I Need Your Help: Invite Someone Extra to Your Seder – Shabbat HaChodesh 5779

You probably noticed that we took out three Torah scrolls this Shabbat.  That is the highest possible number for any service of the year.  

The first is for our regularly scheduled parashah, Tazria.  The second is for Rosh Chodesh.  Today is the 1st day of the month of Nisan.  The Third Torah is to mark Shabbat HaChodesh, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nisan, or, as in our case this year, when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Shabbat itself.

The Shabbat HaChodesh reading is taken from the Book of Exodus, chapter 12.

God tells Moses and Aaron: HaChodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim.  This month for you shall be the head of the months…

We read about the special instructions that the Israelites must follow, beginning today, the first of Nisan.  Not only do they need to get ready for leaving Egypt, at last, they also have to start preparing for Pesach.

Nowadays, we know that Pesach is coming when we see the five pound boxes of Matzah added next to the Hamantaschen display at Costco.  The Israelites did not have Costco yet, so they needed a reminder from God.

Here is a summary of how the Israelites are to get ready for the very first Pesach:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that nothing happens to it.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This serves to ward off the Angel of Death while he is rampaging through Egypt, massacring all the firstborn.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, sandals on feet.

God’s instructions then turn from the present to the future.  The people of Israel will continue to celebrate this seven day festival of unleavened bread every year in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

The instructions stuck.  Not only do we still observe The Festival of Matzah, we also recreate the build-up to the moment of freedom.  That is why we read this special passage about how to prepare.  It is as if we are receiving these instructions as well.

Some of the particulars, however, are no longer practical.  Is anyone here planning to bring a lamb into their living room in about ten days?  How about painting blood on the doorposts and lintels?  It might need a new paint job, anyways?

But the essential messages in the Torah reading are still central to our holiday.  Just as our ancestors did, we clean the chametz out of our homes and eat matzah for seven days.  We celebrate the first night with a special feast.  The Torah says to eat it: “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it hurriedly…”

Our Seders today are anything but hurried.  But, in our house we encourage our guests to come dressed up in whatever they would wear if they were exiting Egypt the next day.

There is one other detail in the Torah reading that we make a big deal about, but I wonder how well we are actually fulfilling it.  The very first instruction to the Israelites is to bring a lamb into the house.  But that might not be practical for everyone, so the Torah states:

“But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby…”  (Exodus 12:4)

In other words, people are supposed to get together for these meals.  From the very beginning, the ideal seder has had a large guest list. 

As the tradition of the seder transitioned from the Biblical model—centered around the sacrifice at the Temple—to the rabbinic model—modeled after the Greek symposium—many of the components were maintained.

This includes the idea of including others at the meal.  As we begin the Maggid section of the Seder, we throw open the door and announce:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל.

כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat,

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in the Pesach.

This is one of the only parts of the Haggadah which is in Aramaic, which was the common tongue in ancient times.  That means that it was especially important that participants at the Seder understood these words.

It might be influenced from a passage in the Talmud, describing one of the practices of Rav Huna, an exceedingly wealthy 3rd century Babylonian Sage.

“Whenever Rav Huna would eat bread, he would open the doors to his house and say…”

And now I am going to recite the Aramaic: 

כל מאן דצריך ליתי וליכול

“Whoever needs, let him come in and eat.”

It is almost identical language to that which we find in the Haggadah.  For Rav Huna, it was every meal.  For us, it is just on Pesach.  

A Pesach seder has lots of guests.  It is not uncommon for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty people or more to cram around a table that starts in the dining room, extends into the living room and ends in the hall closet.

At Sinai’s Second Nigh Community Seder, we typically welcome over one hundred people around the tables in the social hall.

But how seriously do we take the words of the haggadah?  When we open up the door, and announce, “let anyone who is hungry come and eat,” do we really expect someone to be waiting on the doorstep?

I need your help.

One reality of the Bay Area is that most people who live here are not from here.  Most of us tend to not have extended family living nearby.  For those who do, the Pesach seder is often an annual family reunion.

Other households have traditions of getting together every year.  The invitation does not even need to be extended, because the tradition of celebrating together has become a fixed custom.  My family in Seattle has an automatic invitation for the second night Seder every year.

But there are many people in our community, I assure you, for whom there is not a seder to which they can count on an automatic invitation.

At my house, we are happy to be welcoming 25 people to our seder this year.  But I have been informed that we have reached the limit of what we can handle, if not space-wise, than certainly sanity-wise.

As the Rabbi of the community, I am concerned about our members.  I worry about people whom I suspect may not have a seder to attend.

So I am asking for your help.  If you are hosting a Seder this year, please add a few more chairs.  Think about someone who might not have a place to go, and invite them.  

If you already have six people coming to your seder, make it seven.  Ten?  Make it 12.  Twenty?   Really, there is very little difference between twenty and twenty five.  It’s chaos either way.  I promise that you will still have leftovers.

Think especially about singles, people without children, and people who are relatively new to the area, or to the congregation.  Also, think about someone who has recently converted, or who is exploring Judaism. 

One of the great things about Sinai is that we welcome so many people from such different backgrounds.  Invite someone whom you don’t know that well.  Invite a person that you have seen coming to shul lately, but whom you have not met yet.  Our family seder’s are enriched every year by having guests from such different backgrounds.

Ha lachma anya is the opening statement of our telling of the story of freedom.  These words ought to mean something to us.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat.

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom.  Chag Kasher v’Sameach.

Shabbat Zakhor 5779 – Esther the Feminist Hero

This morning is known as Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat immediately preceding the holiday of Purim.

Purim is my favorite.  At my shul in San Jose, we bring the bar up front of the sanctuary, right next to the bimah.  It’s so loud we pass out earplugs.  Our costumes give us the opportunity to don our alter-egos, and the partying is unmatched by any other holiday in the Jewish calendar.  Raucous merriment is the norm, and typical social rules are (mostly) set aside for one day.  It is even considered acceptable, I regret to say, to make fun of the Rabbi – but I do not recommend it.  Purim is the Jewish carneval, our opportunity to put a farcical spotlight on the hypocrisies and challenges embedded in society.

Megillat Esther, which we will read this Wednesday night and Thursday, embodies this spirit of farce, addressing some of the same societal challenges that we face today.  But there is so much about this story that we miss by not understanding it in its social context, and by not reading it closely enough.

Esther is unusual as one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible named after a woman (Ruth is the other).

But before Esther enters the scene in chapter two, we meet Queen Vashti.  She hosts a separate women’s banquet during her husband’s six-months-long party.  In his drunken state, the king thinks it would be a good idea to summon Vashti to appear before him and all of his guests wearing her crown.  Vashti refuses.

Furious, the King turns to his closest advisors for counsel on the proper legal response.  The men of the court are terrified that all of the women in the empire will follow the Queen’s brazen example and despise and defy their husbands.  Following the advice of one of his advisors, Achashverosh banishes Vashti. 

In recent years, feminist readers have found a hero in Queen Vashti.  She is a strong, proud woman who stands up to the male establishment with her emphatic refusal to submit to the King’s demeaning command.  

When the boorish King banishes her, Vashti marches out of the palace proudly, head high, leaving behind her legacy as a proto-feminist martyr.

In contrast, Esther seems passive–she is simply an object, used by Mordechai and Achashverosh for her looks.  Many contemporary readers accuse Mordechai of pimping out his niece.  Read the Megillah closely.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

If there is a feminist hero in this story, it is most certainly Esther, not Vashti. 

Adele Berlin, author of the JPS commentary on Esther, explains that to really understand these figures, we need to know something about ancient Persian society.

It is completely inappropriate for husbands to participate in drinking banquets in the presence of their wives.  That is why Vashti hosts a separate women’s banquet.  

When Achashverosh summons her to his party to show off her beauty, he is the one breaking the rules.  In so doing, he places the queen in an impossible situation – she can lower herself to the level of a concubine or slave, or, she can disobey the King.  Either way she loses.

