Say Something

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D’var Torah for Congregation Neveh Shalom – April 14, 2018

Just this week we observed Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Some news outlets mentioned the results of a recent survey conducted about the Holocaust. You may have seen it referenced online. This survey was commissioned by the Conference  on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and it looked at the awareness of the Holocaust in the United States.

I will say as a caveat, they only interviewed 1,350 adults. It’s helpful to keep in mind this is less than one thousandth of a percent of the population. But on the other hand, it’s the job of surveys to extrapolate and make assumptions based on the data, and this data is staggering. It points to a downward trend in the awareness of basic Holocaust knowledge, or what we think of as basic, including the fact that 45% of the adults surveyed could not name a concentration camp. If we assume this survey represents a balanced sampling of people, almost half of American adults did not have the name Auschwitz somewhere in their accessible memory. They couldn’t say Dachau. They couldn’t come up with Warsaw or Treblinka.

We condemn the silence of 80 years ago by saying “Never again.” So, what about the silence now? What are doing to condemn this silence and make sure when people say, “Never again,” they actually know what it is they don’t want to ever happen again?

Maybe this week’s silence in the Torah offers some advice. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details priestly instructions, including the prohibition from drinking while on the job and the designations for various animals to be considered pure and impure. But somewhat hidden near the beginning is Aaron’s curious reaction to the deaths of his two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the text goes on to discuss what will happen to his sons’ bodies and how the priests are forbidden from the same mourning rituals as the rest of the people, only two words are used to describe Aaron’s reaction to losing two children: vayidom Aharon. Aaron was still. Aaron was silent.

It’s at the installment of the priests as the leaders of the Jewish people where Aaron’s sons make the unfortunate decision to go beyond the celebration and sacrifice that God has commanded. And for that, Nadav and Avihu die. But what about Aaron? Certainly after the death of a loved one, especially children, emotions can take you by surprise. But Aaron is left speechless, and we are left to figure out why. Many commentators suggest that the silence might have been either in protest of God’s decision, in acceptance of this fate, or perhaps the anguish was too much for words.

It’s ok to be the strong, silent type. It’s ok to choose your battles. It’s ok to turn the other cheek, to borrow a phrase from a different testament. It’s ok . . . until it isn’t. It’s ok until those moments that demand of us to take our voices and use them strongly, loudly, and vibrantly.

There’s so much to speak out about, it’s both depressing and overwhelming. There are humanitarian crises happening everywhere. From the genocide occurring in the Sudan, to the plight of the Rohingya women who have been raped and forced to flee to refugee camps in Banghladesh, and then the genocide happening to the Rohignya who have remained in Burma. We hear daily about loss of life in Syria and senseless violence in our own country.

We live in a world where there is so much to do. We might not all be fighting for the same thing, but at least we’re moving the conversation forward. Nadav and Avihu perhaps didn’t have the best of intentions or the strongest cause to stand up for. But at least they made some noise. Aaron was silent.

Our Torah this week is the Torah of engagement. Parshat Shemini asks us to find the power to stand up for what we see as right. While we certainly cannot solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop, we can use our voices. We don’t have to be silent.

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Eating My Feelings – Parshat Shemini 5778

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Don’t think me morbid, but some of my most vivid memories of sitting shiva with my family are all about the food. We ate chocolate covered potato chips at my Zayde’s shiva. At my Nana’s shiva we found chocolate covered, peanut butter wrapped cherries in her freezer that she’d made, so we ate those. For my grandfather, it was fried chicken all the way, and for my father we had delicious cakes and treats from my favorite bakery, Zingerman’s. Each of these experiences is seared in my mind with the powerful senses of smell and taste. I will go so far as to say I probably overindulged, falling into the trap of gaining weight while grieving. It is not uncommon to either gain or lose significant weight after a loss. Things tend to fall to one extreme or another as we try to process our emotions and make some sense of the world when everything is so out of order.

The Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, and in particular in the portion we read this week, Parshat Shemini. The parshah begins with the words “On the eighth day” after the priests have 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 the laws of kashrut.

What stands out in this text are the reactions to the death. Aaron is silent, though immediately following his silence we read about the rule to “drink no wine” in chapter 10, verse 9. On the surface you’d think that this prohibition has everything to do with the fact that Nadav and Avihu were “intoxicated” when they broke the rules and ultimately lost their lives. However, according to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, a modern commentator, this resulted from the fear that the bereaved relatives would drown their sorrows in intoxicants and not be fit to carry on their responsibilities.

The Torah recognizes the very human reaction to loss or tragedy in overindulging in our vices, whether that’s the substance specified – wine – or chocolate cake. The Torah reminds us to find our balance. Furthermore, Simcha Bunem, an 18th century Hasidic leader in Poland, reminds us that while wine “cheers the heart” (Psalm 104:15), the Kohanim (priests) were to avoid it. When we come before God, our joy should stem from serving God, without the use of external stimulants.

Joy and sorrow are deep-rooted human emotions, and emotional changes cause us to behave differently in certain situations. As difficult as it can be to deal with emotional highs and lows, Parshat Shemini encourages us to embrace and experience these emotions rather than try to mask them with food, beverages, or other substances. The best coping mechanism we have is actually living these moments fully and allowing ourselves to learn and grow as a result.

 

Holier Than Thou – Parshat Tzav 5778

You’ve heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I simultaneously love and hate this saying. I love it because we can come out of obstacles and challenges in life stronger and wiser. On the other hand, when you’re in the thick of the challenge itself, these words can often discourage more than they encourage. It’s not comforting in the midst of any challenging situation to hear someone tell you basically, “Don’t worry, there’s a reason for everything.” Reassurance is such a natural human tendency, but sometimes we just don’t want to be reassured. Sometimes we just need someone else to confirm that life can be a struggle and to let us learn the lesson ourselves.

This week we learn in Parshat Tzav that there is a reason behind how we grow through adversity. Parshat Tzav begins with the instructions for the priests in regard to various sacrifices. After discussing the need for the eternal flame, the text continues by teaching the prohibition against eating milk and meat together and then offers up a final review of the sanctification ceremony of the priests and their roles.

In the beginning of the text in chapter six, verse ten we read, “It shall not be baked with leaven; I have given it as their portion from My gifts; it is most holy, like the purification offering and the reparation offer.” I am struck by the notion of “most holy.” We’re talking about offerings to God here, and it would seem that an offering is an offering. In fact, sacrifice was meant to be the great equalizer, in that all offerings were accepted if given from the heart. So why the superlative? What does “most holy” mean?

According to a commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash, this is because a “greater degree of holiness is ascribed to the person who has struggled with sin and overcome it than to the person who has never been tempted.” In other words, those who have faced a challenge in life and stepped through it are “most holy.” Thus we have yet another way to look at adversity. In essence, Parshat Tzav is reminding us that we are holy from the start, but we become holier based on the lives we lead, the challenges we face, and the ways in which we rise to meet them.

Close Encounters – Parshat Vayikra 5778

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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

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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.