Sunday, August 22, 2004

Tzav 5762

(From a dvar Torah I gave at my older daughter's Bat Mitzvah on March 16, 2002)

The Torah portion that Ariella will read today comes from the third book of the Bible. In Hebrew, this book is known as Vayikra and in English as Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses, and each Torah portion within them, are named in Hebrew for the first significant word in the portion.

The English names are more like titles that capture the theme of the entire Book. So Genesis, for example, is about the beginning, the genesis, of humans and of Judaism. The theme of the Book of Exodus is the Exodus, what we call in Hebrew, Yetziat Mitzrayim – the exiting from Egypt. Leviticus is, in large part, about the role of the Levi’im, the Levites, the Priestly Class.

Although many people pray at home, the place of worship most familiar to Jews today is the synagogue. This was not always the case. After G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he instructed Moshe to build a Mishkan – a portable sanctuary in the desert where sacrifices could be offered and G-d’s Presence could dwell among the Jewish people. The Jewish people carried the Mishkan around through most of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, assembling and disassembling it with each new encampment.

After the Jewish people settled in the land of Israel, the Mishkan was replaced with a more permanent structure that we call the Beit haMikdash or the Holy Temple. In both cases, all Jewish worship was centered in the Mishkan and later in the Beit HaMikdash. There were no synagogues then, as we know them now.

At the time of Ariella’s Torah reading, Jewish worship was centralized and focused on various kinds of sacrifices that were brought, on behalf of the Jewish people, by members of the Priestly class who were known as Levi’im and Kohanim.

As is the custom for the Shabbos mincha service, Ariella will read the first aliyah, the first eleven verses, of next week’s Torah portion. In a literary sense, this is a foreshadowing of things to come. In a culinary sense, this is an appetizer. In a spiritual sense, we connect one Shabbos to the next. This reminds us that, although we divide the Torah into sections for our convenience, it is really one seamless whole. Which is a reflection of the Oneness of G-d.

The portion Ariella will read is Tzav, which is a verb meaning Command. Hashem’s first words to Moshe in this parsha are, “Command Aaron and his sons…” Tzav – command, is related to mitzvah, which are commandments.

In the Mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMikdash, there was a complex system of offerings, each serving a different purpose. In the portion Ariella will read, Hashem is explaining to Moshe additional laws of the olah, the elevation-offering and of the minchah, the meal-offering. The olah was the only offering that had to be presented every day without exception. The minchah was an offering of flour and oil.

The Torah imparts to us a great deal of information about the system of offerings. For many people, the complex and specific details of each of the kinds of offerings, how they are given, when they are given, what the Kohain is supposed to wear when they are offered, and on and on… this is not exactly the most intrinsically interesting part of the Torah.

However, for the diligent student of Torah, many beautiful Jewish principles are learned from the minutest details of the sacrificial system. For example, as Ariella will shortly read for us, the very first task of each morning was the removal of the ashes that remained on the altar from the previous day’s sacrifice. This is a reminder that each new day brings new challenges. The one who is complacent, resting on past accomplishments, cannot make progress. Success comes to the one who understands that each day is a fresh opportunity. The removal of the previous day’s ashes reminds us to remove yesterday’s schmutz from our lives – to go forward without being hampered by the waste of the past. Even if we didn’t do anything to grow yesterday, or last week or last year or in the last decade, the daily removal of the ashes reminds us that each day is a new opportunity to grow – spiritually, intellectually or in refinement of character. Each day is a new chance.

In her leading of this prayer service, and in her Torah reading, Ariella is demonstrating that she has learned this lesson. Her preparation for her Bat Mitzvah, and her readiness to take on the responsibilities of an adult Jewish woman, represent significant Jewish growth. Ariella has been preparing for this day for many months. To learn to read from the Torah is no easy task. The Sefer Torah from which she will read, like all Sifrei Torah, has no vowels, no musical notes, no guidelines to assist her in the correct reading. Over the past months, Ariella has been diligently and patiently taught this section of the Torah in all its detail, by her loving Abba. I have been in awe, both of Ariella’s ability to master such a complex skill, and of Elan’s infinite patience and good cheer in encouraging her in this complex task.

Whether this is your first time or your hundredth time hearing the Torah read in a young woman’s voice, I invite you to listen to the voice of the future. And may Hashem grant us all the ability to grow closer to His
Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Magic of Shabbos

(Written in May, 2001)

A few weeks ago, I had a particularly fabulous Shabbos. I was in my mid-20s before I first learned about Shabbos. More than 15 years later, I experienced a Shabbos that was, without question, scented with the aroma of the World-to-Come.

I didn’t grow up with Shabbos, or with much Jewishness at all, for that matter. No Hebrew school. No Sara and Abraham. No Shema. No sukkah. No Israel (though I was born after 1948). And most assuredly, no Shabbos.

My early Jewish memories are rather limited. My brother’s bris when I was four. My mother, with a square of paper towel on her head, turning orange Chanukah bulbs in a plastic menorah and reciting in English, “Bless-ed art Thou, O! Lord our G-d, King of the Universe who has sanctified us by Thy commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah.” The perpetual problem of which grandmothers’ gefilte fish tasted better. The Bas Mitzvah of a junior high school classmate, which I attended, but didn’t understand. Yiddish, spoken to prevent me from knowing. No bologna with milk but also no explanation as to why not. Scant snippets of Jewish moments. Not even whole memories.

Ah! But this special Shabbos was saturated with memory-making moments. Friday night, our table brimmed with friends, old and new. Before dinner, our 11 year-old led us in a game of Jewish bingo she created that afternoon. Her cleverness warmed me. None of the special dishes I cooked for dinner flopped. And then, loudly singing our communal bentching, our raucous Grace After Meals, filled with our family’s idiosyncratic quirkiness that grows more complex each year.

Shabbos morning, I walked to shul for the first time in months, after a winter of being confined by knee pain. Cherished friends, members of another congregation, joined us to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the husband’s bar mitzvah. Before our friend chanted his Haftorah, just as he had at age 13, his wife spoke powerfully, highlighting a theme of the Haftorah and relating it to her husband’s admirable character. The pleasure of having impressive friends.

Another family, mutual friends of very long-standing, whose loyalty was proven in my darker days, also came to our shul. Our children all know each other, some literally from birth. At the kiddush, we ate sweet pineapple and strawberry shortcake.

Walking home from shul, all 13 of us, I had an urge to commit absolutely every detail of this glorious day to memory. The complete peacefulness of Shabbos. No cars to drive. No phones to answer. No bills to pay. No PDA to hotsynch. The warm, soft weather of early spring. Early blossoming trees in full bloom. Young, healthy children, laughing together and running ahead.

A long Shabbos afternoon spent joyfully, surrounded by well-married friends with whom we share our worries and our inside jokes. All the brachas that Hashem perpetually presents to me, sweetly tied together in one glorious 25-hour Shabbos.

Someday, looking back on it will make me weep.

Why We're Going to Israel Now

(From a talk I gave in June, 2002 when everyone thought we were crazy to go to Israel)

This week’s parsha, Parshat Pinchas, tells the story of the Daughters of Tzelefchod – five women from the generation that wandered in the desert – who had a profound love for the Land of Israel. Their father Tzelefchod died in the desert without sons. The story of the Daughters of Tzelefchod takes place when the time came to distribute parcels in the Land of Israel to each family. The women in this story so loved the Land of Israel that they insisted they be given a portion of the Land as their inheritance, despite the fact that there were no men in their family. They said:
"Our father has died in the desert.. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be removed (literally, be lessened) from the midst of his family because he has no sons". Give us (women) a possession together with the brothers of our father." (Numbers 27:3,4).

It’s far from coincidental that this story appears in this week’s parsha, as we prepare for our departure to Israel. After all, is there a page of T’Nach, of our Bible, that doesn’t mention the Land and its significance?

When I was a very young girl, my father, alav hashalom, once remarked, “If the United States was ever at war with Israel, I would go and fight for Israel.” It’s peculiar that I should remember that. It was offered without explanation, and I was too young at the time to understand its significance. In fact, this was the solitary comment about Israel that I recall ever hearing expressed in my childhood home.

I was not exactly raised with an abiding love for the Land of Milk and Honey. Or with any significant knowledge of Judaism for that matter. The place in me where a Jew ought to have existed was null and void. But I was driven by the desire to fill my empty space. And, with siyata d’shamaya, with help from Above, I eventually came to understand the significance of being a Jew so that I could live as one.

When I first started meeting Jewish people who had robust amounts of Jewish consciousness, I heard over and over again about the love of Jews for the Land of Israel. How much they looked forward to their next visit! How hard it had been to leave! How homesick they were, for the land that was not their home.

I heard it.

But I didn’t get it.

After the Rabbi and I were married, we went to Israel for my first visit. Although many Jews who visit Israel rush to the Kotel, the Western Wall, as soon as possible, I spent several days trying to avoid going there. I had heard so many dramatic stories of Jews encountering the Kotel. But I was apprehensive and afraid I wouldn’t feel anything.

Here’s what actually happened. At first, I was stunned by the assault of women charity collectors at the Kotel. Nobody had warned me, and I wasn’t prepared. So before I could even get to the Kotel, I had to wade through a phalanx of women calling to me, reaching their hands out at me, demanding of me. The barrage disturbed me, but I was even more bothered by my unpreparedness to give charity properly.

As I walked closer to the Wall, there was no open spot, but I noticed a little side room up a few steps, and I made my way in there. Seated at the entrance was a woman, engrossed in her recitation of Tehillim, but aware enough of her surroundings to shake a charity can each time someone walked in.

More than really praying, I spent my time holding a book of Tehillim distractedly. I reminded myself over and over where I was. My body was actually at the Kotel. I was standing at the remnant of the Holy Temple. I was an American Jew and I was standing before the Kotel itself. I experienced a surreal sense of wonder.

By the time I met my husband on the plaza, I was crying. I couldn’t stop crying for nearly an hour. I had heard the Kotel referred to as the Wailing Wall. I always thought that was because people stood before it and wailed from distress. Now I knew another meaning. Because the Kotel, working its magic in my Jewish soul, had just brought me to tears.

Just tears.

No words.

Just a recognition of the raw spiritual capacity that is accessible only in Israel.

On a later trip, we had the great privilege of getting to Hevron, to the Ma’arit HaMachpelah, to the Cave of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. To enter the building that has been erected on top of the cave, we had to pass through Israeli security, even back in 1998. We entered through metal detectors, from bright sunlight to semi-darkness, until our eyes adjusted to the natural light streaming in from tiny windows.

At one of the windows was a man. A rag of a man. A penitent. In shredded clothing. Bending and straightening. Bending and straightening. Shukling. Rapidly. And crying out, from an unimaginable depth within. Heart-rending. I understood nothing of what he said. Some might have mistaken him for a madman. I, who was standing in the holiest Land on Earth, in one of her four holiest cities, in one of the holiest places in one of the holiest cities, I chose to see sanctity. Again, I saw the raw spiritual capacity that is accessible only in Israel.

Even given these powerful experiences, I happily returned to Baltimore from each of our trips to Israel. Nice place to visit… but Baltimore is our home. So much so that last summer, we toured all the local Jewish cemeteries, looking for the place we most wanted to be buried. You see, we expected to die in Baltimore, because we saw Baltimore as our home.

As recently as last summer, I was what you might call a theoretical Zionist. I loved and supported Israel, but only in a distant, impersonal sense. From my home in Baltimore.

Three things happened since last summer that changed my relationship to the Land of Israel and that impacted our decision to travel there to look for an apartment in which to invest. The first was September 11th. The second was going to work for the University of Haifa, and the third was something I heard at a lecture last year.

On September 11th, something dramatic shifted in my worldview. On that day, I began to see my life in the context of Jewish history.

There is a lengthy litany of the years and the lands from which Jews have been expelled over the course of Jewish history. After the crusades, expulsions of entire Jewish communities became commonplace. In 1290, all the Jews were expelled from England. In 1306, Jews were expelled from France. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Dozens of sporadic expulsions of entire Jewish communities in Europe continued into the 19th century.

I was born in America, after the Holocaust. On September 11th, my lifelong presumption of safety in America was immediately and irrevocably shattered. I abruptly came to see the United States, where my parents, and the two generations that followed them, were born and have been living, for what it really is.

A host country.

Don’t believe me? A few historical facts may help you see things more clearly. The first Jews came to America in 1654, but Jewish men couldn’t vote in Maryland until 172 years later. In 1692, the Church of England was the official religion in Maryland. And until less than 150 years ago, public office could only be held by those able to take the oath “upon the true faith of a Christian”.

As great as America has been to Jews, and it has been, it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a Christian country. Two months of every year, we are overwhelmed with preparations for Christmas. A friend of ours who made aliyah last year said that in Israel, the holiday soda bottles say Chag Sameach, not Merry Christmas. Here, Christmas and Easter are Federal holidays. In America, Christians get their holidays off automatically. Who among us, with the possible exception of those who work in Jewish institutions, hasn’t had to deal with the necessity of negotiating time off to celebrate our Jewish holidays?

Make no mistake. America, for all its love for religious tolerance, is hosting the Jews who live in her borders. This country is not ours.
And it never will be.

Right now, Jews live in relative safety and security in America. But for how long will that be the case? As great as this country is, don’t allow yourself to get so comfortable that you can’t imagine America vomiting out its Jews. Remember the lesson of history. It’s happened in every other country where Jews have ever lived. Our sense of security in America is deceptive. It’s a mistake to rely on it.

Addressing the Jewish Agency last Sunday, June 23, Prime Minister Sharon said, “Whatever happens here [in Israel] will influence the fate of the Jews all around the world. If Israel, Heaven forbid, becomes weakened, don't expect even for a minute that you will be able to live the lives that you are living now. It will disappear in the blink of an eye. Your responsibility is therefore no less than ours… Because it is now not only our fate, but also your fate that hangs in the balance."

It’s a mistake to walk around believing that what’s happening in Israel doesn’t threaten us as American Jews. The more precarious things become in Israel, the more precarious our security as American Jews will become. It’s scary to think about it. But it’s even scarier to be oblivious.

After September 11th, I asked myself, “What does this event mean to me?” “Is this a foreshadowing?” “Is this horrific event supposed to wake me from a coma of apathy? ”

I have surely been awakened from my coma and my eyes are wide open.

A second event that turned my heart toward Israel was accepting a position with an Israeli university. I used to be the most apolitical, unaware person imaginable. I’m not kidding. My strategy for keeping up with current events was that if it was big enough news, someone would tell me about it.

That all changed when I went to work for the University of Haifa. As a function of my job responsibilities, I now must know what’s going on in Israel. In fact, responding to parents about terrorist events in Israel is part of my job. So it’s not just news anymore. It’s my job. Events in Israel, and world events that impact on Israel, hold my attention now in a way they never did before. I’ve gone from being fundamentally oblivious to being relatively well informed about current events in Israel.

All this thinking about Israel and praying for her transformed something inside me. I don’t believe in a political solution. I believe that only a Divine solution will bring lasting peace. And so now I wait for Moshiach, for our Messiah, with ever-increasing eagerness.

And in the meantime? I was just there in November, but I knew I just HAD TO get to Israel again soon. I could feel it in me, like a gnawing.

I don’t mean to suggest that deciding to go was a no-brainer. We postponed and revised our plans several times. But neither was it the toughest decision a Jew ever had to make. In the years preceding the Holocaust, Jews made gut-wrenchingly painful decisions. Some saw what was coming. Others insisted that it wasn’t that bad or that it would certainly get better. Some got out, or got their children out, in time. And some didn’t. So many Jews in that generation, so many Jews in history, have been called upon to make tough decisions. The most I’ve ever been called upon to sacrifice, as a Jew, was baby shrimp with cashews in hoisin-flavored sauce. In comparison to deciding whether to send my children on Kindertransport and risk never seeing them again, making the decision to go to Israel was a piece of cake.

Are we scared to go? Well, yes… and no. Yes, because Jews are getting blown up in Israel on a regular basis. And no, because we have emunah, we have faith. We know that Hashem’s protection is portable. We pray for emunah strong enough to travel in spite of our fear, and, if necessary, G-d forbid, to live with the harm that could come.

And we believe that going to Israel right now, even for a relatively short trip, is something every American Jewish family should be considering. In a message encouraging American Jews to support Israel, Sandra Sokol, the President of AMIT, remembers and paraphrases Mordechai’s words to Esther in Megillat Esther : Do not imagine that you will escape in your affluence from among all the Jews; because if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for Israel elsewhere and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows, if it was not for a time like this that you were so elevated.

Maybe we can’t all live there yet. But we surely can look for ways to support Israel from here. An important purpose of our upcoming trip is to find an apartment to buy. We plan to invest in Israeli real estate as a way of supporting the Israeli economy. And in this way, we hope that we, and our friends and family, will be strengthened to visit Israel more frequently.

When visiting Baltimore last summer, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel said, “If Israel is your Disneyland, then only come when the sun is shining. But if Israel is your Motherland, then come now because your mother needs you.”

We Jews have had a good run in America. But our motherland is threatened. It’s time to put our bodies where our hearts and souls are.

And that’s why we’re going.

Shabbat Shalom.

Why I Love Jewish Books

I love Jewish books the way some women love shoes.

When I was in the ninth grade, I told my English teacher that I was generally in the midst of reading five or six books at any given time. Rather than applauding my insatiable appetite for books, she told me that my claim was ludicrous because nobody could keep the details of that many books straight.

I kept doing it anyway.

Books have always called to me in some inexplicable and inescapable way. My earliest book memories are of my mother and grandfather trading library books back and forth. Each visit to my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx saw my mother schlepping a navy blue vinyl bag filled with titles like, “The Hospital,” or “Nurse Amy and Dr. White.”

Okay, so my mother and I don’t share the same taste in books. But a love of reading. That I got from her.

My first instinct, when my curiosity gets tickled about any new topic, is to find a book about it. So when I got interested in Judaism some 20 years ago, I turned to books.

I recall stepping into an old Jewish bookstore in New York and being utterly overwhelmed. Nothing was familiar. I had no ability to focus on a particular book because I lacked the capacity to distinguish among all the books in the shop. I was embarrassed, initially, that I was a Jew in a Jewish bookstore and I had no idea how to begin.

I got over that feeling of paralysis and went to Pratt library to check out my first Jewish books. I remember, 'What is a Jew?' by Morris Kertzer principally because my housemates teased me by asking, 'Nu, vat iz a Jew?' The other book was, 'The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism' by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. Thus began my insatiable fascination with Jewish books.

Eventually, I began to buy Jewish books. Now, I can't seem to stop buying Jewish books. It's a delight, an exhilaration, an absorption and an obsession all at once. And it's really not helpful that I married a rabbi who also has the syndrome. Together, we own thousands of Jewish books. And we buy new ones all the time.

I take comfort in the fact that we're not alone. Perhaps because people who love Jewish books are naturally drawn to each other, I know lots of other Jewish book junkies, and I asked some of them why they love Jewish books.

Some spoke of Jewish books as a statement of Jewish identity. Social worker Rhoda Posner Pruce says: 'I like to have them in my house where they are visible because it helps my home reflect my Jewish identity.'
Elie Wiesel said: 'I do not recall a Jewish home without a book on the table.'

Some love Jewish books precisely because they cover familiar ground. Joyce Levitas, of PBCS Marketing, says, 'I love to read Jewish fiction because I can relate to the characters' experiences and feelings.' Amy Gross, senior planner at the Associated, finds that 'the struggles that people have with their Judaism validate my own.'

Others prefer to read Jewish books that introduce them to unfamiliar Jewish lives. 'The Jewish books I savor are the ones that help me question stereotypes, and enrich my perspective about the diversity of Jewish life,' says Susan Kurlander of Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League.

The most important reason people gave for loving Jewish books was, of course, learning from them. 'I love Jewish books because they contain the wisdom and the memory of the Jewish people,' says Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov of She'arim in Jerusalem. Rabbi Morris Kosman of Beth Shalom in Frederick says, 'I love books. I want to learn from books. I know that I have to go to the basic texts so that I experience directly from the fires that warm all Jewish literature and Jewish experience.'

Ultimately, for me, being a Jewish book junkie is inexplicable. In the end, I love Jewish books because I'm a Jew and Jewish books both capture and reflect who I am in the world.

Maybe I should write a book about it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Shoftim 5764

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe reviews a series of laws governing the eventual appointment of a Jewish king. Moshe is aware that the Jewish people will want a king to rule over them, just as all the other nations have.

Although appointing a Jewish king is eventually permitted, there are special conditions that apply to Jewish kings. Jewish kings must be chosen by G-d. They must be from among the Jewish people and not foreigners. Jewish kings are forbidden from having too many horses and they also may not amass too much silver and gold for themselves.

Of particular interest is the ruling that any future Jewish king “must [also] not have too many wives, so that they not make his heart go astray.” How many is too many? According to the Talmud, an Israelite king was forbidden from having more than eighteen wives.

Polygamy was an accepted part of early Judaism. Avraham had both Sarah and Hagar as wives. Yaacov (Jacob) had four wives – the famous sisters Rachel and Leah and also two other, lesser-known wives – Bilhah and Zilpah. However, while polygamy was an accepted part of Biblical and early Jewish society, it is clear that is was never considered an ideal. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that, if God had wished to communicate polygamy as an ideal, He would have created "Adam, Eve and Joan."

Although polygamy exists in the Bible, in every case, it leads to anguish. For example, when Hagar becomes pregnant before Sarah, there developed great animosity between Avraham’s wives. The Torah quotes Sarah saying about Hagar, “Now that she sees herself pregnant, she looks at me with disrespect.” About Hagar, the Torah says, “When she realized that she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress (i.e. Sarah) with contempt.”

Leah feels unloved and unhappy in her husband’s home (“God saw that Leah was unloved.”) and her sons come to hate Yosaif (Joseph) who is the son of the beloved Rachel (“Because of his dreams and words, they hated him even more.”).

Polygamy was an atavistic practice, left over from a less sophisticated time. The Torah did not immediately forbid it, but it is clear, as Judaism developed, especially as the prophets encouraged the people toward higher levels of moral and ethical behavior, that the incidence of polygamy decreased. Even when polygamy was permitted, monogamy was always considered the ideal form of partnership between a man and a woman.

Additional evidence that monogamy has always been preferred in Judaism is in the text of Aishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”). In these verses, customarily sung on Friday night, the woman of valor is clearly the only wife in the home. The prophets also compare the love between a husband and a wife to the love between G-d and the Jewish people. The implication is that, just as the Jewish people have no other G-d, the husband should have no other wife.

Although polygamy was legal in Jewish society for a long time, it was still quite rare, especially in the post-Biblical period. As evidence, over the hundreds of years that the Talmud was written, none of the rabbis of the Talmud had more than one wife.

Eventually, in the 10th century CE, the great Sage Rabbenu Gershom issued a rabbinic degree banning polygamy. Interestingly, polygamy has been illegal in Israel since the founding of the modern State in 1948.

Besides noting the unhappy outcomes in all Biblical stories of polygamy, Rabbenu Gershom also taught that polygamy constituted a chilul Hashem. A chilul Hashem is a behavior that makes Jews look bad in the eyes of others, especially among non-Jews. The concept of a chilul Hashem applies even today when the actions of one Jewish person reflect poorly on the community as a whole.

The opposite idea also exists. A Jewish person who behaves honorably is considered to have created a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name in the larger world.

Thus, in a time when ordinary men could marry multiple wives, the ruling that a Jewish king must limit the number of his wives was revolutionary. Restricting the king to eighteen wives can be seen as part of the same progressive thinking that led to Rabbenu Gershom’s degree, which effectively ended polygamy in nearly every Jewish community even until today.

So You Want To Be A Rabbi?

Although I can summon up a beguiling persona in a heartbeat, I know I’ll never be a blues singer. If I had been born with the voice of Nell Carter, this might have been cause for genuine lament. As it is, I gratify myself vicariously through the torch songs of others, and, occasionally … ahem, well…

Some things are better off remaining private.

I also know I’ll never be a rabbi. Sadly, abandoning this aspiration has proven far more daunting. I’ve spent years on this one. There are ample reasons why I should be a rabbi. And only one real reason why I’m not.

Reasons why I’d have become a fine and able rabbi-teacher: I cherish my Jewish life. I came to a fuller observance of Judaism as an adult and my convoluted Jewish journey has inspired others. Studying new ideas and learning new things sustains me, and I’m compelled to share what I know the very moment after I’ve discovered it. I delight in connecting people to resources from which they might benefit. I’m devoted to teaching. I live in conscious awe of the personal and spiritual growth of others. I actually enjoy public speaking.

But I’m not a rabbi, because I am an Orthodox woman.

I chose to be an Orthodox Jew in my late 20s. Late, but not too late… if I had been born a man. There are places men can go to catch up. There are yeshivas that sustain newly religious men who are still learning the Hebrew alphabet all the way through to rabbinic ordination.

There is no such place for Orthodox women.

Things are changing, but not for women my age. Not for women who have families and responsibilities that bind them to other places. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Orthodox women who know as much as, or in some cases, far more than many rabbis. There are no Orthodox women rabbis. Yet. There will be. But I won’t be among them. I got on the train too late.

Being, or in my case, not being, a rabbi is one of my life’s themes – a minor note that occasionally swells to major importance. So what do I do with an itch I cannot quell? I marry a rabbi, thus living out the title of a forthcoming book by Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz - They Married What They Wanted to Be: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life.

I marry a rabbi. And then I let it all roil around in me for a good, long time -

The voice of anguish – I am like the barren woman whose longing for a child scorches the heavens. I am like the nursing mother, bearing the torture of full breasts when there is no infant to suckle. I am the searing pain of wanting to give. And believing that there is no one to receive.

The voice of history – I’m in good company. When have there not been women who knew they could do a job and were prevented from doing so by virtue of gender?

The voice of desperation – I’ll study for non-Orthodox ordination. I’ll swallow every theological conflict just to get through it. Once I have the title, I’ll go back to being my authentic self.

The voice of cynicism and fear - Jews expect too much from rabbis. Rabbis get eaten alive by their congregants; they work too much; they sacrifice their own family life in service to others. Rabbis have no privacy and no one ever cuts them any slack. Finding fault with the rabbi is a Jewish Olympic sport – and every Jew is a gold medallist.

The voice of humility - I’m not good enough to be a rabbi. I’m too flawed. Such chutzpah to imagine myself qualified to represent G-d in this world.

The voice of feminism – WHO AM I KIDDING? If I only had a different chromosome pattern, my ambition would be applauded and my journey blessed.

The voice of grief – Intense desire for what I cannot have makes me weep.

The voice of faith – The time is not yet right for women to be Orthodox rabbis. Just as G-d revealed the Promised Land to Moshe from the top of Mt. Nevo, G-d sent me a husband, who is also a rabbi. I can’t be a rabbi, but I can make a life with one. This is as close as I can get. I have been given partial access to the rabbinic world, with all its glorious imperfections. With mercy and compassion from Above, I have been granted an extraordinary view.

In his commentary on Parshat Hayyei Sarah (5763), Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests to me, finally, that, in being a rabbi’s wife, I am potentially more crucial to my husband’s rabbinic accomplishments than I ever dared imagine.

“…[D]uring his more than three decades of post Sarah existence, there is not a single Biblical record of Abraham having any special communication from G-d as or of his achieving any act of significance on behalf of his family-nations - aside from his sending Eliezer to search out a fitting wife for Isaac. Apparently Abraham was the Rav in no small measure because Sarah was the Rebbetzin…”

The voice of resignation – I’ll never be a rabbi. That will always be my particular heartbreak.

Finally, the voice of acceptance - With hyper vigilance, I have fixated on my loss, overlooking that which remains yet in my hands. There is still so much that I can do. I can teach. I can write. I can speak. I have a voice and I have opportunities. This is my consolation.

This, I can do.

Pinchas 5764

Parshat Pinchas presents the story of five remarkable sisters, the Bnos Tzelefchod, the daughters of Tzelefchod. Praises for the Bnos Tzelefchod in rabbinic literature are arresting. They are described as chachmaniyot (wise women), darshaniot (Biblical explicators) and tzidkaniot (righteous women). They are credited with extraordinary appreciation of the spiritual qualities of the Land of Israel.

The Bible often credits women with having a superior ability to remain faithful in cases where men have lost their faith. A famous example of this is during the Sin of the Golden Calf. It was men, and not women, who participated in the Sin of constructing a Golden Calf to worship. In fact, women were so reluctant to give their gold jewelry to be melted down to make the Golden Calf, the Rabbis teach that husbands literally tore earrings off of their wives’ ears, in their misguided zealousness. The reward for the women's refusal was Rosh Chodesh, a minor holiday that occurs at the beginning of every Hebrew month. Rosh Chodesh is a special holiday for Jewish women, leading to a proliferation of women's Rosh Chodesh groups and other means of celebrating Rosh Chodesh, as women reclaim the Jewish expressions that are uniquely ours.

In introducing the Bnos Tzelefchod, the Torah traces their lineage back to Yosef, to Joseph. This is to demonstrate that, just as Yosef loved the Land so much that he had his brothers take an oath that they would carry his bones out of Egypt when they left for Israel, that's how much the daughters of Tzelefchod loved the Land. You might say it was a family tradition.

