May 10/11. Kedoshim - Lev. 19:1-20:27
קְדֹשִׁ֣ים – Kedoshim
Our Torah portion this week is Kedoshim – Lev. 19:1-20:27. As we roll the Torah scroll to this portion, it appears that we are in the middle of the five books of the Torah. We might not be exactly in the middle of the Torah, but it certainly appears that the opening section (Lev. 19:1-18) of this portion – known as the Holiness Code – is central to Torah… and to how we live our lives. Rabbi chaim Stern, in his book Day By Day: Reflections on the Themes of the Torah…, called this a “blueprint for a holy life in imitation of a holy God.” Our portion opens with the famous words: “Kedoshim t’hiyu kee kadosh Ani Adoani Eloheichem – You shall be holy, for I, your Eternal God, am holy.” (1:2)
And the “You” is plural; it does not apply only to the priests, or to the leaders, or to the upper echelon… but Moses is told to speak to the whole Israelite community. Holiness applies to all of us. How we treat our parents… how we treat the hungry and the needy… how we make judgments… how we speak to others… how we help others see the error of their ways… All of this can be done in a holy way… in a thoughtful way…
There is a Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Bunim of Pshis’cha: “We should learn to be at least as careful in life as we are when we play checkers. Before we take any action, we should think in advance where we will have cause to regret it.” Who knew the game of checkers could be a holy endeavor?
May 3/4. Acharei Mot - Lev. 16:1-18:30
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot – Lev. 16:1-18:30, and begins with the words: “The Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the Presence of the Eternal. The Eternal said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron…” (16:1-2)
The Midrash teaches us that Moses was asked to speak words of consolation to Aaron to help ease his time of bereavement. These words of consolation were based on a verse from Isaiah 40:2 – “Dabru al lev Yerushalayim – Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…” What does it mean to “speak to the heart…?”
After such a tragedy, perhaps speaking to the heart is speaking words of hope – gently sharing that life is not over, there will still be a future.
This teaching comes on the heels of last week’s attack on the Chabad synagogue in Poway, last month’s attack on churches in Sri Lanka, Wednesday’s shooting at the University of North Carolina… and as I write this, today is Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah – day of remembering the Holocaust… and the acts of Heroism. Sadly, the list is too long. There are so many people to comfort… So many hearts that are broken… Yet… after we bury and mourn the dead, life does go on. With heroic strength, life goes on. Step by step; one day at a time… walking into the future.
May the memories of those whose lives were taken too soon be for a blessing. May those who were injured, be blessed with renewal of body and renewal of spirit. And may those mourn be comforted with words that speak to their hearts.
Mar. 1/2 Va'yakhel - Ex. 35:1-38:20
Our Torah portion this week is Va’yakhel – Ex. 35:1-38:20. Our portion opens with Moses assembling all the Children of Israel and saying to them: “Take from among you an offering to the Eternal, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the Eternal’s offering: gold, and silver, and brass, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goat’s hair…” (35:1, 5-6) As we carefully read through the rest of this portion and next week’s, it can be seen that the description of the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) is free of any signs of conflict. In fact, the harmony exists across the boundaries of tribe, status, age, and gender. Virtually everyone is involved in the building, contributing his or her own resources and talents. The spirit of giving is so great, that Moses must send a message out — thank you, but we have exceeded our goal…
The Mishkan is to be the place of God’s Presence AND a place shared by all the people. Built in the spirit of peace, it is peace should always characterize that place.
May we all continue to bring our wise and willing and generous hearts to the ongoing work of our congregation… and may it always be a place of God’s Presence, our presence, and peace.
Feb. 22/23 Ki Tisa - Ex. 30:11-34:35
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa – Ex. 30:11-34:35. The beginning of our portion continues the Divine instructions to Moses with regard to: taking a census by collecting a half-shekel from each (male) Israelite, 20 year and older for the purpose of expiation, constructing the copper washing station, making the the recipe for sacred anointing oil and incense, appointing Bezalel and Oholiab as the chief artisans to direct the building of the Mishkan, and concludes with instructions for Shabbat. (And that’s just the first section… we won’t even mention the Golden Calf and its aftermath…)
The verses from Ex. 31:16-17 have become a very important part of our Erev Shabbat service.
| וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם.|| |
בֵּינִי, וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אוֹת הִוא, לְעֹלָם:
כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ.
V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat, la’asot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.
Beini u’vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi l’olam,
ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai et hashamayim v’et haaretz,
u’vayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash.
The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
It is a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.
For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth,
and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.
Note where this comes in the Torah portion; God has just completed giving the instructions for the building of the Mishkan to Moses… “But, don’t forget,” God seems to say, “that when you are involved with the work of the building and the making and the doing and the sewing and the forming… It is not to be a 24/7 enterprise.” We are to remember that Shabbat is a “brit olam – an everlasting covenant – a pact for all time between God and the Jewish people. Work the six days of the week — as God was engaged in the work of Creation… But take that seventh day to stop… As God stopped… And refresh. The Hebrew is “va’yinafash” which is built on the word “nefesh” – soul. Stop. Take a break. Look at what you have accomplished in the past week. Acknowledge its goodness. And refresh – renew your soul… re-soul, so to speak. Hit the pause button… and be refreshed.
T'tzevah - Ex. 27:20-30:10
As we celebrate President’s Day this weekend, I wanted to share this letter, written by George Washington in 1790. It is a response to Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Mr. Seixas praised President Washington and thanked him for visiting the Jewish community. Washington’s response addresses the place and necessity for tolerance and freedom of religion in the newly established nation:
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
In our Torah portion this week, T’tzevah – Ex. 27:20-30:10, Moses is to “command the people of Israel to bring pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to keep a lamp burning continually.” (27:20) As we celebrate the presidential history of our country, we pray that the lamp of liberty and democracy continue to be kept burning – giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.
Jan. 18/19 - BeShallach - Ex. 13:7-17:16
This week’s Torah portion is BeShallach – Ex. 13:7-17:16. As the Israelites are making their way out of Egypt, “…Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had extracted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you; then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’ ” (Ex. 13:19) The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (a collection of rabbinic midrash on the book of Exodus) teaches that this action by Moses points to his wisdom and piety; for, while the rest of the Israelites were collecting gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, Moses busied himself with the duty of looking for the bones of Joseph.
In last week’s portion, we learned that the Israelites had been in Egypt for 430 years. Over 400 years since Joseph had made his brothers promise that his bones would be carried up out of Egypt. Over 400 years since he died and was embalmed in an Egyptian coffin. How could Moses find Joseph’s coffin? It is told that Serach, the daughter of Joseph’s brother Asher, survived from that generation and showed Moses the location of Joseph’s coffin.
It is also told that the coffin of Joseph went alongside the ark of the Eternal as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness and into the land of Canaan, up to the time when Joseph’s coffin was buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32) The nations would ask the Israelites: “What are these two chests?” And the Israelites would say to them: “The one is the ark of the Eternal, and the other is a coffin with a body in it.” The nations then would say: “What is the importance of this coffin that it should go alongside the ark of the Eternal?” And the Israelites would then respond: “The one lying in this coffin has fulfilled that which is written on what lies in that ark.” A testament to the honor of Joseph. It was the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were carried in the ark of the Eternal. Ten good rules that guide a good life. [In good midrashic style, the Mekhilta goes on to list each commandment, and show how Joseph embodied each one. See Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael 13:9. ]
As we read this, we might think about how our own lives reflect the teachings and traditions of our people. How do we put into action the ten good rules that guide a good life?
Jan. 11/12 Bo - Ex. 10:1-13:16
This week’s Torah portion is Bo – Ex. 10:1-13:16, and begins with the last four plagues and the final blow — the death of the firstborn. The ninth plague is the plague of darkness – choshekh. The Egyptians were in total darkness for three days — so thick, it could be felt; but there was light in the dwellings of the Israelites. (Ex. 10:21-23) What was the nature of this darkness? How was this darkness different from all other darkness?
Our tradition teaches that God’s first act of Creation was bringing forth light, but the sun, moon, and the heavenly luminaries were not made until the fourth day. What kind of light was that light of the first day… and how was it different from the light of the sun, moon, and stars? Our tradition teaches that the light of the fourth day was ordinary light by which we are able to see. The light of the first day was the light of ultimate awareness. It was a light so powerful, that one could see from one end of space to the other… from one end of time to the other. Tradition also taught that God set this light apart (hid it) for the righteous in the world to come.
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk teaches that during the plague of darkness, that light must have been that primordial, hidden light.
And why at this time, was this hidden light made known to the Israelites? Redemption was soon to come; they were now able to see things that had been there all along… they would now be ready to leave the slavery of Egypt.
Perhaps this also teaches us that in the darkness of slavery and oppression (however they are manifest in our individual lives… or in the lives of a people), there comes a time when light does dawn – bringing to light an awareness that the time has come to take action. One has to be ready. One has to see that there truly is no other way out. Only forward…
Jan. 4/5Va-'era' - Ex. 6:2-9:35
Our Torah portion this week is Va-‘era’ – Ex. 6:2-9:35.
“And the Eternal said to Moses: You shall speak all that I command you; and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land. And I will hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 7:1; 2-3)
Each year we struggle with this idea of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Really? Why would God make it impossible for Pharaoh to freely make a decision? If the door of repentance is always open, how could such a Jewish value be suspended in the case of Pharaoh?
If we look closely at the text, Pharaoh hardens his own heart in the course of the first five plagues. Only afterwards does the language change, and it is God who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. According to Rabbi Ovadia Seforno [Italian rabbi, Biblical commentator, philosopher and physician. He was born at Cesena about 1475 and died at Bologna in 1550], Pharaoh was given many opportunities to seek forgiveness. When repentance was no longer seen as a possibility, God took control and the next five plagues showed God’s might. Pharaoh only had to show remorse and ask for forgiveness, and all would have stopped.
Other commentators teach that once a pattern of behavior is so firmly set, one’s ability to make decisions is no longer in their hands – they are on “automatic,” so to speak. Pharaoh set his course; he was no longer capable of changing it.
A third way of understanding God’s actions in response to Pharaoh’s behavior is possible. Pharaoh had enslaved the Children of Israel. They were not free. It was Pharaoh who had the power to make that happen. And it was also Pharaoh who had the power to make decisions for the well-being of his own people. As Pharaoh hardened his own heart, he lost more and more of his own freedom to change; Pharaoh became a slave to his own stubbornness. What would it take to break through the hardness of his own heart? That is another story…
Dec. 28/29. Shemot - Ex. 1:1-6:1
This week we begin the book of Exodus – Shemot – Ex. 1:1-6:1, and so beings the story of our slavery in Egypt. As the book opens, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (1:8) This pharaoh is concerned that the Children of Israel have become very numerous, afraid that “…in the event of war, they may join our enemies and gain ascendancy over us.” (1:10) Taskmasters are put over them and they are turned into forced labor, building garrison cities for Pharaoh. But the more they are oppressed, they more they continue to multiply – and this is a terrible threat to the Egyptians. Oy! The edict is given to the Hebrew midwives (or the midwives to the Hebrews – the translation can go either way) as they attend to the Hebrew women as they give birth, to kill the boy babies and let the girls live. The midwives’ act of rebellion and refusal turns the edict to the midwives into Pharaoh charging all his people with “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” (1:22)
Enter the birth of Moses, and his “redemption from the Nile” by Pharaoh’s daughter… and his ultimate fleeing from Pharaoh to the land of Midian, where he meets the seven daughters of the priest of Midian, marries Zipporah and fathers his first son, whom he names “Gershom – I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” (2:22) And Moses become a shepherd for his father-in-law. (This was a very quick retelling to get us to the next section…)
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried; their shriek for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew.” (2:23-25)
This is a turning point in the story of the Exodus. The people have been suffering grinding senseless labor, they have lost their babies to the river. There seemed to be silent acceptance until this point. What changed?
Pharaoh died. Why is this the impetus for their cries? We really do not know, but what we see in the text is that THIS cry becomes a protest to God — “What will be the end of this?!?!?!” The Sefat Emet suggests: “Before this, they were so deep in exile that they did not feel they were in exile.” They needed to realize that this was not the way things should be… and once that realization occurs, redemption can begin.
God heard. God remembered. God looked. And God knew. What did God know? God knew their pain. As they became aware of their suffering and cried out, God became aware of their suffering… and will reach out through Moses to redeem the Children of Israel.
We are called upon each year during the Passover seder to recall our time in Egypt as if we, too, had been there. By doing that, it reminds us what oppression and exile feel like. By doing that, it reminds us of our role to hear others’ cries and respond.