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Archive for April, 2008

Parshat Kedoshim

Posted by rabbiart on April 30, 2008

This Shabbat we return to the weekly Torah reading cycle with Kedoshim. Kedoshim is a fascinating parshah; it is only two chapters long, a total of 64 verses, yet according to Sefer HaHinuch it contains fifty one commandments. The overwhelming majority of these commandments have to do with social justice.

The first commandment we find in Kedoshim is perhaps the foundation of all social justice; to have reverence for our parents. We find this commandment linked, it appears, to keeping the sabbath, and both are bracketed by declarations that Ado-nai is our G-d. Here are verses two and three of chapter 19. (if you don’t see Hebrew, but see a strange looking set of characters, you need to add Hebrew support to your computer. If you need help, contact Rabbi Art)

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. ג אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, וְאֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

In verse two we are told to be kadosh because Ado-nai is kadosh. Then we are instructed to revere our parents and to keep HaShem’s Sabbaths, because Ado-nai is our G-d. After several “ritual” commandments, we are then given a couple of dozen commandments that are concerned with providing food for the poor, acting honestly, and not perverting the natural order of the world.

Regarding the natural order of the world, we are given several commandments that require us to abstain from mixing divergent species, a prohibition against tattoos, and a repetition, with a slight variation, of the commandment to have reverence for our parents. In this last case, we are instructed not to curse our parents.

In all, there are fifty one commandments in Parshat Kedoshim according to Sefer HaHinuch. According to the numbering scheme used, these are numbers #212 to #262.

  1. Reverence for father and mother
  2. Not to turn astray after idol-worship in thought or word
  3. Not to make an idol, for oneself or another
  4. Not to eat left-over meat from sacrifices (notar)
  5. To leave the edge of one’s field unreaped for the poor
  6. Not to reap the very last end of one’s field
  7. To leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor
  8. Not to gather stalks of grain that fell away during the harvest
  9. To leave a part of a vineyard unreaped for the poor
  10. Not to remove absolutely all the fruit of a vineyard
  11. To leave fallen grapes in a vineyard for the poor
  12. Not to gather the fallen grapes in a vineyard but to leave them for the poor
  13. Not to steal anything of value
  14. Not to deny it when something of value is in our possession
  15. Not to swear over a false denial about something of value
  16. Not to swear falsely
  17. Not to withhold another person’s property wrongly
  18. Not to commit robbery
  19. Not to delay the payment of a hired hand
  20. Not to curse any Jew, whether man or woman
  21. Not to make a trusting person stumble through misleading advice
  22. Not to pervert justice in a civil judgment
  23. Not to honor an eminent person at a trial
  24. That a judge should render judgment with righteousness
  25. Not to gossip
  26. Not to stand idly by when someone’s blood is shed
  27. Not to hate one’s brethren
  28. The religious duty to rebuke a fellow-jew for improper behavior
  29. Not to shame a Jew
  30. Not to take revenge
  31. Not to bear a grudge
  32. To have affection for a fellow-jew
  33. Not to mate two animals of different species
  34. Not to sow different kinds of seed together in the land of Israel
  35. Not to eat the first three years’ produce of a tree
  36. That the fruit of a tree’s fourth year is hallowed
  37. Not to eat or drink in the manner of a glutton or drunkard
  38. Not to practice augury nor divination
  39. Not to practice conjuring
  40. Not to round off the temples of the head
  41. Not to marr the edges of the beard
  42. Not to inscribe any tattoo in one’s flesh
  43. To have reverent awe for the sanctuary
  44. Not to act as an ov (medium)
  45. Not to function as a yidoni (wizard)
  46. To honor wise scholars
  47. Not to cheat with any kind of measure
  48. To make sure that scales, weights and measures are correct
  49. Not to curse one’s father or mother
  50. That a bet din should burn to death anyone so deserving
  51. Not to follow the customs or ways of the Amorites

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Mitzvah 38: Don’t be greedy

Posted by rabbiart on April 30, 2008

This mitzvah is the last to be derived from the Torah passage usually referred to as the Ten Commandments. Shemot 20:13 reads “Do not covet (lo takhmod) your neighbor’s house, nor your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

יג לֹא תַחְמֹד, בֵּית רֵעֶךָ; {ס} לֹא-תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ, וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֹל, אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ

In the wording of this verse we see a strong emphasis on the relationship between one human being and another. Three times in a single verse we are reminded of the relationship with the phrase “your neighbor”. The implication is clear; the moment we begin to covet some person, animal or thing that belongs to someone else, the relationship between us begins to deteriorate. We can covet, or we can be in relationship, but we can’t do both.

Since coveting is simply an emotion, and jewish practice concerns itself primarily with actions, is coveting really that bad? We need only look to where it can lead – conspiracy to commit murder. Or consider the sad case of David and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Even though Uriah is one of David’s close personal army, David sees, covets and impregnates Bathsheba, then conspires to have Uriah killed in battle.

Sefer HaHinuch also relates this commandment to idolatry, citing Devarim 7:25, because the same word – Lo takhmod – is used in that verse. The verse there instructs the Israelites to destroy pagan idols and not to covet the silver or gold with which they are made, and not to take and keep the precious metals. Why? it is an abomination to HaShem. Rabbinic reasoning principles would tell us that any coveting is similarly an abomination. Results oriented reasoning – that coveting leads to bad results and broken relationships – may tell us the same thing.

As we might expect, this commandment is in force in all times and places, for men and for women alike.

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Mitzvah 37: Not to give false testimony

Posted by rabbiart on April 30, 2008


Section 613

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 37: Not to bear false witness

The first question we might to wish is whether this commandment, which is of
course based on
Shemot 20:12
, is a general commandment against lying under any circumstances.
The text there reads לֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר
A slightly different version of the commandment is given in Devarim 5:16, where
the text reads וְלֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁוְא. The
word used in Shemot, sheker, means “lie”. The word used in Devarim, shav, means “in vain”, as in the commandment not to take the name of HaShem in vain. In each verse, the word in question is preceded by the word ed, which is the Hebrew word for “witness.”

In the interpretation given by Sefer HaHinuch, this commandment refers only to testimony given in court, and, we might suppose, a Jewish court specifically. Now the situation becomes complex, and disturbing as well. In rabbinic tradition, only men are qualified and able to give testimony in a bet din. According to Maimonides, there are ten categories of people who are disqualified from being witnesses. (“Laws of Witnesses”, Chapter 9, Paragraph 1) Women, servants and minors are among the excluded. Does that mean it is OK for them to lie? Since this commandment is understood by rabbinic Judaism to refer to courtroom testimony, does that mean there is no general commandment against lying?

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Mitzvah 37: Not to bear false witness

Posted by rabbiart on April 29, 2008

The first question we might wish to ask is whether this commandment, which is of course based on Shemot 20:12, is a general commandment against lying under any circumstances.  The text there reads  לֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר A slightly different version of the commandment is given in Devarim 5:16, where the text reads וְלֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁוְא. The  word used in Shemot, sheker, means “lie”.  The word used in Devarim, shav, means “in vain”, as in the commandment not to take the name of HaShem in vain.  In each verse, the word in question is preceded by the word ed, which is the Hebrew word for “witness.”

In the interpretation given by Sefer HaHinuch, this commandment refers only to testimony given in court, and, we might suppose, a Jewish court specifically.  Now the situation becomes complex, and disturbing as well.  In rabbinic tradition, only men are qualified and able to give testimony in a bet din.  According to Maimonides, there are ten categories of people who are disqualified from being witnesses. (“Laws of Witnesses”, Chapter 9, Paragraph 1) Women, servants and minors are among the excluded.  Does that mean it is OK for them to lie? Since this commandment is understood by rabbinic Judaism to refer to courtroom testimony, does that mean there is no general commandment against lying?

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Some Pesach Mitzvot

Posted by rabbiart on April 28, 2008

Section 613

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover a number of Mitzvot that all have to do with eating the Pesach offering. These Mitzvot are shown below, and you can read the twelfth chapter of Shemot here.

Mitzvah #7: Not to eat (and therefore not to undercook) the Pesach offering raw or only slightly roasted: Shemot 12:9

Mitzvah #8: Not to leave over any of the Pesach offering to the next day (15th of Nissan): Shemot 12:10

Mitzvah #13: Not to give an apostate Jew any part of the Pesach offering to eat: Shemot 12:43

Mitzvah #14: Not to give a partial proselyte nor a resident alien any part of the Pesach offering to eat: Shemot 12:45

Mitzvah #15: Not to carry any part of the Pesach offering outside of one’s house: Shemot 12:46

Mitzvah #16: Not to break any bone of the Pesach offering: Shemot 12:46

Mitzvah #17: That no uncircumcised person eat of the Pesach offering: Shemot 12:48

We have already explored Mitzvot #5 and #6 which also involve the ritual slaughtering and eating of the Pesach offering. In this issue we examine the remainder of the Mitzvot in Parshat Bo that relate to this offering. First, a review. The captive Israelites have been instructed to separate out from their flocks a one year old lamb (or goat) without blemish. The lamb is chosen on the 10th of Nissan, kept until the 14th. At the beginning of the 14th of Nissan (which becomes Erev Pesach) it is slaughtered, roasted with fire and eaten. The blood was to be smeared on the doorposts and lintel of the houses where the Israelites lived.

At first glance Mitzvot 13, 14 and 17 might appear harsh and “unfriendly”, as they forbid us from sharing the Pesach offering with individuals who are not part of the Jewish people. The reader may disagree, of course, but I believe that there is nothing wrong with saying that there are religious practices that are not appropriate, and therefore not performed, by persons who are not ritually and officially Jewish. The purpose of all of these mitzvot is to recognized, recall and remember what HaShem did for our ncestors in freeing us from the servitude of Mitzrayim (Egypt). An individual who has removed him or herself from the Jewish people should not (and probably would not want to) celebrate what HaShem did for the Jewish people. An individual who may be intending to but has not joined the Jewish people, is not ready to participate in the Jewish conversation with G-d.

If this line of reasoning makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps a simple and deliberately silly analogy will be helpful. Imagine yourself playing a game of baseball with your friends, and someone comes along holding a football. You can welcome the new person to join the baseball game and play a game according to baseball rules. But if he says, I want to use my football, and I want to kick it when its my turn to bat, you explain to him that this is not the baseball game is played. This does not mean that you disrespect the game of football or think a football is a bad thing; you’re simply not playing football – you’re playing baseball. Baseball requires baseball players. Similarly with Jewish observance – it requires Jews, and has to be done according to the rules of Judaism, however we understand them.

Want to learn more about the traditional mitzvot? Start here.

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The Pascal Sacrifice – How Yummy is it?

Posted by rabbiart on April 28, 2008

Section 613

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

Mitzvah #6: The commandment to eat the Pesach offering

This commandment is anchored to the Torah via Shmot 12:8, which reads (regarding the first ever Pesach sacrifice) “and they shall eat the flesh on that night.” It is one of a dozen commandments having to do with the observance of Pesach. The observance of Pesach is of course all about remembering the great miracles which HaShem did for us in taking us out of the servitude of Mitzrayim.

In order to fulfill this Mitzvah one would have eaten an amount of the Pesach sacrifice that is equivalent to the bulk of a reasonably sized olive — k’zayit. This is a standard measure of food consumptiion for halachic
purposes.

This mitzvah is considered to only be in force and applicable to men and women, during the time the Jerusalem Temple is in existence. In our day, we perform this Mitzvah symbolically during our Pesach Seder because the Jerusalem Temple is no longer in operation.

Want to learn more about the traditional mitzvot? Start here.

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An Atheist and A True American Hero

Posted by rabbiart on April 26, 2008

Rabbis are not usually in the position of endorsing atheism or praying for atheists. And atheists are likely to be unmoved by prayers that are said on their behalf. However, anyone who considers him or herself truly religious ought to stop for a moment and offer up a prayer for the safety and future career of U.S. Army Sergeant Jeremy Hall. Sgt. Hall has filed a lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others for failure to protect his personal safety from other American soldiers and for denying him a promotion to which it appears he is at least as well qualified as other soldiers who have received similar promotions. Sgt. Hall was told by his chain of command that his is not suitable leadership material because he is – according to the words of the lawsuit – unable to put aside his personal beliefs and pray with his men.”

According to the CNN report occasioned by the filing of the lawsuit, the Army told Sgt. Hall that it could not protect him from his fellow soldiers, and then transferred him stateside to fort Riley, where he continues to be a team leader in a military police battalion.

There are unfortunately too many people in the world who claim to be of strong faith, whose faith seems to demand that everyone else have an identical faith. IMHO, as we say in the web world, a faith that cannot withstand, much less embrace, differing expressions of faith, is not a strong faith at all. It is, instead, weak, weak, weak. The “watchword of our faith” as some have called the שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד (Listen israel, Ado-nai is our G-d, Ado-nai is One) is also saying to us that our G-d, whom we know as Ado-nai, is also the G-d of everyone who calls upon him (or her if you like). Yes, we have our faith, but others have theirs, and the fact they have a faith different from us, should not cause us to question our own.

Why Sergeant Hall is an American Hero

He is standing up for what he believes in.  He chose not to go along to get along. Let’s pray that he doesn’t get a fragging based case of Nathan Hale disease.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Looking for my Judaism

Posted by rabbiart on April 23, 2008

My dear friend Chauncey Bell forwarded me this note from an email list he reads and asks how I would have responded.

Dear Rabbi J.,

You are perhaps the only Rabbi that I feel I can write to about the following painful subject.

I grew up in a very secular home, with no faith and no G-d. My parents were both highly intelligent, cultured individuals. My father amassed a fortune as a shrewd and successful businessman, while my mother was a professional in her own right. But despite my family’s stature, we grew up in a loveless home. Our parents were not there for us, nor were they there for each other. My parents were not loyal to each other and ultimately divorced, leaving my siblings and me adrift.

I was always conscious of being Jewish, though I knew nothing about it. As I suffered through my un-nurturing home life, I began a spiritual search that ultimately led me to the Jewish community. There I found a warmth and love that I had never before experienced. The power of Jewish tradition – Shabbat, prayer, even kosher – resonated with me. Not that commitment came easily to me. But I appreciated the power of commitment – something I had never really experienced. My life was all about shifting loyalties, broken promises, dashed dreams – all creating profound distrust and insecurity. But now I discovered something new: Committed people to each other, to family, to community and to a higher calling. It was quite compelling. I also sensed a simplicity and even rejection of the high culture I grew up in. Most of the religious Jews I met were not open to other ideas and to a free-spirited perspective. But I reckoned that perhaps the trade-off was worth it: Sacrificing some of the beauty of art and literature, but without a rudder, for a life of trust, love and commitment, with very strong sense of purpose.

I was seduced by the observant lifestyle, and I slowly but surely became totally observant myself. At some point I couldn’t do enough. I made friends quickly and was welcomed into the community with open arms. For every friend and family I came to know another set of traditions became part of my regimen. I began using my Hebrew name in place of my secular one. I was kissing mezuzahs, reciting Tehillim, running to synagogue, praying at holy places, tying red strings on every one of my joints. I even took an extended leave from work to go study in a Yeshiva in Israel. And I met many others on a similar journey. As I look back at it now, it all was a blurring whiz – I was completely taken and consumed by the euphoria, like a marathon runner whose legs can’t stop moving, being pulled along on the adrenalin generated by the cheers of all the bystanders and the momentum of my fellow runners.

Pretty soon I was one of those “baalei teshuvah,” with various Rabbis and Rebbetzin’s taking credit for my miraculous “return” to my roots. Adding a feather to many caps, I was then deluged with “shidduchim,” potential marriage mates, whom I began to date. At that point, I began to feel my own self re-emerging and wasn’t really sure what I wanted outside of the demands and pressures of those around me. Truth be told, their intentions were for the most part pure, but they simply did not allow me to be myself. With the argument that they – or as they would put it, the “Torah” – knows better. I realized that my great hunger for spirit and meaning totally overwhelmed my senses and my sense of self, and I was being carried on the waves of enthusiasm. I seriously couldn’t distinguish between who I was as opposed to who others thought I was; between my individual needs and the expectations of me. The boundaries became blurred: where did others end and where did I begin?

And then the ax fell. The honeymoon was over. As I began to land and returned to my daily routines, I also began to see many of the flaws of the communities that embraced me. Frankly, that did not disturb me at all. I was not a child nor naïve; I understood that every social circle has its strengths and its weaknesses. People are people. What drew me to the religious community was not a fantastic expectation that I found perfect people; rather that I had found a perfect Judaism – a way that G-d wants us to live. What ended up truly troubling me was that so many of the religious community were simply mindless and mechanical – and callous. That too is forgivable; the secular world is not much different. What was not forgivable, however, was that in their mindlessness (masked in blind faith) many were cruel and selfish. And to top it off, when “dressed” in religious garb, the self-righteousness is simply unbearable. From condescension to outright arrogance, anything that did not neatly fit into the “comfortable” zone of the initiated was simply dismissed or criticized. Religion was much more about appearances and mechanics than it was about inner spiritual development. Except for a rare few, I did not witness introspection, an effort in personal refinement and growth, deepening love and relationships. That’s fine, as long as you don’t spend your time your time criticizing others and convincing yourself that you are better than others just because you are wearing a sheitel.

