Mo’adim l’Simcha ~ Festival of Joy … Sukkot Bounty and Responsibility

Many of us, even those of us who were raised in Jewish homes, did not grow up with a sukkah in our backyards. There was a sukkah built at the synasukka_leavesgogue and we decorated it together, maybe had a festive meal, waved the lulav and etrog, and that was it. We checked the Sukkot box on the Jewish holiday list, and then moved on to leaf raking and leaf pile jumping, football and soccer games, Halloween …

For the past two years, in addition to our annual Little Minyan Sukkot Celebration with potluck and bonfire at the home of Bill and Randi, I have had the great pleasure (thanks to Debra Seltzer for gifting our skhakhkehilla with our very own sukkah from the Sukkah Project!) of building (with great help, of course), decorating, dwelling in, and maintaining (a significant chore on gusty, rainy, or otherwise inclement days) a sukkah throughout this delightful festival. This exercise has made me even more aware than usual of nature’s effect on us when we are living close to the Earth: 

  • the daily cycles (is dinner eaten while there is still natural light,fullmoonthroughclouds or will it be entirely a candlelit affair?); 
  • the ability to view the moon at night or during the day or not at all due to heavy cloud cover (or the time it takes for cloud patterns to migrate from Upper Arlington to Bexley, as a friend and I, both sitting in our respective huts on Erev Sukkot, discovered as we enjoyed a phone conversation and I promised her that soon she would see the moon through the dissipating clouds … 15 minutes);  
  • the effects of a storm on a relatively fragile structure and on those who have nothing more than a fragile structure under which to seek refuge from rain or cold;
  • the disappointment and work involved in repeatedly mending areas of skhakh (the roof of our sukkah, made of cuttings from living plants over bamboo poles that we have not yet learned how best to secure against strong winds from the east)

Of course, there are people who live close to the Earth all year … some choose or inherit this challenge (farmers, for example). Others inherit or are forced into these very difficult circumstances (the homeless, runaways, refugees prior refugee-campto resettlement in a welcoming country). This is one of the most important lessons of Sukkot which we cannot lose amidst the joy and other meaningful traditions and teachings.

Sukkot is both a festival of joy ~ an appreciation of the abundance of the land and the gift of the harvest ~ and an opportunity for Jews to remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the abundance in our lives that is not shared beyond our neighborhoods and institutions. Coupled with the Yamim Nora’im, Sukkot can be seen as an uplifting send-off into the new year we have just begun with renewed focus on our highest selves. In this light, the sukkah is a tangible demonstration of our good fortune and our responsibility to share the abundance of our lives with those in need of our assistance. Sharing through:

  • Tzedakah and other forms of material assistance;
  • Sharing our voices and our bodies in showing up at demonstrations for justice and fairness and in protests against hatred and fear-mongering; andfair food jks1
  • Advocating for the needs of those who don’t enjoy the privilege we have in our multicultural society.

These are the gifts that we can reap during the Sukkot harvest festival ~ the gifts of tikkun olam that start very close to home and radiate out into our cities, our nations, and throughout the communities of inhabitants of our fragile planet.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim l’Simcha! 

Posted in Calendar, Eco-Judaism, Family, Hagim/Holidays, Holiday Celebrations, Israel, LGBTQ, Liturgy, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam | Leave a comment

Shabbat Shoftim & Rosh Chodesh Elul ~ At the Confluence of Justice and Love

As we entered Shabbat last weekend, we also turned from the month of Av to the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar. The month of Elul is the last month before the beginning of the Jewish year ~ Rosh HaShanah ~ and the period of time that we call the Yamim Nora’im ~ the Days of Awe, ten days of deep introspection and reconciling in which we recalibrate our internal compass to ensure that the direction we move in the coming yeJulian.Bar Mitzvahar is toward our highest and best self. Our kehilla had the opportunity to turn in that direction in a profound way with the Mincha (afternoon service) Bar Mitzvah of Julian Weiss. At mincha on Shabbat, we read a taste of the coming week’s Torah portion. Set in a beautiful space surrounded by farmland and trees, on an extraordinarily gorgeous, “humid-less” (a big deal for this central Ohio summer) day, Julian (and the anecdotes shared about him by family and teachers) taught us a great deal about how to live into our best selves, how to treat strangers, friends and loved ones, and what it can mean to pay attention to the God-ness in the world.

During the month of Elul it is traditional to engage in cheshbon ha’nefesh ~ soul accounting ~ an internal audit of our activities and behaviors in preparation for the t’shuvah (turning) that we do during the Days of Awe. Elul also reminds us, with its very name, that at the root of our internal reckoning and reconciling weאני לדודי ודודי לי must place self-love. Elul (spelled, in Hebrew, אלול) is an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li (often translated for wedding rings and ketubot as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”), text from the Song of Songs (6:3), which one can read, easily, as love poetry between lovers, a very valid interpretation of the text. However, when one reads the text as allegory for the relationship between the Beloved (the Divine Mystery, Source of Blessing, the One, or God) and us (human beings), the message is about an energetic one-ness of unconditional love. אני לדודי ודודי לי becomes an affirmation that I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is mine. We are encouraged to begin our month of soul-accounting and to continue that work from a place of unconditional love and appreciation for who we are ~ not in our most perfected form (the me that I aspire to be) but exactly how we are at all places and times along our journey. It is just as we enter this period that could be filled with our own harshest criticism and self-disappointment that our wisdom tradition reminds us that we are loved exactly as we are ~ in both our most magnificent, delightful, intelligent, luminous ways of being AND in our darkest, most painful and humiliating moments of personal failure jordans sale (in those times that we are most in need of love and most unlikely to see ourselves as worthy of it).

This is Tzedek tzedek tirdof imagealso the week when we read Parsha Shoftim. In addition to many other ideas, this Torah portion brings us the very well know line: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof ~ Justice, Justice shall you pursue. As Julian shared in his d’var Torah, Judaism survives and remains meaningful in large part because it is about pursuing justice and making the world a better place. “In fact,” shared Julian, “‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ tells us that we don’t simply have to live within the rules of society, we actually have to PURSUE justice. To me, that means tikkun olam – a commitment to [actively] repairing the world.” He went on to share his own personal experience with what justice means air max.

During this election, we keep hearing the term “illegal immigrants.” When we think of someone doing something illegal, we think of needing to stop them and perhaps even punish them. But two people that I love very much are here without documents. These two people have cared for me since I was a baby; they never forget to send me a giant present for my birthday, and I have spent many holidays celebrating with them and their family. They are kind, honest, generous, and hard-working. Because I have the opportunity to be close to these wonderful people and know their circumstances, I understand that what is legal is not always the same as what is just. I think Judaism asks us to choose what is just over what is currently considered legal.

Julian worked with these words to find their relevance and meaning in his life. Torah comes alive ~ vibrant, relevant, meaningful  ~ when we wrestle with the text, questioning and appreciating it, “discussing” it with the great sages of generations and with our friends and family. We are not asked to just swallow it as “the truth,” but rather, as, we learn from ben Bag Bag in Pirkei Avot 5:22:

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. And in it should you look, and grow old and be worn in it; and from it do not move, for there is no measurement of character greater than it.Kabbalah - Middot

At this time of year, when we prepare to recalibrate our moral compass, our measurement of character, and turn, as we work to do regularly, toward our highest and best selves, let us be blessed to remember that justice and love touch and that, in the world we work together to build, they embrace.

Posted in Calendar, Hagim/Holidays, Parshat, Pirkei Avot, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | 1 Comment

Preparing for and Celebration our Yamim Nora’im 5777 ~ Days of Awe 2016

          Click here to access our full schedule for the Days of Awe 5777                                       The Yamim Nora’im ~ Days of Awe are the 10 days Days of Awebeginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, that many call “The High Holy Days.” Each year, we are given the gift in the cycle of Jewish time to concentrate and seriously reflect on the person we have become, imagine the person we wish be, and work on birthing the person we will be as we move forward in life’s journey. We are encouraged to engage in deep self reflection during this season of the Jewish year including the month of Elul that precede the Days of Awe on the Hebrew calendar. We review our behavior over the past year, identify mistakes and shortcomings, and consider avenues of repair and improvement. Elul creates a container of love in which to carefully reflect upon our behavior. We engage in teshuvah – sincere turning (from ways that do not serve us or the common good), repair (of wounds and broken relationships), renewal (of our values and intention), and return (to our highest self with a recalibrated way forward).

This reflection and cleansing allows us to re-aim at a meaningful future with renewed purpose and energy. We connect and reconnect with the best of ourselves, with our family members, our friends, and with the Source of Blessing – the One that connects all. Through this process we resolve to commence the Jewish year with a renewed sense of purpose, a clearer vision, less baggage, and greater appreciation for the blessings that fill our lives on a daily basis.

You don’t need a ticket, an invitation, or even clarity of purpose … just an open heart and mind … join us and see. Please do let us know that you are coming, by clicking here and completing a brief form. You can access our complete schedule of event descriptions, times, and locations here: Days of Awe 5777 Schedule. And please remember that contributions of any amount to the sustainability and health of our kehilla and the vibrant alternative we offer the central Ohio Jewish landscape are welcome and greatly appreciated and can be made directly from our website. Just click on the PayPal link in the upper right corner of this page. 

In addition to this website, you can also keep track of the Little Minyan Kehilla on our Facebook Page.

Posted in Calendar, Eco-Judaism, Family, Hagim/Holidays, Holiday Celebrations, Liturgy, Spiritual Seeking | Leave a comment

Speaking to the Rock ~ The Power of our Tone and Body Language in Speech

This week, Chukat, in our cycle of Torah, we remain in the wilderness/B’midbar (also know as Numbers) continuing both the journey of learning “the rules” of behavior and right relationship, and the physical Rocky Mountain Highjourney of travel from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. I have just returned from traveling both with “my People” ~ B’nei Yisrael (an intense week of study, prayer, and communal living with rabbinic, cantorial, and pastoral students and teachers in the ALEPH ordination program), and, in Colorado’s glorious, vast, and mountainous wilderness. As I read Torah this week, I experience the words of Parshat Chukat through the lens of my recent experiences.

I note how quickly and intensely we learn when we are away from our everyday surroundings and in “the wilderness” (even if that wilderness is a college campus). We are much more reliant upon one another. Our proximity and potency of experience escalates all of aspects of relationship, both good and bad. Our separation from home (literal and figurative) ~ from familiar practices, people, daily rhythms ~ heightens our awareness and sensitivities. We are, in the same moments, more receptive, expanded and open, and more tired, ornery, and likely to shut down, receding into our individual comfort zone’s and our own narratives.

Shabbes at CSUWhen we are in mochin d’gadlut (expanded consciousness) we connect with the sacred within ourselves, between ourselves and others, and within and between all things. We vibrate in right relationship and open even more to giving and receiving.

God’s disappointment with the harsh behavior of Moshe ~ striking the rock (an act of anger) rather than speaking to it (an act of faith) ~ is so great that this act becomes a deal-breaker for Moshe entering the land of Israel despite the quality of his leadership and perseverance. This reaction to Moshe’s display of mochin d’katanut highlights the value placed on the quality of our speech and the powerful, spiritual, and creative nature of our speech. We can use our speech to bring forth such nourishment and abundance, kindness and faith. Or, our speech caP1040012n pour forth with anger, harshness, pain, and destruction.

We are flooded with far too many opportunities to observe the kind of speech that comes from mochin d’katanut (from small, angry places within us) in our communities (real and virtual), and on national and international levels of monologue and dialogue. PIMG_3471arshat Chukat gives us a window into the value and importance of mochin d’gadlut and how, through expanded consciousness, grace and thoughtful speech we can be sustained even in the most difficult of times.

May we be blessed with the insight to know the difference and the practices (middot) and patience to draw closer to expanded consciousness before we speak. And, when we fail, may we have the courage to seek forgiveness for the hurt we have caused and the genuine desire to err less frequently as we evolve.

Shabbat Shalom,

Words of Spiritual Leader Jessica K. Shimberg; photos by Jessica, Bonnie Cramer, and Randall Miller
Posted in ALEPH, Eco-Judaism, Family, Parshat, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Shabbat Vayinafash ~ Refresh, Relax, Re-Ensoul

A reminder to join our kehilla this Shabbat/Saturday morning, June 25th, when we will gather for Shabbat Vayinafash, a contemplative approach to Shabbat morning worship and Torah. We will meet from 10:30 a.m. to noon in our worship space at Covenant Presbyterian zen shabbatChurch.

Join Spiritual Leader Jessica Shimberg for a gentle flow of Shabbat chant, liturgy, movement and holy conversation around themes from this week’s Parsha/Torah portion as we continue to wander B’midbar (the Hebrew name for this book of Torah which means in the wilderness and is more widely called Numbers).

This week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha, finds the Israelites wandering and whining, unable to process the enormity of the change that accompanies their new-found freedom and the work it entails. Even with the miraculous manna they receive in the desert, the former slaves wistfully recall the host of foods they had as slaves – cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlics (Little Minyan’s Matt Cristol wrote a beautiful D’var Torah for his bar mitzvah last summer on this parsha and the narrowness of vision that accompanies fear and discontent.)

Rabbi Elliot Kukla, in his 2008 Dvar Tzedek (a weekly offering from American Jewish World Service) on Parshat Beha’alotcha, quotes contemporary writer William Bridges in describing the difference between situational change and psychological transition:

Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of a new baby or the death of your father… Change is situational. TransitionTransition on the other hand, is psychological.   It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life.

This is also the parsha that brings us the profound words of healing – El Na, Refah Na La/אל נא רפא נא לה/God, please, heal her please – expressed withHealing-Flag-Single-241x300 such simplicity and deep yearning that we use them regularly in our prayers for healing and in the words of heart-opening that invite us into Kabbalat Shabbat (Yedid Nefesh). We will explore the Biblical story that gives rise to these words and the healing we can find in taking time to forgive ourselves for ugly unkindnesses we have thought or uttered (about others or about ourselves) and the ways in which prayer can be healing and assist us in transition and growth.  

You may wish to bring your own chumash. Comfortable attire encouraged, and, if you wish to sit on the floor, a mat, zafu, pillow or blanket. A light lunch will follow our worship.

Posted in Calendar, Liturgy, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Torah | Leave a comment

May the Countenance of the Sacred Gaze Upon You and Grant You Peace

Zichrono livracha, we say when we speak of the dead. May their names be for blessing …

This has been a week filled with a level of pain and grief and outrage that we can barely begin to process. So filled with noise, negativity, and a nearly mind-numbing litany of rapidly changing, glacially unchanging news. The voices of politicians and pundits and “experts” of every stripe and color wash over us like sludge thick with the smell of smug – analyzing and assuming and antagonizing as they go. And this is just the liberal media …

AND … there are the voices that strengthen us with hope; the voices that remind us of the instinctually loving ways that live deep within and at the surface in so many of us. The story told on the Senate floor of the teacher in Newtown, Connecticut who died with her body surrounding a student who 061316love is love orlandovigiladored her; or of the mother who was celebrating her son’s 21st birthday, and, as the Orlando shooter turned toward them, died protecting her son from the bullets sprayed toward them. And the voices that remember the voices of those whose lives were cut tragically short this week ~ kind co-workers, courageous friends, inspiring classmates, and beloved children.

The voices of my friends and colleagues* remind me of the tremendous strength, courage, intellectual power, creative talent, and political savvy of the LGBTQ community and its many allies. This is a community that has lgbtaccomplished so much in my lifetime. And I take comfort in knowing that this is a community that will continue to help us to connect with the best and most authentic in ourselves and continue to inspire us to do better in our religious, educational, political institutions and beyond. This is a community that lives and breathes inclusivity in ways that so many of us aspire to be inclusive and welcoming.

Susan Loy Priestly BenedictionThis week’s Torah portion, Parshat Nasso (Bamidbar/Numbers 4:21-7:83), begins with a census taking, spends some time with ancient practices of discerning and making ritual reparations for wrong-doing, before coming to what is best known and most well-used within this passage of Torah. God tells Moses to speak to Aaron and his sons about how to bless b’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Say to them, God says:

May God bless you and protect you ~ יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ      

May God deal kindly and graciously with you ~ יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ

                                    ~ יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם                                                            May God show favor upon you and grant you peace

For many of us, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddist, Hindu … it is in times of great turmoil that we reach out for some spiritual toe-hold. We
turn to our religious wisdom tradition for some way to soothe our aching hearts and weary heads in the face of chaos that feels over-whelming and nonsensical. This week, although peace seems so far away, a sense of the sacred, of a tent big enough to comfort all who are in mourning, all who feel violated, all whose sense of security has been shattered, may these words of blessing buoy us and lift us to move forward with purpose, with action, with grace, and with peace.

Join members of The Little Minyan Kehilla throughout the weekend for 689906c8-6a63-4941-b3a2-546c141298b6Columbus’ Pride events. We will gather as a community on Saturday evening for havdalah at the Columbus Commons with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the Indigo Girls.  For more information, contact us at 614.459.9593 or

*These beautiful words of blessing were offered by Rabbi Sharon Mars this week in Columbus at a vigil remembering victims of Orlando at Trinity Lutheran Church:
“Before I offer these concluding words of benediction, I’d like to refer to what Lin Manuel Miranda said the other night upon accepting his Tony award:
‘Love is love is love is love…’
God of Love,
Source of Love,
Creator of Love—
Hear our voice.
You have commanded us to love You—
V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha—
With all our heart,
With all our soul,
With all our might—
B’chol levavcha
Uvechol nafshecha
Uvechol me’odecha.
But then all these things
Happen to your creatures, O God,
And we are left speechless.
Hate seeks to eclipse love,
And we are made afraid.
Violence tries to blot out peace,
And we are struck dumb.
We fumble for words
Because they are all we have
We grasp for straws,
We gasp for answers.
And then,
Before we can collect our thoughts,
Before we can bury our dead,
Before we can form a syllable of protest,
All these words spill off some of the tongues of those in fear
Intended to wound those of us who live by love.
God of Love,
Use Your powers of love
So that those ugly words should find no ears to fill.
Use Your powers of love
To ensure that instead of empty platitudes
There are full-voiced multitudes
Demanding safety and acceptance,
Commanding peace and love
For our dance clubs,
For our bathrooms,
For our classrooms,
For our courtrooms.
Let us not be satisfied
By moments of silence for long.
Let us be satisfied instead
By moments of loud and proud cries of love,
Insisting on the right to love
Whomever we choose to love,
Wherever we choose to love.
You whom we call Adonai,
You whom we call Allah,
You whom we call Jesus,
You who called us to love each other—
Help us to love ourselves.
Help us to love those who cry out in need of love
For themselves.
You command us to love You
In order to multiply the love of acceptance,
The love of mercy,
The love of justice
In the world.
Now command each of us
To follow Your love
To its natural conclusion:
A world dignified by love,
A world magnified by love,
A world sanctified by love,
A world we are proud to live in
And allowed to love in.
May Your words of love be in our hearts,
God of love,
As we seek to improve upon the world You birthed into being,
The world which we were birthed into
To fill with love
In partnership with You .
Let that love
Whisper to us when we walk by our way,
Anchor us when we sit in our homes,
Soothe us when we lie down,
Strengthen us when we rise up.
And when we raise up our voices
To insist on creating the world we wish to see,
Let that love seep into every pure heart
Across this blood-saturated and tear-stained land.
Let that love find its way into every mind
Which chooses love over fear.
Let that love build bridges
Of understanding and healing
So that Your word has the final say:
Love your God.
Love each other.
And we say:

Posted in Calendar, Family, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Liturgy, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Revelation on the Farm ~ Receiving Torah in Community

Sunday, June 12th from 1:00 to 4:00 at Over the Fence Urban Farm

Shavuot, one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Torah, has its roots in agrimages-4iculture, although it is liturgically and, in celebratory customs, linked to the revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai. Torah teaches of a holy celebration on Yom HaBikurim ~ the day of first-fruits is to occur at the time of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), the completion of counting the seven weeks of the Omer (barley harvest)*. The express purpose of this celebration is gratitude for the abundance of the season’s wheat harvest.

As an agricultural people, the ancient Israelites experienced Shavuot as an opportunity to honor the connection between earth, God and human labor. However, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., our land-based People became dispersed among nations. Over time, Shavuot was “reconstructed” by our great sages to serve as a celebration of the revelation of Torah at Sinai rather than a land-based, Temple ritual less relevant to a land-less People.

A great gifJordana Klein mount sinai - receiving the Torah (1)t of our wisdom tradition is the encouragement we are given to read and reread, interpret and reinterpret Torah, finding the relevance within the wisdom both in its black letters and the white open space that surrounds them. In this expanse, we can, once again, reconstruct this festival of celebration and gratitude with room enough for BOTH agrarian appreciation and Divine revelation.

In our kehilla and in our neighborhoods and surrounding lands, many of us garden or connect to the earth in a significant way. If we don’t have our own farm, we may attend a farmers’ market and connect with someone who directly sows, grows, and harvests the food we eat or the flowers that beautiful our homes. We are in tune with the rhythms of the environment as we learn, once again, to pay attention, care for, and appreciate the Earth. This is the Torah of the Earth.

In this spirit, we will gather on Sunday, June 12th from 1:00 – 4:00 pm at the pok choy over the fenceurban farm and home of Little Minyan member, Jodi Kushins, in Clintonville. Over the Fence Urban Farm, with its first fruits (and vegetables and chickens), is the perfect place for us to open to the revelation and gifting of Torah. There will be an opportunity to help in the garden too, so bring your favorite gardening gloves!

Please bring “fruits” to share (veggies, fruit, cheese, and other snacks) with all who gather. In addition to food, you are invited to bring any variety of your “first fruits” to share with the gathered community. A poem, a song, a story, a piece of artwork, or a treasured gift that has inspired you.

See you at Sinai!


*Bamidbar/Numbers 28:26, and first described in Shmot/Exodus 23:16
Artwork: Receiving Torah at Sinai, Jordana Klein; pok choy photo, Jodi Kushins
Posted in Calendar, Eco-Judaism, Family, Hagim/Holidays, Holiday Celebrations, Mini Minyan, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Tikun Leil Shavuot ~ Torah and Tannins

Tikun Leil Shavuot ~ Saturday, June 11th, 10:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. ~ Torah and Tannins (Red Wine, Black Tea, Dark Chocolate)

On Shavuot, we celebrate what chazal (our rabbinic sages) called Z’man Matan Torateinu, meaning the time when our Torah was gifted (to us). Although a most important Jewish holiday, many of us (North American progressive Jews) have minimal knowledge of Shavuot, its meaning, customs, and significance. Perhaps this has something to do with a modern sense of discomfort with the torah-gift-to-the-world-211x300“credibility” of the Torah’s narrative of God giving Torah on Mount Sinai. However, as we know, stories don’t need to be factual to be true. Allegorical mythology is a powerful method of conveying deep wisdom and basic truths by which we can guide our lives. Through this lens, one can both appreciate the gift of Torah and the story of its gifting (the narrative we are given in Sh’mot/Exodus and its prolific commentary throughout the ages). 

Judaism is as much a story-telling wisdom tradition as it is a tradition rooted in laws and principles. We learn much from our stories, and even more from the sheer number of them and the fact that they freely contradict one another. Contrasting ideas are appreciated and valued. Midrash (commentary) around the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai tells that every person heard God’s voice differently, each according to that one’s ability to comprehend (Sh’mot Rabbah Giving-of-the-Torah5:9). Another midrash teaches that the Voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (BT Shabbat 88b). Yet another midrash tells that nothing, not the sea, no animal, not even the angels made a sound; “the whole earth was hushed into breathless silence” when the Voice (God) spoke (Sh’mot Rabbah 29:9). The plain language (p’shat) of Torah gives us a different understanding of what was actually heard (Sh’mot/Exodus 19).

Diversity of interpretation is one of the greatest treasures of Judaism. Throughout history, our sacred books (“Torah” in the larger sense of the word) have recorded the debates of generations of thinkers, demonstrating that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern the truth and value in these ancient words.

In keeping with the theme of divergent and convergent opinion, our tikun leil Shavuot this year will focus on this question: What does it mean to, at once, be a diverse and a unified People? We will do a bit of exploration of the books of Ruth and Naomi. Dr. He Qi
Ruth and Nehemiah using an article by Dr. Jacob L. Wright and Prof. Rabbi Tamara Eskanazi as a jumping off point. Please click here and download this article and bring it with you on Erev Shavuot to Jessica’s home. If you need directions, please contact

Ruth and Naomi interpretation by Dr. He Qi, Nanjing Union Theological Seminary

Posted in Hagim/Holidays, Holiday Celebrations, Spiritual Seeking, Torah | Leave a comment

Walking in the Light of God ~ Parshat Bechukotai

The following is an offering from AJWS (American Jewish World Service) authored by Lisa Exler and originally published as part of the AJWS weekly Dvar Tzedek series in May, 2011.

Walking—putting one foot after the other—is, for many of us, our most basic vehicle for navigating the world. Yet we probably don’t put much thought into it. We’re more concerned with where we’re going than how we’re getting there; and unless we’re on a hike, we rarely think of walking as an end in itself, or count it among our blessings.

But walking takes on new meaning in Parashat Bechukotai, which is perhaps best known for its list of blessings and curses that God vows for the Israelites—blessings if they observe the commandments, and curses if they fail to do so. The blessings are curiously framed by the image of walking. The passage opens with God stating the condition for receiving these blessings: “Im bechukotai teileichu—If you walk in
desert walking womenaccordance with My laws and observe and do My commandments.” And the section concludes with God’s promise to walk, in return: “V’hithalachti b’tochechem—And I will walk in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

The section of blessings could have ended there, with the final inspiring blessing being one of reciprocal relationship and intimacy between God and the Israelites. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with the following verse, a seemingly superfluous description of God’s role in the Exodus, which, significantly, also includes the image of walking: “I am Adonai your God who took you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk uprightva’olech etchem komemiyut.”2

A midrash explains that the word komemiyut, upright—which appears only this once in Torah, means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature.”3 In other words, God reminds the Israelites that they are no longer oppressed slaves living in fear; but rather, dignified people who can stand tall and walk proudly and are free to choose their own paths. The Israelites’ ability to walk upright, which they attained through their experience of the Exodus, was the necessary precondition for the other “walkings” described previously in the text—walking in accordance with God’s laws and God’s reciprocal walking among the people, bestowing upon them the blessings of rain, food, peace and fertility.

These biblical “walkings” are clearly metaphors for dignity and the covenantal relationship between God and the Israelites; but around the world today, there are many who are literally walking—to school; to fetch water and firewood; to escape conflict, persecution or natural disaster—in search of blessings like those God promised to the Israelites. Unfortunately, many of those who go on foot in the world face significant obstacles. Not yet liberated from their own Egypts—poverty, marginalization and oppression—they struggle to walk “upright.”

In South Africa, many children walk over 30 minutes each way to school, often encountering violent crime and unsafe roads and pedestrian paths.4 More than a year after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, over one million people still live in camps for internally displaced persons, where women and girls are regularly attacked while walking along unlit paths to latrines at night.5 In Darfur, women face similar dangers as they walk long distances to procure water and firewood for their human hands worldfamilies. In the words of a resident of Kuma Garadayat village in North Darfur, “For years we have been afraid of being attacked while fetching water and collecting firewood; it is not always possible to move in groups and we are often escorted by men or UNAMID peacekeepers.”6

Despite these challenges, people are finding ways to walk with dignity. In Haiti, for example, AJWS partners Earthspark International and KONPAY have distributed thousands of solar flashlights to women in IDP camps. The women have used them to light the paths to latrines and other vulnerable areas, thus reducing the incidence of violence and rape in the camps. The flashlights have also led to community organizing, as the women have initiated safety patrols and peer-counseling programs and are teaching each other income-generating activities.7

As we seek to support people around the globe who are walking amidst all kinds of challenges, we should be guided by the lesson of Parashat Bechukotai, that the ability to walk upright and unafraid is a precondition for attaining life’s blessings. As Peter Uvin, Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Tufts University, explains: “When people are deprived of their freedom, live in constant fear, cannot move or work as they wish, and are cut off from the communities and the lands they care about, development has emphatically not taken place.”8

Let us work to secure the human rights of all, honoring the Divine image in which each person was created. In this way we will truly achieve the final blessing promised to the Israelites—God will walk among us.

Lisa Exler is Director of the Curriculum Project, a joint initiative of Mechon Hadar and Beit Rabban Day School, where she is the Director of Jewish Studies. Previously, Lisa served as a senior program officer in the experiential education department at American Jewish World Service, where she developed and managed a range of educational materials to promote the values of global citizenship in the American Jewish community.
1 Leviticus 26:3 and 26:12.
2 Leviticus 26:13.
3 Sifra Bechukotai 1:7.
4 UNICEF and The Presidency, Republic of South Africa. Situation Analysis of Children in South Africa, April 2009. p. 69
5 Amnesty International. Aftershocks: Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence in Haiti’s Camps, 2011.
6 “North Darfur Water Project Helps Protect Women From Sexual Violence.”IRIN, 27 April 2011.
7 Haiti One Year Later: Grassroots Response to Tragedy. AJWS. Also see: “Gender-Based Violence Against Haitian Women and Girls in Internal Displacement Camps.” MADRE, 7 April 2011.
8 Uvin, Peter. Human Rights and Development. Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2004. p. 123.
Posted in Human Rights, Parshat, Shabbat, Tikkun Olam | Leave a comment

Many Moments for Teshuvah ~ Counting the Omer Amidst the Words of Achrei Mot

What? Teshuvah. Why would we be talking teshuva now? We are many moons away from the Days of Awe. Yes, and … Teshuvah (turning from errant behavior or unhealthy patterns; for years, translated from the Hebrew by many prayer books as “repentance”) is not reserved for the season of preparation and participation in the Days of Awe (Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur). Judaism builds into our liturgy and practices daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal opportunities for turning from our mistakes and re-aiming our intentions. It is our responsibility or option (depending on our level of engagement) to find and integrate these opportunities into our self-reflection and self-direction.

One of these opportunities for attunement (and atonement, where needed) is the practice of Counting the Omer (S’firat haOmer). Although many do this counting traditionally* as instructed in Vayikra/Leviticus 23:15, others choose to use the Kabbalistic practice of counting drawn from the writings of the RaMaK (Rabbi Moshe Kordevero, 16th century). The Ramak read the root (ספר) of the word “s’fartem” (you shall count) in Leviticus to mean more than just counting. He wrote that “sefirah” means both “mispar,” Sfirat HaOmernumber, and “sipur,” telling a story. A third meaning of this root is “sapir,” sapphire, and the word we use for the different spheres of human and divine characteristics is “s’firot.” Thus, counting is also an illumination of the story of our emotional characteristics using combinations of seven of the s’firot (the lower seven). Seven s’firot over the course of 7 weeks allows for 49 different combinations. A number of modern resources can be found on our resource page and at (see omer counters on our sidebar).

This week we read a parsha (Torah portion) from the center of the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, thick with prohibitions and, for many, a difficult “rule book” to read, especially through our 21st century lens. Parsha Achrei Mot contains the words our sages determined we would also read on Yom Kippur, our holiest day, the day filled with teshuvah and deep introspection.

The words of Achrei Mot are filled with a very visceral depiction of the cultic ritual of sacrifice on this holiest day and follow on the heels of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, after their questionable use of holy symbols and space. First, the process of preparation that Aaron, the high priest, must follow to enter the most holy place – instructions for his purity anUKdT8878714d that of his garments and offerings. Elaborate descriptions of the sights and smells and the sacrificial animals follow. And, in great detail, both the use of blood (the life force) in the sacrificial process of atonement, and the penalties for its misuse. And then, more washing and purification instructions followed by the rules on sexual relationships that have been so painfully used over the years by those who wish to limit “holiness” to exclude certain holy and loving relationships.  

In his commentary on Lev. 16:29-31, which establish the 10th day of the 7th month as Yom Kippur, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik distinguishes between “atonement” and “purification”. Atonement, he states, involves restoring our relationship with God and “relies on God’s willingness to love and to accept imperfect people.” Purification involves removing the stain of our puritymisdeeds from our character (our personality, in Rav Soloveitchik’s words), and is reliant on “the capacity of those imperfect people to improve.” In counting of the omer, we can use the s’firotic emanations to illuminate and retune our inner emotional landscape and outer manifestations of our personality. Thus, at this halfway point from the Days of Awe 5776, we have the opportunity to recalibrate on our way toward 5777.

*The traditional practice of counting the omer involves recitation of a blessing followed by an enumeration of the day of the omer and the number of weeks and days that have been counted, and a recitation of Psalm 67 and Ana B’Koach.

Posted in Torah | Leave a comment