Archive | March, 2014
28 Mar
Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of "Relational Judaism," will be at Temple Torah April 4-6.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, author of “Relational Judaism,” will be at Temple Torah April 4-6.

Parashat Tazria
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
March 28, 2014

Last Sunday, I took my five-year-old daughter on a date. We went to see the Disney blockbuster, “Frozen.” The story is adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” Disney’s retelling is full of action, warm sentiment—and terrific music. In fact, its theme song, “Let It Go” has been playing in my car every day this week, particularly when I’m driving Esther. Without spoiling the movie for those who might not yet have seen it, I think it’s fair to say that the prevalent ice and snow in the story are metaphors for coldness of heart. On the other hand, acts of kindness that show warmth of the heart can melt the largest icebergs and turn the most brutal winter into spring. When we show warmth towards another person, that warmth is contagious. A single warm-hearted act can spread throughout a community and even the world. As a synagogue community, this is a message that is especially relevant to us. Sharing kindness and warmth with others is what we’re all about as a community. Overcoming chill and bringing warmth and healing to a community is a central theme of this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Tazria, there is much discussion of the special role of the ancient priesthood in diagnosing and purifying people afflicted with skin disease. In Hebrew, the disease was known as Tzaraat, apparently a complex variety of skin ailments. Since these diseases were assumed to be contagious, separation from the community was an important part of community protection. Toward the end of Chapter 13, the Torah states of the afflicted, badad, yeshev michutz laMahane moshavo. He shall dwell apart, his dwelling should be outside of the camp” (13:46).

In analyzing why a victim of skin disease must dwell apart from the rest of the camp, it’s important to note that in the plain sense of the Bible, there is no moral significance to tzaraat. Modern Biblical scholarship has demonstrated that to the Biblical reader, a skin disease was a reminder of death, and the Torah emphasizes concentration on life in the presence of the Tabernacle. When someone overcomes their ailment, he or she may return to the Temple precincts.

Rabbinic commentaries offer different interpretations. In rabbinic interpretation, there is a moral dimension to the skin diseases of this portion. One who suffers from tzaraat is a metzora, word that the rabbis of antiquity note is similar in sound to motzi shem ra—one who creates a bad name for someone else, who slanders or promotes ostracism of another human being. The Sages say, in essence, that people who cause others to be demeaned as “other” should themselves be shunned much the way the metzora is shunned in Leviticus for physical ailments.

If we dig deeper into the Torah reading as well as the commentaries, we find that the portion is about much more than shunning those who don’t meet a certain communal norm. The Torah’s focus is on people with tzaraat healing so that they may return to the camp. Commentators, including Rabbi Harold Kushner, note that tzaraat is a condition to be cured and that the focus of the kohanim is to rehabilitate people so that they can reenter the sanctuary, not to shun or permanently exclude people. Similarly, the rabbis are more concerned with changing behavior than in ostracizing people who make mistakes. We are all imperfect, yet we all have the opportunity to bring healing to broken relationships and forge strong new relationships with others.

This Shabbat, with Rabbi Zelermyer and many friends from Temple Emeth joining us at Temple Torah, we have the opportunity to celebrate the opportunity before us to come together in partnership as one community. B’shaah tovah, at a good and appropriate time, please God, this will be official within the next few months. Even before we officially join forces, we still must lay the groundwork for building strong relationships based on trust, mutual respect and recognition that we are all on the same team. We all want a strong, vibrant Jewish community that we will pass down to coming generations. The sacred task before us is rooted in the relationships that we forge with one another.

Next week, thanks to the vision and support of the Temple Torah Foundation, Temple Torah will have the honor of hosting Dr. Ron Wolfson, a renowned author, lecturer and scholar of the American Jewish community. He writes in his book Relational Judaism that the key to the Jewish future is: “It’s all about relationships.” A vibrant, intergenerational congregation like Temple Torah has a wide array of worship services and educational and social programs for our community. This is all well and good. We need opportunities for people in our community to gather, to celebrate and learn in Jewish time and Jewish space. That’s what we do as a synagogue. At the same time, we need something more. People may come to Temple Torah for programs, but they will stay for relationships. As Dr. Wolfson writes:

“It’s not about programs.
“It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps.
“It’s not even about institutions.
“It’s about relationships.”

Dr. Wolfson will share with us in depth next week his vision of what a synagogue rooted in meaningful relationships looks like and how we might take steps to get there. I believe it is vital for as many members as possible to attend the various events and services at which he will be speaking. Reservations are still being taken for Friday night dinner next week with Dr. Wolfson. He will also be speaking next week at our morning service, after Kiddush lunch, and at an evening leadership workshop for our members. Next Sunday morning he will teach about bring Relational Judaism into our homes to help us create meaningful Passover seders. Please consult the bulletin and Temple Torah website for all the times. More importantly, just come.

May God grant us the strength to seek out new opportunities to create warm, meaningful relationships that will be the foundation of our Jewish community for years to come.

(Watch Rabbi Bernstein and Dr. Ron Wolfson in conversation on YouTube.)

#TieBlog #Tazria #PG-13

27 Mar
Sperm racing to fertilize the egg so that a woman will "Tazria," conceive.

Sperm racing to fertilize the egg so that a woman will “Tazria,” conceive.

As I’ve developed my Torah tie collection over the years, I’m often asked by people with some knowledge of the Torah reading cycle what ties I could possibly wear for Tazria-Metzora. Last year, I partially answered that question with medical-themed tie for the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. The two portions together deal with various medical conditions, including skin disease, that barred victims from participation in Temple worship until they recovered. The Kohanim (priests), while certainly not doctors of today’s standards, were the arbiters of who could and could not enter the Temple precincts.

This year, due to the leap year on the Jewish calendar, the double portion is split into separate weeks. What is a TieBlogger to do? Have no fear–I have just the tie.

Parashat Tazria begins with instructions concerning a woman after childbirth and the purification rites she must go through depending on whether she bears a boy or girl. Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: “Is the normal period of impurity after giving birth one week, and is it doubled after the birth of a daughter because the new mother has given birth to a child who will herself contain the divine gift of nurturing and giving birth to new life? Or is the normal period two weeks, only to be reduced after the birth of a son to allow the mother to attend the b’rit in a state of ritual purity, or because b’rit milah on the eighth day is a purifying rite?” Rabbi Kushner leaves it to us to ponder the answer to that question. In the meantime, the verb tazria literally means, “when [the woman] conceives.” The root z-r-a means seed. In order for her to conceive and give birth, her ovum must be fertilized by sperm, also known in Hebrew as z-r-a, seed. This tie may be PG-13, but it reflects the discussion of conception and childbirth at the start of Parashat Tazria.

#TieBlog #Shemini

21 Mar
Cows have split hooves and chew their cud, the two main criteria for animals to be fit for Jews to eat, according to Leviticus.

Cows have split hooves and chew their cud, the two main criteria for animals to be fit for Jews to eat, according to Leviticus.

Parashat Shemini contains a major piece of the laws pertaining to what came to be known as Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. It describes criteria for animals that are fit for sacrifice. Animals must have split hooves AND chew their cud (such as the cows of my tie). Fish must have both fins and scales. The text lists a number of birds that are forbidden, with the general conclusion that they are birds of peer.

Interestingly, if Leviticus were the only book of the Torah, it’s very possible that Judaism would ban consumption of meat except in the sacred context of sacrifice–communal meals under the watchful eyes of the Celtic priesthood. Deuteronomy (12: 20-21) permits eating meat outside the sacrificial system, and that practice has remained normative.

Michael Pollan’s recent best seller, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” describes the power of a community watching an animal cooked over an open flame. He makes a compelling case from an anthropological perspective that eating meat–consuming the flesh of another living creature–is a powerful act that requires regulation by a society. The Israelite priests closely regulated meat consumption in the he context of sacrifices that were sacred communal meals.

My critique of Michael Pollan is that he draws upon the anthropological wisdom of Leviticus as partial justification for partaking in communal pig roasts. Pollan never hides the fact that he’s Jewish–he even describes once keeping a pet pig that he named “Kosher.” I owe a great deal of my awareness of deficiencies in the modern, Western food system to Pollan’s writing over the years. However, I had to read the first chapter of “Cooked” with a split mind. I admired the compelling use of Leviticus for wisdom on mindful consumption of animals. At the the same time, I found it personally repulsive that a well-known writer who happens to be Jewish, was describing travelling the country to find the most authentic pig barbecue, in violation of

Jonathan Schorsch writes an extensive critique of Pollan on this point. In the meantime, in an era in which Michael Pollan and others have helped society rediscover mindful eating, I think it’s pretty amazing that kashrut as a practice of mindful eating has been embedded in Jewish consciousness and practice for thousands of years.

14 Mar
Memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Memorial to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Where is that airplane, and why did it disappear? The mysterious loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues to vex security and transportation officials, leaders of government and people of good will around the world. Recent reports suggest that the lost aircraft was airborne for several hours after contact was lost with it and that it had flown west over the Indian Ocean. The prospect of foul play, therefore, seems more ominous. For the passengers on the plane, what did they know what was happening to them and when did they know it? On 9/11, many passengers aboard the four hijacked airplanes were able to communicate with loved ones with their mobile phones before dying. We know that they knew. We don’t as yet have such evidence from Flight 370. At the same time, on this Shabbat Zakhor, we recall acts of terror carried out by violent enemies against our people. The ominous possibility that acts of terror in the skies claimed the lives of innocent people gives us the chills. Even if the fate of the aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, let’s reflect a bit further on what the men and women on board may have been thinking.

The prospect of facing certain death and reflecting on it over a period of hours or minutes is terrifying. On Yom Kippur in 1986, Rabbi Kenneth Berger addressed this very issue at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa. In a now famous sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger who perished in the disaster earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”

Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.

In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, Rabbi Berger probably thought about his own sermon.

On this Shabbat Zakhor, Erev Purim, we reflect on the fragility and preciousness of life. The mitzvah of remembrance is to remind us that innocent lives lost long ago are precious. We resolve to maintain the flame of memory in order to make meaning out of our lives. Why do we have Shabbat Zakhor before Purim? Wouldn’t it make sense to fold the themes of this Shabbat into the somber day of Yom Kippur?

It turns out, there is a strange nexus between Purim and Yom Kippur. Both holidays remind us to ask ourselves what we would do if we had five minutes to live. Various sources in our tradition highlight the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.

The rabbis of the Midrash ask: “What was the good name that [Esther] earned for herself? That all the festivals may be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified… Rabbi Eliezer says, Yom Kippur, too, will not be nullified. (Midrash – Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 944)

Furthermore, according to the Zohar, the Hebrew name for Yom Kippur — Yom KipPURIM — alludes to the similarity between these two seemingly dissimilar days. Yom KipPURIM [literally means] “a day that is like Purim.” It seems incongruous that a day of joyous revelry and a day of awesome introspection should be more similar to one another than any of the other festivals to one another. What is it about Purim and Yom Kippur that create this relationship?

As Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “The reversibility of fortune, the capriciousness of life, is a message Purim shares with Yom Kippur…Yom Kippur compels us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of our lives. But on Yom Kippur we dive into this terrifying reality with austerity, reflection and spiritual wakefulness, whereas on Purim we respond by celebrating, imbibing and masquerading.”

Yom Kippur and Purim ask the common question: “What would I do if I had five minutes to live?” Both holidays acknowledge the frailty and uncertainty of life. The answers offered by each holiday, however, seem diametrically opposed to each other.

Yet Yom Kippur is more than a day of somber reflection; it is a Yom Tov, a festival, when we celebrate being cleansed of sin. At the same time, Purim is more than a day of rowdy gluttony. Our tradition has bestowed us with mitzvot, commandments, to perform acts of generosity and community building on Purim: “Make them days of feasting and gladness and of mishloah manot (sending portions of food) one to another, and matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor)” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Brous writes, “We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim with a renewed commitment to social transformation, responding to the mess of life by giving our family and friends sweet gifts and by giving generously to the poor. In other words, the only way to make sense of the absurd randomness of life and the social order is to honor the loving relationships that sustain us and work to address the imbalance of fortunes that leaves some with abundance and others with nothing. Mishloah manot and matanot l’evyonim come to reinforce that while we cannot control the world, we can control the way we live in it.”

When we give to others on Purim, we acknowledge our lack of control over our destinies. After all, life can change drastically in the span of just five minutes. Therefore, we must give generously today, for tomorrow, God forbid, we could be begging for a little spare change.

Three years before his death, Rabbi Berger had the foresight to remind himself and the broader community that life is not forever and that he only had a proverbial five minutes left.” The same is true for us.

On this Shabbat Zakhor, our thoughts are with the families of loved ones on Flight 370 who must be in unbearable pain. Let us resolve to make sure our leaders are vigilant against senseless acts of violence and terror. Let us also resolve to bring more love and kindness into the world.

We might not realize it yet, but we all only have five minutes left. The clock is ticking….

#TieBlog #Purim

14 Mar
Playing dice is a game of chance--much like Haman drawing lots in the book of Esther to determine the date on which he was to kill the Jews of Persia.

Playing dice is a game of chance–much like Haman drawing lots in the book of Esther to determine the date on which he was to kill the Jews of Persia.

Playing dice is a game of chance. In Megillat Esther, Haman plots to destroy the Jewish people. He draws lots and selects at random the date of 13 Adar on which to carry out his deed. After his plot was foiled through the heroism of Mordecai and Esther, the 13th of Adar was established as a day of fasting (the Fast of Esther), and the next day, the 14th of Adar, a day of feasting, Purim. Purim literally means “lots,” denoting the randomness on which the date was selected.

#TieBlog #Tzav

13 Mar
The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar. That would be enough for displaying my fiery tie this week. However, this week is also Shabbat Zakhor. We remember the attack on our ancestors by Amalek that was a precursor to their descendant Haman’s planned attack on the Jews of Persia as described in Esther. On Shabbat Zakhor we pause to recall all times in history when mightier powers preyed upon weaker and more vulnerable Jews. The eternal flame of remembrance reminds us of these sacrifices as well as the need never to let ourselves prey on the weak and vulnerable in our society.

Feeling God’s presence in Vayikra and in life

7 Mar
Survey of distribution of strands of Biblical authorship through first four books of Torah. Deuteronomy is from an independent source. See:

Survey of distribution of strands of Biblical authorship through first four books of Torah. Deuteronomy is from an independent source. See:

An old Jewish tradition holds that a child’s Jewish education begins with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. This might seem counter-intuitive. Unlike Genesis or Exodus, there is very little narrative in this book. Many of the laws that pertain to the sacrificial system have not been in use for 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Temple. “Small children are pure. The sacrifices are pure. Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with things that are pure!” (Leviticus Rabbah, 7). A twelfth-century German-Jewish custom includes a child reading the first verse of Leviticus and licking a drop of honey off the writing tablet so that the words of Torah will always seem sweet.

Modern Biblical scholarship has opened up the sweetness of Vayikra for us in different ways. For some traditionally observant Jews, this may sound heretical, but the fact is the Torah does not speak in one voice. The Torah is a composite of different ideologies and perspectives that were woven together into one book that together expresses to us and to the world that there are different, valid ways of understanding and approaching God within Jewish tradition. Indeed, the greatness of the Torah stems in part from the fact that the book as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Scholars have identified four major strands of Biblical authorship. They are known as J, E, P and D. J is short for Yahwist, E for Elohist, P for Priestly and D for Deuteronomist. These sources were woven together, and yet their differences were not erased. The unique characteristics of each strand were left exposed for us to derive meaning to this day.

One illustration should suffice: if the book of Exodus were our only book of the Torah, then our observance of Passover would look very different. Each one of us would take a Paschal lamb with our families, slaughter it at our homes, roast it over spit and consume it in one sitting. We would observe this rite anywhere in the world. Imagine how Florida Home Owners Associations would react on Passover night. Of course, that is not what we do. We follow Deuteronomy, which came along and mandated that all sacrifices were to be done only in the Temple in Jerusalem. It follows, that if there is no Temple, there are no sacrifices. In this and other ways, Deuteronomy is the most influential book for us in terms of our daily practice as Jews till the present day.

And yet, Leviticus is still part of our Torah. We still read it every year. Opening Leviticus anew is an appropriate time to wonder why the redactor of the Torah sought to make such fault lines among different sources plainly visible to the critical reader. The P source makes his presence known in various parts of the Torah; however, the book of Leviticus is his crowning achievement. In sifting through the details of sacrifices and ritual purity that are so prominent in P, here is the basic reason. God is with us and could be physically present with us right here right now. If we were kohanim (priests) in the ancient Temple, we would have to believe that, otherwise we would be out of work. God shows up at least once in a while in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and if so, we’d better be ready to have such a distinguished guest dining in our midst. Therefore, there have to be rules for how we behave in this environment.

These rules take into account another important detail. God is the only God and the source of all life. Any food we put into our mouth should be a reminder that God is its ultimate source. If we are to eat animals, we must not eat the blood because in blood is life. Eating meat, according to P, is done only the context of ritual sacrifice where it is sanctified on the altar, and we acquire permission from God to eat it. Outside the Temple, meat may not be eaten.

Leviticus and the P source come to tell us that God is immanent. That means God is right here with us, and our awareness of the divine Presence mandates order, ritual, decorum and purity such that we merit having God at our dinner table on an ongoing basis.

In contrast to God’s immanence in P, according to D, God is transcendent. God is distant, not readily approachable. God is a distant ruler who gave us laws through Moses as an intermediary. God will reward us for obeying the commandments and punish us for disobeying, but God is pulling the strings from afar, not from a tangible place. Based on the cultural influences around us both from within and outside the Jewish community, most of us feel more at home with the transcendent God of the universe. And yet, the voice of God’s immanence still speaks to us. We want and need to feel God’s presence.

This essential lesson of Leviticus is something that has practical implications for us in our daily lives. Imagine if we knew that God’s presence was right here, right now. How would we conduct ourselves in a way befitting our distinguished guest? In the absence of sacrificing an animal, we might think of other ways of honoring God’s presence. We might refrain from gossiping and tale-bearing about our neighbors to prevent a negative energy from infecting our sanctuary. We might love our neighbors as we love ourselves and seek to understand before we seek to be understood. We might refrain from putting a stumbling block before the blind and seek instead to communicate with one another with honesty, openness and kindness. We might seek to create a communal space of kedushah, holiness, set apart from the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, back stabbing world in which we live. In case you were wondering, all of these guidelines for personal conduct are also found later on in the book of Leviticus. The book is concerned not only with how we conduct ourselves in the Sanctuary but also how we conduct ourselves as if God were right in our midst all the time.

With this perspective, the practice of children beginning their Jewish education with Leviticus makes more sense. We should all have the taste of honey on our lips when we open the book and read: Vayikra el Moshe, [God] called to Moses. In a Torah scroll and any edition of the Masoretic text, the final aleph of the word Vayikra appears smaller than the four letters preceding it.

Dr. Burt Visotzky of JTS comments on this and says that to be called by God requires a certain amount of diminishment. In order to be called, we need to make ourselves a bit smaller. When God calls to us, we must make ourselves humble before the Creator of all things.
The small aleph in the opening word of Vayikra, reminds us of the humility with which we should approach life. I pray that this message will be as sweet to us as the taste of honey. May we strive to act both within synagogue and outside as if God is right there with us, so that we may merit God’s continued presence.

#TieBlog #Vayikra

7 Mar
Sacrificial lambs

Sacrificial lambs

Parashat Vayikra brings us into the world of sacrifices. As arcane as animal sacrifice seems to us today, it’s helpful to reflect on how our ancestors understood sacrifice. For them, sacrifice was an occasion to feel God’s presence, not out in the distant cosmos, but right at their own table. Society’s view of religion tends to be biased toward the transcendent, more distant, view of God. However, Vayikra presents a strong and equally valid position of the Torah that God is also immanent, right there with us at our meal. When we sit down to a meal with loved ones, particularly on Shabbat or holidays, rather than focusing on the stress we receive from the “black sheep” in our family (see the Tie!), we should focus on the aspects of God’s presence that bring us together. Even if we don’t sacrifice sheep and other livestock as they did in Temple times, they can still be symbols of coming together with dear ones and experiencing God’s presence.