Thursday, May 15, 2014

B'hukotai- The Value of a Man

…ish ki yafli neder b’er’k’kha n’fashot lAdonai.
…[when] a man utters a vow according to your value of your soul to Adonai.
Sefer Vayikra ends with reminders regarding behaviour and the redemption of objects, of animals, and of people. Redemption is defined chiefly as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil.” Torah uses the word differently. Redemption is not salvation. It is the clearing of a debt, an exchange of payment. In fact, we are, in some ways, doing the opposite of the first definition. We are exchanging the monetary value of something to remove it from the realm of the holy and bring it into the realm of the profane. With animals and with objects otherwise pledged to the Temple, this is easy.  How many donkeys does one Temple need? There’s always a need for funds. The same goes for other objects pledged as kadosh. Why would the Temple need more land or homes? It did not, and so the system of redemption made sense. Instead of the object or the animal, I shall give you its value. This created a win-win for all. Pilgrims could travel with coins instead of their animals or first fruits. The money would not spoil, nor would it need to be fed. The Temple received the funds to support it.
But a person? How do we value a person? The number is easy. Value was primarily based upon the slave market, though one who could not afford this amount was valued by the Kohain for a lesser amount that would leave him with the means to care for him/herself. We are expected to give. We are not expected to bankrupt ourselves. A male adult could do more physical labour, and was therefore valued higher.
The text, however, doesn’t only speak to the person’s physical self. “B’er’k’kha n’fashot lAdonai.” The individual makes a vow according to his/her own worth. Not only is this how s/he values him/herself, but the value of his/her soul. It is a weighty matter. How can any of us even begin to judge to value of our souls? There is of course a practical lesson in this. Each person making a vow, each person availing him/herself of Temple service is expected to contribute, not only in a physical, but also in a monetary way. The slave value gave a tangible scale to measure this. Nevertheless, I see a greater lesson underlying the p’shat of the text. It is a lesson beyond monetary value, one well summed up in the lyrics of the song, “Through Heaven’s Eyes” from “Prince of Egypt.”
Should a man lose everything he owns
has he truly lost his worth
or is it the beginning
of a new and brighter birth
So how do you measure the worth of a man
in wealth or strength or size
In how much he gained or how much he gave
The answer will come, the answer will come him who tries
to look at his life through heaven's eyes

B'har- The Shmita Year

Ki tavo’u el ha’aretz asher Ani notein lakhem v’shavtah ha’aretz Shabbat lAdonai.
When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall sit as a Shabbat to the Lord. (Vayikra 25:2)
On July 1, 2014, Rav Sean and I will celebrate out 21st wedding anniversary. This means that 5775 will be a shmittah year. Rav Sean and I spent the first year of our marriage living in Israel. That year was a shmittah year, a year celebrated every seven years in which the land is to live fallow as if observing its own special Shabbat.
The concept of a shmittah year is agriculturally sound. It has led to the crop rotation and other advances through its study. Just like a person can be over-worked, land that is continuously farmed will be depleted, spent. That is not to say the land remains empty. Rather it is left uncultivated. What grows, grows. It means a year spent truly living off the land, off the land in its natural state.
Unfortunately, in a modern state, it is not as easy to live of the natural land. What grows in the city? What grows naturally on lands previously cultivated and stripped of all seeds not from the cultivated crop? How do you feed over 7 million people in Israel? How do you ensure the businesses dependent upon agriculture, not only the farms, but the exports and all connected to them? After all, at the last shmittah year, Israeli agriculture was estimated as a $1.75 billion business.
Many rely on a heter mechira, permission to sell. The mitzvot are only incumbent upon Jews. Therefore, shmittah is only required for land owned by Jews. Israeli landowners “sell” their properties to non-Jews for the year; much in the way land would regularly be leased, although the previous owner retains the right to farm. Based on a similar ruling, the prozbul, that allowed loan holders to “sell” their loans to the Sanhedrin, thus allowing debts to be carried through the shmittah year, heter mechira, ensures business and the economy will continue to thrive.
Still, religious Jews and Zionists have difficulty in the shmittah years. Some feel that this “selling” is dishonest, or they have philosophical problems with selling land in Israel. They will only buy produce grown outside biblical Israel, creating a hardship for many Israeli businesses. Others believe that practice to be anti-Zionist. They rely on the heter mechira much as we rely upon selling our hametz.
Much like being a Conservative Jew, finding a balance between shmittah and modern Zionism depends upon thoughtful study and examination of the issues. Rabbi David Golinkin, of the Schechter Institute, the Masorti/Conservative institute of higher learning in Israel, finds a third way. Using traditional sources and opinions, he seeks to fulfill the purpose of the mitzvah. Much like “an eye or an eye” has always allowed monetary compensation, Rabbi Golinkin balances the needs of the business and the needs of the people with the purpose of the mitzvah to help build a better Israel.
To read Rabbi Golinkin’s article, go to the Schechter Institute’s Responsa in a Moment, Volume 2, Issue 1, October 2007. (

Tzav- Learning Styles

Tzav et b’nei Yisrael v’yik’hu eilekha shemen zayit zakh katit lamaor l’ha’a lot ner tamid…. V’lakachta solet v’afita otah shteim esreih challot…. V’samta otam shtayim maarakhot sheish hamaarakhet al-hashulchan hatahor lifnei Adonai. V’natata al-hamaarekhet l’vonah zakah vhaytah lalechem l’azkarah isheh lAdonai. B’yom haShabbat b’yom haShabbat yaarkhenu lifnei Adonai tamid mei’eit b’nei-Yisrael brit olam.
Command the children of Israel that they will bring to you pure olive oil beaten for a lamp, an eternal light…. And you will take fine flour, and bake it into 12 loaves…. And you will place them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before Adonai. And you will put pure frankincense with each row, to be a memorial to the bread, an offering to Adonai. Every Shabbat day he shall set it out before Adonai, always, it is, for the children of Israel, an everlasting covenant. (Vayikra 24:2, 5-8)
In current educational theory, the best lesson plans use multiple modalities or intelligences. This means they involve students through different learning methods. Not every student responds to frontal, linguistic learning such as lecturing. To be effective, a lesson must interact with students through their best abilities. Rituals provide us with our lessons. And, they already knew what educational theory would take 5000 years to promulgate. Rituals use multiple intelligences.
There are seven identified educational intelligences:
Linguistic: language- lecture, choral reading, discussion, journaling and story telling
Logical-Mathematical: logic and rational thinking- problem solving, experiments, number games and critical thinking
Spatial-Visual: seeing and imagining- visual presentation, art and metaphor
Bodily-Kinesthetic: movement and touch- tactile or hands-on activities, dance and drama
Musical: rhythm and music- rapping or songs that teach
Interpersonal: social contact- community involvement and social gathering
Intrapersonal: on one’s own- individualized instruction or independent study
Ritual involves all these. Just examining Shabbat, our eternal covenant, we begin and end with physical activity that uses the senses through the lighting of the candles, reminiscent of the ner tamid, and the smell of Shabbat meals or the havdalah spices. We sing the brachot. We gather as families and communally for t’fillot and meals. Our t’fillot alone incorporate all seven intelligences- choral readings, movement, the story telling and drama of the Torah and Haftarah readings and both inter- and intrapersonal learning through private and communal prayer. Even the choreography of the service and of Shabbat meals fulfills both spatial-visual and bodily-kinesthetic learning. One may even include logical-mathematical learning through text study. These activities envelope the Shabbat experience and beyond in all aspects of Jewish ritual life.
The best way to teach Judaism is through mitzvot and ritual. Only in this way do we involve all our senses, all our intelligences. Only in this way do we ensure full absorption of our lessons, our ethics and our ideals. It’s not enough to tell our children and grandchildren to be Jewish. We need to live it with them, and the best places to do that are at the shul and around our tables. 

Kedoshim- Being Holy

K’doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani, A-donai Ehloheikhem
You will be holy for I, A-donai your God, am holy. (Vayikra 29:2)
As a people, we have always been expected to be holy. But what exactly does it mean to be holy. The Nevi’im spoke to the Israelites of sacrifices and rituals that were meaningless without deretz eretz and caring for other people. As Rabbi Hertz states in his commentary, “Holiness is thus not so much an abstract or a mystic idea, as a regulative principle in the everyday lives of men and women.” Parashat Kedoshim begins with this admonition, and continues with explanation of what it means to be holy. Ritual and intimate connection to God is a piece, but equally important is how we interact with those around us. Holiness can only be accomplished in relation to others.
All mitzvot are divided into two types: mitzvot bein adam la’chavero and mitzvot bein adam laMakom. That is mitzvot that come from the interactions between individuals and mitzvot which are based upon an individual’s interaction with God. However, there is no separation between the sacred and the profane. Every action, not just mitzvot, brings us the opportunity for holiness. All actions bring us into the Divine sphere. All actions, all mitzvot bein adam la’chavero are also mitzvot bein adam laMakom. We cannot interact with God when we do not interact positively with each other and with our environment. For Torah, for tradition, there can be no separation between the sacred and the profane. To be holy requires that we be thoughtful in all our words and deeds. Not to care for others removes the Divine from our actions. It limits our ability to act b’tzelem Ehlohim, in the image of God. Parashat Kedoshim reminds us that our actions matter, and that through them we strive to attain this holiness.

Falling In Love With Israel

Ami v’heiveiti etkhem el-admat Yisrael.
O My people, and I will bring you to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37:12)
Once the s’darim are over, our Pesach thoughts turn towards the journey to Israel. It’s an idea that been seized upon by the Jewish community. Trips to Israel are a vital piece of building relationships to our land and to our people. In our haftarah, Ezekiel quotes God saying, “Ami v’heiveiti etkhem el-admat Yisrael; O My people, and I will bring you to the land of Israel.” Normally we refer to Israel as eretz Yisrael, but the words used here are adamat Yisrael. The land to which Ezekiel refers is not the state, whether the ancient or the modern. It is the physical land itself, the earth. There is nothing greater than having the opportunity to walk the land of Israel, to experience it with all your senses. This is the reason every organization leads missions. This is the reason for Birthright, for USY Pilgrimage, for Ramah Seminar, for Nativ year program, for Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, for NFTY and NCSY, for BBYO and Young Judea and all the others.
During the last month, I have been busy working on two Israel scholarship programs: one an essay contest, the other the MERCAZ-Canada matching scholarship program. The teens who are blessed to go on these summer and year programs embrace the land, often physically working it, digging, uncovering history and planting for the future. To fully understand the impact and importance of these scholarships, and of getting teens and young adults to visit Israel, I’d like to share the words of one of the winners from the 2012 MERCAZ-Canada/Women’s League for Conservative Judaism Essay Contest. Dakota Schee lives in the mid-west US and participated in Ramah Israel Seminar, our funds helped her make the trip. A few days after her arrival in Israel, she wrote these words, which she shared with MERCAZ upon her return.
“Today I saw cobbled streets with stairs worn smooth and slippery by hundreds of generations of footsteps. I saw tiny shops and stray cats and a painting of leaves that spoke so strongly pf autumn that I could smell it.
I saw an ocean of trees, all hills and valleys with no paths visible amongst the leaves.
Today I felt accepted and adored and welcome.
Today I thought maybe I don’t want to live in America anymore.
Today I thought if I could bring all the people who I love from home here, I would never go back.
I’d just wander in the cities and get lost in the countryside and travel the land and see everything, each sight more beautiful than the last.
Today I fell in love with Israel.”
If you’ve never been to Israel, it’s time to go. If it’s been a long time since your last trip, it’s time to go. Israel is old and new, and like nothing else in this world. You may love Israel, but you can never know how much until you touch the earth and experience it. We just sat at our seder tables saying the words, “L’shana haba’a birushalayim; next year in Jerusalem.” Don’t wait. Make it so.

Shabbat Hagadol, a month late

The Pesach seder is the most observed Jewish ritual, beating out fasting on Yom Kippur, and lighting Hanukah candles. Every Jew thinks s/he knows what the seder is. The reality is much more interesting. The Pesach seder is an ever-evolving ritual expression of Jewish life. Torah commands us to refrain from eating, or even owning hametz. We are told to eat the matzah and maror, to offer the Pesach sacrifice, and to teach our children “what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” Mention of the seder is absent from our rituals until the first century. Perhaps it developed as a response to the first destruction; perhaps as a response to exile and inability to make the annual pilgrimage. Whatever the reason, by the time of its mention in the Mishnah (circa 70 CE), it is an entrenched practice. Scholars have proven the seder’s origins, from the practice of reclining to the asking of questions, and even the multiple cups of wine, find their basis in the Roman symposium, a popular activity among the intellectuals of the time. Through this, and later evolutions, the development of the seder becomes a window into Jewish life. One of the easiest places to see this is in the portrayal of the four sons. Early artistic renditions universally portrayed the Wise Son as a scholar, the Wicked was a soldier, and the Simple and the One Who Cannot Ask as less important. Time changes this. In 1879 a US Haggadah showed Wicked Son smoking at the seder, sitting in his father’s place at the head of the table. Forty years later, the Wicked Son is a boxer, a sport played by many first or second generation American Jews to earn money to move away from the stigma of being immigrants. In 1927 Germany, stick figures show a Wicked Son mocking and a Simple class clown. By the advent of the State of Israel, the Wicked Son is no longer a soldier. Jewish soldiers were our pride and joy. Instead, we see four new images- the Wise Son is a religious zionist; the Wicked Son a businessman using the land. The Simple Son is a new immigrant, just off the boat, and the One Who Cannot Ask is a Hassid. The 80’s had us examine ourselves to see there’s a little of each type in all of us. The early 21st century introduced daughters into the picture, but there was still gender discrimination- the Wicked Child was a tomboy. A 2006 illustration from Israel shows the Wise Child as a businesswoman and a scholar. The Wicked Child is a protester, The Simple Child seems to be searching for spirituality in other places, and the One Who Cannot Ask reclines of the edges of society. The latest crop of illustrations uses modern media references. Last year there were Star Wars and Glee options; this year the choices come from the HBO series Girls.
The discussion of the Four Children should be one undertaken with both seriousness and levity. It is a discussion about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us.

Metzora- Spiritual Affliction

Zot tihyeh torat hamtzora byom taharato vhuva el hakohein.
This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing, and he will be brought to the kohain. (Vayikra 14:2)
The first words I saw when I opened the Chumash this week was the phrase “Purification of a Leper.” In our world, leprosy, properly called Hansen’s Disease, is easily curable with medication. This was not always the case. In the past, leprosy was viewed as a punishment from God. Causing numbness, especially in the extremities, leprosy leads to the loss of body parts through repeated injury and secondary infection. It leaves a visible marring of the body, which cannot be hidden from the general public. It therefore carries with it a social stigma well beyond the medical issue.
It is likely that metzora is not the leprosy we know today. Lepra in Greek, the translation encompasses a large number of diseases, which may have included true leprosy, but more likely, was closer to other skin ailments which produce scaling. Nevertheless, in the Torah, leprosy, metzora, was certainly seen as a contagious ritual problem. It was a physical manifestation of an internal blemish. Lepers are sent out of the camp for fear of contagion, both physical and spiritual, but it is also viewed as curable. This is where the attitude of the Torah is special. Rather than shutting lepers away to be forever separated from the community, they are cared for and treated by the kohanim. Sacrifices are offered; teshuvah is made. If the leper can be cured, s/he will be welcomed back into the community without disgrace or dishonour.
The most famous incident of leprosy in the Torah is Miriam, who is struck with it after speaking against Moshe (B’midber 12:1-15), although God inflicts Moshe briefly with it at the burning bush as a show of His power. The word metzora, is assumed by the Midrash to stand for motzei shem ra, a punishment for slander or libel. Leprosy goes beyond a skin affliction. The leprosy of the Torah can also afflict fabric and houses. Rambam views this as a progression. They are warning signs. The affliction appears in the slanderer’s clothing or home. If s/he repents, all can be washed clean. However, if s/he continues to sin, the affliction becomes permanent. The cloth burned or the house demolished. If s/he continues, the leprosy moves into the person him/herself.
While leprosy in the Torah is a specific ailment, which has little effect upon us today, our mental, emotional and spiritual states have a strong effect upon on physical bodies. Stress and distress can first show in our outward appearance, our grooming. They affect our abilities to maintain organization in our homes and offices that goes beyond the messy desk. Eventually, they affect our physical health. Each piece is a warning sign for individuals and the community around them. We can turn a blind eye, or, we an act as the kohanim. We can care for and work with those who need us to aid their, or our own recovery.

Springtime, Men & Short Skirts

Spring has arrived, and with it, joy for men everywhere.

Today I wore a dress to the office.  It's a cute dress.  The hemline is just below mid-thigh.  That's about as short as I'll go.  I can still sit in it and not be exposing anything that shouldn't be exposed.  I will pair this dress with two pairs of shoes depending on the weather.  Today I chose knee-high boots.  I call it my go-go outfit.

As I was leaving work, a gentleman exited his office in front of me.  When he saw me at the door, he leaned back to grab it and hold it before it closed.  I've seen him before, and I'm sure he would have done it at any time.  Today though, looking down, he smiled a great big smile.

Springtime- when men's hearts rejoice over  rising hemlines.