Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests
- Korah 6/12/21
- B’aha’alotekha 5/27/21
- Bamidbar 5/14/21
- Shemini 4/10/21
- Passover 4/2/21
- Tzav 3/28/21
- Vayikra 3/20/21
- Vayakhel-Pekudei 3/13/21
- Ki Tissa 3/6/21
- Terumah 2/20/21
- Mishpatim 2-13-21
- Yitro 2/5/21
- Bo 1/23/21
- Vayigash 12/26/20
- Miketz 12/19/20
- Vayeshev 12/12/20
- Vayishlakh 12/5/20
- Toldot 11/21/20
- Vayera 11/7/20
- Lekh-Lekha 10/31/20
- Noah 10/24/20
- B'reisheet 10/17/20
Don’t Fall Into The Pit
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Joshua Jacobs
Moses’ humility finds no greater contrast than in Korah’s arrogance. Our greatest leader and prophet turns down God’s initial summons, saying “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent (lit. “send, please, by the hand you will send”)” (Exodus 4:13), whereas Korah summons himself, saying to Moses, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Korah is right about that first part. God freed us from Egypt to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We are, all of us, holy, and we cling to the faith that God is still in our midst. We also know that Moses initially struggled with delegation. It took Yitro, his father-in-law, to establish a system of democratic-style power-sharing that both prevented burn-out and increased efficiency. When Moses replies to Korah, “You have taken too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi” (Numbers 16:7) - רב לכם בני לוי, Moses almost seems to be paying Yitro’s message forward, which, again, speaks to Moses’ humility and willingness to learn from others.
It’s that second part of Korah’s accusation that offends the ear. Moses and Aaron never raise themselves above the Lord’s congregation. In fact, Moses initially tries to recuse himself so that, theoretically, someone like Korah might have been selected in his place. It is Korah (as well as Dathan, Abiram and their host of followers) who actually seek such an opportunity. This is not the appeal for democracy we get from Yitro. This is a mutiny and revolt from great men who should have known better.
That’s where the 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (the Sochatchover Rebbe), comes in. He notes that this is not a grassroots rebellion by the common folk, but rather a mutiny by wise officials who are respected characters, already entrusted with holy work. How is it possible, the Sochatchover asks, that these particular men could have been capable of such folly. His answer is really more of a values statement. He says that a person has two eyes; one to understand God’s greatness and the other to understand one’s one baseness. Korah, he argues, had the first eye, but was blind (to borrow the rebbe’s own language) in the other. Lacking Moses’ humility and blinded, in a sense, by arrogance, Korah and his company revolted.
So, let’s conclude that the lesson from Korah is to never lose sight of our own baseness. Except, there seems to be a danger in that, as well. Should we really be a kingdom of priests and a nation of Monty-Python monks who chant dirges and, every few steps, smack ourselves in the face with Etz Hayim?
Enter the Hofetz Hayim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan), another 19th century Hassidic rabbi. There’s this story that he was once walking down the streets of his town, on a literal dark and stormy night. A visitor approaches him, riding in his carriage, and asks “I’m looking for that great rabbi and tzadik, the Hofetz Hayim. Can you tell me where to find him?” The Hofetz Hayim replies, “First of all, he’s no rabbi. The world doesn’t know about him. And secondly, he’s no tzadik.” Astonished, the visitor is sent into a fit of righteous indignation on behalf of the great
rabbi he had no idea he was actually talking to. Going too far, the visitor starts cursing him sharply, even to the point of whipping him with his driver’s whip. The visitor storms off in his carriage and the Hofetz Hayim is left feeling ashamed for having brought this man to sin. Upon returning home, the Hofetz Hayim finds the visitor waiting at his doorstep. Realizing what he has done, the visitor is beside himself and almost faints from the shock of it all. The Hofetz Hayim comforts and reassures him, saying, “You did nothing wrong. In righteousness did those lashes come to me because it is not only a sin to speak lashon ha-ra (gossip/ill-speech) against others, but also against one’s self.”
I think this story serves as a helpful balance to the lesson we might have otherwise learned from Korah this week. Yes, a person should always have two eyes; one to understand God’s greatness and the other to understand one’s own baseness. But eyes are just one facet of the human body. What comes out of the mouth, or - to go straight to the source - what formulates in the brain should also be tempered by the notion that lashon ha-ra includes negative thoughts and words against one’s self. I’ll freely admit that I too often allow myself to be that Monty Python monk, smacking myself with Etz Hayim, or metaphorically whipping myself for something I did or didn’t do or could have done better. I think these moments of self-flagellation, which we all tend to fall into, are a Korah rebellion in their own right - a mutiny against one’s self. Becoming who we want to be is a delicate balance, but I think the wisdom of our text and tradition can help us put one foot in front of the other on any dark and stormy night so that we can better navigate life without falling into the pit like Korah.
Light the Fire. Then Step Back
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Sometimes a short piece of Torah enters your consciousness, roots deep in your kishkes, and then stays there for a while, finding a way to shine light upon and into all sorts of crevices, and illuminating them in a way one hadn’t considered before. This happened to me this week. I was reminded of a short commentary by Rashi on the opening lines of B’aha’alotekha, and Rashi’s wisdom has stayed with me, giving me an opportunity to apply it to our JLC (Jewish Learning Community--the name for TBA’s Hebrew/Religious School) Graduation ceremony on Sunday, in a drash I gave to a zoom reunion for my Encounter trip in 2018, and now in this Taste of Torah.
But first, a nod to what some say is the finest rabbinic sermon ever written. It was composed by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the famed author of the novel set in Talmudic times “As A Driven Leaf,” and he entitled it “To hold with open arms.” Snippets of the sermon are available online. Perhaps the full text if you search deep enough. His thesis? If we hold too hard, too tight, we crush the very thing we embrace. Truest love is an embrace, but while giving space. A hug, but one in which the hugged does not feel smothered, and from which s/he can easily depart.
This is so very hard to do, when a child pursues a path we think is unwise, or just not the one we would have chosen. When a spouse wants space, and the other spouse wants closeness. When an idea or ideology (or religion?) is held so close and tight, it cannot breath and begins to stultify. Learning to let go is an essential and healthy aspect of a relationship with anyone, and with anything.
I believe this wisdom is related to Rashi’s explaining the choice of words/roots in the word that names the parsha: B’ha’alotekha. In Hebrew, that is בהעלותך, from the root ע-ל-ה, meaning to “go up,” as in making or taking an aliyah. The word is used as God tells Moshe how to instruct Aaron to light the lamp (menorah) in the tabernacle (mishkan). The action Aaron is doing is lighting, or igniting. So why is the verb related to “going up” or “ascent” or “rising”? Rashi says (in my mind, hinting at a metaphor) that Aaron was to ignite the flames such that they would continue to rise up “on their own,” without further tinkering or caretaking by Aaron. In context, this describes a menorah that is well-lit, and requires no active tending. Metaphorically, this suggests inspiration that leads to independence, giving birth yielding to setting free, having an attitude towards that which is most precious and holy that is one of healthy distance, letting the flame, or the student, or child be what he/she/it is meant to be.
I remember the first moment of parenting when my consciousness hit upon that most obvious datum, but which escapes us all too often in our enmeshed relationships: my child is not I. She is a different person. Different cells make up her body. Different thoughts course through her mind. Different futures await her. She is she. She is not I. My role as a father is to light a flame, help to get it going, and then observe it from a loving and healthily distant space, with pride and wonder.
For all the flames in your life, stand back. The flickering is yet more wondrous from the right distance. Let them go where they are meant to go.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Dvar Torah Bamidbar
May 14th/15th 2021 | 3/4 Sivan 5781
Prepared by: Julia Knobloch
Between the Desert and the Promised Land
Over Passover, I spent a few days in Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert. Having moved to LA only last August, it was my first time there, and I was looking forward to my visit for many reasons: To relax a few days and stretch my legs, to write poems, to imagine myself as if I had been part of the Exodus – and to finally see those trees that had first sparked my curiosity more than 30 years ago, when I saw them on the cover of the Joshua Tree album, by the Irish rock band U2. When I entered the park, my favorite song was playing on my phone, and the ranger must have thought I was yet another lost Gen-Xer on a trip to conjure up her youth. I didn’t care. I was happy, smiling in that way that makes us feel the muscles in our cheeks. Finally, after 30+ years, I had arrived – in the promised land of a teenage dream, in Joshua Tree. I felt timeless. I had arrived in the desert.
This dvar is not the first and not the last to marvel at the dichotomy of the Desert and the Promised Land in Judaism, at how Desert and Promised Land gain their respective significance through the existence of the other. There is no Promised Land without the Desert, and there would be no Desert without the Promised Land. They are an inseparable zug, as it were, the original pair that keeps debating the significance of their symbiosis, keeps revisiting verses and images in our texts, keeps moving the journey and the conversation, the searching and the meaning-making in Judaism forward.
Many milestones on the way to the formation of a Jewish identity occur outside the Promised Land. Arguably the most significant one, Matan Torah, which we celebrate in just a few days, took place in the wilderness. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Mishkan was built to be used and carried past rocks and sands – the Temple was originally a portable desert sanctuary.
The people who would inherit the Promised Land (and the conflicts connected to that inheritance, of which we bear witness, once again, this week) became a nation in the Desert. God revealed to them the guidelines for a structured, settled society in the wilderness.
Not exclusively, but maybe predominantly in secular imagery, the desert is used as a metaphor for emptiness, for death: It is associated with the absence of water, of life. Often it is considered a hostile place, bleak, devoid of much vegetation. And yet, the desert is very much alive, biologically, historically, geologically: it is content with itself, it is its own habitat. It is its own water. It is a realm for wandering and sojourning, for miracles and realization of the self. It is a space to listen and to sustain the soul.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l writes beautifully about the religious and spiritual significance of the desert: “The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightening and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered God not in the whirlwind or the fire or the earthquake but in the kol demamah dakah, the still, small voice, literally ‘the sound of a slender silence.’ I define this as the sound you can only
hear if you are listening. In the silence of the midbar, the desert, you can hear the Medaber, the Speaker, and the medubar, that which is spoken. To hear the voice of God you need a listening silence in the soul.”
To be sure, the Desert is the place of becoming, not necessarily of settling. The ultimate goal is the Promised Land, and being outside of it is considered less ideal than being inside of it. At the same time, Judaism, as a religion of groundings and transitions, is well-aware that the ideal and less-ideal complement one another in a continuous time-place spiral. This is true also for our lives, in which we go from desert to promised land and back to the desert, through turnings and events that happen to us until we’re settled -- if at all we ever will be and whatever that may come to mean for each individual.
For my Passover days in the desert, I had rented a simple trailer outside of Landers, to focus on some poems I had been wanting to write. Poems, actually, inspired by an assignment which TBA’s very own Cantor Hillary Chorny had given in a class she was teaching this past semester at Ziegler. And as darkness and silence slowly fell and enveloped the Joshua Trees and the mountain silhouettes in the distance, one poem after the other gushed out like a fountain, like many waters. I want to say this was because by having been in the immensity of the desert-ocean around me, I had been able to listen -- to the small voice inside me as well as to a larger (divine?) voice of inspiration, of revelation.
Cantor Chorny’s assignment had asked us to create a new ritual for a mikvah visit that would speak to the power of water, of refreshing, of cleansing. Like many of us, of you, I have felt the weight of this past year – and while we here have reason to be optimistic, we know that the world has not recovered. In my own little life, I have felt empty and dry, and the poems I wrote in the desert deal with finding water when there is no water. In concluding, I would like to share the opening meditation with you, hoping it might feel inspirational.
May you give me waters when my heart is dry
show me how to be my own mikvah, my own hope
a pool of blessings and of transformation
May you help me find the words to traverse
the desert with gratitude and inspiration
to not hit the rock too soon
to feel that I belong, even if I won’t remain
in the Promised Land
Julia Knobloch is a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
By Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman, Co-Founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning
As I have gotten older, I have found myself craving - needing - more silence in my days. When my children were younger and I was at home with them, I often yearned for breaks from the constant engagement and management of their needs, pains, demands. But I don’t think that it was silence that I needed then. Just brief respites, distractions from the full-time work of being ‘on’ with them and their urgent, noisy, needy lives. But now, I know that I need periods of silence each day. I am not speaking of meditation per se, but just silence. A cessation of the doing, the talking, the noise, the ever-growing chatter of matters that need attention and tending. On those days when I forget or neglect to find moments of silence, I’m guaranteed to be more snippy, less patient, less compassionate, less able to care for, attune to, and do for others.
I have found silence to be the simplest, yet most radical tool of opening my heart. Life-giving, actually. One I try to safeguard.
In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we encounter the painful episode of the seemingly inexplicable killing of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. After the careful construction of the sacrificial system with all of its detailed laws and parameters, these two young men offer their own “esh zarah” - an ‘alien fire’ - an offering that seemed to be spontaneous, outside of the prescribed system of required and regulated offerings to God:
א וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. ב וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.
And Nadab and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord
Every year, when we come to this parasha, this episode stops us short and raises so many difficult theological questions that plague our senses of morality and compassion.
But Aaron’s response to the tragic death of his children in chapter 10, verse 3 is what I want to explore:
“And Aaron was silent”
The Torah does not often name peoples’ silence. Its explicit mention here is startling and important. And silence in the face of this horrible loss does not feel unusual. How else would one react to such unexpected pain and grief than with empty speechlessness? Words are inadequate at such a moment. The Hasidic Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ressler ( 1740 - 1806) invites us to explore the silence of Aaron more deeply:
“There are four levels of existence: the inanimate (domem), the vegetative, the animal, and the verbal (human). Sometimes a person has to be on the inanimate level, as in “May my self be as dust” (Berachot 17a). Thus you do not feel the pain that another is causing you, or you do not question God’s actions… This is the sense of Aaron was silent - he brought himself to the inanimate state. Rashi says that he received a reward for his silence: the Divine word chose to speak to him directly. By lowering himself from the verbal to the inanimate level, he allowed the silent shechinah to rise up to the level of speech.”
This silent state - domem - that Aaron moved into was the base and foundation of his being, a return to his most elemental state, one before speech enters into one's way of living. He contracted and retreated to this place, and as a result, his silence was ‘rewarded’: it opened a channel to the Divine. His stepping away from the world of speech allowed for God to step closer towards him. The silence created a pathway to be unlocked between Aaron and the Divine.
In the Quaker tradition, silence is a prized and usual form of sacred coming-together. And Heather McRae-Woolf, educator and writer, writes of her experience with the sacred silence of her Quaker practice: “As a child in Quaker Meeting, I understood that we would sit together in silence and wait. We wait for a sense of the spirit that unites us. Some of us wait for more direct messages from God, while others simply wait for calm…But a silence where you interact with your thoughts is also a sacred act, a way of owning your interior being. Sometimes you need to wade through your thoughts in order to let them settle. My presence to myself, in all its detail, gives me a platform to recognize a unifying divinity, sometimes contained in mundane messages from other people…We are all focused on becoming present to ourselves so that we can become present to others.”
Our daily world is a noisy, noisy place. There are times, when life hands us loss and pain, that we are plunged into places of unexpected silence, like Aaron - muted by sorrow and the inexplicable in human life. And there are times when we can intentionally turn towards silence. Make a permanent seat for it at our table. Spread its cloth over the movement of our lives. And perhaps it will unlock something new and unexpected in our hearts. Maybe it will allow us to see and feel in textures we had not known possible.
This week, experiment with silence - planned moments of quiet. Nothing complicated. Just safeguarded silence. Use the middah of the Omer this week, Gevurah - inner strength, resilience, and boundary-setting - to appoint certain minutes as designated and protected moments of quiet. And try to attune yourself to others’ silence, those who have found themselves in quiet places by choice and those who have arrived there because it was the only option left open to them.
How Human Empathy Awakens Divine Empathy
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Intern
Korach, the leader of the attempted mutiny against Moses in the desert, wasn’t the only one who questioned what it was, exactly, that made Moses fit for leadership. Tobias ben Eliezer, an 11th century author of the Midrashic work, “Lekach Tov,” begs the same question. Except, he asks nicely, so the ground doesn’t open up to swallow nobody.
He calls our attention to the verse: “And Moses grew and he went out to his brothers and he saw their suffering” (Exodus 2:11). He notes how Moses, at this point in his journey, is still an outsider from the children of Israel. He is royalty, not a slave. And yet, when Moses sees their suffering under harsh bondage, the Midrashist argues that he demonstrates true empathy towards them. Meaning, he experiences their pain as if it is his own. So much so, he immediately throws his lot in with theirs. It is this extreme empathy that sets him apart from most of us, who are heartbroken when we watch the news or hear about the misfortune of others, but ultimately, we rarely drop everything and jump into the fray.
