Rachael Hauser

January 1-6: Parshat Shemot

Parshat Shemot, the first portion of the Book of Exodus, provides us with a wealth of examples of individuals who intervene on behalf of others when their consciences prompt them. We begin with the midwives in Exodus 1:15. The verse calls them m’yaldot ha-ivriot, the Hebrew midwives, but our commentators disagree on whether that means that these women are Hebrew themselves or Egyptian women who work with the Hebrews. Either way, when the Pharaoh orders them to kill all the Hebrew baby boys, these women take a stand. They refuse to bring harm to these children and lie straight to Pharaoh’s face when asked why they have failed to carry out the order.

Moses’s adoptive mother, the daughter of Pharaoh, follows in the midwives’ footsteps. In Exodus 2:6, when she discovers Moses in the basket, she exclaims, “Miyaldei ha-ivrim zeh—this is one of the Hebrew children!” Pharaoh’s daughter takes her stand against her father’s horrific decree. Not only does she adopt a Hebrew child as her own, but she hires and pays Moses’s mother to nurse him. The princess does more than adopt a baby in this parsha; her actions are political. She publicly opposes her father. Her protest is one of love and radical acceptance.

The midwives and the princess intervene when they have no reason to do so and every reason to go with the status quo. The midwives’ disobedience threatens their very lives. The princess risks her relationship with her family. Yet they listen to the call of their hearts to do what is right and defend those less fortunate than themselves. It is no wonder, given the examples he grew up with, that Moses acts similarly. In Exodus 2:17, when Moses arrives in the land of Midian, he steps in and protects the seven daughters of the priest Reuel from the shepherds scaring them off, helping them to safely water their flocks. Moses owes Reuel’s daughters no allegiance, but he feels compelled to act after observing how they are being mistreated. 

The story of the Hebrew redemption from slavery begins with several individual characters standing up for what they believe is right. Even when they might lose more than they ever could hope to gain, the midwives and the princess intervene on behalf of life and mercy, and it is through their actions that Moses makes it to adulthood and survives long enough to become the leader and hero of the Exodus story. In this first week of the new year of 2024, let us keep in mind the success of these ‘interveners’ who call out injustice and defend the helpless with abundant love. May we, like the midwives and the princess, look for opportunities to do the same in 2024.

January 7-13: Parshat Vaera

When I neared the end of the conversion process, I received one of the greatest gifts anyone can get—the ability to name myself. For my Hebrew name, I retained my given first name, but I also allowed myself to select a middle name, which I derived from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. I chose ‘Yocheved’––and yes, this name was inspired primarily by Ofra Haza’s stunning performance in The Prince of Egypt. But I wanted to take on the mantle of what I believe Yocheved represents.

In Exodus 6:20, the name of Moses’s mother, Yocheved, is finally revealed. But she is not introduced. We met her in last week’s parsha, in the famous tale in which she remains anonymous, a Hebrew mother forced to make a dreadful choice when she can no longer hide her infant son from Pharaoh’s decree of execution. Though the Torah tells us of her deeds, it does not tell us her plan. We have no glimpse inside Yocheved’s mind. Why did she decide to put Moses in that basket? The fact that she made it waterproof implies that she hoped Moses would survive his trip down the Nile, but what was her ultimate goal? Did she hope to rescue him when Pharaoh’s troops left Goshen? Did she hope he would be adopted?

Yocheved did not know and could not guess what would happen to Moses. To me, she embodies the oft-forgotten Jewish value of emunahEmunah embodies faith plus. It’s more than believing in G-d, it’s trusting in G-d. Ahavah is the act of putting your child in a basket to save its life; emunah is the act of hoping G-d will take it from there.

It is a bittersweet act, to have emunah. It wins Yocheved many rewards. After all, G-d does bring her son to safety, and Pharaoh’s daughter allows Yocheved to nurse her son and raise him in her own home. And we read in Seder Olam Rabbah that Yocheved was among the Israelites who were brought forth out of Egypt and into the wilderness. However, her faith in G-d also meant she bore witness to things she might have preferred never to see. She had to give up her son to Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up in the royal house of Egypt. According to the same chapter of Seder Olam Rabbah, Yocheved outlived all three of her children.

To have emunah is to accept that when you entrust something to G-d, the outcome is out of your control. But I imagine Yocheved did not regret her choices. May her emunah serve as an example to all of us.

January 14-20: Parshat Bo

Much of Judaism, even from its earliest codes of law, is concerned with distinctions. How do we categorize different things? How do we stratify classes of objects, of people, to create a hierarchy? What is holy, what is mundane, and what is the dangerous in-between?

That tension is present from the very first parsha in which the Israelites gain their freedom. When the Israelites took their first steps out of Egypt, they were not alone. In addition to the six thousand Israelite warriors protecting the people, there was an eirev rav, a great mix. The word eirev does more than evoke a mixed group of people—its primary translation is ‘woof,’ as in the warp and the woof that makes up a woven cloth. The eirev is the thread that weaves through, up and down and around, to create unity.

Who comprises this eirev? The medieval commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam all agree that this mixed multitude are Egyptians of all sorts. Some might have converted to the Israelite faith. Some might have looked to escape an Egypt that was crumbling around them, throwing in their lot with the Israelites. Some might have been friends and family, perhaps even spouses. One thing is for certain: this eirev rav is so tight-knit with the Israelites that they are as inextricable as a thread in a woven cloth.

But a few verses after we learn of the Egyptians who travel with the Israelites, G-d gives Moses and Aaron rules for how this new group will celebrate Passover. Foreigners, like the Egyptians, may not eat of the Passover sacrifice. Circumcised slaves may eat, but not hired workers. Should a foreigner wish to participate, he must enter the Israelite covenant of circumcision to be considered worthy. Parshat Bo holds this tension between keeping groups of people separate and throwing them together so closely that they cannot be pulled apart. 

It is the same tension that we contend with today. How much should we separate ourselves from other religions? How much should we separate our own religious and patriotic identities? These are questions that will endure as long as Judaism endures, but we can at least take our cue in one regard from Parshat Bo—a mixed multitude has always been a part of Jewish life. There have always been, and always will be, groups of people who make the journey with us. They could be our own interfaith families, our co-workers, our friends, and allies. They are connected to us through threads of life that cannot be pulled apart easily. And the journey through the wilderness is made sweeter through their friendship.

January 21-27: Parshat Beshalach

Forget Abraham and Jacob and Moses—the real main character of the Torah, G-d excepted, is water. Water trickles and surges its way through the story of our people from the first pages of Genesis, when G-d’s spirit hovers over the water in the formless void. Often, it is a destructive force, such as the flood of Noah’s generation or the Nile River as it turns to blood. Other times, it is a signal of life, present in the wells that serve as meeting places for patriarchs and their brides. In Parshat Beshalach, water is at its most miraculous as the Sea of Reeds is split in two. But it is another body of water in this Torah portion that interests me.

Exodus 15:17 tells us that after the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds and make their way through a wilderness with no potable water, they come to a place called Elim—a desert oasis with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. The verse informs us “vaychanu-sham al-ha-ma’im,” the Israelites encamped there by the water.

This verse, sandwiched between the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the miracle of manna, might otherwise go unnoticed. But it is this encampment that catches my eye in the text. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra wrote of his belief that the Israelites remained in Elim for twenty days, and that the waters there were sweet, otherwise so many palm trees would not have flourished.

Perhaps the amount of time the Israelites spent in one verse, or the flavor of the water where they camped, seems insignificant. But put in context, the oasis of Elim teaches us an important lesson. The Israelites had just been through a transformative event. They had gone from slaves to free people, and the end of their enslavement was marked by a miracle that would be difficult to believe if they had not seen it with their own eyes. Up ahead in the story, they will have to fight and travel and work hard to maintain and define this new freedom. To have the energy to continue toward Sinai, they needed a moment of rest, of sweetness.

After transformative periods in our own lives, we all need our oasis of Elim. To ask ourselves to plow through from one earth-shattering event to the next is unfair; even G-d granted the Israelites the better part of a month to recuperate. G-d gave them a safe place to rest, to drink sweet water and sit beneath the shade of palm trees, to contemplate their new status in life. We might not all have access to a tropical resort, courtesy of G-d, but we can give ourselves the same gift of time.

January 28-February 3: Parshat Yitro

There are voices in the Torah that are lost to us, whose absence paints a picture of disconnection, separation, and loneliness. In a document so obsessed with lineages—think of the descendants of Adam, of Noah, of Jacob, of Aaron—one patriarch’s line falls short. Where are Moses’s sons? How is it that the two children of our greatest leader get lost in the text?

It is only through the opening verses of Parshat Yitro that we know Moses has two sons at all. His wife Tzipporah, who disappeared from the narrative of Moses in Egypt, is revealed to have been staying with her father Yitro. She and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, join Yitro and travel to meet Moses as he camps at the base of Mount Sinai. And yet at the moment of reunion with his family, Moses greets only his father-in-law. He bows before him and asks how he has been since he last saw him.

Then he takes his father-in-law into his tent and shares ‘kol-asher asah Adonai l’Faroh ul’Mitzrayim al odot Israel,’ everything that G-d did to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel’s sake.

There is no kiss of greeting for Tzipporah, nor hugs for Gershom and Eliezer. Moses does not bother to take them into his tent and share all the amazing things that have happened since he last saw them. Nor does he ask how they are doing. Moses and Yitro take their leave of each other, and Moses’s wife and sons are never seen again.

What are we to make of their absence? Midrash Tanchuma explains that Moses’s sons were not fit to take over the leadership of the tribes because they did not study the Torah. But this explanation does not sit right with me. Even if Moses’s sons were slacker scholars, there was no reason for them to be left behind. For all that Moses succeeds in as a leader of the Israelites, he fails as a husband and a father. His interactions with his nephews are well-documented; we never hear about his sons again.

These lost voices, these glaring absences in the Torah, tell their own story. Were Gershom and Eliezer abandoned, left with their grandfather, never to see Moses again? Or did they join their father in the wilderness, but never measured up to their successful priestly cousins and were destined to fade into the background of the story? In considering the absent text as well as the text we have, we enrich the story of our ancestors.

February 4-10: Parshat Mishpatim

By its very name, we know that Parshat Mishpatim is all about rules. It is a parsha entirely dedicated to the rules that G-d expects the Israelites to uphold now that they are free. And as is the case with any document of the Ancient Near East, these rules can raise some eyebrows. What remains clear is that the Israelites lived in a much more brutal world than we do. So many of these laws concern death and violence. And yet the Talmud finds a way to turn death into life.

Exodus 22:1 informs us, “If a thief is found while tunneling [under a fence into a house], and [the homeowner] beats him to death, [the homeowner] has no bloodguilt.” In other words, in this case, Exodus entitles homeowners to kill in self-defense. But in the Talmud (Yoma 85a-b), Rabbi Yishmael considers this verse. He is surprised that the Torah would condone murder without evidence. This law assumes that the thief, once he is done stealing, will injure or murder the inhabitants of the house to eliminate the witnesses—but what if the thief is only there to steal while everyone is asleep? He would still be liable for punishment, but not for death! Rabbi Yishmael further makes the point that even justified murder impurifies the land of Israel.

