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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
People often ask me what one does during six years of rabbinical school, most of them curious about what we study and why it takes so long. I love to explain the process and why even six years isn’t enough: there are the text-based classes like Mishnah, Talmud and Codes, the practical rabbinics courses like Pastoral Counseling and Homiletics (sermon writing) and then there are the internships at congregations, the summer jobs at Jewish camps, the chaplaincy programs at hospitals … and so much more. While HUC-JIR, the seminary through which each of TDHS’ rabbis were trained, does a great job educating its students on the ins and outs of the rabbinic life, there are indeed a few things that aren’t covered during those six years. For me, the one thing I wish I’d gotten more exposure to is Kabbalah, also known as Jewish mysticism.
Now, it may surprise all of you whom I’ve called from my (310) area-code cell phone – registered in Beverly Hills, CA of all places – that I’ve had little to do with Kabbalah. The red-string-adorned movement of celebrities like Madonna has garnered much press in the last two decades, leading curious seekers to the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria and the town of Tzfat in Northern Israel. While the concept of Jewish mysticism has revealed itself throughout Jewish history, in many ways Kabbalah is a fringe movement of modern Jewish practice. Its central text, the Zohar, is not a text with which most modern Reform communities are familiar. However – we touch on Kabbalist teachings in much of what we do, particularly the practice of Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming the Sabbath, on Friday nights.
So imagine my delight when I found out that our Scholar-in-Residence this year is Dr. Daniel C. Matt, the world’s leading Kabbalah scholar and editor of the Pritzker Edition of “The Zohar,” published in 2012. In this large-scale work, Dr. Matt addresses each Torah portion separately through the words of the Zohar. This week’s parsha is Acharei Mot, or “after death,” referring to the period of time following the sudden death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Pained by their shocking passing, Aaron is forlorn. Yet Adonai speaks to his brother Moses, instructing Aaron on how to move forward in his career as high priest. Here is a small bit of learning The Zohar offers on this moment in Leviticus:
“YHVH (God) spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons …
YHVH said to Moses, “Speak to Aaron your brother…” (Leviticus 16:1-12)
“Rabbi Abba said, ‘serve YHVH in awe. [56b] Mystery of the matter: serve YHVH in awe – what is awe here? Well, as we have established, for it is written The Awe of YHVH is the beginning of knowledge … (Proverbs 1:7); the beginning of wisdom is awe of YHVH.” (Psalms 111:10) – so it is called.’”
“What is awe here…?” [In other words] to which s’firah does awe allude? To Shechinah, who is the gateway to the divine realm. She is the beginning of knowledge, namely leading to Tiferet who is associated with the hidden s’firah of Da’at (knowledge). She is also the beginning of wisdom – leading eventually to hochmah (wisdom).”
Awe? Tiferet? Shechinah? While some of us may recognize these terms, the way they are strung together is a definitive change from our typical Torah commentary. I have questions, and I’m sure you do, as well. So this Saturday in Seattle, join us at TNT (Torah and T’filah) starting at 9:30am to begin to crack the code of the Zohar. We’ll study together and prepare for Dr. Matt’s presentations over the weekend of May 13 & 14.
Looking forward to studying together.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
Josh and I like to joke that every meal is “Kosher-for-Passover” in our house. This isn’t true, of course … but with a gluten-free (for me) and dairy free (for both) diet, it often feels like we are living a specific form of kashrut every day of our lives. Marketing has become easier but is still an adventure; we think we know exactly what “secret ingredients” to look out for but still approach our shopping trips like ninjas. We know when something homemade tastes too good to be true, it probably is. And, when this time of year rolls around, the groans we hear over that dry, binding, cardboard-like matzah make us laugh; have you ever tried gluten-free bread?
How quickly we forget the symbolism of the matzah: just flour and water with precisely eighteen minutes to form. How often we disregard the message, found in this week’s Torah selection, of that heavily emblematic food: “remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how Adonai freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten … and when Adonai has brought you into the land of the Canaanites … which was sworn to your fathers to be given you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice: seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of Adonai. Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in your territory.” (Exodus 13:3-7).
Matzah is a centerpiece of our Passover narrative and our seder table; matzah, at once completely malleable and wholly unique. From matzah pizza to matzah brie to shmears, sandwiches, and chocolate – matzah adapts to whatever it finds itself dressed in. Matzah is the chameleon taking on the identity of its consumer, subject to the whims of appetite of he or she who controls its fate. And yet, matzah is still matzah, recognizable even beneath the dressing.
In this way, matzah is a true symbol of our people’s story. Matzah tells of a people – our people – who once were slaves, but now are free. Who emerged from the borders of the Promised Land following the destruction of the Second Temple and spread out into the diaspora, setting up roots in different countries around the world. A people so unique in temperament and appearance who quickly adapted to cultures, assimilated, and incorporated new traditions, flavors, and narratives into their family’s story but still retained that connection to the past, to identity, to God.
This weekend, as we sit down at seders around the city and throughout the world, there is much to recall. We recall the story of our exodus, the melodies of “Dayenu” and the “Four Questions,” Bubbie’s famous matzo ball soup recipe and, hopefully, the location of where we stashed our Hagaddot last year. But above all else, let us remember the power of the matzah, for it is the matzah that truly tells the story – our story, and the story of generations to come.
The book of Leviticus is a tough one. Upon first glance, it is a book about ancient sacrifice and practices that died out long ago. However, if we look at the book from a different angle, the whole book of Leviticus is actually about returning to a state of holiness. In Judaism there exists a binary relationship between holy, which is known as Kodesh, and profane or mundane, which is known as chol (or as I like to describe it not-holy, not to be confused with unholy). Leviticus offers the idea that when we do something wrong or are infected or have a disease it makes the individual feel not-holy. Therefore, Judaism created rituals to help the individual return to a feeling of sacred holiness. It almost as if holiness were the default for human beings and therefore the book of Leviticus provides us a roadmap for how to return to that natural state of holiness.
In this weeks Torah portion Metzorah, the Torah tells the Israelites how to deal with leprosy, discharges and menstruation. There are two levels the book of Leviticus is always operating on two levels simultaneously. The book of Leviticus, and in fact the whole Torah, speaks both to the individual with the ailment and the community that must learn how to deal with it in order to return to a state of Kadosh.
Whether or not we would like to admit it, someone who is visibly sick has the potential to upset us. The sick person affects the people they are around as well as themselves. Someone who has a skin disease can make us cringe and feel uneasy and also feel the same about themselves. Leviticus offers us not a psychological reading of these feeling but a spiritual one. Leviticus offers the idea that diseased people and the community are not just affected physically and psychologically, but also spiritually. It is hard to ignore the reality that when something is off it throws everyone and everything in the community off and out of balance.
This week’s parasha offers a prescription for how to deal with the issue of the discomfort that disease brings to the community. The Torah says here that when someone is sick physically, we need to acknowledge that our social system has been upset and that disjunction needs to be dealt with. The fact that the sick person bothers us needs to be acknowledged and named. Disease affects everyone not just the one suffering from it, but also those exposed to it. In this day and age what we learn from this Torah portion is not just tolerance, but the importance of acknowledging that which upsets us. That which makes us feel not-Holy. The parasha does not tell us to turn away from the person suffering, but rather to look at them and deal with them. Deal with them with compassion but also honesty. The question for us is how do we deal with people we are uncomfortable with while also balancing honesty and compassion?
Rabbi Micah Ellenson
The role of individuals in determining holiness is a central feature of Jewish law. A Torah scroll, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, would not be sacred were it not for the scribe. If a sofer was to write a Torah scroll without explicitly noting the sanctity of God’s name while writing, that scroll would not be considered holy. “The loftiness of the text itself makes no difference — without the intention of writing the Name for the purpose of vesting holiness in the scroll, even the ultimate expression of faith itself, the Shema, becomes profane.”
It is through this lens that we might view this week’s Torah portion. Tazria, the first of two weekly portions concerned with declaring clean and unclean oozing sores and scaly skin afflictions, has been the bane of bar mitzvah students for centuries. How might we find a lesson for 2016 from the classifications of scabs, sores, and sprouting hairs? The role of individuals in determining holiness is a central feature of Jewish law even today. We, the community, have the power to declare clean and unclean, fit and unfit, included and excluded. We, the community, have the power to make someone holy — or the power to drive them from our society. We know how we would treat our loved ones. How do we treat the stranger among us?
Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer
Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s and next week’s Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora: