This week’s parasha has a description of the ancient Sabbatical Year, in Hebrew “Shabbat Shabbaton”. (Lev 25: 4) This year of rest for the land every seventh year, when no produce was to be grown, is called Smittah in later biblical passages. Recently, our Leadership Council announced that I will take a Sabbatical next year—a time to renew my skills and knowledge base as a rabbi, to come back with fresh ideas and scholarship and new experiences to share with you when I return. The idea of this break for renewal and study for professionals was borrowed from the Torah concept. Beth Hillel has been very generous in allowing me a Sabbatical every seventh year since 1996, my 11th year of service to the congregation. I am now developing my plans for how I will spend my time between October 25, 2016 and Jan 24, 2017, the first half of my 6 month Sabbatical. I assure you that I will devote the time to bringing back new ideas and learning to Beth Hillel to better serve you as rabbi. Just as the land lay fallow in ancient times and was therefore more productive when worked the following year, so do I hope to come back re-energized to help make Beth Hillel stronger when I return. Thank you for this opportunity.
This week’s parasha contains a law against tattooing: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves. I am Adonai.” (Lev ) In ancient times, pagans cut themselves as a sign of grief. Other tattoos were related to idol worship as well. Jewish law banned anything associated with pagan culture. But it was more than that: There was an idea that the human body is God’s creation and should not be “mutilated.” Certainly, putting a colorful butterfly between your shoulder blades or your Hebrew name on your arm is not idol worship, but can it even be considered “mutilation?” Who is to judge what is attractive or not on the human body? While we should give weight to Jewish tradition’s aversion to permanently marking our flesh out of respect to the holiness our bodies represent, in our day, we cannot broadly condemn the practice either.
It is fitting that this week’s parasha deals with the creation of the first structure designed for Jewish worship, the mishkan or tabernacle of our ancestors’ wilderness wanderings. For this week, at Beth Hillel, we will once again consider the past forms of worship we experienced throughout our 90-year history as a congregation. Volumes have been written on the development of Jewish worship from tabernacle to Temple, to synagogues, both ancient and modern. On Friday night, we will focus in on one small segment of that process—on the prayer book and prayer style used in Reform congregations in North America from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. Come and relive, or explore for the first time, with us the Gates of Prayer siddur and the worship transformation it represented when it came on the scene.