Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: A Holy Code for 2017

No Comments 29 March 2017

The Book of Leviticus, with its chapters upon chapters of intricate laws and rituals,  clearly lays out a code of the permitted and the forbidden. In this week’s dvar Torah to Parashat Vayikrah, Rabbi Naamah Kelman challenges us establish a similar code of ethics and morality, as relevant to our current day and age. How does our Holy Code for 2017 instruct us to live?


Priests offering a sacrifice by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Rabbi Naamah Kelman

The book of Leviticus/Vayikrah is often called the “Priestly Code” — over 27 chapters, the intricate and detailed laws and functions pertaining to the Priests’ duties are set out. Laws relating to the system of sacrifices brought to the Tabernacle in the wilderness and then the Temple in Jerusalem are described in chapter after chapter. Sacrifices, animal, foul, and grain, are brought for the entire spectrum of the human condition: Sacrifices for forgiveness, expiation, absolution, healing, thanksgiving, criminal offences, and ritual offences.  No less detailed are the laws specifying rites of purification from diseases and other forms of impurity including menstruation, contact with the dead, and other bodily dysfunctions.

Leviticus contains laws of purity and purification for a myriad of afflictions and conditions. Laws pertaining to forbidden foods are part and parcel of these laws of sanctification.  The priest serves as intermediary, vessel, bridge to God. The Hebrew word korban sacrifice, literally means “to get closer.” These rites are intended to bring the Children of Israel closer to God. Unlike other Near Eastern traditions, the Israelite priest worked among the people for all to see. Their duties were for the people and among the people. Yet despite this emphasis on ritual and rites, there is an undergirding of spiritual significance to these rites.

According to Professor Jacob Milgrom (Fortress press, 2004):

“Values is what the book of Leviticus is all about…The book of Leviticus and many of its sometimes contradictory laws can be understood as the various manifestations of the Ten Commandments or Decalogue. The kernel of the Decalogue is terse. Without penalties, it reads more like directions or principles than laws; Do not murder, Honor your mother and father. Do not steal. On the other hand the quotidian details about how life should be lived-like many laws that fill the book of Leviticus- are nowhere found in the commandments at Sinai. They must be derived from the broad principles of the Decalogue, but delicately, so that the core of the Ten Commandments is respected, even as new laws emerge.”

Holiness according to many traditional Jewish sources is concerned with ritual and sexual purity. Kadosh is often understood as separate. In traditional readings this is the separation of pure from impure, and indeed Jew from idolater, men from impure women. In our reading we focus on the idea of ethical purity and responsibility. As Milgrom says: “ethical prescriptions alongside ritual as determinants of holiness.” This is the underpinning of the commandments and regulations. Holiness, then in the Israelite tradition, is this fusion of ritual and ethics. In other words, we observe the Sabbath for its ritual implications as well as the ethical. We rest, we refrain from using fire (ritual) but we make sure our servants rest too (ethical).

We must ask ourselves today what ethical principles need to be reinforced through ritual. With racism and xenophobia rampant in our society, along with misogyny and homophobia, it is time to make the rites on our lives reflect our battle with these impurities, diseases and profanities in our midst. What sacrifice will we bring tomorrow to fight hatred, what offering to combat humiliation of the other? Our Holiness Code must be a daily reminder to act against today’s chilul ha’shem, the desecration of God’s presence in the world.

According to Vayikra Rabba 2:7: When a “man” (adam) presents an offering, may one be like the first Adam, even though everything “belonged” to him, Adam only offered what was his, what he toiled for and what he rightfully possesses. And the Midrash emphasizes what it means to be an “Adam”:

“Be a mensch a good person, meaning, as defined by care and unity and friendship. As God said to Ezekiel, be a ben-adam, a person amongst the righteous, those who act in ways of  lovingkindness; be among those who humble themselves for God and the People Israel.

Our Holiness Code of 2017 is clear as always: Fight what degrades the other; what repossesses the other, what humiliates the other. Spread holiness, each person was created in God’s image, act to affirm and empower those who are hurt, marginalized and discriminated against; otherwise our offerings will be empty rites.

Kelman, NaamahRabbi Naamah Kelman is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and a descendent of ten generations of rabbis, becoming the first woman to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem in 1992, where she is currently the Dean.

Read previous Torah commentary here

Field Reports, Occupied Territories

RHR ensures Palestinian farmers safely plough their lands

No Comments 23 March 2017

Photos yesterday of Rabbis for Human Rights field staff assisting Palestinian farmers from the village of Far’ata as they plow their fields. Many of the lands owned by the village are near the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad. Weeks ago, farmers from the same village reported an attack by extremists as soldiers stood by.

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Field Reports, Occupied Territories, Press Releases

Army orders Palestinian to stop agricultural work after extremist attack

No Comments 22 March 2017

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General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Between our aspirations and our realities

No Comments 22 March 2017

In honoring Shabbat, many of us help to build “sanctuaries in time.” In her commentary below, Rabbi Miri Gold helps us understand how we can also contribute to building sanctuaries of justice and righteousness in our every day, earthly reality.  Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: “Consider too that this nation is your people”

No Comments 15 March 2017

When Moses goes up to Mount Sinai, the Israelite people are left alone to their own devices. As their spiritual leader, how does Moses respond when they make a grave mistake? In her Dvar Torah to Parashat Ki Tissa, Rabbi Gail Diamond shows us what this important episode teaches about the nature of true leadership.


Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean Leon Gerome. public domain

By Rabbi Gail Diamond

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, describes perhaps the greatest sin of the Jewish people. Shortly after receiving the ten commandments, including the commandment not to worship other gods, the people build the Golden Calf and declare, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses is busy speaking with God on Mount Sinai.  The people’s great sin is brought on by Moses’ absence. As they say to Aaron, “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1). As Moses experiences transcendence for forty days on Mount Sinai, the people are experiencing a spiritual absence, resulting in a breakdown of their faith in Hashem.

When God sees what has happened, God immediately tells Moses to get down off the mountain, “Hurry down, for your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely” (Exodus 32:7).

But Moses does not “go down” – instead he begins to plead on behalf of the people.  Moses implores God to forgive the people and according to verse 14, “The Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.” Only then does Moses descend and take charge.

When Moses descends and the revelry and idolatry do not stop, Moses calls the Levites, who slaughter 3,000 people. After this Moses tells the people to re-dedicate themselves and offers to go back up the mountain to plead for God’s forgiveness.

As the dialogue between Moses and God develops, Moses attempts to win back a connection between the people and God. In chapter 33, Moses seeks to get a clearer understanding of how God plans to continue leading the people on their journey:

“Now if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I make know you and continue in Your favor. Consider, too that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:13).

God’s response is not clear: And He said, “I will go in the lead and will (literally: My face will go and I will) lighten your burden”  (Exodus 33:14).

According to one Talmudic midrash, the term “my face” refers to God’s anger.  The Midrash interprets the verse non-literally:

Berachot 7a: And Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosei: From where is it derived that one must not placate a person in his anger? As it is written, “My face will go, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Wait until My face of wrath will pass and I will grant your request.

In God’s response in verse 14, whether we understand it as “I will go in the lead” or “My face of wrath will pass,” God responds to Moses but does not mention the people.  Moses had explicitly included the people in his request: “Consider too that this nation is your people” (Exodus 33:13).

Thus God’s response to Moses in verse 14 is insufficient. Moses again requests more “Unless you go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us…” (Exodus 33:15-16).

As Ibn Ezra explains these verses (in his commentary to Exodus 33:21):

I will lighten your burden.  The meaning of “your” – for with you only will I go, and I will not dwell amidst the children of Israel.  Therefore Moses answered, “Unless you go in the lead” with the nation that he mentioned above, “consider too that this nation is your people.” “Do not make us leave this place” in plural, and the faithful witness to this interpretation is “For how shall it be known that Your people have gained your favor unless You go with us.”

Moses left the people and went to the mountain to commune with God. In his absence, they sinned greatly. Upon learning of the sin, Moses did not go down the mountain as God ordered.  He stayed and implored God until God renounced the intended punishment.  Then Moses continued to dialogue with God to resolve the breach, to repair the damage between God and the people and to bring God into the midst of the people to guide them.

Two lessons stand out from these crucial moments in our spiritual history: 1. Spiritual leaders cannot be absent – even for important moments of holiness – and expect those they lead to fare alone.  2. A true spiritual leader never gives up on the people they lead, but constantly works to bring them closer to God and God closer to them.

Even when the Israelites (and Moses’s own brother!) went as far as to commit a great sin, Moses did not desert his role as their leader. At times when those we would lead seem to be behaving at their worst, we must continue to see the best in others, to work on their behalf, and to encourage those around us to live up to their best selves.  True human rights work is based on a positive view of humanity – something that Moses never lost sight of, even in his most challenging moments. 

RabbiGailDiamondRabbi Gail Diamond is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Read previous commentaries to the weekly parasha



Justice in Israel

MobilEye Deal: No allocation of wealth to where it is most needed

No Comments 14 March 2017

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2 Comments 13 March 2017

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No Comments 12 March 2017

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No Comments 08 March 2017

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Parasha / E-Letter

Purim Sameach: The social side of Purim

No Comments 08 March 2017

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