Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Everything we do, everything we are as Jews, is framed by the Covenant between Israel and God. So, when a young boy was brought to his first day at cheder, at Torah school, the tradition was that he would begin with this week’s parasha. VaYikra, the first word in the text, means “And [God] called.” Our very first lesson is that God calls to each of us. To what exactly are we called? How do we hear the call? These we argue, however, the scribing of the text itself provides a clue.
In every Torah scroll, the last letter of VaYikra, an aleph, is written in a smaller size. Every time I see this, I am reminded of the story of the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, we became a covenanted people. Smoke poured from the mountain, the ground shook, there was thunder and lightning, and God spoke Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, from on high. The first thing the Torah describes after the Ten Commandments is how the people were utterly terrified: they begged Moses to go up the mountain for them and bring the rest back. On the surface, it seems like Israel heard all Ten Commandments before crying to Moses for help, and most of the Classical Rabbinic commentators agree. However, not everything in Torah is as it seems. There is an odd grammatical shift between the First Commandment and those that follow. The First Commandment is written as God speaking in the first person, “I am the Lord your God ... you shall have no other gods besides Me." However, the others reference God in the third person, as in, "You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name."
Why would God switch to the third person? Isn’t that the way Moses would speak rather than God? As you might imagine, some rabbis began to wonder if the grammar changed because the speaker changed. It began to look like we only heard the first commandment before becoming overwhelmed and begging Moses to make it stop.
But what if even that was too much? Some rabbis said we only heard the first phrase: "I am the Lord your God.” After all that phrase encompasses both the reality of God and our covenantal relationship. Frank Rosenzweig, the early Twentieth Century philosopher, suggested that we only heard the first word “I” (Anochi in Hebrew). Truly hearing the “Anochi” of God, is like taking the entire Torah to heart. Then, there is the early Hassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, who taught that even one word from God was too much for us.
What did Israel hear? According to Rabbi Menachem, it was the first letter of the first word: the alef. Contrary to what many of us think, the aleph is not a completely silent letter. Rather, the aleph is the tiny guttural sound we make at the back of our throats just as we are about to speak. Of course, to hear an alef, what do we need to do?
Listen. Very. Carefully.
Rabbi Menachem taught that God has been transmitting the sacred alef of revelation since the beginning of time, and will continue until time itself ends.. The great miracle at Sinai was not that God spoke, but that we, all of Israel at the same time, listened.
 Exodus 20:2-3
 Exodus 20:7
Exodus 35:1 – 40:38
VaYakhel Moshe et kol adat b’nei Yisrael “And Moses assembled all the community of Israel …” (Ex. 35:1)
Right here, we find history in the making. I mean, how often does anyone call the entire community of Israel together in one place? And if the call comes, how likely are we all to show up?
In last week’s parasha, the same verb – VaYakhel was used to describe the Israelites as they gathered against Aaron to demand that he fashion the Golden Calf. This week, in a dramatic reversal, Moses convokes the entire assembly to build a place for God in the midst of the camp. The result, is remarkable. Free will donations are requested, and gifted artisans and craftsmen are engaged. The people are so generous with their free will offerings that it becomes necessary to make them stop! In all of its glory the Tent of Meeting is completed, and God descends to the Tent to fill its precincts with the Divine Presence. We are finally ready to begin our journey to the Promised Land.
The verb VaYakhel can be translated as gather, assemble, or convoke. However, a deeper meaning is in play here. We might say that the very act of assembling was the prerequisite for building the Tent and finding the Promised Land. VaYakhel is not just a convocation, it is a mobilization. There is purpose behind VaYakhel, to which we are called. When we choose to become part of a kehillah (community), we become part of something greater than our individual selves. When we mobilize out of fear alone, we risk the same kind of knee-jerk reaction that led to the Golden Calf. When we mobilize around Torah, around love of God and of each other, then we see how the Promised Land beckons.
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
It’s easy to blame the Israelites.
They witnessed how God brought them out of Egypt with ten mighty Plagues, they walked on the dry land through the sea that was parted. They stood at the base of Mount Sinai amid peals of thunder and heard God speak from the mountain.
So, when Moses was up on the mountain, within the Cloud of Glory, receiving the Ten Commandments directly from God, how could they surround Aaron and demand that he build a Golden Calf?
The Israelites clearly should not have built an idol anywhere, let alone at the base of Mount Sinai. Yet, they are not the only ones who made a mistake in this story.
We, the readers, know what Moses has been up to. We know that for forty days he was in sublime encounter with God, meeting God face to face as no other mortal ever can.
The Israelites, however, know none of this. They saw Moses climb the mountain and enter the cloud. They counted the days -- and Moses did not reemerge. Thirty-nine days they waited before the panic set in. What if Moses was not coming back? What would they do? Who would lead them? Where would they go?
Thirty-nine days is a long time to wait, even if we are not in the Wilderness. How many of us would have been so patient?
It is easy to blame the Israelites, yet they are not the only ones who made a mistake.
The story of the Golden Calf, among other things, offers a remarkable insight into leadership. Moses, as God’s representative, is tasked to bring the Israelites from a life of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land where they can live as free men and women under God’s Torah. This is a tall order!
To succeed, Moses must ‘sell’ the Israelite slaves a new vision for what can be, and once God sets them free, must then lead them to their new homes. The ‘sell’ is not overwhelmingly difficult – when we suffer as slaves the offer of freedom appeals! The actual journey is not long – assuming we can travel in a straight line.
Where then is the problem? Most of the territory that must be traversed is not physical, but psychological and spiritual. When the only thing the people have known is centuries of slavery in an idolatrous country, how could they simply adopt a radically new way of life? Change, especially massive change, is both difficult and scary – even when we understand the need for change.
The Israelites were willing to accept Moses as their leader. They were willing to follow him into the Wilderness. They were amazed and awed by the miracles they experienced, but they were not ready to stand on their own.
They were not strong enough to simply wait at the base of the mountain. Their faith in God had not developed yet, despite the wonders and miracles that they witnessed. The idea of God was too new, the reality of freedom too foreign and they had no idea how long Moses would be away.
What could Moses have done differently? He could not give them faith. He could not make them less afraid. He could not make them more patient. Just as the people have much to learn, so too Moses. At this early juncture, he did not understand the importance of information. Thirty-nine days earlier, when he ascended into the cloud he did not say anything about how long he would be away.
We might argue that he did not know how long he would be, and that is probably true. Yet even sharing that little tidbit might have helped. The Israelites needed to know that he was not in danger, that they should wait however long it took, that everything would be ok. Without that, they held on as long as they could – and it was not long enough.
Moses grew to become the greatest leader our people ever knew, and he learned from his mistakes. We should as well.
Exodus 27:20 – 30:1
Walk into any synagogue sanctuary, anywhere in the world, and you will find a ner tamid, an eternal light placed somewhere over the ark.
To understand why we need only look at the opening verses of our parasha. God commands a chukat olam, a law for all time that the priests keep a light perpetually lit (ner tamid) by the curtain that covers the ark in the Tent of Meeting. (Ex. 27:20-21)
Why, when most every aspect of the sacrificial rites are ancient history, does this commandment persist? What about the ner tamid has so captured our imaginations?
The Talmud emphasizes what Torah teaches: that the ner tamid brings the Divine presence to dwell with Israel. A synagogue is not a Motel 6 - it is not enough for us to say to God, “we’ll keep a light on for you.” This is why the Talmudic rabbis also state that the light is not for God, but for us. In every generation we need to keep a ner tamid for our own sakes. (Talmud Bavli: Menachot 86b).
Before the advent of electricity, maintaining the ner tamid was no easy task. Only the purest and most carefully prepared olive oil could be used, and the flame needed to be constantly tended. In part this is what drove the Jewish revolt against the Assyrians - the fact that the flame that must always burns had gone out. When the Hasmoneans of Hanukkah fame retook the Temple, they immediately set out looking for the special oil for re-lighting the lamp, yet there was only enough oil for one day …
Today, most synagogues use electricity or propane to keep the light lit with relative ease. However, the ner tamid still reminds us of a fundamental truth: bringing the Divine Presence into our lives takes real effort.
As you might expect, this is only part of the picture, so let’s take a closer look at the Hebrew text. The commandment is l’ha’alot ner tamid (to cause the ner tamid to ascend). We must not only keep the fire burning, but we must help raise up the light. In the Talmud, the rabbis interpret this to mean that we must construct the wicks so as to make the flame ascend by itself, rather than by any other means. (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat 21a).
Taken all together, we are left with an extraordinary concept. Just as God worked to create space for us in the midst of Creation, we must work to create space for God in the midst of our communities. Just as God set us in motion, but allows us free will – we construct the Eternal Light so that the Light of God takes on a special ascending life of its own. Even more, this is a re-enforcing cycle. The more we work to bring God into our midst, the more connected to Creation we become. The more sensitive and aware we become to our place in Creation, the more we bring God into our midst.
The ner tamid is far more than a symbol, it is a call to action.
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
“Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8)
In Terumah, God commands the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle). The people are to bring free-will offerings of the most precious objects as building material: gold, silver and bronze, precious stones and fine cloth and skins and threads colored with rare dyes – and more.
The mishkan would house the Ark of the Covenant that contained the Two Tablets. It would be the place where the priests offered sacrifices to God, and the place where the Divine Presence would appear as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. It would be the very center of our community while we wandered through the wilderness.
However, the mishkan was NOT a house for God. What structure could possibly contain God? Instead, God commands: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” The genius of the text is simple: we cannot contain God, but if we make the effort, if we put our hearts and souls into the task, then God will dwell in our midst – whether we see God or not.
Today we live in a world without the mishkan. God does not appear as a pillar of anything, and many of us feel disconnected. Yet, the truth of Terumah remains – and speaks to us not only through Torah but through the book of Esther, which we will read at our Purim celebrations next week. The Purim story is the stereotype for virtually every Jewish holiday: ‘they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!’ Yet, Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that makes no mention of God – not one. God does not redeem us from the evil clutches of Haman and his henchmen, Mordechai and Esther do.
We should not, however, assume that God is not present in the lives of the Jews in Shushan. Quite the contrary! As the story comes to its conclusion, it is worth noting that the establishment of Purim as an annual Jewish observance “remembered and kept throughout every generation” was set by Esther and Mordechai. (Esther 9:28) This is the only Biblically rooted holiday not commanded by God, but rather ordained by characters in the text – and this is highly significant.
Could the establishment of Purim echo the construction of the mishkan? Both require our human effort to create, both remind us that we are not alone but rather connected to something far greater than ourselves, and both strengthen our sense of community and Jewish identity.
Even in world where God does not seem to be present God truly can dwell among us, if only we make the effort to bring God in.
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