Age is an invitation and not a closed door. Take this week’s Torah portion, Naso. A census of the Levitical tribes is required. The priests with caretaking duties between the ages of 30 and 50 are recorded and enlisted for duties in the Tent of Meeting, where sacrifices were offered.  We can opine as to why this age range was best suited for priestly duties – was it an assumption about agility or ability peaking between these ages? Perhaps it was merely to limit the ages of services so as to allow another generation to learn and step up to the tasks. I was intrigued by a more modern idea. Perhaps it is that at different ages we can offer different qualities of spiritual leadership. For me, this is an opportunity to notice how new doors of spiritual leadership opened for me after the age of 50.

I do not claim to be priest-like, but I am a recently ordained Rabbi. I was 56 on the day of my ordination. I am acutely aware of my age, not because I fear death or disability, but rather in gratitude that I have the skills at this age to lead and inspire others and even the chance for more personal growth. In Biblical understanding, there are many age indicators. 20 years is the age of counting males in the census for a military role (Numbers 1:3). 70 years is considered a full life (Psalm 90:10). Despite any indication from the Torah that I may be past my peak age for certain priestly duties, I believe that I am in prime time for a rabbinical role. I have life experience to share.  I have had personal challenges to both soften my heart and toughen my skin.  I have an ever expanding spiritual life and relationship with God, that I would not have imagined possible when I was 30 or even 50.

There was a time when my mind may have better retained new information or when I could hit a tennis ball much harder. Yet, I try to focus on the new opportunities offered me precisely because I am 57. It just means that I accept the limitations as well as the capacities. This does not cause me to despair but rather connect with the application of wisdom gained by my life experience. There are new opportunities in growing and maturing. As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’l, described it, I want to transform “aging into saging.”

Rabbi Evan Krame

If you’re reading this blogpost, your ancestors probably hailed from another continent.  Most of us focus more on where we are than from where we’ve come.  Today we might know little of our ancestral history: memories fade, wars ravage, families scatter and interest wanes.  Yet, there are many advantages to recalling the names of those who made possible our lives.

Into our complex relationship with ancestry comes this week’s Torah portion (Bamidbar), opening the Book of Numbers. Picking up where we left off at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites take a census to record tribal numbers, names and places.  This census, at the start of our ancestors’ next phase of journeying, reminds us that who and where we are depends on who and where we’ve been.  History lives through us, and we and our children will live more fully if we know how we got here – the stories, the struggles and the sacrifices.

This truth takes on even more poignant meaning when we parse Torah’s words.  The Israelite census was to count all males over age 20 – then the age of adulthood.  How Torah (Num. 1:2-3) described those adults and the task of counting them brings powerful spiritual focus to our own remembering and counting:

· Lift up – שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל למשפחתם לבית אבתם במספר שמות / “Count (literally lift up) every head among the community of the children of Israel by family, by their ancestral homes, by their number of names.”  Today many Jews avoid “counting” people (a reaction to Holocaust branding of numbered tattoos on forearms), but in ancient days counting meant uplifting – not just to numerically count take cognizance, but to identify, to really see. What if we all counted and encountered each other that way?

· Your entire history – כל זכר לגלגלתם מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה  / “All males by their polls from age 20 and above.”  These words have military significance, but also a secret mystical meaning: all to remember their reincarnations, from age 20 and above , or for the less mystically bent, all to remember their cycles.  Counting means remembering everything in our lives that came before, how we got to adulthood, our life patterns that make us who we are.  What if we really inhabited our emotional and spiritual history this way?

· To empower your Godwrestle – כל יצא צבא ישראל / “All able to do battle for Israel.”  These words confirm that the census had a military purpose, but we can understand it spiritually as All able to go out among the hosts of Godwrestlers, because “Israel” means to wrestle with God (Gen. 32:29).

Lift up your entire history to empower your Godwrestle.” – Rediscover who we’ve been to empower whom we might become. Harness your cycles and totality of strength for your spiritual struggles. Leave nothing and no one behind on your way.  We have this opportunity because our ancestors journeyed to bequeath us this gift.  Let’s remember, to help make it count.

Take a breather: rest isn’t just for the weary.  That’s the enduring message of this week’s double portion ending the Book of Leviticus (Behar-Bechutotai, Lev. 25:1-27:34).

