Friday, March 30, 2012

Spring Break!


8 Nissan 5772 / March 30-31, 2012

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we continue to learn about the responsibilities given to the ancient priests, with particular focus on certain offerings, as well as what the priests were permitted to eat. We also find the formal inauguration of Aaron (Moses’s brother) and Aaron’s sons as the nation’s priests. In an elaborate ceremony, complete with anointing, sacrifices, and a 7-day party, the Israelites distinguished a separate priestly class to preside over their interactions with the Divine.

What would it be like to have a 7-day party as an entire nation today?

The closest event I can think of is Spring Break, which while indeed a huge party (for many), is far from something that the entire nation participates in.

Granted, there were likely fewer than 3 million total Israelites at the time, while in the United States, there are more than 300 million people.

Granted also, that the Israelites were wandering in the desert at the time, and didn’t exactly have to worry about working or losing their jobs the way many would today.

In the United States, what one might assume would be our greatest cause for annual celebration, Independence Day, is limited to a single date on the calendar. This year, it falls in the middle of the week on Wednesday, so there won’t even be a long built-in holiday weekend!

Given our clear shortage of celebratory time, let me propose a weeklong annual celebration, for Jews and anyone else looking for a good excuse to party as well: Passover.

Recognizing our liberation from slavery and the solidification of our identity as a nation by receiving the Torah, not to mention that the holiday falls during the spring when the weather is starting to improve, seems a perfect excuse for a weeklong party.

Amazingly, the holiday already lasts over a week in the U.S.! For 8 days every year, we have the privilege of celebrating our freedom (drinking a bit more wine than usual), recognizing our ability to help liberate those who are still enslaved around the world, and spending time with loved ones. Could there be a better party? The fact that the Exodus narrative is one that resonates with people from all backgrounds just makes the party even larger!

There is a tradition that 30 days before Passover begins (Purim!) you start studying the various Passover-specific requirements. We’re well into that window now, with Passover only a week away.

This Shabbat, start planning your ultimate Passover party.

Who are you going to invite?

How long will you celebrate?

What are you going to do together both to celebrate your own freedom and help free those still enchained?

Friday, March 23, 2012

What can you do?

1 Nissan 5772 / March 23-24, 2012

This week we move into the Book of Leviticus, a significant portion of which focuses on the ancient priests and their responsibilities. In fact, Leviticus is so intensely priest-centric that contemporary biblical scholarship, which believes the Torah was written by four distinct human authors, attributes the Book of Leviticus to the quill of an ancient priest.

Early in this week’s portion, Vayikra, we learn the rules regarding sacrificial offerings. The hierarchy of offerings is made quite clear, as the Torah first speaks of the rituals associated with offering cattle, then sheep and goats, and then fowl. Due their respective monetary values, cattle were clearly superior to sheep and goats, which were clearly superior to fowl.

And yet, it is interesting to note that each of these types of animals were sacrifice-worthy, and the Torah goes into detail as to how the priest would prepare and then offer up the various animals, once they were contributed by common Israelites.

What can we learn from this?

That people are meant to contribute according to their abilities, and even if one’s contribution is underwhelming when compared with those capable of giving more, if the contribution is indeed a reflection of that individual’s ability to give, then the contribution will be both appreciated and respected.

“Contributions” today can mean various things. Given that we’re no longer in the business of sacrificing animals, Jews today are capable of contributing time, money, ideas, our hands and feet, etc. The constant is that whatever it is we have to give, we’re expected to give it.

This Shabbat, reflect on the following:

Are you contributing to the world in accordance with your abilities?

If so, how can you sustain and seek to grow your ability?

If not, what more can you do to bring your unique light into the world?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

It is a love based on giving and receiving as well as having and sharing


23 Adar 5772 / March 16-17, 2012

In this week’s double portion (we read both Vayakhel and Pekudei), we conclude the Book of Exodus. We find the Israelites constructing the Tabernacle and everything that comes along with it. As we read last week, the Israelites were asked to contribute gold, silver, fabrics and the like for the construction of the Tabernacle.

We learn in this week’s portion that the two gents responsible for overseeing the construction spoke to Moses, saying:

“The people have already provided more than enough [resources] for the work which God has commanded us to do.” (Ex. 36:5)

So Moses made it known throughout the camp that there was already a surplus of donated materials for construction, and that the Israelites should refrain from further contributions.

What is it to give too much?

As it related to the construction of the Tabernacle, there was a finite need for resources, and that need was met. But should those who were standing in line hoping to contribute to such a holy project not be provided the opportunity to feel that their contributions mattered as well?

We’re told that when originally asked to bring materials for the construction of the Tabernacle, the Israelites were instructed to have “all those whose hearts are willing” make a contribution (Ex. 25:2). In this case, there were many willing hearts. It appears that whether or not the contribution is actually taken/utilized, what really mattered was the Israelites’ wholehearted attempt to give.

What is it to have a willing heart?

What is it to give of your self?

Are you present for those who need you?

When are you generous?

What are you generous with? Time? Resources? Love?

This Shabbat, take a moment to reflect on your generosity.

Take stock of your heart’s willingness to contribute.

And then, take action.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dollar Dollar Bill Y'all

Ki Tisa

16 Adar 5772 / March 9-10, 2012

This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, is best known for its narrative of Moses coming down Mt. Sinai with the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments and smashing them upon seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf they had made. As we know, idolatry and Judaism do not mix.

And yet, I want to focus on the very beginning of the portion, where we read the following:

“God spoke to Moses saying: When you take a census of the Children of Israel . . . every man shall give a half shekel . . . . Everyone who passes through the census, from twenty years of age and up, shall give the portion . . . . The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel . . . to atone for your souls.”

We learn a few things from this.

First, to be counted in the census, you had to be at least 20 years old and male. This is likely due to an assumption that the purpose of taking the census was to help determine militaristic might / capabilities. This is particularly challenging however given that we know Israelite men younger than 20 fought in battles, that there was no maximum age to be counted, and there was no exception made for males over 20 with a physical handicap. Given that not all adult males (due to age or disability) would be valuable soldiers, to suggest a purely militaristic reason would leave something to be desired.

Second, the same half-shekel amount was required to be given by every such adult male, regardless of wealth. Fortunately, the half-shekel amount was relatively small, although the required minimum contribution likely had a greater impact on those struggling to get by. Granted, there is an imperative in traditional Jewish practice that even those who are the receivers of charity are required to give charity from what they receive, due to the recognition that there is always someone worse off than you are.

Finally, we learn that the purpose of this contribution is atonement. The paragraph describing this contribution is immediately preceded by instructions as to how Aaron and the High Priests after him shall utilize the incense alter in the tabernacle regularly, and then once a year (on Yom Kippur), make a special blood offering on the incense alter as a mechanism for atoning on behalf of the nation.

A logical conclusion might be that as a result of the Israelites seeking atonement by virtue of contributing half-shekels when taking a census, and given that once annually, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest also sought atonement on behalf of the nation, that perhaps there was an annual census, and that annual census took place right around Yom Kippur.

Frankly, this seems to be reflected present day as well, as synagogues are often filled to capacity once a year, on Yom Kippur – essentially an opportunity for the Jewish people to be counted. However, there are many who don’t attend synagogues, and there is no foolproof mechanism to clue us in on our own numbers as a people.

Some might say that there is no need to have an accurate count of how many Jews there are. Others might challenge who would qualify as a Jew if we were to actually try and figure out the exact number. However, for those organizations trying to meaningfully enhance life for the Jewish population, having a sense of how many people you might be trying to serve is essential in allocating resources.

If we were to try and collect $1 from every living Jew in the world to go to a common cause, what percentage of world Jewry do you think would participate (assuming that world Jewry could actually get behind the same common cause and not fight about it, which admittedly is a fantasy)? Would you participate? If so, why? If not, why not?

Are you ready to stand up and be counted as part of the Jewish people?

If so, what are you doing to make that readiness known?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Say Yes To The Dress


9 Adar 5772 / March 2-3, 2012

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we learn about the sanctification of Aaron and his sons as priests, as well as the various priestly garments. The High Priest in particular had special vestments, including a headplate, special robe, and a breastplate with magical powers, among others. Without wearing their special garb, any actions taken by the priests were invalid.

There is no question that how we dress in society matters. Our outfits often reflect the way we want others to perceive us, if not the way we perceive ourselves. The clothes we wear have the ability to make us feel sexy, to make us feel fat, and can convey our social class and/or standing. We without question judge others whose fashion choices differ from our own, and often label them as a result (e.g. “hipsters,” “hippies,” “goths,” etc.).

Cultural norms have changed over the years, in many ways making us a much less formal society. Back in the day, you might need a jacket and tie in order to get into elite places. Now, the request is: “please, no sneakers or baseball hats.”

Jewish communal gatherings, be they charity dinners or High Holiday services, often become a competition to see who is wearing the more expensive / brand name designer clothing. This sense of competition has trickled down to our Jewish private schools, which are increasingly requiring students to wear uniforms, in order to protect those whose families are not as wealthy from feeling inferior or being bullied by their wealthier, better-dressed classmates.

Counter to the school-uniform approach, which emphasizes homogeneity as a mechanism for combatting classism within the Jewish community, some Jewish institutions have adopted a “come as you are” mentality. In particular, campus Hillels, which desperately are seeking to get students into the door, will often share that any and all are welcome to attend their events, and they can come in pajamas if they’d like. Chabad is also well known for accepting attendees as they are, and as a result, seeing jeans-wearers at Friday night Chabad services is quite common (as opposed to major synagogues, where jeans wearers would be looked at funny and often would not be welcomed warmly by those in black tie optional attire). By emphasizing that their institutions welcome everyone, regardless of their clothing, the culture of those institutions has changed, and those who attend the various programs do so with a sense of openness to those who may be dressed differently than they are.

There is admittedly tension in determining how we as Jews should dress in various situations (and we’re not even going to touch on modesty this week, which traditionally plays a large role in dictating Jewish attire).

Fortunately, we can look to the ancient priests for guidance. Just as without wearing their special garb any actions taken by the priests were invalid, so too can our own actions be rendered invalid if we are not dressed for the occasion. The way we dress can eliminate our ability to meaningfully engage with and be respected by the community. In particular, given that communal leadership is often comprised of those who have a significant life experience and tend to value more formal interactions, for young adults hoping to gain an audience, dressing the part is an important first step.

When have you felt overdressed?

When have you felt underdressed?

When have you felt unwelcome due to what you were wearing?

This Shabbat, take some time to reflect on how you dress in various situations, and what that dress conveys.

Our organizations need to be welcoming, and should encourage a “come as you are” mentality. So too, individuals accepting invitations to attend organizational events should do so with the understanding that they may need to part with a piece of their individuality in order to truly be welcomed as part of a community.