Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
When we read the Torah publicly, Jewish law prescribes that we be meticulous: Each word must be pronounced properly and the community strives to hear every word. Not so in this week’s parashah. A tradition arose for the Torah reader to speed through, in a half whisper, the lengthy and terrifying list of curses with which the Israelites are threatened.
God’s covenant with the Israelites on Mt. Sinai was a moment of supreme affirmation; the people said, “We will do and we will understand – na’aseh v’nishma [Ex.24:7]. But the covenant described in this week’s portion, formalized on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, seems to be grounded in profoundly negative language. The consequences of failing to follow this covenant are set forth in painful, even gruesome, detail.
The terrible fate that could befall the Israelites should they not remain loyal to God represents an undoing of their entire narrative, as God seems to rescind previous promises set forth in the Torah. God threatens to send the Israelites back to Egypt “by a route which I told you you should not see again,” saying they will try to sell themselves back into slavery (Deut. 28:68). God also appears to cancel the promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation, saying: “You will be left a scant few, after having been as numerous as the stars in the skies” (28:62). God declares that other nations will not look to Israel as a model of Divine providence. Instead, “you shall be a consternation, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples to which the Lord will drive you” (28:37). Finally, Israel will be dispersed from its land, lose political sovereignty, and fall into idolatry, thus also losing its religious identity. As Dr. Bernard Levinson writes, in The Jewish Study Bible: “In the absence of the national destiny provided by the covenant, historical existence has no meaning.” God thus makes clear to the Israelites that through their own actions, they can undo their entire journey to this point, thereby rendering their existence hollow and their future blank. Forgetting God, forgetting the covenant, will lead to disaster.
My friend Tali Adler, a Maharat student, wrote the following description of her family’s narrative this week: “People lied so that my grandparents could come to this country after WWII. The Jewish community organized to support those lies–people happily signed papers claiming that they were related to strangers or that they were more closely related than they actually were. My family remains grateful, three generations later, to the people who lied for us, and we teach their names to our children. You want to talk about illegal immigrants? Those were, on some level, my grandparents. If your grandparents came here after the Holocaust, look up their papers, cause there’s a good chance that they were yours too. Those lies were holy lies, and they’re why I’m showing up for other people desperate for a chance. If you’ve been lucky enough in your family’s history to benefit from holy lies, I hope you show up too.”
Tali’s story begins in a lie and ends in prosperity. Because of her family’s story, she knows from where she came, feels immense gratitude to those who saved their lives, and now takes responsibility for helping others.
Immediately preceding the section on blessings and curses, all Israelites are commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the priest, and declare, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (26:5). They are instructed to tell the story of starting out as a small people that grew in Egypt, became enslaved, cried out to God and was then liberated, and conclude by saying, God “brought us to this place and gave us this land” (26:9). By offering these words at the new harvest, the peak of blessing, the Israelites give thanks to God for bringing them from wandering to permanence, from slavery to sovereignty, from idolatry to monotheism, and from hunger to plenty. Each person must recite this narrative as his or her own. In other words, even future generations, born in the land of Israel, are taught to identify with the Exodus, wandering, and arrival. We affirm that we ourselves are direct descendants, just one generation away, from a wanderer — whether the Aramean is Abraham or Jacob — and that we were brought into a promised land.
What is the connection between these two sections of Ki Tavo – the curses and the declaration upon bringing the first fruits? This portion emphasizes that memory and gratitude are both integral to Jewish identity, and to the continued survival of the Jewish people. To be Jewish, that is, is to remember and give thanks with words and deeds. That is why we are called, in Hebrew, “Yehudim” (literally, “grateful people”). If we forget or fail to tell our story in a way that acknowledges the forces beyond our control that made our good fortune possible, we deny our national identity and purpose. Such behavior will lead to the spiritual and physical destruction of our people. Perhaps that is why we hurry through the curses in this portion in a half-whisper and dwell on the blessings instead. It is our God-given blessings that we want to recount with gratitude, now and in the future.
Consider to whom you feel gratitude for making your current blessings possible. To whom are you grateful for your family’s journey to the United States and elsewhere? How do you offer thanks to God and to people? Drawing from your own story, for what principles will you stand? What commitments will you take on? A mentor of mine makes a point every Elul of reaching out to someone who made a great impact on his life and expressing thanks to that person. Let us do the same. Let us also recall our family’s and our people’s origins and their implications for us, and avoid the shattering consequences of failing to give thanks.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Shoftim: A call for self-scrutiny
Parashat Shoftim presents a somewhat bizarre scenario and ritual that holds particular relevancy for us in the month of Elul. Moses tells the people that if in the Land of Israel they come across a dead body “lying in the open” and the killer is unknown, the elders and magistrates of the nearby towns should measure the distance of the corpse to their towns. The elders of the town located nearest the corpse must then break the neck of a heifer and ask God to absolve them of the killing. They shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).
In the absence of witnesses and information, the leaders seek to absolve themselves and the people of responsibility for a death that occurred in their town under their jurisdiction. They should be held accountable, but a heifer is killed in their stead, washing away the innocent blood that was shed and any connection they have to this crime. But the ritual is not only about absolution. Nechama Leibowitz explains that the Torah wanted the loss of this single anonymous, precious life to “shock [the elders’] complacency and summon them to severe self-scrutiny.” The elders’ declaration only comes after a thorough investigation of any role they played in the crime.
The Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud disagree about what the leaders’ conclude after their self-scrutiny, specifically for whose blood they are seeking forgiveness: the slain or the slayer. For the Babylonian Talmud, the leaders’ declaration implies that they played no role in the events that led to the victim’s death. “No one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort” (Sota 46b). They provided the necessary hospitality and public safety measures for the victim. But between their words, what is unsaid is most powerful: The measures we provided were not sufficient to protect this person. Behind the declaration is an admission.
The Jerusalem Talmud understands the pronouncement to be absolving the leaders of having not caught the perpetrator. “No one came within our jurisdiction,” they declare, “whom we discharged and failed to put to death, that we overlooked him and neglected to bring him to justice.” The town’s courts were not negligent, yet they did not bring the culprit to justice, their ultimate obligation. The judges are instructed earlier in the parashah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue… thus you will sweep out evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 16:19, 17:12).
In a fascinating move, the Malbim, a 19th century Ukrainian commentator, combine the different Talmudic explanations of the declaration. When the elders say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done,” they are really saying: “We were not indirectly instrumental in this murder on account of not providing the murderer with food for the lack of which he was driven to commit this capital crime.” The Malbim recognizes that perhaps the murderer, not only the victim, required hospitality. He provides an explanation for what may drive a murderer to take a life. Perhaps his own life is not valued by society. The Malbim intensifies the elders’ self-scrutiny. They asked questions we are not inclined to ask ourselves: What role, direct or indirect, did we play in this crime? What could we have done to prevent the murderer from committing this crime in the first place? How have we failed him as well as the victim?
While the elders and the town are absolved of any connection to the crime, it is the self-reflection — reviewing their town’s public safety measures, the quality of their justice system, and how hospitable they are to strangers — and the resulting public declaration that bring them atonement. Though they declare themselves innocent, their words betray a sense of guilt and accountability.
As we enter Elul, we begin the process of deep self and communal reflection. Soon we will admit to our transgressions publically in the vidui prayer and commit to being kinder and more compassionate versions of ourselves in the coming year. And by the end of Yom Kippur we too will have achieved atonement. Let’s begin that process now. Let the shofar blast shock us out of our complacency and summon us to severe self-scrutiny. Because we cannot say honestly that our hands are clean from transgression and that we did not witness any wrongdoing this year.
Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern
Protest: The world is in our hands
I grew up going to summer camp, and loved pretty much every minute of it. Camp is not for everyone, but it was for me. Song sessions, gaga, even cleaning the cabin with my friends was thrilling. The one aspect of camp that bothered me from age 8 to 23 was the communal punishment. I could not stand losing free time or being sent to bed early because others in my unit were not behaving. “This is YOUR free time,” the director would thunder towering over us in the dining hall. He was speaking to everyone, but I always felt he was talking directly to me. The longer I sat in the sweltering dining hall, willing my peers to stop making “inappropriate additions” to the birkat hamazon, I felt my precious free time slipping away. We as a people are all intertwined with each other, for better or for worse. The Rabbis enshrined this notion, teaching that “All of Israel are guarantors for one other,” (Shevuot 39a) also translated as “responsible” and “mixed up” with each other (ערבים).
“See this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26), Moses tells the Israelites. Follow God and God’s commandments and you will find blessing; turn away from God and you will be cursed (you will lose a lot of free time). Commentators notice a peculiarity in our verse. “See” is in the singular and “before you” is in the plural. The verse could be read as: “See, you individual person, this day I set before you all blessing and curse.” The verse teaches that each person has free will to make her own choices, but the blessing and curse that result from that decision impact the whole people. In one verse the Torah dispels us of the notion that individual choices only affect the individual.
The Kli Yakar (1550-1619, Prague) teaches on this singular to plural move that we are all bound up with one another, and one person’s mitzvah or transgression ripples across the world. He cites the passage in the Talmud stating that each person should see herself as if the whole world were divided in half between the meritorious and the guilty, and if she would perform one mitzvah or transgression she could tip the scale of judgment, not only for herself but for the world (Kiddushin 40b). The Torah states that the blessing and curse God sets before the Israelites will be pronounced at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval in the Land of Israel (11:29). It is at that moment of blessing and curse, the Kli Yakar writes, that Israel became responsible for each other. In essence, we became a people. At the moments in life when we can choose between blessing and curse, when we can choose to speak with moral clarity to ensure a blessed future, or remain silent ensuring we are all cursed, we are tested as a people.
If we are guarantors for one another that means we also pay the price for each other. Why is everyone, the Jewish people and all of the world, responsible for one person’s transgression ultimately? Why is the individual responsible when others transgress? The Gemara answers: “They had the ability to protest and they did not protest” (Shevuot 39b). Maybe only a minority committed the crime, but everyone should have protested against it. This is the mitzvah of mecha’ah/מחאה (protest) and we must do it for the sake of our own souls and for the fate of the world. Protesting for what is good and moral is valuable in it of itself.
The sickening sight of throngs of white supremacists holding torches and chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans was chilling. The deadly gathering should serve as a wake-up call that hateful forces in our society are finding their way into the light of the mainstream. We must speak out unequivocally. One act of mecha’ah ripples across the world and can tip the scale of judgment. The very world is in our hands.
Prepared by Michelle Stone, Cantorial Intern, Temple Beth Am
This week’s parsha, Eikev, presents an ethical paradox that occurs throughout the book of Deuteronomy. As the parsha opens, God commands the people that when they enter the land of Israel, they must “destroy all the peoples that the Lord, your God, delivers to you, showing them no pity.” (Deut. 7:16). The doomed people referred to here are the seven nations that inhabited Canaan before the Israelites entered the land. God explicitly tells the people that the non-Israelites in their midst must be destroyed completely otherwise they will lure the Israelites to idolatry.
Then, just three chapters later, God sends the Israelites a very different message. Because God “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger (ger), providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19). Wait, what? Didn’t God just tell Israel to kill everyone around them? God provides food and clothing for the stranger? Does that include the strangers that God wants Israel to destroy? How are we supposed to interpret this paradox? How does the book of Deuteronomy understand its own paradox, its national requirement to wipe out the seven nations with its moral requirement to love the stranger?
The law to destroy the indigenous nations is understandable in the greater context of a religious war against idolatry. Deuteronomy exhibits a natural fear of the cultural and religious impact of the majority culture on these newcomers entering the land. The book is realistic. It knows that when Israel comes into contact with their neighbors, they will naturally develop relationships and be influenced by them. Israel, this one small nation among these much larger nations, will easily fall prey to their cultic practices, which would mean the end of monotheism. And yet, even though this sounds logical, the commandment is, of course, ethically problematic. So we have to ask the question, “Was this ever practiced in reality?” Biblical scholars and archaeologists still debate the conquest of Israel, but most argue that there is no physical evidence of annihilation of non-Israelite local communities. On the contrary, there are multiple stories in the Tanach where Israel lives side-by-side with their neighbors. There is ample evidence of systematic destruction of idols and icons, but no evidence of genocide. Dr. Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University, explains that we can assume that ancient Israelites interpreted this commandment to require war against idolatry, but not war against idolators.
In addition to expressing a great fear of idolatry, the book of Deuteronomy is highly concerned with ethical behavior toward the most vulnerable in the society, a notion unique in the Ancient Near East. In our parsha, God is described as a righteous judge who takes care of the orphan, widow, and stranger. Deuteronomy implores us to aspire to the same, particularly with regard to the stranger, with the term appearing 20 times throughout the book. We are commanded to care for and celebrate with the ger, the stranger. In fact, later in the book, the stranger enters into the covenant with God along with the Israelites. So what do we do with our paradox? Deuteronomy recognizes that there are times when we are required to embody two seemingly contradictory ideas. As a religious document, it is at once exhibiting a natural fear of religious dilution at the hands of non-Israelites, and at the same time, concerned with an ethical obligation toward the non-Israelites living in their midst. In the real world, we have to live with paradoxes. Sometimes, we face ideological threats, and it important to handle those judiciously. But the command to kill the seven nations is theoretical and represents hatred of an idea, not of a people. The strangers we were commanded to take care of were the people living with Israel at the time, and they needed to be cared for. Ancient Israel had great empathy for the stranger in its midst and felt a great deal of responsibility to take care of its neighbors. Shabbat Shalom.
Prepared by Rabbi Joel Rembaum
Deuteronomy & Tisha B’Av
We begin reading the Book of Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Tish’a B’av — the day we mourn the destructions of Jerusalem and our two Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE). Our Sages teach that the First Temple fell because Israelites sinned by practicing idolatry, and the Second Temple fell because of the sin of baseless hatred among Jews. Deuteronomy stresses the sinfulness of idolatrous activity, and this corresponds with the Rabbis’ explanation for the events of 586 BCE, but it seems to have no relevance to the 70 CE destruction. Yet, there may be a connection between the Deuteronomic message and the evils of baseless hatred among Jews.
In its uncompromising denunciation of paganism Deuteronomy stands as the most clearly articulated statement of monotheism in ancient literature. As such, it established the theological foundation of Judaism and its “daughter” religions, Christianity and Islam, and it gathered all spheres of human activity under a single umbrella of allegiance to the One God. Monotheism remains the foundation of our faith, and, as many thinkers remind us, it is the theology that best corresponds to what we know about how the universe operates.
There is in Deuteronomy, however, an intolerance unlike that of the other books of the Torah. Thus, we read in Exodus (23 & 34) that God will forcefully remove the pagan nations of Canaan from the land. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to wage genocide against these peoples — to “not let a soul remain alive” (20:16-18). What about an Israelite town whose residents have turned to paganism? All the men, women, children, and cattle are to be killed, all the booty is to be obliterated by fire, and the town is to be razed and never to be rebuilt (13:13-19). Such extreme measures may have been relevant in the period when the “Deuteronomic school” formulated its teachings (650-450 BCE). In light of the horrific slaughter of human lives in the 20th century, however, such words are anathema to us.
Today, these and similar teachings in the sacred literature of the world’s monotheistic faiths are taken literally by fundamentalist religious extremists. Clearly, not all fundamentalists follow these mandates, but such ideas sow seeds of distrust, disrespect, and hatred between believers of different faiths and among people within the same faith community.
In the Jewish world rigid intolerance has become more divisive. Torah emanating from Zion, instead of unifying the Jewish people, has polarized us. The monotheistic ideal of Deuteronomy has been infected by a virus of dogmatic midrash that exaggerates the book’s intolerant side and ignores the book’s more humane elements — justice, integrity, love of God, love of the stranger, etc.
Thankfully, our Sages have a flexible midrashic principle with which they get around unworkable laws: halakhah v’eyn morin keyn, “it is a law by which we do not rule.” So, here is how Jews should follow Deuteronomy: Live by its powerful spiritual and ethical laws and principles, “archive” the problematic pieces of its codes, and take to heart Leviticus 19:18 — “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am Adonai.”
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
The Measure of a People
Every year on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, thousands of Jewish Israelis take to the streets of Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s victory in 1967 and its reunification of the capital. While Israel has much to celebrate in its history, it should be with deeply mixed emotions that we acknowledge this year that half a century has passed since Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem. As we remember the triumph of the Six-Day War, we also recall its grave consequences, the loss of precious life over the decades, and the continuous state of war in which Israel exists. This week some Jewish Israelis marched through the Old City in a show of pride and joy, while others marched primarily to send a message of dominance to non-Jews who dwell there. Like a pep rally, such demonstrations can stir up healthy patriotism. However, they also glorify the ruling power, emphasizing one group’s authority over another, and may be perceived as threatening by those who do not belong to the dominant culture. Our tradition warns us this week that even the act of counting — of displaying and making a show of our military might — can be dangerous.
When Jews count other Jews in Tanakh, the consequences are typically negative. As a result, there is a Jewish tradition that we should refrain from counting individuals in a group. The quintessential example of why we refrain from counting one another comes from an incident in Second Samuel chapter 24. After King David takes a census of troops in Israel and Judah, God, considering this act a sin, sends a plague that wipes out 70,000 people.
According to the Talmud, it is prohibited to count Jews directly even for the sake of a mitzvah (Yoma 22b). That’s why when God orders Moses to take a census of the Israelites, God specifies that each person should give a half-shekel to represent him/herself so that the people are not counted directly (Exodus 30:12-13). This is also why there’s a tradition when counting Jews for a minyan that we use a verse that has 10 words in it to count people off by word rather than number. We commonly use Psalm 28:9, “hoshea et amecha uvarech et nachlatecha ureim v’nasei ad ha’olam” (Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever). The midrash famously teaches that all Jews — no specific number — past, present, and future were present at Mt. Sinai for the receiving of the Torah. Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud cites as textual support for the mitzvah against counting Jews the verse, “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted” (Hosea 2:11).
Israel’s greatness cannot be reduced to a quantifiable number, certainly not the number of soldiers or weapons it possesses. It is our values, especially our commitment to life, that define us and illustrate the quality of who we are. Still, King David probably just wanted to know the number of his troops in order to be prepared for any upcoming battles. What is the crime in counting up troops?
Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, which we begin this week, takes its English name from all of the counting that goes on in the first parashah. God orders Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2-3). Now God wants Moses to count those eligible to serve in an army? How is this any different from King David counting his troops?
Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz z”l offers a relevant teaching about the difference between King David’s census and our census in this week’s Torah portion, explaining why one causes so much destruction and the other is beneficial. Medieval commentators agree that God ordered a census among the Israelites because they will need to form an army before entering the Land of Israel, to establish themselves and for self-preservation. King David, however, had no battles on the horizon and therefore no need to count for a potential army. Leibowitz explains: “The census which David ordered was for the creation of a permanent force, after the Almighty had given him peace from all his enemies… and he had no longer any need of military defense. But he wished… to boast and display his pride before his enemies… In short, the army and the soldier are only required in time of need, but should not be gloried in, as having any intrinsic importance” (Studies in Bamidbar, pg 22-23).
An army, a state, a land, and even a people have no intrinsic greatness. Our greatness stems from pursuing peace whenever possible, and even when it seems impossible. It comes from sanctifying each individual life, not from counting and glorifying a mob. Let us not boast of Israel’s strength only through parades, air shows, and other demonstrations of military might which unnecessarily diminish our spiritual greatness, like the plague that killed 70,000 in biblical times. Let us rather mark the anniversary of the Six-Day War by reflecting on the tremendous human and spiritual cost of using permanent force to reign over another people, and recommit ourselves to true greatness through a continuing quest for peace.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Is it a command? Or a promise? Or some combination of both? I refer to the opening idea of the second of the two parashot we will read tomorrow morning in shul, Kedoshim. The words used are fairly simple: “kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani--you shall be holy, because I, God, am holy.” The concepts contained in those words are far from simple.
Even if we brush aside the question of what it actually means to be holy (sacred? different? better? special? unique?…), we are left with wondering what the relationship is between God’s holiness and ours. Are we commanded to be holy because God is holy, so that we emulate the most esteemed qualities of our Creator? Or is it that by recognizing God’s holiness, and by living life according to God’s decrees we are, in a sense, promised a life of holiness and meaning ourselves?
Great Jewish minds have read this verse differently. The great mystical text the Zohar relates that when the students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai arrived at this verse, they rejoiced. They saw it as a great promise rewarding their decision to live tahat kanfei hashekhina–beneath the wings of God’s presence. To be a Jew is not easy. To be a conscientious, observant Jew is demanding on many levels. If by choosing to live that way, we achieve kedusha, an elevated, sanctified, rarefied status…then we can more easily rejoice in our Judaism.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw it differently. Torah does not make promises. Rather, Torah lays out expectations. In his words, “Judaism is an attempt to prove that in order to be a man, you have to be more than a man; that in order to be a people, you have to be more than a people. Israel was made to be a holy people.” So this verse is our challenge, not our reward. If we are to earn the title “Israel,” we are to reach towards kedusha, reach towards God, so that we are worthy of God’s attention.
There is, of course, a middle-ground, offered by the Rabbis in Vayikra Rabba, the classic book of Midrash on Leviticus. It understands the idea this way: “Kidshu atzm’khem l’mata–make yourselves holy down here…va’ani ekadesh etkhem l’ma’la–and I, God, will make you holy up there.” Meaning what? That the idea of holiness is both a challenge/command and a reward/promise. We Jews have an obligation to see the world, and see our actions, through the lens of sanctity, through the prism of what could be. As a result, our faith is that, in a sort of Divine matching-funds program, God responds to our efforts by making us holy.
How God “makes us holy” is the subject of great debate. A metaphysical reading suggests that we earn the afterlife by living with holiness in this life. A more spiritual reading suggests that sanctity is its own reward, but you won’t truly figure it out unless you actually do it. Act holy, and you will be holy.
However we are to understand the reward, the challenge itself is pretty clear: pay attention to Torah, to mitzvot, to our potential to live with meaning, to the idea that God expects something from us in our days. Those are the pathways to kedusha, to holiness.
I wish you a shabbat kodesh, a Shabbat of holiness…of challenge and reward.
Prepared by Nitzan Stein Kokin, rabbinical student, Zacharias Frankel College, Berlin
Parashat Tazria/Metzora is one of the most puzzling parshiyot for the modern mind. It lays out the laws of purity and impurity. “Purity” enables inclusion in society, “impurity” effects exclusion and is associated with death. A metzora is a person affected by a skin disease (tzaraat) which renders him/her impure and necessitates quarantine until the symptoms disappear. A priest will then facilitate the person’s readmission to the community via a purification ritual. However, anyone who suffers from a persistent form of this skin disease will be an outcast: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ … He shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46). Cut off from the flow of life, excluded from any close personal contact, the metzora indeed wanders in limbo as a living dead. He even “may be mourning his own ‘death’” (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism , p. 331).
It may seem that there is a pragmatic reason to quarantine someone who is sick. Maybe the illness is a real danger to the community. Maybe this is the most economic and efficient way to get treatment to the ill. We might try to explain the phenomenon of the biblical tzaraat by comparing it to the recent epidemic of ebola. This can help us rationalize the necessity for isolation. However, besides the physical suffering that the afflicted person and his/her family undergo, their human drama cries out to heaven. The case of tzaraat, then, comes down to the dynamic of the community versus the plight of the suffering individual. From this perspective, the biblical commandment seems rather cruel: The victim of the disease is even obliged to reinforce his isolation by calling out “Unclean! Unclean!” There is no way to overlook their separation from the community. How can we, today, possibly justify an approach demanding that victims stigmatize and withdraw themselves?
But perhaps the intent of this ritual is not to isolate or shame, but rather to evoke an empathetic response from the rest of the community. Mishnah Midot 2:2 takes a contrasting approach to stigmatizing, recognizes the danger of ignorance, and reminds us of our communal obligation for empathy and care: “Anyone entering the Temple Mount would enter by the right, circle around and exit from the left, except for someone to whom something had happened, who would circle from the left [thereby encountering the crowd face to face and prompting the people to notice and ask:]‘Why are you circling from the left?’ [S/He would answer:]’Because I am a mourner!’ [and they respond:] ‘May the One Who dwells in this house comfort you.’ [Or s/he would say:] ‘I have been banned.’ According to Rabbi Meir, [they would reply:] ‘May the One Who dwells in this house put in their hearts to draw you near again.’”
While we cannot take away the suffering of the afflicted person, our task is to face the individual and extend ourselves with empathy and prayer. At the same time, the suffering individual is not to withdraw either. The Babylonian Talmud picks up the Mishnaic impulse and reinterprets the verse from this week’s Torah portion as follows: “For it was taught: ‘And he shall cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Lev 13:45).’ He must announce his trouble to the public so that they may pray for mercy on his behalf” (Nidda 66a). In this reading, announcing impurity is no longer isolating, but rather becomes a way to reclaim one’s place within the community. As Rabbi Shai Held writes in a recent d’var Torah (“Struggling with Stigma: Making Sense of the Metzora” , p. 7; available online from Mechon Hadar): “Those who are unafflicted may be tempted to look down at those who are … To be asked to pray for someone is to be charged with affirming their humanity totally and unconditionally and with cultivating empathy for them…reminding both the metzora and the community that despite illness and impurity, the metzora is still a human being who deserves and is entitled to the care and concern of the community as a whole.”
This week’s parasha thus contains an imperative to our self-understanding as a community to create a safe, open, inclusive, and caring environment. Only in this way will people who are isolated through whatever life condition find the courage to cry out and make themselves and their struggles known to us and to feel assured, that they will be embraced by a caring and empathetic community.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Making them Count
I have been doing a lot of counting this week. My sister gave birth on the seventh day of Pesach to my beautiful nephew. I have had the blessing of being with my family over these days and have joyfully offered my services as dodah (aunt). The counting began at the labor: how often are the contractions coming, how many centimeters dilated is she. And it has continued in gusto since he was born, noting his weight and length, for how long he sleeps and nurses, and making sure that he nurses at least every three hours. My sister writes everything down meticulously to keep track of his eating and digestion.
We as a people are also doing some meticulous counting right now, noting the day in the Omer cycle each evening (or in the morning if you forget). Sefirat haOmer (“counting of the sheaves of wheat”) begins on the second night of Pesach, and continues for 49 days until Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. The name Shavuot comes from the fact that it takes place seven weeks after the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest. Shavuot celebrates the end, or according to some scholars, the start, of the wheat harvest and God’s bounty in the land. The Israelites are instructed: “And you shall count off seven weeks from the day after the sabbath, and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:15-16). Sabbath here refers to the first day of the holiday and the sheaf of elevation, omer ha-tenufah, were two loaves of bread from the new wheat crop offered to God.
Our Shavuot bears little resemblance to this biblical account because the Rabbis transformed the holiday from an agricultural celebration to one of profound historical and theological meaning. We instead celebrate matan Torah, God’s giving of the Torah (Pesachim 68b), our most precious gift, as important as any agricultural sustenance. The 49 days leading up to Shavuot are an accounting and recounting of the Israelites journey from leaving Egypt and slavery and reaching Mt. Sinai and Torah, the ultimate reason for our freedom. Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar writes that “Jewish tradition, so committed to the ideal of freedom for a sacred purpose as opposed to mere freedom from external constraint, Pesach needs to lead somewhere, and Sinai-Shavuot is that destination. Counting the 49 days thus becomes an exercise in anticipating revelation… In counting these days we re-experience the excitement and anticipation that the first generation of liberated Israelites felt” (“Between Grief and Anticipation: Counting the Omer”).
Counting the Omer is a daily reminder that we are on a collective journey towards God and Torah, and that each moment in our journey matters. We recount where we have been and where we are ultimately going, but also where we are now. These are days of excitement and tension-building (!!), like a countdown, as we take a moment with intention to focus on each unique day of the Omer. By instructing us to count these in-between days from liberation to purpose, these “moments in the middle,” as my friend Alex Maged, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, calls them, we are tasked with remembering that they count as well. We live our lives mostly in the middle, in the journey between big spiritual moments. These are the moments, like the small, crucial moments in which my nephew nurses, that anticipate something much larger; a coming revelation or a growing child. By counting these moments we remember that they also count immeasurably.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain on its fireplace…
Barbecue season has officially arrived. Coincidentally, our Torah reading this week offers the instructions for the daily barbecue our ancient ancestors made in Temple times. Though the ritual laws relating to animal sacrifice have been inoperative for nearly 2,000 years, rabbis throughout the generations look to these passages for inspiration and religious guidance. One such insight comes from the small mem (pictured above) found at the beginning of Parashat Tzav.
The passage describes the olah (elevation) offering. Daily, two lambs were offered up to God and were wholly consumed on the altar. These sacrifices were not eaten by a priest or anyone else. Rather, they would remain on the altar grill (mok’dah) over burning firewood all night until the morning. When morning came, the ashes from the previous day’s offering were cleared out, a new fire was set up, and the process began all over again.
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Riminov views the instructions surrounding this ancient ritual as a recipe for service of God. “The mem is small,” he writes, “[in order to teach that] when a person performs a mitzvah, it must be felt deep, deep inside his heart, so that his soul burns within him, but the flames should not be outwardly visible to all.” This teaching views the offering on the altar as a metaphor for any mitzvah or holy act. The firewood and flames are symbols of a person’s enthusiasm. For R. Tzvi Hirsch of Riminov, the small mem teaches that passion should be felt internally, but ought not be expressed outwardly. Genine service is not flashy or showy, even though it is deeply enthusiastic.
Extending the cooking metaphor, flambe is an exciting way to cook – the flames elicit “wows” from those watching – but the real heat source is hidden beneath the grill and must be fueled and nurtured to cook something through. Likewise, when the coals are first kindled with lighter fluid, the big flames are shocking and impressive. But only once the flames die down and the coals turn white hot can the real work begin on the grill. The small mem represents that humble, internal heat source.
What role does passion play in our religious lives? Often we come to synagogue, go through the motions – stand when we’re told and bow when we’re supposed to. We give the requisite tzedakkah when asked and read the haggadah at our seder tables until people lose interest or fall asleep. But the message of the olah is that service of God should be done with fiery enthusiasm. Our prayers and other mitzvot should be performed with zest and energy. But the small mem reminds us not to confuse flashy outward demonstrations of piety with a genuine sense of devotion in one’s heart. God asks all of us to bring the fullness of our passions to the performance of mitzvot. But to do so privately and discreetly – like that small mem retreating from its place on the fiery altar.
This is part of a series Rabbi Lucas is writing on the big and small letters of the Torah
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder
The Silent Struggle: Yardena and her husband decided to get married very young, and pushed off having kids while they were still in school. As the years went by, they watched as their friends started to have one child after another, and decided they were ready. In Yardena’s mind, once she had made the decision to start the process, it would happen quickly and easily as it had seemed to for many of the women around her. After a year went by, and she had not conceived, Yardena discovered she was not ovulating and needed to take Clomoid to correct the issue. After some time she was able to conceive, but then suffered a miscarriage. To mask her pain she continued to tell friends she and her husband were not ready to have children, though this was far from the truth. Friends would ask how she was, and Yardena mustered a “fine,” so as not to reveal her struggle and sadness. Yardena met with a fertility specialist who recommended IUI (intrauterine insemination) and FSH shots, which help the eggs develop. Yardena found herself going through endless blood work, ultrasounds, waiting for weeks on end for news, and feeling discouraged. She next tried IVF, and now in addition to physical and emotional pain, she and her husband struggled under the financial burden — IVF and its medications can cost upwards of $16,000 — as it was not covered by insurance.
Yardena found it hard to continue getting together with friends who spoke of the funny and cute things their children were doing. Synagogue became an emotional minefield, starting with seeing the strollers parked at the synagogue entrance on Shabbat morning. Yardena started to pass up invitations from friends for Shabbat and holiday meals. As the years went by, she decided to keep her struggle with infertility largely to herself since she felt nobody would understand what she was going through and she did not want anyone to think there was something wrong with her. Yardena would hear people say things like, “I sneeze and get pregnant” or “All I need is for my husband to look at me and I get pregnant.” After years of trying, the IVF cycle was a success for Yardena, and though she experienced complications during pregnancy, she was able to give birth to a baby girl. Today she feels immense gratitude toward God, but also remembers that not everyone gets her happy ending. Yardena shared her story with Yesh Tikvah (“There is hope”), a Jewish community for support in fertility issues, because she knows how isolating it can be.
This Shabbat many synagogues around the country are talking about this silent struggle in order to decrease the stigma and isolation some individuals and couples feel. One in eight couples in the United States suffer from infertility, according to a 2006-2010 study by the Center for Disease Control, and 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. If you feel this personally, know that you are not alone. The Beth Am clergy and community are here to listen and support you.
The Mishnah famously teaches and it’s written in haggadot that “in every generation a person must see herself as if she went out of Egypt” (Pesachim 10:5). In Rambam’s (1135-1204) and other Sephardi haggadot however a different version of this text appears. It states, “in every generation a person is obligated to show herself as if she went out of Egypt.” What is the difference between these versions? One is about how we see ourselves and the other is about what we show and reveal to others. A miscarriage or struggle with fertility cannot be seen from the outside, and it is not always easy to tell others about the narrow place we are in or have been in even to caring friends and family.
Every person is different and will have different needs in this area, but we as a community can heighten our awareness and sensitivity to one another. We should not assume a couple or individual is experiencing infertility and offer unsolicited advice or ask questions about when they are going to have children. The best thing we can do is listen if someone reaches out to tell his or her story. Validate their feelings and let them know you will be there for them. Check in even with a text message to let them know you care, but try not to bring it up every time you see them. When hosting a meal or get-together if there are individuals who are unmarried or do not have children, make sure the conversation does not revolve around marriage and children; include everyone in conversation. Parents and grandparents can take care to be especially sensitive to their children and grandchildren in the midst of this struggle. Asking about when they will give them a grandchild can be a hurtful reminder; showing that you love your child or grandchild in their own right with or without children is important.
We can also take advice from God in this week’s parasha, Vayikra. “And he called to (Vayikra/ויקרא ) Moses, and the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of meeting, saying” (Leviticus 1:1).
Why is God’s speaking to Moses preceded by a personal call? Rashi explains that vayikra is an expression of love and care that we see every time God is about to communicate with Moses. We can do the simple but crucial act of reaching out to our friends and family to express our love for them. Our love, care, and support should precede anything else we have to say.
The Yismach Yisrael’s haggadah (18th-century hasidic) understands our passage as “in every generation a person is obligated to see her essence as if it went out of Egypt.” He writes that in every generation a person should strengthen her inner spark out of a narrow place. If you are facing fertility issues, know that your worth is immeasurable. Your inner spark, who you are innately, is worth nurturing, and your rabbis and community are here to support you.
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
A wonderful midrash responds to a logical question asked on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, during which we read about the building of the elaborate mishkan (sanctuary) in the desert. Since the Torah records that the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians of their gold and silver, we know where the precious materials for the mishkan came from. The Israelites’ flocks were the source of the material for the curtains in the mishkan. But verse after verse calls for wood. In particular, cedar wood. Where could the Israelites have found such abundant wood in the desert? The Midrash Tankhuma tells us that Jacob planted them. When he went down to Egypt, he said to his sons: “My sons, in the future you are destined to be delivered from there, and when you are redeemed, God will tell you to build Him the mishkan! So plant cedars now so that when you are told to build the mishkan, the cedars will be ready immediately.” And so they planted the trees as they were told to do.
As Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki points out, this midrash elevates the act of building to a cross-generational spiritual project. It is easy to read these parashot as a musical rendition of dry architectural plans, as if spiritual space were created just of metal, wood and well-made joints. But the midrash probes deeper, asking us to consider that the building of the mishkan was anticipated for centuries, and that generations long gone contributed to, and thus had a stake in, what was built in the desert.
What a natural linkage to our times, and to our own project of building a new sanctuary and new school building. Both for those intimately involved in the project, and those who have seen the signs and banners and renderings and capital campaign updates…and wonder when this project will be completed, it is all too easy to reduce this project to just another collection of wood and metal. And yet we should understand that Jews of yesterday and tomorrow are stake-holders in our building. Just as Jacob planned so that his descendants could find God more directly on their journey, so we plan, and invest, now so that our children and grandchildren will know how central Judaism must be in their lives.
At times, I hear this refrain, and I resonate with it: wouldn’t it be easier if this project were already done? Wouldn’t it have been simpler had we inherited this well-lit, acoustically sound grand-but-intimate sanctuary, as well as this state-of-the-art, firmly-functioning, gym-equipped school building? All fully paid for? I suppose it would be easier. But not necessarily preferable. Rabbi Suraszki also points out what was lost when the Israelites transitioned from their temporary mishkan to the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. In exchange for certainty and stability, they had to surrender the energy of building. The courage, creativity and vision that is required as builders is not as much in demand as inheritors. When the project is complete, how easy it is to take it for granted.
Of course, we’d like a healthy balance. We’d like a completed project, enabling a far-reaching and vigorous vision, so that those who come next can both inherit the fruit of our labor, and also understand the value of their own ongoing contributions.
(Oh…and if you haven’t made your commitment yet, our campaign closes on June 30th! Let’s talk…)
Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern
I Became a Bat Mitzvah
Face to face, פנים אל פנים. Think about your face. What do you look like? How do you use your face to express your feelings? When do you choose to speak, or listen, or show emotion and impressions on your face? Are you aware of the face you are making all the time? Our face is the one part of our body that we are unable to see without assistance. We need a mirror, picture, someone else to tell us we have food in our teeth, or another person’s reaction to how we are choosing to express ourselves.
16 years ago, on shabbat Ki Tisa, I chose to express my Bat Mitzvah words of Torah through the image of Moshe’s radiant face. ’ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו’ “And Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while God spoke with him (Exodus 34:29).” The effects of God’s words, ordinances and relationship had physically changed Moshe’s face. However, he did not know until he approached the people as leader and commander, and they interpreted this change to be Divinely inspired and powerful. Moshe’s face lit up, according to thirteen-year-old Me, (as well as Rambam) as a result of humility and his special relationship with God. God, with the presentation of the second set of tablets, is thought to have shared for the first time the Oral Law with Moshe. We become “enlightened” and perhaps we flush with wonder and sudden awareness of our absolute presence in a heightened moment, prompted by teachers, mentors, family and friends. How much more so Moshe after closeness with God.
Today, this parasha is more to me than just the moment of Moshe’s radiance. It is about other faces as well. In the beginning of the parasha, Moshe challenges God’s quick anger against our careless ancestors, saying, “Why, Adonai, should your anger be kindled against Your people… (32:11).” The words for anger are חרה אף, a common way to refer to God having a temper tantrum, but literally means “burning nose.” Moshe could envision God, like a teased and tormented bull, nostrils aflame and a smoke. And like a mirror held up to the unseen face, Moshe was allowed to unmask God’s face to God, consoling and tempering God’s response. And the student became the teacher.
Moshe then speaks to God face to face, פנים אל פנים, “as a man would speak to his companion (33:11).” Communicating face to face, looking into another’s eyes, and acknowledging a shared presence and closeness demands trust, security and respect. And maybe love. Intimate communication exposes vulnerabilities. We are unshielded and unable to see ourselves. And yet, we are distracted when sitting opposite someone whose back is to a mirror, drawing our attention to our own image as if to see us as the other might see us.
We are each of us both consumed in our own lives and yearning for another(s) to share with us how we are loved, perceived, heard in the world. We need to do a better job of seeing faces. Today our world is extremely small, knowing about tragedy and calamity all over, and yet we do not know these people face to face, so we hide behind computers, and phones and generously give our assistance. We need to look deeply at others and not be complacent about the “close, small world” that is digitally paraded across multiple screens, as if that is the same as being with someone. However, I can’t share the presence of me, the smell and warmth of me, or the touch of me except by being near and looking into your face. I can cry to the accompaniment of videos of far-flung sufferers, but any action I take will be remote and my deep humanity will be unshared.
However, what would the world look like if we each gave of our time, money, aid and also listened, and mirrored the faces in from of us? Our faces would become radiant! Our faces must become radiant! We must share enlightenment, anger, disappointment, fear, relief, joy and humor, as did Moshe with God. Try פנים אל פנים, “face to face”. Get close enough to be a mirror. And glow!
Prepared by Rachel Marder, Rabbinic Intern
Your Burden is My Burden
This past Monday the Jewish community in St. Louis, Missouri awoke to a vicious attack on its local Chesed Shel Emet cemetery. Over 200 headstones were found toppled or damaged. Unfortunately this is not the first act of anti-Semitism that has rattled our community this year. Some 53 Jewish community centers have received a total of 68 bomb threats in just the last six weeks. In the wake of the latest vandalism, however, an astonishing act of chesed, lovingkindness, and solidarity took place. Two Muslim-Americans launched an online fundraising campaign to repair the damage, and they have raised roughly $122,000 from over 4,186 donors just this week. Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American and an outspoken advocate for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against the State of Israel, co-led the fundraising effort with activist Tarek El-Messidi. While plenty of Jews are offended by her politics, it is hard not to be moved by this incredibly generous response from our Muslim brothers and sisters and fellow Americans.
In parashat Mishpatim, God instructs the Israelites in some basic laws for creating a just society. One of these laws concerns an Israelite’s obligation when s/he sees an enemy’s donkey collapsing under the weight of its burden. While you “would normally refrain from raising it, you must surely raise it with him” (Exodus 23:5). The Talmudic Sages understood this to mean that one should unload the burden from the animal and repeat the action even four or five times if necessary, since the verse states emphatically, “you shall surely help” (Bava Metzia 32a). It’s possible to read this verse as an act of kindness to prevent tza’ar ba’alei hayim (the suffering of living creatures). After all, while you may feel no obligation to assist an enemy, why should the innocent donkey suffer? But I believe there is a deeper message in this verse about people coming together and transcending their differences.
The verse does not say “you must surely raise it,” but rather offers a surprising construction: “you must surely raise it with him,”(Hebrew עִמּוֹ). Hizkuni, a 13th-century French commentator, argues that such a burden would be too heavy for one person to lift. It would require two people to unload it (possibly in numerous attempts), with one person standing on either side of the animal. The Talmud even teaches that if the animal’s owner sits down and says, “since it is your mitzvah, if you want to unload, unload,” you, the onlooker, are exempt from unloading the burden, because you must perform the act with the owner, provided he is physically able to (Bava Metzia 42a).
Muslim-Americans are, of course, not our enemies. And while tensions have arisen over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lately, given the political climate Jews and Muslims seem to be “forging alliances like never before” (See “How Trump’s Politics and Rhetoric are Forging Alliances Between U.S. Jews and Muslims, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2017). Now is a time for us to work together to lift each other’s burdens, especially regarding the concerns we share as Americans. The Torah’s message is clear: Your burden is my burden and my burden is your burden. Some Jews see in the president’s immigration policies, including the ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries and arrests of undocumented immigrants, echoes of their own families’ refugee stories. Because our Torah repeatedly emphasizes the mitzvah of welcoming and loving the stranger, some Jews are protesting these policies, joining in marches and prayer vigils to show solidarity with targeted groups. We also saw women from different communities supporting one another when they joined together in the Women’s March last month, co-organized by Linda Sarsour, who helped launch the stunning fundraising campaign to repair the St. Louis Jewish cemetery.
Sarsour, El-Messidi and the thousands of other Americans who have contributed to this effort to repair the cemetery and stand with the Jewish community are helping us shoulder our burden in the face of an Anti-Semitic attack. How can we stand with Muslims and other minority groups when they feel threatened? How can we show support to people in our society who are feeling oppressed and insecure? For the burden is too great for anyone to shoulder alone.
Prepared by Rebecca Schatz, Rabbinic Intern
Close your eyes. Darkness. Open your eyes. Light.
When you close your eyes, you still see: Your mind amps up with access to dreams, memories and creativity. Likewise, when our eyes are open, we sometimes do not see. Not only might we be inured to the miraculous wonders that envelope us constantly; but our other senses might be dulled in deference to eyesight.
Clear your mind…now close your eyes. What did you see? Open your eyes, and is the world more clear?
In Parashat Bo, the plague of darkness is inflicted upon the Egyptians (Exodus 10:21), “And God said to Moses, put out your hand to the heavens and there will be dark on the land of Egypt, an increasing darkness.” The midrash explains “increasing darkness” as one of growing fear and frustration as the people struggled in response, much like a victim trapped in quicksand, whose situation worsens with the writhing. The darkness was like sand between our fingers and in our lungs: Exodus Rabbah 14:1-3, “The darkness was doubled, redoubled, and thick to the degree that it was tangible.”
The text goes on to say (10:23):
לא-ראו איש את-אחיו ולו-קמו איש מתחת שלשת ימים ולכל-בני ישראל היה אור במושבתם
“an [Egyptian] man did not see his brother, nor did he rise from his place for three days, but for all of B’nei Israel, there was light in their dwellings.”
This darkness was disabling, mummifying the living sufferers, and blinding them in isolation from their fellow sufferers. The Chiddushei HaRim, Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter (19th century), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidim, comments that this is the greatest darkness, when a man cannot see his fellow. “In which, a person becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow person.” If this is to happen, the person is obstructed from their own personal development as well: “…nor did he rise from his place for three days.”
If we close our eyes, we can dream, hope, and imagine the social architecture of our future. Most importantly, we can still feel those around us, seeing one another in safety, compassion and empathy. With what little light breaks through we must envision a world of caring and sharing, of community and oneness, of plurality and fairness, welcoming the stranger as we were so often strangers. This week, many of our own community, and the broader global community, stood up in this depth of dark and made sure that we had light. Made sure that we could see one another, feel each other in hugs, cries, concerns and fears. Made sure that when the dark was less thick, that the light being shown was not just to see, but to vision a world of difference. We strive to look into someone’s eyes, draw close to them and say, “I am here for you; my community and country are here for you; you matter.”
In Tractate Megillah there is a story, “Why should a blind person care whether it is dark or light? And then the following incident occurred – ‘I was once walking on a dark night when I saw a blind man walking in the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him ‘My son, why do you carry this torch?’ He said to me ‘As long as I have this torch, people see me and save me from the holes, and thorns.’”
God did not inflict darkness to blind us. God inflicted darkness to show the reliance we have on those around us, on the light that we bring to others’ lives, and that we ennoble humanity by shedding light on the world.
May we, on this Shabbat especially, reflect on the light we bring to this world and find the darknesses that are seeking our light.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder
Water is Life
In recent months, the water supply and sacred land of the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock in North Dakota have come under attack by construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The project, initially routed near Bismarck, the state capital, was deemed too risky for the water sources there given the frequency of oil spills, and so was rerouted by Standing Rock instead. Protesters call this “environmental racism.” In response, the tribe has made its rallying cry “water is life,” and, with the help of allies, is seeking to halt construction of the oil pipeline, which would run through the upper Missouri River, the only water supply for the Standing Rock reservation. While the debate rages over the pipeline’s construction, one thing is clear to me: to attack a people’s water source is an attack on its very life and dignity.
What does it mean to attack a people’s primary source of life? The first plague that God brings on the land of Egypt in this week’s parasha, Va’era, is an attack on the Egyptians’ water source, the Nile. Midrash explains that since there is little to no rainfall in Egypt, the people rely on the rising and falling Nile to water the land. God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh bathing in the Nile and say that because you have ignored God’s call to “let my people go,” God will turn the water in the Nile into blood, cutting off the Egyptians’ life source and killing all life in the river. If water signifies a living people and tradition, then blood signifies the slaughter of that people and their way of life.
In response to Pharaoh’s and Egyptian society’s callousness and oppression of the Israelites’ dignity, God punishes Egypt by removing that which sustains it and allows the people to provide for themselves. In other words, God takes away their dignity. A midrash explains that because the Nile was Egypt’s water source, it was also considered a deity. “Why were the waters first smitten with blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile, and God said, “I will smite their god first and then his people’” (Shemot Rabbah 9:9), alluding to the final plague, makat b’khorot, the slaying of the first-born son. The first step toward killing the Egyptian people is destroying their water source.
The latest attempt with the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to destroy the Lakota tribe at Standing Rock follows a history of genocide, broken promises, land theft, missionizing, and cultural oppression of Native Americans in this country. We should hear this story and recall our people’s suffering in Egypt, Europe, and elsewhere. Our story links us to other peoples who have endured oppression and survived. The Torah urges us as a result of our experience to recognize the sanctity in all human life. We are instructed not to oppress the stranger “for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (23:9). Our story is meant to teach us empathy. While the Native Americans are not strangers in their land, this pipeline seeks to separate this people from their land and water, rendering them strangers to each other.
Water is a frequent metaphor for Torah in Rabbinic tradition. Just as water bubbles forth, gives life, and is capable of transforming an arid place into a thriving place, so too is wisdom from Torah never-ending, sustaining of human life, and transformative. In a midrash on a verse about the Israelites’ journey, “They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water” (Exodus 15:22), some rabbis of the Talmud explain this to mean that the Israelites went three days without Torah and became exhausted as a result. For this reason, it was instituted that they should read Torah three times a week (Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday), just as we do today, “so they should not be kept for three days without Torah” (Bava Kama 82a). You could say that for the Jewish people “Torah is life.”
What should we do when the values of our “water” are under attack, when empathy and dignity of human life are challenged? Let us stand with Standing Rock, advocate for the protection of their water source, and pray that “justice will well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern, Rebecca Schatz
In honor of 3 birthdays: my brothers Jonah and Sammy and my grandfather Bill Goodglick – for teaching me to lead with my feet, and to be honest, kind and intentional with my words
On January 16, the nation celebrated a man for whom there are 4 famous words associated, “I have a dream.” Today, the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are more powerful, poignant and pressured than at any other time I can recall. As our government transitions into new hands, it is easy to fear that liberal religious tolerance is targeted, stereotypes are heightened and social justice is threatened.
We began the week in memory of Dr. King as well as with the start of reading a new book of Torah. By chapter 4 of Parashat Shemot, we are already immersed in stories of Moses as anxious and self-conscious in his newfound leadership. In verses 15-16 God tries to calm and prepare Moses for his important leadership role by saying:
“You shall speak to [Aaron], and you shall put the words into his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you both [as to] what you shall do.
And [Aaron] will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader.”
Moses’ birth story aside, this is an insecure, shy, stuttering spokesperson through whom God will invent a new nation, a new kind of people, a new way of understanding a community’s bonds to the divinity of its Creation and to each of its people, low or high. What kind of a leader is Moses? Torah teaches that we are led by following the actions, the compassions, the visions and the moral conflicts that trail-blaze a new legacy. Dr. King, unlike Moshe, was not cotton-mouth muzzled and he spoke as the greatest prophets spoke. He also sacrificed physically and emotionally to lead with his body and soul, marching arm-in-arm with activists, stepping first, like Nachshon, into the, as-yet unmoved, depths of stillness and hatred.
As Jews, one of the most famous aspects of the March on Selma, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s infamous “praying with our feet” mantra. In our parasha, Aaron and Moshe are tasked with the management of a people. However, the leader is Moshe because he acts, he does not just preach or speak for others, he fights for “the other” and their rights to become unified with the worldly whole. “I will be with your mouth and his mouth.” God was with the words of Aaron and the character of Moshe.
With this sermon begins a week of change for our country. A moment where we pray for Dr. King’s sermon to ring true in all communities, for Rabbi Heschel’s mantra to jump people on to their feet to make the change they wish to see and to listen for the Godliness in our voices. Choose words of leadership, of power, of criticism and of praise carefully. God is with our mouths and we must be both Aaron and Moshe. We must act and speak for action. But first we listen. We must listen to lead, and speak to motivate others to find the courage in themselves to be leaders. I pray that this Shabbat you find your voice, the voice that speaks truth and honesty for you as a leader of the Jewish people.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
Joseph lived to see children of the third generation (shileishim) -Genesis 50:23
The book of Genesis begins with an open letter and ends with a closed one. The big bet at the beginning of the B’reisheet is bookended by the big mem sofit in this week’s parshah, Vayehi (pictured above)1. The passage describes Joseph, at the end of his life, appreciating his family and considering his legacy. The big mem appears at the end of the word shileishim – third generation. Like kaf, nun, peh, and tzadi, mem is one of the letters in the Hebrew language that takes a final form – meaning, it looks different when it occurs at the end of the word. Perhaps the large final mem is calling attention to the fact that the book is coming to a close.
The Hebrew letters are considered to have mystical qualities. Even the shapes of the letters themselves are imbued with significance. Ancient rabbis appreciated the openness of the letter bet with which the Torah began (pictured below). R. Levi points out that the bet is closed on all sides except for the one to its left. In a right to left language, the bet serves as an open bracket. Extrapolating, R. Levi suggests that we ought not philosophize about what came before the moment of creation, but rather to focus our mental energy on everything that happened from that moment onwards.2
Similarly, commentators see significance in the shape of the final mem. The mem sofit is a closed letter – a complete square – and is thus seen as a symbol of completion and finality. One commentator3 on the mem in this week’s parshah calls our attention to another anomalous mem later in the Bible. In Isaiah 9:6 (pictured below), tradition prescribes that the mem in the word l’marbeh be written in the closed form, despite its position at the beginning of a word. This tradition, ostensibly breaks the rules of the Hebrew language and the sight of it is surprising to the Hebrew reader.
The passage in Isaiah describes the end of days when a Messiah from the Davidic line will usher in an era of peace. These two exceptional mems are pointing to some poetic message about sacred endings.
The story that began with the creation of the universe, ends with an image of an elderly man, imparting his wisdom and blessings to children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Genesis is a book of beginnings, it tells us about where we come from. But it is also has a vision of where we are headed. On the personal level, each of us is asked to consider the end of our days. What wisdom do we wish to transmit to future generations? How might we live our lives today, so that when that day comes, we can greet it with equanimity. On a human level, Genesis hints at the end of all time – when we believe a more peaceful and just era will supplant the current reality. In this subtle way, Genesis is a book that encompasses all time – from the very beginning to the very end. As we close this book, we hope that its inspiration has brought us closer to the Bible’s vision of a more complete world. Such a vision begins with achieving peace in a single family and ripples outward to the entire universe.
1 Many Torah scrolls (including at least five at Temple Beth Am) do not reflect the tradition in Mahzor Vitry to make this mem large. There are different scribal traditions relating to the big and small letters.
2 B’reishit Rabba 1:10
3 Mahari Katz – Hosafot L’fa’aneah Raza
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
I have been thinking a lot recently about the spirit. The soul. The part of us that is clearly us, but is ethereal and non-tangible. The part one cannot locate in any spot in our physiology, but which is essentially us.
I think about this when I counsel and comfort the bereaved, and encourage them to lean in to the notion that there can be relationship beyond what is corporeal; that one can love a soul even if one cannot hug it. I think about this when I think, when I hope, when I fantasize… and I wonder who or what is the actual force within me producing those thoughts, hopes and fantasies. Can it really be reduced to pure physiology, neurotransmitters, axons and neural pathways? Is there an “I” that is beyond my cell structure?
And I think about this when I consider a lovely teaching about Hanukkah by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, who was the first rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidic dynasty. He notes that for most Jewish holidays the primary symbol is a tactile one. Most of our symbols have physicality: the matza on Pesah which we can hold, crumble and taste (OK…not much taste, but you get the picture); the sukkah on Sukkot which we build, sit within and are physically protected by…not to mention the lulav and Etrog which we cradle, wave and smell. Against that norm, Rabbi Shneur Zalman notes that Hanukkah seems to stand apart. Its primary symbol is utterly non-tangible. It is light. Flame. The piercing of darkness. One can see a flame, feel its heat and sense its warmth. One can attempt to follow the contours of a flickering candle, but it is elusive, dancing and changing its shape constantly, pushing the observer to wonder in what way this flame, this “thing” actually and tangibly exists. According to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, this is apt because the message of Hanukkah is about the triumph of the spirit, the Jewish will; Hanukkah is meant to celebrate and release Jewish light.
The Jewish spirit is indeed strong. Not always (ever?) fully unified. But persistent and determined, across generations and transcending calamities. And we are entering (or are already in the midst of) an era in which that very intangible Jewish spirit will be tested in meaningful ways, and through which, therefore, Hanukkah’s enduring message will need to be broadcast and lived out beyond the last week of December. When Jews in Whitefish, Montana, including a rabbinic colleague of mine, are targets of severe, Nazi-overtoned anti-Semitic hatred in response to their organizing in order to reinforce that Whitefish is not a city of hate despite its being the home city of Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi who coined the term “alt-right, and the city in which his mother still resides…the Jewish spirit is tested. When a Jewish family feels pressure to flee, anonymously, Lancaster, PA after threats against them accusing them of using their “Jewish influence” to cancel the local public school’s production of a Christmas-themed show…the Jewish spirit is tested. And when our country, historically the most embracing of Jews and Judaism of any country to ever exist, finds itself painfully divided, with identified and proud Jews spread out across the political spectrum and set of arguments; and when accusations fly regarding who, after all, owns the larger piece of the “Jewish truth” and “Jewish morality” pie as pertains to America’s policies and parties…the Jewish spirit is tested.
We all exemplify and thus will release Jewish light differently. Some of it extends from our particular educations and the accidents of our birth and circumstances. Some of that difference emanates from reasoned and thoughtful distinctions about what Torah means, and ought to mean. Some of that variety is untraceable, connected to each of our truly unique and inimitable—and intangible—spirits which flicker inside of us. I proffer no hope that we will or should all agree. But I do hope that this Hanukkah season will awaken the truest and brightest lights within us all, and encourage each of us to use our flame to illumine whatever it is we feel is most darkened.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
Then Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and he fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept. –Genesis 33:4
Jacob and Esau were rivals from the womb, which sets the stage for an emotionally charged reunion in Parashat Vayishlah. Jacob splits his camp into two lest Esau approach with violent intentions. After years apart, Jacob is unsure if Esau is still filled with rage. Does he still harbor resentment over the stolen birthright? At this moment of peak tension, the text reports that “Esau ran to greet him and he hugged him and fell on his neck and he kissed him and they wept,” (Genesis 33:4) The reader breathes a sigh of relief. The brothers soften and, ostensibly, experience a genuine moment of reconciliation.
But there is a rabbinic debate over the sincerity of this exchange that hinges on a striking textual anomaly. In the Torah scroll, the word, “vayishakeyhu – and he kissed him” has dots over each letter in the word (see picture above). There are nine other instances of these dots in scripture and many believe that they serve the function of highlighting a word as dubious to the original text. Rather than erase a word from the Torah, scribes indicate their suspicion by putting dots over the letters. The tradition seems to be skeptical of Esau’s kiss. Rashi comments that the dots serve as a hint that “Esau did not kiss [Jacob] with his whole heart.” In that same midrash, Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai voices a dissenting opinion that Esau’s kiss was, in fact, sincere. The dots appear to capture the Jewish ambivalence towards a powerful older brother figure extending a gesture of love and rapprochement. Given the Jewish historical experience, one can hardly blame the rabbis who suspect that Esau may be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Another tradition tells a fantastic story about this moment of brotherly embrace. In a clever play on words, B’reishit Rabbah suggests that Esau did not come to kiss him (לנשקו – lenashko), but rather to bite him ( לנשכו – lenashkho). According to this midrash, a miracle happened at this moment — Jacob’s neck turned into marble. Both brothers then proceeded to cry – Jacob on account of his neck and Esau on account of his teeth. This interpretation subverts the plain meaning of the story in the text. Tears that appeared to be expressions of emotional release and love are recast as tears of pain. Although not explicit in the midrash, I always imagined that this interpretation viewed the dots above the letters as bite marks on Jacob’s neck.
Was it a genuine moment of reconciliation (a la R. Shimon b. Yochai) or was this yet another instance of the aggressive Esau attempting to hurt his younger twin? Perhaps in the debate over these mysterious dots we can find a rorschach test for our own willingness to trust those who were once our enemies. I’ve spoken with siblings who have clashed throughout the years and now wonder if an overture made by a sibling is sincere. A couple who has endured a contentious divorce wonder if they can trust their former life partner. The same is true of political rivals. When Sadat came to visit Jerusalem in 1977, I imagine there were many who were suspicious of his motives. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands at Camp David, many wondered if he could be trusted. Sticking out one’s neck to embrace an enemy is fraught with fear and vulnerability, but it also opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation and peace. Without the courage to risk being hurt in our relationships, we can expect the cycles of anger and pain to persist. A kiss is awfully close to a bite – may we be wise and cautious like Jacob taking tactical measures to protect ourselves and the ones we love from harm. And may we also find the inner courage of Jacob to be open to embracing our enemies with hopes for peace even at great personal risk.
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
This drash is written in honor of my brother, Jacob Lev’s, 24th birthday for embodying what it truly means to be a thoughtful, spiritual man of full-‐heart:
Stop for a moment and focus on your heart. Notice your breathing. Listen to the thumping, rhythmic beats. Watch your belly rise and fall. Now try and feel your heart. Some feel pain, others love. Some feel wholeness, others brokenness. Some feel full, others feel vast. Our heart is the most important muscle in our body, not only Flowing with and pumping blood through our organs but, as the Gemara translates, our לב (lev), is also our mind. Feelings often generate how we think, how productive we can be, how we choose to motivate ourselves to act on and what to learn about in order to effect change. Our heart connects us to our mind; the most spiritual affirmations to our most physical sustenance.
In Va’yetzei, Jacob steals a heart. Jacob, having now both Rachel and Leah as his wives, wants to return to his father and his homeland, and sneaks away not saying goodbye to Lavan or anyone else in the community:
ויגנב יעקב את לב לבן הארמי על בלי הגיד לו כי ברח הוא
“And Jacob stole the heart of Lavan the Arami, for not telling him that he was Fleeing.”
Lavan’s daughters are his life, his physical and spiritual nourishment. When they are gone, his source of life is as if stolen. The Torah could have used the word “broken” or “crushed,” instead the word “stolen” is repeated multiple times in Genesis chapter
31. There is no sense of Lavan’s heart still being within his body to be crushed or broken, without his family. It is as if there is a hole left where this vital organ used to pump life. Therefore, though Jacob intends to enliven his family with bringing Rachel and Leah home, does he consider the emotional consequences thrust on Lavan and everyone of that household as a result of his actions?
Empty hearted, Lavan goes on a search to revive himself by Finding Jacob and his daughters. Once upon them, he says to Jacob:
מה עשית ותגנב את לבבי ותנהג את בנתי כשביות חרב
“What did you do that you stole my heart and you treated my daughters like prisoners of war?!”
The Netziv, Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin of the 19th century, says that geneivat ha-‐lev, the stealing of Lavan’s heart, has to do with Jacob showing, in his taking away of Rachel and Leah, that he does not love or honor them as any father would want their daughters to be loved. Lavan’s heart was “stolen away” by Jacob’s actions. Even if Jacob is correct, to leave with Rachel and Leah expands?? Jacob’s heart and yet leaves Lavan void. The image above shows a person stealing another’s heart, usually connoting falling in love, however, from the visual we see that the person stealing now has two hearts, leaving the other empty, without anything.
Focus back on your heart. Feel the beating, notice your breathing, watch your belly rise and fall. This is all possible because you have a heart. No, I do not mean a physical organ pumping blood, I mean family, friends, community, tradition, religion, social justice, etc. You have aspects of your life that keep you going, that keep the blood Flowing. Lavan knew, from the absence of his family that to be a Godly, full man, he needed them in his life. It’s hard to know if Jacob and Lavan are ever resolved in their hearts, which makes it all the more important that when we feel unresolved or have our hearts stolen, that we do the things we need to do to help our hearts keep beating. What makes up your heart? Without what in life would your heart be stolen? I pray for us this Shabbat that we take time to recognize the drumming of our heart, what keeps it beating, and keep Filling it with spiritual and personal nourishment.
Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas
And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. – Genesis 23:2
When Abraham learned of the death of his wife Sarah, the Torah tells us that he “proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her (v’livkotah).” By tradition, the letter kaf in the middle of the word “and to weep over her” (pictured above) is written smaller than the other letters. Elsewhere, I’ve written about how this scriptural oddity is the source of a debate over how much Abraham cried while mourning Sarah – some argue that it was minimal, others that it was excessive.
Read another way, however, the small kaf hints at a different matter entirely. If we remove the kaf from the word “and to weep over her (v’livkotah),” the meaning of the verse changes. Without the kaf, the word “livkotah” reads – “ul’vitah – Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and for her daughter.” Did Abraham and Sarah have a daughter that the Torah did not mention? Rabbeinu Ephraim, one of the medieval Tosafists and Rabbi Judah of the ancient midrash suggest that, in fact, they did. According to their interpretation, Abraham cried not only because his wife had died, but also because she didn’t live to see her children marry. Neither Isaac nor this unknown daughter was married by this point in the text.
Female characters are often left out of the narrative of the Torah or they appear as supporting characters to the male heroes of the story. For example, Lot’s wife doesn’t have a name. Neither does Pharaoh’s daughter who was instrumental in rescuing and raising Moses. An ancient midrash says that there were female twin siblings corresponding to each of the twelve tribes, but we don’t know much about them either.
How does our understanding of the story of the first Jewish family change if we imagine that there was a daughter in the tent? We might wonder what her experience was like growing up alongside Isaac and Ishmael. The Torah does not record her thoughts or her statements, but surely she had influence on the life of their family.
Perhaps we can learn from her absence as well. Too often, women’s voices and insights are minimized (like the diminutive letter) in patriarchal societies. In a recent article in Lilith Magazine, Claire Landsbaum describes how female staff members’ contributions in the Obama White House were often overlooked by their male counterparts. So women worked together and “adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” It appears that we still have much work to do in honoring and recognizing the contributions of women as equal in the workplace, in religious life, as well as in popular culture. Famously, the Bechdel test measures whether or not TV or movies depict two women engaging in dialogue about a topic other than a man. Surprisingly (or not) many movies fail this test.
Those of us in the Jewish world who are committed to rectifying the historic and ongoing inequality between men and women can learn from the small kaf in Parshat Hayyei Sarah. Perhaps, hiding in that small letter is a hint at a Biblical character whom we didn’t get to know because the Torah didn’t tell us the details about her life and journeys. One way we can honor the memory of Abraham’s daughter is to uncover and recover these voices unrecorded by history and ensure that all voices are equally respected in our society,
Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rebecca Schatz
Sometimes we might need to be a parent to God. Take God by the ears and exhort, “Look at us, listen to what we’re saying and focus on what we need.” We’re not exactly asking, yet we’re not commanding, but we are assertive! Perhaps we’re offering a parent’s guidance – us as parent, God as child. We all know, any family relationship can be fraught with challenge.
Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:
There’s one sad truth in life I’ve found
While journeying east and west –
The only folks we really wound
Are those we love the best.
We flatter those we scarcely know,
We please the fleeting guest,
And deal full many a thoughtless blow
To those who love us best.
In parashat va’yera, we are introduced to some uncomfortable stories of parents and children, including Lot with his daughters, the Akeidah, and the confusion that is Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael all defining “family.” Sarah feels threatened by the dynamic with Hagar and Ishmael, as part of the family, and pressures Abraham to remove them from the home, away from Isaac. Abraham recoils, but is told by God to heed Sarah, and that Ishmael “will be a nation because he is of your seed.” Hagar leaves with Ishmael, and while traveling through the desert, runs out of water. Ishmael looks as those he may die, and Hagar walks away from watching his suffering “and she raised her voice and wept.”
Interestingly, the next verse tells us, “And God heard the lad’s voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice in the place where he is.’” The mother cries out and the child’s voice is heard? This verse, Gen 21:17, is textually problematic and yet surprisingly comforting. God, in the role of parent, is moderating the reaction of God’s child, Hagar, verbalizing for her exactly what is happening and how it will be all right. Here is something so psychologically astute and emotionally satisfying – Hagar as a child of God while also the mother of Ishmael. A voice heard for the one that is silent.
We do not know what Hagar raises her voice to say, yell or exclaim, but it must have been through Ishmael’s voice, connected to his heart. God realizes Ishmael’s pain through his mother’s anguish. Our parents often carry our anxiety, excitements, future fears and hopes of accomplishments, but not often enough do we, the children, realize what is happening. God knows our innermost thoughts and connections. Therefore, Ishmael says nothing but God hears his voice through Hagar’s depression and concern. The angel then told Hagar to pick up Ishmael, and place him in her arms, as if only in this familial connection can they believe they have a future, and espy the well that will revive their lives.
This parasha reminds us of the significance and sanctity of relationship, the connectedness that should allow us to hear or speak for one another. We should be able to cry out for one another, and we should model a temperate and reasoned response to harm, especially when it will bring support or comfort. We should cry in one voice, desire to yell with one voice and rejoice in celebrating with one voice. Who do you listen to? Who do you wish to claim as influence to your voice? Let us all go in to the next week recognizing that which keeps our community feeling supported, cared for, and ultimately united. May we be one community of all human kind, one nation of quilted races and religions, one voice of harmonious song, and a people who take action knowing that love is love is love is love is love.