Chol HaMo-eid Pesach • Exodus 33:12−34:26

Straits of Possibility

In Hebrew, words often carry deeper, inter-connected meaning ripe for interpretation. The Hebrew word for Egypt, a nation much at issue in this season of our liberation and rebirth, is Mitzrayim. It is closely related to another Hebrew word: mitzrim, or straits, as in constraints or narrow places. Thus, our celebration of Pesach becomes an acknowledgment of our potential to overcome challenges both as a community and as individuals.

Culturally, historically and theologically, we as a Jewish people most fully celebrate our triumph over bondage, and thus express ultimate appreciation to God, by striving to attain the freedom for all who are currently shackled by recent forms of bondage: privation, racism, sexism, and all other pernicious “isms.”

And yet, this Festival of Afflicted Bread also compels us to address our individual bindings: obsessions and addictions; ignorance, apathy and negligence; the failure to realize our God-given opportunities. In many ways, Pesach is a mini-Yom Kippur for the Jewish individual, a mid-year check up of our progress in living out the teshuvah/repentance we vowed six months earlier. And so, we are doubly-commanded, doubly-compelled, and doubly-inspired to liberate all qualities, characteristics and experiences that prevent humanity from achieving that which God intends for us.

Chag Sameach

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Parashat Tzav • Leviticus 6:1-8:36

With our Passover narrative so focused on the sacrifice of a lamb, it seems strange that the only kosher meat we are forbidden to eat on Passover is… lamb! The Shulchan Aruch, a Jewish legal code dating to the 1500s, forbids the consumption of lamb on Passover. As a more popular Jewish resource, the New York Times, reported in 1988: “The ancient custom of sacrificing lambs on the eve of Passover and eating the meat to begin the festival ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. As a mark of respect for the memory of the temple sacrifices, the eating of a whole roasted lamb on Passover is forbidden by the code of Jewish law called Shulchan Aruch.”

While it is no longer custom to eat lamb on Passover, their importance to ancient Jewish practice cannot be overstated: we hear about them not only in this week’s reading of the Haggadah but also the Torah portion. Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36, offers instructions to the high priests about the sacrifices they were to offer on behalf of the community. In times gone by, we believed we did right by God by sacrificing and eating lamb. In modern time, we honor God by doing the exact opposite. May our Passover s’darim, their traditions and discussions, leave us open to new ways of honoring God and our peers as we internalize the lessons of the Exodus!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Vayikra • Leviticus 1:1-5:26

A recent New York Times article ( posed the question, “are teenagers replacing drugs with smart phones?’ Citing a recent survey titled “Monitoring the Future,” an annual government-funded report measuring drug use by teenagers, the article stated that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth, tenth and twelfth graders. Further referencing an emerging field of research into the world of smart phones, the running theory is that mobile devices have become both a healthier distraction for teens and a device where usage can produce the same physiological response as drugs. 
The article itself raises some poignant questions about how today’s teenagers seek pleasure and stimulation. But a running commentary throughout the article pushes us toward a deeper question: how do we as a society – from children to seniors – connect and engage with one another? 
I am one to both bemoan and praise the cell phone. It is simultaneously a tool of distraction, a portal to not-quite-reality and a unique object that enables access and togetherness in a powerful way. As a parent of a toddler, to have the ability to FaceTime Avi’s grandparents, cousins and loved ones whenever we want – to literally see their faces and hear their voices with the touch of a button – is a modern miracle. (It also bears mentioning that our fifteen-month-old can – and does – FaceTime his grandparents whenever he gets ahold of an iPhone.) Yet the cell phone is absolutely a distraction and a danger – see any number of state laws preventing texting while driving as proof  and, moreover, has become a social liability in circles where human engagement and a back to basics approach is paramount. (Example A: the sign asking you to “power down and Shabbos up” on your way into Fourth Shabbat in Seattle.)
The sanctity of connection – of having instant access not only to people you care about, but an entire world of information – is not a new idea. In fact, in this week’s parsha, Vayikra, we begin to glimpse both the idea of connection as it existed for the ancient Israelites and their newfound access to a brand new world – one of holiness and grace, God and humans, sacrifice and sanctity. Vayikra changes the game for our ancestors, presenting them with formal rules and restrictions on the “dos and don’t’sof Jewish identity. It also presents new methods – in the form of sacrifice  for how to engage on a deeply spiritual level. In some ways, the laws of Leviticus form their own type of “spiritual substance,” providing an elevated form of connection not previously witnessed in Torah.
The essential takeaway in Vayikra – and in Leviticus as a whole – is that something must serve as a conduit between God and humanity; between the divine and the profane. That something, in this week’s parashah, is sacrifice. The aforementioned New York Times article focuses on teenagers seeking an elevated experience – to break the monotony and the drama of adolescence – by way of new avenues and methods. As we begin this new book of Torah may we moderns focus on the essential undercurrent of both these concepts: to connect and engage in a deep way is significant, no matter what era we find ourselves living in.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen 

Parashat Vayak’heil-P’kudei • Exodus 35:1−40:38

Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.

I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.

As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t’reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.

The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”

Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

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

How are we supposed to lead?

There are many different types of leaders in the world. People have different styles and different motivations for their leadership.  The things I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t tell us that there is one right way. Some people like to lead from the front, and create a following. Some lead from the top and tell the people below the way to go. And then some lead from within the group.

In the book of Exodus we have these three different leadership models. Miriam who leads from the front and has the people follow her example. Moses who leads from the mountain and has the people listen, and Aaron who lives among the people and attempts to solve their disputes and appease them when they are upset.

When Aaron is appointed the high priest over all of Israel, Moses is told, “Draw near to you Aaron you brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priests office” (Exodus 28:1). We learn something about the third type of leader from this text, the one who leads from within the people.

Why is Moses told to bring Aaron and his sons to become the priests from among the people of Israel?

According to Benei Yisachar, an eighteenth century Chasidic commentator, “the leader of a nation must not be above the people but close to them, within them”. In other words, unlike Moses and Miriam, Aaron was a leader not by standing in front of the people, or by standing above them, but rather his leadership style was to stand among the people. 

This leadership style, because it’s not flashy and in some ways requires more patience, work and individual attention, often is overlooked. According to another commentary, the Mei Otzar Ha Torah, “the priest needed to be from among the people, involved with them and know their weaknesses and faults.” When you lead like Miriam and you lead like Moses it becomes a lot tougher to know the faults and weaknesses of your followers. Because Aaron was chosen to lead among the people he was in a unique position as a leader because he was able to know who they were.

There are many ways to lead and our tradition shows us three great examples all in the book of Exodus. However, for me, I take something special from Aaron. While leading from the front or leading up front might get the job done in the short term, in order to create something sustainable, a great leader is most able to effect change and teach the people when they are among them and not above them or ahead of them.

Parashat T'rumah • Exodus 25:1−27:19

This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, opens with the command to Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” Gifts of finery, for the construction of the tabernacle, were to be brought by everyone in the community through a then-unique system. As opposed to a uniform contribution requirement, placing an outsized burden upon the disadvantaged members of society, everyone was required to invest their heart as well as their “dollars.”

The tabernacle, the most sacred site in the early Israelite religion, demanded more than financial contribution. By asking individuals to invest to their hearts in the service of God, the construction of the tabernacle thus became a community building project in addition to a physical construction project.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Yitro • Exodus 18:1−20:23

This week’s Torah portion establishes [at least] two important foundations for the Jewish people. The first – and much better-known – is the giving of the Ten Commandments from God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It is more than a moment of fire and brimstone emblazoned in our memories; it is the beginning of our formation – who we are, what we believe, and how we interact with the people who both make up our community and who find themselves separate from it. The second – and I argue, more profound – is the sharing of perspective from Jethro to his son-in-law Moses about the latter’s style of leadership. Indeed, it is Jethro, a non-Jew, who is able to see what Moses himself cannot see; that the burden of leading a people should not fall upon him alone. Jethro teaches Moses that governing is not meant to be a solo effort – and through this we learn that in life, in work, in learning and in love, we are better together than we are on our own.

It is a perfect message for this weekend’s celebration of our Adult B’nai Mitzvah students; five individuals who have committed to well over a year of devoted study so that they can, this Shabbat, read from the Torah and lead our community in prayer. These five souls have worked together over these many months, lifting one another up and inspiring their teachers through their commitment to a Jewish ritual typically bestowed upon teenagers. These adults have chosen to pursue this meaningful accomplishment in their own lives and together will be called to the Torah as members of our Temple community. We welcome you to join us as we celebrate their accomplishments and learn from their experiences, making into a tangible reality that original teaching from Jethro himself: we are better together than we are on our own.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat B'shalach • Exodus 13:17-17:16

Having crossed the Sea of Reeds, before even uttering a sigh of relief, the Israelites break into song. Known as Shirat HaYam, or Song of the Sea, the lyrics found in this week’s Torah portion are considered by scholars to preserve perhaps the oldest grammatical forms in all of Torah. “Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped,” our ancestors cried: “Mi chamocha b’eilim Adonai!

It seems appropriate that one of the oldest ways of approaching God in Jewish tradition is through song. Singing offers us a bridge and a direct connection between the head and the heart, uplifting our spirits in times of trouble and elevating our gladness during times of joy. Even those of us who are tonally challenged can find pleasure in song! Come, let all of us sing a new song unto God, we read in Psalms, and I really do hope you will join us. This Shabbat, our varying worship styles converge in one service on our Bellevue campus at 6:00 PM as our many musicians offer praise. A nosh and talk by Justice Madsen of the Washington State Supreme Court follow immediately after.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Bo • Exodus 10:1-13:16

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”  In other words, according to one school of thought, God does all things for the greater good and controls the universe and all that is in it.  If this is true however, how do we reconcile the verse in this week’s Torah portion Bo where it says: Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. – Exodus 10:1.  If God works for the good then how does hardening the hearts of Pharaoh and his courtiers serve the good?

One explanation is that this is a matter of translation.  According to the Women’s Torah commentary: “Hardened” literally, God, “Made [Pharos’s] heart heavy” (from the root k-b-d, “to be heavy).  The image of the heavy heart may relate to the ancient Egyptian conception that in the afterlife, when weighed on the scales of judgement, the virtuous soul is found to have a heart that is lighter than a feather, whereas the sinner has a heavy heart.  Therefore, in this reading, it is not that God made Pharaohs heart hard, it is that it is heavy and found wanting.

Another explanation for how a good God could harden Pharos’s heart is that of free will.  Again, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Free will: The free will defense begins by distinguishing two kinds of evil. Moral evil is evil that occurs through rational action — that is, through wrongful exercises of will on the part of rational beings. Natural evil, by contrast, is owing entirely to the operation of natural causes… The significance and pervasiveness of extrinsic moral evil is easy to underestimate, because a lot of the suffering and hardship that belongs in this category tends to masquerade as merely part of the human condition, and hence as natural evil. But it is not so. Many of the hardships that befall humankind — disease, ignorance, poverty and the like — owe their existence at least in part to wrongful willing.

Therefore, according to this reading, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the culmination of natural evil and moral evil. God hardenes Pharaoh’s heart, not out of an act of malice, but as a result of the free will that stems from moral evil.   What happens to all of us is that moral free will eventually turns in natural free will. The decisions we make as a result of the gift of free will affect us, perhaps not at first, but over time our choices affect us spiritually, psychologically and physically.  Therefore, we must remember that our free will has consequences that transfer over time from the realm of the moral to the realm of the natural.  That is how our bodies and souls are built. 

Elsewhere, we learn that Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah builds upon another, whileaverah gorreret averah, one transgression builds on the next.  Pharaoh made enough moral decisions leading up to God hardening his heart, that it was actually merely the natural outcome of his behavior.  Humans are creatures of habit.  This week’s torah portion teaches us that the good habits build a good body soul connection while the bad ones deteriorate that connection.  As a result, we like God, must work to do good so our hearts are found to be light and virtuous.

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Custom during the Passover Seder is to remove ten drop of wine from the second glass, diminishing our symbol of joy in deference to the plagues which befell the Egyptians. Indeed, the sacred and eternal message of Passover is to remember that suffering, to remember that we were strangers in Egypt – and to act accordingly in every subsequent day and age.

Our Torah portion this week, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), recalls the harsh treatment of our ancestors and the beginning of the plagues Moses and God brought before Pharaoh to secure their redemption. We are ritually reminded of this message every year, not because we are not all wise, not all students of history, but because situations and context continually change. I hope you will join us at 7:00pm in Seattle this Erev Shabbat as Dr. Roberto Dondisch, the Jewish Consul of Mexico, shares the concerns of his community: Mexican immigrants made to feel as strangers in our land. Together may we remember the lessons of our sacred tradition and find new application for these ancient words.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer