In this week’s Torah portion, the word Vayikra (and he [God] called) is written in a very unusual way. The last letter (an aleph) is written in a smaller size than all the other letters. Why is the aleph smaller in Vayikra, hence creating more white space around this word than most?
In the Zohar, we read that the Torah is written in black fire (the letters) engraved on white fire (the parchment). Both are important. The black fire is more concrete: I think of it as Divine revelation condensed into words. I think of the white fire as silence, the type of silence in which we connect directly to our Source.
Maybe the aleph is smaller in the word that means “and God called” to make space for silence. In silence we can realize and know so much. We can get in touch with our inner wisdom, or with the wisdom of a Higher Power. May we all be blessed to take the time to be and listen to our highest inner stirrings in order to discern what we are called for.
I’m wishing you Chodesh Tov- a good month! We’ve just entered Adar 2, the “leap month” in the Jewish calendar. The sages in the Talmud tell us, "Mishenichnas Adar marbin b'simchah," "When Adar enters, we increase joy" (B. Ta'anit 29a).
This month we celebrate Purim, a joyous holiday in which God is not mentioned directly, but is alluded to throughout, and a woman is the hero. And just a few days ago we celebrated International Women’s Day, in which we acknowledged the myriad achievements of women around the globe, many of whom have advanced the cause of humanity, such as Malala, Gloria Steinem and countless others.
The achievements of women certainly stand out in the Purim story. Esther, a young queen with seemingly little power saves all the Jews in her kingdom from death, with the support of her cousin Mordechai. Esther’s predecessor Vashti paved the way for Esther’s heroism by bravely standing up to the king and refusing to be treated in a demeaning way. Vashti’s way of proclaiming her self-sovereignty was obvious and bold. Esther (whose name is related to the word nistar which means hidden), accomplished her goal in a mostly quiet and understated way. And we need look no further than our everyday lives to find women (including ourselves) who have overcome challenging obstacles and accomplished hard-earned goals, some in a grand and bold way, and some in a quieter, smaller scale fashion that nevertheless has enduring ripple effects.
May we celebrate how far we have come as women, and with this joy and pride fueling us, may we continue to make this world a better place, each in our own unique and important way. May we connect to the strength of the Divine, whether She is obvious in our lives or hidden, and support each other in our movement forward.
At the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, the base of the laver (from which the priests ritually wash themselves before entering the inner sanctuary) was directed to be made from mirrors. Why would the foundation of the laver, where one prepares for holy service, need to made from mirrors? Rabbi Dalia Marx tells us, “…just like a person looking into the mirror, entering holiness requires us to look inside into our hidden motives, to see ourselves as we are, in all the totality of the brighter and darker sides of our reality.”
The holy service I enter into may be as a clergy person or as a mother caring for her children, or a child caring for her parent, or something else. Whatever it may be, before beginning a holy task, I find it helpful to look deeply at myself. Where am I at in this moment? What is my kavannah (intention)? Do I have any lingering resentments or doubts or fears about the service I will do or the people I will serve? What can I bring of myself, my love and my caring to elevate this work? I take some time to sit and be with myself, looking within and compassionately acknowledging any thoughts or feelings that may be arising. Then I offer it all up to a Higher Presence, for cleansing and purification. Only then am I truly ready to enter into holy service.
May we take the time to look deeply within ourselves in preparation to enter into our holy work, so that we can be refreshed and purified, and bring our best.
During Chanukah, we light candles and say a blessing, thanking God for making miracles “in those days, at this time”. Years ago, I used to wonder why the blessing was formulated in both past and present tenses. I found out that it is usually thought to mean the miracles that happened in those days, at this time of year. But I prefer to interpret it so that I am acknowledging not only the miracles in our history but also the miracles that have happened in my personal life, and are happening now, as well as the miracles that have not yet manifested.
Reb Zalman, z"l offered us the following ritual for Chanukah that is simple yet broadens my perspective and uplifts me.
While the Hanukkah lights are burning, sit and watch them, and going through your life, think of all the miracles that have occurred. When you think of a miracle, stop and thank God. Then continue.
May you be blessed with a Chanukah that shines brightly, both inside and out.
Thursday evening begins the month of Kislev. Kislev is related to the word Kislah, which means hope and confidence. Kislev is the darkest time of year, but it encourages us to stay hopeful and confident, even when we are moving through dark or difficult times.
During Kislev we celebrate Hanukkah, a time when the holy temple was reclaimed and re-purified after being desecrated, and a single cruse of oil miraculously brought eight days of light instead of one. This reminds me that there is always the possibility to begin again and reclaim our inner holiness and light, even when things seem bleak. It might require some effort, but we should never give up. We always have the choice to re-dedicate ourselves to nurturing our inner light in order to be of service to ourselves and others.
What might help you to stay hopeful and steadily move towards more light in your life?
There is some beautiful imagery in this week’s Torah portion about the powerful act of looking up or raising the eyes. Isaac has recently lost his mother, and is undoubtedly grieving. He looks up and sees his bride-to-be Rebecca for the first time, arriving on camel. Rebecca raises her eyes and sees her husband-to-be Isaac and though I imagine she might be nervous to meet her husband for the first time, she immediately descends from her camel. They seal their marriage which also brings comfort to Isaac in his sadness.
Looking up from our emotional challenges (sadness, fear, etc.) and taking in the present reality can require the courage to step outside of our comfort zone. Thinking of our own lives, is it time to boldly act as Isaac and Rebecca did, or maybe just watch, take it in and embrace a new perspective?
Many people approach the High Holidays as a solemn time, but I see it equally as a joyful time of year. It’s a time that is ripe with new possibilities! It’s a time to envision our upcoming year, return to our true selves and start fresh.
I have been giving myself some sacred time and space to prepare. Here are some questions that have helped me spur my vision for this year:
In what ways would I like my new year to be different?
How can I be more authentically myself?
Who do I need to forgive (this could include myself as well as others)?
What do I need to let go of that doesn’t serve me anymore?
And finally, what beginning steps can I take to move forward towards my vision?
May the High Holiday season bring you hope as you embark on a new year full of promise, and may the best of yourself shine forth to enrich your life and the lives and others.
This week’s Torah portion Kedoshim has one of my favorite verses – “Kedoshim Tihiyu, ki Kadosh Ani, Adonai Eloheychem”. (Leviticus 19:2) This means, “You shall be (or become) holy, for holy am I, God, your God”. We already are holy since we are part and parcel of God, made in the Divine image. So what might it mean that we shall be or even become holy?
Even though we are in essence holy, sometimes we forget it or don’t believe it. So I read this verse as a potential for remembering and re-awakening our holiness. It is as if the Torah is telling us that one way we can reconnect with our inner holiness is to connect with the holiness of God. In connecting with God, we recharge with God’s primal goodness and holiness and it re-awakens and re-enlivens the God-spark inside of ourselves.
There are so many ways to tune into God, recharge and remember our inner holiness. You probably have your own. Some ways I enjoy are meditating, being in nature and consciously connecting to the earth and beauty around me, and praying. Sometimes it’s easier, and can be quite powerful, to connect to God in a group setting. In the Talmud we learn that in addition to the Shechinah (the feminine aspect of God) dwelling within each of us, whenever ten are gathered for prayer, She rests there as well. This is part of the reason Jewish tradition emphasizes praying communally.
May we be blessed to continually be aware of our inextricable connection to the Divine Mystery, and how Her holiness lives within us.
This week’s Torah portion Vayikra describes korbanot, offerings, to bring to the altar of the sanctuary. The purpose of these offerings included “olah”, to be elevated, “sh’lamim”, to bring well-being and wholeness and “chatat”, to atone for inadvertent mistakes. In short, these offerings were a way to restore ourselves to a pure and true relationship with our Source. In fact, korbanot comes from the root kerev, which means “to draw near”.
Nowadays thankfully, we would never sacrifice an animal as an offering (which was the local custom of all the tribes at that time, not just Israelites). So how can we re-think this ritual? The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) says that we should imagine ourselves as the sacrifice instead of the animal. As extreme as this may sound, to me it means that we should bring our complete selves to our Source as a way to draw near. Not just a part of ourselves that may feel content or close to God already, or a part of ourselves that may already trust implicitly in a Higher Power.
Can I imagine bringing all of myself- my doubts, my anger and my fear- to God? What about my deepest misgivings or regrets? If I share these with God, it will be a korban, a way to draw near. In our tradition, we have permission to bring it all to God. Abraham our forefather audaciously argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. I can approach God with my full range of emotions as well, though I would need to create the conditions within and without that would help me bare my heart. I might want to be in a solitary place in nature, or conversely with a trusted friend(s). I could speak out loud, write a letter to God, make art or create a dance-offering. In this sharing, whether I was by myself or with a supportive friend(s), I would become true and real with God. What is hidden inside of me is what is keeping me from feeling close to and supported by my Source. When I bring all of myself to God, that is my korban.
May we all be blessed to bring our full and complete selves to God, and in so doing find the closeness we long for.
Isn’t it nicer to be in your home when it is clean, orderly and beautiful? In fact, isn’t it calming and uplifting at the same time? In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to bring beautiful objects and our best skills to creating the mishkan, a home for the presence of God.
The Hebrew word for command (mitzvah) is related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means connection. When I used to come across the term commandment in Torah, part of me would balk. I tended to bristle at being commanded to do something, but now I reframe it as an opportunity to connect. This helps me relax and consider if what I am being asked to do resonates with me as an opportunity to connect with myself, God or others. As you read this, notice if creating your own mishkan, a sanctuary for Divine Presence, resonates with you as an opportunity to connect more deeply.
The Torah describes with exacting specification the way the mishkan should be built, and the gorgeous types of wood, metal and yarns that should be used in the mishkan and in the sacred vestments. ("...gold, silver and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen and goat's hair: tanned ram skins... and acacia wood;...") Precise directions are given for exactly how to use these materials to build the ark and it’s poles, the table and it’s poles and utensils, the lampstand, and more.
As I read these verses, they remind me of the importance of beauty and order in the mishkan/sacred space that is my own home. To cultivate peace and enter into a sense of the holy, it helps me to not only address my inner life (such as prayer and meditation), but also have the outer pieces in place, such as neatness, beauty, pleasant fragrances and pleasing textures.
My home is my nest – it is where I pray and meditate daily, where I connect with myself and God on a deep level. It makes a huge difference to me when my home is organized, clean and has decorative items, even simple ones, arranged in a beautiful way. For example, I like having an altar where I put objects and pictures that are imbued with meaning, such as pictures of my family, feathers and other natural mementos, and candles and scents. Having order and beauty on my altar and in my home makes it easier for me to engage in my spiritual practice.
I also strive to make my home a welcoming and comfortable space for my family and friends to spend time together- a place of calm and harmony within the storm of our tumultuous world. This is another aspect of the mishkan / holy space I create. Some of the other ways that a beautiful and orderly home contribute to my sense of holiness and peace are that I feel calmer from being able to find things easily, I focus better on my work, and my heart opens at the sight of the simple beauty surrounding me.
In addition to commanding us to contribute to the creation of the mishkan, God states that everyone whose heart is moved to should contribute. In Torah, when we read the word lev (heart), we know that it does not mean heart in the modern sense, but a combination of heart and mind. It is the deep wisdom of the heart- not merely intellectual nor simply emotional. When I check with the wisdom of my heart, I know that it is not pride that drives me to want my home to be orderly and beautiful. It is a wisdom that knows the benefits that ensue on so many levels.
Recently, I read an article by Nigel Savage of Hazon which further inspired me to focus my attention on creating my home as a sanctuary. He said that one of the ways to prepare for Passover was to get rid of the excess “stuff” that most of us have. He likened these unnecessary items to chametz- the leavening we remove from our homes for Passover. This chametz is physical but has connotations on spiritual levels such as getting back to basics and focusing on what is important instead of acquiring.
It takes time and effort to go through closets, de-clutter and organize, but I know the results will bring me not only outer neatness, order and beauty, but inner peace and connection. So I will begin now, a little at a time, and make progress towards creating my own mishkan. May we all be blessed to create a home that is a true sanctuary for ourselves and our loved ones.
I am a Rabbinic Chaplain in the Jewish Renewal tradition who brings a light-filled and joyful Judaism to others who want to experience the beauty of Jewish spirituality.