Tzav – Ear, Thumbs and Toes

March 17, 2018
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Tzav – Ear, Thumbs and Toes

The book of Vayikra is often referred to as the Torat Kohanim, The  Teachings of the Priests. It contains the exact prescriptions for the kohanim to minister in the Mishkan and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Its topics refer to the sacrifices, the Temple rituals and the laws of purity. Israel, though,  is called to be a “Kingdom of Priests” and the kohanim therefore are meant to be exemplars of a life of purity and holiness that all of Israel is called to. The standards of the priesthood that were meant for the Beit HaMikdash, are then also to be reinterpreted as standards by which all Jews are meant to elevate our  spiritual and ritual status.

The same guidance that we receive for the service in the temple can ennoble, train and define the serious Jew today as well. So as we seek to fulfill our divinely appointed mission, we can turn to Hashem’s appointment of the original priestly order. The ordination of the kohanim for priestly service can serve as our marching orders as well.

In the eighth chapter of Vayikra we observe the elaborate ceremony that installs Aaron and his son’s into the service of Israel and Hashem.  The kohanim go through a ritual washing for purification, and following the teharot they don special clothing to demarcate their office, and are anointed with oil. They then sacrifice a burnt offering of a ram to atone for their own sins before interceding for the sins of the nation. Read more »

Vayakhel – Come Together

March 8, 2018
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Vayakhel – Come Together

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We have a highly practical society that prides itself on efficiency. As a result we have gadgets that save time and labor, facilitate communication and raise our standard of living. Therefore we can watch an assortment of Hollywood movies in our living rooms or while waiting for a plane, all the while munching on a pizza from a famous chef cooked in our microwave oven! But have we really elevated the quality of living, and are we truly more efficient?

Though we value all of our trinkets, we throw them out when they break or have outlived their usefulness. Then we are on to the next great thing. My phone now contains all of my mp3 music, and its expandable memory allows me to carry my entire extensive music library. As a result my 10 year old ipod, with its puny 1gig memory is lying in a desk drawer awaiting its ill fate. I have a box that becomes the holding station for dated technology that does not find a home. Then, unceremoniously, yesterday’s marvels become today’s recycled material. If my discarded iPod could speak I imagine it would exhibit the same histrionics as Woody and the other discarded Toys in Toy Story 3.

Both little kids and grown up kids “love” their toys, but such love is merely functional and conditional love. So long as they work and fill a niche we “love” them; the minute they stop we replace them or junk them. With some things like cars and computers we even plan for future obsolescence. If we are not careful we might just extend this planned obsolescence to the people and relationships in our lives! It is not surprising then that we often feel disconnected, rootless and adrift, alone without purpose. Read more »

Ki Tisa – A Perfect Fall

February 27, 2018
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Ki Tisa – A Perfect Fall

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“Look what your kids are doing! Go see what your kids are making so much commotion about.” Parents, have you noticed that when your children fail to perform at acceptable levels they cease to be your little angels and become your spouse’s out of control problem? Parashat Ki Tisa contains a very interesting dialogue between Moses and God, where the Holy One appears to have developed the kind of selective memory problems that we often do toward our own children. It shouldn’t shock us to hear Hashem say, “My children have gone astray,” or even something as extreme as “they have prostituted themselves before idols.” Or even “they are a stiff-necked” people, as he does happen to say in this parasha. But here, following building of Golden Calf, we see the kind of disclaimer reminiscent of “Mission Impossible” – “Should anything happen, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Read more »

Tetzaveh – The Sweet Aroma of Prayer

February 22, 2018
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Tetzaveh – The Sweet Aroma of Prayer

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I cannot recall ever smelling incense burning in shul. Such practices in my mind belonged categorically in Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches, or in Buddhist shrines. Most of my own experience of smelling burnt fragrances was in the dormitory during my college years when coeds would use them to cover over the smell of illicit cannabis. Clearly the use of incense is alien to my own religious experience, and yet Torah in both Tetzaveh, and Ki Tisa describes the burning of aromatic spices, or k’toret as important and normative to the activities of the cohanim in the Mishkan.

The incense was to be burnt by the cohanim on the golden altar in the Holy of Holies before the Ark of the Covenant both morning and evening of each day (Exodus 30:1-8). Apparently this fragrant offering was of such great importance, that to alter its formula or content in any way would cause estrangement from the entire community (30:37-38). Such an alteration of the divine prescription may have in fact been the cause of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the Cohen Gadol (Lev. 10:1-2), again elevating the importance of these burnt offerings of fragrant spices. Read more »

Terumah – The Missing Piece of Furniture

February 15, 2018
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Terumah – The Missing Piece of Furniture

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Toward the end of last weeks Torah portion Mishapatim, Moses, Aaron and his two sons Nadab and Abihu, as well as the seventy elders of Israel prepared to ascend Mount Sinai where Moses was to receive the commandments of God. As a precursor Moses read the book of the covenant to the people of Israel so that they might confirm their allegiance to Hashem, and take upon themselves the yoke of being His people. The youth brought elevation and peace offerings before Hashem and the blood was placed upon an altar that was placed by the foot of the mountain.

When Moses and his entourage ascend the mountain they have an epiphany of the living God, and they see him seated upon His throne, His feet placed upon “sapphire bricks.” What a stunning contrast from the bricks of mud that they forced to make for Pharaoh. The bricks for Pharaoh were to build tombs, but now Israel had the opportunity to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle that the God of all creation would dwell in. The choice was Israel’s, bricks of mud or bricks of sapphire; accept the yoke of Pharaoh’s kingdom, or the yoke of God’s kingdom. So building the Mishkan would actually be like partnering with God to build a new world, with God, and for God to dwell in our midst.

This weeks portion Terumah describes in detail all of the furnishings and accouterments in the Tabernacle, many of which are replicated in the modern synagogue. Some synagogues include styles and décor that are unique to certain architectural periods, but most of the furnishings are constant and universal to the synagogue experience. Most synagogue décor will include an aron hakodesh (a holy ark), a bema (the podium from where the torah is read), a ner tamid (an eternal light), Torah and haftarah scrolls and of course such pragmatic furnishings as chairs as well as decorative elaborations and artwork to set the building apart and to make it special. But there is always one important piece of furniture that is missing that is central to the biblical narrative of the Mishkan. That is the altar or the m’tzbeach, which is especially prevalent in this week’s parasha. Read more »

Yitro – An Aristocracy of Humility

February 1, 2018
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Yitro – An Aristocracy of Humility

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With the arrival at Sinai, Israel begins to forge in earnest its national identity. It is only in covenantal relationship with the God of their forefathers, the God to whom the entire world belongs that the shared experience of bondage and liberation begin to take on meaning. It is here at Sinai that the full transitions is made from servitude to Pharaoh, to the service of God and His creation.

From the inception of the covenant, Israel is called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”(Exodus 19:6). This expression describes a careful balance of covenantal responsibilities, which imitate those of the first humans who broke faith with God and whose disobedience caused the cosmic rift. In the first two chapters of Genesis, humankind is portrayed as having an essential participation in the creative process. God names the day and the night, the heavens and the land, the seas and the luminaries, thereby determining their essential natures and functions in the cosmic harmony. But Adam is allowed to participate in the naming process, describing the essential natures of each animal. In this respect the first man is given the original responsibility of reflecting God’s image in this world and is given sovereignty of the earth’s resources (Gen.1:26-28). In light of God’s benevolence though, it is understood that the role of sovereignty requires that we care for the well being of all that is put in our charge. Read more »