Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Keep the Sabbath, or else! This is the tenor of Exodus 31:14: “And you shall keep Shabbat, for it is holy to you: those who desecrate it, die – he shall die. For all who perform labor upon it, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of its people.”
To put it mildly, you might find this language a little … harsh. Today many Jews work on Shabbat, and do not die. How then can we understand or relate to this verse?
Perhaps the Israelites themselves executed transgressors thousands of years ago (see Ex. 35:2), or fines were assessed equivalent to a human life (as in the Talmud, Shabbat 70a). Personally, I don’t want to live in a community where the death penalty looms over our heads to enforce religious observances. As for paying a fine, I struggle (despite what I was taught as an economics major) with the very concept that we can assign a monetary equivalent for the value of a human life.
So can this commandment have a hold on us today? How?
Shabbat is a precious gift – a gift from God, directly to each and every one of us. We need Shabbat. Even God needed to take a day of rest after six days of creation! When we ignore the Shabbat, we not only spurn this precious gift, but we also hurt ourselves. Shabbat is a time for refreshing our souls, pausing from our creative acts during the week and enjoying life. It is a time devoted to God, to our loved ones, to our innermost selves. Each week that we let pass without a Shabbat, without this holy time devoted to what matters most in life, a little piece of us dies.
Thankfully, it is never too late. If we want to restore what we have lost, the gates are always open. So don’t let this Shabbat get away, or the next one. After all, aren’t you worth it?
Exodus 27:20 – 30:1
Why is this portion different from all other portions?
The word Teztaveh means “you will command,” and we do not see it often in Torah. Rather, when God wants Moses to pass along a command to the people, the text usually reads something like: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying …” The use of the word Tetzaveh removes the need to specifically name Moses; it is in the first person, rather than in the third person. Even more, there is no mention of Moses anywhere in the portion!
The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), taught that the portion is usually read on or near the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’ death. Moses’ name is omitted either to presage the date of his death, or to serve as a reminder to all of us who came after. Others suggest a connection to what Moses will eventually say to God during the Golden Calf incident. At the top of Mount Sinai Moses asks God the bear the iniquity of the people rather than punish them, and then goes so far as to seemingly cross a line. He challenges God directly, saying: “… and if not, wipe me out, pray, from Your book which You have written.” (Ex. 32:32) According to this interpretation God grants Moses’ wish in advance; Heaven can turn down no request by the righteous, even if it is a curse rather than a blessing.
For me, however, the most compelling answer comes from Rabbi Elye Hayyim Meisel, the rabbi of Lodz (1821-1912). As a general rule, he was always ready to help raise large sums of money for various institutions, but he refused to get involved with distributing the funds. When asked why, he replied:
The only parashah in which Moses’ name is not mentioned is Tetzaveh. In the previous parashah, Terumah, where the Torah deals with the collecting of money, Moses’ name is mentioned many times, but afterwards, when it comes to distributing the money, he is not mentioned even once. Moses did not want his name to be mentioned in order to avoid any suspicion.
This is a beautiful teaching, and it merits serious consideration. For those who want to take a little extra time with his message, I would like to leave you with just one more question: “suspicion of what?”
Exodus 25:1 - 27:19
Isaac Luria, the great kabbalistic rabbi, taught that before Creation, there was nothing but God. Luria called God the Ayn Sof (without end). If God was truly Ayn Sof, and was the great "No Thing Without End" then there was no room for any other "things." In order to create, God first had to self-contract, in order to make room for things. In Hebrew this is called tzim tzum. Tzim tzum is a theologically rich concept, because it allows us to see God simultaneously as all-powerful and self-limiting. In making room for Creation (and therefore for us), God also makes room for free will, and the possibility that our choices will not always be in line with God's wishes.
On a more human level, tzim tzum is a basic building block for any healthy relationship: we flourish most when we make room for one another. Put differently, loving one another is a form of tzim tzum - a beautiful way we can imitate God.
My teacher Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (z"l) taught tzim tzum as a powerful model for leadership decades before the current "coaching as supervision" movement. His basic message was that the best leaders make room for their subordinates, and provide them with the structures and supports they need to become ever more successful.
Thanks to a beautiful commentary by Rabbi Shai Held, we can see a remarkable link between tzim tzum and the opening of this week's parasha. God commands Moses to tell the people to bring free will offerings of supplies. "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them," (Ex. 25:8) Rabbi Held notes that in the midrash (Pesikta DeRav Kahana, 2:10) God explains how an infinite God can descend into a finite space (the sanctuary). Put simply, according to the midrash, God will metzamtzem (contract - from the same root at tzim tzum).
What a wonderful piece of Torah! As we consider this connection between midrash and parasha, another possibility emerges. God made room for us, and we can do what we please. However, if we want to live with purpose and clarity, then we must also make room, not only for each other, but for God - of our own free will, and at the center of our camp.
Exodus 21:1 – 24:1
Last week’s torah portion Yitro ends with the commandment to build a sacrificial altar. Next week’s portion Terumah begins with the command to bring God an offering of supplies to build the Mishkan (the special tent to house the altar). Why does the Torah interrupt the building of the Mishkan with a dense collection of civil laws?
The Avnei Azel (a Torah commentary attributed to Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, who lived in Warsaw from 1897-1943) finds the answer in the very first verse of our portion:
“Now these are the laws which you shall set before them …” (Ex. 21:1)
In the Avnei Azel Rabbi Friedman taught:
Among the other nations, social laws – those between man [sic] and his fellow-man [sic] have no religious basis, but are purely social and civilian, and are needed to ensure the welfare of the state. With us, though, the civil laws are commandments of God, and they have the sanctity of the commandments. Just as the sacrifices are the worship of God in the Temple, the civil law is the worship of God in our daily lives. [underline is mine for emphasis]
Rabbi Bunim of Pshischa takes it one step farther, teaching that the laws governing how we treat each other take precedence over the commandments governing our relationship with God. These laws (the ethics of Torah) come “before them” (the laws of worshipping God).
Perhaps this is where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel found the inspiration to March with Dr. King in Selma. When asked why he, a white Jewish man, was so invested in the plight of African-Americans he famously replied that he was “praying with his feet.”
What deep Torah these rabbis shared with 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