Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

(Shabbat 4/23/21) 

See my d'var Torah for this week on the Academy of Jewish Religion website

It discusses Leviticus 19:32 - "You shall rise beofre the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am he Lord."

Food for thought:

  • What do you think about our secular society's attitude to and treatment of the elderly?

  • What message does the Torah teach? 

  • What would have to change for our society to incorporate this message?



(Shabbat 4/16/21)

This Shabbat we read a double-parashah regarding the diagnosis and treatment of tzara-at, a leprous-like affliction that can affect people, fabrics and other surfaces, and houses. In the Torah, this is a disease of impurity, requiring careful diagnosis by the Kohanim (priests), isolation and quarantine, and once healed, a purification ritual to allow reentry into the community, or restoration of items or houses so that they may be used again.


A couple of years ago, I still found these parashot to be very foreign and difficult to read about and teach about.  What possible relevance could such a strange affliction have for us today?   Since COVID, strange afflictions sadly seem all too real. 


Food for thought:

  • What parallels can you find between the verses we read and our experiences with COVID today?

  • How can your own emotions in dealing with this pandemic help you understand what is being described in the Torah – and what can we learn from the Torah about our own emotions at this time?

  • The Torah describes rituals to mark the end of the affliction.  What rituals might be helpful in our day when we see an end to illness?



(Shabbat 4/9/21)

In the parashah for this Shabbat, the concept of kashrut (keeping kosher) is introduced.  Kosher means fit or appropriate – as in, there are certain parts of God’s creation that are fit for Jews to eat, and other parts that are not fit for Jews to eat. 


There have been various explanations given for the laws of kashrut.  This parashah provides the following explanation:


For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be our God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44-45)


Food for thought:

  • Why keep kosher? 

  • Which of the explanations of the laws of kashrut do you find compelling?

  • What is the explanation given in this parashah?

  • Can you find a relationship between the laws of kashrut and the story of Creation in Genesis?


7th day of Passover 

(Shabbat 4/3/21)

Today is the 7th day of Passover.


In the story of the Exodus of our people from Egypt (the original Passover), on the 7th day of our journey we encountered the Sea of Reeds.  The Egyptians, meanwhile, had changed their minds about letting their Hebrew slaves go free.   So, there we stood – between the proverbial rock and a hard place, or the devil and the deep blue sea.  In one direction were the Egyptians coming after us in horse-drawn chariots; on the other side was Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds.  It is this Torah portion that we read, appropriately, on the 7th day of Pesach, every year. 

Some excerpts:


“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.  Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.  And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?’” [Exodus 14:10 – 11]


“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward!’” [Exodus 14:15]


This is a story of a people without faith, and the beginnings of the development of faith.


Food for thought:

  • What is faith?  How would you define it?  Is it different than belief?  How?

  • What faith was required of the Israelites?

  • How did God try to develop that faith?

  • What does faith mean to you personally?


Parashat Va-yikra

(Shabbat 3/19/21)

This Shabbat we begin the 3rd book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus.  This book focuses in on the sacrificial services that took place in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple.  Of course, since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, in the year 70 C.E., Judaism has not included the practice of sacrificial offerings.  Nor do most other religions in the modern world. And so the idea of animal sacrifice has become very foreign, even repellent to us today.


 To understand this book, we have to understand the history of sacrificial offerings, and we have to know how prominent it was in all the surrounding cultures at the time of the Torah.  But if we just read it as history, we lose an opportunity to understand ourselves better. 


There were reasons behind all the sacrifices, reasons that had to do with life as a human being – its joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams, disappointments, celebrations, and need for ritual.   So, as we go through this Book, let’s look at the function, values and emotions behind the rituals we will read about, and try to figure out how we deal with those same functions, values, and emotions in our modern lives.


Food for thought:

  • What examples do we see of sacrifices before the set-up of the Mishkan/Temple ritual?

  • Why did the people who brought those sacrifices do so?

  • What are the functions, values, emotions behind the different types of sacrifices described in our parashah? (burnt offering, grain offering, shelamim (sacrifice of well-being), sin offering, reparation offering, Pesach offering)

  • How do we deal with each of those functions, values, and/or emotions in our modern lives?


Parashot Va-yakhel/P'kudei

(Shabbat 3/13/21)

This double parashah will bring us to the end of the Book of Exodus.  Most of it is a replay of what we have already read.   In the two parashot before the Golden Calf episode, God tells Moses how to build the Mishkan (sanctuary) and prepare the Kohanim (priests) to serve, and today we read how those careful instructions were carefully carried out.


I’d like to bring to your attention to the very beginning of the parashah, which is about Shabbat, and not about the sanctuary at all.  Or is it?


"On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.  You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” [Exodus 35:2 – 3]


Food for thought:

  • How can we explain the placement of these verses about Shabbat here, adjacent to two parashot about the Mishkan?

  • The punishment of death seems too harsh to our ears.  How might you interpret this metaphorically?

  • Can you kindle fire outside your settlements?  Surely not.  So why does this verse say “in your settlements”?  Can we interpret that metaphorically?

  • The text continues by telling us what the people donated so that the Mishkan could be beautiful, according to the directions supplied by God to Moses.  How is this similar/different to the donations to make the Golden Calf?

  • Who is involved to make the Mishkan happen?   What does this tell us?


Parashat Ki Tissa

(Shabbat 3/6/21)

In our parashah this Shabbat Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God.  The people are below, worried that they will never see him again.  Aaron is their temporary leader, and they demand of him to make an idol for them.  He accedes to their request, makes a Golden Calf, and a festival is declared.  God tells Moses what is going on, and Moses pleads for the people.  But when he goes down and sees what is going on, he shatters the tablets on which the Torah is written.  He chastises Aaron and the people, and yet goes back to God to plead once more on their behalf.

Food for thought:

  • The people were worried because Moses hadn’t yet returned.  Do you think it make a difference if they were expecting him on a particular day, or if there was no particular expectation about when he might return?  Which would make you worry more about something?

  • What does the text tell us about Aaron’s character?  Why do you think he goes along with the people?

  • God calls the Israelites a “stiff-necked people”.  What does it mean to be a stiff-necked people?  Is it always bad to be “stiff-necked”?

  • Why does Moses shatter the tablets?


Parashat Yitro

(Shabbat 2/6/21)

Today’s parashah brings the Israelites to the foot of Mt. Sinai.  There they prepare for God to reveal God’s-self to them from the cloud on top of the mountain.  Moses delivers this message to them:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.  Now, then if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.  Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [19:4-6]

And the people answered, “All the Lord has spoken, we will do.” [19:8]

Then the Ten Utterances (10 Commandments) are given.

Food for thought:

  • What do you think of when you read, “I bore you on eagles’ wings”?

  • The Israelites will be God’s “treasured possession”.   For what are the Jews chosen? 

  • What emotions do the people show in this first encounter between Israel and God?

  • In what way do the first 2 commandments differ from what comes after? 


Parashat Bo

(Shabbat, 1/23/21)

In parashat Bo, we read about the last three plagues – locusts, darkness, and the killing of the firstborn Egyptians. At this terrible conclusion of ten awful plagues, the Israelites will be freed.  Thus, we also read about the laws relating to the festival of Pesach - as it would be observed at this time, and as it would observed throughout the generations.


Food for thought:

  • Let’s examine the plague of darkness:

    • How was this darkness unlike the usual darkness we experience at night?

    • What was the source of this unusual darkness?

    • Can you imagine a metaphoric understanding of the darkness experienced by the Egyptians?

  • Regarding the laws of Pesach

    • What is the Pesach sacrifice?  What role did it play in the original Passover?

    • What are the laws regarding the Pesach sacrifice, according to the Torah?

    • How are these observed today?


Parashat Va-era

(Shabbat 1/15/21)

In this parashah Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness.  Pharaoh refuses, as God has predicted.  "Signs and Wonders" ensue.   At first, the Egyptian magicians can imitate these signs, and Pharaoh is not impressed.  However, as the plagues continue it becomes clear that those magicians cannot begin to rival the power of God.  Events proceed with the following pattern: Pharaoh refuses to let the Israelites go.  A plague ensues.  Pharaoh relents, and says they can go.  Moses petitions God to stop the plague, and as soon as each plague stops, Pharaoh's "heart is hardened", and he refuses to let the people go. This parashah describes the first seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects, cattle disease, boils, and hail.

Food for thought:

  • What accounts for Pharaoh's stubbornness?  Does he harden his own heart?  or does God harden his heart?   

  • Pirke Avot (The Sayings of our Ancestors) says: "Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given" [3:15].  How does this relate to this question of who is responsible for Pharaoh's behavior?

  • Is Pharaoh acting of his own volition? Is he responsible for his actions, and thus must be held accountable? Or is God responsible?

  • What is God's agenda?


Parashat Sh'mot

(Shabbat 1/8/21)

"Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and come to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bust.  He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.  Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight - why doesn't the bush burn up?"  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses, Moses". He answered, "Hineni - here I am".  And God said "Do not come closer.  Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground."  [Exodus 3: 1 - 5]

So begins the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus (called Sh'mot in Hebrew)

Food for thought:

  • Why is this place called Horeb, the mountain of God?  What place do you associate with the mountain of God?

  • What did Moses notice about the burning bush?

  • What do you think the symbol of a burning bush was chosen, for God to reveal himself to Moses?

  • What does Moses' removal of his sandals signify? 


Parashat Va-Y'Hi

(Shabbat 1/2/21)

The Smothers brothers had an ongoing routine in which Tommy (the older brother), complained to Dickie (the younger brother), “Mom always liked you best”.  It was funny because their squabbles reflected the sibling rivalry that was present, to some degree, in every family.

I didn’t realize at the time that it also reflected almost the entire book of Bereshit (Genesis) in the Torah.  Parental favoritism - especially of the younger child over the older - and sibling rivalry is a theme that runs throughout.  Brothers vie for position, for approval, for birthright, for blessing, and time after time, it is the younger, rather than the elder who is favored.  Here are some examples.

Jacob and Esau struggle with each other even in the womb.  Esau, the firstborn, is favored by his father, Jacob by his mother.  Esau impulsively gives up his birthright but is devastated when Jacob deceives his father and receives his father’s blessing in his stead.  Jacob flees to avoid his brother’s murderous rage.

Joseph is also a younger brother, though he is the firstborn of his father’s favored wife, Rachel.  His father gives him a special coat, and he brags about his dreams, which predict that he will rule over his family.  His brothers are incensed, and plot to kill him.   They throw him in a pit, sell him to some traders who bring him to Egypt, and tell his father he is dead.

Which brings us to today’s parashah, the last in the Book of Bereshit.  Jacob and his entire family are now living in Egypt, and Joseph learns that his father is ill.  He comes to his father’s bedside, bringing with him his two sons, Manasseh, the elder, and Ephraim, the younger. 

First, Jacob deals with the issue of birthright, which should by rights, go to his firstborn, Reuven, son of Leah.  Jacob adopts Menashe and Ephraim as his own sons “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine no less than Reuven and Shimon”.  In effect, this gives a double-portion (normally the right of the firstborn), to Joseph, his favored child.

Next, he moves to bless the two boys.  Joseph, perhaps because of all he has been through, is keenly aware of protocol and places his older son by his father’s right hand, and the younger by his left.  Jacob reaches out and crosses his hands, as we see the reversal of older and younger about to play out once again.  Joseph takes his father’s hand, saying “Not so, Father, for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.”  And Jacob replies “I know, my son, I know.”

These simple words, “I know, my son, I know”, contain so much.  In them, I hear the knowledge acquired by Jacob over a lifetime.  I know - that parents shouldn’t favor one child over the next, and yet the history of our family is that we have done it, over and over again.  I know - that siblings will fight with each other for the approval and blessing of their parents.  I know - that this is a field fraught with raw emotion and pain.  And yet, I know - that children are different, they are not all endowed with the same natural gifts.  Some have God-given talents for leadership or other qualities necessary to carry on the family heritage; others do not.  

“So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘by you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’.”  And so we do to this day, on Friday night between the lighting of the candles and the kiddush before our Shabbat meal.

I like to think that when Jacob says that all Israel should invoke blessing through Ephraim and Manasseh, that he has learned an important lesson.  It may be that he foresees that Ephraim will be the one to pass on the family heritage (Ephraim’s descendants will include Joshua), and so he couldn’t help but to cross his hands, but unlike his previous actions and those of his ancestors, his movement is subtle.  He does not allow one child to feel lesser than the other. The soul-destroying sibling rivalry that we have seen with other siblings does not come between Ephraim and Manasseh.  For this reason, future children can be blessed in their name.

On Friday night as I place my hand (virtually, for now) on the heads of my children and my wriggling little grandchildren, I give no thought to who is under my right hand and who is under my left hand.  And I know, in part because of the stories of Torah have taught us, the hazards of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry.  I know that though children are different and may or may not resemble us or what we have envisioned for them, they are each special in their own way. They are, each of them, a blessing, and what they all need from us - is love.