Archived Torah Commentary
- Hol Hamoed Sukkot
- Ha'azinu 10/15/16
- Nitzavim 10/1/16
- Ki Tavo 9/24/16
- Vethanan 8/20/16
- Matot-Masei 8/5/16
- Hukkat 7/16/16
- Naso 6/18/16
- Bamidbar 6/11/16
- Behar 5/28/16
- Emor 5/21/16
- Kedoshim 5/14/16
- Pesah 4/28/16
- Metzorah 4/16/16
- Shemini 4/2/16
- Tzav 3/26/16
- Vayikra 3/18/16
- Vayakhel 3/5/16
- Ki Tissa 2/27/16
- Tetzaveh 2/20/16
- Mishpatim 2/6/16
- Yitro 1/30/16
- Beshalah - Shabbat Shira 1/23/16
- Bo 1/16/16
- Vayigash 12/18/15
- Vayhi 12/25/15
- Vayeshev 12/5/15
- Vayetze 11/21/15
- Hayei Sarah 11/7/15
- Vayera 10/31/15
- Noah 10/16/15
- Beresheet 10/9/15
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
One of the great lines in a movie filled with them (Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles) is when one of the residents of the town of Rock Ridge realizes what is missing from the ersatz town they have built overnight to trick a band of marauders coming to destroy the real town in which they live. They have constructed believable facsimiles of every storefront, street sign and sidewalk; the visible walls and infrastructure of the town have been recreated—a brilliant ruse! But then Sherriff Bart asks them to recognize what is not there. “People!” one of the townspeople shouts out. “There’s no people!”
The entire movie is parody. The scene is farcical. But the notion of a town without people is indeed a melancholy one. What use are inanimate walls, walkways and furniture without animate beings to fill them and animate them?
From the silly to the sublime, that scene evokes for me a wonderful teaching about the holiday of Sukkot, and the morphology of the word sukkah itself. In Hebrew, the word is spelled ס-ו-כ-ה. Many have pointed out that the letters that comprise the word are a hint at the laws governing the kashrut of a sukkah. The first letter, the samekh, which in print form is more boxy than the scripted round form, has four “walls” indicating that the fullest version of a sukkah has 4 walls. The third letter, the kaf, also more boxy in print than in script, has three “walls,” showing you that a sukkah with three walls can be kosher. And the fourth letter, the hey, can be seen as having two and a half walls. And, indeed, the Talmud assures us that a sukkah with two full walls and a partial wall is kosher. This explanation is elegant, but it ends up conveniently ignoring the second letter, the vov, which is just a short vertical line.
However, when you look within the Torah scroll itself, nearly every time the word sukkah appears, it is written in its haser (lacking) form, and so the vov is missing. Sukkah is spelled, in the Torah, ס-כ-ה, with just the letters that make the 2.5/3/4-walls argument. Why?
I love a reading which suggests that the Torah intentionally leaves the sukkah incomplete to invite our filling it. What is missing from the Torah’s sukkah/ס-כ-ה? The same thing missing from fake Rock Ridge: people! The Torah gives us the blueprints for a physical structure which is technically kosher. Emanating from our own sense of hospitality and kindness ought to be the urge to fill that inanimate 2.5/3/4-walled structure with the animation of people, guests, friends, friends-to-be, needy folk, new faces. The simple, vertical vov / “ו” missing from the Torah is a person, who will stand erect and straight when s/he has been given the dignity to be your guest, to dwell in your temporary home and thus bring it to life.
The holiday of Sukkot is nearly over. You may not have room for any more invitations to your own hut. But its lesson transcends its days. Our obligation to fill our shul’s walls, and our private homes’ walls, with guests continues throughout the year. So we should rightly revel in and be appreciative of our abodes, both temporary and permanent. Especially given the recent article in the Jewish Journal and the propositions on the upcoming election ballot regarding LA’s homeless crisis, we who spend our days in the security knowing we have a place to spend our nights ought to count our blessings. The structure itself and the walls themselves are extraordinary. But they are insufficient. Without our inviting others to join us, both a sukkah and a house remain inanimate. Bless your walls. And then fill them.
Mo’adim l’simha. Wishing you a joyful and utterly animated remainder of Sukkot.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
“Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents”
– Ludwig Van Beethoven
Have you ever watched a movie without sound? When you watch silently, the scene is different and the filmmaker’s intentions are less clear. A musical soundtrack can direct your emotions and heighten or lower them, and can inform the interstitial voids of non-verbal or non-active communication from the actors.
And in a recent study at Johns Hopkins School of Education, Chris Boyd Brewer teaches, “Music can be used to help us remember learning experiences and information. […] The soundtrack increases interest and activates the information mentally, physically or emotionally. Music can also create a highly focused learning state in which vocabulary and reading material is absorbed at a great rate. When information is put to rhythm and rhyme these musical elements will provide a hook for recall.”
In the end of parashat Ha’azinu, we hear that Moses had been singing. “And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people…” Why a song? Why does Moses leave the people to travel into this Promised Land through instructions written as lyrics to a song? Just like a child learning their ABC’s, we teach best, and the most important fundamental information, through song, through music. Songs are important in Torah. And while Shirat HaYam reminds us of the past and celebrates our birth as a people, the song of Ha’azinu is meant to instruct us as we move forward into the future. Imagine for a moment that Moshe actually sang these words. Imagine him singing. Was his a strange, unique, un-song-ish voice like Nobel laureate Bob Dylan? Or was he Pavarotti, confident and masterful in control of every studied nuance?
My teacher, Rabbi Feinstein, explains that the most difficult prayers to understand, theologically, during Yom Kippur, typically have the most upbeat and catchy tunes. And now here we are, Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, carrying with us resonating melodies from the Yamim Nora’im.
Ha’azinu says, “Moshe spoke all of these words of the song.” So, did he speak or did he sing? Musicologists recognize that a composer will often leave unexpressed the most obvious harmonies to accompany a melody, hoping to engage the listener who will naturally add those harmonies in their own hearing. The engagement of music is used as a pedagogical tool to encourage hearing, remembering and learning. And perhaps Moshe used this technique to engage us, allowing us to create melodies and harmonies to accompany the instructions of our entrance into the Land.
“Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents”. Allow Moshe’s words to seed your musical soil, elevating your spirit on this First Shabbat as you enter the Promised Year.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; and the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
- Deuteronomy 29:28
There are those mysterious dots again. In Parashat Nitzavim, there are eleven dots that appear above the letters in the words “lanu u’lvaneinu - unto us and to our children” (as well as, for some mysterious reason, the ayin in ad - forever). In many instances, the dots over letters allow scribes to indicate words that they believe are dubious without having to erase them from the scroll. The dots then became part of the text itself. These words are preserved, but with the dots functioning as an asterisk to the reader suggesting they are suspect.
The verse in question here in Parshat Nitzavim is about accountability. Moses claims that only God can adjudicate “ha-nistarot - secret things,” But “ha-niglot - revealed matters,” belong to us and our children to hold each other accountable. People are responsible to set up systems of justice to deal with that which is revealed - public actions that threaten the safety and well-being of the community. But God alone can examine that which is hidden in our hearts and it is not humanity’s responsibility to judge that which is in the hearts of others. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the themes of experiencing a full accounting of our deeds - both secret and revealed - are resonant.
The dots appear over the words “unto us and our children.” If we were to remove the dotted words, the verse takes on an entirely different meaning. Instead of:
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; and the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever...
The text would read:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God; as well as the things that are revealed forever…”
In the emended version, people are not responsible for holding one another accountable. An ancient midrash cited by Rashi suggests that the words “unto us and to our children” were meant to be added into the text only after the people entered the land of Israel. The instructions were given in two stages and were inteneded to be read differently at different points in Israelite history.
What results is a layered text. Initially, all matters are to be adjudicated by God, but once the people enter the land of Israel, their own responsibility in adjudicating revealed matters takes hold. According to this interpretation, both versions of the text are preserved in the way it appears in our Torah scrolls - one need only understand that the dotted words were intended to be read only after the conquering of the land.
Great texts are able to speak to different people across the generations. The wilderness generation was not yet ready to take responsibility for a system of justice and accountability. But entering into the land of Israel came with new obligations for this nascent people. The words of Torah are meant to speak to us today as they did to the ancient Israelites in the time of the Bible. Even though our reality is very different from theirs, there is a thread of continuity that links our experience to Torah. Perhaps the dots in this week’s parshah serve as a subtle reminder that the spirit of Torah evolves and changes with each successive generation that embraces it.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
During this season of Elul, we focus our thoughts on two major questions: “who have I hurt and how will I repent?” and “who has hurt me and will they ask for forgiveness?” This past week, I had fifteen young Jewish professionals in my home for a night of learning, sponsored by National Ramah. One of the texts taught was from Masechet Yoma 85b. The text says, “one who plans to sin, and then repents for the sinning, is hindered from doing teshuvah (repentance).” One question we discussed, based on the rabbis understanding of sin and habit, was – “How do we do teshuvah to ourselves?”
The essence of the word teshuvah is the root “shin, vav, bet” spelling shuv, and translated as “return.” If teshuvah is something that so many of us are worried about seeing as transactional and relational, what is the return to? Are we returning to a better relationship, a more complete conscience, and a life without toxicity in our midst? Or, are we supposed to shuv, return to ourselves, and figure out how to apologize for the anguish and hardships we have created for our own souls, hearts, minds and often bodies?
In Ki Tavo, Moshe alerts the people of the wonderful elements awarded to our lives if we obey God and conversely the horrendous plagues that will befall us if we forget or defy God. In Chapter 26 verse 16, we have not yet heard the ways in which we must cleave to God and the consequences and blessings of doing so. The verse states: “You have selected the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in God’s ways, and to observe Gods laws and commandments and rules, and to hear his voice.” “His voice” is written in Hebrew as בקולו ולשמע, grammatically making the voice unclear as to who it belongs to. I would argue that by selecting God to be my God, and observing God’s laws, we must still hear our own voice to be in relationship with God and our best self.
We walk around this world with our eyes in our phone, our ears plugged into iTunes and our mouths directly attached to our keyboards and tweets to the world. However, in a time of repentance, we must find our true voice, our calm heart, our unique mind and our open soul. Yes, we are entering a time of intense prayer, lengthy moments of contemplation and days of holiday halacha and stipulations, but where are you? What have you done to קולו שומע, to hear your voice and not only focus on the voices that should be apologizing or that you have to listen to when confronting them with your “I’m sorrys” this year.
When we went around the room and discussed how people would create ritual around teshuvah for themselves, one young man mentioned looking in the mirror and giving yourself a real talk. If we only cleave to God for the laws and customs, we are not in relationship with our religion or spirituality. We must hear our voice, know our limitations, our strengths, our challenges and our questions so that we can cleave to a God that is in relationship with us doing teshuvah. We return to find that voice, to recreate all kinds of relationship and to remind ourselves that we are at the core of all that we believe, feel, and do. Take responsibility. Look in the mirror and tell yourself where you missed the mark, where you really shone this year and where you will challenge yourself to be better! Shana Tova and Shabbat Shalom.
Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern, Temple Beth Am
Eradicating Idolatry In Our Lives
This past year while living in Israel, I took a trip with my classmates to the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish, a peaceful, Catholic holy site on the shores of the Galilee. Last year the church was the target of a price tag arson attack by young Jewish extremists who graffitied on a wall of the church the words “the false gods will be destroyed,” a line from the Aleinu prayer. Since visiting this church, I have had a much harder time reciting the Aleinu. Every time I recite it I picture this humble church, and remember the hundreds of other price tag attacks against mosques, churches and Palestinian property. This small group of Jews insists on equating non-Jews today with idolators of the Bible, and justifying their baseless hatred and violence using Biblical verses.
The Israelites are commanded in parashat Re’eh to “utterly destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any and luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site” (Deut. 12:2-3). This commandment to “utterly destroy” is emphatic. In the Hebrew, the root of the verb “abed” -- destroy -- is stated twice — “abed t’abdun.” Quoting Tractate Avodah Zara (Idol Worship) from the Talmud, Rashi explains that the double verb means that “one who eradicates idolatry must thoroughly uproot it,” meaning, every trace of it (Avodah Zara 45b).
We must be meticulous in our eradication of idolatry, those things in our lives which hold us back from true and full relationship with God and each other. We know from TaNaKh that Israelites are not immune to idolatry, so this mitzvah from Re’eh would not only apply to other people, but also to us. What are our idols? To what do we assign great power and control over our lives? We must thoroughly examine the idols in our lives, leaving no mountain, hill or tree unturned.
While it is challenging for me to recite the Aleinu, knowing that there are Jews who use it to enact violence, I continue to do so as a reminder to be meticulous in examining my own idolatry, areas of my life that I obsess over, and work to remember what really matters in life.
The perpetrators of price tag attacks would do well to examine their idolatrous behavior. They are blind to their worship of land above all else and extreme nationalism. In addition, medieval Sages ruled that the other religions we encounter today are not to be considered idol worship or equated with the pagan idolatry referred to in the Torah.
May we destroy the false gods present in our lives during this month of Elul, the month of soul searching and reflection, and may we have the courage to confront idolatry perpetrated in the name of Judaism.
Prepared by Rachel Marder,
Rabbinic Intern at Temple Beth Am
During the Torah service after the gabbai calls up the first aliyah, the congregation utters a very profound statement found in this week’s parasha: “You who cleave to the Lord your God are alive every one of you today” (Deut. 4:4). In this verse Moses is recalling when God wiped out those Israelites in the desert who turned to a Moabite god, Ba’al Peor, but spared those who remained loyal and cleaved to the one true God. What does it really mean to cleave to the Lord?
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim (1748-1800), a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, helps us understand the implications of this phrase. He rearranges the letters of the word “you” in the verse (aleph, tav, mem) as aleph, mem, tav, which spells emet, meaning truth. He explains that cleaving to the Lord means holding fast to truth. Attaching yourself to truth ties you to the “living God,” a God who is dynamic and always relevant.
This teaching of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim offers us a surprising insight. Rather than distancing us from faith and spirituality, pursuing scientific truth actually draws us closer to the Holy One. Through observing and learning about the natural world we sense God’s personal handiwork and are filled with awe of its magnitude and intricacy. Rambam (Sephardi, 1135-1204) believed that we fulfill the mitzvah of the V’ahavta -- to love God “with all of your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5), also in this week’s parasha, through studying His works of creation.
It’s not only the search for scientific truths that can bring us closer to God, but also standing up for moral truths, like the dignity of all life. We know from Tanakh that God is concerned with the vulnerable in society -- the widow, the orphan and the stranger -- those whose dignity is often overlooked. By standing with them we are standing beside God. By continuing to seek the truth in every possible way, we make real the promise of our verse: “You who cleave to the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.”
In The God Who Hates Lies, Rabbi David Hartmanz”l writes about the religious importance of acknowledging what we know to be morally and intellectually true, even when it seems to conflict with other religious principles. Rabbi Hartman encourages us be thinking, critical truth-seekers in the synagogue. “As a traditional Jew [I am] unwilling to surrender my critical faculties when entering the religious conversation,” he writes. In other words, being a serious Jew is not about turning off one’s brain, passively listening to the Torah reading or responding by rote. It’s about being awake, responding actively to what we hear and demanding honesty of ourselves. This is how we engage with our tradition and remain “alive” -- in a living, dynamic relationship with God. It’s about asking ourselves, “what are the words I am saying and hearing? Do I believe them? What do they mean to me?” When we think critically, and focus on the search for truth, not only are we “alive every one of you this day,” but God is alive and present with us as well. God’s truth as revealed in Torah remains ever relevant, and the revelation at Sinai continues, even now. Our parasha teaches, “And these words, which I command you today, shall be upon your heart” (Deut. 6:6). A midrash in the Sifrei teaches that “today” means Torah “should not appear to you as an antiquated edict which no one cares about, but as a new one, which everyone hastens to read.” That is, we should see the Torah as a living document -- one whose teachings speak to us today and always.
Next time we respond to the gabbai, may the familiar verse we say remind us to respond to our tradition in a way that is vibrant and alive. May we listen closely to the words of Torah and seek out their truth, so that we may continually draw nearer to God.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am
Are there immutable norms within Judaism? Was Torah meant to be preserved in amber, and calcified? Do any/all of Judaism’s ritual and ethical imperatives stand as what the philosopher Immanuel Kant would call “categorical,” and thus are so pure and unchanging that they are not contingent upon empirical, case-by-case factors?
To boil down what could be a semester’s worth of material into a workable answer, I would say that some Jewish moral and ethical norms are nearly immutable and nearly categorical. But my understanding of Torah and revelation is that ritual and behavioral norms—while crucial for creating coherent religious life and community—were intended to be both sacred but also subject to natural evolution. I don’t think this concept is a modern or only post-Enlightenment innovation. I think it is embedded within Torah itself, and canonized by Torah’s earliest interpreters.
Examples abound, but one profound (and, given the source, potentially surprising) example bubbles up in a fascinating comment on the end of Parshat Masei—the second of the two parashot we read today—which also concludes Bemidbar/Numbers, the fourth of the five books of Torah. The comment comes from the Mei HaShiloah, the often inscrutable and often wonderful commentary on the Torah by the 19thC. Polish sage Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, affectionately referred to as the Izhbitzer. He notes that the 5th book of the Torah—Devarim/Deuternomy—is nicknamed Mishneh Torah, or Torah “redux” because much of its material and history is a retelling of narrative and law that already took place. Given that, one could argue that the end of Bemidbar/Numbers is the true or at least intial end of Torah. Aside from details about the last days/hours of Moshe’s life, the Torah’s story and corpus of law is indeed mostly complete by the end of Masei. And given that, he finds it odd that this “first” end of the Torah ends as it does: not with a major legal enactment or reinforcement of fundamental principles, but rather with an obscure law that seems germane only to that particular moment in history. In brief, Moshe responds to the complaint of members of the tribe of Joseph who were concerned that a previous enactment would unduly rob their tribe of land in Israel. Previously, Moshe and God had sided with the 5 daughters of Tzlofhad who petitioned for the right to inherit their father’s land since he had died in the desert with no male heirs. Now their fellow tribesman were concerned that if those daughters married non-Josephites, their inherited property would eventually be transferred to their husbands’ estates, and thus would transfer from one tribe to another, altering the actual map of Israel. Their concern is reasonable, and Moshe communicates to them God’s ruling, which is that these five daughters must marry within the tribe. And just like that, Parashat Masei ends. As does the book of Bemidbar/Numbers. As does, in a way, the Torah itself. Anti-climax, no?
According to the Izhbitser—no neo-liberal Reformer himself—this is not anti-climax. This is revelatory itself. Humanity should understand that God’s will is both beyond time and also ineluctably tied to time and circumstance. In his words, God’s will and God’s law are לפי העת והזמן המתחלף והמשתנה, or “according to the time and era, evolving and changing.” And so it was eminently appropriate that the Torah “ended” on a piece of apparent minutia, an enactment relevant to a very particular circumstance. For as time would go on, human/Jewish involvement with Torah would be focused on discerning the text’s moral and ritual relevance to this moment, these particulars, this era’s needs and realities. In fact it is via that very process that the Torah becomes unending. Its text ends abruptly and specifically as a way of showing that it and its meaning are, themselves, not nearly as fixed as they may seem to be. Its meaning tomorrow could never be anticipated today, for, as of today, we have not yet experienced tomorrow and thus could not yet know how Torah should be applied to it.
Taken to extreme, this read of Torah and text could lead to flexibility so limber such that the system could fall apart. But ignoring this read, on the other hand, ensures a system so brittle that it could lose its vitality. So let us deepen our inquiry into our most sacred text. And continue to put minds, hearts and souls together to discern its most important directives and messages, for today. Until we do it again tomorrow.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz
This Shabbat marks the 2nd yartzheit of my uncle, Lee Goodglick’s, death. A man of humor, brilliance, abundant love, benevolence, thoughtfulness and care for all those living or fighting for the right to life. Lee was a molecular biologist, spending hours upon hours in labs or writing grants to find a cure for cancer. As kids, we would go to visit him at his lab at UCLA and he would have toys, candy and friends for us to play with, so we just thought he had fun all day. However, when we grew up and heard of his “real work” we realized that he was one of the most serious hard-working people we knew and his whole job was to find a way to keep people in the present and future alive when attacked with a rapidly spreading disease.
This week’s parasha, Hukkat, discusses various kinds of death; the laws concerning someone who has died; Miriam’s death; Moshe’s inability to reach the land based on the “death” of his restrained demeanor; and Aaron’s death.Lee saw the life in death; it was his job and his way of finding the good in everyone, which he was a master at doing.
When Miriam dies, there is no more water left in the well for the people:
אהרון ועל משה על ויקהלו לעדה מים היה ולא
“The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron”
Rashi explains that the water was of Miriam’s merit, so when she died, the well dried up. However, her death elicited newness in the leadership of Moshe. Miriam was the calm behind Moshe, the confidence in his leadership, and most of all the loving sister who believed in his abilities from day one on the river. So now, without Miriam, the nation must cleave to Moshe and Aaron and in return they must learn to be the leaders they were taught to be with Miriam by their side.
This past week was the North American Jewish Choral Festival (NAJCF) and I was honored to be a fellow at the conference. I was asked to participate as a musician and Jewish leader and was surrounded by professionals of prestige and great talent. The honoree for the week, Zalmen Mlotek, has made his living in creating life from death. He has brought Yiddish back into the world of music, theatre and general living. Wednesday night he opened his acceptance remarks by sitting at the piano and playing a few pieces for us, the first of which was Ofn Pripachek. As I sang through tears of remembering my Great Grandmother singing that with us at Shabbatot for 22 years of my life, I realized that in that moment, we were weaving the past into a bright, new future
Moshe struck the rock and revealed a fissure in his character, torn and dissolute after the loss of Sister Miriam.With the death of Aaron we wept for 30 days!Emotion is the proof of life, of feeling change and anticipating the future. The people of Israel cry, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, because they realize, with the death of Miriam and Aaron, “we each have a Jordan we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter, [for] ‘it is not for you to complete the task,’ even the greatest are mortal.”
My work, and the work of Moshe and Zalmen Mlotek and my Uncle Lee, is to recognize the presentness of our past and future.To continue to be engaged with experiences other than our own, reinvigorating timeless lessons and seeking Life amongst decay, progress and death.
Miriam left the people without water and they produced tears to cry for Aaron’s death. Our Jewish people have stopped using Yiddish and this week 400 Jews came together to sing hundreds of songs in the “dying” language. Lee Goodglick died without finishing his cure to cancer, and yet a team he formed at UCLA is closer than ever. In a world of abundant death because of hatred, ignorance, and neglect of life, let us pray and hope for a Shabbat of peace and reimagining what it means to live. I pray that through the memory of my dear uncle we are each able to see the light in others’ eyes, the goodness in others’ hearts and the pain that wants our comfort; find the life hidden in shadows of death. Yehi Zichron Barukh, may my uncle Lee’s - hillel ben ze’ev v’sarah - name be a blessing as it was in his life and, as we continue to make it, in his death.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
I once was discussing some verses in Parshat Behar with some middle-school students who became dismayed, initially, by the Torah. We were looking at verses that discuss real-estate economics in the land of Israel. And we role-played, as a way of making sense of difficult verses. Let's say Rachel is in financial trouble, and so she needs to sell some of her land to David. David is happy with the transaction, considering the land he bought to be well worth the 1000 shekels he paid. But along comes Talia, who is Rachel’s kin. She shows up with some money in order to "redeem" (buy back) the land that David had bought. According to the Torah, David has no choice but to sell it back to Joanie at a fair price, and so the land returns to the original family
Now let's say that Rachel has no wealthy relatives. But Rachel is industrious. She takes the 1000 shekels she got from the sale of the land, and invests it wisely. Her flock of sheep grow, and she becomes wealthy herself. She then has the right to go back to David and demand that David sell her back the land. But David won't even get the full 1000 shekels back that he paid. Rachel will deduct from that 1000 shekels the fair rental value for the intervening years. David thought he was buying Rachel’s land. It turns out, he was renting it.
And finally, what if Rachel has no wealthy cousin, and also fails to make her own fortune. David keeps the land she bought, right? Yes...until the yovel, the Jubilee, which comes around every 50th year. During that year, the land reverts to the original owner. Rachel gets her land back. David has no choice in the matter. It is part of being a Jew in the land of Israel.
As you might imagine, “David” was pretty upset about this. He even remarked that he'd be unlikely to buy more land in the future, considering how hard it would be for him to hold on it. The other students agreed...even “Rachel”!
And then I asked them this question: "If you could live in a place where no one was very wealthy, but no one was very poor....or in a place where the wealthy lived in mansions and the poor were homeless, which would you choose?" 6th-graders though they are in our capitalist America, they all selected the former. They would surrender the chance at fortune in order to guarantee they (or others) would never be impoverished and hungry.
That balance is one of the core ideas in the verses we studied. Millennia before Marx and the Kibbutz movement, the Torah sought to create a society in which there was both incentive to excel (you have a 50-year window within to make your real-estate fortune) as well as a safeguard against radical financial stratification. Such a society would be both the creation of Torah, and also a proper incubator for Torah as well. Undergirding these verses is also the idea that a family's connection with their portion of the land was determined by God, and so no human sale could irrevocably sever those ties.
Our times are different now, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Market forces create the economy. Your connection to your land is a financial and emotional one, not one driven by Divine promises. There is no ultimate barrier to your achieving great wealth, and no fail-safe protection against impoverishment.
Though the yovel/Jubilee regulations seem foreign at first glance, we ought to be moved by the Torah's insistence that by its authority neither great riches nor great poverty are inherited; each generation has its opportunity to make a life on the land that God has given us all.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Adir Yolkut
I am the youngest of four siblings, so naturally every year at our seder, I am fascinated by the story of the four children of the Haggadah and the various ways in which those attributes manifest in each of us differently. But I always come back to the wicked child. Every year, this child jumps out at me. Maybe, in some ways, I feel aligned with his skepticism and reticence to feel part of something larger. I think we all have those moments of being ostracized or feeling alienated, so in some way, I get that question he asks, לכם הזאת העבודה מה? What is this service for you? Why do you do what you do? In some ways, I think it’s an important question to ask as religious leader. Are people doing things for the right reason? Is it moral? Is it ethical? Yet, we know from the continuation that this is a fluffy interpretation of the wicked child’s questioning, given the continuation of the haggadah.
We are told that in response to his questioning,
we should שיניו את הקהה, blunt his teeth.
As traditionally understood, we are supposed to give him a good rebuke an tell him that had he been part of the people in Egypt, he would not have been freed because of his selfish and myopic beliefs. In some ways, I understand the haggadah’s frustration at his words and subsequent angry response. He’s placed himself outside of our community. He maligns our rituals. He denigrates God. But is this the proper response? Do we think this is a way to bring him back into the fold?
Rabbi Yissasch Dov Rokeach, the 3rd Rabbi of the Belz dynasty felt similarly to those questions and offered the following teaching that I believe resonates deeply:
It's a little wicked in and of itself to punish the wicked son by blunting his teeth. After all, he c a m e to the seder when he didn't have to come at all. Now the word Rasha ‘’רשע’’ is made up of the outside letters "ra" ’’רע’– evil with the shin ’’ש’’ inside. What does this mean? The 3 lines of the shin (or if you want to go matriarchs, use the bottom line as the 4th) symbolize matriarchs and patriarchs. If the shin is on the inside of the rasha that tells you that inside every person is a point that is connected to their past and their foremothers and forefathers. This child’s soul is connected to goodness/godliness. So when it says "hakheh et shinav," read it as knocking his shin loose, the best part of his inner nature. Bring it out from the "ra". Give this child courage. Tell the child you know he has potential because you know that this child really is holy.
What a beautiful response by the Belzer Rebbe. He understands that responding to the wicked child with force and anger will only result in more feelings of being an outsider in a holiday that can be argued as the most insider of our holidays. We are all drawn together on Pesah, no matter our regularly scheduled Jewish programming. No matter whether our usual ritual observance could be described as glatt kosher or kosher style, our Pesah narrative is something shared by all of us. Whether we self-define as the wicked child or have that title cast upon us, maybe we can learn something from the Belzer Rebbe this year. Instead of castigation, let’s try to find the connective “shin” in each of us, that part that ties us back to our roots and bring it forward out of the darkness of the toxicity of our lives and into the light.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
Mother Teresa once said, “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Although a beautiful idea of connecting to God through nature and that which has been created for us, I question how in a world of noise God can only be found in silence! You hear many people describe their belief in God through a child being born, hearing a beautiful symphony, seeing magnificent beauty in art or architecture, etc. These are sometimes set in silence, but as often are accompanied by the sound of laughter, crying, birds chirping, instruments harmonizing, voices joining in song, making our hearts soar and filling us with belief.
At the end of the inauguration of the Mishkan, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are struck by the fire that they are bringing to god as an offering. They are killed by that which they wanted to sacrifice, all because “they offered a strange fire before God which He had not commanded from them” (Vayikra 10:2). The phrase “before the Lord” is mentioned three times in these verses: […] “they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Vayikra 10: 1-2). What is the significance of this phrase? Is God embarrassed? Is God full of guilt and only willing to take responsibility for something God sees through from beginning to end? Can we know God’s purpose for these deaths?
Moshe tells Aaron, after the death of his sons, that God told him: “I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” And Aaron was silent! Can we understand Aaron’s silence? Aaron, the father of these children is silent! Not screaming, crying, yelling – no emotion seen or felt at all – just silence. The Rashbam says that Aaron was angry at God and could not understand how to serve or perform his priestly duties after God performed such an evil act. His silence is a “protest to God,” my teacher Rabbi Artson says. However, Aaron continues to serve, and the Rashbam believes it is because of Moshe’s words from God that “I [God] will be sanctified in those that come near to me.”
According to Mother Teresa, this might have been a moment of God-knowing for Aaron. Perhaps dumbstruck, speechless in anger, stilled as if dead himself. I believe that in the silence, Aaron is questioning his relationship to God, his leadership to a people in devotion to God and his anger at losing those he loves most deeply. Not only do Aaron’s sons come before God in devotion and offering, but also they do so without being asked - a seemingly positive and exciting surprise for God. However, perhaps it is the closeness that they feel that burns them with their own giving. Perhaps Aaron has created a world for his sons of such devotion, comfort and ease in relationship to God that now, their giving of an unasked sacrifice is what destroys them. And because they have done nothing wrong, God is ashamed that this is the punishment that must be given and makes sure it is all done before God, showing the detachment of relationship.
So Aaron’s silence is disbelief, protest and acknowledgement. Aaron understands that the life he offered his sons is one that, in the end, allowed their comfort to be their demise. Aaron is silent because, as we all know, words do not bring those we love back to life once they are gone. Finally, Aaron is silent because we always want those who tell us they love us, support us and care for us, to come through and act in the way of their words, and here God failed to put God’s words into action. Silence is a place for contemplation, the beauty between notes of a symphony, the distance needed to hear the environment around us and create a more perfect beautiful world. May we all listen this Shabbat to the silences coming from within our community and may those silences bring us closer to healing, support and happiness in the relationships we have to those around us, and with God.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
As we read through the almost too-detailed details of the prescribed sacrifices in Parshat Tzav, and the parashot that surround it, our modern sensibilities may very well recoil at the idea of approaching God through such bloody ritual. And we may justifiably wonder, "Now why are we still reading these passages today, millennia after the 2nd Temple was destroyed, in a community that does not harbor any romantic hope of returning to animal sacrifice even if a 3rd Temple is rebuilt?!" Excellent question. I ask it myself several times a year.
At least at this moment, the following insight informs my connection to Tzav and the entire book of Vayikra/Leviticus: The system of sacrifices stands as one step in an incremental process of change and evolution for the Jewish nation, from slaves to Pharaoh to free people engaged in a relationship with God. The Rambam (Maimonides) emphasizes this in his work Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed) 3:12, "It is impossible for people to go from one extreme to another all at once." The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt and surrounded by cultic idolatry where even human sacrifice was the norm, could not and would have accepted the siddur as the main mode of relating to this new God. It would have been too extreme a jump for them to make. So the sacrifices were a temporary accommodation, from which God expected and hoped we would evolve.
Rambam's insight is true regarding many aspects of life. As Rabbi Uzi Weingarten wrote, "We are creatures of habit; shifting our habits--as anybody who has attempted this knows all too well--is a complex process." Through this prism, suddenly Parshat Tzav teaches the wonderful lesson that God accepts, patiently, incremental progress. Just as the Israelites in the desert were an unfinished product, so are we. What contemporary conventions are only temporary, and will necessarily dissolve as we evolve? How do we distinguish between the rituals of Judaism and its essence? Perhaps these questions spur us to explore more deeply ta'amei hamitzvot, the reasons behind why we perform certain commandments. And perhaps this line of thinking imbues within us an important humility regarding our own observance.
Vayikra...An antiquated book? Only if you are resistant to plumbing its relevant truths.
So ask the question about why we read it. But if you are going to ask it, really ask it. Meaning, ask the question to yourself not rhetorically, but expecting an answer. The process of asking the question will evoke some surprising answers, even from yourself. If we approach the Torah, even arcane aspects of it, with the assumption that it is timelessly relevant, that the challenge is not upon the Torah to change but upon us to generate creative associations with it, the dance between Torah and Jew never ends, no matter the historical era, and no matter the passage.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
The book of Leviticus opens with the word Vayiqra. It means, “And then He called.” God reached out to Moses to give instructions as to the proper performance of various sacrificial rites. According to tradition, the aleph in Vayiqra is an aleph ze’eira - a little aleph (pictured above).
One commentator, the Ba’al Ha-turim (Jacob ben Asher, 13th-14th century France and Spain), suggests that the small aleph has a backstory. It was the result of a compromise resolving a disagreement between Moses and God. According to the midrash, God was dictating the text of the Torah to Moses who, in turn, faithfully scribed God’s words. When he arrived at the words in question, “And then God called to Moses,” Moses hesitated.
"Who am I that God should call me?” asked Moses.
Moses emended God’s words to read vayiqer - ויקר. Leaving off the aleph changes the meaning from “And then God called to Moses” to “And then God happened upon Moses” as if by coincidence (miqreh). According to this midrash, Moses, in his abundant humility, wanted posterity to assume that it was a chance occurrence that God called to me and not some special designation.
But God insisted that Moses write the aleph. For God, it was important that generations know that God called to Moses. Moses, in his abundant humility, asked permission to write this alef smaller than all the other alefs in the Torah. Thus, the aleph we see in the text is a compromise between the two positions.
In order to make space for God in our lives, we need to diminish the “aleph” that is our own ego. The “I” that gets in the way of serving “You.” So often our own obsession with the self impedes on our ability to serve others. We live in a culture of selfies and the celebration of individualism. We celebrate and reward certified egomaniacs in our celebrity culture and in our politics. Moses’s story reminds us that the key to his leadership was his humility. That’s what made him qualified to be called.
And yet, we cannot be too humble that we deny our responsibility in being called. God didn’t allow Moses to deny his critical role in being God’s partner in this world. God cannot go it alone. The almighty, the Holy Blessed One, needs something from us. This is what Heschel calls the "mysterious paradox of faith - God is pursuing man." Heschel writes, "It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and He has chosen man to serve Him." We are essential partners in God's plan. God needs our service.
The small aleph calls to us, as it called to Moses, self contract when accepting the mantle of leadership. It represents the balance between humility and ego that is necessary to effective servant leadership. It’s not about you and yet, God needs you. It’s a paradox that lies at the heart of a life of service. May we be blessed with the humility and the sense of calling that will allow us to live our lives in this sacred relationship.
This is part of a series Rabbi Lucas is writing about the big and small letters in the Torah.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
Reflect Outward to Step Inward
For the past few weeks, we have read about the Israelites building the Mikdash, then building the Golden Calf, and this week we are building the Mishkan. All of these building projects have two important aspects in common. One, they are built by gifts of precious items presented on behalf of creating and second they are built in community. Individuals bring of themselves and together create something for God. Now, in the Cirst case, the Mikdash, the Israelites are building a sacred space for God to dwell, the Golden Calf, however, is built in spite of God and as rebellion. Therefore, in this week’s parasha, Va’yakhel, Moses tells the congregation of the children of Israel that God has commanded them to “Take from among you an offering unto God, whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it.” (Exodus 35:5)
“.׳ה תמורת תא האיבי ,ובל בידנ לכ ,׳הל ,המורת םכתאמ וחק” The children of Israel are not only willing but bring their most important skills forward to help create this Mishkan as a devotion, and reverence for God.
Although completely communal, there is one aspect of the Mishkan that is built individually to reClect relationship: the mirrors that the women bring as their contributions. As is said in Shmot 38:8 “And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” Now, not only is this a large hidden story in a complicated sentence, but an important aspect of the Mishkan that is glossed over as yet another ornament. Rashi explains: “The women used the mirrors to adorn themselves [for their husbands]. Moses rejected the mirrors because they were made for temptation. God said to Moses, ‘accept them (the mirrors), for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions (through the children they had) in Egypt.’” The women believed in the continuation of relationship, not only with God through the Mishkan, but with their loved ones.
A few weeks ago, a group of friends organized an intervention for a friend who was suffering from a bad relationship. While going around to share our thoughts, one person mentioned that your best friends are here to be your mirror, to show you what you are dealing with outside of yourself and to reClect back what you deserve and should see in yourself. The mirrors that the women bring to the Mishkan reClect out, not in. Anyone who walks by the Mishkan sees themselves, those around them, the good, the bad and the reality of the world before stepping in to a place to seek a holy relationship with God.
These 3 different building projects exemplify different aspects of our relationship with God. The Mikdash is new love, exciting and all bliss, the Golden Calf is resentment, fear and cold-‐feet, and the Mishkan is acceptance of working towards a relationship of commitment, love, devotion and reClection of one’s self through God. Create projects in life that require us to bring ourselves forward, commit to our actions and take responsibility for our uniqueness. Let us all acknowledge our mirrors in life and utilize the reClections of our reality to become closer to our desired relationship with God.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Adir Yolkut
My mother’s favorite compliment to give me lately has been how proud she is of me for my ability to have a sense of delayed gratification. As I inch closer to my rabbinic ordination, the praise becomes even more and more effusive. I am happy to receive the compliment but at some point, a couple years ago, in one of those moments of stagnation in a journey, I was not so interested in being complimented on succeeding at delayed gratification, whatever that meant. I imagine others have a similar feeling in journeys of their own life: journeys to other advanced degrees, journeys to start a family, journeys at overcoming physical obstacles. Sometimes, you just want the “pot of gold” at the end.
This type of culmination comes toward the end of our parshah this week when we read in chapter 30:1, “you shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.” It is a seemingly simple commandment whose placement has constantly perplexed commentators. If parashat tetzaveh is all about the garb of the High Priest and their ordination, and parshat terumah from a couple weeks ago dealt with instruments of sacrifice, why is this commandment to build the incense altar not placed in parshat terumah? One of the great Hasidic masters, the Mei Hashiloah, Rav Moshe Yosef Leiner from Ishbitza in 19th century Poland picks up on a teaching from the Talmud in Zevahim 88b that says that each article of clothing that the priest wears atones for a different sin: the tunic atones for murder, the pants for sexual impropriety, the turban for improper spirit, etc. The Mei Hashiloah then describes how the priest has to use each of those associations to bring about the proper amount of fear and awe into his service in order to truly serve. Only once he has done that can he finally offer the incense offering, which is a wholly happy and joy filled offering. In this teaching the Mei Hashiloah is teaching us something of delayed gratification. The placement of the incense offering is intentionally here to instill in us the value of carrying the wholeness of your journey, both the weight of its lows and the elation of its highs. Nothing is superfluous in the priest’s wardrobe.
However, it’s not enough to just wear those “clothes” and be reminded of all that has come before and the power within you. The Lubavitcher Rebbe also teaches about this perplexing placement and he offers that we don’t use the same word for sacrificing incense that we do for sacrificing animals. A korban, sacrifice, coming from the word “close” in Hebrew brings near the one performing the sacrifice and the object but ultimately, even when something is close, there is still a distance there. But, an incense offering, ketoret, is related to the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew word, kesher, tie. He describes that the closeness that happened between us and God through the sacrifices got us close but never fully fused us with togetherness until the incense was offered, fully binding us.
The fusion of those two teachings is one that I think can help guide those of us on arduous and lengthy journeys. There ultimately comes that point where you have had enough and you just want to fast forward a couple of days, months, or sometimes years. Yet, just like the incense offering could only be fully enjoyed with the experience of everything that came before it, all of our journeys rest on that fulcrum. Appreciating the whole gamut of emotions that came before allows us to wholeheartedly appreciate the prize of delayed gratification. Thanks for the tip, mom!
Prepared by Cantorial Intern Michelle Stone
The Talmudic sage, Rava, teaches that when we die and arrive at the heavenly court, the first question each of us will be asked is “Did you handle your business dealings faithfully?” This statement appears on the same page of the Talmud as the famous al regel achat story, where a man asks Hillel to teach him all of Torah on one foot and Hillel famously answers, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others. That is all of Torah; the rest is commentary; go learn it.” This is the Golden Rule we are taught as children. And if you were dishonest in business dealings, you were not treating others in the way that you wanted to be treated. You were not honoring the Golden Rule. The two are one and the same.
This week in our Torah reading, we leave the long narratives that we have been enjoying since we started the rereading of the Torah in the fall. We have enjoyed the stories of creation, of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Joseph, of Moses in the bulrushes and the Exodus from Egypt. The stories have been fun, but now it’s time to talk tachlis. It’s time to lay down the rules of the road – the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, the laws pertaining to how we deal with one another. This week’s parasha, Parshat Mishpatim, is where we start receiving the laws and ethics that govern interpersonal conduct. Mishpatim are a certain subset of rules in the Torah; they are the laws that that are considered rational and easily understood. Mishpatim include the admonitions to not steal or murder. This week’s parasha is aptly called Mishpatim, because it primarily consists of a list of laws, most of which fall into the mishpatim category. It includes the laws relating to slavery, damages, and lending of money, what we might consider political and business law. The famous ayin tachat ayin saying, “an eye for an eye”, comes from this parasha.
But this parasha does not only include political and business laws. It also includes laws governing the treatment of a stranger, widow and orphan, and other moral and ethical behaviors, such as returning a lost animal to its owner, distancing oneself from dishonesty, and helping a neighbor with a heavy load. The moral and ethical laws are interwoven with political and business law, almost as if they are doing a dance. It is with the sum total of these laws, the political and the business and the moral and the ethical, that we become a holy people to God; we become an anshei kodesh (Ex. 22:30).
The Torah promotes the melding of our religious and secular lives. The rules are interwoven to explain that they are on the same playing field. Morality and business exist in the same realm. It is just as important to deal fairly and justly in the corporate world as it is to treat strangers with kindness and provide support to those in need. Telling the truth in your business dealings is just as Jewish as giving tzedakah and feeding the homeless. Being an ethical boss is as fundamental to being as Jew as fasting on Yom Kippur.
We are required to deal ethically with those we engage in business. It is a requirement, not a strongly worded suggestion. The law places a very high moral standard on us and demands honesty in business dealings. Our religious and business lives do not have to be mutually exclusive. When we bring Jewish ethics into the work environment, we have the opportunity to elevate the mundane, nitty gritty of our day-to-day lives and make it holy work, to make it God’s work.Shabbat Shalom.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Adir Yolkut
One of the earliest lessons most of us learn, either at home or at school is to never tell someone to shut up. It’s rude. It’s abrupt. It immediately tells a person that what they have to say is worthless. When you hear it, it hurts deeply. The old adage does not ring true. Stick and stones do hurt and no, actually, words also really hurt. But what happens when the person telling you to shut up is Moses? What happens when he tells you this with a raging sea in front of you and an advancing, murderous army nearing you from the other side?
That’s exactly what happens in this week’s parashah of Beshalah. As they are trapped between an army and a wet place, the Israelites cry out in their usual desert complaint of “why did you take us out of Egypt for this?!” Moses’ response is as follows, “Have no fear. Stand by, and witness the deliverance which God will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” At first glance, it seems clear to the modern reader that the people are being given the “shut up” treatment. It is on this note that the Midrash in Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishhmael Beshallah 2 comments:
“Rabbi says: The Lord will battle for you and you hold your peace. Shall God perform miracles and mighty deeds for you while you stand silently by? The Israelites then said to Moses: Moses, our teacher, what is there for us to do? And he said to them: You should be exalting, glorifying and praising, uttering songs of praise, adoration and glorification to Him in whose hands are the fortunes of wars
This may be the response many of us would assume had we held Moses’ position. Are you serious?! After all of the miracles of your freedom from Egypt, this is the type of faith that you show in God?! You complain about life being preferable in Egypt. Perhaps the Midrash, picking up on the harshness of the initial response adds in the suggestion to sing and offer praises to God. Yes, it is a version of “silence!” but it is a redemptive “shut up.” Nonetheless, I could not help but still feel uncomfortable by the response. Even if it was an attempt to steer them to say something more productive, their fear was warranted. Even with the utmost faith, an advancing army and a stormy body of water would be enough to tear asunder the faith of any holy person. It is this discomfort that I think pushes Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the 2nd Sochazew Rebbe to say the following:
“You hold your peace has to do with trusting in the Lord... trust is above faith, for trusting subsumes having faith, but having faith does not subsume trusting... So, by the very act of remaining silent and trusting in the Lord’s deliverance, deliverance will come. That being so, You shall hold your peace is not a negative, rather a positive command
It was not a command to shut up. It was a command to look inward and forget about finding the faith. Seek the trust. Even if in this moment, you people do not have the faith that God is present, you must trust that God will find a way to act. Sometimes, our own announcer voice gets in our heads so much that it distracts us from the varied and deep truths that we hold. One of those is our trust in God. Even in moments of great desperation, when faith feels so far off, Moses, channeled through Rav Shmuel is telling us to quiet down and find that true belief in God.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz
A few weeks ago, I was on my way to San Francisco, and in the airport I ran into my brother, Sammy. He just started Stanford Law School and although I knew he was traveling that day, I had no idea that he would be in the SFO airport at the same time, two gates away from where I would be deplaning. I am the eldest of four children and the only girl, and very often I wished, as a young child, to have a sister, but now I know that having three brothers is a gift and a blessing. There have been multiple moments in my life where I have left home, for college, my year in Israel, to live on my own, etc. and the hardest part was departing from my siblings.
In this week’s parashah we encounter the reuniting of the brothers with Joseph, whom they threw in a pit and sold into slavery. Joseph, after having a successful life in Egypt still weeps when he sees his brother, knowing that something has been missing from his life of success, power and prestige. Our text reads:
וינשק לכל–אחיו ויבך עלהם ואחרי כן דברו אחיו אתו
“And he kissed every brother and he cried on them and after this his brothers spoke with him”
What is it about this moment that Joseph felt enough emotion and forgiveness to let go and show his brothers how much he loves and missed them? According to the Shem MiShmuel, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, when Joseph saw Judah offer to go to jail instead of Benjamin, he knew his brothers had repented and that they had changed from the brothers who sold him to Egypt years before. Because he could see the teshuva that they had done, his heart opened to forgive them as a whole, and embrace them each as siblings.
Siblings, if they are lucky, grow up as a unit and stay each other’s best friends until the end. Joseph was not as lucky, however, his growth came in realizing the loss of camaraderie because of sibling rivalry and the tremendous despair felt in the emptiness of a possible relationship. My brothers make fun of me for crying whenever they do something, which is true, but only from pride not jealousy. One famous Schatz story is when my youngest sibling was playing Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha” and Milken did the production in the round, so the audience was very close, and at times, part of the production. During the scene where he dies (sorry for the spoiler) I happened to be sitting next to Jonah on the Uinal night of the performance. His head was positioned almost in my lap and though I had seen the show now 5 times, I cried like a baby watching his performance in the death scene. At the end of the show, he came up and said, “Rebecca, do not ever sit near me when I am trying to act, you were blubbering like a baby and it was hard to keep character.”
Joseph felt an overwhelming sense of joy, pride, and connection to his siblings in the moment that he embraced them and cried on them. Rashi tells us that he continuously cried, and only once he was done did his brothers Uind the words to speak. In this time of family gathering, recognize that which makes you proud, calm and secure when in the presence of those you love. My brother Jacob called the other day just to say he loved me and it was that call that made my whole day brighter. Our siblings carry our heart, protect it from that which we cannot protect ourselves, and share with us in the pain of life lived. Let us all Uind the moment this Shabbat to embrace those we love, maybe shed a tear or two and then continue those conversations of what it means to be family.
Prepared by Temple Beth Am Rabbinic Intern, Adir Yolkut
My only real memory of a family death, thankfully, was when my grandfather, Morris Belsky, died when I was 8 years old. I do not remember much about his death beyond one important detail. Even though his wife remained alive and thankfully continues with good health today, I remember there being a lot of tension as to who was going to fill that void among my mother and her siblings. It was not explicitly stated but I think there was a tension that percolated in those times at the absence of this figure because no one really knew how to act. Should I strongly step in? Should I be an empathetic presence for my loved ones? There are a lot of unknowns and anxiety when it comes to the death of a family figure. In that moment, the loved ones left behind were without that presence that had helped them guide them and they were unsure of how.
A similar response is felt especially strongly in our Parsha this week, Vayehi.
Jacob, one of the seminal figures of the book of Genesis is nearing his end. Once he properly adjures Joseph to make sure he is buried in Israel, Jacob dies. However, after passing away and having his son Joseph and his brothers bury him out of Egypt and in the land of Israel, his children, perhaps traumatized by the death of their father fall back into emotional tumult.
In chapter 50:15-19, we see the brothers fearful of retribution for their deception now that Jacob is not around to protect them from Joseph’s wrath. Unwarranted or not, it is not a surprising action. Perhaps they recognized a change in Joseph’s behavior, as Rashi suggests in that Joseph no longer attempt to bring them close. Or, perhaps, they simply were at a loss and were reeling in the wake of their father being gone from their lives. In either case, they make a great plea, filled with begging and prostration and ask for forgiveness. In this moment of tension, instinct might lead us to think that Joseph, finally free of fealty to his father, could exact the vengeance he has always wanted. Yet, as always, Joseph surprises us. He tells the brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Shall I serve in the place of God?” Joseph strikes a deep note of humility and in the simple act gives us an important message for how to act in moments of great unrest and loss.
But to get there, we must understand a little Midrashic back-story. On the return from burying their father, the Midrash tells us that the brothers spotted Joseph peeping into the very pit into which he had been cast. The brothers had interpreted this as his own plans for retribution. In actuality, Joseph had looked to offer thanks to God and to remind himself of his blessing. In this moment of loss, the brothers follow in their narrative of selfishness only worried about themselves and Joseph invokes his humility and devotion to God. It is the same humility that fuels him to respond in wonderment to his brothers. I have never played God before. Why would I do so now?!
Or, as famed social psychologist Dr. Erich Fromm put it, “to be objective, to use one's reason, is possible only if one has achieved an attitude of humility, if one has emerged from the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence which one has as a child.”
Joseph has transformed from his youthful and self serving fantasies to a man of reason, humility and fearing God. This is what we must emulate when we feel lost and are in uncharted waters. Forced confidence and certainty do not get us to the same holy places that humility and reason can. Shabbat Shalom.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Many of you know that I teach a weekly class on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. I started this class over 15 years ago in my first congregation, beginning with Breishit/Genesis 1:1. When I moved to TBA, I picked up where had left off, and we are now studying Parashat Vayeshev, which begins the Yosef narrative. It also happens to be this week’s parsha, giving our class the annual, meaningful joy of reading in shul on Shabbat the parsha we have been studying in depth every week.
This week in particular, a comment by Rashi that the class first encountered some months ago, on the opening verse of Vayeshev, hit me in a poignant way. Sometimes current events awaken or deepen insights that one first learned in a more neutral zone. The comment focuses on the word “Vayeshev/וישב” itself. It means “And he dwelled,” referring to the fact that Yaakov put down roots in the land of his ancestors. The root י-ש-ב, y-sh-v can mean “to sit” or “to dwell” and so the plain meaning of the verse is that Yaakov and his large and growing family established permanent residence in the same area in which Isaac and Abraham had lived. But every Torah commentator is alert to even mildly extraneous words. And so Rashi observes that there is no need for the Torah to tell us this information. We know already from the end of the previous parsha, Vayishlah, that Yaakov lived there. And since we aren’t told that he moved somewhere else, we don’t need that datum retold. Therefore he explains the verse via an alternate meaning to the same root. י-ש-ב, or y-sh-v can also mean to settle or to be settled. To be at peace. To have yishuv da’at is to have tranquility. Rashi said that after the recent turmoil with the fleeing from Lavan, the reunion with Esav and the death of Rachel, Yaakov now yearned for yishuv. The opening word of the parsha, then, is aspirational. He craved to be at rest, at peace, serene and free from travail.
Alas, neither Yaakov, nor any of us, can ever hope that that wish be comprehensively fulfilled. Rashi’s read is that the Torah is, at best, sadly relating Yaakov’s impossible wish; at worst, it is mocking it. He wished for yishuv, for tranquility? And what he gets, immediately, is the Yosef narrative, replete with envy, attempted murder, despair and grief, some of which brought on by Yaakov’s own poor parenting choices and some brought on by the vagaries of the universe. The point Rashi seems to be making, and which is reinforced to us all too often, is that disequilibrium is the norm. Serenity is aspirational. And the moment you think you deserve, or are about to enjoy, utter tranquility…it will likely be punctured by things both predictable and unpredictable.
Our headlines and Facebook memes relate this doleful truth constantly. How many times have we awakened following a particularly turbulent time in our personal lives, or in the violent life of this nation, or the terrorized life of modern civilization, hoping that this is the day when things will quiet down, only to have screaming headlines of mass shootings, civilian massacres or personal malaise interrupt the reverie? The message is not that we ought to live in pessimism, always assuming that horror is around the corner. Rather, the lesson is to cherish the moments of yishuv that we either create or come to us unearned, do everything within our prayerful and political power to brace ourselves for or diminish the likelihood of the hard moments to come, and then find the strength and determination to push on with life when that very tranquility proves elusive.
May it be a week of equilibrium. And should the yishuv not come this week, may we work harder such that it may come soon after.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Adir Yolkut
I was in a learning session last week and a question was posed to the crowd to share what their response had been to encounters with God? In a room full of parents, doctors, teachers, etc, one would think that the answers would have been free flowing. “I was in total awe.” I felt an intense lightness about me.” “I don’t even have words,” could have been any of the expected responses. Except, what happened was...utter and total silence. How could it be that in a room full of religious people, no one described what an encounter with God was like?! I believe many Jews struggle to even have moments of religiously heightened ecstasy, one of those moments where you totally let go and get enveloped in being incubated by God’s presence. So, here we are, in a room and building made to worship God and very few of us can even think of encounters with God!?
Fret not though because I think that a solution to this exact problem is found in the beginning of this week’s parashah, when our forefather Jacob has a certain dream in which angels ascend and descend a ladder and a promise is given to him. Then we are told the following (28:16), “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know.” The traditional commentaries on this suggest Jacob was upset that he did not realize God was in this place so he should’ve slept elsewhere or prepared accordingly.
However, to fully grasp the following teaching, we need to understand a peculiarity in the Hebrew of this verse. The text tells us that certainly God was in this place and then it says, v’anokhi lo yadati, literally translated as “And I, I did not know.” You see, the verbiage of “lo yadati” includes the first person, so saying “Anokhi-I” beforehand seems superfluous. Knowing that, I share with you the following teaching from the Tiferet Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz, the first Rebbe of the Radomsky Hassidic dynasty in 19th century Poland:
This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
A classic Hasidic reading yes, but it is one that perfectly captures the, seemingly, repetitious nature of the text. Picking up on that extra “I” word, the Radomsky Rebbe realizes the text must be telling us something deeper about Jacob’s personal transformation in this moment. In order to recognize God, Jacob had to nullify his own self. Remember, this is Jacob’s first journey after having been sent off from his father immediately after his continued embroilment with his brother, Esav. He had been so wrapped up in his own conflicts with his brother and father that it took this moment for him to encounter God. He had to suppress himself in order to meet the Divine.
It is that idea that I think we can mine from this text. Too often, we let our own selves get in the way of meeting God. They can be feelings of embarrassment for lack of liturgical knowledge. It may be a feeling of not understanding the “choreography” of a service. It can even be feeling uncomfortable donning religious garb but what Jacob’s moment teaches us is that we have to do a little self-reflection and self-nullification. Those aspects of ourselves are real and we can honor them. But, ultimately, those moments stifle us and put up roadblocks on the path to encountering God because they take up the space that God needs to be in process with us. I hope that as the moments to partner with God continue to manifest in our lives, we can find more ways to make even more room for God.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. - Genesis 23:2
What is the appropriate way to grieve for a loved one? How much crying is enough? How much is too much? These are all questions that I’ve heard mourners ask and they also appear to be questions at play in the conversation about the kaf ze’eirah - the little letter kaf we encounter in Parshat Hayei Sarah.
When Abraham learned of the death of his wife Sarah, the Torah tells us that he “proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her (v’livkotah).” By tradition, the letter kaf in the middle of the word “and to weep over her” (pictured above) is written smaller than the other letters. As with all scriptural anomalies, this one catches the attention of the commentators. Many argue that the small kaf is a signal that Abraham cried less than one would normally cry when losing a beloved spouse and they offer different explanations as to why this is the case. Rabbeinu Efraim claims that Abraham found comfort in his new wife, Keturah. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher suggests that since Sarah lived a long life (127 years), and thus, Abraham’s sadness at her death was diminished.
Rabbi Pinchas Wolf views the same small letter and arrives at the opposite conclusion. He suggests that the small kaf is a sign that Abraham actually cried excessively. He arrives at this conclusion using numerology (gematriya). The first three letters of the word v’livkotah add up to 38. Coincidentally, Abraham lived 38 years after Sara’s death. The small kaf, breaks up the word, and indicates that that Abraham continued to cry for Sarah for the 38 remaining years of his life. His grief for Sarah was so great, that even though he remarried and built a new family, his remaining years were sad and mournful.
Often people feel pressure to grieve in a particular way. Family or community members expect that we should cry more or less or at particular times and not at others. But those who have grieved know that grief doesn’t always follow predictable patterns. Outward expressions are not always reflective of the internal experience of loss or pain. People may see grievers going about their business in the usual manner - parenting, at work, in the synagogue - and everything looks normal and okay. But on the inside, they’re feeling deep sadness. Perhaps Abraham’s tears didn’t show on his cheek. Perhaps his new family never knew how much he missed Sarah. Maybe they never asked.
Perhaps the small kaf is a message to all of those who grieve (and those who seek to offer comfort) about the nature of grief in relationship. So many of us tuck the pain in, we hide it away - like the small kaf hidden in the middle of a word. May we give space to one another to grieve in the ways that come naturally to us. Talking and crying are important parts of the healing process. Let’s give ourselves and others the permission and space to talk and cry when we need to. Let’s offer support and compassionate listening to our loved ones. Then, perhaps, we’ll be able to transform the experience of loss, into one of comfort, love, and support.
This is part of a series Rabbi Lucas is writing on the big and small letters in the text of the Torah.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
You walk into class the first day of school and the teacher calls out your full name, whether it is what you go by or not, and you say “here” or “present” or “yes.” In this week’s Parasha, Avraham is in the classroom and God calls out, expecting an answer from the pupil. “And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him from heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’” (Bereshit 22:10-11)
So too, during the High Holidays, God calls each one of us by name throughout the days and we choose whether to proclaim, “Here I am!”
What does it take to admit, “Here I am?” For Abraham it was the searing trauma of testing himself against Isaac. For Jacob it involved the trickery of switching birthrights and deceitfully accepting blessing, when he calls out, “Father!” and Isaac responds, “Here I am." God called to Moshe from the non-flammable burning bush and Moshe replied, “Here I am,” ...ready to listen to Your call and serve as a leader. Each moment of hineini awakens us to be present, to rise and focus, to get into the game and play to win!
When we call out “Hineini,” we're not playing Marco Polo or hide-and-seek. We're answering like Adam answered in the Garden of Eden, when God, Who would have had no trouble finding Adam, called out, “Ayeka? (Where are you?)”. God was asking if Adam was present and aware of where he was, knowing his purpose, goals and role while in the Garden.
Rashi describes this as, "…the response of the righteous. It is the language of humility and readiness."
Today, we make too few opportunities to declare, “Hineini”. We're not listening for God's question. Take a moment, search the week past for the moments when you could have affirmed, “Hineini!” Maybe you were engrossed in a baseball game and your 2-year-old asked you to stop and read him a bedtime book. Or perhaps you interrupted your own day's frustrations to attend to your friend's troubles. Or, Israel in the news. God is beseeching, "For crying out loud, where are you?!"
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Prepared by: Rabbi Ari Lucas
Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created
Last year I wrote about some of the big letters in the Torah. This year, I will focus on the small letters. They are called otiyot ze’erot. By tradition, they are written smaller than other letters in the Torah. We encounter the first such letter the the very first parashah - B’reishit.
As you can see in the photo above, the letter hey in the word hi-bar’am (they were created) is scribed in a small font. Many different commentators have weighed in on the small hey. Some say that this is a hint to Abraham whose name is an anagram with the word hi-bar’am. The hey hints at the hey that was added to Abram’s name when he established a covenantal relationship with God. According to an ancient midrash, the world was created and sustained for Abraham. Although he who would not be born until generations later, his merit extended back to the beginning of the creation and forward until our generation.
Other commentators see the hey as a symbol of God’s name. R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the small hey reminds us that God’s presence is often hidden in creation and our task is to uncover it wherever it may be found.
I would humbly add that perhaps the small hey is a nod to the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum - divine self-contraction. According to Lurianic Kabbalah, God’s presence is infinite and would, as it were, take up all the space in existence. Creation according to this telling was enabled by a benevolent act of God contracting God's Self to make space for the universe. Perhaps the small hey is a visual representation of that story. God, whose name is represented by the letter hey, took up a little less space, in order to make room for creation.
This story has great insight for us as people created in the image of God. Often we think that in order to create something, we need to insert ourselves and our own presence into a situation. But the Lurianic story offers an alternate paradigm. Sometimes, in order for new life to sprout up or new creativity to emerge, we need to humbly make room for others. When we make space for others’ emotions, perspective, and presence, what unfolds is the creation of a new relationship or a new insight that would not otherwise have been possible if our ego dominated the space. God modeled that behavior for us and the result was the magnificence of creation. May we have the courage to make room for other equally beautiful creations if we could learn to make our hey a little smaller and more hospitable.
This is part of a series Rabbi Lucas is writing on the big and small letters in the text of the Torah.
- Ki Tavo 9/9/17
- Shoftim 8/26/17
- Re'eh 8/19/17
- Ekev 8/11/17
- Vaethanan 8/4/17
- Devarim 7/20/17
- Korah 6/24/17
- Bamidbar 5/27/17
- Ahare-Mot Kedoshim 5/6/17
- Tazria-Meztora 4/29/17
- Shemini 4/22/17
- Tzav 4/8/17
- Vayikra 4/1/17
- Vayakhel-Pekudei 3/25/17
- Ki Tissa 3/18/17
- Mishpatim 2/25/17
- Bo 2/4/17
- Vaera 1/28/17
- Shemot 1/21/17
- Vayehi 1/14/17
- Vayeshev 12/23/16
- Vayishlah 12/17/16
- Vayetze 12/10/16
- Hayei Sarah 11/26/16
- Vayera 11/19/16
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
When we read the Torah publicly, Jewish law prescribes that we be meticulous: Each word must be pronounced properly and the community strives to hear every word. Not so in this week’s parashah. A tradition arose for the Torah reader to speed through, in a half whisper, the lengthy and terrifying list of curses with which the Israelites are threatened.
God’s covenant with the Israelites on Mt. Sinai was a moment of supreme affirmation; the people said, “We will do and we will understand – na’aseh v’nishma [Ex.24:7]. But the covenant described in this week’s portion, formalized on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, seems to be grounded in profoundly negative language. The consequences of failing to follow this covenant are set forth in painful, even gruesome, detail.
The terrible fate that could befall the Israelites should they not remain loyal to God represents an undoing of their entire narrative, as God seems to rescind previous promises set forth in the Torah. God threatens to send the Israelites back to Egypt “by a route which I told you you should not see again,” saying they will try to sell themselves back into slavery (Deut. 28:68). God also appears to cancel the promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation, saying: “You will be left a scant few, after having been as numerous as the stars in the skies” (28:62). God declares that other nations will not look to Israel as a model of Divine providence. Instead, “you shall be a consternation, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples to which the Lord will drive you” (28:37). Finally, Israel will be dispersed from its land, lose political sovereignty, and fall into idolatry, thus also losing its religious identity. As Dr. Bernard Levinson writes, in The Jewish Study Bible: “In the absence of the national destiny provided by the covenant, historical existence has no meaning.” God thus makes clear to the Israelites that through their own actions, they can undo their entire journey to this point, thereby rendering their existence hollow and their future blank. Forgetting God, forgetting the covenant, will lead to disaster.
My friend Tali Adler, a Maharat student, wrote the following description of her family’s narrative this week: “People lied so that my grandparents could come to this country after WWII. The Jewish community organized to support those lies--people happily signed papers claiming that they were related to strangers or that they were more closely related than they actually were. My family remains grateful, three generations later, to the people who lied for us, and we teach their names to our children. You want to talk about illegal immigrants? Those were, on some level, my grandparents. If your grandparents came here after the Holocaust, look up their papers, cause there’s a good chance that they were yours too. Those lies were holy lies, and they’re why I’m showing up for other people desperate for a chance. If you’ve been lucky enough in your family’s history to benefit from holy lies, I hope you show up too.”
Tali’s story begins in a lie and ends in prosperity. Because of her family’s story, she knows from where she came, feels immense gratitude to those who saved their lives, and now takes responsibility for helping others.
Immediately preceding the section on blessings and curses, all Israelites are commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the priest, and declare, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (26:5). They are instructed to tell the story of starting out as a small people that grew in Egypt, became enslaved, cried out to God and was then liberated, and conclude by saying, God “brought us to this place and gave us this land” (26:9). By offering these words at the new harvest, the peak of blessing, the Israelites give thanks to God for bringing them from wandering to permanence, from slavery to sovereignty, from idolatry to monotheism, and from hunger to plenty. Each person must recite this narrative as his or her own. In other words, even future generations, born in the land of Israel, are taught to identify with the Exodus, wandering, and arrival. We affirm that we ourselves are direct descendants, just one generation away, from a wanderer -- whether the Aramean is Abraham or Jacob -- and that we were brought into a promised land.
What is the connection between these two sections of Ki Tavo – the curses and the declaration upon bringing the first fruits? This portion emphasizes that memory and gratitude are both integral to Jewish identity, and to the continued survival of the Jewish people. To be Jewish, that is, is to remember and give thanks with words and deeds. That is why we are called, in Hebrew, “Yehudim” (literally, “grateful people”). If we forget or fail to tell our story in a way that acknowledges the forces beyond our control that made our good fortune possible, we deny our national identity and purpose. Such behavior will lead to the spiritual and physical destruction of our people. Perhaps that is why we hurry through the curses in this portion in a half-whisper and dwell on the blessings instead. It is our God-given blessings that we want to recount with gratitude, now and in the future.
Consider to whom you feel gratitude for making your current blessings possible. To whom are you grateful for your family’s journey to the United States and elsewhere? How do you offer thanks to God and to people? Drawing from your own story, for what principles will you stand? What commitments will you take on? A mentor of mine makes a point every Elul of reaching out to someone who made a great impact on his life and expressing thanks to that person. Let us do the same. Let us also recall our family’s and our people’s origins and their implications for us, and avoid the shattering consequences of failing to give thanks.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Shoftim: A call for self-scrutiny
Parashat Shoftim presents a somewhat bizarre scenario and ritual that holds particular relevancy for us in the month of Elul. Moses tells the people that if in the Land of Israel they come across a dead body "lying in the open" and the killer is unknown, the elders and magistrates of the nearby towns should measure the distance of the corpse to their towns. The elders of the town located nearest the corpse must then break the neck of a heifer and ask God to absolve them of the killing. They shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).
In the absence of witnesses and information, the leaders seek to absolve themselves and the people of responsibility for a death that occurred in their town under their jurisdiction. They should be held accountable, but a heifer is killed in their stead, washing away the innocent blood that was shed and any connection they have to this crime. But the ritual is not only about absolution. Nechama Leibowitz explains that the Torah wanted the loss of this single anonymous, precious life to "shock [the elders’] complacency and summon them to severe self-scrutiny." The elders’ declaration only comes after a thorough investigation of any role they played in the crime.
The Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud disagree about what the leaders' conclude after their self-scrutiny, specifically for whose blood they are seeking forgiveness: the slain or the slayer. For the Babylonian Talmud, the leaders’ declaration implies that they played no role in the events that led to the victim’s death. "No one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort" (Sota 46b). They provided the necessary hospitality and public safety measures for the victim. But between their words, what is unsaid is most powerful: The measures we provided were not sufficient to protect this person. Behind the declaration is an admission.
The Jerusalem Talmud understands the pronouncement to be absolving the leaders of having not caught the perpetrator. "No one came within our jurisdiction,” they declare, “whom we discharged and failed to put to death, that we overlooked him and neglected to bring him to justice." The town’s courts were not negligent, yet they did not bring the culprit to justice, their ultimate obligation. The judges are instructed earlier in the parashah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue… thus you will sweep out evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 16:19, 17:12).
In a fascinating move, the Malbim, a 19th century Ukrainian commentator, combine the different Talmudic explanations of the declaration. When the elders say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done,” they are really saying: "We were not indirectly instrumental in this murder on account of not providing the murderer with food for the lack of which he was driven to commit this capital crime.” The Malbim recognizes that perhaps the murderer, not only the victim, required hospitality. He provides an explanation for what may drive a murderer to take a life. Perhaps his own life is not valued by society. The Malbim intensifies the elders’ self-scrutiny. They asked questions we are not inclined to ask ourselves: What role, direct or indirect, did we play in this crime? What could we have done to prevent the murderer from committing this crime in the first place? How have we failed him as well as the victim?
While the elders and the town are absolved of any connection to the crime, it is the self-reflection -- reviewing their town’s public safety measures, the quality of their justice system, and how hospitable they are to strangers -- and the resulting public declaration that bring them atonement. Though they declare themselves innocent, their words betray a sense of guilt and accountability.
As we enter Elul, we begin the process of deep self and communal reflection. Soon we will admit to our transgressions publically in the vidui prayer and commit to being kinder and more compassionate versions of ourselves in the coming year. And by the end of Yom Kippur we too will have achieved atonement. Let’s begin that process now. Let the shofar blast shock us out of our complacency and summon us to severe self-scrutiny. Because we cannot say honestly that our hands are clean from transgression and that we did not witness any wrongdoing this year.
Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern
Protest: The world is in our hands
I grew up going to summer camp, and loved pretty much every minute of it. Camp is not for everyone, but it was for me. Song sessions, gaga, even cleaning the cabin with my friends was thrilling. The one aspect of camp that bothered me from age 8 to 23 was the communal punishment. I could not stand losing free time or being sent to bed early because others in my unit were not behaving. “This is YOUR free time,” the director would thunder towering over us in the dining hall. He was speaking to everyone, but I always felt he was talking directly to me. The longer I sat in the sweltering dining hall, willing my peers to stop making “inappropriate additions” to the birkat hamazon, I felt my precious free time slipping away. We as a people are all intertwined with each other, for better or for worse. The Rabbis enshrined this notion, teaching that “All of Israel are guarantors for one other,” (Shevuot 39a) also translated as “responsible” and “mixed up” with each other (ערבים).
“See this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26), Moses tells the Israelites. Follow God and God’s commandments and you will find blessing; turn away from God and you will be cursed (you will lose a lot of free time). Commentators notice a peculiarity in our verse. “See” is in the singular and “before you” is in the plural. The verse could be read as: “See, you individual person, this day I set before you all blessing and curse.” The verse teaches that each person has free will to make her own choices, but the blessing and curse that result from that decision impact the whole people. In one verse the Torah dispels us of the notion that individual choices only affect the individual.
The Kli Yakar (1550-1619, Prague) teaches on this singular to plural move that we are all bound up with one another, and one person’s mitzvah or transgression ripples across the world. He cites the passage in the Talmud stating that each person should see herself as if the whole world were divided in half between the meritorious and the guilty, and if she would perform one mitzvah or transgression she could tip the scale of judgment, not only for herself but for the world (Kiddushin 40b). The Torah states that the blessing and curse God sets before the Israelites will be pronounced at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval in the Land of Israel (11:29). It is at that moment of blessing and curse, the Kli Yakar writes, that Israel became responsible for each other. In essence, we became a people. At the moments in life when we can choose between blessing and curse, when we can choose to speak with moral clarity to ensure a blessed future, or remain silent ensuring we are all cursed, we are tested as a people.
If we are guarantors for one another that means we also pay the price for each other. Why is everyone, the Jewish people and all of the world, responsible for one person’s transgression ultimately? Why is the individual responsible when others transgress? The Gemara answers: “They had the ability to protest and they did not protest” (Shevuot 39b). Maybe only a minority committed the crime, but everyone should have protested against it. This is the mitzvah of mecha’ah/מחאה (protest) and we must do it for the sake of our own souls and for the fate of the world. Protesting for what is good and moral is valuable in it of itself.
The sickening sight of throngs of white supremacists holding torches and chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans was chilling. The deadly gathering should serve as a wake-up call that hateful forces in our society are finding their way into the light of the mainstream. We must speak out unequivocally. One act of mecha’ah ripples across the world and can tip the scale of judgment. The very world is in our hands.
Prepared by Michelle Stone, Cantorial Intern, Temple Beth Am
This week’s parsha, Eikev, presents an ethical paradox that occurs throughout the book of Deuteronomy. As the parsha opens, God commands the people that when they enter the land of Israel, they must “destroy all the peoples that the Lord, your God, delivers to you, showing them no pity.” (Deut. 7:16). The doomed people referred to here are the seven nations that inhabited Canaan before the Israelites entered the land. God explicitly tells the people that the non-Israelites in their midst must be destroyed completely otherwise they will lure the Israelites to idolatry.
Then, just three chapters later, God sends the Israelites a very different message. Because God “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger (ger), providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19). Wait, what? Didn’t God just tell Israel to kill everyone around them? God provides food and clothing for the stranger? Does that include the strangers that God wants Israel to destroy? How are we supposed to interpret this paradox? How does the book of Deuteronomy understand its own paradox, its national requirement to wipe out the seven nations with its moral requirement to love the stranger?
The law to destroy the indigenous nations is understandable in the greater context of a religious war against idolatry. Deuteronomy exhibits a natural fear of the cultural and religious impact of the majority culture on these newcomers entering the land. The book is realistic. It knows that when Israel comes into contact with their neighbors, they will naturally develop relationships and be influenced by them. Israel, this one small nation among these much larger nations, will easily fall prey to their cultic practices, which would mean the end of monotheism. And yet, even though this sounds logical, the commandment is, of course, ethically problematic. So we have to ask the question, “Was this ever practiced in reality?” Biblical scholars and archaeologists still debate the conquest of Israel, but most argue that there is no physical evidence of annihilation of non-Israelite local communities. On the contrary, there are multiple stories in the Tanach where Israel lives side-by-side with their neighbors. There is ample evidence of systematic destruction of idols and icons, but no evidence of genocide. Dr. Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University, explains that we can assume that ancient Israelites interpreted this commandment to require war against idolatry, but not war against idolators.
In addition to expressing a great fear of idolatry, the book of Deuteronomy is highly concerned with ethical behavior toward the most vulnerable in the society, a notion unique in the Ancient Near East. In our parsha, God is described as a righteous judge who takes care of the orphan, widow, and stranger. Deuteronomy implores us to aspire to the same, particularly with regard to the stranger, with the term appearing 20 times throughout the book. We are commanded to care for and celebrate with the ger, the stranger. In fact, later in the book, the stranger enters into the covenant with God along with the Israelites. So what do we do with our paradox? Deuteronomy recognizes that there are times when we are required to embody two seemingly contradictory ideas. As a religious document, it is at once exhibiting a natural fear of religious dilution at the hands of non-Israelites, and at the same time, concerned with an ethical obligation toward the non-Israelites living in their midst. In the real world, we have to live with paradoxes. Sometimes, we face ideological threats, and it important to handle those judiciously. But the command to kill the seven nations is theoretical and represents hatred of an idea, not of a people. The strangers we were commanded to take care of were the people living with Israel at the time, and they needed to be cared for. Ancient Israel had great empathy for the stranger in its midst and felt a great deal of responsibility to take care of its neighbors. Shabbat Shalom.
Prepared by Rabbi Joel Rembaum
Deuteronomy & Tisha B'Av
We begin reading the Book of Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Tish’a B’av — the day we mourn the destructions of Jerusalem and our two Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE). Our Sages teach that the First Temple fell because Israelites sinned by practicing idolatry, and the Second Temple fell because of the sin of baseless hatred among Jews. Deuteronomy stresses the sinfulness of idolatrous activity, and this corresponds with the Rabbis’ explanation for the events of 586 BCE, but it seems to have no relevance to the 70 CE destruction. Yet, there may be a connection between the Deuteronomic message and the evils of baseless hatred among Jews.
In its uncompromising denunciation of paganism Deuteronomy stands as the most clearly articulated statement of monotheism in ancient literature. As such, it established the theological foundation of Judaism and its “daughter” religions, Christianity and Islam, and it gathered all spheres of human activity under a single umbrella of allegiance to the One God. Monotheism remains the foundation of our faith, and, as many thinkers remind us, it is the theology that best corresponds to what we know about how the universe operates.
There is in Deuteronomy, however, an intolerance unlike that of the other books of the Torah. Thus, we read in Exodus (23 & 34) that God will forcefully remove the pagan nations of Canaan from the land. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to wage genocide against these peoples — to “not let a soul remain alive” (20:16-18). What about an Israelite town whose residents have turned to paganism? All the men, women, children, and cattle are to be killed, all the booty is to be obliterated by fire, and the town is to be razed and never to be rebuilt (13:13-19). Such extreme measures may have been relevant in the period when the “Deuteronomic school” formulated its teachings (650-450 BCE). In light of the horrific slaughter of human lives in the 20th century, however, such words are anathema to us.
Today, these and similar teachings in the sacred literature of the world’s monotheistic faiths are taken literally by fundamentalist religious extremists. Clearly, not all fundamentalists follow these mandates, but such ideas sow seeds of distrust, disrespect, and hatred between believers of different faiths and among people within the same faith community.
In the Jewish world rigid intolerance has become more divisive. Torah emanating from Zion, instead of unifying the Jewish people, has polarized us. The monotheistic ideal of Deuteronomy has been infected by a virus of dogmatic midrash that exaggerates the book’s intolerant side and ignores the book’s more humane elements — justice, integrity, love of God, love of the stranger, etc.
Thankfully, our Sages have a flexible midrashic principle with which they get around unworkable laws: halakhah v’eyn morin keyn, “it is a law by which we do not rule.” So, here is how Jews should follow Deuteronomy: Live by its powerful spiritual and ethical laws and principles, “archive” the problematic pieces of its codes, and take to heart Leviticus 19:18 — “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Adonai.”
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
The Measure of a People
Every year on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, thousands of Jewish Israelis take to the streets of Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s victory in 1967 and its reunification of the capital. While Israel has much to celebrate in its history, it should be with deeply mixed emotions that we acknowledge this year that half a century has passed since Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As we remember the triumph of the Six-Day War, we also recall its grave consequences, the loss of precious life over the decades, and the continuous state of war in which Israel exists. This week some Jewish Israelis marched through the Old City in a show of pride and joy, while others marched primarily to send a message of dominance to non-Jews who dwell there. Like a pep rally, such demonstrations can stir up healthy patriotism. However, they also glorify the ruling power, emphasizing one group’s authority over another, and may be perceived as threatening by those who do not belong to the dominant culture. Our tradition warns us this week that even the act of counting -- of displaying and making a show of our military might -- can be dangerous.
When Jews count other Jews in Tanakh, the consequences are typically negative. As a result, there is a Jewish tradition that we should refrain from counting individuals in a group. The quintessential example of why we refrain from counting one another comes from an incident in Second Samuel chapter 24. After King David takes a census of troops in Israel and Judah, God, considering this act a sin, sends a plague that wipes out 70,000 people.
According to the Talmud, it is prohibited to count Jews directly even for the sake of a mitzvah (Yoma 22b). That’s why when God orders Moses to take a census of the Israelites, God specifies that each person should give a half-shekel to represent him/herself so that the people are not counted directly (Exodus 30:12-13). This is also why there’s a tradition when counting Jews for a minyan that we use a verse that has 10 words in it to count people off by word rather than number. We commonly use Psalm 28:9, “hoshea et amecha uvarech et nachlatecha ureim v’nasei ad ha’olam” (Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever). The midrash famously teaches that all Jews -- no specific number -- past, present, and future were present at Mt. Sinai for the receiving of the Torah. Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud cites as textual support for the mitzvah against counting Jews the verse, “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted” (Hosea 2:11).
Israel’s greatness cannot be reduced to a quantifiable number, certainly not the number of soldiers or weapons it possesses. It is our values, especially our commitment to life, that define us and illustrate the quality of who we are. Still, King David probably just wanted to know the number of his troops in order to be prepared for any upcoming battles. What is the crime in counting up troops?
Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, which we begin this week, takes its English name from all of the counting that goes on in the first parashah. God orders Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2-3). Now God wants Moses to count those eligible to serve in an army? How is this any different from King David counting his troops?
Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz z”l offers a relevant teaching about the difference between King David’s census and our census in this week’s Torah portion, explaining why one causes so much destruction and the other is beneficial. Medieval commentators agree that God ordered a census among the Israelites because they will need to form an army before entering the Land of Israel, to establish themselves and for self-preservation. King David, however, had no battles on the horizon and therefore no need to count for a potential army. Leibowitz explains: “The census which David ordered was for the creation of a permanent force, after the Almighty had given him peace from all his enemies... and he had no longer any need of military defense. But he wished… to boast and display his pride before his enemies... In short, the army and the soldier are only required in time of need, but should not be gloried in, as having any intrinsic importance” (Studies in Bamidbar, pg 22-23).
An army, a state, a land, and even a people have no intrinsic greatness. Our greatness stems from pursuing peace whenever possible, and even when it seems impossible. It comes from sanctifying each individual life, not from counting and glorifying a mob. Let us not boast of Israel’s strength only through parades, air shows, and other demonstrations of military might which unnecessarily diminish our spiritual greatness, like the plague that killed 70,000 in biblical times. Let us rather mark the anniversary of the Six-Day War by reflecting on the tremendous human and spiritual cost of using permanent force to reign over another people, and recommit ourselves to true greatness through a continuing quest for peace.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Is it a command? Or a promise? Or some combination of both? I refer to the opening idea of the second of the two parashot we will read tomorrow morning in shul, Kedoshim. The words used are fairly simple: “kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani--you shall be holy, because I, God, am holy.” The concepts contained in those words are far from simple.
Even if we brush aside the question of what it actually means to be holy (sacred? different? better? special? unique?...), we are left with wondering what the relationship is between God’s holiness and ours. Are we commanded to be holy because God is holy, so that we emulate the most esteemed qualities of our Creator? Or is it that by recognizing God’s holiness, and by living life according to God’s decrees we are, in a sense, promised a life of holiness and meaning ourselves?
Great Jewish minds have read this verse differently. The great mystical text the Zohar relates that when the students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai arrived at this verse, they rejoiced. They saw it as a great promise rewarding their decision to live tahat kanfei hashekhina--beneath the wings of God’s presence. To be a Jew is not easy. To be a conscientious, observant Jew is demanding on many levels. If by choosing to live that way, we achieve kedusha, an elevated, sanctified, rarefied status...then we can more easily rejoice in our Judaism.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw it differently. Torah does not make promises. Rather, Torah lays out expectations. In his words, “Judaism is an attempt to prove that in order to be a man, you have to be more than a man; that in order to be a people, you have to be more than a people. Israel was made to be a holy people.” So this verse is our challenge, not our reward. If we are to earn the title “Israel,” we are to reach towards kedusha, reach towards God, so that we are worthy of God’s attention.
There is, of course, a middle-ground, offered by the Rabbis in Vayikra Rabba, the classic book of Midrash on Leviticus. It understands the idea this way: “Kidshu atzm’khem l’mata--make yourselves holy down here...va’ani ekadesh etkhem l’ma’la--and I, God, will make you holy up there.” Meaning what? That the idea of holiness is both a challenge/command and a reward/promise. We Jews have an obligation to see the world, and see our actions, through the lens of sanctity, through the prism of what could be. As a result, our faith is that, in a sort of Divine matching-funds program, God responds to our efforts by making us holy.
How God “makes us holy” is the subject of great debate. A metaphysical reading suggests that we earn the afterlife by living with holiness in this life. A more spiritual reading suggests that sanctity is its own reward, but you won’t truly figure it out unless you actually do it. Act holy, and you will be holy.
However we are to understand the reward, the challenge itself is pretty clear: pay attention to Torah, to mitzvot, to our potential to live with meaning, to the idea that God expects something from us in our days. Those are the pathways to kedusha, to holiness.
I wish you a shabbat kodesh, a Shabbat of holiness...of challenge and reward.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Prepared by Nitzan Stein Kokin, rabbinical student, Zacharias Frankel College, Berlin
Parashat Tazria/Metzora is one of the most puzzling parshiyot for the modern mind. It lays out the laws of purity and impurity. “Purity” enables inclusion in society, “impurity” effects exclusion and is associated with death. A metzora is a person affected by a skin disease (tzaraat) which renders him/her impure and necessitates quarantine until the symptoms disappear. A priest will then facilitate the person’s readmission to the community via a purification ritual. However, anyone who suffers from a persistent form of this skin disease will be an outcast: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ … He shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46). Cut off from the flow of life, excluded from any close personal contact, the metzora indeed wanders in limbo as a living dead. He even “may be mourning his own ‘death’” (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism , p. 331).
It may seem that there is a pragmatic reason to quarantine someone who is sick. Maybe the illness is a real danger to the community. Maybe this is the most economic and efficient way to get treatment to the ill. We might try to explain the phenomenon of the biblical tzaraat by comparing it to the recent epidemic of ebola. This can help us rationalize the necessity for isolation. However, besides the physical suffering that the afflicted person and his/her family undergo, their human drama cries out to heaven. The case of tzaraat, then, comes down to the dynamic of the community versus the plight of the suffering individual. From this perspective, the biblical commandment seems rather cruel: The victim of the disease is even obliged to reinforce his isolation by calling out “Unclean! Unclean!” There is no way to overlook their separation from the community. How can we, today, possibly justify an approach demanding that victims stigmatize and withdraw themselves?
But perhaps the intent of this ritual is not to isolate or shame, but rather to evoke an empathetic response from the rest of the community. Mishnah Midot 2:2 takes a contrasting approach to stigmatizing, recognizes the danger of ignorance, and reminds us of our communal obligation for empathy and care: “Anyone entering the Temple Mount would enter by the right, circle around and exit from the left, except for someone to whom something had happened, who would circle from the left [thereby encountering the crowd face to face and prompting the people to notice and ask:]‘Why are you circling from the left?’ [S/He would answer:]'Because I am a mourner!' [and they respond:] 'May the One Who dwells in this house comfort you.' [Or s/he would say:] ‘I have been banned.’ According to Rabbi Meir, [they would reply:] ‘May the One Who dwells in this house put in their hearts to draw you near again.’”
While we cannot take away the suffering of the afflicted person, our task is to face the individual and extend ourselves with empathy and prayer. At the same time, the suffering individual is not to withdraw either. The Babylonian Talmud picks up the Mishnaic impulse and reinterprets the verse from this week's Torah portion as follows: “For it was taught: ‘And he shall cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Lev 13:45).’ He must announce his trouble to the public so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf” (Nidda 66a). In this reading, announcing impurity is no longer isolating, but rather becomes a way to reclaim one’s place within the community. As Rabbi Shai Held writes in a recent d’var Torah (“Struggling with Stigma: Making Sense of the Metzora” , p. 7; available online from Mechon Hadar): “Those who are unafflicted may be tempted to look down at those who are ... To be asked to pray for someone is to be charged with affirming their humanity totally and unconditionally and with cultivating empathy for them...reminding both the metzora and the community that despite illness and impurity, the metzora is still a human being who deserves and is entitled to the care and concern of the community as a whole.”
This week's parasha thus contains an imperative to our self-understanding as a community to create a safe, open, inclusive, and caring environment. Only in this way will people who are isolated through whatever life condition find the courage to cry out and make themselves and their struggles known to us and to feel assured, that they will be embraced by a caring and empathetic community.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Making them Count
I have been doing a lot of counting this week. My sister gave birth on the seventh day of Pesach to my beautiful nephew. I have had the blessing of being with my family over these days and have joyfully offered my services as dodah (aunt). The counting began at the labor: how often are the contractions coming, how many centimeters dilated is she. And it has continued in gusto since he was born, noting his weight and length, for how long he sleeps and nurses, and making sure that he nurses at least every three hours. My sister writes everything down meticulously to keep track of his eating and digestion.
We as a people are also doing some meticulous counting right now, noting the day in the Omer cycle each evening (or in the morning if you forget). Sefirat haOmer (“counting of the sheaves of wheat”) begins on the second night of Pesach, and continues for 49 days until Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. The name Shavuot comes from the fact that it takes place seven weeks after the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. Shavuot celebrates the end, or according to some scholars, the start, of the wheat harvest and God’s bounty in the land. The Israelites are instructed: “And you shall count off seven weeks from the day after the sabbath, and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:15-16). Sabbath here refers to the first day of the holiday and the sheaf of elevation, omer ha-tenufah, were two loaves of bread from the new wheat crop offered to God.
Our Shavuot bears little resemblance to this biblical account because the Rabbis transformed the holiday from an agricultural celebration to one of profound historical and theological meaning. We instead celebrate matan Torah, God’s giving of the Torah (Pesachim 68b), our most precious gift, as important as any agricultural sustenance. The 49 days leading up to Shavuot are an accounting and recounting of the Israelites journey from leaving Egypt and slavery and reaching Mt. Sinai and Torah, the ultimate reason for our freedom. Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar writes that “Jewish tradition, so committed to the ideal of freedom for a sacred purpose as opposed to mere freedom from external constraint, Pesach needs to lead somewhere, and Sinai-Shavuot is that destination. Counting the 49 days thus becomes an exercise in anticipating revelation... In counting these days we re-experience the excitement and anticipation that the first generation of liberated Israelites felt” (“Between Grief and Anticipation: Counting the Omer”).
Counting the Omer is a daily reminder that we are on a collective journey towards God and Torah, and that each moment in our journey matters. We recount where we have been and where we are ultimately going, but also where we are now. These are days of excitement and tension-building (!!), like a countdown, as we take a moment with intention to focus on each unique day of the Omer. By instructing us to count these in-between days from liberation to purpose, these “moments in the middle,” as my friend Alex Maged, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, calls them, we are tasked with remembering that they count as well. We live our lives mostly in the middle, in the journey between big spiritual moments. These are the moments, like the small, crucial moments in which my nephew nurses, that anticipate something much larger; a coming revelation or a growing child. By counting these moments we remember that they also count immeasurably.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain on its fireplace...
Barbecue season has officially arrived. Coincidentally, our Torah reading this week offers the instructions for the daily barbecue our ancient ancestors made in Temple times. Though the ritual laws relating to animal sacrifice have been inoperative for nearly 2,000 years, rabbis throughout the generations look to these passages for inspiration and religious guidance. One such insight comes from the small mem (pictured above) found at the beginning of Parashat Tzav.
The passage describes the olah (elevation) offering. Daily, two lambs were offered up to God and were wholly consumed on the altar. These sacrifices were not eaten by a priest or anyone else. Rather, they would remain on the altar grill (mok’dah) over burning firewood all night until the morning. When morning came, the ashes from the previous day’s offering were cleared out, a new fire was set up, and the process began all over again.
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Riminov views the instructions surrounding this ancient ritual as a recipe for service of God. “The mem is small,” he writes, “[in order to teach that] when a person performs a mitzvah, it must be felt deep, deep inside his heart, so that his soul burns within him, but the flames should not be outwardly visible to all.” This teaching views the offering on the altar as a metaphor for any mitzvah or holy act. The firewood and flames are symbols of a person’s enthusiasm. For R. Tzvi Hirsch of Riminov, the small mem teaches that passion should be felt internally, but ought not be expressed outwardly. Genine service is not flashy or showy, even though it is deeply enthusiastic.
Extending the cooking metaphor, flambe is an exciting way to cook - the flames elicit “wows” from those watching - but the real heat source is hidden beneath the grill and must be fueled and nurtured to cook something through. Likewise, when the coals are first kindled with lighter fluid, the big flames are shocking and impressive. But only once the flames die down and the coals turn white hot can the real work begin on the grill. The small mem represents that humble, internal heat source.
What role does passion play in our religious lives? Often we come to synagogue, go through the motions - stand when we’re told and bow when we’re supposed to. We give the requisite tzedakkah when asked and read the haggadah at our seder tables until people lose interest or fall asleep. But the message of the olah is that service of God should be done with fiery enthusiasm. Our prayers and other mitzvot should be performed with zest and energy. But the small mem reminds us not to confuse flashy outward demonstrations of piety with a genuine sense of devotion in one’s heart. God asks all of us to bring the fullness of our passions to the performance of mitzvot. But to do so privately and discreetly - like that small mem retreating from its place on the fiery altar.
This is part of a series Rabbi Lucas is writing on the big and small letters of the Torah
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
The Silent Struggle: Yardena and her husband decided to get married very young, and pushed off having kids while they were still in school. As the years went by, they watched as their friends started to have one child after another, and decided they were ready. In Yardena’s mind, once she had made the decision to start the process, it would happen quickly and easily as it had seemed to for many of the women around her. After a year went by, and she had not conceived, Yardena discovered she was not ovulating and needed to take Clomoid to correct the issue. After some time she was able to conceive, but then suffered a miscarriage. To mask her pain she continued to tell friends she and her husband were not ready to have children, though this was far from the truth. Friends would ask how she was, and Yardena mustered a “fine,” so as not to reveal her struggle and sadness. Yardena met with a fertility specialist who recommended IUI (intrauterine insemination) and FSH shots, which help the eggs develop. Yardena found herself going through endless blood work, ultrasounds, waiting for weeks on end for news, and feeling discouraged. She next tried IVF, and now in addition to physical and emotional pain, she and her husband struggled under the financial burden -- IVF and its medications can cost upwards of $16,000 -- as it was not covered by insurance.
Yardena found it hard to continue getting together with friends who spoke of the funny and cute things their children were doing. Synagogue became an emotional minefield, starting with seeing the strollers parked at the synagogue entrance on Shabbat morning. Yardena started to pass up invitations from friends for Shabbat and holiday meals. As the years went by, she decided to keep her struggle with infertility largely to herself since she felt nobody would understand what she was going through and she did not want anyone to think there was something wrong with her. Yardena would hear people say things like, “I sneeze and get pregnant” or “All I need is for my husband to look at me and I get pregnant.” After years of trying, the IVF cycle was a success for Yardena, and though she experienced complications during pregnancy, she was able to give birth to a baby girl. Today she feels immense gratitude toward God, but also remembers that not everyone gets her happy ending. Yardena shared her story with Yesh Tikvah (“There is hope”), a Jewish community for support in fertility issues, because she knows how isolating it can be.
This Shabbat many synagogues around the country are talking about this silent struggle in order to decrease the stigma and isolation some individuals and couples feel. One in eight couples in the United States suffer from infertility, according to a 2006-2010 study by the Center for Disease Control, and 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. If you feel this personally, know that you are not alone. The Beth Am clergy and community are here to listen and support you.
The Mishnah famously teaches and it’s written in haggadot that “in every generation a person must see herself as if she went out of Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5). In Rambam’s (1135-1204) and other Sephardi haggadot however a different version of this text appears. It states, “in every generation a person is obligated to show herself as if she went out of Egypt.” What is the difference between these versions? One is about how we see ourselves and the other is about what we show and reveal to others. A miscarriage or struggle with fertility cannot be seen from the outside, and it is not always easy to tell others about the narrow place we are in or have been in even to caring friends and family.
Every person is different and will have different needs in this area, but we as a community can heighten our awareness and sensitivity to one another. We should not assume a couple or individual is experiencing infertility and offer unsolicited advice or ask questions about when they are going to have children. The best thing we can do is listen if someone reaches out to tell his or her story. Validate their feelings and let them know you will be there for them. Check in even with a text message to let them know you care, but try not to bring it up every time you see them. When hosting a meal or get-together if there are individuals who are unmarried or do not have children, make sure the conversation does not revolve around marriage and children; include everyone in conversation. Parents and grandparents can take care to be especially sensitive to their children and grandchildren in the midst of this struggle. Asking about when they will give them a grandchild can be a hurtful reminder; showing that you love your child or grandchild in their own right with or without children is important.
We can also take advice from God in this week’s parasha, Vayikra. “And he called to (Vayikra/ויקרא ) Moses, and the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of meeting, saying” (Leviticus 1:1).
Why is God’s speaking to Moses preceded by a personal call? Rashi explains that vayikra is an expression of love and care that we see every time God is about to communicate with Moses. We can do the simple but crucial act of reaching out to our friends and family to express our love for them. Our love, care, and support should precede anything else we have to say.
The Yismach Yisrael’s haggadah (18th-century hasidic) understands our passage as “in every generation a person is obligated to see her essence as if it went out of Egypt.” He writes that in every generation a person should strengthen her inner spark out of a narrow place. If you are facing fertility issues, know that your worth is immeasurable. Your inner spark, who you are innately, is worth nurturing, and your rabbis and community are here to support you.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
A wonderful midrash responds to a logical question asked on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, during which we read about the building of the elaborate mishkan (sanctuary) in the desert. Since the Torah records that the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians of their gold and silver, we know where the precious materials for the mishkan came from. The Israelites' flocks were the source of the material for the curtains in the mishkan. But verse after verse calls for wood. In particular, cedar wood. Where could the Israelites have found such abundant wood in the desert? The Midrash Tankhuma tells us that Jacob planted them. When he went down to Egypt, he said to his sons: "My sons, in the future you are destined to be delivered from there, and when you are redeemed, God will tell you to build Him the mishkan! So plant cedars now so that when you are told to build the mishkan, the cedars will be ready immediately." And so they planted the trees as they were told to do.
As Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki points out, this midrash elevates the act of building to a cross-generational spiritual project. It is easy to read these parashot as a musical rendition of dry architectural plans, as if spiritual space were created just of metal, wood and well-made joints. But the midrash probes deeper, asking us to consider that the building of the mishkan was anticipated for centuries, and that generations long gone contributed to, and thus had a stake in, what was built in the desert.
What a natural linkage to our times, and to our own project of building a new sanctuary and new school building. Both for those intimately involved in the project, and those who have seen the signs and banners and renderings and capital campaign updates…and wonder when this project will be completed, it is all too easy to reduce this project to just another collection of wood and metal. And yet we should understand that Jews of yesterday and tomorrow are stake-holders in our building. Just as Jacob planned so that his descendants could find God more directly on their journey, so we plan, and invest, now so that our children and grandchildren will know how central Judaism must be in their lives.
At times, I hear this refrain, and I resonate with it: wouldn't it be easier if this project were already done? Wouldn't it have been simpler had we inherited this well-lit, acoustically sound grand-but-intimate sanctuary, as well as this state-of-the-art, firmly-functioning, gym-equipped school building? All fully paid for? I suppose it would be easier. But not necessarily preferable. Rabbi Suraszki also points out what was lost when the Israelites transitioned from their temporary mishkan to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. In exchange for certainty and stability, they had to surrender the energy of building. The courage, creativity and vision that is required as builders is not as much in demand as inheritors. When the project is complete, how easy it is to take it for granted.
Of course, we'd like a healthy balance. We'd like a completed project, enabling a far-reaching and vigorous vision, so that those who come next can both inherit the fruit of our labor, and also understand the value of their own ongoing contributions.
(Oh…and if you haven’t made your commitment yet, our campaign closes on June 30th! Let’s talk…)
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern
I Became a Bat Mitzvah
Face to face, פנים אל פנים. Think about your face. What do you look like? How do you use your face to express your feelings? When do you choose to speak, or listen, or show emotion and impressions on your face? Are you aware of the face you are making all the time? Our face is the one part of our body that we are unable to see without assistance. We need a mirror, picture, someone else to tell us we have food in our teeth, or another person’s reaction to how we are choosing to express ourselves.
16 years ago, on shabbat Ki Tisa, I chose to express my Bat Mitzvah words of Torah through the image of Moshe’s radiant face. ’ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו’ “And Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while God spoke with him (Exodus 34:29).” The effects of God’s words, ordinances and relationship had physically changed Moshe’s face. However, he did not know until he approached the people as leader and commander, and they interpreted this change to be Divinely inspired and powerful. Moshe’s face lit up, according to thirteen-year-old Me, (as well as Rambam) as a result of humility and his special relationship with God. God, with the presentation of the second set of tablets, is thought to have shared for the first time the Oral Law with Moshe. We become “enlightened” and perhaps we flush with wonder and sudden awareness of our absolute presence in a heightened moment, prompted by teachers, mentors, family and friends. How much more so Moshe after closeness with God.
Today, this parasha is more to me than just the moment of Moshe’s radiance. It is about other faces as well. In the beginning of the parasha, Moshe challenges God’s quick anger against our careless ancestors, saying, “Why, Adonai, should your anger be kindled against Your people… (32:11).” The words for anger are חרה אף, a common way to refer to God having a temper tantrum, but literally means “burning nose.” Moshe could envision God, like a teased and tormented bull, nostrils aflame and a smoke. And like a mirror held up to the unseen face, Moshe was allowed to unmask God’s face to God, consoling and tempering God’s response. And the student became the teacher.
Moshe then speaks to God face to face, פנים אל פנים, “as a man would speak to his companion (33:11).” Communicating face to face, looking into another’s eyes, and acknowledging a shared presence and closeness demands trust, security and respect. And maybe love. Intimate communication exposes vulnerabilities. We are unshielded and unable to see ourselves. And yet, we are distracted when sitting opposite someone whose back is to a mirror, drawing our attention to our own image as if to see us as the other might see us.
We are each of us both consumed in our own lives and yearning for another(s) to share with us how we are loved, perceived, heard in the world. We need to do a better job of seeing faces. Today our world is extremely small, knowing about tragedy and calamity all over, and yet we do not know these people face to face, so we hide behind computers, and phones and generously give our assistance. We need to look deeply at others and not be complacent about the “close, small world” that is digitally paraded across multiple screens, as if that is the same as being with someone. However, I can’t share the presence of me, the smell and warmth of me, or the touch of me except by being near and looking into your face. I can cry to the accompaniment of videos of far-flung sufferers, but any action I take will be remote and my deep humanity will be unshared.
However, what would the world look like if we each gave of our time, money, aid and also listened, and mirrored the faces in from of us? Our faces would become radiant! Our faces must become radiant! We must share enlightenment, anger, disappointment, fear, relief, joy and humor, as did Moshe with God. Try פנים אל פנים, “face to face”. Get close enough to be a mirror. And glow!
Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern
Your Burden is My Burden
This past Monday the Jewish community in St. Louis, Missouri awoke to a vicious attack on its local Chesed Shel Emet cemetery. Over 200 headstones were found toppled or damaged. Unfortunately this is not the first act of anti-Semitism that has rattled our community this year. Some 53 Jewish community centers have received a total of 68 bomb threats in just the last six weeks. In the wake of the latest vandalism, however, an astonishing act of chesed, lovingkindness, and solidarity took place. Two Muslim-Americans launched an online fundraising campaign to repair the damage, and they have raised roughly $122,000 from over 4,186 donors just this week. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American and an outspoken advocate for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against the State of Israel, co-led the fundraising effort with activist Tarek El-Messidi. While plenty of Jews are offended by her politics, it is hard not to be moved by this incredibly generous response from our Muslim brothers and sisters and fellow Americans.
In parashat Mishpatim, God instructs the Israelites in some basic laws for creating a just society. One of these laws concerns an Israelite’s obligation when s/he sees an enemy’s donkey collapsing under the weight of its burden. While you “would normally refrain from raising it, you must surely raise it with him” (Exodus 23:5). The Talmudic Sages understood this to mean that one should unload the burden from the animal and repeat the action even four or five times if necessary, since the verse states emphatically, "you shall surely help" (Bava Metzia 32a). It’s possible to read this verse as an act of kindness to prevent tza’ar ba’alei hayim (the suffering of living creatures). After all, while you may feel no obligation to assist an enemy, why should the innocent donkey suffer? But I believe there is a deeper message in this verse about people coming together and transcending their differences.
The verse does not say “you must surely raise it,” but rather offers a surprising construction: “you must surely raise it with him,”(Hebrew עִמּוֹ). Hizkuni, a 13th-century French commentator, argues that such a burden would be too heavy for one person to lift. It would require two people to unload it (possibly in numerous attempts), with one person standing on either side of the animal. The Talmud even teaches that if the animal’s owner sits down and says, “since it is your mitzvah, if you want to unload, unload,” you, the onlooker, are exempt from unloading the burden, because you must perform the act with the owner, provided he is physically able to (Bava Metzia 42a).
Muslim-Americans are, of course, not our enemies. And while tensions have arisen over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lately, given the political climate Jews and Muslims seem to be “forging alliances like never before” (See “How Trump’s Politics and Rhetoric are Forging Alliances Between U.S. Jews and Muslims, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2017). Now is a time for us to work together to lift each other’s burdens, especially regarding the concerns we share as Americans. The Torah’s message is clear: Your burden is my burden and my burden is your burden. Some Jews see in the president’s immigration policies, including the ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries and arrests of undocumented immigrants, echoes of their own families’ refugee stories. Because our Torah repeatedly emphasizes the mitzvah of welcoming and loving the stranger, some Jews are protesting these policies, joining in marches and prayer vigils to show solidarity with targeted groups. We also saw women from different communities supporting one another when they joined together in the Women’s March last month, co-organized by Linda Sarsour, who helped launch the stunning fundraising campaign to repair the St. Louis Jewish cemetery.
Sarsour, El-Messidi and the thousands of other Americans who have contributed to this effort to repair the cemetery and stand with the Jewish community are helping us shoulder our burden in the face of an Anti-Semitic attack. How can we stand with Muslims and other minority groups when they feel threatened? How can we show support to people in our society who are feeling oppressed and insecure? For the burden is too great for anyone to shoulder alone.
Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern
Close your eyes. Darkness. Open your eyes. Light.
When you close your eyes, you still see: Your mind amps up with access to dreams, memories and creativity. Likewise, when our eyes are open, we sometimes do not see. Not only might we be inured to the miraculous wonders that envelope us constantly; but our other senses might be dulled in deference to eyesight.
Clear your mind…now close your eyes. What did you see? Open your eyes, and is the world more clear?
In Parashat Bo, the plague of darkness is inflicted upon the Egyptians (Exodus 10:21), “And God said to Moses, put out your hand to the heavens and there will be dark on the land of Egypt, an increasing darkness.” The midrash explains “increasing darkness” as one of growing fear and frustration as the people struggled in response, much like a victim trapped in quicksand, whose situation worsens with the writhing. The darkness was like sand between our fingers and in our lungs: Exodus Rabbah 14:1-3, “The darkness was doubled, redoubled, and thick to the degree that it was tangible.”
The text goes on to say (10:23):
לא-ראו איש את-אחיו ולו-קמו איש מתחת שלשת ימים ולכל-בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם
“an [Egyptian] man did not see his brother, nor did he rise from his place for three days, but for all of B’nei Israel, there was light in their dwellings.”
This darkness was disabling, mummifying the living sufferers, and blinding them in isolation from their fellow sufferers. The Chiddushei HaRim, Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter (19th century), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidim, comments that this is the greatest darkness, when a man cannot see his fellow. “In which, a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow person.” If this is to happen, the person is obstructed from their own personal development as well: “…nor did he rise from his place for three days.”
If we close our eyes, we can dream, hope, and imagine the social architecture of our future. Most importantly, we can still feel those around us, seeing one another in safety, compassion and empathy. With what little light breaks through we must envision a world of caring and sharing, of community and oneness, of plurality and fairness, welcoming the stranger as we were so often strangers. This week, many of our own community, and the broader global community, stood up in this depth of dark and made sure that we had light. Made sure that we could see one another, feel each other in hugs, cries, concerns and fears. Made sure that when the dark was less thick, that the light being shown was not just to see, but to vision a world of difference. We strive to look into someone’s eyes, draw close to them and say, “I am here for you; my community and country are here for you; you matter.”
In Tractate Megillah there is a story, “Why should a blind person care whether it is dark or light? And then the following incident occurred – ‘I was once walking on a dark night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘My son, why do you carry this torch?’ He said to me ‘As long as I have this torch, people see me and save me from the holes, and thorns.’”
God did not inflict darkness to blind us. God inflicted darkness to show the reliance we have on those around us, on the light that we bring to others’ lives, and that we ennoble humanity by shedding light on the world.
May we, on this Shabbat especially, reflect on the light we bring to this world and find the darknesses that are seeking our light.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Water is Life
In recent months, the water supply and sacred land of the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock in North Dakota have come under attack by construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The project, initially routed near Bismarck, the state capital, was deemed too risky for the water sources there given the frequency of oil spills, and so was rerouted by Standing Rock instead. Protesters call this “environmental racism.” In response, the tribe has made its rallying cry “water is life,” and, with the help of allies, is seeking to halt construction of the oil pipeline, which would run through the upper Missouri River, the only water supply for the Standing Rock reservation. While the debate rages over the pipeline’s construction, one thing is clear to me: to attack a people’s water source is an attack on its very life and dignity.
What does it mean to attack a people’s primary source of life? The first plague that God brings on the land of Egypt in this week’s parasha, Va’era, is an attack on the Egyptians’ water source, the Nile. Midrash explains that since there is little to no rainfall in Egypt, the people rely on the rising and falling Nile to water the land. God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh bathing in the Nile and say that because you have ignored God’s call to “let my people go,” God will turn the water in the Nile into blood, cutting off the Egyptians’ life source and killing all life in the river. If water signifies a living people and tradition, then blood signifies the slaughter of that people and their way of life.
In response to Pharaoh’s and Egyptian society’s callousness and oppression of the Israelites’ dignity, God punishes Egypt by removing that which sustains it and allows the people to provide for themselves. In other words, God takes away their dignity. A midrash explains that because the Nile was Egypt’s water source, it was also considered a deity. “Why were the waters first smitten with blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile, and God said, “I will smite their god first and then his people’” (Shemot Rabbah 9:9), alluding to the final plague, makat b’khorot, the slaying of the first-born son. The first step toward killing the Egyptian people is destroying their water source.
The latest attempt with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to destroy the Lakota tribe at Standing Rock follows a history of genocide, broken promises, land theft, missionizing, and cultural oppression of Native Americans in this country. We should hear this story and recall our people’s suffering in Egypt, Europe, and elsewhere. Our story links us to other peoples who have endured oppression and survived. The Torah urges us as a result of our experience to recognize the sanctity in all human life. We are instructed not to oppress the stranger “for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9). Our story is meant to teach us empathy. While the Native Americans are not strangers in their land, this pipeline seeks to separate this people from their land and water, rendering them strangers to each other.
Water is a frequent metaphor for Torah in Rabbinic tradition. Just as water bubbles forth, gives life, and is capable of transforming an arid place into a thriving place, so too is wisdom from Torah never-ending, sustaining of human life, and transformative. In a midrash on a verse about the Israelites’ journey, “They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus 15:22), some rabbis of the Talmud explain this to mean that the Israelites went three days without Torah and became exhausted as a result. For this reason, it was instituted that they should read Torah three times a week (Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday), just as we do today, “so they should not be kept for three days without Torah” (Bava Kama 82a). You could say that for the Jewish people “Torah is life.”
What should we do when the values of our “water” are under attack, when empathy and dignity of human life are challenged? Let us stand with Standing Rock, advocate for the protection of their water source, and pray that “justice will well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz
In honor of 3 birthdays: my brothers Jonah and Sammy and my grandfather Bill Goodglick – for teaching me to lead with my feet, and to be honest, kind and intentional with my words
On January 16, the nation celebrated a man for whom there are 4 famous words associated, “I have a dream.” Today, the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are more powerful, poignant and pressured than at any other time I can recall. As our government transitions into new hands, it is easy to fear that liberal religious tolerance is targeted, stereotypes are heightened and social justice is threatened.
We began the week in memory of Dr. King as well as with the start of reading a new book of Torah. By chapter 4 of Parashat Shemot, we are already immersed in stories of Moses as anxious and self-conscious in his newfound leadership. In verses 15-16 God tries to calm and prepare Moses for his important leadership role by saying:
“You shall speak to [Aaron], and you shall put the words into his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you both [as to] what you shall do.
And [Aaron] will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader.”
Moses’ birth story aside, this is an insecure, shy, stuttering spokesperson through whom God will invent a new nation, a new kind of people, a new way of understanding a community’s bonds to the divinity of its Creation and to each of its people, low or high. What kind of a leader is Moses? Torah teaches that we are led by following the actions, the compassions, the visions and the moral conflicts that trail-blaze a new legacy. Dr. King, unlike Moshe, was not cotton-mouth muzzled and he spoke as the greatest prophets spoke. He also sacrificed physically and emotionally to lead with his body and soul, marching arm-in-arm with activists, stepping first, like Nachshon, into the, as-yet unmoved, depths of stillness and hatred.
As Jews, one of the most famous aspects of the March on Selma, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s infamous “praying with our feet” mantra. In our parasha, Aaron and Moshe are tasked with the management of a people. However, the leader is Moshe because he acts, he does not just preach or speak for others, he fights for “the other” and their rights to become unified with the worldly whole. “I will be with your mouth and his mouth.” God was with the words of Aaron and the character of Moshe.
With this sermon begins a week of change for our country. A moment where we pray for Dr. King’s sermon to ring true in all communities, for Rabbi Heschel’s mantra to jump people on to their feet to make the change they wish to see and to listen for the Godliness in our voices. Choose words of leadership, of power, of criticism and of praise carefully. God is with our mouths and we must be both Aaron and Moshe. We must act and speak for action. But first we listen. We must listen to lead, and speak to motivate others to find the courage in themselves to be leaders. I pray that this Shabbat you find your voice, the voice that speaks truth and honesty for you as a leader of the Jewish people.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
Joseph lived to see children of the third generation (shileishim) -Genesis 50:23
The book of Genesis begins with an open letter and ends with a closed one. The big bet at the beginning of the B’reisheet is bookended by the big mem sofit in this week’s parshah, Vayehi (pictured above)1. The passage describes Joseph, at the end of his life, appreciating his family and considering his legacy. The big mem appears at the end of the word shileishim - third generation. Like kaf, nun, peh, and tzadi, mem is one of the letters in the Hebrew language that takes a final form - meaning, it looks different when it occurs at the end of the word. Perhaps the large final mem is calling attention to the fact that the book is coming to a close.
The Hebrew letters are considered to have mystical qualities. Even the shapes of the letters themselves are imbued with significance. Ancient rabbis appreciated the openness of the letter bet with which the Torah began (pictured below). R. Levi points out that the bet is closed on all sides except for the one to its left. In a right to left language, the bet serves as an open bracket. Extrapolating, R. Levi suggests that we ought not philosophize about what came before the moment of creation, but rather to focus our mental energy on everything that happened from that moment onwards.2
Similarly, commentators see significance in the shape of the final mem. The mem sofit is a closed letter - a complete square - and is thus seen as a symbol of completion and finality. One commentator3 on the mem in this week’s parshah calls our attention to another anomalous mem later in the Bible. In Isaiah 9:6 (pictured below), tradition prescribes that the mem in the word l’marbeh be written in the closed form, despite its position at the beginning of a word. This tradition, ostensibly breaks the rules of the Hebrew language and the sight of it is surprising to the Hebrew reader.
The passage in Isaiah describes the end of days when a Messiah from the Davidic line will usher in an era of peace. These two exceptional mems are pointing to some poetic message about sacred endings.
The story that began with the creation of the universe, ends with an image of an elderly man, imparting his wisdom and blessings to children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Genesis is a book of beginnings, it tells us about where we come from. But it is also has a vision of where we are headed. On the personal level, each of us is asked to consider the end of our days. What wisdom do we wish to transmit to future generations? How might we live our lives today, so that when that day comes, we can greet it with equanimity. On a human level, Genesis hints at the end of all time - when we believe a more peaceful and just era will supplant the current reality. In this subtle way, Genesis is a book that encompasses all time - from the very beginning to the very end. As we close this book, we hope that its inspiration has brought us closer to the Bible’s vision of a more complete world. Such a vision begins with achieving peace in a single family and ripples outward to the entire universe.
1 Many Torah scrolls (including at least five at Temple Beth Am) do not reflect the tradition in Mahzor Vitry to make this mem large. There are different scribal traditions relating to the big and small letters.
2 B’reishit Rabba 1:10
3 Mahari Katz - Hosafot L’fa’aneah Raza
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
I have been thinking a lot recently about the spirit. The soul. The part of us that is clearly us, but is ethereal and non-tangible. The part one cannot locate in any spot in our physiology, but which is essentially us.
I think about this when I counsel and comfort the bereaved, and encourage them to lean in to the notion that there can be relationship beyond what is corporeal; that one can love a soul even if one cannot hug it. I think about this when I think, when I hope, when I fantasize… and I wonder who or what is the actual force within me producing those thoughts, hopes and fantasies. Can it really be reduced to pure physiology, neurotransmitters, axons and neural pathways? Is there an “I” that is beyond my cell structure?
And I think about this when I consider a lovely teaching about Hanukkah by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, who was the first rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic dynasty. He notes that for most Jewish holidays the primary symbol is a tactile one. Most of our symbols have physicality: the matza on Pesah which we can hold, crumble and taste (OK…not much taste, but you get the picture); the sukkah on Sukkot which we build, sit within and are physically protected by…not to mention the lulav and Etrog which we cradle, wave and smell. Against that norm, Rabbi Shneur Zalman notes that Hanukkah seems to stand apart. Its primary symbol is utterly non-tangible. It is light. Flame. The piercing of darkness. One can see a flame, feel its heat and sense its warmth. One can attempt to follow the contours of a flickering candle, but it is elusive, dancing and changing its shape constantly, pushing the observer to wonder in what way this flame, this “thing” actually and tangibly exists. According to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, this is apt because the message of Hanukkah is about the triumph of the spirit, the Jewish will; Hanukkah is meant to celebrate and release Jewish light.
The Jewish spirit is indeed strong. Not always (ever?) fully unified. But persistent and determined, across generations and transcending calamities. And we are entering (or are already in the midst of) an era in which that very intangible Jewish spirit will be tested in meaningful ways, and through which, therefore, Hanukkah’s enduring message will need to be broadcast and lived out beyond the last week of December. When Jews in Whitefish, Montana, including a rabbinic colleague of mine, are targets of severe, Nazi-overtoned anti-Semitic hatred in response to their organizing in order to reinforce that Whitefish is not a city of hate despite its being the home city of Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi who coined the term “alt-right, and the city in which his mother still resides…the Jewish spirit is tested. When a Jewish family feels pressure to flee, anonymously, Lancaster, PA after threats against them accusing them of using their “Jewish influence” to cancel the local public school’s production of a Christmas-themed show…the Jewish spirit is tested. And when our country, historically the most embracing of Jews and Judaism of any country to ever exist, finds itself painfully divided, with identified and proud Jews spread out across the political spectrum and set of arguments; and when accusations fly regarding who, after all, owns the larger piece of the “Jewish truth” and “Jewish morality” pie as pertains to America’s policies and parties…the Jewish spirit is tested.
We all exemplify and thus will release Jewish light differently. Some of it extends from our particular educations and the accidents of our birth and circumstances. Some of that difference emanates from reasoned and thoughtful distinctions about what Torah means, and ought to mean. Some of that variety is untraceable, connected to each of our truly unique and inimitable—and intangible—spirits which flicker inside of us. I proffer no hope that we will or should all agree. But I do hope that this Hanukkah season will awaken the truest and brightest lights within us all, and encourage each of us to use our flame to illumine whatever it is we feel is most darkened.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
Then Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and he fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept. --Genesis 33:4
Jacob and Esau were rivals from the womb, which sets the stage for an emotionally charged reunion in Parashat Vayishlah. Jacob splits his camp into two lest Esau approach with violent intentions. After years apart, Jacob is unsure if Esau is still filled with rage. Does he still harbor resentment over the stolen birthright? At this moment of peak tension, the text reports that “Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept,” (Genesis 33:4) The reader breathes a sigh of relief. The brothers soften and, ostensibly, experience a genuine moment of reconciliation.
But there is a rabbinic debate over the sincerity of this exchange that hinges on a striking textual anomaly. In the Torah scroll, the word, “vayishakeyhu - and he kissed him” has dots over each letter in the word (see picture above). There are nine other instances of these dots in scripture and many believe that they serve the function of highlighting a word as dubious to the original text. Rather than erase a word from the Torah, scribes indicate their suspicion by putting dots over the letters. The tradition seems to be skeptical of Esau’s kiss. Rashi comments that the dots serve as a hint that “Esau did not kiss [Jacob] with his whole heart.” In that same midrash, Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai voices a dissenting opinion that Esau’s kiss was, in fact, sincere. The dots appear to capture the Jewish ambivalence towards a powerful older brother figure extending a gesture of love and rapprochement. Given the Jewish historical experience, one can hardly blame the rabbis who suspect that Esau may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Another tradition tells a fantastic story about this moment of brotherly embrace. In a clever play on words, B’reishit Rabbah suggests that Esau did not come to kiss him (לנשקו - lenashko), but rather to bite him ( לנשכו - lenashkho). According to this midrash, a miracle happened at this moment -- Jacob’s neck turned into marble. Both brothers then proceeded to cry - Jacob on account of his neck and Esau on account of his teeth. This interpretation subverts the plain meaning of the story in the text. Tears that appeared to be expressions of emotional release and love are recast as tears of pain. Although not explicit in the midrash, I always imagined that this interpretation viewed the dots above the letters as bite marks on Jacob’s neck.
Was it a genuine moment of reconciliation (a la R. Shimon b. Yochai) or was this yet another instance of the aggressive Esau attempting to hurt his younger twin? Perhaps in the debate over these mysterious dots we can find a rorschach test for our own willingness to trust those who were once our enemies. I’ve spoken with siblings who have clashed throughout the years and now wonder if an overture made by a sibling is sincere. A couple who has endured a contentious divorce wonder if they can trust their former life partner. The same is true of political rivals. When Sadat came to visit Jerusalem in 1977, I imagine there were many who were suspicious of his motives. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands at Camp David, many wondered if he could be trusted. Sticking out one’s neck to embrace an enemy is fraught with fear and vulnerability, but it also opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation and peace. Without the courage to risk being hurt in our relationships, we can expect the cycles of anger and pain to persist. A kiss is awfully close to a bite - may we be wise and cautious like Jacob taking tactical measures to protect ourselves and the ones we love from harm. And may we also find the inner courage of Jacob to be open to embracing our enemies with hopes for peace even at great personal risk.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
This drash is written in honor of my brother, Jacob Lev’s, 24th birthday for embodying what it truly means to be a thoughtful, spiritual man of full-‐heart:
Stop for a moment and focus on your heart. Notice your breathing. Listen to the thumping, rhythmic beats. Watch your belly rise and fall. Now try and feel your heart. Some feel pain, others love. Some feel wholeness, others brokenness. Some feel full, others feel vast. Our heart is the most important muscle in our body, not only Flowing with and pumping blood through our organs but, as the Gemara translates, our לב (lev), is also our mind. Feelings often generate how we think, how productive we can be, how we choose to motivate ourselves to act on and what to learn about in order to effect change. Our heart connects us to our mind; the most spiritual affirmations to our most physical sustenance.
In Va’yetzei, Jacob steals a heart. Jacob, having now both Rachel and Leah as his wives, wants to return to his father and his homeland, and sneaks away not saying goodbye to Lavan or anyone else in the community:
ויגנב יעקב את לב לבן הארמי על בלי הגיד לו כי ברח הוא
“And Jacob stole the heart of Lavan the Arami, for not telling him that he was Fleeing.”
Lavan’s daughters are his life, his physical and spiritual nourishment. When they are gone, his source of life is as if stolen. The Torah could have used the word “broken” or “crushed,” instead the word “stolen” is repeated multiple times in Genesis chapter
31. There is no sense of Lavan’s heart still being within his body to be crushed or broken, without his family. It is as if there is a hole left where this vital organ used to pump life. Therefore, though Jacob intends to enliven his family with bringing Rachel and Leah home, does he consider the emotional consequences thrust on Lavan and everyone of that household as a result of his actions?
Empty hearted, Lavan goes on a search to revive himself by Finding Jacob and his daughters. Once upon them, he says to Jacob:
מה עשית ותגנב את לבבי ותנהג את בנתי כשביות חרב
“What did you do that you stole my heart and you treated my daughters like prisoners of war?!”
The Netziv, Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin of the 19th century, says that geneivat ha-‐lev, the stealing of Lavan’s heart, has to do with Jacob showing, in his taking away of Rachel and Leah, that he does not love or honor them as any father would want their daughters to be loved. Lavan’s heart was “stolen away” by Jacob’s actions. Even if Jacob is correct, to leave with Rachel and Leah expands?? Jacob’s heart and yet leaves Lavan void. The image above shows a person stealing another’s heart, usually connoting falling in love, however, from the visual we see that the person stealing now has two hearts, leaving the other empty, without anything.
Focus back on your heart. Feel the beating, notice your breathing, watch your belly rise and fall. This is all possible because you have a heart. No, I do not mean a physical organ pumping blood, I mean family, friends, community, tradition, religion, social justice, etc. You have aspects of your life that keep you going, that keep the blood Flowing. Lavan knew, from the absence of his family that to be a Godly, full man, he needed them in his life. It’s hard to know if Jacob and Lavan are ever resolved in their hearts, which makes it all the more important that when we feel unresolved or have our hearts stolen, that we do the things we need to do to help our hearts keep beating. What makes up your heart? Without what in life would your heart be stolen? I pray for us this Shabbat that we take time to recognize the drumming of our heart, what keeps it beating, and keep Filling it with spiritual and personal nourishment.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. - Genesis 23:2
When Abraham learned of the death of his wife Sarah, the Torah tells us that he “proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her (v’livkotah).” By tradition, the letter kaf in the middle of the word “and to weep over her” (pictured above) is written smaller than the other letters. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how this scriptural oddity is the source of a debate over how much Abraham cried while mourning Sarah - some argue that it was minimal, others that it was excessive.
Read another way, however, the small kaf hints at a different matter entirely. If we remove the kaf from the word “and to weep over her (v’livkotah),” the meaning of the verse changes. Without the kaf, the word “livkotah” reads - “ul’vitah - Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and for her daughter.” Did Abraham and Sarah have a daughter that the Torah did not mention? Rabbeinu Ephraim, one of the medieval Tosafists and Rabbi Judah of the ancient midrash suggest that, in fact, they did. According to their interpretation, Abraham cried not only because his wife had died, but also because she didn’t live to see her children marry. Neither Isaac nor this unknown daughter was married by this point in the text.
Female characters are often left out of the narrative of the Torah or they appear as supporting characters to the male heroes of the story. For example, Lot’s wife doesn’t have a name. Neither does Pharaoh’s daughter who was instrumental in rescuing and raising Moses. An ancient midrash says that there were female twin siblings corresponding to each of the twelve tribes, but we don’t know much about them either.
How does our understanding of the story of the first Jewish family change if we imagine that there was a daughter in the tent? We might wonder what her experience was like growing up alongside Isaac and Ishmael. The Torah does not record her thoughts or her statements, but surely she had influence on the life of their family.
Perhaps we can learn from her absence as well. Too often, women’s voices and insights are minimized (like the diminutive letter) in patriarchal societies. In a recent article in Lilith Magazine, Claire Landsbaum describes how female staff members’ contributions in the Obama White House were often overlooked by their male counterparts. So women worked together and “adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” It appears that we still have much work to do in honoring and recognizing the contributions of women as equal in the workplace, in religious life, as well as in popular culture. Famously, the Bechdel test measures whether or not TV or movies depict two women engaging in dialogue about a topic other than a man. Surprisingly (or not) many movies fail this test.
Those of us in the Jewish world who are committed to rectifying the historic and ongoing inequality between men and women can learn from the small kaf in Parshat Hayyei Sarah. Perhaps, hiding in that small letter is a hint at a Biblical character whom we didn’t get to know because the Torah didn’t tell us the details about her life and journeys. One way we can honor the memory of Abraham’s daughter is to uncover and recover these voices unrecorded by history and ensure that all voices are equally respected in our society,
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
Sometimes we might need to be a parent to God. Take God by the ears and exhort, “Look at us, listen to what we’re saying and focus on what we need.” We’re not exactly asking, yet we’re not commanding, but we are assertive! Perhaps we’re offering a parent’s guidance - us as parent, God as child. We all know, any family relationship can be fraught with challenge.
Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:
There's one sad truth in life I've found
While journeying east and west -
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.
In parashat va’yera, we are introduced to some uncomfortable stories of parents and children, including Lot with his daughters, the Akeidah, and the confusion that is Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael all defining “family.” Sarah feels threatened by the dynamic with Hagar and Ishmael, as part of the family, and pressures Abraham to remove them from the home, away from Isaac. Abraham recoils, but is told by God to heed Sarah, and that Ishmael “will be a nation because he is of your seed.” Hagar leaves with Ishmael, and while traveling through the desert, runs out of water. Ishmael looks as those he may die, and Hagar walks away from watching his suffering “and she raised her voice and wept.”
Interestingly, the next verse tells us, “And God heard the lad’s voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is.’” The mother cries out and the child’s voice is heard? This verse, Gen 21:17, is textually problematic and yet surprisingly comforting. God, in the role of parent, is moderating the reaction of God’s child, Hagar, verbalizing for her exactly what is happening and how it will be all right. Here is something so psychologically astute and emotionally satisfying – Hagar as a child of God while also the mother of Ishmael. A voice heard for the one that is silent.
We do not know what Hagar raises her voice to say, yell or exclaim, but it must have been through Ishmael’s voice, connected to his heart. God realizes Ishmael’s pain through his mother’s anguish. Our parents often carry our anxiety, excitements, future fears and hopes of accomplishments, but not often enough do we, the children, realize what is happening. God knows our innermost thoughts and connections. Therefore, Ishmael says nothing but God hears his voice through Hagar’s depression and concern. The angel then told Hagar to pick up Ishmael, and place him in her arms, as if only in this familial connection can they believe they have a future, and espy the well that will revive their lives.
This parasha reminds us of the significance and sanctity of relationship, the connectedness that should allow us to hear or speak for one another. We should be able to cry out for one another, and we should model a temperate and reasoned response to harm, especially when it will bring support or comfort. We should cry in one voice, desire to yell with one voice and rejoice in celebrating with one voice. Who do you listen to? Who do you wish to claim as influence to your voice? Let us all go in to the next week recognizing that which keeps our community feeling supported, cared for, and ultimately united. May we be one community of all human kind, one nation of quilted races and religions, one voice of harmonious song, and a people who take action knowing that love is love is love is love is love.