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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayikra

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5776)
PRIESTS, POLITICS, AND PURIM
“If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a purification offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 4:3)
The book of Leviticus begins with the laws of animal sacrifice. Although such sacrifice disappeared from Jewish life two millennia ago, we can still learn from these laws. For example, we read about sin offerings, a sacrifice brought to find atonement after one has committed some transgression. The type of offering depends on who sinned. If a priest sins, since he is the religious leader and has led the whole community astray, he brings a more expensive animal – a bull without blemish. If a chieftain or political leader sins, he must bring a male goat. And if an ordinary person sins, he or she can bring a female goat, the least expensive animal.
We no longer bring sin offerings today. But we can learn from this that leaders are held to higher standard, and atonement for their sins is more difficult and expensive. When one chooses to become the leader of a people, one is expected to be more scrupulous in the observance of the commandments. A leader has the potential of leading an entire community astray.
I am writing this the day after the Florida presidential primary. This seems to be a perfect subject as we follow the primary results and decide who shall be leader of our nation. I will not endorse a candidate nor share who I voted for, nor will I write about particular issues of public policy. Rather I want to look at three qualities I want to find in a person who desires to be a leader. If these qualities are lacking I will not support a candidate, even if I like their policies.
The first quality I look for in a leader is ethics. How do they conduct their personal life, both privately and publicly? Sadly, experience has shown that leaders often compromise their ethics. Perhaps the inner drive to leadership is the same as the drive to questionable behavior. The Talmud tells the story of the great rabbi Abaye who followed a man and woman on a walk to make sure nothing unseemly happened. When nothing happened, Abaye became very upset. “If I had been with that woman I would have been unable to control myself.” An old man responded to Abaye, “The greater the man, the greater the evil inclination.” (Sukkah 52b)
There are too many temptations in this world, and those in positions of power can often be overcome by such temptation. Think of King David and Bathsheba. There is a reason why I like candidates who at least have some degree of religious practice. Going to church or synagogue does not necessarily make one ethical, but it can be a regular reminder that God judges our behavior.
The second quality I look for in a leader is healing. I want to elect people who will bring us together, not separate us. I look at rhetoric; does it promote healing? Perhaps one of the great examples from Jewish tradition was Moses’ brother Aaron. The Talmud says that Aaron was a man who “sought peace and pursued peace (Avot 1:12).” The people mourned the death of Aaron much more than the death of Moses. Christian tradition put the famous beatitude in the mouth of Jesus. “Blessed be the peace makers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).” Although I am not a Christian, on this one I believe the Christians got it right.
The third quality I look for in a leader is vision. Whether someone wishes to be the leader of a synagogue, a condo association, a city, or our nation, I want to know how they envision the future. The Bible teaches, “Where there is no vision the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).” In a similar way, the prophet Joel says, “The old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions (Joel 3:1).” This became the lyrics of one of Jewish composer Debbie Friedman’s greatest songs. I want to ask the candidates to stop attacking one another and say, what is your dream and what is your vision?
That brings me to Purim, and poor King Ahasuerus, a leader who failed. He lacked ethics, proven by his treatment of his first wife Vashti. He lacked healing, proven by his appointment of the Jew hater Haman as prime minister. And he lacked vision, proven by his willingness to put his seal on an order to destroy the Jews. As a result, Ahasuerus brought near ruin on his kingdom. Luckily the cruel situation was reversed by the appointment of a true leader Mordecai as Prime Minister. May we learn from the Purim story to appoint leaders worthy of leadership.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5775)
CLASS WARFARE
“If his means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, he shall bring as his offering for that of which he is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a purification offering.” (Leviticus 5:11)
Over the years I have often heard the following words. “My daughter is dating a very nice young man. He seems to really like her. But I believe that he is beneath her.” This is a statement about class. It seems to reflect the old canard that a girl should marry up – someone of a higher class or caste. The idea is so common that social scientists have a word for it – hypergamy. Of course, in our more egalitarian age, I also hear this about sons. “I like our son’s girlfriend but I think she is beneath him.”
Human beings tend to see the world in terms of class. On one end are the ultra-rich, the movers and shakers, the business leaders and celebrities and athletes. Then there are the merely wealthy, those who live in the upper class neighborhoods, drive the fancy cars, and send their children to the top private schools. Children born into this class will usually live lives of privilege. Then there is the middle class, often divided between white collar and blue collar workers, between those with a college education and those without. Finally there is the large underclass, barely surviving economically and often living in high crime neighborhoods. This class stratification is present in the United States but often more noticeable in other countries, particularly in the third world.
This past weekend the most popular movie in the theaters was Disney’s newly released live action version of Cinderella. I listened to a National Public Radio interview of two scholars of fairy tales speak about why the Cinderella story is so popular. They gave many answers but they particularly mentioned the dream of the poor girl from the cinders marrying the prince and going from rags to riches. Is that not the dream of every young girl? And as they sing in the movie, “A dream is a wish your heart makes.”
One can understand this class distinction in India which is trying to overcome its traditional caste system. In India there are deeply held religious beliefs that one is born into a caste based on one’s actions in a previous life. (That is the true meaning of the term karma.) If one behaves properly in this life, whatever one’s caste, one can reach a higher caste in the next life. So there is a certain passivity and acceptance of class distinctions.
In the West people are not so sanguine about class distinctions. Karl Marx blamed class on material economic forces, and spoke of a classless society in the future. Of course, we know that those Communist countries that embraced Marxist ideas such as the former Soviet Union were far from classless. The Russian upper class had their dachas in the countryside. We often hear politicians, particularly of the left, lambast class distinctions and the income gap between the rich and the poor. But it appears that class divisions seem like something that is here to stay.
Are people really different based on class? This week’s portion speaks of sin offerings, sacrifices that can help people atone – become at-one with God. If a political or religious leader sins, he brings one kind of more expensive sacrifice. The ordinary person brings a sheep or goat. But what if he or she cannot afford an animal? Then he or she can bring birds, pigeons or turtledoves. But what if he or she cannot afford a bird? Then he or she can bring a flour offering. All people from every class have an equal opportunity to become at one with God. All people are equal in God’s eyes.
It appears that there will always be someone privileged to sit in the corner office with the view of the city. And there will always be a secretary or administrative assistant who types the letters and answers the phone for that person in the corner office. And there will always be a janitor or cleaning person who will come each evening and to empty the trash and vacuum that corner office. Three human beings of three different classes. Yet all three are equal in the eyes of God. And all three are worthy of respect.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5774)
TO MEET NOT MERELY BY CHANCE
“The Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 1:1)
Greetings from Maryland. I am up here to attend the Policy Conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in Washington D.C. Joining me were about 14,000 others including about 500 rabbis (more than any Rabbinic convention) and a record number of college students. And of course, while I am up here, I also spent time with my daughter Aliza, her new husband Darren, and his family. Meanwhile, on Monday the entire Washington metro area shut down because of snow and then fell into a single digit deep freeze. I do miss Florida.
While at the conference, there were several of my college students I wanted to see. But how do you find people in a huge convention center filled with thousands of people. Yet, within the first couple hours of my arrival I ran into everyone I wanted to see. Over the next two days I met up with numerous rabbis, several of whom I had not seen in several years. I also ran into a cousin of mine from Los Angeles whom I did not realize was there. Somehow, by fate or happenstance or perhaps a greater power, I met everyone I needed to meet.
This started me thinking about the people we meet up with as we go through life. Often these people set us on the trajectory we follow into the future. I think of a man I met in Athens when I was a young student studying abroad. We wondered around together talking and viewing the sights. I do not remember his name and I never saw him again after that day. Yet that conversation set me on the path towards eventually applying to Rabbinical school. Did I meet him by chance or was in somehow meant to be?
This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah – Leviticus. The Hebrew name is viyikra – literally “and he called.” God calls out to Moses and begins to share with him the detailed laws of the sacrificial offerings. Much of the detail is not meaningful in this modern world where animal sacrifice is a distant memory. But there is a relevant insight in that first word of the new book.
The last letter of the word viyikra is an aleph, which is written much smaller than the other letters. It is almost as if the question comes up, do we need that aleph or not. With the aleph, the word mean “called”, God deliberately called out to Moses. Without the aleph the word takes on a different meaning – “happened” or “chanced.” God merely chanced on Moses. It was not deliberate but mere happenstance. By putting this questionable aleph in, the Torah is teaching that God meeting Moses was not mere happenstance. It was deliberate and planned.
So too, the same idea applies when we meet people in our lives. Perhaps we are meeting them by mere happenstance. If we had walked down a different corridor or stayed in a different hotel, we would not have met them. But perhaps it is not mere happenstance. We meet people because we were meant to meet them. There is a greater power at work. I keep thinking of the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyric from The King and I, “you walk down the street on the chance that you’ll meet, and you meet not merely by chance.” Perhaps there is a reason why we meet the people who we meet.
If our interactions with people are not mere happenstance, then suddenly the people we meet, even total strangers, become much more important in our lives. We never know who was sent in our direction by a greater power. All of a sudden people take on an importance for us. Strangers are not there by happenstance; they can make a difference in our lives. We can now understand the words of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who taught that whenever we confront the other, it puts obligations upon us. In life we face the other, incur obligations towards them, and our behavior changes us.
All this brings me back to the AIPAC conference. I did not have a face-to-face encounter with 14,000 other people. But this has become the major Jewish happening in our nation. And it is an opportunity to encounter people that can not only transform United States – Israel relations, but can transform us.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5773)
ORTHODOX OR HETERODOX
“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:3)
Early in my career, when I was first becoming involved in serious Jewish observance, I often imagined myself standing over a deep chasm. One foot was on one side and the other foot was on the other side, and slowly the chasm was separating. I knew that I had to jump one way or the other. But which way to jump? This was a metaphor in my mind for my struggle with Jewish observance. On one side was the Orthodox world, which in so many ways was extremely appealing. Here was a community with shared values, and a tradition with clear answers to the deepest questions. On the other side were various forms of non-Orthodox religious observance; what I call heterodoxy. There was far less clarity, and the community of shared values was lacking. Yet this side seemed to have greater intellectual openness, and an embrace of the changes happening in the world. I was torn between these two worlds.
Eventually I did make the jump. I jumped towards heterodoxy. As appealing as an Orthodox life style and community were, there were parts of that community I could not accept. There were beliefs taught in the Orthodox world that I did not believe, such as the fact that the entire Torah was given to Moses in the form that we have it today. And there were practices I could not accept as God’s will, such as the lack of participation by women in synagogue rituals. Even with its lack of clarity and debates over which direction to go, I cast my fate with the non-Orthodox world. And I have no regrets about that decision.
One of the areas where that gap between orthodoxy and heterodoxy is most clear is how they deal with the beginning of the book of Leviticus. The book is a detailed manual for the priesthood (kohanim) on how to handle animal sacrifices in the ancient Temple. For most of its early history, Judaism was based on a Temple cult of animal offerings, performed in elaborate detail by a hereditary priesthood. Only with the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. did this Temple cult disappear. It was replaced by a religion based on Torah study and synagogue worship.
For Orthodox Jews, this situation is temporary. After all, animal sacrifice is part of God’s law, lovingly described through much of Leviticus. Orthodox Jews pray on Shabbat and on the Festivals for the reestablishment of the ancient Temple. Maimonides in his great code of Jewish law, recounts in great detail all the rituals of Temple sacrifice. In this sense, Maimonides was an Orthodox Jew. Today in fact, there is a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where kohanim, descendents of the ancient priesthood, can study all the details of the sacrificial system. They will be ready as soon as the Third Temple is rebuilt.
For heterodox Jews, whether Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal, such animal sacrifice is part of our past. We have moved to a different stage and there is no desire to return to these ancient rituals. When we pray for the restoration of the Temple, we recall the sacrifices that our ancestors brought in Jerusalem. We study them to learn insights. But we do not pray to begin bringing such sacrifices again. Even Maimonides, in his philosophical writings, says that such animal sacrifice was a concession to the mindset of people in earlier times. In this sense, Maimonides was a heterodox Jew.
I suppose that I made the decision not to observe or believe as my Orthodox colleagues observe and believe, because I view Judaism as constantly evolving. In fact, I believe all religions, like all other human institutions, evolve and change. The Judaism I practice is not the Judaism of my great-grandparents, and theirs was not the Judaism of medieval mystics nor Talmudic rabbis nor Biblical prophets. Certainly there is less clarity and more confusion in the non-Orthodox world. But there is also great opportunity to look anew at the ultimate question asked long ago by the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you?” (Micah 6:8) My Judaism is a search for the answer to that question.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5771)
LIFE AND DEATH

