Parshat Tzav and Pesach: Gratitude

This week parshat Tzav coincides with the upcoming celebration of Pesach, both of which teach about the positive power of recognizing when to be grateful and of expressing gratitude. 

Parshat Tzav describes the korban Todah, brought after a person experiences a personal miracle such as: a) being healed from an illness, b) being freed from prison, c) crossing a desert or d) sailing across a sea (Rashi). When korbanot could no longer be brought, Chazal instituted a bracha to be said instead, known as the birkat hagomel. Rav Kook, in Olat Reiyah, explains that it is human nature to become indifferent to the basic goodness we are granted each day, but after a traumatic experience one is given a new perspective on life. Reciting the birkat hagomel, or bringing the korban Todah, helped generate feelings of appreciation in ourselves and others.

Expressing gratitude is also a fundamental part of Seder night. Mishna Pesachim teaches that after we tell the story of the Exodus we “are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol, exalt, honor, bless, revere, and laud the One who performed for our forefathers and for us all these miracles.”

The full experience of yetziat mitzrayim includes our expressing thanks, just as was done by Bnei Yisrael. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the first time Hallel was recited was after yetziat mitzrayim and this regular Hallel is called by the Sages, “Hallel mitzri”. On Seder night we say an additional section called “Hallel ha-gadol.”

This moment in Israeli history too, feels as though it warrants recognition and expressions of gratitude. Wherever one stands on the political spectrum, the parsha and Pesach are reminders not to become complacent and indifferent to the miracle that is the modern State of Israel. May we draw on this time of positive reflection to listen better, to build consensus, to safeguard and feel proud of our national homeland. Shabbat Shalom and Chag kasher v’sameach! -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayikra: Calling the Jewish People

What is the call of “Vayikra” for the Jewish people today?

Numerous commentaries explain that parshat Vayikra is a direct continuation of Shemot, which ended with Moshe outside the mishkan. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet of all time, could not enter the holiest place at all times. Vayikra teaches that when an individual was impure, s/he too could not enter the mikdash. Human experiences of holiness have a rhythm of ebbs and flows, highs and lows. Similarly, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch teaches that the root of the word “korban” is “k.r.v,” to come close. The korbanot in the time of the mikdash (and today our tefillot) are a way to draw closer to Hashem – highlighting that one cannot stay in a continuous state of holiness. We are human beings, not angels.

Perhaps Rashi alludes to this in interpreting “Vayikra” as an expression of God’s affection (חבה) for Moshe and invitation to draw closer to holiness and hear God’s words. Rashi relates this to the call of angels in Isaiah – which we say in the kedusha of the amidah – “And one called (ve-karah) out to the other, holy, holy, holy…” In entering the ohel moed, Moshe becomes angel-like. In standing with feet together and saying kedusha we strive to be holy like angels (whose feet were like a straight foot). However, we can’t stay this way permanently.

Regarding the position of feet in prayer, Rav Kook writes that our feet are for both walking and standing. When we walk, legs apart, we advance and grow in Torah knowledge. When standing with feet together in prayer, we solidify ourselves through unity (achdut).

There is also a rhythm within the Jewish nation. There are times we as a people can debate constructively and withstand moving in different directions, at different paces. And then there are times we need to pause in order to solidify, to draw closer in holiness and focus on achdut. Shabbat Shalom🌸 -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Vayekhel-Pikudei/HaChodesh: Renewal and Repair

“All big things come from small beginnings.” – James Clear

Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei coincides this year with Shabbat HaChodesh. These two Torah readings relate to the themes of renewal and repair.

The book of Shemot ends with a description of the kelim (vessels) used in the mishkan. The final object is the kiyor (basin), from which Moshe and Aaron are commanded to wash their hands and feet. This practice, referred to by the rabbis as “kedushat yadayim ve’raglayim” – sanctifying of hands and feet – was also done by kohanim each morning in Temple times as they prepared for their service. Some halachic authorities view this as the source of the mitzvah for all individuals to wash hands (netilat yadayim) every morning upon waking. Some of the holiness which was once only accessible by the kohanim in the mikdash, can be attained by all individuals, anywhere. This is also expressed by Talmud Berakhot which teaches that when a person washes hands and then says tefilla, it is as though s/he built an altar and made an offering to God. The small, physical ritual of washing hands daily can influence our inner state of being.

