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Showing posts from March, 2012


Our Torah portion offers us more sacrifices and perhaps an additional lesson. This week we learn that the sacrificial fires must be tended and kept burning day and night. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it.” (Leviticus 6:5) Rarely noted is the preceding command that the ashes must be removed almost as frequently. I am sure the job of tending the fire’s flames was more glamorous than that of removing the ash. But both are required. Both are holy. You can’t have a fire if its fuel is not continually replenished. You can’t as well build a fire in a pit that is filled with ash. The lowly work is required just as much as the lofty. But who likes to clean? Everyone of course likes to wear clean clothes (except perhaps young boys), but who likes to do laundry? Everyone likes to eat a great dinner, or even cook a delicious meal, but who likes to do the dishes? Perhaps part of the lesson is that you have to

Vayikra Sermon

There are many sacrifices detailed in this week’s Torah portion.   There is the burnt offering, everyday sacrifice, the meal offering, sin offering and guilt offering.  The ancient system was built on sacrifices not on prayer.  The ancient Israelites believed that the world was sustained by this system.  If it was done wrong, if there was a miscue, a wrong sprinkle here or there, the whole world might collapse.  In traditional circles these sacrifices are still seen as the ideal.  We just can’t do them anymore because the Temple was destroyed.  When the messiah comes he will rebuild the Temple and re-establish this sacrificial cult. I have no desire for a return to this system.  Likewise the Reform movement changed these traditional prayers that hoped for this rebuilding.  The question still remains: why was this seen as the ideal?  The first answer is because religions in general and Judaism in particular see the past as the ideal.  What we did yesterday is better than today; wh


There is an ancient concept that in our own day has fallen into disrepute. It is called sacrifice. We first read of this idea in the opening chapters of Leviticus. This week’s portion begins the lengthy book detailing these elaborate rituals. In ancient times one did not pray as we do today. One did not offer words. Instead one offered animals, or grains. It was always the choicest of the flock that was chosen for a sacrifice. It had to be the most prized that was offered. The Torah demands that the animal be without blemish. That requirement was part of the power of sacrifice. One could not casually peruse the flock. One had to carefully examine the animals to choose the one perfect, unblemished animal. Once the choice was made it was brought to the priest, who would slaughter the animal and sprinkle its blood on the altar. Imagine this. Your most valuable animal is slaughtered before your eyes. Moreover you rejoiced in this act. You took great pride and pleasure in

Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

This week’s Torah portion opens with the prohibition against lighting fire on Shabbat. The rabbis of course interpret this literally. They ruled that you cannot light a fire on Shabbat. You can light the fire before Shabbat. Hence there is the somewhat elaborate ritual of lighting Shabbat candles. Unlike almost all other rituals, in this case you perform the action before reciting the blessing. You light the candles, then cover your eyes, and then say the blessing. And then you open your eyes. Magically, it is as if the candles were lit. Had the blessing been said prior to the action, then you would be lighting the fire after Shabbat commences. In addition candle lighting is set eighteen minutes prior to the start of Shabbat (and 36 minutes in Jerusalem) to avoid any errors and the chance that a fire might be kindled on this sacred day. Thus you can turn on lights before Shabbat and leave them on, but not during the day. You can warm food on a stove left on simmer but can’

March-April Newsletter

What follows is my article from our March-April 2012 Newsletter .  In it I answer a number of our students' ask the rabbi questions. Here are your questions, and of course my answers. What’s your first name in English? Steve, but you should continue to call me rabbi. How old are you? 47. My birthday is in July when I will be 48. This is a not smart question. R U married? Yes. I am married to Susie. She is also a rabbi. Also I have two children. One is in high school and the other in college. By the way no question is stupid. You can only learn if you ask questions. But you may want to write out the words to your questions instead of writing in texting slang. Are you from Israel? No. But every Jew is connected to the land of Israel and I hope the State of Israel Who is the President of Israel? The President of Israel is Shimon Peres, but in Israel the real power is not in the president but the Prime Minister and that is Benjamin Netanyahu. Why did y

Refuge from War

I am thinking about cities of refuge. As I read about the US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in an apparent murderous rage, I think, as I am inclined to do, of the Torah and the ancient near eastern culture from which it came.  I think in particular of the Torah's cities of refuge where someone who committed manslaughter could seek asylum, thus escaping the vengeance of family and friends. The US soldier is now in a prison in Kansas.  He was taken out of Afghanistan so that he might be given a fair trial here in the US. The Torah's laws are of course about manslaughter and not homicide, and certainly not the massacre of sixteen men, women and children.  Still what is the intention and lesson of these laws beyond that of safeguarding a person from extrajudicial punishment?  They come to teach that life is most prized.  Human life is most sacred.  A person cannot be killed in order to assuage emotions and in particular vengeance.  If the crime was an accident


Last week’s Torah portion began with the details of the ner tamid, the eternal light. This week’s begins with the prohibition of kindling fire on Shabbat. “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3) The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are left on during Shabbat, but never turned on and stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent. There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing was a response to these Karaites. Also in this blessing and th

The Circle Closes and Widens

The internet both closes and widens the circles of our lives. Last year I posted an article about the first funeral at which I officiated.  The article is re-posted below or can be found at this  link .  In the article I was rather self-critical of those first efforts.  I am often self-critical.  It will always be one of my distinguishing features. In particular I then found my words wanting in the face of the enormity of death.  I still find my efforts lacking when they brush at death.  It is not that I believe I am unhelpful to the grieving families.  I recognize, even though I am also deeply humbled by this, the comfort and strength my presence brings to mourners.  Still I find all efforts in the face of death inadequate.  How can mere words measure a life?  There is a certain injustice in the eulogy.  A life well lived is summarized in well-chosen phrases, verses and perhaps even on occasion, eloquence.  That is from where the feelings of inadequacy derive.  They always accompany

Newsday Faith Column

I was recently interviewed for Newsday's "Asking the Clergy" column. The question was "It is said that God created us in the his own image. If so, was his image male because he created Adam first? Or, female, because he saved the best for last, Eve? Both images are mentioned in Scriptures. He is God, the Father in passages like Isaiah 64:8 and Jeremiah 3:4. But God also is described as mother or acting as would a mother. These are examples in Genesis 1:27 and Hosea 13:8." The column appeared on Saturday, March 10th. What follows is my response. I think the Jewish perspective is that God is neither man nor woman. Trying to define God in human terms leads to problems because God is only subject to divine definitions. Maimonides said that we can only talk about what God is not, not what God is. The scriptural references to God as a man are poetic license. People can imagine God however they choose to imagine God. To really, truly understand God,

Ki Tisa

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa.  It begins with the following command: “This is what everyone who is entered into the records shall pay…a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.” (Exodus 30:13)  Soon after the liberation from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the building of the tabernacle is this commandment that everyone must pay taxes to the Jewish people.  Unlike the gifts that are collected for the tabernacle’s construction this half-shekel is an obligatory offering.  During Temple times this tax was collected during the current Hebrew month of Adar, hence the first Sabbath before the start of this month is still called Shabbat Shekalim. This tax immediately follows the taking of a census.  In fact the intention of this tax was to avert the dangers associated with counting the people.  The term census is related to the Latin meaning a penalty.  To the ancient mind, counting, and counting people in particular, was fraught with danger.   This tax the


Many things mark the unique holiday of Purim.  It is a day given to drinking, feasting, costume wearing and humor.  This is remarkable given some of the story’s more serious themes.  Haman is of course considered history’s first antisemite, a man who wanted to kill all Jews because he was angry with one Jew.  It is also a story about women’s rights. Let me explain.  It all starts at a wild party in which King Ahasuerus demands that his beautiful wife Vashti dance for him and his friends.  He instructs his servants to bring her into the party wearing (only) her crown.  “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command…”  (Esther 1:12)  She refuses to dance naked before the king and his friends.  Vashti is then banished from the palace and stripped of her crown. (Sorry I could not resist the double entendre.) The king’s advisors fear a feminist revolt.  “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against your majesty but also against all the officials and against all

Tetzaveh and the Iranian Crisis Sermon

As we prepare for Purim and its story of a Persian tyrant with genocidal designs against the Jewish people, my thoughts to turn to the present crisis about modern day Iran.  There has been a great deal written about Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the recent sanctions and an expected attack by Israel—perhaps as soon as this summer.  One might think that given these sentiments Israelis are stocking gas masks, preparing their safe rooms and spending evenings in bomb shelters.  This is far from the case.  There appears far more worry here than in Israel. A few observations are in order.  My observations are more about how we navigate this present conflict.  I am not of course the president, prime minister, or chief of staff.  I have no expertise in military matters.  My knowledge is more about our feelings and how we prioritize them, as well as our commitments as Jews.  Not all of these observations agree with each other.  They are meant to help us unpack what is at stake in th


I have been thinking about ritual objects. My thoughts are not only about how we use them. Rather they also pertain to how others abuse them. This week we read some more details about the construction of the tabernacle, in particular instructions for the priestly vestments and a few brief words about the eternal light. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (ner tamid). Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Exodus 27:20-21) In remembrance of the ancient tabernacle and in observance of this commandment, every synagogue has a ner tamid, usually translated as eternal light, situated above its Ark. It would be better to translate tamid however not as “eternal” but as “with unfailing regularity.” It

Talking about Iran

This is a 30 minute video with my teachers from the Shalom Hartman Institute: Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi and Yehuda Kurtzer.  Their topic is: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Iran."  Their discussion is not about the specifics of the Iranian nuclear threat.  Instead they debate the perceptions of this threat.  Yehuda represents the American Jewish perspective and Yossi the Israeli.  Their insights are worth noting. What follows are my thoughts. Here in the United States the debate seems to follow two lines of thinking.  Either Obama is not doing enough (because he really does not care about Israel) or Israel is being overly hysterical about the threats it faces (again).  Regarding the first point, I can't say what might be Obama's true inner motivations, although many people speak and write as if they know exactly what he thinks and believes.  I do however find him to be naive about the Middle East. Obama acts as if he can sway by reason everyone and a