Shabbat Emor: Teach Us To Count Our Days

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn? 

Why is the body so often dumb flesh?

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment 

the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?

(Alice Walker, the Temple of My Familiar)

Beginning on the second evening of Pesakh, ancient Jewish gratitude practice mandated a daily recognition of one’s harvest. In this week’s parashat hashavua we see the mitzvah described: 

כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֔ם וּקְצַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־קְצִירָ֑הּ וַהֲבֵאתֶ֥ם אֶת־עֹ֛מֶר רֵאשִׁ֥ית קְצִירְכֶ֖ם אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃ 

When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. (Lev. 23.10)

As an ancient people, we follow mitzvot that have sometimes literally been uprooted from their original meaning, as we ourselves were uprooted from our home yet managed to find ways to stay connected. We who are not generally barley farmers now use the tool of midrash to evoke other meanings for this essential activity of garnering resources of survival. We may not be hunter gatherers or farmers ourselves, yet all of us know what it is to harvest the fruit of our labor, and all of us know that there are many modern plagues that can imperil harvests real and symbolic, and thus our own lives. A daily gesture of gratitude seems appropriate.

We are in the middle of that season right now: today is the 29th day of the Omer Count, and there’s a daily blessing we’re supposed to say as we do the daily count. Perhaps it does not seem to be much to ask of us, to take a moment each day and do this symbolic act of gratitude for harvest; but apparently it is. Proof is that there’s an app for it which you can download onto your phone to remind you.

Why is is so hard to remember to stop and count our blessings? Rather than dismiss this essential human question with the modern answer of “I’m too busy” or the post modern answer of “I’m too distracted by impending apocalypse” I’m intrigued by the light shed on this question by using another rabbinic interpretive tool: juxtaposition. At the beginning and end of the Omer counting period are the harvest festivals of Passover and Shavuot. During both of these times of joy, we are to gather and share our harvest with others in a great celebration of family and friends and enough to sustain us.

At those gatherings there will, inevitably, sooner or later, be an empty chair.  That is why both Passover and Shavuot include a Yizkor prayer; four times a year – at the three harvest festivals and on Yom Kippur – we specifically invoke the memory of our loved ones who have died. And so we see that accompanying every moment of joy is sorrow; every moment of counting joys evokes times of suffering. 

To count what we have is to notice what we do not have. It’s one reason behind the ancient Israelite (and modern Jewish) superstition against counting people. It can seem altogether too painful.

But we are commanded to be joyful on our holy days, and we are urged to count these days, not because our tradition ignores the complexity but because Judaism embraces it. A full human life includes love, and love brings with it the inevitable loss. To choose to live without love, out of fear of loss of love, is to refuse to take part in life itself.  Better to learn to laugh fully, cry openly, and explore all the complicated depths of the heart we’re given, so that we can “sound the depths of our being”:

“only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous in security that drives [us] to feel out the shapes of [the room’s darkness] and not be strangers to it.”  (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 8)

As we sing during our Yizkor prayers, “teach us to count our days, that we might achieve a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90.12).

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: After Death, Holiness?

Not yet.

This week we marked the 75th year since the declaration of independence of the modern State of Israel (we say it that way because this is the third time that Jews have been in a position of self-rule in our at least three thousand year history). 

When the state was founded, the Ashkenazi Jews who were primarily involved in that political act were a traumatized people, many still not sure what had happened to their families in Europe, and they themselves often concentration camp survivors. They wanted to go home. They wanted to be safe in the land that for two thousand years had been ingrained by Jewish culture to be the home we longed to return to. Every year at the end of the Seder we repeated it: “next year in Jerusalem!”

Last week we marked Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of Holocaust and Heroism. The juxtaposition of these two modern Jewish holy days, as well as the historical proximity (the Holocaust took place between 1939-1944) and the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, has led more than one Jew and non-Jew to believe that Israel was founded as a result of international guilt. 

It is true that in a way, the state of Israel was voted into existence by the United Nations when the British partition plan for two states in the area, one Jewish and one Palestinian, was approved in 1947. And no doubt there is something there. But this explanation erases fifty years of urgent lobbying and smuggling, and one hundred years of emigrating and struggling.

For the Jews of Europe, antisemitism had risen to such murderous heights that it caused the beginning of a wave of Jews leaving their homes – which they were told quite definitively were not, after all, their homes, although they had lived there sometimes for more generations than they could count. The ancient impulse to go home, coupled with the rise of European utopian socialism, offered Jews a dream of a better place, their own place, where they could sit under vines and fig trees and none would make them afraid (after the prophecy of Micah 4.4)

There was so much death, so much terror, and so much fear. Those of us who were not there can barely imagine it, even after all the Yom HaShoah information we’ve learned. The land of Israel was not easy, though: of 50,000 Jews who left Europe for Israel in a wave of emigration which is today called the Second Aliyah, many died of starvation (they weren’t farmers) and disease (mosquitos were rampant), and many more returned to Europe. According to some counts, only 5000 stayed and survived.

Today the State of Israel is rightly accused of visiting upon others the terrors and abuse Jews suffered from for so long in Europe. This may be due to PTSD, or the rough neighborhood, or some other form of doorway to evil, but it must be said that the Jewish state is not promoting the values of justice for all and kindness toward strangers as the Torah and our prophets insist that we must. This breaks the hearts of all Jews who care about our people, and causes some of us to do what we can to support the efforts of all who are working for justice in Israel.

Somewhere between all the death that we remember on Yom HaShoah and the vibrant resurrection some of us saw in the birth of the modern state of Israel, hope has turned to tragedy. Partly because as Jews we care about the welfare of the Jews of Israel, and partly because the state of Israel represents us in the world to antisemites – and not only that; many of us are proud of the state and linked by family or friendship to some of its citizens.

Our perspective as Jews, as secular and Western as our outlook may be these days, is rooted in Jewish religious culture. It derives from two thousand years of the development of our sense of mitzvah, and of what it means to be a mensch. All of this is derived, ultimately, from the generations of Torah Study that have always guided us.

So let’s consider:

Our double parashah for this week consists of the two sections named Akharei Mot “after death” and Kedoshim “holy.” As juxtaposition is a regular urge to midrash in rabbinic Judaism, much commentary has been devoted to just what meaning these two names might yield to us as we consider them, each in our different contexts, throughout Jewish time.

Akharei Mot:

“Do not follow the acts of the land of Egypt, where you once lived…follow My judgements” (Lev.18.3)

Comparing the State of Israel to any other state is politically legitimate and yet, for Jews, entirely inappropriate. The Jewish state should act Jewishly. Thus from Jeremiah all the way to our own sense of distress.

“‘You must not enter the Holy at any [spontaneous] time,’ so that Aaron should not die as his sons did.” (Rashi)

We may not act as we wish regardless of the respect due other human beings, or we will defile the holiness we are supposed to be creating among us, and it – and some essential aspect of our community’s life – will die.


“You shall be holy as I HaShem am holy.” (Lev. 19.1)

We are not supposed to be comparing ourselves to other peoples and other nation states. We have an independent Jewish standard by which we judge ourselves and our people.

“Holiness may be found wherever there is a safeguard against immorality.” (Tikkunei Zohar 56, quoted in Likutey Moharan 1, 36.8)

An excellent support for the idea of checks and balances!

There’s a natural human desire to find meaning when people die, that it might have been for some worthwhile purpose. We lift up the memory of those we love after their deaths through doing justice, which we call tzedakah. In this way we, “after death” make “holy” meaning for their lives and our own. 

On Yom HaShoah we reflect on what it has meant for the Jewish people to be helpless victims and doomed rebels. By declaring Never Again we hope to make the memory of their lives holy. Similarly, in the two national memorial ceremonies held yearly, both that of Israel and the joint Israel-Palestine memorial, those who have lost loved ones to the Israel Palestine conflict mourn, and want to see those lives made holy. 

As the historic events of the last 16 weeks in Israel have made clear, we are a long way from learning how to sanctify the lives lost. But the vibrancy of the protests – up to half a million people in the streets, out of a population of 9.5 million – is awe-inspiring. 

Our siddur records the traditional doctrine that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” According to ancient Jewish tradition, idolatry and immorality caused the first exile, and baseless hatred the second. May we learn from our own history, and not repeat it! And may we who are way over here in the U.S. see ourselves not as helpless bystanders but capable of support for the power of good not only in our communities here, but in our beloved Jewish communities of Israel and all the Diaspora, that one day we might all be able to say with the Psalmist:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ מִצִּ֫יּ֥וֹן וּ֭רְאֵה בְּט֣וּב יְרוּשָׁלָ֑͏ִם כֹּ֝֗ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

May HaShem bless you from Zion;

may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem

all the days of your life, 

וּרְאֵֽה־בָנִ֥ים לְבָנֶ֑יךָ שָׁ֝ל֗וֹם עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ {פ}

and live to see your children’s children.

May all be well with Israel! 

Psalm 128.5-6

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora 5783: In The Presence of Blood

הַדָּ֖ם ה֣וּא הַנָּ֑פֶשׁ 

The blood is the life (Deut. 12.23)

Among other bodily fluids, the double parashah which is this week’s Torah reading, Tazria-Metzora, focuses upon blood. The blood of a woman giving birth is one of the most holy substances that exists. In our clumsy translations of the ancient Hebrew, we refer to that which is holy as that which “makes the hands unclean.” It is true of the blood of childbirth and it is also described by the Rabbis of the Talmud as the status of the Torah.

Clearly, ritual purity and impurity are not well understood by moderns. We’ve lost some essential thread along with our proclivity to turn away from the topics of sex and death as unsayable; we consign both to invisibility for anyone not intimately linked in the moment. That for sure was not our ancestors’ reality, and it has made it overwhelming for many of us to face blood.

Yet we are surrounded by blood these days, and not the kind which brings life, but rather its dread – and inevitable – other face. As of this morning, as I write, there have been one hundred and sixty three mass shootings in the United States in 2023. Surrounded by such a horrifying and overwhelming amount of bloodshed, we are numbed. Speechless. 

Our ancestors, who lived on a much smaller scale than we, saw any blood at all as a substance to be treated with great thoughtfulness and care. The blood of a sacrifice must be poured out, since it belongs to HaShem. The blood of childbirth must be respected as holy. 

From some great anthropological height of observation, all the bloodshed of wars and mass shootings and the individual murders that shake our hearts to tears must have some meaning. But from our human distance, it is nothing but overwhelming. Confounding. Heart-stopping.

We have no reasonable answers for those who defend the rights of gun owners and the immunity of gun sellers. We have no easy words for grieving parents or for children who must learn this generation’s form of duck and cover. For all this agony we have only this: ancient words of our people’s deep lived wisdom.

וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי זֶה דַּם הַפֶּסַח, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי זֶה דַּם הַמִּילָה.

“I passed you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, in your blood you shall live” (Ezekiel 16:6) – this is the blood of the paschal offering. “I said to you, in your blood you shall live” – this is the blood of circumcision.  – Shir haShirim Rabbah 5.2.2

If blood, the holiest substance of our lives, is to be shed, it should be shed in holiness. Blood, Ezekiel says, is meant as a sign of community, and of life. 

May we come to see this respect for every drop of human blood – of all blood and all life – manifest in our world. May our hands and our hearts stay strong for the work of bringing it about.

Shabbat Shemini: Now What?

Who are You as a Free Jew?

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

Passover has passed over us; as of sundown yesterday the Festival is over. Passover, or, in Hebrew, Pesakh (which means “skipping over”) is a time when many Jews who may not follow much in the way of traditional Jewish practice nevertheless avoid leaven. Even young children get it pretty clearly: if you are Jewish, you do not eat bread for a week (literally 8 days) every year. 

The Torah puts it clearly: those who ignore this prohibition cut themselves off from the community of Israel. And indeed, Pesakh has become a significant identity marker for Jews. Perhaps that’s why there are so many “kosher for Passover” items available for us; during this week, the more different we eat, the more we can feel it.

Now the week is over, all the leftover Passover items are going on sale, and now quickly come days more recently set in recognition of profound post-Egypt aspects of Jewish identity, each one asking, in its own way, who are you as a free Jew? Or as parashat Shemini puts it, the Mishkan is erected and the sacrifice has been brought; what is the content of the blessing? Who are you in relationship to this new sense of we, the Jewish people?

וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַיֵּ֣צְא֔וּ וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־ה’ אֶל־כׇּל־הָעָֽם׃ 

Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of ‘ה appeared to all the people. – VaYikra 9.23

Who are you in relationship to the Holocaust? 

Yom HaShoah v’haG’vurah, the day of remembering Holocaust and Heroism, begins next Monday night April 17 at sundown. Our entire community is invited, as one is invited to a funeral; by showing up we demonstrate our support for those mourning the catastrophic losses of a terrible time. 

Who are you in relationship to the State of Israel?

Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day of marking the birth of the modern State of Israel, begins Tuesday April 25 at sundown. Israel’s 75th birthday is an excellent time for learning and for discussion. You can learn here: The Torah of Israel and Palestine and here: Jewish Literacy

Pesakh has ended, the question remains: Who are you as a Jew, who might attend and participate in these observances? Who might you be as a free person who chooses Jewish commitment to our community and the history that informs it? 

The central obligation of Pesakh is to free oneself and to help others become free of enslavement. This is not easy; certainly it is easier to avoid leaven – to follow a prohibition – than it is to take a real step toward human freedom. We are not even sure what it might look like, and in his book Escape From Freedom Erich Fromm went so far as to say that we don’t really want the responsibility that comes with freedom.

It’s easier to do what those around us are doing, and so to feel safe and included. But thoughtlessly following what others are doing is the root of fascism. Yet Jews who understand themselves to be part of a living community know that when one is free to truly examine one’s own sense of self and potential, it is exhilarating to find a community that enhances and supports one’s sense of self by offering companions who follow a similar path. 

This path that we belong to is ancient, and it is ours: we are re-membering as we go, and when we can’t remember it, we are creating it, together.

Once we were a free people, free from antisemitism, and free to thrive within a tribe where each person counted and was needed. So much has happened to pull us apart and alienate us from each other in the last two thousand years. But our tradition insists that we are still one people, with one path that we walk together, in mutual support and respect and joy.

May each day of our Omer counting bring you opportunities to remember our people’s history, and may that history fill you with the joyful realization that you are part of us, you belong.

Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesakh 5783: Song of Songs

Ostracon with Song of Songs text in Coptic, 400 CE, Thebes Egypt. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא…שֶׁאֵין כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַאי כַּיּוֹם שֶׁנִּתַּן בּוֹ שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁכָּל הַכְּתוּבִים קֹדֶשׁ, וְשִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים.

[Rabbi Akiba said:] The whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. (Mishnah Yadayim 3.5)

On Passover we relive the Exodus from Egypt, and on this Shabbat of Passover we will observe the crossing of the Yam Suf, the “Sea of Reeds” (mistakenly called the Red Sea in Western translations). In the Hallel we’ll recite highly stylized verses of praise for the escape through water which we survived and our persecutors did not – although the songs are truncated, to express our regret that others died while we lived. 

We’ll also recite Yizkor, the prayers in memory of our dead loved ones whom we especially remember during holidays like Passover. Holidays bring the memories of the missing at our table sharply into focus. Yizkor (“let the memory survive”) is traditionally recited on the last day of the holiday, but at Shir Tikvah we include it in our Shabbat observance of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot.

So much of what we have always done for nearly two thousand years was first created out of pre-existing rituals and remembrances by the Rabbis of the Talmud Bavli, those survivors of the destruction of Israel and Jerusalem who carried the memories and crafted the placeholders for them. Over time, what was meant to be temporary became permanent when enough generations were born who never knew the earlier way of being, since homelessness had become their inheritance.

We can trace the Hallel songs to the Second Temple, and see how they remind us of the Pesakh Festival in Jerusalem; we can understand the development of Yizkor as a natural part of  home- and family-centered ritual. But what is the Song of Songs, traditionally chanted on this Shabbat of the intermediate days of Passover, doing here? And why did the famous Rabbi Akiba famously insist that the Song of Songs is the holiest book of the Tanakh?

The Song of Songs, attributed to King Shlomo, is a beautiful collection of love poetry common in the ancient Mediterranean:

“Kiss me…for your love is more delightful than wine.” (Song of Songs 2.2)

“Whenever you are seen in every glance, it is more delightful for me than eating and drinking.” (From an Egyptian love song cited by Fishbane, The Song of Songs: JPS Commentary)

“I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride” (Song of Songs 5.1)

“I went down to the garden of your love.” (Mesopotamian love song cited by Fishbane)

From these examples we can see that a healthy appreciation of lovers for each other’s physical bodies was part of the ancient cultures in which our people appeared and developed. But there is much more hinted at here, because when we look at rabbinic commentary, it is made absolutely clear by the Rabbis that this entire Song is to be understood only in rabbinic terms, which treat the book as an allegory for the love between HaShem and the people of Israel.

The Rabbis absolutely forbid us to see the Song of Songs as a love poem between two people. Why? As we regularly wonder in Talmud study class, when did sex, and physicality, become so problematic for the Jewish people?

We know that some aspects of our religious practice as it naturally developed ended up being ruled out of Judaism not for some internal fault but because of contemporary competing belief systems. The Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, were removed from the early siddur because “heretics insisted that only the Ten Utterances were given at Sinai, and the rest is made up.” The near absence of Moshe, nearly deified by ancient Israelites, from Rabbinic practice may be due to the rise of the early Christians, who deified a human being. 

Similarly, the Song of Songs may have been interpreted nearly out of existence because it is the Jewish version of the hieros gamos, the “sacred wedding” understood to be a necessary human ritual to bring about fertility throughout ancient Mesopotamia. In this ritual, the goddess was personified by a priestess who, in a highly developed ritual of physical intercourse with the king representing his people demonstrated the bringing together of Heaven and Earth – rain and sun from above for the orchards, fields and vines below. All depended upon the success of the ritual intercourse every year. You can read a famous poem recited during the yearly ritual here: Innana and Dumuzi

Jewish mystical tradition, which may very well preserve ancient beliefs no longer accepted as normative for the Jewish people by the rabbis, depicts the Jewish version of this sacred intercourse:

The erotic desire spoken by the female persona in the Song is applied by the Zoharic authorship to the divine feminine, Shekhinah, which is identified further as the Community of Israel, the symbolic collective constituted paradigmatically by the fraternity of male mystics. Shekhinah utters words of longing before the masculine potency, for in the state of exile she is separated from him. The hieros gamos [“sacred wedding”] occurs within the spatial confines of the holy of holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, but since in the time of exile the latter is not standing, there is no space wherein the union can be fully realized. Hence the feminine expresses her yearning to cohabit with the masculine, to inhabit the same space, nay to be the secret space wherein the phallic foundation is laid. (Elliot Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination)

What can we do with the Songs of Songs in our day, on the cusp of the Third Era of Jewish life, when the rabbinic interpretations are no long our only guide to understanding our past and how we might weave it into our future?

When we note that according to Wolfson, the community of Israel is feminine although its members are only men, we see an irony that is an opening to a different kind of understanding. That makes it our fascinating task to add the latest layer of conversation, of commentary, to our people’s path. We can see the tragedy of the rift between male and female as personal, demonstrating each individual’s desire for wholeness rather than in a restrictive heterosexual-normative way. And we can see it as a social catastrophe, leading to the oppression of women, who have fallen from goddesses to either virgins or whores in much of western religion, including Judaism. 

And most personally, here we have the chance to name and seek out the physical healing we need: the holiness expressed by a woman’s body in childbirth is the most precious aspect of humanity. Without it none of us exist. How is it that we have come to a time when a female presenting person or a transgender man is embarrassed by menstrual flow? We should all be singing the highest praises of all to the power that allows for life. That is the holy of holies.

Shabbat Shalom and mo’adim l’simkha, may the Intermediate Days of the Festival bring you joy

Shabbat HaGadol: The Bread of Jewish Resilience

This Shabbat is called Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat” and it is always the Shabbat that directly precedes Pesakh. Today, erev Shabbat, is 9 Nisan, and as 15 Nisan begins next Wednesday at sundown, Jews everywhere will observe the beginning of the oldest Jewish holy day.

Our tradition urges us to see every day as a new thing; how much more so our observance of the most ancient of our holy days! We are to see ourselves as freed from slavery next Wednesday evening. It’s interesting to consider our parashah in that light; in parashat Tzav we read instructions for different sacrifices and then of the initiation of the priests into their brand new role. It’s a time of excitement and enjoyment of a brand new shiny thing: our new Mishkan and the service which will be carried out within it.

So much is on the cusp, so much is promising. Yet where human beings are concerned, there is still so much room for error, and for suffering.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם

And God said to Moses, “I will be what I will be,” continuing, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘I Will Be sent me to you.’” (Shemot 3.14)

This erev Shabbat coincides with March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility, a national day to celebrate our Trans loved ones. Advances in science, society and culture have made each of us more able to express our inmost sense of being Who We Will Be, and this is holy, as we each explore the ways in which we reflect HaShem, the I Will Be.

