Just Say Yes – Parshat Bamidbar 5783

Why is it that so many of our asks as parents are met with arguments from our children? Sometimes it feels as if there’s nothing I could say that would be accepted at face value without some sort of pushback. It’s not like the daily expectations have changed that much. For years we’ve been asking them every morning to get dressed, come downstairs, eat breakfast, and get in the car, only to be met with variations on “I can’t because . . .” Why are we still arguing about hard and fast rules that we’ve had for what feels like an eternity?

It is true, however, that every once in a while we start the day with no arguments, and Duncan and I find ourselves marveling at a morning without whining. Perhaps this is a little bit like what God must be feeling in our Torah portion this week. This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. The Israelites are now in the desert, and the groundwork for the structure of their future has been laid. Army leaders are appointed to lead alongside Moses and Aaron, a census is taken of the people, and we learn that the camps are situated in a specific order, each with a flag in the center that tells us which tribe is there. The time spent in Egypt is a distant memory at this point.

In chapter two, God asks the people to line up in order, according to their households and their ancestral inheritance. If you’ve been following along week to week, you know that anytime the Israelites feel uncomfortable or anytime they receive direction from Moses, they complain mightily about the task. Whether the complaint is about the taste of the water or the amount of food, their ability to complain, much like children, seems boundless. Yet, this week, the entire Israelite nation does what God asks without questioning, without asserting dominance or status.

Why this sudden change in response? The text is unclear. No real reason is given, except that chapter three of Bamidbar begins by recounting that Aaron’s sons died because they did not follow God’s procedures. Perhaps the Torah calls this out knowing that the Israelites have short-term memory issues, not unlike a toddler. On the other hand, it also stands to reason that the Israelites are doing their very best to follow those rules and show that they are committed to the future.

This is still a toddler nation we’re talking about, new to freedom and purpose. There are magical moments, but they’re also testing limits. This week’s parshah may serve as a helpful reminder to parents that eventually children will recognize the limits and expectations we set for them and understand that the decisions we make are out of love.

Circle of Support – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5783

I don’t know about you, but my mailbox is mostly filled with solicitations. Some are for the Jewish community (well, in my case most), and others are for wonderful organizations that we’ve donated to in the past, like Meals on Wheels, Boost Oregon, and the Oregon Humane Society. With the overwhelming need in our community at large, beyond just the affiliations we have, sometimes it feels like I just can’t do enough. And yet, that certainly doesn’t stop us from giving. Why? The answer is in this week’s Torah portion.

Behar-Behukotai warns us of the implications of what is essentially a snowball effect. This double portion focuses primarily on the laws of agriculture and land, but what makes this section of text unique is that it takes the notion of land ownership and farming and uses that to create a society in which no one group holds complete control forever.

We read about the 50-year land ownership cycle that requires us to allow the land to rest every seventh year. In the 50th year of the cycle, all land returns to its original owner. Imagine a farmer who falls on hard times because of a drought or poor crop. In order to sustain his family, he might sell off parts of his farm acre by acre. After 10 years he might have nothing left, and he might be forced off the land or forced to find another way to make a living. According to the Torah’s laws, in the 50th year, this farmer would receive back all his land and become his own landlord again. The Torah is helpful in identifying need, but how do we prioritize who we support and when we support them? This is the struggle of wanting to help everyone, but knowing you can’t possibly make an impact everywhere.

As a family, we guide ourselves by Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?” This formulation, which was also our ALIYAH theme last year, has been one of Judaism’s main principles since the Torah, and our parshah this week speaks of one way to prioritize. First, we redeem those Israelites in captivity, then we find ways to help and sustain others. Our daily Kaddish prayer reminds us of this: “V’all kol Yisrael, v’all kol yoshevey teyel.” Those who dwell in our own community, and all those who are in our midst.

However, the community you make is up to you. You set your priorities by who you connect with, and the important thing is simply recognizing the most immediate need around you first. This week’s double portion reminds us that our innermost circle of support is just one of many ways that we provide for each other.

Working on Shabbat – Parshat Emor 5783

A few months ago, as my ever-curious 9-year-old was chatting with me about Shabbat and what she was learning in school, she asked me the question I dread. “Mommy, if we keep Shabbat, why do YOU work on Shabbat?” This was after a particularly busy Shabbat with back-to-back services and programming, and it felt like I was gone the entirety of Shabbat. In our house, we’ve got some clear Shabbat boundaries. We don’t do art on Shabbat, and we don’t spend money or go shopping on Shabbat. We do spend time together whenever possible. However, Shiri learned in school that we don’t work on Shabbat. So, how do we reconcile the work that I do?

This week we read Parshat Emor, and we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat fellow humans and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.

As the laws of holidays and Shabbat are introduced, the Torah uses the word melachah. This word is translated loosely as “work,” but a more precise definition would be “creative endeavors.” The notion is that God stopped creating to celebrate Shabbat, and so should we. That means that Shabbat is about the work of our souls, not the work of our hands.

The question remains: How do you explain this to a 9-year-old? The best answer is the honest one, which is yes, my job includes Shabbat, but I do all my preparation before Shabbat so that I too can be fully present in services and with our community. Being fully present requires preparation. There’s a reason we don’t mourn publicly on Shabbat or create new “things.” It’s because this allows us to live in the moment and actually experience our Judaism. We turn off the alerts on our phones and prepare our food in advance so we won’t stress about our weekday jobs or worry about our next meal. We need the comfort of having as much planned for as we can so we’re not checking off a list, not to mention the fact that checking things off a list would involve writing. 

Do I work on Shabbat? It depends on what you call work. Technically, my fellow clergy and I are all required to be present on Shabbat. However, I don’t consider it work to guide a congregation in spirit and prayer. That is a joy, that is a gift, and that is why I’m a rabbi. 

Finding Balance – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5783

More than once, I’ve found myself in a conversation where someone mentions a metaphorical social pendulum. Society swings alternately from one extreme to the other, so whenever we think things have reached an extreme point, we should remember that there will soon be a time when the pendulum swings back, and we moderate ourselves to a more middle stance. Does this sound at all familiar? While this is generally true with many trends and beliefs, that doesn’t necessarily make living through the extreme moments easier, when the world feels like it has a lot of black-and-white polar opposites and no room for gray.  

The two Torah portions we read this week remind me of this swinging pendulum. This week we read a double parshah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Parshat Acharei Mot deals with what happens after Aaron’s sons have offered up “strange fire” to God and with certain forbidden relationships between human beings. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” which helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.

These two sections of text feel at times to be completely opposite to one another, like the two ends of a pendulum’s amplitude. Parshat Acharei Mot goes into an entire list of actions that are deemed to be abhorrent or an abomination. This list includes things like rape, incest, and bestiality, which are just as heinous today as they were then, but also homosexuality, which, to our modern sensibilities, obviously has no place on this list. The second text, Parshat Kedoshim, is a list of commandments for how we should honor, trust, lift up, and respect one another.  

The way our actions are judged in the first, combined with the commandments not to judge in the second, feels like two extremes of that pendulum swing. In the middle is where we find the first verse of Parshat Kedoshim: “You should be holy, because I, the Lord, your God is holy.” This refrain is used again and again. What is holy? Acting with respect for human dignity and loving one another. What is also holy? Not causing undo harm, mental or physical, to other human beings. What else is holy? Lifting one another up in a way that gives each of us the freedom to be our best selves.  

The pendulum swings, even in religious Jewish practice. It’s not just a literal interpretation of the text, it’s a metaphor for our lives as Conservative Jews. We read these portions through our lens of “tradition and change,” and while the text is our guide, this also means that reading a statement that calls an act of love an abomination, even during a time far removed from our own, requires of us a moment of teshuvah, of returning to that midpoint between the extremes. It’s our reminder that, no matter what, we are holy.

Uncommon Cold – Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5783

How many of you have had the experience over the last four years of looking at someone who was coughing or sneezing (or had any signs at all of being under the weather) and pulled back just a little because “Oh no, Covid”? How many times did you have to excuse your seasonal allergies so that you weren’t shunned for “Covid-like symptoms?”

In a pre-Covid world, we might have assumed the best, if you can call a cold or allergies “the best.” In our post-Covid world, we have to do extra work to decipher what’s a cold, what’s the flu, what’s allergies, and what’s a potentially life-threatening virus we can spread to others. That’s not to say these other illnesses can’t be deadly or highly contagious, but simply that we have a whole new understanding of how to recognize and classify symptoms.

The truth is, our Torah has been guiding us on quarantining and recognizing ailments since the very beginning, and it kicks off in this week’s double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora. The text of these parshiyot tell us of the laws for the purification of our homes and our bodies after disease or death has occurred. The laws remind us that our bodies and our places of residence need to be treated with the utmost respect. We also have the obligation to help one another maintain healthy lifestyles and support one another when we find ourselves with impurities. 

It’s interesting, in our modern, post-Covid world, to read laws about how we purify ourselves (sanitizer, anyone?) and about quarantines well before modern medicine and our current support systems were in place. What it comes down to is the human connection we feel when we care for one another. Illness doesn’t mean that you’re somehow morally flawed; it means that we have work to do to bring healing. As we read this week’s double portion, we’re reminded just how important it is to be both aware of our own bodies and respectful enough of others to keep our fellow community members safe.