Archive | D’var Torah

God doesn’t want to be lost among distractions

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

We start the Book of Numbers this week, and the first verse states, “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”
What is it about the wilderness that God always appears there? Why not, say, in my den while I’m lying on the couch watching the ball game? My den: nice and comfy. The wilderness: less so. What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a great meeting place?
I am reminded of my teacher, Dr. Leonard Kravitz, who used to talk about the temptations of the world as you went out to seek knowledge. From where Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion used to be located, to get to the New York Public Library, that great repository of human knowledge and wisdom, you first had to walk past the distractions of Times Square. All of human knowledge is there at the New York Public Library, free for the taking, if only you can successfully make it past Times Square without being distracted.
Imagine that instead of walking past Times Square, you had to walk through the wilderness instead. You’d probably make it to the library without any incident. The wilderness is a place without distraction that lets you concentrate on the task at hand or to speak to God without interference.
Elijah, when he was pursued by Jezebel, fled into the wilderness and prayed for death. God passed by Elijah, and we are told, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still small voice.” Do you really think that if you were traveling through Times Square, you would be able to hear God’s still small voice?
Today we are bombarded with distractions. We work at our computers with music playing, an instant message conversation or three taking place on the side, while updating our Facebook status or Tweeting. We sit in meetings while texting and surfing the web to check up on something someone just mentioned. We’re driving in our cars while talking on our cell phones either legally, using a hands-free set, or illegally. We are becoming experts at multitasking.
But I don’t believe it. I love my friend, but she really scares me sometimes. She calls me when she’s in the car going from one appointment to another. We’ve got to fit in as much as we can into every second of our day, after all. But as she and I are talking on the phone, she’ll be in the middle of a sentence and she’ll say, “Oh, I wanted to turn there.” Or, when she says to me “I am totally listening to you,” I know that she was multitasking and suddenly realized she had missed a portion of our conversation. I don’t believe in multitasking. I believe we can learn to switch rapidly between tasks, but I don’t believe that we can actually concentrate on two things at the same time. We miss something when we divide our attention.
Why does God appear in the wilderness? Because God demands our full attention. God demands our complete being. We think we accomplish more by switching rapidly from task to task, but in reality, we actually miss vital elements when we divide our attention. How can you hear the still small voice, when your smartphone keeps dinging? There is a Zen proverb that shows us the way to encounter God and each other:
In walking, just walk.
In sitting, just sit.
Above all, don’t wobble.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Love the imperfect

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

Over the last few weeks, we have been exploring the Holiness Code; those laws concerning the specific actions and behaviors that the Israelites are commanded to adopt in order to achieve a state of physical, moral and ethical purity. But before dissecting one particularly disturbing directive (at least to me), I’d like to share with you one of my favorite childhood stories, The Best Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill. I promise, there is a connection to Emor.
The story centers around a little girl named Betsy who has just received an invitation to a party at her friend Susan’s house, which will take place later that afternoon. Why Susan chooses to throw such an impromptu gig at the last minute and assume that everyone will show up isn’t addressed, but personally, I find it a bit thoughtless. The invitation states that everyone must bring a doll to the party, and prizes will be given to the oldest doll, the best-dressed doll and the doll who can do the most things. And wouldn’t you know it, Betsy has one of each.
There’s Belinda, the fashion maven; Melissa, the oldest doll who once belonged to Betsy’s great-great-grandmother; and Mary Jane, who actually sews on a sewing machine. But Betsy’s choice is complicated by the existence of a fourth doll, poor Jennifer, who looks like the dog has used her for a chew toy. Her dress is faded and rumpled, her cheeks are bandaged, her hair is askew, her nose cracked and only one eye opens and closes. The other dolls tease her mercilessly and yet, she wears a permanent, heart-warming smile.
Jennifer is not only chosen to be taken to the party — she wins a special prize created just for her: a medal that says “Best Loved Doll.” And in the spirit of true generosity, she shares the rest of her party favors with her other snarky doll roommates. The moral of the story — that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be the most precious and valued — seems to stand in contrast with Parashat Emor.
Leviticus 21:16 begins, “The Lord spoke further to Moses…. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes…. he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect.
“He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”
It seems not just unfair, but downright cruel, that only those lucky enough to be blessed with physical perfection were deemed qualified to serve in God’s holiest space. As if being physically disabled weren’t bad enough, this prohibition really seems to throw salt on the literal wound.
Rabbi Elliot Mayer draws on the Mishnah, which reframes this interpretation: “In the final G’ulah (redemption), the blind will be able to see, the lame will be able to walk and people will not suffer from physical disabilities. The Beit HaMikdash would have given every visitor inspiration and hope that there will be a time without physical suffering as prophesied by our Neviim (prophets). Therefore, a Kohen with a physical disability would detract from that vision.”
OK, so the disabled Kohen would not only detract the worshipper because of his bodily imperfections, he would also mar the worshipper’s vision of the perfect world yet to come? Talk about adding insult to injury.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too judgmental. After all, I’m looking at this through a modern lens. Back in the ancient world, this concept of “not judging a book by its cover” had yet to be embraced. So perhaps God, knowing how troubling and disappointing mankind’s behavior had been in the past, knew that changing the people’s perception of what true holiness looked like would take time. Indeed, Rabbi Alexander Kaye contends that the focus on external appearance gradually shifted, recalling a midrash from Sanhedrin 98a in which the messiah is depicted as a leper.
Perhaps the lesson that we can glean from this Parashah today isn’t so far off from that of The Best Loved Doll. It reminds us that we can choose to move beyond the physical. We can hold up as role models those who have struggled with disabilities, or adversity, as they have the most to teach us about what it really means to be whole. We can break down the barriers that keep us from understanding what it must be like to live with daily challenges by inviting those who do to be a part of our communities and synagogues, and making these places accessible and welcoming to every individual.
May we strive to see each and every soul B’Zelem Elokim (in God’s image) and appreciate the gifts that we all bring to our communal table.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor at Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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Parashah calls us to lead moral, just lives

Posted on 26 April 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, as read in the Diaspora, is Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, and I find it to be one of the most inspiring of Torah portions.
Chapter 19 in the Book of Leviticus begins with a ringing call to action, a Divine inspiration that calls us to live our best lives: “You shall be holy for I the Eternal your God am holy.” We have a purpose in life: to lead lives that are elevated above the common, that are examples of proper behavior in front of the world.
Further, God does not leave us guessing how we are to live lives of holiness. “Be good” is a nice exhortation, but not terribly useful unless you’ve already been told what it means to be good or, in our case, what it means to be holy. More specificity is better, and we get it here in the Levitical holiness code.
Verses 9 and 10 command us not to harvest 100 percent of our fields and vineyards. Rather, we are to leave behind a portion of the crops for the poor and disadvantaged to harvest for themselves. It is a way of sharing the bounty God gives us while allowing the less fortunate to sustain themselves and maintain their own dignity. Today, when we no longer live in an agricultural society, we can still learn to create systems that sustain the poor in a dignified manner.
Verse 13 commands us to deal fairly with those whom we employ. We cannot short them or delay paying them or take advantage in general of the people who depend on us for their living. We may have economic power over those whom we employ, but we are forbidden to use that power unfairly.
I find Verse 14 to be inspiring because we are commanded not to insult the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. The rabbis expand the meaning significantly beyond the two examples listed to demonstrate that even if we won’t be caught, we are forbidden to wrong others, nor may we lead others astray with temptation. For example, if you know your guest is on a diet, don’t urge them to have dessert. If you know someone is an alcoholic, don’t offer them a drink.
We are commanded to establish a purely just society in Verse 15. We are called upon to create a society that favors neither the rich nor the poor. We might be tempted to favor the rich because of their power or the poor because they are up against deep pockets. Yet the society we create should be strictly, purely just.
Verses 33 and 34 are especially important in today’s society. We are commanded never to wrong the stranger, for once we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. We must have compassion for all human beings, remembering the suffering of our own people throughout history. We might be tempted to treat our own people well but others poorly, but we are commanded to fight against this temptation.
What I find most interesting is Verse 35, in which we are commanded to have strictly honest weights and measures. Honesty in business is a religious obligation and you shouldn’t say, “Oh, but rabbi, I deal in the real world.” No. Honesty is for all times and places.
Being holy isn’t reserved for special people or religious leaders. Acting in a way that is holy is for all of us, through our everyday actions. Through this week’s Torah portion, I feel God’s inspiration to live up to our highest ideals, creating a moral and just society.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano’s Reform congregation.

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Iyar: an opportune month to heal your soul

Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

The current month of Iyar, the second month in the Jewish calendar, is commonly referred to as the month of healing. This idea is reflected in its name, whose letters form an acronym for “Ani Hashem Rofecha” — “I am God your Healer” (Exodus 15:26).
The above allusion in the title of this month implies not only that this period is opportune for healing, but that there is a special type of healing flowing directly from God. In other words, even though all blessings share a common source, they go through different channels, sometimes demanding investigation to find cures.
Healing, in general, is a rectification process applicable in many contexts. The common theme is to restore something damaged to its original state of health and functioning. In this sense, people speak metaphorically about repairing a relationship or healing a broken heart. Or when the mind becomes wounded, psychological healing involves changing one’s perceptions, shifting from a destructive outlook to provoke more positive thoughts and happiness. In Jewish literature, prescriptions for healing the soul relate to a deeper process called teshuva. But the health of all these elements — body, emotions, mind and soul — are intensely intertwined.
For this reason, when the Torah states in Deuteronomy chapter 4, “Guard yourself and guard your soul scrupulously,” it is interpreted as referring to the mitzvah of protecting one’s physical health. Likewise, “a small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul” is a statement emphasizing the necessity of maintaining a strong body, the physical receptacle for the soul’s energy to flow. At the same time, the relationship is bidirectional: Spiritual healing — when the soul is nourished and strong — opens the channel for mental and physical wellbeing.
Types of healing
The Talmud discusses various forms of healing. First, there is a preventive remedy, a healing that comes before any harm can be detected. Then there is healing in the form of recovery, where a remnant of the illness lingers to some degree. The highest form of healing not only removes the illness but brings additional strength to the body.
Stemming from the context of the verse, the unique type of healing in this month, coming directly from God, mainly takes the form of prevention — saving a person from illness in the first place. But in the event that some ailment exists, it brings potential for the highest healing — renewed vigor that retroactively removes all trace of illness. This means that even if a person’s conduct leads to poor health, healing from God comes in a completely novel manner, different than through a doctor — as if nothing had happened.
Healing the soul
Maimonides explains that just as the body has different sicknesses and remedies, so too does the soul. An ailing soul means that someone is “not in a good place.” More specifically, in one’s personal rapport with God, an accumulation of poor decisions can lead to feeling disconnected, or some spiritual insensitivity. The nature of this pain as well as the recovery process shares features of both a scarred relationship which needs mending and rehabbing from a physical injury.
There are two general approaches in healing bodily illness: to heal the particular organ that is sick or weakened, and to strengthen the healthy organs and faculties so that they can overcome and heal the sick one. The parallels in the soul are the two approaches in spiritual service — teshuva and good deeds.
Losing time
Even after someone has repaired mistakes, through feelings of regret and resolve, there is another common quest for healing, one that relates to lost time. As we develop in years and wisdom, the consciousness of life’s fragility becomes greater. In the end, there is often a discrepancy between aspirations and accomplishments. Along with this reflection, comes the pain of slip-ups or wasted opportunities. If only I hadn’t said that to her; if only I hadn’t worked such long hours, had spent more time with the family, etc. The famous gnawing dilemma is: Can we heal the past, make up for wasted time?
The first step in the rectification process, the simple formula for teshuva, is acknowledging what went wrong — healthy regret. The next movement is reshaping sadness over previous shortcomings by using that emotion to harness extra energy for the future — the ability to carry out your new vision with intense vigor and productivity. More specifically, one formula for healing the past is living with a present sense of urgency, the desire to do more mitzvahs, to maximize your remaining time on earth.
This sense of urgency may be confused with carpe diem or making the most of every day. But there is a distinct difference in flavor. In an attempt to soothe their tangled mind and a shaky conscience, a person whose motto is “seize the day” may attempt to remain joyful and energized. They may decide to travel places and take in as many serene sights and colorful experiences as possible. In contrast, someone who lives with a sense of urgency has a specific fire inside. They see a fragmented world in front of them, and rush to play a small role in mending it. Quality of living is tied to purpose and to the ability to give back.
And because this urgency and productivity is born from a bitterness which pushed the person to fight harder, those past mistakes are retroactively redeemed and sweetened.

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Week of different Parshat, but one People

Posted on 05 April 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is…well…actually that’s not an easy thing to determine, because the true answer is: it depends. It depends on where you live and what branch of Judaism you belong to.
In Israel and in the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for seven days. Outside of Israel, other than the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for eight days, because of second day Yom Tov in the Diaspora. What does all that have to do with the Torah Portion? Well, if you observe seven days of Pesach, the Torah Portion is Shemini, but if you observe eight days, then the Torah Portion is for the last day of Pesach. This makes the Diaspora out of sync with Israel until Parashat Bamidbar, when the two communities once again align. If you were wondering, they do this in Israel by spreading the double portion Behar/Bechukotai over two weeks instead of one week, as in the Diaspora.
But wait. There’s more. There always is. Many in the Reform Movement don’t like being out of sync with the rest of the Diaspora and so they split the baby, or the portion in this case, and do the first half of Shemini this week and the second half of Shemini the following week. Within a week, they are back to the same Diaspora schedule as everyone else, though still out of sync with Israel. My own congregation observes the Israeli calendar, so for me, the portion is Shemini.
This is a problem. And it is more of a problem than simply which part of Torah should I write about for my column this week. It is a problem of the divisions we create between ourselves. We are in the middle of Pesach right now, putting aside whether Pesach ends on Friday night or Saturday night, and one huge division we create among ourselves is on the subject of kitniyot.
There are five grains biblically forbidden during Pesach, except in the form of matzoh: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Rice, millet and legumes are nowhere on that list, yet they became similarly forbidden in the category of kitniyot because they can be used like a forbidden grain, or a forbidden grain might be accidentally mixed in during storage. But only for Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat rice and other kitniyot during Pesach.
Which leads to my being gobsmacked when I went grocery shopping during Pesach when I lived in Israel. Above the rice was a sign that said: “For sale only to Sephardim.” “How would they know?” I thought to myself. Do people carry Sephardi Identity Cards? Yet the division exists.
You want to know what’s not important? It’s not important which part of the Torah we read this Shabbat. What is important is that all of us stood together at Sinai to receive Torah as one Jewish People. It isn’t important to focus on the differences in food customs we observe during Pesach, but rather to acknowledge that we are all observing Pesach together. It is too easy to focus on the myriad ways we can think of how to divide and separate us from each other. What we need to do, what can sometimes be harder, is to focus on what unites us as one Jewish People.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Spiritual growth precedes ability to accept Torah

Posted on 29 March 2018 by admin

Personal growth necessitates self-awareness, then some change to the “self” we most identify with. The change may take the form of renewal, “getting back in touch with a vision, value or ideal that we’ve somehow lost or neglected.” Other times, it’s more about creating a new identity — “reinventing myself.” Focusing on performance, people speak of “being the best version of yourself.” Then, in rare situations, the ambition is to undo “the old self” and become a different creature altogether.
Last month’s theme was breaking internal barriers through increased joy and laughter; this month we reach the heights through faith, freedom and miracles. A miracle, in general, consists of an alteration within the natural direction of the universe. The title of the current Hebrew month, Nissan, from the word nes (miracle), provides extra power to create another type of miracle — to transform our personal “nature.”
Simply put, our nature is the innate unrefined character, our specific emotional constitution, or the way we operate. In the same context, to tap into “higher than nature” means activating a deeper chord inside the soul with the force to override our ordinary way of operating.
One of the essential teachings from the Baal Shem Tov, the founding figure of the Chassidic movement, is that any significant growth or transformation involves a three-stage process in consciousness: submission, separation and sweetening. This process may be applied to many types of improvement, whether in the physical, mental, social/emotional or spiritual arena.
In general, Stage 1 requires a person’s submission: getting into a calm and focused state, emptying the mind, setting aside the ego and self-monitoring that interferes with progress, to become ready and receptive. Stage 2, the separation stage, is more active, requiring personal input and analysis to distinguish the matter at hand. By clarifying which elements belong, verses which need to be discarded, one is able to personalize a plan. This stage, a filtering process, aids in our ability to later make strong choices.
Finally, in Stage 3, once the work of the other two stages has been completed, a person is able to “sweeten” their being and reach a new place in life. This final stage is the ability to be “myself,” regardless of the environment. In a nutshell, it’s true freedom — living, as opposed to existing.
This three-stage process of transformation can be applied to the current holiday. A common understanding of Pesach — “the time of our freedom” — embraces physical sovereignty, no longer being enslaved, able to enjoy comfort on our own terms. But the holiday commemorates a more profound change — the creation of a new Jewish identity, becoming essentially bound with the Torah.
The process opened with leaving the land of Egypt — the birth of Am Yisrael — but culminated at Mount Sinai. The miraculous redemption brought faith and submission, a readiness to accept what came next. But going from a group of slaves, individuals with common ancestry called “the children of Israel,” to becoming “a Torah nation” was no typical transformation. It was an unfathomable jump.
The challenge in making this shift, from one extreme to another, is amplified by the Zohar’s explanation that right before fleeing, the souls of the Jewish people (kneset yisroel) had sunk to 49 gates of impurity, about to reach the point of no return from Egyptian exile, assimilated and irredeemable. For such a people, emerging from the cultural furnace, then reaching a state of becoming suitable receptacles for the giving of the Torah — when a potent influx of holiness, the kind of which the world itself had never absorbed, would take place — necessitated a period of intense preparation, a 49-day countdown.
Preparation involved separation: undoing attachments to acquire an elevated perspective; a steady spiritual climb toward purification. The “sweetening” was a disproportional leap — when we gained a precious heavenly gift, described throughout our literature as the “Torah of light” and the “secret treasure” of life.
The three stages can also be applied to establishing individual Jewish identity: Even though we may be aware our identity, our natural tendencies and preoccupations cover it up. So, in the moment, we act contrary to what we believe. To bring that identity to the forefront — to get it into our consciousness — we must go through these developments. The first quality is to become silent, adopting a genuine humility when seeking connection with God.
Receptiveness to a grand purpose, something beyond “self,” is the prerequisite to progress. The opposite trait, a subconscious sense of “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” is the most natural barrier to spiritual development, as noble action revolves around personal gratification.
Next comes the grind. Nothing meaningful and holy is achieved without steady effort and sacrifice. The “separation” process here involves understanding through learning Torah, internalizing what is beneficial to the soul and what is harmful. Like a spiritual detox, implementing this stage is never enjoyable. It tests one’s commitment and resilience to withstand previous tendencies and natural temptations.
But each moment we stick it out leads us closer to the “sweetening” — a breakthrough where you discover a changed person. From one angle, this result is a product of effort insofar as you need to work to get there. On the other hand, it’s a transformation out of proportion to the work, a gift from above.
Each year, the Jewish calendar cycle provides the opportunity to revive this growth process. On Pesach we strengthen faith, beginning with the matzo (“the bread of faith”) on the Seder night and recollecting the past miracles. It’s that time of year, when trying to reach a higher level, that we feel as if we’ve been set in motion — the taste of freedom we didn’t yet earn. After that boost comes a period of effort, the counting of the Omer, mystically meant for character refinement. Finally, we arrive at the 50th gate — the festival of “giving of the Torah” — where we reach a level far beyond our strength.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Passover the time to break free from our chains

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Next Friday night, Jews all around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Passover with a traditional Seder. During the Seder, we observe various rituals and traditions such as eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine and, of course, listening to the children ask the Four Questions and look for the afikomen. All of these commemorate the Exodus of our ancestors from Egypt some 3,300 years ago.
One of the central themes of the Seder is listening to and then answering our children’s questions. In fact, the bulk of the Haggadah is structured as an answer to the Four Questions. In the spirit of answering questions, perhaps the biggest question that needs answering is: What relevance does the holiday and all of these rituals have to us so many thousands of years after the Exodus — especially in a country as free as ours?
We read in the Haggadah that in each generation, each of us must see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the etymological root of which is meitzar, meaning constraint or limitation. Leaving Egypt then means breaking free from any negativity that is constraining us in our own lives. The truth is, slavery can take on different forms and appearances. For our ancestors, it was forced labor. For us, it may be that negative trait or bad habit that we are trying to kick.
The Seder then is no ordinary holiday meal, but rather a rich tapestry of melodies, visuals, prayers and stories, along with different tastes, smells and things to touch, that are designed to teach us about the true meaning of freedom and help us break free from the limitations in our lives, in pursuit of true freedom.
With this in mind, as we get ready to experience the Seder, let us remind ourselves that, thank God, we are blessed to be living in a time and place where there are no real external challenges to us living proud and committed Jewish lives. This Passover, as nature experiences its own season of springtime renewal, let us resolve to transcend any limitations we may be experiencing in our pursuit of true spiritual freedom. Let us remember that it is only a matter of setting our goals high enough to meet the challenges and opportunities of these times. If we are determined, the opportunities are limitless.
Rabbi Levi Gurevitch leads Chabad of Arlington & The Mid-Cities.

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Posted on 15 March 2018 by admin

When I was studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the requirements for students was that we had to read Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings at Shacharit services. I vividly remember one morning when the reader took out the Torah to read and couldn’t find his place. Perhaps he hadn’t checked the scroll to begin with, perhaps someone had rolled the scroll to practice from but hadn’t rerolled it. I will never know. I just remember that the pause seemed to go on forever and one of the professors called out from the back, “Just read anything; it’s all good.”
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, would be extremely easy to find because it is at the very beginning of the Book of Leviticus. Whether it is good, however, is a matter open for debate.
The entirety of this week’s portion describes the procedures for conducting some of the various animal and plant sacrifices that were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. As a Reform Jew, I don’t believe in the sacrificial cult, nor do I want it restored, which makes this week’s Torah portion somewhat problematic. Rather, I am in agreement with Isaiah (1:11): “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Eternal.” No need whatsoever, as far as I am concerned, which makes this week’s portion so hard.
Yet God is speaking to us through the text, even the problematical ones, and I look to Hosea for understanding (6:6): “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.” I just don’t believe that God wants us to slaughter rams and goats and oxen, dashing the blood about and burning up the carcasses. I believe that God desires personal sacrifices from each one of us, leading to better behavior.
We need to sacrifice our egos. We like to think that we are masters of our own destinies, in command of our own lives. Yet we are not. We might build beautiful homes to live in, yet floods, fires and windstorms can quickly destroy the illusion that we are completely in control of our own safety and comfort. We are not even in complete control of our own bodies, subject as we are to disease and aging. Why, all I have to do is miss a meal to find myself losing control over my own emotions, becoming more irritable and easily angered. We must sacrifice our egos and accept that we are not in complete control of our own lives.
We need to sacrifice our own selves. We live in community and have an obligation to self-sacrifice for the good of the community. We cannot always get to have things exactly as we would want them, but rather must compromise for the common good. And we must support the wider community with our personal resources, giving tzedakah generously to support those in need, as well as communal efforts. We must sacrifice of our own selves to lend support to each other.
We need to sacrifice our time. We live in an age of instant gratification, yet I suspect it would be more accurate to say we live in an age of the illusion of instant gratification. Have you ever eaten an instant soup? Can you honestly say that instant soup is as gratifying as homemade that took hours to prepare? Have you ever had a text conversation? Can you honestly say that quick text messages are as satisfying as spending time and talking with the ones you love? So, too, we cannot expect a real relationship with God in an instant. There is no just add water, stir and enjoy a relationship with God. There are many ways to be in a relationship with God, but one commonality is that they all take time. So we must sacrifice our time to be in a gratifying relationship with God.
I may not believe that we need animal sacrifices anymore, as outlined in this week’s Torah portion, but I do believe that we need to sacrifice our egos, our own selves and our time to be in relationship with God.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Today’s sanctuary is wherever we receive the holy

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

The main focal point of the book of Shemot (Exodus), which we conclude this week, is the Mishkan — the traveling sanctuary for the Jewish people (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). Hearing the word “sanctuary” may bring associations with peacefulness, such as finding a place of quiet refuge, listening to the soothing sounds or admiring the beauty and harmony in nature. A holy sanctuary, however, suggests something more precise, with guidelines and requirements to create the ideal channel.
The Hebrew word for “holy” connotes “separate, designated and distinct.” In order for holiness to enter our physical arena, it has to descend or be “drawn down” through selfless human action. The famous instruction came in the second year (of wandering in the wilderness): “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst.” This construction entailed specific materials (multicolored curtains, loops of blue wool, acacia planks covered in gold, red ram’s skins, silver sockets, etc.), measurements and ornaments (the Ark, the menorah, the table); only then did the Jewish people merit an exceptional elevation.
In later years, a magnificent edifice stood upon a Jerusalem hilltop, the point of contact between heaven and earth. So important was this house of worship to Jewish life that nearly two-thirds of the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) are contingent upon its existence. Its destruction is regarded as the greatest tragedy of our history. The remaining stone wall has become as sacred site for millions of visitors. The anticipated rebuilding, throughout our daily prayers, marks the ultimate redemption — the renewal of complete unity within creation. What did this physical structure accomplish?
From Sinai to sanctuary
The main purpose of the Mishkan (dwelling) and Temple, according to Nachmanides, was to serve as a resting place for the Shechinah (the Divine presence). And the secret trigger, among the vessels, was the mysterious Ark of the Covenant, sheltered within the innermost chamber. “As it states (Exodus 24; 22), ‘I will arrange my meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the Ark cover’ … From here, the same presence which originally rested among the children of Israel at Mount Sinai would remain with them inside the sanctuary.”
The commentaries explain that in the original natural order, before the Torah, the luminous heavenly realm was disconnected from the earthly life. There was no possibility of bridging the two worlds, like a travel restriction between countries. With the grand event on Mount Sinai, the barrier was broken. The influx of holiness — where a higher reality entered our material realm — is regarded as a novelty within the system of creation. Unlike prophecy or divine insight, usually restricted to an individual’s superior capabilities, this divine manifestation was an inclusive occurrence.
Highlighting the Hebrew symbolic images of “cloud” and “glory,” Nachmanides points to the precise phraseology (and meaningful repetitions) at the end of this week’s Torah reading, illustrating the parallels between the rare revelation on Mount Sinai and the mystical level within the sanctuary: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” Likewise, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” The only difference, he explains, was that on Mount Sinai the divine presence was open and temporary, while in the holiness pervading the sanctuary stayed and resided more covertly.
Then and now
While the temple stood, divinity was revealed. Love for mitzvot came easily. A heavy dose of holiness drifted through Jerusalem. But after the dreaded destruction, during an extensive bitter exile forcing Jewish communities to be scattered across the world, often among hostile neighbors, this spiritual ambiance has become more like a detached tale. But our current deficit, where enjoyment and passion in mitzvot has largely diminished, carries with it the opportunity for the virtue of effort, the exercise of independent will, to unveil itself.
While we no longer see a grand sanctuary, the central station of Jewish life, we still have the ability to establish our own special place, a stopping point during our daily travels, a platform to rise above the daily grind and plug into a higher perspective. Each synagogue, for instance, is termed a “miniature temple.” Then there’s our personal sanctuary. Here too, we must actively construct it. The solid foundation — the trigger for holiness to rest — is the mitzvah; “Blessed are you…who has sanctified us with His mitzvot…” That’s why, before praying, there’s a custom to drop a coin in a tzedakah box, a small gesture to set the tone for both reflection and connection. Being surrounded by a selection of holy books calms the mind.
These simple acts create the setting. The absorption and integration of holiness comes from mindfulness during that designated space and window of time, like Torah study, approached with humility and a desire to connect to sacred wisdom. Constructing our own personal sanctuary — in our house, office or wherever we designate — sanctifies a corner of our individual world. It’s an easy yet vital substitute for the sanctuary we read about and remember.

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In today’s world, Purim-like chaos displaces order

Posted on 01 March 2018 by admin

Depending on when you are looking at your TJP, this is either right before or right after Purim. Depending on your idea of a fun time, you either rushed to your nearest congregation or JCC for a night of loud, crazy dress-up fun, or you stayed far away.
Every year, communities prepare for the retelling of the tale of Haman, Esther, King Ahasuerus and Mordechai. This story of almost certain Jewish annihilation transformed at the last minute into a miraculous victory is accompanied by screaming children, loud noisemakers, goofy plays, bad puns and, in some communities, much drinking.
Purim turns our world upside down. We act out at temple. We run through the sanctuary, we make as much noise as possible and barely hear what others around us are trying to say. Purim has been called many things, but never a quiet holiday.
One of the commands of the day is to make so much noise that when the name of the villain, Haman, is called out, we cannot hear it above the clamor. In some Jewish communities, his name is written in chalk on the ground to stomp out or erase his memory.
It is an understatement to say that thoughtful communication is not the goal of the day. And yet, I confess that Purim was always one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Something about having permission to turn the temple into the set of an old Marx Brothers movie always excited me. Purim suggests that creating chaos can be a sacred act.
But, of course, Purim ends, and we begin to count the days until Passover. Passover tells a different tale of deliverance. Instead of the defeat of wicked Haman, we read of God’s deliverance of our people from Egyptian bondage to freedom. We tell the tale around a dinner table at a service called a Seder. Seder means order. Every sip of wine, every bite of food and every moment of the storytelling follows an intentional plan.
Our tradition teaches us that chaos is fun for a time, but our mission is to return to order. Perhaps that is why I am a little less excited about Purim this year.
Our society seems to be living in a nonstop state of Purim. Just turn to any news station, Twitter account or Facebook page that delves into the problems of the world and you will be confronted by the deafening sound of escalation. Problems of the day are presented not with the goal of beginning a dialogue, but with the intent to drown out the other side. Dialogue has been replaced by screaming and invective. The goal is chaos 24/7. It’s all very entertaining until we realize that nothing is getting solved and no one is listening.
Purim only works as a reaction to order. In an environment of constant turmoil, it loses its power. And so this year, I seek the order of Passover, the quiet of thoughtful communication and the embrace of family around a dinner table surrounded by conversations.
My hope is that we find ways to speak to each other once again, that these never-ending diatribes will finally exhaust us and give way to a year of true and thoughtful dialogue. I wish this because there are pressing and complex problems that we need to join together and solve, because our communities are in desperate need of healing, and because someone needs to demonstrate the art of listening to our children. But mostly, I wish it because I miss Purim. It’s just no fun celebrating chaos when every day feels like another Purim shpiel.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.

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