Shabbat: Time to Curb Your Enthusiasm

Vayakhel / ויקהל
Exodus 35:1 – 38:20

This week in the Torah, the Israelites finally get around to building the Tabernacle. In Vayakhel, Moses gathers (in Hebrew vaykhel) the community and let’s the people know what has to be done. As soon as he is done speaking, the people get to work and start bringing their terumah, freewill donations of materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. By the end of the parashah, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Pact, and all the other furniture and vessels to be used by the priests are in place.

How Moses begins instructing the people is noteworthy:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35, 1-2).

Before Moses begins talking about the labor involved in building the Tabernacle, he lets the workers know that a day of rest lies ahead. Why wouldn’t Moses have given the instructions first and saved the promise of a day of rest for the end? After all, God had done just that when he revealed the instructions for the Tabernacle to Moses: God revealed the instructions and only afterward reminded Moses about the commandment to observe Shabbat.

The medieval commentators on the bible are bothered by this question as well. The preeminent commentator Rashi (1040-1105) answers the question by observing that Moses first gave the commandment about Shabbat so that the people would know that the building of the Tabernacle did not trump the Sabbath.  Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) later adds that God “has already forbidden them in the covenant to do any work on the Sabbath, but here God specifies the punishment for violating the commandment” lest the people should think that each violation of a mitzvah comes with the same punishment. In short, the sages teach us that Moses is making it clear to his followers that Shabbat is a bigger deal than even the construction of the Tabernacle and that the penalty for overlooking this reality is severe.

Given what happens when the people start to bring their offerings for the Tabernacle, I’d say Moses made a good decision. The people are so eager to contribute that Moses has to tell them: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6). As he begins his instructions the people of Israel, he thus anticipates their zeal. He imagines that the people will get so caught up in building the dwelling place for the Divine presence that they would likely work straight through the seventh day to get the job done if not warned ahead of time.

We should also recall that the construction of the Tabernacle begins immediately after Israel sins by building the Golden Calf and suffers God’s wrath as a result. It is entirely conceivable that Israel would now be so fearful of God that they would think building the Tabernacle – something God actually commands them to build, unlike the Golden Calf – would be more important than the Sabbath. Perhaps the fact that they brought a surplus of materials to the Tabernacle is a manifestation of this zeal.

I believe Moses has something else in mind as well when he begins his instructions with the commandment of Shabbat: reassuring the Israelites that labor post-Exodus is not going to be like labor pre-Exodus. As slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the Israelites experienced no respite from their backbreaking labors. The last thing Moses wanted is for the people to hear what needed to be done to build the Tabernacle and then have them exhibit a post-traumatic response that would have impeded them from fulfilling God’s command. By uttering the promise of Shabbat before giving the marching orders for the Tabernacle, Moses allays the fears of the Israelites that they are going to suffer now as they had suffered under Pharaoh

The “take away” for us from this week’s parashah is that by observing Shabbat, we are honoring God and celebrating the freedom we have to cease from our labors. Our sages believe that when we fail to observe the day of rest, we don’t actually experience a physical death but we do experience a spiritual death: by working straight through with no breaks, we lose sight of what is of ultimate importance and become detached from all that is truly valuable. If we fail to observe the Sabbath, we might as well still be in Egypt, where we were slaves, unable to escape to Sinai and grow closer to God and to those we love.

Note: I had previously posted this commentary on February 20, 2014 at http://www.tbsholom.org/parashat-vayakhel-exodus-351-3820/2826.

The Attribute of God We’d Rather Not Mention

Parashat Ki Tisa / פרשת כי תשא

Torah Portion: Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses climbs back up Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets after he smashed the first set upon witnessing the Israelites rejoicing around the golden calf they had fashioned during his first 40-day absence atop the mountain. This time, however, Moses asks God for the merit of revealing God’s self before him. Agreeing to Moses’s request, God instructs Moses to stand in a cleft in the rock. There God will shield Moses’s face with God’s hand as God passes, lowering the hand only after God had passed. As this scene unfolds, God proclaims the greatness of the Divine One with these words:

“The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 33:6-7)

These two verses contain what the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, of the 16th century consider to be the “thirteen attributes of God.” In explaining why we recite these verses whenever a Festival falls on a weekday, David Teutsch writes, “Reciting the attributes on the Festivals celebrates God’s presence as vividly experienced in the joyous observance of the holiday” (Kol Haneshama Prayerbook for Shabbat and Holidays, 1994, p. 390). We give especial prominence to these attributes when we recite them particularly when the ark is open and the Torah, the mythic word of God, is exposed for all to see.

But the tradition calls for reciting only half of what God proclaims to Moses. What is left unsaid is that God “visits the iniquity of parents upon childrenn and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 33:7). It seems that the Kabbalists were fine reciting all of God’s positive attributes before the holy ark, but this business of God’s retribution made them squeamish. This is not surprising. Who wants to be thinking of four generations of punishment while during an intense moment of devotion before the Torah?

Still, if we look at the Torah text on its own terms, it appears that God is unabashedly announcing that a component of God’s greatness is, in fact, God’s ability to “visit the iniquity of parents” upon subsquent generations of progeny. Rather than look away from these words in the Torah and pretend they are not there, we should look straight at them and ask in what sense they speak of God’s glory, rather than God’s ugly punitive side.

I’d like to propose that the positive attribute of God alluded to in this verse is God’s ability to teach and reteach generations of children the lessons their parents learned the hard way. If what God is doing is reminding the children of their parents waywardness, there then is an element of mercy in this aspect of God’s being. Taken the right way, the children and the children’s children through four generations will vow not to repeat their parents mistakes.

We might apply this lesson to climate change. Who can argue that all of us living today are paying the price for the callousness of our “parents” in regard to the environment? Perhaps the scientists who’ve opened our eyes to global warming and the activists who are trying to urge individuals and governments to do something about it are themselves acting as agents of God in “visiting the iniquity” of past generations on present and future generations. We shouldn’t vilify them for bearing bad news, but rather praise them for awakening us to the problem and causing us to act.

When we talk about God’s attributes, we are articulating those traits that we imagine are of such high value that we would ascribe them to God. Remembering that we are created in God’s image, i.e. that we are commanded to behave in ways that we imagine emulate God’s actions, these attributes of godliness then say more about us than about God. As we stand before the Torah, we are to recommit ourselves to exhibiting these same attributes, even the one that we’d prefer not to talk about: the one about remembering the mistakes of our ancestors that we need not repeat, whose costs we bear, and whose effects we must ameliorate.

We might not want to talk about God visiting the sins of our parents upon us and our children and our children’s children, but we must heed the greater lesson that the Torah is trying to teach us. While we may not naturally love the “punishing” God, we ought to love and appreciate that attribute of God who enables us to become better human beings.

 

 

Building God’s Dwelling Place: All for The One and The One for All

Parashat Tetzaveh / פרשת תצוה
Torah Portion: Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Beginning with last week’s Torah reading and most of the rest of the Book of Exodus generally deals with establishing the central religious structure and leadership of biblical Israel, that is the mishkan (Tabernacle) and its accoutrements and the priesthood with its garb and ritual ordination. The mishkan itself was viewed by our ancestors as the dwelling place of God on earth, the Ark of the Covenant at its center representing God’s footstool. Yet, the raison d’etre of the mishkan was not as a hermitage for God but as a meeting place for God and Israel. In this sense, then, the mishkan served the needs of the Israelites every bit as much as it was deemed to serve God’s. This was where God could be known to Israel and where Israel could relate God.

In Parashat Terumah, which we read last week, God instructs Moses to “take for me freewill offerings” (Exodus 25:2) that will be used in the construction of the mishkan. As I mentioned in my discussion of Terumah, God asked the people for very specific things, but expected that they would offer them with open hearts. We thus imagine that every Israelite who was able to contribute had some emotional stake in creating God’s dwelling place. The idea that it is incumbent upon all of Israel to make our world hospitable for the Divine Presence is a powerful one that ought to motivate all of humanity today in everything from environmental conservation to just, compassionate governance.

At the same time, however, neither Israel’s largesse toward God nor humanity’s ongoing efforts to prepare the world for God’s indwelling presence are entirely without ulterior motive. Indeed, a counterpoint to “take for me freewill offerings” can be found in the command “take for yourself oil of beaten olives to light the flame (of the menorah) eternally” (Exodus 27:20). In essence, God is saying in these two commands “Do this for me, but do this for yourselves as well. “Mi casa es su casa,” if you will.

Reconstructionist Judaism defines God as “the power that makes for salvation.” I like to interpret that classic phrase of Mordecai Kaplan’s as suggesting that God is present in the goodness, compassion and beauty we human beings experience in this world. To make God manifest, then, we mustn’t expect miracles from on high, but rather work here and now to build our own mishkan out of goodness, compassion and beauty. If we build it, God will come.

When we build a world worthy of God’s inhabitance, we build a world where all beings can be in relation to God. When we build a dwelling place for God, we benefit from knowing that God is present in all that we do, that God is near, that God is real. We are not alone and our acts of lovingkindness and righteousness are not empty. We build a mishkan today not just for God, but for us, too.

I am moved by the complementary language of these two recent Torah portions: “take for me” and “take for you,” do this for my sake AND do this for your sake. In this pre-election cycle, I pray that candidates will emerge victorious who see as their mission not to build a nation and a world out of their own sense of self-importance but to create a space where the Divine can dwell and the lives of all people can be infused with the Holy. It’s best not to take chances, though: let us all now resolve to build the mishkan for God and for all God’s creation.

Not All of Worth is Worthy

Terumah / תרומה
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Have you ever had the experience of giving a gift, sharing an idea, or making a joke only to find out that your well-intended “offering” is not welcome? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Even though we are moved to contribute to others what we believe is of value, we often find that others don’t share our assessment of our contribution; for whatever reason, they don’t see in that gift, idea or quip the same worth or worthiness that we see. At these times, it’s not pleasant to feel rebuffed or rejected, but that’s life.

It is true that certain circumstances call for taking risks, saying what’s on our minds even though others may not agree with us or giving a precious gift even if we don’t know how it will be received. If we constantly shy away from offering our thoughts or going for broke, we may never progress. It’s not likely that any of us are wrong all the time, after all. Eventually, we’ll present something acceptable that may also turn out to be the critical missing peace of a complex puzzle.

That said, we are still wise to be thoughtful in our contributions. In making our free-will offerings we should consider how our offerings will be accepted and be aware of what offerings are actually needed. If, for example, someone is baring her soul to us about a very serious matter, we probably don’t want to be making silly puns. (I know from experience!) A thoughtful gesture of reassurance, however, would probably be appreciated.

This lesson applies to communal life as much as to our personal lives. Communities need their members to provide certain resources necessary for the well-being of the community: money, food, material goods, brain power, leg work, and the like. Without these things, bills would go unpaid, the lights would be shut off, people would go hungry, things wouldn’t get done. In short, it is important that we, as members of different communities, know what is needed and contribute as we are able.

While communities rely on philanthropy, we should also know that not all contributions are welcomed. Lots of people, for example, generously donate old books to their synagogue library. The problem is most synagogue libraries barely have room for their current collection. When they do have room, libraries usually give priority to new books or particularly important or, perhaps, rare books. Even then, if the books are covered with dust mites, any responsible librarian would reject the donation or toss the books immediately into the trash. The point being that even in the context of exercising our philanthropic impulses, we must be aware of what our communities really need and what they don’t need.

This is a lesson taught in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, where we read (Exodus 25:1-9):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.

For our biblical ancestors, there was no more sacred structure than the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that would later become the model for the Temple in Jerusalem. In the biblical imagination, this was God’s home. This was where the priests could be closest to God at the holiest times of the year. Moreover, they imagined that God was the architect and designer of the sanctuary and that God knew exactly what was needed to build it.

The first requirement for God’s sanctuary, before all the “stuff,” was an open heart. Before the list of fabrics, skins, gems, and other materials that would be required for the sanctuary, there appears an injunction to take contributions only from those people whose hearts so moved them. Love of God and community, in effect, was the glue that bound all the other materials together. Indeed, as a nod to Valentine’s Day, I once referred to the Tabernacle as God’s and Israel’s “love shack,” a place where the Jewish people could demonstrate their devotion to God and God could be “emotionally accessible” to the people.

But what were the materials that God wanted for the Divine dwelling? God gave Israel a very specific shopping list. The medieval, Italian rabbi Obadiah Sforno, observes in his commentary to Exodus 25:3 that “no substitutes for the materials listed would be acceptable, such as perishables for instance.” He continues:

Even the kind of gemstones (pearls, for instance) not usable for Aaron’s breastplate, were not accepted. The only type of contributions that were accepted were those that in themselves would be usable in the construction of the Tabernacle and its paraphernalia.

Had we beem there when Moses spoke, we might have asked, “Why these materials and not others?” That’s an interesting question that might have given us solace when Moses then rejected the treasured possessions we had so lovingly brought to the building of God’s home. At the end of the day, however, the answer would have been, “God said so,” and that would have been enough. After all, we love God and want to make God happy.

This story should give us pause when we seek to build God’s dwellings in our own day. We may think everything we possess is worthy to go into the sanctuaries, literal or metaphorical, that we build. That thought is laudable in so far as it expresses our desire to give our “all” to God and community. Nonetheless, sometimes what God and community need is not our “all” but our “some,” some very specific things that will add sanctity to the dwelling. Anything else will be extraneous or, worse, distracting, for while God certainly has a good sense of humor, God can be temperamental, and sometimes even the best puns are best left for another time, if ever.

What Kind of Compliment Is “You’re Such an Angel”?

Parashat Mishpatim / פרשת משפטים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

All my life I’ve heard it said of kind, generous people that they are “angels.” Children who are especially loving are “angels.” The man who gives selflessly of his time and energy to help others is “an angel.” The wealthy woman who donates millions of dollars to charity is “an angel.” If an angel is one who carries out God’s will to make the world a better place, then we truly have angels all around us. Given the brokenness of the world in which we live, we could certainly use many, many more.

By calling someone an “angel” we recognize the actions of extraordinary people, if not their very beings, as holy. That said, there is an aspect of the heavenly angels, to which we intend to compare these beloved individuals, that, to my mind, is actually unflattering and terribly problematic. According to the sages, each angel in our sacred literature is tasked with one function, and one function only. Angels in the Torah, whether heavenly or human, are inherently narrow-minded, inflexible and unfeeling. They are unable to do anything that God hasn’t specifically instructed them to do, and they are incapable of operating from a place of discernment or conscience.

Take, for example, the malach, the angel, in this week’s reading, Parashat Mishpatim. Once God has finished enumerating a host of commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, God renews the promise to bring the Israelites into Canaan, appointing an angel to guard the Israelites on their way and upon entering the land:

I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. (Exodus 23:20-22)

Who is this angel and what is his purpose in “guarding” Israel? More importantly, if God’s name is “in him” and God is “el rachum ve’hanun,” a compassionate, merciful God (Exodus 34:6-7) who shows forgiveness, why isn’t this angel able to pardon Israel’s offenses? If Israel should defy the angel or, worse, God — as we know she does later through building a golden calf at the foot of the mountain while Moses remains encamped with God at the top of the mountain (Exodus 32) – are we to believe that this angel will essentially abandon Israel in battle?

To answer these questions, let us take a look at Genesis 18. There, three messengers come to Abraham and Sarah to inform Sarah that she will soon give birth; to heal Abraham after his circumcision; and to destroy the city of Sodom. According to rabbinic lore, the angels were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, each of whom was assigned sole responsibility respectively for the aforementioned tasks (Talmud Bava Metzia 86b). In his commentary on Genesis 18:2, Rashi writes plainly, “One angel does not perform two errands.” Thus, like Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, the angel that will “guard” Israel on her journey has only this errand to perform: to guard Israel, nothing more.

Because the angel of Exodus 23 has only to guard Israel from harm, it cannot also judge Israel and pardon or, for that matter, condemn her for her offenses. Rashi comments on Exodus 23:21: “He has been sent on a specific mission and can only perform that duty.” The angel can either guard Israel in battle or not. If not, the angel would simple be recalled to the heavenly realm and Israel would be left to fend for itself with disastrous consequences. The one to judge and either pardon or condemn would be God, not the angel.

Another explanation given by Rashi for why the angel cannot pardon Israel is that angels have no conception of what it means to pardon. He comments on Exodus 23:21: “(The angel) has no experience in doing so, for he is a member of the class of beings that never sins.” Even if the angel could perform more than one task, he couldn’t possibly do something outside his realm of comprehension.

Who is the single-minded angel charged with guarding Israel? According to Nachmanides, another medieval commentator, “Our sages call him Metatron, the one who shows the way” (commentary to 23:20). Here Nachmanides ascribes to Metatron the task of guiding, not guarding, Israel through the wilderness, which, to be sure, is another plausible interpretation of the Hebrew for “to guard you” lishmorcha.” In any case, Metatron is never named in the Torah, but only in later literature. For example, in the pseudepigraphical work 3 Enoch, Metatron guides the author on a mystical tour of heaven. In the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, Metatron is depicted as the very guide for Israel in the wilderness that we read about in this week’s portion.

Given the unswerving, pre-programmed, other-worldly nature of Metatron and his fellow angels, we have to wonder if calling someone an angel is, indeed, a compliment. It is in the sense that people who add blessing to our lives appear to us as messengers from God. The compliment turns sour, though, when we consider that the angels of the Torah can only do one thing and that without a conscience. The Torah’s angels simply do what God tells them to do without having the capacity to discern between right and wrong. The human angels that we experience in our world, on the other hand, are often complex individuals motivated by compassion, justice, and other noble intentions, and to compare them with such limited beings at Metatron strikes me as insulting.

I am not suggesting eliminating the use of the term “angel” from our lexicon of accolades. Surely, to see any human being as an agent of the Divine is to bestow upon that person high praise. Rather, let’s just be sure to give credit where credit is due; the loving child, the generous man, and the altruistic woman deserve far more glory than even God’s heavenly agents.

Choosing Peoples

Yitro / יתרו
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6

Shortly before God delivers to Israel the Ten Commandments in this week’s reading, God instructs Moses to remind the People that observance of the forthcoming commandments constitutes Israel’s side of the covenant between God and Israel. As long as Israel is faithful to God as demonstrated by their adherence to the mitzvot, God will be faithful to Israel (Exodus 19:5), and God will choose Israel as God’s “treasured possession.” Such is the relationship between God and “his treasured people.”

As a Reconstructionist, I am inspired by the idea that observance of mitzvot brings us closer to God’s presence. At the same time, though, I struggle with the idea that such observance makes us God’s treasured or chosen people. Apart from the fact that too many Jews today don’t live their lives with any consciousness of the Covenant, I struggle because I don’t conceive of God as a supernatural being who either commands or chooses. Don’t get me wrong; I believe in God. I just don’t think of God in the highly anthropomorphic way that our biblical ancestors did or that many of my contemporaries still do.

For me, God is the power within the universe that makes for goodness, compassion, and beauty, all those things that speak to our better nature and evoke awe and wonderment. God is within nature, not outside and above it. When we pray “to God,” we seek to become aware of that aspect of reality that is God’s “presence.” Through prayer, study and performance of acts of loving kindness and other mitzvot, we align ourselves with that Presence.

So, then, what can it mean for me to say Israel is God’s “chosen people”? Believe it or not, this is not a new question. Our sages asked the same question nearly two thousand years ago and came up with a stunning midrash (Sifre to Deuteronomy 33:2):

Before God gave the Torah to Israel, God offered it to all the nations of the world. Each nation asked, “What’s written in it?” When God cited commandment after commandment, each nation in turn claimed that violation of this or that commandment was the very essence of its culture. Therefore, each and every nation declined God’s offer of Torah. When it came Israel’s turn, however, Israel asked no questions. “We will do and obey,” the people said. Thus did Israel receive the Torah.

What the rabbis teach us is that rather than God choosing Israel, Israel chose God! The Jewish people are “the choosing” people. What an insight! It means that we have accepted upon ourselves the mantel of being “a light unto the nations,” an exemplar of God’s faithful. Believing that they alone were doing God’s bidding, it’s no wonder our ancestors envisioned themselves as God’s treasured nation.

 

To say that Israel is the “choosing nation” is not to deny the Truth of Torah. It is, rather, to interpret our sacred texts in a way that empowers us to fulfill the mission we’ve chosen for ourselves to make God’s presence manifest in our world. Anyone can choose to join the Jewish people on our path of Torah, but they may also choose another path toward the same ends of increasing goodness, compassion and beauty.

Sadly, all around us we see people and nations whose path is directed not toward Godliness but toward a dark void. They may see the darkness they wrought as fulfilling God’s will, but they delude themselves. There is no goodness, compassion and beauty in terror and destruction, only misery, despair and suffering.

For the sake of all those innocents caught in a vortex of darkness, I pray their nations, soon find a path toward increasing — not diminishing — God’s presence in the world. May those nations one day come to be known as “choosing people,” too, and seek the Godly path toward goodness, compassion and beauty.

Shabbat Shalom.

Putting Time in Perspective: A Lesson from the Exodus

Beshalach / בשלח
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

This week in the Torah, we find a study in perspective. While the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, they feel tension in the present moment and comfort in the past, but they struggle to envision their future. We learn that a) we owe an allegiance to our past, but only to the extent that doing so doesn’t restrain us from becoming our best selves, b) we must live in the present and learn to cope with life’s exigencies, and c) despite today’s challenges, we must keep moving forward, for only by engaging with the unknown future do we grow as human beings. The message is that we must find a balance between looking backward, looking forward, and living in the here and now.

According to Exodus 12:40-41, the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years.  (Some scholars doubt the accuracy of this number. See http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/The-Duration-of-the-Israelite-Sojourn-In-Egypt.aspx#Article for a discussion on alternate views of the chronology and defense of the Torah’s position.) While the Israelites and the Egyptians fared well during the time of Joseph, eventually a “king arose who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) and he oppressed them. Thus, the Israelites became enslaved to that Pharaoh and remained enslaved for hundreds of years. Finally, though, God heard the cry of the Israelites and freed them from bondage.

So here are the Israelites, a free people departing Egypt, when we read “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph” (13:19). How odd that as the people should have been running for their freedom, they went to the effort to exhume Joseph’s bones and bring them out of Egypt with them. This couldn’t have been such an easy task. Yet, on his death bed, Joseph had requested that when God would take the Israelites out of Egypt, the Israelites would take his remains with them and inter them in the Holy Land. Even in the midst of escaping Egypt, the Israelites — or Moses, at least — maintained faith with their past.

We have an obligation today not to forget the generations that came before us. They are the ones who put in the labor that has helped us get to today. Our ancestors may not have been perfect, yet they deserve to be honored for the contributions they made to the Jewish people. It is heartening to know that even Moses understood this and went through the trouble of honoring Joseph’s request.

Fast forward just a few verses to Chapter 14, and the Israelites discover that the “pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” – God’s way of directing them on their voyage in the wilderness – had led them to a dead end. The Israelites now stand at the shore of the Red Sea. As they look behind them, the Israelites catch sight of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit of them, and the Israelites panic. “You should have left us to serve the Egyptians,” they protest to Moses. “You’ve surely brought us to our graves.” Already, and for good reason, the Israelites are wishing they were back in Egypt!

When Moses beseeches God for guidance, God’s advice is priceless:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” (14:15-16)

In essence, God responds by saying, “Focus on the future. Stop looking back. Have faith that I’ll be with you as you move forward.” With Moses’ help, God causes the sea to split, and indeed, Israel rushes toward their freedom once and for all.

Were it not for God’s urging them forward, the Israelites would have lain down to meet their doom. If they couldn’t go back to Egypt, where they lived in misery but they lived, then they were prepared to not live at all. Can we blame them? There seemed to be no alternative.

The Israelites at the Sea of Reeds provides us with a powerful metaphor of how sometimes we are unable to see past the moment, and all we can think of is how miserable we are. At times like that, the past looks pretty good. This dynamic is illustrated even more clearly soon after the sea closes in on Pharaoh’s soldiers: Facing a shortage of water and food, the Israelites, lament: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” (16:3). In times of desperation, we often look nostalgically on the past, but if that’s all we do, we’d never make any progress. Besides, we delude ourselves when we believe we were better off living in bondage.

There are times to honor the past, to live fully in the present, and to embrace the future. Apart from carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, something the Torah actually attributes to Moses, the Israelites are totally incapable of holding on to this perspective. The past is glorified not for what it was but for how they perceive it in a time of desperation. The present time, full of challenges and uncertainty, is something to be avoided. “If only, we could go back in time,” the Israelites cry out. Stuck in the past, anxious in the present, the Israelites saw no future other than certain death. If Pharaoh’s men didn’t do them in, then the sea, dehydration or starvation would. What they needed was faith.

To be fair, the Israelites couldn’t reasonably have been expected to know that God would split the sea and then provide them with manna, quail and water. They had witnessed God’s “mighty hand” coming down on the Egyptians, but they hadn’t intuited that God’s “outstretched arm” also reached into Egypt and brought them out. They had no reason to believe they’d be saved. Of course, faith was in short supply. So, we should cut the Israelites a break.

Given their lack of faith, then, it’s a good thing the Israelites had Moses as their leader. Though he had his own uncertainties, he kept in touch with God. He allowed God to guide him and, thus, he became a model of faith for the rest of Israel. Unable to envision their future, the Israelites found a savior in Moses, who was able to respect an element of the past but not get stuck there, who, with God’s help, kept his cool in the moment, and who eventually looked forward, raised his staff, and opened before the Israelites a glorious future.

May we learn from Moses and put the past, the present, and the future in proper perspective.

 

The Significance of the Pascal Lamb Then and Now

How appropriate that on this weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day we read of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt! Dr. King, inspired by the Hebrew Bible, our Torah, sacrificed his life fighting for racial and economic justice, a theme that resounds throughout the Book of Exodus and comes to a climax with this week’s reading, Parashat Bo. Moreover, in memory of Dr. King, communities nationwide dedicate themselves to continuing his struggle to make sure all Americans, indeed all people everywhere, are accorded dignity and opportunity. With this week’s reading, Jewish communities have an opportunity to consider their own commitment to this struggle.

In the spirit of remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., this week’s “Taste of Torah” from Rabbi Matt Dreffin, associate director of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life’s education department, addresses one aspect of the original Passover meal that symbolizes much of what Dr. King stood for. The pascal lamb, represented today by a shank bone on the seder plate, calls us to reach out to those less fortunate in our communities who want for food. Caring for the needy is not something we think about only on Passover or act on one day a year on MLK Day or on any given “mitzvah day.” Caring for the needy is one of the great, eternal mitzvot of the Torah, a command that we must heed every day of our lives. I hope Rabbi Dreffin’s message resonates for you and that you will share his lesson in the spring as you and your friends and loved ones wonder what a shank bone is doing on the seder table.

Read “The Pascal Lamb’s Importance” by clicking HERE.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

The Real Miracle of Joseph and the Maccabees

Parashat Miketz / פרשת מקץ
Torah Portion: Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

One of the great ironies of Hanukkah is that on the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read in Genesis, chapters 41-44, about the rise of Joseph in Pharaoh’s court and about his reunion with his brothers. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the distinctiveness of the Jewish people. The story of Joseph tells of the assimilated Israelite extraordinaire. How do we reconcile these two contrasting tales?

First, let’s look at Hanukkah. On Hanukkah, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after its desecraction by the Syrian-Greeks under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. During this momentous event, legend has it, the miniscule amount of oil to kindle the Temple’s menorah lasted eight days, rather than the one day it should have lasted. The Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were then able to produce enough olive oil to keep the menorah lit perpetually once again.

The miracle of the oil parallels the history of the Jewish people. Though enemies like Antiochus have tried to wipe us out through forced assimilation and worse, we have survived. Our flame has never been extinguished. In fact, at times in our history, our flame has burned more brightly than ever before. Despite our struggles, we have maintained a sense of peoplehood informed with our own religion, culture, land, language, values, and sacred texts. At any moment in history, the nations of the world might have expected the Jewish nation to disappear, but we have continually rededicated ourselves to our mission to be a Holy People and a Light Unto the Nations.

In contrast to the story of Hanukkah, Joseph’s story seems to celebrate assimilation and disconnection from the Jewish people. Once Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, he ceases to be recognized as an Israelite. Joseph is endowed with the gift of insight. Not only does he interpret dreams, it is through his own dreams that he devises a solution for Egypt to ride out a terrible famine that will eventually befall it. Thanks to his gifts, Joseph achieves success and great power in Egypt.

The only way we know that Joseph is an Israelite is through utterances in which he speaks of the One God. In those utterances, however, Joseph never refers to the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Rather, he thanks God for simply enabling him to interpret dreams and also for enabling him to shed his Israelite past. Joseph’s gratitude to God for these self-centered reasons is seen clearly in the names he gives his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:51-52):

Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”
Indeed, Joseph had strayed from his ancestral roots that, when they first appear before Joseph, his own brothers fail to recognize him (42:8). How ironic that Joseph then attributes his nearly total assimilation to Egyptian society and culture to none other than God!

But the story of Joseph does not end there. It ends later, with Jacob bestowing a blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons (48:20). In essence, Jacob takes this measure to ensure that Joseph’s Israelite lineage will not die out after he is gone. Jacob reconnects Joseph to the story of his people through the blessing he gives Ephraim and Manasseh. The flame is stoked; Ephraim and Manasseh go on to head two of Israel’s tribes.

In today’s world, Judaism is a choice not only for those who would convert to Judaism but for those born Jewish, too. Every Jew can choose to leave the fold and become something else, but they can also choose to hold onto their Jewish identity. The great miracle of the Jewish people is that, despite oppression and temptation, Jews continue to choose to be Jewish and to keep the flame of Israel alive. The Jewish People could have gone the way of Joseph, but instead we’ve gone the way of Ephraim and Manasseh. In this way, we are very much like the flame of the menorah kindled by the Maccabees, a flame that didn’t seem to have a chance of staying lit.

On this Shabbat Hanukkah, may we celebrate the miracle that is the Jewish People today even as we celebrate the wonders that God wrought for our ancestors in days gone by.

Seacrest, Joseph and Tamar. Who Would Have Guessed?

Parashat Vayeshev / פרשת וישב
Torah Portion: Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

A recent New York Times article profiling 40-year old media mogul Ryan Seacrest depicts an ordinary, nice guy with no obvious talent who, nonetheless, has become one of the most ubiquitous media personalities in America and has amassed millions through his production company and myriad other business ventures. As a chubby, insecure, bespeckled 10-year-old, Seacrest was a longshot for “most likely to succeed,” but succeed he has thanks to his vision and extraordinary drive. It just goes to show people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Of course, Seacrest’s story is hardly unique. History is full of unlikely success stories. Take, for example, Joseph and Tamar, two of biblical heroes who star in this week’s reading. Joseph is well-known to most people familiar with the bible and/or the Broadway musical his story inspired. From his position as the loathed, obnoxious, spoiled little brother, he arose to become the second most powerful figure in Egypt. Like Seacrest, Joseph was blessed with vision, though his rise appears more as a matter of chance than tenacity.

Joseph had this dream thing going on. He didn’t have the maturity as a teenager to refrain from flaunting that gift, but as he grew, he was able to invoke it at opportune moments. Without his impeccable timing, perhaps he never would have made it out of Pharaoh’s prison. It just goes to show people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Then there’s this character Tamar, who is less known than Joseph but who plays an outsized role in Jewish history. She is the mother of Perez, from whose line King David and the future messiah would be born. Tamar was a hapless young woman who suffered the death of two husbands. The much younger brother of her husbands was promised to her by her father-in-law, Judah, but when the boy grew up, Judah failed to deliver. So that she could perpetuate her husband’s family names and retain rights to their property, Tamar needed to give birth to a male child, but circumstances kept getting in her way. A shrewd woman with a mission, Tamar ends up disguising herself as a harlot, seduces the unwitting Judah, and through him becomes the mother of the future king of Israel and the savior of humankind! Read all about it in Genesis, chapter 38. You’ll be reminded that people are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.

Today’s news is full of stories of hero wannabes, from presidential candidates, to pop stars, to terrorists. Some of them will achieve the status they seek, for better or for worse, while some of them will fade away, and others will go down in disgrace and notoriety. But what’s for certain is that the future awaits great people who have yet to distinguish themselves in heroic fashion. Any one of us or the people we take for granted could become one of those success stories. Maybe it’ll take the lucky breaks of a Joseph. Or the smarts and perseverance of a Tamar. Or the vision and tenacity of a Ryan Seacrest. Who knows?

One thing’s for sure. People are full of surprises and it is folly to write anyone off too early.