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch explains that each morning we are likened to a “new creation.” Each day has new potential for holiness, to renew and repair. The mitzvah to sanctify the first new moon of Nisan – read on Shabbat HaChodesh – is also associated with the potential for renewal: “This month is for you…” The Mei Hashiloach comments: “The power of the month will be for you, that you should be able to renew yourselves in Torah and actions.” Numerous commentaries point out the connection between the word “chodesh” and “hitchadshut” (renewal) for the Jewish people.

The gradual renewal of the moon’s light and handwashing at the beginning of each new day highlights that small steps – individually, communally and nationally – have the potential for renewal and repair. Shabbat Shalom🌔🌷-Karen Miller Jackson

Ki Tissa: Opening Door to Forgiveness

Parshat Ki Tissa contains wisdom on wrongdoing and forgiveness. It describes one of the greatest failings of Bnei Yisrael and then God’s boundless compassion. This episode can serve as a model for contemporary times. 

After the sin of the golden calf, Hashem tells Moshe that he will destroy the Jewish people. However, one key word hints that not all hope is lost. God says: “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them…” Why did God tell Moshe “hanicha li,” “leave Me alone,” before Moshe said anything? Rashi explains that God “created an opening,” hinting to Moshe that he should pray to save the Jewish people. Even when it seemed as though God wouldn’t forgive Israel for their transgressions, God was merciful and left the door open for prayers and forgiveness. 

The Divine attributes of mercy and compassion are highlighted again when Moshe goes up Mt. Sinai a second time and God descends in a cloud. The Torah is ambiguous about who is praying here, Moshe or God. Surprisingly, Rabbi Yochanan teaches in Talmud Berakhot that God wrapped Himself in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur and taught Moshe how to pray for mercy, through the 13 middot (characteristics) of God, including forgiveness and compassion. Hence, these tefillot become the core of selichot, prayers for God’s mercy. The Sifrei views the 13 middot as a model for ethical behavior: to “walk in the ways of Hashem,” is to practice compassion with others just as God was compassionate with us. 

Ki Tissa presents a model for how to recover from rifts and discord in our relationship with others, by leaving the door open to the possibility of prayer, acceptance and forgiveness. The 13 middot teach that tefillah is not only about personal requests but also about introspection, shaping our character and ability to listen and forgive. May we see more of these middot in our relationships, in our homeland and in our world. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Tetzaveh: You are What You Wear?

Parshat Teztaveh describes at length the clothing worn by the kohanim. Their garments are called “bigdei kodesh,” holy clothing, worn for “kavod” (honor) and “tifaret” (glory). Why so much emphasis on clothing – a seemingly materialistic thing – worn by the holiest person in Israel? 

The midrash explains that the eight different articles of the high priest’s clothing atoned for the sins of Israel, like the korbanot (sacrifices). The elaborate dress was meant to remind the kohanim of their role as representing all of Israel and help enhance their service of God. Perhaps related to this, Rambam states that one should wear clothing which is neat and presentable during prayer. Conversely, nakedness in Torah represents a spiritual lacking. In Bereshit, Rashi understands Adam and Eve’s realization of their nakedness (after their sin) as meaning they had no mitzvot to be covered with. Nakedness represents vulnerability and a deficiency of mitzvot/goodness. 

Clothing also plays a key role in Megillat Esther. After Haman’s decree, Mordechai goes through the city with kriya, torn clothes. The external tear is representative of his internal grief and suffering. Moreover, Before Esther approaches King Achashverosh in hope of saving the Jewish people, the megilla states: “And it came to pass on the third day Esther wore (malchut) queenliness.” The Talmud asks why the megillah states that she wore “queenliness” and not queenly robes? To teach that she actually wore ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit. Here too, clothing reflects something deeper and more spiritual, as Esther stepped into her destiny and identity as queen and savior.  

These sources highlight the deep connection between outer clothing and one’s inner spiritual state. On Purim too, costumes are meant to enhance the feeling of joy associated with the holiday. After a week filled with too much grief in Israel, may this Purim help us move from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy, inside and out. Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach! – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Terumah: Places for Prayer

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill

Parshat Terumah contains the commandment to build the mishkan: “They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” How does the mishkan – a physical structure – inspire closeness and connection to God? How is this achievable today?

The commentaries debate whether the mishkan was an ideal or a necessary accommodation. The second half of Shemot is dedicated mostly to the description of the mishkan, interrupted in the middle by the narrative of the sin of the golden calf. The midrash Sifre sees a direct connection and explains that the gold in the mishkan attones for the gold used to make the golden calf. Rashi similarly teaches that there is no chronological order in the Torah and the command to build the mishkan actually took place after the sin of the golden calf, as atonement and tikun. The Ramban however, sees deep relevance in the placement of the command to build mishkan after the revelation at Sinai: “The glory of God that dwelt on Mount Sinai, hiddenly dwells upon the mishkan.” The mishkan and later the mikdash was a center where people could go to feel God’s presence. Today, this applies to a Beit Knesset or Beit Midrash called by the Sages, a “mini-mikdash.”

Yet, there is another dimension to the purpose of the mishkan: so that God will “dwell among them” – the people. Cassuto writes that the ultimate purpose of the mishkan was for the people to feel that God was in their midst. The building itself was not the goal, but rather how it inspired the people within. This idea is also expressed in Talmud Berakhot when it teaches that a person should enter two doorways in a synagogue before praying. This provides an opportunity to be mindful about entering a place of prayer, a “mini-mikdash.” 

The movement through the doors, and the experience within, can hopefully inspire us to move closer and feel more connected to God and community. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson 

Parshat Mishpatim: Chesed and Compassion as Prayer

What is the relationship between social responsibility and tefilla? Two verses in parshat Mishpatim highlight God’s particular attentiveness to the cries of the vulnerable and oppressed.

The Torah warns against ill-treatment of a stranger, orphan or widow: “If you mistreat them, as soon as they cry out to Me, I will hear their outcry.” The verse contains three instances of double language: aneh-ta’aneh, tza’ok-yitzak, shamoa-eshma. This emphasizes that just as the victim will feel the pain of mistreatment more deeply, God will hear their cries and respond to their suffering more urgently. 

This unique and direct link with Hashem is also seen through the Torah’s instruction on how to loan money to the poor without taking advantage of them. It states: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you…” Rashi citing midrash Tanchuma explains that by referring to the person in need as “My people,” it is God’s reminder to treat him honorably, as he is “with God.” Also, “the poor among you” – be compassionate by considering yourself as though you are among the poor of your people. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that through this mitzvah we will be trained and habituated to the trait of kindness and of mercy. Indifference increases suffering, while developing and practicing compassionate behavior, leads to a more compassionate world. In the biblical world orphans, widows and the poor were among the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is through sensitivity to their experience and acts of lovingkindness, that we can develop a closer connection to God. 

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in support of the civil rights movement, he said, “I felt my legs were praying.” May all of our acts of chesed and protests of injustice be like prayers and draw us closer to God. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson 

*Photo from : Martin Luther King Jr., left, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, right, during Selma march in 1965. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)

Parshat Yitro: Are the Ten Commandments Special?

In parshat Yitro we receive the Ten Commandments, which are thought of as the basis of Torah. Some commentaries teach that all ten were spoken directly by God to the people of Israel. Moreover, they were written on luchot (tablets). Given their foundational status, why don’t the aseret ha-dibrot feature more prominently in tefilla and how do they continue to resonate in our world today? 

In fact, the Ten Commandments were originally said in daily prayer. According to Mishna Tamid, the kohanim recited certain prayers in the mikdash, including Shema and aseret ha-dibrot. However, explains the Talmud Yerushalmi, they were removed due to the “arguments of the heretics,” who claimed that “only these were given to Moshe at Sinai,” not the rest of Torah. Even though various rabbis tried to re-insert them into daily tefilla, the Talmudic Sages rejected these attempts to refute the claims of the heretics. 

Over time, Jews found ways to promote the Ten Commandments in tefilla, while adhering to the decree of the Sages. Yerushalmi Berakhot teaches that the aseret ha-dibrot – originally said alongside Shema – are actually contained within the words of Shema. The Rema states that they may be said by an individual but not as part of communal tefilla. Many communities developed the (once debated) custom to stand during the Torah reading when the Ten Commandments are read publicly. 

This process highlights that the Ten Commandments were treasured by the Jewish people throughout history, representative of our relationship with God and Torah’s contribution to the world. They encapsulate and express the deep continuum between interpersonal mitzvot and mitzvot between man and God. This week in particular, after the devastating earthquake, the dibrot are a reminder that each life lost was created in the image of God and that the praiseworthy efforts to aid the suffering is a mitzvah in the eyes of God and humanity. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

** photo by IDF spokesperson’s unit משלחת צה״ל “ענפי זית” בטורקיה 🇹🇷🇮🇱

Parshat Beshalach: Engaging Women

How do we imbue our girls with a sense of confidence and self-worth? How do we teach the value of modesty (inward and outward) while encouraging young women to pursue their talents and dreams? How can women feel more connected to communal prayer? Miriam, in parshat Beshalach, provides a model. 

According to Rashi based on the Mekhilta, after the splitting of the sea, Moshe leads the men in singing “az yashir” and Miriam leads the women. Some commentaries understand this to mean that Miriam led the same “az yashir” for the women and the Torah just recorded a shortened version. However, the slight difference in language and other new elements suggests that Miriam’s song was unique and distinct.

First, Moshe says “I will sing (ashira) to God” and Miriam says “Sing (shiru) to God.” In addition to singing, Miriam took a tambourine in her hand and all the women came out after her “betupim u’vimcholot,” with tambourines and dances. Where did they get musical instruments in the middle of the desert? The midrash Mekhilta teaches that the women, while still in Egypt, believed deeply that God would redeem them, and therefore they prepared tambourines, anticipating that they would be celebrating miracles in future. The nation sang a song of gratitude, but the women added a unique element to the song – tupim u’vimcholot, a musical celebration reflecting deep faith. Miriam inspired the women of her generation to find their voices and express themselves in religious life. Following Miriam’s example, by creating opportunities for girls and women to express themselves, the whole Jewish people will be enriched. 

In biblical times, the women’s faith and gratitude were so great that they too wanted to express this in song. Today too, as girls and women are searching for more connection, this model of women alongside men, empowered yet distinctive, can be a source of inspiration in our communities. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

  • image: The Songs of Joy, James Tissot c. 1896-1902,

Parshat Bo: Light at Night

Did the Exodus from Egypt take place during the day or night? Why is parshat Bo so ambiguous regarding the timing of this seminal event in the Torah? 

First, God promises to bring the plague against the first-born at around mid-night (“k’chatzot”) after which the people would leave Egypt. Then, God’s promise is fulfilled in the middle of the night (“b’chatzi halayla”). Pharaoh, in response to the suffering, commands Moshe to take the Israelites out in the night. However, Moshe had instructed the people not to leave their homes until the morning. It also states that God took them out of Egypt on “that very day,” understood by some commentaries to mean in full daylight. This tension in the verses – night or day – is also expressed in mishna Berakhot in discussing the mitzvah to remember yetziat mitzrayim. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya teaches that while there is a clear biblical source to remember the Exodus during the day, he was unsure of the source for remembering it at night, until Ben Zoma enlightened him. Hence, the Talmud teaches, the third paragraph of Shema, “Vayomer,” is said at night as well as in the morning, since it contains within it remembrance of the Exodus.

Ramban resolves the ambiguity of the timing of the Exodus as follows: B’nei Yisrael left Egypt in the daytime, so all could see, but the process of geula began at night. Mid-night then is a turning point, when the seeds of potential for redemption begin. This association of mid-night as beginning of the redemption process is reinforced in the midrash about King David, who would learn Torah until mid-night (for protection) and from then on sing songs of praise to God. 

Recounting the Exodus – specifically in tefilla of day as well as night – testifies to the Jewish people’s ability to flourish through periods of light and endure throughout times of darkness. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson