Vayikra: The Book of Life

If you were asked to re-organize the Books of the Torah, and to put the most important one in the center, I wonder which book each of us might choose out of the five.

  • Would you pick Breisheet / Genesis, a book about God, the universe, and the beginning of the Jewish people?
  • Would you pick Shemot / Exodus, a book about liberation from slavery and freedom, and the Sinai covenant?
  • Would you pick Vayikra / Leviticus, a book that is primarily about animal and vegetable sacrifices, dietary laws, bodily flows and other priestly concerns?
  • Would you pick Bamidbar / Numbers, a book about the development of a people into a nation, ready to live on its own in the land?
  • Would you pick Devarim / Deuteronomy, a book about love, loyalty and law?

I may be going out on a limb here, but my gut tells me that Leviticus might be towards or at the bottom of the list. [Show of hands?…crickets]

If that is the case, why then does this book stand in the center of the Torah, in a physical location that suggests great spiritual importance?

Take a bird’s eye view of the first two books of the Torah for a moment.

Breisheet could be seen as a book about incarnation. God’s word creates the universe, which becomes the setting for the unfolding human drama, a process of selection that ends up focusing on one family, Avraham and Sarah, and their descendants, the seed of an entire nation. The book concludes with that family’s descent into the womb-like crucible of Egyptian slavery.

Shemot could be seen as a book about birth and liberation. The labor-like pains of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the birth of B’nai Yisrael as a free people, who at the beginning of their eighth week of freedom enter into a covenant with God. Much like a Brit Milah.

Vayikra then could be seen as a book about life. Both are filled with tensions: beautiful and at the same time messy, complicated and yet systematic, filled with both life and death, blessings and curse, holiness and impurity, heath and disease, joy and grief, creating unity and at the same time drawing distinctions between different domains of life.

Vayikra calls out to us.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that:

“We become feeling alienated, distracted, complacent, blind to what is essential; deaf to the music at the core of the silence; numb to the mystery that dwells at the heart of this life.”

Vayikra calls us to bring ourselves back to see the world through the lens of holiness, to bring ourselves close to the community again and stand before God:

“to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love, and not only to return, but to establish for ourselves a system of continual returning.”

The korbanot were our way to continually return to God, in times of joy, guilt or sadness. The korbanot engaged our whole bodies, all of our senses, to witness the power of Life and Death, sharing a sacred meal in God’s presence.

This system of continual returning has been gone for centuries, and the Rabbis tell us that prayer now takes its place. Can the world of prayer fully replace the world of the Mishkan? Do we taste prayer? Smell it? Feel the blood? Hear the music and the silence? See the shadow of death and the spark of life? Do we leave prayer feeling as unburdened as we would have upon leaving the Mishkan?

Our challenge is to make Jewish life today as vibrant and multi-sensory as life in the Mishkan, as vital, compelling and rich. So that when we sit down at a Shabbat meal, we feel that God too smells the savory smells from the meal. So that when we come together at a celebratory meal, we feel that connection to the Divine that we would have in the Mishkan.

May we have the strength, creativity and passion to create for this generation a Jewish life as filled with life as the generation of the Mishkan, and may we continually strive to maintain our connection to holiness and the divine.

Parshat Mishpatim: The Power of 15%

If you were could spend 15% of your life doing whatever you wanted, how would you spend that time?

It could be 15% of each hour, every day, every week, every year, every decade, or even 15% of a lifetime.

Imagine that for this period of time, you knew that everything else would be ready and waiting for you when that time came to an end. You could spend that 15% of your time without worry and concern about your livelihood.

How would you spend that time?

For those of us who have not yet done the math in our head, that would be approximately 1/7th of our time spend on other matters.

In a recent issue of the journal Shema, there was an article about Rachel Levin, founder of a group called ReBoot, a national effort to engage young creative people and activists in examining their Jewish identity. She was asked to recommend one big idea that help the potential to change Jewish life in general and Jewish educational in particular, she came back to the idea of the Sabbatical. The idea of the Sabbatical is not new.

It is one of the oldest Jewish technologies around.

We first got a glimpse of the idea of Sabbatical on a weekly level in Parshat Beshalach, when we were in the wilderness after the Exodus, and the food ran out, and we bitterly complained to Moses. In response to that God sent down manna, which would appear on the ground for six days in a row, with just enough for each day, but a double portion would appear on that sixth day, and then nothing on the ground on the seventh. Thus we first meet the idea that for 6/7ths of our lives, we work for our livelihood, but in that seventh span of time, we are commanded to spend that time differently. For forty years, we lived in a completely consistent Shabbat cycle, six days of gathering manna, and one day after that to live differently.

In Parshat Yitro, we heard the Ten Commandments, including the Fourth Commandment, which is about Shabbat, and in this first version, it gives that manna cycle more context, but more importantly, it gives us a why the idea of a Sabbatical exists.

“Remember to make the Sabbath day holy: Six days you shall work, and do all of your activity, but on the seventh day, it is a Sabbath for the Eternal Your God; do not do any activity, you or your son, or your daughter, your male or female servant, or your animal, or the stranger who is in your gates. Because six days the Eternal made the Heavens and the Earth, the Sea and all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day, therefore, the Eternal blessed the seventh day, making it holy.” (Exodus 20:9-11)

Letting that one seventh be a time that we are free from all of the weekday toil that we do is godly; that is sacred time. Shaping our week in this way is how the Jewish people make time holy.

Now in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we encounter this idea, but for the first time on the level of the seven-year cycle:

“And six years, sow your land, and gather its produce. But in the seventh year, let it rest and lie fallow, and your people’s needy will eat, and what is left over the wild animals will eat it, so you shall do to your vineyard for your olives.” (Exodus 23:10-11)

Looking at this passage from an agrarian point of view, this means that were we all farmers (and perhaps some of us are, or perhaps gardeners), we would spend six years working our land as we normally would, but in the seventh year, we would hold ourselves back from actively working the land. All plowing, sowing, hoeing, pruning, and systematic harvesting would cease. The land becomes ownerless for that one year; it is if it belongs to someone else. The land-owners and the poor have equal access to the produce of that land. Anyone can come and take what they need for themselves, but cannot gather for any commercial purpose.

Consider how radically different this seventh year would be for such a family. What would it be like to have the sacred gift of one year without having to care for one’s fields? What would such a family do with that time? Travel? Spend the year somewhere else? Day dream? Pick up a new hobby or interest? One year to do with whatever they wanted, knowing that they would simply go back to working the land twelve months later.

A Sabbatical year is called in Hebrew a “Shmita” year, and this mitzvah/commandment was observed for a very long time in the land of Israel, even in some ways after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At some point, it fell into disuse, that is until the last century.

As the Jewish people began to return to the land of Israel is greater numbers that before, the question of how the Jewish people should begin to observe the Shmita year came up. Some said that we should just do it, and chance the consequences (which could have destroyed the nascent Israel’s fledgling economy), and some said that we should simply abandon the practice completely. In short, under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, there was a compromise decision made about one hundred years ago to keep the practice of Shmita on our collective minds by circumventing the law through the sale of the land to a non-Jewish person for that seventh year, with the hopes that one day, people living in the land of Israel would be able to set aside that circumvention and observe a full Shmita year. In fact, this year, beginning back in September and going through this coming August, in the land of Israel is one of those years, a Shmita year, and this has raised the question anew of how Shmita is to be observed in our days.

On an ecological level, I have heard it said that letting farmland law fallow for one year out of seven is a healthy farming practice, that lets the land replenish its nutrients so that it continues to produce good yields each year. Some have suggested that we should expanding the practice of the Sabbatical to contemporary agricultural practice around the world. However, I think that this does not go far enough in exploring the full potential of the idea of Sabbatical for us today.

I think it is a safe assumption that no one in this room works as a farmer, or makes their living directly from working the land. But that does not mean that the idea of Shmita, of a Sabbatical, has no potential meaning for us.

Amicha Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born Jewish educator, writer and performer, has created a year-long conversation called Fallow Lab that explores what the idea of a Sabbatical could mean for us. He writes that Fallow Lab:

“reinterprets the biblical agricultural practice of a year of release to the land and to the farmer, reapplied for today’s social, economic and digital reality. Our ancestors worked the land, lived its cycles and knew when to let go, release and renew. Our landscapes of labor exist more and more virtually. Can we extend the logic of the old sacred cycles and recycle Shmita back into our lives?”

We may not be farmers, but we all have our weekday tasks. They may not be plowing, sowing, pruning and harvesting with farm tools, but we each have the tools of our weekday work, the things we use to get done what ever it is that our work needs to get done. Sadly, many of those tools are digital ones that held out the promise of connectivity, but frequently have the effect of creating isolation and distance instead.

If our ancestors were able to let go of their work for one year out of seven, let the landscape of their work go untouched for one year, and spend that year letting the land and themselves renew, why should we not take advantage of this framework for ourselves, especially when to do so could help us find ways to renew and recharge our lives.

In Parshat Mishpatim, when we read the repetition of the mitzvah of Shabbat, there is the first mention of renewal in connection to the idea of Sabbatical:

“Six days you will do your doings, and on the seventh day, you shall stop, so that your ox and your donkey can rest, and that your servant can be refreshed, and the stranger.”

The part of the power of Shabbat, the 15% each week, is to let everyone in the household, including the animals be refreshed.

In her work on Sabbaticals, Rachel Levin came across Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer in New York, who closes his design studio every seven years for an entire year to give himself and his designers opportunities for personal experimentation. While this may sounds like a recipe for losing clients, Sagmeister argues that the years off fuels his success for the next seven years. Just before the Sabbatical, his designs seem repetitive and stale. Post-Sabbatical, he is once again bursting with new ideas and his company is more financially successful as a result. When asked how important the sabbatical was to “replenishing creativity,” Sagmeister replied: On a scale of one to ten – twelve.”

There is even a non-profit company called Your Sabbatical, that works at encouraging companies to offer their employees some form of Sabbatical. They have on their list over one hundred companies in the U.S. alone who offer their employees some form of Sabbatical, varying in length from three weeks up to a full year. There is also a long history of this in American business. In 1948, 3M let their employees us up to 15% of their time for their own experimentation, which led to the development of scotch tape and post-it notes. Google has its own 20% program, which led some of its developers to create Gmail and Google Earth, among another creative products.

According to Levin, non-profits that have sabbatical programs report that participants have greater job confidence, performance, ability to develop vision, work-life balance and physical health. Boards of those organizations report that they are more effective when they have to assess and plan for a sabbatical period; that is allows for second tier leaders to grow on their leadership skills and capacity.

Given all of this, why aren’t Sabbaticals common? Why do so few people take advantage of this heavenly 15% rule?

Levin suggests that perhaps it is because we think that everything will all fall apart without us if we are away too long. Or perhaps we think that our workplaces or institutions can’t afford to have others fill in while we would be gone. Or perhaps we fear that when others fill our place while we are gone, that we will be replaced. Or, Levin concludes, perhaps we think that all of this goes against the grain of a 24/7 work culture. And that would be precisely why we need to reclaim the idea of a Sabbatical again.

Most of all, many of us do not know how to pause. To put it in Hebrew terms, many of us do not know how to “Shabbat,” which means to cease creative activity.

To truly pause takes deliberate intention and concentration. If we don’t take the time to think about how we are going to slow down the pace of our lives and create space for the pausing, to allow ourselves to sacred gift of that 15% (at whatever level, the hour, day, week, year, sabbatical cycle, etc), it won’t happen.

Some other age-old technologies we have developed for pausing are ritual in nature, rituals that help us both enter into a Sabbatical frame of mind and ones that helps us take leave of that time. Lighting candles. Getting everything ready in advance so that there is no need to rush around during that time. Dressing for the occasion. Special meals to begin and end that period of time. Avoiding weekday items: money, car keys, anything with a screen. Avoiding weekday tasks: errands, chores, lessons, work that seems to follow us home at various times of day. All of these ritual technologies feel even more relevant to me today, precisely because they can enable us to carve out of our hectic pace of life and help us infuse our lives with 15% if our lives spent in periods of letting go, resting and renewal.

I propose the following. The next time you are sitting down with family or friends, spend some time thinking about and sharing with each other your answer to the question that we began with: If you had one year free from your work, how would you spend that year?

I want to end with a teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem under the British Mandate, who wrote a book about the Sabbatical Year, where he defended his decision to sell the land, rather than observe a full Shmita. He wrote the following one hundred years ago:

This national treasure that is imprinted deep within us, the image of a world that is good, upright and godly – aligned with peace, justice, grace and courage, all filled with a pervasive divine perspective that rests in the spirit of the people – cannot be actualized within a way of life that is purely secular. Such a life, full of frenetic action, veils the glory of our divine soul, and the soul’s clear light is blocked from shining through the overpowering mundane reality, The impulse toward growth and self-realization needs space to come to fruition. We need to stop and shake off the bedlam of our daily lives…What the Sabbath does for the individual, shmita (a Sabbatical) does for the nation as a whole.’

In the end, I don’t think that the question “What would you do with that time?” is the most important question. There is another prior question that we must answer: “How will we stop and shake off the bedlam for make space for that time?”

Shabbat Shirah: The Stirring of Liberation

Why us this Shabbat called Shabbat Shirah? We sing all the time, whether it is Shabbat Shirah or some other occasion! Why is there a Shabbat with the special designation “Shabbat Shirah”?
One possible answer is that it is called Shabbat Shirah because we read both the Song of the Sea AND the Song of Devorah. Both of these ancient songs come from the earliest layers of the sacred Torah, and are each layed out in brick-work patterns in the traditional sources.
But we come across the Song of the Sea in the daily siddur? For those who daven as part of a daily or regular practice, the Song of the Sea is there to be sung every morning! What makes this particular occurrence of the Song of the Sea special?
According to the Netivot Shalom, when we read the Song of the Sea, at the time when it occurred in the narrative’s timeline, that awakens a calling out, a k’riah. Now that we are still in the throes of winter, it is the reading of this passage that awakens the feeling of the time of year. When we rise, and chant/sing the Song of the Sea this Shabbat, it awakens in each of us that feeling of spring, liberation, and freedom. The illumination of Pesach is awakened within us, like a seed that has been implanted in the earth all fall and winter, and is now beginning to stir and break through the outer shell and starting to grow.
This phenomenon of liberation and growth is brought on by the reading itself. This awakening, this full bodied prayer is what is meant by Shirah.
May we all come together on this Shabbat, and sing with all of our bodies, holding nothing back, and feel the beginning of the Exodus stirring from deep in our souls, and expanding out into the world around us.

Happy Yahrtzeit to You!

When the (Secular) New Year rolls around, two people in my house begin to get very excited, namely, Aviyah and Matan. Both of them have birthdays close to the beginning of the new year. We probably, as we have for most years of the lives of our children, have some kind of fun-centered celebration with them and a few friends (playing games, doing an art-and crafts activity, etc.), and then conclude with a most peculiar ritual. Inevitably, we will seat everyone around a table, dim the lights, and then bring out a cake covered in fiery candles (one candle per year and one to grow on), and then place the cake in front of the birthday child. After singing a well-known song (which is owned by the estate of Michael Jackson), we ask the child to make a wish and to blow out the candles, all in one breath, hopefully without adding any of their bodily fluids to said cake.

I am sure that this ritual rings very familiar to almost every reading this. The question that the kids ask (not every year, but some years) is: Why is there not a Jewish celebration of a person’s birthday? We do people say kaddish on the anniversary of a person’s death and not on their birthday? (Ok, that second question is not from the kids, but is a good question anyway.)

The only birthday mentioned in the Torah, where the phrase “Yom Huledet” appears once and one time only, is for the birthday of Pharaoh (Joseph’s Pharaoh to be precise). It is on this birthday “celebration” that Pharaoh releases his cup-bearer from prison, restoring him back to his former position, and executes the baker, restoring him into a considerably less life-life state. In this case, the birthday celebration becomes an opportunity for a king to exercise his power to mete out life and death. It may then not come as a surprise to us that the Rabbis generally thought of a birthday celebration as a non-Jewish custom, and thus did not think highly of celebrating the day of one’s birth. To further explain why, let me share a rabbinic parable.

There is a newly built ship about to set sail on a long voyage, and there are people gathered at the docks celebrating the ship’s launch. As the ship slowly leaves the shore, all the builders and family members of the crew are celebrating. However, amidst the celebration, there is one person who stands there not partaking in the celebration. After the celebration has died down a bit, someone notices the man just standing there, and asks him why he is not joining in the celebration. After all, is the building of such a fine ship and the start of a long voyage not a cause for celebration? The man replies, “Actually no. The beginning of a sea voyage is certainly a moment of note, but who knows what may happen along the way? The seas can be calm, but also stormy. A port can bring adventure, but also danger. I will save my celebration for when the ship returns to port after the journey has come to an end.”

This is why the Jewish people celebrate the life of friends and loved ones on the yahrtzeit/anniversary of their deaths, on the day when the journey has come to an end, and we can look back on the entire voyage, both the moments of joy and moments of challenge and sorrow. That said, most American Jews today, myself included, celebrate their birthdays in some way. During our weekly Shabbat Torah Service, we often hear people sharing during the good news of a milestone birthday of a relative or for themselves. But the date that we use to remember the entire life is the final day of their life, because that is the date that reveals the full journey of a person’s life.

This was not begun a piece to give another rationale why it is important to attend services at a synagogue. That said, coming to a service (be it Friday night, Saturday morning, or weekday) to remember the life of a friend or loved one in the company of a congregation is a fitting way to honor that person’s life and the impact that it had on us.

At every service we have, at least one person, if not a dozen, stands up to say kaddish for someone. We do this, not out of a morbid holding on to the past, but because we stand up to affirm the good that has come from that person’s life, from the way that their life impacted up, and how their life moved the world a little bit from the way it was to that way that it ought to be.

At the end of this month, my family will be celebrating one more complete trip around the sun for both Aviyah and Matan, but we all know that, God willing, their journeys are far from over.