Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Behar is the name, and tzedakah is the game. Many of us have grown up equating tzedakah with giving charity, but the word literally means: “doing right.” We give charity when we are moved to help the less fortunate. We do tzedakah because it is how we are supposed to live our lives, regardless of how we may feel at any given time.
Behar begins with instructions for “doing right” for the earth by giving the land a rest, a full sabbath from work every seven years. This is where, I think, the word ‘sabbatical’ originates. Then, it continues on to describe the Jubilee year, as the cornerstone of a system where land (the source of power) can never be permanently sold but must be restored to the family of its original owner every 50 years. Why does this matter? The Jubilee creates a generational reset, so that every generation has the same opportunity for prosperity in the Promised Land.
From here, we move on to a series of additional laws of tzedakah regarding how to look after the poor. There are many words in Hebrew for a poor person: there is oni, and rash and evyon and nitzrach. However, none of those words appear even once in Behar. Instead, we read no fewer than seven different times about achicha. Achicha means “your brother,” and the nice biblical number of seven iterations adds weight to the term.
Torah makes no distinction between the value of ‘poor people’ and ‘rich people.’ Instead, it reminds us that we are all brothers, and we should treat each other accordingly: with respect, dignity and empathy. In giving charity, we might think that we are better off than the recipient, but ‘better off’ is only three letters away from ‘better.’ Framing our actions with this viewpoint can create a separation between the giver and the receiver, and even dehumanize the exchange. Instead, Torah teaches us what to do “should our brother come to ruin.” [Lev. 25:35] It reminds us that tragedy can strike any of us, and that we need each other. Indeed, Behar could very well be a biblical expression of the more modern phrase: “it takes a village.” Indeed, according to the rabbis, even the poorest of the poor are required to give tzedakah.
Behar calls us not only to a life of tzedakah, of doing right, but to create a community of tzedakah, so that we may all enjoy the fruits of the land.
Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
The Talmudic rabbis play a game of wits where one says, ‘I can sum up the entire Torah in just seven verses.’ Then another does it in six, and so on all the way down to one. Hillel wins by restating the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not to others – all the rest is commentary.” The Golden Rule, which is to love your neighbor like yourself, comes from this week’s parasha (Lev. 19:18 for those who want to know).
Far be it from me to disagree with Hillel. Yet, if it were up to me, I would pick a different verse – also, it turns out, from, this week’s parashah:
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Lev. 19:2]
This verse is the beginning of a short, incredibly powerful section of Torah called the Holiness Code. And for me, this verse more than any other captures the essence of what Torah teaches. Let’s break it down.
The first part of the verse specifies that this commandment must be spoken to the entire collective of Israel, not just the elders. The Midrashic collection known as Sifra notes that this formulation only occurs for the most important tenets of Torah. So, the first part of the verse exists only to tell us to pay special attention to the second part of the verse: “You shall be holy …”
The English word “holy” is one of those words we toss around like “justice” where we assume that we all agree on what it means, but when push comes to shove, we find difficult to define. The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. Unlike its English counterpart, kadosh has a very particular meaning: set apart for God. Shabbat is holy, it is set apart from the other days of the week. Torah is holy, it is set apart from other books.
“You shall be holy” commands us to be set apart as well, just as God is set apart. “You shall be holy” means that we are to follow a higher authority, live to a higher standard rather than merely go along with the status quo. “You shall be holy” teaches us that we are capable of more than we think, it inspires us to lift ourselves above the fray and take the long view. It reminds us that we are capable of emulating our God and that our lives have purpose.
To be a Jew, Torah teaches, is to be holy – to be set apart for God.
On the one hand, nothing could be more uplifting.
On the other hand … oy.
We have suffered so much for being different. As Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof: “Thank you God for the great honor of choosing me, but once in a while, can't you choose someone else?” Yet, with all of our suffering, we have also brought much light into the world – and we are not done. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is what Torah teaches us we can and must be. How do we do it? The Holiness Code gives us a start with a series of pithy commandments like the Golden Rule. However, even that is not enough. We also need to read the rest of Torah, and then Tanakh [the Jewish bible], and then look to the rabbinic tradition.
Hillel was right: all the rest is commentary. Let’s go and study.
It may still be Passover, but our weekly Torah portion is about to redirect our attention to Yom Kippur. Acharei Mot describes the sacrificial service for Yom Kippur as it was thousands of years ago, and although we no longer follow this rite, there is still much we can learn.
So, let’s talk about what’s been on all of our minds lately: oxen and goats.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first modern chief rabbi of Palestine, observed that the Yom Kippur sacrifices contained a unique chattat (sin) offering. During the rest of the year, a chattat offering would be made with a goat. However, on Yom Kippur, the chattat offering must consist of a goat and an ox.
Why does this matter?
HaRav Kook explained that the ox is a symbol of great strength. Oxen were used to cultivate the land and for construction – their effect on human habitation was generally positive. On the other hand, the Hebrew word for goat is se’ir, which shares a root with the verb “to storm and rage.” Kook notes that goats, when they forage, consume not only the leaves but also the roots of plants. When they overgraze they can devastate a land. He notes that both goats and oxen can be used for good, or for bad. Sometimes we need to destroy before we build, and sometimes we can overbuild or over cultivate.
In other words, both constructive and destructive power can be abused or overused. This leads us back to the chattat offering. It makes sense that the more usual sin offering uses a goat, the symbol of our destructive power gone amok. However, on Yom Kippur, when we step back to look at the larger picture of our lives, we also think about those times when we meant well and yet still caused harm. These too require action on our part. We may no longer participate in the sacrificial rites, but we still make the same mistakes, and to be Jewish is to look year-round at how to mend our errors, heal the harm we have caused and bring redemption to our communities.
Perhaps it makes sense after all to read this passage right after Pesach, to remind us that with freedom comes responsibility. As we count the Omer and remind ourselves of our ancestor’s journey from Egyptian slavery to the Revelation at Sinai, perhaps we should also consider our own personal and communal journeys. Why wait until Yom Kippur? Let’s see if we can examine how we are using our freedom now. What are our intentions? When are we working to bring good into our world and when harm? What can we do now to correct our missteps and strengthen our more life-affirming choices?
Redemption, it seems is not a single event in time, but an ongoing process. “It is not up to you to finish the work,” said Rabbi Tarfon, “yet you are not free to avoid it.” [Pirkei Avot 2:16]
Exodus 12:21 – 51; Numbers 20:16 - 25
“And Egypt bore down on the people [of Israel] to hurry to send them off from the land, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.’ And the people carried off their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” [Ex. 12:33-4]
These verses mark the beginning of the Exodus we are commanded to revisit in our collective memory every year.
We know the story from the seder. We know that we are celebrating our freedom from slavery through the power of God. We know that there was not time to let the dough rise, and we eat matzah rather than leavened bread for the duration of the holiday. We use all of our senses at the seder to re-enact the story.
We know it all. Yet, despite the details we communicate year after year, we also miss something important, found in the Hebrew of the verse: “And Egypt bore down on the people to hurry them off from the land…” The Hebrew word for “bore down” is vatechezak, which comes from the verb chazak, meaning “was strong.” This is the same verb used to describe the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart which is ironic, because that is why Pharaoh refused to let us go free. While my translation is not as poetic, a more literal rendering of the verse is: “The Egyptians used hard strength to hurry the people off from the land.” A little later, this idea is repeated and intensified:
“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” [Ex. 12:39]
According to the text, the Exodus was not a Hollywood-esque march from slavery to freedom with Moses at the head of the column. We were driven from the land by the Egyptians. Furthermore, we were not expecting to leave – otherwise we would have had provisions at the ready. The seder may be an orderly reenactment, but the original event was anything but.
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik used this passage to teach:
“Genuine geulah, genuine redemption, always comes suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time when people are ready to give up hope … At that moment, when the crisis reaches its maximum and threatens the very existence of the community, when people begin to give up the geulah suddenly comes and takes them out of the land of affliction. It comes in the middle of the night and knocks on the door when no one expects it, when everybody is skeptical about it, when everyone laughs off the possibility of redemption.” Festival of Freedom, p. 58
Soloveitchik’s “knock on the door” is a nod to why we put out a cup for Elijah and open the door hoping that this year he will be there. According to rabbinic tradition, Elijah will return one day to announce the coming of the messiah, and the beginning of the messianic world to come where the ills of the world-as-it-is will be no more. The legend says that Elijah will arrive either as the Shabbat ends or during a Passover seder. However, there are two conflicting views on what must happen before the messiah actually comes. One view, referenced by Rabbi Soloveitchik, asserts that the messiah will only come when the world has become so dark that things cannot get any worse. The other view says that the messiah will only come when we have made the world so perfect that we no longer need him (or her). The first view can give us hope when the world is pressing in against us, the second inspires us to work towards building paradise here in this world.
Either way, the process is messy.
This year, if the world seems too dark or dangerous, let us look to the future with messianic hope. Or, if we have the strength, then let us determine at our seder tables to take concrete and specific actions to bring our world closer to redemption.
Passover is not a “once upon a time” observance, but a “for all time” celebration.
Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell teaches: “God creates the world through speech, as we also create our own world through the power of our words.” Although parashat Metzorah seems to be about skin disease and household mold on the surface, our tradition has long held that it is really about the power of our words. In the Talmud we learn that the word metzorah is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase: motzi shem ra (“brings forth a bad name”). According to this interpretation, the external manifestations of the metzorah’s disease are a function of a deeper spiritual malady.
What is this malady?
The rabbis teach that every human being is born with a powerful weapon, and with the ability to chose whether to use it for good or for evil. That weapon is our tongue. Rabbi Jack Reimer writes:
“We use our tongues to create thousands of words every day, and every one of these words has the power to harm or to heal, to hurt or to help. Most of us do very little damage with our hands or with our feet. I can’t think of a single time during this last year when I have hurt anyone with my fists or with my feet. But if I am honest, I must admit that I have hurt people many times during this past year with my tongue.”
Part of the problem is that we do not always see the harm we cause with our words. Most of us, at least in theory, understand that the way we use our words can hurt another person’s feelings. We also understand that we can cause more than emotional harm with our words: we can affect someone’s livelihood or, if we testify falsely, can even help to send an innocent person to prison. Sometimes we are aware of the harm we cause, but more often we are not – especially when it comes to the scale and extent of the damage, and who we are hurting. This is where metzorah comes in. Why is the motzi shem ra, the one who brings for a bad name, covered with a clearly visiblescaly skin affliction? Because using malicious language not only harms others, but themselves. Perhaps I can tell when I have hurt another with my words, but am I aware that I am also hurting myself? When we belittle another human being, we damage a part of ourselves. The more we attack others verbally, the more broken we become. The metzorah is a living physical example of the harm we cause ourselves when we hurt others.
The same holds true for a house which has become infected with tzaraat, the malady of the metzorah. Here we see that not only does weaponized language hurt the person being spoken about, and the person speaking, but also those who hear the words. The environment itself becomes toxic, and if it can not be purified, must be destroyed.
Social media and the internet, with all the benefits they bring, have greatly exacerbated the weaponization of language, as have the growth of tribalism and political polarization. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is filled with tzaraat – but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can choose which kind of world we create.
Now more than ever I pray that we will heed the last words in the Amidah, and “guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile.”
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Tazria scares me. It always has.
It is the rare person indeed who gets excited at the prospect of reading about oozy or bloody bodily emissions, but that is the topic of our parasha this week. Even more, the opening verses appear to be blatantly misogynist, adding another layer of deep discomfort to our contemporary sensibilities. Yet, as Rabbi Ron Segal asks, “when have we ever benefited from avoiding difficult challenges?” So, let’s look at the opening verses, unfiltered:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean (tamah) seven days; shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification (taharah) has been completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean (tamah) two weeks as during her menstruation and she shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for sixty-six days.” [Lev. 12:1-5]
This is what the Torah teaches?
How could childbirth, the closest a human being can ever get to imitating the creative nature of God, result in a condition of ritual impurity or uncleanliness in the mother? And why is the state of impurity/uncleanliness twice as long when the mother gives birth to a girl rather than a boy?
Part of our problem, but only part of it, is a result of translation. Tazria is an exploration of two states of being which in Hebrew are called tumah and taharah. Translating these words into English is challenging. Tumah is commonly understood to mean “impurity,” “defilement,” or “unclean.” Taharah is seen as the opposite. Read this way, the time after childbirth seems like a sentence, doubled for a daughter.
However, there is another way to translate these words as they relate to the sacrificial cult. Taharah is the state of being which permits one to enter the Temple precincts. Tumah is the state of being which does not permit one to enter the Temple precincts. Why does this distinction of one’s state of being matter? First, we must understand that there is a halakhic (Jewish legal) principle that one who is engaged in one mitzvah is exempt from the others. In some cases the first mitzvah is considered so important that one is prohibited from the performance of the others until the primary task is completed.
Judith Antonelli takes this idea and applies it in the most startling way, inferring that the mother bonding with her newborn is a mitzvah which takes precedence over the rest. She notes that there have been studies which demonstrate that mothers pay more attention to baby boys than to baby girls, picking them up and talking to them more, and breastfeeding them longer. While this could just be an example of baby boys being more aggressive and getting more attention, she doesn’t stop there. She writes:
“Perhaps, however, it is one of the more insidious results of male supremacy — that women themselves internalize the value of male superiority and end up perpetuating it, often quite unconsciously, through different ways of relating to sons and daughters. (Similar research has also demonstrated that favoritism is shown to boys by teachers in classrooms and nurses in maternity wards.)”
This leads her to conclude that the passage does not devalue girls but does the opposite. To counteract our pre-existing cultural gender bias, the mother is given twice as much time to bond with newborn daughters than sons, because they need it. So important, so holy is this time of maternal bonding, that all other ritual obligations are removed – even going to the Temple to commune with God. Seen in this way the tumah following childbirth is not a punishment, but a sacred privilege.
For what could possibly be more important than the well-being of our children?
 Judith S. Antonelli, “Postpartum Peace,” in In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Landham, MD: Jason Aronson Press, 1995): 268.
Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Savlanut is the Hebrew word for “patience,” and when it comes to understanding the book of Leviticus that’s exactly what many of us need! In this week’s parasha Shemini we encounter the culmination of the eight-day dedication ceremony of Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel. For each of the past seven days, sin offerings and sacrifices have been offered, but God has not answered. On the eighth day (where our parasha begins), Moses calls Aaron to offer several additional sacrifices, beginning with a calf as a sin-offering on behalf of himself and all Israel. Aaron does exactly has Moses commands. Then something odd happens:
“And Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them and came down from having done the sin offering, and the burnt offering and community sacrifice. And Moses, and Aaron with him, came into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people.” [Lev. 9:22-23]
The question this passage raises has to do with Moses’ involvement. If Aaron is the one responsible for the sacrifices, then why does God only appear after Moses joins in? The great rabbinic commentator Rashi looks to two passages from Sifra (a collection of midrashim or rabbinic legends attached to specific Torah portions). The first passage focuses on Aaron, saying that after a week of unanswered sacrifices he had become agitated. According to the midrash Aaron expressed his fears to Moses that God has not come because God was still angry with Aaron for making the Golden Calf. In response Moses entered the Tent with Aaron to pray on his behalf.
The second passage focuses on the people, who felt humiliated that a whole week had passed and still the Divine presence had not descended upon the Tent. They too worried that they had not been forgiven. So, Moses blessed them, and said, “This is the thing God has commanded you to do so that the glory of God will appear to you.” [Leviticus 9:6] Then the midrash inserts another line from Moses, not found in the Torah: “My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, for through his offerings and service the Divine Presence will rest among you.” Immediately thereafter, the Glory of God appeared.
What do these stories teach us?
Let’s take a closer look.
First, it is no coincidence that Moses specifies a calf for the sin offering. There must be a connection with the sin of the Golden Calf. Perhaps this is why Maimonides taught that we must use the agency of our sin to atone for our sins. Second, the sin of the Golden Calf happened because the Israelites were impatient for Moses to return from the top of the mountain. And here is a great irony: the same is true here in Shemini. Aaron and Israel are both agitated because they have been offering sacrifices for seven whole days and nothing has happened. They are impatient!
To be fair, this is not on them alone. We Jews have many strengths, but patience is not among them. In Hebrew, the word savlanut shares the same root as the words sabal (porter), savel (suffering) and sevel (burden). We may not have a monopoly on this, but for us waiting is a suffering – a burden we would rather not bear. Patience is the ability to carry the burden.
In both midrashim Moses offers comfort. For Aaron he offers prayers in the Tent to help allay Aaron’s impatience. However, for Israel, Moses actually teaches patience, in effect saying that they have done everything right and should not doubt that Aaron is the one who will succeed on their behalf. In other words, Moses offers hope that because we took the proper action everything will work out in the end. Perhaps this is the secret to cultivating more savlanut for us as well, whether it is trying to understand the book of Leviticus, waiting in line at the supermarket, or being stuck in traffic. As for those times when we truly don’t know, for example in times of illness or economic worry, we might also benefit from learning how to better bear the burden. Patience does not mean inaction, but rather, that we should not act without proper consideration. For more often than not, a response to even a serious challenge is far better than a knee jerk reaction, and impatience leads to some of the biggest mistakes of all.
 Although the verse here comes almost twenty verses earlier in the actual Torah, this is midrash, which is not always concerned with a linear flow of time.
Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Yes, the priests got to wear the coolest couture of the day, with entire chapters of Torah devoted to describing each magnificent garment after another. And yes, the priests were revered as spiritual leaders, and given the holiest of tasks to perform before God on behalf of all Israel. The life of the priest seemed so spectacular that a prospective convert to Judaism once approached the famous Rabbis Shammai and Hillel, asking to be made a Jew on the condition that afterward he would then become the High Priest.
The role of the priest, however, was not about the clothing or about status. In Tzav we learn about the commandment of Terumat HaDeshen, the clearing away of the ashes and residue of the sacrifices:
“And the priest shall wear his linen garb and linen breeches he shall wear on his body, and he shall take away the ashes that the fire consumes from the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. And he shall take off his clothes and wear other clothes and take out the ashes beyond the camp to a clean place.” [Lev. 6:3-4]
In other words, the priest was directly responsible for cleaning up the mess, a job we might otherwise expect for a menial laborer. Even more, the priest is required to wear his fine linen garments while cleaning the altar, only changing when leaving the mishkan to transport the ashes to another “clean” location outside of the camp.
Sacrifices were holy. They were designed to help bring Israel closer to God. Tzav reminds us that even holy acts create a bit of a mess. Yet it doesn’t stop there, it also teaches that the mess itself and the act of cleaning it were as holy as the actual sacrifice - so only the priest, dressed in sacred garments, could clean the mess.
We no longer offer sacrifices, but there is a great lesson for us here.
First, the creative process is messy. Whenever we create or build anything, we make a mess. This truth applies not only to physical objects, but to our relationships, our achievements, our families and our communities.
Second, we are responsible for what we create, and therefore for cleaning up after ourselves. Even when we create something holy, there is still residue to clean.
Third, cleaning up our messes is in and of itself holy, even if what we created is not intrinsically holy. In a few weeks we will clean our homes for Passover. We dropped the chametz and we made the dirt. We need to clean it up. Doing so is a holy task. By extension, I would argue that every time we clean up a mess we have made, whether in our relationships or our community, we are engaged in holy work, even if we are not preparing for a sacred holiday.
Fourth, and finally, we cannot delegate this work. You should not clean up my messes and I don’t want yours either. Part of the holiness here is the personal responsibility, the spiritual accountability, which we take. On Yom Kippur we try to clean our souls from our mistakes. This makes Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year. However, we don’t have to wait. When we recognize that the very act of cleaning after ourselves is holy even when we make something beautiful, then we can begin to find joy in every moment. God is not found just in the high points along the way, but in the least expected of places.
We are truly supposed to be a kingdom of priests. So let’s open our eyes, and get our hands dirty, clean up after ourselves, and bring more holiness into our world.
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
[Originally published in 2016]
Open the book VaYikra, and enter the world of sacrificial Judaism. This is the priestly book, the book of the korbonot – the offerings through which Israel drew closer to God. According to tradition, young Jewish students begin their studies here, in the middle of the Torah, rather than with “In the Beginning…”
Yet we live in a world where the sacrificial cult has not existed for almost 2000 years. Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the idea of offering sacrifices, considering the practice barbaric. The Reform movement completely excised the Musaf service, which contains prayers for the restoration of the Temple and the sacrificial cult, from the Reform Siddur (prayer book), and removed sacrificial language from the R’tzei prayer (which in the original form asks God to accept both our worship and our fire offerings).
Of all of the books of Torah, this one seems the farthest removed from our lives today – at least on the surface. As one of my teachers once quipped, “Hey, when it comes to Leviticus we need all the help we can get!”
This is where we start our studies?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great Orthodox thinkers of the 20th Century wrote: “The precept of sacrifice is a central motif in Judaism. To live in accord with God’s word is identical with living a sacrificial life. To act morally is synonymous with sacrificial action.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Lev. 1:2). While Judaism condemns human sacrifice as murder, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that on a spiritual level we need to offer everything we are to God. Therefore, prayer is properly understood as a form of sacrifice. This makes Jewish spirituality a paradox: only by negating our egos, our senses of self, can we reach our fullest potential and fulfillment.
Equating prayer with sacrifice is an idea I find both challenging and compelling. Prayer as sacrifice means asking not for what we want, but rather, for what God needs. It means taking our own desires and sublimating them to God’s will.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:15)
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
We’ve heard it before.
In excruciating detail.
With Terumah and Teztaveh we received the design plans with full specs for both the mishkan (Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle) and the priestly vestments. Then in Veyak’heil we read about the actual construction, in detail. Now, finally, in Pekudei the finished products are again described – again in incredible detail.
I used to just skim through these portions – the details would make me sleepy, and anyway they didn’t seem relevant, let alone important to my life. Then I thought of my father, the architect, who would write volumes of specs for every building he designed. I never needed that level of detail for the models I built as a kid, but then again, nobody’s life would be endangered if I made an assembly miscalculation. So, I figured that the more important something is, the more details we need to make it happen the way we needed. But I still struggled with these details. Yes, the mishkan had been incredibly important, but we don’t have one anymore and all of these details, repeated so that we could read them three times in all of their glory seemed, quite frankly, boring.
As it turns out – that’s partly the point. There is an interesting parallel between the final verses of Pekudei and the story of creation:
“… vayachal Moshe et ham’lacha (… and Moses finished the work).” [Ex. 40:33b]
God completes (vayachulu) Creation, Moses completes (vayachal) the mishkan. Both ‘projects’ are described as “work” with the same Hebrew noun (here written as ham’lacha). There are other parallels as well. God surveys Creation, Moses the finished mishkan. God blesses Creation when it was complete, Moses blesses the people when the mishkan is finished. God sanctifies Creation with the shabbat, God’s Presence descends in a cloud upon the mishkan, making it holy as well.
Rabbi Mark Greenspan observes that it takes the entire book of Exodus for us to reach this moment, when God’s presence finally descends over the Tent, palpable to the entire camp. He writes:
“… an encounter with God doesn’t just happen. It results from hard work. It demands attention to details. It takes discipline and sacred intention. And sometimes the process of getting there is even a little boring.”
One of my recurring tropes with b’nei mitzvah students is the importance of regular practice; one cannot cram the night before and expect success. I explain that prayer, chanting Torah, and by extension leading services, are more like sports or music than academics. Success requires both the mind and the discipline of regular practice. However, this is not just true for b’nei mitzvah students and service leaders, but for all of us. The true power of Judaism requires work, discipline and commitment. Indeed, the Hebrew word for worship is avodah – literally another Hebrew word for “work.”
This is not to say that service leaders should not do their best to plan beautiful and inspiring worship experiences – they absolutely should – but if we really want to bring God into our lives then we have to not only show up but develop our Judaism into a personal and communal practice.
“… and Moses finished the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud abode upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And when the cloud went up from the over the Tabernacle, the Israelites would journey onward in all their journeyings. And if the cloud did not go up, they would not journey onward until the day it went up. For the Lord’s cloud was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire by night was in it, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” [Ex. 40:33-38]
To reach the glorious end of Exodus, we needed the inspiring highs along the way through the great miracles of God and orations of Moses; but we also needed to weave the cloth, fashion every clip and joint, shape the great menorah and the altar and more. The message of Pekudei is clear: the details are just as important as the moments of inspiration, and it is not enough to know what they are – without our active participation and practice, we will never build anything.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras