Starting with Leviticus – Vayikra 5773

I just saw the documentary from a few years ago, Waiting for Superman. It notes that American students’ rankings have been falling precipitously in math and science over the past few decades. It also notes that every President since Eisenhower has claimed to be the Education President. As our nation struggles to get back on track, education is once again brought out as a key concern. Universal access to quality education has been an important principle since our nation’s founding. Nowadays, everyone recognizes that a failing educational system will have economic and social impacts down the road, but we can’t come together on the best way to fix our broken system.

The emphasis on education is an aspect of Jewish culture in which we take great pride. From our people’s beginnings, education has been considered to be of utmost importance. Our tradition does not entrust the transmission of knowledge to an intellectual or religious elite. Since the days of the Torah itself, the importance of passing on knowledge to one’s child has been a primary religious obligation.

It is not only an individual responsibility. We can even identify in our sources an obligation to entire communities to provide universal education. With one caveat: as anyone who has seen Yentl knows, until modern times, the focus was on educating boys, and girls were often an afterthought.

The Shulchan Arukh, the great sixteenth century law code, lays out specific instructions about public education. While it is true that parents have to teach Torah to their own children, the community as a whole also bears responsibility. The Shulchan Arukh*1* teaches that a community is obligated to hire a melamed, a teacher, for its children. The men in any community that does not have a melamed are to be excommunicated until they hire someone.

Children are supposed to start learning the aleph bet when they are 3, and then start school at 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the study of Torah.

An ancient midrash reports the custom of beginning a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus. Then it asks the question: Why do children begin their learning with the Book of Leviticus rather than the Book of Genesis?

After all, for a young child, the laws of sacrifices seem like a strange place to begin. If I was designing a curriculum for Torah study, I might choose to start somewhere different. Perhaps Genesis, as the midrash asks about. After all, it is the beginning. It describes the creation of the world. It is full of stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…

Or, maybe we might choose to begin with the Book of Exodus. It describes the beginnings of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

But no. The tradition was to begin with Leviticus. To teach children about different categories of sin, and the respective types of offerings that had to be brought for each one. To memorize the techniques of slaughtering animals and sprinkling blood on the altar. To learn how to distinguish between the various offerings that were brought at different times of the year. And all of these details about a way of worshipping God that had ceased entirely when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. Why, the midrash asks, would we start children’s education here?

The answer, as taught by Rabbi Asi, has to do with a certain similiarity between children and sacrifices. All of the sacrifices written in Leviticus have to do with purity. Children are pure, and have not yet experienced sin. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘let the pure ones come and engage with matters of purity, and I will consider it as if you were standing before Me and offering sacrifices.’ It is children continuing to learn the laws of sacrifices that enables the world to continue to stand.*2*

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a mid-seventeenth century Ashkenazi Rabbi reports that the custom of starting a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus was still being practiced in his day.*3*

I don’t know of any Jewish schools that continue this tradition, although I bet there is at least one yeshivah in Brooklyn that does. I am not endorsing a change in our curriculum that would have us teaching the laws of sacrifices to 5 year olds.

But I like the idea expressed in the midrash that God considers children learning to be the equivalent of worship in the Holy Temple. And that the world itself is sustained on the merit of children learning.

Those have certainly been core values in Judaism.

But let’s look at where things stand now. In California, between 1981 and 2011, higher education spending has decreased by 13% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same time period, spending on prisons has increased by 436%.*4* The state Legislative Analysts Office reported that in 2011-2012, the state spent $179,000 per incarcerated youth. For every child in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the state spent $7,500 per year.*5*

Nationally, as an overall percentage of all federal spending, children account for about 10%. Over the next ten years, that is expected to fall to 8%, with the biggest drops expected to be in education.*6*

If the world stands on the learning of children, we need to do something radically different with regard to our priorities.


*1* Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 245:7,8

*2* Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14

*3* Siftei Kohen on Yoreh Deah 245:8





Do Jewish And Love It – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773

This morning, we read the double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei. It describes the building of the Tabernacle. We hear a lot about the chief craftsman – Betzalel. There is even a major university in Jerusalem named after him, The Bezalel School of Art and Design.

But we don’t hear so much about his number two guy – Aholiav. He is mentioned only five times in the Torah, once at the beginning of last week’s Parshah, and four times in this week’s double portion.

Here is what we know about him: Aholiav was the chief assistant to Betzalel. His father’s name was Ahisamach, from the tribe of Dan. He was an expert carver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.*1* That is pretty much it in the Torah. And the Rabbis don’t have much more to add.

The Talmud*2* cites a midrash about one of Aholiav’s descendants. When King Solomon was building the Temple in Jerusalem nearly four hundred years later, he recruited a lot of top talent. One of the artisans mentioned is named Hiram from Tyre. This is a different Hiram than the well-known King Hiram from Lebanon. Hiram of Tyre is described in the Book of Chronicles*3* as being “skilled at working in gold, silver, bronze, iron, precious stones, and wood; in purple, blue, and crimson yarn and in fine linen…” His mother is from the tribe of Dan, and his father is a Tyrian.

The midrash notes that Hiram’s mother and Aholiav both come from the same tribe, Dan. And, they both share common skills in artistry. The lesson is then drawn that a child should never abandon his or her parent’s trade.

Elsewhere in the Talmud*4*, we are taught: “Happy is a person who sees one’s parents in an exalted trade. Woe to a person who sees one’s parents in an inferior trade.”

The Torah Temimah, Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s turn of the twentieth century commentary that weaves together the Torah and the oral tradition, ties these two midrashim together:

“When [a peson’s] parents seize on to a nice trade, s/he too will seize on it. And so to when [a person’s parents] seize on to an inferior trade, s/he too will seize it. Therefore, happy is one who sees his/her parents in an exalted trade, because s/he will consequently seize upon something similar.”*5*

The Torah Temimah is not saying that children have to follow their parents into business. No, the burden is not on the child to follow his or her parents’ examples. The burden is on the parents to be the example for their children. And the result, according to the midrash, is “ashrei,” happiness.

So much of our path in life is set into motion by our upbringing. Our parents are our moral, intellectual, and emotional role models. Whether we embrace their example, or reject it, we will always be responding to what we experienced growing up.

A son who sees his mother making ethical decisions in business is much likelier to make decisions ethically himself. Similarly, if a person’s father lied and cheated, his daughter is far more likely to behave similarly.

This is also true when it comes to transmitting our Jewish tradition. The big question everyone in the Jewish world wrestles with today is continuity. How do we ensure that the next generation is going to continue to identify Jewishly and affiliate with the Jewish community?

And so, the money pours in. Lately, the trend is towards trans or post-denominationalism. The big bucks have gone towards Jewish day schools, summer camps, and free trips to Israel for young adults. Spend the vast amount of resources on creating Jewish experiences for young people, the thinking goes, and they will continue to affiliate when they start to have families of their own. Maybe it will work.

At the local level, although we don’t quite have the big bucks, we are also concerned with the questions of Jewish continuity. When I speak with parents before their children’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, this is by far the number one goal that they express for their kids.

For decades, synagogues have invested their energy in children’s programming: religious school, youth groups, Shabbat youth programs. And these things are important. We have to provide engaging religious and educational opportunities for kids in our synagogue.

But that, in and of itself, is not going to achieve the desired outcome. Pouring all of our religious commitment into our kids is not going to make them better Jews. It is not likely to produce a deep and lasting faith, or a life-long commitment to Judaism.

The model cannot be totally kid-centered. When it is, the message it sends is that as soon as you have your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or for some, graduate high school, then you are done.

When we pour all of our efforts into kids, it means that there is nothing left for adults except to repeat the pattern with their own kids.

The solution for Jewish continuity is not to create more and more programs and educational opportunities for children. These things are certainly important, but are ultimately hollow if we don’t do something else.

The solution lies with all of us: We have to do Jewish things, and we have to love it.

This has been my driving goal for our Purim celebration. Growing up, Purim was always a kid-centered holiday. It was great fun dressing up, eating lots of junk, running around, and making a lot of noise. But when you outgrow that, what is left? My goal for Sinai has been to take back Purim from the kids. The adults have to have fun. Because you know what, if we are having fun, the kids are going to have fun too. And they are going to expect to have fun when they grow up.

The same is true for Pesach, in just over two weeks. When there are a lot of kids around a seder table, there is pressure to cater to them. To skip the adult-level conversations and hurry up to the meal. But when we do that, we are not doing the kids any favors. Children need to see adults engaging in the seder at an adult level. And they need to be welcomed to participate at that adult level when they express an interest. That leaves a powerful impression, a more powerful impression, I suspect, than a seder that is only about games and exclusively kid-oriented activities.

It is also true with regard to the daily practice of Judaism. When Jewish ritual is normative in a household, and embraced positively, that leaves an impression.

To a parent who asks “what can I do so that my kids will be Jewish when they grow up?” my answer is “Have Shabbat dinner at home every week, and make sure that you enjoy it.”

When children see the adults in their lives embracing Jewish life in meaningful ways, that becomes a model for themselves.

Imagine a child complains “why do I have to go to Hebrew school? It’s so boring.”

If the answer is “I know it’s boring, but you’re going because I had to go when I was your age,” what do you think that child is going to take from the experience?

Think about how different the lesson would be if the answer is: “because learning is a really important part of Judaism, and religious school is where you go to learn. I am learning by reading such and such a book, or taking such and such a class.”

So many Jewish adults today ended their formal Jewish education right after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. So many parents never had a chance to engage formally as adults with our rich tradition.

If we want our kids to embrace Jewish life as adults, the answer is not forcing them to do it as a necessary rite of passage. We have to embrace Jewish life ourselves, and then we can invite our kids to join us.

If the midrash connecting Aholiav and Hiram is true, I would imagine that the children of the tribe of Dan saw their parents engaging in fine craftsmanship from a young age. They saw adults having meaningful conversations about metalwork and embroidery. They saw uncles and aunts, neighbors, and elders showing and admiring one another’s work.

The young Danites attended formal and informal classes where they learned the basics of artistry, and then entered into apprenticeships as teen-agers, before finally opening up shops of their own as master craftsmen.

By creating such a culture, the great great great great great grandson or nephew of the number two artisan in the construction of the Tabernacle was privileged to serve as one of the primary architects of King Solomon’s Temple.


*1*Exodus 38:23

*2*BT Arachin 16b

*3*II Chronicles 2:13

*4*BT Kiddushin 82b

*5*Torah Temimah on Exodus 31:6


Ki Tissa 5773 – Oy For The Extra Soul

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹלָם.  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָֹה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ. *1*

…uvayom hashevi-i shavat vayinafash

“It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. [For in six days YHVH made heaven and earth,] and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed”

On its surface, this passage is connecting the observance of Shabbat to the Creation of the universe. The idea that God spent six days working, and then as the final act of Creation, ceased all labor and rested, is the origin of the human need to rest. As it often does, the Torah speaks in anthropomorphisms, ascribing to God the word vayinafash. It means more than just “then He rested.” There are other words for that. The word nefesh conveys the idea of soul, or vitality, or essential character.*2* Robert Altar translates the expression as “on the seventh day He ceased and caught His breath.”

A midrash reads something else into this word: vayinafash. Something happens during Shabbat, when we observe it, that is a contrast from our experiences during the other six days of the week.

In the Talmud,*3* Resh Lakish teaches that “The Holy Blessed One gives a person an additional soul (neshamah yeteirah) on the eve of Shabbat, but at the end of Shabbat it is taken away. [How do we know this?] As the Torah says: shavat vayinafash – “He ceased from work and was refreshed.” keivan sheshavat – once that day has ceased, vay avdah nafesh – woe, that soul is gone.

Reish Lakish is pointing to a legend that teaches that we gain an extra soul on Shabbat. That extra soul attaches itself to our seven-day-a-week soul and remains with us for all of Shabbat. When it leaves on Saturday night, we are sad. So the word vayinafash really is a contraction of vay – “oy!!” and nefesh – the soul.

Oy for the loss of the extra Shabbat soul.

Rashi adds that the extra soul enables us to fully enjoy the eating, drinking and relaxation of Shabbat. Food tastes better. The rest is more rejuvenating. And when that special time is over, it’s kind of sad.

It’s like when the last day of a vacation arrives (the kind of vacation that includes relaxing on a resort). We don’t want it to end. We don’t want to go back to work and school, and cooking and cleaning up after ourselves. But every vacation must end. Oy!

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, understands the passage a bit differently. He takes the midrash of vayinafash as a lament: “oy for the soul.” But it is not at the end of Shabbat as the extra soul is departing that it happens. It is at the beginning of Shabbat.

Here is how he imagines it: as Shabbat enters us on Friday evening, we are aroused from our foolish slumber and given extra clarity. We look back to the previous six days, and with this new insight, recognize all of those moments that we were not devoted to Torah study or spiritual practice. And then, we cry, “Oy. Woe, that soul that was lost! Woe for all the time wasted in useless endeavors.”

How many minutes spent on Facebook? Or watching TV? Or procrastinating?

How much more time could have been spent with partners or spouses, or friends? Or reading with children? Were there times when we could have been learning Torah? Or performing gemilut chasadim, lovingly helping others?

As Shabbat begins, and we set the distractions aside, we are made painfully aware that our time could have been better-spent.

And so, we are left with two different interpretations of vayinafash. Either it’s the end of Shabbat, and the soul is lamenting the loss of its partner and anticipating the loneliness it will face in the coming week. Or, it’s the beginning of Shabbat, and the newfound awareness instills in us a sense of regret for how poorly we have treated our souls during the previous week.

Either way, “oy!”

Thank God, Rabbi Simchah Bunim has a more positive take on it. He would have us live in the moment. As soon as a person begins to rest on Shabbat, ovedet nafsho “vay” shelah. A person’s soul loses its “oy.”*4*

Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. True Shabbat rest means being fully in the moment. Not regretting the past, nor anticipating the future. Just being present. And when we can do that, all of our “oy’s” float away. I like that.

So which is it? What is Shabbat for us? Is it a temporary opportunity to experience spiritual joy, and heightened sensuality? Is it a painful reminder of how much time we spend not engaged in fruitful endeavors? Or, is it a respite from the difficulties and burdens of life? Probably a bit of all three.

A challenge that many of us face here in the South Bay is that we don’t know how to observe Shabbat. I think that there are a lot of people that recognize a need to slow down and take a break from all of the busy-ness of our lives. A lot of people are longing for spirituality, and would love to be able to have a Shabbat like the midrash describes. A Shabbat on which an extra soul attaches to ours. When food and drink really do taste better. When we get to have rest that is truly rejuvenating.

A barrier for some is, quite simply, not knowing how to do it. Not knowing the prayers to recite around the Shabbat table on Friday night, or how to sing the Shabbat zemirot, the special Sabbath songs. Or, having kids who resist any sort of limits placed on their actions.

In neighborhood Jewish communities, there is a Shabbat feeling that permeates the streets. When we lived in New York, we would pass dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people on our way to and from synagogue. The shul did not have a weekly sit down kiddush, because people in the community would regularly invite each other over for Shabbat lunch, and spend the whole afternoon together. Kids could easily go over to friends’ homes.

Life in the suburbs makes this a whole lot more difficult. Most of us do not have neighbors who are observing Shabbat. The atmosphere in the streets of San Jose does not experience a palpable shift on Friday evening. Few, if any, people in our community are hosting Shabbat lunches in their homes.

So we have brought Shabbat experiences into the shul. For the last several years, we have made a concerted effort to provide a full Shabbat lunch almost every week. We say the berakhot together before the meal, and always sing Birkat HaMazon afterwards, for those who choose to stay long enough. And sometimes, we sing zemirot. For kids, we have brought in books, games, and sports equipment, to make this a fun place to be, and gain positive Shabbat memories. This creates an opportunity, for those who choose to embrace it, to celebrate Shabbat together, and not feel like we are on our own in our homes, longing to have some sort of experience, but not having the resources to do it.

But I still think there is a longing for more. I know there is a longing for more. More opportunities for our souls to lose their “oy’s” by being truly present in the moment. And I think that we can find more of those opportunities together in our shul.

Opportunities to spend Shabbat together: singing, talking, learning, resting. Waking up to become aware of the extra soul.

Shabbat has the potential to transform our entire lives.

That is part of the idea behind havdallah. After the three stars appear in the sky, and Shabbat is technically over, we try to hang on for a few more minutes. So we invoke the senses one last time, hoping that the extra soul will stick around a bit longer.

Havdallah is about beginning the new week with Shabbat still part of us. It sends a hopeful message that we can enter the days of creation without forgetting what we are here for. This week can be the week when the additional soul stays with us. The week when we remember to be spiritually aware in every moment, and when this awareness adds that special spice that makes our food taste better, our rest more rejuvenating, and our love for each other stronger.

This Shabbat can be the Shabbat when the “oy” leaves our soul, and does not come back.



*1*Exodus 31:16-17

*2*Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary:Exodus, p. 202.

*3*BT Beitzah 16a, Ta’anit 27b

*4*Itturei Torah III, 256.