Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.” (Leviticus 6:2)

Today was a sad day for my family. My daughter Aliza and son-in-law Darren lost the baby she was carrying at 7 ½ months of pregnancy. We are up in Charlotte, NC where we buried the baby, who never had a chance at life. Big brother Judah does not entirely understand what is happening. May the memory of Asher Louis Simons be a blessing.
One of the difficulties of my tradition is that Judaism gives very little guidance for the burial of a stillborn baby. Even a baby who lives less than 30 days is not mourned with the traditional Jewish mourning practices. There is no shiva and no kaddish until the baby lives long enough to prove viability. Nonetheless, we need to mourn. We gave our grandson a Hebrew name, Asher Simcha, and conducted a traditional funeral, including kaddish. I am aware that in doing so, we broke with tradition. But sometimes the tradition does not give adequate guidance.
The name of this week’s portion is Tzav, a word that means “Command.” It begins with a commandment from God to the High Priest regarding the burnt offering. But it has a broader meaning. The Torah pictures a God Who gives commandments to Israel. And Judaism turns to the Rabbis to interpret and apply those commandments. I have often taught that Judaism is about “the chutzpah of the Rabbis.” The Rabbis were willing to reinterpret the law, sometimes in a manner which seems far from the sense of the Torah.
Nonetheless, I believe that sometimes the Rabbis got it wrong. They lived during a time when children (and mothers) often died in childbirth. If people mourned every baby they lost, people would often be in a constant state of mourning. So the Rabbis ruled that only when the child is a bar kyama, “of proven viability,” is it proper to mourn. Before that there are no traditions of mourning. The baby is buried without the traditional practices.
One can understand the ruling of the Rabbis. But it does not take into account the real needs of humans. A loss is real, whether it is a miscarriage, a stillborn, or a very young baby. Parents (and grandparents) need to mourn. And they need rituals tied to tradition to properly mourn. So we observed the traditional mourning rituals, even if it is not what the Rabbis would have taught.
This raises a deeper question. What happens when a religious tradition does not meet the needs of the people who practice that religion? Can a religion be adjusted or changed? The American scholar and Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan taught that Jews do not exist to serve the needs of Judaism. Rather Judaism exists to serve the needs of Jews. When Judaism no longer serves the needs of Jews, it needs to be adjusted. Kaplan made some radical changes in Judaism, going further than I would go. But the idea of religion serving the needs of its adherents is a powerful one.
My wife Evelyn also mourns not being Bubbe to a second grandchild. I appreciate her experience in the funeral business which helped us find the Hebrew Cemetery of Charlotte and a funeral home with experience helping Jewish families. I conducted a brief and meaningful funeral, which I pray gave comfort to my daughter, son-in-law, and other family members. It was filled with traditional Jewish rituals, even if it broke with tradition on certain points. I felt God’s presence was there. And that was a source of comfort for us.

“Take Aaron along with his sons, and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread.” (Leviticus 8:2)

Part of this week’s portion describes the formal inauguration of Aaron and his four sons into the priesthood. It is a portion focused on rituals and those who witnessed it were probably filled with awe. One can picture Aaron and his four sons, dressed in special vestments, anointed with sacred oil, proudly standing together. It was probably a beautiful moment of unity between father and sons. But was it?
Next week we will read how the two older sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, died suddenly. At least one well known Midrash says that their sin was that they spoke evil about their father. They walked behind their father Aaron and their uncle Moses saying to one another, when will these two men die already so the leadership can be passed to us? They were not loyal sons but jealous of their father, ready to take over. It is one example of tension between parents and children.
This idea is expressed clearly in the special haftarah or prophetic portion read this week. On Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover, a passage is read from the book of Malachi. It speaks of the coming of Elijah to announce the great and wonderous day of the Lord, in other words, the coming of the Messiah. Malachi says that on that day, “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:24). (The prophet uses male language, reconciling fathers with sons, but our translation makes it egalitarian.) When the Messiah arrives, there will be peace between parents and children. Until the Messiah arrives, tension is inevitable.
Why is there a natural tension between parents and children? The role of parents is to teach their children. Part of teaching is controlling them, trying to influence the choices they make. The role of children is to break away from their parents, making choices about their own lives. Nonetheless, even as they break away, they also must honor their parents. To both honor someone who may be trying to control you, while becoming your own persona and forging your own identity, leads to tension. Being both a parent and a child is difficult.
One of my favorite parts of the Haggadah, the booklet we use at the Passover Seder or meal, is the story of the four children (traditionally the four sons.) There is the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who is too young to ask questions. I have always had a special place in my heart for the wicked, or perhaps better, the rebellious child. He or she is at the Seder, reluctantly, but he or she does not want to be there. The child asks, almost sarcastically, “What do these rituals mean to you?” By saying “to you” he or she excludes himself or herself from the ritual. The parents say harshly, had he or she been there they would not have been released from Egypt.
In truth, the Haggadah is a bit harsher. The traditional Hebrew says that the parents smack such a child in the teeth. Fortunately, most Haggadahs do not translate that part. It does not want to encourage child abuse. But there are often children at a Seder who do not want to be there, who would rather be out with their friends. I am sympathetic to that child, who wants to break away from his or her parents, but still shows up. I have met too many children who boycott their parents’ Seder altogether.
There is a natural tension between parents and children. Parents must teach their children and children must leave their parents. Parents must learn to let go and children must honor parents. Often the relationship is out of balance. That is why we read a passage on the Shabbat before Passover, wait for the Messiah. Only then will God turn the hearts of the parents towards the children and the hearts of the children towards the parents.


“Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.”  (Leviticus 6:2)

This Torah portion has an unusual beginning that calls for interpretation.  Tzav – “Command Aaron.”  Usually when the Torah gives a commandment, it would say, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to Aaron and tell him…”  Why the strong word “Command?”  Rashi brings the Rabbinic interpretation that the word means ziruz – “Encourage!”  Rashi writes, “The term command means encourage, not just immediately but for future generations.”

What was the commandment that required special encouragement?   There are two parts, both of which are relevant today.  The first part of the commandment is to keep a fire burning at all times on the altar.  Aaron and his sons were to make sure that the fire was never extinguished.  (This is one of the sources of keeping a ner tamid  “Eternal Light” burning at all times above the ark in the synagogue.)  The second part is to change the special clothing to ordinary clothing each morning and carry out the ashes left over from the previous day’s offering.  One can understand why both of these rules needed special encouragement.

It is one thing to have a special moment of public esteem – for example, for me, conducting Yom Kippur services and speaking to a full house.  It is another thing to do something continually, day in and day out.  When Covid broke, I made the decision to buy a zoom account and host our daily minyan, every morning and every evening, 365 days a year.  Thank God that I have other people who helped make it happen.  (Thank you, Mindy and others.)  But I still feel that sense of obligation to make sure it happens each day.

I once spoke to a theater stage manager in charge of the long run of a successful Broadway show.  It is one thing to run a limited engagement concert.  It is another to make sure that all the pieces in place for a run that takes place eight times a week, every week, continually into the future.  It takes work and encouragement to keep something going day-in and day-out.  I suppose that is true for any of us who have jobs where we must show up each and every day to do our work, continuing into an unlimited future.

The second part of the commandment is equally important.  Usually. the High Priest dressed in special clothing and performed the public rituals in the Temple.  But somebody had to clean up afterwards, dressing in ordinary clothing and carrying away the ashes to a designated spot.  This was not a job for a janitor or behind the scenes maintenance worker.  The ashes were still holy.  The High Priest himself was given the responsibility of cleaning up the leftovers from the holy offerings.  In was not a moment of glory but a chore that needed to be done.  And so, Aaron and his sons needed special encouragement.

We all have people who work behind the scenes, without any glory, doing what is necessary for us to do our jobs.  If we work from a place of business, an office or a school, consider the people who each day clean up our places of work.  Whenever I read this portion, I am reminded of the importance of knowing the name of the person who cleans our office or our classroom.  It is not just the people in the public eye but the people behind the scenes who make things successful.

Let me return to my theater example once again.  The actors take their bows.  But for every person on the stage there are an equal number of people backstage – wardrobe assistants and make-up artists, people who work the lights and people who handle the props, and let us not forget the ushers, the ticket takers, and those who clean the theater after the audience leaves.  This is the time to appreciate those who work behind the scenes to make us successful.

