Put On Your Mask First Before Assisting Others

Picture the last time you heard these words: “Please be sure to securely fasten your mask first before attempting to help others.”  Did you even notice the flight attendant speaking (assuming it wasn’t a video presentation)? Did you actually watch the video?  While possibly in denial about the risks of air travel (though not the point of these musings!), this is perhaps the most cogent piece of instruction in the pre-flight litany.  It is really a very selfless teaching: you won’t be any good to anyone else if you become unconscious.

We don’t always have to pass out from lack of oxygen to be ‘living unconsciously’.  Progressing through our day mindlessly we may be alive and moving, but not really paying attention to all that crosses our path and our awareness.  For me, the reading of the passages of the Book of Leviticus – seemingly dry, problematic, difficult, uncomfortable, messy, awkward, and/or outdated – I try to dig deeper, beyond the chaotic rituals of burnt offerings or the complex layers of prohibitions to seek lessons of mindfulness and of Mussar (Jewish spiritual-ethical practice) to inspire me through my week.

Returning to the pre-flight instructions, I think that is the principle underlying a thread of this week’s Torah portion, in chapter 16 of Leviticus.  Aaron, the High Priest, is called upon to perform rituals to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. However, before Aaron can perform the rituals on behalf of the people, he has to make offerings of atonement for himself and his own household.  The Talmud teaches: ‘Improve yourself first, and then you can improve others’ (Sanhedrin, 18a). Put your own mask on first; attend to your own spirit, in order for you to be most effective in your life and the lives of those around you.

In Leviticus 16:30 we read: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Eternal.”  This, then, is the intent of this set of rituals.  It is the purpose that we still hang on to, in our observance of Yom Kippur, its nascent beginning also described in this portion, in the prior verses.  Of course, the mask analogy is invoked only in the case of an emergency; I contend that this is a valuable principle for daily living.  We need to reach for those things that will anchor, sustain and enrich us in order to be the best that we can be for those we care for and care about.  As we prepare for Pesach in the coming days by removing the chametz – the physical and spiritual crumbs that muck up our homes and ourselves – perhaps you can envision that ritual to be your own oxygen mask, sustaining you, so that you can be ready to assist others to be sustained and inspired by our people’s story of redemption.

[Acharei Mot 2014 - Shabbat Hagadol :The Shabbat before Pesach]

Separate and Together

Illness can be isolating.  When you are sick, even for a day or two, it is easy to feel sequestered. With extended illness or chronic conditions, the hours and days can be lonely, filled with endless waiting of unknown duration with the hope for health to return once again.

This week, in parashat Tazria, (Leviticus 13), we read of impurity due to various skin ailments.  This section is often read in conjunction with the next week’s portion, Metzora, as a double portion. The illnesses are described in this week’s portion; the remedies are described in next week’s portion.  The isolation of the individual with these skin lesions by the kohen in Torah is born of ritual defilement; however, it is true still today that visible deformity and illness are shunned, and are fearful and anxiety-provoking for the patient and for the community.  How many of us regularly make visits to or reach out to those who are ill?  Our tradition expects of us to overcome our own fears of illness so that we can break down barriers of isolation for those who are ill.  The Talmud teaches: Whoever visits the sick removes one sixtieth of his illness, while one who ignores a sick person hastens his death (Baba Metzia 30b). There can be tremendous power in our presence with someone who is ailing.

In my work, I have seen the loneliness of illness – those isolated or disconnected from friends and family because of their limitations – and the additional pain and grief that separation brings.  I, too, have experienced the separation from and subsequent grateful return to community as I recovered from surgery.

Pirkei Avot teaches: Do not separate yourself from the community (Avot 2:5). How can we reconcile this paradoxical teaching with this week’s Torah portion?  Even when you might need to be physically separated – perhaps you are just too weak to be around anyone, or you are physically compromised and need to be isolated, or you might be contagious to those around you—our tradition recognizes here that the goal is not to remain separated, but to be able to return.

Illness can separate us from our family, friends and community – so how does one return? The Torah teaches here that it is through ritual.  We will read in next week’s portion of the bringing of two birds for an offering: one is placed on the fire of the altar, the other is set free.  While we do not today re-enact the ancient burnt offerings, we can re-imagine these two birds as our spiritual offerings: one representing the casting off of our illness, and the other representing our transformation (burning is transformative) and transition back to health in the presence of community. The physicality of ritual is so crucial to experiencing change, to really remembering that moments of transition matter.

[Tazria 2014]

You Are What You Eat

Each year as we re-read the laws of kashrut [Leviticus 11], the arguments for and against keeping kosher are trotted out; as well, the misconceptions of it being about ancient health practices and therefore outdated are raised.  Then, there are also the discussions about whether to keep kosher at only at home, or also when eating out; the sloshing through individual degrees of kashrut and the all –too-often unfortunate ensuing criticism or rejection of one person’s practice over another being insufficient for someone else’s comfort.

Clearly, the Torah understood the importance of eating, and here of ritualized consumption.  The significance of food and of eating in Judaism is woven throughout our days and yearly cycle.  Each holiday has its special foods; we have a variety of blessings to offer before we eat, depending on what we are eating.  Truly, there is so much more packed into this list in Torah of animals which are ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’.

By keeping our focus only on the laws of kashrut, do we miss the spirit of kashrut?  For me, it becomes about eating mindfully.  Whether we understand why we eat one animal and not another, or whether we give gratitude and pause before we eat, I think these words of Torah are about doing whatever we can do to change our interaction with food, its preparation, its source, in such a way that consumption becomes holy.

In Mary Zamore’s The Sacred Table, she writes: “Kashrut is a way of integrating values such as ethics, community, and spirituality into our own personal dietary practice.” At its core, the laws of kashrut are motivated by recognition of the holiness of every living creature.  Taking its literal meaning to heart, that what we eat is ‘fit’ for our consumption, we have the opportunity to incorporate many Jewish values into our food purchasing, preparation and eating in order to bring the core value of kedusha  - holiness – into our lives through this quintessential part of our lives.

What will you do to change your eating, involve gratitude and attentiveness? Perhaps just slow down and really taste your food.  Perhaps purchase more organic, or support locally grown produce, sustainably-caught fish; maybe you will consider the environmental impact or the labor that went into growing, harvesting, preparing, or producing and make decisions of what you will and will not eat based on Jewish values of how we treat our workers, the land and its creatures.  In my family it is so meaningful to eat what we grow ourselves – the experience of going out into our garden and gathering much of the ingredients with which to prepare dinner fills me with immense gratitude for what we bring to our table as well as appreciation for all that we rely upon from others.  While some people eat to live, and others live to eat, I believe that Torah is urging us to consider how we feed and nurture our souls as well as our bodies.   As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

[Sh'mini 2014]

Sacred Chores

Making the bed, emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, taking out the trash – daily chores around our homes, done out of necessity, often mindlessly and probably not joyfully.  But, what if we thought of our chores as holy work?

“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)

For the priest, the Kohen, the morning began the same each day – cleaning up and taking out the trash, the very first thing to do each morning. Our text additionally implies that it is the same priest that clears the ashes and then removes them to outside the camp, changing clothes for the different tasks.  It seems that it certainly would have been easier to have a different priest take out the ashes instead of the clothing change.  Yet, the fact that the same Kohen performed both manners of service emphasizes a general lesson in a 6th century midrash that “One is not to weigh the relative importance of commandments — all are equal.” [Tanhuma, Eikev 2]. In the Temple, tending to the sacrifices and their fires involved both the glamorous and the mundane. Both were the job of one person.

There was no glory, no drama in this ritual. It just had to be done. The satisfaction is in the doer knowing that it was done.  It is the clearing away of the trash: not ignoring it, not shoving it aside. Moreover, the task is treated with dignity and ritual: there were specific garments to be worn, and the ashes were to be placed specifically outside the camp, not merely piled up off to the side.  The new day was greeted only after the clearing away of the ashes.

Over the ages, much has been written about this ritual.  Rashi explains that a servant must not wear the same clothes to pour the wine for the master as would be worn for cooking.  That is, there is ritual importance in dressing for the part, both functionally and spiritually.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an influential 19th Century German orthodox rabbi, explains that ashes do not allow fresh fire to be sustained. We know this to be true, that a fire pit full of ashes will only smother the fires. If we imagine that the ashes are events past, we must on the one hand remember what has past and retire it to the background with dignity, and yet clear it away to allow the unfolding of the present. Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century philosopher and teacher of Jewish ethics, wrote the following in Duties of the Heart: “This clearing of the ashes is in order to humble oneself and remove the haughtiness from one’s heart.” Personal growth requires us to approach life with an attitude of humility. With that, even more so the lowly work is required just as much as the lofty to keep us honest and in touch with the world around us.  We are not only required to perform the elevated and seemingly spiritual tasks, but rather to understand all chores are sacred.

Ultimately, it comes down to what is in our hearts.  No one came out to see the Kohen do this.  There was no fanfare, no onlookers, and no thanks.  An invisible ritual experienced only by the do-er, known about in God’s presence.  I note this more this year, in a leap year when we read this parsha just before Purim – the very name ‘Esther’ coming from the Hebrew root s-t-r, meaning secret or hidden.  It is Esther’s hiddenness and humility that ultimately bring redemption to the Jewish people.

Ashes are merely remnants – neither good nor bad.  Living mindfully involves accepting that all is fleeting, that all experiences arise and pass.  We must remove the ashes of yesterday, whether remnants of joy or sadness, they are still only remnants; treat them all with dignity and grace, recognize them as the wispy and lustrous flecks of yesterday that must be then put aside to move into today.

What are the ashes you need to remove today? For me, I pray to be able to embrace each task of my day as a sacred chore, to keep me humble and grateful.

[Tzav 2014]


The beginning portions of the Book of Leviticus challenge us to slog through the details of the offerings to be brought to the Mishkan and ultimately to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem– lists of burnt entrails, blood spatter and thick smoke.  Not very pleasant, to be sure, and at first glance seemingly irrelevant in our time.

Ultimately, I think it is all about ritual.  The purpose of any ritual is to physicalize the emotional and affective experience, which then becomes embedded in our body and our psyche. I think that this is emphasized by the language of the text: the instructions to carry out these offerings are directed to the individual using the word ‘nefesh’ to instruct the ‘soul’ of a person – rather than the use of the word ‘adam’ [individual human being] or ‘ish’ [person], which is used elsewhere in reference to the bringing of offerings. The specificity of the language here serves as a reminder and reinforcement that it is our soul that is the source of our actions, even as our body carries out the actions.

In this list of offerings to be brought, there are two offerings designated which specifically mitigate sin.  The chatat, “purgation or sin offering” (Leviticus 4:1-35; 5:1-13) was given to atone for an unintentional sin (in Hebrew, the word, chet – sin, better denoted as “missing the mark”). The sin/chet involved could be individual or communal, and the offering to be brought is adjusted to the means of the individual bringing the offering and who has committed the unintentional wrongdoing.  The second of these offerings, the asham, “reparation or guilt offering” (Leviticus 5:14-26) was handled in the same way as the first one, the chatat, except that the asham was specifically to be a ram, and was usually offered by someone who had stolen property or dealt deceitfully with others. The offender had to restore what was taken plus twenty percent in order to gain forgiveness from those offended, and then bring the asham to be forgiven by God.

It is the ‘unintentional’ nature of this offering that has grabbed my attention.  Throughout this section of Torah, and again later, in the Book of Numbers (chapter 15) surrounding a discussion of the observance of mitzvot in Promised Land, there is repeated instruction regarding sins committed unintentionally.  Does God really think that we humans are so absent-minded that this needs to be such an extensive instruction and set of rituals?  Further, what does it really mean to do something unknowingly or absentmindedly? And is the crux of the issue absent-minded/mindless action or the error itself?  There is a strong sense that our tradition understands human nature: we are easily distractible creatures. We have good intentions, but too often with misguided execution.  Our tradition understands this and gives us credit: if we become aware of our error, we can atone. Moreover, we must atone. In addition, to really live fully, we must live mindfully. The details provided here of the ritual of bringing an offering (literally, in the Hebrew meaning ‘coming nearer to God’), indeed, the physicality of ritual all assists and supports us to be more deeply connected to the events and passage of time in our lives.

As we begin the Book of Leviticus, the detailed descriptions of the sacrificial rituals in Parashat Vayikra remind us to consider the physical actions we can take in our lives to help us be mindful of our thoughts, actions and their impact. By paying closer attention to these details, we can simultaneously be drawn closer to God, to one another, and ultimately to our best selves.

[Vayikra 2014]

Old, New and Holy

We have come to the end of the Book of Exodus.  The passage of time captivates me more than ever, as I have been captive of its slow passage now for many weeks.  More than focusing on the details of this week’s parshah, I am drawn to the words we recite whenever we finish reading a book of Torah: “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik – Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.”

We are strengthened by keeping the words and teachings of Jewish tradition close to our heart, as an anchor rather than a weight, whether we are inspired by them or whether we struggle with them.  In God’s first words to Joshua after the death of Moses, God says: “This Book of Torah shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate upon it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). It is taught that the emphasis, “Sefer haTorah hazeh – literally, ‘this Book of Torah’ means that Joshua was actually holding the Torah at the time. This interpretation has a practical consequence that is seen when the oleh laTorah, the person “called” to bless the Torah, comes to the bimah, that person is supposed to hold the etz chayim, the wooden poles on which the scroll is wrapped, when reciting the blessing.   While there are varied customs among Ashkenazim and Sephardim regarding the conclusion of a book of Torah, there is evidence that in France in the 12th-13th centuries it was customary for the Cantor to say “Chazak”- ‘be strong’ – in a loud voice to each person upon finishing their reading from the Torah. Reading Torah – holding it literally and figuratively, and reading it again and again to learn from it anew each time we return to a passage – this is what brings us strength individually and keeps us strong as a people.

The confluence of the Jewish calendar and my life strikes once again. (Or is it just my ongoing search for meaning and connectedness in the Jewish seasons?)  I have completed my own chapter in the book of the journey of my healing and return to full health.  Chazak.  I am strong, gaining strength. I am returning to some of the things that I used to be able to do, those that have either eluded me or have not been permitted to me for some time now.  Nothing earth-shaking, and yet: turning my head to look at the flowering trees…..looking down to read a book in my lap…..taking a nap lying down on the sofa…..cutting the vegetables from our garden for dinner’s salad…….baking challah.  I feel as if I am doing these typical and everyday things again for the very first time.  Rav Avraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land, before Israel became a state and a deeply spiritual thinker, said the following which resonates with me now: “Hayashan yitchadeish v’hechadash yitkadeish – The old shall become new and the new shall become holy.” While sometimes misused to interpret sticking with old, outdated and sometimes oppressive ways as ways to holiness, I believe that the intention of these words is two-fold: not to discard something merely because it is old, and to understand the potential of renewal and growth in every situation.  My old activities, the straightforward movements that to which I never gave thought, once old-hat, are now renewed to me.  Noticing them, giving them attention with gratitude brings the sacred into these simple activities.

Chazak – in the singular, refers to the individual. When we say it for each new yet familiar thing we do or learn, when we recited it after rereading each book of Torah each year, we become strong. Nitchazeik – in the reflexive plural, it is through community that our own strength is sustained.  For me, the love and help from my family and friends that continue to support me on this journey, for the learning and teaching that I continue to enjoy, for the moments of prayer and awe, communal spirit is how we become nitchazeik – strengthened by one another.

For what will you say chazak this week?  May we continue to draw sustenance in the year to come – from our relationships and from our learning.  Kein y’hi ratzon.

[Pekudei 2014 ]

My Grandmother’s Candlesticks


These candlesticks were sent over from family in Hungary around 1930, on the occasion of my grandmother’s engagement to my grandfather.  Beautiful – silver, ornately engraved, with her initials, SW, swirled letters incorporated into the design on the rounded base.  My grandmother gave them to me many years ago, upon the birth of my eldest daughter.  While my grandmother was not really a religious person, she lit Shabbes candles, and was thrilled for me to have her candlesticks to use with my own family.  I still get excited each time they gleam when I finish polishing them, like new, ready for the Shabbat lights.

This week’s retelling in Torah of the completion of the Mishkan (its initial accounting of the building plan occurred just chapters earlier) is no mere listing of a giant building project with all its component parts completed and accounted for. Beginning with a reminder to observe Shabbat (as a covenantal reminder after the Golden Calf incident), it rather recounts a joyous moment when kavanah [intention] was carried through so that the finished product could be sanctified and used for the holy purpose to which it was envisioned, as the people gave the “offering of their hearts to God” (Exodus 35:29).

There are two stages to the actual building of the Mishkan.  First, we are told four times in these chapters that the entire people had to participate, to be so moved to bring and donate materials.  Well, the Israelites brought so much ‘stuff’ that Moses had to put a stop to their donations!  Perhaps they were just ready to clear out the clutter of their tents!  Seriously, most cultures are enamored with ‘stuff’ – we can touch it, hoard it, sell it, buy it, trade it; stuff reminds us of where we have been, brings good memories and tough ones; objects and possessions can be very useful items, simply clutter, or potentially dangerous.  Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, teaches that things are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of themselves.  Based on the Talmudic comment: “With earrings they sinned and with earrings they were restored to God’s favor”: the same jewels can be used for lowly or exalted purposes. Possessions have no intrinsic moral value. Indeed, whether they are good or bad depends solely on the way we use them. They are the stuff of both idols and sanctuaries.

The second stage of building involves artistry and skill, also indicated at four different times in the verses; for that, artisans are appointed, under the direction of Betzalel.  It wasn’t sufficient that everyone brought or gave what they could for the building of the Mishkan; it was crucial that the project had a beauty that would enhance and evince the deeper meaning of the construction.  The ancient principle of Hiddur Mitzvah is literally the enhancement of carrying out mitzvot using beautiful and adorned objects to bring greater meaning to the ritual.  I think that this is further demonstrated in the connection of root letters between Art – in Hebrew, Omanut א-מ-נ-ו-ת    and Faith – in Hebrew, Emunah א-מ-ו-נ-ה. Even in Kabbalistic tradition, Tiferet – Splendor (the 6th sefirah) is at the center of the Divine Emanations of creation.  Art enhances faith, beauty brings out wonder; this spurs faith in a Creator of Beauty and of the inspiration in humankind to continue to create things of beauty which add meaning and depth to our lives.  This artistic building endeavor here in Torah is a spiritual counterbalance to the building of the Golden Calf, which arose out of the spiritual struggle and despair of a people who feared they were abandoned.

Maimonides, in the work known as The Eight Chapters (the introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot) speaks about the healing power of beauty and its importance in counteracting depression: “One who suffers from melancholia may dispel it by listening to singing and all kinds of instrumental music, by strolling through beautiful gardens and splendid buildings, by gazing upon beautiful pictures and other things enliven the mind and dissipate gloomy moods.” (ch.5) In short, as we read this week in Torah, art is restorative to the soul.

So each week as my family and I welcome Shabbat lighting candles held in my grandmother’s candlesticks, I smile knowing that my grandmother is still with me, and faith and tradition are once again woven together through splendor.

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