Acharei Mot in a Nutshell
Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G‑d warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” Only one person, the kohen gadol (“high priest”), may, but once a year, on Yom Kippur, enter the innermost chamber in the Sanctuary to offer the sacred ketoret to G‑d.
Another feature of the Day of Atonement service is the casting of lots over two goats, to determine which should be offered to G‑d and which should be dispatched to carry off the sins of Israel to the wilderness.
The Parshah of Acharei also warns against bringing korbanot (animal or meal offerings) anywhere but in the Holy Temple, forbids the consumption of blood, and details the laws prohibiting incest and other deviant sexual relations.
Resting FROM, Resting FOR
When we think about resting, there are two motifs: I rest from - having become tired and needing renewal; I rest for – wanting to be at my best for an upcoming undertaking.
Shabbat accomplishes both – we rest from, regaining not only physical strength, but moral clarity and commitment as well; we rest for, reinvigorating the good values and highest purposes which we bring to each undertaking.
In joining the thousands who will benefit from Shabbat SanDiego, we wish you both: restorative reconnection to family and friends and our Ultimate Friend above us, and renewed purpose and principle which will carry forward to the week ahead. Shabbat Shalom.
- Take a walk
- Practice meditation
- Visit with friends and/or family
- Play games
- Have a sing along/sing down/afternoon of song
- Read for pleasure
- Tell stories
A Few Shabbat Readings
Everywhere, people are straining to set aside time for things that are felt to be humanly important: being with loved ones, enjoying nature, studying ideas, or engaging in some creative activity. And more and more it is becoming a losing battle. There is no issue, no aspect of human life, that exceeds this in importance. The destruction of time is literally the destruction of life. Jacob Needleman
Many of us are afraid to slow down. We wouldn’t know what to do without constant activity. This fear is a sign that we are distant from our inner selves. We are afraid to be by ourselves and uncover what we think and feel in the quiet of non-activity. Once we quiet down, we can become reacquainted with ourselves and with a more relaxed pace of being.
Shabbat means we draw boundaries and say “no” to the many things that take up our time and attention for six days a week. By embracing Shabbat, we say “yes” to our friends, families, and ourselves, with whom we get to spend uninterrupted time. Rabbi Lori Forman
The Sabbath is regarded in Jewish tradition as celebrating the creation of the world. The modern equivalent of that interpretation of the day would be the use of it as a means of accentuating the fact that we must reckon with creation and self-renewal as a continuous process. The liturgy speaks of God as “renewing daily the works of creation.” By becoming aware of that fact, we might gear our own lives to this creative urge in the universe and discover within ourselves unsuspected powers of the spirit. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan
I shall never forget Shabbat in my town. When I shall have forgotten everything else, my memory will still retain the atmosphere of holiday, of serenity pervading even the poorest houses; the white tablecloth, the candles, the meticulously combed little girls, the men on their way to the synagogue. When my town shall fade into the abyss of time, I will continue to remember the light and the warmth it radiated on Shabbat. The exalted prayers, the wordless songs of the Hasidim, the fire and radiance of their masters. The jealousies and grudges, the petty rancor between neighbors could wait. As could the debts and worries, the dangers. Everything could wait. As it enveloped the universe, the Shabbat conferred on it a dimension of peace, an aura of love.
To set apart one day a week for freedom,
A day on which we could not use
Instruments which have been so easily
Turned into weapons for destruction,
A day for being ourselves,
A day for detachment from the vulgar,
from external obligations.
A day on which we stop worshipping the
idols of technical civilization,
A day on which we use no money,
a day of armistice in the economic
struggle with our fellow humans and the
force of nature.
Is there any institution that holds out a
greater hope for progress than the
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Six days a week we use time. We value it as a means to an end. Time well spent is time that helps us acquire something. Yet to have more does not mean to be more. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have, but to be, not to own, but to give, not to control, but to share, not to subdue, but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things becomes our sole concern.
The seventh day rights our balance and restores our perspective. It is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date, but an atmosphere. On the seventh day, we celebrate time rather than space. Six days we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the 7th day we try to become attuned to holiness in time.
It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time. To turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
My fondest memories of Shabbat come from the summers I spent at Habonim Camp Moshava. Friday afternoons the entire camp would clean the bunks, the common areas, and of course, ourselves. We would gather on the basketball court, dressed all in white and hair still wet, sun-kissed cheeks, everyone giddy with the special excitement that Shabbat brought. We would cross our arms and hold hands with those next to us. We would would laugh, sing, hug one another, and greet the setting shabbat sun in community and with love.
Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Freedom without anarchy, Order without tyranny by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
G-d invited humanity to become His “partners in the work of creation,” calling us to create what He himself had created: freedom and order, the order of nature and the freedom that allows humans, alone in the universe, to choose between good and evil, healing and harm.
What the Torah tells us early on is how humanity failed. They did so in two ways. They created freedom without order. Or they created order without freedom. That is still the human tragedy.
Freedom without order was the world before the Flood, a state of anarchy and chaos that Thomas Hobbes famously described as “the war of every man against every man,” in which life is “nasty brutish and short.” That is freedom without order, what the Torah calls a “world filled with violence” (Gen. 6: 13) that made G-d “regret that he had made man on earth, and it grieved Him to his very heart” (6: 6).
But the alternative was a world of order without freedom, epitomized in the Torah by the Tower of Babel that achieved greatness at the cost of turning the mass of humanity into slaves. That too is an affront to human dignity, because each of us, not just some of us, are in the image of G-d.
Having seen these two kinds of failure, G-d called on one man, Abraham, and one woman, Sarah, and said in effect: I want you to be different. I want you and those who follow you to create, out of a tiny people in a tiny land, a nation that will show the world what it is to sustain both order and freedom; what it is to build a society on the threefold imperative of love: love of G-d “with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength,” love of our neighbor “as yourself,” and love of the stranger, a command reiterated in the Torah, according to the sages, 36 times.
I want you to become the people who keep the laws of tzedek and mishpat (justice and law), chessed and rachamim (grace and mercy), not because of the coercive power of the State but because you have taught your children to hear the voice of G-d within the human heart. I want you to show the world how to create freedom without anarchy and order without tyranny. That has been the Jewish mission for the better part of 4,000 years.
‘Power Shabbat’ Celebration
Two leaders meet over dinner on a late Friday night. It is late 2nd Century, Northern Israel (or Palestine, as the Roman conquerors now call it). Antoninus, the Roman governor implores his host: “isn’t it time you Jews gave up? Rome holds all the power. The future is ours!”
The host, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi responds: “let’s climb to my rooftop and look over the village. Together we can see the answer to your question.”
Upon ascending the roof, Rabbi Yehuda asked his important guest what he saw. “I see nothing more than a darkened village; families quietly at home. The peace of your Shabbat prevails,” observed Antoninus.
Rabbi Yehuda nodded, and added, “What I see is an entire village observing the Shabbat. In not one home is a fire being kindled. In no home is writing being done. With perfect unity, every resident of our village is guarding the Shabbat.”
Antoninus looked perplexed. What is the point, he thought? Rabbi Yehuda continued: “with your armies and weapons and authority, you could not possibly mandate such a day of rest and meaning. Please, tell me: who holds the power? To whom does the future belong?”
All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? – Mark Twain
“More than the Jewish people have watched over the Shabbat, the Shabbat has watched over the Jewish people.” Achad Ha’Am
Abraham: Father of Nations
Amazingly, Abraham remains a person of influence even today, 3,800 years after his birth. Popularly remembered as the Father of Monotheism, we do not find anywhere in the Torah’s account of his life a discourse on theology. What we read of is Abraham’s kindness, concern for others, welcoming of strangers, and his family affairs. Yet, even during Abraham’s lifetime, these principled interactions caused those who knew him to refer to Abraham as a “Prince of G-d among us.” Even non believers thought of Abraham in this way.
Perhaps something more cogent than the concept of One G-d should be associated with Abraham. Rather than understand him as a person whose influence stemmed from an idea, let’s rather stay more true to the Torah narrative and realize that it was Abraham’s way of living, of talking, of interacting with others which was inspiring to his generation, and to our generation as well.
The classical Torah commentary of Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 1470 – 1550) can serve as our guide. Sforno contrasts the uplifting impact on others which Abraham caused to the total lack of impact upon society of Noah, with all of his personal righteousness. Sforno depicts Noah as an insightful social critic who devoted great energy to explaining that violence and theft, common in his society, were making life impossible, and needed to be ended. Noah felt that his criticism would wake up his contemporaries, convince them to change their ways and lead to a harmonious, law abiding society. His efforts inspired no one, and his entire generation died in the Flood.
Abraham does not criticize and does not argue against anything. The household run by Abraham, together with Sarah, was based on the assumption that greatness and idealism is built into every human being, needing only to be developed and reinforced, affirmed in daily interactions. Even the evil doers of Sodom evoke Abraham’s prayer for their wellbeing.
Abraham’s vision was shaped by an important convictions about G-d and humanity - that every person was created in G-d’s exact image, and therefore possessed a reflection of G-d’s kindness and majesty. When Abraham spoke to anyone, it was this inner grandeur that he reached toward, and in doing so activated within his fellow person. Abraham’s devotion to kindness inspired kindness, and awakened voices of nobility within the recipient. A host of good values emerged within all who met Abraham, and, over time, shaped societies based on his example. His seeing nobility within others inspired people to think likewise of themselves, and their neighbors, and to refashion their community accordingly. Quite a legacy to leave behind!
Today, these aspirations for living great lives still speak to us, Abraham’s descendants. And we can take his example to heart and speak to others on this basis as well. Whenever we set aside the language of condemnation, of belittlement, and certainly tones of sarcasm, and rather reach within to touch upon nobility and one another’s human dignity, we are expanding Abraham’s sphere of influence.
As we celebrate Shabbat San Diego, let’s take the time to read with fresh eyes the depiction of Abraham’s demeanor, listen to his words, and apply them to impact our 21st Century world. Let’s study our Torah with this goal in mind, so we can carry forward an influence the world so urgently needs today. Shabbat Shalom.
Parhat Lech L’cha – Shabbat San Diego Oct. 27, 2017
Essays on the Weekly Torah Reading
Lech Lecha. Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
The first thing I remember learning about Abraham, whom we meet in this week’s reading, is that his father owned an idol shop, and that one day Abraham smashed all the idols in the store and blamed the biggest idol. Abraham’s father then accused Abraham of lying. “How,” he asked, “could a statue that I made have possibly destroyed all the other statues?” Abraham responded by asking, “If all the idols are just statues, why do you worship them?”
This story, of course, is a Midrash (though, as a child, I was convinced it was part of the biblical account). Its purpose is to ridicule idolaters; they – foolishly – worship man-made statues. A passage from Psalms, which we recite every holiday as part of the Hallel services, serves the same purpose. Referring to idols, the Psalmist jeers, “They have eyes but see not, ears but hear not.” They’re just blocks of stone. Only idiots would worship them.
But were idolaters really so foolish? Many scholars now agree that ancient idol worshippers really didn’t believe that their statues were gods. Rather, the statues became foci of a particular God’s power, sort of like how batteries focus electrical power. The difference between idolatry and Abraham’s monotheism was in the purely mechanistic, utilitarian nature of ancient idolatry. Idolaters worshipped rain Gods in order to get rain; war gods in order to achieve victory; fertility goddesses in order to get pregnant. No greater ethical or spiritual values governed the relationship. The god was essentially a machine – a thing humans manipulated with rituals in order to get what they wanted.
Abraham’s monotheism, on the other hand, focused almost entirely on building a genuine relationship with God, where the relationship itself was the only significant benefit. And Abraham was the perfect character to bring that religion to the world. Abraham shows us early on that he doesn’t care about or expect material rewards from God. Even though God promises him fame, wealth, and children, it’s clear, early on, that Abraham just doesn’t believe the promises. Almost every time God brings them up, Abraham dismisses them. In fact, Abraham’s first recorded words to God are “What can you give me?” He then goes on to claim that his servant Eliezer will be his heir, since he doesn’t believe that God will give him children. And later, of course, he’s willing to kill the promised child just because God asks him to.
So what precisely is Abraham’s motivation for being in relationship with God? The spiritual experience – the glimpse of the infinite, the feeling of connecting himself to something larger than himself. Transcendence. The key episodes in Abraham’s life are not God’s promises, but Abraham’s powerful spiritual experiences – like when God shows him the stars in the desert sky, and asks him to count them. Or when he falls into a trance at “The Covenant of the Pieces.” Or builds an altar and calls out God’s name. Abraham’s no idolater, no mechanistic manipulator of supernatural forces, out for his own material benefit. He’s a true spiritual genius, the first person to understand the value of bringing God into our lives just for the sake of that relationship. And, remember, we’re the children of Abraham.
This week’s reading, in addition to introducing us to Abraham, offers the first use of the term “Ivri,” or “Hebrew” as Abraham’s specific ethnic designation. Modern biblical scholars have argued for generations over the word’s actual meaning, but, as usual, it’s the Midrash which suggests the most evocative possibilities. Playing on the related Hebrew word “ever,” or, “other side,” one rabbi teaches that the word “Ivri” means that Abraham comes from “the other side of the river.” Another rabbi deepens the definition, by claiming it means that “all the world is on one side, and Abraham is on the other side.” Sforno, a later Jewish commentator, writes that Abraham has “de’ot ever” – “opinions from the other side.” To be an Ivri, then, means you come from the other side, that you see yourself as apart and different from others, that you have “other” opinions, different thoughts, foreign ideas. Both philosophically, and physically, an Ivri separates himself/herself from others.
And this, more or less, is how Abraham the Ivri chooses to live. God tells him to leave his home, to cross the river, presumably to escape from the idolatrous culture on that side of the Tigris. But even having crossed the river into Canaan, he separates himself from the locals, choosing to wander in the desert rather than settle in a city, like his nephew Lot. Throughout most of his life, Abraham maintains his stance as “the other,” with other thoughts, other ways.
Yet, he’s not entirely isolated. In our reading, he forms alliances, even with the wicked king of Sodom. He buys property, haggling with the natives. Rashi even suggests that he makes a few friends. He famously argues with God on behalf of the doomed Sodomites. He lives apart with his “other” ways, but the picture is more nuanced. He doesn’t shun the outside world; he engages, at least when necessary.
Interestingly, this nuanced balance between separation and strategic engagement became a model for Jewish living for generations. For over a thousand years, Jews in Christian Europe lived largely apart from non-Jews, with their own courts, laws, and values. We were on one side, they were on the other. Yet, we still engaged, mostly for strategic purposes – to survive and do business – but sometimes, also, out of pure curiosity, or friendship.
In fact, even in the bible, there’s always a tug from the other side. When it comes time for Isaac to marry, Abraham grows nostalgic for the other side of the river, sending his servant Eliezer back home to find a bride. And the most important heroes in the Torah spend formative amounts of time away from home, “on the other side.” Jacob spends twenty years on the other side of the river. Both Joseph and Moses live most of their lives away from their people, on the other side. Abraham may leave home; as the first Ivri, he may separate himself from other people. But his descendants are strangely drawn to the other side. They seem, even, to grow from the experience.
This process culminates in the Jonah story. God sends Jonah across the river, back to Abraham’s home country. Speak to those other people, God says. Engage them deeply, on a moral level. Teach them. But Jonah, one of the few biblical characters to refer to himself as an “Ivri,” was raised in an insular culture, which taught suspicion of the other. So he runs away, in the opposite direction. But you can’t spend your whole life running from the other. God forces Jonah, kicking and screaming, into a deep encounter with the people from the other side of the river.
Nowadays, in our global village, we can no more ignore “the other” than Jonah could flee from God. Nor should we want to. A powerful people, secure in our land and our ancient culture, we have nothing to fear from deep intellectual and even cultural engagements with the non-Jewish world. Abraham crossed the river, but Jacob crossed back over, and even built a life for himself before returning. Genuine, respectful encounters with the other help us grow, even as they solidify our own identities.
Lech Lecha – “You, go!” This is the first and last instruction God gives Abraham. Go to some indeterminate place – all God gives is the general direction, towards a land, or a particular mountain range – and I’ll tell you when you get there. You’ll know it when you see it.
Does the fact that these are the first and last words God speaks to Abraham – that the instructions to go, leave, move, frame Abraham’s spiritual life - teach us anything about God’s role in our lives? How could it not? Abraham is the first monotheist, the first human being to perceive that there is one God, that this God commands us, cares about what we do. Abraham’s first and last encounter with God urges him to shatter his status quo, to journey through the world in search of meaning, even if he’s not sure where the journey will lead.
Most people who believe in God describe three roles God plays in their lives. God is the thing they pray to when they want other things – understanding that sometimes God says no. Or, God is the one who Judges them when they sin. Or, God is the one who comforts them when they’re in pain. God as Provider, Judge, Comforter - these are all valid concepts, backed up by numerous Jewish texts. They are also – and I say this without judgment – childish beliefs; these are things children believe about adults. And while I understand there will be times when we think of ourselves as children, there will also be times when we must see ourselves as adults. In any case, interestingly, God plays none of these roles in Abraham’s life. Abraham never asks God for anything; God never judges Abraham, or comforts him.
