Parashat Ba’midbar • Numbers 1:1-4:20

Parshat Ba’midbar, the opening of our fourth book of Torah, Numbers, always seems to come around at exactly the right moment. Jews all over the world read this Torah portion this Shabbat, right in the midst of this season of transition. We will read Ba’midbar – which translates as “in the wilderness…” as our children and grandchildren prepare for prom and senior projects, as they graduate from high school and college, and as families worldwide – particularly in the Pacific Northwest – gear up for the blissful days and cool nights of summer. Yes, transition abounds this time of year, and perhaps no more powerful symbol of transition exists than what we find in the turning of our Jewish calendar.

Next week our community will celebrate Shavuot, a chag (holiday) on which Jews the world over recognize the giving of our Torah, our tree of life, from God. Shavuot is no small holiday – it is the very foundation of our identities. Without Torah there is no Judaism, and without Judaism our world is incomplete. Without Torah, we as Jews would be rootless wanderers. And so it is poignant that, at the start of Ba’midbar our people are those rootless wanderers, searching for a sense of stability and rootedness in the midst of the wilderness.

Each one of us has found ourselves in the wilderness – some literally, some figuratively – at some point in our lives. We know that, as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “nothing is permanent – all is ephemeral” and some of us live that notion every single day. And so the pressing question becomes, what is it that gives US structure, that gives US meaning, that roots US to something, even when transitions abound, or when uncertainty seems to dominate each conversation?

For me, what has always rooted me is a sense of community – an entity that is bigger than one person alone. To be a part of a congregation – this congregation – has been a gift and a privilege these past three years. You have raised me up in immeasurable ways and empowered Josh, Avi and I to grow as a family. Your love and support has meant the world; now, please join us on Friday evening at 6 PM in Seattle as our family gets to say “thank you” for these three incredible years. Let us celebrate the rootedness of community, the opportunity of transition and the possibilities of the future through song and prayer. Join us this Friday in Seattle – and know that we are deeply grateful to this community and send you all our love and blessings.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parshayot B’har-B’hukotai • Leviticus 25:1-26:2, 26:3-27:34

Is God’s love conditional?

Most of us would (hopefully) answer no. Of course the God of our imaginations and prayers possesses unlimited, unfiltered love. Of course the God in which we may or may not believe possesses the type of love most akin to that between a parent and child. Whether we were raised in a home rooted in Jewish values, a Christian family led by the teachings of Jesus, or a non-religious environment entirely, most of us can agree that God loves us no matter who we are or what we do. God’s love is eternal, steadfast, and sees no boundaries. That’s the beauty of being human.

Yet for some who follow the exact letter of the law, (halachically speaking, at least) a piece of this week’s double portion hits on a caveat: “IF you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3-4) That major conjunction (or is it a noun?) sets us up with a condition: 'to get the benefits, you’ve gotta have a little skin in the game.’ When it comes to God, one must follow the laws and observe the commandments faithfully. Otherwise, you’re up that creek without a paddle.

And so two questions emerge for me: first, why set the Jews up for failure? No one is perfect – no entity knows this better than God – and so, why pose this thinly veiled threat to our continued existence? And second, what does it mean to “faithfully” observe commandments? Can one even observe the commandments and prescriptions without faith? What happens when your faith wanes – as it can, over time – and where does that leave you?

All this leaves us open to a multitude of interpretations (and further questions). This week I choose to focus on the following: God does not demand our perfection, but our best. We bring what we can and give what’s possible. We are encouraged (yes, some might say commanded) to plunge ourselves to the depths of Jewish belief and practice; it’s not enough simply skimming the surface. Similar to other corners and pockets of Torah where God comes across more like a strict school principal than a loving, supportive and evolving presence, here in Leviticus we find a hint of hyperbole intended to push us toward action.

And when it comes to faith, well – like humans, God’s faith often wanes too. We witness it in Torah and throughout the corpus of sacred text. If God can ride the wave of emotion that is faith, so can we. To demand perfection of human beings is a whole lot like expecting those up a creek without a paddle will make it safely back to the dock; it’s just not likely to end well. And so we strive for our best each and every morning – climbing, falling, and rising once more to meet the challenges of the everyday.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Emor • Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Watch The Best of Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner's interpretation of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Emor.


Arabian Knights of Faith: The Road From Abu Dhabi, by Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Ten rabbis, ten imams and ten evangelical ministers board planes to Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Government of the United Arab Emirates… Sounds more like an overwrought joke at a UN reception than an attempt at achieving world peace. But there we were, 30 American clergy from ten pilot cities, overcoming fears and prejudice where the rubber of faith meets the road of possibility. 

