June 28, 2019
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One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. –Leviticus 26:3-4
Rabbi Jill Zimmerman
Path With Heart
At first glance, this verse is not true. The theology that suggests following God’s commandments will be rewarded, while disobeying them will be punished, has been rejected by most of us. We all know good people who suffer, and criminals who escape justice. In 2019, however, this Torah verse urgently calls us to reflect beyond the obvious.
We now know that the very survival of the planet depends on following God’s words to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Protect the planet and care for her (avdah u-shomrah).” Human action and inaction have the power to shift weather patterns, resulting in droughts and hurricanes. In 2018, the United Nations released a “Doomsday” report, leading environmentalist David Attenborough to say, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” The deep truth of this Levitical verse has never been more imperative. Before it is too late, we must recognize that our precious earth is God’s.
“… the land is mine and you are but strangers journeying with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)
If we do not wake up, our children and grandchildren truly will have a future of a diminishing food supply and withered trees. We ignore this Torah at our peril, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1) Our very world, so often taken for granted, depends on it.
Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services
When I was in my 20s, I deemed ideas like the one presented in this week’s passage ridiculous and disturbing. I hated the inherent guilt in the equation. In my 50s, I think I begin to understand its purpose — the direction in which it propels us as a people. The Torah emerged in a world where, in times of crisis, groups readily exchanged their god for the gods of those who seemed to be luckier, stronger, more powerful. The Torah understands this human tendency. This was not to be our destiny as a people.
Guilt is not and was never meant to be an endpoint. Guilt is a beginning, a doorway into an exploration of what it means to be human. Guilt keeps us turning again and again to God and in the process is transformed into conscience. Conscience, unlike guilt, elevates humanity because it expands the human heart, making space for God or Godliness to reside.
Whether it is true that our moral failings lead to drought, I don’t know. In my 50s, unlike my 20s, it no longer seems that important. What I do know is that humanity is raised by exploring where we can do better. What is true is that God is with us even in that … even in suffering … even in moral failure. As Jews, we turn toward God … always toward. Whether the rain comes in its time … or not.
Gratitude to Magid Paul Wolf for teaching me the difference between guilt and conscience.
Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik
Director of the Jewish Learning Exchange in Los Angeles
“If,” the opening word of this verse, teaches us an important Jewish concept. “If” represents potential. It indicates we have free choice to choose right and wrong and to live a more elevated life. We may believe we are compelled to be someone or to do something because of our nature, how we were raised or the circumstances of our life. The verse is teaching us, however, that we have the power of change. We can make choices, and we have free will to take the high road, refine our character and follow God’s commandments.
The latter part of the verse is also teaching us about the consequences of our actions in the here and now. We may think that spiritual achievement receives spiritual rewards in a metaphysical existence. Although that is true, the Torah also is teaching that good choices have positive ramifications in this physical world. When one makes the right moral choice, he or she becomes a better person and changes the world one act at a time. As Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
When we live a life filled with Torah study and efforts to fulfill God’s will, we can also achieve true happiness, meaning and purpose. And finally, God may bless us with His bounty because of the correct tough choices we make.
For a modern-day story that personifies these ideas, contact me at email@example.com
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
A parable: A king plants a tree in the middle of the palace courtyard. He instructs his courtiers how to water and care for the tree and how to disperse its fruit, ensuring that everyone receives a fair share. However, years pass and the courtiers begin to neglect the tree — they water it only when convenient and the most powerful take the bulk of the fruit for themselves. Division and bloodshed ensue. If only the people had followed the king’s instructions …
When God placed Adam in Eden, God told him that the Earth was his to both work and protect. Later the Torah would provide many mitzvot concerning the relationship between agriculture and civil society. It makes clear that, should we cease to follow God’s instructions — by overworking the land and ignoring the needs and rights of others — then we will be no better than the courtiers in the parable and should only expect the worst to ensue.
So many of today’s problems arise from a disregard for God’s laws concerning agriculture and equitable distribution. Around the world, we see war and struggles break out over limited resources. We witness crime and violence by people who feel neglected and cheated. We experience extreme storms and weather changes because of our disregard for Earth’s fragility. If this is not the world we want to pass onto our children, then maybe it is time we return to God’s instructions — to Torah and mitzvot, which demand our agricultural wealth be cherished and shared.
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
This is a pretty straightforward promise: follow God’s laws and be rewarded with His overwhelming blessings. The blessings are material in nature, but spiritual rewards are implied. However, following these blessings is a frightening list of punishments, growing in severity, if we continue to spurn the covenant. Tragically, these punishments have all come to pass throughout Jewish history, the consequence of our rebelliousness.
Why do we need to learn the hard way that God knows best?
A clue: The word in this verse for “law” is chok, meaning statute or decree. Other laws, known as mishpatim, or ordinances, are usually social laws whose logic we can readily understand. The logic of a chok is not readily apparent to the human intellect, such as the law of kashrut or shatnez, a forbidden mingling of wool and linen in the same garment.
But chok has another meaning — engraved. We were given the Torah both in written form, on parchment scrolls, and engraved by God on the two stone tablets. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi observed that when something is written, the ink that forms the letters remains a separate entity from the surface it is written on. Engraved letters, however, become one with the surface: the words are stone and the stone is words.
Is the Torah merely “inked” on our souls, influential yet still somehow separate from us, or engraved, creating an unbreakable bond with God? It is up to each of us to choose.
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One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions, who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting. –Exodus 38:8
The priests of the Torah aimed to achieve the heights of holiness, lighting fires with their passion for God. Then, as now, our offerings have the potential to climb, extend and expand. But this elevation is possible only after deep and grounded preparation.
Before performing their holy duties, the priests would use water from the washstand, set upon its base, to cleanse their hands and feet. Though they are not as well known as the menorah or the Ark of the Covenant, the washstand and its base have a deep significance. The Torah mentions the washstand and its base together repeatedly. Why is the base so important, deserving of separate mention? Why can’t the washstand stand on its own?
A base is a foundation. As Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) pointed out, “these vessels were not carried on poles” like some of the other implements of the Tabernacle. No, these vessels should not even give the impression of being mobile. They must serve to prepare us for our holy work with connection to our stable base.
That base is our people and our history. Today, in the infinite reflections of our selfie culture, this message carries particular urgency. The Hebrew used in this verse for “its base” (“kano”) is related to the Hebrew “to prepare oneself” (“lehitkonen”) and “to have intention (“lehitkaven”). Understanding that our foundation is our connection to the past readies us to use our hands and feet with purpose and impact for the future.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
Adat Shalom, “Roadmap Jerusalem” filmmaker, “My Daily Offering” podcaster
Midrash tells us that Moses didn’t want to accept the women’s contribution of mirrors — “B’Mar’ot” in Hebrew — because he associated the visual reflection provided by the mirrors with vanity. Like so many other elements in our narrative, however, the contribution of women points us directly toward greater freedom and closer relationship with the divine.
The last time we saw the same conjugation of this word “B’Mar’ot” was in Genesis 46, “And God called to Israel through a vision (B’Mar’ot) by night …” There is great intimacy through the visual medium. We know how powerful the camera has become today. We feel like we know the facts of a story better when we see a photo or a video. The power of a mirror, in seeing oneself, does not only serve the purpose of vanity, but also presents the ability to reflect.
The mirrors in the altar would be used to draw ourselves closer to God, to make the act of the sacrifice more personal. In our most intimate moments, who among us doesn’t want our creator, our spouse, our parents or our friends to see deep inside us and recognize the best version of ourselves? In the midrash, God tells Moses to accept the mirrors. I pray that in that moment God also accepted each and every one of us for who we truly are as well.
Rashi explains that the women had copper mirrors that they used for adorning themselves for their husbands who, each day, after intense work as a slave, came home physically broken and spiritually hopeless. They certainly could not think about increasing their families, so their wives made sure of the opposite. And, even though this was all done for the right reasons, and with the best of intentions, Moshe still wanted to reject the mirrors. He felt that their association with the evil inclination made them unfit for the construction of something as holy as the Tabernacle. Therefore, God stepped in and told him, “Accept them, for they are dearer to me than anything else! Through these mirrors the women increased the population of Israel.”
Who could blame Moshe? After all, it says: Difficult is the evil inclination that even its creator calls it “evil.” Yet, the midrash says, were it not for the evil inclination, a man would not build a house, marry a woman, do business, etc. Clearly the evil inclination can be either friend or foe. What determines which? Torah.
