It Takes All Kinds – Parshat Tzav 5780

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I know this might come as a surprise because I’m a rabbi, but I actually don’t find much personal spiritual fulfillment in daily prayer services. Occasionally, if the mood is right, the melody particularly poignant, and my mind just open enough, I might have a transcendental moment in prayer, but most of the time, my spirituality is found on a walk with my family in the sunshine or a long drive through our beautiful Oregon landscape. Mostly I find my connection to God in nature and in my family moments. I can feel that connection during shul too, perhaps just not as much as you might expect.

I’m guessing I might not be alone when it comes to how I approach spiritual fulfillment. Parshat Tzav, the Torah portion we read this week, tackles this question in an eloquent way. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail what time of day they are to be made, what they are to wear, and who they are to be consumed by. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

The beginning of the text teaches us, “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.” The Hebrew word used for ritual is “torat,” and the Talmud interprets this word as “Torah for,” meaning that in our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings. Further, the Hatam Sofer asks, if this is the case, why is Aaron commanded? He answers that it’s because Aaron might be reluctant to tell the people that the study of Torah is equivalent to bringing sacrifices. It would cause confusion, presenting the people with an alternative form of worship. And maybe Aaron himself was afraid of presenting an alternative because it would weaken the priestly role in ritual.

I take the opposite view. As a rabbi, I encourage you to find your alternative way of connecting spiritually and with God. It’s very likely not every Israelite connected to God through sacrifice, and today not every congregant connects through prayer. While I would love to see you in the pews enjoying community and time together, I’d also love to go on a walk with you, taking in nature together and hearing about the unique way you yourself find God. 

The entire book of Vayikra is about the way in which our actions can connect us to God. Parshat Tzav encourages us to find that connection, and then actually use it. 

Open Gates, Open Mind – Parshat Vayikra 5780

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I tend to be pretty hard on myself after a mistake or misstep. When I do something or say something that I later regret, especially when it might make someone else uncomfortable or hurt them, I hold on to that pain and regret almost like a security blanket. I tend to beat myself up for days and weeks afterward, thinking about how I could have done better, worked differently, or simply made a better choice. Worse is when I realize my wrongdoing, then apologize, but the person isn’t ready to forgive or even engage in that conversation yet. That leads to my own frustration that I just didn’t avoid the situation in the first place. I’m a people pleaser after all, and because of that, my ideal is creating community and connection with everyone I encounter.

While the first step – recognizing the wrongdoing – might be easy for me, it certainly isn’t the only step necessary on the path to forgiveness. This week we read from Parshat Vayikra, the first section of the third book of the Torah. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As Sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

The end of this week’s portion deals with the ways in which we might ask for forgiveness or make strides in righting the wrongs we have committed. Chapter 5, verse 26 ends on this positive, simple note: “He shall be forgiven.” This statement follows an explanation of the actions that might be used to make reparation for our misdeeds. Ultimately, if we partake in the prescribed action and ask for forgiveness, then we are forgiven. 

A Hasidic master taught, “The gates of repentance open for anyone who does wrong and then realizes it and seeks to make amends.” In other words, the road to forgiveness must begin with the desire to get there. I can beat myself up all I want about my misdeeds, but unless I have a willingness and desire to change, those gates remain locked. 

As we read Parshat Vayikra, especially at a time when our community simply is not physically able to come together in person to apologize, to forgive, and to move on, we are reminded that each of us holds the key to our own journey to forgiveness. And perhaps an added benefit of this period of isolation is merely the time to look inward and finally use that key. Shabbat shalom.

This I Promise You – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

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When I was preparing to go to Guatemala last year I was reminded that we weren’t supposed to bring any jewelry or anything flashy or expensive with us. The crime rate is high; theft is a problem. We were told not to wear our wedding bands or engagement rings for fear that they might be stolen while we showered or slept. This caused me a minor moment of panic. For 10 years I’ve worn these rings on my fingers, ever-present reminders of my wedding vows. Not only that, the words on my wedding band are the same as those on my parents’ bands, and the diamond on my engagement band belonged to Duncan’s Bubbe. These rings are more than jewelry; they bind my spouse and me to our past and hold in them the promise of our future. Not having that with me made me nervous. 

In the Torah there are many covenants made up of words and very few of physical items. However, one of those items is the “Tabernacle of the Pact” as we read about in our Torah portions this week Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. Following that Betzalel and Ohilav are appointed as the taskmasters of the construction project, and we hear about the abundance of gifts the Israelites brought to the Tabernacle. Parshat Pekudei deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan, the sacred space where God will dwell among the Israelites. 

This Tabernacle is the focal point of the entire covenant with God. Everywhere the Israelites traveled, the covenant – through the Tabernacle – was there to help remind them of the pact they made. Today, we don’t have a Tabernacle, or even a daily reminder that we’re in covenant with our community in different ways. We don’t wear a ring to show that we belong to a synagogue or are on the board of the food bank. We don’t walk around with nametags every day that list our many contributions, although for a while cause-based bracelets were a thing.

So, as we read Parshat Vayakhel and Pekudei, we are gently nudged to ask ourselves, what is the reminder of our covenant that we carry each day? For the covenant I made with Duncan, my Guatemala solution was to get silicone rings to wear for the eight days of the trip. Today, I believe that our covenant with God is shown in our words and our actions. Our society has evolved that we don’t necessarily need a separate physical reminder in our community to be good; the reminder is how we act toward each other. 

Refreshing Yourself – Parshat Ki Tissa 5780

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I’m terrible at taking time for myself. So terrible, in fact, that unless I put it on my calendar, it won’t happen. I set reminders for self care, and sometimes I go so far as to ask others to remember not to email me on my day off, because emails will inevitably suck me in. It isn’t that I don’t find time away refreshing, or that I’m necessarily a workaholic; it’s just that I sometimes forget to stop and take a breath. I forget to look around at the world, my family, and my community and marvel in the gifts I receive from them. The one saving grace is Friday, when I tend to move just a slight bit slower for at least those two hours at the end of the week going into Shabbat. Sadly, though, the rest of Shabbat isn’t usually restful. Between the programming, the services, and the time chasing after my own kids, I’d say on average those two hours of actual “resting time” each Shabbat are about all I get. 

Throughout its text, the Torah reminds us of our obligation to ourselves and others to rest periodically. From the beginning, we have God resting at the end of creation, and there are similar reminders following, including in this week’s Torah portion. 

This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa from within the story of the Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they are now set to continue on their journey, learning from Moses and God. When Moses is on top of the mountain, he’s delayed in coming down. The Israelites are scared, unsure of this God that they have yet to trust. They gather their gold, craft an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible. 

Interestingly, right before the saga of the Golden Calf, we are again reminded of our covenant with God for all time regarding the observance of Shabbat. These two narratives – the peaceful rest of Shabbat and the frantic rashness of the Golden Calf – seem vastly different from one another, yet they are linked through their parshah, Ki Tissa. We know Moses was on the mountain for 40 days, plus one extra day. However, we don’t learn much of what Moses did on that extra day, we only hear how anxious the Israelites were to have him back and move on with their journey. 

The proximity of these ideas in the timeline of the Torah begs the question of when it’s appropriate to be refreshed, following that commitment to God. Was the Israelites’ behavior really the best time for Moses to take a personal day? Perhaps Moses took an extra day so he could gain some perspective by taking it all in. Or perhaps the lesson is that had the Israelites actually taken the same opportunity to rest, they would not have acted out by engaging in idolatry. 

Whatever the reason for the extra day was, the message is clear. To be in covenant with God and community is to hold back, to slow down, and to take time to refresh and reinvigorate yourself. Take your “plus one” and I’ll try to do the same.

Here, There, Everywhere – Parshat Tetzaveh 5780

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At our twice-monthly Tot Shabbat celebrations, we sing about how “God is everywhere, and God is one.” We then ask the children to tell us where they might find God, and the range of answers is beautifully diverse. We find God in the sky, the trees, the sun, and the moon. And apparently we find God in places like ice cream, unicorns, and fire trucks. We find God in our mommies and daddies, and we find God in our hearts.

Every time we sing this prayer, I am awestruck by the different ways in which our children are able to “see God.” They understand and acknowledge that different circumstances call for different visions of God, and the way their week has gone is often the determining factor in how they see God working in our world. Most importantly, however, they ALWAYS see God.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them and what they are to look like. 

There are precise garments and colors that the Priest is mandated to wear. They are made up of linen and wool and defined by certain colors as well. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a modern commentator on the Torah, the linen represents the vegetable/plant world and is white, the color of purity. The wool, a symbol of the animal world, is red, purple, and crimson. Other garments are blue, like the sky. Each color and material represents a different part of our world, a different level of connection with our natural surroundings, and thus a different type of connection with God. 

Just like these various articles of clothing, there are many levels by which we may connect to God and each other. It might be on an earthy, deep, dark crimson level, or flying high like the bright blue of the sky. We might feel plant-based and pure, but relatively still, or we could be purple and red and animalistic in our tendencies.

The High Priest wears each color and material as a representation of how diverse our community is, and the priest serves them all at any time and any stage. What a wonderful example for leaders today. Though they may not represent it by their clothing the way the priests did, modern leaders must be equipped to work with a variety of people and maintain a variety of relationships. This is the type of community in which God is most surely present.