My questions, for example, became the irritating voice of the malcontent. From “she’s too independent” to the profoundly psychological “what can you do, she comes from a dysfunctional family,” people seemed to need to explain me away some way, instead of just having an intelligent conversation that perhaps would enlighten us all.

Especially destructive were those Rabbis and teachers who always knew “what was best for me.” I appreciate their scholarship, but many are quite unevolved when it comes to human emotions and personal refinement. They hide behind texts and quote chapters, verses and halachot. But some simply are clueless of the “fifth” shulchan aruch – common sense. Some of these “authorities” felt that they have to baby-sit for the “nebech” me and others who unfortunately did not grow up “frum.” Their guidance, I understand today, was anything but empowering. It was not driven by confidence in our souls, but by fear that we would wander off. Their intentions may have been fine, but they fundamentally believe that in Judaism there is an “us” and a “them,” “haves” and “have-nots,” and that they were superior to the less informed and educated. If you rejected their advice, on whatever grounds, you were turned on, blacklisted and cast out of the “inner circle.”

Today I am alienated and angry. Lonely and disturbed. And yes, I have regressed in my observance. I deeply love the spiritual path of Judaism. [Not all is lost, Rabbi. I still kiss mezuzahs and wear my red string… Among other things that I cherish and embrace, including Shabbat]. Yet I cannot find a community where I can belong. Equally sad are the other lonely souls that I meet with similar stories.

Many have completely rejected the Jewish tradition that they once embraced. Some are livid when it comes to this topic. I am not in that category. Please understand: I am not writing to you to vent my grievances or to just criticize the “system.” I see much of its beauty and am eternally grateful to those that took me in, taught me and in many ways transformed my life.

I am writing on a personal level: How should I view my experience? What should I be doing? Is there hope?

D. A.

__________

In answer to my friend’s question, here is how I would have responded.

Dear D.A.

My heart goes out to you for your experiences, positive and negative, in your family and with your search for a significant and loving spiritual path with the Jewish tradition. I hope that you will find your way to a community that you will experience as sensitive, loving, and spiritual. And rabbis who will help you find – in your own way – what is best for you.

We know that when a person has been deprived of food and water for a long period of time she will have a tendency to want to drink and eat too much too quickly. The body is then overwhelmed and can be further damaged. It is better to give such a person only a little food and drink at first and then to gradually feed her until her body returns to a more normal state.

So it is with love and with religious observance. There is a danger in trying to go too fast and too quickly. Perhaps this will resonate with you as descriptive of your experience. In my rabbinic practice I often encounter people who come from a place of little or no Jewish knowledge and experience. They then seek to immediately immerse themselves in what they perceive to be the most authentic Jewish community, which can be mistaken for the most traditional or Orthodox community they can find. Because each human spirit is different, this can be a good and proper path to Jewish meaning. But for some, it is the equivalent of too much food and drink. When, as you write, “normal” returns, then the flaws (which all individuals and all communities have, because we are all imperfect human beings) become apparent, and at times, overwhelming.

I encourage you to continue your search for a spiritual path to Judaism and a community to locate yourself in. We are fortunate in our day to have many, many varieties of Jewish experience, and certainly there is a community that you will find a home in. This is what you should be doing, and yes, there is great hope. And if I can help you further with your search, my telephone number is below. Call me.

Posted in Jewish Practice | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Pesach Torah Readings

Posted by rabbiart on April 23, 2008

This Shabbat – and on Sunday, the eighth day of Pesach, we depart from the weekly cycle of Torah readings. (We continue next week with Kedoshim). The reading for Shabbat (seventh day of Pesach) begins in the very moment that the Israelites have escaped from Mitzrayim and are lead by HaShem to the Sea of Reeds. The reading for the eighth day begins with the instruction to sanctify our first born animals to HaShem. It continues with instructions for observing Pesach, counting the Omer, and observing the holiday of Shavuot wherein we commemorate the reception of the Torah.

The first rebellion

At the end of the Shabbat Torah reading, we find the Israelites already questioning Moshe’s leadership. At a place that has entered the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy (Psalm 95), the people come to Marah (Hebrew for bitter) and are unable to drink the water, because it is bitter. HaShem provides a tree, which Moshe throws into the water. The water turns sweet and the people drink. This appears to have been a test, for HaShem then makes the prounouncement that is the final verse of our Shabbat Torah reading.

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְו‍ֹתָיו, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל-חֻקָּיו–כָּל-הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם, לֹא-אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, רֹפְאֶךָ

He said “If you will really listen to the voice of Adonai your god, and do what is right in his eyes, and pay attention to his mitzvot and keep all his laws, then all the diseases that I put on Mitzrayim, I will not put on you, for I am Adonai, your healer.”

Is this statement a threat, a promise, or simply a way of saying that actions have consequences? Perhaps it is a combination of all three. I suspect for most readers, the idea that Hashem threatens us is an uncomfortable notion. We are much happier with a G-d who makes promises, or a naturalistic notion that there are inevitably consequences to how we behave.

Why was Psalm 95 chosen as the first prayer of the Kabbalat Shabbat? True, the psalm calls us to worship HaShem, and mentions “rest”, but it also deliberately recalls the first post-Egypt questioning of Moshe’s (and HaShem’s) leadership. Not only that, but the psalm reminds us that the wilderness generation – which was not spiritually free – could not enter the promised land. One way to read this passage is that failing to observe and guard the Shabbat, to take full benefit of its time for rest, study and renewal, is to live a life akin to wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Not fully slave, but not yet fully free.

Counting the Omer, about which we read on the last day of Pesach, links Yitziat Mitzrayim (the escape from Egypt) to the holiday of Shavuot (weeks) which celebrates the reception of the Torah. There is a relationship between the Pesach – Shavuot connection, and the process for making matzah. Strange as it seems ( and it does seem strange) the ingredients for chametz (bread) and matzah are the same; flour and water. The only difference between the two is time. When mixing flour and water to make matzah, the dough must get into the oven and start baking in no more than eighteen minutes. Anything longer, and it turns into chametz which cannot be eaten on Pesach.

The relationship of Pesach and Shavuot is also one of time. The wilderness generation escapes from Egypt, and the same people stand at Sinai to receive the Torah. When they are presented by Moshe with the opportunity to escape Egypt, they are hesitant and unwilling. When they are presented with the opportunity of Torah at Sinai, they respond נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע “We will do and understand”. What is different? The passage of time. Time – and the experiences that come with it – change us. Shabbat is a sanctuary built in time. Seven Shabbatot, properly observed, can change us from people who want to be slaves, to people who want to be free. This is the connection between Pesach and Shavuot, and why Pesach “is not over” until we get to Shabbat.

According to rabbinic tradition, counting the Omer is a single mitzvah that must be performed over the 49 days of the Omer. If one misses a single day, s/he should stop counting, because the Mitzvah can no longer be performed. To “succeed” in this Mitzvah, one must pay attention every single day, demonstrating control over time. The person who can succeed at maintaining this level of intention, is well on the way to being grounded in the serious practice of following the Torah’s teachings, regardless of where s/he is in the Jewish spectrum of orientation, practice and knowledge. Counting the Omer is truly a mitzvah accessible to each and every Jew; reform, orthodox, renewal, conservative, humanist, cultural, atheist, conservadox, chabadnik, hassidic, mitnagid, even karaite (if we can find any). A mitzvah all jews could agree on. Perhaps the mashiach might be on his way after all.

Shabbat Shalom

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Dude – Where’s my matzah?

Posted by rabbiart on April 22, 2008

The San Francisco Chronicle reported today on a Bay Area wide shortage of matzah. Apparently, all the stores have run out, and its only the third day of Pesach! Hmmm. should have invested in this precious commodity right after Purim. I think we’re down to our last box and a half. Hmmm number 2. Do bees make matzah? Both are in short supply this year.

What exactly is the commandment regarding matzah? Are we required to eat matzah, or only to abstain from eating hometz? In the same verse we are told to avoid hametz, we are told to eat matzah! (Shemot 12:20 Read it here. Earlier in the chapter (verse 15) we’re told to eat unleavened bread for seven days. So it would seem that the explanation we all learned in hebrew school, that the Israelites had to flee Egypt so fast there was not time for the bread to rise, and it became matzah (verse 39) might not be the real reason.

How widespread is the shortage? It’s everywhere!

The Matzah shortage was reported in Reno, Nevada by April 15. And according to the New York Times (April 22), the matzah shortage is coast to coast in the U.S. At the tail end of the article is the best part of the story. In a scene reminiscent of the famous Seinfeld “babka” episode, one lone box of matzah was fought over by two customers, one of whom successfully grabbed it and ran triumphantly down the store aisle.

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