7 Haiku for Parsha Vayikra (in which your sin is dealt with) by Rick Lupert

Any good book starts
with a long discussion of
animal innards.

A fistful of fine
flour – we’ve come so far in
how we measure things.

Deep fried, gluten free,
and no honey – This is how
the Lord likes to eat.

Reading this is like
going to medical school.
P.S. Don’t eat blood.

We use every part
of the disassembled bull
to atone for sin.

Why do animals
have to pay for human sin?
He sprinkles the blood.

Why do animals
have to pay for the ancient
sin of Jewish guilt?

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.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Words to the whys at your seder


This week, in many synagogues around the world, we begin to read a new book, Sefer Vayikra, Leviticus. Here we are taught: “No meal offering that you offer to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11).

The two times the Torah forbids leaven (chametz) is in this verse referring to the altar and also on Passover. What is the link?

According to Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, in his “Ha’emek Davar,” leavened bread is the human attempt to add onto the natural state of creation. The closer we stand in our relationship with God, the less we need to manipulate nature. The altar was in the Beit HaMikdash — the dwelling place of God’s presence on Earth, a place of intense proximity. There is no need for our chametz intervention. Likewise, with Passover, we bind our souls to God as we eat the “Bread of Faith.” There is no need for extra tinkering.

As Vayikra, in ever a slight way, turns
our attention to Passover, let us jump in
with a few holiday-related gems to share at the seder.

Paying for Hope

Buying Chanukah candles and paying for the four cups of wine on Pesach are the only mitzvot that require a poor person to sell their clothes, if need be, in order to be carried out, according to Jewish law. Why only these two items?

Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner explained that at the root of this law is the notion that every poor person must know that even in the middle of their darkest hour and their darkest exile, God brings light. The promise of Chanukah and the hope of the four cups, both of which celebrate pirsumei nisah, the publicizing of the miracle, underscore the point that in the moment when things are most difficult in our lives, we are going to find that salvation.

In the Kiddush, we say that Shabbat is first among our holy days and is “a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.” What does this line mean?

The bodyguard of the Seer of Lublin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, shares his take: The amazing power of the Exodus is imbedded with the ability to help us transcend above levels that we couldn’t ordinarily attain. So the beginning of a great and triumphant renewal starts within the darkness — moments when we thought all hope was lost. Right at that moment, God says, “Hold out your hand, and I will help you move to places you never dreamed possible.”

A Holy Effort

Why does wine have its own distinct blessing? We don’t make a separate blessing on the meat or the chicken that’s brought out later. Rav Chaim Zeitchik says it’s not because of wine’s precious value. I’m sure that we could find a rare food that has a higher dollar amount, perhaps caviar.

You know what’s precious about it? Dvar mitzvah habaah mitoch yagiyah chashoov. Something that comes through work, a process, is more important, much more powerful. The blessing upon wine is special because it took work to get to it. You take grapes, you have to wait for fermentation, you have to press them out in order to bring it to your wine cup.

Something is much greater when you get it through effort. It is for this same reason why the beautiful stones the priests wore in the temple are mentioned last out of all of his clothing in the Torah. According to the tradition of the Talmud, these stones came to us via the clouds. In other words, they were a freebie. We didn’t work to get them and therefore they are less precious to us.

 A Roman Custom

At specifically placed times throughout the seder, we recline by leaning to the left. The Talmud mentions a pragmatic reason for this: so that we shouldn’t choke. The rabbinic tradition favored another reason, and that is that reclining is a symbol of our freedom.

Rabbi Norman Lamm asks a great question: Why did we adopt a symbol of freedom that was synonymous with the Romans, especially given that there are so many beautiful Jewish customs and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Look around. Our seder is incomplete. We are missing the korban Pesach, the Passover offering, which was the highlight of Passover in the ancient Temple. We are missing so much because the Romans laid waste to our divine abode. We went into exile because the Romans sent us into exile. And so, ironically, we recline to display a great remembrance, a zecher l’mikdash. We remember our Temple while those who ravaged it no longer are here. 

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015). He also holds the record for the longest continuous Torah class at 18 hours.

Vayikra: Modern Sacrifices

This post originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

As a vegetarian since the age of nine and an on-again, off-again vegan, I wrestled with this week’s parsha, Vayikra, which offers detailed instructions for animal sacrifices.  How do I understand sacrifices (and those who argue that these practices will return during the Messianic period) with my commitment to not eating or harming animals?

Rabbi Brad Artson puts the ancient practice into context. He writes in The Bedside Torah, “Our ancestors turned to animal sacrifice because they saw in it a way to express deep rage, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt. They could, through sacrifice of animals, see their own frailty, their own mortality, and their own bloodiness” (p. 169).

And, sacrifices still offer meaning to us in the 21st century. He explains, “in our age, a period of sanitized religion and everyday violence, the practice of our ancestors has something to teach. And so we read Sefer Va-Yikra, and learn to see our fears in the eyes of an animal going to the slaughter, in the cries of the victim of sacrifice” (p. 169).

Every year, worldwide, 77 billion  land animals (3.7 billion in the US in 2014) are raised and killed for human consumption. It’s a violent process, that arrives to consumers in sanitized, neatly wrapped Styrofoam trays.  Unlike the ancient Israelites, we are not seeing these animals–in the words of Rabbi Brad Artson–own frailty, their own mortality, and their own bloodiness. Torah teaches us to have compassion towards animals and not cause them any pain (tza’ar ba’alei chayim). Dr. Richard Schwartz, writer, activist and President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America argues, “Deeds of compassion and kindness toward all creation are of greater significance to God than sacrifices: ‘To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice'” (Prov. 21: 3). 

How do we reconcile our Jewish values when we eat meat from animals raised on industrial farms where they are crammed into tiny spaces, have zero opportunity to express natural behaviors, are pumped with antibiotics, treated cruelly and/or fed an unnatural diet, even if the meat is certified kosher?

We need to reflect on our roles and responsibilities as Jews to address animal suffering, whether we are carnivores, vegetarians or raw foodies. Rabbi David Sears, Director of the Breslov Center of New York argues, “The Torah espouses compassion for all creatures and affirms the sacredness of life. These values are reflected by the laws prohibiting cruelty to animals and obligations for humans to treat animals with care.”

Rabbi Sears continues, “The establishment of higher humane standards is a moral undertaking for which we, as willing participants in the system, must take responsibility. Implementing change is certainly within our reach. The real question is if enough people care.” We each can ensure that farm animals do not suffer pain (tza’ar ba’alei chayim) through actions and changes in the political realm, our homes, and our institutions.

Kashrut and the humane treatment of animals do not need to be in conflict. If you eat meat, know how and where your meat is raised.  Kol Foods and Grow and Behold offer kosher, humane, pasture-raised meats.

Slow Food USA is hosting a “Slow Meat” gathering in June. It’s a great opportunity to bring a religious perspective to this important conversation about improving how animals are raised.

Learn about The Humane Society of the United States’ Factory Farming campaign, which has successfully advocated for animal welfare improvements in both the corporate and legal realms.

Reduce your meat consumption by taking the Meatless Monday pledge and/or become a Reducetarian.

Delve more deeply into these issues  and become an advocate in your community with the excellent resources on the Jewish Vegetarians of North America website.

The dish I prepared for this week is inspired by salt.  “And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt, and you shall not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices” (2:13). Yes, salt was used for sacrifices and is part of the process of kashering meat. But, as a vegetarian, I have a multitude of uses for salts from beans to grains to salads.

I love salts; I collect different flavors and colors of salts from around the globe! Making flavored salts was borne out of my desire to fully use lemons, rind and all.  Having arrived to the East Coast last week, there are no lemons in season here now. Fortunately, I had stocked up on some from the La Cienega Farmers Market before my cross country trip to enjoy on the trip.

The gorgeous translucent pink salt that I used for this recipe is from Hawai’i. I received it as a gift from a fellow Slow Food USA delegate at Terra Madre last fall. It’s not for sale anywhere;  the salt has been harvested by families for several generations for personal use only.

PS: Instead of the lemon that I used in this recipe, you can try other ingredients such as orange rind, rosemary or lavender.

Vaykira Lemon Salt


  • 1 medium lemon rind
  • 2 heaping tbsp salt (try to use a coarse salt)


1. Peel the lemon rind and remove the white pith.  Save the fruit and juice for another use.

2. Leave the peel out in a sunny spot to dry out for at least a day. If you don’t have time, place on a tray and put in a toaster oven. “Bake” until dried out, approximately 10 minutes.  Be careful because smaller pieces can burn easily.  It’s fine if the fruit skin turns slightly brown; it actually adds a delicious flavor.

3. Place the rind in a blender and turn on high. Blend until finely ground (time will vary on the strength of your blade). You might have to scrap the sides to ensure uniformity of sizes.  Enjoy the wonderful aroma as you blend.

4. Add the salt to the ground rind and blend for 10-15 seconds to mix together well.

5. Pour into a jar and keep in a cool, dry place for use.  The flavor and scent of the lemon reduces after a couple of months, so it’s best to enjoy while fresh.


Torah portion: The meaning of life

Great thinkers have important things to say about the meaning of life. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, it was that “man is a political animal.” Aristotle basically points out that we are social beings and that we tend to congregate in groups, such as families, villages and city-states (the Greek polis). 

Karl Marx, an early-19th-century German thinker of Jewish descent, claimed we are fundamentally economic beings. For Marx, man is the producing animal, the manufacturing animal. Crudely put, it’s all about money and material resources, and history is nothing but the arena in which the owners of material resources subjugate and oppress the disenfranchised.

For Friedrich Nietzsche, life is all about “the will to power.” According to the German philosopher, we all strive, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate, to achieve power and dominion over others. Whether it’s about political, economic, social, intellectual, religious or scientific power, we all compete against each another for the attainment of power over others. 

For another guy — a Jew by the name of Sigmund Schlomo Freud — we are all foundationally erotic beings, and the libido, the primordial sexual drive, once sublimated, is at the core of any notable cultural or civilizational achievement. 

So you see, all of these seminal thinkers are certainly onto something. Each of them stresses one central tenet of the human experience, and sees it as primary and overriding. We are indeed social beings (as Aristotle implies), economic beings (as Marx insists) and sexual beings (as Freud describes). And we also compete for status and power (as Nietzsche observes).

The Torah recognizes all these different facets of life as central and important. “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” (It is not good for man to dwell alone), states the Almighty in the book of Genesis (2:18), essentially endorsing Aristotle’s contention that we are social beings. 

The midrash wisely suggests that if the erotic drive (yetzer harah) were to be eradicated, “No one would build a home, get married or pursue a career,” thereby affirming the validity of Freud’s emphasis on man as an erotic being. 

Lastly, “If there is no bread, then there is no Torah,” our sages teach, recognizing Marx’s view that in the absence of what he calls “economic infrastructure,” cultural and spiritual achievements are severely undermined.

And yet, as valid and central as all these worthy insights are, something is missing here. 

Here’s a clue, offered by Forbes Magazine, when it published in 2011 the amazing findings of a social survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Organization at the University of Chicago. The results listed 10 professions that make their practioners “most happy.” The following are the first eight of those 10.  They are, in descending order of reported satisfaction and fulfillment: clergy, firefighters, physical therapists, authors, special education teachers, artists and psychologists.

What do all these professions have in common? They are all about touching and enhancing the lives of other people. They are all about giving to others. Interestingly, some of these professions also are known to be significantly undervalued in terms of monetary compensation. So why do many who practice these professions report such high levels of happiness?

The answer lies in the very beginning of our parsha:

“And God spoke to him [Moses] … saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Adam ki yakriv …” (Leviticus 1:1). The Hebrew phrase “adam ki yakriv” contextually means “when a person brings forth an offering.” The word “ki” in biblical Hebrew can mean “should” or “when,” but it also can mean (as it does in modern Hebrew) “because.” 

In other words, the verse can also be read as: “A human being — because he offers, because he brings forth, because he renders [others] closer [to their inner core, to Torah, to God Almighty].” 

Essentially, the book of Leviticus is offering here an audacious perspective as to what constitutes the good life, the elevated life, the rewarding life. According to Leviticus, to be fully human, to be a truly evolved and fulfilled person, is to be a giver. That’s why the people whom we admire the most are people who give so much of themselves for the advancement of Jewish and human welfare. 

Think about an individual you truly admire. I don’t mean a great athlete, or a movie star who was blessed with extraordinary talent. Think about someone you truly aspire to emulate, in terms of that person’s character or way of life. Think about someone you really look up to, and think to yourself: “I want to be a little bit like him.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, you will see that such a person is a giver. 

The art of giving is the key to a good and meaningful life, asserts the book of Leviticus. This message is crucial for our individually focused culture and generation. Perhaps it is more pertinent to us than to any previous generation in human history. Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.

A divine call to action: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.

As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.” I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I didn’t have any other plans. But why was he worried?  He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel, they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out, “We need four for a minyan—four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”

These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words, “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses,” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.

The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one, who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.

The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the midrash comments:

“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down Manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, and caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory, and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now; to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.’ ”

If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?

Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?

Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?

Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?

At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.

This column originally appeared in 2004. 

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Filling a Gallery With Faith

As you approach the Barbara Mendes Gallery on South Robertson Boulevard, you know you’re in for an experience. The brightly colored, psychedelic exterior of the little gallery in the SoRo neighborhood doesn’t cry out Jewish art, and neither does the gallery’s proprietor at first glance. Barbara Mendes looks every bit the ex-hippie, from her tie-dyed clothes to her funky glasses, but when she opens her mouth and starts chattering about kashrut and the Tehillim, you realize that you’re speaking to a woman who’s been on a journey to finding her very Jewish self and her Jewish art.

“My life is a thread of miracles,” Mendes said, smiling broadly. “I was always an artist … by the time I got to kindergarten, I was, like, take me to the art corner.” Her first miracle, she said, was that her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in art schools, where she thrived. Although her parents were Jewish, they didn’t give her much of a Jewish education, and religion wasn’t stressed in her household.

After graduating from high school, Mendes embarked on a career as an independent comic-book artist under the nom de plume Willy Mendes. Her comics, now included in numerous anthologies, show the groundwork of the style, with its intricate details, psychedelic motifs and bright colors that now mark her paintings.

“What’s interesting is, searching for spirituality, look how mystic this is,” Mendes said, pointing to one of her early comics, “but shame on me … Hindu!”

So how did Mendes move from a self-described spiritual seeker who leaned toward Buddhism and embraced hippie culture to become a practicing Orthodox Jew? According to Mendes, it started with a wall. “I was painting a mural on Fairfax, and a guy said, ‘Excuse me to stop you, but I want you to paint my synagogue.’”  

Mendes was intrigued. She’d never painted a synagogue, never really done much in the way of Jewish art, but she figured that because she was Jewish, she’d accept. When Mendes found out the synagogue she’d be painting was the Pinto Torah Center — a Sephardic congregation dedicated to outreach and Torah study in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — she knew that a strange force was at work. “The Mendeses and Pintos are like this,” said Mendes, weaving her hands together to show the closeness of two of the most prominent Sephardic families in the Americas.

After getting reacquainted with her Judaism, Mendes, who’d had two children with her first husband before divorcing, met her second husband and started going to yeshiva on her own four nights a week.  “I became religious late in life, at age 45,” said Mendes, now in her 60s.

 “Once I began learning and once I attended a year of the Torah cycle in the synagogue, I did a Bereshit mural to celebrate.” That mural started Mendes on a path that took her through painting out Shemot, and now to Vayikra, a mural-sized oil painting that serves as a centerpiece in her gallery’s current exhibition, “Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year.”

Mendes’ Vayikra mural is stunning in its size and detail. Stretching 16 feet wide, it illustrates pictorially every passage of the Torah portion. Everything from the laws of kashrut to the rules about whom the High Priest can marry is sketched out in intricate vignettes. The painting took nearly three years to complete, Mendes said.  

Several other artists join Mendes in the exhibition. Sarah Devora Podolski created two variations on the Star of David. Rae Antonoff shows off some very impressive micrography, creating scenes featuring biblical women drawn by writing words from their stories in tiny Hebrew. Rae Shagalov’s work is mainly calligraphy, much of it drawn from inspirational teachings from different rabbis. Aharon Aba ben Avraham’s work draws heavily from rabbinic tales. And Freda Nessim has some clever takes on God.  

Most interesting, other than Mendes’ work, is that of Yorum Partush. One piece, a sculptural wall-hanging dedicated to Partush’s deceased brother, includes a tallit and more than two dozen real shofars. Partush’s other piece, which references the Holocaust, includes tefillin boxes, barbed wire and working lights, weaving them into an installation that evokes the trains that were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.

“Jewish art is not like contemporary art,” Mendes said.  “Contemporary art is saying, ‘These are my deepest feelings; I hope you’re interested enough to want to have them in your house.’… We’re offering interpretations of the religion that we share a love for.”

Mendes is proud that the majority of artists in this show are women. “Judaism is the royal road,” she said. “However, 5,000 years ago there was a different perspective of women, and I do not submit to that view of women. 

“As a woman-run gallery, you’d better believe I give a voice to women,” Mendes said. “I’m also interested in being a role model to young women because I’m deeply disturbed by the larger culture,” she said, referring to the world outside her Orthodox community.

“I’m a fan of pop music. Some of these songs I just love, and I belt them out when they come on the radio. Love ’em!  ‘Starships!’ ” said Mendes, referring to the hit song by Nicki Minaj.  

“But, oh my God, when I saw that woman performing on the video, I was horrified, because this is burlesque. … It’s fine, but not for my granddaughter.”

Mendes hopes that her current exhibition portrays a much more positive image. “I wanted to start the holiday season going and involve the whole Jewish community in ‘Jewish Art in Elul,’ ” she said, smiling. “Since each Jewish artist is giving a visual expression to how they feel about Judaism … maybe it will inspire the viewer to see that their own take on Judaism and the religious process is also valid.”

“Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year” continues at the Barbara Mendes Gallery, 2701 S. Robertson Blvd., through Oct. 12 For hours and other information call (310) 558-3215 or (323) 533-6021.

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 (tbala.org). In July, she will become the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif.

Engraved Ideas: Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed written by Marisol Leon, a young woman who graduated from Yale in 2007 and returned to teach in the same public middle school she had attended:

“‘Think Ivy League,’ pleaded Mrs.  Anderson, my English teacher. ‘Ivy League? What is that?’ I wondered. I was in the seventh grade that day, a student at Mount Vernon Middle School in mid-city Los Angeles. I stood there in awkward disbelief as Joan Anderson explained the notion of elite colleges to me. I knew hardly anything about colleges: Neither of my parents finished high school. But my teacher understood that, and by the time I graduated from Mount Vernon, she had made certain that I was committed to going to college. Wednesday was my first day back at Mount Vernon, which is now Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. I am a seventh-grade English teacher, placed here by Teach for America.”

Leon describes how she was inspired by her teacher and how she inspires her students by sitting them in groups of four. Each group is named for a different role model, and a picture of that role model hangs above each group with a quote on the back. For example, on the back of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s picture is the quote, “The world is not going to change unless we are willing to change ourselves.”

Inspiring people is as old as history itself. How do we inspire people to do right rather than wrong? An answer is found in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion: “If you will go in My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3). The word for decree is bechukotai, which gives the name to this portion. This word is usually associated with chukim, the nonintelligible laws that are beyond man’s total grasp, such as the laws of the sacrifices.

The Baal HaTanya, the 18th century founder of Chabad Chasidut, wondered why the Torah referred to the commandments by the word bechukotai, the laws that seem to us to be nonintelligible. He noted that the word actually has another meaning — chakika, engraving. To appreciate this point, he explains that there is a big difference if one uses ink and writes on parchment or if he engraves the words into a stone. With ink and parchment the two items are separate entities, never fusing into one. It is similar to one who puts on clothing. The clothing may rest on the person, but they never become one entity.

When it comes to engraving, however, the words etched into the stone are part and parcel of the stone. It is for this reason that this is the word used in describing Jewish commitment, and, if you will, Jewish spirituality. What counts isn’t what is on the surface; it isn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling. What matters is that which is engraved down deep and into the heart of the Jew.

The Shlah, one of the great kabbalists of the late 16th and early 17th century, noted an oddity that deserves our attention. In this week’s portion we have the Tochacha, frightening verses of retribution that describe what will happen to us if we don’t follow the commandments of the Torah. Before the end of the Tochacha, the Torah declares, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).

The Shlah wondered why the Torah placed this seemingly comforting verse inside the Tochacha rather than after it concluded. He insightfully suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the best ethical lesson we can ever receive. They stare us in the face, if you will, and tell each of us, we too can follow their example. We too can be devoted to God and Torah just like they were. We too can engrave the Torah on our hearts and not make it a superficial experience.

Every generation needs its outstanding teachers who will engrave the message of our Torah onto our hearts. Our eternal teachers are our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived challenging lives and yet remained loyal to God’s calling.

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

Sacrifices and a Sliding Scale

My wife met a pastor’s wife on a plane. Every few months now, we have Darren, an evangelical pastor, and his wife, Amy, over to our Shabbat lunch table.

I talk about how our Shabbat sometimes feels too regulated, and he talks about how their Sabbath sometimes lacks enough structure to be meaningful. We share with each other about the rewards and challenges of the ministry and the rabbinate.

A few weeks ago, as we talked about the difficult economy, I realized I know little about how an evangelical church structures its finances, so I asked him, “How do churches make ends meet? How does membership work in your congregation?”

“To be a member, one needs to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior, and then there are ways for people to participate in the community,” the pastor replied. “For making ends meet, we ask members to tithe. There’s not much about tithing in the New Testament, but it’s in the Old Testament pretty clearly.”

I was struck by two things: First, membership is about your faith, not dues. Second, here was a modern church without minimum fees.

Tithing may be an important biblical concept, but can a congregation rely upon its members to voluntarily give 10 percent of their income to pay for things like utilities, salaries and health insurance for its employees, much less programming and worship services? I was skeptical whether such a voluntary system really provides for the ongoing financial needs of a modern congregation.

“Does it work?” I asked.

“Some people give 3 or 5 percent, but yes, we make ends meet,” he replied. “How does it work in the Jewish community?”

I was almost embarrassed to tell him.

“We have membership and dues to join. It’s anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 to join a synagogue. For the wealthy, there are mailings and special solicitations to ask them for more. For people who can’t afford it, we hope they will come forward and ask for special consideration. When they do, of course, we make it work for them to give whatever they can.”

“Is it embarrassing for people to need to ask to pay less?” Amy asked innocently.

“Yes,” I said. “At any one time, fewer than 50 percent of Jews affiliate with a synagogue. I think it’s hard for people to ask for a discount, so they just don’t join because it costs too much, and they don’t want to go through the humiliation of needing to ask.”

The first chapter of Leviticus offers three options for how we can give a sacrifice for God: a bull (Leviticus 1:3), a male sheep or goat (Leviticus 1:10) or turtledoves or young pigeons (Leviticus 1:14). It is safe to assume that the Torah offers three different levels of giving because not everyone can afford a bull, or a sheep, or a goat, but turtledoves and pigeons are plentiful (they are at my local park). It is a sliding scale.

What matters most to God is not how much one can give — the fire of each offering is described as “a sweet fragrance to Adonai” — but that one gives what one can. The rich, the middle class, the poor — each are equal because each does his/her share by giving what she/he can.

It saddens me how foreign this approach feels when I think about modern synagogue life. Darren didn’t need to point out to me the irony: Jewish texts gave the world tithing and a sliding scale; his church uses it, while our synagogues don’t.

Rashi asks about the smell of the poor person’s offering. The Torah says the smell from the burning feathers of a bird is “sweet.” “Really?” he asks. “Its feathers? Is it not true that there is no person who smells the odor of burning wings who is not disgusted? So why did the Torah say, ‘Burn it as incense?’ So that the altar will be satisfied and glorified by the offering of a poor person.”

In his book, “Da’at Torah,” Rabbi Yerucham Lebovitz explains we feel good being in the company of those who are rich and dress well and who are clean, and we feel the opposite in the company of one who is dirty and whose clothes are torn. Our instinct is to move away.

Lebovitz writes, “The words of Rashi teach us that we need to move closer to dafka [just such] a person, to help his hand and to show him a joyful face. Of course, one is not permitted to show him even a bit of repugnance at what caused others to move away. Even more, we are obligated to honor him, because the Shechinah of God’s honor is with him as it says, ‘I will dwell, with the oppressed and low of spirit’ (Isaiah 57:15).”

God’s altar must be glorified by the offering of the poor. Is our altar glorified?

As a community, do we move toward, not away, from those most in need? Does God’s presence dwell in our synagogues amid the oppressed and low of spirit? How many of the 50 percent of American Jews unaffiliated with synagogues stay away because to join, they must ask to give less and explain themselves?

Cynicism has its place — if people were allowed to pay dues according to a sliding scale and we trusted them to pay according to their income level, it is sad but true that many would pay less than what they should. But should our synagogue membership structures be built on skepticism? Can we trust ourselves and God to implement (or even try) a sliding scale?

How do we close the gap between the current structure of modern synagogue life and the vision of religious life offered by our own Jewish texts? If Darren and Amy can do it, why can’t we?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California (ramah.org) and the Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

Small Sacrifices

This week, we begin "Vayikra," the first book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. This section of the Torah is filled with many fascinating and important Torah concepts that we can relate to, including the laws of lashon hara (the prohibitions against speaking ill of others), kashrut (keeping kosher) and the well-known phrase: "Love your fellow as yourself."

One concept in this week’s parsha that some of us have difficulty understanding is that of korbanot (animal sacrifices) that were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. You might ask, "How would the ritual sacrifice of an animal on the Temple altar help me atone for my inadvertent sins?"

Let’s start at the beginning. The very beginning. Sages tell us that during creation of the universe, Adam and Eve were created last to teach us the nobility of man as well as humility.

How does creation teach us these two concepts? Though it may not be politically correct, in Judaism, all things are not created equal. We are taught that there is a hierarchy of creation, and in it, man reigns supreme. God first created inanimate objects, followed by plant life, animals and, finally, man. Only mankind was created in the Almighty’s image and only man was given a divine mandate by God. Only man has the ability to choose freely between good and evil. Only man was put on this world to study the Torah and fulfill God’s commandments.

By serving the Almighty in this way, we perfect our souls, control our base instincts and elevate even mundane tasks into holy ones. Thus, mankind was created last in order to show us that all of creation was prepared for us — and is here to enable us to accomplish our noble purpose of serving the Almighty. If, on the other hand, we don’t live up to our potential and don’t fulfill our divine responsibilities, then we become in a sense less than the animals.

Animal sacrifice is a reminder that we are not equal, that we are elevated above all creatures and that we need to behave in a way that befits our status. Consequently, the act of sacrifice should bring us to repentance and regret.

The feelings of compassion we have for the animal being sacrificed remind us of our special role and can motivate us to repair the spiritual damage our actions have caused. This can be the noblest of all human endeavors, for only mankind can make a conscious decision to change himself and not act solely on instinct. Only man has the ability to break bad habits, change one’s attitudes, responses, and behaviors and thus elevate himself.

Furthermore, the concept of sacrifice becomes even clearer when we look at the actual translation and mistranslation of the word "korban." Korban really has little to do with sacrifice and much more to do with the Hebrew word karov (to be close). One didn’t just pay for the animal, sacrifice it and expect to be absolved. Part of the process of getting closer to God also included viduy (confession), sacrifice and self-examination.

This teaches us an important practical lesson: Sometimes people feel they have to sacrifice to live a religious life. In fact, the Almighty doesn’t expect us to sacrifice but rather wants us to make the right choices to bring us closer to Him.

People don’t say, "I sacrificed watching the ballgame to see a beautiful sunset." Rather they say, "I chose the sunset and as a consequence, I didn’t see the ballgame." So, too, we shouldn’t say, "I sacrificed going shopping to keep Shabbat," but rather, "I chose to be close to God by observing Shabbat, and the consequence was that I didn’t go shopping."

Studying about korbanot can help us remember our nobility and purpose in this world, while helping us re-prioritize so that we don’t "sacrifice" to serve God but attempt to come close to Him with joy instead.

May we be successful!