Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Christopher Columbus, MOT?

Here Is The Proof:  Charles Garcia recently published a CNN opinion piece that asked, then answered, the 520-year-old question Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

Abq Jew® (and almost all MOTs) would love to cite any clear, unambiguous statement from the Admiral himself that declares "Yes, I am a Jew."

But if Christopher Columbus was a Jew, he was a secret Jew.  And he did what secret Jews learn to do - destroy evidence and write in codes.

Throughout his life, Christopher Columbus never discussed his parents or relatives.

For those who wish to believe that Columbus was a Jew, there is plenty of evidence - but none of the evidence is clear or unambiguous.

There are two types of evidence - let's call them "circumstantial" and "documentary" - that historians have cited to demonstrate the plausibility of Columbus being a Jew.

Circumstantial Evidence

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (see JFNM Conversation on Israel Advocacy) wrote an insightful article, Columbus Day 2009: Was Christopher Columbus Jewish? for Beliefnet, from which Abq Jew® has learned and borrowed much.

Date of Departure.  It is well-known that Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera on the evening of August 3, 1492.  It is also well-known that - in accordance with the Alhambra Decree of March 31, 1492 - all Jews were to leave Spain by August 2, 1492.

August 2 was, as it turned out, Tisha b"Av, the traditional Jewish anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.

Why did the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria sail on August 3?  One claim is - to avoid starting such an incredible journey on such an inauspicious and unfortunate day.  Another claim is - because the harbor was so crowded with Jew-filled ships on August 2 trying to get out, Columbus's ships had to wait until the next day.

Friends, Crew, Supporters.  Hirschfield notes that "Columbus was known to frequent the company of Jews and former Jews, among whom were some noted astronomers and navigators, as well as his official translator. Marranos (another term for Jews forced to convert) figured prominently among Columbus’s backers and crew."

Documentary Evidence

Rabbi Yosef Tropper wrote an exhaustive article, Was Christopher Columbus Jewish?  for Close To Torah, from which Abq Jew® has also learned and borrowed much.

With G-d's Help.  When Abq Jew® read this statement by Tropper, his immediate reaction was "Case closed. There can be no question."
We have copies of thirteen letters written by Colón [Columbus] to his son Diogo, from November 12, 1504 to February 24, 1505. On twelve of them, there appears in the top left corner as a monogram in cursive script, the two characters “Beis” and “Hei,” which are the initials of the Hebrew words “Baruch Hashem“, which pious Jews have the habit of writing on top of their papers. [The thirteenth letter was to be shown to the Queen.]
What Abq Jew® envisioned was a clear, unambiguous ב״ה like that pictured above.  What the ב״ה actually looks like is shown below.

Do you see the ב״ה?  Tropper and many other scholars do.  Tropper explains:
This peculiar sign or cipher, according to Simon Wiesenthal (1973), appears on all of those letters in the upper left corner. This cipher consists of two Hebrew characters “bais” and “hey”, which stand for baruch hashem, an expression used by Jews. The letters bais and hey are intertwined like a monogram.
Jewish References.  Hirschfield points out that "Throughout his life [Columbus] demonstrated a keen knowledge of the Bible and the geography of the Holy Land."  Columbus "often quoted the views of rabbis and other Jewish learned men."  Columbus would "often compare himself to King David and Moses."  And Tropper claims that
Columbus employed peculiar dates and phrases unique to the Hebrew people. Instead of referring to the “destruction” or “fall of Jerusalem”, he used the phrase “the destruction of the second house”. He also employed the Hebrew reckoning of 68 AD, instead of 70 AD, to date the event. A marginal note dated 1481 is immediately given its Hebrew equivalent of 5241 ....
Bequests.  Columbus signed his last will and testament on May 19, 1506.  In that document, Columbus asked that one-tenth of his income be tithed to the poor; that an anonymous dowry be provided for poor girls; and that money be given to a Jew who lived at the entrance of the Lisbon Jewish Quarter.

Signature.  Which brings us to the final piece of documentary evidence - Christopher Columbus's enigmatic (to say the least) signature, one variant of which is shown below.

Columbus used a triangular signature of dots and letters that scholars say resembled inscriptions found on gravestones of Jewish cemeteries in Spain. He ordered his heirs to use the signature in perpetuity.  Tropper analyzes Columbus's signature thusly:
Colón’s [Columbus's] signature proves that he knew Hebrew prayers. His signature is found in two variants. Both are made of seven Latin characters arranged to form an equilateral triangle and below it, in one line, three letters and one word.
The difference between the two is only on the lowest line. In one it reads “Xpo FERENS”, while the other reads “El Admirante”. Many attempts have been made to decipher this strange cryptogram (including some supposed talk of kabbalistic basis, but I could not find anything on this). None proved satisfactory until M.B. Amzalak of Lisbon succeeded in 1927 to unravel the mystery of the seven letter triangle. Maurice Davis of New York, managed to discover the hidden meaning of “Xpo FERENS” in 1933. In Colón’s time, in prayer books, they would abbreviate recurring words as an initial between two dots. Thus for example, the symbol .A. would be Hashem’s name of Ad’nus. In light of this, Amzalak suggests that .S.S.A.S. stands for: “Santo Santo Santo Ado-noy S’baot” – “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). These are the words that the angels on high say about Hashem and we recite in the prayers Uva Li’tzion and Kedusha.
As for the XMY, they are the Spanish letters which resemble three Hebrew letters. X equals Shin (both look similar). M equals Mem. Y equals Ayin. Handwritten they appear quite similar as you can see in the copy of his signature. He slanted the Y very much so that it looks like an Ayin without requiring much imagination. There are no dots because these letters represent nothing, rather they spell out a specific word, a word which begins a very fundamental Jewish phrase: Shin-Mem-Ayin – Shema. This is the first word of the affirmation of the Jews monotheistic faith: Shema Yisra’el Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, Hear O Israel that Hashem our God is One. Together, the seven letters stand for the Jews ultimate expression of faith.
“Xpoforus” was a commonly used word, short for “Christophorus.” “Xpo” stood for “christo” and “forus” meant “bearer.” But Colón’s word is different. The word “Xpo” is separate, inferring that it may constitute the first letters of three separate words. “FERENS” means “carrier” in Greek. Its Hebrew equivalent is “No’say.” Maurice Davis therefore suggests that “Xpo FERENS” stands for: “Nosei Avon Va’pesha Vi’chata’ah” – “Forgiving iniquity transgression and sin”, the appeal for God’s mercy, which Jews repeat no less than thirty-two times during the prayers on Yom Kippur. Notice that there is a Colón (:) immediately before “Xpo FERENS.” In Hebrew the Colón means stop or the end of a sentence and in Spanish it means that there should be a surname, perhaps “Colón” before it. For Jewish readers it signifies that it should be read from right to left. This way reveals a secret Hebrew meaning, namely FERENS = Carries (Nosei), O = O’von, P = Pesha, and X = Chata’ah. He was begging God’s forgiveness for his formal adherence to the foreign religion. It seems that Colón used this signature to avoid using his Christian name and perhaps in hope that someday someone would find its hidden message and realize his true religion. As soon as the title “Grand Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was given to him, Colón signed “El Admirante”, instead of “Xpo FERENS” in all of his letters except the ones sent to his son. In his will, in which he tells his children that his title is to be kept in perpetuity, he tells them never to omit the seven letter cryptogram and “not to sign more than El Admirante”. In other words, “don’t sign your Christian names!”

