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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.

Parashat Tetzaveh

This week our parasha is tazriah, the first of two portions of the Torah which deal with afflictions of the skin and diseases which can affect houses and clothing. When a person is suspected of having tzara’at, a skin disease, they are brought before the priest who is both medical and spiritual authority in the community, for diagnosis. If they are found to have tzara’at they are taken outside the camp for a period of isolation, after which time they are inspected again by the priest. If he determines they are healed, there is a ritual performed which brings them back into the camp and back to the community.

This portion may seem archaic in its approach to illness, disease and affliction of the skin, but if we scratch a little below the surface (excuse the pun), we find an incredibly beautiful and rich teaching about the treatment of those who find themselves outside the camp, of those who face illness, physical or spiritual, of those who are most in need of nurturing, care and support. When the person who is ill is taken outside the camp, it is the priest, the highest spiritual authority in the community, who ministers to them. It is he who tends to their wounds and cares for them whilst they are in isolation. He reaches out, embraces them with his presence and his tenderness until they are ready to return to the fold. And then, once the person is ready to come back to the community, there is an elaborate ritual of welcome which shares many similarities with the ceremony ordaining the High Priest. Rabbi Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes:

Leviticus… concentrates on reconnecting the persons who have been isolated and on bringing them back to the center…Leviticus 14 illustrates the tremendous investment in the social and religious reconnection and rehabilitation of persons formerly stigmatized and excluded by virtue of the disease. The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the Ordination of the High Priest.” (“Healing and the Jewish Imagination” as quoted in Rabbi Elyse Goldstein’s D’var Torah ReformJudaism.org)

The community reached out, through their spiritual leader, to care for and minister to the people outside the community and they came together to welcome them back into the fold, to surround them with their embrace. There was no stigmatisation, no separation, no pushing them away but instead, a warm and beautiful welcome back and reconnection to the community. We can learn from this special teaching about tending to and reaching out to those who are separated from community and welcoming them and enfolding them within our warm embrace. Rabbi Laura Geller writes:

this is the work each of us must do: reach out to those who are outside, who are sick or poor, to those who are hurting, to those whose hearts are broken. Not only must we find a way to bring them in but we must also model through our own lives and our own caring, that God awaits their return and that healing can come from brokenness.” (“Healing the Broken,” Jewish Journal, April 2013)

We have a sacred duty to reach out, to love and care and to welcome and embrace all those who surround us, with the compassion, kindness and healing love of community.

Parashat Shemini

This week’s parasha, Sh’mini means “eighth.” It refers to the eighth day of the opening of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which was actually its “launch” day, after a week of introductory rites carried out by Moses, Aaron and other priests.

On this “launch” day Moses commands Aaron and the people to bring sacrifices to the Mishkan. Aaron and his sons prepare the animal sacrifices as they are commanded, and we are told that the fire went out from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the fats which were on the altar, and all the people witnesses and celebrated, and they fell on their faces.

The joy that the people experienced at that moment was a culmination of what the work on the Mishkan was all about, serving God and receiving God’s approval. As the jubilation and moment were being celebrated, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, added their own “dedication” to the fire. They brought incense, placed it in a receptacle and put it into the fire. The fire and the incense mixed to create a new result, which God did not command them to do.

As a result, God kills Nadav and Avihu, using the very fire they had created.

There are many interpretations on the story of Nadav and Avihu; relating to challenges, drunkedness, pure stupidity. Whatever the exact reason for their behaviour was, it had dire results for them. Moreover, they had ruined a day of celebration for their father, the day he was to be inaugurated as High Priest. In this week’s parasha, we also learn about some of the laws of kashrut, explaining which animals, fish, birds and insects – yes, some insects are kosher – and which other living creatures are not.

Kashrut has always been seen as one of the more distinctive forms of defining Judaism. Each of us has our own interpretation of what we believe is correct or incorrect, and subsequently, we may follow different ideals when practising kashrut. While there are many other references in the Torah to kashrut, this week’s parasha is one of the only references that mentions solely living beings. It lists which animals and fish can be eaten, and which are forbidden.

Both the story of Nadav and Avihu, and the section on kashrut symbolise a very important general aspect of Judaism; intention. Nadav and Avihu’s intentions clearly showed that they were not of the calibre one expects from priests, let alone the two oldest sons of Aaron, the first High Priest.

Kashrut is also about intention. The choice to keep kosher, and what level of kashrut to keep is motivated by what our intentions are.

Do we keep kosher because the Torah and our sages tell us to, or is it because we have a desire to understand what the laws of kashrut and their implications on our lives mean to us before we adhere to them?

We have the choice, we can decide whether we practice our Judaism like Nadav and Avihu, where the intention is to defy at every opportunity.

Or, we can base our decisions on knowledge and good intent. We just need to ask ourselves, why are we doing that which we are doing, and why do we choose not to do that which we don’t do?

In the end, good intentions lead to honorable actions. Honorable actions lead to moral standards. Moral standards are what we should aim to achieve, no matter what we do.

Parashat Tzav

At the opening of our parasha this week it says: “God told Moses, ‘Command Aaron…’” This week’s parasha, Tzav, the second in the book of Leviticus, which is the third of the five books of our Torah, highlights the notion of being commanded. In ancient times, and still for some today, there is a sense that there is an external commander requiring us to do things. When people no longer hold to that position, has religion become meaningless and our moral compass gone askew?

Throughout the Torah we are commanded to do all kinds of things, and commanded as well to avoid all kinds of things. While the Torah does not present a legal system, but rather laws interspersed through narrative, over time, a system of legal commands has been distilled from it. The first legal compendium is the Mishna, finalised in around 200 CE, and further elaborated in legal codes written from around 1,000 CE. The assumption underlying this system is that God created the world and then singled out the Jews through the gift of Torah to be the ones to perform an extensive system of mitzvot, commandments.

It took a long while to enumerate the mitzvot, but now we have developed a system of 613 mitzvot that govern our actions, 365 “you shall not” and 248 “you must”. Many of them, including most of those discussed in the book of Leviticus and especially in our parasha, are in abeyance, as the Temple has been destroyed, the priests no longer have a locus to perform their service, and thus we no longer worship God through animal sacrifice. There is a debate in our tradition whether, should the Temple be rebuilt, we would reinstitute the priesthood and animal sacrifice, and a fervent group of Jews in Israel and around the world works to make that happen.

Yet a more problematic question arises concerning the system of mitzvot and its ground assumption of God’s external and exclusive authority when we realise that some mitzvot are morally reprehensible these days. This week, celebrating Purim, we have read the Book of Esther and the story of Haman, the descendant of Amalek. We are reminded of the command to genocide Amalek, one of the 248 positive mitzvot. While theoretically in abeyance, as we cannot at this time identify Amalek, the commandment motivated Baruch Goldstein to murder 29 Muslims in the Mosque in Hebron on Purim Day in 1994. Further, in just a couple of weeks, we will read the commandment to put to death those men “who lie with a male as one lies with a woman”, a command that has contributed to great discrimination against people on gender issues. These examples show that the system of mitzvot does not in contemporary eyes elicit necessarily moral or exemplary behavior.

Using a positive historical approach to the system of mitzvot, we see that the notion of there being 613 mitzvot (only mentioned once in the Talmud) is actually a rubric, a way of discussing how humans should behave. It was written during a time, as was the Torah, in which humanity understood God as other, outside, transcendent. Now, probing our Judaism and our heritage, we understand God in different ways, knowing that the “one that is” must by definition be part of us as each of us. All that is, is part of it. That is, the notion of there being an “external commander” no longer holds with many of us, and we are not fearful [as are others] that without an external commander “all hell will break loose.” In fact, many today now look at human behaviour and perceive that those who believe in an external commander actually rely on their traditions to follow commands to do that which is evil.

So where does this leave us in a Torah reading that speaks all of being commanded? We must acknowledge that God is the word that we use for the ultimate mystery of life, which binds us together and continues to unfold with us. Our words of Torah are an approach toward that oneness, an attempt to develop a relationship with it. For the most part they are beautiful and inspiring – but not always. We do not need ancient teachings to know the difference between right and wrong; in fact, sometimes as noted above they can lead today in the wrong direction. Rather, we study to the best of our ability those teachings to see how they can continue to inspire us to live a life that is good, true and holy. Our sense of being commanded does not come from the outside in, but rather, from our inner being, calling us to be responsible for and connected with something far grander than our selves.

This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, which is nestled in the center of the five books of the Torah. The Hebrew name for the book is the first word, “vayikra” which means “to call out.” This “calling” is a term of affection and care as it is the same word with which the ministering angels call to God. Rashi, one of the Torah commentators suggests that to “call out” to another individual expresses a desire to create a relationship with the one to whom we call, so here as God calls us and we call to God, we establish a relationship together of closeness and love. But how do we create this relationship?

The Torah teaches that each of us is created in the image of God. Part of the obligation which accompanies the honor of being fashioned after God is that we strive to become as “God-like” as we can. The Torah commentators then ask what it means to be God-like. Many suggest the way to do this is to imitate the deeds that God performs in the world and they focus on a number of acts by which God has aided human beings, the times God has reached out and touched the lives of individuals in need: by visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting mourners, celebrating with bride and groom. It is notable that the ways we become like God are not through “other worldly” activities, not by separation from other people, in fact, exactly the opposite. It involves “calling out” to one another, vayikra, focusing on the needs of others, reaching out to touch their lives with goodness and humanity. These are the gifts that God gives to the world and these are the gifts we can give to each other.

And it is interesting that this week where we begin the section of the Torah concerned most with ritual practice, it reminds us with the first word, vayikra, that ritual is meaningless when it is not accompanied by deeds of goodness and acts of kindness towards one another.

This Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the one which comes immediately before Purim. We read an extra portion of the Torah and a special haftarah where we are called upon to remember Amalek and to blot his name out from the earth so that we forget his existence. Amalek was the person who brought destruction upon the Israelites and is the ancestor of Haman about whom we read at Purim. Many enemies have risen against the Israelites but Amalek is singled out as being the most heinous because of the way he treated other people. Instead of fighting a fair battle he attacked the old and the weak, those who were most vulnerable were his targets and for this reason we must remember him and forget his name. But how can we both remember and forget Amalek? We can remember his crimes and work to eradicate such behavior from the earth so that we usher in a time where we all call out to one another in love and compassion and then no longer even remember Amalek and those like him in the world.

So this Shabbat, Vayikra/Zachor, we call out to one another, we reach out and embrace each other with love and kindness so that we will come to a time of peace, goodness and care for one another.

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Purim!

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