She chooses to disobey and suffer the consequences.  She defends social norms by insisting that the queen should not be put on display.  In refusing, she maintains her dignity as her husband loses his.  Adele Berlin describes Vashti as playing the role of “the strong-willed royal woman.”

But really, Vashti represents those whom society places in impossible situations:  “Do what is asked of you and stay repressed.  Suffer the consequences if you step out of your role.”  Perhaps that is why we don’t hear Vashti’s voice.  

Think of the billions of people in the world who struggle in societies in which women are repressed, children don’t receive decent education, or poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care limit opportunities to get ahead.  People without basic rights have a tough time challenging the status quo.

Esther is the real feminist hero of the Megillah.  She breaks all the rules, and gets away with it.

When the King sends his soldiers out across the Kingdom to gather all of the young women, Esther, an orphan refugee, is rounded up as well.  

Esther is special in many ways.  While she is described as shapely and beautiful, she has another quality that is frequently repeated in the text.  Chen – best translated as “grace.”  Chen is an inner quality by which Esther charms everyone she meets.  Chen seems to be a combination of emotional intelligence, wisdom, and confidence.

After Esther is taken, Mordechai, who has raised her like a daughter, follows his niece to the palace, hoping to overhear snippets of news.

In the harem, where the young virgins go through an entire year of preparation before appearing before the King, Esther quickly rises to the top.

The time arrives for her to go to Achashverosh.  Although she is entitled to bring anything she wants with her, Esther requests nothing.  All she needs is herself and her chen.  The King is immediately charmed, and crowns her as Queen.

In chapter three, we meet Haman, who bribes King Achashverosh to allow him to kill all of the Jews of Persia in revenge for Mordechai refusing to bow down to him.  At the end of the scene, Haman and the King sit down to drink while the city is dumbfounded by the quickly spreading news.

Thus begins chapter 4, in which Esther takes charge.  Upon hearing the terrible news, Mordechai tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and covers his head with ashes – all signs of mourning.

Esther hears about her uncle and sends a eunuch named Hatach to talk to Mordechai, check things out, and bring back a report.  Mordechai tells him the whole story, and even shows him Haman’s decree with the King’s seal.  He sends Hatach to Esther with the message that she must go before the King to appeal for mercy on behalf of her people.  In fact, Mordechai commands her to do so.

Esther does not comply.  “Everyone knows,” she says “that if any person, man or woman, enters the King’s presence in the inner court without having been summoned, there is but one law for him—that he be put to death.  Only if the King extends the golden scepter to him may he live. Now I have not been summoned to visit the King for the last thirty days.”

In this episode, we tend to see Mordechai as a paternalistic father-figure trying to convince his young, naive niece to intercede on behalf of the Jewish people.  This is not what is going on.

Esther’s response is not an outright refusal.  In fact, her statement shows deeper thoughtfulness and strategy than her uncle’s.  She understands the intricacies and risks of court life.  Consider her words the opening salvos in a political negotiation.

Mordechai responds, again through Hatach, playing shuttle diplomat.  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.  And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

How should we understand this densely packed statement?  Is it a threat?  Is Mordechai trying to appeal to Esther’s ego, dangling the prospect of becoming the hero of the story.  In any event, it seems, on the face of things, that Mordechai has taken Esther’s response as a refusal to act, and now he is trying to change her mind.

Esther responds with a plan.  She sends word to Mordechai to assemble all the Jews of Shushan and fast for three days.  Meanwhile, she will do the same with her court in the palace.  Then she throws in a bit of melodrama, “and if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

Esther throws Mordechai’s threats back at him.  She will indeed try to intercede, on her own terms.  She makes sure that Mordechai understands the risks she is taking.

We are now back where we started from.  The chapter opened with Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan in mourning.  Now, Esther has declared her solidarity with the Jews of Shushan by calling for a three day public fast, also an act of mourning.  In the postscript to the chapter, Mordechai returns to the city, and does what Esther has commanded him.

Notice that the exchanges began with Mordechai commanding a resistant Esther.  Now it is Esther who is doing the commanding.  And Mordechai obeys.  Their roles have reversed.  In its subtle way, the Megillah has shown us Esther’s transformation.

Remember Vashti’s big moment of defiance?  She refuses to appear before the King when she is summoned, and suffers the consequences.

Esther now does the exact opposite.  She shows up uninvited—a big no-no—but her boldness is rewarded.  “Even to half the Kingdom, it shall be yours,” offers Achashverosh. 

What is her request?  It’s modest: one small soirée, which is so successful that she follows it with a second.  When the King is good and tipsy, Esther goes for the big reveal.  Listen to how she builds up the tension:

If I have found grace in your eyes—chen—Your Majesty, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request.  For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.  Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.”

She pauses.  “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” screams the King.

“The adversary and enemy,” replies Esther, drawing it out for maximum impact, “is this evil Haman!”

Her timing is impeccable.  Haman’s fate is sealed.  But Esther is just getting started.

She acquires all of Haman’s property.  She introduces her uncle Mordechai to King Achashverosh.  She puts Mordechai in charge of her new acquisitions, and the King assigns Mordechai to the newly vacated position of Viceroy.

She appeals to the King for permission for the Jews of Persia to defend themselves from their attackers, which he eagerly grants.

When the reports come back, the King himself brings the news to Esther.  The Jews of Shushan have killed 500 of their enemies, including the ten sons of Haman.  The King offers her another request.  She asks not only for permission to defend themselves again the next day, but also to impale the corpses of Haman’s sons and put them on display.

The King grants her request, and the Jews of Shushan kill another 300 people.  Across Persia, Esther’s people kill 75,000 of their enemies.

At this point, we might refer to her as Esther the Bloodthirsty.

By the end of the story, Esther is effectively ruling the Persian Empire.  She has taken down the second most powerful person in the court, and positioned her uncle to be his replacement.  She has put down a rebellion, saved her people, and become fabulously wealthy.

To accomplish all of this, Esther has broken every rule of Persian society, and everyone around her either does not notice, or does not care.  If we are looking for a feminist hero, someone to serve as a model for breaking the rules of a patriarchal society, there is nobody better than Esther.

As we celebrate Purim in a few days, let’s consider the strength of character of Queens Vashti and Queen Esther.  How did they handle a society that restricted their options?  What might they teach us about addressing the inequalities that persist in our world?  And if you are thinking about dressing up like Esther for Purim this year, let me suggest that a Disney Princess dress might not quite capture her essence.

The Thirteen Attributes of Parenting (On the occasion of my son’s Bar Mitzvah) – Ki Tissa 5779

It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other.  I have learned about myself.  I hope you feel the same.

This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent.  Specifically, how to be a better one.

The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children.  The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language.  And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.  

The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship:  that between God and human beings.  God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already.  From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations.  That is what you spoke about, Solly.

God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God.  Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.  

As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron.  Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf.  God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses.  Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites.  On a role, Moses goes for it.  “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God.  “Please show me your glory.”

What is he asking for?  Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents.  He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.

“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God.  “But I’ll tell you what.  Stand in the cleft of the rock.  I’ll cover you with My hand.  Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You.  After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”

Face, hands, back.  God sounds a lot like a person.  

Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way.  “Were it not written, it could not have been said.”  But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further.  The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader.  God then recites the Thirteen Attributes.  They might sound familiar:

Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.

Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion

Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness

Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations

Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin

v’nakeh – and pardoning

Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene:  “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer.  I will forgive them immediately.”

These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness.  Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words.  They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness.  It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.

The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context.  Here is its continuation.  You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.”  But the following words are:

lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”

poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This changes things.  While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations.  This is a covenantal text.  It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel.  Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared.  God sticks to the covenant.  There is both compassion and justice.  Carrot and stick.

But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick.  They cherry pick only those attributes that they want.  What gives them the right?

Well, they are not the first.  The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently.  The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…”  (Joel 2:13)  No punishment mentioned.

The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’  (Jonah 4:2)”  Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel.  Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully.  He wants the Ninevites to be punished.

Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly.  It is not sloppy editing.  These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God.  They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections.  They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.

When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company.  Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.

The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy.  Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark.  Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys:  we want our God to give us a second chance.  Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.

Human beings have a need to be seen.  When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me.  Look at me.”  Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists.  We all want to be seen.  Most of all, I think, by our parents.  As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles.  That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment.  What if they see my imperfections and reject me?

When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.

I think children want the same thing from their parents.  A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense.  They want to create distance—to differentiate from us.  But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong.  These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.

I am going to read the 13 Attributes again.  Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities.  Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.

The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.

Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.

One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.

You are a person with strong opinions and convictions.  I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.

That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier.  The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point.  And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.

That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate.  It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.

As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.

Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life.  The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false.  It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it.  By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.

As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.

Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community.  Keep at it.

Mazel Tov.

What Does God Look Like? – Yitro 5779

What does God look like?

Can we ask such a blasphemous question?  God, after all, is not tied down by a body.  God is transcendent.  In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”

So what does God look like?  Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds.  That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.

When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie.  So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news.  In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.

In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant.  This event occurs just before the commandments are given.

It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God.  It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.

The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms:  “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled…  Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  (Ex. 19:16-20)

This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.

What does this sound like to you?  To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption.  But is that it?  Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?

I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection.  A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.

The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai  There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.  

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11-12)

Wind, earthquake, fire.  This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah.  But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena.  God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah.  It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.

After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened.  So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses.  Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking.  It is sensory overload.

Either that or a really loud rock concert.  But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert?  Only the Prophet.

That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.

That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.

A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely.  It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly.  God is a person.  And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion.  God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf.  At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe.  In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah.  (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)

The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment.  Let’s extend the metaphor into the present.  When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope.  Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace.  For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.

I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable.  He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever.  Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite.  But what can we do?  It is the only way we have to communicate.

Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor.  We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter.  Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.

Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.

We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.  

But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience.  Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is.  I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.

What does God look like?  I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable.  But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor.  The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.

The Israelites’ First Shabbat – Beshalach 5779

How wonderful is it that we can be together on a special day like today!  In a little while, God willing, we will complete services and move on into the social hall for a delicious Kiddush lunch.  It will be all the more amazing because it will simply be there waiting for us.  None of us will have to do any cooking.  It will be a miracle!

Not exactly, I assure you that there was a tremendous amount of hard work yesterday preparing our delicious feast.  And we are extremely grateful to the caterers, and to today’s kiddush sponsors for providing such a wonderful meal.

But there is something special about being able to sit down once a weak, for an extended meal in synagogue, or at home, that has already been prepared.  That this opportunity comes every week is even more wonderful.  That is the gift of Shabbat.

But do we see it that way?

It is the fifteenth day of the second month after the Israelites left Egypt – exactly one month later.  They arrive at the wilderness of Sin on their way eventually to Mount Sinai.

They do what they do best – complain to Moses and Aaron.  “If only God had let us die in Egypt, where at least the food was plentiful,” they grumble, “instead of being dragged out into the wilderness to starve to death!”  The Israelites can be a bit melodramatic.

But God gives them what they want, directing Moses and Aaron to gather everyone together.  God tells Moses, to tell Aaron, to tell the people what they can expect.

“By this evening you will be eating meat, and tomorrow you will have your bread.”

That night, a vast flock of quail appears, and the people feast.

The next morning, they awake to find a strange new substance covering the ground.  Man hu — what is it?” they ask.  

“It is the bread that God has give you to eat,” Moses replies. 

Then Moses instructs them what to do with it.  “Everybody should gather as much as is needed for each individual in the household —one omer per person.”  An omer is a unit of measure.

People being people, some gather more and some gather less.  Miraculously, when they return to their tents, they find that everyone has exactly what he or she needs.  No more, no less.

“Eat your fill.  Don’t leave any leftovers,” Moses tells them.  But they don’t listen.  Some are worried about the next day, so they set aside leftovers.  By the morning, it becomes maggot infested and smelly.  Moses is angry that they continue to not listen to him.

But they quickly fall into a routine, getting up each morning to collect that day’s food.  Everybody has as much as they need, and nobody goes hungry.

Five days pass.  On the sixth day, something strange happens.  When they get back to their tents, they find that they have collected double the amount as the previous five days.  The chieftains, perplexed, turn to Moses for an explanation.  “What is the meaning of this sudden abundance?”

Then, for the first time ever, they hear about Shabbat.  “Tomorrow is a day of rest,” Moses explains, “a holy sabbath of the Lord.  Prepare all of your food now.  Whatever is left over, you can eat tomorrow.”

That is what the people do.  Unlike the previous days, the leftovers do not rot.  

“Eat up,” Moses urges them.  “You won’t find any out on the ground today.  It’s Shabbos.”

But there are some skeptics among the Israelites who go out anyways, despite Moses’ instructions.

God gets angry.  “How long will you keep defying my instructions!”

Moses explains to the people: Adonai natan lakhem et haShabbat — “The Lord has give you the Shabbat; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day.  Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.”

The people obey, and they call this miraculous bread man —manna.  It will sustain them for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Note that we have two important phenomena introduced together.  Manna and Shabbat.  Prior to this passage, the Israelites are completely unaware of both of them.  This is not a coincidence.

The Israelites will receive more details about Shabbat in subsequent parashiyot.  And the Rabbis will really go to town elucidating the fine points in Shabbat observance.  But by the end of this story in parashat Beshalach, what have the Israelites learned the day of rest?

1 Shabbat is connected with food.  

2 Shabbat is a time for staying near to the home, and not for going out to ‘bring home the man,’ so to speak.

3 To observe Shabbat properly, one must prepare for it ahead of time.

4 Finally, Shabbat is a gift from God.  Observing Shabbat is an act of faith.

That sounds like a pretty great introduction to me.

Many of us see modern life as too fast paced, too demanding, to take off a day to do something completely different.  We tell ourselves, “things were simpler in the past.  Our ancestors did not have as many distractions, or as many pressures as we have.  Observing Shabbat was easier back then.”  

The Torah’s description of the Israelites’ first Shabbat would suggest otherwise.

Surely some of those Israelites were doubtful when Moses said, “Hey!  Don’t collect any food tomorrow.  God will provide.”  They did not trust that their would be enough.  They worried they would not be able to get everything done in time.  It was too difficult, too unrealistic, to take a whole day off.  They did not see Shabbat as something special.  They wanted to continue on exactly the same as the rest of the week.  They did not understand it as a gift from God.

Perhaps that is why God wraps it up in miracles.  Unfortunately for us, we can’t walk outside to find our food lying fresh on the ground each morning.  But we are blessed to live in a world in which, if we plan for it, it is possible to have the same Shabbat experience as our ancestors in the wilderness.  The question is, can I see Shabbat as a gift?

By the way, the excuses we make for why observing Shabbat is so difficult are exactly the reasons why we need to make Shabbat a regular part of our week.

So in a few minutes, when we sit down together in the social hall for our delicious man, let’s see it as a miracle that we are so blessed to be able to celebrate God’s gift of Shabbat to us.  What can I do to appreciate that gift again next week?

Five Sets of Clothes and 300 Shekels of Silver – Vayigash 5779

This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food.  This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.

Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids.  He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.

As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling.  News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death.  And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s.  Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.

Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion.  Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.

Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.

(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃

To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.  (Gen. 45:22)

What is Joseph thinking?  What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment?  Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?

When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others.  He loved him more.  He did not make him work out in the fields.  Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.

Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations.  Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing.  That detail had to have registered with their siblings.  What is going on?  Is Joseph naive, or cruel?

Neither.  It is another test.  Joseph is not done with his brothers.  So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat.  They have passed this test.

Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment.  It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way.  He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.

But Joseph does not want them to fail.  Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.”  (Gen. 45:24)

But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts?  Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?

The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing.  “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?”  The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing.  Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing.  Do you know who it is?

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.  (Esther 8:15)

By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin.  Your offspring are destined for greatness.

What about the 300 shekels of silver?  A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer.  Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers.  In this case, it is a message about their guilt.  Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.

Here is the first detail.  The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.

Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty.  That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.

The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.  

אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃

But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.  (Exodus 21:32)

This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.

Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers.  Who did they sell him to?  A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews.  If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty?  It is basic math.  30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.

Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty.  When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels.  This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him.  Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.

This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path.  It was no stumbling block at all.

It’s Easy to Promise Something You Don’t Have, But Hard to Deliver It When You Do – Vayetze 5779

If there is one thing that I have learned about parenting, it is this: never promise your kids anything.  They will hold you to it.  So whenever I am asked, “Do you promise?” the answer is always, “No.”

At the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob is fleeing from the land of his birth, Canaan, on his way to Haran.  He is trying to escape from his brother Esau, who in his anger at Jacob for stealing the blessing that should have been his, has vowed to kill him.

When he reaches the border, Jacob stops at an unnamed place to lay down for the night.  Taking a rock for a pillow, he goes to sleep by the side of the road.  He dreams of a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven.  Angels are ascending and descending, and God stands next to him.  In the dream, God blesses Jacob, promising offspring as numerous as the dust on the earth.  They will inherit the land and be a blessing to the world.  Furthermore, God will remain with Jacob, protecting him while he is abroad, and never leaving until this promise has been fulfilled.

That’s a great dream!  Not bad for a night’s sleep.

Jacob wakes up, knowing that something amazing has transpired.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

He takes his stone pillow, sets it up as a pillar, anoints it with oil, and names the site Beit El—the House of God.  Then Jacob makes a vow:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.  And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.  (Genesis 28:20-22)

Jacob has just promised three things: 1.  The Lord shall be My God.  2.  This pillar shall be God’s abode—Beit Elohim.  3.  I will set aside a tithe—that is to, ten percent of everything he owns.

How are we to understand this vow?  It seems kind of redundant.  God has just promised to protect Jacob and return him safely to the land of Canaan.  Why does Jacob need to repeat it?

The cynic would take offense at Jacob’s audacity.  It sounds like he is bargaining with God, or even extorting God to protect him.  “You want to be my God?  You want me to worship You? Then You had better deliver!”

But remember, at this point in his life, Jacob has absolutely nothing.  He is so poor that he has to use a rock for a pillow.  He has, quite literally, nothing to give.  

So he offers God a share in future earnings.  All that he can do is make a vow:  “I don’t have anything I can give You now, but when You do what You say You are going to do, and I have become rich beyond my wildest dream, then I will promise to give You one tenth of everything I own.”

That is quite a promise.  Will Jacob deliver?

By the end of this morning’s Torah portion, twenty years have passed.  Jacob has established a large family and amassed a tremendous fortune.  The time has come for him to leave Haran and return to the land of Canaan.  The parashah ends with Jacob setting off on the return journey with his entire household.

Next week’s portion begins the long anticipated and feared reunion with Esau.  The reunion goes better than expected and Jacob moves on to Shechem with his family.  After the rape of his daughter Dina and the subsequent massacre of the men of the town, Jacob picks up and moves again.  Finally, he arrives at Beit El, the same place at which he had his dream of angels rising and descending a ladder.  This is the same place where, without a penny to his name, Jacob vowed to present a tithe to the Lord in exchange for God’s protection and blessing.

God appears to Jacob once again, blesses him, changes his name from Jacob to Israel, and promises that his descendants will inherit the land.  

God has certainly delivered God’s part.  Now it is Jacob’s turn.

Remember, Jacob promised three things:  Commitment to God, a pillar, and a tithe.  Jacob sets up a pillar on the spot to mark the occasion, pours a libation over it, and anoints it with oil.  Is this the same pillar or a different one?  Not clear, but Jacob clearly has indicated his commitment to God.  Promise one—check.  Promise two—check.  Promise three—…silence.

Did Jacob renege on his promise?  Has he broken his vow?

The Torah does not say, but let’s see if we can unpack it.  When Jacob returns to the land of Canaan twenty years later, he brings with him a large family and a significant fortune.  Ten percent would amount to quite a sum – made up largely of livestock.

Who is to be the recipient of Jacob’s tithe?  Tithe giving was a well-known, widespread practice in the Ancient Near East.  A worshipper would typically bring the tithe to the priests officiating at a temple or to the King in his royal court.  The problem for Jacob is that all of the temples in his day are idolatrous, and there is certainly no royal personage deserving of his loyalty.  There is no obvious person to whom he can give ten percent of his wealth.

Perhaps he could offer it up directly to God as a burnt offering?  That is what the commentator Rashbam suggests, but he does not seem to be bothered by the extraordinary number of animals that would have been slaughtered and burned to ash.  

Rabbi David Kimchi, known by the acronym Radak, is a medieval Bible commentator from Provence, France.  Radak interprets Jacob’s promise to set aside a tithe as a promise to give tzedakah to people in need who fear and worship God.  Feeding the hungry, he says, is a gift to God.

Radak cites another possibility from a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 70:7).  Jacob tithes his children.  He sets aside one tenth of his sons.  Who is the lucky lad?  Levi, whose descendants will spend more time than their brother tribes in service to God.  The Priests and Levites, who officiate in the Temple, both come from the tribe of Levi.  Radak suggests that Jacob dedicated extra time imparting to Levi the esoteric wisdom and teachings of the Torah.

Radak’s two answers offer important insight that suggests two ways that we can express gratitude for the blessings that we receive.  In the first answer, the tithe is a gift of wealth.  In the second answer, the tithe is a gift of service.  Both are accepted by God.  

It is easy to promise to do something tomorrow that I do not have the capacity to do today.  When tomorrow arrives, what is the likelihood that I will actually follow through?

Our elected officials do this all the time.  

It is for this reason that the Rabbis do not approve of vows.  They know that we have a hard time standing by our word, so they discourage us from making the commitment unless we are fully prepared to follow through.

To this day, many Jews use the expression b’li neder—meaning “without a vow.”  It is a way of saying, I intend to do something, but I am not promising, because something might get in the way that is out of my control.

As a totally hypothetical example, a person might tell a spouse, “B’li neder, I’ll clean out the garage over the Thanksgiving weekend, when I have all of that free time.”  Meaning, “I know you want me to clean out the garage, and it would make me really happy if I were to do that for you when I have all of that free time next week, but there is a really good chance that something else is going to come up that I want to do more.”

Jacob wants to do the right thing.  His vow is sincere.  But without a penny to his name, he’ll promise anything.  He is desperate.  The real test is going to come later, when he is wealthy.  Will he remember his earlier promise?  When he has made his fortune, will he be willing to part from it?

I’ll speak for myself.  I have never been in Jacob’s shoes.  I have never found myself in a situation in which I had nothing, and did not have anyone to whom I could turn.  So I am in no position to judge Jacob for his vow.  

I grew up in an upper-middle class family that could provide for my needs, including paying the majority of my college expenses.  I hope to be able to do the same for my children.

While it might not seem this way in wealthy Silicon Valley, this is not the reality for the majority of Americans, and certainly for most of the inhabitants of the planet.

I read just this morning about 3,000 migrants from Central America who are currently in Tijuana, Mexicot.  Their numbers are expected to swell to ten thousand in the coming months.  As I read about them, I began to consider, “what would it take for a person to uproot his children, leave his native land, and travel over 1,000 miles by foot to an unknown country?  How bad would things have to be?”  I cannot even begin to imagine.

I imagine that many of those who have chosen to make that journey have made promises to God, offering promises in exchange for blessing and protection.  I bet Jacob’s desperate promise, made on his journey leaving the only home he has ever known, might seem familiar to some of these migrants.  

Maybe we should try to put ourselves in Jacob’s shoes.  Each of us has been the recipient of enormous blessings to get to where we are today.  What should we give back?

Who in our community needs help?  Who in the global community?  What of our wealth can we give, and what service can we offer that can begin to repay all of the incredible advantages and privileges that we enjoy?

Perhaps the Torah’s silence on whether Jacob fulfilled his vow suggests that for those who have experienced blessing, it is easy to forget about those who still struggle.

We owe it to God to not forget, and we serve God when we use the blessings we have received to be the blessing that lifts up another person.