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Beha’lotkha,בהעלתך

Beha’lotkha,בהעלתך

By Zwi Reznik, June 18, 2022, Sivan 19, 5782

As is often the case this weeks Parsha covers a number of different topics. These range from lighting arrangements, the levites and their terms and conditions of service, Passover offerings, the divine cloud over the Tabernacle, Trumpets and their use, and of course Jews complaining about food, and the “inlaw” Miriam complaining about her brother’s wife.

What I wish to do today is talk about the Levites. I’ll note that I had a rather self centered thought about that since I’m Levi. However as I gave the topic further thought I noticed some other items of interest. Two weeks ago we looked at the assembling of the first Israeli army. In fact, Mitch Miller, our Darshan provided an interesting analysis of the size of that army. Chapter 8 of the Parsha provides a good deal of detailed information about the assembling of a different sort of military force—the Levites. An earlier view of the Levites may allow one to think of them as an army—e.g. The incident of the Golden Calf. Exodus 32:26 And Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, to me!” And the Levites gathered round him. 27And he said to them, “Thus said the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp, and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin.’” 28And the Levites did according to the word of Moses, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day.

However in today’s Parsha we clearly move on to a very different view of the Levites and how they are to conduct themselves.

I also find myself considering some of the original Hebrew and how it appears in Modern translations. I find appealing an idea I first heard here for how God can change his mind on occasion when in conversation with Moses. That there is the Torah given to Moses and that there is a Torah in Heaven. While the Torah given to Moses is fixed the letters of the one in Heaven keep moving around. I want to apply that idea to some of the text. I like to think of that in the context of another recent Drash, given by Rabbi Laemmle last week, wherein she spoke of making a gender change in reference to the Birkat Cohanim. That reminded me that I often append the word אלמן to whenever אלמנה appears in our prayers, as when we note that God watches over the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

Consider the name of our Parsha, בהעלתך. It appears in Numbers 8:2 in the Alter translation as: ‘.2“Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘When you light up the lamps, opposite the front of the lamp stand shall the seven lamps give light.’” In the JPS translation we get “2Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” If we look up בהעלתך  in a modern Hebrew dictionary we see the definitions: to raise, to elevate, to hoist, to reveal, to bring to light, to bring immigrants to Israel….So which is it. Turns out that the title of the Parsha shares the root lettersעלה  with the root of the verb להעלות which is of course to raise, to elevate, to bring up; .Seeing this varied understanding of the Parsha title casts a different light on how to interpret it.

When we move on to the section specifically dealing with the Levites we see in 8:11 in the Alter Translation “11And Aaron shall make of the Levites an elevation offering before the LORD from the Israelites, and they shall serve to do the work of the LORD. The JPS translation is similar with:” 11and let Aaron designate the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the LORD. The original Hebrew is: 8: 11וְהֵנִיף֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן אֶת־ הַלְוִיִּ֤ם תְּנוּפָה֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָי֕וּ לַעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־ עֲבֹדַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃. If you have some familiarity with Hebrew consider the meanings, in context, of the verb הניף and the noun תנופה.

Now the phrase Elevation Offering has a plain meaning. It’s an offering made by a priest by raising it in his hands. Clearly there’s something else going on here. Aaron is not physically lifting up the Levites. However there is an act of elevation of some kind taking place. To what end is that. Well, God can speak for himself: 16For wholly given they are to Me from the midst of the Israelites instead of the breach of every womb, firstborn of all of the Israelites, I have taken them to Me. 17For Mine is every firstborn among the Israelites, in man and in beast, on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them to Me. 18And I took the Levites instead of every firstborn among the Israelites. I would add my own interpretation here and say that there is a spiritual elevation and transformation taking place.

Moving on to the terms and conditions of employment. That is a phrase I learned when I was conducting negotiations on behalf of the faculty I represented at my college. Clearly God is not negotiating in this parsha, but he is specifying terms and conditions of employment when dealing with the Levites. What are those: 23And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24“This is what regards the Levites: from twenty-five years old and up, each shall come to do army service in the work of the Tent of Meeting. 25And from fifty years old he shall come back from the army work and shall work no more. 26And he shall serve his brothers in the Tent of Meeting to keep watch, but work he shall not do. So shall you do to the Levites in their watch.”  By the way the JPS translation uses the term “work force” rather than “army service” as Alter does. You may want to look at the orginal and see what you think.

In his commentary on Verse 25 Alter observes: The provision made here is for a kind of phased retirement. The defining term of difference is “work.” From the age of fifty, the Levite is relieved of heavy labor within the sanctuary, the responsibilities that were undertaken as a kind of equivalent for military service, but he continues to assist his brother Levites, evidently outside the sanctuary, in their guard duty. I find his use of the term “phased retirement” interesting since the California Community College System, which I’m retired from, also offers a sort of phased retirement which involves a reduced teaching load. Also note the phrase “guard duty”, clearly a military term.

At this point the Parsha is largely done with the Levites and I am largely done with my Drash. Things do not always go well for some of the Levites. Parshat Korach is coming up in two weeks and we already know what happens. The levites, of course, continue to come up in Jewish History. As we know everything changes after the destruction of the second temple and the role of the Levites is largely moot. We don’t even get preferential placement on the Aliyah list in many synagogues. One of the articles I read in preparation for this Drash notes that: The Book of Ezra reports that the Levites were responsible for the construction of the Second Temple and also translated and explained the Torah to the people when it was publicly read.  Another, even quotes an orthodox Rabbi, Menachem HaKohen Risikoff, in a short volume written after Kristallnacht titled The Priests and the Levites: “Today, we also are living through a time of flood, Not of water, but of a bright fire, which burns and turns Jewish life into ruin. We are now drowning in a flood of blood. … Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.”

Let’s take a different view of what Rabbi Risikoff means by writing “Through the Kohanim and Levi’im help will come to all Israel.”  As I noted above, the duties of the levites, and the kohanim, have been moot for almost two millennia. However, even when the Temple existed the Levites were not merely the attendants and servants of the Kohanim. They were the armed Guardians of the Temple. For myself I would like to think that there is a now, shall we say, a Levitical responsibility that applies to all of us, Levi or not. Teaching, as a member of this community, is an essential part of that responsibility. With that I’ll close my Drash.

References:

1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levite

2)https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Levite

3)https://www.jpost.com/judaism/the-takeover-of-the-levites-and-emergence-of-a-jewish-elite-628811

4)Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

5)Jewish Publication Society of America. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures–The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society. Kindle Edition.

6)Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 8900-8902).  . Kindle Edition.

Naso

Naso

By Susan Laemmle June 11, 2022

After the death of our grandchild in November, among the expressions of comfort spoken was yehi shmah barucha: May Esther’s memory be a blessing. Seven months later, I begin to understand the complex richness conveyed in those three Hebrew words.

“May their memory be a blessing” comforts the mourner while honoring the memory of the person they mourn. It asks something for the dead while also acknowledging — and ideally easing the pain of — the living. This short sentence is, in itself, a kind of blessing.

What does it mean though for blessing to flow when we remember someone who’s died? And how does that connect to other situations in which human beings convey or receive blessing? In this Dvar Torah, I’ll consider these questions, then focus on the influential blessing contained in Parshat-Naso — Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Benediction — and finally come to rest on an important, in a way revolutionry context in which Birkat Cohanim appears.

In a religious environment, uttering a blessing acknowledges God as its source. Blessing is a common religious act in virtually all belief systems — indispensable in celebrations, initiations, and rites of passage. Blessing generated by remembering refers to the continuing benediction that a dead person leaves behind — from their good deeds, teachings and example; perhaps also from their sheer life force, their having been a vital person in the world, whose vitality touched our own. Wishing someone fond memories of their loved one to sustain them through their grief can be helpful, but it is something different. Esther’s memory being a blessing refers to the continuing positivity that the world derives and that continues to enrich Esther’s collected legacy into eternity.

If a deceased person can radiate blessing upon the living, then can’t living people achieve a similar effect? Genesis Rabbah teaches that Abraham blessed everyone and was constantly blessed in return, and that his ability to bless was passed on to Isaac. And Megillah 15a states that “the blessing or curse of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly.”

