Torah Study Notes 4-29-17

April 29, 2017

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz

NOTE TO READERS: All page references are to Plaut “The Torah – A Modern Commentary” Revised Edition

Page 735 Defilement, Childbirth and Purification.

12:1 Woman’s impurity after childbirth. Metaphorical? Also, touches on skin diseases and heredity. Note that the uncleanliness here is ritual impurity. The woman cannot enter the mishkan in a state of ritual impurity. This clearly places a greater value on the son than the daughter. The latter is impure twice as long. What is the symbolism of the numbers here? Some of this has to do with circumcision and the necessity of having the mother present at the bris. The bris provides spiritual protection to both the baby and the mother. Note that there would be no mourning until a child has survived at least a month. Medically, there are no clotting issues after eight days. There is no place in rabbinic Judaism to mourn miscarriage and stillbirth. Note that 40 is a significant number representing wholeness. That is the total of 7 and 33. Woman are supposed to go to the mikvah once a month. See Notes on page 734. Question as to practices in other ancient religions. Polygamy was common at this time. Partly because death in childbirth was common. See work of Rebecca Goldstein on male preferences. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Goldstein

12:6 The sacrificial offerings to be made by the woman who has given birth. Note the exception for woman not of means. If she can’t afford a sheep a pigeon will do.

13:1 Skin diseases. This section is most avidly read by dermatologists.  Note that there were rules against sorcery and witchcraft. Note also that the word “leprosy” here is a loose translation of a Hebrew word for an unknown disease. The priests were not healers or medical practitioners. How did the tradition of medical practice evolve among the Jews? Note that there was no distinction between philosophy and medicine/science. The rabbi’s would argue here that the described ailments are spiritual and the disease is punishment. The rabbis are not comfortable with unexplained suffering. LL The notion of physical isolation suggests that there was an awareness of the fact that some illnesses are actually communicable via contact. This suggests that there was something other than a spiritual malaise being addressed. The question is raised as to how we treat someone who is visibly ill. The limitation of day of “impurity” at least puts a limit on how the community might treat someone with disrespect. It appears that a pronouncement of “pure” is the same as a pronouncement of “cured.” One could use a flow chart to diagnose these diseases. See “Medicine in the Bible” https://blog.oup.com/2010/02/medicine-and-the-bible/

Until there was any proper understanding of the causative factors in disease and the actual disease processes themselves, there was a tendency to see sickness as the result of divine visitations and punishment for wrongdoing. The Bible itself knows little of physicians as such, and in the faith of Israel it was God alone who was the healer and giver of life. Ultimately, it was God alone who sent disease and disaster as a punishment for wrongdoing or, alternatively, rewarded the good with health and well‐being (see, e.g., Exod. 15.26; Deut. 7.12–15). It was seen especially with regard to contagious and disfiguring diseases, of which the best example is the disease complex unfortunately called leprosy in most English translations. Various ritual prescriptions were applied to such diseases in order to avoid the contamination of the community, which was seen as more important than the healing of the sick person.

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Torah Study Notes 3-20-17

 

May 20, 2017

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Page 850

25:1 In the seventh year the land must rest. Note the shift in location from the beginning of Leviticus. The tent of meeting has moved from amidst the people to the top of a mountain. Moses is here alone and the people are camped nearby. There is a sociological philosophical/theological shift here. This is a continuation of the Holiness Code – a term used in biblical criticism to refer to Leviticus chapters 17–26, and is so called due to its repeated use of the word Holy.

Consider the notion of environmental ethics and sustainability. Both the earth and humans are entitled to a rest period. PG We must be aware of human intervention with the land. There is mutual dependence here that requires a process of conservation. To rest on Shabbat is fundamentally an act of faith – the notion that things won’t fall apart without us. This is more poignant as an issue for one tilling the land and caring for livestock. Can one lease his land for the 7th year and comply with this section? Consider the idea of “yenas” or first fruits in winemaking or “shmita.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmita

Wine is used to sanctify so has a special place here. However, the use of wine is generally discouraged throughout scripture because it dulls the senses. There are two categories of violation when a ritual violation takes place – intentional or accidental. The penalty for the latter is lenient and can be remedied. Someone passing through the vineyard at night and touching the grapes would be considered unintentional or inadvertent. LL Note: There seems to be an assumption that leaving the land fallow will replenish it whereas there are crops that today are used to enrich the soil. See line 21 re the abundance of the sixth year.

25:8 The 50th year. The horn shall sound and this year shall be a Jubilee. No sowing or reaping – only eating what grows naturally in the field. In buying the use of land from your neighbor there are special rules because what is being sold is the number of harvests. PG: Note that there is no cultivation in the 49th year since that is a multiple of seven. A question is raised as to keeping the land fallow for two years in a row. LL This encourages the building of granaries and silos. The people must prepare for the two fallow years – occurring either naturally or by design. RL Who enforced these rules? In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Solomon Zeitlin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Zeitlin) has suggested that the definition of a “year” is not explicit. He suggests that the Hebrew year in Biblical times was 364 days so the same day of the week fell on the same day of each year. This lost a day to the solar year so they made up the loss by the 50th year. That year would only be fifty days. The land is held by a clan in perpetuity. Any exchanges are therefore leases or sub-leases.  At the end of the 50 year period the land returns to the clan. SF This could be massively destructive to social order. Business and market based codes are outlined here. Honesty is required as to pricing and valuation. Line 14 “You shall not wrong one another…”  This becomes significant after the Babylonian return – the text is promulgated and is being read. The question is why did they lose the land in the first place? Social injustice. The rich took advantage of the poor. This is picked up in Prophets. There is an analysis of what went wrong and what can be done right now.  This is being promulgated at Sinai because it is terribly important – social injustice leads to destruction. (If these are leases, do they decrease in value as the 50th year approaches? Compare 99 year leases of today.) In Israel today most of the population does not care about the shmeta. Only a smallpercentage are still able to engage in personal piety by strictly following these rules. PC There are lessons here for today’s society in America. The Jubilee was considered inoperative after the exile – it could no longer be done since the Jews were landless. That was certainly even more true after the Diaspora.

Some People Count, Some People Don’t

This Week’s Sermon on parashat Bamidbar. Cross-posed to the This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Some people count, some people don’t.”

It’s a line only a movie villain could say, in this case, the womanizing waiter in the movie Dirty Dancing (a television remake aired this past Wednesday, so I had to sneak that in there).

But these words might have very well been spoken by God and Moses, as we begin reading the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, this book is called Bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” because of where the events of the book take place. However, the English name, Numbers, is pretty spot on. The first commandment we receive in this book is, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2).

The Israelites do what God commands, reaching a total of 603,550.  Though some call this figure “impossibly large,” it is still only a sliver of the Israelite community (Etz Chayim 773). In this census, some people count, and some people don’t. The distinction reveals a great deal about the priorities of the community. At this moment, when the Israelites are preparing for military action, it makes sense that the only people they care to count are men who can serve in the army. This census excludes women, children, and the disabled. It also excludes the Levites, the caretakers of the temple, who, though essential to the Israelite community, do not fight in the military. This particular exclusion makes it clear that not counting doesn’t mean you aren’t important (check out the triple negative!), but rather that you aren’t a necessary player in this particular mission.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Nowadays, congregations have different ways of counting people. I recently learned that churches measure their congregations by ASA—“Average Sabbath Attendance.” By this metric, we are growing, so I happen to like it better. But it is interesting to put the two metrics side-by-side: do we count the membership of our congregation by who fills out a form or writes a check, or by who comes through the door and takes part in the life of the synagogue? For a house of worship to thrive, both metrics matter.

But more than the numbers themselves, what matters is whether or not people feel that they “count” as a part of our community.

