Close Encounters – Parshat Vayikra 5778


There are times when I feel like I’m floating in a chaotic abyss. These are usually moments when there is so much going on that I don’t have time to sit down, take a breath, and center myself on the work I need or want to do. Or I feel like I haven’t seen my kids for days, and my relationship with Duncan feels like it’s made up entirely of texts and online chat sessions. In a way these times are helpful, because they encourage me to actively devote time to hunker down with the family, snuggle up tight, and share a few special “I love you” moments before heading back out to face the world again. Sometimes it’s the sacrifices we make that actually bring us closer.

The idea of returning to our close communities, our families, and our core selves is essential to maintaining focus, and it’s as old as the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayikra, the first portion in the third book of the Torah. This book is filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the Holiness Code, which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and a community.

The idea of sacrifice seems foreign to us, given that we don’t sacrifice animals these days. However, sacrifice in the Torah is anything but foreign or even negative. The Hebrew root for the word sacrifice is karov, which literally means “to bring close.” A sacrifice is meant to bring us closer, a gift to be given and received. It’s not some kind of bribe. The only purpose it serves is to build a relationship.

Understanding this notion of karov, of coming closer through the giving of ourselves, reminds us that there is a greater purpose to the personal sacrifices we make. In the same way that an animal sacrifice was designed to build a closer relationship with God, a sacrifice of time or money or energy is because of our devotion to those we’re sacrificing for. Something to think about the next time things start to seem a little too chaotic again.


Better Together – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778


For the last 18 months or so, Mel Berwin, Neveh Shalom’s Director of Congregational Learning, has been working on the “Better Together” program, with the goal of more intergenerational programming and community building. As part of this initiative, Leah Conley, our Foundation School Director, and I have also started to partner and look for ways in which our congregants, while spanning varied ages and stages, can find ways to engage with one another.

One way we’ve done this is through last year’s counting of the Omer. Our Shoreshim families created and decorated an Omer counter; our daily minyan members counted the Omer using the very same chart; and Aliyah joined in twice a week marking off the days. While none of these individual groups necessarily interacted with each other in person, they still had a shared experience, a collaboration.

The double portion we read this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei, includes the final portions of Sefer Shemot, and it teaches about the work of building the Tabernacle. Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite people since leaving Egypt, is given enormous responsibility. He is asked not only to lead the people and be the emissary between the Israelite nation and God, but also to handle the accounting of the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.

The building of this communal resource is only possible, however, when the community works together and builds together. Construction projects don’t usually involve an entire community working hand in hand, but in the building of the Mishkan, each person is responsible for something in order to arrive at the beautiful finished product.

Whether or not we’re literally building together, this idea holds true for our community. Each act, each component is valuable. From the smile of a new infant coming to Tot Shabbat to the wisdom of our oldest members, we each have something to teach and something to learn from one another. Our Torah this week from these two portions reminds us that although we may not see each other in the synagogue building every day, we thrive when we connect and collaborate and build our beautiful Mishkan together.

Comfort Object – Parshat Ki Tissa 5778


As a new parent I had mixed feelings about “lovey” usage in our house. I myself was a lovey kid. In fact I still like to hold my old Snoopy whenever I’m home in Detroit, and I feel an immediate sense of calm. Selfishly, I didn’t want to be responsible for looking for and keeping track of a precious stuffed animal day and night. I had nightmares about it getting lost at school or leaving it on an airplane or in a restaurant, never to be seen again. I was adamant against a lovey.

Of course I quickly saw that Shiri had an attachment to one particular blanket material animal and knew we were going to be a lovey family. One secret (don’t tell Shiri) that eased my mind was having two identical loveys: one lives at school, the other at home, and they’re never seen in the same place.

When the world feels out of control, when things just don’t feel safe, children want their lovey to bring them back to calm. Whether it’s a tangible object or a mantra we repeat, it is human nature to have something that brings us calm and connects us to our most patient self. The Israelite nation is no exception. 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. Moses is on top of the mountain, and he is delayed in coming down. The Israelites are scared, unsure of this God that they have yet to trust. They gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.

The Israelites needed comfort. They needed their lovey. Moses, the only leader they have ever known, the one who has the connection with God and who took them out of Egypt, is gone. They have no tangible, physical way of understanding that God is with them. They badly need to know that there is something that grounds them, keeps them connected, and so they remember in Egypt the power of gold and idols. Hence, the golden calf is built. Despite the emotion of the moment, it wasn’t out of malice or anger or even rebellion that they built it. They simply needed a physical connection to God, and this was the only way they knew how to do it.

In my case, my “lovey” is ritual. I find myself most comfortable living a life of routine and regularity, which is perhaps part of what has always drawn me to the yearly cycle of Jewish tradition. Hearing the melody of the Kiddush for a holiday or singing Yedid Nefesh on erev Shabbat puts my heart and soul into a calm, cool, and collected place.

Parshat Ki Tissa reminds us that for better or worse we crave familiarity. May our lesson be to recognize this need so that when it is in fact time to step out of our comfort zones, we’re ready.


Just Enough – Parshat Tetzaveh 5778


I have a hard time with self control and portion control. I like sweets, I like salty foods, I like a glass of wine. I can usually set a limit for myself, but there are moments of weakness when I simply want to eat all the food I see. In particular, my sugar addiction is so strong that I actually wake up excited to take my daily vitamin, which comes in the form of a gummy bear. But, I have to remind myself that just because it is sweet and delicious does not mean that I can take more than the recommended dose. 

As with so many things, moderation is key, and there are limits to safe usage. Whether we’re talking about food or video game playing, watching TV or taking medicine, there are guidelines for appropriate use so that we maintain a healthy life and lifestyle. The Torah drives home this point in Parshat Tetzaveh. Parshat Tetzaveh begins with the instructions on using the anointing oils by the high priests and the directions for the sacred clothing of Aaron and his sons. It continues with the directions for building the breastplate and the tunic, the jacket, and the pants for the priests and then details how to sanctify Aaron and his sons in seven days of service. 

What I find intriguing is the final direction in the parshah. The final section of this text details the safe and appropriate use of the incense and other spices of the tabernacle. This is the first time that the Israelites will be engaging in this type of ritual and so, like the pharmacist distributing a medication for the first time, the Torah gives clear guidelines as to where, when, and how much might be used. As a refined recipe calls for just a pinch of a stronger spice, so too the Torah reminds us just a pinch of spice, a bit of incense can go a long way in establishing both ritual and sacred space.

A little goes a long way. Often we think of life in terms of bold flavors, grand gestures, big ideas, and major milestone moments. However, this week the Torah is reminding us that while all of those have their place in the world, the rest of life is made up of the intricate, delicate details. A light dusting of an unusual flavor, the handwritten thank-you card, a pink sunset – these are the things that bring life pleasure.


Give a Little, Gain a Lot – Parshat Terumah 5778


I forget how old Shiri was when this started, but at some point she started to collect the change around the house and put it in the tzedakah box. It became a game; anytime there was any spare change hanging around, no matter where it was, she wanted it to go into the tzedakah box. This beautiful young child had no concept of saving for herself. Instead, her entire instinct when she found money was to give it to others. I credit Foundation School for most of this, but I also like to think that Duncan and I set an example of giving that she somehow has internalized.

The freeness Shiri exhibits in giving, the pure joy and open heart she wears, is something I hope she never loses. It’s also something I hope more adults will strive for, and the Torah this week shares that hope. This week we read Parshat Terumah, which reminds us of the importance of making these gifts just because we want to. The parshah focuses mainly on the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, including what the ark and decorative pieces will look like. The instructions are specific, like what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

The text begins with a commandment to give freely of your heart, which, according to the rabbis, means we shouldn’t give begrudgingly. I think of all the times I’m asked to add a dollar to my order at the grocery store for this or that cause, or the very big asks at the half dozen charity dinners we attend each year. Sometimes I’m excited to give and support the cause, but we typically give because we feel an obligation. According to the Torah, that is simply not what counts. Giving to feel the pure joy of a three-year-old putting money in a tzedakah box is the expectation.