Archives for April 2016

Torah Reflections Passover – April 17-23, 2016



Mandatory Generosity at Our Seder

Tonight, at our first Passover Seder, we will begin telling the story of our exodus from Egypt raising the matzah and saying in one voice: Ha lachma anya… This is the bread of affliction, the bread of simplicity, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all in need, all who have become estranged or alienated come and eat.

In so doing we will begin a process of reenacting the enslavement that our ancestors suffered in Egypt in order to become aware of current enslavements both personally and in the world at large. We invite in those who are destitute, the poor and the excluded, with—on one level—the understanding that these are metaphors for the disowned parts of self. At the same time we know that, as we sit around a table of plenty, there are others on the streets, cold and hungry, living lives of alienation. Maybe our rabbis began the telling of the story this way to quash relentless complaints of a Seder that “drones on and on,” causing everyone to “starve.” When the Seder is used as a tool to give us a taste of what it might be like to be a slave, to be poor and hungry, then its length becomes a means to give us access to what real hunger feels like; dipping our parsley in salt water becomes an opportunity to taste the tears of despair, and eating a slice of horseradish root on a dry tasteless piece ofmatzah an occasion to feel the bitterness of hardship.

But what most strikes me in reading this passage is that our telling the Passover story begins with a mandated act of generosity: we are to invite the poor and the destitute to partake in our Seder. Mandatory generosity, in our tradition, is called tzedakah. Though often mistranslated to mean “charity,” the word is best understood as “righteousness” or “justice.” The Shulchan Aruch, the Set Table—the Jewish book of mindful living and practices—obligates one to give tzedakah in a way commensurate to one’s ability. While giving ten percent of one’s income is advised, the practitioner is warned not to give beyond his/her means and to watch for the shadow side of over-giving which is often the ego showing up clothed as generosity.

One reason that generosity, or tzedakah, is made mandatory is to help one overcome the ego-enslaved heart walled-off by the inner voices that see only scarcity, where fear and attachments keep one’s heart and hand from opening. As giving is required, one is made to face these inner resistances, while the ego’s rationalization is circumvented. As the practice unfolds, the inner Pharaoh of fear and attachment begins to loosen his grip on our heart, and after giving a thousand times just see if you can avoid being spiritually transformed.

“Ha Lachma anyathis is the bread of affliction,” supports our remembering that the poor, the hungry, and the stranger are part of who we are. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” gives us the practice of tzedakah as a pathway to free all who are enslaved by poverty. Tzedakah helps open our hearts, move beyond the constriction of the ego and live more generously and compassionately. As we practice giving tzedakah, it is we who, paradoxically, are richer for it.

Chag Sameach!

Post Scriptum:
Once a year I come to you asking those of you who are not members of Bet Alef, yet enjoy receiving and reading these (almost) weekly Torah Reflections, to consider making a donation to the organization that supports me in creating them and in making them available to you. This year, as part of our annual fundraising campaign we have set up a Bet Alef page on Give BIG, part of the Seattle Foundation, that supports local non-profit organizations such as ours by allocating “stretch dollars” to their fundraising efforts. I ask you, then, to please go to our Bet Alef page and “Give BIG.” Thank you!
Rabbi Olivier

Torah Reflections – April 10-16, 2016


Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

The Liberating Power of Generosity

This week marks the beginning of our Passover preparation. This spring cleaning is both an outer process of emptying our homes of the forbidden chametz (product made of leavened wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt and their derivatives) and an inner process of emptying ourselves from our own leavened ego, our own puffed-up-ness. The evening before the first night of Passover, we are to symbolically inspect the house by candle light and, with feather in hand, remove any leftover chametz. This ritual is akin to the inspection by the High Priest of a house afflicted by tzaraat, a mysterious plague, in this week’s Torah portion.

Tzaraat is usually translated as “leprosy,” as it is first encountered in Torah as a skin affliction. But, here, it applies to the walls of a house as well. This additional meaning makes the term challenging to accurately translate. A biblical lexicon states that the root of the word, tzara, is synonymous to “prostrate” or “humble oneself.” Perhaps this affliction is meant to cause one to humble oneself, to diminish the puffed-up-ness of one’s ego.

Tzaraat might, therefore, be an outer symptom of a spiritual imbalance where one is barricaded behind the walls of his/her own ego, the skin of his/her separate sense of identity; where one’s heart is closed-off. In our tradition we define that state of imbalance as Mitzrayim (usually translated as Egypt,) from the root of the word meaning “narrow” or “constricted.” It is from this Mitzrayim, this constricted consciousness, that one is to break free at the time of Passover. Then, we are to study the story where our inner Moses is to liberate us from the hardened heart of our inner Pharaoh. In the Exodus narrative, what initially closes Pharaoh’s heart is fear; the fear that the Hebrews were becoming too mighty a people, a threat to his power and to the limited resources of his kingdom. The ego tends to hold this kind of scarcity consciousness whereby it is compelled to aggressively pursue getting the largest slice of the so-perceived ever-shrinking finite pie, and to ensure its domination over others in order to achieve its goal.

And so, our rabbis teach, a counter measure to the closed-ness of the fearful heart of our inner Pharoah is to cultivate the character trait that stands in opposition to it. Rather than fighting or trying to fix our inner Pharoah—which would only strengthen it—the spiritual process, they say, is to build-up our inner Moses. Cultivating themiddah, the value of generosity within us serves this purpose. In this case, the rabbis prescribe the practice of nedivut halev, generosity of the heart. They teach that the very act of giving has, in fact, an impact on our hearts. Giving, as an ongoing repetitive practice, leaves its mark on our psyche. It transforms us time after time, and with each act of giving we become more charitable, more compassionate, more merciful and more loving beings. It doesn’t matter if we give of our money, our time, our talent or of all three; we should give often and consistently.

Torah Reflections – April 3-9, 2016


Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59


Sin is a Divine Gift

Our weekly Torah reading begins laying out spiritual practices connected to human birth: “Ishah ki tazria… – When a woman conceives…” [Lev. 12:2] In his commentary on these three words, Rashi (11th Century, France,) quotes a peculiarmidrash by Rabbi Simlai: “Just as the formation of mankind took place after that of the cattle, beast and fowl, when the world was created; so the law regarding mankind is set forth after the law concerning cattle, beast and fowl.” [Lev. Rabbah 14:1] What is Rashi trying to tell us here? By bringing up this midrash he explains why the laws concerning animals’ sanctity — which occupy the previous Torah portion — come before this week’s reading which explores the laws concerning human sanctity.


Rabbis like Rashi are preoccupied with this order in the six-day Creation myth. On the one hand, some argue, mankind was created last because people were to be the apex of Creation. On the other hand, many counter, in order to avoid misplaced pride, mankind was created last to be reminded that even the gnats took precedence in Creation.  What concerns the rabbis most is their realization that, contrary to humans, animals are incapable of sin and may, therefore, appear to be superior to mankind; at least in God’s eyes.


We humans are capable of sin. We make mistakes, collapse into the illusion of the self and forget our Divine nature. Perhaps, because of this inherent flaw, we had to come after the gnats in the order of Creation. But our sages take a radically different perspective on the matter. Yes, sin – missing the mark, acting in a way that denies the Divine manifestation that we and the world are – is part of the human make-up, part of our social process of individuation, of self-creation. But it is not a flaw, however, rather a Divine gift. Why? Because, our sages insist, together with our propensity to sin, we are also capable of Teshuvah, of returning. Our return is to the center of our Being, remembering the Truth of who we are waiting to be uncovered beneath the veils of our habituated conditioned self.


Though animals are sinless, they are innately so. There is no work required on their part to maintain their sinless status. We, humans, on the other hand, have to work hard at remembering. We are to diligently and consistently engage in spiritual practices that help us disentangle from our identification with ego, create rituals and holiday celebrations that repeatedly serve to remind us that there is more to us than our self-obsession, carve out Shabbat spaces to break free from the busy-ness of ego-driven societies and retreat within ourselves. It is no mistake that this week’s Torah portion dealing with spiritual practices begins with “Isha ki tazria… –When a woman conceives;” for it is precisely through great effort and arduous labor pains that we birth the True Self that we are. Thanks to the gift of sin, we humans have the capacity to transcend our self completely and awaken to the One we are. A gnat simply can’t.


Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson writes in his commentary: “This view, which is Rav Simlai’s, sees the two faces of man (‘Adam’ in Hebrew). On the one hand he is formed from the dust of the earth (‘Adamah’); on the other, he is capable of becoming Divine (‘Adameh la-Elyon’—I will resemble the One’).” [Torah Studies, p.182] The Rebbe recognizes the dual character of human birth. Our animal nature puts us on par with the rest of earth’s animal kingdom. But our potential to transcend and awaken sets the unique gift of our birth apart.

Torah Reflections – March 27 – April 2, 2016


Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Joy And The Possibility of Forgiveness  

The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini – On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:

           Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]

One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifest teshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership.

Thus we are told, joy overwhelmed those witness to the final moments of the dedication ceremony when God appeared and, in a display of fire, accepted the sacrifices that Aaron had made on their behalf. They knew then that they had been forgiven, and that no matter how far from God they would stray, no matter how apparently lost from the Source (remember the Golden Calf?), there would always remain the promise of return, the potential for atonement, for mending and healing. Moreover, they also knew that what they had created was not only the possibility of forgiveness for themselves but for all future generations.

This possibility of teshuvah is part of our inheritance. Now, like then, we are the ones called upon to create the container in our lives in which teshuvah can take place. And since we no longer offer up animals and priests are no longer among us, we are also the ones to perform the necessary personal “sacrifices” toward forgiveness, and atonement. This is a liberating practice. As we learn to forgive, heal and mend; as we perform acts of charity and lovingkindness as part of this process of teshuvah, we free ourselves from the layers of anger, resentment, guilt and fear that have walled-off our hearts and weighed us down. We draw nearer to the Source within, closer to the Divine. Teshuvah becomes a pathway to experiencing joy; a practice toward living a joyful life.

And like our ancestors before us, we might even find ourselves singing joyfully in the experience of the Divine Presence burning up—in Its all-consuming fire—those hardened shells around our hearts; remembering in that moment the One we share, the One we are, the One we have always been.