Archive by category "Torah Thoughts"



by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


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The title of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means “command.” It comes from the same Hebrew root as “mitzvah,” which also means “commandment,” but which we often translate today as “good deed.” In last week’s parsha, Vayikra (God “called”), the emphasis was on what you, the person, would bring as a sacrifice in ancient Israel, and on the kind of offering –five types were specified — that you would be bringing as your particular sacrifice. Would it be an “ascending offering” (an olah, which is completely burned); a meal offering (a minchah) – that is, cakes made of grains and mixed with oil? Or would it be a sin offering (a chatat, devoid of oil, to be eaten completely by the priest); or a guilt offering (an asham, also eaten by the priest)? Happily, perhaps it would be a peace offering (a shelamim, eaten by the person who brought the offering – the owner of the animal — after the priest has taken his share? A special kind of shelamim was the Thanksgiving offering, one of gratitude brought by a person who had survived a life-threatening event. Other people could be invited to share in the shelamim feast — because the food could only be kept for a prescribed time before being jettisoned. (After all, there was no refrigeration.)

Although sacrificing animals strongly offends our sensibilities and sense of decency today, a kind of democracy was inherent in all these offerings: People were encouraged to bring offerings that they could afford, without any sense of shame for being poor. For example, if you could only afford to bring a bird rather than a meat offering, it was sacrificed with its feathers intact so that the offering would look bigger, not scrawny. Lots of incense was put on the altar so that the offering would smell good to God.

In Tzav the emphasis shifts from the individual bringing the offering to the role of the priests, the priestly garments they should wear, the anointing with oil to sanctify them, and the offerings they should bring themselves to mark beginning to serve in the sanctuary. The High Priest was required to bring a meal offering every day in order to reinforce his humility through continued identification with the impoverished.  Also, as the priests ate, thus sanctifying the offering, the owner of the korban, the sacrifice, would achieve atonement.

What remains relevant today, is the meaning of the noun, “korban” along with the verb “lehakriv.” They mean drawing near, closeness, the desire, through sacrifice, to come close to God. In Judaic culture, it is about love of God. Sacrifice entails giving up something you love in order to come close to the godly essence within yourself. In our contemporary culture, it may mean giving up your leisure time for a worthwhile cause, or sacrificing a much needed vacation in order to pay for your child’s tuition in a good school or college, or to provide care for your elderly parents. Perhaps it means giving as much as you can manage to a charity or standing up publicly for an ideal. Perhaps it means military service to defend your country – although, since the time of the Akeida, when God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, human sacrifice is prohibited in Judaism. In Judaism, suicide bombers are a sacrilege.

The Jewish tradition also makes clear that a whole range of giving is permitted, from large to small, without shame, depending on your financial circumstances. But, since biblical times, the act of giving in order behave – and feel — like a godly person has remained an integral part of Jewish culture.

After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jews were persecuted by the Romans for practicing their faith. After the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, when half a million Jews were killed by the Romans, all of Jerusalem was plowed under. Jews were permitted to enter Jerusalem only on Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to lament at the Wailing Wall (now called the Western Wall). The Romans had left this retaining wall of the destroyed Temple standing so that the Jews could see what had become of their city.

Without a Temple, without an altar, sacrifices became a thing of the past. Instead, with the gradual growth of rabbinic Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis of the first and second centuries C.E., forbidden to teach Torah, taught about the prophets, what became the Haftarah. They instituted the practice of prayer as a means of drawing near to God, and the donation of money to substitute for sacrifices. It took time for these rabbis, who secretly gathered at first in their own homes as a network of small, like-minded groups, to gain influence, but eventually they did. Their suggestions have held sway as means of keeping – and growing — Jewish communities together until this day so many centuries later.

“Jew and Judaism survived despite the many sacrifices people had to make for it,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain. “In the eleventh century, Judah Halevi expressed something closer to awe at the fact that Jews stayed Jewish despite the fact that…they could have converted to the majority faith and lived a life of relative ease (Kuzari 4:23). Equally possible, though, is that Judaism survived because of those sacrifices. Where people make sacrifices for their ideals, the ideals stay strong. Sacrifice is an expression of love” [emphasis mine]. (“Understanding Sacrifice,” Tsav 5776).

