We read in the Torah this week about tzara'at, an affliction that can affect not only people but also objects that come from the natural world. The idea that both humans and nature are tied together, susceptible to the same afflictions and benefiting together from the same blessings that God showers on the world, is a constant theme in the Torah.
The obligation to remember the Holocaust calls on us to grapple with the horror and tragedy of the destruction of European Jewry and the individual stories of the six million Jews who lost their lives to a murderous ideology of hate directed at Jews for being Jews. In Israel, this day is known as Yom HaShoah v'ha-G'vurah - a day of destruction and strength or heroism.
Tonight, our Friday night service will be abbreviated in honor of the Pesah holiday, as we omit the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of the service and begin with Ma'ariv. As it is told in the Midrash, when the the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, Nachshon was the first to dip his toes into the Sea of Reeds, and only then did the waters part.
The Talmud (Gittin 41a) takes up the strange case of a person who is half slave and half free. What can such a person do, and what can they be? How can they interact with others?
People often ask for advice on which Hagadah they should use for their Pesach seder, and there are indeed a wide variety of hagadot coming from every conceivable angle and expanding the story of the Exodus in a myriad of directions. But even more important than choosing a hagadah is deciding how it will be used.
On Tuesday we will celebrate Rosh Hodesh Nisan, entering the month of Pesach, which tells us that our seders and celebrations are only a few weeks away. One of the key teachings of the holiday is that the move from slavery to freedom is not just an historical story, and it is not just a story that's relevant to Jews.
Jewish teachings deal directly with a central fact of human existence: human life is short. The reality that our time on this earth is limited prompts two key imperatives. First, we must use our precious time wisely, doing our best to use our talents to help others, to act with kindness, and to move the world just a little bit forward toward a more perfect future.
In this month of Adar, and especially on the holiday of Purim, we are taught that we should be at least twice as happy as we normally are. How can this be? As I have often noted, it is not because we expect that on Purim the world and our lives in it will suddenly be transformed and perfected.
One of the things that the patriarch Jacob learns on his journeys that we begin reading about this week is that he cannot sit on the sidelines waiting for change to happen by itself.
On this Veteran's Day we remember the hard work and sacrifice of those who have taken up arms in the service of this country.
As we reach the end of this long and tumultuous election season, I wanted to share with you this prayer from the Rabbinical Assembly that reminds us of the awesome power of voting and asks God for guidance and insight as we make the weighty decisions before us.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tetse, contains a large number of diverse mitzvot, but many of them circle around a common theme: treating those we encounter equally. From the laws of returning lost objects to the requirement to use honest weights and measures, these mitzvot ask us to hold ourselves to a fixed standard of behavior whether we are interacting with a relative, a neighbor, a stranger, or even an enemy.
This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, gives instructions to judges about how to "pursue justice." In particular, the Torah advises judges to avoid partiality to any side. They are not to favor the poor out of sympathy or the rich out of fear, and they are not to take bribes that might affect their judgment.
As August draws to a close, and September approaches on the horizon, I want to offer as a kavannah (intention) a poem by Zelda, translated from the Hebrew by Marcia Falk.
If we look at the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Torah, we see again and again that they face enormous challenges as they seek to follow a path toward God. The ancient rabbis taught that this is no accident. Facing difficult challenges is an important part of the journey of the Jewish people, shaping our character and destiny. Without them, we would never be able to reach the highest parts of ourselves.
In the coming week, on August 9th, we will mark the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that unleashed a firestorm of protest over the unequal treatment of black people by police in particular and racial inequality in the U.S. in general. We are still hearing the echoes of Ferguson in the continuing discourse about racial justice taking place in our country today.
We are hosting an unusual program this Saturday night for erev Shavuot, a multi-faith exploration of revelation with the participation of clergy and teachers from Christian and Muslim communities who are our neighbors in Northwest Philadelphia. Although this program may be surprising and even challenging to us, there are two main reasons that I thought it important to hold such a program on Shavuot this year:
This Shabbat, we will complete the Book of Vayikra. At the moment in our service when we conclude one of the five books of Torah, we have a custom of reciting, "Hazak, Hazak, v'Nithazek - Be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen one another." While this custom has taken many forms in Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities over the generations, there is a shared understanding of Torah as a source of strength.
The Young Dead Soldiers, by Archibald MacLeish
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses.
(Who has not heard them?)
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
And when the clock counts
We were young. We have died. Remember us.
We have done what we could.
[Rabbi Akiva taught:] Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. And the world is judged favorably, yet all depends on the preponderance of good deeds (Pirkei Avot 3:19).
As our daughter finds language, mornings we hear her in her crib reciting lists of names:
"Hannah. Kliel. Emma. . . " she says,
calling out the names of her classmates at ECP. "Bubbie. Zaydie. Mommy. Abba. Nana . . ." Sometimes, when she is unsettled,
she reaches for her names.
Practicing the shapes of the sounds.
Stringing together vowels and consonants.
According to the Zohar, when the Israelites were in Egypt, things were so tough within us and around us that we fell to the forty-ninth level of impurity. We hit our rock bottom and just before the point of no return, the Holy One took us out of Egypt, out of subservience to all of the negative powers that had laid us low, and led us to the forty-ninth level of wisdom so that we could receive Torah.