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Torah Commentary

Kedoshim: The paradox of holiness

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Allow me a rabbinic parlor trick. Think of a person you have known personally whom you would call “holy.” Not knowing anything beyond this description, I would hazard two guesses: 1) in some significant ways, this person does not go along with “the crowd” and 2) when he or she connects with you, the connection is profound. You feel embraced.

These predictions prove accurate for most people because of the nature of holiness. Holiness finds both its source and its expression in two seemingly opposite inclinations: separation and union.

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (meaning “holy”) addresses sanctity in ritual, speech, sex, law, business, and community relations, among other spheres. It advocates both separation (e.g., from prohibited sexual partners, gossip, deceit, class bias, and impurity) and union (e.g., with neighbors, the innocent who are harmed, God, parents, and the proper sexual partner).

The word “kadosh” (holy) connotes separation because it originally meant “set aside for a dedicated use.” It applied first and foremost to contributions that were designated for the Temple. Holiness is that which is set apart. A holy occasion, place, text, or person is elevated above what is normal and acceptable.

Rashi comments on the first verse in Kedoshim: “‘You shall be holy’ means you shall be separate.” If we are going to be holy, we will have to oppose some popular trends. We will regularly need to distinguish and filter out the unholy. The Holiness Code encourages us to make distinctions — between kosher and non-kosher, between pure and impure, between good and evil.

Many traditions promote separation to achieve holiness. If you want to be holy, find a mountain top away from general society and meditate there. Separate yourself from commerce (take a vow of poverty or live simply); separate yourself from routine speech (take a vow of silence and/or pray much of the day); separate yourself from your own bodily needs and urges (fast or eat simply, bathe in cold water, and/or take a vow of celibacy).

Overall, Jewish tradition and particularly the Book of Leviticus are dedicated to finding holiness in the midst of society, with all its temptations and impurities. Yet separatism has a place in our tradition, too. Mystics and chasidim have sanctified themselves through ascetic and separatist practices. Once a year for 25 hours on Yom Kippur, Jews live like monks. We eschew food, drink, commerce, bathing, anointing, and sex, to focus exclusively on repenting for our sins and elevating our lives to a new level of holiness.

Holiness draws boundaries. This unequivocally cuts some things off, while separating others as chosen. There are moments in life we call “holy” because we experience them as different and special — outside the bounds of the mundane. Yet boundaries also mark the points of connection. And this is the second aspect of holiness: union.

While many holy experiences are characterized by a sense that something is set apart, there is another kind of holy experience which springs from a sense that nothing at all is separate. This type of holiness — sometimes called “numinous” — is mysterious; it cannot be planned or scheduled. Suddenly, you discover or plug into an awareness that may sound to others like a cliché, but feels to you like a revelation: “I am connected to everything, and everything is part of the One.” You feel blessed and comforted by this unity. In religious terms, “ein od” (Deuteronomy 4:39) — there is nothing but God.

If you have one such experience in a lifetime, it can be enough to influence or even transform your sense of reality. Mystics talk about fleeting moments of union with lasting impact — and so do everyday people. Elizabeth Gilbert found — and lost — union in a moment of meditation, as she describes in the bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love.” Grief-stricken people sometimes find a reprieve when they see a light or hear a voice which confers both comfort and sanctity. They experience themselves and everyone else included in a cosmic embrace. Moments of extremis are not required. You can know complete and holy union when you make love with your spouse, witness a sunrise, serve food at a homeless shelter. The commandment to be holy was not given just to Moses or the elders, but to the entire people. Holiness is available to everyone.

A famous verse in Kedoshim points to the quality of unification: “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.” In a mystical reading, this means that the distinctions we draw between ourselves and our neighbors are insignificant and ephemeral. Your neighbor is as yourself. As children of the One, we are one.

This is heady stuff. How do we apply it in daily life? Three suggestions for this year’s run at Parashat Kedoshim: consider your role model, your separations, and your union.

1) Recall the people you first thought of when you began reading this column. Whether or not they fit my description, they clearly fit your definition of holiness. How might they serve as a role model for increasing holiness in your daily life?

2) What are you letting in (through the media, gossip, reading, routines, friendships, etc.) that you may wish to filter? Do you engage in practices, appropriate or helpful at one time, which are now damaging to your sense of holiness? What is your separate and special use to God, humanity, and yourself?

3) What can you do to foster a sense of union with God, people, and nature? What songs, prayers, settings, or memories inspire an awareness of union? If you have had a “numinous” experience, how can you “feed and water” it, so that it stays alive for you and through you?

“Kedoshim tehiyu, you shall (must) be holy,” is a commandment. And it can also be read as a promise: “you shall (will) be holy. Ki kadosh ani. For I, Adonai, your God, am holy.” Created in God’s image, we, too will be holy. Sooner or later, ready or not, here it comes…

 
 

Passover: By the rivers of yore and lore

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Bodies of water loom large in general and biblical history. Somehow, turning points seem to happen on the banks of a river or overlooking the sea. In the biblical tradition, the first liberation account, a model for others to come, took root at the crossing of the Red Sea, a moment we mark on the seventh day of Passover.

In American history, the Delaware River, which waters and softens a part of our Garden State, looms large for that historic moment recently commemorated once again, where Washington led his troops across the river from Pennsylvania to the New Jersey side, to march onward to Trenton where the Revolutionary War’s real tide would turn.

And so it was that a few years ago I and my family journeyed to Washington Crossing to watch the annual re-enactment of that military turning point, an event that is played out in full dramatic form, with costumes and other regalia. It has become more than just a Dec. 25 tradition for that area. It is an affirmation of a key American legend that anchors us in the history of this country’s Revolutionary War — except that the year I was there, more than 50 years after this practice of revisiting history was begun, the famed military move did not take hold. The heavy rains from previous days generated a current that Gen. Washington and his would-be troops could not go against.

I personally saw it ironic that the year that I chose to be a part of this event, an unlikely enthusiast given my Canadian roots, that another piece of history would be made. Wouldn’t you know that the year we chose to observe history remade, after 54 apparent successful crossings, would be the one that would see the boats flounder and nearly float downstream.

But there is a great teachable moment that emerges from these episodes of error in re-enactment. Our societies are rooted, born, and based in myth and narrative. We are carried forward by the tides of what has been told to us for generations. It is important that we practice history in the hope that we might even make it happen again. But even when we fail to carry out the same drama, in all of its detail and excitement and to the same level of success, we offer added strength to the story.

In Jewish tradition we are constantly reliving history through the events of our calendar. We literally taste and digest freedom through the foods of the Passover seder and we visit vulnerability and are fortified by our faith by dwelling in our sukkot. Can we absolutely reclaim and feel the full import of these moments? That is hard to say.

But by daring to replay these events in our trek through history we keep the story alive. What is important in all of this is not whether or not Washington’s replacements this year or last succeeded in the same feat that he allegedly achieved at that very same spot; but that we care to try to relive the moment and, in so doing, claim and appropriate the experience for our lives today.

Tradition and faith are very much rooted in the stuff of stories. We as a people have been driven and propelled across many seas in search of freedom in newfound lands on account of earlier successes by others, who dared to dream and do in the pursuit of new better lives.

Immigrants to this country, modeling their lives after the ancient Israelites, endured fearful and fateful crossings because they saw something better on the other side. What need not be lost on any who stood and watched with anticipation at Washington Crossing to see a glimpse of history repeated is the power of the story and the claim of the narrative. These accounts still matter and guide us even when we cannot see them fully re-enacted, because the story has not only survived but endured. It is more than just nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sentiment — a sense of what was. One cannot easily explain it. One needs to have been there, involved with the original, or have experienced something like it, to be able to appreciate a nostalgic moment. Like a plane ticket written for a specific traveler, it is non-transferable.

A narrative on the other hand, if properly cared for and shared with others, even if there are glitches in re-enactment, has the power to persist, prevail, and inspire.The story if told right and often enough, repeated and re-enacted to whatever degree of success is more than myth; it is our license to continue to live and benefit from the lessons of history.

Reb Ben Zion Schenker, a celebrated chasidic composer and ba’al tefillah, once crossed the Red Sea in a glass bottom boat; and at that moment was swept up in the currents of a much earlier time. Looking at the waters beneath him he was inspired to compose a beautiful melody to the passage from the Hallel prayer “B’zeit Yisrael mi-Mitzrayim,” coming to Israel from Egypt, that so eloquently recaptures that great moment of salvation, a tune which our family sings as part of our seder experience.

And so, as I stood on the banks of the Delaware, the unrealized recent efforts of George Washington and his crew didn’t fail me. They instead strengthened that story; and with its historic antecedent from this coming week’s holiday Torah reading, and through their efforts in earnest to re-engage with the past, gave both events a voice for today.

 
 

Passover: The beginning of time

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I’ve always found it fascinating to consider the role of time in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew root “kadosh,” which we generally translate as “holy” or “sacred,” appears only once and that is in connection with time. Upon completion of creation, God blesses the seventh day and declares it holy, thereby asserting the sanctity of time (Genesis 2:3). We do not encounter sacred space, however, until the book of Exodus. In the revelation by God to Moses at the burning bush, God says to Moses:

“Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Unlike the Sabbath, which remains holy forever as a result of God’s blessing, God’s revelation imparts sanctity to the site of the burning bush only temporarily. In the Bible, the sanctity of time continues in perpetuity while the sanctity of space, though sometimes permanent, may also be fleeting.

The very first commandment that God gives the Israelite people as a nation relates to time rather than space. Before the Israelites leave Egypt, God instructs Moses and Aaron:

“This month is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2).

This command has been the subject of varied interpretation by the Rabbis over the millennia. According to a classic rabbinic interpretation, Exodus 12:2 teaches the law of sanctification of the new month — kiddush ha-chodesh. The medieval commentator, Nahmanides, however, focuses on the plain sense of Exodus 12:2 and emphasizes its symbolic significance to the Israelite people. Since the exodus from Egypt is the start of a new order of life for the nation of Israel, it is appropriate that their religious calendar reflect this new order by numbering the months of the year from the month of the exodus. The Hebrew months are given ordinal numbers in the Bible, like the days of the week, beginning with the first month — the month of Passover. Just as we count the days of the week until the completion of creation, so too, our counting of the months of the year starts with our creation — the exodus. And so, Nahmanides concludes, every time an Israelite refers to any month, he or she must remember the great miracle of the redemption from Egyptian bondage.

My favorite interpretation of Exodus 12:2 is the homiletical comment of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno:

“This month shall be for you the beginning of months: Henceforth, the months of the year shall be yours, to do with them as you will. During the bondage, however, your days did not belong to you, but were used to serve others and fulfill their wills. Therefore, this month shall be the first month of the year for you. For in this month your existence as a people of free choice began.”

Seforno reveals a deeper truth implicit in our verse — it is only with the exodus from Egypt that the Israelite people gained control over time.

Taking charge of time

Why is it significant that the very first command that God gives Israel as a nation relates to time rather than space? Today we are blessed with a great gift — the center of Judaism is physically located in the land of Israel. But when the people of Israel choose to become God’s nation, sacred space is not yet a tangible part of their religious equation. There is no temple and their land is but a distant promise. Israel becomes God’s nation when it begins to define time with reference to its relationship with God — when the month of the exodus becomes the first month of the year in the Israelite calendar. The nation of Israel is born through the definition of time.

There is nothing more difficult for human beings than to define time. There is no greater challenge than setting priorities with the time that is available to us, no greater challenge than saying: This comes first and this must be postponed for later. But what God asks Israel to do is not merely to define time but to combine two calendars — two systems of marking time — that often do not coincide. The religious calendar marks the major events of biblical history within the framework of lunar months, while the seasonal calendar which marks economic events is solar.

This challenge of defining time, of living by two calendars — one that is secular and one that is religious — is the metaphorical challenge of the Jewish nation. As we cease creative activity each Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, we are aware that the world of commerce moves forward without us. We embrace wholeheartedly our practice of Judaism, knowing that it must shape how we deal with the demands and responsibilities of our environment.

The Haggadah of Passover mandates: In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out of Egypt. If so, the season of the exodus is the season for every one of us to reflect, to set priorities — in short, to take charge of our time. It is the season to look back to the moment in history when the month of the exodus became for us the beginning and center of our existence as a nation. For as we revisit our past, we will be energized to confront the challenges of our future, confident that the continuity of the Jewish people is as certain as the eternity of time.

 
 

Pesach: Free to serve

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We have just entered the Hebrew month of Nissan. The holiday of Pesach is less than two weeks away.

The theme the Rabbinic sages chose to emphasize for the festival of Pesach is “z’man cheruteinu” — the time of our freedom. We use this expression in the holiday’s Amidah and in its Kiddush. Obviously, the attention and focus of Pesach is to be centered on freedom, and what it means to us as Jews.

We should know. Our freedoms have often been curtailed. But while most are familiar with that memorable battle cry “Let my people go,” used to protest the Soviet Union’s unfair treatment of Jews, not too many can finish the sentence. It was first used by Moses who challenged Pharaoh to let the people go. But the message did not stop with those words.

The complete statement goes like this: “Let my people go, so that they can serve me (God) in the desert”. The people were to swap the ruthless and merciless slavery of Egypt with divine worship. While Egyptian bondage carried no reward, only suffering, divine servitude would bring benefit and gain. By establishing a relationship with God at Mount Sinai, the people would be able to lead a life of blessing and accomplishment.

This was highlighted by the famous tablets of stone upon which were etched the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word for engraving is spelled the same way as the word for freedom. The engraved writing was a reference to the freedom that is accomplished by keeping and observing the commandments.

Jewish freedom is thus defined as, first, freedom from physical slavery, but also, using that freedom to become subservient to a higher supreme being — God.

In truth, most people don’t see it that way. Religion is viewed by many as the greatest burden of all. Religious commitment is seen as being far removed from being free. Perhaps the following story will help to clarify why this approach is misguided.

A man was seen struggling with a heavy sack slung over his shoulder. The weather was hot and humid, making his task arduous and tiring. To compound his misery, the road began to slope upwards. A passer-by, clearly intrigued by this individual, asked him what was in the sack. The man replied that he was carrying rocks and stones.

He persisted to inquire as to the weight of the sack. The reply was not long in coming; it was quite heavy and laborious, he said with a long sigh. To his exasperation and annoyance, the man then asked him if he would be interested in having some more stones added to the load. The reaction to this ridiculous suggestion is totally predictable and understandable!

Now let’s imagine the same man walking along, in the same heat and in identical conditions. But this time, in response to the question about the contents of the sack, he replies that he is carrying diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. When asked if the sack is heavy, again the reply is in the affirmative. But when asked if he would like to have more added, how do you think he would react? Of course, it would be an emphatic yes!

The different reactions in the two stories are reasonable and logical. Although the man was carrying a substantial load on a very warm day, and up a hill, the contents of the sack were highly influential to his condition and well-being. When it was mere rocks, it was a real effort, but the knowledge that a great fortune was in the bag helped to lighten that burden.

In the same way, the reaction we have towards our responsibilities, particularly to the mitzvot that we are directed to perform, depends entirely on our approach to them. They could be burdensome like rocks or treasured like precious and expensive diamonds.

Indeed, we are encouraged to view mitzvot as just that; precious and special. Yes, it is not always easy to observe Shabbat, to eat kosher, to pray, or to study Torah. But the knowledge that we are accumulating precious cargo is surely the best stimulus to overcome any and all doubts.

Yes, Judaism makes one free. But first one must liberate the mind and realise just how valuable its opportunities are. It is why freedom was chosen as Pesach’s symbol.

 
 

Tazriah/Hachodesh: A truly new life

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This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hachodesh (the month); it is not only the last Shabbat of the month of Adar; it is also the final of the four special Shabbatot that fill the weeks before Pesach. As in the previous weeks, the haftorah is not related with the Torah portion, which is Tazriah, a Hebrew term that refers to childbirth alluding to the rules for purification after giving birth which begin the portion.

Nevertheless, a common theme arises between the portion of Tazriah and the haftorah of Hachodesh and its supplementary maftir Torah reading. Shabbat Hachodesh too is about birthing — in this case, the birthing of a new nation, the people of Israel. The maftir contains the first commandment given to the Jewish people on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2).

Tazriah prescribes that a mother who has given birth undergo a period of spiritual and physical cleansing. When completed, she may once again be able to participate in sacred rituals.

In much the same way, the people of Israel underwent a period of purification from its birthing, the Exodus, before reaching the Promised Land: a removal of the idolatrous habits of Egypt to enable them to build a just society and to reach to the commandments in a state of purity, which allows them to be in the presence of God as truly free individuals.

The Haggadah states that “in every generation we must see ourselves as if we are leaving Egypt.” Let us take the lessons of this Shabbat to start our own path of inner purification towards a free and happy life. Let us get rid from the impurities of hatred, envy, selfishness, grudge holding, and start a new period of love, forgiveness, and loving kindness. In this new month, let us each leave the “Egypts” that are holding us back from fulfilling the purpose of creation: to enjoy life and become partners with God in recreating His creation for the beginning. As we wish each other a happy and kosher Pesach, this Shabbat of new birthings and new beginnings should also mark the starting point for all of us to become “kosher” individuals, laboring with a free Jewish spirit for a better world every day.

 
 

Parashat Shemini: A time for silence

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Since March 8, many of us have been fixated on news and media reports analyzing the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which went missing during a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. At the present time, the investigation continues, the search area has been expanded, and new information continues to surface.

The greatest tragedy in this disappearance surrounds the 239 missing passengers and their families, who nearly two weeks after the plane vanished are beside themselves with anguish and grief, and rightfully so. A recent article on CNN.com contained a brief window into the families’ perspectives on the handling of this matter by airline authorities. One person was quoted as saying, “What’s the point to keep lying? What we ask for is the truth. Don’t hide things from us.”

Is there a Jewish response to this tragic situation? What guidance might our tradition offer us as we think of these families and acknowledge their pain and suffering, their fear and sadness, their frustration with simply not knowing?

A terrible tragedy occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu come forward to the altar in the Tent of Meeting and offer what the Torah renders as “false fire.” For presenting an unacceptable sacrifice, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the flames of the altar and died. The biblical text tells us little about Aaron’s reaction, saying only, “Aaron grew silent” (Leviticus 10:3).

The rabbis of the Midrash offer a variety of interpretations, seeking to understand why Nadav and Avihu suffered such a horrific, untimely demise. Some of the rabbis claim that Nadav and Avihu prepared their sacrifice incorrectly, were intoxicated, failed to wash themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting, or that they were arrogant in their comportment (Leviticus Rabbah 20).

But seeking a “Jewish response” and craving “guidance from our tradition” is very different from wanting “a reason.” Some of the rabbinic interpretations from the Midrash, intended to offer a possible explanation, lack sensitivity and empathy, qualities that must be unwavering considerations in a moment such as this one.

To be fair, there are other rabbis who simply view what has transpired as a tragic accident and admit openly that they have no answers. These commentators wish only to mourn, to remember, to honor those who have died, to feel for Aaron as he endures such an irreconcilable loss. Fifteenth century commentator Don Isaac Abravanel comments about Aaron’s silence, “His heart turned to lifeless stone. He did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation. For his soul had left him and he was speechless.”

What if being speechless, what if growing silent, like Aaron did, is to be considered an appropriate response to the tragic circumstances surrounding the coverage of the Malaysia Airlines flight? Often, we don’t hold the reputation of being a “silent people.” We live in a time when we vociferously demand answers and cry out for justice.

Yet the question remains, what if we have no answers, we have no words, and we have only tears and silence? What we are witnessing surrounding Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is uncharacteristically tragic. It is easy to get caught up with “explanations,” conspiracy theories, and possibilities of heroic survival with bravura. It is ever harder to acknowledge that we are facing the loss of human life, the realization that families will be torn apart forever, much like Aaron’s family was torn apart in the Torah.

Twentieth century rabbi, theologian and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “There are three ways to mourn — to weep, to be silent, and to turn sorrow into song.” This deeply tragic time is one for weeping and for silence, for compassion, and for consideration of families whose loved ones have perished. We pray that someday, when the truth behind the Malaysian Airlines disaster becomes known, that these families in their grief and their mourning, might still find a way to turn their sorrow into song. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers are with them.

 
 

Purim: Changing hands in leadership

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Exodus 17:8-13, the traditional Torah reading for the morning of Purim, tells the story of the attack of Amalek on the nation of Israel less than two months after the Exodus from Egypt. Amalek was a nomadic group of tribes that inhabited the Negev and Sinai Peninsula and appears to have relied on seasonal migrations and raiding expeditions for sustenance. The Amalekite attack is unprovoked and occurs in a location called Rephidim, in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. According to the biblical timetable, the war takes place shortly before the Revelation on Mount Sinai.

A close reading of the biblical account reveals that the Hebrew root yad, hand, is a key word in the Amalek story. For example, in Exodus 17:9, Moses charges Joshua to fight Amalek in the field while he ascends the hill with the staff of God in his hand. Later, the progress of the battle is described in light of the experience of Moses’ hands.

 
 

Vayikra: The core curriculum

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Education is a major topic of conversation in our personal, communal, and national conversations these days. Political, cultural, and spiritual leaders discuss the best ways to educate our youngsters and use our limited resources. Controversies around charter schools, common curriculum, “no child left behind,” standardized curricula and national standards, pre-K funding, the place of values in the public schools, and many other important issues dominate the pages of thought journals.

Numerous sources in the rabbinic tradition indicate that in Talmudic times children entering school were first educated in the intricate laws of the book of Vayikra, the laws that begin to be presented in our parasha this week. This, at first blush, appears to be a strange curricular choice. Why not begin the educational journey of the young Jewish child with Bereishit and the creation narrative or the stories of Abraham or the national narrative of the Exodus?

Three reasons may be suggested that possibly played a role in the curricular choices of the ancient rabbis.

1. The detailed laws of the korbanot (the sacrificial system) and the laws of ritual purity, while technical and intricate, are concrete and tangible. They are well defined, involving specific actions, routine activities, and clearly specified models of behavior and activity.

In contrast to the abstract and difficult questions and issues that lie at the heart of the Biblical story of creation and the garden of Eden, which touch on deep questions of the origin of the universe, the nature of God, good and evil, free will and choice, and other sophisticated matters, the laws of the sacrificial system and its corollaries such as the laws of kashrut, which appear later in the book of Vayikra, are concrete, defined, detailed requirements, and mitzvot. Children can point to the animals, talk about numbers, and engage with the realia around them.

For most young minds the first encounter with Judaism must be concrete, well defined, and involve clear parameters and experiences. Philosophical explorations and even historical narrative are best suited for the next stage in the development of the child as she grows and matures. In those early years of school, the most impactful lessons are those that are hands-on and connect them to the living pulsating world of concrete experience of Jewish life like Kiddush, Shabbat candles, megillah reading, giving charity, and the whole range of Jewish behaviors that shape the contours of a rich and engaged Jewish life.

2. In many ancient cultures the entire system of the Temple, of religious devotion and worship, was an elitist one. Priests alone were given access to the special, restricted knowledge of religious service, while the average person was kept in the dark. It was presented as some mysterious, esoteric knowledge only available to the initiates.

In sharp contrast, the book of Vayikra declares that God commanded Moses to present the laws to all of the children of Israel. This bespeaks an almost democratic access to knowledge about the laws of the Temple and sacrifices. All Jews are given entry into understanding all parts of the Torah and there are no hidden mysteries that only some elite members can access. The Torah records that the Torah is an inheritance — “morasha” — to all of Israel and each and every Jew can learn and imbibe its details and content.

In this spirit, the rabbis may have specifically wanted to drive home this message from an early age. Every Jewish child from early youth is educated in the details of the law of the Temple service. There is no area of Torah that is off limits to any Jew, and that message is brought home from the very first day of schooling.

3. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the leading teachers of Mussar of the mid-twentieth century, noted in a celebrated essay that the word for love in Hebrew, “ahava,” is connected to the Aramaic word “hav,” which means to give. Expanding on that theme, he notes that deep love is often associated with a desire to give to the other rather than looking to take or expressing demands upon the other. This is true in marriage and in our most intimate and joyful relationships. Love often grows and expands with the investment of time and effort that one expends in giving and investing in the other.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and chancellor of Yeshiva University, notes that in Judaism, “More than believing in God we are commanded to love Him… the question is how shall we express it and enhance it: And the answer is ‘when one offers a korban la-Hashem’ — you must learn to give to God. When we give of our time by getting up early to pray in a minyan, when we give of our substance to the causes of the Almighty, such as a synagogue or school or charity, when we give of our attention and concern to Him and his people, then the process of giving enhances the love we bear for Him within.’ And it is this message of a commitment to give of oneself and one’s abilities, time, resources, and feelings that we want even our youngest to begin to imbibe and absorb as they begin their journey to learn and experience the presence of the Divine and their relationship to God, the Torah, and the Jewish people.

 
 
 
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Purim: Changing hands in leadership

Exodus 17:8-13, the traditional Torah reading for the morning of Purim, tells the story of the attack of Amalek on the nation of Israel less than two months after the Exodus from Egypt. Amalek was a nomadic group of tribes that inhabited the Negev and Sinai Peninsula and appears to have relied on seasonal migrations and raiding expeditions for sustenance. The Amalekite attack is unprovoked and occurs in a location called Rephidim, in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. According to the biblical timetable, the war takes place shortly before the Revelation on Mount Sinai.

A close reading of the biblical account reveals that the Hebrew root yad, hand, is a key word in the Amalek story. For example, in Exodus 17:9, Moses charges Joshua to fight Amalek in the field while he ascends the hill with the staff of God in his hand. Later, the progress of the battle is described in light of the experience of Moses’ hands.

 

 

 
 
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