Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
Just like the first one, the second Torah portion of Leviticus is laser focused on sacrifice, and in our own ways, so are we. The specifics for how to offer various sacrifices continues through parashat Tzav. Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, long before the virus hit, was intrigued by the details and underlying reasons for one of these sacrifices in particular: the asham (reparations) offering. Citing the tension that exists between how God created order in the world through Creation, and how human beings reliably muck up that order, she writes:
“God has learned something since encountering that first act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Rather than meet every transgression with permanent exile, God commands that the Israelites who have strayed offer a sacrifice to make amends and to mark their intention to re-order their behavior.”[i]
The Hebrew word for order is seder. When we stray, we need to find a way to bring order back to our lives. The same is true when the world shifts under our feet – like it has today. We need to re-order our lives to adjust to our new reality, and doing so requires a sacrifice, and our specific challenges of what and how to re-order are as varied as we are ourselves. For some of us, we are struggling to find the balance between work and homeschooling our children, others are struggling to care for a loved one, or are suffering from the disease ourselves. Some of us have too much time on our hands and don’t know how to structure it so that we can find meaning and purpose (and distract ourselves from the constant worry), others are working so hard that we are close to burning out. Regardless of our personal situations, a new sense of seder cannot come soon enough.
Here’s the thing. Seder is not something we passively receive. It is something we actively create. Bringing seder to our lives and to our world is one of the most important ways we partner with God, continuing the work which began with Creation. We can begin to create order in a variety of ways, and these can be our asham offerings, from and for our hearts.
Here are just a few ideas:
For those who are overwhelmed with too much to do: make “you” time one of your priorities and put it on your schedule. Even if it is just 5 – 10 minutes a day to breathe, meditate, listen to music, whatever feeds your soul – make that a sacrosanct commitment. Do not say to yourself that you have no time. You do. We are in a crisis; you cannot be all things to all people without a break. I mean, even God needed a day of rest.
For those who need to fill their time with something meaningful, look for ways to volunteer (safely) in your community. It turns out that we are incapable of feeling any of those dark emotions if we are wholeheartedly helping another. Or if you cannot find a volunteer opportunity, consider how you might be a support to your family and friends (even from a distance). Or, take a closer look at that big project you always toyed with but never decided to act on. Be creative. Be a creator.
For those who are caring for the sick, know that what you are doing is the most important thing of all. And remember what the flight attendants say at the beginning of each flight: in case of emergency place your oxygen mask on first before placing a mask on the person sitting next to you who may need assistance. It will help you to be a better care provider.
And for all of us, let us continue to pray that God will be with us, giving us the strength, the courage, and the patience to bring order back to our world.
May healing come, speedily, for us all.
[i] Rabbi Barry H Block, ed., “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life.” New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020. P. 156
Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Shabbat Shalom everyone. I am so deeply grateful that we can be together in spirit even as we are physically apart on this holy Shabbat, and I thank God that we live in a time when the technology to keep us connected is both available and effective. Even more, I thank God for the driven medical researchers and the courageous health care providers who are working tirelessly to find a way forward and ultimately defeat the novel Coronavirus.
As you might imagine, I have devoted significant time to thinking about what I might share with you this evening. We need to find comfort, and I want to provide words of comfort for us all, but in order to get there, we first deserve some honesty. So let’s get real for a moment: we are scared; we are frustrated; we are anxious; we are confused; and we are so many other emotions all at the same time. It is important to acknowledge our emotions, to let them move through us, and then to move on. However, there is one emotion which we have not hearing a lot about, and which I think deserves our attention: grief.
Most of us are experiencing grief. David Kessler, who co-wrote the iconic book with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the five stages of grief, notes that we are feeling a number of different griefs:
“We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we are grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. … we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain … With a virus this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this.”
That’s a lot of grief. And that’s a lot to hold.
This is the time I like to turn to the Torah for help, but my initial glance was unsatisfying. This week begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, with parashat VaYikra. VaYikra literally means “and God called.” That’s a great start! However, what God calls for in this passage are the priestly sacrifices in the temple, each rite and ritual meticulously described in detail and commanded by the Divine. What do we do with that today?
Ok, so maybe I should go back to David Kessler. He continues:
“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger; You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
Ah … Now it comes into focus. The Torah portion that is. When we read VaYikra, we read about the world as it once was. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis understood that it would no longer be possible to continue with the sacrificial rites. They mourned their loss, and the loss of all Israel, and they grieved, and they eventually accepted the need to change and transform – and in doing so they bequeathed to us the Judaism we now practice. Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, the President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, recently wrote a letter to alumni in which he reminded us that, “rituals are human creations that bring meaning, discipline, awareness, and awe to our world. And as human creations, they can be modified to reflect changing circumstances. When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish People demonstrated the ability to innovate even in the face of calamity.”
The same is true today. There is so much, despite everything we are mourning, which we can actually do to make a difference. And, it turns out, that while we may have left animal sacrifices to history, there are modern day sacrifices which we can imbue with meaning.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi draws our attention to one little verse in our portion:
“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of our covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt.” [Lev. 2:13]
She describes how the rabbis interpreted salt to represent tears of pain and loss. How does this relate to the here and now? Let’s first define the word “sacrifice.” In its simplest form, it is giving something up. In the ancient world we would give up (literally up) to heaven, to God, for the greater good of Israel. Today, despite the blaming, finger pointing and hoarding which seems to surround us, millions of people are making sacrifices not only for their own safety, but for the greater good. You are making holy sacrifices, we all are, for the sake of heaven, and for the greater good. And, our sacrifices matter.
Rabbi Deblosi notes, ironically, what is missing from our store shelves: milk, flour, pasta, frozen vegetables, toilet paper. Toilet paper! Disinfectants, medical masks, latex gloves. So, what are the stores full up with? Salt. There is more than enough salt to go around.
All of this is to say, that it is ok, and perhaps even good, to season our sacrifices with the salt of our tears, with our pain, our anxiety, our grief. This is the path to acceptance and to exerting greater power over our lives. This is what will allow us to find new paths forward, paths which perhaps we cannot yet even imagine. This is what will enable us to let go of what we cannot control, and to live in the present rather than worry about what might or might not be. This is what will allow us to stock up on what we really need: compassion, kindness, generosity, love.
We will get through this. We will get through this together. We are a resilient and creative people. We are eminently capable. And we are completely human.
VaYikra! It is to this that God calls.
Exodus 35:1 –40:38
Let’s be honest. Most of us are scared.
The COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly, store shelves are emptying, the stock market is crashing, people are losing their jobs, and many of us are staying at home in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. And far too many us are already displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus and seeking or receiving treatment. Just two weeks ago, the world seemed so different, so much more stable than today, at least for Marylanders.
It’s ok to say we are scared. Indeed, we need to name our fears and anxieties. How else can we overcome them? Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Ben Zoma taught:
“Who is mighty? One who controls his own self/urges, as it is said, ‘One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one who rules one’s spirit than one who conquers a city’ [Prov. 16:32]” [Pirke Avot 4:1]
Given the worry and uncertainty in the world around us, we might be tempted to give into our yetzer hara (our urge towards evil). According to the rabbis, the yetzer hara is what controls those dark inner voices we all have. You know the ones I mean, the voices which tell us to give up hope, to stop trying, to give in to our base instincts, worries and anxieties.
Ben Zoma reminds us that we are in charge of our decision-making trees, that we can talk back to the yetzer hara, and that when we do so we are increasing our strength and our resilience: we become like mighty warriors.
As the world seems to darken around us, Rabbi Noah Farkas draws our attention to the beginning of the Torah, when the world was filled with darkness, chaos and emptiness. He writes:
“God shed light upon the deep, and divided the light from the darkness by naming it light and dark, and by choosing to look upon the chaos and making a world. It’s the most important choice in the Bible. God could have let the chaos stand on its own, but instead God chose to create. Confronting the darkness, God called upon the light, and the world came into being. And so it is with each of us at this moment. We can let the chaos stand or we can look upon the fear that is gripping us and cast light upon it. For it is through dark moments like this where we can choose to create something beautiful.”
Our yetzer hara tells us to binge on Netflix and ice cream, play video games, or do whatever it is we do to retreat from the world. However, we have other options. We can seek ways to stay connected; we can support those who are working tirelessly to help defeat the virus and treat the sick; we can find new avenues to keep our economy going, or support our children’s education, or look out for our neighbors, or the myriad other ways we can make a difference; we can create a whole new world.
To help us stay grounded, we can also continue to learn from Torah, and this week’s parasha is rich with inspiration. On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Exodus with VaYak’hei/Pekudei. In it the Israelites, stuck in the Wilderness of Sinai, finally finish building the mishkan, the special Tent of Meeting where the Divine Presence would dwell in their midst. They are ready to begin their journey into an unknown new world, away from the slavery of Egypt and towards the Promised Land!
In the midst of all of this, there is one detail, which especially caught my attention, and also Rabbi Farkas’:
“Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” [Ex. 35:2]
On the one hand (and there are always at least two hands) there is nothing new here. This past week has been one of frenetic activity for me (and perhaps for you as well). With our amazing synagogue team, I have been working non-stop to try to move our temple from a physical operation to a virtual one: developing online content and communication mechanisms; life-cycle, education, and pastoral care protocols; and continuing outreach to and support for our members and neighbors. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my life. It is easy in this environment (at least for me) to say that we have no time for anything but our work. In a way, I imagine this is how the Israelites felt as they built the mishkan. Their very lives and their future depended upon bringing God into their midst. Who could possibly stop, even for Shabbat? But that would be a mistake. We also need time to rest, we desperately need Shabbat.
We already knew this, at least intellectually if not in our kishkes (our guts). However, Rabbi Farkas introduces a second way to interpret the commandment to rest on Shabbat. He notes that just when things get the most intense, the Torah reminds us that our work is not everything. Yes, we need to work, but we also need to remember why we work.
Whether we are focused on homeschooling our kids, or keeping our businesses going in an ever-changing economy, whether we are keeping our infrastructure intact, or providing medical care, this crisis provides us with the opportunity to step back and take stock. Why are we doing what we do? Is the way we are used to doing things the best way to realize our deepest ‘whys’? How can we use this time to rethink and recreate the rhythms of our lives to better serve our higher purpose? How can we face the darkness and what can we choose to create?
This Shabbat let’s take the time to catch our breath. Let’s bring light to the darkness with our Shabbat candles, and conquer our fears enough to create a true Shabbat Shalom, a sabbath of rest, reflection and peace.
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
What do we do when we find ourselves in an ongoing, high-anxiety environment which is also a “reliable information desert”? This is the Wilderness we have found ourselves in as the COVID-19 virus has spread to become a worldwide pandemic. When we are scared and do not have enough real information to understand our predicament or the best paths forward, we do what we have always done. We grasp at straws, and if we can’t find any, we make do with whatever we can find and pin our hopes upon that. In other words, as our Religious School Administrator Jen Smith reminds us, we build a Golden Calf.
In this week’s parasha, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets. The people stayed at the base of the mountain and waited …
… and waited
… and waited
… and waited
Almost 40 days passed, and there was no word or sign from Moses. Fear set in, and perhaps even a little panic:
“And the people saw that Moses lagged in coming down the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’” [Ex. 32:1]
Yet, Moses had not abandoned the people, and more importantly, neither had God. Fear, uncertainty, impatience, anxiety – when combined together these emotions can lead us down a dark path.
Unlike the Israelites in the Wilderness, we do have some knowledge: we have both science and Torah. When it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to pay close attention to what the scientists and medical authorities say, and we should follow their advice and execute their protocols. Although there is much we still do not understand about the virus, our knowledge is growing daily, and we already have the means to keep ourselves safer through “social” distancing and personal hygiene (hand washing, etc.) We also have Torah and Jewish values, which can help to guide us through this Wilderness.
I am not a scientist or a medical expert, and so have nothing to add from that perspective. I am a rabbi, and would like to share five specific Jewish values (with especial thanks to Rabbi Joe Black of Denver) which I have found to be both centering and uplifting. Although there are others we could add to the list, these are the five values we looked to as we made the difficult decision to close down our synagogue building for the next few weeks. My hope is that these values may help you in your own decision making as we do our best to weather this health crisis.
1.Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life): Of all 613 commandments in the Torah, none is more important than saving a life. We are allowed to violate virtually every law (except murder, idolatry and adultery) in order to save a life. Indeed, there is a story of a rabbi in Europe many years ago during a flu outbreak (I am not sure which one) which occurred on Yom Kippur. Although it was a sacred fast day, he brought chicken soup into the sanctuary and compelled everyone to eat. Today, in the midst of this outbreak, your health and safety is of paramount importance to us. Indeed, it is more important than anything else. Period.
2.Lo Ta’ashok Sachir (You shall not abuse a laborer) [Deut. 24:14]: we understand that this crisis will create economic hardship, especially for the most vulnerable in our midst. Therefore, we have decided to continue to pay our entire staff and our vendors throughout the crisis, even when our building is closed. This is what the Torah’s view of a just community looks like in the midst of a crisis.
3.Rachmanut (compassion): we must stay sensitive to the ways our family, neighbors, and friends may be suffering during this crisis, and reach out to provide support and comfort. We are activating a more robust spiritual support and pastoral counselling protocol to make sure we are here for you, and for each other. Please watch for updates with more information.
4.Simchah (celebration): although we might be afraid, that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to celebrate! We celebrated Shabbat services by live streaming to your homes from our empty sanctuary, and we celebrated Torah through a study session on Zoom on Shabbat morning (led from my home study). We will continue to do both of these things and more as we develop the capability. We also found a way to celebrate b’nei mitzvah for those families who wished to keep their dates, and to find new dates for those who wish to postpone. Regardless, every child and family will still have loads to celebrate.
5.Al Tifrosh min HaTzibur (Do not separate yourself from the community) [Pirke Avot 2:4]: These words from the famous rabbi Hillel are more important than ever. All of the medical experts and authorities are emphasizing the importance of social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. However, what they really mean is physical distance, not social distance. We absolutely need more physical isolation, but we also need social, spiritual and emotional connection. We need to find ways to come together, even as we continue to maintain our physical distance, so that we can draw strength and comfort from one another. At Beth Ami we are utilizing technology to allow us to do just that. Our professional team is online, accessing everything at the synagogue from home, looking for ways to stay connected with you. We will be holding virtual appointments, virtual services and virtual Torah study – and looking for more ways to stay together as a community.
Finally, I am reminded of the words of King Solomon the Wise: “gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass).” Let us remember that this is a temporary situation, that the day will come when the danger from the virus will have passed. May that day come speedily, and in the meantime, I pray that we all stay physically safe and spiritually connected.
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
This week’s Torah portion details the lavish vestments worn by the High Priest of Israel. His priestly garments included a special robe with pomegranates and bells (made of pure gold), a golden breastplate with 12 semi-precious stones set in it (one for each tribe of Israel), golden epaulettes with a single large stone placed in each inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel, and a golden forehead plate inscribed with the words ‘Holy to God.’ Could there be a more impressive looking costume in all the camp of Israel?
We might think that this impressive clothing is simply one of the benefits of leadership, that political and communal authority are tools for self-aggrandizement.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The rabbis teach:
“A certain gentile who was walking past the rear of a study hall overheard the voice of a teacher reciting: ‘These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastplate and an ephod …’ [Ex. 28:4]. He [the gentile] said, ‘these lavish garments, who are they for?’ They replied, ‘for our High Priest.’ The gentile said to himself – I will go and convert so that they will appoint me as the High Priest! He came before Shammai and said to him, ‘convert me on condition that you have me appointed as the High Priest.’ Shammai chased him out with his builder’s cubit in hand. He then came before Hillel and Hillel converted him. Hillel said, ‘can we appoint a king unless he is familiar with the ceremonies of royalty?’ So the Gentile went and learned scripture [about being the High Priest]; when he reached ‘and the stranger who approaches [the holy of holies] shall die’ [Num. 3:10] he asked Hillel, ‘this verse, about whom was it stated?’ He said, ‘even about David, King of Israel [meaning absolutely anyone who is not the proper High Priest in a state of absolute purity will die if they approach].”
The vestments of the High Priest were indeed impressive. They set him apart from the rest of Israel because he was the conduit between Israel and God. What could be more important to the survival of the people than maintaining God’s presence in their midst – especially while we were still wandering in the wilderness? The appearance of the High Priest dressed in such finery added gravitas to the rites he performed.
As for the priest himself, how could he not feel the incredible weight of those vestments? The gold woven into his garments. The large golden breastplate with the stones for each tribe weighing against his heart, the weight of Israel on his shoulders, the weight of God on his forehead – all crafted from pure gold. To bear the burden of these garments, one had to bear the burden of responsibility. One mistake and the connection could be severed. One mistake and he could lose his life.
The convert had it all wrong. He thought he would find personal glory through the priesthood. With study he came to understand that the opposite was true – he would face only danger and heavy responsibility by pursuing such a role.
The garments were not merely to make the priest look and feel special, but reminders that all of us have our place, embedded in gold, among the people. The high priest did not place himself above us, but rather made room for everyone, each tribe given equal representation on the breastplate, all of us seeking our own communion with God. According to Torah, then, great leaders are not arrogant; but instead cultivate humility.
As for the convert, what happened to him? He begged Hillel not to make him the high priest, and continued to study Torah for the rest of his life.
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.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Most of us have heard it before, especially if we grew up in America:
“If you want the job done right, do it yourself.”
That’s the phrase which describes the independent “can do” spirit of the rugged individualism which permeates American culture. Many of us take pride in that approach.
However, Torah has another idea. To better understand our Jewish “can do” spirit, we need only look at this week’s Torah portion, Va’Era. God has called Moses to action at the Burning Bush, and Moses’ has balked. Among other concerns, Moses has a speech impediment. How could he possibly speak before Pharaoh?
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet. You it is who will speak all that I charge you and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh …’” [Ex. 7:1-2]
It’s all right there. Moses, the greatest leader our people has ever known, says (I’m paraphrasing here), “The task is too great for me.” God responds (I’m still paraphrasing), “Don’t worry, help is on the way.” Torah does not teach rugged individualism; it inspires us to consider what we can accomplish together. In other words: “If you want the job done right, get 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