Aaron and his sons needed special encouragement to keep the fire burning every day.  They also needed special encouragement to clean out the dirty ashes each morning..  This encouragement and appreciation apply not just in the ancient Temple, but to each of us every day.


“Its remainder shall Aaron and his sons eat; with unleavened bread shall it be eaten in the holy place; in the court of the Tent of Meeting they shall eat it.   It shall not be baked with leaven.”  (Leviticus 6:9 – 10)

This portion includes the laws of the meal or flour offering in the ancient Temple.   The priests would eat it unleavened, allowing no yeast to let it rise.  Eating leavened bread from the meal offering was forbidden.  This is the perfect opening for the festival of Passover, which begins as the sun sets at the end of the Sabbath.  On Passover it is a commandment to eat unleavened bread (matzah).  It is totally forbidden to eat leavened bread (hametz.)    A slight addition, a bit of yeast, even yeast that occurs naturally in the air, and a bit of time for leavening, and the obligatory becomes forbidden.

What is the difference between matzah (unleavened) and hametz (leavened)?   For those who know Hebrew, let us take a moment to study the words.    Matzah is spelled mem – tzadi – hayHametz is spelled chet – mem – tzadi.   Two of the letters, mem and tzadi, are the same in both words.   The only difference is the hay and the chet, two letters that look almost alike, and without good reading glasses are hard to tell apart.  The hay has a little space on the side, the chet no space.  A tiny space is closed up, and the obligatory becomes forbidden.  The smallest thing makes all the difference.

How does this apply to Passover?  We mix flour and water and immediately bake it in the oven.  If less than eighteen minutes have gone by since the mixing, the dough becomes matzah, an obligation during Passover.  But if more than eighteen minutes have gone by since the mixing, the dough becomes hametz, which a Jew may not eat or even own on Passover.  That is why rabbis carefully supervise the baking of matzah.  Eighteen minutes, a tiny space, is the difference between obligatory and forbidden.  The smallest thing makes all the difference.

This idea is probably best represented by the classic parable.  “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the knight was lost, for want of a knight the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost. So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.”  There are numerous versions and claims of authorship.  But the point is clear.  Little things make all the difference.

There is a new field of science known as chaos theory, which speaks about how small changes in initial conditions can become amplified into major changes as a result.   Sometimes we term this “the butterfly effect.”   A butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can result in a hurricane striking North America.   Small effects are magnified into major effects over time.

What is true for moisture in flour, a nail in a horseshoe, or butterfly wings, is also true in the realm of human relations.  The wrong word, even if innocently said, can deeply wound someone who is vulnerable.   “Have you put on some weight?”  The right word on the other hand can boost someone’s spirit.  “I love how you look in that outfit.  That is why the Bible teaches “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).  Words are small things that can have huge effects.

On the night before Passover (this year two nights before on Thursday) we do a formal search by candlelight for the least little scrap of hametz.   The smallest amount, left unfound, can ruin the holiday.  Because the home has already been cleaned, the custom is to hide small pieces of bread around the house and then search for them.  This is a great game for children.  But now that my children have grown and left the house, my wife and I do it for each other.

The key behind this search for hametz (bedikat hametz) is to remove even the smallest parcel of bread.   It teaches us a valuable lesson about life – small things make a big different.  It is important to remember this is we enter the most observed Jewish holiday – the festival of Passover.


“Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the Torah of the burnt offering.”  (Leviticus 6:2)

We continue reading about the sacrifices in the ancient Temple this week.  But with this portion, God tells Moses not to merely speak to his brother Aaron.  God tells Moses Tzav, “command” your brother Aaron.  Why the stronger word “command?  The answer is that this is not a law that Aaron would be eager to perform.  For that reason, Rashi teaches, “The expression Command …! always implies urging on to carry out a command, implying too, that it comes into force at once, and is binding upon future generations”

What is this command that requires extra urging?  The burnt offering was left all night on the flame and burnt in its entirety.  Aaron’s commandment was to take the ashes each morning, change his clothes to special garments, and carry the ashes out to a special place.  Usually the High Priest served in glory, wearing special garments and bringing offerings that the crowds could see.  But this commandment takes place behind the scenes.  The Priest is basically cleaning up from the previous day’s offering.  A man who is used to being in the public eye is not enthusiastic about privately cleaning up dirty ashes.

Whenever I read these words, I think of all the people who work behind the scenes.  I think of the people who clean up when I leave a restaurant or restock the shelves at the grocery store.  I think of the people who clean my office every night.  (An important question to ask: Do you know the name of the person who cleans your office?  If not, your take home assignment is to learn their name.)

This is important at all times, but it is particularly vital during these days of quarantine from the danger of the corona virus.  Most of us sit home, and some of us such me are luckily able to work from home.  I worry about the people who lost their jobs and their incomes during these difficult days.  But I also worry about the people who go to work, often putting themselves in positions where there is a threat.  First, there are medical workers, the people on the front lines treating the people afflicted with the virus, and others who are ill.  But beyond medical workers, there are others out there behind the scenes.

Even as the world closes up, certain essential businesses must stay open.  People need food, gas, and pharmaceuticals.  Markets, restaurants that serve take out, gas stations, and pharmacies must stay open.  And one business I must deal with even during these hard times – funeral homes must stay open.  What about the people who work there?  If your supermarket is closed every night so they can scrub down the aisles and restock the shelves, what about the people who are working those night shifts?  We need to appreciate the people who work behind the scenes.

This portion often falls on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat for Passover.  Here too, there is much work behind the scenes to properly prepare a kitchen for Passover and then to prepare Passover seders.  This year in particular, many people who usually go out for a seder have to do it from home.  Homes must be thoroughly cleaned, dishes changed over, pantries cleaned out, and Passover food be purchased.  It is a lot of work behind the scenes.  In my home my wife does most that work, and I hope I can show her the appreciation she deserves.

Many of us have very satisfying professional jobs where we are in the public eye.  For those lucky enough to have such a job, we can only succeed because many people are working behind the scenes.  This is the perfect week to say thank you to these people.  I wish you a joyous Passover during these difficult times.

“Moses took of the anointing oil, and of the blood which was upon the altar, and sprinkled it on Aaron, and on his garments, and on his sons, and on his sons’ garments with him; and sanctified Aaron, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons’ garments with him.” (Leviticus 8:30)
Is holiness (kedusha) something that really exists in some spiritual world, affecting times like the Sabbath or places like the Holy Land? Or is holiness simply a quality we humans assign to certain times and places, perhaps at God’s command? This week I want to become a bit philosophical. I believe it raises one of the most fascinating question in the history of philosophy. Philosophers call it the question of Universals.
Much of this portion speaks of the formal investiture of Aaron and his sons as the kohenim or priests. After the detailed rituals, Aaron and his sons took on a special holiness. This holiness of the priesthood continues from generation to generation to our own day. Kohenim or priests in Judaism have a special holiness, which is recognized in a number of Jewish rituals. For example, on festivals days (in Israel every day) kohenim are called upon to bless the congregation.
Recently, a man who was coming back to Judaism after many years of non-practice told me, “Rabbi, my dad told me I am a kohen. Does that give me a special holiness?” This raises a great question. Is someone holy if they never act on that holiness? Were the sons of Aaron holy before the rituals in this week’s portion? Is holiness something intrinsic to someone or something, or does holiness require some kind of human action?
As mentioned above, this is one of the most fascinating questions in the history of philosophy. Do ideas like holiness have some kind of spiritual reality that exist beyond the material universe? Or are ideas like holiness mere human conventions, names we humans apply to the world? Is a kohen holy because of some intrinsic holiness that exists in some spiritual reality? Or is a kohen holy because we humans have declared a kohen holy, with no spiritual reality beyond the name we use?
This question has many applications. Does the Jewish Sabbath have some kind of intrinsic holiness that comes from beyond this world? Or is the Jewish Sabbath holy because we humans have declared it to be holy? What about the Western Wall, part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem? Is it holy on some higher spiritual level? Or is its holiness simply a human convention? I have heard one scholar imagine a holiness counter similar to a Geiger counter. A Geiger counter measures radioactivity and a holiness counter measures intrinsic holiness. If we hold such a holiness counter to a kohen blessing the congregation, a Shabbat table lit with candles, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, would it register?
Plato and Aristotle disagreed on this question. So did the Jewish philosophers Maimonides and Judah Halevi. So do Jewish mystics and rationalists to our very day. Plato, Judah Halevi, and contemporary mystics believe there exist spiritual realities out there. They go by the name of Universals. Take the example of whiteness. To Plato, whiteness really exists in the World of the Forms, as a Universal. So does goodness. And to Judah Levi and the mystics, so does holiness. The Sabbath has an intrinsic holiness. It would register on a holiness counter.
Aristotle denied such a World of the Forms. It is merely a name we give to some objects. Maimonides who followed Aristotle denied any such spiritual realities. The Sabbath is like any other day, and it is only holy because God commanded us to declare it holy. Our action of chanting kiddush on Friday night declares that the Sabbath is holy. Modern rationalists would also deny any intrinsic holiness; the Sabbath is holy only if we humans declare it to be holy.
This question of Universals is particularly relevant when we speak of good and evil. Does goodness exist as some spiritual reality as Plato’s teacher Socrates taught? Or is goodness merely man made, a human convention as Socrates’ opponents the Sophists taught? The question whether Universals exist is as old as philosophy. Nonetheless, the question of a Jewish man who discovered that he is a kohen has raised this question in our own day.

“He appointed some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (Leviticus 8:12)
Many years ago I received a wedding invitation from a very Orthodox couple. It said that the wedding would be in Jerusalem on such-and-such a date, unless the Messiah does not come. In that case, it will be in New York. This couple hoped for the imminent coming of the Messiah. Unfortunately, many years have gone by and the Messiah still has not come.
The idea of the Messiah, a savior who will bring an era of peace as well as Jewish sovereignty on the land, is one of the most controversial in our tradition. The great Rabbi Akiba thought that Bar Kochba was the Messiah, although other rabbis told him that grass will be growing above his head and the Messiah will not have come. Christians consider Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah, one of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity. Thousands of European Jews sold their belongings and prepared to follow Sabbatai Zevi to the holy land, until he converted to Islam.
In our own day there are members of Chabad who believe that the last Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah, and they await his immediate return. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews, particularly followers of Satmar, reject the modern state of Israel. They claim a Jewish state can only be brought about with the coming of the Messiah. And among more liberal Jews, the Reform movement rejects a personal Messiah altogether, speaking instead of a Messianic Age. The Reform prayerbook replaces the word goel “redeemer” in the Amidah with the word geulah “redemption.”
As for me, I use the term “redeemer.” Whether one believes in a literal person or simply finds a deep truth in the image of a great leader who will bring about an age of peace, I like the old-fashioned language. I find meaning in the words of the scholar-of-religion Karen Armstrong, who taught that religion needs both logos and mythos. Logos is literal scientific truth. Mythos is narratives, images, and archetypes that teach us profound insights about the universe. The Messiah in my mind is the perfect symbol of such a profound insight.
The word Mashiach “Messiah” literally means “anointed one.” In this week’s portion Aaron and his sons are anointed with oil before beginning their priestly duties. Kings were anointed when they began their reign. And some day a person who has been anointed will bring about this age of peace. The special haftarah chanted this week, on the Shabbat before Passover, speaks of the prophet Elijah arriving to hearken the coming of the Messiah. “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord” (Malachi 3:23). To symbolize that day when the Messiah will come, Jews open their doors and invite Elijah to join their seder tables. They even pour him a cup of wine. And finally, on the last day of Passover, we read the beautiful description of the days of the Messiah, when the lion will lie down with the lamb. (It actually never mentions a lion and lamb, but rather a wolf and a lamb, a leopard and a kid.)
I love the idea that the perfect time is not way in the past, as most ancient peoples taught. Rather the perfect time is in the future. Perhaps we may not directly experience the Messiah in our lifetime. But I believe it is like an asymptote, a line in mathematics towards which a curve moves closer and closer, never quite touching. I believe that we can move closer and closer to that perfect Messianic age, when peace will reign and every human being will recognize the dignity of every other human being. We are not there yet. But the festival of Passover reminds us of our duty to move closer and closer. May the Messiah come speedily in our lifetimes.

“He shall take off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” (Leviticus 6:4)
It has been a week and a half of highs and lows. The high was travelling to Maryland with my wife to spend time with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, spending Shabbat and going with them to synagogue. The high was also joining 18,000 of my closest friends at the big AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C., emphasizing that support for Israel is not a Republican or Democratic but an American issue.
The low was a terrible fall on the Metro platform returning to Maryland, followed by horrible pains in my leg. Somehow with my wife’s help, I made it home only to discover that my hip was broken. Thank God the break involved no displacement, and I was able to go into surgery last Friday to put pins in place. Friday night I was home for Shabbat dinner. I am now using a walker as I slowly heal. I now understand how I always took for granted hips and legs that worked properly. When things do not work properly, you appreciate it when they do. Let me thank everyone for their good wishes and prayers.
I think about those things that we take for granted and do not appreciate. It may be the fact that our bodies work properly. That is why traditional Jews say a blessing each morning when they awake thanking God for a body that works properly. We take so much for granted. This portion, which we read each year around Passover, speaks of the role of the High Priest in carrying away the ashes from the daily burnt offering. Each day the Priest would dress in special clothes, remove the ashes, and carry them away. Thousands of worshippers gathered at the Temple who did not appreciate this work of the High Priest. Rashi comments that the priest needed particular encouragement to perform this mitzvah.
The Priest did this work behind the scenes, not in public. And yet without the priest carrying away the dirty ashes, the daily fire offerings would have been impossible. It is one of those things we take for granted. It is relevant that we read this portion immediately before Passover. How many things do we take for granted at Passover?
On this holiday I will sit at the head of the table to lead a seder and eat a special meal. But before that meal, we will have stocked our kitchen with Passover food, removed our regular dishes and changed over to Passover dishes, kashered the stove and silverware, sold the hametz, and completed countless other jobs. This year, walking with a walker, I do not know if I can carry the Passover dishes from the garage to the kitchen. But somehow the job will get done. Much of the burden is on my wife, as it is on Jewish wives everywhere, who take primary responsibility for preparing the kitchen.
Perhaps it is a time to stop for a moment and think of those things we take for granted. Think not simply of the High Priest carrying away the ashes, but all those who work behind the scene making life livable for us. I think of those who clean up after us, who make my synagogue livable day after day following services and myriads of activities. I think of those who clean my office. And I think of my wife who has the burden of preparing my home for Passover.
It is easy to live our lives taking what is important for granted. We take our bodies for granted until they do not work properly. We take those who work behind the scenes for granted until we realize we cannot accomplish what we do with out them. And for too many of us, we take our spouses for granted. Passover is the perfect time to stop and say thanks.

“He [Moses] poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.” (Leviticus 8:12)
I am writing these words from La Guardia Airport in New York, waiting for a delayed flight back home. I am travelling with a group of teens after spending three days running around the Big Apple. It was a wonderful trip. A few minutes ago a group of Orthodox Jews, some of them Chabad, asked if we could pull together a minyan to pray the evening service. I asked my boys to join us (with this crowd the girls do not count). I am sure that in the eyes of the Chabadniks, my students uncovered holy sparks by participating in this minyan. By uncovering the holy sparks, they can bring about the coming of the Messiah.
Of course, some Chabadniks believe the Messiah has already come, in the person of the great Rabbi Menachim Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Yes he was a great man, but he was not the Messiah. If he were, there would be peace on earth. Some Lubavitchers believe that the Rebbe will rise again from the grave and finish the work of the Messiah. Of course, there is another religion that believes that the Messiah died and then came back to life. Christians will be celebrating their belief in the resurrection of Jesus with the coming of Easter this Sunday. It is the holiest day of the Christian year. But for us Jews, we are still waiting for the Messiah to come.
The Hebrew word for Messiah, Mashiach, literally means “anointed one.” In ancient times leaders of the people were anointed with a special oil. This week’s portion tells of the anointing of Aaron and his sons as priests. Later, when a king is chosen over Israel, he will also be anointed with oil. What is important to note is that the anointed one is not a magical figure or a kind of god. The anointed one is a man, like any other man. So in Judaism we do not worship the Messiah as a God. He is a man, a descendent of King David, who will bring about an era of peace.
Often in Jewish history people proclaimed that the Messiah has come, only to be disappointed in the end. In the second century C.E. the great Rabbi Akiba declared that Bar Kokhba, a military leader who fought the Romans, was the Messiah. In the Seventeenth century Jews throughout the world believed that Shabbatai Tsvi was the Messiah. They were ready to sell all their possessions and follow him to the Holy Land. Then under threat from the Turkish Sultan, he converted to Islam. We Jews have been disappointed countless times as we continue to wait for the Messiah to come.
The Reform Movement has removed the image of the Messiah from their liturgy. Rather than saying a Redeemer will come, they changed the words to say Redemption will come. Like many more rational Jews, they prefer to speak of a Messianic age rather than an actual flesh and blood Messiah. I believe that removing the image of the Messiah from Judaism is a huge mistake. It is a powerful vision of the hope for a future of peace, a future where Jews will live in security in their own land. I prefer the traditional language, even if we do not take it literally.
One of my strongest beliefs is that we humans have the power to bring the Messiah. In a sense I agree with my Chabad friends. They teach that every time a Jewish man puts on tefillin or says the traditional prayers, every time a Jewish woman lights Shabbat candles, they are uncovering holy sparks that will lead to the coming of the Messiah. I believe that every time a Jew, or for that matter any human, does some small act to make this a better world, they are bringing the age of the Messiah a bit closer.
The Messiah is a powerful symbol of a great age of redemption. Redemption will not come in one fell swoop, all at once. Rather it will come “bit by bit, piece by piece” to quote Stephen Sondheim, through the cumulative effects of holy acts. It is a slow process. But just as an asymptote in mathematics gets closer and closer to a line, so we are getting closer and closer to the coming of the Messiah. I like to think my students, by participating in an airport evening service, helped bring about that time.