But Moses does. In fact, another great Midrashist (and Beth Amer) Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer taught me her interpretation of the moment Moses slays the taskmaster. The verse says that Moses, “...turned this way and that way, and, seeing that there was no man, he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). She understands this to be more than just an act of moral outrage. Instead, she sees in this verse Moses’ existential struggle within himself. He turned this way and that way. “This way” - meaning, towards his past. His royal upbringing and Egyptian identity. “And that way” - meaning, towards his future. His destiny and true heritage as a Hebrew. “And, seeing that there was no man” - meaning, if he tried to grasp onto both aspects of himself, he’d be torn apart at the seams. “So he struck the Egyptian” - the Egyptian part of himself, and buried it in the sand. He declared himself a Jew.
In light of the first Midrash from Lekach Tov, maybe it was empathy that spurred Moses to fully align himself with the Jewish people and realize who he truly was. And, Tobias ben Eliezer argues, it is Moses’ empathy that merits him leadership, that merits us Torah and a unique relationship with God, that merits us the Land of Israel, that merits us everything. In a time where we are supposed to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, how much more important is it to set aside time to further cultivate and tap into our holy power for empathy?
The Midrashist makes one final point. It is human empathy that actually has the ability to awaken and earn God’s empathy for us. Only a few verses after Moses takes note of the people’s pain, we read how God takes note, as well: “God looked upon the children of Israel and God took note of them” (Exodus 2:25). My theology doesn’t allow me to believe that God had previously ignored our cries, or had been previously unaware of them. But I do believe that we are each possessed of the ability to draw God nearer and merit God’s attention through our behavior in the world. If there is just one thing Pesach invites us to do in order to try to draw God nearer to us, maybe that one thing is empathy.
On Pesach, we remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We take notice of all those who are enslaved today, or crushed under the weight of oppression. Allowing our hearts to break is no small feat. But how do we take that next step and, like Moses, jump into the fray? I’m not saying we should smite anybody. I’m also not saying we have to undergo any radical lifestyle transformations. But, certainly, there are small steps we can take everyday to notice what might otherwise go unnoticed. To experience another’s pain as if it was our own. To invite God closer to us as we channel our tradition through acts of holy empathy in a world that’s hungry for it.
All in a Week’s Time
Prepared by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
It’s just a week, right? Every year as I prepare for Passover, looking at my crowded and overhauled kitchen, examining the lists of ingredients to buy and tasks to complete, I feel simultaneously relieved and bewildered that all of this preparation is for “just” one week of celebration. It’s a week that is short in time, heavy in preparation, and, ideally, rich in meaning. Like the journey out of Egypt and into freedom, it’s a week’s journey that should (hopefully!) leave us in a different place than where we started.
In Parshat Tzav, we hear of another week’s journey. We read about the installation (“miluim,” the same word for reserve duty in the IDF today) of Aaron and his sons as priests, managing the maintenance and spiritual practices of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness. After elaborate instructions about sacrifices and an anointing ritual, Moses tells Aaron and his sons:
“Now from the entrance to the Tent of Meeting you are not to go out, for seven days, until the time of fulfilling the days of your ordination (your miluim).
For it takes seven days to fill your hands.” - Leviticus 6:33
What happened during that week?
We have little information directly from the text about how they spent their time during that week. Most commentators agree that this verse did not literally mean that they could not move from the Tent of Meeting Day and night for a whole week. Rather, commentaries suggest that either they had to stay put during the daytime only, tending to their needs at night, or that they could not leave any time they were on a shift to oversee the Sanctuary during those seven days. Either way, it was surely an intense time of initiation for them.
Spending that week together was undoubtedly a time of collective bonding and growth as they learned the “trade secrets” that would come to define their clan. That process could not have taken place overnight. While the concluding segment of verse 33, “it takes seven days to fill your hands,” seems to be an idiomatic description for the length of time needed to complete their ordination, it may literally have been true as well. Their hands were busy learning techniques of sacrificial slaughter and delicate differentiation of body parts within an offering. It was as if they had to attend medical school, training to be a butcher, and brush up on laws of ritual purity simultaneously. That one week may have felt for them, as Pesach may feel for us, both painstakingly slow yet not long enough to accomplish their task.
As we look forward to the holiday, I hope we embrace this time period with all of its transformational potential. May our celebration also “take seven days to fill (our) hands” - to fill them with the work of cooking and cleaning and the organization of the seder night, whether we are dining alone or with others. Like the training of the priests, this filling of our hands and of our handiwork is merely a stand in for the deeper work we are orchestrating with our labors. We are shepherding in yet another year of maintaining the intergenerational chain of remembering the freedom story of our people. We may be guiding others, including the next generations, to share in this legacy. May will fill our days and nights in holy service, knowing that while it is just a week, it is one that can change us for the better. Wishing everyone a chag kasher v’sameach!
Returning to Vayikra One Year Later
Prepared by Cantor Michelle Stone, TBA Ritual Innovator
Almost exactly a year ago, right before Parshat Vayikra 2020, the late Lord Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l gave a d’var Torah on Zoom about what the parsha could teach us about the moment we were living in. We had just gone into isolation, COVID having just been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. This was one of the first Shabbatot of quarantine. The world was just beginning to understand how life was changing, though at the time, we had no idea how long it would endure. I revisited Rabbi Sacks’ teaching this week, one year later, to see what lessons we could take with us now, as we are about to enter a new phase of the pandemic, hopefully one that sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
The parsha opens with a seemingly uninteresting line, “And God called (vayikra) to Moshe and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.” Rashi explains that the use of the word vayikra is not merely “called”, but signals that God called to Moshe with great affection. He contrasts the word, vayikra (“he called”), with an aleph at the end, with the word vayikar (“he happened”), a term used when God speaks to other nations (ie Bilaam). Rashi notes that the aleph connotes a feeling of closeness and affection for the Israelites, while the word used when God speaks to the prophets of other nations suggests a more casual relationship. Rabbi Sacks further notices that the aleph at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters around it. It is called an aleph ze’eirah. When a letter is written differently than the other letters around it, it is calling attention to itself in some way, telling us to notice it. Rabbi Sacks explains that the aleph ze’eirah, comes to say that the affectionate call from God is quiet, almost silent. As we were entering into isolation, Rabbi Sacks used this explanation as a call to listen intently for the loving call of God. While we were living in a time of chaos and fear, it was also a time for opportunity. He wrote:
“We have the opportunity to listen to our soul, to our mind, to our heart in a way that we don’t have at other times because we are so busy interacting with other people, perhaps in isolation, we can hear God’s very quiet call. A little aleph, almost silent. [God is] asking us to question, is there someone I should call? Is there someone I should help? Is there someone I should thank? Is there a prayer I should be saying? Is there a text I should be learning? Is there a mitzvah I should be doing? Is there something that I have been neglecting until now because I felt too busy and now that I am in this isolation, this silence, able to hear, able to think of? That is what vayikra means. It means an almost silent call, but one which we hear at moments of loneliness….So I just think that it is worth thinking in these times: Can I somehow, underneath this all, hear that still small voice of Hashem saying to me, use this time of being at one with yourself to listen and to hear and to heed and to do and to grow, and thereby become strong by giving strength to others because it is not only to Moshe Rabbeinu that vayikra, ‘God calls’, but to all of us.”
This was a not uncommon sentiment in those days. We were asked to take the time alone to think about what we needed to do in order to become our best selves and what others needed from us in this time of distress. Now, a year later, what can we take from this teaching? Life in quarantine got quite busy again. We may have not gone anywhere, but we never stopped Zooming and moving. The quiet of those early days of isolation quickly gave way to overprogrammed lives. And now we stand at the precipice of returning to the outside world again. This process may still take a number of months, but we can see it on the horizon. We may have to work harder to hear the quiet, affectionate call of God spurring us to action, but the “still, small voice” is always there, waiting to be heard. How can we still listen intently to this voice as we move forward, ensuring that we continue to focus on the ideas, people, and actions that allow us to live up to the expectations we have for ourselves? Shabbat Shalom.
From “Backyard” to “Back to Shul”
Prepared by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Backyard minyanim may be a modern phrase. But they are ancient phenomena, of sorts. In 2020-2021, the words represent attempts (admittedly, on both sides of the lines of the medically/scientifically defensible) to perpetuate some form of communal prayer/davening during a devastating pandemic. Gathering 10, outdoors, is just easier and safer than gathering 100 indoors. And regular prayer is one of the most binding glues of the observant and identified Jewish life. It is sensible that attempts to decentralize prayer in order to potentiate prayer have become common, since the centralized prayer option has not been permissible.
Jewish civilization has been dealing with the centralized-decentralized dynamic for centuries. Some read the entire book of Devarim/Deuteronomy as a polemic, influenced by the priestly class, against local bamot (altars), essentially the back-yard minyanim of ancient Israel. Proliferating such bamot made ancient Judaism more DIY, for sure. But it also weakened the notion of religious authority, and the sense of wider and grand community itself. It is probably impossible for us to truly imagine the wonder and grandeur (and, I suppose, the stench?) of, say, one of the Pilgrimage holidays observed at the Temple in Jerusalem. Throngs. A sense of united national and communal purpose. The same numbers of penitents, offering the same sacrifices but spread out over hundreds of local altars, just would not have created the same religious/spiritual thrust or momentum, especially since part of that very thrust was in the service of nation-building. Many religious traditions, including sub-cultures in Judaism, raise up individual spirituality as not only possible, but ecstatic. But when building a mass, and a movement, you need numbers, and proximity and regularity. So Devarim re-legislated the significance of worshipping at THE temple in Jerusalem, and pretty much nowhere else.
As Rabbi Chorny has explored in her marvelous “Are You Coming Back” podcast, there is real worry, or at least curiosity, about how previously shul-going Jews will reorganize their Shabbat lives post-pandemic. The societal reopening will be an organic evolution, not a single-moment revolution; but when the true medical worry of gathering is relieved, will Jewish prayer be re-centralized? Or will backyard minyanim have taken hold, and persist? I have a dear childhood friend who is a past president of his local Young Israel (Orthodox) shul. He’s a devoted shul-goer. And he wondered to me what will pull him back to the main building when this is over, given how much he has enjoyed the backyard minyan, two houses away, that gets in and out without all the delays of “main sanctuary” davening. (Plus, no rabbi droning on in his sermon! 😊 ). I think he, and many others, will eventually trickle back. But there will be some attrition and some decentralization. Some of that is natural and good and worthy of nourishing. Some of it undermines communality and unity and the sense of shared experiences.
Which brings us to Vayakhel, whose opening word, ויקהל, is built on the root ק-ה-ל (k-h-l) which means to gather or congregate. Moshe gathers kol adat b’nei yisrael, all of the Children of Israel, as they embark on erecting the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Rabbi Avraham Bornzstain of Socochov (1838-1910) wonders why this verb (k-h-k/gather) is used, specifically, at this juncture of the Israelites’ experience in the desert. He quotes a midrash suggesting that before this moment, private and local bamot (alters) proliferated. And God permitted them, encouraged them. But once the mishkan was to be erected, such bamot were not only to be discouraged, but prohibited. Therefore, God hints at this upcoming spiritual unification by having Moshe not just speak (ד-ב-ר/d-b-r) but also gather/congregate (ק-ה-ל/k-h-l). The time for private worship would now yield to a more lofty project: to serve God, as one. He goes on to say that this explains why, even before the details of the mishkan’s construction are enumerated, we have a 2-verse recapitulation of the concept of Shabbat, which is often described as רזא דאחד (raza d’ehad), or the mystery of the One. Shabbat is about affirming God’s One-ness, as One people. It is all about multiple ones creating a greater One. Judaism’s e pluribus unum, you might say. And such would be the goal of the mishkan, too. To bring the people together, as one.
I am grateful for those who (safely) organized backyard minyanim. I admire DIY Judaism and Jews, and do not consider either a threat to the rabbinate; I believe in being a part of a spiritual community that both wants to be in relationship with their religious leaders but does not wrongly assume that those leaders must be intermediaries between them and God. And yet…and yet…the time to rededicate the mishkan, as it were, is coming. And I pine for that ingathering, that return, that One-ness, that mass, that grandness and that unity. Our vayakhel cannot arrive soon enough.
From 20 years to Last March With our Faces Aglow
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
20 years ago, I stood on the bima for my Bat Mitzvah, in front of 500 people and spoke about the face of Moses lighting up after experiencing the presence of God. One year ago, this was the first Shabbat I was not at Temple Beth Am due to COVID. In fact, when I looked up Ki Tissa 2020 in my records, the materials I found were the first artifacts that we created for our TBA @ Home Googe Folder. What we thought would be a quick fix, for a few weeks at home, while not sharing Shabbat community in the walls of Beth Am. 20 years ago, I decided, based on the experience of working with a female rabbi that I too wanted to venture into a world of Torah, teaching, learning and spiritual relationship building. 1 year ago, I worried what it would mean to be a rabbi, new to her congregation, building community, building relationships, learning, teaching and creating from home. And from 20 years to today, there is power in recognizing an enlightened face.
“And it was in Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the Pact in Moses’ hands in his descent from the Mountain, and Moshe did not know that his skin was glowing, from his speaking with God.” וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא־יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ
Moses’ skin was radiating after speaking with God, and how do we know? Because the people saw his face and reacted. Moses did not feel different, or have any reason to believe he was changed, but the people saw change in his complexion of Divine relationship and connection. Also, when did Moshe show the highest form of connection and influence by God, at the lowest point after double descent back to the people. If there are no extraneous words in our Torah, then why write “coming down the mountain” twice, as if we forgot from 7 words before? Because sometimes we need a double reminder to return to the basics, come back to our people, find the foundation to find our inner holiness. These days we are creating holy space and sanctuary in our living rooms or at a dining room table to have the deepest spiritual connection. The height of a mountain is where we might imagine God is seated, and it is special and awesome; but we’ve learned to share holiness, sanctuary and safety from what might seem like the foot of the mountain. It is our job to experience the loftiest holiness among us right here where we are. If we cannot come back to our people without bringing that holiness, then what was the connection atop the mountain for?
The Or HaChayim (Chaim ibn Attar Morocco early 18th c) comments that “when the Torah writes: ‘he did not know that the skin of his face emitted rays,’ this does not mean that he was unaware of these rays of light. He was only unaware that the source was neither God nor the Tablets but the skin of his own face.” 20 years ago, I read this moment as the way that we need community, family and friends to keep us accountable. What better way to mirror ourselves than in the countenance of others. This year, Zoom created the necessity to focus on faces on our screen. To see each other more closely, to spend quality time focused on each other, to spend moments recognizing and appreciating each other's light.
As soon as Moses deposited the Tablets, the Or HaChayim continues, and Moses became aware that the light had not departed, he realised that he himself was the source of the light. Temple Beth Am, this has been quite the year, but I would not have changed the opportunity to receive your light and to grow our spiritual light together. After all, we have been brought down the mountain for a while, and when we get to go back up, and return to our seats, and our beautiful sanctuary, and our hamish minyanim, we will need to remember the light to keep our spiritual and relational souls aglow.
From Sanctuary to Study House
By Ilana Kurshan
Parshat Terumah contains elaborate instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where the divine presence resided throughout the Israelites’ desert wanderings. For those of us living in an age without a Temple, it may seem difficult to find religious meaning in all the architectural details – how many cubits long and wide the ark must be, how many rings should be affixed to the table, which colors of linen should be used for the curtains that covered the entire edifice. Fortunately, we can look to the Talmudic rabbis—who were also living after the Temple’s destruction – to learn how these verses may take on new meaning such that spirituality is less about structure than about study.
Throughout the Talmud, the details of the Mishkan’s construction serve as an occasion for extolling the virtue of Torah study. The rabbis (Yoma 72b) note that three of the Temple vessels—the altar, the table, and the ark—contained a zer, an ornamental golden rim that resembled a crown (the modern Hebrew word zer refers to a wreath or a garland). The rabbis associate each of these crowns with a different religious value. The crown of the altar, where the sacrifices were offered by the priests, symbolized the priesthood, which Aaron took for himself and his descendants. The crown of the table, which connotes abundance and wealth, symbolized the kingship, which David took for himself and his descendants. But the crown of the ark—where the tablets given on Sinai were housed—symbolized Torah, which “is still sitting and waiting to be acquired, and anyone who wishes may come and take it.” Torah study thus becomes the great equalizer – it is accessible to anyone who wishes to pursue it, regardless of wealth or lineage. Although the Mishkan is generally regarded as the domain of the priestly class, the Talmudic rabbis, who were champions of Torah study, found a way to ensure that all Jews had a place at the table – or at least in the ark.
The Talmudic sage Rava pursues this association between the ark and Torah study in commenting on the verse, “From within and without you shall cover it” (Exodus 25:11). The ark had to be overlaid with a cover of pure gold on both the inside and the outside. Rava interprets this architectural requirement as a description of the proper character of a Torah scholar. He states that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a true Torah scholar. A scholar of Torah must uphold the same values in her private life as in her public life, just as the ark must have the same pure gold on the inside and the outside.
