14 haiku for Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei (involving a major construction project) by Rick Lupert


Vayakhel

I
An all staff meeting.
Building instructions given.
Not on Saturday.

II
This tabernacle
funded by all the people.
The first Kickstarter.

III
A miracle! This
over-funded project is
with the artists now.

IV
Here in the dream lab
curtains are connected and
loops of wool appear.

V
Planks and sockets and
cubits. This is what it takes
to build a Mishkan.

VI
The holiness is
in the details. A golden
Menorah appears.

VII
Who doesn’t love to
see a project completed.
Now, the inspectors.

Pekudei

I
Let’s name all our kids
Bezalel, so that they may
become artists too.

II
Priests looking for the
latest accessories – look
no further: ephod.

III
Pomegranates and
bells. Twisted blue. This runway
will be off the hook.

IV
Laying out the wares
Moses gives them a blessing
for a job well done.

V
With all the pieces
the Mishkan is almost here.
Assembly required.

VI
Like a complex set
of Ikea instructions
Moses builds it all.

VII
A cloud comes. Not one
of gloom and rain. This is the
cloud that strengthens us.


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.

Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The ark that wasn’t there


Vayakel Moshe — and Moses gathered the whole community of Israelites and said unto them, these are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

— Exodus 35:1

For centuries, Jews have gathered to hear and embellish the stories of Torah in accordance with the perspectives of the time. I would like to add a “Malibu midrash” to our portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, a true story titled “The Ark That Wasn’t There.”

In this week’s parsha, Moses again recounts the directions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. “Let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses (Exodus 25:8). The directions for the menorah, the ark, the furnishings and even the priestly garb are described to Moses in minute detail. All of the senses are combined to echo the beauty of God’s creation as heaven is to be grounded on earth in this mikdash, holy space. 

Before the sanctuary in space is to be completed, however, God reminds the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat, our sanctuary in time that always is accessible, every seventh day. No assembly required. We have always had a “date night” with God, if only we will observe the Sabbath.

The instructions for intimacy with God in time and space are interrupted by the story of the golden calf. It appears that the Israelites are not yet ready to engrave God upon their hearts in faithfulness and love. The gold of the ark is traded for the gold of an idol.

In our subsequent portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei, it becomes evident that the repentant Israelites clearly need a building project. Again, they are reminded to first observe Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Bezalel, a man endowed by the Creator with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft,” is chosen as master craftsman (Exodus 35:31). At the center of the Holy of Holies was an ark of acacia wood, with a cover of pure gold. Two cherubs were of one piece with the cover, their wings spread out above and their faces  turned toward each other, and it is there that God “will meet with you … from between the two cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22).

Here, in the space enclosed by the wings of the cherubs, heaven and earth are to intersect. In this void, this emptiness, the voice of God, the bat kol, will be heard.

It was no small matter, then, to finally dedicate the ark that was to crown our new sanctuary here in Malibu 11 years ago. Our Bezalel, chosen after an arduous committee process, was an artist who, in fact, was a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was a superb craftsman, with an exacting eye for detail.

A year after the building was completed, we finally scheduled an inauguration of our precious ark with a gathering of the entire community on Shabbat. As the day grew near, I visited the artist’s studio and saw the ark doors, lying on the table. “Just a balancing problem,” I was told. “Don’t worry, it’s a few small details.” The next morning, an hour before the ceremony was to begin, I received an ominous phone call. There still were details to be worked out. The ark was not going to appear.

I ran into the sanctuary and set up a small screen, draped with cloth.

“Where’s the ark?” Cantor Marcelo Gindlin whispered as we took our places on the bimah.

“Don’t worry,” I said, pointing to the panels behind me. “Let’s get started.”

Vayakhel. A large crowd gathered, with all of our board of directors and major donors sitting in the front rows. We made our way through the service, and at last it was time to “install” our ark.

“Please rise if you were among the donors to this project,” I said. “You are the doors to our ark, providing both opening and protection.” About 50 people stood.

I then asked all those who had read Torah that year to rise. “You really hold the Torah within you. Please remain standing.”

I then asked our board to rise, our Eternal Light, as our choir sang words of Torah.

Soon everyone was on their feet, singing and clapping. I then asked people to give one another a blessing. The room grew quiet and a holy silence descended. Here and there, a heavenly voice could be heard.

“But what about the ark?” someone shouted.

“Oh, that ark,” I responded. “Ah, it’s not quite ready yet. But each one of you is really a holy ark, making a space for God to dwell. The real ark is in the human heart.”

No assembly required.


Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. For more of her Torah commentaries, visit mjcs.org.

7 Haiku for Parsha Yitro (it’s the really big show)


I
At Mount Sinai, a
family reunion. The
whole story is retold.

II
You can’t do it all
Jethro tells Moses.
Learn to delegate.

III
Moses chose men of
substance so they could judge the
people at all times.

IV
We’re finally at
the mountain, this kingdom of
princes and holies.

V
Are we prepared for
the thunder and lightning
of revelation?

VI
The big show begins.
We get a top ten list to
end all top ten lists.

VII
The sound and light show
left us shaken and afraid.
We were not prepared.


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.

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.

7 Haiku for Parsha Vaera (in which frogs get a raw deal)


I
In case you have been
waiting for slavery to
end, your time has come.

II
A surprise flashback
makes us nostalgic for the
children of Jacob.

III
Moses gets a pep
talk, and a sidekick. Aaron
will do the talking.

IV
You’re not going to
impress anyone turning
your sticks into snakes.

V
The unsung heroes
of Exodus, are surely
all the poor dead frogs.

VI
Pharaoh is tired of
plague after plague but God’s
not done showing off.

VII
Be careful Pharaoh.
Your fickle mind and hardened
heart won’t always heal.

The cure for anger: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)


Life is not easy. In fact, at times it’s downright infuriating. Our natural tendency is to want to blame someone, and the easiest target is God. We may carry anger at HaShem for our entire lives. As a result, we miss out on decades of spiritual connectedness and comfort. 

There is another way, and the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner) uses this week’s parasha, Emor, as the answer. It contains a list of five kinds of negative thinking, in the form of rules for the high priest, matched with a framework for redirecting our thoughts when they arise, in the form of holidays. 

We can’t choose what pain we will experience day to day. We can, however, choose not to let ourselves feel alienated from the Holy One as a result, freeing us to remain open to God’s loving presence in our lives. The Ishbitzer shows us how.

First, the priest is told to avoid funerals, saying it will contaminate him. He cannot grieve in community, even for his own parents. How infuriating for him! For the Ishbitzer, this suggests existential frustration — the hopeless feeling that the world is a shattered place and we can’t fix a thing. We rage at God: “Why don’t You put things right?” 

The cure is Passover. Its core message is that God takes us out of Egypt, the narrow place, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We need never doubt that God will deliver us from our circumstances, and that the world is moving toward a time of Messianic perfection. Pesach tells us to have faith. Change can and will come.

Second, the priest must be unblemished: without disability or disease, injury or scar. This corresponds to the humiliation we feel about our own weaknesses and broken places. We wish we were more beautiful, more admired, more accomplished.

Shavuot is the remedy for this line of thought, the holiday when we commemorate receiving the Torah. Torah, it is said, heals all wounds and perfects all imperfections, because they don’t matter to God. A life of prayer and study, of spiritual attainment, helps us to let go of shallow understanding and to be who we are truly meant to be. Shavuot tells us we are perfect just the way we are. 

Third, a priest must rigorously guard his ritual purity, such as by marrying only a virgin. How infuriating for him to be so close to service and then to be made impure by his sexual relationships. This is the sadness of addictions and distractions. We are drawn to the things that seem to bring us relief from the anxiety of life. They may tamp down our loneliness and disappointments, but they push away God and truth in the process. We are left feeling numb, sick and spiritually dead. 

The cure is Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar is blown, the world starts over again afresh. The Book of Life opens before us, ready to receive the good news of our readiness to change our ways. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our neshamah taharah, our eternally pure soul. 

Fourth, Emor speaks of ways in which the sacrifices themselves can be unworthy of ritual use. The owners of these offerings might cry out to God, asking why their hard-earned possessions should be judged inadequate. It’s so easy to fall into the self-righteousness of deprivation. “We deserve better!”

Yom Kippur comes to hand us a feeling of infinite riches. By abandoning our worldly pleasures and benefits for a day and focusing solely on God, we see our meager belongings take on a new, perfected light. Yom Kippur says, “I have plenty.”

And finally, the Ishbitzer sees the command for the Kohen to eat the thanksgiving offering “on that day” to point out our tendency to fret about what was or will be, rather than rejoice in what we have right now. We go through our days, flooded by memories and worries. Our thoughts convince us that they alone will bring relief, but they never do. Only by letting go and standing in awe and fear of the Holy One of Blessing can we bring our lives into focus. 

This is the teaching of Sukkot, z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. This moment, this breath, is as flimsy as a leaf-covered hut. But it is God’s promise to protect and surround us, to give us joy and never to abandon us. Sukkot is presence. 

As we continue our counting of the Omer toward Shavuot, may the Ishbitzer’s Emor mindfulness practice give us the tools we need to release suffering, and to refine ourselves, like a silversmith pounding shiny bits together to form a whole, holy vessel for receiving Torah. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.

On equal footing: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)


I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration from the hospital room of my 92-year-old friend Harriet. She was having an EKG during it, even though we all agreed the numbers would not provide an accurate assessment of her condition — her medical condition, that is. 

“You have no idea,” she said to us, “what it means to me … that I lived long enough. I never imagined I would hear what I’m hearing today — the president of the United States including me in an inaugural address. The president of the United States saying the words ‘our gay brothers and sisters’ in his inaugural address. What I lived through — the hiding, the fear, the exclusion, afraid for my job … my livelihood. Unless you are my age, you can have no idea what it was like or what this means.” 

Harriet’s “test” revealed a heart condition, all right: “I love that man,” she said over and over as the president spoke.

I thought back to Obama’s interview in May 2012, when he said that his thinking was “evolving,” and he publicly supported the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. I thought back to his signing the end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (begun during the Clinton administration), and the Obama administration’s decision not to defend DOMA (the “Defense of Marriage Act”) signed into law by President Clinton. Those are huge changes in far fewer than Harriet’s 92 years, and yet I understood what she was saying to me. I could have no idea how it felt to her. And yet, I kind of do.

Last month, January 2013, saw not only President Obama’s inauguration, but also the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control to be “forever free.”

A couple of years later (1865) saw the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery (and the Civil War) with the political and moral battle compellingly told by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner in their current film, “Lincoln.” 

The anniversary and the Spielberg film shine a brighter light on Obama’s re-election, and a different light on this year’s reading of Parashat Mishpatim (“Rules”), which begins with God’s matter-of-fact instruction on the treatment of Hebrew slaves: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave …” (Exodus 21:2). Even though some slavery advocates in the early history of the United States used the Bible, and these verses in particular, to suggest that even God found slavery perfectly permissible, there are many verses also in Mishpatim that helped others to oppose slavery in any form. Perhaps the most compelling of these rules is one told twice in this Torah portion and 34 more times elsewhere in Torah, making it by far the most repeated value, rule or law in Torah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger (v’atem ya-datem et-nefesh ha-ger), having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt [in Mishpatim]” (Exodus 23:9, also 22:20).

Here God gives us a commandment not just by telling us not to do something, but by reminding us that we know why not to do it: because you know what it feels like to be a stranger. 

God then proceeds to describe some other people not to oppress (the widow, the orphan, the poor). But like a wise teacher who knows the students might drift off if the lecturer drones on, God surprises us by posing a question in the midst of this list: “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Bameh yishkahv?” (Exodus 22:25-26).

Imagine this scenario, God says, exactly as I describe it, and then answer my question. God is not just instructing us about what to do, but asking us why. By answering God’s direct question to us — “Bameh yishkahv? In what else shall he sleep?” — we are invited not simply to see another, to feel what another might feel, we are invited to a deeper understanding of ourselves — to find the innate morals and values and natural sympathy that exist within each of us. 

In order to “win a man to your cause,” Abraham Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”

“For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well,” said President Obama in his second inaugural address. 

“I love that man,” said Harriet.


Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.

Opportunity of a setback: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)


This week’s parasha is one of the most central to the Jewish narrative. We read of the final plagues, the storm brought by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm gathering on the border of Egypt, the Divine command to prepare for the Exodus by baking the matzot and eating the bitter herbs. It is the essence of the Passover story. Our greatest glory — Divine liberation — emanated from the nadir of our enslavement.

So often, events unfold that set us back. We wonder: “Why me?” Everything was going fine, and then we abruptly find ourselves in Purgatory. It might be a nightmare job, an aliyah effort that fails, a marriage that dissolves or an investment lost because of a predator’s fraud.

Suddenly, the “man with the plan” has no backup. Everything that once seemed so hopeful and easy has now collapsed. 

Such horrible setbacks are augured in the larger story framing the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. One moment, a family seems finally at peace in Canaan; the next moment, a son is sold into slavery. He finally finds his own peace in a strange land, only to be targeted by his boss’s lusting wife, resulting in his imprisonment. He ultimately rises again, higher than before, and brings his family to Egypt, only to have history unfold horribly once more with a new Pharaoh arisen, the family enslaved, mired in their darkest hour.

The exodus from Egypt was meant to teach compelling life lessons that would imbue meaning for all generations. One of those lessons is that while every life sustains terrible setbacks, there also are escape valves that can open better opportunity than previously imagined.

Looking back, we see the steps that fell into place for this exodus to unfold. In order for the Jews to be crafted as a unique and holy people, we were meant to become resident in Egypt and then enslaved. But why did He select Egypt as our national petri dish?

When Jacob and his sons first arrived in Egypt, we were approximately 70 souls. Yet, 210 years later, we would grow into a nation of millions. To become that nation, we would need to forge an identity and cultivate a culture. For that culture to be unique, pure and unpolluted by surrounding corrupt foreign influences, that family had to be settled in virtual physical isolation. Egypt afforded that unique opportunity in Goshen, the rich land Pharaoh authorized uniquely for us. There, undisturbed by neighboring cultures, we enjoyed two centuries to evolve. Moreover, because of Egypt’s military might, our evolution was not threatened by security concerns. Egypt provided us safety so that we could thrive on our own.

But before that, we Jews had to have reason to move to Egypt. Thus, circumstances unfolded: Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, therefore later loving her son, Joseph, more than his other sons. As those sons became jealous of Joseph, they seized him and sold him into slavery, laying the groundwork for his falling into the hands of Potiphar, whose wife’s failed seductions prompted Potiphar to have Joseph imprisoned. That incarceration — yet another debilitating setback — was the necessary portal to enable Joseph to meet the imprisoned wine steward, who later would become the vehicle for introducing Joseph to Pharaoh. Once elevated to viceroy status, Joseph could bring his father and brother — the Jews — into Egypt, intending thereby solely to save them from famine when, in fact, God’s greater plan was for them to become a People with their own uniquely crafted culture and civilization.

That is how life goes. Setbacks and complications, with no clear reason “why,” until years pass and the master plan becomes a bit discernible. So Moshe’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him in a river, and the basket floats to the princess, assuring that the baby will be reared from infancy in the king’s palace, providing him a life-impacting education in noble bearing and speaking forthrightly to power. The perfect training for the “leader from the periphery” who will lead slaves from bondage. Even as that “happenstance” assures that baby Moses will be regal in demeanor and primed for political leadership, he also needs to acquire training in religious leadership. So, when fleeing from the former comfort and security of Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster, he “happens” to encounter the daughters of Yitro, high priest of Midian. Upon marrying into Yitro’s family, Moshe now will have a father-in-law experienced in the priesthood who, for years to come, will teach him the skills and craft of theological leadership. 

Within each setback are the seeds from which greater things can germinate. Things often happen for reasons. Sometimes we need only pause long enough from asking “Why me?” to discern perhaps why and to appreciate fascinating new opportunities about to unfold.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Are you awake?: Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)


There is an old midrash to explain how Moshe discovered his Jewish identity and woke up to his calling as a teacher and prophet. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, used to sing him lullabies and feed him familiar foods. As she weaned him and led him into the embrace of his surrogate family, the sounds, tastes and smells of his childhood were pushed deep into the recesses of his subconscious. It was when he walked among the Israelites that the sounds of those lullabies and the smells of those familiar foods awakened his Jewish consciousness, launching him on a journey toward the ultimate awareness of YHVH. 

Moshe was asleep for those years as Prince of Egypt. We may even say his indifference was an escape from the world outside the doors of his home — one aflame with injustice and oppression. As Moshe becomes aware of his true identity and stands up to the injustice of an oppressive taskmaster, his pampered and comfortable existence in Pharaoh’s palace is shattered.

We can all relate to moments like this in our own lives, moments when the thresholds of our understanding and expectations of the world around us are breached with new awareness, sometimes enabling us to discover new truths or bringing us back to our core identity; an act of remembering truths we once knew and have seemingly forgotten.

We are in slumber states for most of our week. To be awake is to cut through the pages of the newspaper, beyond the incessant attention of presidential debates, impending threats internationally and locally, to find the truths of our lives and keep us focused on our true purpose. It’s what should call us to greater action and response toward the threats of dignity for Jewish women in Israel, and the sobering reminder that there are more than 1 million people in our Los Angeles community who are undernourished and impoverished. 

This is the power of memory. Active memory is the capacity to awaken us from our existential slumber, to shatter our beliefs that the rhythms of daily responsibilities and our busyness make up our life’s purpose. Memory links us to greater truths — truths that make us uncomfortable and truths that soften us and bring us assurance that we matter in the lives of others. “Everybody needs his memories,” author Saul Bellow writes. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” 

In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” Joshua Foer chronicles his 2006 journey to the USA Memory Championship. The most interesting technique we learn from the book is constructing what is called a memory palace. The trick is to visualize a building, perhaps your childhood home or other home that is most familiar to you, and to imaginatively place facts, numbers and details around the house. Using your imagination and creating new associations with ones that are already deeply rooted in your memory, you simultaneously construct a method to remember significant amounts of information and nurture healthy brain development by creating new neural pathways. 

As I read the book, I could not help but relate this technique and its wisdom to our study of the Torah. Perhaps our Torah is one collective memory palace, a cultural and historical edifice of truths that we use to bring familiarity and new understanding to our lives. To read Torah this way is to see how the details, laden with thousands of years of history, is both an awakening to our core identity and an opportunity to build new information and new wisdom into our collective memory as a people, as Jews. The message of Moshe, if not the entire Jewish text tradition, is that we all have the capacity and responsibility to wake up and act in the world for goodness.

In this week’s parasha, we meet a Pharaoh who represents the antithesis to memory. His heart is hardened after each plague as if to say he forgets the awesome power the God of Israel displays time and again. Moshe stands as Pharaoh’s opposite here. He lives in Pharaoh’s palace until he wakes up. It is his determination and resilience to construct a new identity for himself and the Israelites that define redemption. It is through his memory that the bridge between slumber and wakefulness is secured.


Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

What is in a Name? Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)


This week we begin a new book of Torah — Shemot in Hebrew and Exodus in English. While the word “exodus” means “going out,” the word “shemot” means “names.” So, it should not be surprising that we are sent through a maze of names and journeys in this week’s parasha.

The portion opens with a series of interactions among Israelites who notably remain nameless. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. And their oppressor, Pharaoh, has declared that if an Israelite woman gives birth to a baby boy, he must be killed. And yet, “a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman” (Exodus 2:1). These two unnamed Levites then give birth to a son, who is also not named. The mother is enamored with her newborn and she hides him for three months. When concealing him becomes impossible, the mother takes the boy and puts him in a tiny basket and hides him in the reeds of the Nile River. The boy’s sister, also unnamed, follows the mother, witnesses her desperate actions, and watches over her brother’s basket.

Why conceal their names? Surely, the four had names by which they were known in their community. Indeed, we come to know these names later in Exodus. Surely, they knew one another not only by their given names, but also by myriad nicknames and pet names. Yet, the Torah reveals not a single one in these opening verses.

Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby in his basket and exclaims, “This must be a Hebrew child” (Exodus 2:6). Her label for the child echoes exactly what we know of him. He was a Hebrew, the son of slaves.

The absence of names in the beginning of this story suggests just how dehumanizing life had become for the Israelites. Stripped of their rights, their agency, their freedom and their identities, the Israelites were truly in bondage.

In a series of twists and turns, Moses is then nursed by his mother, who is called his “wet nurse,” and is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who is called his “mother.” When Pharaoh’s daughter chooses a name for the boy, she chooses a name recalling the journey that brought him to her, “She named him Moshe, explaining, ‘Because I pulled him out of the water’ ” (Exodus 2:10). Moses comes of age in Pharaoh’s palace, separated from his people and no longer called “Hebrew.”

It is a journey of sorts that returns Moses to his foundational identity as “Hebrew.” Torah tells us that Moses “went out to his kinsfolk” (Exodus 2:11) and sees an Egyptian beat a Hebrew slave. It seems this act of “going out” among his people awakens something dormant in Moses. When he leaves the confines of Pharaoh’s palace and enters into the midst of his people, Moses seems to remember his original name was “Hebrew child.” He seems to remember that he, too, began his life stripped of identity and freedom. Moses breaks free from the identity forced upon him, recognizes the ultimate injustice in the act he is witnessing and kills the Egyptian taskmaster.

After another such incident, Moses flees from Egypt and travels to Midian. Moses’ remembered name leads him on a journey, just as a journey once led him to his name.

One day in Midian, while tending to his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. God knows the young man’s name and knows just how to reach him: “Moses, Moses,” God calls (Exodus 3:4). From the bush, God tells Moses who he really is: not a slave, not a Midianite shepherd, not a child of the Egyptian palace, but a redeemer of the Israelite people. 

Moses responds by asking God’s name and God answers elusively, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14-15). Translated into the future tense, we see that God’s name is in and of itself a journey.

As the Israelites’ conditions worsen, they cry out to God (Exodus 2:23). In response to this cry, God remembers the covenant made with the Israelites so many generations ago and once again calls them “My people” (Exodus 5:1).

It is when Moses receives his new identity and when God reclaims the people as God’s own that the real story of journeys and names begins. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, the Israelites are ready for a new future. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, they take their first steps on their journey toward freedom.


Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation.

Never alone: Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)


In this week’s parasha, Yaakov flees for his life, departing from Beersheva back to Charan — back to the beginning. How optimistic it had been when Avraham came to Israel two generations earlier, abandoning Charan presumably forever (Genesis 11:32-12:6). Avraham “went, took and passed.” He was journeying to a grand destiny on blessed land, where God promised he would become a great nation, blessed with wealth, with a name made great and famous.

Not so here. Vayetzei — not with a bang but with panic, Yaakov is leaving. The Promise seems to be collapsing on his watch. Grandfather Avraham arrived with anticipation. Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak, never set foot outside the Land. Yet, Yaakov’s inheritance now seems to be rupturing. Ostensibly breaking faith with the Land, he faces a Lost Journey, returning to Charan, where it all began. 

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating in life than progressing and expanding, only to be compelled to return to square one. If you have ever composed an important text on a computer only to have it crash before you could save the document, then you know the immense frustration of having to return to square one. 

Indeed, after the Sin of the Spies, when Hashem will condemn that generation’s men to wander through Sinai for 40 years, the first directive that “brings home” the enormity of the punishment is God’s command to the Jewish Nation about to enter Israel: “Tomorrow, turn [completely around] and travel back toward the desert [all the way back] toward the direction of the Sea of Reeds” (Numbers 14:25). It’s the deflation of having come so far, only to be directed now to go all the way back, to start over. 

And now Yaakov seemingly reverses Judaism’s expansion. Escaping desperately from an enraged brother sworn to murder him, he would be isolated, without smartphone or iPad, Skype or e-mail — not even a phone booth — unable to communicate with home. Can we fully grasp the loneliness of this long-distance runner who has not yet emerged as a giant of history or a Patriarch for the Ages, but instead is unmarried, with no family or ally at his side, condemned to be a fugitive? 

From our spectator seats, we enjoy the comfort of dramatic irony: we know what will unfold. But Yaakov is the actor in the play. Have we ever paused to appreciate how unbearably lost he must have felt?

The rest of the parasha gives us some comfort. He will end up at the well where Rachel quenches her father’s sheep. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Lavan’s daughter is there to lead him to his assigned destination and his life’s destiny.

This is how God conducts human affairs, including our own. We plan and prepare, choosing from among colleges and grad schools, opting for trades or professions. We attend singles’ programs, surf through dating Web sites, and we network. We analyze Dow Jones averages, evaluate financial trends, consult experts and plan accordingly. We read opinion pages, hotly debate candidates and vote based on pundits’ recommendations. We invest, consult, plan for retirement and set aside for rainy days.

There is some value in our efforts, and we are bidden to pursue the derech hateva (natural course) during our life’s journeys. Even so, we learn repeatedly that the journey often unfolds very differently from the way we plan. The son does not want to pursue the business his father built for him. A safely squirreled retirement fund blows up, whether because of an investment adviser’s failed Ponzi scheme or because the one corporation that never could go broke did. Our lives twist and turn, and sometimes — having sat very comfortably for years and having nestled ourselves securely atop a perfectly crafted sanctuary — some of us plummet down the side of Don Draper’s Madison Avenue building, feeling abandoned. It happens to more of us than anyone might think. One way or another, it happens to all of us.

And thus it is that God sends that dream to Yaakov in exile, that enormous M.C. Escher-like image of His emissaries ascending and descending the ladder that stretches from earth to His heavens. Yaakov grasps the message: he is not alone. Through angelic emissaries, Hashem has been accompanying Yaakov and will continue escorting him through Exile for the next 22 years until his return (Rashi on Genesis 38:34). God is always with him, always directing a greater, deeper plan. 

For each and every one of us, too, His plan and the reasons behind events we encounter are more complex than we imagine. Through setbacks and tribulations, not less than during the many “good” times, we can remain assured that He is with each of us, always. We are not alone.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Let Heaven and Earth Hear: Parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)


If each spoken word is a droplet of water, then each voice that utters is a wind that brings forth rain.

Though, the wind has no shape. Though, water comes in all shapes and sizes. Though, no mortal power can divine the weather even a few days hence, words turn patterns as surely as the wind turns seasons about the globe. 

We have familiar words, torrents of them; some smother us with wholesome joy, others shatter glass and hearts as easily as any tornado. We recognize the peal of anger, the lightning-quick lashes of a fiery tongue. We know frost as hard and cold as any frozen lake when we share — windpipe constricted — the bitterest of news. 

Oh yes, there are times when the tongue and head rock from gales of laughter, that warm pleasure that dispels the rainiest of days. There are times when we befriend a stranger and wonder, akin to snowfall in autumn, will it stick or melt away? We wonder at the mystery of loving words. Love is a mist that occludes everything except the ones whom we love. Who can say what the restless wind whispers in secret to the branches of those rooted trees?

We know the love of chirping toddlers who take to their mothers like young grass to dew. Blink once and it is all gone. We know windless days as well, the humbling summer of silence. Ignored, avoided, the words wish to form, but the throat is as parched as a salted desert. 

Yet, of all the many words that shower the earth, that flood our lives with meaning — which take root and which take flight? Which words are as ephemeral as a seedless watermelon, giving enjoyment now, but condemned never to bear fruit? And which words rain sustenance to trees that shall offer fruit even to the thousandth generation? 

Nearing the very end of Deuteronomy, as Moses’ last breath draws near, Israel’s greatest prophet composes a song of farewell. Written in couplets, it begins like this:

Give ear, o heavens, that I will speak,

Hear, o Earth, these words of my mouth,

 

May my doctrine drip as rain,

May my words distill as dew. 

 

As mist to fresh blades of grass,

As mighty showers to herbs’ green leaves.

 

Deuteronomy 32:1-2

The song continues with a variety of images and metaphors; however, this first remarkable image of water remains to saturate the mind. For Moses, Torah is the fountainhead, the spring of life. This is not the salted water of the sea, nor is it the deluge left by a hurricane, or even the light snow flurries that dust the sky but never quite kiss the earth. It is living water, the water that sustains, that collects on leaves, that seeps deep into the soil. It is the dew that bathes the grass and the mighty waters that nourish new grain. It is water that cultivates one generation so it can cultivate another. 

It is rather fitting that the Song of Moses is read just before Sukkot — the festival that marks the end of Israel’s harvest. For if we can sing with the gusto with which Moses sang, at the end of the year, at the end of the harvest, at the end of his life, beseeching heaven and earth to heed the song of Torah. Undoubtedly, the lyrics will remain, the words will linger into the New Year long after we have put our backs to planting afresh and irrigating anew.  

Words are water, our voices the wind that carries the rain. 

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Here on Earth: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)


“The Torah that I am prescribing to you today is not too mysterious or remote from you. It is not in heaven … it is something that is very close to you” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).

A great illustration of this passage is contained in the Yiddish story by I.L. Peretz titled “If Not Higher.” In this story, a skeptical Jew of Lithuanian descent is determined to disprove the holiness of the Rebbe of Nemirov as part of his plan to defeat the Chasidic movement, and prove that these “holy men” are nothing but frauds. He chooses the Rebbe of Nemirov because his followers have the most outlandish belief about their rebbe. They believe that during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the rebbe ascends to heaven to plead with God on their behalf.

A skeptic follows the rebbe before dawn and watches as he dons peasant clothes, chops a tree into firewood and carries the load on his back to a broken-down shack. An elderly, homebound woman opens the door and the rebbe proceeds to make a fire in the woman’s wood stove. As he stacks the wood, the rebbe whispers the High Holy Day prayer.

The rebbe’s act of charity and compassion persuades the skeptic to become one of his greatest disciples. Later, when the former skeptic is asked if his rebbe really goes to heaven during the Ten Days of Repentance, the skeptic replies, “If not higher!”

So often we believe that by following prescription, we can achieve the greatest spiritual heights. We convince ourselves that the way to piety, spiritual growth and amazing heights of inspiration is “ascending to heaven,” meditation, absorption in prayer and spiritual devotion. While all these are blessed and beautiful paths, sometimes the most spiritual path is the one that is not about us at all.

The Rebbe of Nemirov ascended to the highest spiritual heights by demonstrating the spiritual essence of the Holy Days: Torah is not in heaven, Torah is here on earth. And what is the essence of Torah? As Rabbi Akiba famously stated, “Love thy fellow as thyself. This is the totality of Torah.”

Our dedication to this principle is one of the ways that we are judged during the Days of Awe. Did we live a year looking out for ourselves? Or did we live a year dedicated to helping one another? Did we aspire only to our own spiritual and material benefit or did we also seek the betterment of others?

The Torah is lofty in vision and idealism, but also grounded here on earth. The Torah is not in heaven, it is here, in the messy, imperfect world that God placed us here to fix.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is the director of JConnect and Jewlicious as well as the author of the forthcoming book “Prayers for Israel.” He also appears in “On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages From the Five Books of Moses” (Blackbird Books, 2012).

First Fruits: Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)


Earlier today I bit into a crisp, bright green plum. The plum, a new variety at my local farmers’ market, showed up for the first time this week. It is hard to believe

that after months of stone fruit wonders, there are still different varieties appearing. In the simple act of taking a bite, I was hit by the beauty of living in sync with the seasons and the delightful surprises that the natural world offers us. Small wonders of newness deserve to be celebrated.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are given their own fruit-inspired revelation. They stand on the edge of the Promised Land. Moses speaks to them of the ritual of first fruits, which they will be called upon to enact once they enter their new land. They are told, “When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you … you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil … put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).

Amid the loss, the change, the wandering and the harsh realities of the desert, Moses makes the Israelites a simple promise: There is sweet new fruit still to come. Your wandering is not all there is. Or, as the Psalmist declares, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5). Every new season brings with it the opportunity for hope and new life.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with our ancestors this week, as we engage in our own period of spiritual wandering. In these 29 days of Elul, we are called upon to reflect and repent, to regroup and renew. We are looking forward to what new promises lay ahead, just as we look backward over all that has transpired this past year.

The sweet taste of summer fruit and Torah’s message of hope come as welcome additions to this annual time of reflection. In this month of Elul, when our tradition calls upon us to change, it is all too easy for us to feel stuck or intractable. Even with promises of the sweetness that exists ahead, the tasks of Elul can feel difficult. Why is change so hard?

James Surowiecki offers one insightful answer to this question in his 2009 New Yorker article “Status-Quo Anxiety.” Surowiecki identifies what he calls the “status-quo default”; once a “default” option is identified, people tend to choose it. And, once making a choice, people tend to stick with what they’ve elected. In fact, “just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly,” Surowiecki writes. 

It is often easier simply to stick with the status quo, the default option, the known entity. Change is hard. This we know. This we have heard again and again. But, still we remain the same. Still we choose the default. Still we stick with the known. Even when we are given promises of a better life ahead, we resist. Why?

Perhaps, the message Torah is offering us this week lies not only in the promises of sweetness ahead, but also in the power of community. Implicit in the first fruits ritual is an act of communal gathering. After they gather their fruit and present it to the priest, Moses instructs the people, “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26:11). In Egypt, the Israelites called out to God as a collective, they were freed as a collective, and they wandered as a collective. Just as our ancestors were instructed that their first fruits would be a communal offering, so too are we reminded that this month’s call for change is a communal call. There is a sense of empowerment in knowing that our change-work does not exist in a vacuum. It is a collective call to action. We can draw strength in knowing that those around us are engaged in similar struggles. 

This is why Torah’s promise of the first fruits to come is so important this week. It offers a corrective to both our ancestors’ and our natural inclinations toward the static. It reminds the Israelites, in the wake of their not-so-distant complaints and calls to return back to the slavery of Egypt, that the journey forward is worth it. It reminds us that, as seemingly settled as we may be, the default option feels less appealing when we know that our community is there to greet us on the other side of change.

This is the promise of Elul: No matter what they hold today, our baskets will soon be filled once again. 

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

Call to war


There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators.

It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982.

I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.

I had a surreal experience at synagogue that Shabbat morning. The Torah portion was Beha’alotecha, which contains one of the most famous verses in the Torah: “Vayehi binso’a ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kuma Hashem, v’yafutsu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’san’echa mipanecha [When the ark was set forth, Moses would say, Advance, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You].” As we read this call to war by Moses, the synagogue’s building continuously shook to the rumbling of helicopters and F-15 fighter jets. When I peeked outside, I saw miles of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, tank transporters and armored personnel carriers, all heading north. I had a front-row view of the IDF’s massive call-up of troops on their way to the region’s first real “war on terror.”

The Netziv commentary to the Torah says that the word “oyvecha” (your enemies) means “one who hates you deeply in his heart, and wishes nothing but to inflict harm upon you.” Rashi says that the word “m’san’echa” (your foes) means “those who pursue you with the intent to kill you.” These words from our Torah portion were what I both heard and felt that Shabbat as the IDF entered Lebanon, where the PLO had built a terrorist “state within a state.” Moses’ call to war rang clearly as the IDF was on its way to confront an enemy whose long record of hatred, harm and pursuit with the intent to kill included hijackings, massacring school children and staining the Olympics with bloodshed.

What does it mean to go to war and confront an evil enemy? You never really understand that until it gets up close and personal. I learned that part of the parasha the next morning, June 6 — the first formal day of the Lebanon War.

Through heavy traffic, I made my way back to my yeshiva. I attended Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where Israeli young men enroll in a five-year program that combines Torah study with service in IDF combat units. I studied there during the second semester of my senior year of high school, and I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles that week for my YULA graduation.

Running from the bus stop, I went straight to the beit midrash, where my chevrutah (study partner) waited for me. “Let’s begin studying, we don’t have much time,” he said. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I soon found out. I once again heard jeeps screeching outside, along with buses. Two IDF officers came into the beit midrash, which was filled with hundreds of young men studying Talmud. They approached the front of the room, and a sudden silence fell over us as they began to read names and numbers.

I sat there watching the entire beit midrash clear out. When my chevrutah’s name was called, he looked at me with a smile and said, “I have to go now, please promise me that you won’t leave, and I promise you that I will return here to continue our studies.” He hugged me and ran out.

I followed him to see all of the boys and some of the rabbis boarding the buses with their IDF duffle bags. Along with my chevrutah were Chovav Landau, who always opened his home to us students from abroad, and Yehuda Katz, who was one of the yeshiva’s top Talmud students.

As the buses rolled away, I witnessed something incredible. With full awareness that they were on their way to war, these boys broke out into songs of faith in God. The buses rolled away in the dust, and the voices of hundreds of boys faithfully singing continued to echo in my heart. I went back into the beit midrash, where about 25 of us remained.

I never went back for my YULA graduation. Instead, that summer included attending Chovav’s funeral, studying in the beit midrash (my chevrutah did return) and reciting psalms for the return of Yehuda Katz (who is missing in action until this day).

Thirty years later, I continue to pray for Yehuda’s return, much like I pray that this generation will not have to endure another war. Moses indeed declares a “Call to War,” and despite this, the Israeli governments have made multiple “Calls to Peace.” Are the Palestinians listening?


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is currently launching the SEC’s new Makor program (makorjerusalem.org).

Pesach 5772: Lessons my grandfather taught me


Every Passover, as I sit with my family at our seder, I inevitably think of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. I never met him. He died five years before I was born, and I was born on the anniversary of his burial. But from earliest childhood, I felt that my grandfather was present, teaching me the values that helped shape my life.

My grandfather was an outstanding Torah scholar. He was ordained at the famous Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania before immigrating to the United States with his parents and siblings around 1910. He served as a rabbi in Chicago, where he was respected as one of the city’s leading Torah scholars. He was a prolific author who published widely in Torah journals, and co-founder of the Chicago yeshiva Hebrew Theological College.

One of the most important aspects of my grandfather’s legacy is a lesson I discuss at our seder. My grandfather had a tremendous commitment to religious Zionism that affected my family and inspired my late father and his siblings. Israel was so important in my grandfather’s life that, during the 1920s, he purchased a parcel of land in the N’Vai Yaakov section in northern Jerusalem. At that time, the Religious Zionist Mizrachi movement had built a synagogue in N’Vai Yaakov, and I guess my grandfather thought that this would be a good place to settle if he moved to Israel.

Although he never was able to realize this dream, he gave my parents the deed to that parcel of land when they attempted aliyah in 1949. Unfortunately, they soon found out that north Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation, and at that point in time their deed was worthless. After the Six-Day War, my grandmother tried to validate her deed, but this time the State of Israel itself intervened. Under the power of eminent domain, it had claimed the land for an army base. My grandmother received a little compensation but not the ownership of my grandfather’s dream.

I recall this story every year when we reach the section in the haggadah that recounts how the five great sages, Rabbi Akiva among them, were so engrossed in their discussion of the Exodus story that they needed to be reminded by their students that the night had passed and it was time to recite the morning Shema. My grandfather, in his commentary on the Bible, Hadat V’Hachayim, noted that the Shema contains an important message that should not be lost on the reader. In the second paragraph, it begins in the plural with the words, “And you [plural] are to teach them to your sons and speak of them.” But suddenly, in midstream, the verse turns to the singular form and declares, “when you sit at home, and when you journey on the road, and when you go to sleep, and when you rise.”

Why the switch? My grandfather answered that the verse reflects the reality of Jewish education. On the one hand, the verse begins with the plural, representing the community’s responsibility to ensure that educational institutions exist in a community. So important is this aspect of communal life that the Talmud powerfully warns every community not to fail in this realm: “And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah, ‘I have received the following tradition from my fathers … Any town in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah is eventually destroyed.’ Ravina said: ‘It is eventually annihilated’ ” (Shabbat 119b).

But the community is only one partner in education. The Torah switches from plural to singular to tell us that the other partner must be the parent. Each Jew must be an educator. The community can build wonderful educational institutions, but it can’t by itself instill the love of our heritage, and in particular the love of Israel. Parents must impart to their children the stories that will create the bond between them and the Land of Israel and they must encourage direct involvement in helping Israel.

If we supplement the community’s job of instilling the love of Israel with parental involvement, we will impart the emotional connection that is needed. My grandfather taught me that lesson many years before I was even born, and it still resonates with my family to this very day.

Holy Sanctuaries or Golden Calves – Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)


As human beings, can we know precisely what God wants from us? It might seem, from the beginning of this week’s parasha, that we can: “Bring Me gifts. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is willing. And these are the gifts you shall accept from them” (Exodus 25:2). God then offers a specific list of valuable things: precious metals and stones, rich textiles, animal skins, wood, oils and spices. At the end of the list of contributions, God says, “They will make me a sanctuary, so that I will dwell among them. Exactly how I show you … so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). What follows is a template — in unparalleled detail — for building this tabernacle. God tells Moses precisely what is expected from the Israelites: why such specificity and detail?

One specific design in the parasha describes curtains that will envelop the ark inside this Sanctuary. The cover of the ark will have two cherubs facing one another, made from one piece of gold, with wings “spread above, shielding the cover [of the ark]” (Exodus 25:20). It is between these cherubs that God’s presence will come to rest. There is to be a tent above the entire Mishkan made from layers of cloth and skins. One might think that one curtain on each side of the ark would be enough. God specifies, however, that there should be five curtains on one side, and five on the other. Another question emerges: Why so much covering?

My film, “Mishkan,” engages each of these questions in a different way. The question of details is addressed through the choreography. All the movement for the piece came from details in the text itself. In other commentaries I have created, I have to imagine details in the text to generate movement. For this parasha, the movements seemed to almost form themselves – similar to Rashi’s commentary on the formation of the cherubim: “Hit (the mass of gold) with a hammer and a mallet at the middle, so that its ends will protrude upwards and come to form the cherubim” (Rashi on 25:18 “Make them by hammering”). The lampstand with its cups and calyxes; the table made of acacia wood, covered completely with gold; wood poles covered with gold and threaded through golden rings. All these details made a physical embodiment of the parasha almost obvious.

“Mishkan/Sanctuary” by Moving Torah.  Story continues after the video.

The words speak to the question of covering: Construct an Ark. So carefully. Covering after covering, to protect yourself from face-to-face contact. Layer after layer, curtain after curtain, gold upon wood. Gold pole through gold ring, shimmering so brightly that you couldn’t possibly see through it. To the Face.

Which brings us to ask, “Why so much gold?” and, furthermore, what should we make of the juxtaposition of the gold in this parasha, at the very beginning of Moses’ time on the mountain, with the gold used at the end of Moses’ 40 days days on the mountain, when the Israelites form the golden calf?

Even in the Mishkan, God can dwell with us — and we with God — only through veils and covers. The Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, are even farther away. While Moses is on the mountain, the Israelites can’t hear or experience God. In fact, the Israelites are so far away that they can’t even hear it. So far away that all they catch is a glimpse of gold, and they get not the essence, just the form. So they try to embody it in the face of a calf. Perhaps they get just enough reverberation of what’s happening on the mountain to sense that they are supposed to be doing something with all of that gold. In this case, their distance itself (and the anxiety that accompanies it) leads to their misdirection.

Human constructs — by their nature, distanced from God — will never get it precisely right. Some endeavors fall further from the target than do others. Others, of course, do not start with the premise of creating something holy (or, in more secular language, a common good). But for those of us in a post-Tabernacle world who are striving toward creating a life of purpose, how do we discern between the gold of the Mishkan, and the gold of the calf? Between the need for a building fund to house holy service, and the desire to create an edifice for its own sake? Between a halachic (ritual legal) system that prescribes modesty of my own personhood, or one that prescribes a policing of others’ bodies and paths?

The parasha does give us a hint as to how we might try to determine what God wants from us, even now. In our parasha, each Israelite is commanded to bring these gifts “asher yidvenu libo” (as his/her heart is willing). The Israelites, at the bottom of the mountain, act from fear, not from a place of willing hearts. From the parasha, we can see that it takes both a willing heart and great attention to detail as we strive toward building with holy purpose. We need to discern from our hearts, very carefully and with great humility. We can only hope that as we strive with care, we move in the direction of creating a home, a city, a world in which God will come to dwell.

To learn more at Moving Torah, visit movingtorah.com.

Déjà Vu, all over again: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)


It’s a new year and we are beginning a new book of the Torah — Exodus. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the same old problem. Anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, rears its ugly head.

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, scapegoats the Jews and turns them into the enemy, a pattern that has been repeated too many times over the centuries. Sadly, anti-Semitism is not just a history lesson; it’s also current events.

Mark Steyn of the National Review points out that the “oldest hatred didn’t get that way without an ability to adapt: Once upon a time on the Continent, Jews were hated as rootless cosmopolitan figures who owed no national allegiance. So they became a conventional nation state, and now they’re hated for that.”

Anti-Semitism, the main subject of this week’s Torah reading, can be a controversial topic of discussion. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, will be the first to tell you. In December, Gutman explained why he felt it was important to differentiate between older forms of anti-Jewish hatred and a newer growing anti-Semitism in Europe, which stems from the tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Who decides what constitutes anti-Semitism? The very act of trying to differentiate one kind of anti-Semitism from another is itself “simply anti-Semitic,” as U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put it.

In this week’s Torah reading, what was at the core of Pharaoh’s anti-Jewish outlook?

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land’ ” (Exodus 1:8-10).

Why did Pharaoh assume the worst and think that the Jews posed a threat to Egypt? Did he really believe the Jews would support Egypt’s enemies? Weren’t the Jews always loyal to Egypt? Wasn’t it Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s own dreams and guided him through Egypt’s recession and economic crisis? Why did Pharaoh choose to ignore this obvious chapter of Egyptian history?

Conspiracy theories and the incitement of hatred can lead to discrimination against minorities, as we see in this week’s parasha.

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy text, fraudulently claims an international group of Jews seeks to control the world. “The Protocols’” author intended to stir up animosity against the Jews.

Accusations of dual loyalty among American Jews are common in the blogosphere, and some bloggers refer to Israeli supporters as “Israel firsters.” This false claim posits that pro-Israel Jewish Americans put Israel’s interests over American interests. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that these bloggers “are guilty of promoting dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cooper reminds us that not too long ago, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” made the accusation that American Jews exercise a uniquely malevolent influence over American foreign policy.

These charges have been around since 1920, when Henry Ford said, “Wars are the Jews’ harvest,” and Charles Lindbergh in 1940 condemned Jews for conspiring to plunge America into World War II.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently, “The standing ovation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] got in Congress this year was … bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

There is a well-known rabbinic phrase, “maaseh avot, siman l’vanim” — what happened to our ancestors in the Torah, is a sign for us, their children. Let’s make sure we carefully read this week’s Torah portion, so that we know how to respond to these false and misleading derogatory statements, and so we can properly deal with this irrational prejudice.

Unloading the emotional U-Haul: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


A funeral director once said, “In all the funerals I’ve attended, I have yet to see a hearse with a U-Haul trailer attached.” But while it’s true that “you can’t take it with you,”meaning material possessions, I’m not so sure about emotional possessions. How many of us have walked behind a casket where lay the body of a relative or friend with whom we were still talking? Or, wrenchingly, with whom we never had the conversation we meant to have?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi — “And he lived” — ironically starts out with one of the longest death scenes in Torah, as the 147-year-old Jacob prepares to die. The cryptic blessings he gives to his 12 sons must have left them with as many unanswered questions as they leave us.

Is “blessing” even the right word for what Jacob says to each son? Jacob begins by saying, “I will tell you what will come to you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1), and then offers each son words that seem part blessing, part fortune-cookie fortune, and part description of what each son has done or is like — their nature or what animal they resemble (“Judah is a lion cub”). Truly poetic, the passage ends:

“All these are the tribes of Israel — twelve — and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28)
“Each according to his blessing.” Certainly, each son is different from the others, and finally here, if not all along during their shared long lives, Jacob acknowledges that he sees each one differently.

But what happens when a conversation — a blessing — is one-sided, like these from Jacob to his sons? “I will tell you what will come to you.” Be it unrelenting expectation or its opposite — chronic disappointment — what room is there for growth or change once their father’s “blessing” is set down for eternity? The blessings are likely to be mixed — just consider the emotional baggage those sons must have carried when they returned from burying a manipulative father who played favorites.

Perhaps, like us, our sages were wary of the constriction of such specific blessings, for in recent centuries the tradition derived from this Torah portion relies on an earlier moment in Vayechi when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons. The Jewish tradition of blessing our sons as Shabbat begins each Friday night recalls these words of Jacob: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” (Genesis 48:20).

At our congregation on Friday nights, we offer a blessing for family, and we include in it the blessing of children by contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk: “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” Falk explained her choice to respond to — but ultimately leave behind — the traditional blessing for sons by saying:

“Why Ephraim and Menasheh, one cannot help but wonder — indeed, why any particular ancestors at all? … Why should we wish for a child to be anything other than her or his best self? … Yet letting a child be herself, himself — letting go of expectations that do not emerge from the reality of who the child is — is one of the hardest lessons parents have to learn.” Then she adds a hope for parents that in the framework of the onset of the Sabbath, a time in which “we let go of strivings and take note of the world’s abiding gifts,” that “we pay special attention to the children in our midst, thankful for their being, accepting of who they are, hopeful that they will blossom into their best selves” (Falk, “The Book of Blessings,” p. 450-51).

On the way to unloading the emotional U-Haul, our congregational prayer for family also adds a few hopes for family members in general, whatever ages, however we came to call them family: “May we reach out to them and hold them; may we say the words we need to say to one another; may we feel the love we have for them, and they for us. Dear God, in whatever way it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family.”

And this week, as we complete this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, we add another traditional blessing: khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”

We Matter: Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)


Last week’s Torah portion ends with a genealogy, a long list of names of who begot whom and how long they lived. It is one of many genealogies in the Torah. It used to be that when I encountered those lists, I tuned out; I found them boring. But then I read a book by Thomas Cahill called “The Gifts of the Jews” (Anchor, 1999).

Cahill points out that the listing of individuals’ names is something that doesn’t occur in prebiblical literature. These genealogies, the listing of names, were the Hebrew Bible’s way of saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant.

It is something that we take for granted —that each person is uniquely significant — but it is actually a radical notion. It is a notion, according to the non-Jewish writer Cahill, that begins with this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, the beginning of our story as a people.

God calls to Avram: “Lech lecha: Go forth from your native land, your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. … And Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son, Lot … and they set out for Canaan” (Genesis 12:1-5). This moment was the beginning of Jewish history.

Cahill argues that it is even more significant. He describes this moment as the beginning of history as we know it. Prior to this, people believed that life was a circle: We’re born, we die, and the next generation repeats the process. Life has no direction: It just keeps reiterating itself. Cahill explains that it is only with Abraham and the command of God that he “go forth” that the idea of history and progress is born. This insight is, for Cahill, a gift of the Jews.

If all is a circle, nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. It will all happen again. What we do doesn’t matter. For our actions to matter, they must be able to influence the future. But the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. If, on the other hand, the Jewish view is adopted, everything matters — every act I engage in matters, and therefore I matter — so much so that each one of us can change history by everything we do.

What are the results of this transformative idea? In Cahill’s words, “Most of our best words, in fact —  new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice — are the gifts of the Jews.”

Cahill asserts that “the Jews started it all and by ‘it’ I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us — Jew and gentile, believer and atheist — tick. … The role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular … theirs is a unique vocation.  Indeed … the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.”

The gift of the Jews is the idea that individuals matter. Our lives can make a difference in the world.

This week is my father’s yahrzeit. As is the custom in our synagogue, we will read his name along with the names of other people from the congregation who died at this season in years past. We ask people to stand when the name of their family member is read and to tell us the relationship of the deceased. “My father,” I’ll say. Someone else will say “my mother.” Sometimes a whole family comes. “My father,” “my husband,” “my grandfather,” “my father-in-law,” “my brother,” “my uncle.” It is a powerful reminder that the person who is being remembered is more than just a name. Then we invite those people who have suffered a recent loss to stand and speak the name, and then all those people in the first year of mourning for a parent. They speak the names, and tell us who they were. We remember that each of these names was a person, like my father, who touched other people, whose life made other lives possible.

I don’t find those biblical genealogies boring anymore; instead, I think of them as another gift of the Jews.

Back to School: Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)


With a new school year upon us, I found the following story, “What Teachers Make,” revealing.

“The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to discuss the current problems with education. He argued, ‘What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?’

“He reminded the other dinner guests what people say about teachers: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’

“To stress his point, he said to another guest: ‘You’re a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?’ Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness replied, ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and perfect their final drafts in English. I make them understand that if you have the brains and follow your heart, you will succeed; and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you must pay no attention because they just didn’t learn.’ Susan paused and then continued, ‘You want to know what I make? I make a difference. What do you make?’ ”

Susan, I’m sure, could make each of us wonder, “What difference do we want to make?”

An answer to this pressing question is found in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah declares, “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13). This statement has always been so essential to Judaism that Maimonides argued that it is an overriding principle and not a specific mitzvah, therefore he did not include it in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. 

Whether Maimonides’ interpretation is correct or not, what is fascinating is the context in which this verse is found. This statement is part of the prohibition that a Jew may not use divination, read omens or frequent a sorcerer in order to find out what the future holds.

So what does “you shall be wholehearted with your God” have to do with prohibiting divination? The answer is a lesson for us and for our children.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 156a, declares, “Celestial signs hold no sway over Israel.” The Talmud, however, wonders if astrologers really are able to tell the future. According to the Talmud it would appear that they indeed do have such powers. But do they have the final word? The answer is absolutely “no.”

If one leaves his destiny in the hands of someone such as a fortune-teller, the Torah understood that a person would achieve nothing in life. One will always have an excuse that he or she can use for all mistakes. “I was doomed from the outset,” someone could argue.

Being “wholehearted,” as the Torah commands, is the opposite of relying on the sorcerer, because when one is wholehearted he has achieved on his own. Outside forces aren’t the determiners. This is exactly what the Prophet Jeremiah wrote in the third chapter of Lamentations. At first he blames God for the destruction of the Holy Temple. He declares, “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath” (Lamentations 3:1). Who should we blame? It isn’t our fault but God’s wrath. But as he contemplates that charge, he begins to change his mind and says: “By the command of the Most High, neither good nor evil come” (Lamentations 3:38). And finally, Jeremiah concludes, “Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).

What a lesson this is for all of us, but in particular for our children. We want them to use their own talents and not to give excuses if they fail. We want them to be able to rebound on their own and not to depend on any crutch that will only hinder their growth.

So, what should we tell our children as they begin a new school year? Perhaps something like this: “Be yourself, and achieve your best, but only achieve it ethically and morally. Never offer excuses if you don’t succeed, for that will never allow you to grow. Rather, know that we are proud of you, and if you try hard enough we know that you will achieve your goal.”

From Pain to Peace Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)


“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

My daughter just returned from Vietnam. When we heard her travel plans, her father and I struggled not to react as we did 40 years ago when someone pronounced the words, “I’m going to Vietnam.”

It is a testament to the Vietnamese people that they warmly welcome us as visitors. I think back on the 40 years since men (boys, really) of my generation struggled with the possibility of going to Vietnam, and I marvel at the healing process that makes friends of enemies and turns war into peace. I also think back to my own struggles “in the wilderness these past 40 years.” For in 1971, my mother and my sister both died.

“Ekev” — this week’s parasha — means “consequences.” As I ponder the collective trauma of the Vietnam War and my own personal trauma, I am filled with gratitude to know that unending rancor and suffering is not the inevitable consequence of hardship.

Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human.

We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. A saying I once heard, “Grief is the knife that carves the space for the heart,” resonates with the last paragraph of the Kaddish, which reminds us that the end of mourning should be peace. But how do we find the compassionate heart of peace when we are so torn by the turbulent emotions that come in the wake of the losses that come with war — war between countries and war within the psyche?

We sit, our tradition tells us. While shiva, the seven-day period that follows a burial, translates as “seven,” it is also a homonym for the Hebrew word “to sit.” For seven days we sit, surrounded and sustained by community, looking for, in the words of the Mourners’ Blessing, “HaMakom,” “a Holy Place of Comfort” (actually, a name of God) “in the midst of those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.” We look for comfort amid others who have known grief and carved hearts of compassion — hearts that have learned the Kaddish’s ultimate lesson: Seek peace.

Perhaps this is the intention of the biblical directive that those who encounter death, on the battlefield or elsewhere, should remain outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 31:19). They need time to ponder the consequences of acting precipitously after a trauma.  They need to sit.

But it doesn’t happen. Not only do we rarely sit shiva, more often than not we recoil from mourning rituals. Determinedly, we return to the world we once knew, demanding that it not be inexorably changed by our loss. We harden our hearts, remaining frozen by the contraction of heart, which happens at the moment of trauma. We don’t take the time to be taught by the fact of mortality or to listen to the words of the Kaddish. The consequence: We find no place for refining the heart. No space is created for tears to melt our trauma and soften our hearts or for anger to propel us to create the world, as it ought to be. We remain frozen, and our unprocessed trauma, pain, tears and anger ricochet through the generations and are acted out as depression, abuse and war. We don’t seek peace. We seek revenge. The consequence: more death.

These last 40 years have brought me a life I never could have imagined. I have traveled a wilderness through what poet Deena Metzger describes as a “wormhole,” in which my “assumptions about life [had to] dissolve to create a doorway through which something new [could] enter.” I welcome my daughter home from a vacation, unimaginable 40 years ago, as I anticipate Moses’ words during Elul, the month of reflection, and repeated on Yom Kippur, when he “place[s] before [us] life and death, the blessing and the curse,” and exhorts us to choose life “so that [we] and [our] descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). As this New Year approaches, may we sit in the midst of those who have made the courageous and surprising choice to cultivate life and peace as a consequence of heartbreak. May we find in our hearts the willingness to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Real Spirituality: Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)


Spirituality, kabbalah and meditation are buzzwords in today’s religious lexicon. But do they really describe religion?

A number of years ago, my mother, who lives in Cleveland, received a call from the major local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paper was doing a feature story on the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, for its weekend column on religion. They called my mother, an Orthodox rebbitzen and a well-respected academic, for her observations. During the interview, the reporter asked my mother, “When you went to the mikveh, did you experience spirituality?” My mother answered, “All religious experiences involve spirituality. If you mean, did I feel a halo hover over my head, no. But did I feel I was performing a divine commandment? Then definitely, yes.”

The divine commandment as the ultimate spiritual moment explains an enigmatic story that has occupied the attention of Bible scholars from time immemorial. The story occurs right after Miriam dies, and the water supply for the Jews in the desert suddenly goes dry. To rectify the problem, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock in order to extract water. But, in a moment of frustration, Moses hits the rock twice with his staff and subsequently water miraculously gushes forth. Following this act, the Torah records that God said to Moses and Aaron, “You did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel. Therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

The punishment was swift in coming, but one must wonder how God could claim that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify His name? Did anyone who witnessed the water gushing out of the rock think this was not a miracle? Certainly everyone present knew that it was a great miracle. When does a rock produce water, let alone more water than the mass of the rock itself, which certainly violates every law of basic physics?

Perhaps, however, we can find an answer to this problem. God wanted Moses and Aaron to speak and not to perform any act. God wanted the Jewish people to learn that you do not have to do “wild and crazy” acts to encounter the Almighty. The lesson God wanted us to learn was that we just have to speak and God listens.

In simple language, if you want spirituality, you don’t need meditation or kabbalah. You don’t need anyone teaching you mysticism. In Judaism, the greatest spiritual encounter is simply talking to God. Every time we thank God for our physical needs, such as in the morning blessings when we thank Him for our ability to see, to walk and to care for our bodily functions, we have achieved the ultimate spiritual moment possible.

And maybe that is the point. What is Jewish spirituality? The answer is realizing that we must be grateful to God for all of the gifts we receive daily. Spirituality isn’t mystical; it is rational and concrete. We just have to think about what we do, and then it all becomes a remarkably close encounter with the divine.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum once told me the following story:

After years of trying to locate documentation of religious heroism among the Orthodox community during the Holocaust, he finally made some inroads by interviewing a Chasidic rebbe who had survived those ghastly years. The rebbe recounted how, in 1944, he was assigned to clear the railroad tracks in Auschwitz after Jews arrived at the concentration camp and deposited their belongings on the tracks. Following the arrival of a train filled with Hungarian Jews, he found a pair of tefillin and smuggled them into his barracks. Every morning, while it was still dark outside, he tried to put on tefillin. He wasn’t successful every day, but the days he was, he told Berenbaum, he will never forget. Wearing those tefillin in the hell of Auschwitz proved to be the most spiritual moments of his life.

The real spiritual story in Judaism is encountering God every day by performing mitzvot and conversing with God in prayer. That isn’t a buzzword; that is reality.

Engraved Ideas: Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)


In 2008, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed written by Marisol Leon, a young woman who graduated from Yale in 2007 and returned to teach in the same public middle school she had attended:

“‘Think Ivy League,’ pleaded Mrs.  Anderson, my English teacher. ‘Ivy League? What is that?’ I wondered. I was in the seventh grade that day, a student at Mount Vernon Middle School in mid-city Los Angeles. I stood there in awkward disbelief as Joan Anderson explained the notion of elite colleges to me. I knew hardly anything about colleges: Neither of my parents finished high school. But my teacher understood that, and by the time I graduated from Mount Vernon, she had made certain that I was committed to going to college. Wednesday was my first day back at Mount Vernon, which is now Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. I am a seventh-grade English teacher, placed here by Teach for America.”

Leon describes how she was inspired by her teacher and how she inspires her students by sitting them in groups of four. Each group is named for a different role model, and a picture of that role model hangs above each group with a quote on the back. For example, on the back of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s picture is the quote, “The world is not going to change unless we are willing to change ourselves.”

Inspiring people is as old as history itself. How do we inspire people to do right rather than wrong? An answer is found in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion: “If you will go in My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3). The word for decree is bechukotai, which gives the name to this portion. This word is usually associated with chukim, the nonintelligible laws that are beyond man’s total grasp, such as the laws of the sacrifices.

The Baal HaTanya, the 18th century founder of Chabad Chasidut, wondered why the Torah referred to the commandments by the word bechukotai, the laws that seem to us to be nonintelligible. He noted that the word actually has another meaning — chakika, engraving. To appreciate this point, he explains that there is a big difference if one uses ink and writes on parchment or if he engraves the words into a stone. With ink and parchment the two items are separate entities, never fusing into one. It is similar to one who puts on clothing. The clothing may rest on the person, but they never become one entity.

When it comes to engraving, however, the words etched into the stone are part and parcel of the stone. It is for this reason that this is the word used in describing Jewish commitment, and, if you will, Jewish spirituality. What counts isn’t what is on the surface; it isn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling. What matters is that which is engraved down deep and into the heart of the Jew.

The Shlah, one of the great kabbalists of the late 16th and early 17th century, noted an oddity that deserves our attention. In this week’s portion we have the Tochacha, frightening verses of retribution that describe what will happen to us if we don’t follow the commandments of the Torah. Before the end of the Tochacha, the Torah declares, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).

The Shlah wondered why the Torah placed this seemingly comforting verse inside the Tochacha rather than after it concluded. He insightfully suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the best ethical lesson we can ever receive. They stare us in the face, if you will, and tell each of us, we too can follow their example. We too can be devoted to God and Torah just like they were. We too can engrave the Torah on our hearts and not make it a superficial experience.

Every generation needs its outstanding teachers who will engrave the message of our Torah onto our hearts. Our eternal teachers are our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived challenging lives and yet remained loyal to God’s calling.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

Ears, Toes and Thumbs: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)


Author Hillel Halkin, reviewing the Koren Sacks Siddur in the spring 2010 Jewish Review of Books, recounts a charming story that he heard from his father:

“My father, who prayed with great kavanah [concentration] yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever … once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a 10th Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely looking candidate, he asks: ‘Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ says the Jew. ‘What can I do for you?’ ‘You can join a minyan for Mincha,’ the man says. ‘I’m afraid that’s impossible,’ answers the Jew. ‘Why?’ asks the man. ‘Because I’m an atheist,’ says the Jew. The man gives the Jew a withering look. ‘And where,’ he inquires, ‘is it written that an atheist doesn’t have to say Mincha?’ ”

For Judaism, the best way to pray is with a minyan. Halkin notes, “Praying in a minyan is different from praying alone, less because of the additional prayers said by the worshipers than because of the human solidarity established among them.”

The human solidarity that the minyan offers is a mirror image of what the Jewish community is all about. In Jewish tradition, recited in the Shabbat Musaf service, those who “faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community” are the ones who are blessed. Likewise, those who dismantle the community structure are denounced in the harshest of words.

In this week’s Torah portion this lesson is taught in an unusual way. Parashat Metzora is a continuation of last week’s Parashat Tazria, in which we learn about the Metzora, a person who contracts a specific skin disease, perhaps leprosy or a form of psoriasis, for what the Talmud, in Arachin 16a, describes as a punishment for, among other sins, lashon harah, speaking evil against others.

The Torah continues the discussion in this week’s portion by focusing on the purification procedure for the Metzora whose symptoms have been healed. The Metzora is instructed to bring three different sacrifices followed by what would appear to be a most unusual ritual.

“The Kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the Kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified and on his right thumb and his right toe” (Leviticus 14:14). The Kohen also performed this same formula with leftover oil as well.

Strangely, this procedure wasn’t just limited to the Metzora. The Torah taught us in Exodus 29:20 that when the Kohanim were inducted into their priestly service this very same ceremony was performed on their ear, toe and thumb. What possibly could connect the Kohen and the Metzora, two diametrically opposite people?

Perhaps we can suggest that the Kohen represents the leader par excellence of the community. His role was to represent the community in its service in the Holy Temple. As he was inducted into service, the three parts of his body that are needed most for one to serve the community well, namely his ears, toes and thumbs, were anointed for this purpose. The Kohen’s hands and feet are the limbs responsible for moving the body, while the ears are responsible for hearing the pain of others and responding accordingly.

The Metzora is the antithesis of the Kohen. Unlike the Kohen who unites the community, the Metzora’s evil tongue divides society and destroys unity. In order to be rehabilitated, the Metzorah must recognize the important role communal unity plays. Hence he follows the exact same procedure that the Kohen experienced on the day the Kohen was inducted as community leader.

In his book “The Prime Ministers,” Yehuda Avner, speechwriter and adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, recounts how Menachem Begin hid from the British in 1946 disguised as a rabbinic student. During that period, Begin attended a little synagogue located near his hideout. Reminiscing years later, Begin recalled, “What a great little shul that was. There I found solace when life in the underground was at its harshest. That little shtibl became a part of my daily life. The balei batim — congregants — were wonderful: a cross-section of hard-working Tel Aviv craftsmen, small shopkeepers, laborers and artisans. They were true amcha, solid, down-to-earth, patriotic citizens. I regularly attended their evening Talmud classes, both because I enjoyed them and because they reinforced my cover.”

The Jewish community must represent “amcha,” the composition of all elements of the Jewish people. It is our job to see to it that the communal fabric stays strong, allowing all Jews to be counted in our minyan, for that is the antidote to the Metzora.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

Egypt: Tabernacle or Golden Calf? Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)


As Jews, our character and faith are defined essentially by the story of our ancient liberation from slavery in Egypt, informing our concern for the welfare of those who are similarly oppressed. But as a minority often vulnerable to the whims of tyrannical victors, we are also keenly aware of the implications for Israel’s security and that of the entire free world based on the success or failure of the events unfolding in Egypt. Worldwide Jewry seems divided at worst and uncertain at best in determining our view of the ongoing revolution, embracing either but rarely both of these two authentic Jewish concerns.

We agonize. Should we champion Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries as allies in spiritual cause, as heroes of personal liberty and authentic human rights? Alternatively, should we respond with a self-protective skepticism, urging caution or even preventative action against the likely emergence of a tyrannical Islamist regime, which might have Egypt — and the entire free world — yearning for a return to the days of the “moderate” Mubarak regime?

Taken together, last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, and this week’s portion, Vayakhel, may clarify core challenges facing even the most noble of Egypt’s revolutionaries and suggest important benchmarks by which both we and they might assess the evolving implications of Egypt’s revolution.

Last week’s story of the Golden Calf offered an interesting consideration of a newly freed people yearning to return to that which was familiar. Having escaped tyranny, our ancestors created a god similar in form to the gods known to them in Egypt; facing a future of possibility and uncertainty, they sculpted and scripted a god limited to that which they knew and could imagine. Rather than leaving Egypt, they would re-create it in the desert, or even in the Promised Land.

This week’s narrative of the Tabernacle, on the other hand, represents our ancestors’ graduation to the realization that for their future to exceed their past, they would have to painstakingly construct a solid structure that would welcome and host the unknown, the mysteriously sacred, the unfamiliar and the uncertain; a God beyond their control with a message regarding a future to which they would be challenged to aspire.

Is the current revolution in Egypt akin to the erection of a Golden Calf or the construction of a Tabernacle? Contrary to initial reports of peaceful demonstrations, credible accounts are emerging from Egypt of the rapes, beatings, mob attacks, anti-Semitic/anti-Israel chants and graffiti as well as rampant violence that occurred among those who seemed to constitute a peaceful resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s oppression.

Just as Pharaoh’s tyranny reflected broadly among our ancestors would have been more stable and dangerous than the oppression instituted by a single leader, a return to the Egypt familiar to today’s revolutionaries might well be worse than the Egypt we’ve known, or they’ve known, to date.

A June 2010 Pew opinion survey of Egyptians hints at Egypt’s Golden Calf, which might well be completed in the coming weeks and months, unless a concerted effort to replace it with a Tabernacle-like initiative ensues hastily and courageously. More than 50 percent of the respondents backed Islamists, 50 percent supported Hamas, 95 percent welcomed Islamic influence over their politics, 82 percent supported executing adulterers by stoning, 77 percent supported whipping and cutting off thieves’ hands, and 84 percent supported executing Muslims who convert to another faith. Several other studies confirm that more than 85 percent of Egyptian women endure female circumcision — genital mutilation.

A skeptical and self-protective disposition would then appear to be warranted on our part, given the percentages noted above and the savage violence perpetrated by Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries upon reporters, foreigners and their fellow countrymen alike.

We might be wise, as well, to maintain a prayerful disposition, hopeful that a more moderate minority might influence the majority of Egyptians — more inclined toward the familiarity and certainty of a Golden Calf — to build the solid structures and institutions of democracy, a modern-day Tabernacle, allowing for uncertainty and ambiguity, for dissent and difference.

However, a Tabernacle requires an organized and sustained effort over a much longer period of time.

Rather than agonizing, we might acknowledge our skepticism for its well-valued realism while we pray for Egypt’s Tabernacle of democracy. All the while, we ought to offer encouragement and apply pressure, each when necessary, to ensure its construction — for Egypt’s sake and for our own. 

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid (

Old But New


A number of years ago, when my two daughters were 8 and 6, we had the pleasure of spending a family summer vacation in Israel. We stayed at my mother-in-law’s home right near Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. One day while eating breakfast we heard a truck pass outside with a loudspeaker making announcements. At first the words from the loudspeaker didn’t make any sense to us. Our daughters leaned over to the window and listened as best as they could. They came back and informed us, “It sounds like some Arabic message.” My wife and mother-in-law dismissed this as impossible and quizzed them on exactly what they heard. The girls said, “It sounded like ‘Alt zuch, alt zuch.”

After a moment my wife began to chuckle. She figured out what was happening and explained that it was a truck from a free-loan society, or what we would call a Jewish Salvation Army, going from community to community asking if anyone has any old items that they no longer needed. My wife said, “It isn’t Arabic; rather it is Yiddish and they are saying, ‘Alta zachin, alta zachin’ — ‘Any old items, any old items.’”

My daughters began to think what they could contribute. Realizing that they weren’t in their own home they looked at me and out of the mouths of babes came, “Abba, aren’t you an ‘alta zachin’?”

At that very moment I had an epiphany and realized that what we should appreciate the most, often becomes ‘alta zachin’ — old hat, prone to be relegated to that which can be discarded and forgotten. If this is true of people, it certainly is true of ideas that we should hold precious. As we prepare to celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut of the State of Israel, this idea is a reality that we need to note.

The Talmud in Tractate Brakhot 43a addresses this concept in an intriguing way. The Talmud instructs that just as we have blessings for food we also have blessings for wonderful aromas. Among the aromas mentioned is the beautiful-smelling balsam oil. The Talmud states that balsam oil grew mainly in the Jericho area and was unique to Israel.

The Talmud records the following amazing discussion about which blessing should be recited when one smells balsam oil:

“Rav Chisda said to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Regarding balsam oil, what blessing do we recite on smelling it?’ Rav Yitzhak said to him, ‘Rav Yehudah said that we recite, “Who creates the oil of our land.”’ Rav Chisda said in response to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Exclude the opinion of Rav Yehudah from this discussion, for the Land of Israel is especially dear to him. What is the proper blessing for everyone else?’ He said to him, ‘So said Rabbi Yochanan, the blessing is: “The One who creates pleasant oil.”’”

This discussion bothered me. Rav Yehudah, we are told, composed a beautiful blessing for balsam oil, which reflected the fact that balsam oil is a unique product of Israel. Yet Rav Chisda rejected that idea and said clearly that this opinion is too biased since its author, Rav Yehudah, is especially in love with Israel. Rather, he argued, for everyone else the blessing for balsam oil must be generic, not mentioning the Land of Israel at all.

This entire discussion disturbed me because it suggests that Rav Yehudah was too in love with Israel and that such feeling isn’t worthy of being emulated. But is that honestly the message of the Talmud?

I finally understood this Talmudic passage after I read “With My Own Eyes,” the autobiography of Jacob Katz, the late Hebrew University professor of Jewish history. In this riveting work, Katz describes how he arrived in Israel from Germany in March 1936 after earning his rabbinic ordination and doctorate. He recounts that his first holiday in Israel was Passover. He was amazed how in Jerusalem he literally saw people in the streets gather spontaneously and begin dancing, with passersby joining in. He notes that the old timers didn’t really notice this, but here he was, a new immigrant and he wrote, “To me, coming from the Jewish exile, bred to a Judaism carefully contained within the four walls of home and synagogue or, at most, the privacy of a Jewish street, this explosion of Jewish life into every nook and cranny of the city was an exhilarating experience.”

After reading this I finally understood the Talmud’s reasoning for rejecting Rav Yehudah’s wording of the blessing. The rabbis were worried that his formula would allow the populace to take Israel for granted. It would become words recited, rather than a dream yet to be fulfilled. Rav Yehudah, whose love of Israel was so profound, could utter the words, never taking Israel for granted. The rest of us, however, might transform the words into the daily routine, not noticing the excitement of the Land of Israel, and thus we would be taking Israel for granted.

As we celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, this idea must resonate with us for we can never take the State of Israel for granted. We who have witnessed the great miracle of the State of Israel must never forget how blessed we really are.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area

Gift of unanswered prayers


Not many people among Irvine’s pedestrians and shoppers wear yarmulkes — yet.

The city’s Orthodox Jewish community indeed has expanded in recent years to four
Orthodox congregations — including our own Young Israel, two Chabad congregations, and a fourth where I previously served — as well as an eruv (a wire boundary that allows Jews to perform tasks in public on Shabbat that would be otherwise forbidden) and a forthcoming mikvah (ritual bath). Even so, not many of us wear yarmulkes outdoors. Therefore, wherever I meander, people assume that I am a rabbi — a pretty good guess.

The thing about wearing a yarmulke is that you not only become the involuntary emissary of the Jewish people (as, for example, when someone at the supermarket asks: “Excuse me, are you a rabbi — and, if so, do you know where I can find borscht?”). More curiously, you become a prize candidate to be converted. It seems there are “extra points” to be garnered in certain circles for “witnessing the Good News” to a guy with a kippah. Recently, while sipping at a Coffee Bean — if only they sold sandwiches there! — two women approached and asked whether I was open to accept their messiah into my heart. I demurred politely, but they continued: “Don’t you see that you never can get forgiveness from God without a temple sacrifice? Prayer is not enough. God does not forgive unless there is blood, a sacrifice at the temple. And that is why He sent his only….”

Which brought that discussion and this week’s parsha analysis to five words that Moshe rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) cried out to the Master of the World after Miriam was smitten with biblical leprosy for speaking lashon hara (disapproving speech) about her brother. Miriam had initiated a brief discussion with her other brother, Aaron, concerning Moshe’s relationship with Tziporah, the woman he had married (Numbers 12:1-3). And then suddenly — not even allowing time for them to purify themselves properly before appearing in the Divine presence — Hashem came down among them, explaining Moshe’s unique role as His prophet and as His ever-ready servant (Numbers 12:4-6). “How dare you speak that way about My servant, about [My] Moshe?” And Miriam was smitten with a biblical leprosy that compelled her into a humiliating exile outside the Jewish encampment.

The Torah records that Moshe wasted no time, crying out: “Kel, na, R’fa na lah” (God, please, heal her, please) (Numbers 12:13). In only five words, Moshe pleaded with earth-shaking force for Miriam. There was no sacrifice of animal. No blood. Just the exhorting lips of Moshe, crying out to the Creator: “God, please, heal her, please.” And she was healed.

Prayer is a powerful vehicle. Our lips substitute for bulls (Hosea 14:3). Long before the first Tabernacle was erected, Cain had pleaded to Hashem in prayer that the punishment for murdering his brother was too heavy to bear — and the Creator responded by placing a mark on him to protect him (Genesis 4:13-15). Abraham prayed for the safety of the righteous who might be residing in Sodom and Gomorrah — and Hashem was moved to change His plan (Genesis 18:23-33). Avraham awoke early in the morning, praying in his usual place, on the day he set forth with Yitzchak for Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:3). Yitzchak was conversing with Hashem — praying — in his field during late afternoon on the day he met Rivkah (Genesis 24:63). Yaakov prayed at night (Genesis 28). When Hashem spoke of wiping a nation out of history, Moshe prayed and pleaded for their forgiveness until He said: “I have forgiven, consonant with your words.” (Numbers 14: 20; cf. Exodus 32:14).

Prayer is powerful. Joshua prayed, and the world’s sun stood still on a Friday afternoon so that Israel’s enemies would be dispatched before the Shabbat (Joshua 10:12-14). Samson, blind and bound as a spectacle for the Philistines, prayed and was answered (Judges 16:28-29). As evidenced throughout so much of Psalms, David prayed — as he stood before Goliath, later as he fled from Saul’s pursuers and into Avimelech’s kingdom, and ultimately as King of Israel.

Prayer is not only powerful for biblical figures. Through 2,000 years of exile, tens of millions of the meekest and least historically prominent individuals in the Jewish nation prayed three times daily for a return to Jerusalem and the restoration of Zion. They prayed for centuries despite no possible rational basis to believe their prayers would be answered. But prayer is not only about empirical data, and — paradoxically — faith tests one’s faith. Prayer is about submitting oneself to a greater Power, a more omnipresent and omniscient Authority. Prayer tests our resolve: Can we continue praying long after our prayers ostensibly have not yet been answered? Prayer forces us to search within and to judge ourselves: Can we distinguish between the substantive needs that justify our passions and the vanities that are passing fancies? Prayer directs our hearts and teaches us humbly to acknowledge our own limits.

Prayer teaches us to harmonize with the creation, to hear His response. When prayer is not answered, sometimes — as the country singer Garth Brooks poetically has observed — one reflects, stunned, and suddenly realizes that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes, it takes 2,000 years and millions of tear-soaked prayers to receive the beginnings of an answer. And sometimes it only takes five words.

Or, as I explained respectfully to those two lovely women, sometimes the only sacrifice God demands of us is not someone else’s tragic death, but the service of our hearts, the passion of our lips and the unabashed exposing of our souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at two Southern California law schools and is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at www.ravfischer.blogspot.com, and he can be contacted via his Web site at www.ravfischer.com.

Discovering the Name


The first Torah portion in Exodus is Shemot, Hebrew for “names.” “These are the names of the Israelites coming to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).

That might be where we got the name of the parsha, but that is not where the parsha takes us. Namings take place throughout Shemot. Moses gets a new name from the daughter of Pharaoh — her mistaken grammar is a mask for prophecy. In rabbinic commentary, the daughter of Pharaoh receives her name, and of course, God reveals God’s name to Moshe.

Take Pharaoh’s daughter’s naming of Moshe. You remember the story: Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, puts her baby in a little tevah, or vessel, made of papyrus. The word “tevah,” when it appears in the Bible, is usually translated as “ark” — the same word is used for Noah’s floating biosphere. (Perhaps to say: Just as Noah’s ark carried a new start for humanity, so does Moshe’s ark.)

The heretofore unnamed daughter of Pharaoh goes down to the Nile to bathe. She sees the ark stuck in the reeds (the suf) and the crying baby within. She realizes he is one of the Hebrew children, but she pities him, takes him in and finds him a wet nurse. She names him Moshe, saying: “Ki min ha’mayim m’shitihu” (because from the water I drew him out).

Pharaoh’s daughter prophetically sees the fortune of the crying infant and names what he is to do years later — draw the people of Israel through the water of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. He is the Moshe, the One Who Draws From the Water.

According to the sages, this baby boy already had a name. In Shemot, we are told that when the boy was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Ki tov” (how goodly).

Yocheved uses the same phrase God did when He saw the days of creation — “Ki tov” (It is good). Perhaps it is used to say that the story of creation represents the birth of the world, the moral aspect of which had gone so awry, and the birth of Moses symbolizes the rebirth of the moral universe.

Based on Yocheved’s exclamation, the sages say that boy’s name was Tuvya: the goodness of God — “a sign that he was fit for prophecy.” But the sages remind us that the prophecy of Pharaoh’s daughter established the name that even God would use. Moses’ name would not be based on his capacity, Tuvya, but rather his deeds, Moshe.

We don’t know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter until the sages name her: Batyah, the daughter of God. Her compassion and devotion to Moshe made her the adopted daughter of God.

Rabbinic midrash adds a beautiful symmetry to this already mysterious irony: The daughter of Pharaoh names the greatest prophet of Israel, and the sages of Israel name the daughter of Pharaoh.

A modern midrash fills this out. Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, the first cousin of the Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote an extraordinary poem titled, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name” (“L’chol Ish Yesh Shem”), which contains the following lines:

“Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by God
And given to him by his parents….”

As we meditate on this idea of names, of names given and destinies and identities established, questions arise: How is our inner identity established, that living tissue of inner essence, that mutely conscious dimension of our souls which gives continuity to our inner lives? Are we only named by the names people call us, our admirers and detractors together? Are we named by our aspirations or our failings, or by what we have learned as we step and stumble from one to another?

I believe that God has placed a secret name within each of us, and that it is our life’s purpose, at least partly, to know and speak that name with all we do. There are moments in life that define our names. The rest of our lives can be spent living up those moments or atoning for the moments when we have forgotten our inner name.

And in each of these moments of internal naming, where some aspect of our spiritual identity is engraved upon the soul, God is present.

Moshe said to God: When I tell the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will ask me, “What is his name?”

God says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I shall be who I shall be).

I think of God here, in this context, as being present in our spiritual strivings. God’s inner identity, the unknowable infinite nothingness of the Divine, is not what Moshe is asking. Moshe is asking of the name of the God sending him to this work that will define his life.

God says, perhaps: Don’t ask for me a fixed identity, a name that will ease your anxiety as you go about your life’s work.

Perhaps God is saying: “Get to your work, discover your name and I will be there with you.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Letters to Mom


Dear Mother,

Here we are again on the plains of Bethel. We’re in the 10th month of our 10th year in Canaan. Sorry I haven’t written. There were
so many things happening, but none of them so important to justify my negligence. The famine, Pharaoh, Avimelech, the war — they all came and went and I remained the same. I wanted to believe that this move to Canaan would open a new chapter in my life, but boy was I disappointed.

You remember the day of my wedding? Such joy! Such innocence! I thought it would be only a matter of time before I became a mother. But with every year that passed, the dream seemed more remote and unreachable. Everyone was celebrating motherhood and parenthood, the little voices of children filling their homes with joy and happiness. And me? Nothing. I felt alienated and rejected. I felt their furtive glances as I was passing by, as if I was carrying a curse, a terrible disease.

You were the only one who understood, but there was nothing you could do. God alone can count the tears I shed, day after day, year after year, praying, yearning for a child that will redeem me from my solitude, from my agony and my shame. Oh, was I glad to go when the Divine order came to leave Haran. Just go away and leave behind me all the pitying, mercy filled, hypocrite faces. Yes, it was difficult to go and leave you and Dad behind, but I did it not just to fulfill the Divine commandment and follow my husband, but also because I secretly hoped that the move will bring a change, a blessing. But this was not what God wanted.

Abram says that I am a righteous woman and that God enjoys my prayers and supplications. I appreciate that, but enough is enough, we’ve spent 10 years in Canaan and nada. I want to have a child. I want to have a child!

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

Sorry it’s been a couple months since I last wrote you. We’re at the Oaks of Mamre, and I’ve figured out a solution. It’s painful, but I can live with it. I will have Abram marry my maidservant Hagar (remember, the Egyptian girl?). She will be the surrogate mother of my child. Don’t try to dissuade me. I’ve made up my mind, and I know of several respectful families who have gone through this process successfully.

Love,
Sarai

Dear Mother,

It’s over; she’s gone. We don’t know where or when, but she has disappeared from Be’er Sheva. I should be happy, I should be celebrating, but I’m not. I feel terrible. I didn’t mean it to happen like that. All I wanted was to have a child we could call our own, but things got out of hand.

This tricky, treacherous, no-good maid knew very well how to rub it in. “I’m tired,” “I’m nauseated,” “I feel so hungry,” “I crave this” and “Sorry, I can’t bend down to bring you that, Sarai.” All very subtle; not the kind of things a man would notice.

Don’t get me wrong, Ma, I love and respect Abram. But why is his quest of justice reserved only for foreigners? Sodom and Gomorra deserve justice, with all their sins. Meanwhile, I’m abused daily by this Hagar. Do I not deserve justice? These things pass right over his head.

That’s why I blew up. Justice is all I want! He should give me the same treatment he gave Sodom. He stood up to defend those sinners, why not me? And all he said to me was: “Well, what do you want from me? She is your maid. Do whatever you want with her.” And, believe me, I did just that; I didn’t give her a free moment.

But now she’s gone, and I feel miserable. It all swelled up in me — all the anger and frustration, years of sterility, endless nights of crying and, worst of all, the notion that my husband doesn’t understand me. So I took it all on her and I am not so sure I did the right thing.

Love,
Sarai

P.S.: Last night I had a terrible dream, my descendants were persecuted by hers, tortured and expelled, and that voice kept echoing in my mind: “See what you’ve done. See what you’ve done!”

These letters were not unearthed in the hills of Canaan, but they offer a possible interpretation of the events in this week’s parsha.

Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, however, does suggest that Sarah should not have tortured Hagar, and that the persecution of Jews by Muslims in the 11th and 12th century is a direct consequence of that behavior. The message that no action goes unnoticed or unaccounted for and that communication is essential to a healthy family and society reverberates to this day.

We can only imagine how different things would be if the protagonists in the story would talk with one another, try to define the problems and solve them, instead of being swept away by emotions. How often do we channel anger and frustration at the wrong people? Did you ever interpret someone’s action in a certain way and gave them no chance to explain before attacking?
By telling us the story with all its intricate human relationships and the tragic outcome, the Torah teaches us an important lesson about our daily interaction with the people surrounding us. And this lesson is as applicable in American suburbia as it was at the hilltops of Canaan.


Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

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