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.” (Leviticus 1:1-2)

Yesterday I did something that I have never done in over thirty years as a rabbi. I was called to the bedside of a woman during the last moments of her life. The family wanted me there as they unhooked her from the machine that was artificially keeping her alive. I said the vidui prayer for her and the shma. (The vidui is a confessional prayer traditionally said on one’s deathbed. And of course, the shma is the final prayer one says in life.) Then I watched as her heartbeat stopped and her soul left her body. She was surrounded by family and dear friends. In the end, when it was clear that she was gone, I quoted the Biblical verse: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, praised be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
As a rabbi, I deal with life and death almost daily. But this is the first time I was actually present as someone passed on. My own emotions at that moment were complex. I was sad for a family which was losing a beloved mother. At the same time, I felt a deep sense of the presence of that miracle we call life. At birth, a group of cells and tissues, mere material objects come together; suddenly they are animated by a living spirit. Birth is the literal embodiment of the Biblical verse, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:8) How a material object made of mere atoms and molecules can think, be aware, and love, is the miracle.
In death I sensed the exact opposite. God was taking back God’s breath of life that had animated this human being some ninety years. Another Biblical verse was coming true, “The dust returns to earth from whence it came, the soul returns to God Who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) Her body was left behind but the body was not the person. The essence of the human being had returned to that spiritual reality from whence it came. And so, at this emotional moment, I sensed the miracle of life and death. I understood why, in the Jewish tradition, we bless God at the moment of death just as we bless God at the moment of birth.
Most of us do not witness death. Our love ones die in hospital beds, hooked to machines. I am pleased by the growth of the hospice movement, which has allowed people to spend the last days of their life in greater comfort, either at home or in a comfortable room. When the soul leaves the body it is a holy moment; we ought to encourage loved ones to be present. And yet we live in a society that wants to protect people from death.
That brings me to our weekly Torah portion. We begin reading the third book of the Torah – Leviticus. And the book begins with the difficult issue of animal sacrifice. Through most of human history, humans showed their devotion to God by bringing various animals and offering them up on the altar. Some cultures still practice such sacrifice. In Judaism, since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, animal sacrifice has disappeared from Jewish life. We have substituted daily prayers in the synagogue for the ancient rituals in the Temple. Few of us want to see a return to animal sacrifice. That was our past; we have moved beyond it.
And yet, in the world of animal sacrifice, life and death was a reality in the daily lives of people. The average human being saw animals born and saw animals die. If they ate the flesh of the animal (certain sacrifices were shared as a communal feast), they knew where that animal came from. Today most of us continue to eat meat. When I want a steak, I go into a kosher butcher shop where everything is sanitized and prepackaged. The reality is hidden. In our modern world we have lost the sense of being in the presence of both birth and death.
Certainly I do not want to compare the loss of an animal with the death of a beloved human being. And yet there is a common thread. When death happens out of sight, we miss a powerful spiritual experience. In birth a living soul comes into this material world; in death a living soul leaves this material world. Both point to the presence of God.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5770)

SIN?

“If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt …” (Leviticus 4:27)

Last week I saw Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland. I even saw it in 3d, which made me somewhat dizzy. It was enjoyable, if not a totally accurate retelling of Lewis Carroll’s great book. Unfortunately, my favorite scene from the original was left out.
In my favorite scene, when Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, she asks him “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice says, “I don’t much care where.” So the cat famously says, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
If we do not care where we are going, then it does not matter which way we go. But if there is a path we ought to go on, a direction we need to take, then the way we go becomes very important. This little scene from Alice in Wonderful gives us some insight into a central religious idea – sin. What is sin? It is going down the wrong path. Literally in Hebrew, the word chata – “sin” comes from archery; it means to miss the target. There is a way we ought to go, and in some area of our lives we have gone the wrong way.
Many New Age thinkers deny that sin exists. “Whichever way you are going, that is the way you were meant to go.” But from a classical religious view, it is not only possible but likely that we will go down the wrong path. As the Bible teaches, “For there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20) This week’s portion deals with sin offerings. In Biblical times, a person would go to the priest and bring an animal sacrifice, and through following the prescribed rituals that person would find atonement for the sin.
How do we find atonement for sin today? Here is an area where Christians and Jews have taken different paths. Christians speak about “the fall;” “by Adam’s fall, sinners all.” We humans are so steeped in sin that there is no way to find our way out of it. Only divine grace can bring atonement. (Amazing Grace is a beautiful Christian hymn built on these theological ideas, but the words are foreign to Judaism.) Just as in the ancient Temple there was a sin offering that removed sin, so Jesus himself was a sin offering who removed sin. Just as the ancient sin offering was without blemish, so Jesus was without blemish. Christians have built an entire theology around original sin, vicarious atonement, and divine grace. It is so compelling that Christianity is the largest faith in the world.
With all due respect to my Christian neighbors, Judaism took a different path. What happened in the Garden of Eden was not a fall, but a rise. By eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve rose above the animal and reached the ability to make moral decisions. Humanity learned right from wrong. And with it came the ability to change ways, switch paths, and go from the wrong path to the right path. The reaction to sin was not an offering but rather a commitment to change one’s ways.
My tradition makes the radical claim that people can change. Someone who has gone down the wrong path for most of a lifetime can switch to the right path. A drinker can stop drinking, a philanderer can remain faithful, and a person with a bad temper can learn to control anger. There is a proper path and through an act of will, although often difficult, a person can move down the right path.
Alice’s mistake was that she had no idea where she wanted to go. For us, wisdom is to know where we want to go and then try to get on the right path.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5769)

GOD: NEAR OR FAR?
“Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd, and of the flock.”
(Leviticus 1:2)
This week we begin the third book of the Torah – Leviticus. And the book immediately begins with the arcane laws of animal sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban from the Hebrew root karav – a term that literally means “to get close.” In ancient times sacrifice was the way that Israelites brought God closer to them, or perhaps better, brought themselves closer to God. This raises the question, is God near or far?
I recently discussed this question with a group of high school students. I began with a Hasidic story: A student asks his Rebbe (a Hasidic rabbi), “How far are we from God?” The Rebbe answers, “As far as east to west.” He responds, “That far! A person can walk 12000 miles east and another can walk 12000 miles west before they would meet.” The Rebbe answers, “That’s right, my son, God is that far.” A second student asks her Rebbe, “How far are we from God?” The Rebbe answers, “As far as east to west.” She responds, “That close! A person can be facing east, simply turn around in the same place, and be facing west.” The Rebbe answers, “That’s right, my daughter, that close.” God can be that far and that close.
The first answer is a transcendent view of God. God is far from this world and it is difficult to ever become close. This is the view of God pictured in the classic sources of Judaism, including the Biblical vision of creation. The second answer is an immanent view of God. God is immediately present in our lives, present throughout the world. This is the view of God pictured in the Kabbalah and modern Hasidic sources. So is God far or near? I explored these ideas with my students by sharing five images of God. Allow me to share them with you.
Theism – God created a world beyond God’s own self, and God is therefore utterly transcendent. God is beyond the world and the world operates according to its own laws. But now and again God reaches into the world and adjusts the laws of nature – ten plagues break out among the Egyptians, the sea parts and the Israelites cross, the sun stands still for Joshua. Most religious people throughout history and today accept this theistic view of God. For example, we know medically how disease works, but we hope our prayers will move God to intervene and bring a cure. This view of God accepts miracles.
Deism – This view of God was popular during the Enlightenment. Many of the early founders of America including Thomas Jefferson were deists. (Jefferson once translated the Bible leaving out all verses dealing with God’s intervention in the world.) Deists believe in God the creator. But since creation the world works according to its own laws, and God does not intervene. There are no miracles and there can be no dependence on prayer. This is even a more transcendent view of God than theism. (As I mentioned on the High Holidays, my philosophy professor calls deism “God as deadbeat dad.”) It is appealing to many intellectuals but it ignores the human need for a God we can call upon.
Atheism – This view takes deism a step farther by denying the very existence of God. The world goes according to its own laws and there is no divine intervention, no miracles, not even a creator. (Note – atheism says there is no God. Agnosticism does not know.) What began as deism during the Enlightenment evolved into pure atheism in subsequent centuries. Today there are passionate atheists writing best sellers to proclaim their lack of faith.
Pantheism – This is the most immanent view of God. God is the equivalent of nature. This was Spinoza’s view (he was excommunicated by the Jewish community for his radical philosophy.) This was also Einstein’s view, who often said he believed in Spinoza’s God. God equals nature is a powerful idea that appeals to many mystics. But it raises a difficult issue; after all, nature is amoral (survival of the fittest) and God is moral (help the underdog). Where is morality in pantheism?
Panentheism – This is a fancy word that means God is both outside and within nature, both transcendent and immanent, both near and far. It embraces classic theistic views of creation with the kabbalistic image of emanation. More and more modern theologians and Jewish thinkers find this image of God very appealing. We can say God is beyond space and time, but as we say in the Ashrei “God is near to all who call upon Him in truth.” (Psalms 145:18)
As I study more and more, I find my views closer to the panentheism. Where do you stand?

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5768)

RELIGION AND LEVITY

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
(Leviticus 1:1)

We start the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, this coming Shabbat. The book deals with some very serious issues – sin and atonement, impurity and purity, ethics, holiness, and a long list of blessings and curses. Sometimes as I study Jewish tradition, I have to ask – where is the fun? Why does religion have always to be so serious? But then Purim comes around. Let me once again share the thoughts I wrote in our synagogue monthly bulletin.
I find it a strange coincidence that we Jews have a festival, Purim, around the same time that much of the world celebrates Mardi Gras. (This year Purim is a bit later because it is a Jewish leap year.) As a reminder, as much as we Jews love to get into the spirit of “fat Tuesday,” its roots are in the Christian calendar. It is the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
Two very different faiths have a day in the late winter – early spring built on levity and celebration. Overindulgence in drink, partying, wearing masks, and general rowdyness are tolerated in a way that these very serious faiths would not tolerate any other time of year. It is almost as if those of us who take religion seriously need a day of pure celebration, a joyous time to party. And I believe that it is not mere coincidence that the day falls this time of year, when the first signs of rebirth and spring are coming. I have not studied the religious calendar of other faiths, but I would not be surprised if they include similar celebrations.
Religion exists to meet some deep seated human needs. We humans need a connection to some greater purpose. We need a community and we need ritual. We need “a time to mourn and a time to dance,” to quote the book of Ecclesiastes. We need answers to the most fundamental questions of life – why am I here, what happens when I die, what is the right thing to do on this earth? And sometimes, we need to put aside the seriousness and allow levity to take over. We Jews need a Jewish carnival. That is why we need Purim.
Some people have written that if religion is here to meet human needs, then religion must be a human invention. Some very fine philosophers and thinkers are pushing an atheist agenda. “All religions are alike. They must be here to meet some human needs. They are certainly not true. God is an invention of the human imagination that we no longer need in this scientific age.”
I respectfully disagree. I love C.S. Lewis’s thought that the universe was designed in a way that there is something out there to meet human needs. Humans thirst and so there is water. Humans hunger and so there is food. Humans have deep spiritual longings and so there is God and religion.
Judaism in particular and religion in general is quite serious, dealing with life’s ultimate questions. But one day a year, at least in the Jewish faith, we are allowed to go a little crazy. Perhaps both as Jews and as human beings, we need some levity in our spiritual lives. Have a happy Purim.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5767)

CAN MACHINES KEEP MITZVOT – PART 1

“He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.” (Leviticus 1:4)

Our synagogue gift shop sells mezuzot, the small cases with hand written scrolls which Jews put on all their doors. The cases are not costly, but the handwritten scroll that goes inside run $25 each. A scribe had to write each one. To make it more affordable, our gift shop wanted to make photo copies of the scrolls and sell them for a few dollars. I vetoed the idea, saying that such photo copies are not kosher. We could only sell actual handwritten mezuzot.
Why are handwritten scrolls proper and photo copied scrolls improper? This question has profound implications for what it means to keep God’s commandments. The Torah teaches that we should “write them on the doorposts of our house and our gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:9) A human being, acting out of free will, has to literally write them. A copier is a mere machine, which cannot have the will to keep the commandment of writing.
A similar question came up many years ago. I was invited to someone’s home for a Sabbath dinner. When it came time to make the Friday night Kiddush, the prayer over the wine, my hosts turned on a tape recorder. They had a tape of their son chanting the Kiddush, a son who was living in Israel. They listened to his voice on the tape and answered “Amen.” I thought to myself, should I answer Amen to a prayer chanted by a tape recorder? When I hear an actor on television chant a Jewish prayer, do I reply “Amen?” Can a tape recorder or a television pray?
Orthodox Jews do not turn on and off lights or other electrical appliances on the Sabbath. Often they will have automatic timers that will turn these on at set times. I have often heard that it is hypocritical not to switch on a light, but to allow a timer to do the work. But is a timer obligated to keep the Sabbath? Can a machine observe God’s commandments (mitzvoth)? When I discussed this with the teens in my weekly study group, I asked them a question. Suppose a robot could be built which looked human and went through the motions of Jewish prayer rituals. Could I count the robot in the minyan, the quorum of ten needed to conduct the rituals? Is it a mitzvah (commandment) if a machine does it?
Most of the young people answered that it is not a mitzvah if a machine does it? Machines have no consciousness and no free will. A few young people said that today a machine cannot keep commandments, but someday we will develop computers and robots with consciousness and will, and therefore the ability to keep commandments. I respectfully disagreed, but history will tell who is right.
Humans can perform God’s commandments because humans have awareness, free will, and the ability to make decisions. This week we speak about animal sacrifices.
Will God accept a sacrifice if the rituals are done properly but the will is not there? The Torah seems to imply that there must be a proper attitude for the sacrifice to be acceptable to God. After all, God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. Perhaps Cain had the wrong attitude when conducting the ritual. Consciousness and attitude are vital for the performance of mitzot.
The rabbis have a word for the proper attitude or mental state before the performance of a commandment. They call it kavannah, a word meaning “intention” or “devotion.” The Talmud teaches that mitzvoth require kavannah. (Berachot 13a) But not all rabbis agree; there are various opinions that certain mitzvoth, even if performed without concentration, are never-the-less valid. The mere mechanical performance without mindfulness is sufficient. But the important lesson is that we humans are able to choose with our free will, and it is this choice that makes a commandment a commandment.
And yet, what if we really cannot choose? What if we humans are mere machines, as many modern philosophers contend? We will continue with this issue next week.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5766)

LEADERSHIP

“When a ruler has sinned, and done something through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty.” (Leviticus 4:22)