For Abraham God is nothing but the force that pushes him to change his name, to shift place, to reevaluate his life. Rashi, as far as I know, the first to notice that the phrase lech lecha brackets Abraham’s life with God, suggests that God wants righteous people to wander. God makes Isaac, Jacob and Joseph wander; God made us all wander in the desert for forty years. I’d say it differently. God insists we actively seek meaning. When we feel a vague dissatisfaction telling us we’re not doing enough meaningful work – when we hear that still, small, voice urging us to more meaningful places – that’s God saying lech lecha. Rashi also notes that the second word, lecha, which means “you,” can also mean “to you.” “Go – to you,” God tells Abraham. The journey doesn’t have to be physical. You can wander internally. When we do, we’re hearing God’s voice, following God’s directions. Eventually, during the journey, God will show us the task that, at least for the moment, provides meaning. We’ll know it when we see it.
Who is Hagar, the surrogate mother whose story becomes so important to the Israelites, and later to my people, the Jewish people? She allows the barren Abraham and Sarah to raise a child, but a closer look at her life shows a striking parallel to our later Exodus experience. Like the Israelites (and like Joseph) her story begins as a slave in a wealthy household. There she’s oppressed beyond her ability to bear (the Hebrew word for oppression – oni – appears twice in her story and it’s the exact same word the Torah uses to describe the Israelite experience in Egypt). Then she runs away, and in a parallel story from next week’s reading, is expelled – mirroring our exact experience in Egypt; we escaped, but we were also, in the heat of the tenth plague, expelled. She flees to the wilderness where she encounters an angel of God – just as we encounter God, and God’s angel, on the road out of Egypt, in the Sinai desert. The revelation from God then directs her for the rest of her life – as the Torah, God’s gift in the wilderness, continues to direct us. To add resonance to the parallels, Hagar is an Egyptian; according to Rashi she’s Pharoah’s daughter. It’s like we’re reading the same Exodus story, only in reverse, with an Egyptian slave and Israelite oppressors.
But the deepest meaning comes from her name – Hagar. Without vowels (and remember there are no vowels in the Torah scroll, or in the original Torah text) her name could easily be Ha’ger – or “the stranger.” Ha’ger in the Torah becomes shorthand for the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the indigent, the alienated – the stranger in town. Leviticus and Deuteronomy demand several times that we not oppress ha’ger, that we love ha’ger because we were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt. Hagar is the first ger in the Torah, the paradigm. We could easily read the commandments to love and support the stranger as an imperative to love Hagar, to read her story with sensitivity and empathy. Certainly the Torah here calls us to help anyone in Hagar’s situation – a bondswoman, stuck with a cruel mistress – a single mother, penniless, lonely, an alien, a stranger in a strange land with nowhere to go.
It’s Hagar’s story, in fact, that provides one of the best insights into the great purpose of the Torah for Jews. The book is without question our national book. It contains the story of our tribe, our people, and it describes our unique destiny in the world. At the same time, it aims for a universal morality. We may think of ourselves as the wandering Jews, but the first real wandering stranger in the Torah was not a Jew, it was Hagar, ha’ger, an Egyptian. The story of strangers – of their oppression, and the way they must be treated, is not a tribal story, it’s a story for everyone, a story of universal ethical significance. Under the sway of the wicked Pharaoh, we were the strangers, victims of Egyptian oppression. But Hagar was also oppressed – abused, misused, exploited and later expelled, left to die without food or water. And her oppressor? Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews. Anyone at any time can be a stranger and anyone at any time can be an oppressor. I’ve known people who’ve filled both roles several times in their lives.
My father used to say every Passover (and now I say it) the key question to ask during the holiday for us Jews today in American is not “Are we still slaves?” Yes, we may be slaves to some things, to substances, to tyrannical bosses, to illness, to anti-Semitism – and the holiday encourages us to find paths to freedom. But we should also ask “Are we Pharaoh?” – which, from a socioeconomic point of view is more likely for most of us. Do we love the strangers around us? Do we still love Hagar, the Egyptian princess that Sarah oppressed and that Abraham expelled into the desert wilderness without sufficient food or water? This week, at least, we read her story.
Building a Community
The rabbis reflected in Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Sages -- that the world, and therefore community, stands on three things: Torah/study, Avodah/prayer, Gemilut Hasadim/right action. The creation of community enables each person to be rooted in these three elements while building something much greater than themselves.
We learn for the sake of learning, in order to grow on a deeper level. We reflect on where we are and where we might be going, in order to be connected to those around us. We seek justice and redemption, and understand that we have a sacred obligation to transform the world. Our coming together this shabbat is an opportunity to buil sacred community, by find avenues for passionate study, prayer that is heartfelt and transformative, and action that impacts us all.
Rabbi Yael Ridberg
"Why I am a Jew" What It Means To Be Jewish,
According To Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Want a quick dose of inspiration? Click here to see another amazing video by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks!