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D’var Torah: Rabbi Carl Perkins (Emor)

What’s Stopping Us? 

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

What does a holiday celebration evoke in your mind?  Great food? Sitting and eating and talking and celebrating with family and friends?

For most of us, the essence of a holiday is a feast at which we can relax and enjoy ourselves.

In the middle of this week’s parashah (Leviticus chapter 23), there’s a calendar of Jewish feasts.  The seasonal holidays start with Passover (which falls in the first month of the year, according to the Biblical calendar).  The list continues with the period of the Omer and the holiday of Shavuot, and concludes with Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret. Just about every verse in this chapter describes one or another of these holy days and how we are supposed to observe them.  

Except for one.  There’s one verse that really sticks out:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the migrant: I the LORD am your God.” (Lev. 23:22)

This verse just doesn’t belong here, for at least two reasons.  First, unlike the rest of the chapter, it describes practices that we’re supposed to do on days that are NOT holidays.  (We are specifically charged to refrain from reaping and gathering gleanings and performing other kinds of agricultural work on festivals.)  Second — and this is what really makes this verse stand out — it teaches what the Torah has already taught in a verse that appeared only four chapters earlier (in Leviticus 19:9-10)!

So why is it here?

Different explanations are offered by different commentators.

My favorite explanation is this:  We should never — ever — forget the poor and the other marginal members of society, even on the holidays, even on those days when we understandably focus on ourselves and our families and our friends.

Rambam (Maimonides) makes this point eloquently.  In the Mishneh Torah, he says the following:

When a person eats and drinks [on the festival], he is obliged to feed the migrant, the orphan, the widow and other poor, despondent people as well. People who lock the doors of their courtyard and eat and drink with their spouse and children without giving anything to eat or drink to the poor and the desperate –- such people do not experience the joy of  fulfilling a mitzvah; rather, they experience only the joy of filling their own bellies ….

We are just past the midpoint in the Omer period. Shavuot will be here before we know it.  Let’s celebrate the holiday: by refraining from work, by going to synagogue, and by celebrating with family and friends.  But, then as now, let’s not forget Rambam’s charge to include the poor and the other marginal members of our society in our thinking, our planning, and our actions.  

We may not be harvesting sheaves of grain; we may not be harvesting crops, but:  Is there a soup kitchen we can support? Have we contributed to Family Table or Yad Chessed or Mazon lately?  If not, what’s stopping us?

 

Rabbi Carl M. Perkins, Temple Aliyah, Schechter alumni parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Daniel Berman (Acharei Mot)

 

The opening verses of our Torah reading this week, Acharei Mot, make up the same text we read on the morning of Yom Kippur.  Why would our ancient rabbis elevate this particular text in such a dramatic way?

First, this is a story of atonement: the High Priest enters the most inner space in the Tabernacle and seeks forgiveness for the entire people.

But the beauty of the story is how that forgiveness is attained. The story is actually about ritual as a tool for change, healing and renewal.

One of the more mysterious rituals of the ancient Yom Kippur service of atonement is the sending of the goat, burdened with the transgressions of Israel, to “Azazel” – a barren, lifeless world. In the ancient collection of rabbinic texts known as the mishna, the rabbis envision and recreate this Biblical ritual:

First, the priests and the people made a ramp for the person leading the goat so he would be able to travel safely. They then set up ten booths on route to the wilderness. Prominent members of the community would accompany the person leading the goat from booth to booth and at every booth they gave the person food and water until the very last station, the peak of the cliff, when those accompanying would stand at a distance and watch what the leader was doing. He carefully threaded the goat to a rock on the cliff and threw it backwards, and the goat rolled down.

The process of leading the goat with such care teaches us how seriously and how sensitively our ancient rabbis took this ritual. That goat carried with it the sins of the community; it needed to be guided out with great care to affect true healing. The only way to do that was through careful and caring ritual action.

Many generations later, ritual remains religiously and spiritually significant.  We continue to fill our lives with imagery and sounds and smells, helping us become aware of God’s presence. These rituals are empty, however, if not embedded in a loving, caring spirit of generosity towards one another. These are the qualities that endow ritual with their apparent magic to help uplift our spirits and restore our sense of hope and purpose whenever we need them the most.

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Tazria/Metzora)

It is so easy – and so tempting – to draw simple conclusions from our Torah text. For instance, the rabbis have always connected tzara’at, the scaly skin disease in this week’s Torah portion, with gossip. They have suggested that the consequence for speaking ill of someone else is to be isolated from the rest of the camp while healing. On the surface, this makes sense: say bad things, get a physical mark that shows you’ve been bad, and then have a “time out” so you will stop saying bad things. We see this happen later in our Torah when Miriam is stricken with a scaly-white skin disease after she speaks ill of her brother, Moses, and his wife. She heals outside the camp and returns only after she is physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready.

But I don’t think we can – or should – accept this concept as it is presented.

While we know that our actions can have consequences, the Torah is not so black and white as to suggest that illness is caused by poor behavior. As someone who, just three years ago, received a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (and thank God, everything is now OK!), I can attest to the fact that when illness befalls a person, the first thing we think is, “what did I do wrong?” This theology is flawed and certainly not the intention of the Torah.

The message of Tazria/Metzora is that it is not the illness we should focus on but the separation, the healing, and the return. When we live in community, we are bound to insult, offend, and worse. Our actions have consequences. But not the consequences of illness per se; our actions impact our community and our place within that community. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the community, to heal, and then to return when we are ready.

My Schechter Boston years were a long time ago, but I remember fondly how supportive the community was (and is: now I’m a Schechter Greater Hartford parent!) during times that I made poor choices or that my actions had consequences that impacted my friends. The gift of the holy community we create at Schechter is that we support those who need a “time out,” we encourage their healing, and we welcome them back. We are so privileged to share in this holy, nurturing, and supportive community!

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Shemini)

Aaron the Peace-maker and the Spirit of Welcoming

At the beginning of S’hmini, this week’s Torah portion, the tent of meeting, the place where G-d reveals Godself to our ancestors has been dedicated, the kohanim/priests (Aaron and his sons) have been ordained to serve the Holy One and the people Israel, and at last, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence is ready to enter the new space fashioned for Her.

After drawing near with sacrificial offerings which represent the people’s desire for repentance, transcendance, and peace among themselves, Aaron steps down from the altar, lifts his hands toward the people Israel, and blesses them.  In fact, I think that this is not just an issue of order of events, but of intent. Aaron descends in order to bless the people. He needs to have proximity, nearness to them, in order to discover their needs, hopes, and prayers! In fact, one of our Torah commentators, Rabbeinu Bahya, suggests that this movement toward the people means working toward their needs and benefit!  Aaron, understood by our oral traditions as being the great peacemaker [Pirkey Avot and Avot D’Rabbi Natan], is one of the earliest practicers of keruv, drawing the members of the congregation nearer to one another and the Holy One. After his movement toward the people, Aaron, now joined by his brother Moses, enters the tent of meeting. Together they reemerge and offering another blessing to the people. It is very significant, I think, that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence only appears after two of the three principal leaders of Israel (Miriam is not mentioned here) affirm the people! In plain terms, the people of Israel can channel G-d only when their leaders have faith in them and they in turn have faith in their leaders and in one another! In fact, once their leaders have blessed them and G-d’s Glory appears, they break into spontaneous song.  Only a community in which the participants feel safe, welcome, and cherished, can make this kind of music!

Like Aaron, we need to step down or forward in order to really see and hear the needs of our friends, classmates, families, and communities.  Furthermore, in order to work toward their benefit, we like “Aaron” need to be able to “love all creatures” [Pirkey Avot 1:12]. In other words, we must not only step toward our fellow human beings, but also be able to love them, to see the good in them, to bless them!

The ohel mo-ed, the tent of meeting, is the perfect metaphor for this diverse and cohesive community.  The flaps of a tent are often open. A tent can be moved where the people are and air flows into it, ever refreshing its purpose and energy.  The shoresh, or root of mo-ed, yod-ayin-dalet, involves not only time, but also gathering and appointment. At the tent of meeting we gather together thoughtfully and inclusively, honoring our differences yet aware and bearing witness to common goals.  What are these goals? If we follow the model of Aaron they are “loving peace, chasing after peace, loving our fellow creatures [human and otherwise], and drawing human beings near to Torah (teaching, enlightened perspectives).”

Cantor Michael McCloskey, Hazzan-M’hanech (Cantor-Educator)

Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill