Just One Shabbat – Ki Tissa 5776

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, in his Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, cites a Talmudic midrash.  “If only Israel would keep two Sabbaths according to their laws – they would be redeemed immediately.” (BT Shabbat 118b) But then, Levi Yitchak cites a second midrash, which appears in Exodus Rabbah, as well as in the Palestinian Talmud.  “If Israel would keep the Sabbath properly, even for one day, the son of David would come.”  (Exodus Rabbah 25:12)  So which is it, one Shabbat or two?

By observing one Shabbat correctly, Levi Yitzchak suggests that a person gains spiritual strength and Divine influence that helps him or her to continue serving God through the subsequent week.  After six days of the week serving God, it becomes quite easy to observe the following Shabbat properly.  And so there is kind of domino effect, catalyzed by the observance of that first Shabbat.  Each religious act inspires the next, eventually leading to redemption.

Levi Yitzchak then points to a hint that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a passage that might sound familiar:  V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat, la’asot et ha Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.  “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”  (Exodus 31:16)  Why does the verse mention the observance of Shabbat twice?  The first reference – V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat – refers to the first Shabbat.  When Israel observes it properly, it leads to the second reference – la’asot et ha Shabbat – the following week.

In these two midrashim and his analysis of them, Levi Yitzchak puts habit formation into spiritual terms.  It is not only that the experience of Shabbat is so compelling that a single proper observance of the Day of Rest leads to a lasting commitment, but also that a spiritual transformation takes place.

He explains how the observance of only 14% of the week as a Sabbath can elevate our experience of the other 86% of the week.  It reminds me of another passage in the Talmud that describes how the great Sages, Shammai and Hillel, used to prepare for Shabbat.  (BT Beitzah 16)  Shammai was wealthy.  He did not struggle to make ends meet.  Every day of the week, he would keep his eyes open for things that he could purchase to make the observance of the upcoming Shabbat more special.  If he was walking through the marketplace and saw a nice-looking animal that would make a great main course for his Shabbat dinner, he would buy it on the spot.  If, the next day, he saw an even nicer-looking animal, he would buy the new one and eats the previous day’s purchase for dinner that night.  In so doing Shammai ate in honor of Shabbat every day of his life.  Inspired by his example, the School of Shammai used to say “From the first day of the week [prepare] for the Sabbath.”

Hillel was different.  He was not a man of wealth.  He could not afford daily upgrades.  Hillel did not scour the marketplace searching for the nicest-looking treats – probably because he could not afford it.  Instead, according to Rashi, he had faith in God that by the end of the week, something would turn up that would enable him to properly honor Shabbat.  In the meantime, he treated each day as an opportunity to honor God.  Later, his students would repeat his saying, “Blessed be the Lord, day by day.”

I do not think that one approach is necessarily better than the other.  They each emphasize different qualities and probably the expression of different personality traits.  Shammai liked to plan ahead.  As the week progressed, his excitement and anticipation for Shabbat must have grown tremendously.  The accumulation of material goods over the course of the week were matched by a gradual increase in his spiritual and emotional anticipation.  For Shammai, Shabbat was the day to honor God and achieve communion with his Creator.

In contrast, Hillel was a man who lived in the moment.  Reflecting both his poverty and his personality, he did not allow the uncertainty of tomorrow interfere with his ability to appreciate today.  It is quite a remarkable quality.  Shabbat is a day when we focus on the sanctity of time rather than space, of relationships rather than things.  Heschel calls Shabbat a “palace in time.”  It is a day when we can be focused on the present, and set aside our baggage from the past and our concerns for the future.  Hillel seems to have been able to extend this orientation to the world to the other six days of the week as well.

Prior to the modern age, most Jews were quite poor.  Shabbat dinner was by far the fanciest meal of the week.  Meat was prohibitively expensive, so most people ate vegetables for the majority of their meals.  It was only on Shabbat, if they could afford it, that Jews might be able to serve a little bit of meat or fish for dinner, along with wine and challah.  My grandmother, growing up in Ukraine, told stories of her family not being able to afford eggs.  To give the challah its golden color, her mother would use used teabags.

Contrast this with our experience today.  While we may make the effort to prepare a nice meal on Shabbat, with gourmet food, wine, and challah, served on a tablecloth and china if we have it, the reality is that it is not a financial stretch for most of us.  If we wanted to have a similarly fancy dinner on Monday or Tuesday night, we could probably do it without difficulty.

How would our experience of Shabbat be different if it were more of a struggle?  If, at the beginning of the week on Sunday, we were not sure whether we would be able to afford meat or fish by Friday night?

Look at the photograph from 1890 of a Jewish man on Ludlow Street in New York City preparing for Shabbat in a coal cellar.  Observe his tattered clothing, the grime on the walls and on his face.  Look at the crooked tablecloth.  And now look at the challah.  Even though it is a 1200black and white photograph, the challah appears almost golden in contrast to its surroundings.  How does this man experience Shabbat?  When the stars come out on Saturday night and he prepares for another week, what aspects of his experience stay with him, and how does he anticipate the day of rest that awaits him in six more days?

Imagine being of the school of Shammai.  Despite daily struggles, we constantly look ahead and plan for a glorious end of the week.  Even though it is the seventh day that is singularly holy, our anticipation of it causes its quality to spread to each of the other days.  As a result, each meal becomes like a Shabbat dinner, regardless of what is on the menu.

Or imagine being of the school of Hillel.  Each day, in and of itself, is a gift and an opportunity to serve God.  The special holiness of Shabbat can be experienced on each of the other days as well.  But Shabbat serves as the paradigm for living with an awareness of God’s Presence in our lives.

Both approaches capture the connection between one Shabbat, the workweek that follows, and the next Shabbat, as Levi Yitzchak describes.

Speaking personally, I have a bit of Shammai and Hillel in me.  My week is colored by a memory of last Shabbat and an anticipation of the Shabbat to come.  Each week is certainly a build-up to Shabbat.  As a Rabbi, it is probably easier for me to orient my life towards the Day of Rest than for other careers.  On the other hand, I have professional responsibilities on Shabbat.  Nevertheless, I look forward to the moment just before lighting candles when I power off my laptop and cell phone.  If my sermon that week is not especially polished, it does not matter because there is nothing else I can do about it.  As soon as the candles are lit, I truly do experience the peace of Shabbat.

I strive to take that experience of Shabbat’s holiness with me into the week.  Shabbat is a day on which I have uninterrupted time with my family.  There are no screens tempting me away from being present with my children or my spouse.  We have, quite literally, hours of focused time together.   That holiness of relationship, the slowing down and appreciation of the life I am living right now, is something that I try to bring to the other days of the week, no doubt with difficulty.

The midrash suggests that if every Jew observed Shabbat properly – either once or twice – Mashiach would come immediately and bring redemption to the world.  I am not in favor of trying to guess when Mashiach will get here, but I can imagine the effect on our world if more of us found a way to observe Shabbat properly.  To recognize, like Shammai, that the holiest day of the week is the one on which we take a break from exercising our mastery and dominance of the physical world around us.  To strive, like Hillel, to bring the awareness of God that we gain on Shabbat to the other six days of the week.

If we could do that, I suspect that our world would be a little bit closer to redemption.

Be An Organ Donor – Terumah 5776

This past Tuesday, I was on the panel for a program sponsored by our local Maimonides and Cardozo Societies – made up of Jewish physicians and lawyers, respectively.  I was the “Jewish Expert” on the panel.  The subject was based on a book written a few years ago called Larry’s Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China with My Black Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant–and Save His Life, by Daniel Asa Rose.  The author spoke for the first half of the program, so I was only able to touch the surface of the topic from a Jewish perspective.  It is a vitally important topic of life-and-death, and there are many misconceptions, so I would like to spend time this morning going into more depth.

In the United States, an average of 79 people receive an organ transplant every day.  Sounds good, right?  Also, on average, 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant.  That is more than 8,000 people per year whose lives could have potentially been saved if more organs had been available.  If more people in this country were registered organ donors, many more lives could be saved.

There are numerous complicated issues, both ethical and medical, when it comes to organ donation.  Let me try to summarize a few of them.

We can divide organ donation into four categories.  The first is live organ donations for which there is minimal risk to the donor.  Examples include blood, bone marrow, skin, and even kidney donations.  The second category is live organ donations for which there is risk to the donor.  Examples include liver lobe and lung lobe donations.  The third category is cadaver donations in which the organs can be harvested after the donor’s heart stops beating.  An example is a cornea.  The final category is a cadaver donation for which the cardiovascular system has to be kept working by artificial means until shortly before the organs are removed.  This is the case for heart, lung, and pancreas donations.

For each of these categories, the ethical and medical considerations are different.  How much risk is tolerable?  What is the definition of death?  At what point after the withdrawal of life support can organs be harvested?  What factors should be considered when determining which of multiple candidates should receive an organ?  Can live donors be paid for their donations?  Each of these questions is extremely complicated.  There is a vast body of writing from the perspective of medical and religious ethics that deals with every one of these issues.

Until fairly recently, Israel had an organ donation rate that was far below other developed countries.  Because there were so few Israelis willing to donate their own or their loved ones’ organs, “transplant tourism” became very popular.  Organ brokers would advertise their services on the radio and in newspapers.  Not only were there not any laws prohibiting Israelis from going abroad for organ transplants, but the national health insurance would even reimburse patients for their expenses.  So Israelis would travel to China, Brazil, and other countries to receive life-saving organ transplants.

Is there anything wrong with this?

The problem is that in many countries, there is little regulation and no transparency.  China, for example, has become a major center for organ transplants over the past twenty years, advertising their services to wealthy patients around the world.  Where do the organs come from?  China does not maintain a national organ donor database – so nobody really knows.

Over the years, there have been numerous allegations and investigations claiming that Chinese prisoners are being executed for their organs – and not just those imprisoned for violent crimes.  Also included are political prisoners, as well as tens of thousands of member of the Falun Gong religious sect.  With the vast amounts of money to be made, and the lack of oversight and transparency, it is no wonder that Chinese politicians, judges, and medical workers  up and down the system allow this to happen.

From the perspective of Judaism, this is absolutely wrong and immoral.  While I do not have to sacrifice myself to save another person, and I am permitted to protect myself if I am being attacked, under no circumstances can I kill another person to save my own life.

Which is why it is such a chilul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – that there have been numerous cases of Jews convicted for organ trafficking, in Israel and in the United States.  One of the factors contributing to this embarrassment is the low organ donor rate in Israel.

Why are so few Israelis willing to be organ donors?

There are several assumptions that people make about Jewish law.  First of all, we know that the body is considered to be sacred in Judaism.  When a person passes away, we treat the body with the utmost respect, cleaning and dressing it quickly, and returning it to the ground from which it came.  Autopsies are generally prohibited, as well as embalming.  The proper care of a body before burial is considered to be one of the greatest mitzvot that we can perform.

The removal of organs before burial, therefore, would seem to be a violation of Jewish law and custom.  Another complicating factor is the traditional belief in a future resurrection in the days of the Messiah.  If a person is buried without all of his or her organs, will he or she be resurrected whole in body?

Because of these beliefs, many Jews have been reluctant to register themselves or agree to donate their loved ones’ organs.  That is why the organ donor rates are so low in Israel.

But there is a competing principle which most halakhic authorities across denominations consider to be even more significant.  Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, is such an important value that it trumps even the special sanctity of the body.

The Torah states, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  This means that if we have the ability to save the life of another person, we have an obligation to do so.  Halakhic codes stretch this concept to require us to spend our money, or even endure personal discomfort, to save the life of another person.

While organ donation was not a possibility at the time these laws developed, the principle is relevant.  So rather than ask “are Jews permitted to donate their organs?” the question really ought to be “Are there ever circumstances in which a Jew is not required to donate his or her organs?”

While some modern poskim, including Orthodox ones, today use the term mitzvah to refer to organ donation, it seems clear that they mean it not as an obligation, but rather as a midat chasidut, a particular pious act that is lifnim mishurat hadin – beyond the strict letter of the law.

So what can be done to increase organ donor rates and save more lives?

In the United States, we have an opt-in system.  Most states, including California, have recruited the DMV to register donors.  If you have a license you are probably familiar with this.  When you go to get your license, the DMV clerk asks you if you want to be an organ donor.  To be registered, you have to say yes.  An opt-out system automatically assumes that everyone is an organ donor except for those who explicitly state that they do not want to be.  Some countries have been successful with this.

While an opt-out system might seem to many Americans like a gross invasion of personal autonomy, it is defensible and maybe even preferable from a Jewish perspective.

In Judaism, there is a concept that I can perform an act or make a decision on behalf of another person without his or her knowledge, and potentially even against his or her will, if it causes that person benefit.  Some authorities apply that concept to organ donation.  Let’s say that my loved one is in a coma and is determined by doctors to be brain dead.  When I agree to donate the organs, my loved one gains the benefit of saving a life.

So a Jewish argument could definitely be made in favor of an opt-out organ donor system.

Another possibility is the solution that Israel enacted in 2008.  It made it illegal to travel abroad for an organ transplant, or to engage in organ trafficking.  It defined death as “brain death,” clarifying the circumstances under which cadaver donations can take place.  And it created an incentive system to encourage more donors.  Donors now receive reimbursement for all medical expenses related to the donation, as well as for lost work.  Live donors also receive preference if at some later time they find themselves in need of an organ.  In addition, if two people on a transplant waiting list are at the same tier of eligibility, the one who has been a registered organ donor will receive preference.  Finally, the immediate family members of a deceased person whose organs were donated will also receive preference.

The law is controversial, as it introduces non-medical factors for determining eligibility.  But it has caused organ donor rates to increase in Israel.

This morning’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah, offers us a fitting model for how we might understand organ donation.  In the opening statment, God instructs Moses:

 דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי.

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.  (Exodus 25:2)

The Hebrew word for donation is terumah.  The Israelites are being instructed to bring their donations for the construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle.  Rashi asks, why does God specify v’yikchu li terumah.  “Take for me a donation?”  After all, God certainly does not have any physical needs.  Rashi answers with the word lishmi – for my sake.  In other words, these are to be purely selfless, altruistic donations.  There should be no personal motive.

But a passage in the Talmud states the opposite:  “If a person declares ‘this coin is for tzedakah so that my child should live, or so that I can earn a place in the world to come’ – such a person is a tzadik gamur – a totally righteous individual.”  (BT Rosh Hashanah 4a)  Commenting on this, Rashi explains im ragil b’kach – if the person is in the habit of giving tzedakah regularly.

So which is it, Rashi?  Are we supposed to give altruistically, without hope of personal benefit, or is a donor just as righteous if or she receives some advantage?

Is it the American system, which relies solely on altruistic donations, or the new Israeli system, which seeks to create positive incentives that cannot be harmfully manipulated?

Maybe the point is that it doesn’t matter.  Whatever the motivation, the end result of more organ donors is that more lives will be saved.  So if you are not already a registered organ donor, get on the list.  If, God forbid, we should ever find ourselves in the situation of having to make a decision about our own or a love one’s organs, let us please remember that Judaism has something to say about it.

And in so doing, in making the ultimate gift of saving the life of a human being made in God’s image, the terumah can surely be said to be lishmi, for God’s sake.

Speaking with a Single Voice – Mishpatim 5776

There was a momentous decision in Israel at the beginning of this week.  The Israeli Cabinet voted to endorse the Mendelblit Plan to create an official egalitarian section of the kotel, the Western Wall.  It legally designated the entire area as a pluralistic space that belongs to the entire Jewish people.  For the first time, the government will fund what until now has been referred to as the “Egalitarian Kotel,” or Ezrat Yisrael, and has been maintained by the Masorti, or Conservative, Movement.

Here are some of the details.  The existing segregated men and women’s sections will remain in place and continue to be administered by the Charedi Western Wall Heritage Foundation, under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.  The plaza behind those two sections will remain under the administration of Rabbi Rabinowitz, although it will now be officially designated as a public space and used for national and swearing-in ceremonies for the IDF.  Whereas in the past, women were prohibited from singing or speaking at those ceremonies, there will no longer be such discrimination.

Previously, violations of “local custom” have been punishable by 6 months in prison or a 500 shekel fine.  The Charedi authorities have been able to define “local custom,” which has resulted in many women being arrested for praying over the past two decades.  The new plan decriminalizes women’s prayer.

Regarding the Egalitarian Kotel, located in the Davidson Archaeological Garden, which is to the South of what we generally think of as the Western Wall, there will be a number of changes.  The space will expand significantly from the current 4800 square feet to nearly 10,000.  In comparison, the segregated sections comprise 21,500 square feet.  Currently, the entrance is located next to a poorly signed guard booth outside of the main entrance gate to the Kotel plaza.  That will change, with a prominent entranceway being built in the main plaza area.  There will be three metal detector lines: male-only, female-only, and egalitarian.  In addition, Sifrei Torah, siddurim, chumashim, and other ritual items for prayer will be available, paid for with state funding.

Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service will be moved to the new area when the expansions are completed.  Until then, they will continue to meet in the existing women’s section.

The Egalitarian Kotel will be governed by the Southern Wall Plaza Council, comprised of representatives from the Masorti and Reform movements, Women of the Wall, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israeli government.  The committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Jewish Agency.  The site administrator will be a government employee appointed by the Prime Minister.

The plan also mandates that the Southern Wall Plaza Council and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation hold a roundtable meeting at least five times per year to address and resolve issues that may arise.

So this is exciting news, right?

As we might expect, the Masorti and Reform movements, along with Women of the Wall, immediately released joyous press releases.  But – surprise, surprise – not everyone is happy.

Rabbi Rabinowitz compared the division of the wall “among tribes” to the sinat chinam, the senseless hatred, that according to tradition, led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

On the other side, some are asking, “when did ‘separate but equal’ become the goal of any civil rights movement?”  A splinter-group calling itself the “Original Women of the Wall” has pointed out that Orthodox women who do not feel comfortable in egalitarian services now have no place to pray in a women’s minyan.

Time will tell how this plays out.

Last Sunday during religious school tefilah, we spoke to the students about the exciting news.  I quickly realized that most of the kids there had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.

Some of them knew what the kotel was.  Almost none of them knew what a mechitzah was.  A mechitzah is the separation barrier between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue.  So I had to start from the beginning.

You see, here in liberal, egalitarian Northern California, most of us never experience explicit segregation, whether by gender, religion, or ethnicity.  I am not talking about more subtle forms of segregation, which certainly exist.  But we do not typically encounter physical mechitzah‘s in our daily lives.  Quite the opposite.  We emphasize diversity, multiculturalism, and tolerance.  We give our girls and boys the same education, and we deliberately try to instill the belief that gender should neither be a hindrance nor an advantage to them in their lives.  Egalitarianism is all they have known.

Which means that we are not doing a very good job of preparing them for the real world, or even the Jewish world.

I explained to the religious school kids what a mechitzah was, including that there are many different kinds.  I pointed to the balcony in our sanctuary, and told them that in some synagogues, a balcony like that would be the women’s section and that women would not be able to lead any parts of the service.

Then I shared with them about my experiences growing up attending an Orthodox Jewish day school.  When I was in middle school, we had daily tefilah in the auditorium.  There was a mechitzah down the middle comprised of portable room dividers.  Of course, only the boys could lead services.  As a boy, it did not strike me as a big deal.  It was simply how things were.

I later found out from one of my friends from the other side of the mechitzah that whenever the girls started praying too loudly, the teachers shushed them – female teachers, mind you.  My friend, who attended the same egalitarian, Conservative synagogue that I did, was really upset about it.  After all, like me, she was accustomed to going up to the bimah on a regular basis.  I felt a little guilty myself, now that I knew that I was being given opportunities that were being denied to my classmates because of their gender.

As you can imagine, most of our religious school kids were shocked to hear this.  It was so foreign to everything that they have learned and experienced.

It is important for us to prepare them for the wider Jewish world.  Our goal is to raise kids into committed, knowledgeable Jewish adults.  If we succeed, then they will find themselves in other synagogues from time to time in their journeys through life.  When they encounter other ways of being Jewish, will they appreciate the differences or will they negatively judge the unfamiliar?  That depends on how we teach them.

Where do we draw the line between embracing pluralism and diversity and holding on to our principled positions?  How do we teach it to our kids?

The message that I tried to convey to our Religious School students is to, when we are in our own home and community, fully embrace our values.  We are committed to Jewish tradition and history, but we understand that times change and our understanding of what the Torah asks of us changes.  It has always been this way.

At the same time, we must understand that the Jewish world is diverse.  There are many communities which, like ours, take Judaism seriously, but practice it differently.  When we are guests in those communities, it is important to be respectful.  I don’t have to like it, but just because I do not like it does not mean it is not an authentic expression of Judaism.  Ours has never been a monolithic tradition.

Which is why things get complicated in the public arena.  Sometimes, having things my way means that those who disagree with me cannot have it their way.

Charedim represent a minority of the Jewish world, but a majority of those who frequent the kotel.  To what extent should their needs for segregated prayer spaces and suppression of women’s voices take precedence over the needs of other Jews who want access to the kotel in a way that is more egalitarian?

The answer to that question is sure to disappoint someone, as we have seen already with this most recent decision by the Israeli Cabinet.  But it is a question that we have got to be engaged in openly and honestly.

