Parshat Metzora • Leviticus 14:1–15:33

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


Parshat Tazria • Leviticus 12:1–13:59

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

Parashot Tazria and Metzora • Leviticus 12:1–13:59 and 14:1–15:33

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s and next week's Torah portions, Tazria and Metzora:

Parshat Shemini • Leviticus 9:1–11:47

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Shemini:

Parshat Tzav • Leviticus 6:1–8:36

The title of this week's parsha, Tzav, emerges from the same root as that of mitzvah, translated here as "commandment." The primary commandment of which we speak is directed first from God through Moses toward Aaron and his sons. In the early paragraphs of Tzav God commands the kohanim to properly carry out their part in the sacrificial service that shapes the core of Israel's worship. It is direct and deliberate. As we are taught that every single word in the Torah is used with purpose and placed intentionally, "the use of tzav" as opposed to emir or dabeir (speak/say) is used to motivate the priests to do something they otherwise might not have wanted to do. That's the classic definition of a commandment: an obligation we perform even if we don't feel like it." (Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah, March 21, 2016) Even with the tremendous honor and status that comes with priesthood, perhaps God is anxious that this class of Israelites will balk at the responsibility placed on their shoulders; thus God sets up a power dynamic to make clear these obligations.

The notion of "commandment" is a notoriously complicated idea for modern Reform Jews. Many of us dismiss the notion that we are bound to a set of mitzvot, thinking our progressive approach to Judaism severs the tie our ancestors might have had to a form of  halachic observance. Some of us might think that driving on Shabbat or indulging in the occasional BLT sandwich might automatically cancel out any other mitzvot we could potentially observe and so, what's the point of even trying at all? We find ourselves perplexed by the notion of being "obligated" to do something; after all, we have free will! We're encouraged to question and wrestle with Jewish text! We are part of a Movement that tells us it's okay not to believe in God! With stakes that low, who needs a sense of commandedness?

Unfortunately as we well know, this attitude toward mitzvot can and does overlap into our day-to-day lives. While we are likely better at honoring our commitments to work and family than those to our Jewish community, who among us has not questioned or even dismissed our obligation to something - be it a lackluster school assignment, a withering friendship, an upcoming dinner party or participation in a project, to name a few? We often disappear into our own separate universes, separated from a greater whole for varied reasons. We feel disinterested, disappointed, or disturbed by that which is bigger than us. And so, we feel disconnected. We retreat from that to which we are bound.

In this coming week, I encourage you to think about the obligation you have to your Jewish community and your Jewishness. What is the obligation you have to this synagogue, your fellow congregants, or a set of laws and rituals that extends far beyond this generation? A sense of commitment might at times feel burdensome, but it also bears a tremendous sense of power and honor. Obligation can be a transformative act. This coming Shabbat, how will you understand and implement a sense of holy tzav?

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen


Parshat Vayikra • Leviticus 1:1–5:26

I did not realize until Monday morning of this week – my first in the office as I transition back from maternity leave – that the Torah portion was Vayikra, the opener to the book of Leviticus. These mostly unstructured twelve weeks since our son Avi was born have simultaneously passed in freaky-rapid and molasses-slow succession. Josh and I recently discussed how the period of time after the birth of a child is a little bit like the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day;” every morning a repeat of the one before. And yet, those milestones of babydom are some of the most profound, moving moments of your life; for example, a smile has never meant as much as it does when it comes from Avi.

How fitting to begin a new book of Torah this week, one that focuses on the seemingly mundane details of sacrifice – a precursor to our modern Jewish modes of prayer – and the challenges of forming a God-focused society. How poignant that we begin to study this third book of Torah just when we change our clocks to reflect a shift in that much-needed sunlight. How timely to begin this new book of Torah with Purim, Pesach and Spring Break just around the corner and summer vacation looming not-too-far on the horizon. Change is upon us and, to echo the intention of Vayikra, we need order and structure to process what those changes will mean.

Leviticus attempts to give the Jewish people a structure to understand that which they cannot; from the holiness of God’s presence to the complicated inner workings of the human body. On a surface level Leviticus might seem dull or repetitive, but scratch beneath and one finds a treasure trove of details on how to live life as a Jew. While some of that information might feel antiquated or tough to relate to – and indeed, much of it is – at its most basic level, Vayikra is about drawing closer to God, to community, and to the self. Each of us has the ability to take Vayikra’s teachings to heart and absorb what they attempt to teach us about life. As life presents us with its vast array of joys and challenges, it is the structure found in Leviticus that intends to give direction and purpose to our growing Jewish communities. And, hopefully, to a new mother forging a path toward professional parenthood in the years ahead.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshat P'kudei • Exodus 38:21–40:38

He Ain’t Heavy? The End of Exodus

After seemingly interminable descriptions of the materials and design of the Mishkan—the portable worship site for the peripatetic Israelites—the project is finished, and with it the Book of Exodus. The deal is sealed and affirmed as God descends onto the Tabernacle in a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, to convey tangible acceptance of the task. God’s manifest presence is described as “kavod adonai.” From the Hebrew root meaning “heavy”, kavod is most frequently invoked as “honor.” One need not be a Midrash-seeking rabbi engaged in continuous interpretation toward sermon writing to make the connection: When we act with integrity and honesty in our intentions towards tasks and one another, we not only bring honor to the moment—we invite God’s indwelling presence into our lives.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parshat Vayakhel • Exodus 35:1–38:20

Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai,after the verse in Micah 4, wrote: "Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first." This beautiful sentiment displays the strong predisposition against warfare felt by the Jewish community, itself the historical victims of violence.

This poem also contains the key to unlocking a verse in this week's Torah portion. "The posts were four; their four sockets were of copper, their hooks of silver; and the overlay of their tops was of silver, as were also their bands," we read in Exodus 38:19. Why silver and copper and not a more durable, lasting metal? In addition to their natural beauty, we are taught that these metals were used in construction of the Mishkan due to their unsuitability for weaponry. Our most sacred space itself, in addition to the rituals contained within, are constant reminders of our highest aspiration, that "nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they learn war anymore."

Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parshat Ki Tisa • Exodus 30:11–34:35

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa:

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

Beaten Toward Redemption

The mark of a ubiquitous and resonant idea is the ability to inspire both high and low culture simultaneously. Nietzsche quipped, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger,” a notion taken up by no less a meme-generator than pop princess Kelly Clarkson. But our Midrash predates both, comparing the description of the “clear oil of beaten olives” from our parasha to the people of Israel, who required the conquest by others to compel them toward repentance and to evoke an emergence of their highest natures. It is, on the one hand, a troubling excuse for historic suffering in the presence of a seemingly absent God. Yet this analogy also drives our people’s almost supernatural survival instinct in the face of enduring persecution. Both approaches elevate what would otherwise be a mind-numbing litany of artifacts and practices of a Temple defunct for two millennia into an aspirational guide for Jews as individuals and as a transcendent community. Nietzsche and Clarkson possessed a firm foundation of lemonade-making-from-lemons upon which to ply their pop-philosophies.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner