Vayikra – A Tough Place for Man or Beast

March 30, 2017
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Vayikra – A Tough Place for Man or Beast

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At first glance Torah can be a tough read for those concerned about animal welfare. Much of the first ten chapters of Leviticus contain cultic material, especially in parsha Vayikra that, that concerns itself with sacrifice, which is more than occasionally of the animal variety. Though this brutal instruction may violate our contemporary sensibilities, the animal sacrifices in Torah must be understood within the cultural context of ancient Israel and its surrounding neighbors. While it is true that many of the particulars of Israel’s sacrificial system were borrowed from the cultures of pagan neighbors, the sacrifices they offered are to be understood theologically according to the particular character of Israel’s God and in accord with the peculiar covenantal relationship that He enacted with them. In this respect Israel’s sacrificial system can best be understood as a domestication of existing practices by inculcating God’s highest values into the normative ritual milieu. Israel’s community of faith put incredible energy and attentiveness into these offerings as material gestures, which defined the importance of God for the life of the community. The various sacrificial practices prescribed for Israel were vehicles designed to celebrate, affirm, enhance, or repair the defining relationship between them and God. Read more »

Pekudei – The Future Is Now

March 23, 2017
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Pekudei – The Future Is Now

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When I was a boy in the 60’s my two favorite cartoons were the popular Flintstones and Jetsons. While Hanna-Barbera Studios produced both, the Flintstones was “the modern stone-age family” while the Jetsons was the “space-age” family of the future. Ironically though, both families were really tongue in cheek reflections of 1960’s lifestyle and values.

The Flintstones had all of the 60’s lifestyle expectations, with Stone Age veneers. Their stone wheel cars would roll up to the drive-in restaurant so they could order a “bronto-burger.” Their humble abode in the Town of Bedrock resembled the low cost post WWII housing which accompanied the suburban sprawl or the 50’s and 60’s. Even their appliances such as garbage disposals and hairdryers ran on the power of prehistoric looking animals. The Jetsons on the other hand had flying cars, excessive gadgetry and robotic servants to help ease their life in cloud scraping hi-rise apartments. Almost prophetically every time saving convenience had a screen accompanied by robotic voices that sounded like alien invaders in 60’s sci-fi movies.

Just like the Flintstones, the Jetsons sported 60’s style hairdos and reflected the aspirations and mores of the decade. The women did not work and the men did everything possible to avoid work. Though the Flintstones represented the blue-collar family and the Jetsons the white-collar family, their mode of operation and goals were identical. So is there a lesson that can be gleaned by observing the relationship between the Flintstones and the Jetsons? I think there is, and I believe it to be profound. When we speak of what was or what can be, we can only reflect what we have already known and have experienced. We reconstruct the past and reframe the future based upon our experience of the present. Read more »

Tetsaveh – Do Not Forget!

March 9, 2017
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Tetsaveh – Do Not Forget!

The Torah portion for this week, Tetsaveh, literally “means you shall command.” It contains the remainder of the divine instruction for the building and operation of the Mishkan, the unique tabernacle in which Hashem promises to dwell with Israel during our travels through the Sinai wilderness.  It represents much more than a temporary vocation to occupy, amuse and/or instruct Israel along the arduous journey.  Rather the Mishkan will become the temporary theatre for a sacred drama that will exemplify Israel’s Holy vocation.

The precision with which the Holy One commands Israel through Moses suggests that the building and operation of the Mishkan represents the completion of the creative order under the watchful care of the G-d of Israel.  Last week every detail was taken to ensure that all of the sets, furnishings and props were constructed properly to the last half cubit. This week we receive instruction concerning the incense, the incense altar, the menorah and the vestments of the kohanim, Israel’s priestly legacy.  In essence, the mood, the lighting and the costumes are being set to perform the longest running play in recorded history. For fourteen thousand and six hundred consecutive days our ancestors performed a travelling show that might have been entitled “The Dawning of a New Age” before a captive audience. With Hashem as producer, Moses as director and occasional cameo appearance, Aaron, his sons, and a cast of thousands put on a blockbuster that demonstrates with sacrifice and kavanah (intentionality), the Glory of Hashem can be brought into our world and the light of the Olam Habah (the age to come) can illumine our lives (see chapter 40). Read more »

Yitro – Chosen? For What?

February 15, 2017
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Yitro – Chosen? For What?

In the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler On the Roof” the main character Tevye the dairyman ironically quips while entreating G-d, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” In his frustration, Tevye echoes 4000 years of Jewish experience. At first blush it would appear being G-d’s Chosen People is not always all it is cracked up to be. Tevye’s little shtetl is continuously assailed  by political violence, poverty and the unrelenting demands of modernity. But in the midst of all this perhaps the greatest challenge to the village of Anatevka will be that of maintaining their traditions in a world that demands sameness and conformity.

This week’s parasha contains the dramatic summit of the Exodus story, Israel encounters the Master of the World at the base of Mt. Sinai. Here the Jewish people and G-d exchange pledges of love and loyalty, and embrace the Ten Commandments, the first clear articulation of mutually agreed upon covenant. But prior to this G-d speaks to Moses and clearly articulates the special bond He plans with Israel; “and now if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of ., all peoples, for mine is the entire world.” (Ex. 19:5)  this statement though, appears to contain an internal conflict, the conflict of a “chosen people”.

How can the G-d of the entire universe choose just one people. If G-d is truly omniscient, isn’t the restriction of His choice to only one people group bad form. Shouldn’t G-d love everybody equally?  Isn’t the concept of “chosenness” just a bit xenophobic? Many Jews today would argue that such a claim denigrates the rest of humanity. Read more »

Accepting Our Heritage

January 26, 2017
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Accepting Our Heritage

It has been said that the life of Moses can be seen as three distinct movements, forty years each.  First Moses spends the first forty years thinking he is somebody. He has fallen by providence into the royal court of Pharaoh, raised as a prince of Egypt while his people, the Jewish people unbeknownst to him suffer.  In the second act he discovers that he is nobody. In a rather extended midlife crisis he winds up down and out, tending sheep in the wilderness among the tribes of Midian. But it is in the third forty years of Moses’ life that he discovers what Hashem can do with somebody who accepts he is nobody.

Parashah Va’eira begins as Shemot ended, with Moses returning to the presence of Hashem, pleading petulantly. Moses was sent to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelite slaves. But instead of releasing them, Pharaoh takes away their straw for brickmaking and they are absolutely outraged. Moses asks the Holy One how he might expect Pharaoh to listen to him, when even the children of Israel seem totally uninterested in his leadership. Moses goes so far as to accuse God of being unfaithful. “My Lord, why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.” (5:22-23) Read more »

Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

October 20, 2016
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Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

Sukkot remembers that freedom came as the result of pitching tents over 14,600 days and honors the 43,000 meals prepared in the dessert. But more importantly Sukkot reminds us that God is everywhere and undermines the idolatry of rootedness. This doesn’t mean that home and hearth are bad values; rather it serves as a dialectic reminder that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners in this present reality. Our journey in the wilderness began at Passover when Hashem took us out of the land of Egypt and commanded us to eat our last meal there in great haste with “our staff in hand and our loins girded” (I am still a little uncertain and just a little scared of the alternative), an idiom which suggests that we are to be perpetual wanderers.

We look for shelter in our possessions, but they can only give us temporary comfort. We seek reassurance from our jobs, but they can’t really protect us from uncertainty. We turn to hobbies, people and places to fill the emptiness, but ultimately, our souls cannot be filled from the outside.

The idea is to remind us of the fragility of the world that we occupy, a world that relies upon the sustenance and the benevolence of the Creator. This is why we add the following statement to the daily Amida between Sukkot and Passover; “Who makes the wind to blow and the rain descend”. It is wedged between two other affirmations in the prayers; “You resuscitate the dead and are able to save” and “Who sustains the living with loving kindness.” The placement creates the unambiguous suggestion that God’s provision of our agricultural needs that provide our daily sustenance is no less miraculous than the resurrection of the dead, and no less important than the care of our individual health. Therefore we are reminded that all that we are, all that we have and all that we need are in the hands of the one who created us. Read more »