7 haiku for Torah Portion Pinchas by Rick Lupert (Is it Kosher if I tune my guitar?)

After the foibles
of the Midianites – time
to do some smitin’

Nothing stops us from
making babies – Over six
hundred thousand now

Plots are divided
We all get a piece of a
land we’ve never seen

Moses, not long for
this world, endows Joshua
with a promotion

Summertime….and it’s
time to lean more about the
laws of sacrifice

Don’t burn the fruit – Don’t
put the goat in the fruit bowl
So many details

Is tuning guitars
considered mundane work ask
all the song leaders.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Finding meaning in the ram

No story in our culture is more enigmatic and iconic than the Binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah. The akedah, or “binding,” is found in the 22nd chapter of Genesis and is only 19 verses long, containing just over 300 words. Yet this very short story has compelled writers from Maimonides to Wilfred Owen, from St. Augustine to Bob Dylan.

Throughout history, thinkers and writers focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as, “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During the crusades, the focused shifted to Isaac, who was widely viewed in that time period as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, the shift of focus was to Abraham with questions such as, “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Later, the feminists finally give voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s wish?” 

But the most unsung hero of the akedah is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah. It’s the ram.

The basic narrative of the akedah is that God asks Abraham to take his son, Isaac, up to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Abraham and Isaac climb the mountain together. At the peak, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and unsheathes the knife. As he lifts the blade into the heavens, the Angel of God appears and stays his hand. A ram caught in the brambles by its horns — which Abraham sees for the first time — becomes the substitute sacrifice for Isaac. 

The ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak, that doesn’t choose to be there and finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in the right place at the right time. More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment that we live in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”

Each of us is just like the ram. There is much in our lives we don’t choose and in truth cannot control. Our parents’ dreams for us began months before we were born. They chose our clothes, our schools, even our friends, when we are young. As adults, we have the opportunity to craft life for ourselves, but we have moments in which we hear our mother’s or father’s words come out of our mouths.  

As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image. 

Then, at some moment not of our own choosing, the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love becomes terminally ill. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you he’s getting married. These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond. 

The religious energy of the ram saturates the High Holy Days. We begin with the new moon of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Every morning we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, as a symbolic wakeup call to attune ourselves to the spiritual drama that unfolds around us every day. The shofar gives shape and tone to our experience of life’s most precious moments and reminds us that there is so much in life we cannot control. We are told to calibrate our lives to the shofar’s call as we prepare for the spiritual encounter of Rosh Hashanah. In the ram’s song, its soulful blast vibrates in the chambers of our hearts, waking us up to the fragility of life and teaching us to respond with love and awe in each other.  

As the holiday season falls upon us, we begin the journey, like the ram, up the winding paths to Moriah, where each of us allows ourselves the space to break down life to its most basic elements. How will I be in the coming year, and where will life take me? In the Unetaneh Tokef, we encounter God at the peak of the mountain. The author imagines us passing before the open gates of heaven like the sheep of the herd to be counted by God. As we take our turn before God, like the ram, we become our most vulnerable selves by laying bare our successes and failures. We look at our lives and see that that we don’t own them outright because we are entangled in the lives of other people. We look again and see that there are so many things over which we don’t have control. In that Moriah moment, we give ourselves over, like the ram, to the flow of the world. 

At Moriah’s peak, we are the ram, giving ourselves over to a higher purpose. This act of giving over is a sacrifice where we draw nearer to both God and the world. In the Torah, the ritual of sacrifice is an act of substitution. The idea of substitution typically moves us away from the realness of life. Most of us have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry that your mother died.” Instead, we substitute, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The substitution makes the experience of death palatable by backing away from the harshness of death. 

In the akedah, however, as with other sacrificial rituals, the move is exactly the opposite. In Hebrew, the word korban, which means sacrifice, shares the Hebrew root with the word karov, which means to draw close. This act of substitution in the akedah draws us nearer to, not further from, life’s most powerful truth. Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today, when we commit an act of sacrificial prayer, through our meditations and rituals, we say that we are willing to engage with the realness of life. We come to know that our lives, like the ram’s, are enriched when we view our days on earth as an offering — a gift — to be shared with the universe.  

Which leads us to the last crucial point about who we are and who we should be. It was the ram who went to the altar to spare Isaac’s life. An act of substitution such as this is what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah, for faith and for the covenant. The final teaching of the ram is that it is not enough to climb the mountain on the High Holy Days and realize that our lives are embedded in an awesome universe that we cannot entirely control. We must take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. As we draw close to God through the ram’s korban, our joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. To take up the shofar’s call is not only to feel the wonder of the world, but to feel its pain. The babes of others, even those we consider our enemies, deserve our tears as much as do our own children. To understand what it means to be the ram is to understand that we as Jews have a global responsibility to leave our sacred enclaves and go out in the world and stand in the breach of injustice.

This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in one another’s horns. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, but a call to partnership with God in the messiness of life. 

In one last midrash, the rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. The second is larger and more powerful, heralding the coming of the messianic times. Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. As we take our journey up to Mount Moriah on this High Holy Days season, it is time to wake up to the spiritual drama around us, realize that we are all bound together in life, and focus our minds and hearts on hearing the messianic call of a better tomorrow.


Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

In Dutch shechitah ban, Jews see a sign they are unwanted

A few streets over from the bookstore where Anne Frank bought her famous diary, the only kosher butcher shop in Holland is bustling. Two employees man the long counter at Slagerij Marcus, pausing from chopping meat to sell customers a bit of this or that for Shabbat dinner.

In the wake of an overwhelming vote by the Dutch House of Representatives to ban the type of ritual slaughter required for kosher and halal meat, this butcher shop famous for its handmade sausage is at the front lines of a battle between two competing ideals in Holland: freedom of religion and animal welfare.

What put shechitah, or kosher slaughter, in the crosshairs was an unlikely convergence between animal rights activists and Holland’s far-right, anti-Muslim movement.

The Party for the Animals is interested in banning all forms of what it considers inhumane slaughter, while the Freedom Party led by firebrand Geert Wilders is interested in making Holland inhospitable to Muslims. For Wilders, who in 2009 called Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture,” the impact on shechitah is collateral damage.

“It’s a shift from the Netherlands as an open society to the Netherlands as a closed, monocultural society,” said Joel Erwteman, a Jewish lawyer who helped Dutch Jewish leaders draft a position paper opposing the slaughter bill. “It’s becoming completely normal to talk about Muslims as being a problem.”

Kosher slaughter seems secure for now—the Parliament is on recess until September, and approval by the Dutch Senate, a key step for the measure to become law, is no guarantee.

If the ban does pass, Jewish leaders plan to challenge it in court, arguing that the guarantee of freedom of religion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights precludes banning shechitah. The law also could be amended to make an exception for kosher slaughter if it can be proven that no additional harm is caused to animals by killing them the kosher way.

And if that fails, Dutch Jews easily could procure kosher meat by importing it legally from nearby countries.

But for many Jews in the country, the most disconcerting element of the drive to outlaw shechitah isn’t so much the legality of kosher slaughter per se but the symbolism of Holland’s move to outlaw a basic element of Jewish life. It’s a sign, some say, that after 400 years of a Jewish presence in the Netherlands, the traditions of the country’s approximately 40,000 Jews count for little.

“Do I want to be in a society that acts like this?” Erwteman said. “I don’t think many of us are feeling very welcome right now.”

Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, president of the Dutch union of rabbis and chief rabbi of the country’s Inter-Provincial Chief Rabbinate, said the proposed law reflects the growing feeling in Dutch society that religion is something to be feared, or at least kept at arms’ length.

“They put it on the level of fairy tales,” he said of religion, while elevating animal rights to an article of faith. “They can be so fanatic that they care more about the animals than they do about the feelings of the people.”

Jacobs, who says that some 500 Dutch Jewish families keep kosher, worries that the shechitah ban is the first step on the road to an eventual prohibition against circumcision. He noted that the prospect of a ban is especially disturbing for Holocaust survivors because the Nazis imposed a ban on shechitah as one of their first acts after invading the Netherlands in 1940.

Esther Voet, editor of a Dutch Jewish newsweekly called Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad, said playing the Holocaust card to criticize the legislation has not endeared the Dutch Jewish community to lawmakers in The Hague, the more conservative city about 45 minutes south of Amsterdam that is the seat of Dutch government.

“We damaged ourselves with that,” she said. “That’s an emotional response. You should lead this discussion from reason.”

Voet said opposition to the bill would have been stronger had the community’s liberal and Orthodox factions unified more quickly in opposition.

Still, the Jewish community did bring out the big guns to stop the legislation.

Britain’s chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, addressed the Dutch Parliament on June 16, and Cornell University food science professor Joe Regenstein wrote a report rebuking the opposition’s claims that kosher slaughter causes undue suffering to animals.

The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Simon Wiesenthal Center, World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International and the Kosher Certification Service jointly sent a letter to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying that the bill would “cause unacceptable harm to the religious freedom of the Dutch Jewish community.”

Among the 30 parliamentarians who voted against the bill were several non-Jewish members of religious political parties. One of them, Esme Wiegman of the Christian Union Party, visited the kosher slaughterhouse to see for herself how the animals are killed.

Wiegman told JTA that Dutch politicians who are not religious have a difficult time grasping the centrality of religious rituals to the lives of the devout. She said the move to outlaw shechitah was a matter of religious freedom for all, not just for Jews.

“It isn’t a problem of a few people,” she said. “It’s a question for all of us.”

There are several kosher stores in the leafy Amsterdam neighborhood of Buitenveldert, near the city’s world trade center and cluster of skyscrapers.

Daniel Bar-on, the 22-year-old who owns the kosher meat restaurant H’ Bar-on, said he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to continue providing his customers with a diverse set of kosher options. The ritual slaughter bill, he said, caught him by surprise.

“We’ve been doing it for so many years, and no one’s ever had a problem with it, and suddenly all Holland wants to get rid of it,” he said. “I never thought it would ever get this far.”

The initiative against shechitah was the brainchild of the fledgling Party for the Animals, which holds just two seats in the 150-seat Dutch House and one in the 75-seat Senate. The far-left party argues that stunning an animal is more humane than the razor-sharp knife used in kosher slaughter. A representative told JTA that the party’s leader, Marianne Thieme, was unavailable for comment due to the legislative recess.

The animal rights party framed the debate as a stark choice between the mutually exclusive goals of religious freedom and animal welfare, Erwteman said.

“Do you think that an animal should suffer more because of the religion of the person who killed it? That’s the way they phrased it,” he said. “I think most of the parties felt compelled to answer that question with no.”

About 500 million animals are slaughtered in the Netherlands each year. Of that number, about 3,000 are slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut and about 1 million are slaughtered according to the laws of halal. Both styles of slaughter would be banned under the proposed law.

Holland is not the first European country to consider banning shechitah. Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Switzerland already ban kosher slaughter, though they all allow the import of kosher meat.

The question now is whether Holland will join that club.

Should we ‘roll the dice’ on untested Obama?

The pretentiously messianic Sen. Barack Obama would be comical, except many people vote apparently not for president but for debate team captain. While partisans argue unconditionally for Obama or Sen. John McCain, both candidates are, as in any election, flawed. It isincreasingly unlikely the imperfect McCain will win, but he should. And he still could.

There has been a liquidity crisis, which means the dysfunctional credit markets collapsed temporarily, not forever. When people lack confidence in economic calculation, the economy paralyzes. Meanwhile, the Iraq War has improved, so General Obama’s opposition to the surge is discredited, another reason he neatly changes the subject.

Stocks were sold as if the world is coming to an end. The media encouraged fear of an economic Armageddon, consequently, a political panic ensued. The schizophrenic McCain campaign — Obama is wonderful, no, risky — has been slow to adapt. People do not understand what has caused the economic mess. They want change. This inescapable synergy tilts toward Obama, who is mindlessly applauded when he boasts he was for change first, as if he defined a profile in courage.

The common misconception fed by the infatuated media is: Wholesale deregulation by the Bush administration is the culprit. In reality, most Democrats and some Republicans share a long history of irresponsibility. The machinations are largely creatures nurtured in government test tubes, broken, the virus highly contagious. History is thus: Government intervention, per Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, actually exacerbates instability.

Without the collusion, if not the encouragement of the feds, these mortgages would not have been given to poor credit risks — unknown income, no down payment. But the federal government, via its quasi-governmental agencies known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, subsidized the loans, assumed the risk. Fannie and Freddie should never have been created. President Bill Clinton expanded their charter.

A few years later, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said we should not ” fix something that wasn’t broke.” She praised “the outstanding leadership” of Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines, who subsequently left in disgrace but with $90 million of bonuses after an accounting scandal.

Obama is the largest recipient ever of campaign money from Fannie/Freddie, which generously supported mainly Democratic Fannie and Freddie defenders like Senate Finance Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and his House Financial Affairs Committee counterpart, Barney Frank. Frank resisted reform: “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.”

Do we now similarly “roll the dice” on the untested Obama? We do not know much about Obama. He portrays his community organizing as altruistic. In fact, he parlayed those community contacts into a political base.

Ambition is not bad. Own up to it. More to the point, Obama affiliated with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church not because of its spirituality but because of its politics.

I cannot say Obama hates America or Jews, but Wright, in my opinion, hates both. That someone as bright and curious as Obama could attend Wright’s church for so many years, where his sermons were available on tape, and not know what Wright was/is about is implausible.

Obama used Wright and his church for political volunteers, voter registration and turnout then this year opportunistically discarded him. Obama succeeded as a go-along, get-along Chicago machine politician, not as an anti-establishment reformist.

Voters confuse Obama stagecraft with vision. He is articulate and confident but also glib and cocky. This is not a humble man who knows what he doesn’t know. This is someone who earlier this year dismissed Iran as a threat because it, unlike the former Soviet Union, is “a small country.”

The Soviets, precisely as a major power, acted rationally; the doctrine of mutually assured destruction deterred nuclear war. Iran has no such inhibitions, professor Obama: Such small rogue nations are temperamentally capable of a nuclear first strike.

Readers of this newspaper are interested in Israel. We know McCain is absolutely solid. Obama is, at best, evolving. For example, immediately after his American Israel Public Affairs Committee speech endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Obama abruptly reversed himself.

If Israel were under attack and its prime minister called the White House at the proverbial 3 a.m., who would you want at the other end of the line? If you’re for Obama for other reasons, that’s fine. But don’t say it’s because of his position on Israel.

Many voters see Obama as an agent of change, when he, in fact, is an ideologue — most left voting record in the Senate. In a centrist nation, the favored Obama is much, much farther to the left than the struggling McCain is somewhat to the right.

On the economy, maverick McCain would be more likely to take on the establishment. McCain had warned more than two years ago, “American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system and the economy as a whole.” As even the liberal Washington Post editorialized, Obama was AWOL.

Obama had an undistinguished record as a part-time member of the Illinois Senate, where he often voted simply “present.” Then in his brief two years in the U.S. Senate, he has never taken on his party’s leadership. Unlike McCain, Obama does win the congeniality award not because he worked in a bipartisan way but because he never made waves.

The unqualified Obama communicates well; the qualified McCain communicates poorly, and communicating is a qualification. But when the American economy requires seismic change to compete in the global economy, who will adapt? McCain — long pro-change record — or Obama — short anti-change record?

Who would be more likely to embrace a Smoot-Hawley Tariff associated with the Great Depression — protectionist Obama or free-trader McCain? An economic corollary: If you think education reform is essential, do you want McCain, who champions innovation and supports school choice, or Obama, who is beholden to the teachers union and opposes school choice?

Obama has not run anything, met a payroll or served in the military. No Obama legislation or even bipartisanship. Admittedly contentious, McCain has challenged his party’s leadership, even worked collaboratively with opposing Democrats who, until recently, praised him.

For the economy, the present cure could be worse than the disease, unless down the line we get the government out of the banking business. McCain can do that. He believes in limited government, low taxation, economic opportunity and growth.

Obviously, we can’t bet the farm on Obama.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

In Quest for Meaning

Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.

When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.

From a scientific viewpoint, “finding meaning” means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.

Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.

As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man’s role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.

The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?

Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.

But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.

I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.

Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption — the basis of all sacrificial rituals — may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.

But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.

How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known — the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?

The truth is: I don’t, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions — however essential for cognition — are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.

Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?

I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac’s binding): “And God tried Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.'”

I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.

What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that — and all on account of some imagined sound saying: “Abraham! Take your son….”

But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle.

Sacrifices Address Emotion of Guilt

The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.

The Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”

Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.

Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.

Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?

The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect.

At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.

But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.

Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.

Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.

These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one’s character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.

Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.


A Letter

To: My vegetarian husband

From: His guilt-ridden wife, who keeps falling off the vegetable cart

We are both rabbis. We’ve studied the same texts. We’ve turned the same verses over and over, examining them like gems under a magnifying glass, full of refractions of color and light. We both understand it was only after Noah’s sacrificial offerings God said, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses.” The sanction on eating meat given the moment after God realizes, “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” Perhaps that was the violence God saw Noah’s generation commit? The carnivorous drive of both man and beast which horrified heaven so that the ducts of the deep were opened and the land welled over with torrential tears.

We have both turned over the verse, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” In this week’s Torah portion, the verse follows verses on sacrifice, festal offerings and choice first fruits. Biblical scholars understand it to be referring to ancient Egyptian sacrifices, not necessarily how we prepare our food. But we’ve also drunk from the Talmud, and been fed by the commentators, who understand it as a prohibition against cooking milk and meat. We’ve encountered into the fences built around that law.

You remember all the late nights when I was finishing my rabbinic thesis, “Animal Sacrifice and the Continual Offering in the Second Temple Period.” In my studies, I learned that the deep-rooted instinct to sacrifice grew out of basic archaic taboos on eating flesh, and the need to reconcile mortal frailties with the gods upon whom man believed his well-being depended. After the flood, meat-eating is God’s concession to an imperfect mankind, and man being acutely aware of his imperfection, and ashamed before the Creator for his hunger for flesh, attempts to elevate the entire process, legitimizing it by turning the animal into an offering. God, apologetically, is invited to the table. I remember what Jacob Milgrom wrote in “Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology”: “Man will have meat for his food and he will kill to get it. At least let us not let him dehumanize himself in the process.”

I remember when we were dating, I felt ashamed when I had a hot dog. I would have a stick of spearmint gum, like a smoker, before seeing you. When I was pregnant, I wanted my body to be like Eden for our child, where only the fruit of most trees and the green of the earth were food, where there was no killing — an idyllic serenity of species cohabiting. But my body craved more iron than spinach could provide.

I love that there are never bones in our kitchen. I love that when you take me to kosher vegetarian restaurants, I can close my eyes and point to anything on the menu and know it will be fresh, healthy and good. The children wake to the smell of kosher vegetarian bacon. Chicken-less nuggets are packed in their lunches.

I try, when confronted with a burger to remember the starry eyes of the little cow in our daughter’s book: “It’s time for sleep little calf, little calf. What happened today that made you laugh?” I try to eat low on the food chain: fish before chicken before beef. And then Friday nights the preschool presents trays of savory cholent.

In the end of this week’s Torah portion, it is written, “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel … they beheld God, and they ate and drank. The gods of Uruk were served two meals a day. Giant feasts were dedicated to the goddess of Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the gods were served even grander feasts, which would then provide food for the entire staff and sometimes the whole city. Here, instead of throwing themselves upon their faces in reverence, the Israelite leaders also play host, inviting God to the table.”

Judaism is a step-by-step religion. It awaits no superhero, but commands the efforts of our own hands. It recognizes our yetzer hara (evil inclination), and teaches us to harness it. It understands we crave meat and instead of saying don’t eat it, commands us to not mix death with life, to separate out the blood which is its life force, and to not mix it with milk which represents birth and life. To mix them is to accept the world as it is. Fragmented, haphazard, where people die suddenly or too slowly, too young, death and life at random. Rather, we separate them, indicating everything should happen in its proper time. To everything there is a season. And some day, God-willing, there will be that final season, when every day is Shabbat, when we reenter Eden.

Until that day, I repent, and attempt, and repent, and attempt again to express my adoration, God, for Your wild, bristling and breathing world. Until that day, when the lioness with the heart of a lamb will lay down peacefully with her lamb, who has the giant heart of a lion.

Read Rabbi Jonathan Klein’s response in First Person on March 3.


Door to Holiness

So what’s with the blood on the doors?

In this week’s Torah portion of Bo, we learn of the final steps leading up to the liberation of Israel from slavery in ancient Egypt. On that fateful night, God dealt the final blow to the Egyptians by smiting the firstborn of each of their households while sparing the firstborn of the Israelite households — precipitating total Egyptian surrender.

"They [the Israelites] shall take some of its blood [of the Paschal sacrifice] and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses…. When I see the blood I shall pass over you; there shall not be a plague of destruction upon you when I strike in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:7-13).

A simple question: Did God really need a sign on the door in order to know which home was inhabited by Israelites and which not?

Well, the suggestion goes, perhaps God didn’t need any extra demarcation, but you know, with it being such a busy night and all, perhaps the Malach Hamavet (Angel of Death) needed that extra marker while making his sweep through the neighborhood.

But let’s be real about this. This is not some scene out of a Hollywood movie where the wrong guy is taken out at the wrong time. Surely the real Angel of Death doesn’t use painted street addresses to locate his mark.

So again, what’s with the placing of the sacrificial blood on the door? And for that matter, why the door? Why not the window, the stoop or the rooftop?

Let us take a moment here to analyze the concept — the symbolism — of a door. The door creates privacy, in addition to providing shelter and protection. The door is what separates the public person from the private person, the external self from the internal self. In the privacy of one’s home is where all of the facades and inhibitions tend to fall away, allowing the best (and sometimes the worst) of what a person has to offer to come to the surface.

By way of example, some people can be very patient on the outside — all smiles and cheerful when in public, and yet, when they come home, it’s moody-broody time; no patience for the kids, no tolerance for the spouse, not a smile anywhere in sight. On the other hand, some people can be very quiet, withdrawn, reserved and uptight when in public, but barrels of fun and laughter when within the confines of their own homes. The door is where that transition — from the superficial "you" to the real "you" — tends to take place.

Our Judaism asks of us: What sort of doors do you have? What transpires on the inside of those doors? Is there a spirit of sanctity and holiness on the other side of that threshold? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Are there kosher products in the cupboard and in the fridge? Are the Shabbat and Jewish holidays celebrated therein with joy, meaning and depth? Are words of Torah shared? Are prayers recited? Only you and the Almighty truly know the answers to those questions.

There is a great deal of discussion about how Jews ought not shy away from behaving as Jews on the outside (as well there should be), but sometimes it behooves us to address the issue of not being lax with our Yiddishkayt on the inside — where it really counts.

The Talmud tells us that "there was a great custom in Jerusalem" that whenever a family sat down to a meal, they would tack a cloth on to the door of their home. This served as a sign to all strangers and passersby that it was mealtime and that anyone who was hungry or so desired was welcome to walk on in and partake with them.

What is posted on our proverbial doors? Do we have a symbolic "welcome mat" at the door, or is it more like a "do not disturb" sign? Do we welcome the opportunity to be hospitable and benevolent to those in need of comfort, friendship or sustenance? Or do we (figuratively speaking) slam those doors in the faces of rabbis or needy individuals who seek entry to the sincerity of our hearts?

One of the most beautiful and enduring of all biblical precepts is that of the mezuzah, which is posted on the right doorpost of a Jewish home. The mezuzah testifies that this home is truly a Jewish home; a home where holiness, modesty, decency and goodness are a way of life — even (if not especially) behind closed doors. The mezuzah represents God’s presence in the home as well as His protection over all who reside therein. It is not merely a nice Jewish ornament. Indeed, if we only appreciate the mezuzah for its facade — its external appearance — rather than its internal spiritual meaning and we’re not too overly concerned about whether the scroll contained therein has been scribed in accordance with the Torah’s instructions in that regard, then we’re missing what it is that a Jewish door is all about. A Jewish door is where the facade is supposed to end and where truth and authenticity are supposed to begin. It’s not what the mezuzah case looks like that’s most important; it’s what’s inside that really matters. What is the true essence of the matter?

So, what was the significance of the Israelites’ marking their doorposts with the blood of the Passover sacrifice? It was not an address or a door marker. It was their testimony that they were truly ready to leave Egypt. They were devoted — inside and out — to God and to Moses, indeed to the point of self-sacrifice. And that was why their homes were truly untouchable by the Angel of Death. For the blood on the doorpost was there — not for God’s benefit or for His messenger’s benefit — but for the benefit of the Israelites who finally understood what it was that separates Jew from Egyptian. It’s all in the door.

True Meaning of Sacrifice

Now that my daughter is 11-weeks-old, I am beginning to understand the true meaning of the word “sacrifice.” At seven in the evening when I have finished working a long day and I would like to sit down for a meal with my husband, instead we take turns entertaining our daughter. That is sacrifice. At two in the morning in the midst of a dream which I would love to continue, instead, I muster up my strength to feed her. That is sacrifice.

The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban, which literally means “that which draws one close (to God).” In ancient times when the Israelites wanted to appease, thank, petition, or apologize to God, they would offer an animal or food sacrifice of their choicest animals or crops to God. In this way, they believed, God would draw near to them and they to God.

So, too, when I reach out my arms and focus my heart toward my daughter, I not only draw closer to her, but also to God. I begin to step out of myself and see the world through her eyes while appreciating God’s world. As I nurse her in the early morning light I sing the words “Modeh Ani” — a prayer thanking God for returning my soul and my daughter’s soul to our bodies in the morning. As I marvel at her growth, I chant “Asher Yatzer” — a prayer that thanks God for creating our bodies with openings and closings that work miraculously throughout the day. As she transfixes her eyes on her favorite red, white and black rattle-worm, I notice the diversity and beauty of God’s colors in the world.

Being a mother has enabled God to call out to me in ways I never heard before. This week’s Torah portion also begins with a call: “Vayikrah el Moshe Vaydaber Adonai eylav mayohel moed — Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). The rabbis ask, “Why out of all people does God call out to Moses?” The Midrash suggests it is because God knew that Moses was able to join together the Jewish people with God. The quality of uniting people’s egocentric tendencies with God’s outward nature allowed Moses to be the successful leader he came to be. So, too, the natural presence of an infant who unintentionally challenges our self-absorbed inclination, allows us to see beyond ourselves to the Ultimate Other. To appreciate the little things in life, which are truly big things, that we take for granted: like waking up in the morning, being able to eat and seeing the world’s colors.

Being a new mother stirs up many fears. Will I have the patience when she cries? Will I have the time to interact with her after a long day? Will I know what to say or do when she is hurt? Offering up a korban, a vehicle that brings us close to God, illicits similar questions. Will I have the patience to build a relationship with God? Will I spend time to engage in that relationship? Will I know what to say and do when God challenges my faith?

In a sense, when we parent, we renew the commandment of offering a korban to God. We begin to see beyond ourselves to those around us, and ultimately to God. We each become Moses by bringing the Jewish people and God together, one person at a time. For all these reasons and more, I thank God for my daughter.

Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.