Act Now – Parshat Vayikra 5783

I used to be very on top of things. I never missed a moment, a birthday, a call, an email. And then, as the needs of my children changed, and later as much of the world shifted to online communication, I suddenly wasn’t as on top of communication as I had been. I found myself constantly apologizing for missing reaching out to someone in need or missing those key moments I was previously present for. If you’re like me, you’re now discovering the challenge of reversing a long period of inactivity and disconnection. So how do we re-engage? 

This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and the daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with an 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 earthly needs like keeping our calendar and eating meals should be rooted in our faith.

As we read the extensive list of sacrifices for wrongdoing, I’m drawn to the notion that we’re held responsible, by God, for those things we should have done, but didn’t. I love this moment of Torah. Why? Because it’s yet another reminder that Judaism compels us to act, whether that’s checking in on a friend or standing up to injustice. It reminds us that when we fail to act, we’re guilty of inaction. Have you heard the phrase “easier to ask forgiveness than permission”? It’s true in some circumstances, and it’s one way of looking at the Torah of Vayikra.

This is not to say we should act irrationally or without purpose. Rather, it means that we’re asked to listen to the needs of others and take a stand when required. To me, the idea that I’m held accountable for the times when I don’t act is something of a wake-up call. If you’re looking for an excuse to re-engage, answer the call with me.

Can You Repeat That? – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783

I have the bad habit of repeating my favorite stories. I don’t mean children’s stories, I mean personal stories. The ones I repeat are usually those that have changed my perspective somehow or have been otherwise impactful in my life. Despite their significance (to me) I often hear, “You’ve already told me that story” from my kids and my friends alike. Truth be told, I often have to reread my past weekly articles to make sure I’m not doing the same thing here.

The urge to retell a story isn’t just because of loss of memory. It is precisely the opposite; it is because of the importance of that moment, the outcome, or the lesson that we retell a story. It’s not the act of forgetting we said something, it’s the act of remembering how important it was. It’s easy to point to our yearly Jewish cycle and the repetition of stories from Passover, Purim, Hannukah, and Sukkot. We tell those stories and they become alive because we actively celebrate. We dress up, eat special food, and sleep outside. We do something to mark the moment. But what about the rest of the Torah that we read each year? How does that repetition benefit us? Furthermore, what about the repetition within the Torah?

This week we read a double portion, 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. 

When we read any of our sacred texts, we’re told that no word should be taken for granted, that every word has meaning and then some. However, this section of text, which closes the second book of the Torah, is repetitive in nature. So, why would God or Moses include this repetition? Often, repetition is meant to emphasize something in storytelling, like the chorus of a song. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that creating a space of gathering is so critical for our people, it bears repeating.

During the height of the pandemic, we felt the strain of not being able to gather together. It reinforced the importance of a physical structure, the meeting place, where we know we’ll be welcomed and connected. That’s not to say that my retelling of old stories holds the same value, but it is often the case that we repeat what is most meaningful. In the case of this week’s Torah portion, clearly that means gathering together as a community. When we do that, we are indeed fulfilling the words we say at the end of each book, which of course have their own internal repetition: “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.” Let us be strong, and strengthen one another.

To Give and To Give – Parshat Ki Tissa 5783

I have a few favorite teachings from the Torah, one of which is in the Torah portion this week, when we hear about the census of the Israelites. This week’s portion is Ki Tissa, and a word used in the beginning of the text is v’natnu, which means “and they gave.” In Hebrew, this word is a palindrome, and this fact is often used to explain that giving is cyclical; sometimes we give, sometimes we receive. The circle works because we’re equally committed to opening ourselves to both experiences. 

Here’s where we are in the story: the Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they’re set to continue on their journey, with Moshe and God leading the way. But Moshe is delayed in coming down from the mountaintop. This makes the Israelites scared and unsure of this God that they have yet to trust, so they gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.

Their journey is about more than just covering ground; it’s an emotional journey as well. On this journey they’re learning to accept help and to live in the unknown, neither of which is an easy task. They’ve put their trust in Moshe, the one who led them out and has kept them relatively safe. So, when Moshe doesn’t come back as quickly as they expected, that trust turns into fear, and the Israelites respond by doing one of the last things Moshe asked of them, by giving gold. Just a few chapters before, the Israelites were generous in giving gold and other materials so they could build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and start working on priestly garments. Now, they apparently turn to what they know, but this time for the wrong reasons. 

The Jerusalem Talmud in Shekalim 1:1 posits that this makes the Israelites a peculiar people. How could they honor the God they believe in, who just a few chapters before told them no idols, and then flip and donate with the same honor to an idol, the exact object that was forbidden? When I read this section it makes me wonder if perhaps the Israelites were just looking for any type of connection, no matter the cost. Giving can feel good, and creating can feel validating, but doing so without a purpose is as fruitless as idol worship. 

Our narrative reminds us that giving and receiving both have many benefits. However, we also learn that we must be discerning about how we use our precious resources so that they go towards good, towards building holiness rather than breaking it down. When we have in mind the results we’d like to achieve, that’s when the giving is truly beneficial.  

A Way of Life – Parshat Tetzaveh 5783

One of the most powerful experiences of living a Jewish life is the way in which tradition, values, and physical artifacts are passed down from generation to generation. To say a prayer and know that my great-great-grandparents also said that prayer, and know that generations that come after me will say it opens up an intense feeling of connectedness and peace in my heart and soul.

The connection of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, is one of the founding pillars of Judaism. There’s a reason that so many moments marked throughout the Torah and the rest of the Prophets and Writings use the phrase “As God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” It is because our ethical, moral, and cultural behaviors are more than a story; they are a way of living that’s passed from one generation to the next.

We see some of the first elements of this in our Torah portion this week. Our Torah reading comes from Parshat Tetzaveh, which details the specific articles of clothing a priest and those close to him are to wear. This is special attire that distinguishes them from others in their service to God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their sacred duties. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God also gives special instructions regarding who is to make them. After we receive these specifics, we learn about the details of what is on each garment.

When Aaron and his sons are elevated into the priesthood, Aaron is tasked with passing down not just the priestly vestments, that physical reminder of their place in society, but also the ethical role the priest will play. In other words, what Aaron is to leave as a legacy to his children and all the generations that come after him is more than a tangible, touchable artifact. It’s also the way in which they should act in the world as leaders, upstanders, and moral exemplars for the nation. 

I have beautiful physical possessions handed down to me from relatives, and I cherish them and look forward to handing them down to my children. But I also take comfort and pride in the knowledge that I’ll be handing down the values, experiences, and life lessons that my parents passed to me.

Everything Has Its Purpose – Parshat Terumah 5783

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the chaotic mess that is my house. And I know I’m not the first parent to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff we have at home. We organize, and we clean, and we recycle, but things still pile up. And while I appreciate the effort my children make to repurpose something rather than throw it out, our house feels like there are items everywhere largely because of their need and desire to take loose parts and found objects like shoe boxes, paper plates, coffee canisters, and countless other objects and create projects with them. These containers could be a train or a drum kit. These empty toilet paper rolls can be binoculars. My children believe that every item has a purpose for which it was originally intended, and a secondary or tertiary purpose only they can envision. I do love their creativity, but sometimes I just wish I could see my floor and countertops again.

Their ability to see potential in the world around them is one that is inherently Jewish and expressed in our Torah portion this week. This week we read Parshat Terumah, which reminds us of the importance of giving 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, including what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

Specifically, the Israelites are asked to create a wooden surface overlaid with gold to place special breads on, an ark to place the tablets in, and a menorah to light. Each of these items serves a purpose for the rituals God is instructing. On their own, they are simply objects: a table, a closet, and a lamp. However, used for the reasons God describes, they become sacred.

The table, with its beautiful cover, is a sacred space for offering, and for connecting our physical and spiritual needs. The ark is a private space, representing the need for introspection. The menorah stands to remind us of the light we can share when we come together in community. This week’s Torah portion is a wonderful reminder that just because something may serve an ordinary function, doesn’t mean it can’t also have a holy (or artistic) purpose too.