I have just returned from a wonderful four day cantorial conference in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the conference was social action. So many times over the course of the week people spoke about how helpless they felt in the face of so much horror happening in our country and in the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses sends spies to scout out the land before they would enter and conquer it. The spies are very impressed by the land and all that they see there. They return to the people and report that the people there were giants and that next to such giants, they would be perceived as nothing but grasshoppers, and thus they started to see themselves as such.
When facing an enormous challenge, it is easy to see ourselves small in the face of the enormity that lies ahead. And if we see only this, how can we move in any direction, let alone, one that would require the strength and power to overcome those perceived giants. So what was the fault of the spies? The spies imagined how they would be perceived and then put that vision onto themselves, giving it power. But this was all in their minds. Their smallness was in their own perception, but their fear made it real.
Once it was clear that they saw themselves thus, G-d could not allow them to proceed. A whole generation needed to pass before the children of Israel would be permitted to attempt to conquer the land. The children of Israel needed to move beyond their slave mentality, to see themselves as free and worthy, before they could accomplish what they needed to.
Today, we do not have time for this. We must overcome any feeling of being helpless right now, because that too is only in our minds. Our Torah teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Over and over again, the Torah stresses these essential values. Even in this very week’s Torah portion, we read, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Eternal.” (Num 15:15) This isn’t about politics. This crosses the boundaries of democrat and republican. This is about human rights, and is something that we can all get behind regardless of our feelings about immigration politics. These are the values that our Torah teaches, and this is the time that we must be giants.
I will leave you with the prayer that I wrote as part of the service that I led for the cantors this past Tuesday morning:
From cowardice, I will burst forth with courage
“Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal”
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,
And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
My voice will sing out my strength and my joy
And through melody – the inspiration for deliverance.
From laziness, I will sing now with energy.
“Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.”
“It is not up to you to complete the work,
But neither are you free to desist from it.”
No. I will sing.
Sing loud and strong,
And the energy of my song, of praise will move me,
Can move you
Can move us all to move mountains together.
There will be no arrogance in this song
“V’anochi afar va’efer.”
“For I am nothing but dust and ashes.”
And yet through breath and song, the dust stirs the air,
changes its essence
Brings forth ruach from nothingness.
G-d of truth, let the truth of this song ring out.
Breathe Your ruach into our souls,
Inspiring us to partner with you in tikkun olam
So that we may declare: “Kol Han’shamah T’haleil Yah!”
“Let every soul sing praise to You!”
Cantor Sally Neff
In this week’s Torah portion, Be’haalotecha, “Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the Passover sacrifice” (Num. 9:4). On the surface, this makes sense as Moses gave many mitzvot to the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. However, Moses also made the very same commandment in Exodus 12:25, making the instruction redundant. However, the rabbis do not believe in the idea of redundancy in the Torah. Instead, every repetition was always intended to teach us something new, which leads to multiple possible interpretations.
According to the Plaut Torah Commentary, the repetition was simply because when the laws were given, the Israelites were in Egypt. However, now they are in the wilderness with the Tabernacle, hence they need to relearn the rituals and customs for a new setting.
That being said, there is another interpretation as well. According to Rabbi Bradley Artson, “But the midrash Sifrei Bamidbar objects that, in this case, the information he conveys is redundant. Didn’t the Torah already relate in the Book of Leviticus that “Moses declared the festival seasons of the Lord to the people of Israel?” So why does he have to repeat himself now? Sifrei goes on by answering its own question. “This teaches that he heard the passage of the festival seasons at Sinai and stated it to Israel, and then went and repeated it to them when the time had actually arrived to keep the rules … He stated to the people the laws for Passover at Passover, the laws for Shavuot at Shavuot, and the laws for Sukkot at that season.”
Why does Moses repeat the same injunction twice? Because he knows just how forgetful people can be. Recognizing that even the most intelligent, learned, and scholarly people forget much of what they learn, Moses knew that the Jews would have to be reminded of the appropriate mitzvot (
commandments) just before the time of their observance.
Thus, the Torah is reminding us that acquired knowledge needs to constantly be refreshed. Just because we learn something once does not mean we know it for all time. This is in part why we read through the Torah every year. This is in part why we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at our Passover seders. And this is in part why we are members of a congregational family and community, and why we dedicate so much of our energy and resources to the education of our children.
Judaism is meant to be constantly engaged with and struggled with, because it can be and should be a constant wellspring of insight and knowledge. What was learned once, so many years ago, can certainly be learned again. And once learned, can then be the foundation for the next step towards greater knowledge and insight.
Being a Beit Knesset, a house of assembly means we are also a house of prayer and also a house of learning. Many opportunities for study abound.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week’s Torah portion, parshat Naso, contains the famous words of the Priestly Benediction: “May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d deal kindly and graciously with you. May G-d bestow G-d’s favor upon you, and grant you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26) This blessing is ancient, dating back to the days of the ancient Temple, and has always held an important place in synagogue worship.
In ancient times, the priests recited the blessing twice a day while standing on a special platform called a duchan. Today, in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, the prayer is still only recited by the descendants of the ancient priests, known asKohanim. At the appointed time in the worship service, the prayer leader calls upon thekohanim, who drape their tallitot over their heads, arrange their fingers in the shape of a shin (the same shape made famous by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek), and then bless the congregation.
In reform communities, this blessing has taken on a different role. At The Reform Temple of Rockland, we end virtually every service with it. We also use it to bless people for weddings, B’nei Mitzvah, anniversaries, and even birthdays. The prayer is usually lead by the Rabbi and Cantor together, regardless of their heritage askohanim.
For many years, I used as my primary melody for this blessing, the one composed by Max Helfman (1901-1963), a Polish-American composer, choral conductor, and educator. https://youtu.be/
sTqbEnSdUNs His melody has a place for the rabbi to add a translation built into the composition. The tune begins with a triumphant call. Each line of the three fold benediction rises higher in melody and volume and the final prayer for peace returns lower and has a lovely melody for the congregation to join in. The prayer moves back and forth between the heights of the Divine, and the community. It is perfect for the moment of blessing of a bride, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, and so many other circumstances.
Lately, I have been ending our worship services with a different melody. Peri Smilow’s Priestly Benediction. https://www.
youtube.com/watch?v= B0vA9kOITtg Her original composition is only in English, and actually differs from the translation we normally use because it is not based on the verses from the Torah as we know it, but rather on the Priestly Blessing of the Qumran sect, a group of Jews who lived in the Second Temple period, and who lived a very strict and separatist way of life. The remnants of their library were found in the Dead Sea scrolls. The translation is: “May G-d bless you with all good. May G-d keep all evil from you. And may G-d fill your heart with wisdom and grace you with all truth. May G-d lift up G-d’s merciful face and shine on you for all time. And may G-d grant you eternal peace.” I have added the Hebrew verses from Numbers to Peri Smilow’s melody to make a combined text out of it.
Peri Smilow’s tune is VERY different from Max Helfman’s. It is congregational throughout, written to be accompanied by guitar, and is very gentle and loving. To me, it is a perfect sweet closer to a worship service, embodying the love contained within a sacred community.
Before performing the Priestly Benediction, it is traditional to say the following blessing, “Blessed are You… who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to bless the people Israel with love.” Note that the blessing stipulates that it must be completed “with love.” Nowhere in connection with any other mitzvah do we find this phrase.
May you be blessed with a Shabbat of peace and joy and may that blessing come with an abundance of love.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from parashat B’chukotai. It is the final Torah portion in the book of Leviticus as well as the conclusion of the holiness code that began withAcharei Mot-Kedoshim.
Much of B’chukotai is focused on the rewards of following the mitzvot as well as the consequences if the community fails to follow God’s laws. Both the rewards and consequences are enumerated for the community. This is because the entire Israelite community was held accountable for the actions of its members.
This is why B’chukotai teaches us that if we follow God’s commands God will “grant peace in the land” (Lev. 26:6), God “will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you” (Lev. 26:9), and God will “establish God’s abode in our midst” (Lev. 26:10).
However, if we fail to “obey God and do not observe all of these commandments” (Lev. 26:14), God will, “Wreak misery … consumption and fever and you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it” (Lev. 26:16). Or to put it another way, for blessing or for curse, all of Israel, kol averim zeh v’zeh, is responsible for one another.
Thus, we see spelled out one of the most central premises of Judaism which is the concept of obligations. Nowhere in our tradition does it speak of ‘rights.’ Instead it speaks of what we are supposed to do and what we are not supposed to do. However, the idea of mitzvot and rights are not exactly opposites. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Rights are things we claim. Duties are things we perform. Duties, in other words, are rights translated from the passive to the active mode.”
Therefore many of the mitzvot listed especially in the final parshiyot of Leviticus are a reminder of how to translate opportunities into holiness. As Rabbi Sacks also wrote, “One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his ‘partners in the world of creation’. The God who created the world in love calls on us to create in love. The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honour and enhance the freedom of others.”
May we all be inspired to act in sacred ways that brings not only holiness to ourselves but also honors others, brings more freedom to others, and through this also glorifies God and God’s holy name.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat B’har, talks about the commandment to give the land a Sabbatical. “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest…” (Lev 25:3-4). We know from modern studies in farming, that this is a wise way to farm. The fallow year allows the land to recover its nutrient base, and it will produce stronger, better produce for having had that year off.
People are the same way. When we work too long and hard in any one particular way, the creative wells begin to run dry. This is why taking breaks, attending conferences, and going on vacation are all crucial ways to help us remain creative and fruitful in our professional lives. Some careers allow for an actual sabbatical, but others do not. So, how can we reap the benefits of a sabbatical without actually going on one?
On farms where they cannot afford to have the ground lie fallow for a year, many farmers practice crop rotation. The fields that used to grow one thing now grow another. It’s not a complete rest for the land, but it does change the way the soil is being used. This type of change can work for us as well. Sometimes just rearranging the furniture will help offer a new perspective on a problem. When I got stuck writing my master’s thesis, I went to a coffee shop and found that in that environment of relaxed people and white noise (not to mention the constant supply of coffee and sugar), I was able to accomplish a great deal.
The Torah teaches us that the weekly cycles of work and rest given us through the gift of Shabbat help us to focus on the creative work that we do. The Torah also teaches us about the vital importance of taking a vacation – some real time off, changing perspective, opening the mind to let it be blank for a little while so new ideas can grow, or at the very least changing our perspective and rearranging our environment to help renew the creative flow. In our hyper-productive world, we often feel like we have to be busy all the time. The Torah teaches us that letting the mind lie fallow, finding new perspectives and resting from the old, will lead to a more fruitful life.
Cantor Sally Neff
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, we read, “You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Eternal. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people…” (Lev 22:31-32) What does it mean to profane or to sanctify G-d’s name? Many people think that this is about using G-d’s name in vain – swearing on G-d’s name or saying things like, “Oh my G-d,” but I think that the juxtaposition of “You shall faithfully observe My commandments” with “You shall not profane My holy name” has something more profound to teach us.
The way that we act in the world reflects our heritage, our culture, our religion, our families. I remember that my grandparents used to ask of the news: “Is it good for the Jews?” I know the embarrassment that I feel when a Jewish public figure does something wrong. Why should I feel embarrassed? I didn’t do the wrong thing. But I feel humiliated for what that person’s behavior might imply to others about Jews in general.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “G-d is G-d whatever we do or fail to do. But G-d, having set His [sic] image on every human being, took the risk of identifying His presence in history with one small people with whom he made a covenant in a lonely desert long ago, and that fact has charged Jewish existence with immense responsibility ever since. We are G-d’s witnesses. How the people of G-d behaves affects how G-d Himself is perceived.” This is not true only of Jews. Christians and indeed, the concept of the Christian G-d are judged by the acts of other Christians, Muslims as a whole by what individual Muslims do etc. We are all representatives of our family, faith, country, and indeed of humanity as a whole. If we are made in the image of G-d, and we behave unethically – what does that say about G-d? If we declare our Jewishness publicly and behave poorly, what does that say about the Jewish idea of G-d or the Jewish religion in general? We observe G-d’s commandments in order to not profane G-d’s name because, hopefully those commandments are a blueprint for living an ethical life. We should strive to be our best selves, because why else are we here if not to leave the world better than how we found it?
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from parashat Kedoshim. Kedoshim, along with sections of last week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, make up what modern scholars refer to as the Holiness Code. Practically speaking, if one was to unroll the Torah from end to end, like we do at Simchat Torah, these parshiyot are found right in the middle. One might say, they make up the heart of the Torah.
Most of the mitzvot found in the Holiness Code have little to do with our relationship with God. Instead they are mostly focused on our relationships with our fellow human beings. They are mostly ethical in nature. The rational for their observance can be found at the beginning of Kedoshim, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This means that if we wish to be blessed and be closer to God, we need to walk in the pathways of holiness.
The term for ‘holy’ in Hebrew is Kadosh. Kadosh also means separate or sanctified. This is why when a couple gets married, in Judaism we refer to it as a kiddushin, a separate and sanctified relationship.
This is also why we are often referred to as the Chosen People. It doesn’t mean that we were chosen because we are better than anyone else. Rather we were chosen to live and embody what it means to be kadosh, holy, separate, and sanctified. What sanctifies us? It is our individual and communal choices to strive to embody the ethical teachings of our tradition, especially those found in kedoshim.
We were not chosen to suffer. We were not chosen to be persecuted. However, I think one of the reasons why we have suffered and have been persecuted over the generations is because people don’t like to be told or reminded of how their actions and choices are not ethical. This is certainly an oversimplification of our history, but it is certainly a part of it.
What does it to mean to be kadosh, to be holy? As one of our great rabbis of the Mishneh, Rabbi Hillel taught, that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.
On this Shabbat may we all strive to be a little more kadosh, especially in a world that could use more sacredness and holiness and less hate.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will be continuing the reading of parashat Acharei Mot (see Cantor’s D’var Torah from last week). In it we read, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Eternal am your God” (Lev. 18:3-4).
This is an incredibly problematic passage. If we are to read it literally, it means we are not to follow the practices or Egypt or Canaan, but by extension we should not follow the laws of any nation. We are to follow the laws and practices that were only ordained by God.
And yet, at every point in history, Judaism has been influenced and adopted ideas and customs of surrounding cultures. The Reform movement is only one the more recent of the many iterations of Judaism to do so. Even our ultra-Orthodox brethren who subscribe to the belief of “all that is new is forbidden by Torah,” dress in the custom of Polish gentry from the 18th century.
The rabbis came up with a rabbinic maxim of dina de’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” This concept appears twenty-five times in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Halacha. Now most of these laws pertained to what we might refer to as civil matters. Nonetheless, even the rabbis worked to reconcile Leviticus with the reality of living in the world.
As the Torah: A Modern Commentary goes on to state, “Judaism has been able to absorb values, ideas, and customs that are compatible with its basic outlook, while rejecting what could not be reconciled with the religious and ethical teachings of the Torah” (pg. 776).
Judaism, at its core, has always been a pragmatic tradition, for the most part. We strive to reconcile the sacred with the profane in all aspects of life. This is why the Torah is the beginning, not the beginning and end of our legacy. Centuries of interpretation continue to make meaning out of our ancient text, acknowledging that new is not bad, it just needs to be understood more and reflected upon.
Or as the Torah Commentary goes on to say, “By obeying God’s law, humankind lives well and meaningfully” (ibid.) The key being to make meaning. It is not merely a matter of picking and choosing which laws to follow, but to understand them in the broader cultural, social, and religious milieu. This is why we wrestle and struggle with our text, because what may be clear upon initial reading is much more subtle, nuanced and challenging.
May we all continue to be challenged.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
As a reminder, tonight we will be celebrating Solidarity Shabbat with Congregation Sons of Israel Nyack at 7:30 PM. This will be preceded by an interfaith dinner at 6:00 pM for those who RSVP’d. If you did RSVP, please be sure to bring Walmart gift cards to be shared with refugees being housed in New York State.
What is this week’s Torah portion? Well actually, it depends on who you ask. The Torah stipulates that Passover is a festival that lasts seven days. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Ex. 12:15) So if that is the case, Passover ends on Friday night, and Saturday morning we should read the next Torah portion. But many communities celebrate Passover for eight days, so if you ask the internet, most sites will tell you that the Torah portion on Saturday is the one for the eighth day of Passover. What gives? Why do so many celebrate eight days, and why do some celebrate seven? And what is the Torah portion this Shabbat?
The Jewish calendar is a lunar one that in ancient times depended on witnesses who would declare sightings of the new moon. Beacon fires would be set on mountaintops to spread the word throughout the Jewish communities that the new moon had been spotted. The fires would relay from hilltop to hilltop until “one could behold the whole of Diaspora before him like a mass of fire.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:4).
This system worked well for a long time to enable the Jewish people throughout their travels to celebrate the set days and times for the seasons and festivals. However, once relations with neighboring sects worsened, things began to unravel. The Samaritans harassed the Jews by lighting beacon fires at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin (the ancient legislative and judicial body for the Jews) substituted messengers. The problem with messengers is that unlike beacon fires, they do not travel at the speed of light. Since only the Sanhedrin was allowed to pronounce the new moon, communities needed to wait until the date had been properly established by the arrival of a messenger. Celebrating festivals for an extra day would ensure that even if there was some confusion, at least one of the days would be the correct one. In the land of Israel, holidays continue to be celebrated as specified in the Torah.
The witness system of defining the calendar ended around the middle of the 4thcentury (the Byzantine Christian Empire forbade it). At that point, the calculations that the Sanhedrin had used as a backup were published, and the Jewish calendar became fixed and calculable for the future. Nevertheless, the custom of observing extra days of holidays outside of Israel persisted. I can almost hear them saying, “but we’ve always done it that way!”
So, outside of Israel, Passover was celebrated as an eight day holiday. Reform Judaism observes festivals (often with the exception of Rosh Hashanah) as the Torah defines them. This is partially because science tells us exactly when the new moon is, but also partially to celebrate the return of the Jewish people to Israel by observing holidays as they would be observed in Israel – seven days for Passover. Orthodox and most Conservative congregations honor the traditions of the past – partially as a constant reminder that we are still in the diaspora.
So this week is a rare thing where the Jewish people will not all be reading the sameparashah at the same time. Some people will be reading the section designated for the eighth day of Passover. At RTR, we will be reading from the first half of Acharei Mot. Next week, we will read from the second half of Acharei Mot and thus be back in sync with the rest of diaspora Jewry.
Whether you celebrate eight days or seven, we hope that you had joyous and meaningful holiday celebrations and we wish you Shabbat Shalom.
Cantor Sally Neff
We are in the middle of what some might refer to as the ‘icky’ part of the Torah. Last week we read from Tazria, and this week we are reading from parashat Metzorah. The portions are always combined when the Jewish calendar does not have an additional month. Perhaps this is because the rabbis wanted to get through these sections as quickly as possible.
Metzorah, in particular, deals with tzara’at, often translated as leprosy. However, it was more likely some sort of scaly skin ailment. Metzorah also presents us with cases of domiciles having some sort of a plague or possibly fungal or bacterial or mold infestation, though the Torah is not clear on this. We also encounter the issue of bodily emissions as well as menstruation.
In the cases of tzara’at and a ‘plague’ on a house, a priest is called in to inspect it. If they are determined to be infected, the priest will pronounce the purification rituals. There are also purification rituals as well for bodily emissions and menstruation.
The larger challenge is to make sense of all of this, as modern readers. One possibility is that it had to do with striving to create more sanitary conditions for the community. When someone or something is infected or afflicted, best to remove them from the community so as to prevent the disease from spreading. However, there are contradictions within the purification rituals that would support this argument.
A more likely interpretation is that the Torah is acknowledging real transformations and transitions within the sacred and the profane. Or as is written in the WRJ Women’s Torah Commentary, “The body passes through the various stages and is likely to cross several borders between ritually pure and impure over the course of its existence.”
There is no value judgment placed on whether one is ritually pure or impure. It just means that if one is ritually impure, there are certain roles they cannot perform related to the sacrificial cult until they are in a state of ritual purity again.
If this is the case, then why spend so much time dedicated to ‘icky’ issues? The answer is in part because life is messy, yet the Torah is concerned with all aspects of life, not just those focused on prayer and ritual. This then empowers us and should also inspire us to ritualize all elements of life, including the ‘messy’ parts.
As Elyse Goldstein wrote in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “each month, when I get my period, I say: ‘Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, she’asani ishah: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman.’ Saying the blessing becomes a revolutionary moment … (it) affirms my holiness and sanctity within the context of menstruation, not despite it.”
May we all continue to find ways to affirm our holiness and sanctity each and every day through sickness and health, and through all that life brings.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Eskenazi, Tarama Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 2008, pg. 672.
 Ibid. pg, 675