Friday, July 14, 2017

A Six Year Old Perspective on Parshat Pinchas – Dedicated to Neli and Neima

Okay, so to be totally transparent (a commodity these days, right?) my daughter’s daughters are almost seven. But nonetheless. So we were walking to Machaneh Ramah Yomi (Ramah Day Camp) this morning and chatting about Parshat Pinchas. I had just read my colleague Rabbi Haim Ovadia’s thoughtful post (as his always are) about how we understand Pinchas’ initiative in correcting the slippery slope of wrong dealings and doings amongst his people by finally putting his foot down, so to speak, and killing Zimri and his cohort who had just gone too far. Sometimes, we have to take such individual action on behalf of the greater good, but such actions must be undertaken properly and sparingly. Remember that we are in the book of BaMidbar/Numbers and reading about how the chapters of life for the B’nai Yisrael in the spiritual desert of their physical desert unfolded. Complaining about Manna, Miriam starting trouble regarding what she said about Moses, the scouts scaring the people regarding the land, it was all just too much! So far in our litany of missteps, a talking donkey is one of the few who makes the most sense. An interesting lesson for us in our lives today!!!!!

Anyway, I digress! So how exactly does one explain the concept of the “greater good” to almost-seven year olds when it involves killing people (with a spear, so we are told) who do wrong things (yes, we know, its not the bad child, its just not-so-good things that the poor little tater tot does!) and then one’s reward for doing so is being insured of the everlasting Priesthood and a covenant of peace? Very carefully, very carefully….. that’s how.

I have tremendous faith in the wisdom of young minds so all I do is set the stage and then they will give me the language and Neli and Neima are not ones to disappoint! I started by explaining that the B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel, had just gone too far and that bad actions begat bad actions. At this point, Pinchas says “Enough!” so to speak and shall we say, disposes of the wrongdoers……so that the people will understand they are really not behaving the way they should and need to get their act together. So then I ask, how do we do that – you know, remove the wrongdoers from the group? I was thinking along the lines of a time-out, a reflection paper, or such, but a better answer was provided from these wonderful children, who are no doubt Harvard bound! They proposed that when a child does not fit into the class or school, they may have to be removed and go somewhere that is better for them as well as protect the rest of the students if they are not behaving properly. I TOOK IT! Yes, that works, that is exactly what we do, because otherwise if we do not take any corrective action, then the who class, school, camp bunk or nation will end up totally off track! Now how do we do that for an entire nation?????

So the greater good trumps the individual, right? Well not so fast! Jewish law has many correctives built into it to protect every individual and balance that with the notion that we do every possible thing to help each person but cannot sacrifice the whole for a single part. It’s a tricky balance to be sure. In this case, the solution was indeed that Pinchas had to act harshly, not just for the wrongdoers but for the entire nation for whom wrongdoing had become the accepted normal way, and this could not be. That’s why we have rules and limits and boundaries; and of course our young scholars understood this.

Now, tonight we get to go further in the Parsha and learn about the other end of the spectrum of Jewish Law where the Torah mandates that land is passed on through families and their male inheritors. That’s great when there are sons but what about Zelophachad who had no sons but daughters? Moses will go directly to God and ask what he should do that is fair and here we learn about laws that can be amended for the right purpose for the people who are acting appropriately and honorably. I am really looking forward to that discussion with the almost-seven year olds about our first Jewish female property owners.

Shabbat Shalom and a great weekend to all.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Parshat Shelach Lecha 2017/5777

A well-chosen and experienced prestigious group of people is sent on a mission! The tasks are clearly set out for the members of this group and they are respected leaders of long standing, known to their tribes, to each other and to Moshe. They are “men of understanding,” wise ones, if you will. The task is not too much, the distance not exceedingly great, and the itinerary is clearly laid out. The instructions come from none other than G-d, distilled through Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no way to fail, right? NOT! Sounds like the beginning of a set- up or a great detective story of what went wrong and why and let’s find all, or at least some of, the clues in the most obscure of places. So, we will learn a bit from a well-known Israeli author who writes detective stories and mysteries, Dror Mishani.

First of all, Mishani has us consider who would be the best people to send on such a mission – to check out a new place, to see what is there and to report back on the various elements as instructed. He posits that perhaps the old and tired though well-respected leaders were NOT the best choice! What if youths had been sent, who were absolutely up for something new and exciting – dangerous even, an adventure that would be a game-changer for their lives? Would we have had different results?

Let’s consider the instructions for a moment. In 13: 17 – 20, we read as follows:

17 And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them: 'Get you up here into the South, and go up into the mountains; 18 and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwell there, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; 19 and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; 20 and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.'

Notice the final words of these instructions: וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם, וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ Now, they were not in the grocery store, so we have to understand what is being said to them when Moshe instructs: : וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם,… They will have to gather the strength to find, pick, carry and maintain these HEAVY HUGE fruits of the land. Who can do this better – younger or older people? Remember that these were the days where EVERYTHING was a matter of “working out” and there was no need for gyms. Let us consider how reactions to the task at hand would potentially resonate differently – those who will take on anything and anyone; or those who are making the decisions and have the “gift” of experience to help those who do not have the context for the largess of this experience? Not such a clear-cut answer, right?

To think about this a bit more deeply, is there something that might be lost as we consider who we have leading us and prefer experience and wisdom to younger and more creative individuals who may not follow so literally when they are told what to do? Think of those of us who work with groups of colleagues and younger professionals try to “break in” to our groups and meet with resistance.

Some of us sitting here heard Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov speak at the annual event Chabad holds to honor the Rebbe last Monday. Rabbi Shem Tov stressed something that really resonated with me. He explained how Moshe knew to turn and to move when G-d appeared. Moshe understood that something powerful and beyond his capability was happening at that moment and he needed to recalibrate, if you will, to reconsider known and successful behavior patterns, perhaps. In other words, when do we stop feeling that sense of awe that tells us something larger than ourselves is going on here?

When we do, I think, we stop leading effectively. Leading is NOT about knowing everything; it is about knowing what we know and being honest about what we don’t and humbly turning towards the source of knowledge and others to help support us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites seven principles of leadership, which I will name and cite their application to our narrative:

1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility. That means consider how your actions will have an impact on others. Your reactions will be followed and taken as a cue for the actions of the masses. 2. No one can lead alone. Even groups of leaders need the support of others to have an effect. It has been said that it is not the first person that begins a trend, but those who follow that person and spread it. 3. Leadership is about the future. It is perhaps here that the scouts, leaders and people failed the most; comparing what would be to what was; not what is to what can be. 4. Leaders learn. Leading is admitting that one does not know everything but needs to continue to grow in their own life. This means not speaking so authoritatively and not being convinced that you have all the answers. 5. Leadership means believing in the people you lead. An interesting question to consider is did the scouts, and in turn, the other leaders in the community have faith in the masses. Was the challenge too much for them or did they not have faith in the ability of those they led to meet up to it? 6. Leadership involves a sense of timing and pace. Perhaps it is here that we learn one of the biggest lessons in our drama – being free is NOT the same as learning to live as a free person; and the former does not guarantee the latter. It takes time to learn how to be different, how to take on new privileges and the responsibilities which come with them – with freedom. 7. Leadership is stressful and emotionally demanding. We are called on to be a Mamlechet Kohanim – a nation of leaders – and that is not just privilege or right, it IS responsibility in a large way!

Perhaps the leaders of the tribes of the B’nai Yisrael could not do this – accept the challenges of leadership, continue to learn new strategies in new settings, and hold onto a vision of the future. Perhaps the people who placed their faith in them would have seen doing so as a sign of weakness or uncertainty. As Ramban teaches us, the leaders of the tribes did exactly what they were asked to, no less and no more. In other words, they did not think “outside of the box.” Had they done so, the large stature of the people in Eretz Yisrael could have been seen as a positive thing, something to aspire to, instead of relegating themselves to looking as insignificant “grasshoppers” in their own eyes, and they supposed, in the eyes of others. For well-experienced leaders who had gone through the slavery of Mitzrayim and so many challenges that colored and determined their reactions to everything, this is understandable. Perhaps this would not have seemed so daunting to younger and less experienced scouts, who may not have succumbed to fear so readily and been more open to Sacks’ prescribed program of leadership.

Mishani goes on to explain that while sending younger scouts may have altered the report and thus avoid the negative reactions of the masses, there is a larger issue here. Simply, the B’nai Yisrael were not up to the task. Wishing for freedom and to live with personal agency was not enough. Had the larger group not experienced the same fear and hesitation as seen in their leadership, they could have given them pushback just as Caleb and Yehoshua did. But they did not! And this may be an important but often overlooked point. In other words, while many of our commentators fault the leaders who were sent with inciting the people; it is possible, that they only reflected and mirrored the fears that made all hesitate. This may be why the forty years in the desert were needed, explains Mishani. The B’nai Yisrael had to come to Eretz Yisrael with different mindsets and different skill sets and would need time to develop them, under new leadership. Think of this dynamic along the lines of those of us who are children of immigrants, whose first generation in a new land was so wrapped up with survival needs that it would be left to the following generation to strive for a qualitatively better life including more education and new professions.

As Mishani points out, and Nechama Leibowtiz agrees, the scouts did what they were supposed to do. They gave a positive report. While the text in our Parsha attributes negative intentions to them -- הָאָרֶץ דבת, note what they say:

'We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.

They then recount the various people who live there, all of this being within the framework of the objective reporting with which they were tasked. Nonetheless, it creates hysteria. Notice who leads this reaction, as we read in the beginning of Chapter 14:

1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.

While we read העדה כל ותשא , Rashi explains that EDAH is actually the SANHEDRIN, or the 70 elders, again the time honored and experienced leadership.

In too many ways, this may be considered an anti-leadership story in terms of those who have proven themselves and taken on the reins of shepherding the group. In Parshat Shoftim later in Sefer Devarim, we are taught that different times will call for different types of leadership. It may just be that this is one of the texts that proves this point.

John Quincy Adams taught that “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” This may very well have been the problem – the Meraglim, the leaders of their tribes, just followed the instructions. They did not dream so how could they teach others to dream? They could not learn or do more, so how would they become more? And this is what the B’nai Yisrael had to do, to become more so that they could be more. It is, perhaps, in this that the “community elders” failed the people.

This was clearly a test, and it appears that it may have been a test for all. Mishani compares it to a couple who meet and are going to get married. They begin with hopes and aspirations, then speak about all of the potential downfalls and when challenges confront them, if they are equipped to handle them, the couple will survive. If not, the prognosis is not good. Mishani thus suggests that time was needed for all parties – for the people, for new leadership to evolve and for G-d to figure out the new relationship G-d would have with this people as well. In so doing all parties had to step back and admit they had to learn about each other, growing within themselves first and then possibly grow together with each other and their new home.

May we all take this lesson to heart and remember that none of us is a finished product; thinking so and just doing what we are told to do by rote will not bring us to new heights and desired success. We must always continue to “scout out” new horizons and learn from all around us, including those who may not share our years of experience, turning to learn from all that is around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Light, Our Words and the Importance of Interfaith Dialogue

I am writing these words as I sit (during a bit of a break) at a day-long retreat that our Multi-Faith Council (yes, that’s you, CAMC and all of you wonderful people – my brothers and sisters in faith) has annually. I was honored by being asked to give the closing blessing for this wonderful gathering of about 25 – including Christians and Jews and Muslims of various denominations and identities. As I always think in terms of texts, I note that this week’s Torah portion for the Jewish Community is Parshat Be’Haalotecha. This portion begins with the words that are conveyed regarding the commandment to “light the lamps that give light in the Menorah.” At this point, the Parsha goes on to speak about the Menorah and other matters of import. Then, we begin to see troubles afoot, related to the use of language, loss of gratitude, complaints of the people of Israel, and general fears run rampant on so many levels. Towards the end of the reading, we read about hurtful words that Miriam utters regarding Moshe and his treatment of his wife, as well as the resulting harm it caused within their family constellation, in public, and ultimately, for Miriam herself. I find it so poignant that we begin this reading with the power of light and its wide reach and end with how wide reaches in our lives can be destroyed or compromised by our words.

Today’s retreat is all about words – the words that we use to connect to people of faith with whom we both share so much and simultaneously hold onto and honor the differences that are fundamental to our various faith communities. When we really want to accurately communicate with others, we watch our words carefully, being as concerned (if not more so) with what those with whom we are communicating are hearing as we are focused on what we are saying. This was perhaps the misstep of Miriam; speaking from emotion, without regard to how her words would be heard or further taken on by her brother, Aaron. While there are many explanations of what happened in this narrative, this is a possibility that I think is most worthy of consideration.

This morning, before arriving at the retreat, I checked my email and found a writing from a Rabbi for whom I have great respect and is becoming a treasured colleague. He wrote about how verbal attacks continue to bring our community down in so many profound ways. Specifically, he was referencing another Orthodox Rabbi who is quite respected and was talking about LGBTQ inclusion; and the vicious attack that was subsequently launched against him by other Orthodox Rabbis. This wise Rabbi, in explaining what happened in his writing, cited the threefold process that is often used to misuse and abuse our religious teachings; namely, take words and texts out of contexts; then play on people’s emotions and fear; and finally, align with people in positions of power who will accept your version of events and texts. As we all know too well, this is done way too often and by people in ALL of our faith communities. THIS WAS THE FOCUS of our day long retreat- how to turn this tide and to listen and share, truly looking to hear and have empathy for the other and to include that person in our own vision of our world.

We talked about taking risks, the importance of truly learning about, with and from each other and the value of shared space that we create by such meaningful and caring practices. One participant often uses the concept of “being held” by the group, meaning we attend to each other and are attentive to all that is being said and shared. Interestingly enough, within the narrative of the Miriam and Moshe incident, G-d reminds all that Moshe was “very meek, above all people on the face of the earth.” We know that Moshe did NOT always know the answer, going to his father-in-law, Jethro for advice; approaching none other than G-d in trying to figure out what to do regarding the property of Zelophachad and his daughters’ right to inherit it. G-d says that G-d speaks “face to face” (so to speak) with Moshe, precisely connected to how respectful and intentional Moshe was (which may not be the perception we have in every instance, but just stay with the point here).

Earlier this week, my husband and I, along with many friends, were at an event commemorating the Lubavitcher Rebbe and I heard a lovely idea from Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov that Moshe moved when G-d was present; and we too much recognize that whatever we know and whoever we are, there are always instances in which we must STOP, SEE and LISTEN; acknowledging that we DO NOT always know everything and should not take teachings out of context. It is humility that allows us to open ourselves up to our own inner thoughts, each other, our community, all humans, and ultimately, G-d, THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS.

In our Multi-Faith Council, we share so many fundamental and core beliefs across the differences of practice, definitions of community and how we relate to THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS. I am grateful beyond words for this group and I want to share the last words of my closing prayer from a little while ago (as I now sit after the end of the retreat).

Let us hold onto our sense of gratitude, continue to share words of meaning and engagement in our dialogue with each other, always acknowledging what we share and honoring our differences and RAISE LIGHT TO ALL through the use of caring actions. Let us open our arms fully to let in the breath of G-d, The Holy One, and commit ourselves collectively to do Tikkun Olam, repairing our damaged world and its shattered vessels, while we try to be the best and most humble people of faith we can be. Amen and I wish all Shabbat Shalom, a meaningful Sabbath to our Christian members, and a peaceful and fulfilling Ramadan to our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When Society Falls Apart….

I sit and write these words as we begin our preparations for Shavuot (think Pentacostal, my non-Jewish friends, colleagues and readers). This is called Zeman Matan Torateinu or The Time of the Receiving of our Torah and is the celebration of what we have been waiting for since Pesah or Passover, commemorating our leaving of Egypt and our hopes and dreams for something so much better … a better way of life, a better society and better quality of the human condition, that finds its expression in the words, laws and instructive stories of Torah.

As always, our lives are so filled with so many mixed emotions and experiences for those of us who pay attention; and as you know so well by now, I am one of those who always do just that. Our family was blessed with a new soul that entered this world this past Thursday – our daughter Yoella and her husband’s fourth daughter, named this past Shabbat as Kassia Hannah (in Hebrew חנה קציעה ), in memory of both of my parents, Kenneth Gordon (Kalman HaLevi) and Hannah (Chanah), may their memories be a blessing for all and may this little girl carry and be guided by the grace of Hannah and the gentle strength of Kalman. Simultaneously, one friend of ours recently passed from this world and another is gravely ill. I often wonder how people go through their lives and to what degree they can hold onto their hopes and intentions as they navigate what life throws at all of us. So many emotions on a personal level!

Then there is the matter of our world and our country and these extremely frustrating, perplexing and troubling times in which we live. So I look at this new little girl and think about the legacy that she comes into our world with and the high hopes her parents and our entire family have for her and her amazing three sisters, Adel Raya, Neima Hadar and Neli Shimona – and all those whose legacies these little girls carry in their names from relatives and loved ones in their parents’ lives. And I wonder, how is it that we go from such high hopes and optimism to such opposite emotions and realities in our daily world? What is it that happens?

Today I completed learning of Masechet Sotah, the book of the Talmud that is titled for the wife that is suspected of going astray and committing adultery and the “test of the suspected adulteress” that is particularly painful to read about, much less imagine anyone going through this horror. While the Tractate begins with discussion of this woman who has done something so terribly wrong, it becomes quite clear, as it often does in learning Gemara, that she is not alone and this is NOT all about her. Rather, it is also about the man with whom she commits this act, the lawlessness in society in which they lived, and the conditions that led to the lawlessness that characterized that society in which these actions occur and may even be tolerated to varying degrees. The latter part of this Tractate clearly articulates that so many practices that represented the best of who the Jewish people were meant to be went by the wayside as time went on. Once the Temple was destroyed, the people lost their “clubhouse” and strayed a bit. Then learning ceased, great teachers died, and the chaos intensified to the point that practices that depended on the righteousness of that society had to be suspended and no longer practiced.

We are taught that the trial of the suspected adulteress was one of these suspended practices, never to be initiated again for there were not enough honest and blameless people in the community to point to the Sotah, who was to be an aberration. The point of the trial was not just for the wrongdoers, but to act as a clear warning and object lessons for the rest of society reminding them to act according to the laws that were set in place for a reason – to allow all to be the best they could be. If numbers of pious and righteous people were no longer the majority or critical mass, than who is blameless enough to point to such a person and wrongdoers are no longer the aberration but rather the norm! Certainly, we worry about that in our lives today when the question is too often no longer “what did X do wrong?” but rather, “can they get away with it?” As one lawyer stated to me several years ago when I was clearly wronged, “Just because its legal doesn’t mean its moral and just because its moral, does not mean there is legal recourse.” That was the point of Torah – it was truly intended to be both!

There is a critically important message here. We MUST hold onto our legacies as well as respect our past and the proper rule of society so that our children will continue to do so. This is, I believe the role of Torah (or whatever your code of law and practices is in your faith community, reader) in our lives – to remind us of what was, what should be and how we MUST continue to live so we can regain a sense of how we should properly go about this business called life.

So here it is Erev Shavuot and we are prepared to sit up all night and learn as we commemorate the excitement of receiving the code of laws that were intended to keep us honest and forthright and living in a way in which our dreams and hopes can be realized, while our wonderful legacies are protected. This is my hope for these four little girls and all of our children and future generations. May we all continue to be guided by the Torah we celebrate this week (or our appropriate Holy Writ) and bring its light into our world, regardless of what others around us are doing. In so doing, I hope that Kassia, Adel, Neima and Neli and all of our beautiful children will fulfill the hopes and desires we have for them as they grow and take on their place in our world and in our respective histories. In this way, they will fulfill the wonderful legacies they come into our world with as support.

Chag Shavuot Sameach and with hopes for all of us!

Thursday, May 18, 2017


I am presently learning Masechet Sotah in my daily Talmud learning. The Sotah in Jewish Law was the suspected adulteress and the trial to which one was submitted in such circumstances was quite grueling and upsetting. However, the Talmud in its typical and organic manner goes far beyond the surface details or the particular situation and in fact, this text and its discussion is about the downfall of society due to the lack of accountability for all of its members, from the most vulnerable to the most powerful. Most of this Tractate (lengthy text) is really about what happens when we stop watching each other and keeping each other in check regardless of position in society, whether elected or appointed. Throughout various discussion, there is a great deal of ‘handing off” with a succession of honored individuals in the procession when there is something important happening. For those of us in synagogue with any regularity who have witnessed how the Torah is handed to several different people when it is taken from the Ark in which it is kept, this too is outlined and explained in great detail in this particular text. The point often made in the Gemara is that NO ONE INDIVIDUAL is above the others, but rather all are accountable to the rules and regulations set forth by none other than G-d, and given to the Jewish nation in Torah (as well as other texts for other peoples who go by their own respective Holy Writ).

Within this discussion of all of the horrible things that will happen when society becomes lawless and lost is a treatment of leadership regarding going to war. There are specific proclamations, an order of actions to follow, a chain of command, and so on. The High Priest as well as the King have specific power but more important, there is clearly accountability for them as well. No one is immune to the system of checks and balances. This Tractate, which is so concerned with the downfall of society, shows how when power has gone to one’s head, so to speak, they fell, and they and all with them fell hard. It is only when the given instructions are followed, the proper blessings are said and the ones in power understand the LIMITS of their agency that the system works. Otherwise, disaster!

Okay, so is not all that difficult to see where I am going with this. I have been so upset with what is happening in our country these past months and am horrified by the circus that people are addicted to watching. I do worry about the ramifications of unbridled power and unchecked narcissism and do not find any of this entertaining in any way! I can honestly say that I have maintained this position since the very beginning when a certain individual claimed he was running for President of the United States because in his words, “I can.” NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME! It never was and as time goes on, I am watching so many people come to this realization.

As I have shared before in this blog, in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are taught that the King should write and have a copy of the Torah by his side at all times. Why is this? Here is your accountability! To remember, that as framed in Jewish law and teachings, the purpose of the leader is to implement the laws and follow them as an example; not to sidestep them, minimize their importance and act as if one is above or outside of the confines of the dictates of that system of limits and rules. This is the lesson of Tractate Sotah, which explores the notion that people will act wrongly and bring society down when their leaders do not act as appropriate role models for what it means to act within the lines of the established law and to honor it at all times as well as acknowledge its Lawgiver. Perhaps that is why every President until present ALWAYS from the beginning of their candidacy would end every speech with “G-d bless America.” This is understanding that there is a force or source or power to which even the Head of State is accountable. Otherwise, as taught in Tractate Sotah, we can be in a lot of trouble.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017 The Many Paths of Kedusha in our Lives

Please note that this D'var Torah (shared thinking) was presented at this past weekend's Eshel Fifth Annual Parents'Retreat. Eshel is a very important community to our family as the Orthodox LGBTQ Organization that works to create and encourage Orthodox Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming to all of our Jewish community members, wherever they are on the continuum of their gender and/or sexuality identity. For more information on this and other writings of this type, please contact me at

The theme of this Eshel Parents’ Retreat is “Happy, Healthy and Holy.” We all pray, hope and want our children and those we love to be happy, healthy and whole as well as holy (Kadosh).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that every Jew, or every “yid” is Kadosh and does so many Mitzvot every day on their continuing path to higher levels of Kedusha.

In this week’s Parsha we read as follows:

You shall be Kadosh because I the Lord your G-d am Kadosh.

KADOSH/KEDUSHA – this is such an important and central word and concept to us as Jews. Clearly, it is difficult to translate accurately, even more so to encapsulate in its entirety and magnitude. As we read about the system of laws and practices that so defines us as a people and individually as members of this collective, this directive is repeated in various formulations with stark regularity. We attach the highest levels of sanctification, spirituality and the very core of our identity to these regulations as well as their foundational ethical components in connecting with our past in a visceral, as well as intellectual and practical manner. Rashi teaches that most fundamental teachings of the Torah depend on this part of the text; so much so that it was always and often taught in public assemblies.

This week’s double Parsha (Torah reading) is included in Chapters 17 – 27 of VaYikra which are indeed about the practices and intentional actions of our lives that define us as those commanded to be Kedoshim; and are dubbed The Holiness Code by Biblical scholars, including those in the secular world. These chapters are marked by a concern for holy living on the part of the people rather than a concern with sacrificial systems or ritual purity, as are the first sixteen chapters of the book. The standard of living to which the Holiness Code calls the B’nai Yisrael is to be exemplified in all arenas of life--economic, social, personal, familial, and in relation to each other. The refrain that marks these chapters -- "I am the LORD" or "I am the LORD your God." occurs only two times in Leviticus 1-16, but forty-seven times in chapters 17-26, with the majority in our reading today. We are to be KADOSH because the Lord our God is KADOSH. This sense of and identity with Kedusha is to mirror God's and these chapters provide us with a myriad of ways in which we do this.

One cannot escape noticing that this code of Ethical Behavior or those actions that bring Kedusha into our lives is juxtaposed with the narrative of our leaders, Aaron’s very sons, the Kohanim, who did not follow the prescribed manual of actions but rather offered their own strange fire; and Aaron’s need to use both his personal experience and his public office to remind the B’nai Yisrael of how we are to be and what should motivate our actions – our aspirations to be Kedoshim. Within this narrative we read about atonement, what to do to set straight what has gone off center when we are NOT ONE with G-d. It is immediately after learning about this process of re-centering ourselves that we are confronted with so many different ways to remain centered, or the many paths of Kedusha that are accessible to us in our daily lives – that is to ALL of us, regardless of status (we are not all Kohanim, for example, nor are we Nazirim with their situational designation of Kedusha), whether we are men or women, whether we observe the places and times so identified with Kedusha, and regardless of our means.

Moshe Safdie is an Israeli architect who is known world-wide for his work on a variety of ventures, including several places of worship for Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith communities as well as the 2005 design for Yad v’ Shem and the Mamilla Mall in Yerushalayim with its signature blend of historical footprint and contemporary rhythm of life. Safdie explains that no matter where in the world he has worked, “ our designs are specific to place and culture – they are inspired by and woven into the historic, cultural and social fabric of their site.” When asked by Dov Elbaum in an interview on Israeli television what קדושה means to him, he explained that he feels that sanctity is created by the people who infuse the spaces he creates with meaning through their actions and the purposeful involvements of their lives. Safdie explains how in this way our Beit HaMikdash and practices from long ago and the memory we have of these chapters of our collective lives can translate into many other meaningful spaces through the merit of the actions of those who maintain the community and its institutions. Here Kedusha happens where we are and through what we do.

A very different definition of Kedusha is suggested in speaking of the “Sanctity of Place,” as taught by Prof. Israel Knohl:

The biblical word “kadosh” (holy) denotes something distinct and lofty. According to the Bible, kedusha[1] (holiness or sanctity) stems from God, who is sanctified and distinct from the created world. Anything closely connected to God receives its sanctity, kedusha, from the divine kedusha. The sanctity of a place derives from the presence of God there. Thus, when God appears to Moses at the burning bush, that ground automatically becomes sanctified (Exod. 3:5). Once God’s presence leaves that place, it loses its sanctified status.

Do we have conflicting notions here or is there something else to consider? What do we as Jews bring to the space in which we are to amplify the sense of Kedusha?

Most, if not all of us are all so familiar with the pivotal words of VaYikra 19:18 -- כמוך לרעך תואהב -- And you shall show love to YOUR RE’AH as you would for/to yourself -- and its centrality for such notable teachers as Hillel and Rabbi Akiba, as well as what some may perceive as its overuse as the distillation of all that is Torah which some of us may feel minimizes this sense of Kedusha as well as its own intrinsic meaning. Professor Menachem Hershman, a well-known teacher of Talmud and Jewish texts in Israel teaches that this concept is truly, as Hillel teaches “a great precept/rule in the Torah.” Prof. Hershman teaches that it is LOVE, this AHAVAH, that should define and be the prism through which all of our actions come; and by acting out of this love, we will act intentionally and carefully, showing care to others in so many actions and that it is THIS that will bring Kedusha to all of the PLACES in which we find ourselves through the activation of our initiatives.

So let’s look a bit more carefully for context. We read verses 17 and verse 18 as follows, immediately after being told to not stand idly by while our רע is in harm’s way:

17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor (who wrongs you), and not bear sin because of him. 18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

The development of these verses is quite specific. Do not bear hatred towards those closest to you --- hold your relative accountable and do not embarrass him in public; do not hold a grudge or take revenge against those with whom you share a destiny, and then show love to the other – ךרעל -- as you would do for yourself.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches as follows (5767) regarding the very specific and intentional wording of these two verses:

The inner logic of these verses in our sedra is therefore this: “Love your neighbor [?] as yourself. But not all neighbors [or even brothers!]are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent of what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge ...”

What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unlivable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic program. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.

This means that one is to ‘love your friend [ רע] as yourself.’ We know that there are in fact many words in Hebrew for indicating relationality .. here are a few relevant to our discussion at hand: גרך -חבר -רע -עמיתך- אח Why is the word רע used in this instance? Why not חבר, for example? Why not גר or אח? חבר or אח indicate someone who is similar to you; chaver shares a root with the word lechaber -chibur (to join/connect) and chabura (a gathering) - a chaver is someone who is thus easy to befriend because he is just like you, maybe even more so than say an אח – a familial relationship (brother). Note for example, the use of the word חבר as such, in Shoftim 20:11:

חֲבֵרִים אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ הָעִיר אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ כָּל וַיֵּאָסֵף And all of Israel came together to the city as one man joined together with each other

Here, all the nation of Israel gathered together in a shared mission against the force of Giv’eah. Here they were JOINED TOGETHER in a sense of shared purpose; this is NOT the sense of our commandment here.

A re’a is someone who may indeed be quite different from you, but perhaps not as much as a גר (often translated as stranger) – maybe in ways that one does not understand nor accept; he or she might have different goals, different viewpoints, different identity points or a different personality. A re’a is not familially or nationally connected to you. The use of re’a is particularly telling; the Torah is commanding us to love davka someone who is different and not as compatible as you might like. Its easy to agree with those who agree with us; not so much with those who do not. And here is a wonderful opportunity to show and be Kedusha personified in facilitating such a relationship.

Rambam, teaches in Hilchot De’ot 6:3 that ‘it is a mitzvah [incumbent] upon each person to love each and every Jew, as well as others according to some of our teachers, like himself. He extends this to teach that we should show the same empathy towards others we would hope they would exhibit towards us. By contrast, Sforno, Ramban, the Chizkuni and many others teach that the mitzvah is not intended to instruct us to have the same love for others as you do for yourself; this is impossible for the most basic of reasons. Would HaShem command that which is impossible? So what exactly does the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha obligate us to do? We are to want good things to happen to other people just like we would want good things to happen to ourselves. Just as Bruria taught her husband Rabbi Meir to not wish for the destruction of wicked people but rather to pray that they would repent and be offered atonement so that wickedness would be destroyed but not individuals. When we carefully look at the passuk itself, we are asked by some of our teachers to note that it does not say love your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta es re’acha kamocha), but rather, show love to your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha), by wanting good things to happen to them. This is the meaning of Hillel the Elder’s teaching to “not do to others what is hateful to you, i.e. what others would do to you.”

If we use this as our guiding principle in bringing Kedusha into our world and showing this concern for others, we see why Perek Yud-Tet (Chapter 19 of VaYikra – Leviticus) is at the center of the Holiness Code and according to some of our traditions, the very text of the Torah itself. Here we see so many actions, reminding us that in undertaking these initiatives including honesty and transparency in all business dealings, interacting with those in our communities with various needs and deficits such as visual or hearing impairments, sharing our crop with others, not injuring others by use of words, not bearing grudges, judging fairly, and so much else, we enact what Rabbi Harold Kushner states when he says that “Human beings and their actions are G-d’s language.” This fulfills the notion oft repeated in the Gemara (e.g. Sukkah, Yoma, Sotah) that when one does a single Mitzvah intentionally it is credited to him as if he or she has observed the entire Torah. There are so many ways to achieve this sense of connectedness, of Kedusha.

According to the Rambam, how are you supposed to go about fulfilling the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha; is it enough to meditate and think about it, i.e. to love in your heart but not through actions? What if this intentional action does not come naturally? The key is that such attitudes, feelings or emotions will hopefully come about as the result of actions one does, as we are carefully taught in the Sefer Hachinuch. It is only when these feelings, attitudes, etc. are clothed and expressed in the form of actions that they are internalized and take root within an individual. It is in this way that one fully acquires the ability to love others as one loves oneself; one does actions that show love to others. And this is what Hillel was saying when he instructed the potential convert ‘what is hateful to you do not do to your friend;’ he did not merely say ‘love others as you love yourself,’ because he was teaching this potential convert how to go about fulfilling this mitzvah - by wrapping emotions in action to make them real. And here is where we achieve Kedusha, or intentional and unique wholeness.

We learn in Sotah 14a, for example, that indeed we bring G-d into the world by following the sanctified actions of intentionality that G-d does, such as clothing those who need clothing, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. Ibn Ezra, among others, points out that the refrain of Ani HaShem and its constant presence in our text is alluding to the concept that we reflect HaShem in this world; and unity amongst Bnei Yisrael allows HaShem’s Shechinah to reside in this world. Similarly, Rashi and others teach that it was only when we put individual differences aside and we were ‘like one man with one heart and one voice ’that HaShem gave us Torah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler teaches that this is the goal for us to work towards yet again – finding our shared sense of mission and humanity that unites us all and here we will find AHAVA and KEDUSHA.

Further, we do not stop with the one in our midst with whom we disagree, but also embrace those who come into our communities from the outside, as we are instructed in verses 33 – 34:

33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Here we see the one Mitzvah that appears more than any other in our Torah; asking us to extend ourselves even further, not just to love the one with whom we share purpose as in Yehoshua; or the one who is tied to our destiny by heritage as in our text; but now we are asked to accept and NOT turn away the stranger precisely because that happened to us and we know what it feels like.

Returning to verse 19:16 -- Do not have a gossiper in your community; do not stand by the blood of your re’ah, we are again reminded that the saving of life is above all, even to the point of setting aside other Mitzvot when needed. This valuing of human life is what should motivate us to feel the love we are told to feel and cloak that love in actions that truly make a difference, bringing Kedusha to our world. Further, we see that our very use of language itself can be a vehicle to save or destroy life. Let us all commit ourselves to using our language, our actions, and the many paths to Kedusha at our disposal purposefully and in so doing follow the central dictate of:

You shall be קדושים because I the Lord your G-d am קדוש

Finally, let us commit ourselves to acknowledging the many ways our children are indeed Kadoshim in so many aspects of their lives and the many Mitzvot(intentional actions) they do on their path to achieving this shared goal!

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, April 3, 2017


While everyone is writing tomes about Pesach/Passover and its observance and message, I would like to go in a bit of a different direction, if I may. Gratitude and HaKarat HaTov – thanking others for the hard work they have done! This is something that should be part of all of our lives, in fact part of the air that we breathe; a message I hope we all share as much as possible.

This past year, my husband Ken decided that we should see as many good movies as possible before the Oscars. I think that in the span of about six weeks, I saw more movies during their first run than I have in a decade or two, probably more, maybe ever. Usually I see maybe one or two or rarely three in the course of the year. This year, we managed to hit EIGHT, and I just love the stories they tell, the messages they carry and the chapters of our history they remind us not to forget, as well as the remarkable people whose lives we learn about.

At the top of this list has to be Hidden Figures for me. In fact, after seeing the movie, I read the book by the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, which I highly recommend for reading as well as the documentation and history it cites. As I learned more and more about Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson and other important players at that time discussed in the book but not explored in the movie such as Christine Darden and Gloria Champine, I was struck by the strides that have been made in our world by women and people of color in the work place and in life generally. Living in the Philadelphia area my entire adult life, I often note the my reactions to these stories of the racial divide and so much else in our country’s recent past – and duly noting it still leaves its scars in many places - (including Fences, Loving and other such narratives) are often much more visceral and personal than many of my friends who grew up in the North (or that area decidedly north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which apparently was a question in Baltimore, the home of my formative years).

As I noted time and years indicated in the 50s, 60s and 70s in these various narratives, I was remembering very specific chapters of my own life in which I was acutely aware that equality of opportunity and rights was not a given for women, for people of color, for people of various religions and so forth depending on where one lived and worked. I remember my mom and other women of her generation telling me that the expectation for them was to become wives and mothers with no high career ambitions, just as Dorothy Vaughn was limited in opportunities presented to her in the 30s and 40s. This was actually a point of contention between my mom and me for many years until she “got” my life and the fact that I could be a mom, a wife and a professional. I remember well the flight of John Glenn and am acutely aware that none of us knew the roles of women, much less women of color in the space endeavors in our country. The chapters of anti-Semitism, exclusion of blacks and so many others were familiar to me as I was aware that America was really a Christian Country that allowed many of us to live, hopefully freely, though not really so in too many cases. As I read about these women’s lives through the 60s and 70s I remember friends who were about six or seven years older than me and our ongoing conversations about glass ceilings we were each aware of needing to shatter. One of the women of this remarkable story, Christine Darden, had fought to take a computer programming course at George Washington University in 1973. That was my school and this was going on within the same academic environment that my friends and I were taking for granted in too many ways. Dorothy Vaughn’s dreams came to a halt in 1971 when she was “retired” due to restructuring and not able to avail herself of opportunities for which she was qualified. That was the year I graduated high school, already planning not just completing a Bachelor degree but focused on going for my Masters and Doctorate as well.

My daughters who often remind us all of the importance of gratitude are also acutely and sometimes painfully aware of the privilege they have as well, given their socio-economic background and the many factors that mark them as potentially successful people in our society. This was something they always could aspire to; while the women of Hidden Figures had to fight their way to attain the same in their own lives.

This year seems at the same time to be an appropriate one to celebrate the strides having been made through hidden stories that have now been told, all of these movies based on and some documenting true occurrences; while at the same time it would be foolhardy to not notice some of the pushback we are all witnessing regarding some of these hard won rights for freedom and the privilege of making important contributions to our society. The symbolism of Pesach/Passover is all about understanding the limits we came from (Mitzrayim, meaning narrow straits as well as the name for Egypt) and the power of freedom as well as the responsibility it places in our hands to continue to strive for so much better.

As those of us who are Jewish prepare to celebrate Pesach/Passover, also called Zeman Cheiruteinu or The Time of our Freedom, let us all take a moment and show our deepest gratitude to those who came before us and on whose shoulders and through whose battles we are able to stand where we are today. And may we all understand that just as we say we should all act as though we were with the Jewish people at the time of Yetziat Mitrayim – leaving the shackles of being at the mercy of those who would control us – it is our responsibility to continue to show gratitude for those who came before us as well as allow our own shoulders to provide support for our children and grandchildren and the many generations that are yet to come. In doing so, we should remember our responsibility to continue to fight for rights and standing that we should never take for granted and tell stories about hidden figures and triumphs.

Happy Festival of Freedom to all!