Archive | D’var Torah

High Holidays, repentance; Pesach, education

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Growing up in Dallas, and attending one of the area’s largest synagogues, each holiday had its own distinct flavor and associations. The High Holidays represented a tedious mental marathon — staying hours in shul — with a few rest stops. We, the elementary school children, sat next to our parents in a packed room, antsy and confused by the complex service, while a visiting cantor chanted solemn psalms in unfamiliar melodies.
The rabbi’s sermon usually entailed a theatrical demonstration of intelligence that centered on a select theme, carefully injected with witty quotes and an unhealthy dose of personal political commentary, that tickled sympathizers, while infuriating certain intellectuals.
Shortly before the sermon, anticipating the upcoming stretch of boredom, we pleaded with our parents for a bathroom break. If they agreed, we quickly headed for the exit before the two men closest to the exit could lock us in. Once the sermon began, we were trapped. But outside the sanctuary doors, we felt free.
Roaming the empty halls with fresh excitement, we met up with friends, a gathering of kids from different schools around Dallas, who had also managed to escape. The fun lasted until one of the older members of the congregation spotted us laughing and socializing. He then marched down the hall, shouting and scolding the group for being outside the sanctuary (or youth classes), and did his best to chase each kid back from where they came. So went the High Holidays, year after year.
The Pesach Seder carried an entirely different vibe; it was our chance to participate. Even within the familiar passages of the Haggadah, there was always room for investigation and fresh insights. Though the event ran long, it imparted a unique Jewish experience, far more profound than steaming matzo ball soup or the 10 plagues with colorful props. It was a night of adventure, where we were transported in time. Imagination merged with ancient mystical memories. If the dogs suddenly barked during the meal, we half-joked it was because Elijah the Prophet must have entered the house for his cup of wine. As the evening wound down and I listened to my father lead the “benching” (Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals) at the top of his lungs, I wondered if, one day, I’d be able to do the same for my family and guests.
Indeed, Pesach is considered the prime opportunity for education. On Pesach, the focus is on teaching the children, connecting to our past and planting seeds for the future.
The focus on children
There are many rituals to fulfill on Pesach night — eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine, bitter herbs, telling the Exodus story well. One of the first and most memorable acts, however, is the dipping in salt water, a custom instituted to awaken the children’s curiosity. The rest of the remaining rituals, likewise, offer a multisensory, interactive, hands-on learning experience — the building blocks of early education.
Keeping the children’s interest and providing them with a fun experience at the table is only the first step. The real concern is what significant long-term messages we want to impart. One obvious objective is to reinforce the collective destiny — the struggle to emerge from a people of slaves to a nation of Torah scholars.
This generation is fortunately a step or two removed from the hardships of war times, and certainly the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt. Freedoms are easily taken for granted. As hosts and parents, we must therefore devote time to prepare before the holiday, then be considerate and creative in selecting which excerpts of the Haggadah to unravel, while ensuring all key mitzvot are fulfilled. The practical and challenging goal is to expound without letting the evening drag.
The main point of emphasis is cheirut — freedom. Freedom means different things to different people, but there is one aspect of freedom that is replayed in Jewish literature, and has nothing to do with physical comforts. A well-known but puzzling statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) stands out: “There is no free individual, except for someone who labors in Torah study.”
At first glance, this statement conveys that, through knowledge and wisdom, a person is set free, reminiscent of the line “the truth will set you free.” But knowledge itself is incomplete without parallel emotional growth and action. Perhaps the statement in Pirkei Avot refers more to one’s commitment to set aside time, throughout a busy year, to explore our rich heritage.
Laboring and feeling free appear to be contradictory. The long, hard Seder night contains an important lesson, both for adult and child. In Torah, a meaningful life involves embracing the grind and challenging yourself to grow, to be better and do more (in a spiritual context it’s called avodah).
I have noticed that people — especially “mystics,” guides or motivators who preach “living each day to the fullest” — often have no children to take care of, no sense of community, responsibility, or loyalty to a higher purpose. They choose to travel rather than host, partake rather than create. Their contrived raison d’être is simply to absorb the sights and sounds of the wonderful world around them — and take one giant vacation from worthwhile struggle.
The soul’s freedom and highest fulfillment is in giving. Her pleasure comes from progressing, and pain comes from inactivity. True joy is the result of working to change yourself and to heal the world in some part (tikkun olam), while sadness comes when we sense stagnation. So, when in someone’s pursuits, the primary focus becomes on retreat, relaxation time and mindfulness meditations, wherein the soul is only taking — something is subtly wrong. They sink deeper into the pits, a pleasant spiritual demise. All the while, the soul craves meaningful toil and mitzvahs.
Freedom stems from a connection to who you are and your purpose, despite the confines of a difficult external situation. But to get acquainted with yourself demands knowing your roots and where you’re going. Hence, the emphasis on learning Torah.
While we measure our High Holiday accomplishments by the level of repentance and resolutions, a successful Pesach rests in education and engaging discussion.


Another perspective on palliative pain control

Posted on 11 April 2019 by admin

By Cantor Sheri Allen

I read with great interest Rabbi Fried’s response to “Yuri, M.D.” regarding whether or not pain medication could be administered to a dying patient (in intractable pain) in a dose that would essentially lead to the patient’s immediate death (TJP, March 28, 2019). Rabbi Fried responded that the mitigation of pain is of the highest priority, and as long as the intent was to control pain and not kill the patient, and was administered by a medical professional, then the obligation to not let the patient suffer would take precedence over the risk that the patient might die, or his/her death might be hastened, as a result of the increased dosage. He reasons, “We are only allowed to take a risk to take the patient out of his or her suffering, not to administer a medication that would clearly kill the patient or with the intention of hastening his or her death.”
But that was not the scenario that the reader described, so Rabbi Fried concluded, “Your situation would, then, not be permitted, as we never have the license to take the life of a patient, and you said that the physician knows the dose requested by the patient will take his life.” So the answer hinges on intent. And if, in fact, the doctor knew for a fact that the dosage he was about to give would kill the patient, then I would have to concur with Rabbi Fried — he/she is forbidden by halacha and most state laws (with the exception of seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia) to administer the increased dosage.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the Office of Clinical Ethics and Palliative Care for Baylor Scott and White Health in Dallas, states that it is very difficult to determine with certainty how much pain medication will cause a patient’s death. In fact, he sites research that challenges the assumption that administering opioids in the setting of serious illness hastens death, stating, “When administered properly, there is no evidence such medicine kills the patient, and there is some evidence that failure to treat pain hastens death because pain is stressful and stress is harmful. Sure, there is a dose that one can argue one knows is inherently fatal — however it is not clear to me what the dose is in an absolute sense — it will vary from patient to patient. Furthermore, opioids as a means of causing death are so unpredictable that states who execute persons on death row don’t use opioids to carry out the execution. Opioids just aren’t very good drugs for killing people.”
Assuming there is no clear-cut formula for “dosing a patient to death” (unless a doctor was completely negligent and knowingly administered the medication improperly), we can therefore assume that his/her only intent would be to mitigate pain and suffering. After studying this issue, in a teshuvah (ruling) for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Rabbi Elliot Dorff concludes, “In an attempt to alleviate the severe pain of a person in the last stages of dying, morphine and other pain medications may be administered in doses sufficient to dull the pain, even if this simultaneously hastens the person’s death. The intent to treat is the crucial factor.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Fried that “watching the suffering of another is a profoundly difficult thing to endure.” But I don’t necessarily believe that “we need to entrust the suffering of the patient to the just judgment of God.” That’s why humans (with God’s help!) created hospice (full disclosure: I’m a hospice chaplain). The intent of hospice is to provide comfort at the end of life – emotional, social, spiritual and of course physical comfort, the latter of which requires a variety of appropriately dosed medications, including opioids in many cases. If administered correctly, patients will be relieved of their suffering, and family will be spared the pain of witnessing it, and can concentrate on simply being a caring, loving presence for their loved ones.
Sheri Allen is the part-time Cantor for Congregation Beth Shalom, and a chaplain for the Jewish patients at Vitas Healthcare Fort Worth.


Parashat Tazria: more than skin-deep

Posted on 04 April 2019 by admin

By Cantor Sheri Allen

This Shabbat, we tackle the subject of ritual impurity. No “skin-deep” assessment today — we are going below the surface to explore the exciting world of leprosy.
Chapter 13 of Parashat Tazria begins, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: If hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.”
As if the diagnosis wasn’t bad enough, the metzora, or the one afflicted with tzaraat, was commanded to tear his clothes, bare his head, cover his upper lip and publicly warn people of his fate.
When the condition disappeared, a ritual involving birds, blood-sprinkling, cedar wood, hyssop and a good bath and shave were performed, with the leper gradually re-introduced into the community. But, while the individual could enter the camp, he or she had to remain outside his/her tent for seven days. After more washing, blood and oil sprinkling and making offerings, the metzora was finally declared to be pure on the eighth day.
This whole situation, from diagnosis to recovery, must have been a nightmare for the poor victims.
However, the Rabbis settle on an explanation for this seemingly less-than-compassionate treatment of the metzora: He/she deserved it. They linked the words “metzora: leper” with the phrase “motzi (shem) ra.” This, in turn, was translated as “giving someone a bad name/to defame.” They concluded that leprosy must be the direct result of gossiping, or “lashon hara”: literally, an evil tongue. The punishment for spreading the social contagion of hateful words to others was a physically contagious disease requiring isolation.
While it’s important to teach about the evils of gossip, and to put someone under quarantine to avoid an epidemic, the explanation that strict isolation outside of the camp was necessary is questionable. For example, Moshe Sokolow writes, “The Torah term tzaraat is not leprosy. Leprosy is a contagious skin disease that is spread pathologically by bacteria. Tzaraat, while designated an affliction (nega), is neither a disease nor contagious.”
With this in mind, we can determine that the treatment of the metzora seemed cruel and undeserved, especially if the condition wasn’t leprosy and not even contagious. However, the leaders of that time couldn’t have had the knowledge we have today concerning illness.
It is also possible that isolation was a form of protection for the afflicted. If others feared the metzora might be a threat to their survival, isolation would prevent that individual from being harmed.
It is also commendable that the most respected and revered person in the camp, the Kohen, determined when the disease was cured. It was also the Kohen who alone ritually cleansed the leper. By his showing compassionate care and giving his “stamp of approval” that the afflicted was cured, the patient could reclaim his sense of self-worth, and be welcomed back into his community without fear of being ostracized.
So perhaps we can cut the Kohanim some slack. But, we are still on a learning curve when it comes to the stigma of disease. When the AIDS crisis came to the forefront in the 1980s, the initial reaction to this horrible epidemic weren’t all that different from those of our ancestors. There were many who wanted to blame the victims for their illness, and many who didn’t want to have contact with them.
In 1992, an article in the Huffington Post noted that “36 percent of Americans believed AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.” In 2014, that number shrank to 14 percent. Though better, the figure is still troubling.
Going back further in time, health officials blamed the polio epidemic on squalid living conditions, even though the disease didn’t seem to discriminate between the wealthy and the disadvantaged. Additionally, the typhus fever and cholera epidemic that impacted New York City in the late 19th century was blamed on Eastern European Jews coming to America, via Ellis Island.
So let’s circle back to skin diseases. As mentioned earlier, what the Bible defined as leprosy really wasn’t leprosy as we understand it today. It is known as Hansen’s disease; the Center for Disease Control defines it as: “An infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae.” The definition goes on to describe the physical appearance of the disease, that it isn’t easily spread, and, if left untreated, can cause nerve damage, paralysis and blindness.
With quick intervention, this disease, contracted by 150-250 people in the U.S. annually and 250,000 worldwide, is curable. So, theoretically, there should no longer be any calls to isolate those who have it, as was done in biblical times.
But, we hasn’t come as far as we might think. Myths about leprosy persist; the CDC has found it necessary to continue observing “World Leprosy Day” on the last Sunday of January, which the organization has been doing every year since 1954. The CDC noted that, despite effective available treatment, leprosy remains one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases. Those living with leprosy-related disabilities in many countries are discriminated against and denied basic human rights.
So, while we have medical and scientific answers today, our attitudes are often stuck in the Dark Ages. We have a lot to learn about compassion and empathy when it comes to illness, especially outward manifestations of the condition. The physical marks might dissipate, but the inward psychological damage can be much harder to repair.
There is a lot about disease we don’t know. But, we need to take a holistic approach when it comes to dealing with those who are ill. Isolation, unless medically necessary, can do much more damage than the actual disease itself. Although our ancestors’ approach to the metzora — public pronouncement and subsequent isolation — wasn’t the most compassionate, it was likely what was needed for the good of the entire community. Let’s also not forget that, with the Kohen’s approval, the metzora was welcomed back into the community with, I hope, open arms, once the “disease” was gone.
Our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, is to leave our biases, fears and misconceptions at the door and practice the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. Unless contagion is an issue and quarantine necessary, it’s important to provide a physical presence so those who are ill know that they don’t have to suffer alone in silence or shame. That is when the real healing can begin.


The number 8: higher and completely distinct

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

There is a song that children love which has traditionally been inserted at the end of the Passover Seder called Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”) But what does this have to do with relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Perhaps this popular poem, all about numbers, snuck into the Haggadah because Passover is the ripest time for Jewish education, to impart to the child (and to ourselves) a Torah worldview. Reciting “Who Knows One?” instills a natural association with One God — and likewise, some meaningful content associated with each number in the song.
A name and a number
This week, the number eight is emphasized, as the parasha title, Shemini, means “the eighth”—after the opening words “and it came to pass on the eighth day.” It’s the only Torah portion whose name is a number. And in certain years (outside of Israel), we read this portion a total of eight times.
This eighth day to which it refers follows last week’s instructions to complete a seven-day inaugural process of the Mishkan (sanctuary). The day after was set aside for inducting Aaron and his sons into priesthood, as they began their service. It was also the day on which the presence of God was revealed — when the Shechinah began to reside amongst Israel.
One of the primary commentaries on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar,” is bothered by the phrase “shemini.” Labeling something the “eighth” in any sequence implies a common feature with the previous seven. The events of this day, however, were not a continuation of a previous seven, but the beginning of a new process. If so, he questions, why was this called “the eighth”? — it should have said something like “the following day” or “the day of revelation.”
Sevenths and eighths
In his answer, rich with insights, he explains that the Torah uses the term “the eighth day” to highlight its extraordinary quality — a day of revelation. He continues to elucidate how the number eight, which often appears in the Tanach in conjunction with the number seven, carries certain connotations: In Jewish thought, the number eight signifies something supernatural, a superior divine disclosure, while the number seven signifies the natural experience and ordinary processes. (The Hebrew word shemini, eight, also shares a root with shemen, which means fat or expanded.)
(This is a recurring theme: There are seven musical notes in any given scale. Our weekly cycle consists of seven days. The symbolic seven-stringed harp of the first two Temples stands in contrast to the eight-stringed harp in Messianic times, when the entire world will reach a higher consciousness, “for the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the seabed.” Interestingly, the infinity symbol we use takes the form of a sideways eight.)
The Kli Yakar commentary goes on to explain how the numerical association even manifests in Jewish law where the mitzvah of circumcision supersedes the prohibition of forbidden labors on Shabbat; a brit milah is associated with eight while Shabbat is associated with the number seven — “and the rule is that the sacred takes precedence over the mundane.”
Grades of holiness
While his question on the Torah’s usage of “eighth” is probing, there are two apparent difficulties with his answer provided. First, how can he claim that the seventh day, Shabbat, is part of the mundane? After all, throughout the Torah and prophets we find references to how this spiritual day of rest is permeated with holiness (i.e., “And God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy,” Exodus 20:11). These verses — which are found in the Kiddush (from the same Hebrew root word as “holy)” — clearly stress the sanctity of the day.
The commentaries clarify that the expression “seven refers to the mundane” is only relative. The “day of rest” is indeed elevated above the other six days in its purpose — it is the completion of the natural order, the holy element within creation. But the number eight signifies a level that is beyond creation — not just higher, but completely distinct.
In other words, there are two general grades of holiness: There is a finite holiness that still has a relationship to the natural order. We can draw down and access this level with our actions — by refining the world through mitzvot. Then there is a more transcendent holiness, too potent to be incorporated within the physical realm (except for certain occasions).
Thus, we can speak of progressive stages: the raw, seemingly ordinary, existence of material; the perfection or holiness reached within the world (reflected by number seven); a holiness that transcends this world, a signal of the world to come (reflected by number eight).
If so, it seems that the Kli Yakar didn’t really answer his question, but instead made it stronger: The number eight is completely beyond the natural order which is controlled with a cycle of seven, and the eighth day was likewise disconnected from the previous seven, a unique occurrence bound up with the infinite.
But his succinct commentary is perhaps addressing an important existential question: How much of what we end up with in life is earned, and how much is due to factors beyond our effort, what we’d call a blessing or a gift? (A relevant subject in physical, economic and spiritual pursuits.)
Gifts and rewards
A reward, such as salary, is usually commensurate with the achievement — the person’s effort and capabilities — and so is in proportion to the quality of the invested. A gift, however, is not an outgrowth of one’s effort, but based on the kindness of the giver. Yet, in certain contexts, there may be a strong connection between the recipient’s actions and the decision of the giver to present that gift.
In our biblical extract, we are being taught a rule that pertains to holiness. There can be a process whereby the cause-and-effect are inherently distinct components, but at the same time specific actions are necessary to trigger remarkable results, “a gift.” Or from a different angle, in a relationship with God — or the global interaction between human effort and divine response — we must put in work, but what we receive in return far surpasses the boundaries of our capabilities and achievements. In numerical symbolism, the level of eight is infinitely higher than seven — so we can never earn eight — yet only when the process of seven is complete does the level of eight arrive.
This theme plays out in many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the best example is a marriage, which entails components of seven and eight. Seven represents our effort, beginning before marriage and continuing throughout. It is also our love and appreciation for a spouse. Eight is the deeper and eternal love, the connection which reaches way beyond any conscious appreciation. The ultimate goal of Jewish marriage — “finding your bashert” — is to transition from seven to eight and uncover the element of eight.
Two souls join in this world, brought together through an unfathomable intricate series of events over generations. On the one hand, a successful marriage can be perceived as a product of all the personal developments and preparation: the investment in trying to understand the way the other person operates and be in tune with their feelings and build a meaningful life together. But in the end, the fruits of their efforts — a sacred bond, the children created and legacy left — stem from a power beyond the boundaries of any joint effort, “the gift” that belongs to the realm of eight.
Whether in personal growth, in a relationship, career goal, or in our spiritual pursuits, we all face challenges and struggles. At times we may feel that the next higher stage is impossible or out of reach. One message from this week is that we must first recognize our task, the responsibility of fixing and refining our part through natural means, a process signified by seven. But when we do our job to attain perfection, we then uncover a force way beyond us that comes into our lives. This is the gift of “the eighth day.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


The flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive forever

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah Portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus. The portion starts out with a description of the olah, the burnt offering. What I find interesting in the description of the burnt offering is the commandment from Verse 6 that “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” There are many ways that we can metaphorically understand this commandment. Orot Ha-Kodesh as quoted in Itturei Torah suggests one way of interpreting this commandment:
One is forbidden to extinguish the thirst for God which burns in every heart. We are told that a person who extinguishes an ember on the altar has violated the prohibition of “it will never be put out.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar — the Jewish heart.
The perpetual fire represents our perpetual yearning for God and our constant devotion to the service of God. The way that I look at the perpetual fire is more as a metaphor for Judaism itself. A fire, even a perpetual one, is constantly changing — flickering, flaring, dying down. Further, a perpetual fire requires perpetual feeding; we must constantly add more fuel to the fire or it burns out.
So too does Judaism perpetually change throughout the ages and so too does Judaism require perpetual feeding by our engaging with Torah and our tradition. In this new light of the metaphorical perpetual fire, we can see the offerings described in Tzav as relevant again to our lives, even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there have been no sacrifices offered in almost 2,000 years.
The next offering described is the Mincha or grain offering. Part of this daily offering was meant to be burned completely for God, but the remainder was given to the priests to eat. I imagine that the Mincha offering was a staple in the priestly diet since it was offered daily, and was probably a large portion of the priests’ salary, so to speak. Now I’m not implying that in today’s world, I as a rabbi want to be paid in 5-pound bags of flour. But rather, I would suggest that for those who cannot otherwise feed themselves, we must provide for them daily that they have sufficient food to eat. We provide food for the hungry not just for their sake, but so that we may feed the perpetual fires that keep us close to God.
After the Mincha offering, the Chattat, sin offering, and the Asham, guilt offering, are described. These offerings are described as “most holy” such that they may only be eaten by the “males in the priestly line” (Leviticus 6:22, 7:6) or burned completely to ash and not eaten at all. Clearly, doing teshuvah, repentance, then or now is one of the most holy acts we can engage in. We do teshuvah when we cease our wrong actions, make amends as best we can, and resolve never to act that way again. And with every act of teshuvah, we make the world a better place and draw God closer.
Next comes the sacrifice of well-being, offered for thanksgiving to God or as a free-will offering to God. These offerings are interesting in that a portion goes to God, being completely burned up; a portion goes to the priest making the actual sacrifice; and a portion goes to the donor of the sacrifice. Everyone partakes in this sacrifice, just as we all gather together today to create a holy community. Everyone in our community has a part to play in creating a holy community that gathers together to thank God freely for the gifts God gives us.
God commanded us to keep a perpetual fire burning upon the altar. Today, the flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive. When we engage with our texts and our traditions, we add fuel to the ever-changing flame that is Judaism. When we reinterpret our texts and traditions to fit our modern lives, we add fuel, keeping the fire alive. When we give of ourselves, offering the best of our abilities and resources, we strengthen the community of the Jewish people, we make the world a better place, and we draw nearer to God. May God give us the will to see that the flame burns forever.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


The People of the Book must heed its calling

Posted on 13 March 2019 by admin

We Jews call ourselves the People of the Book. It’s not unusual to see Jewish art depicting us with our faces transfixed by the words on the page of a Chumash or Talmud. But the Torah doesn’t imagine us that way. Instead, it teaches us that we are not readers, but callers.
By the time God calls to Moshe in this week’s parasha (Vayikra —“God called out”) listing the rules for sacrifice, we should be very familiar with this important biblical verb. The book of Genesis uses the verb kuf-reish-alef for two very important purposes. The first is naming: God “calls” light and darkness, heaven and earth, land and sea into existence. The second is to indicate a connection being forged over some distance, either geographic or spiritual. God “calls” out to Adam after he hides himself after eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
These actions — naming and connecting — are linked. When we name someone, we don’t just say their name, we announce it.
We let others know that this name is who this new human being is. That’s why so many of the names in the Torah are descriptive. Sarah calls her son Yitzchak because she fears that others will laugh (tzchok) at her for conceiving a child at such an advanced age. Ya’akov is so named because he holds on to the ankle of his brother’s heel (akev) as he emerges from the womb. When we call someone by their name, the Torah teaches us, we should be reaching out for that person’s essence, for their true character.
In the first part of the book of Exodus, surprisingly, it is Pharaoh who does most of the calling. Five times, Pharaoh calls out to Moshe and Aharon to plead on his behalf to God and convince Him to cease the plagues He is raining down upon the Egyptians. But the most significant shift that occurs with regard to the word Vayikra begins with the first conversation between God and Moshe, when calling becomes the “default” way of creating a connection with God. Sure, God has to “call” out to Moshe to get his attention at the burning bush. But the frequency with which the word is used post-Exodus, when Moshe and God are in such regular contact, indicates a change in the word’s meaning.
Where Vayikra once indicated some sort of gap that needed to be bridged, it now reflects the constant back and forth between human and divine voices. It is no longer distance that the verb Vayikra is suggesting, but its opposite — closeness. God calls out to us to sanctify our lives with the commandments, and we call out to God to hear and answer our prayers. Most significantly, we call out to God by name in order to evoke his compassion. After the sin of the golden calf, a moment fraught with danger for the Israelites, Moshe calls out in the name of God: “The Lord, The Lord, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness in truth.”
In Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus), God calls out to teach us how to offer a sacrifice, a korban, literally an object of closeness. God encourages us to draw close to express our gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and to celebrate our well-being. Sacrifice opens the door to a regular practice of calling out to God, a practice our Sages reconstituted as daily prayer.
Too often, I fear, our spiritual spaces are spaces of distance, of discomforting silence and of restrained emotion. And though we find great meaning and insight in reading and in thinking, when we don’t encourage each other to find ways to give our words a full-throated voice, we risk distancing ourselves not only from our sacred tradition, but also from our God. Though we are, indeed, the People of the Book, we must never forget that our Book is also a book of calling — Sefer Vayikra.
Rabbi Adam Roffman has served at Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013.


Wisdom of the heart: 3 cognitive abilities

Posted on 06 March 2019 by admin

The main topic in the latest Torah readings of Exodus is the construction of the Sanctuary and all its attractive vessels. The previous chapters of Terumah and Tetzaveh relate the instructions for the structure, while the most recent, Vayakhel and Pekudei, concern the execution of the commands.
Creating a sacred environment is all about choosing the right type of people, those willing to work hard and to give, as well as knowing how to maximize each person’s skillset. Specific instructions alone would not have sufficed to permit any person to participate in constructing the Sanctuary — talented artisans were needed.
Moses informed the entire congregation of Israel that God named Betzalel to do the job, and “filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), understanding (binah) and knowledge (daat), and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship.” (Exodus 35:31)
Mind power
In this verse, the Torah first mentions three cognitive abilities called chochmah, binah and daat, distinct powers of the mind, which are expounded throughout traditional Jewish literature. Each of these intellectual faculties has precise functions and limits.
Chochmah, usually defined as wisdom, involves our ability to reach inside the mind and “pull” an idea from the storehouse of information into consciousness, like drops of water surfacing from an underground wellspring. This power manifests as a flash of insight. The essential idea is initially perceived but has yet to take form. To get that mental spark to stick, long enough to examine it within the mind, necessitates concentration and curiosity.
The second power, binah, translated as “understanding,” involves the process of analysis. This ability develops the seed of insight (chochmah), to discern and pick up distinctions, as the rules and logic become more revealed, until the breadth of the concept can be comprehended clearly with words.
Though distinct, these two powers usually work quickly together as a pair. It is possible, however, for someone to tap into creative insight, while struggling to develop or explain what is seen. Let’s give a practical example in a visual context: Looking at a painting hanging on the museum wall or admiring a building, one may be struck by its magnificence (chochmah) yet unable to explain that impression to someone else (binah).
“Wow, look at that! I can tell it’s created by a master,” she says.
“What exactly makes it so great?” the other person asks.
“I’m not sure, but I can see this is something special.”
That recognition is chochmah without developing into binah. By gazing longer, or gaining more knowledge of art history and architecture, one comes to understand the reason for the initial perception — how the positioning of figures, or proportions or combination of colors, all combine to create the desired effect on the viewer.
Daat, the third faculty, is the central power of the mind, translated as “knowledge” or integration. Two people, for example, may possess the same capacity to perceive (chochmah) and analyze (binah), yet one person is pulled toward the subject, able to focus for hours, while the other is less interested. This personal connection to the subject learnt relates to the sense of daat.
The main function that daat serves is to bridge intelligence to emotions, which then becomes a motivation to act — to enact what we understand and feel. This is a crucial step to bring our inner world into outer reality. In this way, it is perhaps the most important in all-inclusive power of the soul.
The heart metaphor
The heart is often used as a symbol for character traits. We speak of someone who is caring or courageous, for example, as having a “big heart,” or the cruel as having “a heart of stone.” On the surface, mind and heart, intelligence and emotions, appear to be two opposite forces — though they certainly complement one another. The mind is relatively cool and collected, the heart hot and excited. The keen mind strives to be objective and detached, to observe reality as it is. The dynamic heart, in contrast demands experience — what this does to me.
The heart is also concerned with the other person. The Hebrew term chesed conveys a simple love, the natural desire to do good to another, while compassion or empathy enables one to feel the other’s situation. The goal in character refinement is to build a smooth bridge between the mind and the heart. We all know cases where people’s intelligence, emotions and actions are disconnected. But wisdom, when it’s complete, must influence character.
From the other angle, a rectified heart receives guidance from the mind — a heart that seeks to do acts of kindness yet can also discern good from evil. Combining intellectual and emotional traits in one term conveys a healthy exchange between these two inner islands.
The wise of heart
Returning to our biblical scene, in the passages describing those chosen to build the sanctuary, Moses continues to explain how God gave Betzalel and his assistant, Oholiav, “a wise heart.” (Exodus 35:35) This quality of wise-heartedness distinguished those able to build from those who could not: “Everyone with a wise heart among you shall come and do all the work.”
When reading these lines, the immediate question is: What is meant by a “wise heart”? Is it some additional acumen, an instinct or intuition? After all, wisdom belongs to the mind, distinct from feelings inside the heart. For some, the phrase “a wise heart” may invite associations with a more recent term that’s gained popularity in psychology — “emotional intelligence” — the ability to identify and be aware of emotions inside oneself, and in others, and to deal with them in a healthy way, manifesting in successful interpersonal relationships.
But this context, dealing with construction, suggests something more in line with divinely-inspired artistry, wherein cognition and creativity merge. The commentaries explain that Betzalel was able to intuit what God wanted in the craftsmanship of the Sanctuary, independent of Moses’ command.
This ability is even reflected in his name, as described in the Talmudic narrative, where Moses responds to Betzalel’s suggestion by saying “Were you betzel El, in the shadow of God, that you know this?” Nachmonides further notes that his ability to craft all these vessels was a kind of miracle, since during the centuries of slavery in Egypt, the Jews had no access to precious metals such as gold, silver and copper.
Concerning those who donated toward the sanctuary, the Torah uses a different description: “Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity…The men came with the women; every generous-hearted person (nediv lev)… And all the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom, spun the goat hair.”
The full spectrum
Thus, in just a few lines the Torah communicates a timeless message about what it takes to build a community and house of prayer: a collective effort, utilizing the full spectrum of the congregation’s abilities — from wisdom to generosity to action. The final chapter of Exodus, therefore, fittingly closes with this collaboration, completing the specific requirements of the sanctuary. All its components were then brought to Moses, who erects it and anoints it, initiating Aaron and his four sons.
The wise and noble choices of created beings — in this case the Israelites devoting their property, their bodies and their souls toward the construction of the Mishkan — evokes the ultimate divine response: “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


Despite human anger, we can draw closer to God

Posted on 21 February 2019 by admin

Have you ever been so angry that all you want to do is smash something? If so, you have something in common with Moses. Specifically, in the parashah of Ki Tissa, Moses showed how destructive he could be, after witnessing his people dancing and singing around the golden calf.
Impatience on the part of the people, combined with Moses’ volatile temper following his return from the summit of Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments in hand, is a tragic combination, resulting in broken tablets and thousands of dead sinners.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that Moses isn’t allowed entry into the promised land after he strikes a rock instead of talking to it, yet smashing the tablets with the literal words of God written upon them doesn’t even merit a reprimand. After all, there is a price to pay if we drop a Torah scroll during services. We must take responsibility if we contribute, even inadvertently, to its literal downfall. Some traditional rulings claim that we must fast for 40 days to atone for it.
We also endure psychological trauma if we witness a Torah scroll falling to the floor. This happened at Beth Shalom not too long ago. Our Torah scroll was perched, precariously as it turned out, in the wooden holder. All of the sudden, the scroll tipped. A congregant bolted for it, but wasn’t quite quick enough. A collective cry arose from the congregation, and I thought one of the gabbaim was going to have a heart attack. It was a truly traumatic moment, and our response was to establish a “Holy Rollers” fund to make sure our Torah scrolls would be maintained properly.
Still, it doesn’t seem fair that, when a Torah is accidentally dropped because of unintended human error, we must engage in teshuvah, repentance, while Moses, in a bout of anger, shatters the stones on purpose and gets away scot-free! How can that be justifiable?
Leave it to the rabbis to answer that question. Referencing Exodus Rabbah 41:1 (, Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson explains the action was Moses’ attempt to deflect some blame onto himself: “Upon breaking the tablets, he told God, ‘Now I am a sinner just like them. If You decide to eradicate them, destroy me as well.’” Another theory explains that the weight of the tablets was diminished by the sacred letters inscribed on them. But as soon as Moses came down the mountain and saw the celebration around the golden calf, the letters flew into the air, making the now-ordinary stones too heavy for Moses to carry, and they fell to the ground.
It seems to me that some of these explanations, although creative, are a bit of a stretch. Some of them make the case that Moses had a strategy for doing what he did, such as to risk sacrificing the tablets (and his own life) to save his people. But these explanations gloss over the elephant in the room, or shall I say, the camel in the desert: Moses’ temper. The people tried his patience on a number of occasions, but this was the straw that broke that camel’s back. And, as the text keeps reiterating, he lost it.
A form of the verb charah, to become hot, angry, to burn with anger (charon in the noun form), is found five times within the same chapter, and describes the reactions of both God and Moses upon discovering what the Israelites were up to in Moses’ absence. This verb is often combined with the noun af meaning “nose, nostril,” or, metaphorically “anger.” Exodus 32:19 indicates, “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged (vayichar af Moshe); and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”
The text makes it clear that his anger burst forth spontaneously. There didn’t seem to be any strategizing going on, no game plan; he simply witnessed a horrific sight and lost his temper. Perhaps that was because God, being all-knowing, knew how Moses would react, and didn’t stop him.
Perhaps after seeing His people crack so quickly under the fear of abandonment, God realized that they needed to forge a closer, more intimate relationship — an actual partnership — with Him. And for that to happen, the first set of tablets wasn’t going to work.
Exodus 31:18 declared, “When (God) finished speaking with (Moses) on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.” One chapter later stated that: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets.” However, in 34:27, when Moses returns for the second set of Commandments, God said: “Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses did so, meaning there is a human element involved. While God dictated, Moses was the scribe.
Through this action, God seems to acknowledge that His creations need to be involved in the process; this covenant will only work if it is a true partnership.
The “Eitz Chaim” Chumash states, “This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, at the hand of an imperfect human being, rather than by a perfect deity.” God not only gave them the gift of Torah; He also gave them pride of ownership.
We are told both the broken and whole tablets were housed in the ark, not just as a reminder of sins, but as a reminder that wholeness, strength and goodness, can grow out of that brokenness. We need to embrace the whole package: We are the sum total of our mistakes as well as our successes. No matter how broken we might feel, we can feel whole again, even if we are left with scars.
The second set of tablets gives us the opportunity to engage in an ongoing conversation with God, and with our ancestors, through the ages, who struggled to make sense out of God’s sacred text.
Though Moses’ anger did get the best of him, perhaps when he broke that first set of tablets, he brought us closer to God. And God, in turn, possibly saw the opportunity of that outcome, a chance to create an everlasting partnership with His people.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, and a chaplain for Vitas Healthcare.


The necessity to create joyful noise

Posted on 14 February 2019 by admin

The theme of this week is noise.
When we are productive and feel good about ourselves, life is easier. When we feel we messed up, life becomes more difficult. An unfulfilled soul, plagued by regrets, detects a resounding static coming from within.
Spiritual noise and silence symbolize two states. Noise reflects the process of repentance, the cry of those feeling distant from God. Silence, on the other hand, reflects a feeling of closeness. When one is content and progressing smoothly, there is no inner-conflict. The soul is calm. But attempting to change — amidst the struggle to leave behind sins — creates a restless noise inside, which must be expressed.
Between the lines of the recent Torah passages appears an interesting dialogue about these two states. In one of the most pivotal scenes, the High Priest — the Kohen Gadol — dressed in his eight specific garments, enters the holy place in the Temple as a messenger of the Jewish people. Each of these garments is crucial, symbolic, and possesses a special power in achieving atonement.
Here, we will examine one garment — the robe — and its broader significance. When describing the robe, the Torah relates the following: “And on its bottom hem you shall make pomegranate [shaped balls]…all around, and golden bells in their midst…It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Kodesh, the holy chamber, before the Lord…so that he will not die.” (Exodus 27:33-35)
Bells and Pomegranates
When examining the verse, there is a disagreement between two primary biblical commentators as to where the bells should be placed. The divergence stems from the Hebrew word b’tocham, which can mean either “between them” or, more literally, “within them.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), the foremost commentator on the Torah and Talmud, understands the phrase as “between.” Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) disagrees and believes that the bells were literally placed within the pomegranates.
Inserting bells inside the rounded ornaments — to bang against their walls — makes sense, given the instruction to make the pomegranates hollow. But, according to Rashi, the ringing was generated from the clappers within the bells, and thus the hollow pomegranates were purely decorative. For this reason, Nachmanides takes issue with that approach: “Having hollow pomegranates served no function then,” he writes. “And if they were only for beauty, they should have been made like golden apples . . .”
While his argument about functionality is compelling — why bother making each pomegranate hollow if nothing was placed inside them? — his additional comment about golden apples is cryptic, prompting investigation by later scholars.
And why, according to Rashi, was the robe beautified with pomegranates?
Noise is necessary
Let’s examine the following: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the holy place…” Why was it so important to hear the bells jingle — to the point that the success of the High Priest depended on this noise? Seemingly, in such an intimate setting, designed to achieve atonement, “a still silent voice” (Kings 19:12) would be more appropriate.
The commentaries explain that sound shows respect for the moment, ensuring that entrance into a holy site doesn’t take place mindlessly or unannounced. The jingling bells are similar to a visitor asking permission to enter the king’s chamber. The more profound explanation relates to the overall function of the Kohen Gadol, seen as a messenger of the Jewish people, taking with him the entire nation into the holy chamber.
In this sense, the jingling of the bells is symbolic of those people engaged in an ongoing struggle to improve — to come closer to God while in a dark and confusing world. Consequently, when approaching the holy place, seeking to gain atonement on behalf of the entire Jewish people, it was essential that the Kohen Gadol provide an accurate symbolic representation of the entire spectrum of the community.
The beauty of struggle
With these images in mind, we can discover a more profound dialogue between Nachmanides, who favors apples, and Rashi, who prefers pomegranates. Both the golden apple and pomegranate describe the Jewish people throughout the Bible. However, while the apple represents Israel in the most virtuous state, the pomegranate refers to the “empty ones amongst you.”
So, is true beauty in the struggle to improve, or in attaining excellence?
Rashi chooses to emphasize the external aspect of the human being, marked by complexity, but full of goodness. Specifically, those who face an inner void, and are regarded as being on the lower spiritual level, are represented by the hollow fruit shape, on the bottom hem. Yet even they will go with the High Priest into the holy chamber. Indeed, there is an advantage in the tension over smooth spiritual progression and contentment. The rise and fall, the consistent effort needed to improve, eventually breaks barriers and exposes the limitless power of the soul.
Nachmanides, who incorporates more esoteric mystical ideas into his commentary, focuses on the deeper dimension within the person — the pristine and unblemished state, removed from all sin. “If for beauty, and not functionality,” he argues, “make them like golden apples, full and sweet.”
Applications for today
These days, we are bombarded by negative noise of the outside world, screaming for our attention at every turn. This, in turn, adds to the inner noise and makes it harder to hear to what’s going on inside. These distractions mean that the soul’s needs often are unnoticed and neglected. Likewise, the depth and richness of Judaism are quiet.
In previous generations, there was not as much need to create positive noise. These days, however, we must learn to generate more beautiful noise, raising the sound of holiness by showing more creativity and enthusiasm in our love for Torah, the remarkable land of Israel, and in celebrating Jewish life.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


There are many ways to know God is among us

Posted on 06 February 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is for me a somewhat difficult one. It’s all instructions — in excruciating detail — on how to make the sanctuary. But for one verse, Exodus 25:8, I have a hard time relating to it. In that verse, God commands Moses:
“V’asoo li miqdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Let them make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Why in the world would God want a physical building constructed? Sixteenth-century commentator Alshech expressed this incredulity best:
“The message is mind-boggling! Who can imagine that God’s Presence can be contained on earth, much less in a man-made structure!”
I share Alshech’s incredulity. God is infinite. God is everywhere. How could God be limited to one particular place or building? And yet, the mystical Kabbalists believed it was possible for God to “fit in” to the Sanctuary through tsimtsum, God’s willful self-contraction, the same contraction that allowed for Creation. I, however, am not a mystic, so I continue to search for why God would want us to build a miqdash, a sanctuary.
I believe that the key phrase to look at is the continuation of the verse, “v’shachanti b’tocham, that I may dwell b’tocham, among them.” Not b’tocho, within it, the sanctuary.
But that still leaves me with the question what does it mean to have God dwelling “among them?” I would like to examine how two commentators look at this question.
Sforno, the 15th- and 16th-century commentator, asks, why does God need a sanctuary now in order to dwell among them when previously God dwelt among them without a sanctuary? The answer according to Sforno is found in the sin of the Golden Calf. What Sforno asserted is that when the Jewish people turned to idol worship after their miraculous redemption, God withdrew the Shechina. Only through the agency of the miqdash was God willing to dwell “among them” again.
In contrast, Abravanel, who lived at about the same time as Sforno, argued that: “The Divine intention behind the construction of the miqdash was to combat the idea that God had forsaken the earth and that His throne was in heaven and remote from humankind.”
Thus instead of being the only way for God to be among the people who sinned with the Calf, the sanctuary is actually a symbol of God’s constant immanence, constant presence among all people.
Personally, I think that Sforno and Abravanel get it right when you combine them together. It’s really hard to believe in God, when we’re told that God is everywhere, but invisible. And God doesn’t talk to us with words anymore. Not even visions or dreams. That’s a hard sell. Even for our ancestors who experienced God’s miracles and wonders coming out of slavery in Egypt, that’s a hard sell. We needed a tangible, visible sign that God is really here. Perhaps that’s why our ancestors resorted to the Golden Calf. They needed a physical, visible, tangible sign of God here on earth. As Abravanel said, we needed to know that God isn’t up in heaven, inaccessible and unknowable. And as Sforno said, we needed a legitimate physical, tangible, visible sign of God’s presence among us that was NOT the Golden Calf, for us to feel God’s presence. We needed a sanctuary, for God to dwell among us.
And today when we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem? For me, going out into the natural world and marveling at God’s creation reminds me of God’s Presence. The loving, caring, personal relationships I have, show me God is here. Getting lost in the study of God’s word connects me directly to God. We don’t need to have a physical dwelling to recognize that God among us.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


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