From “To Do” to “Done” – Parshat Vayikra 5779

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As many of you know, I spent the first half of this week in Washington D.C., where I met with representatives and agencies to advocate on behalf of human rights efforts in Guatemala. This was the culmination of the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship for rabbis. Prior to the Guatemala trip itself, I spent six months learning about the work that AJWS does globally to promote rights-based advocacy and global justice. Then I spent seven days in Guatemala hearing firsthand accounts of the corruption in government, the difficulty of making a living, and the triumph of human beings who fight daily for their dignity.

As life-changing as the experience has been, this was not an easy trip for me to commit to. When I was considering the trip, my list of drawbacks was long. I was hesitant to leave my family for a week with little communication. I was still nursing my son and didn’t want to break that connection. It wasn’t fair to my community for me to take time away. The expense would take funds from other efforts. The list goes on. Apparently I’m really good at coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. My list of why I should attend was simple: I have a moral imperative as a human being to offer help when I’m able. I should find a way and the time to make this happen.

Even once I committed, the concerns remained (and changed). For months ahead of time, I sat in anxiety about the trip. Was I prepared? Was I the right person to do this? How would I be without my daily snuggles from my babies? Should I even go?

I drew strength, as I often do, from my core text, the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with the 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 calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

As the types of sacrifices are listed, we learn about the “guilt offerings” in chapter 5: “If a person incurs guilt – when he has had a public imprecation and – although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter – he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment.” Basically, we are responsible not only for the things we do wrong, but for the things we should have done, but neglected. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama calls this “innocent before a human court but liable in the sight of God.”

Ultimately, we can all find reasons for why we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do something that might help others, especially if it’s an inconvenience to our daily lives or a big step forward; however, our Torah reminds us that the call to action is one we cannot ignore. That when we have the ability to make a change in ourselves or the world, we must take that action.

I spent the week in Guatemala missing my family dearly, but I don’t regret it for a second. Taking the action – making this a “done” instead of a “to do” – meant I was witness to both the atrocities of injustice and the persistence of the human spirit, and now I will speak out about how to help others, not because I should, but because I must.

Beginnings and Endings – Parshat Pekudei 5779

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I begin and end each week with our students in Foundation School doing Havdalah on Monday mornings and Shabbat on Friday mornings. I LOVE that my weeks are punctuated by these moments of chaotic exuberance and joy. When a Monday follows a lazy weekend, it can be a challenge to rush to get out the door and get ready for the week. Some Fridays are filled with both the anticipation of the upcoming rest from the chaotic week and also a mad dash to the finish line of everything that needs to get done and prepared for the weekend.

Beginning and endings. Sometimes they mirror each other and all seven days are hectic; other times the week begins in a roar and ends with peacefulness. Either way, it is a part of the story of our lives and a reminder that everything is cyclical.

This week we read Parshat Pikudei, which details the building of the Mishkan, the artistry involved, the outpouring of gifts the Israelite people bring, and the artists who fashion the piece together. For the construction of this precious piece, God has singled out Be’tzalel to be the builder. We learn about the gathering of the Israelite nation and the cloud that will henceforth guide them as they make their way through the desert.

This is the final parshah in the book of Exodus. The book begins with the narrative of misery and oppression, then details the struggle and challenges of the nation making it on its own in the desert. We read about infighting and betrayal, freedom and law creation. And now, we stand at the end of the book and see that the nation has triumphed. The chaos of their Monday to Friday has evened out as the divine spirit hovers over Israel, guiding their journey through the wilderness.

We end the reading of each book of the Torah with the words hazak, hazak v’nithazek. Let us be strong and be strengthened. Let us go from strength to strength. This is a recognition that in our lives we have periods of positive and negative, uplifting and depressing, chaotic and peaceful. Sometimes this punctuates entire decades of our lives, other times it is just one week to the next. But ultimately, we learn, God is always with us.

As we end the Book of Exodus, the Israelite nation is strong, vibrant, and prepared. There will be chaos ahead, but under the guidance of God and leadership from the community, they will go from strength to strength. And so too will we.

 

This Old Mishkan – Parshat Vayakhel 5779

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While undergoing a major construction project at our house about a year ago, I found myself enthralled with the way things were taken apart and put back together. I watched as they tore the roof off of our garage, and then from scratch put together framing for new rooms, a new roof, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, walls, flooring, paint. Every day I’d come home and see another change in what they’d done, and my house slowly but surely came back together as a seamless unit. If I’m really looking for it, I can still feel the spot in the floor where the original build connects with the new build, but for the most part, anyone walking into our home for the first time probably wouldn’t know there only used to be three bedrooms instead of four. It feels like one complete entity, even though I know it is all held together with wood and metal joints.