Late last night I returned from a three day trip to New York City. Each year I bring a group of ninth graders (15 year olds) as an incentive to continue studying with me beyond bar and bat mitzvah. It is a wonderful fun trip, although exhausting for me. We see Jewish sights, but also experience such New York activities as walking through Times Square, riding the subway, going to a Broadway Show, and of course, shopping. For Florida kids, there is also the experience off seeing winter. (The first year we had a major snow storm our last day.)
When I first planned the trip, I thought about sending the young people with staff from our synagogue. I am too busy; why do I need to go personally? But the answer is that these young people do not want to simply visit New York; most of them have been there before. They want to go to New York with their rabbi. It is an intense togetherness experience for them and for me. (I admit, I did get a private room to sleep at night. There is a limit to togetherness.) Part of what they enjoyed was getting to know their rabbi up close and personal (although I am for some, a rabbi’s presence put a damper on certain activities.)
Many adults have told me that when they were growing up, they had a very different relationship with their rabbi. The rabbi was a distant, formal figure. He (in those days it was always men) spoke with authority from God. Running to catch a subway car before it closed with their rabbi would have been unthinkable. Getting to know the rabbi as a human being was unusual. Rabbis protected their authority. After all, a rabbi had to be a leader, with the ability to speak in the name of God. Part of how the rabbi maintained that leadership was through distance.
In this week’s portion we speak about the sin offering. A person who broke one of God’s laws had to bring an offering to find atonement (become at one) with God once again. There were different levels of sin offerings depending on who committed the transgression. The average person brought one type of offering. But a leader among the people brought a more expensive offering. Atonement is more difficult when one is a leader. Leadership means being a role model. Others look at leaders to set an example. Therefore, when a leader goes down the wrong path, it is far more serious and requires a larger offering.
If a leader is held to a higher standard, there are two approaches which leaders can take. One is to be a distant, inaccessible, surrounded by yes people. We see many such leaders, not just rabbis and other clergy but politicians, business leaders, celebrities, and even sports leaders who place barriers between themselves and their followers. We have all met the athlete who refuses to ever mingle with fans or give an autograph, and we have all heard of the politician who never goes out among the people. Distance creates an aura of authority and allows one to put up an appearance of flawlessness. Many use this leadership model successfully.
I prefer a different model of leadership, one that is more hands on. The leader truly mingles among those he or she has chosen to lead. Often in doing so, such a leader exposes faults and blemishes that some would prefer to keep hidden. People see the leader for exactly the kind of person he or she is, with both strengths and weaknesses. I am convinced that such a leader can be far more effective at gaining followers and influencing people. That is the reason I go to New York with our young people.
I believe the best rabbis, the best politicians, the best business people, and the best leaders are hands on people, present in the lives of their followers. Of course, with such a style of leadership, a person’s faults are more obvious. Hopefully their strengths are also more obvious.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5764)

WHAT ARE WE WILLING TO SACRIFICE?

“Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them, when any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.”
(Leviticus 1:2)

The new commentary Etz Hayim has a beautiful insight into animal sacrifice. One could bring an offering from the flock or herd, from first fruits or flour. But one cannot bring an offering from fish one has caught or game one has hunted. The reason is that for a sacrifice to be effective, it must mean giving up something we own. “I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)
The word sacrifice means giving something up. In order to get close to God, we must offer something up. Animal sacrifice has long ago passed into history but the idea is still important. In order to achieve anything worthy in life, some sacrifice is important.
Unfortunately, we live in the age of instant gratification. We want everything without effort, sacrifice, or pain. Examples abound:
– We want to have perfect bodies without the difficult discipline of regular exercise and a healthy diet.
– We want great marriages without taking extended one-on-one time with our spouse or lover.
– We want to raise successful happy kids while spending less and less time with them.
– We want to be at the top of our professions without paying our dues or working our way up the ladder.
– We want instant spirituality, without the disciplines necessary to grow our souls.
– We want to perfect the world – tomorrow, forgetting that social change is a long, arduous process.
– Finally, too many young people (and not a few adults) experiment with drugs for instant highs, forgetting that real highs come from hard work and accomplishments.
The Talmud says, “According to the pain is the reward.” (Avot 5:23) Or as moderns often put it, “No pain, no gain.” Anything worth doing in this world involves discipline, sacrifice, commitment, and sometimes a little pain. This is true whether our goal is healthy bodies, successful marriages, lucrative employment, spiritual growth, or perfecting the world. If we are not willing to give up a little of ourselves, nothing worthwhile will happen.
I recently spoke to one of our young people who is struggling with his school work. He admitted that at night he is too tired to study. I recommended that he begin doing his homework earlier in the afternoon. In a moment of honest candor which I appreciated, the young man said, “I don’t have the self-discipline to do my homework earlier.”
In Jewish tradition, children began learning Bible with the chapters on sacrifice. The traditional reason is that since children are pure, let them learn about laws of purity. Perhaps a better reason is that children need to learn the value of self-discipline and self-sacrifice from the very beginning. Discipline and sacrifice do not come naturally to children, nor to adults.
Sacrifice is a central part of successful living. This is as true today as it was when our ancestors received the book of Leviticus. Then they sacrificed goats and sheep, valuable parts of their flocks. Today we must be equally willing to sacrifice time, effort, sweat, money, and part of ourselves if we are to live worthy lives.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5763)

P.E.T.A.

“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.”
(Leviticus 1:2)

Most Jews and many non-Jews were outraged by a recent ad sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.). The ad showed two pictures side by side, one of Jewish victims of the Nazis in a concentration camp, the other of chickens in a cage ready for the slaughter. In between in large letters were the words “The Holocaust on your Plate.”
The Anti-Defamation League said “It is so offensive. They clearly want the attention.” Any Holocaust survivor would be deeply pained by a picture comparing him or her to chickens. A spokesman for P.E.T.A., who happens to be Jewish, responded that, “We are all animals.” On this very point I must take issue with P.E.T.A. and the entire animal rights community.
The central vision of the Torah is that humans are qualitatively different from animals. We are created in the image of God. It was the Nazis who took away human dignity and saw Jews and others as no different from vermin. The first steps in the Nazi’s diabolical plan were the Nuremberg Laws, which slowly took away the dignity of Jews and made them mere animals. The last step was the gas chambers.
This week’s portion deals with animal sacrifice. The notion of bringing cows, sheep, and goats to the Temple to be offered up to God seems foreign, almost barbaric to us moderns. Yet in its time animal sacrifice was a huge step forward. Such sacrifices replaced the normal practice of the ancient pagan peoples – human sacrifice. It was a key step up the evolutionary ladder, that humans are not animals.
In the book of Genesis, God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Abraham willingly brought Isaac up to Mount Moriah and prepared to offer him as a whole burnt offering. At the last minute an angel of the Lord stopped Abraham’s hand. The message to Abraham was clear, “Human life is infinitely valuable. Human sacrifice is no longer an acceptable religious practice.” A ram was caught in the thicket by its horns, to be used as a substitute sacrifice. The human need to offer sacrifice could be filled by an animal offering, but not by human sacrifice.
Today we no longer offer animal sacrifice. Maimonides wrote that animal sacrifice was a necessary step at one point in history, a compromise at this early stage of human development. We humans no longer need to offer animals in order to bring ourselves close to God; prayer, ritual, and meditation will serve as well. But historically, animal sacrifice was a necessary step up the evolutionary ladder.
Perhaps someday we humans will move up the ladder another step and cease eating meat altogether. (Although I do not see this in the immediate future.) But the reason is not because we are mere animals. On the contrary, the reason is because we are higher on the ladder than animals; unlike animals we humans are able to reflect and empathize with others. Since we have suffered, we understand when other living creatures suffer.
Although I am not a vegetarian, I would like to suggest an alternative campaign for P.E.T.A. and others who would push a vegetarian diet in keeping with true Torah values. Let them use the words, “Animals eat other animals. We humans ought to be better. Eat vegetarian.”
(P.S. I urge readers of this essay not to donate money to P.E.T.A. Instead, send them this spiritual message.)

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5762)

LOVE AND TZIMTZUM

“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, you shall choose your offering from the herd or from the flock.”
(Leviticus 1:2)

It is difficult for us moderns to relate to the detailed arcane laws of sacrifice at the beginning of the book of Leviticus. However, beneath the surface there are deeply relevant insights we can use in our everyday lives.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korbanot. It comes from the Hebrew word karav which means “to approach,” “to get close.” The Hebrew word seems to mean that if we wish to get close to someone, we have to sacrifice something. We cannot become close to anyone else when we are focused on our own needs and our own desires. Only when we set ourselves aside and focus on the other can we truly love them.
Love begins with sacrifice. Real love means sacrificing our own needs to focus on the needs of the other. A wise rabbi taught long ago, “When love depends on achieving a certain goal, love vanishes when that goal is achieved. But when love is not dependent on any goal, that love never vanishes.” (Avot 5:18) If we love someone with the goal of fulfilling our own needs and desires, that love will disappear when our needs are fulfilled. But if we love unconditionally, with no ulterior motive, our love will flourish.
The Torah speaks of Isaac’s love for his son Esau, because he brought him game to eat from the field. Isaac’s love was conditional. Imagine if one day Esau told his father, “Dad, I have decided to become a vegetarian. No more hunting.” How quickly the love would disappear. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for Jacob was unconditional. She was focused on her son’s needs, not her own. This is the love that will flourish. (Let us set aside for the moment the issue of these parents playing favorites.)
Real love means setting aside our own ego. It is directed towards the other, which means our own self has to be set aside. In a sense, when we love another we are imitating God. According to the Kabbala, when God was ready to create the universe, God contracted Him/Herself to make room for this world. Until that time, God’s essence filled everything. Until the contraction, there was no room for anything else. This is the notion of tzimtzum “contraction” and without it there would not be room for a world. The lesson is, you cannot create a world until you contract, give up a little of yourself.”
When we love, we give up ourselves to focus on the needs of the other. We may even have to sacrifice our own needs. But through sacrifice (korbanot), we grow close (karav) to our beloved, whether our neighbor, our spouse, our child, our God. Love demands a personal tzimtzum.
This past Kol Nidre night I shared a story which reflects this powerful idea. A man had a very strange dream – he saw a house that was giving off a great deal of light. When he walked into the house, he saw all sorts of candles all over the place. Some of the candles were burning bright, some were dim, some were almost flickering out. He found the keeper of the house and asked, “What is this?”
The keeper replied, “Each candle is a different soul living in the world. The ones burning bright are in the prime of life. The ones low on oil and flickering are people who are dying. When the candle goes out, the person dies.”
The keeper of the candles turned his back for a moment, and the man quickly searched for his own candle. He found the candle with his name flickering in the corner. It looked as if it was about to be extinguished. The man panicked, and looked around for some more oil to pour into his candle so it would burn brighter. He started to take oil from another candle burning bright. But a hand stopped him.
“That is not how it works here. Your candle does not burn brighter when you take oil from someone else. On the contrary, your candle burns brighter when you give oil to someone else.” The man picked up his flickering candle and poured oil into several other candles. When he put it down, the flame started burning brighter. And so the man awoke from his very strange dream.

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5761)

CHANNELING OUR DRIVES

“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.”
(Leviticus 1:2)

This week we begin reading the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. Much of the beginning of this book describes the arcane details of the animal sacrifices brought in the ancient Temple.
It is difficult for moderns to comprehend that through most of ancient history, God was worshiped through animal sacrifice. The very first act of worship described in the Bible were the offerings of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain brought an offering of crops, which God swiftly rejected. Abel brought an offering from his flocks which God accepted. From this time onwards, the sacrifice of animals became the norm. Noah brought two of each kind of ordinary animals on the ark, but seven of the clean animals. Thus there would be animals for sacrifice (as well as food) when Noah exited the ark.
All of this seems fairly primitive to us moderns. It is certainly a step up from human sacrifice, so prevalent in the pagan world. Still, this image of the Temple in Jerusalem as a giant slaughterhouse is troubling for us moderns. In the Conservative Movement’s prayerbook, we no longer pray for the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of sacrifice. Rather, we pray that we can serve God with as much conviction and love as our ancestors who brought these sacrifices.
Can we moderns learn anything from these ancient laws of sacrifice? Is there some insight we can apply to today from this image of countless cows, sheep, goats, and birds offered up to God? I recall visiting the Samaritan community in Israel on Passover as they offered up sheep for their Passover offering. It was more than a giant barbeque. I sensed a true religious excitement, a sense of joy in being in God=s presence, even as the Samaritans went about the bloody business of slaughtering the sheep. It was as if some primitive urge was being channeled into the service of God.
I remember when I realized the power of this human urge for blood. Daredevil Evil Knievel had publicized that he would jump across the Snake River in Idaho on a motorcycle . Thousands of people gathered to watch him, possibly perform an amazing feat of skill, courage, (and in my mind, stupidity.) But many also lined up to watch as he was injured or possibly killed. It was the same primitive human drive that brought people by the thousands to watch gladiators fight to the death in ancient Rome. (Now that Gladiator has won the Academy Award for best picture, we can relive today the popularity of these ancient contests.)
I recall bringing my son to a World Wrestling Federation match. When the wrestlers were simply using their skills in the ring, the crowd would shout “bor-ing, bor-ing.” Only when chairs starting flying, people were thrown out of the ring, the blood began to flow, was the screaming crowd satisfied. I have seen this same drive for blood at professional hockey games and football matches.
The most popular spectator sport in America is auto racing. Recently I saw the advertisement on television for a local race. It included exciting footage of the cars racing, including one spectacular crash. Obviously this image of cars crashing into the wall was part of the selling point. It seemed particularly tasteless to me, particularly following the tragic death of the popular race car driver Dale Earnhardt.
Perhaps the ancient animal sacrifices were a way of taking these primitive human drives and channeling them towards the service of God. When the Torah teaches that we should love God with all of our heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), Rashi comments that we should love God with both our good and our evil inclinations. Part of the evil inclination is this primitive drive that loves violence. Can this drive be used to serve God?
Today few of us would advocate the return to animal sacrifices. Nonetheless, how can we take the same drive that brings humans to Nascar races and gladiator contests, to hockey games and the World Wresting Federation, and use it in the service of God? How can we take what is primitive in human beings, uplift it, and make it holy?

PARSHAT VAYIKRA
(5760)

IS GUILT GOOD?

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people thus, When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done…”
(Leviticus 4:1-2)

This week we begin a new book, Leviticus. Much of the first half of the book is difficult for us moderns, dealing with such arcane matters as sacrifice and purity laws. Nonetheless, there are issues as relevant today as they were when the book was written over three millennia ago.
For example, there are a number of laws regarding sin offerings. All of them come down to one question – when we go wrong with our lives, how do we get ourselves back on the right path? How do we become at one with God once again? (Atonement means at-one-ment.) How do we deal with our guilt?
There are some who say guilt is not a good thing. I hear from psychologists how guilt is destructive to our self esteem. I hear from some new age religious thinkers how God loves us and forgives us no matter what path we are on. All we have to do is love ourselves, develop high self esteem. Anything that makes us feel less good about ourselves must be bad.
One of the lessons of the Torah is that guilt is a good thing. It is like the pain we feel that makes us go to the doctor for a check up. Guilt is a pain in our psyche that causes us to realize we are on the wrong path, we have done wrong, we need to take action to become at one with God. Guilt and remorse are the impetus towards self improvement. It allows us to change our path, to remove pain, to become at one again with God.
Perhaps it is useful to compare two emotions I often see among people who come to me for counseling – guilt and shame. As I mentioned, guilt can be healthy and constructive. Shame on the other hand, is destructive.
What is the difference? Guilt is when we say “I have done bad.” Shame is when we say “I am bad.” Guilt judges our actions. Shame judges our very being. Guilt says “what I did was unworthy.” Shame says “I am unworthy.” Guilt can put us back on the right path. Shame says we are beyond hope, we cannot get back in God’s good graces.
We are human beings, created in the image of God. We are worthy by our very existence. I have had people come to me for counseling who have said, “Rabbi, I am so ashamed. I feel like I cannot even sit in your office, let alone stand before God.” I tell such people that, just as a parent never stops loving a child, God never stops loving us. “As a father has mercy on his children, so the Lord is merciful with those who His worshippers.” (Psalms 103:3) There is never a need for shame.
We are humans beings, given free will and capable of making the wrong choices in life. When that happens, guilt is a healthy emotion. It is the realization that we have done wrong, that our lives are out of alignment. Out of guilt comes the ability to change and grow. Our ancient ancestors were concerned with how to overcome guilt and get back in God’s good graces. They chose animal sacrifice. We have the same concerns today. We no longer sacrifice animals. But we have the ability to change our behavior, to feel remorse and find our way back to the proper path. The ability to change and grow is what makes us fully human.