August 18, 2019

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Vayikra with Rabbi Diane Offenberg-Rose

Rabbi/Cantor Diane Offenberg-Rose is a Jewish Universalist Rabbi serving the Los Angeles region.  She was a music teacher and conductor before becoming a Cantor and then a Rabbi, with a Bachelor’s in Music Education and a Master’s in Conducting. Her work is focused on stepping back from Jewish teachings to find the Universal lesson within that can help all people (Jewish or not, religious or not, spiritual or not) lead more peaceful lives.  She was ordained as a Cantor through the American Seminary for Contemporary Judaism and as a Rabbi through Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute.  She is the spiritual leader of Cool Shul (Kehillah Sababah) in Los Angeles, where most people call her “Rantor” (Rabbi/Cantor).

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) – is the first portion of the book of Leviticus. The portion introduces the sacrificial service and describes five different kinds of sacrifice. Our discussion focuses on the relevance of the sacrifices described in the parasha (and of the book of Leviticus in general) to our lives today.



Previous Torah Talks on Vayikra

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein



TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Acharei-Kedoshim

Screenshot from YouTube.


And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn 
Yeshivat Yavneh

These verses reflect a slight deviation from the normal God-to-Moses, Moses-to-the-nation format. Usually it says, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them ….” Here it says, “Speak to the entire assembly of the children of Israel and say to them….”

The Midrash explains that Torah normally was taught via the hierarchical methodology, from God to Moses to the people, but this Torah portion was transmitted to the entire group as a whole.

This approach seems to create an even bigger problem: If the hierarchy method was generally preferred, why abandon it now? And if the collective method was ideal, why wait until now?

Perhaps the answer is the von Restorff effect — also known as the “isolation effect” —  which predicts that when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, the stimulus that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered. The theory was coined by German psychiatrist and pediatrician Hedwig von Restorff (1906-62), who, in her 1933 study, found that when participants were presented with a list of categorically similar items with one distinctive, isolated item on the list, memory for the item was improved.

We can suggest that the hierarchy method was pedagogically most effective. However, in order to make the values of Kedoshim stand out, something uniquely different had to be done. Therefore, the method of instruction changed.

The question I leave for you to think about is why the von Restorff effect was needed for Kedoshim?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple

Kodesh. A word we will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand. Ramban quotes the rabbis: “[This] Torah portion was stated in an assembly because most of the fundamentals of the Torah are dependent on it.” Whatever Kodesh means, it connects to living in the midst of others. Ramban explains: “Wherever you find restriction of sexual immorality, you find holiness.”

These “immoralities” are aberrations of the Torah’s essence that we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (aka The Creator). There is, ostensibly, an inextricable connection between our sexual expression and our deepest expression of our understanding of the Creator. What is the connection between our sexual self-expression and our spiritual health? In an age of rampant sexual dysfunction and prurient news headlines, is all of this a collective spiritual crisis?

Perhaps the dictum “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” is a reminder of the mundane miracle born by our sexual appetites. We are like giants, creating small and wondrous acts of creation: children. Raising them, we approach the essence of God’s mystery and embody the God character in the Bible.

The examined life of parenting is a realm of radical amazement. The child discovers their own small joys and their place on this earth, and we are challenged to our deepest core. Perhaps Kedoshim is a call to reconcile the truth about our sexual appetites — they are portals for our holiness journey. Live them truthfully and (w)hol(l)y, or perish.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

A human being is not a soul trapped in a body, rather a merging of the two. Each needs the other to reach upward toward their Creator. That pursuit creates holiness, which is our reason for being, to transcend this world and encounter God.

Make no mistake, we can never be as holy as God because we are trapped in time and space, which is God’s creation. He is Other, beyond and inconceivable. Since we are made by God, God has an intrinsic interest in us. You love what you make. Be it your song, your business, your child or your idea. God is no different. In fact, God re-creates us (and the universe) every nanosecond, so can you imagine how special we are in His eyes?

God wants us to relate to him, so he gives us three arenas to do so: time, space and ourselves.

Space being the Land of Israel, where his presence is most palpable and no other land compares. It contains the skylight to Heaven. Think Jacob’s ladder. Time being Shabbos and all the holidays. These are opportunities where closeness is at hand just because of the calendar day, which is programmed with spiritual gifts.

And, ultimately, it is us who use the mitzvot of the Torah and exert heroic human effort to transcend time and space in order to connect to the Creator. Holiness is our opportunity and a destination equally available to all of us. Use this world and find your Creator.

Sydni Adler
Student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University

When I hear the word “kadosh” or “holy,” I hear Ziony Zevit reminding my rabbinical school class once again that “sacred,” “holy” and “kadosh” all mean “separate.” To be holy is to be wholly unique.

When God asks the entire people of Israel to be holy, God is first asking us to delve into our particular abilities to do good in the world. In our parsha, God commands us to revere our parents, to keep Shabbat, to judge the other fairly, and a whole host of other moral and ritual commandments. However, God does not provide many details about how to fulfill these commandments. God leaves that to each individual’s own creativity, resources and ability. When God asks us to be holy, God is also asking us to commit to our communal uniqueness. By refraining from worshipping idols, by celebrating Shabbat, and by eating and cutting hair in certain ways, the people of Israel show our dedication to one another and to God.

Perhaps most importantly, taking on holiness brings us into a closer relationship with the Divine. By putting ourselves in spaces of individual and communal creativity, we better appreciate God’s successes and challenges in creating the world. As we simultaneously revel and struggle in our endeavors to keep mitzvot, we conceptualize God’s swinging emotions throughout the Torah. By learning from each other’s unique personalities and problem-solving abilities, the people Israel, God and we as individuals can come closer to a more perfect creation.

Rabbi Erez Sherman
Sinai Temple

Are we involved in holy work? Recently, I have had the good fortune of teaching Torah outside the walls of Sinai Temple. Our clergy have dispersed throughout greater Los Angeles, teaching Torah to our congregants in their offices over lunch.

We often think holiness must be confined to a sanctuary or synagogue building. Yet, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai engage in this exact talmudic debate. While Bar Yochai is under the impression that we must be in formal Torah study each moment of every day, Rabbi Yishmael lives in the real world — our worldly endeavors are, in fact, Torah study itself. We have the words of the Torah on our mouth each morning and night as we recite the Shema, a reminder to live a holy life.

As I learned this text first with a group of doctors, and then with a group of lawyers and business people, I was impressed to discover the underlying principle of this parsha as a thread through our sacred community. Well-established doctors, lawyers and business people, when asked if there were holy moments in their days, responded with a resounding “Yes!” The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “There is no evil in the world, just the absence of goodness.” One small act of holiness a day … just imagine how good and holy our world can be.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Tazria-Metzora

Screenshot from YouTube.


All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Congregation Dor Hadash, San Diego

The priest served as dermatologist and healer of the people. He would diagnose a mysterious rash on the skin or prescribe the necessary rituals when individuals came in contact with the natural life transitions of sex, childbirth, illness or death, rendering a person ritually impure.

These rituals reflect an important dialectic of the “I” and the “we” of the people. Every person had to look out for himself or herself, carefully scrutinizing bodily changes and coming to the priest to assess the situation. The community would then have to recognize such occurrences were part of society. Tzara’at was a scaly affliction that could occur in the stones of a house, in clothing or skin, and was highly contagious. The metzorah was in a temporary state of ritual impurity, a statement of fitness for ritual participation, not a moral condemnation.

The text is silent on the “why” of the fungus, but its inclusion in the Torah normalizes it. Only when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after criticizing Moses did the rabbis assign the affliction the cause that negative speech is a contagion that if not contained, can infiltrate the very bedrock of the community. Whatever the cause of a person’s isolation, it could happen to anyone, and it wasn’t permanent. The communal imperative to care for others is embedded in this text. No one should be isolated more than necessary — for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community. How we take care of one impacts the other.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

The rabbis of medieval times did not quite know what to make of the esoteric Torah portions of Tazria-Metzorah, which deal with ancient skin ailments. After all, what is the eternal pertinence for future Jewish generations of such a disease? Why is it in the Torah? Our sages came up with a creative twist. Namely, that the word “metzorah” carries a linguistic affinity to the Hebrew words “motzi shem rah” (the one who destroys the reputation of another person).

In the age of social media, many people are often “socially executed” without trial. People are convicted in the courts of Facebook, Twitter and Google, without due process or evidence. In the absence of legal proceedings, lives can be destroyed.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner proposes that we understand this verse in the context of the rabbinic hermeneutical principal of “midah keneged midah” (measure for measure). Those with reckless minds and hearts who linguistically shed the blood of others by globally shaming and defaming them online based merely on rumors — in the absence of viable witnesses and evidence — ought to be excommunicated from the public arena for a period of time.

The message is clear and pervasive for all of us who spend hours every day online facing an inanimate screen. Words can wound. Words can kill.Words can shame and tarnish reputations. Words can shatter lives.

We must think hard, think long and think deeply before writing something about anybody online.

Bruce Powell
de Toledo High School

The rabbis taught that “metzorah” is really a contraction for “motzi shem rah,” or one who brings the bad name. They believed that one of the punishments for lashon harah, or evil speech, was leprosy, a disease which called for one’s isolation from the community.

The rabbis also taught that “machloket b’shaym shamayim,” or disputes in the name of heaven, resulted in the uplifting of community. For example, even though the Academies of Hillel and Shammai argued continuously, all of their disputes were in the name of heaven, the result being that the children of Hillel and Shammai would continue to marry one another.

Today, I often sense that disputes in our community, whether they be in the political realm, financial realm and so forth, deteriorate into people bringing “the bad name” upon one another. These toxic conversations create social “leprosy,” thereby isolating friends and even family members from one another. They often become so heated that people are perceived of as being politically “unclean,” and thereby are no longer allowed to “dwell within the camp.”

I believe we can, as a community, end this current “plague” of political or social “leprosy.” May we bring only the “good name” upon each other; and may we continue to dwell together, to marry one another, and to eradicate isolation from our world.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar

What does it mean to dwell alone? Is it to her benefit? That she can heal and return to the camp? Or is it for others’ benefit, so that they don’t catch her leprosy? Leave aside for a moment the idea of being “unclean.” Peel away the layers of this verse (forgive me for using this analogy in a section of the Torah traditionally dealing with skin disease), and we see that its centerpiece is a person dwelling alone (badad yeshev).

More than ever, the idea of dwelling alone touches us. Those of us who don’t live alone, know increasing numbers of people who do. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 28 percent of households have just one person living in them — up from 13 percent in 1960. Some live alone by choice, but many who live alone would prefer not to live alone.

Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav’s spiritual practice of self-seclusion, or hitbodedut, comes from the same Hebrew root as badad, meaning alone. Ironically, one of the major purposes of hitbodedut is to talk to God. It raises the question: Are you ever really alone? And if you are alone, does that mean you are lonely?

Within the Jewish community, there are more single households than ever. Some wring their hands over this, but isn’t it better to celebrate the expansion of what the ideal Jewish household looks like? Cookie-cutter household configurations no longer carry the day. And besides, Reb Nahman would probably say, “Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean you are lonely.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila,
Sephardic Educational Center

There is nothing more divisive to a society than gossip and slander. Those who misuse and abuse the power of speech create divisions among people, often leading to irreparable damage.

Ancient Jewish society attributed leprosy as a physical punishment for spreading lies or rumors. The distinguishable physical blemishes all over the leper’s body were a sign that this person spoke lashon harah, and much like lashon harah is a plague upon a society, so, too, this individual with leprosy is a plague upon society.

Like all physical impurities in the Torah, there are ritual measures taken to rid the person of the impurity. But with lepers, there is one special measure that is unique to their impurity: “He (the leper) shall dwell alone.” Both the Talmud (Arachin 13b) and Rashi ask why this extra measure — banishment from the camp to “dwell alone” — is unique to the leper: “Because just as he caused separation between husbands and wives or between good friends with his lashon harah, so, too, he should experience separation from his community.”

While modern-day society no longer attributes leprosy to lashon harah, the virulent strain of gossip and slander persists in our society. We might heed the Torah’s advice and banish those who divide us with their words to “dwell alone.” Today that would simply mean shutting down their Twitter account.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Shemini

Screenshot from YouTube.


And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

Rabbi Dvora Weisberg
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Because this instruction follows directly after the death of Nadav and Avihu, whose offering of “strange fire” led to their death, some commentators read it as an indication that the two were intoxicated when they brought the inappropriate offering. But I wonder if the prohibition against drinking on the job might instead reflect a realization of the stress experienced by the priest in his leadership role, and the temptation he might feel to self-medicate.

Consider the role assigned to the priest in Leviticus. He must distinguish between “sacred and profane, unclean and clean.” His work involves endless judgments about the status of objects, animals and fellow human beings. He must declare people ritually impure, sometimes banishing them from the community for a period of time. The priest’s work brings him face-to-face with death and suffering, with failure and disease, each of which he must name and proscribe. Such work is draining and emotionally challenging. Would it be surprising if a priest sought to forget what he saw at work, or steeled himself against the pain by arriving at the sanctuary slightly buzzed?

The Torah does not require that the priest abstain completely from alcohol. It does insist that he be fully present when he enters the Tent of Meeting. When we encounter the Divine Presence, we must be fully present. Extending that idea, we should strive to encounter human beings, reflections of the Divine, in a state of awareness and attentiveness. Only then can we recognize what is sacred.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha

Whereas many traditions emphasize faith, Judaism focuses on behavior, on actions that lead to understanding. Not just words. Here, drinking is forbidden in the Tent in order to distinguish between sacred and profane, clean and unclean.

Boundaries. Distinctions. For Jews, not for others. What is unclean for us may be fine for others, but we must act within Torah guidelines to understand deeper the differences between what is for Jews, and what is not.

Everything is holy, but not everything is Jewish. There may be holiness in the Catholic rituals of Communion, in the ecstatic practices of the Ayahuascero with his tribe, or in the physical sacrifice of the Lakota Sundance ceremony; but these are not our way. Our pathway is specific, our boundaries clear. This text teaches us to stay true to our instructed practices. And if we are clear in our “Jewish path,” then maybe we can truly appreciate the beauty of others.

Think of it this way: Every spiritual path is like a different color. Judaism is blue, Catholicism is purple, Islam is red, Shamanism is green, and so on. All are sacred, but if we just casually mix them all together, we get a murky, ugly brownish gray. But when we are true to our paths and respect others, we create a rainbow filled with the colors of God.

Let’s be true to living Jewishly through the Torah’s instructions, and in so doing be part of creating a rainbow in God’s exquisite painting of life.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

We Jews regularly sanctify Shabbat and holidays with wine. Thus, commentators are quick to point out that this passage is not meant as an absolute wine prohibition, but as a warning against drinking such that it perverts one’s ability to make the distinctions to achieve holiness.

We tend to think of the differences between sacred and profane, (ritual) purity and (ritual) impurity (better translations of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’) as dichotomous realms, raising the goal to rid ourselves of the everyday as the anti-sacred. In reality, however, they are not polar opposites, nor are they of different substance. There is no magic that makes something of and for God.

In Hebrew, the word for between is bein, from the same Hebrew root which forms the forms the word binah, the wisdom of discernment. Human development depends on making Havdalah, a separation, using clear awareness and distinction to recognize that which is sacred and that which is not.

So, we look at two similar things and acknowledge that, despite their similarity, they are intended to be differentiated and held apart. As was taught by our rabbis, “If there is no daat (discriminating intelligence), how can there be Havdalah?” (Talmud Yerushalmi)

That which is holy, set apart for God, is distinguished in mind, word and deed. So, too, is it intrinsically bound in the ordinary, the everyday. It is we who transform the everyday into the service of God through words, through deeds/ritual, and through intentional setting aside and separating.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

To live in reality, without illusions — is it something we want or do we avoid it? The next leaders after Moses and his brother, Aaron, were to be two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. They achieved spiritual greatness on a level we can’t imagine. Yet they blinked at the moment of truth like an astronaut on a spacewalk fatally miscalculating his oxygen reserves.

Nine Torah portions earlier, Nadav and Avihu incurred the death penalty when at the height of a high-stakes experience, an unadulterated vision of God, they did not treat it with the proper reverence. Six months later, our portion, that death sentence was carried out when they drank wine and subsequently performed a self-inspired service in the Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle at a pivotal public ceremony.

The Torah restores their breaches by commanding Aaron’s remaining sons to avoid wine, or risk their lives, while working in the Tabernacle. Additionally, no person shall deduce Jewish law for public use while even slightly inebriated. We are taught two areas where we need to be in absolute reality: our work and making life decisions for others.

The Talmud delineates three characteristics that define a person: how they handle their drink, money and anger. Drinking is a measure of one’s self-discipline. The Torah is signaling to us that mindset matters. There are many people who are always “on” with total focus and others whose lives are nonstop frivolity. We must find a balance. The choice is ours, as are the consequences.

Rabbi Noam Raucher
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center

In a few chapters this verse can be re-read to foreshadow the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Considered punishment for doing exactly as God forbids: wanton recklessness with sacred responsibilities. I’m not suggesting that the punishment fits the crime. But the Torah is clear that powerful people should be careful and guard themselves against intoxicants. The anxiety behind the command is tangible: Will these leaders hold the same high regard that others have for them and/or their office? How can we trust these leaders to take our requests seriously when they can’t even do that with their own responsibilities? How are these authorities supposed to distinguish between the sacred and profane when they don’t even know the difference within themselves?

While the Torah explicitly forbids a liquid drug in this act, it’s worthwhile to consider what other things might intoxicate those of great power. Perhaps it’s domination, wealth or fame. Maybe it’s just the pursuit of more power. We would do well to hold our leaders to a higher standard of behavior. A standard that guards against intoxicating the very office they hold during the pursuit of something other than the greater good. It should be clear that the only buzz coming from their offices should be about the hard work our leaders do to make the world a better place.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Vayikra

Screenshot from YouTube.


“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: “When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.’”

Rabbi Rachel Shere
Adat Shalom Synagogue, Farmington Hills, Mich.

Last year, these words were chanted at our synagogue by a bat mitzvah girl named Shayla. The name Shayla means “question,” and when she was born nearly five months early, the doctors had a lot of questions about her ability to thrive.

The first word of the parsha, Vayikra, is written with an aleph ze’irah. A tiny letter aleph; the diminutive nature of the letter draws attention to the difference between the word with an aleph, vayikra, and without the aleph, vayikar. Without the aleph, the word denotes randomness. With the aleph, it denotes God’s will.

When Shayla was born, her parents asked me, “Rabbi, is this the will of God?” At the time, I reassured them that Shayla’s challenges were not the will of God and that, as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously explained, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian.”

In the 14 years since, as I have watched Shayla’s irrepressible spirit embrace a world of doctor’s appointments, surgeries and unbelievable pain, the clear line I once drew between vayikra and vayikar seems less obvious. Shayla’s strength and bravery feel superhuman; her resilient spirit and luminous smile seem to come from a different world. Perhaps the aleph in vayikra is small not to highlight the difference between vayikra and vayikar, but to remind us that God has given humanity the tools we need to bridge the gap between the two words. For as Shayla said recently, the questions were never really about her, they were for her; and their answers, I believe, are evident in the radiance of her smile.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation

Many Orthodox Jews believe that we will one day return to offering animal sacrifices. As a one-time vegetarian, I contend that the Torah tries to minimize and regulate the consumption of meat and that animal sacrifices belong in the past.

The prohibition of cooking meat with dairy is phrased as “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” to say that the act of eating meat is cruel enough, and there is no need to add to it by cooking the animal in its life-giving liquid. The commandment in Leviticus 17:13 to cover the blood of a hunted animal can similarly be understood as telling the hunter that he has committed a crime and that he must cover it up.

While the annual number of public sacrifices at the temple hovered at around 1,300, the number would have been much greater if people had been allowed to build private altars and make their own sacrifices. The indication of what a future temple would look like is found in the words of the prophets. Isaiah and Micah, Samuel and Jeremiah, along with the book of Psalms all reject the idea of animal sacrifices. Isaiah calls on people to cleanse their hearts and mend their ways, while Micah sums it up succinctly in his final verses (6:6-8): With what should I please God? Sacrifices? Rams? Rivers of oil? If you ask what is good, and what it is that God wants from you, it is doing justice and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

As we enter this book filled with sacrifices, it’s easy to simply turn away. Yet we are encouraged to struggle each year with all the parts of Torah, even (especially) the ones that are difficult to connect to our personal lives today.

The first word, Vayikra (and God called), is enough to spend a lifetime pondering. Have you ever felt called? Was it a whisper for years that suddenly got louder? I was 43 when I began studying for my adult bat mitzvah. During that process, the love of serious Jewish study became more and more compelling. I could not ignore that call to dive deeply into Jewish wisdom — reading, studying, listening. Immersed and feeling led by an unknown but firm pull, I applied to rabbinical school. I could not know at the time the sacrifices our family would make as we left our settled, happy lives in Seattle because of answering this call. We left cherished friends, a home and garden we loved, beloved teachers and students and financial steadiness.

So, yes, every call that you respond to brings both joy and sacrifice. I listened. I’m grateful I did — and now my life itself is an offering. I’m here to say: Slow down. Get quiet. Listen. The Voice is calling out every moment of every day.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

How can we have a genuine God experience as Moses did? Why do we need it?

Our greatest need is self-worth. We have purpose. We matter. The greatest manifestation of that drive is connection to God. We pursue it, perhaps subconsciously, every moment we are alive. We cannot reach God by thinking in platitudes and performing man-made, feel-good activities.  Rather, let’s decode the Torah and learn how.

The Torah is very sensitive to the proximity of verses. We begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, with God calling Moses from the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle in the desert) is a perfectly designed structure to empower each of us to encounter the Creator of the Universe.

The next line in the Torah says: If you want that Divine connection, bring an animal and sacrifice it in the Tent of Meeting, following a specific procedure without any deviation. Why an animal?  Because we need to channel our animalistic desires by metaphorically slaughtering them. Only then can we enter into a pure spiritual realm.

Trying to understand how God created a path to him is like a two-dimensional stick figure trying to conceive of the three-dimensional animator who created it. It’s beyond us.

Currently, the entire sacrificial system is inoperable. But we can derive from it that if we consistently engage in the Torah that is available to us, we can have an ongoing authentic God experience. And that’s what life is about.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am

Two alephs deserve inquiry. Most attention is focused on the miniature aleph at the end of Vayikra that some read as highlighting the often miniscule line between the intentional calling-out denoted by vayikra and the cold, arbitrary happenstance of vayikar, which is how it would read without the aleph. With the slightest of slights, with a whisper of cool, we can degrade intimacy to accident. And, in reverse, by offering just a bit more of our aleph, our ani /I , and being full witness to another’s, we can elevate randomness to sanctity.

Fewer commentators focus on the second aleph, which, according to the Netziv (19th-century Lithuania) converts the utilitarian preposition l’ to the more honoring invitation of el. This is one of only two times in the Torah that God calls out “toward Moshe” using this exact phrasing.  Many other times, God calls “to”/l’ Moshe to beckon him to a place, to instruct him in a task, or to convey essential data. But only twice does God melt the innumerable layers of distance between them and draw him close, almost as if wooing him.

How much wooing and cooing is needed so that relationships endure? Psychologist John Gottman suggests that healthy bonds require five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. The Torah may be hinting at something less numerical and more subtle: Whenever you call to your beloved, child or friend … use your aleph, your infinitesimal-but-real spark, to witness theirs. A little intimacy is often enough. But don’t wait too long to do it again.

7 Haiku for Torah Portion Behar-Bechukotai by Rick Lupert (There are a LOT of Jewish laws)

Every seven years
free the slaves, or better yet
don’t have slaves at all.

This land is your land
this land is my land, but no
this land is God’s land.

Property values
differ inside and outside
the walls. Real estate.

All we have to do
is follow the laws of God
to get many perks.

It doesn’t look so
good if we reject those laws.
Let’s start with disease.

And the Lord spoke to
Moses, laying out contracts
no lawyer present.

Be strong with these laws
these many laws and we are
sure to be strengthened.

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.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora: The burden and gift of empathy

Reuters/David W Cerny

For the past eight years, I have led a study group for physicians from my congregation. Every few months, we get together for good food, some wine (OK, lots of wine) and to discuss issues like medical ethics.

About three years ago, several of the sessions clustered on the idea of whether doctors could have empathy toward their patients. As one of the doctors wrote to me: “Can you (should you) act empathic when you don’t feel it? Is it okay not to feel it? How can you feel it in every encounter when you see 25 patients, one after the next, day after day?”

This week’s double portion, Parashat Tazria-Metzora, very subtly raises these same questions. Of all the weekly readings, these two in the book of Leviticus are by far the most medical, dealing with topics like afterbirth, seminal discharges, skin eruptions, burns and sores. How do we make sense of these conditions? How do the rabbis understand them?

To begin, it is necessary to make an apology. For hundreds of years, religious scholars and rabbis have associated the theology of sin and guilt with that of disease. Often, in order to make a moral point about gossip or some other social ill, rabbis link this section in Leviticus with the text in Deuteronomy where Miriam criticizes Moses and then is struck by a skin eruption. Their conclusion tells us that to be declared tameh (literally unclean) is the same as being unfit ethically. To be sick is to be wrong, and to be debilitated makes you an abomination to both your fellow human beings and to God.

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

One does not have to go far to see the danger in this thinking. How many would-be mothers are made to feel that something is morally wrong with them if they cannot bear children? How many people who have cancer feel that it’s a punishment for some unknowable crime?

When we graft morality too heavily onto purity and wellness, we cause more suffering while ignoring the sanctity of the sick. To be unclean is not to be immoral — ever.

Learning with my congregation’s doctors made it clear to me that they share much with the ancient priests of Israel, actually. The priests of our far-reaching past were twice burdened, first by God to be the caretaker of the Divine-human connection through the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and again by the people themselves, who presented to the priest all manner of physical ailment. The same is true for the doctor who embodies the knowledge of science and then takes that knowledge and encounters real people.

Where they intersect the most is in the realm of human connection, the critical role of empathy. The parallels between doctoring and priestly work, the heady stuff of bearing witness to the most profound moments of human suffering, find their greatest expression in the empathic need for mutual recognition.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin meaning “to suffer.” The patient suffers and wants to be seen as a validated person in the eyes of the sacred authority. The priest/doctor can give validation through empathy, while feeling that they have been given a gift by being cum pati, with those who suffer, for their own life has been validated as consequential. Such is the dual gift-giving of being in service to one another and why the rabbis caution us to treat the sick with dignity and honor, for it is at the foot of their bed when we visit with care and love that God’s presence resides (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 335).

Lastly, we know from Leviticus itself what role empathy plays out in the act of holiness. The central theme of the Holiness Code, found a few chapters later, is that empathy itself leads to holiness. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is one of the great cornerstones of Western morality.

This plays out nicely with those who have been healed from their sickness. After the priest sees them and welcomes them back to the community, a sacrificial rite is performed. The patient is brought to the literal center of the community and anointed in the same manner with the same rituals that anoint the High Priest over the people. Both priest and patient are bound together in this ritual of mutuality.

The ethical stance on sickness found in our Torah is not to see how the ill are immoral, but how those who suffer illness provoke us to become more moral by responding to their suffering in the same manner as the priest — with empathy, patience and care. 

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.

Our beastly selves: Parashat Vayikra

What is a dedicated vegetarian, who is also a believing, contemporary Jew, to make of the book of Leviticus, specifically this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra? From the very beginning of the portion, we are confronted with animal sacrifice, with grisly descriptions of blood and torn flesh, of butchering and roasting — never letting up for the entirety of the portion. 

The Torah is my sacred text. I believe the Torah always offers relevant lessons to all who will seek them. What am I, therefore, to make of Vayikra? I am forced to look for signs of divine metaphor — a poetic theology of hidden meanings, of celestial shadows and heavenly whispers.

I begin my search at the first verse of Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1: “And he called out to Moses, and God spoke to Moses from the Tent of the covenant, saying …”

Immediately, I am moved to ask: Why “Vayikra” (“and he called out”)? And who is “he”? Why not the more prevalent opening, “Vayedaber Y’H el Moshe l’emor” (and God spoke to Moses, saying …”)? 

There is a mysterious, undefined, urgent call. But why the urgency, why the need to call out — why not just speak? 

I believe that humanity itself is the reason for the urgent call: It is our imperative as human beings to confront our dangerous flaws and frailties before it’s too late. We are the guardians of the world, and we are responsible for its well-being.  

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, expounding on the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, identifies various levels of the human soul. He begins with two major categories: nefesh behemit and nefesh elokit — a beast-like soul and a divine soul. 

This theology then breaks down each of those two levels into five rungs, adding up to 10 levels. Symmetry is crucial to all kabbalists: We were created in the image and likeness of God. God has Ten Emanations (the Ten Sefirot); God spoke the Ten Utterances (the Ten so-called Commandments). We who are made in God’s image and likeness have 10 toes, 10 fingers and 10 levels to our soul.

Our creation as human beings is no mere accident — we are meant to be living icons, if you will, walking metaphors of God, a means by which all who encounter us may be reminded of our creator. Even more importantly, the divine attributes we carry are meant to ignite within us a desire to be true to our origin — to seek closeness to God. 

So long as we are distant from God, lost in the exile of amnesia, we are doomed, and together with us, the entire world is doomed. That, I believe, is the reason for the clarion call of Vayikra

Leviticus 1:2 says: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A man, should he offer a sacrifice of you (from you), as an offering to God — from the beast, from the cattle, and from the flock shall you bring near your sacrifice.” 

Why the strange wording? Both the alter rebbe and rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks point to this curious wording, for it would seem to suggest that one is being asked to offer oneself as a sacrifice. 

I also wonder how the second verse flows from the first. If there is urgency here, why talk about sacrifice? 

There are a few possible answers. The first is offered by the actual Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban. The Hebrew is rooted in the word karov (near, close). A sacrifice is meant to draw us near to God. But this raises another question: How could offering up the life of an innocent animal possibly move us closer to God?

The answer to that question may be found through the Alter Rebbe’s explanation of the two levels of soul — the beastly and the divine: Offer up your “beastly” soul as a sacrifice to God. Bring forward your basest, most unyielding, material core, and offer it up on the altar of holiness; burn your inner beast so that it may become a pleasing scent unto God.

It is only through our daily, unending struggle with our beastly selves that we improve step by step. It is only by bringing our darkest, deepest and coarsest element as a gift that we purify and refine ourselves — and through us, the entire world.

As a vegetarian and as a lover of kabbalah, I am deeply moved by the metaphor offered up by the Alter Rebbe. The seemingly gory verses of Vayikra are transformed as I am called to look inward and to offer up my inner beasts. 

And so I read: God cried out to Moses — tell the Children of Israel — the God wrestlers — to offer themselves, their sacrificial core for the benefit of God and humanity.

May our daily struggles with our imperfect souls become a pleasing scent for the entire world. 

Kosher Without Sacrifice? Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47

The most elaborate, comprehensive and effective system for the prevention of animal cruelty was not invented by the FDA or even PETA; it was devised by the Book of Leviticus. This may seem a strange idea. Without question, it swims rather roughly against that trusty river of intuition. Pigeon slaughter is rarely good for pigeons. Bull offerings are not something cows easily stomach. As far as “becoming a sacrificial lamb,” I have it on good authority that this is not what most sheep dream about when they are kids. 

To an untrained imagination, a “bustling Tabernacle” is a strange cross between an abattoir and a synagogue. A PETA activist might describe its practices as “murder in the name of God, differing from the Crusades only by the choice of its victims.” Well, my friends, I believe this is wrong on many counts. 

There is a peculiar phrase that accompanies nearly every mention of sheep, goat and cattle offerings throughout the Bible. In the Torah, where no word is out-of-place and no letter believed superfluous, repetition is a cause of interest, and should never be dismissed as careless writing. The word I refer to is “tamim,” and it means “whole, complete, unharmed, pure, without blemish.” At the start of Leviticus, we read: “A person who brings an elevation offering … shall bring an offering without blemish [tamim]” (Leviticus 1:2-3). Concerning peace offerings, they, too, are brought “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1). Similarly, the paschal lamb had to be tamim, just as the red heifer (parah aduma temima) had to perfect in every way. To bring a blemished animal to the Lord was sinful, and Leviticus states this repeatedly. 

What this meant for any animal potentially destined for the altar is that it could not be harmed, injured or mistreated. Remarkably, if we compare the rules of blemishes to the sort of miseries and maladies routinely inflicted upon factory-farmed animals, something astonishing comes to light. Factory-farmed meat, served in our homes, would never be offered in the House of the Lord. 

Animals that are surgically mutilated or castrated, a regular practice among meat growers wanting more malleable livestock, would be grounds alone for disqualification (Kiddushin 25b). Animals pinioned in cages of their own muck could be disqualified on account of their disgusting odor (Temurah 28b). Most birds and cattle pumped with near lethal amounts of antibiotics to prevent their succumbing to illness would be disqualified for their being sickly (ibid). 

One often reads of meat growers stimulating rapid growth through steroids, genetic chicanery, artificial lighting, hormone-enhanced feed, all in an attempt to get meat faster to market. Such practices would be eliminated by the routine biblical requirement that offerings of sheep, goats or calves be minimally 1 or 2 years old (Leviticus 9:3; Rosh Hashana 10a). A 3-month-old calf the size of an elephant would be barred from the Temple gates.

This week’s Torah Portion, Shemini, shifts away — from sacrifices to general food prohibitions: kashrut. Numerous beasts are prohibited from the hog to the hare, to kites, crocodiles and chameleons. The many (often confounding) dietary laws are often believed to be beyond the pale of rationale explanation, yet that has not stopped commentators from trying to explain them. Historically, there are two well-known schools of thought. One is based on ethics. Laws such as, “Do not stew a kid in its mother’s milk,” and “shooing away the mother-bird,” teach us to be merciful. If we eschew animal cruelty, all the more so, we should eschew cruelty to our fellow human beings (R. Bachaya ben Asher; Ibn-Ezra). Another approach explains kosher laws as a means to teach people “temperance and self-control” (Philo, Maimonides).

In the sacrificial system, each view is valid. To raise an animal fit for sacrifice required both constant discipline and tenderness toward the animal in one’s keep. Farmers sacrificed time and resources to raise fowl, herd and flock. In approaching the altar, both animal and owner had to be tamim.

Today, we live without the Temple, and therefore without the mitigating requirement that meat not only be fit for eating but fit for sacrifice. It happens that in our day, thank God, modern Jewry has ready access to kosher products. Meat, rinsed and salted, is easily obtained. In Los Angeles, with little ado, we order cooked lamb, chicken, beef, bison in restaurants and supermarkets. Yet with so much available, lessons of temperance and ethics fall away. 

“Kosher” means “fit” or “proper,” but how “fit” is an animal when the finest moment of its life was the day its life of misery was ended in a slaughterhouse? Moreover, how tamim are we who celebrate our faith, and sanctify the Lord, by consuming endless plates of chicken and beef in our homes? With several meanings in mind, one might ask: “Can there be kosher without sacrifice?”

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Ziegler Rabbinic School, The Academy of Jewish Religion, and runs an independent Modern Orthodox minyan in Beverlywood. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog,

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,

Learning to live with Leviticus

Growing up, I related to the book of Leviticus and its sacrificial cult with indifference (what’s this got to do with me?) or embarrassment (does God really need us to kill animals, sprinkle their blood and burn their carcasses for ritual purposes?). But over time, I’ve learned to love the middle book of the Torah. Here are two strategies that have made living with Leviticus a rich experience.

First, I learned to leave the indifference and embarrassment behind and provide my ancestors with the same openness, respect and benefit of the doubt that I would lend to the study of any other ancient culture. That opened doors.

Unlike some ancient Near Eastern cultures, the Israelites did not believe that their sacrifices fed the gods. Rather, the sacrifices were designed to stay in right relationship with the one God. (The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root k-r-b, which means to “draw near.”) Our ancestors knew that the power of Temple ritual lies in its symbolic and metaphoric character, much the way ritual functions for us today. Once I knew what I was looking for in the symbols — principles, ethics and the embodiment of a relationship with God — Leviticus became a different book.

Last week and this week, we read about the asham, or guilt sacrifice. Generally, guilt results from purposefully wrong behavior, but the asham sacrifice atoned for unintentional acts, mostly to do with incorrectly performing the Temple rites due to ignorance or simply making a mistake. Such sins introduced ritual impurity in a “purity zone,” often around the altar. Although the act was unintended, the service to God was compromised, and that required acknowledgment and repair.

The asham sacrifice gave the individual and the community a place to deal with a harsh aspect of life. Often people act with the best of intentions, but end up in the place of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

A baseball player hits a ball into the stands, injuring a spectator. One person gets the promotion, and another deserving worker is slighted. Or in cases analogous to ours in the Torah, a person doesn’t know what they don’t know — a teacher misunderstands the lesson and teaches students the wrong information. Or makes a mistake — someone helps an infirm elder, but slips and causes the senior to fall.

In these circumstances, that I wasn’t at fault or that I should have avoided an error is not the most important factor. Rather, the world is not as it should be — “I played a part and I feel terrible about it.” Other than a visit to a therapist, there is no place in our society to acknowledge one’s deep regret.

In these cases, a ritual would serve us well, similar to the way a funeral is important for mourners. We are comforted when our suffering is publicly acknowledged and validated. And whether or not we think this is part of a divine plan, a ritual brings God into our lives at the moment when the perspective of transcendence is most important.

I wish we had a ritual today like the asham sacrifice of our “primitive” ancestors.

A second strategy for living with Leviticus concerns prayer, specifically Musaf, the repetition of the Amidah prayer that follows the Torah reading at Shabbat morning services. The prayers envision the restoration of the Temple sacrifices detailed in Leviticus, a sentiment I do not share. Usually I can find a metaphorical way to understand and pray the traditional prayers that do not resonate with my beliefs, but after 15 years of living in Jerusalem near Jews who would tear down the Dome of the Rock in order to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute animal sacrifice, I can’t even say these prayers.

My solution is to honor the tradition by taking on sacrifice in general and making it the subject of my personal prayer. Now it’s a favorite part of the service, a fitting end to a session of spiritual practice.

For much of the Shabbat morning prayers, I’m cultivating gratitude. I say thanks for the things I take for granted — food to eat, air to breathe, a world of unfathomable beauty, a supportive community, Torah and mitzvot to guide me. I remember how inexplicably lucky I am to have married my partner. I find that place of limitless joy in my heart.

Now it’s natural to respond: What am I willing to give? What will I sacrifice for other people, for the Jewish people, for the planet — in short, for God?

Whatever the answer in a given week, when I act from the place of gratitude it feels just like Elton John sings: “It’s no sacrifice at all.”

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of TorahTrek — The Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism.”

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.

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 (, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

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.

Calling Moses

Jewish tradition instructs that young children should begin their Jewish education by studying the book of Leviticus. Even a cursory reading of the blood and gore that make up the sacrificial rites described in the third book of the Torah would lead most teachers to conclude that these verses would likely be the beginning of the end for a child’s Jewish education.

I imagine children running screaming from the heder as their teacher describes to them, in detail, how an animal is cut this way and that, its blood sprinkled and splayed upon the altar as a pleasing sacrifice to the Eternal. Granted it was a different time, but just the thought gives me nightmares.

To be fair, the tradition actually gives a reason to start a child with Leviticus. Much of the book concerns itself with the laws of purity, and as the midrash explains, “Children are pure, so let them start their studies there” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). Some commentators further explain that we begin with the teaching of sacrifice to remark from the outset that life involves sacrifice. I cannot disagree with the reasoning, but I think there is another, more child-friendly reason to introduce our children to the words of Leviticus — although I would start with just one word, the very first word, Vayikra.

In this week’s portion, Moses stands outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites were commanded to build in the last chapters of Exodus. God’s presence fills the tent. Moses, in awe and reverence, remains outside, along with all 600,000 Israelites, waiting to see what happens next, not daring to enter until summoned. The portion therefore begins, “And God called [unto] Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). The great Torah commentator Rashi teaches that it was necessary for God to call out to Moses because he was outside the tent and God was inside — pragmatically God had to raise his voice to be heard. And so, “Vayikra” — “And God called out [to Moses].”

The last letter of Vayikra is alef, and in the Torah it is written smaller than all the other letters of the word — about half the size. Why?

Imagine you are standing with 600,000 people and a voice booms forth from the heavens calling your name. The first time you hear it, I imagine you would be overcome with terror. But if this is a regular occurrence for you, your reaction might be one of self-importance and arrogance. “The boss needs me again. Sorry guys, gotta go — seems he just can’t run the world without me.” But not Moses; he is humble in the face of all the attention.

How does a tiny alef teach us this? First, the word alef by itself means “to teach,” and it is written in such a way that we can see it as both part of the word and separate from it.

But the deeper lesson is to remind us that Moses saw himself as small, like the aleph — he did not read his own press. Moses does not feel inflated because God calls him. If anything, Moses is humbled that God singles him out in front of everyone. Remember, it was only two weeks ago in our reading that Moses’ humility saved the Jewish people. After the incident with the Golden Calf, God offers to destroy the Children of Israel and find a new people for Moses to lead, but Moses turns God down.

Rashi points out that Moses argues to God that if the Israelites could not survive by the merit of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would never be able to survive by the merit of Moses alone. He says, “If a chair of three legs cannot survive God’s anger, a chair of one leg will stand no chance.”

Maybe we should indeed begin a child’s Jewish education with “Vayikra” — not for the blood and gore, but for the example of humility that Moses provides.

Children so often become the center of attention — they need parenting and guidance, they can’t drive, they need help with schoolwork. That is appropriate and necessary. But just because we make them the center of our world — in an effort to build them into citizens and menschen, and simply because we love them — that doesn’t mean they should think the world revolves around them. Moses was God’s “go-to guy,” and even he knew to wait to be called instead of busting into the Tent of Meeting and demanding an audience. A little alef teaches a big lesson about humility. If Moses, for whom seas part and bushes burn, can be patient and wait to be called on, then so can our children — indeed, so can we all.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (, a Reform congregation in Tarzana.

Old But New

A number of years ago, when my two daughters were 8 and 6, we had the pleasure of spending a family summer vacation in Israel. We stayed at my mother-in-law’s home right near Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. One day while eating breakfast we heard a truck pass outside with a loudspeaker making announcements. At first the words from the loudspeaker didn’t make any sense to us. Our daughters leaned over to the window and listened as best as they could. They came back and informed us, “It sounds like some Arabic message.” My wife and mother-in-law dismissed this as impossible and quizzed them on exactly what they heard. The girls said, “It sounded like ‘Alt zuch, alt zuch.”

After a moment my wife began to chuckle. She figured out what was happening and explained that it was a truck from a free-loan society, or what we would call a Jewish Salvation Army, going from community to community asking if anyone has any old items that they no longer needed. My wife said, “It isn’t Arabic; rather it is Yiddish and they are saying, ‘Alta zachin, alta zachin’ — ‘Any old items, any old items.’”

My daughters began to think what they could contribute. Realizing that they weren’t in their own home they looked at me and out of the mouths of babes came, “Abba, aren’t you an ‘alta zachin’?”

At that very moment I had an epiphany and realized that what we should appreciate the most, often becomes ‘alta zachin’ — old hat, prone to be relegated to that which can be discarded and forgotten. If this is true of people, it certainly is true of ideas that we should hold precious. As we prepare to celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut of the State of Israel, this idea is a reality that we need to note.

The Talmud in Tractate Brakhot 43a addresses this concept in an intriguing way. The Talmud instructs that just as we have blessings for food we also have blessings for wonderful aromas. Among the aromas mentioned is the beautiful-smelling balsam oil. The Talmud states that balsam oil grew mainly in the Jericho area and was unique to Israel.

The Talmud records the following amazing discussion about which blessing should be recited when one smells balsam oil:

“Rav Chisda said to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Regarding balsam oil, what blessing do we recite on smelling it?’ Rav Yitzhak said to him, ‘Rav Yehudah said that we recite, “Who creates the oil of our land.”’ Rav Chisda said in response to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Exclude the opinion of Rav Yehudah from this discussion, for the Land of Israel is especially dear to him. What is the proper blessing for everyone else?’ He said to him, ‘So said Rabbi Yochanan, the blessing is: “The One who creates pleasant oil.”’”

This discussion bothered me. Rav Yehudah, we are told, composed a beautiful blessing for balsam oil, which reflected the fact that balsam oil is a unique product of Israel. Yet Rav Chisda rejected that idea and said clearly that this opinion is too biased since its author, Rav Yehudah, is especially in love with Israel. Rather, he argued, for everyone else the blessing for balsam oil must be generic, not mentioning the Land of Israel at all.

This entire discussion disturbed me because it suggests that Rav Yehudah was too in love with Israel and that such feeling isn’t worthy of being emulated. But is that honestly the message of the Talmud?

I finally understood this Talmudic passage after I read “With My Own Eyes,” the autobiography of Jacob Katz, the late Hebrew University professor of Jewish history. In this riveting work, Katz describes how he arrived in Israel from Germany in March 1936 after earning his rabbinic ordination and doctorate. He recounts that his first holiday in Israel was Passover. He was amazed how in Jerusalem he literally saw people in the streets gather spontaneously and begin dancing, with passersby joining in. He notes that the old timers didn’t really notice this, but here he was, a new immigrant and he wrote, “To me, coming from the Jewish exile, bred to a Judaism carefully contained within the four walls of home and synagogue or, at most, the privacy of a Jewish street, this explosion of Jewish life into every nook and cranny of the city was an exhilarating experience.”

After reading this I finally understood the Talmud’s reasoning for rejecting Rav Yehudah’s wording of the blessing. The rabbis were worried that his formula would allow the populace to take Israel for granted. It would become words recited, rather than a dream yet to be fulfilled. Rav Yehudah, whose love of Israel was so profound, could utter the words, never taking Israel for granted. The rest of us, however, might transform the words into the daily routine, not noticing the excitement of the Land of Israel, and thus we would be taking Israel for granted.

As we celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, this idea must resonate with us for we can never take the State of Israel for granted. We who have witnessed the great miracle of the State of Israel must never forget how blessed we really are.

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

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 For 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.

This column originally appeared April 7, 2006.

Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and the incoming executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

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 ( and the Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

Religious “No!” to Proposition 8

“My Christian friends say homosexuality is a sin. Isn’t Judaism based on the same Old Testament bible?  How does our synagogue welcome homosexuals with acceptance and equality?”
I was substituting for our rabbi in our 10th grade confirmation class.  Homosexuality is not a curriculum subject.  The student asking the question, though, obviously struggled with conflicting messages.
On the one hand, Leviticus says when a man lies with another man like a woman, it is an abomination and they shall be put to death.  On the other hand, the Union of Reform Judaism, the denomination in which our synagogue affiliates, officially responded in 1989 to “gay rights’ as a civil rights issue and wrote a policy of inclusion statement.  
Included in the statement was a specific reference to “gay” and “lesbian” Jews, inviting them directly to become future prospective temple members and potential Reform denomination leaders.  The direct invitation indicated Reform Judaism was officially extending acceptance and equality to previously excluded Jews.  How could Union leaders pass a resolution that contradicts the Torah?  The question is easy to answer.
Reform Jews often do not read the bible literally.  In the Torah (the first five biblical books) the death penalty is mentioned as punishment for a number of crimes no one would implement today.   In Deuteronomy, the ‘wayward and defiant son’ (the teen boy disrespecting parents) should receive capitol punishment.  In Numbers, the Sabbath violator should also lose his life. In these two cases, no one argues the punishment fits the crime.  Why disregard or re-interpret the bible in these instances but take literally the sin of two men engaging in homosexual activity?  
The Torah is a holy document. It is not, though, a perfect work.  Reform Jews believe the sacred books in our literary cannon were written not by God but by people.   In other words, biblical and rabbinic authors may have been divinely inspired but they were still fallible human beings.  The written word, therefore, always reflects human imperfection.  The context of time a text was written should always be taken into consideration. 
Child sacrifices, animal cruelty, and inhumane slavery were inherent features of the pagan cult. In biblical times, it’s easy to understand how our Israelite ancestors strived to disassociate themselves from nations that performed horrific cultic practices.  It is easy, in establishing an ethical monotheistic covenant, to understand how our biblical ancestors could over-state their condemnation of particular pagan behaviors.
Rabbi Bradley Artson, a friend and mentor, is Dean of the Rabbinic School at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.  When Bradley Artson was a student studying to become a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he did an interesting academic project. 
He looked up every reference he could find to homosexual activity mentioned in ancient Greek and Latin writers.  Every citation he found described an encounter between males where one party, the master, physically abused another, the slave.  Rabbi Artson could not find a single example where one partner was not subservient to the other.
“Homosexual relationships today,” Rabbi Artson says, “should not be compared to the ancient world.  I know too many homosexual individuals, including close friends and relatives, who are committed to one another in loving long-term monogamous relationships.  I know too many same-sex couples that are loving parents raising good descent ethical children. Who’s to say their family relationships are less sanctified in the eyes of God than mine is with my wife and our children?”
“We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Reform Jews frequently look to this popular refrain as guidance when making important ethical decisions.
On the one hand, by standing on our ancestors’ shoulders, Reform Jews know we have roots to the past that help place in proper context our visions of the future. On the other, by standing on past shoulders, we can see further and clearer in their horizon’s future than previous generations could imagine.
Proposition 8 is California ballot initiative that legally restricts marriage to only a relationship between a man and a woman, depriving gays and lesbians a state mandated constitutional civil right.  In opposing this ballot-measure, I know I am optimistically standing on firm religious ground. 

Elliot Fein, a graduate of the American Jewish University and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is Education Director at Temple Beth David in Westminster, California. 

Give Her a Rest

Fact: 54 percent of Americans worry about their daily stress levels.

Stress instigates anxiety disorders. Medically categorized as “neuroses,” these nonpsychotic mental illnesses trigger feelings of uncomfortable inner emotional apprehension that dominate perception and impair thinking, judgment and functioning, even though there is no identifiable threat. The stress response to ambiguous danger activates what physiologist Walter Cannon termed “fight or flight.” Hard-wired into the brain, this mechanism releases chemicals from nerve cell sequences for anticipated combat or escape.

Although there is no identifiable threat, more than half our population experiences daily life as if there were. To quote Leviticus 26:18, stress disorders cause us to “flee when no one pursues.”

Deluded to believe our survival is being threatened, we exist in fight-or-flight mode: pulses quicken, blood diverts from the digestive and reproductive systems into hands and legs, and short-term thinking over-rides rationality. “Terror … consume[s] the eyes” (Leviticus 26:16) as pupils dilate in narrowed perception of a reality where anyone may perpetrate. The autonomic nervous system creates “consumption and fever” as flushing, sweating and reduced immunity, and “sorrow to the heart” (Leviticus 26:16) as chest pains or angina.

God’s warnings of consequence for disrespecting His orders in Behar-Bechukotai read like a psychiatric diagnosis manual’s symptom list for neurotic stress disorders. The Israelites are beseeched to provide a “Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord” (Leviticus 25:4) every seventh year by not working Her. She is the Mother Earth: the Divine consort of Source. If disrespected; if misogynistic, ego-based desires for ownership or affluence give precedence to any “thing” over everything; “the sound of a shaken leaf will chase them and they will flee, as fleeing from a sword” (Leviticus 26:37).

We are paying the penalty for despising the Divine’s statutes. God warned that our “strength will be spent in vain”: while the human body is capable of withstanding considerable levels and durations of stress, eventually, sustained depleted energy reserves cause chronic fatigue, stamina and muscle loss, and brain cell toxicity.

He presaged we would: “sow [our] seed in vain” (Leviticus 26:16) — average sperm count decreased 42 percent since 1940; and that our “skies [would be] like iron and our earth like copper” (Leviticus 26:18-20). In 1990, scientists discovered copper contamination in 7,000-year-old layers of ice in Greenland glacial caps and widespread copper smelting in the Bronze Age released enough copper into the atmosphere to contaminate ice thousands of miles away, causing iron-colored pollution and a poisoned ecosystem.

We have abhorred our Father and, more pertinently, exploited our Mother.

Persistence will ultimately render our heartbroken earth “forsaken by [us]” as She finally takes her Sabbaths “while she lies desolate without [us]” (Leviticus 26:43), mourning the children that deserted her in selfish greed.

Either way, Mother Earth must rest. She cannot bear the weight of our collectively disowned femininity much longer; Her burnout from such repression is inevitable, Her sabbatical inexorable. She implores us to attend to her … before we disintegrate.

Physical systems must rest, in testament that no “thing” really matters. No thing restores wholeness. No amount of force compensates for an equal measure of submission.

Quick-fix prescriptions that inhibit symptoms and disregard underlying causes only exaggerate the very dependencies, weaknesses and insecurities we resist acknowledging.

We must sanctify Shechinah: Source’s indestructible other half. She is the intuitive, the deep, the changeable; She is the sensual, the vulnerable, the dependent, the receivable. She is the passionate, nurturing, indistinguishable dream of darkness from which the light is borne. She is earth beyond reclaim. She must rest.

Cardiologist Herbert Benson discovered an antidote for neurotic stress disorders: the “relaxation response” hard-wired in the brain, releases neurochemicals almost precisely counteractive of “fight or flight.” Induced by practices of consciousness, presence or surrender, it stabilizes brain waves and lowers blood pressure and pulse rates.

Nothing is what God commanded we do with earth every seventh year. Nothing is the reverence of Everything; it is Shabbat: the Jewish relaxation response that celebrates the completion, satisfaction and wholeness defined by the word shevah (seven in Hebrew). Sheva is the perfection of the manifest universe reflected upon.

Revering Goddess is something we literally cannot stress about. We need only let Her be — within and without. And through our retreat, Her beloved, protective mate will shower His grateful providence into our relinquishment that we too may return to the peace we have co-created.

Now that’s a fact.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Where it comes from

Not all of us realize it, but Parshat Emor is one of the most frequently read Torah portions we encounter. We typically read it in May, and again on Passover’s second day and on the first two days of Sukkot. It is read on these two festivals because, like D’varim (Deuteronomy) chapter 16 in Parshat Re’eh, it sets forth critical details that define the Torah observances’ unique requirements for us.

Why not take a moment’s pause in reading this commentary, if you will, and open your Chumash to this week’s portion. Look at Leviticus 23. Do you see how it is all there, laid out for us? The Passover seder, the stack of three matzot and the horseradish or lettuce for maror, the celery or parsley or potato for karpas, the four cups of wine and hiding the afikoman and singing “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayenu.” It’s all there.

Same with each holiday that follows. The nightly count of Omer. The tradition of staying up all night on Shavuot, the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, fasting and no leather-supported footwear and the other restrictions of Yom Kippur, the etrog for the sukkah and the minimum architectural requirements of the sukkah itself, from the topping to the walls.
It’s all there.

And that is why — whether your Jewishness is Orthodox Litvak, Modern Orthodox, Chasidic Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age, Humanist, Ashkenazi, North African/Edot Mizrach Sephardi, Spanish/Portuguese Sephardi, Persian, Hillary Democrat, Obama Democrat or Republican — all Jews practice these same traditions. The Passover seder. The ram’s horn on the New Year. Fasting on Yom Kippur. Building a sukkah with all the toppings and acquiring, among other species, an etrog for the service.

We all do it the same way because, when we open our Chumashim and look at Parshat Emor chapter 23, it’s all there.

Only it isn’t.

Not only is it not all there. Virtually nothing of it is there. None of it. Nada. No seder and no etrog. No ram’s horn and no fasting. None of it. Zilch. Gornisht.

So where did it all come from?

It all comes from the Torah Sheh-B’Al Peh, or Oral Law, as recorded ultimately in the Talmud.

None of it appears in the Torah She’bikhtav, or the Written Law. Look it up. Use a Concordance. These core mitzvoth of Judaism are never recorded in the Chumash. Yet virtually every Jewish community in Jewish history has understood that one attends a seder and does and sings all the seder things on Passover, blows the horn of a ram in a certain cadence of soundings on Rosh Hashanah, fasts and avoids leather-supported footwear on Yom Kippur, and uses an etrog and not a lemon on Sukkot.

Without a mindset and lifestyle that place the Talmud and the Oral Law at the center of our Jewish lives, our Judaism becomes empty and void because its heart and soul have been extracted. Without it, we drift into a form of Seventh Day Adventism, only with better Hebrew, more fundraisers for Israel and more holiday recipes.

As you read Parshat Emor this Shabbat, think about the central role played by the Oral Law in understanding, celebrating, and living the Written Law. They go together because they were given to our nation at Mount Sinai with the intention that they would.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

Seeking Holiness

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday!

Those lyrics, known for inspiring so many movements for justice and righteousness, are at the core of what I am thinking about these days. Is it truly possible to overcome?

From what great wellspring did this vision surge forth? In many ways, it came from the second half of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Kedoshim is a lofty and powerful parsha, known as the holiness code, which the Talmud and Midrash understood to be rav gufei Torah, or encompassing the majority of the Torah, namely that this chapter is a summation of the entire Torah itself.

“And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Great Holy One am holy'” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

For one of the greatest statements that God lays upon us, it is really not clear from these words alone exactly what we are supposed to do. How should we be holy? What can we do to imitate You, God, in order to emulate Your holiness?

However, what is clear at the outset is that we cannot be fully holy alone as individuals, but rather we must seek this goal as a community. That is why the Hebrew is in the plural, kedoshim t’heyu, you (plural) shall be holy. Holiness is not something that can be fully realized alone.

Nor is holiness an easily defined concept. However, the verses that follow instruct us as to what God thinks holiness is all about. Some of the highlights are that we should care for the poor, leave the corners of our fields for the needy and the stranger, not withhold the wages of a laborer until morning and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Next come some of the most challenging words of the Torah, which tell us that we should not hate our brother or sister in our hearts, even as we must rebuke each other for wrongs committed; not take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Wow, is that a daunting task!

The great commentator Rashi understood holiness to be “separating oneself” from sexual immorality, and the precepts that follow the call to be holy often involve separating oneself in some way.

In a broader context, kedusha, holiness, can be about separating ourselves from the many forms of immorality that we face — injustice, inequity, violence, ethnocentrism. The irony of kedusha is that while it sets one thing apart from another, the experience actually can serve to unify us.

As Martin Buber elucidated on this parsha, “God is the absolute authority over the world, because God is separate from it and transcends it, but God is not withdrawn from it. Israel must, in imitating God by being a holy nation, similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations, but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living.”

That is why Jews have always been strong proponents of social justice, and that is why, thankfully, we continue to be leaders in the cause of righteousness and justice for all people, not just our own.

I love this parsha because it reminds me of what we should all be striving for and what it will take to truly overcome. When I am criticized for being “too political” in my sermons or divrei Torah, it is this parsha that strengthens me in the face of that criticism.

Overcoming disparities in health care is not political, it is holy; overcoming war, genocide, hatred and vengeance is not political, it is holy; fighting for economic justice or immigration reform is not political, it is holy; greening our world is not political, it is holy.

Love and compassion for the other, be they gay or straight; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any religion; be they white, black or any race; male or female; young or old; rich or poor; Israeli or Palestinian — love and compassion for the other is not political. This love is holy; it is how we emulate God’s holiness, and it is taught to us directly in the Torah.

It is only as a community — local, national and global — that we can achieve these amazing goals; it is only as a plurality that we can overcome. When we wonder what needs to be done to make a world of our dreams, a world that some call the messianic time, we can look to this chapter of Torah for the first steps.

May the words of Kedoshim inspire each of us to live holy lives and find ways to imitate God by shining light and hope onto the dark corners of pain and suffering in our world. For the sake of our children, deep within my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive committee and is the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; is chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s Los Angeles chapter is and co-founder of an emerging group called Jews Against the War. He can be reached at

Religious Fire

Religious zeal is on the rise around the world. It can be a wonderful blessing, and it can be a horrible curse. It all depends on how humans with free will manage it.

When God allows a Divine Flame to be ignited within the soul of an individual or within the collective soul of a community, the Almighty is empowering people to let the flame inspire them to live the godly life, to take the principles and ideals they associate with God into their hearts and souls and, in so doing, to draw closer to God in sacred intimacy. The ideals of love, compassion and justice then shape how they live their lives and how they define their relationships with other human beings, and they become partners with God in the daily process of renewing and completing the act of creation.

But God also runs a risk when a Divine Flame is shared with humankind. People can abuse the flame by believing that they and no one else are its sole bearers. They can be impelled by their egos — individually or collectively — to determine that the flame should be used to burn and destroy other humans whom they have defined as being devoid of the flame and, hence, in need of being purged.

They can allow themselves to play God and choose who shall live and who shall die. Sometimes they are willing to destroy themselves in the process, which they falsely interpret as opening a direct route to union with the Divine. This abuse of the flame results in the unleashing of primal chaos into the world and the undoing of God’s creative activity, threatening the world’s very existence.

The Divine Flame plays a central role in Parshat Shemini. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons, the priests and the elders of Israel to prepare to offer certain sacrifices as mandated by God. He concludes with exciting news: “For today the Lord will appear to you!” (Leviticus 9:4).

Once the offering is prepared and placed on the altar by the priests in conformity with God’s command, and once Moses and Aaron had blessed the people, “the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.

And all the people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:23-28).

What an awesome, powerful moment of engagement between God and the Children of Israel. It was intended to demonstrate to the people that when God’s will was carried out, the Divine Presence, represented by the flame that came down from heaven, would be with them.

By way of contrast, we learn in a Midrash found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:5) that during the seven days of the consecration of the priests, when Moses functioned as high priest, the Shekhinah did not descend. Only after Aaron, wearing the vestments of the high priest, officiated at the altar, did the Shekhinah descend.

This means that the Divine Flame could appear in the midst of the people only when those whom God had designated to tend that fire — Aaron and his sons — were in charge of the worship in the Tabernacle. As great as he was, Moses could not bring the Divine Flame into the midst of the people.

Realizing the power of the flame, it was God’s intention that it be managed and channeled only by people whom God had chosen and to whom God had given specific instructions. They would be responsible tenders of the flame.

But, alas, God did not take into account the power of the human ego. Immediately after the wondrous appearance of the flame, the zeal of the moment engulfed Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, but with disastrous results. On their own initiative — and contrary to the will of God — they brought strange fire into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1). And, in an instant, “a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).

Note the language. It is nearly identical to language that describes the first appearance of the Divine Flame in 9:24. I suggest that the Torah’s message is clear. The Divine Flame and the religious fervor that accompanies it can be a blessing, when the flame is handled with care and the fervor expresses itself in a way that conforms to the wishes of the Author of the flame. When the zeal engendered by the flame is abused by the power of human ego, the same flame becomes a destructive force.

Devoted adherents of the three religions that affirm a belief in the one God, who shared the Divine Flame through the faith and zeal of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the like, espouse a profound commitment to making God’s love, compassion and justice realities in the world.

Let the zeal of these true people of spirit fill all of God’s creation, allowing no room for the egotistical zeal of the false prophets of destruction.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Trading in happy meals for real happiness

Living a life of dual identity is no simple task. On one hand, my peers and I are told to live up to the expectations of being Modern Orthodox teens, but on the other side of the spectrum we are tempted by the culture of the secular world on an everyday basis.