When Moshe, when Moses, began apportioning the Land of Israel through a census of males eligible for military service, the Bnos Tzelefchod grew concerned. Since their father, Tzelefchod, died in the wilderness without sons, the daughters worried that, because they had no father and no brothers, their family would be without a share of the Land and their father's name would be forgotten.

In an attempt to have their case heard, the Bnos Tzelefchod approached a series of judges, each of whom referred them to a higher court until eventually, they were referred to Moshe himself. The fact that they went to such great lengths to resolve the matter is a further indication of how much they loved the Land and wanted to share a part in it.

They are said to have argued cleverly. They offered several arguments to boost their claim that they should be given an inheritance in the Land in their father's name. One of the cleverest things they did was to speak up at an opportune time. They raised the issue exactly when Moshe was teaching the subject of inheritances.

Moshe took their question to G-d. This is one of only two cases Moshe brought before G-d. G-d answered that the daughters of Tzelefchod argued correctly. They were rewarded with a double portion in the Land. From this, they merited to have the laws of inheritance, which would certainly have been taught anyway, recorded in their name.

A highly recommended English novelization of the story of the Bnos Tzelefchod is Daughters Victorious by Rabbi Shlomo Wexler.

Astonishingly, the daughters are quoted in rabbinic literature as saying, “The compassion of G-d is not as the compassion of men. The compassion of men extends to men more than to women, but not thus is the compassion of G-d; His compassion extends equally to men and women and to all, even as it is said, ‘The L-rd is good to all, and His mercies are over all his works.’”

Rashi teaches that the Bnos Tzelefchod loved the Land of Israel for its holiness. Their desire was to elevate something in the material world – a plot of land, to connect to G-d.

Elevating simple material items by using them for a holy purpose is a task at which Jewish women excel. Think of the Shabbat candle, one of the most potent symbols of Jewish women. Of what is it constructed? Nothing more than uncolored, unscented wax and an ordinary wick. And yet, through the lighting of Shabbat candles, through the bracha, the blessing, she makes and through the prayers and requests she recites at the auspicious time of their lighting, the Jewish woman elevates the simple candle by using it to usher in Shabbat.

Naso 5764

In this week’s parsha, Naso, we find the description of a ritual designed
to test, through supernatural means, the guilt of a married woman whose husband suspects her of committing adultery. This “trial-by-ordeal” is referred to as the sotah ritual although, interestingly, the word sotah is not used in the Biblical account itself.

On first reading, the sotah ritual is a humiliating ordeal for a woman suspected of adultery. During the ritual, the suspected woman is intentionally wearied out by being paraded around the grounds of the Holy Temple, her clothing is torn and her head is uncovered. Some say her hair is disheveled. It is also sexist, since a woman who suspected her husband of committing adultery had no parallel recourse.

What a reading of the Biblical account doesn’t reveal is that the Sages of the Mishnah inserted numerous restrictions that served to limit the number of occasions when an accused adulterous woman would actually have to undergo the sotah ritual. Mishnah is the Oral Law which tradition teaches was transmitted orally by G-d to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Mishnah was compiled in its present form around 1800 years ago.

The Mishnah details an astonishing 25 circumstances in which the sotah ritual is not conducted. These include cases where the marriage is forbidden by Jewish law, cases where the woman’s ability to conceive from the adulterous act is limited or non-existent, cases where the husband did not adequately warn his wife of his jealous suspicion and cases where the accusing husband is incarcerated or has a significant physical disability. If any of these 25 circumstances applied, the sotah ritual was not conducted. Instead, the woman was simply divorced without having to undergo the humiliation of the sotah ritual.

The Mishnah further narrows the opportunities for any woman to ever have to undergo the ritual by detailing specific conditions under which the ritual must take place. For example, the Mishnah specifies what kind of cup she must drink from, how much water is poured into it, from exactly where the dust to be added to the water must be taken and how much dust must be added. It also specifies what exact words the Kohen (Priest) must write, upon what kind of material the text must be written and upon what kind of material it may not be written. The Mishnah also specifies with what substances the Kohen may write the text and with what substances he may not write the text.

In a nutshell, the Sages of the Mishnah used every possible legal means to make it unnecessary for an accused woman to complete the sotah ritual. Eventually, after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai abolished the sotah ritual completely.

When the accused woman is guilty, the sotah ritual ends in her immediate and gruesome death through spiritual means. The Mishnah teaches that, if the accused woman has led an otherwise meritorious life, the punishment did not take affect right away. Her affliction may not have begun for up to three years. Since she did not immediately become afflicted, it looked as if she was innocent.

This is the context for the infamous quote from Rabbi Eliezer, “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he teaches her tiflut.” Tiflut is variously translated as frivolity, obscenity or foolishness. In this context, the Sages argue about whether it is proper or improper to teach a woman that her merit may hold her punishment in abeyance.

Ben Azzai posits the argument in favor of teaching a woman Torah. If she is taught Torah, she will understand that, if she is guilty and nothing happened after she drank, it is her merit that prevented immediate affliction. Thus she will not erroneously conclude that the ritual is ineffective. Rabbi Eliezer argues against teaching a woman Torah by positing that if she is taught Torah, she may find a way to use her knowledge of Torah to conceal her improper behavior. It is this outcome, not a universal exclusion of women from Torah study, that Rabbi Eliezer intended to avoid by discouraging men from teaching Torah to their daughters.

The sotah ritual is yet another case, when it comes to traditional Judaism and women, where the reality is so much more sensitive and nuanced than it at first appears.

Shemini 5764

There are four women whose stories are connected to Shemini. The first is the shadowy Elisheva, whose name means, “My G-d is my oath”. Like most Jewish women prior to the 17th century, Elisheva is known primarily for her relationship to important men. She was the wife of Aaron, sister-in-law of Moses and the daughter of Aminadav (a leader of the tribe of Judah). Thus, she was from a distinguished family even before she married Aaron. Elisheva and Aaron had four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar. Elisheva named her first child Nadav in honor of her father, Ami-Nadav.

There is a tradition that the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah were Elisheva’s mother-in-law Yocheved and her sister-in-law, Miriam. There is, however, a Talmudic opinion that Puah was actually Elisheva, rather than Miriam.

On the day the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary the Jews constructed in the desert) was consecrated, Elisheva witnessed the men in her life take prominent roles. Her husband became the High Priest. Her brother Nachshon merited to bring the first sacrifice because he was the first to step into the Red Sea before it split. Her two sons, Nadav and Avihu, became assistants to the High Priest. And her brother-in-law, Moses, was king.

It didn’t take long for Elisheva’s joy to be eclipsed by tragedy. Her two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, died as a result of their sins on the very day the Mishkan was consecrated. They perished from a supernatural fire that burned them to death while leaving their bodies intact.

The Biblical text offers us only one emotional reaction to the death of Nadav and Avihu. “And Aaron held his peace.” Aaron’s reaction was to accept G-d’s decree and to be comforted, without losing faith. But what about Elisheva’s emotional response? Despite extensive searching, I was unable to locate any reference to Elisheva’s reaction the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The tradition is frustratingly silent about Elisheva’s emotions.

Contrast this to the story of Bruria, wife of Rabbi Meir and the most well known woman in the Talmud. Like Nadav and Avihu, the two grown sons of Bruria and Rabbi Meir died on the same day, close to the end of a Shabbat. Bruria learned of their deaths before her husband. She waited to tell him until Shabbat was completely over. Then she broke the heartbreaking news in an ingenious way, drawing on her emotional strength and knowledge of Torah to help her husband accept the death of their sons as she already had.

We can also contrast the lack of information about Elisheva’s emotional reaction to the deaths of her sons with the richness of information about the emotional life of Michal, about whom we read in the Haftorah for Shemini.

During the time in Jewish history when we were forbidden from reading from a Torah scroll, the Sages replaced each Torah reading with a Biblical reading that relates, thematically, to the banned Torah reading. In that way, those familiar with the cycle of Torah readings were reminded of the appropriate Torah portion even while prevented from actually reading it.

In this week’s Haftorah, we meet Michal, the first wife of King David, whose emotional life is richly described. More than once, the Bible tells us, “And Michal, Shaul’s daughter, loved David.” Later in their married life, while King David danced publicly in spiritual elation, Michal was embarrassed and she “despised him in her heart.”

We are left with an emotional void in the story of Elisheva in the Torah reading and a contrasting emotional richness in the story of Michal from the Haftorah. But there is at least one other way that Elisheva and Michal are connected.

According to the Arizal, a 16th century mystic, Aaron was reincarnated six times. Among his later incarnations was as Uriah the Hittite, the first husband of Batsheva (who later becomes a wife to King David). Elisheva, wife of Aaron, was reincarnated as Batsheva, wife of Uriah and later, of King David.

This correspondence between the Torah portion and the Haftorah, between Elisheva/Batsheva and Michal, who were both wives to King David, is a completely feminine connection. Like much of the study of women in Torah, it lies just below the surface, waiting to be unearthed. And it is a source of deep spiritual satisfaction now that it has been remembered.

Tezaveh 5764

This week’s parsha reviews intricate details about the bigdei kehuna, the clothing the Kohanim wore while officiating in the Holy Temple. Our Rabbis have drawn many lessons from the description of these garments that are worthy of deeper study. However, to be honest, the relevance of these clothing to our lives as American Jews doesn’t exactly leap off the page.

The bigdei kehuna do have an interesting connection to Purim. During the huge Persian feast described in the beginning of the Book of Esther, the wicked King Achashverosh dressed himself in the bigdei kehuna. In full view of the invited Jews, he served in vessels that had also been used in the Temple service. After the destruction of the First Temple, these items were seized as spoils of war and Achashverosh inherited them from the previous king.

To relate to this a bit better, imagine if someone prominent stole your grandfather’s kiddush cup and then invited you to a party during which he openly drank non-kosher wine from it. Imagine further that, while drinking from this kiddush cup, he was wearing your grandfather’s favorite sweater, which he had also stolen. Wouldn’t you be furious?