Rabbi Yishmael does not negate Exodus 22:1 or argue that the law should be changed. But he does find a way to preserve life even out of a verse that permits death. If a man is allowed to kill a thief tunneling into his house on Shabbat, he says, how much more so is it allowed for a man to save a life on Shabbat? His is an argument of pikuach nefesh, of preserving life even when it would violate the halacha.

Ours is a tradition that we sometimes struggle with, especially when we encounter laws we disagree with or stories we find challenging. But like Rabbi Yishmael, there is always an opportunity for us to examine a verse and see if we can wrestle the good out of it.

February 11-17: Parshat Terumah

Two years ago, I started to embroider a tallit. I drew the design in my diary: a rendering of Genesis to Deuteronomy done entirely in embroidery thread. On the right, I started with the days of creation, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel. Inch by inch, I’ve made it more than halfway across, and I currently sit stumped at Leviticus. I know that I want to embroider an accurate picture of the Mishkan, but for the first time, I feel nervous about sewing. This was G-d’s dwelling place in the wilderness, and it will be immortalized in thread. This is something I don’t want to get wrong.

I wonder if the artists of Parshat Terumah faced the same hesitation. In this parsha, G-d gives Moses detailed instructions on how the Israelite artists are to construct the Mishkan, down to the number of planks, sockets, and twisted linens. We know that fiber arts were a huge part of the construction—Exodus 26:31 tells us that these artists should make “a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it.”

Embroidered on the curtain should be ‘maaseh choshev,’ literally, ‘the work of a thinker.’

The medieval commentator Rashi clarifies this ‘maaseh choshev’ as a weaving with two surfaces, a unique design on either side. I can only imagine Moses explaining this to the embroiderers and fiber artists in the camp:

“You’ll need to embroider a different cherubim design on either side.”

“Okay, so which side faces the Holy of Holies, and which side faces the door?”

“Um…I don’t know. G-d didn’t say.”

“G-d told you how many silver sockets to hammer out but G-d didn’t mention which side should face the Holy of Holies??”

Talk about pressure.

Those embroiderers had a way tougher—and way more esteemed—job than I do with my little tallit. But I hope they took comfort from G-d’s instructions as I’m trying to, while I attempt to design my little thread Mishkan. The design needs to be the work of a thinker. G-d’s only requirement is that effort thought and planning go into the design that brings G-d honor. The best way to honor G-d, in this case, is to trust our minds.

February 18-24: Parshat Tetzaveh

My classmates and I are planning a party for the summer before we begin our last year of rabbinical school. We can’t quite nail down a name—Rabbinic Ethics Party? Moral Code Scrapbooking?—but the gist is this. We want to gather together with writings, art, and quotes that encapsulate why we wanted to become rabbis in the first place. That way, whenever we have a difficult day on the job, we can open our little scrapbooks or time capsules and remember why we are here and whom we serve.

Lucky for Aaron and the priests, they didn’t need a party like this. They had their reminders ready-made.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, G-d instructs Moses on how to make the priestly garments that Aaron and his sons will wear as they work in the Mishkan. G-d describes a grid-like breastplate to hang around their necks with twelve engraved stones in four rows. Each precious stone has the name of each tribe of Israel. According to Exodus 28:29, this breastplate functions ‘l’zikaron lifnei Adonai tamid,’ as a reminder before G-d forever.

The breastplate works as a double remembrance. Every day as Aaron works, the weight of the breastplate around his neck will remind him that it is on behalf of these twelve tribes that he serves. He is their representative in the sacrificial relationship with G-d. It is also a reminder to G-d. The breastplate is lifnei Adonai, before G-d, unavoidable. Each day that G-d resides in the Mishkan and partakes in the sacrifices offered by the priests, G-d has to see the brilliant reminder of the people G-d chose to love and protect.

This jewelry design isn’t lost on us today. Plenty of us have wedding rings that remind us of our commitments to our spouses. Some of us might have necklaces with birthstones or engravings that remind us of our children. These pieces of jewelry are covenantal remembrances in their way. They keep us connected to those we promised to love and cherish the most and remind us that what we do is for their safety and happiness.

February 25-March 2: Parshat Ki Tisa

Of all our senses, our sense of smell gets short shrift. How often do we marvel at the colors of a sunset, the decadent taste of chocolate cake, the first note of a symphony, or how silk and satin feel beneath our fingertips? If we had to dispense with one sense and live the rest of our lives with only four, I wager the majority of us would give up our sense of smell.

But this is likely the sense G-d would never, ever want us to give up. From Noah’s offering after the Flood to the animal sacrifices of Leviticus, it is the re'ach nichoach, the pleasing scent, that G-d is after. In Parshat Ki Tisa, it seems that G-d wants to encourage the Israelites to savor the power of smell. In Exodus 30:23-25, G-d commands Moses, “Next take choice spices: five hundred weight of solidified myrrh, half as much—two hundred and fifty—of fragrant cinnamon, two hundred and fifty of aromatic cane, five hundred—by the sanctuary weight—of cassia, and a hin of olive oil. Make of this a sacred anointing oil, a compound of ingredients expertly blended, to serve as sacred anointing oil.” This oil is used to anoint everything inside the new Mishkan. Imagine the Mishkan smelling like a Starbucks in October!

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra interprets that a phrase from these verses, ‘besamim rosh,’ means that “the top of each spice is to be taken,” because “the top of the spice is a much better quality than that which remains at the end.” It might be that G-d put a special emphasis on where to pull the spices from to ensure that the anointing oil smelled its very best. In this way, G-d shared the gift of G-d’s favorite sense with all the Israelites.

How can we honor this gesture on this Shabbat, and for the rest of our week? We can incorporate more appreciation of our Shabbat smells—the sweet beeswax candles, the tang of wine, and the savory warmth of challah. We can also find little moments for our favorite smells throughout the day, like the scent of coffee or tea in the morning or flowers in the early spring. Let Parshat Ki Tisa remind us of the power of sacred smells to awaken gratitude in our lives.

March 3-9: Parshat Vayakhel

When the Israelites departed Egypt, they left in such haste that it was easy to imagine all the things they left behind. If they had no time for their bread to rise and thus invented matzah on the go, did they leave behind clothes and dishes? How many treasured belongings were abandoned in their huts in Goshen, deemed too frivolous compared to something useful like a pair of sandals or a cooking pot?

One thing seems clear, however—given that the Israelites were an enslaved class for so many centuries, it seems unlikely that they were in possession of gold and jewels. And yet, in Parshat Vayakhel, Moses announces a collection of gold and valuables to help build the Mishkan, and the Israelites come out in full force. Exodus 35:22 tells us, “Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Lord, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants —gold objects of all kinds.”

Where did this gold come from?

To find the answer, we must cast our minds back to just before the great exodus from Egypt. In Exodus 11:2, Moses communicates G-d’s demand that the Israelites, in preparation for their imminent departure, borrow silver and gold objects from their Egyptian neighbors. These borrowed riches are never returned; they are effectively stolen and held by the Israelites until G-d later finds a use for them in the wilderness, at which point they are melted down to make tools for the Mishkan.

This little detail reveals a great deal about the relationship between the Israelite and Egyptian populations. Even as Moses struggled with Pharaoh in the fight for Israelite freedom, nameless Egyptians formed positive relationships with the Israelites. Enough goodwill existed between the two groups that the Israelites could ask to borrow their silver and gold—and the Egyptians would agree!

What opportunities for cooperation, like this hidden one in Exodus, have we missed? What relationships could we reexamine? The Torah tells us that without these borrowed gifts, the Mishkan never would have been made. What lessons and friendships can we cultivate in interfaith spaces that will bring us a new, profound perspective in our own worship spaces?

March 10-16: Parshat Pekudei

There are many symbols that have come to represent the Jewish people—the star of David, the lion of Judah, and the crown of Torah, just to name a few. But one of the earliest representations of the Jewish people, though often forgotten, can be found in the verses of  Parshat Pekudei.

The parsha describes the completion of several tools and pieces of the Mishkan, including the priests’ clothes. The most dazzling of all these designs is the breastplate, a grid with space for each tribe of Israel to be represented by a jewel. Occupying the fourth spot, corresponding to Judah as the fourth-born son of Jacob is a gem called a nofech.

Most of these jewels are hard to translate, as we cannot know exactly which gems the authors of Exodus would have encountered. Nofech is a particularly hard gem to translate. The only other place in the Tanakh where the word exists is in Ezekiel 27:16, describing a jewel traded from the nation of Aram. It might be emerald, turquoise, ruby, or carbuncle—not exactly narrowed down, considering the wide color range from blue to red!

Why was a nofech chosen to represent the tribe of Judah, which would eventually become the Jewish people? What characteristics of the stone spoke to the characteristics of the tribe? The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism gives several options. If the nofech was a ruby, it might have represented fertility, an omen of the Jewish people to come in future generations. Carbuncle represents a sharp mind while emeralds were considered good luck charms that enhanced strength and brought courage.

Though the true identity and meaning of this early Jewish symbol is shrouded in mystery, it leaves us exciting and thought-provoking questions about how the early Israelite tribes saw themselves reflected in their gems.

March 17-23: Parshat Vayikra

The Book of Leviticus, though it seems outdated to our current mode of worship, teaches a very important lesson within its first few lines. When describing how to sacrifice a burnt offering to G-d, a variety of options are offered: a bull, a goat or sheep, a turtledove or pigeon, or a cake of fine flour. Very quickly, these verses can get repetitive and even nauseating, with copious mentions of entrails. But these options give us insight into how the early relationship with G-d was transacted.

What Parshat Vayikra starts to give us is a tiered system for sacrifice. Bulls were the most expensive and valuable of the herd animals that the Israelites had, and sacrificing one was a loss only the very rich could afford. But to limit animal sacrifices to the costliest animal shuts out the majority of the population from a relationship with G-d. Other animals provided a spectrum of choices that were more affordable. Some could bring sheep or goats, some could bring birds. Even for the poorest in the Israelite society, a flat cake of choice flour mixed with oil would be as equally valid as a bull.

This parsha teaches us to start our new systems with equity so that everyone has a chance to meaningfully participate. No one donation or offering was considered more effective than another; G-d was not interested in cultivating relationships with only the rich. Just as the Israelites created this tiered system with equity rather than equality, we can look for ways in our own lives to make sure the barrier for entry is never too high for someone who wants to get involved with our work and our hobbies.

March 24-30: Parshat Tzav

When I lived in New York City, I had a very strict rule—any clothes I wore outside my apartment, I could not wear on my bed. Sometimes this was easier said than done; my apartment, and my bedroom, were very small, and often the only place to sit was my bed. But though it would have been easier to collapse on my bed after a long day of work, I forced myself to change out of ‘outside clothes’ into clean clothes before I sat down. I was too aware of all the grime and germs on subway seats, park benches, and office chairs. I wanted my apartment to be a clean, safe space.

