Role Call – Parshat Bamidbar 5780

Like most people, I wear many different hats in different situations. I’m a mother, rabbi, friend, youth director, sister, daughter, wife, avid walker, just to name a few of my roles. Where I get in trouble is when I’m wearing one hat while others are expecting me to wear another. Some time ago, my daughter came down with a fever while at school, and it happened to be in the middle of a terrible day for me. This extra weight was the straw that broke this mother’s back. To make my already grumpy mood worse, I took her temperature again when we got home, and it was normal (of course). And later that day when I needed to be wearing my rabbi hat, I was still wearing my frustrated mom hat, and this led to confused feelings and some mismatched expectations all around. The truth is, I’m all of these people all the time, even if I don’t feel like acting like it.

These days, it’s even more confusing, since I’m doing most of my job as a rabbi from home. The lines have further blurred between work life and home life. When am I a rabbi? When am I a mommy?

The Torah this week teaches us a similar lesson as the Israelites learn what it is to be a free society. This week we read from Parshat Bamidbar, the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah. This text brings us to an accounting of the people, showing us who each of the tribes are and what numbers they held at this moment. Each tribe is denoted with a flag which marks their territory. This is the beginning of an organized and well thought out society, a change from the free flow and uncertainty they faced leaving Egypt, and also a change from the tight restrictions they had while in Egypt. 

The text begins with a list of the ways in which the Israelites are to march through the desert and set up their camps. In chapter 2, verse 17 we read, “Then, midway between the divisions, the Tent of Meeting, the division of the Levites, shall move. As they camp, so they shall march, each in position, by their standards.” Logistically, this means that the Levites are broken into two units during the march, but the Israelite troops remain intact at all times.

However, another interpretation of “As they camp, so they shall march” could be that individuals should be the same person at home as away from home, in private as in public. True, my home and my family provide a safe space for me to let down my hair and let off some steam, but I’m still a mother and a wife when I leave the house, just as I’m still a rabbi everywhere. This is especially true now, when I’m doing much of my work as a rabbi from my home. That’s not to say I can’t express my emotions or vent now and then. The important thing to remember is that one hat doesn’t define you or anyone else. To be a well-rounded individual, you will naturally take on a variety of roles, but parts of you shouldn’t disappear just because you’re in a different environment or talking to different people at any given time. In other words, instead of removing one hat to put on another, wearing all of them (using all of your experience and expertise in daily life) means you’re truer to your authentic self.  

This Land is Our Land – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

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It seems that much of the tension in our world stems from the human desire to own a tangible piece of the world. Whether this means the simple notion of a backyard vegetable garden, a commercial real estate investment, or anything in between, we have an innate desire to have something to call our own. For much of our modern history, land ownership has been a measurement of status, and the drive to own more and more has in many cases increased the divide between those who have ownership and those who don’t.

This concept was also familiar to the Israelites in their quest for the creation of a civil society. This week we read Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, the final parshiyot in the book of Vayikra. This double portion focuses primarily on the laws of agriculture and land. What makes this section of text unique is that it suggests a type of land ownership and farming in which no one group holds complete power forever.

Specifically, we read about the 50-year land ownership cycle requiring the land to rest every seventh year. At the end of the 50 year cycle, land rights returned to their original owner. No one was able to hold land acquisition above the head of someone else because equality and balance would be the rule. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that the purpose of the 50th “Jubilee” year (after 49 years of seven seven-year cycles) was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel and to restore self-respect to the person who may have sunk into poverty or failure.

In today’s world we pride ourselves on the systems set up to maintain balance, like our branches or government and varying income tax brackets, yet we still haven’t been able to close the gap that divides far too many of the most impoverished families and communities in our country. For the entirety of our existence as a Jewish people, the Torah has imagined a world where we’re not stratified and strangulated based on income or job description. Imagine if every 50 years (or every 7 years) we reevaluated and took a serious look at where we’ve been, what we need to continue to thrive, and how we can help others to do the same.

I Can Almost Taste It – Parshat Emor 5780

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Life is about experiences, and some stick with us so vividly that certain smells, tastes, and even sounds can take us right back there. In fact, the sense of smell is known to have a big connection to memory. Sometimes I get a whiff of something like my father’s cologne at times, and it’s as if he’s visiting me somehow. And smells like chicken soup and chocolate chip cookies will thrust me right back into my mother’s kitchen preparing for Passover. In those moments it’s like I’m literally feeling the memory of warmth, an embrace, and family togetherness.

On the flip side, there are times when I am desperate to relive a memory and can’t find a way to evoke that tight connection. Those are the moments that make sad, and feel as if that familiarity is gone forever. 

Many of the experiences described in the Torah are also the kind that evoke memory long after the moment has passed. The sacrifices we learn of produced an array of aromas, and the sound of all of Israel gathering at the mountain and then hushing must have provided quite a contrast. Parshat Emor reminds us of all of this and more. We begin with the specific rules and regulations of the priests, as well as the laws about what we’re supposed to put into our bodies. The text continues with an in-depth look at the laws of our holidays and special times and concludes with the punishments that would be brought to those who break the mitzvot of trust in relationships. With the laws about the priesthood comes one of the defining mitzvot of Jewish community. 

In chapter 23, verse 24 we receive the laws of Rosh Hashanah. The holiday that now begins our year was actually the first day of the seventh month. The Torah describes the festival as a day of complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupation (clergy excepted of course) and you shall bring a gift to God. Sounds pretty much like how we celebrate Rosh Hashanah today. We stop what we’re doing (which feels a bit like resting on Shabbat) and we blast the shofar, nice and loud.

However, this verse is also how we learn that we can’t blow the shofar on Shabbat. Why? Because Shabbat is a mikrah kodesh, a holy commemoration of its own, so there is no need for the additional sound. According to the Talmud, on this occasion we’re supposed to remember the sound of the shofar in our hearts, and since that sound is so vividly ingrained, we don’t need both.

The shofar pierces our ears and often our hearts with its loud and startling blasts, but memory is so strong, even the mitzvah of hearing those loud blasts can be fulfilled by recall if it happens to be Shabbat. 

What an important message this is about how we celebrate Jewishly, especially during a pandemic, when we might not be able to celebrate in the same ways as usual. Our memories are strong enough that we can recall the sound of the shofar, the sight of the Purim costumes, or the smell of kiddush lunch at shul, and it’s like we’re there.

Doctor’s Orders – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5780

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It has been many years since I have fasted for the full Yom Kippur holiday. The last time was Yom Kippur 2012. This year is the first time since then that I am neither pregnant nor nursing, so I had the obligation to return to the traditional fast. It kind of reminded me of when I was 12 and fasted for the first time. I had dry mouth and a headache, and it was hard to concentrate, especially while leading long services and standing for much of the morning. By mid-afternoon I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the fast. I had two more programs to do, and my head was feeling a bit woozy, so I caved. I took a big sip of water, and my body instantly calmed down. I made it 20 hours through my fast. I felt a twinge of disappointment that I couldn’t push through, but I also felt proud of the work I’d done both spiritually and physically to get through the day. I still had a meaningful Yom Kippur, I wasn’t smited (at least I don’t think so), and I ended the holiday on a spiritual high. 

The Torah would actually support my partial victory. 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” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationships and understanding.

It’s Parshat Acharei Mot that carries with it many of the laws for Yom Kippur and how we should atone. Chapter 16, verse 31 expresses that Yom Kippur shall be a Shabbat of complete rest and that we should practice self denial. This is the basis for fasting on Yom Kippur as well as the abstentions from bathing, sexual activity, and wearing leather. We indulge the rest of the year; Yom Kippur is the one time of year when we focus outside of ourselves. 

While the intention behind giving up certain things is good, self-denial can be more difficult for some than others, and also potentially dangerous. The Talmud insists that all who are ill or infirm should follow doctor’s orders to eat, drink, and take medication, including on Yom Kippur. Further, if it feels necessary for your own health, you’re allowed to – in small quantities – take a sip of water or a small bite of food. 

The fact that Parshat Acharei Mot is followed by Parshat Kedoshim, which literally means holiness, is a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s our laws and traditions that lead us to holiness. However, holiness is more than individual instances of self-denial. It’s about all-around self-care, and that’s something we should be practicing all year long. 

We Are Not OK, And That’s OK

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I’m not OK. My kids are not OK. Isolation and fear have put us in a deep grief. But I’m trying to remind myself that doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. It means the same thing a period of grief normally means: we’re allowing ourselves to feel.
This type of grief is new and scary, especially because the normal outlets for mourning and releasing grief are closed to us; in fact, their closure is the cause of the grief. I’m a rabbi. I’m a doer. It hurts when I can’t take some sort of close, personal action with those around me.
This past weekend was supposed to be our synagogue’s family camp weekend. A weekend my community, my family, and I look forward to every year. As the weekend drew near, my heart was hurting at the thought of not being together. An idea formed in my head that maybe we could run a virtual family camp, and we actually pulled it off. We used Zoom meetings for services and a couple of short sessions in combination with tons of activities families could do on their own. We included our traditional glow stick Havdalah and grown-up social time. We went on individual nature walks and posted pictures in a shared album and with a hashtag. I was stoked.
While it seemed to be mostly a success, it also backfired emotionally for me. Not only was it obviously not the same as real camp, it made me miss our friends more. At times it felt like I was painting on a happy face to trick myself into believing we (and everything) were OK.
But in reality, that’s a lie. I can’t call this OK. I’m tired, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, overworked, alone, smothered, scared, and anxious, and I can’t help feeling like I’m failing my kids and congregation, though I know I can’t fix everything.
We’re a family with two full-time working parents and two kids at the super needy ages of three and six. Our kids just want and deserve undivided attention. Our jobs expect us to continue to answer emails and Slack messages and be productive during the workday. Yes, they’re trying to be flexible, but we’re both working what feels like our 40-hour weeks every day in order to keep up. And why, for the love of everything, are there so many dishes?!
We are not OK, and we have to stop pretending we are. Ignoring or wishing away the grief doesn’t make it go away. Last night after the end of Shabbat and virtual family camp, both kids had epic meltdowns. After they finally got pajamas on and got into bed, I lay in bed with the six-year-old. I was there mostly to apologize for losing my cool. She looked utterly defeated, and I asked if she was OK. She shook her head no with giant tears in her sleepy eyes. I hugged her, and I said, “I’m not OK either. I miss friends and school. I miss going to shul. I miss putting down our tech. I hate wearing a mask when I’m with people. I’m scared and I’m sad. Are you, Baby?”
By this point she was crying hard and squeezing me so tight I could barely breathe. And this isn’t the snuggly one of my two children. I had worked so hard to create routine and stability for everyone that I hadn’t allowed room for the tears. I kept on my positive face and comforting persona to help others, but it turns out, we need to allow it out. The grief needs an outlet.
So I am proclaiming here: I am NOT OK, and that is OK. But I will be OK. We all will be. What we should do in the meantime is own our feelings. Let them out.
As an aside, I’m always here for you, and ready and willing to cry together just like I did with my daughter.