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Showing posts from March, 2013

Chol Hamoed Pesach

People often ask me why some celebrate seven days of Passover and others eight.  Should we eat matzah for seven days or eight, celebrate one seder or two?  The Torah specifies that Passover be celebrated for seven days.  “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread…” (Exodus 12:15)  In Israel the holiday is observed for seven days.  In diaspora communities such as our own it is celebrated for eight days with two seders.  Why the difference? Millennia ago when the rabbis were establishing the calendar they insisted the new month be attested to by witnesses.  Despite the fact that they had already developed mathematical calculations to make this determination, they asked for witnesses to come before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  “Where did you see the new moon?” they asked a witness.  (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:6)  Once they were satisfied by the testimony they declared the next day Rosh Hodesh, the first of the Hebrew month.  Beacon fires were set on hilltops to declare the news througho


Some thoughts about Passover.  Let me begin by offering an apology.  I told many of your children that they can recline at the Seder table.   I know that you probably spend a good deal of time telling them to sit up at the table, or not to slouch or perhaps even not to put their elbows on the table, so I am sorry for undermining your authority, but at the Passover Seder all are permitted.  At the Seder we are supposed to express our freedom, even if it appears ill mannered by contemporary standards. The fourth question asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights we can sit upright or recline, on this night all of us recline.”  The rabbis modeled their Seder after the Greco-Roman banquets of antiquity.  This was how the free ate their meals, they reasoned.  Free people reclined.  Others served them.  It is also customary to serve those sitting next to you at the Seder table, most especially pouring wine for them.  Make sure their glass is never emp


Mark Twain once quipped: “The clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.” This week’s Torah portion describes the priests’ vestments.  The priests were required to wear four garments: linen shorts, a tunic, sash and turban.  The High Priest wore an additional four adornments: a robe, an embroidered vest, a breastplate, and a golden jewel inscribed with the words “Holy to Adonai” affixed to the turban. If he did not wear even one of these garments he could not serve as a priest.  The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Yohanan’s name: ‘When wearing their appointed garments, the priests are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood.’” (Zevahim 17b) To serve as a priest one must first be born to a priestly family.  This week we also learn that in order to perform the sacrificial rituals the priest must wear the appropriate attire. Today we adorn the Torah scroll as we on


The guilt offering, asham, concludes this week’s Torah portion of Vayikra, the first reading in the Book of Leviticus.  It follows the details for the burnt, meal and well-being offerings, regular sacrifices that were offered on a daily basis.  The sin and guilt offerings, by contrast, were only performed when the need arose. They were offered when there was a wrongdoing to correct.  It should be noted that, despite popular belief, such rituals never offered remedies for intentional wrongs.  One can never say, “I will steal this or that and then bring some really beautiful turtledoves or pigeons, sheep or goats, to the Temple to mend my ways.”  The asham sacrifice was therefore about remedying unintended wrongs.  When people realized their wrongdoing they would then bring this guilt offering.  The chapter offers a litany of wrongs for which the guilt offering helps to make amends.  Each concludes with the refrain: “…though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later h

Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

In Friday’s New York Times David Brooks writes about the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  “All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”  Brooks suggests that the Orthodox are indeed the future. He writes of their numerical significance.  “Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodo


In this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community…  This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5) In last week’s we read: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1) In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad.  This week they gathered to build the tabernacle, in last week’s the golden calf.  The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive can sometimes be to the negative. I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC .  It was an extraordinary experience to sit with 12,000 people who share my passion and commitment for the modern State of Israel.  I am proud that seven from our congregation joined me at this convention.  T

Ki Tissa Sermon

Let me offer some words of Torah before turning to our concluding prayers... This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tissa. It contains the story of the golden calf, considered the greatest sin in the Torah, when the Israelites rebelled against the Torah’s laws, Moses’ leadership and of course God. Idolatry, its definitions and prohibitions, occupy many laws in the Torah. It is of course expressly forbidden and this is repeated quite often. Anything that even approaches an idol is not allowed. So for example we don’t have any images of people in our sanctuaries. The question still haunts us today. What is an idol? There are those in the Jewish world who believe that anything which is foreign is an idol. If it is not written about or talked about in our tradition, if it is not mentioned in the Torah, Talmud or traditional literature then it must be rejected. Then it is forbidden and labeled an idol. It must even be destroyed. It has no place in the Jewish world. I do not however

Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with the instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle.  It concludes with the first of many rebellions, the building of the golden calf.  Why was the building of one a transgression and the other a holy task?  The first and most obvious answer is that the mishkan was commanded by God and the golden calf was not.  Yet we read that the chief architect of the tabernacle was a man named Betzalel who “God endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft…” (Exodus 31: 3) Often when we use the similar phrase “divinely inspired” it suggests that a person is remarkably creative.  I wonder, what are the limits of creativity?  When does a human creation become idolatry?  The people were afraid.  They wondered why Moses was taking so long to come down from the mountaintop.  They only did what they knew how to do.  They built a golden calf.  Was it beautiful?  Undoubtedly.  Was it expertly crafted?


Purim is of course all about fun.  It is a holiday unlike all other holidays.  All normal rules are suspended.  Costumes are worn.  Drinking is not only encouraged but required.   We laugh and sing, celebrate and feast.  As we read the Purim story we drown out the evil Haman’s name with noisemakers.  The story is almost farcical. Curiously God is not even mentioned in the story.  Imagine that.  Here is the biblical book of Esther and the Bible’s greatest hero is absent.  Is it possible that our Bible is satirizing our history and traditions?  That is certainly one perspective that Purim offers.  Don’t take yourself so seriously—at least one day a year.  Even our holiest of books is treated with a certain irreverence. I have been thinking about the proper place of irreverence in our lives.  I just saw “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway.  I have to admit that the last time I laughed this much was when I say “Avenue Q.”  In both instances what was so extraordinarily funny was that w

Tetzaveh Sermon

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is filled with exquisite detail about the priests’ clothes.   Today we no longer have priests so we don’t have need for their vestments.  Instead we lavish such finery upon the Torah that is adorned with a crown and breast piece for example.  Rather than a man we dress up a book as a king. The portion also speaks about the ner tamid, which is often translated as the “eternal light” but it would be better to understand it as “always light” because it always had to be tended to.  The Hebrew suggests this meaning rather than the more familiar eternal light.  The ner tamid is the only commandment associated with the ancient tabernacle that we still do today almost exactly as it is commanded in the Torah. Here is our question for this evening.  Why is light the most common symbol for God? One answer, suggested in the Etz Hayim Commentary , is because light itself cannot be seen.  We become aware of its presence when see other things that it i