Shabbat BeHukotai: House Rules

When chaos threatens, what rules still make sense?

Jewish time continues. Even this week, still heartbroken by the massacre of ten beautiful souls in Buffalo New York, and now reeling from the tragedy of the massacre of nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde Texas, it’s going to be Shabbat again. 

Lately it’s Tevye, dancing despite the pain, who keeps coming to mind. Our ancestors were experts at this kind of strength – the ability to keep on keeping on, to sing in the face of sadness and celebrate Shabbat after a pogrom. But our grandparents and parents raised us as far away as they thought they could get from our needing to learn that secret of survival. Alas, the refuge they sought was fleeting. Even when they converted out of Judaism to save us, many of us still sought a way back to the identity we longed for.

This is who we are, as deracinated as we may have become. We are the Jews (and those who love them), and we have ways of holding on. The times in which we are living are those that test your grip.

On this erev Shabbat, while chaos swirls us into existential nausea, we need each other and we need to keep holding on. 

The parashat hashavua, the last one of the book of VaYikra (Leviticus) speaks to us of the insensibility of rules that we yet hold on to in order to live; the name of the parashah, BeHukotai, refers to the kind of rules – hukot – that are not necessarily amenable to reason, yet necessary. Turning to non-sense makes sense in a week when nothing makes sense, as people in elected positions prove their murderous hypocrisy by continuing to block meaningful gun control in the only country in the world in which there is a mass shooting nearly every day of the year.

We might call them House Rules, as in the old saying “House of Jacob, People of Israel” which can be understood as referring to female strength and male strength. That of women is considered more mysterious, as are the hukot. 

Hukot include counting the Omer, of which we are in the 41st day on this erev Shabbat, 26 Iyar 5782, May 27 2022. A new day, one that those murdered by white supremacists in Buffalo and in Uvalde, and in so many other places, deserved to see. We get to see it; we must treasure it and use it for good as we are able.

Hukot include lighting candles tonight at sundown in honor of Shabbat, logging off social and other media for a day, and baking bread, or gardening, or doing whatever it is that nurtures your soul and the world to which you are connected. Shabbat says to us that it may not make sense to us to let the world go on without our awareness for a day, but unless we learn to practice ignorance of this sort, we will believe that our knowing about it somehow matters. In truth, we are not built for 24/7 awareness, and finding out later about things you cannot affect hurts no one, and will help you.

The world in which we live is full of madness and pain; Shabbat and the community that keeps it is an oasis of sanity and the memory of goodness. Memory is necessary to hope; once upon a time you were not afraid, you were not sad, you were not troubled. For the sake of the work we must do to heal our world, hold on to our House Rules, and let them reassure you that the Rock of our people is still in place, and you can hold on in all this terror, and we will hold each other together, and help each other to notice that there is still joy and we must, we absolutely must, feel it.

Shabbat BeHar Sinai: What do kidneys have to do with Sinai?

חוֹקֵר כְּלָיוֹת חָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

You, Examiner of Kidneys, we have sinned before you, have compassion upon us!

from the Selikhot prayers of the Edot haMizrakhi, the Jews of the Middle East


This week our parashat hashavua is BeHar Sinai, “on Mt Sinai.” It seems jarring to us and strange to see this reference to Mt Sinai long after the action there in the Book Shemot, Exodus. All the more necessary a reminder that the essence of all that we’ve been instructed comes from there. Sinai is the heart of it.

Or perhaps I should say, as ancient Israelites would, that Sinai is the kidneys of it.

As I recuperate from surgery to donate a kidney it has been delightful to delve a bit into the meaning of the kidneys for our ancestors. Interestingly enough in this week of being reminded of the source of all things, for the ancient Israelites, the kidneys are seen as the source of our own personal Mt Sinai. They are the seat of the human conscience.

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה קָנִ֣יתָ כִלְיֹתָ֑י תְּ֝סֻכֵּ֗נִי בְּבֶ֣טֶן אִמִּֽי׃

It was You who created my conscience (literally, “kidneys”);

You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.