This was perhaps the closest I’ll get to experiencing what it might have felt like to build the Tabernacle. We read Parshat Vayakhel this week, where the narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. After 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. But within the construction are very specific details of how everything should fit together.

In particular, there are many sockets necessary for the poles and arms to attach. The Hebrew word for sockets is adanim, which sounds similar to the name we use in prayer for God, Adonai. Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl comments that just as those sockets served to hold the upper and the lower sections of the Tabernacle together, the divine presence holds the upper and lower worlds together. Our spiritual “upper” world and the material “lower” world are held together through our faith in God and the glue of our society.

The moral of the story? We’re all a little screwy. And by that, I mean we are like the screws that hold the pieces of our tradition and our community in place. As we read this text, we are reminded that just as there are so many little bits and pieces that go into creating a structure, there are so many different individual people that go into creating the Jewish people.

Give it a Rest – Parshat Ki Tissa 5779

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One of the best parts of the week for me is the moment when we settle into our Shabbat routine. I try to leave work a little bit early on Fridays so I can go home, go on a walk to clear my head, go over last minute details of the weekend with my husband, and then, take a deep breath and settle into the weekend of family time, friends, good food, and if I’m lucky, a good nap. This is, at least in theory, how I refresh myself before turning off my phone and turning on family time. Shabbat is this sacred moment in time when I recharge in so many ways.

As the Israelites leave Egypt, they receive several laws and guidelines for how to exist in a community outside of slavery. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we receive that next set of rules to help create this successful society. There are rules for giving, rules for receiving, and rules for counting and being counted. The text ends with the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites navigating what it means to transfer leadership, and have faith. The text is full of so many fascinating moments and strategies for success.

In chapter 31, verses 16-17 we receive an essential element to success as a society: refreshing of our soul. “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout all time. It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” These verses are a part of the Friday evening and Saturday morning liturgy and a part of the Saturday morning Kiddush over the wine. God was refreshed, and we should be too.

The Hebrew word used for refresh, vayinafash, comes from the noun nefesh, which means soul or essential life essence. Our life essence gets beaten down, exhausted, and worn out during the week. We’re constantly creating and engaging, connecting and reflecting, and it is exhausting. Like taking a sip of a nice cold beverage on a hot day, Shabbat is that time that refreshes our soul and our relationships so we can get back to doing all the work that makes our lives run. Here’s to a thorough and meaningful rest.

You Are What You Wear – Parshat Tetzaveh 5779

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If you’ve spent any time with me in recent years, you may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for shoes. I LOVE shoes. The best ones are versatile and can take an outfit from dressy to casual and vice versa. The best part is that usually shoes fit no matter what other size issues or feelings I’m having with the rest of my body. I rarely have a “fat foot” day, and most of my shoes put a big smile on my face.

I have a particular penchant for Converse now that we’ve moved to Portland (where the parent company Nike is based), and when it comes to design, the sparklier, the better. My sequined high-top Converse are my favorite shoes. The minute I saw them my whole face lit up, and I knew I had to have them. I received them as a gift with the promise that if I wore them, I’d brighten other people’s days as much as they brightened mine. And every time I wear them, I get smiles and hugs and lots of awesome conversations. The shoes certainly don’t make the rabbi, but the rabbi’s shoes can definitely make people smile.

Our Torah reading this week comes from Parshat Tetzaveh. Parshat Tetzaveh details the specific clothing items that 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 a special instruction regarding who is to make them. After we receive these specifics, we learn about the details of what is on each garment.

Notably, the priests do not receive shoes, as they do their work barefoot. They do, however, wear ornate tunics and clothing made specifically so that others will know that they are a priest. This is reflected today on our Torah itself, which wears ornate clothing so it will always be seen as precious and special. I read this text and wonder if we treated our bodies as the priests did – in other words if we dressed ourselves so that we were recognized as individual, unique, and special – would we be better able to celebrate personal style and choices?

My sparkly Converse are definitely a bold choice for a rabbi to don as footwear, but they also identify me and my personality. That’s an individual choice. While they may not be everyone’s first choice to wear, they certainly make me feel confident and proud, and that’s the feeling I want to impart to students and congregants.

Parshat Tetzaveh comes as a yearly reminder that while we shouldn’t judge each other based on clothes, clothes do have the ability to set us apart as individuals and the power to influence how we feel about ourselves. Wear what makes you you, just as the priests did and just as the Torah does. Wear what brings a smile to your face, because you deserve it.