At Passover, people tend to marvel at the Hagaddah’s discussion of the five rabbis of old —  Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azaria, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarphon — who met at B’nai Brak and stayed up the entire night of Passover discussing the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. How could they find so much to discuss, their students wondered, calling them because it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma? Perhaps the rabbis stayed up so late because they were also discussing their own situation in regard to Roman persecution, and how they could keep their own communities alive without a Temple. Maybe that was when they settled on prayer and donations as substitutes for sacrifices. Maybe they realized that sustained prayer – and monetary gifts to the needy — could bring people close to God. The Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Elazar would give a coin to a pauper, and only then would he pray” (Baba, Batra 10a)


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


VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer

VA’YIKRA: Replacing sacrifice with prayer



By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


“The people I formed for Myself

Shall declare My praise!”  

(Isaiah 43:21, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [1]


“I am the first and I am the last,

And there is no god but Me.”

(Isaiah 44:6, Haftarah for Va’yikra) [2]

With the call of God [Va’yikra] to Moses, the book of Leviticus begins. This is the Priestly book, an enunciation of the Holiness Code, ascribed by biblical scholars to P (along ago compilation by priestly scholars). As religious rites, as acts of contrition, forgiveness, thanksgiving, and joy, sacrifices were universal to all ancient religions, asserts Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in his excellent book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. His lengthy essay on Leviticus is well worth reading.

“Leviticus is a still, deep pool. Here, at the end of Exodus, the Israelites remain cramped in the Sinai wilderness, where they worked together to construct a portable sanctuary (“Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.”) Nearly all of Leviticus presents itself as taking place at that sanctuary – where God spoke to Moses, giving instructions to be conveyed to the people of Israel.”[3]

It is to their credit that ancient Israelites, surrounded by pagan religions in which child sacrifice was a common practice, forbade sacrifice of that kind. Instead, for more than a thousand years, they substituted animal sacrifice, as we learned in the early biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. However, animal sacrifice was conducted according to strictly defined, humane rules, which also provided for sacrifices of meal (grains) rather than animals and for a portion reserved for their priests. What you were required to sacrifice depended on what you could afford – and in accordance with your sense of guilt.

Vayikra offers insight into early Israelite sacrifice practices by explaining in great detail – so much detail, in fact, that for people in this century, it is rather repellent to read about it — the five types of sacrifices allowed. The first three are voluntary, the last two obligatory.

  1.  A burnt offering (Olah). Very holy. Completely burnt; no one eats it.
  2.  A Meal Offering (Minchah). Made of flour and oil and cooked in various ways with frankincense put on top so it will smell nice.
  3.  A Sacrifice of Well-Being (Zevah Sh’Lamim). Concludes with a joyful meal with the donor’s guests.
  4.  A mandatory Purgation Offering (Chatat) can be individual or communal and involves ritual sprinkling of the sacrificial animal’s blood on the altar. The carcass of the obligatory animal (bull, sheep, goat, or fowl, or even meal) is burned outside the camp.
  5. A Reparation Offering (Asham) of a ram is mandatory.  The person or persons must restore what has been taken (usually property) plus a penalty of 20 percent. [4] 

The Hebrew concept of sacrifice also provided for inviting friends and family to partake in the feast of a well-being sacrifice (after the priests were allotted their share). So it did provide for a communal meal amid much thanksgiving and joy. The sacrificial food had to be completely consumed. It could not be left over for the next day.  Not exactly our modern, celebratory barbecue in the garden on happy occasions, but it came close.

Notably, the Book of Deuteronomy, usually regarded as a summary of the previous four books of the Torah, makes no mention of the rules for sacrifice.[5] By the time the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem (then the central and  only place in Israel where animal sacrifice was permitted) in 70 A.D., the Jewish synagogue system had already taken hold to some degree in Israel. The rabbis in their wisdom discontinued animal sacrifice and, instead, substituted prayers. It was no longer necessary to show contrition through animal sacrifice. Prayer was the answer. Now one could atone for sins committed and ask for forgiveness through prayer. Making restitution, if possible, was also required. Only when the person or persons did not repeat wrong-doing when faced with the same situation(s) was forgiveness complete. So began the tradition of Tikkun Olam, healing the world, which is central to modern concepts of Judaism.


God’s Presence to suffuse our spirits,

God’s will to prevail in our lives.

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,

nor mend a broken bridge,

nor rebuild a ruined city.

But prayer can water an arid soul,

mend a broken heart,

rebuild a weakened will.” [6]


[1] Michael Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 149

[2] Ibid., 152.

[3] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism Press, 2006) 658.

[4] Ibid.,659.

[5] Ibid., 644.

[6] Rabbi Elyse D. Friedman, Ed., Mishkan Tefillah: A Reform Siddur (New York: CCAR, 2007) 75.


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


Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community

(Exodus 35:1-40:38)


By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


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As we begin to read this portion, there is a sense of déjà vu. We have so recently read about this exacting blueprint for the Tabernacle, the materials needed to build it, the priests’ vestments, and so on. So is Vayakhel-Pekudei redundant–or was the earlier portion, Terumah, a redactor’s mistake? At first, Vayakhel-Pekudei does seem to be a repetition of Terumah, which described the Divine command to build a Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle).  Some rabbis do think the earlier portion is out of sequence, that its place should be here, the parasha we are reading now. Yet others differ. Both portions complement one another, these rabbis suggest, because the purpose of each parasha is different. And, taken together, they give a fuller picture.

The Gathering of the People

Envisioned by Divine instruction, Terumah was intended to provide a microcosm of the cosmos so that God could dwell among the people. Thus the Israelites would not be alone in the wilderness. That was the purpose of the Tabernacle. The double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, by contrast, is about the gathering of the community to put the blueprint into practice – to physically and creatively build a beautiful place for God’s presence to dwell among them. The Tabernacle would serve as an instrument of unification. As the people united to construct the Tabernacle, they would also be building their own community.

With God’s instruction in mind, Moses took leadership, first in gathering the people (Vayakhel means “he gathered”), and then in inspiring them to donate the materials for the Tabernacle’s construction:

“gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece” (Exodus 35; 5-9)

Even in their haste, the Israelites had brought some transportable wealth (“brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants – gold objects of all kinds,” as well as copper and silver) with them from Egypt, and they gave generously of whatever they had, the yarns, the fine linen, the skins, the acacia wood. As the donations of the people poured in, the chieftains “brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense” (Exodus 35: 22-29).

Soon no more contributions were necessary. There was more than enough to build the Mishkan!

At this point, skill and experience came into the picture. A talented artist, Bezalel, had been specially selected to supervise the project, together with Oholiab, who complemented Bezalel’s creative abilities with competence in construction and various crafts (Exodus 35:4-38:20).  Now each person, both male and female, was exhorted to help in accordance with the skills, arts, and experience they individually possessed. For example, “all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair….Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering for the Lord” (Exodus 35: 26-29). So the giving of generous donations was built into the maintenance of the Jewish community a long, long time ago! (Pekudei refers to the Records of the community.)

A Security Blanket

With the building of a portable Tabernacle underway, the production of the priestly vestments began, and when everything was completed, Moses blessed the ancient Israelites for the wonderful work that they had done. The priests were robed (we also read about their fine vestments in Tetzaveh), anointed, and consecrated. Only then was it time for the cloud – representing the presence of God – to make its appearance so that the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. In what might be considered the most important verses of this portion, a description is given of a cloud covering the Tabernacle (the Mishkan) by day, while a fire would burn by night (Exodus 40: 36-38).

“When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exodus 40: 36-38)

Together, the cloud and the fire constituted a kind of security blanket as the Israelites continued their journey, knowing that they had a beautiful, portable place they could call home – one built by their own efforts — and that the presence of God would accompany them on their journeys and protect them when they rested.

