Torah portion: Must enlightenment hurt?

I visit a hospice patient whom I would call a sage. All the folks from my hospice who visit him marvel at his sweetness, the depth of his spirituality, and his ability to enjoy and engage each of us distinctly.

His illness has progressed to the point that he is now severely disabled and rarely leaves his bed. Yet his mind is clear. He could spend a lot of his time being angry at his utter dependence on others, but I find him mostly to be at peace. He does have moments of self-pity, though, like when he asks me, “Did I have to become disabled to get close to God?”

I think there’s an answer to his question in this week’s parasha, Masei. It contains a list of places where the Israelite clans journeyed and camped in the wilderness — 41 by my count — beginning with leaving Egypt on the 15th of Nissan and ending with their arrival 40 years later in Abel-Shittim, the place where they would cross the Jordan and enter Canaan in Joshua 3:1.

The first words of the parasha are “Eleh masei,” “These are the journeys,” or as other translators have it, “the wanderings,” “the marches” or “the marching-stages.” So either they were taking marching orders, traveling in intentional formation like a platoon of soldiers, or they meandered in an accidental cluster, like the band of ex-slave families you might expect them to be. 

Another version of how they traveled comes to us from the Chasidic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (“HaShelah”). He connects our parasha’s journeys with the exhortation attributed to a Rabbi Nehorai (meaning “enlightenment”) in Pirke Avot (14:4): “Wander afar to a place of Torah.” HaShelah links the texts, saying they both are about “wandering,” but in Hebrew they are different words — Pirke Avot uses the word “galut” — exile. It is urging us to uproot ourselves to a place of Torah — to take matters into our own hands, leave the comforts of home and familiarity, and send ourselves to a place where we can really learn and grow.

I see here three interpretations of how the Israelites traveled, which parallel the three stages of growth we go through in any area of personal development. Philosopher Ken Wilber calls them pre-rational, rational and trans-rational. In the area of spiritual growth and understanding of human suffering, they can be seen this way:

1) Accepting marching orders 

First, we learn and follow the rules. In spirituality, this means taking all direction from God — or deviating at our peril. God is experienced as the supreme parent, doling out strict discipline and limited compassion in direct relationship to our own actions and thoughts. We see our illnesses and misfortunes as our own fault. We earn our suffering. 

2) Meandering and wandering

At some point, many of us come to question a literal understanding of Spirit, and see that, logically, there is no real one-to-one relationship between behavior and news, good or bad. We experience life as a string of coincidences, and suffering is random and (often) unavoidable. 

At this stage, without God “watching over” us, there is a serious danger that material comforts and distractions, the “other gods” that the Torah so exhorts against, can lull us into a complacency that takes us away from our path of personal growth. 

3) Exiling ourselves

When we realize that we have been away from God long enough — and this realization is the key — we begin to look for a new, integrated way to experience faith. This new way is not literal, but metaphoric. This is the meaning of uprooting ourselves to seek out answers of faith. What does God mean to me now? How will I understand the suffering I have gone through or am now experiencing? 

It is a shift away from ego to presence. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said, “Suffering comes to ennoble man, to purge his thoughts of pride and superficiality … to repair that which is faulty in a man’s personality.”

Which is to say, no, not everyone has to go through what my hospice patient has — actual physical trauma — to attain closeness to God. But that might have been what it took for my friend to let Spirit/truth/enlightenment break through. To quote “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a children’s book about how toys become real:

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. 

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. … By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Justice and freedom: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Upon arriving in Egypt, fresh from his encounter with God at the burning bush, Moshe enlists his brother Aharon as well as the elders of Israel to confront Pharaoh. Together, representing the united leadership of the Hebrews, they would demand their freedom, or at very least that they be allowed to worship their God in the desert for three days. But the Torah’s description of that initial encounter with Pharaoh signals that something about the plan went awry.

“And after this, Moshe and Aharon appeared before Pharaoh and said to him, ‘Thus says the God of Israel, release my nation so that they may celebrate before Me in the desert’ ” (Exodus 5:1). The Sages of the Midrash pounce with their question. “Where did the elders go?” “Why were they not also present at the encounter with Pharaoh?” The answer they posit is none too flattering for Israel’s elders. “They all set out behind Moshe and Aharon. But one by one, or two by two, they stole away and disappeared, so that by the time Moshe and Aharon reached Pharaoh’s palace, there was not a single one of them left.” It’s almost a comical scene (especially if you imagine the right soundtrack), but one imagines that neither Moshe nor Aharon was amused. 

Turns out, according to the Midrash, God was not amused either. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘By your lives, I shall pay you back for what you have done!’ And when did He do so? Later on, when Moshe and Aharon, along with the elders, began to ascend Mount Sinai (at the giving of the Torah), it is written, ‘And to the elders God said, “You remain where you are.” ’ ” Ouch.

One might object to the particular way God chose to repay the elders for their earlier abandonment of Moshe and Aharon. The situation that the elders had failed in was a distinctly political one. The enslaved Israelite nation was preparing to claim its political rights from the dominant Egyptian nation. The issues would be issues of state, and the discourse would be the discourse of kings. What expertise do elders possess when it comes to such matters? What could they possibly have contributed to the negotiation? The elders might have reasoned that Moshe made a tactical error in having recruited them to come along. But at Mount Sinai? Mount Sinai was a religious event! It was precisely the sort of moment at which the presence of elders is meaningful and appropriate. Why would God punish their nonparticipation in a political moment by depriving them of participation in a religious one? 

Yet, this may be precisely the point the Midrash is intending to make. The political/religious dichotomy is a false one, at least when applied to the work of confronting Pharaoh. The intended legacy of the Exodus story is that contrary to the way all people of the ancient world viewed these things, power, oppression, bondage and freedom are not political issues. They are, rather, the pinnacle of religion’s concern. The legitimacy or illegitimacy of one group dominating another and imposing its will upon them is not a function of one’s political philosophy. It is rather a matter of one’s religious philosophy. Moshe and Aharon were not commanded to go to Pharaoh and to represent the political aspirations of the Hebrews. They were to go to him and represent the idea that there is one God who created all, and who desired freedom for his creations. 

I’m always struck by the annual proximity between our reading of Parashat Shmot, and the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (except this year, when the Jewish calendar is running so “early”). Dr. King frequently invoked the story of the Exodus, characterizing the struggle between Moshe and Pharaoh as a profoundly spiritual one. 

Some years ago I came across a 1965 recording of a sermon that Dr. King delivered at Temple of Israel of Hollywood, in which he compared many in his generation to the group of Israelites who, at the Red Sea and at various other points of crisis in the wilderness, did not want to return to the slavery of Egypt, but also lacked the courage to face the tough challenges that entering the Promised Land would demand of them. And he also described the malady that afflicted Pharaoh in distinctly spiritual terms. The slavery at Pharaoh’s hand was the result of his “reduction of persons to things. Throughout slavery, they [the Israelites] were things to be used, rather than persons to be respected.” 

Yet, the person of that era who most understood that which the ancient Israelite elders failed to grasp was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who told the 1963 Conference on Religion and Race that “the tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and all the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert, and together stood at the foot of Sinai.”

There is surely a proper place to draw the line between the political and the religious. But matters of justice and freedom are always religious. 

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

In the family way: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

Word went out from the congregation that a longtime member was nearing the end of her life. She has no partner and no children, but, on the day after Yom Kippur, 17 friends from the congregation came to visit her, including current and former clergy, and grown children she used to baby-sit.

“In whatever way it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family,” we read each Friday night at our synagogue, after the candles are lit, part of our Shabbat blessing for family.

And in a congregation such as ours, where families take shape in a multitude of configurations — by birth (including surrogacy and sperm and egg donors); by adoption; by fostering; by shared parenting; by single parenting; by not parenting; bonded by choice, by coincidence or convenience; in loving pairs; in friendship groups; across generations; elders sharing housing — no one knows better than we do that there are many ways to create family, and that no bonds are stronger or deeper, more important or more sustaining. 