On the contrary, our Rabbis point out that most Jews enjoyed themselves at the festivities. Just 70 years after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish people had forgotten the spiritual magnificence of 410 years of sovereignty in our own Land. We accepted the status quo of living in a host country. We had so lost the awareness of our responsibility to fulfill the Jewish mission in the Land of Israel that we were literally rejoicing with our enemies.

In America after 350 years, we have also forgotten the glory of living as a sovereign nation. We accept today’s status quo. The vast majority of us never even consider that we’re living in a host culture. Like the Jews in Persia, we’ve lost awareness of what it means to be Jewish and why it’s important to be connected to the Land of Israel.

Historically, the Jews were a nation with a common language, geography, history and mission. Using the Torah as our guide, we were chosen to teach the world how to bring G-d close and how to live according to G-d’s instructions. This was, and remains, our national mission. Interestingly, the splendid bigdei kehuna were made from materials donated by individuals and were owned by the nation as a whole. Their purpose was not to gild the individual Kohain, but rather to express the Jewish nation’s longing to grow close to G-d.

The Torah makes it clear that, because of its spiritual qualities, the Land of Israel is uniquely suited to helping Jews accomplish our mission. The Bible and every traditional prayer book are full to bursting with evidence of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. Simply stated, the Jewish nation requires a connection to Israel to be who we were meant to be and to accomplish what we must accomplish.

This concept of nationhood and national mission doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you’re a Jew in America. Separated from our Land, we’ve lost our awareness of being a nation with a purpose. We’ve forgotten that, as a nation scattered and dissociated from our Land, we cannot fulfill our destiny, complete our mission nor realize our fullest potential.

Today, we see Judaism as a religion, not as a national identity. Whether I identify as a Jew, or not, is viewed as my personal decision. If we were to perceive the situation more accurately, we would realize that a lack of identification with the Jewish people is not just a private decision. Every Jew who opts out weakens the Jewish nation as a whole.

One of the themes of Purim is to see beyond the obvious. We wear costumes and masks on Purim to demonstrate that what’s obvious is not necessarily true. The Book of Esther is the only Biblical book in which G-d’s name does not appear. But that doesn’t mean He’s not on the job! We just have to see beyond the obvious.

Being part of the Jewish nation requires us to see beyond the obvious and notice that Israel, not America, is, was and always will be the center stage of Jewish history.

Va’era 5764

When I first began to study Judaism in my 20s, I expected that my study would involve learning about Jewish ritual, holidays and prayer. What I didn’t anticipate, and what has become a most gratifying surprise, is how much of our tradition focuses on middot – on the enhancement of positive character traits.

I was a pretty decent, average person before I began learning and living Jewishly. But I’ve learned and grown emotionally from the lessons of Judaism. Said another way, Judaism is so much more than lighting candles, eating certain foods and saying prayers. The Torah is also loaded with guidance for personal growth.

In this week’s Torah portion of Va’era, we find a detailed description of the first seven plagues that G-d sent to Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to set the Israelite slaves free. The litany of plagues is a central part of the Passover seder. This week and next week, we learn about the 10 plagues in depth.

The first is the plague of dam – blood. In order to prove to Pharaoh that Moshe and Aaron were messengers of the Divine and not mere magicians, G-d turned the Nile River, along with all the water in Egypt, to blood. This, as with all the early plagues, was accomplished through the hands of Moshe and Aaron.

G-d said to Moshe, “Say to Aaron ‘Take your staff and stretch your hand over the waters of Egypt… and they shall become blood.’” (Genesis 7:19)
Why did G-d ask Moshe to tell Aaron what to do? Why didn’t Moshe just turn the water to blood himself? According to the Midrash, G-d did originally ask Moshe to smite the water. And, in Moshe’s response, there is a lesson in character refinement.

Moshe objected saying, “Is it right that I should punish the very river that sustained me? When I was an infant and my mother Yocheved placed me in a basket and placed the basket in the river, the waters of the Nile protected me and kept me afloat until Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, could rescue me. How can I now smite the very water that sheltered me?”
G-d was pleased with Moshe’s sensitivity and directed Moshe to tell Aaron, who does not have the same loyalty to the Nile River, to instigate the plague.

What lesson is there in this for us? From Moshe’s response, we can learn the extent to which gratitude is a Jewish value. In Hebrew, this value is called hakaras hatov – appreciating the good. If G-d is pleased by Moshe’s hakaras hatov to the inanimate Nile River, how much more so are we to understand that we must express gratitude to anyone who shows us kindness? If G-d is pleased by Moshe’s unwillingness to stretch his hand over an inanimate body of water so as not to show it disrespect, how careful must we be to avoid disrespecting another human being?

Further, it should occur to us that if we must be so careful to express hakaras hatov to another person who was kind to us, how much more so should we be grateful to G-d, from whom all goodness flows?

I have a favorite Hebrew expression that is related to this idea. Gam zu l’tova – which means, “this is also for the good.” Gam zu l’tova is an attitude. It’s an attitude of trust in G-d that, however things seem, they are for the good. This attitude, like all of spiritual development, doesn’t just appear overnight. It’s an attitude that has to be nurtured, exactly like a muscle has to be worked in order to grow.

In fact, it’s been my experience that all Jewish growth requires practice. After all, nobody expects to complete a marathon the first day of practice. Nobody expects to perform brain surgery the first day of medical school. Similarly, nobody can open an unfamiliar Hebrew prayer book and experience their prayer to reach ecstatic spiritual heights the very first time. Nobody can read a verse from the Torah and immediately understand every nuance in each of the 70 levels of the Torah. And none of us are born with perfect character.

One of Judaism’s most engaging lessons is that it’s all a process. All of us need time – a lifetime! - to develop into our more refined selves, most spiritual selves.

Vayishlach 5764

Who was Bilhah? Most believe that Bilhah was a maidservant to Lavan. When Lavan’s daughter Rachel married Jacob, Lavan gave Bilhah to Rachel as a maidservant. Later, when Rachel was unable to have children, Rachel gave Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. With Yaakov, Bilhah gave birth to two of the Twelve Tribes - Dan and Naftali. There is a tradition that as long as Rachel and Leah were alive, the Divine Presence rested with them. When they died, the Divine Presence rested on the tent of Bilhah.

Bilhah makes a very brief appearance in this week’s parsha. Rachel, the beloved wife of Yaakov, dies while giving birth to Binyamin. Following Rachel’s death, “… Reuven went and placed his couch beside Bilhah, his father’s concubine.” (Gen. 35:22).

In the book The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Lia Bass argues that in this incident, Reuven raped Bilhah. Her argument arises from the Hebrew grammar. The text says, “Reuven vayishkav et Bilhah.” – literally Reuven lay with Bilhah. Generally, when vayishkav is used, it is followed by the word im. However, where we would expect to read im, we read et. The Hebrew word et doesn’t translate into English. In Hebrew grammar, et is used to point to the object of a verb.

There are two other places in the Bible where vayishkav et is found – in the rape of Dina (Gen. 24:2) and in the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13:14).

What do Dina, Bilhah and Tamar have in common? In each case, they are described, grammatically, as the object of the verb. In both Dina and Tamar’s cases, the most common translation of vayishkav et is that they were raped.

What does the tradition teach about Bilhah? What does it mean that Reuven “placed his couch beside Bilhah”? Did Reuven rape Bilhah?
The Midrash teaches that, after Rachel died, Yaacov moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah. Owing to the closeness of Rachel and Bilhah, we can understand that Bilhah comforted Yaakov after the death of his favorite wife. This is like a man who loses his wife and then marries her best friend as a way of keeping the memory of his deceased wife alive.

Reuven was the first son of Leah, the less favored co-wife of Yaakov. According to the Midrash, Reuven reasoned, “When Rachel was alive, she was my mother’s rival for the affection of my father. This was not so terrible, since they were sisters. However, my father has now chosen Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah, over my mother. Shall my mother now be a rival to a mere handmaiden?”

In order to correct what he perceived as an insult to his mother, Reuven moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent and placed it in his mother Leah’s tent instead.

The tradition teaches that whoever reads the text literally and concludes that Reuven raped Bilhah is mistaken. Reuven’s interference in the intimate life of his father was considered as sinful as if he had actually slept with Bilhah. The text is exaggerating to make a point. In fact, according to the Talmud, the episode of Reuven and Bilhah is read in public but is not translated, perhaps as a consolation for even appearing to accuse Reuven of rape.

Though he was motivated by love for his mother, Reuven’s error was that he interfered in his father’s private life. According to the Talmud, Reuven later admitted moving his father’s bed. As a result, he merited entry into the World To Come. Reuven's admission of his role in moving his father’s bed also removed his brothers from suspicion.

The rabbis tied this all up quite nicely for Reuven. But there are so many unanswered questions! Was Leah proud of her son for rushing to her defense, or was she embarrassed that he felt the need to? We know he had no more children, but did Yaakov return his bed to Bilhah’s tent or did he stay with Leah? What did Bilhah feel about her role in this conflict between father and son?

In general, the Torah is sparse in its description of feelings. We have to search out the less familiar Midrashim that have come down to us and content ourselves with the hope that someday, the rest of the story will be illuminated for us.

Noach 5764

This week’s parsha (Torah portion) includes the story of Noah and the Ark, the Flood and the animals coming onto the ark two-by-two. It’s a story familiar, to one degree or another, to almost everyone raised in a Judeo-Christian society.

It’s not that I’m not interested in that aspect of the story. It’s just that I’m more interested in a different aspect of the story. In the Torah text, Noah’s wife has no name. She is referred to as aishet Noach – literally, Noah’s wife. Jewish teachers sometimes call her Mrs. Noah. That’s a shame, because she has a name. And we know what it is.

The Biblical text may refer to her as aishet Noach – Noah’s wife, but the rabbinic tradition calls her Naamah. The Midrash Rabbah asks, “Why was she called Naamah? Because her deeds were pleasant.” The name Naamah is derived from to the Hebrew word na’eem meaning pleasant.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wrote a children’s book called Naamah, Noah's Wife. In the story, just as Noah is responsible for taking two of most animals (and seven pairs of a few other kinds), G-d puts Naamah in charge of gathering two of every plant and seed. In the story, Noah’s wife has both a name and a job that parallels Noah’s. It’s a story that appeals to our sense of fairness and equality. As authentic as it seems, it’s important to remember that, exactly like the Red Tent, the story is essentially Biblical fiction.

We don’t know too much about the real Naamah. However, there is an interesting parallel to the Torah’s description of Noah. The text says, “Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” (Genesis 6:9). Nachmanides, a Biblical commentator from the 13th century adds that Naamah “was famous in these generations because she was a righteous woman and she gave birth to righteous children.” Thus, in character, Naamah was favorably compared to her husband Noah.

A close reading of the Biblical text raises another question for me about the women in the story. Twice, the text mentions the list of people who will come into the Ark and be saved. Look at these two verses:

“G-d says, ‘I will keep my promise to you that you will come into the ark – you, together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives’” (Genesis 6:18) and in the next chapter, it says, ”Noah, with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives came into the ark before the waters of the flood.” (Genesis 7:7)

Did you notice anything? Hey! How come Noah’s sons are mentioned before Noah’s wife? What happened to “Ladies First”? Or even, “Honor your father and your mother?” Shouldn’t the sons have insisted that their mother enter the ark before them? And shouldn’t the men have chosen to enter with their wives, instead of with the other men in the family? Isn’t that obviously male bias?

Actually… it’s not. And to see why, we have to look further in the story. After the Flood ceases, “G-d spoke to Noach saying, ‘Leave the ark – you, along with your wife, you sons, and your sons’ wives.’” (Genesis 8:15) After the Flood, the order is changed and Noah is told to leave with his wife, followed by the sons and their wives.

The spectacular beauty of studying Torah is that even something as subtle as in what order the family entered the Ark, and in what order they were commanded to leave the Ark, hints at something deeper. Look at the verses again and notice that it was G-d who commanded the order of entering and departing from the Ark. It was G-d who said, in effect, “The men and the women should enter separately.” And it was G-d who said, in effect, “Husbands and wives should leave together.”

In this, we see a beautiful sensitivity being taught. In the midst of the Flood, the world was in agony. For Noah and Naamah to engage in normal sexual intimacy while every living thing, except those on the Ark, was drowning would have engendered selfishness rather than encouraged compassion. While the world was in agony, marital relations were forbidden. The Sages teach that this is alluded to by the fact that the men and the women entered the Ark separately. However, after the Flood ceased, and the earth dried up, G-d hinted that it was time for couples to be intimate again by commanding them depart from the Ark as husband and wife.

What I Learned Since Last Rosh HaShana

September 20, 2003

Just a little more than a year ago, in July of 2002, I gave a talk here on the topic of “Why We’re Going to Israel Now.” I was astonished to go back and read what I said then, because so much of it echoes what I wanted to say tonight. I realize that I’ve been ruminating about these issues longer than I thought…

Last summer, I spoke about the impact that September 11th had on me. On September 11th, something dramatic shifted in my worldview. On that day, I began to see my life in the context of Jewish history.

Over the course of Jewish history, there is a lengthy litany of the years and the lands from which Jews have been expelled. After the Medieval crusades, expulsions of entire Jewish communities became commonplace. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England. In 1306, Jews were expelled from France. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Dozens of sporadic expulsions of entire Jewish communities in Europe continued into the 19th century.

I was born in America, after the Holocaust. On September 11th, my lifelong presumption of safety in America was immediately and irrevocably shattered. I abruptly came to see the United States, where my parents, and the two generations that followed them, were born and have been living, for what it really is.

A host country.

Don’t believe me? A few historical facts may help you see things more clearly. The first Jews came to America in 1654, but Jewish men, because they didn’t believe in Jesus, couldn’t vote in Maryland until 172 years later. In 1692, the Church of England was the official religion in Maryland. And until less than 150 years ago, public office could only be held by those able to take the oath “upon the true faith of a Christian”.
Make no mistake. America, for all its love for religious tolerance, is hosting the Jews who live in her borders. This country is not ours.
And it never will be.

Right now, Jews live in relative safety and security in America. But for how long will that be the case? As great as this country is, I can’t allow myself to get so comfortable anymore that I can’t imagine America vomiting out its Jews. Remember the lesson of history. It’s happened in every other country where Jews have ever lived. My sense of security in America was deceptive. It’s a mistake to rely on it.

After September 11th, I asked myself, “What does this event mean to me?” “Is this a foreshadowing?” “Is this horrific event supposed to wake me from a coma of apathy? ”

I have surely been awakened from my coma and my eyes are wide open.
As great as America has been to Jews, and it has been, it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a Christian country. Two months of every year, we are overwhelmed with preparations for Christmas. Here, Christmas and Easter are Federal holidays. In America, Christians get their holidays off.
A friend of ours who made aliyah recently said that in Israel, the holiday soda bottles say Chag Sameach, not Merry Christmas. In Israel, Rosh Hashana, Pesach and all Jewish holidays are national holidays. There are no pagan, Pilgrim or Christian holidays with which to cope or ignore. There is no “December Dilemma” in Israel. Instead of Christmas tree lots, there are Sukkot all over Israel. Instead of Easter candy in every store, there are sufganiot, fried doughnuts, sold all over during Chanukah.
In Israel, Sunday is a regular weekday. Since Sunday is the Christian day of rest, we experience Sunday very differently in America. There’s no mail delivery in America on Sunday. In Israel, there’s no mail delivery on Shabbos.

In America, more than 15 states still have restrictions on business operations on Sundays. Many of you probably remember when Baltimore still enforced Sunday Blue Laws. My mother recently told me a story about something that angered her when we first moved to Florida from New York in the mid-1970s. She saw a sign on the grocery store door that said, “Closed on Sunday. See you in Church.” In America, there’s a frequent presumption that everyone is a Christian.

When you go into a stationary store and buy a calendar in America, the calendar has a small space for Sundays. In Israel, the calendar has a half page on Friday, a few lines for Shabbos to note who’s coming for a meal and a half page for erev Yom Tov.

The more traditional a Jew you are, the more you notice ways that Israel is a Jewish country, where things are designed to meet Jewish needs. When I began to realize all these differences, I began to see more clearly how I make constant accommodations for living in a predominantly Christian country. In Israel:

Tzitzits and kippot are sold in grocery stores, right near the laundry detergent

All the rooms in public buildings have mezuzot

Before Pesach, visitors to public buildings are requested not to bring in chametz

Bulletin boards in government offices list times for mincha, the afternoon prayer service

Bonuses are given twice a year: before Rosh Hashana and before Pesach

Israeli-made refrigerators have a special snap to shut off the refrigerator light before Shabbos. In America, we take out the bulb completely

Dishtowels come in red and blue and have words for meat and milk woven into them

Two sinks are standard in an Israeli apartment

Taxi drivers quote from the Bible

On El Al Airlines, Tefillas haDerech, the prayer for safe travel, is printed in English and Hebrew in the in-flight magazine

Also on El Al, the in-flight entertainment system has a special option for those who refrain from listening to music during the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av

There is no Hebrew word for Saturday. Even the most secular Israelis say, “Shabbat Shalom.”

As long as I’ve been praying, I’ve been facing East, toward Jerusalem. But like most American Jews, I hadn’t let in the significance of what I was doing until this year. I had been at home among non-Jews, completely unaware that I am in exile.

This year, my vision cleared. Just by watching the northwest migration of Jews in Baltimore, I saw that all Jewish neighborhoods in America change and become non-Jewish over time. Permanence for Jews is impossible here.

I recently began to notice how often American Jews build luxurious, permanent homes here, ignoring the possibility of returning to Israel. I’ve begun to question why, since the Land of Israel has returned to Jewish hands after two thousand years, we Jews choose to build in someone else’s Land.

In America, you have 30 days to put up a mezuzah when you move to a new home. In Israel, Halacha requires us to put a mezuzah up on the first day. This is to acknowledge our permanence in the Land.

While Israel has spiritual qualities beneficial to Jews, America is rich with natural resources that the Land of Israel does not possess. The Land is utterly dependent on rain to remind us that sustenance comes from G-d alone.

Life in America functions, for the most part, according to predictable patterns. Life in Israel is much less predictable. Our tradition teaches that, rather than being a shortcoming, this uncertainty is of spiritual benefit to Jews. A relationship with G-d grows from uncertainty, because we have to turn to Him at every juncture. Being in Israel requires us to be close to G-d.

In America, it’s possible to be spiritually asleep for an entire lifetime. I suppose it’s possible to do the same in Israel, but it’s much harder! Mitzvot outside their natural habitat are, at best, incomplete, a departure from Jewish normalcy. I began to see that there is an inevitable incompleteness of Jewish life in America.

All this thinking about how Jewish life is in Israel transformed something inside me. This year we made a financial and spiritual connection with the Land by buying an investment apartment in Ma’ale Adumim. I realize very well that not everybody can buy an apartment in Israel, although undoubtedly, some of us can. Not every Jew can move there, but some of us can.

Even if we can’t do these things, everybody can increase his or her connection with Israel in some concrete way. For example, during the High Holidays, we’ll each be asked to pledge a commitment to visit Israel sometime in the upcoming year.

Over the last year, I find myself thinking that we Jews travel all over the world, but the vast majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, not even once. We travel everywhere else, but we don’t go home.
One of the most visible symbols of Sukkot is the arba minim – the four species, the lulav and essrog. At the beginning of Sukkot, they appear fresh and healthy. Over Sukkot, everyone’s lulav withers. Why? Because it’s been detached from its life source.

Every Jew has a soul that yearns to be attached to its life source. As long as we think and act as if America is the beginning and the end of our Jewish lives, we’ve detached ourselves from our life source. I wonder how long it will be before American Jewry withers because we’re not attached to our life source.

Our tradition teaches us to express hakaras haTov, to recognize and appreciate the good others do for us. I have tremendous hakaras haTov for America. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to America, which has been taking in Jews since the 17th century. America took in Jewish refugees, including six of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents, from pogroms in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. America has been exceptionally good to its Jews. But it is not our permanent home.

Many years ago, I heard a story about a Jewish family that was just starting to think about living a Jewish life. With great excitement, they told their rabbi that they had stopped ordering butter on their baked potato when they ate steak. And how did the rabbi react, knowing full well that the steak they were eating was completely treif? He wished them a mazel tov! They deserved a mazel tov, because every journey begins with the first step.

I close with a quote from Ahuva Artzi, who writes with absolute clarity about why she left a life of material abundance and security in America to live in Israel. She said, “I came because of my awareness that our lives are nothing but a vehicle for serving our Maker, and He said I could serve him better in the Land of Israel.” You and I may not be able to respond to that awareness as she did. But this year, I learned that, to live my life as a serious Jew, I need a connection to Israel. This year, I took the first step.

Nitzavim/Vayelech 5763

I remember the first Yom Kippur service of my adult life. At the time, I possessed a hefty dose of youthful arrogance, coupled with a paucity of Jewish knowledge, the absence of which I was too arrogant to be embarrassed about.

I recall sitting in the sanctuary in Washington Hebrew Congregation and wondering what kind of G-d needed the constant repetition of praises that were part of the liturgy. After the evening service was over, I specifically went out and bought something to eat, effectively thumbing my nose at the binding fast that has marked Yom Kippur since Biblical times.

We are at the tail end if the Hebrew month of Elul, just a few days away from Rosh Hashana. Our tradition teaches that the period from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur is a time for us to be reflective about our Jewish lives.

This week, we read two short Torah readings. Combined, Nitzavim and Vayelech are 70 verses with a shared theme of repentance.

There’s a bittersweet poignancy to these readings, because they recount the very last day in the life of Moshe (Moses). Moshe, who has led the Jewish people through the most eventful 40 years of history, is going to die on this very day. Moshe is giving his final speech to the Jewish people and his words have a resounding power, because they are among his last.

Among them is a famous passage about the accessibility of our tradition.

“For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, “Who can cross the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” (30:11-14)

What is the relevance of this famous passage today?

Many of us, myself included, were denied a robust Jewish education as children. If we went to Hebrew school at all, it was more likely than not an unpleasant experience.

We are like the Lindsay Lohan character in the movie “Freaky Friday” – spiritual children in the bodies of adults. We have the intelligence, emotions and resources of adults, coupled with a child’s understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Moshe’s message reminds us that, in this period of reflection about our Jewish lives, we can do something about catching up. No one needs to be stuck in what has been called “pediatric Judaism”. Most adult Jews in America have never attended a single session of adult Jewish education. This can be the year that you set yourself apart from “most adult Jews in America.”

Our community is blessed by an impressive array of over 50 organizations that offer adult Jewish learning at every level, from absolute beginner to Torah scholar. Adult Jewish education is offered by nearly every synagogue and Jewish organization in town, all across the denominational spectrum.

Professionally, I’m responsible for developing a clearinghouse to disseminate information about adult Jewish learning options in Baltimore. During the High Holiday period, you’ll begin to hear about Jewish Learning Connection, our campaign to make adult Jewish learning as accessible to you as possible.

Reflecting back on that Yom Kippur so many years ago, I’m aware that life itself made me far less arrogant. And adult Jewish learning made it exhilarating for me to be a Jew. If I’d been exposed to adult Jewish learning before that Kol Nidre night, I’d have understood that the repetition of praises during the prayer services is not because G-d requires them… but because it is we who need to be reminded.

Va’etchanan 5763

When I was twenty and still constructing my adult identity, Jewish was just a note, in pencil, in the margin of a very long book. Even after I woke up and noticed that Judaism offered something of immense value to me, Israel couldn’t have been less relevant to my life.

I had never been to Israel and didn’t know anybody who had. I once stopped attending a particular synagogue because the rabbi spoke about nothing but Israel. In those days, for me, Israel was utterly beside the point.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading) is Va’etchanan (from Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11). There are four important things to note about what Va’etchanan contains. First, as the portion opens, Moshe (Moses) is in the midst of a long speech, recounting for the Jewish people all that happened to them since the Exodus from Egypt. He begins by reminding everyone how desperately he wants to enter the Land and how God has refused his every request, plea and argument.

Second, in the chapters and verses that make up this parsha, Moshe underscores the importance of Israel to the Jewish people at least 15 times. He refers to Israel time and again as, “the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan”, “the good Land that God swore to your ancestors”, “the good Land that God gives you as a heritage” and as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Third, Va’etchanan contains a restatement of the Aserot Hadibrot (10 Commandments). Fourth, this parsha contains the Shema, which is arguably the most important statement of faith a Jew can make about belief in God.

The beginning of the Shema is generally translated, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The Hebrew word m’odecha, which is generally translated, “with all your might” may also be translated, “with all your resources”. With all your resources includes the requirement to demonstrate your love of God with everything you’ve got. Or, more accurately, with everything you’ve been given.

If I’ve been given a particular talent, I am bidden to apply that talent in the service of God. For example, if I’m talented musically, it means I have an obligation to create and perform music that brings people closer to loving God.

Loving God m’odecha, with all your resources, also means with your money. How do you demonstrate that you love God with your money? After all, does God need a new SUV? And what does any of this have to do with the irrelevance of Israel to my Jewish life?

Fast forward to 2003. Unlike Moshe, who died without ever stepping foot in the Land of Israel, I’ve been to Israel roughly once a year for the past six years. I spent a year representing an Israeli university to a mostly apathetic, sometimes hostile, American college population and lost a dear colleague from Hebrew University in the bombing there last July 31. I’ve gone from not being able to point out the West Bank or the Gaza Strip on a map to an obsession with books about life in Israel. In a single motion, I closed Jerusalem Diaries by Judy Lash Balint and opened If A Place Can Make You Cry by Daniel Gordis. Most importantly, in my ever-deepening awareness of Judaism, Israel has moved from the far, outer periphery to take its rightful place as a central pillar of Judaism - as close to the center as God, the Torah and the Jewish people.

So how do I, as a Jew who got a late start on Jewish learning but who is now beginning to understand the significance and centrality of Israel, how do I love God m’odecha – with all my resources?

We can’t make aliyah now, but we can do more than buy Osem soup mixes. So, instead of renovating our kitchen in Baltimore (which, believe me, sorely needs renovation!) my husband and I will be traveling to Israel later this month to buy a small apartment there. We’re buying an apartment in Israel as a practical and tangible way to re-affirm our commitment to Israel as a central pillar of Judaism and as a way to love God m’odecha.

That’s putting our money where Moshe’s mouth is!

Shelach 5763

This week’s parsha (Torah reading) is Shelach (from the Book of Bamidbar/ Numbers ch. 13-15). The major event retold in this parsha is the story of the 12 meraglim (spies) who are sent by Moses to scout out the Land that the newly-freed slaves were about to enter.

"And God spoke to Moses saying, “Send out men for yourself to explore the Canaanite territory that I am about to give the Israelites." (13:1-2).

The two most important words in this verse are “for yourself”. If effect, God tells Moses, “If you need this for yourself, go ahead and send men.”

A 17th century commentary helps us better understand what was implied in God’s words to Moses. "Therefore God said, "According to My opinion, that I can see the future, it would be better to send women who love the Land because they will not speak disparagingly about it." (Kli Yakar)

God would have sent women! But God allowed Moses to send men “for yourself”.

Moses does indeed send 12 spies, 12 men, to reconnoiter the Land of Israel. The episode ends tragically. Upon their return, ten of the 12 spies terrify the people by speaking badly about the Land and reporting that it would be senseless to try to enter, given the invincibility of the current inhabitants. Two of the original 12 spies, Yehoshua (Joshua) and Calev (Caleb), held a minority opinion. They argued against the group of ten while the scandalous report was being delivered.

Upon hearing the report of the ten spies, the people screamed and cried, “We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt!” (14:2-3)

God responds harshly to this lack of faith, initially seeking to annihilate the entire people. In the end, Moses is able to convince God not to kill everyone. God declares that virtually every man between the ages of 20 and 60 who departed Egypt is going to perish in the desert, as punishment for believing in the evil report of the ten spies, despite having witnessed so many miracles. Rather than lead the people directly into Canaan, God is now going to make the people wander in the desert for 40 years. The decree of death that was imposed upon the men inaugurated Tisha B’Av as a day of national tragedy in the Jewish calendar.

Why did the decree to die in the desert not apply to the women? The Midrash teaches that only the men wished to return to Egypt. The women still wanted to press on and enter the Land of Israel, despite the warnings of the ten spies!

This story of the ten spies is related to a powerful teaching about women and minyan (the minimum number of individuals necessary to recite certain prayers). There is a Talmudic tradition that, based on the story of the spies, defines a minyan as ten Jewish adult males.

Now, there is a tendency to regard minyan as a Jewish privilege from which women have traditionally been excluded. The exclusion of women from minyan is considered a misogynist practice that persists in Orthodoxy.

However, there’s another tradition that approaches the question of why women don’t constitute a minyan entirely differently.

The ten spies, acting together, did untold damage to the Jewish people. When the Talmud derives, from the incident of the spies, that a minyan requires ten men, it is prescribing a way to rectify a mistake. Just as ten men, acting together, nearly annihilated the Jewish people, it will take ten men, praying together, to bring honor to God’s name. Whenever ten men gather and praise God in prayer, it is, in part, a tikkun (spiritual rectification) for the actions of the spies who, acting together, destroyed the people’s faith in God.

The reason women praying together don’t make up a minyan is not because of any inadequacy in Jewish women, God-forbid. It’s actually exactly the opposite. Women don’t make up a minyan because we didn’t sin in a group of ten. Therefore, we aren’t required to participate in the rectification. In other words, we didn’t do the crime, so we don’t have to do the time.

Behar 5763

The primary laws discussed in this week’s parsha of Behar are the laws concerning shemittah (the Sabbatical Year) which occurs every seventh year and yovel (the Jubilee Year) which occurs every 50th year in the Land of Israel. In a nutshell, shemittah refers to the requirement to let one’s farmland lie uncultivated every seventh year.

A yovel occurs the year after seven cycles of seven years, or every 50 years. In addition to the requirement to rest the land, all slaves were set free in a yovel year and all land was returned to its original owner. This means that land in Israel can never be permanently bought, only leased, and its price is dependant on the number of years remaining until the next yovel.

Let’s say that you are neither an Israeli farmer nor a holder of Hebrew slaves. Of what relevance are the laws in Behar to your life as a Jew? To answer that, we have to take a closer look at shemittah and the principle behind the requirement to refrain from working the land every seventh year.

One traditional approach is that shemittah is a concrete way to enforce the lesson that we must trust in God. How so? If you were a farmer in Israel and were told about the laws of shemittah, wouldn’t you think, “That’s very nice to give the Land a rest, but what is my family going to eat in the seventh year? And what are we going to eat in the eighth year, while we’re waiting for the new harvest?”

God answers, "I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year, and the Land will produce enough crops three years.” (Vayikra 25:21)

In effect, God is saying, “Trust me. I’ll give you enough extra food from the harvest of the sixth year to sustain you until you can eat from your new harvest again.” Stop and think about this for a moment. God says, “I know you think it’s an immutable law of nature that one year’s harvest equals sustenance for one year. I’m going to demonstrate the folly of that way of thinking. I will make one year’s harvest sustain you for three years.”

How does this speak to us today? There’s a popular English motto that teaches the exact opposite lesson of shemittah. In America, when we say, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me,” we mean that our efforts are the key to making things happen. The hypothetical farmer in Israel who believes in this motto would say, “My family has food because I plant and nurture and harvest our land each year.” The requirement of shemittah forces the hypothetical farmer, and us by extension, to recognize the inaccuracy of that perspective.

In a brilliant bit of pedagogy, through the laws of shemittah, God demonstrates that the world does not function through our efforts alone. We are required to cease our active planting, nurturing and harvesting and see that, even without our efforts, we still have food to eat. God, not human effort alone, makes the world function. Shemittah forces us to recognize that our efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for six out of seven years and entirely unnecessary the seventh year. In the seventh year, we’re forced to acknowledge that God can run the world quite successfully without our efforts, thank you very much.

Other lessons, derived from the requirement to cease working in the fields every seventh year, speak clearly to our 21st century lives. Work is not your only purpose in life. Don’t be a slave to your work. There’s more to you than your job. Take time off from work to develop other parts of yourself.

These are also the exact messages of Shabbat. You have one day out of seven to devote exclusively to the purpose of developing your Jewish self. Don’t squander it! There’ll be plenty of fields to plant tomorrow.

Metzora 5763

There are two Hebrew concepts, found over and over again in this week’s portion of Metzora, that have no accurate translation in English. The word tumah is generally translated as unclean or impure and the word taharah is generally translated as clean or pure.

In English, unclean and impure carry negative connotations. As a result, there is an often-repeated myth that traditional Judaism stigmatizes women in their childbearing years. This misconception comes directly from the mistaken translation of tumah.

In reality, tumah and taharah are descriptions of spiritual statuses that have no English equivalent. They are not physical concepts. One way of understanding tumah and taharah is that the status of taharah is the status of being ready for a particular spiritual function. Tumah is the status of not being ready.

Taharah can also be understood as being in a state of spiritual openness. Taharah is required before coming into the presence of holiness. Tumah is it’s opposite - being in a state of spiritual closure or unpreparedness.

One moves into the status of tumah through contact with death. The most profound form of tumah is a dead body. There is nothing more spiritually closed than a body without a soul.

A living body has the ability to grow closer to G-d. That’s why, in the Elokai Neshama prayer in the morning blessings, we say. “As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank you, G-d.” The dead body, which was once the vessel for the human soul, is no longer able to grow spiritually because it no longer has a soul. Only the living person can thank G-d.

If death moves one from taharah to tumah, what’s the antidote? How does one move from the status of tumah to taharah? Through immersion in the waters of a mikveh. In the time when the Temple was standing, everyone had to immerse in a mikveh before entering the Temple grounds. The ritual washing of a dead body, in preparation for burial, is called a taharah. We see again that water is used to make the transition from tumah to taharah.

A remnant of this exists today in the custom of placing a pitcher of water outside a shiva house so people coming directly from the cemetery can wash their hands before entering. The cemetery is a place of concentrated tumah. People don’t generally immerse in a mikveh when leaving a cemetery. But washing the hands is a remnant of using water to make the transition from tumah to taharah.

Married women who use the mikveh monthly don’t go because they have been near a dead body. The menstrual cycle is not the same as death, but it is a kind of death. More accurately, it is the loss of potential life, which is a corollary of actual death.

Similarly, when woman gives birth, there is new life. But that new life exists outside of her. The woman’s body itself is now bereft of the life that it had been carrying inside itself. The woman experiences a loss of life within herself, which is another kind of corollary, another encounter with death.

The status of tumah comes upon us through various life experiences such as contact with actual death or with events that are linked to death, such as the monthly loss of potential life or through childbirth. Through the waters of the mikveh, a married woman in her childbearing years has the opportunity to re-enter a state of taharah, of spiritual openness and readiness, each month.

The upcoming Passover holiday gives us a chance to focus on the many other connections between women and water. Miriam is one of biblical woman for whom wisdom and power are associated with water. Through the well that was provided in her merit, Miriam supplied the Israelites with water during the prolonged journey through the desert.

For more and more families, placing a Miriam’s Cup filled with water on their Seder table is a way of reminding us about the association of women and water in the Passover story and of the prominence of women in Jewish life in general.

Just as it is associated with women, water is also often a symbol for Torah in the Talmud. So drink up!

Pekudei 5763

This week’s parsha, Pekudei, is the last in the book of Shemot (Exodus). The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle or Sanctuary) is finally completed in this week’s Torah reading.

What is this Mishkan that the Torah has been describing in excruciatingly precise detail for the last five weeks? In essence, the Mishkan was an elaborately constructed, portable tent that was reassembled wherever the Jewish people settled during their years of wandering. In a sense, the Mishkan was the first “Jewish Community Center”. It unified the people, sheltered the luchot (Tablets of the 10 Commandments) and was the place from which G-d often spoke to Moshe.

Although it may not seem immediately obvious, each of the myriad details of the construction of the Mishkan offers us a lesson relevant to living a Jewish life. Let’s focus on just one.

If you had just finished renovating your home, it would be natural to want to know how each dollar was spent. Pekudei opens with Moshe offering an incredibly detailed accounting of how all the precious metals that the Jews generously donated to the construction of the Mishkan were actually used. Even though Moshe’s accounting was comprehensive, down to each silver socket and bronze peg, the kiyyor (water basin) is inexplicably not mentioned in this accounting.

Abravanel (15th century) clarifies the reason why the kiyyor is not mentioned here. The raw materials for its construction came from a distinctive source – the mirrors of the women.

What lesson can be learned from the fact that the women donated their mirrors to the Mishkan? Ibn Ezra (12th century) concludes that the women’s willingness to hand over their mirrors demonstrated that they had rejected personal vanity. However, Rashi (11th century) offers us a more potent lesson.

Jewish tradition teaches that human sexuality can be used to elevate or to demean. On the one hand, it has the potential to create new human life. Perhaps more significantly, it has the potential to unite a man and a woman in the most profound way humanly possible. Just as it has a very high spiritual potential, Judaism recognizes that human sexuality has the equal and opposite potential to be superficial and degrading.

When the women originally offered their mirrors, Moshe rejected the offering. He felt that the mirrors the women had used to make themselves sexually attractive to their husbands were tainted by lustfulness and therefore not sufficiently holy to be included in the Mishkan. To Moshe, the women’s mirrors symbolized the shallow side of sexuality.

The significance of the women’s donation, which wasn’t obvious to Moshe, is reinforced for us by Nechama Leibowitz (20th century) who teaches, “[s]ymbolically the mirrors do not evoke the triviality and vanity of their conventional use but the survivalist, lifegiving purpose that they served.”

Through their skillful use of these mirrors, the women were able to draw their husbands to them. In so doing, the women continued getting pregnant and giving birth in Egypt long after the men were so disheartened that they no longer wanted more children. Is it unwise to actively pursue having children while enslaved? G-d assures Moshe, and us by extension, that the women acted with pure and holy intention.

The women’s fortitude, to continue family life under slavery, is acknowledged and rewarded by G-d when G-d declares to Moshe, “Accept! For these are dearer to Me than everything else.”

The basin was used in the Mishkan for ritual purification, similar to the way traditional Jews ritually wash their hands before eating bread. By instructing Moshe to use the mirrors to make the basin and its stand, G-d links the purity of the women’s motivations with the purity achieved through the use of the basin made from their mirrors.

Finally, mirrors symbolize a spiritual quality that is unique to women. The essence of a mirror is to reflect an image. Tzippora Heller, an Israeli Torah teacher who occasionally lectures in Baltimore, teaches that women excel in the distinctive spiritual capacity called binah, which is the ability to perceive the inner essence of a person or a situation and to reflect it back.

The donated mirrors were symbolic of the women themselves – heroic, faithful and possessing penetrating spiritual insight. Through studying their donation, we are able to identify Jewish qualities that we should all aspire to.