The goals were deceptively simple, though such illusions often mask the hard realities of the work of peace: To bring together those who often fail to hear, understand or even know one another on the other side of the earth in a place fairly foreign to all in the hopes of producing something outside of the box when we were outside of our daily lives.

Sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of the UAE, this ongoing process emerged from the efforts of Dallas Evangelical Megachurch Pastor Bob Roberts and the eminent Islamic sage Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah. For the pastor, it was his sometimes quixotic, but passionately authentic attempt to counter the pernicious Islamophobia stoked by most of his colleagues. For the sheik, it was a vaunted desire to convey a moderate approach to Islam from within, combatting the extremism, ignorance and intolerance that plagues so many of his coreligionists. And for the rabbis…well, let’s just say that if both groups can find accord with the Jews in light of our histories, achieving this utopian goal would be that much easier to attain.

We agreed to put aside the harder issues: the Mideast conflict, evangelical proselytizing, and the role of women to name just a few. Yet this was no mere avoidance of challenge, but rather a realization that nothing can be accomplished until we get back to the basics of knowing one another, learning to trust one another, and ultimately loving one another.

The hope was to leverage relationships through inverting the common approach to interfaith relations. First we would start with our hands, working together on key projects in our communities. Then we would create a basis for the heart, forging relationships of mutual respect and recognition of our essential humanity out of our shared efforts. And then, perhaps, we could discuss matters of the head, affirming common insights and conceding distinct matters of theology in the purified spirit of learning from each other without ulterior motives or hidden agendas.

Each city triad committed to:

  1. Breaking bread in one another’s homes.
  2. Bringing our congregations together toward shared work in our communities.
  3. Recreating our experience in Abu Dhabi with a widening circle of clergy.
  4. Standing by one another at times of crisis, attack or in response to other acts of intolerance.

I gleaned much from this experience, more than I could have imagined. But the biggest take-away for me, aside from a deepening of my regard for Islam and the majority of its peace-loving practitioners, was the dispelling of my stereotypes about Evangelical Christians. While my interfaith efforts have encompassed enriching, ongoing bonds with Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, I have neglected opportunities for outreach to Evangelicals, assuming the chasm dividing us on social and political issues rendered partnerships untenable.

Not only did I learn that Evangelicals are anything but monolithic in their views and priorities, but even those articles of faith that seem to divide us leave ample room for reciprocity of respect and abiding friendship. My newly discovered brother in faith, Pastor Dean Curry of the Tacoma Life Center, taught me much through his efforts and his example. I look forward to working with him and our friends in the Muslim community to extend the spirit of Abu Dhabi to the Puget Sound Region and beyond. With so many in the world exuding the toxicity of hate and the virus of religious violence, I am deeply appreciative for the immense hospitality and generosity of the UAE government, the gentle, incisive wisdom and vision of Sheik Abdullah Bin Bayyah, and the openness of heart of all of my fellow participants. May the spirit of our few days together inspire our efforts and deepen our commitment, radiating a love for peace that will transcend our current moment and unfinished world. If you’d like to see more of my daily impressions and some accompanying photos, see my Facebook Blog: https://www.facebook.com/RadbamInTheUAE.

Rabbi Daniel Weiner

Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Sheik Abdullah bin Bayyah & Other Religious Leaders
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry
Rabbi Daniel Weiner with Pastor Dean Curry

Parashat Acharei Mot - K’doshim • Leviticus 16:1−20:27

“You shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.”

“You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”

“Do not profit by the blood of your fellow.”

“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.”

“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens.”

“You shall be holy to Me, for I the Eternal am holy.”

This week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, contains easily understood moral axioms that are somehow still not commonplace after so many years. May these words speak for themselves and inspire us to act as our highest selves.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Tazria - M'tzora • Leviticus 12:1-15:33

We are counting: one by one. 

The Jewish community this week continues to count the Omer, numbering the days between Passover and Shavuot. Counting the Omer might be thought of as counting down to reception of our moral responsibility and the core of our Jewish identity: the promise of freedom from slavery in Egypt, we are taught, is only realized through the performance of mitzvot presented in Torah.

Our ancestors brought a grain offering to the Temple to count the Omer. Not so applicable today! Our ritual now involves a blessing and recognition that each moment and each day that passes is important. As each day passes, we have the opportunity to think about how we are upholding our Jewish values. One by one, we number all of our days, hopefully emerging as better for our thoughtfulness and intentionality. 

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Sh'mini • Leviticus 9:1−11:47

Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner's interpretation of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Sh'mini.


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 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/13/health/teenagers-drugs-smartphones.html?_r=0) 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