Parashat Kedoshim Torah Reading: Leviticus 19:1-20:27 This week's Torah portion is called "Kedoshim" a word taken from the opening verses of the reading. Every portion is named through this same technique of pulling one significant word from it's first or second verse. Many times that word has no real connection to the content of the entire parasha, sometimes it does. In this case, "Kedoshim", "holy" in the third person plural, very much sums up the verses that follow.
That verse reads:
דַּבֵּר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: You shall be holy because I, Adonay, your God, am holy.
The Israeli Torah commentator, Benyamin Lau, in his brilliant work Etnachta, introduced his discussion of this week's Torah reading with the thought-provoking title: Holy Community not Holy Person.
Rabbi Lau's title highlights an element of the verse which is literally lost in translation . . . and that is that the "You shall be holy" is written in the plural, not the singular. The mitzvah conveyed in the verse is a challenge to be a holy community, not a holy individual.
We don't have saints in Judaism. We don't elevate those who close themselves off from the world: we have no nuns or monks.
Our tradition honors scholars of Jewish texts, laws, theology and values. Our tradition honors people who bring holiness into the world through their integrity, their compassion. Our tradition honors people engaged in bringing the teachings of our faith into the real world.
Rabbi Lau's insight is that we cannot be holy as a collection of individuals. Even as a collection of individuals who study Torah and who do good deeds. We can only fulfill the challenge of this verse if we engage in a community that studies Torah, worships and does good deeds together.
In Hebrew, a synagogue community is referred to as a "Kehillah Kedoshah" as a Holy Congregation. I find this to be a much more engaging and challenging appellation for a Jewish community than "Temple." The Temple was a building. It was the site of the sacrificial cult and it was run by an oligarchy of Kohanim/Priests. In my eyes, our verse in this week's Torah reading lays out a challenge to be not a Temple, but a Kehillah Kedoshah . . . a Holy Community of people coming together for the ultimate Jewish experience: bringing the sacred into the world through our commitment, our learning, our actions, and our joy and pride in our Judaism.
The Intermediate Shabbat of Passover / Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Pesach
Torah Reading: Exodus 33:12 - 34:26 & Numbers 28:19 - 28:25
When we gather together for Shabbat and Pesach services tomorrow morning, we will devote a few moments to reading "Shir HaShirim" / The Song of Songs.
Each of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish year (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) are established in the Jewish calendar in the Torah and are enhanced by the reading of a book from the third section of the Hebrew Bible, The Writings. On Passover we read The Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim), on Shavuot we read the book of Ruth and on Sukkot we read Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). Each of these additional readings relates to some element of the festival it enhances.
Shir Hashirim, the text assigned to Passover, highlights one of the names of this festival: Chag Ha'Aviv . . . the Spring Festival. Much of the imagery in Song of Songs conveys the sights, sounds and colors of spring in the Land of Israel. But there is an even more profound connection between the Song of Songs and Passover.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we have a front row seat as the sages of the late antique period debate the virtues of the book, Song of Songs. Their discussion centers on whether this enchanting text belongs in the official canon of the Hebrew Bible or not. Why is there any question about this? One reason is that the name of God does not appear at all. Another reason is that the book is largely a passionate love poem! Most of the sages were against including this book in the Hebrew Bible. Until Rabbi Akiva spoke up. Rabbi Akiva explained that this is the story of the passionate love between God and Israel and as such should have pride of place in the Hebrew Bible.
So here we are, in the middle of the Festival of Passover . . . the holiday in which we relive that iconic moment that demonstrates God's love for b'nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. The events of Passover, when God saves Israel from Egyptian slavery, has become the iconic moment of God's love for us. How fitting that our celebration of this moment should include the "love poem" of Song of Songs on the Shabbat of Passover.
Parashat Aharei Mot Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
I had a wonderful rabbi when I was a little girl. Rabbi Avraham Soltes was charismatic, passionate about tradition, Jewish music, and Jewish scholarship. I was only aware of some of these qualities when I was a child.
It is only recently that I discovered that he had published a small volume of prayers he had written himself. From my perspective as a rabbi, as well as a young person drawn to Judaism by my rabbi, I am deeply moved by these prayers written by my first spiritual leader.
A traditional name for Passover is "Chag Ha'Aviv", "The Spring Festival." I offer Rabbi Soltes' original prayer "Rebirth" as a Passover gift to you . . . perhaps as a special reading to add to your seder, perhaps as a private meditation that will enrich your own journey into spring.
