Blasphemy or Exclusion? – Shabbat Emor 5779 (2019)

The entire book of Leviticus contains only two narratives, and both are troubling. In Parashat Shemini, Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – bring ‘strange (or alien) fire’ to the altar and are incinerated in (apparent) response. This week, in Parashat Emor we read of a fight in the camp between a ‘half-Israelite’ (Israelite mother/Egyptian father) and ‘a certain Israelite’ during which the half-Israelite ‘pronounces the Name in blasphemy.’ At story’s end, the blasphemer is stoned to death by the whole community.

Who is this blasphemer and what’s his story? The early Midrash (Sifra Emor 14) provides a backstory in a few terse lines. “‘There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.’ Where did he got out from? From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan. They (the other members of the tribe of Dan) said to him: What right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan? He said: I am descended from the daughters of Dan. They answered that tribal portions followed the flag or house of the father. He appealed before the court of Moses and lost his case, so he rose and reviled God.”


Mother and Son c.1910 by Ambrose McEvoy 1878-1927

[Mother and Son, Ambrose McEvoy, 1910]


The blasphemer’s mother Shelomit bat Divri, is a daughter of the tribe of Dan. We never learn the blasphemer’s name. Brilliantly and poignantly, Wendy Zierler, building on the Midrash, proposes more backstory. (See her piece at She presents the mother as a ‘struggling ex-slave and single mother who labored against all odds to raise her son and shield him from the prejudice of the surrounding community.’ Of the son, she writes, ‘he saw that he was a second-class citizen in a society of former second-class citizens, that he was not wanted among his would-be brethren.’ Our story, suggests Professor Zierler, is about patriarchy, exclusion, ‘bifurcated identity’ and injustice. In short, ‘a full-blown tragedy.’

I’m persuaded by Professor Zierler’s reading. The Torah’s story of the blasphemer comes to remind us of the human costs of oppressing and excluding others. As the singular narrative in a book whose laws focus over and over on the making of distinctions in the name of holiness, the tale of Shelomit and her son aims to teach us that while some separations promote purity and holiness, others pave the way for unnecessary and unjust pain and suffering. Emor, in its last lines, invites us to understand which ones are which. The blasphemer’s tale is the story of distinction-making run amok. It’s a lesson we badly need to learn.

Shabbat Shalom. 



Israel: Land & People – Shabbat Kedoshim 5779 (2019)

I have eretz yisrael on the brain these days. This has been the week of Yom haAtzma’ut, the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence. And the parashiot (Torah portions) of this time of the year have a distinct focus on the land. Vayikra’s last five parashiot – Aharei Mot, Kedoshim, Emor, B’har, and Behukotai – articulate laws about the land of Israel no fewer than ten times. Evidently, Leviticus has eretz yisrael on the brain as well.

Kedoshim’s land of Israel verses  evocatively describe the relationship between land and people, a centerpiece of the Torah’s theology.

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food…” [Leviticus 19:23] Sefat Emet, R Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (19th century), explains ‘that the power of planting has been given to the people of Israel. They are able to plant every thing, to join it to its root, by the power of Torah.’ The ‘religious task’ (R Art Green’s phrase) of the Jewish people is that of connecting each and every thing to its root, fulfilled by both actual and ‘spiritual’ planting. And to start, suggests the Sefat Emet, ‘we have to implant our own souls within their root.’ For Leviticus at least, the physical location of that root is in the land of Israel. As the Zohar puts it, ‘When they are united with the land, they are called a unique nation, but not when they are separate from it.’ [Zohar Vayikra 93b]


The great Hebrew poet, Rahel (Bluwstein) gorgeously captures the connection in her 1926 poem ‘To My Land – El Artzi’:

I have not sung you, my land,

not brought glory to you name

with the great deeds of a hero

or the spoils a battle yields.

But on the shores of the Jordan

my hands have planted a tree,

and my feet have made a pathway

through your fields.

Rahel proclaims, in her way, that we indeed have the power of planting. I wonder if the tree she planted still stands a century later. I hope it does; next time I enter the land of Israel, I plan to visit.

Shabbat Shalom.

Homecoming – Yom haZikkaron/Yom haAtzma’ut 5779 (2019)

They waited for him to come home:
the trimmed lawn, the tree in its saucer,
the faded plastic chairs, the rusty
gate, creaking on its hinges.
Mother, brother, father, sister,
frozen in time: wilting, transparent,
bowed down with weight of days.
And then, when  suddenly he comes in,
everything begins to move, the lawn thickens,
the tree bears fruit, the plastic
chairs are scrubbed, the gate turns
and creaks, moving endlessly.
If only he would come in, come home.
The bubble of time bursts. The scarred heart
beats again. Slowly they go down
on their knees, lift their eyes
to him in grief, in gratitude.

[Elisha Porat “Homecoming” translated by Eddie Levenston] [Hebrew below]


Elisha Porat’s poem, new to me, was shared last evening as part of a Yom haZikkaron commemoration at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Montreal. For me, it powerfully narrates the annual intersection of Yom haZikkaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom haAtzma’ut (Israel’s Independence Day) as it beautifully captures the many layers and nuances of home and homecoming.

Porat’s poem describes waiting for a loved one to come home. Who is s/he? A soldier perhaps? A family member who has traveled far away and is now returning? The entire people (or a large part of it) coming home again? And does that loved one in fact come home? “Suddenly he comes in…” and just a few lines later “if only he would come in, come home.”

I write these words far from home. Sitting in a cafe at the edge of McGill’s campus, feeling strangely (and simultaneously) distant from, and deeply connected to, this day and its commemoration. In a few hours, our son, an Israeli by citizenship, service, and choice, will board a plane that will take him home. And in Israel, throughout this difficult day, people will visit cemeteries and one another, grieving over those moments, spread out over seven decades now, when a loved didn’t walk through the creaky gate of Porat’s poem.

Tonight, at dusk, the mourning of Yom haZikkaron gives way to the raucous celebrating of Yom haAtzma’ut. “You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy” says the Psalmist. In one fell swoop, lament becomes dancing. Or does it? The deeper truth is that grief and gratitude (bekhi and hodayah in Porat’s words) happen at the same time, over and over again.

We pray that our loved ones, all of them, everywhere, will come home safely. And we grieve and voice laments without end over those who haven’t. “The gate turns and creaks, moving endlessly.” And we celebrate the homecoming of our people for “the scarred heart beats again.” On bended knee, “in grief and in gratitude.” Hag Atzma’ut Sameah! Israel 71! It’s coming up on time to dance.


:וְהֵם חִכּוּ לוֹ שֶׁיָּשׁוּב
,הַדֶּשֶׁא הַקָּצוּר, גֻּמַּת הָעֵץ
,כִּסְאוֹת הַפְּלַסְטִיק שֶׁדָּהוּ
.פִּשְׁפָּשׁ חָלוּד, צִירָיו שֶׁיִּבְּבוּ
,הָאֵם, הָאָח, הָאָב וְהָאָחוֹת
קְפוּאִים בְּתוֹךְ הַזְּמַן: קְמוּלִים
.שְׁקוּפִים, שָׁחִים מֵרֹב יָמִים
וְאָז, כְּשֶׁיִּכָּנֵס לְפֶתַע, הַכֹּל
,יָחֵל לָנוּעַ: הַדֶּשֶׁא שֶׁיִּצְמַח
הָעֵץ יִשָּׂא פִּרְיוֹ, כִּסְאוֹת
,הַפְּלַסְטִיק יִתְמָרְקוּ וְהַפִּשְׁפָּשׁ יִסֹּב
.יַחְרֹק, וְלֹא יַפְסִיק לָנוּעַ
רַק שֶׁיָּשׁוּב וְיִכָּנֵס: בּוּעַת
הַזְּמַן תִּפְקַע, לִבָּם הַמְצֻלָּק
יַחְזֹר לִפְעֹם. עַל בִּרְכֵּיהֶם
יֵרְדוּ לְאַט, אֵלָיו יִשְּׂאוּ
.עֵינַיִם: בִּבְכִי, בְּהוֹדָיָה

Between the ‘Days’ – Shabbat Acharei Mot 5779 (2019)

This Shabbat, we stand between the yamim – the ‘days’ that mark the contemporary Jewish calendar. ‘Yom’ haShoah – Holocaust Remembrance ‘Day’ – directly behind us, and ‘Yom’ haZikkaron/‘Yom’ haAtzma’ut – Israel’s Memorial ‘Day’ and Independence ‘Day’ just ahead. The plural of ‘yom’ is ‘yamim’ – days; we stand between the ‘yamim’ right now.

In Hebrew, the phrase has a double meaning. ‘Yam’ also means sea; hence ‘yamim’ are the seas between which we stand right now as well. Between the ‘yamim’ – days or seas – we get to reflect in both directions at once. Between-ness can be unnerving and unsettling; it can also exhilarate and inspire as it opens and invites new perspectives and different angles. Right now, we stand between the ‘yamim’.

Parashat Acharei Mot speaks powerfully to our unease at this time of between-ness. The ritual of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16) features a series of confessions and offerings brought to the altar by Aaron. As kohen gadol – high priest – Aaron plays the central role in the Torah’s version of Atonement Day. Aaron seeks ‘expiation’ first for himself, then for his household, then for all the priests, and, finally, for the ‘whole congregation of Israel’. The pattern is that of an ever widening circle of concern.

Aaron’s concern for himself quickly expands to take in concern for the entire people. The early midrash (Sifra, Acharei Mot 4:6) notices and emphasizes the sequence. “His own atonement comes before that for his household, and that for his household comes before that for all of Israel.” Initial narrow focus is meant to lead to widening one’s lens. Aaron starts with himself; the big point is that he doesn’t end there.



[Rothschild Mahzor, 15th century, Song of Songs]


Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook describes a similar dynamic in his reflection on the four levels of song. “There is one who ascends with all these songs in unison – the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos – resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy.”

The end of Pesah, traditionally observed, is that moment when all the songs come together. The songs of the Seder, the melodies of Hallel, the chanting of the Song of Songs and of the Song of the Sea, and, finally, the prophet Isaiah’s ringing song of hope for a future of peace and well being for all of humanity. Gunshots in shul in Poway, California shattered the ‘sound of holy joy’ this year. Then came Yom haShoah, and now, we stand, uneasily, in the space between the seas, the days between the ‘days’.

Dara Horn’s moving reflection, published this week in the New York Times, also explores the pattern of expanding concern pioneered by Aaron and the authors of Leviticus. Hear some of her words:  “As long as Jews existed in any society, there was evidence that it in fact wasn’t necessary to believe what everyone else believed, that those who disagreed with their neighbors could survive and even flourish against all odds. The Jews’ continued distinctiveness, despite overwhelming pressure to become like everyone else, demonstrated their enormous effort to cultivate that freedom: devotion to law and story, deep literacy, and an absolute obsessiveness about transmitting those values between generations. The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility — and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all.”

Pesah, Yom haShoah, Yom haZikkaron/haAtzma’ut, and Parashat Acharei Mot combine to speak that very message. We are free; we are responsible. We sing (or aim to sing) all four songs at once. We focus our concern on ourselves and on the wider world. That’s what it means to stand between the seas, right in the middle of these days of holy joy, agony, horror, remembrance, and celebration.

Shabbat Shalom.

Black Holes, Beresheet, and Us – Shabbat Metzora-haGadol 5779 (2019)

Outer space is on my mind.

On Wednesday, for the first time, we got to peer into a black hole; not a metaphor – an actual image of a real life black hole. On Thursday, an Israeli spacecraft called Beresheet failed in its attempt to land safely on the moon; prior to crashing into the lunar surface, Beresheet snapped and transmitted two powerful photographs. 



Both events tell important and moving stories. Words attributed to Albert Einstein convey one aspect of things. “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Einstein himself figures mightily in each of this week’s extra-terrestrial occurrences. A century ago, his theory of general relativity predicted the existence of black holes. It’s taken a hundred years to hear and, now, see, what the great theoretical physicist knew mathematically was always there. Einstein’s absurd idea is now proven fact. Einstein was also an early supporter of, and presence in, academic life in Israel, most notably in the sciences. His very direct intellectual heirs constituted the team behind Beresheet and its parent organization SpaceIL. There is great hope for Beresheet, precisely because of the absurdity and audacity of the idea a small country can have, pursue, and fulfill very big dreams.

Another aspect of the tale emerges from Beresheet’s name. Hebrew for the first book of Bible and for the account of Creation with which the Torah begins, Beresheet invites us in to a consideration of the universe’s origins. Modern science tells us that a big explosion – a crash if you will – is what got it all started. Lurianic Kabbalah’s retelling of Creation posits that the original divine light possessed more energy than its intended vessels could handle. The shattering of those first vessels gave way to a second go round, this one involving the sun, moon, and stars. Crash landings set the stage for renewed efforts and renewed Creation.

Black holes too, are part of the fabric of the universe and a very significant piece of the cosmos’s origins. Nasa’s website offers up this juicy tidbit – “Recent discoveries offer some tantalizing evidence that black holes have a dramatic influence on the neighborhoods around them – emitting powerful gamma ray bursts, devouring nearby stars, and spurring the growth of new stars in some areas while stalling it in others”. This week we got to see a picture of Messier 87 doing exactly that. Thrilling, and, ultimately, hopeful and inspiring. 


The cycle of crash or explosion or implosion setting the stage for renewal or rebirth or return is also at play in the Torah’s pattern of law and ritual regarding impurity and purity. The big point of Parashat Metzora is that while impurity – of people, of clothing, of houses – happens, it’s never the end of the story. The exclusion and separation engendered by impurity can, and almost always does, give way to restoration and re-generation. A return to purity is just around the corner. The universe, after all, is constantly expanding!

Shabbat Shalom.

Look Closely, Listen Well – Shabbat Tazria-haHodesh 5799 (2019)

This week and next, we encounter the Torah’s ritual and law regarding tzara’at – skin afflictions. While not easy reading, Tazria (this week’s parasha) and Metzora (next week’s parasha), serve up valuable and important lessons. Tazria’s half of the conversation focuses on diagnosis, that is to say on the proper identification of a skin affliction that might render an individual tame, impure. The key player in the story is the kohein, priest. Tamar Kamionkowski, professor of Bible at RRC, draws out the priestly role in her elegant new commentary on Leviticus (Wisdom Commentary: Leviticus (2018)) in two different ways.

First, the priest as speaker. Kamionkowski points out that the priest “takes no action toward healing”. Rather, the priest looks and declares. What’s more, it is the “priest’s pronouncement” that “changes the person’s status at that moment” first to impure and then, hopefully, back to pure. Quoting Jonathan Sacks, Kamionkowski affirms that language can be used “to create new moral facts.” The priest’s ‘performative utterance’ is the difference maker in the Torah’s tale of the individual with a skin affliction. Words, speech, language, especially when spoken, profoundly matter; they shape, frame, and potentially transform reality.



 [Pier Francesco Mola (Italian, 1612–1666)]


The second element of the priest’s work is to look, to examine, to see. Leviticus 13’s recurring phrase is v’ra-ah ha’kohein – ‘and the priest will look’ – repeated no fewer than a dozen times. The early rabbis went to great lengths to define and describe how and when the priest looks. As one example among many, Mishna Nega’im (2:2) requires that the priest’s examination take place only when an individual’s affliction can be clearly seen. “They may not inspect skin disease in the early morning or in the evening or within the house or on a cloudy day, for then the dull white would appear bright white; or at midday, for then the bright white would appear dull white”.

Kamionkowski powerfully spells out the implications. “Only when someone takes the time to look very closely at a bodily expression, can that condition be named…It is about noticing the details that most of us prefer to avoid. Leviticus 13 publicly acknowledges that boils, rashes, scabs, and pus are all possible expressions of the human body…As readers of these texts, we are momentarily asked to pay attention, as the priests were required to do. Instead of reading these chapters with disgust or boredom, we might approach them with curiosity and with awe for all the ways that the body can express itself in the course of living and healing”.

Kamionkowski’s language inspires. Look very closely; notice the details; pay attention; approach with curiosity and with awe… The inherent challenge to us as latter day readers is to reckon with the way(s) in which we see others. Parashat Tazria invites us, in imitation of Leviticus’s ideal priest, to pay real and close attention, to notice the details, and to encounter one another with curiosity and with awe. And to remember that our words, especially when spoken, actually shape and change reality.

Shabbat Shalom.

New Heart, New Spirit – On the Making of (Proper) Distinctions – Shabbat Shemini-Parah 5779 (2019)

Make distinctions! That, in a mere two words, is the central command of Leviticus 11, the Torah’s first collection of rules regarding eating. Separate this from that! Same concept, now in four words. The point of the ‘Torah’ of eating is ‘to divide between the unclean and the clean’ – לְהַבְדִּ֕יל בֵּ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֣ין הַטָּהֹ֑ר (l’havdil beyn ha’tamei u’veyn ha’tahor). (Leviticus 11:47) Robert Alter reminds us that in Genesis 1, the great priestly rendition of Creation, “the world comes into coherent being when God divides the chaotically interfused primal elements – light and darkness, the waters above and the waters below, the sea and dry land – from each other.” Paradoxically (perhaps), to create coherence one has to divide chaotic forces from one another. Wholeness (hopefully) emerges from distinguishing and separating.

The rabbinic tradition in all of its guises – halakhic, ethical, philosophical, kabbalistic, pietistic – loves the making of distinctions every bit as much as does Leviticus. The Sifra, the early midrash on Vayikra, reads the Torah’s imperative ‘to distinguish’ (l’havdil) to mean “that we should not merely observe the distinction between the ass which is unclean and the cow which is clean, but also that we should be careful of the distinction between that which we can render unclean and that which we can render clean.” (beyn t’me’ah l’kha la’t’horah l’kha) The Torah of the priests calls on us not only to notice the distinctions between that which is clean and that which is unclean, but also to notice the ways in which we make further and finer distinctions.

R Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal), author of Mesillat Yesharim, the great 18th century musar classic, brilliantly draws out the ethical point. “Forbidden food,” he writes, actually introduces impurity into the heart and soul of a person, so that the holiness of blessed God departs far from her/him.” How? “By depriving her/him of the powers of understanding and reason which the blessed Holy One bestows upon the saints.” The result? “A person becomes coarse and beastlike, steeped in the grossness of this world. And this is more true of one who partakes of forbidden food than of one who commits any other transgression, because food enters the body and becomes part of its very substance.” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 11) Refined humanity, characterized by purity of heart and soul, requires understanding and reason, the hallmark of which is the making of proper and appropriate distinctions.



[Ezekiel panel, Dura-Europos Synagogue, 2nd century]


On this Shabbat just after the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, I’m thinking a lot about how we make distinctions. I spent the day at AIPAC on Monday, hearing the big event speeches and participating in smaller, blessedly more nuanced, conversations about Israel and the US-Israel relationship. (Video of most of the main stage presentations can be accessed here.) I learned a lot, stewed more than a little, and came home thinking about the painful divides that mark American political life and the current state of the Jewish people. None of it was new; all of it was on display at Policy Conference. The good news is that both sides of the American political continuum were well represented, and American Jews of many stripes gathered together under one roof. The much more difficult news is that we continue to mistrust and talk past one another, sometimes civilly, sometimes with contempt.

And the questions we face are hard ones. What does it mean to be pro-Israel? Can one love and support Israel and simultaneously object to Israel’s government and its policy? Can Israel be a truly democratic and Jewish state at the same time? How should those two commitments be balanced? Can they be balanced? Can the Jewish people hold itself together in the face of sharp disagreement on fundamental questions? Can support for Israel truly be bi-partisan? Can we accurately diagnose the anti-Semitism that has reemerged in our moment and place? And can we join together to combat it without tearing ourselves apart? Great challenges face all who love and care about Israel and the Jewish People, regardless of political or religious affiliation. Great challenges face all who love and care about America as well. We have a lot of work to do.

A century ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook struggled with some of the same questions about the health and well being of the Jewish people and its then new national movement. In an essay called Nishmat ha-Leumiut v’Gufah – The Soul of Nationhood and its Body, Rav Kook draws a distinction between “the abstract, ideal content of the universal objective and its expression in reality.” His moving words feel remarkably contemporary to me. “The love for the nation, or, more broadly, for humanity, is adorned at its source with the purest ideals, which reflect humanity and nationhood in their noblest light. In the conceptual world these are entities full of majesty and beauty, delight and life, mercy and truth, justice and humility, valor and joy, intelligence and feeling…But when they enter the world of action, and are set within boundaries, at once some elements of the higher light disappear. The large aleph becomes a small aleph.

For Rav Kook, and hopefully for us as well, the story doesn’t end with that small aleph. To the contrary, Kook envisions “an awakening to the true revival” which will feature “the cleansing potency of the original soul of our people, with hidden divine influences and with the light of mercy and a higher pleasure hidden within it” a time in which those hidden sparks will “come and also cleanse all the outer garments in which the soul and spirit of the nation robed itself.”

The haftarah for this Shabbat Parah serves as Rav Kook’s prooftext and punchline. “I will give you a new heart, and I will place in you a new spirit; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you…you will be My people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36: 27-32)

New heart, new spirit. Ezekiel’s evocative and uplifting words need to be our prooftext and punchline as well. The future of the Jewish People’s soul and body depend on it.

Shabbat Shalom.