Parashat B’midbar: We count!

Incredulous! That’s how I felt, after requesting and then learning my Uber passenger rating. You see, drivers get to rate and rank you too.

„4.8! That’s it?“ I thought. „I’ve never been impolite or unfriendly. I never cancel a request after submitting one. What reason could there be for denying me a full five stars?“

Once again, here was one small example of the many ways each of us is reduced to numbers as we go about our post-modern lives. The world knows us by our ID Numbers and PINs. Job performance and health are quantified and compared. We rank and rate universities, restaurants, wine, cars, and even dates.

It goes without saying that qualification makes large amounts of data easier to categorise and understand. But it also has the effect of obscuring beauty, individuality, and difference. We have only to think of the Nazis‘ practice of tattooing numbers on our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents and we shudder with horror.

Perhaps, the dehumanising quality of quantification is the reason Jews have generally frowned on counting people. I remember counting students for a minyan whispering, „Not one, not two . . . “ In fact, this concept goes back to the Babylonian Talmud where Rabbi Isaac taught, „It’s prohibited to count the Jewish people, even in order to do a mitzvah“ (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b).

Then again, in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat B’midbar, God instructs Moses to, „Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clan, by their ancestral houses, according to the number of names of every male, head by head“ (Numbers 1:2). The parashah goes on to count and compare the male populations of the various Israelite tribes.

In Rashi’s commentary on this parashah, Rashi turns the whole idea of taking a census on its head. For him, this isn’t an act of bureaucratic expediency. Rather, he writes, „Out of God’s love for them, he counted them often“ (see Rashi on Numbers 1:1). For Rashi, counting doesn’t dehumanise or obscure, it’s an expression of love and care — one manifestation of God’s protection and devotion to God’s precious treasures.

We don’t normally experience counting in this way. More often than not, to be counted is to feel more like digits and ratings — robbed of our identities. Yet, Rashi’s interpretation of our parashah, reminds us what we all know deep down: We are much more than the numbers assigned to us. We are much more than ones and zeroes and Uber rankings. We are all precious treasures, worthy of love and affection.  We count! 

Rabbi Adrian M Schell  (Source: Joseph A. Skloot)


Behar – Bechukotai: Walking upright and unafraid

In our parashah, God vows to enact a series of blessings and curses for the Israelites—blessings if they observe the commandments, and curses if they do not. In her interpretation, Rabbi Lisa Exler explains that the blessings are “curiously framed” by the image of walking.

Walking is, for many of us, our most basic vehicle for navigating the world. Yet we probably don’t put much thought into it. We’re more concerned with where we’re going than how we’re getting there; and unless we’re on a hike, we rarely think of walking as an end in itself, or count it among our blessings. Our biblical passage opens with God stating the condition for receiving these blessings:

Im bechukotai teileichu—If you walk in accordance with My laws and observe and do My commandments.” And the section concludes with God’s promise to walk, in return: “V’hithalachti b’tochechem—And I will walk in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

The section of blessings could have ended there, with the final inspiring blessing being one of reciprocal relationship and intimacy between God and the Israelites. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with the following verse, a seemingly superfluous description of God’s role in the Exodus, which, significantly, also includes the image of walking:

I am Adonai your God who took you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright—va’olech etchem komemiyut.

A midrash explains that the word komemiyut, upright—which appears only this once in Torah, means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature.” In other words, God reminds the Israelites that they are no longer oppressed slaves living in fear; but rather, dignified people who can stand tall and walk proudly and are free to choose their own paths. The Israelites’ ability to walk upright, which they attained through their experience of the Exodus, was the necessary precondition for the other “walkings” described previously in the text—walking in accordance with God’s laws and God’s reciprocal walking among the people, bestowing upon them the blessings of rain, food, peace and fertility.

May we continue to be blessed to walk upright and to share our blessings with those in need. Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell


Parashat Emor: Making the Holy One, holy.

The point of being Jewish is to have a relationship with God. Yet, a relationship implies a certain give and take, and there is little in the Torah that talks about what we have that God could possibly need. What can we give to God? That doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole section on sacrifice in this week’s portion, Emor, and throughout the Book of Leviticus. But, it does mean that there really isn’t any indication that our actions here on earth affect God in some way that is bounded by the relationship.

And then, for one precious moment, our portion steps aside from the questions of sacrificial rite and priestly purity to ponder this question: how do we make God holy? In Leviticus 22:32 we read: „You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people-I Adonai who sanctify you.“

Translation issues become important here. The text says v’nikdashti, „and I will be made holy“ amidst the Children of Israel. Or, in other words, „You will make Me holy just as I, Adonai, have made you holy.“ Here, for a moment, there is a relationship. We do something for God in response to what God has done for us. The only problem with this magic moment of relationship is that it makes no sense. How can we profane God’s Name or make God Holy? How can our human acts help, in any way, to make the Holy One, holy?

Perhaps the most intriguing response of all the classical commentaries can be found in P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, one of the oldest collections of midrash and commentaries on the Torah. The P’sikta teaches: “Thus said Shimon bar Yohai: „If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.“ (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, 12) In the context of the Torah, our lives, our very existence as a people, are dependent on the actions of God. And here for this one shining moment, the Torah teaches us that God’s Holiness, God’s Presence in the world, is dependent upon us.

Having a relationship with God is a feathery thing. One never really knows what God is thinking, when God is present, and how we can truly bear witness to God’s will in the world. And yet, through prayer we are reminded of all that is Holy in our world and in ourselves, and through this we form a bridge of connection. We become partners with God in the perfection of this world. It is then that we can truly make God holy. By repairing the brokenness in ourselves, by repairing the brokenness of our world, we repair the brokenness that has resided within God since the first moment of creation and in this way we can indeed make the Holy One, whole once again.

Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport)


Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Holiness is about sharing

The holiness code detailed in Leviticus 19 opens with the command: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” The chapter then goes on to describe in exquisite detail the means to achieving holiness. Surprisingly these laws are not by and large about rituals but instead about ethical precepts. Do not steal. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. Love your neighbour.

Throughout, the words of neighbour and fellow, stranger and poor are repeated. We are commanded to love the neighbour. Do not hate your fellow in your heart. Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and stranger.

In ancient times, it was not only a mandate to give tzedakah to the poor but to allow them to gather their own food. Farmers were commanded not to pick their vineyards bare or gather the fallen crops. This not only allowed them to gather necessary food but preserved their dignity as well. It is this command that is one of the opening dictates of chapter 19 and therefore creates the framework for the entire holiness code. Concern for others is this chapter’s overarching theme.

Curiously there is also an introductory command about the shelamim offering. On the surface one would think that this is about rituals and not ethics. However the Torah also commands: “[The offering] shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. If it should be eaten on the third day, it is an offensive thing…” (Leviticus 19:6-7) One might surmise that the basis of this law is a concern for health.

This however is not the intention of the law’s prohibition. The shelamim offering was a voluntary sacrifice that was offered by individuals or families in order to thank God. Much of the sacrificial animal was eaten and enjoyed in a grand feast. The Torah deems it offensive if it was not a shared meal. It was not acceptable for there to be leftovers. That could only mean that not enough people were invited. The circle must be enlarged on occasions when we offer thanks. One’s gratitude is expanded by sharing it with others. The framework of this chapter and its fundamental teaching are that all the laws come to solidify our commitments to the larger community. The chapter opens: “Speak to the whole community of the children of Israel…”

Even if a sacrifice emerged from private gratitude it only gained its true meaning by being shared with others. It is not a proper thank you if it remains private. Joy and gratitude must be surrounded by neighbours and fellows. Even the poor and the stranger must be invited in.

Holiness is about sharing. It is about drawing others into community. And that is why the shelamim offering shares a root meaning with shalom, peace.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Steven Moskovitz)

Torah Reading
Shabbat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Leviticus 16:1- 20:27; Reading Lev. 19:1-25
Plaut p.798; Hertz p.497
Haftarah Amos 9:7-9:15; Plaut p.814; Hertz p.509
In our weekly Torah portion:
* The duties that the head kohein must perform on Yom Kippur are delineated and the ceremony of the scapegoat is outlined and Moses instructs Aaron about the Yom Kippur laws for fasting and atonement.
* God issues a variety of commandments, instructing the Israelites on how to be a holy people.
* Various sex offenses are discussed and punishments for them are presented.

Tazria-Metzorah: Our people’s approach to life

While Rabbis often dread having to preach about our Torah portion (who likes to speak about skin eruption called tzaraat), it is a very suggestive one, and presents, an image of the holiness of the Israelite people.

Tzaraat is a substance that is supposed to remain inside the body; it is „unnatural“ when it flows out, in other words, our reading is about boundaries. Because the skin eruption is a death-skirting impurity it is appropriate that the patient be examined by the kohen, as though he or she were an offering being brought to the altar. Indeed, we are given much more detail about how carefully the kohen is to examine the human subject than we are told how he would examine a sacrificial animal.

If the person is found to be a m’tzora, someone infected by tzaraat, the person is put in quarantine for seven days It is remarkable that the same procedures are instituted for the most pure, the priests – the same amount of time Aaron and his sons were secluded during the period of their consecration –, and the least pure, the m’tzora.

And it continues in the same way: the priest purifies the „healed“ m’tzora  in the same fashion as the priests are consecrated—by sprinkling blood on them. Of course, it is in the spaces between these extremes—the most pure and the least pure—that the body of Israel dwells. While the non-priest cannot attain to the purity of the kohen, men and women are protected from the destructive impurity of tzaraat by the procedures outlined in our reading, in which the affected person comes as close to the experience of the kohen as a „layperson“ is permitted. The ordinary Israelite’s vulnerability to tzaraat paradoxically creates a kind of democracy erasing some of the distinctions between kohen and Israelite.

In non-leap years like this one we read both Tazria and M’tzora together. There is comfort in this pairing: the first portion describes the outbreak and treatment of the disease; the second portion describes the welcoming of the healed victim back into the community. On years when they are read separately, it is as though we are living out the victim’s condition—for a whole week; the victim’s weeklong isolation becomes part of our life as well, until the person is welcomed back when it is time to read the new portion. In years like this one, by condensing the diagnosis, treatment, and welcome into the same week, we are reminded of the hopefulness that is so much a part of the Jewish people’s approach to life; though we may begin a period of time with bad news, there is treatment and transcendence waiting at the end.

May we draw strength and transformation from the spiritual waters, the study of our Torah. Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Richard N Levy)

Torah Reading Shabbat Tazria-Metzorah

Leviticus 12:1-15:33; Reading Lev. 13:29 – 40

Plaut p.735; Hertz p.460

Haftarah II Kings 7:3-20; Plaut p.765; Hertz p.477

In our weekly Torah portion:

* God describes the rituals of purification for a woman after childbirth and sets forth the methods for diagnosing and treating a variety of skin diseases, including tzara-at (a leprous affection), as well as those for purifying clothing.

* Priestly rituals to cure tzara-at when it afflicts humans are described and those to rid dwelling places of tzara-at.

* The parashah denotes male impurities resulting from a penile discharge or seminal emission.

* The parashah concludes with accounts of female impurities caused by a discharge of blood.