Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Can we find deeper meaning in the detailed specs of a tent design? You bet we can!
Parashat Terumah details the plan for the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting which would house the Ark of the Covenant and the Divine Presence during the Forty Years of wandering through the Wilderness. Every possible measurement, every bit of material, all of it down to the last detail is systematically laid out for us, and although we no longer live in a single camp and will not build another mishkan in our lifetimes, we are expected to read every single word. As a student I used to dread this portion and would skim over the details. As a rabbi, I have come to embrace its buried treasures.
Here is just one example:
“Overlay [the Ark] with pure gold – overlay it inside and out – make upon it a gold molding round about.” [Ex. 25:11]
What is so interesting about this verse? Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, in 2010, asked a question which has bothered rabbis for generations: if the ark is sealed and never opened then nobody will ever see it on the inside – so why line it with gold? She turns to the Talmud for the answer:
“Any Torah scholar whose interior is not like his exterior is no Torah scholar.” [Talmud Bavli, Yoma, 72b]
Rabbi Scheinerman continues: “Slick façade lacking substance or façade covering a lack of integrity – we have all seen it in people who assume positions of leadership. Talmud reminds us to make sure it does not describe us.” [Voices of Torah, vol 2., p. 147]
In Terumah we find the plans for how to bring Torah and God into our midst, by building a special place in the center of our camp. Today, we are dispersed across the world. There has been no single center since the rabbis wrote the Talmud. Instead, we must create that space within ourselves. Let’s make sure that we are pure gold on the inside as well as on the outside, for only then can we become vessels for Torah and the Divine.
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
If last week’s portion highlighted the big picture moment of the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim gets into the specifics of how to bring the values of Torah to life. Mishpatim, which means laws or statutes, contains no fewer than 53 separate commandments – more per square centimeter than any other Torah portion!
Here is just one short excerpt:
“You shall not bear a false rumor. You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness. You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many. Nor a poor man shall you favor in his dispute. Should you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you must surely return it to him.” [Ex. 23:1-4]
In Mishpatim we find the detail we need to understand how to guarantee the central Toraitic concepts of judicial impartiality and equality before the law. Let’s break the passage down into its component parts.
“You shall not bear a false rumor.” According to Jewish tradition, rumor mongering is considered one of the worst behaviors in which we can engage. It is not only destructive, but toxic. The rabbis teach that even if we only believe half of what we hear, we still believe half of what we hear – and more often than not – we pass judgement on that information alone. Don’t believe it? Consider the effect disinformation and alternative “facts” have on our civilization and culture today.
“You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness.” In plain English, this means do not conspire with the guilty to pervert justice. This applies to unjust behavior both in and out of the courtroom.
“You shall not follow the many for evil.” Here we get the injunction to do what is right, even when it means swimming against the current. In more direct terms, we must stand for justice even if the rest of the world seems to demand the opposite.
“and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many.” Here Torah warns us about the danger of perverting justice when we are not active co-conspirators. If we feel pressure to support the majority view, even to the point that we are afraid of opposing the majority view, we are still prohibited from giving false testimony.
“Nor a poor man shall you favor in his dispute.” This is reminiscent of a similar commandment from Leviticus: “You shall do no wrong in justice. You shall not favor the poor and you shall not defer to the rich.” [Lev. 19:15] Nobody gets special treatment before the law, regardless of economic or societal standing. Even the king of Israel is subject to the laws of Torah.
“Should you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you must surely return it to him.” We may not have enemies with missing livestock, but we still might be tempted to treat our detractors unjustly. This law makes it clear that such behavior is antithetical to building a just society. We may not like everyone, but we must never forget that justice and revenge are two very different things. We cannot change the laws to suit our own personal and/or petty agendas.
Torah was right at Sinai, and it is right now. We are here because our forbears kept Torah alive in the world. Now it is up to us.
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
The Oscars may have been on Sunday, but this week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments – God’s block buster Revelation at Mount Sinai. Could it get any bigger than this? The Revelation at Sinai was the seminal moment where the people of Israel collectively encountered God. Or was it?
Dr. Tzvi Novick of the University of Notre Dame has another idea. He reminds us of a well known midrashic tradition which states that we accepted the covenant at Sinai under extreme duress:
“And they took their places at the foot (takh’tit) of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17) – Said R. Avdimi b. Chama b. Chasa: “It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, turned the mountain over them like a tub, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not there will be your burial.’” [Talmud Bavli, Shab. 88a]
This is a troubling midrash, because if we accepted the covenant only under duress, then perhaps we might not consider it binding. As R. Acha b. Jacob teaches in the very next Talmudic passage: “From here is a great protest against the Torah.” If it was forced upon us, the entire Torah could be null and void. Why then would Rabbi Avdimi teach such a lesson?
Dr. Novick has a theory – one worth repeating. Looking at a series of tannaitic (early rabbinic) texts, Dr. Novick draws our attention to a connection between the Revelation at Sinai and the Parting of the Sea. The same language used by Avdimi (turning the mountain over Israel) is used to describe how the Sea was inverted and turned over Israel like a dome, allowing them safe passage underneath. Similarly, other tannaitic texts describe the thunder and lightning at Sinai in terrifying terms, and they specifically note that God turned the mountain over Israel to protect them from the lightning and thunder. According to these traditions, the Israelites willingly stepped under (takh’tit) the mountain to seek shelter.
As it turns out, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer had a long debate about whether the Parting of the Sea was greater than the Revelation at Sinai. After all, “this is my God” from Moses’ song of the sea (Exod. 15:2) is a powerful statement. At the Sea, we encounter God the warrior. At Sinai, we encounter God the lawgiver. Yet, in a monotheistic tradition, one attribute cannot be separated from the other. Both are aspects of God, present at all times. Avdimi highlights God the warrior, even when there is no one to fight. Perhaps he thought we needed the fear of God as a prime motivator.
Regardless – and thankfully, over time, the rabbis drew our attention less to the warrior aspect of God and more to the lawgiver image. Perhaps they understood the dangers of using God the warrior to incite us to war. Perhaps, they understood that at the Sea, we were passive recipients while at Sinai we were given rules upon which we can act and build our communities. No matter the motivation for their shift, the rabbis certainly understood that there was value in preserving Avdimi’s voice, and, that we needed to act so that the covenant would be willingly renewed for and by each new generation.
This week, as we reenact the Revelation at Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments chanted in synagogue, let’s remember not only to listen, but to act. Let us follow the example of Israel, who explicitly said in the Torah: “na’aseh v’nishmah.” We will do, and [then] we will hear [understand].” [Ex. 24:7]
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
There are those who say that today’s culture can be defined by the phrase “what have you done for me lately.” Whether we are in an election cycle, our work lives, or our personal relationships, more and more of us seem to live in the moment, focused in a transactional way on our individual needs and wants. Of course, this is not new. More than twenty years ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by historian Michael Meyer, who wondered what historians in the far future would call our current era. His best guess was “the age of rage.” While he was specifically referring to the then-new phenomenon known as road rage, the underlying concept was simple – and he blamed Burger King. In the 1970s Burger King ran an ad campaign which changed everything. Unlike every other place of business we might frequent, at Burger King, we could “have it your way.” This was a radical shift from our way of thinking up to that point, but as it became normalized, our expectations changed. Now we wanted exactly what we wanted our way, at fast food speed, and when we didn’t get it, we wouldn’t just be disappointed, we would become outraged. Years later, with all of the innovations that technology and especially the internet have brought us, we expect instant and highly personalized gratification as the norm, not the exception. When we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we complain, and more often that we could care to admit, we escalate.
This may seem like a recent shift in our culture, but it is not new – it is cyclical. In this week’s parasha God brings the Israelites out of Egypt with wondrous and terrifying plagues, parts the sea so that we can cross on dry land, and then brings the waters crashing down on Pharaoh’s army. The people, having witnessed these great miracles, join with Moses in singing and dancing by the shores of the sea: “Mi Kamocha BaElim Adonai – Who is like You among the gods Adonai?” Surely, the exuberance of the moment must have been spectacular. Yet three days later, when they became thirsty and could not find water, they complained bitterly to Moses, so God provided sweet water to drink. A short time later, the Israelites again complained to Moses:
“Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.” [Ex. 16:3]
Yikes! They don’t just say, “We are hungry, please help us find food.” They blame Moses for ruining the beautiful lives they enjoyed as slaves in Egypt. Sure, God responded and brought manna from heaven to feed the Israelites, but soon after they began to complain again, this time asking for meat and more variety of food. Again, they focused on how good it had been in Egypt, forgetting the pain and suffering of their oppression. In other words, despite all that they had witnessed, all that God had done for them, our forbears kept returning to the question: “what have you done for me lately?”
To be fair, they were ill equipped for the challenge. For their entire lives, as far back as memory stretched, all they had known was slavery. They did not know how to think for themselves, or how to provide for themselves. There entire world view was that of an Egyptian slave. It would take forty years of wandering through the Wilderness for a new generation, born to freedom, to come of age before we could take our place as a free people and enter the Promised Land.
We needed to mature as a people, just as we need to mature as individuals. Early on, we tend to be more self-centered, and less aware of the needs of others. Yet, as we mature and grow, we learn what Torah teaches, which is to balance our individual wants and needs with the needs of others, and of the community at large. Each person needs to go through this growth, and each generation.
“What have you done for me lately?” is the question of our immaturity. We need not stay there, nor should we. Rabbi Craig Ezring suggests that instead, we should ask, “What have I done … What have I done for you lately?” He encourages us to get specific:
“What have I done for my spouse? What have I done for my children? What have I done for my shul? What have I done for my country?”
These are the questions of maturity, of responsibility, of Torah. We are a long way from the Wilderness, and yet in some ways, we have yet to reach the land of Promise. Asking the right questions might help.
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