This Shabbat, we embark on our annual reading of the book of Bamidbar, in English, the book of Numbers. The English name for this fourth book of the Torah is taken from the opening verses in which Moses is directed to conduct a census . . . "Add up the heads of all of the congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, with the number of names of every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone going out to the army in Israel: you shall count them by their army units, you and Aaron." (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:2-3)
It is of profound significance to me that the United States Memorial Day and our reading of the opening passages of Numbers / Bamidbar coincide this weekend.
There are so many ways a God-ordained census of the Israelites might have been structured: There could have been a count of each woman and her progeny; there could have been a count of each household within each tribe; there could have been a count of each head of family . . . but this was a count of each male, twenty years old and up, able-bodied and serving in the army. God was instructing Moses to prepare for wandering through a wilderness, an intermittently populated wilderness in which it was going to be necessary to defend the column of trekking Israelites: men, women, children, elderly, ill and well. From a military point of view, it is, of course, important to know how many troops are at your command. From a community's point of view, it is, or should be, crucial to know the name of every single individual placing life on the line for the sake of the safety and integrity of the community.
In my close to 20 years living in Israel, I became part of a population protected by a citizens' army: our sons and daughters were drafted after high school, trained superbly, served honorably and then came home, or didn't. Every single military death in Israel is honored by the entire country: every fallen soldier's name, photograph, rank are shared on the national evening news. The entire country mourns, for every fallen soldier is a child of ours. Israel is a small country, so we feel these losses in a very immediate sense. Every family has someone who has served, is serving or is about to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, so we feel these losses in a very immediate sense. There is meaningful counting, census, acknowledging each individual in Israel, not just on the Shabbat we begin the reading of the book of Numbers.
When I came back to the States, I found the distance between the general population and our military losses to be disturbing, wrong, unhealthy. So it has been my practice to share not the just the numbers, but the names, ranks, ages and home states of those killed serving our country since the previous Memorial Day each year. We should enjoy the weekend's barbecues and family gatherings . . . but let us spend more than a moment acknowledging that we are enjoying this leisure because our children have served honorably and many have lost their lives serving our country.
Yes, we may have differences of opinions about the policies that have brought our troops into the range of fire; but our support and appreciation and mourning for our children who have died in military service is not a political or policy issue, it is a sacrifice we must humbly acknowledge.
Please do not skip over the rest of this blog.
Please read each and every name.
These are the US troops who died serving in Afghanistan since last Memorial Day . . . יהיו זכרם ברוך: May their memories be blessed; may their families be blessed with healing and peace of mind.
Date of death Name Rank Age Service Home State
5-17-2014 Perkins, Adrian M. Specialist 19 U. S. Army California
5-13-2014 Barreras, Martin R Command Sergeant Major 49 U. S. Army Arizona
5-11-2014 Rasmussen, Deric M. Chief Warrant Office 33 U. S. Army California
4-28-2014 Chandler, Christian J. Private 1st Class 20 U. S. Army Texas
4-28-2014 Farrell II, Shawn M. Sergeant 24 U. S. Army New York
4-15-2014 Danyluk, Kerry M. G. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Texas
4-01-2014 Chaffin III, James E. Captain 27 U. S. Army South Carolina
2-28-2014 Poirier, David L Master Sergeant 52 U.S. Air Force Rhode Island
2-28-2014 Erickson, Caleb L. Lance Corporal 20 U.S. Marine Minnesota
2-15-2014 Torian, Aaron C. Master Sergeant 36 U. S. Marine Kentucky
2-12-2014 Pelham, John A. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Oregon
2-12-2014 Skelt, Roberto C. Sergeant 41 U. S. Army Florida
2-10-2014 Landis, Christopher A. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Kentucky
2-10-2014 Gray, Joshua A. Private 1st Class 21 U.S. Army Kentucky
1-20-2014 Balli, Edward Chief Petty Officer 42 U. S. Army California
1-17-2014 Sipple, Andrew H. Specialist 22 U. S. Army North Carolina
1-15-2014 Lee, Daniel Tyler Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Tennessee
1-10-2014 Scobie, Drew M. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army National Guard Hawaii