At the end of this morning’s Torah portion, there is an incredible moment.  Moses comes down from Sinai after receiving the laws from God.  He assembles the entire nation together at the base of the mountain.  He repeats all of the mitzvot to them.  The people respond with an unprecedented declaration of unity: vaya’an kol-ha’am kol echad.  “and the people answered with a single voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'”  (Ex. 24:3)  All of the people are there: men and women, adults and children, old and young – nobody is left out.  There are no mechitzah‘s.  And they speak in unison, although to be precise, the verb is singular.  The people speaks in a single voice.

At this moment, in accepting the Torah, the Jewish people exists as a singularity.  Since then, groups of Jews in different times and places have found different ways of living up to that commitment.  Even though practice has varied considerably, we all look back to this foundational moment of embracing the Torah with a single voice.

I would hope that we, the diverse Jewish people, can find more opportunities to discover shared values and aspirations.  I pray that our holy places, especially the Kotel, will one day cease being an object of contention that divides us and serve rather as a symbol that brings us together as a single people from the four corners of the earth.

Yitro: The Anti-Amalekite, Yitro 5776

The Torah can be a confusing book.  Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page.  Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details.  But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting.  In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.

Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections.  Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system.  Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But there is a problem.  These events seem to be out of chronological order.  Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order?  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility.  (BT Zevachim 116a)

The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…”  (Ex. 18:1)  “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert.  As expected, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away.  Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees.  He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.

The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek.  The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.

The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.

First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.

Two.  As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built.  That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Three.  On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long.  They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes.  When asked, Moses describes what he is doing:  v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.”  (Ex. 18:16)  The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?

Four.  In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp.  There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide.  Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11)  It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.

Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.

But he does not have a problem with that.  According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites.  They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers.  Israel has to go to war.  Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious.  Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.

Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation.  But first – to us as readers – a point must be made.  The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point.  Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites.  Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place.  They grow up together.  And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics.  Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.

Internal biblical evidence supports this.  The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere.  In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”  (I Sam. 15:6)

This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad.  In fact some of them can be quite good.

This might seem obvious to us.  But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted.  In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing.  A person’s group identity was existentially important.  The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.

But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern.  How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school?  One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that.  I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.

It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet.  He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise.  And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites.  This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.

After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.

Pesach or Granola Bars – Bo 5776

Imagine that you are an Israelite in Egypt.  You were born a slave.  Your parents and their parents were also slaves.  But that is about to change.

This man, Moses, has recently appeared with his brother Aaron insisting that God remembers the promise made to your ancestors long ago, and that the time has come for to go free from Egypt and travel to the land of Canaan to fulfill your destiny.

With a healthy dose of skepticism, you tentatively go along with the prediction.  But after Moses and Aaron come back from their first trip to the palace, the Egyptians double your workload.  Thus begins a series of plagues that strike the Egyptians but miraculously leave you and your fellow Israelites alone.

Nine plagues pass: blood, frogs, lice, and so on, all the way to darkness.  The Egyptian people are beaten down.  Rumors abound that Pharaoh’s court is in an uproar, with his closest advisors begging him to finally give in to Moses’ demands.  But Pharaoh persists in his stubbornness.

Finally, Moses enters the Israelite slums and instructs you to get ready.  There is going to be one more plague, and it is going to be a nasty one.  God will release the Angel of Destruction against Egypt, and it is going to kill every first born creature, from the lowliest slave to the heir to Pharaoh himself.  The Angel will strike at night, and you will be on your way out of Egypt the next morning.

He tells you how to get ready.  On the tenth day of the month, each Israelite household must select an unblemished one-year-old lamb.  Four days later, you have got to slaughter and roast it whole.  You must collect the blood and use it to paint the doorposts and lintels of your homes.  That way, God will protect your own first born from the Angel of Destruction, who tends to get carried away whenever he is released.

You’ve got until sunrise the next morning to eat the roast lamb.  No leftovers are allowed.  Anything you cannot manage to finish must be burnt up.  That is why, for those of you with small households, Moses tells you to join together with other households to share.

By the way, you’ve got to eat it in your traveling clothes, loins girded and staff in hand.  This is a Pesach to God.

And to make sure that you remember what is about to happen, you’ve got to celebrate this festival every year going forward throughout the generations.

Everything happens as Moses has said.  Early the next morning, you are on your way out of Egypt, and you realize that you have not managed to gather any provisions for the journey.  Other than the unleavened bread that you are carrying on your back, you and your fellow Israelites have not even packed a lunch!

What are you thinking about now?  Possibly something along the lines of: “Should not Moses have given us more practical instructions instead of a ritual barbecue?  Our time might have been better spent packing some granola bars.”

Rashi sees their lack of preparedness as exceedingly praiseworthy.  Israel’s faith in God is so complete that they are willing to embark on a journey into the desert with no supplies whatsoever.

Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, always a practical commentator, disagrees.  They did not prepare any provisions for themselves, he says, and consequently, they ended up complaining about the lack of food and water.

Given that Moses insisted they not spend their final night packing supplies for a trip into the desert, we have to assume that this final meal in Egypt was pretty important.

A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:2) explains that the Israelites, living for centuries in Egypt, have been influenced by the dominant culture and have begun worshipping the local gods.  As the time for the Exodus approaches, God turns to Moses and says, “As long as they continue to worship idols, they cannot be redeemed.  You’ve got to tell them to change their evil ways and atone for their idolatry.”

So Moses instructs the Israelites to offer a lamb on the night before the redemption is to take place.  Why a lamb?  According to the midrash, the lamb is venerated and worshipped by the Egyptians.  By offering it as a sacrifice to God and personally eating it themselves, the Israelites make a formal symbolic break with the practices of Egypt and make themselves worthy of redemption.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, believed in the power of astrology to both predict the future and to intervene in worldly events.  It was forbidden for Jews to do so, but it worked.  To the midrash, Nachmanides adds that the 10th of Nisan, when the Israelites are instructed to select the lamb, coincides with the ascension of the astrological sign of Aries, whose symbol is a ram.  By offering a young ram as a sacrifice, the Israelites symbolically declare that their redemption is not due to the influence of any astrological phenomena, celestial beings, or other gods.  God, the Lord of the Cosmos, who set all of the heavenly hosts in their places, is the One who personally redeemed Israel from Egypt.

This final meal is important psychologically for the Israelites.  They need to make a break from their past enslavement to Pharaoh, so that they can embrace their future as a free people in service to God.

It is especially poignant that while they are conducting their sacred meal, the Angel of Destruction is being let loose upon the  rest of Egypt, demonstrating once and for all that God is God and Pharaoh is not.

It is also significant that the Israelites share the meal together.  Entire families sit down to eat the special food.  Children ask their parents about the significance of what is happening.  Those without large families, or who cannot afford their own lamb, are invited to join the households that are larger and more prosperous.  Nobody is left out.

It must have been an incredibly emotional night, which is why the Torah instructs us to continue observing it throughout the generations.  It describes that night as leil shimurim, “a night of vigil” for both God and the children of Israel.  A night on which God protected the homes of our ancestors, God’s people, the Israelites.

Should the Israelites have spent their final night packing supplies for their journey?  If they had, they would have left Egypt still slaves, still immersed in the corrupt culture that surrounded them.  Their bellies might have been full for a while, but their spirits would not have been free.  The Israelites needed a powerful symbolic action to begin the process of becoming the Jewish people.  The first seder, conducted on the night before our ancestors left Egypt, was that action.  It is an action that, to this day, we continue to reenact each year.

Melakhah and Avodah: Work of the Hands and Work of the Heart – Vayakhel – P’kudei 5775

Finally, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites build so that God’s Presence can be with them in the wilderness, is finished.  After all of the Torah’s detailed descriptions of the building project, the time has come for a final inspection.  The workers bring each of the various parts of the Mishkan forward for Moses’ approval.

Imagine the scene:  One by one, each of the parts of the Tabernacle appears: the planks, the posts, the coverings, the furnishing, the menorah, the clothing of the priests.  All of it must pass inspection.  Each work crew waits its turn.  When called, the foreman steps up in front of everyone to present the result of his team’s labor to the boss.

That must have been a tense moment.  After all, this is not just any building.  This is the mishkan, a dwelling place for God.  Did all of the work crews pull their weight?  Did anyone cut corners, or get lazy?  How is the Chief Building Inspector, Moses, going to react?

The Torah tells us:

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).  And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah) – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 43:38-39)

This is probably not the reaction they are expecting.

I get the impression that this blessing is kind of spontaneous.  Moses is so overjoyed with what he sees, that he cannot contain himself.  He bursts out in praise.

But what does he say?  What is the blessing?

According to a midrash, Moses pronounces these words:  Yehi ratzon she-tishreh shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.  “May it be his will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”  (Tanhuma P’kudei 11)

What a wonderful blessing!  The entire nation has been occupied in this project for many months.  Our commentators teach that every single person had a part to play – some as designers, others as builders, craftsmen, weavers, and yes, some as donors.  Each person is invested.

It is conceivable that after expending so much effort to build a building, one might be tempted to focus on its physical aspects – such as it’s beauty and sturdiness – and pay less attention to its spiritual function.

And so Moses’ blessing reminds the people of the Mishkan‘s purpose – to be a dwelling place for God’s Presence, the Shekhinah.  “May the Shekhinah rest on the work of your hands.”  Use this beautiful edifice for holy purposes.  Don’t let it feed your ego, or symbolize greed.

But what is it that triggers Moses to offer this blessing?  Why is he so inspired?

The Chatam Sofer, an Ashkenazi Rabbi from the early nineteenth century, suggests an answer.  He notices that the Torah seems to be repeating itself.  The Torah states:  “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).”

And then immediately afterwards says “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah)…”

They did all the work, they performed all the tasks.  Why does the Torah need to say it twice, but with different words?  Those two words, avodah and melakhah, says the Chatam Sofer, are two different things.

The second term, melakhah, refers to physical work.  The work of our hands.  It is the same word that is used at the end of the creation of the world to describe the work that God had done.  Melakhah is also the word that the Torah uses to describe the kinds of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat.  Melakhah is “creative and destructive labor.”  It is the activities we perform which demonstrate our conquering, or mastery, of the physical world.  It is what we do during the six days of the week.

Avodah is a different kind of work.  It is internal.  Nidvat halev, says the Chatam Sofer.  “Generosity of the heart” without any concrete action.

“What is the avodah that is performed in the heart?” asks the Talmud (BT Taanit 2a)  “Prayer.”  And so, the term avodah is used to describe the worship of God in the Temple through the sacrificial system, and later to prayer as we understand it today.

In fact, the Chatam Sofer explains, the Torah is not repeating itself at all.  The melakhah that the Israelites perform – the physical work that they do in building the Mishkan – is infused with avodah, with generosity of heart and spirit and with a desire to carry out God’s will.

But how could Moses have known this?  How can he see into the hearts of every single Israelite?

Moses knows what is in their hearts because he has seen the final product that their hands have produced.  He sees that it is pristine, without a single mistake or blemish.  Moses knows that such a perfect result can only be achieved from pure hearts.  The love and purity that the Israelites bring to their work infuses the very fabric of its creation.  It is both melakhah and avodah.

When Moses sees this, he is overcome with emotion.  Proud of these people whom he leads, he prays that the spirit which has motivated their efforts up to this point will remain with them so that the Mishkan can fulfill its function as a dwelling place for the Shekhinah.

It was eight years ago almost to the day that I first came to Congregation Sinai.  At the time, I was here to interview to become its Rabbi.  The synagogue still had that “new shul smell.”  The building was brand new, having been constructed within the previous year.

I remember a story that was told to me during that interview weekend.  Barry, our congregant who generously gave a year of his time to become the contractor for this wonderful building, stood before the synagogue and told the Sinai membership: “I have built it, now go and fill it.”

He knew that, as beautiful and well-designed a structure as this is, unless we infuse it with spirit, it is simply walls and a roof.  Our community collectively makes it worthy of being a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering, a synagogue.

I would say that we have filled out these walls nicely.  Congregation Sinai is a place in which we celebrate life’s joys and mourn its sorrows together, in which we express our connection to Israel and to Jews around the world.  It is a sanctuary in which we come together to worship God.  It is a center in which learning takes place by students of all ages.  It is a shul in which the ancient values and practices of our people are lived and made relevant to modern life on a daily basis.

Our community has grown larger, with more people attending Shabbat services, more children in our Nursery School and Religious School, more programming, and more classes.

The reason for all of this is because we have so many people in our community who are willing and eager to work on behalf of this congregation.  And I mean both kinds of work:  melakhah and avodah.  The physical work that has to be done, and the generosity of heart that is an expression of the love we have for each other and for God.

I feel so blessed to be the Rabbi of this community.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to begin a shabbaton, a sabbatical, tomorrow.  As this date has approached, people have been nervous – and that is understandable.  What are we going to do without our Rabbi?

I am confident, however that Sinai will thrive in my five-month absence.  We have worked hard to plan for all of the various contingencies that may arise, and to cover all of the responsibilities that generally call for a Rabbi.

Our religious services will continue.  Limmud La-ad classes will take place.  Celebrations will occur.  There will even be some new initiatives, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat musical ensemble that will be leading services this coming Friday night.  We are so blessed to have a community with so many knowledgeable and talented members who are willing and eager to give of themselves.  That is why I am not especially worried.  And it is why I am really looking forward to seeing all the ways in which we have grown when I come back at the end of the summer.

I really cannot fully express how grateful I am to everyone who has already stepped forward to plan for the next five months.  I am especially appreciative of Joelle and the rest of the Sinai staff, who will be taking on numerous additional tasks during the time that I am away.

I can think of no better words to say than Moses’ blessing to the Israelites after they presented the completed Mishkan to him after months and months of melakhah and avodah, work of the hands and labors of the heart.

Yehi ratzon she-tishreh Shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.

“May it be God’s will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”

It’s Impossible To Be Present Through A Lens – Ki Tissa 5775

I love going into the Nursery School.  It is always such a breath of fresh air.  These little human beings express themselves so honestly, without the inhibitions which they will acquire soon enough.

Every year, the nursery school celebrates the morning of Purim, and I get to join them for a visit.  I usually tell them the abridged story of the Megillah, and then join them in a Purim parade.  Loads of fun.

By the time I got to them this week though, they were out of control.  I walked into the social hall and they all jumped up and swarmed around me, announcing themselves and their costumes.

“Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m a firefighter.  I’m a princess.  I’m Darth Vader!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!”  There were a lot of Elsa’s and Batman’s this year.

I was really struck by their desire to be seen and recognized.  It was contagious.  Once one of them announced herself, the rest soon followed, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of screaming preschoolers.

In just a few years, they will not be shouting out “Look at me!  I’m Elsa!”  But that innate need to be acknowledged will not go away.  These kids will find other ways to call out for recognition, some constructive, some destructive.

It is a core human trait.  We want to know that we matter.  We want assurance that the people in our lives see us.  In religious terms, we want to know that God cares about us.

The Israelites want the same thing.  They want to know that they matter.  They want to know that Moses, their leader, sees them, and is not going to abandon them.  They want to know that God is with them.

As this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, opens, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for approximately forty days – depending on who is counting.  The children of Israel, encamped at the bottom, have been waiting patiently for their leader to finish talking to God, come back to them, and tell them what to do next.

But something goes wrong.  Day follows day.  Week follows week.  Still no Moses.  The people grow impatient.  Rashi explains that when Moses told the Israelites that he would be gone for forty days, he meant that they should start counting that night.  But the Israelites started counting right away, and so they were a day off.

In any event, the Israelites gather in front Aaron and ask him to make them a god to go before them, because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

Aaron gathers gold, melts it, and casts it into a mold, producing a golden calf.  The people, overjoyed, announce “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) and then plan a celebration for the next day.

This episode, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is usually depicted as one of the worst catastrophes in the Torah.  Right after leaving Egypt amidst signs and wonders and receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have already violated the fundamental mitzvah of not worshipping idols.

But let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment.  The Israelites do not know where they stand.  Moses is gone.  He had been unclear about precisely how long he would be away.  When he does not show up after the allotted time has passed, the Israelites feel abandoned.

And God?  God is terrifying.  Brings plagues, splits seas, and drowns armies.  Creates earthquakes and thunderstorms.  Invisible.

So it is understandable that the Israelites are feeling a bit lost by now.  They want something tangible that they can see and interact with to lead them on in their journey.  They want to know that they matter, and that they have not been forgotten and abandoned in this wasteland.

What better thing to reassure them than a shiny gold cute little baby cow.  Remember what they say after it comes out of the fire: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  They are not worshipping another god.  To the Israelites, this is the Lord and Moses all rolled up into one.

But God is not sympathetic to the Israelites’ fears.  For making a statue, God wants to destroy them in an instant.  Moses talks God down, and then hurries to see what is going on.

Moses’ reaction to the Israelites seems almost feigned.  He already knows what they have done and has even spoken up on their behalf.  He waits until he is actually within sight of the Golden Calf before he turns on the anger and shatters the Tablets of the Covenant.

Perhaps Moses recognizes what the Israelites are going through at that moment.  Consider what he says to God afterwards when God threatens to wipe out all of the Israelites and start over with Moses.  Moses refuses point blank, instead delivering God an ultimatum:  “If you don’t forgive them, then You can erase me from Your book!”  Why would Moses go to bat for these people unless he empathizes with them?

What God does not seem to understand yet is that the Israelites are emotionally fragile.  They really do need to be reassured.  Moses gets it.  He understands that, as a Prophet, the intermediary between the Israelites and the Lord, it is up to him to teach God how to relate to the people.

After a bit of negotiating, Moses makes two important requests.  One, he asks God to reveal God’s self to Moses.  Moses wants to have a better understanding of with Whom he is dealing.  The second request is on behalf of the people.  “Unless You go in the lead,” Moses instructs God, “do not make us leave this place.”  (Exodus 33:15)  Moses knows that the Israelites need more recognition than God has given them so far.

God, scolded, agrees to both of Moses’ demands.

While no human can be exposed to God’s Presence and survive, God makes an accommodation.  God summons Moses up to Mt. Sinai once again, and instructs him to hide in the cleft of a rock.  The Divine Glory passes by, and Moses is able to see God’s back (whatever that means).

From then on, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, travels with the Israelites through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Thanks to Moses’ insight and boldness, the Israelites finally have the reassurance they seek.  They know that God is with them, because they see signs of God’s Presence.  They know that God speaks to their leader, Moses, on a regular basis, because Moses himself has been permanently changed by the experience.  Plus, God’s Presence descends upon the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses goes inside to commune.

In our world that is full of distractions, it can be difficult to be fully present.  Gone are the times when families and friends would have to talk with one another because there was literally nothing else to do.

Nowadays, we are surrounded by electronic devices, guaranteeing that we are never bored, and offering us excuses so that we never have to be fully present with another person.

But the need to be seen and acknowledged is buried deep inside of us.  It is a need that is not replaced by technology.  Indeed, technology provides a lot of distractions that interfere with our ability to see one another and to interact with the world.

As I prepare to depart with my family on my sabbatical in a little over a week, I have been thinking a lot about a particular electronic device which I expect will feature prominently in my experiences – a camera.  Nowadays, pretty much everybody has a camera in their pockets at all times.  We have the ability to record every moment of our lives – in high definition.

Think back to a vacation you once took.  Try and remember what happened.  The people you were with.  The sites you visited.  If you are like me, you have photographs of most of those memories.  It is because the photograph itself reinforces the experience.  We are far less likely to remember vacation experiences for which we do not have the pictures.

Why is that?  Is it that those experiences are less real, or less significant?

Not at all.  Cameras have changed our brains.  They have altered the ways that we store memories.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a camera person.  I like to take pictures.  I think I have taken some pretty good ones.  The most practical class I took in high school was photography.

But for me, a camera often interferes with the experience itself.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present through a camera lens.

I suppose that for some really talented photographers, a camera can actually become an extension of oneself.  When such an artist looks through the lens, he or she is indeed fully present with the subject.

But when I look through the lens, I am thinking about other things:  Do I have enough light?  What image do I want to focus on?  How much do I want to zoom in.  Is my subject backlit, or washed out?  The camera then becomes a barrier to being fully present and in the moment.

This is true if I am out in nature somewhere, looking out at a gorgeous valley.  It’s also true when I am with my kids.  I can interact with them, roll around on the floor, cheer them on at a sports game.  Or I can create a permanent record and view the experience through a glass lens.

While the camera may create a lasting image, it often comes at the forfeiture of genuine experience.

As I prepare to live in Israel for the next four months, I expect to take a lot of pictures.  But I also am reminding myself that the experiences that really matter in life are the ones in which we are fully present with our environment, and the people in it.

Judaism offers us many opportunities to be Present.  Right now, we are here together celebrating Shabbat.  One of the blessings of Shabbat is that it forces us to pay attention to one another.  To be Present, in this moment, and to not let the distractions of the week get in the way of our relationships.

Because whether it is Nursery School students clamoring for the Rabbi to acknowledge them in their Purim costumes, Israelites longing for a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them that they have not been abandoned, or our own quests for meaning in life, we human beings are hard-wired to seek opportunities to be Present.

It is those intangible moments when we truly connect with the essence of the other which matter most.  May we have the courage, and the privilege to see and be seen clearly.