As the Talmud says, “God told the Jewish people, ‘I created the evil inclination, and I created Torah as its spice.’ ” God didn’t call Torah an “antidote” for the evil inclination, because Torah doesn’t come to eliminate the evil inclination, but to channel it. The evil inclination is a powerful source of energy and creativity. It is not be destroyed, but harnessed for good, and living by Torah makes this possible.
Professor, Ono Academic College, Israel
Doing the holy work for the Jewish people is not a casual action. The priests must prepare for this in a variety of ways, including ritually washing themselves from this special washstand. But why make it from women’s brass mirrors? What might this symbolize?
According to rabbinic tradition, cited in Rashi, the women shared these mirrors with their husbands, who were too tired from manual labor, enticing them to have sex so that they would procreate. The priests had to acknowledge this every time they washed their hands and feet in preparation for entering the holy area.
In most genocides, men are separated from women. We must imagine that in Egypt, the men were encamped near their work sites, separately from the women. One of the effects of such trauma and humiliation is the loss of desire — reflecting a loss of a sense of worth. It is thus no surprise that the women needed to use mirrors to allure their husbands. These mirrors mirrored back to their men a sense of worthiness, so the men would see themselves as their wives saw them. The masters of slaves mirror back a sense of worthlessness, and that is what the Hebrew women of Egypt refused to accept.
To build the Tabernacle, silver and gold were necessary, but it is forbidden to enter the holy area unless there is an acknowledgment of the loss and the regaining of the human spirit, symbolized through these copper mirrors. How might this translate into the responsibilities of our contemporary Jewish leaders, as they prepare to do their holy work?
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Slavery doesn’t simply break the body, it breaks the soul. It exhausts the person and suffocates any hope for a quality of life and a life of quality. So let me ask you, would you bring children into such a life? Would it not be cruel and selfish to condemn children to a life of misery by birthing them into a culture that would ravage and oppress them?
For us, this is a hypothetical question, although one very worthwhile debating. For our ancestors in Egypt, it was a real and genuine moral dilemma. I have legitimately wondered whether the hopelessness of that situation would have gotten the best of me.
Enter the Jewish woman. The copper mirrors that she exuberantly dedicated to the Temple were the mirrors she used to prepare herself for an intimacy that would ensure the survival of the Jewish people. She understood that the best way to defeat despair is to add life, and the only way to respond to a soulless world is to add souls. It was the holiest of missions!
Those mirrors represent the Jewish woman’s unflinching commitment to the perpetuation of Jewish destiny. They were in fact, the greatest “reflection” of the inextinguishable faith that has traveled with us through the horrors and triumphs of Jewish history. Our sages recognized this when they emphatically taught “that in the merit of Jewish women, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
The Lord said to Moses, “Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt, and the darkness will become darker.” Exodus 10:21
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Scholar in Residence JMI Aish Hatorah, COO Harkham GAON
A close family friend recently told me that she was in a “dark place,” demoralized by the suffering and slow deterioration of old friends. Her phrasing was honest and poetic. Darkness is a fitting metaphor for people who have lost their inner light. In the context of our verse, it also compellingly describes societies whose values have become unenlightened.
An aggadic midrash describes hoshekh, the ninth plague, as a darkness that was palpable and suffocating, a darkness that immobilized everyone who was enveloped in it. It was not a natural darkness. This was something else. This was more sinister. This was Egypt. Like every empire, Egypt violently and arrogantly imposed its power. It worshipped gods out of fear rather than love, awe and aspiration. It devolved into a dark society where goodness and light were extinguished. It was a culture with no sun, no moon, no stars. A society with no compassion, no generosity, no illumination. The plague of darkness was not merely a punishment, it was an indictment. It was a natural cosmic response to the darkening of Man’s divine light.
The mission of the Jew coalesced in Egypt. It exhorted Jews to become beacons of light. To inspire, not impose. To radiate, not stifle. To shine, not shun. To illuminate the dark places. May we all attach ourselves to this legacy and may we continue to bring light into all the spheres that we inhabit! Shabbat Shalom.
The darkness of the ninth plague is darker, a new level of darkness, tangible. It lasts for three days, although the Egyptians lose all sense of time. It feels like the primordial universe before God created light and life. There is no human interaction. People are terrified to even move. Ibn Ezra compared the darkness to sea fog and our sages said it was as thick as a dinar (coin). If you’re afraid to move, the very air becomes oppressive. Devoid of light, movement, human connection and consumed with fear, the Egyptians experience a kind of death.
Moses asked Pharaoh to let his people go worship their God — Creator of light and life — in the desert for three days. The Children of Israel wanted to praise God and sacrifice to God, they wanted to tap into Divine light. Even in their bondage, they maintained their devotion to their Creator, and their respect for life. Pharaoh wouldn’t let them spend three days celebrating the Creator of light and Giver of life. Now he and his people are suffering three days of the complete absence of light and life. Denying the Creator means losing the benefit of His creations.
While the Israelites are scurrying around excitedly, packing and helping others get ready for the great escape, racing to beat the clock, each Egyptian is sitting completely still and utterly alone in oppressive, timeless darkness. What a stark contrast between a life spent worshipping God and a life spent worshipping man.
Professor Tova Hartman
Ono Academic College, Israel
Darkness does not suddenly descend upon Egypt; first, Moses must “hold out [his] arm toward the sky.” This is the typical pattern of the previous plagues, which are initiated by Moses or Aaron. It is a pattern that is new to the Book of Exodus. In Genesis, God destroys the builders of the Tower of Babel or overturns the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without any human initiation. This pattern is very persistent in Exodus, culminating in the declaration that after crossing the Red Sea, “They had faith in the LORD and his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
It is not realistic to expect slaves who had been completely intimidated by the brute force of the Egyptians and the magical powers of their priests to suddenly believe in the promise God gave to Abraham. Their mindset and beliefs cannot be changed immediately. They must see Moses and Aaron over and over again beating the Egyptians at their game, teaching the Israelites that we are stronger than the Egyptian people who enslaved us.
Leaders must meet people where they are, but leaders fail if that is all they do. They also must bring a vision of transformation and the means to accomplish it. The result of Moses’s leadership style in Egypt is successful because he brings God’s vision to the people where they are. That is what transforms palpable darkness into light and leads to a much larger goal: a newfound faith in God that culminates in the covenant at Sinai.
Writer-producer best known for “The Quarrel”
Consider the prizefighter as he decks his opponent. Immediately, he raises his hands to the heavens in victory. Now consider the captured prisoner of war. He too raises his hands to the heavens, but in defeat. Curious, isn’t it, that the gestures for triumph and submission are exactly the same all over the world?
In this week’s parsha, Moses is instructed by God to raise his hands to the heavens and a thick darkness is brought down on the Egyptian people. The Israelites, however, were spared. Their homes were filled with light. This raises the question: Did Moses lift his hands in triumph or in defeat? No simple answer here; I suppose it depends on whose side you are on.
For Moses and the Israelite slaves, it was another step in removing from their backs the oppression of the Egyptians as well as a further sign of God’s commitment and the breathtaking scope of His powers. For the Egyptians, it was sheer misery, brought on by their Pharaoh and by themselves.
From God’s perspective, it was both. God is the creator of the universe and all of the inhabitants are His. God does not play the game of moral equivalence, to be sure, but as we learn later at the Red Sea, God is saddened by the suffering of all.
It is important for us to keep in mind that a shadow accompanies virtually every triumph.
Rabbi Gabriel Botnick
Mishkon Tephilo, Venice
Although commonly translated as “toward the heavens,” the Hebrew actually states “upon the heavens.” What strange language! How could Moses, an Earth-bound human, stretch forth his hand upon the heavens?
From this single word, the Midrash extrapolates that God lifted Moses up to the heavens so he could stretch out his hand and darken everything below. The rabbis explain that, having initially created the heavens and Earth as mutually exclusive realms, God came to realize the necessity of enabling beings to traverse between the two. In this instance, humankind is permitted to ascend to the heavens. On other occasions, God utilizes this bridge to descend to Earth.
This blurring of boundaries between the heavens and Earth is an incredible gift not only for Moses but for all of humankind. The Midrash teaches that the heavens are far closer than we think and that we can engage with them whenever we want — like Moses, we simply need to direct our attention toward the will of God.
This is precisely the goal of living a spiritual life. When we bless over food, acknowledge the beauty of nature or marvel at the miracles of life, we are fulfilling God’s will and bringing ourselves closer to the Divine. When we engage in acts of kindness and charity, our souls are joined with the heavens above. If we allow the Divine to guide our actions here on Earth, every moment — whether significant or mundane — is an opportunity for us to encounter the heavens.