The “showbread,” the lechem hapanim, was also employed by the sages to espouse the value of Talmud Torah. The Talmud in Menachot teaches that there were twelve loaves made of fine flour and arranged in two piles on the table in the sanctuary. The Torah states that they had to be before God “always,” meaning that they had to be on the table at all times. The Mishnah in Menachot (11:7) describes the elaborate choreography whereby one set of priests would remove the previous week’s loaves at the very same instant as another set of priests set down the new bread. The Talmudic rabbis, struck by this obsessive concern with ensuring that the table was not left bare for even an instant, make an implicit analogy between the bread and Torah, invoking the verse “This Torah shall not depart from your mouth, you shall contemplate it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). Just as the bread had to be on the table at all times, a person should always be occupied with Torah study. When it comes to sustaining life, it is as important to speak words of Torah as it is to ensure there is bread on the table, as the Torah reminds us: “Man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from God’s mouth” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
At this point the Talmud quotes a figure identified as “Ben Dama, son of Rabbi Yishmael’s sister,” who inquires cheekily whether he may be granted an exception from this injunction to study Torah at all times, since, as he claims, he has already learned the entire Torah. May he leave aside the study of Torah and engage in Greek wisdom? Rabbi Yishmael responds to his nephew by quoting the verse from the book of Joshua. He must contemplate Torah day and night. If he can find an hour that is neither day nor night, then he may use that time to pursue his extracurricular interests. Just as the bread always had to be in the presence of God, a Jew should always be engaged in the study of Torah. (It is worth noting that as understood by the rabbis, Torah was a broad category that subsumed many other disciplines as well, such that Ben Dama could not have been missing out on all that much.) Moreover, the study of Torah brings us closer to God, as per the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:6) which teaches that even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. The proof text for this Mishnah in fact comes from a description of sacrificial worship: “Make for me an altar of earth… in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). God’s presence will reside not just on the altars where sacrifices are offered, but also in any place where God’s name is mentioned by scholars of Torah.
Our parsha, on its surface, more closely resembles an architectural blueprint than a moral code. But the rabbis understood that the Torah is more concerned with building a society than with building a structure. They knew that Judaism through its disciplines has the potential to fashion a morally beautiful life, just as an architect fashions a beautiful structure. And so they used the verses about the Mishkan to teach about the supreme religious pursuit, the study of Torah. Accessible to every Jew, Torah study has the potential to transform us within and without, affecting who we are and what we think about, such that no matter what we are doing, we are always at the same time contemplating the divine will. When read through the eyes of the rabbis, Parshat Teruma is a reminder that a world devoid of God’s Temple may nonetheless be permeated by God’s presence.
Finding Religiosity Beyond the 10 Commandments
Rabbi Josh Pernick - Congregation Beth Israel in Metairie, LA
(you may recognize Rabbi Pernick from our Wednesday 6:15pm “Sources Through Srugim” class with Rabbi Schatz)
Last week, we received the Ten Commandments. This week; tort law. The collection of laws which make up this parshah do not seem, on the surface, to relate to the religious covenant being written and sealed at Sinai. Having just taken part in the overwhelming experience of direct revelation, we suddenly transition to laws of slaves and civil liability, societal regulations which reflect our flawed humanity far more than our aspirational selves.
This, however, is exactly why Parshat Mishpatim is juxtaposed with Parshat Yitro. Revelation is not an everyday occurrence, but the act of bringing this revelation into our daily lives is. The parshah intentionally starts with a discussion of slaves, one of the more problematic topics within the Torah, to note that even the slaveholder must operate with a religious consciousness. There are those who see Parshat Mishpatim as evidence that the Torah is no better than other legal collections; the discussions of slaves and goring oxen connecting it more to antiquity than to our contemporary lived reality.
This misses the entire point of the parshah, which is to teach that religiosity can be infused into every aspect of our lives, from the way we interact with those in our household to the way we treat our neighbors and our environment. The ultimate goal of the parshah is to reinforce that God’s desire for this nation to be anshei kodesh, people of holiness, which is achieved not merely through prayer and sacrifice but through bringing intentionality and thoughtfulness into everything that we do. At times this means losing out financially for the sake of maintaining our religious vision, but God is teaching that this is truly what it means to be a people of holiness. Religiosity is expressed by returning collateral to the poor person and freeing the bondsman, by returning lost items to their rightful owner and being honest in judgment. This, and not superficial appearances, is what it really means to be a religious Jew.
Beyond coveting: Wanting the Here and Now
Prepared by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
I admit I have been guilty of “fakebooking” during this pandemic. “Fakebooking” is a term given to idealized posts on facebook or other social media that can make life appear more rosy than reality truly is. While in reality I have faced several personal and family challenges throughout this pandemic, if you were to look at my facebook feed you would primarily find smiling photos with my family or assorted jokes. Moreover, while I am in the midst of creating my own somewhat skewed image, I see my friends’ photos and often want what I see - stability, friendship, miraculous coping mechanisms for working from home with children, and the world’s most gorgeous sourdough bread. Despite the fact that I know my own narrative is but a small piece of the truth, I take in their images at face value and yearn for what it appears they have.
The last of the 10 commandments that are given over in parshat Yitro is the instruction “do not covet.” We are told, “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his servant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's. (Exodus 20:14). It is surely a lofty goal to not even want anything we see others have, like those stunning sourdough bread loves I’ve been eyeing on facebook. Is this commandment really asking us to control our minds and desires, or only how we act upon those desires? More importantly, if this is what we are not supposed to do, how should we relate to our neighbors and our wants/needs/aspirations instead?
In writing about this commandment, Rabbeinu Bahya (11th - 12th century Spain) points us to a section of the Talmud discussing what happens to those who covet. In Sotah 9b, we read of the snake who lured Eve to the forbidden tree in Gan Eden, and a host of others including Cain who envied his brother, Korah who envied Moses’s power, Doeg who was jealous of King David, and several others who desired something intensely that was not theirs to have. What happened to them all? We read, “what they desired was not given to them, and what they had was taken from them” (Sotah 9b). In other words, not only did they not succeed in obtaining what they originally wanted, but they also lost what they already had. The Talmudic view tends to see that God or the divine order brought down a punishment because of these sins of coveting. However, even if we hold theologies of a much gentler God, I think it is easy enough to see how coveting can lead us to lose what we already have. The more we fixate on what we want, the more distant we grow from what is already ours to hold. Our desire to gain a piece of someone else’s world distorts the vision of our own life and makes it difficult for us to see the beauty of what is in front of us.
As my journeys in “fakebooking” have reminded me time and again, it is often the illusion of something else that I want, not its full reality. Bahya tells us that the one time it is actually praiseworthy to covet is in coveting the opportunity to perform mitzvot; I believe this is part of the antidote. When we find ourselves lured towards an imagined reality that is not ours, let us run more fully to the present - to do mitzvot, to better ourselves and others in this world. Perhaps that intense focus on the world as it is right now will lure us back to seeing the immense beauty of here and now.
Shining Our Light Through Darkness
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro
“There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
These powerful words concluded the stunning poem shared by our country’s Youth Poet Laureate (and native of Los Angeles!) Amanda Gorman on Wednesday. They rang out from the Capitol, calling us to reflect upon the moment in which we find ourselves and look towards brighter days ahead. There’s a powerful resonance with our parsha that reaches through the centuries to illuminate a meaningful truth about how to navigate challenging times.
The penultimate plague is darkness. Many have noticed the specific way in which this plague is described, that it had a thickness to it, and that the Egyptians neither saw each other nor left their dwellings for the three days that it lasted.
Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.
Many commentators have asked about what makes that darkness so specifically thick that it was difficult for the Egyptians to move. R. Yitzchak of Vorki taught that “there is no darkness greater in the world than this: that people do not see, and do not want to see, their fellows, but each one worries only about themselves. When no one sees their fellow, and worries only about themselves, then “no one can get up,” for there is no hope for revival or progress.” (translation by Rabbi Larry Tabick)
This is the diagnosis- there’s an internal darkness which has permeated the way in which the Egyptians see the world and, in turn, those around them, which diminishes hope and makes it impossible to move, let alone see light. The darkness may be literal; it’s certainly perceived. By focusing on themselves as individuals, this thick heaviness falls over all of the Egyptian people.
What, then, is the noteworthy alternative at the end of verse 23? How was it possible for the Israelites to have light in their homes? On a related note, the Or HaChayyim reflects that there was actually nothing qualitatively different about what the Egyptians and the Israelites were experiencing, that “we may understand the darkness as being something subjective. The Egyptians who were evil experienced darkness whereas the Jews who were good experienced light in the very places the Egyptians experienced darkness. The Torah alludes to this idea by writing ‘in their dwellings.’”
Leaving aside the challenge of this binary understanding of good and evil for the time being, he offers that the goodness of the Israelites is what made it possible for them to experience light. Synthesizing these commentaries, we might understand that the Israelites were able to experience the situation differently because they were not just concerned about themselves as individuals, but themselves as a collective whole; through this lens, goodness is cultivated and sustained by looking beyond oneself and seeing those around us.
Another moment that deeply touched me this week was on Tuesday, during the memorial service for the thousands of Americans who have died in the pandemic. President Biden stated that “to heal, we must remember,” which was then followed by the reflecting pool on the National Mall being lit up by dozens of lights on all sides.This light provided the visual framework for both memory and connection, a resonance we know quite well as Jews. We light yahtzeit candles to mark the date each year on which our loved ones have passed away- looking to those who have come before us. And just as light helps us remember, light also shines to call us to transition, holiness, and community, in our lighting of candles for Shabbat, holidays, and havdalah, connecting us across the generations and with each other.
But the candles aren’t just outside of us: they are us. We are God’s candles, as we are taught that “ner Adonai nishmat Adam,” the candle of God is the soul of a person. We each have our own ner tamid, eternal light, within us- the challenge is to access that light, to carry it and to hold it up. Where and when do you experience light for yourself, even in times of great apparent darkness? How do you shine that out into the world as a force for connection, care, and compassion?
We each contain within us a spark of the light of creation. We are each faced with deep, challenging, and vital questions: how will we let our light shine through? How can we see each other more clearly and move towards goodness? It takes vulnerability and courage to open ourselves up to relationship, healing and hope, and in times of darkness, it’s essential. As we light our Shabbat candles tonight, may we each commit to being brave enough to see light and to be light in our world, today, and always.
When We Can’t Hold it Together Any Longer
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
My facebook feed has been flooded this week with my doctor friends proudly displaying photos of receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Most mentioned immense gratitude and a sense of a weight being lifted off their shoulders. Many also mentioned weeping. After months of extra hours, being strong for others, delivering hard news to patients’ families, removing their PPE at the end of the day with hopes they were not bringing the virus home to their families - they cried tears of relief that there might be a light at the end of a tunnel. Every emotion they have been holding onto throughout this pandemic, at least for a moment, had a chance to be released.
Joseph faces such a moment of release in parshat Vayigash. After assessing that his brothers are now honest people, Joseph reveals his true identity to them. We read:
“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out.” (Genesis 45:1)
The cry that Joseph let out in revealing his identity was no ordinary cry. The text goes on to say, “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace” (45:2). According to Rashi, this means all of the house of Pharaoh, not literally only those in his palace! Despite Joseph’s best attempts to maintain composure, he was simply overwhelmed with the uprising of emotion in that moment.
This cry was not only liberating for Joseph - it liberated his brothers as well. Upon seeing the identity of their brother Joseph (whom they had previously sold into slavery) revealed, they initially felt ashamed and were unable to speak. Yet, Joseph’s cry broke the silence for them too: “[Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him” (45:15). While Joseph may have been trying to avoid being so vulnerable with them, it turned out that precisely this degree of vulnerability was what allowed their collective reconciliation to move forward.
Joseph’s position during the famine in Egypt may not have been so different from many frontline workers today. He was tasked with managing and doling out resources during a time of crisis. Even if he hadn’t faced a traumatic past with his brothers, it is entirely believable that such a cry of relief upon seeing his family would have been warranted. Like for my doctor friends, this cry itself became a testament to both the anguish of the past and hope for the future in one breath.
We likely have already - and surely will again - face such moments when we cannot help but let out cries of relief, joy, pain, or all of them at once. Joseph reminds us that our cries have holy power:
Our cries share news
Our cries reveal our true essence
Our cries reveal our humanity
Our cries bring catharsis and healing
May we all find such relief where it is needed most.
Parashat Miketz is a Crash Course on Leadership
By TBA Rabbinic Intern Joshua Jacobs
This week, we get a crash course on leadership. Parashat Miketz continues the Joseph story, as we watch him emerge from his prison cell and effectively lead Egypt through famine and into prosperity. Or, in Chanukah terms, from darkness to light. We’ve seen a lot of darkness this year. And we’re in need of true leadership to get us through. Instead of looking to others to fill this need, how can we cultivate our own leadership skills and be the light we want to see in the world? I think the answer can be found here, as Joseph shows us how.
We all know the story. Joseph correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, accurately predicting seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He’s a dreamer and a visionary, someone who looks down the road and prepares for what’s to come. I’m not sure how he could have survived his enslavement or wrongful imprisonment without this exceptional ability to sit in darkness and dream of light. Isn’t that exactly what we need right now, as we sit imprisoned in our own homes? Vision to dream of better days ahead, and the strength to lead the way. But we can’t do it alone.
This leadership lesson actually comes from Pharaoh (it’s okay - he’s the good one). Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s God-given talents and promotes him on the spot. Whereas his successor, who “knows not Joseph,” will stubbornly turn to his magicians to replicate the miracles Moses and Aaron perform before his eyes, this Pharaoh turns to his courtiers immediately and says, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (Genesis 41:38). For this reason, good Pharaoh gets prime real estate in this 900-word Taste of Torah. So does Tina Fey, who writes in her book, Bossypants, “In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” I think this year has reinforced just how important partnership is. It is not good for us to be alone. We may be socially distanced, but we can’t get through this by ourselves. We need each other, even if it’s virtual for the time being.
Talk is cheap. It’s great to have dreams but leaders also know how to get things done. Sometimes, just because you might be an “ideas person” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re also skilled at execution. In Joseph’s case, however, Rashbam argues that one actually does prove the other. Commenting on Pharaoh’s verse above - אשר רוח אלוקים בו - he writes, “if Joseph is able with God’s help to interpret intangibles such as dreams, he must certainly be smart enough to arrange administrative earthly affairs in a competent manner.” This is indeed the case, as Joseph manages to store up enough surplus to ride out the famine, and, in selling back the grain, he manages to extend Pharaoh’s proprietorship over all of Egypt and boost his royal coffers dramatically. Ostensibly, Joseph takes the whole Monopoly board.
4. Bringing out the best in others.
And yet, I think Joseph’s most important act of leadership has yet to be mentioned. It’s where you’d least expect it. When Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt in search of food and stand before the Egyptian official they don’t recognize to be their own brother, Joseph “...confined them in the guardhouse for three days” (Genesis 42:17) - ויאסף אתם אל משמר שלשת ימים. Initially, this may seem a petty, if deserved, form of justice. Joseph has every right to be angry with his brothers and give them a taste of what he endured. But he’s too good a leader for that. What if his eye is on a much greater prize than revenge?
When Joseph offers to release everyone but Benjamin, whom Joseph has accused of stealing his royal vessel, “Judah replied, ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found’” (Genesis 44:16). This is a powerful redemptive moment for Joseph’s brothers, who have gone from selling one brother into slavery to now offering to sell themselves into slavery on behalf of another brother. In this way, Joseph demonstrates that a true leader not only dreams, collaborates, and executes. A good leader brings out the best in others. Maybe this is even how Joseph earns his name. “ויאסף אתם” is the same root as יוסף – Joseph – and means “to gather.” A good leader does not divide, but rather unites.
This week, we get a crash course on leadership. We just spent eight nights lighting the Chanukiah by way of the shammash. It’s the leader of the candles, standing proudly among the rest. It leads by igniting the others, bringing out their best and brightest selves. In these dark times, how can we let Joseph and the lessons of Chanukah inspire us to embody the kind of leadership that reveals the best and brightest parts of others and ourselves?
Miracles at Eye Level
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Two years ago, in the week of Parashat VaYeshev, as I walked into Temple Beth Am, my heart was racing and I entered through the doors feeling that this was where I wanted to be, knowing this was the community I yearned to serve and this was the place where I felt at home. So this week, reflecting again on this same parasha, and celebrating Chanukah together, I look into the lights of our candles reflected in your faces on Zoom and I am full of gratitude and wonder and excitement for many more days of entering Beth Am with a racing heart! This piece if Torah is dedicated to you:
One of my favorite pieces of Gemara combines Chanukah and this week’s parasha, Vayeshev. The famous line of Joseph thrown into an empty pit:
וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם
“and they took him and sent him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.”
The question most often asked about that verse is, “of course if it was empty there was no water in it, so why add that piece of redundant information?” Some rabbis say, it is to show us that the brothers were not as mean as to cause his immediate death by drowning. However, others argue that in fact there was no water, but there were scorpions and snakes that they could not see. How deep was it that they could see with certainty the condition at the bottom of the well? Masechet Shabbat 22a relates that question to a discussion about where a Chanukah menorah is to be placed:
“The light of Chanukah placed above 20 cubits is invalid, just like a Sukkah’s height or the height of an alleyway for an eruv. [...] What is the meaning of the verse that is written with regard to Joseph: “And they took him, and cast him into the pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it” (Genesis 37:24)?
The reason being that people do not typically look up so high to see the schach of the sukkah or the string of an eruv, which are both elements that need to be seen to be valid. And so it is which a menorah: the lights must be in a location in which there is reasonable expectation it will be observed as pirsumei nisa, publicizing the Hanukkah miracles.
How noticeable is noticeable? How much of the world do we fail to see as we walk past with eyes wide open? Most importantly, is our blindness partly self-serving and intentional?
The brothers wanted to get rid of Joseph without really looking at the pit--as if their ignorance of the dangers made them less culpable for any consequences. It is important to say it was empty and there was no water because it betrays the carelessness with which they jumped to the conclusion that best suited them. But like the too-high menorah or too-tall sukkah, one could not carefully judge the perils of a too-deep well.
Chanukah occurs during the darkest time of year, of the shortest days and least natural light. And for many of us this year, the colder, darker days are exacerbated by loneliness, distance, fear, hopelessness, and stagnation. This year, more than ever, we must publicize the miracle at a soul level as well. Many who might have walked past our window in years past, won’t walk anywhere right now. We have to bring it to them. We must meet people where they are in darkness. They might not as easily notice our light this year. So, make it as easy as you can. Not too high! And not too low!
Put the Chanukiah as well as yourself at easy eye level. See yourself and others and make light.
Adapted from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z'l
I have often argued that the episode in which the Jewish people acquired its name – when Jacob wrestled with an unnamed adversary at night and received the name Israel – is essential to an understanding of what it is to be a Jew. I argue here that this episode is equally critical to understanding what it is to lead.
There are several theories as to the identity of “the man” who wrestled with the patriarch that night; my suggestion is that we can only understand the passage by reviewing the entirety of Jacob’s life. Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing. Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esau.
Why? Because Esau was the elder, strong, physically mature, a hunter. Above all, Esau was his father’s favourite. Jacob is the paradigm of what the French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard called mimetic desire, meaning, we want what someone else wants, because we want to be that someone else. The result is tension between Jacob and Esau. This tension rises to an unbearable intensity when Esau discovers that the blessing his father had reserved for him has been acquired by Jacob, and so Esau vows to kill his brother once Isaac is no longer alive.
Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s home, where he encounters more conflict; he is on his way home when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men. In an unusually strong description of emotion the Torah tells us that Jacob was “very frightened and distressed” (Gen. 32:7) – frightened, no doubt, that Esau was coming to kill him, and perhaps distressed that his brother’s animosity was not without cause.
Jacob had indeed wronged his brother, as we saw earlier. Isaac says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” (Gen. 27:35) As long as Jacob sought to be Esau there was tension, conflict, rivalry. Esau felt cheated; Jacob felt fear. That night, about to meet Esau again after an absence of twenty-two years, Jacob wrestles with himself; finally he throws off the image of Esau, the person he wants to be, which he has carried with him all these years. This is the critical moment in Jacob’s life. From now on, he is content to be himself. And it is only when we stop wanting to be someone else that we can be at peace with ourselves and with the world.
This is one of the great challenges of leadership. It is all too easy for a leader to pursue popularity by being what people want him or her to be. Leaders sometimes try to ‘hold the team together’ by saying different things to different people, but eventually these contradictions become clear and the result is that the leader appears to lack integrity. Few things make a leader more unpopular than the pursuit of popularity.
Great leaders have the courage to live with unpopularity. Abraham Lincoln was reviled and ridiculed during his lifetime. Winston Churchill, until he became Prime Minister during the Second World War, had been written off as a failure. And soon after the war ended, he was defeated in the 1945 General Election. He himself said that “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” When Margaret Thatcher died, some people celebrated in the streets. John F. Kennedy, Yitzchak Rabin and Martin Luther King were assassinated.
Jacob was not a leader; there was as yet no nation for him to lead. Yet the Torah goes to great lengths to give us an insight into his struggle for identity, because it was not his alone. Most of us have experienced this struggle. It is not easy to overcome the desire to be someone else, to want what they have, to be what they are. Most of us have such feelings from time to time. Girard argues that this has been the main source of conflict throughout history. It can take a lifetime of wrestling before we know who we are and relinquish the desire to be who we are not.
More than anyone else in Genesis, Jacob is surrounded by conflict: not just between himself and Esau, but between himself and Laban, between Rachel and Leah, and between his sons, Joseph and his brothers. It is as if the Torah were telling us that so long as there is a conflict within us, there will be a conflict around us. We have to resolve the tension in ourselves before we can do so for others. We have to be at peace with ourself before we can be at peace with the world.
That is what happens in this week’s parsha. After his wrestling match with the stranger, Jacob undergoes a change of personality, a transformation. He gives back to Esau the blessing he took from him, saying “please take my blessing that has been brought to you.” (33:11) The result is that the two brothers meet and part in peace.
People conflict. They have different interests, passions, desires, temperaments. Even if they did not, they would still conflict, as every parent knows. Children – and not just children – seek attention, and one cannot attend to everyone equally all the time. Managing the conflicts that affect every human group is the work of the leader – and if the leader is not sure of and confident in their identity, the conflicts will persist. Even if the leader sees themself as a peacemaker, the conflicts will still endure.
The only answer is to “know thyself”. We must wrestle with ourselves, as Jacob did on that fateful night, throwing off the person we persistently compare ourselves to, accepting that some people will like us and what we stand for while others will not, understanding that it is better to seek the respect of some than the popularity of all. This may involve a lifetime of struggle, but the outcome is an immense strength. No one is stronger than one who knows who and what they are.
What are you Holding?
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
During my rabbinical school year in Israel, we studied together with students from four other rabbinical schools. We were exposed to learning practices and modalities that were new to us, including “Processing Groups”. This was not something I was used to from the prior two years at Ziegler, and quite honestly was not something I was excited to explore. However, because it was part of their learning and rabbinic journey, we shared in the opportunity to process as current students and future rabbis. Often the opening question was, “what are you holding right now?” Beyond the mundane idea of holding, we were being asked what was occupying us right now. What had the center of our focus and attention? With what were we possessed? I’m sure I rolled my eyes and wanted to evade this group processing and get back to studying Halakha, but not too surprisingly the question sunk deep and set me reeling into thinking deeply about my state in life. What was inside of my heart and soul and mind that was making me happy, nervous, tired, enthusiastic, curious, hurting, loving, etc.? I didn’t answer aloud, it just was not my “thing,” but I took it to heart and now often ask myself, “What am I holding right now?”
Rebekah is a strong character. She is a vessel of love, of family, and a guardian and source of wholeness to those close around her. Without Rebekah our story would not be. Rebekah was the first person to really see Isaac, the first to show him love and the first woman to speak and be asked to speak. After sensing the wrestling of unborn twins within her, Rebekah asks a profound and pained question:
וַיִּתְרֹצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת־יְהוָה
And the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why is this [experience for] me?” And she walked to demand of Adonai
Rebekah does not understand why after putting up with so much by fixing and healing a family that she just became part of, that this is her rewarded experience. Chizkuni, the 13th century French commentator, teaches us that the first word, va’yitrotzetzu, means “and they quarreled.” But he adds that it is a word meaning something is about to be broken. Now, we could understand that as Jacob and Esav breaking ties with one another and dividing their family. Or, we could read this as Rebekah feels as if she is breaking and that the birth of rivaling siblings will destroy her.
What was Rebekah “holding”? Rebekah did not just feel babies kicking and wonder why her pregnancy was so uncomfortable. Rebekah, this strong vessel, was holding a world together and the additional burden of rivaling siblings could loosen her grasp. Maybe this is the reason she tried to fix relationships and circumstances: She made sure Jacob got the birthright blessing; and she made sure the warring sons went in different directions so as to separate and survive one another. Rebekah was loving and tough, zealously guarding her unwitting husband’s legacy and juggling life alone.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l focused on communication when writing about this parasha. He posits that Isaac and Rebekah needed to have better communication in their relationship for it to be successful. Rebekah was never asked, and never offered to tell, what she was holding—what was occupying her—or even, perhaps, what was her occupation. She continued fixing, repairing, anticipating, and solving, while pleading with God, “Why me? Why do I need to be this strong? Why must I hold everything together?”
We are living in a time where we are each holding on to too much. Our physical health, mental health, workload, and relationships are stretching thin and might need support. I’d like to think that Rebekah’s plea for strength was answered, and that she knew deeply of her significance in the on-weaving story of her family.
And I like to think your pleas and mine are answered by one another, not just spiritually, but in material and mundane ways, as needed. As we almost certainly step back into days of strict isolation, longer, darker days, I ask us each to explore with those around us, “ How can we support one another? What are you holding right now? Can I help you hold it? Can I hold you up? Will you hold me up?” We all deserve to answer that question and find our path to support and blessing in the answer. Shabbat Shalom
“Captive on the Carousel of Time”
By Joshua Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Listening to “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell always makes me cry. Please don’t tell anyone - I’m trusting you with this. Like a carousel, time moves forward, even if it’s cyclical. The seasons go round and round, we go up and down - experiencing the highs and lows of life - without the ability to go backwards. No matter how desperately, at times, we may want to. It’s why I always feel so badly for Lot’s wife, who, while fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, turns back for a moment to witness the destruction of her home. As a result, she is turned into a pillar of salt.
We’ve all experienced things in our lives that have required “moving on.” That, by the way, has always been extremely difficult for me. One time in third grade, my best friend Julian forgot to get me a birthday present. I told him I forgave him but between you and me, I think about this every day. How much more so with real tragedies, trauma, and disappointments that plague us? Certainly, it seems unwise to avoid confronting our demons. I don’t think our parasha this week teaches us that. And as Jews, we know firsthand the utmost importance of never forgetting our history. But I do think Vayera warns us of the danger of dwelling in the past; of the understandable yet futile act of screaming at the operator to stop the carousel.
Here’s another moment that always makes me cry. At the end of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden takes his little sister Phoebe to the merry-go-round outside the zoo. He feels truly happy watching her ride on the wooden horse as the music plays and time seems to stand still. Holden has already told us that he wishes he could be “the catcher in the rye,” someone who saves kids from falling off the cliff, out of innocence and into a world of phonies. It makes sense, then, that this moment brings him peace. For the short duration of this ride, Phoebe remains frozen in time, a pillar of salt, this kid he loves protected from a world where expletives are graffitied and scratched into every wall. And yet, he also comes to a startling new realization. Holden tells us, “Then the carousel started, and I watched her go round and round...All the kids tried to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the (...) horse, but I didn't say or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Departing from his vow to be the catcher, Holden knows that Phoebe will fall. He can only hope she never stops reaching for the gold ring of hope, or however you interpret it. But what’s certain is that seasons go round and round. There’s no stopping time.
So what was so wrong about Lot’s wife’s looking back? Ranban doesn’t buy that this was punishment for disobeying the angel’s order against it. Neither does Sforno, who argues that the problem is this: “the evil would catch up with you as soon as you interrupt your march away from it.” If Joni Mitchell is right, then there’s nothing wrong with looking behind from where we came. We should bask in sweet memories. We
should cherish our tradition. We should allow our history to inform our present and confront our past in a healthy manner. But Sforno seems to suggest that the evils of the past seek to overtake us on our march toward progress. Certainly the slave mentality of the Israelites impeded us on our journey forward to the Promised Land. We’re living in a COVID era of extreme loss and grief. We’ve witnessed in an instant the destruction of the lives we knew. It would be all too easy, and understandable, to allow this devastation to paralyze us, like pillars of salt. But as long as the sun rises on a new day and the circle game continues, Vayera seems to implore us to continue on our march toward progress. A march uninterrupted by the evils of the past.
Can the Dodgers Help us in this Moment?
By Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, TBA Ritual Innovator
As the Dodgers won the World Series on Tuesday night, I turned to my 10 year old with a huge smile and exclaimed, “The last time this happened, I was your age!” For the second time in the last 2 ½ weeks, Los Angeles sports fans had a reason to come together, as one community, to celebrate. Let’s be honest, we didn’t really do much. We mostly sat on the couch, watching and delighting in each run, each basket, and shouting at the TV at each error, each bad call. But as the clock ran down on game 6 of the Laker’s championship game and as Julio Urias pitched that last pitch in Game 6 of the World Series this week, Los Angeles let out a collective cheer, sharing in triumph together. Most of us staying safer at home, we could still feel our fellow Angelenos jumping up and down, each in their own homes, but still together. And my Facebook feed proved it to be true (I must not have many friends in Florida). This feeling of joy and togetherness felt unique and refreshing at this time when we as a country are so divided.
After the game, I was reading through the parsha in preparation for this d’var Torah, and one verse in the story felt right on the nose for this moment. Abram receives the call from God to leave his home and travel to the land that God will show him. He travels with his wife and his nephew, Lot. After some time, Abram and Lot both became wealthy shepherds with cattle and herdsmen. The text tells us that the land where they had settled was not big enough to support them all, and Abram and Lot’s herdsmen were fighting with each other. Abram says to Lot, “Please, let there not be strife between you and me, or between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, because we are brothers.” (Gen. 13:8). Reading this verse right after a fleeting moment of collective triumph jolted me back into the reality of the state of the world.
We are entering what could be the most divisive days in our lifetimes. My Facebook feed may have been speaking in unison during the Lakers & Dodgers championships, but it sure hasn’t been over the past few years. We don’t know the outcome of the election, but we do know that the whatever happens, the discord in our country is not likely to improve. The Pew Research Center has studied how significant the partisan divide has become. In a 2014 report, Pew wrote that, “Partisan animosity has increased substantially…In each party, the share with a high negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well being’…Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around, and even whom they would welcome into their lives.” Pew did a similar study in 2017 and found that partisan ideological differences and antipathy had increased. And we know anecdotally, in 2020, that they have only gotten worse.
In the Torah, Abram’s suggestion to avoiding fighting is to separate. That made sense where there wasn’t enough grazing land for all of the cattle. And it seems, from the Pew study, separation is how many Americans are responding to the partisan divide today, not wanting to even associate with those with whom they disagree. While separation, back into our tribal camps, may seem like an easy way to deal with the strife, it isn’t a long term solution. We have to be able to communicate and live peacefully with people who see things differently than we do. The rancor is unsustainable and will make it impossible to reclaim any sense that we belong to one community, one country. I know I’m not the first person to say this, and I certainly won’t be the last, but I want to be another voice calling for an end to the antagonistic discourse prevalent today. In a week when our parsha admonishes us not to fight because we are family, just a few days after Los Angeles was able to celebrate together as one community, as we enter the final days of this election, I hope we can strive towards a commitment to civility and bridge building. If we were in the stands at one of these games, we would be high fiving those around us, and it wouldn’t matter who voted for whom. We all shared in these championships, and we should remember that, as Americans, more unites us than divides us. Shabbat Shalom.
Make Yourself a Window - Parshat Noah
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Cohn
It must have been so cramped and dreary aboard Noah’s ark. Imagine being the only surviving humans of the world, adrift on a hand-made boat together, caring for a whole world’s worth of creatures through 40 days and 40 nights of miserable, rainy weather. This year, more than ever, perhaps we can relate to the combination of claustrophobia and isolation that Noah and his family might have experienced.
Luckily, God gave Noah a tiny bit of relief, built into the ark itself. God tells Noah, “Make a tzohar in the ark, and finish it within a cubit of the top” (Genesis 6:16). The meaning of this Hebrew word “tzohar” is uncertain, as the word only appears once in all of Tanakh. We are left to understand its essence from small linguistic clues and the world of Torah commentary.
Most agree that the “tzohar” was some kind of opening that let in light. Its root, צהר , is also found in the word “tzoharayim” or mid-day/afternoon, when the sun is at its peak. Rashi brings two midrashic interpretations, saying it is either a window that could let in light or a precious stone that gave light for them. Chizkuni suggests that both of those interpretations are correct. He explains that the window was closed during the flood, seeing as the sun and moon did not shine during the great storm, so Noah had to get creative with interior lighting. Noah used a precious stone to shine and amplify the existing light while the storm raged, and once the sun was shining again, this tzohar opening let in the surrounding light from outside as well.
Why might God have commanded Noah to add this opening? It served a brief functional purpose at the end of the flood as the window through which the raven and the dove were sent out. It’s deeper purpose, however, was surely the hope it gave to the ark’s inhabitants while the flood still raged on. To be stuck inside while the rest of the world spun in chaos around them could surely have been a recipe for despair. Yet, these same people needed to become the stewards of the world that would be reborn after the flood. It was compassionate (and wise, I believe), for God to embed this chamber of light and hope into the vessel that would carry them into the future.
What can we learn from this mysterious, radiant, luminous tzohar today?
Even when we know the weather, inside or out, is going to be bad, we have to carve out a space for light to come in. We don’t know how many days and nights the storm might be raging for, but we already need to hold space for the possibility of a turn for the better. Even when there is no light coming in from the outside, we can still find the light that is already shining within and amplify it like a precious stone. Whatever storms you are facing - please, remember to build yourself a tzohar.
With gratitude to Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer for inspiring this teaching
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