1-10-2014 McAdams, Andrew L. Chief Warrant Officer 27 National Guard Wyoming
1-04-2014 Lacey, William K. Sergeant 1st Class 38 U. S. Army Florida
1-01-2014 Hess, Jacob M. Sergeant 22 U. S. Marine Washington
12-27-2013 Lyon, David I. Captain 28 U. S. Air Force Idaho
12-23-2013 Vasselian, Daniel M. Sergent 27 U. S. Marine Massachusetts
12-17-2013 Billings, Randy L. Chief Warrant Officer 2 34 U. S. Army Oklahoma
12-17-2013 Silverman, Joshua B. Chief Warrant Officer 2 35 U. S. Army Arizona
12-17-2013 Bohler, Peter C. Sergeant 29 North Carolina
12-17-2013 Forde, Omar W. Sergeant 1st Class 28 U. S. Army Georgia
12-17-2013 Gordon, Terry K. D. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Mississippi
12-17-2013 Williams, Jesse L Staff Sergeant 30 U. S. Army Indiana
12-11-2013 Smith, James L. Petty Officer 1st Class 38 U. S. Navy Texas
12-11-2013 Rodriguez, Matthew R. Lance Corporal 19 U. S. Marine Massachusetts
11-17-2013 Viola, Alex A. Staff Sergeant 29 U.S. Army Texas
11-13-2013 Vazquez, Richard L. Staff Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Texas
11-03-2013 Robertson, Forrest W. Sergeant 1st Class 35 U. S. Army Kansas
10-20-2013 Grant, Christopher O. Lance Corporal 20
10-18-2013 Turnbull, Lyle D. Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Virginia
10-13-2013 Quinn, Patrick H. Sergeant 26 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
10-06-2013 Moreno, Jennifer M. 1st Lieutenant 25 U. S. Army California
10-06-2013 Hawkins, Patrick C. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
10-06-2013 Peters, Joseph M. Sergeant 24 U. S. Army Missouri
10-06-2013 Patterson, Cody J. Private 1st Class 24 U. S. Army Oregon
10-05-2013 Lopez, Angel L. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Ohio
10-05-2013 Collins, Jeremiah M. Lance Corporal 19 U.S. Marine Wisconsin
9-26-2013 Baysore, Jr., Thomas A. Staff Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
9-22-2013 Gibson, Jonathan S. Chief Warrant Officer 32 U.S. Navy Oregon
9-22-2013 Jones, Landon L. Lieutenant Commander 35 U.S. Navy California
9-21-2013 Nevins, Liam J. Staff Sergeant 32 U. S. Army Colorado
9-21-2013 McGill, Timothy R. Staff Sergeant 30 U. S. Army New Jersey
9-21-2013 Strickland, Joshua J. Specialist 23 U. S. Army Georgia
9-20-2013 Wickliffchacin, James T. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Oklahoma
9-19-2013 Brown III, William D. Sergeant 44 U. S. Army North Carolina
9-13-2013 Thomas Jr., Robert E. Staff Sergeant 24 U. S. Army California
9-05-2013 Lobraico Jr., Todd J. Staff Sergeant 22 U. S. Air Force Connecticut
8-31-2013 Bowden, Joshua J. Staff Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Georgia
8-28-2013 Ollis, Michael H. Staff Sergeant 24 U. S. Army New York
8-28-2013 Young, Ricardo D. Sergeant 1st Class 34 U. S. Army Arkansas
8-26-2013 Togi, Jason 1st Lieutenant 24 U. S. Army American Samoa
8-23-2013 Alvarez, Kenneth Clifford Specialist 23 U. S. Army California
8-23-2013 Hostetter, Jonathon Michael Dean Private 20 U. S. Army Missouri
8-20-2013 Banner Jr., George A. Master Sergeant 37 U.S. Army Virginia
8-11-2013 Hicks, Jamar A. Sergent 22 U. S. Army Arkansas
8-11-2013 Grace Jr., Keith E. Specialist 26 U. S. Army Texas
8-11-2013 Herrera, Octavio Staff Sergeant 26 U. S. Army Idaho
8-06-2013 Welch, Nickolas S. Specialist 26 U. S. Army Oregon
7-30-2013 Burley, Nicholas B. Specialist 22 U. S. Army California
7-28-2013 New, Stephen M. Sergeant 29 U. S. Army Tennessee
7-27-2013 Lawson, Eric T. Sergeant 30 U. S. Army Georgia
7-27-2013 Nouv, Caryn E. Specialist 29 U. S. Army Virginia
7-23-2013 Russell, Jonam 1st Lieutenant ?0 U. S. Army Arizona
7-23-2013 Smith, Stefan M. Sergent 24 U. S. Army Georgia
7-23-2013 Nichols, Rob L. Specialist 24 U. S. Army Colorado
7-22-2013 Maddox, Anthony R. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Texas
7-16-2013 Zimmerman, Sonny C. Staff Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Ohio
7-14-2013 Tuttle, Benjamin W. Lance Corporal 19 U. S. Marine Arkansas
7-04-2013 Milliard, Errol D.A. Private 18 U. S. Army Alabama
7-03-2013 Stapley, Tracy L. First Sergeant 44 U. S. Army Utah
7-02-2013 Clayton, Hilda I. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Georgia
6-28-2013 Rogers, Justin R. Sergeant 25 U.S. Army New York
6-23-2013 Garver, Corey E. Sergeant 25
6-23-2013 Sanchez Jr., Javier Specialist 28 U. S. Army California
6-19-2013 Johnson, Justin R. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Florida
6-19-2013 Alt, Ember M. Specialist 21 U. S. Army South Carolina
6-19-2013 Ellis, Robert W. Specialist 21 U. S. Army Washington
6-19-2013 Moody, William R. Specialist 30 U. S. Army Texas
6-16-2013 Brown, Jared W. Lance Corporal 20 U. S. Marine Florida
6-10-2013 Thomas Jr., Jesse L. Staff Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Florida
6-08-2013 Leonard, Jaimie E. Major 39 U. S. Army New York
6-08-2013 Clark, Todd J. Lieutenant Colonel 40 U. S. Army New York
6-03-2013 Sisson, Justin L. 2nd Lieutenant 23 U.S. Army Arizona
6-03-2013 Pierce, Robert A. Specialist 20 U.S. Army Oklahoma
6-02-2013 Mullen, Sean W. Warrant Officer 39 U.S. Army Delaware
6-01-2013 Stoeckli, Kyle P. Specialist 21 U.S. Army Virginia
6-01-2013 Ramirez, Ray A. Specialist 20 US Army California
6-01-2013 Raymundo, Mariano M. Private 1st Class 21 U.S. Army Texas
5-30-2013 Nunezrodriguez, Joe A. Staff Sergeant 29
This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well.
My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston.
East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from.
Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past.
This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.
Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food. We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers. Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc. If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
In this week's double parasha/Torah reading, we begin with the aftermath of a tragedy . . ."aharei-mot"; after the death of Aaron's sons . . .
The tragedy is recounted, not in the immediately preceding parasha, Metzora, nor in the parasha before that, Tazria, but in the third parsha preceding this week's reading, Shemini. It is there that we read a perplexing event: Aaron sacrificed the animals, then lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. Then Aaron and Moses went inside the Tent of Appointed Meeting. When they came out again, they blessed the people, and the glory of God revealed itself to all the people. Fire went forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted for joy, and fell on their faces.Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire into it and placed incense upon it. Then they brought before God strange fire that God had not enjoined upon them. Then fire went forth from before God and consumed them and they died before God.
Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God said, 'I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire peoples.'” Aaron was silent.
How can we possibly understand and integrate into our understanding of Judaism a God that kills two young men who display spontaneous love and devotion to God?
It is in this moment that we confront an essential difference between the Israelite religion described in the Torah and the rabbinic Judaism our people have practiced for 2000 years: The Israelite religion of the Torah was cult of sacrifice led by an oligarchy, a dynasty of priests. From Aaron to his sons, to their sons . . . . until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, Israelite service to God was channeled through a series of sacrifices of various categories mediated by and facilitated by the kohanim, the dynastic priesthood. For all the information provided in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus about the conduct of the sacrificial system, there was esoteric knowledge that was shared only with successive generations of kohanim. This was a hierarchical system structured in a society that shared certain assumptions about the service of God and the relationship between the people, the priesthood and God.
Nadab and Abihu broke those esoteric rules and it may well be that the story of their death was meant to be a cautionary tale to subsequent generations of kohanim who might seek to create their own traditions beyond the bounds of priestly disciplines.
The rabbinic Judaism we practice today is the result of a revolution: the Judaism that has evolved and grown and reflected the real-life commitments and passions of Jews around the world for 2000 years was born of discussions by scholars in houses of study 2000 years ago. Around those tables were Jews of all backgrounds, rich and poor; Jews of all categories, kohanim, levi'im and plain Israelites; tradesmen and merchants and men (yes, men) of independent means. The only path to advancement was your learning, not who your father was, not how much money you had. The learning was guided by a number of principles: all opinons brought in humility and faith are equally important and worth preserving; we respect and name those who have contributed insight and learning to our tradition; learning is accessible to all who seek it.
In the world of rabbinic Judaism there is no punishment for spontaneity in devotion, there is no rejection of creativity and honest exploration of our tradition. It is the rise of rabbinic Judaism, born in the discussions of the Mishna, Tosefta, Midrash and Talmud that is responsible for the fact that Judaism is alive, well, thriving and evolving to this day. We look back at the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu with compassion and self-differentiation . . . their actions today would have brought them closer to a God who has grown with us instead of condemning them to death.
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.
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.