This past week, I read a children’s book called Almost a Minyan. Someone had referred to the book as “groundbreaking,” and I wanted to see why. The story is about a girl anticipating the day that she can count in a minyan, one of the ten adults—traditionally men—needed to say Kaddish in the synagogue. At first, I was offended that anyone would think of it as “groundbreaking” to have a young woman “count” in a minyan, or to wear tallit and tefillin, as this young woman does in the illustrations. Women counting in the synagogue? That was sooooo 100 years ago!

But two things made this book special. The first was that there was no dramatic tension about the young woman counting in the minyan—the drama of the story came from someplace else. No one was against it. It was just a matter of her reaching the appropriate age. Once she turned twelve, wasn’t any question of whether or not she “counted.”

Moreover, the faces in the book represented different races and genders, though none of this was mentioned or explained in the text. This might not seem that groundbreaking to us—we have all kinds of people here in our synagogue. But imagine that you are a young woman, or a person of color, in a Jewish community where there aren’t many people who look like you. Seeing a face like yours, or a story like yours, on the page, reminds you (or maybe tells you for the first time) that you matter. You count.

We have come quite a far way from counting only adult, combat-ready males in the Jewish community. We give equal weight to men and women, to the disabled and the abled, to adults and to children, even if certain privileges only come with b’nai mitzvah. In the Reform movement, we have taken extra steps to make sure that individuals, and households, are counted equally, regardless of their size, shape, color, ability, economic status, or orientation.

This is the ideal, but there are times when we fall short. Each of us has probably known a time when we didn’t feel “counted” in a community: when our voice was not heard, or our needs were not met, or we did not feel welcomed because we were different in some way. It is our responsibility as a sacred community to consider who might still be outside our doors, because they don’t feel that they “count” here, and how we can communicate to every person in our community that they matter.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

We are also seeing this phrase play out on the national scale. We have our own census coming up in 2020, and there is a debate over who will be counted. While the 1990 census was the first to count same-sex couples, the 2020 census was going to be the first to include questions about LGBTQ individuals. But the Census Bureau revealed a few weeks ago that these questions would not be included in this census.

Why does this matter? It matters to researchers and agencies who serve these populations, so that they can have the best information about the people living in any given community, and address the particular challenges that each community might face. And it matters to LGBTQ individuals, who view this as an attempt to “erase” them. They want to know that they “count.”

This past week, the White House released a budget proposal for next year that has raised further questions about who “counts” in our society. The proposal suggests making cuts to programs that serve children, the poor, and the disabled. The White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, urged the public not to focus solely on the numbers:

“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

This is an admirable goal. There is no higher form of tzedaka than empowering a person to become self-sufficient. But we must ask those in positions of leadership: how will you care for those who are counted as recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability? How will you bring them from public assistance to independence, and how will you care for them in the meantime? How will you say to these people: “You count”?

We might be focused on the big numbers, such as the 44 million people in the United States who receive food stamps, or the $192 billion dollar cut to that program. But for each individual or family, it’s the smaller numbers that make the biggest difference: a thousand dollar child tax credit, a dollar difference in the minimum wage, a student loan payment, a medical bill. I’m not callous enough to say that none of these programs could be run with less waste or more efficiency. We’re trying to do that here, too. But the huge scale of these proposed cuts sends a message to the people who rely on them: You don’t count.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Elsewhere in the Torah it is seen as bad luck to do count people, so much so that, in another census, they collected a half-shekel from each Israelite instead of counting heads. So the rabbis ask, why, here, are the Israelites counted? They compare God to a dealer of precious stones. If the merchant is selling glass beads, they might not bother to count their inventory. But the Israelites, they say, are like fine pearls. God needs us to be counted because each of us is precious (Numbers Rabbah 4:2).

Similarly, another midrash explains that the number given in this week’s census is equal to the number of letters in the Torah. This shows the importance of each individual. If one letter in the Torah is missing, the scroll is invalid. Likewise, if one person is left out, the Jewish community cannot thrive (Itturei Torah on Genesis 1:1).

Some people count, and some people don’t.

It is an ugly truth in every society. But you know who counts? We do. As members of this community, and citizens of this nation, we can speak up for those who may feel like they don’t count. We must communicate to our leadership that each individual in our community, and in our country, is more than just a number. It is our responsibility to work towards the day that each person is counted, not as a half-shekel, but as a precious pearl.

Vassar Temple Advocacy Group Goes to Albany!

Andi Ciminello, Howard Susser and Marge Groten joined other Reform Jewish Congregations in Albany on Monday, May 8th for a Lobby Day organized by Reform Jewish Voice of New York State.  The event was attended by approximately 30 people.

The morning session was devoted to training the participants on the issues on the organization’s agenda for the day of lobbying and on lobbying techniques.  Presenters included the Co-chairs of Reform Jewish Voice; Assemblywoman Pat Fahey; staff from NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office and a legislative assistant from the Religious Action Center, in Washington DC.
We were asked to advocate for:
  • support of measures that curb the growing influence of money in politics,
  • support of the New York Votes Act to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers,
  • support of the Reproductive Rights Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, and
  • opposition to the Education Affordability Act, which would provide extremely generous tax credits to those making donations to private and parochial schools.
In the afternoon we meet with Assemblyman Frank Skartados, a staff person working for Assemblywoman DidI Barrett (a Vassar Temple member) and a staff person in Senator Sue Serino’s office to discuss all of the issues on the day’s agenda.  We all felt the event was very worthwhile and encourage Temple members to take the opportunity—either in Albany or locally—to lobby our state legislators on issues identified by Reform Jewish Voice of New York. Speak to one of us if you are interested.
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Torah Study Notes 4-22-17

April 22, 2017

The Rabbi Slept Late! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friday_the_Rabbi_Slept_Late

Not really, but this morning we gathered outside and socialized while waiting for the Rabbi. RB: Last week there were questions about the dates for the priesthood: First Temple was destroyed in 586. Solomon died in 930 BCE so we know that there was animal sacrificing happening at that time. The origins of the priesthood probably date back to that time as well. Remember that much of this is retrojection and likely incorporated extant practices into past events. In Israel the Bible is taught as history – in order to assert a claim to the land. Biblical teaching there starts with Kings – rather than Genesis.

We note that there are various versions of some of the events contained within the Torah. Just as there are four Gospels. This raises the question as to how we should approach God  – via the Torah or through something more internal and personal. Or both.  Obviously, different theologies have grown out of these approaches – just as between Catholics and Protestants. Does this matter? The stories are what bind us together as a people. That is what makes them important. LL: It could be argued that it is the discussion; the utilization of our minds and the consequent sense of community that is the “Thou’ of Martin Buber. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Buber

Page 707 We have just had the ordination of priests, here we address different kinds of sacrifices. Animal sacrifice is highly problematic theologically and very contrary to modern notions of worship.

9:1 The purgation offering. See Essays on page 734 and 705. Also, the burnt offering. This is happening on the eighth day of the ordination of the priests. The eighth day indicates starting over at a new level – one more than whole. Also, a return to “normal.” The peoples purgation offering, the meal offering, the sacrifice of wellbeing. Note the “elevation offering.” What does “presence” mean here? It could mean the smoke. It is unclear as to what made the people “fall on their faces.” A belief that God was present? How does G manifest to the blind and the deaf? Fire can be sensed by four of the five senses. This is a description of “doing it right.” insofar as the rituals are concerned.

10:1 Now come Aaron’s sons Nadah and Abihu. Alien fire consumes them. “You must distinguish between the sacred and profane…” But how does one distinguish? What is the good to the community that comes from this? Why can’t they mourn? Why hasn’t God warned them of the penalty for minor transgressions. Why is Moses explaining this rather than God? Aaron is not allowed to mourn because he is in the middle of the ritual practice. Today Cohanim are not allowed to go to a cemetery or to touch a dead body. The leadership has an obligation to strictly adhere to the proper procedures. They are held to a higher standard.  But what is the “alien fire.?” Compare the story of the Tower of Babel and arrogantly getting too close to God. Consider as well the story of Icarus. See verse nine where God tells Aaron not to drink wine during the ritual – were they drunk? The Rabbis have come up with several interpretations.  Were they excessively ambitious? Discussion of “staying in one’s lane.” “Nadab” means “giving.”

“Like most of Leviticus, the sidrah presents itself as relating what took place in the Sainai wilderness, in the Israelite camp. ..the sidrah opens on the eighth and final day of the ceremony…The joyous occasion is suddenly disrupted by tragedy, Aaron’s two oldest sons commit a ceremonial offence; and again a miraculous flame appears, this time to take the lives of the offenders…The terrible fate of Nadab and Abihu underscored the priests need to perform the rituals strictly according to rule. It stressed priestly accountability for the faithful discharge of their duties.”

Generational Shabbat – a Vassar Temple Sisterhood Tradition


By Jonah Ritter

Vassar Temple Sisterhood has many wonderful traditions, and this is certainly one of them. Some years ago Sisterhood took over a temple practice – to organize and conduct a Friday night service called a “Generational Shabbat.” During this lay-led service, which Sisterhood members conduct, the Temple honors people who have been members of Vassar Temple for 40 or more years.

Part of the tradition includes having the Men’s Club host the Oneg. Special thanks to our organizers including but not limited to Sisterhood President Judy Rosenfeld, Past President Melissa Erlebacher, Bonnie Scheer, and the many others involved.

Each year the bulk of the names & faces are the same. We are proud to have some join the ranks, and deeply saddened when we lose anyone. And of course, not everyone can make it to the service.

Here is a picture of the “class” of 2017 (5777). To Vassar Temple, these people need no introduction. I love the way Lila Matlin and Sue Barbash are holding hands in the front row! Classy and strong Muriel Lampel is just behind them. Look at Gloria up top, with her big smile; her vigor and thirst for adventure is really special. See Linda Cantor on the left in front of Richard. I am in awe of Linda’s sensitivities. And of course, there is Elaine L in the front row who faces the camera and life head on with great spirit. Each and everyone is special in their own way!

The lifelong bonds that can be made at a temple make one’s life richer – increasing the joy during happy moments, simchas, and comforting one during life’s inevitable trials and tribulations.

We know there are many people in the community who were members of Vassar Temple years ago, but are now unaffiliated with any temple. Please know that it is nerver to late to come back and be with old friends, as we all make new ones.

Torah Study Notes 3-11-17

March 11, 2017

NOTICE TO READERS: These notes are best understood when read in conjunction with The Torah a Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, edited by W. Gunther Plaut.

Joined today by Rabbi’s mother Amy! See Rabbi Berkowitz’s sermon on the subject of clothes – also posted here.

Page 563

Here we are looking at the clothing of the priests. See http://www.biblesearchers.com/temples/jeremiah10.shtml for an image. See also PBS documentary on the Met collection – fashion as art. http://fashionista.com/2016/02/met-gala-documentary-trailer#! Now available on Netflix.

The intentionality of the messages conveyed by clothing. Note that the previous generation of rabbis wore robes. When woman first became rabbis, and hoped that the robes would avoid any comments about their clothing, there were still comments about shoes and hair. Richard – how ancient is the tradition of white associated with purity? Does white denote virginity or austerity? RB It can be both and may also be a symbol of equality if worn commonly by a group. LL White denotes mourning in some cultures in the east – China, India and Japan.

27:20  Olive oil for lighting. The Hebrew word “Tamid” is eternal or perpetual. But here, and as a practical matter, the light is from evening to morning. Archeologist have not found textiles from this period.  Any kind of textile work would likely not be accomplished by a purely nomadic people. Most of this section is likely therefore back-dated from the Temple period – a retrojection.

28:1 The sacred vestments and what they were intended to communicate. “sacral vestments” for priestly service.  Dignity and adornment are stated messages. These items are heavy so as to convey a sense of gravitas. Did they wear this all of the time? Surely while in the tabernacle. There is a suggestion of elitism here in that special fabrics and symbols of wealth that is dynastic to Aaron and his progeny. There was a hereditary priestly class. PC “Thank God I am not a Alpha, they have to think deep thoughts. I am only an Epsilon” from Brave New World (LL I could not find this exact quote and this is also a ZBT fraternity chant.) There is some comfort to having prescribed ritual or order of things.  There is an advantage in having clothing that tells who you are. CL The structure of society in the ancient near east was God/King personified in one person. This is somewhat different in that God here is separated and not personified. The priest seems to be separate and apart but he is one of the people. God is on a mountain top and becomes progressively more removed as we approach modern western religions.   RL What is the listing of tribes and sons on the stones about? LL Possibly remembering? This is resonant of “You shall set them as frontlets before your eyes.” The stones are symbols but also burdens. The notion of weight as seriousness of purpose.  CL The use of the written word as part of the art/decoration is unusual in this period.  RB The script would likely have been a precursor to Hebrew.  See footnote 10 re 25 characters on each shoulder stone.

28:15  Details of the construction and identification of the stones that would represent each tribe. They are framed in gold. Note the phrase “…inside the breastplate of decision…” SF: What is the decision or decisions that they would have to make? RB A variety of decisions. In many cases the priest would also act as a judge – probably in matters both theological and civil. But the priest would here be called upon to make predictions as to future events. This indicates that any decision must be predicated on the common good. They are also a reminder to God that the priest is speaking for the people of the covenant. LL Interesting that God again “remembers” or is “reminded.”

28:22 More details of construction of the vestments.

See note on page 573. Re Urim and Thummim. These objects are unknown but are believed to be in the nature of oracle bones. Joshua approached Eleazar to  decide if the people should or should not go to war. PC Is there regret that we have lost this ancient direct contact with God? RB Yes but there has been an evolution in the relationship. The notion is that modern practices of prayer are in fact a lesser substitute for the that direct contact. Our modern way is more democratic arguably. Shira – the previous generation must on occasion feel uncomfortable with change so that the next can more easily accept it. Structure and tradition are themselves evolutionary.

Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Torah Study Notes 3-4-17

March 4, 2017

Page 545

T’rumah means “gift” This is from a Priestly author so is very detailed. How a holy place is created with the described objects. See Essay at Plaut page 543. Here Moses has ascended Sinai alone where he remains in communication with God.

25:1 The Eternal one spoke to Moses…let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them… note that the translation “dolphin skin” is uncertain. “The Torah is our ancestors telescope searching for God.” (LL: I like this quote but could not find the source.) How they understood Gods relationship to space. SF: What are the gifts that we can give to God now. Current thinking is that we make a sanctuary in her hearts. Love is an emotion that cannot be commanded.  These gifts need to be gifts of the heart. Joan B. – I don’t think of God living in a specific place. RB: Again, these accounts are being codified after the destruction of the First Temple. This was a way of creating a focal point and keeping everyone busy. RB:  If you don’t give the people a tabernacle to build they will build and idol. The Reform movement is bringing back the physicality of prayer. There was a considerable period when that was not the case. LL: My earliest memories at VT are from 1952 when I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah with Rabbi Alton Winters. The service was much more restrained at that time. Men never wore a prayer shawl during services and the Torah was definitely not marched around the sanctuary.

25:10: They shall make an ark…RB: The description here looks like the one from Raider of the Lost Ark.https://www.google.com/search?q=raiders+of+the+lost+ark+images&espv=2&biw=1094&bih=510&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwix4tiW-r_SAhVqxFQKHQzCAIoQ7AkIOA#imgrc=SdhBKE-CJvhgiM:

The rings and poles made it transportable. The tablets of the Covenant are placed within. The poles are intended to create distance – no one can touch the ark.  Gloria: In Europe I saw an exhibition of merry go round figures that were made by the same carvers who build the Arks for temples.

When did synagogue design as we know it today start?  Remember that what is described here is not Judaism – it is a priestly religion with the same or similar laws.

17: Cubits and Cherubim. Note reference to “the pact.” Why does it not say “covenant?” This was likely a parchment written in Hebrew. The “cherubim” is sometime thought of as a childs face but we don’t know if these are winged persons or some other figure – such as a lion – or even multi-faced. There were similar figures in other near eastern religions. Some think of them as angels. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=images+of+cherubim&*

SF They represent certain kinds of energy – God will meet us between them. Or the attributes of justice and mercy. LL Cannot mercy be part of justice? SB It is interesting that we are asked to build a place for God. LL The process of building or creating is part of the training or even transformation of the individual – be it in a place or via internalization.

23: You shall make a table of acacia wood…overlaid with gold. The bread of display? Almond blossoms and calyx with petals. Follow the patterns that are shown to you on the mountain. See note on page 555. God needed food? The loaves we have Friday are salted and recalls the sacrifices. Salt is also a sign of wealth. There is clearly a reference to pagan practices here. They are taking steps away from the notion of food for gods. Creation must be consistent with our values.

Torah Study Notes 2-25-17

February 25, 2017

Page 513

21:1 These are the rules that you should set before them… starts with the management of slaves. There seems to be no clear segue from the Ten Commandments here. We have moved from general precepts to very detailed rules of conduct in specific situations. This is a self contained legal code. They are setting limits on what was the common practice of slavery at that time. A question of moral relativism here which is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. This seems to be debt slavery which was probably their situation in Egypt. Note that these restrictions only apply to other Hebrews. This has been identified as the Elohim text. Daughters may be sold as a slave but with certain restrictions. Compare Ken Burn’s film on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/films/not-for-ourselves-alone In 1840 America woman had virtually no rights.

Who is enforcing these rules at this time? Recall that there are provisions for protection of worker’s rights in Leviticus. See: https://www.theologyofwork.org/old-testament/leviticus-and-work/holiness-leviticus-1727/treating-workers-fairly-leviticus-1913/

21:12 One who fatally strikes another person…there is reference here to sanctuary cities which are described later. Note the phrase “act of God.” We assume it means “by accident.” It is unclear here why the translation assumes only a male killer. Again, this is likely a humanization of existing practices. See Mishpatin at Plaut page 511.

21:22  When individuals fight… tooth for tooth etc. The rabbis argue that this is not literal but rather monetary – a value is assigned to each part; a question as to how much the victim will settle for. Here a fetus is not classified as a living person but rather as the property of the husband. RB has this memorized because of her work with Planned Parenthood. In the traditional Jewish community one does not say Kadesh for a child who dies in miscarriage. See Essays at page 526. “Assessment of the age and origin of this law code…depends on how one views its relationship to the laws of the ancient Near East, of which we now have extensive knowledge. There can be no question  that a number of these laws were familiar to Israelite society, either by way of patriarchal traditions formed in the Mesopotamian past, or indirectly through the practices of the nations with which the Israelites came into contact – especially the Canaanites after the conquest of the land.”

21:24  What happens when your ox gores someone. Note that an ox is a very valuable animal. Note also the concept of “muad” meaning “in the habit of.”  One can put themselves in a situation where harm can be expected to ensue but even a trespasser is subject to some protection. These laws are clearly designed for a settled farming community – rather than a nomadic society. That is why it is generally agreed that  they were likely written much later than the time of the events described. There is a close relationship between this text and the laws of Hammurabi.

21:33 When a person opens a pit… very detailed rules on dealing with livestock. Monetary compensation by a thief for theft of a sheep. Note the reference to tunneling at night or in the day. The rabbi’s argue that there is an expectation of an armed confrontation at night. During the day it is more likely that no one will be at home. Or is this reference to “tunneling” a fair translation?

The companion Haftarah here is Jeremiah 34:8-22. In that prophet’s time, the ruling classes of Judah, who had released their slaves as a tribute to God, reversed their previous release once the threat of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had passed. They reneged on the promise they had made. This tells how Jeremiah dealt with that reversal.

1st night Seder on April 10.