Safe Places and Heartache: We Stand with Aaron as We Remember Israel’s Fallen

Parashat Shmini 5781 / פרשת שְּׁמִינִי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 

Imagine a place where you go to escape the stresses of life, a safe space where you feel protected from the ordinary and extraordinary things that pursue you, that run you down. Perhaps this is the place you call your “happy place,” a place you long to visit, a filling station where your soul takes a refreshing supply of warmth and contentment like God’s breath filling the lungs of the first human beings. If God is a meaningful idea to you, imagine a place where you feel enveloped by God’s loving, calming, protecting embrace.

For nearly two millenium following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that place of refuge for Jews and the Jewish People was, in fact, Jerusalem. Despite being forbidden during long stretches from entering Jerusalem, never mind living there, Jerusalem remained in our collective imagination our place of refuge. As the Jewish people suffered atrocity after atrocity, their safe space remained a dream. Only in the late 19th century did that dream begin to morph into reality. And though slowly, slowly, young men and women made their way to the land that would become the State of Israel, at that time there was no State. Many of those young men and women, in fact, risked their lives as they sought to create a new reality for the Jewish people connected to the land of Israel. But that land would not yet provide a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Would that a Jewish homeland have been a reality in 1939, when the Nazis were “merely” pushing Jews to emigrate.

From May through June 1939, Cuba, the United States and Canada denied entry to 907 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis, most of whom were trying to flee Nazi Germany. Some six months earlier, on a terrible night we now call Kristallnacht, Jewish stores, synagogues and homes were left in shambles, Jewish life itself was upended, and it had become clear that they had to get out of Germany. We know that all 907 Jewish passengers were sent back to Germany, and we know that 255 of them were among the Six Million who perished in the Shoah.

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations voted on Resolution 181, adopting a plan to partition British Palesine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. And on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708, in a museum in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion declared the Establishment of the State of Israel. At that moment, our 2000 year old dream of returning to Zion became a reality. And despite the war that erupted earlier that day on May 14th, and despite all the wars since, the terrorist attacks, the embargos, the attempts at delegitimizing the State, the State of Israel exists as that one place where all Jews can call home. That one place in the world that is a safe place for all Jews.

Now, over time you will come to know that I believe that grave errors, tragic errors, were made in bringing about the State of Israel’s existence and that I am highly critical of its current government. You will also come to know that I adamantly support not only the idea of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland but I support Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland in the form of the State of Israel. I wrestle mightily with Israel’s history and with the confounding tensions between Israel’s expressed desire to be a fully democratic state with equal protections for all citizens and equitable distribution of resources and the desire for Israel to always be a Jewish homeland. I wrestle mightily partly because Israel is our safe space.

It is no secret that in the birthing of the State of Israel, mistakes were made by the most powerful nations of the world at that time, by the most zealous of Israel’s founders, and by Israel’s neighbors and their powerbrokers. Yet, none of that brings solace to those mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave their lives in defense of the State of Israel. And none of that will bring back the loved ones of those murdered by those who would push Israel into the sea. I know some of those mothers and fathers. I know friends of people murdered by terrorists. 

I can’t begin to know the pain and sorrow that hangs thick in the air as Israel observes Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, this coming week. 

This week we read in the Torah about the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, whose lives were cut short as they were making a sacrifice to God in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 10:1-3). Like many of Israel’s fallen soldiers, these were two young men who were novices. Some say they entered the Holy of Holies unbidden by God. Some say they were intoxicated. To Aaron and to their brothers, they were now dead, and they died doing what they thought was right, even if they went about it the wrong way. And the Torah says, “Va-yidom Aharon. Aaron’s was silent.” In creating a society that would play host to the Divine and that would become an example of righteousness for the world, Aaron’s sons were taken from him. Perhaps, he thought, this is the price of creating a safe space for God and my people.

In Israel, on Thursday, at 11 am sirens will blare for two minutes. Traffic will stop. The nation will be silent. They will stand with Aaron in that silence. And then, hours later, they will celebrate their birth, their 73rd year of independence, just as Aaron and his sons resumed their duties with a full, though broken heart.

I want to conclude with the poem, The Silver Platter, written by Natan Alterman in December 1947. He wrote these words in response to this warning by Chaim Weizman, who would become Israel’s first president: The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,

Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement

will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel.

Burn On, Not Out: What Parashat Tzav Has to Teach Us About Observing Pesach

Parashat Tzav 5781 / פרשת צַו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 

If a person today were to measure their standards of Passover preparation and observance against this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, that person would most likely be paralyzed with fear. Unlike last week’s reading which discussed sin offerings intended to atone for a variety of sins committed unintentionally, this week’s reading offers no such out. For sins involving sexual depravity, wanton disregard for mitzvot, and defilement of sacrifices in the Tabernacle there was no expiation. The Torah is very clear that the person who commits these particular sins is “to be cut off from his kin.” The term for “being cut off” is karet, in Hebrew, and it can mean anything from an untimely death for both body and soul, natural death in which the soul is banned from the World to Come, or untimely death in which the soul is given its place in the world to come.

If any of us thought our bodies and souls were on the line when we go to clean our homes for Passover or adhere to the strict dietary laws of Passover, we would either freeze or run in the other direction. 

Fortunately, the laws of Passover as we know them are nowhere to be found in this week’s Torah portion. In fact, most mitzvot relating to Passover, short of eating matzah, remembering the Exodus from Egypt and telling our children about what God did for us in bringing us out of Egypt, are not found in the Torah at all. They were developed by later generations of rabbis over hundreds of years. So if you think by not covering your countertops with contact paper you are violating Torah from Sinai, you are not. Breath easy.

When it comes to the rabbinic laws, there are more than I could possibly explain to you while standing on one foot. There are many, in fact, that I have yet to learn. Even so, are we to judge ourselves or others by the very high standards of the most halachically observant, those who strive to follow Jewish law to the nth degree? Of course not. No such thing is expected of any of us by our neighbors, our families or by God. (I can’t speak for other Jews in ultra-Orthodox sects.)

We are entitled to be authentically Jewish in ways that are relevant to us, meaningful and, perhaps most importantly, achievable. If you find no meaning in the requirement to eat kosher meat, there are other ways to show spiritual discipline, regard for life and connection to the Jewish people. Can’t find that kosher for Passover grape jelly. It’s okay!

I am clearly of the camp that says do what you can do under the circumstances in which you are living and be satisfied.

In adhering to this position, I take a cue from another part of this week’s Torah portion. In order to maintain the sacrificial system the priests had to put wood upon the altar each morning in order to keep a perpetual flame going. It is referred to as an “esh tamid.” A perpetual fire. They could not let it go out.

Maintaining the fire did not fall to one person. It was a collective effort. Not only that, it was sufficient to put only enough wood on the altar each morning to keep the flame lit. The priests were not charged with creating a perpetual conflagration or a massive bonfire. They had to do enough. And that was enough.

As Jews we are inheritors of that obligation to keep the flame lit. It is incumbent upon us to make Judaism relevant, meaningful and achievable for our children and their children in perpetuity. I believe there is something beautiful in Judaism that makes it worthwhile to perpetuate. I believe our calling to repair the world makes it essential to perpetuate.

But we are not alone. Each of us has a role to play according to our mindset and ability. We are to do our part in keeping the flame alive. If we are not able to rid our homes of every single crumb of hametz, the Jewish people will survive and probably thrive. The same with all other aspects of preparation and observance. If you buy a can of tuna or drink a Diet Pepsi that isn’t labeled “Kosher for Passover,” God won’t be offended. You won’t be cut off from your kin. And still, the flame of Judaism will continue to burn. 

I would suggest, in fact, that if any of us were to observe the laws of Passover too stringently, we would burn out. There’s no Jewish future if we all burn out. If we burn out, the fire of the Jewish People burns out. So we stoke the fire gently, within our means, and without fear of retribution or judgment from our rabbi, other Jews or from God.

In order to have a truly kosher and joyous Passover — a chag kasher v’sameach — we need to be able to relax and actually enjoy the holiday. We need to be like the Romans the ancient rabbis tried to emulate, leaning, relaxing, celebrating our freedom, soaking in the return of new life that comes with spring, and be available to one another as loving family members and supportive members of a community.

I wish each and every one of you a happy and health Pesach, no matter how you choose to celebrate the Festival of our Freedom.

Shabbat Shalom.

Heeding the Call of Leviticus: We Stand with the Asian-American Community and Women Who Are Victims of Violence

Parashat Vayikra 5781 / פרשת וַיִּקְרָא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

The following was my weekly message to Congregation Ahavas Achim on March 18, 2021.

Whenever a community is attacked and blood is shed by deranged murderers, our nation mourns with that community and with those whose loved ones perished. And so it is, once again, that the Jewish community joins all peoples of faith and conscience in expressing its sorrow and extending its support to one such community. As Jews, we, of all people, must speak out. We’ve been there. We’ve felt that loss. 

On Tuesday evening, Atlanta was rocked by a massacre in which a 21-year old lone gunman killed eight people — seven women, of which six were of Asian descent, and one man. As of Thursday morning, the police did not believe the shootings were racially motivated but had not ruled it out, nor was it clear whether state or federal officials would treat the massacre as a hate crime.  

Given the current climate in which many Americans refer to Covid-19 as “China flu” and violence against women is its own “shadow pandemic,” it makes sense that this massacre is being experienced as an attack both against Asian-Americans and against women, even if it is not ultimately declared a hate crime against either group. The shootings follow a year in which nearly 3,800 incidents of hate against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders had been reported nationally according to Stop AAPI Hate and in which some major US cities experienced a 150% spike in crimes targeting Asian-Americans. Just as importantly, this horrific incident occurred against a global backdrop in which 1 of 3 women experience violence. In other words, to dismiss as merely coincidental that the gunman’s victims were mostly Asian-American and female would be turn a blind eye to the larger scourges facing our nation and our world. 

This week, in synagogues around the world, Jewish communities will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, whose message is that we are all accountable for protecting life and creating a just world. True, on its surface the Book of Leviticus appears to be addressed primarily to the priests and Levites of Ancient Israel: much of it reads like a professional manual, providing instruction on the sacrificial system, matters of cultic purity and the observance of the Sabbath and sacred festivals. Yet, the very first word of Leviticus — vayikra, in Hebrew (lit. the Lord “called”) — is addressed not to Aaron, the high priest, but to Moses, the leader of all the people. Why? Because at its core the Book of Leviticus is a call to all of Israel to be “a holy people.” What’s more, to the extent that being a “holy people” means calling out injustice, depravity and cruelty wherever we see it, this most peculiar of all books of the bible is calling to us in this moment. 

Heeding the words of our tradition, let us all speak out when one person or one ideology targets a community to terrorize or, worse, eliminate. Let us support our leaders and officials charged with protecting the lives and rights of all human beings. Let us pray that the hearts of the hateful and lawless be turned toward peace and love. And let us embrace those who bear the brunt of bigotry and hatred in all its forms, just as we embrace those who were targeted in Atlanta this week — our Asian-American brothers and sisters and women, who suffer violence all too routinely. 

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

When All You Ever Wanted to Give Was Too Much

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781 / פרשת וַיַּקְהֵל־פְקוּדֵי
Exodus 35:1-40:38

One of my favorite comedians, Steven Wright, has this one-liner: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? Pretty funny. Right? But all Wright has done is taken an ostensibly philosophical statement and boiled it down to its most rational truth. As some might say, “Well, duh!” 

At the risk of further eviscerating Steven Wright’s witticism, I would observe that just as there are limits to what we can possess, there are also limits to what we can give. This truism is illustrated beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, as you’ll see. 

What isn’t addressed in the Torah is the emotional response of the people whose contributions are no longer needed. Just as it can be a let down to realize you can’t have everything you want, it can also be a let down when what you really want to give away is not received. What do you mean you can’t take everything? Can’t you find a place to put it? Think about that, and I’ll loop back to this question in a minute.

The story in Parashat Vayakhel goes like this: Moses gathers the whole Israelite community together and conveys to them God’s instruction to “Take from among you gifts to Adonai. Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (Ex. 35:4-5). Moses then recites an extensive list of precious materials required for the construction of the mishkan — the Tabernacle that would serve as God’s dwelling place within the midst of the nation — its assorted ritual items and the priestly robes. Gold, silver, copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense. Special gems and wood. And don’t forget the dolphin skin! (Ex. 35:5-9).

Meanwhile, Moses has put together an all-star team of architects, engineers, builders and craftspeople to take all these things and fashion a house for God according to the plans that God had provided Moses.

At the conclusion of this gathering of young and old, rich and poor, children, women and men, Moses says, “Okay, everyone. Hands in. Who’s the best? God’s the best? Go, God!” Then they all disperse to get the things they so eagerly want to bring to the mishkan. They are psyched to help build this magnificent structure that would bind them with God and with each other.

As the people bring their wheelbarrows full of lapis lazuli, acacia wood and, yes, dolphin skins, the artisans realize they have plenty of material and they say to Moses, “Moses, the people are bringing more than is needed for the job God has given us.” At which point, Moses, standing on a rock, whistles with two fingers in his mouth and proclaims, “That’s enough. Stop bringing your gifts.” The Torah adds, “So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” 

The word for “enough for them” in the Hebrew is “dayam,” similar to “dayenu,” the refrain we sing during Pesach to say that any single act that God had done for us would have been sufficient on its own. Yet, we learn in the song that God kept on giving, whereas in our story here, the Israelites had to stop. Enough was quite literally enough. Bring no more. There’s no place to put it!

So if you were standing near Moses with a cart full of turquoise, chrysolite and dolphin skins, how would you have felt? Maybe you would have felt rejected. Everyone before me got to contribute. Why shouldn’t I? I may snooze, but I don’t want to lose. Maybe you would feel angry. I went through all this work, schlepping this stuff from Egypt, not even knowing why, and now you’re saying, “Thanks, but no thanks?”

As I said at our board meeting this past week, there are so many talented and generous people who want to make a contribution to our community. Of course, we can’t use everyone’s talents and generosity all the time. There aren’t enough hours in the day and there isn’t enough space in the synagogue to be able to take advantage of all that people have to offer all at once. So community leaders are often in the unenviable position of having to say, “We have enough for now.” AND they also have the responsibility to care for those people whose “terumah offerings,” whose gifts from the heart, are not needed at that moment.

I think these last three words are key — “at that moment.” When Moses said, “Enough!” he didn’t say the gifts weren’t welcomed. They were! I’m sure Moses and the artisans were ecstatic by the outpouring of gifts. But, the artisans also specifically said, “The people are bringing more than is needed for this particular project.” 

One medieval biblical commentator, Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) from Portugal goes a step further. He says “the gold, silver and copper, as well as the silk and yarn, were kept, to make new clothes for the priests and to pay for the public sacrifices and other things that might be necessary later” (Carasik, The Commentators Bible: Exodus, p. 319). These extra gifts were critically important because they would be needed in the long-run to maintain garments and finery of the priests.

Still another medieval biblical commentator, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (about 1475-1550) from Italy, adds this: “The people’s efforts had been more than enough. Therefore, the artisans did not need to cut corners for fear they would run out of materials.” Knowing the community possessed this surplus of building materials gave the artisans peace of mind, and it’s much easier to excel at one’s work when you have peace of mind.

The message I want to convey is this: Our community needs you and the gifts, interests and generosity you have to offer. We are only as strong at the contributions that we can muster up together. Understand that we don’t have room for everything all at once, though. Okay, our treasurer surely disagrees, so let me correct myself. There is a miraculously ever-expanding vault for certain kinds of gifts, but for other kinds of gifts, we want you to know that the time will come when we’ll be able to take advantage of those special offerings. In the meantime, knowing that you are there and ready to make a difference lifts our spirits and makes our work more meaningful, enjoyable and effective.

When the Burden of Patience Became Unbearable, Our Ancestors Created a Golden Calf

Parashat Ki Tisa 5781 / פרשת כִּי תִשָּׂא
Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11-34:35

One of my favorite Hebrew words is savlanut, patience. I remember hearing it often in Israel. Savlanut. There’s more than a little irony in my association of this word with everyday Israelis because one stereotype of Israelis is that they are notoriously impatient.

On the website of a travel agency called Culture Trip, I found an article entitled 6 Things You Only Learn About Israel When You Live There. Number four on that list is “Israelis are extremely impatient”:

From incessant beeping on the roads (sometimes it seems like there’s a national competition for who can honk their car the longest and loudest), to pushing their way through lines and losing their temper in supermarkets, Israelis show their impatience and short fuse in a multitude of ways.

You can picture someone trying to make their way to the front of a line who is then nudged by someone else also trying to make their way to the front of the line. Suddenly person one turns to person two and says, “Savlanut!”

What’s most interesting to me about the word savlanut is that it derives from the three letter Hebrew root samech-bet-lamed that means “to carry a load; to endure; to suffer.” Several times in the book of Exodus the labors of the Israelite slaves were referred to as sivlot, heavy labor, heavy burden. In Lamentations, when the text says (5:7) “Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt” the word for “we must bear their guilt” is savalnu.

To be patient means to carry the burden of waiting for a certain outcome. If you don’t remember what it feels like to wait for something you want or even for an outcome you don’t want, just hang out with young children and they’ll remind you. Waiting stinks. 

Sometimes patience involves real suffering. It’s not just the waiting that stinks, it’s also the inconvenience, or worse, the pain we must endure while we wait that poses the heaviest of burdens.

When I think of patience as bearing a burden, as enduring real suffering, I become much more sympathetic to our ancestors who pressed Aaron into fashioning a golden calf out of the people’s gold jewelry. In this week’s Torah portion, the people freak out because Moses hadn’t come down from receiving the Tablets of the Ten Commandments on the exact day they expected him to come down. In that moment of feeling that they lost the one person who could safely intercede on their behalf with God, they grew so insecure that it was too much to wait one more day for their leader to return. So, out of fear, they created a replacement for Moses — a calf — which was a symbol of deities which would have been familiar to them from life in Egypt or, perhaps, from their encounters with other peoples in the ancient Near East. 

The calf wasn’t an idol. They weren’t going to worship it. Biblical commentators of the middle ages wrote that ‘“the people could not have been so stupid” as to believe that this freshly manufactured image was itself a deity. Rather, it was a symbol of God’s presence, perhaps an instrument to discern God’s will. In other words, the sin of the Golden Calf was not that the people had abandoned God and had reverted to idol worship. It’s that they buckled under the burden of their patience. 

They had only left Egypt three months earlier and had just begun to develop faith in Moses and, therefore, in God. So at the moment they felt the most vulnerable, they took matters into their own hands. This really made God mad. So mad that God yelled at Moses, “Get out of my way. I’m going to kill them all!” Fortunately, Moses convinced God to be patient and to cool the Divine jets. He reminded God that God had made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that Israel would become as numerous as the stars of heaven. “Be patient, God. Give it time.”

Who here cannot relate to the Israelites, who had the base of Mt. Sinai, in Moses’ absence, looked at the second in command, Aaron, and said, “Enough is enough. No more waiting!”

It has been about a year since we at Ahavas Achim close our doors to in-person services. And despite the re-opening of some businesses, churches and other institutions around us, we have chosen to err on the side of caution. And we will continue to err on the side of caution, even as more and more people get vaccinated, until our hospitals no longer face the prospect of being overrun by Covid patients and our funeral homes face the prospect of being overrun by death. We have seen over and over again this past year that it’s when we as a society become impatient that we experience a surge in cases. As Jews, our priority is always the health and safety of the living. Pikuach nefesh — saving life — is the most sacred of all mitzvot. So, while it hurts to be patient a little while longer — It hurts to tell your parents not to come to your child’s bat mitzvah. It hurts not to be able to hug people you love. It hurts not to be able to wrestle with your best friend or give a classmate a high five. — it’s what we have to do.

When the time is right, we will begin to open our doors to in-person gatherings as will every other synagogue in the world. When we do, it will happen gradually, at a measured rate, to ensure that we can re-open without contributing to greater community spread and putting lives — our own and others — at risk. 

It is painful to be patient. The alternative to patience, however, comes at great risk, as we learn from this week’s Torah portion and as we have seen time and time again in our country. The reward for patience will be great. We will gather with renewed commitment to love and care for one another. We will emerge from this dark period satisfied that we did our part to end this pandemic. We will look at ourselves and realize how incredibly strong and resilient we’ve been this past year. We will do great things because we know we have already done something great together as a community. We have carried the burden of patience, and what a burden it has been.

For a little while longer, let us avoid public gatherings, let us practice wearing masks and keeping our distance, and let us continue to practice savlanut — patience.

Dressing for Honor and Splendor

Parashat Tetzaveh 5781 / פרשת תְּצַוֶּה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20-30:10

We learn in this week’s Torah portion that what we “wear” matters. It matters because our clothing says something about how we see ourselves in relation to God and the people around us.

We read in Parashat Tetzaveh, “God says to Moses, ‘V’asita vigdei-kodesh l’Aharon achicha l’chavod u’l’tiferet. Make sacral vestments for your brother, Aaron, for honor and splendor’” (Ex. 28:2).

In looking at the words, kavod and tiferet, honor and splendor, two medieval biblical commentators, Nachmanides (1194-1270) and Sforno (1475-1550), argue across the centuries about for whose benefit these vestments are to be created. Nachmanides says, “to honor the Kohanim, the High Priest, for these garments were similar to the garb of royalty.” Sforno, on the other hand, says “the vestments were for the glory of God and to lend splendor to the Kohen Gadol as the teacher of the nation, so that he would be revered by the tribes, whose names he bore on his breast and shoulders.” (Stone Edition Humash, p. 465). 

I believe there’s truth in each of these interpretations, but I also believe the garments were intended to glorify the People of Israel. In addition to showing honor and casting splendor upon God and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), these vestments also show honor to the community who helped fashion them. After all, they are the ones who contributed the gold, the gems, and yarns that went into its creation, and it was the wisest and most creative of the people who actually assembled the items into a magnificent uniform for the Kohen Gadol. Additionally, by wearing these special vestments Aaron would have been mindful of the central role he played in connecting the people to God and God to the people. With such a burden upon his shoulder, could he not help but feel the utmost respect for the People of Israel?

Now, imagine that you are Aaron, the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. You are adorned in the finery that has been sanctified for service to God and Israel. How would wearing these vestments affect the way you see yourself in relation to God and the community? This not an entirely theoretical question, for we are taught that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As such, is it not incumbent upon each of us to don the High Priest’s garb, if not physically then metaphorically?

In our role as priests, we are to wrap ourselves not in fine linen, gold and gems but in those human attributes that give glory to the Divine, that do honor to ourselves as partners with God in creation, and that show reverence for the community of humanity of which we are a part. What are these attributes? Kindness, compassion, love for our neighbor, a yearning for justice, and the passion and willingness to act to make the world whole. These are the garb of our priesthood in today’s world.

As we conjure up images of Aaron and his sons entering the Holy of Holies adorned in the magnificent robes and accessories we read about in this week’s Torah portion, let us realize that we are inheritors of a tradition of showing up dressed and ready to do the work of God and humanity. May we, too, adorn ourselves in kavod and tiferet — honor and splendor — for the sacred work that awaits us each and every day.

Mining the Torah for Gems: The Case of Parashat Terumah

Parashat Terumah / פרשת תרומה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

In this week’s portion, Parashat Terumah, God gives Moses instructions to build the ark that would contain the tablets of the covenant between God and Israel, the menorah that would stand in the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle itself. The word “terumah” refers to the voluntary offerings of materials – minerals, stones, fabrics, dyes, oil and spices — that Moses was to take from the Israelites to build these things and other holy objects. If you’re into lists, you’ll love this week’s reading!

The lists and instructions in Terumah, however, may very well cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. Unlike the narrative components of Torah, the details of the Tabernacle do not provide the most engaging reading. To be sure, Terumah is just one of many portions dedicated to seemingly mundane or esoteric topics relating to the priestly system, much of which can be difficult to access without a full appreciation of their significance to biblical Israel or to us today. Without the willingness to discover transcendent meaning in the details of the Torah, the Torah itself will appear to many people as a massive rock that cannot be penetrated, when in truth, the Torah is an endless mine of precious gems.

Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th century Spanish commentator also known simply as Abarbanel, feels the pain of those who try to find meaning in Torah but fall short when they encounter the complex, drier sections of Torah, such as we have in Terumah. Speaking to the Jewish community of his own day, Abarbanel writes:

Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have not value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.[1]

Clearly, we are not the first generation to struggle with the Torah’s density, but as Abarbanel suggests, there’s much to be learned from the Torah if we’re willing to look closely and patiently at the text and, I would add, be a little creative.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to Torah comes this week in relation to the construction of “an ark of acacia wood,” the portable container for the tablets of the Ten Commandments:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold — overlay it inside and out — and make upon it a gold molding round about.  (Exodus 25:10-11)

The late 11th century commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, aka Rashi, helps us visualize these instructions:

Bezalel (the master craftsman, who oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents) made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. Each one had four walls and a bottom, and they were open on the top. He placed the wooden one inside the golden one and the [other] golden one inside the wooden one. He covered the upper rim with gold, thus it is found that [the wooden one] was overlaid from inside and from outside [with gold]. — [from Yoma 72b, Shek. 16b][2]

Rashi demonstrates that the ark is a complicated structure. Though God instructs Moses to build simply “an ark of acacia wood,” the ark is in fact three boxes, one made of wood, two made of gold.

The rabbis of the Talmud take this description of the ark and transform it into a lesson about the integrity of Torah scholars: Any Torah scholar who is not the same on the inside as on the outside, is no Torah scholar [Yoma 72b]. That is, as pure as one appears to be on the outside, one must also be in the inside. This is an ideal not just for Torah scholars, I believe, but for all of us.

There is yet another message to be found in the construction of the ark.[3] Why couldn’t the ark be made of just the two gold boxes? What need is there for the box of acacia wood as well? One answer is that in many respects human beings are most like this wooden layer. Unlike gold, which is a pure, unchanging metal, wood comes from trees, which grow and change over time. We may want to present ourselves to the world as pure in thought and resolute in belief, like the outer box of gold, which can be seen by all. We may want to present ourselves to God with similar purity and resoluteness, like the inner box of gold, which is closest to the tablets and seen only by God. On the way to achieving such purity and resoluteness, though, we humans need to be able to work out our ideas, acknowledge our doubts, and struggle with whatever keeps us from maximizing our intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual potential. That work of self-improvement is often done in solitude, out of the public eye. Furthermore, it is work made possible by the gift of free will; even God provides us the space to keep on growing.

There is much more to be learned from the Torah’s treatment of the ark and the Tabernacle than I can possibly touch upon here. Indeed, the mine of Torah never ceases to yield brilliant gems. Unless one is prepared to do the work to discover those gems, however, the Torah will always appear as a big, impenetrable rock.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Carasik, Michael. The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. p. 215.

[2] Ibid., p. 219.

[3] See, for example, http://www.aish.com/tp/b/sw/Holy-Inside-and-Out.html.

See God, See One Another

Parashat Mishpatim 5781 / פרשת מִּשְׁפָּטִים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, God privately reveals to Moses dozens of rules (mishpatim) that Moses would later convey orally to Children of Israel. Near the end of the parasha, Moses momentarily descends from Mt. Sinai before ascending once again to receive the stone tablets, upon which God would inscribe the Ten Commandments that God had earlier revealed directly to the people. During thes brief interlude at base of the mountain, Moses gathers his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, all of whom would become Israel’s first High Priests, and 70 elders of Israel. He then has these 73 men bow to God from afar, for God has said, “Moses alone shall come near the Lord; the others shall not come near.” Nevertheless, we then learn that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the 70 elders do, infact, ascend the mountain together. Not only that, but upon ascending “they saw the God of Israel,… and God did not raise a hand against the leaders. They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Despite God’s warning that you could not see God and live, all 73 survived their encounter on the mountain unharmed.

Biblical commentators throughout the ages have speculated exactly what the Moses and his guests saw on the mountain in that moment. One says they saw God in a prophetic vision as did the prophets Amos and Ezekiel (Abraham Ibn Ezra). Another says they saw God’s throne of glory (Saadiah Gaon). And another says they had a deep intellectual, mystical experience of “knowing” God, but they did not see God in the physical sense (Moses Maimonides). Though all three of these interpretations are possible, I am especially drawn to the last one because of the implications it has for those who experienced God that day.

These men were not just any men. They were the most esteemed, trusted and learned men of Israel. The seventy elders were most likely the leaders of the judges that Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, had advised Moses to appoint so that Moses would not solely bear the burden of adjudicating Israel’s disputes and legal questions. These men constituted Israel’s equivalent of the Supreme Court.

The leaders of the judges ascended the mountain at a time when God was revealing to Moses all the ordinances of the Torah that they would be responsible for protecting. It wasn’t enough for Moses to simply tell the men what God had revealed to him, though. If that were the case, how could they possibly decided any cases that might pit one rule against another or that might involve considerable nuance. Rather, the men arose that day to learn the fullness of the law, not just the words, but their meaning and God’s intentions behind them. In effect, these men were attending law school. They were acquiring the skills, wisdoms and insights to fairly and competently interpret God’s laws for Israel. As they studied intently upon the mountain, they came to know God in a most intimate way. In Maimonides’s terms, they came to “see” God.

In bringing these leaders up to the mountain, Moses was inviting them to seek God’s “face,” that is, to understand what God wants of God’s people and how God works in the world. The elders would be charged with hearing the people’s questions and grievances and addressing them in ways that were “Godly.” This required that they know the law through and through AND that they had the capacity to see the individuals before them as reflections of God. All of them, after all, were and are made in God’s very image. Unless they could see that image of the Divine in each and every person, they would merely be going through the motions, and they would fail to truly uphold God’s law.

We are not High Priests or Judges of Israel, but the task of the 73 is our task, just the same. We are expected to “see” God in our lives, to discern what God wants of us and how God wants us to be partners with the Divine in the ongoing act of creation. We do not have to climb a mountain to see God, however, even though many of us do experience God’s presence in nature. Instead, we need only look into the eyes of those around us. Each and every human being is created in God’s image, after all. To see God, we must seek God’s face in our fellow human beings. Only then can we fully live our lives in faith both to God’s word and God’s intent.

This year we read Parashat Mishpatim on Rosh Hodesh Adar, on the first of the month of Adar, the month in which we celebrate Purim. On Purim we read about heroes and villains who have something to hide. Thus, we ourselves don masks on this holiday. Is this all that different from how we present ourselves in our everyday lives? Whether we intend to or not, we do not reveal all our secrets, all our pains and doubts, nor all our joys and certainties in a way that tells others exactly who we are and how they should relate to us. As a result, when encounter one another, we make all kinds of assumptions that shape how we interact. But many of our assumptions are wrong and, as a result, we hurt others in ways we can’t fully comprehend. To relate to one another in Godly ways requires us to recognize our assumptions, move beyond them, and to seek God’s face in one another.

We are all complicating beings who bear God’s image each in our own way. The lesson from the 70 elders of Israel (plus 3) is that we must take steps, both literally and figuratively, to see more of each other than meets the eye. Only when we see the fullness of God’s likeness in one another can we do the sacred work of caring for one another, which. at its core. was the work of the men who saw God at Mt. Sinai.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman Introduces 2021 Jewish Disability Awareness, Advocacy and Inclusion Month!

Parashat Yitro 5781 / פרשת יִתְרוֹ

 Exodus 18:1-20:23

It gives me great pleasure to share the devar torah with which that my colleague, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, opened this year’s Jewish Disability Advocacy Month on Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Her words so aptly connect this week’s Torah portion to the issues we’ll be discussing as Jewish community throughout North America throughout February that I asked Rabbi Tuchman if I could share them in this space. I thank Rabbi Tuchman, the first blind female rabbi in the United States, for permitting to do so.

On her webpage, Rabbi Tuchman offers the following biography:

Rabbi Tuchman is a sought after speaker, spiritual leader and educator. Ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, she has taught at numerous synagogues and other Jewish venues throughout North America and was named to the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 for her innovative leadership concerning inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. In 2017, she delivered an ELI Talk entitled We All Were At Sinai: The Transformative Power of Inclusive Torah. She has trained and continues to teach with Rabbi David Jaffe and the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, which provides a space for Jewish spiritual and contemplative practice for social justice activists. She is a participant of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Clergy Leadership Program. She serves on the board of JOIN for Justice, which trains Jews in community organizing for social change. In 2020, she was honored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).

I encourage you to learn more about Rabbi Tuchman’s personal website at https://rabbituchman.com/.

Enjoy her teaching!

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I would like to begin by first thanking The Jewish Federations of North America for your kind invitation to speak tonight. It is an honor and a privilege to be with you all as we begin our month-long observance of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, of which our celebration tonight of Jewish Disability Advocacy Month is an integral component.In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Yitro, we encounter one of the most fundamental events in Jewish collective and historical consciousness—the revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Our tradition teaches that this foundational event in our founding as a nation was at once a collective and an individual experience. We experienced revelation with all of our senses, all gathered, as one at Sinai.

We also each experienced the revelation, as we learn in a Midrash, in a way that we each, individually could comprehend. Put another way, the Torah has seventy faces, seventy, here, being a stand-in for infinite. Just as we all were together as one people to receive Torah, we each were able to receive this collective gift and blessing in a way that was comprehensible to us.

Our tradition understands that we are stronger when our differences are lifted up and celebrated as ways of being human that are and have always been with us. This past year has caused so much to be revealed that had been concealed before for so many, including the reality that stigma, discrimination and fear of disability communities and experiences is still very much a part of the fabric of society.

This Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, let us take our tradition’s at-once-radical-and-challenging call to heart. Revelation included all of us, in all of the varied ways in which we were able to receive Torah. So, too, do we know intrinsically that we are stronger when the richness of the tapestry of our lives and experiences are able to find their home in our communities.

And as we work tirelessly for advocacy priorities through Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, may we be strengthened and inspired in our efforts by our tradition’s insistence that all life is precious. May our work move us even closer to a society and world that allows all of us to thrive.

Whose Bones Are These? Our Sacred Oath to Preserve Memory (A Reprise for Pesach)

I wrote the following d’var Torah for Parashat Beshalach in January, 2021, but the message here is most apropos to Pesach and to the observance of yizkor, the memorial service we pray as a community on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot as well as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Pesach is all about remembering our national story. As any journalist or educator will tell you, we learn history best when we tell the stories of individuals. That is why the story of Pesach has the names of so many rabbis and even the four children. They help us personalize our connection to our larger story as a nation. Additionally, when we remember our beloveds who are no longer with us during yizkor, we recall their stories and we give their lives meaning when we pass those stories onto our children.

When I think of Moses and the Israelites carrying Joseph’s bones back to Israel, I imagine the children among them asking their parents, “Whose bones are these?” And I imagine the eyes of the parents growing wide as they regale their children with the story of Joseph as we’ve learned it from the Book of Genesis.

On this, the 7th night of Pesach, on a Shabbat when my congregation will be praying the yizkor prayers, I hope we can take the time not only this Shabbat but at all times to share the stories of our people and our families with our children. When we do that, you might say that “Joseph’s” bones come back to life.

Parashat Beshalach 5781 / פרשת בְּשַׁלַּח
Exodus 13:17-17:16

I recently partook in a conversation about how best to acknowledge yahrzeits, the anniversaries of individuals’ deaths, in our bi-monthly newsletter and whether to include in our acknowledgements the names of people who passed away decades ago and who no longer have familial ties in the congregation. At issue ostensibly was the practicality of perpetually printing an ever-expanding list of names within limited space, but beneath the surface was the question of how to honor and preserve the memory of all who came before us. In essence, we were dealing with one of the lessons of this week’s Torah portion: we are commanded to go to great lengths to sustain our People’s collective memory.

Let me lay out the tension we were dealing with in the aforementioned conversation. In our bi-monthly newsletter, we have a finite among of space for articles, program announcements, listings of donations, simchas (joyous milestones), advertisements and other content. Should we then be listing all the yahrzeits for the months covered in the newsletter extending back to the congregation’s founding over 100 years ago? Were we to do so, we could imagine the list growing so long it would deprive us of space in the newsletter to notify the living of what is happening in the community in our own day. On the other hand, don’t we have an obligation to perpetuate the memory of individuals who no longer have relatives to say kaddish for them and who also may have made significant contributions to the community during their lives? Before I reveal the resolution to this dilemma, consider the case presented in Parashat Beshalach, from chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus.

It is clear that even our biblical forebears wrestled with how to perpetuate the memory of our ancestors. At the time the Israelites departed Egypt, “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you’” (Ex. 13:19). Not knowing where Joseph was buried – after all, it had been around 400 years since he died! – Joseph consulted with Serach, the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher and the only person alive of Joseph’s generation. (Yes, Serach was VERY old, but considering that one tradition has her living to 1000 years, she hadn’t yet hit mid-life by the time Moses got in touch with her!) Serach revealed that Pharaoh, knowing that the Israelites would not leave Egypt without honoring the oath that the Children of Israel had made with Joseph, had hidden Joseph’s coffin beneath the Nile. And so Moses went to the bank of the Nile and called out to Joseph, whereupon Joseph’s metal coffin rose to the surface.

Moses took great pains to recover Joseph’s remains at a time when the rest of Israel was occupied with “requesting” the valuables of Egypt. Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, observes that rather than give in to the temptation to enrich himself before being freed from Egypt, Moses “took care to fulfill the oath so that no guilt should befall upon Israel.” Despite Moses’ meritorious act, it would be the generation that entered the land without Moses that eventually claimed credit for giving Joseph a proper burial. Nonetheless, we must credit Moses with enabling the future Children of Israel to remain faithful to Joseph’s wishes.

I imagine it was a bit strange for the Israelites to schlep Joseph’s bones through the wilderness for 40 years. Apart from the ancient Serach, no one knew Joseph personally. One wonders how the people remembered Joseph after being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Had Joseph achieved legendary status or had the hardship of their oppression caused the Israelites to bury the memory of Joseph into their subconscious as Pharaoh had buried Joseph beneath the Nile? “Whose bones are these?” I can hear the children asking as their fathers took turns carrying them. And then the follow-up question: “Why bother?”

Why bother carrying Joseph bones up from Egypt? Given the hardships and the heavy lifting involved in their desert sojourn, we might have forgiven the Israelites for lightening their load at some point. Moses had his hands so full throughout the trek that he might never have noticed had someone “accidentally” left the bones on the wrong side of the Sea of Reeds. But that is not what happened. Indeed, the Israelites entered Eretz Yisrael with Joseph’s bones, and they buried him in the vicinity of the Shechem. (One can visit Joseph’s Tomb on the outskirts of Nablus to this day.)

The Children of Israel made an oath to remember Joseph. Taking his bones to the Holy Land and burying him there was a commitment they made not only with Joseph but with God. In the Torah, oaths by their very nature are made with God and are inviolable. Thus, the promise to Joseph was a sacred commitment preserved over many generations until, hundreds of years later, it could be fulfilled. Leaving Joseph’s bones behind was out of the question even for the generations who knew him, perhaps, in story only.

We are the Children of Israel who carry on the legacy exemplified by Moses and the generations of the wandering. Our oath is not with Joseph but with all those who came before us. Anyone who has volunteered to maintain a Jewish cemetery has taken an active part in honoring that oath. Anyone who has gazed at a memorial wall in a synagogue has taken an active part in honoring that oath. Anyone who has polished a plaque dedicating a room or a ritual object to someone now known by name only has taken an active part in honoring that oath. We all can take an active part in honoring the memory of those unknown souls who came before us by simply being mindful of our continued existence as a Jewish People. On a more mundane level, if it were not for those souls, we would have no synagogue today in which to mount those memorial or dedicatory plaques.

Must we commit to publishing in our newsletters all the names of the deceased members of our community as well as the deceased family members of congregants for all time? No. In the case at hand, pragmatism prevailed, and we decided to continue to include names of those who died years ago only while they have relatives in our congregation to observe their yahrzeits. This is consistent with the Torah’s own pragmatism regarding Joseph. It was not Joseph’s whole body that Moses and the Israelite’s took out of Egypt, just his bones. The Israelites did not haul a giant sarcophagus across the wilderness with Joseph’s embalmed body for all those years, but rather something much more modest and portable, like an ark resembling the one in which the Tablets of the Covenant were preserved. The Torah seems to suggest that it is not unreasonable to set limits on how we preserve the memory of our ancestors. Opting to place a limit on the list of yahrzeits in our newsletter is one such reasonable limit.

At the end of the day, our discussion was not about preserving our communal memory or not. We could make the decision to hold the line on printing yahrzeits because we know we have other ways to perpetuate the memory of the unknown, though not forgotten, souls who paved the way forward for us. One of those ways is simply to be mindful that we have a debt of gratitude to pay to earlier generations – to the Josephs who came before us – and never to take our existence for granted. If we can do that, we, too, will have fulfilled our oath.