Author Archive | Hazon

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Parshat Emor: Making It All Count, By Rabbi Jon Kelsen

“Counting the Omer – like the shemitah cycle – invites us to believe that each day, week and year is count-worthy, valuable and unique.” One after the other, the days proceed. The slog continues on, with no progress or forward movement in sight. Familiar mistakes are made again. Regrettable habits deepen, and the hours between getting up and lying down start to look all alike. The only thing passing is time itself. This “Groundhog Day” experience of ennui is familiar now to so many. On those gray days and listless years, many of us find ourselves asking: Does this all add up to anything? Do my days, weeks, and years count?  The Torah indicates that, indeed, they do. Literally.  Parshat Emor consists of two major components: first, laws relevant to the priest (mourning, eating sacred foodstuff) and second, an elaborate discussion of the yearly festival cycle. This includes discussion of the Omer period, bridging Pesach and what we call Shavuot (the feast of weeks), in which we find ourselves today.  The Torah commands (Lev. 23:21) that, at the time of the wheat harvest, on the day following the “Shabbat” (i.e. the beginning of the Pesach holiday, according to rabbinic tradition), […]

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Parashat Kedoshim: How To Be Holy Now?, by Rabbi Atara Cohen

“Taking a step back to envision a holy, caring society – especially in light of the oppression perpetuated by this very parasha.” Parashat Kedoshim begins with what one might call a “greatest hits” compilation of mitzvot. Here God lists the ways in which we are to become holy: honor our parents, keep shabbat, treat our employees fairly, give away parts of our crops to those less fortunate than us, and many other obligations which often align with our modern values. Famously, we are commanded to love others as ourselves. Kedoshim offers a glimpse of what holiness might be: creating a society of caring for others.  However, amidst these beautiful mitzvot which offer structures of justice, we find prohibitions of certain sex acts. One of these prohibitions in particular has been appropriated to oppress LGBTQ+ people for millennia. Among verses which call for care, our parasha has verses which historically have caused physical, emotional, and spiritual harm — harm which continues to be perpetuated today. It is not clear how to reconcile these challenging prohibitions with the parasha’s call for loving others as ourselves. However, the parasha presents us with the mission to be holy. If holiness is aligned with care, […]

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Acharei Mot: You Can Be Too At Home by Abe Mezrich

“What you see as your own private grounds is actually a base from which to serve the world.” It makes sense that Aaron’s sons would bring a strange fire to God in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Aaron their father is the high priest. They are priests themselves. The building and inauguration of the Mishkan, and the sewing of the uniforms and the inauguration of the priests—they all come together. And at their inauguration, Aaron’s sons are to stay in the Mishkan—not stepping out once—for a whole week. Why not, then, see the Mishkan as their home? Why not see it as their own private grounds for their own private flame? After He strikes Aaron’s sons down, God offers a new set of laws. These laws take Aaron and his remaining family far afield from the Mishkan and the pristine sacrifice. Now the priests are to teach the people the difference between pure and impure, are to help the people navigate the animal kingdom, bodies of water, bodily fluids. The priests are to serve new mothers who come bearing offerings. The priests are to visit lepers’ homes. After commanding these laws, God teaches Aaron of Yom Kippur. On that day Aaron—and whichever […]

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Hakhel Newsletter: April 2022

Dear Hakhel Communities, We wish you all, your families, and your communities, a Chag Pesach Sameach! Passover is the holiday of freedom. We tend to think of ourselves as free people living in free societies, at least most of us. And yet, global events which are totally beyond our control have direct and intimate impact on our lives: the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Climate Change and more. How are we to maintain our own freedom, and the freedom of those around us, with so many constraints imposed on us?  Well, building strong and resilient communities is obviously one step in the right direction. This Passover, we invite all of us in the Hakhel network to think: In what ways can we utilize our communities to narrow uncertainty and broaden autonomous choice? We wanted to share with you a text written by Nir Geva, Machon Kehilot – Hakhel Europe, which relates to the story of immigration, refugees, and the journey in the story of the Exodus, and tells it through the challenges of today’s world and the hope for better days. And you shall tell your son and your daughter… That sometimes people Take the wandering stick in their […]

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Vincent Calabrese

Pesach Torah Reading: Between Particular and Universal, by Vincent Calabrese

“Though the Exodus tells the story of one nation’s birth, the legal and religious system to which it gives rise is open to outsiders.” On Passover our Torah reading is taken from one of the most dramatic moments of the Book of Exodus (12:21-51): the Israelites mark the doors of their homes with lamb’s blood to protect against the plague which strikes down the firstborn of Egypt. In wake of the terrible destruction wrought against the Egyptians, they march out of the chaos that has overtaken the land of their long bondage.  Jewish tradition distinguishes between the ‘Passover of Egypt’ — the unique observance detailed here — and the ‘Passover of the Generations,’ which is instituted as a way for the Israelites to commemorate the Exodus once they have entered the land of Canaan, the first laws of which conclude our Passover Torah reading. In this final section, we read that should a male sojourner wish to partake in the Passover sacrifice, he must first undergo circumcision — the first instance in our tradition of something resembling conversion to Judaism as we know it today. Though the Exodus tells the story of one nation’s birth, the legal and religious system […]

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Metzora: Illness And Recovery, Then And Now by Mira Potter-Schwartz and Rabbi Ariel Milan-Polisar

Just as the Torah provides an opportunity for recovery regardless of poverty level – different recovery pathways dependent on means – so too should our health system. Parshat Metzora marks the end of the instructions that detail what a person afflicted with tzaraat, “scaly disease”, has to do to become pure again.  The processes include various rituals that are laid out in very deliberate ways, with specific instructions for the order in which they should be performed. The text outlines special instructions for those who are poor. Commentators suggest that the word דל, dal, “poor,” could refer either to someone who is without means (as the text explicates) or someone who is severely ill. In a world where COVID is still a reality, and there are procedures for returning to normality after testing positive for COVID, the parallels are undeniable.  We know that our healthcare system favors those with greater resources. In a 2020 study done at the Center for Health Policy at the University of Virginia, doctors found that, “Lower education levels and greater percentages of black residents are strongly associated with higher rates of both COVID-19 cases and fatalities.” This study tells us that our current system doesn’t […]

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Tazria/Shabbat Ha’Chodesh: Release, Respect, Renew by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The parasha for this week is Parashat Tazria, but it also Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, the week of the new moon of Nisan, the month of Pesach. The haftarah is from Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18.  “By whatever gateway we enter the shmitah year, we must not go out again by the same gate. We must become a new people. Together with our respect for all the planetary life-forms, we must affirm a new respect for all people.” This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, the Sabbath of The Month, the renewing of the moon that Torah sees as the first “moonth” of the year. The rabbis who worked out the liturgical calendar wanted to choose a haftarah — a prophetic passage — to signal the coming of a week they called Pesach and Chag HaMatzot. They found a passage by the Prophet Ezekiel that celebrated not only the New Moon but also the Festival of its fullness – a week focused on food when we would make a shepherds’ Pesach  offering of a newborn lamb and eat Matzot, the farmers’ celebratory meal of just-sprouted, barley that we quickly baked into Unleavened Bread. A time of livelihoods renewed. Notice that Ezekiel was following the […]

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Judry Subar

Shemini: Energizing The Ultimate Source Of Energy, by Judry Subar

“When we focus on the purposes of Shmita  we facilitate the flow of spiritual power from earth to heaven and back again.” So many adjectives can be used to describe the act of eating: necessary, enjoyable, challenging, fraught, social, and on and on.  We might be inclined to add “earthly” to the list; inhabitants of this world eat for a variety of reasons.  Several references to eating in Parashat Shemini reinforce this perspective.  We read in Leviticus 10:12-14 about priestly eating, the physical consumption of holy food by the sons of Aaron.  And the end of the parasha identifies the sorts of meat we may eat.   But Shemini refers not only to human eating but also to divine consumption.  Verse 24 of chapter 9 tells us about the godly fire that consumed the sacrificial meat on the altar.  And the beginning of the following chapter provides another example of divine consumption, telling of the celestial fire that consumed two of Aaron’s sons because of some sort of excess fervor on their part in the way they approached service in the Tabernacle.  What does it mean for something in this world to be consumed by its creator?  If, as physicists would […]

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Hakhel Newsletter March 2022

Dear Hakhel Communities, I hope you and your community celebrated a very happy Purim! We are now in the lull between Purim and Pesach (always shorter than you think!), but that doesn’t mean there’s an end to the work to be done.  One thing that should be top of your to-do list is signing up for the Hakhel Israel Trip and Summit, taking place from May 9-15 in Israel. We may be fewer, due to the war in Europe, but we are strong as communities and as a network, and we are here to carve out the next phase of this work in person together even in hard times.  Please sign up and have your community members sign up. Registration ends on March 31. See below for more details. Our own efforts have been focused on supporting our communities in Ukraine at this terrible time – through sending Hakhel delegations and thousands of dollars of medical supplies and food. Read on below for more info about these efforts and how you can help. In this week’s parsha, Shemini, we see a lot of divine activity – a fire issues from G-d to consume offerings on the altar, G-d’s presence comes […]

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Parashat Tzav: Shmita As An Expression of Gratitude By Shoshana Michael Zucker

People who have the tools of production at their disposal should gratefully acknowledge their blessings, and invite others to partake of the bounty.  Of the many sacrifices mandated in Parashat Tzav, one stands out: the thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 7:12-15), which must be consumed before the next morning. To eat the whole lamb at one sitting, it is necessary to invite guests. As Rabbi Shai Held teaches: “A core aspect of gratitude is the desire to respond, the urge to repay or pay forward the kindness we have been shown. Gratitude is the bridge between the realization of how much I have been given, and the commitment to be a giver myself.” The Biblical and modern Hebrew word תודה, todah, which has a dual meaning of “acknowledge” and “thank,” embodies this idea. The word’s root,  י-ד-ה y-d-h, is derived from יד-yad hand and also means “to throw.” Just as the hand is a body part that can move away from the rest of the body, these words all signify acts that move outwards from the self. We express thanks by sharing. Moreover, in order to be grateful, we must first acknowledge that our achievements build on gifts we have received.  Some […]

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Daniel Silverstein

Vayikra, Zachor: Stepping Back, Drawing Close By Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein

“When we release our usual patterns and tools, we open a sacred space for contemplation, and for re-imagining ourselves and our world.” Our parsha of Vayikra (“And He called”) begins the third book of the Torah, to which it also gives its name. It contains many intricate laws of various kinds of sacrifices made in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), including Elevation Offerings, Meal Offerings, Peace Offerings, Sin Offerings and Guilt Offerings. The root of the word for sacrifice used here, Korban (קרבן), is קרב, k-r-b, meaning “close” or “near”; sacrifices were one of the ways through which our ancestors came closer to the Divine. The Zohar (III 5a) teaches that the word denotes “compassion” (rachamim). Our parsha is the first time that the Torah uses this particular word to describe a sacrifice, and this is not the only hint that the intended mood of the parsha is tender intimacy. Rashi, the great French medieval commentator, begins his commentary on our parsha by noting that the very first word, “Vayikra” (“And He called”) signifies affection. This first word, “Vayikra,” is describing the Infinite One calling to Moses. Rashi writes that each utterance from the Divine to Moses is preceded by an affectionate […]

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Josh Weiner

Pekudei: Combining Laws And Generosity by Josh Weiner

“Like the mishkan that was built of laws and gifts, the paradoxes of the shmita system allow kindness to re-enter our economic lives.” This week’s parasha concludes the construction of the Mishkan – the portable center of ritual life as the Israelites traveled through the desert. Several chapters dealt with God instructing Moses in how to build the Mishkan, followed by several chapters describing Moses telling the Israelites what to do. Now, in our parasha, they actually do it – everything is put together and completed. The Mishkan is constructed using two types of funds: taxes and donations. Everyone, rich and poor, was required to give half a silver shekel towards the running of the Mishkan. In addition, everyone was invited to give whatever materials and however much they wanted. This combination of law and generosity is a theme that comes up in the shmita year too. While shmita is primarily concerned with ecological and social concerns around letting the land rest, there is one aspect that applies throughout the Jewish world today: shmittat kesafim, the remittance of debts. The basic law is simple – at the end of the shmita year, all open debts are supposed to be canceled […]

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Vayakhel: Some Striking Shabbat And Shmita Parallels by Rabbi Jack Bieler

Just as the weekly Shabbat starkly reminds us who is the Creator and who is the Creature, shmita achieves a similar goal Parashat Vayakhel, although primarily devoted to the fabrication of the Tabernacle and its vessels, begins (Exodus 35:1-3) with a brief reprise of the commandment to observe the sabbath, already discussed in the Ten Commandments. While the sabbath applies to Jews wherever on earth they may find themselves, there is a “special” sabbath that pertains only to the land of Israel, “Shabbat Ha-aretz” (the sabbath of the land) or shmita.  We see how the term “sabbath” is used interchangeably between the seventh day of the week, and the seventh year of the Sabbatical cycle, in Parashat BeHar (Leviticus 25:2-6) and particularly in the rebuke of Leviticus (ibid. 26:34-5): Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. Although the “human” sabbath entails a […]

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Ki Tissa: Breaking God’s Tablets? Way To Go, Moses! by Rabbi Jessica Fisher

“Sometimes rupture is necessary and holy. Sometimes disruption is an essential spiritual practice.” In parashat Ki Tissa, we encounter one of the pivotal moments of tension in the Torah. After spending forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses descends, carrying the gift of God’s words on two tablets. As he gets closer to his reunion with the Israelites, he realizes they have constructed an idol and are gathered to worship this golden calf. In his anger, he throws down the tablets, destroying the tangible evidence of God’s relationship with this difficult nation. After some negotiating on their behalf by Moses, God calls Moses back up the mountain to repeat the process. At one point, discussing the first set, God refers to them as the tablets “which you broke, asher shibarta.” (Exodus 34:1) We may want to read these words as a critique of Moses, but Reish Lakish, a former rogue turned famous sage, interprets the comment differently. He says that the word “asher” alludes to the phrase “yasher koach she-shibarta,” meaning, “may your strength be true” or “kudos” (Shabbat 87a). In other words, Reish Lakish believes God is praising, not critiquing, Moses for smashing the tablets. It may seem […]

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Tetzaveh: Portable Holiness, Global Jewishness by Elyssa Hurwitz

“Holiness is inside of us, meaning we can embrace shmita, both inside and outside of the Land of Israel, inside and outside of the traditional ways of observing it.” As we continue forward through both the Book of Exodus and the 5782 Shmita year, I am struck by the intensity of the details found within larger Jewish understandings of time, space, and place. Parashat Tetzaveh starts with a heads-up that rituals are about to be presented that must be done forever and ever. The parashah then expounds upon the details of what the priests wore in the Mishkan, and the many sacrifices. How Aaron was to give Olah (burnt, whole) offerings, specifics of Tenufah (waving) offerings, particulars of Ḥataat (sin) offerings, and a whole description of how Aaron and the other priests were going to purify everything and everyone for seven days. The parasha concludes with a reminder that these rituals are holy to God and they must be continued l’dorotaechem (לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם), for their future generations. This set of instructions feels as technical as those of the shmitah year, Shabbat, and other cyclical practices that we have.The ta’aseh (do’s) and lo ta’aseh (don’t’s) are unpacked, they are multi-sensory experiences, and […]

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