This week’s Torah portion deals with some of the different things that make a person tamei (the noun form is tumah) and tahor (the noun form istaharah). These words are often translated as clean/unclean or pure/impure, but that isn’t really what they mean. One who is tahor is ritually fit to appear in the Temple and one is tamei is not. What things make someone tamei? In general, the things that make a person tamei involve contact with the liminal forces that divide life and death – blood, semen, birth, death. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “these categories flow from the contrast between G-d and human beings. G-d is immortal, humans are mortal. G-d is spiritual, humans are also physical… Conditions that render a person tamei are those that testify to our mortality and physicality.”
We move in our lives through moments of tedium and of transcendence, between birth and death, sickness and health – we are constantly navigating a river of emotion and action, intellectual analysis, and gut feeling. None of those are unholy, but each has its place. We must exercise to be healthy, but we don’t bring our weights and gym shorts to a dinner party. Ecclesiastes wrote, “to everything there is a season,” and sometimes we are so eager to return to our daily lives, that we don’t give ourselves enough time to live in the tamei state – to immerse in the liminal moment that life has served up and then indeed to transition back. Why do we think this can or should be instantaneous?
Today when a healthy woman gives birth to a healthy child, she is discharged from the hospital in the next day or two and is expected to be up and about very shortly thereafter. The Torah commands her, though, to take some time to live in the experience that she has undergone. Rabbi Malka Drucker wrote, “In a time when women give birth on Monday, go home Tuesday and have a dinner party Thursday, Tazria gives us permission to enter the fluid, deep transcendence that giving birth offers us. A child is born, a woman becomes a joyful mother, and G-d is never so near. We are invited to withdraw briefly from the chatter and flow of everyday life to shake our heads and exclaim, “G-d is in this place and I’m staying here for a while!”
Tumah and Tahorah are part of the cycle of our humanity. The judgement inherent in the English translations of these words have lead us to dismiss the concepts entirely when there may be rich lessons contained therein. If we look at tumah and tahorah through the lens of sacred time, we can ask ourselves whether we are taking enough time to care for ourselves in our own liminal moments and to spiritually transition out and prepare to rejoin our sacred communities.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Shemini. It is a particular favorite for those looking to comment on a Torah portion because it not only contains the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, but also the sudden inexplicable death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu.
There are numerous midrashim related to the demise of Nadav and Avihu. As the story goes, they, without being commanded to, chose to offer up incense and aish zarah“alien fire” as an offering to God. As the Torah teaches, “then fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal” (Leviticus 10:2).
The Torah tends to be very terse of language. There is no great rational given for what transpired, so the rabbis were left to try to fill in the gaps. One of the midrashim or rabbinic stories explains that the sons wanted to elevate themselves above Moses and Aaron. Another is that they viewed themselves as being too good for any potential wife because of who their father and uncle were. Another is that they were drinking the day they made this sacrifice and therefore died because of their disrespect to the Sacred and Holy. And yet another explains that they did not physically die, but instead it was a death of the spirit.
When looking at all of these midrashim, they struggle to explain the inexplicable, sometimes more successfully than others. In the end, they tell us more about the interpreters than perhaps about the events of the Torah.
But this is one of the most beautiful parts of being Jewish. Our sacred text is incomplete. One could argue that this is by intent. We are meant to struggle with the meaning of the text. We are also meant to find our own interpretations. As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said in the Mishnah, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).
Also, in case you are interested, we do this every Saturday morning at 9 AM with our Taste of Torah. We bring ourselves and our experiences to engage in dialogue with our Sacred text. No previous knowledge or experience with Torah study is required or even needed. All we need are you and a willingness to keep turning Torah, which in turn, helps us grow in our understanding of what our tradition demands of us.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Tzav, which is a continuation from last week’s Torah Portion Vayikra and is focused on the sacrificial cult as established through Aaron, Moses’ brother. As Cantor wrote in her D’var Torah last week, “According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices.” And yet, the question comes up pretty much every year, why do we spend so much time reading about the sacrifices?
With the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (The Temple) in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., the sacrificial cult ended. Though there are prayers in our liturgy calling for the restoration of Jerusalem and the return to sacrifices, our tradition has evolved and transformed since then. As we learn about from our haftarah portion this week, in the words of Jeremiah, “Listen to Me, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; walk only in the way that I have commanded you, and it shall go well with you” (Jeremiah 7:23).
Jeremiah was castigating the people because he felt they were violating the tenants of the proper sacrifices. More than that, he was also setting the groundwork for an eventual turn away from this entire form of worship.
Our modern tradition may be related to the sacrifices our ancestors offered up, but it is also radically different as well. Nowadays we focus on the performance of gemilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness and worship rather than offerings. How we choose to do Judaism is perhaps even something Moses and Aaron would not recognize, but it would hopefully be something they approve of.
I recently had a conversation with some students who kept apologizing because they are not “super-religious.” I asked them to define what it means to be “super-religious.” For them it meant coming regularly to services and keeping kosher. Like the sacrifices, this is one way to define one’s religiosity. However, there are so many more ways. I argued that by living and embodying contemporary Jewish values in their homes, schools, and in their lives, they were in fact, “super-religious.”
Worship takes on many forms. For our ancestors, it was all about the sacrifices. For the later rabbis it was all about observance and the performance of mitzvot. For Reform Judaism, for the longest time it was an emphasis on Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We are now in a time of transformation again where we get to define what worship means to us. It can certainly be in the synagogue and in the sanctuary, but more and more, it also means to walk in God’s ways wherever we are.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week, with Parshat Vayikra, we begin the book of Leviticus. The first word of the book, and the one that also gives this Torah portion and indeed this entire book of the Torah its Hebrew name is, “Vayikra” – He (sorry for the gender pronoun) called. The use of this word to start the Torah portion seems redundant. The first verse of Vayikrareads, “The Eternal One CALLED (Vayikra) to Moses and SPOKE (vay’dabeir) to him from the Tent of Meeting SAYING (leimor). The Torah is famously succinct, so why so many words that seem to say the same thing?
Most of G-d’s messages in the Torah are preceded by the words, “Vayomer” (He said), “Vay’dabeir” (He spoke) or “Vay’tzav” (He commanded). These are all words of authority. But Vayikra doesn’t have this connotation at all. Vayikra is an invitation to engage. The book of holiness begins with a sacred summons.
The word, Vayikra is written in an unusual way in the Torah itself. The aleph at the end of the word is tiny. Why should this be so? If the aleph were not there at all, the word would be vayikar – He encountered, chanced upon. What is the connection? Why make the aleph small? Some people experience holiness in grand moments or major life events. For others, it’s more subtle. It’s a chance experience, an encounter with the Divine, a “still small voice” – a tiny, silent letter aleph.
The book of Vayikra brings to mind both types of holy encounters and invites us in to find a spiritual path. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices. The second is about the boundary between the holy and the world – the things that prevent us from entering sacred space. The third is about taking the holy into the world. Leviticus democratizes holiness so that it becomes a part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole, and not something that only Moses can approach. Later, when prayer replaced sacrifice, this process would get taken even further.
Holiness is about setting things apart for a sacred purpose. Vayikra calls us to live a life of sacredness – whether we are the person who sees G-d’s hand in everything, or the person who seeks to hear that tiny, silent aleph. Vayikra is a challenging book, it is difficult to understand, has moral difficulties, and is hard to relate to. But we cannot begin to approach it without first engaging with it, and with that first word, Vayikra, we are invited to start.
Cantor Sally Neff
With this week’s Torah portion, Parshat P’kudei, we complete the reading of the epic book of Exodus. The book began with the words, “V’eileh sheimot” – these are the names. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” A new king arises who did not know Joseph and the children of Israel become slaves. The book tells us of the birth of Moses, his rise to leadership, the plagues, the Exodus, the ten commandments, the sin of the golden calf, and finally the building of the Tabernacle – a portable sanctuary. The people leave Egypt a “mixed multitude” and over the course of their wanderings in the dessert will become the Jewish people.
The last sentence of the book of Exodus reads, “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal One rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” By the end of this grand book of the Torah, we have not completed our journey. We are still in the wilderness, but now we have an accessible, visible, spiritual presence that accompanies, unifies, and comforts us.
The book began with the names – the foundation of who we came from, but it ends with the word, “journeys.” Our journeys are what will define us going forward. As Jews throughout our history, we have always been wanderers, but our connection to our people, our faith, our history, and our Torah have been the fire and the cloud that have united us. The names are our foundation. The journey is our destiny. The destination has never really been the most important part. In fact, even by the end of the Torah, we haven’t reached The Promised Land.
It is so easy to become caught up in our visions for our future, in goals yet to be realized, but we learn from the Torah that perhaps the purpose of the goal is to lead us through the journey.