How then is it remotely possible to balance the blaring secular world with the scholarly teachings of our forefathers that have existed for thousands of generations? Easy.

Through the eyes of a child, the secular world clearly clashes with the classically Jewish one. From birth, I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and I attended a school that was comprised of non-Jewish children. I was exposed to the numerous differences between my sheltered Jewish world and the secular world around me.

In school, I was filled with envy knowing that my favorite battery-operated FisherPrice toys were put away during the Sabbath when all my secular friends used their electric-operated toys with abandon. I asked my mother with bewilderment why the other children were so “lucky”? They could eat McDonald’s Happy Meals while I was strictly forbidden to enjoy such delights.

What did not occur to me was that I was the lucky child.

To the norm of society, Judaism is looked upon as a religion that in essence deprives you of things associated with the secular world. For instance, observant Jews do not dine at certain restaurants, wear clothes that might be the latest trend or do even something as basic as eat bread during Passover.

However in reality, one must look at Judaism and realize what our spectacular religion has to offer. Our culture is enriched with crucial morals and ethics that, when integrated into a person’s life, have the capacity to elevate us to an entirely different level of consciousness. Numerous biblical characters that appear in our text serve as exemplary role models with angelic qualities.

One of the most crucial gifts I’ve received is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This moral concept appears throughout our daily routines, and without our Judaic teachings one can be horrifically mislead. In a way, these practices end up being like a GPS guiding us and protecting us.

In the book of Leviticus, we are called a “treasured nation,” proving how special we really are. Judaism has a full heritage of the most intellectual people known to mankind. We are so fortunate to be associated with such a religion.

To stress this point even further, we must look at all the prayers in our siddur. Every day we are given the opportunity to converse with God, the Master of the World. This is an opportunity that should not be taken lightly, for in essence we can open our heart to God and let our lips overflow with any prayer or desire we might posses.

Now that I understand what Judaism really has to offer, I can step back and appreciate all the special aspects of the secular world and see that there aren’t any contradictions — that the hand of God is in everything. For example, the advances of medicine are essentially God giving us a cure, not merely great ideas from some doctor. The first man to walk on the moon also came directly from our Creator — as did the moon itself!

Nine years later I still look back at my 6-year-old self and smile.

Maybe playing with electric toys on Shabbos and eating Happy Meals is great, but once I figured out what Judaism was about, I think I had it better.

Rocky Salomon is a 10th grader at YULA.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to

Life More Ordinary

I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


Get What You Give

I remember visiting Harvard Square in Cambridge 30 years ago when I was a rabbi in Brookline, Mass. Among all the curious-looking people, myriad bookstores and Harvard University buildings was a huge bin of clothes, furniture cast-offs and other items. The sign in front said something like: “Take what you need, and leave what you no longer need.”

The concept was wonderful but the application embarrassed the poor, who would take items in full public view. People would actually try on clothes and jackets and look over the furniture before taking them. It was distracting even for those who knew better.

In the Mishnah, there is a discussion about the Chamber of Secrets in the First Temple, which served a similar function. Poor and rich would enter this room, take or leave something and then emerge from the room. No one knew whether the one who entered and exited the room was taking or giving — the taking and the giving was done secretly behind closed doors. Thus it was called the Chamber of Secrets. It respected the privacy and the dignity of the poor.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Emor, we find a verse that is repeated from an earlier portion: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger, I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

In Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:9), known as the holiness code, we see almost an exact text of the above verse in this week’s portion. Its repetition in the Torah bespeaks its importance. God doesn’t waste words.

The rabbis instruct us in the Talmud that the reason the Torah text specifies the corners of the field was in order to leave the most accessible parts of the field for the poor. The rabbis also instruct us that the poor should be allowed to harvest the corners of the fields just after sunset — after the owner and his workers have already left their fields and after they, the poor, have tried all day to do their best to search for a job. (Other verses in the Torah instruct the employer of a day worker to pay him at the end of the day just for this very reason — so he won’t need to glean a neighbor’s field to scrounge for food for an evening meal for himself and his family).

Twilight was chosen because it was dark enough not to be recognized but not too dark to find the fruits and vegetables of the harvest. The poor would then maintain their dignity as they returned home to have an evening meal. What a wonderful picture of a caring society: the poor and the stranger both able to have their food without being embarrassed.

One of the inspirational aspects of daily prayer in a synagogue minyan — the gathering for the evening, morning and afternoon prayers when it is not Shabbat or a festival — is making a contribution to the pushke. In the morning and afternoon it is customary to make this contribution after the Kedushah, the prayer acknowledging God’s holiness in the world. We who are created in God’s image are the doers of holiness. It is holy to give to the poor and it is an act of holiness to embarrass neither the giver nor the recipient. Some put in a coin, some put in a dollar bill and some put in a $100 bill. No one knows who put in what when the tzedakah box is in the back of the room, behind the congregants.

Similarly, on the High Holidays, most synagogues have an appeal pledge card with an envelope. In this way, no one knows which tab a person puts down — so no one is embarrassed by a small contribution. One may even put a card in the envelope without putting down any tabs. No one should be embarrassed. On the other hand, it is not a violation of the Torah to be recognized for supporting synagogues, Jewish schools and organizations that do great work, because it motivates more people to give — and so more poor people will benefit and more Torah will be taught, and more mitzvot will be done.

Sometimes synagogues will hear the cry that they are always asking for money. Since I know firsthand the good work that synagogues do and the numbers of Hebrew school children who benefit from dues adjustments and scholarships, I say “thank you” to synagogues that never turn away families in need. May every synagogue and Jewish institution honor the teachings in this week’s Torah Portion to maintain the dignity of those in need and to appropriately require those who are blessed to share their blessings. In this way we honor the tradition of the Chamber of Secrets.

Gershon Johnson is rabbi of Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.


Bird’s-Eye View


One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.


After the Ashes


On a rabbinic mission to Israel in 1998, Natan Sharansky, then Israel’s minister of industry and trade, addressed our group.

Sharansky recounted to us how he was invited to visit Russia a year after his election to the Knesset. It was the first time in history that a past prisoner of the Russian government returned as a leader in the free world. Sharansky told of other unique aspects of his trip.

“I was the first state guest who insisted not on going to the Russian Ballet,” he said. “But rather I wanted to visit the former KGB prison where I was incarcerated.”

The Russians were baffled by this unusual request. It actually took a good deal of time for Moscow to agree, and the trip was delayed until consent was granted. The Russians meticulously prepared for the visit.

Sharansky said, “It was so clean that it almost looked like the Ballet Theater. Of course they cleaned it up in my honor, and I thanked them for their kindness.”

As Sharansky and his wife, Avital, toured the prison, he asked his hosts, “Please show me the punishment cell.”

The officials didn’t know what to do. They were not prepared for this request, and obviously it wasn’t on the official itinerary. Furthermore, they wanted to deny that there was such a room.

“They showed me a regular cell and said it was the punishment cell,” he said. “I told them that if there is one thing they cannot deceive me about, it is Russian prisons.

“So they finally consented and showed me a punishment cell that was empty. I then asked to be left alone with my wife for 15 minutes.”

When the Sharanskys reappeared, the journalists asked why he insisted on such a visit. They wanted to know if this was an act of masochism.

“‘On the contrary, it was the most inspiring moment of my life,'” Sharansky responded. “‘When I was a prisoner of the Soviet Union, my jailers tortured and taunted me and told me that world Jewry had betrayed me and that I would never leave the prison alive.’

“Today, the KGB does not exist, the Soviet Union does not exist, and 1 million Jews have left the punishment cell called the Soviet Union. This is what I went back to see. This is what I am thankful for.”

Sharansky’s attitude is as old as the Bible. This week’s Torah portion began with a description of the olah, the obligatory burnt offering that was brought twice a day — morning and afternoon — to the Holy Temple.

Strangely, the description starts with four verses devoted to the laws about removing the ashes of the sacrifice that was consumed throughout the previous night. Only with verse five do we find the laws pertaining to the sacrifice itself.

Rabbi Chayim ben Attar, the 18th-century Moroccan kabbalist and commentator, suggested that this order was replete with a moral message. In his biblical commentary, the Or HaChayim, he argued that it depicted Jewish history in which suffering seems to dominate, but in the end victory will reign.

“This is the teaching of the burnt offering: It is the burnt offering on the firewood….”

Our history has been “the offering on the firewood,” that consumed so many Jews, he notes in Or HaChayim. When one reads Jewish history it appears like a gigantic furnace devouring so many of our people.

The fire of anti-Semitism burned throughout a long, dark night that seems to have no end. The Torah, however, tells us that this is not our destiny; rather, “the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning … you shall not extinguish it.”

We, the generation after the Holocaust, the generation of the establishment of the State of Israel, the generation of the freedom of Soviet Jewry and the generation of the ingathering of Ethiopian Jewry, know the truth of this message.

Jewish history is not only fire and ashes; it is the promise of a glorious destiny. Our job is to make that destiny happen sooner rather than later.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


A Divine Call to Action

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 had no 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, 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.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.