Parshat Emor – D’var Torah by Ruby Dembo

Throughout my entire life up to this point, speaking has been a favorite activity of mine. As a baby, I partook in many baby groups. There was no ultimate goal of baby groups except to play, eat snacks, and potentially socialize, but I completely rocked them nonetheless. While all the other babies were almost completely nonverbal, I was speaking in full sentences, and quite a lot of them. Now, I continue to talk. Though, some say that I talk too much. I have been kicked out of swim practice multiple times for that exact offense. Still, I absolutely love speaking. So, when I heard that I would be reading Parshat Emor – which is the command to speak – I was very excited to speak about speaking.

My Torah portion is Emor from the book of Leviticus. In the parashah, God has given Moses instructions, which he relays to the people of Israel. These instructions include the way sacrificial offerings work and provide a calendar of celebrations, such as Shabbat, Pesach, and Sukkot. Towards the end, the parashah clarifies the laws of blasphemy as well as those of profanity, murder, and the maiming of others. While the specific events of the parashah are important, I want to step back and focus on Emor’s meaning and the way in which Moses communicated the instructions to the people of Israel.

Emor means “speak,” and that’s exactly what Moses did. Moses shaped the world of the Israelites by speaking to them. This is a recurring theme in Jewish history. In the creation story too, God creates the world through words. God says “Let there be light” and there was light. When Moses spoke his instructions to the Israelites, he spoke of the world as it could be.

The world of the Isralites, however, was hard and oppressive. Moses’ own story began with chaos. He was born into a world where Pharaoh killed the newborn Israelites and so, his mother floated her newborn down the Nile, luckily being taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in Pharaoh’s palace. After a cushy palace upbringing, Moses feels for the oppressed Israelites and kills an Egyptian acting cruelly towards them. Sensing the danger he put himself in, Moses flees to the land of Midian. During his time there God calls on Moses in the burning bush and instructs him to return to Egypt and save the Israelites from Pharaoh. When the Israelites are eventually freed, he leads them into the wilderness. There he receives God’s instructions and relays them to the people. The world of oppression and slavery was over. A vision of the promised land emerged.

Moses spoke of the much more enticing land of milk and honey, a land of redemption for the Israelites. He spoke of the world that the Torah envisioned in Genesis – a just society of caring people who look out for the vulnerable and care for the strangers among them. He spoke of a world of peace and prosperity if the Israelites changed their ways and followed Moses’ instructions. 

This idea of “the world as it is” and “the world as it could be” is an oratory style used by everyone from God to Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs. I think we can all see the world as it is and dream of the world as it could be. Today, the world is just as flawed as it was in the times of Moses. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the environment. Russia is attacking Ukraine. There are a myriad of social justice issues. Not to mention the spread of COVID, fueled by those who deny its existence. This is the world as it is and sometimes it feels helpless.

One of the ways Judaism addresses a broken world is by speaking a better world into existence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that: “Words are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness — or evil — into the world.” He taught that, “The Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds; they must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. [The Book of Proverbs reminds us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.]”

I see the world as it is, I see the war, the inequality, the poverty, and then I see that world as it could be, a beautiful, peaceful, unified place that we can get to if only we work to change it. As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I recognize the power of words and realize that my excessive speaking may not be such a bad thing, as long as I use it correctly. I try to speak with purpose and use my words to bring the world I dream of into reality. Judaism implores us to understand the power of our words and recognize that the way we use them can change the world – for better or for worse. 


Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Acharei Mot – D’var Torah by Jonah Greenfeld

Good morning everyone, I am so glad to see all of you here on such a special day. My Torah portion, or parsha, Acharei Mot is in the book of Leviticus. Today I’ll be reading from chapter 16 which outlines God’s rules and procedures that are to be followed on the Day of Atonement – also known as Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement is a day for Aharon to atone for himself and his entire family. It details the process that Aharon had to go through on the Day of Atonement. After entering the Meeting Tent, he must take off his linen clothes and wash his entire body with the water from a holy place. He then must put his clothes back on and offer the burnt offering for himself and for his people. From there, the skins and other parts of the sacrificed animals were burned in a fire outside the camp. The Jews here will recognize this ritual from Beth Shir Shalom’s annual animal sacrifice at SanMoHi. 

 

Though Yom Kippur is very different in practice today, one of the main ideas in ancient practice that I find relevant today is the Scapegoat ritual. This is where a goat is sacrificed to Azazel. Azazel has never been exactly pinpointed. Even today rabbis all over the world are somewhat stumped by what Azazel truly is. Most believe that it was a demon or evil spirit to whom, in the ancient rite of Yom Kippur, a scapegoat was sent to. Two male goats were chosen for the ritual, one designated by lots “for the Lord” and sacrificed, while the other is ritually burdened with the sins of the Israelites and sent into the wilderness for Azazel. 

 

The meaning of scapegoat has evolved over the centuries. It has come to mean any group or individual that innocently bears the blame of others. When reading through my Parsha, I was surprised to see the idea of the scapegoat come up. Until reading about it in my Torah portion and studying it in depth, I never fully understood it. This idea of the scapegoat was very important in my Parsha, and it is today. 

In the Torah, the scapegoat was less of a name given to someone or a group of people, but instead, it was much more literal. With an actual goat being sacrificed and burned to represent the burning of the Israelites’ sins. However, even though it was much more literal and direct in the Torah after further reading and studying I understood the underlying idea. 

 

The goat is just a mere animal that gets dubbed as the bearer of sin which makes the Israelites feel better without ever taking action to change their sinful behavior. This idea of the scapegoat, and using and taking advantage of another’s innocence to shift blame and make oneself feel better is seen throughout history. From the Torah to my daily life at school, scapegoating is common can take many forms and levels of severity. Whether it’s used intentionally or unintentionally, maliciously or innocently, it is still there. 

Ironically, the Jewish people have been the victim of scapegoating throughout history. One of the most well-known examples happened in Nazi Germany. 

 

Ever since the rise of the Christian church, Jews have been the target of antisemitism, bigotry, and scapegoating. Antisemitism had been deeply ingrained in Europe for centuries and the Jews were frequently blamed for society’s ills, leading to the suffering and persecution of Jewish communities around the world. At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, Germany was experiencing great economic hardship and inflation, and Hitler used the Jews – and other minorities – as a scapegoat. 

 

He and the rest of the German politicians blamed them for the collapse of German society. This is one of the reasons the Nazis found so many willing adherents to the Nazi cause against the Jews, which led to many Germans and other Europeans turning a blind eye to the events happening in the Holocaust. Because of this scapegoating, millions and millions of Jews suffered and died. As the renowned Scientist Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place to live. Not because of the people who do evil, but the ones who do nothing to stop it.”

 

My dad always tells me that to gain autonomy I must first show responsibility. This is something I have been thinking about regarding my Bar Mitzvah and my Torah portion. As I become an adult in the Jewish Community with newfound responsibilities, I want to be thoughtful and do my best to stay acountable. When I was younger I could get off the hook with a little lie. Saying something about how I brushed my teeth when I hadn’t, or saying I only ate one cookie when 4 or 5 was closer to the truth. But now that I am older I want to hold myself to a higher standard.  

I don’t want little lies or scapegoating to be okay anymore. Even though I got away with certain things when I was younger, as I become a Bar Mitzvah I want to hold myself accountable. When I’m wrong I need to acknowledge it and not just blame others. When I make a mistake, I need to own up to my actions and acknowledge when I haven’t put my best foot forward. 

 

Uncle Ben from Spiderman famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As I become a Bar Mitzvah, I realize that we all have great power within us but we don’t always use it responsibly. The world might be a lot better if we did.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Passover – D’var Torah by Katie Rison

If you’ve ever read the series Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, you know that the book doesn’t exactly end the way everyone wants it to. Spoiler alert: The last book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, ends with Gale killing the majority of the Capitol children, for the sake of freedom. To sum up the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it, the book is set in a dystopian world where “districts” are the poor and underserved slaves of Panema, and the Capitol is the place where all the rich and wealthy people live. The Capitol’s president, Snow, forces all the districts to compete in an annual Hunger Games. That is where two contestants from each district are forced into an arena to fight to the death. This is supposedly to remind the districts that the Capitol is still in power. 


In the last book of the trilogy, the main characters are rebelling and fighting for freedom against the Capitol. When President Snow knows he is in danger, he forms a wall of children to protect himself from the rebels.Gale, one of the main characters, decides on his own to bomb all the children of the Capitol, forcing Snow to give up and end the Hunger Games once and for all. Not only that, but he ends up accidentally killing Prim, the main character’s sister, who was just trying to help the children. But he only considers her collateral damage. This is very similar to my Torah portion when it comes to killing innocent people for the sake of freedom. Both ask the moral question, “When is violence okay?”

My Torah portion is about Passover, specifically the darker parts of the Jewish holiday that eventually led to freedom. As the last of the ten plagues, Moses calls upon Adonai to slaughter all the firstborn in Egypt. For over 430 years, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule. They were beaten and killed. Not only that, but generations of Israelites were born into slavery too. The Israelites asked God for help and God delivered the ten plagues, one at a time. The plagues got increasingly worse, but Pharaoh would not release the Israelites. Finally, God instructed the Angel of Death to slaughter all the firstborn sons in Egypt, sparing the Israelites’ firstborns. This last resort forces Pharaoh to release the Israelites, after his own first born son dies. Here we see a path to freedom that includes violence.

Sometimes violence seems like the only solution, considering Pharaoh wouldn’t listen after the first nine plagues. However, you have to consider that the firstborn children of Egypt had nothing to do with the enslaving of the Israelites and were merely taught that it was a good thing.
The reason they were killed was also why the Capitol children were killed, to make a statement in hopes of freedom or redemption from the real villain. In the Torah, it worked. Pharaoh let the Israelites go and they fled Egypt. But in the Hunger Games, it only causes complications and loses the trust of the other districts. This helps us see both outcomes of using violence for freedom. So I want to ask you, is violence ever morally acceptable?

A well known historical comparison is the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. was known for his peaceful protesting against white supremacy and racial injustice. You’ve probably been taught a great deal about him in school, you’ve heard his speeches, studied his backstory, and learned how he used to deal with racial injustice through peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Malcolm X is a different, more complicated story.

Malcolm X grew up having experienced racial terrorism against him and his father. He was taught that he had the right to stand up for himself and fight back if people tried to oppress him or his community. Because of his background, he fought fire with fire and was determined to earn freedom no matter the cost. As a result, people today tend to favor MLK’s peaceful approach. We teach about him more in schools, have a nationally celebrated holiday for him, and numerous books are written about him. But, MLK would have had a different approach to Pharaoh in Egypt. It seems Malcolm X’s approach is more akin to God’s in my Torah portion than MLK.

In case you didn’t catch all that or zoned out at some point, I’ll summarize it for you: My Torah portion, a section of our Passover story, includes the killing of innocent Egyptian children for the freedom and redemption of the Israelites. We’ve seen similar stories throughout time, from the Hunger Games to MLK and Malcolm X, and Jewish history in general. Humans often resort to violence to achieve goals, I think because it’s in humans’ nature to think we’re better than those who are different than us. Instead of coming together, people try to conquer and kill in hopes of making themselves more powerful, as we see with the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

However, it’s also in human nature to evolve. We can learn to overcome our inclination towards violence and domination. The world has worked together to make so many scientific advancements, whether it’s vaccines, space exploration, or creating new technology to improve the lives of people all over the world. I believe we have the ability to unite and one day we’ll finally learn to come together and view each other b’tzelem elohim – created in the image of God. If we are able to achieve that, we can solve anything the world throws at us.

Parshat Shemini – D’var Torah by Eli Kadish

My parsha is the third portion in the book of Leviticus, which deals heavily with the laws of sacrifices, agriculture and holidays. My portion, Shemini, talks about why the Israelites sacrificed and specifically how they made offerings.  There is also the cautionary tale of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire after not offering an appropriate sacrifice. Shemini also talks about some ethical rules to follow and the dietary laws of the Israelites, which are called kashrut – which you might know as keeping kosher. And if you know me you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I chose to chant the section that talks about food.

 

As I read my parsha, the first thing that came to mind was why? Why did God command Aaron and Moses to tell us the kashrut laws? Why are they so important to our religion? And why do people keep kosher at all? I mean, who can resist a good cheeseburger.  Actually, I don’t like cheese on my burgers, but I do like oysters, and those aren’t really kosher either.

 

The 12th century physician and philosopher Maimonides believed that “ food that is forbidden by the laws of Torah is unfit for human consumption.” This doesn’t seem plausible because there is no medical or dietary justification for why we can’t eat things like shrimp, crab, scallops, or pork. There are a lot of different opinions on why there are the laws of kashrut.  Some, like the 15th century commentator Abarbanel, say that “the foods forbidden by the Torah are to protect our spiritual health, and those who consume these foods will bring spiritual disaster upon them and drive out the pure and holy spirit.” There are also a lot of people who believe that observing kashrut is a constant reminder of our unique values, traditions, and obligations as a Jew. In other words, these dietary laws regulate what we can and can not eat – and therefore where we eat and with who – as a way of preserving our Jewish identity and loyalty to God. So, it’s really up to you on how you find holiness through food.

