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.
Exodus 35:1 – 38:21
After the Ten Plagues;
After the Exodus from Egypt;
After the parting of the sea, and the defeat of Pharaoh’s chariots;
After the Revelation at Sinai;
After the idolatry of the Golden Calf;
After the massacre of 3000 Israelite ring-leaders;
After the destruction of the first set of Tablets;
After Moses returns from the mountaintop with a second set of Tablets;
While the people of Israel are still camped in the Wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai, and after all of this, we begin this week’s Torah portion.
Vayak’heil is about building the mishkan, the holy sanctuary for God in the midst of the camp; and in a very real sense, it is a matter of life and death. Without God, the Israelites would be truly lost in the Wilderness, without access to food or water; with no tangible Promise for the future, and no structure (Torah) upon which to build our new nation. Without the mishkan, we would be alone and without God. Nothing could be more important than getting the mishkan built, and quickly. Indeed, the people are so exuberant in bringing the various donations required to build the mishkan that the actual builders are soon overwhelmed. Moses must intercede to say: ‘Enough already! No more donations please.’ I know of no other temple fundraiser where that happened.
Vayak’heil is about getting the job done. How odd then, that it begins with this:
“And Moses assembled all of the community of Israelites and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has charged to do: Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day there shall be holiness for you, an absolute sabbath for the Lord. Whosoever does a task on it shall be put to death …’” [Ex. 35:1-2]
Well, that’s a rather strong statement. This is not the first time Torah emphasizes Shabbat, but the context here is unique. After all that has happened, the Israelites are finally coming to grips with the precariousness of their ‘situation,’ not to mention the awe-inspiring power of God. As a result, and for the very first time, they are MOTIVATED. They need the mishkan, and they are willing to work overtime to make it happen.
Conventional wisdom says that we should leverage times of great motivation for maximum gain. After all, if the entire purpose of the mishkan is to bring the palpable presence of God into our community, then shouldn’t we work day and night, and then start taking a Sabbath afterwards?
The Torah says no – not even for this. There is no question that the task is surpassingly holy but allowing our zeal to lead us to violate the sabbath nevertheless invites death.
Here are two possibilities:
The first is that while in the long run, our future would indeed be bleak without God, there is no imminent danger which can only be averted by working on the sabbath. Building the mishkan will take a good amount of time, and while we might feel better if it were completed a few days earlier, we would not actually be better for it.
The second speaks to both the importance of the sabbath, and to our integrity. The mishkan is, by definition, a temporary structure. If we violate the values of Judaism while attempting to establish Judaism, then what are we really doing? And, if even God needs a day of rest, how much the more so do we?
The challenge of Vayak’heil may be ancient, but it could not be more current. We may feel that we can’t afford to take a day each week. There are so many pressures: work, activities, chores, and so on. How can we possibly keep up?
It turns out we can’t – at least not without Shabbat.
When I was a younger rabbi, I thought that I had to be directly involved in every activity of the synagogue and sit on every committee. I worked so hard, so consistently and for so long, that I eventually wound up in the hospital. I thank God for that wake-up call, and for the congregational intervention which followed, in which the lay leadership worked with me to reduce my workload to a more relaxed 70-hour week. However, I still had a lesson to learn. Not in the synagogue, but in a dojo, the karate school where my children took lessons. Whenever I would bring my kids the owner of the school would nudge me to take the adult class. I declined over and over, citing my lack of free time. Eventually, however, just to make the conversation go away, I gave in. What I learned over time was that taking a few hours a week to take care of my body not only improved my health, but gifted me with greater energy and focus – so that I was able to get more done and with greater quality in a 60 hour work week than I had even before I was cut back to 70.
A few hours of exercise a week did wonders for my physical health and mental clarity. Shabbat does the same for our spiritual health and vitality: it is exercise for our souls. We may feel as if other things are more pressing, but Torah assures us they are not. Even if we are trying to build a mishkan in the short term, we require a weekly Shabbat if we want to enjoy a longer term. To give up the sabbath is to kill our spirits, slowly but inexorably.
Although we speak about sabbath rest, the Shabbat is not about doing nothing. Rather, it is about exercising and refreshing our spirits. Just like our muscles atrophy if we don’t use them, so to our spiritual cores. Just as healthy bodies give us more energy, so too do healthy souls.
Vayak’heil reminds us to bring God into our lives with enthusiasm, and reminds us to prioritize our spiritual health by observing the Shabbat; it reminds us to take the long view, to recognize that the anxieties and worries which drive us to work harder are temporary, and to remember that we bring God into our communities not by building big buildings, but by living our values with integrity.
If you do not currently observe the Sabbath, or an ‘absolute Sabbath for the Lord,’ then start off small. Going from 0 to 100 in an exercise program won’t work, nor will it work here. Instead, start to exercise your spirit with a commitment to yourself: do one or two things every week to bring Shabbat into your life which you currently do not do. As you get stronger, you can slowly add more. Don’t take my word for it. Test it for yourself. See happens in your life over time as your spirit slowly grows. It is not for nothing that Ahad HaAm famously quipped: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Moses was the greatest leader of Israel ever – past, present and future. The Torah says so, and also the sages. Yet, he did not work alone. The Exodus story highlights two Israelite leaders, each with their own very different leadership styles. Moses was the ‘political’ leader and prophet, driven by passion and spurred to action by his sense of injustice and outrage. As a prince in Egypt he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating an Israelite slave. As an agent of God, he confronted Pharaoh (albeit with fear and trepidation at first) demanding that the Israelites be set free. And in this week’s parasha he defended the Israelites before God because God was going to destroy them over the Golden Calf; then, when he finally saw the Calf himself, he ordered the immediate execution of 3000 ringleaders.
Aaron, Moses’ brother, was a very different kind of leader and was tapped to be the High Priest. The role of the priest was to serve as the great connector between Israel and God, to bring the Israelites closer to God through the sacrificial rites. He was well suited to this task because Aaron always sought ways to end conflict and create peace. According to tradition, whenever Aaron heard two people arguing he would go to each of them and tell them how much the other regretted his actions, so that each thought the other was ready to apologize. Then, when they finally met, they were able to see each other as friends.
In this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, Aaron takes his pursuit of peace to its logical extreme. Moses has gone up the mountain to receive the tablets and has been gone for over a month with no word. The people become agitated and afraid, and they gather against Aaron saying:
“Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” [Ex. 32:1]
Aaron does not argue against them, and to be fair, may have felt threatened for his very life. Instead he instructs them to bring gold, and then uses their gold to make the Calf.
The great Rabbi Hillel was well versed with the leadership styles of both Moses and Aaron. He knew that Moses was the greatest Jewish leader ever to be, and he knew that Aaron built the Golden Calf in a moment of weakness, yet he taught:
“Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.” [Pirke Avot 1:12]
To be clear, Hillel was not suggesting we do whatever we are told, especially when it comes to building idols. Rather, Hillel understood that conflict and confrontation do not bring people to Torah. Hillel is compared over and again to one of his great contemporaries, Shammai. Shammai was more like Moses, passionate about his principles and quick to anger when they were violated. Hillel, on the other hand, took a softer approach, refusing to lose his temper and patiently meeting people where they were, using their own logic and methodologies to bring them to Torah.
As a pedagogic approach, this makes great sense. But what about as a model for political leadership? Given the reality of our turbulent world, Rabbi Mark Greenspan asks: “Should we be disciples of Aaron?” It is a fair question.
Hillel lived under Roman rule after the fall of Jerusalem (but before the destruction of the Temple), when Jews lived or died at the mercy of their conquerors. He understood that to confront the Romans directly was suicide, and so in that sense he sought peace over conflict. For two-thousand years of exile our people did the same – seeking peace rather than conflict in the many lands where we lived. Yet, Hillel had his limits. He would not give up the study or teaching of Torah – not even if it were to put his life at risk. For Hillel the pursuit of peace was the best available approach in the service of a higher purpose, but it did not supplant that purpose.
In the Exodus we needed both Moses and Aaron. Under the Romans we needed both Hillel and Shammai, and many others like them. Our tradition teaches us to pursue peace whenever possible, but also to hold true to our values and our covenant with God. The difficult part is to know when we should be more like Moses and when more like Aaron, and to remember to keep the wisdom and values of our tradition front and center when our emotions rise. In the end Rabbi Greenspan turns to the Psalms for guidance, and so should we:
“Adonai oz l’amo yiten; Adonai yivarech et amo bashalom. May God grant strength to our people. May God bless our people with peace.” [Psalm 29:11]
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky shares a story once told by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg about a time he brought a group of Kindergarteners into their synagogue sanctuary. Rabbi Greenberg pointed to the Ner Tamid and asked if any of the children could tell him what that was. One little go-getter raised his hand and said confidently: “That’s the INTERNAL light.”
Although the answer was technically incorrect, the insight was spectacular. The Ner Tamid is the ETERNAL Light, commanded in this week’s Torah portion, which must be placed in the tabernacle outside of the curtain over the ark. It is called “Eternal” because we must never let the light go out. Every synagogue in the world has a Ner Tamid over its ark, and it has come to symbolize both the presence of God, and the need for our constant effort to bring and maintain God’s presence in our midst.
The young boy in Rabbi Greenberg’s synagogue missed that point but stumbled across something beautiful: not only do our sanctuaries contain a special light, but each of us also contains a special light. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist, taught that in creating the universe, part of God was splintered into countless tiny divine sparks. This is the source of the term Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the universe. One tradition teaches that every time a Jew performs a mitzvah a spark is reunited with its Source, and the universe is healed just a little bit. However, a second tradition says that each spark is a human soul, that each of us contains a tiny spark of the Divine within. In other words, we all have Internal Lights. We are simultaneously part of what is broken in the cosmos, and part of the Divine, and we have the power to heal.
The mystics teach that the light within needs both our attention and our care, and that with the effort of study, prayer and the performance of mitzvot that we can make the spark glow brightly and even grow. I would add acts of gemilut hasadim to the mix – acts of love and compassion.
The rabbis were right to require a Ner Tamid in every synagogue. We need both the light and the reminder so that we continue to renew the holiness within our communities. The Kindergartener who called it an Internal Light was also right. We have internal lights as well, which we must nurture to bring out the holiness and human potential within us.
If we tend to both, well then, who knows what we can become?
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
One of the remarkable characteristics of Toraitic law is that most of the 613 Commandments do not follow the “if – then” formula. “If – then” laws are far more common in the secular world, and most legal systems would not function well without them. What is an “if – then” law? If a crime is committed then there will be a specific punishment or penalty; and as a deterrence, the worse the crime, the harsher the punishment.
While there are some exceptions, the Torah does not generally take this approach. At Sinai while giving the 10 Commandments, God does not say: ‘this is the penalty for murder.’ Instead, God simply says: “Don’t murder.” [Ex. 20:12] Why does this distinction matter? The “if – then” model assumes that we will commit crimes and establishes a system for handling crime and punishment. Torah does not. By saying “don’t murder,” God effectively places the responsibility solely upon us, reminding us that we are perfectly capable of not committing murder. We are capable of living to a higher standard.
This does not mean that we will, or that it will be easy to maintain that higher standard. We are, however, capable. It will require effort, and even hard work – and that work begins with parashat Terumah.
In last week’s portion, following the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites say to Moses: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will heed.” [Ex. 24:78]. Then Moses heads up to the mountain to receive the commandments, where he will be for 40 days.
Terumah begins with a strange commandment, given that Moses is supposed to be up on the mountain:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a gift from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.’” [Ex. 25:1-2]
The purpose of these gifts is to build the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where God will ‘dwell’ in the midst of the camp; and this verse has become the clarion call for of every synagogue capital campaign since. The rabbis wonder, however, why the command is for us to take God a gift, rather than give God a gift. The answer is surprising. While giving a gift of tzedakah is a great mitzvah, taking a gift suggests that we are participating in the work of delivering the gift directly to the beneficiary. In other words, we are doing the work of collecting tzedakah, instead of stopping at the point of contribution.
Yet, if we are commanded to take a gift, then why is it according to how our hearts may urge us?
The midrash (Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu) says that the moment the Israelites said “we will do and we will heed” that God immediately told Moses, “Let them take Me an offering/gift.” The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught: “If a person feels an urge to perform a commandment, he should take this urge and convert it to action, or else the urge will soon disappear without a trace.” His student, the Sadeh Margalit then taught: “Therefore, following all the enthusiasm which resulted from the receiving of the Torah, God said to Moses, ‘Take this enthusiasm and transform it into action – by building the Sanctuary.’”
So, we are not to give gifts, but make the extra effort to bring our gifts to God; and we are to especially look for those opportunities to act when our hearts are moved and filled with spiritual enthusiasm. But what does any of this have to do with choosing a higher standard over the “if – then” system?
It all comes back to the idea of a willing heart. In another midrash, Exodus Rabbah, we read:
“At the time that the Holy Blessed One told Moses about all the tasks associated with the (building of the) Tabernacle, Moses said before him; ‘Master of the universe will the Israelites be able to do this?’ The Holy Blessed One said to him ‘Even (a single) one of the Israelites could do it.’ As it is written ‘of every man whose heart is willing.’” [Exodus Rabbah, chapter 33]
Every single one of us capable alone of building a Sanctuary for God in our midst. And when we talk about bringing our gifts as an offering, it does not just mean physical wealth, but also our other gifts – our skills, our wisdom, our knowledge, our strength and our hearts.
Our camp now spans the world rather than base of Sinai, and we no longer have a mishkan as described in this portion. However, every generation can build a place for God in our midst. We can live to the higher standard. We are eminently capable. Torah says so.
All we need are willing hearts, and the discipline to turn our commitment into action.
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Over the past few years, a series of articles have been published in papers like the Globe and Mail, The Independent and the Huffington Post about a new concept that some people consider an attractive alternative to traditional marriage: a marriage or relationship contract. There are various terms, ranging from 3-10 years, and some of them include a renewal clause whereas others would just end at the end of the term.
My first response was to laugh. Then I wanted to cry.
Generally speaking, a contract is transactional; it is about creating trust to benefit the various interests of the parties involved. So, for example, renters and landlords depend upon rental contracts or leases. These contracts, like so many others, are time limited and make guarantees to meet the interests of both the renter and the landlord. The landlord wants to know that the renter will pay rent at the mutually agreed upon rate, on time every month – and that the renter will not damage the apartment. The renter wants to know that the landlord will make the apartment available for the duration of the lease and will keep everything safe and in working order.
A marriage is not a contract: it is not transactional and should not entered into to create trust or protect interests.
Marriage is a covenant.
What is the difference between a contract and a covenant? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment … Contracts are about interests; covenants about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘Me’ and ‘You’; covenants are about ‘Us.’”
Contracts abound in modern Western democracies. Indeed, Sacks notes that the two central institutions of modern democracy are both contractual: commercial contracts create the market, while the state is a social contract. The market creates and distributes wealth, the state creates and distributes power.
Healthy societies, however, go beyond the transactional: they are also covenantal.
At Sinai, we received the Torah and became a nation. In a very real sense, Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people – it is the document which sanctifies our covenantal relationship with our Creator and with each other. That covenant was “ratified” in this week’s Torah portion when God gave the commandments from the top of the mountain; in that moment a mob of individual former slaves became the Jewish version of “We the people.”
“We the people” is a powerful, transformational concept, and the founding fathers channeled Sinai when they first penned those words. In a very real sense, the United States Constitution is the Torah of the American people. It is about more than the distribution of wealth and power, it is a covenantal document. Just look at the text of the preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The constitution is not about transactions, but about our mutual commitment for the greater good – and it is most definitely not time-bound.
Thinking in terms of covenants is important because when we have a disagreement on a transactional level, we can just walk away from the relationship. We cannot, however, abandon our covenantal commitments without causing greater harm to ourselves and others. Our covenantal commitments are the best way to hold our local communities, our national societies, and our global network together and to build a better shared future. No matter how polarized our politics, no matter how frustrated or angry we get, covenant reminds us that we can never achieve alone what we can create together; it reminds us that we must commit to stay in this together, arguments and all – or we will all lose.
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Finally! After hundreds of years of slavery, we escape Egypt – only to arrive at an impassable sea with Pharaoh’s chariots in fast pursuit.
This was not exactly the kind of redemption Moses promised, and our people were stuck, overwhelmed with the sense that life was pressing in on them and there was no escape. What do Jews do in this kind of situation? We complain! The Israelites cry out to God (we don’t know exactly what they said) and then complain with exquisite sarcasm to Moses saying: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” [Ex. 14:11]
Moses basically says (paraphrased): just wait for it … God will redeem us.
That’s when God jumps in – not to redeem, but to criticize, saying: “Mah titzak eilai? Why do you cry out to Me?” [Ex. 14:15]
In a word: oy.
Who is the ‘you’ God is responding to, Moses or Israel? And what does God even mean?
Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator has two insights, which in classic Jewish fashion, seem not to agree with each other. First, Rashi teaches that God was chastising both Israel and Moses saying: “This is not a time to spend in prayer – the Israelites are in danger!” In other words, don’t look to me – take action! Then, instead of leaving well enough alone, Rashi restates the question to offer a second perspective (by changing the punctuation and thereby changing the meaning): “Why do you cry out? Upon Me …” According to this reading, God was chastising both Israel and Moses because they dared to assume that they could command God or even place expectations on God. It is for God to determine what to do, and only God.
The first statement seems to suggest that in times of need we need to act instead of pray, meaning that it is up to us. The second statement seems to suggest that we should have so much faith that we should not even need to pray, just trust that God will intervene.
We could argue either position until we are blue in the face and not resolve them to our satisfaction – until, that is, Nachshon steps in.
The Midrash is simple and straightforward. While the Israelites milled about by the Sea filled with uncertainty, he walked right into the water. He did not know how to swim. He just started walking, deeper into the Sea, until finally the water came up to his lips. Only then, says the Midrash, did God split the Sea.
Nachshon chose to act decisively and put his faith in God.
History has taught that in every generation we eventually find ourselves caught, in one way or another, between Pharaoh’s army and the impassable Sea – seemingly with no way forward or back.
History has also taught us that every generation has its own Nachshons, and it can be any of us.
When the time comes, what will we do?
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
When did God put Torah in the Torah? In parashat Bo. This week the word “torah” (which means ‘teaching’ and/or ‘law’) is used for the very first time in the Torah, and under the strangest of circumstances.
Parashat Bo describes one of the most intense times in Torah. It begins in the midst of the Ten Plagues God sent upon Egypt and continues through the hasty preparations for the Exodus of the Israelites (in which there was not enough time to even let our bread rise). Among the many remarkable elements of this story is the insertion, right in the middle of the preparations to leave, of a legal discourse about the future observance of Passover.
If we were in such a rush, couldn’t God have waited until after we were out of Egypt to give us these laws?
Why, then, do we find these laws here – and what do they actually say?
There are two distinct but connected legal sections here. We will look at the first paragraph (Ex. 12:43-51), which focuses on who shall observe and eat of the Passover offering. Those who are circumcised (meaning Jews) are required, and those who are not (everyone else) are not permitted. Towards the end of the paragraph, the word ‘torah’ is introduced:
“One torah shall there be for the native and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst.” [Ex. 12:49]
On the surface, this, the very first mention of the word ‘torah’ in the Torah suggests that a foreigner living among us has the same legal status as we do. How extraordinary! My more liberal tendencies make we want to jump at this as a clear moral mandate to better support both immigrants and refugees. After all, if this is the first mention of ‘torah’ in the Torah, then this must a be a core principle of Judaism. Indeed, this idea is so important that God made sure to teach it before we left Egypt.
The only problem is that this section begins with: “This is the chukkat (statute) of the Passover offering: no foreigner shall eat of it.” [Ex. 12:43] How do we reconcile the different verses? Through definition. A sojourner is not any foreigner who dwells in our midst, but one who lives among us and chooses to do so as one of us. How did one do this in Moses’ time? Through circumcising every male in the household.
Well, that seems a little less universal.
Let’s look at both the exclusions and inclusions of the entire legal passage, and the placement of this section within the larger narrative. Who is excluded? Foreigners, foreign settlers and hired workers. Who is included? Slaves purchased by silver and sojourners – both becoming ‘native’ through circumcision. When are these laws given in the narrative? The morning after the final Plague, when the Israelites placed the blood from the original Passover sacrifices on their lintels so that the angel of death would pass-over their homes and spare the Israelite first born.
The laws stated here specifically refer to the observance of Passover. Nachum Sarna notes that there are other laws, which come later in the Torah, that allow strangers in Israel many of the same rights and privileges as the Israelites, including rest on Shabbat, protection within the cities of refuge, access to the produce of the Sabbatical year and even the ability to offer sacrifices and participate in other Jewish religious festivals.
Putting it all together we can see a few different concepts at play, each of which God wanted to make sure we understood before leaving Egypt – so that we would not bring the ways of Pharaoh with us. First, the placement of the text draws a connection, at least metaphorically, with the blood on the lintel and circumcision as the defining characteristic of who is an Israelite. Second, the story of the Exodus is the primary definitive narrative of our people and the Passover sacrifice is directly connected to the retelling of our story in the first person. Therefore, only those who are “all in” may eat of the sacrifice, for in so doing we are saying that this story is our story. Third, becoming an Israelite is open to everyone, even slaves and foreigners, but requires a certain level of commitment. Fourth, one torah, the same torah, applies to all Israelites and converts regardless of their place in society or their place of birth. We are all governed and defined by the same teaching/law. Fifth, those who wish to live with us but choose not to fully commit to becoming part of the Jewish people are welcome, and are still protected by Torah, just not defined by it.
It turns out, that ‘torah’ cannot be reduced to a simple slogan or concept. It is both “teaching” and “law” in that it mediates how we interact with each other and with God. It is committed to maintaining our particularistic integrity as Jews, and our universalistic integrity as human beings – requiring that we be true to ourselves and treat others with true respect and dignity.
Torah is not, nor has it ever been, an ‘either-or’ endeavor.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Think you don’t have what it takes? Neither did Moses:
“And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel would not listen to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips.’” [Ex. 6:12]
When God appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush in last week’s parasha, Moses tried to beg out of the whole affair, citing his inability to handle the job, in part because he was slow of speech and tongue. In this week’s parasha, after Moses has gone to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, Moses complains to God of his failure and uses a strange phrase to reinforce why he is the wrong man for the job: he has aral s’fatayim – uncircumcised lips.
What on earth are ‘uncircumcised lips’?
Certainly, this is not a physical description – or at least not a description of a surgical procedure. We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses was an eloquent speaker. His speeches and poetry have inspired our people for thousands of years. Besides, nowhere in Torah is there any mention of God performing a miracle to heal Moses of a physical handicap which made it difficult for him to speak. While it is true that Moses was eventually circumcised, it was definitely not done to his lips!
The great medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi taught that the word aral (uncircumcised) really means “obstructed.” Among the several prooftexts he cites are:
“Behold, their ear is arala (uncircumcised/stopped up), they cannot hear.” [Jer. 6:10]
By defining uncircumcised as “closed up,” Rashi teaches that Moses’ challenge was more psychological than physical. Moses’ lips were obstructed, because his mind was obstructed.
A true story from my childhood:
I was the kid in little league who sat in left field picking dandelions. I could have been an amazing baseball player, except I couldn’t catch, throw, run or hit – and everyone knew it. One day at practice, the coach accidentally hit a powerful line drive right at me. I’m not sure quite what happened, but instead of running away, I just stuck out my hand. With a loud “pop” the ball landed in my glove! Nobody could believe it – especially me. Having caught the ball, I was supposed to throw it to the second baseman. Again, amazingly, the throw was accurate. The coach hit the next several balls to me, varying grounders, pop flies and another line drive. I caught every ball, running all over left field – and for the first time, began to actually play baseball. My teammates cheered, and my confidence grew. While I would never be “all-pro” material, I discovered that I was capable of far more than I realized.
Moses was not playing a game, and the stakes were much higher. Yet, the blockage was the same. Surgical circumcision was not the solution. Moses had to learn that his initial failure was merely a step towards success. As Einstein taught: “failure is success in progress.”
You and I know how the story ends, but Moses still had a lot to learn. It was not enough for Moses to know that he had been chosen by God to lead – he needed to find his own voice. So, God sends him right back to try again.
It seems to me that this is a lesson for us all.
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