Monthly archives "April 2018"

AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM (Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27)

AHAREI MOT – KEDOSHIM (Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27)


By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 7-8).

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19: 2).

“Aharei Mot,” the title of this parasha, means “after the death,” referring to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS translation).[1] Expiation was required.  All of Leviticus 16, in fact, is devoted to the expiation of sin and consequent purification.

Scrupulous attention is paid to the priestly white linen attire and a host of other atonement rituals, including the choice of a bull for sacrifice and a pair of he-goats. Of the latter, only one is chosen by lot to be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, it is reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations. But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. The one that I like best is that of the medieval rabbi, Ibn Ezra. “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous.” [2] Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice.

Other commentators explain that “Azazel” is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “as azel” means “the goat went.” [3] Rashi, however, translates Azazel as meaning “to the goats;” in other words, the goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation. [4]

I was born in January, you see. My astrological sign is the goat, a designation with which I was never comfortable until I visited Arizona, where a single, dry, brown mountain – Camelback – dominated the arid landscape. As my stay there grew longer, though, I began to discern shapes, motion, on the rocky mountain. Animals, living beings of different kinds, colored to match the mountains. And the most agile among them were goats. Surprisingly beautiful to my newly opened eyes, they were mountain goats.

One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below. I began to think that being a mountain goat was perhaps a wondrous thing. To me, it signified that Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, the sacrificial goat had also endured.

Watching God’s creatures, the nimble goats, I was so moved at the time that I wrote a short poem about this experience. I called it “Born in January, like me.” Now, with a little more humility, I am giving it a new name: “Azazel.”




Mountain goats in their whiteness

clamber up the stony cliffs,

scale rocky heights,

melt age-old snowcaps

with heated vision.


Flock protected beneath his

fortress, a monarch stands

alone atop the tajo.


[1] “Aharei Mot,” JPS Hebrew English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) 244.

[2} Ibn Ezra, Quoted in Michael Carasik, Ed., Trans., “Leviticus,” The Commentators’ Bible: The Rubin JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot (Philadelphia: JPS, 2007) 120.

[3] Ibid., 120.

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] My poem was first published in the 10th Anniversary Issue of Voices of Israel, Haifa, Israel, 1982.

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

Parshat Metzora: The Healing Process (Leviticus 14:1-15:31)

Parshat Metzora: The Healing Process

(Leviticus 14:1-15:31)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

About three years ago, just as I was about to serve as Guest Staff Rabbi on a long cruise to Brazil, it was announced on ILTV (Israel- English news) that Israeli scientists have created a technology that eliminates the need for insect repellent. That was the last I heard of it, though. However, I would have defied any disease-bearing mosquito to have come close to anyone who emerged from our bus tours, dripping with sunblock and extra-strength Deet. It would have been a fatal journey for the mosquito!

Meanwhile on board the ship, just as on this one, every precaution was taken. Passengers were reminded daily to wash their hands frequently; disinfectant soap machines were stationed outside all public areas; and attendants with piles of hot towels awaited us outside the ship at every port before we could even touch the ship’s gangway railing on re-boarding. In addition, we passengers had individual responsibility to be preventively vaccinated for all kinds of diseases occurring in that part of the world. Most of us took anti-malaria pills. In addition, the ship provided a infirmary staffed by two nurses and a doctor. We were protected plus.

In our Torah portion for this week, Parshat Metzora (which discusses infectious diseases in detail) we can similarly marvel at the wisdom of the careful precautions taken by our ancient Jewish religious tradition not only to isolate – that is, quarantine outside the community – a person afflicted by a disease deemed infectious, but also the concern shown by the priests, the biblical healers, in attempting to identify when the contagious period had passed, and when the infected person had healed sufficiently to return to the community without risk to its members. And without social rejection. Always there is the effort to bring the person back to the community.

This passage clearly identifies the dual concern in our tradition, both for the community and for the individual. The sick person is not an outcast. A daily effort is made by the healers – the priests, dangerously exposing themselves to infection – to go outside the community each day to examine the sick person or persons, and with the medical knowledge of the time to know when they are healed. Simply stated, the priest builds a bridge between the need of the community and the dignity of the person concerned. Only then can the community be whole.

Parshat Metzora also addresses inanimate objects – infected buildings – as well as people. Mold and fungus and greenish-black areas must be removed, and, if the buildings cannot be restored to health, they must be destroyed.

Understandably, most kids approaching bar- or bat-mitzvah dread getting this portion. Their initial reaction is usually “Ugh – Why me?” Most years Metzora is combined with Parshat Tazria, so that the two portions combined go into even more detail about these issues. When my granddaughter ascended to the Torah for her Bat-Mitzvah two years ago, and Metzora was the portion she got! It was my joy and honor to have studied it with her, and to be the rabbi conducting her Bat-Mitzvah. We decided to concentrate not on the disease but on the courage and medical knowledge of the healers, and, yes, she read and commented on this portion with great respect for the healers of our tradition in their ancient, priestly wisdom. In fact, this portion is an essential element in understanding the ritual purity code outlined in the Torah.

