D’var Torah: Seth Korn (Acharei Mot)

 

In Acharei Mot, B’nei Yisrael is basically doing what we do on Yom Kippur but a bit simpler. All they had to do was “give” their sins to Aaron, who was the head Kohen. Then Aaron placed all the sins of B’nei Yisrael on a goat which they sent off into the wild to die. And it was simple, for the people. But not for the Kohanim. God gave Moses all these rules and laws on how to conduct the work of the Kohanim. And there were a lot of them! Keep in mind that two of Aaron’s four sons had just been killed by God because they went up to the altar drunk. Aaron had no time to grieve or mourn, it was just, “Help the people with their sins. Make sure the people are okay. The people are the top priority.” That seems pretty harsh if you ask me.

Now as I said in the last paragraph, the people of B’nei Yisrael didn’t really do anything in their equivalent to a Yom Kippur service. They just gave their sins to Aaron, which basically consisted of them going to Aaron and telling him their sins. But that’s the point, they didn’t do anything.  After this once a year Yom Kippur service that occured in the desert, the Jews started a new way to get rid of their sins when they got to Israel and built the Temple.

As the Roman consul, Marcus says in his eye witness testimony, on Yom Kippur “There were thirty-six thousand of them, and all the prefects wore clothing of blue silk; and the priests, of whom there were 24,000, wore clothing of white silk.  After them came the singers, and after them, the instrumentalists, then the trumpeters, then the guards of gate, then the incense-makers, then the curtain-makers, then the watchmen and the treasurers, then a class called chartophylax, then all the workingmen who worked in the Sanctuary, then the seventy of the Sanhedrin, then a hundred priests with silver rods in their hands to clear the way.  Then came the High Priest, and after him all the elders of the priesthood, two by two.”

Just seeing the High Priest on this holiest of holy days was a life changing experience. The Yom Kippur service was entirely surrounding the High Priest. But then, as you all know, the temple was destroyed and the nation of Israel fell in to state of grief. After that happened, the Jews found their own little communities and their own part in each service, including the Yom Kippur service.    

As Rabbi Sacks says in his book The Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor “Every synagogue became a fragment of the Temple. Every prayer became a sacrifice. Every Jew became a kind of priest, offering God not an animal but instead the gathered shards of a broken heart.”

Now we would find it strange to go into a synagogue and see a priest doing everything while everyone else is just sitting there watching or even weirder, to find no one here except for a priest. But the new approach to Yom Kippur demonstrates that the people, everyday people, could talk to God. As Rabbi Sacks puts it “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.”

Yom Kippur is one of those very special praying times. On Yom Kippur we are even not supposed to eat anything for fear of your thoughts straying away the prayers you are praying. “Yom Kippur is the holy of holies of Jewish time. Observed with immense ceremony in the Temple, almost miraculously rescued after the Temple was destroyed, sustained ever since with unparalleled awe, it is Judaism’s answer to one of the most haunting of human questions: How is it possible to live in the ethical life without an overwhelming sense of guilt, inadequacy and failure.”  

But God is understanding, “He [God] asks us to acknowledge our failures, repair what we have harmed, and move on, learning from our errors and growing thereby. … at its heart there had to be an institution capable of transmuting guilt into moral growth.”

Now we pray with Rabbis, but we also pray as ourselves. By ourselves or more often, with a community.  Again, “Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.” Because now we can all pray to God as ourselves.

 

Seth Korn ’20

elan-babchuck

D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96 (Pesach)

One of my favorite memories of Passover as a child is of bedikat chametz – the search for any remaining morsels of bread after the house had been thoroughly cleaned for Passover. My father would turn off all the lights in the house, my mother would hold a brass candleholder and light the sole candle that would aid us in our search. My siblings and I would each hold feathers and take turns finding the piece of bread in each room and gently sweeping it onto a paper plate, making certain not to leave even one crumb behind.

It always struck me that the Aramaic prayer (Kol Chamira) we would say that night, and the slightly different one we would say the next morning as we burned the bread, sounded so similar to Kol Nidre. The Aramaic language is comparable and the framework is the same: First we name the thing(s) we want to disavow, then we declare them disavowed, and then they are considered to be like the dust of the earth, as if they’ve never existed. Unfulfilled vows and undiscovered bread are one and the same.

What a powerful gift to ourselves! To know that there are limits to our vision, to our steadfastness. But as generous as this gift is, it comes with a catch: we may only avail ourselves of these Aramaic incantations once we’ve done the work of searching as thoroughly as we can.

So whether we’re searching for forgiveness during Elul or chametz during Nisan, we must first do everything in our power to find what we’re searching for.

While the similarities between the holidays are interesting and the Aramaic word-play is intriguing, the more profound takeaway is what this connection implies. During these next couple of days we’re not just searching for loose crumbs and broken crackers. We’re tasked to search within for anything that – like leavened foods – has expanded to take up more emotional, mental, and spiritual space than we may have intended.

We’re invited to put down our smartphones for long enough to consider how many unintended minutes (or hours?) a day we bow prostrate to it, checking and re-checking our emails, the news, and any other feeds we’re apt to overconsume. We’re called to consider the residual feeling of resentment toward a loved one that – left unresolved – has swelled over time to overwhelm our love for them. We’re encouraged to consider our own feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt that have expanded far beyond their usefulness and become blocks to our ability to flourish.

Over the next couple of days as you find yourselves at the car wash with vacuum in hand, or in your home aggressively wiping down countertops in search of microscopic crumbs, take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself: What’s taking up more space in my life than I want it to? And whether it’s an emotion, an activity, a piece of technology, or maybe even the hectic (over)-preparations for Pesach, my blessing for us all is that we can commit ourselves to letting go, and finding new spaciousness in our homes, our families, and our lives.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Network

D’var Torah: Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein (Metzora)

This past fall, my husband Dan and I moved into our first home. When we bought our home we knew that it was definitely in need of some TLC. In the past 6th months we have painted, plastered, and removed countless spider webs. After months of never ending home repairs, our house is finally starting to feel like our home.

This week in parsha Metzora, we learn that not only is it possible for people to contract tzaraas—a leporous like infection on the skin—but a house, can contract tzaraas as well! You can imagine my panic when I learned that there is yet another thing we might need to repair in our house! Luckily, our Rabbis are all in agreement that tzaraas-type afflictions of houses are clearly supernatural occurrences, and therefore few and far between.

Two very different reasons are given by our Sages for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas. Midrash explains that when the Canaanite inhabitants of Eretz Israel saw that the Israelites were about to conquer the land and inhabit their homes, they hid their valuables in the walls of their homes.

In order to enable the new Israelite owners of those houses to acquire this wealth, God infected the part of the wall where the treasure was concealed with tzaraas, so that the Israelites could remove the infected stones and obtain the treasure.

The walls of our homes, too, hold our most valuable possessions and memories.  Almost every time I go home, I spend the first few moments unpacking, looking around at the walls of my childhood bedroom. I see the places that I slathered glitter glue on the wall, displayed my graduation diploma, had my friends sign their names in permanent marker and hung up loved ones’ photos. I notice all the sticky glue left over on the walls from removing glow in the dark stars and all the indents clearly visible from thumbtacks that held up posters.

Our text suggests that in order to access the treasure of the home, we first need to remove all the tzaraas. But I think that focusing on creating a solely beautiful home is doing us a disservice. Instead of our impulse being to remove anything unsightly or that causes us heartache, we should allow our homes to be filled with the the fullness of life.

There will be moments when our homes are filled with laughter and simchas and a fresh, new shiny coat of paint, and there will be times that we drop dinner on the floor and it splatters and stains our walls, or we find ourselves surrounded by our loved ones during a period of grief.

We have to work to create a home that can hold both. Because life is about learning how to work through the comfortable and uncomfortable. And we can only do this when we feel grounded, held, and safe.

The second interpretation for why a home could become contaminated with tzaraas is as Divine punishment for selfish behavior.

A house becomes contaminated with tzaraas when the owner of the house arrogantly believes that the house, and all of the belongings within it, are his or hers alone, acquired solely through his own efforts and that no one else is entitled to enjoy the benefits of his personal success.

A house becomes a home when we open our doors to others. Whether that is sharing challah around a Shabbat table, providing a box of tissues and a comforting place to sit for a friend who has a had a hard day, or inviting people over to watch Netflix. These are the truly valuable moments that make a house a home.

I invite you to discuss with your loved ones:

  1. What are the things that are critical for you in making where you live a home?
  1. Were there times that were especially meaningful to you when someone opened their home to you?
  1. Why do you think that Judaism emphasizes the importance of hospitality and welcoming the stranger?

 

Rabbi Rebecca Weinstein, Grade 6 Tanach and Grade 8 Torah She’b’al Peh