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

Parashat Terumah • Exodus 25:1-27:19

"The entire universe is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3). "The Heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool; What house can you build for me?” (Isaiah 66:1).” “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this house I have built” (1 Kings 8:27). If God's Presence fills the entire universe, as these verses from TaNaKh seem to indicate, why does God even need a Temple?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19), offers one answer: “That I might dwell among them.” A close read reveals this structure was not build for God — God is not going to dwell in it — but for the people, that God might “dwell among them.” This Hebrew verb, shin-chaf-nun, then becomes the word Shechinah, a closer experience of God’s presence. 

Parshat Mishpatim • Exodus 21:1–24:18

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

Parshat Yitro • Exodus 18:1–20:23

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner's interpretation of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro:


Parshat Beshalach • Exodus 13:17-17:16

In this weeks torah portion Beshalach the Israelites are finally on their way to freedom. As they made their way to the sea Pharoahs’s army approached. Trapped, the Israelites turned to Moses and said, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians, than to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11-13). According to Rabbi Ibn Ezra “The Israelites still have a slave mentality, despite their having experienced God’s redemptive power during the Ten Plagues.” This lack of faith might make one question whether the Israelites were worthy of being chosen to receive the Torah as a result of their apparent lack of faith and trust in God. However, it is this very lack of faith, and this questioning that the Israelites do that makes them worthy of receiving Torah.

According to Daniel Gordis in his book God Was Not in the Fire, “In Jewish spiritual life, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey. Indeed, as we will see, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate and even celebrated in Jewish life.”

Therefore, it is the Israelites asking why God has brought them out to the wilderness to die that makes them the unique people to receive and interpret Torah. Most people would not think to question God or their religious leader. Here their questioning is the precursor to their redemption. God does not save the Israelites to show them how their lack of faith is unfounded. Rather, God splits the sea because even though the Israelites might think like slaves, they do one thing a slave does not do. They exercise their power to voice their opinion, even in opposition.

Parshat Bo • Exodus 10:1-13:16

“Why do Jews wear those funny boxes on their heads?” While such a question would be considered offensive in most other contexts, it was beautifully innocent coming from the overeager 4th grader on a tour of Temple’s sacred spaces. Stepping back from my emotional connection to the rites and rituals of Judaism, I must admit she had a point. Tefilin, the black leather boxes traditionally-observant Jews wear on their heads and forearms during prayer, do look a bit funny. The answer to her question was more complex than she could have anticipated.

I explained that we sometimes read the biblical text quite literally. Why do Jewish holidays begin the night before? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day” we read in Genesis, a model of night and day different from the secular solar ordering. Thus when it says “you shall bind them as a sign before your eyes”, that is exactly what we do! The last words of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, offer further explanation: “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).” Those funny boxes, then, not only serve to fulfill one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot but also as a reminder of our freedom in this world and our obligation to emulate God by striving to bring freedom to all in need.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer