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One of the key verses in our Torah reading this week is “You shall not wrong one another.” Leviticus 25:17. This is a fundamental principle of Judaism and underpins the whole of our tradition. It is connected to the concept of tikun olam – repairing the world and tikun ha-nefesh – repairing the soul.

When we let our moral compass be guided by the principle “You shall not wrong one another,” we can’t help but do the work of tikun, repair. It’s interesting that some people are drawn more to tikun olam, repairing the world, or social justice work. And others are drawn to self-improvement, tikun ha-nefesh. Both are just as important as the other, for if we spend our time helping fix the world ‘out there’ and don’t look inside, we are sure to have an imbalance in our lives.

And if we put energy into self-improvement without also taking on projects to help those in need, we are also sure to have an imbalance in our life.

Repairing the world and repairing our own soul are both important and need to have a place in our lives. We need to give some time and energy to projects that will help improve the world, whether it be donating money to a good cause, or spending time on a social justice cause. And we also need to make time for self-reflection and improvement.

The two phrases – tikun olam and tikun ha-nefesh were first coined in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tsfat, Israel. Another tradition that started in Tsfat at that time is using the counting of the omer as a process of tikun – improvement.

The omer is a 7 week period between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, during which there is a biblical obligation to count the days. The period is called the omer because it was connected to the bringing of an omer (a certain measurement) of barley to the Temple. Even after the Temple was destroyed, the counting of the omer continued and was seen as a period of inner purification by the mystics of Tsfat. Each week was dedicated to the exploration of a different quality: compassion, strength, leadership are but a few. This week, the inner quality of Humility is the focus of our Omer practice. We think about our talents and good fortunes and recognize how lucky we are. We recognize that our talents are partly due to our own efforts and partly a product of external forces such as people giving us help, advice or teaching us. It is a week to give thanks for the help we have received to bring us to where we are. It is also a good time to reflect on how our humility might open us to learning from others and taking on this week’s Torah verse: “You shall not wrong one another” Leviticus 25:17 to a new level.

May each of us be blessed with a heart of compassion and the fortune to be surrounded by the kindness of others.

Parashat Emor

Toward the end of this week’s parasha, we learn of an unnamed man who blasphemes God. The Israelites have set up camp, and he and his mother, want to join with the tribe of Dan. The mother, who has a familial connection with the tribe of Dan, is named as Shlomit bat Divri.

Shlomit is described as a babbling flirt, smiling and socializing with many people. She fraternizes with an Egyptian and gives birth to the unnamed son who is described as having a high regard for Moses, owing to his leadership and example.

When Moses orders everyone to set up camp according to their tribe, the young man and his mother attempt to pitch their tent among the Danites. Mother and son are angry and frustrated when the Danites object the their presence and take them to Moses. Moses listens to the arguments, and then agrees with the Danites. Seen from the unnamed man’s perspective, Moses has betrayed him, and has taken the side of those who refuse to recognize him as one of their own. Angered even further, the young man publicly rejects God, blaspheming and cursing God’s name and rejecting his mother’s heritage. His punishment for doing so was to be taken outside the camp and be stoned to death.

While the story focuses on the lesson not to curse God’s name or treat God in a shameful or lowly manner, there is perhaps a more comprehensive lesson. Some commentators blame the mother, Shlomit Bat Divri, for her son’s unacceptable behavior. If it weren’t for her promiscuity, such a rebellious child would not have entered the world and disgraced his people or God. Although parents and guardians are responsible for educating their children and ensuring that they treat others with respect, if that applied to Shlomit Bat Divri, it surely also applied to the Danites, who rejected this individual, based on his family’s background?

Confirmation and acceptance of an individual is the responsibility of the community. Isolating individuals and families based on unreasonable logic (or lack thereof) does not show the strength of a community, it shows weakness and desperation.

The Torah gives us the full name of the woman whose son committed this atrocity – Shlomit Bat Divri L’Matei Dan, Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. We are told that the Torah gives us her full name and association because the responsibility of proper education, upbringing and respect are the responsibility of the parent(s) AND the community.

There are so many stories of people feeling rejected by their community because they married a non-Jewish partner, or because they are gay, or because of their race, or for many other reasons. While we are an inclusive community, we are unfortunately not immune to this. We have a responsibility to set an example and welcome everyone imtoto our community. The Torah teaches us that it is our obligation as a society to teach our children that to isolate or marginalize people because of their differences is unacceptable.

