Archive for Març de 2016

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.


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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.

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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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Each year, as we approach the month of Adar, we focus on the expression “Mishenichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha” (When the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy). As 5776 is a leap year and there are two months of Adar, the focus of the phrase relates to the second Adar or Adar Sheini.

The inference is that we should be more joyous during the month of Adar. However, upon more detailed inspection, we discover that we don’t really do anything differently during the month of Adar. We continue to say Tachanun (prayers of supplication), as well as other prayers that would be omitted on other “happy” days. We don’t add anything to our daily liturgy or daily practices that would show our “added joy”.

We also find that this expression is not found in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) or just about any other source of Jewish custom. So where does this mantra come from?

The source of “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha” is in the Gemara (Tractate Ta’anit), commenting on the words of the Mishnah that “Mishenichnas Av Mima’atin B’Simcha” (When the month of Av [in which Tisha B’Av is commemorated] arrives we should reduce our joy).

The Gemara comments that just as when Av arrives, we reduce our joy, so too when Adar arrives we should increase our joy. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) goes further to explain that the reason given for increasing joy in Adar is because these were days of “miracles”, specifically referring to Purim and Pesach.

Why does Rashi add Pesach to the reason for increased jubilation in Adar when it clearly took place in Nisan?

We are told that Rashi adds Pesach into the “celebrations” in order to show us that Purim isn’t an isolated festival. Rather, it initiates a season of redemption, beginning with Adar (Purim) and running through Nisan (Pesach). So perhaps the reason why we are commanded to be joyous is because we are commencing a period of redemption – the exact opposite of Av when we are beginning a period of exile.

This is the season of hope and deliverance, a season of joy and redemption.

We also remember that Adar was not always a joyous month. When Haman wanted to find out which month would be the most vulnerable for the Jews, he cast lots to choose the month and day. The lot fell upon the month of Adar.

When Haman’s plot was foiled, Adar was transformed for the Jews from a month of grief and mourning to one of rejoicing and festivity; the happiness was all the greater. And so, the month of Adar has become the very symbol of joy to us.

This is also an ideal time for us to seek out our own personal redemption, identifying with the struggle of Purim and the path to the redemption.

The month of Adar (Sheini) has just begun, and we look forward to the joy of Purim, and then to the redemption of our people.

May it be a month of joy, happiness, and a true celebration of “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha”!

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We conclude the Book of Shemot with the construction of the Tabernacle as introduced in VaYakhel. Over thousands of years, nearly as many rabbis have commented on the detail given to the command to construct the Tabernacle (primarily in chapters 25– 31 of Exodus), only to be extensively repeated in equal detail in the closing chapters of this book. The Torah, generally sparse on detail, seems to go overboard when it comes to the construction of the Tabernacle. One of the many rabbinic interpretations demonstrates the parallel between the creation of the world and the construction of the Tabernacle: one was God’s providing space for humanity and the life we know; the other was our providing space for connecting with God. What is relatively simple for God is quite complex for humans.

Certainly, as God is infinite we could meet God at anytime in any place. But because humans are finite with limited ability (albeit extensive compared to other life forms), we need space dedicated to the service of God. (We also need dedicated time as well, which is one of the reasons that the command to observe Shabbat is found in conjunction with the command to build the Tabernacle). The Tabernacle served as that original, portable sanctuary in the wilderness; it is also the model for the Temple that would be built in Jerusalem after our settling in the Land of Israel.

The Tabernacle is now gone and the Temple, both First and Second, have been destroyed (the former about 2,500 years ago, the latter about 1937 years ago). Our ability to meet God in sacred space has been preserved through the development of the synagogue. In many ways the institution of Tabernacle and Temple are different than the synagogue. The Tabernacle and Temple were one-of-a-kind structures in which the people came to make animal offerings to the priests as a way of serving God. The synagogue has broader participation and activity (including extensive learning and social functions, through which we also encounter the presence of God, in the expansion of the mind and in the interaction with the other.)

Although Tabernacle/Temple may be different in form and function than synagogue, certain consistency unites these places where God may dwell among us, all found within this week’s parasha. In verse 35:5 each of us who has a giving heart is asked to bring gifts to God in order to create the space; verse 35:10 speaks of the wise of heart “coming to do what is commanded”. What makes a synagogue great is when each of its members contributes in the emotional (giving heart), intellectual (wise of heart) and physical (to do) realm. That is when a synagogue truly becomes a community, and what Moses saw possible in our creation of sacred space, as it says in the opening of this parasha, “VaYakhel Moshe et Kol Adat B’nei Yisrael” — and Moses formed into community all the assembly of Israel. May we do, with giving and wise heart, the same at CBTBI.

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