Parashat Emor Torah Reading: Leviticus 21:1-24:23
In this week's parashah, God tells the Jewish people, "You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel." This verse is the source of a mitzvah/commandment called "kiddush hashem/the sanctification of God's name."
Rabbi Brad Artson, in his wonderful book, The Everyday Torah, explains:
Life presents us with a simple choice: how we live our lives can either heighten a sense of God in the world, or it can diminish it. There is no neutral, middle ground.
By treating our fellow human beings with generosity, we bear witness to God's generosity. Acts of greed and selfishness make that bounty harder to perceive.
By speaking out against oppression and bigotry, we affirm God as the righteous judge, the One passionate about justice. To remain silent in the face of such suffering is to eclipse God's justice.
In everything we do, we can help other people to know that there is a God; we can bring credit to the God of Israel and to God's Torah. As the great nineteenth-century rabbi Israel Salanter said, "Compassion is the foundation of belief. For a person who isn't compassionate, even the belief in God is a kind of idolatry."
I imagine that most of us who are blessed to be parents have experienced a twinge or two of embarrassment at something our progeny have said or done: our two-year-old might decide that climbing on a table is a great challenge . . . at a restaurant; our teenager might emerge from the bathroom with purple hair . . . just as we're leaving for the airport for a family vacation; our seven-year-old may have a meltdown at the supermarket when told that the tempting, neon-colored breakfast cereal will not be making an appearance in our shopping basket. (Disclaimor: my kids have done none of these things, but I'll spare them the embarrassment of telling you what they have done!)
What this week's Torah reading provides is the wonderous insight that our actions might embarrass or disappoint God. If our actions will sanctify God's name, then our actions can do the opposite as well. Not only has God created us with free will, with the capacity to discern right from wrong and the self-determination to decide which we will pursue . . . but God has also created us with the capacity to bring Kedushah/Holiness to the world through the great and small decisions we make every day.
Right now, with the simplest of decisions, we can make God proud. That is awesome!
Parashat Tazria Metzora Torah Reading: Leviticus 12:1-15:33
About a month ago, I sent an e-mail out to all of you informing you of the possible introduction of a bill to the Knesset. This new legislation, referred to by the name of the bill's architect Knesset Member David Rotem, would roll back the clock on all the achievements we have made for Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative conversion rights in Israel: not only losing recognition for Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, but even completely redefining who is a Jew. From now on the power to perform conversions would rest solely with the Chief Rabbinate - which only recognizes Orthodox conversions.
Many of you responded by writing to Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, protesting this legislation . . . and many of you forwarded my e-mail to others so that they could add their voices to our expressions of concern. This legislation has the potential to seriously damage the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, as well as threatening the spiritual and religious freedom of thousands of Israelis.
On the eve of Israel Independence Day, which we will be celebrating this coming Monday evening and Tuesday, I wanted to share with you an update and I wanted to thank you.
As a result of the strong feelings expressed by so many, including many of you, the bill in the Knesset which would have affected conversion and the Law of Return has been sidetracked, at least for now.
Our Masorti/Conservative community, along with our peers in the Reform movement, took the lead in identifying the problems, and then the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and others weighed in very forcefully. Credit goes to all, though it is a pity we even have to wage such battles.
MK Rotem stated the bill would not be acted upon last month. He also said that on any issues involving conversion or the Law of Return, there would be consultation with Diaspora Jewry.
While the most objectionable provisions of the proposed legislation, which treat converts differently from those born as Jews, may be dead, we still need to be alert to provisions that would further enhance the power of the State Rabbinate. Masorti/Conservative and Mitkademet/Reform leaders in Israel believe this fight is very far from over.
Now that the Knesset is back from it's Passover recess, we need to continue to monitor this situation carefully. Thank you for responding so effectively last month. I hope there will be no need to ask you to raise your voices again, but, unfortunately, I cannot promise that this is the case.
Shabbat Shemini Torah Reading: Exodus 9:1-11:47
In this week's Parashah/Torah portion, we have a front row seat to a long-awaited moment. For weeks of Torah reading, for months of real time, materials have been gathered, utensils have been crafted, vestments have been prepared, an altar has been constructed, purification rituals have been established and followed and now the first sacrifice is to be brought to the altar of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that travels through the wilderness with the wandering Israelite nation.
Early in the parashah we read: "This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you." The "this" is the sacrifice. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is "korban," built on a three-letter Hebrew root ק ר ב which means "to draw near." The sacrifices, in their original conception, are meant to draw Israel and God nearer to each other.
From the distance of almost two millennia during which there has been no sacrificial cult in Judaism, we might wonder what we can do to draw God's presence into our lives. Was this awesome power lost when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70?
After the destruction of the Temple, Israelite sacrifice-centric religion was superceded by the rabbinic Judaism we know today: the Judaism of Torah study, acts of lovingkindess, worship, mitzvah/commandment and community. The dynamic of sacrifice in order to bring God closer still works, but the content of our sacrifice has changed.
Those of us who acknowledge even modest achievements in our lives know well that we attained those achievements through sacrifice. We studied instead of played and thereby earned our degrees or vocational certification; we put the needs and preferences of others before our own and are thereby blessed with the mutual support and regard of loving relationships; we set aside the pleasures of foreign travel or five star restaurants in order to invest in our children's education and well-being and thereby equip our children to be independent and productive adults themselves.
In Judaism, a myriad of blessings await us if we are ready to make modest sacrifices to bring God into our lives:
We forgo the delights of pork and shellfish and thereby elevate our table to a place where we see food as a blessing; we invest a signficant portion of our discretionary income to support our synagogue and thereby are nourished by the social, intellectual and spiritual gifts of Jewish community; we set aside a modest amount of time to study our tradition and thereby gain entry to an infinitely engaging and meaningful legacy of values, faith and insight.
Small, accessible sacrificial moments like these bring God's presence into our lives, just as our parashah promised.
All this should get us to a surprising place: the word "sacrifice" is now transformed for us. Instead of avoiding sacrifice as an unwanted burden, we should be on the lookout for opportunities to sacrifice . . . for the blessings that sacrifice can bring are infinitely nourishing and engaging.
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.