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

Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

Ki Tissa: What Makes a Leader a Leader?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


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The Torah sequence we read last week concerned the artistry and exacting specificity involved in the building of the Tabernacle. Intended to be a microcosm of the cosmos, it also became a uniting community project. I find it hard to admit that I am getting a little older, but as I read various commentaries this week in preparation for my own take on this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, which means “when you add up”) I fell in love with a midrash that gave me great comfort:

“During his forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses learned much but kept forgetting what he learned. Said he in despair: ‘I know nothing!’ Therefore God gave him the Torah as a gift. Could Moses indeed have learned the whole Torah – of which it is said that it is ‘longer than the earth and broader than the sea’ (Job 11:9). No, therefore God taught him only the principles (and hence gave him the tablets” [1].

Yes, it’s a good thing to have ten commandments on two tablets that simplify principles teaching us how to come close to God by leading a moral life. However, as Richard Elliott Friedman points out, sometimes the overwhelming intimacy of that closeness to God causes people to pull away, to rebel. “It is when God is closest that humans commit the greatest sin,” Friedman claims [2].

It is also true that when that intimacy – in this case, divine intimacy — recedes, humans may become fearful, try to find a substitute to fill the vacuum. That is what happens in Ki Tissa when Moses leaves the ancient Hebrews in the desert at the foot of the mountain and spends 40 days at the top coming close to God, even dangerously close to God. When he finally descends with the two tablets of the commandments for the people, his face is radiant. He glows with the light of God.

Unfortunately, without their leader for so long, the Hebrew people had become fearful. They needed a protector. With the reluctant help of Aaron, Moses’ brother and second-in-command, they constructed a Golden Calf, made with the donated, melted-down, golden earrings of the people. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears” (Exodus 32:3). This golden creature of their own manufacture simplified the idea of God for the people, kept the Divine close because they could see it. The artist Bezalel had so recently shown them how to construct a Tabernacle so that the Holy Spirit could dwell within. Now, through the agency of Aaron, a peaceful man who was afraid of confrontation, the people made a calf, an imitation of the cultic worship of the bull, symbolizing fertility and strength to the pagan Canaanites. For the Hebrews, in the absence of their leader, Moses, the Golden Calf would be a vessel holding the spirit of El, God. They could believe in its protection.

But when Moses descended from the mountain and saw the people dancing around this egel masehah, this Golden Calf, this idol, he was furious. In anger, he smashed the two tablets of the law. Then he demanded an explanation from Aaron. What had happened?

Aaron tried to make excuses for the deficiency in his leadership. “They gave me gold, and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf,” he said in self-defense (Exodus 32:22-24). It was the people’s fault. It happened by itself.

In his essay, “How Leadership Fails,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is clear on the attributes of leadership. Leadership can fail for both external and internal reasons, he writes. If there are external reasons, maybe the time is not right, the conditions are unfair, or there is no one to talk to on the other side. Sometimes even the best efforts may fail. However, internal reasons are a different story. “A leader can simply lack the courage to lead. Sometimes leaders have to oppose the crowd” [3].

Aaron lacked the courage to lead. As a leader, he was a follower. Yet, as a High Priest, Sacks adds, he needed to follow the rules. In this, he was very successful. Leaders, after all, need followers. Aaron and Moses made a good team!


[1] Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, General Editor. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union for Reform Judaism,  2005) 602.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman. Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (USA: Harper Collins, 2001) 281.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “How Leadership Fails,”


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


Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 – 30:10)

Parshat Tetzaveh: The Mystery of the Urim and Thummim (27:20 – 30:10)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


Last week’s portion discussed the physical construction of the Tabernacle (also called the Tent of Meeting). For more understanding of how the Tabernacle was built, I’d like to recommend Rabbi/Hazzan Eva Robbin’s brand new book, Spiritual Surgery [1] which approaches this intricate subject from both a mystical and artistic perspective. In Tetzaveh, this week’s parsha, the Torah describes in a very detailed way the sacral clothing that the priests must wear as officiants.

Since Jews are directed to be “a kingdom of priests” (Shemot 19:6), re-reading Tetzaveh  inspires respectful honor of that tradition. Although rabbis and congregants both tend to dress much more casually today, the ancient dress code, replete with adornment crafted from threads made from beaten gold and beautiful designs using blue, purple, and crimson-dyed yarns, was intended to convey elevation and holiness of purpose.

In her recent article, “Sartorial Splendor,” Rabbi Janet Madden takes a scholarly and symbolic approach in explaining the special garments the Israelite priesthood was directed to wear. The priests all wore garments woven from the fine linen (six threads to a strand!) derived from Egyptian culture (sheets made from fine Egyptian weave are still sought after today). Furthermore, the high priest (the Kohen Gadol), was instructed to wear four additional garments [the other priests wore four] to signify the status and literally weighty responsibility of his high office:

“the efod, an apron-like garment made of blue-purple and red-dyed wool, linen and gold thread – the colors of royalty; the chosen, a breastplate containing twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; the me’il, a cloak of blue wool, with gold bells and decorative pomegranates on its hem, and the tziz, a golden plate worn on the forehead, bearing the inscription ‘Holy to God’”[2].


He was also instructed to wear linen breeches! The medieval rabbis, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and Rashbam, along with many others through the years, all speculate further on the details of these intricate garments [3]. But two additional items have always especially intrigued me: first of all, the hem of the high priest’s garment was ringed with little golden bells – so that he would tinkle wherever he went.  The Kohen Gadol was not simply making music; there was a purpose to the bells. Only the High Priest was tasked with entering the Holy of Holies, where the Ark containing the tablets would be kept. The bells were intended to protect him from harm in so closely approaching the Divine word of God. During my rabbinic studies, I once read, but cannot remember the source, that on Yom Kippur, a slender, woven rope was attached to the High Priest’s ankle when he entered that dedicated space, so that he could be pulled out if his sensibilities succumbed to the sacredness of the occasion.

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Secondly, under the jeweled breastplate, close to his heart, the High Priest wore the urim and thummim, which are clouded in mystery. In the thousands of years that have passed since ancient Israelite days, no one has ever been able to figure out exactly what they were. According to Rashi, like the various semi-precious jewels on the breastplate, each of which was inscribed with the name of a tribe, “the sons of Israel,” the urim and thummim were inscribed with the true name of God, “the Tetagrammaton. This would be put within the folds of the breastpiece. By means of it, the breastpiece would bring its words to light, ur, and fulfill them, thummim” [4]. For this reason, they were said to be used for discernment, judgment.

How this goal could be achieved is still unknown. Were they cast, like dice? Were they a kind of early, two-part computer working in concert? Were they connected to some mysterious power source – or to the Divine? Were they operated by thought control? When I let my imagination run wild, I imagine that they were a pair of inscribed crystals that echoed sounds, like the spiritual vortex between two crystal-laden mountains in Hawaii.


Interpreting the text in his own way, Nachmanides suggests that they were “put” in the breastplate, but not made by artisans like the other objects.  Rather,

“they were a mystery transmitted to Moses directly from the Almighty, and he wrote them in holiness….They were Holy Names, by whose power the letters on the stones of the breastpiece could light up, for the priest who was inquiring of them to read….Now these letters [of the Urim] could have been arranged in any number of ways to spell words. But there were other Holy Names there, called Thummim, through whose power the mind of the priest was “perfected,” thummim, in the knowledge of how to interpret the letters” [5]. (Carasik, 249-250).   

But, despite all the great rabbinic minds, no one really knows. Today we simply appreciate the forever mystery.

[1] Spiritual Surgery is available on

[2] Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., “Sartorial Splendor,”, 2018.

[3] See Michael Carasik, Ed. The Commentators’ Bible:Exodus,“Tetzaveh” (Philadelphia: JPS, 2005),242-254.

[4] Ibid., 249.

[5] Ibid., 249-250.   

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