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
Esau lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and he said, “Who are these to you?” –Genesis 33:5
Ono Academic College
As Esau approaches from a distance, Jacob arranges his family in preparation for a deadly confrontation, putting himself first, followed by the two concubines and their children, then Leah and her children, and then Rachel and Joseph. Jacob thereby tries to assure the survival of his favorite wife. In the words of the 12th-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, “He put Rachel and Joseph last — for perhaps they would escape — out of his love for them.”
Esau seems totally unaware of the carefully orchestrated procession of people before him. He sees the women and the children but does not distinguish between them. Though Esau might have realized that these people are his brother’s family, he does not ask Jacob to provide him with a kind of scorecard, detailing who is the No. 1 wife, which children belong to which wife, etc. Instead, Esau asks simply, “Who are these to you?”
While Jacob thinks in terms of favorite wives and favorite children, Esau presents us with a different family model. Esau’s “these” encompasses Jacob’s whole family; the family is a unit, the family is a “these,” rather than a locus of scheming and conniving.
It is Esau who then hugs his brother, kisses him, weeps and forgives. Jacob cannot disentangle himself from a distorted perception of family. Rather than learning from Esau to treat the family as “these,” Jacob is already dreaming of Joseph’s many-colored coat.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
After 20 long years of separation, the estranged brothers meet again. They are family but, as in the past, they are far apart in their values, in their outlook and in their ethical perspective. It is Jacob who became Israel, father of the 12 tribes and patriarch of the Jewish people. Esau left us the legacy of Rome; the hunter sired a culture of warriors.
It was but one word in the question Esau asked Jacob at their reunion that rabbinic commentators see as a profound clue to a worldview in opposition to a Torah perspective. Esau did not simply say, when he saw the women and children accompanying his brother, “Who are they?” A number of English translations of the text are faulty; they render it as, “Who are these with you?” The literal translation ought to be, “Who are these for you?”
Esau’s mistake was identical to the error of Eve in naming her first child Cain. She bore a son “and she said I have acquired a man with the help of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:1) Acquired, as if a child were no more than a personal possession, as if a person has no more value than his or her worth to another. Esau looked at Jacob’s wives and children as property rather than people, as objects rather than human beings created in the image of God.
That was Esau’s sin — and, all too often, ours.
Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik
Director of the Jewish Learning Exchange in Los Angeles
The verse we are discussing is quite puzzling. Why does Esau ask who these people are? He was not doing a social call — he was initially coming to attack Jacob! So why does he care who they are? And what is Jacob’s response? “These are the children that God has graciously given your servant.” Very poetic, but why not just say this is my family? Why bring up God?
To understand the Torah, we must always look deeper. Our sages tell us that Jacob and Esau had an argument about who would dominate in olam ha-zeh, this physical world, and in olam ha-ba, the world of the spirit. They reached a compromise: Esau would get this world and Jacob the world to come.
So Esau’s question was, “If you are the man of the spiritual realm, what are you doing with so many wives? That seems like something I should have as I enjoy the pleasures of this world.”
Jacob answers powerfully with two points. None of what I have is ultimately from my hard work or brains, but rather from God’s graciousness to me. My wives are not for my physical pleasure, my possessions are not for ego nor my money for power. What I have are presents for me to serve the Almighty.
May we appreciate and have gratitude for all of God’s gifts to us and use them well in his service. For a great modern-day story that personifies these ideas, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Reb Mimi Feigelson
Mashpiah Ruchanit (spiritual mentor) of the Rabbinical School and teacher of Talmud and Chasidic Thought at the Schechter Institues
It is known that twins often have a secret language and code phrases known only to them. In our verse, we find a code shared by Jacob and Esau: “Who are these/mi ei’leh?”
Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men. Isaac lifts his eyes and sees camels. Esau lifts his eyes and sees women and children, asking, “Mi ei’leh?” Three generations of one family who have a mystical practice of lifting their eyes to see. The question is what do they really see?
I read our verse not as a question, but rather as a statement and a form of witnessing. Through these words, “Who are these/mi ei’leh?” the twins teach us to return to the story of creation when introduced to children. Esau does it when meeting Jacob’s family, and Jacob himself will repeat the phrase when Joseph introduces his sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:8).
