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Showing posts from March, 2015

Tzav and Kindling Your Flame

In this week’s portion we learn that the altar fire had to be constantly maintained. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6:5-6) I imagine that this was an enormously difficult task for the priests. The olah sacrifice in particular had to be burned up entirely on the altar. That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up. This must have been a very powerful fire. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart. Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts. But today there are no priests to tend to this fire. With the destruction of the Temple and the resulting democratization of Judaism this task fell on each of us. In that

Vayikra and Listening to the Call

This week we begin the sixth year of my weekly Torah Thoughts.  For five years, without ever missing a week, we have learned Torah together.  Thank you for your continued participation. We begin again.  We begin the third book of the Torah: Leviticus.  This book is concerned with the priestly cult, with sacrifices, ritual impurities and priestly garb.  “The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 1:5)  These words and the book in which they are found challenge us with questions of relevance.  So much of what we read in the pages of Leviticus we no longer do. Thousands of years ago the centrality of sacrifices as the primary means of approaching God was replaced with tefilah, prayer and gemilut hasadim, loving deeds.  And so we weave stories.  We spin interpretations in order to discover meaning. The first

Vayakhel-Pekudei and Breathing Shabbat

The Torah commands: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:2) The Rabbis expand. They weave interpretations. They suspend a mountain from the Torah’s thread. They sanctify the seventh day with blessings and songs. They set the day apart by their laws and restrictions. From this command they define thirty-nine categories of prohibited work. They build what Abraham Joshua Heschel lovingly calls a palace in time. For the Jew the Sabbath day is a sanctuary. It is not constructed of space but of time. We spend our week seeking to master the world. We pray in a sanctuary of time. On Shabbat we bow to the setting of the sun. Heschel writes: The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere. It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness

Purim, Drunkenness and Eternal Hatreds

This evening begins the holiday of Purim and with it a revelry likened to Mardi Gras. The Talmud (Megillah 7b) commands: "Rava said: It is one's duty to get oneself so drunk on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)." That is an extraordinarily drunk state. I have often wondered about this command. Why would the tradition encourage us to become so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between good and evil? Judaism has long argued that one of the defining characteristics of human beings, over and against animals, is our ability to make such distinctions, to distinguish right from wrong. Why would we want to ever blur that line, mumbling barukh and arur, cursed and blessed? Why would drunkenness be the preferred state of dealing with such a serious question as antisemitism? The story of Purim, although farcical and even ahistorical, deals with this very

Ancient Problems, Modern Answers

What follows is a slightly updated and emended form of the sermon delivered this past Shabbat. Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath of Remembrance. This day is assigned to the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. On this Shabbat we are commanded to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. The Torah states: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Why is this read prior to Purim? Because the tradition argues that Haman was a descendant of Amalek. There is a thread that connects all our enemies. One generation’s evild