Monday, March 26, 2012


Parshat Tzav
Vayikra 6:1 – 8:36
8 Nissan 5772 / March 30-31, 2012


Mid-Western Regional Director and Organizational Chaplain

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we continue to learn about the responsibilities given to the ancient priests, with particular focus on certain offerings, as well as what the priests were permitted to eat. We also find the formal inauguration of Aaron (Moses’s brother) and Aaron’s sons as the nation’s priests. In an elaborate ceremony, complete with anointing, sacrifices, and a 7-day party, the Israelites distinguished a separate priestly class to preside over their interactions with the Divine.

What would it be like to have a 7-day party as an entire nation today?

The closest event I can think of is Spring Break, which while indeed a huge party (for many), is far from something that the entire nation participates in.

Granted, there were likely fewer than 3 million total Israelites at the time, while in the United States, there are more than 300 million people.

Granted also, that the Israelites were wandering in the desert at the time, and didn’t exactly have to worry about working or losing their jobs the way many would today.

In the United States, what one might assume would be our greatest cause for annual celebration, Independence Day, is limited to a single date on the calendar. This year, it falls in the middle of the week on Wednesday, so there won’t even be a long built-in holiday weekend!

Given our clear shortage of celebratory time, let me propose a weeklong annual celebration, for Jews and anyone else looking for a good excuse to party as well: Passover.

Recognizing our liberation from slavery and the solidification of our identity as a nation by receiving the Torah, not to mention that the holiday falls during the spring when the weather is starting to improve, seems a perfect excuse for a weeklong party.

Amazingly, the holiday already lasts over a week in the U.S.! For 8 days every year, we have the privilege of celebrating our freedom (drinking a bit more wine than usual), recognizing our ability to help liberate those who are still enslaved around the world, and spending time with loved ones. Could there be a better party? The fact that the Exodus narrative is one that resonates with people from all backgrounds just makes the party even larger!

There is a tradition that 30 days before Passover begins (Purim!) you start studying the various Passover-specific requirements. We’re well into that window now, with Passover only a few weeks away.

This Shabbat, start planning your ultimate Passover party.

Who are you going to invite?

How long will you celebrate?

What are you going to do together both to celebrate your own freedom and help free those still enchained?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Counting Sheep

Parshat Vayikra
Vayikra 1:1 – 5:26
1 Nissan 5772 / March 23 –24, 2012

Counting Sheep
by Jordy Snyder, MH Montgomery County, MD

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…… seventy four sheep, or something like that.

In the past few months of dry winter air, I have had some difficulty falling asleep- and have often wondered if counting sheep would be an effective, and not to mention adorable and fuzzy, way to pass the time to eventually lull me into a well-deserved slumber.

By the third book of the Torah, we have heard all the stories, been drawn in and now is the time for

some serious text study, some real and deep thought about how these laws can relate to us now in

2012, whether our Moishe House is in Chicago, Kiev or Johannesburg. In this week’s parsha, Vayikra, the

first section of the third book of the Torah, we also count sheep, but the counting of these sheep, while

also spiritually calming, are really about repentance and cleansing.

Until reading and reflecting on this week’s parsha, when I heard the word “Vayikra”, what came to mind

is a whole book of laws full of detailed minutia, many of which seem no longer directly applicable with

the absence of the temple. As I began to read Vayikra, my speculation increased. The parsha specifies

which type of animals were to be used in sacrifices and how they should be prepared. I felt like I was

reading my roommate’s LSAT study guide:

If individual A did act X on B date and H (in this case Hashem) was the only witness, is individual A

required to pay:

a. 7 sheep, 3 she goats, and some oil

b. 2 turtledoves (apparently these animals really exist outside of the Christmas song), goat horns and

sheep blood

c. None, as there was no human witness and the exact location of the required sacrifice can only be

arrived at by some folding of the space time continuum

I don’t have any goats, sheep or cattle to give, and although we do have a bonfire pit at Moishe House

Montgomery County, I think the neighbors may not be the happiest if we used our back yard as grazing

land and subsequently a sacrificial alter. So, how then can we relate to this parsha and what can we

glean from it?

It took until chapter 5 of Vayikra for me to get it, and these are the laws I want to talk about, the laws

that connect bodily actions and the neshama, or the soul or spirit, which are most definitely still relevant

today. The parsha seems to talk about sins that bring personal guilt. Fortunately, you don’t have

to count very many sheep to fulfill this mitzvah. The sacrifice of only one [female] sheep (or goat should

you prefer goat) is required to repent for these types of sins. If one doesn’t have a goat or sheep, one

can also sacrifice two turtle doves, two young pigeons or even some flour. This flexibility in the offerings

says that many people of various incomes commit these sins and there needs to be a way for everyone

to repent and improve their neshama. I wonder what the modern day alternatives are- what is the direct action that will allow repentance?

I try to use the principles and ideologies that Judaism teaches to guide me how to act, interact and

react and just as we read the Torah again year after year to try and understand the laws and make

them comprehensible and relevant, we use them to try and improve ourselves, even though it can be a

difficult and frustrating undertaking it is be worth it. The mussar movement is all about taking mitzvot

and using them for self-improvement, focusing each week on certain themes. Chapter 5 of Vayikra

offers a theme of repenting for guilt related sins. For any of these sins, are there metaphorical sheep

that we must count? Is there a material substitute or an action in addition to prayer alone that can truly

demarcate repentance and a true desire to change and improve one’s self? Below, I will try and come up

with an action to repent for these sins, sans goats, sheep or turtledoves.

The first law of chapter 5 (Lev. 5: 1, 5:4) says that if you were a witness , but failed to testify, or uttered

an oath that you were unable to fill, that you are subject to punishment. I think this is really about using

words carefully so as not to damage relationships or to hurt others. This law is telling me to be mindful

of my words and be careful not to lie or to utter lashon hara (gossip). These are using the body to

diminish the neshama or yethzer ha tov (good spirit) - and allow the yetzer hara (evil spirit) to dominate.

Instead of doing these things, I should use my speech for good- to praise, to help and to teach. A good

exercise would be to count to ten before I say anything and check to see if the words I am about to say

will help, teach or praise or rather if they will be pointless or even hurtful.

The next law (Lev. 5: 2) discusses guilt associated with touching an unclean animal or remains of an

animal, for which you are subject to punishment. To me, this represents bringing something impure

from another body into your own and therefore also being driven by yetzer hara. I can relate to this

commandment through the way I treat my body and the things I eat and drink and the intention of the

acts themselves. A good exercise would be to plan my meals for the week and really listen to my body,

to try and give it what it needs and not to take in too much, or any other “impure” substance (sugar and

beer in this case) that will not benefit my body and therefore also my neshama in some way.

The final law I want to work on (Lev. 5:3) is if you touch an unclean person (or in an unclean manner-

however you interpret), then you are also unclean. With a fairly liberal interpretation of this law, I can

interpret it to mean that the body itself is sacred, as it houses the neshama and it should be treated as

such as well. An exercise for this is to evaluate the clothing I wear and the messages it sends- whether

it be folding my laundry sooner, being sure to dress more modestly as it gets warmer or dressing more

professionally and how this intention affects how I am projecting myself.

If our actions are impure, then so is our soul and therefore our connection to Hashem but if we fulfill

the sacrifice with all of its intended detail- even if it is in a modified way, this effort will show repentance

and the physical action will move the neshama in the correct direction.

These specifications found in Vayikra, Chapter 5, show the connection between body, spirit and actions.

The sacrifices give a framework to be self-reflective but to act to represent a feeling of guilt, to yourself

and to G-d in a spiritual way and hold us accountable for our actions and provide a legal system of

repercussions only to guide you to be the best person you can.

So I leave you this question to ponder- how will you count your sheep?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei
Shmot 38:21 – 40:38
23 Adar 5772 / March 16 – 17, 2012

A Blessing from Moshe to Moishe House
by Zvi Bellin, Moishe House Headquarters

“ And Moses saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it; as the LORD had commanded, even so had they done it. And Moses blessed them.” (39:43)

The tabernacle and all of its parts are constructed, yet not united. The clothing of the Priests are stitched in fine detail. The Children of Israel bring all the products of their handiwork before Moshe for approval. He inspects the holy tools carefully; he measures each post and eyes the thread pattern of each cloak and garment. Moshe sees that everything was indeed made in accordance with what G-d commanded. The people prove their personal connection to know what G-d wants from them. According to Rashi, he blesses the entire congregation with the following words:

“May it be willed that the Shechina [divine presence] will rest on the doing of your hands, and may the favor of the Lord our G-d rest on us. Establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.”

This blessing offers an important reminder for our work through Moishe House. Like our ancestors in the desert, we set the stage for some major Jewish experiences for our peers. We take care in preparing the food, and keeping the house ready for events. We are mindful about our relationships with our housemates who are in part co-workers and part friends. We do a lot to create the space and get all the details ready.

After that, we have to let go. Will people show up? Will new people come? Will our peers appreciate the scene we have created? Will our programs necessarily translate into a richer Jewish life for all involved? We don’t know, and neither did Moshe when the Israelites brought him all the ritual items. Will these physical items actually draw G-d closer to us?

Moshe’s blessing fills the gap between planning with our best effort and the actual outcome of our work. We can choose to be overcome by worry about an event, or we can bring an intention and hope that things will work out as needed. So I want to bless all of us:

*May it be willed that the Divine Presence will rest on the doing of our hands, and may Divine favor rest upon us. Establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands!*

Monday, March 5, 2012

Evaluating our Path

*Parshat Ki Tisa*
Shmot 30:11 – 34:35
16 Adar 5772 / March 9 – 10, 2012

Evaluating our Path
by Joel Stanley, MH International House Director

Ki Tisa is one of my favourite sections of the Torah, mainly because it’s so rich in theology, in how human beings encounter God and the divine. There are two episodes in particular that I suspect are linked, examples of that human-divine encounter gone wrong and then right.

Just to give a little refresher of where we are in the story – the Israelites are at the foot of Mount Sinai. Having left Egypt and travelled into the desert, their leader Moses has ascended the mountain to receive the word of God.

When Moses has been at the top of the mountain for longer than expected, the Children of Israel start to panic, fearing he will not return. It is at this point that they build the Golden Calf to worship. Without their regular leader they feel deprived of a connection to God and their faith starts to dissolve. They feel they need something tangible, something clear they can touch, in order to create the connection they crave.

The Golden Calf is, of course, not only an idol – it’s Judaism’s mythical archetype of idolatry and false worship. The Israelites think the Calf is what they need, but they’re only worshiping what looks and feels nice. They think it’s right for their community, but actually it’s holding them back.

This is humanity’s attempt to encounter the divine – gone wrong.

Now in contrast… After Moses has smashed the tablets in anger and returned back up the mountain, he asks to know God. He is told that no one can see God’s face directly and live. Instead Moses is put in a cleft in the rock and allowed to ‘see’ God as God passes. God then ‘passes God’s glory’ before Moses and a new name of God is proclaimed, the ‘Thirteen Attributes’ we chant on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

“YHVH! YHVH! A god merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth; extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”

I think there’s an important lesson here for us as leaders of our Moishe House communities. Moses receives a true vision of God because he remains open to mystery and puts his ego aside. He doesn’t just worship the shiny and fancy. In the case of the Golden Calf, the Israelites’ motivation is good but they project their personal needs and conditioned assumptions onto their act of communal creation.

Is our community-making driven by ego or service? How do we know if the ingredients we are putting into our communities are the right ones? I believe the proof is in the results, those attributes we repeat on the High Holy Days. Moses gets to see the true nature of the divine. If we go about creating community in the right way, we should know we’re doing a good job because we’ll see the same things: mercy and compassion, kindness and truth.