In Parashat Noach, God instructs Noah to bring all the animals onto the ark two by two, l’mi-naihu (according to their kind/their species) (Genesis 6:20). Noah, his wife, their sons and their wives, and all the animals dwelt on the ark for over a year, long past the 40 days and 40 nights of rain, through the flooding and then the drying up. Even after the dove had returned with the olive branch and then disappeared, Noah and company remained on the ark, finally leaving it only when God told them to do so (Genesis 7:24-8:19).

The commentaries and midrash writers ponder the obvious questions: Why didn’t Noah emerge sooner from the ark? Why did he wait so long, even though he knew the ground had dried and plants had once again begun to grow? Why did God have to instruct him to leave the ark? Some say it was fear that God might bring another destruction, evidenced by the fact that Noah’s first act off the ark was to build an altar and make a sacrifice to God. Or perhaps it was guilt that he had left so many to die in the flood? Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress disorder, signified by the fact that Noah, once again on dry land, plants a vineyard and gets drunk (Genesis 9:20-21). 

Let me pose a different scenario: Perhaps Noah liked it on board the ark, surrounded by his family. He knew what to do there. He had plenty of company. Despite the cartoon and movie versions, maybe everyone got along well, even the animals. After all, it wasn’t Noah alone who stayed on the ark. All the humans and all the animals stayed. 

The animals, Torah tells us, board the ark l’mi-nai-hu, “according to their kind,” but when they leave the ark more than a year later, we are told they leave l’mishp’choteihem (with their families) (Genesis 8:19).

Midrash Rabah, an early collection of midrash, and the 11th century commentator Rashi suggest that during the year on the ark they were forbidden to “be fruitful and multiply” (presumably to prevent overcrowding on the ark), and that leaving “with their families” tells us there was no intermixing of species. 

But suppose the opposite were true? Picture this: that the year on the ark was a very bonding experience for everyone on it, with lots of intermingling, not necessarily in a sexual way, but in a familial way. 

Imagine this: that as the humans and the animals spent a year together in close quarters, all sorts of rearranging went on, with lots of relationships — families — constructed in all sorts of ways. You’ve seen the photos on the Internet – animals cuddling with other species (leopards and chimps, lions and lambs, sheep and pigs, humans and dogs). Suppose it happened on the ark as well. Families constructed not just by who was born to whom — not that there’s anything wrong with that way — but also deliberately by choice, by affinity, by hearts opening through compassion and instinct, by love and attachment growing stronger day by day. In other words, by every which way today’s “modern families” can imagine (and are experiencing) families being constructed.

Perhaps God placed a rainbow in the sky after the flood not only as a reminder of God’s covenant (ot habrit) with every living creature, for all ages to come (Genesis 9:8-17), but also as a symbol of the brilliant diversity of God’s many creations, including the human and animal impulse to create an assortment of families with whom to bond and loving communities in which to dwell.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (

Returning with God: Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

Outside of Baltimore, smooth country roads swept like rivers between banks of undulating forest. As my wife and I coasted past rolling hills of green, we had the impression of driving over waves. Red barns and silver silos stood watch atop billowing crests while small ponds and brooks swashed cheerily in the troughs below.

Here and there, we found meadows picketed by wooden fences. Some glazed recently with white paint, other fences the color of smoke, the paint long peeled, the wood weathered and decayed. Beyond the fences, cattle grazed on tall grass. One breed had short wooly hair growing in patches of charcoal and ivory. Another breed had a coat that was cherry-brown and leathery like a chestnut horse. We passed a long slope of trees that stretched like a cat into the distance, an endless forest of red maple, scarlet oak, hickory, white pine. This being late September, scattered flecks of gold and red had begun to emerge like stars amid the velvet canopy of green. It was the first touch of the sunset we call autumn.

Yet, as we drove, a polite but perky robotic voice interrupted this visual feast with careful instructions. The voice belonged to my cellular phone. “Take next right in half a mile. … Bear left at fork in the road. … Continue straight toward destination.” As our eyes were lost in the scenery below, the phone’s navigational program guided us via satellites found high above. Although the convergence of Mother Nature and high technology was rather jarring, had we ignored the guiding voice we would have been doubly lost in those trees, and we would have never arrived at our destination.

The one flaw of the navigation program was that each time I took a wrong turn or came upon a road that was not on one of its maps, the voice would suddenly announce: “Recalculating … recalculating.” We would then wait anxiously for the phone to regain its bearings, to set a new course, to give us new directions. One time, however, the phone failed to find its way. As the minutes slowly passed, and no new course was forthcoming, we began to worry. It felt strangely as if it were lost, too — perhaps just as lost as we were.

In this week’s double Torah readings, Nitzavim-Vayelech, we find a prophetic vision of Israel’s repentance and return. Amid our preparations for the coming High Holy Days, the passage is thematically apt. “Then you shall turn to the Lord your God, and hearken to his voice … you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord your God will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return you from among the peoples” (Deuteronomy 30:2,3).

Some understand the phrase “the Lord your God will return your captivity” to mean that God will change your fortune, restore you as in days of old. Yet the Sages of the Talmud rendered the expression differently: “The Lord your God shall return with your captivity.” As if to say God “went along for the ride” when Israel went into exile and remained banished, so to speak, until Israel’s long-awaited repentance and return (Megillah 29a; Rashi Deuteronomy 30:3).

There is something quite startling about this image of God, exiled among the exiled, adrift and suffering by our side. For it implies that when we turn astray, God turns with us. And when we are lost, so, too, is God. One wonders if somewhere a small thin voice is crying out desperately, “Recalculating … recalculating.”

When the navigation voice finally returned, it did so after I had done something that hearkened back to days of old. I looked at the road, at the signs, at the sun and determined which way was east and west, north and south. I situated myself and then chose a road that seemed to head in the right direction. Immediately the voice returned: “Continue straight toward destination.” 

We were both found.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy of Jewish Religion and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Our rightful place: Parashat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

“If you should see your friend’s ox or sheep straying, don’t ignore them. Instead return them to your friend. But if your friend is not close by, or you don’t know the owner, bring it to your home and hold onto it until the owner finds you, and then return it to them” (Deuteronomy 22:1-2).

Often the Torah will teach us a law whose idea we may have come up with ourselves. In other words, a law that just makes sense. These mitzvot are referred to as Mishpatim. God is reminding us of something. It makes sense that if we want to live in a society where people respect one another, we should be careful with each other’s property and actually look out for their property as if it were our own. 

It is certainly important for Torah to provide us with a guide to decency. Yet, if the Torah is merely reminding us of something that makes sense, and something that we could have figured out ourselves, perhaps the Torah is also trying to convey to us something else. When the Torah exhorts us to respect one another’s property, creating a system of integrity of ownership and trust, it is offering us something so much deeper.

The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad (1838-1908), was one of the most brilliant kabbalists and halachic authorities in the 19th century. He explained that a person who has sinned is like an object that has fallen from the upper realms of heaven and must be returned to its rightful owner, to its rightful place. When what falls is not an object, but a person, a soul that has literally become lost, either the angels or God must return the item. Had people been created from the lower realm of heaven, these souls would have been closer to the angel’s realm than God’s. The angels are beings of complete perfection. By adhering to absolute strict truth, they would have concluded that a person who has sinned must pay the ultimate price. As the Torah says, “A soul that has sinned, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). However, God created people’s souls from a much higher realm, above the realm of angels.  

When a person is lost, it turns out that it is God who is closest to them. God must return the soul to its rightful place. This is fortuitous because God’s way of returning is full of compassion. God doesn’t say that a person who has strayed from the holy path of Torah shall die. God doesn’t want the sinner dead. Instead, God wants that person to return to a path of a holy life.  

The same compassion elicited by returning a lost object is the same divine compassion that allows God to return a lost soul to its place. 

During these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to help God restore our soul to its rightful place. Through treating ourselves and others compassionately and embarking on a path of spiritual growth, we can help maintain a close relationship with God. 

Yonah Bookstein is the executive rabbi of JConnect and founded Jewlicious Festivals ( in 2005 as a gathering place for young Jews of Southern California. Rabbi Bookstein is also the author of “Prayers for Israel” and conducts seminars internationally about solving the problems affecting young Jewish adults.

Circumcise your heart: Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

A friend who works for the federal government wrote recently to say that because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), she was able to add her wife to the family’s insurance plan. “I never thought I would get emotional while on the phone with an insurance company, but I did.”

The same month the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible for gays and lesbians to once again legally marry in California (by saying the defendants of Proposition 8 had no standing to appeal) and receive the same rights under federal law as other married couples, the same court made it harder for employees to sue employers for discrimination and challenged the idea that voter discrimination still exists in significant forms (immediately paving the way for more discrimination to be put into place). Meanwhile, across the way in Washington, D.C., Congress put immigration reform and gun-law reform on hold. And in Florida, the jury verdict exonerating George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin sparked protests, marches, demonstrations and a rebirth of discussions on racism and the legal system. 

Yet, as we turn to this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we see Moses — close to death and anxious to instruct the Israelites in everything they need to know before entering the Promised Land — reminding the Israelites about one of the most oft-repeated mitzvot: 

“[God] loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

In the Book of Exodus, in another of the many times in Torah we encounter instruction about how to treat the stranger, we are reminded that having been strangers in Egypt, “you know the soul of the stranger” — atem yadatem et nefesh ha-ger (Exodus 23:9).

This week, the reminder about strangers comes in a larger context: “And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?” V’atah Yisrael, mah Adonai elohecha sho-el mei-ee-makh? 

Only this: to revere God, to walk only in God’s ways, to serve God b’chol l’vavkha u’vakhol nafshekha “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Moses and God know this won’t be easy. They’ve seen for 40 years already in the wilderness that it’s not easy, perhaps not in the nature of most human beings. Moses advises an odd remedy: “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, stiffen your necks no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). What could it mean to circumcise one’s heart? Perhaps it means to cut away a metaphorical outer coating, whatever prevents the heart’s tenderness from coming through, whatever keeps us fearful of others, of strangers, and prevents us from showing another what is in our heart. Perhaps the foreskin of the heart is what keeps us from wanting to know the heart of someone else, be it a friend or family member, or a stranger walking down a street in our neighborhood. Perhaps this commandment makes being tenderhearted a non-gender-based “sign of the covenant,” a kind of brit milah we must perform repeatedly on ourselves, as adults.

The 15th century Spanish commentator Abravanel, himself a survivor of the Inquisition who went to Italy in 1492, wrote: “A stiff-necked person cannot look behind to see how his actions have led him to where he finds himself” (Abravanel as quoted in Etz Hayim Torah commentary, p. 1043).

There is something so poignant in this coincidence of court cases, failed legislation, protests and demonstrations while Jews continue our annual reading of the Israelites bidding farewell to Moses and preparing to make their way into the Promised Land. There’s something powerful in reminding ourselves that God long ago called us to do exactly what these marchers and protesters, commentators and demonstrators are doing — to circumcise our hearts, to trim away the tough shell of fear and defensiveness, and to open our hearts to others; to remind ourselves that we know how it feels to have governments turn against us but also to accept us; know how it feels to be mistreated by human beings, even ones who teach that all of us are beloved children of God.

This week is the second of the seven Sabbaths of consolation and comfort, the Sabbaths between Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and Rosh Hashanah, one of the most optimistic of our Holy Days. Our sages say the destruction of the Second Temple — one of the destructions we commemorate on Tisha b’Av — was caused by sinat chinam (senseless hatred). On Tisha b’Av, we remember how easy it is to be too stiff-necked to look behind and see what brought us here, even our own actions. But as we walk together toward Rosh Hashanah, we work to open our hearts and look around — and within — that we might better come to know not only the souls of others, but each of us our own soul, too.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (

‘Because I say so’: Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“This is the decree [chukat] of the Torah” (Numbers 19:2).

Isn’t it amazing how, as we get older, our parents seem to become wise? It is the responsibility of any good parent to guide their child. But when the child asks for a reason why they should or should not do something, sometimes the parent realizes they will not understand the reasoning and simply says, “Because I say so.” But as we age, we start to realize that our parents’ commandments, which didn’t make sense to us then, make sense now. Sometimes it is because of our life experience, and often it is because we become parents to our own children. But as we grow, we recognize the wisdom that we didn’t understand in our youth.

This week’s portion (which is also read on the Sabbath after Purim) begins with this very concept. “This is the decree of the Torah” explains the commandment regarding the red heifer. A perfect red cow would be ritually slaughtered and burned, and then its ashes would be mixed with pure water and other ingredients to create a liquid used to cleanse a person who had come into contact with a corpse. On the surface, this makes no sense at all: Cleansing with the ashes from a dead animal? This practice is the epitome of the chuk, the decree we cannot intellectually understand.

Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) teaches that there are three types of commandments in the Torah: commandments based on historical precedents, commandments that appeal to our minds and are easy to understand and “commandments the reason for which and the usefulness of which are completely outside our ability to understand.” The first group reminds us of our past, and the second group (which includes prohibitions against theft, robbery and murder) are easy to understand. It is the last group that is so difficult for us: decrees that we don’t understand but need to do anyway. Effectively, God is saying to do these things because He says so. For the arrogant modern mind, this is incredibly challenging. After all, how can an ancient document be wiser than our brilliant 21st century intellects? Where do ancient texts get away with telling us what to do?

These decrees are hard for us to justify for another reason as well. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the 18th century Chasidic master, reminds us that we are composed of both a soul from heaven and a body of earth. While the soul intuitively yearns to carry out God’s desires, the body rebels because it cannot fathom the reasons for these types of commandments. Because it is inherently difficult for us to perform a mitzvah that we don’t comprehend, the Berditchever believes that their observance merits us great spiritual rewards. When we make the conscious choice to surrender our will to God’s and perform a commandment that makes no intellectual sense (such as the red heifer), we are choosing to base our actions on faith rather than intellect. 

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but also extremely worthwhile. When we make the choice to observe these decrees that make no sense, we open for ourselves the opportunity to grow exponentially. By following the path that God sets before us, even in the case of the red heifer (which, according to Mishnah Parah 3:5, only actually occurred nine times between the days of Moses and the destruction of the Second Temple), we create an opening of awareness of the spiritual aspects of Creation and of ourselves.

As parents, we give instructions to our children that may seem silly to them. As they grow in their own awareness and wisdom, the adult child starts to realize the hidden benefits of doing what they were told. And when they become parents themselves, it often becomes clear that while as a child they were not yet able to understand the reasoning, as an adult they appreciate the teaching.

God’s instructions can often be as incomprehensible to us as the words of a parent are to a small child. Yet if we can have the courage and faith to act on these sacred words in the same way that we encourage a child to listen to their parents even when it may not at first make sense, we may be able to reap greater rewards and understanding than we can imagine. The only way for anyone to know for sure is to try out some of these decrees (like keeping kosher or not mixing wool and linen together) for a while and see if they add an extra dimension to our lives over time and practice.

May we all have the courage to let go of our personal arrogance and surrender to a deeper relationship with life through the teachings of our sages.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of the The New Shul of Conejo, the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013) and can be reached at This teaching is in honor of the union of Diba Mesriani and Saman Mostadim.

Who is like you?: Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

Nathan was a young man in his 20s, living in Gulfport, Miss. He lived with his mother and grandmother in a small three-bedroom home a little over a mile from the Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it took most of his roof, flooded a good part of his home, and placed even greater strain on his work as a landscaper. Nathan was the primary caregiver for both his mother and his grandmother. After Hurricane Katrina, Nathan spent his days helping others rebuild their homes, only to return to repair his own home in the late afternoon before night set in. 

I met Nathan when I signed up with the joint Board of Rabbis of Southern California and African Methodist Episcopal Church Mission to rebuild homes in the months after the devastating hurricane hit. Nathan was quiet as the team of Christians and Jews climbed atop his roof and hammered shingles into place. We were quiet because Nathan represented the painful memories of discrimination and hatred in Mississippi history. He didn’t know I was a Jew. I wore my hat while on the site, and when news made its way to him through our team that I was a rabbi, he took long looks at me and scratched his head in disbelief.

At first, I volunteered because I wanted to build houses. Every morning, we showed up at Nathan’s doorstep with tools in hand and the motivation to get to work. Conversations started, stories and histories were shared, a friendship grew. Each day brought a set of challenges with the construction. We had to go shopping for more materials. Lightning and thunderstorms slowed the project down. We entered his home, the mildewed remnant of a house where he was forced to live while his grandmother and mother were able to live in a borrowed trailer across town. On the night it rained, Nathan’s roof was still exposed and in the one room of the house left in some habitable form — the last vestige of protection he had — his bed and personal belongings were drenched. It was a soaking reminder that his life was interminably affected by the harsh course of nature. We had to take his personal belongings and move them to a part of his house that was roofed, while simultaneously helping discard so many books and pictures — memories — into the trash heap on the street. 

We built a relationship with him. That meant that as we rebuilt his home, we rebuilt his faith and courage to continue on. We took responsibility for him; we loved him even though he was one of the least likely people we’d ever meet in our lives. It was a real moment when I understood the words of Torah, “Love your neighbor like yourself.” Call it a “kamocha” moment. 

We find in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, two distinct verses with a similar theme that share one common word: kamocha. It is a reflexive Hebrew word meaning “similar to you.” The first verse reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsmen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). And a few verses later, we read, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

This word kamocha in context can mean: “Love another as you love yourself,” or “Love another who looks like you or is similar to you.” Both resonate with eternal truth. Consideration for others is the path toward recognizing God. To love another is to love God. To love God is to love the other, the stranger in your midst, and even the one who appears estranged to you. 

What’s most remarkable is that these two verses are the only two in the entire Tanakh that refer to self-reflective love. In the hundreds of references to love — love by parents or children, love by God or love for God — these two stand alone with their comparative measure, kamocha. This quality of love is more than amour or affection; it is a love that shatters the ego. It is a love expressed instead of vengeance or retribution, in place of discrimination and segregation. And our Torah intends for us to practice it anywhere and everywhere. 

I may never know what happened next in Nathan’s life after we put a roof on his home and helped bring security back into his life. But, he inspired me to create many more kamocha moments. I’ve come to learn they are the most real encounters we are blessed to experience. 

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Hardship and rebirth: Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

In these dark, cold days of winter, it’s so easy to lose hope. Add to this the hardships of loss, with which life seems intent on liberally sprinkling our lives, and we get something akin to paralysis. We may feel like a tree in winter, shorn of its leaves, standing still like death. Will spring ever come, and will we survive until it does?

The rabbis of the Talmud knew this place of emptiness and sought to ritualize the experience of awakening from winter’s fearful sleep with a message of new growth by pointing to the rising sap and first fruit buds in our orchards. This Shabbat we celebrate the 15th (written with the Hebrew letters “TU”) of the month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, as well as Shabbat Shirah, the return in our Torah reading of the Song of the Sea, with which the Israelites expressed their gratitude to HaShem for their escape from Egypt.

In our reading from Exodus this Shabbat, Beshalach, we find not God or Moses being credited with the exodus from Egypt, but Pharaoh — the ruler who refused to free the Israelite slaves through 10 plagues that destroyed his own economy and brought tragedy to every household. God then leads the Israelite people through 40 years of war and regrouping in the desert, saying this is what we need to shape us into a people ready to enter the Promised Land. 

Can obstacles, hardship and trauma actually contain the buds of our liberation? 

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher in the late 1800s. An article in Current Directions in Psychological Science says, yes, hardship is good for us. Loss allows us to develop the ability to cope through gratitude for what we still have. 

Psychology Today, on the other hand, ran an article saying that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. It says the connection between hardship and strength building is a coincidence, like a chicken that pecks the same spot before random food drops in, hoping to re-create the chain of events. It’s not the calamity that hardens us, it says. If you’re stronger after, it’s despite — not because of — the trauma. Trauma exposure leads only to vulnerability and mental disorders down the road. Only tender love and care build character and adaptability, it says. 

So the jury is out as to whether the school of hard knocks provides a useful education. 

But there is a difference between hardship and suffering. According to Buddhist teaching, dukka, suffering, is not having bad things happen in your life. It is letting your mind dwell on them — being filled with worries, stresses, plans and panics. What matters is how we process our grief.

I visited a woman in the county jail with drug problems. She told me that since I last saw her, she had been released, hospitalized for an illness, prescribed a painkiller, and made the mistake of telling the nurses she wanted more. And here she was again, in jail, meeting me, just like before, except for one thing: She felt incredibly grateful. She could so easily have slipped back into her old addictive habits, but God had sent her a mighty hand in the form of further incarceration. She felt chastised for the good, and ready to see what else God had in store for her. 

The benefit of hardship, according to psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, is not having had it, but the confidence gained from knowing you survived it and, perhaps, that you are part of something that cares about your survival. Similarly, Carl Jung wrote that the difference between suffering in vain and suffering productively is being able to give things a spiritual context. If we can find hope in the midst of darkness, if we can believe fervently that this time will pass and that there will be a meaning for it, we can get through it and become new on the other side. 

Sometimes it is this process of letting go of who we were and becoming someone we don’t know that is the hardest part of spiritual growth. As the great mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote in the 1400s, by being shown the truth and the splendor of spirituality, the soul rudely awakens to the triviality of all the things the body convinced it to be important in this world. This realization of the shallowness of the physical world is more painful than any pain that can be experienced in it. Yet, it is what the righteous strive for: to allow their old, frightened selves to die, so that they may live fully in the truth of spirit. This is the message of spring. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (, a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.

Measure for measure: Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

There are a good many details about the Joseph narratives that elude ready explanation. We absorb them readily and ignore them just as readily. What bearing do they have on Joseph or his brothers? They seem of no connection with the past or with the future. It is fair to claim all this as chance and happenstance. But to be sure, we must, like the good detective of legend, examine the evidence. 

Let us begin at a familiar point. The brothers have stripped Joseph of his dignity and his “coat of many colors.” He is dumped down the shaft of a dry well. Meanwhile, as he lies alone and bloodied in the dark, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrive, “their camels carrying balm, balsam and labdanum, heading down toward Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). The merchants’ destination is quite significant, for it is to there that Joseph shall soon descend. But of what import is the merchandise? Perfumes and fragrances are neither here nor there.

Next, the brothers sell “Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28). The sale of a human being is a heinous crime. It is neither mitigated nor magnified with a brief statement about currency and price! Why even mention these “pieces of silver”?

Finally, to conceal their wicked sin, the brothers “took Joseph’s coat, slew a hairy goat and then dipped the coat in its blood” (Genesis 37:31). Naturally, the blood is needed to deceive Jacob, who at the sight of the tattered, blood-soaked coat assumes the worst: “Joseph is torn to pieces by a wild beast” (Genesis 37:33). Still, why mention the goat, and why especially a hairy goat? 

With these facts before us, we proceed. To begin, the goat seems to have little connection with the particulars of Joseph’s life, but Jacob’s life seems to revolve around them. It was Jacob who sent 220 goats to his brother as a guilt offering to assuage the latter’s wrath (Genesis 32:15). It was Jacob who spent a good 20 years being swindled out of things, like spotted and speckled goats, by his father-in-law, Lavan. And most important, it was Jacob who deceived his father, Isaac, with goat meat and goatskins. Disguised as (hairy) Esau, wearing his goatskins and bearing a tray of goat meat, Jacob steals Esau’s blessings (Genesis 27:9-16). It is poetic justice, then, that his children in turn deceive Jacob through a slain goat. 

As to Joseph, it is possible that his beloved coat was woven of goat’s hair. Luxury fabrics like cashmere and mohair are woven from goat sheerings. In the wilderness, the fabric was used in the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:4). Perhaps it is doubly ironic that the beautiful coat, which expressed Jacob’s profound love for Joseph, is used to bring about Jacob’s greatest sorrow, through its being submerged in, of all things, the blood of a hairy goat. 

If this is Jacob’s due for his past crimes, what punishment awaits the brothers? It is here that we find two details that would, at first glance, seem happenstance if it were not for our earlier investigations. The setting is Egypt, Joseph is viceroy, and in the 20 years since his brothers last saw him, he has become a new man, disguised beyond recognition. Joseph interrogates his brothers, accuses them of espionage and incarcerates Simeon. He then offers them a deal to prove their innocence: “bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son.” 

On their way, the brothers notice something odd. Joseph has returned their pieces of silver. They “see silver in the mouth of the pack” (Genesis 42:28). Once more they must return to their father, minus a son, with a sack full of silver coins, and the heavy stench of guilt. “What is this that God has done to us?”

When they finally convince Jacob to relinquish Benjamin, so they can return to Egypt and buy food, Jacob offers some advice. Bring the man (Joseph) a gift: “a little balsam, a little honey, balm and labdanum, pistachio nuts and almonds … and as for your brother, take him, too” (Genesis 43:11-13).

Such delicious irony: The same fragrant smells that accompanied Joseph the slave on his descent to Egypt now accompanies the brothers as they descend to Egypt. This time the brothers accompany Benjamin, anxious at every step. Will he vanish like Joseph, like Simeon? Perhaps this viceroy will keep all of them as slaves? 

Such is biblical justice, measure for measure, an eye for an eye. “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. But such a world is not half as cruel as one of happenstance. A world where, to quote William Shakespeare, “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Receiving happiness (Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 29:17-31)

Sometimes we just can’t do as God asks. Our burden is too great. 

I run into this often when visiting hospital patients and their families during the High Holy Days. They feel mad at God for their circumstances and conflicts. Why would I get sick on Rosh Hashanah and miss the mitzvah of the shofar call? How am I supposed to take my medicine on Yom Kippur? Sukkot as z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. Are you kidding?

This week’s special parasha for Sukkot wraps up all the central mitzvot in a neat package — Shabbat, kashrut, marrying in, praying only to the Holy One, and especially observing holidays. 

We are commanded to be happy on Sukkot and to love God, but sometimes there is just no way we can. God doesn’t seem to be taking such good care of our safety, our health or our loved ones. We may want to run away from God, religion and all of those troublesome responsibilities.

I tell these families that they have every right to be angry, and need not feel ashamed about it. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with raging at God. Scream, cry, curse, shake your fists. God can take it. Never doubt this. 

But please, don’t take this as an excuse for abandoning a life of the spirit. Judaism may seem like a lot of rules and busy-making projects, but there is method to the madness, no matter how loosely you observe. 

Sukkot, for example, is not just a project to build a hut and feed our families inside. It is an opportunity to reach out — both to help and for help. The sick, disabled, elderly and stressed-out play an essential role.

Consider the Yiddish short story, “A Meal for the Poor” by Mordecai Spector. In it, a rich man intends to have the greatest wedding party ever, with tables laden with delicious food, music, invited guests and, of course, wagonfuls of poor people to share in the mitzvah. 

The host’s servants go to the neighboring town, but the poor folk who live there refuse to come unless he agrees to pay them each a token amount — one ruble.

The man is embarrassed to find himself having to bargain with the needy. He initially responds with anger. But then he backs down and meets their demands. They come, and the party is a great success, with guests wishing the host many blessings. 

The Rambam says there is no joy in simply sitting in our sukkah, eating until we are full, and saying our blessings. “This kind of joy is a disgrace,” he wrote in his Mishneh Torah. “When one eats and drinks (on a festival), he must feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow along with all the unfortunate poor. But he who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks (alone) … — this is not the joy of mitzvah, but only the joy of his belly.”

The Zohar agrees. “A person should not say: ‘First, I will fill myself with food and drink; what is left I will give to the poor.’ No, the prime portion belongs to the guests. If he makes the guests happy and full, the Blessed Holy One rejoices with him!” 

For the mystics, the “guests,” or ushpizin, refers not just to the people we bring into our sukkah, but also the sefirot, the attributes of God in the form of biblical characters, that we ritually invite to join us each night. With each righteous hero, we enact an aspect of God’s care and gain the blessing of more of God’s presence in our humble hut. 

Show loving kindness to those in need and our homes will be truly blessed, our teachers say. That is, if we have the energy to be the one who provides. If not, there is an equally important role for us as the needy, bringing our host the blessed opportunity to give.

The Zohar, speaking of Sukkot, says, “Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Torah does not demand of a person more than he can do, as it is written: “Each according to what he can give …” ’ ” (Deuteronomy 16:17).

If we are in the hospital and not in shul this year, if we are too sick to fast, or cannot erect our sukkah, or we just feel alone at this holiday time, it is upon us to reach out and accept someone else’s hospitality. We need not feel isolated or embarrassed about asking for help. It’s a mitzvah that goes both ways and blesses us all.

Don’t know anyone you can call on? How about HaShem, the Lord of Hosts? It would be God’s honor to comfort you in a time of need. You only have to ask.

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (, an interfaith referral service for professional chaplains.

Passing the Torch: Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

“Moses summoned Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous…’ ” Deuteronomy 31:7.

Aware that he is about to die, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor in front of all the people. In a few short verses, he leads us on a journey through a plethora of emotions. Moses lets the people know that God is already aware of the many sins they will commit, but he is also aware that they will eventually arrive, succeed and triumph in Israel. 

This portion is “one of seeming contradictions — sadness on one hand and soaring optimism on the other,” Rabbi Berel Wein writes. But how can we use these apparent contradictions in our own personal journey through Yom Kippur, and especially through Yizkor?

An answer can be found in Moses’ interaction with Joshua. After decades of mentoring Joshua, Moses publicly blesses him as the new leader. “Be strong and courageous,” he says. 

These words of advice, and the public blessing, are some of the keys to making Yom Kippur that much more meaningful.

It is a true blessing to be mentored or guided by others. And mentorship becomes even more impactful when we are recognized publicly by our teachers and guides. The process of rabbinic smicha (ordination) is a public recognition by teachers that the “student” is now ready and should be accepted by the community. The moment that a person is recognized by his or her teachers in this public way is a moment of transition. It is the simultaneous blessing of both the mentor and mentee as the mantle is passed. As William Butler Yeats put it, “It seemed, so great my happiness, that I was blessed and could bless.” For Moses and Joshua, this public passing of the torch was just such a blessing. Rather than making the death of Moses that much more painful, it becomes a key to transforming the loss of Moses into hope for both Joshua and the people.

Moses’ words give us the guidance of what a mentor needs to always say. Joshua has shown his knowledge, wisdom and value throughout the years, and the great advice that his mentor can give is both simple and deep: “Be strong and courageous.” Isn’t this what we all need to hear as we take on a new endeavor, as we carry the mantle of our teachers?

And these are the words that we need to remember this Yom Kippur, especially as we enter the Yizkor ceremony.

Our loved ones have moved on, but they have left us a legacy. We have a responsibility to live in a way that makes them proud and honor what they taught us. We need to allow ourselves to deeply feel the loss of their presence but also rejoice in what we experienced with them and be grateful for how much our lives are a result of their influence and teachings. Yizkor is not just a time to remember the loss, but to be grateful for the relationship that we had with them in life.

I once heard someone come up to a fellow congregant after Yizkor and say to them, “You smell like a newborn baby.” The congregant had cried so hard, had embraced their pain so much, that they had literally been cleansed from the inside out. Because they had the strength and courage to go fully into the pain of their loss, they were able to come out the other side. The Yizkor process ultimately became one of mourning and cleansing, the remembrance and celebration of an important relationship.

This is the public teaching that Moses gives us as he is about to die. Allow ourselves to grieve, to mourn, but also to celebrate the future and what we have learned from those who went before us. A rainbow can only occur after the rain, and we need to let our tears flow so that we can appreciate and celebrate the lives of our loved ones.

May we each have the courage this Yizkor to experience the honest pain of our losses so fully that we can come through the other side cleansed, whole and strong. And may we always honor our mentors and mentees, our teachers and students, our parents and children.

May each of us, and all of Israel, have an easy fast and be sealed for blessings of sweetness, health and joy in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of the New Shul of the Conejo (, and can be reached at

Parashat Ki Teitze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19): Conditionally unconditional

Dear Mom: It’s been a long time coming, but I owe you an apology. There have been simply too many jokes at your expense, like the time you told your friends I was such a devoted son that I spend $150 on you every week — talking to my therapist. Or, when you and Dad proudly announced the name at my bris as Dr. Joshua Hoffman. Wasn’t becoming a rabbi enough?! And Mom, about all those times you said I never called. I want you to know I would have called you first, but you always seemed to beat me to it — at 6 a.m.

I want to apologize for all those times I would get upset when you told me you loved me unconditionally. OK, the jokes imply that you love me when I give you attention, stay in touch and have a successful career. But they’re just jokes, right? I have to ask, “Can there ever really be such a thing as unconditional love?” The concept of anything unconditional is simply … romantic. Remember the joke about Oedipus? “Oedipus shmedipus, as long as you love your mother.” That’s what you always told me.

I admit I have been resentful in the past, but no longer. You told me to study the Torah, and I would like to share with you what I’ve learned. Devarim is a book that speaks in absolutes. Blessings and rewards, curses and punishments. Promises of a long life or the ejection from a land that spews us out for our disobedience. At first, hearing the consequences for our … errr imperfections … seems judgmental, even premeditated. I expected a book about God and humanity to speak of unconditional love, one that flows from parent to child without any conditions. It’s what I think I expected from you all those times you wished I chose the right tie from the two you gave me (Why didn’t I choose the other tie?). It’s frustrating to read verse after verse, chapter after chapter and realize we aren’t good enough, resilient enough, devoted enough.

Take the famous talmudic story drawn from one of the many mitzvot in this week’s Torah portion. After describing the circumstances in which one would find a bird’s nest full of eggs or little hatchlings, in which we are commanded to shoo the mother away (shliuach haken) and then grab the eggs, we read, “Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well (L’ma’an Yitav Lach) and have a long life (V’harachta Yamim)” (Deuteronomy 22:7). It’s a strange place for a mitzvah to have a condition placed on it, isn’t it? The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) takes this verse as a challenge, to describe the problems inherent in random and tragic moments of loss. “What is the reward for the child, who obeys his father’s command to ascend a ladder, shoo the mother bird away and accidentally falls off the ladder to his death?” The Talmud constructs a litany of responses, but we know there is no way to fully justify the utter devastation of this loss of life, loss of potential, loss of goodness in the world. It’s because everything in this world is conditional, even circumstances we could never expect to happen.

It hurts the most when we feel love is given with conditions that are impossible to meet. We expect, somehow, that the love we experience from another should be exactly the way we feel about them — as if the other’s affection is a mirror reflection of the love we feel. But love for another and love for God are always conditional. And I think that unfettered release of devotion and commitment is really the expression of so many discreet expressions of cause and effect, and that real love is so well practiced and habitual, it seems to happen without any forethought, as if it were unconditional.

I learned this lesson most from that word in the Torah, “L’ma’an” — in order that — as in, conditional love and affection. It’s a powerful word that has its root meaning in the Hebrew word for response — “L’anot,” as if to say loving God by observing the mitzvot is not on condition of the reward, but is a caring and enduring response to the command.

I know your love, Mom, has always been enduring, because God’s love is enduring — Ki L’Olam Hasdo. Despite the failures and the shortcomings, of which we always joke you haven’t missed an opportunity to point out, your love is always there. I’m sorry I missed more than a few of those moments along the way. Yes, your love is better than chicken soup, but as the joke goes, chicken soup is a lot cheaper.

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

When your brother will be low: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

He flopped down on the couch in my study, looking pale, upset.

“What is it?” I asked, imagining a bad diagnosis.

“I had to lay off one of my workers today,” he said, fighting tears. “The poor guy says he only has two mortgage payments in his savings account.”

“Any severance package?” I asked.

“If only,” he sighed. “My business savings account isn’t much better than his. I held off as long as I could, but I can’t put the whole business at risk.” He was shaking.

Parashat Behar, the first of this week’s two Torah portions, considers what to do when a “brother” is slipping financially. “And when your brother will be low so that his hand is slipping with you, then you shall take hold of him — an alien and a visitor — and he shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:35).

Given the last few years, do any of us not know someone who has fallen on tough financial times? What should we do, what can we do, when acquaintances, neighbors, friends, relatives, fellow congregants find their hands losing a grip on their finances?

Whether kinsperson, acquaintance or worried stranger in line at the bank — do you have a few extra minutes to lend a listening ear?

Or offer a prayer with or for them?

If you know the person well enough, perhaps you have a room to spare, temporarily, or a little extra money to lend at no interest.

If you know them from shul or the JCC pool, might you have an extra place at your Shabbos lunch table?

Or maybe you can afford to give away the cost of a meal (give it to a rabbi to give away if you don’t know someone yourself who needs it).

Perhaps you could acquaint yourself with community resources that are available and then share that information with those who could benefit. My friend who had to lay off his employee helped him sign up with Jewish Vocational Service for its career services department, and is helping check job listings at ParnossahWorks, a free job search Web site.

Maybe you know someone who qualifies for a Jewish Free Loan for working people with a specific extra need. It only takes a few minutes on its Web site to become acquainted with who can apply for an interest-free loan.

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice has programs for foreclosure recovery and community investing.

SOVA Community Food and Resource Program (part of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles) operates several food pantries around the Los Angeles area (including the Valley).

If someone is out of work, can you help them find a volunteer position while the job hunt continues? Being useful, feeling useful, can go a long way toward keeping up morale, and developing new skills and possible connections that might help land a job down the road.

“And when your brother will be low so that his hand is slipping with you, then you shall grasp hold of [strengthen] him” (v’hechezaktah bo) says our Torah verse. And Rashi explains, “Do not let him come down completely, but grasp him when he begins to fail.” He compares it to a donkey — when its burden begins to slip, even one person can steady and rebalance it, but if it falls to the ground, not even five people can pick it up again.

Reaching out at the moment of early need can steady a person emotionally, too. An open heart or sympathetic ear can keep a person from isolating. In this economy, there is no shame in losing a job or taking a long time to find a new one. Tell him so. And be on the look out for job openings you can pass along.

The phrase “with you” (imach) occurs twice in this verse and in several verses surrounding it. Why? One commentary says: In order to stress that the plight of “your kinsperson” is not unrelated to your own welfare. In very real ways, we are all in this together.

This week, we complete the book of Leviticus/Vayikra – and as we complete it, we turn once more to the phrase recited each time we come to the end of a book of Torah.

It’s no coincidence that the phrase echoes a word in our Torah verse: v’hechezaktah bo “you shall grasp hold of [strengthen] him,” Parashat Behar says.

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another, we say as we finish each book of Torah, encouraging, empowering, reminding ourselves that our strength lies not only in the study of Torah, but that we learn together from it how to grasp hold of one another in the tough times and to be there for each other at all times

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How to be a priest: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Leviticus is the biblical book rabbis do not want you to read. Saturated with sacrificial minutiae and unsettling descriptions of ritual impurity, its countless sheep and goat offerings seem a more effective salve for insomnia than any woe that pains the heart. After all, what do wave offerings or incense recipes have in common with more substantive things, like wireless Internet or the smell of freshly brewed java in the morning?

Yet the reason why studying Leviticus is so often neglected is not because it seems boring or embarrassingly regressive. Au contraire; study of Leviticus is neglected because its contents are so revolutionary and radical that we fear giving the book anything more than a dutiful glance.

This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, begins with a command to the priestly caste that they avoid all contact with the dead, the exception being close relatives and kin. “And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1-2).

The law is in keeping with the general obligation that priests maintain the requisite strictures of purity and holiness. Indeed, the Sons of Aaron have already been warned not to serve in the Tabernacle while drunk (Leviticus 10:9); and they are given further rules prohibiting self-mutilation as well as strict limits about whom they can wed (Leviticus 21:4-7).

Yet if we think about this command a moment longer, it should strike us as being extraordinarily counterintuitive. The priests — Kohanim — are meant to be the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their sacred task is “to distinguish between holy and unholy, between impure and pure and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken unto Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). They are in essence the clerical heads — the rabbis — of the people. And yet, here they are expressly forbidden from officiating or even participating in perhaps what is one of the most trying and difficult of lifecycle events — the Jewish funeral. In almost all cases, they are banned from preparing the body for burial or even accompanying the family as they escort the departed to its final resting place. It seems fair to ask why this is so.

The Italian sage, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1475-1550), suggested that since it is the task of the priest to give honor and glory to God, it would be a grave violation of his charge to use his station to give honor to the dead (Sforno, Leviticus 21:5.6).

More recently, modern scholars have pointed to the immense chasm between the practices of ancient Egypt and those of Israel. In contrast to Israel, Egypt’s priests made funerary rites and rituals the single most important aspect of their religion. Embalming, mummification and numerous ceremonies accompanied entombing. To appreciate the centrality of Egyptian burial rites, consider that the pyramids were not built for the living, or think back to how Joseph was embalmed and entombed in Egyptian fashion at the end of Genesis.

Against this cultural milieu, Israel’s priests are abjured from making deities of the dead or even excessive mourning. Their task is to worship a living God and to sanctify the day-to-day life of Israel instead (Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus 21:1-5).

Yet, there is something unsatisfying with this answer, primarily because the Kohanim are absent from a whole number of other lifecycle events as well. A few weeks ago, we read the portion of Tazria, which decreed that the birthmother should avoid “entering the sanctuary or touching any holy thing” for some 40 to 80 days after birth (Leviticus 12:1-8). The mother, it seems, is bid to stay well away from the Temple’s priests.

One might expect a Kohen to carry out a circumcision, but here, too, no officiant is mentioned. “On the eighth day, let the flesh of his foreskin be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Similarly, for marriage, the Torah makes no mention of any presiding prophet or priest (Deuteronomy 24:1). Remarkably, it was not until the early Middle Ages that an officiating rabbi became obligatory at weddings.

The question, then, is if a priest was not called upon to “hatch them, match them, or dispatch them,” then just who did the presiding over these lifecycle events? The answer, quite simply, was anyone. A father would likely have circumcised his son. A relative would see to proper burial. Learned wedding guests, or the groom, would ensure that the marriage was done according to the Laws of Moses.

Indeed this is but one reason why Leviticus is so radical.

The Italian commentator, Shadal (1800-1865), remarks that this idea is encapsulated by the phrase that Israel be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6): “Every Israelite is meant to have a personal ‘priest-like’ relationship with God.” Toward that end, perhaps it is time that laity and non-laity alike give Leviticus the attention it deserves.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

Make the Old New Again: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

At the ripe age of 8, I learned the Peter Allen song “Everything Old Is New Again.” It may have been an unusual choice for an 8-year-old to crave hearing over and over. But for me, this song was synonymous with dance class, doing the soft shoe that landed me on stage for the annual spring recital: “Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day, dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.”

When I was 8, I didn’t really understand the power of these words. There was nothing that was old in my young memory, except the adults that surrounded me. Yet as we all age, eventually we do remember more and more things that once were new. Remember that fresh, pure feeling that washed over you when you gained a new perspective, a different way of looking at the world? For some it is the birth of a child. For others it is a new job, or moving to a different home. For some it is traveling somewhere new, to view the world from a different angle.

We cling to these experiences to keep them fresh in our minds and in our hearts. We hope to be like children again, to experience the world with a fresh set of eyes. We want to bottle those feelings, later uncork the bottle, take a whiff of that “newness” and shed our adult baggage to experience the world again with purity of heart and clarity of soul.

As we begin a new book in our Torah reading cycle, we immerse ourselves in our ancestors’ attempts to do the very same thing. In the world of ritual purity our biblical ancestors knew, they strove to recapture the new, to be pure in their approach to God. As they defined and prepared their korbanot, their sacrifices, they aimed to strip down to the basics and to cleave close to God, to feel new again.

Leviticus Rabbah, a great collection of rabbinic commentary, tells us that when children first begin their Torah study, they begin with the book of Leviticus. Why? Because children are pure and fresh, and this book is all about attaining this level of purity and closeness to God through sacrifice. In the rabbinic mindset, children did not immediately dive into the messy narrative of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis, but rather they were first exposed to the orderly world of priestly purity to encounter God. 

As adults, we can make the connection between the need for purity and freshness in our spiritual lives and the drive to rediscover the childlike purity of the fresh and the new. We revitalize ourselves by making “the old new again” or by crafting experiences where we truly discover something new. Reacquainting ourselves with the “new” is a risky venture and requires thoughtful planning and effort. It is altogether too easy to stick to the routines that define our lives. But instead, take a step back … back to the purity of childhood, and put yourself in a new and unfamiliar situation. This is how we have the potential to cleave to God as we experience the world in a new way. As the midrash tells us, the book of Leviticus is for children. As the cabaret song tells us, “dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.” This is how we discover the path to the divine: Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, and renew yourself.

Rabbi Susan Leider is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am ( In July, she will become the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif.

We Matter: Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

Last week’s Torah portion ends with a genealogy, a long list of names of who begot whom and how long they lived. It is one of many genealogies in the Torah. It used to be that when I encountered those lists, I tuned out; I found them boring. But then I read a book by Thomas Cahill called “The Gifts of the Jews” (Anchor, 1999).

Cahill points out that the listing of individuals’ names is something that doesn’t occur in prebiblical literature. These genealogies, the listing of names, were the Hebrew Bible’s way of saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant.

It is something that we take for granted —that each person is uniquely significant — but it is actually a radical notion. It is a notion, according to the non-Jewish writer Cahill, that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, the beginning of our story as a people.

God calls to Avram: “Lech lecha: Go forth from your native land, your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. … And Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son, Lot … and they set out for Canaan” (Genesis 12:1-5). This moment was the beginning of Jewish history.

Cahill argues that it is even more significant. He describes this moment as the beginning of history as we know it. Prior to this, people believed that life was a circle: We’re born, we die, and the next generation repeats the process. Life has no direction: It just keeps reiterating itself. Cahill explains that it is only with Abraham and the command of God that he “go forth” that the idea of history and progress is born. This insight is, for Cahill, a gift of the Jews.

If all is a circle, nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. It will all happen again. What we do doesn’t matter. For our actions to matter, they must be able to influence the future. But the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. If, on the other hand, the Jewish view is adopted, everything matters — every act I engage in matters, and therefore I matter — so much so that each one of us can change history by everything we do.

What are the results of this transformative idea? In Cahill’s words, “Most of our best words, in fact —  new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice — are the gifts of the Jews.”

Cahill asserts that “the Jews started it all and by ‘it’ I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us — Jew and gentile, believer and atheist — tick. … The role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular … theirs is a unique vocation.  Indeed … the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.”

The gift of the Jews is the idea that individuals matter. Our lives can make a difference in the world.

This week is my father’s yahrzeit. As is the custom in our synagogue, we will read his name along with the names of other people from the congregation who died at this season in years past. We ask people to stand when the name of their family member is read and to tell us the relationship of the deceased. “My father,” I’ll say. Someone else will say “my mother.” Sometimes a whole family comes. “My father,” “my husband,” “my grandfather,” “my father-in-law,” “my brother,” “my uncle.” It is a powerful reminder that the person who is being remembered is more than just a name. Then we invite those people who have suffered a recent loss to stand and speak the name, and then all those people in the first year of mourning for a parent. They speak the names, and tell us who they were. We remember that each of these names was a person, like my father, who touched other people, whose life made other lives possible.

I don’t find those biblical genealogies boring anymore; instead, I think of them as another gift of the Jews.

Ears, Toes and Thumbs: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

Author Hillel Halkin, reviewing the Koren Sacks Siddur in the spring 2010 Jewish Review of Books, recounts a charming story that he heard from his father:

“My father, who prayed with great kavanah [concentration] yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever … once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a 10th Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely looking candidate, he asks: ‘Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ says the Jew. ‘What can I do for you?’ ‘You can join a minyan for Mincha,’ the man says. ‘I’m afraid that’s impossible,’ answers the Jew. ‘Why?’ asks the man. ‘Because I’m an atheist,’ says the Jew. The man gives the Jew a withering look. ‘And where,’ he inquires, ‘is it written that an atheist doesn’t have to say Mincha?’ ”

For Judaism, the best way to pray is with a minyan. Halkin notes, “Praying in a minyan is different from praying alone, less because of the additional prayers said by the worshipers than because of the human solidarity established among them.”

The human solidarity that the minyan offers is a mirror image of what the Jewish community is all about. In Jewish tradition, recited in the Shabbat Musaf service, those who “faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community” are the ones who are blessed. Likewise, those who dismantle the community structure are denounced in the harshest of words.

In this week’s Torah portion this lesson is taught in an unusual way. Parashat Metzora is a continuation of last week’s Parashat Tazria, in which we learn about the Metzora, a person who contracts a specific skin disease, perhaps leprosy or a form of psoriasis, for what the Talmud, in Arachin 16a, describes as a punishment for, among other sins, lashon harah, speaking evil against others.

The Torah continues the discussion in this week’s portion by focusing on the purification procedure for the Metzora whose symptoms have been healed. The Metzora is instructed to bring three different sacrifices followed by what would appear to be a most unusual ritual.

“The Kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the Kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified and on his right thumb and his right toe” (Leviticus 14:14). The Kohen also performed this same formula with leftover oil as well.

Strangely, this procedure wasn’t just limited to the Metzora. The Torah taught us in Exodus 29:20 that when the Kohanim were inducted into their priestly service this very same ceremony was performed on their ear, toe and thumb. What possibly could connect the Kohen and the Metzora, two diametrically opposite people?

Perhaps we can suggest that the Kohen represents the leader par excellence of the community. His role was to represent the community in its service in the Holy Temple. As he was inducted into service, the three parts of his body that are needed most for one to serve the community well, namely his ears, toes and thumbs, were anointed for this purpose. The Kohen’s hands and feet are the limbs responsible for moving the body, while the ears are responsible for hearing the pain of others and responding accordingly.

The Metzora is the antithesis of the Kohen. Unlike the Kohen who unites the community, the Metzora’s evil tongue divides society and destroys unity. In order to be rehabilitated, the Metzorah must recognize the important role communal unity plays. Hence he follows the exact same procedure that the Kohen experienced on the day the Kohen was inducted as community leader.

In his book “The Prime Ministers,” Yehuda Avner, speechwriter and adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, recounts how Menachem Begin hid from the British in 1946 disguised as a rabbinic student. During that period, Begin attended a little synagogue located near his hideout. Reminiscing years later, Begin recalled, “What a great little shul that was. There I found solace when life in the underground was at its harshest. That little shtibl became a part of my daily life. The balei batim — congregants — were wonderful: a cross-section of hard-working Tel Aviv craftsmen, small shopkeepers, laborers and artisans. They were true amcha, solid, down-to-earth, patriotic citizens. I regularly attended their evening Talmud classes, both because I enjoyed them and because they reinforced my cover.”

The Jewish community must represent “amcha,” the composition of all elements of the Jewish people. It is our job to see to it that the communal fabric stays strong, allowing all Jews to be counted in our minyan, for that is the antidote to the Metzora.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

While your neighbor bleeds: Parashat Shemot-Vaera (Exodus 1:1-9:35)

At the beginning of Shemot, when Jacob’s offspring were enslaved, oppressed and abused, where were the people who dared to speak truth to power? Where were theconsumers who demanded that Egyptian products be free from slave labor?

Alas, the world didn’t work that way then. Few stood up against the mighty overlords. We praise the exceptions, like midwives Shifrah and Puah, who defy Pharaoh’s deadly order (Exodus 1:15-21). Fewer still spoke out about how Egypt’s products were made; most Egyptians did not think twice about the morality of slave or child labor. Few if any cared about how much Egypt’s military-industrial complex profited from slavery, even though this cheap source of income fed the fires of Pharaoh’s ever-expanding conquests.

Well, that is until Moses, Aaron and Miriam came onto the scene. Slowly but surely, employing ever-changing strategies, these Israelite leaders displayed God’s moral power at its height. And the world was changed forever.

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).

When oppression’s long arm reached the Israelites, did anyone pause to remember all those who died? Seventy B’nei Yisrael (children of Israel) entered Egypt (Exodus 1:5). The post-exodus shekel census counts 603,550 men of fighting age (Exodus 38:26). If we posit a similar number (600,000) of same-aged women, and include at least two children per family (1.2 million) and we add in men and women who were too old or infirm to be of fighting age (200,000), we may infer that roughly 2.5 million people exited Egypt in the Exodus.

The Torah’s own narrative leads us to marvel at this exponential population explosion; Midrash Exodus Rabba suggests it required a miraculous set of sextuplets for every pregnancy. Yet we forget that for each generation miraculously born during the Israelites’ 430 years in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41), previous generations were decimated. How many Israelites lost their lives in slave labor, from abuse by taskmasters, while supporting the army, or from shortened life spans attributable directly to their status as the invisible many? Who mourns them? We might pause to pay tribute to all the lives lost. We might pledge lo ta’amod, that we will not stand by while others bleed.

As this secular year rolls into the next, we will be besieged by Top 10 lists. Top 10 Movies. Top 10 Electronic Gadgets. Top 10 Most Newsworthy Events. Will anyone compile a list of the Top 10 Conflicts Most Likely to Become the Next Genocide?

Although it won’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jewish World Watch (JWW) did compile such a list. JWW reviewed and collected material from an array of human rights reports and news sources, creating a genocide risk assessment that placed Congo among the ignominious top 10. The atrocities in Congo just keep escalating; like during Egyptian slavery, the violence and death are almost incomprehensible. Yet according to JWW and the aid agency International Rescue Committee:

• 5.4 million civilians have been killed by war-related violence, hunger and disease since 1998;
• up to 45,000 continue to die each month;
• 2 million have been internally displaced;
• 900,000 civilians have been newly displaced just since January 2009;
• hundreds of thousands of women and girls have reportedly been raped.

Congo is one country where our voices can be heard. We are unwitting participants in this war, implicated by the phones in our pockets and computers on our desks. The armed groups perpetrating the rapes and violence are funded by an estimated $144 million annual trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These minerals go directly into the components of electronic products that we use every day, from our iPods to our BlackBerrys.

How do we — children and grandchildren of the post-Holocaust generation, descendants of Egyptian slaves — respond to this conflict? Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches, “To be Jewish is to care for the world. Torah does not say ‘love thy Jewish neighbor’; it says ‘love thy neighbor.’ ” Similarly, Torah does not allow us to stand idly by while our non-Jewish neighbor bleeds, because we are commanded to stand up whenever any neighbor bleeds.

The 21 largest electronics companies are poised to accept a campaign committing them to source their minerals to the mine of origin. JWW is part of a coalition of stakeholders influencing and directing the Conflict-Free Minerals designation and the international oversight process. Our community must demand an end to the use of “conflict minerals.”

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while our neighbors bleed.

How will you answer your descendants? Take a moment to remember the generations of Israelites who died in the service of Pharaoh’s bloody war machine. Then be like Shifrah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives who refused to stand idly by. Go to to take the Conflict-Free Minerals Pledge.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the spiritual leader at Congregation Or Ami, a Reform synagogue in Calabasas. He blogs at