Don’t follow the Crowd

Parshat Shelach

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Do you follow the crowd?  When a topic is trending on Twitter or everyone is talking about the

great new restaurant, do you have to be in on it?  Do you have to see the movie that has all the               

buzz?  Or do you decide for yourself?  Do you follow the newspaper critics? Or do you have faith in your own ideas and opinions?  In other words do you have the courage of your convictions?


This week’s Torah portion Shelach-Lecha describes a scenario when following the in-crowd’s

opinion caused the Israelites a great #failureoffaith. 


Moses sends a band of 12 tribal leaders to cross over into the Promised Land to take a look around, to map the topography, to check out the locals and to be able to plan for their settlement in the Promised Land.


The spies make their way on foot and they behold the bounty of the land.  They even bring back proof of the harvest as they cut down a fruit laden vine and bring it back to camp.  This is the evidence that the land is overflowing ready to feed and sustain the Israelites just as their covenant with God will sustain them spiritually.


But 10 of the spies despite the evidence of great bounty lose their faith. Perhaps they worry that they won’t be able to conquer the land and they spread lies about their prospects to defeat the local inhabitants.  Only one –Caleb challenges their conventional thinking.  Only Caleb who was part of the group of 12 sent ahead to scope things out speaks up challenging their “group think”.  Their fears and their lack of faith are evident and they have made that the trending topic among the Israelites.


It is this lack of faith and overwhelming fear that so disappoints God and Moses and Aaron.  The people of Israel are easily swayed. For over a year God has demonstrated time and again great miracles, from the plagues that descended upon Egypt to the splitting of the Red Sea, the presentation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai and providing food and water, manna and quail in the desert.  God was present in the pillar of smoke that guided their journey by day and the pillar of fire by night. And yet how easily the Children of Israel are whipped into a frenzy of faithlessness and fear.  


It is this faithlessness that determines that this group of Israelites is simply not ready for the responsibilities that will be theirs in the Promised Land. God hands down the verdict that this generation with its vivid memories of Egypt and their lack of belief and their inability to challenge the status quo would never be able to conquer and settle the Promised Land. 


In our day and time we ought to learn that it takes great faith to challenge the status quo.  It takes courage for sure but it also takes great faith to challenge the trending thinking, or accepted wisdom of the day.   But it is this kind of courage and faith that are hallmarks of Jewish life. May our faith increase and deepen and give us the strength to speak the truth and challenge the oft repeated lies that surround us each and every day.


Emor and the 1992 LA Riots

Parshat Emor

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

This past week we observed the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. Our city burned as the anger about the Rodney King verdicts reached a fever pitch, absolving the white police officers from using police brutality against Rodney King.  Even though before our very eyes the grainy black and white video showed officers using their batons and feet to whip and kick a downed Rodney King who was pulled over for a traffic violation.  He had skull fractures and brain and kidney damage from the severe beating in 1991.


In the spring of the next year, the trial of the white police officers led to three acquittals and a mistrial. The trial was held in the predominately white area of the county, Simi Valley. This set off the riots across town in which 55 people died, more than 2000 people were hurt and property damage reached a staggering $1 billion dollars. 

Race relations in Los Angeles County were at a new low not only between African Americans and Whites but in the Korean community, Latino community, Japanese community as well. Everyone was on edge as buildings burned and stores were looted and people were even pulled from their cars. 

Buildings might not be burning today but relations between different communities are not any better.  Sure there are interfaith gatherings of leaders on occasion. But as I experienced during the Post Prop 8 days, progressive religious leaders and conservative religious leaders or ethnic community leaders don’t dialogue enough despite efforts to build bridges of understanding.  Los Angeles County although diverse doesn’t do enough to create opportunities for different communities to know one another. And I believe that many of the race and religious problems in Los Angeles remain simmering just under the cover of civility.


This week’s Torah portion Emor in the book of Leviticus offers us some of the first interfaith advice that includes not only civility but sincerity.   Leviticus 22:5 reads: “And from the hand of a gentile you shall not offer up as food for your God any of these [blemished animals], for their injury is upon them, there is a defect on them; they will not be accepted for you.”  This verse teaches us that a non-Jew, a foreigner may offer a sacrifice to God in the Jewish way!  Even though according to other laws a Gentile (a non-Jew) can use animal that has blemishes, here in the holy precincts of the Mishkan the non-Jew must only offer pure and whole sacrifices. As the great commentator Rashi says:


[lit., “and from the hand of a foreigner,” i.e.,] if a non-Jew brought a sacrifice and handed it over to the Kohen to offer it up to Heaven, you shall not offer up on his behalf any blemished animal. And even though blemished animals are not deemed invalid as sacrifices from the children of Noah [i.e., by all non-Jews] unless they have a limb missing-that [rule] applies [only] to private altars in the fields. However, on the altar in the Mishkan, you shall not offer them up (Temurah 7b). You shall, however, accept an unblemished animal from them. That is why Scripture states earlier in this passage (verse 18 above), אִישׁ אִישׁ, “Any man whatsoever,” [where this double expression comes] to include non-Jews, who make vows and donations like Israelites. — [Temurah 2b].

In other words, even Rashi explains that in this case-a non-Jew’s offering is to be welcomed and that the offering even though it doesn’t have to be the same –you treat him with the same dignity as the Israelite!

In a place where distinctions matter, in the sacred Tent, in a matter of praising God and making sacrifice to God the gentile’s offering and the Israelite offering are on same footing.   No blemishes are allowed in the sacred precincts-no impurities but the gentile is not considered impure or so different that they are not allowed to bring sacrifices unlike in many other religions where those of different ideologies and clans cannot participate!

This teaches us I think about the humanity and dignity of those that are from different groups and different backgrounds. 

If we learned anything from the Rodney King case we must treat all equally and fairly under the law. And we must root out racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and all the other bigotries that too often plague our society.  

Yes, the Torah said it best: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Eight Days a week – Parshat Shemini

Parshat Shimini

Leviticus 9:1 -11:47

This week’s Torah portion is different. By that I mean if you are a Reform Jew or you live in Israel the Torah portion we read from is Shimini. If you are a Conservative or Orthodox Jew living outside of Israel you are still observing Passover this Shabbat and there is a special reading for the 8th day of Passover. But Reform Jews observe the Biblical Torah cycle which coincides with the way all Israeli Jews read the Torah! The irony of this week’s portion is that the word Shimini means eighth day!!!! It reminds us of the Beatles’ song “Eight days a week”! This week we read the first half of Shimini. The portion opens with the first offering given by the High Priest in the new Tent of Meeting, the Ohel Moed. Moses had dedicated the altar and Tent with offerings for the first seven days of its inauguration. But Moses was not the High Priest. He had the honor of the first offerings. But then Moses had to install Aaron and the priesthood which he did by a special anointing. Then on the eighth day of the observance Aaron and his sons began their regular work as the Priesthood, culminating a wonderful celebration. One of the most powerful moments of this sacred celebration is that the fire that consumed the sacrifice was seen by the whole people. Leviticus 9:24 states, “And fire went forth from before Adonai and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.” This was not some hidden moment. God’s glory and strength was witness by the entire Israelite nation. Think about it. Usually, the work of priesthood is secretive, mysterious, done behind closed doors. But in this case a new open system was created and shared. Everyone knew the formula for the offerings (These were described in the last two weeks Torah Portions). Everyone was privy to the miracle of God in their midst. While the priesthood had special job roles, they did not possess some secret knowledge. And they could not make up some secret knowledge. In fact that is one of the purposes of the story contained in this week’s portion, the death of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. Immediately following this great 8th day of culmination ceremony, Nadav and Avihu come to the altar and try to offer a sacrifice that was not what God required. Chapter 10:1 states: “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before Adonai foreign fire, which God had not commanded them.” They did it in secret. They did it when not called upon to. They did it without proper reverence (tradition teaches they were drunk from the celebration!) They did it to usurp their father’s power. All reasons that flaunt the new system of openness and inclusiveness of the people. This heritage of openness and inclusiveness is the values we should uphold in our traditions today even though some would not. The Torah is not the exclusive material for rabbis and scholars but is accessible to all. The mitzvot are not something done by a special class of people but incumbent upon all Jews. The teachings of the Jewish people are not only for some Jews but for all Jews to learn debate, innovate and make meaningful. That is the challenge for the liberal Jew. Not simply to “not do” or “we don’t do that anymore.” But the challenge is to make meaning from knowledge. This is how we integrate contemporary life into our ancient traditions. And that spirit of openness and transparency is exactly the spirit we must bring to our synagogues, our Jewish institutions and our study and knowledge of Torah today!

Open or Closed

Parshat Tzav

Leviticus 6:1 -8:36

Religion is meant to be mysterious.  It talks about things you can’t see- like God.  Religion tries to in its best case scenario link people through emotional and communal bonds. Religion lifts up ideals of ethics and morality.  Religion tries to bind a group through ritual and to help us express our human frailties and joys and provide guidance to live our daily lives.  Religion in its best sense helps us express our hunger and desires for knowledge, discovery of and our quest for meaning.  For Jews we are part of an ongoing nation that stretches back millennia.  Our ancient journey from Abraham and Sarah to Egypt and the Exodus to the present day is a journey filled with learning and a yearning to understand what God wants of us. This coupled with the pursuit of justice helps the Jewish people continue to thrive even today.

In the ancient world the priests of ancient pagan religions practiced the rituals in secret.  Knowledge of the details of the religion was not transparent but the sacred and secret details were possessed by a small group-the priests.  When there was a largely illiterate population the lack of access to the ways of the religion increased. This allowed the ancient priests in a society to amass power because they had special knowledge of their gods and goddesses and only they could perform certain functions.  The common people simply worked for their gods and goddesses producing crops, livestock and goods that went to support the upper class of the priesthood.

In ancient Israelite religion described in the book of Leviticus and in particular in this week’s Torah portion Tzav we see the revolution of Moses! Unlike the Egyptian religions that were practiced behind closed temple doors, the rituals of the Israelites are written about and performed in public.  Yes there is a special class, the Cohanim and the Levities who become the Temple functionaries. But the rituals of sacrifice are described and available for everyone to know.  The book of Leviticus makes access to the details open knowledge. The mysterious is available to the whole people. Sacrifices are performed before the individual.  And the requirements for specific sacrifices cannot just be made up-but there is an open formula that is available to the whole people.

Parshat Tzav continues the explanation of the sacrifices from last week’s portion, Vayikra.   While today Judaism has evolved from the time of performing sacrifices the fact that Judaism is an open religion speaks volumes.  Yes we have Rabbis but we are not priests that possess some secret knowledge.  Judaism is to be studied openly by everyone.  Study is the equivalent of prayer in Judaism. I think this attests as to just how much we value access by everyone.  Rabbi means teacher.  We don’t have priests anymore who are the only ones to perform certain functions.  In fact in Judaism it doesn’t take a Rabbi to officiate at a Jewish wedding (from a Jewish halachik perspective, the state has other concerns).  Any Jew can be the mesader kiddushin, the officiant.  Unlike Catholicism where only priests can perform certain functions, Judaism is a more open and transparent tradition!

Although reading this week’s Torah portion Tzav and the details of the sacrifices seem irrelevant to our daily lives, we ought to relish the fact that even in Ancient Israelite religion we stood for openness and transparency in the practice of our most sacred moments and ideals.

Can You Hear the Call?

Parshat Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Vayikra means “God called out.” (Lev. 1:1).  With this new book of the Bible, Leviticus, God calls out to Moses.  Exodus ends with the building of the Tabernacle. It has exquisite detail of the design and the construction of the Tabernacle, God’s earthly home. Now God wants to draw even nearer to the Israelites  More than just taking up residence in the Tent of Meeting, the book of Leviticus, is a recipe for ways to draw closer to closer to God.

In this week’s portion the sacrificial system is introduced in detail.  Guilt offerings, sin offerings, well being offerings are just three of the sacrifices described in detail this week.  The instructions make for dry reading.  Couple that with our contemporary Jewish practice that no longer uses this system (and frankly the slaughter of animals as a way to rid ourselves of sin is truly revolting) makes it difficult to hear the call of this book of the Bible. Couple that with fundamental changes in the way we contemporary Jews see and understand the world and the book of Leviticus seems to push us away from the God idea rather than draw close which was the idea of the sacrifices in the first place!  The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, korban, is rooted in the idea of karov, or nearness. The Leviticus of death sentences, bloody sacrifices and misinterpreted verses that have caused the persecution and death of gay people throughout the centuries are just a few of the ways we can no longer hear the call of God and is explicit in the opening words of this week’s portion.

 And yet in the book of Leviticus and this week’s portion the call of God is still present if we open our ears and our hearts.  This week’s portion reminds us that if we harm another person we must make restitution and add a fifth.  Elsewhere in Leviticus we can hear God calling out to us through the ethical ideals that teach us how to treat one another, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Leviticus as is “You be holy because I am holy”.  

 Our challenge this week and every week is to try and hear the call of God. Just as God called out to Moses this week with the word, “Vayikra”, can you hear God calling you to draw nearer?



The End and a Beginning

Parshat Vaykheil-Pekude

Exodus 35:1 – 40:38


This week’s Parasha continues with the recounting of the building of the Mishkan.  In Parshat Terumah  and Parshat Tetzaveh, the instructions and designs are revealed to Moses.  And tradition states that in our portions this week, the plans are executed.  Moses now tells the Children of Israel of the plans and Betzalel and his assistant Oholiob oversee the craftsmen and women to complete the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.   “And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every wise hearted man into whose heart Adonai had given wisdom, everyone whose heart lifted him up to approach the work to do it. (36:2). Volunteers were encouraged to be a part of the process of building the Tabernacle!

 It is always exciting to be part of making something. Whether building a home or just redecorating having a project like the building of the Mishkan creates excitement.  That is why there are so many television shows about housing design, make-overs and building anew.  One could get carried away with all the details and want to rush through the project to finish. But the Children of Israel are reminded in the opening words of the Torah portion to observe Shabbat.  The excitement of this project could mean that the volunteers, artisans and workers might work

non-stop. But Moses and God reminds the Israelites of their sacred obligations. 


What would it say and mean if Shabbat were violated in the building of God’s place on earth?
It would certainly be a contradiction of values!

 Perhaps for each of us there is an important reminder here.  In a world that wants to push us 24/7 to do more, build more, create more we must push back.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the power and beauty of Shabbat not just the rituals but the opportunity for downtime, reflective time and yes, SLEEP!


We are one of the most sleep deprived nations.


Some of the latest research shows that “a team of researchers in Wisconsin and Italy has found that in rats kept awake past their bed times, their brains begin to turn themselves off, neuron by neuron, though the rat is still awake” (USA TODAY, 4-27-11). The most likely neurons to go offline are the ones we use daily!   This is like sleeping while you are still awake and affects functioning


“The research could mean that the 35% of Americans who told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they routinely sleep less than seven hours a night are also having portions of their brains go off-line even though they’re still awake.”

So the ancients and our Torah understood that we workers need down time and time to restore our souls AND OUR BODIES!  Shabbat is the way.  Even when we are excited about building a project, we can’t let our enthusiasm get in the way of taking time off to rest and renew ourselves.

 As the Ten Commandments remind us: Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy!!!!

Leadership Style

Parshat Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35 


This week we observe the joyous holiday of Purim.  The Story of Esther in our Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures, reminds us of the human strength to be the voice of justice and truth.  Esther prepared for three days of prayer and a day of fasting to summons the courage to approach the King. Tradition teaches that these days of spiritual preparation allowed God’s Divine presence to flow through her to challenge the injustices in her day.  She is a model of leadership.


Although God is not mentioned in the Purim tale, the hidden face of God works miracles through the courage of Esther and her Uncle Mordechai. Together they challenge the evil that Haman would have unleashed upon the Jews of ancient Persia and Medea.  Esther called upon the faith and traditions of her ancestors to aid her. She used it her Jewish prayer as a foundation for leadership.  She could have given into her doubts and fears. Instead she chooses the path of prayer and reflection to gird her with strength.


And so we great this holiday with merriment and joy!


And yet when we celebrate this holiday this week we do so against the background of the weekly Parasha, Ki Tissa. This is the week the Children of Israel stray from their newly born covenant with God.  With Moses gone for so many days in a row on Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel get anxious and fearful. “When people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron…” and demand that Aaron, who was left in charge, make an idol for them.


Without the leadership of Moses they felt abandoned and scared. They needed a talisman. They needed comforting. Of course we know that Aaron capitulated and this led to a series of events including Moses’ returning and breaking the Tablets of the Commandments and Moses’ pleading on behalf of the Israelites for God’s forgiving grace to rule the day.


What would have happened if Aaron had shown the leadership of Esther and Mordechai? Would the story of the Israelite nation be different?  When the people are scared or threatened, those in charge must rise to great heights.  Leadership demands faith.  Leadership demands preparation. Imagine if Esther caved in to her fears and never confronted Haman before the King, then surely the Jews of the Shushan and the kingdom would have been doomed.  Imagine if Aaron had quelled the fears of the Israelites, the tablets may not have been shattered and we might not have had to wait 40 years until we crossed into the Promised Land.


Esther provides a spiritual model of preparation for leadership. It takes prayer, and yes sometimes fasting, but a great leader is always self reflective and seeks the strength and protection of the Shekinah.  This isn’t just for political leaders or spiritual leaders. This model of spiritual reflection, prayer and faith can be an aid in any endeavor. 


So this week channel the spirit and courage and faith of Mordechai and Esther. It will lead you to great heights!