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. 

Emotional Outburst – Parshat Shemini 5781

On a family trip a few years ago, things were not going how we had planned. The kids were cranky, the lines at the airport were long, and TSA was not particularly helpful or friendly. Nothing seemed to be going our way, and it didn’t help that Duncan and I weren’t quite seeing eye to eye that morning, to put it mildly.

As we were walking into the airport, I had Matan strapped to me in a baby carrier on my front (he wouldn’t go on my back), my backpack on my back, two kid backpacks, a bag with food and snacks, our checked bag, and the car seat carrier in my hands. No fewer than three people stopped me before we even got to the check-in counter to ask if “she had her own ticket” (indicating Matan, who still had long hair at the time). By the time the third employee asked me, I snapped back, “He is two and a half, and he has his own seat!” The woman was rightly offended at my overreaction, and Duncan stepped in hoping to diffuse the situation with, “She’s mad at me, not you.” He was right, I was annoyed at him, and I took my anger out on the first available target in my path. We all express misplaced anger sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less hurtful when it happens. 

It’s probably no surprise that misplaced anger can often be seen in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher) 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. Tragically, Nadav and Avihu take advantage of their role as priests and pay the ultimate price for it. Moses, Aaron, and the remaining sons Elazar and Itamar are left to move forward with ritual and leadership all while deep in their own grief. The Torah doesn’t dwell on Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths or the surrounding circumstances. There is work to be done, and onward the Torah moves.

In chapter 10, verse 16, Moses goes on a tirade against Elazar and Itamar. The Torah actually reports that Moses is angry with them and then berates them for not doing the purification offering the appropriate way. Aaron steps in after Moses expresses his rage to remind him that priests in mourning are not permitted to eat of the sacrifice. And again, Moses moves on.

A commentary on the text from Leviticus Rabbah hypothesizes that Moses was still so consumed with his grief that his knowledge of the law left him. His ability to maintain emotional stasis for himself and toward others was simply clouded over during his mourning. Parshat Shemini offers the reminder that the best way to manage stressful or traumatic situations is to know ourselves, check in with our own emotions, and if possible, find a way to channel those emotions in more productive and less destructive ways. Fortunately my airport outbursts are few and far between, but it’s these exact types of moments that allow us to grow and learn and work to be the very best version of ourselves. 

Baby Steps – Parshat Shemini 5780


When I met Duncan, he had never kept kosher in his life. On our second date, when it seemed like there might be more dates in our future, he asked me about what it meant for me, a conservative rabbinical student, to be dating him, a life-long bacon cheeseburger-eating reform Jew (his words, not mine). So I stated my bottom line for what I wanted my life to be. I will always have a kosher home, and my family will always keep some moderate degree of Shabbat. Well, clearly my answers were satisfactorily non-threatening, because here we are more than 12 years later. But now you’re dying to know – does Duncan keep fully kosher? Did his diet change immediately overnight?  The answer is in a related lesson from this week’s Torah portion. 

This week we read 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 of making our bodies holy by following the laws of kashrut

The rules and laws of kosher eating, the Jewish dietary code, are listed in this week’s text. These laws are not based on health, as commonly thought, but rather the ability to sanctify ourselves and be holy, as God is holy. The food we put into our bodies is representative of how we feel about ourselves and our connection to God.

Interestingly, however, choosing this lifestyle is not an all-or-nothing, all-at-once commitment. The dietary laws are given incrementally because the Torah recognizes that any change in diet is best done over time and with thought and care. At first, Duncan started keeping kosher when we were together while dating, meaning he wouldn’t eat pork or shellfish or mix milk and meat while we were eating together. At some point he stopped eating non-kosher meat. Gradually, he found his way into the kosher lifestyle in a way that was both meaningful and not overwhelming. 

For me, I’ll just say my relationship with food is complex. When I was younger, I was a picky eater, sticking mostly to peanut butter and jelly. As I aged, I learned to like a wider variety of foods, but always struggled with portion control. At 11 years old, my family took a break from keeping kosher outside the home, and I ate my first ever chicken finger. The clouds parted, a choir sang, and I thought the world was an even more incredible place because of this new ambrosia, not realizing I was significantly late to the McNugget game. Having kept kosher for most of my life, I’ve always been at least somewhat aware of the food I put into my body. I learned how to ask “Is there pork in this?” in multiple languages so I could be safe on trips. And later I endured salmon for dinner six nights in a row on what was otherwise a wonderful cruise because that was the only entree option available to this kosher-keeping non-vegetarian.

While kosher is right for me, it might not be for everyone, and treating your body as a holy vessel is more than keeping kosher and portion control. It is slowly and carefully paying attention to what nourishes you and leads you to being the best version of yourself. Parshat Shemini reminds us that the reason baby steps are successful is because each step doesn’t just move forward, it builds on the knowledge of the one before it.

For Shame – Parshat Shemini 5779


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.

Say Something


D’var Torah for Congregation Neveh Shalom – April 14, 2018

Just this week we observed Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Some news outlets mentioned the results of a recent survey conducted about the Holocaust. You may have seen it referenced online. This survey was commissioned by the Conference  on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and it looked at the awareness of the Holocaust in the United States.

I will say as a caveat, they only interviewed 1,350 adults. It’s helpful to keep in mind this is less than one thousandth of a percent of the population. But on the other hand, it’s the job of surveys to extrapolate and make assumptions based on the data, and this data is staggering. It points to a downward trend in the awareness of basic Holocaust knowledge, or what we think of as basic, including the fact that 45% of the adults surveyed could not name a concentration camp. If we assume this survey represents a balanced sampling of people, almost half of American adults did not have the name Auschwitz somewhere in their accessible memory. They couldn’t say Dachau. They couldn’t come up with Warsaw or Treblinka.

We condemn the silence of 80 years ago by saying “Never again.” So, what about the silence now? What are doing to condemn this silence and make sure when people say, “Never again,” they actually know what it is they don’t want to ever happen again?

Maybe this week’s silence in the Torah offers some advice. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details priestly instructions, including the prohibition from drinking while on the job and the designations for various animals to be considered pure and impure. But somewhat hidden near the beginning is Aaron’s curious reaction to the deaths of his two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. Although the text goes on to discuss what will happen to his sons’ bodies and how the priests are forbidden from the same mourning rituals as the rest of the people, only two words are used to describe Aaron’s reaction to losing two children: vayidom Aharon. Aaron was still. Aaron was silent.

It’s at the installment of the priests as the leaders of the Jewish people where Aaron’s sons make the unfortunate decision to go beyond the celebration and sacrifice that God has commanded. And for that, Nadav and Avihu die. But what about Aaron? Certainly after the death of a loved one, especially children, emotions can take you by surprise. But Aaron is left speechless, and we are left to figure out why. Many commentators suggest that the silence might have been either in protest of God’s decision, in acceptance of this fate, or perhaps the anguish was too much for words.

It’s ok to be the strong, silent type. It’s ok to choose your battles. It’s ok to turn the other cheek, to borrow a phrase from a different testament. It’s ok . . . until it isn’t. It’s ok until those moments that demand of us to take our voices and use them strongly, loudly, and vibrantly.

There’s so much to speak out about, it’s both depressing and overwhelming. There are humanitarian crises happening everywhere. From the genocide occurring in the Sudan, to the plight of the Rohingya women who have been raped and forced to flee to refugee camps in Banghladesh, and then the genocide happening to the Rohignya who have remained in Burma. We hear daily about loss of life in Syria and senseless violence in our own country.

We live in a world where there is so much to do. We might not all be fighting for the same thing, but at least we’re moving the conversation forward. Nadav and Avihu perhaps didn’t have the best of intentions or the strongest cause to stand up for. But at least they made some noise. Aaron was silent.

Our Torah this week is the Torah of engagement. Parshat Shemini asks us to find the power to stand up for what we see as right. While we certainly cannot solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop, we can use our voices. We don’t have to be silent.