Why the story of Creation? The opening of the Zohar teaches that God’s name, Elohim, combines these two words, mi and ei’leh. As if to say Mi ei’leh created heaven and earth.
The twins Jacob and Esau teach us how to see our children. Teach us to affirm that for the sake of our children standing in front of us, Elohim/Mi ei’leh created heaven and earth. Can we cultivate this mystical vision when looking at our children? Can we empower our children to walk in God’s world with this affirmation and responsibility?
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
In anticipation of the reunion between Jacob and Esau, Jacob sent an accounting to his estranged brother of the increase of his estate, making no mention of his children. Accordingly, on seeing the wives and progeny of Jacob standing behind him, Esau’s inquiry as to “Who are these to you?” was understandable. Jacob’s answer, while ostensibly being responsive to his brother’s question, is a life lesson for all of us.
Jacob replies that they are the children who God has graciously given to him. He speaks of his children as gifts that he considers a great blessing. In a world where demographic trends show a significant drop in the number of children per family, and where mansions and fancy cars are defined as one’s legacy, Jacob’s words should hit home.
While pop culture implores us to be self-absorbed, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the first letter of the most popular technology is an “i,” children can be seen as obstacles to achieving the goals of the “rat race.” In stark contrast, Jacob’s response reminds all of us that children are a gift and are one of the main purposes of our journey in this world.
On a deeper level, while Esau, who personifies the hunter seeking his next victim, can at best hold up a proverbial dead carcass as his life achievement, Jacob, the father of the Jewish people, reminds all of us that our legacy is the children we leave behind and the good deeds we have achieved.
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
She finished giving him to drink, and she said, “I will also draw for your camels.” — Gen. 24:19
Jewish Community Educator
Many sages address how elaborate and even repetitious is the first recorded match made in Torah. In our verse, the matchmaker Eliezer witnesses the gesture that clinches the couplehood of Isaac and Rebecca. She agrees to provide water not just for Eliezer and company, but also for his camels. This action demonstrates more than simple compassion.
The Kabbalists say Isaac represents the quality of intense gevurah, variously translated as strength, upward propulsion or contraction. To balance such a force, his soul mate needs to be his polar opposite. Therefore, just being kind is insufficient. To bring harmony to the universe, and to manifest the presence of HaShem who “rules heaven and earth,” there needs to be a unification of the strongest upward flight, represented by Isaac, with the most grounded act of relating to and caring for all creatures, no matter how lowly.
It is interesting that what first catches Eliezer’s attention at the well is the water rising up to meet Rebecca. When she draws water for him and the animals, however, she receives no miraculous assistance and has to use her own strength. These two phenomena, the heavenly gift and the physical effort, both express the principle that uniting heaven and earth requires masculine and feminine energies working together.
Judaic Studies Teacher and Director of Student Activities at Shalhevet High School
Why does Rivka wait until after Eliezer is done drinking to offer water for the camels? The sages offer varying explanations. I believe that Rivka waited because she knew there was not enough water in the jug for Eliezer to drink and also to give to the camels. This simple explanation has a deeper meaning that reveals Rivka’s character. From a place of humility and commitment, she wanted only to promise what she knew she could deliver.
There is a bigger life lesson here. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book “The Thinking Jewish Teenagers’ Guide to Life,” discusses how to find your role in life. He tells us to draw three circles; in the first list the things you are good at, in the second the things you are passionate about, and in the last what the world needs. He says your role in life should encompass those things at the intersection of these circles. Rather than trying to do everything, he stresses, find the one thing you are truly capable of delivering and focus on that.
Rivka had the ability to know herself, to see the need of the people around her, and then to act accordingly. Having completed the task, she immediately moved on to the next, offering water for the camels. In a world where we try to have it all and do it all, Rivka teaches us the value of emptying your jug first before filling it up again.
Director of the Rosh Chodesh Society of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
The camel, gamal in Hebrew, and gemilut chassadim, helping others and perpetuating kindness, are etymologically related.
With these words of great kindness, our matriarch Rebecca gifts us the ultimate safety instruction card for the itinerary of life:
Stay well hydrated. Camels can drink 20 gallons of water in one shot. They are notorious not only for their drinking abilities, but also for their incredible stamina in trekking through arid deserts with waterlogged bellies. We too must drink — the living waters of our holy Torah. The Torah is our hydration. It is what allows us to traverse the terrain of a life well-watered, always drinking, copiously filling our minds, hearts and souls with its elixir of life.
Join the caravan. The safest, most efficient way to travel through the desert is to travel together. While one camel may successfully cross the desert sands, a caravan of camels exponentially increases the odds of reaching its destination safely. Gemilut chassadim is the essence of building caravans: shouldering the load together, strengthening the less fortunate, helping one another on the journey of life.
Transform the desert. Camels travel through deserts, the quintessential no man’s land and antithesis to civilization. The Jewish nation sojourned in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. In life, we often find ourselves traveling through wasteland before finding civilization and creating a home for God. The redeeming factor in this desert trek is the gamal: through gemilut chassadim — goodness, kindness, helping others — we transform the desert itself into the Promised Land.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Hospice Chaplain
We might dismiss water as an incidental feature in this story, but the Torah doesn’t squander words. We must understand water as a vital ingredient wherever it flows in Torah, even swelling to become a character in its own right!
Whereas in Parashat Noah, water is God’s element of annihilation, in Vayeira it is Ishmael’s elixir of life. In the Book of Exodus, walls of water will frame a sort of holy womb, from which the nascent people of Israel are born. Is it then any surprise that water frequently accompanies a critically important woman in the narrative? Indeed, water arises in the Torah as a dominant and elastic instrument: easing alliances, sealing pledges, signifying partnerships, and often heralding God’s involvement on a sacred stage.
Whether or not she knows it, Rivka’s appearance at the well of Nahor is a test of her character. It may be her physical beauty that grabs the attention of Avraham’s appointed matchmaker, but he asks her to sate his thirst. Then it is Rivka’s thoughtful patience and uncommon generosity, administering water both for him and for Avraham’s camels (dear ships of the desert), that presages her sacred future as a matriarch.
Moreover, Rivka’s big-heartedness stands in contrast to the occasional hard-heartedness we see in the tents of Avraham and Sarah. Rivka is a standout personality in the Book of Genesis — provoking trust, sustaining man and beast, and in the fullness of time, altering the flow of our Israelite fate.
Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
Writer, Lecturer, Professor, American Jewish University
Character counts. Eliezer is a stranger in a strange land, sent by his aging master to find a wife for his beloved son. How is Eliezer to know who is right?
He comes up with a test. The maiden who offers both him and his camel a drink of water will be the one. Rebecca’s response exceeds his expectation. She not only waters his camels, she draws until they have finished drinking.
Such sensitivity and generosity: Eliezer is smitten not by her beauty but her values.
Rebecca is the most impressive of our biblical matriarchs. We see Sarah’s anguish at being childless, her willingness to accommodate Abraham’s hospitality, her laughter at the prophecy, her anger at Hagar and her fierce, sometimes cruel, determination to ensure that Isaac is his father’s sole heir.
We learn of Leah’s poor eyesight, suffering as the fertile yet unloved wife; and we witness Rachel’s beauty, childlessness and unwillingness to enter the Promised Land without her father’s idols.
But it is young Rebecca who duplicates Abraham’s going forth to an unknown land. She is the Torah heroine who encounters God regarding her turbulent pregnancy. She urges her reluctant son to deceive her husband. She creates the space within which Isaac can make the right choice between his sons, thus transmitting the family legacy to the chosen one. She sends her beloved Jacob into exile to protect him from Esau’s ire. Wise and daring, cunning and unrelenting, she is the one.
And Eliezer grasps all of this in one gesture.
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.
— Exodus 33:23
Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles
Moses sees God’s back, rather than God’s face, because God is in motion, moving forward. We are designed to be in motion.
Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver teaches: “We are quite literally not who we were years, weeks or even days ago. Our cells die and are replaced by new ones at an astonishing pace. What persists over time is not fixed, but merely a pattern in flux.”
We are made in God’s image, which does not mean we look like God and God looks like us, rather, we are patterned after the moving pattern of God. At this season, we talk about return. But when we say return, we do not mean “go backward.” We mean returning to the path that will take us forward.
The whole Torah is about a movement, from the exile from Eden to the exile from Egypt, and we never really arrive. Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He also said, “No person ever steps in the same river twice.” So, when we roll Torah back to the beginning, it is not the same Torah, nor are we the same people.
