Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests
Something (Nerve-wracking, but Amazing) From Nothing
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Writers and artists speak of the terror of the blank page. It eventually must be filled with words, images, concepts. But the blankness of that unwritten document can taunt. The blankness isn’t even a thing. It is the absence of a thing. But it is still sufficiently material that it can torment.
I feel a similar terror every time we start planning Hama’alot, our occasional in-the-round, harmony-rich, inventive/creative/spiritual Shabbat morning service (though, in this extended COVID era, I miss that service so much!). Why? Because the notion of Hama’alot is that we begin curating it as a blank slate. Sure, we have the basic structure of a Shabbat AM service as a skeleton. But all the muscle, fiber, sinew and flesh of that service’s body must be created, by us, ex nihilo, something-from-nothing, from scratch. And even if the stakes are relatively low, I feel terror in the first 10 minutes of that first planning meeting. What will we create? And how will we do it?
The terror, and also the potential, of that blankness inform much of traditional commentary on the two somewhat inscrutable Hebrew words the Torah uses to describe the universe before, well, before it was the universe. It is hard to conceptualize pre-reality. Physicists and Torah-commentators grapple with this same conundrum, albeit in different ways. What was, before there was something? And how do you describe it? The Torah describes the pre-creation state of the Universe as תהו ובהו (tohu vavohu). Any attempt to translate directly veers into commentary, however unintended. “Formless and void” (or something similar) is how it is often rendered into English. That framing may be linguistically and etymologically accurate. But it lacks the emotion and drama with which that verse and phrase seems to be pregnant.
Rashi adds part of what is missing. Reading tohu from the root ת-ה-ה meaning wonder/shock, he says that the abject emptiness that existed (even the word “exist” in that phrasing doesn’t seem right. How can nothingness exist?) was so empty, so void, that it would have astonished any observer of it. Put aside the impossibility of the image, of a person with consciousness actually beholding this pre-Universe moment. Focus on the emotion. Utter emptiness is shocking and astonishing, and can fill a person with dread. Rashi’s comments remind me of the feeling, to which it is hard to assign words, that wells up inside me as I try to imagine the edges of the universe, and the endless expanse of time into the future. I can’t really apprehend it, and it is terrifying.
Rabbi Ovadiah S’forno, an Italian commentator from the 16th Century focuses less on the terror of that emptiness, and more on the awesome potential it augured. He says tohu references the raw, inchoate materials that would eventually turn into the universe. Even the tohu was newly created, itself ex nihilo (meaning, he doesn’t believe the Torah is trying to explain pre-Creation, but rather the earliest, primordial materials of Creation itself.) And why, then, is it called tohu? Because of the wonder of what could be. In his words, “It is described as tohu to indicate that at that point it was merely something which had potential, the potential not yet having materialized, been converted to something actual.” He likens it to a verse in Samuel 1 (12:21) where tohu seems to refer to phenomena that exist only in someone’s imagination, but are not (yet) real. So the tohu of creation existed in God’s imagination, as it were. God had to stare at that blank canvas, both terrified at the task ahead, and awed by what might be coaxed out of that nothingness.
If we piece Rashi’s and Sforno’s commentary together, we have an emotional and spiritual paradigm through which to confront all the blank pages of our lives—all our new days, our un-lived moments, our fresh starts and our looming tasks. It is normative to be astonished by the seemingly endless lack of something, especially when the pressure to turn it into something is upon one’s shoulders. And it is equally normative to be astonished, in the positive sense of the word, of the human ability, itself an extension of the same quality of the Holy One, to create from new, to fill that blankness with something worthy and beautiful, and to convert tohu and vohu, formless emptiness, into astonishingly wonderful universes. That has been our task since God formed us, from the same primordial juice with which the Universe was created, and it remains our task today.
As we confront a scary world, with more and more landscapes presenting themselves as overwhelming in their newness and with their prodigious challenges, let us take a deep breath, confront the enormity of the nothingness staring us in the face, and go create the world.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
- Erev Rosh Hashanah 9/18/20
- Nitzavim-Vayelekh 9/5/20
- Ki Teitze 8/29/20
- Shoftim 8/21/20
- Eikev 8/8/20
- Devarim 7/25/20
- Matot-Masei 7/18/20
- Pinhas 7/11/20
- Korah 6/27/20
- Shelakh-Lekha 6/20/20
- Beha-Alotekha 6/13/20
- Naso 6/6/20
- Bamidbar 5/23/20
- Behar-Behukotai 5/16/20
- Emor 5/9/20
- Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5/2/20
- Ta'azria-Metzora 4/24/20
- Shemini 4/18/20
- Neshama Minyan D'rash: Fire from Before God 4/17/20
- Tzav 4/4/20
- Vayikra 3/28/20
- Ki Tissa 3/14/20
- Tetzaveh 3/7/20
- T'rumah 2/29/20
- Mishpatim 2/22/20
- Yitro 2/15/20
- Vaera 1/25/20
- Shemot 1/18/20
- Vayehi 1/11/19
- Vayigash 1/4/20
- Miketz 12/28/19
- Vayeshev 12/21/19
- Vayishlah 12/14/19
- Vayetze 12/7/19
- Toldot 11/30/19
- Hayei Sarah 11/23/19
- Vayera 11/16/19
- Lekh-Lekha 11/9/19
- Noah 11/2/19
- B'reisheet 10/26/19
- Vayelekh 10/5/19
Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
I walk into a patient’s room. He’s a Jewish man in his mid-sixties, in a lot of pain due to pancreatitis. I introduce myself as a Jewish chaplain intern, enrolled in the hospital’s summer training program, which impressively managed to stay active during the pandemic. He looks at me, puzzled, and says, “Well, rabbi, what would you like to do? I suppose we could say the Shema if you like.” This makes me laugh because I can’t tell if he legitimately wants to say the Shema or if he hopes that reciting it will make me go away. I tell him I’m here to support him and that we don’t have to pray, we can just talk. He says he’s in too much pain to talk, but that he’d really like to recite the Shema. So we do. He closes his eyes and I close mine. “She-ma yis-ra-el…,” and we sing together until “e-chad.” I open my eyes, but his are still closed. I realize what’s about to happen, just as he continues, “V’ahavtah…” All of a sudden, this man who is in too much pain to talk voluntarily opts for the long version.
I think moments like that are what’s meant by spiritual care. Unlike doctors, our goal isn’t to “fix” problems. Our job is “Hineni.” Hineni means “I am here.” It’s the title of the Hazzan’s prayer that begins the Musaf service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s how Abraham responds to God’s call and to his son before the Akeida, the binding of Isaac.
Hineni is a declaration of preparedness. It means showing up. It signals a desire to actively listen, without judgment or preconceived notions, to the one who calls. In a hospital setting, Hineni is perhaps the greatest spiritual gift chaplains offer patients, who often feel - especially now – like they are alone and lack control over what happens to their lives and to their bodies. But it’s also the greatest spiritual gift we offer ourselves. In empathizing with others – in seeing them, hearing them, and recognizing their human dignity without claiming to “know what they’re going through” - we become the fullest, most present version of ourselves. We experience the Divine through relationship and through Hineni.
As we enter Erev Rosh Hashanah and the new year of 5781, our world – our country – is physically and spiritually unwell. On top of climate change, we are confronted with the dual pandemics of COVID and systemic racism. One is novel, the other is not. Both have contributed to a profound sense of lack of control over what happens to lives and to bodies. We are each entitled to our different opinions as to how to “fix” these issues. But what I’m interested in now is how we chaplain one another through this time. How do we see each other the way we deserve to be seen? Hear each other the way we deserve to be heard? How do we quiet the voice that prevents us from listening to each other’s unique suffering and experience?
In 1967, the American novelist, playwright, and essayist, James Baldwin, speaking from his own perspective as an African-American man living in Harlem, writes about the dynamic he observes between white-passing Jews and black people in his neighborhood. He does not account for the experience of Jews of color, and like anyone else, can only represent his own opinions. But he makes the stirring claim that when Jews invoke their own history of unfathomable suffering in the attempt to communicate an understanding of black suffering in America, that - and I paraphrase - it does not increase a black person’s understanding; it increases a black person’s rage. When I read this, it immediately reminded me of what they taught me this summer. A chaplain seeks to understand another person’s suffering, but knows that this can never actually be achieved. Similarly, I think that Baldwin is saying that shared experience of suffering can certainly compel groups of people to join hands and march together, but it cannot convince us that we know what the other is going through.
This year, I wanted to avoid the temptation to talk about Hineini as an abstract call for presence, though we can all certainly benefit from that reminder. Instead, I want to invite us to be spiritually present for each other, to chaplain a country towards recovery, and to respond to the suffering of others not with the presumption to know but with the holy desire to show up, to be present, and to listen. After all, that’s what “Shema” means. Our
central creed is a commitment to active listening – “Hear, O Israel.” Our path to oneness - “Adoshem Elokeinu, Adoshem Echad” – is through the recognition of our common humanity and separate experience simultaneously. We can close our eyes and think our work is done. Or we can realize that “Ve’ahavtah,” the triumph of love over hate, is the long and painful version. But we’re not going anywhere. We’re here. Hineini.
Is the Torah Written in Stone?
Rachel Cohn, TBA Rabbinic Intern
We all have our own rituals that make a new house feel like a home. When I move into a new place (after putting up mezuzot), I love to set up a spot in the kitchen where I can make smoothies. My husband likes to stake his claim for a gardening spot. For others, it might be putting up a familiar painting, hanging up photographs of loved ones, or taking out your favorite coffee mug for the first cup brewed in your new abode. Whatever our particular rituals might be, we all look for the signs that this new space reflects who we are and who we hope to become while living there.
In Ki Tavo, the Israelites get some intriguing decorating advice for when they enter their new home of the promised land. They are told that when they come into the land, they are to set up large stones. God explains, “coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) Nothing says “welcome home” like a giant list of your community’s laws, norms, and values!
What exactly was written on these giant communal structures? Rabbis throughout history have pictured it differently. Rashi (writing in the 11th Century) suggests it is the entire Torah written in 70 languages. Ramban (12th Century) indicates it is the text of Genesis through Deuteronomy as we know it today, including even the decorative letters with crowns. Ibn Ezra (11th Century), quoting Rav Saadyah Gaon (10th Century), explains it is a list of the 613 commandments, as recorded in the book “Halachot Gedolot” of their time. It seems that in the collective rabbinic imagination, these stones became somewhat of a “blank slate” for understanding Torah in each age.
Perhaps these seemingly magical stones have room enough for each of these images of Torah and more. Almost like the “room of requirement” in Harry Potter, it seems these stones have the ability to take on the form of what people need from Torah at a given time. As the Medieval halakhic authority Rabbi Jacob ben Asher posits: “Either the stones were exceedingly large, or there was a miracle that enabled the scribes to accomplish this.” It is indeed part of the miraculous nature of Torah that it can speak to each of us. What makes the Torah’s words indelible is not the fact that they were literally transcribed in stone, but rather that they have the ability to reach out to us across time and space.
In this Elul season of introspection, we have the opportunity to carve out a new spiritual home for ourselves in the year ahead. We can take stock of our values and find the teachings that guide us. What are the pieces of Torah you are prepared to stand by? What are the words or values you believe firmly enough to write them in stone and protect them for generations to come? Let us add to the chain of wondrous revelation by living our lives in such a way that we ourselves stand as enduring reminders of Torah in our time.
The Trail of Goodness
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Last week a dear colleague got an email from a congregant at a shul my friend left over twenty years ago. The two had barely been in touch in the interim. The congregant was retiring, and assessing his life and his life’s work. He decided one thing he could, and thus should, do is reach out to those who had had a positive impact on his life in order to express gratitude, and let people know what a powerful influence they had been. This congregant had converted to Judaism under my friend’s supervision. He had kashered a home, and launched a life in which he was committed to raising Jewish children. Mostly, according to this colleague, the congregant learned mentshlikhkeit and a new level of supreme kindness from my friend. Now, decades later, he was calling to say thanks.
My friend said this was one of the most touching and important communications of his rabbinate. To think that seeds he planted years ago had grown inside this other person in such a way was almost too rich, too overwhelming to bear, in a positive sense. As we spoke about it, it got us both thinking about legacy, and the trail of goodness we hope our lives will have left. And, concomitantly, it made us think about the other side of the coin: the damage it is so easy for people to do (ourselves included, we are sure) when we set the poor example and lead people astray, whether intentionally or not.
A fascinating, and clearly against-the-grain, commentary on the laws of “the rebellious child” by the Kotzker Rebbe (R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, 18th-19th c., Poland) amplifies the power of setting examples, and (im-)proper instruction. The challenging verses that seem to require executing a deviant child (a requirement, I should add, which is so heavily qualified in rabbinic law that it essentially ceases to exist) begin with describing such a child as בן סורר ומורה. Ben sorer umoreh. Roughly translated as “wayward and rebellious.” Rashi cryptically comments that this child is judged “על שם סופו” (al shem sofo), or “based on his end.” This seems to mean a rabbinic version of “Minority Report”, where the law hands down the sentence based on what we presume this criminal will become and will do, by the end of his life. The Kotzker rebbe cannot accept that Rashi would embrace such a draconian execution of judgment, noting other places where Rashi clearly says that a person is judged in the present tense only, for current sins, not future ones. Rather, the Kotzker reads Rashi’s use of סופו/sofo to mean not “the end” of his life, but “the end” of the full phrase of “ben sorer umoreh.” For this awful circumstance to be contemplated even in theory, the Kotzker reasons, the child must not only be wayward/rebellious (sorer) but also a moreh. Meaning what? Moreh comes from the verb להורות/l’horot. To instruct, or to teach. (As such, it is also the root of the word Torah itself, which at its core means “instruction.” Rebelliousness and waywardness goes from sinful to tragic, from problematic to unforgivable, when it infects others. When a transgressor brings along others along the path of evil, seducing followers to violate essential norms, then we are not just seeing the breakdown of a life, but rather of a society.
Still, I would argue that the Kotzker embraces the rabbis’ qualification, limitation and essential elimination of this category and punishment. I don’t think he was suggesting that even a charismatic youth who enticed his peers to join his rebelliousness would warrant execution. Rather, he was asking us to check ourselves so that our own vices have limits, and do not spill out onto others. We must be humbly aware of where we stray, and also ferociously guarded so that what we are sharing with others, how we are influencing others, is nearly exclusively for the good. As a result of our care, modeling and focus, perhaps, years down the line, someone might reach out and say thanks.
R. Adam Kligfeld
Moving Towards Wholeness
By Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman, via Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning
There are those times when the crash of the tide of the Jewish calendar and the steady rhythm of the weekly parshiot coalesce in a breathtaking crescendo. So it is this week.
We only just inhaled deeply and welcomed the month of Elul. That Hebrew month that can stir both anticipation and utter dread, knowing that the intensity of the High Holidays are really much closer than we had imagined, that the spiritual ferocity and elevation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only a few weeks on. And as we open our eyes and feel the presence of Elul sitting alongside us, Parshat Shoftim tiptoes in the backdoor with a quiet reminder, soulful guidance - garbed as battle instructions – to steady our sight on this winding and, at times, foreboding path:
Deut. 20:5 – 8 - “And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: 'What man is there that has built a new house, and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. And what man is there that has planted a vineyard, and has not eaten its fruit? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat his fruit. And what man is there that has betrothed a wife, and has not been with her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man be with her.' And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: 'What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers’ hearts melt as his heart.'”
When the People of Israel are readying their ranks for battle, the officers are instructed to pause and to offer these exemptions to the soldiers. In these four circumstances, individuals are allowed to bow out of their military service.But why are these individuals exempted? What is it about these particular situations that are exceptional, that require attention before serving the communal call of military service? In all of these cases, the individual is caught in a transitional place:
• One who has bought a home, but has not yet had the chance to live in it
• One who toiled and planted a field, but has not had the chance to taste its fruits
• One who has begun a committed relationship but has not fully realized its potential
• One who is a member of the People of Israel but has not yet summoned the inner strength and courage to stand fully and confidently with the community
Here, the Torah is tenderly and insightfully recognizing the need for individual actualization. There is an understanding, in each of these cases, that human beings need wholeness - shlemut. Wholeness in our sense of place. Wholeness in our work. Wholeness in our relationships. Wholeness in our inner lives. Before we embark on giving back to our communities – in fact, in order to give back to our communities – our individual selves, our individual paths must be on the road to actualization. The Torah knows that to rip a person midstream from a necessary journey towards realization will do harm –to the individual and the community.
Arthur Green, in his book “Seek My Face” speaks about the yearning for wholeness and the ways in which the shofar guides us there:
“This dream of restored wholeness is sounded out dramatically by the shofar blasts, the central symbolic expression of the teshuvah season. The shofar represents prayer beyond words, an intensity of longing that can be articulated only in a wordless shout. But the order of the sounds, according to one old interpretation, contains the message in quite explicit terms. Each series of shofar blasts begins with tekiyah, a whole sound. It is followed by shevarim, a tripartite broken sound who very name means ‘breakings.’ ‘I started off whole,’ the shofar speech says, ‘And I became broken.’ Then follows teruah, a staccato series of blast fragments, saying: ‘I was entirely smashed to pieces.’ But each series has to end with a new tekiyah, promising wholeness once more.”
Standing here, in the first week of the month of Elul, we begin our process of cheshbon ha’nefesh – inquiry of our souls. And as I read these psukim from Shoftim, I kept hearing the words of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” in my head. The poem, written after her recent bout with cancer, celebrates – as do so many of her poems – the breath-stopping beauty of the world, and our obligation to stop and notice and listen and fully actualize our selves in the midst of all of that wonder. She writes in the third stanza:
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.
so why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Mary Oliver and Parshat Shoftim urge us to stop and notice what needs our attention in this month of Elul.
Do our homes hold the holiness that we strive for?
Does our work allow us the opportunity to be challenged and fulfilled, to feel actualized?
Are our relationships being realized in their deepest capacity?
Are we giving enough time and energy and attention to our inner lives, in the midst of the whirlwinds forever swirling outside of ourselves?
May we use these gentle reminders in Parshat Shoftim to look with honesty at the many facets of our lives and to spend the coming weeks searching for ways to move towards wholeness and holy actualization.
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
Throughout their time in the desert, the Israelites have been picky eaters. Recall that after leaving Egypt, just one chapter after singing the Song of the Sea, they kvetched to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt...when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death!” (Exodus 16:3). Despite the squabbling, God sends manna and quail to fill their needs. Later on, another faction complains, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the green-leeks, the onions, and the garlic! But now, our throats are dry; there is nothing at all except for the manna in front of our eyes!” (Numbers 11: 4-6). When it comes to food on their forty-year trek to the promised land, it seems there is a “grass is always greener on the other side” mentality (or in this case, the meat is always tastier on the other side...of the Sea of Reeds).
In parshat Eikev, we hear of the amazing food awaiting the Israelites when they cross the Jordan into Canaan:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains of water issuing from plain and hill; A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; A land where you may eat food without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…(Deuteronomy 8: 7-9)
What would it take for the next generation of these historically finicky eaters to actually feel satisfied in the food paradise that awaits? The Israelites got all of their needs met with the manna that fell from the heavens, yet they still craved more. What would need to change in the promised land?
It seems that hunger is not only an empty stomach, but also a kind of spiritual yearning. In the episode above from Numbers, the phrase used to describe their complaint was “nafshenu yevesha,” literally, “our souls are dry.” Our physical needs can become entwined with those of the spirit. Perhaps what Moses is describing in Eikev is a state of spiritual ease, or a feeling of abundance rather than lack.
After all, God instructs us to give gratitude for the delicacies of the Holy Land with a verse that has become incorporated in our Birkat Hamazon today:
When you eat, and you are satisfied,
You are to bless the Lord your God
For the good land that God has given you.
This act of offering a blessing itself can reorient us towards the goodness of now, as well as the richness that lies ahead.
Sometimes our cravings are indeed hunger of the body. Food pantries and food banks are seeing unprecedented demand right now, with many locations also being forced to close. Any extra resources we can offer to such causes are surely their own kind of blessing.
At other times, when our bodies are nourished, our cravings can give us a window into our soul’s desires. Perhaps we feel we have been wandering in our own wilderness for too long. Perhaps we, too, are eager to find rest in a place where all our needs are provided for. At these times, finding something to bless with gratitude - a bite of food, a gorgeous rainbow, a hint of sweet spices, or otherwise - can help keep us looking forward to the promised land.
The Long Short Road: Devarim and Tisha B'Av 5780
By Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, via Orot: The Center for New Jewish Learning
“Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: Once a child got the better of me. I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, ‘Which way to the city?,’ and he answered, ‘This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.’ I took the short and long way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child, ‘My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?’ Answered the child, ‘Did I not tell you that it is also long?’” (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 53b)
I often notice myself looking for shortcuts on the spiritual path, especially when my life circumstances are difficult. Fortunately, I have trained in being able to bear witness to the ways in which my wily mind tries to find circuitous ways around the unpleasant rather than relax into it with honesty, loving curiosity, courage, and compassion. Some of my mind’s favorite tactics: Denial. Repression. Blame. Willful ignorance. Protest. Distraction. Entertainment seeking. Sound familiar? The problem is that though my mind convinces itself that these shortcuts will get me to more favorable circumstances in no time, such tactics end up lengthening the path toward healing, and greatly enhance my suffering along the way. When I run from my fears, the road to wholeness becomes obstructed by a thicket of confusion, misperception, blame, ill will, grasping, and ignorance. As it were, I am opting for the short long way.
According to RaSHI, this is exactly the choice the Israelites made in the desert. Sefer Devarim opens with a description of the whereabouts of Moshe’s farewell address to the Israelites: “It was eleven days’ distance from Horev (Sinai) to Kadesh Barne’a by way of Mount Seir” (Devarim 1:3). Why does the text share this seemingly extraneous information? RaSHI’s response: “Moshe said to the [Israelites]: ‘See what you have wrought. For there is no path as short from Horev to Kadesh Barne’a [which is adjacent to Canaan] as the way of Mount Seir, which is an eleven day journey. Yet you traversed it in three days...because the Divine Presence was so restless to hurry your arrival into the Land of Israel. But since you ruined things [in your reaction to the sin of the Spies], God turned you back to traverse around Mount Seir for forty years’” (RaSHI ad loc.). Faced with the fear induced by the unfavorable report of the Spies, the Israelites sought to depose Moshe and go back to Egypt, and upon failing, to force their way into the Land of Israel. For RaSHI, the people thought they were taking the short road, when in fact they were condemning themselves to forty years of walking in circles. Having the faith to acknowledge and work with their fear in the context of their covenantal bond with God would have constituted a choice to walk the long short road.
The long short road may be unpleasant at times. Specifically because it takes more faith, creativity, and imagination than our imagined shortcuts; it demands full presence, courage, honesty, and loving persistence. But in the end it gets us to our destination more quickly, allowing us to relax into the unpleasant, and arrive on the other side with greater wholeness, wisdom, and compassion.
Choosing the long short road offers us a lens for approaching the season of mourning leading up to Tish’a B’av, the date commemorating the destruction of both Temples and the massacre and dispersion of our people. In trying to understand why Tish’a B’av is ignored by a large portion of the American Jewish community, in her book In The Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, Erica Brown writes:
“Why has this day and its surrounding rituals not been appreciated by the wider Jewish community? Perhaps the answer lies in a particular type of amnesia, a willed disregard for tragic history or the past. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik observed that American Jews do not always have sufficient sensitivity to Torah values to achieve spiritual depth. Human happiness does not depend on comfort. The American Jew follows a philosophy which equates religion with making Jewish life more comfortable and convenient. It enables the Jew to have more pleasure in life…Comfort is the main obstruction blocking the Jewish community from contact with Tisha B’Av. Suffering humanizes us. Ignoring suffering dehumanizes us. I don’t want to ruin my good mood by looking at that homeless person, so I turn away – and with that turning, I let go of my social responsibility to him. Attunement to suffering makes us more compassionate (Brown, pp. 2-7).
In short, when it comes to facing the suffering of our people and our responsibility to them, during this season many of us choose to traverse the short long road, which is no surprise considering that we choose the same approach when relating to our own suffering.
May we train in awakening from the illusion of a shortcut around the unpleasant. As we choose the long short road, may we develop the courage to stop running from our suffering and the suffering of our people. And as we develop greater skill and compassion at working with the difficult truths of our lives, may we open to greater healing, compassion, ease, and responsibility. May it be so speedily in our days. And let us say amen.
The Zigzag Line to Our Promised Land
Taste of Torah for Mattot-Massei by Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
This week, we get a retrospective. As we look back on our collective journey in the desert - the parasha literally mapping out in detail each stop along the way out of Egypt – you can’t help but look back at your own life, at each stop along the way that has helped shape you and contribute to where and who you are today.
Reading it, I started thinking about Mrs. Creasy, ז׳׳ל, my high school American lit teacher, who will always be a profound influence on my life. She taught me about metaphor. Our final paper for her class was to concoct and defend our own personal metaphor for life because she believed that in order to fully grasp something, you have to be able to understand it metaphorically, symbolically, poetically. And she wanted us to understand life.
She was notoriously difficult – pushing and challenging us to excel because she believed in our potential to grow. I think my favorite thing about her was that, whenever we failed to live up to that potential, Mrs. Creasy would throw her hands up, look us right in the face and say, “Well, you are useless.” She didn’t mean that metaphorically.
Something she taught us flooded back to me from the deep recesses of my memory when I read this week’s parasha. It’s Emerson, the 19th century iconic transcendentalist, who wrote: “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.”
I want to understand this week’s parasha as best I can. Here’s why I think this metaphor helps.
Right before recounting each stop on our travels, the Torah says, “Moses recorded the departures for their journeys as directed by the Lord. And these were the journeys for their departures…”/ “ויכתב משה את מוצאיהם למסעיהם על פי ה׳ ואלה מסעיהם למוצאיהם” (Numbers 33:2). The 17th century commentator from Prague, the Kli Yakar, notices that in the first part of the verse, it says “departures for their journeys - מוצאיהם למסעיהם,” but that phrase is reversed in the second half of the verse to “journeys for their departures - מסעיהם למוצאיהם.” The Kli Yakar understands this to mean that there was a back-and-forth nature to the Israelites’ wanderings. Forth – when they heeded God’s laws and acted morally. Back – when they regressed, rejected God’s laws, and acted immorally.
This week’s parasha seems to suggest that progress is not a straight line. It’s a zigzag. A ship moves forward by shifting its sails to catch the wind, which blows in different directions. Similarly, it seems that whenever we take three steps forward we are doomed to take two steps backwards, whether we are journeying to our literal or metaphorical promised lands. Today, trust in law enforcement is eroding as more black lives are extinguished by murderous acts of racial
violence. COVID has brought everything to a screeching halt, as one week shows a flattening curve and the next, a spike. If recounting where we’ve been helps us understand who we are, then: Who are we? Which actions define us, our triumphs or our setbacks?
Emerson’s quote continues. He writes, “See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.” In other words, we’re defined by all of it. If we only look to our triumphs, then we make a graven image of ourselves and bow down to it, worshiping our own perfection. If we only look to our shortcomings, then we do what Mrs. Creasy never did – we lose faith in our ability to grow.
Isn’t it interesting that parshiyot always seem to come at the exact right time, when we need them? Believe it or not, the High Holidays are approaching. Which means, it’s time for a retrospective. On a personal and on a national level, we need to do teshuva. We need to examine where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to be – our promised land. A country free of the dual pandemics of COVID and hate.
Now that we’ve had plenty of practice standing six feet away from each other, we are tasked with standing six feet away from ourselves in order to better see, with distance, the zigzag line of our actions that make us who we are. Before reciting the Amidah, a prayer in which we envision approaching God’s Divine Presence, we take three steps back and three steps forward. The human journey is not a straight line. But that doesn’t mean we can’t attain holiness and greet the Divine. Mattot-Massei reminds us that, in the words of MLK, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Who Tells Our Story?
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Are you a good storyteller or do you leave that task to someone else? Are you someone who needs to start a story again to make sure you have told all the details? Do you tell stories to share history or to impact the future?
Watching Hamilton this past week, I was struck by the artfulness of the storytelling. I have seen the show on stage, but the medium of TV offered different opportunities of perspective: I could turn on subtitles; I was limited to looking at what the camera focused on; I was brought closer into the faces of the characters at the expense of taking in the larger scene of settings and choreography around them. Also, I was made aware of actors who played multiple roles. When you are seated in row J of the balcony, that is not easy to notice. But the artistic pairings seemed inspired choices and evidence of the deeply layered mastery of this work by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The Schuyler sisters are presented as surprisingly strong willed, determined, learned and thoughtful and Eliza plays a significant role in the formation of her husband’s character as well as protecting the legacy of him and their family. And though the musical, Hamilton, is not told as if through Eliza’s eyes, we of the 21st Century know that much of the surviving history comes from her work, interviews, notes, and letters.
In this week’s parasha, Pinhas, we are introduced to the five daughters of Tzelofehad - I like to imagine them as the Schuyler Sisters of the Torah. Brave and closely bound as family, they take charge of their destiny. They approach Moses before the whole community after their father dies and say, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” Moses turns to God and God consents, changing the law to include daughters’ rights of inheritance. The daughters were not only witnesses to great history. They were influencers who passed on the legacy--the story--of appropriately arguing for change. Rashi later commented that according to the Midrash Tanchuma, the daughters saw what Moses could not see. They had a finer perception of what was just, in the law of inheritance, than Moses had.
We are living an ordeal that will reshape our future. These days will be mentioned in the same breath as the Spanish Flu and the Bubonic Plague; and perhaps alongside histories of the fights for Civil rights of the 1960s, as matters of poverty, bigotry, and health care become poisonously tangled. We are the beneficiaries of the heroes and storytellers of earlier times. Now is our turn. Will we bravely pursue justice for ourselves and others as did Tzelopfehad’s daughters? Will we sing the refrain from Hamilton “who lives, who dies, who tells our story?” First we need to figure out what story we want to tell and then, who tells it. What character, with what values and strengths? “History has its eyes on you!”
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
“First, ask if it any of it rings true. No matter how it was expressed.” That is the first counsel I give to staff, mentees, friends, etc…whenever we are discussing the topic of constructive critique, and feedback (whether bidden or unbidden). It is my way of paying forward essential counsel I received from one of my teachers and mentors, Rabbi Terry Bookman. It is a normative human instinct to defend when attacked. To deflect when accused. We like to look in mirrors for vanity, but not to see the warts so much. So when someone shines a clear light on some unsavory part of who we are, or what we do, it is usually an uncomfortable experience, no matter how open we believe we are to growth and learning.
Some feedback comes gently, only after being requested, couched in humane language, without overloading the emotional system, and avoiding ad hominem attacks. And some feedback…well let’s just say it comes differently than that! I believe that when we are confronted the latter category, one of the most important human and leadership tasks is to resist the urge to recoil, but rather to counter-intuitively take it all in, independent of how it was shared, and ask the hard question. “Is any of it accurate?” For if so, and if the person has pointed about something accurate (and thus deserving of attention) even in a painful way, then we, the recipient, walk away from the encounter a winner. For we have learned something. And we can grow. And the unsavory critique can still have an ennobling impact on our character.
Many commentators read this very stance into Moshe’s initial response to the Torah’s paradigmatic example of critique both potentially accurate and undoubtedly scathing and unforgiving. I refer to Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and his leadership, which is how this week’s eponymous parsha begins. Korach accuses Moshe (just recently identified as ענו מאוד/anav m’od, or “very humble”) of lording over others, raising himself to a higher level than those he leads. “Aren’t we all holy, Moshe?”
Rabbi Schneiur Zalman of Lyady, the first rabbi of the Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, argues that Moshe could have defensibly uttered an immediate, and righteous, retort to Korach. After all, Moshe was blind-sided by this critique. And the Torah text belies the critique. No one would have faulted Moshe had his instant response been to deflect the attack, and put Korach in his place. We would all identify with that instinct, no? Instead “the Alter Rebbe,” as he was known, points out Moshe’s surprising and, well, humble (and thus illustrative) response. The Torah says: וישמע משה ויפל על פניו. Vayishma Moshe vayipol al panav. Moshe heard (listened). And fell on his face. Both parts of that short verse are important, argues the Alter Rebbe. First, Moshe took in the words, rather than put up an impregnable shield. No matter what he thought of Korach, and his approach to logging concerns, Moshe did not plug his ears. He listened. And then he prostrated himself. He fell to the ground. Why? For a moment of personal pause. To check in with himself, and the Holy One, to see if there was merit to Korach’s words. Perhaps Korach is an unsavory representative of the Almighty? A test of Moshe’s own character, sent to assay Moshe’s willingness to reflect on his leadership? Could the critique be true, on any level?
It was only after Moshe searched himself, with piercing honesty and the sense that he may, indeed, have earned the opprobrium, that he authored his response.
What is slightly ironic about the Alter Rebbe’s read is that, after the introspection, Moshe comes out (at least to his own assessment) sparkling clean. He has nothing to apologize for. His conscience is clear. The claims are spurious and the insurrection is against both Moshe and God. The most humble man in the Torah can find no flaw in himself! And so, the Alter Rebbe says, Moshe is justified, after rising from his prostration, in calling down God to help handle this unjust revolution. (Interestingly, this read of Moshe might unconsciously be a projection on the part of the Alter Rebbe Hasidic rebbes are both thought to properly introspective and simultaneously nearly beyond flaw.).
But still, the main point should be a clarion call to us: the first response to critique, whether gentle nor withering, whether wholly unfair or painfully on-target, should be to pause. Take it in. Let the words reverberate inside. For from such moments, we always learn. And thus our response need not be pique. But rather gratitude.
This week is about God and me
By Rav Natan Freller
Imagine you have been secluded to one place for longer than you expected to. All you want is to move on. Easy, right?
Now imagine that the place where you were wandering is outside the house and all you want is to go inside and feel at home.
Still in the first year of the Israelite journey in the wilderness, Moshe led them to the borders of the promise land. It doesn’t take forty years to get there, that was a divine decision that comes at the end of this parasha, and most of these years, the Jews camped at the same place.
This week’s parasha is called Shelach lecha – send for yourself. What a unique way for God to charge Moshe with a new task. It could be that God does not care about scouting the land, so if Moshe wants to do it, he has been given the permission. Or God actually cares, but disagrees with the idea, and let Moshe take full responsibility for it. It could be God showing love for the people: go, go for yourself, check it out, and enjoy it! Looking forward to hearing back from you!
Later on, when looking back to this moment almost 40 years later, Moshe tells this same story a little bit differently (Devarim 1:19-23):
We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as Adonai our God had commanded us. When we reached Kadesh-barnea, I said to you, “You have come to the hill country of the Amorites which Adonai our God is giving to us.
See, Adonai your God has placed the land at your disposal. Go up, take possession, as Adonai, the God of your fathers, promised you. Fear not and be not dismayed.”
Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.”
It looked good in my eyes, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.
The rabbis of the Talmud asked the same question, but their answers focused on a different reality, trying to protect God from any wrongdoing in letting the spies go even though God knew what they would say.
The truth is that the spies never said anything bad about the land. All twelve spies agreed about how good the land is and even brought fruits with them to prove. They also agreed in their description of the challenges ahead, describing a local population of giants. The disagreement was between Yehoshua and Calev and the other ten spies, who did not trust their capacity to conquer the land – even though they had God on their side.
So what was their sin that caused the people to wander for forty years before entering the land again?
The Talmud (Sotah 34b) expresses what I think is the key here in a very interesting way, analyzing the names of the spies:
“The spies were named after their actions, even though we don’t know the reason why for all of them. Sethur the son of Michael is called Sethur, as he hid [satar] the actions of the Holy One.
In other words, he ignored the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people in Egypt and in the wilderness and did not see God’s role in this next challenge ahead of them.
In opposition to this idea, Hoshea becomes Yehoshua because of this episode (Bamidbar 13:16):
אֵ֚לֶּה שְׁמ֣וֹת הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָת֣וּר אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְהוֹשֵׁ֥עַ בִּן־נ֖וּן יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ׃
Those were the names of the men whom Moshe sent to scout the land; but Moshe changed the name of Hoshea son of Nun to Yehoshua.
The Talmud explain that his new name mean that God will save him from the counsel of the other spies.
This entire story is not about the land, but about how each one of us deals with the challenges we have ahead and the role we allow God to play in our lives, particularly in moments like this.
I do not think of God as a personal God with magical powers, while at the same time, in a time where science and knowledge are being threaten by a harmful belief system that endangers our lives and our society, I want to believe in a God that is by my side right now.
Today, God cannot be an expression of hate, lies, or any kind of violence, prejudice, and discrimination. We were all created in God’s image and this is the most important principle in our Torah.
A life of mere facts and logic is challenging right now as well. I have been searching for God in my life with a different approach over the past few months. Acknowledging that knowing God completely can me overwhelming and surreal, I have been focusing on the godliness, the divine that exists in our actions. The way I conduct myself and how I behave towards others is my attempt to emanate the divine into the world.
This is no easy task. Maybe one of the greatest challenges of our lives, but I would still choose to face it having God by my side.
This is also my last opportunity to share a message with this wonderful community who became my home for the past years in Los Angeles. As I move on to my next challenge, I want to thank each one of you who welcomed me in your home and
helped me understand that I belong here as well. I will be forever grateful to this community for being such an important chapter of my life. Looking forward to seeing everyone at the Corner of Olympic and La Cienega soon, whether on livestream or on my next trip to California.
May we all find the capacity to be inspired and the ability to bring godliness to our lives.
Recognizing the Many Colors of the Jewish Community: An Adaptation
This week, I offer an adaption of “Recognizing the Many Colors of the Jewish Community,” by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York, written last year. As our city, state, country, and world begin to engage in a heightened way with institutional racism in its many forms, stemming from the necessary, overdue outcry against police brutality, one of many steps towards building an anti-racist community requires diversifying the chorus of voices we amplify.
Rabbi Schatz and I are in the process of cultivating a series of programs that will bring teachings, perspectives, and programs from Jews of Color to TBA; if you have any ideas or suggestions of speakers, teachers, or interesting opportunities, please let us know. In that spirit, I share this article with you. I pray that we will, as individuals and as a community, remain motivated to expand our understanding and actions towards greater inclusion, empathy, care, and justice.
Rabbi Matt Shapiro
Our portion begins with a dramatic story of sibling tension as Aaron and Miriam speak out against their brother Moses’s wife. “He married a Cushite woman!” they exclaimed. Then Miriam is struck with leprosy as a punishment.
There are some startling and troubling things about this passage. To begin—both Aaron AND Miriam speak out against Moses, but only Miriam, his sister, is harshly punished for it. Aaron gets off leprosy-free. Also, it says that Moses married a Cushite woman, but actually, if you have been following our Torah, you would remember that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. Does Moses have 2 wives? Or does he divorce Zipporah and marry this Cushite woman? Or is “Cushite” just a curious way to describe Zipporah? But those topics are for another sermon.
I want to talk about the simple fact that Moses is married to a Cushite woman. Cush is a region south of Ethiopia, also known as Nubia or present day Sudan. I want you to take a moment and picture the prophet Moses and his long white beard, with staff in arm...and the other arm holding his dark skinned African wife. Does that image surprise you?
I was recently at the UJA Federation for the initial report of a groundbreaking census on how many Jews of Color there are in the US and how many there will be in coming years. Despite the Jewish community’s obsession with population studies, we have never before intentionally counted Jews of Color. This has been due, in large part, to the working assumption that American Jews are white.
But the newest analysis tells us otherwise. The study was commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building initiative and carried out by respected demographers Dr.’s Ari Kelman of Stanford
and Aaron Tapper of University of San Francisco, Their detailed analysis shows by conservative estimates that Jews of Color represent at least 12-15% of American Jews, and growing.
That is a stunning statistic.
It’s 1 in 7 Jews. It means that of the approx 7.4 million Jews of America, about a million are Jews of Color. That is larger than the Orthodox population in America. I’m guessing that many of you right now might feel pretty skeptical about those numbers. Ilana Kaufman, who presented the results of this study, shared that she is often confronted by disbelief: “A man came up to me and said, ‘I don’t believe the numbers. I went to Jewish day schools, to Jewish camps, to volunteer in Federation, and I never saw Jews of color anywhere.’”
Perhaps there is a reason for that.
I thought back to our Torah portion and the fact that Aaron and Miriam are speaking out against this Cushite woman. Without explanation. Why? “Perhaps they were just upset that Moses didn’t marry an Israelite?” you say. But they did not speak out against his marriage to Zipporah, the Midianite. The Torah doesn’t tell us the words that Miriam and Aaron said against this woman of color in their midst, but I can tell you some of the words that I myself and other Jews of Color
have heard spoken of us in the Jewish community:
“She’s nice, but she’s not really one of us.”
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
At pick-up for Hebrew school in our lobby: “Excuse me, are you the nanny?”
Sometimes the words are not that explicitly offensive. They are the seemingly innocuous questions we’re asked in synagogue like:
“So, what brings you here?”
“Now where are you from?”
“Where did you learn all that Hebrew?”
Questions like these remind us we’re seen as outsiders. It is exhausting to always have to explain ourselves.
These are questions that most white Jews are never asked if you walk into shul. Because the assumption is that you are Jewish. Now that you know that 1 in 7 in our community are Jews of Color, when you walk into any minyan, or 10 Jews, you should be making the assumption
that there is at least one Jew of color in that group. And if you don’t see any, you should be asking yourself the question— why are they not here?
If we don’t answer this question, there will be serious ramifications for our community. The study shows that the next generation of the Jewish community is rapidly changing. 65% of the people living in multiracial Jewish households are under the age of 45. Jewish demographics are trending along the same lines as the US. The implications for this is that in a few decades, the Jewish community, just like the American population, will be a majority people of color. This is already the case in Israel today, where 47% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, and the majority are Jews of color from Arab, African or Asian lands.
I imagine that this might make some Jews feel a little uncomfortable. Are we losing or diluting our traditional culture? But I want to remind our community that this IS our traditional culture, from Diaspora times to all the way back when Moses married a Cushite woman. We were never some single race or ethnicity. “Looking Jewish” is not what makes us a Jewish people. Instead of seeing this as a threat, we should see our mixed multitude, this mosaic of the tribes of Israel, as an opportunity and a blessing.
Miriam and Aaron had trouble with this. They were alarmed by this Cushite woman
and spoke out against her, but God came down strong and admonished them for it.
Moses was the forgiving one. He prayed for his sister to be healed from her leprosy.
He understood that our community needed more forgiveness and openness, more empathy and acceptance in order to get us to the promised land. This is why Moses is considered our greatest prophet, and still has so much to teach us today.
Building A Country Where God Can Dwell
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Joshua Jacobs
This week we get the dedication of the Mishkan (God’s portable Tabernacle in the desert), which triumphantly celebrates the completion of a project - a holy creation. As Americans on June 6, 2020, however, we mourn destruction - writhing in the pain of lost life and property. Creation in this week’s parasha strikes a discordant note with that of destruction all around us today. But I think what remains after reading Naso is the realization that there is no better time to read about attracting God’s Presence in an arid wasteland than right now. Wandering in the wilderness, striving for the Promised Land of America as it should be, we are given hope that like the Israelites before us, we can build something holy that attracts God’s Presence to dwell among us.
So how did our ancestors do it? Well, let’s jump to the end. Upon the dedication of the Mishkan’s altar, one prince (נשיא) from each of the twelve tribes offers up the exact same thing: “…one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in (…)” and the specifics continue for a total of five verses (Num. 13-17).
Any editor in the world would have detailed this long offering once, and simply stated that each tribal leader presented the same thing. But the Torah repeats these verses twelve times, specifying each prince’s offering even though they were all identical. Why? What is to be learned from this seemingly unnecessary repetition in a Text where every word matters? I think that, maybe, it’s to underscore the crucial role of equality in the building of God’s home. That’s not to say that the Israelites achieved perfect social harmony. The law of Sota (when a man suspects his wife of adultery), which also appears in this parasha, seems to attest to a stark inequality between the sexes in ancient Israelite society. But for one defining moment in the history of our people – the dedication of the Mishkan – our tribal princes overcome the need to dominate one another for the sake of equality.
This might be the perfectly nice message of a parasha entitled “נשיא” – Nasi. But the parasha is called “נשא” – Naso. The sameness of our contributions and of our identities is not the story being told this week. “Naso” can be translated to mean census, as in “The Lord spoke to Moses: Take a census/naso of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans” (Num. 4:21-22). Our parasha begins with the counting of a subsection of the Levites, the Gershonites, who are given a unique role and service in the administration of the Mishkan. Here, differences are not overlooked but rather embraced as separate tribes are celebrated for the unique roles they serve and for the unique contributions only they can bring to the Mishkan. It’s the appreciation of our differences combined with the commitment to equality that allows us to build a home for God to dwell.
But something deeper is happening here, too. Elsewhere in the Torah, נשא means “acceptance” or “elevation.” Read this way into our verse, God is instructing Moses not just to count, but to elevate the Levites. Why? Perhaps it’s because the Levites were not given a hereditary portion in Israel. They are not assigned an ancestral portion in the land. Acknowledging this inequality, God commands Moses to elevate the Gershonites.
The story of the princes – נשיא – is one of equality. Of an elite class of leaders who miraculously set aside their differences to acknowledge their innate equality before God. It’s our story as Jews and as Americans, whose founders declared that all men are created equal. The story of Naso/נשא, however, is one of equity. It acknowledges that there are those among us who did not receive an equal ancestral portion. So God tells Moses to elevate those who have been left out.
As Jews in Los Angeles, we are currently feeling profound pain over the brutal snubbing out of innocent black lives. We are also feeling profound pain over damage to our livelihoods as some of our own stores have been attacked and looted. Many of us may feel conflicted, wanting to wholeheartedly support a minority group fighting for equal treatment before the law (or at least the right not to be murdered by those sworn to protect and serve them) but also struggling to understand why some of these protests have resorted to looting and riots. Without condoning violence, I think it’s important not to conflate the value we ascribe to human life with the value we ascribe to property (no matter how tied up that property may be with our very livelihoods), especially concerning a people whose bodies have historically been considered property. Naso may contain the national remedy we seek, as differences are embraced and each group is empowered to offer the unique contribution only it can make. Maybe ours is, like Moses, to elevate – נשא - the voices of those who have been left out. Because when the cries of the oppressed are ignored for far too long, to quote Martin Luther King Jr., “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
I wish strength to all of us hurting this week as we strive to build a country where God can dwell.
Dedicated to the memory of Missy Stein
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro
Starting the Book of Numbers this week seems fitting. Our news feeds, our minds, our lives are inundated with rates, totals, percentages. They begin to blur together, each new figure interpreted in different ways resulting in a variety of conclusions and prognoses that then are revised, if not reversed, weekly, daily, hourly. Truly dizzying. We aren’t just reading the book of numbers- we’re living it.
It’s a census, a counting of the Israelites that lends this book its Anglicized name- also quite fitting, as we move through our own national, decennial (“once-a-decade”...word of the day!) census of standing up to be counted, for political representation and county/city/nation-wide recognition of who and where we are as people. Each of us, in our tribe, saying hineni, here I am, I’m worthy of recognition and I should be acknowledged.
Let’s not forget we’re also currently in our own annual season of counting as a people, moving through the Omer, towards Sinai, a peak experience for us as Jews, a spiritual pinnacle that has never been matched in our history that we still make every effort to replicate annually. We affirm the value of every day, ensuring that each is distinct, a charge that feels particularly apropo and challenging right now.
In an effort to prevent my own days from blending into the next, I set aside some time on Tuesday morning to learn (digitally, of course) from Rabbi Jonathan Slater, who shared a beautiful teaching of the Beit Aharon, Reb Aaron of Karlin. He writes: “in truth, all is One, yet when this One enters the world, it expands into/through all the letters of the Torah, each of which creates any number of other combinations.” In an idea that appears often in Chassidic teachings, everything is made up of the Hebrew letters, which combine and re-combine to form creation as the building blocks of the world. We are also taught that each one of us, as it were, is a letter of the Torah, that we ourselves are the building blocks of humanity, each of us, of course, containing the building blocks of life within. This idea of counting, then, holds additional weight, in seeing what every single letter can in turn create.
I’m reminded of a parable I learned some years ago: as she was walking, a woman saw a man between two piles of sand, one much larger than the other. Upon closer examination, she saw he was using chopsticks, incrementally moving one pile to the next. Confused, she asked, “how on earth are you going to move that whole pile?” He looked up and responded with conviction: “one grain of sand at a time.” I read this parable as speaking to both the value of recognizing individuality and the meta-process of how to do so. Each grain of sand is a distinct unit, treated with care. It can be a time-consuming and exhausting process to engage in that granular work, yet it will, in time, create clear and substantive change.
I learned this parable while working at Beit T’shuvah- it is an apt metaphor for recovery from addiction, which is indeed possible through ongoing effort and careful attention to each moment and choice, yet also an extended process that can seem to be endless, a message that feels fitting mid-pandemic. The parable also links to God’s promise to Abraham, that his descendants shall be as numerous as the sand on the shore. We have multiplied hundreds and hundreds of times over, and we also come from a shared ancestor, connecting each of us even in our multiplicity.
Yesterday, Missy Stein, one of my mother’s closest friends, passed away- she had been sick with cancer for many years, and was only 54 years old. Yet, as my mom emphasized, she ”packed a life’s worth of experience into a life that was too short.” However much time we have, we still have a choice in how we’re living, right now. Each day is finite...and also infinite- how many moments are in each day? Each one of us is so finite, a momentary wave on the ocean of life...and also infinite- we contain so many thoughts, experiences, relationships, all fully and uniquely our own, within that one grain of sand, that one letter of the Torah.
As we begin this book of Ba-Midbar (translating to “in the desert”), as we wander through uncharted wilderness as our ancestors did, a census connecting us through the centuries, I hope we don’t just ask “what are we counting?”- I hope we also ask: “why are we counting?” The Beit Aharon offers an answer in his teaching: “you and no other person like you has ever been in the world. Therefore we must each fully bring about each of our own unique qualities.” The Torah isn’t complete without each of its letters, the world isn’t complete without you, and even the desert isn’t complete without each and every single grain of sand. We take on these acts of counting because each of us counts.
Sometimes, those individual grains all blur together- after all, the desert is vast. That’s why we read about the census this week; when it feels overwhelming, we are reminded of how important it is to keep counting. Though it may hold deep uncertainty, it is only in the desert that we receive the Torah, filled to bursting with each of its letters, and then we walk through that desert, one step at a time. Though we’re just beginning that journey, no matter what the numbers say, we keep walking and, in honor of Missy, I’m committed to making each day count.
Mitzvah: Impact Or Import?
by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Parables abound regarding the impact of one person’s singular good deed, and the ruin that comes when we assume others will step forward, thus acquitting ourselves of responsibility. There is the starfish story, in which one beachgoer wonders to another beachgoer why she is going through the trouble of returning a beached starfish to the waters. “After all, there must be a million such forlorn starfishes on the beaches of the world. How can your act matter?” Of course, the pithy response is “It matters to this one.”
This story is a cousin of the tale of the king who called for a kingdom-wide celebration, in which each citizen would contribute a portion of their own finest wine into one central vat of ambrosia (as an aside…yuck! That does not seem to be a delectable mixture!). Each citizen thought to himself, “with so many contributing, no one will know if I pour water, rather than wine. I’ll get off cheap!” And, of course, on the day the vat is opened it is filled not with sangria, but rather plain old water.
One reason we do individual acts of goodness and piety is because each one matters. And the absence of each one sullies the world around us.
I think Judaism supports that notion as a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation for why we approach each individual spiritual and human act with attention and care. We are going for impact, but not only impact. We are, at our core, driven by values…even when the impact may seem negligible.
A comment by Rabbi Moshe Alshikh (known simply as “The Alshikh,” who was a disciple of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Arukh, the code of Jewish law) on Parshat Behar zooms in on the individual’s obligation to take very personally God’s commands, particularly when speaking about the obligation to help others. He notes that for much of the beginning of the parsha, God’s commands, mediated through Moshe, are directed towards the Israelite people, using plural grammar/nouns/verbs. But that shifts with the words, in Vayikra/Leviticus 25:25, when the Torah says כי ימוך אחיך. Ki yamukh ahikha. If your fellow is in distress…Those words begin a series of exhortations to help one’s friend, neighbor, peer when s/he is brought low for a variety of reasons. But here, the verbs and nouns are singular. As if, according to the Alshikh, the Torah is screaming “Hey you! Yes, you! This law is meant for you, personally and individually to follow.” He notes that it is culturally and anthropologically common for people to assume that the hard word of doing the right and the good will be done by someone else. After all, how much impact can one person have? “Let someone more wealthy give tzedakah. Let someone geographically closer do the errand.” Rather, this text is meant to move the mitzvah from impact to import. Yes, a wealthier person may be able to give more, and thus impact more, with his/her tzedakah than you can. But, the Alshikh asks, don’t you want to live as a generous, empathic person? And even if you don’t, the Torah is commanding that you do.
I think of this as I consider my food choices, and as I exhort you to think of yours. Kashrut was meant to have us eat Jewishly, such that we would be eating both distinctly as well as ethically. Nowadays, there is, sadly and tragically, a gaping chasm between those dual goals of keeping Kosher. We hunt after labels and rabbinic symbols, neglecting the innumerable ways that harm to animals, not to mention to workers, are done in the name of supposedly lofty ideals of Kashrut. We check off the box, our piety intact. If there is massive work required to reform the food industry, well that is a societal problem, not an individual one. How much can I really impact?
Once again, the Torah’s voice pushes us to consider each individual act as a chance to bring God close, or push God away, irrespective of the visible, practical, dynamic impact that act will have on the world around us. It is true that the world of kashrut will only be positively rehabilitated when there is a groundswell of attention to it by Kosher-observant Jews. Your individual choice to aim not only for kosher meat, but ethically-raised and ethically-slaughtered meat, impacts very little. Perhaps even less than the impact of returning one starfish to the ocean. Likely not a single chicken or cow will be spared some rather brutal conditions because of your individual conscientiousness. But it is both the case that the chances for grand change rely on innumerable individuals eating with conscience, and that every time you consume food it is, or at least it can be, a spiritual moment. A Torah moment. An ethical moment.
We really begin to be children of the Holy One when we hear the Torah, whether when using plural commands or singular commands, speaking individually to our souls.
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Intern
Following parashat Emor, which focuses primarily on laws concerning the priestly class (kohanim) in the Tabernacle, we read a haftarah from the prophet Ezekiel, who, centuries later, would actually begin his career as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. Both readings center around a common theme - instruction for the kohanim regarding how to live and work in a manner that will safeguard the ritual purity and holiness of b’nei yisrael. And yet, if we look beyond the obvious thread connecting the two readings, and turn to the life of Ezekiel himself, it seems to me that this haftarah is coming at the exact right moment, offering us the words of the exact right prophet for these times.
Ezekiel, like all of us celebrating Shabbat at home today, was exiled from the Temple. As the first prophet whose entire prophetic career took place in exile, Ezekiel spoke to a people sent away, a people unable to worship together in their holy sanctuary. Today, no less saliently than he did 2,500 years ago, Ezekiel speaks to us. His message? Even in our dispersion, we can strive for and attain holiness. As we read in Emor, “קדש יהיה לך כי קדוש אני ה׳ מקדשכם” - “...you shall be holy for I the Lord, Who sanctifies you, am holy” (Lev. 21:8) – The word קדוש is perhaps more accurately translated to mean “set apart.” It seems then, that how we cling to our tradition and to each other despite the challenge of being physically set apart from our temple and from one another may in fact be what makes us holy.
It’s worth taking a step back to briefly recall the priest-turned-prophet’s “greatest hits.” The book of Ezekiel opens with a vision of God’s glory (כבוד) departing from the Temple in Jerusalem. This may be Ezekiel’s way of making sense of the Temple’s destruction. How could
the Babylonian army destroy God’s house? According to the prophet, human ritual and ethical immorality drove God’s holy presence away from the Beit HaMikdash, making it like any other building, vulnerable to attack. Like all of our favorite theaters, restaurants, stores, and camps that have become empty and desolate without the human conversation, warmth, and laughter that once filled their halls, the Temple without God’s glory is nothing more than the shell - a skeleton of dry bones.
Another way to look at God’s glory departing from the Temple is not as Divine abandonment but as Divine accompaniment. We are not banished from the only place where God may be found. Rather, “ואהי להם למקדש מעט בארצות אשר באו שם” - “I have become for them a diminished sanctity in the lands where they are going” (Ezek. 11.16). In other words, while Ezekiel does maintain that God’s presence is felt most strongly in the centralized Temple, the exiles are still imbued with the ability to access a small portion of God’s holiness wherever they go. While it may be harder for us to feel close to God without the benefit of our shared prayer space, that doesn’t mean that God can’t be found right here at home.
It is in the midst of our collective despair that Ezekiel offers hope for the resurrection of the dry bones our institutions have become. He prophesies, “כה אמר א׳ ה׳ לעצמות האלה הנה אני מביא בכם רוח וחייתם” - “Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you will live” (Ezek. 37.5). While this constituted God’s promise to restore the scattered exiles to Zion, it is hard not to read into these words the hope that we, too, will return to our synagogue and other cherished communities with renewed vigor and spirit when the time is right.
Which brings us back to this week’s haftarah. Ezekiel’s final vision is that of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and God’s glorious return to it. This entails the restoration of the kohanim to their priestly duties, among them, “ואת עמי יורו בין קדש לחל ובין טמא לטהור יודעם”
- “And they [the priests] will teach my people the difference between holy and profane, and cause them to know [the difference between] impure and pure” (Ezek. 44:23). Surely if human ritual and ethical immorality drove God’s holy presence away from the Beit HaMikdash, it can only be holy behavior that will attract God’s presence to return. What’s interesting is, the language used here - “between holy and profane” is exactly the language we’ll recite tonight during Havdalah, which concludes Shabbat and literally means “separation.” Separation, Ezekiel seems to suggest, can be a fundamental aspect of what it means to be holy. It is our experience in separation that will remind us to hold on a little tighter to one another when we return, accompanied by God’s glory, as conversation, warmth, and laughter fill the halls once more.
Love and holiness – Being present and extraordinary
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
This week we read two portions of the Torah combined – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.
The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is entirely dedicated to the laws that governed the sacrificial and offering rites that existed at the time of the Mishkan and, later, in the Temples in Jerusalem. It is not surprising that all the details of Yom Kippur's service appear in this book, but specifically in this week's Parshah, Acharei Mot.
What is striking is the fact that parasha Kedoshim appears in this book. It draws attention because it is nothing like the style of Vayikra. It is not a text composed solely of sacrificial instructions, nor is it aimed only at the priests and Levites, but at all the people - unlike the rest of the entire book.
One of the possible interpretations for the sequence Acharei Mot-Kedoshím is that after the Yom Kippr atonement rite, the Torah invites us to continue in this state of holiness. The idea is that, after the collective atonement, a divine challenge is offered to us: “Be holy, for I am Holy” (Vayikra 19: 2).
But what is Holiness? The Hebrew word Kadosh has deeper meanings than the English translation holy. To be holy means to be separated from something else.
Judaism is not a way of life to be lived alone. Judaism is a way to bring divine holiness into the world, keeping each other accountable for our moral challenges and responsibilities.
All our decisions and behaviors reflect holiness. The way we relate to each other at home, at work, at school, online and offline, reflect holiness. We are constantly challenge by making the right decision that will bring us into the realm of holiness, distinctiveness, and uniqueness. In our tradition, the opposite of holiness is the mundane, the ordinary. Therefore, we are being called, especially this week, to be extraordinary.
The charge given to us is to be holy for God is holy. I like using the expression “Be Godly”. An aspiration to express the highest potential we have for being created in God’s image. Is it too much to aspire to be a reflection of God’s divine attributes? I would love to answer this question with a simple and direct ‘no’, but unfortunately, this is not true. This is among the greatest challenges of our lives.
So, what can the Torah offer to us, when achieving such level of holiness sounds like a challenge that is beyond our abilities and is just not possible to bear?
Remember that in parashat Kedoshim, the Torah enumerates many mitzvot that are bein adam lechavero - between a person and his fellow - which command man not to harm others: "Do not steal; do not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another," "Do not swear falsely," “Do not defraud your fellow. Do not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” "Do not hate your brother in your heart" and at the end of all this we shall say “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). This phrase comes at the end of the sequence of ‘negative’ commandments, things we shouldn’t do, in a positive way, giving us the summary and guidance for how to achieve them all. Love and compassion are the keys to find holiness in community.
One of my favorite stories teaches that a person was lost in the forest. After walking alone for a long time, another person was seen far away. The two met and one said: I have been lost in here for a long time. Please help me to find a way out. The other responded: Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer for your question. But I do know of some paths where I walked through and could not find the light. We can walk together now and find new ways to exit the forest.
May we find what is holy in our lives, so you can share it with others, and keep inspiring and caring for our community.
May we keep spreading love, kindness, and compassion to each other as we walk together this unknown path.
The Holy Wonderment of Being Tamei
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
For the past 6 weeks, we have lived in a world of plague. Keeping healthy now means wearing gloves so we don’t touch our face, and wearing masks to protect others around us. We stroll around the block and quickly move into the street if someone is approaching on the same sidewalk. In a grocery store, we keep our distance and sometimes wait minutes for a person to move their cart so we can get to the eggs. For the past 6 weeks, we see ourselves as טמא, the opposite of טהור. In English we translate tamei as impure but maybe that’s an inaccurate description and connotation for our current state of being.
In this week’s parasha, we see many examples of people moving in and out of states of טהור and טמא. Torah assigns the priests a wide variety diagnostic criteria and corresponding treatments, including quarantines of varying lengths of time, as well as how to qualify a person for reentry into the community. This double parasha oozes with ooze, blemishes, hair loss, stains on walls, and infected clothing! It makes many people queasy and yet, I think this year can be a source of hope and a newfound outlook on our COVID-19 situation.
In Torah, a person coming into contact with someone experiencing the particular symptoms of tzara’at was suddenly tamei. But Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, of VBS, teaches that tamei and tahor can be two different states of purity. People who are tamei do not need to sacrifice at the Temple while people who are tahor can and do sacrifice. People who are tamei, Rabbi Feinstein says, are already in a state of holy wonderment. Whether interacting with a dead body, or giving birth, or taking care of others who are sick – the tamei already have a heightened sense of God’s closeness and astonishment of God’s creation and involvement, and do not need sacrificial rituals to feel God’s presence. Whereas, those who are in a state of tahor, are in need of the positive reinforcement of the concretizing rituals that remind them of the fragility and complication of life.
In a way, tamei is a state of seeking connection, and tahor is a harder category of trying to understand intricacies of life’s holiness. We are each of us is tamei during this pandemic and that is beautiful – in fact, lifesaving! Against a backdrop of dying and mourning, we must manifest endurance, nobility and beauty. We are seeking and discovering new ways of connection; praying with our communities in surprising and previously unthinkable new ways. We’re finding kavanna and pockets of holiness that were invisible to us in more mundane times. I feel blessed to be in situation where I am stretching to connect, stretching to be spiritually inspired, stretching to find holiness. Categorizing ourselves as tamei keep us focused on our own thoughts, our own goals and our own space. Sometimes, it is distance that makes us treasure and long for that which in our regular lives seems obvious.
I miss seeing you all in person. I miss hugging those I love. I miss being able to get on a plane and visit places I have yet to know. I miss teaching and being interrupted by students. I miss walking down the street and not being a little afraid of everyone’s nearness. However, I appreciate being tamei, in a state of holy wonderment, to create and to pray and to think and to connect more deeply than when the world is open to me without boundaries. I hope this week you are able to recognize how your life is tamei and hold on to the ways that we are
blessed to learn more about ourselves and our connection to God through this holy wonderment.
Back to the Breathing, Back to the Counting
By Ziegler Student, Emily Holtzman
Parashat Shemini directly follows the moment when Moses anoints Aaron and his sons, allowing them to finally enter the Tabernacle. On the 8th day, from where the parsha gets its name, Moses instructs them to prepare a sacrifice in order for the כבוד kavod (glory) of God to appear to them. This ritual involves a 7-day waiting period where Aaron and his sons will camp outside the entrance. These 7-days of antipatication are an essential part of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. This is the moment for Aaron to redeem himself after the unfortunate incident with the Egel HaZahav (Golden Calf). He and his sons make their final preparations as they begin their personal (and professional) relationship with God. I recently returned from studying in Israel and am about to enter a different phase of my studies. Until this point, I’ve spent my time in the beit midrash (my nose deep in Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries), now begins the time to glance up from the books. Transitions are always tough; both spiritual and physical preparations are needed in order to move through them. After spending the last 7 months in Israel, I need to now remember what it is like to be an American. This transition certainly will not come overnight and it will allow me the time to reflect on the person I was before I left for Israel, during the time I was there, and now. I am trying to navigate my life here in LA, while my program will continue until May despite the 10 hour time difference. Physically I’m here now, but spiritually I’m still trying to find my footing. Last week we also began counting the omer, the tradition to count the 49-days between the second night of Pesah and Shavuot. We move from Mitzrayim to Har Sinai, from our lowest lows to our highest highs. When we left Mitzrayim, we were slaves. Unfortunately our slave mentality CANNOT automatically shift at the drop of a hat. There is an internal process that must accompany us on our path towards freedom. Each day spent in the desert, on the way to Sinai and the Promised Land, is a moment of growth and development. Each day we count, we are brought closer to the revelation at Sinai and to our own relationship with God. The journey invites us to discover what kind of image we want to project into the world as Jews and as human beings. If we do not take the time and the preparation for the next 49 days, we will miss this opportunity. And this year especially is calling us to do just that. Davening, and now counting the omer, have become bookmarks in my days. They provide me with a few quiet and still moments amidst the seemingly endless hours on Zoom, grazing through the contents of my kitchen, and looking for something interesting to watch on television. This period could not have come at a more appropriate time in human history. It is a gift that our calendar always designates at this time of year. In this moment we are called to receive this gift in whatever way possible. Whether you just began counting the omer or have been counting the days of quarantine, the growth process has already begun. We are all just taking this one day and one hour at a time. We can try to make plans for the end of the school year, the summer, and beyond, but it is only possible to a certain extent. We need to focus on the counting each night, being in each day’s quiet and stillness. In meditation practice, they emphasize coming back to the breath, even when you lose your flow. Our minds can easily wander far from this present reality, distracting us for as long as we desire. In this moment, we need to stay on this day and in this hour. No matter where our mind takes us, no matter how many uncontrollable situations we try to control, we need to keep bringing ourselves back to the breathing, back to the counting. Preparation does not only take time, but patience, diligence, and resilience. That is what we are called to do both during this time in the Jewish calendar and for the safety and health of all lives around the world. Shabbat Shalom.
“Fire from Before God”
In Lieu of a Neshama Drash by TBA Rabbinic Intern Josh Jacobs
Except for the rare occasion where I like to lord it over everybody, being “chosen” is a difficult aspect of our Jewish narrative. To be chosen implies an elect quality inherent in us and absent from others, which would certainly lead to a stilted worldview. That said…there’s no getting around it. Our story is absolutely one of a chosen, special, covenanted relationship with God. And while it’s fun, in my darker moments, to see this as a mark of superiority over everyone else, that’s never been what it means to be chosen.
In Shemini, we read how Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer “strange fire” (אש זרה) to God, Who responds by consuming the two in a “fire from before God” (‘אש מלפני ה). Rashi understands this to be Divine punishment against Nadab and Abihu for entering the holy tabernacle while drunk and offering an unprescribed offering. His rationale is that God’s immediate next instruction to Aaron is, “Drink no wine or strong intoxicant, you or your sons when you enter the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 10:9).
When Moses consoles his brother, he says, “This is what the Lord meant when God said, ‘Through those close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be honored’” (Lev. 10:3). We then read, “And Aaron was silent.” There are many ways to interpret Moses’ words of comfort, and perhaps even more ways to interpret Aaron’s silent reply. It might be a natural response to the shock of a grieving father, but it might also be a lack of protest over what is simultaneously tragic and just. According to the thirteenth century French commentator, Chizkuni, “The point that Moses is making to his brother (...) is that the higher one’s rank, the more strictly God applies the rules laid down for their conduct.” Nadab and Abihu were singled out to be Kohanim, holy priests to administer God’s ritual commandments. While their death may seem to be a punishment disproportionate to their crime, it might also be an indispensable lesson on leadership and chosenness. As I understand it, it’s this:
To be chosen has nothing to do with any elect quality. To believe so is to enter into the Tabernacle drunk on a false sense of self. Channeling the voice of God, the prophet Amos therefore offers this sobering reminder: “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). As Jews, we pray to “...the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16), who has a special relationship with us, but also a special relationship with all peoples.
And yet, our story is unique and different from that of all other nations. We’ve just concluded Pesach, where we remember that God took us out of Egypt, choosing us to
observe God’s Torah and to be held to the higher standard of behavior enumerated within it. Our chosenness, therefore, has everything to do with the desire to draw close to God through Torah. To be judged and to judge ourselves harsher whenever we fall short because we aspire to be a kingdom of priests (ממלכת כהנים). To offer not strange fire, but a pillar of fire that may serve to guide the world through this wilderness we’ve created, and in which we are wandering. This is the chosenness we get to aspire to. And ironically, that isn’t actually a choice, at all.
Presence in Absence
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
My dad bought me my first siddur. I was just a kid, but I remember spending a long time with him at the Judaica store, browsing through the different options and finally settling on one that spoke most to me. It felt like a coming of age in a way, like I was old enough now to embark on my own relationship with liturgy and tradition. “Take good care of it,” he said, which only contributed to the sense of awe and responsibility I felt in that moment. “I will, Dad,” I told him as the siddur immediately slipped out of my hands and face-planted onto the floor. I rushed to pick it up and kiss it, understanding that this made me unfit for any further spiritual exploration, ever. My dad only laughed and said, “Actually, that was a good thing.” “How was that a good thing?” I asked. “Because now you’ll pick it back up and hold on even stronger.”
So I did. I also held on to my dad’s lesson that sometimes it takes distance from something to realize its true value. The other night, my good friend Jonah Winer facilitated a Zoom session on this week’s parsha, Tzav. He pointed to the Hasidic commentary of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the early 19th century Ishbitzer Rebbe, who illuminates profound meaning in what might otherwise strike us as no longer relevant details concerning animal sacrifice rituals. Specifically, there’s the burnt offering (עולה) and the sin offering (חטאת). The burnt offering, the Rebbe writes, is offered up by the “truly righteous person.” It is the only offering that is burnt up completely - symbolic, he argues, of the righteous person’s complete devotion to God. The sin offering, by contrast, is offered by someone who has erred and wants to repent. Someone who let the commandments slip from their hands, but wants to come back stronger. Perhaps for this reason, the Ishbitzer Rebbe claims that the repentant sinner actually draws closer to God than does the “truly righteous person.” He writes:
“The burnt offering has its blood sprinkled on the lower half of the altar (…) [but t]he sin offering's (…) blood is sprinkled on the upper half of the altar; This is because the cry of a repentant person calling out to G-d to save them rises to the highest heights, a place a completely righteous person cannot reach. As it says in the holy Zohar 'Repenting people are closer to The King - more than any others, they are drawn upwards by the will of their hearts and their great strength to be close to The King.’”
Just like that, even when the Torah seems to be talking about bulls and rams, it’s actually talking about what it means to be human. Imbuing us with the radical notion that it is actually our sins, brokenness, and imperfections which provide us with the opportunity to achieve closeness to God. That is, as Jonah notes, the basis of the word for sacrifice, “הקריב” - meaning, “to draw close.”
It’s painful to read a parsha about drawing close in a time of drawing back from one another. With Pesach coming up in just a few days, themes of plague, darkness, and “ליל שמרים” - “…a night of watching…” (Exodus 12:42) and waiting as we guard against leaving our homes - ring true now more than ever. While God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, we are tasked with reaching out to one another only in spirit, as we refrain from the warm embraces that once sustained us. And yet, paradoxically, there’s an empowering holiness in distance. The existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir explains that only in being an absence can one be a presence. In Kabbalistic terms, it was God’s withdrawing God’s Self (צימצום, or “constriction”) that actually made the creation of the world possible. While we may all feel overwhelmed right now with a sense of powerlessness and isolation, Pesach reminds us that plagues are temporary, and liberation lies just around the corner. And while we’ve been forced to drop the aspects of communal life we hold most dear, sometimes it takes distance from something to realize its true value.
I miss you all. Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Kasher and Sameach.
God is calling
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Natan Freller
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
(God) called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:
Thus, we start the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. Now that the Tent of Meeting is up, God calls Moshe to start telling all the rules about sacrifices and offerings that the people can and should bring.
So many questions. Why now stop telling our people’s narrative to focus on ritual offerings? Why so many rules about that? Why God needs to call Moshe, aren’t Moshe and God always talking to each other? Is this approach different than other ways God speaks to people? I could go on with more questions, but let’s take these first.
The Rambam writes that we as Jews, ideally, would not need to bring animal sacrifices and grain offerings in order to connect to God. But the generation of the desert was used to it, since they were coming from Egypt where this was a common practice. Since God knows the human heart and understands how hard it is for us humans to change behavior, a process of transition was needed. God decided to keep the ‘form’ of the ritual in requiring animal sacrifices while changing the ‘destination’, or ‘content’ if you will. We have just experienced the challenging episode of the Golden Calf. The most important think in this first step is to change their understanding of God and develop some kind of relationship to the ‘new’ God who saved them from Egypt. In a smart and thoughtful way, God allowed animal sacrifices to continue as we focus our learning in knowing God.
It's hard to change. We offered sacrifices knowing what to do and learned the new spiritual destination - God. For centuries this was a common practice among our ancestors, up to the destruction of the Second Temple. Only by the times of the Rabbis that prayer became the standard mode of spiritual practice among Jews. Still, in the Talmud we see the Rabbis trying to tie the requirement for praying three times a day to the sacrifices in the Temple, showing that this is still part of the process of transition from one mode of spiritual expression to another. For many, even though it took a long time to move from one mode to the other, was hard to get used to the new system and find meaning in it just as we are used to.
We are used to see changes at a much faster pace than our ancestors, and still we were caught by the challenge to adapt our work and social schedule to this new reality. The same happened to our spiritual practices. For many, and I definitely include myself in this group, being in physically in community and singing together is a significant part of the spiritual life.
Just like the Clouds of Glory and the Pillar of Fire were physical elements of the Divine Presence for the generation of the desert, seeing each other’s faces every week and davening together is one way I see the Divine Presence in our midst.
The central question I asked myself this week is how to keep social distancing but not spiritual distancing?
The first word of our parasha is וַיִּקְרָא (vayikra). Before speaking to Moshe, God calls him, and then begins to share. I want to believe that we are reading parasha Vayikra this week not by chance, but with purpose. We are being called. For the divine presence to manifest physically, we need to reach in and reach out. Reach in to find our own spiritual self that can exist without the physicality we are used to. Reach out finding ways to see each other’s faces with the technology at hand and connecting at a deeper level.
Rashi explains that whenever God approaches Moshe there is always a call to shows affection, love. Just like we recall the words of the Prophet Isaiah in the Kedusha:
וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה וְאָמַר קָדוֹשׁ ׀ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ
And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy!
When the divine love is not present, the call is different. When God approaches the sorcerer Bilam (Bamidbar 23:4), the word used is ויקר (vayikar), from the root קרה which denotes “by chance”.
God is calling each one of us to be close, to feel love. This is a personal call, not an accident. Even though we are distant, God is not. Once we know our God, even if we are distant from our communal spiritual practice, we are being called to adapt, now knowing the receiver of our prayers, but maybe changing the ways we connect with the Divine Presence.
May we all find old and new pathways to stretch our spirituality as we are being called to be present this week. God is calling with love.
Creation in the face of uncertainty
By Rachel Cohn, Ziegler student
One of my most humbling experiences to date was taking an introductory improv class in San Francisco. My friend Rebecca, a professional actress, led a group of us amateurs in weekly exercises. We laughed and stumbled through games like clapping whenever someone dropped a ball, or inventing ways to get someone to stand up from a chair. While I had my fair share of memorably awkward moments and great belly laughs, what I took away most from the class was the idea that everyone was asked to be a creator. There were no spectators in the room. With few tools - and often much apprehension - we each had to put something on the table. In the face of uncertainty, we had to create.
Parshat Ki Tisa features two episodes of bold creation, with wildly different outcomes. First, Betzalel is appointed as the head artisan of the Mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary for God. In choosing Betzalel, God declares, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Exodus 31:3). He and Oholiab and other artists are set in charge of fulfilling God’s elaborate instructions for the Tent of Meeting, Ark, and other components of the Mishkan.
Later, in an entirely different scene, the Israelites construct an idol of a golden calf. When Moses takes longer than expected to come down from Mt. Sinai, the crowd gets worried. They beg Aaron, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses...we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). Much like preparing to construct the Mishkan, they assemble rich resources to contribute to the project, but this time, far from creating a sanctuary for God, they create an image that deeply damages their relationship with the divine.
Both the creation of the Mishkan and the golden calf involve elaborate construction, communal contributions, and an artistic vision. Both were created in times of new beginnings and uncharted territory. For the Israelites, they faced the unknown of life outside of slavery. Betzalel, too, must have faced trepidation as he was tasked with constructing a dwelling for God in their midst. So what sets Betzalel on such a different path?
The rabbis of the Talmud, in Berakhot 55a suggest, “Betzalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.” I imagine Betzalel adding color and artistic flair to our world through the very building blocks of God’s creation - plants, metals, fabrics, and pigments. He mimics God in his creative process and is able to bring more goodness and beauty into being. His name, Betzalel, means “in the shadow of God.” His very existence recognizes his connection to the divine. While the Israelites waiting for Moses tried to grasp for godliness when they could not find it, Betzalel’s example provides a model for embodying holiness through our artistic endeavors.
I admit that I have found myself stuck between the mentalities of Betzalel and the nervous Israelites in recent weeks. As the news about the coronavirus unfolds rapidly, with much remaining uncertainty, I can relate to the Israelites at the foot of the mountain. I, too, have asked, “what is taking so long?” and wanted a quick, tangible fix to a complex problem. Instead, this parshah asks us to continue using our creative powers to bring more godliness into the world. I have seen teens post music videos that they made while in quarantine. I have seen parents post a week’s worth of unexpected homeschool lesson plans. We must keep creating from a place of faith and wisdom. May we continue finding the strength to follow in Betzalel’s footsteps, as we find our own ways to craft connections between human and holy in the face of the unknown.
Evidence of Things Not Seen
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
In my favorite episode of The West Wing, C.J. Cregg, the White House Press Secretary, obsesses over a myth that at the exact moment of the spring equinox, you can stand an egg on its end, and it will remain upright. The rest of the White House staff, fierce intellects who concern themselves with statistical analysis and empirical facts, can only sit back in amusement at C.J.’s quirky conviction. The episode is called “Evidence of Things Not Seen” because in the end, only C.J. is possessed of a unique faith in that which defies convention and reason. As the audience, we actually find ourselves suspending disbelief and rooting for something that we, too, know to be absurd. The episode ends with C.J.’s attempt to stand the egg up at the exact moment of the equinox. We don’t see the result; we only see her eyes go wide as she calls out to her colleagues, “Guys!”
A few weeks ago, we read God’s charge, “…you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). A nation that would not serve kings of flesh and blood, but rather the Divine. Too glorious to be comprehended or appreciated, this unprecedented model of statecraft is deemed absurd (like standing an egg upright) by the rational minds of the Israelite elders. Taking a look around at the wealth and security of other nations, the elders gather and, informed by that which is conventional, compel the prophet Samuel to “שימה לנו מלך לשפטנו ככל הגוים” “…set up for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (I Samuel 8:5). The people place their faith exclusively in what they can see, and Samuel knows that this is a terrible mistake. Interestingly, this request seems to resemble the people’s sin in the desert when, unable to see God or Moses (who has disappeared up the mountain for far too long), the people compel Aaron to make them a golden calf – a visual representation for a people unable to muster faith in evidence of things not seen. And so, “They exchanged their Glory for the likeness of a grass-eating ox” (Psalms 106:20). And became just like everybody else.
In this week’s Haftarah, Samuel’s resistance to appoint a monarch (though he begrudgingly does so) proves correct. Saul, Israel’s first king, stumbles by failing to carry out God’s order to utterly destroy Amalek. He spares the best of its sheep and its king, Agag, either out of sympathy or perhaps out of fear. To kill a fellow king, after all, sends a dangerous message that kings can be murdered. Saul may therefore have resorted to a “professional courtesy,” allowing fear of what human beings might do to overpower his commitment to faithfully observe God’s command. Saul even admits, “I feared the people, and I hearkened to their voice” (I Samuel 15:24). According to Midrash, that one night Saul permitted Agag to live allowed him to become the progenitor of Haman, who on one hand tried to kill us, and on the other, gave us cookies.
The common thread seems to be that humans are bestowed with the unique ability to imagine beyond what is, to what can be. To transcend the common and achieve the extraordinary. Why, then, do we so readily trade it away for comfort in what we can see, touch, and understand? Why do we cling to old conventions that may or may not work but certainly make us just like everybody else? Samuel warns that human kings will only impose bitter taxes and forced labor on their subjects. King Solomon, for all his strengths, does both. This proves to be such an excessive burden that the united kingdom of Israel and Judea ultimately splits during the rule of Solomon’s son. Flesh and blood kings go on to turn the people away from God, as King Jeroboam of Israel erects two golden calves at Bethel and Dan. God offers us the opportunity to be unlike any other nation in the world, and we literally exchange our Glory for the likeness of a grass-eating ox.
While the window to be exclusively governed by God has long since passed, certainly we can still aspire to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. On a national level, this has much to do with whom we freely elect to lead us, with upcoming elections in both Israel and the United States. Regardless of political leaning, our tradition teaches us that our loyalty is not to individual human rulers who, like Saul, can be cast aside and replaced in an instant. Our loyalty can and must be to God and to the values that make us who we are, which transcend any physical representation, and which make us unique. On a personal level, this has everything to do with how we treat one another, and how we cultivate faith in evidence of things not seen. How we maintain the belief that, despite all odds, we can stand upright.
Being in Relationship
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
A dear friend of mine had her Bat Mitzvah on parasha Terumah. Her mom told her at that time: “You should study some Pirkei Avot to give a drash on your Bat Mitzvah because there is nothing interesting in your parasha!”
Well, she has a point. This is for sure not necessarily an easy text for a teenager, filled with stories and meaningful teachings, but mostly a very accurate description of the construction of the Tabernacle. Something like an IKEA manual - if they had words! Actually, this parasha is just like building a new piece of furniture: it might look very complicated and exhausting in the beginning but once you start putting things together, you can find a lot of pleasure in the activity!
In the midst of this detailed explanation of each part, it says: “Put in the ark the pact which I give you” (Shemot 25:16). And a few verses later: “Place the cover on top of the ark, after putting inside the ark the pact that I give you”. (25:21). Here are my questions: what pact (עדות) is the Torah talking about and what can we learn from that?
The most traditional answer given by many commentators, based on what comes later in the text, is that it refers to the tablets with the ten commandments. A symbolic item that represents the pact, the covenant between God and the Jewish People. Our relationship with the divine is crafted around our commitment to abide by ritual and social laws as a People.
Earlier in this parasha, the famous verse brings a different perspective on God's presence in our midst: “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8). This perspective requires something from us in order to merit the divine presence, while in the former one God is the one to take initiative and gives us the Torah, establishing our covenant.
I find it challenging to develop a relationship to God based on an exchange of favors so then God can be present. I understand the core of the sanctuary not to be the divine presence exclusively but our covenant as People with God, the Ark of the Covenant. While God doesn’t need us in order to exist, our tradition sees our relationship with God at the center and not God alone.
I understand religion in general and Judaism more specifically as a methodology for creating a relationship between human and divine. The way the Torah does it is by describing a relational God. God of Israel, or Adonai, your God. By living a life of Torah, I can engage with God for being aware of God’s presence in the world.
God, when described as Elohim in the creation stories, is not necessarily a metaphysical entity that created the world, but the human way of describing the creation process in God language. When the Jewish People develops a relational covenant with God, God then becomes relational and not only an isolated force in nature. This relationship is the representation of the awareness developed by communal and individual practices that constitute the Jewish People. Therefore, I establish a universalist relationship to God as creator and a particular connection as the God of Israel.
What appears to be a contradiction between verses is consolidated in the Haftarah we read this week as one. The connection between these texts is obvious, as we read in the Torah the details of the construction of the Mishkan, we read a Haftarah about Solomon building the First Temple. The last lines of the Haftarah are: “With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.”
In keeping this relationship between us and God strong by learning and practicing the ethical and ritual commandment, not only the divine presence will be among us, but the Jewish People will not be forsaken. This is not an exchange of favors or promises, but an ongoing relationship where our challenge is to develop the awareness of the divine that exists in our lives and thus, reveal it to the work.
The key to make this a practical teaching that enriches our lives is, of course, in the Pirkei Avot: “Yose ben Yochanan from Jerusalem used to say: Let your house be wide open”. Our sanctuaries would have no purpose if the doors are closed to those who want to come in. It is our responsibility to make our houses accessible and welcoming to those who need it, to be in constant relationship.
As we read parasha Terumah for the first time since rededicating our own Sanctuary, I recall the beautiful words shared on that day. The framework and the structure in which we build our relationship with the divine are important. Having a sanctuary that meets our communal needs is a blessing to all of us. And still, nothing is more important than the holy relationships developed in this holy space. Certainly, the divine presence will be found in these holy encounters.
May the doors of holiness stay open to our journeys as we come into this space of relationship and connection with each other.
Loving One's Master (Teacher)
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, TBA Assistant Rabbi
At my installation, more than anything, I was glad to bring to this community my teachers, those I look up to and hold in high esteem. For knowing a teacher’s teacher or a student’s student is sometimes even more powerful than the person who is your direct source or recipient of knowledge. Rabbi Aaron Alexander referred to me as his teacher, and it was almost hard to hear because he is MY mentor, MY teacher, MY Rav! How can I even approach peerage with him? When studying choral conducting, I was excited to call my mentoring teacher, Kelly Shepard, and tell him all about school. I wanted him to know what I was doing and how I connected it back to the ways he taught us, how I now better understood the musical decisions he made because of my own learning. However, when it was time to conduct in front of him, I was the most nervous I’d ever been. How could I presume to perform satisfactory in front of my Master?
Parashat Mishpatim starts with an interesting scenario that can be overlooked as we get to goring oxes, taking care of the stranger, not oppressing the other in our midst, and na’aseh v’nishma. But here is the first of many rules that we are to follow as God’s students: If you have a Hebrew slave, in the 7th year he may go free. If he came single he leaves single, and if he is married his wife is released with him. If the master gave the slave a wife who bore him children, the wife and children belong to the master and the slave goes free without them. But, if the slave announces:
אָהַבְתִּי אֶת־אֲדֹנִי אֶת־אִשְׁתִּי וְאֶת־בָּנָי לֹא אֵצֵא חָפְשִׁי, “, I love my master, my wife and my child I will not go free,” the master shall take him… “before God, to a doorpost, and pierce his ear, marking him as one who chooses to remain in his role as servant.
Our commentators do not read this as sentimental or beautiful; but I see it as tender and truly powerful. Like many other mishpatim in this parasha, as much as we focus on the less powerful, we focus more on the master who is thought to be fair and maybe even loved enough to earn a slave/servant’s devotion. We strive to be that kind of mentor, partner, teacher, friend, etc. Rabbeinu Bahya (13th c. Spain) comments that the love must be mutual between slave and master for the piercing and the commitment it signaled to be initiated. Bahya continues with: כי טוב לו עמך “ when it is good for him with you” from Devarim 15, that this mutuality of relationship, respect and need is the only way to continue service. Kiddushin 22 goes as far as to say if the master is sick and the slave is in good health, the law is not applicable and if the slave is sick and the master is well, the law is also not applicable because this covenant requires a great degree of mutuality and without exploitation.
Is it possible that the slave is sharing love because if he does not stay he leaves without his wife and child? Sure! However, I want to read this as commentators like Rashi have, that the love had to be shared over the six years, not just at this turning point in status. It is the master who we need to learn from. How can we be teachers, employers, parents, CEO’s, lawyers, doctors, clerks, in such a way that those who come to learn from us or work for us feel love and reciprocal need.
Often those we look up to most as mentors or role models are those we are most intimidated in front of. I hate singing and conducting in front of Kelly Shepard because he taught me how! I am often more shy and self-conscious teaching or rabbi-ing in front of Rabbi Aaron Alexander or any of my other rabbinic mentors because they show me mastery that I only wish to one day do as well. May we be the kind of master we wish to serve. May we practice and teach relationship building. May we draw close to one another, as both servant and served, a kehillah kedusha.
Thank you each for allowing me to grow in this community as Rav and Talmida, rabbi and teacher. You have now seen glimpses of where, who and what I come from and I hope to bring those sparks of Divine love, partnership and learning into this holy space.
Torah in a World on Fire
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
It turns out that even if you’re Moses, when the in-laws come to visit, it doesn’t matter - everything you’re doing is wrong. Jethro watches Moses arbitrate between God and the people all day long, interceding in their problems by expounding the law for them. The reality is, however, that Moses is pushing himself to the limit and still cannot possibly meet everyone’s individual needs. Jethro raises his concern that “You will certainly wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). As an alternative, Jethro ostensibly suggests a system that resembles a kind of precursor to democracy: “You shall seek out from among all the nation capable people who fear God, trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens…” (Exodus 18:21). And so we find Moses demonstrating his love for God and people by giving himself over wholeheartedly to their service, and we also see Jethro shrewdly recognizing that if Moses does not delegate some of the work, the people can’t possibly have the infrastructure to thrive without him once he’s gone.
My friend and fellow Ziegler student, Ben Sigal, compares Moses’ being overworked and depleted, and Jethro’s concern to leave things better off than he found them, to the environmental themes evoked by the recent holiday of Tu B’shevat, the birthday of the trees. Like Moses, our planet is overworked and depleted of resources. We are in need of Jethro’s ingenuity - of challenging the way things are in favor of new systems of sustainability and efficiency. This task is “too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone,” but thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens committed to Moses’ stewardship and Jethro’s creativity offers a compelling response to grim predictions of climate crisis.
Grim predictions, according to the Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael) are actually what brings Jethro over to the Israelite camp in the first place. We read, “And Jethro the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God did for Moses and for Israel, God’s people, how God took Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). The Midrash asks: What is it, exactly, that Jethro heard? What caused him to make the journey? One possibility the rabbis offer is the giving of the Torah. Although the giving of the Torah does not happen until after Jethro’s visit, the rabbis hold that chronology can be played with (בתורה מאחרוו מוקדם אין) allowing them to place Jethro among the other priests of the nations who fearfully tremble in their palaces upon hearing the voice of God, which “cleaves with flames of fire,” (Psalm 29) speaking to the Israelites from Sinai. According to the Midrash, Jethro and these other princes go find Balaam, the prophet who fails to curse the Israelites in parashat Balak, to inquire about the event. Hearing God’s voice from a distance and seeing how “…the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire” (Exodus 19:18), the princes ask Balaam if God is now destroying the world by fire, as God had previously done through the waters of the flood. Balaam replies that God “…will bring neither a flood of fire nor a flood of water, but the Holy Blessed One is giving Torah to God’s people and loved ones.” The princes’ minds are set at ease and they take solace in the fact that God has promised never again to destroy the earth.
