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?

Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Who Will Set Up The Mishkan? – Pekudei 5776

Parashat Pekudei is the final portion in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It describes the final touches put on the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the uniforms of the Priests who serve in it.  The Israelites have done a marvelous job.  They stayed within their budget.  They finished on time.  Nobody fought.  The time has now come for them to put it up.  But for this they need Moses.  The Torah describes the scene.  And please forgive me. I am going to read the entire passage for dramatic effect.

Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses, with the Tent and all its furnishings: its clasps, its planks, its poles, its posts, and its sockets; the covering of tanned ram skins, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen; the Ark of the Pact and its poles, and the cover; the table and all its utensils, and the bread of display; the pure lampstand, its lamps—lamps in due order—and all its fittings, and the oil for lighting; the altar of gold, the oil for anointing, the aromatic incense, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent; the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the hangings of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, the screen for the gate of the enclosure, its cords and its pegs—all the furnishings for the service of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting; the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest, and the vestments of his sons for priestly service. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39:33-41)

A midrash describes what really happened.  (Tanhuma, Pekudei 11)

When they had completed all of the work of building the parts of the Mishkan, they sat down and wondered when the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, would come and align upon it.  (You see, they had all of the parts, they just had not put them together yet.)  So they went to some of the craftspeople, and said to them.  “Why are you just sitting around?!  Set up the Mishkan so that the Shekhinah can dwell among us!”

[The craftspeople] investigated how to set it up, but they did not know how and they could not do it.  And when they tried to do it anyways, it fell down.

So they went to Betzalel and Aholiav, (the Chief Builders) and said to them, “You come and set up the Mishkan whose construction you have directed.  Maybe it will stand up for you.”  They immediately began to set it up, but they were unable.

Then everyone began to mumble and complain, saying, “Look what the son of Amram has done to us!  He spent all of our money on this Mishkan and put us to all of this trouble, promising us that the Holy One would come down from the Upper Worlds and reside inside a goat skin tent!”

Why were they unable to set it up?  Because Moses was bothered that he had not had the opportunity to take part with them in the work of the Mishkan.  The donations were brought by the Israelites, and the work was done by Betzalel, Aholiav, and the craftsmen.  (Moses had thought that they would not bring enough donations, but they actually brought too much and he had to tell them to stop.  And then he thought that they would be lazy and that he would have to finish the work, but they were eager from start to finish.  What a disappointing bunch!)  But because Moses was troubled, the Holy One left [the Israelites] and they were unable to set it up.

Since they had tried all other options and were unable to set it up, all of Israel appeared before Moses and said, “Moshe Rabeinu, We did everything you told us.  All that you commanded us to donate and bring, we gave.  All of the work is before you.  Perhaps we missed something or we neglected a task that you assigned us.  Look, it is all before you!”

And then they [started] showed him all of the items.  They said to him, “Did you not tell us to do such and such?”

He said to them, “Yes.”

And so on for each and every item.

[When they got through the entire list,] they said to him, “If so, then why does it not stand up?  Betzalel and Aholiav and all of the craftsmen tried to set it up but they failed.”

Moses was very concerned about this matter.  But then the Holy One said to him, “Because you were troubled that you did not get to do any work or participate in any of the labor of the Mishkan, that is why these wise men were not able to set it up.  For you.  So that all of Israel would know, that if it does not stand up for you, then it will never stand up.  I will not give credit in writing for the setting up of the Mishkan to anyone but you.”

Moses said, “But, Ribono shel Olam!  Ruler of the Universe!  I don’t know how to set it up!”

God said to him, “Move your hands about, and it will look like you are setting it up, but really, it will stand up by itself.  And I will write about you that you set it up.”

On a technical level, this midrash explains some peculiar details in the Parashah.  First of all, it says that the Israelites bring the Mishkan to Moses, and then it lists all of the parts individually.  That is what I read earlier.  Later, on two occasion, the Torah indicates that Moses sets up the Mishkan – in the singular (Exodus 40:2,18).  A third passage passage describes it passively, “the Mishkan was set up.”  (Exodus 40:17)

Weaving all of these elements together, Midrash Tanhuma imagines the Mishkan as a kind of Ikea project for which the instructions have been lost.  Nobody knows where all of the pieces go.  They bring in the experts, who give it their best shot, but it just collapses.  Finally, they lay out all of the pieces neatly on the ground and ask Moses.  He doesn’t know how to put it together either, so God tells him, “Just look like you’re busy, I’ll take care of it.”

I love it.

In this midrash, everyone has a distinct motivation.  The Israelites are eager to have God’s Presence among them.  If you think back to the episode of the Golden Calf, this makes perfect sense.

Moses wishes that he had been able to take part in the construction.  Sometimes it is nice to get your hands dirty, rather than just give instructions all day long.  He sees great honor in being able to physically take part in building the mishkan.

God has a different priority.  God wants everyone to know that this structure is unlike any other structure in history.  After everybody tries and fails to put it up, Moses, God’s chosen prophet, is the only one who appears to succeed.  Thanks to the midrash, we know the truth.  Not even Moses is capable of setting up this building, which serves as the nexus where the Upper and Lower worlds come together.  A similar midrash says that Solomon’s Temple was set up by God.  It is also said that the Third Temple will descend miraculously from above in the days of the Mashiach.

Moses in this story reminds me of our Executive Director, Joelle.  As a leader, she is a fantastic recruiter of talent to strengthen and grow our community.  An impressively large proportion of our membership gets involved in putting together the many programs and activities that take place at Sinai.  This is so important for us.  Not only because we need volunteers to get things done, but perhaps more importantly because people find great meaning in working on behalf of the community.  The Israelites approached the project of building the Mishkan with such excitement because it was meaningful to them.  That is why Moses was jealous.  We have long lists of people who are thanked in every edition of the monthly Voice.  What is not printed is that most of them were recruited by Joelle.

Joelle, like Moses, is also a good fundraiser.  I cannot put a precise number on it (although she probably could), but I can state with certainty that Sinai is significantly better off financially because of her.

And finally, like Moses, Joelle is not content to just be the Executive Director.  She is part of our community in a very special way.  Fortunately for her, there is plenty of work that the rest of us are not able to accomplish, so she gets lots of opportunities to find meaning by getting her hands dirty.

Joelle, you and your family have been part of our community for almost eight years.  You are a very special person, and you and I both know that our relationship as Rabbi and Executive Director is not a typical one, and I am very grateful for that.  I feel so blessed to have you as a partner.  We are blessed to have you in our community.  On behalf of all of us, Todah Rabbah.

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.

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.

Jacob and Pharaoh – Vayigash 5776

Something that I have tried to emphasize about the Book of Genesis is the moral ambivalence of its narrator.  The text rarely passes judgment on its characters.  Instead, it allows them to speak for themselves, without judgment.  It is one of things I love about the book.

In the various troubled relationships between siblings, parents, neighbors, enemies, and even God, the text never tells us that one of them is right and the other wrong.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – the Torah lets their actions, their words, sometimes even their inner thoughts, speak for themselves.

We bring our own predilections to the text.  It is important for us, as readers, to recognize our biases.  We might have a tendency to favor the underdog, to always suspect the motives of the winner, or to favor the “heroes” and whitewash their mistakes.

Traditional religious biases lead many, but not all, of our commentaries to see Jacob, for example, as pious, morally justified, and honorable.  On the other hand, biases of moral indignancy lead many contemporary readers to view Jacob as a lying, cheating manipulator.  But the Book of Genesis does not present him either way.  It is non-judgmental.  He is a flawed protagonist certainly, but a hero nonetheless.  That is what makes him so human, and makes our emotional reactions to him so strong.  After all, he is the father of the Jewish people.

When we have strong emotional responses to biblical characters, it should prompt us to ask ourselves why we are reacting with such intensity.  The stories can be seen as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, with our reactions telling us who we are and what concerns us.

In Parashat Vayigash, Jacob our Patriarch nears the end of his life.  It offers a natural opportunity to conduct a grand analysis of his life.  But rather than projecting ourselves into the text, this morning let us instead allow Jacob to speak in his own words.  First, let’s set the scene.

Upon revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph invites them to bring the entire family down to Egypt.  After many years apart, Jacob is finally reunited with his beloved son.  Joseph helps the family get settled in the land of Goshen, where they will be able to pasture their flocks in peace and prosperity.  Finally, Joseph arranges to have his father meet his boss.

Imagine, for a moment, what that meeting must have been like for each of them.

Pharaoh is about to meet the father of his Viceroy Joseph.  I bet Pharaoh felt a certain degree of awe towards Joseph – a foreigner, brought out from prison.  He has strange and powerful abilities to interpret dreams which are supplied by his equally strange God.  Not only that, but he has single-handedly predicted and solved a famine that would have otherwise been catastrophic and could possibly have led to Pharaoh’s ouster.  And now, Pharaoh is about to meet this guy’s father.  When Jacob walks into the room, Pharaoh is immediately struck by the extreme age of the old man.  He has never seen someone so old.  What unnatural powers must he have?!

How about from Jacob’s perspective?  He is about to meet the most powerful man in the world.  This man has taken in his favorite son, long-presumed dead, and made him his second in command.  Jacob could be feeling grateful, or perhaps he is jealous and resentful.  Has Pharaoh replaced Jacob as Joseph’s father?

Now listen to the Torah’s description of their meeting.

And Joseph brought Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”  And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from Pharaoh’s presence.  (Genesis 47:7-10, translation by Robert Alter)

Jacob’s blessings of Pharaoh bookend a single question and answer exchange between these two figures.  And it is a strange exchange which prompts many subsequent questions.

First of all, what are these “blessings” which Jacob bestows upon Pharaoh?

Rashi, along with several other commentators, suggests that in this context, the word va-y’varekh does not mean “then he blessed”, but rather “then he greeted” – she-ilat shalom, “inquiring into well-being,” as he calls it.

Ramban disagrees, claiming that it is improper to greet a king.  Rather, he argues, it is customary for elderly and pious people to bless kings with wealth, property, glory, and the advancement of their reign.  Upon departing from Pharaoh’s presence, Jacob blesses him as well.  According to the Midrash, Jacob prays that “the Nile should rise up to his feet.”  (Tanhuma, Naso 26)

The central part of their interaction is comprised of Pharaoh’s question and Jacob’s answer.  “How many are the days of the years of your life?”  Pharaoh asks.

According to Ramban, Pharaoh is immediately struck by Jacob’s appearance.  He has never seen someone so old in all the years of his rule.  Nahum Sarna explains that the ideal lifespan in Egypt at that time was 110 years, which turns out to be the length of Joseph’s life.  Jacob appears much older, prompting Pharaoh’s question.  It sounds almost like he is blurting it out.  He can’t help himself.  Consider, is this the question that we would expect Pharaoh to ask of the man who raised his Viceroy, the person responsible for saving Egypt?  How old are you?!

Jacob’s response is equally surprising.  “The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years.  Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojournings.”

Jacob’s response sounds so bitter and angry.  He is filled with regret and disappointment.

The commentator Ramban throws his hands up in bewilderment:  “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words,” he admits.   “For what reason would he complain to the king?”

Jacob compares himself to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.  He is currently 130 years old, and already is convinced that he will not live as long as his predecessors.  Radak explains that he has experienced so much suffering that it has weakened him and he can feel death creeping up.  How he knows this is a mystery.  He is not exactly on death’s door.  After all, he does live another seventeen years.

Our commentators read Jacob’s response closely and unpack it.  “Few and evil – me-at v’ra-im – have been the days of the years of my life.”  Rashbam explains that Jacob appears even older than he is because of all of the suffering he has been through.  It has caused him to age prematurely.  (Although how someone who is 130 old could be prematurely aged is something of a mystery.)  In describing himself as a sojourner, Jacob is claiming to be a stranger.  Everywhere he has lived, he has been unsettled, dwelling as an alien amidst local populations.  Sforno adds that Jacob claims that his father and grandfather did not have to deal with the same tzuris, troubles, that he had, which is why they lived longer.

The 13th century French commentator, Hizkuni, has a more critical take on Jacob.  Essentially, he calls him ungrateful.  He notes that Jacob’s final lifespan of 147 is 33 years short of Isaac’s 180.  Why 33?

God notes that: “I saved you from Lavan, and Esau, and Shechem, and I restored Dinah and Joseph to you, and you [have the gall to] say ‘few and evil’ your life has been.  By your life, I will take from you the number of words that you have spoken.”  By this, Hizkuni means the number of words in verses 8 and 9, which constitute the verbal exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob – the former’s question and the latter’s answer.

I love Hizkuni’s insight.  Jacob is a bitter man, and God does not let him off the hook.  Looking back on his life, Jacob sees only disappointment and regret.  He is blind to the fact that he has survived all this time, that his children are all alive, and with him.  He has managed to acquire everything he ever set his mind to: the birthright, the blessing, his beloved Rachel, he’s gotten Joseph back.  He has become wealthy, and now finds himself in Egypt with a household numbering 70 souls, not including the wives!  This is a man who has been supremely blessed in life.

But when he looks in the mirror, what does he see?  Struggle, going all the way back to his uterine striving with his brother Esau.  His success at acquiring the birthright and blessing has been accompanied by fear of retribution and probably guilt.  He gets his beloved Rachel, but at the “expense” of being first tricked into marrying Leah.  He builds a large household, but one that has been mired in scheming, distrust, and discord.  He receives a new name, Israel, but walks away with a limp to serve as a reminder for the rest of his life.  He has twelve sons and one daughter, but has to grieve for 22 years over the presumed death of his favorite, knowing that his playing favorites makes him at least partially responsible.

While everything, in the end, has worked out to Jacob’s advantage, the road, from Jacob’s perspective, has been torturous, and that is all that he is able to see.

What do we see when we look at Jacob?  Each of us has to answer that on our own.  But I would urge us to remember that we are our own worst – and potentially best – critics.  And what we see in Jacob probably ought to tell us something about ourselves.