Cantor Sally Neff
A few days ago, there was an article in the New York Times entitled, “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” The author discusses how his use of his smartphone had become a problem in his life. “I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.” He decided that, despite the fact that he is a tech columnist, he needed to find a way to bring himself back into having a more normal, healthy relationship with his phone use. He sought help. In the process of working on the problem, he noticed that he was reaching for his phone in every spare moment he had – while brushing his teeth, walking outside, even during the “three-second window” between when he would insert his credit card in a chip reader at the store and when it was accepted. He realized in trying to wean himself off of these extreme behaviors that he had become “profoundly uncomfortable… with stillness.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’heil we read, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal…” (Exodus 35:2). In the traditional observance of Shabbat, Jews do not use electronics. This includes not only the lights and television, but indeed cell phones. Many Reform Jews that I know take a cell phone Sabbath every week. I will admit that I have not yet done this, partially because it is not practical for my life as a parent. Still, I felt some discomfort as read this article in the Times (and I read it on my cell phone). I do not have an extreme problem like the author does but I do (and I suspect many of us do) recognize this new discomfort with stillness and the empty time that appears while waiting in line.
One of the beauties of Reform Judaism is that we have the opportunity to define what Shabbat means to us. What does a “Sabbath of complete rest” mean? What are some new ways to distinguish Shabbat for all the other days of the week, to make it stand out as set apart? Maybe a break from social media, or from cell phone use altogether could be an interesting way to mark a separation “bein kodesh l’chol” (between the sacred times and all other times.) Maybe it is time off from something else that disturbs your sense of stillness and peace. But even if you choose not to go this particular route, the point is to find ways to distinguish Shabbat from the rest of your week, to find paths to stillness and rest. As Reform Jews, we often don’t walk the traditional route, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ultimate beauty that our tradition is trying to help us bring to our lives.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tisa. It begins simply enough with God commanding Moses to take a census of all the Israelite men who are able to fight; excluding those who are from the tribe of Levi. It also involves other mitzvot regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: the portable structure to be built by the Israelites to worship God. This is followed by another reminder that the Israelites were to observe Shabbat and refrain from all work, including work done to build the Mishkan. As an aside, this is the basis for all of the rules concerning work on Shabbat.
Then, just as Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai, where he has been conversing with God, the Israelites finally had enough of his absence. They approached Aaron and demanded that he build for them an idol. Aaron collected gold rings and gold earrings, melted it down, and used it to create the egel masechah, the molten or golden calf.
After learning of the matter from God, Moses pleaded with God to act with mercy upon the Israelites. Yet when Moses saw had transpired first-hand, he smashed or hurled or dropped the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He burned the calf into powder and made the Israelites drink of their disgrace. Moses then worked to control the unruly mob and helped them to see the error of their ways.
A little later on in the portion, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai after carving two stone tablets. Moses then recited what have become referred to as the Thirteen Attributes of God’s compassionate nature. After which, Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments before delivering them once again to the Israelite people.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this Torah portion. There are great highs and great lows. There is drama, there is communal sin, and there is redemption. There is anger. There is love. There is forgiveness.
Ki Tisa encapsulates many of the most important elements of the Exodus narrative. Here we find a reminder of the Israelites’ amazing talents at frustrating God and Moses. Yet, we also find God and Moses willing to work together to forgive the Israelites over and over again.
It is as if the Torah is reminding us how anger and forgiveness are constantly circling each other, the great foes battling for our souls, if you will. Anger diminishes, forgiveness elevates. One is easy to give into, the other, much harder to bring to fruition. On this Shabbat, as we learn from Ki Tisa and the Thirteen Attributes, may we, like God, be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
One of the biggest reasons why I am such a proponent of Judaism is because it is a pragmatic tradition. It accepts humanity as we are, while also setting up the structures, rituals and traditions to help us aspire to become our best selves. It also recognizes the messiness of life by establishing a system of ethics that, rather than being black or white, provides guidance in the grey areas. This is the vision of Judaism that was of particular interest to the founders of what was to become the Reform Movement. They wanted a tradition based in rationality and logic and tended to shy away from anything that did not fall into this framework.
All that being said, there are also many mystical and magical elements to be found in Judaism. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we find the instructions for consecrating Aaron and his sons to serve as the priests for all of Israel. In addition, we also find the instructions for how the Israelites were to make their priestly garments. One of these garments was the chosen ha-mishpat, the breastpiece of decision. Contained in this breastpiece, worn by Aaron, would be the Urim and Thummim. As it teaches in Exodus, “Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28:30).
The challenge is that the Urim and Thummim are never explained. They were devices used to ascertain the Divine Will, but what they were exactly, are never mentioned in the Torah. What we do know is that Moses did not reference them because he had a direct line to God. Mostly we read about them in the Neviim section of the Hebrew Bible before they disappear into the midst of history. Josephus, when writing his history of the Jews mentioned that the Urim and Thummim had not been used for at least two hundred years. However, they were important enough to be mentioned not only in this week’s Torah portion but in other sections of the Bible.
The lingering question is: how do we reconcile a pragmatic and structured tradition with the magical and mystical elements that appear throughout our tradition? For example, there is not only the Urim and Thummim, there is also the red string to keep away the evil eye. There is also a tradition of amulets with God’s name written upon them for blessing, health, and protection to name a few.
The answer is that humans are both rational and irrational. We are logical and we are illogical. We believe in free will, but we also believe in fate and destiny. We believe in the chaos and uncertainty of life, but also in whispering the names of illnesses, as to keep them far away from us. Or to put it another way, we are reminded that life is messy and complicated. There is very little certainty in the world, and that answers to the big questions will always be elusive. All that being said, we still have an obligation to strive to make the world more holy and more just. Let’s all put on our breastpieces of decision, take hold of our Urim and Thummim, and march forward, determined, even if the future is uncertain.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This evening we will be observing the first anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which occurred a year ago yesterday. Our own student and activist, Jadyn Turner will be speaking in memory of her family’s cousin Alyssa Alhadeff. Jadyn will not only be speaking about her cousin’s legacy, but also about the ongoing struggle to prevent future massacres.
“G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” In this week’s Torah portion, parshat T’rumah, the children of Israel are asked to work together – each contributing their own unique talents, wealth, and abilities to create a Mishkan – a dwelling place for G-d. The Torah says, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” You’ll notice that it does not say “Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” but rather “that I may dwell among them.” It is this act of bringing gifts – sharing the best that is within us, making space in our minds and our hearts, that really creates the sanctuary within.
Tonight, we will celebrate “Inclusion Shabbat” at RTR. While planning the music for the service, I was thinking a lot about how we are all, in our incredible diversity, createdB’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d. This week’s Torah portion invites us to find those Divine sparks within and use them to build a sanctuary – to make space inside for G-d. To make that sanctuary within the community, we need every kind of person, with all of their unique abilities, experiences, and ways of seeing and understanding the world. With just one voice missing, how can we reflect the completeness of the Divine. A sanctuary is not a sanctuary without the love and commitment of those who fill it. A melody is not a song without a person to sing it – and how much more beautiful it is with accompaniment and harmony!
In the song that I wrote in honor of Inclusion Shabbat, I wrote:
Each creature G-d created fulfills a special role
Divine sparks surround us in each G-d given soul.
Each different gift we bring together helps make the world complete.
It’s those distinctions among us that make the world so sweet!
This Shabbat, as always, let us remember to cherish our differences and uplift the Divine spark that we all share.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, contains a large collection of laws. The Torah teaches us not to lie, the importance of caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst, and more. Some of the laws contained in Mishpatim are logical, others are more opaque. At the end of the portion, the children of Israel respond, “na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will hear (or understand.)”
This famous phrase seems like it’s written backwards. Shouldn’t it be – we will understand and then we will do? Torah emphasizes action. The mitzvot bind us together as an ethical community with a shared collection of practices. Doing necessarily comes before understanding because for some things, understanding can only be achieved through lived experience.
There is a misconception that Reform Judaism is “Judaism Lite.” This is not at all true to its philosophy. Reform Judaism stands for the concept of “educated choice.” Reform Judaism teaches that we should try on the mitzvot – do them, learn about them, and decide for ourselves whether they have meaning. After all, how can we know if something would bring lasting value to our lives if we have never tried it? Lighting Shabbat candles and having dinner with your family may bring tremendous warmth and togetherness to your home, giving you a chance to slow down and appreciate time with family, a spouse, or by yourself. In each of those circumstances, the Shabbat meal by candlelight has something beautiful to offer.
Judaism is full of riches – some are mitzvot, or commandments, some are traditions. Our people declared na’aseh v’nishmah – this week I invite you to take these words to heart. Na’aseh – do something Jewish that is not a part of your usual routine, so that nishmah – you may hear and understand Judaism in a new way.
Cantor Sally Neff