Posts Tagged ‘Teshuvah’

Smoke and (our own private) mirrors

March 19, 2022

Today I delivered a drash (commentary) on the weekly Torah portion, which was Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 through 8:36). I won’t reprint the entire thing here, just the part I liked the most. :-)

Tzav primarily focuses on the role of the priests in carrying out sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons on where to make the sacrifices, what to wear, how to dispose of the ashes, etc.

I was struck by the repeated use of language about “turning sacrifices into smoke.” This is the phrasing the writers of Tzav use to say that an offering should be completely burned up. For instance:

“The token portion of the meal offering shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”

“The priest shall turn the (fat of the guilt offering) into smoke on the altar as an offering by fire to the Lord.” 

“Moses washed the entrails and the legs with water and turned all of the ram into smoke.”

And so on.

Not a sacrifice! Someone is cooking potatoes on a DIY stove. But it still produces smoke. Photo: Frank Benson

Now, there are so many ways one could describe what is being done with these offerings. You could simply say that Moses burned up the entire ram. Or that Moses incinerated the ram. That he turned it into ash, that he turned it into cinders, that he burned it so thoroughly that the amount left was smaller than a pebble. 

But over and over, Leviticus tells us that these offerings were “turned into smoke.”

Why this emphasis on smoke?

Thinking historically, perhaps this was another of many steps in differentiating Judaism from the surrounding religions. Many ancient religions saw gods as similar to humans in that they needed to eat, and these societies viewed sacrifices as literally feeding the gods. Judaism took a different view of God—as being above and beyond human needs such as eating— and wanted to make clear that these ritual sacrifices were not Doordash for God. The sacrifices were not food for God’s survival. Instead, they were something intangible to please and connect with God: a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”  

But I also like to think about it metaphorically, especially as it applies to the guilt and sin offerings. The fiery sacrifice turns something solid and heavy and bloody into something light and airy and (to God, at least) pleasant smelling.

Isn’t that what we’d like to have happen with our transgressions and regrets? They weigh us down, we carry them heavily… but wouldn’t it be nice if we could let them float away into the air? Through the ritual of the sacrifice, that’s what these ancient Israelites were doing. 

Candle smoke. Photo: Tigerzeng.

So, with your indulgence, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Close your eyes. Think of one thing you’ve done in the past week that you regret because it was wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big thing: In fact, it’s most likely a small thing. Were you rude to the clerk at Safeway? Did you snap at your spouse? Did you read a news story and respond with cynicism rather than open-hearted empathy? Did you share a piece of gossip that, inside, you knew you probably shouldn’t? Did you gloat over someone else’s troubles? 

Take a minute. Think of one small thing that you regret. We’re going to sit here quietly while you come up with that thing.


Okay, now picture that small thing as a heavy block of wood. It’s hard to lift. You’ve been lugging it around all week. You don’t want it, but there it is. It’s heavy.

And now — keep those eyes closed! — envision setting that block of wood on fire. You know what you did was wrong and you’ll think twice the next time such a situation comes up. You’ll do better. The block of wood is burning and getting smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter and this thing you regret is turning into smoke. There! It’s past. It’s floating away. You’ve learned something and will do better next time. The wood is gone and the weight is gone and the smoke is dissolving into a broad blue sky.

Take a deep breath now, a full breath. You’ll do better. You’re learning, all the time. It’s never too late to learn. Your lungs fill with fresh, clean air and the smoke is no longer even visible, but God smells the smoke from your offering and, indeed, it is a pleasing odor to Adonai.

Open your eyes.

Shabbat Shalom.


Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?


The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Am I the only one who has trouble repenting?

September 29, 2011

There is a lot I love about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I love the reminders that we are dust and return to dust. I love the remonstration that “for transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”  I love being reminded that we all fall short of our potential as caring, aware human beings.

But I have trouble repenting.

Basically, I feel like a good person. I try to pay attention to others’ needs. I’m involved in community organizations. I give to a bunch of charities. I’ve chosen work that (most of the time) provides a service to people, or at least doesn’t exploit anyone.

And when it’s high holidays and I’m sitting in services trying to name my sins, I come up with pretty lame stuff. I scraped a car in the gym parking garage and didn’t leave a note for the owner. I could do better at accepting my daughter for who she is. I didn’t stay in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives. (Plus a few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention.)

It mostly seems like pretty minor stuff compared to what other people might need to repent for. Imagine Bernie Madoff on the high holidays? Henry Kissinger? Dick Cheney, if he were Jewish?

Honestly, I think to myself, if the whole world were limited to committing my sins, this planet would be a much better place to live.

And this is of course the sin of arrogance.

Madoff and Kissinger are probably saying the exact same thing: If the whole world were like me, this planet would be a much better place.

The point is not whether I have behaved better or worse than Bernie Madoff.  Gates of Repentance, the Reform Jewish prayer book for the high holy days, says:

“Each person’s abilities are limited by nature and by the circumstances we have had to face. Whether I have done better or worse with my capacities than others with theirs, I cannot judge.

“But I do know that I have failed in many ways to live up to my potentialities and Your demands. Not that You expect the impossible. You do not ask me, ‘Why have you not been great as Moses?’ You do ask me, ‘Why have you not been yourself? Why have you not been true to the best in you?’”

Still, it’s hard. I sit in services trying to think about my sins and I notice that the hem of my skirt is unravelling. Or the person in front of me has a really gorgeous tallit. Or my stomach is starting to rumble.

It’s like looking directly at the sun. You might will yourself to do it, but your eyes reflexively look aside — at the clouds, the sky, the trees, anything but the sun.

(The place where this analogy falls apart is that looking directly at the sun would truly hurt your eyes. But looking at my shortcomings would only hurt my pride.)

Repenting seems like it should be easy. You don’t have to raise $50 million like making a Hollywood movie. You don’t have to learn to operate power tools like building a kitchen cabinet. You don’t even have to move a single muscle — it’s less work than walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, or clicking a mouse, or blinking an eye.

But of course it’s not easy.

I guess the good thing is that the high holidays give us a while to work on this. It’s not just the evening and day of Yom Kippur. It’s not even just the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jewish tradition gives us the whole month of Elul, and the selichot service before high holidays, and then high holidays themselves.

And if we still don’t get it right, we can keep trying through the entire year.

The Talmud quotes the sage Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah (repentance) are always open.”