Young eager spirits reach out for this promise of Being, and so we see all around us the newness of Spring, as all of us are invited to grow more and more into our wholeness, to seek out and bring into the light all of what we are meant to be. Only the murderous Pharaoh alive in our own age would call this evil; 

Each of us is called upon to see ourselves as being freed from slavery on Shabbat HaGadol. The most important mitzvah we observe on this Festival of Matzot is eating matzah. Only the unleavened form of the staff of life is permitted to us for the eight days of Pesakh. Even the gluten free must join the Jewish people in observing the mitzvah, for it is an important identity marker of Jewish belonging. 

Why does so much depend on matzah?

During the darkest days of the Inquisition through which so many of our people suffered and died, the Inquisitors kept careful notes of the testimonies of witnesses who outed them. Non-Jewish servants often reported on the foods they saw their employers eating as the most obvious signs of covert Jewish practice. Matzah was literally a matter of life and death; to be oneself most fully was to risk death at the hands of bigots. 

Thanks to a brilliant cookbook called A Drizzle of Honey: The Life and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews published in 2000 (and now available for $12 on Apple Books!) we have access to amazing matzah recipes that are both ancient and utterly new to us.

I invite you to make this matzah in solidarity with our ancestors and with our current loved ones who were and are targeted simply for being who they must be. Share the making with children and/or adult students of Judaism if you can, since embodied mitzvot are the single most effective way to share spiritual tradition. And don’t worry if it doesn’t come out crispy and dry; no Jew ate matzah that resembled a cracker until modern concerns with possible hametz caused Ashkenazi Jews to make their matzah thinner and thinner, drier and drier…see the history here: History of (Ashkenazi) Matzah and you think that all matzah is that way because your experience is what we call Ashkenormative (unless you are of Sephardi or Mizrakhi or Habesha or other non-ashkenazi descent and are still in touch with your culture).

And however you get the matzah that you taste next Wednesday night, whether with other Jews or by yourself, whether homemade or a store-bought brand, taste it with intention. See if you can taste the spiritual moment of feeling that you will be what you will – yet – Be. 

Matzah recipes:

Pan de Pascua – from a 1503 recipe

Karaite Matzah – from our sibling Karaite Jews

Make Your Own (Soft?) Matzah – just like our sibling Yemenite Jews

Shabbat Parah: It’s The Same Gold

רבי יוסי בן חנינה אומר ועשית כפרת זהב טהור, יבא זהב כפורת ויכפר על זהב עגל

R. Yossi ben Hanina says: “Then you shall make a kappōret of pure gold …” (Exod. 25:17)—Let the gold of the kappōret atone [yekhaper] for the gold of the calf.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parah, Shabbat of the [red] Heifer, so called because of the special extra reading added to the regular parashat hashavua. As one of the Four special Shabbatot that count us down to Pesakh, on it we include the recipe for ritual purification. One had to be tahor, ritually ready, in order to offer a sacrifice, and the entire people were meant to participate in the upcoming Passover sacrifice.

Our Shabbat Ki Tisa is about another kind of cow: the Golden Calf. What does the juxtaposition of Purim, which we celebrated this week, have to do with this story?

On Purim we are to upend and dethrone every sacred cow; on this Shabbat Ki Tisa we suffer the consequences of choosing the wrong time to question authority, and reject it.

In other words, 

תַּפּוּחֵ֣י זָ֭הָב בְּמַשְׂכִּיּ֥וֹת כָּ֑סֶף דָּ֝בָ֗ר דָּבֻ֥ר עַל־אׇפְנָֽיו

A word fitly spoken Is like apples of gold in settings of silver

– Mishle (Proverbs)25.11

If it is not “fitly spoken,” at the right time in the right way, the Rabbis tell us, it would be better not to speak at all. Is it is a Red Heifer or a Golden Calf? Without history, without context, without details, we cannot say.

On Monday night, we were to make light of everything – to eat, drink and be merry, the better to bear our lives with grace. This Shabbat, we relive the catastrophe of the chaos that nearly overtook our people when we “sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance” (Shemot – Exodus – 32.6) As Aharon the High Priest might have said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We can’t always know in advance how something will turn out – actually we can almost never know. That is how our ancestors learned to define wisdom as 

איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד

Who is the wise person? The one who sees and anticipates the consequences of his behavior.

– Babylonian Talmud Tamid 32a

Life keeps changing. What was an ethical act yesterday may not be so tomorrow, because in each instance the particulars are unique. As the Talmud asserts, the minority opinion today may be the correct decision at some other time. 

And life is a constantly changing balance, and we are on the narrow bridge that sways – sometimes toward openness and mercy, sometimes toward setting boundaries and judgement.

The answer we seek may keep changing in its particulars, but for us Jews, barukh haShem (thank G*d) the context is our Torah community.


for more on the Ark as atonement for the calf, see:

Shabbat Tetzaveh: Forget All That

אָמַר רָבָא: מִיחַיַּיב אִינִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי. 

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.

I heard this week that Jews are leaving shuls because Soul Cycle gives us everything we need spiritually. So I’m pleased to announce that our shul is in the process of buying 200 stationary bicycles!

Just kidding. That, my beloved companions in Torah, is called Purim Torah. We take everything that we hold sacred and get playful with it. Purim is the holy day upon which we are to transition from winter and its discontents to spring and giggles.

If that seems like a struggle to you, you’re not alone. Consider this Talmudic story:

רַבָּה וְרַבִּי זֵירָא עֲבַדוּ סְעוּדַת פּוּרִים בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי. אִיבַּסּוּם. קָם רַבָּה שַׁחְטֵיהּ לְרַבִּי זֵירָא. לְמָחָר, בָּעֵי רַחֲמֵי וְאַחֲיֵיהּ. לְשָׁנָה, אֲמַר לֵיהּ: נֵיתֵי מָר וְנַעֲבֵיד סְעוּדַת פּוּרִים בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לָא בְּכֹל שַׁעְתָּא וְשַׁעְתָּא מִתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא. 

Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy, and revived him. 

The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. Zeira said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour! [and I do not want to undergo that experience again.]  – BT Megillah 7b

You and I might feel like Rav Zeira – trying for happiness in our lives and getting, metaphorically speaking, murdered. Jewish tradition urges us: mishenikhnas Adar marbim simkha, when Adar begins, simkha increases – but events in Portland, in the U.S., in Israel all seem to conspire against joy. 

It’s in this context that we read in our Torah this week, Shabbat Zakhor, that we are commanded to forget Amalek, the Biblical figure who attacks us for no reason, as recorded in parashat Beshalakh. From the Torah until today, our people has a custom to name those who try to erase us as Amalek. (The bad guy in the Purim story is no exception.) What does it mean to erase evil?

Purim in that light is most interesting, because our ancestors were not less challenged than we in this way. They never give in to the world and its threats, though; and so we’re offered the support of a larger perspective, of history and community, to see our lives in some sort of context. Most of all, a community context (with or without bicycles). Amalek doesn’t prevail, after all.

There are only four mitzvot that we are to observe on Purim: 

  1. Hear the reading of Megillat Ester, the scroll of Esther – on Monday evening this year, which is Erev Purim
  2. Send gifts to the poor – matanot l’evyonim doesn’t mean only poor in funds but poor in spirit. Who needs a lift? Who might be cheered by the unexpected delivery of a small gift of hamantaschen or some other small treat?
  3. Share gifts with friends – mishlo’akh manot, also called shlakhmanos in some dialects, is a lovely idea because it has nothing to do with need. We’re just sharing some fun.
  4. Feast! Eat something you don’t normally allow yourself; Purim is that special occasion to open the bottle you’ve been saving. 

These mitzvot are all meant to help lift winter’s gloom, whether of meteorology or mood.  That’s why costumes help – anything that gets you out of your Self helps. Be silly! For a change. Try your best to lighten up your perspective, as the sky lightens in early spring and lifts us up just a bit.

Forget Amalek, we are commanded this Shabbat, just for a bit. Forget all that which looms murderously over your joy of life. Make like the daffodils! which are already singing the praises of HaShem as the snow disappears, and spring is surely on the way.

Shabbat Terumah: Balancing Heart and Hands

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃ 

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. (Ex.25.2)

Life is so often about balancing contradictory opposites, or at least clashing inputs. Our parashah begins with such a moment. At first glance we seem to read a message that all of us are equally valued in equal ways – and this tugs at some deep place in us that longs for safety in the group and value for our contribution.

