Torah Commentary

Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests

5779

Vayikra 3/16/19

All in the Timing
By: Josh Jacobs, Ziegler Student

My sister has been a vegetarian her whole life, ever since she saw the movie Babe, when she was seven years old. The movie ended, and my parents innocently asked, “Did you like the movie, Rachel?” She turned to them, tears in her eyes, and said, “You never told me that food comes from animals.” I’ve always admired her for making a decision at seven, and sticking with it her entire life.

Needless to say, Vayikra is not her favorite parsha. The vast majority of it deals with the vivid details of animal sacrifice, pinching off of heads, and dashing of blood on the alter. The good news is Babe was a pig so…he’s safe. But Vayikra begs the question, why does God demand animal sacrifice? Clearly, it’s not that God likes the smell of barbeque. What if, Maimonides postulates, the entire system of animal sacrifice was a Divine concession to the reality of a human growth curve?

Rambam points to how, upon liberating the Israelites, God “…did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt’…” (Exod. 13:17). In other words, it’s possible that timing truly is everything in life. We could have gone the direct route, but we weren’t ready. We could have entered Israel forty years earlier, but ten of the twelve spies weren’t ready. Similarly, we could have skipped right over animal sacrifice to “Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable to You” (Psalms 19:15), but perhaps we weren’t ready.

As I turn the pages this week and heads are flying off left and right, I am reminded that the “pleasing fragrance” (ניחח ריח) God requires of us is not the smell of barbeque, but rather the sweet fragrance of a devoted spirit. The kind stirred up in our souls when we direct our thoughts toward gratitude. It just so happens that Samuel articulates this notion beautifully in the corresponding Haftorah for this week, proving once again, there’s something to this timing thing.

The Haftorah clearly prepares us for Purim, recounting Saul’s compassion toward Agag, who is understood to have been Haman’s progenitor. Interestingly, it also unequivocally weighs in on animal sacrifice. After raiding Amalek, Saul not only spares Agag, but also the entire cast of Babe. When Samuel rebukes him, Saul says he intends to sacrifice the animals to God. Samuel replies, “Has the Lord (as much) desire in burnt offerings and peace-offerings, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than a peace-offering; to hearken (is better) than the fat of rams” (Samuel 15:22). Saul failed to listen to God, but perhaps his greater failure was the inability to see down the long road. A road of prayer that leads to words and song. A road of Agag that leads to Haman.

Vayikra challenges me to look down my own road, and to consider my own growth curve. In what ways am I taking the long way? In what direction do I ultimately hope to evolve? If it’s all in the timing, what’s keeping me from being ready now? Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach.


Pekudei 3/9/19

Prosper the Work of our Hands
By Zachary Golden, Ziegler Student

Psalm 90 is the psalm of Moses, who in the psalm, contemplates the shortness of human life and the frailty of humanity in the sight of the Eternal God. He sees how God, whose day is like a thousand years, towers mightily over sinful human beings, who live for seventy years – or eighty if they have the strength. Whereas God builds the world, and fashions the mountains, human beings return to dust. Moses has one balm for this terrible image of our helplessness and limitation. In the last line of the psalm, he asks God to bless the work of his hands. This is a strange method of comfort – if it were really the case that we are nothing before God, wouldn’t it stand to reason that our work -which is even frailer than human beings - is even more meaningless? But if there is one person in the Torah who could make the case that our work is more meaningful than the miniscule span and immeasurably small pureness of our lives in the eyes of God, it would be Moses!

In our parshah, Pekudei, Moses and the Israelites assemble the Mishkan, the roving Tabernacle. In previous parashot, all the pieces are made – and here they are assembled; and according to a Midrash, by Moses with the help of God. Moses then blesses the work in verse 39:43, and according to Rashi, he blesses it with the last line of Psalm 90 – “May God’s favor be upon us; may the work of our hands prosper, prosper the work of our hands!” In this reading of the psalm, Moses sees the building of the dwelling place of God, the Mishkan, the reason why human beings can claim any significance at all. Holy work is the only work that is more significant than us, not less significant. It is more eternal than us, not more temporary. And by being a part of this kind of work, Moses sees hope for us despite our insignificance.

Let us understand more deeply how different holiness, and therefore holy work, is from anything else. One does not descend from holiness – this is a rabbinic principle. It means that anything that is holy does not become unholy – though things that are pure can become impure and vice versa. In the scale of holiness, there is impure, pure, and holy. We are individually impure and pure. We go in between a state of being allowed near God, and being told to stay away, in alternating spans of our lives. But it says in verse 39:30 to inscribe the diadem of the High Priest with the statement “Holy to God.” There is no return for the High Priest – he is bathed in holiness. Holiness means he belongs to God, and God’s possessions are less than God but they are allowed to be nearest to God, desired by God. Holiness means breaking the cycle of purity and impurity to be near God, who is holy. When we contributed to the building of the Mishkan, we brought the possibility of having our representative come close to God and away from our limitations – and this is what gives us the hope for significance despite our limitations before God in the psalm of Moses. But we can be even more than enablers of holiness.