There is a reason the most meaningful part of the bar mitzvah ceremony is the passing of the Torah. There is a reason the prayer that brings the most people to tears is L’Dor va-Dor (from generation to generation). Because it touches on the essence of what we are. We are the river.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
Job wasn’t the first biblical character to ask the question that more than any other challenges our faith. Philosophers call it theodicy. Simply put: Why do bad things happen to good people?
How can we believe in a kind and compassionate God — his very name in English is a contraction for the word good — when we are so often witness to the unfairness of life and the injustices of the world around us? Doesn’t reality give the lie to religion?
According to the Talmud, it was Moses who had the nerve to pose the question to the Almighty. Right after God forgave the Jews for the sin of the golden calf and defined his essence by way of the 13 attributes of mercy, Moses said, “Show me, I pray you, your glory.” And that is when God responded, “And you will see my back but my face you shall not see.” Surely Moses knew that God has no body. What Moses wanted was the ability to understand God’s glory in spite of his apparent indifference to human suffering.
The answer has not only been key to my faith but has numerous times proven itself to be the explanation for some of the most trying moments in my life. “You will see my back!”
Soren Kierkegaard put it beautifully when he said, “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward.” To see God’s back is to recognize that our lives make sense — but only in retrospect.
Rabbi Mark Blazer
Temple Beth Ami
Moses, God’s strongest conduit to the people throughout much of the Torah, wants what nearly every human wants: To see more of God.
Even Moses, who had a relationship with God unique in its closeness, can’t completely know God. Later prophets also strove to see more of God. The Bible and later Jewish tradition frequently teaches us that we are on a different wavelength than God, which makes a complete knowledge of the Divine impossible. As Isaiah is told: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”
We may view glimpses of God in this life through the natural world, in intellectual, spiritual and artistic expressions, and creations of those who try to make the Divine manifest in this world. Most importantly, we see God in the people around us. Humanity. Every one of us.
The Torah teaches us in the very beginning, that we were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, as reflections of God. Through our meaningful interactions with humanity, with each person on this planet, we gain a deeper understanding of God, each reflection giving us another glance at an aspect of the Divine.
As we synthesize these visions in our desire for understanding of the One-Who-Is-Everything, we are confronted by how challenging this yearning is. Yet in our striving to know and experience the highest and deepest aspects of this existence, we are comforted to know that even Moses was frustrated by what he couldn’t see.
Rabbi David Lapin
Rabbi and scholar
Bitachon (faith) and emunah (belief) are different. Bitachon gives meaning to the future; emunah gives meaning to the past.
We try to predict the future, yet despite our sophistication, our ability to predict the future is limited. We try to predict markets, the weather, election results and the futures of our children but in the final analysis, we need faith to stride into the future with confidence.
The past, however, is factual and doesn’t need faith. When viewing the past, whether our own pasts or history, we have a choice. We can interpret past events as random, we can understand them in terms of direct results of prior human choices, or we can discover a Divine latticework of interconnected events that gives our pasts meaning. This discovery of the Divine hand in the unfolding past is emunah.
In our verse, HaShem blindfolds Moshe as He approaches. As HaShem passes, he removes the blindfold “and you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen,” forcing Moshe to turn back and look over his shoulder to encounter God.
We too, need to pause and look over our shoulders at our own pasts to discover God and engage with Him.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Picture this scene: As you walk down a hall, you notice through a keyhole in the door of one of the rooms what appears to be a masked man, knife in hand, bearing down on what appears to an innocent, sleeping kid. Your jaw drops as you involuntary blurt out, “Murder!”
What if I were to tell you that the hall was in a hospital and behind that closed door was a world-renowned surgeon about to remove a growth to save the child’s life?
All of us experience pain in life. Our reflex human reaction is to scream bloody murder. If, however, we had a broader perspective than the limited view of trying to interpret life events through a “keyhole,” we would acknowledge that we do not see the full picture. More often than not, we understand some of our toughest setbacks only in hindsight, by looking back after the benefit of the passing of time and with a greater perspective.
The notion of only fully appreciating life events in retrospect is one of the profound lessons the Almighty relayed to Moses, and, in turn, to all of us in the oft-cited Chapter 33 of Exodus, verse 23: “I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.” We are finite beings locked in time … God is Infinite and outside of time and he alone knows what is good for us in the end.
Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
One Question, Five Voices: How do we make an atonement that lasts?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.