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.”
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
“And these are the names [Shemot] of the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt with Jacob, each man with his household they came.” [Ex. 1:1]
The book of Exodus, which details the enslavement and eventual redemption of our people, begins with our names. Egypt, like Nazi Germany, attempted a Holocaust against our people. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives (who thankfully resisted) to kill all newborn baby boys, which would effectively destroy the Jewish people in one generation. However, unlike what happened to us under the Nazi oppression, where Jews in the death camps were tattooed with numbers meant to deny them any humanity, in Egypt we kept our names. A name is a powerful thing. It identifies us, and when we attach ourselves to a family or people, it connects us with their history and values. Thus, the history of our enslavement and our miraculous redemption begins with our names, so that we can remember who we really are.
As anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the world today, as some would try to portray us in ways that take away our humanity and attempt to hijack the meaning of our tradition, we can respond by refusing to accept such nonsense. We have names, and we have families, and we are part of a people with a noble religious tradition and inspiring values.
With this in mind, I would like to share two expressions of what it means to be a Jew, one from France in the early 20th Century and the second from Brooklyn, just a few weeks ago. The first was written by the French playwright and philosopher Edmund Fleg. He was a proud Frenchman, a recipient of the War Cross and eventually an officer in the Foreign Legion. He was also an ardent Zionist. In the 1920’s, according to legend, he was offered a prestigious position to teach Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, the offer came with a stipulation: he would have to convert out of Judaism. In 1928, he published his rejection of this requirement with his response, Porquoi Je Suis Juife (Why I am a Jew). What follows is an adaptation of his powerful statement from the Reform movement prayer book Mishkan Tefillah (pg. 203):
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss spoke these next words at the “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in Brooklyn on January 5. May we be inspired by both her words and his to stay true to who we are, and proudly proclaim our names as part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel):
My name is Bari Weiss.
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Remember the Hatfields and the McCoys? Their blood-feud lasted far beyond the point where anyone even remembered how it started, driven by family honor and pride. It had to begin with a slight, intentional or not. Because family honor has been “stained”, an act of revenge was required. This, in turn, led to a retaliation for the other family’s honor, and so on. Regardless of who is involved, this kind of cycle, once started, intensifies with each tit for tat, and is virtually impossible to end.
The blood feud is a distinctive element of what is commonly called a shame-based culture. In shame-based cultures wrongful acts lead to public shame and become permanent stains on us and our families/clans/nations. In this setting, unforgiving responses to shameful acts are often the only way honor can be restored. Much of the world is organized according to shame-based cultural frames. Just open a newspaper – the examples abound.
It should be no surprise that Jewish culture not shame-based, but guilt-based. There is nothing like Jewish guilt! In a guilt-based culture, when a wrong is committed, the focus is on the damaging behavior or act, rather than on permanently shaming the perpetrator. In other words, while a shame-based culture requires revenge, a guilt-based culture seeks responsibility, restitution and forgiveness.
In this week’s parasha, we find an extraordinary example of forgiveness. Jacob dies at a ripe old age in Egypt, leaving all of his children behind. Since they are in Egypt, and since Joseph is the power behind the throne, the brothers become worried that Joseph will seek revenge against them. In a shame-based culture, he would be well within his rights, and may have simply been waiting for their father to die (out of respect) before taking action.
Soon after Jacob’s death, the brothers send a message to Joseph, saying:
“Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” [Gen. 50:16]
How does Joseph respond? By reminding them of what he already said:
“Don’t be afraid,” said Joseph, “Am I in place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” [Gen. 50-19-20]
Rabbi Jonathan Saks teaches that this great act of forgiveness is the bookend to one of the very first stories in Genesis: the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel. He notes that the theme of sibling rivalry is repeated through many generations: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and finally, Joseph and his brothers. The cycle which originally led to an act fratricide, could only be resolved in the end by an act of powerful forgiveness. Joseph breaks the cycle as Genesis comes to its end. Permanently.
Rabbi Saks writes:
“Can brothers live peaceably with one another? This question is fundamental to the biblical drama of redemption, for if brothers cannot live together, how can nations? And if nations cannot live together, how can the human world survive?”
Redemption and freedom, the primary themes of the rest of Torah, can only happen once we learn to reconcile our differences.
Perhaps a little guilt isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah.
What is the Jewish response to fear, pain and suffering?
Just look at this week’s parasha, VaYigash. Joseph, is now the ‘Prime Minister’ of Egypt and has severely tested his brothers to see if they will abandon Benjamin the way they abandoned him so many years before. They, of course, did not recognize him, but they do pass the test. Now, overcome with emotion, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. Their first reaction is shock, but when the truth finally sinks in, they became terribly afraid.
Because they were the ones who threw Joseph in the pit, where slavers then found him and took him to Egypt. Joseph suffered first at the hands of his brothers, then at the hands of the slavers, then as a slave in Egypt, then as a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon for a crime he did not commit. He suffered for years and years, and now that his brothers were in Egypt, he had the power to take any revenge against them he wished.
Yet, Joseph did not seek revenge. He said:
“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God has sent me before you. Two years now there has been famine in the heart of the land, and there are yet five years without plowing and harvest. And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group. And so, it is not you who sent me here, but God, and He has made me father to Pharaoh and lord to all his house and ruler over the all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph: God has made lord to all Egypt. Come down to me, do not delay …’” [Gen. 45:4-9]
First, Joseph acknowledges the wrong his brothers committed. We are not stoics; we do not pretend everything is ok when it is not. The Jewish response to suffering begins with acknowledging the suffering we endure. But we do not stop there. Joseph serves as a great model for our people. His resilience stemmed from his faith, which in turn, allowed Joseph to take the long view. In this way, rather than just focusing on what he faced in the moment, Joseph was able not only to endure, but to maintain a sense of hope.
There is a common joke you may have heard before, about most every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” I have said these words in jest many times, yet Rabbi Dan Moskovitz teaches that Joseph’s example is not so simple. Joseph recasts his situation to find a greater meaning. His message to his brothers is that while they may have intended him harm, he was sent to Egypt for a Greater Reason. There was a purpose to his suffering. He had to learn from his experience; grow from being a spoiled little boy to a great and generous man of faith. He had to be in the right place at the right time to save his family, and many others.
Our resilience comes from our ability to take the long view AND our ability to find meaning in our experience.
Last week, more than ten different acts of violence were perpetrated against our people in the greater New York area during the celebration of Hanukkah. The most reported instance was a tragic attack at the house of a rabbi, as his community was preparing to light the candles. Five people were wounded – including the rabbi’s son.
How did this community respond?
After the danger had passed, and after making sure to care for everyone who needed, they returned to the celebration of Hanukkah – our festival of lights and of religious freedom. This was not an act of callousness, but of profound faith. It was a refusal to let the attackers take Hanukkah away from us. It was bringing the meaning of Hanukkah back to life.
For long after these haters are gone, we will still be here, still lighting candles during the darkest weeks of the year, still singing songs of praise, and yes, still eating delicious fried food for Hanukkah.
And that is no joke.
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
[This drash is inspired by a teaching from Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, published in the CCAR newsletter in 2015]
Young Joseph was the model of arrogance. He was the beloved of Jacob and he knew it. He wore a special coat. He even dreamed how his family would bow before him.
The thing is, that is what eventually led to his downfall – literally, in a pit, thrown there and abandoned by his own brothers. Slave traders found him there, and brought him to Egypt, where Joseph began to learn humility.
We see it first when he tries to fend off the amorous attentions of Potiphar’s wife. We see it again when he declares before Pharaoh that it is God, not he, who is interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. And we see it when Joseph, as Viceroy of Egypt, reveals himself to his brothers and explains that he bears them no ill will. His humility allows him to see that God brought him to Egypt not for his own aggrandizement, but so that he could save his family from famine.
In other words, Joseph’s life is a lesson in the pitfalls of arrogance and in the healing power of humility. When we are arrogant, there is no room for anyone else in our world. In the end, by making everything about us, we find ourselves utterly alone, in a pit of our own making. On the other hand, when we cultivate humility, we see our value in relation to others. We see the contributions and benefit we offer each other, and we find more meaning in the good we do than in the honors we try to collect.
What would our world be like today, if more us could learn from Joseph’s example?
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
It’s not like she didn’t know his name.
Joseph, although a slave in Egypt, was the head of Potiphar’s household. Everyone in the house knew him. The other slaves and servants reported to him. Potiphar appointed him. Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.
Joseph refused her advances, and when she grabbed him by his tunic one day, he ran away – leaving it in her hands. She, in turn, set about framing him for rape. When she accused him, first before the other servants and then before her husband, she never used his name. Instead, she called him “that Hebrew” (ivri in Hebrew).
The word ivri is based on the root which means “from over there.” In other words, ivri contains within it the connotation of “other” or “not like me/us.” Potiphar’s wife dehumanized Joseph, she emphasized that he was different, and then she accused him of a heinous crime.
It did not matter that he was innocent, he never had a chance. Our parasha ends with Joseph languishing in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Torah reminds us no fewer than 36 times that we were once strangers, so that we will empathize with and then care for those who we might think of as “other.” As the world around seems to become more and more like Potiphar’s wife, Torah demands that we hold true to our values, even if it makes us seem like we ourselves are “other.”
“In a place where there are no human beings, [taught Hillel,] strive be one.” [Pirkei Avot 2:5]
This is the how the word ivri becomes a badge of strength and courage, and how we can live up to our great name.
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