatimah (the thing that ties it together in the end) of a Shabbat ritual.

This week I find myself meditating on the meaning of ritual and sacrifice in the context of the Reform movement. What are the concrete things that we can do, through personal sacrifice or otherwise, to build our relationship with G-d, with our community, and with one another?

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff

In this week’s Torah portion, T’tzaveh, we receive the commandment of the eternal light. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clean oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (neir tamid).” Every synagogue has a neir tamid, or an eternal light. Most of these are electric and are placed over the ark. I love the symbolism of this light. I appreciate that even in the middle of the night, when the synagogue is dark, the light is burning in the sanctuary still – the light of our faith, our dedication, our community.

When the Israelites are commanded to bring pure oil to light an eternal light, we see that it is not up to the leaders alone to bring G-d’s light into the world. In fact, the leaders cannot do anything without the participation and devotion of the people. The people bring the fuel, the priests light the flame, the flame inspires the people. It is a cycle through which community can channel the Divine.

In Proverbs 6:23 we read, “The mitzvah is a lamp, the teaching is a light.” The neIr tamid symbolizes the love, kindness, and generosity brought into the world when we choose to bring G-d’s light into it. May yours be a Shabbat of light and warmth and may you find ways to share and increase its glow.

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff