Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Korach with rabbi Shawn Zevit


Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, is the lead rabbi of congregation Mishkan Shalom, in Philadelphia, PA, co-founder and co-director of the Davennen Leader’s Training Institute and is a spiritual director and trainer of Jewish clergy in spiritual direction for the ALEPH Hashpa’ah (Spiritual Direction) program. He is also a recording and performing artist  with six original CDs and has been an organizer for over thirty years of men’s programming and retreats, and is the author of  “Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Community” and numerous publications.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) – tells the dramatic story of a mutiny incited by Korach against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach is joined by Datan and Aviram as well as by 250 distinguished members of the community who offer incense to prove they are worthy of the priesthood. The earth opens up and swallows the mutineers, and a fire kills the incense offerers. Aaron subsequently stops a plague by offering incense of his own and his staff then brings forth almonds, proving that his designation as high priest is divinely ordained. Our discussion focuses on the purge of Korach’s followers and on Moses and Aaron’s reaction to the episode.

 

 

Previous Torah Talks on Korach

Rabbi Daniel Nevins

Rabbi Susan Silverman

Rabbi Rachel Bregman

Rabbi Joshua Katzan

Rabbi Raysh Weiss

 

Torah Talk: Parashat Behaalotcha with Rabbi Jack Romberg


Rabbi Jack Romberg has served the congregation of Temple Israel in Tallahassee since July of 2001.  Being a rabbi is his second career.  Rabbi Romberg led his family’s furniture manufacturing business for almost three 18 years.  He entered Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion at age 42.  He was ordained in NYC in May of 2001.  In Tallahassee Rabbi Romberg has led many programs and initiatives.  He is currently serving as the chair of The Village Square, a nationally recognized organization that creates civil conversations, both politically and religiously.  One program he created is Faith, Food and Friday, a monthly discussion with a panel of 5 clergy on current issues.  His biggest pride, however, is in his 3 grandchildren ages 9, 7 and 4.  And other than Judaism, his greatest passion is being a Philadelphia sports fan, especially of the Eagles and Phillies.
This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:15) – begins with the lighting of the menorah and then goes on to describe the cleansing of the Levites and the first celebration of Passover in the desert. The Torah subsequently describes a series of bitter complaints made by the people of Israel about life in the desert, and the portion concludes with Moses’ sister Miriam speaking slander about Moses to their brother Aaron and getting punished for it with a terrible skin disease. Our discussion focuses on the family of Moses and on Miriam’s curious punishment.

 

Previous Torah Talk on Behaalotcha:

Rabbi Charyl Jacobs

Rabbi Jonathan Case

Rabbi Rick Winer

Rabbi Irwin Kula

Rabbi Adam Chalom

 

 

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Acharei-Kedoshim


Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: ACHAREI-KEDOSHIM, LEVITICUS 19:1-2

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn 
Yeshivat Yavneh

These verses reflect a slight deviation from the normal God-to-Moses, Moses-to-the-nation format. Usually it says, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them ….” Here it says, “Speak to the entire assembly of the children of Israel and say to them….”

The Midrash explains that Torah normally was taught via the hierarchical methodology, from God to Moses to the people, but this Torah portion was transmitted to the entire group as a whole.

This approach seems to create an even bigger problem: If the hierarchy method was generally preferred, why abandon it now? And if the collective method was ideal, why wait until now?

Perhaps the answer is the von Restorff effect — also known as the “isolation effect” —  which predicts that when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, the stimulus that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered. The theory was coined by German psychiatrist and pediatrician Hedwig von Restorff (1906-62), who, in her 1933 study, found that when participants were presented with a list of categorically similar items with one distinctive, isolated item on the list, memory for the item was improved.

We can suggest that the hierarchy method was pedagogically most effective. However, in order to make the values of Kedoshim stand out, something uniquely different had to be done. Therefore, the method of instruction changed.

The question I leave for you to think about is why the von Restorff effect was needed for Kedoshim?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple

Kodesh. A word we will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand. Ramban quotes the rabbis: “[This] Torah portion was stated in an assembly because most of the fundamentals of the Torah are dependent on it.” Whatever Kodesh means, it connects to living in the midst of others. Ramban explains: “Wherever you find restriction of sexual immorality, you find holiness.”

These “immoralities” are aberrations of the Torah’s essence that we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (aka The Creator). There is, ostensibly, an inextricable connection between our sexual expression and our deepest expression of our understanding of the Creator. What is the connection between our sexual self-expression and our spiritual health? In an age of rampant sexual dysfunction and prurient news headlines, is all of this a collective spiritual crisis?

Perhaps the dictum “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” is a reminder of the mundane miracle born by our sexual appetites. We are like giants, creating small and wondrous acts of creation: children. Raising them, we approach the essence of God’s mystery and embody the God character in the Bible.

The examined life of parenting is a realm of radical amazement. The child discovers their own small joys and their place on this earth, and we are challenged to our deepest core. Perhaps Kedoshim is a call to reconcile the truth about our sexual appetites — they are portals for our holiness journey. Live them truthfully and (w)hol(l)y, or perish.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

A human being is not a soul trapped in a body, rather a merging of the two. Each needs the other to reach upward toward their Creator. That pursuit creates holiness, which is our reason for being, to transcend this world and encounter God.

Make no mistake, we can never be as holy as God because we are trapped in time and space, which is God’s creation. He is Other, beyond and inconceivable. Since we are made by God, God has an intrinsic interest in us. You love what you make. Be it your song, your business, your child or your idea. God is no different. In fact, God re-creates us (and the universe) every nanosecond, so can you imagine how special we are in His eyes?

God wants us to relate to him, so he gives us three arenas to do so: time, space and ourselves.

Space being the Land of Israel, where his presence is most palpable and no other land compares. It contains the skylight to Heaven. Think Jacob’s ladder. Time being Shabbos and all the holidays. These are opportunities where closeness is at hand just because of the calendar day, which is programmed with spiritual gifts.

And, ultimately, it is us who use the mitzvot of the Torah and exert heroic human effort to transcend time and space in order to connect to the Creator. Holiness is our opportunity and a destination equally available to all of us. Use this world and find your Creator.

Sydni Adler
Student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University

When I hear the word “kadosh” or “holy,” I hear Ziony Zevit reminding my rabbinical school class once again that “sacred,” “holy” and “kadosh” all mean “separate.” To be holy is to be wholly unique.

When God asks the entire people of Israel to be holy, God is first asking us to delve into our particular abilities to do good in the world. In our parsha, God commands us to revere our parents, to keep Shabbat, to judge the other fairly, and a whole host of other moral and ritual commandments. However, God does not provide many details about how to fulfill these commandments. God leaves that to each individual’s own creativity, resources and ability. When God asks us to be holy, God is also asking us to commit to our communal uniqueness. By refraining from worshipping idols, by celebrating Shabbat, and by eating and cutting hair in certain ways, the people of Israel show our dedication to one another and to God.

Perhaps most importantly, taking on holiness brings us into a closer relationship with the Divine. By putting ourselves in spaces of individual and communal creativity, we better appreciate God’s successes and challenges in creating the world. As we simultaneously revel and struggle in our endeavors to keep mitzvot, we conceptualize God’s swinging emotions throughout the Torah. By learning from each other’s unique personalities and problem-solving abilities, the people Israel, God and we as individuals can come closer to a more perfect creation.

Rabbi Erez Sherman
Sinai Temple

Are we involved in holy work? Recently, I have had the good fortune of teaching Torah outside the walls of Sinai Temple. Our clergy have dispersed throughout greater Los Angeles, teaching Torah to our congregants in their offices over lunch.

We often think holiness must be confined to a sanctuary or synagogue building. Yet, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai engage in this exact talmudic debate. While Bar Yochai is under the impression that we must be in formal Torah study each moment of every day, Rabbi Yishmael lives in the real world — our worldly endeavors are, in fact, Torah study itself. We have the words of the Torah on our mouth each morning and night as we recite the Shema, a reminder to live a holy life.

As I learned this text first with a group of doctors, and then with a group of lawyers and business people, I was impressed to discover the underlying principle of this parsha as a thread through our sacred community. Well-established doctors, lawyers and business people, when asked if there were holy moments in their days, responded with a resounding “Yes!” The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “There is no evil in the world, just the absence of goodness.” One small act of holiness a day … just imagine how good and holy our world can be.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha


Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: KITISA, EXODUS 31: 1-5

“The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of craft.”

David Brandes
Screenwriter and Producer

Of all the artists available to God (including the disgraced sinner who built the golden calf), why do you suppose he chose Bezalel? The Master Creator understood that creativity has a life and energy of its own. It’s chaotic, often intuitive, even amoral. In addition — and you can ask any Hollywood writer to confirm this — you just never know how the work is going to actually turn out. Even God had to make some adjustments in his design. After creating his greatest achievement, Adam, God realized that “It is not good for man to be alone.” He summarily added Eve to the mix. And when mankind turned ugly several chapters later, God brought down the great flood so that he could start again.

Because God had a specific design in mind for the holy Tabernacle, He knew that he had to choose an artist who was brilliant but was on the Master’s wavelength. Someone who could make the artistic leap, yet follow the grand intention. This was not, after all, to be an eye-catching designer home. It was to be the exalted home of God — something magisterial, yet warm, familiar. I think it is fair to say that if the brilliant futuristic architect Frank Gehry had lived in that time, he would not have been on the short list.

The reason God specifically chose Bezalel is evident when we examine the two parts of his name in Hebrew: “B’tzel” and “Elohim” —  he who dwells in the shadow of God.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Congregation B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion

When I was a boy in Hebrew school, my Chasidic teacher taught us to hear Torah as personally addressed to us. Every personal name is a dimension of our own personality and the name of every location is a place in our own life.

This translation renders the Hebrew phrase ruakh Elohim as “divine spirit.” I prefer to translate it differently, as “the spirit of the force of life.”

The ruakh Elohim in this passage echoes the the ruakh Elohim described in the opening verses of Genesis, the force of life that permeated the waters of the Earth. This week’s Torah portion teaches us that every person is encoded with ruakh Elohim, the spirit of the force of life. It is part of our DNA, the spiritual DNA of God. It is how each of us is created in the image and likeness of Elohim, the force of life. With every breath we take, we are infusing ourselves with divine spiritual energy. Each of us is a living embodiment and expression of the presence of the Divine in our world.

These verses teach us that to be a wise person, to know how precious, fragile and time-limited life is, we need a wise heart. And we need to integrate our knowledge and intuition into our hearts in order to attain hearts of wisdom.

Finally, regardless of what our work in the world is, we should, as Albert Einstein said, lead our lives as works of art.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David­-Judea Congregation

God gives Bezalel wisdom, understanding and knowledge. But these seem to just be synonyms. Why does the Torah use these three specific words?

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe refers to these same three words as levels of connection in learning Torah. They are referred to as CHaBaD (cHochmah, Binah and Daat). Chochmah is a spark, an interest that pulls us to want to know more. Binah is the process of understanding the spark, going deeper to comprehend. And Daat is the point at which an idea becomes a part of us — integral to who we are. This learning process is a gift because it enables us to connect with God at our core.

With this in mind, we see that the words in our verse are not three random synonyms. God provided Bezalel with three life-altering tools and through them, he merited to be known as Bezalel, “in the shadow of God.” He entered God’s embrace through Chochmah, Binah and Daat — through exploring and mastering God’s Torah.

But Bezalel is not the only one to have access to these tools. We can all find our spark in Torah (Chochmah), choose to learn more in depth (Binah) and make it a part of our lives and selves (Daat). It’s the process we would go through with anything we are committed to — with anyone we love. Let’s choose to do the same in our Torah lives and in our relationship with God. This week, find your spark!

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
Temple Israel of Hollywood

Just like Bezalel, who worked in “every kind of craft,” children in school are expected to be good at everything: math, science, physical education, English, a foreign language, history, reading, writing, art, interpersonal skills, organizational skills and more. They are graded and judged. It’s exhausting. We set up unreasonable expectations for our youth: to be super-accomplished, résumé-armed, college-bound teens who are also “do-gooders,” caring and ethical.

No wonder many teens suffer from chronic anxiety and depression. No wonder our kids feel like they’re cracking under pressure and sometimes self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or even take their own life.

In this week’s portion, God senses that it’s the exceptional person, Bezalel, who could paint and sculpt, draw and weave, carve and build with wood, solder metals and dye wool — because he was singled out by God and endowed with the divine spirit. There are artists who can do this today, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Things used to be different. For centuries, children would find themselves a mentor and then learn a trade. Want to make shoes? Find a shoemaker and study his craft. Want to farm land? Find a farmer and shadow him in the field. Want to sell goods around the world? Attach yourself to a traveling salesman and dream big. As adults, we don’t require one another to be proficient in “every kind of craft”; instead we allow ourselves to zero in on our strengths and pursue the talents and skills that interest us. Why can’t we allow our teens that same flexible mindset? Expecting that any person excel in “every kind of craft” is burdensome and potentially destructive.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
American Jewish University

How powerful that “wisdom” is the attribute that God uses for an artist, for someone who has the talent, discipline and has put in the time to master a craft. Judaism has never been about disembodied thought, about platonic concepts or values distilled and separate from life. Instead, Torah recognizes that wisdom is about living in the world, with the world. And that we, like Bezalel, are invited to live so mindfully that we — like God — become capable of creating.

When we intuit life deeply, when we resonate with its possibilities and opportunities, then we can birth new realities. For Bezalel, that new reality was a beautiful, multicolored venue where the Children of Israel would be able to be aware of God’s presence. Using fabrics, pelts, metals and woods, in a raucous blend of texture and hues, Israel’s mindfulness of God erupts out of mixed colors, sensations of touch and sight and (later) smell. All our senses praise God, who dwells with us in our worldliness. Art is thus placed at the very center of Jewish spirit; creativity and craft open our senses to the ways that the entire world is filled with God’s glory.

There are so many ways to bring people to the portal of the Divine. Surely, when we bring life wisdom to bear — in how we treat one another, fight for dignity and all creation, when we make new and beautiful objects to heighten our awareness, lift each other’s spirits or to soothe broken hearts — then we take our place, like Israel’s ancient artists, as God’s skilled and wise creators.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha


Photo from Max Pixel

PARSHA: B’SHALACH, EXODUS 14:10-12

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness”?’ ”

Rabbi Eve Posen
Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, Ore.

As a parent of young children, I live in a world of contradictions. I always have two simultaneous thoughts running through my head: wanting my children to remain forever in the stage they are currently in, and at the same time, wanting them to move out of this terrible phase and mature already. And it never fails: The minute they’ve reached a new milestone, I go through the same emotions again.

A popular way to examine the relationship between God and the Israelites is as that of parent and child, and the notion of stages of growth fits that comparison perfectly. When they found themselves in Egypt, naturally the Israelites were unhappy as slaves. The minute they were free, the harsh realities of that freedom made them yearn for the comfort of what was familiar.

This tendency is human at a basic level. No situation, no moment in time is going to be without its own harsh realities. In reading about this phase of the Israelites’ journey into freedom, we are reminded to take a step back and reflect as objectively as possible before proceeding. We can attempt to wish away the phase, or we can stand up and set about doing the work necessary to change the reality into something better.

Does that mean I won’t long for the days of easier airplane trips and reliable nap schedules? Of course not. But I will do so knowing I made the most of each phase to prepare myself for the next one.

David Sacks
TV writer who podcasts at Torahonitunes.com

Because I make my living as a comedy writer, people sometimes ask me if God has a sense of humor. My answer is that God created humor. When you look at the Torah, the clearest example of an actual written joke is when the Jews ask Moshe if he brought them to die in the desert because … “there weren’t enough graves in Egypt.”

It’s total sarcasm and, in my opinion, hilarious. Which brings us to a deeper question: Why create humor? According to the Baal Shem Tov, humor brings a person’s mind from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness.

When you’re in a place of expanded consciousness, you see the totality of creation before you. You see God’s presence and goodness acting upon everything. And you realize that anything and everything that happens is an expression of HaShem’s love for us — whether we can understand that in the moment or not.

Constricted consciousness is, of course, the opposite: the understandable impulse to take things too literally, believing that events are not a part of something greater. Humor and laughter, while great in themselves, are actually subsets of a larger topic: joy. One of the surprising things I learned when I started studying Torah was the importance Judaism puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them. But what they don’t realize is that nothing is going right for them because they’re sad.

Rabbi Ari Lucas
Temple Beth Am

In hindsight, the choice to move from slavery to freedom seems inevitable. But it rarely is. Patrick Henry famously proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But the Israelites in this passage seem to be saying, “If liberty means death, then we’re OK with slavery.” Not exactly the romantic freedom cry one might hope for from our Israelite ancestors.

Yet their expressions of reluctance carry an important lesson — that freedom requires making an active choice to leave the comforts of the status quo. In Henry’s time, there were Tories who preferred loyalty to the British crown to revolution. Gallup polls from the early 1960s show that large portions of Americans disapproved of the actions of the Freedom Riders and others engaging in civil disobedience for racial justice.

History and Torah remind us that the path toward freedom is rarely, if ever, inevitable. We must leave behind the comforts of the status quo — the world as we knew it — for the unknown dangers of the wilderness. In fact, every one of the Israelites who left Egypt will “die in the wilderness.” But Moses had the faith and courage to recognize that even if they did not reach the Land of Israel, their children would. Progress is not inevitable. It requires leadership, faith and courage — for us, just as it did for our ancestors.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, Academy for Jewish Religion, California

First take-away: Be careful of sarcasm with God. The Israelites could have said it straight: “We are afraid we are going to die here.” Instead, they belittle God (sarcasm is always belittling) and say “ … you brought us to die in the desert.”  Perhaps it had not yet occurred to God that this generation should die in the desert. Through this bit of contemptuous irony, the Israelites put the idea in God’s mind. Perhaps God’s unspoken response was, “Now that you mention it … ” Nearly everyone of this generation actually does die in the desert. The Israelites put the thought in God’s mind — and divine thoughts have the tendency to become reality.

Second: What does sarcasm say about its speaker? As a form of irony, sarcasm is a version of saying something, but in a different way. Sarcasm is a punitive form of irony. The intention is to ridicule. It is a form of lashon harah, destructive use of speech, and ona’ah be’devarim, inflicting hurt through words. We know from the Talmud (Bava Metziah 59b) that God can tolerate nearly all sin — you do your time in gehinnom (purgatory) and then come up to eternal bliss. Only one category of person stays in hell — those who call people by derisive names in public. God can tolerate weakness, but not meanness through words. God does not want such folks in heaven, and apparently not in the Promised Land, either.

People think: I am angry and afraid, so I get to talk how I want. Not true.

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

After a friend recommended that I follow @bymariandrew on Instagram, it started to seem as if Mari’s life somehow paralleled mine. Knowing nothing about her other than her illustrations, it seems that, like me, she is going through some big transitions — among them, moving. Last summer she posted an illustration showing a bunch of squiggly lines tangled together, captioned: “City Map When You First Arrive.” Next to that was a map with places labeled: Your best friend’s house. The best night of your life. Your favorite coffee shop. The caption: “How A City Map Looks When You’ve Lived There a While.”

Looking behind them in this moment, the Israelites see the city map they’ve always known. Even with its pain and fear, even with its degradation and narrowness, it is comfortable because it is known. Looking forward, the Israelites can see only the squiggly lines — the wilderness, the uncertainty … the unknown.

Kol hatchalot kashot, our rabbis teach. All beginnings are difficult. It is a teaching I have repeated often this year as my family and I started anew (back) here in Los Angeles.

It is hard to start over. It is hard to leave behind what we know, even when what we know is Egypt. It is hard to see only the squiggly, to not be able to imagine the map of a place you will come to love, a community you will come to build.

To step forward into the unknown is difficult and it is necessary. Then. Now.

Moses, Miriam, Origami


Photo from Pixabay

One Shabbat morning, to help explain the Torah portion, I taught my congregation how to fold a simple origami model.

Let me explain.

Parashat B’shalach, which we read this week, recounts the most miraculous moment in the history of our people: the parting of the Red Sea. What’s remarkable is how we responded, both at that moment and throughout our history.

The passage after the crossing begins Az yashir Moshe, “Then Moses sang.” This is the first record of anyone singing in the Torah. In fact, the passage is so associated with music that it’s universally known as Shirat Hayam, Song of the Sea.

After the song, we are told that Miriam took up her timbrel and danced. This is the first record of anyone dancing in the Torah.

This playful spirit even inspired the scribes who wrote our Torah scrolls. In every Torah (or Bible or prayer book) the words of this passage are arranged in an unusual way: The text is broken up with two wide spaces per line, alternating with three wide spaces per line.

Some observers say it’s an ancient pictogram, conveying its meaning through its resemblance to a physical object. What object? A brick wall, symbolizing God’s holding back the waters as the Israelites passed through on dry land: “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:29)

There’s another interesting dimension to this passage. When it’s chanted in Ashkenazi synagogues, we use a special melody for some of the verses. These verses are chanted antiphonally — that is, alternating between the reader and the congregation.

Imagine for a moment how the scribe who came up with this pictogram felt. “I could write these words in paragraph form, but instead I’m going to arrange them like bricks in a wall!” What about the person who first devised the unique tune for chanting the passage? “I’m going to use a different melody, and involve the congregation in the chanting!”

Thousands of years after the experience of that remarkable event, an inspired scribe responded to it with a wonderful pictogram. And a Torah chanter interpreted the song by composing a singular melody and an innovative way of involving the congregation.

Like Moses and Miriam, the scribe and the chanter responded in spontaneous and heartfelt ways. But now these innovative practices have become routine. Our scribes utilize this same pattern in every scroll, and publishers re-create it in every Bible and prayer book. Our Torah readers chant the same melody for this passage year after year: millions of recitations over hundreds of years, in the same melody.

If we perform actions only in the prescribed way, we are missing out.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditions can be wonderful. There’s great satisfaction in knowing that you have performed a ritual in the prescribed manner. There’s also great value in heritage, in absorbing and passing along received wisdom.

But if we perform the actions only in the prescribed way, we’re missing out. Like the ancient scribe and Torah chanter, each of us needs to find our own way to connect to the sacred, to respond creatively to the defining events of our history. When we do, something miraculous happens inside us, enabling us to experience the sacred as our ancestors did.

Here’s where the origami comes in.

As an origami artist, I was inspired to create a simple model of the Red Sea parting. After teaching my congregation to fold the model, I invited members to hold it close to their eyes, gaze through the passageway and imagine that they themselves were present at that sacred event, proceeding forward between walls of water.

How did they walk? What did they hear? What did they see? What could they smell? What were their thoughts and fears? Did they feel the presence of the Divine?

In that moment, the people in my shul experienced a kind of transformation. They were able to connect to our sacred history. Just as Moses and Miriam did, just the Torah scribe and the Torah chanter did.

While tradition has the power to connect us to countless generations past, our personal response to the sacred through the creative arts has the power to engage and transform us individually. Both are essential for a full spiritual life.


Joel Stern is the author of “Jewish Holiday Origami” and many other papercraft books

Torah Talk: Parashat Bo with Rabbi Amy Joy Small


Rabbi Amy Joy Small was is the Senior Rabbi of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue of Burlington, Vermont from 2016. Previously, Rabbi Small worked in Jewish innovation by creating and directing Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning & Experiences in Morristown, New Jersey. Through Deborah’s Palm Center, Rabbi Small taught and facilitated Jewish experiences for adults, emphasizing questions from our everyday lives, explored through Jewish texts and ideas.

Rabbi Small has served congregations in New Jersey, Michigan and Indiana. She is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, where she served on the board for many years. She is a fellow of Rabbis Without Borders and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Storahtelling Maven, and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity, Honoris Causa, from RRC in 2012.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) – features the final three plagues of Egypt, the People of Israel’s departure from Egypt, and the first Passover celebration. Our discussion focuses on the idea of maintaining positivity and recognizing the point of view of the other in our struggle for Justice.

Previous Torah Talks on Parshat Bo:

Rabbi Joel Zeff

Rabbi Adam Zeff

Rabbi Zvi Grumet

Rabbi Nissan Antine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha


Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: BO, Exodus 10:1-2

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons what I have wrought of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.’ ”

Rabbi David Woznica
Stephen Wise Temple

Why does God harden the heart of Pharaoh and his courtiers? The Torah gives two reasons: so that God can place “signs among them” and so that future generations will recount what God did.

What God did was take the Israelites out of Egypt, an act Jews recount every week. Two events in Jewish history are so central that they are included in the full version of the Friday night Kiddush blessing: the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt. Both events reflect God’s power. Each of them also reveals an additional important aspect of God — that God is above nature (as creator of the world) and that God cares about the world (as demonstrated by the Israelites’ liberation from slavery).

God is all-powerful, supernatural and cares.

These facets of God are particularly important when it comes to prayer. While prayer has many forms, we frequently appeal to God to use power to intervene. And we often ask God to intervene to stop nature’s course — to halt a life-threatening disease, for example, or avert a natural disaster. Knowing that God cares about the world is vital to meaningful prayer. After all, if we didn’t believe God cares and has a sense of justice, prayer would seem hollow.

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to create a more just world. More than 3,000 years later, we continue to feel the impact.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org

There’s only one way to understand anything in Torah. You have to read it as a teaching in your life. Because that’s what Torah is, first and foremost. And that’s what your life is — a commentary on that teaching.

It also helps to read the Hebrew. This translation renders the phrase bo el Paro as “go to Pharaoh,” but it can also be translated as “come to Pharaoh.”

God says to each one of us: Pharaoh is the big, mean world out there. Pharaoh is scary. Pharaoh is powerful. Pharaoh is obstinate. There’s just no way around Pharaoh. And Pharaoh holds you captive, as his slave.

God tells you, “Come with me. You’re not doing this alone. You just do your thing and I’ll take care of the rest. Then you’ll be free.”

There’s a reason He set it up that way.

Because you weren’t put in this world to do the possible, the predictable, the natural and the obvious. You were put here to transcend nature. To allow miracles to enter. To make sure the world will never be the same again. So that the whole wide world will recognize that it’s not just a world. It’s a divine masterpiece — one big, amazing miracle.

To do that, Pharaoh needs to be impossible. And you need a lot a faith and chutzpah. Like Moses.

May we all make our grand escape from Pharaoh’s slavery really soon — sooner than we can imagine.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

Every year when I come upon this verse, I wonder about the relationship between freedom and a hardened heart. Psychologist Erich Fromm argues that every evil act a person commits deadens the person’s own heart and when this is repeated, a person increasingly lessens her freedom to change. Fromm writes that there is “a point of no return, when man’s heart has become … so deadened that he has lost the possibility of freedom.”

Our path out of slavery requires a practice in which we examine the state of our hearts and take steps to keep it open, even in the face of conflict. For example, we can include a daily check-up of our heart in our personal practice: to whom and to what have we closed our hearts? Can we bring kindness to our own emotional bruises, gently encouraging ourselves to stay expansive?

Sometimes, just sitting with your hand gently on your heart, inhaling compassion, is powerful. In the presence of love, our hearts blossom. When we are hurt, we close down, often with the false belief that doing so will protect us from further pain. Our families, communities and the world itself need our tender hearts. Freedom itself depends on the openhearted — people who have the courage to feel the pain and to walk boldly, with trust and strength, into the wilderness ahead.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple, Venice, Calif.

Two words in this verse are spark plugs that drive the engine of our story for generations: bo (come) and eleh (these). Bo is a command directing one toward a complex act of fecundity. For Noah, it was “Come into the ark,” the command to endure the destruction of the world for its renewal. For Moses, it is “Come to Pharaoh,” an imperative toward the completion of the anti-creation story of the Ten Plagues, which will birth the greatest experiment from the ancient world, one that continues to evolve through all of us today: the nation of Israel.

But why state, “I will show these my signs in the midst of them”? As Ramban reminds us, “these” refers not just to Pharaoh and the Israelites but to generations to come. God informs Moses that there is a reason behind all of this suffering — a master plan that will play out for generations.

When entering into Parashat Bo this week, what if we ask ourselves: What are the signs in our midst? Where are our hearts hardened? What destructive vermin eat at the fabric of our society? Where does darkness lurk and what ultimate loss must be endured for an era of transformation and rebirth to arise? How much more suffering must we witness until we all understand that there is something larger than just ourselves conducting the rhythms and music of this ceaseless song of creation, and that our modern-day Pharaoh is, indeed, our partner in redemption?

Rabbi Elan Babchuck
Clal — The National Jewish Center or Learning and Leadership

Few verses in Torah have inspired more spilled ink than this first one, which raises the question of free will. How can it be that Pharaoh is punished so brutally when it was God who hardened his heart in the first place? And what about us? If we’re hardwired a certain way, will we be afforded the opportunity to change — to immerse ourselves in the heart-softening work of teshuvah? Is teshuvah even possible?

As they did so many times in their relationship, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish disagree about this issue. Yochanan is concerned that heretics will forgo repentance because the nature of their hearts is in God’s hands, while Lakish argues that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened only after invitations to repent.

While the conversation between these two sages is relatively unremarkable, it is noteworthy that if they had listened to each other only a bit more carefully, they might not have suffered the tragic fate that took them both from this world. Deep in the throes of what would become their final learning session, they disagreed about an issue and both said things they would later regret. But despite their previous years of loving friendship, they remained hard-hearted and unrepentant until both eventually died of grief — of broken hearts, as it were.

Sometimes the insights we need most are right in front of us. If we are able to soften our hearts just enough to truly hear them, we will open ourselves not only to teshuvah but to more honest and compassionate relationships with those we love most in this precious world.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha


Photo from Max Pexel.

PARSHA: Va’era, EXODUS 6:10-13

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’ So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt.”

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

God is about to send 10 plagues into the world — 10 miracles that will prove His existence and His special regard for the Jews. Why, then, does God ask Moses to approach both Pharaoh and the elders of Israel without proof of his divine mandate?

In his 2010 viral video, “Leadership Lessons From Dancing Guy,” Derek Sivers says, “The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader.”

When Moses announced that he would demand that the most powerful man in the world release his workforce, no one took him seriously. It required faith and vision to become Moses’ first follower.

Aaron did not grow up with his brother and hardly knew him. He recognized, however, that Moses was the right man at the right time. Aaron jumped aboard despite enormous risk of failure and ridicule, thus earning his special relationship with Moses and his eternal stature among the Jews.

Once the plagues arrived, not only were the Jews finally ready to follow Moses, so were many Egyptians. A mixed multitude left Egypt, and our sages teach that many of these opportunists became the complainers whose faithless whining brought on a string of calamities in the wilderness.

Complainers are inevitable in any mission-driven group and they are profoundly destructive. To combat such a negative force, a leader needs a great first follower — one who not only gets the movement going but keeps it on track in tough times. May we merit being that first follower when the moment calls.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

Moses complains that the people did not listen when he addressed them. Why didn’t they listen? Because they were short of breath and working hard — a timely lesson for us moderns. Often we are so enslaved to our careers that we cannot possibly open up soulfully to what Elijah called “the still small voice” of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that Americans don’t think, because in America “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand.” Today we can add to Nietzsche’s observation that nobody can experience spiritual emancipation from the tyranny and shackles of the mundane because we are constantly glued to our smartphones.

In the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” nurse Bronnie Ware shared the second most common regret of people in palliative care: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” So many potential, blissful hours with loved ones and with the Almighty are squandered because of our culture’s idolatrous obsession with the false idol of “productivity.”

Karl Marx wrongly defined humanity as “Homo Faber,” the producing animal. The Torah reminds us that we are the soulful animal, and meeting the world’s material and psychological demands should never come at the expense of developing what Michael Fishbane called a “sacred attunement” to the mesmerizing voices of our loved ones, and to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the subliminal “echo of eternity.”

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

How do we get people to listen to us when we feel unheard? Moses almost gives up because he can’t answer this question, and he defines himself solely by this struggle: “I am a man of closed lips.”

The Midrash teaches that the phrase “God spoke to Moses and Aaron” indicates that God actually gave them advice about how to communicate. Namely, Gold told Moses and Aaron that the way to be heard is to speak gently, with patience and respect.

Whether we are like Moses — leading others, petitioning authority for justice — or feeling unheard in our relationships, workplace or even prayer life, each of us can apply this wisdom. None of us is a stranger to conflict or heated conversation, to feeling unheard or silenced. Perhaps we may have even been the cause of such feelings in others.

Proverbs tells us, “As in water face answers to face, so is the heart of a person to a person” (27:19). What we give to others is what we receive. If we communicate gently, with patience and respect, we will receive just that. This is God’s advice to Moses and Aaron — and to us. It applies when we are speaking or listening, and even if our audience (like Pharaoh) doesn’t end up heeding our words. May God help us connect with one another and with Him — not with “closed lips” but with open ears, open mouths and open hearts.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Board of Rabbis of Southern California

“Is there an age limit for jury duty?” an elderly man asked at jury-duty orientation.

“No,” the woman replied. “We have had jurors of all ages, but if you are over 70 years old and have a medical condition that precludes you from serving, then you can fill out this form.”

The man thanked her and began filling out the form.

I sat down and read the verses I had brought with me to jury duty. In them, Moses asked God to be exempted from telling Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses, too, was elderly — 80 years old. Moses doesn’t ask God for exemption based on his age but rather based on his speech impediment.

God refused Moses’ request. Instead, God reiterated the summons to Moses and to his brother, Aaron. By including Aaron, God provided support to Moses. Aaron could serve as Moses’ spokesman if necessary. However, God didn’t believe that Moses’ speech impairment precluded him from leadership.

Moses thought he was “not a man of words,” but God knew better. God understood that, inside of him, Moses had a reservoir of wise words, which would become the book of Deuteronomy — in Hebrew, Devarim (literally, “words”). Moses was worried about his deficiencies but God recognized his strengths.

If only we could see ourselves — and one another   — as God sees us. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

Moses’ fear is reasonable: “How will I approach Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, the man who raised me, when my words flow with difficulty?” This insecurity probably stems from the fact that he knows that Pharaoh recognizes him at his most vulnerable. Pharaoh was responsible for teaching Moses most of his words and now Moses is going to use them against him.

The problem with this passage is not so much Moses’ fear, but rather the solution to the fear. God speaks to Moses and Aaron, instructing them to go together. How does this assuage Moses’ reservations? One possibility that has been suggested is that Moses doesn’t need to fear, because he will have a backup — Aaron will be with him. This approach’s flaw is that it ignores the fact that Moses has the ultimate backup: God.

Notice the wording of the verse is not that “you and Aaron will speak to Pharaoh.” That job still belongs to Moses alone. Perhaps this wasn’t about going in with a security blanket, but rather with an identity. If Moses stands and protests before Pharaoh, Pharaoh can turn and say, “How dare you? You are my son. I raised you. Traitor!” This is what Moses is afraid of. But with Aaron — his flesh and blood brother — by his side, he can turn and say to Pharaoh with confidence, “I may have been raised here, but these are my people and this is my family. You were merely a forced stopover.”

Torah Talk: Parashat Shemot with Rabbi Sharon Sobel


Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel is the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her career has extended from leading congregations to leading national organizations. She served as Executive Director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and ARZA Canada for over 9 years. Later, as Judaic Consultant for the York Region of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Rabbi Sobel was responsible for developing and enhancing spiritual life in the York region, the fastest growing Jewish population in all of North America.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) – features the beginning of the epic story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. The portion features a description of the oppression of the people of Israel by Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, his flee to Midian and Moses’ return to Egypt. The burning bush is the focus of our conversation.

 

 

On this parsha we also had  Torah Talks with:

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Nina Mandel

Rabbi Sybil Sheridan

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha


Photo from Pixabay.

PARSHA: Shemot, EXODUS 2:11-12

“Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Rabbi Marc Angel
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

This passage usually is understood to mean that Moses wanted to be sure he would not be seen when he slew the Egyptian. But it might be understood differently.

Moses was outraged by the entire system of slavery. Confronted with an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he realized that “there was no man” — the oppressor had become a savage beast, the oppressed had become a work animal. The human element had vanished; there was no mercy, no mutual respect, no sympathy for each other. He could not deal with the injustices taking place in Egypt — a land where “there was no man,” where people had been reduced to animal status, to being objects rather than subjects.

The Torah’s story of the redemption of the Israelite slaves is ultimately a profound lesson teaching that each human being has a right to be free, to be a dignified human being, and to be treated as a fellow human being (as well as an obligation to treat others as such). Slavery is an evil both for the oppressor and the oppressed. It is a violation of the sanctity of human life.

When human beings treat each other as objects, humanity suffers. We can retain our own humanity only when we recognize the humanity of each of our fellow human beings.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
American Jewish University

One of the great mysteries of Moses’ life is when he learns his own origin story. We, the readers, know well that the infant Moses was saved by a collection of rebellious women — the midwives who deliver him and do not turn him over to the authorities, the mother and sister who hatch a desperate plot to place him in a basket on the Nile, the princess who takes a foundling into the palace and raises the child there as a son.

However, the texts are silent on when and how the young Moses discovers his slave origins. All we learn is that at some point in his early adulthood he goes out and sees Hebrew slaves and identifies them as “brothers,” and then unleashes lethal violence against their taskmaster.

Had Moses known of his true origin for many years, holding his shame and anger at bay, until one day he snapped and couldn’t take it any longer? Or was it that Moses learned of his origin just in that moment and this fateful encounter happened as he fled the palace in disgust and despair? Or, perhaps most intriguingly of all, could it be that Moses never actually learns the true circumstances of his birth, but comes to identify with slaves as brothers, to see injustice done to one as injustice done to all?

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny
Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

What gave Moses the sense of urgency, the need to go out from his place of privilege and question what was happening out in the world beyond his? Verse 11 tells us that Moses went out toward his kinsmen — implying that it was a sense of kinship with the laborers that drew him to be a witness to their struggle. The commentator Sforno notes that it is that very same sense of kinship that led Moses to avenge the death of the Hebrew man.

What would our world look like if we were all compelled by a sense of kinship with those who occupy the circles that ripple out just beyond our doors? We might all become more powerful observers of the struggles of our fellow humans, and we might even be moved to act on behalf of those who are suffering. May our sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with our neighbors lead us into ever richer relationships within our communities.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood

This is the first of several passages in Moses’ story in which we see the unfortunate results of his rage, anger and lack of control. We see deep compassion in Moses, who is clearly upset and outraged at the cruel treatment of the Hebrews. These attributes will be necessary in the future leader. But he could have used the power of his position to end the beating. Instead, we see Moses’ dark side. His anger and rage cause him to strike and kill the Egyptian and hide him in the sand. Moses knows his actions are wrong.

We see other times when Moses’ anger controls him. When he comes down Mount Sinai with the tablets and smashes them, he also slaughters more than 3,000 as punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. God did not demand their deaths, yet Moses’ anger was uncontrolled. We see his anger flare in the Book of Numbers, when Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it so the water will flow for all to drink.

Even the great Moses was human, bound by emotion. Maybe we are to question and wonder about controlling such outbursts. They did Moses no good in the end. Was he denied entrance to the Promised Land because his anger got the best of him? What might have happened if Moses had used his princely position to help stop the cruelty toward the Hebrew slave? We are left to wonder whether God might have written us a different story if humanity acted with forethought.

Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Maayon Yisroel Chasidic Center

Young Moshe enjoyed an idyllic life, being raised in the palace by the king’s daughter. Living in comfort and luxury, he was satiated, safe and secure. But Moshe was not content to remain in the protected bubble of royal life. Instead, he decided to venture out of his comfortable home to see how his Jewish brothers and sisters were faring, ready to do anything he could to help them. And indeed, when Moshe saw that “an Egyptian man was hitting a Jew,” he immediately jumped in to save his Jewish brother, though that came at the cost of risking his own life.

We all can learn an invaluable instruction from Moshe’s behavior. We may be content and satisfied, absorbed in the affairs of our own lives, reluctant to disturb the precious equilibrium we have finally found. We may even find ourselves in the “palace of God,” immersed in a spiritual life of connection to God and self-improvement. Yet, it is vital that we look beyond ourselves. It is vital that we care about how others are doing. It is vital that we inquire how our Jewish brothers and sisters are faring. And if, indeed, we find a Jew who needs help, it is incumbent upon us to do anything and everything we can — to the point of totally putting ourselves on the line — to help.

7 haiku for Parsha Nitzavim (in which the Jewish people have a dance party with God) by Rick Lupert


I
A deal is brokered
between God and those standing
here – and those long gone

II
Choose wisely – this deal
applies not only to you
but to your children

III
God is a party
dancing above – a joy our
parents remember

IV
If we sin and have
to leave, don’t pack everything
God says, we’ll be back

V
The Torah refers
to itself, in itself – is
still being written

VI
Moses – last day on
Earth – takes to writing a song
puts it in our mouths

VII
On the day of his death
Moses predicts we’ll rebel
Reminds us – choose life!


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 Haiku for Parsha Va’etchanan (in which Moses gets to look but no touch) by Rick Lupert


I
No, Moses, you can
not enter – But check out the
view from this mountain

II
Did I mention we
should follow God’s commandments?
On every page.

III
Setting up cities
of refuge – the non holy
side of the river

IV
A repeat of the
Ten Commandments – Typical
for summer viewing

V
What will the people
do without Moses acting
as emissary

VI
Start with these words – Put
them everywhere – Your doors – your
foreheads – everywhere

VII
Leave no trace of the
Canaanites when you cross the
river – not a speck


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

7 Haiku For Parsha Devarin (We men love our maps) by Rick Lupert


I
Holy Land across
the river – Thirty-seven
days left with Moses

II
Seeking smarty pants
Israelites to hire
in top positions

III
Reminded of the
extra forty years because
we were so evil

IV
I think we’re going
in circles – I think we are
going in circles

V
Fast forward thirty
eight years – All the evil ones
gone – gone means they died

VI
All these stories – the
recounting and recounting
Nothing but re-runs

VII
The Land divided
Canaanites not consulted
We men love our maps


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Devotion to the Innocent – An Essential Virtue for Leadership


The Prophet Balaam and the Angel

The contrast between Moses and the central figure of this week’s parashah, the Prophet Balaam, is as stark as one finds in all the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition despite the fact that both men were prophets.

It’s odd that among the most famous blessings in all of Judaism, that appears in this week’s Torah reading “Balak”, was uttered by Balaam and not by Moses.

The portion, despite its title, is about Balaam and not Balak, the King of Moab who was so threatened by the Israelites that he sought to hire Balaam to curse them as they passed through his territory. God, however, put different words in Balaam’s mouth:

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mish’kenotecha Yisrael …..

How good are your tents Jacob, Your places of dwelling Israel…” (Numbers 24:5)

Who was Balaam?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that an inscription was found on the wall of a pagan temple dating to the eight century BCE at a place called Dier ‘Alla that lies at the junction of the Jordan and Jabbok rivers. It refers to a seer named Balaam ben Beor (see “Lessions in Leadership,” p. 217).

The Torah notes that Balaam was an impressive religious figure with shaman-like skills and was a known miracle worker which is why Balak sought him out: “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)

Our rabbis also recognized Balaam’s prophetic gift: “In Israel there was no other prophet as great as Moses, but among the nations there was. And who was he? Balaam.” (Sifrei, V’zot Ha-b’rachah, 357; Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 20).

Yet, they note that Balaam had a physical deformity that reflected a spiritual deficiency: “Balaam suma b’achat m’einav hayah – Balaam was blind in one eye” and, they added, he was lame in one foot (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a). They wondered how such a prophet could be so foolish as to imagine that he could effectively curse God treasured people, the Israelites?

They concluded that Balaam was able to see clearly the world with his seeing eye but when considering the Israelites’ fate either he used his blind eye or allowed all the gold that Balak was offering him to blind him to the truth that he would not be able to curse Israel. The Mishnah explains that this deficiency of sight and insight was the reason Balaam was denied a share in the World to Come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2).

Despite Balaam’s renown as a prophet, he had no followers at all. The rabbis read his name not as “Balaam” but as “B’lo am – without a people” (Rashi).

Moses, of course, was entirely different. Not only did he lead a people, God’s people Israel, but he was completely devoted to their well-being. This moral virtue of care is an echo of Abraham who challenged God’s justice at Sodom and Gomorrah, that if there could be found even one righteous human being in those condemned immoral cities (Genesis 18:25), it would defy God’s own sense of justice to destroy them.

At the incident of the Golden Calf, again Moses pleaded with God to spare the innocent even if it meant blotting his own name from history: “… if You would forgive their sin, well and good; but if not, m’cheini na mi-sif’r’cha asher katavta – erase me from the record which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)

Moses challenged God again when Korach and the tribal leaders rebelled against his leadership. Moses fell to the ground in prayer and said to God: “Ha-ish echad yecheta v’al kol ha-eidah tik’tsof – When one person sins will you be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22)

Moses also empathically forgave his sister Miriam who was stricken with leprosy when she and Aaron initiated a rebellion against their own brother saying “El na r’fa na la – Please God, heal her.” (Numbers 12:13)

Balaam was concerned only for himself. His chief goal was to line his pockets. He was available to the highest bidder even if it meant devastating other human beings. He lacked utterly in compassion and empathy. Self-centered and selfish, he had no integrity and no honor. He was morally, spiritually, and prophetically corrupt.

Moses’ utter devotion to his people, his consistent defense of the innocent, his absolute humility before God, his lack of care for self-enrichment, and his willingness to sacrifice his own life and place in history for the sake of the well-being of the people are the moral virtues that not only distinguished him as prophet and leader, but set the standard for all leadership to come.

Just as our ancestors needed inspired leaders, we too need leaders of moral virtue. Sadly, today, we especially deficient.

 

Translating the Torah for today


Jewish Publication Society. Left to right: Aaron Koller (Yeshiva University), Ben Sommer (Jewish Theological Seminary), Tamar Kamionkowski. Photo from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

What difference does a translation make?

If we take the Torah seriously, a lot. Whether we believe it was given directly by God to Moses, or just that it’s the foundational text of our identity as Jews, we want to get it right.

Most of us today can’t read Hebrew very well. It’s a defect we share with the ancient Jewish community in Alexandria, where scholars translated the Torah into Greek because many Jews knew little or no Hebrew. That produced the Septuagint, the first known Torah translation.

And linguistic translation is only half the battle. Even if we can read Hebrew, we often lack the knowledge required to interpret Biblical passages. We don’t know the historical context, so we miss references to ideas, people, and events that were obvious to people in Biblical times.

Robert Alter gives an excellent analogy in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Imagine, he says, that archaeologists a thousand years in the future find a dozen 20th-century movies that are Westerns. They notice a pattern: in 11 of the films, the heroic sheriff can draw his six-gun faster than anyone else in the movie. In the 12th film, however, the sheriff has a crippled arm. Instead of a six-gun, he uses a rifle that he keeps slung over his shoulder.

As 21st-century viewers, we easily recognize the conventional storyline of the first 11 films. We see that the 12th film intentionally departed from it. But future archaeologists don’t know about the conventions. Therefore, they posit the existence of an undiscovered source film, Q, from which the first 11 films (Q1 to Q11) were derived. They believe that the 12th film comes from a different cinematic tradition, and perhaps from a different region of Los Angeles.

Like the archaeologists, we often must guess at the conventions in the Biblical text that were obvious to people of that era. Note that in this case, it makes no difference whether God gave the Torah to Moses or it was assembled by human editors. To communicate the message, either source would have used conventions and references familiar to the people of the time.

A good translation won’t solve those problems completely, but it can help by providing notes and alternative phrasings.

Historical change didn’t stop with Biblical times. A lot has changed since 1917, when the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) issued its first English translation of the Torah.

  • In 1915 (before 1917, but close enough), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held a White House screening of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was a nationwide box-office hit.
  • In 1920, American women got the right to vote.

 

Change has continued since 1962, when JPS published its second translation of the Torah:

  • In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination.
  • In 1969, Yale admitted its first female students; Harvard followed in 1977.
  • In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws against homosexuality; in 2015, it struck down state restrictions on gay marriage.

 

Translation doesn’t simply match words in different languages. It reflects our culture and assumptions. We shape each translation for our own era, and in turn, we are shaped by it. For the Bible, we need to know how the translation affects the message.

That was one focus of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) symposium, “The Future of American Jewish Bible Translation,” held April 30 at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It commemorated the 1917 JPS translation, whose goal was “to combine the Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern.”

In the hundred years since then, the goal hasn’t changed but many other things have. New discoveries have confirmed our challenged our copies of the text. Before the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Torah manuscripts dated from the Middle Ages. Dating from a thousand years earlier, the scrolls often confirmed and sometimes challenged our existing text.

Similarly, changed social and religious attitudes make us ask new questions about the text. When the text says “man,” does it mean males specifically, or people in general? How should we translate passages that we find morally unsettling?

One approach to troubling passages is “converse translation,” which changes or even reverses the meaning of the original text. It was used as long ago as the Septuagint and ancient Targums (interpretive retellings of the Biblical text). In spite of its historical pedigree, converse translation had few fans at the JPS conference.

“The classical rabbis often read against the text to offer an ethical ideal unsupported by a ‘plain reading’ of the Bible,” said Leonard Greenspoon, one of the conference speakers. However, he added, “Bible translators have a responsibility to call attention to morally difficult passages. Notes can be effective for that.”

Audio and photos from the symposium are available on the Jewish Publication Society’s YouTube channel.

Moses


Do you dream of Egypt? Or seek traces
of your journey before God lays you down like Isaac
at Moriah and takes away your breathing?
Do you remember Sinai where you were sorely tried?
Or seek evidence that the lengthy sojourn
in Pharaoh’s court was not of your imagining?
Do you feel the sea tearing in half? Or remember
those who dared to flee into its breach?
Perhaps your feet still move in a desert rhythm
and will not stop even here on Mount Nebo
though you watch the others cross a river beyond you.
Haven’t you pleaded for your life? What have
you to say, Bush of Burning who is not consumed? Mountain
of the Stone Tablets? And you, Moses, do you lie back
upon your rocky bed, close your eyes and feel
the cool kiss of God upon your lips, your soul drawn
out of your body like a hair drawn out of milk,
sons dispersed like seeds, no burial place?


From “Lithuania: New & Selected Poems.” Myra Sklarew, professor emerita at American University, also is the author of “Harmless,” “If You Want to Live Forever” and the forthcoming “A Survivor Named Trauma: Holocaust and the Construction of Memory,” SUNY Press.

Getting organized, with Moses leading from the back


This holiday season, Jews across the globe will gather together for Passover to eat, share stories and retell the tale of the Exodus. The Passover seder is the most celebrated Jewish event all year long — even avowedly secular and disaffected Jews will try to find a place at the table.

There is something about this story, the liberation of the Israelites, that is restless in the heart. It carries no expiration date; it refuses to be a forgotten tale.  

One of the most subversive motifs of the traditional haggadah is, believe it or not, the absence of Moses. (Didn’t notice? Take a closer look this year.) The rabbis played down his significance in order to tamp down the urge to messianism that can emerge in heroic narratives.   

Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric. Moses is the very paradigm of what the sociologist Max Weber calls the “charismatic leader” whose power destabilizes societal structures and upends cultural norms.  

Yet, there is another side to Moses, one that is equally revolutionary and powerful, yet decentralized from the core narrative of the Passover story. Moses was a prophet, true, but perhaps more importantly, he was an advocate for justice, an effective community organizer.

Here is a man who was neither the firstborn nor the secondborn of his family.  He was part of a family of Israelite slaves who were contented to be what their parents and their grandparents were: slaves who knew nothing but a system of oppression that tries to destroy their identity. As the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass writes, “[T]o make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one … [the slave] must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.” In fact, when we meet Moses, it is through his father and mother, neither of whom have a name and who give no name to their child, thus perpetuating the internalized oppression of being a slave (Exodus 2:1-2).

Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric.

Moses the Jew, the oppressed, grows up in the house of the oppressor, Pharaoh. It is in this space between worlds that he begins to feel the internal conflict that all changemakers feel. As he matures, so does the pain in his heart. His eyes are opened and he sees the tension of his dual identity grow until that fateful day when the Egyptian taskmaster beats the Israelite slave. Moses wakes up from the stupor of his youth and affirms for himself, years before he meets God, that the world as it is is wrong and unjust. He opens his eyes to see his conflict of identity, and into the breach he jumps.

Except he fails.

Moses saved the single Israelite slave from death, but his justified killing of the oppressor did nothing to change the political environment. One act of righteous vengeance does not bring about justice for all. Everyone needs to be brought along. They need to be organized.  

Social change comes not from a single catalytic act but from the groundswell power that follows it. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus did not on its own change the lives of African-Americans. Justice was born out for her and others because she was a strategic leader in an organized movement that included a bus boycott, church sermons and marches across the country. Likewise, Ghandi’s self-inflicted protest of starvation did not give liberation to Indians, yet his act of sacrifice worked because of the planful resistance that he and hundreds of others organized to unleash the will of billions of lives who wanted independence.

Societies need symbols in the form of statues, logos and people. However, to be a symbol is to be an idol, and our God brooks no idol worship. Our God needs organizers who know they can’t change the world alone, and Moses learned that.  

Moses, like Parks and Ghandi, is not the center of the liberation story. The people woke up to their oppression and cried out to God long before Moses returned to Egypt (Exodus 2:23). When Moses does come back, he removes himself from the center of the story as quickly as possible. It is Aaron, not Moses, who is the actual spokesman for the people. Aaron and Moses assemble the elders. Moses and Aaron carry the relationships with the leaders of the Israelites.  

It was the leaders who helped to organize the slaves to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It was through organizing that the “Children of Israel” are finally able to call themselves the “Nation of Israel” (Exodus 5:1). It was through organizing that the oppressed masses saw a different way of being, resisted tyranny and found their identity not simply as a family but as a body politic with rights, and they demanded those rights.  Only then — after the groaning, the planning and organizing — did Moses and Aaron dare confront the oppressor Pharaoh in his own home and bring about redemption.

It is easy to see Moses as a messiah. It’s inspiring to romanticize the Exodus with its fantasia of miracles and powerful speeches. But the rabbis were right to take Moses out of the haggadah. For the true and enduring story of the Passover — the part that inspires millions worldwide to see themselves in this story — is in the ability of a once no-name slave to make it not about him, but about a sacred cause.  

The greatest teaching of the Passover seder is the eternal wisdom that the narrowness of Egypt was not just then, but now. Oppression was not just then, but now. Liberation did not end then, but must be worked out in every generation, including our own.  

Moses is not mentioned in the haggadah for good reason. He is only a man called to his people to organize them in the face of uncertainty. To wager life and limb for a better tomorrow. It is his style of leadership, to put others first and lead like a shepherd — from the back — that has inspired social revolutions for millennia.

For when leaders pull back from prophecy and push the pain of the oppressed into the public sphere in order to organize an entire nation for social change, it is then that, as the poet Seamus Heaney writes: “Justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.”


RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

Singing the story of Moses


Composer Sergio Barer. Photo from sergiobarer.net

When composer Sergio Barer was looking for a subject for an oratorio, he was surprised that he could not find one written about Moses. How had a biblical character with such a dramatic story never received the proper musical tribute?

After several years of research, writing and rehearsal, the San Fernando Valley Master Chorale will premiere Barer’s “Moses, an Oratorio” on April 2 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The concert will include an orchestra, choir, soloists and spoken narration.

An oratorio is a musical composition presented in concert form. It features a choir singing about religious matters, usually stories from the Bible or the lives of saints. Oratorios were very popular in 17th century Italy, though they lack the staging, costumes and props that typically accompany operas.

Barer began this project in 2013 after he’d finished recording his second piano concerto. He was looking for a Jewish subject. At first, he thought of writing an oratorio about Jonah. He was drawn to that story’s theme of personal responsibility. But then he began thinking about Moses, and after some research, concluded that the hero of the Exodus story had never been the subject of his own oratorio.

“I said, ‘This is an oversight. We should have the story of Moses. Not just the story we use for Passover, but the whole thing,’ ” he said.

Composer George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt,” which premiered in 1739, covers the story of Joseph and Moses. Arnold Schoenberg wrote an atonal opera about Moses. But as far as Barer can discern, this is the first oratorio to tell the story of Moses’ entire life.

Barer, who declined to give his age, was born in Mexico City and began studying piano at the age of 6. He began composing classical music in the 1990s. The Kiev Symphony Orchestra recorded his first piano concerto in 2006.

Barer had a Jewish upbringing and even competed in a Bible competition in Israel during high school. His specific interest in Moses arose more recently, after he began attending synagogue services to say Kaddish for his mother, who died in 2012.

“I was going five or six times a week, and I was learning more about the Torah,” he said. “When the moment came to decide on the project, I said, ‘This is really inspiring.’ ”

The San Fernando Valley Master Chorale formed 27 years ago, and has performed locally at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, as well as at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.

He presented the idea to the chorale, and it agreed to perform his new work. An early version was performed in 2015, just as the conductor of the master chorale, Terry Danne, was set to retire. The following year, Charlie Kim stepped in as the new artistic director of the master chorale; Kim will conduct the completed oratorio.

A Korean-Filipino American and native of Southern California, Kim also plays piano with Los Angeles Opera and sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He studied in Texas before returning to the Golden State to serve as music director of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Ventura.

“I was also surprised that there weren’t more musical settings of the story of Moses,” Kim said. “There are a few pieces that focus on the plight of the Israelites leaving Egypt, but the story of Moses from his birth all the way through is very dramatic. He has encounters with God, and confronts government leaders at the risk of his own life.”

The oratorio recounts Moses’ childhood, his marriage to Tzipora, the story of the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the golden calf, and the wandering for 40 years in the desert.

Barer also wanted to emphasize Jewish values that will surely be at the center of discussions at Passover seders this year.

“Having compassion for the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan is mentioned 33 times in the Torah,” he said.

With help from Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, Barer prepared the libretto using only Hebrew text from the Torah. He realized that one big challenge would be telling the story of Moses in about an hour, so he introduced brief narrative sections in English to advance the story.

Barer considered writing it in English or Spanish, but decided that certain words were lost in translation, such as “hineini,” meaning “here I am.”

“These words, I’ve lived with them all my life,” he said. “The words in Hebrew are charged with meaning.”

Barer hopes that his oratorio will help audiences gain renewed appreciation for Moses’ life, just as he did while grieving his mother’s death in synagogue.

The San Fernando Valley Master Chorale will premiere “Moses, an Oratorio” at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, at 4 p.m. April 2. Tickets are $18.

Children’s books offer new ways to enjoy the holiday


New Passover books for children include a variety of themes that previously have not been explored. There’s a picture book about a Jewish Argentine gaucho, a visit to Moses in a 3-D time machine, and an examination of what it would be like to hold a seder when a grandparent is ill.

Consider these as Passover gifts for some of the youngest participants at your seder this year:

“The Passover Cowboy” by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Apples & Honey Press, 2017.

This Passover-themed story takes place in the early years of the 20th century in Argentina, where (we learn from the author’s note) 25,000 Russian Jews settled with the help of German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Young Jacob is learning how to ride horses like his new friend Benito, and even though Jacob has been in the country for less than a year, he is doing his best to become a typical Argentine gaucho. His mother even offers him a special Passover gift of bombachas — loose, wide pants for riding horses. When Benito arrives as a guest at the family’s seder, he brings Jacob another coveted gift — a lasso to signify that Jacob has been accepted in his new country. The watercolor illustrations are heavily researched and depict the period and the holiday celebration beautifully. 

“Passover Scavenger Hunt” by Shanna Silva. Illustrated by Miki Sakamoto. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-passover-scav-huntGreat Uncle Harry is terrible at hiding the afikomen. All the kids anticipate his usual hiding places, and so the search isn’t very fun. But young Rachel hatches a clever plan and offers him the option to let her hide the matzo this year. She then creates a family scavenger hunt containing a variety of rhyming clues. With each solved riddle, the other children get a part of a puzzle that, when pieced together, contains the biggest clue about where the afikomen is hidden. Information regarding the symbols on the seder plate is included within the clues, and even Uncle Harry is in on the merriment by the end. A fun game that could become a future family tradition.

“How It’s Made: Matzah” by Allison Ofanansky. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. Apples & Honey, 2017.

book-matzahLast year, we learned from this same author-photographer team how a Torah is made. Now, kids get to meet the people who make matzo (heralded as “the ultimate fast food”), either by hand or by machine, but always within 18 minutes. One of the matzah-makers states, “Making matzah teaches us to work together. It is not possible to make matzah alone.” These books are special because of their innovative graphic design, various Passover do-it-yourself projects and depictions of diversity throughout more than 100 engaging photos. Plus, there is a recipe for homemade matzo and, of course, a recommendation to “Watch the clock!”

“The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah” by Rabbi Ron Isaacs and Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrations by Jackie Urbanovic. Behrman House, 2017.

book-frog-haggadahIf your haggadah is too dull for the kids at your seder table, consider this charming new offering that features the talkative Frog commenting on the traditional text. Large, engaging photos — often paired with interesting family discussion-starters — ensure that this year will be more fun for everyone. Frog is depicted as hopping from page to page as he spreads his froggie puns and wisecracks. Examples include finding a “piece of toadst” while searching for chametz, and penciling in (with green crayon, of course) a suggestion to include a “Frog’s cup” along with Elijah’s. But the strengths of this family-friendly haggadah are in the flow of its storytelling, its compelling content and design, and the inclusion of Hebrew transliterations. The content is mostly English, but main passages such as blessings, the Four Questions, the Ten Plagues and parts of songs are included in Hebrew.

“Meeting Moses” by Robert Chasin. Illustrated by Matt Roussel. Meeting Bible Heroes Publishing, 2017.

book-meeting-mosesThe Exodus story meets H.G. Wells in this tale of Max and his professor dad, who has invented a time-traveling machine. The standout 3-D illustrations will highly engage children. They remind the reader of a mix of Claymation and a video game, and seem to be partially painted and partially computer-generated. The story follows Max, who has inadvertently taken the time machine to ancient Egypt. By the Nile River, he meets young Moses and young Ramses with Pharaoh’s daughter and is taken to meet Pharaoh. Max is imprisoned, but then freed by Moses. The two travel through time together to Mount Sinai so Max can show Moses what his future will be. Exciting illustrations depict the burning bush, how the stone tablets could have been written, the golden calf, and Moses breaking the tablets. Max eventually gets back home to the present day by tricking Pharaoh and using the convenient “rewind” button to delete the experience from the memories of those he left behind. (It should be noted that the author used the term “Old Testament” to refer to the Hebrew Bible.) The book is available inexpensively in e-book format from the author’s website as well as in a hardcover version.

“A Different Kind of Passover” by Linda Leopold-Strauss. Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau. Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017.

book-different-passA young girl practices the Four Questions in Hebrew and travels, as usual, to her grandparents’ house for the seder with her extended family. She loves the repetition of the yearly rituals, but this year her “heart hurts” because Grandpa was in the hospital recently and cannot leave his bed to lead the seder. She cleverly solves the problem of how Grandpa still can be included with the rest of the family and learns that when things change, they also can remain the same in many ways. The well-written and poignant tale provides us with a young person’s view of the meaning of joyful Passover family traditions.

The arithmetic of trust


Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law. Photo from Wikipedia.

Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

“[Moses] hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them … ”  — Exodus 32:19

The shattering of the Ten Commandments in this week’s parsha after Moses finds the Israelites with the golden calf is the shattering of trust. Think of a moment when your trust was broken. Do you remember the pain of betrayal, when the covenant carved into stone that you thought was solid and eternal was all at once demolished?

Of course you do. No one forgets.

I believe that trust is a delicate compound of truthfulness and tenderness. And today, we are sorely lacking in both elements.

Truth is delicate. It is a fabric easily stretched and torn. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify the true fabric of truth amid so many well-crafted synthetics. We are surrounded by what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” which he defines as something that a person making an argument claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.

Photos are filtered. Bodies are nipped and tucked. Resumes are enhanced. Diplomas are doctored. Reality shows are staged. Facts are altered. We live in an era when more than speaking truth to power, we ache for power to speak truth.

And yet, the truth, too, can be brutal. In Paul Simon’s song “Tenderness,” he sings: “You say you care for me, but there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty/ You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty.”

The rabbis say that in order to preserve shalom bayit, peace in the home, every now and then a small fib is OK. In fact, Talmud gives examples of when it is preferable to lie. What does one say to a bride? Even if she is lame and blind, one is to say how graceful and beautiful she is. I would argue that shalom bayit is not about dishonesty. It’s about delivering truthfulness on a cushion of tenderness. You might think the bride is unattractive, but her partner doesn’t, and when we learn to perceive through loving eyes, we are elevated.

Truthfulness plus tenderness equals trust.

In the Talmud, Rava, who lived around the year 300, said: At the hour you enter heaven for judgment, they will ask you, “Nasata v’natata b’emunah?” (“Did you deal honestly with people in your business?”)

There are systems in this world, many, where dealing honestly with one another is not a high priority. Where girls are offered jobs overseas and then are lost in the sex trade. Where bribes corrupt organizations and obstruct every avenue toward justice. Where everyone and everything is for sale, and no one is safe.

And yet, we are a network, a symbiotic relational push-and-pull, give-and-take system. We are all in the same boat, and if I drill a hole under my seat, it affects you. We are connected. Everything depends on trust.

Every time we drop off our kids at school, we trust that they are in caring hands. Every time the light turns yellow, we trust that cars are going to slow to a stop. Every time we make a deposit, we trust our money is safe.

Too much trust can be dangerous — we would be foolish to trust everyone. But trustworthiness is not dangerous. To be on time, respect boundaries, act with sincerity, deliver honesty with tenderness, create safe environments, keep confidentiality — these are what make you trustworthy, sought after, admired and adored.

So while Rava did not say to trust everyone, and he didn’t promise that everyone else will have honest weights and measures, he said you need to be trusted. You have to have honest weights and measures. Success depends on how much you’ve cultivated other people’s trust in you.

On our dollar bill it reads: “In God we trust.” The touchpoint of our entire network of exchange reminds us that we are bound to a trusteeship with God, that our life is our true asset, our breath is our capital, our soul is our fortune.

God leases everything to us. The Torah is the Deed, which we seal with our good deeds, and our good deeds inspire others and accumulate interest. For some God-knows-why reason, God sees trustworthiness in us, and God appoints us the trustees of this supreme gift.

This despite the fact that the shattered shards of trust are scattered all around us. And as we all well know, it takes a lot of time, patience and stamina to put trust back together. Even after new covenants are at last established, we still each carry those broken bits with us.

Moses says in our Torah portion, “Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!” (Exodus 34:9). The Israelites built the golden calf because they did not have enough trust in God, and afterward, they had to work hard to regain God’s trust. May truthfulness and tenderness inform our relationships with one another and with God.

Rabbi Zoe Klein is senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

Stepping back, stepping forward


King Ahasuerus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. Photo from Wikipedia.

Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that God’s most powerful influence comes not through acting in the world, but rather through conscious and deliberate refraining from acting. He beautifully illustrates this concept with reference to one of life’s quieter, but no less amazing, miracles: teaching a child to take his first steps.

About the time that a small child begins to stand on his own, a caring parent will lean down and beckon, “Come to me.” The child will take a tentative, wobbly step toward his smiling mother. And then, the mother will do something profoundly frustrating: She will back away, creating more distance for the child to traverse.

At first there is confusion, even anger, on the face of the toddler. But, eventually, the distance coaxes him to take one more step, and then another. As the mother makes space, the child learns to walk. It is by pulling back, not swooping in, the Baal Shem Tov taught, that God and we create new realities.

The confluence of this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, and the holiday of Purim, which begins at sunset after Shabbat, is a study in stepping back and leaving space for something new to emerge. Tetzaveh is the only parsha of the latter four books of the Torah that doesn’t mention Moses. Purim’s central text, the Book of Esther, is the only volume of the Bible that doesn’t mention God. Both the parsha and the Megillah defy expectations with the conspicuous absence of ubiquitous characters, inviting us to lean in and listen more closely, to step into the seemingly empty space to discover new and exciting possibilities.

Parashat Tetzaveh describes the ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, the process of bringing human beings into the direct service of God. There can only be one Moses, but, over the course of Jewish history, hundreds of priests would be ordained to carry out their sacred tasks, and after the destruction of the Temple, thousands more rabbis would carry on the chain of ordination.

During this brief moment in which Moses steps aside, we learn that there are other ways to enter into the service of the Holy One aside from being called as a prophet. In Moses’ absence, we are invited to re-imagine our own role in the Jewish story, to envision ourselves as potential leaders and vessels of holiness.

Purim similarly invites us to consider our own power. In previous stories of deliverance from mighty enemies, our triumph always came directly from the hand of God. It was God who split the sea for the escaping Israelite slaves, and stopped the sun in the sky over Joshua’s armies, and protected Daniel in the lion’s den. The story of Esther is the first time we come face to face with the potential of annihilation and don’t have God at hand to save the day.

The Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

Instead, our salvation comes through human courage, the willingness of Esther to put her life on the line to speak her truth. In that way, the Purim story is the most relatable of biblical tales for a world in which God doesn’t appear to sort out all our problems, in which we are called to faith in ourselves and our own abilities to do extraordinary things.

By taking a step back in the twin stories that define this liturgical week, Moses and God invite us to take a step forward and discover our own capacity to act. A parent who never learns to give their child space will never equip them with the ability to survive and to thrive on their own.

Moses is mortal, and he will not cross over into the Promised Land with us, so we’ll need to be able to appoint a chain of leaders who will guide us into our new chapter. And even God can’t be with us every step of the way either, booming instructions, blessings and warnings.

Today we walk on our own, a path laid out by Moses our teacher, on a path toward God our parent. Like children learning to walk, we still stumble and fall sometimes, but as we come to trust our own legs, what a joy it is to learn to carry ourselves forward, with confidence in ourselves to set forth into the world.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (intro.aju.edu) and a lecturer at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

7 Haiku for Parsha Beshalach – Just like at Universal Studios


I
If only they had
stopped and asked for directions.
Less than forty years.

II
Tough choice: Succumb to
approaching Egyptians or
walk into the sea.

III
Walls of water, and
a cloud pillar protects us
from the swords behind.

IV
Egyptians think the
space between water walls is
for them too. It’s not.

V
One of our oldest
traditions began in the
desert – complaining.

VI
Manna encased in
layers morning dew. A
sandwich from Heaven.

VII
If your parents said
not to talk to rocks, you should
refer them to God.


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

How the Bible plays out in hospital intensive care units


In this week's parsha, V'zot ha-Brakhah, we read about the farewell blessing of Moses to the Israelites.  At 120 years of age, Moses views the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendents.  The Israelites will proceed to inhabit this land of milk and honey, but Moses will not.  Moses must die in the land of Moab just short of leading his people into the promised land.  Moses died “al pi adonai,” meaning that Moses died “at the command of the Lord.”

The Rabbis examined why Moses required the Lord's command to die.  In the words of Elie Wesel, retelling the Rabbis' analysis, “When Moses learned that his hour had come, he refused to accept it.  He wanted to go in living — though he was old and tired of wandering and fighting and being constantly tormented by this unhappy and flighty people he was leading across the desert.”  According to the Rabbis, Moses then haggled with God to continue to live, composing prayers, putting on sackcloth, calling on others for support and arguing “Don't you trust me?….Have I not proven my worth?”  God would not back down.  Wesel notes that after being advised by an angel to accept God's decree, Moses should have graciously heeded the sage advice.  But Moses would not and began to bargain according to Wesel:

We went on refusing to die, pleading, crying for another day, another hour, as would any common mortal….So great was his despair that he  declared himself ready to renounce his human condition in exchange for a few more days of life:  'Master of the Universe, he implored, let me live like an animal who feeds on grass, who drinks spring water and is content to watch the days come and go.  God refused.  Man is not an animal; he must live as a human or not at all. 

The Rabbis understood humans' unwillingness to give up life.  But they also understood that all humans must die.  The struggle to survive is innate in each of us, yet we need to learn that this strong impulse must be accede to a greater force.  The Rabbis recognized that humans would be willing to trade one's most precious attribute, humanity, to prolong life, if even for a brief time.  They projected that even Moses, the powerful and great leader of the Israelites, would be willing to give up cognizance of the nature of the world, recognizing others and being part of the human race just to eek out another day.

The Rabbis never could have imagined, but this battle plays itself out daily in intensive care units around the globe.  Man, imbued with the divine spirit, has developed medical advancements that rescue those with failing hearts, lungs, bowels and livers.  People who have experienced “sudden death” are hurriedly hooked up to blood-pumping, oxygenating, continuously detoxifying remarkable machines by amazing clinicians.  Some of these people miraculously walk out of the hospital to continue a renewed life.  But for many, these ventilators, artificial hearts and kidney machines cannot restore humanity. Instead, these machines and feeding tubes and medications yield broken bodies that cannot interact, cannot carry swallow or taste, cannot recognize loved ones.  Many suffer while maintained alive.

A study of critical care physicians at one Southern California hospital system found that more than one in ten patients receiving treatment in their hospitals' intensive care units were receiving treatments that would not benefit the patient in a meaningful way.  These treatments usually would keep a patient alive, albeit briefly for most, but not in a fashion befitting a human.  Many of these patients were comatose with no chance of improving, others could never survive outside of an intensive care unit, but medical technology with tubes and drips and endless effort could keep them precariously balanced between life and death in a room full of machines.  The physicians surveyed in this study, many deeply wounded by the experience, indicated that they should not be providing these critical care treatments.  But they were compelled to do so by families who could not let go, families who were willing to preserve life for an extra day or perhaps several despite the state of their loved one, the suffering and the cost.

The Rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, when herbs and leaches constituted the best medical care had to offer, recognized that man was not served by succumbing to the basic instinct to preserve life at any cost.  We can learn today that it is humanity that we must strive to preserve at all times.  And that there is sometimes a need to say “no, it is time to die.”


Dr. Neil S. Wenger is professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at UCLA and a consulting researcher at RAND. He is director of the UCLA Healthcare Ethics Center and is chair of the Ethics Committee at the UCLA Medical Center.

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)


And Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: For he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

Of the one woman, we know much; of the other, we know very little. 

Of Miriam, the prophetess, we are familiar with her deeds in Egypt and her song by the sea. We know her parents, Yocheved and Amram, and her brothers, Moses our teacher, and Aaron the High Priest. Of their likeness in Jewish history, none compare.

In the wilderness, no family was held in higher regard, and to the best of our knowledge, no woman was held in higher esteem. Upon Miriam’s death, we are told that the Congregation immediately thirsted for water (Numbers 20:1-2). The Talmud remarks that it was on account of Miriam’s righteousness that water flowed from the rock all those years in the wilderness (Taanith 9a).

In contrast, who is this other, “Cushite,” woman Moses reportedly has taken for a wife? She has no name, no family, no back story. However does she find herself in the camp of Israel and married to Moses, of all men? 

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, perhaps to impress his Roman audience, records in his “Antiquities of the Jews” that in Moses’ younger years — as Prince of Egypt — he led a military campaign through the land of Ethiopia, and there took an Ethiopian princess, Tharbis, as his first wife. But if such a tradition about Moses existed in Israel’s collective memory — passed on orally outside the biblical canon — it likely would have found its way into early rabbinic texts such as the Midrash or Targum. No such text exists, making Josephus’ claim highly suspect. 

Slightly less implausible is an attempt to identify this Cushite woman with Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzippora, daughter of Yitro (see Rashi). But this raises difficulties. The Torah states twice in one verse (in case we doubted it) that Moses married a “Cushite woman.” Cush in the Bible begins in Ethiopia (below Egypt) and continues southward into Africa, quite a distance from the Midianite settlements in the Jordan-Arabia region. Imagine mistaking Sacramento for San Diego, or a Londoner for a Parisian.    

The simplest explanation, and the most credible, is that Moses took a second wife. We do not know the why or the when; and of the woman herself, we know little beyond her nationality. But perhaps half the lesson may be derived from the impoverished description of her personality, for it lays bare a stark difference in status and power between herself and Miriam.

How much more awful is the slander when a great woman such as Miriam, esteemed for her accomplishments and privileged by her familial bonds, criticizes a seeming “nobody,” an unnamed outsider from a distant and foreign land. With no blood ties to the Jewish people, or known accomplishments, her importance is derived from her husband. Without intrinsic worth, she is flippantly dismissed as Moses’ Cushite wife. 

The Torah does not detail what Miriam, and to some lesser extent Aaron, found bothersome about Moses and his wife. Perhaps Moses was neglecting his husbandly duties of intimacy with his beloved, or so claims Rashi. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron thought Moses’ Cushite wife to be unattractive; so writes Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. More likely, Miriam thought it wrong that Moses should marry a foreigner instead of taking an Israelite wife. That Tzippora had been a foreigner could be forgiven, for at the time, Moses was living far from his brethren in Egypt when he took her as his wife. But later in the wilderness, among the Children of Israel, certainly Moses could have found a more fitting Israelite bride (Shadal).

Far more remarkable is what Miriam’s punishment says about her crime, for the Bible always metes out justice measure for measure. Miriam is publicly humiliated. First, Miriam’s skin turns flaky white by her having contracted tza’arat, the biblical skin disease. Second, she is shut outside the Israelite camp for seven days. In the Torah’s words, her personal shame was like that of a daughter whose “father spits before her face” in disgust (Numbers 12:14).

But how does this reprimand fit her offense? 

Conceivably, if Miriam used the term “Cushite” as a racial slur referring to skin color, it may be thought quite just that Miriam’s skin turned a sickly white color in rebuke. Additionally, if “Cushite” was used to convey the foreignness of Moses’ wife, it is fitting that Miriam is in turn made to feel the outsider as she is set apart outside the camp.  

Thus, in an instant, Miriam, an insider, comes to know the difficult predicament of being an alien — a predicament she should never have forgotten considering Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. 

What an apt lesson for minding the social divide between privileged and underprivileged, between those in the center and those on the fringes. After all, what an Israelite can suffer in Egypt, an Ethiopian can suffer in Israel. In God’s eyes, she who was superior today can become subordinate tomorrow, and vice versa. If Miriam can succumb to forgetfulness and pride, prejudice and xenophobia, we’d do well to doubly guard our words and deeds.


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Cartoon: Shavuot Tablets


God Goes Hollywood in Exodus: Gods and Kings


Spoiler alert: Morgan Freeman does not play God in Exodus: Gods and Kings.  And this is only one of the many courageous risks that director Ridley Scott took in bringing the story of Moses to life in the just released movie. Instead of trying to depict the literal text of the Bible as we saw in the 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston, Ridley Scott does midrash-Hollywood style.

For those of you that have read the Bible and for those of you that have it in your ibooks queue, what you may not know is that it does not read like Gone Girl. There are a lot of gaps, duplications and conflicting stories in the ancient text. Since the 2nd century AD rabbis have added Midrash -commentaries, stories and interpretations- to try and fill in the gaps and make sense of these teachings. These midrashim have become essential to the body of work known as the Jewish tradition because they bring the stories to life and make them applicable to our modern lives.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is Midrash in the year 2014. The movie was clearly trying to answer some of the unanswered questions of the Moses story:

  • What was the relationship between the brothers in the palace growing up? Were they competitive or were they close?  
  • How did Moses talk to God? Was he delusional? Did he have visions? Did he see angels?
  • How did the Red Sea part? Was it truly miraculous, or was it just low tide that day?

I am not a movie critic so I did not evaluate Exodus: Gods and Kings for its entertainment value. I haven’t devoted my life to studying Judaism to be entertained. Some of the teachings are very troubling, and at times have left me angry and confused.  The reason I became a rabbi is that I believe if I am willing to wrestle with the texts even the problematic ones, the tradition will guide me to live a more moral and meaningful life. 

There is a teaching in Judaism that when we pray, God speaks to us; but when we study, we speak to God. Last Thursday I ran to the first showing of Exodus at 8 pm* because I wanted to study the midrash of our time. I wasn’t looking to come out of the movie and say; “Those plagues were amazing” (even though they were!). Rather I wanted Exodus: Gods and Kings to challenge me, to force me to think, and to help me continue the ongoing conversation of my tradition with all people of all religions and backgrounds.

Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, Christian Bale and every single person (including all the extras) involved in the making of that movie and bringing it to the world stage- Yasher Koach which means “Kudos to you” for reminding us that the Bible is still the most compelling book of all time.  

*IPIC Theaters releases movies the night before at 8 pm if you want to get a first glimpse.

Are Jews losing their story?


As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

On Shavuot, reconsidering the origins of the Torah


Is the Torah true? 

The story itself is pure Hollywood (and yes, there have been a few movies): God sends a messenger to free a group of slaves from the superpower of the time, Egypt. When Pharaoh says no, plagues rain down from heaven until he finally relents. The slaves leave in the middle of the night; the Egyptians, suffering from liberator’s remorse, chase after them. The sea splits, the Jews walk through victorious, and the pursuing Egyptian army is annihilated. 

But that’s just the opening act. The Exodus is a prelude for the most important moment in human history, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the event we commemorate this week with the observance of the holiday of Shavuot.

But who says it really happened? In response to this classic question, which has been around for ages, some have theorized that the story was created 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile. Jewish refugees living after the destruction of the First Temple wanted keep the Jewish people unified in the Diaspora. They weaved the legends of the beginnings of Jewish people and created the biblical narrative. Others suggest that there were multiple authors, or that the Five Books of Moses were given on Sinai but the oral tradition was a human creation over time. 

It was this very question that King Bulan, who ruled Khazaria in the late eighth century, put to a rabbi he invited to teach Judaism to his nation. Eventually, he and many of his subjects converted to Judaism. For almost two centuries, Khazaria was a primarily Jewish kingdom located in Southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don. It was destroyed by an invasion of the Rus from Kiev in the late 10th century. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the 11th century Spanish-Jewish scholar and poet who recounts this conversation in his epic on Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari, the rabbi told King Bulan that there is a profound difference between core beliefs of Judaism and the other monotheistic religions. Both Christianity and Islam are the product of one man convincing others of a prophecy and events he personally experienced. The birth of Judaism, by contrast, was a collective experience: There were 600,000 males between the ages of 20 and 60 present at Sinai. All told, some 2 1/2 million people witnessed and participated in these events. They told their children, who told their children, who told their children about the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. 

It is this collective memory that is passed down through the generations, and this is why the historical narrative of the Jews of Yemen and the Jews of Poland is the same. Separated by thousands of miles, they both tell the same story that has reached down through the generations, of momentous events that transformed the Jewish people and all of mankind. 

What the rabbi told the King of the Khazars over 1,300 years ago is that the Torah has passed the test of history. The proof we have for any event, the landing on the moon, that George Washington was the first President of the United States, is the same.  

Millions of people witnessed the event, they testified to that fact, and they told the story to the next generation. Accepting the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people by God is not an issue of faith — we have faith for things we cannot explain. That God gave the Torah to the Jews is a historical reality. Other historical validation does exist: Ancient scrolls of the Torah and prophets that are more than 2,000 years old, archaeology in Israel that time and again corroborates the Biblical narrative. And the greatest proof of all: the test of history. 

Believing that the Torah was given at Sinai is no different than accepting the fact that Caesar ruled Rome or that Aristotle was a great philosopher. The reason we hesitate to accept the historical proof of the Torah is that it obligates us to follow its teachings.

Today, all other ancient peoples have faded to oblivion, but the Jewish people are a living, breathing entity. We can find remains of the Persians, the Greeks, even the ancient Canaanites in museums and archeological digs. The Jewish people are a vibrant reality carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. On Shavuot, they will gather in synagogues to recall the momentous event when heavens touched earth on Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County & Long Beach. He can be reached at rabbi@ocjewish.com.

The covenant of the calf: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)


If the word of God, engraved in stone, can crumble as easily as bread; if God’s voice, chiseled in rock, can shatter like a pitched dinner plate; if the children of Israel can cast off their heavenly covenant with a casualness not unlike the unclasping of an earring or a necklace; if it is all so easily dismissed, what chance is there for loyalty and faith, when weighed against the allure of a pot of gold, or the lustrous aura of a gilded calf? 

The narrative of the molten calf is unique in its plethora of vivid images. Moses and God, high upon the mountain, are engaged in august discourse, while far below, the restless people dance their way from anxiety to frivolity, from fear to wretched faithlessness. Somehow, Aaron becomes a harassed sort-of baby-sitter, longing for the sound of an engine in the driveway, his ear tilted in the hope of the sound of jingling keys outside the door, all while the children run amok.  

First they want gods to lead them. Perhaps, Aaron wonders, they will settle for a single graven calf. The people desire sacrifices; perhaps the “construction of an altar” will provide some delay. They wish for merriment, so Aaron declares a night vigil, a final interlude for the people to reconsider or Moses to return and intercede: “Tomorrow, a feast to the Lord,” he says (Exodus 32:1-6).  We know what ensues.

However, there is no image more vivid than Moses’ reaction as he spies his people making sport of all that he holds dear: “And it was when he neared the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned, he threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them beneath the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

We have journeyed with Moses, our teacher, as he led Israel from slavery to freedom, from the dry bed of the Red Sea to the sloping mount of Revelation. His defeat now is palpable. There is wrath in his eyes, rage on his face. It is as if he has found some stranger in bed with his spouse. What use are words when the pain is physical? The covenant has already been smashed to pieces.

But quite possibly, wittingly or otherwise, Moses conveyed in rage what could not be conveyed in thunder and lightning, in the great columns of smoke and flame that accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps what was missing in the fireworks was an essential lesson about the meaning of loyalty. In the moment when Moses’ anger mirrored God’s anger, the children of Israel began to see the thunder anew. Partnerships, covenants, trust … they flow both ways. The voice of God could only be engraved in stone, but it is the image of Moses’ burning rage that gets chiseled in Israel’s heart.  

The verse that follows compounds the lesson: “Moses took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to fine-powder, scattered it over the water and made the Israelites drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses appears to want Israel to “taste” what it has done. His people must ingest the concoction and savor its distastefulness. In this way, they may come to appreciate the foulness of the whole affair. Many commentators wonder: From what source was this water drawn? Some, including Torah translator and interpreter Robert Alter, suggest this was the water that Moses “miraculously provided for the people, which would be a compounding of irony.”

In a different vein, the 12th century rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, points to Deuteronomy 9:21 where Moses states that he took the grounded dust of the calf and flung it into “the stream that came down from the mountain.” This was hardly any old wadi, it was the very stream that swept down from Sinai and sustained the camp.

Faithfulness has little meaning without some awareness of the repercussions of faithlessness: how disloyalty dissolves the bond of trust, how it pollutes the waters of love — human and divine. Faith is no paltry thing, because the memory of broken faith endures forever. Stone tablets shatter, and God’s voice is lost in the wind; perhaps more than anything else, it was the Golden Calf that sealed the covenant.


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

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