For Shame – Parshat Shemini 5779

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Going through the potty-training process with two kids has taught me a lot about the ways in which we display positive and negative reactions as parents. One of the biggest lessons for us has been the need to show some emotional self-control in order to keep up the positive reinforcement. For the most part, Shiri stopped wearing diapers fairly smoothly and had herself basically potty trained by three. In fact, it was the day of Matan’s bris she came home and told us she was done wearing diapers. Nights and naptimes were easy, but for some reason, regular trips to the bathroom during the day were a struggle. We’d have weeks of success, then three accidents in one day. This went on for almost a year. Of course we tried to be supportive and compassionate about the accidents, hoping that a sticker chart or other positive reinforcement would help move the process along. But when it kept happening, our patience often turned to frustration. Unfortunately, our frustrated response almost always elicited the same frustration in Shiri, and that led to her embarrassment and fear of even telling us what happened. You can see the cycle forming.

One of the important parenting lessons we learned was the way that we react to situations around us can affect the way others react. This lesson is clear in our portion this week too. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut and what it means to eat Jewishly. The text begins with the anointing and first acts of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they make their entrance into the celebrity of the priesthood, and continues with the specific details of how they should act in giving an offering.

Aaron was the original priest and was supposed to be taking on the role of leading sacrifices and other official business at the altar. However, given his rocky past as a leader, specifically the incident of the Golden Calf, initially he is afraid to take on the role. Moses has to call him specifically to come forward and participate in the purification offering of expiation. Aaron feels the shame of his past and is unsure of his fitness to lead.

Shame, however, is a defining characteristic of a moral human being. The mere fact that Aaron knows right from wrong and feels shame shows his morality and that he might have learned from his previous sins. Moses and God see the shame Aaron feels and respond with compassion. Our parshah this week reminds us that emotion is a two-way street. When we treat others with dignity, especially when it is clear that they have recognized their faults, then we are creating a world that is more just and more compassionate.

Preparing for Change – Parshat Tzav 5779

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I’m fascinated by the ways in which we prepare for major events in our lives. Some events have a prescribed preparation activity, like a doctor preparing for surgery with the rituals of sterilization or a bar mitzvah working to learn each part of leading a service. Some preparations take years, like going to school for certain careers. Some preparation, like we do on Passover, requires physical labor, cleaning and cooking, or other moving and preparing. And some are spiritual, like going to the mikvah before getting married or to mark another major milestone transition. It’s not just the preparation that helps us through life, but the way that we prepare for life’s events can help us better grasp their importance or impact on our daily lives.

The Torah also shows us a variety of methods of preparation for life events. This week’s portion, Parshat Tzav, contains one such example. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests regarding various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail what time of day they are to be made, what they are to wear, and who they are to be consumed by. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

At the end of the portion, Aaron’s sons are getting ready to undergo the process of ordination. The work involves anointing oil, altar blood, special clothing, and then a seven-day period when they are not to go outside the tent of meeting. The preparation to become anointed as a priest takes seven days, and is meant to mimic the seven days of creation. It’s also considered a “perfect” number in Judaism, as it equals the number of our forefathers and mothers as well as the colors in the rainbow of the covenant. That’s the heft and significance given to this transformation from civilian to priest; it’s as powerful a symbol as these other markers.

We’re often told just to adapt and roll with the changes. Reading this section of Torah reminds us that it’s ok to treat big transitions with all the pomp and preparation they need. That’s how we acknowledge the change.

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.