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God said to Abram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father's house, to the land that I will let you see. (Genesis 12:1)
This opening verse to this week’s parasha includes the words that the parasha is named for, Lech Lecha, and we translate them above as “Go-you-forth”. We could just also read them as “Go to yourself”.
Journeys to other places often mean more about “finding our selves” than finding a new place. As Abram, not yet Abraham, and his family set out from home to find a new place for themselves we can hear the observation of Paul Monette: “Home is the place you get to, not the place you come from.”*
We descendants of Abraham, we journeyers, we must remember that the transformation we seek by leaving must still be found within us. We may find a home by moving, in that by moving we also change our selves. Just as the Mishnah asks us to “make for ourselves a teacher” (Pirkei Avot 1:6), so we must also make a home for our selves.
*From: Halfway Home, (New York: Crown, 1991) p. 262; Quoted by Caryn Aviv and Karen Erlichman in the collection Torah Queeries, Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, David Shneer (eds.), (New York: NYU Press, 2009), p. 24.
Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:
Today we look at B'har, Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2 - rules of economic fairness - forgiveness of debts; as well as rules about allowing land to rest on the seventh year. The text sums up the intent of these laws in the final lines which remind the Israelites that they serve God, who freed them from Egypt, and that they should make no idols and observe the Sabbath.
Materialism is a form of idolatry. When we claim to own a thing or a person or the land we allow the ownership to rule us. Giving up on that ownership, making rules about it that are fair, and reminding our selves on a regular basis that all belongs to the universe and not us, frees us from being bound to our possession of things.
Remembering that only the infinite is worthy of worship helps us focus on the values that create a better world. Observing pauses like Shabbat on a weekly basis, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, allows us to regain a sense of priorities greater than focus on what we have and don't have.
Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day…it's back, after the High Holy Day hiatus.
Today we look at Emor, Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23 - rules about relationships, for priests, including an ostensibly offensive rule for the priesthood, quoted here:
Lev. 21:17 Speak to Aaron, saying: A man of your seed, throughout their generations, who has in him a defect is not to come-near to bring-near the food of his God.
This limits the participation of the Levites to those who are born with no defects whatsoever. A student from our synagogue who only has nine toes read this section for his Bar Mitzvah, and started out understandably outraged.
Reading on, we discovered a way, perhaps to rehabilitate the text, in a small way:
Lev. 21:22 The food-offerings of his God from the holiest holy-portions, or from the holy-portions, he may eat;
Allowing Levites who are prohibited from participating in Levitical work, namely the maintenance of the Temple and the sacrificial system, to nonetheless eat from the food that the Levites receive as their donation shows the inherent concern for fairness even in ancient Israelite society. After all, these disabled Levites were also barred from other employment in the community, just like any other Levite, and so they needed to receive sustenance from somewhere.
While physical limitations may make certain jobs unavailable, no one should be left out of the basic needs of social welfare.
Thank you to Benjamin Meyerson, the Bar Mitzvah student, who helped come up with this insight.
Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…
Today we look at K'doshim, Leviticus 19:1 - 20:27 - the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:
Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!
Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy - namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.
This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct - to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.
On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.
G'mar Chatimah Tovah - may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.
Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…
Today we look at Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30 - the offerings required of Aaron, including the one for all of the sins of the Israelites on the Day of Atonement, prohibitions against hunting, and a host of laws about prohibited relationships.
After that long list comes this text, used frequently, often by non-Jews, in current times:
Lev. 18:21 Your seed-offspring you are not to give-over for bringing-across to the Molech, that you not profane the name of your God, I am Adonai!
22 With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman, it is an abomination!
23 With any animal you are not to give your emission of seed, becoming-impure through it; a woman is not to stand before an animal, mating with it, it is perversion!
Considering that verse 22, the often quoted anti-homosexual prohibition does not come in the area preceding it, about prohibited marriage relations, we can infer that the notion of two men or two women living together and building a family wasn't seen as an option in ancient Israelite society. Furthermore, the placement of this practice in the area of religious and behavioral abominations also places it outside the norms of regular community life.
Since today we see that same-sex families are just as healthy as their heterosexual alternatives, and that supporting people in forming families is one of the main purposes of a religious society that advocates healthy partnered relationships over promiscuity, we can understand this text as prohibiting something else.
Some evidence points to this prohibiting a form of worship where the priest would dress as a woman and have sex with the worshipper. We can certainly see that such a cult of prostitution would be against the ethics of Ancient Israelite society, and would be a much more accurate fit to what this text might prohibit.
As reasonable religions people we should use our reflective time of year as an opportunity to reconcile the principles we aim to live by with how we read our texts as well. Fairness and compassion, as well as the promotion of healthy families, demand that we must be for total inclusion of the diversity of sexual and gender identities.
Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…
Today we look at Tazree-ah, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59 - skin eruptions, ritual impurity, and how the ancient priest diagnosed these things.
We should remember that the Torah does not serve as a medical manual, even for its ancient time. Rather, we recognize that the Torah offers us advice for society, not for biology.
The social advice here comes from creating standards of inclusion and exclusion. People in difficulty, especially visible difficulty, often face rejection from society. When we establish rules that allow us to classify these difficulties by an authority figure, we can actually remove the stigma because we normalize the issue.
Let us learn at this time of reflection to go beyond our initial reactions to people with struggles. The strength of any social group can be measured by how well we aid those in need of help. Everyone gets sick, everyone faces hardship - let us not allow others' difficulties to color our reactions to them. Let us reach out to each other in our times of need.
Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…
Today we look at Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 - priestly offerings, the strange and horrible deaths of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu, and the rules of kosher eating.
We can't easily ignore the death of Aaron's sons, here's the full text:
Lev. 10:1 Now Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, took each-man his pan, and, placing fire in them, put smoking-incense on it, and brought-near, before the presence of Adonai, outside fire, such as he had not commanded them.
2 And fire went out from the presence of Adonai and consumed them, so that they died, before the presence of Adonai.
3 Moses said to Aaron: It is what Adonai spoke (about), saying: Through those permitted-near to me, I will be-proven-holy, before all the people, I will be-accorded-honor! Aaron was silent.
Today, during these days of reflection, I want to learn from Aaron. In the face of tragedy, personal and communal, sometimes all we can bring is our silence presence.
In this, Aaron, the one who could speak easily and well, learned from Moses, who spoke reluctantly and earlier described himself this way:
No man of words am I, not from yesterday, not from the day-before, not (even) since you have spoken to your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I! (Exodus 4:10)
When struck by the worst of pains, thoughtful anguished silence may be the best we can offer.
Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…
Today we look at Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36 - lots more about offerings and the practices of the priesthood.
Also, these verses requiring the priests to maintain a fire:
Lev. 6:5 Now the fire on the slaughter-site is to be kept-blazing upon it - it must not go out! - and the priest is to stoke on it (pieces-of-)wood, in the morning, (every) morning, and he is to arrange on it the offering-up, and is to turn into smoke on it the fat-parts of the shalom-offering.
6 A regular fire is to be kept-blazing upon the slaughter-site-it is not to go out!
Why maintain a regular flame in the center of the community?
We are a healthy community when we devote resources to the maintenance of things we may need at any time, even if we don't all need it right now.
Keeping a warm place in the center of our communities, a place of welcome and sustenance, requires constant attention. We must appoint someone to do this and give them the resources to make sure that the fire doesn't go out.
Shanah Tovah everyone! Happy Second Day of 5773!
Today we look at Va-Yikra, Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26 - the first reading of Leviticus.
Leviticus opens with a lot of talk of offerings - the different kinds of things we must offer up on an altar in ancient Israelite religious practices.
We no longer do these, so what can they teach us?
Community rules count - when we miss the mark and hurt someone, we have probably violated an ethical code of our community as well. So we apologize to the person we've hurt, make amends, and then pay a penalty to the community for disrespecting the civics of our society as well.
We are all connected, and our actions have repercussions beyond the individual.
During these Days of Awe we are called upon to confess publicly for exactly this reason - as individual members of a community we need to repair our standards together.
Rosh HaShanah starts tonight - last daily post of 5772!
May everyone have a sweet and good new year!
Today we look at P'kudei, Exodus 38:21 - 40:38 - the final Torah reading of Exodus. We read about a full inventory of the things that went into the building of the Mishkan, the portable Temple-Tent often translated as the "Tabernacle", and all of the stuff in it. The Mishkan is completed, Moses installs Aaron as High Priest, and the journey through the desert begins.
The final verses of the Book of Exodus read:
40:36 Whenever the cloud goes up from the Mishkan, the Israelites march on, upon all their marches;
37 if the cloud does not go up, they do not march on, until such time as it does go up.
38 For the cloud of God (is) over the Mishkan by day, and fire is by night in it, before the eyes of all the House of Israel upon all their marches.
Wouldn't it be great to have such an indicator that told us when to go forward, and when to stay still?
Perhaps we still do, we just need to notice it. Let us make this a year of listening and observing.
May we see and hear and feel the messages people and our world send us before we act.
May we go forward together guided by communal values.
May we build a better world in the year to come.
Tomorrow night is Rosh HaShanah - the daily Elul thought will transform into daily thought for the High Holy Days or Days of Awe, as the month of Elul will end, and become the month of Tishrei. Make sure to take time out to acknowledge the Jewish New Year on Sunday night, and Monday, and Tuesday. L'shanah tovh u'metukah - a good and sweet new year to everyone!
Today we look at Va-yak-heil, Exodus 35:1 - 38:20 - the gathering of the donations to build the Tabernacle, and the fashioning of the pieces and construction takes place.
Perhaps the only not-for profit effort in all time to be so enthusiastically completed, as it says here in Exodus, Chapter 36:
5: ...The people are bringing much more than enough for the service of (doing) the work that God has commanded, to make it!
6 So Moses commanded and they had a call go throughout the camp, saying: Man and woman-let them not make-ready any further work-material for the contribution of the Holy-shrine! So the people were stopped from bringing;
7 the work-material was enough for them, for all the work, to make it, and more.
As we think about Elul, we might look back on the last year and note how often we felt the opposite of this. How often did we feel depleted and without the resources to complete the tasks we set before us?
Is this about the demands made upon us by our tasks, or is it about the number of tasks and the details we promise to get done?
When the task is finite, we can complete it with enthusiasm. If the goals we have set require work without end, we mistreat ourselves as unlimited resources.
For the year to come, let us try to set ourselves reasonable tasks - and find ourselves bringing more than enough to them.
We must treat this world's existence as limited in order to better find connections with the infinite.
I know I will be working on this for a long time!
Today for our daily Elul thought we look at Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35 - a lot happens here, not least of which is the Golden Calf incident.
I just had a random reason to glance at one particular verse from this parasha today:
Exouds 34:29 Now it was when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in Moshe's hand, when he came down from the mountain - (now) Moshe did not know that the skin of his face was radiating because of his having-spoken with him...
Encounters with the mystery of the universe transform us, and often we don't recognize the transformation ourselves.
Elul asks us to be open to our own growth - to be like Moses and absorb the changes. Reality is filled with the miraculous. When we notice it we can be transformed.
When someone asks about something, we may learn more than we teach.
Today for our daily Elul thought we look at T'tzaveh, Exodus 27:20 - 30:10 - more details about things for the Mishkan, or portable Temple, the special garb for the priesthood, offering ceremonies for the ordaining of priests and their regular duties, and the description of the altar.
We could sum it all up by saying notes on interior decorating and fashion.
We don't like to think that we get judged on our spaces and our garb. Often we unfairly judge others based on their appearances.
Perhaps the Elul thought of the day on this is: let our work on our spaces and appearances be ours alone, and let us avoid judging what others do for themselves.
Dressing because we want to look good for the Universe seems OK, allowing ourselves to be judgmental about other people's choices in this, less so.
Today for our daily Elul thought we look at T'rumah, Exodus 25:1 - 27:19 - God's instructions on donations and construction regarding the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, or portable Temple space, and all of the things that go in it.
In this list of directions, there remains plenty of room to improvise. While God gives Moses extensive details, there is no real blueprint. While the plan seems to be about creating a place for God, it may actually be about us coming together to create a project that allows us to find holiness as a community.
Our attachment to plans and details may get things done. Elul comes to ask us in preparation for the holiest season whether those plans bring us together for some greater purpose.
Perhaps the details arrived at through a thorough conversation may forge a new relationship. Elul reminds us that strong relationships may be more important than sticking to the details of our original plan.
“The hidden things are for Adonai our God, but the revealed-things are for us and for our children, for the ages, to observe all the words of this Instruction.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)
This quote from this week’s Torah reading, Nitzavim, speaks of differences between the mysteries that remain between us and our consciences, or our senses of the Infinite, and the teachings that we pass on to others.
The “hidden things” may be mystical ideas, or merely profound insights that may only come with long experience and deliberation.
This difference between the revealed and the hidden allows us to take comfort when the most central of our insights may be the hardest ideas to communicate to others. Such wisdom might still be mysterious. Only by living with it, and perhaps allowing those around us to see us live by its insights, may the teaching eventually become one of the “revealed-things” that we can pass along to others.
Discerning between the things we are able to convey, and those that must remain within us may help us better navigate our relationships.
Today we look at Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 - 24:18 - lots of laws, the promise of a guardian that will go before the Israelites and vanquish our enemies as we enter the Land of Israel, and the call to approach Mount Sinai.
Of the many laws, here are two:
Exodus 23:4 When you encounter your enemy's ox or his donkey straying, return it, return it to him.
5: When you see the donkey of one who hates you crouching under its burden, restrain from abandoning it to him - unbind, yes, unbind it together with him.
On this September 11 during Elul, the month leading up to our High Holy Days, we should remember our tragedy and be moved by it to approach our enemies and those who hate us with integrity and generosity.
Let us turn hatred and enmity into civility.
Today we look at Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23 - Moses' father-in-law Jethro arrives at the Israelite camp, advises Moses, converts to Judaism, and then Moses receives the Ten Utterances*. Drama and special effects - this is a big reading!
The people don't get to approach close to the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai - they remain at a distance and let Moses go encounter the Divine on his own.
Truly, who can blame them or God? The people have already proven themselves to be fickle, and we haven't even gotten to the Golden Calf yet, and God seems to be an angry and dangerous supreme being - sometimes an emissary isn't a bad thing.
While we want to solve all of our problems on our own, recognizing when we might best team up with others shows great wisdom and insight. Moses and the Israelites both admit to limits in this reading.
For Elul, recognize that all is not up to us alone. We share the planet with each other, we can work together on our burdens too.
*Jews tend to refer to the text known as the "Ten Commandments" as the "Ten Utterances" - in the Jewish division of the text the first utterance, "I am God", isn't really a commandment. Furthermore, by the Jewish counting, there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible.
Today we look at B'shalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16 - the Israelites leave Egypt, Pharaoh chases them, the Sea of Reeds splits, we celebrate our freedom en route to Mount Sinai, plus the beginning of Israelite kvetching (complaining), and manna, quail, and the Amalekites attack.
People complain, oy do we complain!
Even though we have received teachings about the resources we might find if we only would look more closely.
Let us rein in our complaints for Elul, and seek solutions before we even give voice to our kvetches.