Parashat Kedoshim

This week at a communal commemoration of Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial for all the people who have been killed in war or terror attacks in Israel, one of the speakers, a young man who survived an attack which killed three of his friends, remembered them. He then spoke about the sometimes difficult juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the day of celebration for the creation of the state of Israel which follow immediately one after the other. Israelis spend a day remembering, they tell the stories, they think of all the lives, many of them young, cut short, dreams unrealized, hopes unfulfilled and no Israeli is untouched, each one has someone they remember. Then after the memorial they are called upon to celebrate, to dance and sing and rejoice in the land and state of Israel. The young man acknowledged how difficult this is and then he quoted an Israeli phrase: Bemotam tzivu lanu et hachayim—with their deaths they command us to live. He said that each lost life reminds us to count our blessings, to take moments not only to mourn but to also to live. In context, he was encouraging us to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, as we mourn, so too we should live. But the command, the imperative is broader than that. At the end of a funeral service we traditionally recite the words “Now go forth to life.” From death we return to life and we are commanded to live each of our days the best we can.

But how do we live? This week’s parasha contains the answer. In the opening words we are commanded: Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai eloheicha—You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God am holy. This seems like an unusual commandment to fulfill. How do we become holy? The answer lies in the following passages of the parashah which list a great number of commandments dealing with the minutia of daily life. In some religious traditions becoming holy means separating from community, in Judaism it is exactly the opposite. To be holy we turn towards life, towards one another and we treat each other with kindness, compassion and goodness. With our daily actions we create holiness, we turn the mundane into the sacred by the way we live our lives. Every day we are presented with numerous opportunities to embrace life, to live ethically, to make choices which honor each other and God. In Judaism, a holy life is one in which we encounter one another, see the godliness within every soul and we honor that soul as a reflection of the Divine. Holiness is not other worldly, it is here and now.

So as we remember the tragic losses of our people we are encouraged to turn to life, to channel our energies into becoming holy, sacred vessels of the Divine, by embracing one another in the fullness of life and holy being.

Acharei Mot, “after the deaths” is the name of this week’s parasha and poignantly, we read it during the week we commemorate Yom Hashoah, when we are “after the deaths” of so many millions of our people. In our parasha, Aaron is mourning the deaths of his sons Nadav and Avihu who were consumed by fire. In the aftermath of their deaths Aaron is silent, he has no words, no ability to contain his pain, shock and suffering in the vessels of letters, so he is silent, mute in the face of the unthinkable loss of his two sons. During the Shoah, the Aarons of our people lost more than two sons, whole families were decimated, murdered in the darkest moments of our people’s history.

Yesterday BBYO led the commemoration of Yom ha Shoah. As part of the ceremony they read some of he names of those who were murdered in the Shoah. Some have family to remember them, others have nobody left, and so we recite their names, acknowledging each individual, not a number or a statistic but a person. And survivors and their families speak the names of their loved ones: a name, my mother, a name, my father, a name, my sister, a name, my grandmother, a name, my aunt, and then “130 cousins and other members of my family.” Even at this ceremony the names are too many to recite, just of those lost to the small gathering of people. Our people’s loss is so great it is almost incomprehensible and for a time we, like Aaron, were silent. It was too hard to speak. There were no words which could describe what happened, the darkness of the endless night of horror, suffering and pain. The Shoah has been called an uncreation, where the world began to fall apart, the rules and understandings of humanity were reversed, nothing made sense, we returned to the primordeal state of tohu vavohu. But then we slowly returned to life. Like Aaron in our Torah portion this week, the survivors took up the reigns of life again and began to create, to put the pieces back together, to exist in a world forever changed. Aaron is not the same man he was before his loss, the shadow of his suffering will always be with him, but he returns to life. He receives the instructions for Yom Kippur, his duties, his responsibilities continue and he begins to carve a future for himself and his remaining family.

So too the survivors. They emerged from the horror and they built and created, they forged ahead with life. The courage, strength, determination they showed to make a future for themselves, to go on, to live is astounding. They built the foundations upon which we now flourish and grow. And then there was need for a new response, no longer silence but now words, trying to understand, to shape and mold language to contain the emotions, the memories, the experiences, to tell the stories so that we will never forget. And so we say the names, millions of names. But like Nadav and Avihu whose names we know, we know about their deaths but now we need to also know about their lives. We must tell the stories of those who died in the Shoah, not just the story of their deaths but also the story of their lives. To know who they were, their loves, their passions, their joys, their dreams.

Yesterday our BBYO group called upon us to remember the stories, the lives of those who were murdered. And that is our sacred task now, to speak, to write, to record and to remember the richness of each life taken, the fullness of their being.

Zichronam Livrecha may their memories be a blessing.

This Shabbat we celebrate the eighth day of Pesach and we focus on the women in the story of the Exodus. So many pivotal moments during our people’s liberation from slavery hinged on the actions of women: Israelite and Non Israelite, courageously stepping forward, doing what was right, being becons of justice in a dark and cruel world. Our first encounter is with the midwives, Shifra and Puah. These women stood up to the Pharaoh, the highest authority in the land and refused to follow his decree to kill the male Hebrew babies. Their resistance, even when called before the Pharaoh, is a model of strength, courage and defiance.

Next came Yochevet, Moses’ mother. She made the impossible choice that so many women have faced through history, giving up her child to save his life. Placing him in a basket of reeds, hoping and praying that someone would take pity on him and give him a chance at a future which she could not provide. That future was ensured by his adoptive mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter. The Torah does not give her a name but the tradition calls her Batya, daughter of God. She knew that she was taking a Hebrew child into her heart and her home. She knew that by rescuing and raising him she was defying her father’s decree but she reached out anyway and did what was right. She saved a life, and much of the man that Moses became, the man who fought for justice for others, who was moved by the oppression of the taskmasters and who felt compassion for the slave people, was because of the influence of his mother, who she was, the values she taught him.

And finally Miriam, Moses’ sister, beloved by her people, the nurturing presence, the one who celebrated freedom by leading her people in song and dance, filled with joy and gratitude. These women are each role models for us of the values of Torah, living a principled life no matter what the challenges, standing up for what you believe and creating a better world.

Also this Shabbat we commemorate Yom HaGevurah, the Shabbat before Yom Hashoah where we remember all those who were murdered during the darkest days of humanity. We think of those who like Yochevet, had to make impossible choices, those who suffered and all those who were killed at the hands of the most evil of regimes. We remember those like Shifra and Puah and Batya who defied the laws, who reached out and helped, saved, rescued, those who refused to comply, who risked so much to shelter others, to fight the forces of darkness and to create a different reality.

We remember this Shabbat the millions who were murdered, whose lives were cut short: men, women, children, all still in our hearts, here with us as we remember. This Shabbat may we remember the victims, the heroes, all those who fought and those who continue to fight to make our world a place of peace and safety for all.

Pesach 2016

At the erev Pesach service sometime in the early 1990’s the rabbi delivered his sermon to the congregation. He spoke about how, in the days leading up to Pesach, he had decided that it wasn’t good enough just to clean out the oven in his kitchen. He wanted to make sure that all the chametz had been cleaned up and destroyed. So, he decided to take apart the components of the oven that he could get to, such as the screws that held various pieces of the oven in place, to make sure that they were rid of chametz as well.

The rabbi went on to explain how he found that the more he searched around in the oven for “things to take apart”, the more places he found for the chametz to hide. It became an unending search for something that could hide in any just about any nook or cranny in that oven. The rabbi did elicit a fair amount of laughter when he proclaimed that it may have been a better idea just to get a new oven, rather than spend countless hours going through this arduous exercise, especially as he had to put everything back together again. His point was that we can search everywhere and everything to the most minute detail, if that is our objective, but going to those lengths doesn’t make your house “more kasher l’Pesach”, it just helps you to scratch that itch. If you believe that you need to take everything apart in your house, to be totally certain that no chametz exists anywhere in your house, then that’s the level you believe you need to achieve in order to rid yourself of chametz. But, is it really the physical chametz you are trying to cleanse yourself of?

At the end of the process of searching for chametz in our homes before Pesach, we recite the “Kol Chamira” declaration, nullifying all unknown chametz and relinquishing it from our ownership. This serves to declare that we have completed the process as required and that we know that chametz can get into places we don’t have usual or reasonable access to. It is interesting to note that we do this in addition to the act of appointing an official to “sell our chametz” for the duration of Pesach, allowing us to keep the chametz locked away in our houses. It’s possible that we do this to prevent any possibility of transgressing the commandment of not possessing any chametz during Pesach. The designated punishment for this transgression is “kareit”, meaning cut-off, referring to the extinction of the soul and denial of a share in the world to come. In Talmudic terms, it is the highest level of punishment. It’s the same punishment that was metered out for incest, beastiality, or idolatry.

The question is, how far do we need to go to ensure that we are not transgressing this commandment? Do we need to rip apart our ovens, fridges, cupboards, and other commodities in our house, to make sure that there is absolutely no chance we could be in possession of chametz?

Perhaps these provisions were put in place to help us appropriately celebrate the festival of freedom, the festival of redemption and of the birth of our people as a nation, rather than having to focus all of our energy avoiding the dire outcome associated with transgressing this commandment.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach.

Shabbat haGadol

Shabbat HaGadol means The Great Shabbat. It is the name given to the Shabbat immediately prior to Pesach. There are two basic components to Shabbat HaGadol. The first is the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi, in which he refers to Elijah the prophet who will herald the coming of the messiah. Malachi speaks of the future day in which the hearts of children will be turned toward their parents and parents to their children. Overall, this reading suggests that the messianic era requires healing within families, within society and between human and God. These healings form the basis of the ultimate redemption and should also form the theme of our discussions at the Seder which this year begins as Shabbat ends. The second aspect of Shabbat HaGadol is to focus on the teachings of Pesach; in ancient times this concerned the laws of chametz (which had to be dealt with last week to give us time to clean our homes); in contemporary times we should as well consider ways to make our Seder night more meaningful.

The Haggadah, which is a highly constructed narration of the events of the story of Pesach, is meant to be the first, not the last, word of how we commemorate this most important festival. That we will narrate the story of Pesach from one generation to the other is taught four times in the Torah (the basis of the “four children” in the Haggadah.) In ancient Temple times, the story telling would have been based in the narrative from the book of Exodus, and perhaps more fluid in style. With the destruction of the Temple, the Pesach offering ceased (it is now remembered by the shank bone on the Seder plate). With the ensuing exile, the rabbis responded to the need to establish parameters for the telling of the Pesach story. These parameters have ensured that 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple and 3,300 years since the Exodus from Egypt, we the Jewish people maintain the memory of Pesach and as importantly adhere to its central messages.

In Mishnah Pesachim, which forms the backdrop for the rabbinical retelling of the story of Pesach, the rabbis established certain patterns on which we must focus Seder night. It is our duty to expand upon the themes of Seder night in a creative, engaging manner.

We open with a reference to matzah, the bread of affliction, symbolizing the oppression we survived. As we begin each Seder night reciting “let all who are hungry come and eat” we must remember to respond to the needs of the hungry among us (a donation to Mazon, a Jewish response to hunger, is one of the best ways to ensure our words are not hollow; each year Mazon has a special Pesach appeal)

Overall, the story takes us on a journey from degradation to exaltation. We begin the evening reflecting on two types of degradation: the physical degradation of slavery and the spiritual degradation of idolatry. We can expand on this theme by discussing contemporary forms of physical and spiritual degradation, how these forms of oppression differ, and how we can best overcome them.

Eventually, as we take the story to the recitation of the plagues and the singing of Dayenu we come to the place of exaltation: singing songs of thanksgiving in praise of God, the source of all life. At Dayenu it is appropriate to consider the many things in each of our lives for which we can be grateful. After dinner, when it comes time for the cup of Elijah, each of us can help fill the cup with some wine from our own glass, at the same time contributing an idea of how we can help bring redemption to our world.

This Shabbat HaGadol it is appropriate to recall the messianic message of Pesach. Each of us should familiarize ourselves not just with the original story of Pesach as told in Exodus 1–15, but also its central themes highlighted by the Haggadah. This great Shabbat reminds us of the great message of Pesach: just as we became free, so must we work for the freedom of every human being, in both the physical and spiritual sense. While we should express gratitude for every blessing we have, we must also focus on all the work still in front of us to bring healing to this world. It may just be that Elijah, about whom we hear in the words of Malachi, will make an appearance heralding redemption later that night as we celebrate Pesach. His appearance and the coming of the messianic age of healing depend upon our intention and effort.

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