5776 Torah Commentary

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 Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz

“God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: ‘This is how you shall bless the children of Israel saying to them: May God bless you and guard you. May the God cause God’s countenance to enlighten and inspire you, being gracious to you. May God look upon you with focus and grant you peace.’” We recognize this as the “priestly blessing”, traditionally spoken to the community at prayer by the Cohanim, the priests.

God does not express this blessing to me directly and personally. Instead, the words are future-tense and passed along through several different vessels: God to Moses, Moses to Aaron, Aaron and his sons to the children of Israel, and beyond. Though I clearly understand I have many personal obligations, unique to me as part of my relationship with God, we learn that the concept of being a blessed person is only understood within the context of my relationship with others, with my family and community. Perhaps God is concerned with the well-being of one aspect of my body, but likely as a component part of my whole being.

The past week has offered news of terrible sorts, and there is no lack of screaming voices, perhaps speaking too soon and too loud, expressing angry judgment like shotgun splatter without aim, netting the victims; first-responders; perpetrators and their families and faith communities; pro-gun folks; anti-gun folks.

Rashi, in Midrash Tanchuma, comments on the phrase, “This is how you shall bless the children of Israel saying to them…” “Saying” is written out in its full form (with all the letters and not substituted vowels) to indicate that we should not say the words of the priestly blessing in haste, but with focus, concentration and wholeheartedness. We are too often guilty of uncontrolled responses to things about which we feel strongly. We Facebook and Tweet our opinions with too little caution and reserve. We join the mob. But Rashi is asking us to have a slower and fuller understanding of our children and God’s children.

The Seer of Lublin remarks: “The priestly blessing is said in the singular because the essential blessing that the Israelites need is unity […]” This is what we need this week! Being a part of community this week will, for some, include attending to grieving families; supporting those in shock and disbelief; considering how to minimize these kinds of risks without kicking God’s children out of the house.

May God, through Moses, Aaron, our Teachers, us and our brethren, continue to be the Source of healing, comfort and wholeness for all people who suffer from trauma, loss and disconnectedness.

Every Dot Counts

Dear Rabbi,
Judaism seems awfully silly – so much attention to details. Does it really matter which direction I shake my lulav or the exact time that Shabbat starts and ends? Shouldn’t it be sufficient that I’m taking some time to honor the holidays and live an ethical and mindful life? I think Jewish obsession over the minutiae of Jewish law and practice is a big turn off for a lot of people and ultimately misses the point.

Two Weeks Later

Dear Rabbi,
What hutzpah! I took the time to write you a question and haven’t heard back from you for two weeks. I would think that you would have the courtesy to respond.

Dear Moshe,
I’m so sorry about this. As soon as I got your e-mail, I wrote you a lengthy response about why I believe the details do matter in Jewish life, but it must not have arrived in your inbox. As I checked back, it appears I left out the dot between “gmail” and “com” in your e-mail address. I didn’t think it would matter – after all it’s only a small dot. Surely the computer wouldn’t pay it much mind. But I guess even the smallest of dots does matter when we try to communicate with each other. So it is in our relationship with God. Attention to details, shows God that we care. We want to make sure the message is received.
With my apologies and best wishes,

Every letter and every dot matters in the Torah – the calligraphy and the crowns on top of the letters all have significance. In Parashat B’midbar we encounter a series of extraordinary dots above the letters of the word ואהרון “and Aaron” (pictured above). These points (and the ten others like them in the text of the Torah) are somewhat of a mystery – we don’t know how they got there or what their function is, but rabbis and scholars have attempted to explain the significance of these dots in the text.

In this case, it appears that there was a debate as to whether or not Aaron was part of the process of counting the Levites in the census in Numbers Ch. 3. Aaron is notably absent from the instructions to count the Levites in verses 5, 11, 14, 16, 40, and 42. The task of counting the Levites was Moses’ alone and not Aaron’s. Somehow, in verse 39, Aaron is included:

“All that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the LORD” – Numbers 3:39

This begs the question – was Aaron part of the counting or not? The leading theory is that Aaron’s name was mistakenly entered into the text in v. 39 because so often Moses and Aaron’s names appear together. The scribe, by rote, penned in “Moses and Aaron” when the text should have read just, “Moses.” This is supported by the fact that the verb “counted” is conjugated in the singular and not the plural. The dubious presence of “and Aaron” led later scribes to put dots over the word so that it would be known that there was suspicion about its authenticity in the text.

Those dots, so conspicuously present in the Torah text, remind us of the importance of the attention to detail. In this day and age of poorly edited blog posts and hasty text messages that read “iluv u, huney,” we can learn that love can be demonstrated when we attend to details. When we examine every comma and the proper spelling of a document, when we take the time to answer e-mails with care and attention, it can make all the difference. The Torah’s “text message” hidden between the dots above Aaron’s name is that every dot and every letter counts.

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.

Prepared by Rabbi Adir Yolkut, Rabbinic Intern

At UC Berkeley, there exists a group on campus called the GGSC, The Greater Good Science Center, which according to its mission statement, studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. In specific, they have a researcher, Robert Emmons, who focuses primarily on gratitude and lists the following physiological benefits that come from cultivating a positive practice of gratitude: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, higher levels of positive emotions, more alert, less lonely and isolated, more forgiving, and the list goes on and on. Not that any of us even needed this list, as I imagine from an earlier age, those who raised us did so with the mantra to always say “thank you.”

I began thinking about one of these early life lessons while reading through Parshat Emor this week and came across this line from 22:29-30. In the midst of all the descriptions of the various offerings to be brought, we learn “when you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be acceptable in your favor. It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall not leave any of it until the morning; I am the Lord.” The verse in and of itself is fairly clear. Here’s the type of offering and here’s how you offer it. What I found noteworthy is the combination of Rashi’s and the Midrash’s commentary to the verse.

According to Rashi, the personal language of the pasuk demands that the offering be acceptable to your will and not because someone else told you to do it. Secondly, it must be eaten on that day because if one was to wait, they would not have the same intentionality with which it was offered, and it would render it invalid. To fully understand the power of this, we must read it in tandem with Leviticus Rabbah 9:7, where it states, “When you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the LORD . . . (Lev. 22:29). R. Pinhas, R. Levi, and R. Yohanan taught in the name of R. Menahem of Gallia: In the future to come, all sacrificial offerings will be abolished, but the thanksgiving offering will never be abolished; all [general] forms of thanksgiving will be abolished, but the thanksgiving declarations of the thanksgiving offering will never be abolished.” Separate of whatever theological issues one may have with the rebuilding of the 3rd Temple, the idea that the only remnant of the sacrificial system will be the Thanksgiving offering illustrates that the Rabbis also had a keen understanding of the relationship between humans and gratitude (although for them it was between people and God). At a basic level, we need gratitude just as much as God needs gratitude. Taken as a bundle, we now understand that our gratitude must come from ourselves and it must be offered with full intentionality in that moment.

As I stood on the stage at my ordination this week, I thought a lot about my own gratitude toward this community at TBA for helping me grow into the Rabbi that I was ordained as. I have immense amounts of it that barely covers everything. I offer thanks to Bait, the Library Minyan, Neshama Minyan, and Shir Hadash for allowing me to offer the words of my heart and in return for giving me invaluable feedback. I thank the seudah shlisheet crowd where the back and forth of Torah scholars is, I know, music to God’s ears. There are many more individuals with whom I hope to offer specific words of gratitude as Rashi demands. In this period of time though, as we count down the days to the receiving of the Torah again, I hope that we all can continue to cultivate the practice of gratitude, not just for its physiological benefits but because we learned that in the perfect world to come, all we will have to offer is thanks.

Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern

Walking into Providence Tarzana Medical Center, I was nervous, uncomfortable and uneasy about completing my rabbinical school required hours for chaplaincy. However, I walked up to a floor I’d not yet visited, knocked on another door, and was opened to the world of a wonderful woman. She talked about her life. She is not Jewish, but married a Jew, and was very excited to share her love for religion and God with me, as a future Rabbi. I visited this woman regularly on subsequent days, feeling like I was visiting someone special, and experiencing divinity in our sharing. This woman, not Jewish, not looking or feeling her best, not young, is without a doubt, both holy and beautiful.

In parashat Kedoshim, God says, “And you shall be holy to Me, for I, God, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples to be Mine [in particular, proscribed ways].” This verse comes at the end of the parasha, and a long list of requirements, laws and regulations to make sure that we are distinguished as a people. However, I believe that we are most holy in the eyes of God when we interact with God’s other human beings as if we are all holy. The word for distinguish is the same root as the word for havdallah, the separation between our sacred Shabbat and the regular world. Now, the havdallah ceremony is meant to bring the beauty of Shabbat into our regular week. And so we drag the holiness of our Jewish relationship with God into the world beyond our own community’s borders.

This week, last year, I found myself at a ma’avar ceremony, one of the holiest moments of my life. A ma’avar ceremony is the connection between the solemn end of Yom HaZikaron into the celebratory beginning of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. As I stood in the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, on a plaza overlooking the old city, I could not help but think that that liminal space between sadness and happiness is what keeps our people and our nation together. Why holy? Tears turned into smiles; and as the psalmist sang, “You transformed my mourning into dancing, my sackcloth into robes of joy”; sad songs turned to hora dancing, Ma’ariv into Hallel. Holy moments, holy people, holy spaces and holy time. Let us look outward and everywhere to see holiness in the world that God made.

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

At least when you compare it to other true yontef holidays (meaning, holidays that operate similarly to Shabbat viz. prohibitions, full-on holiday meals and Shabbat-length services), we are in the midst of a strange holiday. Not Pesah itself. But rather Shvi’i shel Pesah, or the 7th day of Pesah (which in the diaspora is the 7th and 8th days). What is strange about it? These last days of Pesah are the only times on our Jewish calendar where a holiday which began with a yontef ends with a yontef after intermediary days. You might retort, “but what about Sukkot, which begins with two days of yontef and ends with two days?” That example is similar, but with a meaningful difference. Sukkot is a 7-day holiday, followed immediately by another holiday, called Shmini Atzeret, which in the diaspora is turned into two days, the second of which is Simhat Torah. So it “feels” similar to Pesah, in that you have two days of yontef, five days of Hol HaMoed (the intermediate, not-yontef days which are still Sukkot, but are more like work days than like Shabbat), and then two days of yontef. But those last two days of yontef are a different holiday altogether which just are juxtaposed to the end of Sukkot. But Pesah is unique. We (in the diaspora) begin with two days of yontef, followed by 4 days of Hol Hamoed (it is still Pesah. No bread allowed. But the days are not like Shabbat), and then two more days of yontef. Pesah both begins and end with religious peaks, with days of long services, extended meals and Shabbat-like prohibitions.

Why? We know what the first two days commemorate: Exodus itself. But what are the last days about, such that they demand such a high level of ritual attention and observance? This ending of Pesah, prescribed directly by verses in the Torah, is an enigma.

Theories and midrashim abound regarding its original meaning an intent. The most common explanation is that the end of Pesah commemorates the drama that unfolded by the Sea of Reeds. The theory is that it took about seven days for the fleeing Israelites to reach the banks of the sea after leaving Egypt. The miracle of the split sea, and the Israelites being finally delivered from their oppressors and enemies, took place on the 7th day of the Exodus. Inshul we read the Song of the Sea as our Torah reading for the 7th day. Whereas Exodus night liberated from slavery, it was not until a week later that God liberated us from Pharaoh’s clutch. That would be worthy of a celebration, of a yontef.

This week I was struck by an explanation of the end of Pesah that I had not known before. It comes from the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, a 19th century Lithuanian scholar whose beloved commentary, Ha’amek Davar, is the text that Rabbis Lucas and Chorny and I study in our weekly hevruta. He tries to explain the end of Pesah through the prism of the Song of Songs, a Biblical scroll which we read at/towards the end of Pesah. The text is erotic and intimate, detailing the furious romantic chase between a man and a woman, and understood allegorically to represent our chasing God, and God’s chasing us. Why read this particular text now? According to the Netziv it is because the ancient Israelites, who had come to Jerusalem for the Pesah pilgrimage holiday, are about to take their leave and return home. The travel would be long and arduous. They wouldn’t be back until Sukkot, at the earliest. No email. No Temple Facebook pages. No obvious way to maintain the centripetal force that would connect the Jewish people to Jewish space. The end of Pesah is the Torah’s way of saying to our ancestors, and us, “before you leave, how about one more party? One more Shabbat-like gathering. Leave with the sweetness of sanctity in your mouths and imprinted upon your souls.” Interestingly, this explanation mirrors one of the classic explanations for Shmini Atzeret, which as we said comes right after Pesah. Before the long journey home followed by a long winter, God says to the pilgrims, “tarry one day longer.”

There is some relief when a momentous occasion, laden with expectations and labor, has passed. And there can be melancholy as well. What will be the peak moments in the next weeks or months now that this holiday (or birthday, or party, or graduation…) has passed? The Netziv has us understand that the purpose of the very holiday we are in is to extend the moment, to have us leave Pesah not with the whimper of just the last day of Hol Hamoed, but with the roar of yontef, of heightened religious awareness, of the ecstatic verses of Shir Hashirim (re-)awakening religious desire.

Let us harness these days, these waning hours. Soon, the hametz will replace its unleavened cousin. Soon we’ll return to the sacred, but also humdrum, rhythm of one week leading to the next. Shavuout, our next yontef, is six weeks away. And the one after that nearly six months away. However you spend the holiday, cherish the remaining hours as Torah’s gift to a people whom God always wants more of, and who, I hope, are continuously aiming for greater holiness.

Gut yontefHag Sameahand Shabbat Shalom.

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.

Shabbat Shalom

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 Rabbi Ari Lucas

Your Light is in My Hands and My Light is In Yours

There hasn’t been a big letter in the first 33 chapters of Exodus and then, in this week’s Parshah, Ki Tissa, there are two. The first (pictured above) is the first letter, nun, in the phrase notzer hesed (34:7). The second (pictured below) is the last letter, reish, in the word aher (34:14). Later in the parshah, God warns the Israelites not to bow down to another god (eil aher). I’ve written about this big reish elsewhere, arguing that there is, literally, a thin line between authentic worship of God and idolatry.

Ki Tissa is a parshah about covenant. We see the devastating consequences when one party to the covenant is unfaithful. The sin of the golden calf was a major test in the nascent relationship between God and Israel. While not a proud moment for Israel, it offered an opportunity for forgiveness and repair. It tested the limits of understanding and forgiveness from both sides early on. Reflecting on thousands of years of “marriage” to God, we have endured through moments of pain and disappointment from both parties.

Notzer hesed appears in a list of thirteen attributes associated with God that Moses learned after carving the second set of tablets. God is “merciful and compassionate, forgiving sin,” and the like. Notzer hesed la’alafim means “extending kindness to the thousandth (generation).” Many of us are familiar with this passage since we sing it repeatedly as part of the S’lihot service in the High Holy Day liturgy.

So, why the big nun?

Of the many different explanations, my favorite is offered by the Sefer Nefutzot Yehudah – a collection of sermons by 16th c. Italian rabbi, Judah Moscato. Moscato links the two large letters in the parshah. The big nun from notzer combined with the big reish in aher spells ner – light. Just like the teaching that suggests that the big ayin and dalet in the Sh’ma be read together to spell eid – witness, Rabbi Moscato, wants to link the two big letters in Ki Tissa to teach a lesson about entrusting one’s light to another in covenantal relationship.

He references the following teaching from the Midrash:

The Holy Blessed One said to man, “Your light (ner) is in my hand, my light (ner) is in your hand.” – Leviticus Rabbah 31:4

What could this beautiful formula of mutuality mean? What does it mean that God’s light is in our hands? Perhaps, this statement suggests that God relies on us to be beacons shining the light of God’s divine attributes into the world. When we are kind, loving, and forgiving – God feels that God’s light is shining. And our light is in God’s hands. The light of our lives, fragile and beautiful, is entrusted to God for protection.

to be in a covenantal relationship means entrusting your light to another. Think of the different relationships in your life – a spouse, mother/father, friends, community members. None of them can be sustained by one party alone. Even though there are moments of pain when another lets us down, enduring covenantal relationships offer an opportunity for our lights to shine more brightly – when we share them with another.

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 Rebecca Schatz

Have you ever seen the TV show The Voice? If you haven’t, let me share a brief description. It’s a TV show where contestants come before a panel of judges who all have their backs turned to the performers. The contestants then sing and if the judges enjoy their voices and think they are talented, the judges turn their chairs to hopefully persuade the singer to be on their team.

When have you had an experience where you have seen someone on a billboard, walking the street, or in a show and then when you heard their voice you were surprised at what you heard? It could also work the opposite way with hearing a voice on the radio or in a concert hall, and when you see them you are surprised at their appearance. Yes, we have all had this experience and it is one that is surprising each time. We have expectations of how people sound based on how they look, and according to research at Northwestern University, if someone’s voice doesn’t seem to match their body (because of how our brain processes this information) our visual experience is affected; what we hear can indeed change our opinion of what we see. Our vision can bias our experience of other senses, such as hearing.

In this weeks parasha, Yitro, the people of Israel receive the 10 commandments and there is the famous Hollywood scene with the thunder, lightning, loud noises and revelation on a large mountain. The moment right after this large scene, the nation “saw the voices.” As it says in Exodus 20:14, “And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.”

Rashi says, “and all the people saw” means that there was not one blind person amongst those hearing the Torah. He also comments on “the voices” referring to many voices, voices coming from every direction and from the heavens and the earth. This is a sort of “surround sound” moment. The people hear the word of God from all directions and they could see what was audible, impossible in any other place or experience (Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai).

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger who lived in the mid 1800’s. Says that the reason for this language is to explain an event that we cannot fathom in our understanding of this moment of revelation or any other incredible moment like this.

This beautiful teaching shows to us that revelatory experiences are possible even today, and that we are each connected to our commandments, our story and God by the kolot the many voices that speak to each one of us in our own individual way. The people of Israel did not need to believe in what they heard because they saw the voice of their story, their legacy and ultimately their relationship with God.

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 Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

We study the Torah, and I teach Torah to my students, with an aim towards asking a good question. For all meaningful interpretations of the Torah (whether from Rashi, the Talmud or modern commentators) begin with perceptive questions on the text. We pore over the words as a love letter, extracting meaning from every letter, every trope (musical) marking, the resolution to every seeming redundancy or contradiction.

There is nothing more satisfying as a teacher of Torah when a student starts doing sacred surgery on the text, right in front of your eyes. I was once teaching the Exodus narrative to a group of middle school students. One of them asked a zinger on a verse that appears in Parshat Bo. Moshe is explaining to Pharaoh the details of the 10th plague, the killing of the 1st born. In 11:5, we learn that it is God’s intention to smite all the first-born in Egypt including כל בכור בהמה, khol b’khor b’heymah, all the first-born of the cattle. But, one student aptly noted, that this verse does not jive with 9:6 which says that the fifth plague (dever—דבר—pestilence) was meant to have wiped out all of the Egyptian cattle! If all Egyptian cattle were killed in plague # 5, how could any of them be left to be affected by plague 10? A wonderful question indeed!

One of the answers that the group of students came up with was that though the 5th plague was intended to destroy all Egyptian cattle, God held back. While having to resort to violence to pursue the lofty goal of Israelite freedom, God chose to hold back, to exhibit restraint, to make sure not to wield all of the power in God’s hands. Liberation was costly. It always is. But the goal of liberation does not itself liberate the liberators (even God) from all deliberation and discretion. This read thus juxtaposes an honorable restraint in plague 5 against the utter destruction of plague 10. After all, if God is to send the angel of death to Egypt on a search for first-born sons, could not God also direct the destroyer only to the Egyptian homes? Why the need for the blood on the lintel to distinguish the Israelite homes? The traditional answer is that destruction and mayhem, once unleashed, is hard to reel in and nearly impossible to control. Even for God. Which makes the notion of God’s holding back the reins on the cattle-destroying plague all the more noteworthy, and evocative.

What we know from political history, as well as Biblical narrative, is that one who rules with brutality cannot possibly hope to engender true fealty among subjects. By holding back, God exhibits to the Israelites that the Holy One is a ruler unlike Pharaoh; God is a ruler who understands that at times the greatest use of one’s power is in restraining it. When compassion infiltrates our most zealous of moments, our most violent of urges, we know we are emulating the God of mercy.

We have an opportunity to learn from this insight every day. This Shabbat, identify at least one moment where you can temper your urge to yell, lash out, exert power and subdue…by holding back, staying within yourself and allowing a more compassionate self to dominate.

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.

Shabbat Shalom!

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.

Shabbat Shalom

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

Whenever I fly, I am struck with wonder as the plane takes off. Can this hunk of aluminum actually slice through the air, all the way to NY? Are we in heaven? Is this how a bird feels?

And yet within minutes I, like my fellow passengers, start reading a magazine or playing on my iPhone. The wonder turns, frankly, to boredom. How odd that wonder can be normalized, so quickly. How fleeting wonder is! We cannot hold onto it for too long. Is that a good thing or a bad?

On one hand, it is a good thing. For survival, we need a sense of normalcy. We cannot walk through our days in a dazed stupor. Perpetual wonder is too uncertain to be sustainable. And yet, when the sense of mundane is too strong, we are in spiritual death. When we fail, for too long, to wonder at the blessings of our children, or the wonder of the Shabbat rest, we no longer soar.

How do we achieve the balance? There is a halakha associated with seeing a rainbow, which makes its only appearance in the Torah in this week’s parsha, as God’s promise to Noach never again to flood the world. The rainbow of Parshat Noach captures the wondrous nature of God’s protection and presence. To see a rainbow Jewishly is to be assured that God loves us, and watches over the world. When we see a rainbow, we recite a blessing. And yet, the halakha warns us “not to stare too long at the rainbow.” Why?

Well, if you don’t look at the rainbow, you will never be gifted with its wonder. And if you stare too long, its wonder will melt away. We need breaks in between being dazzled. If we stared at a beautiful painting for too long, we’d see its cracks and crevices…we’d break it into its component parts and it would lose its grandeur as a totality. We should tear our gaze away from the painting while it still enchants. The same is true with a rainbow, and with God.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “I asked for wonder.” I am alive, God, to experience wonder. And I turn to you, and to your creations, for it. And I train myself to turn away quickly enough, before the wonder fades.

May this Shabbat be one of many “rainbows.” Let us look at them, and bless them. And let us not stare too long, so that the next time we look, they still amaze us.

Shabbat shalom

Prepared by: Rabbi Ari Lucas

Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created
-Genesis 2:4

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.