The second verse in the parashat hashavua is therefore a bit of a harsh surprise:

וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם 

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them (Ex. 25.3)

This seeming contradiction is a lesson we can only learn in a group: that heart and hands are two very different aspects of human being and interaction.

In community one sees this all the time: not every follower is a leader. It flies in the face of an ideal which seeks to value each of us equally. Or it seems to; but only a Procrustean equality insists that we are all the same. In the Talmud a midrash is preserved that describes one of the sins of the people of Sodom:

הויא להו פורייתא דהוו מגני עלה אורחין כי מאריך גייזי ליה כי גוץ מתחין ליה 

They had beds on which they would lay their guests; when a guest was longer than the bed they would cut him, and when a guest was shorter than the bed they would stretch him.  (BT Sanhedrin 109b)

Real equality, as any DEI (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) expert will tell you, requires us to see each individual for who we are and what unique gift we bring. It’s a necessary exercise in noticing each other when we tend toward generalities just to bring the scale of our existence into a manageable embrace.

So while it may be a lovely gesture to welcome all contributions equally, such an approach actually erases our uniqueness. This is why the Torah imagines the holy mishkan which we are to build to be made of all our heartfelt gifts filtered through the actual reality of what is needed to create the structure, and who is best able to do each task.

There is room for us all; each task needs to be addressed. But first we have to come to know not only what our heart yearns for, but what our hands are capable of bringing. This is no time for participation trophies that overlook the precious differences that make us each who we are. 

Some of us are leaders, some followers; some teach, some learn. Some have superior executive function, others can read a spreadsheet, and others can lead a dance. Betzalel is singled out by HaShem to lead the building; not you and not me. We can either sulk because we weren’t nominated, or applaud and support the talented person who was. 

The mitzvah needs doing; how shall we do it best? Not by fighting over our place in line but by learning to balance our heart and our hands, our desires and our capacity. All of us is best at something, but we won’t learn that through envy of what others have or do.

I like to sing; our Gabbai;s voice is better. I enjoy working with our brit mitzvah candidates; our Brit Mitzvah coordinator’s talent is greater. I can’t read a spreadsheet; our Executive Director can even create them. My job is to figure out in what way my heart’s gift is best offered. That’s how we’ll get this mishkan, this holy place, sustainably and joyfully built.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Yitro: Listening As Best We Can

Where do you get your inspiration from, when you’re confronted with a challenge? It might be social injustice, relationship upheaval, or just getting up in the morning – and we all need inspiration from outside our own capacity sometimes. Human beings aren’t perfect, and certainly we are not perfectly whole all by ourselves.

Consider Moshe at the beginning of our parashah. He has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the newly-formed group of refugees calling ourselves the Israelites. We are following a hope more than an articulated reality. As we should have expected, in no time at all there were many disagreements and much anger between individuals and groups of us. 

And so our parashat hashavua begins with Moshe sitting and listening to argument after disagreement, expected to decide between each angry pair and rule justly.

It’s at this point that Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, shows up in the narrative; he’s a Midianite priest and, with his professional experience as a leader, sees that Moshe’s fledgling justice system is dysfunctional and bogged down. And so he offers advice:

עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ 

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you (Ex. 18.19)

We can make jokes about free advice, especially from in-laws, but Moshe is both smart and humble, and he realizes that Yitro is right, and he takes his advice.

What’s the connection to the revelation at Sinai that’s about to happen? Possibly as simple as the court case backlog getting cleared out, so that no one had outstanding grievances distracting them from the opportunity to experience the presence of HaShem. 

Or possibly it was Moshe’s public demonstration of the reality that truth can be found in any mouth, from any human, at any time. Perhaps it is that being able to hear a human voice is a prerequisite to hearing a divine voice. Especially when it comes from an unexpected place – or a place we’ve already ruled out.

And so the sages of the Babylonian Talmud were inspired to teach:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:  

He [Talmudic sage Ben Azzai] used to say: do not despise anyone, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no one that has not their hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.  (Pirkei Avot 4.3)

On this Erev Shabbat when we are invited to hear the most important words of the Torah, the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances of Sinai, it’s useful to remember the traditional Jewish teaching that we each hear according to our ability. May we do our best to remove our own prejudices about where we need to listen. May we hear what we need to hear to be inspired to achieve justice and peace in our own lives by seeking it for others.

Shabbat Shalom