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!


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

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.

A Moment and A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hello? Who’s Calling, Please? Getting God’s Message and Returning the Call

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

When I was a young boy, I would occasionally answer the phone when my parents were out of the house and I was in the care of my older brothers. I would listen to the caller and promise the person that I’d tell my mom or dad that they called. It will come as no surprise that by the time I could give my mom or dad the message, if I actually remembered to give them the message, I had often long forgotten who it was who had called. Also, no surprise, my parents weren’t happy with me in those moments.

Their solution to the problem was to train me always to answer the phone: “Hello. Who’s calling, please?” While this didn’t guarantee that I would remember to tell my parents who had called, I almost always got a name from the caller that I could then potentially pass along to them at the first opportunity.

Knowing who was calling was no small matter. If it was someone I knew, I would usually remember to tell my parents. If it was someone important that I knew, the certainty was even greater. And if it was someone I’d never heard of before, no matter how important they were, well, forget about it. The name of the caller that I shared with my parents elicited a parallel response from them; the urgency of their return call was a measure of how important the caller was to my parents in that given moment.

This brings us to Moses’s early encounters with God in the Book of Exodus. It was in Chapter 3, that Moses happened upon God’s presence in the burning bush and that God informed Moses that he must gather up the elders of the Israelites, go with them to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh free “My people” (Ex. 3:12). Unsure of how the “people” would respond to Moses’s actions on God’s behalf, Moses asks God essentially, “Who’s calling, please?” Or, in more adult parlance, “Who may I tell them is calling?” (3:13). God responds: “’Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’  Say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh’ sent me to you.'”

Of course, God realizes that the name “Ehyeh” alone wasn’t going to ring a bell with the Israelites. Thus, God clarifies: Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you (3:15).

However, Moses appears to forget God’s instruction. Moses and Aaron went straight to Pharaoh without the elders to demand Israel’s freedom. Incensed at their demand, Pharaoh makes life even more miserable for the Israelite slaves, who, in turn, wish upon Moses a divine punishment. Even then, Moses doesn’t reveal the name of the Caller to his Israelite accusers; instead, he returns to God and complains that things are only getting worse.

This brings us to this week’s reading where God again tells Moses to tell the Israelites “who is calling.” But there’s a difference in God’s message this time around. God no longer tells Moses to introduce God as “Ehyeh.” Maybe God realizes that name didn’t mean enough to Moses to make an impression on him, let alone on the Israelites.

In order to ensure that God’s message is heard by Moses and will move his followers to have faith in Moses God now says to Moses:

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (6:3-7)

God’s clearer, more familiar self-introduction here is “I am the Lord of your ancestors. In honor of the covenant I made with them, I will free you from bondage.” While this message ought to move the Israelites to follow Moses’s lead, it doesn’t. Despite that Moses gathers the Israelites and repeats supposedly verbatim what God had said, the Israelites in their misery still ignore him. No wonder, then, that God tells Moses and Aaron to go it alone, without the elders of Israel, to face off with Pharaoh.

According to my childhood experience, though, if Moses gave the Israelites the message that God had expected him to relay to the Israelites, the Israelites should have responded accordingly. Just like my parents would have said upon receiving a message, “Thank you for telling me. I’ll call the person back right now,” so, too, the Israelites should have thanked Moses and vowed to follow him.

Why didn’t the Israelites receive God’s message about their imminent salvation in this way? The answer is simple: they were too distracted by their own suffering to hear what Moses was telling them. Their pain interfered with their ability to comprehend that a trusted source of redemption, God, had arranged for Moses to lead them to freedom. This response is entirely consistent with modern neuroscientific research that shows that stress produces physical changes in the brain that impedes one’s ability to process and learn new information. Had the Israelites been more at ease in their situation, unfettered by the shackles of slavery, they would have been able to hear, to receive, the message that Moses was delivering. In the absence of such comfort, however, they could only hear noise and try to block it out.

Blocking out God’s voice was not something Moses would have done. To be sure, one of the reasons why God chose Moses as his messenger was that Moses had the wherewithal to notice God’s presence in the burning bush. Had Moses been hyper-focused on the sheep he was herding or fearful of an immediate threat to his life, he wouldn’t have paid much attention to an ordinary brush fire. Moses was able to be truly present to all of reality and, therefore, was uniquely able to discern God’s presence where others couldn’t. Moses didn’t yet know “who was calling” when he turned toward the bush; yet, because he was in a state of readiness, he paid attention and heard God’s voice for the first time.

