Let Them Place My Name on Israel and I Will Bless Them

          The use of God’s name appears often in Parshat Naso. First we have the Nazir who invokes God’s name in a vow to serve God wholeheartedly through following restrictive measures. Then we have the Sotah who needs to swear to an oath invoking God’s name that she has not committed adultery. Now, after the priestly blessing, we have the line וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃, “let them place My name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless you.”[1]

          What does it mean to place God’s name on the Children of Israel? Ibn Ezra, an 11th Century Spanish and Italian commentator, writes “that when they shall mention My name over the children of Israel [I will bless them], for God’s revered and awe-inspiring name is found in each one of the three verses.”[2] Rabbenu Bahya, from 13th and 14th Century Spain, takes this a step further. He asserts that “God meant that as soon as the priests would mention God’s name as part of the blessing, He would bless them all, Priests, Levites, and Israelites, seeing that God’s name appeared in each of the three verses constituting the formula of the blessing.”[3]According to Rabbenu Bahya of 13th and14th century Spain, the 1st blessing of the threefold priestly blessing corresponds to the Kohanim, the 2nd blessing corresponds to the Leviim and the 3rd blessing corresponds to the Yisraelim. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of 15th century Italy makes another key point, stating “every one of these blessing features mention of My name, not the name of those who receive the blessing. This is the meaning of ואני אברכם, “I, the Lord, bless them. The priest or priests are not to say: “We bless you.”[4]

          The key point of the priestly blessing is that the Kohanim are invoking God’s name. One should not mistake the priests’ blessing for them having some special power in and of themselves. Rather the impact of their prayer stems from the invocation of the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God. Israel needs to hear God mentioned by “THE NAME” in order to be blessed.           How can we relate to this today? We have forgotten how to pronounce the name Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey since the destruction of the Temple. Adonai is our attempt to substitute for it, yet that is Alef-Dalet-Nun-Yod which means “our Lord” rather than the special name of God Almighty. While we do not invoke God’s name today, we can still feel the impact of the blessing every time we hear the Kohanim recite it. Feeling as if we are present in Temple times, underneath a Tallit, and hearing the powerful melody of the call and response of the Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) and the Kohanim carries significance. Having mindful focus at these moments as well as any time we pray is both how we feel God’s presence and God’s blessing. It is my hope as we continue reading the Book of Numbers, a book where the Children of Israel did not demonstrate faith in God or in God’s name all too often, that we strengthen our faith in the Holy One as we bless God by God’s name.


[1] Numbers 6:27

[2] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 6:27 ד”ה ושמו את שמי

[3] Rabbenu Bahya on Numbers 6:27 ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל  ד”ה

[4] Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno on Numbers 6:27 ד”ה ושמו את שמי

Let Them Place My Name on Israel and I Will Bless Them

          The use of God’s name appears often in Parshat Naso. First we have the Nazir who invokes God’s name in a vow to serve God wholeheartedly through following restrictive measures. Then we have the Sotah who needs to swear to an oath invoking God’s name that she has not committed adultery. Now, after the priestly blessing, we have the line וְשָׂמ֥וּ אֶת־שְׁמִ֖י עַל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַאֲנִ֖י אֲבָרֲכֵֽם׃, “let them place My name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless you.”[1]

          What does it mean to place God’s name on the Children of Israel? Ibn Ezra, an 11th Century Spanish and Italian commentator, writes “that when they shall mention My name over the children of Israel [I will bless them], for God’s revered and awe-inspiring name is found in each one of the three verses.”[2] Rabbenu Bahya, from 13th and 14th Century Spain, takes this a step further. He asserts that “God meant that as soon as the priests would mention God’s name as part of the blessing, He would bless them all, Priests, Levites, and Israelites, seeing that God’s name appeared in each of the three verses constituting the formula of the blessing.”[3]According to Rabbenu Bahya of 13th and14th century Spain, the 1st blessing of the threefold priestly blessing corresponds to the Kohanim, the 2nd blessing corresponds to the Leviim and the 3rd blessing corresponds to the Yisraelim. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of 15th century Italy makes another key point, stating “every one of these blessing features mention of My name, not the name of those who receive the blessing. This is the meaning of ואני אברכם, “I, the Lord, bless them. The priest or priests are not to say: “We bless you.”[4]

          The key point of the priestly blessing is that the Kohanim are invoking God’s name. One should not mistake the priests’ blessing for them having some special power in and of themselves. Rather the impact of their prayer stems from the invocation of the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God. Israel needs to hear God mentioned by “THE NAME” in order to be blessed.           How can we relate to this today? We have forgotten how to pronounce the name Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey since the destruction of the Temple. Adonai is our attempt to substitute for it, yet that is Alef-Dalet-Nun-Yod which means “our Lord” rather than the special name of God Almighty. While we do not invoke God’s name today, we can still feel the impact of the blessing every time we hear the Kohanim recite it. Feeling as if we are present in Temple times, underneath a Tallit, and hearing the powerful melody of the call and response of the Shaliach Tzibbur (prayer leader) and the Kohanim carries significance. Having mindful focus at these moments as well as any time we pray is both how we feel God’s presence and God’s blessing. It is my hope as we continue reading the Book of Numbers, a book where the Children of Israel did not demonstrate faith in God or in God’s name all too often, that we strengthen our faith in the Holy One as we bless God by God’s name.


[1] Numbers 6:27

[2] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 6:27 ד”ה ושמו את שמי

[3] Rabbenu Bahya on Numbers 6:27 ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל  ד”ה

[4] Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno on Numbers 6:27 ד”ה ושמו את שמי

Enough is Enough!

         Every weekday morning I listen to The New York Times podcast The Daily. On Wednesday June 1, I heard from Kimberly and Felix Rubio whose 4th grade daughter Alexandria Ania (Lexi) Rubio was murdered at Uvalde, Texas. I was shaken to the core, not only by hearing Lexi’s parents speak but by learning that the funerals would begin that day with caskets decorated with their favorite sports and cartoon characters. I immediately thought of my daughters, not much younger, and tears came to my eyes. How many more precious souls have to be butchered before our legislature will act? We thought the teens in Parkland would lead to action yet our legislature has remained silent. To rub salt in the wound, the NRA met a mere 3 days later in Houston, a mere 4 hour drive from where this massacre occurred-just like they had met in Denver right after the mass shooting in Columbine occurred.

Within 10 days we had 3 shootings at places that are supposed to be safe: a grocery store, a house of worship and a school. Since then we’ve already seen shootings at St Francis Hospital in Tulsa, a park in Fresno, a church parking lot in Aimes and in downtown Charleston-one of 14 mass shootings over Memorial Day Weekendd. As the news appears to go, one shooting makes way for the next. Each one outrageous us but then too often leaves us numb as we move on to the next, an endless cycle of violence.

What is wrong with Congress that it cannot pass laws as simple as banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, increased background checks, creating more red flag laws and raising the age of gun ownership from 18 to 21? Why can’t politicians who see the toll of this epidemic come together in the true spirit of bipartisanship and pass legislation across the aisle? These should not be partisan issues. As Hector Gonzalez, President of Southwest Texas Junior College says “I am a hunter and I own guns. I have several pistols and rifles, but there is no hunting purpose for a high capacity magazine. Bullets projectiles that tumble when they impact tissue those are made to kill and destroy.”[1]

In Parshat Nitzavim towards the end of Deuteronomy, we read הַנִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת לַיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵ֙ׄיׄנׄוּ֙ׄ עַׄד־עוֹלָ֔ם לַעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃[2] Why are their dots above the words לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵ֙ׄיׄנׄוּ֙ׄ עַׄד? It’s simple. Those violations which are secret (נִּ֨סְתָּרֹ֔ת) unknown to us, we leave in God’s hands. However, those violations which we know about (הַנִּגְלֹ֞ת) it is up to us and our children and our children’s children to handle them (לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵ֙ׄיׄנׄוּ֙ׄ עַׄד־עוֹלָ֔ם). We know that gun violence has greatly increased year over year. In 2020, the most recent year for which we have records, there were 45,222 total gun deaths in 2020, by far the most on record, representing a 14% increase from the year before.  That year, California, a state with strict gun laws, recorded 8.5-gun deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 13.7 percent nationally.[3] In California, assault weapons have been banned since 1989. Purchasers of any firearm must do so through a registered dealer and submit to a background check. Ammunition sales are regulated, handguns can’t be sold to anyone under 21 and there is at least a 10 day waiting period.[4]

         Enough is enough! It is time for us to act and restrict gun laws, especially for those in their late teens. Of course nothing is limited to one issue-we should also increase mental health services and work to curb violent video games. Nevertheless, the more restrictions one needs to go through to obtain a firearm, especially an assault rifle, the less likely we are to have a Lexi Rubio, buried in a small casket draped with a cartoon character. It is up to us to act. We know gun control saves lives, and it is up to us to act. As it says in We Wait Too Long, “God, too, is waiting-waiting for us to stop waiting, and to begin to do now, all the things for which today was made.”[5]


[1] NPR’s Up First podcast June 3, 2022.

[2] Deuteronomy 29:28

[3] NY Times’ The Daily Podcast June 2, 2002.

[4] https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-06-02/california-gun-laws-work

[5] “We Wait Too Long” in Siddur Hadash, Page 805.

Our Role as Stewards of the Land

With Attribution to Rita Hall

The connection between today’s portion and last weeks is profound. Last week in Parshat Behar we focused on the laws of the sabbatical year and Jubilee law, reminding us that, ultimately, everything belongs to God. We do not really own anything. In Western society it is easy to get caught in the trap of materialism. We unconsciously measure our quality of life based on the value of our possessions.

Though Judaism is distinguished by a this-worldly ethic, the acquisition of material possessions is not a high priority. We are guided by an adage of Ben Zoma from the second century,   Who may be deemed rich? Those content with their lot  (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We need far less than we want.    The overriding goal is not to earn as much as we possibly can, but to have a clear conscience when we’re finished.

A commercial transaction should not be entirely market-driven. Ethical considerations serve to protect the social fabric. Jewish law reins in the profit motive because making money is not the supreme value. The manner in which we do our business is no less important than the final payoff.    Torah aims to imbue us with a level of self-restraint that is not normally ours.

This is the spirit which animates the high-minded legislation of Parashat Be–har.  It deals with essential laws of economic justice in an agrarian society, to diminish the accumulation of inequities that eventually unravel the fabric of society – one may not cheat another in selling or buying, nor earn a profit at the expense of one in need.

There is a constant emphasis on obeying God’s bidding in order to gain our goals. It’s difficult to imagine that God merely wants us to do what we’re told, shut down our imaginations, and cease questioning. In the famous prayer “I am a Jew Because” one of the key Judaic principles is “I am a Jew because it requires no abdication of my mind.” We are exhorted to question, to examine, to try to understand.

Our tradition is clear: the way in which we walk in the world makes a difference. Reaching out to others, offering support and comfort, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, these acts, and others, help us to build community. It is a constant balancing act for the integration of the intellectual and the spiritual journeys of our lives.

In contrast, Parashat B’hukotai is one of the Torah portions that makes me cringe.   It promises abundant blessings to those who obey God’s commandments and ghastly disasters for those who do not. It makes more sense when read as a code for communities rather than for individuals. It is the working together that brings about the promised end result.

Metaphorically speaking, human life may have originated in a garden, but its natural habitat is the wilderness, a forsaken place to be settled, ordered and exploited by human ingenuity, as we see next week when we read from the wilderness of Sinai. To turn chaos into order, humankind had to resort to collective action, – to assert the welfare of the whole over the pleasures of the individual.

         It is part of our tradition that we do not only pray for something to happen, but we also put our shoulders to the work and help it to happen.  We must live as earnestly as we pray.

As an example, we pray for beneficial rain, and then must follow through with environmental action.

         At the beginning of B’hukotai, we read that rainfall is a function of our doing God’s will. With a modern scientific understanding that human actions affect the quality and quantity of the rain, the warning of B’hukotai warrants our attention. We must reawaken the awareness that our actions impact the entire planet. A consensus of scientists states that human-caused climate change  may decrease precipitation at mid and low altitudes, where the bulk of farmland lies.

         We not only affect how rain comes down, but also how that rain affects the land when it does fall. With increasing urbanization in the world, land that once soaked up rainwater is being covered in impervious pavement, which prevents the rainwater from replenishing underground aquifers. Unabsorbed rainwater becomes runoff, flowing through drainage systems, causing floods when drains and sewers are overburdened, picking up pollutants along the way, which are then dumped into lakes, streams, and oceans.

         We cannot ignore the connection between our actions and the physical conditions which surround us. Today we have an unbelievably complex understanding of how the earth’s systems work, and how we impact them. But scientific explanations should not obscure the true lesson of B’hukotai – we really are obligated to live in balance with, and be stewards of, God’s Creation.

Praying for beneficial rain and then ignoring the problems of global warming and unchecked urban development is like praying for good health and then continuing to eat poorly and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.

         Our actions should be consistent with the emphasis of our prayers. Our goal is to honor ancient customs and biblical precepts but finding ways to contextualize the practice and make it more meaningful for us as contemporary Jews. In every generation we receive the same Torah our ancestors did, but we have to work at making it our own. Praying is a beginning, but we must follow through by acting on the awareness that we contribute to bringing either rains of blessing or destructive storms. By doing so, we fulfill our stewardship and we can give our children the gift of a world that is blessed with prosperity and peace.

Some Things Are Beyond Words

There are things in life which are incomprehensible, completely beyond words. The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is one of those. What would motivate an 18 year old to allegedly shoot his grandmother and then proceed to the school where he murdered 19 students and 2 adults? What is it like for the parents who dropped their children at school, thinking they were safe, only to never see them again? There are so many questions and so few answers.

Our hearts go out to each of the parents whose children has so much potential, at the blossoming of their young lives. We also are thinking of the teachers who give so much of themselves each and every day to educate the next generation and one of whom was unable to return to loved ones. While the shooter has been killed, there is no possibility for justice to be served for such a heinous crime.

I challenge each and every one of us to teach love, not fear; courage not anxiety; perseverance rather than numbness or throwing up our hands. The problems of our time are great, yet with resolve, confidence and the strength of our convictions we can exemplify that love trumps hatred and unity can overcome animosity and fear.

Let us continue to pray for those in critical condition-that they are able to make a full, speedy recovery.

I pray for better times ahead when we can celebrate as a unified community rather than mourn senseless hatred.

Connection Between Shmitah and Mount Sinai

With Appreciation for Rabbi Jonathan Slater

          One of the favorite questions of the rabbis is מאי שמיתה אצל הר סיני, what do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai (on which they are given)? As Rabbi Jonathan Slater taught, a contemporary question we might ask is “How much is the price of tea in China?” In other words, what does this have to do with me?

          The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, teaches that the relationship between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai has to do with condition of humanity. He writes, “Humans are both heavenly and earthly: the soul from the heavens, the body from the earth. When our soul is more powerful than the body, we can be like angels.” He references a teaching by Rabbi Yitzhak that “the usual way of things is that a person will fulfill a commandment for one day, for one week, even for one month. But is it likely that they will do so for the rest of the days of the year? But here, one sees their field untilled, their vineyard untilled, and yet they pay their taxes and keep silent! Have you a mightier one than this?”[1]

          The connection between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai is that each of us has the potential to rise to heavenly beings through earthly acts. By letting our land lie fallow, trusting that we will have enough for ourselves, we are demonstrating our faith in the Holy One. Sefat Emet further quotes the Zohar which teaches “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might. With all your might-this signifies the soul.”[2] Our task as holy beings is to utilize our full potential to serve God. In the rat race of life we can lose sight of this, striving instead to get ahead of our fellow without recognizing that everything in life is a gift gratis from God.

          The connection between the physical and the spiritual is profound yet it is often overlooked or separated. What is taught in Sefat Emet is that we concretize the spiritual through our actions in the physical world. By resting once day a week, or letting our produce grow as it naturally does one year out of 7, we bring godliness into the world. Thus something which is as earthly as tilling the soil has the deepest spiritual significance.

          The next time we read a series of laws like that of the sabbatical year and think “That only applies in Israel” or “That’s the farmer’s domain” may we recognize that everything is interconnected and how we use (rather than ab303use) our land has Divine impact.


[1] Sefat Emet Behar 5663 (1903)

[2] Zohar I 196b commenting on Ecclesiastes 9:10

Lag B’Omer

With Appreciation to Rabbi David Golinkin

         This coming week we have the celebration of Lag B’Omer, a strange custom. Thanks to the research of Rabbi David Golinkin, I have some insight into some of the customs surrounding this day. In the Talmud there is a story of Rabbi Akiva’s 12,000 pairs of students dying from a plague because they didn’t treat each other respectfully.[1] Rabbi Nahman said dyptheria, but we are uncertain if this was the plague. In the Geonic commentary it teaches that the plague ceased on Lag B’Omer. Yet this does not explain why we mourn: why we cease from haircuts and shaving, going to concerts and conducting weddings. The customs of mourning surrounding it go back to the late Gaonic period, where Rav Natronai Gaon or Rav Hai Gaon was asked about the custom. Dr. Aaron Amit said that the story has no historical basis, yet the custom persists.

         Further evidence that there was no one custom is the fact that some mourn between Passover and Lag B’Omer, others between the 1st of Iyar and Shavuot and others between Passover and Shavuot excluding Lag B’Omer. But why not Lag B’Omer besides the story of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples? In a tradition attributed to the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai said to his disciples “on my Yahrzeit you should rejoice,” and he died on the 33rd day of the Omer. Hence why people gather at his grave on Mount Meron every Lag B’Omer. There were flames lit and a tradition of shooting bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits.

         Still we need to determine what import Lag B’Omer has to us so that it is meaningful. Dr. Salo Baron reinterpreted it as being for most massacres of Jews during the crusades, as they occurred in Iyar and Sivan, based off Sefer Minhag Tov. Rabbi Golinkin says we should mourn for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Shoah. To me that makes sense. We know there were fast days and days of mourning that fell into desuetude when everything became lumped into Tisha B’Av. Why not as Rabbi Golinkin argues, להחזיר עטרה ליושנה[2]  revitalize ancient customs which fell into disuse?

         Whatever the reason for your desire to celebrate Lag B’Omer, I hope you will join us Sunday morning for the last day of Religious School and our community Lag B’Omer celebration.


[1] Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b

[2] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b

The First Fruits

          There’s a relatively modern custom that was once solely the practice of Hasidic Jews and has since become in vogue: the upshurin, or first haircut of a boy at his third birthday or on Lag B’Omer the year \of his 3rd birthday. I will speak about Lag B’Omer next Friday; today I want to address the source for why one waits 3 years, which comes from Parshat Kedoshim. The portion says, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden (literally ‘uncircumcised’) for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before God. and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God.”[1] Is this like the shmitah practice, that by not eating the fruit the trees become more productive and their yield increases? That seems implausible. Rather it has to do with an appreciation of the First Fruits as gifts from the Holy One.

          Rashi, the 11th century biblical commentator par excellence, says that this has to do with the word ערל, or uncircumcised. He comments, “You shall regard it as enclosed: the meaning being that it shall be, as it were, closed up and barred so that no benefit may be derived from it.”[2] It must have taken great effort to close off, or restrain oneself, from luscious produce. Just look at Adam and Eve consuming the fruit-and they were not even wandering in the desert for 40 years! Yet Rashi is saying that one must treat it as one treats the foreskin: something from which one derives no benefit, and therefore must abstain from.

          The concept of “uncircumcised” in the Torah means “closed off from.” Uncircumcised ears or an uncircumcised heart means one is denying the cry of those in pain. Uncircumcised lips are closed off from the need to counsel and respond with words of wisdom. The fruit treated as if it is uncircumcised is one from which no benefit can be derived. Furthermore, when benefit can be derived, in the fourth year, one does not consume it but presents it to God out of gratitude for arriving to the Holy Land. It is not until Year 5 that the fruit can be consumed.

          This is an ultimate test of faith, of patience and gratitude. Rather than having a scarcity mentality, that the fruit must be consumed as soon as possible, one must develop restraint, appreciating the fruit as a gift of God’s benevolence. This is also why we say a blessing before we consume anything: to show gratitude for what we have and to remember the source of where it comes from. Similarly, with the upshurin: we remember those first curls of hair, the beauty that they have and that credit must be given to the Holy One who is the one who enables it to grow. As we approach Shavuot, may our gratitude only grow and may we have patience and restraint when needed, not jumping in on the consumption train but instead appreciating all that we have.


[1] Leviticus 19:23-25

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 19:23 ד”ה וערלתם ערלתו את פריו

Purifying Ourselves in Order to Purify God’s Home

With Appreciation to Rabbi Shai Held[1]

          I’ve often been taken aback by how many people come to services on Yom Kippur and then are not seen again until the following Rosh Hashanah. I know that today I’m preaching to the choir, those who not only attend for the High Holy Days or for Yizkor but for every Shabbat. Nevertheless, I think about what the rationale is for th303ose who view the High Holy Days as a period of introspection and reflection but not the rest of the year.

          Parshat Aharei Mot sheds light on this idea. The parsha begins by discussing the importance of maintaining the purification of the Tabernacle. Aaron, who has just seen the death of his two eldest sons, must offer a bull as a purification offering, atoning for himself and his household[2] and enabling him to return to work as Kohen Gadol. If they attempted to serve God in a state of impurity, “God remained offended, so to speak, and the danger of His wrath and possible alienation was imminent.”[3] This immediately precedes the expiation of the sins of the people of Israel, for whom two goats are taken: one as a sacrifice to God and one inscribed with the sins of Israel taken out to Azazel.[4]

          The idea that we could atone for our sins through the sacrifice of an animal, or today through words of prayer, and that this occurs once a year strikes me as “lip service.” Why then do we strike our chest three times a day in every weekday Amidah, asking God to forgive our transgressions? Every day is an opportunity for a fresh start, and one does not need to wait until the following Yom Kippur. In fact, Rabbi Eliezer the Mishnah teaches us “transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur effects atonement; but transgressions against people, Yom Kippur effects atonement only after one has appeased one’s fellow.”[5] This is put more eloquently by Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz in his text Kli Yakar, where he asserts, “before God will atone for him, every person must purify himself from head to toe.”[6]

          Rabbi Shai Held writes “We may be tempted to imagine at times that we can somehow go around the mess our human interactions have created, that we can go straight to God, who after all, is the ultimate Forgiver of sins. But the Mishnah will have none of it: God will not forgive our interpersonal sins unless and until we have worked to repair the damage we have done in the human sphere. There is no theological bypass around the interpersonal pain we have inflicted.”[7]

          The lesson here is clear: there is no shortcut to repentance. As awkward as it can be to return to someone whom we have wronged and asked for forgiveness, we have no choice but to do it. Rabbi Held concludes his words with this beautiful teaching: “We cannot sidestep the people we have hurt on our path to God: on the contrary, God insistently directs us towards these very people. Repair the breaches you have caused, God says, and then come see Me. But don’t forget to come see Me, because a violation of your fellow is always also a violation of Me.”

          As we continue to count the Omer and look at approaches for how we can better ourselves, let us not forget that before we can purify the Tabernacle, or in modern times the Synagogue, we must purify ourselves, making amends for past mistakes while concurrently striving to be the best version of ourselves that is possible. This is an ongoing process day in day out, certainly not one for solely the High Holy Days. It is my hope that each of us engages in this process every day, both through looking for ways to make amends for past behavior and striving to ensure that our present selves are as pure and Godly as possible.


[1] Rabbi Held’s D’var Torah for Aharei Mot is entitled “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves”

[2] Leviticus 16:6

[3] Baruch Schwartz, Leviticus, page 99.

[4] Leviticus 16:10

[5] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[6] Kli Yakar Leviticus 16:30

[7] Rabbi Shai Held “Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves,” Aharei Mot 5774.

The Purpose of Sacrifices

         In Aharei Mot, there is a strange section which highlights the purpose of sacrifices. Moses says to Aaron and all of Israel “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to God, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that party: having shed blood, that person shall be cut off from among this people.”[1] These verses prima facie seem to indicate that no one can kill an animal without sacrificing it to God. With that being said, we know that the Israelites ate meat and were even commanded to eat parts of the sacrifice of well-being, so what could this be referring to? By continuing with the text, we get a sense of what is going on: “That they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goats after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.”[2]

          What is going on here? The grammarian Ibn Ezra points out that this is a pun on words. The word for goat, שעיר, was also a word used for demon, because the body of one who sees them “storms.” (סערה). The person who sees them is agitated (צער). He goes on to say “it appears that they are so called because the insane see them in the form of goats (שעירים).[3]  Nahmanides, basing his comment off Ibn Ezra, says that they are called goats (שעירים) because on seeing them a person’s hair (שער) stands up on his body.[4]

          As moderns, what are we supposed to get out of this besides the similarity in Hebrew of the words for ‘goats,’ ‘storms,’ ‘agitated’ and ‘hair’? It seems apparent that this is a pedagogical exercise in the Israelites presenting their animals as offerings to God out of gratitude. While not all of the animal was burned on the altar, each Israelite had to at least go to the Tent of Meeting and present the animal as an act of both thanking and drawing near to God. This required a recognition that the animals were not there solely for one’s consumption and enjoyment but rather that they served a higher purpose in connecting Israel to the Holy One.

          We finished Passover last week but are still in this holy period leading up to the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. It is imperative that each of us find a way to draw near to God during this time so that we will be prepared to receive the Torah anew in just 5 weeks’ time.


[1] Leviticus 17:3-4

[2] Leviticus 17:7

[3] Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה לשעירים

[4] Ramban on Leviticus 17:7 ד”ה ולא יזבחו עוד את זבהיכם לשעירים

The Red Heifer: Avoiding Perfectionism

You’re a perfectionist!” When a therapist shared these words with me, I was taken aback, like when I found out that I’m a J on the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Since that time I’ve worked on not being a perfectionist, yet I wondered what was so bad about it? Why do we need to be satisfied with the good enough?

A comment in our Etz Hayim Humash on the red heifer intrigued me. When one had contact with a corpse, he becomes ritually impure and was unable to offer the paschal lamb. A Kohen must burn a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer, mix its ashes with water, hyssop, and crimson yarn, and pour it on the impure man. The man becomes pure and the Kohen who burned the red heifer becomes impure.[1] This is an extremely strange law, the ultimate Hok[2] which the rabbis taught to study for purposes of receiving a law, not to enact on it. While it might not matter in a post-Temple age, as each of us who has been to a cemetery is ritually impure, there is a group known as the Third Temple Society trying to keep the children of Kohanim away from cemeteries and to create a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer to use for the Third Temple. They have been trying for decades but have yet to create an unblemished 3-year-old red heifer.

In order to read Maftir Parah every year, a Maftir which the rabbis say is the second most important after Maftir Zachor, we need to come up with a modern rationalization for it. A note in the Etz Hayim Humash caught my attention. “A modern commentator suggests that the ritual’s purpose is psychological. To heal a person burdened by a sense of wrongdoing, who feels the purity off his or her soul has been compromised, we take an animal completely without blemish and sacrifice it, as if to imply that perfection does not belong in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven; this world is given to the inevitably flawed and compromised.”[3]

The lesson of the red heifer for moderns is that perfection is impossible to attain, nor is it desirable. Having read the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown writes “Perfectionism isn’t the same thing as striving to be your best…healthy striving is self-focused…perfectionism is other-focused.”[4] The goal in being your authentic self it to own your faults rather than looking to others for acknowledgment.

This week many of us will begin Pesach shopping and cleaning as we get ready for the holiday. The tradition is not to see any of these 5 grains: wheat, barley, oat, spelt, rye. We will clean our pantries, our offices, our kitchens, and our dens. Some of us might clean our cars and go through each and every book on our shelf searching for bread crumbs. To whichever lengths we go let us remember not to strive for perfection in hametz eradication. We need to recognize that each of us will do our best to prepare for the upcoming holiday and that for those areas we overlook that is what the words after the Hametz search and burning are for: “All manner of leaven (Hametz) that is in my possession that I have seen or have not seen, that I have removed or have not removed, shall be null and disowned as the dust of the earth.” This prayer helps us let go of our desire for perfection of a Hametz-free home while not stopping us from doing our best to prepare for the holiday. Perhaps the unblemished red heifer has been a modern-day unicorn precisely to help us recognize to leave our fears at the door-that good enough is exactly where we need to be.


[1] See Numbers 19:1-8

[2] A law without rational explanation

[3] Etz Hayim Humash Page 880

[4] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who  You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 2010), pgs. 75-76.