Lean on Me – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5777

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It wasn’t so long ago that Portland’s Jewish community was without a Jewish Free Loan program. Last January, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland launched this wonderful and necessary service for our community. There is great power in knowing that as a community we have the means to support one another, whether it’s for those emergency car repairs she didn’t budget for or the money to buy a suit for an interview so he can get back on his feet. These interest-free funds serve a beautiful purpose: helping others to help themselves.

The creation story in the book of Bereshit isn’t the only creation in the Torah. The entire sacred text is an account of the creation of a people, and at the center of this cultural origin story is the idea that a structurally sound community supports its members.

This week we read Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, the final parshiyot in the book of Vayikra. This double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, focuses primarily on the laws of agriculture and land. 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 in which we are required 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 have to find another way to make a living. According to our Torah laws, in the 50th year, this farmer would receive back all his land and become his own landlord again.

In the beginning of this long list of what happens to our land as we reach these milestone years, we receive the Torah imperative in chapter 25, verse 25: “If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding . . .” In this moment the Torah gives us an important law, a law that requires extending help to people in financial trouble so that their economic condition does not worsen. This verse of the Torah requires of us that we help maintain dignity, and at a bare minimum the status quo of support, so that basic needs of human existence are met within the community.

Rambam, the great 16th century philosopher, rabbi, and physician, teaches in his work the Mishneh Torah that the highest form of tzedakah is to help people help themselves become financially independent. Thus, establishing a Jewish Free Loan program allows our community to sustain our members, to help them get back on their feet, and to move forward. In fact, all of our community resources provide these opportunities, and it is our responsibility to perpetuate these modern versions of the safety net, because if circumstances were just a little different, we could just have easily been the ones in need.

Public Figure – Parshat Emor 5777

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When I was growing up, my grandparents were not just congregants, but friends with our synagogue rabbis. One rabbi, Efry Spectre (z”l), was a particularly close friend. He was practically a part of our family. He was at birthday celebrations and major family simchas, and he was there for our family in times of need. He’d even come over for the Miss America broadcast every year and watch as I paraded around as a contestant. I didn’t know any better about what to expect of a rabbi, so this became my model for the rabbinate. We are family, we support one another, we celebrate together, and nothing makes me more excited than dancing the hora at a simcha with you.

But as much a part of your lives as your rabbi might be, of course there are boundaries to this relationship. Naturally, these boundaries are tested when a life in the public eye also means being intimately connected to others. This lesson is never more apparent than in the laws of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor. Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observation of certain holidays, including mentions of the holiness of Shabbat, the holidays we celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them. To this day, we do not say the Barchu or Mourner’s Kaddish while praying alone because of the strength and power in experiencing these moments with a community.

One clear distinction that the Torah makes is when it comes to what the public figures, the kohanim (priests), can do with grief and loss. They’re put in the tough spot of having to reconcile their personal sorrow with their commitment to serving the people and modeling the acceptance of death as part of God’s plan. As we’re all unique individuals, priests included, grief hits us in a variety of ways, and to grieve in public is no easy task. For this reason, the Torah actually sets some limits.

Chapter 21, verse 1 teaches, “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister.” Traditionally, a priest is unable to be in the presence of a dead body, unless it is a family member, because of this prohibition. This rule stems from the fact that because priestly status is inherited from your family of origin, the rules are waived. In other words, for these most personal and intimate moments, the Torah reminds us that clergy, our spiritual leaders, have an obligation to turn inward and close down to cope with those moments of grief.

As a rabbi, you quickly learn that while the role of steadfast spiritual navigator is important, the best leaders are also relatable because they too are vulnerable. For clergy, the line between public and private can sometimes appear blurred, but the Torah reminds us in Parshat Emor that for both clergy and their congregants, family comes first.

With God as My Accountant – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777

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As the daughter of a CPA, my childhood years were always divided into “tax season” and “not tax season.” From January 1 through April 15, it was known in my house that my mom was going to be focused on work. We would still have dinner as a family, and then she’d sit down at the dining room table, which was her makeshift tax season home office, and start clicking away on the adding machine. Her fingers moved at what I thought was lightening speed on the number pad, adding, subtracting, looking for advantages here, deductions there.

Since tax returns were due not long ago, our household earnings and expenditures are still fresh on my mind. It is a bit sobering to look at budget line items and realize what we actually spend on luxuries like dining out, coffee (because . . . Portland), and entertainment, compared to what we give to charitable causes. Of course we donate annually to various worthy organizations, but in looking back at the previous year, did these align with what we spent on our own extravagances? In other words, did I give as much as I enjoyed?

There is a balance to strike between my desire to help the world through financial contributions and my desire to enjoy myself and the fruits of my labor. This week we read a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei Mot picks up the narrative after Aaron’s son’s are killed for offering “strange fire” to God. The laws in this section of text deal mainly with Yom Kippur and the proper relationships we are to have in our lives. Parshat Kedoshim features the laws called the “Holiness Code,” marked with the ways in which we should respectfully treat one another in our community.

In Acharei Mot we begin with the offerings made on Yom Kippur, overseen by the high priest. We read that two goats are to be offered; one is designated for the Lord and the other for “Azazel,” which is sometimes translated as one that is “sent away,” other times as a “scapegoat.” A Hasidic commentary suggests this split teaches us that we should spend as much time, money, and energy on God’s purposes as we do on earthly pleasures. Literally, it means that these two goats are equal. In a broader sense, when we go to tally up our year, we should see a balanced ledger, especially in terms of giving to ourselves and giving to our community. Acharei Mot literally means “after death,” and Kedoshim means “holiness.” Taken together, we can ensure our holiness endures beyond this lifetime if we hold ourselves accountable to improving our world.

Sick and Tired – Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5777

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Living with two young children who go to two different preschools, there’s really no such thing as “cold season” in our house. Someone always has a cold. The kids usually mange to take it in stride; they’re perpetually upbeat and energetic, so it’s rare when they’re not themselves. On the other hand, Duncan and I are miserable when we’re sick, and the recovery process seems to take more out of us.

As someone whose job requires maintaining personal relationships and being in social environments for at least part of the day, being sick doesn’t just take a toll on my body. Because it strips me of my productivity as well, it also leaves me feeling isolated and worthless. And as much as I loved pregnancy, being on maternity leave was equally painful for me for the same reasons. There’s no question I treasured the one-on-one special time with the baby, but I spent much of this time without contact with other adults. It sounds strange to say, but when I’m alone, I’m just not myself. On a conscious level, I know my body needs time to heal, but any time I’m cooped up, the isolation weighs heavily on me, and I feel a strong desire to get back to “it.”

Our beautiful tradition has plenty of ways to help both the community and the person in recovery to deal with these feelings. Specifically, this week we read a double portion, Tazria and Metzora, which focus on different ailments and healing processes.

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 utmost respect. We also have the obligation to help one another maintain healthy lifestyles and to support one another when we find ourselves with impurities. While our human nature tends to lean towards picking ourselves apart based on what we wish we could change, the Torah reminds us that what might be seen as an “impurity” in our eyes is seen as a “tabernacle,” a holy space, by God.

Within this text we learn in chapter 14 about the different offerings that would be given for skin ailments and other healing opportunities. The offering included cedar wood, which is from the tallest and strongest of all plants, and hyssop, described as the smallest and most vulnerable of all growing things. The tallest and smallest. The strongest and most fragile. What we have is not set of polar opposites, but a continuum. When faced with an illness, the strongest, the most vulnerable, and everyone in the middle all need to heal. And for each healing process, as the Torah teaches, there are steps to take that will keep you on track for recovery. This way you can be sure you’re really ready when it’s time to reenter the community.

We all heal, grow, and change in our own ways and at difference paces. Any illness, from the flu to a broken bone, can feel isolating and lonely. Still, it is our job as a community to support one another. To lift up both the hyssop and the cedar.

In the Middle – Parshat Shmini 5777

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I like to find symmetry in life. Symmetry in the sense that there’s balance between what came before and what will come after. In other words, I feel most confident when I know where I’ve been and how far I have to go. On my morning walks, I pace myself by remembering where the middle of the walk is. Knowing I have two miles down and two to go gives me tremendous energy to keep moving. When you’re pregnant, reaching the 20-week mark is a relief to know that you’re halfway done. Flying with kids, I’m always thrilled to get to the halfway point of the flight to reassure myself that we’ve made it through to that point without a major meltdown (if in fact we have). Similarly, on a long car ride, the halfway point is a good indicator and helpful way to answer “How much longer?” and “Are we there yet?” Marking milestones is a part of moving forward. Whether it’s the milestone of a birthday, years passed since a historic event in your life, or looking forward to one coming up, counting and marking life is what we do.

The Torah also counts certain milestones. When the Torah marks how far from Egypt the Israelites have traveled, it denotes not just the story of the present journey, but what’s yet to come and what ground they’ve covered. In Parshat Shmini, the Torah reading for this week, we cover another Torah milestone. The parshah begins with the words, “On the eighth day,” after the priests had been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following kashrut.

Interestingly, chapter 10, verse 16 is commonly regarded as the middle of the Torah. It begins, “Then Moses inquired about the goat of the purification offering.” Specifically, the word darash (inquired) is said to be the word directly in the middle of the whole Torah. Clearly, since we are a people of perpetual learning and inquiry, there is significance in this middle marking, this halfway point. Emet v’Emunah, which is the Statement of Principles created by several organizations within the Conservative movement, teaches, “The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.” That is to say the essence of the Torah – study and inquiry – is found in this central word of its body.

The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.

I find comfort in this reminder that what sets Judaism apart is a constant, unfailing curiosity. After thousands of years of interpretations, we’re left with more questions now than ever before, which is kind of the point. The middle brings meaning, but in a “glass half-full or half-empty” kind of way. We’re halfway there, but we still have a long way to go. Shabbat shalom.