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

Jacob’s Rite of Passage: Celebrating the New, Appreciating the Old

Parashat Vayishlach / פרשת וישלח
Torah Portion: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

When last we saw Esau, he had just left home after having spent much of his life a victim of his younger brother’s antics. In utero, Jacob had tried to pull his twin brother back into the womb so that he could be born first and, thus, merit the birthright and blessing of the oldest son. Later on, he took advantage of a tired, hungry Esau and convinced him to sell the birthright for a bowl of lentils. Finally, Jacob stole from Esau the most precious thing of all — their father’s blessing. Imagine Esau’s anger upon discovering he was once again a victim of Jacob’s scheming! Imagine, too, Jacob’s fear of encountering Esau years later. This week, we witness the brothers’ reunion, a reunion that against all odds is peaceful and marked by contrition and forgiveness.

Before Jacob embarks on his journey to meet Esau, something incredible happens. Jacob wrestles all night long with a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok River. Depending on whose commentary or scholarship you read, the being is either an angel of God, Esau’s guardian angel or a river spirit, the latter reflecting a belief common in the ancient Near East. Regardless of whom or what Jacob wrestled, Jacob emerges from the experience but with a limp, a blessing and a new name — Israel. It is as if he becomes a new man overnight.

This scene follows 20 years during which Jacob labored for his father-in-law, Laban, and got a good dose of his own bitter medicine. Just as Jacob had tricked his brother, Laban does the same to Jacob, switching out one bride for another, changing the terms of his servitude and cheating him of earnings rightfully accrued over his years of servitude. When Jacob manages to extricate himself from his servitude to Laban and leaves with two wives, eleven sons, a daughter, and a sizable flock of sheep and goats that he somehow genetically engineered to be strong and healthy, he is a smaller, more humble person than he had been as a youth. Thus, the scene at the Jabbok marks Jacob’s maturation, emboldens him for his fateful reunion with Esau and establishes him as the worthy father of a great nation. Life begins anew the day after that struggle not only for Jacob (now, Israel) but for us, the Children of Israel, as well. For us, we can now rest assured that our patriarch is more than the slimy trickster we had seen earlier in the Torah.

For Jacob, what happened at the Jabbok is a rite of passage celebrated by taking on the name Israel. Jacob is not the only patriarch to undergo such a rite. Recall that Abraham had been Abram prior to entering into a covenant with God. Notably, the circumstances in each case are quite different. God had known Abraham to be righteous and just before singling him out for the covenant. Thus, the name Abraham — containing the Hebrew letter “hei,” part of the name of the God, whom Abraham has vowed to serve — indicates a change in status. Sarai, Abraham’s wife, is equally meritorious of a name change; God adds the letter “hei” to her name, too, and she becomes Sarah. In Jacob’s case, though, the name Israel indicates more a change of heart than a change in status. The name Jacob derives from words connoting stealth and cunning. Israel, on the other hand, means “one who wrestles/struggles/strives with God.” Jacob began life as an unlikely role model for his descendants, but ends life as one who accounts for his actions and answers to God.

We do not today refer to Abraham or Sarah as Abram or Sarai unless we are referring to those verses in the Torah where their names are still Abram and Sarai. Yet, with Jacob, sometimes we call him Jacob and sometimes we call him Israel. Why not only “Israel?” In the case of Abraham, there was nothing especially compelling to remember about his earlier life. Not so with Jacob, for he changed dramatically over time and for the better. We can’t celebrate who Jacob becomes unless we remember who he once was. Moreover, Jacob’s earlier traits of ingenuity and craftiness may serve humanity well when used for higher purposes. It is quite possible that without those traits, Jacob wouldn’t have been able to become Israel. For the Children of Israel, we, too, have needed to employ ingenuity and craftiness throughout our history just to survive. Were there no “Jacob” inside of us, there could be no “Israel.”

Certainly, the coronavirus has demanded that we think creatively about how to stay connected as a community and serve the physical, educational and spiritual needs of our members. Thank God, therefore, we still carry some of the younger Jacob within us, albeit a more refined and sensitive Jacob.

As we look back on that night by the Jabbok River, we can identify with our ancestor who wrestles with God, angels and spirits and emerges stronger and nobler. As the Children of Israel, let use the skills and wisdom we have gained through our own experience to get us through this moment in history and continue to build a vital, stable, peaceful future for us and our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Jacob has the answer.

Here’s a riddle for you: What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Answer to follow.

In this week’s Torah reading — Parashat Veyetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3 — we encounter our forefather Jacob departing his home in Beersheva to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. Recall that Esau was not too happy that Jacob fooled their father, Isaac, into bestowing the blessing of the first born upon Jacob, when in fact, Esau was the first born and legitimately due the blessing. Told by their mother that Esau was planning to kill him, Jacob unhesitatingly heeded her advice and got the heck out of Beersheva. Before Jacob left for Haran, though, Isaac bade Jacob to find a bride from among his kinsmen there. 

Imagine how stressed Jacob must have been then! Not only might his vengeful brother have been in hot pursuit. Not only was the pressure on him to find a bride. But he was also leaving the comfort and safety of his home. Tradition presents Jacob as a homebody, the favorite of his mother, bookish. He was now way out of his element! Had any of us been Jacob, our anxiety levels would have been through the roof.

It was in that state of emotional and physical vulnerability that Jacob received his first prophecy from the Divine. Weary from his travels, Jacob found a place to lie down for the night. He did what any of us would have done: he found a comfy stone to lay his head on and went to sleep. While he was sleeping, Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven as God stood by his side promising him land, progeny and protection. It’s a wonder that Jacob could sleep at all, nevermind have a dream of such magnitude!

When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Then, to mark this transformative event, Jacob makes a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house — Adonai shall be my God.” Then he set up a pillar, a sacred marker, so future generations could build on that spot a House of God.

Wait just a second. Did Jacob just ask God to give him “bread to eat and clothing to wear?” That’s odd. He didn’t ask that God help him find a beautiful wife and vanquish Esau?

Now I get it! I could never figure out what God saw in Jacob. The Torah doesn’t portray Jacob as especially worthy of God’s blessing, and I’ve never found the midrashim — the rabbis’ creative readings between the lines of the Torah — at all convincing. But here it is! Of all the things Jacob could have prayed for in that moment, he prayed not for spectacular miracles but for bread and clothing — for those things that he already had. At that moment, I believe, Jacob thought, “My brother may harm me and I may not find the bride of my dreams. Still, all I ask is that God sustain me and let me keep my dignity. And should I die, let me find repose in the land of my fathers.”

Medieval biblical commentators implicitly criticize Jacob for having fallen asleep in that place. They point out that if Jacob had known God was in the place, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in the first place. “I would have prepared myself to receive prophecy,” they imagine Jacob saying. But our sages overlook that aspect of Jacob that he had in common with all other prophets: he wasn’t expecting a personal relationship with God and he certainly didn’t feel worthy of God’s prophecy. He was too busy facing the exigencies of life and, despite the pressures that beset him, he was grateful just for “bread to eat and clothing to wear.” Had Jacob known God was in that place and held vigil throughout the night, God might never have appeared to him. It was specifically because Jacob had no grand expectations of God that God permitted him to fall asleep there and appeared to Jacob in a dream.

Consider this: we are at our must humble and vulnerable when we are asleep. We cannot sing our praises nor fight our foes when we are unconscious. Jacob may not have been a great role model for future generations, but here we find him at the peak of humility and vulnerability. That’s the model that the Torah wants us to follow. Jacob wakes up and expresses his gratitude for the simple things: bread and clothing. Maybe that’s why our traditional morning services also begin with expressions of gratitude for the little things: food, clothing, the ability to function. No matter what prophecy might come to us in our dreams, we must still be grateful for the basics, just as Jacob was.

And so, here we are, hunkering down in fear of the coronavirus. We pray that God, scientists, government officials and our neighbors will come together to vanquish this foe. Anyone who is heeding the advice of the CDC and refraining from traditional gatherings with family and friends is praying that the time will be near when we can again experience the hugs, kisses, laughter and — just maybe — heated exchanges that make those gatherings so special. In this moment of time, we are no different from Jacob.

Fearful of Covid-19, longing for a loving embrace, overcome with uncertainty, what are we to give thanks for this Thanksgiving? Jacob has given us the answer. We are to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives and for the simple things that sustain us and give us dignity. We have a choice: we can focus on what we lack due to circumstance or we can focus on all that we have by the grace of God. If we pay attention to the subtle hint in this week’s Torah portion, we’ll choose the latter. And when we do, we’ll discover the answer to our riddle.

Thanksgiving during a pandemic is… Thanksgiving.

Enjoy this time as best you can, and give thanks for love and grace in abundance.

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

Sukkot: The Season of Our Joy

From Friday, October 2 through Thursday, October 8 this year, corresponding to the 15th through 21st of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar, we celebrate one of my all-time favorite Jewish holidays: Sukkot. Also called “the Season of Our Joy,” “the Festival of Booths,” and “the Festival of the Ingathering,” this biblically ordained festival is one of three pilgrimage festivals observed long ago by bringing offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. Sukkot, celebrated today in homes and synagogues (and by Zoom!), also commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness accompanied by God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The seven-day festival is rich with spiritual and historical meaning and is celebrated with the most engaging, evocative rituals of any holiday in the Jewish calendar. 

The signature mitzvot (commandments) of Sukkot involve the sukkah and the “four species,” or plants. In this week’s Torah portion, we read: “You will dwell in booths (sukkot) for seven days: all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths” (Leviticus 23:42). In order to fulfill the mitzvah, one must either build one’s own sukkah or visit someone else’s. A temporary structure, a sukkah can be a variety of dimensions but must be free-standing and have at least two and a half sides and a roof made only of natural materials. The roof is typically covered with just enough tree branches to allow more shade than sun and for a person sitting in the sukkah to be able to see the stars at night. Once constructed, the booth symbolizes God’s guidance and protection throughout the desert sojourn, reminds us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors live in during those years, and resembles the kinds of structures farmers would have constructed in their fields during the harvest season.

The degree to which people actually “dwell” in the sukkah varies. Since the Hebrew word for “dwell” can be translated as “sit,” most people spend short periods of time sitting in the sukkah eating meals, socializing, reading and playing games. Some people, though, do actually live in the sukkah for the entire festival. In any case, though, we are to feel joyous in the sukkah and, therefore, should refrain from spending too much time there in unpleasant weather.

During Sukkot, one also fulfills the commandment of Leviticus 23:40 to take hold of “four species”: myrtle and willow branches, palm fronds and the fruit of “goodly trees.” This fourth item is a lemon-like citron called an etrog and is held next to the other three, which are bundled together with knotted palm fronds. With these in hand, one is to “rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.” The ritual itself entails standing in the sukkah or in the synagogue during worship and waving the lulav, the name given to the set of the four species, in the four directions of the compass, up and down. In this way, we show our gratitude to God, whose presence fills the universe.

Sukkot is not just a holiday: it’s a happening! Sukkot is a festival best celebrated with friends, family and community. I’m always amazed by how many people can actually fit into even the smallest of sukkot! What’s more, to truly fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing during Sukkot, one must utilize the whole body and all the senses. There is literally something for everyone in the celebration of Sukkot: praying, building, moving, eating, enjoying the outdoors, and on and on. What’s not to love?Sukkot is not to be missed even if only by participating in Zoom services, learning online or checking out YouTube videos. Hopefully we’ll all be able to squeeze into our sukkot next year and shake, shake, shake the lulav!

Best of Parashah Ponderings: Chukat and the Game of Life

Parashat Chukat / פרשת חקת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

(Originally published here June 26, 2015.)

This week’s parashah reads like a board game, with the Israelites moving ahead a space, hitting misfortune, moving back several spaces, and then getting lucky and moving forward toward the finish line. The opening chapter of the parashah, rather than fitting in with the game itself, feels like the game’s complicated instructions that will only make sense once you start playing the game. Much happens to the Israelites in this parashah board game for better and for worse, and by the time it is over we’ve discovered an important lesson about dealing with life’s travails.

Let’s start with the instructions. Parashat Chukat begins with the bizarre details of the ritual of the “red heifer” (Numbers 19:1-22) through which one is spiritually cleansed after having become spiritually contaminated by coming into close contact with a corpse. Part of this ritual requires someone to burn the heifer, reducing it to ashes, and as that person executes his responsibilities, he and the presiding priest are made impure. That is, their contact with the ashes of the heifer that will cleanse another person will, in the end, defile them and require them to wash their clothes and bathe their bodies in order to become clean once again.

It’s hard to make sense of this ritual. Why does it unfold the way it does? Why do the ashes purify one person and contaminate another? What did the heifer look like in actuality, and where did it come from? We cannot know the whys and wherefores of the red heifer ritual for sure because it could only be performed in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests, and, of course, neither the Temple nor the priests themselves longer exist. It’s all a mystery beyond our comprehension, which, the rabbis teach, is exactly the point: sometimes God commands us to do things we do not understand, but the idea is to do them out of faith without questioning. Similarly, I’ve read and heard the instructions to complex board games that I simply could not understand, but I had faith that somehow by following the instructions the game would proceed as it was supposed to and things would begin to make sense. The only problem with the Red Heifer game, though, is that it’s a “game” that can’t be played anymore! How frustrating!

So, with the instructions/prelude behind us, we see that the Israelites move one step forward to Kadesh in the “wilderness of Zin” (Num. 20:1). Just as they are settling in, however, Miriam, the prophetess and Moses’ sister, dies. Then, things really spiral out of control: the Israelites find themselves without water (20:2); Moses strikes a rock twice to produce water, despite God’s explicit instruction to simply “order the rock to yield its water” (20:6-11); Moses and Aaron get the news from God that neither of them will get to cross into the Promised Land (20:12-12); the king of Edom refuses to give the Israelites passage through his territory and turns them away. In the span of just 21 verses, Israel hits upon hard times and their forward movement is halted. Unfortunately, their next advance from Kadesh to Mount Hor (20:22) is followed by a string of more setbacks: Aaron dies (20:28); Israel is attacked by the king of Arad (21:1); serpents attack the people, killing many of them (21:6). By this point, it looks like the Israelites are on a losing path.

Just then, a miracle occurs and the forward momentum kicks in once again: Israel comes upon a well at Beer and breaks out in song (21:16-20). Refreshed, Israel defeats in succession the Amorites (21:21-32) and King Og of Bashan (21:33-35), neither of whom granted Israel the right to pass through their territory in peace. Finally, the game ends with Israel making it as far as “the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho” (22:1). Victory! (Well, almost. We’ll have to wait until the Book of Joshua for the next installment of the game.)

What are we to learn from Israel’s experience in this “game”? There are two lessons. First, life can be messy, complicated and hard to understand from time to time, but we must strive to accept our reality and keep our sights set on what we deem truly important. In the case of the Red Heifer, biblical Israel enacted this ritual with all its mystery and believed that being do so they could deal with death effectively. They neither refused to follow God’s strange commandment nor stopped caring for their dead. They accepted the ritual of the Red Heifer at face value, and this allowed them to carry on. We, too, don’t need to understand our reality all the time, but we do need to work with what we’ve been given in order to move forward.

The second lesson is simply that, while life is full of setbacks, the setbacks should neither define us nor deter us from striving for success. In Chukat, lots of bad stuff happens to the Israelites. They grumble and say they wish to be back in Egypt. However, they eventually find their stride, gain confidence, and enjoy a series of major successes. The Israelites do not give up on God, and God does not give up on them.

Had we chosen to read the parashah only through the death of Aaron, we never would have come to the well at Beer. We certainly wouldn’t have seen Moses and the Israelites camping in the steppes of Moab. Were we to give up on life with every defeat — floods, acts of hatred, the death of loved ones — we would never be able to experience the great blessings God has in store for us.

As we play the game of life, it behooves us to assess our circumstances realistically, come to peace with where we’re at and keep on playing. Though we may suffer setbacks from time to time, let us recover quickly and prepare ourselves to keep progressing toward the winner’s circle, which is where, after all, we belong.

Partings Then and Now

Parashat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך

Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Thus far in the Book of Numbers, Israel has remained stationed at the base of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has taken a number of censuses: the men of fighting age; those from the tribe of Levi who will serve in the Tabernacle; and the firstborn of all Israelites, who are to be redeemed from a life of service to God. In addition, God has ordained where each of the tribes is to be situated in the camp in relation to the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle has been dedicated for use, and the Israelite’s prepare to begin their march from Mt. Sinai to the Holy Land. It is in this latter moment that we find one of the Torah’s most poignant, yet enigmatic, moments.

Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel.”

“I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”

He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the LORD grants us.”

They marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:29-33)

Just before God gives Israel the signal to begin their march, Moses invites his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, here named “Hobab”, to join the Israelites as they set out for the Land of Israel. Jethro’s response is to say that he plans to go back to his native land. At that, Moses implores Jethro to come with them and to serve as their guide. Moses even promises Jethro that he will share in the bounty that God had promised for Israel.

But then… nothing. And then the sound of hundreds of thousands of Israelites moving forth. We’re left with a cliffhanger. Did Jethro go home or join the Israelites? We can’t know the answer to this with any certainty.

One midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 81:1) suggests that, at least, Jethro’s sons entered the Land. Once in the land, Israel apportioned the “choicest land of Jericho” to sons of Jethro as a holding until the tribe of Benjamin later inhabited that parcel of land following the construction of the First Temple. Perhaps Jethro was with his sons as they journeyed with the Israelites toward the land. It is also possible that his sons remained with Moses as he returned home.

What is clear from this midrash, however, is that Jethro was far from forgotten. Jethro is remembered as the father of a group of righteous gentiles who aided Israel in conquering and settling the Holy Land. Perhaps, he was also instrumental in guiding Israel safely through the perils of the wilderness. Regardless, the Israelites owed Jethro and his kin a debt of gratitude.

Whether Jethro remained with Israel in the desert or returned home is less important than the fact that Israel carried with them a memory of Jethro. The Torah recounts Jethro’s sage advice to Moses to set up a system of courts to handle all the cases that Israel would eventually bring to the Moses. The Torah recounts how Moses valued Jethro’s knowledge of the wilderness and his ability to guide Israel. And then the rabbis tell us that even in the Land of Israel, the descendants of Jethro held a privileged place. Jethro may have been gone, but he was not forgotten.

This Shabbat is my last as the visiting rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, OR. Over the past three years, this community has become like family to me in many respects. During my monthly visits from Houston, congregants have graciously hosted me in their homes for the weekend. In times of need, such as following the floods in Houston on Memorial Day in 2015, my TBS family supported my family and me morally and financially. These are people I can count on. That’s what family is all about.

In many ways, I see myself as the Jethro of TBS. I’ve been among the community these three years, but not wholly of the community. Time, distance and my family’s circumstances have dictated that we not move on with TBS into the next phase of the community’s life. Despite these realities, TBS and I have fully embraced each other just as Israel and Jethro had embraced each other.

As I now return to Houston, and TBS marches forward, I will cherish the memories of my time here and remember all that this community has done for me and all they have accomplished. I pray, too, that my memory will endure with TBS long after I have departed. If I’m lucky, I’ll be accorded even a fraction of the lasting affection that our tradition still extends to Jethro.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan