After Rosh Hashana in Sicily, I took a coastal train to Naples, a city that I was pleasantly surprised by with its picturesque mountainous bay setting, and bustling historic streets. Just blocks from where I stayed in the vibrant waterfront Piazza Vittoria neighborhood, an area filled with boutiques, bars, and cafes, is the city’s sole synagogue. Funded by Baron Rothschild in the 1860s, it is still open for the city’s approximately 150 Jews. The only give-away to its presence was a guard located at a set of massive wooden doors (which one stepped through) at the entrance of a large apartment complex’s courtyard. At the other end of the courtyard, up a discreet staircase, was the entrance to the synagogue. Continue reading
Lag b’Omer begins tonight at sundown tonight. It is the date of the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a Jewish scholar and mystic who lived from 100-160CE. His commentaries and teachings are part of important Jewish texts about law, ethics and mysticism. He wrote the Zohar, the foundational text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah.
He defied the Roman Emperor Hadrian who persecuted Jews, closed all Jewish schools and forbade the study of holy texts. To avoid execution by the Romans because of his disobedience, Rabbi Shimon and his son, Elazar, hid in a cave for 13 years in the village of Meron, northern Israel.
Iyar-the second month in the Jewish calendar–is a connector month, between Nisan (Pesach–the exodus and establishment of the nation of Israelites) and Sivan (Shavuot–the receiving of the Torah). Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes that Pesach “asks us to stop walking the old, familiar paths, and to create change within ourselves and in our relationship with others and with the world.”
Such a process of introspection and healing doesn’t end at Pesach but rather begins. Iyar is a time to sow the seeds of our personal and communal transformations that were planted at Pesach through our liberation from slavery and to prepare for receiving the Torah in Sivan. It “is the month of introspection for the sake of self improvement.” Liberation does not mean one’s journey is complete. And, such a journey is not done alone. Iyar is known as a healing month. The acronym of Iyar is represented by the phrase, “I am G-d your healer” (Exodus 15:26). (The manna the Israelites received from G-d during their time in the wilderness first appeared in Iyar, solidifying their reliance on G-d to survive.) Continue reading
This week, before Rosh Hashana, we read Nitzavim during which all of the Israelites establish a covenant with God. Entering into the covenant is stepping into a concrete process in this world. “For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. “It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it” (30:12-14).
This is not about just accepting “I am Jewish” but embracing and living Jewish beliefs and values. While we are a few thousand years removed from the Israelites at Mount Sinai, their journey and experience is as relevant today to each of us. Rabbi Shai Held explains, “One of Judaism’s central projects is to maintain a living connection to our foundational moments: to remember that no matter how much time has passed, Exodus and Sinai have always only just taken place.”
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains several teachings about the treatment of animals. It includes the prohibition against taking eggs or baby chicks from a nest while the mother is there, which has become the basis for the prohibition of cruelty against animals (tzaar baalei chayim). Indeed, for the person who does this, it is written “it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.”
Indeed, the notion of preventing cruelty to animals was, until recently, unheard of, except in Torah. “‘Until the nineteenth century,’ wrote historian Cecil Roth, ‘cruelty to animals was nowhere illegal, except in Jewish law'”. (The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, pp. 343f). Rabbi Gershon Winkler, in commenting about the mother hen and baby chicks passage, argues, “The Torah is not interested in teaching you to feel compassion, but rather how to live compassionately.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, “Beyond simply prohibiting cruelty to animals, Jewish tradition associates care for animals with righteousness.” She cites (Proverbs 12:10): “A righteous person knows the needs of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, it is written, “‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul” (12:20). Follows is a list of animals that cannot be consumed and the commandment not to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk.“
Further along in the Torah portion, it is written, “If there will be among you a needy person. . . you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother” (15:7).
In our current society, what is the connection between eating meat and people living in poverty? The people in the US who are raising animals for food consumption are needy people. Continue reading
I received a basket of enormous, homegrown onions from a family friend. Layers of thick dirt muted the rich golden tones of the onions. Each one had just been picked and a mass of dried out, dusty stalks, like wild hair, was sprouting from the bulbs. I wasn’t sure what to do with so many onions until I read this week’s parsha, Matot-Massei. I prepared a simple roasted onions side dish. These concentric circles of onion are delicate, rich in flavor and easy to prepare. This week I offer many different thoughts about the onions and how the dish relates to themes in the parsha. Continue reading
In this week’s parsha, we read the story of Balaam, who is asked by Balak to curse the Israelis. Despite his intentions to vilify them, Balaam’s words become blessings. Balaam’s story makes clear that God gave us free will and we have the choice to give blessings or curses in the world.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, in his book, The Everyday Torah, summarizes God speaking with Balaam as “’The choice is yours, human. You are free to decide for yourself. ‘ In the words of the Talmud, ‘A person is led the way s/he wishes to go.’” (p. 263).
Bamidbar is both the name of the fourth book of the Torah (referred to in English as Book of Numbers) and this week’s portion. After receiving the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, Bamidbar/Numbers tells the Israelites journey through the wilderness. A wild landscape conjures images of unrefined, undeveloped, unknown. Our own journeys might have similar descriptions: intimidating, challenging, mysterious. During the Israelites journey, “we will see much adventure, crisis and turmoil take place in the darkness of the wilderness,” writes Yael Shy.
Despite their years in the wilderness, though, the Israelites have a guide to center and direct them: the Tabernacle that they transport. It is always placed in the middle of the Israelites as they walked and camped. Etz Hayyim commentary notes, “The tabernacle was the first thing one saw on leaving home and the first thing one looked for on returning home” (p.774). Continue reading
And, in the middle of a description about the holiday of Shavuot, comes the following: “When you reap the harvest of your Land, you shall not completely remove the corner of your field during your harvesting, and you shall not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. [Rather,] you shall leave these for the poor person and for the stranger. I am the Lord, your God.” (23:22).
Both of the facial beard and field corners are called payot.