Month: March 2017

Parashat Vayikra • Leviticus 1:1-5:26

A recent New York Times article ( posed the question, “are teenagers replacing drugs with smart phones?’ Citing a recent survey titled “Monitoring the Future,” an annual government-funded report measuring drug use by teenagers, the article stated that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth, tenth and twelfth graders. Further referencing an emerging field of research into the world of smart phones, the running theory is that mobile devices have become both a healthier distraction for teens and a device where usage can produce the same physiological response as drugs. 
The article itself raises some poignant questions about how today's teenagers seek pleasure and stimulation. But a running commentary throughout the article pushes us toward a deeper question: how do we as a society – from children to seniors – connect and engage with one another? 
I am one to both bemoan and praise the cell phone. It is simultaneously a tool of distraction, a portal to not-quite-reality and a unique object that enables access and togetherness in a powerful way. As a parent of a toddler, to have the ability to FaceTime Avi’s grandparents, cousins and loved ones whenever we want – to literally see their faces and hear their voices with the touch of a button – is a modern miracle. (It also bears mentioning that our fifteen-month-old can – and does – FaceTime his grandparents whenever he gets ahold of an iPhone.) Yet the cell phone is absolutely a distraction and a danger – see any number of state laws preventing texting while driving as proof  and, moreover, has become a social liability in circles where human engagement and a back to basics approach is paramount. (Example A: the sign asking you to “power down and Shabbos up” on your way into Fourth Shabbat in Seattle.)
The sanctity of connection – of having instant access not only to people you care about, but an entire world of information – is not a new idea. In fact, in this week’s parsha, Vayikra, we begin to glimpse both the idea of connection as it existed for the ancient Israelites and their newfound access to a brand new world – one of holiness and grace, God and humans, sacrifice and sanctity. Vayikra changes the game for our ancestors, presenting them with formal rules and restrictions on the "dos and don’t’sof Jewish identity. It also presents new methods – in the form of sacrifice  for how to engage on a deeply spiritual level. In some ways, the laws of Leviticus form their own type of "spiritual substance,” providing an elevated form of connection not previously witnessed in Torah.
The essential takeaway in Vayikra - and in Leviticus as a whole - is that something must serve as a conduit between God and humanity; between the divine and the profane. That something, in this week’s parashah, is sacrifice. The aforementioned New York Times article focuses on teenagers seeking an elevated experience - to break the monotony and the drama of adolescence - by way of new avenues and methods. As we begin this new book of Torah may we moderns focus on the essential undercurrent of both these concepts: to connect and engage in a deep way is significant, no matter what era we find ourselves living in.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen 

Parashat Vayak’heil-P’kudei • Exodus 35:1−40:38

Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.

I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.

As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t'reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.

The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”

Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat T'tzaveh • Exodus 27:20−30:10

How are we supposed to lead?

There are many different types of leaders in the world. People have different styles and different motivations for their leadership.  The things I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t tell us that there is one right way. Some people like to lead from the front, and create a following. Some lead from the top and tell the people below the way to go. And then some lead from within the group.

In the book of Exodus we have these three different leadership models. Miriam who leads from the front and has the people follow her example. Moses who leads from the mountain and has the people listen, and Aaron who lives among the people and attempts to solve their disputes and appease them when they are upset.

When Aaron is appointed the high priest over all of Israel, Moses is told, “Draw near to you Aaron you brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priests office” (Exodus 28:1). We learn something about the third type of leader from this text, the one who leads from within the people.

Why is Moses told to bring Aaron and his sons to become the priests from among the people of Israel?

According to Benei Yisachar, an eighteenth century Chasidic commentator, “the leader of a nation must not be above the people but close to them, within them”. In other words, unlike Moses and Miriam, Aaron was a leader not by standing in front of the people, or by standing above them, but rather his leadership style was to stand among the people. 

This leadership style, because it’s not flashy and in some ways requires more patience, work and individual attention, often is overlooked. According to another commentary, the Mei Otzar Ha Torah, “the priest needed to be from among the people, involved with them and know their weaknesses and faults.” When you lead like Miriam and you lead like Moses it becomes a lot tougher to know the faults and weaknesses of your followers. Because Aaron was chosen to lead among the people he was in a unique position as a leader because he was able to know who they were.

There are many ways to lead and our tradition shows us three great examples all in the book of Exodus. However, for me, I take something special from Aaron. While leading from the front or leading up front might get the job done in the short term, in order to create something sustainable, a great leader is most able to effect change and teach the people when they are among them and not above them or ahead of them.

Parashat T'rumah • Exodus 25:1−27:19

This week's Torah portion, T'rumah, opens with the command to Moses: "Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them." Gifts of finery, for the construction of the tabernacle, were to be brought by everyone in the community through a then-unique system. As opposed to a uniform contribution requirement, placing an outsized burden upon the disadvantaged members of society, everyone was required to invest their heart as well as their "dollars."

The tabernacle, the most sacred site in the early Israelite religion, demanded more than financial contribution. By asking individuals to invest to their hearts in the service of God, the construction of the tabernacle thus became a community building project in addition to a physical construction project.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer