The Golden Rule – Parshat Behar 5782

There is perhaps no rule more golden, more paraphrased, or more often repeated than “Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated.” From the first time we’re taught as children how to interact with peers through the rest of adult life, this rule seems to be our default instruction. But why do we need reminding time and time again? Because our instincts include an element of self-preservation. It’s natural to want to be the best or the strongest. Kids want to be faster, older, taller. Adults want to feel intellectually superior. These are broad generalizations of course, but the point is that the “golden rule” isn’t necessarily human nature, which could be the reason we have to refer to it so often. Versions of the golden rule also echo throughout our Torah, perhaps because human nature can often lead us astray, or perhaps because it is just that critical to a functioning society, or maybe a little bit of both. 

This week we read from Parshat Behar, the penultimate section of text in the book of Vayikra. The text details the laws about “returning” the land in Israel during the shmita (jubilee year) and how slaves and land are returned to their prior status. We also read about what happens to Jewish-owned land in the diaspora in the jubilee year and how we are to help those who are in need within our own communities. The text ends with another warning against idolatry.

As the Torah continues to detail the ways in which we’re supposed to respect and value the land we live on, it also offers insight into the notion that respect for people and their dignity is also an imperative. In chapter 25, verse 43 God implores landowners to not deal ruthlessly with their workers. The word used here that is usually translated as “ruthlessly” is b’farek and only appears in this section of Torah and also when describing the ways that Pharaoh treated the Israelites in Egypt. The direct meaning of the Hebrew word as explained by the Mishneh Torah connotes a prohibition against embarrassing or humiliating the slave in an attempt to emphasize the master’s power over them. 

There is something inherently ruthless about exerting power through humiliation. It doesn’t just break the golden rule, it completely erases it. It’s sad and frustrating and even dangerous when this type of attack is perpetrated, whether by a country against its people or by an individual against another individual on social media. I look forward to the day when the golden rule is human nature and treating others as you want to be treated is the default, not the lesson that needs to be taught over and over again.

Chain Reaction – Parshat Emor 5782

Have you ever been in the middle of a “pay it forward” chain reaction? This occasionally happens in line at the local coffee drive-through, when the car ahead of you pays for your coffee, and then you pay for the car behind you. On Sunday mornings, when there’s no ALIYAH and I have no meetings, our family occasionally goes to our local coffee kiosk to grab coffee for the adults and hot cocoa for the kids. When the weather’s nice, we even walk. These mornings have been made extra special a few times when the car in front of us has paid for our order. The kids get super excited when this happens, and of course we then pay for the car behind us, and the chain of kindness usually continues on. There’s something contagious about a simple act that inspires others to help other people. 

When did you last experience a chain of kindness like this? It’s not limited to coffee shops. Whether it’s people taking turns holding the door open for the next person to walk through, or a Hebrew school class adding tzedakah to a class fund to donate, there are plenty of examples of chains of kindness. It might surprise you to learn that this action of inspiring kindness in others actually comes from this week’s Torah portion. 

This week we read Parshat Emor, and we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.

In the midst of these commandments, God offers a gentle reminder that our actions are often noticed by those around us. At the end of chapter 22, we’re warned against profaning God’s name in the “midst of the Israelite people.” Why this extra warning about how we behave in public?

Multiple commentaries reflect that public shaming, public abuse of power, or even public misrepresentation of tradition can be fairly damning and misunderstood by the masses. Nowhere does the Torah forbid us from being upset with, disagreeing with, or even arguing with God. Instead, we’re cautioned against doing so in public because of the repercussions to the individual, as well as the people they might be representing. This, we understand, could lead to the opposite kind of chain reaction: one of harmful rhetoric or misjudgments.

“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of faith.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words remind us that it’s our actions that make a difference and can influence others more than our faith. For better or worse, how we act is the clearest representation of ourselves, and who knows how far your chain of kindness will go?

Love and Loyalty – Parshat Kedoshim 5782

When I was a child, there was nothing worse than someone saying they were “disappointed in me.” At that stage in my life, it was either my parents or someone else I respected, but it’s still painful to hear even now. Why does that simple phrase sting so much? It’s not the simple act of causing disappointment, which can be out of our control sometimes. It’s the feeling that for that brief moment we’ve broken a special bond of trust with someone we love. 

Think about it this way: can you recall a time when someone you barely knew told you that you disappointed them? And on the slim chance it did happen, did you feel as crushed as if it came from someone you admired, respected, and had an established relationship with? I’m guessing the answer is no. The sting of a broken bond or promise between two people who’ve built not only a connection, but certain expectations with one another, is deep. This is all the more true with God and the Israelite nation as we read in the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Kedoshim. 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” which helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of understanding.

Parshat Kedoshim is built on the primary understanding that God and the Israelite nation are not merely business partners. They are much more intimately connected than that; the relationship often parallels that of a committed couple, as in a marriage. We see this when the text begins, “You are holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” and continues as the reason for each of the boundaries and laws set out moving forward. However, this idea is never more clearly stated than when God is sharing what will happen should God ever be disappointed in the new nation. 

Chapter 20, verse 6 specifically delineates the punishments that will come to any person who chooses to worship another god. The Hebrew word used is liznot, translated as “going astray.” But the meaning isn’t quite that simple; it has the connotation of marriage vows. This is because worshiping another god is akin to cheating on God as an intimate partner. Again, the relationship between God and the Israelite nation runs much deeper than a transactional one, where simply following the rules leads to reward. 

Is there a pang of hurt when you disappoint someone you love? Yes, and it’s natural. Just like our relationships with each other, our relationship with God is built on mutual love and loyalty, and it’s because of that foundation that we strive to be our best selves in those partnerships.

Say It Out Loud – Parshat Acharei Mot 5782

In my work with people who are curious about Judaism or learning about Jewish practice for the first time, there is often amazement at the notion that for most of our confessions, most of the time when we’re facing change or needing to unload emotionally, we don’t need a rabbi to witness it. Instead, we have moments of individual prayer that include confession in almost every Amidah outside of Shabbat. In Catholicism, confession happens out loud in a private booth with a priest, whereas in modern Judaism, confession most often takes the form of private, silent communication between the individual and God. 

Interestingly, Judaism wasn’t always like this. In the times of the Torah, the High Priest played a significant role in the act of confession for the Israelite people, and we learn about this public, spoken confession in our Torah portion this week. 

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot, the portion that details the laws and rules for healthy relationships. It begins with the aftermath of the loss of Aaron’s sons to their own out of body experience while breaking the rules, and continues with the laws about how we’re supposed to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur. The final chapter of the text deals with appropriate and inappropriate relationships between family members.

In chapter 16 we read about the ways that Aaron would go and make the confession on behalf of all the people of Israel. You’d think that if he’s making the confessions on behalf of all the people, naturally they would’ve had to share them with him. Specifically, in verse 21, the text tells us that Aaron would place both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites. In other words, not only did the Israelites have to share their transgressions out loud with Aaron first, he then said them out loud a second time to the goat.

While sharing our missteps with a goat might not be what we picture for atonement today, it’s important to note the action required here to move forward after a transgression. This system relies on saying our confessions out loud. How often do you have a conversation inside your own head about something you regret or feel remorse about? And how often does that internal dialogue actually lead to change? If you’re like me, the change doesn’t happen unless I voice those thoughts to another human being. I’ve even tried using my dog, Stanley, as my scapegoat, but he doesn’t hold me accountable. 

Parshat Acharei Mot is a gentle reminder to each of us that in order to make real progress in ourselves, we must say the change we want to make out loud. In Judaism, there’s no longer a High Priest or even a rabbi required; any interpersonal conversation can be your stepping stone. The action of change occurs when we take our own inner voice and let others hear our intention. 

A Strong Core – Parshat Metzora 5782

If the core isn’t solid, the integrity of a structure suffers. This is true for homes and commercial buildings as well as the structure of the human body or even the “structure” of a community. When we were doing renovations on our house a few years ago, I was very interested in the steps the builders took to make sure we had a sound structure. Naturally, I wanted our house to be strong and remain standing, but it went beyond that. I noticed the places where they used reinforced materials. I noticed where they pointed out a little bit of wood rot or gaps in insulation from old construction. All of that information was helpful to understanding the core strength of our home. 

On a personal and very physical level, it was around this time when I also started exercising regularly and often with my coach. As we cycled through the strength exercises, I would notice that some days worked muscles I didn’t know I had, resulting in incredible soreness, while other times, I hardly felt anything the next day. The muscles I used frequently were already strong and didn’t feel the strain, while the muscles I used less often made themselves known. The key to it all was building and maintaining a strong core. When my core was engaged, my body was more stable.

The idea of identifying the core of a structure, a person, or even an organization is at the center of this week’s Torah portion. This week’s portion, Metzora, is a pause in the narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons, his mourning process, and his rejoining the community. The text details the healing and purification processes of physical buildings and our nation of Israel. As you might imagine, these processes require different actions for different circumstances.

There’s a focus on literally scraping apart buildings and looking at materials to find the source of an impurity. Find the brick, scrape the mud, cut a hole, etc. When all else fails, the Torah asks the community to tear down the building altogether, because at its core, it isn’t sound and must be rebuilt. The commentators read these verses and liken the idea of building strong physical buildings to that of building strong communities.

In chapter 14, verses 43 through 45, the question we’re to ask is whether or not the building as a whole has superficial issues or “wounds,” or if it is the entirety of the building that is broken and must be torn down. In the commentary, we’re asked to use this same lens on our own organizations when there are problems, struggles, or stumbles. Is it the entirety of the institution that is failing, or are there individual boards that need replacing or screws that need tightening?  

Not every problem can be solved with a repair. Sometimes what you really need is an overhaul. Parshat Metzora reminds us that to be problem solvers means knowing the difference.