 

 I don’t keep kosher. I can’t stand the idea of not being able to eat things like scallops and shrimp or a milkshake with my burger. Whether you’re like me and don’t keep kosher or if you do, I invite you to think about this. How can we find holiness in food, and how do these choices impact ourselves and those around us?

 

Specifically for those who don’t keep kosher, how can we feel more connected to God or to our Jewish identity through food?  For me, I find holiness, in eating Jewish foods like Matzah Ball Soup or Shakshuka. These foods to me represent a connection between my love for food and Judaism like turkey and Thanksgiving. 

 

I find holiness in eating when I’m at camp surrounded by my friends on Shabbat. Or, who knows? You could find holiness in eating meat that was well cared for and killed humanely or by eating vegetarian or vegan. Maybe the next trendy diet could be the stop-climate-change-diet. God should add some rules to the kosher laws so we don’t all die from cow farts in 30 years. 

 

Besides the point,  it could maybe be eating in places that you find holy, where you find you are more connected to God, or your Jewish identity. It could also mean eating with friends or family that are Jewish.

 

At my sleep-away camp, Camp Newman, we pray before and after we eat every meal. These prayers thank God and the people who helped bring our food to the table. To be honest I have very rarely taken a moment to be thankful for the food in front of me outside of camp and I think many of you might relate to that. When was the last time you paused before a meal to be grateful for the food in front of you? One way Judaism encourages us to sanctify food is through gratitude, and so I invite you today after the service to pause before eating your burger – with or without cheese – and take a moment to appreciate knowing where your next meal is coming from.

 

Another meaningful way that I practice Judaism with my family is volunteering to address food insecurity in our community. As a Jew and someone who is privileged to come back from school everyday to a homemade dinner, I have an obligation to give to those who aren’t as fortunate. I find that this kind of tzedakah also brings me holiness through food, in ways that aren’t just through eating. 

 

Michelin Star Chef Jose Andres founded the World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters all over the world. In December he went to Kentucky with his team and delivered meals in places that were hard hit by the devastating tornadoes. He also delivered meals in Spain after a volcanic eruption, in Haiti following an earthquake, and in Louisiana after hurricane Ida. This month he traveled to the Polish border along Ukraine, to deliver meals for refugees fleeing the war. Even though I can not travel the world to give meals to those in need I can do my part to help here in LA. I have worked in food banks to organize food boxes, done Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those who can’t leave their homes, and prepared and delivered homemade meals to the homeless. Here at Beth Shir Shalom, we’ve hosted Feeding Families this year which delivers healthy food boxes to families in our community who are food insecure.

 

As I become a Bar Mitzvah, it’s important to me to practice my Judaism through food: Whether it’s helping those in need, eating Jewish foods, or sharing meals with friends & family, food plays an important role in how I connect to my Jewish Identity. I encourage you to think about how food plays a role in your life, and how we can find holiness through it.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Parshat Ki Tisa – D’var Torah by Arlo Lamm

In my Parsha, Ki Tisa, it’s been a few months since the Israelites have escaped Egypt and they’re now at the base of Mt. Sinai.  They have just made a formal agreement with God, known as a covenant, for them to agree to God’s laws in exchange for God’s protection & blessing.  Moses goes up to the top of Mt. Sinai to convene with God.  

To the Israelites at the base it seems like Moses has disappeared.  So it’s a time of great confusion.  They’re scared and they’re not sure if they have any leadership and they want to go back to the old gods – so they create a Golden Calf. 

Moses sees the Israelites with the golden calf and in a fit of rage smashes the tablets that God has just given him. Then he orders 3000 Israelites to be killed for abandoning God and worshipping an idol. When the idol worshippers are killed, he pleads for God to not kill the rest of the Israelites.   

What stood out to me in this story is God’s wrath.  God is mad at the Israelites for making a golden calf, but as Rabbi Huna taught, “It’s as if a parent opened a business for his child on a street filled with evildoers but when the child began acting unethically the parent became angry and threatened to punish them. A friend intervenes and tells the parent: you are as guilty as your child. Did you not place them on a street of evildoers in a place where they could have picked up bad habits? Did you not expect that the environment would have an influence upon them?”

In other words, Rabbi Huna said it is not the Israelites’ fault, it should be God’s fault  because he left them in exile for so long surrounded by people who are polytheistic, that’s what they knew. That’s what everyone around them did so they are the odd ones out. It’s like the kids going into the Willy Wonka factory, with promises of so much delicious candy, but they are expected to behave perfectly or they will meet a “sticky end.” 

To me this feels unjust, and even though Moses had 3000 people murdered, I think Moses didn’t have to order the 3000 to be killed.  He could have just exiled them instead of slaughtering them. What this makes me think about is rage.  

One example of rage that I saw was one time when me and my friend were walking his dog and saw a guy spray painting a fence around a house under construction.  Somebody on the inside innocently pushed out the fence and it accidentally hit the guy in the face. In a fit of rage he pulled out a gun on the contractor. We quickly ran away and called the police, but it was a pretty scary thing to witness.  

I also see rage in politics from things like the January 6 insurrection, where rage fueled a violent breaching of the Capitol and killed multiple people. So rage is a dangerous emotion that we should all work on.

In this parsha, the Israelites lost faith and were punished harshly by Moses and almost by God. What I have learned from God and Moses is that we all have rage – even God. We all over react, and even if we feel full on justified we should take the time to really think before we do, especially when it comes to anger. If we can do this then there would be a lot more peace in the world.

Parshat Vayikra – D’var Torah by Bailey Hughes

The book of Leviticus, or Vaykira in Hebrew, is all about sacrifice. God instructs Moses about sacrifices that can be offered in the sanctuary to ask for forgiveness for mistakes and sins. 

 

As I first read my portion, it was so boring. I didn’t understand how these sacrifices were supposed to make up for mistakes and sins. There was a burnt offering and a sin offering and penalty offering and none of it seemed to relate to my understanding of forgiveness or atonement. As I read through my portion I realized that maybe it was relevant in a different way then I had thought and that there was a more modern way to interpret this. 

 

Even though we don’t sacrifice animals today or kill them to practice our religion, the ideas behind these rituals are surprisingly relevant. In Judaism, after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, the rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice, and we continue to say prayers for gratitude, well being, and forgiveness today. Vayikra as a whole is more relevant than I would have anticipated when I first read my Bat Mitzvah portion.

 

Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, a local Los Angeles scholar teaches that “Vayikra is an optimistic book. It assumes the world is a well-integrated ecosystem that comes with a troubleshooting guide for when things go wrong. Vayikra doesn’t blame people for things going wrong, it offers a toolkit to restore the ecosystem.”

 

As a dancer, I make mistakes constantly – we all do. It’s part of learning combinations and routines. Mistakes help you learn and grow as a person. In dance, there is a system to fixing what goes wrong. I take the time to think about where I made a mistake and what I can do to fix it the next time. My teacher is watching to see where I may have struggled to give me some tips for improving upon it. I then try to incorporate the feedback and practice the part where I messed up a few times with her tips. Dancing is a process – just like life. It doesn’t fault the dancer for making mistakes but views them as a natural path to growth and improvement.

 

Though we no longer restore our broken ecosystems with animal sacrifice, prayer can be used to reflect on mistakes and meditate on forgiveness. As a human being, like all of us, I definitely make mistakes, and when we do we have two choices.

We can ignore our mistakes and sins or we can spend time perhaps in prayer reflecting on them so we can correct them in the future and become a better version of ourselves.

 

As I become a Bat Mitzvah, I take comfort in the fact that everyone in the Torah  – including God! – is imperfect. They all have flaws and make mistakes but it helps them learn and become a better person. As a society, we still judge people for making mistakes and jump to find all the negatives. But mistakes are a great way to learn and in many ways a positive part of life – this is what I’m taking from the ideas in my Torah Portion Vayikra. When I make a mistake in life or do something I shouldn’t, I recognize that this is part of the process. 


Just like learning a new combination in dance, making mistakes helps you grow and having a system in place to help us grow and learn from our mistakes is a healthy, positive part of life. Mistakes shouldn’t be judged, they should be looked at as a way to grow, learn, and improve as a human being.


 So the next time you make a mistake, I hope instead of getting frustrated or beating yourself up about it, you see it as a moment of growth to learn from and share your experience with others so they can learn and grow too.

 

Shabbat Shalom!