Emor 5764

by Loen Peltz Amer

One of the things that impress me most about people is their ability to come together for hesed (goodness). Our lives are filled with the meanness, pettiness, and the bitterness of human interaction, often of such a huge scope that it baffles the mind. But however horrible we can be to each other as people, equally impressive are the great things we can do when we unite.

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to bring oil to Aaron and the kohanim (priests) to use for the lighting of the menorah and other Temple lights: “Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Lev. 24:2). The description of the required oil is very specific, as is typical of the materials needed for the mishkan (Tabernacle). The olive oil must be zach (clear), and katit (of beaten olives). Why are these additional requirements being placed on the oil that the people are commanded to bring? It’s as if when paying at Starbucks, only un-creased bills would be accepted.

The two requirements placed on the oil indicate two qualities of the light they will produce, which symbolize the community that has produced that light. If oil is katit, according to the great commentator Rashi, the olives used to produce it have been squeezed repeatedly, so that all that can be gotten from the olives has been removed, so when the olive is discarded, nothing is wasted. Light from oil katit will be stronger because the oil is thicker since more was pressed. Oil that is zach has had all possible impurities cleaned out. Flame from oil zach will burn brighter than regular oil, since there is nothing but oil to burn, no water or fat.

A nation that was able to produce “clear oil of beaten olives” together will be stronger and brighter than other groups of people. When the oil that all the Israelites all brought to the Temple together, the light that was produced must have been incredible.

Naturally, since this is a USY davar torah, this situation with the oil is analogous to USY. One can make one’s USY experience, as well as one’s olive oil, katit and zach. If you have gone to every possible USY event, come early, stayed late, lead services, acted for Israel, raised SATO money, and made great friends, then you have squeezed all you can out of USY, and the flame of your life will be stronger because of all that you have gained from the extra USY-love. If you have made your USY experience about the great friends, great learning, great ruach, and great opportunity, not what board position you had, then your USY experience was pure, and it will be clear in your mind as a great and important part of your life.

I’ll be leaving USY this weekend, officially discharged. I have no time left to improve my USY experience. I urge anyone who does to take USY and make it the katit-ist and zach-ist that you can. I know I will always regret events I missed and the dumb things I involved in my time here. However, with my fellow seniors I have done a pretty good job of the whole process. When we look at our combined experience, I know they were all pretty great. Together, we have made the whole greater than our individual streams of oil, creating a light bright enough to endure “for all time throughout the ages” (Lev. 24:4).

Emor 5769

by Tyler Dratch

May 9, 2009/15 Iyar, 5769

This week we continue in the book of Vayikra with Parsha Emor. The parsha talks about the Kohanim, descendents of Aaron, and the restrictions they have. The parsha also explains when certain holidays fall during the year. The first holiday that is explained is Shabbat followed by Pesach and the counting of the Omer. Later the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are mentioned as well.

While it may not be the most important line of the parsha, one specific verse strikes me as a very important commandment. “When you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather gleanings of harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” (Leviticus 23:22). The purpose of this commandment is to leave food in your field for the poor. If a person was wondering through fields, he or she would know that there would be food for them. This idea is not only fulfilling the commandment of tzedakah, but also creates a kihilah kedosha, or holy community, where everyone is looking out for each other.

When Rambam listed his levels tzedakah, this practice would be towards the top. The person who is leaving food in their field does not know who will be taking the food. The giver is also never recognized publicly for their gift. This practice also shows hospitality to strangers among other things. The beautiful thing about the Jewish people is that we are all responsible for the well being of the community. Kol yisrael averim zeh bah zeh, all of Israel is responsible for each other. This concept is what has kept the Jewish people together and strong for so many years, and is the key valued expressed in this commandment.

Today, most of us are not farmers. I am lucky enough to live near a farm, but for many of us there may not be farms near our houses. This concept of leaving food in our fields for the poor is not relevant in our lives; however, we are not exempt from this commandment. There are other ways we can “leave food” in our fields for strangers. By donating money to the USY Tikun Olam Program, we are fulfilling the commandment. While our money is allocated very carefully by regional officers, each USYer does not know exactly to whom the money is going. Also, each individual USYer does not receive credit for donating to a certain charity. We are donating without ever knowing the receiver.

As we relax this Shabbat, I encourage you to think about how you can be a strong part of the sacred Jewish community. If it involves delivering Shabbat meals to families who can not afford them, or volunteering in the synagogue Hebrew school, you are participating in keeping the community strong. You are leaving the crops in your field for others, and this is a very honorable act of kindness. Shabbat Shalom!

Emor 5770

by Charlene Thrope

In this week’s parasha, Emor, is a detailed outline of the Jewish calendar. God instructs Moses, “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — 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.” These words are said each night before we fulfill the mitzvah of counting the omer. As we count for 49 days, we mark the transition from the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach to the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

Due to the death of hundreds of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the 2nd century, the omer has become a period of mourning. Weddings, haircuts, and shaving are all prohibited, with some exceptions. However, on Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day of the omer, the plague killing Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped, so we suspend our morning for one day and celebrate.

In addition to a period of mourning, the omer is an opportunity for spiritual growth. Each day of the omer is associated with two of seven s’firot, Kabbalistic aspects of emotion: chesed (kindness), g’vurah (discipline), tiferet (compassion), netzach (endurance), hod (humility), yesod (connection), and malchut (dignity). These small steps help us engage in a self-reflection process so that by the end of the seven weeks, we are ready to relive the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Aharey Mot 5762

by Adam Balachin

A look into the Parsha will let you see that Jews in the desert threw goats off of cliffs. Now you’re probably all snickering, and saying, “What’s this guy talking about? That’s too messy to be real!” Well here it is, USYers, straight from Vayikra ch. 16 vs. 7-10: Basically, Aaron is told to bring two male goats to the “Petach Ohel Moed,” or to the entrance of Tent of Meeting. Here he is to place lots on the two goats, “Goral echad lashem, v’goral echad l’azazel,” or one lot marked for Hashem and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron is to offer the goat designated for Hashem as a purification offering, while the poor other goat is led “l’azazel hamidbarah,” which can be translated as “to the wilderness for Azazel,” or in later interpretations, the goat was thrown off a cliff.

So this gooey mess is left for azazel, a demon. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to know why this goat is thrown off a cliff for a demon. A midrash teaches that the goat is meant as a bribe to Azazel so that he will not testify to God against Israel, and used as a distraction so that Azazel will be kept away from his evil work.

But if we can’t accept this idea of a demon, than how can we understand this strange game of goat-shotput? If taken symbolically, the goat led off in the direction of the wilderness can represent “yetzer harah,” or our evil inclination.

I once learned from my rabbi that to be made in the “zelem elohim,” or in the image of God, is to have two basic parts. One part is the animal nature of the human being. It is the part that craves for physical pleasures. This is the part of us that can easily be lead away by lust or appetite. And by tossing a goat off of a cliff, these evil inclinations are in a way, thrown away.

This practice of the airborne goat is similar to the custom called tashlich, where Jews throw breadcrumbs into a river so that the hungry fish will eat our sins.It is the idea that words alone will not take away our inclination to do wrong. We feel that we must physically expell something from our possession.

So what about the other part of us, that is not always worrying about our evil inclination?

Hirsch interprets the case of the two goats as follows: “We can follow our sensual instincts into the wilderness, leading to self destruction, or we can sacrifice our instinctsto the service of God.” The part of humans that differentiates us from other animals is our ability to choose to do good in this world. It is the ability we have to focus on the goat designated for God, and bring God into this world through our t’shuvah and prayer.

We are confronted with many opportunities in our lives today. We have the opportunity to keep Shabbat, to keep Kashrut, to daven, to volunteer, to study Torah, the possibilities are endless. It really is a true test for all of us to see which goat we will end up following.

A little later in the parsha, ch. 18, vs. 5, the Children of Israel are given reason to keep God’s laws: “Ushmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai asher ya’aseh otam ha’adam vachai bahem ani Hashem.” “You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live. I am the Lord.” What does it mean, “by the persuit of which man shall live?” Maimonides comments that it means that if one chooses to disregard the laws that are given to him or her, they are considered as dead. They do not seem to realize what it means to be truly alive.

So here we have it. Two distinct paths: One to a life as a Jew living in God’s world and one watching goats fall off of cliffs. Let’s take this opportunity to follow the right goat.

Aharey Mot 5763

by Jennifer Krueger

Shalom USY. Acharei Mot is an interesting Parsha filled with many mitzvot. First we learn of laws regarding confession and Yom Kippur and then there is the prohibition against eating blood. The parsha ends with the laws of forbidden relationships. In the middle of all of these laws, we find the verses: “Carry out my laws and safeguard my decrees to follow them: I am Hashem, your G-d. You shall observe my decrees and my laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live-I am Hashem.” (Vayikra 18:4-5) It is asked what it means that we should “live by” Hashem’s decrees?

Ramban writes that this refers particularly to the “social commandments” between man and his fellow man. He says that society will only be able to live together peacefully if man can treat others fairly and morally, according to Hashem’s commandments. The Sages explain that to “live by” Hashem’s decrees means that the commandments were given for the sake of life and not death. So, if there is a situation where a commandment could endanger one’s life, such as a person who needs to drive to the hospital on Shabbat, then one should save their life instead of keeping the commandment.

The only exceptions to this are for idolatry, forbidden sexual relationships, and murder. One is supposed to give up their life in order to keep these commandments. The Chiddushei HaRim has a different understanding of what it means to “live by” Hashem’s decrees. He says that this means that we should be enthusiastic about keeping the mitzvot and that the commandments should be our primary source of joy.

I would like to offer my own interpretation of what it means to “live by” Hashem’s commandments. Judaism has many aspects to it. It is a religion, a nation, a culture, and a people.

Some Jews appreciate the fact that they are a part of a close-knit community. Other Jews enjoy keeping Shabbat or davenning three times a day. Other Jews like learning Torah and discussing Jewish ideas. Regardless of what it is, there is some part of Judaism that is appealing to each and every Jew. To “live by” Hashem’s commandments means that we should figure out what part of Judaism brings us the most joy and make this a part of our life. If you enjoy the community aspect, then be sure to invite Jewish people over your house or to attend events in the community. If you enjoy the spiritual aspect of Judaism, then be sure to sing zmirot on Shabbat and to spend a good deal of time davenning.

If we “live by” Hashem’s commandments, then we make Judaism the central core to who we are. We allow the Torah to guide every aspect of our life. Whether it is how we deal with other people or how we personally relate to the World, we should use the mitzvot as a basis for all of our actions and for our lifestyle. We should make Judaism the central core of who we are.

Aharey Mot 5769

by Bekah Hakimian

May 2nd, 2009/8 Iyar 5769

This Shabbat we read another combined parsha, Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim. We begin with Achrei Mot, which means “After death,” which is referring to Nadav and Abihu’s death, who are the sons of Aaron. God tells Moshe to instruct Aaron not to come freely into the Holy of Holies. Only once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, is the High Priest to enter the shrine behind the curtain. This is the day on which atonement is to be made for all of the sins of the Israelites. No work is to be done on this day and on it the Israelites are to practice self-denial. Is this sounding at all familiar? Achrei Mot details the coming together of the holiest person among the Israelites, the High Priest; the holiest place, the Holy of Holies; and the holiest day of the calendar year, Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, or the original Yom Kippur, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies and he is to wear plain linen robes and he is to make expiation for himself and for his household and then for all of the Israelites.

Then the High Priest is to take two male goats and, by lot, mark one for God and one for Azazel. He is to slaughter the goat marked for God as a sin offering and use its blood to cleanse the Tent of Meeting, the altar and the Holy of Holies of the sins of the Israelites over the goat for Azazel and the goat is to be set free in the wilderness. Later on this Parsha, Moshe is told further to instruct the Israelites that all meat is to be slaughtered in a ritual way before the Tent of Meeting. The people are reminded not to consume blood, for blood represents life itself, and not to eat of an animal that has died or been torn by wild beasts.

A wide variety of meanings have been applied to the goat marked for Azazel. The name Azazel may drive from a rebellious angel. Or perhaps Azazel took on a demonic personification as a result of the associations of the word in this portion. Some scholars believe that Azazel is not a name at all, but a compound or contracted noun meaning “the goal that goes,” a “wild goat,” “dismissal,” or perhaps the name of the mountain over which, in later times, the goat was thrown. As the biblical text explains, the goat would “bear” the sins of the Israelites symbolized by red wool tied between its horns. The goat would be given to a specially chosen man who would lead it into a desolate area. The goat was allowed to escape into the wilderness. From this idea of the escaping goat, who bears other’s sins came the term “scapegoat.”

The second part of this double parsha, Kedoshim, contains the bulk of the “Holiness Code,” characterized by the commandment You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. The many mitzvot found here call for striving for holiness in all areas of life – ritual (You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, 19:30), civil (You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity, 19:35), and ethical (You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old, 19:32). Its best-known commandment is Love your fellow as yourself and don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. Israel is told to observe all of God’s laws and rules. God tells Moses to warn the people against child sacrifice and witchcraft and divination. The laws of forbidden sexual relationships are repeated. Similarly, God warns Israel not to follow the practices of the Canaanite nations and to remember that God has set them apart to be a holy people.

Kedoshim is the plural form of the word kadosh, holy. Holiness is the key that unifies the diverse laws detailed in this portion. It is through the observance of these laws that the Israelites are to be holy as God is holy. Holy can mean many things – sacred, unique, divine, complete, etc. In one sense, holy can also mean to be separate from. The word Holy can also be defined as “perfect in a moral sense; pure at heart: religious: set apart to sacred use.” From the Torah, we learn that holiness is not to be achieved by withdrawal from daily life, but rather by active participation in it.

How can we personalize this parsha? According to Kedoshim, how does the Torah want us to treat the disadvantage? The handicapped? The elderly? Strangers? What are the implications of these laws for today? USY, my challenge to you is: Every day, try to do at least one mitzvah that can have an impact on someone around you. Holiness is easily attainable in the sense that one little act of loving-kindness can bring us closer to that goal of holiness. Whether it is being nice to a sibling or simply holding the door for a stranger, small things can go a long way. Shabbat Shalom!

Metzora 5763

by Alison Silverman

In this week’s Parsha we are delved into the topic of the mysterious tzara’at, an apparent skin disease that was both a sign of ritual impurity as well as a sign that coule be helpful at the same time. The common understanding of tzara’at is any visible skin disease which produces white flaking skin, leporosy, or other eruption. These types of diseases were greatly feared in antiquity. People who were afflicted were removed from the community so as to not infect others and could only return when the symptoms had left.

Not only could an individual come down with tazara’at, but also the text informs us that even a house could be infected. The Rabbis considered these types of diseases to be a punishment for lashon hara, speaking with an evil tounge or gossip. The Rabbis explain that during the time of Moshe, one who spoke lashon hara would suffer by getting the disease and was forced to live outside of the camp. This punishment was appropriate because just as by saying lashon hara about someone separates them from the community, so to shall someone who is inflicted for their speech be separated from the community.

Lashon hara is such an evil transgression that if one says it in a building, then the building itself can be afflicted. Every brick in that house must be removed until there are no bricks left that have the tazara’at on it. However this symbol of an evil impiety could also prove helpful. It is said that when the Canaanites owned their houses they hid their valuables in the walls of the house. Hashem would show the Israelites the location of the treasure by giving the bricks tazara’at on them.

In USY, we have all experienced lashon hara and should all know how dangerous it can be. Rumors are spread like wild fire and eventually end up hurting someone. The effects of lashon hara do not heal as quickly as a skin disease, and can not be fixed as easily as rebuilding bricks.

Shabbat Shalom.

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