Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Parashat HaShavua

Parashat HaShavua - Korach

How much effort must we make - how deep within ourselves must we dig - to feel empathy even towards those we perceive as bad actors? To explore this question through this week’s parasha of Korach, I’m first going to look back at the story of Sdom and Amorah from Genesis. As you may recall, Avraham’s nephew Lot and his family are warned about the pending destruction of those cities. They are told to flee without looking back, but Lot’s wife does look back and as a result is turned into a pillar of salt.

As I’ve shared previously here, Chananel Munk, in one of his books about female biblical characters, offers an original and I think beautiful interpretation of this episode: he says that actually Lot’s wife wanted to turn into a pillar of salt, that she wanted to be left behind because of her empathy with all the others who were being left behind. Just as they turned into salt as part of the destruction and desolation of Sdom and Amorah, so did she.

This week we read the story of the rebellion of Korach. After some very unpleasant back and forth with Moshe and Aharon, Korach and his band of rebels bring offerings to God. Moshe declares that if their offerings are accepted by God, then the rebels are right and he is not their true leader. However, if the ground swallows them up, then it will be made clear to everyone that they were mere troublemakers, and Moshe is in fact their rightful leader. They bring their offerings, and are promptly swallowed up by the earth. (Nu. 16:1-33)

It is hard to argue that Korach and his followers are well-intentioned or good-hearted people based on how the Torah describes them. However, applying Chananel Munk’s understanding of Lot’s wife to this situation, what if Korach and his followers were doubling down on her show of empathy? Last week we read that because the scouts provided negative reports on Canaan, which convinced almost all of Bnei Yisrael that God had abandoned them, the entire generation was told that they would not be allowed into the land due to their ingratitude and lack of faith. 

Perhaps Korach and his followers did not want to continue to Canaan once they knew most others would never have the chance to; perhaps their empathy was as deep as the earth that swallowed them up, the earth that was going to swallow up that entire generation!

Thus from this dark tale might we learn a lesson of empathy, even -- and especially -- for those who can be perceived as bad actors. In those inevitable moments when we don’t understand each other, we must redouble our efforts to do so; we must dig deeper within ourselves and within the reality of the other.

Just to take another moment to push this point even further -- both as a midrash on this story and as a life lesson -- the parasha then describes a conflict between Aharon and others, which is resolved when his staff blossoms as confirmation of his authority. (Nu. 17:16-23) Perhaps the empathy of Korach and his followers, which led them to be swallowed up by the earth, then enabled that same earth to cause Aharon’s staff to blossom. Perhaps those blossoms grew out of their empathy.

As it happens, the Torah later tells us that in fact, contrary to what seems to be described this week, “the children of Korach did not die / וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ” (Nu. 26:11). How can this be? Explains Rashi there: “during the dispute they contemplated repentance.” We also know that Korach ultimately has descendants such as the prophet Samuel and Levites “who will prophesy with ruach ha’kodesh,” divine inspiration. (Nu. 16:7, Rashi) And ultimately in Psalms we read the wise words of his descendants, that “a person cannot abide by honor / וְאָדָם בִּיקָר בַּל־יָלִין,” and “a person cannot understand honor / אָדָם בִּיקָר וְלֹא יָבִין.” (Ps. 49:13, 21)

May we learn from this alternative perspective on Korach and his descendants, to be inspired to better understand and show more empathy towards others, even those we might -- perhaps with justification -- quickly judge and dismiss. May we always dig deep for that understanding, and then when we think we have reached our limit, dig a little deeper.

Shabbat shalom and have a wonderful, healthy and restful summer!

 

Rabbi Jack Nahmod

Middle School Judaic Studies Head

Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Shlach Lecha

About 185 years ago, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States to study our young democracy. One of his goals was to report what he saw in order to enable the emergence of strong democracies elsewhere, primarily his homeland. As it happens, his observations also can help us understand this week’s parasha of Shlach Lecha, and provide insights regarding our experiences of this past year.

De Tocqueville marveled at how people are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. So what do we do? We freely elect a government, he wrote, and then give it control over us, believing we have sufficiently protected individual freedom by exercising our right to vote. But the problem, he says, is that this “rare and brief exercise of free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent people from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves...”

Now let’s rewind some 3000 years more to this week’s parasha. Leaders of Bnei Yisrael are chosen to scout out Canaan in anticipation of their imminent conquest of the land. Who is sent? The Torah tells us “אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו,” generally translated as “one man per tribe.” (Nu. 13:2) Note that the phrase אִישׁ אֶחָד is repeated seemingly unnecessarily. Why? Perhaps to emphasize that, though they were going together, they each also needed to be an independent thinker. Unfortunately, as we learn later, ten out of twelve of them failed tragically in this, thereby dooming their entire generation to die in the desert because everyone bought into their negative report. Only Calev and Yehoshua, it turns out, manage to think for themselves.

De Tocqueville, in fact, warns that it is hard to imagine a subservient people - as Bnei Yisrael essentially had been to this point - choosing leaders wisely. In this case, to apply the idea more specifically to our context, the leaders themselves were unable to choose wisely as leaders. It therefore makes perfect sense that after the spies provide their doomsday report the people say, “let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt / נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה!” (Nu. 14:4) In other words, ‘We cannot be individuals, we cannot think for ourselves, we need someone to take us back to where we had no choice!’

And yet, despite everything, this story of the scouts (often mistranslated as “spies”) is understood to be the primary basis for requiring ten for a minyan, using various textual connections. There are twelve scouts to begin with, minus Yehoshua and Calev who separate themselves from the group, which leaves ten who testify as one against the possibility of entering the land. Thus, according to the prevailing interpretation, do we arrive at the number ten for a minyan.

So where in all of this - if anywhere - is there a positive message about davening in a minyan, or about group identity?

Well, there is also another story involving ten where scouting out a land is mentioned: when the original Bnei Yisrael, the children of our forefather Yisrael, descend to Egypt in a group of ten for food. They numbered ten because out of an original twelve - sound familiar? - Yosef was already there and Binyamin was not allowed to go. Not only is Yosef already there, he greets his brothers with the false accusation that...they are scouting out Egypt to cause harm. The brothers, unlike this week’s scouts, ultimately set an example of kedusha, of holiness, that is worthy of being the origins of minyan and of a group identity we can strive for, by showing excessive concern for one another and taking responsibility for previous mistakes.

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Ashdod explains beautifully that, according to Rabbi Isaac Luria (“The Ari, 16th cent. Tzfat), “the souls of the brothers were intertwined with the scouts in an attempt to guide them away from sin / “נתחברו נשמותיהם במרגלים לסייעם שלא יחטאו.” Although this unfortunately wasn’t enough to prevent the scouts from making their mistakes, there is still much to learn from this model of caring and interconnectedness, a bond that can exist within a group at a particular moment in time and between groups spanning generations.

During the past year we have learned tremendous lessons about interconnectedness and caring, about finding the right balance between independent thought and commitment to community. As has been emphasized at school and in our community throughout the year, the mitzvah of ve’ahavta le’reicha kamocah / וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ - our empathy mitzvah - warrants and requires constant nurturing. And, as De Tocqueville and the cautionary tale of the spies teach us, this interconnectedness must be accompanied by, and not come at the expense of, our faculties of thinking, feeling and acting for ourselves.

May we look back at this past year with a profound appreciation for all the care we have shown one another, and look forward to a time when even more care can be shown and shared, when commitment to community coexists comfortably with individuals also maintaining the ability to think for themselves. And may ever learn from the example of Calev, who - despite all pressure to the contrary - implored the people “we can do this / יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ.” (Nu. 13:30)

Shabbat shalom and have a wonderful, healthy and restful summer!

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

 

Parashat HaShavua - Naso

יִשָּׂא ה׳  פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

May God turn God’s face towards you and grant you peace.

This week we read Parshat Naso which includes Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction). This blessing is familiar to us from the daily Amidah (central prayer) as well as from the Shabbat ritual of parents blessing their children. The benediction consists of three lines -- each longer than the one that came before it. I read this benediction as an articulation of step by step process to experience Shalom (peace) or Shlemut (wholeness). I offer this Devar Torah as a kavanah, a prayer for peace in Israel. 

The first line asks God to bless us and offer us protection. These are basic necessities. Material and physical well being. We are grateful for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. There is a significant difference between peace and a secure ceasefire. Ceasefire is a necessary first step to restore calm, safety, and basic necessities to the people impacted by this conflict. 

The third line of the benediction beseeches God to grant us peace. It also clarifies that peace is similar to seeing God’s face. It takes an enormous amount of effort, courage, vulnerability, faith, and intentionality to encounter the Divine.

The central line (right in the middle) asks God to shine God’s light and be gracious with us. The path from safety and protection to peace relies on human beings who are able to transform their God given gifts of leadership, wisdom, and political insight into action. These gifts are those which will light up our beautiful homeland and bring us closer to achieving peace and to merit the opportunity to encounter the divine.

May God turn God’s face towards Israel and grant her peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head

Parashat HaShavua - BeMidbar - The Great Wide Open

The profound meanings of the Torah can be discovered both in reading its text closely and in observing the overall arc of its narrative. One such arc is the progression we see from narrow to open space. This is important, I think, to how we relate to the Torah itself and also provides insight regarding the moment we find ourselves in now.

In Shemot, the Book of Exodus, we watch as Bnei Yisrael escapes their narrow existence in Egypt, via the narrow straits within Yam Suf, the Reed Sea. The Torah makes a point of telling us that there are walls of water “mi’minam u’mi’smolam / to their right and left.” (Ex. 14:22) In fact, the very name Mitzrayim can be reread as “mitzar yam,” from the narrowness of water. The narrowness of Egypt pursues them through the Sea, along with the Egyptian army, until their ultimate escape.

It seems to me that a similar pattern arises in the parshiyot we are reading of late, though represented very differently. In Sefer VaYikra, there is narrowness of focus on the subject of the kohanim and levi’im. There is also narrowness of space in its focus on physical offerings to God on the mizbe’ach. Then, at the very end of VaYikra, we returned to the “har,” the mountain in the wilderness upon which we received “chukotai,” our laws. After all the focus on a confined space, we were reminded that our laws actually originate in a wide open place before beginning Sefer BeMidbar this Shabbat. Of course those laws also relate to smaller spaces, but their original context is in fact the great wide open, the midbar, the wilderness.

This openness, while obviously presenting challenges, offers us a grand opportunity for growth and learning after leaving Egypt. It is an approach to Torah endures. In one of my favorite Talmudic stories, several rabbis encounter each other and discuss the importance of being open to learning new things. At the end of their conversation, we are taught the following lesson: “Aseh oznecha ka’afarkest / make your ear like a hopper” - an agricultural tool that is wide open at one end and then tapers - “in order to obtain for yourself a perceptive heart, to understand the words of those who pronounce things unclean and of those who pronounce them clean; the words of those who prohibit and of those who permit; and the words of those who disqualify of those who declare fit.” We are meant to study Torah with an open mind befitting the open space we received it in.

This is not only about Torah study, of course, it is also a worldview. As Andre Neher writes, the desert is “in universal thinking a symbol of emptiness, but where the Jewish destiny is concerned, the symbol of an overflowing fullness…” (They Made Their Souls Anew, p. 82) And Viktor Frankl, in his classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recalls being inspired by the passage in Psalms, “I called to God from the narrowness, and God answered me from the openness / מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ; עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ.” (Ps. 118:5) 

When we look around the country, in Israel and around the world, the increasing prevalence of narrowness is shocking. We pray for peace and safety in Israel. We pray for our democracy here. We pray that the challenges and vulnerabilities of openness are seen not as threatening to oneself and one’s values, that they are instead seen as opportunities: for growth, for learning, and for greater understanding and peace with one another.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Behar Bechukotai

We are in the midst of counting the Omer. Today (Friday) is the 40th day of the Omer which corresponds to 5 weeks and six days. The Torah instructs us to count from the second night of Passover, 49 days, 7 weeks of seven days each, to Shavuot -- translated as the Festival of Weeks. Towards the very beginning of this week’s double Torah portion Behar-Bechukotai - we read a verse that sounds like it might be talking about counting the Omer. Except, we are counting something different. Here - also counting in sevens - we are counting seven cycles of seven years each -- towards the proclamation of the Yovel, the Jubilee year.  At the conclusion of the 49th year, we welcome the Yovel by sounding the Shofar.

The Holiday of Shavuot (which if today is the 40th day of the Omer, begins at the end of 9 days from today) celebrates the Revelation at Sinai -- the moment when God gave us the Torah. This was a great theatrical moment, accompanied by light and sound, including the sound of the Shofar.  How are these two sounds of the Shofar - one to usher in the Yovel (Jubilee year) and another to accompany Revelation - similar? 

The sound of the Shofar at the start of the Yovel proclaims דרור Deror - Freedom. Nechama Leibowitz z”l (modern commentator) explains the word deror as the positive gift of freedom, different from the word חופש, also translated as freedom, which signifies the release from a yoke.  In the Jubilee year, when the shofar is sounded and deror is proclaimed throughout the land, all Israelites regain their independence and personal freedom.

While we joyfully celebrate the attainment of freedom, acceptance of this gift is layered with other emotions as well.  Rashi (11th century) explains that different from the sounds of other wind instruments which usually get duller the longer that they are blown, the sound of the Shofar began as a soft sound and progressively got louder. Ibn Ezra (12th century) clarifies that God intentionally began with a softer blast so that the Israelites would not die from fear. 

The sound of the Shofar at Sinai ushered in the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites had achieved freedom: they were a free people preparing to receive God’s Torah. Simultaneously, the Israelites indeed should have been terrified. As we are reminded throughout the Torah, the gift of our freedom comes with the responsibility of securing freedom for all other people. This is why we must sound the Shofar as we usher in the Jubilee year: to remind us of our responsibility to give the same gift of freedom to all people in our midst. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
HS Associate Head

Parashat HaShavua - Emor

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ אֵ֥לֶּה הֵ֖ם מוֹעֲדָֽי׃ 

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
--Joni Mitchell

There is a Hasidic teaching that the meaning of מִקְרָאֵ֣י קֹ֑דֶשׁ (mikra’ei kodesh) is “callings of holiness,” that is to say, that each holiday is a palace in time (to use Rabbi Heschel’s image) which we enter in order to call forth the particular holiness or spiritual quality embedded within it.  On Passover we were liberated and the holiday each year calls us to liberate ourselves, on Shavuot, Torah was revealed and each year, we are called to open our eyes to the Torah that needs to be revealed at this particular moment in time, and so forth.

A parable is told to illuminate this process: A king was traveling through the desert with his daughter, who was thirsty. But instead of dispatching a horseman to fetch water from the nearest town, the king ordered a well to be dug at that very spot and to mark it with a signpost. “Right now,” the king told the daughter, “you have easier ways to get water than digging a well. But perhaps one day, many years in the future, you will again be traveling this way. Perhaps you will be alone, without the power and privilege you now enjoy. Then the well we dug today will be here to quench your thirst. Even if the sands of time have filled it, you will be able to reopen it if you remember the spot and follow the signpost we have set.”

I am tremendously moved by this midrash this year, having been through a cycle of the Jewish holidays during which I got to feel first hand what it was like to not be able to go back to the well. This past year, I did not sit with the same friends that I meet every year in the Sukkah, laughing and lingering over dessert and conversation in the still-warm October sun. I did not invite my husband’s extended family for a crowded, noisy Hanukkah party in our apartment so that we can continue a tradition begun by his parents. I didn’t set folding tables all the way along the length of our living room so that we can have many friends and family at our seder.

Here is what I learned from this year: having these simple yearly pleasures at their appointed time is truly a spiritual well from which I draw well-being. I don’t think I have ever appreciated as I did this year what a gift the Jewish cycle of holidays are, bringing color and connection to my life. As Joni Mitchell said so well, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”  When my family went to our friends’ home for Shabbat dinner last week for the first time in over a year, we all said the shehianu together before beginning the meal.

After finishing this dvar Torah, I heard the news from Meron.  It is unspeakably tragic that those who felt called by the holiness of a sacred site paid for their pilgrimage with their lives.  What a heartbreaking juxtaposition to learn that these deaths occurred on the day when we celebrate a plague lifting and death finally abating.

As I write this dvar Torah, we are beginning our Lag Ba’Omer celebrations in the Lower School. The halls are filled with the joyful sounds of happy children celebrating.  As the Jewish holidays teach us in so many different ways -- including the semi-mourning period of the Omer, which is punctuated by the happy occasions of Yom Ha Atzmaut and Lag Ba’Omer --  joy and sadness are inextricably bound together.  We enter into Lag B’Omer this year with the sounds of parents weeping and the sounds of children’s laughter in our ears.  

Rabbi Anne Ebersman
Director of Jewish Programming N-5 and Director of Hesed (Community Engagement) and Tzedek (Social Responsibility)

 

Parashat HaShavua - Kedoshim

Is separateness necessary for holiness? “You shall be holy / קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ” (Lev. 19:2), we are told, which Rashi famously interprets to mean “be separate / הוו פרושים.” While he then specifies sexual improprieties we must separate from, most learn from here that, as a general proposition, holiness requires separation.

In fact, later in Kedoshim, God informs us: “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the nations / אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר-הִבְדַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן-הָעַמִּים” (Lev. 20:24). There, however, the word is different: it is hivdalti and not kidashti (as in havdalah, our ritual for separating Shabbat from the rest of the week). And then the next verse describes our dietary laws as a separation of animals into categories of pure and impure with the word ve’hivdaltem / וְהִבְדַּלְתֶּם.” (Lev. 20:25) Again, not kedushah.

Immediately thereafter, however, the Torah seems to equate the two concepts. “You shall be holy to Me,” we are told, “for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have separated you from the nations, to be Mine / וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן-הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי.” (Lev. 20:26) So we return to our original question: is separation a prerequisite for holiness?

Mary Douglas, in her classic “Purity and Danger,” examines the book of Leviticus and observes: “Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.” (p. 54) She elaborates: “Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.” To Douglas, separation equals holiness, and holiness separation.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz understands things differently. In his essay “The Concept of Holiness,” Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz demonstrates that in Tanach “the manifestation of divine holiness is the cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving. Far from signifying separateness, the idea of the holy conveys a sense of intimacy and relatedness.” (Essential Essays on Judaism, p. 252) As we recite from Isaiah three times during Shacharit, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts, who fills all the land with glory / קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ.” (Is. 6:3) God’s kedushah is an immanent presence, not partial or segmented.

And there is more to it than mere presence, teaches Berkovitz. When described as holy, God “is the friend of the poor and the needy; he protects them when they are in trouble. He is ‘with you”; he is ‘in your midst.’” (249) To hear Isaiah tell it: “In times of crisis, one should have trust in the holiness of God. Instead of making alliances with military might, one should ally oneself with the Holy One.” (pp. 249-250)

Of course this does not preclude kedushah in moments of separateness as well. Many of us have experienced holy moments during this past year of separateness, for example in more time for personal reflection, in more time with family. Separateness has been necessary for our collective health.

However, when I am prompted to consider separateness as a value - as a goal in and of itself - I am not inclined to equate it with kedushah, or even as a long term path towards increasing kedushah in the world. Quite the opposite. Of course differences abound among people and objects, the animate and the inanimate. And these differences should be recognized, respected and celebrated, not ignored. 

At the same time, though, categorizing based on differences must be approached with extreme caution and care. Categories tend too easily to morph from descriptive into prescriptive, into separations that perpetuate divisions. Again and again we see this process undercut and oppose kedushah in our world in just about every facet of human existence.

May we learn to recognize and embrace the intimacy and connectedness of kedushah, as Rabbi Eliezer demonstrates, of equity and justice that are cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving, and of befriending the poor and the needy, as our way of making divine kedushah more manifest in the world each and every day.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Tazria-Metzorah

I am in the midst of studying a passage of Talmud with my 11th Grade Talmud students. In this passage, the rabbis consider employing an argument based on a kal-vachomer (an argument based on logic - a fortiori) to determine that when attempting to save another person’s life, since it is so important to do so, one can kill the perpetrator if necessary. However, the Talmud rejects the possibility of learning this lesson from a kal va’chomer. Human life is so precious, we can not rely on our own logic to conclude that it is permissible to kill, even if to save a life. The Talmud ultimately identifies a different textual tool to arrive at the same conclusion. 

Conversely, in another section of Talmud, the rabbis rely on a kal va’chomer, based on a verse from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion Tazria-Metzorah, to conclude that it is permissible to violate Shabbat in order to save a life. In a discussion about a woman’s purity surrounding childbirth, there is a verse that instructs that a baby boy must be circumcised at eight days old. This verse seems redundant as we already learned the commandment to circumcise from Abraham. Thus, the rabbis conclude, this verse teaches us that even when the eighth day falls on Shabbat, you are obligated to circumcise. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya teaches (Talmud Yoma 85a) that from here you learn that you are required to violate Shabbat to save a life. Rabbi Elazar explains that “if circumcision which involves only one of the 248 limbs of a person overrides the Sabbath, then the whole body certainly overrides the Sabbath'' (translated by Nehama Leibowitz).

Nehama Leibowitz (20th century Israeli Bible scholar) raises the question: how can we conclude that it is required to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save one’s life based on a kal va’chomer (a fortiori) to circumcision? In other words, what is the relationship between circumcision and saving a life? How can we establish one as more stringent than another?

Leibowitz changes the focus from “if you desecrate the Shabbat for a limb, you should desecrate the Shabbat for a life” to focusing on the nature of the commandment. Leibowitz explains that suspending Shabbat for a circumcision is not an act of leniency (you don’t need to observe Shabbat), but an act of stringency – even though the Torah repeats the commandment to observe Shabbat many times, we suspend these requirements in order to enter our children into the covenant on the correct day. And then – says Leibowitz – we can understand Rabbi Elazar’s argument. If we take entering the covenant to be such a stringent commandment, all the more-so, we must prioritize our responsibility to save lives above all else. To quote Leibowitz: “the saving of our lives enables us to maintain our association with the Divine”.

In the evening service, before we recite the Shema, we say: “for they (Torah & mitzvot) are our life and length of days.” May we always remember that above all, our tradition values life and the purpose of mitzvot (commandments) is to give expression, meaning and purpose to a life lived in covenant. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head

 

Parashat HaShavua - Shemini

וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ויקרא ט:א)

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. (Leviticus 9:1)

This week's parasha is the grand opening of the mishcon (tabernacle or portable desert sanctuary). All of the detailed rules from the previous two parshiot about how different sacrifices should be brought will now be put into practice as the Israelites can now "officially" worship God through sacrificial offerings.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that in the Israelite sacrificial system, offerings can only be brought to atone for sins that were committed בשוגג (b'shogeg) -- inadvertently. A sacrifice can help a person achieve כפרה (caparah) or atonement only for unintentional sins. If a sin was committed בזדון (b'zadon) -- intentionally -- the only recourse is a more familiar term to our modern ears: תשובה (teshuvah): repairing the wrong that has been done.

Rabbi Sacks focuses on the purpose of atonement with a comparison to driving over the speed limit: "imagine that your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught driving at 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile an hour zone. Your speedometer was only showing 30 miles per hour. While the mistake is understandable, you have still broken the law, transgressed the limit, and you will still have to pay the penalty." As he puts it, an unintentional sin, while understandable, still disturbs what he calls "the moral order of the universe," which is why action must be taken, perhaps for the good of the one who transgressed as much as anything, enabling him or her to take responsibility and move forward.

It seems to me that the interplay between כפרה (caparah) and atonement and תשובה (teshuvah) repairing a wrong can be helpful in thinking about some of the injustices that have been front and center in our world and our country over the past few years, from #metoo to systemic racism. On the one hand, we need to ask ourselves where are the places where repair is called for, where there is a concrete action we can take to make things right or an apology that needs to be offered humbly and sincerely. At the same time, we all know that perhaps the deeper issue is the wrongs that cannot be "fixed" in this way, and it is here that the concept of כפרה (caparah) or atonement can come in. Caparah provides a way of relating to those sins that we know cannot be righted, without having the outcome be that instead, we simply evade them because to face them feels too overwhelming. Caparah calls on us to find ways of taking responsibility even for unintentional sins, because of the way that those sins disturb the moral order of the universe, to use Rabbi Sacks' powerful terminology.

This week we marked Yom Ha Shoah. After the war, Germany paid reparations to the new State of Israel. This action had aspects of both repair and atonement. According to Tom Segev, author of the Seventh Million, as an act of teshuvah or repair, these funds went towards building ships for the Israeli merchant fleet and developing the electrical system of the new state. In the period during which the reparations were offered, the Israeli GNP tripled and the bank of Israel attributed part of this growth to reparations.

But there was also a dimension of caparah or atonement present. As Ta Nehisi Coates writes in The Case for Reparations: "Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany's reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a roadmap for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name." When I visited Berlin some years ago, I was most moved by the Stumbling Stones, the golden cobblestones bearing the names of victims in the Holocaust on streets throughout the city. They kept me off balance and they meant that the whole time I was in the city, admiring its amazing art scene and enjoying its restaurants, I also never forgot the other parts of its history. What will it mean for us as a country to work towards caparah for the sins of our own past?

Parashat HaShavua - Shemini

וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ויקרא ט:א)

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. (Leviticus 9:1)

This week’s parasha is the grand opening of the mishcon (tabernacle or portable desert sanctuary).  All of the detailed rules from the previous two parshiot about how different sacrifices should be brought will now be put into practice as the Israelites can now “officially” worship God through sacrificial offerings.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that in the Israelite sacrificial system, offerings can only be brought to atone for sins that were committed  בשוגג (b’shogeg) -- inadvertently.  A sacrifice can help a person achieve כפרה (caparah) or atonement only for unintentional sins.  If a sin was committed בזדון (b’zadon) -- intentionally -- the only recourse is a more familiar term to our modern ears: תשובה (teshuvah): repairing the wrong that has been done.  

Rabbi Sacks focuses on the purpose of atonement with a comparison to driving over the speed limit: “imagine that your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught driving at 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile an hour zone. Your speedometer was only showing 30 miles per hour. While the mistake is understandable, you have still broken the law, transgressed the limit, and you will still have to pay the penalty.”  As he puts it, an unintentional sin, while understandable, still disturbs what he calls  “the moral order of the universe,” which is why action must be taken, perhaps for the good of the one who transgressed as much as anything, enabling him or her to take responsibility and move forward.

It seems to me that the interplay between  כפרה (caparah) and  atonement and תשובה (teshuvah) repairing a wrong can be helpful in thinking about some of the injustices that have been front and center in our world and our country over the past few years, from #metoo to systemic racism.  On the one hand, we need to ask ourselves where are the places where repair is called for, where there is a concrete action we can take to make things right or an apology that needs to be offered humbly and sincerely.  At the same time, we all know that perhaps the deeper issue is the wrongs that cannot be “fixed” in this way, and it is here that the concept of כפרה (caparah) or atonement can come in.   Caparah provides a way of relating to those sins that we know cannot be righted, without having the outcome be that instead, we simply evade them because to face them feels too overwhelming.  Caparah calls on us to find ways of taking responsibility even for unintentional sins, because of the way that those sins disturb the moral order of the universe, to use Rabbi Sacks’ powerful terminology.

This week we marked Yom Ha Shoah.  After the war, Germany paid reparations to the new State of Israel.  This action had aspects of both repair and atonement.  According to Tom Segev, author of the Seventh Million, as an act of teshuvah or repair, these funds went towards building ships for the Israeli merchant fleet and developing the electrical system of the new state. In the period during which the reparations were offered, the Israeli GNP tripled and the bank of Israel attributed part of this growth to reparations.

But there was also a dimension of caparah or atonement present.  As Ta Nehisi Coates writes in The Case for Reparations: “Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis.  But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a roadmap for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.”  When I visited Berlin some years ago, I was most moved by the Stumbling Stones, the golden cobblestones bearing the names of victims in the Holocaust on streets throughout the city.  They kept me off balance and they meant that the whole time I was in the city, admiring its amazing art scene and enjoying its restaurants, I also never forgot the other parts of its history.  What will it mean for us as a country to work towards caparah for the sins of our own past?