O God of the fragrant flower
and the flickering leaf:We call upon Thy Name,
at this renascent season,
when Thy life-giving spiritquickens the silent earth,and our cold, slumbering world
is born anew
in the golden glory
of jonquils an forsythia.
the humble denizens
of this earth,
to find rebirth of hope and meaning
in our lives,
at this season,
to see the world with new-born eyes
,to believe deeply
that life and rapture
can begin again
for those whose faith
matches their need.
is not this,
Thy first commandmentto us,
the Children of Israel:
"I am the Lord,
Thy God,Who brought thee
out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house
If our fathers,
sunken in the mire of Egyptian slavery
for four hundred years
the strength and the inspiration
to cast off the maiming manacles
that slashed their wrists and ankles
and surge forth to freedom
on that memorable spring night
thirty two hundred years ago,
no creature is so lowly,
no lot so hopeless,
that we cannot,
with Thy help,
find in it
and new cause for adoration.
Open our eyes,
to Thy wondrous works,
that we may discern Thee in our lives
and behold the world,
and burgeoning with hope
as it was to Noah and his clan
after weeks of endless storm,
when the sun smiled over the
in a golden dawn.
Praised be Thou,
who bringest forth
the bread of life
from the dust
of the languid earth.
Rabbi Avraham Soltes
Invocation: A Sheaf of Prayers, 1959
Parashat Metzora Torah Reading: Leviticus 14:1-15:33
We are welcoming Aaron Tessier to our bimah as a bar mitzvah this Shabbat. It is a delight to have a simchah (joyous occasion) to celebrate with this wonderful family . . . it seems like no time at all since Aaron's older brother, Ethan, was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah although, I think, it's been 3 years!
You may have noticed that, in the above paragraph, I did not say that Aaron was "being bar-mitzvahed" this Shabbat, but rather that he is being welcomed to the bimah "as a bar mitzvah." I thought I'd take advantage of this family and community celebration to talk about this most central life-cycle moment in Jewish life.
In essence, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are the communal acknowledgement of a young Jew's coming of age in religious life. In the early rabbinic anthology of life wisdom, Pirkei Avot / Teachings of the Fathers, we read: (Chapter 5: Mishna 22)
"Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world."
There is a lot to discuss, and appreciate, in this early rabbinic (1st-2nd century CE) understanding of the capacities and qualities of humans at different stages of life. For our discussion of bar/bat mitzvah, we notice that the age of 13 is considered the time "for the obligation to observe mitzvot."
The common denominator of Jewish peoplehood is the "brit" the covenant with God. In traditional Judaism, our relationship to this covenant is expressed through the language of obligation . . . it is the responsibility of every Jewish person the age of 13 and older to do what he or she can to perpetuate this covenant with God.
Once young Jews reach this age of 13, and are now among those who take responsibility for maintaining this covenant with God, they can be called to the Torah, they can be counted in the minyan, and they can lead the community in worship . . . because they are now, officially, as invested in being part of the covenanted community of Jews as are their elders.
The bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are not rituals . . . that is, the moment of the "bar mitzvah" does not change the status of the individual. Rituals effect change in a person's life: two individuals become married at a wedding, a newborn is officially part of the covenanted community of Israel through the brit milah or simchat bat, Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, etc.
When a community comes together to celebrate a young Jewish person "reaching the age of mitzvot" we are not witnessing a transforming ritual, we are celebrating a significant birthday. With or without that bar mitzvah celebration, the young person is part of the community invested in perpetuating the covenant of Israel.
So this Shabbat, we aren't going to "bar mitzvah" Aaron . . . but we sure are going to celebrate the fact that Aaron has reached the age of bar mitzvah!
Parashat Tazria Torah Reading: Leviticus 12:1-13:59
I have just returned from the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention, spending five days with my colleagues, studying, sharing, relaxing and even experiencing Tai Chi! We meet in a different city every year and this year we met in a conference center in Las Vegas! Several hundred rabbis from Canada, the United States, Latin America and Israel came together catching up with old friends and making new connections as well.
The last D'var Torah / sermon we heard at morning minyan yesterday morning was presented by Rabbi Adam Watstein, the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Las Vegas. Rabbi Watstein's D'var Torah was the perfect inspirational message to help us transition from the unique atmosphere of the Rabbinical Assembly Convention back to our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies and the myriad other venues in which Conservative/Masorti rabbis serve: Rabbi Watstein described a moment, sitting in his office, when a kid in the room on the other side of the wall to his office bounced a ball hard against the wall. A number of books fell of a shelf and onto the floor.
The books of course, fell open on the floor and, as Rabbi Watstein picked them up, he stopped and looked at each page that was open. The books were volumes he had had in his library since he was a teenager. The books were highlighted, underlined, and annotated with marginal notes. As Rabbi Watstein perused each volume, he revisited the years of his life during which he fell in love with Judaism. All that passion, enthusiasm and exploration came back to him. All the day-to-day engagements of the rabbinic day -- meetings, deadlines, time management challenges -- all fell away and all the energy and inspiration that led him to the rabbinate were back.
Rabbi Watstein encouraged us all to get in touch with those pre-ordination days, to refresh ourselves by reliving the texts, the experiences, the passions that inspired us to become rabbis in the first place . . . and to bring that energy back with us to our post-Convention "real lives."
This is what happened in Vegas . . . and isn't staying in Vegas.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.