The Educational Value of Repetition

EMOR, LEVITICUS 21:1−24:23

D’VAR TORAH BY:
RABBI DAVID A. LYON

Young girl writingLeviticus, a priestly book, has as its primary focus an emphasis on the cleanliness of the community and its adherence to ritual matters for the sake of God’s blessings. Rituals performed perfectly availed the community of God’s gifts; whereas, rituals performed perfunctorily or haphazardly earned them God’s wrath, or at least the absence of blessings. Reading the Torah for proper understanding was at the heart of the matter, which ultimately landed upon the Rabbis to do. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Roman legions, understanding how the priestly cult was conducted would enable the cult to resume when a third Temple might be erected. Notwithstanding their own hope for a return to the sacrificial cult, the intricacies of the Rabbis’ interpretations still bear on us as we hope that clean living might also avail us of God’s blessings in our days.

To the Rabbis, Torah was given by God on Sinai to Moses, letter by letter, word by word, including the white spaces. Torah, presumed to be free from error, nevertheless contained words and phrases that seemed, to the untrained eye, to be redundant or even superfluous. To the Rabbis, these textual conundrums fueled their ambition to explain, resolve, and teach Torah’s hidden lessons.

In the portion called, Emor, a significant redundancy occurs in the Hebrew text. We read that God said to Moses: Emor el hakohanim b’nei Aharon, ve-amarta aleihem… “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them…” (Leviticus 21:1). An examination of this verse reveals a double use of the word, “say,” from the Hebrew root amar. The first occurrence is in the imperative form, Emor! said with force. The second is in the imperfect form (familiarly, the future tense), ve-amarta, “and you shall say to them.” Of all the places where the Hebrew root (amar) is found in Torah, it is repeated only in our verse. Given its unique occurrence here, it demands an explanation.

Rashi (11th century) taught, “The repetition of the verb is intended to admonish the adults about their children; that they should teach their children to avoid uncleanliness” (Rashi on Leviticus 21:1). To illustrate his point, Rashi points us to the Ten Commandments. There we find in the commandment regarding the Sabbath, “You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:8). The reason for this reference and not others is that it shares the relationship between parent and child, and the conveyance of sacred practices that lead to cleanliness and God’s blessings. Furthermore, the penalty for desecrating the Sabbath was death, so the reference reflects the extraordinary importance of the priests’ work and their sons’ work on behalf of the community.

In the commandment about the Sabbath, we read, “You shall not do any work.” This part of the verse commands parents regarding their observance of the Sabbath. Then we read, “you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:10). This part of the verse commands parents about their children’s observance of the Sabbath, and, indeed, all the commandments.

Just as the priests in the Temple were obligated to uphold high standards of purity and piety for the sake of the community, parents were seen as bearers of this obligation for the sake of their children. Priests and parents alike were held to higher standards of behavior and ethics. They were role models and exemplars to those who depended on them for access to God’s greatest blessings.

The parallel between priests and parents is apt. For Rashi in the 11th century, and for us in ours, laying the ol mitzvah, the “yoke of the commandments” on the shoulders of Jewish parents and then on their children was consistent with the promise made at Sinai between God and the Israelites, and already a proven measure of Judaism’s promised future. But a yoke of commandments can feel like a meaningless, inexplicable burden when adults don’t make the effort to convey the teachings in a way that can be understood — and even cherished — by the next generation. What’s more, if a Third Temple were ever to be built, which was not outside the scope of prayers of 11th century and medieval rabbis, future generations would be its builders.

I remember a young man whose parents didn’t perform their Jewish obligations well. When the young man came to see me about his bar mitzvah speech, he buried his hands in his pockets and his face turned toward the ground. When he used one hand to toss me his speech he said, “My mother wrote it. She made me write those things.” I read it. Our discussion led to his admitting that he didn’t know why he was becoming a bar mitzvah. After all, he said, we don’t do anything Jewish at home. His parents thought he was being uncooperative. I thought he was right-on. Before we wrapped up, I assured him that his bar mitzvah speech was his and for him to write. If he had truly done all the work and assumed all the responsibilities of his bar mitzvah then he, alone, was the best one to express an understanding of his Judaism and bar mitzvah. Then he put his hands behind his head and leaned back, comfortably. He came through on his bar mitzvah day with a speech worthy of his age and understanding. His parents were visibly moved by his sincerity and intentionality.

At best, b’nai mitzvah boys and girls benefit from their parents’ role-modeling by choosing to replicate the religious, ethical, and ritual duties they observe and learn from them. When teenagers accept the ol mitzvot, the “yoke of the commandments” with a sense of understanding or connection, they walk like oxen that respond to their master’s commands down a path that needs sowing and cultivating. B’nai mitzvah boys and girls are not beasts of burden, but they bear similar duties. With the proper guidance, the path they walk can be a straight one, setting seeds that later become plants to be harvested to nourish a people. But, if the path isn’t straight and seeds are set where they shouldn’t be sown, the seeds will be trampled; they won’t yield what the people need to survive.

The opening words of our parashah, therefore, are critical to everything that follows. Emor, “say” to yourself (parents, grandparents, adults) what is expected of you because you are Jewish; Ve-amarta, and say it for your children to hear, for they will learn from your example. So it is that our tradition endures from one generation to the next; from hands of experience to hands of youth, our Judaism is able to thrive.

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.

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Lag BaOmer: A Time of Celebration and Reflection

  • Lag BaOmer Bonfire Party

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering (Omer) – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain … (Leviticus 23: 15-16)

Many of our Jewish holidays are based on the agricultural calendar of our ancestors, including the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach), Shavuot and Sukkot. There is an interesting connection between Pesach and Shavuot when we count the Omer (a harvesting unit of measure), starting the second night of Pesach until Shavuot, essentially marking the time from the barley to the wheat harvest. As in all agrarian societies, if the weather pattern deviates, it can be disastrous for the community. This is a precarious time, when everyone prays for positive results. Since our ancestors saw this as a somber time, there are many prohibitions during this 49-day period, including no weddings, parties or haircuts.

The one exception during this solemn period is Lag BaOmer-the 33rd day of counting the Omer. “Lag” is from the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel. Lamed has a numerical equivalent to 30, and gimel has the numerical equivalent of 3-thus the 33rd day. There are different reasons given to explain why this date is special. One rationale is that the plague that brought about the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped on Lag BaOmer. The plague was supposedly due to their lack of respect for one another. There is also the claim that Lag BaOmer is the yahrzeit of one of Rabbi Akiva’s most famous students-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is said to have authored the mystical writings of the Zohar-the text of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). According to legend, Rabbi bar Yochai was so saintly that during his entire lifetime, no rainbows appeared. The rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and creation, and since “rainbow” and “bow” both are translated as keshet in Hebrew, the bow and arrow are symbols used to recall Rabbi bar Yochai. In a commentary on Genesis, the great Torah scholar Rashi (1040-1105), explained that there were generations so righteous that they did not require a sign of the covenant. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s generation was among them.Thus, the holiday is seen almost as a tribute to scholars. It has become a day of celebration and joy amidst the mournful seven weeks surrounding it.

Among those who observe the somber days during the Omer, Lag BaOmer is a day of wedding celebrations. During the time of the counting of the Omer there are bans on parties, music and dancing, similar to the prohibitions for a person in mourning for a loved one. For those who wish to marry in the spring, this is the only day on which one can celebrate. Many Jews also do not cut their hair during this time period. Boys, at the age of 3, often have their first haircut on Lag BaOmer, with much festivity surrounding the event.

Lag BaOmer celebrations are generally outdoor adventures, including bonfires, fun and frolic with teaching. Especially in Israel, people young and old will be outside sharing a picnic and enjoying the beautiful day; school children celebrate with a “field day.” The bonfires lit in celebration are supposed to symbolize the light of Torah.

How can we honor and rejoice on Lag BaOmer? Take time to study a new Jewish text, learn a new ritual you can bring into the rhythm of your days, find a new idea that brings meaning to your life. Have a picnic with family and friends, and take time to appreciate.

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Enjoy Podcasts!

5 Jewish Stories for National Tell-a-Story Day

Book glowing as letters fly off the page

Friday is National Tell-a-Story Day in the United States, and you know who loves telling a good story? The Jewish people! So much of what our rabbis, cantors, and educators do can be described as storytelling, from sharing divrei Torah (literally, “words of Torah”) about the weekly Torah portions to teaching Midrash (story-based commentary about Torah and Jewish values).

A year ago, we celebrated National Tell-a-Story Day by announcing the launch of our new podcast, Stories We Tell. Rabbi Leora Kaye, our podcast producer, wrote of the new project, “This deep and rich tradition of storytelling – of passing down stories from one generation to the next – is a beautiful part of Judaism… Each [episode], we hope, will transport you to that place where you are a king or a queen, a merchant or a buyer – perhaps a young child or someone who is very, very old. And each one will offer you the chance to think about the choices you make and how you make them.”

And indeed, it has. We’ve been bowled over by the positive feedback to the podcast and are thrilled to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Stories We Tell by sharing with you our top five most popular episodes.

  1. The Wooden Bowl: When a wealthy older man decides to retire, he gives his business and home to his son. The son is so grateful, and it shows in his actions. But when he has a son of his own, and grows busier with work, his actions start to change. Does he ever make time for his father again? Cantor Ellen Dreskin tells the story that teaches an important lesson about expressing gratitude and caring for those who care for us.
  2. The Bird Trap: A happy little girl sits with her mother, but her mother is confused: why is the girl happy, even though she knows her brother did something that upset her? The girl’s answer teaches an important lesson about the difference between praying for something, and taking action. Rabbi Leora Kaye retells the story.
  3. How to Give a Blessing: A man wandering the desert grows thirsty, tired, and hungry, but for miles, all he sees around him is sand. Finally, he comes upon an oasis: a puddle right next to a big, lush tree. After relaxing for a bit, he gathers some branches for building fires and fruit to sustain him for the rest of his journey. Before he leaves, he wants to offer the tree a blessing in return for what the tree has given him. What kind of blessing can he leave for a tree that is already tall, grounded, and lush? Rabbi Marc Katz of Congregation Beth Elohim retells the classic story.
  4. The Shabbat Candlesticks: Rabbi Yechiel had a pair of candlesticks, and they were his most prized possessions. Every Shabbat, he would shine them until they sparkled and place them on his table. One Shabbat, the candlesticks weren’t there! Rabbi Yechiel looks all around town for them, but when he sees his candlesticks through the window of a poor family’s home, what does he do? Rabbi Leah Berkowitz tells the story.
  5. Banquet in Heaven: A righteous person was invited by God to see a preview of the world to come. He entered a celestial palace and saw a large banquet table filled with delicious food, but nobody around the table was eating. They were obviously hungry, so why weren’t they touching the food? In another room in the same palace he sees the same table piled high with food, but in this room the people around the table are joyous. What happened differently between the two rooms? Find out in this story, retold by Cantor Ellen Dreskin.

What has been your favorite episode of Stories We Tell? Is there a story you hope to hear us tell on the podcast in the future? Leave us a comment and let us know!

7 Decades of Innovation in Israel: Science and Technology Partnerships

Scientist wearing gloves, a mask, and protective glasses examining a computer chip

On my most recent visit to Israel – in preparation for this summer’s URJ Sci-Tech Israel program – I noticed the presence of U.S. companies. Throughout Israel’s “Silicon Wadi,” the counterpart to our Silicon Valley, are research and development facilities for Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and others, intermixed with a vast array of Israeli start-ups, including Mobile-Eye, Orcam, StoreDot, and others.

The foundations for many of these research collaborations were establish during Israel’s third decade from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Motorola, the first U.S. corporation to set up a research and development unit in Israel, was followed others. In 1972, IBM opened its doors to three researchers in Israel, soon followed by Intel in 1974. At the time, IBM’s investment was less in Israel than in Professor Josef Raviv, one of its top scientists, who wanted to return to his home country. Little could the company have imagined that Raviv’s three-person team would grow to be the largest IBM research lab outside the U.S., with more 500 employees throughout Israel who are conducting some of IBM’s most cutting edge research. Similarly, Intel, now the largest tech employer in Israel with 10,000 employees, began with a R&D facility of just five employees.

Before Israel became the “start-up nation” it is today, IBM and Intel were motivated to expand to this tiny Middle East country because of talented Israeli researchers working in the U.S. As part of their relationship with Israel, these companies demonstrate their commitment to community relations and corporate responsibility by collaborating with schools and local organizations to promote STEM education and fund local projects. Similarly, executives from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft devote resources in Israel because, according to Google developer partner advocate Don Dodge, “there’s an amazing source of talent here.” Israelis have the chutzpah (audacity) to believe their ideas are the best and act on them, they move fast, break things, and try new things.

Also during Israel’s third decade, in 1972, the United States and Israel established the Binational Science Foundation (BSF). Run by an independent board of directors comprising both Israelis and Americans, BSF promotes scientific collaboration between the two countries, and has awarded nearly $600 million to more than 5,000 research projects in areas of applied sciences. Such collaboration provides opportunities for the brightest minds in each country, including 46 Nobel Prize laureates, to work together on groundbreaking discoveries that have led to the synthesis of drugs to treat disease, protections against insecticide and chemical warfare poisoning, and efforts to find habitable planets and life beyond our solar system.

Science, technology, and innovation in Israel also serve as tools for diplomacy, often without much of the politics that can interfere with success. For example, the Arava Institute in Israel’s Negev Desert, brings together Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and students from around the world to learn about and discover solutions to pressing environmental challenges.

The high-tech facets of Israeli society have much to teach our URJ Sci-Tech Israel participants. Students regularly learn from Reform Jewish entrepreneurs about how they include Jewish values in their ventures from research to corporate management and product development. And, just as the science and tech community extends beyond labs and institutions, beyond oceans and borders to unite people throughout the world, our students can learn from this community about how we can expand our own kehillah (community) beyond the physical buildings and walls to embrace others.

This post is one in a series of seven designed to inform and inspire readers about scientific and technological advances in modern Israel in each of the decades since its founding in 1948. Visit the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy website to read the other posts as they become available.

Sci-Tech Israel, the newest program in the Union for Reform Judaism’s suite of Israel experiences, offers opportunities for Jewish teens to explore Israel through a lens of science, technology, and innovation. Visit nftyisrael.org to learn more about teen travel to Israel.

In New Podcast Episode, Rabbi and Imam Discuss Bridge-Building

Closeup of upturned hands presumably belonging to a man of color

On Beinghosted by award-winning broadcaster and New York Times best-selling author Krista Tippett, airs on more than 400 public radio stations across the U.S. Initially called Speaking on Faith, the weekly podcast aims to “[open] up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial convention in December 2017, Tippett took On Being on the road, recording an episode in front of a live audience of conference attendees. Her guests were Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Imam Abdullah Antepli, who discussed their pioneering work in building bridges of understanding between Muslims and Jews.

Rabbi Bassin serves Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA, and she was the first executive director of NewGround in Los Angeles, a Muslim-Jewish partnership for change. Imam Antepli was the first Muslim chaplain at Duke University, where he now serves as the chief representative of Muslim affairs and as an adjunct professor of Islamic studies. He is also the co-creator and co-leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.

The episode’s description is as follows:

The tensions of our time are well-known. But there are stories that are not being told, because they are not violent and not shouting to be heard. One of them is that all over this country, synagogues and mosques, Muslims and Jews, have been coming to know one another. There is friendship. There are initiatives that are patiently, and at human scale, planting the seeds for new realities across generational time. As part of the Civil Conversations Project, a live conversation at the Union for Reform Judaism’s General Assembly in Boston between Imam Abdullah Antepli and Rabbi Sarah Bassin.

Listen to the episode below, on On Being‘s website, or wherever you get your podcast fix. You can also read a full transcript of the episode

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April Events Update!

Please RSVP to all events!

Falafel Friday: This Friday at 6:00 pm-Israel Independence Day

Spartanburg Earth Day: Celebration at Unitarian Universalist Church, Saturday, April 21

Sunday Speaker Series: Sunday, April 22 with David Alvis:

“Michelangelo’s David and the Politics of the Chosen People”

Sisterhood Board Meeting: Sunday, April 22 at 12:00

Hadassah Meeting: Wednesday, April 25 at 11:00

Rabbi’s Brown Bag Lunch: Wednesday, April 25 at 12:00

Kabbalat Shabbat: Friday, April 27 beginning at 5:30 with refreshments.

Saturday Service: April 28 at 9:30 am

Sunday School: Sunday, April 29 beginning at 9:20 with Hebrew