In our ancestors’ society, spiritual truth translated from agricultural means.  Our ancestors worked the land, planting and reaping harvests, so often they expressed spiritual truths in terms of the land.  To them, Shabbat was more than a weekly day of rest: it was a principle of ethics and good stewardship of the land.  Even the land, they knew, needs a Shabbat.  Their land-Shabbat came every seven years – the Shmitta year of letting the land lay fallow, recharge and gather back its strength, so that it can continue to remain productive.  To make a land-Shabbat work, the people had to rely on what they had reaped the prior six years, which led them to be not only good agriculturists but also good economists: they had to save, mindful in the other six years that the land would have its Shabbat.

In our day, we might save for retirement or save for rainy days, but few of us save for sabbatical years.  Few of us take sabbatical years.  In today’s fast-paced economy, even the rare person whose job entitles him or her to take sabbaticals rarely does so.

And yet, this system on which modern society mostly turned its back is the root of what we call “liberty.”  In our ancestors’ sense, “liberty” is what happens when we have a Jubilee Year – the year marking every seventh cycle of seven years (the 50th year), when land ownership reverted back and debts were cancelled.  From this system of Shmitta and Jubilee derived our understanding of not only good land stewardship but also fairness and justice – indeed, our very understanding of liberty itself.  From this system comes the quote on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:10).

Liberty, we learn, is tied to the land, to fairness and justice, to letting the earth have her due.  We need only observe today’s geopolitical disruptions arising from environmental injustice, global climate change making water and food unstable for vast swaths of the world, to appreciate the subtle wisdom of our agricultural ancestors.

How we work the land – how we tend the earth, how we care for the planet – is essential to our lived spirituality.  Our planet has the capacity to produce enough food for a hungry world, but only if we tend it wisely – honoring the planet’s cycles of time, water and air.  Honoring the God-spark among all the people means shifting from unfettered production to wise stewardship.  It means taking a breather: as partners with God, this is our responsibility and our spiritual calling.

The Jewish Studio/JoHanna Potts, Rabbi David Evan Markus

The legacy of the Jewish people includes a striving for perfection in ourselves, in our children and in the world. The quest for perfection inherently acknowledges that each of us is imperfect in some ways. In Parashat Emor, such defects are presented as a barrier. If taken on its face, this barrier could be confused for a defect in the Torah.

We read in Parashat Emor at Leviticus 21:21 about the ritual of offerings to the Lord by the priests where it says “no man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering.” The defects noted range from a broken arm to a short leg to crushed testes.  One can only suppose that this passage suggests that the priests’ physical imperfections would detract from the holiness or sanctity of the offering.

In our modern religious practices, having abandoned tangible sacrifices at an altar, we strive for perfection in the observance. Why else would we have so many rules about when and where rituals are observed? Take a common example such as lighting Shabbat candles. The exact time of lighting is announced in emails and the methodology of lighting the candles is passed down through the generations. With all of our myriad Jewish rituals, our physical attributes are not the issue. Every Jew, with frailties or abilities, is bound to the laws and traditions. 

Yet, in this instance, Torah exhibits a bias against persons whose bodies are less able or less well designed. It is a bias exhibited and limited to the time of making offerings to God and at the altar before the mishkan which is described as God’s dwelling. This exclusion is painful for me to read. After dozens of years of working with persons who are less abled, I’ve known that holiness is often best found in the interaction where abilities and disabilities complement one another.  The doctors who heal. The therapists who restore motion. The teachers who educate. They may be the Priests of today. And each one of those professionals have their own defects of some sort. We all do.

If in Torah even a priest with a broken leg that can mend or a growth in his eye that can be healed is not eligible to offer a sacrifice, aren’t we really being told that none of us are eligible? Or perhaps the best explanation is that no one should think of themselves as eligible to make offerings to God if they think of themselves as better than anyone else. We bring our whole selves with our defects to the rituals we perform and in pursuit of perfecting a damaged world. In fact it is our desire to surmount imperfections that fuels the engine of making the world a better place.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

This week’s double portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Lev. 16:1-20:27), contains the famous phrase that Talmud’s Rabbi Akiva recited while standing on one leg to summarize all of Torah (B.T. Shabbat 31a): “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  This phrase, emerging from the middle part of Torah’s middle portion dedicated to kedoshim (holiness), is the beating heart of Torah and living pulse of Jewish spirituality.  This mitzvah (connecting command) to love others as ourselves is so central to Jewish life that it might as well be Torah’s innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies at Torah’s very core.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” – easy words to say, but sometimes difficult words to live.  In the rush of modern life, sometimes we forget.  Sometimes our neighbors don’t seem especially lovable.  Sometimes we ourselves feel too strained, hurt or bothered to love anyone (including ourselves).  Human life can be difficult, and in those moments of difficulty, it can be especially difficult to love another as we love ourselves.

Difficult, but not impossible.  Jewish spirituality is meant to be lived precisely in the messiness of life, not cleanly adorned, venerated from afar or cloistered safely away.  Jewish tradition’s sages were eminently practical: key to their creed was the idea that God, Torah and tradition must ask only what is possible (B.T. Bava Kama 84a, Chullin 11b, Niddah 67b) – lest spirituality be only theoretical, frustrating, guilt-provoking or worse.   The mitzvot of spirituality and good living aren’t far away – across the sea or in the heavens – but rather already in our mouths and hearts, so we can do them (Deut. 30:11-14).

Even if these words at Torah’s heart might be familiar and close, however, we still need pointers, a how-to primer when life gets hard.  The rest of this week’s Torah portion surrounding these heart-words provides exactly such a primer, full of pointers on how to live a neighbor-loving life.  Give to the poor, protect the disabled (don’t curse the deaf or put stumbling blocks before the blind), honor parents, maintain fair weights and measures in commerce, – the list goes on and on.  Perhaps some of these pointers reflect Torah’s pre-industrial context of the ancient Near East, though many of these pointers seem as prescient in 21st century America as they did millennia ago.  All of them together offer us a timeless formula for holy living.

Maybe your own formula for holy living looks a bit different.  Maybe if you could write your own Holiness Code, it would cite different examples.  So go ahead: make your list.  Really – make a list of what holy living would be for you.  Odds are good that whatever your list about holy living, it might read a lot like Rabbi Akiva’s essence of Torah on one foot: love your neighbor as yourself.  Whatever your own examples of holy living might be, they are only examples of this timeless core of wisdom.  In Rabbi Akiva’s famous words, all the rest is commentary – now go and study.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

This week we have a double portion, Tazria and Metzora. They both deal with the reasons for creating boundaries of time and space, and fixes due to being tamae, ritually unsure, or tahor, ritually, pure. For many who look at these two portions, they seem confusing, unsophisticated, and sexist. These are two of my favorite parshiot for those reasons – they cause me to look harder at them to find something relevant for this time and place. 

Even though we don’t participate in the sacrificial cult at the Temple any longer, we do begin morning prayers with “My God, the soul You have given me is pure” and in my head I hear Debbie Friedman’s  z”l voice singing those words. Therefore, the questions about which I want to seek possible answers are these. What might change this soul from its state of purity?  Is that what tamae and tahor are describing?

I lean toward the understanding that when humans come in contact with a particular point on the life-death continuum, they become tamae. Even doing important mitzvot, such as giving birth and burying the dead, cause one to become tamae. In order to return to tahor requires time, water, and sometimes blood. The original elements present at birth – the infant isn’t considered tamae, only the mother. It seems to be a remarkable system that says, “You have just experienced something powerful or potentially life-giving or perhaps the opposite, death. Take some time to appreciate that experience, then you can return to your normal routine.” Or in ritual language, you can return to being tahor. 

 We have constructed our lives wanting full control over our time, so we see this “time out” as a punishment, rather than permission to not do something.  We like being able to fill our time with work, entertainment, family, exercise, etc. We have leisure time (even if it doesn’t feel that way), so perhaps we don’t appreciate the requirement to take time. But have you heard some say they need a “sick day?” Isn’t that asking permission to be prohibited from working? Physical ailments may force us to take some time.  Turning from the physical to the spiritual, how do we know if our souls are healthy? Maybe we all need to take some time to think about that. 

Tragedies often leave us bewildered and disaffected.  But Torah offers profound lessons in the wake of seemingly inexplicable tragedy.  In parashat Shemini, the text details eight days of dedication ceremonies for the beautiful new mishkan, God’s tangible abode, including lots of animal sacrifices.   At its end, the oldest sons of the High Priest, Aaron, make one more offering beyond what was expected or required resulting in their being “zapped.”

In commenting, God (Leviticus 10:3) says, “those who are close will sanctify me, and before all of the people I will be honored.”  Nadav and Abihu, by virtue of their role as priests are seemingly closest to God.  We would assume that their rituals sanctify God.  However, they are overly zealous, drunken with ceremony, and are eliminated.

Immediately following the death of Nadav and Abihu, the text describes which animals are kosher to eat. At first blush, the shift from Nadav and Abihu’s death seems obtuse.  We hardly have a chance to comprehend how two leaders are consumed by holy flame and then we are instructed in dietary laws.  Upon second glance, we are offered an important lesson.

The rules of what to eat are a contrast to the preceding detailed instruction about building ornate structures and then a parade of animals sacrificed in dedication.  The common element is kedusha or holiness.  Sometimes we need the pageantry to refocus us toward what is holy.  However, holiness is an every day thing.  Each day as we choose what we eat, we have a regular opportunity to bring holiness into our lives.

There is an important parallel between this text and the current trend in Judaism.  When 20th century Judaism in America shifted the locus of holiness to the bimah in synagogues and clergy as our surrogates, we set Judaism on a dangerous course.  American Jews were concerned with construction of buildings and became bystanders to the rituals and services.  We abdicated being a nation of priests, and left it to a few leaders to serve God.

The shift taught in this Parasha is to seek holiness in our most everyday choices.  To achieve its value, Judaism must be exercised as a regular, personal practice. We cannot handover our spiritual lives to our leaders.  Rather, we must remember that our partner in holiness is God and God is honored by what each of us does in the most ordinary of moments. . . like making choices in eating.   And its not just kosher, but selecting what is good for our bodies and how the sources of our food have been tended.  When it comes to holiness, we must be active participants each day in the most ordinary of ways so we can honor God.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame, inspired by Bat Mitzvah Lilah Katz

Among the reasons that Jewish yoga and chant cultivate loyal followings is their focus on the body as a spiritual portal. After centuries of Jewish focus on matters of the mind (study) and spirit (prayer), we are rediscovering the spirituality of embodied corporeal life. Passover – especially the last day, when tradition celebrates the trek through the Sea of Reeds – calls us so deeply into our bodies that we can experience joy and freedom even in our bodies.

The slaves of the Exodus, whose bodies had toiled almost unto death, were ejected from Egypt in great haste, with no time to prepare or even think of the body’s basic needs (Ex.12:39). As Reb Nachman (1772-1810) taught, Passover’s first day is about transcending bodily limits. Passover’s last day goes even further. On this day, the fleeing slaves reached the Sea of Reeds, blocked at the water’s edge but pursued by Pharaoh’s army. Trapped between them, the Haggadah recounts that Nachshon ben Aminadav walked into the water, and only when he went so far that the water reached the face, threatening to overcome him, did the waters part.

The Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000) taught that Nachshon’s spirituality was the most exquisite form we humans can achieve, such a quality of loving faith as to empower the body to leap into the sea, confident even in our bodies that the waters will part. What would it be like to feel spirit so deeply in our bodies that our “walking into” can become a “walking through” by force of faith? What if spirit so infused our bodies that song were to flow out of us as freely as breath (Ps. 35:10)? How would this kind of liberation feel in our bodies – not a faraway faith, not just a mindful conceptual understanding, but a freedom so giddy that our whole bodies resonate with joy?

It doesn’t matter what our bodies are like, whether we’re young or old, however able our bodies may be. Passover reminds that our spiritual journeys from narrowness to expansive joy call us forward not only in heart, mind and soul, but also in body – the real corporeal lives we actually lead, each in our own way. As we journeys through the narrows this season, may joy penetrate even our bones so that songs of liberation can flow through us and into the world.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Ideas to Make Your Passover Seder Great 

By Johanna Potts       

Reduce the Passover Seder stress with these ideas on how to make your Seder great.  In fact the Seder within its own structure gives you some direction.  For example, the point of reading about four children and their approaches to the Seder is to say to Seder leaders that all who are at the Seder are supposed to get the message of Passover in a way that is meaningful to him/her. For some it is the songs, for some it is the food, for some it telling and thinking about the story year after year. The challenge is to make it feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Some ideas to make your Seder great will incorporate some unexpected activities (to everyone else).

1.      After karpas (parsley or celery) serve a salad with carrots and lettuce – after all you have said the blessing for things that grow in the ground.

2.       Incorporate some traditions not your own – if you are Sephardi, add something Yemeni; if you are Ashkenazi, try something Sephardi, etc.  For example, participants at a Sephardic Persian (or Iranian) Passover Seder will simultaneously chant the Passover song “Dayenu” and hold bunches of either celery, chives, leeks or scallions in their hands and lightly beat each other on the back and shoulders to symbolize the sting generated by the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters. A variation of this custom with Sephardic Persian Jewish families will have participants at the Passover Seder table take turns being an Egyptian taskmaster, lightly beating another person with the celery, chives, scallions, or leeks.

3.      Make puppets for all of the characters in Had Gadya and assign roles and sounds

4.      Pick a theme and imagine a new symbol for it, let guests know the theme and send out discussion questions ahead of time.  For example: Freedom from the Electronic/Information Age.

5.      Use a popular TV show or movie as a framework for the Seder

6.      Do part of your Seder sitting on cushions/pillows on the floor;

7.      Assign different parts of the Seder to people ahead of time and ask them to find/write a reading and lead that part

8.      Find time to include an important family story as part of the Seder

9.  Write your own Haggadah. Some On-Line Resources are:

1.  from University of Washington Communication and Leadership and an interactive firm Civilization

2. from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

3. includes many readings and even a children’s book

4. open source haggadah sections and haggadot from diverse orientations.

by Rabbi David Evan Markus as posted in My Jewish Learning on March 19.

When does time begin? What does time measure? What came before the beginning? Such mind-bending questions evoke timeless truths especially relevant at this moment in the Jewish year.

Humans mark space and time from origins. Moderns traveling east or west across the globe chart distance in longitude from Greenwich, England, a relic of the British Empire’s dominion. Modernity marks secular time against Greenwich Mean Time, which scientists call “Universal Coordinated Time,” as if the whole universe sets its clock by London’s lights. Spiritual time and space also chart from starting points. Jews traditionally pray toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as if the Temple once towering above was the center of the world, the axis mundi around which all else revolves.

Jewish time spirals from not one but four origins – four New Years, each with unique spiritual and historical purpose. Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) marks the physical creation, cycle of teshuvah(repentance), ancient tax year, and sabbatical and jubilee years. Tu B’shevat (“New Year of the Trees”) marks the agricultural birthday of trees. Rosh Chodesh Elul marks tithe years for cattle and Moses’ ascent of Sinai to receive the second tablets.

Tomorrow night (March 19, 2015) begins the fourth Jewish New Year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, origin of Jewish identity and spiritual consciousness. Two weeks before the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, “God said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt: ‘This month [Nisan] will be for you the first month… of your year,” a tribute to the upcoming liberation (Ex. 12:1-2). This tribute to freedom – defining Jews as a people released from bondage to reach toward spiritual liberation – is the origin of Jewish time. In a spiritual sense, Jewish time exists only in relationship to our bondage and liberation.

Jewish time exists only in relationship to bondage and liberation. If not for liberation from bondage, there would be no Jewish time. As then, so now. When we are gripped by inner emotional or spiritual bondage, in a sense, Jewish time stops. In a real sense, in bondage we stop living. Just as Shabbat reboots the weekly Jewish work cycle, Rosh Chodesh Nisan reboots Jewish time itself.

A coincidence of Rosh Chodesh Nisan helps illuminate this truth. On this day, the newly freed Israelite slaves wandering the desert completed and inaugurated the mishkan, the ancient cultic focus for God’s indwelling presence among the people. As the people journeyed, the miskhan was the center of their camp. The mishkan, symbol of holiness and holy living, became our forebears’ symbolic origin of space, linked to Rosh Chodesh Nisan as their origin of time. It was the mishkan to which our forebears brought not only celebrations and triumphs for gratitude, but also guilt, shame and defeat to be ritualized and released. The mishkan offered ways to express yearnings for holiness, to release heart and soul continually from the grips of emotional and spiritual bondage.

The ancient cycle of bondage and liberation continues to this day. Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks the two-week countdown to Passover, marking the liberation from historical bondage. Each day and each moment invites us into emotional and spiritual release from inner bondage. Community and ritual – playing out in space and time – bring this drama to life on the human plane.

And now – right now, with Rosh Chodesh Nisan – is our time to begin again. Time itself refreshes and renews. We get ready for freedom. At long last, we welcome the radical liberation of Now.