Lashing Out – Parshat Shemini 5782

When does your temper flare? Like everyone, I have my limits. I’ll lose my temper when I have simply been pushed until I cannot contain myself anymore. In these heated moments we’ve all experienced, it’s nearly impossible to offer compassion, space, or understanding as to what others might be feeling. Whether well-founded or not, feelings of betrayal and disrespect block us from seeing the bigger picture, and it can take time to reconcile these feelings. While a temper isn’t a trait we necessarily admire in our leaders, I can take comfort knowing that leaders in the Torah, like Moses, have also let tempers flare. 

To change the subject briefly, the Torah provides interesting insight into the grieving process, particularly 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 kashrut (keeping kosher).

In the moments after Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu fail in their roles as priests and die in the process, Moses has a hard time containing his rage. He lashes out at the remaining priests, Eleazar and Ithamar. He questions their frame of mind; he yells at them. Why? Because in this moment Moses cannot be reasoned with. He can only express his rage.

Is it right for a leader to rage publicly? That might be up for debate. But what’s clear is that lashing out doesn’t prove useful. Yes, Moses needed to grieve in his own way, but for his nephews and brother, he really needed to share words of comfort, of understanding, of guidance.

Parshat Shemini brings to life the realities of emotions, and emotions like grief and anger hit each of us in unique ways. It’s a complicated lesson to learn: being able to control our emotions while acknowledging that our emotions need to be let out in healthy ways. But that’s Judaism in a nutshell, being able to hold more than one idea at a time. 

The First, Not the Last – Parshat Tzav 5782

On this Shabbat 100 years ago, a young woman named Judith Kaplan celebrated the first public bat mitzvah in an American congregation. It was March 18, 1922. Judith was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and Judith herself went on to become a talented composer and renowned musicologist. 

Marking this anniversary, I can’t help thinking of my bat mitzvah, which, in its own small way, was a break from the norm at my synagogue. I was the first girl in my congregation to lay tefillin, and I fought to lead so many parts of the service that were considered inappropriate for women to lead in Conservative Judaism at that time. Yes, we’ve come a long way, and it’s important to acknowledge where we came from and to whom credit is due.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav, begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail things like what the priests will wear, what time of day the sacrifices are to be made, and who should consume them. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

Toward the beginning of this week’s reading, we come to the commandments concerning who can eat of specific sacrifices. The Torah is clear in Leviticus chapter 6, verse 11 that only the males of Aaron’s descendants may eat of it because of their status as God’s holy ones. Since the beginning of Jewish law, this simple statement has been the reason women have been prohibited from taking leadership roles in the Jewish community. Why? Many explanations suggest that it was thought that men could understand the laws more clearly. Although when you consider how much of Judaism was guided, taught, and passed down by women and mothers, this argument is fundamentally flawed if not outright misogynistic.

Other explanations lean on women’s supposed lack of purity or focus, and we now know those arguments fail for their own reasons. So without any rational explanation for the practice of excluding women, the Conservative Movement eventually started ordaining women as rabbis. There was no longer a reason not to. (Of course there never was, but they didn’t realize that until later.) 

All humans are created in the image of the divine, and characteristics like gender and race don’t decide one’s leadership potential. And we should remember that having women leaders is about much more than proving a certain level of competence to men. It’s about showing other women what’s possible. 

Fourteen months ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, BIPOC vice president of the United States, regardless of your political leanings or the color of your state, this moment held immense significance. She was not the first woman to run for this office, but she was the first to take the vice presidential oath of office. Across the nation there were tears of triumph and joy at this further confirmation of what women senators, governors, Supreme Court justices, and presidents of other countries have been proving for decades.

Thank you to Judith Kaplan and women like Regina Jonas, Sally Priesand, and countless others who came before me, so that I could stand before you. 

Complete Wellbeing – Parshat Vayikra 5782

The concept of self-care has pushed its way into every aspect of pandemic life. Are you prioritizing care for others over care for yourself? Are you setting aside enough “you” time? Are you respecting the needs of others for their own self-care? Self-care is now the pressure-filled obligation we were trying to avoid by giving ourselves more self-care in the first place.

What if we looked at the entire spectrum of care (care for ourselves, care for others, and everything in between) as general wellbeing? It’s not necessarily prescriptive, but more of a reminder that wellness, wholeness, and care are interrelated. And that concept is actually central to many of the laws of Torah that we receive.

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. In the explanation of these sacrifices, 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 there are 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.

In the list of offerings that are made to God, we receive the requirement of an offering of wellbeing. This offering is specifically brought by someone who has something to celebrate. It’s called zevach shelamim in Hebrew, which loosely translates to a sacred gift of (fill in the blank). But why would it be “fill in the blank” instead of the actual gift? The root of the word shelamim is shalem: shin, lamed, mem. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same root for the Hebrew word shalom, which can mean hello, goodbye, or peace. That leaves the item open to interpretation. Is this supposed to be an offering of peace? Of greeting? What did God mean when this offering was mandated?

I believe this particular offering was left purposefully vague. Sometimes you might need personal wellbeing or peace; other times you might need to “greet” God (or yourself) again. This ambiguity allows us to check in with ourselves to see what we actually need and the flexibility to decide if it’s “me time” or people time. 

Parshat Vayikra and each of these sacrifices listed remind us that our life is built on a multitude of offerings, and those offerings are not only meant for what we give to others but also, and just as importantly, what we gift to ourselves. Another meaning of the root word shalem is “wholeness,” and feeling complete is about filling each of our physical and emotional buckets. Perhaps this is the offering or the sacred gift of finding our whole selves in the work of helping others and helping ourselves.

Together Forever – Parshat Pekudei 5782

“We go together, like . . .” If you’re a fan of the movie Grease, I’m sure you’re able to finish that phrase, and now I have to apologize for getting the song stuck in your head. In the last few years I’ve been doing some “extracurricular” work learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a human being and a leader. This process isn’t really anything new for me; my father used to make me take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator yearly to find out how to best parent me (he was a social worker, if that wasn’t obvious). As long as I can remember, I’ve been an I/ENFJ. That means, among other things, that there are certain personality types with whom I will naturally either find affinity or clash. This has been helpful as I’ve navigated a path figuring out how best to get along with someone with opposite traits, because in my experience, opposites don’t always attract (no disrespect to Paula Abdul).

Sometimes things pair well together, not because they’re similar and not because they’re opposite, but because the whole is greater than the sum of its two parts. How did peanut butter and jelly get together? Or cream cheese and lox? Think about it – fish and cream cheese? 

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.

As the priestly garments are being finalized, we learn of two pieces that are forever together, the breastpiece and the ephod (a linen apron). In chapter 39, verse 21 we read that the breastpiece, as commanded by God, was held in place by a cord of blue from its rings to the rings of the ephod, so that they did not come loose from one another. But what was so critical that connected those two pieces? Why did they need to be together? 

The breastpiece is referred to as the “breastpiece of judgment” in Exodus. It’s a symbol of the ways in which people should act with one another. The ephod was a symbol of worship, the way in which people are to interact with God. This seems to indicate that these two pieces are bound together because justice and worship, even though they are two separate concepts, must go hand in hand as well.

Parshat Pekudei reminds us of the connection between our faith and the pursuit of justice, and, more importantly, that religion does not supersede justice. Only when these ideas are hand in hand can we expect to walk hand in hand with each other.

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall – Parshat Vayakhel 5782

For better or worse, we’re constantly examining ourselves. Everyone carries around 4K cameras in their pockets, and just about everything we do is documented somewhere on social media or on Zoom. Sometimes I find physical self-reflection useful, other times not so much. A quick check in the mirror to make sure I don’t have makeup or food in my teeth is helpful, but staring at myself on Zoom all day only feeds into body image issues.  

I have a love-hate relationship with seeing myself reflected, especially since taking a look in the mirror can be both helpful and harmful depending on your frame of mind. The 10 Commandments actually begins by telling us not to make engraved images of God, that there is no likeness of God. Perhaps this is a warning to step away from focusing on what we ourselves look like. But as we reach the penultimate parshah of the Book of Exodus, we notice that mirrors actually do play a key role.

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 details are very specific instructions of how everything should fit together.

As the long list of materials is listed, we read that there were mirrors to be placed at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Why? If we’re not supposed to have an image of God, why have this reminder in the sacred space of what we ourselves look like while coming and going from where we interact with God?

This could be because mirrors don’t lie. The most honest we can be with ourselves is when we look in the mirror and check the reflection that’s looking back. When you look at it this way, having a mirror isn’t about vanity, it’s about looking ourselves in the eyes and truly discovering who we are and who we want to be.