Overall, Judaism does not reserve the power to bless to a specific class of Jews. And yet Parshat Naso establishes the Aaronite Priesthood’s power of blessing the Jewish People within a specified envelope of instruction: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them . . . Here comes the three-fold Birkat Cohanim itself and then: And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel and I will bless them.”

Most commentators take the final avarchem — “I [that is, God] will bless them” — as referring not to the priests being blessed by God after they bless the people, but rather to the people gaining God’s blessing as a result of the priests channeling it. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “There are no magic powers inherent in the priest or in the blessing. The intention of the one who pronounces it is an essential part of the blessing; indeed, it is their attitude that turns the formula into a blessing.”

And yet, Birkat Cohanim itself has great power — in a way that Nechama Leibowitz succinctly articulates: “The three sections of the priestly benediction illustrate an ascending order, starting with human beings’ material needs, then dealing with our spiritual wants, and finally reaching a climax combining both these factors together, crowning them with a blessing of peace. This ascending order and increasing surge of blessing is reflected in the language and rhythm. The first phrase consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven.”

The rhetorical and spiritual power of the words themselves, along with their ancient lineage going back to Temple days, communicated itself beyond Judaism to Christian and other settings. And within Judaism, Birkat Cohanim became increasingly decentralized, with shlechai-tzibur as well as rabbis and cantors summoning it to bless congregants, wedding couples, and bnai-mitzvah.

Years ago, one of my children suddenly became fearful before falling asleep, even with a regular bedtime ritual that included reading aloud and lullabies. Wracking my brains to come up with something potentially helpful, I drew up from Jewish wellsprings the bedtime Shma. To this I added Birkat Cohanim, although it’s not part of the traditional Shma al ha-mitah. The effect was near magical; within a couple of days, sleep came without resistance, derived from a feeling of safety not achievable through music, literature, and parental presence alone.

On my end though, reciting the three sentences’ heavily gendered Hebrew hit me as it hadn’t before. Should I continue using language that was so heavily skewed as masculine when conveying blessing to a female child? On the spot, I transformed the final indirect object from l’cha to l’ach — which felt like a good compromise between truth and tradition.

In my opening preview, I said that this Dvar Torah would come to rest on an important, near-revolutionary context in which Birkat Cohanim appears. That context is when parents bless their children at the Shabbat or Holiday table. Could there be a more decentralized, democratized expansion of what was originally a responsibility of Judaism’s priestly class? Indeed, this expansion includes mothers as well as fathers in many Jewish homes.

As we know though, the traditional parental blessing begins in a strongly gendered way by taking Ephraim and Menashe as the model for boys and the four Matriarchs as that for girls. Until seven months ago, I hadn’t given this bifurcation a moment’s thought whenever I felt the Torah-based aura of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s children waft over all children present in our or another Jewish home. I had even taken upon myself to extend Blessing the Children to the family members who regularly participated in zoom Shabbat dinners throughout the first long Covid year. But when Esther’s sibling Rachel gently, respectfully queried my using the traditional formulation even after we had become aware of there being a “gender component” to Esther’s death, the scales fell from my eyes and I was unable to experience Blessing the Children in the same way.

Sometime after that, I found the section entitled “Queer or Chosen-Family Blessing for the Children” on Keshet’s website, to which I direct you for its full range of creative resourcefulness. In the end, I was not satisfied with Keshet’s way of simply combining Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah with Ephraim and Menasche. For as we all have been impelled to learn or at least hear, many young people see themselves as what English hasn’t found a better way of putting than “non-binary.” And so, I wound up adding Jonathan and Ruth to the list, as the best I could do for biblical figures who seem to have experienced closeness, even intimacy, across the gender divide.

For me then, what I’ve labeled the radicalism of ordinary Jewish parents blessing the young people of their household week in, week out, has become even more radical by becoming more inclusive. Or perhaps it’s just more truthful about, and accepting of, the variety of children who emerge into our families.

I conclude with hallowed language about blessing, not from a Jewish source but from Shakespeare. After Hamlet confronts his mother in the closet scene of Act III, he utters these luminous words: “Once more, good- night. And when you are desirous to be blest, I’ll blessing beg of you.” When the Cohanim blessed the people, surely blessings returned to them. When parents bless their children, do not these children bless them in their hearts?

May the circle of blessing that flows from God to human beings, and from earth into eternity, expand — bringing us peace and protection during these continuingly demanding, achingly irreplaceable times.

Shabbat shalom!

 

Parshat Acharei Mot

Parshat Acharei Mot

By Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig, April 2022/Nissan 5782

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, this week’s parsha contains the verse that launched a thousand drashot. We read Leviticus 18:22, a verse that many of us find challenging to our modern sensibilities:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

As translated by JPS: Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.

I ask myself, as I often do, where do I find myself in this parsha? In this verse? Well, I know Julia is the poet, but I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a short poem I wrote in October of 2016:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Surprise, I’m queer,
Thought it’s time the world knew.

That’s it – that’s where I find myself in this verse. A human who believes in Torah and halacha and Jewish communal life, and also definitely, unquestionably queer and attracted to people of all genders.

In 2016 when I came out publicly for the first time, I was working at a synagogue (6 synagogues actually) and felt mostly secure in my job and my life. I felt like I had the privilege to come out and be a model of observant queer life for many of the teens (queer and otherwise) that I worked with. I didn’t really ask anyone before I did it, partially because I was afraid they’d say no, tell me to stay in the closet. I was definitely worried about the backlash though – would I be fired? Would parents say that I wasn’t qualified to work with their teens? Would I be accused of grooming or turning the kids queer? Not like they weren’t already, but that’s neither here nor there……Turns out  I didn’t get fired, and in the end only one parent called the synagogue to complain about it, as far as I know,  so my story has a mostly happy ending at least.

Interestingly enough, while I had made a particular choice to not ask my boss or anyone else at the synagogue, I hadn’t even thought to check what our movement had to say about same-sex relationships, and in particular bisexuality. I’ll be honest, in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have come out if I had read our movement’s positions on same-sex partnership.

In 1992-1993 and again in 2005-2006 our movement took up the issues of same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian rabbis. It began, in 1992, with a conesnsus statement from the law committee stating that Conservative Rabbis would not perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, would not admit gay or lesbian students to seminaries, and  would leave the decision of other lay leadership up to each individual synagogue. At the end, though, it said that we “affirm gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools.” A total of 12 papers, including the consensus statement, were passed that year, with Rabbi Joel Roth’s paper, titled “Homosexuality” being the most in-depth look at the topic. He took an incredible deep dive, attempting to seek out what this word “toeva” means, what the implications of that are, and what is the actual thing that the Torah is attempting to ban. He came to a conclusion that all forms of homosexuality are forbidden, not just lustful relations, but also long-term stable partnerships. I do appreciate , though, his insistence that there is “no defensible grounds for asserting that toeva refers to inherent abhorrence rather than to attributed abhorrence.” I am also so impressed by Rabbi Roth’s insistence that this is a rule for us, the Jews, and that marriage equality should be the law of the land. This teshuva is challenging, and thankfully the issue was revisited, even if it was more than a decade later.

In 2005, during this revisitation, Rabbi Roth stood by his position again. This teshuva passed and remains a valid stance for rabbis in our movement to take: no gay or lesbian rabbis or cantors, no same-sex commitment ceremonies, and it is up to individual rabbis to decide about gays and lesbians in other leadership roles, just for a quick summary.

And we also got another teshuva, written by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner This teshuva, while challenging, is incredibly important: it allowed me to be here today.

They tackled 3 questions: what guidance does halacha offer to Jews attracted to people of the same gender? What intimate activities are permitted or prohibited? And how shall Conservative Judaism relate to gay and lesbian couples?

Their conclusions were progressive for the time and opened doors to many people previously excluded from communities,  particularly seminaries. They opened the door to professional schools and institutions, like Ziegler, to gay and lesbian students, and took a “not quite now, but soon” stance on same-sex marraige, and encouraged committed relationships.

It’s not all joy and triumph, though, there are two challenging pieces. First, there are rules particularly about what sort of intimate acts gay men in particular may not engage in.  Second, particularly troubling for me and other queer folks who do not identify as gay or lesbian, is their conclusion specifically for people who are bisexual: heterosexual marragine between two Jews remains the halachic ideal.

For people who could only find happiness and fulfillment within a same-sex partnership, the rabbinic prohibitions are suspended for kavod habriut, for their dignity. But for me, and others like me, our dignity cannot come first and we must follow the rabbinic prohibition and limit our choices to people of the opposite gender.

This teshuva, which allows me to be here today, was progress in 2005. If it had not been for that I would not be here as the out queer, rabbinical student that I am.

And it’s not enough. We can do better. We must do better. It can be a matter of life and death.

The 2021 Trevor Project Survey of Youth Mental Health found that 42% of of queer youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, that number was even higher for bisexual youth. Queer youth are FOUR times more likely to -attempt- suicide than their peers. A 2016 review of research by UCLA School of Law found 17% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults had attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared with 2.4% of the general U.S. population. And in 2021 they also found that bisexual respondents were about 1.5 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts, compared to gay and lesbian respondents.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Adult respondents to the UCLA School of Law survey who had not experienced discrimination were half as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year. And, according to the same Trevor Project survey, having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among queer young people by 40 percent.

We know that accepting adults change lives for queer youth. And I can say with confidence that accepting community and peers have changed my life, too.

1992 was a generation ago. 2005 was half my lifetime ago. The world is changing, the world has changed, and our movement must, too. AND we sit in a place of tension as Conservative Jews. We walk in this world and see what goes on around us, and we are also firmly committed to the ideal of halacha and Jewish living. There aren’t easy answers to these questions, it is not easy to strike the ideal balance between tradition and modernity.

But it doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the questions. These rulings have real implications on real lives, mine included. It’s up to everyone to figure out how to ask hard questions, dig deeply, and build an inclusive, welcoming movement and community. We’re here, we’re queer, and our lives depend on it. Shabbat shalom.

 

 

Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa

By Joel Stern – February 19, 2022

The D’rash is based on this 3-minute video, so please click and watch it before reading.

https://youtu.be/Sq7EwryJqJI

Why did I tell this story using origami? What was different about your hearing the story while I was dramatizing it by folding a square of paper, rather than just hearing the story alone?

Well, for one thing, folding the paper stimulated your curiosity. You wanted to see where I was going. You wanted to see how my words would be reflected in the folding action. You were engaged with what was happening.

Also, it was a multisensory experience for you. You were using your eyes as well as your ears. Research has shown that multisensory learning can be more effective for many people than unisensory learning, because it keeps them more engaged.

Here’s another reason you paid attention: A story is an abstraction of an experience. When you only hear my words, the experience remains abstract, intangible, conceptual. When I augment the story with a physical act — folding paper, the abstract becomes tangible, more real.

Do you see any parallels with our story of the Golden Calf in this week’s Parasha? The people wanted, needed, in fact, a physical manifestation of God. Moses was their link to God. He was for them, in many ways, the physical embodiment of the Divine. With Moses gone, the people’s link to God was even more tenuous, and during a prolonged absence, that link had broken. They could no longer accept divinity in the abstract. They needed a physical presence. Hence, the Golden Calf.

But here’s the great irony of the story. God understands this need of the people for a physical presence. Just before sending Moses back down the mountain with the first set of tablets, He tells him that he has endowed Bezalel and Oholiav with the skills necessary to make the Ohel Mo-ed, the Tent of Meeting; the Aron la-Edut, the Ark of the Pact, along with its cover; plus all the furnishings of the Tent; and the priestly vestments. Bezalel and Oholiav were even tasked with pressing the oil to anoint the priests, and preparing the aromatic incense!

God understood the people’s need for a beautiful prayer space: an attractive ark, stately looking priests, and a religious atmosphere. He wanted to engage all their senses, recognizing that these things can enhance sacred experience, even faith.

If only the people had been more patient! Instead, they built a Golden Calf. And as punishment, Moses sent the Levites out to slaughter the 3,000 sinners among the people.

Some commentators understood that the severity of the punishment was due to the fact that the people refused a direct relationship with God, but preferred an intermediary — Moses, or, in his absence, an idol. God was offended. It’s kind of like a wife no longer wanting to communicate directly with her husband, but through her lawyer.

But, after all, as creatures of the flesh, it’s understandable that the people were apprehensive about such a intimidating relationship. Say the wrong word and ZAP! Weren’t they, as physical beings, simply doing what came naturally?

If that’s all we are as humans—physical beings—then the people’s actions were totally natural, and the punishment was completely unjustified.

But the Torah teaches us, through this story, that we’re not just physical creatures. We also have a spiritual side.

Immediately after dictating the physical requirements of the Ohel and the Aron, God charges Moses: Ach shabtotai tishmoru… “Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths.” And then… V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et haShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam… “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.”

God is saying, yes, as physical beings you need a distinctively beautiful space in which to encounter the sacred. That’s provided by the Ohel and the Aron. But you also need a sacred time during which the possibilities for a spiritual experience are enhanced. We can enter that sacred time by observing the Sabbath.

As humans, we need both sacred time and space, the abstract and the concrete, the spiritual and the physical, the holy words and the two tablets on which they were written, the story and the folded paper.

This is who we are, the Torah teaches — creatures of spirit and flesh. And by nurturing both sides of our nature, we can be partners with God in B’rit Olam — a covenant spanning all of time… and all of space.

I sense that the paper Tablets may not have quite satisfied your need for a physical token of this D’var Torah. So in that spirit, I offer this origami Golden Calf. Remember, it’s not to be worshipped!

Shabbat Shalom!

Mishpatim

Mishpatim–משפתים

By Zwi Reznik, 29 January, 2022, 27 Shevat 5782

(Please see the notes at the end of this Drash)

I would like to start with a bit of a prologue that is not part of Mishpatim. In Numbers—במדבר, Chapter 27:4 four sisters pose a question to Moses, 4 Why should our father’s name be withdrawn from the midst of his clan because he had no son? Give us a holding in the midst of our father’s brothers! Moses takes this issue to God, who responds, 7Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers and you shall pass on their father’s estate to them. 8And to the Israelites you shall speak, saying, ‘Should a man die without having a son, you shall pass on his estate to his daughter. So God can, and sometimes does, change his mind. Please keep that in mind as we proceed through Mishpatim.

This Parsha’s importance may be noted by the fact that it is referred to as the “Book of the Covenant”. We notice that towards the end of the Parsha in Chapter 24:7, 7וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־ דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע “And he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will heed.”  Note that in modern Hebrew we are residents of the nation הארצות הברית—the United States.

The Book refers to the bulk of this Parsha in Chapters 21 to 23 which contain a great many laws right after we have been introduced to the Ten Commandments, or Ten Divine Imperatives as Alter refers to them. The laws here cover many topics. The first is SLAVERY, appropriate for a group of relatively recently freed slaves. There is a single sentence which provides the basis of Jewish Law on abortion. The well known “Talon Law”—i.e. Life for Life, Eye for Eye etc., and the corollary idea of financial compensation for losses including injuries, or even in some cases loss of  life. Causing injury through negligence, as in the case of an Ox that has a history of causing damage by goring. Financial restitution as the punishment for theft rather than execution. All of that is just Chapter 21.  I’ll focus today on Slavery. My choosing that as my main topic is somewhat personal. As is true of others in our Kahal my parents were both Holocaust survivors who were slaves in the Lodz Ghetto and Nazi labor camps.

We begin with 21:1-2, 1‘And these are the laws that you shall set before them. 2Should you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall serve and in the seventh he shall go free, with no payment:. The text continues with subsequent phrases dealing with the issues of a married slave, a slave with children, are they the children of a wife he entered slavery with or a female slave provided as a wife by his owner. If the last is the case then the slave doesn’t get to take the wife and children with him. After all, the wife was just breeding stock for the owner. No problem. If the male slave doesn’t want to leave his wife and children there is a simple procedure to allow him to stay a slave FOREVER with his wife and children!

There is a large volume of commentary favorably comparing the rights of this Hebrew slave of a Hebrew master, to the truly unfortunate slave of a pagan master in one of the many other societies of the time. Alter for example notes that in reference to 21:2 “…and in the seventh he shall go free. What is clearly involved is not chattel slavery but what amounts to a kind of indentured servitude. The Bible does not question this institution but sets certain limits on it, and, as one can see in the subsequent laws, the slave retains basic human rights. Alter is clearly correct that some rights are better than none.

There are other slavery related matters intoduced, e.g. selling a daughter into slavery , and then the text moves on to crimes, in particular causing a death. The punishment for willfully causing a death is death but, there is a noteworthy exception for causing the death of a slave. 21: 20 And should a man strike his male slave or his slavegirl with a rod and they die under his hand, they shall surely be avenged. 21But if a day or two they should survive, they are not to be avenged for they are his money. I usually like starting with reading the relevant portions of Rashi when I prepare a Drash. Let’s see what Rashi, in the 11th Century and still surrounded by slave holding societies, says about this beating of slaves. Rashi on 21-21:  לא יקם כי כספו הוא HE SHALL NOT BE AVENGED: FOR HE IS HIS MONEY — However, any other person who smote him (the servant) is subject to the death penalty although he lived 24 hours before dying. Rashi does get into some other discussion about the meaning of “a day or two…” but not much else is said about the death of the slave. For the sake of modern sensibilities let me quote Alter again with his footnote to 21:21. 21. But if a day or two they should survive. The sad implication of this stipulation is that vigorous beating of slaves, male and female alike, was assumed to be an acceptable practice. If the slave lasted a couple of days and then died, the inference would be that the master had not intended the death but had merely overdone the beating. If the slave died on the spot, this would be evidence that the master had meant to kill him, or at least was guilty of involuntary manslaughter. for they are his money. That is, it would be counter to the master’s own interest to take the life of a slave after having purchased him to perform service, so the presumption is that unless the slave dies during the beating, there was no clear intention on the part of the master to kill him.

Even before Rashi we start seeing some changes in attitude. In Deuteronomy—דבורים we see some modification of the distinctions that we see in Mishpatim between the treatment of male versus female slaves. In Job we read the passage Job 31:13-15  13If I spurned the case of my slave or my slavegirl in their brief against me, 14what would I do when God stands up, and when He assays it, what would I answer? 15 Why, my Maker made him in the belly, and formed him in the selfsame womb.”

The Alter footnote to Job 31—15: 15. the self same womb. Job, of course, does not mean that he and the slave had the same mother but rather that they share the same human condition, each having been formed in the womb. Hence, despite the economic disparity, an existential parity obtains between them.

 I want to move on to some more modern Rabbinic commentaries. However, I would first like to make a comment on what I’ve learned in our Mishnah study group. In the time of the Mishnah, and the Roman occupation, we see that there are regular disagreements between our sages. What is also apparent are the serious efforts that were undertaken to adjust to a constantly changing world. That has continued to this day.

For now let’s move on to modern times—January 1861 in the United States—the Land of the Covenant, ארצות הברית. Firstly I need to provide an attribution. I have been making regular use of Sefaria. (Email me for more details). At Sefaria I found Sheets, as Sefaria calls them, of another user who has prepared a series of Lessons on Slavery and the Jewish Tradition. I will provide a footnote in the copy of this Drash that will be posted to the Library Minyan website.

What is referred to as the “Secession Crisis” occurred after the election of the great sage, Abraham Lincoln. The newly elected President had called for a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer as one attempt to deal with the crisis. As we all know the attempt failed. The Sefaria documents include statements from a number of Rabbis. I have selected some to use today. The first two are short selections from two much lengthier documents:

THE BIBLE VIEW OF SLAVERY

by Rabbi Dr. M.J. Raphall
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
New York City
1861. Published in the New York Herald

My friends, I find, and I am sorry to find, that I am delivering a pro-slavery discourse. I am no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery. With a due sense of my responsibility, I must state to you the truth and nothing but the truth, however unpalatable or unpopular that truth may be.

___________________________________

The result to which the Bible view of slavery leads us, is—

1st. That slavery has existed since the earliest time;

2nd. That slaveholding is no sin, and that slave property is expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments;

3rd. (NOTE: He is speaking of Human Beings as PROPERTY!).

That the slave is a person, and has rights not conflicting with the lawful exercise of the rights of his owner. If our Northern fellow-citizens, content with following the word of G-d, would not insist on being “righteous overmuch,” or denouncing “sin” which the Bible knows not, but which is plainly taught by the precepts of men—they would entertain more equity and less ill feeling towards their Southern brethren. And if our Southern fellow-citizens would adopt the Bible view of slavery, and discard the heathen slave code, which permits a few bad men to indulge in an abuse of power that throws a stigma and disgrace on the whole body of slaveholders—if both North and South would do what is right, then “G-d would see their works and that they turned from the evil of their ways;” and in their case, as in that of the people of Nineveh, would mercifully avert the impending evil, for with Him alone is the power to do so. Therefore let us pray. …

 So what is Rabbi Raphall saying. That there is a kinder gentler slavery that the South should adopt. Also that the northern brethren should be more understanding of and bear less ill will towards the southern brethren. Rabbi Raphal’s statement was followed by outraged statements from both Jews and Christians. So consider another Rabbi’s response.

 Rabbi David Einhorn

A brief history from Sefaria notes: He addressed Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. A response to this speech was a riot on April 19, 1861. After being threatened by a mob with being tarred and feathered he fled North. He first fled with his family to Philadelphia and became rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation. In 1866, they went to New York and he became rabbi of the Congregation Adath Israel. The congregation eventually merged with an orthodox congregation and was renamed Beth El. On July 1879 a ceremony for his retirement was held in his apartment due to his poor health. It was cross-denominations and Orthodox and Reform rabbis were present. He died 4 months later. This selection is from a lengthy response to Rabbi Raphall.

Jews! Where they are oppressed, they boast of the humanity of their religion; but where they are free, their Rabbis declare slavery to have been sanctioned by God, even mentioning the holy act of the Revelation on Sinai in defense of it. Whereas Christian clergymen even in the Southern States, and in presence of the nation’s Representatives in part, though admonishing to toleration—openly disapprove of it and in part apologize for it, owing to existing conditions!

I am no politician and do not meddle in politics. But to proclaim slavery in the name of Judaism to be a God-sanctioned institution—the Jewish-religious press must raise objections to this, if it does not want itself and Judaism branded forever. Had a Christian clergyman in Europe delivered the Raphall address—the Jewish-orthodox as well as Jewish-reform press would have been set going to call the wrath of heaven and earth upon such falsehoods, to denounce such disgrace, and  חלול השם And are we in America to ignore this mischief done by a Jewish preacher? Only such Jews, who prize the dollar more highly than their God and their religion, can demand or even approve of this!

 Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook is a well known figure. He is noteworthy for being a supporter of Zionism. In addition he, along with a Sephardi Chief Rabbi, formed what is now known as the Rabbinate in Israel. If you keep up with religious affairs in Israel and how the Masorti movement is doing there you are of course familiar with the Rabbinate.

Iggerot HaRaaya, vol.1, no.89
Avraham Yitzchak Kook
21 Av 5664, August 2, 1904

 You should know that slavery, as with all the moral, upstanding ways of God “in which the righteous walk and the evil stumble,” never in itself caused any fault or error. Slavery is a natural law amongst the human race. Indeed there is no difference between legal slavery and “natural” slavery. In fact, legal slavery is within the jurisdiction of Torah, and is legislated in order to control certain flaws, and this, because God anticipated the reality of “natural” slavery.

Let me explain. The reality of life is that there is rich and poor, weak and strong. A person who has great wealth hires poor people – legally – in order to do his work. These employees are, in fact, “natural” slaves due to their socio-economic standing. For example, coal miners. These people go to work in the mines hired of their own free will, but they are in effect slaves to their employers. And it is obvious that someone need to be humble and do this work… but maybe if they were actually owned by their employer, they would be better off! (Now this is where this gets interesting) And now, behold, we need to raise up and agitate ethically so that people worry about the conditions of living of those workers. The rich, with their stone and closed hearts, scoff at all morals and ethics. They don’t care if the mines lack air and light, even if this shortens the life expectancy of their workers, whose numbers run into the tens of thousands, many of whom become critically ill. They certainly won’t let the expenses to improve working conditions in the mines leave their pockets, and if a mineshaft collapses burying workers alive, they don’t care. Tomorrow they will find new workers to employ. If these people were owned by the master by legal slavery, he would have a financial interest to look after their lives and well-being, because they are his own assets, and for those poor workers would be happier and more cared for, with a better future.

I want to close with some words from the Rabbinical Assembly website. This is one of many articles I found when I did a search on the site for the word SLAVERY.

From the Rabbinical Assembly Website
Slavery Today

Posted on: Friday August 2, 2013
This page was updated in 2020. 

By Rachel Kahn-Troster (adapted from T’ruah’s Fighting Modern-Day Slavery: A Handbook for Jewish Communities; the first paragraph is adapted from www.FreeTheSlaves.net/Judaism)

Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it is practiced everywhere, including in the United States and Israel. Today, tens of millions of people are enslaved around the world, a higher number but lower percentage than ever before. Slaves are also cheaper than ever. The cost to buy a human being as chattel is far lower now, adjusted for inflation, than it was before American Civil War.

Many modern slaves are not bought and sold directly. However, the readily available supply of cheap labor devalues human life: it is easier for employers to use violence, coercion, and fraud to keep workers from fleeing, knowing they will be unable to recoup fees paid for travel and housing or secure better work elsewhere. Poverty and migration are some of the leading drivers of modern-day slavery. As a result, freeing people directly from situations of forced labor is only the first stepping in solving this human rights atrocity. We must prioritize prevention of trafficking by addressing its root causes and work directly with the most vulnerable populations to understand their specific needs and community and worker-driven solutions.

Notes:

  1. The selections from Rabbis Raphall and Einhorn in this written copy are lengthier than what I presented to the Library Minyan. They are also lengthier in the original source documents than what appears here. See Note 2.
  2. I made significant use of Sefaria to find source documents e.g.: https://www.sefaria.org/collections/slavery-in-judaism
  3. I commend to you the book “Lincoln and the Jews” by Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell for further references regarding the positions of American rabbis on slavery. The introduction to that book opens with:

In central Jerusalem, close by streets named for the medieval Jewish luminary Moses Maimonides and the modern Hebrew writer Peretz Smolenskin, and abutting the American consulate (note: now Embassy) lies a crooked street named for Abraham Lincoln. When questioned about what he did for the Jewish people to merit a street named for him in Jerusalem, even those Jerusalemites familiar with Lincoln’s biography shake their heads and shrug”. The street is also near the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, Gershon Agron St 8, Jerusalem, Israel, and the Conservative Synagogue, Moreshet Yisrael.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pekudeh

Thoughts on Shabbat Pekudeh

By Tamar F. Levin, Pekudeh 2022, March 5, 2022

Chazak, Chaza! We have completed the journey through the Book of Shemot, It has been a momentous journey. We recall Yitziat Mitzrayim not only when we read Shemot, but each time we hear or say Kiddush , recite Hallel, or the Birkat HaMazon, and several times when davening Shacharit each day. Yitziat Mitzrayim is the story that defines us and tells us who and what we are. And in a little more than a month…b’chol dor v’dor, we will rejoice in retelling it this story yet again our Seder tables. It’s a story with powerful resonance for all who value freedom; the sound track of my childhood includes unforgettable recordings by Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson singing “Go Down Moses”…As Rabbi Kligfield reminded us, we don’t have to look hard to find examples of bullies and tyrants in the history of mankind.

Our freedom was granted with a purpose and our spiritual destiny was sealed at Sinai: Israel was to be inextricably bound in covenant with the Almighty . Norms of conduct both individual and societal were to be regarded as expressions of divine will. Just as the

Almighty showed compassion to us when we were strangers in Mitzrayim, we are commanded to show concern for the poor, the outsider, the stranger, the refugee among us. Some members of our kehillah are doing that right now.

In Shemot our ancestors are were transformed from slaves building cities for Pharaoh into free people building a sanctuary so that the Almighty might “dwell” among them. Contributions were sought and obtained and individuals lent their skill, ability and knowledge. Laborers, craftsmen and women, workers in metal, wood, fiber, jewels, embroidery, all participated. Finally, in today’s parsha, contributions accounted for, the beautiful eight part vestments for the priests, the numerous tabernacle components and furnishings are completed and brought to Moshe for inspection.

“In accordance with all that God had commanded Moshe, so did the Israelites accomplish all the work that had been set for them. Moshe saw the entire work and lo! they accomplished it as God had commanded, so they had done; and Moshe blessed them.

Among midrashim that supply the words to the tfillah are these :

“And Moshe said: May Thy work be seen by Thy servants and may Thy glory remain with their children! May it be the will of God that the Shekhinah may rest upon the work of your hands, and may the bliss of God, our God be upon us.”

Just two weeks short of the anniversary of leaving Mitzrayim, and nine months after arriving at Mt. Sinai, a new sense of community has been formed. God instructs Moshe to set up the Mishkan, anoint and consecrate it and all its furnishings, so that it shall be holy. Then Aharon and his sons dressed in their vestments of “kavod v’tiferet,” are anointed and consecrated introducing the institution of a hereditary priesthood.

Rabbi Heschel described Shabbat as creating sanctity in time, and now the Mishkan brought sanctity in space. A “home” for the infinite God within finite space was established. The Eytz Chayim calls it a place of “encounter and Presence – a portable Sinai” and adds “ After much dedicated effort – taking up four and a half parshiyyot, God’s Presence has a dwelling place among His people.”

Israel had agreed to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation at Sinai, but this did not prevent them from acting like a mob and worshiping the golden calf. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and others have written that this was the crisis to which the Mishkan and the Kohanim were the answer. As Rabbi Kligfield noted “The Mishkan was in the center of the camp, and while building it, workers focused on one another, on shared purpose and holy, intimate work that kept them focused on God.” They became a kehillah.

Even after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, Jews found substitutes that performed the functions of the MIshkan and the Kohanim. Rabbi Sacks writes “ We learned a choreography of holiness and respect that helped Jews walk and dance together as a nation. We needed to learn about reverence, loyalty, and humility . We needed to learn to build a community that would allow the sacred to enter. “ We needed to to acknowledge that the sacred is beyond human control, or ownership.

The Vilna Goan taught that the pillars of cloud and fire that first appeared to guide us as we fled the Egyptians disappeared with the arrival of the golden calf. They only returned when the Mishkan was built. (Closeness to the Almighty needs to start from below, with us.) The return of the pillars of cloud and fire confirmed that the bond with God was re-established.

In the Zohar Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai explains that the pillars of cloud represent Chessed, and the fire, Gevurah. Both would now be with us in our journey towards Canaan.

We gather this Shabbat in our communal tent to daven together, to find joy, solace and strength in community, to humbly pray that the spirit of the Almighty will continue to hover over us, as the cloud hovered over the first Mishkan, to guide us and bring the harmony and blessing of shalom.

Shabbat shalom

 

 

Vayelech Shabbat Shuva

Vayelech Shabbat Shuva

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, Sept 11, 2021

The reading of Parshat Vayelech on Shabbat Shuva, and a haftorah that comes from three different books of Neviim, are both rather rare events.

So, why this parsha, and this haftorah on this Shabbat? In one word: transitions. In Hebrew, a transition is a ma’avar, the plural: ma’ava’reem. Keep that tucked away for now.

One obvious transition is that on Shabbat Shuva, we are at the middle of the Aseret Yamei Tshuva, a 10 day period of Repentance and Judgment.

The Haftorah reinforces this theme of Tshuva, pointing out that moving away from God is actually expected, but God, we are reassured, waits for us to return, to transition or “pivot” in a new direction.

Finally, Parashat Vayelech is also about transitions- an imminent move into the Promised Land, and a change in leadership.

These transitions, like those we all experience, bring out mixed thoughts and emotions.

In this week’s short parsha, Moshe or God tell the people five times that Moshe’s term of office is up. While this may be a transition for the people, for Moshe… it’s the Final Transition.

If you look at the top layer, the peshat of the parsha, however, Moshe seems stoic or resigned: there is no emotion; no praying, no pleading for more time or a different outcome.

Sitting here on Shabbat Shuva, Moshe’s lack of response seems strange.   So let me introduce you to Midrash Petirat Moshe, a medieval collection of imagined conversations, in which Moshe repeatedly asks for more time to live, and God repeatedly refuses. Here’s one encounter from the end of the collection:

Moshe says to God, “Master of the universe, shall these feet that went up to the heavens, this face that confronted the Shechina, these hands that received the Torah from Your hand–shall these now lick dust?”

God replies: “Such must be the way of the world: each generation is to have its own interpreters of Torah, its own leaders.”

So Moshe asks to spend his last remaining hours serving as Yehoshua’s disciple. When the People see Moshe at Yehoshua’s tent, they ask him to teach them Torah. But Moshe says, “I no longer have the authority.”

Playing off our reading today, when Moshe and Yehoshua later enter the Tent of Meeting, the pillar of cloud comes down and forms a partition between them. After the cloud departs, Moshe asks Yehoshua, “What did God say to you?” Yehoshua replies, “When God used to reveal Himself to you, did I know what He said to you?” In that instant, Moshe cries out in anguish and says, “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.”

This Midrash imagines a more complex Moshe than we see in our parsha. Moshe of the Midrash wasn’t at all happy with God’s decision. He thought he deserved more time. But during the little bit of time he had left, Moshe saw that his new life was too hard to imagine, too hard to bear.

I think we can reconcile the two Moshe’s with the commentaries of Seforno, ibn Ezra, and a little Torah trope.

Our parsha begins with the words

 וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“Moshe went and spoke these words to all of the Israelites.”

The commentator Seforno translates “vayelech” as “hitor’er” – Moshe “woke up” or “came to truly understand” his situation….

And then, and only then…

ַ וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה

“He said these words.”

So Moshe came to terms with his new status, moved beyond whatever anger or resentments he had. He realized what he had to do, and then he went to talk to the people. Not just the people, but “kol Yisrael,” all the people.

The word וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר (va’yidaber) has that great Torah trope called a tevir….it elongates the word. The elongated word could indicate that Moshe did a lot of speaking. Also, the notes go down, then end higher. This might explain this next comment of Ibn Ezra:

הלך אל כל שבט ושבט להודיע שהוא מת שלא יפחדו

He didn’t just speak to the group as a whole, Kol Yisrael, but, according to ibn Ezra, Moshe went to     each    and     every     tribe     to inform them that he was about to die… but they should not fear; God would be with them.

As hard as it was for him, Moshe must have realized that by first confronting his emotions, then going out, and connecting personally with the people, he could help them move forward, directing their energy towards the future. By the way, the name of this Torah trope, Tevir, means broken. Moshe, facing the end, started going downhill emotionally, but engaging with others helped him end on a high note.

Change was clearly hard for Moshe as a leader, and for Bnai Yisrael as they prepared to enter a new Land. As we enter a new year, with its new realities, we too face challenges: as individuals, as citizens, and as part of a global community. So how do we confront our fears? How do we move forward? The key, I believe, is actually in the scariest part of the Mahzor – the Untane Tokef. Cue the dark, foreboding music….

Beginning with Rosh HaShana we recite: UTshuva, U’Tfilla UTzedaka ma’avirin et roa ha’gezera

For many centuries, this phrase was understood quite literally: repentance, prayer and tzedaka will ma’avir (synonymous with mevatel)– they will cancel the bad decree on Yom Kippur.

As Professors Judith Hauptman and Jeff Hoffman have shown, this phrase, and this theology, are clearly in line with Biblical and Rabbinic sources and beliefs. It has meant what it said for centuries. But, as Hoffman points out, this theological formula has also bothered people for centuries. Not only is it scary, but it isn’t always true! Some of us have seen righteous people suffer calamity and even die between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or right after Yom Kippur. In other words, Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka don’t always work.

Acknowledging that Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka don’t always avert the final decree, be it poverty, illness, or even death, newer Mahzorim express the hope that these three actions will lessen the severity of the suffering as one deals with the decree.

But that still leaves us with an inconvenient theology: namely, that I can do Tshuva, Tfilla UTzedaka for days, and I can plead with God…but I can still get bad news.

Trying to preserve the original language, but making it less dogmatic, Hoffman suggests that “reading a prayer is not the same as davening a prayer.” He thinks “that we should understand this prayer not as a statement of theology” but rather as a dramatic push to do teshuvah. In other words, he says, “don’t take it literally, but do take it seriously.”

 While some of us may not fear an actual death sentence on Yom Kippur, what is true for almost all of us is that we fear more change, more trauma, more loss, more curve balls. We are anxious about living, yet again, within new, reconfigured realities.

So, I offer you yet another translation of “ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah.”  Instead of asking God to cancel the Yom Kippur decree, or to relieve our pain once the decree has been decided, maybe what we should be asking God to do is to help us be His partners, to help us be the ma’avireen: the people who help others transition through the severity of our times.

It’s tempting to retreat, to cocoon in our homes and take care of our own needs. But we need to be ma’avireen: the kind of people who give others the strength to face the unknowns of the next chapters in their lives, just as Moshe did.

And the way to do that is through the intentions, words, and connective actions of Tshuva, Tfilla and Tzedaka. Here’s how it works:

T’shuva helps us see who we’ve become, to ourselves, to others, and to God, and to see what’s facing us.

T’filla helps us externalize and affirm our values and commitments, and our connection to our community. Our prayers, just like our lives, are in the plural.  We need to communicate horizontally, as well as vertically. Our devarim, our words, can lead to real things, to real change.

Tzedaka is fed by, and embodies T’shuva and T’filla. Interaction with others reduces stress and cynicism; it evokes feelings of gratitude. Acts of Hesed encourage us to imagine a brighter future.

Whether it was Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 which was exactly twenty years ago today, COVID, January 6th, Delta, or personal crises, we have all lived through events that forced us to re-examine who we are, what we believe, and how we think about our neighbors and our country.

To be ma’avee’reen, the first step is  וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ  (va’yelech)  we have to wake up, and take stock of our new realities, of who we are now.

Then, וַיְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה  we need to engage with others, with words of compassion, with words that connect rather than divide, with words that recognize that we are all finding our way. We have to go אל כל שבט ושבט from tribe to tribe, encouraging, reassuring one another through words and actions that things will get better.

Through our words and our actions, we can help ma’avir et roa ha’gezera- we can help ourselves and others transition from fear to hope, from trauma to joy.  Ma’avireen et roa ha’gzerah is not about the depth or quantity of suffering; it’s about the power of our response to it.  It’s the work we have to do now.

As we move forward, from this Shabbat Shuva, through Yom Kippur and beyond, may we all turn towards God and towards one another to truly ensure a Gmar Hatima Tova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vayakhel

Vayakhel

By Julia Knobloch, February 26, 2022

Also in her newsletter.

On Parashat Vayakhel, we often celebrate community: The contributions each individual makes to a kehilla; the collective willingness and enthusiasm permeating a defined group of people pulling on the same string.

When I worked in Jewish non-profits, it was always a welcome opportunity during team retreats or conventions that fell into this week, to appeal to a sense of team spirit, to team building, to stressing how each individual was participating in the greater good of working toward a larger goal.

וַיֵּ֥צְא֛וּ כׇּל־עֲדַ֥ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִלִּפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶֽׁה׃
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כׇּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכׇל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ׃

So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence. And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to יהוה an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. (Exodus 35:20-21)

The Israelites then bring gold objects of all kind, blue and purple and crimson yarns, goats hair, dolphin and ram skins, etc. etc.: Vayakhel talks about the building of the Mishkan. After the Divine instructions to Moses about what the dwelling place of God should look like, sleeves are rolled up and the people on earth are getting to the task. The words of God are put into action. With the gifts of kol edat Israel, a beautiful mosaic is constructed, until we come to the famous lines that people love to quote, and I am quoting them too:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃
וַיְצַ֣ו מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּעֲבִ֨ירוּ ק֥וֹל בַּֽמַּחֲנֶה֮ לֵאמֹר֒ אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אַל־יַעֲשׂוּ־ע֛וֹד מְלָאכָ֖ה לִתְרוּמַ֣ת הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וַיִּכָּלֵ֥א הָעָ֖ם מֵהָבִֽיא׃
וְהַמְּלָאכָ֗ה הָיְתָ֥ה דַיָּ֛ם לְכׇל־הַמְּלָאכָ֖ה לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אֹתָ֑הּ וְהוֹתֵֽר׃

And (the artisans) said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that יהוה has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: Their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:5-7)

I can see why we love that passage. It’s a dayenu moment. It’s a more than dayenu moment. Imagining the enthusiasm and selflessness of our ancestors makes us feel good and believe in the potential each of us, our teachers, students, friends; our societies carry inside us. It instills in us a sense of joy, reassurance, and gratitude.

Yet today I also want to talk about an aspect that often gets lost in the general positivity. It is what I want to call the “warm-and-welcoming dilemma” that every community faces, Jewish or non-Jewish, religious or non-religious. It is the discrepancy between aspired ideal and actual reality.

There will always be a number of people whose spirit is moved, whose hearts are full, and who bring their offerings to the collective project: I have dolphin skins, too! Here’s my grandmother’s ring! I have a nice song to sing as well. But their offerings are not considered, or not needed – the community doesn’t really know what to do with them. Either because there already are simply enough offerings, there are enough people building the Divine dwelling place on earth. Or because those new shades of crimson and purple yarn don’t really fit into the emerging mosaic. How to balance this situation? On the one hand, you want to live up to your warm-and-welcoming mission statement. On the other hand, you also really need to focus on moving the work forward in a way that fits your vision.

It’s popular in work places to have an employee satisfaction survey: Do you feel heard? Do you feel your presence here matters? Usually, the results of these surveys are a bit unreal – because folks don’t share their potential frustration even when anonymity is guaranteed. And when they do a little, there are heartfelt all-staff emails, promising change — and sometimes, change does indeed happen. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Imagine working for a king of flesh and blood who doesn’t exile you or throw you into prison, but beyond that he doesn’t do much else—takes but doesn’t acknowledge your role in his kingdom, the wheel you are in making it function, and it happens over and over again without change.

Imagine spending time with a human of flesh and blood who takes your offerings but then doesn’t use them, rather stashes them in a place of neglect, where they decay by themselves, to use language from Bavli Shabbat 115a:7. Your friends may applaud you when you finally stop giving, but that doesn’t change how empty you feel.

Judaism is a religion that emphasizes action. And the responsibility toward each other: כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. In that, it is a very existentialist religion. Just that the French existentialists were/are more pessimistic than us. As atheists, they don’t believe that we are created in the image of God, but rather, in the image of those around us. And they have a point: The people who mirror us back – and those who don’t mirror us back – play a part in creating us. The existentialists took this realization to the other extreme from warm-and-welcoming, as in Jean-Paul Sartres famous line: L’enfer, c’est les autres: Hell is other people.

We need others to feel – to be – seen, but if we’re not seen, who are we? Another oft-quoted saying by Hillel the Elder echoes this existential reciprocity: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We depend on others. All the potential we have, it gets lost, or at least diminished, when others don’t recognize it, don’t engage it.

What is the solution? It’s complicated! Life is hard, and life is short, and life sometimes forces us to be less of the person we aspire to be. I am taking this dvar also as a reminder for myself. I know I have not given attention to everyone who wanted to become my friend. And how many times will I fail congregants when I’m a rabbi? We ignore people without intending to. We only have so many chairs around our table. We fall asleep without having sent that email or text we wanted to send. I’m sure Bezalal gave curt answers to hyper-excited people who just brought him the umpteenth dolphin skin, and he may have regretted it later. And sometimes, we just sigh and say we simply can’t be friends with everyone. Not every community works for every single visitor. And while this causes hurt and frustration, who is to blame? The line between being warm-and-welcoming while also taking care of our own needs is thin, and it is easy to err.

And/but because life is hard and life is short, we want to, we need to live it to the fullest, with people who are ready to accept our contributions and help us find the best spot for them in that big mosaic of life, where they can shine. We deserve to be part of a community that makes us feel whole, or as whole as possible. I think all communities, and especially religious communities, across denominations and across faiths, need to remember that more often, and more actively –natural limitations notwithstanding. It is amazing to build a dwelling place for God. It must also be a dwelling place for those created in God’s image.

Beshalach

Beshalach

By Rachel Rubin Green, January 15, 2022

After my Uncle Frank Forchheimer died in the year 2000, my parents and I cleaned out his apartment. Among a stack of self-help books stored high up in a hall closet, we found a German Language Jewish Bible. Leafing through this Bible, my mother suddenly collapsed on the couch. “I can’t believe he still has this,” she said. “I remember when some old man came to our house and gave it to him. The man was the leader of what was left of the Coburg Jewish community. It was just a few weeks before Frank left.” Then my mother flipped to inscription on the title page, showed it to me, and translated, “To Franz Forchheimer, that you should always remember the Jewish Community of Coburg. Signed Dr. A. Masur, Spokesperson.” The inscription was dated the 15th of Shevat, Tu’B’Shevat, 5699; the 4th of February, 1939. That this man, Dr. Masur, came to the Forchheimer family home and gave Uncle Frank this Bible was the sum total of Frank’s Bar Mitzvah.

Some years later I looked up which Parsha would have been read on that day on the Hebcal website. It would have been today’s Parsha, BeShalach. As many of you know, I occasionally write stories based on the snippets of Jewish life in Nazi Germany that I learned from my mother. In trying to flesh out these stories, with characters, scenes and conversations, I wanted to create a conversation based on a verse or event in the Parsha that might have occurred between young Franz and Dr. Masur during his visit. I also try to develop the personalities of the characters to be consistent with the individuals that I knew as adults. As an older man, Uncle Frank was active in local Jewish Philanthropy and also regularly attended a weekly Torah study group at his synagogue. Therefore, I wanted this invented conversation to promote a young man’s interest in further Torah study.

I was immediately struck by the verse early in the Parsha, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’” (Chapter 13, verse 19). In my fictional scene, I focus only on the first phrase of this verse, using the image of the Israelites carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt with them as a springboard for Dr. Masur and Franz to discuss what Franz should take with him when he leaves Germany on a Kindertransport. My imagined scene ends when Franz wraps this Bible in his pajamas and tucks it into the satchel he packs for his journey. Over 60 years later, when he died in Columbus, Ohio, he still had it. Since I wrote this scene, Parshat BeShalach is invariably tied to remembering my beloved Uncle Frank. I speak today in his honor.

Today I want to explore this same verse in greater depth. And I want to thank both my sons for their help, intentional or not, in preparing these remarks.

Stevie reminded me that this verse includes a restatement of the second to the last verse of Sefer Breshit, Genesis 50:25, “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” The verse in BeShalach adds one word to the quote from Breshit, the word “Et Chem,” with you, the you in the plural. The Siftei Chachamim, in discussing Rashi’s comments on this verse, say that the Et Chem is added to mean that the bones not only of Joseph, but also of all his brothers should be brought out with the Israelites in the Exodus. This would make at least 12 of the Israelites responsible for carrying bone boxes, not just one.

The Rabbis often focus on duplicated words in the Torah. Both iterations of this verse have the phrase “HashBayAh, HeeshBeeAh,” from the root Shin Bet Ayin, which means to swear. Rashi and Siftei Chachmim see the repetition as Joseph asking his brothers to swear to make their children swear this same oath; to bring his, and theirs, including the brothers, bones out. After all, Joseph, in asking his brothers to swear this, did not know how many generations would yet live in Egypt before God would intervene to bring Jacob’s descendants back to Eretz Yisrael. To make sure that Joseph’s bones are not forgotten, each generation of Israelites in Egypt must have repeated the same vow. A few commentaries cite this as the reason for the repetition of the word “to swear.”

The commentator Chizkuni has a more spiritual interpretation. In making his brothers promise to bring out his bones, Joseph is giving them an opportunity to complete their repentance for selling him into slavery to begin with. When Joseph is buried in the land of Israel, then the spiritual damage of the initial kidnapping and sale has been repaired.

Bringing us back to the story of the Exodus, Kli Yakar’s commentary says that Moses wanted to carry Joseph’s bones with him to guarantee the splitting of the Reed Sea. Moses was confident that the merit of Joseph would force God to split the sea. Rabbenu Bachya repeats this claim.

Rabbenu Bachya also notes that this verse names Moses individually. The previous Torah verse states, “The Israelites went up armed out of Egypt.” We know from other commentaries on other verses that as the Israelites left Egypt, they took gold and jewelry, their own and their neighbors, as their Egyptian neighbors mourned the deaths of their firstborns. In this verse, the Israelites also collect weapons as they flee. Rabbenu Bachya notices that while the Israelites are dealing with practical and material concerns of preparing for the journey; Moses, in locating and carrying the bones of Joseph, is occupied with spiritual matters.

Parshat VaYiggash, near the end of B’reshit, lists the names of the children and grandchildren of Jacob who settle in Egypt. In his drash on VaYiggash, our son Andy mentioned that only two women are named, Jacob’s daughter Dina and Serach bat Asher. Torah mentions Serach twice, once going into Egypt and once, in Sefer B’Midbar, coming out. This leaves a greater than 400-year gap for the authors of Midrash to play with. In our Torah moment, Moses needs to find the grave of Joseph. One Midrash tells us that Serach Bat Asher was the only Israelite alive at that time who had actually attended Joseph’s burial, so she was able to guide Moses to the correct place. Another Midrash says that the Egyptians had thrown Joseph’s casket into the Nile, and that Serach recited special verses to conjure it back to the surface so the bones could be collected. Either way, she remains a magical character, who facilitates taking Joseph’s bones with the Israelites on their journey.

Finally, Rabbenu Bachya also comments, “Joseph had acquired the merit of having brought his father Yaacov to burial in Eretz Yisrael; as a result he received the distinction of having his own remains taken out of Egypt by someone greater than himself, by Moses. Then, in return for having performed this commandment, Moses himself was interred by someone greater than himself, by the Almighty.” Here Rabbenu Bachya creates a hierarchy of merit based on burial practices. In his hierarchy, merit, or holiness, is increased by meeting the requests, commandments, or vows of the deceased regarding their preferred final resting place. While I might want think that burying my uncle or my parents according to their wishes increases my merit before the Holy One, thinking that would be a willful misinterpretation of traditional Halachic burial practices. It would also miss what I have come to think of as a primary lesson of this verse.

I started this D’var Torah with a lengthy explanation of how and why I attached to this verse. The opening phrase, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph,” is indeed a good starting point for discussing what to take while preparing to leave one home for another, however rapid the departure. But reading the complete verse, and learning some of the commentaries that I have shared, has given me a different, and I hope, deeper, understanding. Moses took with him the bones of Joseph because Joseph had exacted an oath from the children of Israel. Moses fulfiiled a promise made by his ancestors generations earlier. He met an obligation(s) his forbears had laid out for him.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Rachel Adler often says that “What makes Torah Holy is that it’s interpretations are infinite.” This exploration of a single verse is an example of this principle. Every time we engage in any ritual activity: prayer, discussion, study, and so on, we fulfill some obligations our ancestors laid out for us. In order to do this, we need to continue to engage with the Torah text – “La’aSok B’Divrei Torah” – to busy ourselves in words of Torah. Throughout our history, whenever and wherever Jews move, no matter what causes us to change our location in the world, we bring the book. This fulfills ancient promises for ourselves and sets a model for our descendants. We are the people of the book.

My uncle brought the book.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

Vayechi

Vayechi — December 18, 2021

By Rabbinic Resident David Kaplinsky

I spent this past week working my way through final exams for my third semester of rabbinical school. The week was filled with a lot of procrastination;  a good deal of stress and angst; little victories; very belated, but fascinating reading; and finally just yesterday afternoon a sense of relief and freedom. That was until I remembered that I had agreed to deliver a Dvar Torah for The Library Minyan. I kid only a little. But in the process of examining my week in the context of parshat Veyechi, I realized how its collision with the end of the year and many of our travels home is so apt.

In this Parsha, as we’ve just read, Yaakov is near death, making Yosef promise he will bury him in Canaan. He then wraps up loose ends, elevating the future status of the Ephraim and Menasheh as tribes and blessing them, followed by each of his sons. Within this narrative there is an apparently extraneous mention by Yaakov of how he was forced to bury Rachel by the side of the road in Bet-Lehem.

He says:

וַאֲנִ֣י ׀ בְּבֹאִ֣י מִפַּדָּ֗ן מֵ֩תָה֩ עָלַ֨י רָחֵ֜ל בְּאֶ֤רֶץ כְּנַ֙עַן֙ בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ בְּע֥וֹד כִּבְרַת־אֶ֖רֶץ לָבֹ֣א אֶפְרָ֑תָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶ֤הָ שָּׁם֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔ת הִ֖וא בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם

“As for me, when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath”—now Bethlehem.”

Following after his designation of Ephraim and Menasheh as “his own,” the question arises: what is the connection between his designation of his grandchildren and his retelling the story of burying Yosef’s mother? The JPS translation used by the Etz Hayim humash packs a lot into the connective vav in va’ani, rendering it in brackets “I [do this because] etc.” This makes the verse a continuation of the previous discussion, and not a completely random statement. Though how exactly Rachel’s death on the side of the road is an explanation for elevating Ephraim and Menasheh to tribal entities is unclear. However, many of the major medieval commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam, all see something slightly different in Yaakov’s sudden recalling of this tragic moment in his life. Ibn Ezra sums it up well. He says:

ואני בבואי מפדן. שמתה רחל פתאום ולא יכולתי להוליכה לקברה במערה כאשר קברתי לאה. ואמר זה ליוסף שלא יחר לך שאבקש מאתך מה שלא עשיתי לכבוד אמך

Rachel died suddenly and I was not able to transport her to the cave of Machpelah and inter her there, as I did with Leah. Jacob told this to Joseph so that he would not be angry with him for requesting that he do for him what he didn’t do for the honor of his mother.

Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, Yaakov’s reason in mentioning this was in order to broach the difficult subject of his burying Rachel on the side of the road before his death, since he had just previously asked to be buried in the family tomb himself. After forcing Yosef to swear he will bury him at Machpelah and designating his two sons as future inheritors, he realizes “the elephant in the room” that he will either address now, or die without having ever broached the issue with his son.

What Yaakov was looking for and hoped to grant Yosef was closure. Yes, they had been truly blessed to reunite and for Yaakov to see not only his son but live to see his grandchildren, but in order for Yaakov to be able to let go of this life fully, he had to confront a wound that was still open.

During these winter holidays, many of us will return to our homes and our families, we have an opportunity not just to bask in the comfort and joy that home can bring, but to tie up loose ends in our lives.

We need not be on our death beds like Yaakov to seek closure with or apologize to our family members for past behavior. This does not have to only come in the form of healing real wounds, which often can be difficult though important to broach, but it can also be in sharing words of love and appreciation that you have often felt but not articulated to them. This may not be possible for every person in your family, but where it is, seize it. Going through life holding on to grudges and anger, or holding back from expressing the love you feel keeps you from real freedom. Yaakov knew that. May we all find our own way to closure with our families and friends. Shabbat shalom.