Parashat Shemini Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
One of the facets of Judaism that I value most is our tradition's engagement in real life. We are not encouraged to view the world through rose-colored glasses. The protagonists of our Torah are not a group of paragons: they are human beings who display faith, avarice, hypocrisy, courage and weakness. During their lives they endure barrenness, imprisonment, persecution, famine and the death of loved ones. When we are encouraged to look to the Torah for wisdom and guidance and insight we are being sent to a sacred text that understands the lives we lead.
This week's parashah includes one of the Torah's most painful passages: the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. The account of their death is puzzling and much rabbinic ink has been spilt in the effort to understand why these two young men lost their lives.
What is not as frequently examined is the fact that their father, Aaron, has endured the death of two of his sons.
The Torah relates that Aaron stood in silence in response to their deaths. We speculate on this response: why does Aaron not cry out? why does Aaron not collapse in grief?
The modern biblical commentator, Joseph Hertz wrote:
According to ancient Jewish custom the ceremony of cutting our garments, when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches us to meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark, veiled from the eyes of mortals--but not the manner in which we are to meet the future. To rail at life, to rebel against a destiny that has cast our lines in unpleasant places, is of little avail. We cannot lay down terms to life. Life must be accepted on its own terms. But hard as life's terms are, life (it has been finely said) never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonor.
Rather than interpret Aaron's silence as indifference, Rabbi Hertz helps us to appreciate the depth of Aaron's response in loss as righteousness, holiness and honor.
This insight also encourages us to be sensitive to the mourners among us. Those who have suffered the loss of loved ones look "normal" on the outside, just like Aaron. They go to work or school, they go food shopping and they dust their coffee tables . . . but all the while there may be a turmoil of loss surrounding their hearts. People of faith may blame God for their loss or they look to God for strength as they endure their loss . . . or they may do both. We can't tell any of that by looking.
So look around you and consider the mourners in your circle of family and friends. Be gentle. Reach out and provide companionship. Long after the shiva week is over.
Parashat Tzav Torah Reading: Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Immediately before sitting down to write this message, I had a deloghtful experience. a class from a Brown University adult education program came to Torat Yisrael as part of a course on the Abrahamic faiths.
I spoke about Judaism's roots in the relationship between God and Abraham. We opened up the Eitz Hayyim Humash and discussed the seminal moment in Chapter 15 of Genesis in which God creates the first covenant with Avram/Abraham, I talked about our basic concepts of Covenant and Commandment, of revelation and what Torah means to us.
The group was very appreciative, and i enjoyed revisiting these basic premises of our faith through the eyes of those who are new to these ideas.
As I walked back into my office, after the group left, I realized that there is a whole area of discussion I could not engage in because not everyone in the room was Jewish and because our discussion was meant to be an academic exercise: What does it mean to be following this faith?
That's what I feel moved to share with you, and I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Harold Kushner for stating this so elegantly in his book To Life!:
"Judaism has the power to save your life. It can't keep you from dying; no religion can keep a person living forever. But Judaism can save your life from being wasted, from being spent on the trivial....Judaism is a way of making sure that you don't spend your whole life, with its potential for holiness, on eating, sleeping and paying your bills. It is a guide to investing your life in things that really matter. It comes to teach you how to feel like an extension of God by doing what God does, taking the ordinary and making it holy."
We do, at times, lament the "high bar" we need to meet in order to understand services conducted largely in Hebrew, and there is certainly a series of skill sets we are challenged to acquire as Jews to increase our literacy. But the holiest task of all, of bringing holoness to the world as Jews, most often requires no expert knowledge, just a commited heart.
That's the most important thing to know about being a Jew.
Parashat Vayikra Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
This Shabbat we begin to read the third book of the Torah, Vayikra / Leviticus. In traditional rabbinic sources, this book of Torah is also referred to as "Torat Cohanim" . . . "instruction for the Priests" . . . serving as a how-to manual for the conduct of the sacrificial cult established first with the completion of the Tabernacle/Mishkan in the wilderness and continued with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There is such a pronounced shift in the mood of this book compared to the narratives of Genesis and Exodus: instead of engaging stories of patriarchs, matriarchs and enslaved tribes we witness a detailed catalogue of categories of sacrifices, types of animals, types of grains, types of occasions, instruction in preparation and [literally] execution.
Truth to tell, these are difficult passages to relate to in 2011 for so many of us who even find modern liturgy a challenge to relate to.
In the face of all of this, the Israeli biblical commentator, Benjamin Lau, posits in his introduction to Vayikra / Leviticus that this book is all about showing us how to increase our intimacy with God. The first word in the book is the key to this "secret", Lau explains. The first word is: Vayikra spelled vav yod kof reish aleph . . . and if you look at the word in the Torah scroll you will see that the last letter of the first word, "aleph" is written smaller than the rest of the letters. This is meant to draw our attention to the difference between this same word without the "aleph", which would read: "vayikar" and the word with the aleph which, of course reads "Vayikra."
Without the aleph, Lau teaches, the word can be read as "randomness," "chaos," a state of being that lacks principles and values. With the aleph, however, we are invited to respond to God's call. The first time we see the word "vayikra" is in the Garden of Eden when God searches for the newly-embarrassed Adam and Eve . . . Vayikra . . . and God called out to the human and said 'where are you?' Here we are, many chapters and verses later, and God is calling out to us once again.
I hope that in our journey through the book of Vayikra/Leviticus this year, we will be able to respond to its message of responding to God's call. If we stay focused and resist that temptation to day dream as we read our way through sacrifices and grains and oil and transgressions and celebrations perhaps we'll find the gems that will bring us closer to God.
Parashat Pekudei Torah Reading: Exodus 38:21-40:38
The cycle of our Jewish year is marked by different types of milestones: Shabbat every week, intermittent holy days, festivals and fasts and a number of special Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) that set the spiritual/theological stage for upcoming holidays.
The Shabbat that commences today at sundown is Shabbat Shekalim. Shekalim is the first of a series of special Sabbaths leading up to Passover (yup, Passover, folks!). Each special Shabbat is marked in the synagogue with a special maftir (concluding) aliyah which delves into the theme of the special Shabbat and continues with a uniquely designated Haftarah from the Prophets that otherwise would not be associated with that week's Torah reading.
The theme of Shabbat Shekalim is the very egalitarian demand of a minimal required contribution of a shekel by everyone in the community of Israel as described in the Torah. These funds were used for the upkeep of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later, the Temple in Jerusalem. In other words, the concept of paying dues to your synagogue is rooted in the Torah!
I am fascinated by this as the theme of a special Shabbat that is meant kick off our spiritual preparation for Passover. Highlighting our interdependence, our shared responsibility for our central communal institutions may be important, but we might not think of this obligation as a source of spiritual energy. It is only through Shabbat Shekalim that we can appreciate the spiritual depth of this obligation: it is through our coming together as equals in community that we can lead full Jewish lives; it is through our creating and sustaining community together that each of us as individuals has the space and the resources to grow in our Jewishness.
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.