Aharei Mot – After Death

Last week at this time, we had 22 Israeli teens staying in 22 different homes in our community. My heart was full watching the friendships that were established during their short but intense visit. Tonight, my heart is broken as I read the story of 25 Israeli teens hiking near the Dead Sea when ten of them were swept away and killed by flash flood.

One group flew overseas with no major glitches. The other group went on a hike in their home country and nearly half of them are gone.

The first of this week’s two Torah Portions is called Aharei Mot – After Death because it begins with a reference to an event which took place six chapters earlier in the biblical narrative. That event is the untimely deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two young sons of Aharon the High Priest (and Moshe’s nephews). These two young men were struck down in the prime of their lives.

One moment, they were two young priests operating in the Tabernacle, one of whom would succeed their father as the High Priest. The next moment, they had been consumed by fire, dead where they had stood. Despite their father’s connections, despite their own skills and potential, their lives were over. No second chances. No do-overs.

Now, I do not mean to sound morose. I do not go through life thinking that the glass is half empty. In fact, our tradition is one of optimism – despite the many jokes to the contrary. We always think that a better day, a better time is fast approaching.

However, I do think that many of us go through life focusing on those things that we don’t have without appreciating the many blessings that we have been granted. And despite the many blessings in our lives, we are inclined to ask ourselves: “What makes today so special?”

To answer that question, our daily liturgy gives a checklist of things that we might take for granted each morning. I couldn’t help but think about it this morning as I chanted the Morning Benedictions at our Minyan.

If you look at the translation, it seems as if we are thanking God for universal acts of kindness. However, a closer look at the first blessing, and the last eleven blessings (#’s 2,3 & 4 were added later – that’s a topic for another time) gives us another way to understand these blessings. Each of the verbs used in these generous acts – clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, releasing the bound – has a second, more literal meaning.

While we are thanking God for universal acts of kindness, we are also thanking God for some more personal, mundane blessings. Each one is a double entendre.

So, what makes today so special? According to the Morning Benedictions, it’s simple:

• Waking up in the morning
• Opening our eyes
• Getting dressed
• Stretching out
• Straightening up
• Standing up
• Taking a step
• Relieving oneself
• Putting on a belt
• Putting on a hat
• Leaving the house
• Washing one’s face (if this seems out of order, the well was outside!)

These are not the types of things that we expect to talk about in the middle of our liturgy. These are not the types of things for which we generally give thanks. These are not the types of things that we even notice. Yet, Aharei Mot – After Death, perhaps we should reconsider our approach.


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L’shon Hara & #metoo

Complete the following sentence: If you don’t have something nice to say…
(a) I’m not sure what you should do.
(b) don’t say anything at all.
(c) pull up a chair next to me.

If you answered ‘a’ or ‘c’ then you need this week’s Torah portion.

Actually, we all need to turn to this week’s second Torah portion (yes, we have two this week!). It is called “Metzora,” which is typically translated as “leper” even though the disease described by the Torah is most likely NOT leprosy. That’s another story for another time.

Whatever the disease actually was, it has historically been associated with slander, because the phrase in Hebrew “one who brings forth a bad name” or “Motzi shem ra – רע שם מוציא,” shares a number of consonantal sounds with the name of this disease and our portion, “Metzora – מצורע”. Metzora was further associated with slander when Miriam was stricken with leprosy as a result of her speaking against Moshe and his wife (Numbers 12:1-13)

So, it has become a tradition to share some of our tradition’s views on slander or L’shon Hara on the Shabbat when we read this portion. And if we’re going to talk about it, the pre-eminent authority on the subject of L’shon Hara is Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen (1838 -1933). He was a grocer in a small Polish town called Radun, which was not too far from Vilna. He was better known as the Hafetz Hayim (“one who desires life”) because that was the title of his first book, which he published anonymously. In the Hafetz Hayim, the author thoroughly researched and explained the Jewish view on L’shon Hara.

As much as the Hafetz Hayim tried to dissuade all Jews from engaging in L’shon Hara, he recognized that there were some exceptions. For example, one is permitted to speak L’shon Hara if it will save another person from harm.

For many years, victims of abuse and harassment were persuaded to remain silent in order to save the reputation of the perpetrator or, worse, the reputation of the institution in which the abuse or harassment took place. The result of such an approach was that perpetrators were allowed to move on to their next unwitting victim. There was no warning. As much as the Jewish legal system disapproves of L’shon Hara, it cannot tolerate such callousness. As Leviticus 19:16 teaches us, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” We have an obligation to the other members of our community.

The long overdue response to silence in the face abuse or harassment is the #metoo movement in which (mostly) women have called out the men who have abused their positions of power and harmed the less powerful people around them in a variety of ways. Sadly, the #metoo movement has come to our NJ Jewish community. Last week, Len Robinson resigned as executive director of NJY Camps after accusations arose regarding his treatment of young women at a previous job. Subsequently, some women have come forward with allegations about his behavior during his time in New Jersey (click here for the story).

I think it is important for us to discuss this story publicly. Not because I want to embarrass Len Robinson or the NJY Camps (where my son has gone to camp the last three summers). Not because I enjoy talking about this man’s demise and its impact on an important Jewish institution. I want to talk about it because our daughters need to know that they must not stay silent and tolerate such treatment. I want to talk about it to save another person from harm. And that is NOT L’shon Hara.


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Shivah & Festival

In general, I think that the Jewish laws of mourning make a lot of sense.  They guide us through the stages of grief and help us transition back to some sense of normalcy after a loss.  There is the initial period of time between a death and the funeral when we are supposed to focus solely on the details of the burial.  Then, there is the funeral during which we remind ourselves of the lessons taught by the deceased.  Finally, the three periods of mourning – seven days, thirty days, eleven months – with decreasing restrictions ease us back into our lives.

When a loss happens around the time of a festival and the customs are changed or abridged, I think it becomes even clearer that the original construct is effective.  When a funeral happens immediately before a festival such as Passover, Shivah (the seven day period of mourning) gets cut off with the start of the holiday and the other two don’t happen at all.  If a death takes place during the seven days of the holiday, then the funeral takes place right away, but the Shivah is delayed until after the holiday is over.

Everything gets thrown out of whack.  The question is why?

It’s because our ancestors saw mourning as an obligation to the deceased rather than something we do for ourselves to deal with loss. So, when their obligation to the deceased overlapped with their obligation to God, the obligation to God took precedence.  If Shivah got cut off or delayed because of the observance of the holiday, our ancestors trusted that God would understand and would ensure our loved one’s safe passage into the World to Come.

In today’s world, we do not see mourning as just something we do to honor the memory of a loved one.  We recognize its importance to our own healing.  So, while it might be possible to pause in our honoring of a loved one, it is impossible to shut off one’s grieving.  And we trust that God will recognize that we are not capable of truly being in relationship with God until we’ve had a chance to work through the stages of grief.

As modern Jews, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, we have centuries-old traditions that tell us not to mourn on a festival and God will take care of our loved one.  On the other hand, though, we have modern research that indicates how necessary grieving is.

In our community this week, we find ourselves balancing these two seemingly opposite principles.  So, we do many of the things that we would do during Shivah, but we don’t call it Shivah.  We go to the home of the mourners, we provide meals, we have services in their homes, we are present for them.  And even if it reduces our joy on the festival, we – like our ancestors – trust that God will understand.


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Why March?

Even though the number ‘7’ gets all the glory in the Bible (7 days of creation, 7 years in the agricultural cycle, the 7th month has the most holidays, etc.), I’ve always been a big fan of the number ‘8.’  That being said, I prefer seven days of Passover to eight!!  It just so happens that this week’s Torah portion (which we read Monday morning and today) is called “Shemini” which means “eighth.”

So, what’s so special about the number ‘8’?  Well, for starters, it was on the eighth day, that God transferred stewardship of the Earth to humanity.  In a well-known Midrash (rabbinic story) about that moment, we read the following:  When God led Adam through the Garden of Eden, God told him, “I made My beautiful and glorious world for your sake.  Take care not to hurt or destroy My world, for if you do, there is no one to fix it after you (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).”

I couldn’t help but think about that Midrash as I participated in the March for Our Lives in Newark last Saturday.

So, first of all, let me explain why I chose to participate in the March instead of attending Shabbat morning services as usual.  This past Saturday was supposed to be USY Shabbat – when our teens lead the service and read from the Torah.  When the date of the March for Our Lives was announced, I immediately noticed that coincidence, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.  Then, some of our teen leaders reached out to me and basically said that they did not want to be in the synagogue that morning.  They wanted to participate in the March.

After some conversation with our congregational leaders and some parents of teens, I realized that we had a real opportunity to teach our kids about the relevance of Judaism to our lives.  Like many others, I immediately thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous quote after marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.  He said, “my feet were praying.”  So, we moved USY Shabbat to Friday night and we invited all of our teens to participate in the March.  A bus left from our parking lot at 8:30am.

Our movement has permitted driving on Shabbat for over 50 years – as long as one is driving to services.  One is supposed to drive to the closest possible synagogue, but driving to services is permitted.  Driving to Newark was certainly not the closest synagogue last Saturday.  So, to address this issue, we did an abbreviated service on the bus as we drove to the site of the March.  In addition, by going to the March in Newark, we were able to be part of the Greater MetroWest delegation of approximately 120 people.  The idea of being part of our larger Jewish community was enticing.  By participating in the GMW program, we were able to have lunch and study texts together with marchers from our larger Jewish community.  Our teens got to see that Judaism is more than words in a book.  It is about trying to shape the society and the world in which we live.

So, now, let’s turn back to that Midrash.  As I think about the teens who spoke at the Newark march, I realized that they were essentially saying the same thing that God said to Adam.  Namely, we have a beautiful world and an amazing country.  We are so blessed to live here.  However, if we do not address some of the problems that plague us – such as gun violence – then we will make it impossible for future generations to enjoy the same blessings.

I know that in the past I’ve been pessimistic about the possibility of changing gun laws in our country.  I still can’t say that I’m optimistic.  However, I sense a slight change thanks to the energy and leadership of our teens.  So, perhaps, this is our eighth day – our opportunity to take responsibility for the great gift that we have been given by God and previous generations.  What are we going to do with it?


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Is It Still Thursday?!

Twice in the last week, I’ve lost track of time. I don’t mean that I couldn’t look at a clock or that I was late for an appointment. I mean that I was completely out of sync.

Last week, I convinced myself that we were still reading the last portion of Exodus when, in fact, we had moved on to the first portion of Leviticus. And just yesterday, I didn’t send out my weekly e-D’var Torah (the one you are currently reading!) even though I send one out each and every Thursday.

Even though keeping track of the Torah portions and sending out my weekly message have been a part of my life for a very long time, I managed to blow it. Twice.

I’d like to blame it on the disruption of all the snow days, but that doesn’t even convince me. It occurred to me, though, that the ancient rabbis were prepared for someone like me. In anticipation of Passover – a holiday that you would think we’d all remember on our own – the rabbis give a series of special Shabbats with special textual readings to remind us that Passover is coming and what we need to do to prepare.

The last of these special Shabbats is coming tomorrow (yes, I’m fairly certain that tomorrow is Shabbat!) – it’s called Shabbat Ha-Gadol. It gets its name from the special Haftarah that we chant on the Shabbat immediately before Passover. Toward the end of that passage from the Prophet Malachi, we read, “Remember the Torah of My servant Moshe.”

I’m trying! I’m trying!


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This past week, those of us that were hit by the Nor’easter were able to return to some semblance of routine. Those who moved out of their homes were able to return. Those who stayed in homes without power had their electricity restored. Those who had damage sought out repairs. Those who had fallen branches and trees all around their homes tried to clean up the mess. In short, we got our homes back.

Events like last week’s winter storm remind us of how fortunate we are to have homes. No Jewish holiday emphasizes this more than Passover. All the major action takes place in the home. Some of us spend weeks getting our home in order so that we can properly observe the festival with all of its intricate rules and customs. Our homes are transformed into mini-Temples for the purpose of telling the story of our people.

And when we talk about a home, we’re really talking about a family. In the special passage that we will read this coming Shabbat morning – one of four that we read in the weeks leading up to Passover – we learn that our ancestors were commanded to take “a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household” in order to offer the Passover sacrifice in their own homes. From the very beginning, Passover was celebrated in homes among families and a ritual that one might expect to be performed in the Tabernacle was brought into the home.

The Torah further explains that “if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat (see Exodus 12:1-20).” So, ideally, everyone would be with their family. But, if a family was small or an individual lived alone, people were expected to join together with others for this special night.

This is a principle that has lived on in the Jewish tradition. As important as the synagogue is – and believe me, I think it’s important! – the home is the focal point of Passover. And as important as religious leaders are – again, I think they’re pretty darn important! – on Passover, EVERYONE can be a religious leader for her family. And as much as we might appreciate our privacy, no one is supposed to be alone on Passover.

So, as we go about the routine of preparing to celebrate Passover, let’s all remember our obligation to create sacred space and time in our homes. Let’s remember that each individual has the responsibility to teach what they know about Passover to the other participants. And let’s remember that no one should be alone on Passover. If you have extra places at your table or if you are looking for somewhere to celebrate this year, please let me know.


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Making Community

The name of our portion says it all. “Vayakhel – ויקהל” literally means “he made community.”  Whenever we face a weather event like the storm we saw yesterday, it causes us to create community.  We help others dig out.  We share our food and beverages.  We open our homes to others.  We check in on people who may not be able to respond to the storm on their own.  It brings out the best in us.

We were not able to open our building today because our parking lot was not accessible.  However, we anticipate being able to open it tomorrow.  So, we want to invite everyone to create community by joining us for a Community Shabbat Dinner.

Appetizers and Drinks at 5:30pm.
Shabbat Services at 5:45pm.
Shabbat Dinner at 6:30pm.

There is no charge for this dinner, but it would be great if you could RSVP to rabbi@summitjcc.org.

Even if you forget to RSVP, please come anyway.  It’s all about community.


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