Chukat | 19:1−22:1

To fly off the handle. To go ballistic. To blow one’s lid. To lose it. We have many idioms in English for describing when someone loses control of their emotions and acts in a way not in accordance with their highest intentions. Unfortunately, this plethora of words would not exist were it not for the frequency with which we need to call upon them. It is all too easy to become excessively angry and to behave both impulsively and destructively…losing control unfortunately happens to all of us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses, too, loses control. The early Israelites were complaining — yet again — and instead of following God’s recipe for drawing forth water like a baker, Moses followed it like a chef, being a little less precise with his control. His punishment should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. Instead of rationally addressing the underlying issues, Moses lashed out in anger, and was subsequently prevented from reaching his ultimate destination. So, too, it is with us. When we lose focus, when we fly off the handle or go ballistic or lose it, we lose sight of our goal and face repercussions both immediately and for the long term.
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Korach | Numbers 16:1−18:32

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, two divergent models of leadership are presented. The leadership of Korach, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is the prioritization of particularistic concerns from a heterogenous group of malcontents born of shattered hope and unrest. The second is that of Moses and Aaron, described eighteen times in Torah as “servants of God,” who sought only to teach, guide, advocate, and defend the early Israelites. Sacks’ takeaway is that “a true leader is a servant, not a master. He does not seek to set himself above others or lord it over them. Leadership as power, dominance, mastery, or rule has no place in Judaism.”
Too often our society overlooks those in servant leadership roles. Perhaps because they don’t command as much oxygen in a room, or because they prefer to empower others and stay out of the spotlight we miss them entirely. Yet it is often they who are truly effective, a lesson Moses and Aaron learned the hard way. When they lost their way, when they failed the challenge of remaining firm in their convictions as servants of God when presented with Korach’s model, they lost their place in the promised land. Join us on Saturday morning at 9:30am as we study these prooftexts from our tradition!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Sh'lach L'cha | Numbers 13:1−15:41

There's nothing like the unknown to amplify fear; and there's nothing like the wilderness to amplify the unknown. Our parsha this week, Sh'lach L'cha, features the famous story of the Israelite spies who ventured into the Promised Land to scout it out in advance of the rest of the wandering Israelites. It is a famous parsha for a few reasons: 1) it reinforces the image of the land being one "flowing with milk and honey," with produce so large that it requires multiple people to carry one bunch of grapes, 2) it is also a land full of "giants" to whom the Israelites "seem like grasshoppers," thus adding to the terror of it and 3) because two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua speak up in favor of entering the land - and they wind up being the only two of their generation who will survive to see the people enter in to it.
In these wilderness chapters, we become "a stiff-necked people," challenging Moses & Aaron, and therefore God, at every turn; bemoaning the unknown road ahead. Countless times, our leaders ask God for strength to continue to lead, and countless times God threatens to wipe us out, only to have our leaders come about in our defense. It is a wild ride through the wilderness as we ping-pong back and forth between being secure in who we are and where we are headed, and downright terrified and indignant in our ignorance of the path ahead... How like life? The journey to a new place is always harder traversing than the known path. The road-less-travelled is the one full of fears and doubts and terrors, and yet in the immortal words of Robert Frost - taking that Road Less Travelled By makes all the difference; in becoming who we are, in facing our fears, and moving through the uknown into the wilds of deep discovery.
- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Thoughtful Thursday - June 6, 2018

As we reach the end of the shloshim thirty-day mourning period, I am finally able to gather my thoughts to share about Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, former President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and my close friend.

Most of us live divided lives, split between the need for a public persona and a private striving for a more intimate authenticity. Rabbis bear the additional, amplified demand of the clergy archetype, a spiritual Rorschach upon which many project their ideals and concerns.

And so, it is a special province for rabbis to spend time amongst ourselves, permitted to let our entrenched guard down, relating to one another as the human beings we were before committing to this vocation-- the people we still are in our most essential, protected moments.

This inevitable distance between private persona and public image increases even more when the rabbi is a global leader, one who serves so many as a nurturing mentor, institutional visionary, and symbolic purveyor of tradition. And when one is taken from this life at the pinnacle of powers and prowess, the list of achievements attained, and those unrequited, forges memory of nearly mythic proportions, weighted with the promise of the could-have-been.

I was blessed to call Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l a colleague, and fortunate to look to him as a rising leader of our Reform Movement. But I am luckiest to have cherished him as friend for more than three decades, and I grieve a loss that traces the deep contours of that bond. For friends of this nature, duration and faithfulness come rarely in a lifetime, and even in his absence, his imprint impresses.

I met Aaron in that strange and liminal moment of our first summer in Israel upon entering our rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the seminary at which he would later become President. It was a challenging time of transition, barely adjusted to completing undergraduate studies, uprooted physically, emotionally and spiritually to a life in Israel, embarking upon a journey of sacrifice and service that we could scarcely envision. Our youth and inexperience was obvious and manifest, as we struggled to embrace our launch into both adulthood and this most idiosyncratic of paths. We shared a singular flash in time, still unmoored by the freedom of the inchoate, but increasingly bound by the expectations of what lay ahead. We forged a friendship rooted in what we had been, encompassing what we were becoming.

There were unbridled moments pursuing the excesses of youth, hold overs from our undergraduate exploits, celebrating our temporary lack of encumbrances and exploring the possibilities for new and different kinds of experiences. We embraced the rigors of novel study, traveled to new, exotic locales with an emerging community of classmates, all while laying the foundations for our evolving identities.

While all of us possessed unique qualities and traits, elements that became abundantly familiar in the course of such intense interaction, Aaron exuded an infectious energy and inimitable presence that drew us in and drew us close, inviting us to become co-conspirators in his great assault on a fuller kind of living. He was intellectually omnivorous, passionate for adventure, and compulsive to fulfill the longings of his heart and mind. While most of us were content to satisfy the demands of the curriculum, balanced with the travails of this year of transience, Aaron consumed as many new ideas as he could plumb, immersing deeply into everyday Israeli culture in ways that seemed to defy the physical limits of time and vigor.

There is no looking back upon that first, formative year without reflecting on Aaron’s significant role in it. And as I’ve shaped and been shaped by my distinct rabbinic path, the fidelity of my connection to Aaron, and his conscientiousness in its sustenance, endured, despite the exponential growth of his responsibilities and the pull of myriad demands. It is a testament to his capacity as a person and acumen as a leader that so many feel his loss in personal, impactful ways. But I will always remember the “husky” red head with the stubbled baby-face, driven by an East Coast angst for that which remained undone, assailing me with a sarcastic but-not-too scarring retort which disarmed with a wry smile, charting a course that he alone would tread, beckoning me to follow in a path as singular as his own.

-Rabbi Daniel Weiner

B'haalot'cha | Numbers 8:1−12:16

Success is not a zero-sum game. While theoretically we might understand that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” we tend to fall prey to jealousy when we see another succeed — be they foe or friend, rival or colleague. Instead of celebrating and sharing in their accomplishments, we resort to belittling the character of good people, tarnishing the reputations of the famous, and trying to make the great seem small. Bachya Ibn Pekuda, in Duties of the Heart, offers this important psychological insight as commentary on this week’s Torah portion: "Should one of your colleagues be superior to you, his deeds better than yours…your evil inclination will seduce you and say to you: his greater efforts to achieve moral perfection only throw into relief your faults.”

When Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, speak out against him (seemingly without cause), their words come off as embittered. Many commentators read the lack of context given by our sacred scripture as a commentary upon itself, modeling for us the prohibition against disparaging others by leaving out the hurtful words. Before we lash out against the success of others, Bachya and Torah tell us, we would be well reminded that we are “commanded to love and to honor those who honor God.”
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Naso - Numbers 4:21−7:89

Upon first glance, this week's parsha, Naso, could appear to be a somewhat dry account of an Israelite census. The opening chapters of the book of Numbers retell the Israelite people's self-organization and preparation for the trek into the Promised Land. Not only do they face the challenge of traveling in a group in excess of two million, but they must do so while maintaining a proper relationship with God (and by extension, each other). As anyone who has ever led a field trip, or even a family vacation knows, the former is no small feat, and the ladder may sometimes feel impossible.

This segment of their journey begins then, as does any sound journey, with an accounting-for of all the souls who were to travel together. A veteran chaperone of many a field trip with young people, I have myriad first-hand experience with this exercise of roll-call. As a staffer of young adults, I've tried counting people off, so as to expedite the on-and-off boarding process from buses and at group meeting points. But our parsha does not use any of the Hebrew words for "counting," as it retells the way in which the Levites took census of the Israelite people. Rather, God tells the Levites to, "naso et rosh," "lift the head" of each of the people present.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this choice of language and instruction illustrates a revolutionary idea: that each person should be seen as an individual, human, single, and valued and not just a part of a mass, or a number in a tally. This census reveals a "supreme religious principle," that people aren't just numbers. In the priestly act of lifting each head, looking each individual in the eye, and counting their personhood amongst the Israelites, we learn that we are as important as we make other people feel; that by acknowledging one's humanness we inherently acknowledge both their independence and our interconnectedness.

Rabbi Callie B. Schulman

Parashat B'har - B'chukotai | Leviticus 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

Fairytales and stories are replete with perfect worlds where ideals are made manifest: ideas of beauty, concepts of justice, and the like. We call these imaginary worlds utopias, from the Greek meaning “no place,” because they are so far from our lived reality as to seem fictional. The Book of Leviticus, torat kohanim, sees things differently. At regular intervals — every seven days, every seven years, every seventh seven years (as we read in this week’s Torah portion) — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests we are to perform a dress rehearsal for the Messianic Age, living the ideal in the hear-and-now. These Shabbatot — for the economy, the land, and for ourselves — serve as the perfect amuse-bouche, whetting our appetites for what could be and reminding us why we need to continue the work to merge our two realities.

Parashat Emor | Leviticus 21:1−24:23

We know that words have the power to hurt and the power to heal, and we also know that sometimes, we speak without thinking. In fact, some of us need to talk things through in order to think (one definition of an extrovert is a person who needs to "think out loud" in order to process). Our parsha this week begins and ends with a focus on speech, its power and the dangers thereof.
Parshat Emor (literally "say") continues the guidelines of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17 - 26) from last week's parsha, and then covers a lot of ground from there. We move from instructions regarding the sanctity of the priests and sacrificial offerings into the notions of sacred time (shabbat and festivals in this parsha in particular), which pertain to all Israelites, and finally, to a curious episode regarding blasphemy. The only woman to be named in the entire book of Leviticus appears here, Shelomit bat Divri, and it is her son who commits the crime of speech.
No name should go un-dissected in Torah, and it is quite striking that the woman whose son trespasses the bounds of sanctity by the use of words should have a name so associated with speech herself. "Divri," means "speaker" or "to speak" and Shelomit, of course, is related to the word "Shalom" - peace or wholeness. While it's too complex a problem to suss out in these 2 minutes of Torah, I suggest that our parsha is once again, at both its opening and its closing, adjuring us to pay attention to our words, and to the power of our speech.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman

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