Defrauding Human & Divine

Contemporary Lessons from the Torah Portion

Topic: Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Text: Vayikra: Leviticus 5:20-26

20 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

21 When a person sins and commits a trespass against the LORD by dealing deceitfully* with his fellow in the matter of a deposit, or of a pledge, or through robbery*, or by defrauding* his neighbor;

22 or by finding something lost and lying about it; if he swears falsely regarding any one of the various things that one may do and thus

23 when one has sinned in this way and, realizing his guilt, he must restore that which he got through robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was entrusted to him, or the lost thing that he found

24 or anything else about which he has sworn falsely, he shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. He shall pay it to its owner when he realizes his guilt.

25 Then he shall bring to the priest, as his penalty to the LORD, a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a reparation offering.

26 The priest shall make atonement on his behalf before the LORD, and he shall be forgiven for whatever he may have done to draw blame thereby.

*Robbery – taking what belongs to another
*Defrauding – fraud, i.e. withholding from another something that is owed


What are examples of intentional offenses?
People who deliberately misappropriate property or funds entrusted to their safekeeping, or defraud another, or fail to restore lost property they had located.


2. What happens when the defendant is sued and then lies under oath and claims no responsibility? How is this type of deceit complicated because there are likely no witnesses?
Without witnesses, the aggrieved party had no further recourse and sustained a great loss.


3. What if the accused later admits to having lied under oath – thus assuming liability for the unrecovered property?
They are given the opportunity to clear themselves by:
* making restitution and paying a fine of 20% to the aggrieved party

Judge Gavel and Money

Other repercussions for lying under oath:
The accused has also offended God and is obligated to offer a guilt offering to make amends.
*To sin against God by dealing deceitfully(5:21) – To cheat another person is to sin against God as well as that person. “It is worse to rob a human being than to steal from God.” (BT BB 88b).

Akiva taught that whenever two people enter into an agreement, each is relying on the divine dimension of the other, the part of the person this is the image of God and knows what is right and what is wrong, making God a witness to every transaction. To betray that trust is to deny the Divine image in our selves, and to deny God’s participation in our activities.

4. How is the issue of compensation addressed?
Once the guilty party has made financial compensation, s/he is still required to go to the priest to make an offering – Why this additional form of amends?

5. Why does the text state that following the sacrifice, the guilty part is forgiven by The Holy One?
5:26 *And he shall be forgiven – “The gates of repentance are open for anyone who does wrong and then realizes it and seeks to make amends.” (Hasidic wisdom)

IMG_0100 Reflect:
What does this text teach about forgiveness and reconciliation?

RESOURCE: Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (RA-USCJ), pp.604-605

Shabbat Shalom,
Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
Vayikra 5777


Shared Purpose Unifies

Can you imagine people giving so generously that the Jewish community would say, “Stop! There is no need to give further. We have all we need to care for our community”?! Essentially, this is what happens in this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, where the Israelites give more than is needed for the building of the sanctuary (mishkan) and are instructed by Moses not to give more.

IMG_0087   What is generosity?

Generosity is a behavior that is learned, cultivated, refined through practice and transmitted through modeling. Our generosity is influenced by the generosity of our peers; it is also a reflection that we care about others. At the same time, our sages recognize the challenge of balancing our own needs with the needs of others. This giving is not always about amount, but often about giving according to capacity. In this way, one’s “success” can be measured by what one gives rather than what one has.

can-you-spare-a-blessing-1024x768  There are two notions of generosity in Judaism. The first is Tzedakah, which comes from the root for justice. This suggests that giving so that people of every age and from every life circumstance can live with dignity. Today, many people call such giving either philanthropy or charity.

The other type of generosity, Nedivut, is about quality, not quantity. Hospitality is a good example of having a generous heart. It is the wealth of our spirit that shows others we care. The following text captures this beautifully:
R. Zakkai told his five disciples to find the chief characteristic a person should cultivate.
R. Eliezer said, “A friendly eye.”
R. Joshua said, “A good friend.”
R. Yose said, “A good neighbor.”
R. Simon said, “Seeing the consequences of one’s acts.”
R. Elazar b. Arakh said, “A good heart.”
R. Yohanan responded, “I prefer Elazar’s answer because it will lead to all the rest.” (Avot 2:9)

A medieval compilation of Jewish ethical teachings, Orchot Tzdikim, says: “There are three kinds of generosity: generosity with money, with one’s body, and generosity with one’s wisdom.”

kIMG_0086Today one does not have to look far to realize that there are many who once had plenty but now do not have enough; there are those who once managed to “get by”, but now cannot manage alone. How we respond as a community says everything about the intention of our hearts. A contemporary rabbi writes: “When we feel certain solidarity with others, we want to share our possessions and, more importantly, ourselves with them.”

IMG_0083 So we return to the opening word, “Vayakhel “, which connects to the Hebrew word for community, Kehilla, and is used only for assembling human beings. Here is a contemporary read on this verse: “And Moses unified the people together as one community with a shared purpose” (Ex. 35:1).

IMG_0085  This does not say one community of identical beliefs and practices. Rather, that what unifies us as Jews, and ultimately as human beings, is our ability to incline our hearts toward one another – with kindness, generosity, and love – to inspire and support one another in the quest for healing and peace – for all of God’s creatures and for the planet with which we have been entrusted. May this be the mishkan we build – a sanctuary for all.

Shabbat Shalom

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777


“True Believers” Inflame

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (Vayikahel Ha-am) against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man, Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1)


This is the famous story of the Golden Calf. With their leader, Moses, away from the camp, having climbed the mountain, the people become afraid that their spiritual leader is gone – or perhaps has even died. In this stressed state of high anxiety, they create the Golden Calf. What if this act is not an expression of their desire to worship idols? Perhaps it springs from a deep longing to connect with something greater than themselves – a certain “Truth,” which some may call that which is “d/Divine.”

IMG_0031  It has been my experience that this feeling of longing without a resulting sense of connection creates feelings of abandonment which invite anxiety and depression . Such is what seems to be manifesting today. The cause appears to be the deepening of a psycho – socio-economic and belief-based conflict that is polarizing families, communities and our nation resulting in people abandoning one another and literally breaking our hearts and spirits. Unable to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” we risk cutting ourselves off from sensing the shared “Truth” that we are all human beings made of the d/Divine.

Some, driven by an ideology akin to Darwin’s survival of the fittest, are emboldened by the belief that their’s is the only way forward for our country. Others are experiencing an existential crisis, shaped by spiritual and social exile, are expressing a growing sense of frustration, fatigue, and isolation. One response to this crisis is to replenish our minds, bodies and souls. This response arises from the belief that all things are interconnected and part of a unified whole. To remove all that distorts love or blocks access to our moral center we turn to the practice of mindfulness.

IMG_0074  Mindfulness, according to Ohio State Integrative Medicine, “is paying attention in three particular ways: on purpose, in the moment and without judgment. [One] can practice mindfulness of breathing, eating, bodily sensations (body scan), thoughts, emotions, communication (listening and speaking) and walking or other activities (such as yoga or tai chi). With more practice, [one] can become more mindful throughout the day, not just during formal practice periods.”

Why mindfulness practice? Jon Kabat-Zinn , who focuses on mind/body interactions, teaches that mindfulness helps us heal ourselves and the world. According to Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.” And, just as mindfulness addresses inflammatory health, it can also help us address things that inflame society and create conditions that attract disease.

IMG_0076According to Tom Mahony , a biological consultant, “True believers inflame conflict and impede progress in society because they simply can’t be reasoned with. ” Mahony describes “true believers” as being “stuck in a positive feedback loop: the more evidence against their position, the more entrenched they become. No mental mechanism exists to break the loop. They only accept evidence that agrees with their preconceived notions, and, conveniently, insist they’re the sole arbiters of what constitutes “evidence.” There’s a sieve around their brain that screens out troublesome data. Any topic where facts are inconsistent with their beliefs is taboo because it simply can’t be true. Open-minded heretics pursuing such topics will be slandered, ridiculed, and ostracized. ”

Concerning what is actually true, Mahony asserts that “true believers often moralize about the importance of facts and insist they’re the only ones who are ‘reality based.’” They may however, actually confuse facts with facts with assumptions, beliefs, conjecture, and opinion. When an incorrect assumption is taken as fact anything extrapolated from that assumption – no matter how “logical” it may sound – is wrong because the foundational assumption is wrong. Mahony further suggests that “[t]rue believers haunt any subject: science, religion, health, history, economics, politics.” They do not feel restricted by any particular “political affiliation, ideology, culture, gender, age, metaphysical belief system, or education level.”

Who, then, according to Mahony, is able to rebuff the true believers? The open-minded skeptics who, with real facts on their side, lead by example and live honestly and compassionately. Joining together in this way, he encourages us to believe that truth eventually prevails.

IMG_0075  In the Golden Calf story as today, we are vulnerable to the fear of being abandoned by our leaders – political and spiritual. We, too, long for meaningful relationships which elevate our lives because they connected us to a vibrant, supporting whole that is greater than its parts. Secure in a shared mutuality of caring and responsibility, we can mindfully develop our ability to draw closer to one another instead of inflaming and abandoning one another out of our insecurities. Not as “true believers,” but as believers in truth, we can invite inclusivity, allow for diversity, advocate for connection over disconnection, pursue acceptance over judgment, and manifest love to overcome baseless hatred. This is the most concrete evidence that the d/Divine dwells here on earth.

Shabbat shalom,
Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
Parashat Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5777

Illumined by Love

Burning Christmas candles “Let there be light, and there was light…and the light was good” (Genesis 1:3-4). If the source of this goodness is not the Sun, which is not created until the fourth day of creation, what is its source and purpose? This light symbolizes hope, joy, and connection. We experience it in the form in the soft glow of the Shabbat candles, and in the flickering light of the memorial candle, in the twinkling light of birthday candles, in the night-light lit to scare away what frightens us.   These are all illuminations of love.

shining light  Some people actually glow. We see it; we feel it. And, for some inexplicable reason, it touches us and makes us happy. Does the source of this glow differ from person to person, circumstance to circumstance? Actually, all this glowing emanates from loving and being loved.   Could there be a better reason to glow?

In-the-glow Judaism offers some unexpected paths toward love – prayer and Torah.   Setting aside a discussion of what constitutes prayer, the main idea is that prayer opens our hearts and increases our capacity to love of self and love for others. Torah, in all of its forms, represents an enlightened understanding of the human condition. It illumines a path toward self-understanding and the discovery that each of us is a precious part of a greater whole. This gives our lives meaning and purpose, which increases our joy and desire to connect to others.

In this week’s parasha, Tetzveh, we encounter yet another form of light.   “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling light regularly” (Ex. 27:20). Actually, the Hebrew reads, “Ner Tamid” – a perpetually burning flame,” which represents the SOURCE OF LIGHT. This light continues to be rekindled today in the form of a “Ner Tamid,” which we call the “Eternal Light”. It hangs above the Ark in every synagogue to identify the synagogue as a miniature sanctuary. It no longer requires our daily attention, burning (mostly) without interruption on electricity generated from a number of different sources, or even oil.   But what of the many who never or rarely enter a sanctuary to lay eyes on it? How will they know this LIGHT SOURCE is available to them? And what would prompt them to seek it out?

Lighting-Inspiration.com_Glow-2016_Magical-GLOW-Train-Experience The Psalmist teaches that “By Your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:10). The flame of DIVINE LIGHT is continually available to every human being. We have only to open our hearts and draw it in through actions that create joy and connection. The light of LOVE is an ever-renewing SOURCE of Healing Energy.   It enables us to rekindle the flames of others without diminishing our own light. This is how we add light and love to the world. And how we are replenished.

lighting-sabbath-candles-by-barry-kester Begin tonight. Light the Shabbat candles then close your eyes and open your heart. Before reciting the blessing of gratitude for the sacred gift of Shabbat that graces us each week, use your hands to draw in beams of loving light. After reciting the blessing, turn toward your children or loved ones to bless them (or call or text them…). Allow yourself to feel the love flowing through your heart, soul and even fingers right into their souls. Bask in the light of this love. Experience the fullness of Shabbat Shalom.

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

Parashat Tetzaveh

Building Community

To build or not to build – that is one question!


In the case of the Israelites, the answer was build! And build they did, using nothing but the best materials to construct a magnificent tabernacle. There was, of course, a pricey building fund attached to the “project”: “And these are the gifts you shall accept from them: gold, silver and copper…..” (Ex. 25:12-3). The response was a mind-blowing generosity that arouses the envy of contemporary fundraisers.

eb20756f20ca0b51f252ddfc33037e53_-thomas-j-long-foundation-foundation-building-clipart_756-635The question of buildings continues today – and is on the minds of many in our own community. But it is no longer obvious whether a congregation, a Jewish community center or another agency should 1) remain in old, resource-sucking buildings, making minimal repairs; 2) incur the high cost of renovation that meets today’s “green” standards, 3) purchase another building; 4) build from scratch; 5) rent one or multiple spaces; 6)share space or 7) merge.

tumblr_inline_nu0mpv6n6m1rqhljb_500Each option presents its own challenges. And, of course, each involves raising more funds at a time when many do not have enough, let alone have additional discretionary finds. At the same time, the needs of the community are greater and more complex than they have ever been. Not simply in the name of survival. Rather, as a result of this historic opportunity to reimagine Jewish life and construct new communal paradigms which respond to people’s search for meaning.

The Tabernacle was a portable reminder of the Divine Presence in our earthly realm. In this techno-age, someone is probably trying to invent a GPS – “God Positioning System.” At the same time, many are trying to find their way without a belief in God. Either way, it is likely that every human being possess a spark of energy dating back to the beginning of Creation. Collectively, this huge resource of creative energy, if combined with those who have plentiful financial resources, can be a game changer. And, we bring to this endeavor a more nuanced understanding that some institutions, like the Temple itself, necessarily have a finite life and purpose.

community-building-stagesThe pain of letting go might be lessened as we express our gratitude to those who devoted their lives and resources to building a complex communal system which has met countless human needs – religious, intellectual, cultural emotional, physical, social. These builders got us to this moment, and now it is our turn to build – if not on the actual foundations constructed, then on the belief that the foundation for Judaism and Jewish life is both internal and external.

Our challenge is to lay a new foundation which is reflective of today’s societal and communal complexities. What were once support walls are now being deconstructed, moved or entirely rebuilt. 
  A growing number of people are exploring the construction of their own spiritual and ethical foundations.

building-communitiesAs we read the parasha this week, may we overcome our fears of change, reframe our notion of community and discover the wealth of financial and human resources available to us today. May each of us be moved to give generously and to encourage others to give. Together, equipped with a new understanding of the differing needs and wants of four living generations of our community, we are poised to honor the memory of all past generations of builders and to inspire future generations to continue the sacred work of an ever-renewing people.

Shabbat shalom!
Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
Shabbat Trumah