We are told to be a holy people – and one day we will be. We will all do work that will be work on behalf of a cause or a need that is precious and holy to God, not just for our own ambitions. And like Moses, we will find that the difficult task of assembling the heavy panels of the Mishkan will be aided by God, as long we desire to do the impossible. Often what is moral does not seem effective, what is good is not feasible, because of the fears we have of our limitations. But our limitations are a crisis in meaning rather than capability. Were we to do something we believed in, to become servants to a higher cause, we would see how easily we could step out of the picture - we could give up the petty things that tell us that we can not, and only see the truth and beauty of the work of creating the world alongside God. Reflecting on our limited time on Earth, we might ask God to “teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) Then we can build something greater than ourselves, and make us more than the dust of our bodies. Let us be so blessed to “prosper the work of our hands!”

Ki Tissa 2/23/19

God, Let me see you!
By: Natan Freller, Rabbinic Intern

Do you remember the last time you saw God? Take a minute to think about that experience. What did God look like?

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read the famous episode of Moshe asking to see God. Interestingly, this story is actually mentioned twice in this parasha. First, the narrator tells about how the meeting between God and Moshe happened, from an outsider’s perspective. Later, we see the dialogue between them.

In the first account, it is said that a pillar of cloud would stand at the entrance of the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), and God would speak to Moshe panim el panim, face to face, inside the Tent.

In the second account, Moshe said to God: “Please, show me Your Kavod!” The word Kavod here can be translated in many ways, such as: dignity, honor, importance, or presence. God answered, saying: “I’ll make my goodness pass before you, (…) and you will not be able to see my face, for no human can see my face and live. (…) and you will see my back, but my face may not be seen”. I like translating Kavod here as presence. For me, Moshe knew that he could not see God physically, and that is why he asked to see God’s presence. And God responded offering one of God’s attributes, God’s goodness.

One could argue that there is a clear contradiction between these two texts. I want to offer another perspective, where we can learn from both experiences how to find the Divine in our lives.

Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian rabbi, wrote in the 16th century about these verses: “All existence draws its existence from God, even though these phenomena do not appear to be related to one another. This is what Isaiah meant with the words: “all the earth is filled with God’s Kavod” (Isaiah 6:3). These different visions might look different from one another, but they were both divine manifestations.

The narrator of the first account and the author of Moshe’s dialogue with God might have had different life experiences of the same Divine revelation. God’s presence in this world can be manifested in different ways, from the nature of the clouds to the spiritual presence in times of prayer.

Judaism is known to be a religion of practice, not a religion of beliefs. There is no belief on God that unifies Jews across the board; still, we pray together as a community in order to support our members who lost someone dear to them.

In that sense, I want to offer another perspective in understanding the encounter between Moshe and God, between human and Divine. In this parasha we also read another famous text in the Jewish Tradition: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun, Erech apayim v'rav chessed ve-emet; Notser chessed la-alafim, Nose avon vafesha v'chata'ah v'nakeh.

Adonai, Adonai, God gracious and compassionate, Patient and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, Assuring lovingkindness for a thousand generations, Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, And granting pardon.

Known also as the 13 divine attributes, Moshe used this formula to plead before God in the behalf of the People. God’s attributes are in fact descriptions of what God does, which creates what God is.

It is part of the human condition, to experience God from a relational perspective; it is not about what God is, but what God does that matters. We are all able to experience God, and it is not going to be the same experience for everyone, just as it is not going to be the same experience every time.

Sometimes we might not be able to see God, just like Moshe could not. Instead of seeing God, Moshe experienced his time with God by seeing the divine attributes. We can learn from Moshe that our experience with the divine will be through the divine attributes, finding and seeing God in what God does. It is up to each one of us to open our eyes to see God, since God’s presence is out there waiting to meet us.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was able to say it better than I could: “What is it that I believe in? I really believe in the attributes of divinity. I believe it completely. I believe that they're real. I think it's the most real thing in the world. The question is not "Do you believe that God is love?" The question is "Do you believe that love is godly?" Of course I believe that love is godly. And I know darn well that if I want to express what the bible put so brilliantly in the beginning that God created me in the image of divinity that that is what it means to do. I've got to live out God, to behave God, not to believe but to behave God. That's the deepest vindication, testimony of the existence of the truth of godliness.”

May we all be able to see the divine presence in our lives this week.

Shabbat Shalom.


Vayakhel 3/2/19

What does it mean to volunteer your heart?
By: Jenna Turow, Ziegler Student

During rabbinical school orientation, we had a luncheon with students from the school for nonprofit management, some of whom are Christian clergy. During that lunch, a pastor at my table asked us all when and how we received our “calling” to the rabbinate. Some of my schoolmates around the table were a bit uncomfortable with this question and concept, but I was eager to discuss it. I truly feel that I have been called to become a rabbi, that I am compelled by the spiritual force of God. The concept of a “calling” has been mostly abandoned in Jewish culture, but it is evident throughout our narrative; perhaps it’s time to reclaim it. There are countless stories of our ancestors being called to act for God, such as Abraham’s lech lecha, Moses and the burning bush, and many of the later prophets. These callings may seem obvious and antiquated because those people were in direct conversation with God, but there are many ways to experience a calling from a higher power. This week’s parashah, for example, tells the story of a collective calling, a time when the people of Israel were asked to look within and sense their own calling for contribution.

Parashat Vayakhel tells the story of the building of the Mishkan. It repeats the detailed information given in Parashat Terumah, this time in action. Much of this portion consists of details of building materials, measurements, and construction. There is a phrase mentioned in Terumah that is repeated throughout Parashat Vayakhel; God is asking for all contributors to be a נְדִיב לֵב (n’div lev). Sefaria.org translates this as those “whose hearts have moved them,” and I would translate it as those “whose hearts have volunteered.” Throughout this parashah, the people are asked to bring various materials, give their abilities as builders and constructors. They are given two criteria for their contributions: that they have the physical materials or physical ability for their task, and that they have this n’div lev, a willingness or voluntary compulsion of their hearts and minds. What does it mean for your heart to volunteer for something? It is to be so compelled by your own inner will, that you feel called from within to contribute to the task at hand. In this parashah, we see that God is adamant that the people should only contribute if they feel compelled by their own hearts, that they are called on from the depth of their soul, to come forward with materials and able bodies.

The exact wording of “calling” may be foreign to us contemporarily, but the concept of n’div lev has continued through today for the Jewish community. There is a beautiful phenomenon among the Jewish people to be individually and collectively compelled by our hearts to take action and bring good into the world. When faced with a crisis of social justice, for example, the Jewish community rallies together to bring their materials and able bodies to the task at hand. When one person in a community feels so compelled, they rally their friends, family, and community members to join their cause. When we are asked to bring our “blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linens” and our chochma, or skilled ability, to contribute to a holy space, the Jewish people do not hesitate if their hearts are called as well. When a community seeks to help refugees, or combat homelessness, or promote inclusion, the Jewish people answer the call. We cannot stand idly by, because our hearts and minds are so moved individually and as a group to contribute to God’s work in the world. In this way, the concept of a “calling” has continued to pervade the Jewish collective consciousness. Parashat Vayakhel teaches us that we must keep our hearts and minds open to the calling from God, and from our own souls, to bring our abilities and ourselves to build the proverbial Mishkan, to make good. May we continue to be in tune with our souls, as the Israelites were in the desert, and jump to action when so called. May we all continue to find our calling, and answer it.


Tetzaveh 2/16/19

Taste of Torah: Tetzaveh

A Sign Upon Your Heart

By: Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor - Temple Beth Am

When I sit on a beit din, a rabbinic panel, that’s considering a candidate for conversion to Judaism, I have a favorite question. I ask the candidate, “What is it about you, in appearance or behavior, that will make clear to the people around you that you a Jew?” I’ve gotten lots of answers about kippot or necklaces with Jewish symbols. Most frequently, someone will say, “My coworkers notice my kosher lunch” or “people notice my absence on holidays”. Their ritual observance sets them apart.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, there is a setting apart beyond the chosen-ness of the Israelites of the people as Aaron and his sons are brought forward and decorated in honor of their priestly status. The instructions for adorning their breastplates are accompanied by the amendment that the names of the children of Israel should be al libo… l’zikaron lifnei Adonai tamid: upon his heart… as a reminder before God always.

Who is the beneficiary of the reminder here? Is it the priest who feels the weight of these stones of remembrance around his neck? Is it God, who is the heavenly witness to the priestly rites? Is it both? The name of the breastplate gives us a context clue: hoshen mishpat, the breastplate of law. The Netziv, 19th-century Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, emphasizes the instruction that this is worn over the priest’s heart, and therefore it is intended as a reminder for him to pray on behalf of his sisters and brothers when empowered to do so. This garb is a reminder of the priestly clout and ability to impact the lives of all of Israel. But the verse includes the specific instruction that the breastplate is worn “before God,” so it might equally serve as a reminder to God of the precious human souls at stake when heavenly decrees take hold.

Wearing something of symbolic importance can be dually experienced by the wearer and the beholder, in identical or radically different ways. When someone chooses to don a chamsa necklace as they embrace their Jewish identity, others may or may not notice. The magic happens, I think, in the conversation that the necklace sparks between the wearer and the observer. In the breach. In the human intersection. The necklace matters, but not as much as the portal of connection that it opens.

Last year, I sat on a beit din for conversion and asked my usual question: “How will the people around you see that you’re Jewish?” The candidate responded: “I used to drive like a maniac. Then I started wearing a kippah. And I realized that people were looking over at this guy who cut them off and not just cursing me but cursing all Jews, because that’s what that they saw: a Jew. I’ve cooled down on the road and I get more smiles and nods now. I like to think that someone out there is going, ‘Those Jews are such friendly drivers’”.

A kippah matters, but not as much as the behavior it inspires and the lives that may be impacted as a result. Every symbol we wear, no matter where we wear it, is a symbol on our heart as it reminds us to keep close who and what we represent. And every outward expression of identity is an invitation to grow and strengthen our relationships who might see us, and see what we do, as a representation of a greater whole.

Terumah 2/9/19

The Heart Will Follow
By Rabbinic Intern, Ariel Root Wolpe

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:2)

Every person must bring gifts—but not all gifts are to be accepted. How would you feel if, after selecting a few items from among your precious, scarce possessions, you brought them to the mishkan and were rejected? If you were told you could not help build the dwelling place of God and center of ritual practice because your contribution did not come from your lev, from your heart?

We all have different reasons we contribute to projects in our communities. Sometimes the guilt of our fortunate circumstances motivates us, and we alleviate that feeling through giving our wealth to just causes. Sometimes, our giving is initiated by a sense of obligation, a belief that we are commanded to invest in Jewish institutions and philanthropic endeavors. And sometimes we give purely because we see a need and desire to fill it. Sometimes, we give from the heart.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim Alter applies the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear, to the above verse of Parashat Terumah:

כיוון שאמרו ישראל נעשה ונשמע, מיד אמר הקב"ה למשה ויקחו לי תרומה. פירוש הדבר: מצוות צדקה צריכים לעשות בלי התחשבות יתירה, בלי שיקולים, אלא נעשה ואחר כך נשמע. כי אם יחשוב וישקול קודם, לעולם לא יגיע ל"נעשה".

Since Israel said ‘we will do and we will listen’, the Holy Blessed One immediately said to Moshe ‘and you must take terumah for me’. An explanation of the matter: the commandment of tzedakah requires action without excessive contemplation, without excessive consideration, but rather to ‘do’ and afterwards to ‘listen’. This is because if one contemplates and considers beforehand, one will never arrive at ‘we will do’.

Giving, Rabbi Alter explains, is something we must get into the habit of just doing. If we overthink our impulse to give to a person or organization, we will come up with better ways to use our money and will be less likely to part with it. Before our mind begins to turn with warnings of careful spending, we must reach out our hand and give.

In this way, it doesn’t even matter whether your original motivation to give comes from guilt, obligation, or desire. All that matters is that you strive to be generous with your resources, to be someone who donates money and energy to the causes that deserve support. Over a life well lived, your desire to give will only grow.

Where the hand gives, the heart will follow.

Mishpatim 2/2/19

Judaism, Beautifully Done
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

If only the whole Jewish world knew, and lived by, this one comment of Rashi. If only that…then the Jewish people would be kinder, more ethical and more dignified.

Let me rev this up by saying that one of my recent and current pet peeves (which is saying it lightly. What I am about to describe is a source of tremendous pain and anguish for me about Jewish living) is the discourteousness (again, to say it lightly) exhibited by some who are punctilious about ritual Jewish observance. In my mind, I have thought of this as “ugly Judaism.” A Judaism which valorizes, and pays attention to, halakhic/legal/ritual detail, while eschewing (sometimes simultaneously) basic politeness and rudimentary ethical comportment. Myriad examples jump to mind. Jews who are so careful about not touching a person of the opposite gender such that it impacts where they sit on an airplane, but seem to jettison all expressions of patient, flexible kindness when trying to meet those needs. Jews who are careful and ubiquitous when it comes to regular, obligatory prayer, and who can recite the prayers fluently and fluidly…but then resort to lashon hara (gossip, damaging speech) as soon as there is a gap in the service. Jews who are so set on venerating the Torah that they literally knock people over (and thus knock over the values of that very Torah) on the way to giving the Torah a kiss. Some might call that last example as veneration-turned-idolatry, with frenzy having replaced honor.

(I am neither a perfect Jew nor a perfect human. I try to name and efface as many of the flaws that I recognize within myself as possible. So I will accept “guilty as charged” for any of the ways in which I fall prey to the very phenomena discussed above.)

I muse about how we got to this place in Jewish sociology wherein the class of phenomena I named is so prevalent. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise. Human beings are complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies. We undermine, and betray, our own values and principles all the time—sometimes unaware and unconscious, and sometimes quite aware, but as a result of some negotiation, or rationalization, with self. But even if this is true, ought we not try to aspire to something better, something higher?

The commentary of Rashi I referenced above is his first on Parshat Mishpatim, and emerges from a pretty wonky and zoomed-in read of the text. The parsha begins with the words ואלה משפטים / V’eleh hamishpatim / “And these are the laws/statues…”. The parsha then continues with a litany of laws (making Mishpatim the parsha with the second-most number of mitzvot among all the 54 parashot, with only Ki Tetze having more). Most of those laws are related to civic life, business practices and ethical living, with rather few of them existing purely in the ritual realm. Rashi notes that all sorts of sentences in the Torah begin with the introduction of “אלה / Eleh / These…” And he notes, or suggests, a pattern: When the opening word is just Eleh, the word is meant to separate what is to come from what came before. It would be read something like “Now that we have finished that topic, these are some other things, in another category.” But when the opening word is “V’eleh” (as it is in our verse), the opposite is true: The word connects the upcoming verse(s) and concept(s) with the antecedent, as if we should read it something like “And these things, as well!”

Rashi is highlighting the import of the slim, humble, almost indiscernible vov-letter that begins the word and the parsha. Within that tiny letter is the following exhortation: lest you delude yourself into thinking that the laws about to be commanded are somehow other, or lesser, or disconnected from the “true revelation” we just had in Parshat Yitro…lest you erroneously think that all (any!) of the commandments after the initial 10 are secondary, the vov of “V’eleh” sets you straight. You thought that the Sinai moment ended last week? Hardly. It continues into Mishpatim, with no conceptual or hierarchical separation. So as you remember Shabbat and render it holy, and as you commit to monotheism and to not taking that one God’s name in vain, so too do you promise to act towards your servants with decency, and pay the damages of one you have injured, and guard your animals lest they create havoc, and ensure that your open pits do not pose a danger to unsuspecting wayfarers, and treat the stranger with empathy, and support the widow and orphan, and ease the burden of an overladen animal, and on and on and on. They, too, are part of God’s revelation to us, and expectations of us. While the latter category without the former category might be ethical humanism, I would say again that the former category without the latter is ugly Judaism.

Remember that vov, and act on it. Connect your conception of Sinai to how you hold yourself, especially while you find yourself in the midst of a ritual act. Make God’s name truly holy by having your very being be a conveyor of holiness, from the ritual to the civil, and back.

Shabbat Shalom


Yitro 1/26/19

In the exquisitely lean five books of Torah, that which is repeated shines with importance. The aseret hadibrot, the ten utterances/commandments, appear twice with only slight discrepancies. The connection between these commandments and the grandeur of revelation serve to highlight their significance. If the Torah could be scribed in bolded font, Parshat Yitro and the ten commandments would certainly get that treatment.

