Parashat Tzav Torah Reading: Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Think for a moment of an episode in your life that terrified you but from which you survived, overcame, emerged stronger. Do you revisit that moment in your mind? Has that moment become one of those iconic stories of your life that you tell to people who are beginning to get to know you?
In just a few short days, we will join Jews all over the world in re-enacting just such a moment in the life of our people. "Yitziyat mitzrayaim," the Exodus from Egypt, is such a powerful, iconic moment for us that our liturgy brings us back to that moment every single day in the morning recitation of "Shirat haYam," the Song at the Sea, sung by the Israelites at the far bank, the safe bank, of the Sea of Reeds. "Ozi v'zimrat yah," "My Strength is God to whom I sing."
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a Masorti/Conservative rabbi in Great Britain, writes: All people seek the secret of their own continuity. This is the power of the seder night: it lights up the past as the full moon illumines the path in the forest. The light of where we come from shines into the uncertainty of who we are. For where we come from is always at the heart of who we are, and until we understand the greater journey of our family and people we cannot recognize the direction of our own life.
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
The first millennium rabbis who shaped our seder experience through their innovative Haggadah . . . which we read to this very day . . . understood very well the essential role of the Exodus story. They instruct us: "In every generation all of us are obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt." The seder night is meant to be more than a recounting of the story . . . it is meant to be a journey to freedom that we take together as a family, as friends, as a community and as a people every year.
It is the story of where we have been and where we are going.
Parashat Vayikra Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
This Shabbat we begin reading the third book of the Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus. In historic rabbinic circles, this book is also referred to as "Torat Kohanim" or "Instruction to the Priests."
We generally do not think about Judaism having priests . . . but during the millennia in which Israelite religion centered on the portable Tabernacle/Mishkan in the wilderness years through the times of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (the last iteration of which was destroyed by the forces of the Roman Empire in 70 ce) it was the Kohanim, the Priestly Class that played a central role in all public rituals and observances. The Kohanim were the experts in matters of ritual, sacrifice and even certain types of disease and environmental contamination.
The Torah book of Leviticus/Vayikra served as their manual of instruction.
It is interesting to me, and I think significant in terms of the ethos of Judaism, that this Priestly Manual was a matter of public record, and not a document that was available only to the Kohanim themselves. Throughout human history, for as far back as we have been able to reconstruct the precepts of organized religion, there has been a tendency to keep access to certain knowledge limited to a closed circle of religious leaders.
This has never been the case in Judaism. Although there were certain rituals and certain observances that could only be performed by a kohein/priest during the millennia during which the Israelite sacrificial cult was practiced, the rules that those kohanim had to learn were accessible in the text of the Torah which was public knowledge as part of God's revelation to the entire people of Israel.
To this day, there is no secret learning that is shared only with rabbis. Understanding the fine points of Jewish law, history, custom and theology requires time and effort. But the richness of our tradition is available and accessible to anyone who wants to delve into it.
What a unique blessing is the very presence of this book of Vayikra/Leviticus in our Torah!
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei Torah Reading: Exodus 35:1-40:38
Educators, child psychologists, even rabbis are expressing concern over the phenomenon of over-programmed kids. From school to hockey to band to gymnastics to soccer to karate . . . it seems as though many kids today have no time to just do nothing. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses shows us how this week's Torah reading provides us with a valuable guiding principle as we prioritize time for our children:
"In this Torah portion Moses tells the people that they are commanded to set aside the seventh day as a day of complete rest. It is a day in which no productive labor is allowed, a day in which the emphasis is put on "being" instead of "becoming" or "having."
Think about your own life. Is there enough time and room for simply stopping and being with one another? Stop now and take a breath. See how that feels. Think about ways to incorporate rest into the busy life of your family. Some families choose to put aside a day of the week and celebrate the Sabbath as a day of rest. Others pay attention to the principle of the day and figure out where to find the resting moments in life."
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, www.myjewishlearning.com
This week's Torah reading invites us to integrate Shabbat into our lives. Here are some accessible ways to weave the values of Shabbat into our week:
1. Make Friday evening family dinner night. Go around the table and have each family member talk about something good, exciting or challenging that happened during the week.
2. Make or purchase a tzedakah box (a Jewish piggy bank!) and on Friday afternoon have everyone in the family put a few coins in the box. Twice a year, count up what you've contributed and decide on a cause to send your donation.
3. Trying to control your family's intake of sweets or salty snacks? Ban them during the week and rename them "Shabbat Treats." Everyone in the family gets to pick one Shabbat Treat (candy, chips, whatever...) that they will enjoy during Shabbat.
4. Bless your children. Whatever parenting challenges you may have faced during the week, take a few moments at Friday evening dinner to treasure those little blessings in your life. Put your hand on each child's head and recite the blessing that has been part of our people's heritage since biblical times:
May God bless you and guard you.
May God's light shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and shower you with peace.
Then . . . and this is really important . . . then kiss each kid on the head!
Parashat Ki Tissa Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Rabbi Erica Seager Asch of the American Jewish World Service writes of this week's Torah Reading:
This week's parashah contains the well known episode of the Golden Calf. Our ancestors eagerly gave their gold for its construction. That gold became an idol and the people made sacrifices before it. Their misuse of the gold was so grave that God sought to destroy the entire nation. Yet a few weeks from now we will read of our ancestors using their gold for good by eagerly offering it to create the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Israelites brought many gifts, including gold, to build a Mishkan. In this instance, the people gave freely of their possessions for a divine purpose.
The gold of the Israelites was used in two very different ways, prompting Rabbi Abba bar Aha to declare: "You can't understand the character of this people! When asked for the [Golden] Calf, they contribute. When asked for the Mishkan, they contribute." The gold was the same--it was what was done with it that gave it the quality of either idolatry or of holiness.
The question of how we use our limited resources is not just a question for ancient Israelites or for modern Jews, it is a question for every human being. How can we be good neighbors? How can we improve our own quality of life as well as the quality of life of those with whom we share this world?
Yesterday, I had the privilege of addressing the Rhode Island House of Representatives Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources. The Committee was accepting testimony on upcoming legislation that is referred to colloquially as "Right to Dry." This legislation, if passed, would protect the rights of Rhode Island residents to hang laundry outside, mount solar panels on their homes or small wind turbines on their property and would render illegal local regulations from prohibiting these actions.
Here is my statement to the Committee:
Mr. Chairman, honored members of the committee,
I am Rabbi Amy Levin. I am the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston and also serve as the vice-president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis.
It is an honor to have the opportunity to bring a Jewish sensibility to today's discussion . . . for the legislation you are considering today touches upon two values cherished by Jewish tradition:
The first is "kvod habriyot": respect for every created being.
The second is "tikkun olam": repair of God's created world.
The Jewish ethic of k'vod habriyot, of respect for every created being, compels all those in leadership positions on every level to do our utmost to respect the realities and support the most fundamental aspirations of everyone around us. The legislation before you is a means to just such an end. A family struggling to cover the monthly commitments of utility bills, rent or mortgage and food bills, can find substantive relief in an act as simple as hanging laundry in the sunshine instead of paying for the electricity or gas to run a clothes dryer. In our state, this should be low-hanging fruit. I would hope that legislation from this body protecting everyone's latitude to take such a step would be a self-evident value. It is a step that would be applauded by the constituents of Rhode Island as an act of intelligence, vision and compassion.
The Jewish ethic of "tikkun olam", of repair of God's created world, also informs today's discussion. By acknowledging that we are all in the same boat . . . and that that boat is the natural world . . . we take on a tremendous burden of mutual responsibility. The actions of one have an influence on us all. The unbridled consumption of the natural resources that currently supply the overwhelming percentage of our electricity have implications for those of us alive today, in this place; for generations to come, God-willing, in Rhode Island; and for generations to come all over the world. Passage of this legislation would express to Rhode Islanders and our peers in other states and other countries, that here we take our responsibilities seriously. That here in Rhode Island we understand that making way for individual commitments to sustainable energy through small wind turbines and solar panels is really the least we can do to encourage the sustenance of the natural world God has left in our hands.
If we have people in our state who are willing to pay the premium to generate sustainable energy, we should thank them, we should remove all barriers to their commitment and their vision. You and your colleagues are in the unique position, with this legislation, of bridging the gap between theory and practice, between ethical talk and moral action. I and many others in our state would feel blessed to be led by statesman who embrace the opportunity to nurture the financially vulnerable and to encourage the environmental pioneers of Rhode Island with the passage of this one, sound, simple piece of legislation.
Thank you and God bless you.
Parashat Tetzaveh Torah Reading: Exodus 27:20-30:10
In this week's Torah reading we continue to follow the account of the consecration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that would serve as the focal point of Israelite religion through the years of wandering in the wilderness. Through korbanot/sacrifices, God and the people would be drawn closer to each other.
An essential element of the Mishkan is the menorah, the lamp. God instructs Moses: "Command the people of Israel to bring to you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, tokeep a lamp burning continually." The Neir Tamid, the eternal lamp that burns over every ark in every synagogue around the world is our fulfillment of this very verse.
Light is a powerful symbol of God's presence in our lives. The Israeli poet Shifra Alon helps us to treasure this divine light:
Not every day do we encounter God,
not every time is opportune for prayer,
not every hour one of grace.
We fail and fail again till journey's end.
We turn back only to lose our way
and grope in search of long
But God, holding a candle,
looks for all who wander,
all who search.
No matter how dark any given part of our journey may be, remember that God, "holding a candle," looking for all who search, is there to help us light our way. May you feel the warmth and embrace of God's light whenever you seek it.
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.