Shavuot: Where E’er You Go

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Shavuot (5780 – 2020)
The Book of Ruth

This year the holiday of Shavuot falls of Friday and Shabbat, preempting a regular Torah-portion reading and calling for special readings instead. Our Torah readings are taken from various parts of the Torah. One reading tells of our amazing experience – once in all of history – of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai and the other day’s reading tells about the yearly cycle of holidays – including Shavuot – that we have adopted in perpetuity. In addition, as with every pilgrimage festival, we add a reading from a special scroll. For Shavuot the reading is the Book of Ruth. Continue reading

New Vistas: Parashat Bamidbar

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Parashat Bamidbar (5780 – 2020)
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20 

The fourth book of the Torah begins by setting the location of God’s communication with Moses. It states that “The Eternal spoke to Moses in the desert of (b’midbar) Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting…” (Num. 1:1) The Tent of Meeting is the very same place in which God has been speaking to Moses for months. The first verse of the third book of the Torah begins: “And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” (Lev. 1:1) The conclusion of the Leviticus tells us that the Tent of Meeting was at the foot of Mount Sinai. But the opening verse of Bamidbar changes the name of the location of the Tent from being t Mount Sinai to being in the wilderness of Sinai.
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Stand By Me: Parashat B’har/B’chuqqotai

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Parashat B’har/B’huqqotai (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

“Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me (`imadi).” (Ps. 23:4) This verse from Psalm 23 is recited in times of sorrow and crisis as a source of comfort. We are sorely in need of such comfort and such prayers during this grim time.

The psalmist gratefully states that God “is with me.” The more common Hebrew words for “with me” are “’itti” or “`immi.”  But the Psalmist forgoes those usual words for the word imadi. The usual word “`imadi” can be found in the Bible here and there. And it is found on our Torah reading this Shabbat, as well. Is there a reason this rare term is sometimes chosen? What does this rare word seek to convey?
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Look at Ourselves in the Mirror: Parashat Emor

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Community Food Bank of NJ and Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges to Donate Over a 14 tons of Emergency Food Packages to East Orange Residents During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo: Milton Hobbs

Parashat Emor (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Our Torah portion includes a long discussion about the holy days to be observed throughout the Jewish year. The Torah begins with Passover, the festival of the liberation of the Jewish people, and then tells us to count 50 days until the harvest holiday of Shavuot. (We are in the midst of this counting “of the `omer” right now.) Then it proceeds to the holidays of Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
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Locked Out – Locked In: Parashat Acharei Mot/Q’doshim

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Parashat Aharei Mot/Q’doshim (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Our Torah reading begins with reference to the tragic deaths of two of the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. (Lev. 16:1) They died because they tried to enter the holy sanctuary inappropriately. The Torah goes on to limit access to the inner space, the Holy of Holies, to very specific conditions. The High Priest enters only on the Day of Atonement and only in certain clothes and with certain rituals to perform. Otherwise everyone is prohibited from entering that sacred space, on pain of death. For the Torah this warning is necessary because she assumes that everyone will desire to enter the holy all the time. Continue reading

Touching: Parashat Tazri`a/M’tzora

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Parashat Tazri`a/M’tzora (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

The strange phenomenon called “tzara`at” – a condition that creates scabs and sores and discoloration of skin, clothes and walls of houses – is the main subject of the two Torah readings of this Shabbat (- sometimes these portions are each read on a separate Shabbat). The Torah devotes detailed discussion to its description and its consequences for ritual purity and impurity and its implications for social integration or isolation. (On the topic of social isolation and confinement, see Sparks for 2016.) Continue reading

Mute/Unmute: Parashat Sh’mini/Pesach

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Parashat Sh’mini/Pesach (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

This week the festival of Freedom, Passover, concludes and then we read the Torah portion of Sh’mini on Shabbat. Passover is a holiday of talking and of song. Our seder is meant to be a time of active conversation. On the seventh day of Passover (- the last day of the holiday in Israel) we celebrate the explosion of jubilant national singing at the banks of the Red Sea. Continue reading

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

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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