Monthly archives "March 2018"

Prepping for Passover

Prepping for Passover

Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Exodus 2:2

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (This verse begins the 10 commandments)

Exodus 12: 14-17: God declares Passover as a festival memorial day

“ And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for the L-RD, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes … you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree.”

Exodus 13: 3

“Commemorate this day, the day you came out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, because the Lord brought you out of it with a mighty hand. Eat nothing containing yeast.”

Exodus 22: 20-23

“You shall not wrong a stranger, neither shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt./ You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child./ If you afflict them in any way — for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely here their cry. My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”

Leviticus 26:13

“I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”

Amos 2:10

“I brought you up out of Egypt and led you for forty years in the wilderness to give you the land of the Amorites.”

(Other cross-references include Ex. 6:6, 15:16, 15:26, 20:1 29:46, Deut 5:6, 7:8. Judges 2:1, Isaiah 43:3, Jeremiah 2:6, 16:14, 34:13, Ezekiel 20:7, 20:19, and Psalm 81:18.)

(Excerpted from The Whipping Boy by Matthew Lopez)

“John: I was scared, Simon. I had no choice.

Simon: No. You’re free now. For the first time in your life, you do have a choice. You have a choice, and you made a choice. When you were beating that man to death, you made a choice. When you hear from Freddy Cole, you made a choice. When you lied to me about my family, you made a choice. I see the choices you made. They tell me all I need to know about the man you are, about the free man you’re gonna be. You don’t get to be free, you work to be free. It’s what we have been praying for tonight. What you should have learned from all your reading. Were we Jews or were we slaves? I know what you are. You ain’t no Jew. You ain’t even a man. You just a Nigger, John. Nigger, Nigger, Nigger John.


(Excerpted from  Religion, Politics, and the Healing Potential of Dialogue with Difference, by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb in The Huffington Post)

“…[If] one defines religion as a force to elevate humanity with a vision of the future that is permeated with Peace and Justice, it is reasonable and correct to peer out into the world and chart its progress and regress toward this ideal….But a stronger impulse inherent in the tradition, expressed by the Prophets and sages of all generations, expresses the mandate to enter the world and imbue it with values of justice, forbearance and compassions as partners in the ongoing creation of this future of peace….[While particularism promotes strengthening of identity and commitment to core values, it must not be at the expense of neglecting the universal mandate of creating a just world for all humanity.

“Some contemplative and introverted, God intoxicated temperaments, impacted by the awe of serving God are more comfortable to reach this goal through a withdrawal that leads to holiness, while others feel more comfortable to go out into the world and elevate society. Conflict arises when the boundaries of each position are strengthened and little communication exists between these two distinctive temperaments.”

(Excerpted from Putting God Second by Rabbi Donniel Hartman)

“Together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of this who disagreed. Monotheism became a mixed blessing and a double-edged sword.”….

“Religion will be saved from itself when navigating this tension is an integral part of religious commitment and the life of faith. Religion will be saved from itself, its autoimmune diseases [God intoxication and God manipulation] cured once and for all, when we recognize that by putting God second, we put God’s will first.”



by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The title of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means “command.” It comes from the same Hebrew root as “mitzvah,” which also means “commandment,” but which we often translate today as “good deed.” In last week’s parsha, Vayikra (God “called”), the emphasis was on what you, the person, would bring as a sacrifice in ancient Israel, and on the kind of offering –five types were specified — that you would be bringing as your particular sacrifice. Would it be an “ascending offering” (an olah, which is completely burned); a meal offering (a minchah) – that is, cakes made of grains and mixed with oil? Or would it be a sin offering (a chatat, devoid of oil, to be eaten completely by the priest); or a guilt offering (an asham, also eaten by the priest)? Happily, perhaps it would be a peace offering (a shelamim, eaten by the person who brought the offering – the owner of the animal — after the priest has taken his share? A special kind of shelamim was the Thanksgiving offering, one of gratitude brought by a person who had survived a life-threatening event. Other people could be invited to share in the shelamim feast — because the food could only be kept for a prescribed time before being jettisoned. (After all, there was no refrigeration.)

Although sacrificing animals strongly offends our sensibilities and sense of decency today, a kind of democracy was inherent in all these offerings: People were encouraged to bring offerings that they could afford, without any sense of shame for being poor. For example, if you could only afford to bring a bird rather than a meat offering, it was sacrificed with its feathers intact so that the offering would look bigger, not scrawny. Lots of incense was put on the altar so that the offering would smell good to God.

In Tzav the emphasis shifts from the individual bringing the offering to the role of the priests, the priestly garments they should wear, the anointing with oil to sanctify them, and the offerings they should bring themselves to mark beginning to serve in the sanctuary. The High Priest was required to bring a meal offering every day in order to reinforce his humility through continued identification with the impoverished.  Also, as the priests ate, thus sanctifying the offering, the owner of the korban, the sacrifice, would achieve atonement.

What remains relevant today, is the meaning of the noun, “korban” along with the verb “lehakriv.” They mean drawing near, closeness, the desire, through sacrifice, to come close to God. In Judaic culture, it is about love of God. Sacrifice entails giving up something you love in order to come close to the godly essence within yourself. In our contemporary culture, it may mean giving up your leisure time for a worthwhile cause, or sacrificing a much needed vacation in order to pay for your child’s tuition in a good school or college, or to provide care for your elderly parents. Perhaps it means giving as much as you can manage to a charity or standing up publicly for an ideal. Perhaps it means military service to defend your country – although, since the time of the Akeida, when God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, human sacrifice is prohibited in Judaism. In Judaism, suicide bombers are a sacrilege.

The Jewish tradition also makes clear that a whole range of giving is permitted, from large to small, without shame, depending on your financial circumstances. But, since biblical times, the act of giving in order behave – and feel — like a godly person has remained an integral part of Jewish culture.

After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jews were persecuted by the Romans for practicing their faith. After the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, when half a million Jews were killed by the Romans, all of Jerusalem was plowed under. Jews were permitted to enter Jerusalem only on Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to lament at the Wailing Wall (now called the Western Wall). The Romans had left this retaining wall of the destroyed Temple standing so that the Jews could see what had become of their city.

Without a Temple, without an altar, sacrifices became a thing of the past. Instead, with the gradual growth of rabbinic Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis of the first and second centuries C.E., forbidden to teach Torah, taught about the prophets, what became the Haftarah. They instituted the practice of prayer as a means of drawing near to God, and the donation of money to substitute for sacrifices. It took time for these rabbis, who secretly gathered at first in their own homes as a network of small, like-minded groups, to gain influence, but eventually they did. Their suggestions have held sway as means of keeping – and growing — Jewish communities together until this day so many centuries later.

“Jew and Judaism survived despite the many sacrifices people had to make for it,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain. “In the eleventh century, Judah Halevi expressed something closer to awe at the fact that Jews stayed Jewish despite the fact that…they could have converted to the majority faith and lived a life of relative ease (Kuzari 4:23). Equally possible, though, is that Judaism survived because of those sacrifices. Where people make sacrifices for their ideals, the ideals stay strong. Sacrifice is an expression of love” [emphasis mine]. (“Understanding Sacrifice,” Tsav 5776).

At Passover, people tend to marvel at the Hagaddah’s discussion of the five rabbis of old —  Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azaria, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarphon — who met at B’nai Brak and stayed up the entire night of Passover discussing the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. How could they find so much to discuss, their students wondered, calling them because it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma? Perhaps the rabbis stayed up so late because they were also discussing their own situation in regard to Roman persecution, and how they could keep their own communities alive without a Temple. Maybe that was when they settled on prayer and donations as substitutes for sacrifices. Maybe they realized that sustained prayer – and monetary gifts to the needy — could bring people close to God. The Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Elazar would give a coin to a pauper, and only then would he pray” (Baba, Batra 10a)

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer

VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer


By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“The people I formed for Myself

Shall declare My praise!”  

(Isaiah 43:21, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [1]

“I am the first and I am the last,

And there is no god but Me.”

(Isaiah 44:6, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [2]

With the call of God [Va’yikra] to Moses, the book of Leviticus begins. This is the Priestly book, an enunciation of the Holiness Code, ascribed by biblical scholars to P (along ago compilation by priestly scholars). As religious rites, as acts of contrition, forgiveness, thanksgiving, and joy, sacrifices were universal to all ancient religions, asserts Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in his excellent book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. His lengthy essay on Leviticus is well worth reading.

“Leviticus is a still, deep pool. Here, at the end of Exodus, the Israelites remain cramped in the Sinai wilderness, where they worked together to construct a portable sanctuary (“Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.”) Nearly all of Leviticus presents itself as taking place at that sanctuary – where God spoke to Moses, giving instructions to be conveyed to the people of Israel.”[3]

It is to their credit that ancient Israelites, surrounded by pagan religions in which child sacrifice was a common practice, forbade sacrifice of that kind. Instead, for more than a thousand years, they substituted animal sacrifice, as we learned in the early biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. However, animal sacrifice was conducted according to strictly defined, humane rules, which also provided for sacrifices of meal (grains) rather than animals and for a portion reserved for their priests. What you were required to sacrifice depended on what you could afford – and in accordance with your sense of guilt.

Vayikra offers insight into early Israelite sacrifice practices by explaining in great detail – so much detail, in fact, that for people in this century, it is rather repellent to read about it — the five types of sacrifices allowed. The first three are voluntary, the last two obligatory.

  1.  A burnt offering (Olah). Very holy. Completely burnt; no one eats it.
  2.  A Meal Offering (Minchah). Made of flour and oil and cooked in various ways with frankincense put on top so it will smell nice.
  3.  A Sacrifice of Well-Being (Zevah Sh’Lamim). Concludes with a joyful meal with the donor’s guests.
  4.  A mandatory Purgation Offering (Chatat) can be individual or communal and involves ritual sprinkling of the sacrificial animal’s blood on the altar. The carcass of the obligatory animal (bull, sheep, goat, or fowl, or even meal) is burned outside the camp.
  5. A Reparation Offering (Asham) of a ram is mandatory.  The person or persons must restore what has been taken (usually property) plus a penalty of 20 percent. [4] 

The Hebrew concept of sacrifice also provided for inviting friends and family to partake in the feast of a well-being sacrifice (after the priests were allotted their share). So it did provide for a communal meal amid much thanksgiving and joy. The sacrificial food had to be completely consumed. It could not be left over for the next day.  Not exactly our modern, celebratory barbecue in the garden on happy occasions, but it came close.

Notably, the Book of Deuteronomy, usually regarded as a summary of the previous four books of the Torah, makes no mention of the rules for sacrifice.[5] By the time the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem (then the central and  only place in Israel where animal sacrifice was permitted) in 70 A.D., the Jewish synagogue system had already taken hold to some degree in Israel. The rabbis in their wisdom discontinued animal sacrifice and, instead, substituted prayers. It was no longer necessary to show contrition through animal sacrifice. Prayer was the answer. Now one could atone for sins committed and ask for forgiveness through prayer. Making restitution, if possible, was also required. Only when the person or persons did not repeat wrong-doing when faced with the same situation(s) was forgiveness complete. So began the tradition of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, which is central to modern concepts of Judaism.


God’s Presence to suffuse our spirits,

God’s will to prevail in our lives.

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,

nor mend a broken bridge,

nor rebuild a ruined city.

But prayer can water an arid soul,

mend a broken heart,

rebuild a weakened will.” [6]

[1] Michael Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 149

[2] Ibid., 152.

[3] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism Press, 2006) 658.

[4] Ibid.,659.

[5] Ibid., 644.

[6] Rabbi Elyse D. Friedman, Ed., Mishkan Tefillah: A Reform Siddur (New York: CCAR, 2007) 75.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community

(Exodus 35:1-40:38)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

As we begin to read this portion, there is a sense of déjà vu. We have so recently read about this exacting blueprint for the Tabernacle, the materials needed to build it, the priests’ vestments, and so on. So is Vayakhel-Pekudei redundant–or was the earlier portion, Terumah, a redactor’s mistake? At first, Vayakhel-Pekudei does seem to be a repetition of Terumah, which described the Divine command to build a Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle).  Some rabbis do think the earlier portion is out of sequence, that its place should be here, the parasha we are reading now. Yet others differ. Both portions complement one another, these rabbis suggest, because the purpose of each parasha is different. And, taken together, they give a fuller picture.

The Gathering of the People

Envisioned by Divine instruction, Terumah was intended to provide a microcosm of the cosmos so that God could dwell among the people. Thus the Israelites would not be alone in the wilderness. That was the purpose of the Tabernacle. The double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, by contrast, is about the gathering of the community to put the blueprint into practice – to physically and creatively build a beautiful place for God’s presence to dwell among them. The Tabernacle would serve as an instrument of unification. As the people united to construct the Tabernacle, they would also be building their own community.

With God’s instruction in mind, Moses took leadership, first in gathering the people (Vayakhel means “he gathered”), and then in inspiring them to donate the materials for the Tabernacle’s construction:

“gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece” (Exodus 35; 5-9)

Even in their haste, the Israelites had brought some transportable wealth (“brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants – gold objects of all kinds,” as well as copper and silver) with them from Egypt, and they gave generously of whatever they had, the yarns, the fine linen, the skins, the acacia wood. As the donations of the people poured in, the chieftains “brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense” (Exodus 35: 22-29).

Soon no more contributions were necessary. There was more than enough to build the Mishkan!

At this point, skill and experience came into the picture. A talented artist, Bezalel, had been specially selected to supervise the project, together with Oholiab, who complemented Bezalel’s creative abilities with competence in construction and various crafts (Exodus 35:4-38:20).  Now each person, both male and female, was exhorted to help in accordance with the skills, arts, and experience they individually possessed. For example, “all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair….Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering for the Lord” (Exodus 35: 26-29). So the giving of generous donations was built into the maintenance of the Jewish community a long, long time ago! (Pekudei refers to the Records of the community.)

A Security Blanket

With the building of a portable Tabernacle underway, the production of the priestly vestments began, and when everything was completed, Moses blessed the ancient Israelites for the wonderful work that they had done. The priests were robed (we also read about their fine vestments in Tetzaveh), anointed, and consecrated. Only then was it time for the cloud – representing the presence of God – to make its appearance so that the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. In what might be considered the most important verses of this portion, a description is given of a cloud covering the Tabernacle (the Mishkan) by day, while a fire would burn by night (Exodus 40: 36-38).

“When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exodus 40: 36-38)

Together, the cloud and the fire constituted a kind of security blanket as the Israelites continued their journey, knowing that they had a beautiful, portable place they could call home – one built by their own efforts — and that the presence of God would accompany them on their journeys and protect them when they rested.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.