September 20, 2018

Table for Five: Yom Kippur

Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

One Question, Five Voices: How do we make an atonement that lasts?


Miriam Yerushalmi
Director of SANE (Soulful Advice for a New Existence); marriage and family counselor; author of the “Reaching New Heights” books.

Yom Kippur is such an awesome holy day that some people have the misconception that God expects only perfection from us and judges us accordingly. Not so! God wants us to do teshuvah, repentance, to return to the truth. HaShem is not focused on our reaching perfection; it’s the process of teshuvah that counts. 

To be at peace with this process of becoming our truest self is the best aid to successful positive change. The way the land of Israel was acquired — territory by territory, piece by piece — teaches us how to achieve our best selves: step by step. 

Yes, teshuvah revolves around minimizing our faults as much as possible, but this involves forgiving ourselves with mercy and developing ourselves with joy. 

On Yom Kippur, HaShem bestows upon us extra strength to accomplish all of this and more. 

The Yom Kippur prayers feature the verses listing the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy. With this recitation, not only do we beseech HaShem to judge us with compassion through the medium of these attributes, but we also focus on emulating these holy attributes — remembering always that they are qualities of mercy, not strictness. HaShem wants us to treat ourselves with the same compassion we hope to receive from Him. With our own compassion, we arouse God’s compassion. This frees us from the toxic burden of guilt that can lead to stagnation and worse. 

With peace, mercy and joy, we can reach our Divinely orchestrated potential.


David Sacks
The Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

Most people approach teshuvah — or change, or even better, return — in the following way: These are the things I need to do more of, and these are the things I need to do less of. Makes sense. 

The problem is, when we focus only on our actions, it often doesn’t work. Maybe it does in the short term, but usually not over the long haul. Why? Because before I examine my deeds, the first thing I need to decide is who it is I want to be. Once I decide with all my heart that this is the new me, the choices I make will be different.

How do you know? Because you yourself will want them to be different. Because your old behaviors will be inconsistent with who you are now. 

This is one of the cornerstone teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, which is you are where your thoughts are. Imagine you want to go to a new place. There are two ways to get there. The first way is to lug all your belongings there. The second, easier way is you just go there and then send for your stuff. The first process is extremely labor intensive. The second process is much easier. I just pick the place I want to go and there I am. 

Use these precious days to craft that vision of the better you, and then let your deeds paint the portrait of who you are now. 


Shaindy Jacobson
Director of the Rosh Chodesh Society of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute

It is said, to err is human, to forgive is divine. Each of us has the capacity to fuse the human with the divine. 

You may be familiar with these words penned by Ernest Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” 

Yes, while life may break us, it’s what we do with the pieces that matters most. Think of atonement as a circle. In fact, the word for “forgiveness” in Hebrew is mechila, which is related to the word machol, meaning “circle.” Life is a circle, encompassing all our relationships, deeds and experiences. With the occurrence of a negative action, the circle is broken. With your atonement, the break is mended. 

When the circle is again complete, you are embraced by the wholeness of God and all His creations, of which you are, indeed, an integral part. 

The gift of lasting atonement is the birth of hope. It takes far greater effort to rebuild a relationship after it was fractured than to build it in the first place. But when you succeed, the rebuilt entity is so superior that it can never be broken again. 

As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”


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

The Yamim Noraim are a time of heightened spirituality and self-reflection that stand out from the rest of the year. But how do we carry the energy of these holy days with us once Yom Kippur ends? 

A beautiful practice gives us insight into how we can make our atonement lasting. The Rama records that immediately after Yom Kippur ends, we begin building our sukkah for Sukkot. When our preparation for Sukkot is on the heels of Yom Kippur, one mitzvah is juxtaposed with another. Why do we do this? Because the sukkah reminds us of what God put us in the world to do, of what we were saved for at Yom Kippur. And if we are clear on this mission, we can more easily brush off the temptation to fall back into our old ways. 

As Jews, we are called to build “sukkat shalom” — God’s dwelling place of peace in this world. A sukkah is warm, welcoming and accessible. It represents God’s clouds of glory, God’s loving presence that led us in the desert and that continues to guide us through our lives today. If we are busy with the holy work of creating peace, wholeness, warmth and awareness of God, our atonement will not only be lasting, but expansive, constructive and worthwhile. And so, as Yom Kippur ends, let’s ask ourselves, what does it look like for each of us to build God’s “sukkat shalom”? 


Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org

My pal Sal wants to achieve everlasting at-onement. I figure he must mean being at one with God, since God is the only one who is everlasting.  

I mean, you know those moments of bliss in life that you want to hold onto forever — and then they’re gone as though they never were, often with more pain than gain. Because nothing in this world is ever everlasting.  

But a mitzvah is not of this world. A mitzvah is a glistening droplet of infinite light extracted from the divine. We bring it alive in our world, through a partnership of divine providence and free will. Yet, even as this mitzvah plays out through our hands, it remains a mystery beyond our grasp. 

And so the moment of a mitzvah is a moment of at-onement everlasting. A moment with family and guests at my Shabbos table. A moment of binding myself with my God with those black leather boxes. A moment of a helping hand, a kind word, an ear lent to a broken heart on behalf of my Creator. A moment of swimming in the endless waters of the wisdom of His Torah. 

If I could make every moment of my life into a mitzvah moment, I would always be at-onement. But even if I fall away and disconnect from that eternal source — may God protect me from myself — that moment of my life remains my everlasting moment of at-onement. Nothing in this world or the next can ever take it away. It is, indeed, the only thing I truly own. 

Table for Five: Ekev

Weekly Parsha: One Verse, Five Voices
Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.”  – Deuteronomy 9:13


David Sacks
Television writer and podcaster at torahonitunes.com
As the saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. 

Are Jewish people stubborn? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. 

And so, I present a tiny ode I’d like to call, “In praise of being stiff-necked.”

Being a stiff-necked people allows us to hold fast to HaShem, and to the Torah, and to the Land of Israel, and to our tzaddikim, and to our commitment to be a light unto the nations, and to the visionary belief that the world is evolving toward perfection, and that the heart will once again be united with the mind, and that light will conquer darkness, and that the whole world will recognize the Oneness of HaShem and finally know who the Jewish people really are, and that the Jewish people will finally know who we really are, so that we can rebuild the Holy Temple, and bring heaven down to earth, and bring an end to hatred, and hunger, and jealousy, so that all of us can take joy in one another’s joy, and realize that we are one big family that shares the same soul, and then we’ll see with our own eyes all the blessings that HaShem has stored up for us since the moment the world was created. 

So, is it bad to be stubborn?  

Not if it allows you to never give up on the goodness of God. 


Judy Weintraub
Chaplaincy candidate, Academy for Jewish Religion, California
Our people are referred to as stiffed-necked not once but several times in the Torah. If we harbor any delusions that we are chosen because of certain superior qualities, this verse stands in contradiction. We often get trapped in our own constrictions. We can’t see beyond our preconceived notions that, because ideas are in our heads, they must be right. Defensively, we are unwilling to turn our heads to see with clarity what is around us. Or we can’t because we simply lack the tools. Either way, that type of resistance can be a detriment that prevents us from getting outside of ourselves. 

Perhaps we can look to a favorite passage of mine in Psalms for guidance. “From my narrow place I called you; you answered me from your Expansive Place.” (Psalm 118:5). That expansive place is the majesty of HaShem that is there for each of us to access. 

We can loosen the stiffness that keeps our focus narrow, in both a concrete and abstract way. It is available and attainable through the beauty of Shabbat and the treasure that is Torah. In this way, we can reach beyond the constraints of our limitations. May our hearts and minds be open to moving beyond those stiff, narrow places. 


Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive director of Aish LA
When God said the Jews are “a stiff-necked people,” He was referring to the adult male Jews who had just committed the sin of consenting to the golden calf. The medieval commentator Ramban said the calf was not an idol but rather an attempted intermediary between God and Man to replace Moses. Moses had not returned from Mount Sinai at his appointed time. The men panicked, the women held strong. Why? 

Throughout Jewish history, women have played a vital role in creating and molding our nation, beginning with the matriarchs. God agreed to Sarah’s advice to send Yishmael away, lest he be a bad influence on Isaac. Haman’s downfall was caused by Esther. 

This strength is a direct result of a woman’s emotional nature. God created women with a higher degree of feeling, thus enabling them to achieve greater spirituality than men. Indeed, scientific studies have proven that the emotional part of a woman’s brain is more highly developed than a man’s. 

One of the manifestations of this womanly trait is that an emotional feeling will not concede to false logic. In the case of the golden calf, the men reasoned that where an entire nation of people was left alone in the desert, it was permissible to make an idol to serve as their leader. The women, on the other hand, steadfastly remained loyal to God’s and Moses’ teaching and refused to consent to any logical argument leading to anything that even resembled an idol. They were right.


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation
When we built the golden calf, God gave us the epithet “a stiff-necked people.” But what exactly does this mean? Rashi explains: “They turned the hardness of the backs of their necks to those who rebuked them, and they would not listen” (comment on Exodus 32:9). A terrible side of us came out — our willingness to tune out God’s advice, rebuke and criticize rather than be vulnerable and have faith. We literally turned our backs to God. 

Rather than patiently and faithfully waiting to receive His Torah — which instructs us about how to live, including an obligation to rebuke — we preferred an inanimate idol that would be morally silent. Most of us can relate to this desire to close our ears to feedback and rebuke, whether from family members, colleagues or God. It’s certainly in our spiritual Jewish DNA. But our epithet as a  “stiff-necked people” needs not to be descriptive as much as it can be cautionary. 

With the golden calf, God was heartbroken that we weren’t willing to listen to Him and be vulnerable and humble. But we can do better today. We will soon begin the month of Elul, the time of year when we accept rebuke — from God and each other — with open ears and hearts. And so, as we face our sins, mistakes and what we need to work on, may what is  “stiff-necked” within each of us become humble and malleable. For this is how we grow.


Ilana Wilner
Shalhevet High School
“A stiff-necked people” is commonly translated to mean a stubborn nation. This phrase appears in our Torah portion twice in Chapter 9. The first when Moshe recounts the story of the Sin of the Spies, and the other after Moshe retells the story of the golden calf. The phrase connotes more than stubbornness, but also inability to repent. 

Of all the sins throughout Scripture, why in these specific stories does God refer to us as “stiff-necked” and a stubborn nation? In both accounts, God had decided to destroy the Jewish people and start anew, but Moshe convinced Him to forgive the Jewish people. By choosing to forgive and save the Jewish people, God showed the attribute of kindness through flexibility. God is calling us “stiff-necked” to criticize us for not emulating those traits, for not being amenable and doing teshuvah. 

So much of Judaism is routine and exact: the height of a sukkah, the amount of matzo one has to eat and at what time Shabbat ends. Yet, here God is teaching us not to focus on the “exact” but to find kindness in being flexible, just as God has shown when He forgave the Jewish people for their terrible sins. We live in a world of eilu v’eilu — these and these are the words God — and it is possible for more than one person to be right. God is reminding us here to make room for others even if we disagree or are different, just as he made room to forgive.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Vaetchanan

Weekly Parsha: One Verse, Five Voices

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

Miriam Yerushalmi
Author, Counselor

L’vav’cha translates literally as “your hearts.” The plural wording reminds us that we were each created with two distinct inclinations — the animal soul and the Godly soul — that motivate us in our service of God. We tend to imagine the animal soul as the source of our base, negative impulses or character traits; and we think we would be better people if only we could conquer and eradicate that part of us.

Not so!

Both souls, both hearts are holy, and both are necessary to loving God fully. The animal soul emanates from a very high spiritual plane, yet corresponds to our bodily nature. It is likened to a “wild ox”: untamed, passionate, a tremendously powerful force of potential spiritual energy waiting to be applied. The Godly soul, which actually emanates from a lower existential plane, is like a lamb. It knows how God wants to be loved, and wants to love God that way, but lacks the energy or the physical capability to fulfill its highest potential.

Through prayer and meditation the Godly soul harnesses the fiery passion of the animal soul, and as the passion and love are directed toward Godliness, the holy fire burns away the negativity within the “ox,” creating a healthy unification of the spiritual and physical realities within each of us, thus permitting a higher love of, and avodah (service) to, the quintessentially Infinite One.

With united hearts we can reach transcendental heights of love for our Creator —  and ourselves.


Rabbi Ari Segal
Head of School, Shalhevet High School

The verse presents a conundrum, a Jewish doctrine equally as fundamental to our faith as it is difficult to understand. Commandments of the body are routine in Judaism, but commandments of the heart? That’s another matter.

How can the Torah legislate that we experience an emotion — especially love toward such an unfathomable being as God?

In fact, emotion and action are more closely connected than we think. Many sages interpret the fulfillment of Ve’ahavta (You shall love) as the actions that demonstrate our love of God; not the love itself. Commandments are designed to inspire love of God, and they can have an impact even if we aren’t currently capable of loving God “with all your heart.”

The Kotzker Rebbe comments on another verse in this week’s parsha that we are commanded to keep our love for God “on” rather than “in” our hearts, suggesting an inherent process of preparation. Our deeds that encourage this love wait on the “surface” of our hearts, ready to flood in when we are open to this complicated commandment.

This approach to Ve’ahavta offers another insight. It’s easy nowadays to make ourselves miserable in pursuit of our goals. We focus on achievement, forgetting to celebrate the journey itself. But truly living each experience is equally, if not more valuable than, that tantalizing end. Ve’ahavta reminds us to savor the process. As we open our hearts to loving God, let’s also open our minds to appreciating every step of our journeys, no matter what waits ahead.


Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple

Love. The English word for love is so simple. We use it so often, we have rendered it meaningless: I love you. Love you. Hand heart.

Love pops like a soap bubble on the face; but, the Hebrew word for love — Ah-ha-vah — is a deep diaphragmatic workout. Say it. Ah-ha-vah. Exhausting, isn’t it?

Even the Hebrew grammar of the word itself is work. It’s a participle-type word, meaning it is both a noun and a verb, a thing and an action. So, in Hebrew, even the grammatical tense is a workout. Love, in Hebrew, is a thing that demands of us, as the rabbis teach, to obey with a bodily awareness —  to almost breathe for another.

In Deuteronomy 6:5, Moses is in the throes of his elegy to the Israelites. His life nearly done, he imparts to the Israelites (and to us) the essence of what we must know. We must know the commandments. We must know our history. We must know God.

But how do we, mere mortals not meant for prophecy, attain such knowledge? Through the work of Ah-ha-vah. And how do we do this? With sweat. With obedience. With giving. With Ah-ha-vah — all of your heart. Ah-ha-vah — all of your soul. And Ah-ha-vah — all of your everything.

That’s love.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am

One of the wisest things I learned from my grandfather, Rabbi Bernard Kligfeld z”l, is that in life and in love sometimes feeling follows action. We are taught that feelings govern action. You love, and therefore you hug. You feel committed, and therefore you donate.

Sometimes reality does work out that way. But just as often, because you begin to volunteer, you develop greater esteem for the cause or the beneficiary of your volunteerism. Sometimes, you hug your child not because you’re feeling love for her in that moment, but rather you’re lacking that loving feeling momentarily and by hugging her the warmth and the tenderness return.

We can reawaken feelings through action. As important as that is to learn with respect to the animate people within our lives, it is also important to internalize with respect to the great-but-evanescent parts of our life — including our Creator. Do I wake up every morning infatuated with Adonai? I don’t. But once I start to utter the Modeh Ani; once I begin to articulate my prayers and wrap my tefillin, and begin to engage in the very actions that are deemed to be loving expressions to the eternal one, the feeling begins to return, like blood rushing back to an extremity.

When the Torah commands us to love the Lord our God, perhaps it is too much pressure to think of it as an obligation to feel. Maybe we ought to heed it as a reminder to do. And through the doing, the love will return.


Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Maayon Yisroel

As a Jew, you have a both a human heart and a Godly heart. Your Godly heart loves God with a burning passion. Your Godly heart is crazy about God. But you don’t normally feel your Godly heart. Though your Godly heart is your truest heart, it generally remains buried deep beneath your subconscious.

Your conscious heart is the human heart, and the human heart is not so crazy about God. What the human heart cares about is “me” and “my life.” To the extent that God enhances my life, I consider Him; to the extent that He doesn’t, I don’t. God, however, wants us to love Him with both of our hearts.

On the verse, “Ve’ahavta es Hashem Elokecha bchol l’vavcha” (“You should love God with your whole heart”), Rashi comments: “bshnei yitzrecha” (with both of your hearts). God wants you to love Him with your Godly heart and your human heart, to care about Him with both your spiritual self and your regular self. But how can we do that?

Through thinking about Him. Just like in a human relationship, the more you appreciate your partner’s awesomeness, the more you will love him or her. And the more you appreciate God’s awesomeness, the more you will love Him. Take time every day to ponder God’s greatness, to think about the vastness and grandeur of His creation, to reflect on the bounty He has given you. With a little time, your human heart will begin to love God, too.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Naso

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: NASO, NUMBERS 6:16

“The priest shall present them before the LORD and offer the sin offering and the burnt offering.”

Rabbi Rachel Silverman
Temple Israel of Sharon

It is natural when feeling vulnerable and when our sense of moral authority is challenged that we would respond by leaning toward extreme actions and attitudes.

We see such extreme behavior in this week’s Torah portion, with the laws of the Nazarite — a person who makes a vow of asceticism. There is no judgment presented in the Torah. When the inevitable happens and the Nazarite takes a vow, we’re told how he or she should fulfill it. And when the vow ends, we’re told that the Nazir needs to bring a sin offering to the Temple.

Is this an alcoholic making a decision to remove herself from any and all alcohol? Or someone who has decided that all evil is caused by drinking and thus won’t go near it? Is this a chemotherapy survivor embracing his newly regrown hair by leaving it uncut? Or is this a certain biblical character who deeply believes his physical strength comes from the length of his hair?

Which is the sin that the Nazir is committing — becoming a Nazirite or giving it up? Both. For the alcoholic, the vow of abstinence from liquor is appropriate, and the end of that vow could have disastrous consequences. Hence, a sin offering. But for someone so fearful of the potential effects of alcohol that they give it up (or anything else they abstain from), making the extreme choice instead of living life in moderation is the sin.

Excerpted from an essay on rabbirachelsilverman.com.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

The Nazir attempted to enter the realm of the sacred through abstinence and self-denial. Although these methods were legitimate in the ancient Jewish world, they were not to be regarded as normative. Sacrifice to God can best be accomplished by embracing the world, by performing mitzvot within the realm of the not yet sacred. To separate oneself is not the ideal way to serve God. That was the way of the designated and circumscribed priesthood, not the way of a people who strive to become a kingdom of priests within the world as it is and as it can be.

The Nazir chose a legitimate but not ideal way. Thus, when he/she returned, he/she had to make a burnt offering (either a sin offering or a purification offering) because his/her action was contrary to the ideal way. By becoming a Nazir, he/she had chosen temporary separation from the people and not life with the people. In order for the Nazir to return, a lesson is taught: The Nazir has acted in a way that requires purification.

Our task, then, is not to separate from our community and people and not to abstain from life‘s joys, but rather to affirm life at its best, to join in the task of making holiness part of our lives as together we build holy communities.

Excerpted from an essay on reformjudaism.org.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb

The Nazir is both a saint and a sinner. On one hand, he is called “holy”; on the other hand, he is referred to as a “sinner.”

While some commentaries stress the saintly achievements of the Nazir, others emphasize the sinful nature of his abstinence. Obadiah Sforno, for example, states: “He has become illuminated by the very light of life, and has become numbered among the holy ones of his generation.” The Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) chastises him: “Is it not enough for you to abide by the Torah’s restrictions that you have prohibited upon yourself things which are perfectly permissible?” Upon which Maimonides proclaims: “Never have I heard a more wondrous statement” (Eight Chapters, Chapter 4). The Nazir’s way, nezirut, is the way of paradox.

It is not for every man. For most of us it is a sin to forbid that which the Torah permits. But for those of us who are vulnerable to the temptations of narcissism, the “strong medicine” of nezirut may be necessary, if only for a while.

Rigorously pious lifestyles do not render a person immune from the curses of narcissism. The ultimate paradox is that the Nazir, or anyone else who lives a life of extreme religiosity, can become as guilty as Narcissus of arrogant pride and self-worship. They can come to project a “holier than thou” attitude toward others. The Nazir can fail to rid himself of his self-admiration and instead become sanctimonious, cynically convinced that he is spiritually superior to his peers.

Excerpted from an essay on ou.org.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand

The Ramban, after acknowledging that the Torah does not state why a Nazir brings a sin offering, speculates that he knows he is going to re-enter the mundane world eventually and drink wine. After having elevated himself to the status of a Nazirite who abstains from earthly pleasures, he should have remained in that level of separation. Terminating the Nezirus and resuming a life of normal earthly pleasures is the action that triggers the requirement of a sin offering.

Rav Simcha Zissel Broide asks how the Ramban can contradict the Talmud, which states that the sin offering is for having abstained from wine?

Rav Simcha Zissel explains as follows: When this person started out as a regular person and accepted Nezirus upon himself, he “pained himself from wine.” However, something happened to him in the course of his 30 days of Nezirus — he became a more elevated person. The person who started the Nezirus is not the same person who ended it. The “plain guy” who started the Nezirus is the type of person about whom the Torah says, “Do not forbid upon yourself more than the Torah has already forbidden upon you.” There is such a criticism for “regular Joes.” However, once he has completed 30 days of elevated sanctity, he is no longer a “plain guy” anymore. He is standing at a level where such behavior becomes appropriate for him. He atones for going back to being a “regular Joe.”

Excerpted from an essay on torah.org.

Rabbi Andi Berlin

The Torah gives the Nazir an unspecified period to complete the introspection he or she requires. At the end of this period, the Nazir is instructed to bring a penalty offering to the Tent of Meeting. The sages go nuts over this. A penalty offering! Why would someone who voluntarily takes a vow be required to make a penalty offering? Most of our sages assume it is because the very nature of this vow, abstaining from what we believe is pleasurable, is the antithesis of what we are expected to do: partake of life’s pleasures. The sages understand the Nazirite vow as sinful because it causes a person to refrain from the bounty of the world.

To me, though, this is further proof that the Nazir is an addict. Keep in mind that these instructions were written at a time before psychology and social science. They were written at a time before Alcoholics Anonymous and psychoanalysis, in-house treatment centers and clinical behavioral therapy. In a 12-step program, one works one’s way toward amends. In order to remain sober or abstinent, one must make expiation for the harms one has caused. This is why the Nazir brings a penalty offering before God. Not only is the Nazir making amends for his or her own wrongdoings, but also more importantly, Nazirites are given an opportunity to physically and symbolically release their old, crusty, hang-on shame through the act of sacrifice.

Excerpted from an essay on fairmounttemple.org.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Reflections on the Festival of Shavuot

Screenshot from YouTube.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Aleph Institute

How do I prepare myself to receive the unique message God’s Torah has for me? How do I get ready to convene with God? According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi — the 18th-century mystic and talmudist — the precondition for this meeting is what he calls “self-nullification.” As developed in the Tanya, his quietly revolutionary work, self-nullification requires one to separate from his ego, his smugness and his importance.

This is not to denigrate the ego. We need our egos in order to grow, in order to fulfill the biblical charge to master the world, in order to effect tikkun olam. But, just as we suspend our physical creativity (i.e., the tangible expression of our ego) on Shabbat and yom tov, we must also subordinate our egos (on the deepest level) during those activities in which we seek to join our will to God’s.

Each of us also has the ability to “channel” God. When we forget ourselves in prayer, we let God enter. When we give tzedakah — not as an expression of our power, but as an agent of God in the distribution of His bounty — we are God’s conduit into the world. And when we learn Torah as a way of unifying our minds with His, we are increasing God’s presence on Earth.

This Shavuot, and every day, each of us has the ability to receive the Torah — our Torah — and become a vehicle for holiness.

Excerpted from an essay on steinsaltz.org.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism

The Festival of Shavuot provides an ideal Jewish textual grounding for celebrating our diversity, and lifting up various and dissenting voices, even as we apply the enduring values of our sacred texts to the modern day.

On Shavuot, we celebrate our ancestors receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. However, the covenant of the Torah was not only for those present at Sinai. It was for all Jews — and all people — around the world and throughout the generations.

When God spoke, all people, in all the languages of the day, could understand. In the midrash, Rabbi Johanan says, “It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into 70 languages.” We learn further that when God spoke it “was with the power of all voices” to speak to each person according to their powers of comprehension (Midrash Rabbah: Exodus, Chapter 28).

We see from this beginning, from the entrance into the covenant at Sinai, that each voice counts, and the experience, culture, and heritage — the language and framework that each person brings to the study of Torah — is valuable.

On Shavuot, the Jewish people receive the Torah anew each year. Tradition calls for us to engage in all-night study. We cannot be closed off from the opportunity to learn from others. This is our opportunity not only to delve deeply into the text, but also to join in chavurah (study in partnership with another), to debate and test our assumptions. We do not shrink from the tension of disagreement but take seriously the alternate views of our peers who seek to learn from the Torah and bring its commandments to life.

Excerpted from an essay on reformjudaism.org.

Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky
Yeshivat Sha’alvim

In the first of the Ten Commandments, God said clearly and unequivocally, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Shemot 20:2). The paramount importance of this verse is clear; there is a God, and we must believe in Him.

Yet, a basic question emerges. Why would God formulate such an important tenet of our faith without giving us insight into how to attain it? Why would something as fundamental as belief in God not come with a “how-to guide” about how to reach it? It appears that the Torah wishes to convey the message that what we believe is more important than how we believe, that knowledge of God is primary and it can be acquired in varying ways. People are not all moved the same way or inspired in the same manner. God wants us to believe in Him, but how we get there is up to us.

The recognition that people work and think differently, that there is no uniform and singular path toward belief in HaShem, is significant. It has led to divisiveness and arguments about which approach is most authentic. But, in truth, this recognition should have the opposite effect. It should encourage a more ambitious approach that is also more accepting. It should enable us to find allies instead of adversaries and engender empathy instead of enmity, all in the name of creating a more successful and integrated community.

Excerpted from an essay at yutorah.org/lectures.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

A midrashic tradition teaches us that the Israelites overslept the morning of Matan Torah. They had to be woken up, to embark on their new journey of pursuing a life of Torah, a life of God, a life of justice.

The kabbalists established Tikkun leil Shavuot, a process of “rectifying” our forebears’ lack of vigilance. While they slept, keeping the Torah and its code of ethics waiting for them, we spend the night absorbed in learning its core messages.

Tikkun leil Shavuot is an opportunity to correct past mistakes. It is a call to wake up, arouse our souls, rise to the challenge of our imperfect world, and commit not to wait to repair its brokenness. There is much to be fixed: poverty, hunger, abuse and discrimination are just a few of the many plagues that require our alert attention.

Sleep is sweet. Closing our eyes is easier than being awake and recognizing that we must address the pain and destruction that diminishes our world. But sleeping can no longer be an option. We must rise up and accept our obligation to overcome injustice.

The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b). Perhaps Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) is teaching that if we close our eyes to the darkness that surrounds us, we may as well be dead. To truly live, to truly be alive, is to be awake to the injustices of our society, and become vigilant about responding.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Author and educator

A midrash teaches that when God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai, the voice was heard throughout the world. The Israelites ran in the direction of the voice and as soon as they would arrive, the voice would move in another direction. After trying every direction, Israelites asked one another, “But wisdom, where shall it be found? And what is the place of understanding? [Job 28:12]” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

It’s a funny, kind of pathetic image, isn’t it? The Israelites scuttle around, running here and there and everywhere. The Israelites’ desperation is evident, and it’s pretty clear that the anxiety that they’re experiencing is serious business.

And it feels familiar, as well. So many of us these days are in constant motion, hurtling down the street with smartphone in hand, running from work to our social lives or home lives and errands and chores, and then going to bed and doing the same thing all over again. We’re in perpetual motion, running from north to east to south and back again, chasing a truth of some sort and not finding it — and, perhaps, wondering why we’re not hearing God’s voice more often than we do.

“Wisdom, where shall it be found?” Well, how about right here?

“What is the place of understanding?” How about this place?

Would the voice have changed directions if the Israelites had determined from the outset that they would stay and hear what was to be heard in the south? The midrash tells us that God’s voice reverberates throughout the world, after all — so why are they running in circles? I wonder if, perhaps, rather than chasing after God’s voice, they might actually be running from it.

After all, revelation is terrifying. What God asks of us is not always easy — in fact, it’s usually not easy.

Excerpted from an essay on huffingtonpost.com.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Behar-Bechukotai

PARSHA: BEHAR-BECHUKOTAI, LEVITICUS 25:10

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.”

Rabbi Lee Moore
Director of Jewish and Organizational Learning, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

When we think about “freedom,” the release of slaves is logical, albeit a radical idea. But land reform — in what way is land reform an act enabling “freedom for all”?

For the ancient Israelites, agriculture was the primary means for self-sustenance and economic opportunity. Returning land in Yovel (“The Jubilee”) would cause a massive overhaul of the economic system, one that enables those who may have lost their land, lost their home, in the previous 50 years a “fresh start” at making a living and having a basic modicum of security.

In this way, Yovel is a systematic renewal for the relationship between humans (adam) and the land (adamah) — in other words, the economy. Accumulation of land/resources by some can persist for a period of time, but not indefinitely. Yovel checks it with a break. By regulating the allocation of wealth once in each generation, Yovel ensures that gross imbalances of resource distribution do not undercut the fabric of society or the health of the natural environment.

As Danny Hillis, inventor of a clock that chimes once every 10,000 years, says, “There are problems that are impossible if you think about them in two-year terms — which everyone does — but they’re easy if you think in 50-year terms.” Occurring at the long rhythm of one year in 50, Yovel invites us to think generationally. A typical human lifetime includes just one Yovel, which teaches that some rhythms may be long from the human perspective but are still important to observe.

A version of this essay first appeared on lkflt.wordpress.com.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Former Chief Rabbi of the U.K.

The Torah is making a radical point. There is no such thing as absolute ownership. There is to be no freehold in the land of Israel because the land belongs ultimately to God. Nor may an Israelite own another Israelite because we all belong to God.

It is this principle that alone makes sense of the Torah’s narrative of the creation of the universe. The Torah is not a book of science. It is a book of law. That is what the word “Torah” means. It follows that the opening chapter of the Torah is not a scientific account but a legal one. It is not an answer to the question, “How was the universe born?” It is an answer to a different question entirely: “By what right does God command human beings?” The answer is: Because He created the universe. Therefore, He owns the universe. Therefore, He is entitled to lay down the conditions for inhabiting the universe. This is the basis of all biblical law. God rules not by might but by right — the right of a creator vis-à-vis his creation.

In Judaism, what we possess is not ours. It belongs to God. He has merely placed it in our safekeeping. We are looking after it on behalf of God. One of the conditions of that trust is that if we have more than we need, we should share it with those who have less than they need.

A version of this essay first appeared on rabbisacks.org.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss
Executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis

If the laws of the Jubilee year refer to the emancipation of only Hebrew servants, why does the passage proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof? Is not this liberty, in fact, referring to only a small percentage of the population?

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky points out that though a servant is indentured to his/her employer, the employer is also indebted to his/her servant. An employer bears the responsibility of not only paying an employee’s paycheck, but also of ensuring that the employee is cared for and is afforded a safe working environment, suitable provisions, and, above all else, respect and dignity. So in the Jubilee year, when all individuals are freed from their servitude, their masters are also freed from the burdens that accompany the responsibility of a servant.

When the American founding fathers convened in Philadelphia in 1775 to draft the Declaration of Independence, they proclaimed that all men were endowed with inalienable rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They did not include the right to property.

The laws of the Jubilee year, as well as the laws of the Sabbatical year, teach us that property and employment are not rights, but responsibilities. As the Torah teaches us, “For the land is [God’s]; you are but strangers resident with [God]” (Leviticus 25:23). As residents of the land, we have an obligation to care for the land. And as human beings, we have a responsibility to care for our fellow brothers and sisters. And lest we forget and presume for ourselves that we have control, power, or even ownership over a piece of land or a fellow human, in the Jubilee year we are commanded to stop, to let the land lie fallow, to return all land that we had acquired, and to let all people go free – ourselves included.

A version of this essay first appeared on limmud.org.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Chaplain at Companion & Grateful Hospices

The Jubilee year is an expression of holy achievements. Like a vintage wine — we are now a nation matured — which God can merrily imbibe. In that sanctified culmination, after scores of Shabbatot, we don’t sow fields, we liberate servants, and we forgive outstanding debts. But consider the Torah’s definition of holy.

Two weeks ago, in parashat Kedoshim, God instructs that the people of Israel are to be holy, for God is holy. There, we achieve God’s ideal of sanctity through trademarks of Jewish living: Shabbat, honoring parents, timely sacrifices, eschewing idol worship and avoiding the intermingling of species.

Kedoshim’s eminent mitzvoth also require us to treasure human dignity: We pay workers expediently, we don’t place obstacles before the blind and we foster an unbiased justice system. We leave the corners of our fields and don’t stand idle at the blood of our neighbor. It is no leap to say that God’s holiness is manifest in the establishment of a civil society. And like a fine wine, a holy society is built neither in one day nor only a week. We must attend to our commitments, both toward God and one another, from one Shabbat to the next.

At the call of the shofar, we recommit to embracing principled human interactions and recognize a promise of godliness in the veritable pastures of life. Planting, reaping (and, of course, on Shabbat and festivals) like a proud vintner raising her work to a sacred art, so too does God fine-tune human potential. In a pause of jubilee, a climax of Shabbatot, we leave things back in God’s hands in a grand gesture; that we are kindred with both the hired hands and the fruits, swaying partners in a Divine field of loving wisdom.

Zach Calig
Television writer, Beit Teshuva resident sponsor

The “freedom” the Jubilee year brings, according to Rashi, was explicitly for Hebrew slaves. That same freedom was also offered every seven years (the sabbatical year), but a slave could actually opt out of freedom and remain in a benevolent master’s house with all the creature comforts they grew accustomed to.

It seems crazy to think that anyone would choose slavery, but that choice is a recurring phenomenon in the Torah. The Israelites were longing for Egypt throughout the entire Exodus narrative. Five minutes of freedom and the grass is already greener on the other side.

Rashi tells us that in the Jubilee year, freedom was mandated for the Hebrew slaves who decided to stay with their masters. I find it remarkable that the Torah is telling us that we are actually not “free” to remain enslaved, that freedom is a requirement, not an option.

If you think people won’t choose slavery today, visit Beit T’Shuvah, the Midnight Mission or Homeboy Industries, where residents are slaves to several types of addictions. People become addicted to a behavior because it’s a solution to a problem. An addiction does not have to be a life sentence. But it is in our nature to choose comfort, like the slave who wants to stay with his master.

This parsha reminds me not to stay too comfortable, even when my needs are met. We’re meant to grow, and always to continue our pursuit of success and happiness. Even when we’re settled, the journey must continue.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Emor

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: EMOR, LEVITICUS 22:18-21

Speak unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: Whosoever he be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers in Israel, that bringeth his offering, whether it be any of their vows, or any of their freewill-offerings, which are brought unto the Lord for a burnt-offering; that ye may be accepted, ye shall offer a male without blemish, of the beeves, of the sheep, or of the goats. But whatsoever hath a blemish, that shall ye not bring; for it shall not be acceptable for you. And whosoever bringeth a sacrifice of peace-offerings unto the Lord in fulfilment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a freewill-offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein.

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

“Any person” — Jews and non-Jews — may bring an offering to God’s Mishkan (Rashi, Vayikra 22:25). And on the other hand, we see that the parameters of what this offering must be are quite strict: “any animal with a blemish” will not be acceptable for you. Why does God simultaneously open his Mishkan to all, and close it — limiting what may be brought into it?

In doing so, God reveals two powerful Jewish values that apply in the Mishkan and in our lives: inclusion and exclusion. We all live in the tension between the two on a daily basis. We are called to be welcoming — opening our hearts, homes and beyond to anyone who wants to share in the holy endeavor of serving God, as well as to anyone who needs us. We also are called to establish moral and spiritual standards, follow Jewish legal guidelines, uphold communal norms that unite us and distinguish us from the rest of the world.

In this tension, there is a profound wisdom: The Torah does not choose between these two values, but integrates them both into our worship of God. The trick is to know when we must live in both at once, and when we must draw from one more than the other. How we apply the tools of inclusion and exclusion — for better and for worse — will define our holiness and our fulfillment of God’s will.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan

I am often surprised at how easy return policies are these days. No longer does the customer need to offer a specific reason why he or she is returning an item to the store. Whether the item to be returned has a rip, a hole, is discolored, smelly or has some other defect, it will be accepted. While growing up, I thought an item had to have a defect to qualify for a store’s return guidelines. Nowadays, return policies often don’t require a reason for the return. The whim of the customer is sufficient.

When bringing animal offerings, God is requesting the children of Israel bring defect-free animal offerings. Although one could say that God does not wish to be bothered to have to return the item, we could also look at this expectation from another perspective.

The requirement that the offering be “pleasing to us” also prompts us to consider what a blemished offering says about us and our standards. We are the ones bringing the offering — whether native-born or otherwise. Our offering reflects on us. Whether one works in selling goods or in selling services, offering substandard products should never be an aspiration. Taking pride in what we have to offer is pleasing to us. That is an appropriate aspiration.

In everything we offer to fellow humans or to God, we should strive to make the offering pleasing to them and to us, as well.

Allison Josephs
Jew in the City/Project Makom

This parsha is intense. Stoning, harlots, blasphemy. As an Orthodox Jew who chose this lifestyle in her teens, I skim a parsha like this and think, “Wait, what did I sign up for?” Then I get to the end and see maybe the most misunderstood line from the Torah and suddenly feel better.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” People think that this means that the punishment for damaging someone’s eye is to have the same done to the perpetrator, but that is not what is going on here.

The Talmud tells us that the punishment is actually monetary restitution. So why then does the Torah make it seem like it’s a literal part that’s exchanged?

According to Maimonides, while we would never harm someone’s body, the person who caused the damage should realize how serious destroying a body part is, lest a rich guy go around poking out eyes and handing out cash.

Which brings me back to the first issue — my discomfort with the topics of the parsha. I made the mistake of just picking up the book and expecting to understand it right away. But the Torah is not meant to be read in a peripheral way. In an era of sound bites, we often make the mistake of treating the Torah similarly. But if we do, not only do we grossly misunderstand it, we also miss the chance to experience its richness and all of its layers.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

While the term “ger” literally is translated as “stranger,” halachah eventually came to use that term for converts, that unique class of dedicated individuals who willingly enter the covenant and become part of the Jewish people. With “ger” meaning “convert,” this week’s parsha welcomes converts to participate in some of the most important rituals in the Torah — the sacrifices and offerings: “When any man of the house of Israel, or the converts (ger) amongst them, presents a burnt offering as his offering for any of the votive, or any freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord.” As a sign of unity between those originally of “the house of Israel” and “the converts amongst them,” the Talmud (Menachot 104b) comments on the Torah’s use of the word “they,” saying that the fact that the Torah formulates the verse as “they offer” (asher yakrivu) teaches “that these offerings may be brought jointly.” The born Jew and the convert stand in unison to bring a sacred offering unto God. In his book on the talmudic sage Hillel, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin discusses Hillel’s welcoming attitude toward converts, stating that we need to adopt Hillel’s attitudes today: “The (welcoming) approach I am advocating is consistent, I believe, not only with Hillel’s teachings, but also with that of the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ben-Zion Uziel, who argued for a policy of greater openness to potential converts.” The Torah welcomes the convert, so did Hillel, and so did Rabbi Uziel. It’s our turn.

Eli Fink
Jewish Journal

I always thought it was quite snobby of God to accept only perfectly unblemished animals. Could it be that physical imperfections are displeasing to God? Like a cosmic Hercule Poirot returning his breakfast eggs because they are not perfectly symmetrical, as seen in the recent “Murder on the Orient Express” film?

Recently, my son asked me about “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles — one of my favorite books — a brilliant parable about adolescence and life. One message of the book is that there is no place for perfection in our imperfect world. We all have flaws and we are all broken in some way. All the characters in the book are flawed except for the exceptional Phineas. He is perfect. Phineaes is not for this world — so he dies. Our world is for the broken people.

Sin happens when we forget that imperfection is normal. No one is perfect and our goal should not be perfection. Instead, our goal should be to always struggle with our imperfections and never to give up on improving ourselves.

That is why we sacrifice only physically perfect animals to God. Like Phineas, they are not for this world. Our world is a world of people who make mistakes and have flaws. When we need to repent, we sacrifice a symbol of this mirage of perfection to remind ourselves that we are perfectly imperfect in every way. We send our fantasy of perfection to God so that we may remain in this world to continue our holy work of living.

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

Screenshot from YouTube.

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

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

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn 
Yeshivat Yavneh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Erez Sherman
Sinai Temple

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

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

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

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Tazria-Metzora

Screenshot from YouTube.

TAZRIA-METZORA, LEVITICUS 13:46

All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Congregation Dor Hadash, San Diego

The priest served as dermatologist and healer of the people. He would diagnose a mysterious rash on the skin or prescribe the necessary rituals when individuals came in contact with the natural life transitions of sex, childbirth, illness or death, rendering a person ritually impure.

These rituals reflect an important dialectic of the “I” and the “we” of the people. Every person had to look out for himself or herself, carefully scrutinizing bodily changes and coming to the priest to assess the situation. The community would then have to recognize such occurrences were part of society. Tzara’at was a scaly affliction that could occur in the stones of a house, in clothing or skin, and was highly contagious. The metzorah was in a temporary state of ritual impurity, a statement of fitness for ritual participation, not a moral condemnation.

The text is silent on the “why” of the fungus, but its inclusion in the Torah normalizes it. Only when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after criticizing Moses did the rabbis assign the affliction the cause that negative speech is a contagion that if not contained, can infiltrate the very bedrock of the community. Whatever the cause of a person’s isolation, it could happen to anyone, and it wasn’t permanent. The communal imperative to care for others is embedded in this text. No one should be isolated more than necessary — for as much as the individual suffers, so does the community. How we take care of one impacts the other.

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

The rabbis of medieval times did not quite know what to make of the esoteric Torah portions of Tazria-Metzorah, which deal with ancient skin ailments. After all, what is the eternal pertinence for future Jewish generations of such a disease? Why is it in the Torah? Our sages came up with a creative twist. Namely, that the word “metzorah” carries a linguistic affinity to the Hebrew words “motzi shem rah” (the one who destroys the reputation of another person).

In the age of social media, many people are often “socially executed” without trial. People are convicted in the courts of Facebook, Twitter and Google, without due process or evidence. In the absence of legal proceedings, lives can be destroyed.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner proposes that we understand this verse in the context of the rabbinic hermeneutical principal of “midah keneged midah” (measure for measure). Those with reckless minds and hearts who linguistically shed the blood of others by globally shaming and defaming them online based merely on rumors — in the absence of viable witnesses and evidence — ought to be excommunicated from the public arena for a period of time.

The message is clear and pervasive for all of us who spend hours every day online facing an inanimate screen. Words can wound. Words can kill.Words can shame and tarnish reputations. Words can shatter lives.

We must think hard, think long and think deeply before writing something about anybody online.

Bruce Powell
de Toledo High School

The rabbis taught that “metzorah” is really a contraction for “motzi shem rah,” or one who brings the bad name. They believed that one of the punishments for lashon harah, or evil speech, was leprosy, a disease which called for one’s isolation from the community.

The rabbis also taught that “machloket b’shaym shamayim,” or disputes in the name of heaven, resulted in the uplifting of community. For example, even though the Academies of Hillel and Shammai argued continuously, all of their disputes were in the name of heaven, the result being that the children of Hillel and Shammai would continue to marry one another.

Today, I often sense that disputes in our community, whether they be in the political realm, financial realm and so forth, deteriorate into people bringing “the bad name” upon one another. These toxic conversations create social “leprosy,” thereby isolating friends and even family members from one another. They often become so heated that people are perceived of as being politically “unclean,” and thereby are no longer allowed to “dwell within the camp.”

I believe we can, as a community, end this current “plague” of political or social “leprosy.” May we bring only the “good name” upon each other; and may we continue to dwell together, to marry one another, and to eradicate isolation from our world.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar

What does it mean to dwell alone? Is it to her benefit? That she can heal and return to the camp? Or is it for others’ benefit, so that they don’t catch her leprosy? Leave aside for a moment the idea of being “unclean.” Peel away the layers of this verse (forgive me for using this analogy in a section of the Torah traditionally dealing with skin disease), and we see that its centerpiece is a person dwelling alone (badad yeshev).

More than ever, the idea of dwelling alone touches us. Those of us who don’t live alone, know increasing numbers of people who do. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 28 percent of households have just one person living in them — up from 13 percent in 1960. Some live alone by choice, but many who live alone would prefer not to live alone.

Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav’s spiritual practice of self-seclusion, or hitbodedut, comes from the same Hebrew root as badad, meaning alone. Ironically, one of the major purposes of hitbodedut is to talk to God. It raises the question: Are you ever really alone? And if you are alone, does that mean you are lonely?

Within the Jewish community, there are more single households than ever. Some wring their hands over this, but isn’t it better to celebrate the expansion of what the ideal Jewish household looks like? Cookie-cutter household configurations no longer carry the day. And besides, Reb Nahman would probably say, “Just because you are alone, doesn’t mean you are lonely.”

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila,
Sephardic Educational Center

There is nothing more divisive to a society than gossip and slander. Those who misuse and abuse the power of speech create divisions among people, often leading to irreparable damage.

Ancient Jewish society attributed leprosy as a physical punishment for spreading lies or rumors. The distinguishable physical blemishes all over the leper’s body were a sign that this person spoke lashon harah, and much like lashon harah is a plague upon a society, so, too, this individual with leprosy is a plague upon society.

Like all physical impurities in the Torah, there are ritual measures taken to rid the person of the impurity. But with lepers, there is one special measure that is unique to their impurity: “He (the leper) shall dwell alone.” Both the Talmud (Arachin 13b) and Rashi ask why this extra measure — banishment from the camp to “dwell alone” — is unique to the leper: “Because just as he caused separation between husbands and wives or between good friends with his lashon harah, so, too, he should experience separation from his community.”

While modern-day society no longer attributes leprosy to lashon harah, the virulent strain of gossip and slander persists in our society. We might heed the Torah’s advice and banish those who divide us with their words to “dwell alone.” Today that would simply mean shutting down their Twitter account.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Shemini

Screenshot from YouTube.

LEVITICUS 10:8-11, SHEMINI

And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.

Rabbi Dvora Weisberg
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Because this instruction follows directly after the death of Nadav and Avihu, whose offering of “strange fire” led to their death, some commentators read it as an indication that the two were intoxicated when they brought the inappropriate offering. But I wonder if the prohibition against drinking on the job might instead reflect a realization of the stress experienced by the priest in his leadership role, and the temptation he might feel to self-medicate.

Consider the role assigned to the priest in Leviticus. He must distinguish between “sacred and profane, unclean and clean.” His work involves endless judgments about the status of objects, animals and fellow human beings. He must declare people ritually impure, sometimes banishing them from the community for a period of time. The priest’s work brings him face-to-face with death and suffering, with failure and disease, each of which he must name and proscribe. Such work is draining and emotionally challenging. Would it be surprising if a priest sought to forget what he saw at work, or steeled himself against the pain by arriving at the sanctuary slightly buzzed?

The Torah does not require that the priest abstain completely from alcohol. It does insist that he be fully present when he enters the Tent of Meeting. When we encounter the Divine Presence, we must be fully present. Extending that idea, we should strive to encounter human beings, reflections of the Divine, in a state of awareness and attentiveness. Only then can we recognize what is sacred.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha

Whereas many traditions emphasize faith, Judaism focuses on behavior, on actions that lead to understanding. Not just words. Here, drinking is forbidden in the Tent in order to distinguish between sacred and profane, clean and unclean.

Boundaries. Distinctions. For Jews, not for others. What is unclean for us may be fine for others, but we must act within Torah guidelines to understand deeper the differences between what is for Jews, and what is not.

Everything is holy, but not everything is Jewish. There may be holiness in the Catholic rituals of Communion, in the ecstatic practices of the Ayahuascero with his tribe, or in the physical sacrifice of the Lakota Sundance ceremony; but these are not our way. Our pathway is specific, our boundaries clear. This text teaches us to stay true to our instructed practices. And if we are clear in our “Jewish path,” then maybe we can truly appreciate the beauty of others.

Think of it this way: Every spiritual path is like a different color. Judaism is blue, Catholicism is purple, Islam is red, Shamanism is green, and so on. All are sacred, but if we just casually mix them all together, we get a murky, ugly brownish gray. But when we are true to our paths and respect others, we create a rainbow filled with the colors of God.

Let’s be true to living Jewishly through the Torah’s instructions, and in so doing be part of creating a rainbow in God’s exquisite painting of life.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

We Jews regularly sanctify Shabbat and holidays with wine. Thus, commentators are quick to point out that this passage is not meant as an absolute wine prohibition, but as a warning against drinking such that it perverts one’s ability to make the distinctions to achieve holiness.

We tend to think of the differences between sacred and profane, (ritual) purity and (ritual) impurity (better translations of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’) as dichotomous realms, raising the goal to rid ourselves of the everyday as the anti-sacred. In reality, however, they are not polar opposites, nor are they of different substance. There is no magic that makes something of and for God.

In Hebrew, the word for between is bein, from the same Hebrew root which forms the forms the word binah, the wisdom of discernment. Human development depends on making Havdalah, a separation, using clear awareness and distinction to recognize that which is sacred and that which is not.

So, we look at two similar things and acknowledge that, despite their similarity, they are intended to be differentiated and held apart. As was taught by our rabbis, “If there is no daat (discriminating intelligence), how can there be Havdalah?” (Talmud Yerushalmi)

That which is holy, set apart for God, is distinguished in mind, word and deed. So, too, is it intrinsically bound in the ordinary, the everyday. It is we who transform the everyday into the service of God through words, through deeds/ritual, and through intentional setting aside and separating.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

To live in reality, without illusions — is it something we want or do we avoid it? The next leaders after Moses and his brother, Aaron, were to be two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. They achieved spiritual greatness on a level we can’t imagine. Yet they blinked at the moment of truth like an astronaut on a spacewalk fatally miscalculating his oxygen reserves.

Nine Torah portions earlier, Nadav and Avihu incurred the death penalty when at the height of a high-stakes experience, an unadulterated vision of God, they did not treat it with the proper reverence. Six months later, our portion, that death sentence was carried out when they drank wine and subsequently performed a self-inspired service in the Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle at a pivotal public ceremony.

The Torah restores their breaches by commanding Aaron’s remaining sons to avoid wine, or risk their lives, while working in the Tabernacle. Additionally, no person shall deduce Jewish law for public use while even slightly inebriated. We are taught two areas where we need to be in absolute reality: our work and making life decisions for others.

The Talmud delineates three characteristics that define a person: how they handle their drink, money and anger. Drinking is a measure of one’s self-discipline. The Torah is signaling to us that mindset matters. There are many people who are always “on” with total focus and others whose lives are nonstop frivolity. We must find a balance. The choice is ours, as are the consequences.

Rabbi Noam Raucher
Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center

In a few chapters this verse can be re-read to foreshadow the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. Considered punishment for doing exactly as God forbids: wanton recklessness with sacred responsibilities. I’m not suggesting that the punishment fits the crime. But the Torah is clear that powerful people should be careful and guard themselves against intoxicants. The anxiety behind the command is tangible: Will these leaders hold the same high regard that others have for them and/or their office? How can we trust these leaders to take our requests seriously when they can’t even do that with their own responsibilities? How are these authorities supposed to distinguish between the sacred and profane when they don’t even know the difference within themselves?

While the Torah explicitly forbids a liquid drug in this act, it’s worthwhile to consider what other things might intoxicate those of great power. Perhaps it’s domination, wealth or fame. Maybe it’s just the pursuit of more power. We would do well to hold our leaders to a higher standard of behavior. A standard that guards against intoxicating the very office they hold during the pursuit of something other than the greater good. It should be clear that the only buzz coming from their offices should be about the hard work our leaders do to make the world a better place.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes On a Passage from the Haggadah

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

PASSOVER 5778, Haggadah:

“In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Just as it says, ‘You shall tell your child on that very day: “It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” ’ (Exodus 13:8) Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One, but even we were redeemed with them. Just as it says: ‘God took us out from there in order to bring us and to give us the land God swore to our ancestors.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:23)

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

With these words, we place ourselves directly in the story — in the experience — of Passover. As we read the words of the haggadah, as we enact the seder rituals, we are living our own stories, our own journeys from the narrow places to expansiveness, from degradation to praise, from darkness to light.

But here’s a remarkable thing about Passover: Like the Torah itself, and perhaps like our lives, it is an unfinished story. While we move from slavery to freedom, the haggadah, like the Torah, ends in the wilderness, not the Promised Land. It teaches us that while we may have come out of Egypt — our own narrow places — we may still have miles to go, with twists and turns along the way. We may never get there.

In our haggadah, as in our lives, perhaps the lessons are in the journey and not in the destination. Torah itself is given in the wilderness. What can we learn in our wanderings, in the meandering and sometimes unwelcome turns of our lives?

I am told that in some Sephardic traditions we add additional questions to the seder: From where are we coming? To where are we going? What are we bringing with us? This is to remind us that the story is our story, the experience our experience, the journey our journey.

Will you get there this year? And more importantly, from what narrowness will you come forth? Who will you bring with you? What story will you tell?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Valley Beit Midrash, Phoenix

There is no phrase more powerful in the haggadah: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” This moves the seder from a display of nostalgia to a recognition of the need for urgent action, from memory to mandate, from being passive to being active. It is a reminder that the current moment is as imperative as the biblical moment — that at every moment we stand between oppression and freedom, narrowness and expansiveness, hiddenness and revelation.

Such spiritual work is never simple. The esteemed 20th-century Musar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains: “We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves! … [W]e have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us…. [I]t is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differs from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need.” (Alei Shur 2:6)

Rav Wolbe teaches powerfully here that to understand the other, we must transcend the self. While it is difficult to understand another’s trauma and impossible to grasp the extent of another’s suffering, we can create the spaces to listen, to cultivate empathy and respond to others’ needs. We must go beyond the notion that we tend only to our own needs — that is not ethical Judaism. Rather, it is essential that we tend to the needs of the other in our midst.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, American Jewish University

We are all familiar with stories that begin, “Once upon a time.” These are tales of events that happened at a discrete moment in the long-ago past. They can move us and delight us and even teach us something important about ourselves, but they are accounts of something that is over before the storyteller begins to speak.

Then there are stories like the story of the Exodus. According to our tradition, the Exodus didn’t take place “once upon a time.” It takes place over and over and over again in each new generation. We are always on our way out of Egypt, always taking our first fearful and hopeful steps toward the Promised Land. Pharaoh’s army is always at our heels and God’s promise always lies stretched out in front of us — if we have the courage to take it. The cycle of enslavement and liberation is a continuous one. At any point along the timeline we can recognize the same eternal dynamic playing out, on a personal level and on a societal one. In short, this story is our story.

This is the haggadah’s most essential teaching. It has given countless readers of the Bible solace in hard times and inspiration to struggle for freedom. A story that happened once upon a time may be sweet in our ears, but a story that happens each and every day can shape lives and set the destiny of civilizations.

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body, and it’s a very limiting vehicle for an eternal soul like you. Even if you live to 120, it’ll be a flash compared to the eons you spend in the World of Souls. The light of that flash, however, is intense. Opportunities abound in this world for lessons and deeds you can take with you.

While you’re here, God and your true identity are hidden. This masking enables you to make free choices. But there was one moment in history when the Eternal One broke through the veil. You and I were there together. We walked out of bondage in Egypt and experienced our authentic selves at Sinai.

When we fulfill the obligation to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, it’s not a metaphor. We don’t imagine the Exodus, we remember it. And this should not be a once-a-year event. The Alter Rebbe reminds us that we’re commanded to remember the Exodus every day, and that we do so in the Shema prayer, when we recite: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Egypt.” This is called “accepting the yoke of Heaven.”

The great paradox of Passover is that service to God liberates us from both Pharaoh and our own human limitations. As souls, we are sparks of the Eternal. When we remember our true nature, we become free. We also tap into the soul’s unlimited capacity for kindness, wisdom and strength. Shine on!

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Last year, Sinai Temple members went on a mission to Poland. On a trip organized by our sisterhood, we traveled with March of the Living. We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, among more than 10,000 people standing side-by-side to signify the 10,000 people that were sent to the gas chambers every single day. We recited the Kaddish over mass graves of children, listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors, thanked non-Jews who jeopardized their own lives to save others, and mourned the millions who perished in Eastern Europe.

Our synagogue’s group was quite diverse, with roots in Poland, Russia, Iran and Israel, among other places. Very few in our group had personal connections to those Jews in the concentration camps. One congregant told me that when he had been a young adult in Iran, the stories of the Holocaust felt very far away. “What about now?” I asked. “Is it difficult to connect to these Jewish stories?” His response will remain with me for the rest of my life: “We are all Jews. It doesn’t matter the country in which we are born. All of this,” he said, pointing to the barracks of the concentration camp standing before us, “this is my story too.”

My teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (z”l) explains, “I must learn to see myself ‘as though’ I was there by virtue of my communal memory. Memory is what knits together the generations; memory creates the possibility of continuity and history. Memory creates community.”

Passover reminds us that we continue to survive as a Jewish people when we see each other’s stories as our very own.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes On A Passage from the Haggadah

PASSOVER 5778, HAGGADAH:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share the Passover meal. Now we are here; next year, in the land of Israel. Now we are still slaves. Next year, free people.”

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami

Our Passover story invites us to imagine that we are slaves longing for freedom. The seder meal teaches us to taste the bitterness of servitude in the maror and to see in the shankbone the hand of the Holy One lifting us from Egyptian bondage. We are the slaves. And yet we know we are not slaves. We eat a lavish banquet meal. We have the luxury of time to linger and discuss and drink plenty of wine even as we lean to the left, signifying that we are already free, already people of means. Slaves have none of this.

We repeat and learn and study the narrative of our ancient slavery in order to remember what it was like to be powerless and impoverished, even as we have climbed up the ladder of success. The narrative we recite teaches us that we can’t simply ignore those who in our own day and time struggle to be free and to find their economic footing. Passover is meant to teach us that God passed over the houses of the Israelites but we are not to pass over those who struggle in society: the homeless, the refugee, the undocumented worker, the stranger in our midst. Pharaoh hardened his heart. We must not harden our hearts. We must see them and invite them to share in our table. Passover is our wake-up call. Shake off your indifference to those without. Let all who are hungry come and eat. The time is now.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David–Judea Congregation

A commentary known as Hemdat Yisrael:

“I will add my piece to the generations of commentary before me. To me, these words are directed toward those who libel us, saying that we use the blood of Christian children when we knead our matzah, a libel that has done more harm to us than any of the decrees throughout time.

“This is the bread of affliction: it is poor man’s bread, with nothing in it other than flour and water! That our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt: long before Christianity was founded. Let all who are hungry come and eat: Non-Jews as well may join us in our Seder meal. Let all who are in need of investigating how we prepare our matzot come and share the Passover meal and taste the Matzah for themselves! Now we are here. But our holy prophets have promised us that in the future, God will turn the heart of the nations so that they all recognize the God of Israel, and they will be ashamed of their past behavior. Next year then, in the land of Israel!”

What is this bread that we eat? It is the matzo that every past generation of Jews has eaten. Living in as blessed a time in Jewish history as we are, the matzo is the centerpiece of family celebration, amid prosperity, security and a Jewish state that the author of Hemdat Yisrael could only painfully yearn for. But the matzo bears so much more. It may be paper thin, but it is thick with the stories of our generations.

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

This is the bread. … This is when you take a risk — when you decide to try that new job, new school, new business or project. This is when you’ve come to the edge, where you’ve planned and planned but know the moment has come to take the leap and venture into the unknown, hoping that the provisions you’ve taken with you will be enough.

Then add bitter herbs. … These are the losses, the heartbreaks. No one ever tries to add them to the recipe, but they inevitably get in. Some years their taste threatens to overpower all else. When they appear, be sure to smother them with:

Charoset. … This is the work. This is waking up at 5 a.m. feeling stressed, the weariness at the end of the day, the to-do list that never gets shorter, no matter how many tasks you accomplish.

But mixed in is the secret ingredient, the honey — the love — that gives meaning to all these sacrifices.

Be forewarned: This sandwich is extremely messy. The second you take a bite, it’ll go everywhere. The mess is unavoidable. Any efforts to prevent the mess will surely fail.

This combination of ingredients may seem odd, but by some miracle, if you make it right, the sandwich is delicious. Year after year, you can’t get enough. … And it all begins with the bread.

Rabbi Jason Weiner
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Knesset Israel

Most commentators notice the invitation aspect of this phrase and the importance of commencing our seder by welcoming guests. Indeed, there are many aspects to the seder meant to enhance the feeling of being free individuals — such as reclining, having a beautifully set table with our best finery and filling one another’s cups.

I believe there is another crucial message in this passage: Our rabbis, particularly those quoted in the haggadah, knew what it meant to be oppressed and downtrodden. They lived during a time of Roman persecution. Some were even killed for teaching Torah. They wanted their fellow Jews to feel exalted and free on this night, but also never to lose touch with the experience of slavery. The Torah tells us that just as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we must always be able to identify with the difficult experience of being alienated and persecuted. As we begin our seder, therefore, the haggadah reminds us that you are about to engage in a ritual in which you focus on the experience of freedom, of acting like royalty. Enjoy it — you deserve it. But never lose touch with what it means to be poor, hungry and afflicted. We must do everything we can to help ease the burden of the suffering, and step one is identifying with their struggle. We thus begin our seder by holding up the bread of affliction and reminding all those present that we used to eat this stuff, and some people don’t even have this. Let’s help them.

David Sacks
Television writer who podcasts at Torahonitunes.com

This amazing invitation that begins the seder sounds incredibly generous. But if you actually think about it — it makes no sense. On a practical level, who is going to hear you outside your front door? As such, the whole thing seems like an empty practice.

Or is it? Maybe the person who needs an invitation the most is already at the table. And maybe that person is you. In other words, you might be sitting there, but are you really there?

This concept of “being present” has been part of Torah consciousness for thousands of years.

The first “Be here now” was said by God to Moshe at Mount Sinai. HaShem tells Moshe, go up to Mount Sinai and be there (Exodus 24:12). The Modjitzer Rebbe points out that the “be there” part seems redundant. Once Moshe ascends, he already is there! Not so. Being “there” requires your thoughts and your heart to be equally present. No small thing.

So back to our question: Has anyone ever shown up at your seder after you issued that initial invitation?

The answer is yes. And it happens every year. To all of us. Who comes? Eliyahu HaNavi. Elijah the Prophet. The one who announces the arrival of the Messiah. Because we show up. He shows up, too.

The whole world is waiting for the Jewish people to actually be “there.” And when that happens — and it is the destiny of the world that it will — everything changes.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Tzav

PARSHA: Leviticus 6:3-4, Tzav

“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.”

Rabbi Heather Miller
Beth Chayim Chadashim

Life experiences, like priestly duties, are messy. We each enter the world through the messy experience that is childbirth. From there, life gets even more complex. Likewise, the duties of the priests were messy. They not only diagnosed skin diseases and slaughtered animals but also attended to ash disposal.

In these verses, the priest’s vestments have presumably become soiled during the daily altar cleaning. Oddly, he puts on clean clothes — to take out the trash. It doesn’t quite make sense, unless the priest is trying to keep up appearances for the sake of those who might see him exit the temple premises.

While I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on cleanliness, as a germophobe myself, I also recognize that sometimes our obsession with cleanliness can have real and tragic ramifications. For instance, because of cleanliness laws, women are not permitted to be rabbis or scribes. We are not allowed to enter a sanctuary for 33 days after the birth of a male child — 66 for a female child.

Laws that encourage keeping up appearances of being clean are even more troublesome. For years, they have encouraged people to hide their stories of survival from abuse, and experiences with illness or financial trouble. They have discouraged others from fully expressing themselves as gay or having political opinions that don’t match those of their community.

Sometimes we need to ask, “Who is defining what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘unclean’?” “Who enforces the standard?” “What implications does it hold?” And finally, “Is cleanliness next to Godliness?”

Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

After the fires in Southern California, a confirmation student argued: “I don’t like the saying, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ My friend lost her home. It’s all ashes now. But it is not the same ashes!” Her words struck me. After the fire, is there more to those ashes than just ashes?

In our Torah portion, the priestly clearing of ashes is a sacred act. In his poem “The Deceptive Present, the Phoenix Year,” Jewish poet Delmore Schwartz writes: Who will be able to believe, when winter again begins / After the autumn burns down again, and the day is ashen, / And all returns to winter and winter’s ashes, / …Who will believe or feel in mind and heart / The reality of the spring and of birth, / In the green warm opulence of summer, and the inexhaustible vitality and immortality of the earth?

The burning of Jewish books inspired Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz to write his poem “And Yet the Books.” In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up, / Tribes on the march …. / “We are,” they said, even as their pages / Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame / Licked away their letters. So much more durable / Than we are …. / I imagine the earth when I am no more: / Nothing happens, no loss…. / Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born, / Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

There is something of us that survives the ashes: memory, experience, love. We are not simply swept away, but taken up in sacred ritual, and offered into the radiance, the heights, the opulence of earth.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer
Educator and Author

After making an offering, the Kohen is required to do three things: First he collects the ashes left as residue from the offering, placing them temporarily aside; then he changes his clothes; and finally, he takes the ashes away from the holy space and discards them. Why the costume change?

Rashi teaches that it is simply to keep his fancy clothes clean: “The servant should not wait upon his master in his kitchen clothes.” He puts on his everyday “work” clothes to do a messy cleanup job. It’s an indication of respect for the holiest, most special place of connection with the divine. A Chasidic story brings a different explanation. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev once spotted a cart driver who was wearing the prayer garb of tallit and tefillin — while oiling the wheels of his wagon. The elated rabbi exclaimed to God: “What a people! Even when they grease the wheels of a wagon, they still have You in their hearts!” The Chasidic master perceives holiness — not rudeness — in that scene. He teaches that even when we are doing the most mundane, messy tasks, we can still be in active relationship with God.

This is Rashi’s idea turned inside-out. We should serve our master in our kitchen clothes — and every other outfit, too. The clothes we wear (and the money we spend, the relationships we pursue, the choices we make, the words we speak) every moment of every day are the very garments of holy souls who serve God.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

A full day of animal offerings would culminate and the very next morning the priest would begin with removing the deshen, the leftover ashes. Why wasn’t it taken care of while the offerings were taking place the night before?

Judith Martin is the author of “Miss Manners,” the guidebook on social etiquette. It’s actually quite humorous without intending to be. One person in the book is upset that she was invited to a house where the hostess didn’t talk to her before the meal because she was cooking, or during the meal because she was clearing, or after because she was cleaning. Miss Manners strongly insists that a host or hostess should never do what this hostess did during the meal; it’s not good etiquette. Maybe this is why we shouldn’t do the removal of the deshen during the meal. It’s not appropriate.

Why doesn’t the daily service begin with a more positive act? For example, bringing an offering or perhaps lighting the menorah. There are two classic reasons for animal offerings in the Temple: For Maimonides it’s about shifting our idolatrous tendencies to a more God-directed behavior. According to Ramban, it is about envisioning oneself being offered to God. Maimonides’ position has troubled many scholars because of its pagan undertones. Perhaps we can suggest a meaningful rationale. The Temple is a place where the Shechina, God’s presence, permeates at a much more intense level than elsewhere. It’s the spot of God’s revelation. In order to experience that encounter, we need to first remove the dross that can get in the way.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple, Venice

Living in Los Angeles, we spend a lot of time on our exterior selves. And new trends in soulful wellness advertise assisting in outer perfection. But what exactly is the mind/body connection to wellness? Leviticus 6:3 lends an insight: “The priest shall dress in linen raiment” (raiment, being an antediluvian word for garment). The Hebrew for the priest’s garment is usually called in Leviticus ketonet, but in this verse it is called mido vad, linen garment. Why this newfangled word?

An ascending Jewish fad, with a little help from Rashi, provides an insight, if not an answer. Rashi equates the word for garment with the word for measure, as they share the same bilateral root (mem, daled). This transforms the verse into an insightful window into our fabulous closets: The priest shall dress in linen according to his measure. The Hebrew word for this, middah, is also a word for describing character values. Just what was the value of the priest’s kindness? His compassion? His patience? And what if our garments today represented our character? What would it be to wear our hearts on our sleeves?

As time rapidly speeds by, is it important to spend countless hours on a blowout, shopping for faddish jeans or perfecting our outer cropping? The priest is bringing an offering for purity; in fact, he must take off all of these garments and then don new garments in order to enter a clean place. Perhaps it’s time for us to shed our skins as well. As we enter the days before Passover, may we consider disrobing our outer klipot (shells), and undress into our purest essence.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Vayikra

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: VAYIKRA, LEVITICUS 1:1-2

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: “When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.’”

Rabbi Rachel Shere
Adat Shalom Synagogue, Farmington Hills, Mich.

Last year, these words were chanted at our synagogue by a bat mitzvah girl named Shayla. The name Shayla means “question,” and when she was born nearly five months early, the doctors had a lot of questions about her ability to thrive.

The first word of the parsha, Vayikra, is written with an aleph ze’irah. A tiny letter aleph; the diminutive nature of the letter draws attention to the difference between the word with an aleph, vayikra, and without the aleph, vayikar. Without the aleph, the word denotes randomness. With the aleph, it denotes God’s will.

When Shayla was born, her parents asked me, “Rabbi, is this the will of God?” At the time, I reassured them that Shayla’s challenges were not the will of God and that, as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously explained, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian.”

In the 14 years since, as I have watched Shayla’s irrepressible spirit embrace a world of doctor’s appointments, surgeries and unbelievable pain, the clear line I once drew between vayikra and vayikar seems less obvious. Shayla’s strength and bravery feel superhuman; her resilient spirit and luminous smile seem to come from a different world. Perhaps the aleph in vayikra is small not to highlight the difference between vayikra and vayikar, but to remind us that God has given humanity the tools we need to bridge the gap between the two words. For as Shayla said recently, the questions were never really about her, they were for her; and their answers, I believe, are evident in the radiance of her smile.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation

Many Orthodox Jews believe that we will one day return to offering animal sacrifices. As a one-time vegetarian, I contend that the Torah tries to minimize and regulate the consumption of meat and that animal sacrifices belong in the past.

The prohibition of cooking meat with dairy is phrased as “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” to say that the act of eating meat is cruel enough, and there is no need to add to it by cooking the animal in its life-giving liquid. The commandment in Leviticus 17:13 to cover the blood of a hunted animal can similarly be understood as telling the hunter that he has committed a crime and that he must cover it up.

While the annual number of public sacrifices at the temple hovered at around 1,300, the number would have been much greater if people had been allowed to build private altars and make their own sacrifices. The indication of what a future temple would look like is found in the words of the prophets. Isaiah and Micah, Samuel and Jeremiah, along with the book of Psalms all reject the idea of animal sacrifices. Isaiah calls on people to cleanse their hearts and mend their ways, while Micah sums it up succinctly in his final verses (6:6-8): With what should I please God? Sacrifices? Rams? Rivers of oil? If you ask what is good, and what it is that God wants from you, it is doing justice and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

As we enter this book filled with sacrifices, it’s easy to simply turn away. Yet we are encouraged to struggle each year with all the parts of Torah, even (especially) the ones that are difficult to connect to our personal lives today.

The first word, Vayikra (and God called), is enough to spend a lifetime pondering. Have you ever felt called? Was it a whisper for years that suddenly got louder? I was 43 when I began studying for my adult bat mitzvah. During that process, the love of serious Jewish study became more and more compelling. I could not ignore that call to dive deeply into Jewish wisdom — reading, studying, listening. Immersed and feeling led by an unknown but firm pull, I applied to rabbinical school. I could not know at the time the sacrifices our family would make as we left our settled, happy lives in Seattle because of answering this call. We left cherished friends, a home and garden we loved, beloved teachers and students and financial steadiness.

So, yes, every call that you respond to brings both joy and sacrifice. I listened. I’m grateful I did — and now my life itself is an offering. I’m here to say: Slow down. Get quiet. Listen. The Voice is calling out every moment of every day.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA

How can we have a genuine God experience as Moses did? Why do we need it?

Our greatest need is self-worth. We have purpose. We matter. The greatest manifestation of that drive is connection to God. We pursue it, perhaps subconsciously, every moment we are alive. We cannot reach God by thinking in platitudes and performing man-made, feel-good activities.  Rather, let’s decode the Torah and learn how.

The Torah is very sensitive to the proximity of verses. We begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, with God calling Moses from the Tent of Meeting. The Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle in the desert) is a perfectly designed structure to empower each of us to encounter the Creator of the Universe.

The next line in the Torah says: If you want that Divine connection, bring an animal and sacrifice it in the Tent of Meeting, following a specific procedure without any deviation. Why an animal?  Because we need to channel our animalistic desires by metaphorically slaughtering them. Only then can we enter into a pure spiritual realm.

Trying to understand how God created a path to him is like a two-dimensional stick figure trying to conceive of the three-dimensional animator who created it. It’s beyond us.

Currently, the entire sacrificial system is inoperable. But we can derive from it that if we consistently engage in the Torah that is available to us, we can have an ongoing authentic God experience. And that’s what life is about.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Temple Beth Am

Two alephs deserve inquiry. Most attention is focused on the miniature aleph at the end of Vayikra that some read as highlighting the often miniscule line between the intentional calling-out denoted by vayikra and the cold, arbitrary happenstance of vayikar, which is how it would read without the aleph. With the slightest of slights, with a whisper of cool, we can degrade intimacy to accident. And, in reverse, by offering just a bit more of our aleph, our ani /I , and being full witness to another’s, we can elevate randomness to sanctity.

Fewer commentators focus on the second aleph, which, according to the Netziv (19th-century Lithuania) converts the utilitarian preposition l’ to the more honoring invitation of el. This is one of only two times in the Torah that God calls out “toward Moshe” using this exact phrasing.  Many other times, God calls “to”/l’ Moshe to beckon him to a place, to instruct him in a task, or to convey essential data. But only twice does God melt the innumerable layers of distance between them and draw him close, almost as if wooing him.

How much wooing and cooing is needed so that relationships endure? Psychologist John Gottman suggests that healthy bonds require five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. The Torah may be hinting at something less numerical and more subtle: Whenever you call to your beloved, child or friend … use your aleph, your infinitesimal-but-real spark, to witness theirs. A little intimacy is often enough. But don’t wait too long to do it again.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei

Screenshot from YouTube.

PARSHA: Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-3

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, Calif.

What kind of death does someone die if they don’t observe Shabbat? Isn’t this just the kind of verse that you don’t want to read in the Torah? You’re at a bar or bat mitzvah with a bunch of people who don’t usually find themselves in the synagogue and you shrink in embarrassment, saying, “What kind of a tradition would enshrine this harsh decree in its holy books?”

There are some who would read this literally: Break Shabbat and you die. But we know that we don’t live in that kind of world. God is not coming down from on high and smacking us when we pick up our iPhone on Shabbat or smiting us when we go to the mall on Saturday afternoon. So what is going on here?

God is a partner, Shabbat is date night. Like Moses at the burning bush, we get an invitation to dance with God. But we must turn aside from our work so that we don’t miss the holy invitation, for if we miss it, it doesn’t come our way again until next week. That moment dies — along with all that, it could have made possible. We move on and another week begins.

When we work without ceasing, a part of us dies. But when we wake up to the potential of Shabbat — the possibility of a loving partner, the opportunity to be swept off our feet by the grandeur of a beautiful world, the renewal of our breath, a sacred meal shared in the company of those we love — we choose life. Choose Shabbat. Choose life.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Academy for Jewish Religion, California

Shabbat, a gift from eternity, is the unending source of inspiration, creativity, ideas and meaningful visions bestowed upon us by the Eternal. Each soul is blessed with inner qualities intended to be woven into the world and added to the garment of creation.

Each living being brings a meaningful story to the world and participates in its cycle of collapse and renewal, ready to redeem the world, moment by moment. Behind all the roaring and confusion of this world, the living spirit of the Eternal waits to be found again and again. This is Shabbat.

The Talmud (Berachot 56) calls Shabbat a gift, “1/60th of the World to Come.” It is a day of rebalancing, of remembering that our true, holy purpose is to connect to the soulful reality of our existence. We get caught up in our daily duties and forget that these endeavors are a means to an end. To forget and neglect that we are working toward holiness is to risk the death of our soul. This day is given to us to remember why we are here.

Some attain rebalance through the Sabbath meal and song, through prayer and learning Torah. Others by walking along the ocean.

The Torah also teaches that when we sit around our Shabbat tables, “we should not light a fire in all our dwelling places” — that is, not lose our tempers, not spread words of hatred that light fires of strife, but keep our balance, which spreads peace and joy on this holy day.

Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot
Temple Judea

Shabbat is arguably one of the most precious and most protected aspects of being a Jew. It seems absurd that given the benefits, we’d have to persuade anyone to keep this unique and holy gift.

Shabbat is special and holy because in one fell swoop, it connects a Jew to God, Torah and Israel. At its core is humility, a midpoint between arrogance and humiliation, a deep understanding of one’s place in the world. We do not control the universe and we need to acknowledge that regularly. We also deserve time to contemplate and celebrate our existence.

Shabbat creates enforced moments to learn Torah, ethics, values — the things that make us better. It enables a real community to come together, not merely people who are friends, or who are like-minded. This is for everyone, whether you like them, whether you agree with them or not. Clearly this is good for society.

Why then, does it need to be framed in such caustic and horrible language?

Human nature is such that we will always find ways to do what is not good unless somehow we are held accountable. With accountability, human beings rise. And even if we can allow an individual to slip, we cannot let the needs of society slide. It is fundamental to the Jewish world that at least once each week, society is immersed in training our character and studying our ethics.

Shabbat needs to be not only observed, but protected, for the good of our world.

Daniel Stein Kokin
Visiting assistant professor of Jewish and Israel Studies, UCLA

Imitation of God’s rest, reminder of the Exodus, marker of God’s consecration of Israel — the Torah’s explanations for Shabbat vary widely. Here, by contrast, its seeming sole purpose is obedience to divine decree. And here — uniquely — a specific injunction against the kindling of fire supplements, the oft-repeated prohibition on work. What sparks this?

Fire is arguably the critical physical interface between God and the world. With fire, God commenced creation (is light not fire at its root?), first communicated with Moses, and guided the Israelites in the wilderness. Similarly, with fire, he blocked off Eden, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and consumed Aaron’s sons (for offering, of all things, “foreign fire”). We, too, address God through fire, formerly via animal sacrifice, now through ritualized candlelighting (ironically, in light of this passage, to mark the onset of Shabbat). And thanks to fire, we re-create the world to serve our needs and desires. In short, fire is a divine substance we have somehow acquired (the ancient Greek explanation: Prometheus stole it from Olympus).

Fire can be physically deadly, but no less dangerous is its ability to seduce us into thinking away our limits. Might this be the key to this passage’s teaching?

Perhaps instead of allowing us to imitate God, or celebrate our relationship with God, Shabbat highlights the great chasm between us. Six days we “play” divinity in transforming creation; on the seventh, we acknowledge our folly in doing so.

Or perhaps this is but one further explanation, fated to converse and compete with all the rest. Fire away!

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

Parashat Vayakhel opens with Moses gathering the entire community and instructing them to observe Shabbat. He immediately follows this with the full instructions for building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). From this juxtaposition of Shabbat to the Mishkan, talmudic tradition established a relationship between the two.

The rabbis read this Torah portion like architects and artists, breaking it apart into different categories and genres of labor. They derived a total of 39 forms of labor needed to build the Mishkan, and they ruled that these 39 forms of labor are, in fact, the prohibited labors on Shabbat. But is Shabbat observance exclusively defined by a list of prohibited labors?

The prophet Isaiah articulates God’s vision for what we call the “spirit of Shabbat”: “If you shall refrain from pursuing business on My holy day, and declare Shabbat a delight … and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters —  then shall you delight yourself in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Isaiah outlines an expanded vision for Shabbat: In addition to refraining from the 39 labors, we cease from pursuing our mundane business. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The essence of Shabbat is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat, we try to become attuned to holiness in time.” Shabbat remains our greatest gift from God.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel

PARSHA: TETZAVEH, EXODUS 27: 20-21

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”

Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

The Ner Tamid (eternal light) was a basic feature of the Mishkan as well as the first and second Temples. Symbolizing the Almighty’s constant presence, it has been a component of synagogues throughout the generations.

In many communities, the lighting of oil lamps is a sign of respect for the beauty and holiness of the synagogue. In Sephardic congregations, those who receive an aliyah to the Torah often make a memorial contribution toward shemen lamaor, oil for illuminating the synagogue.

Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, of 16th-century Egypt, known as Radbaz, handled the case of a man who had the longtime practice of donating a large quantity of oil to light the synagogue lamps. Unfortunately, his financial condition worsened, so he could send only a small amount of oil. The synagogue officers then transferred the honor to a rich person who could donate more. The question: Did the first man, now in poor straits, lose his ongoing privilege of providing lights for the synagogue? Or did this right belong to him, since he had performed the mitzvah for so many years?

Radbaz replied: “The offering of a poor person is as important to the Almighty as an offering of a wealthy person. … If the congregation saw that the oil [he provided] was insufficient, they should have used communal funds [to meet the need] and avoid embarrassing the donor.”

Radbaz underscored the importance of all heartfelt contributions, whether large or small. Concern for human feelings takes priority over financial considerations.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer
American Jewish University

In a fracked world where nature is being pillaged for so-called human welfare, our Torah nevertheless insists on the profound interrelationship of our spiritual lives and the natural world.

In Parashat Terumah, the Torah describes the menorah in a manner precisely evoking the moriah, the fragrant Palestinian sage from which it may well be derived, a plant known to indigenous people around the world as a source of healing. Now, in Tetzaveh, the Torah relates that the source of the ner tamid, the light to burn before the ark, is the olive, “a light unto the world” (Yalkut Shimoni 1, 378).

Just as the olive’s oil gives light, so do its leaves: As they blow in the wind, their silvery underside creates “silver clouds of light,” as Dr. Ephraim HaReuveni teaches. No wonder our rabbis imagine the olive leaf in the mouth of Noah’s dove bringing “light to the world” and see Sarah’s face shining “like the olive tree” when she hears she will bear a child. Jeremiah calls Israel “an olive tree, leafy and fair.” The rabbis say, “They shed light on all.”

Most moving of all is the vision of Zechariah. He sees an olive tree on either side of the golden menorah. When he asks the angel what they mean, the angel explains, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:2-6). May we, too, be sources of spiritual light bringing healing and peace into the world.

Rabbi Tsafi Lev
de Toledo High School and Rabbis Without Borders

The advice one generation passes to the next is one part deep caring and an equal part naive hubris. We often ignore the constantly changing contexts of our lives. So, I wonder about a verse that says, “It shall be a hukat olam l’dorotam, a due for all time, throughout the ages.”

Today, there is no Tabernacle and there is no Temple, and yet, God has expectations, as do we, when we pass things down to the next generation: “Do it, because it’s good, because it’s right.” The ner tamid described is not the one we see in our sanctuaries today. In effect, we have not done as we were told or commanded, but live with what we can do, and what works for us.

Change necessitates choice. The 21st century is largely shaped by accelerated change and the power of individual choice as a driver of identity more than by the influence of community. So what are we are saying to our children when we say, “This is how to be. Pass it down forever”? We are saying, “This is meaningful to me, and I want you to have it because I love you.” Only that and little more, but it’s honest and important.

We should be honest with ourselves about the changes the next generation will certainly make and be explicit with them about our love for them when we express our hope for their tomorrow.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood

Aaron and his sons are given instructions for kindling the menorah in the ancient Tabernacle. Hidden in the details yet in plain view is an important concept: Bring your best for God. All the minutiae detailing the preparation of the priests for their eternal duties points to this idea. When they are told to bring clear, pressed olive oil to light the menorah, we understand that only the best and highest grade will do for lighting the Eternal’s light. Olive oil was a commodity in the ancient world. But we are taught here to bring the finest.

We, too, ought to ask ourselves, “Do we bring our best and finest to God and God’s house?” Or do we seek to cut corners? Do we see how little we can do or give and get away with it?

Today, the synagogue is the heir to the Tabernacle of old. It is the place where we Jews try to encounter God’s Divine light through prayer, study and community. Perhaps it is time to stop bemoaning what is wrong with our synagogues and invest once again in bringing the best to God’s house — the best offerings we have and the best of ourselves, to ensure that the light of God emanates eternally from the Tent of Meeting of our day and time. The golden menorah was carried off by the Romans, never to be seen again, but God’s light still shines through our acts of holiness and dedication to our people and our God.

David Sacks
Television writer who podcasts at Torahonitunes.com

If you think about it, it’s kind of funny that God commands us to light the menorah in the Holy Temple. Why? Because God doesn’t need that light in order to see! So, then, why light it at all?

To answer that, we have to go back to before the world was created. Most people think the world started with darkness, and then God said, “Let there be light.” Nothing could be further from the truth. God existed before the world did, and one of the names of God in kabbalistic texts is Ohr Ayn Sof, or Light Without End.

In other words, the starting point of the world is tremendous light — not darkness at all.

The light of the menorah was so holy. The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that it channeled that original light of creation back into the world. Which brings us back to our question. Who was the light for? Us!

This explains the windows in the Holy Temple. Normally, windows are meant to bring in as much light as possible. And yet the windows in the Holy Temple were funnel-shaped — large on the outside but small on the inside. The rabbis teach that this was for the light of the menorah to shine out to the entire world.

As a Light unto the Nations, we have a responsibility to shine this teaching that the beginning of everything is not darkness, but light, hope and the goodness of God.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

PARSHA: TERUMAH, EXODUS 25:8-9

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”

Rabbi David Saiger
Milken Community Schools

Ron Swanson in TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” played by Nick Offerman, is a curmudgeonly parks director who is vehemently anti-government and anti-pretty much anything institutional, including religion. As a hobbyist carpenter and builder, he’s forced to admit, while attending a wedding in a church: “Say what you will about organized religion, but those [people] knew how to construct an edifice.”

Swanson and I may disagree on the value of organized religion, but we agree on the value of a well-designed edifice. However, there are edifices and then there are edifices. The Torah recognizes the allure of building something grand and beautiful. The Tower of Babel was grand and beautiful, presumably, but its purpose was to give others and/or ourselves the false impression that we are (like?) gods. It was the ultimate expression of hubris.

But some edifices, however grand and beautiful, truly allow God to dwell among us. Put differently, some edifices allow us to access the most spiritual, empathic and even humble parts of ourselves. To me, the operative words of our verse are “that [God] may dwell.” The Tabernacle isn’t the dwelling place of the human ego, it’s the dwelling place of spiritual values. The Tabernacle was the anti-Babel — an edifice constructed not to express the desires of powerful men, but an edifice that puts the ego in check and creates space for God, for the Godly parts of ourselves.

When I enter a space to pray or to reflect, be the space humble or grand, my question is: Is this a Tower of Babel, or is this a Tabernacle?

Rabbi Jocee Hudson
Temple Israel of Hollywood

One of the most profound shifts in my understanding of God has been inspired by feminist theologians, who have taught that God is not a hierarchical power judging from above, but rather an animating power radiating from within.

“Does God judge me?” I am asked versions of this question often in my work as a rabbi. And it’s a question I will admit to asking myself. “Is God angry with me? Is God punishing me?”

These are difficult questions because they unearth hard truths in our emotional landscapes: we are imperfect, life can be devastating and confusing and, in the face of uncertainty, we may find ourselves desperate for answers.

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

In response to these tough questions, I remind myself of this bit of Torah.

There is a divine spark in each of us, which links us one to the other and to our deepest selves. This divine spark, which dwells among us, within us, is not a source of judgment or punishment. This divine spark is a nurturing, connective force that has the power to bring us shalom and shleimut, peace and wholeness. When we pray or meditate or allow our minds to quiet, this is the light, the echo, that emerges.

There is much of God I cannot know. There is so much of God I can feel. The truest sanctuaries we build make space for both realities.

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

Our friend Ziporah Bank likes to say, “If you’re walking through a desert and find 10 rocks lined up in a row, you know someone did that. Nature doesn’t randomly create such rows. Likewise, a universe filled with ordered beauty, from galaxies to gladioluses, doesn’t just happen. Someone did that.”

In our verse, God has already told Moses to open the first capital campaign by inviting “every person whose heart inspires him” to donate materials for a new synagogue. Its architect is the Holy One Himself, who now shows His design to Moses.

Our verse reads, “Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle…” but there are no dashes in the Torah. So read it, “I show you the pattern.” This pattern is the mark of God eternally dwelling in our midst. Most people would walk by Ziporah’s row of rocks without a second thought, particularly when troubled by a business problem or worrisome relative.

If we open ourselves to the possibility of Divine purpose, however, we can eventually become like Reb Zusha of Anipoli, who would regularly collapse to the ground, overwhelmed by the stars in the night sky, and the loving Hand that placed them there.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

We are the lens through which our children see the world.

At dinner, our three children were giggling and laughing. Assuming the kids weren’t paying attention, my husband and I discussed our health. The words “lose weight” entered the conversation. Our daughter’s head popped up and she said, “I want to lose weight, too.” She is 6 years old.

We included her in a discussion about healthy eating and living, but lingering was the shock of our 6-year-old mirroring our language and behavior. Although it was a positive talk about ways to be healthy, the lesson was clear: The younger generation forms opinions, attitudes and behaviors based on how the older generation models and performs.

If we want our daughter to love herself, then we must intentionally model ways to do just that.

The Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto elucidates, “…[W]e shall explain in detail how the very design of the Tabernacle was able to inspire the people with the confident feeling that the Lord was present in their midst.”

Meaning, the pattern of the Tabernacle was to deliberately remind the children of Israel that God was watching and God was present. The architectural design of the Tabernacle provided a model of life for the Israelites to mirror. In understanding that God was close, so came the ability to develop a core of strength and a heart of faith.

We serve as our children’s Tabernacle. Let our words and actions allow for their growth — spiritual, physical, emotional.

Our children are watching.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org

Hypercreative, infinite and original designer of innumerable worlds seeks meaningful relationship with finite, corporeal being with intent to build a home together. Heaven is nice but it’s time to get down to earth.

Blueprints, materials, real estate … everything is prepared and ready for implementation. All that’s needed is your willingness to take this forward — with passion, with love, with wisdom, with wonder — and with total dedication to invest every talent you have into making something truly awesome happen.

Together, we can make the world beautiful again. Even more beautiful than when I first made it. Way more. We will fit infinite light into finite space. We’ll reveal transcendent oneness in fine, precise detail. We’ll unveil divine beauty in everyday human life.

I’ve got the resources. You provide the human life.

Just call, wherever you are, however you are. I’ve been waiting to meet you for way too long.

Letters to the Editor: Fake News, #MeToo, Table for Five, Larry Greenfield and Ruth Ziegler

Truth, ‘Fake News’ and American Politics

Regarding the Journal’s cover story “Can Truth Survive?” (Feb. 9): Reporter Shmuel Rosner probably doesn’t believe it can. His story is devoted mostly to a critique of a Rand Corp. study called “Truth Decay.” I confess I have not read the study and therefore am unable to comment on it.

Rosner recounts many of President Donald Trump’s falsehoods, the intentional conflation of opinion with fact, the tedium of cable news and even the cost of the decay of truth. It wasn’t until the end of his story that he disclosed his opinion: that truth decay “stems not just from the evil doers but also from the do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.”

Is he kidding? Because if he is serious, he believes that we do not have the ability to understand, to judge, to evaluate, to choose, to be capable of rational thought, or simply that we are just too lazy and don’t care. For our collective sake, I hope he is dead wrong.

Louis Lipofsky via email

Shmuel Rosner laments the decay of truth and writes, “Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.” But Rosner doesn’t state the obvious: Republicans voted this compulsive liar into office and Republicans have long had an enormous problem with truth.

Why do so many Republicans believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, that global warming is a hoax, that there is widespread voter fraud, that the Russia investigation is a hoax? Because too many of them self-censor and listen only to conservative media like Fox News and conservative talk radio, so they are easily duped.

And why do they self-censor? Because they have bought into the argument that the mainstream media are biased. Yes, the mainstream media have a liberal bias. But it doesn’t invent outright lies like the ones listed above.

Trump doesn’t care about the truth because he knows his supporters don’t care about the truth. That’s why he calls everything “fake news” and gets away with it.

Michael Asher via email


Hysteria, Obscurity and the #MeToo Movement

Having just read Danielle Berrin’s column on male hysteria (“Male Hysteria,” Feb. 9), I’m now even more convinced of the female hysteria of the #MeToo movement, a movement that will quickly be hoisted by its own petard.

She claims that a few of these powerful and predatory men have actually been charged with a crime. I haven’t heard of any of these powerful men being charged with a crime, notwithstanding the fact that being charged with a crime is not the same as being found guilty of a crime.

Berrin complained that far too many female artists live and continue to live in obscurity. This might be true, but there are undoubtedly far too many talented male artists who also continue to live in obscurity.

Giuseppe Mirelli, Los Angeles


Table for Five Is Weekly Food for Thought

In your “Table for Five” section for Parashat Mishpatim (Feb. 9), Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, argues for “the ethical imperative to protect and secure the needs of the stranger,” and “make the marginalized — rather than the elite  — our priority.”

I am a Conservative convert to Judaism, having embraced Judaism more than 50 years ago. I am a dues-paying member at an Orthodox synagogue near my home, where I go daily to minyan. I am also a member of four other non-Orthodox synagogues, where I regularly go and lead services in Hebrew, and am a cantor at one during the High Holy Days. While I can fully participate in those other synagogues, I am not permitted to get an aliyah to the Torah or be counted for a minyan at the Orthodox one. If I were to go to Israel, I could not be married there or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Non-Orthodox convert women also know that their children will not be counted as Jews in parts of the Jewish world. Yet Jews born of a Jewish mother are considered fully Jewish even if they repudiate their Judaism, castigate it and couldn’t care less about being counted for a minyan or getting an aliyah.

Our people were made to feel like invisible outsiders when we were slaves in Egypt. Why should those of us who turned our lives around to incorporate Judaism into it now be made to feel like we are invisible outsiders in some Jewish circles? I call on Rabbi Yanklowitz and his fellow Orthodox of conscience and morality to work to change what I feel is an unjust standard, so that those of us who have transformed our lives to embrace the Jewish people and God’s Torah are not made to feel like marginalized strangers within the Jewish world.

Peter Robinson, Woodland Hills

I was delighted at Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s teaching on the Torah portion in your Tu B’Shevat issue (“Table for Five: B’Shalach,” Jan. 26). He admonished the Israelis for their sarcasm. Indeed, rightfully so; such humor can be a sign of contempt.

Irony or sarcasm is indeed biting. Hurt people hurt people. The conclusion of Rabbi Finley’s commentary made the greatest impression: Because you have been done wrong does not give you license to do someone else wrong.

Thanks to your wonderful newspaper and your knowledgeable contributors and staff.

Daniel Kirwan via email


Remembering Ruth Ziegler, a True Community Supporter

We join the Jewish community in mourning the loss of Ruth Ziegler, a dear friend, supporter and member of Jews for Judaism’s board of governors (“Philanthropist Ruth Ziegler, 98,” Feb. 9).

For two decades, Ziegler supported our innovative educational services. After being honored at our 2005 gala, she funded a major endowment to ensure that Jews for Judaism’s life-saving counseling services would be available in perpetuity.

When I asked Ziegler what motivated her to make such a generous gift, she responded, “At the gala, I heard a mother share her pain after losing her daughter to another religion, and how you rescued her. I want to make sure no one else experiences that pain.”

Ziegler believed in saving a Jewish life and saving the world. Jews for Judaism is honored to play a role in perpetuating her legacy.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder and executive director of Jews for Judaism, International


Polish Law Demonstrates Dangers of Altering History

When any government, including Poland, attempts to whitewash its history, it usually ends up with paint stains on its hands (editorial cartoon, Feb. 9). Although we can’t compare the two, Americans should not be so quick to condemn others for their behavior without first checking our history. This month it will be 76 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his executive order to intern Japanese-Americans after the U.S. entered World War II. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court avoided answering whether these people’s constitutional rights were violated.

Barry Bereskin via email


Write, Larry Greenfield, Keep on Writing

I love reading Larry Greenfield’s work. If I was not married happily, I would want to marry his brain! Keep his writing coming!

Allyson Rowen Taylor, Valley Glen


Letter to the Editor Overlooks Certain Facts

In last week’s letter from Reuben Gordon, he completely misunderstood the media coverage regarding President Donald Trump’s comment that there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville, Va., march. Gordon states that it was in regard to the Confederate monument debate and that there were good people in support of keeping Confederate statues. The people he is referring to were Neo-Nazis; there are no good people on that side and I guess Gordon did not hear or did not want to hear their continual shouts of “Jews will not replace us.”

Edward A. Sussman, Fountain Valley

Reuben Gordon’s letter supporting President Donald Trump just because Trump supports Israel is a sad example of tunnel vision. Trump is an aggressive, ignoramus racist who is in the process of inflicting severe harm on Americans (Jews included), … so to excuse his arrogant, narcissistic self because of his support of Israel is foolish and perhaps even dangerous.

Rick Edelstein via email


He Asked and He Received a Small Change in Journal

When I ran into my friend David Suissa a couple of months ago while strolling down Pico Boulevard, I congratulated him on his new position at the Jewish Journal and the upgraded look of the paper. I then told him that Rhina, my elderly parents’ non-Jewish caregiver, noticed that the time Shabbat ends was no longer listed. As their caregiver, she needs to know when Shabbat concludes, and she wants to consult the Jewish Journal for that information. Suissa promised to correct it. Sure enough, in the next week’s edition, the time of Havdalah was once again listed! So thank you, David, for magnificently upgrading the paper, and on behalf of Jews and non-Jews who care when Shabbat ends, thanks for the weekly notice! Keep on publishing a great newspaper. Kol ha-kavod!

Mark Goldenberg, Beverly Hills


CORRECTIONS

The Feb. 9 edition of Moving and Shaking misreported the venue for the L.A. Jewish Home’s Celebration of Life: Reflections 2018 gala. The event took place at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.

In a Feb. 2 Calendar item, visiting scholar Andrew Porwancher was misidentified.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel

PARSHA: MISHPATIM, EXODUS 22: 20-23

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice

There is perhaps no teaching more essential to Judaism than the ethical imperative to protect the rights and secure the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Throughout history, societies that called themselves civilized would marginalize these people, often ensuring a systemic lack of access to legal, financial and social protections. The vitality and everlasting relevance of the Jewish moral paradigm is that we refuse to overlook these individuals. Rather, we embrace them, seek them out and hold them close.

God instructs us that to be religious people, we must make the marginalized — rather than the elite — our priority. To be faithful is to orient our lives around the needs of the most vulnerable. While the stranger, widow and orphan are specified throughout Jewish holy texts, we can understand them conceptually as well as literally: these mitzvot apply to all who are marginalized, alienated, oppressed and suffering.

We often think of “observant Jews” as those who adhere to the most rituals. We ought to stop assessing observance with such stringency. Instead, we should think of those who are kind, morally reflective and working to alleviate the plight of others as “observant Jews,” for they uphold and preserve the most crucial axioms of Torah. When we talk about the abused, the poor and the sick, these populations aren’t often part of the broader community conversation. This has to change.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “The great crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us.”

As a Sephardic Jew who grew up in Ashkenazi day schools, I know what it’s like to be “the one-not-like-us.” My pronunciation of Hebrew was mocked, my parents’ customs were called “exotic” and I was continuously called a “Black Jew.” To this day, so-called “fellow Jews” comment on my “dark Sephardic look,” my “Arab” style of prayer, and my “colorful” customs. In certain segments of the Jewish community, I am often made to feel like “the Sephardic stranger,” that “different Jew.”

Wherever there is injustice or prejudice, Jews always take to the streets in protest. Whether it’s fair wages for employees, civil rights for minorities, immigration rights for newcomers or human rights for those seeking political asylum, Jews are always at the forefront of the struggle. I only wish we could apply that same passion for social justice, equality and inclusion toward those within our Jewish community who — because of ethnic background, skin color or sexual orientation — are often excluded and treated as “strangers and outsiders.” Justice, after all, begins at home.

In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “The best way of curing hostility to strangers is to remember that we, too — from someone else’s perspective — are strangers.” We’ve done a great job curing this hostility on a global level. It’s time we do so at home, in our own communities.

Rabbi Erez Sherman
Sinai Temple

As a recently bereaved brother, I learned quickly that even a rabbi needs a rabbi in times of need. Over the past four months of reciting the Kaddish daily, I discovered that my rabbis are my congregants in the daily minyan. People who sit shivah, are in shloshim, are in a year of mourning, or observing a yahrzeit. We each recite the same words but we each have different stories to tell.

While Torah explicitly prohibits causing distress to an orphan and widow, Rashi includes in this prohibition all downtrodden individuals. Sefer Hachinuch teaches that the widow and orphan are championed because they have no one else to cry out to but God. Yet, those who are not suffering put their trust in other human beings, often removing the Divine presence in their lives.

The prophet Zechariah calls the Jews assirei tikvah, prisoners of hope. The Torah understands that at our most vulnerable we must be coddled, embraced and loved. For it is then that we may live out the prophetic vision. I am witness to this act of kindness each day. While no human being is exempt from one day walking through the valley of the shadow, we thankfully are also witness to the light of our tradition, commanding us to pave a path of comfort actively for those in need.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Beth Chayim Chadashim

Among the most valuable lessons my beloved third-grade teacher taught me was not in the lesson plans. Whenever she saw any of her students tease or bully another, her nostrils would flare, and she would shout, “Stop and think! How would you feel?” She’d trained us well — the room would fall silent, the (mis)behavior would stop, we all thought about and felt what had happened, the “oppressor” would apologize to the “oppressed,” and we went back to work (or recess).

Despite Judaism’s insistence that we not anthropomorphize God, this passage from Exodus gives God a mouth, ears, a nose and the righteous indignation of my third-grade teacher.

The “I” in this passage is God; God is speaking and God hears: “I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.” The nose of God is less apparent, but “My anger shall blaze forth” includes the Hebrew word api (aleph-pei-yod), which can also mean “my nostril” — God’s nostrils will flare in anger. Picture a fire-breathing dragon defending its treasure … or my third-grade teacher protecting her young charges.

God’s teaching starts tenderly, asking us to feel what another might feel, and thereby improve our behavior: “you were strangers/sojourners” (23:9 adds, “you know the soul of the sojourner …”). Yet within moments, even without witnessing an actual act of oppression, God’s fury is kindled, simply imagining what some men of privilege might be inclined to do to the vulnerable.

“Stop and think! How would you feel?”

Rabbi Sarah Barukh
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

These verses offer a straightforward theology in which God heeds the cry of the suffering and punishes those who cause pain.

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I encounter people who use this theology as a resource to make sense of their own suffering. They experience comfort in understanding God as an active player who responds to human actions and needs. The majority of my visits, however, are with patients or families who struggle with this idea, their faith fraying as they try to understand. Where is the God who hears the cry of the oppressed? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Our tradition has many answers to these eternal questions and Parashat Mishpatim presents one potential response. All wrestle with one of life’s most challenging spiritual tasks: the quest to find meaning in the shared human experience of pain and suffering.

I have found that jumping to provide a single answer to such big questions is rarely comforting — for me or others. In this case, the tradition certainly provides a variety of thoughts, but more importantly, it models a method of engagement. The multitude of voices highlights a willingness to explore, try on or even refute different responses to suffering and gives us room to do the same. Sharing in this process with someone can be healing in and of itself. For the one seeking to understand, it can offer opportunities for deeper understanding, spiritual growth and healing.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

PARSHA: YITRO, Exodus 19:4-6

“‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.’”

Rabbi Gail Labovitz
American Jewish University

There’s a saying about politics: “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” But before the Revelation at Sinai, God uses both prose and poetry to seek loyalty and commitment from the Israelites.

God begins with a statement of fact: “You saw what I did to the Egyptians.” As Rashi comments, this is not just a handed-down tradition, not just words, not just someone else’s testimony. For the Israelites, this should be as “objective” as it gets: You, yourselves, actually saw the Nile become blood, saw frogs and lice and locusts, saw Egyptians drowned at the sea.

But then God shifts into metaphor to describe what God has done for the Israelites: “I carried you on eagles’ wings.” Some commentators want to make this, too, somewhat more “literal,” attempting to determine exactly when, and to where, God carried the Israelites: from scattered across Egypt to a single location in the wilderness? Across the sea? To Sinai? But others embrace the metaphor, focusing on God’s protection and caring more generally, as also in Deuteronomy 32:11: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He (God) spread His wings and take him (Israel), bear him along on His pinions.”

What “actually” happened and what it means are separate things. Miracles and their implications would seem hard to ignore, but we know human beings are — we know our own ancestors were — fully capable of doing so. History can happen in prose. But God’s love for us can reveal its poetry.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

This week’s Torah portion is named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). It is curious that the Torah portion in which the Israelites are elected as God’s treasured people, are elevated to a kingdom of priests and receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, is named after Yitro, a Midianite priest.

In the Torah portion, Yitro counsels Moses on how to organize, delegate and empower this ragged group of fugitives. Dare we say that it was Yitro, a non-Jew, who enabled the Israelites to receive The Law? Do we attribute the Revelation of Torah to the loving intervention of a foreign priest? Yes! The name of the very portion that declares our chosenness is reminding us of the purpose of our sacred post. Just as a Midianite priest served to help our people, we must, as a nation of priests, serve to help the strangers of other nations. We are a “light unto the nations,” and in the same way a lighthouse is not there to serve itself, we are here to help the ships of other peoples to safe harbors. We are God’s partners in the world, apprentices to the Master Artisan, seeking to integrate every thread into one beautiful tapestry

Rabbi Arielle Hanien
International Trauma-Healing Institute

What technicolor depictions of our people and of God! God is depicted as a force that punishes oppressors; as a protective eagle, shielding its vulnerable young as it soars; as a voice of authority, prescribing roles and rules; and as a sovereign, to whom we are like a beloved jewel.

The rabbis say these descriptions — with their differing visual, emotional and didactic content — were intended for different ears: the House of Jacob and the Children of Israel, respectively, referred to in the preceding verse.

God, who knows the manifold nature of truth, models an understanding that people — mothers nursing their young, wise elders, youth reveling in newfound freedom, men and women who are willful, frightened or discerning in any given moment — will be receptive to different aspects of the fluid, infinitely complex truth.

Hearing (or listening) is a leitmotif of this Torah portion, which contains the identity-defining moment of the Jewish people at Sinai. Indeed, it opens with “Yitro heard,” words that moved the rabbis to name this Torah portion after the Midianite priest, Moses’ father-in-law.

Having heard of our travails and triumphs, Yitro responds with wonder and support. “Blessed be God,” Yitro says — of our God. “Thus we know,” teaches the Midrash, “that the ear connects directly to the heart.”

When Yitro later offers Moses advice, Moses heeds it. Perhaps people who are good at listening are better able to speak in ways that can be heard. Perhaps this is something God teaches us to do, as well — God who hears us and reminds us to listen.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, Washington, D.C.

When I think of wings of eagles, I think of the heroic manner in which Israel rescued Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses and Solomon. In 1991, as part of Operation Solomon, Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews and brought them to Israel. In doing so, Israel crammed so many people onto a 747 that they set the world record for the passenger load of a single flight. How beautiful were the wings on that plane!

Those operations represent Israel at its best — and the recognition that Israel has responsibility to represent the Jewish state to the world. Whereas other countries went to Africa to abduct humans and sell them as slaves, Israel went to Africa to rescue Jews and bring them home as citizens. In doing so, it demonstrated to the world that Judaism is colorblind.

And yet the work is far from over. The verses also urge us to remember how we were once carried and to use that memory to be a holy nation.

With that in mind, I pray for the nearly 38,000 Africa asylees from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan who currently are seeking refuge in Israel. Israel reportedly would like to deport them forcibly to African countries, where they have been greatly mistreated and exposed to existential dangers. I pray that the Israeli government reverses course on this policy matter. Indeed, to expel refugees from Israel would be an eternal blemish on our holy nation.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md.

In this most succinct summary of the Exodus, the Torah presents us not only with the past but with the desired future goal: You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a unique nation. The role of the priests in antiquity was to be teachers and spiritual leaders. In other nations, priests were the mediators with the gods, their spokespeople and keepers of the gates of the underworld. Israelite priests, in contrast, served in the Temple only a fraction of the year, and were not allowed to touch dead bodies. That allowed them to be accessible to the people whenever they were needed, as described by the prophet Malachi (2:7): “The priest’s lips will guard wisdom, and they will seek the knowledge of Torah of him, for he is a messenger of God.”

The Torah labels the Israelites a Nation of Priests, meaning that the Israelites should serve as a guiding light to humanity by spreading knowledge, in the vein of the fourth chapter of Micah, where the prophets describe the nations flocking to Jerusalem to study Torah.

I translate the second part of the future title of the Israelites as “unique nation” because the root Q-D-SH in Hebrew means set aside, distinct. In Leviticus (19:2), the Torah encourages us to be unique individuals, just as God is unique, and here the Torah suggests that each nation should have a unique characteristic, or diversity within unity.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel

PARSHA: B’SHALACH, EXODUS 14:10-12

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

Rabbi Eve Posen
Congregation Neveh Shalom, Portland, Ore.

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

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

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

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

David Sacks
TV writer who podcasts at Torahonitunes.com

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Ari Lucas
Temple Beth Am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

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

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

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

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

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

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: BO, Exodus 10:1-2

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

Rabbi David Woznica
Stephen Wise Temple

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

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

God is all-powerful, supernatural and cares.

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

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

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Chabad.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
The Jewish Mindfulness Network

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

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

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

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple, Venice, Calif.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pexel.

PARSHA: Va’era, EXODUS 6:10-13

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

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Board of Rabbis of Southern California

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

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

The man thanked her and began filling out the form.

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

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

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

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

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pixabay.

PARSHA: Shemot, EXODUS 2:11-12

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

Rabbi Marc Angel
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
American Jewish University

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

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

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

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny
Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

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

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

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood

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

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

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

Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Maayon Yisroel Chasidic Center

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

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

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Pixabay.

PARSHA: Vayigash, Genesis 45: 1-3

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumbfounded were they on account of him.”

Mayim Bialik
Actor, neuroscientist, author

I have given this parsha much thought in the 29 years since I chanted these words as a bat mitzvah.

Joseph sends everyone away so that there will be no one around when he makes himself known. He can no longer contain himself and he creates distance in hopes of containing his emotions.

However, his sobs are so loud that they reach the Pharaoh — a striking emphasis of not only the intensity of his cries, but of their deeper significance. Joseph’s cries communicate the emotion which he thought he could keep to himself by isolating himself. How many times have I hidden in isolation in hopes that my emotions would go away simply because they were not being seen or heard?

Hiding does not protect us from our emotions. We carry our traumas and our blessings into every interaction we have. Sometimes we may be able to protect others from their impact, but as Joseph learned, the depth of emotional experience is often so strong, not even sending people away can prevent them from being heard and felt by everyone around — including ourselves.

Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin
Milken Community Schools

Interpreting this passage seems more like staring into a bottomless pit than a shiny mirror. Rather than try to capture its meaning inside a tidy box, imagine a family, a group of friends or a chavurah learning together after a Shabbos meal. Jonathan Cohen teaches that “the drama of the lesson should be based on the shared attempt to find the meaning hidden between the lines.” In this spirit, let’s consider the following open-ended questions:

1. Joseph could no longer “control himself”(l’hitapek) before all his attendants. Classical commentaries translate l’hitapek in many ways — as control or refrain himself, bear or suffer, or strengthen himself. How does each translation alter the story?

2. Why does Joseph need to be alone? Whom is he protecting?

3. To what extent does Joseph actually reveal himself?

4. Why does he cry?

5. When Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt, he shrewdly manipulates them into a pit of dependency. Given what Joseph experienced at the hands of his brothers, does he need the brothers to experience what it feels like to be at the bottom of a pit? Does the capacity to forgive or the ability to do teshuvah require the offender to somehow stand in the place of the offended?

6. At the beginning of the story, Joseph dreamed that his brothers and parents would be utterly subservient to him. At the end of the story, he places his family and all of Egypt into a state of dependency. Has Joseph changed?

Rabbi Francine Green Roston
Glacier Jewish Community/B’nai Shalom, Whitefish, Mont.

As we read the Joseph saga, we find ourselves asking over and over again: What is in Joseph’s heart? Is he angry at his brothers, seeking to enact vengeance? Is he waiting for a sign that his brothers have changed before he forgives them? What holds Joseph back from revealing his identity?

Maybe Joseph doesn’t know his “true” identity. Maybe his struggle is not with his brothers but within his own soul.

Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name, an Egyptian wife and the greatest position in the Egyptian court. When Jacob’s sons arrive in court, they see an Egyptian standing before them.

As he is foreign to his brothers, Joseph is foreign to himself, as well. His sons’ names reflect his sense of disconnection and ambivalence (see Genesis 41:51-52). Each time the brothers stand before Joseph, he must ask himself: Who am I? Am I an Egyptian or an Israelite? Am I Pharaoh’s heir or the son of Jacob? As the brothers reveal their compassion, Joseph is able to find compassion for them, for their father and for himself.

Joseph can no longer restrain himself from claiming his place in his birth family. He sends away the Egyptians and says, “I am Joseph. … I claim my place as your brother and Jacob’s son.”

As an adoptee and as an American Jew, I understand Joseph’s struggle. Like Joseph, we each must wrestle with multiple layers of identity, define our place in our families and find our voice as Children of Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center 

It’s easy to beat up on Joseph, the perennial spoiled brat. But who was Joseph? From the time he could remember, someone always wanted something from him. During his childhood, Joseph’s brothers wanted his multicolored coat, which they eventually got, along with the money they made by selling him into slavery.

In Egypt, Joseph’s rise to prominence came about through people needing him for something. The baker, winemaker and Pharaoh all wanted him because of his talent interpreting dreams, and Potiphar’s wife — well, she just wanted him.

When he became the prince of Egypt, Joseph had another encounter with his brothers. Now a powerful public figure, he nevertheless found himself sought out once again for what he could provide — this time, food for his starving brothers. Throughout his life, nobody ever asked Joseph what he wanted, what he needed or how he felt. He was constantly approached by people who made appointments with him for their own needs, always seeking to get something from him.

Joseph finally broke down and cried out, “Is my father still well?” A peculiar question, perhaps, but for Joseph, this was his way of saying, “I also have feelings, and I even have needs. I need my father.” Beyond revealing his identity, Joseph finally revealed — to his brothers, to the House of Pharaoh, and to all of us — the pain pent up deep inside of him, accumulated over a lifetime spent exclusively in the service of others.

Rabbi Jason Weiner
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

These incredible verses aren’t only the climax of a gripping story, they also hint at something we each may experience and how we could direct our lives accordingly. Imagine the feeling of everything you know to be true — everything you know to be your reality — suddenly being turned inside out. What you thought you knew is not actually correct. Things are much deeper, holier, more complex than you had experienced them. Your past actions — what you had forgotten, thought nobody noticed, didn’t think were a big deal — are suddenly openly displayed before you. In front of your family. In front of God.

How would you react? What would you say? Is it possible to say anything?

The brothers were dumbfounded, “on account of him (mipanav),” which also means “penimiyut” internality. The brothers saw the inner holiness of Joseph’s true identity, which just moments before they couldn’t fathom in their wildest dreams.

One day, hopefully after 120 healthy years, we all will have such a moment. We may see the world in a way we never could have imagined. We will see the true world, beaming with light, with love, with potential, with God. It may be a shocking moment. No words will be necessary, or possible. It has the potential to be a very beautiful moment. If we can begin seeing the potential in ourselves, and the hidden light in every person and every moment, then we have nothing to worry about. Thank you, Joseph, for showing us the way.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Fives takes on the weekly parsha

Photo from Public Domain Pictures.

PARSHA: MIKETZ, GENESIS: 42:1-3

“When Jacob saw that there were food rations to be had in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you keep looking at one another? Now I hear,’ he went on, ‘that there are rations to be had in Egypt. Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die.’ So 10 of Joseph’s brothers went down to get grain rations in Egypt.”

Bruce Powell
Head of School, de Toledo High School

When Jacob asks, “Why do you keep looking at one another,” I actually laughed out loud, wondering how many times I looked at someone else to act.

How many times in our community have we asked for volunteers, and the same 36 righteous souls keep appearing, while others stand silent? How many times have I stood silent when our leaders have reached out to me for help? How many of us recognize that “silence” is a powerful, often negative response? How many of us look to others to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership? And how many of us step up to lead?

Jacob goes on to say, “I hear there are rations to be had in Egypt.” Indeed, the deToldeo High School board and I are constantly looking for “rations” (read: donations for tuition assistance so that no family is turned away from a Jewish education). Here again, when we are asked to give “rations,” how many of us look to the “other” to make a gift, or do we look the other way? And how many of us write the check, or serve the poor, or provide for the person standing at the end of a freeway off-ramp?

In this Hanukkah season, a time of “dedication,” may we, indeed, dedicate ourselves to fulfilling the Jewish notion of prayer, l’hitpalel, to judge oneself. May we not look to the “other”; rather, may we truly “see” the “other,” and ensure that we all “go down and procure rations” together as a community so that “we may live and not die.”

Rabbi Mimi Weisel
Hasidah

There’s an apparent problem: a famine. There’s an apparent solution: Go down to Egypt, where there is food, and bring some back.

But it can’t be that straight­forward. Jacob’s sons didn’t come up with this idea on their own; Jacob saw what his sons didn’t. He had visionary insight.

In addition, the sons’ reaction is not one of readily acknowledging the obvious. Why do they simply look at one another? Was this an unusual scenario for them all to be gathered together with their father addressing them, apparently giving them some sort of charge? Were they simply curious about what he would say to them? (After all, we see their reaction before his words to them.) Were they wondering about the wisdom of their father’s request? Were they wondering about the soundness of their elderly father’s mind? Would his idea be realistic? Could it be achieved?

Or were they simply afraid? Afraid of the risks? Afraid of taking the initiative?

They ultimately follow their father’s directive, and go. They go together as a group of 10 — the Jewish holy minyan, which implies the group is accompanied by Divine spirit.

What does it take for us to heed the visionary’s insight, to step forward to care for others? When do we look away from seeing only ourselves and instead look outward to see the needs of others? When do we look to the guidance of others to know how to help?

What are you afraid of? What’s holding you back?

Go forward — and know you don’t have to go alone.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David–Judea Congregation

It is noteworthy that the text uses the verb “he [Jacob] said” not just once but twice in the course of the two verses. (The second is translated here as “he went on.”) Whenever a biblical figure speaks twice without the interlocutor responding in between, we infer that the first speech elicited only a tense and awkward silence. Jacob’s question as to why his sons are sitting and doing nothing when it’s patently obvious that they need to repair to Egypt and its food stocks immediately is met with no response by his sons. Why? What are the brothers thinking and afraid to say?

Joseph’s brothers have exactly one association with Egypt: It was the destination of the Ishmaelite traders to whom they had sold their brother Joseph years earlier. Whenever they contemplated traveling to Egypt for food, they were instantly paralyzed by the fear of encountering there a poor, miserable slave, threadbare and enduring hard labor, who looked uncannily familiar. When Jacob — still unaware of what had really happened to Joseph — called them out for their inaction in the face of the family’s hunger, they could not utter a syllable in response. The horror of even possibly having to confront the living consequences of their inexplicable act seemed worse than dying by famine.

After Jacob’s second request, the brothers do go. But “Benjamin the brother of Joseph, Jacob did not send, lest an accident befall him.” This was a family haunted by stories and secrets of the past.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
Temple Israel of Hollywood

When we don’t have enough food, not only do our bodies break down, but we can’t focus on accomplishing the basic aspects of our lives: learning in school, working at a job and being kind when interacting with others. Within these three verses, the Hebrew word for “food rations,” shever, appears four times. Shever comes from the three letter Hebrew root, “to break” or “to fracture.”  It’s as if the Torah is warning us: When there’s no food, we break.

In the United States today, 1 in 8 people don’t have enough food, which is equivalent to 42.2 million people, including 13.1 million children and 5.7 million seniors. In California, 13.5 percent of households are food insecure, meaning they lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Marissa Higgins writes in her essay “I Grew Up With Food Insecurity,” “Research shows that children growing up in poverty consume more potato chips, candy, fries and soda than their wealthier counterparts … it’s not hard to understand the motivation behind these choices: when you’re poor … you want food that’s filling, flavorful and easy to eat. When I was hungry, I did not know how to prepare healthy proteins, like chicken or tofu. We didn’t have a blender or a juicer. But we did have a microwave for ready meals, and I did have two hands which could open a bag of chips in a matter of seconds.”

Jacob was able to direct and motivate his children to acquire food for his family so they wouldn’t break. Will we do the same for people who are food insecure today?

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple

In this week’s portion, Miketz, Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt by their father, Jacob, to procure food amid a famine. Significant time passes before the brothers — in next week’s portion, Vayigash — affect a tearful reunion with Joseph, as Judah speaks the unexpected soliloquy that inspires Joseph to reveal his identity.

Judah’s speech, therefore, seems simply to be the result of an inspired moment of conscience. However, our ancient rabbis teach that Judah’s words aren’t spoken from a sudden attack of integrity. They had been slowly growing inside all the brothers’ hearts from the very moment they had sold Joseph into Egypt.

In the Midrash Rabbah, we are reminded that Jacob instructs “his sons” to seek famine relief in Egypt (Genesis 42:1), while just two verses later (42:3), it is “Joseph’s brothers” who depart on the trip. Why the change from “Jacob’s sons” to “Joseph’s brothers”? The Midrash describes this as a hint at the brothers’ longtime unity over their regret at having sold Joseph into servitude. Every day, they had been saying to one another, “When will we go into Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?” When Jacob urges them to seek provisions in Egypt, they at last have their opportunity to set things right by bringing home Joseph.

So it is with our greatest misdeeds, as well. We don’t set things right through sudden epiphanies. Only a long walk down the road of teshuvah — self-understanding, remorse and determination to act — possesses the power to heal.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel.

PARSHA: VAYESHEV, GENESIS 37:14-17

“When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’ The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.”

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, Calif.

What are you looking for?

A sign on my refrigerator reads, “Whatever you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it in here.”

I ask, “But what if I’m hungry? Surely, it’s OK to look in the fridge for something to eat?”

True — but only if you are actually hungry for food. If you are really hungry for something else, the fridge won’t help. In fact, it could be the worst place to look.

So many times, we look in the wrong places for the things we need. Knowing what we are looking for is half the battle when it comes to leading a life well-lived.

A man asked Joseph, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.” He answers a “what” question with a “who” answer. Despite the troubles related to his brothers, he still seeks them out in a relationship. His “what” lies in the “who.” Even if he sometimes gets in his own way, Joseph really wants them. He really wants to be with his brothers, to be in a relationship with them.

When we’re asked, “What are you looking for?” many say, “The perfect job” or “Money.” How many of us actually answer a “what” question with a “who” answer?

By looking to “who” around us, we find the “what” that matters most: meaning, connection, compassion and comfort. Joseph tells us to lead our lives with the “who” in mind, even when we are asked, “What are you looking for?”

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

I have always loved Jewish men (truly, there is so much to love about Jewish men). So I am greatly saddened when they behave badly, when Jewish brothers act poorly, straying far from the ideals of a faith that introduced the notion that all human beings are formed in holiness — sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

I sit with my women friends. We drink coffee and speak in hushed tones about the number of high-profile Jewish men accused of sexually harassing and abusing women.While we have never talked about it out loud, we all know it to be true. We all knew it to be true even before it exploded in the media with Harvey Weinstein.

We are glad that it is finally spoken out loud and we know that this issue goes well beyond the Jewish community — it is global.

Joseph, go, find your brothers. Man of Shechem, direct him well. These brothers have strayed far, but surely, they are not completely lost. Bring them home to the Source of their own holiness. Remind them of that holiness so that the space that exists between human and human is safe and sacred for all.

Then we, the children of Israel — its glorious sons and daughters — can continue on the holy trek of this life and attend to our sacred mission.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue

This story ends tragically with Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. And yet the words Joseph says are deeply powerful and should serve as a guide to us in our spiritual lives.

Joseph says, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”

This sentence and question sum up the Torah’s fundamental charge.

Back in the beginning of Genesis, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that, yes, we are, indeed. We are all deeply responsible for the actions of our brothers and sisters, and for actions upon our brothers and sisters.

When Joseph’s brothers take advantage of him, it reminds us of Jacob taking advantage of his own brother, Esau, when Jacob purchased the birthright from him for a mere bowl of soup. This questionable action leads to all sorts of negative consequences and ultimately results in Jacob and his children being exiled to Egypt.

Redemption from Egypt comes only when two brothers — Moses and Aaron — join together in love and harmony, without jealousy or competitiveness. Moses and Aaron represent the paradigm of brothers working together on behalf of each other, to help each other succeed. This is why the redemption comes through their efforts.

Today, we must never forget that we are all siblings, with a responsibility to one another. We must constantly be looking for our siblings, and looking out for the welfare of our siblings.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md.

Why is this exchange recorded at all? The Torah could have written that Joseph sought his brothers and found them in Dothan. Apparently, the encounter with the man is important.

Some suggest that the man was an angel, sent there as part of the divine plan, thus making free will and sibling rivalry irrelevant, and all participants mere puppets controlled by the Almighty.

I believe the opposite is true. The man is anonymous because he is insignificant, save for his random encounter with Joseph, which altered the course of Jewish history.

What if they had not met? Joseph would have kept searching for his brothers and returned home empty-handed. Jacob would not have lived in agony and Joseph would not have been a slave or a viceroy. This encounter teaches us how impactful fleeting moments and overlooked interactions with strangers can be.

It also draws a tragic picture of an orphan trying to win his brothers’ sympathy. His dreams of grandeur and his gossiping about them do not stem from arrogance, but from a craving to belong. He could have turned back and gone home when he didn’t find them in Shechem, but he kept searching, desperately.

He wanted to find them, run to them and maybe even hug them. Maybe he thought that the time they had spent apart had made them miss him. How wrong he was, how blind to their seething anger. The seemingly unnecessary report reveals Joseph as a vulnerable, clueless teenager, seeking the approval of siblings who have rejected him.

David Sacks
Torahonitunes.com

“The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ ”

My rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach, once said that if a man comes up to you in the street and asks, “What time is it?” he doesn’t want to know the time — he wants to know what he should do with his life.

What are we looking for?

The answer is simple. We all want to be “successes.” But ask someone how he or she defines success and a shocking silence usually follows. We don’t really know.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells a story about someone chasing after a package and finally grasping it, only to open it and discover that the box is empty.

For many of us, success means money. But when we realize that many rich people are unhappy, we change our definition to happiness. When asked to define happiness, again we’re not sure what that is or how to achieve it.

So, what are you looking for?

The Sefer Yetzirah, the ancient kabbalistic text, says all of reality can be boiled down into three components: space, time and soul.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people already were thinking in terms of the space-time continuum. But even more significantly, we already understood that soul was an indispensable ingredient of reality.

“What are you looking for?”

For every person, the answer will be different. But if we want to get to the root of our existence, where personal success and happiness dwell, we must take account of the needs of the soul.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

Photo from Max Pixel.

PARSHA: VAYISHLACH, Genesis 32:27-29

“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ Said the other, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob.’ Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’”

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the Caterpillar stares at Alice and asks, “Who … are … you?” And Alice replies, “I hardly know. At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Alice echoes what many of us feel daily: We think we know who we are and then life throws us a curveball — a new job or the loss of a job, a different role in the family, a birth, a death, an illness. We are faced with strange journeys and sometimes we can hardly remember who we are at all.

Think of the names or descriptive phrases that once typified your character: once single, now married with children? Once married and now single with children out of the house? Student, now boss or business owner? Retiree looking for renewed purpose? Brand new parent? Recent mourner? Our names morph with every season. Who we are is a constant question, one that often leaves us mystified and reaching toward the heavens for direction and guidance.

Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, the one who struggles with God. Perhaps the Torah is reminding us that we are like Jacob: waking up with the dawn, finding ourselves on uncharted paths, destiny unknown. And although we may struggle in determining who we are and what names are in our future, like Jacob, we know, we struggle — with God. Whatever our name, whoever we are, God is with us. We are not alone.

Rabbi Joshua Katzan
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Much contemporary spirituality seems to be driven by radical self-acceptance and listening to our “inner voice.” This is problematic because we have multiple, opposing inner voices. Is it God we’re hearing, or is it Narcissus?

Narcissus’ voice yearns to be heard and known. God’s voice urges us to hear, discover and transform — whatever the cost. One says, “Don’t you know who I am? Know me as I am!” God’s is a “listening voice” and craves to hear the hints and whispers that would guide us to becoming more refined souls, regardless of the challenges to getting there.

Jacob/Israel is the paradigm for this model of spirituality. Jacob became Israel not by radically accepting himself as he was. He prevailed because he determined that spiritual growth depended on not letting go of the challenge, of the pain and struggle to grow beyond his familiar identity. And this is our spiritual task: to be guided by the voices outside of ourselves that urge a different and more refined self to emerge, and then to grab on and not let go.

Hereafter in the Torah we hear reference to both names: Jacob and Israel. This teaches that transformation is not necessarily permanent. New growth is not as deeply rooted as our nature. Empowerment, healing and even wisdom can be fleeting. Dedicating ourselves to a path, a practice and a community whose collective voice expects us to live up to our hard-earned, renewed names is what makes us — and keeps us — Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn
Yeshivat Yavneh

Rav Sholom Schwadron, the great storyteller of Jerusalem, once shared a tale of a farm boy who had never been to the city arriving there one day. He’s excited by everything he sees: the lights, the hustle and bustle, the sounds and the cars. He’s never seen any of this. It’s amazing. All of a sudden, he notices a long line outside of a building. He decides to get in line and follow it through. The people in line start going inside, one-by-one. They pay somebody at the front who gives them a ticket and they walk into a room.

The farm boy sits down in the dark room, where everybody is staring at the wall. What appears on the wall? It’s the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. He loves it. He can’t get enough. He’s looking at it and it’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. It’s incredible. He wants more of it. He asks, “Why are we looking at it in the dark?” Quickly, he runs to the back, he turns on the light and suddenly it’s gone.

What is this analogy all about? Jacob was battling the darkest of himself — the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Do you know how you beat your demons? You find out what the source is. Where does it come from? Why do I have this struggle? Why do I have this problem? What is in my past that is making me think and feel this way? What’s your name? When he asked, “What’s your name?” he wasn’t just seeking a random detail about an angel; he was trying to find out about the angel’s identity: Who are you? At your essence, what are you about? That’s why the angel freaked out. That’s why the angel couldn’t handle it. The angel asked, “What are you asking me? Stop!” Because he knew the moment Jacob finds out what this is all about, there is no more battle. It’s over.

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles
Temple Isaiah

The name Yisrael (spelled in Hebrew Yud-Sin-Reish-Alef-Lamed) is an acronym of the first letters of our matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ names. Yud for Isaac and Jacob (Yaakov), Sin for Sarah, Reish for Rachel and Rebecca, Alef for Abraham, and Lamed for Leah. The name “Israel” carries not only Jacob’s striving, but the journeys of all of our ancestors, along with the belief that these journeys will lead to prevailing good.

The word for “name” in Hebrew is shem, and these letters are the center of the Hebrew word neshama, soul. God is often referred to simply as HaShem, which means “The Name.” In Hebrew, Moses’ name, Moshe, is HaShem backward. The second book of the Torah is Exodus, or Shemot in Hebrew, which means “Names.” The third book is Leviticus, or Vayikra in Hebrew, which means “God called.”

There is the name given to us by our parents, but then there is our “calling,” which we discover on our own, at the center of our soul. We do not know, for example, what Moses’ parents named him. The name we know honors the act of mercy shown him by Pharaoh’s daughter. Jacob’s new name honors his triumph over the night angel. What are you called, and what is your calling? Are you defined by your traumas or can you redefine yourself by mercies? Jacob is asked, “What is your name?” We strive to answer: “What is our calling?”

Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson took leave from the court to serve as the United States’ chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. He wrote that “the most odious of all oppressions are those which mask as justice.” He understood that the atrocities of the Nazis were all purported to be “legal.” Laws were passed depriving Jews of all rights. Laws were passed to round up, imprison and murder Jews. Moral people should have denounced such “laws” and should have resisted the “legal system.”

There are groups of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic people who seek to undermine Israel; they insidiously pose as being interested in human rights, as guardians of international law. Yet they operate with malice toward Israel and perpetrate the vilest propaganda against her. They support boycotts of Israel. They constantly rebuke Israel for any real or imagined shortcoming. For these people, justice is not just at all. Rather, they pervert justice to further their own unjust and immoral goals.

A midrash identifies Jacob’s antagonist as the angel of Esau dressed in the garb of a rabbinic scholar. This alludes to hypocrites who put on the external features of righteousness. They can be more dangerous than those who openly declare their hostility. Justice Jackson wrote of “the most odious of all oppressions” that mask as justice. We might add that among the most odious of human beings are those who have the wickedness of Esau but who wear the mask of piety and innocence.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha

Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: VAYETZE, Genesis 28: 10-12

“Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
American Jewish University

Western art has given us an image of angels as chubby, adorable children or majestic, winged warriors. The angels who ascend and descend the ladder in Jacob’s dream are neither. The word for these angels is malachim, which simply means “messengers.” In Jacob’s nighttime vision, he catches a glimpse of God’s postal service, as it were, carrying word back and forth between heaven and earth.

If you have encountered a person who spoke a painful truth that stirred you to change, or offered words of encouragement just when you thought about quitting, or communicated to you — with a smile, a hand, a hug — that you are loved and cherished, then you, too, have met one of these malachim. And, if you have done any of those things for others, then you have been one yourself.

Later, Jacob will wake from his dream and exclaim: “Amazing! God was right here and I had no idea.” When we think of God as an all-powerful Sovereign in the sky, or when we imagine angels as they appear on a Renaissance canvas, we participate in making heaven and earth very distant from each other. But when we recognize that the Divine works through us and through those we meet every day — that “angel” is just another word for friend, partner, therapist, rabbi, colleague or stranger on the street — we see how short the stairway connecting the two can be.

Rabbi Jason Weiner
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Knesset Israel Congregation

In these profound verses, as our forefather Jacob flees his brother’s wrath, he begins a process of intense transformation. As invariably happens during personal growth and spiritual awakening, Jacob is journeying alone, likely feeling betrayed, dejected and isolated.

As the sun sets and the deepest darkness begins to set in, instead of making a comfortable bed to sleep in, Jacob remains strong and focused in the moment, and chooses to sleep on rocks. This may be symbolic of the reality that spiritual growth and transformation most often occur when there is a lack of physical comfort, when things aren’t going well and we find ourselves “between a rock and a hard place.”

Jacob is in the difficult process of examining his actions and his life, and he manages to fall asleep and communicate with the Divine through an incredible dream. As the angels go up and down, representing the potential for spirituality inherent in the dramatic vicissitudes of life, God promises not to abandon Jacob, helping him to realize that he is never truly alone.

This is a message for all of us as well. There are times when we feel most afraid, most abandoned and mistreated. Hardships inevitably arise, but these moments can sometimes induce profound growth and spiritual realization. We can take comfort in our faith that we are in fact never alone.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson
Temple Israel of Hollywood

I can think of only a few experiences in my life when I have literally been brought to my knees. Looking back on each of them, I remember feeling a similar desperate gravitational pull, yanking me downward, before I felt my body buckle. What I’ve learned is this: In desperate moments, the mere typical contact between ground and feet feels inadequate. In some primitive way, feeling my body against the earth brought relief.

Jacob clearly isn’t seeking comfort when he selects a rock for a pillow and enters into transformational, dream-filled sleep. Adrift in the world, in search of a new future, fleeing for his life, and having to sit with the choices he made, I imagine Jacob fumbling for some sort of grounding. So he picks up a rock. And goes to bed.

Here’s the other thing that’s pretty much universally true about dropping to our knees: We all eventually have to get up. Even when it’s really, really hard.

Perhaps it is this impulse — the knowledge that he would have to finally wake and move and be — that explains the mystery of Jacob’s angels, which curiously ascend before they descend.

“Get up!”

The angels seem to be beckoning Jacob to rise from the earth and to start listening.

In this way, Jacob’s vision of the angels is ultimately a story of getting mired in life’s complexities, being felled by them, transcending a moment of despair, and moving on. It’s a story many of us have lived and all of us can learn from.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

Fleeing home, Jacob heads toward an unfamiliar place and an extended family he does not know. Stopping for the night, he sets up a bed for himself: “And he took from the stones of the place, and placed it under his head.”

A stone doesn’t sound like the most comfortable pillow under the best of circumstances. Even more so once the rabbinic tradition saddles this stone with the weight of the past and future:

“Jacob took twelve stones, from the stones of the altar upon which his father Isaac had been bound, and placed them under his head in that same place, to indicate that in the future, twelve tribes would come from him. And they all became one stone to indicate that in the future, they would all become one people on the earth.” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 35:1)

Imagine sleeping on the stones that survived your family’s greatest trauma! We might imagine nightmares about the Akedah — the binding of Isaac — keeping Jacob tossing and turning all night.

At the same time, the 12 stones offer a promise that Jacob will emerge whole from his perilous journey, and will become the father of an expansive and unified people.

It is easy to become paralyzed by the trauma of the past. And it may be equally tempting to shut out this past in order to move forward. Jacob challenges us instead to keep a multivalent stone under our heads — that is, to allow past trauma to be the base on which we build hope for the future.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

What was this “place” where Jacob spent the night? According to Rashi, this “place” was Mount Moriah, commonly associated with the Temple Mount, the sacred site in Jerusalem where two Temples once stood.

To Jacob, Mount Moriah had a more personal connotation. It was the mountain where his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, had walked up together as father and son, but on their way down, could no longer speak to each other. It was the place where his father, Isaac, was bound on an altar with a knife to his throat.

One can only wonder what it felt like for Jacob to be in the same spot that traumatized his father for life. Were there remnants of the altar and the ropes? Was the knife still there? Could he hear echoes of his father’s voice asking, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Could he feel his father’s “fear and trembling,” as Kierkegaard put it?

This frightening encounter with his father’s trauma all took place at night. “Never shall I forget that night,” Elie Wiesel said. I’m sure if asked about that night, Jacob would say the same thing. Like many who encounter terrorizing moments, Jacob turned to prayer. Indeed, it was at that place, on that night, when Jacob established tefilat arvit, Judaism’s nightly prayer service. At some point in life, we all stand in that “place.” We all experience that traumatic night. We all confront our past … and then we pray.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha

Photo from Pexels.

PARSHA: TOLDOT, Genesis 25: 21-23

“Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her:

Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other;

And the older shall serve the younger.”

Tova Hartman
Dean of Humanities at Ono Academic College, Israel

As we continue to read through Genesis, we realize that the “original sin” of the book is not the use of “seduction” by Eve, but our matriarchs’ collusion in a tragic zero-sum game. This becomes especially evident in these verses, which introduce the tumultuous saga of Jacob and Esau. There, the Lord informs Rebecca that two nations are warring within her previously barren womb and that when they emerge, “one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

Just as Sarah expels Hagar because there is not enough room for both Isaac and Ishmael, Rebecca accepts the fact that one of her sons, mightier than the other, will crowd out his brother. She ensures the outcome by helping Jacob deceive his father. Esau alone resists this world order. When he returns from hunting to learn that his father already has given away his blessing to Jacob, he does not accept Isaac’s action as a fait accompli.

Instead, Esau asks the fundamental question: “Have you but one blessing, father?” (Genesis 27:38).

In this alternative theology, Esau teaches that there could be more than one blessing. In fact, the zero-sum mentality is one of the tragedies of our world. This is especially so in Israel, where we almost habitually presume one people’s claim to the land to the exclusion of all others. Why not dignify both claims, both histories? “Does God have only one blessing?” asks Catholic theologian Mary Boys. The God I choose to believe in does indeed have multiple blessings.

Rabbi Noah Farkas
Valley Beth Shalom

Often when we try to explain our way out of suffering, we cause more pain — even if we never intend to do so.

God is still getting to know the human heart in Genesis and perhaps oversteps in the case of Rebecca. What we know clearly is that Rebecca, the mother, suffers inexorably. God tries to placate her with a political explanation, but the text never says that she was consoled by God’s words. In fact, one easily could say that God adds to her suffering, because the conflict between the brothers will become an eternal conflict between whole nations. From this perspective, Rebecca actually suffers twice in God’s eyes: once for her pregnancy and once for her children’s fate.

The Chasidic master Levi Yitzchak is helpful here. In her travail, Rebecca utters the word anochi, which mystically seems to refer to God’s utterance of anochi (I am) in the first of the Ten Commandments. The “I am” of God is linked to the “I am” of Rebecca. In her pain, Rebecca displaces God’s explanation of suffering even before it is taught to her. She teaches us that we should never treat suffering as a means, but instead as an experience unto itself.

To explain away suffering is to actually cause more suffering. The way out of suffering is not through reasoning or explanation but through presence and response. Thus, the cry of the mother is heard louder to me than the voice of Father in Heaven. Like God’s, Rebecca’s cry is a commandment of sorts, for us to respond to woe not by rational explanation but in love and presence.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg
Shalhevet High School

The struggle in Rebecca’s womb typifies the pattern of sibling rivalry throughout Genesis. Beginning with Cain and Abel and ending with Joseph and his brothers, the book depicts a cycle of fraternal strife in which the younger child repeatedly emerges as the torchbearer of Abraham’s legacy.

But if we take a closer look at this theme, the chosen status of the Abrahamic line is not granted willy-nilly to the younger sibling. The right to the family name is earned through the refinement that comes from enduring trying moments and traumatic events. Isaac encounters death at the Akedah while Jacob and Joseph spend years of their lives exiled from their families. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel battle with infertility, and Leah lives much of her life in the shadow of her younger sister.

In sum, our matriarchs and patriarchs do not live lives of tranquility, nor is their status achieved merely by virtue of their genetic code. Perhaps this is the meaning behind God’s response to Rebecca. Yes, God says, struggle will forever be part of the human condition. But inherent in that struggle is the capacity for growth and change. Each of our ancestors faced adversity, and through those experiences they were transformed into our patriarchs and matriarchs — indeed, the younger child became the exalted one. As we read these stories, let us also commit ourselves to God’s promising destiny that our challenges and difficulties need not seal our fate as being perpetual “younger siblings.”

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
Congregation Kol Ami

Amazing! Prayers are answered by God. Isaac and Rebecca cry to God about their infertility. And God answers with the promise of twins. For most of us, prayers are not answered so quickly — especially prayers about infertility issues. Often, those who want children cannot ride the roller coaster of trying to get pregnant using available science and technology.

We don’t talk enough about the pain of infertility. We should. We Jews tend to marry at older ages, following extensive education and professional tracks. Marrying late, or not finding Mr. or Ms. Right, can make conception more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Infertility treatments can take the romance out of the process. As a result, many Jews have fewer children than did their forebears.

For a community concerned with continuity, this issue demands attention. The Jewish Free Loan Association in Los Angeles offers interest-free loans for the great expense of in vitro fertilization, a technique used to overcome infertility. We ought to lift up more opportunities for adoption and assistance for families adding to our numbers through a variety of possibilities. Rebecca and Isaac prayed to God. We should, too. But some help and attention from the organized Jewish community could shed important light on this issue.

Infertility and solutions available now shouldn’t be left to prayer. They should be on our communal agenda. Let’s help families grow rather than see infertility as a badge of shame. That is my prayer. I hope it is answered.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md. 

Isaac was not the most talkative man, making it difficult for Rebecca to communicate with him. He loved her deeply and focused his prayer not on himself as childless, but on her. Rebecca loved and respected Isaac, but her experience taught her that a woman’s voice is not heard in a man’s world.

Her parents arranged her marriage without consulting her, retracting only when not offered a fair price. Rebecca bypassed established practices and spoke to God directly, probably never revealing details to Isaac. God tells her that she will be the progenitor of two great nations that will struggle for hegemony. One of these nations, God says, will overpower the other. Up until this point, everything was clear, but the problem started with the last three words of verse 23. Those words can be understood as saying that the greater will serve the smaller, or that the greater will be served by the smaller (compare with Job 14:19).

It is also not clear what the yardstick is for greatness or smallness. Is it age, physical stature or future political and military prowess? Even if she had told Isaac about her prophecy, the two of them might not have agreed about who is great and who is small. Isaac might have also argued that he needed to obey the natural flow and the let the boys shape their own identities and destinies.

Rebecca decided to take matters into her own hands and guarantee the fulfillment of the prophecy, plunging her family into rivalry, distrust and chaos.