Becoming Whole – Parshat Vayikra 5781

Believe it or not, I sat down to write this d’var Torah a year ago. I like to at least have drafts done far in advance so that I can pivot and adjust if needed. As I sat here to write, I remember in detail receiving the startling information of a tragic loss in our community that would have ripple effects for years to come. I rushed out of the office (the office was still open at that point) to hold the family and take care of logistics and other pieces before returning to finish this drash. But it was clear to me what I needed to write about. I came back and sat down five days later to try in some way to “become whole” through the writing and my writing process.

This week as we begin Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we find ourselves immersed in the listing of mitzvot (commandments) on how to live our lives. 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.

One of the offerings we are asked to give is the zevah shlamim. This offering is brought by someone who has had something to celebrate. It is almost always an individual offering, never communal, because gratitude is personal and individual. Further, the word shlamim comes from the same root as shalom, which can mean “to be whole.” The offering is made with a sense of being at peace. The Torah teaches us that this offering must be eaten on the day that it is brought or the next day at the latest. Perhaps this is to encourage those with gratitude to invite others to join their celebration, because typically joy increases when we come together. 

On that fateful afternoon when I was writing this drash I received a call. Vayikra. And that call brought a community together to hold the broken pieces and find a way towards wholeness and towards peace. The Torah is not suggesting that all communal moments must be joyful, and needless to say this moment was not. Instead, our sacred text is meant to give us, on the one hand, guidelines for holding those moments of joy and gratitude and, on the other hand, guidelines for holding each other in grief and sorrow. As we pass another year anniversary, the anniversary of when COVID-19 changed all our lives, it’s yet another reminder that we are still holding broken pieces, and there’s much work left to be done to make ourselves whole again.

Community as a Verb – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781

It’s been a year. A year of mask-wearing, a year of Zoom meetings, a year without physical gatherings. Has the word “community” changed for you over the past year the way it’s changed for me? 

The thing is, global pandemic or not, there’s no denying that part of being Jewish is being in community. In fact, from our earliest communities spoken about in the Torah in this week’s double portion, being together is tantamount. This week we read Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan, the sacred space that God will dwell among the Israelites. Following 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. Parshat Pekudei deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan

The word va’yakhel (where one of the parshiyot gets its name) is translated to mean the verb “convoked,” but in modern Hebrew the root is the same as the noun kehillah, community. This verb is only used for a gathering of human beings. The text teaches that Moses communitied, as it were, the entire body of Israel and spoke to them. Why and how did he “community”? 

The Israelites are still healing emotionally from the incident of the Golden Calf. They are a fractured nation. In this moment as the Tabernacle is being finished, Moses is trying to rebuild community. He wants to gather the people together, despite their differences, to rebuild trust and unity. While each individual has their right to be alone, or even have some privacy, in this moment, after a national tragedy, Moses understands the need for everyone to be together. 

One of the first mishnayot I have a memory of internalizing is from Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In moments of strife or conflict or even loss, it is easy to separate yourself and hold back. However, Hillel and Moses remind us that we are meant to work through our problems and grief in community. It’s the same reason why you need a minyan to say Kaddish, or why we hold sheva brachot for a wedding. I don’t have to tell you this past year has made community (whether a noun or a verb) challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a part of who we are. Judaism is full of big emotional moments, whether in celebration or in mourning, and we’ve always held each other up because we go through these moments together. We may have redefined togetherness, but we will never stop holding each other up, even if it’s from a distance.

Team Effort – Parshat Ki Tissa 5781

Team effort

When I was younger and went to summer camp, we used to play this game where we’d each begin writing a story on our own. We’d only write a few lines, and the counselors would have us switch papers. Our job was to read the last line written by the person before us and continue the story with only that previous line of knowledge. I’ll just say it: I hated this game. I always had a vision for my story. I knew where I wanted it to go, I knew how I anticipated moving the plot along, and no one who continued my story ever seemed to share that vision. 

Of course the goal of the game wasn’t to create the perfect story. When the stories were completed, we usually ended up with silly, nonsensical (sometimes incomprehensible) plots. But the activity leader usually shared a lesson at the end, reminding us that when we write full stories on our own, they’re only from our perspective. Doing it this way as a group may not make much narrative sense, but it’s definitely a way to see things from someone else’s point of view. In a way, it’s a model of society. Your personal story overlaps with people you come in contact with, meaning we’re constantly adding plot points and continuing each other’s story. 

The Torah, which we read as our core story, has a bit of this element to it. While, for traditional purposes, the Torah is taken to be the word of God, I hold the belief that it is divinely inspired and humanly interpreted. God inspired it, “spoke” it to Moses, and Moses transcribed it to share with the rest of us. In our Torah portion a few weeks back, when the Israelites received the 10 Commandments, they heard God’s voice and couldn’t bear the intensity, so they needed Moses to be a go-between with them and with God. This partnership continues to hold true in Parshat Ki Tissa this week.

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 events. In particular, one climactic moment in this text is when Moses gets so angry at the Israelite nation that he smashes the original tablets. While this is often a memorable moment of the portion, there’s one aspect that may not be as familiar. Those original tablets, the ones Moses smashes, were given to Moses from God completed. In other words, they were carved and inscribed by God, then handed down to Moses and the people. It wasn’t a collaborative effort; it was decisively individual, if you can call God individual.

However, after Moses smashes the tablets, God asks him to create a new set. And for this new set, Moses carves the structure of the tablets first, and then God inscribes them with the mitzvot. It becomes a joint law making effort between humankind and the divine. This time the tablets, the material used to carry the message, are made by an imperfect human being, rather than a perfect deity. In this way, the rules written on them also become more human, more tangible, and more collaborative.

It’s hard to let go of your own story, your own vision. Even so, the Torah teaches us that when we work in partnership, our efforts are stronger and last longer. When we work together, we strengthen one another, and the product of our community is so much richer for it. 

Habit Forming – Parshat Tetzaveh 5781

You may know this about me, but I am a creature of habit. Some habits are helpful, like my habit of making sure clothes aren’t inside out before they go in the laundry (since I’m the one who always does the folding). Other habits are more superficial, bordering on ridiculous, like having a certain outfit I always wear on airplanes. Most habits fall somewhere in between, and have just become part of my daily routine for one reason or another. 

In particular, my favorite habit is one that began when I had children. We now sing the Shema together every night with them at bedtime and sing Modeh Ani upon waking up. This routine, done day after day, provides me with a way to verbalize my connection to both my children and our faith. It’s a nightly proclamation that there is a God, that God is one, and that we are connected to God.

Even though I’m a rabbi, I haven’t always been able to find that daily connection. In rabbinical school I prayed with a minyan at least once a day, and often three times a day, and while I loved the ritual that filled my senses, it didn’t always bring me a connection to God in the same way that seeing the ocean or going for a sunset walk did. However, I learned that simply having the ritual itself was enough of a connection, and “feeling it” every time was much less important. This idea begins in our Torah portion this week, Parshat Tetzaveh. 

In Parshat Tetzaveh, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are designated to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. 

The ritual part comes towards the end of the portion, when we receive the laws of the “regular burnt offering.” In Hebrew this is called the Olat haTamid, and it is the core of the sacrificial system. Twice a day a lamb was wholly burned on the altar. Needless to say, we’ve long since removed literal sacrifices from our worship, but when this ritual was put in place, it was a big step for the Israelites. Having a priest designated and a sacred altar prepared, the Israelites now finally had a physical way to connect with God twice a day. 

The 19th century Orthodox rabbi Rav Kook suggests that until now, holiness was manifested only occasionally and sporadically in the world. Now that Israel has received the Torah, the world would know holiness on a regular, daily basis. The daily offering is the commandment to stop at least once a day and connect with God in whatever way you can. From daily minyan or a daily walk to a tight snuggle and Shema before bed, the parshah and our Torah remind us that it’s the act of doing that makes the habit. 

God on the Guest List – Parshat Terumah 5781

If you could invite God to your Passover seder, what would the invitation look like? If you were expecting God at Shabbat dinner, how would you set the table? If God attended your child’s mitzvah celebration, would you expect a gift?

In our earliest experiences with Judaism, we’re taught that we don’t need to “invite” God because “God is everywhere and God is one.” God isn’t like Elijah, with his saved cup of wine and ceremonial door opening. God is always present.

This idea that God doesn’t need an invitation somewhat contradicts this week’s Torah portion, in which Moses receives a very clear and detailed instruction manual for building the Mishkan, an earthly shelter of sorts for God. In our parshah this week, Terumah, God asks the Israelite nation to build a sanctuary so that God may dwell among us. As a side note, how interesting to read about God wanting to dwell among us at a time when we can’t even dwell together. But this Torah portion isn’t only about a sanctuary building; we are to build holiness among us so that God will be present in those human connections. 

Some time ago, I asked our Foundation School preschoolers what it means to build a holy, safe space, and their answers included lifting each other up, problem solving, kindness, sharing, and having fun. But more importantly, all the answers came in first person plural. “We lift each other.” “We solve problems.” “We are kind.” They answered my question with the word “we” because to the youngest in our community, sanctuary and holiness are created when we include one another in our lives. 

Parshat Terumah teaches us that God dwells among us not because of an ancient Tabernacle or a modern synagogue building, but because of the moments when our actions reflect holiness. Yes, God is everywhere, but the invitation still matters. When we treat each other with dignity, love, and respect for all of our beautiful gifts, we create a world where God dwells among us every single day.