What does all this mean?  Abq Jew® strongly encourages you to click the links, examine the sources and resources - then decide for yourself.

Charles Garcia concludes his article:
The evidence seem to bear out a far more complicated picture of the man for whom our nation now celebrates a national holiday and has named its capital.
As we witness bloodshed the world over in the name of religious freedom, it is valuable to take another look at the man who sailed the seas in search of such freedoms - landing in a place that would eventually come to hold such an ideal at its very core.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield concludes:
Whoever Christopher Columbus was, and however he is remembered, this much we know: he was a boundary crossing explorer who drew on multiple identities and traditions in ways that empowered him to take incredible chances when others would not, see remarkable opportunities where others could not, and accomplish things big enough that their full implications were beyond anyone’s understanding. That is the stuff of spiritual greatness.
And Rabbi Yosef Tropper concludes:
Colón may have failed to reach Israel, but he did lay down the foundations of a new home for a large number of morranos in his time. Although Colón never had the opportunity to confess his true religion, indeed it is his discovery that has lead [sic]to the vast amount of Torah and Judaism which is learned and practiced freely today. For that, whether or not I have you convinced you that he was Jewish, he definitely deserves some thanks!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Abq Jew ® Is A Registered Trademark

We're On Our Way:  On Friday May 25th, just before Shabbat, Abq Jew® received a certified mail envelope from his intellectual property lawyer, Deborah Peacock, of the noted Albuquerque law firm Peacock Myers.

In the envelope was a certificate announcing to Abq Jew® and the world that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had registered Abq Jew® as a trademark of Abq Jew LLC on Tuesday May 8th.

To give you readers a sense of how trademark processing works - the application was filed in November 2011.  One lawyer / USPTO conversation was required (in March); all issues were resolved; and then, in May, Abq Jew® was registered.

To give you readers a sense of how trademark marketing works - Abq Jew® received this postcard on Friday May 11th, and was able to immediately confirm via the USPTO website.

Yes, this was a full two weeks before Abq Jew® received that certified mail envelope.
Yes, this was a mere three days after the Abq Jew® trademark was registered.
As Yakov Smirnoff says -

What a country!

And as Abq Jew® says -

Thank you, Abq Jew® friends!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Paloma: A Play About Peace

By Anne Garcia-Romero.  Camino Real Productions, LLC and Albuquerque's National Hispanic Cultural Center are honored to present the world premiere of Paloma by Anne García-Romero, a contemporary play inspired by a medieval Spanish Muslim treatise on love.

Paloma will be presented at the NHCC in July and August, and then will tour to Santa Fe.

Anne García-Romero says of her play:
Ring of the Dove, a remarkable eleventh century Muslim Spanish treatise on love by Ibn Hazm, moved me with its elegant, witty and intricate considerations of romantic relationships.  Inspired by Ibn Hazm's text, I wrote my play Paloma as a response to the post 9/11 climate in this country.  The notion of convivencia intrigues me.  How did Muslims, Christians and Jews coexist peacefully in eleventh century Spain when religious intolerance persists in present day U.S. society?

Paloma explores the lives of Ibrahim, a Moroccan-American and practicing Muslim, who falls in love with Paloma, a woman of Puerto Rican descent and nominal Catholic, while they study ancient Muslim Spain at New York University in 2003. The couple soon travels to Spain where they grapple with their religious differences. The play also toggles between various months in 2004 as Ibrahim and Jared, his friend and lawyer who practices the Jewish faith, face legal ramifications resulting from Ibrahim and Paloma's relationship. In a way, this play is my prayer for greater coexistence in our present age.

Attention!  Action Required!

Camino Real Productions is attempting to raise funds for its production of Paloma (a National Latino Playwriting Award runner-up) through Kickstarter, the world's largest funding platform for creative projects.

Your contribution here will help Camino Real's production of Paloma take wing, and expand the conversation about peaceful coexistence today. 

So far, more than 36 Backers have pledged
upwards of $1,360 toward the goal of $1,450.
This project will only be funded
if the goal is met by Sunday, June 3.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Shavuot 5772 / 2012 in Duke City

The Feast of Weeks:  As Abq Jew ® noted in A Murder of Crows:
Several thousand years ago, all Jews then living, all Jews ever born, and all Jews ever to be born gathered beneath Mount Sinai to hear God speak to us.  There were, Abq Jew believes, more than a few rabbis among us. A whole drasha-load of rabbis.

We celebrate this wondrous event every year on the Holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, exactly seven full weeks after the Holiday of Pesach.  When God freed us from Egypt, there was a reason: so God could give us His Torah.

This year, Shavuot begins on Saturday evening, May 26th.  Come celebrate at the

Shavuot Service & Tikkun
Congregation Nahalat Shalom
Saturday May 26 @ 8:30 pm

Congregation B'nai Israel and Congregation Albert join Congregation Nahalat Shalom for a Shavuot Service and all-night Tikium Leyl Shavuot, with guest speaker Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Diirector, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Also featuring Rabbi Arthur Flicker of Congregation B'nai Israel; Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld and Cantor Barbara Finn of Congregation Albert; Rabbi Min Kantrowitz of JFSNM; and Rabbi Deborah Brin and Cantorial Soloist Beth Cohen of Congregation Nahalat Shalom. 

Or, if you prefer, you may wish to celebrate with Chabad.

But wherever and however you celebrate the Festival of Shavout, please remember:  this is the time, our friends at tell us, to discover the most important intellectual development in human history - the giving of the Torah. 

Shavuot was indeed The Day That Shook The World.


Mazeltov, Kathy! 

Shabbat Shalom, Albuquerque!
Hag Sameach, New Mexico!

Words of Torah: Anne McGoey

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Anne McGoey
Copyright © 2012 Anne McGoey     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

This week’s Torah portion, known as Sh’mini, begins with Leviticus chapter 9.  Eleven times, this chapter speaks of community through the use of words such as: “the Israelites,” “community leadership,” “the people’s offering,” and “all the people.”   This leaves no doubt that the priests must offer sacrifices for the benefit of the entire community, not for themselves individually.

The following chapter, Leviticus 10:1-15, tells a story about Aaron and his four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar.  Nadav and Avihu think only of themselves. They offer a sacrifice on their own behalf, without considering the entire community. Consequently, they die.

Aaron, Elazar and Itamar, continue learning priestly responsibilities. Specifically, Aaron must avoid intoxicants in order to distinguish the ritually clean from the unclean.  (Leviticus 10:9-10)  Upon completing the sacrifice, the thigh and chest are returned to Aaron.

Moses tells Aaron, “The thigh and chest are meant to be a portion for you and your descendants for all time, as God commanded.” (Leviticus 10:15) Across eons of time, living in the twenty-first century, we are the descendants.  But what use do we have for a thigh and chest?

For me, this story is not about sacrifices.  Instead, it illuminates powers of the heart that were given to us for all time. I see three lessons about heart power in this Parashah.

First, interpreted as an allegorical story, Aaron and his four sons represent - one person, not five. The sons symbolize different aspects of Aaron’s thinking and behaviors. Becoming the High Priest requires heart transformation as Aaron learns to consider the well-being of the entire community above his own.

Nadav and Avihu represent old behaviors and beliefs, which no longer serve Aaron. Allowing those parts of himself to die, he embraces his higher qualities, personified by Elazar and Itamar.

This story reveals that conscious evolution of communities requires changes of heart by individual community members.

The second point considers the meaning of the chest and thigh. The chest creates a space for the heart, and represents holding the heart in conscious awareness. In an earlier story, Jacob’s thigh was injured as he struggled with a stranger during the night.  In a moment of heart transformation, Jacob received the new name of Israel. (Genesis 32:25-33)  Symbolically, the thigh reminds us that inner conflict is part of the process for heart growth and change.

Third, science is learning what ancient wisdom has always known. Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath have detected the heart’s electromagnetic field at least five feet from the body in all directions.  The signal from one person’s heart impacts the brain waves of another. Appreciation generates an ordered heart wave pattern called heart coherence, while anger produces a measurably disordered pattern.**

Aaron must distinguish the “ritually unclean” from “the clean.” For me, feeling stressed, intolerant, and negative creates uneasiness that might equate to being “ritually unclean.” Feelings of appreciation, loving-kindness, and heart-coherence produce a calmer state, perhaps equivalent to being “ritually holy and clean.” From a state of heart coherence we are more likely to experience creativity and connection to those qualities that, in the words of the Psalmist, make us “little less than the angels.” (Psalm 8:5)

Through the heart, people have always participated as co-creators in partnership with the Source of Life. Now, the coming together of scientific knowledge and ancient wisdom has brought forth more understanding about the possibilities to create a conscious way of living, which is in harmony with each other and the earth, through accessing the heart’s energies.

This Torah portion calls our attention to powers of the heart that were given to us for all time. We are all interconnected through our hearts and the meditations of the heart do make a difference.

The words of the Psalm, which we say every week, mean so much more to me now.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.
(Psalm 19:15)   


** For over 20 years, researchers at the Institute of HeartMath (IHM) have been investigating the physiologic methods by which the heart communicates with the brain. They have noticed that the pattern of the heart’s electromagnetic waves will impact brain waves. In other words, we experience feelings in the heart before our brains can help us verbalize them.  Furthermore, researchers have learned that the electromagnetic field of the heart is greater than that of the brain and can be measured at least five feet out from the human body in all directions. And the electromagnetic signal of one person’s heart can impact the brain waves of another person nearby. Understanding the significance of these findings, we can become more conscious about how we contribute to either harmony or conflict among people.  An exciting project called the Global Coherence Initiative applies this research for planetary change.

“In mid-2008, the Institute of HeartMath created the Global Coherence Initiative to bring people around the world together to unite the collective power of their hearts to care for each other and our planet.  Less than three years later more than 38,000 people in 87 countries are participating in this humanitarian and science-based project. . . . to help shift global consciousness from the instability and discord we often see to greater cooperation, harmony and enduring peace.” [Institute of HeartMath Newsletter, (Spring 2012, Vol. 11/No. 1) p. 6.]

 For more information about heart coherence and research of the Institute of HeartMath go to  IHM has posted many of their research papers on-line.  My information came from the following sources:

McCraty, Rollin and Doc Childre. The Appreciative Heart: The Psychophysiology of Positive Emotions and Optimal Functioning. Boulder Creek, CA: Institute of HeartMath, 2002, 2-3.

McCraty, Rollin. The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People. Boulder Creek, CA: Institute of HeartMath, 2003, 3.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Words of Torah: Debbie Kapp

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Debbie Kapp
Copyright © 2012 Debbie Kapp     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

In the second century BCE, as part of a plan to eradicate Judaism, circumcision was outlawed, Sabbath observance was outlawed and reading from the Torah was outlawed. Jews replaced the outlawed weekly Torah portions with selections from the Prophets.  For each week a section from the prophetic writings was selected that would remind the listeners of the proscribed Torah portion.  Reading from the Prophets thus became a tradition that continued. 

This week’s Haftarah portion is from the second book of Samuel.  The Prophet Samuel lived during the time of King David.  Haftarah Sh'mini tells the story of King David’s wish to establish a fixed sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant.  King David conquers Jerusalem and unifies the Israelites politically and geographically.  King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into the city amidst a triumphant celebratory procession.

An accident occurs when an ox stumbles and the cart carrying the Ark wobbles and starts to tip and the cart's attendant reflexively reaches out to stabilize the Ark.  The attendant dies suddenly apparently in divine retribution for having profaned a sacred object.  King David becomes frightened and has the Ark temporarily stored in the home of a subject.  After 3 months pass, and the respective subject’s household appears graced and protected, King David brings the Ark once again into Jerusalem.  Again there is a magnificent celebratory procession with dancing and music and wine, and cake is distributed to the public.

What parallels are there between the Torah and Haftarah portions?  In both, a tragic death suddenly occurs when something sacred is violated.  In the Torah portion the sons of Aaron die when they unilaterally offer an incense burning.  In both the Torah and Haftarah portions, the individuals who die seem to have acted with good intention; their abrupt demise appears unwarranted.

A second connection between the Torah and Haftarah portions is that each narrates a significant moment in the story of the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah portion describes events during the consecration of the Tabernacle, the portable shrine that housed the Ark during the time of Wandering.  The Haftarah portion describes the Ark’s grand arrival in Jerusalem, marking the end of its travels.

Another parallel is that each portion introduces a dominant attribute of Jewish identity:  in the Torah portion the dietary restrictions, and, in the Haftarah portion, the centrality of Jerusalem.  The attributes are complementary: one is physical and the other spiritual.  The dietary restrictions concern a daily physical need; the centrality of Jerusalem is at the emotional core of Jewish spirituality.

In this week’s Haftarah portion, King David tells the Prophet Nathan that he wants to build a permanent home for the Ark in Jerusalem.  The Eternal informs the Prophet Nathan that King David is not the one destined to construct the Temple; a descendent of the King will construct the Temple.  King David complies with the Eternal's directive.  He can only assemble the materials for the Temple's construction.

King David’s son builds the Temple in Jerusalem.   After the destruction of the Temple the Jewish people go into exile.  Throughout 2,000 years of exile, the persistent yearning for Jerusalem sustains faith and permeates religious practice.  The yearning for Jerusalem is central to the collective Jewish consciousness.  It is continuously reinforced through tradition.   

We refer to Jerusalem as the Torah scroll is removed from the Ark.  When we celebrate Passover we proclaim: "next year in Jerusalem."  And we recall Jerusalem during the wedding ceremony when the glass is broken.

 Some trace the etymology of the name Jerusalem to the Hebrew words that mean "they will see peace."  At present, there is not peace in Jerusalem.  As King David could only prepare for the construction of the Temple and could not witness its realization, perhaps we as well need to prepare purposefully for a Jerusalem of peace so that its realization can be witnessed by our descendants.  As the Community of Israel it is our obligation to work towards repairing a broken world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Words of Torah: Barbara Cohen

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Barbara Cohen
Copyright © 2012 Barbara Cohen     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

Sh’mini: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Shabbat Shalom!  You may notice that we also read Sh’mini last Shabbat.  Because Reform Jews celebrate Pesach according to Torah instruction while Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the United States add an extra day (which was last Shabbat), Conservative and Orthodox Jews are reading Sh’mini today.  Reform Jews read Sh’mini again today in order to stay on the same Torah reading cycle as the traditional congregations.  Today we read from Leviticus chapters 10 and 11. Chapter 10 tells the dramatic story of the tragedy that befell Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, on the eighth and final day of the dedication ceremonies for the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, while Chapter 11 describes the laws of kashrut.

In 1939, during the first month of the war against Hitler, Winston Churchill spoke on a BBC radio broadcast, and described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”  The same description applies very well to our Torah portion, Sh’mini.

It is in Leviticus chapter 10, the story of Nadav and Avihu, that we find a riddle, a mystery and an enigma.  Nadav and Avihu are in their first week on the job as priests in the newly constructed Tabernacle. They, along with all the Israelites, have just witnessed the Presence of God, and divine fire has ignited the alter fire and consumed the sacrifices.  Nadav and Avihu then take their fire pans and put what is generally translated as “alien fire” in them.  They offer this alien fire to God, who has not asked for it, and the two young men are immediately consumed by divine fire.   Moses offers some words of comfort to Aaron, and Aaron is silent.  Moses instructs Aaron and his two remaining sons not to mourn, but all the people are permitted to mourn.  God then speaks directly to Aaron, instructing him and his sons not to drink any intoxicant when they enter the Tent of Meeting, on penalty of death.  Moses gives Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, further instructions on eating certain sacrifices.  As Chapter 10 closes, Moses becomes angry with Eleazar and Itamar because they have burned the goat of sin offering rather than eat it in the sanctuary to remove the sins of the community.  Aaron responds on behalf of his sons, telling Moses that in light of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s death, God would not have approved of his eating the sin offering of the people, and Moses agrees.

First, let’s look at the riddle.  In Chapter 10, verse 16, Moses inquires about the goat of sin offering.  The Hebrew text says “v’eit s’eyr hachatat darosh darash Moshe”, which means:  “Regarding the goat of the sin offering, Moses inquired insistently…”  The words darosh darash are identical words in the Torah, each spelled dalet , raesh, shin.  They are translated as “inquired insistently"[1]  or “diligently inquired.”[2]  A note in some editions of the Torah tells us that these two words are the exact halfway mark of all the words in the Torah.[3]   Darosh falls in the first half, darash begins the second half of the Torah.[4]   Of course, Leviticus is also the middle book of the Torah.  And according to Rabbi Laura Kaplan, the Torah contains 77 doubled words, words that are repeated for emphasis, and darosh darash is the middle set of those 77 pairs of words.[5]   It hardly seems likely that the words “darosh darash” appear in the exact center of the Torah by accident.  So the riddle posed by our Torah portion is why are these two words, diligently inquired or insistently inquired, placed here?  We will come back to this.

Now to the mystery.  Why did Nadav and Ahivu die?  The Torah text only tells us that they brought a strange or alien fire within the Holy of Holies that God had not commanded of them.  Rabbis and sages for millennia have debated the nature of the fault that caused God to take their lives, and yet the crime remains obscure.  Therein lies the mystery:  how could a sin so grave be so elusive?

Some believe that Nadav and Avihu had the best of motives;  they were so moved by the Divine Presence and the fire sent by God to bless humankind and sanctify the Mishkan that they sought to offer something similar back to God.[6]   Under this view, even though they acted out of religious passion, they failed to follow God’s law by bringing fire that was not commanded.[7]   It follows that their death warns us that halacha, the religious law, is the only way to draw close to God; unrestrained religious passion is dangerous.  We may find their punishment harsh, but ritual mistakes were very serious in biblical thought.[8]  And to compound the ritual crime, perhaps they approached too close to the Holy of Holies; as we also see in our Haftarah portion, crimes of trespass on the sacred are immediately fatal.[9]

In Rashi’s view, Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk; why else would God warn immediately Aaron and his remaining sons never to drink wine when they enter the Tent of Meeting or they will die?[10]   If this was their crime, then we learn that we cannot lose control of our focus when we worship God.

Still other Rabbis suggest that perhaps their crime occurred earlier.  On Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu accompanied the elders of Israel who gazed upon God; all seventy of these elders perished by fire.[11]  

Or perhaps their crime was arrogance.  A midrash suggests that Nadav and Avihu were impatient to see Moses and Aaron die so that they could become the leaders.[12]   A different midrash claims the two sons of Aaron refused to marry because they did not think any women were worthy of them.[13]   Some commentators see arrogance in their decision to offer their “alien fire” without consulting their teachers and religious authorities, Moses and Aaron.[14] 

Perhaps only those present 3300 years ago at the dedication of the Mishkan understood the gravity of the sin that caused Nadav and Avihu to die.  Or perhaps not even they understood. In any event, the reason that God’s fire consumed them remains a mystery to us.

Immediately following the mysterious deaths, God instructs Aaron that the priests are not to drink alcoholic beverages, and then Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons how and where to eat the sacrifices.  They are to eat the remains of the meal offering by the altar; the breast and thigh and fat offerings, which are the people’s sacrifice of well-being,[15] are to be shared with their families and eaten in any clean place.   Then Moses gets upset about the goat of purgation offering, the offering that is to remove the guilt of the community. 

And that brings us to our enigma.   Although Moses does not seem to have given clear instructions regarding this offering, he is angry with Elazar and Itamar when he discovers that the goat offering was completely burnt rather than eaten in a holy place.  A very cryptic conversation between Moses and Aaron ensues, in which Aaron asks rhetorically whether God would have approved had he eaten the purgation offering, after the tragedy that befell him, and Moses, who had been so agitated a moment before, agrees.[16] 

Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for this conversation in which Aaron reassures a very troubled Moses with a short and obscure response.  One explanation of Aaron’s response is that Aaron, Elazar and Itamar were in mourning, and therefore they could not eat this particular sacrifice – a point that Moses apparently overlooked but Aaron remembered.[17]   Others suggest that the death of Nadav and Avihu might have polluted the sanctuary, but Aaron and his sons were instructed in verse 7 not to leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest they die, so they could not eat the goat offering in the holy place.[18] 

Despite the efforts of Rabbis and sages to explain Sh’mini, the parsha contains a puzzling tale of tragedy that interrupts the lengthy instructions given by God to Moses, to give to the people of Israel.  We are left with the riddle of the words “darosh darash” at the midpoint of the Torah, the mystery of the reason for the death of Nadav and Avihu, and the enigma of the cryptic conversation between Moses and Aaron about the goat offering.

I believe that the story of the journey of the Ark to Jerusalem that begins in our Haftarah for the week can help to explain the puzzles of Sh’mini.  The Haftarah, from Second Samuel, 6:1 – 7:17, tells a parallel story to the parsha, simpler but no less tragic.  King David is leading joyous procession to take the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to establish a religious center for the Jewish people.  The Ark is being transported on a new ox-cart from the home of Avinadav (an interesting combination of the names Avihu and Nadav), where it has been stored after its liberation from the Philistines, by his sons Uzzah and Achio.  At a certain point on the trip, the oxen nearly upset the cart and so Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark.  God is furious with Uzzah for his error or his disrespect and strikes him dead on the spot.  The Haftarah tells us that David was distressed and named the spot where Uzzah died “Peretz-Uzzah,” which means breach or strike against Uzzah.[19]

Second Samuel also tells us that David terrified and abandoned his plan to take the Ark to Jerusalem; instead he stored the Ark for three months at the home of a non-Israelite.   When David learned that the non-Israelite’s family had been blessed by God for storing the Ark, he resumed the joyful journey to take the Ark to Jerusalem.[20] 

We have a mystery here – why did God kill Uzzah?—that mirrors the mystery of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  In both stories, the young men who died came too close to something sacred, but the men all seem to have good intentions and so we feel the punishment was perhaps too harsh.

Luckily, we get more insight into the mysterious death of Uzzah from First Chronicles 15:1-15, which tells the story of David’s second attempt at taking the Ark to Jerusalem from a different perspective.[21]  In First Chronicles, we learn that David has realized his error on the first attempt to take the Ark to Jerusalem: transporting the Ark on an ox cart was wrong.[22]   David now says, “It is not proper to carry the Ark of God except the Levites, for the Eternal chose them to carry the Ark of God and serve . . . forever.”[23]   And so on the second attempt, David summons the priests and Levites and asks them to prepare (sanctify) themselves and bring the Ark of the God of Israel to the place he has prepared for it.[24]   And David admits his earlier mistake: “For from the beginning, [when] you were not [the bearers], Adonai, our God, made a breach in us, for we did not seek God according to the ordinance.”[25]  

With the help of First Chronicles to fill in additional details of the Haftarah story, we learn that the death of Uzzah deeply troubled David, and he sought diligently (remember “darosh darash”) to figure out what had caused the tragedy.  When he figured out that the error was his, he took great care to correct it and to teach to “all Israel” the proper way to transport the Ark “as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Eternal.”[26] 

If we reflect these elements back on the more puzzling story in Sh’mini, we can imagine that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu must also have troubled Moses and Aaron very deeply.  Quite possibly they wondered if they were a sign that the dedication of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, was unsuccessful.  God had promised Moses that God’s presence would rest amongst the people of Israel once the tabernacle was constructed;[27] perhaps the deaths meant that God had reconsidered this promise or the tabernacle was not satisfactory.  We can see now why this story comes in the very center of the Torah: because its resolution is pivotal to the story of the people of Israel.  It is exactly here, at the midpoint of the Torah, where we learn whether God’s covenant with Moses will be fulfilled.  The first half of the Torah has been the story of a people whom God has chosen but who have had some difficulty upholding their part of the deal.  Here in the center of the Torah, we – and Moses and Aaron – will find out if God will dwell with the people of Israel and thus how the story will continue.

Our riddle, “darosh darash,” marks this turning point in the Torah and in the story of the people of Israel, and it gives us the key to understanding the mystery of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu:  diligently seek, insistingly inquire.  Diligent inquiry is how David discovered that it was his own mistake, his failure of leadership that caused the death of Uzzah.  And diligent inquiry is how Moses and Aaron must approach their leadership of the people of Israel in order for this huge venture to succeed. 

Retrospectively, it appears that neither Moses nor Aaron was properly supervising the new, inexperienced priests Nadav and Avihu when they offered their incense with “alien fire.”  When Moses “insistently inquires” about the goat sacrifice to expiate the sins of all the people, we see that he, like King David, has done some soul-searching since the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and that he now understands that the well-being and the very life of the people of Israel, and of those who serve the people, depends on attentive and diligent leadership.

So we can see Moses’ “diligent inquiry” or “insistent inquiry” as the lesson he learned from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. For the people of Israel to become the Jewish nation, to thrive and to serve God, its leaders must do more than simply announce the received laws from God. They must also exercise true leadership; they must be pro-active, diligently inquire, insistently ask questions, and take responsibility for teaching public servants how to carry out their duties.

In the enigmatic conversation between Moses and Aaron that closes Chapter 10, we can see that Aaron has also learned a lesson about leadership.  Aaron too, has done some inquiry and searching, and has drawn his own conclusions about the halacha – the law – that applies to eating the sacrifices.  As Rashi explained, the general law is that those in mourning cannot eat the sanctified meat.  However, Moses instructed Aaron that that this general rule (which actually appears later in the Torah)[28] does not apply to the special sacrifices for the dedication of the Mishkan.  For this reason, Moses was angry that the priests did not eat the goat offering.  But Aaron had inquired even more deeply and recognized that the goat offering for the sins of the people of Israel was a sacrifice to be done regularly on Rosh Chodesh and not part of the dedication ceremony; Aaron therefore concluded that the goat sacrifice was subject to the general law that one in mourning may not eat it.[29]   In Rashi’s analysis, this is the logic underlying Aaron’s response to Moses, “Had I eaten the purgation offering today, would God have approved?”[30]

In his cryptic conversation with Moses, we see that Aaron diligently sought to perform – and to have his sons perform -- the goat sacrifice properly.  Aaron, like Moses, and like David in the parallel Haftarah story, has been inspired by the tragic deaths to become a more careful and more diligent leader, and to instruct his remaining sons more attentively.   The Torah tells us that when Moses heard Aaron’s analysis regarding the goat sacrifice, Moses approved.  Most likely Moses also approved of Aaron’s growth in initiative and leadership, and of Aaron’s own, independent, insistent inquiry to be certain that he and his sons were properly performing their new jobs. 

Like so many other chapters of Jewish history, Leviticus chapter 10 opens with a tragedy.  But as we work through the riddle, the mystery and the enigma, we see that it closes with hope for the future of the people of Israel.  The construction of the Mishkan has been a success; the presence of God has come to dwell among the people of Israel, and the people celebrate through their tears.  The shocking and tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu have motivated both Moses and Aaron to inquire insistently, to analyze diligently, and to become more conscientious mentors and more careful leaders.


  1. Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Leviticus 10:16.
  2. J.H. Hertz (ed)., The Pentateuch and Hartorahs, Soncino Press, London Second Edition 1960.
  3. Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Leviticus 10:16.
  4. “In the innermost Place of Torah there is Silence” by Rabbi Victor Reinstein,
  5. Laura Duhan Kaplan,,2008.
  6. Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  7. Id., Rabbi Menachem Davis (ed.), Interlineal Chumash, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., notes to Leviticus 10:1.
  8. Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Leviticus 10:1-3 notes, p. 227.
  9. Id.
  10. Elie Wiesel, “Nadab and Abihu: A Story of Fire and Silence,” in  Wise Men and their Tales, Schocken Books, 2003.
  11. Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, “Shemini”,
  12. Elie Wiesel, “Nadab and Abihu: A Story of Fire and Silence,” in  Wise Men and their Tales, Schocken Books, 2003.
  13. Id.
  14. Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, “Shemini”,; Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  15. Leviticus 10:12-15.
  16. Leviticus 10:16-20.
  17. See Rav Ezra Bick, Parshat Shemini,
  18. Women’s Torah Commentary, Sh’mini, p. 621.
  19. Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary ; Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Second Samuel 6:8 note c, p. 520.
  20. Second Samuel, 6:9-15.
  21. The expansion of the story of David’s journey to Jerusalem with the Ark in First Chronicles is pointed out by Rav Alex Israel, Parshat Shemini: Death in the Sanctuary
  22. See Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press (2004), Numbers 7:9 (Levites must transport sacred objects).
  23. First Chronicles 15: 2, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  24. First Chronicles 15: 11-12, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  25. First Chronicles 15: 13, as translated by Judaica Press, from
  26. First Chronicles 15: 3, 15.
  27. Exodus 25:8.
  28. Deuteronomy 26:14
  29. Shemini with Rashi,, Leviticus 10:16,
  30. Leviticus 10:19.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Words of Torah: Naomi Findley

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Naomi Findley
Copyright © 2012 Naomi Findley     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

We have many rules to live by – some are laws, some are self imposed. Others are obligatory – based on our environment and culture, our friends and family. We guide our children with rules, much like I was guided when I was a child. Many of my parent’s rules have stayed with me. I have implemented them in my parenting repertoire.

In Parshat Shemini, there are many rules along with a mystifying list of what you can and can’t eat.  The list goes on and on. Don’t eat the bat. Really? I honestly never considered eating a bat. Or a stork or a swan, or a hedgehog. When I read this excessive list, I wonder – what does this mean to me? Why is it so specific, and so irrelevant to my daily life? What is really being said? What can I take from this?  Is it something physical or spiritual?

I tend to follow directions. I drive on the right side of the road. I don’t run red lights or stop signs.  These are laws that are understandable. If you don’t follow them, you might get hurt or hurt someone else.  Breaking some laws garner small penalties – for instance - fines for parking violations. There are larger fines and/or penalties for more intolerable violations. Some laws justly need to be challenged in order to change behavior and thinking – segregation, for instance.

At a recent trip to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, I had an opportunity to see a section of the lunch counter from the Greensboro Woolworth’s Department store. In 1960, four African American men, later known as the Greensboro Four, sat at the “white only” lunch counter and ordered coffee. They were refused service.  The numbers for the sit-ins grew, and eventually resulted in boycotts of the stores that had segregated lunch counters. Because of these activists, Woolworths eventually abandoned their segregation policies.

If not for some strong civil rights protestors, some rule breakers, perhaps we’d still have segregation.  Let’s consider Women’s suffrage - the right for women to vote. I look around the bimah at my n’shei mitzvah “sisters” and can only imagine where the 5 of us would be without progressive thinking and rule breakers.

In 1917, women activists protesting the right to vote in Washington were subject to arrest. Some were even jailed. As you probably know, women were given the right to vote in 1920. The culmination of this fight is the 19th amendment – which prohibits any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote based on sex.

As for the kashrut laws, why are they important? What do they mean to me specifically?  I strongly believe that taking care of your physical self is important. During our Shabbat service, we thank Adonai for our body. We also sing the Mi Shebeirach – a healing prayer for our body.

We only get one body in life. Just one shot at a healthy life. It is important to take care of the physical self. Eating right is a big part of that. Just because we can eat a bat, should we? Do we want to? Being a vegetarian, it certainly doesn’t interest me. So, while I don’t eat a bat, it is not because the Torah tells me not too, rather, I make a choice not to eat it. That along with the entire list of forbidden foods mentioned in Parshat Shemini. I choose healthy eating, not so much because I am told to, but because it is the right thing to do. It’s a self imposed rule. If I choose to break the rules, the only person I hurt is myself. I follow rules for many reasons. But mostly, because I should, therefore I do. Taking care of your body - both physically and spiritually - is a vital aspect of living.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Words of Torah: Susan Freed

One of Five N'shei Mitzvah @ Congregation Albert:  On April 21, Parshat Shemini, five extraordinary women were called to the Torah as N'shei Mitzvah.  These five women - Susan Freed, Naomi Findley, Barbara Cohen, Debbie Kapp, and Anne McGoey - had studied and prepared for months to reach this day.

N'shei Mitzvah is an adult celebration of learning.  These five women had chosen to affirm their commitment to their Jewish identity and reaffirm their responsibility for performing the mitzvot of Jewish life.

Abq Jew was pleased to be among the congregants who observed and participated in this simcha, and immediately asked to publish the Divrei Torah of these five special women here.

As the Festival of Shavuot approaches, Abq Jew is honored to publish these words - one Dvar Torah per day - to once again demonstrate that "the Torah is not in Heaven."  The Torah is with and within each of us and all of us!


The Torah Words of Susan Freed
Copyright © 2012 Susan Freed     Used By Permission     All Rights Reserved

T’mei’im heim lachem. These are unclean for you.

My part of our portion is chapter 11 verses 1 through 8 from Vayikra (Leviticus), regarding the Dietary Laws. In this chapter God tells Moses and Aaron to describe to our ancestors, the Children of Israel the characteristics of mammals they can eat and some that they cannot. They are told that animals with cloven hoofs and who chew their cud are allowable but those that do not have both of these characteristics are “unclean”, although the concept of unclean is not described.

In the previous parts of the parasha, God gives instructions for offerings at the altar but also metes out punishment to Aaron’s sons who defy these instructions, in a rather extreme instance of what happens to those that do not faithfully and assiduously practice differentiation between what is prescribed by God and what is not. The parasha goes on to describe further laws of kashrut, regarding creatures of the waters, flying animals, and insects – which can be eaten and which cannot.

The Torah is full of laws that require the practice of differentiation. By differentiation, I mean a delineation between what is done and what is not done. This concept that Jewish laws are practices of differentiation dawned on me at Torah study one day last year and I owe this realization to my teacher, Rabbi Howard Kosovske. The beginning act of differentiation by God occurs at B’resheet, the very moment of creation when God separated light from darkness (perhaps the clearest kind of differentiation, for who would argue that light is dark and dark is light?) and we who are created in God’s image must, in our human way, do the same by following God’s commandments to differentiate.

Commandments to differentiate can be seen from the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai where we learned the difference between our God (yod hey vav hey) and all the other gods, to those ritual practices for sacrifice at the altar, to how we harvest our crops (a metaphor in this day for providing for the less fortunate), to maintaining honest balances and measures. We Jews can define ourselves by what we do and what we do not do.

In the laws of kashrut, Jewish ritual differentiation is explicit and clear. Sh’mini describes animals that we are allowed to eat and those that we are not allowed to eat, which are “unclean,” but we are left to our own devices to understand why that is so. The laws of kashrut belong to the class of Chukim laws, those laws for which the Torah does not provide commonsensical and unambiguous reasons, as opposed to Mishpatim laws, for which we know the reason because they ‘make sense.”

Examples of Mishpatim are the prohibition against coveting other people’s stuff or the admonition to help the helpless. These are laws that any civil society would enact and follow, even cherish, for they obviously create justice and build harmony. The Chukim laws, on the other hand lack obvious explanation, either in reason or in outcome, allowing for speculation and interpretation as to the purpose of such commandments.

Many Jews today look for logical, scientific explanations for the writings in the Torah, whether it be meteorological data to support the plagues or the events at Mount Sinai, or physiological reasons for some of the commandments. We are a fact-driven society in which our adherence to principals and laws is based on what we can discern though our five senses. If we are told to not eat something, we must know the consequences of doing so in order to inspire in us a commitment to practicing the commandment. Will it make us sick? Will it cause death? Will it taste yucky?

I grew up thinking (because it is what I was told) that the laws of kashrut are health regulations – pigs wallow in slime and carry diseases which those who eat of their flesh must abolish with chemical means. Shellfish are bottom feeders and consume the ocean’s refuse – garbage in, garbage out. There’s an obvious cause and effect there, now that we modern people understand disease.

There is no question that some of the dietary laws have healthful effects. But health-mindedness does not apply to all laws of kashrut. For instance, that interpretation does not explain why we cannot eat camels and rabbits. In fact some cultures do, with impunity.

Despite the apparent healthfulness of kashrut laws, I find it unsatisfactory to view the Torah as a health code. The ancient Israelites certainly would have figured out what makes one sick or dead, all on their own without God’s help.

From a spiritual point of view, ascribing purely physical justifications to divine instruction is base. These days do we not have at our finger tips rule books, how-to books, and scientific journals that describe in microscopic or macroscopic detail the workings of our cells and the vastness of the universe? Yet we still attend Torah study and Torah services every week to extract some kind of wisdom from the scriptures that we can use to make our lives better. I doubt that Jews throughout the centuries would have been willing to fight and die for a how-to book.

Rather, I agree with those who consider that the laws of kashrut in particular, and Chukim laws in general, are intended to hone personal spiritual discipline. “To Be a Jew” by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, a book that I read for an adult education class at Congregation Albert last year, suggests that the kashrut laws are designed as a call to holiness - to bring to the level of our everyday experience the differentiation of holy things from common things.

The willingness to differentiate between what one eats and what one does not eat, regardless of the “reason” for doing so and even in defiance of the habits and customs of one’s social milieu, develops a discipline, an ability to control one’s more basic and primal urges. The more one practices this kind of willful differentiation, the easier it is to define one’s habits of discrimination. So that, when the disciplined spiritual mind is faced with the temptation to covet a neighbor’s stuff, one can distinguish between right and wrong and can make a judgment call to deny those urges. As if saying, “I have enough pleasure indulging in the things that I am allowed to do – I do not need to partake of those things that I am commanded to not do.”

It is said that “it is hard to be a Jew” - all those commandments to follow. Rabbi Rosenfeld taught me that God’s love is embodied in the giving of the Torah. That’s tough love, you might say. But here’s the essential concept: for those who are willing to accept our laws as a gift of love, following the commandments builds self-control, which is ultimately what allows a spiritually refined mind to follow those difficult laws.

“But why?” we ask ourselves. What is to be gained by following the commandments? The Torah is a guide, not along a path of personal gain, but to the development and preservation of community. This is a very hard sell in our modern American culture where individual liberties trump the greater good. However, a discerning mind will reveal that it is the community, not one’s own personal merit that has your back, that supports you when you fall, that raises your kids and buries your dead, that loans you a cup of sugar, a jump start for a dead battery, and a shoulder to cry on. Knowing how to live in a community, functioning as a community member, seeking justice and reaping peace, eases life’s challenges and makes for a good night’s sleep, and these are the things that the Torah teaches us to do.

While I cannot say that I practice laws of kashrut the way my grandparents did, I am kosher in my own way. I have been a vegetarian for 40 years, at first as a matter of principle, despite the overwhelming social acceptance of meat as a dietary fundamental, and now as a matter of choice. Why should I eat meat when there are so many alternatives?

I cannot tell you what all of the 613 commandments say. But those that I do know, whether consciously or internally, I appreciate more and more, particularly now that I understand their purpose. My greatest motivation is to be a responsible member of the communities to which I belong, to seek justice and to build peace. And to continually develop a disciplined mind and spirit through adherence to those commandments. If Torah is the manifestation of God’s love, then observation of the laws is my way of worship.

I have waited 56 years to get up here on the bimah. It took me this long to understand what it means to be Jewish and to find the time to be thoughtful about practicing differentiation. Not to mention that I was distracted, if not consumed, by raising two kids and getting them through this process.

I am finally ready to celebrate my Jewishness by chanting from the Torah and the Haftarah, interpreting the parashah, and now calling myself a Bat (or Eishet) Mitzvah. I acknowledge Cantor Finn for helping me get here, through her teachings and gentle promptings.

I believe that one of the most important Jewish practices to achieve Tikun Olam, fixing our broken world, is to share learning and wisdom, and I am grateful for being given the chance to do that today.