“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and a bull for the sin offering, and two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread”
(Leviticus 8:1 – 2)

Greetings from New York City. Unfortunately on this trip I will not be able to see a Broadway show. But my mind is still ringing with music from Broadway after the wonderful performance last Sunday night by our very own Cantor Angress and Broadway star Lauren Molina.
I am glad that they performed several songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I have seen the show numerous times, both on stage and on film. Each time I hope it will have a different ending. Maybe this time Chava will not marry the Russian Fyedka, acting against her parents’ wishes. Maybe this time Tevye will accept his daughter and her new husband. Maybe they will invite Fyedka to sit at the seder table and sing Chad Gadya. But the play always ends the same way, with estrangement between father and daughter.
I feel the same way each year when we reach this week’s portion. Much of the portion describes a joyous moment in the lives of Aaron and his sons. They are formally dedicated into the Priesthood by Moses. Father and sons share a moment of glory. But I know how it will end. In the next portion (which we will read after Passover), Aaron’s two oldest sons will bring a strange fire and will be killed before the Lord. The Midrash describes their sin. They followed their father and uncle around, mumbling to themselves and saying, “When are these two old men going to step aside already so we can take over.” It is the way of the world for the young to complain about the fact that the old have not stepped aside. (Think of Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth. Will he ever be king?)
Tension between parents and children is as old as the Bible and as young as popular Broadway shows. Parents need to teach their children. But at some point parents need to step aside and let their children grow up and leave home. At some points parents need to allow their children to come forward and take over responsibilities. But children on the other hand, even as they leave home, must continue to honor their parents. Children must make sure that their parents are properly taken care of in their old age. (I have always gotten a chuckle from the advice, “Raise your children with kindness. After all, they are the ones who will decide what nursing home you will go into.”)
This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover. We read a special haftarah, speaking about the prophet Elijah who will hearken the great and awesome day of the Lord. But the haftarah, taken from the book of Malachi, reflects on our problem. On that day when the Messiah comes, the prophet teaches (using an egalitarian translation), “And he shall turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 3:24) In other words, when the Messiah arrives parents and children will finally learn to get along. But until the Messiah comes, there is a natural tension between parents and children.
It is not easy for parents to raise and teach their children, and then learn to let go. It is not easy for children to grow up and leave home, but continue to honor their parents. And it is certainly never easy for an older generation to step aside to make room for a younger generation. There is tension. But until the Messiah comes, we must learn to live with that tension.
Passover begins next week. No holiday focuses so strongly on the relationship between parents and children. At the Passover seder, the parents are obligated to tell a story to their children. At the Passover seder, children are obligated to ask questions of their parents. (Not just the Four Questions, but any questions will do.) Passover can certainly be a time of family tension. But it can also be a time of building a stronger relationship between the generations.

“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body, and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.” (Leviticus 6:3-4)
There is a Hasidic tale I have always liked. In a small town in Europe there was a monastery. And unfortunately, the monastery was failing. There were only six monks still living there, and the head monk knew that soon they would have to close. In the town there was a Hasidic rebbe. The head monk decided to meet with the rebbe for some advice. “Our monastery is failing. Would can we do?” said the monk. The rebbe answered, “I don’t know how to help you. You are Catholic and I am Jewish. But I know one thing. One of the monks in your monastery is the Messiah.”
The chief monk was awe struck. He went back and told the monks, “One of you is the Messiah.” Suddenly everything changed. Who was the Messiah? No one knew, so everyone began to treat their fellow with a great dignity. The word reached the community, and people began to visit the monastery. Before long everything turned around, and the monastery began to flourish.
The point of the story is clear. If we assume that everyone we meet is a secretly a great saint worthy of treatment with dignity, it changes the world. There is an old Jewish legend that there are thirty-six absolutely righteous people in the world – the lamed-vavniks. They live hidden among us, and no one knows who they are. But these thirty-six people sustain the entire world. Imagine approaching everyone we meet as one of the lamed-vavniks.
This week’s portion begins with a commandment given to the High Priest. He must take off his priestly clothes, put on ordinary clothing, and carry the ashes of the offerings out to a dump site. Imagine running into the High Priest in ordinary clothes carrying a bucket of ashes. We would probably think that he is the janitor cleaning up the Temple area. Perhaps we would not treat him with dignity. Yet, here was the High Priest, the religious leader of the land, hidden in ordinary clothing, doing ordinary work. That is why Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, mentions that the High Priest needed particular encouragement to carry out this ritual.
This is the perfect time to think about people who hide their true selves. Saturday night and Sunday we read the book of Esther, which tells the story of the Jewish queen who saved her people from the wicked Haman. Through most of the story Esther kept identity hidden. “Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred, for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.” (Esther 2:10) If Esther had publicly displayed her Jewishness, she would not have been brought into the king’s household. She was a secret Jew. Some say that she was an assimilated Jew. And yet, when she revealed her hidden self, she was able to save her people.
The name Esther actually comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to hide.” The Torah speaks of God sometimes hiding, and uses the phrase hester panim “hiding God’s face.” On Purim we celebrate Esther by hiding our true selves. We wear costumes. Many of us wear masks. Sometimes men will dress as women and women as men, something that the Torah discourages on other days. We present a different face to the world than we usually show. On Purim we celebrate our hiddenness.
Purim may be the day set aside for hiding our true selves. But many people rarely show their true face to the world. We meet people all the time who seem so ordinary. But underneath the mask, they may be the next savior, the High Priest, a lamed-vavnek, or even the Messiah. How important is it for us to approach each person as if they are hiding a secret self, a self who will change the world!

“It [the meal offering] shall not be baked with leaven.” (Leviticus 6:10)
There is a scene in the hit musical Wicked where the main character Elphaba finally has a romantic encounter with the boy she loves Fiyero. Elphaba, who everyone sees as the wicked witch of the West, still sees herself as trying to do good. But she admits at the end of this scene, “For the first time I feel wicked.”
I thought of this scene last night as I was teaching a group of teenagers about the Passover Haggada. One teenage girl had a brilliant insight that I want to share. I was speaking of the four children in the haggadah (the booklet we use to tell the story on Passover) – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not even ask. Everyone knows the sin of the wicked child. He or she says, “What is this service to you?” By saying “you”, the wicked child separates himself or herself from the community. The haggadah is very harsh. Such a child would not have been redeemed from Egypt.
The wise child on the other hand asks all the right questions. But if you read carefully what the wise child says, it is very close to what the wicked child says. “What are these testimonies and laws and judgments which the Lord God charged you?” The wise child also says “you”; also seems to separate himself or herself from the community. The haggadah I use at home actually mistranslates this passage, saying “Lord God charged us.” But the traditional language of the haggadah raises a serious problem about the wise child.
Here is where my teenage student shared a brilliant insight that I had never thought about before. “Perhaps the wise child has a little bit of wickedness in him or her. That is why it says `you’. In fact, maybe every wise person needs a little bit of wickedness, the good need some bad to know what good really is.” I turned to this young lady and told her, “Perhaps you should become a rabbi.”
What a wonderful insight into human nature! The wise have a bit of wickedness in them, the good have a touch of evil. And they need it. For without knowing what is wicked, how will they know what is wise. The Bible says, “For there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin.” (Ecclesiastes 7:19) There is no reason to feel guilty, inadequate, or rejected by God if we occasionally go down the wrong path, do something bad. Such acts do not make us evil, they make us human.
There is a hint of this in the rituals of Judaism. In the ancient Temple, when people would offer a sacrifice of grain (a meal offering), it was mixed with oil and frankincense. But it was forbidden to put any yeast or leavening agent into it so that it should rise. And of course, this prohibition is at the center of the observance of Pesach. It is forbidden to have even a tiny scrap of flour that has been allowed to rise. Matzah, which is flour and water, is baked immediately so that even the yeast in the air cannot infiltrate and cause leavening. If more than eighteen minutes pass without putting the mixture in the oven, the flour and water combination become forbidden.
What is so terrible about leavening? Jewish tradition identifies it with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, when our appetites take control and cause us to sin. The strict laws against leavening are a warning to constantly guard against the leavening in our spirit, the evil inclination. And it is not a warning only for the wicked. It is a warning for all of us. Every human being has a tendency occasionally to go down the wrong path. We all have a touch of wickedness.
What makes the musical Wicked so Popular (a hit song from the show) is the insights it gives on being good and being evil. The wicked witch is not so wicked after all, while the good witch is not as good as she seems. Each of them, and each of us, is a mixture of good and bad. Sometimes we are the wise child, sometimes the wicked, and often both at the same time.

“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.” (Leviticus 6:3)

Rabbi David Cooper, a kabbalist and story teller, tells the story of Yosele the Holy Miser. Yosele was the richest man in town. And yet the people of the community knew never to go to him for donations. Beggars were routinely turned away at his door and the community leaders knew that he would not support the community institutions. He died utterly alone. The town people were so upset they wrote on his stone, Yosele the Miser.
After Yosele died, beggars and poor people began showing up at the home of the rabbi. “Every Friday someone left me money for Shabbat. Now they have stopped.” “When my daughter was married, someone left me money for the wedding feast. Now my second daughter is getting married, and there is no money.” “Someone always gave money secretly so that everyone had wine for Passover. Now there is no money.” Hearing these stories, the rabbi realized that Yosele had been secretly giving out money all these years. No one knew until after his death. He arranged to change the writing on his stone – Yosele the Holy Miser.
One of the highest levels of giving tzedakah (charity) according to Maimonides is to give it in secret, so that no one knows the donor. Some of the highest mitzvot (commandments) are those that are done secretly and privately, without public fanfare. Performing a mitzvah is a way of serving God, not serving our public reputation. On a regular basis I run into people who have taken on a project to improve the world, often in secret.
This week’s portion speaks about the ancient sacrifices. Each morning the priest had to remove his sacred clothing, put on ordinary linen clothing, and carry the ashes out from the previous day’s sacrifices. There was no glory and no drama. It was a very private ritual. In fact, Rashi comments that the priest needed special encouragement to perform this ritual. But without removing the ashes, the altar would soon become unusable. I often comment when we read this portion about those who work quietly behind the scenes, allowing those of us in the public eye to do our jobs. Some of the most important commandments are performed secretly and privately.
This brings me to the book of Esther and the celebration of Purim. The very name Esther comes from a Hebrew root s-t-r meaning secret or hidden. When the Torah speaks about God hiding God’s face, it uses the phrase hester panim from the same root. Much of the theme of Purim is about hiding one’s self; this is the basis of the custom of wearing masks and costumes on this most festive day.
Esther was a secret Jew. Conversos – Jews who were forced to convert out during the Inquisition but who secretly maintained Jewish practices – often identify with Esther. She was able to keep her Jewish background secret from her husband, King Ahasverous, and his evil Prime Minister Haman. From her place of secrecy, Esther became the heroine who saved the Jewish people. Some see Esther as an assimilated Jew who did not practice her faith until she was forced to confront the enemies of the Jewish people. Others see her as a hidden Jew who did practice her faith, but only in secret.
Jewish tradition is filled with mitzvoth. Some are public and some are private. Some are obvious and some are hidden. Often the hidden mitzvoth are the ones that are most important. Jewish legend says that there are thirty-six righteous people (lamed-vavniks) who in their own private way are playing an essential role in perfecting the world. Without these holy thirty-six people the world could not exist. Perhaps that should be our goal in life – to try to be one of the righteous thirty-six.



“And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh, and take up the ashes which the fire has consumed with the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar.” (Leviticus 6:3)
I had an embarrassing but learning experience recently. I was at the movies and walked in with my popcorn and a cup of diet coke. Then in a moment of pure klutziness, I dropped the soda all over the place. I went out for a refill and to get some rags to clean it up. The young man behind the counter told me, “Don’t worry about it. Show us where it is and we will take care of it.”
As the movie began, other patrons thanked me. I was surprised. But I learned that most people, when they make a mess, leave it for others to step in. The other patrons expressed their appreciation that I had arranged for someone to clean it up. I was surprised; in my mind it goes without saying that I would try to clean it up. Simple human courtesy requires it. In the end, a young man working a minimum wage job cleaned up my mess. And I did not even get his name.
The whole incident reminded me of the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Each day the High Priest put on a linen garment and carried the ashes from the daily burnt offering outside to a special place. There was no glory in this job, no public ceremony, no fancy garments, and no deep religious insight. Cleaning the altar was a job that had to be done behind the scenes. In fact, the Rabbis declared that the portion is called tzav– “command” because Aaron needed special encouragement to fulfill this ritual. Cleaning up the altar was simply a job that had to be done.
Perhaps it is serendipitous that this portion is usually read the week before Passover (known in Jewish tradition as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat.) Passover is the time we ought to express our appreciation to the people who do the clean-up work behind the scenes. A large part of Passover is a major Spring cleaning. Kitchens are scrubbed clean and any food containing bread or other non-kosher-for-Passover ingredients is locked away. New dishes are brought out, the stove is scrubbed and the burners are run at full blast. The refrigerator and the microwave are cleaned and a huge shopping list is filled. And only then, when all this work is done, are we ready to begin the huge job of cooking large Passover seders, often for households full of people.
Last week I spent a good part of the day preparing our synagogue kitchen for Passover. The person catering our seders and I worked with two young men for hours cleaning and koshering. I admire their work. And now the cooking will begin. I will lead a seder in the synagogue and most those attending will be blithely unaware of the amount of work that went into this project. It is easy to avoid thinking about those who do the really hard work behind the scenes.
Often it is women who take on the burden of preparing a home for Passover. It is an immense, under-appreciated job. Women often say, half-jokingly and half-seriously, we were slaves in Egypt and now we are … slaves to the difficult laws of Passover. If women had written the Torah it would be different. I understand those who simply close down their homes and go to resorts or out on cruises for Passover. It is extremely tempting.
Perhaps it is time to show our appreciation to all those underappreciated people who do all the busy work behind the scenes. We should thank those who clean our offices, those who mow our laws, those who pick up our garbage. If we have a favorite restaurant we should thank those back in the kitchen providing us with meals. And certainly within our own families, we should thank those who do all the busy works to make our households function. And men, if you have a wife like I do, who does an immense amount of work to prepare a kitchen and cook a seder, give her an extra hug tonight.



“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.” (Leviticus 6:3)

I just returned from my annual trip to New York with the 9th Graders in my Torah Corps. It was a wonderful, exhausting trip. Once again we visited the Lower East Side of Manhattan including the Streit’s Matza Factory. We saw where the dough is mixed and placed in a long conveyer belt to go through the oven heated to 900 degrees. Next to the conveyer built is a timer. Every fifteen minutes the baking is stopped so that the containers holding the dough can be cleaned, and then the process starts again.
This is one of the tricky details of Passover. Flour and water mixed together must be baked within eighteen minutes. (The fifteen minute time limit is a fence to prevent mistakes.) After eighteen minutes there is a good chance the dough has started to leaven and the whole mixture becomes hametz, unkosher for Passover. At Passover more than any other holiday, God is in the details.
The tricky details are also in this week’s Torah portion. Each day the high priest must dress in special garments and carry the ashes out from the altar. They are brought to a special place for disposal. If not for this somewhat thankless task, the altar would soon pile high with ashes and become unusual. It is one of those little details that makes the world run properly. The commentators noticed that the high priest needed special encouragement to carry out this detail. It is one thing to be the center of attention performing the various religious rituals, and quite another to privately carry ashes out each day. But God exists in the details.
There is another detail of Jewish ritual that falls out this week. Wednesday morning Jews throughout the world will be blessing the sun. What is unique about this rather strange ritual is that it happens only once every 28 years. The Talmud teaches, “Whoever sees the sun at its turning point, the moon in its power, the planets in their orbits, and the signs of the zodiac in their orderly progress should say, Blessed be he Who has wrought the work of creation. And when does that happen? Abaye said, Every twenty-eight years when the cycle begins again and the Nissan [spring] equinox falls in Saturn on the evening of Tuesday going into Wednesday.” (Berachot 59b) The Rabbis taught that this Wednesday the sun, the moon, and all the planets are in the exact same position they were at the moment of creation.
Today we know astronomically that the sun is not in a twenty-eight year cycle constantly returning to the same position. We know the sun and all the planets evolved and are still evolving. Nonetheless, the sun is still worthy of our blessing. If not for the sun, there would be no earth, no life, and no humanity. And when the sun disappears in another 5 billion years, we humans better find somewhere else to live. Every bit of energy that allows us to grow and function originated with sunlight, captured by plants through photosynthesis, and then by us through our diets. We need the sun, and thus it is worthy to gather once in a generation and bless the sun.
How does this all work? Again, God is in the details. The sun works because hydrogen atoms combine into helium, releasing energy by Einstein’s formula E=mc2. If the sun were a bit bigger the energy would have burnt out too fast, not allowing us to evolve. If the earth were a bit closer to the sun the oceans would have boiled away and life would never have developed; it is were a bit further the oceans would be ice and we would be frozen. Some call it the Goldilocks view of creation; not too hot nor too cold, but just right.
We Jews believe that God is in the details. The details of how the sun was created points towards a creator God of life. So let us gather Wednesday morning and let us bless the sun.


“If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer it together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked.” (Leviticus 7:12)

I passed through a dangerous situation last Friday afternoon right before services. (At least my grandmother would have thought it was dangerous.) I stopped at my dry cleaner to pick up clothing, and as I was walking in, I noticed that my sleeve button was missing. My shirt sleeve was wide open and I had to conduct Shabbat services in a few minutes. I showed it to my dry cleaner, who told me, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
“Let me take off the shirt,” I said.
“No need to. It will take a second.” Before I knew it, he had sewed a new button on the sleeve. And he did it while I was wearing the shirt. My late grandmother would be so upset; she believed in the Jewish superstition that you never sew clothing on someone’s body. And I admit I felt a bit uncomfortable. Was it dangerous? I told two of our synagogue members, both of whom told me that if I chew on a thread I will be all right. So after chewing on a thread, I suppose I am now safe.
I tell this story somewhat tongue in cheek. I know that we Jews are a superstitious people. We do not sew on buttons while wearing a shirt. We do not have baby showers. I tell pregnant women they can go to a cemetery but they stay away anyhow. And each Yom Kippur I watch as hundreds of people walk out of Yizkor services even after I ask them to stay; it is considered bad luck to be in services if your parents are alive. Superstitions teach us so many dangerous situations we need to avoid.
But this story has a more serious message. My dry cleaner is a religious Moslem. We often discuss religion as I pick up my very large weekly load of suits, shirts, and slacks. (Sometimes I think he would never harm me because I singlehandedly keep him in business.) But in truth, I have developed a wonderful relationship with both the dry cleaner and his wife. We often discuss our respective religions. (Do you think it is hard to fast on Yom Kippur? Imagine doing it every day from sunrise to sunset for a month during Ramadan? He considers this a true religious challenge.) In fact, he has invited me to visit his mosque during a recent Moslem festival. And each week he wishes me a Shabbat Shalom.
I have heard Jews say that Moslems are dangerous. They are not. There certainly exist Islamist extremist who preach a jihadist war between Islam and the West. Such individuals must be fought with whatever weapons are appropriate. But there are also countless individuals who simply desire to live in peace, people who care about their neighbors. People ask me how we are going to stop the Islamist extremists. The answer is simple – we cannot stop them. Only Moslem moderates can stop them. And that is why it is so vital that we build relationships with these moderates. That is why, even in a powder keg like the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians are quietly dialoging, getting to know each other beneath the radar of public media. They are the only hope for an eventual peace in the Middle East.
This week’s portion speaks about an offering of Thanksgiving. The Rabbis of the Talmud taught that such an offering is given when someone comes through a dangerous situation. Today we say a special prayer of thanks known as birkat hagomel. We say the prayer after a long journey, after recovering from an illness or going through surgery, and after being released from prison. (see Berachot 54b) What is a long journey? Some say it after every airplane journey, but I believe airplanes are too safe to require such a prayer. An overseas trip to Europe or Israel is safe. But after a journey to Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, such a prayer would be appropriate.
I long for the day when I can journey to any nation on earth and feel safe. Perhaps it all begins with a relationship with a Moslem dry cleaner who is very quick at sewing on buttons.



“Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the Torah of the burnt offering; It is the burnt offering, because of the burning upon the altar all night to the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be burning in it.” (Leviticus 6:2)

This week’s portion is called Tzav, literally “Command.” God commands Aaron and his sons to burn the burnt offering on the altar all night until morning. The Torah is filled with a variety of commandments dealing with both the ritual and the ethical, both negative and positive commandments. Judaism teaches that there are 613 commandments in the Torah, 365 negative commandments (thou shall not) corresponding to the days of the year and 248 positive commandments (thou shall) corresponding to the limbs of the body.
One could ask the question, if God wanted us to follow all these laws, why not make human beings as automatons, little robots who automatically follow God’s will? Why not make us as the angels, who automatically do good and are unable to sin? Of course the reason is that God made us humans with free will. We have been given the choice of doing the right thing or the wrong thing. This idea is at the center of the Biblical view of humanity. We humans were created in the image of God because we were given the ability to choose.
Last week I raised the issue whether machines can keep commandments. Often in my synagogue we struggle to provide a minyan, the ten Jews needed for the daily prayers. Could I make a couple of robots that I would keep in storage in my office? When we fall short of the necessary ten, could I pull out a couple of robots and count them. This is the kind of idea science fiction writers love (is the robot really a Jew?) But in real life, we cannot count robots nor automatons in the minyan.
This brings me to modern times and the teachings of many of my contemporaries today, particularly on college campuses. They insist that free will is really an illusion. Like the robots, on some deep level we humans are machines. We have no real choice about the decisions we make, but are under the control of forces beyond ourselves. In the old days, people would say that we are under the control of stars and planets. (This is one of the reasons that Judaism and other Biblical religions reject astrology.) Because so many people believe that heavenly bodies control our actions, Shakespeare could write in his play Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”
I am convinced that if Shakespeare lived today, he would have written the line differently. “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our genes …” A material viewpoint of the world sees us as genetic machines. Fairly regularly I have counseled someone going down a bad path in his or her life, who told me, “Rabbi, I cannot help myself. It must be in my genes.” Richard Dawkins and other materialists say that our entire being is a mere machine set up for our genetic survival. Blaming genes is a way of escaping responsibility.
People blame more than genes. In 1978 George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a city supervisor (in fact the first gay supervisor) were assassinated by Dan White, a former supervisor. In his defense, White’s lawyers argued in the infamous Twinkie defense, that White could not control his actions because of his addiction to Twinkies and other sugary foods. He received an unusually light sentence. We humans become mere machines when we say, “The food I ate made me do it.”
Part of the modern philosophical agenda as taught on many college campuses is the decentering of the self. Humans are not free independent agents. Freudians see humans as victims of the id, unconscious forces which overpower the ego. Marxists see us as victims of economic forces that are acted out in history in what is called dialectic materialism. Structuralists see deep patterns of human behavior that control how societies organized themselves. All of this modern theories downplay that role of free will and the human ego in self-determinism. From their perspective, a mechanistic, deterministic view of humanity becomes natural.
The great religions based on the Biblical disagree with this approach. Humans have free will and can make choices, and thus become responsible for their actions. It is essential that this message be heard today.



“And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh, and take up the ashes which the fire has consumed with the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. And he shall take off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” (Leviticus 6:3-4)

Each morning the high priest would put on special garments and remove the ashes from the fire where the daily offering was burnt. He then changed into ordinary streets clothes and carried the ashes outside the camp to a special place. The ashes still maintain their holiness even after the sacrifice has been burnt up. The great commentator Rashi teaches that this particular tradition needed special encouragement for the priest. One can imagine that the priest willingly brought the daily offering. At that time he was at the center of public attention. Removing the leftover ashes early each morning needed more encouragement. It had to be done, or else the altar would see a build up of dirty ashes. But it was not fun.
This entire portion reminds me of those who work hard behind the scenes to make sure everything is ready. They do not get the public recognition. When we go to the movies, the stars, the producer, and the director are shown at the beginning. At the end of the movie, when everyone is walking out, the credits roll by. Hundreds of names are listed, from the make-up artist to the sound engineer to the caterer. They are unknown. And yet, without them, the movie would never have happened.
Last week I wrote about my trip to New York City with our high school students. It was my moment of glory to be with these young people for three straight days. And yet, if it were not for other people I could not have made the trip. I want to mention in particular my assistant Rhonda, who did all the busy work of arranging hotels, flights, restaurants, tours, collecting money, and overseeing details. While in New York we saw the play Rent. It is wonderful if somewhat edgy musical. When the actors took their bows, I thought about those behind the scenes, the lighting and music and stage manager, even the ushers. We often do not appreciate those who make things happen.
We like to say that God is in the details. I will be the first to admit that I am not a detail person. I tend to see the world in broad pictures. We recently celebrated a pet Shabbat in our synagogue. We gathered before services to teach about the Jewish view towards animals and to bless countless dogs, and various other pets including a snake and a skunk. The idea was mine, although taken from other rabbis and originally used by churches based on a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. I could come up with the broad idea, but it took our youth director Rayna to realize that we needed to provide dog biscuits and water, plus catchy tee shirts.
In my personal case, the one behind me taking care of the details is my wife Evelyn. She is the one who makes sure all the pieces are in place before we go on a trip or plan any other activities. She is the one who makes sure that everyone, including me, has the appropriate clothes to wear. And when I am waiting in the car, she is the one who runs back into the house when I forget my pills or the extra pair of glasses.
There is no holiday that is more detail oriented than Passover. Most of us sit down at a seder, the ritual meal at the center of the holiday. There is special food and special dishes. For those who keep kosher (and I encourage it particularly during Passover), there has been a total changeover in dishes and cutlery. New food has been bought. The house has been thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom. And a huge amount of cooking has taken place. How often do we appreciate the detail work behind the scenes, the one who prepared that seder?
In general, how often do we appreciate those who work behind the scenes carrying out the detail work? Whether it is the busboy who sets our table in the restaurant, the housekeeper who makes sure our hotel room is clean, or the delivery person who makes sure we have a newspaper at our front door before dawn each morning, there are people who work behind the scenes to service us. They make the world work. For that they deserve a big thank you.



“And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments, Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments.”
(Leviticus 8:30)

In this week’s portion, Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons for the priesthood. Why do we need the priests at all?
An answer dawned on me as I spoke at a conference on family life down in Mexico City. I was one of very few Jews, among several thousand people, mostly Catholics including many Catholic priests, various other Christian groups, Mormons, and quite a few Moslems. The purpose of the priesthood, both in ancient times and in the modern world is to point the way towards the holy. Even those who may not have embraced a life of holiness would look to the priest for a vision of holiness.
We Jews are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Perhaps our job as a people is to point the way to holiness for the world. Perhaps in a perfect world, people would look at Jews and say “this is a holy people.” I went to Mexico City because I felt there should be a Jewish presence at a conference on the centrality of family. After all, our Torah gave the world a vision of family life.
Allow me to share the beginning of the speech I gave in Mexico City:
There is a tale in the Talmud of a wealthy Roman woman who approached a great rabbi and asked, “Since God created the world, what has he been doing?” The rabbi answered that God has been matching men and women for marriage. The woman said, “That is not difficult.” She lined up all her male and female slaves and matched them up, “This man with this woman; this man with this woman.” The next day the slaves came to her, this one with an injured eye and this one with a broken arm. “I don’t want him.” “I don’t want her.” The Roman woman then returned to the rabbi and said, “I realize the greatness of God. To make a good match is as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea.” (Genesis Rabbah 68:4)
At the center of the Torah=s vision for humanity is the verse, “A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Notice that it does not say, a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his lovers, wives, mistresses, and casual pick ups. Marriage and fidelity are the ideal for men and women. Yet we live in a world of recreational sex, failed marriages, and children whose parents are not a daily presence in their lives.
Why are our marriages in such trouble? Twenty five years of Rabbinic counseling have convinced me that we do not know how to love. As a culture we have totally misunderstood the meaning of love. We date someone who attracts us sexually, we fall in love, then we get married. Then for many of us, the marriage becomes stale, we seek excitement elsewhere, we fall out of love, divorce, fall in love with someone else, and marry again. Polygamy has been outlawed, but serial monogamy has become the norm. Or else we do not bother to marry at all, moving from lover to lover as long as we feel fulfilled. In our search for love, too often we abandon marriage..
Too often what we think is love of the other is really simply love of ourselves. There is a Hasidic story of a man who catches a huge carp and keeps it alive to give away as a gift. The carp is very frightened, until he hears the Hasid say that he is going to give the fish to the local nobleman. “He loves carp.” The carp feels much better. If the nobleman loves carp, he will certainly protect him and keep him safe. The Hasid brings the carp to the nobleman, who immediately orders his servants to cut it in half, cook it, and serve it for dinner the next two nights. The carp screams. “I thought you love carp. You don’t love carp; you only love yourself.”
If we are to create marriages that last, we must rethink how we look at love. We need to teach our young people the true meaning of love. What does it mean to fall in love and marry? Let us share some insights from the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbala. I believe these will help us rediscover the true meaning of love, and create marriages that really do succeed.

Passover, our most family oriented festival begins this week. May we renew the holiness of family life on this Passover. Then may we be role models of family holiness for the world.



“He [Moses] led forward the bull of the sin offering. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of the sin offering.” (Leviticus 8:14)

I just finished reading a beautiful novel by Ian McEwan entitled Atonement. Set in pre-World War II England, it tells of a thirteen year old girl, a future novelist, who commits a terrible act of betrayal. The second half of the novel speaks of her attempt to overcome her guilt and find atonement.
In the epilogue of the book, looking back as an older woman, she writes “The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.” If there is nothing outside of us, whom do we turn to for forgiveness? God plays many roles in our lives as humans. One of the most important is the God Who forgives.
As a rabbi, I counsel people dealing with every issue human beings can face. One of the most persistent is the quest for forgiveness and atonement in the eyes of God. Someone comes to see me, often asking for an extremely confidential meeting. “Rabbi, I have done wrong. Do you think God can ever forgive me?” I hear confessions, although I am not a priest. What I hear is a sense of being out of sync with the universe, needing something to be at peace once again. The quest for atonement is one of the most powerful human needs. Atone comes from the two words at one, at one with the universe and at one with God.
In ancient times people brought animal sacrifices to God to find atonement. The suffering of the animal served to vicariously fulfill the need to suffer and be punished because of one=s sin. Even the priests, responsible for the bringing of the offerings, had to first be at one with God. The priest could not help others atone until he had atoned his own sins. Therefore, at the center of the investiture of Aaron into the priesthood was the sin offering, so he would find atonement.
Christianity built an entire theology on the idea of vicarious atonement. Jesus died on the cross, suffering to take away the sins of those who believe in him. This idea resonates in a powerful way, making Christianity in its various forms the largest faith on earth. Someone must suffer if we are to be at one with God again.
As a Jew, I do not accept the idea of Jesus dying for my sins. “A person shall die for their own sins.” (Deuteronomy 24:16) But that leaves unanswered the idea that human beings need atonement. We need to find a way to become at one with God and the universe after we have done something wrong. As a spiritual leader who counsels people in need of atonement, I find that I personally must be at one with God if I am to help others. Like the character in McEwan=s novel, there is pain in the quest to find forgiveness.
I remember hearing once a prayer of a great rabbi before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. He turned to God and said, “Lord of the Universe. Although I am often hungry, I will fast on this day. Some of my own flesh will disappear. We can no longer offer animal sacrifices to find atonement. Therefore, may this sacrifice of my own flesh serve as forgiveness for my sins and put me at one with You.”
How do we become at one with God? How do we find forgiveness? Must we suffer and feel pain? Can we transfer our sin to someone else, an animal or another human being? Can we continue to live when we have done wrong? How do we find peace, hope, and healing? These are fundamental questions that humans of all faiths and of no particular faith must ask. The search for answers is at the heart not only of a great novel, but also of all great religions.



“And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments.” (Leviticus 8:30)

Much of this portion deals with the consecration of Aaron and his sons into the Priesthood. Moses must handle all the rituals for his brother and his nephews.
I imagine the emotions that Moses must have felt at this time. His brother=s sons were following in their father=s footsteps, into a position of honor and glory. Meanwhile, his own two sons Gershom and Eliezer disappeared from the story. They would not follow in their father=s footsteps, nor take on any kind of leadership role in the community.
It would have been natural for Moses to feel a sense of deep disappointment in his own sons, even as he consecrated his brother=s sons. He was gracious in not mentioning his own feelings.
One of the largest counseling issues I face is parents who are disappointed in their children. They may regret the spouse their child chose to marry (whether of the same religion or a different faith), or they may regret that their child has not married at all. They may feel angry that their child is gay or lesbian. (I highly recommend the newly released movie Trembling Before God which deals with this issue.) They may be upset over their child=s choice of a career, the city where their child chose to live, or dozens of other life style choices. They may believe their child has not lived up to his or her potential in terms of education, career, talent, or ambition.
Many Jewish parents have particular issues that trouble them. They may be frustrated, or deeply frightened, that their child has chosen to live in Israel. Or they may regret that their child is more observant than they are. (How often do I hear parents lament, “My child is Orthodox, and won=t even answer the phone on Saturday or eat food in my home!”) Sometimes the parents regrets are reasonable; no one likes to see a child make foolish choices. Too often, however, parents make unreasonable demands of adult children.
I tell parents, “Your job is to raise your children with the right values, and then let them go. You cannot control the choices they make as adults. You can communicate your feelings, but ultimately your children must decide for themselves. And if they make foolish choices, so be it. All you can do is keep the lines of communication and the door open. You do not need to agree with every decision your children make. But you should never stop loving them.”
There is a natural tension between parents and children. Children are trying to break away from their parents and assert their own identities. They often see their parents as controlling and overbearing. Parents on the other hand never stop being parents. My children sometimes say to me, “When will you stop telling me what to do.” I always answer with a smile, “My father stopped telling me what to do when I was forty six. That is when he died.”
This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before the festival of Passover. We read a special haftarah (portion from the Prophets) that speaks of the day in the future when Elijah the Prophet returns to announce the coming of the Messiah. The haftarah closes with the words, “He will reconcile parents with children and children with parents.” (Malachi 3:24)
In other words, when the Messiah comes parents and children will finally get along. Until then, we must all feel the same tension between the generations that Moses must have felt.



AAnd he shall put off his garments, put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.@
(Leviticus 6:4)

God commanded Aaron to dress in special clothes and remove the burnt ashes from the daily whole offering. The Rabbis comment that Aaron needed special encouragement for this particular mitzvah. Clearing out dirty ashes does not have the glory of most of the other activities the high priest had to do. It is one of those necessary details. Without it, the altar would fill with ashes and soon be unusable.
Clearing ashes is one of those little details that are easy to ignore, but are necessary if the daily sacrifices are going to proceed without problem. Often we lose track of how important the minor details are in the smooth functioning of our lives.
Passover begins this Saturday night. We are busy making preparations, removing the hametz, buying the matzah. Perhaps it is worthy to ask, what is the difference between hametz and matzah, between leavened and unleavened, what we are forbidden to eat and what we are commanded to eat on Passover?
If we mix flour and water and let it sit 17 minutes, 50 seconds before baking, it is matzah and eating it fulfills a mitzvah. If we mix flour and water and let it sit 18 minutes, 10 seconds, it is hametz, a serious transgression of the Torah. What a difference a few seconds can make! The difference is in the details.
Let us look at the words themselves – matzah, hametz. Both share a tzadi and a mem, one has a hey, the other a het. But the hey looks like a het, with only a tiny space to differentiate them. This tiny space, but it makes all the difference in the world. The difference is in the details.
Passover preparations are filled with details. How do you kasher a kitchen? What ingredients are kosher? Where can I buy the proper food? How much do I need so that, chas v’chalila, I don’t run out in the middle of the holiday? How do I sell my hametz? During Passover, God is in the details.
People tell me, “why bother. Rabbi, I keep all the basics of the holiday, who needs the picayune details.” I sometimes answer, imagine a family in ancient Egypt that did not want to bother with the details. Picture a family of Israelites who said, “Why should we bother to put blood on our door? God knows we have good Jewish hearts. Why bother with the details?” When God brought the tenth plague, would He have passed over such a home? God did not want good Jewish hearts, he wanted Jews who placed the blood on the door.
It is the details that can make or break so many important events. I recall performing a wedding recently at a luxurious hotel. Everything was set – the huppah, the winecups, the glass to break, the rings. Then I asked the ushers to pass out kipot. Nobody had remembered to order kipot. I dug an old, bedraggled yarmulke from my car, imprinted with some Bat Mitzvah’s name, for the groom. Everyone else had heads uncovered. Igoring the detail put a damper on a beautiful wedding.
Now I am aware that mistakes are made. We are all human. Nonetheless, it behooves us to watch the details. One letter left off a Sefer Torah by a scribe makes the entire scroll non-kosher. Sometimes a mistake in a detail can ruin the whole event. Recently we passed out Saturday morning synagogue programs with the name of the Bar Mitzvah spelled wrong. It was a minor detail that seriously upset the day for a family.
George Herbert wrote, “For want of a nail the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost…” and so on until the kingdom was lost. He had the right idea. A nail can make all the difference. God is in the details.



“The Lord Spoke to Moses saying, Command Aaron and his sons…”
(Leviticus 6:1-2)

I walked into our morning service, and found two worshippers involved in a heated discussion. The first insisted that the word mitzvah means “good deed”. The second answered, no the word means “commandment”. Back and forth they debated. I finally replied, “you’re both right. Mitzvah in our common usage has come to mean a good deed. But the word in every traditional source means “commandment.”
The gentleman who insisted that mitzvah meant good deed strong¬ly told me, “Rabbi, what do you mean commandment! I remember in my previous synagogue going one morning a week to our daily worship services. It meant waking up an hour earlier than usual. I did it because I knew they needed me to insure a minyan (ten required to hold services). It was a good deed.”
I replied, “did you feel that God commanded you to pray and participate in the services?” “No, it has nothing to do with God,” he said, “I went because it was a good deed.”
In this little argument lies the essence of the difference between Orthodox and liberal Judaism. For Orthodox Jews, a mitzvah is a commandment ordained by the living God. To most liberal Jews, whether they affiliate with Conservative, Reform, or Reconstruction¬ist congregations, a commandment is simply a good deed. We may perform it out of our commitment to the Jewish people, to our fellow human beings, or to our own spiritual growth. But there is no sense that we are submitting to the will of the greater, commanding God.
As we read this portion, my question is not to Orthodox Jews. They know that God is a commanding God. My question is to the vast majority of us affiliated with the various liberal movements, eclectic in our observance. Do we keep any religious practices because we believe God commanded us? Or do we only observe those items we consider good deeds?
I recently asked my teenage study group, “Do you believe there are actions that God wants you to do? Do you believe there are actions that God has forbidden you to do? Is there anything you do – or do not do – not because you want to our your parents told you, but because God told you?” “Did God command you to honor your parents? Not to commit murder? To keep the Sabbath? To fast on Yom Kippur?”
Rabbi Hanina taught that to perform a mitzvah because we are commanded is higher than performing a mitzvah simply because we feel that it is a good deed. (Kiddushin 31a) This sounds strange to modern ears. We value autonomy and choice – picking those mitzvot we find spiritually meaningful, that we consider good deeds. In our celebration of freedom, we no longer hear the voice of the commanding God.
As we read these ancient commandment regarding the sacrificial offerings, each of us should ask ourself – what modern observance do I keep, not simply because it is a good deed, but because it is truly God’s commandment?