Month: April 2018

Parashat Acharei Mot - K’doshim | Leviticus 16:1-20:27

This week’s double Torah portion, Achrei Mot/Kedoshim, sends a goat straight to hell in a curious ritual of expiation. Or, at least the closest approximation of hell that exists in Jewish tradition (and modern Hebrew, where the curse "Lech L’Azazel” mean what you think it does). After symbolically transferring the sins of the community, “Aaron shall take two goats and let them stand before Adonai at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for Adonai and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for Adonai, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before Adonai, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.”

Whether Azazel is a place, filled as it would be with sin-imbued goats, or a goat-eating-Demon (as cultural anthropologists would suggest), it does indeed sound like the opposite of heaven — especially for those of us with allergies. It is also, perhaps, the easiest origins of the term scapegoat. This was how our ancestors marked Yom Kippur when the ancient temples stood. Our prayers for forgiveness today take a more humane form, at least from the perspective of the goat!

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Tazria - M’tzora | Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Tazria-Metzora, perhaps the most challenging parsha of the most challenging book of the Torah for us moderns. This double portion completes the Levitical laws about ritual impurity (i.e. the conditions in which a person must find themselves in order to come before the sacred spaces of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle). According to The Torah: A Women's Commentary, the Torah is concerned with certain actions and physical conditions that might produce, "an invisible, airborne pollutant that invades the sanctuary, the selling place of the Divine Presence... [which could] cause Israel's God to abandon the Sanctuary, an event thought to bring about national disaster."

All of these concerns around ritual purity and impurity focus primarily on the nexus between life and death; a mysterious liminality not only for the ancients, but for us still. While many of these laws were used over the centuries to keep certain groups of people (namely, women) away from proximity to sacred spaces and ritual items a kinder reading of the text could see them as primitive ways that our ancestors went about trying to restore peace of mind and spiritual wholeness after the destabilizing effects of birth, death and disease. No matter how we parse it, though, these are parshiot with which we are meant to wrestle, question, and as Progressive Jews, from which we are invited to take our distance and argue with the Torah; it can handle us reading against it from time to time.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Sh'mini II | Leviticus 10:12–11:47

Have you ever felt entirely unequal to the task in front of you? The Hebrew prophetic tradition is famously known for our reticent prophets, from Moses who balked at the idea of being a mouthpiece for God, to Jonah who famously tries to run away from his call to action. Ours is a tradition that recognizes the fear and uncertainty, as well as the courage that lies within the human heart. 
In the Reform tradition we get the opportunity to take a deeper look at Shmini for a second week as we move out of Passover and back into our regular Torah reading cycle. As Aaron and his sons make their way through the seven-day ordination ceremony and prepare to take up the regular work of the tabernacle, Moses utters an interesting phrase to Aaron. "Come forward," he says, "to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people..." (Leviticus 9:7). Rashi assumes from this "come forward," that Aaron has kept his distance from the altar all throughout the ordination proceedings; and wonders why. 
Perhaps Aaron was ashamed of the role he had played previously in the incident of the Golden Calf. Perhaps he felt, like his brother before him, that he was not well-suited to the task at hand. And yet Moses, who had experienced God's ability to see beyond the limitations he saw within himself, offers him this invitation. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, "Aaron had to understand that his own experience of sin and failure made him the ideal representative of a people conscious of their own sin and failure." In these moments of hesitation, of doubt, of fear, we - like Aaron - are invited to turn our weaknesses into strengths; to build upon our past experience and use it to help others. 
- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Sh'mini I | Leviticus 9:1–10:11

Our parsha this week happens to be one of my favorites - not because it is a particularly happy tale, but because I was first introduced to it through song. The Indigo Girls' 1987 hit "Strange Fire," compares what happens in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Shmini, to "an offering of love," even though it might not seem like it at first glance. Two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, enter into the sanctuary without being asked, and offer what the Torah calls esh zarah, alien or foreign fire. As a result, they are consumed by fire themselves and perish on the spot.

Torah commentators are mostly in agreement that Nadab and Abihu acted under less-than holy pretenses by bringing forward their unsanctioned offering. Some argue that they were ambitious in their actions; eager to impress the Israelites and depose Moses and Aaron from their positions of leadership. Others assume that they were arrogant which made them feel accountable to no one. Few scholars take a friendlier view, assuming that the young priests were merely overcome with religious zeal, and eager to add their own offerings to those proscribed by God.

Having been introduced to the notion of strange fire by the Indigo Girls, I tend to agree with the latter scholars - that Nadab and Abihu acted out of earnest faith and dedication. "This is a message/ a message of love/ love that moves from the inside out/ love that never grows tired/ I come to you with Strange Fire." What if Amy Ray's words capture a possible reframe of this story? So consumed by love and devotion were these two young priests, that they were, in turn, consumed by God's matched appreciation? After all, aren't we all full of our own versions of strange fire that light us up and make us who we are?

- Rabbi Callie Schulman