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This Shabbat falls before Yom HaShoah, which begins Saturday night. At the end Survivors came out from hiding, from the forests where they had been fighting in the resistance and from the camps of horror from which they had been liberated. While finally free, they were not fully safe – thousands were murdered upon return to their homes. Liberation led them to discover the losses they had suffered, often the only ones left alive from hundreds of members of their families. To this day, we struggle how to process this tragedy, this affront to humanity – six million innocents brutally murdered solely because they were Jews. The heights the Jewish people reached in Germany in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century added to the shock of the Shoah.

With these contemporary thoughts, we read Parasha Shemini, telling of events that occurred just one year after the Exodus from Egypt. In that time after liberation from slavery, our people stood at Sinai, experienced the presence of God, heard words of Torah, and erected the Tabernacle exactly according to the instructions given to Moses. The book of Exodus ends on a glorious and harmonious note echoing the beauty and order of the story of creation with which the book of Genesis opens, similar to the heightened status of our people at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. Leviticus, the third book of the Torah opens with a discussion of the service of the priests in the Tabernacle, with our Parasha Shemini telling of the ordination of the priests and the dramatic dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This is the pinnacle of our people’s experience since the time our ancestors have been promised to be a great nation in the holy land. It is the moment where “the glory of God” will appear to them.

Just at the height of the ceremony, being conducted by Aaron’s four sons, two of them, Nadav and Abihu, die suddenly. The community is in shock. Some try to blame, some try to explain. In fact, for thousands of years there has been much rabbinic commentary analysing the event. Some blame Nadav and Avihu for doing something wrong, for being transgressors who have been punished with death. And others speak of them as being so holy that at this exquisite moment they leave their bodies behind, their souls ascending directly to God. Aaron remains silent.

Silence is sometimes the best and most authentic response. After the Shoah, as with the death of Nadav and Abihu, there were also many who jumped in to offer their explanations of the event. There were rabbis who said punishment occurred because of the sins of the people; there were others who said “God was dead”, and as time passed, others extolled the victims as holy martyrs. Perhaps more than an explanation of “why” horrible events happen it is important to remember the book by Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When tragedies occur, it is better not to explain with words, but to respond with deeds.

We think with gratitude of all who gave their lives and all who served to defeat tyranny. At this time when recall the horror of the Shoah and see to this day horrific deeds continually perpetrated by humanity, we should recall our obligations: to comfort those who are bereaved and to protect with justice those who are still persecuted. There is a time to speak with deeds, not words.

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This Shabbat we are in chol hamoed Pesach and the Pesach story has a large focus on women. 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 beacons 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.

And 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.

Zichronam livrecha May their memories be for a blessing

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This week’s Torah reading discusses the role of the priests with regards to sacrifices of animals and grains in the Sanctuary. The voice of the prophets is brought in to remind us that, even in ancient times, the emphasis needed to be on doing acts of kindness and compassion rather than dwelling on the external façade that sanctuary sacrifices could become.

Amos the Prophet said in the name of God, “Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.” Jeremiah the Prophet quoted God, saying: “I am God, who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; it is in these things I delight.”

The sacrifices were important however they needed to be done in the right spirit, with authenticity. They also needed to be done by people who were genuinely endeavoring to bring goodness into the world as well as performing rituals.

This is connected to the importance placed on intention behind actions and the importance of backing up good intentions with actions in the world.

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, korban, is connected to the word for closeness, karov. The sacrifices of ancient times were designed to give people a way to experience closeness with the divine. Sacrifices were also an opportunity to give something up – an animal or part of a harvest – and in so doing, renounce ownership of something. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that this was an opportunity for each person to understand the ephemeral nature of ownership and that we are “no more than trustees or guardians” of the things we “own”.

After the Temple was destroyed, other forms of renunciation were substituted: giving charity, learning and prayer are all opportunities to become closer to the divine if done with a pure intention. But, closer to the divine does not just mean feeling holiness, it means bringing holiness and goodness into the world, each person in their own way. This week we are invited to consider what we sacrifices we make in our lives and whether we are willing to make more sacrifices for the sake of improving ourselves and the world.

With Pesach only a few days away, we think about the Festival of Freedom and the number of people who have limited freedom at this time.

May each of us be inspired to help others and ourselves gain new levels of freedom, knowing that true freedom comes with responsibilities and limitations.

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This week, we begin a section of the Torah that many find difficult to relate to. Many relate easily to the stories of the first families in Bereshit (Genesis), or the soaring triumph of the Exodus, but in our lives today, what possible connection can we have with the idea of animal sacrifice? Our disconnect possibly is rooted in the misunderstanding of the word sacrifice.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in his commentary on Vayikra, writes the following: Today the word “sacrifice” means an act of self-deprivation. We give up something of value for the sake of a greater value:

we may sacrifice a vacation to make more money, or sacrifice luxuries in order to educate our children, or sacrifice life for nation or faith. Such a sacrifice is deemed regrettable, even though necessary; if we could attain the larger end without the sacrifice, we should do so. Prudence therefore counsels us to make a sacrifice only after careful deliberation and to sacrifice no more than is needed to attain our goal.

That is not what the ancients meant by sacrifice. To them it was a religious rite, most often a joyful one. The offering was as large and choice as the worshiper could afford to make it. It was always a sacrifice to some deity or power – not – as in our usage – a sacrifice for some end. The sacrifice might indeed be offered in the hope to obtain a favor, or warding off disaster, or of achieving purification from ritual defilement or sin. But just as often, perhaps more often, it was an expression of reverence and thanksgiving.

We should note that the term sacrifice comes from the Latin word meaning “to make something holy. The most common Hebrew equivalent is Korban, “something brought near” i.e. to the altar.

This beautiful connection, to bring closer to, or to come closer to, is the actual purpose of the rituals described in such detail in the book of Vayikra. The method today obviously has changed, but the ultimate goal is an attempt to bridge the gap between God and us.

We give of our time and energy, to our loved ones, to our friends, and to our community, not as an expense to be paid or a burden to shoulder, but something we joyously and freely choose to do.

By altering how we perceive the idea of sacrifice, and all it entails, we hopefully can connect to our history and tradition a bit more, by understanding the motivations, and seeing that today, we practice in much the same manner as our ancestors did, in thought, if not in deed.

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At the very beginning of Vayakhel, in the 2nd verse of chapter 35 we read:

Sheishet yamim tei’aseh melacha u’vayom hash’vi’ih yi’yeh lachem kodesh Shabbat Shabbaton la’Adonai … On six days, work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God …

Shabbat is an integral part of our lives as Jews. It is the only ritual that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, and it is mentioned more often in the Torah than any other mitzvah. Shabbat is a showcase for core Jewish values. It has a special place in our lives. After all, it occurs every week, whilst virtually every other holiday occurs just once a year. Shabbat is considered to be the most important day in the Jewish calendar, even more important than Yom Kippur.

The punishment for desecrating Yom Kippur is chareit (excommunication). As we read further on in the verse mentioned above, the punishment for desecrating Shabbat is death.

If we look at Shabbat from the point of view of observance and tradition, we see that the Shabbat has two tractates of Talmud (Shabbat and Eruvin) dedicated to it, as well as just under 200 chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. However, it is the next verse (verse 3) that can be viewed as one of the greatest bases for debate about Shabbat, possibly more than any of the above sources. It reads; “Lo-t’va’aru aish b’chol moshvoteichem b’yom haShabbat.” (You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on Shabbat).

This verse, which is then followed by all the details pertaining to the Mishkan, is one of the foundations used for the 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, developed by the Sages. Included in these laws, are the prohibition against kindling or extinguishing a fire (as explicitly mentioned in this week’s parasha), and subsequently cooking and baking as a category, even if they don’t require fire, or even if the fire was lit before Shabbat. Very rigid, and very prescriptive.

However, not every commentator is in agreement with the extreme rigidity and lack of ability to interpret this verse.

Regarding this commentary in the Stone edition of the Tanach says the following; “The Oral Law makes clear that only the creation of a fire and such use of it as cooking and baking are forbidden, but there is no prohibition against enjoying its light and heat. Deviant sects that denied the teachings of the Sages misinterpreted this passage, so they would sit in the dark throughout the Sabbath, just as they sat in spiritual darkness all their lives.”

Perhaps what this commentary is saying is that it is unnatural for us to ignore the fire, as a natural source of light and warmth, and that those who do so, are depriving themselves of enjoying their Shabbat experience. They chose to focus on the negative and restrict themselves.

As Jews living in the 21st Century CE, we have the ability and authority to provide our own interpretation on these kinds of debates, to enhance our experience of Shabbat through the laws and commentaries provided to us. Just like Irving Stone has done in his commentary, we too should look to these laws as ways of enhancing our Shabbat experience in ways that are special to us. The Torah is a living document, it is up to us to allow it to enliven our world.

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How do people deal with a continually escalating experience? What happens to their expectations? How do they achieve satisfaction if they are always expecting more? Is there a way to temper expectations so that they are not on a continually upward trajectory?

The Israelites have much of this problem in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa. There has been a continuous build up from the beginning of the Book of Exodus: the arrival of Moses, the confrontations with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the triumphant exit from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and finally the revelation at Mount Sinai. And now, that momentum comes crashing to a halt. Moses, the one who has always been at the centre of the plot, the one who has been driving the action forward, is gone. He has been at the top of the mountain for 40 days and the Israelites, quite understandably, are left wondering, “What’s next?” Their answer to that is the great sin of the Golden Calf.

Rambam, a famous medieval philosopher and commentator, posits that the Israelites were not attempting to replace God with an idol, but Moses. Moses, their great leader has been gone for 40 days and nights. The people “didn’t know what happened to you [Moses] or whether you [Moses] would return or not’…” (to Exodus 32:1) In their need for further excitement or to continue the upward trend of expectations, the people took action to fulfil that craving. While misdirected, it is certainly understandable.

The Israelites finally have that engagement after being ignored for so long, languishing as they did in slavery. Finally, God, embodied in their eyes as Moses, has come to pay attention to them, to care for them, to lead them out of Egypt. And all of a sudden, Moses is gone for 40 days. Even though a month before, the entire Israelite camp is entering into a direct and intimate relationship with God; the sudden cessation of the direct presence is jarring. It is a complete withdrawal that they are not yet prepared to deal with. The Israelites perhaps faltered because they mistook the miracles and wonders as gimmicks, not realizing that it was God being in direct and intimate relationship with the people. When the presence was altered, they faltered and turned to a gimmick instead of something of substance.

Today, we are bombarded with gimmicks that claim to offer substance. Things are vying for our attention, distracting us from the elements of true substance. As a society, we are continually seeking the next thrill, the next rush, the next excitement. We need to have substance in our lives, not gimmicks. We have actively chosen to be a part of this community of Emanuel because of the substance of the community, what it is we stand for and what we represent: a deep, meaningful and hopefully intimate exploration and experience of our faith and tradition.

I pray this week that we learn to understand our needs and to find ways to satisfy them, building our lives in a productive and fulfilling way. 

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This week in our Torah portion we read the description of the garments worn by the High Priest in the Temple and we also celebrate the festival of Purim, a time where we dress up in fancy dress and allow ourselves the freedom to be whoever we want to be. The priest had prescribed ritual garments which he wore to denote his position in the community and to remind him constantly of his obligations to his people. Clothing in the Torah was more than an item to cover the body, it had symbolism and meaning and also imparted ethical and moral teachings to the people who wore it and those who saw it. Today, clothing continues to be more than a mere covering of the body. It can be a reflection of our identity, our views, it can be constraining and freeing. During the festival of Purim we focus on clothing, often seeing the chance to dress up as some frivolous fun. But perhaps it is more than that. Just as during Purim we wear masks, during our lives, we too wear masks, we conform to societal pressures, we sometimes have to hide who we really are. At Purim we are presented with the opportunity to release ourselves from those constraints, all the rules are turned on their head as we don a mask which rather than concealing who we are, can allow us to reveal who we really are. We can dress in whatever we choose, we can turn conventions and norms upside down and we can find the way to embrace all of who we are.

There is an interesting commentary in the Talmud which compares Purim with Yom Kippur. It seems that there could not be two more different festivals in our calendar. Yom Kippur with its solemnity, its focus on repentance and rejuvenation, meeting God and being stripped bare, naked and alone with our mistakes and failings. And Purim, the festival of fancy dress, mockery and fun, where nothing is sacred and everything is grist for the humour mill. So how are these two festivals alike? Yom Kippur is a day ke’Purim, like Purim, because on both festivals we have the chance to be whoever we want to be and we can realize the potential within us. We do this on Yom Kippur through a process of reflection and introspection, thinking about what is really important and then making the changes in our lives to make that vision a reality. On Purim, we dress up and we can become whoever we want to be. The constraints of our daily lives are cast aside and we have the freedom to embrace whatever we want to become. Both festivals are times when anything is possible, when we can allow ourselves to dream and then make those dreams real.

This Shabbat we also read the passages where the Torah exhorts us to remember Amalek. But what are we to remember about him? The midrash explains that Amalek was evil because he prayed on the weak and vulnerable, he exploited those least able to stand for themselves and so gained power which he used to further abuse those who needed him the most. This passage is always read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman, the protagonist of the Purim story, is a descendant of Amalek. In the megillah it is a brave, courageous woman, Queen Esther, who stands in the face of Haman’s power and fights for her people. This week as we read these passages I pray that we will stand up for the vulnerable, speak out against injustice and work to make changes in the world to make the lives of others better.

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