(Psalm 139.13)

In other words, for ancient Israelites and others, one’s heart is the source of thought and feeling, and one feels the truth of right and wrong from the kidneys.  How does this understanding shed light on what we know about the way our ancestors offered sacrifices? For example in this case:

וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֗ אֶֽת־כׇּל־הַחֵ֘לֶב֮ הַֽמְכַסֶּ֣ה אֶת־הַקֶּ֒רֶב֒ וְאֵ֗ת הַיֹּתֶ֙רֶת֙ עַל־הַכָּבֵ֔ד וְאֵת֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י הַכְּלָיֹ֔ת וְאֶת־הַחֵ֖לֶב אֲשֶׁ֣ר עֲלֵיהֶ֑ן וְהִקְטַרְתָּ֖ הַמִּזְבֵּֽחָה׃

Take all the fat that covers the entrails, the protuberance on the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat on them, and turn them into smoke upon the altar. (Shemot 23.18)

The Psalmist sings that understanding and justice belong to HaShem; the Priest carries it out by giving the liver, seat of divination, and kidneys, seat of conscience, to HaShem. The Jewish mystics of Sefer Yetzirah, the first known expression of theurgic mysticism in Judaism (attributed to Abraham!), show how the human being physically echoes and is linked to the cosmos, kidneys included:

המליך אות ט’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו אריה בעולם ואב בשנה וכוליא ימין בנפש. 

The Letter ט Tet was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation Aryeh (Leo) is formed in the world

The month of Av in the year 

And the right kidney in the human.

המליך אות י’ וקשר לו כתר וצר בו בתולה בעולם ואלול בשנה וכוליא שמאל בנפש.

The letter י Yud was set up to rule

And given its crown

Through it the constellation of Batulah (Virgo) is formed in the world

And Elul in the year

And the left kidney in the human.

(Sefer Yetzirah 5)

The research is ongoing but for this Shabbat we have this much: two kidneys, both the seat of conscience and of consciousness of right and wrong, revered in all creatures and, as I’ve found, a highly sought-after organ to transplant –  a mitzvah of the highest order. that of piku’akh nefesh, saving a life, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to undergo the process. On a personal note, what kind of amazing coincidence is it that I now only have a right kidney, and that I was born under the constellation Aryeh?

What a useful counter to our too-intellectual ways of approaching our spirituality in our own day! As well, here’s another reason to learn enough Hebrew to recognize the letters, so that you are able to see all the places where a body part is replaced in the translation with “mind” or something similar, such as in Jeremiah 17.10.

אֲנִ֧י יְהוָ֛ה חֹקֵ֥ר לֵ֖ב בֹּחֵ֣ן כְּלָי֑וֹת וְלָתֵ֤ת לְאִישׁ֙ כדרכו [כִּדְרָכָ֔יו] כִּפְרִ֖י מַעֲלָלָֽיו׃ (ס)

I HaShem probe the heart,

Search the mind

To repay everyone according to their ways,

With the proper fruit of their deeds.

We are told that we only need the functional capacity of one kidney to live a perfectly healthy life. May you on this Shabbat feel that the abundance of your capacity to know right and wrong, and to do what you can to act upon it, is healthy, and strong!

Shabbat Kedoshim: What Does It Mean to Be Holy In This World?

On this particular week in the 21st century, from the perspective of the east side of Portland Oregon in the U.S. in the western hemisphere of planet Earth, a small planet in a mid-sized galaxy in a Universe beyond our understanding, much has occurred. So much that is beyond our ability to embrace with our brains, useful as they are; so much that causes the heart to gasp.

I have long believed that the answer to distress is to immerse oneself in Torah, in a communal learning setting; one may approach it desperately seeking answers, and through the very act of diving in one is slowed down to the level of thinking, of wondering, of curiosity, and of the give and take of the hevruta (learning with others) – and from there, to a willingness to make a space in our hearts for the inevitability of contradiction, conflict and mystery.

So dive in with me. In this week’s Torah parashah we are told to be holy, as HaShem is holy. How might this idea be relevant to us, even supportive, as we try to make sense of this week?

It’s difficult to catalogue the full challenge under which our hearts labor in just this one week:

  1. Nationally, the leaked Supreme Court document which destroys any lingering hope that the Court is beyond bias or reproach;
  2. And the idea that powerful people would devote so much time and energy to controlling other people’s capacity to give birth
  3. Locally, the vandalism of our Commons linked to that of the Muslim Community Center on MLK Blvd, bringing us fully, regretfully, into the hate crimes arena 
  4. And the idea that one who does not know an other nevertheless would cause that other pain and fear
  5. Internationally, the painful twinning of joy at the State of Israel’s 74th birthday and horror at the ongoing cruelties of the Occupation
  6. And the reality that Jews are like everyone else: some are good, and some are not.

I could go on. But the number 7 is sacred to us for rest and reconciliation, and so I stop here and go on to the point: if we are to be holy, what does that mean in these days and in these circumstances?

“You shall be holy as I – HaShem – am holy.” (Leviticus 19.2). One thing we know is that Torah urges us to grow toward the ideal of perfection, even as not only humans but HaShem are repeatedly shown not to be – or, at least, our experience of HaShem is not of perfection.

Our understanding of HaShem is as partial and problematic as our understanding of our own existence – and that of others as well. The great struggle for us in a week like this is perhaps to be reminded that all of creation is linked in a great Oneness that is not at peace, not whole – and yet, also not doomed to evil.

The great Talmudic Rabbi Meir was repeatedly attacked by the ancient equivalent of white supremacists, and so he prayed for their deaths. His partner Beruriah remonstrated with him: “it is written that we are to seek the death of evil, not evil doers. Pray for them to repent, not to die.” And he did. (BT Berakhot 10a)

Whether they did is not certain. Nor is it important. We must continue to maintain our humanity as we understand it through the teachings of our Torah and its Jewish ethics. Sooner or later, what matters is that we maintain our holiness – not perfection, but dedication to a specific purpose and ideal: that the practice of חסד Hesed, the practice of love in the world, matters in and of itself. Not because it means you will be well-treated in return. That may not come. But because that which is most holy must never be dependent upon conditions.

May we continue to hold on to what we know is love even in the face of hate. May we continue to recognize and lift up the holy in ourselves and in the world.

Shabbat Pesakh ‘ח – Remember

The weeklong Festival of Pesakh (with an 8th Diaspora day) is a powerful way to start a year. Beginning with the metaphor of becoming, as our ancestors experience what the rabbis called the “birth pangs” of Egyptian suffering and then transitioning through the “birth canal” of the parted waters of the Sea, we find ourselves on these final days of Pesakh just beginning to open our eyes and look around.

The primary learning of the Passover experience is about what it takes to be born. There is travail, there is struggle, and there is difficulty – and there is community. Mark Twain famously said that “a self-made man is about as possible as a self-laid egg,” and it’s no mistake that much of the theology around our birth as a people sees that which births us as mothering energy. 

The Passover story as told in Exodus emphasizes mothers, midwives and nurses, and the people of Israel are depicted as children who need to learn how to become. One of the first lessons we have to learn is that which every preschool mandates: hold hands, and walk forward together.

This is the central mandate of Passover unto this day. No one is to be alone for the Seder if we can possibly help it. Our special Passover Torah reading develops the theme: everyone is to attend the Passover celebration together. No one of the vulnerable categories of ancient Israelite life is left out: the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the needy. 

Consider what the Torah indicates to be the most important aspect of our celebration:

שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כׇל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י ׀ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בַּמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֔ר בְּחַ֧ג הַמַּצּ֛וֹת וּבְחַ֥ג הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת וּבְחַ֣ג הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת וְלֹ֧א יֵרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י ה’ רֵיקָֽם׃

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your zakhur shall appear before ‘ה in the chosen place. Do not appear before ‘ה empty-handed (Deuteronomy 16:16)

I have deliberately left the word זכור zakhur untranslated because I dispute the typical translation (“males”). To me, the form of the word suggests a much more intriguing possibility: a parallelism with the name HaShem gave Moshe at their first meeting:

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹ-ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם:

HaShem declared to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ‘ה the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:

זֶה־שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם

This shall be My name forever,

זֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר

This My zikhri for all eternity. (Exodus 3.15)

The eternal Name of that which we seek is referred to here as zikhri, memory. In our Torah reading for this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, we are reminded that we must bring our zakhur, that which has marked us in memory, if we are to find that which we seek – and not show up empty-handed.

If we are to obey the command to see ourselves all together in this journey, we must be more willing to challenge any understanding of the sacred text that seems to leave any of us out as contrary to the will of all that is holy.

We are to arrive in the chosen place together, just as we started the journey when we left Egypt. The command to stay together, to journey together, to refuse to leave anyone behind, is an existential obligation – which is the only way to understand the real meaning of mitzvah. Any mitzvah that does not imply what Emmanuel Levinas called “the sovereign Other” is incomplete.

To remember this is vital. To remember where you came from, and that you were not alone: someone other than you birthed you, someone other than you raised you, someone other than you was your companion and your guide. To remember this as a people is to know this as part and parcel of one’s personal spiritual journey. We did not come out of Egypt alone, and we do not add our link to the Jewish chain of being alone.

To translate zakhur as “memory” is to discern that bringing your memory to the moment is the only way to suffuse it with holiness – with wholeness. And who can remember everything? Memory is not complete unless all of us, every one of us, is helped to be there, so that our story can be remembered as fully as possible.

Shabbat Shalom and hag sameakh!

“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

Shabbat Metzora: Don’t Spread Evil Words

This Shabbat is called “The Great Shabbat”, Shabbat HaGadol, because it is the Shabbat before Pesakh begins. This year the parashah (weekly Torah reading) is Metzora, a word which denotes a malady of skin, clothing or even the walls of one’s house. Like many a problem, it may be only “skin-deep”, or it may have grown beneath the surface.

וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת

the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Lev.14.35)

Traditional midrash hears an ethical echo in this situation: the person who sees something that they suspect to be a problem reports to the priest. They do not say “there is a problem.” They say nir’ah li, “it seems to me” that there is a problem. In other words, do not jump to judgement. Speak of what you know but without assuming facts not, as yet, in evidence.

Why? Torah immediately answers:

וְצִוָּ֨ה הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וּפִנּ֣וּ אֶת־הַבַּ֗יִת בְּטֶ֨רֶם יָבֹ֤א הַכֹּהֵן֙ לִרְא֣וֹת אֶת־הַנֶּ֔גַע וְלֹ֥א יִטְמָ֖א כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּבָּ֑יִת וְאַ֥חַר כֵּ֛ן יָבֹ֥א הַכֹּהֵ֖ן לִרְא֥וֹת אֶת־הַבָּֽיִת׃

The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house.

It’s a loophole born of empathy: in this way the owner does not run the risk of significant personal loss. Here is the heart of much of Jewish judgement: until I see it, I don’t know, and as long as I don’t know, there is no impact. This is the approach of a culture that takes words very seriously. If it is not yet said, it does not yet fully exist – until it is named, it is not fully brought into being.

Words are so powerful that from this context one of Judaism’s most well-known Torah teachings is derived. Metzora, spelled in Hebrew מצרע, looks like two words: מצ and רע. This can be read motzi [shem] ra’, “bringing forth evil [name, i.e. reputation].” 

In the Talmud the Rabbis compared the spread of evil words to the spread of this kind of affliction. 

“Come and see how great is the power of motzi [shem] ra. Whence is this derived? From the account of the scouts: Now if when one utters a false report about trees and stones, this [is the result], then if one utters a false report about his friend, how much more so!” (BT Arakhin 15a)

The Torah recounts in parashat Shelakh l’kha the story of the twelve sent to scout out the land of Israel, who came back with the famous report that the land was full of danger: “The land which we passed through to spy out is a land which consumes its inhabitants!” (Numbers 13.32)  The Israelites believed the scouts’ report – and, more to our point, the scouts thought that they could judge what they saw. They forgot to say nir’ah li, “it seems to me.”

For want of that humility, the Israelites spent forty years wandering. For lack of willingness to slow down and consider what we do not yet know, how much do we hinder and obstruct the path of our own spiritual journey? How often do we assume wrongly about another person’s behavior, out of our own meshugas?

Speaking badly about another person may seem harmless enough, but it can grow deep, beneath the surface of being, to cause real harm. It may spread, and become like a plague. Each of us can refuse to participate in that very real plague – after all, don’t we have enough of them already? – by remembering that we do not know what we see. We can only say nir’ah li, it seems to me. Let’s inquire, and find out more.

Shabbat HaHodesh: Slow Down

וצריך שיוסר השופט בכל הענינים שיש במסכת אבות כגון שיהיה מתון בדין ואל ימהר פסק דין שאפשר שיהיה בדין ההוא ענין נסתר

“The judge must be restrained by all of the matters that are in Tractate Avot – for example, that he be deliberate in judgement, and not be quick to execute a decision, as it is possible that there be a hidden matter in the case!” – Hakdamat haRambam laMishnah

Why do we jump to accuse, and, even worse, to condemn? Our tradition offers us insights into our own worst impulses, and, barukh HaShem (thank G*d) a path back from that dead end. This week’s parashah, coming as it does as we mark the New Year of the Jewish calendar, is an opportunity for us to assess, to discern, and perhaps to learn to do better.

The Book VaYikra, Leviticus, is dismissed by many as archaic and irrelevant for modern Judaism. But in the same way that knowing the story of our ancestors imbues our own lives with meaning, considering the ways of ancient Israelites sheds light on modern humans who happen to be Jews. Human nature does not change so radically; we all need food and water to survive, and community to thrive.

This week’s parashah is among the most easily dismissed, or at least ridiculed. The part of parashat Tazria which we read in the third year of the Triennial Cycle is jokingly called “the dermatologist’s Torah” because it is entirely concerned with skin conditions (except for a short tangent treating cloth). 

We laugh too quickly, though; the human body is mysterious, and when something appears visually on the surface of the largest organ of the body – the envelope that protects and contains us – we are still as concerned, and should be, as our ancestors were. “It’s just a spot” can be a freckle – or a melanoma. 

אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֙חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּהֲנִֽים׃

When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Lev. 13.2)

Not unlike the life-and-death trust we want to put in our doctors today, our ancestors are to go to the representatives of HaShem for discernment. But here is where the comparison ends, for after the priests examine the affliction, their responsibility is to pronounce whether isolation is indicated. They do not prescribe, they do not advise, they do nothing to heal. They only observe.

The afflicted person will either recover or not, perhaps due to the ministrations of someone else who is a healer within the community. This is clearly not the interest of the passage, which shares only that the affliction will be declared tamey or tahor, “ritually clean” or “ritually unclean,” by a priest. Note that this is not a moral judgement, only a technical one.

Rashi, one of the pre-eminent commentators of all Jewish time, points this out: “It is an enactment of Scripture that the uncleanness and purification of skin plagues are pronounced only by the mouth of a priest” (Sifra, Tazria Parashat Nega’im, Section 1.9). Where Rashi goes it is always important to try to follow, and this time is no exception.

The source Rashi cites is old; it speaks to the unchanging nature of human being. When it comes to calling another person “unclean” and thus unwelcome in our community we believe in our own power of discernment to make that judgement. Our tradition is warning us in no uncertain terms that we are wrong; only a priest can judge tamey or tahor. 

By the most simple ethical algorithm, we are being told here 

  1. to come from a place of humility, not judgement: you see, you do not know. None of us truly knows what is going on in the heart of another person. 
  2. In a case of suspicion, we are to consult with someone who is closer to HaShem than we are. This may strike you as in some way offensive, in which case see #1.
  3. It takes a week to see if the skin condition is meaningful. How might we find our judgements of others altered for the good if we gave it a week before judging?

It is so very appropriate that the international observance of Trans Day of Visibility occurred yesterday, during the week of Shabbat Tazria,  sinceourbeloved trans familyhas often been victimized by undiscerning and immoral condemnation for appearance.

The great compendium of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, transmits this halakha in its volume “The Way of Life”:

One who sees a person who is unusual looking [i.e. out of one’s lived experience], if they have been this way since birth, recites the blessing Blessed is the One who created a variety of creations, and if they have not been this way since birth, one recites Blessed is the True Judge. This is recited when we first see them, and their appearance is most striking. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orakh Hayim 225.9)

There is no condemnation inherent in recognizing difference. The kind of judgment that leads to condemnation occurs only when we over-reach, forgetting that we are neither priests nor HaShem. For our Jewish ethical tradition, a difference seen for the first time should produce only a dawning awareness of the awesome myriads of variation of the rainbow of existence.

מה גדלו מעשיך ה מאד עמקו מחשבותיך
How great are the works of Creation, how beyond our understanding! 
(Psalm 92)

Shabbat Shalom and happy Jewish New Year,
Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Tzav: The Boss of You

אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה

eysh tamid tukad al hamizbe’akh lo tikhbeh

Fire shall be kept continually burning on the altar; don’t let it go out (Lev. 6.6)

The parashat hashavua we immerse ourselves in all this week is called Tzav, literally “order” or “command” in the imperative form. It’s quite abrupt: one explosive sound. HaShem instructs Moshe: “order/command Aharon” to do the following. As often happens, HaShem commands Moshe, and Moshe commands Aharon.

Midrash tells us that the two brothers had a good relationship; Aharon, the eldest, seems quite graceful in accepting that his little brother is closest to HaShem, chosen for leadership and for a relationship with the holy unlike any other. Still, we might wonder how often their sister Miriam, in the middle of the birth order, ran interference for them. Moshe is depicted in midrash as jealous of Aharon, who returns the favor in a Torah account in BaMidbar.

Any latent tension in the relationship between the Prophet and the High Priest would be highlighted by this week’s parashah. Little brother is ordering big brother around, using the word at the root of our term mitzvah – divine command. To tzav is to impose a mitzvah. Aharon might have bristled, being only human; after all this is his little brother, unquestionable conduit to the Eternal, bossing him around!

The root meaning of mitzvah, tzav, is indeed an imperative: we Jews are to obey. In that way, we are all in Aharon’s shoes, high priests of ourselves, instantly dismissive in our Western philosophical way of the idea that someone else can command us concerning that which is holy.

It’s an interesting quesiton: who or what can tell you what to do? Before whom or what must you bow your head in acceptance? Most interestingly, can you identify whatever it is with the holy?

What commands you? The alarm clock, for one, on a work day. The instructor who assigns learning; the boss who assigns work. All these commands are clearly utilitarian, and we choose to obey within a limited context in which we can see the benefit to ourselves. Is that the holy in our lives? hopefully not!

Before what do you bow in acceptance? 

The philosopher Emanuel Levinas, true to his Jewish tradition, suggested that, ultimately, we are commanded by the Other: when we truly become aware of the fact that Other People Exist – not as extensions of infantile ego, not pawns on our chessboard, not less than us and, actually, not to be understood by us. He suggests that we cannot but bow before mystery, and our own inadequacy in its face. We owe the Other our appreciation and our respect because we cannot truly understand our own lives, and our own place in the world, until we see that we are not central; others exist and take up just as much space!

Recall the assurance HaShem gives Moshe: whenever we seek the holy, we should look for it in the space between the heruvim, the molded figures on the Ark. In rabbinic interpretation, we are those figures, and HaShem is present between us when we are able to truly see each other. 

There is a way here of accessing holiness, if we can get past our own recoil. Holiness not in some beautiful quiet transcendent forest or mountaintop? Holiness in the difficult meetings we have with each other? Chance encounters, necessary confrontations, random social groupings?

A teaching from the never ordained Talmudic teacher ben Zoma, our teacher in humility, goes like this: איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם – “who is wise? the one who learns from everyone” (Pirke Avot 4.1) and sure enough, Jewish tradition holds that whenever two are engaged in learning together, HaShem is present. 

We can make every single encounter with another into a moment of holiness if we keep this teaching on our hearts. It doesn’t matter a single solitary iota what the Other is bringing you, if you set youself to be alert to what you might learn.

In our parashah, the priests are commanded to keep a fire burning on the altar all the time; “it shall never go out.” (Lev. 6.6) On this Shabbat may you keep aflame on the altar of your heart the fire of curiosity, of humility, of a willingness to bow before the mystery of that which we do not know so that we might learn it. And most of all, gratitude to the ever outflowing Source of Mystery, Source of Learning, Source of Life in which we share this spiritual journey.

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat VaYikra, coming up on Purim: Nurturing the little Alef of our Future

אָח֣וֹר וָקֶ֣דֶם צַרְתָּ֑נִי וַתָּ֖שֶׁת עָלַ֣י כַּפֶּֽכָה 

You formed me before and after, You lay Your hand upon me – Psalms 139.5

Rabbi Yohanan recalled the verse Let us make the earthling in Our Image and Our Likeness (Genesis 1.26). Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar said, “at the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the first earthling, HaShem created them androginos, as it is said: Male and female they were created.” (Genesis 1.27).

What kind of society destroys its future? One that underfunds education and child care. One that sends young people to wars decided upon by elders who will never fight them. One that denounces a young person’s dysphoria as a sin against nature. In Jewish terms, one that does not discern, nurture and protect the small alef which signifies its future.

Our parashat hashavua is the first part of VaYikra, Leviticus. The appearance of the first word is poignant to see: the letter alef at the end of the word written so small, by scribal convention. Why? Each generation develops midrash upon that little alef. The first word of the alef bet, which by itself may mean beginning or future or self; the rest of the word without its alef, meaning “expensive” or “dear”. The separation between them looking like selfishness and greed on the one side, and the diminishment of future promise on the other.

The heart of every compassionate person must go out to the trans kids of Texas and the parents who seek to keep their children alive, much less happy. As a gloriously diverse congregation with a Rabbi who considers Torah Study to be improved by the application of a Queer lens, we of the Shir Tikvah community are appalled by legislative attempts in Idaho, Texas and other states to criminalize and persecute what they do not understand. 

There are those who long for a “normality” which closes its eyes to the diverse, hard to categorize, impossible to fully order, true vitality (and confusion!) of life. 

A Torah Study lens brought to the question of how best to understand – and not to condemn out of fear – diverse gender identities helps to remind all of us that the narrow definition of gender and sexuality taught in the West is ridiculously ignorant of millennia of human life. Our ancestors observed in the world around them the truth that human beings are fashioned in many diverse ways; there are discussions in the Talmud that pick up on ancient words of the Tanakh that we don’t generally know about – but it’s time we did.

Mordecai nursed Esther

Rabbi Yudan said, “he went to all the wet nurses but could not find one for Esther, so he nursed her himself.” Rabbi Berakhiah and Rabb Abbahu said, “Milk came to him and he would nurse her.” It is a teaching in the Mishnah: the milk of a male is tahor (pure).” – Bereshit Rabbah Noakh, 30.8

A Woman May Receive the Soul of a Man

She will not be able to conceive and get pregnant….the woman is male. – Hayim Vital, She’ar haGilgulim 9.2

A Trans Man is Halakhically a Man

Do not be surprised by this question, since all things are possible and there is nothing new under the sun. Rabbi Hayim Avraham Miranda of Salonica describes several cases like this, including one young woman who transformed into a man at the hour that she was being led to the huppah..and so it seems to me that now that he is not a woman but a full man, he should not say in the morning blessings “who has made me a woman” but rather “Blessed are You HaShem ruler of the Universe, who has transformed me into a man.” – Rabbi Yosef Pallache of Izmir, 1896, Yosef Et Ehav, Even haEzer, paragraph 5.

When the little alef of the first word of Leviticus is joined to the rest of the word, these two ideas – the future and that which is dear – come together to create the word “calling” or “naming.” May we learn to see that which can only occur when we bring together those who carry the future with that which is most important right now; and in honor of Purim, let a little chaos open the heart to a less settled, more vital life view.

מה גדלו מעשיך יה מאד עמקו מחשבותיך

How great are your works HaShem and how glorious, how deep Your thoughts! (Morning prayers, Psalm 92.5)

May this Shabbat bring rest and joy, peace and hope, and the affirmation that every variation of human being is an equally precious part of the Eternity in which we dwell.

Shabbat Pekudey: It’s Not a Sin to Take a Break

Actually, the opposite is true.

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ 

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day rest is holy (Ex. 35.2)

As of sundown today, the work has to be done. Whatever it is you are doing, after sundown on the sixth day it is no longer holy. In what can be seen as a kind of inversion, the holy becomes profane. Not the work itself, but the timing, is what Shabbat seems to be trying to tell us. 

In our parashah, Pekudey we are told that the work is done. The Mishkan, the gathering place which will be used to seek out the holy and our connection to it, is completed. Our parashat hashavua records the details of the work, the resources used, and the process of putting it all together.

We know very well that our work is not done, though, just because it’s the end of the sixth day. We who tend to live in space tend to define ourselves by our impact on our space; we try to bend time to our will. We grant extensions of time rather than curtail our impact on space.

What happens if we turn the text sideways, take a look at it from another perspective? 

A well-known and respected modern commentator on the Torah, Nehama Leibowitz, has long been a regular touchstone for Shir Tikvah Torah Study. In this week’s exploration of the parashah, she shares a fascinating parallel between the completion of the work of the mishkan and that of the creation. First, the verses from our parashah:

וַתֵּ֕כֶל כׇּל־עֲבֹדַ֕ת מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד 

Thus was completed all the work of the Mishkan

וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה

The people of Israel did as HaShem directed (Ex.39.32)


וַיְכַ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּלָאכָֽה

And Moshe completed the work (Ex.40.33)

Leibowitz compares this account to that of the Creation of the World. Look at the way that the words relating the completion of the mishkan are a precise echo:

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ

Heaven and earth were completed


And all their hosts (details) (Gen.2.1)

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה

And HaShem completed all the work (Gen. 2.2)

Now we know very well that the work of creating the world actually continues; in our morning prayers we regularly repeat our appreciation וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל־יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית “for the goodness which recreates the world each day”. On this week especially, we see all too well the unfinished nature of human beings and our creations.

On the Shabbat of a week of horrible images of war, it seems naive or even criminal to obey the directive to stop doing, to cease the work that creates holy places in the world, just because the end of the sixth day has come. And for piku’akh nefesh, the saving of life, that is true – we continue that work regardless of Shabbat, as generations of halakhah tells us.

But the stubbornly incomplete work of our hands will not be redeemed if we enslave ourselves to it. Here is the inversion: that which lifts us up, and makes us like HaShem in our capacity to create and change and develop, becomes that which destroys us on the seventh day. HaShem models the holiness of rest on the seventh day; it’s the perfect message for the hubris of our society. You’re not G*d. You can take a day off. And on the flip side: you are a precious and holy part of the world; your worth has nothing to do with your work. 

Today is the beginning of Adar II, the month in which Purim will come. It is a holy obligation for us to turn our perspective upside down. It is a divine imperative: remember your humanity. Otherwise, how will you remember that of others?

The world is not finished, nor your work. It will still be there to lend meaning to your life when Shabbat is over.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Rosh Hodesh Adar!

War In Ukraine


לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ 

For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being

לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ 

for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good

Psalm 122. 8-9

Congregation HaTikvah of Kyiv Ukraina spring of 2003. Rabbi Ariel Stone and Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny are at lower right in second row.
When in 2003 I came to Congregation Shir Tikvah of Portland Oregon at the invitation of the fifteen founders who midwifed the community into existence, I came directly from a two-year academic fellowship in Jerusalem. But the beginning of our relationship coincided with another significant date in my life: in 1993, ten years before, I had become the first Rabbi of Congregation HaTikvah of Kyiv, Ukraina.

Ever since, we have maintained a relationship, me and Congregation HaTikvah. At times Shir Tikvah has participated in it. There is a special and unique link between the two congregations through me, and at this terrible time I want to offer you some learning (because we are a learning congregation) regarding what you need to know, and how you might choose to act in response to the horrifying events unfolding so far from us, yet so close.

1. The current spiritual guide of Congregation HaTikvah is Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny. Although he is a descendent of the Rizhiner Rebbe, when I met Shurik he was working as a tour guide. He became my translator during our Shabbat prayers for my first few weeks in Kyiv until my rudimentary Russian (yes, Russian, because that is the international language of the Former Soviet Union) improved enough to be understood – most of the time – by my congregants.

Rabbi Dukhovny sent me this video earlier this week. Please watch it.

2. Tomorrow our local expert on Ukrainian history, Professor Natan Meir, is offering an hour of explanation of the history of the Jewish community of Ukraine and the Ukraine-Russian relationship tomorrow,  Wednesday, March 2 from 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. Learn more here and get the Zoom link: Explaining Ukraine 

3. what can you do to help? In the video, Rabbi Dukhovny mentions an emergency fund for the Jews of Ukraine created by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (which supported my work in Ukraine, along with the JDC). Please consider supporting this emergency fund if you are able: Ukrainian Crisis Fund 

Finally, my companions in study and prayer, please pray with me. With your heart, send healing energy in the direction of all who suffer in Ukraine and everywhere war creates chaos and misery. And pray with me with your hands and feet, joining me in doing what we can to answer hate with kindness, choosing the risk of love over fear.

אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא: 

Help, we beseech, save now
we beg, we plead, save now
help us, HaShem, speed the way to peace;
we beseech, may the struggle to live succeed.

(Psalms 118:25) 

May we see the restoration of peace speedily in our day, ken yehi ratzon, may it be so…

Rabbi Ariel