There is Divine symbolism inherent in this portion too. In the biblical account of the early years in the desert, Moses throws the sweet branch specified by God into the bitter waters, and, behold, they are sweetened. Jewish wisdom thus suggests that adherence to Divine commands is the sweetness (symbolized by the branch) that alleviates illness (the bitter waters).

Some moderns, like Rabbi Harold Kushner, suggest that concentration on what the powerful and beautiful words of the 23rd Psalm can help in the healing process. So today, thousands of years after it was written, we lift up our eyes to the mountains – to our Divine shepherd – for the health and strength and wisdom to overcome whatever this challenging era demands.

PSALM 23 [1]

Lord, You are my shepherd;

I lack nothing.

You make me lie down in green pastures;

You lead me to water in places of repose;

You renew my life;

You guide me in right paths

as befits Your name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,

I fear no harm, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies,

You anoint my head with oil;

my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

For many long years.

[1] This modern translation is adapted from Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Eds. (New York: Oxford University Press [JPS], 2004), 1307.

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

SH’MINI (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

SH’MINI (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

As a Torah portion, Sh’mini covers a lot of ground, and what it has to say about the food we consume affects Jewish people to this day. In other words, Sh’mini explains what we have come to call “Kashrut,” “The Kosher Laws,”– an outline of our dietary do’s and don’ts for everyday living, which Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews all interpret differently. A whole range of what we can and cannot eat at Passover is included in these laws too.

Despite the fact that her husband was a Labor Socialist with a dim view of God, my maternal grandmother always kept a strictly kosher home. But she refused to eat at my mother’s home. Why? Because my mother, who thoroughly enjoyed being an “acculturated” school teacher, did not keep a kosher home — even though she had been taught to do so by my grandmother. However, my grandmother would eat regularly at my home because I had not been taught to keep kosher. Also, she said, God would understand that it was important to be with her grandchild – her ainikel –and young family on Friday night. My grandmother’s God was very accommodating, stronger on rachamim than din. Of course, I kept special glass plates for my grandma and served her fruit salad, which was all she would eat, apart from the delicious cakes I bought from a kosher bakery with a heksher stamp.

Much later in my life, I was glad to learn that Los Angeles Torah educator (and political pundit), Dennis Prager, had simplified most of the kosher requirements expressed in Sh’mini into two simple rules: 1) Don’t eat animals that eat other animals, and 2) Don’t eat animals that are scavengers. Most important of all, of course, is the requirement to treat animals humanely, to slaughter them with the least pain possible, and the caution that, if we do eat meat, not to consume the blood of the animal. The ancient Israelites believed that the life of the animal – the DNA so to speak — was in the blood.

The rules concerning separation of milk and meat relate to a different text in the Bible – the prohibition about taking the chicks or potential chicks of the mother bird out of the nest while the mother bird is present. The idea is to avoid causing distress to the mother as much as possible. But there is a deeper concern. Milk represents life; it is considered life-affirming, whereas when we eat meat, it is dead. Dead meat. And so, according to Jewish reasoning, life and death should always be kept separate. Thus no milk and meat together. Some of my rabbinic colleagues have become vegetarian, in fact, so that they don’t have to think about whether or not they are keeping kosher appropriately when their congregants peek at their plates.

* * * *

For centuries, the laws pertaining to Kashrut were clear, but according to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Kashrut has become both complex and controversial in modern times:

“A number of factors [have] contributed to the debate over kosher food during the last two centuries. Among those factors are massive acculturation, changes in food production including the industrialization of the making of foods, ‘new’ foods from tofu to genetically modified products, changing views of hygiene, the application of scientific method to kosher food inspection, mass marketing, the health food movement, new understandings of Jewish spirituality, and the recent growth of Orthodox Judaism to mention a few” (“You Are What You Eat: The New World of Kosher Food”).

Added to this is the fact that the kosher food business is BIG business in over 100 countries and, according to Forbes, accounting to food sales of over $12 billion under rabbinic supervision.

Until recent years, the Reform movement considered that kashrut was no longer binding on modern Jews, but it has come a long way since a non-kosher meal known as “the treifah banquet” was served in 1883 at Hebrew Union College. Jewish soldiers, by the way, were first granted an exemption from keeping kosher during World War I.  Since 1979 and more especially since the second Pittsburgh Platform in 1999, the Reform movement has defined its policies with a new openness to traditional practices. Then, “in 2011, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published The Sacred Table…which presented “the possibilities of an ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish Community today.”

Also, many Progressive Jews have become involved in observing “Eco-Kosher,” which Rabbi  Shacheter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Jewish Renewal movement defined as “good practice in everyday life that draws on the deep well-springs of Jewish wisdom…. The fusion of the ancient with the post-modern.” Eco-kosher stresses respect for animals and concern for their distress, it is about not ruining the earth, not eating foods with carcinogens, not overusing tobacco and alcohol, avoiding anorexia, etc.; it stresses tzedakah, the sharing of food with the poor, and praising God for the earth’s bounty before and after a meal. There is a lot of emphasis on praying for rain, which, living in California, I particularly appreciate. Other links with the earth are clothing, energy, breathing (in regard to air pollution) and socially responsible work conditions. And of course, shmita, giving the earth a rest. All of these concerns may be summed up by the ethical principle of Tikkun Olam – Healing the World.

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