Archive for the '3.05 Aharei Mot / Kedoshim' Category

Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today


After Death: Working for a Renaissance

This week marked the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This is far from justice, but does give us a glimmer of accountability. This week also marked two weeks since my second vaccination. I am filled with gratitude and feel very blessed. This is my first glimpse of what life will look like post-Covid.

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

Looking back into history we see that after the Spanish Flu of 1918 things went back to normal. According to one article :

The Spanish flu virus was persistent and wiped out a huge proportion of the globe during its deadliest second wave in the autumn of 1918. A third wave came in the winter of 1919, however by summer of that year, very few cases were reported. Science journalist Laura Spinney has fervently researched the Spanish flu and analysed how it was concluded. She reasons that every pandemic is shaped like a bell curve as the pathogen runs out of susceptible hosts, therefore the Spanish flu ran its natural course. There could be a similar pattern for the current pandemic. So, what have we learnt from the 1918 pandemic? That preventative measures – however difficult and limiting – do make a difference in slowing the spread of disease. That no matter how developed a health care system can be, there will still be problems. Yet positively, we can see that pandemics do all come to an end. As 100 years ago, the nation basked in a euphoric ‘roaring’ 20s, we too will experience our own roaring 2020s.  ( Microbiology Society)

I keep asking myself will life post Covid look like the roaring ’20s or will we seek out another model? After the Black Death we had the Renaissance. That sure seems better. Is that a choice we can make?

Similarly, now that we have started the process of holding law enforcement accountable, will we do the hard work of making sure that we have a justice system that is just? There needs to be one system of justice for all us. People of color should not live in fear. What kind of work do we need to do to overhaul our justice system?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose a renaissance of art, culture, medicine, and justice. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. The choice of a renaissance would mean a lot of work and we are all so tired of it all. A lesson taken from this Torah portion is that even “after the death” of his sons Aaron was told to go back to work. We should not take a beat to reflect, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. “After death” we need to work for a better life and not be satisfied with normal. In the words of Randy Pausch, ” Don’t complain just work harder.”

Complaining At Work Quotes. QuotesGram

Deference for the Old: A New Look at Biomimicry

In Aharei Mot -Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the practice of honoring the elderly. There we read:

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:32)

It is interesting to think about standing as means of expression of honor. But what does it mean “to show deference to the old” beyond standing? And what does it have to do with fearing God?

On one level I have been thinking about this amidst COVID-19 differently. During this crisis our elderly are really at risk and many are locked away from society. How are we showing them respect? In many ways we are not standing but rather sitting at home to show them deference. Social distancing is making sure that we are avoiding the proximity in which we would need to stand for them at all. Are we doing enough to reach out to them during this period?

On another level I have been thinking about this commandment in light of the positive environmental impact of COVID-19. this got me thinking about the inspiring work of Janine Benyus biomimicry, which is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Benyus has a message for inventors: When solving a design problem, look to nature first. There you’ll find inspired designs for making things waterproof, aerodynamic, solar-powered and more. In this compelling TED talk she reveals dozens of new products that take their cue from nature with spectacular results. Please take the time to watch:

In this talk she says:

In so many ways I hear her message as an invitation to “show deference to the old” in a different way. 

Benyus created a website that organizes all biological information by design and engineering function to meet our current needs. Check it out at . Perhaps if we gave deference to the ancient geniuses in the natural world all around us we might learn a way out of this intractable COVID-19 epidemic. Maybe having a deep appreciation of the richness of the millions of years of wisdom in the natural world would help us connect with a deep awe if not fear of God.

Love Your Brother: Interdependence on Independence Day

This is a very busy time of year. Last week we had Yom HaShoah and today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron and tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. To end off this cycle of anguish and exhilaration, this Shabbat we read Kedoshim. There we read:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your brother. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

While the Golden Rule is supposed to be a guideline for all of society, amidst this week we cannot help but understand it in the unique national context of brethren. This week I saw a tear-jerking video on the tension between brothers that you should watch:

This gets to the foundation of our being brethren, but did we need to learn it from Adolf Hitler? And what will our understanding of who we are as a nation be when there are no more survivors in our midst to remind us?

If we did not learn this lesson from our Torah portion, we could also have learned it from any number of other places  in our tradition. I just found an interesting take on this Golden Rules by the Kav HaYashar,  Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover  a 18th Century teacher of Mussar. He wrote:

It is written, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Sages have remarked that this verse is a fundamental principle of the Torah (Toras Kohanim, Parashas Kedoshim 4). And there is no greater display of love than the mandatory rebuking of one’s Jewish brother if he sees in him some unseemly matter, that is, a sin or transgression. For the souls of all Israel are intimately connected to one another. (Kav HaYashar 5:1)

How can we be in a deep relationship with people who act differently without being so “judge-itive”? The nature of caring about people is caring about how they act. In a profound way our actions reflect on each other. This intimate connection should also be measured by how much we respect each other’s choices. This is the challenge for every family, nation, and our world today. This starts with how we model the bounds of respect with our siblings and children. We should be blessed to not need Hitler for this.

Yom HaAtzmaut is Israel’s Independence Day and a day for us  to celebrate our interdependence as a Jewish People. Chag Sameakh

Separateness and Holiness: Technology and Chukat Ha’Akum

There are a myriad of commandments in Aharei Mot Kedoshim, this week’s double Torah portion. As a collection these commandments set out a holiness code for what it means to be Jewish. At the end of we learn of the commandment of Chukat Ha’Akum prohibiting imitating Gentile manners in their dressings and practices. There we read:

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them (Leviticus 20:23)

This prohibition makes sense in my imagination of ancient tribalism, but modern life has created many dilemmas on what constitutes a violation. By design this commandment is relative to the environment in which we find ourselves.  Amidst this holiness code it seems like a clear drive for Kedusha, but less about holiness and more about separateness.

I was thinking about this challenging commandment when reading a New York Times article back in September 2017. In their article “In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling” 

Like our own, the Amish struggle with technology is an issue of Chukat Ha’Akum. Modernity and technology offer us both great things and pose real risks. Recently I had the opportunity to be at the Poeh Cultural Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico to learn from Stephen Tekaron-Hiarenkon Fadden, a gifted Native American educator. He wisely taught, “Don’t confuse communication technology with communication.” The answer cannot be to exclude technology completely or use it blindly.  The technology needs to serve the holy work of helping us communicate. We need to intentionally determine how we will preserve our Kedusha meaning both our separateness and our holiness. Ironically we have what to learn from our Amish and Native American brethren as to how to keep the prohibition of Chukat Ha’Akum .



Wholehearted Tools : Yoni’s Question

Years ago when my nephew Yoni Hendel was about to become a Bar Mitzvah he sent me a letter in which he wrote that he had recently re-read Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, and I had a few questions about it. One of his bigger questions was,  “How do you incorporate this parsha to today’s lifestyle?” Yoni also asked what did the Torah mean when it said,” You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but you shall fear your God I am God ” (Leviticus 19:14)  As a directive it makes sense to not put a stumbling block in front of someone who would trip over it. It is plain evil to hurt someone in general, let alone someone who cannot see. But why is it a problem to “curse the deaf.”

Despite the near decade since his Bar Mitzvah I have been thinking about this pasuk and Yoni’s question of relevance in the context of reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she asks if we believe that people are basically doing the best they can with the tools they have. If you do not think people are doing their best you will be judgative (thank you Yishama for this word).  By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:

They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.

…Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.  (Rising Strong)

So now I want to go back to Yoni’s questions. What is the connection to Brené Brown? Even if they cannot hear the curse and will not be impacted by our curses because they are deaf, we who curse will be impacted. Cursing them is our having given up on humanity and not living wholehearted lives. I think the Torah’s instruction to not curse the deaf is asking us to treat everyone as if they are doing the best they can with the tools they have. I still strive to incorporate this message today.

On Middot: The Measure of Inclusion

In Aharei Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the transgression of falsifying Middot– weights in the market place. There we read:

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, weight, or volume. Just balances, just weights, a just efah, and a just hin, shall you have: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them: I am the Lord. ( Leviticus 19: 35-37)

Dishonesty in business is not just immoral, according to the Sifra  it constitutes a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. After all, “Deceitful scales are an abomination of the Lord” (Proverbs 11:1). In fact, any deception or dishonest business practice is “an abomination unto the Lord, your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16). We are mandated to avoid any kind of dishonesty and certainly financial dishonesty.

I bring this up in light of our persistent choice to exclude gay members from our community because we claim that Aharei Mot- Kedoshim, our  Torah portion, calls sex between two men an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22) . It is shocking because we are happy to turn a blind eye to the abominable  business practices of  people in our community. Rabbi Levi said, ” The punishment for false measures is more rigorous than that for forbidden relatives” (Baba Bathra 88b). In light of this our exclusion of Lesbian Gay and Bisexual members of our community just seems cruel and not nice. We should be as careful about our Middot (measurements in business) as our Middot (ethics in life).


-See other essays on GLBT Inclusion:



On One Kedusha

Not to limit either, but traditional Judaism tends to spend much more of their resources toward keeping the ritual elements of our religious practice holy while turning a blind eye to the greater needs of global poverty and justice. In a similar way, liberal Judaism has tended to skip the ritualism and instead stress how we might create a just planet. I was thinking about this when reading through  Kedoshim, this week’s Torah Portion. There  we learn that holiness is realized through certain behaviors. The examples given here are keeping Shabbat, being in awe of one’s father and mother, not worshiping idols, giving charity, being honest, and the paying of wages on time. The Torah does not give us two lists for how to achieve Kedusha, holiness, in our lives. There is one integrated list. We all need to strive to do our part to make sure that the collective Jewish people are achieving our goal of a sustainable global contribution.

If there is nothing else that I have tried to convey in my past 10 years as a Rabbi, it is that just as there is really only one unified understanding of Kedusha, there is one Jewish people. Here in the messy middle of pluralism we get tangled up in all of the complexities of what we really think of Holiness. Yes, it some times hurts, but we never have to hide who we are. We are all asked to bring our whole selves to the conversation of Holiness. It is my belief that we will only be holy as a collective when each of us are given the room to be whole.

Work Life Balance

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we read,

God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached before God, and they died. And God said to Moses: Speak to Aaron, your brother- he shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary, within the Curtain, in front of the Curtain, in front of the Cover that is upon the Ark, so that he should not die; for in a cloud will I appear upon the Ark- cover. (Leviticus 16:1-3)

It seems logical to read this as an explanation for the death of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu  must have approached the special space at the wrong time. Or does it mean something else?

Seeing that Adina and I are coming up to our 10th wedding anniversary it must have been a decade since my mother gave me the per-wedding-advice talk. One thing I remember clearly is her suggestion that we should never go to sleep angry. In light of this wisdom I might offer another interpretation of this section of our Torah portion. I imagine that Moses was giving Aaron advice on how to do his job. Do not try to do your work , which is representing the people in their relating to God, when you are angry at God.

It is hard to just let things go or to actually deal with the issues when we are tired.  And worse than either of these options is to make-believe that there are no issues. We cannot just sleep these issues away. If Aaron was angry at God for the death of his sons ( which he should have been) then he should not try just to work through the pain. That is just unhealthy.

This is a challenge to many of  our lives. It is hard having a professional life separate from one’s personal life. If one is passionate about his/her work there is always a part of this work that is personal. This runs the risk of leading to a lot of drama at work. The answer for many people is to make a clear line between their personal and professional lives.  I think we can learn from Aaron that this is not always possible. To achieve deep satisfaction in our places of work we have to be open to the risk of being hurt personally. What is the other choice? If we live our lives with purpose we might even find a deep encounter with God in our places of work.

But maybe this is an over statement.  I realize that we all need balance. As much as I love my work, I also know that I get my love at home.  That seems healthy.


Limit the Search for Meaning

In this week’s portion, Achrei Mot- Kedoshim, we read, “God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached before God, and they died” (Leviticus 16:1). It immediately goes on to the discussion on the ritual sacrifices for the Day of Atonement. Aaron will take two he-goats that are exactly the same. There will be a lottery to determine which one will be for God as a sin offering and which one will be sent to Azazel providing atonement. Why is this ritual lottery introduced by recapping the death of Aaron’s sons?

On the surface, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu were killed because they brought a strange fire (Leviticus 10). One reason might have been because they were drunk. Another alternative was that they did nothing wrong; death was just a consequence for their getting close to God.  We will never know what their motives were, let alone if the two brothers shared the same motive. All we know is that they both died.

To this end, it is interesting to frame the ritual death of the two he-goats by the deaths of Aaron’s two sons. The idea of a lottery determining the ends of your life is inherently unsettling. Can there be any meaning in two identical goats having different roles? Can there be any meaning in the death of your children? We seek to find meaning in our existence, which is betrayed by the very notion of luck.

This past Friday was the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting. It is hard to think about that tragedy without recalling how the media kept sharing the shooter’s “manifesto”. At that time we were desperate to understand his motives.  It is disgusting to realize that this sort of publicity creates a marketplace of fame that encourages deranged people to do horrible acts. We must be very mindful in our search for meaning that we do not make anyone the scapegoat. Sometimes things are better left unexplained.

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