Filling Our Hands: Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover (5780 – 2020)

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Parashat Tzav/Shabbat Ha-gadol/Passover (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

Quarantine is a theme found in our Torah portion and in the Passover celebration that we will observe next week. Self-seclusion is mentioned as part of the story of the first Passover and also in the story of the first Tabernacle made for Israel. (See, also, Sparks for 2012 and 2013)

On the night of the first Passover, when the Children of Israel were still officially slaves in Egypt, God instructed the Hebrews to seclude themselves in their homes. They were even told to mark their doorways with the blood of the Passover sacrifice as a symbolic protective seal against the plague raging outside their door. Continue reading

Passover Message

DSC_0213-EditAs we continue to wander in an uncharted wilderness of caution and concern, we are called to meet so many responsibilities to ourselves and to others. I am moved by the dedication and caring exhibited by all members of the Shomrei community, professional and lay members, both. I am very grateful to be part of this strong and healthy community!

An additional challenge facing us is to prepare for and to celebrate the holiday of Passover (Pesach), the first of our sacred festivals. This is a time when we usually feel the full weight of our traditions, religious and familial. These traditions add special significance to our lives and special sweetness. We have invested much energy and creativity over the years to find ways to honor those traditions while we also add our creativity and add novel (- a word that has taken on a dark resonance these days!) customs, songs, insights and foods to our seder. After all, this is the Festival of our Freedom!

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Making Space: Parashat Vayiqra

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Parashat Vayiqra (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 

“And He called out to Moses; and the Eternally Present One spoke to him from out of the Tent of Meeting, saying.” (Lev. 1:1) The fascinating beginning of this third book of the Torah has elicited many questions, commentaries and musings. I have returned to ponder it many times. God calls out to Moses! And God calls out from inside a modest tent. Can we imagine that God is really in that small structure? As Solomon asked when he celebrated the dedication of a far greater shrine, the First Temple: “Could it be, indeed, that the Almighty would dwell on earth? Look here! The heavens and the heavens’ heavens cannot encompass You, so how could this house that I built?” (1Kings 8:27)

So, among the many discussions I have devoted to this text over the years, in one of them (Sparks 2013) I have pointed to the concept of tzimtzum – contraction and shrinkage. It is a concept highlighted in kabbalistic thought. It is a way of imagining how the infinite God could be present in our finite world. Some see this concept alluded to in the special way that the first word of this Torah portion is written. The last letter of the word, vayiqra, is written smaller than the rest (- like this – vayiqra), signaling God’s contraction while calling out to Moses.
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Astounding Resilience: Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Ha-Hodesh

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Parashat Vayaq’hel-P’qudei/Ha-Hodesh (5780-2020)
Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

How to respond to a crisis? We struggle during this difficult time to find a balance between navigating unique circumstances and yet holding on to our tried-and-true routines. All our places of social gathering have been closed and we sense a great responsibility to be cautious and caring. It is disorienting for some and comforting for others – and for some of us it may be both at the same time – that certain rhythms, such as those determined by the Jewish ritual calendar, just keep on going on, no matter what.
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Prayers for Our Time

DSC_0213-EditPrayer is a deep response to crisis, even as it can also be a profound vehicle for expressing gratitude for the blessings we still enjoy, and it can be a strong reminder of the values we hold precious and that make our lives sacred. Many find prayer a way  to ground the self and calm the spirit.

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For Those Who Wish to Say Kaddish

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Saying Kaddish is one of many challenges Jews and Jewish communities are facing in this time of quarantine and social isolation. The practice of saying kaddish for a loved one is very meaningful and comforting for many people. But the practice is traditionally situated within a community – a minyan. In fact, that is the essence of kaddish – that the mourner turns to the community and calls them to join with the mourner in praising God (even in times of loss and sadness). So the lack of a minyan can be a very painful impediment. Therefore, I am sharing this prayer, adapted from one that was written by Rabbi Dov Edelstein z”l, originally for Kehillat Hod veHadar and later included in SIddur VeAni Tefillati of the Masorti Movement. Continue reading

Taking of One’s Hands: Parashat Ki Tissa/Parah (2020)

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Parashat Ki Tissa/Parah (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Hand washing has become a life-saving imperative. What has been, until now, a matter of good manners and personal hygiene has now become a matter of urgent concern. And it has become ritualized by the medical authorities by mandating that we wash for a prescribed amount of time. We testily joke about this as we come up with new ways to measure the 20 seconds that we must endure.

We learn of different washing rituals in our Torah readings this week.

Our second Torah reading, about the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah – and hence the extra name for this Shabbat – Shabbat Parah) concerns itself with the ritual of cleansing purification that included a mixture of immersion in water as well as the sprinkling of fresh water with a mixture of ashes on the person who had become ritually impure. The ritual is paradoxical in its details. (See Sparks for Parashat Huqqat.) And the concept is somewhat alien to us, as all concepts of spiritual impurity have become. Yet, the idea of cleansing through water is certainly connected to our basic physical experiences.
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Fathers and Sons: Parashat T’tzaveh/Zakhor/Purim

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Parashat T’tzaveh/Zakhor/Purim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Our reading precedes the Purim holiday and, as many have noticed, in both the Torah reading and at Purim, clothes, uniforms and costumes play a major role. (See Sparks for 2012).

Our Torah portion sets forth the clothing for the priests who will minister in the new Tabernacle planned by God and Israel. Starting with the original priestly family of Aaron and his four sons and continuing down for millennia, the priests were divided into two classes – one High Priest (Aaron and his successors) and many regular priests (his sons and their successors). The uniforms for each class were very different. Much space is given over to describing the ornate costume, consisting of eight special garments, of the High Priest. These garments were festooned with gems and gold chains and fancy and colorful embroidery. But the regular priests had only four garments and they were all of simple, white linen. Continue reading

Non-Neutral: Parashat T’rumah (2020)

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Parashat T’rumah (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

We begin the extensive treatment of creating a Tabernacle – a place for God and Israel to dwell together – in our Torah reading. The discussion will continue to the end of the book of Exodus – it is that important.

But what is its importance to us? Is the building of God’s House a unique endeavor, with its own rules and goals, or is the building of God’s House meant to serve as a paradigm for how we should build our own houses? Is God’s House an incomparable case, or can housing developers or landlords, for instance, learn something from this example? Continue reading

God’s Own Heart: Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)

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Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

The turn from narrative – the common genre of the Torah from its start until the Exodus – to law, the common genre for most of the rest of the Pentateuch – is in full swing in the first part of our Torah portion. We are overwhelmed with laws, as the title of our Torah portion indicates – “Mishpatim – just laws.” (For some discussion on the interrelationship between law and narrative see Sparks 2016.)

The statements of the laws are mostly in the casuistic form – “if something is the case, then x is the law.” This form, indeed, preserves a weak form of narrative. But, generally, the text is characterized by legalistic, dry language.
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