Two Minutes of Torah

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


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 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