What stands out for me this week, between Tu B’shevat and parashat Yitro, is that while God has promised never to destroy the earth, human beings have made no such reciprocal promise. Our world is currently on fire, and unlike Sinai or the bush, it’s being consumed. But if Torah was originally given in the midst of fire – the kind of fire that made Yitro and his fellow princes fear the end of the world – maybe Torah was given precisely for that purpose: to respond to the needs of a world on fire. To turn trembling into relief – fear of destruction into the comfort in knowing that God has given the Jewish people a tree of life, and with it, a charge to be stewards of this world and caretakers of all of God’s creatures in it. In this way, we are summoned to attempt the moral leadership of Moses and the ingenuity of Yitro, who sees depletion and devises a new system that allows for sustainability and new growth.
Torah, then, which is often compared to water, can and should be the vehicle through which we attempt to quench the fires of this world.
First, Always Look Inside Yourself
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
I am grateful to my friend and teacher Peter Pitzele, the astoundingly talented and sensitive man who created Bibliodrama, extending the basic principle of Psychodrama to the biblical text. Some of you have participated in Bibliodramas with me. Essentially, a group creates midrash/interpretation in real time. By entering a Biblical character, and speaking in his/her name after a simple prompt by “the director,” participants awaken Avraham’s voice moments before binding Isaac, or Miriam’s voice as she hovers in the reeds overseeing baby Moshe’s floating crib, etc.
There are few rules to “directing” a Bibliodrama, but each of them is critical. one of them has become an integral part of my consciousness and communication, way beyond the Bibliodrama setting. It is called “echoing.” It is a very scripted version of what some informally refer to as empathic listening, where the listener in any exchange is focusing as deeply as possible on what the other is saying, rather than already scripting the retort/response in one’s head. In “echoing,” the director essentially says back to the room the words that the previous speaker/participant said, maintaining the first-person voice. While “echoing,” the director both addresses the room, but also focuses on the person being echoed. To check in, by reading body language and cues, to make sure that the director properly heard what the speaker was saying. The director takes full responsibility for echoing accurately. And if anything was missed, the director tries again until the person being echoed affirms the echo. This is best experienced in person, but you get the picture.
What I appreciate most about this method, both within a Bibliodrama and in other, less scripted exchanges, is the responsibility it places on the communicator. The method is counter-cultural, as in our society we so blithely and frequently hold “the other” accountable in our exchanges. If something was missed in the conversation, it was her fault, not mine. If I was misunderstood, it was because he wasn’t listening well, not because I spoke unclearly. Echoing transfers the burden to you. Listen well. Communicate clearly. If something is missed, take it upon yourself to lean in and do it better.
The method is modern and current, but the wisdom is age-old. Consider a commentary by the S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Altar, 1847-1905), one of the rebbes of the Gerer Hasidic dynasty. He is interpreting the phrase in Shemot/Exodus 6:12, which is part of Moshe’s exchange with God about how the interaction with Pharaoh and the Israelites will go once Moshe returns to Egypt. Moshe, humble and self-effacing, wonders if he will be effective. The Israelites will not listen to me! Nor will Pharaoh. Why?
If we paused the story here, we can imagine a leader or speaker throwing in blame and calumny to explain or even anticipate a failure of communication. “The Israelites will not listen to me because, God, as you know, they are stiff-necked.” And/or “Pharaoh has a heart of stone, so why should I expect such a hard-hearted man will soften it for me?” Instead of such accusations, Moshe turns internal. ואני ערל שפתים. Va’ani arel s’fatayim. Roughly translated as, “I am slow of speech.” (Literally, it means my lips are uncircumcised, clumsy, suffering from an excess of skin). The S’fat Emet praises Moshe here for passively and gently praising the Israelites. By turning the focus on himself, and restraining himself from criticizing them, Moshe resists the urge to name them as stubborn (as God is so wont to do.). “It is I, Moshe, who is lacking. Not them. If their hearts are not moved by what I say, then perhaps I didn’t say it well. If there is to be a failure of communication, it will be because I failed to communicate well.”
How wonderful our world, our community and our relationships would be if our first instinct echoed Moshe’s, as interpreted by the S’fat Emet. Of course, it would be safer and easier to take that stance in an exchange of words and ideas if we had faith that “the other” were doing so as well. But it must begin somewhere. The listening and the echoing has to be born, over and over again. Taking responsibility for what is said, and what is heard, is a relentless burden, and a holy one. Giving credit to the other, and reclaiming the obligation for oneself, makes relationship possible. Listen. Echo. Check in. If something was missed, try again. Resist the urge to blame “them.” Put the sacred burden on yourself.
Hutzpah is holy
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
If there is one unique behavioral trait to describe Jews across time and space, I would say, without a doubt, it is hutzpah.
For those not yet familiarized with the concept, originally a Hebrew word that made into Yiddish and English languages, Leo Rosten in his book “The Joys of Yiddish” defines hutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts', presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to".
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time a Jewish mother had another baby, but this time it was different. After having two beautiful and smart kids, she heard that the law had changed. If she gives birth to a baby boy, he must be killed, for the supreme ruler was afraid of a Jewish revolt. If hutzpah was not a thing in Jewish behavior from its inception, it could be the end of the story. But this strong woman could not give up to such a harsh decree. Her baby boy was born, and she had the hutzpah to keep him for as long as she could, for three months. She made a basket for the baby and asked her daughter to put him on the river. Maybe someone will find the basket and take care of him. None other than the Pharaoh’s daughter was the one who found him. If hutzpah was not a thing in Jewish behavior from its inception, it could be the end of the story. But since his sister followed the basket along the river, she came up to the Pharaoh’s daughter and had the hutzpah to say: “Hey, I know a Hebrew women who can nurse him for you, do you want me to bring him there?” Not only the mother was able to nurse her own baby, she was compensated by the Pharaoh’s daughter for doing so!
Yes, this is how the book of Shemot begins. Moshe’s birth is not about him, but about his mother’s and sister’s hutzpah. Maybe for being nursed and raised by his own mother, Moshe inherited such trait from her. Upon seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he turner both ways to see if no one was around and had the hutzpah strike down the Egyptian and bury him in the sand.
After that event, Moshe had to run away from Egypt and goes to Midian, where he gets married and has kids. While working as a shepherd, he meets God for the first time. What a great role model of hutzpah! God appears to Moshe with such a hutzpah that even Moshe questions the craziness of the divine request. God asks Moshe to be the one who will deliver the divine message that freedom is divine, and no human ruler can enslave and oppress like the Pharaoh did to the Hebrews.
Moshe is humble and afraid to take on the responsibility for this new divine calling. He questions himself. God’s hutzpah gives him strength, confidence. Hutzpah isn’t always easy; it takes some time and practice to get there. Thanks God, literally, Moshe could feel embraced and encourage move forward and fight for his people.
Hutzpah can sometimes be interpreted as a negative characteristic as well. Either as being too rude, disrespectful or for lack of faith and hope in God. At the end of the day, many of our praised ancestors did things against the law, putting themselves and the entire people at risk for their hutzpah. Rebbe Nachman teaches that hutzpah is exactly the opposite of that. According to the hasidic master, azut d’kedudshah, holy audacity, is the key to find hope and comfort while questioning God’s role as well as our responsibility. Many would say that a true tzaddik, a righteous person, cannot have any doubts. Rebbe Nachman rejected that widespread idea, teaching doubt as a spiritual virtue, as the impetus towards a blind faith. If one could rationalize God to its fulness, there would be no difference between that person’s mind and God’s will. Having doubt is essential for God’s existence.
The core message of this week’s Torah portion is exactly that: Hutzpah is holy. Each one of us is walking a different path, creating our own journeys. The amount of challenges that will present themselves on our way is countless. The blessing of walking together as a community, while walking individual tracks, following the weekly Torah portion cycle of is to see the Torah as a mirror. To find ourselves in their footsteps, learning from our people’s ancient wisdom and creating our own pathway to live a meaningful life. None of us will be Yocheved, Miriam, or Moshe. Still, we can walk beside them as we encounter our ancestors showing us a different way to see things through our own reflection.
Our world is on fire. When we see injustice, oppression, and hate we dare to have the hutzpah and stand up against it. We show love, we fight for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. We recall the divine calling towards justice and peace.
We live at a time when many feel lonely. We must dare to show up and have the hutzpah to tell someone that they are not alone, that we stand together and that we are there for them.
May we find the strength, courage and comfort in our tradition, looking at our ancestors’ challenges to find our own ways of transforming their legacy into action. Just as Yocheved, Miriam, and Moshe had hutzpah, so too we should have hutzpah. Just as God had hutzpah, so too we should have hutzpah.
May we all have the divine hutzpah we need this week.
Living and Dying with Enduring Hope
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
This week, we can’t even get past the first word of the parsha without needing to talk about it. Vayechi means “And he lived.” After reuniting with the favorite son whom he thought he’d lost tragically, and after having mourned Joseph’s supposed death for decades, Jacob lives an additional seventeen years in Egypt alongside him. What’s interesting is, Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into Egypt. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that Jacob happens to live (vayechi) seventeen years, only after which, “the time approached for Israel to die” (Bereshit 47:29). It’s almost as if God blesses Jacob with the exact amount of time necessary to achieve what might be called, in precise technical terms, a “do over.” This time, at the end of seventeen years, it would not be Joseph who is ripped away, but Jacob, who dies at a ripe old age in the company of his son. As God promises him in last week’s reading, “…and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Bereshit 46:4). Having dedicated much attention to Joseph’s dreams, the Torah concludes this saga with the realization of Jacob’s.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you that there’s a moment in The Odyssey that always makes me cry. Upon his triumphant return home after a similarly long period of separation, Odysseus receives a very emotional greeting. We expect it to come from Penelope, who has spent the years weaving and unweaving her web, faithfully warding off suitors until her husband’s return. But since Odysseus has disguised himself as a beggar in order to mount a bloody surprise attack - his way of warding off suitors - his family doesn’t recognize him. No one except for his dog, Argos, who recognizes him immediately. Argos lies on the floor, once a pup but now a tired old dog. Unable to get up, he musters his remaining strength to wag his tail. Odysseus sheds a tear, knowing that he cannot greet his dog without blowing his cover. He passes by Argos, who, having stayed alive just to see his master home safe again, can finally die in peace.
And so, Jacob summoned up his strength (ויתחזק) and “sat up in bed” (Bereshit 48:4), putting physical expression to his words from before, “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive” (Bereshit 46:30). Joseph, who initially goes unrecognized by his brothers due to his “disguise” not as a beggar but as second in command to Pharaoh, is immediately recognized by his father as they fall on each others necks and weep. Now Israel, sensing the end, calls his sons around his bed to bless them. What might go unnoticed is how, buried within his blessing to Joseph is an assessment of his own good fortune: “The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills” (Bereshit 49:26). Tonally, this seems in sharp contrast to what he had previously described to Pharaoh: “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Bereshit 47:9). It appears that since then, Jacob’s pain has been lifted significantly, his heaviness abated, to the point where Radak, commenting on the word “ויגוע” - “and he expired” - writes, “[it is] an expression used with the righteous, describing a painless death.” Having his son home safe again, Jacob can finally die in peace.
We know what Israel lived for in his old age. Our angel-wrestling forefather also wrestles with the angel of death and prevails long enough to see the mending of his broken home. Whether family means blood relatives, friends, our shul community, or otherwise, Vayechi teaches us that family is what we live for. And the hope that what is broken can be repaired is what sustains us. Without that hope, we are left with a slave mentality, which mistakenly perceives that our present reality is our permanent one. After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers immediately revert back to their old deceptive ways, forging a message from their father that implores Joseph to forgive them. This seems to demonstrate that very slave mentality, stuck in what was and unable to concieve of what has become. So Joseph’s brothers “flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are for you as slaves’” (Bereshit 50:18). This is a sobering foreshadow, as we read next week in Shemot, “And a new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), signaling the beginning of our bondage in Egypt.
And yet, Jospeh knows that God will bring them back to the Promised Land. The Book of Bereshit ends with Joseph’s adjuring the children of Israel carry his bones with them out of Egypt to be buried in Eretz Yisrael with his ancestors. The parsha begins, therefore, with Jacob’s portrayal of what it means to live with enduring hope. It concludes with Joseph’s demonstration of what it means to die with it.
Moving from I-It to I-You, in the Torah and Today
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro, Director of Youth Learning & Engagement
“All real life is meeting.” This statement is the crux of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, his most well-known work. Buber explains that “real life” involves an encounter with an “I-You” way of being. In distinction from an I-It way of being, I-You calls upon us to see the Godliness and unity in each and every aspect of the world around us, particularly other people. When I have a “I-You” moment, I’m seeing beyond the data points of who you are on the surface, and getting to something more resonant with the ultimate truth of who you are. Buber is often oversimplified as follows: there are two ways of interacting with the world, a transactional way and a truly relational way, and we should value and work towards the latter, rather than being stuck in the former. His claim, however, is more complex than that- it’s not merely a category of interaction, but a way of living life, of engaging with the world. I can’t have an I-You encounter unless I’m living my life is that way; unless I’ve had an internal shift, I won’t fully be in that “I-You” place, no matter how close I feel to the people around me or the world at large.
This might seem a bit abstract, even obtuse. Fortunately, the parsha this week offers us two examples through which we can see this concept illustrated, illuminating how the experience can emerge in two directions: one by finding a way to be “I-You” in the world and the ensuing transformation within a relationship, the other by having a “meeting” in a relationship that shifts a way of being as an individual. The first is present right at the beginning of the parsha, picking up in the middle of the scene where Benjamin stands accused of having stolen from Egypt’s second-in-command (the brothers not yet knowing that it’s Joseph). The parsha begins with “Judah approached him…” (44:18) The verse can be read as having a superfluous pronoun, (“Judah approached” would have been sufficient), and that “him” is in turn read as Judah approaching not his brother, but himself. R. Simcha Bunim articulates that “Judah came close to his own essence,” which in turn heightens the efficacy of his words; by finding the wherewithal to go deep within, his words move Joseph enough that he finally reveals himself to his brothers, and reunion and reconciliation ensue. Judah’s self-reflection is the starting point for all of these changes. From the Buberian perspective, because Judah is able to shift his way of being in that moment to a more reflective state and conducting himself accordingly, a transformative shift in a relationship follows.
The inverse seems to happen a chapter and a half later. Jacob gets word that his beloved son is alive in Egypt and comes down to see him. When, at last, they meet after years apart, Jacob’s first words to him are, “now that I’ve seen you alive, I can die.” (46:30) At first glimpse, these seem to be odd words to offer to a long-lost relative, let alone the apple of Jacob’s eye whom he has long thought deceased. Radak puts a finer point on these words, framing them as “now that I see you living, I could die with no regrets.” Even though Jacob’s words are explicitly talking about death, they can also be seen as an affirmation of this particular moment of real life. This one point in time is so full, so resonant, that anything beyond this is, essentially, a bonus. Jacob, it can be argued, needs nothing more than this, and he’s now at peace, at least for a split second. In contrast with Judah, who found the “I-You” way of being within himself and brought it out, Jacob is able to shift his way of being from one of goals- getting to this point- to one of being, in acceptance of and present with what currently is, an I-You state
The duality of these two moments is both contradictory and illuminating, There’s not necessarily a rhyme or reason to if and when “I-You” emerges; no matter how hard we might try to cultivate it or bring it out, it’s ephemeral and impermanent. Yet ultimately, in these examples and in Buber’s thought, this state is driven by relationship rather than solitude, a desire to connect rather than the pull of isolation.
When the world feel fraught and scary, a common impulse for many, including myself, is to retreat and step back, trying to stay out of harm’s way by withdrawing. This external response to the world in turn impacts how we relate to other people- if my default attitude towards the world is one of fear and suspicion, there’s little doubt that this will impact how I interact with people around me, whether with those I’m close to or in encounters with new faces. Buber, however, affirms that “people appear by entering into relation to other people.” When we’re present, fully connected with another, we become the clearest articulation of ourselves. The interactions between the dyads of Judah/Joseph and Jacob/Joseph layer additional, moving perspective- in becoming our fullest selves, we create change in the people around us. The response, then, to fear or anxiety is to enter into deep relationships and bring the fullness of who we are out into the world. The parsha, through the lens of Buber, calls us to seek out, within ourselves and through others, the holiness and Oneness that is always available to us, in each and every moment, if we’re paying attention and open to what’s both within us and right in front of our faces.
Dedicating Sacred Spaces to Create Godly Behavior
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst—declares God. (Zechariah 2:14) This is the opening line for the Haftarah of Hanukkah.
After about 50 years in Babylonian exile, the Persians conquered the Babylonians; Cyrus the Great, the new Persian ruler, allowed all peoples held captive by the Babylonians to return to their ancestral home.
We know of that part of the story from the book of Ezra, who is writing about events that happened a generation or two before him. Before Ezra, who led the rebuild of Jerusalem with Nehemiah, the prophet Zechariah had set the foundation for this enterprise. Even though they had the freedom to rebuild the Temple since Cyrus’ edict, only during the rulership of Darius, most prominent Persian ruler after Cyrus, the construction actually begun. Prophet Zechariah is speaking at that time, when the Second Temple constructions are starting.
Among other reasons, we read this Haftarah during Chanukah for we are celebrating the dedication of a sacred space. “Shout for joy, Fair Zion!” When the prophet Jeremiah preached for people to settled in Babylon, he also urged the people to support that land and keep moving on with their lives outside the land of Israel, for God’s presence was still among them. God’s presence is greater than one confined physical building. No physicality can contain God. Still, as humans, we create those places out of need. We feel the urge to dedicate time and space in our lives to focus, to meditate, and to experience the divine presence. Even knowing that the physicality of our sacred spaces is just a representation of God’s presence and holiness, we attach ourselves to it. We need the right kind of light, music, comfort and discomfort to engage in a meaningful experience with the divine through prayer and study. The power and the goal of ritual is to change our behavior, to align ourselves to God’s attributes.
The rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees was a symbolic reconnection to the divine presence, even though God had never left. As humans we need to find ways to express our deepest religious commitments in the public space, surrounded by our community, marking time and space as holy.
Another relationship between this Haftarah with Hanukkah is the imagery of the Menorah that appeared to the prophet in his dream (Zechariah 4:1-6). This vision of the Menorah is accompanied by two olive trees, one on each side of it. The interpretation of these olive branches given to Zechariah by the angel is that they represent “two anointed dignitaries who attend the Lord of all the earth.” (Zechariah 4:14), referring to Yehoshua, the High Priest of that time, and Zerubavel, the appointed governor for the land of Judah by the Persian king. Just like in the story of Hanukkah, one might think that the military fight to establish our presence in the Temple is the core message of these stories, and therefore, we should behave similarly. But after this prophecy, our Haftarah ends with the famous sentence to Zerubavel, the secular leader of that generation:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:7)
The spirit of God doesn’t mean necessarily that God will magically act on our behalf for we behaved well, but in looking up to God’s spirit for guidance, we can personify God’s attributes, behaving godly, according to the divine values we hold precious in our hearts.
The rabbinic retelling of the story of Hanukkah in the Talmud, changes the focus from the military achievement to the oil miracle. In focusing on the miracle of the lights it shifts the perspective from the battle to the miracle, from human conquest to divine devotion.
“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was sufficient oil there to light the Menorah for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the Menorah from it eight days.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
It is up to us to find God in our midst, to take a step back from our human arrogance and make space for God’s attributes to come forth. When we as humans enact God’s attributes of love, kindness, justice and peace among ourselves, we are making space for God by acting godly, fulfilling the real meaning of being made in God’s image and likeliness.
In our Torah reading this week, when Yosef interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he said: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (Bereshit 41:16). Instead of claiming the answers for himself, Yosef humbly recalls God’s power as the source of all his knowledge.
A core Jewish belief is that God is eternal. God’s presence is not absent from the world, but we have not achieved our potential to reach it in its fullness. Just like Yosef, Zechariah and the Talmudic Sages, it takes a perspective shift to bring God into the conversation, to amplify our capacity of amazement, to identify our godly behavior.
Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst—declares God. (Zechariah 2:14)
May we celebrate this Shabbat the beauty of God’s sacred home, represented in the physicality of our sanctuaries, as we meditate on the beauty of our sacred home, our bodies, our mundane behavior and our godly actions.
Thorns, Thistles, and Pits
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
The Talmud tells the story of a blind man walking around in the middle of the night by the light of a torch. Rabbi Yosi is intrigued by this. “My son,” Rabbi Yosi asks. “Of what benefit is this torch to you?” The blind man answers, “As long as the torch is in my hands, people will see me and save me from pits and from thorns and from thistles.” What strikes me every time I read this text (Megillah 24b) is the role reversal – the blind man is the one who helps Rabbi Yosi to see. Not just by clearing up his curiosity. This exchange actually goes on to provide Rabbi Yosi with the tools he needs to resolve a larger halakhic debate. In this way, it is the blind man who has saved Rabbi Yosi from an intellectual pitfall, helping him steer clear of thorns and thistles to instead arrive at the proper halakha, unscathed.
While the Talmud demonstrates how sometimes the visually impaired can actually be the ones who see most clearly, this week’s parsha, Vayeishev, demonstrates how even the most perceptive among us can’t escape our own blind spots. God blesses Joseph with prophetic dreams and the ability to accurately interpret them. And yet, when we first meet him, he is a young boy who lacks the foresight to predict how sharing such dreams with his brothers will provoke their jealousy and even hatred. A jealously first ignited by their father’s gift of a colorful coat, and later exacerbated by six Tony nominations.
Was Jacob unable to see the dangerous implications of his favoritism toward Joseph? Sure enough, while the blind man successfully avoids pits, Joseph, the prophet, is cast into one. His brothers conspire to kill him, ultimately deciding to sell him into slavery, instead. They then slaughter a goat, dip Joseph’s coat in the blood, and present it to their father. Jacob “…recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’”(Bereshit 37:33).
This exchange seems eerily familiar. Just a few chapters earlier, when Jacob was a boy, he also deceives his father by way of a slaughtered goat. Seeking Isaac’s blessing, which was intended for Esau, Jacob covers himself with goatskins to take on the physicality of his brother the hunter. He succeeds, as we read, “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see (…) Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau your firstborn’”(Bereshit 27:1, 21:19). What if, like in the Talmudic story above, the emphasis is not on one person’s literal blindness, but on another’s metaphorical one. Though Jacob receives a blessing, he fails to see how the use of deception may one day come back to curse him. Indeed, his sons proceed to borrow a move from his own playbook.
One of my rabbis once connected this moment in Vayeishev to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite during the High Holidays. Acknowledging inescapable death, we ask, “who by fire, and who by water?” “Who by sword (חרב), and who by wild beast (חיה)?”
When Jacob is shown the bloodstained coat, he concludes that Joseph was torn by a wild beast (חיה). Though a horrific tragedy, fatal confrontation with wild animals was actually common at this time, especially for a nomadic people. They came to be viewed as an inevitable aspect of life. Joseph’s sale into slavery, however, was no inevitability. It was a deliberate act of human violence (חרב). In this moment, Jacob confuses one for the other. Like Jacob and Esau, חרב cloaks itself in the garments of חיה. How often do we make the same mistake, failing to differentiate the two?
I wholeheartedly believe that the synagogue is where we go to have our eyes opened. What are our blind spots? In times when human violence is so ubiquitous that it appears to be an inevitable aspect of life, we look to the wisdom of our tradition and to each other for insight and clarity to lift the darkness and help us better understand the world and our place in it. How do we learn from our stories, carrying Torah in our hands like a torch in the night to guide us on our way, clear of thorns and thistles and pits?
Staying Above the Weeds
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
How often have I found that the tone of my voice or content of my speech is in some way mirroring the very tone or content I am trying to convince another to avoid? How frequently does it happen that I wage a battle with my children’s relationship to the ubiquitous, invaluable and somewhat insidious screens, only immediately to return to one myself, for a quick endorphin rush or illusory escape, right after I finish speaking with them? How common it is to be touched by, infected by, the very thing we are fighting against?
Judaism has a powerful (but oft-forgotten, outside of the very traditional Jewish community) relationship with touch, proximity, infection and toxicity. The whole infrastructure of טומאה and טהרה (tum’ah and tahara), often inelegantly (and perhaps inaccurately) translated as “impurity” and “purity” (“life-ebbing” and “life-flowing” is probably a better rendering of what the original Biblical Hebrew had in mind) is related to being in contact with or near something that can transmit a spiritual infection. Tum’ah may be inevitable in life (when in contact with an unclean animal, or even a human corpse, in the scope of doing the mitzvah of providing a dignified burial), and yet we aim to pendulum-swing towards tahara as much as possible. Getting too close gets “it” on our clothes, within our homes, even on our bodies. Think of it is as Biblical cooties. The laws of kashrut, too, hinge on contact, proximity, cross-over and intrusion/infection of unwanted substances and tastes. Pesah/Passover just amplifies that more, as hametz/leaven takes on truly nefarious character during those 8 days. Stay away!
If we pull back from all of these wars against unwanted substances, vapors, humors, fluids, objects…perhaps we see the tradition reckoning with something inevitable. As much as you try to pull away from something, it frustratingly and sometimes inevitably follows you. There is no such thing as comprehensive disinfection. Engaging in the battle with “the stuff” puts you, inevitably, in contact with “the stuff.” The cycle is Sisyphean. And the applications go beyond material toxicity, to spiritual and relational.
In this regard, I am moved by a reading on a rather obscure verse in Vayishlah that emerges from the Musar tradition. In short, Musar was (and is) a proud attempt to pull moral valence and meaning out of every aspect of Jewish life and ritual, every verse of the Torah. If we are not living with moral and interpersonal alertness, then we are not living Jewishly, at least according to Musar. We are dealing with the verse (Breishit 35:2) immediately after the sordid ritual with Jacob’s daughter Dina, and Shekhem, son of Hamor. In brief, Jacob’s sons wield ferocious vengeance on Shekhem’s people and town, punishment for his/their mistreatment of Dinah, and/or just the audacity to think that they, idolaters, could truly intermingle and intermarry with this monotheistic tribe. In the narrative (which, yes, is a troubling one, and I am not entering into all of the troubling aspects in this mini-drash), it is clear that Jacob and sons are trying to prevent infection/intrusion/invasion of whatever ideas, practices and behaviors are normative among the Shekhemites. There needs to be a clean (and, yes, vicious) break between “us” and “them.” The battle is quick and merciless, and it seems that the spiritual invasion has been repelled. And then, in our verse, Jacob tells his household, “Remove the foreign gods that are in your mist, and purify yourselves, and change your clothing.” To what is he referring?
Consider this short and pithy takeaway from the world of Musar: “It is possible to wage war with Shekhem, and nevertheless to cling to it/him/them a little bit, as a result of the very war itself.” I hear this text explaining that however Jacob and sons fought to distance themselves from Shekhem the person, and Shekhem the culture, there was some unavoidable static cling. The contact bred a connection. Getting “in there” to try to eliminate the bonds at the same time made new bonds. And so, even after the war is ostensibly over, Jacob still needs to tell his tribe: step away from Shekhem!
A wise friend once told me, regarding all sorts of political and inter-personal engagements, that when you go down to fight the weeds, guess what? You are in the weeds. It is much better to stay above them. For engaging with them will also infect you with them.
How do we teach children about healthy relationship with screens without, ourselves, falling victim to their mesmerizing pull? How do we properly call out others for problematic behavior while simultaneously watching that we don’t ourselves slip into that ugly stew of character? We must notice the weeds in our midst, and yet stay above them, noticing even more the good material, the good tissue, and mostly fighting off infection by building up immunity. With what is good, and with what is right. All the time.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
February 2015, my grandparents came to visit me in Israel. We went around the country with a guide who was most famous for his archeological finds in what is now known as the City of David. He was the first to find a bell that is considered to be from the tunic that the High Priest wore. Based on his accolades, my grandparents had him take us around with a specific focus of archeology and ancient ruins. One day he took us down an unknown path, in fact there were signs to not go where we were headed. I was nervous for breaking the rules and that the ground could be unstable for my grandparents. We reached a cave, where again I was hesitant, but this time because there could be snakes or scorpions or spiders! As we walked in I saw a standing rock, another circular rock with a hole in it and a cot shaped indentation in the ground. Our guide asked me to read a few verses of Torah while standing in this spot and I read the following: “Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית אל – Jacob called the name of this place Beit El – the house of God.” I looked around me and was in awe. Was this really the place where Jacob had his famous dream of angels ascending and descending a sulam, a hapax legomenon which we have come to translate as ladder? It was hard in that moment for me to answer “no.” Everything was as it seemed from the Torah and in fact I exclaimed מה נורא המקום הזה – how awesome is this Place.
We know that מקום, place, is one of the names for the Divine, and yet we believe God is everywhere. How can God be Place and everywhere?
Makom is essential to experience. Where you are when you fall in love. Where you are when you experience wonder. Where you are when you smell something that takes you back to childhood memory. Creating a מקום is imperative to connecting to our spiritual selves. Jacob names the space of wonder Beit El, the house of God. If you had seen the cave I was in, you would know that was definitely not my definition of a house of God. And yet, shouldn’t every place of discovery be a Divine Place a moment with God.
This weekend, the clergy of Temple Beth Am are in Boston at the combined USCJ (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) and Rabbinical Assembly conference. We were asked to come and present Shabbat Sovev, a service that Temple Beth Am has embraced, grown and fashioned for many years. Shabbat Sovev was created as an answer to makom, to place and space, and similarly our beautiful new sanctuary followed. Sitting in the basement of a Reform Shul in Jerusalem, in concentric circles, singing new tunes with an innovative minyan called Nava Tehila, I knew I wanted to bring this kavannah, this intentional spirituality into Temple Beth Am. And first we needed to create the space. The literal look of the room, of the chairs, of the different people who would help make prayer rise in our own Beit El. Writing this, I do not know what our makom will look like in Boston. I do not know who will be singing with us to create a spiritual uplift for Shabbat. And I know with the partnership of Rabbis Kligfeld and Cantor Chorny that we were asked to bring this opportunity to the movement because there is Divine space created in the service.
Jacob had a dream and found himself naming a place holy and awesome. Temple Beth Am took a chance in innovating Kabbalat Shabbat and found a makom, a spiritual space. I hope we are able to enhance Shabbat in creating our space of Sovev in Boston, and that we will have many people exclaiming “how awesome is this space and I did not even know we could do it!”
Between the Boxes
Prepared by Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor
With the release of Disney+, my preschooler and I did a deep dive into ‘90s television. It was a nostalgia trip. I had forgotten a lot, including the two-dimensionality of the characters, pun unintended (but consequently terrific), which upon rewatching made me uneasy. I had forgotten how often writers relied on minimal character development, especially of the girls and women in these shows, to move their stories. There are whole studies in the character archetypes of women in television and movies, and I’ll speak for myself and say, my brain seeks to sort these female characters into these categories [credit to writing blogger Jennifer Ellis]: The Amazon/Crusader (think, Wonder Woman); `The Librarian/Spinster (think, Hermione Granger); The Nurturer/Martyr; The Queen Bee (Jean Grey from “X-Men”); The Girl Next Door (every Meg Ryan character in a Rom Com); The Seductress; The Quirky Misfit (Phoebe from “Friends”); and The Survivor (think, Scarlett O’Hara).
Plots are driven forward and made interesting by these girls and women wrestling with their identities and stepping briefly outside their boxes, but when they are lost and floating and cannot be pinned down, we strain to tell their stories. We are out of practice at writing the stories of women who live beyond and between these boxes. And most people live between the boxes.
The character of Rivka here in our parsha text is a righteous woman. The Nurturer. How do we know? The text itself and then rivers of commentary tell us that she was chosen, perhaps divinely ordained, to partner with Yitzhak as a kind of oedipally-questionable replacement for his deceased mother, Sarah. When Rivka is in the throes of a difficult twin pregnancy, she cries out in existential angst (Gen. 25:22),
לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי
Roughly translated, “Why me?” The Kedushat Levi (18th c. Poland) offers a commentary by R’ Isaac Luria, the 16th century founder of Kabbalah: Rivka has been taught that righteous women are not supposed to suffer during pregnancy. So you might read this moment as Rivka asking why she is suffering. After all, she is Righteous with a capital “R”; what is the purpose of a good woman like her enduring such terrible pain?
A tougher read, though, one that pulls at my gut, is the one that has Rivka wondering if this pain must mean that she is not a Righteous Woman. And therefore she is not who she thinks she is, is not who she has always been told she is. Her identity is gone, her box is gone, her story no longer makes sense, and she is lost and seeking and searching. Perhaps that is why her outcry is followed by the following phrase:
וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה
And so she went directly to seek an oracle from Adonai in a moment when she finds herself standing outside the box.
Look at us, still sorting characters into boxes thousands of years later, and all we need to do is glance back at this textual moment as an example of a way to tell our stories by breaking through tropes and rules. Righteous people suffer. Nurturers fail to nurture. Amazonians go weak. Misfits find their matches. It’s hard work to write a story with character who live between the boxes, but it’s far more interesting.
I Will Go
By Josh Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
When I applied to Ziegler, I didn’t apply anywhere else. Because when I visited, I met the rabbis I’d be learning from and the students I’d be learning with, and I knew I had found where I needed to be. When I applied to Beth Am to be a rabbinic intern, I didn’t apply anywhere else. Because I had met the congregants and rabbis, and I knew that if I ever had the privilege of serving this community, I’d be in the best possible hands.
This week in Chayei Sarah, Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, meets Rebecca. And when he does, he doesn’t apply anywhere else. He knows he’s completed his mission, having found a wife for his master’s son, Isaac. He immediately recognizes that, should she agree to go with him, Abraham’s legacy would be secure and in the best possible hands. Why? What is it about Rebecca? And don’t tell me it’s because she offered to water his camels. That’s true, but we both know I have to fill an entire page here.
We live in a world desperate for moral leadership. This week’s parsha, which gives us the death of one matriarch and the rise of another, offers insight into what makes someone fit to lead. Someone like Abraham, who, after Sarah’s death, becomes particularly concerned with legacy – with the order of his household after he, too, is gone. So the first thing he does is purchase the Cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife. What’s interesting is that the word used to describe the cave’s new ownership is ויקם – “he established it.” ויקם is from קום – “to rise.” Rashi comments that Abraham caused the place to rise. He elevated it through his contact with it. A legacy can reflect one’s attempt only to establish one’s self in the world, or, as in Abraham’s case, one’s sincere desire to elevate people and leave the world a little better off than it was before.
Abraham’s next concern is a wife for Isaac. The 12th century French commentator, Radak, writes that Abraham was advanced in years, having reached “the years when a man thinks about his departure from this earth and [so he] is concerned to make sure that Isaac is married while he is still alive.” He adjures Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac from among his own people, which brings Eliezer to Rebecca.
It’s at this point that we’re presented with very different approaches to leadership and legacy. Rebecca’s brother, Laban, sees the golden rings and bracelets, which Eliezer has brought for Rebecca, and senses an opportunity to get in with a wealthy family. He supports the marriage and tells Eliezer to take his sister and “לך.” “Go.” This resembles the famous words of just a couple chapters prior, when God tells Abraham, “לך לך.” Not merely “Go,” but “Go for yourself.” There, God is guiding Abraham to where he needs to be in order to become a great nation. Not only for Abraham’s good but because “האדמה משפחת כל בך נברכוו” - “…all the families of the land will bless themselves by you” (Bereshit 12:3). God empowers Abraham with a clear and salient summation of purpose: “ברכה היה” - “…be a blessing” (Bereshit 12:2). Elevate people. Leave the world better off than it was before.
Laban’s “לך,” however, is missing the second part: “לך.” He is not telling Rebecca to go for herself, or for the good of others, but is likely motivated by securing his own good. He seizes upon the opportunity for self-advancement. This is the major challenge of our world today. Those who take ויקם to mean “establish,” without concern for the “elevation” aspect.
And then there’s Rebecca. Her father and brother, Bethuel and Laban, turn to her and ask, “Will you go with this man?” Rebecca responds, “אלך” – “I will go” (Bereshit 24:58). Rebecca’s “לך” is unique from both God’s words to Abraham and Laban’s words to Eliezer. Because she isn’t receiving a direct promise from God that all will go well for her. And having just watered a stranger’s camels (NOW you can say it), I think it’s safe to say she isn’t looking to exploit him. אלך means doing what is right for its own sake. It’s why Rebecca is the exact right person to protect Abraham’s legacy and help pioneer this new religion.
Because unlike with Laban, for Rebecca, it’s not about gold bracelets. Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of Prophets, dissects the verse: “Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]” (Bereshit 24:22). It explains that the half shekel nose ring alludes to the half shekel tax, which served as a census for the children of Israel in the desert – a way to count every head. The two bracelets weighing ten gold shekels are symbolic of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Read this way, Rebecca literally takes the future of the Jewish people into her hands.
“Chayei Sarah” means the lives of Sarah. Why is it plural? Maybe that’s because we all get this one life, and then after we’re gone, we also get to leave behind a legacy. Today we read the lives of Sarah. Tomorrow we write our own.
Seeing the Divine Presence
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
In last week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we were able to experience Avraham’s divine call. Avraham heard a unique voice that gave him the guidance needed to pursue his on path with his family and his community. It is hard for me to imagine that God had not revealed Godself to anyone else other than Avraham until then, for God is always present in the world. Rather than God being the first one to reach out at this moment, I think this was the first time that someone reached out to hear the divine call. Avraham was a pioneer. Avraham was countercultural.
This week’s parasha begins with God appearing to Avraham right after his circumcision, the physical symbol of their covenant. What is the difference of last week’s revelation, when Avraham heard the divine call to this week’s revelation, when God appears to Avraham?
In the first verse, we only read that God appeared to Avraham, but there is no description of what it looks like. In the next verse, Avraham raises his eyes and sees three men standing near him. Avraham sees them and runs to greet them, welcoming them into his tent, offering water, rest and food.
Our sages read here a common feature of biblical poetry, after a generic statement, a more detailed description is followed. According to this perspective, the appearance of these three men is somehow the divine presence. Many will explain it saying that these three were angels of God. I want to offer another, maybe more literal, reading of this passage.
Three men were walking on their journey. They saw Avraham sitting outside his tent. They stopped by to check in. This is how God looks like. The divine presence is there when people show up for each other.
Avraham was in pain, recovering from his circumcision, and when he saw people showing up, he saw the divine presence acting there. He didn’t think twice we did the same. Avraham offered water, rest and food to these three men immediately, enhancing the divine in that moment.
When reading the book of Bereshit we are challenged to find the essence of these complex characters in the story and relate to them, aiming to learn moral lessons, being inspired by godly decisions they made.
After hearing the divine call, becoming part of the covenant with God, Avraham was ready to behave differently. Avraham was open to change and to be changed.
“Just as God visits the sick, so too, we should visit the sick.” This is how the Talmud interprets this event, reminding us that Avraham just had his circumcision. We need to learn from where we see God’s presence, when our ancestors made godly decisions and internalize these divine attributes. This is a key aspect of developing our Jewish identity, following the footsteps of those who came before us in order to create our own trail. Know who you are, know what you stand for, because God speaks to everyone and it is our responsibility to develop our capacity of listening.
Just like Avraham did after his call, we need to stand up and run to action, transforming identity, values, attributes, into action and behavior. Judaism is not centered around what Jews think, but it is all about what Jews do. Jewish religious practice is known as halacha – the Jewish way – for we are always walking our journeys, we are active, we change and we grow.
We learn from the three men that we have to go out of our comfort zone in order to be available for others, specially those who don’t feel seen or heard, who might be in need of our support.
We learn from Avraham to give without asking for reciprocity, doing what is right for it is the right thing to do. We learn from Avraham to welcome the people we don’t know and make them feel safe and have their needs taken care of.
We live in community. Some of us might have been here for longer they can count. Some of us might be here today for the first time. It is time for us to be more like Avraham and not wait, but run towards those approaching and see the divine in them.
I want to share with you today the blessing of Avraham in his open tent. May we all merit to be blessed with the potential of seeing the divine presence in each and every one. We are all made in God’s image.
Eulogies for my friends Dr. Baruch Link & Nate Milmeister
By Danielle Berrin
In memory and honor of our friends Dr. Baruch Link and Nathan Milmeister, Danielle Berrin has written some words to share with us all about their journeys through life, how they impacted an entire community and yet every individual felt unique and special.
Dr. Baruch Link:
Baruch was sweet and gentle and kind, a brilliant mind, the consummate conversationalist, a loving and devoted friend and family man. But he was more than adjectives. More than a description. Baruch was more like a novel.
We all know the cliche “you are what you eat,” but with Baruch it’d be more apt to say, “he was what he read.” His personality, character, relationships, illness and struggles, his gifts and passions; his entire experience was as worthy a narrative as any of the many books of literature he so loved. And just as in the great works of literature that have described and defined and lent meaning to human life since the Bible, his was the kind of character so rich and refined it took but a moment of being in his presence to feel on some visceral level who he was.
I met him through Teri, a soft-spoken but mighty angel of a woman, who wasted not a day before approaching me with her warmth and sensitivity and kindness in the Beth Am daily minyan back in 2013. I met Baruch only a little later, probably at a Shabbat dinner, and as soon as I did, he took me in as one of his own. Both Teri and Baruch made me feel like family - a surrogate daughter of sorts, especially when Tal and Shmuel were not in LA.
And then there was Baruch on the phone. I remember the first time he called, it was to wish me happy birthday, and I had missed the call and saw it was from Teri’s cell phone. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I received a voicemail from Baruch - ‘sha-lom’ calling to bless me and make me feel loved.
Over time Baruch and I bonded over many subjects -- as writers, as people who love words, and literature. We’d always discuss politics - the politics of LA Jewry, American Jewry and of course, his beloved Israel. I remember early on, he loaned me a book he was so excited to share with me. I remember I took it home, set it on my night table, building myself up for this magical world Baruch wanted me to enter. Only to discover that the book was written entirely in Hebrew. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t fluent. So, I kept the book long enough to pretend I’d actually read it, and later, when I returned it and he asked me how I liked it, I of course said, “It was wonderful, powerful, exquisitely crafted!” And his response about the characters and the images and the lessons and the prose was so detailed and descriptive, I felt as if I actually HAD read the book.
That was Baruch’s gift. The ability to inspire and impart meaning through language and literature, prose and poetry.
I don’t need to tell you that according to our tradition, the world was created with words. But I wonder how often we pause to consider the impact of what that means. He spent his life living in concert with God in the ultimate act of creation and was able to express his own divine essence by creating worlds with words.
We are, after all, the people of the book. When we weren’t strong, when we were stateless and powerless, our people wrote texts. It has sustained us long after the authors have passed and the events of history have sought to smite us. Baruch entered history to restore us to the language of the soul and the spirit.
I met Nate at the TBA daily minyan, but my friendship with him deepened because I couldn’t resist popping in next door to visit him, or run outside when I saw him walking around the neighborhood with his caretaker and his cane. He called me regularly, we went out to Italian dinners where I’d order wine and he’d always order dessert. He knew everything about everyone — he loved kibbitzing, gossip, telling stories.
Twice, I took him to the emergency room — which horrified me, but he was always so blasé about it, “I’m in my 90s, I’ll survive anything.”
When I think about what his essence was, I think about his innocence and his youthfulness. Maybe because he didn’t experience all the things we expect of adults at that point in their lives - he never married, he never had kids. Maybe that joie de vivre was one of his gifts. A blessing. His Torah to teach. You know the quote, “It takes a long time to become young?” He had this purity of heart. A simplicity about him. He wasn’t much for conflicts, or politics, he was the rare human being who no ‘bad blood.’
Now that he’s gone, I’ll miss his totally distinctive vernacular - his Nate language - in which he’d say things like: “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lambs tail.” Or “I’m not schmearin ya.”
For someone who never married, Nate had the innocence of a bride, in a way. Or I should say, a bridegroom.
I think of him when I recall the words of Mary Oliver, who wrote:
“When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Nate was no tourist. He lived simply but he lived well. He gave generously. He loved deeply. He had no wife but he was married to amazement, to gratitude, to friends and family, to his beloved community. He was married to life.
In death he will be greatly missed and lovingly remembered. But frankly, God is lucky to have him. God is in for some real entertainment.
Zichronam livracha, may their memory forever be a blessing and may they live on in the hearts and minds
of those who knew and loved them both.
Walking with God, and walking with peers
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
There is a principle in the field of Adaptive Leadership called “immunity to change.” I have participated in precise, highly-curated protocols in which people are walked through a series of questions that expose our normal, human stubbornness with respect to internal change. We think it may be easy. New Year’s Resolutions are common (and commonly violated, rather quickly). High Holiday davveners dutifully recite the confessional and beat their chests, and yet somehow are not surprised when the same transgressions are at play, and problematic, one year later. We humans are rather immune to change (and concomitantly aware of how much change we would like others to go through!).
Change is hard. Trying to be different, and better, is elusive. We hope and pray it is not illusory. And we have been struggling with this concept for millennia. Furthermore, we have been projecting this dynamic onto our biblical ancestors, those sacred characters in whom we see so much of ourselves, for generations.
This week I am particularly moved, and prodded, by a commentary on Noah by the Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th-19th Hasidic sage, Ukraine). The Berditchever piles on to some of the withering critique that previous rabbis aimed at Noah, seeing him as not being in the same league of righteousness as, say, Avraham. Why? Rashi says that God commanded Noah to build the ark, rather than just have it appear by miracle, so that Noah could use that time, and the reactions of his doomed neighbors to the oddity of building such a vessel, to try to bring others from his generation from evil to goodness. Yet, he didn’t convince one person. The Kabbalisitic sage the Arizal (16th C, Tzfat, Israel) went so far as to say that Noah was so tragically flawed (even as the most righteous one of his generation) and so resistant to change and growth, that his soul left the earth with unfinished business, and was reincarnated as Moshe, a man who had no qualms about pushing God to act more righteously, and a man who constantly rebuked the Israelites for their own shortcomings. According to the Berditchiever, being good to one’s peers is as important as, and is an integral part of, being good to God. And part of being good to one’s peers “involves more than being helpful and charitable. It includes admonishing one’s neighbor when one observes him violating God’s commandments.” Moshe succeeded in this. Avraham is understood to have brought proselytes closer to God. Noah is read uncharitably in this regard. Even the description, which seems praiseworthy, of Noah’s walking with God (את האלים התהלך נח / et ha’elohim hithalekh Noah) is understood in this commentary as being limiting. He walked with God, perhaps. But not with his peers. He could not change them. He didn’t even try. He let their evil persist. In his words, “He was in step with God. But out of step with his peers.”
This Hasidic interpretation rings loudly true these days, and also folds in on itself. On the one hand, there are too many in our midst who are self-satisfied with their devotion to the Holy One, but fail repeatedly in treating peers with dignity and respect. And there are others amongst us who make themselves vulnerable and take risks in order to bring others closer to goodness, to do the just and the right. Their active engagement with their fellow humans, citizens, Jews, neighbors, shul-goers is in the spirit of what commentators admire in Moshe and Avraham for doing, and castigate Noah for failing to do. I learn from their example as I reckon with my own obligation to be “prophet” (moving people from their stubborn, moored ways) while remaining committed and devoted to the task of “pastor” (meeting and comforting people where and as they truly are). So this teaching pushes and goads me. At the same time, I observe far too many examples where what is criticized in Noah’s temperament for his failure to do is, itself, overdone. And the pushing of others towards the just is done with insufficient care. It can, even when motivated by the good, slide into unbridled castigation of the other, such that folks might indeed be trying to be in step with their peers, and bring their peers more into step…and yet at times doing so in a way that may be seen as no longer walking with God.
Change is hard. People have evolutionary, societal and biologically-driven urges to remain as they are. We notice the changes that others “must” do quicker and more sharply than we see our own lacunae. We must, as the Berditchiver urges, engage with our fellow to bring God’s world closer to goodness. And we must aim to do it in a manner, that itself, exemplifies the divine attributes to which we all aspire.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern
We are all made in God’s image.
If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.
Reading year after year the same texts might be alienating for some, and maybe, an eye-opening experience for others. I have been in both places, moving back and forth. This year I’m making a deliberate effort to make this ritual an eye-opening experience week after week. It’s hard, I know. But living a meaningful Jewish life requires intentional spiritual work, a new cycle is here to refresh our souls and give us a new boost of energy to get there!
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַֽעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Beresheet 1:26)
This verse has been among the most commented verse in the entire Torah. Since the time when the second Temple was still around, our people have been concerned with this statement. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) mentions that in the translation of the Septuagint (Greek translation, 3rd century BCE), the wise translators wrote: " אעשה אדם בצלם ובדמות " “I shall make humankind in image and
Why did they change the text? Isn’t it supposed to be an accurate translation? What is the problem with the original form?
Jews have been concerned with what other peoples would think about our truths and would avoid giving them material for creating arguments against their monotheistic tradition. In this text, the use of a possible plural form (Let us make) and the plural suffix attached to צלם (image) and דמות (likeness),
could indicate a plurality of Gods creating humankind together.
Among the most traditional views on that verse, and probably the one you learned in Hebrew School, is supported by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and many other commentators. God was talking to the angels. Humankind was created in the image and likeness of God and the angels. What a creative way of solving the textual problem that, in order to avoid giving other peoples an argument against a Jewish theology, our Sages created out of it a new Jewish theology, once this is clearly not the contextual meaning of the verse, where the angels aren’t mentioned at all. Note that God only took counsel from the angels, according to this view. Rashi teaches that by taking counsel from them, it teaches us a lesson about God’s humility. But the creation itself, happens in the next verse without any help from any other creature.
On a personal note, I have a hard time with this truth. Even understanding the ethical and moral teachings that we can learn from it, it always sounded too supernatural for me (even more than the rest of the story!).
This year, as we begin to read the same Torah once more, I challenged myself to go beyond and learn this passage with different eyes and tools, trying to find my truth within my people’s true revelation. The Torah might be the same, but we are definitely not the same anymore.
The good thing about learning Torah and looking for different interpretations, is that you are probably not alone. Many others in our history probably already struggled with the same issue and wrote their thoughts down to be carried out until our generation.
The first companion I found in this week’s journey was the Ramban, Spanish Rabbi from the 13th century. Ramban, although very mystical, reads our verse very differently. He goes back to state that the world was created from nothing (ex nihilo) on the first day. Since then, everything was created out of the foundational elements of the world. Following this idea, Ramban understands that God was talking to the Earth! Our souls come from God and our bodies come from the foundational elements of the Earth, or atoms, if you will. Later I discovered that the Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi) and his father, Rabbi Yosef Kimhi, have also supported similar readings.
Many Sages attempted to explain the meaning of צלם (image) and דמות (likeness). Maybe one has
to do with a physical form, and connects with the idea that the first human being was named Adam, drawing from the physical earth, called adama, in hebrew; and the other is linked to God’s attributes, with no physicality at all, but with a potential for creation and dominion over other beings. Even though each word might have had a specific meaning to the author, Radak offers many verses from different parts of the Tanach, that later on they are used kind of interchangeably.
We are all made in God’s image. Maybe not a physical resemblance, since God has no physicality, but we are definitely God-like. The eternal and supreme divine power gives us constantly the power of creativity and the freedom of choice to make godly decisions through a continuous creation that began in Beresheet and is an intrinsic part of our lives now.
Shabbat Beresheet is the time to roll back the Torah and restart our annual reading cycle. This is also a time to allow ourselves to open our hearts and our minds to the infinite wisdom that Torah contains. Torah is a mirror. As we look into the Torah, the Torah looks back at us to share abundant wisdom. This interaction is only possible if we roll it, open it, dive in it, and make ourselves vulnerable enough to see our reflection in the words of our tradition.
We are all made in God’s image. In looking into the Torah, we see God as we see ourselves. We find what is divine in our lives and we can let God in to be with us in this new cycle.
If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.
The Transfer of Power
By Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty
The whole of Sefer Devarim is the final communication of a departing leader to his people. And although Moshe is the "humblest of men" we see him struggling to make peace with it all - his successes and failures, his anxiety about the future, his inability to see things through to the end, and perhaps even his own mortality. We don't get to see everything he went through, but elsewhere in Devarim we get glimpses of various early stages of grief such as anger (Devarim 1:34-38) and bargaining (3:23-25). Although each time God tells Moshe, "You shall not go across the Jordan," he also says "Yehoshua is the one who shall cross before you" (31:5), through most of Devarim Moshe seems to focus solely on the first part. He assumes an even more prominent position, delivering long lectures to teach, scold, and encourage his flock.
But in our parashah this week, Parshat Vayelekh, Moshe seems to have arrived at the fifth stage of grief - acceptance - as he finally turns his attention to Yehoshua. With God's prompting Moshe passes the torch and offers some mild words of encouragement: "Then Moshe called Yehoshua and said to him in the sight of all of Israel: 'Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with the people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who will apportion it to them...'" (31:7)
But is this really enough for Yehoshua to be successful? Although Yeshohua had been close to Moshe for many years, it was as his attendant and assistant, not his disciple or understudy! They both must have felt the enormous gap there was - not only in their experience and wisdom but in their standing with the people. Imagine a personal assistant being appointed the new CEO! Sensing this, Sifre Devarim, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah, adds new details to the story:
The Holy One, blessed be He, replied to Moshe, saying, "Give Yehoshua a spokesman, and let him question, respond, and give instructions while you are still living, so that when you depart from this world, Israel might not say to him, ''During your master's lifetime you did not speak out, and now you do!?'" Some say that Moshe lifted Yehoshua up from the ground, and placed him between his knees (stood him on a stool), so that Moshe and Israel had to raise their heads in order to hear Yehoshua's words. What did Yehoshua say? "Blessed be the Lord who has given the Torah to Israel at the hands of our master Moshe"- those were Yehoshua's words. (Siman 305, Finkelstein ed. p. 324)
Knowing their capacity for disobedience, it is not enough for Moshe just to say that Yehoshua will succeed him. So God has Moshe set Yehoshua up for success in two ways: first, by showing that Yehoshua is his own person with his own thoughts and capabilities, and second, by showing that he ascends to leadership with Moshe's blessing and not as some kind of usurper. How often do we see leaders, unable or unwilling to cede power, do the opposite - belittling any potential successor or casting suspicion upon them?
Why is it so hard for leaders to transfer power gracefully? Surely Moshe knew he would not live forever and that for his life's work to outlive him, someone else would need to assume the mantle of responsibility. Perhaps the same "ego" that makes it hard for leaders to step aside is what made them step up in the first place. Leaders often are, and may need to be motivated by the idea that nobody else can or will do what must be done.
But even if a leader is essential at the beginning, the best leaders make themselves less and less necessary. In Egypt, Moshe was indeed alone. When he struck and killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Shemot 2:12), he "looked this way and that" before realizing he was the only one who could or would act. What keeps Moshe's death from being a tragedy is knowing that he is, finally, not alone. He has prepared Yehoshua and his people to honor his teaching and carry it forward.