But if the creed of the ten commandments is so very critical, why don’t we recite them like a pledge each day, or even multiple times a day? The testimony of God’s oneness by way of the Shema was deemed so central that it was assigned a spot in two out of the three daily services -- and the Shema only appears once in the Torah! Kal v’homer, through an a fortiori argument, we might think that the ten commandments deserve to be recited ritually. And, in fact, they once were. Mishnah Tamid 5:1 recounts the morning blessings by the appointed priest:

...קָרְאוּ עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, שְׁמַע, וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ, וַיֹּאמֶר…

“...they would chant the ten commandments, the Shema, V’haya im shamo’a, Vayomer…”

Later, in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, there are accounts of the ten commandments being removed from the liturgy.

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל אף בגבולין בקשו לקרות כן אלא שכבר בטלום מפני תרעומת המינין

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Even in the outlying areas, outside the Temple, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner every day, as they are the basis of the Torah (Rambam), but they had already abolished recitation of the Ten Commandments due to the grievance of the heretics.

What was the rabbinic concern? That highlighting this particular set of laws and norms would make them appear to be more central or more important than the rest of the instructions in the Torah. There was a specific concern among early rabbis that sectarians like the followers of Paul were claiming that only these ten rules were divinely ordained. Reciting the ten commandments daily might inadvertently reinforce the fallacy that the ten commandments were the most critical laws in the whole Torah, or -- worse -- that they were the only God-given laws. Maimonides even forbade standing during the chanting of the aseret hadibrot lest one part of the Torah seem more important than any other portion.

When our rabbinic forebearers went through the exercise of fixing a daily liturgy, over and over again in each generation they debated how our Torah should be treated. What should be included. What should be omitted. Inclusion and omission are powerful markers of storytelling. Anyone who has edited a speech or a eulogy, or prepared a bar or bat mitzvah montage, or gone through a parent’s home knows that the story is told by the remnants.

But the choice to hit delete or stuff something in a donation bin is only paralyzingly daunting if we believe that our stories are all told in one go. While the aseret hadibrot were removed from the siddur, they are still publicly chanted not once, not twice, but three times each year, with special music trope and much grandeur. After all, while they are not God’s only instructions, they were God’s first instructions to the Israelites as a newly forming people.

Similarly, no single speech or slideshow or box of things can tell the story of a life. Savta’s armoire may be in someone else’s family room now, but it also lives in the photo album with pictures of birthday parties through the decades. That story you decided not to tell at the funeral can be told at shiva, or on a yarzheit, or on the phone call with your sister when something reminds you of that one time when your father did that thing. And the picture that didn’t make the bat mitzvah montage cut? Just wait until your daughter calls you asking to see it because she wants to look for her own son’s smile in the snapshot of herself at two years old.

The result of editing the ten commandments out of the siddur is that their occasional recitation in the Torah reading cycle is exciting and comes with renewed understanding each year. When we choose to remove an object or a story or a picture from daily rotation, we make space for the thrill of rediscovery in the years to come.


Vaera 1/5/19

Stages of Redemption
By: Ariel Wolpe, TBA Rabbinic Intern

The Israelites moved through four stages from slavery to freedom, teaches Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica, a 19th century chasidic teacher. Walking out of the gates of Egypt is only the beginning of the journey to mental, physical and emotional freedom. God hints at each stage through these promises in parshat Va’era:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will remove you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I am YHVH your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

When God says, וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will remove you,” Rabbi Yaakov teaches that God is promising to make the Israelites aware of their suffering. We know that the Israelites called out to God when they were in slavery, and God heard their cry. But while they knew their circumstances were inhumane and their souls cried out in protest, they did not grasp the extent of their suffering. Generations of slavery had numbed the Israelites to their inner experience, subduing hope of freedom, encouraging acceptance of their enslavement. Not only were their bodies bound to labor; their minds were weighted with mortar, disabled under bricks. But in order to become a free person, each Israelite had to fully understand the suffering he or she was going through. A person can only change their circumstances when they are conscious of what needs to change.

The promise וְהִצַּלְתִּי, I will deliver you, refers to the physical release from slavery. This is when the Israelites cease their work and flee, right before Pharaoh’s change of heart. In that moment, they are delivered out of making and lifting bricks, out of the reach of the taskmasters. Their bodies are their own, their work their own. This could only occur after the Israelites became fully aware of their suffering because otherwise they wouldn’t have left. To a people who had dwelled in the cities of Egypt their entires lives, the desert was unknown, uninhabited and full of dangers. As they journeyed towards the promised land, the Israelites fondly recalled the delicacies they ate Egypt, lamenting the loss of such luxuries. They had soothed their suffering with food, grown dependent on Egyptian lifestyles, and they had to tear their bodies away from such comforts on the road to freedom. Gaining autonomy over their bodies and their work was the second step towards freedom.

This step rings true for many of us. We live in a society with abundant luxuries, and we grow dependent on them even when they are not good for us. Pleasures of the body numb the complaints of the heart. We may soothe loneliness or purposelessness with food, TV, drugs or the internet. We begin to pursue a momentary release of serotonin instead of a holistic happiness. Escaping this state of slavery requires experiencing on our suffering without distraction, so that we are motivated to put forth the effort to leave Egypt.

Then God says וְגָֽאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. The Israelites are already released from slavery in body and mind—what is God referring to? Rabbi Yaakov explains this promises a release “from the depths of the imprint that slavery left on you.” Imagine God’s metaphorical arm reaching deep into the inner psyche of each Israelite, pulling out the thorns that cling there, one by one. While they appear free on the outside, God knows that they are still enslaved within. This is not something that happens spontaneously, is not a moment of revelation or rebellion. This is a process that takes years, 40 years for all of the Israelites to complete. It is the process of clearing out all of the beliefs, the doubts, the apathy and the hatred that has accumulated from enslavement. Only after this process is there room to develop a new sense of identity and worth. Only then can the Israelites see the promise of the future.

Without reaching inwards, each one of us will inevitably return to our state of slavery. It is the skipping of this step which causes cycles of suffering in our lives, when we make the same mistakes again and again despite desiring a change. As we age, our own thoughts leave imprints in our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. Like our ancestors, we must root out our harmful beliefs in order to transform ourselves and live freely.

The final step, וְלָֽקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, I will take you to me as a people, is God’s promise to free every Jew from the bondage of slavery, and instead bind them to Torah. God reminds us that we are part of a people with a rich tradition which guides us in living our lives. Unless all of us are free, none of us are free. We are responsible for our families, our communities, and every being in this world. Freedom, ultimately, is not just a state of mind or a state of body. It is a universal transformation that we have yet to achieve.

Through learning Torah, good works, and acts of lovingkindness we move closer to freedom. It is our purpose as a people who have journeyed out of the bonds of slavery to instill freedom in the world around us. But first, we must begin with our own enslavement. First, we free ourselves.


Beshallah 1/19/19

Joy, Freedom and Holiness
By Natan Freller, Rabbinic Intern

“Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hesitation. Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent. At times Joy is elusive - she seems to disappear as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.”

-The Book of Qualities, by Janet Ruth Gendler

What I found beautiful in this piece of art is how the writer transformed a feeling into words, stories, and relationships. Sometimes we struggle with many feelings, desires and emotions that we can't express as we would like to.

Judaism is a way to walk in this world. Judaism is a lens to live life. Judaism can help to transform reality into the world that we want to live in. Different from philosophies of life that work just in the realm of ideas and religions focused on just the technicism of the rituals, I see Judaism as a full embodied experience in itself. There is no value in Judaism that exists by itself without practicing it - and so there should be no meaningless ritual. Every ritual is full of different, old and new, meanings and values that can enrich our lives.

This week we read Beshalach, the Exodus story, the moment when the Jewish People was finally free from slavery. What is now understood has a central value in our tradition, freedom was not a given value for their time, but an achievement of an entire generation. Its celebration was real. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song, poetry, and music. This Shabbat received this name because of the celebration of freedom that is found in it. Shirat hayam, the “Song of the Sea”, is the real celebration of the divine redemption. The Israelites were pouring out their hearts, trying to find words to describe their emotions, and they found them while singing to God. Joy was welcomed in and never left that party. Joy become the special guest of the Jewish People, as we celebrate the achievement of the divine values.

The hebrew verb to make something holy is lehakdish. It means to set aside. To make it different, special. The Jewish People eternal goal is to be holy, to live our lives in a different way. This is an invitation for challenging ourselves to find deeper values and create meaningful experiences. Being Jewish is an invitation to transform the ideal into the real. Shabbat is the ultimate experience for that. It is the day when we enjoy a small piece of olam haba - the world to come - the world that we are creating together.

Shabbat is known in our tradition as a special day for joy. It is a day when we rest and enjoy our lives in a different (holy) way. Let us welcome joy with open arms. Run towards her as Shabbat starts, and hold it tight, enjoying its presence while she is here, so we can spread her energy during the next week.

May this Shabbat be full of joy. Let us make our lives holy, meaningful and taste together the world we all want to live in, so that we can recharge our energies to share more joy, freedom, and holiness during the next week.

Shabbat Shalom!

Shemot 12/29/18

Torah as Wisdom
Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

I don’t think that I grew up believing in every single story or detail written in the Torah as an absolute factual truth. At the same time, I did not have the tools to question it or even the authority to question how accurate the Torah is describing the origins of our people. For how long were the Jews slaves in Egypt? How many were there? Did the plagues actually happen? And the sea splitting, is that true?

I remember a few classes I took in my twenties, where for the first time I was allowed to disagree or challenge the texts of our tradition, whether that was the Torah, a siddur, or any other book. That changed the way I see Jewish texts and made me love our tradition even more.

My question for us this Shabbat is: How should we read Torah today? What kind of content can I find in it?

One of my favorite verses in the whole Torah is in the last book, Devarim 4:6. The verse says: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say: Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

One might think that this verse is theologically very complicated, questioning our relationships with other peoples that might sound like arrogance. I read this verse as the mission of the Jewish People. Many characteristics can be perceived from afar, like being tall or short, for example. Being wise is a characteristic that can be only identified through someone’s behavior. Our goal is not to show off to other people how wise the Jewish tradition is, but rather this language teaches us that if we do not transform the wisdom contained in the Torah into behavior, we are missing the point. We need to be so meticulous about our behavior that others will see it as a unique feature of the tribe.

I want to give you an example from this week’s parasha. The Talmud, the book that best understands the benefits of challenging our texts to find its wisdom, has an interesting debate about the verse: “And there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8).

Rav and Shmuel (Sotah 11a) disagree about the interpretation of this verse. One says that this means he was actually a new king, and one says that this means that his decrees were transformed as if he were a new king. The one who says that he was actually a new king holds that it is because it is written “new.” And the one who says that his decrees were transformed holds that it is because it is not written: “And the previous king of Egypt died, and a new king reigned.” This indicates that the same king remained. According to this interpretation, the words: “Who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), mean that he was like someone who did not know him at all. Although he certainly knew Joseph and his accomplishments, he acted as if he didn’t.

Notice that the discussion regarding reality has been present in our tradition since its early beginnings. The sages of the Talmud felt comfortable asking questions about what actually happened in the stories because they knew that the goal was to learn something from it, and not just repeat it to the next generation.

What does it mean to have a new king? What does it teach about relationships between peoples and how to take care of other groups who live in your midst? The wisdom in this phrase can be found throughout the book of Shemot to the end of the Torah. The answer given to the way the Israelites were treated in Egypt is: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Empathy, lovingkindness, and respect. Those are the key values we are responsible to make them a part of our behavior as individuals and as a people.

I want to invite you to start preparing for Pesach a little bit earlier this year, and I don’t mean cleaning the house or cooking the soup. I mean start asking yourself the real questions about our story, and don’t wait until the Seder to ask a simple technical question. Take the opportunity to carefully read the text of our tradition week after week, looking for the real questions you have and the wisdom that you can learn from it. Think about your life in the 21st century and what values you need to practice in order to be the best person you can be. Don’t let the Torah stay obsolete in the closet; take it out, read it, let’s share its light and wisdom by being morally righteous until other people look to us and say: what a wise people!


Vayehi 12/22/18

Inheriting a Transcending Torah
Rabbi Matt Shapiro

“At each stage of development, the world looks different, because it is different.”

These words, from the contemporary writer Ken Wilber, offer a window into one of his core concepts: “transcend and include.” He takes a broadly developmental perspective on humanity, seeing how, over time, we collectively have moved (and continue to move) through stages that are progressively more expansive. As we move from one stage to another, we transcend the earlier stage, and it also remains included in our new stage. This process of growth is true of us both collectively and as individuals. Wilber further holds that religion can be uniquely instructive in spiritual development, as the world’s religions still contain early myths and teachings which are absent from more recently developed spiritual systems. Connecting to a religion shouldn't necessarily stay in the “mythic” stage, but it offers an opportunity to start at, and grow from, that originating time, eventually transcending and including its origins.

There's a quirky little phrase that’s easy to gloss over as Jacob is transmitting his final blessings. In the JPS translation, the start of Genesis 48:22 is written as “I assign to you one more portion than your brothers…” but the original Hebrew indicates something different, and potentially more interesting. It can also be translated as “I give you Shechem as a portion over your brothers...” In the narrative, Shechem is primarily known as the focal point of the narrative where Dinah was taken captive and then avenged by her brothers Shimon and Levi. The verse itself, however, seems to be referring to a military victory won by Jacob, as it concludes “...which I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow.” There is, in fact, a midrashic tradition that indicates that Jacob joined with Shimon and Levi to defeat the people of Shechem after the incident with Dinah. Though this isn’t in the Torah itself, it seems to be embedded within the larger corpus of ancient Israelite lore.

As time went on, however, this understanding of events seems to have faded, with a different normative interpretation taking hold. In most rabbinic interpretations, the second clause of the verse is understood not as referring to an actual sword and bow, but rather as elements in one’s Jewish observance, like types of prayer or ways of studying Torah. Presumably due at least partly to our people’s evolution from a wandering tribe who needed to fight physical battles to a textually based religion, we find interpretations like Sforno’s, who understands the verse as describing “chochma and bina,” wisdom and insight, a metaphorical reinterpretation of Jacob’s sword and bow

Our tradition also has a counterpoint to applying layers of metaphors on top of the seemingly clear original meaning of a text. In the Talmud, on Shabbat 63a, during a related discussion where Psalm 45 is being similarly re-read. Mar, son of Rav Huna, responds to this technique: ein mikre yotzei miyad pshuto, a verse doesn’t depart from its literal meaning. There seems to be an internal conflict regarding rabbinic re-reading, between the apparent original intent of the verse- describing an actual military victory won by Jacob- and how it's later understood by the rabbis.

One way of understanding how Torah is transmitted is as continuous revelation- that Torah was initially revealed at some point in time, and continues to be revealed- which is helpful in framing how different understandings of the same verse can each hold truth. A Wilberian perspective offers an additional layer to this frame. The ancient Israelite myths, the text of the Torah, the metaphorical understandings of the rabbis, the internal insistence of the tradition on its own original context, our own contemporary navigations through these elements- all of this is the grand narrative of Judaism itself unfolding, and we collectively transcend and include. We have moved from a tribe that needed to defend itself militarily to the people of the book, encompassing a wide-ranging panoply of understandings. Our collective understanding, therefore, evolves from a literal understanding of the text to a more metaphorical reading, and onwards, which is mirrored in our paths as individuals. Most literate, intellectually sophisticated Jews don’t believe in God as the bearded, jealous “guy in the sky” caricatured by fundamentalist atheists, yet having stories and teachings that are comprehensible and meaningful to us at earlier stages of development provide us with the grounding to evolve as individuals. Of course a verse doesn’t depart from its simple meaning- and it doesn’t stop there. As we grow and Judaism grows, we continue to weave the tapestry of our tradition. We don’t leave our stories, myths, traditions, rituals, practices behind; they continue to inform and help us develop into the people and communities we can and want to be.

So, what did Jacob give Joseph and how? He gave him Shechem, which he conquered; and he gave him an extra portion from his brothers; and he taught Joseph how to pray and learn; and more, and more. The different layers and seeming contradictions, the multivocal multiverse of our tradition, is one of its greatest and deepest strengths, always carrying us forward into the next iteration of meaning, as we both transcend and include, passing this, our dearest inheritance, on.

Vayigash 12/15/18

Wield Thine Power Justly
By: Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Vayiggash on my mind. In fact, it has been on my mind, constantly, for nearly a year. As many of you know, I teach a weekly class on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. (We meet every Wed AM at 8:30, for an hour. No experience or Hebrew fluency required. Come join us!). We read each verse, carefully and slowly. We try to anticipate the questions Rashi might have asked on the verse, and then both aim to understand the plain meaning of his commentary as well as the sometimes-obvious and sometimes-subtle sermonettes within his words. Just last week we celebrated a “siyyum” (completion) of Parshat Vayiggash, which we had been studying methodically since about January.

The text recited at a siyyum includes the phrase הדרן עלך והדרך עלן (Hadran alakh v’hadrakh alan). It can be translated in (at least) two ways. Addressing the text itself, it can mean “we honor you, and you honor us.” Or, “we will return to you and you will return to us.” In this personification of text itself, we both praise the words of our tradition and claim that those very words will linger in our consciousness, awaiting our eventual return to them.

Overly nearly 20 years of teaching a similar class, I have found that though I have more than a rudimentary familiarity with every verse of the Torah, this painstakingly slow study opens my eyes to insights and awareness that had never occurred to me before. When I offered my own closing thoughts and homage to Vayiggash before we jumped into Vayehi (the last parsha of the book of Genesis/Breishit. When we finish that one, it will be one doozy of a siyyum. All are invited!), I named that for me that the most novel insight I had had over the previous months was related to the last set of verses in the parsha, ones often jumped right over when rabbis and teachers are looking for fodder for divrei torah. After lingering, poignantly, on Joseph’s reunion first with his brothers, and then with his father Jacob, and spending several verses on Jacob’s own fascinating encounter with Pharaoh, the text seems to go back in time a bit explaining the nitty-gritty aspects of Joseph’s leadership through the years of plenty and famine, with details one would think only an economist would love (we have an economist in our class, and he loved this section!).

But when you slow down rather than race through, the text’s profundity and prescience—particularly through Rashi’s careful and, yes, biased lens—screams out. Consider this: As Joseph seems, both prophetically and magnanimously, to be taking great economic care of the Egyptians, his adopted home, he also seems, eerily, to be imitating the ways of the very Pharaoh who will ultimately enslave the Israelites…because “he knew not Joseph”! The means of protecting the famished people is, essentially, acquiring them. First by distributing excess food (47:12). Then by collecting their money in exchange for food (v. 14). Then by appropriating their livestock as payment for provisions (v. 16). Then by actually acquiring their land and their very bodies (!!) in return for bread (v. 19). Then, by dispossessing them of even a place to call home, choosing rather to move them around from city to city (v. 21). Rashi explains that this was to protect Joseph’s brothers, the newcomers to Egypt: if no one has a home, then no one is a stranger. A more cynical—and perhaps accurate—read is that this is an important step in imposing total control over a person, a people. The last step in this coup (a coup which both sustained the people and divested the people of their very selves) was to engineer a system by which the people received seed with which to regrow produce, both to provide for themselves and to create an economic base for ongoing taxation (v. 23-24). The upshot of this precise (proto-tyrannical?) system is chilling, particularly if you look at the Hebrew words. Remember what we sing every Seder night? עבדים היינו לפרעה. Avadim hayinu l’Pharo. We were slaves to Pharaoh. Well, that turn of phrase does not originate in the book of Exodus. Rather, the third-to-last verse of Vayiggash has the Egyptian people (perhaps including, perhaps excluding, Joseph’s family. It is hard to tell) exclaiming, “You have given us life!...And now we will be עבדים/avadim/slaves/servants to Pharaoh. Rashi, alert to the obvious allusions, is quick to explain that they weren’t slaves, God-forbid. Only the later Pharaoh would do that to the Israelites. No, in this case they are “just” servants of Pharaoh in that they remit to him annual taxes. I love Rashi more than I love some of my family members…but this answer of his just begs and amplifies the question: Why is it that under Joseph’s stewardship, the Torah tells us that the people (for their own well-being!) end up in some servitude to him, and to Pharaoh, in a situation that was at least far more beneficial to ones in power than those subject to it.

I have no succinct answer. I am still marinating at a “wow” lurking in these verses that I had never noticed before. Two brief takeaways, other than that I encourage you either to come to our class, or at least just to read the parsha slowly and carefully when you do read it. 1) How easy and pernicious it is that sometimes when we think we are doing what is best for those under our authority, or thumb, the ones benefiting most is our very selves. 2) Sometimes what keeps people from becoming a Pharaoh, or acting Pharaonically, is just the opportunity. And a convenient rationalization. A few short verses, and narrative years, before Joseph’s descendants will become truly enslaved to his boss’s successor, he seems to be effectively and perhaps cruelly imposing at least an echo of that power-wielding over the contemporaneous Egyptians.

Wield thine power, and authority, justly and humanely. As you would want it wielded if you were its subject.

Shabbat Shalom