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


Yom Rishon shel Pesach | Exodus 12:37-42, 13:3-10

The formative Jewish narrative — more than the creation of the State of Israel, more than the days of creation, more even than the covenant at Sinai — is the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom FROM Egypt, to be sure, but also the freedom TO: to create a moral society in keeping with the values and truths of the burgeoning Jewish religion. The Exodus is commemorated and relived in our upcoming Sedarim, true, and recalled most frequently in our tradition.
We remember the Exodus when we recite kiddish at our dining room tables every Friday night. We remember the Exodus when we sing Mi Chamocha during every service. We also remember the Exodus when we walk into our homes and other Jewish spaces. An early precursor to the mezuzah is found in the Torah portion we read this week: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the doorposts.” (Exodus 21:22) When we continually remember the Exodus, when we embrace the accompanying responsibility, it should be enough. Dayeinu!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Tzav | Leviticus 6:1−8:36

Leviticus, dense and replete with antiquated ritual though it may be, is the book that makes the Torah - the Torah. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern texts, which are mainly prose, mainly law, or mainly poetry, the Torah includes all three. This week's parsha, Tzav, continues the legal-framework of the book with  instructions about sacrificial offerings and the priestly ordination. While last week's parsha was directed to the entire community, this week's is directed at the priests themselves, and yet, it is available to all to read and study.

Rabbi Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi notes in her commentary to Tzav, that Israel sets itself apart from other ancient cultures that it resembled with this inclusion in the text: "... the priests in most cultures in the ancient world kept secrets of their profession away from the public eye and transmitted them privately from generation to generation. In contrast, Leviticus reflects a commitment to keep the rules of the trade, as it were, in public view." (The Torah: A Women's Commentary, URJ Press 2008). Perhaps this can help us understand a related notion expressed at the giving of the Ten Commandments, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6)

Yes, the work of the priesthood, and the texts of Leviticus are highly specialized - and pertain to a specific time in our ancient heritage. But the work of the priests, the rituals and offerings, was public knowledge. Perhaps so that all of Israel could see themselves as in relationship with the Divine, and indeed, capable of sacred connection and holy work.

- Rabbi Callie B. Schulman


Parashat Vayikra | Leviticus 1:1−5:26

Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (the Conservative Movement’s rabbinical school), teaches that the Book of Leviticus, which we begin this week, is a "how-to handbook" for the ancient priests on which the rest of us are merely eavesdroppers. This next book of Torah is filled with instructions about the various sorts of sacrifices to be offered and how to perform them correctly. We, as contemporary readers, he says, are quite removed from sacrifice and are probably even repelled by all the blood, gore, and priestly technicalities of Leviticus.

With a little bit of wisdom and detachment, however, we can still derive meaning from Leviticus’s attention to human frailty and imperfection, its sustained reflection on the importance of ritual, and its understanding of the need for holiness and community. It’s not as easy as finding meanings in Genesis’ stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs or in the highlight reel that is Deuteronomy, but most things that are worthwhile are not easy. Roll up your sleeves and join us for Torah study this month at 9:30am on Temple’s Seattle campus!

- Rabbi Aaron Meyer


Parashat Vayak'heil - P'kudei | Exodus 35:1–40:38

There is a common misconception that art was not an historic part of the ancient Israelite, and indeed, Jewish worship tradition. Given the commandment prohibiting the worship of graven images, such a misconception is understandable. However, in this week's Torah portion we read of the Israelites coming together to create what can only be called works of art in the construction of the Tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

In the Sefer Yetzirah, one of the earliest books of the Jewish esoteric, each of the Twelve Tribes is associated with a month of the Hebrew calendar. This month, Adar, belongs to the tribe of Naftali. Midrash further connects Naftali to those who, in this week's parsha, were responsible for the work of weaving that went into the creation of the Tabernacle. The connection with Naftali, and indeed with the artists Bezalel and Oholiab, mentioned in this week's parsha as the chief artisans of the Tabernacle, remind us that creativity is a sacred and essential part of our tradition.

Rabbi Jill Hammer writes, "The tribe of Naftali holds the secret of weaving the sacred into the works of human hands. Naftali shows us how the spirit and the natural world can be woven together into a single fabric." (The Jewish Book of Days, JPS 2006). May our Torah continue to remind us of the varieties of ways in which we can express our yearnings to connect our lived experience with that-which-is-greater-than-us.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat Ki Tisa | Exodus 30:11−34:35

“Today I am a man; tomorrow I return to the 7th grade” goes the classic joke about religious maturity occurring at age 13 in Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, suggests an older age at which one should be counted as an adult: “When you take a census of the Israelite people…everyone from the age of twenty years up shall give.” Rashi and Ibn Ezra, two traditional commentators, suggest that this is the age at which one is capable of true understanding and should be counted as an adult. At age 13 we may understand our responsibilities in Jewish tradition — but it isn’t until age 20 that we are held fully accountable.
 
Car insurance companies have long known the difference between societal conference of responsibility and when it is actually likely to be carried out. Don’t even think about renting a car until your prefrontal cortex has reached a later stage of development around age 25. It makes good sense…the same sense we have known for some 2,500 years.
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

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

Nestled within Parshat Tetzaveh, amidst detailed descriptions of the priestly garments we find a tantalizingly occult relic from the priesthood: the Urim and Thummim. These were divinatory tools the High Priest would consult when the human capacity for decision making was lacking:

Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times (Exodus 28:30).

Of the priestly accoutrements depicted in our parashah, the Urim and Thummim remain the most mysterious, for very little is known about how they were used. They do, however, point to the human heart's yearning for reassurance from the Divine. We see such yearning again in I Samuel where the Urim is listed alongside dream interpretation and consulting a prophet as sanctioned forms of communication with the Divine (I Samuel 28:6).

It is tempting to tie this all up in a nice package, with a moral and a lesson and a practical takeaway, but this is one of those Torah moments that elicit more questions than answers. We humans have a tendency toward cynicism and fear when faced with the unknown, but our parashah offers up these ancient, mysterious tools as an antidote. The existence of the Urim and Thummim offers us a hint as to how our spiritual ancestors sought information from the Divine, and invites us to continue that search in our own lives.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman


Parashat T'rumah | Exodus 25:1−27:19

“God spoke to Moses saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them’.” This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, begins by creating a religious structure 180 degrees removed from the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. Instead of being forced to labor, they were invited to participate. Instead of being far removed from that which was sacred, they were instrumental in its creation. Each and every person had the chance to opt in — and the space for God’s presence was crafted through their actions.

The same is true today. As the theologian Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us, it is incumbent upon each of us to create a world in which God wishes to dwell. It can only happen when we opt in, each and every day, renewing our desire to live by our highest values and then following through with our actions.

-  Rabbi Aaron Meyer


Parashat Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1−24:18

Mishpatim, the rules laid out in this week’s appropriately-named Torah portion, are those commandments that inherently make sense, that come complete with obvious moral backing. (Their ideological opposites, chukim, are those commandments issued without apparent reason that are particular to the Jewish community.) Mishpatim should and have arisen in many thinking societies. Do not murder, take responsibility for your animals, do not ill-treat orphans all make sense to us and are “easy” to uphold when we are thinking and acting as our highest selves. So why are they commanded in Torah and not a separate, secular legal code?
In Jewish tradition, the two are not distinct as they are in American life. To be fully Jewish is to live in accordance with your highest values in the synagogue as well as on the street, in religious as well as secular contexts. To not murder makes sense in a cooperative human society and also reflects the spark of divinity we find in every human being. We do it (or, as the case may be, don’t do it) for secular reasons and religious reasons combined. May our every action reflect this reality.
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer