Naso and Shavuot: Celebrating Teachers

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Shavuot and parshat Naso contain wisdom on the role of teachers and leaders in Judaism and on the importance of engaging with students in learning.

Birkat Kohanim, which is in this week’s parsha, is one of the oldest recorded sections of Jewish prayer. The biblical verses contain a seeming contradiction. One verse suggests that the kohanim have the power to bless the people: “This is how you are to bless Bnei Yisrael…” However, it also states: “put My (God’s) name on Bnei Yisrael, and I (God) will bless them.” Rashbam explains that God is the source of blessings and the Kohanim only offer up prayer. Rav Hirsch teaches that the kohanim are an instrument through which the brachot are given. Sefer Hachinuch however, explains that the Kohanim are the vehicle through which the bracha is transferred from God to the people. Moreover, the people have a role as well – to desire the brachot. According to this, while God ultimately bestows the brachot, everyone has a role to play in causing the brachot to flow. 

There is a similar discussion around the giving of the aseret ha-dibrot, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The Torah states that God said “all these words” to Israel. However, the Talmud notes that only the first two are in first person, indicating only they were said directly to Israel by God, the other eight were said through Moshe. Furthermore, Rambam lists as one of the thirteen principles of faith that the Torah is from heaven and was given through Moshe. Finally, Rabbi Akiva emphasizes that the people said “yes, yes,” as affirmation of acceptance of each commandment. Moshe and the people were involved in giving/receiving the Torah.

The ambiguity, in both cases, hints at what makes an extraordinary educator and leader. Moshe and the kohanim provide a model of balancing teaching and inspiring students while empowering each individual to find personal connection to Torah and God’s brachot. Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom –Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Bamidbar: Diversity within Communities

Parshat Bamidbar describes the layout of the camp of the twelve tribes around the mishkan. This is a springboard to contemplate the value of community, without uniformity. 

The Torah states that Bnei Yisrael should camp according to his “standard” (דגלו), under the “signs” (אתת) of their ancestral house. Rashi comments that these unique flags highlight the diversity of the tribes. The midrash Tanhuma teaches that this layout determined which tribes could influence each other. Korah from Kehat was next to Reuven, who they pulled into their attempt to sow discord. The midrash calls this: “woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor.” Conversely, Levi, containing Moshe and Aharon, was next to three tribes who became “great in Torah” — “fortunate is the righteous person and fortunate is his neighbor.” Meaning, we are influenced by our neighbors and those we choose to be surrounded by. Yet, the people encamped together. 

A similar idea arises in the context of communal prayer. The Talmudic source for minyan is based on a verbal analogy in Torah. Vayikra states that God should be sanctified “among” Bnei Yisrael. The word “among” is also used when God instructs Moshe to separate from “among” Korah’s rebellious community (edah). The word edah is also used in the story of the spies, from which the number ten is derived for minyan. The basis for communal prayer is derived from two groups of wrongdoers. Furthermore, Rambam writes that communal tefilla is always heard by God, even when there are sinners among them. The Kuzari takes a more positive approach to diversity within communal prayer. He writes that the strengths and weaknesses of each individual can be balanced out when praying together – the individual is like one limb within the necessary whole of the community, the body. 

These sources encourage openness and inclusiveness within communities and allows for people of varying religious commitments, or who feel less worthy, to feel a part of communal prayer. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Behar-Bechukoti

“Od yavo shalom aleinu” – Mosh Ben Ari

Why does this week’s double parsha, Behar-Bechukotai, contain not one but two blessings for peace and security in the land of Israel? The answers are especially resonant for Israel today. 

God promises that if we follow God’s laws and mitzvot, we will receive God’s blessings. Rashi sees significance in the order of the brachot: produce, prosperity and only then, peace. Rashi teaches that the blessings conclude with peace to teach that shalom is equivalent to all the other blessings. Without peace, other blessings can’t last. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”tl notes the similarity between this Rashi and the final mishna in Shas which reads: God has no vessel containing blessing other than peace, as it says, ‘God gives strength to His people; God blesses His people with peace.’ (Tehillim 29)” Concluding the entire Mishna on this note emphasizes that peace is the ultimate blessing, from which all other blessings flow. 

Similarly, the amidah prayer ends with a request for peace in the paragraph “sim shalom” or “shalom rav.” This is how we take-leave of Hashem in tefilla. Our requests for different blessings in the amidah culminates in the most significant one of all – peace for all of Israel. 

Why then does the parsha contain a double blessing for peace when it states: “You will dwell securely in your land,” and immediately following this, “I will grant peace in the land?” The Or ha-Hayyim explains that each of the two brachot for peace has its own purpose. One blessing is for peace between Israel and its enemies and the other blessing is for Am Yisrael in particular, so that there should not be internal divisiveness among the Jewish people and so that God will plant within us a seed of mutual tolerance. Today especially, may God bless Israel with both external and internal shalom. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

*photo from Jerusalem’s old city 

Parshat Emor: The Spiritual & the Physical

As Lag BaOmer approaches, how appropriate that this week’s parsha, Emor, contains the biblical source for Sefirat HaOmer. What is the purpose of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot? 

In rabbinic literature, these two holidays are characterized by an emphasis on the historic religious events of the Exodus and Matan Torah. However, in Torah, these times are associated with material matters as well: it begins with the barley harvest and ends with the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. Why does the Omer period contain this duality of the physical-agricultural and the spiritual-historical? The Abudarham teaches that we count so that we don’t get distracted by the harvest and forget to focus on Shavuot and Matan Torah. We mustn’t let the physical distract us from remembering the spiritual. Sforno too, highlights the physical-spiritual connection: the sefira each day is like a tefilla, an expression of gratitude to God for the harvest, which we mustn’t take for granted, culminating in Shavuot, a.k.a “chag ha-bikkurim.” 

These interpretations highlight that Sefirat HaOmer teaches the interconnectivity and necessity of the spiritual and the physical. This is also a central theme in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who has become associated with Lag BaOmer. At first, Rashbi valued Torah study above everything and derided material things. He criticized Roman structures such as bath houses and bridges, leading to his hiding in a cave for thirteen years. When he eventually emerged somewhat changed, he decided to make a tikkun (fix) in this world. 

The message of Rashbi’s story and commentaries on Sefirat HaOmer, is that we are not meant to live in a wholly spiritual existence, disengaged from the world. At the same time a purely physical existence is devoid of meaning. The Torah approach is to engage in and elevate the earthly by thanking God for such gifts. Rashbi reminds us to look around and ask, “how can I make a tikkun here and now?” Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Achrei-Mot/Kedoshim: On Being Holy

This week’s double parsha, Achrei-Mot Kedoshim, marks a significant turning point in sefer Vayikra and is a springboard for thinking about hierarchies and accessibility of holiness.

The parsha opens with a description of the order of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Temple – the holiest person, on the holiest day, in the holiest place. After more discussion of sacrifices, Vayikra 18 shifts to discussing mitzvot beyond the mikdash, including prohibited sexual relationships and other mitzvot, many of which relate to social relationships and responsibility. One verse in the middle of this list stands out: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, (kedoshim ti-hiyu) be holy…” For the commentaries, the placement and wording of this verse signaled its overarching value and meaning for each and every person.

After many chapters which were Temple-focused, the Torah emphasizes that not only priests have access to holiness. The midrash Sifra teaches that “be holy” was one of the sections read out to the whole community during hakhel, when all of Israel gathered to hear and learn Torah, emphasizing the potential for all to infuse their lives with kedusha. 

A similar dichotomy is found in Talmud Brachot regarding the source for the earliest time to say Shema at night. The mishna teaches: “From the time a kohen can eat terumah,” likening the saying of Shema to the holiness of the kohanim in the mikdash. Yet, the Talmud suggests other sources, including “the time a poor person comes home to eat their pita and salt.” Learning halakha from the daily routine of a poor person suggests that holiness can be accessed by all. The Talmud reinforces this when it states that the (timing of the) kohen and poor person are of “one measure.” 

“Be holy,” encourages us to aspire to emulate the holiest people and also challenges us to discover kedusha in unexpected places and people. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Speak Positive

Humankind is created with the gift of speech and communication. How we use this gift can directly impact perception of ourselves, others and our world. This lesson is conveyed in parshat Tazria-Metzora and in daily tefilla.

The skin disease known as tzara’at is associated with lashon ha’ra (evil speech) in Torah: When Miriam speaks badly about her brother Moshe, she gets leprosy. When Moshe’s hand becomes leprous, Rashi explains that this is because he spoke badly about Bnei Yisrael. Similarly, the name parshat “Me-tzo-ra” is linked by the midrash to the phrase “motzi-shem-ra,” spreading evil rumors. Just as the disease spreads across the body, critical and hurtful language spreads negativity and discord, and it can have disastrous consequences.

Using our mouths responsibly is a value expressed in tefillah too. The Amidah prayer closes with the request “Hashem, protect my tongue from bad”. But speech isn’t only about avoiding the negative. The Amidah also opens with the request: אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ – “Adonai, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.” Our prayers are a combination of praise, thanks, and requests for the wellbeing of ourselves, the Jewish people and the world. The focus on speech at the opening and closing of the Amidah is a reminder that in addition to avoiding bad speech and its consequences, using positive language spreads goodness and optimism. Appropriately, the source of the opening verse of the Amidah is Psalm 51, in which King David displays great humility and repentance through his speech. He admits his sins and prays for forgiveness.   

This emphasis on positive words is also seen in tefillat Yom Ha’atzmaut which also cites Tehillim, “Give thanks to God,” and “This is the day that the LORD has made, let us exult and rejoice on it.” This year in particular, amidst all the concern and disagreement, let’s focus on the praise, on speaking about the good in each other and in this precious country, our home. Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh tov and Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach!! – Karen Miller Jackson

*photo Ben Gurion Declaration of Independence from

Parshat Shemini: No Words

No words. This was a feeling expressed by many after this past week’s tragic terrorist attack. It is also conveyed by Aaron’s reaction to the loss of his two sons in parshat Shemini. This episode is one of the biblical sources for “aninut,” (the period between death and burial) and it provides insight into why an onen is exempt from most positive mitzvot, in particular, tefilla. 

On the eighth day of the inauguration of the mishkan, which should have been the happiest and holiest of days, Aaron’s two sons offer up a “foreign fire” to God and are instantly killed. Moshe attempts to console his brother, but Aaron’s reaction is heartrending: “Vayidom Aaron,” “And Aaron was silent.” Even harder, Moshe then commands Aaron and his remaining sons that they may not follow the usual mourning rituals since they must continue serving as kohanim. One midrash interprets Aaron’s silence as a statement of faith in the face of the tragic and unexplained loss of his sons. However, some commentaries explain the silence as the only way Aaron could express his pain and inability to mourn properly. 

Aaron’s quiet pain is reinforced a few verses later when Moshe loses his temper and criticizes Aaron’s remaining sons (by extension Aaron too) for not eating the sin-offering (hatat). Aaron reacts by teaching Moshe that it would have been inappropriate to eat that sacrifice. The Talmud Zevachim explains that Aaron was correct to eat only of the sacrifices which were related to the inauguration of the mishkan, whereas it was inappropriate for an onen to eat of the regular Rosh Chodesh sin-offering. Nechama Leibowitz explains that it would need to be eaten with joy and in the right state of mind, something Aaron was understandably incapable of at that time. 

Rav Soloveitchik writes that an onen is exempt from mitzvot because at the moment of such upset, one is incapable of properly fulfilling mitzvot or praying. Torah and halakha provide a brief respite in recognition of human emotions and times when there are just no words. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

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