Evidently, G-d had the same idea about the Mishkan. In Parshat Tzav, strict rules are outlined for what the priests should do with the ashes from the sacrificial fire that has been burning overnight on the altar. Though the priest has specific garments to wear when working in the Mishkan, Leviticus 6:4 tells us that when the ashes are collected, ‘ufashat et-b’gadav v’lavash b’gadim acherim’—he will take off his clothes and put on other clothes, so that he can travel outside the Mishkan with the ashes to dump them away from the sacred space.

Just like my rule about no ‘outside clothes’ on my bed, G-d was very clear that the priests should have their own sets of ‘outside clothes’ to do the dirty work, like dumping ashes. Within the boundaries of the sacred Mishkan, G-d wanted the same kind of clean, safe space with a specific set of clothes to be worn inside.

These rules are still in practice in a lot of ways to this very day. Think about how healthcare workers, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, took off their scrubs in their vestibules and garages to avoid bringing germs home to their loved ones. But there are also less drastic cases. How can we designate our own safe, clean spaces and show them respect? How can we shed the outside world and bring a new version of ourselves to the heart of our homes?

March 31-April 6: Parshat Shmini

Parshat Shmini gives us conflicting ideas about obedience. During the consecration ritual of the Mishkan, Aaron’s eldest sons pour incense onto fire pans and bring them before G-d, despite the fact that they have not been explicitly commanded to do so. Their punishment is immediate and horrifying—G-d bursts forth in fire and incinerates them in an instant. The ritual continues on, despite any misgivings and grief on Aaron’s part. But later on, though Moses commands Aaron and his remaining sons to eat the leftover meat from a sacrificed goat, Aaron and his sons allow the goat to burn up entirely. Moses rages against Aaron for not following his directions. But Aaron’s reply, in Leviticus 10:19, is this: “See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before Adonai, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten the sin offering today, would Adonai have approved?”

But Aaron is not punished for his disobedience. The chapter ends with Moses effectively silenced, approving of his brother’s logic. In fact, the medieval commentator Rashi says that Moses admitted his error and was unashamed to do so.

Aaron teaches us a valuable lesson in trusting our instincts. The day of the consecration might have been the very worst day of his life; his eldest sons had died a terrible death, and he was not permitted to mourn them, instead forced to continue the ceremony. But he was extra attuned to the safety of his remaining family. Though Moses wanted them to partake of the meat of the sacrifice, Aaron could tell that his family was not in G-d’s favor that day, and he did not want to make things worse. Though we will never know what would have happened if Aaron had taken that chance, Moses’s reaction to Aaron’s defense seems to imply that he made the right call.

In our own lives, we should not be afraid to follow Aaron’s example. Even on days when we make countless mistakes, when our peers tell us not to trust our gut, we should be brave enough to stand up for our decisions and protect the ones we love.

April 7-13: Parshat Tazria

Who would have thought that medical examinations were part of the priestly job description? But Parshat Tazria details for us how the priestly caste was responsible not only for daily sacrifices but for community health regulations. When Israelites with any sort of skin symptom come before the priest, he checks the location, color, and spread of the symptom to make a diagnosis. Depending on this diagnosis, the afflicted Israelite is then sent into a week of isolation to prevent the spread of a potential disease. After this week, the priest examines the patient again to determine if the patient can safely reenter society or if further measures need to be taken.

Isolation is a theme we can recall all too well from the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first time I caught COVID-19, I was sharing an apartment with five other people in Jerusalem, and to prevent the spread, I locked myself in my tiny bedroom. For ten days, I didn’t see anyone. My indispensable roommates delivered three meals a day by tray outside my door and slipped notes of support underneath. Yet those were ten very lonely, very scary days. I was incredibly grateful when I finally tested negative and could rejoin society.

Parshat Tazria reflects how scary and lonely it can be to be isolated from our community, even when it’s ultimately the safest thing to do. Verse after verse shows us the emphasis on reintegrating the patient back into society. The priest does not wait for the symptoms to completely disappear, knowing this could take much longer. Rather, he understands that the first week is likely the most contagious, and even if the patient returns with remaining skin symptoms, if they have not spread, then the person is considered safe enough to come back.

April 14-20: Parshat Metzora

When we are ill or injured, we hope that we have a speedy recovery so things can go back to the way they were, as though our time in the hospital never happened. Memories of infirmity, fear, and pain are ones we want to forget, as the comforts of our old routines beckon. But sometimes, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, we cannot go back to the way things were. We have changed.

This transformation is reflected in Parshat Metzora in the ritual prescribed for someone who has recently recovered from tzara’at, commonly translated as ‘leprosy.’ First, the priest performs a ceremony where he sprinkles a purifying agent on the former leper. Then Leviticus 14:9-10 tells us, “The one to be purified shall wash those clothes, shave off all hair, and bathe in water—and then shall be pure. After that, the camp may be entered but one must remain outside one’s tent seven days. On the seventh day, all hair shall be shaved off—of head, beard, and eyebrows. Having shaved off all hair, the person shall wash those clothes and bathe the body in water—and then shall be pure.”

Though the former leper is now considered pure and has reintegrated into their community, they do not look the same. Their hair is completely gone. While this is part of the purifying ritual, to ensure no lingering effects are hiding unseen under hair, there is a level of shame to it—new, unwelcome attention is now focused on their appearance. They cannot go back to how things were and fade, unnoticed, back into society.

This shaving cannot be avoided, according to Chizkuni, a 13th-century commentator. He emphasizes that the patient is required to shave in both verses, so there is no backing out of it. The transformation after illness is impossible to ignore. The Torah does not give us any indication of the feelings of the former leper. Are they relieved to have survived their ordeal, to be back with family and friends? Are they frustrated and embarrassed that their shaving sets them apart as someone recently ill?

The feelings of the ancient past correspond to the feelings we experience today. And sometimes our illnesses leave us forever changed and transformed, so we cannot forget what happened to us. Grieving these changes and feeling the full gamut of our negative emotions, even as we are grateful for healing, is completely acceptable and natural.

April 21-27: Pesach

One of the hallmarks of our spring festival of Pesach is how much we involve our children in our traditions. We begin before the holiday with our chametz hunt, encouraging our children to look around the house for yet-undiscovered bits of leavened bread. This can become a terrific game where the kids use feathers and spoons to scoop up the offending bread and brush it away from the house. Once the Passover Seder begins, we encourage the youngest among us to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” We watch and laugh as our kids search for the afikomen and sing Passover folksongs like “Who Knows One?” and “Chad Gadya.” Children are an integral part of the holiday.

Another part of the holiday is reading Song of Songs in the synagogue—ancient love poetry that has come to represent the love between G-d and the Jewish people. In Song of Songs Rabbah, a midrashic work that takes verses from the biblical book and gives rabbinic explanations for them, the rabbis highlight the following verse: “Draw me after you, let us run!” While in context, the verse refers to a pair of lovers, the rabbis pay particular attention to the words ‘after you’ and imagine a different story for them. In this story, the Israelites stand at the base of Mount Sinai, and G-d dithers before giving them the Torah, asking if they have someone who will stand as a witness and guarantor for them. The Israelites offer their ancestors—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as their guarantors. G-d will not accept them based on various doubts and disappointments these ancestors had. Next, the Israelites offer their prophets as guarantors, whom G-d similarly dismisses. Finally, the Israelites offer their children who will come after them as guarantors, whom G-d accepts. The children represent innocence, hope, and optimism for the Israelites’ future, and therefore, they are the perfect protectors of the covenant and the Torah.

Passover is a reminder to us—whether at our Seder table or in our texts—of the power of our generations. We must teach our children our stories and our traditions and trust them as our guarantors before G-d, the ones who will usher Judaism into the next era.

April 28-May 4: Parshat Acharei Mot

So often in the Torah, we see the same patterns over and over again, and we wonder why our ancestors had so much difficulty learning from their mistakes. When Jacob saw how his father favored his brother Esau over him, shouldn’t he have been more careful not to play favorites with his own sons? When the Israelites saw how G-d provided them water and food in the wilderness the first time, why did they continue to complain?

But Parshat Acharei Mot shows us that some lessons were learned. This parsha contains rules for which sexual relationships are forbidden, and one of the taboo relationships is given in Leviticus 18:18: “Do not take [into your household as a wife] a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.” Jacob ben Asher wrote in his 13th-century commentary on the Torah that, “The reason this is forbidden is because they were sisters [before they were wives] and they loved each other. When you made them rivals, they became jealous of each other.”

This verse, and Jacob ben Asher’s explanation, calls to mind the story of Jacob’s wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah. Jacob married them in quick succession but favored Rachel, and a years-long rivalry began between the sisters as Leah tried to compensate for her lack of favor by providing Jacob with children while Rachel maintained her status but could not achieve her dream of being a mother. Their bitterness poisoned their shared family for years. But a sad tale told in Genesis finds its correction in Leviticus.

Let us take our cue from this verse in Leviticus 18—even when we make the wrong choice early on in our story and cause pain for others, we can decide to never make the same mistake twice and keep others from making a similar misstep.

May 5-May 11: Parshat Kedoshim

Paducah was lucky enough to be in the path of totality for the most recent eclipse. Plenty of us made our way outside with our eclipse glasses in tow, spreading picnic blankets and popping champagne for a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. As the moon crossed in front of the sun and the light turned eerily dark around us, some of us might have felt a tremble of fear or—even rarer—a wave of awe for the glory of the cosmos.

‘Awe’ is a word that has fallen out of our daily vocabulary, diluted into ‘awesome.’ But its Hebrew equivalent is numerous in the Torah. In Parshat Kedoshim, G-d exhorts the Israelites to listen to the commandments and reminds them, “Vayareita mei’elohecha, ani Adonai—_you shall fear your G-d, I am Adonai.” The word commonly translated as ‘you shall fear,’ ‘_vayareita,’ is a word that inspires dread and subservience. But it is not quite an accurate translation. The root of the verb, ירא, can mean ‘to fear,’ but it can also mean, ‘to stand in awe, to revere, to honor, to respect, to cause astonishment.’ If these verses were asking us to merely fear G-d, a different verb would be used (פחד). But G-d is not asking for us to be afraid. Instead, we are encouraged to be astonished, to stand in awe at the power of G-d.

Such a request is hard to accomplish on a daily basis, but moments like the eclipse help us to reconnect with the concept of awe. Those who saw totality felt an ancient kind of uncertainty, knowing logically that the sun would reemerge from behind the moon but instinctively worrying that something important to life on earth had been lost. We were connected to our ancient ancestors in that moment, breathless before the power of the universe. But at the same time, we were moved beyond words by the beauty of it. ‘Awe’ was the perfect word for it.

May 12-May 18: Parshat Emor

In Parshat Emor, we learn something new about the priests: what they are supposed to look like. Being a descendant of Aaron is not enough. You must be absolutely, physically perfect to serve as a priest. Our verses tell us, “No one at all who has a mum–a defect–shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer Adonai’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G-d.”

This is not specific to the Torah. We read in the Mishneh Torah, a book of Jewish law, that when we see people with visible, physical disabilities, we are supposed to say one of two blessings. The slightly kinder of the two is, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who makes people different.” The far worse option is, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who is a righteous judge.” A righteous judge, as though a person’s disability is a punishment that G-d meted out to them.

We have to do better on behalf of our Jewish community who are differently abled. We claim there is room for everyone among our ranks. We claim we are all made in the image of G-d. But what steps can we take to really walk the walk on this, not just talk the talk? How can we make members of our community feel not just welcome, but not made to feel like a burden or a problem? That same law book I referenced, the Mishneh Torah, also says that “Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah—whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.” If we are all bound together by Torah, how can we make it easy for all of us have access to Torah, to community? If we put our heads and hearts together, I know we can find a solution.

May 19-May 25: Parshat Behar

Parshat Behar gives the rules for the sabbatical year in Israel, which decrees that one in seven years, the land must lie fallow to replenish its nutrients so it can continue to grow through the other six. This proves the wisdom of the ancient farmers who knew that overworking the land would only ruin it in the long run. But with this command to let the land alone comes accompanying fear. Leviticus 25:20 gives voice to that anxiety. G-d predicts that the Israelites will ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?”

G-d promises in the next two verses, “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year until its crops come in.”

We often think of Judaism as a religion distinctly lacking in faith. After all, it is possible to be a Jew without believing in G-d or ever setting foot in a synagogue. We question, we debate, we argue over the nature of G-d and whether or not our prayers are heard. Ours is a religion of what we do, not necessarily what we believe. But our Torah has so many examples of times when G-d asks for a leap of faith, for the Israelites to place their trust in the covenant. It would been easy to try and grow a surplus of food every year to try to save up for the sabbatical year, and it would have been terrifying to wait for the sixth year and cross your fingers that there would be a surplus year to cover three years’ worth of waiting. But that is exactly what G-d is asking the Israelites to do.

Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, a Moroccan rabbi and commentator from the 18th century, wrote that the grain that was harvested in the sixth year, even if it was three years old by the time the new grain was harvested, was ultimately more valuable than the new grain. Why? Because the old grain was a symbol of two things—the sign of G-d’s miracle at work, and the sign that the Israelites had kept faith.

May 26-June 1: Parshat Bechukotai

In the last parsha of Leviticus, G-d reviews the bottom line of all the rules offered in this Biblical book. Should the Israelites follow the commandments, G-d will grant them abundance in the land of Israel, give them strength to fight off their enemies and make their families fruitful. Should they disobey, G-d will afflict them with disease, defeat, and famine. Worse is promised should they continue to disobey even after realizing their mistake.

G-d promises in Leviticus 26:12 that, “V’hit’halachti b’toch’chem v’hayiti lachem l’Elohim v’atem t’hiyu-li l’am—_I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your G-d, and you shall be My people.” The first word of this verse, _v’hit’halachti, comes from the verb that means to walk—‘הלך,’ halach. Without getting too much into the weeds of grammar, the form of this verb is reflexive, so it reflects back on the speaker. V’hit’halachti b’toch’chem means something like, “I will walk Myself around in your midst” or “I will wander or meander among you.” There is a leisurely aspect to this word, as though G-d is someone you could run into at the grocery store.

How would our approach to G-d change if we imagined G-d not as a deity who dwells in some heavenly realm, but someone who wanders around, brushing up against us in our daily lives? Where do we see G-d in our daily interactions, and in which people? If we look for G-d wandering in our midst instead of in heaven, we might stand a chance at finding G-d in the interactions we share with others.

June 2-June 8**: Parshat Bamidbar**

The middle books of the Torah showcase the difficulties—and the bureaucracy—of transformation. Exodus is a book of explosive, world-shifting change as the Israelites transition from an enslaved class to a free people. For all its cut-and-dry rules, Leviticus tells the story of the Israelites transforming into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” a people governed not by a sovereign but a deity. The opening parsha of Numbers continues this transformation of a powerless minority in Egypt to a powerful military confederation of tribes, as the aforementioned ‘numbers’ make up the census of men capable of becoming soldiers.

With all the rules of Leviticus and the endless lists of Numbers, it can be hard to see how many changes are actually taking place within the people. But Numbers 1:10, a seemingly innocuous verse, indicates that a seed planted at the end of Genesis has taken root. This verse comes in a list of tribal leaders who will help Moses take the enormous census: “From the sons of Joseph: from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur.” Pay particular attention to the order of the names. Ephraim, Joseph’s second son, precedes Manasseh, his firstborn.

On Jacob’s deathbed at the end of Genesis, he asks Joseph to bring his two sons for a final blessing, and he places his right hand on his younger grandson’s head. When Joseph tries to correct him, Jacob says, “I know, my son, I know. [Manasseh] too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.”

Throughout Genesis, the question of which son will inherit has always led to conflict. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, is cast out so Isaac will be the primary heir. Jacob steals Esau’s birthright, which enrages Esau and causes the brothers to live apart for decades to avoid bloodshed over the theft. Reuben is disinherited by Jacob for sleeping with his concubine Bilhah, and Joseph’s entire saga begins as a consequence of Jacob’s favoritism. But here is the first time in the Torah that a younger son displaces an elder, yet there is no conflict. Nothing in the text indicates that Manasseh took offense or harmed his brother over the lost birthright. Numbers 1:10 confirms that the tradition of Ephraim taking precedence over Manasseh has been solidified. In every tribal list, Manasseh comes second.

It might seem inconsequential, but it is further proof that the Israelites are a people who do things differently. They do not have a king, and they do not yet have a territory. The most important figures are priests, not royals. And even the lines of inheritance are up for debate. The Israelites do not adhere to the status quo around them. They set themselves apart.

June 9-June 15**: Parshat Naso**

Parshat Naso contains one of the most baffling, and indeed disappointing, rituals in the entire Torah—the trial of the sotah, or the wife who is accused of adultery. Numbers 5:11-31 details the sotah’s trial as she is brought before a priest and made to drink ‘the waters of bitterness,’ a mixture of water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor, and mashed-up writing of a curse. If the wife is guilty, the potion will cause her to suffer a distended belly and a sagging thigh. If she is innocent, nothing will happen to her, and in addition to her vindication, she will become pregnant by her husband.

There is plenty to this ritual to upset us. Numbers 5:14 tells us that no evidence is needed to prompt the trial, only a husband’s ruach kinah, or ‘spirit of jealousy.’ The wife is made to go through a public ordeal of embarrassment—accused of adultery, forced to uncover her hair in shame, and commanded to stand before G-d until proven innocent or guilty. And the reward, if she is indeed innocent of adultery, is that she must return to her accusing husband and continue to procreate with him. Perhaps the writers of Numbers hoped that the birth of a child would smooth over her disgrace, both in public and within their marriage.

This trial hardly seems fair, with the woman suffering undue shame for a crime in all likelihood she did not commit. But Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, in his essay about this parsha in Common Ground, sees some redeeming qualities about the ritual. “Husbands tend to be suspicious,” he writes, “but those suspicions usually (not always) need something on which to feed and grow. Perhaps it is the way other men look at his wife, perhaps it is because his wife talked to another man. Whatever the cause, rumors often get started. These only feed the husband’s jealousy. Once he has made his accusation, of course, everyone knows it. If the woman is to be absolved of guilt, therefore, the only fair way is for it to happen in public.”

Engelmayer highlights that once the accusation has been made, the woman is (however unfairly) in social limbo. No one will want to associate with her, and her husband’s jealousy will make her home life unbearable. A public vindication—even if it involves drinking dirty water—is the only way to salvage her reputation. Having drunk a potion with a mashed-up version of G-d’s name in G-d’s own presence, her innocence cannot be disputed, and any further jealousy or mistreatment from her husband places the blame squarely on him in the eyes of the community.

June 16-June 22**: Parshat Beha’alotcha**

The Levites, a secondary priestly class, are given their marching orders in Parshat Beha’alotcha. Starting at age twenty-five, they embark on a quarter of a century’s worth of service in the Tabernacle as maintenance men. They pack up the pieces of the Tabernacle when the Israelites travel and put it back together when they arrive at a new location. During the Temple period, Levites became guards and musicians in the Temple complex. Numbers 8:25-26 says, “But at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor.” Thus the Torah gives us a paradigm for retirement!

These verses give us two important perspectives on a model for Biblical retirement, even if the age of fifty is a little earlier than what we might expect. First, it gives an exact age cut-off for work expectations. No one is expected to work their entire life away, as they would have when they were slaves in Egypt. Second, it accepts that despite retirement, the fifty-plus crowd of Levites might still want to take meaningful part of the work of their community. Like many retirees, they might not want to spend the rest of their days sitting on the couch—especially since the Israelites didn’t have crossword puzzles or good books! Verse 26 makes a provision for retired Levites who still want to contribute. They can work as Tabernacle guards with their younger peers.

What conversations might have occurred between the younger guards with their semi-retired elders? What stories might the elders have shared with their younger counterparts? Pirkei Avot tells us that fifty is the age that corresponds with giving counsel to others, and I cannot help but imagine the retirees standing guard with the twenty-somethings and offering advice on how to get babies to sleep through the night, or how to resolve a fight with a spouse. Perhaps these guard shifts led to dinner invitations and lively debates that enlarged the retirees’ social circle and allowed for intergenerational friendships. These two verses in Numbers show the wisdom of our ancestors in both planning an end to a career and allowing for community involvement when our work lives are over.

June 23-June 29**: Parshat Sh’lach**

To me, Parshat Sh’lach contains the most heartbreaking episode in the entire Torah. The Israelites have overcome so much together, breaking free from the bonds of slavery and embracing freedom. They have walked between walls of water and stood at the foot of a smoky, trembling mountain to encounter their G-d. In this parsha, they are on the brink of coming home. Scouts are sent into the Promised Land to bring back a report about their new home, but all but one of the scouts terrify and dismay the people with reports of an unconquerable land. No one listens to Caleb’s encouragement that with G-d on their side, they will succeed. Everyone panics that they have come so far for nothing, and that it would be better to return to slavery in Egypt.

G-d’s responding anger is formidable, and the punishment is decreed: this generation will never see the Promised Land. They will wander in the wilderness until the generation that lived in Egypt has passed away, and all memory of slavery and doubt has perished with them. Their descendants, born into freedom, will be the ones to enter the new land.

It recalls the myth of Orpheus. The Israelites make it almost all the way to having everything they ever wanted and had been promised, but their doubts cause them to fumble and lose it all. But how many such losses do we encounter with each generation? Wars, climate change, social injustice—sometimes we realize that we can never adequately address all the damage we have done, even if we work our entire lives. But that does not mean that these problems are impossible to solve. There is always the hope that the generation that comes after us can build on the work we have done. Maybe we could not fix the world ourselves, but maybe a future child will be born with just enough resources and positive characteristics that they will hit upon the solution we could not find in our lifetime. This is the eternal hope of not only the Jewish people, but all humanity.

Parshat Sh’lach embodies the famous quote from Pirkei Avot—“It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” The first generation of Israelites did not have what it took to cross into the Promised Land, but they would be the ones to raise the generation that would. Once they worked through their pain and disappointment, they could do the work of teaching their children the stories and strategies they would need to begin the next chapter of their story.