How ready are we for these kinds of moments of transcendence? Are we like Moses or like the Israelite slaves? Do we notice God when God is near? Do we take God’s “call” when the phone rings? Do we respond to God’s message when it is right in front of us? Or do we dismiss, even reject, God’s message? Are we so self-involved or fearful or stressed that we shut out the reality of God’s presence? If you’re like me, you’ll identify more with the latter questions than with the former. If you’re like me, you’ll see yourself as more Israelite slave than Moses. This is not good.

Herein lies the challenge of the opening chapters of Exodus: how can we be more like Moses, attuned to God’s presence, ready to enter into relationship with the Divine? How do we take ourselves out of those narrow places, those mitzrayim, those Egypts, that inhibit our thinking and allow us to imagine a world in which all people are free and connected through the web of Godliness? How can we make ourselves ready to answer God’s call when it comes?

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I wish to offer any. Instead, I leave you with the questions and invite you to discover your own way forward. I’ve given you the message and trust you’ll use the phone book of experience to find your own guide. Good luck.

Searching for Shalom at the End of 2020

In the new Pixar film Soul, which my family and I watched on Disney+ this week, we encounter two souls in search of peace and wholeness. A jazz musician finds little satisfaction as a high school music teacher, believing that he will only find contentment as a performer in a jazz quartet. Another character, an unborn soul, struggles mightily to find that one “spark” that will animate its life on Earth, and in Pixar’s realm of the unborn, the soul can only make it into the land of the living once it has discovered that “spark.” And so, the jazz musician and the unborn soul reluctantly pair up in their search for that one thing that will give them peace of mind, body and, yes, soul.

What the characters in Soul are searching for is what we’re all searching for: shalom.

Now, shalom means much more than “hello, good-bye and peace.” At the root of shalom are the letters shin lamed mem, which form the word shaleym, “to make something whole or complete.” The truth is there is never peace where there is no wholeness. Whether it be warring nations, a psyche pulled in different directions or a body fighting off disease or repairing tissue, until all the pieces in conflict start working in concert there is only chaos and discord. Thus, when we recite the Misheberach blessing for healing, we pray for refuah shelayma, a complete healing for all who are ill. In essence, we are asking God to restore to the “broken” body shelaymut, wholeness, to allow the body’s systems to work in sync — and in sync with medical therapeutics — to overcome the source of ailment, to restore peace to body, mind and soul.

The relationship of peace and wholeness extends as well to our coping with the year from Hell that we are ushering out this week. As we say “Good riddance!” to 2020, we all pray that 2021 will bring us shalom in the fullness of its meaning. As witnesses to senseless killing and violence in the streets, we pray that 2021 will bring us peace. As citizens of a country torn apart by tribal politics, we hope that 2021 will bring our nation closer together. As human beings struggling with the emotional, physical, social and psychological tolls of Covid-19, we cry out for shalom in the new year. For 2021, it will be sufficient to have a peaceful year in which we can reconnect not only with friends and loved ones but with those “other people” with whom we vehemently disagree. 2021 should also be a time when we can connect or reconnect with our better, higher selves. In short, we hope that in 2021 we can realize the peace and wholeness that have eluded us these past months.

As if on cue, the Torah this week also addresses the search for peace and wholeness. As we read the last chapters of the Book of Genesis, we find our ancestors — Jacob and Joseph and their whole family — achieving shalom once and for all. Prior to his death, Jacob asks that he be buried in the very cave where Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah were laid to rest. Having lived a life of turmoil, Jacob finally lies in repose amid the wholeness of his family and at peace in God’s promised land. Joseph’s brothers, who want nothing more than to live in peace alongside Joseph following the death of Jacob, also find shalom. And Joseph, in a remarkable display of resilience, puts his brother’s mistreatment behind him and comes to accept God’s role in his tumultuous life. Ultimately, Joseph, like his father, asks that his bones be buried in the Land of Israel, and they will be — albeit over 400 years later — allowing Joseph posthumously to realize the fullness of shalom in the land of his birth.

The Book of Genesis, which chronicles the early life of the family of Israel, closes with the tying up of loose ends — with shalom. The book opens with tohu va-vohu — formlessness and void — that is replaced by God’s created, orderly universe, a universe at peace with itself. Then we read of the dramatic creation of humankind and its failed attempts at inhabiting the Earth. Though the rainbow appears to be a symbol of peace following the Flood, it is symbolic only of God’s covenant with humanity; humans apparently are left to duke it out amongst themselves. Then, we learn of the trials and travails of our first monotheistic ancestors from Abraham and Sarah through Jacob, Leah and Rachel and their family. Lots of ugliness there. And now, at last, we are treated to “happy ever after” (until next week, at least, when we start reading about slavery in Egypt in the Book of Exodus). After the rollercoaster ride that is Genesis, we deserve this week of shalom in Parashat Vayehi, a week of restfulness when all the factions work in harmony.

After the rollercoaster ride that was 2020, we deserve much more than a week of shalom, and Hollywood, Torah and real life seem to be speaking in one voice in this regard. I encourage you to see Soul and let me know what you think. I see it as a story about our search for shalom, i.e. peace and wholeness. Torah functions much the same way. Sometimes moments of peace are obvious, but even amidst warfare, doubt, and kvetching, God is behind the scenes trying to make everything work out well. And then there’s us in this moment. We’ve been through a lot, and we certainly have a few, perhaps many, months to go before the pandemic is behind us and our nation, God willing, emerges from dystopia. The prophets Peter, Paul and Mary once asked “for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” We see that time in Soul and in Torah. Might that time for us be in the coming year?

May we find in 2021 that which we all seek — shalom, a time of peace and wholeness.

Learning in Egypt and the Survival of the Jewish People

Parashat Vayigash / פרשת ויגש
Torah Portion: Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

The history of Israel’s 400-plus year exile in Egypt, foretold in a divine revelation to Abraham earlier in the Book of Genesis (15:13), begins in this week’s Torah reading, Vayigash. The reading opens with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, who had journeyed to Egypt in search of sustenance during the famine in Canaan (45:4). Prior to now, the band of brothers had been unaware that the Pharaoh’s vizier, to whom they were pleading and who put them through a series of nerve-wracking trials, was the brother whom they had long ago sold into slavery and about whom they told their father, Jacob, had been devoured by a ravenous beast.

All seems to end well in this parasha. Pharaoh invites the brothers to resettle their clan in Egypt. Jacob learns that Joseph is alive and well. Father and son are reunited. And all 70 members of Jacob’s household emigrates to Egypt, where they will wait out the famine and eventually thrive. Still, the Children of Israel are in exile in Israel. They literally “went down” to Egypt.

The exile motif has already appeared in the Torah several times. Recall that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden in chapter 3 of Genesis. Later, Cain would be exiled (4:16). Then, each of the patriarchs would experience dislocation in one way or another either within Canaan or without. All these stories are part and parcel of Israel’s national story, serving to define Israel’s relationship with God and the land of Israel and giving shape to their mission in the world.

The exile of Jacob and his family, however, would last much longer than all the others and prove to be a great test of Israel’s ability to maintain its self-identity. By the time God liberates the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, they will have preserved a modicum of identity with their past as told through the stories of Genesis, but they will have effectively switched allegiance from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the gods of the Egyptians (see the article entitled “The Religion of the Israelites in Egypt” by Michael Alan Stein at http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/393/jbq_393_religioninegypt.pdf). While the extended sojourn in Egypt would engrave the experience of servitude upon Israel’s consciousness, the Hebrews’ link to their ancestral religion would become tenuous, at best.

Rather than discount Israel’s flimsy identification with the God of their ancestors and focus on their assimilation into Egyptian culture – an assimilation which might have been complete had not the experience of bondage brought them together as an oppressed people – we ought to celebrate that our enslaved forebears retained any identity as the People of Israel at all. In fact, on the eve of Israel’s liberation, the Hebrews’ response to Moses’s command to ready themselves for the exodus suggests they had recovered, at least in part, from the amnesia induced by centuries of disconnection from the Promised Land and the halt in progress of their nation’s narrative.

In looking for clues to the survival of Israel’s identity during their exile in Egypt, we find light in the commentary of Rashi, the preeminent medieval French commentator. As Jacob prepared to relocate his family, he sent his son Judah ahead to “show (le’harot) the way before him to Goshen” (46:28). Rashi shares a rabbinic midrash on the word “le’harot,” which can be translated as “to teach or instruct,” that says that Jacob had sent Judah ahead in order to establish in advance a house of study, from which teaching would go forth. The idea that Jacob would have a house of study established before his arrival to Goshen reflects the sages’ wisdom that for diaspora Jewry Jewish learning is essential to continuity and survival. It certainly is the case that traditions survive because one generation teaches them to the next. When there is no transmission of a people’s narrative or creative myths, there can be no lasting memory and the people’s identity is doomed to fade away. The rabbis of old understood that for Judaism to flourish, Jews need to teach their children and grandchildren what it means to be Jewish.

The midrash that Rashi shares is surely a projection of the rabbinic mind onto the Torah, but while it is unlikely that there were houses of Israelite study in Egypt prior to the exodus, it is not at all unlikely that Jacob’s sons told the story of their people to their children and their children’s children. Thus began an oral tradition that helped preserve the Hebrews’ identity as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.

In an age when the demographics of Jews in America continue to show waning commitments to Jewish religion and institutional affiliation, we ought to heed the lesson embedded in this week’s Torah portion. Without houses of study or, at least, houses in which parents and grandparents actively relate Jewish wisdom to their heirs, Jewish identity is doomed to dissolve. Such dissolution of identity may have been total for our ancestors in Egypt were it not for those elders who saw to it that the stories of the Children of Israel would be taught from generation to generation.

It is my hope that the American Jewish community will always find “Judahs” in each generation to safeguard Jewish learning and set up teachers for our children who will transmit to them the stories of our past and visions for our future. In this way, the People of Israel will live.

Lessons from a Classic Debate about How to Light the Hanukkah Candles

The question of how to light the Hanukkah candles was hotly contested by two great rabbis in the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai. The Talmud is the central body of Jewish law and lore that developed between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE in both Palestine and Babylonia. Though the debate over the Hanukkah candles occurred two millennia ago, it is worth reminding ourselves what the issues were then and seeing what lessons each side has to offer us today.

As heads of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the first century of the common era, Hillel and Shammai distinguished themselves for their knowledge of Jewish law and their ability to adapt to changing social, political and religious circumstances. Most of all, though, Hillel and Shammai are remembered for their divergences of opinion. Typically, Hillel would take a lenient, humanitarian approach to matters, and Shammai veered toward strict legalism. While the opinions of Hillel and his students were accepted more often than not by the rabbis of the Talmud, Shammai’s positions did emerge as normative on occasion. In any case, both rabbis’ positions and those of their disciples became a matter of record, an indication of the esteem accorded them by later generations.

One disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai is of especial note at this time of year: should we light all eight candles of the Hanukkah menorah (properly called a hanukkiah) on the first night and take away one candle on subsequent nights or should we light one candle the first night and add one candle on subsequent nights? Beit Shammai (the House or School of Shammai) held the first view, Beit Hillel the second. Beit Hillel emerged victorious, and it is their order of lighting that we use today.

Why would Beit Shammai argue that we should begin Hanukkah by lighting all the candles first and decrease the light as the holiday progresses? One reason was to have the number of candles correspond to the number of days remaining, from eight on the first night to one on the last. Another reason was so that the procedure for kindling the Hanukkah lights would mimic how the priests sacrificed a total of 70 bulls during the festival of Sukkot. While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the priests would sacrifice a diminishing number of bulls from 13 on the first day to 7 on the last.

Though both of these reasons were compelling in their day, the latter might have had special appeal to the rabbis since it speaks to the very origins of Hanukkah. In 165 BCE, the year the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrian Greeks, the fighters had been unable to observe Sukkot at its proper time in the month of Tishrei (October in the Roman calendar). Thus, when the fighting ceased two months later, in the month of Kislev, the Maccabees rededicated the defiled Temple by rekindling the eternal light and offering the Sukkot sacrifices at that time. This late observance of Sukkot eventually morphed into what we now know as Hanukkah — which means “dedication” in English — with the lights substituting for the sacrifices. If we were to diminish the number of candles each night of Hanukkah, we would be re-enacting, in a way, the ritual as practiced by the Maccabees themselves.

As sensible as Beit Shammai’s method of kindling the hanukkiah was, Hillel’s method was favored by the rabbis for at least two reasons. By increasing the lights by one each day, the number of lights corresponded to the appropriate day and might have served as a mnemonic device to help people remember which day of the holiday they were celebrating. A more powerful reason for following Beit Hillel’s procedure, however, was that it reflected the rabbis’ desire to increase joy with each passing day, a desire that extended beyond Hanukkah to life itself. Perhaps because life was so difficult for Jews, the rabbis wanted to preserve the practice which would most likely lift people’s spirits in the darkest days of winter.

Today, Hillel and Shammai and their students present us with a choice. Shammai and his school would have us look toward our glorious past, to remember the Temple and its sacrifices. Hillel and his school would have us look to the future, to embrace a life full of possibility. As the classic example of an “argument for the sake of Heaven,” this debate offers an abiding Truth: as Jews we must be firmly rooted in the soil of our heritage in order to grow new branches extending upward and outward toward the future. Still, while the past and all its lessons may shine a light on the present, only the future can continue to grow brighter.

Therefore, as we kindle the lights of Hanukkah and recall the miracles that befell us in days of yore, let us now rededicate ourselves to building a more radiant future — a future filled with appreciation for all who are different from ourselves, a future free of preventable diseases, a future of wellness for our planet, a future of blessing.

Wishing you joy and light this Hanukkah,
Rabbi Dan