2016 Archives: Word from Our Rabbi

A Time for Rededication, December 2016

I cannot count the number of times I have been asked by my well-meaning Christian friends, “Hanukkah - isn’t that the Jewish Christmas?” This year, in particular, as our Christian neighbors gather around their trees or attend religious services on Christmas Eve, Jews will be lighting the first candle of their Hanukkiahs at sundown to welcome the first day of Hanukkah. Coincidentally, we will be lighting our eighth, and last, candle on New Year’s Eve. What timing!! Now, I know my friends are only expressing an interest in my faith and a concern about things that are important to me, but how can I politely tell them that there is almost no similarity between Hanukkah and Christmas other than occurring at about the same time of year. In reality, the one major similarity the holidays do share, their commercialization, would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas, of course, marks the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central figure. Hanukkah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles, sharing of meals, and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukkah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukkah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.

At a time in the second century before the Common Era, when the Syrian Greeks were occupying the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem and the practice of Judaism had been forbidden by the evil ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, a small band of Jewish rebels rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, of priestly descent. Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus—The Hammer,” succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it. Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple had fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.

According to the Book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars because when Solomon built the first Temple he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the Fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (300-500 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that, as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21) the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication—the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukkah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).

Being a post-biblical holiday, for centuries Hanukkah was celebrated by Jews very simply with the lighting of a Hanukkiah, a nine candled menorah used specifically for Hanukkah evenings. Scholars believe the exchange of gifts did not begin until relatively recently when Jews in areas where Christmas was celebrated with gift giving decided that in order to keep their own children from becoming jealous they too would begin to give gifts. Even so, Hanukkah gifts were quite modest, usually a small sum of money or Hanukkah “gelt.” It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mostly in America, that that began to change. Dianne Ashton, professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University, in her book, Hanukkah in America (NYU Press, 2013), has shown how in America the evolution of Hanukkah and Christmas have gone hand in hand in many ways. The growth and development of both holidays has been fueled by rapid industrialization and the resulting blossoming of a consumer-based economy. The marketing around both Christmas and Hanukkah, designed to promote the consumption of goods, has led to the popularization of both holidays that is far beyond any celebrations that occurred in previous centuries. Now, nobody enjoys the benefits our free enterprise economic system more than I, however, I think most people would agree with me that the extreme commercialization of these holidays has detracted somewhat from their intended deeper spiritual meaning.

One of the wisest Rabbis of our own time, Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Isles, writes, “Hanukkah is about the freedom to be true to what we believe without denying the freedom of those who believe otherwise. It’s about lighting our candle, while not being threatened by or threatening anyone else’s candle.” (http://www.rabbisacks.org/) The name Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew word, chanak (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” Remembering that our ancestors in centuries past struggled to maintain their religious freedom, and to rededicate the place considered most holy to them, should we not rededicate ourselves also to the things that matter most—faith, justice, and love? There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that we observe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater importance biblically and historically. But, we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish tradition. It is, in fact, the pursuit of these values which, according to the Hebrew Prophets and echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the knowledge and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the entire earth. This year, as you observe your Festival of Lights, will you not pledge yourself anew to those values the Prophet Isaiah (4:6) says will one day make the Jewish people a “light to the nations”? Isaiah records God’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Thanksgiving—The Most Jewish American Holiday, November 2016

On the eve of every Shabbat, the proclamation of the Psalmist is read or chanted in the synagogue:

Come, let us sing for joy to Adonai;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before God with thanksgiving
and extol God with music and song.
For Adonai is a great God,
the great King above all gods.
In God’s hands are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to God.
The sea is God’s, for God made it,
and God’s hands formed the dry land.
(Psalm 95:1-5 [my translation], Mishkan T’filah, pp. 130-131)

And, in fact, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite among the American holidays. There is just something powerful in a whole nation coming together across religious, political, racial, or any other lines that are drawn to divide us, to give thanks to the Creator and Source of our blessings. In past articles I have written in some detail about the possible historical connections between the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the origins of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is known from many sources that the Puritan Separatists who began the custom of a thanksgiving celebration were firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Some writers have asserted that in many ways the Puritans were closer to Jews than to other Protestants in that regard (e.g., Hugh Fogelman, “Puritans Were More Jewish Than Protestant,” http://www.christianity-revealed.com). The Puritan Separatists considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. They viewed King James I of England as the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh. Their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was likened to the ancient Israelite crossing of the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Their arrival in the New World was seen as the Israelites’ arrival in the Promised Land. American children learn in elementary school that this religious group was called the Pilgrims. This is actually a name they gave themselves in commemoration of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. There is no question that the Puritans’ grounding in the Hebrew Bible instilled in them the centrality of giving thanks for God’s gifts. It is a fact that of the twenty-eight references to the word, “thanksgiving,” in the King James Version of the Bible, all but six are in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (Mario Seiglie, “Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival,” http://www.ucg.org).

The Jewish tradition of giving thanks to the Creator, which is deeply embedded in our ritual and customs, derives, of course, from the same source. For example, the tradition of saying a minimum of 100 blessings a day goes back to the Talmudic period. The sages considered the verse, “Now, Israel, what does God, your God, ask of you? To walk in God’s ways and to serve God” (Deut. 10:12). The Rabbis of the Talmud pointed out that the Hebrew word used for “what” in that verse, mah, could also be read as meah, “one hundred.” Thus, they opined, the verse could be read as saying, “Now, Israel one hundred things (blessings) does God ask of you…” (Menachot 43b). Jewish commitment to the principle of giving thanks to God is also evident in the fact that the first prayer prayed every morning by an observant Jew is the Modeh Ani: “I thank you, living and enduring king, for you have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness” (translation, www.chabad.org). Jews who pray thrice daily and recite the traditional blessings required by Halacha do, in fact, end up giving thanks to God for the various miracles of daily life over one hundred times a day (See, Rabbi Marci Bellows, “How to Pray a Hundred Blessings a Day,” www.thejewishweek.com). God is thanked for allowing the person to wake up, for the miracle of biological functions (upon using the bathroom), for food, for drink, for natural phenomena, to name but a few. In fact, what other religious group prays a prayer of thanksgiving after the meal is eaten, the Birkat Ha-Mazon? That prayer is based on the passage in Deuteronomy 8:10, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.”

As you sit with your family over a bountiful meal this Thanksgiving, keep in mind that what you are doing is celebrating the prosperity and freedom we enjoy in America. Giving thanks to God has deep roots in Judaism spiritually and historically. As you give your thanks, remember to invoke the ancient Hebrew blessing over bread, the Ha-Motzi. You might also say the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer, which is reserved for such special occasions. Indeed, in this country Jews have more to celebrate than perhaps at any time in our history. The level of religious freedom and economic independence we enjoy in the United States surpasses that of any previous era. And, in our lifetime we have witnessed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel. Such a restoration was only a dream for almost two millennia.

But, in celebrating our freedom, we must remember that with great blessing comes great responsibility. I am thinking primarily of the responsibility to bring freedom to others who are still in bondage. Whether that be bondage to a literal oppressor, to disease, to hunger, to poverty, or to any other malady. It is our sacred obligation as Jews to strive for the freedom of all of God’s children. May the time not be far off which was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets when all mankind will be able to give thanks for freedom: freedom from disease, freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from war. If you are bold enough to believe, the Prophet Micah foretells such a time with power yet simplicity (ch. 4, vv. 3-4), “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every person under their own vine and under their own fig tree; and none shall make them afraid….” What a day of thanksgiving that will be!!

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Rosh Hashanah—The Day of the World's Birth, October 2016

Very soon we will gather together in the synagogue on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month, Tishri, to listen to the sound of the shofar, in keeping with ancient precepts. (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1) Several times during the course of our prayer and worship on that day, the High Holiday prayer book proclaims, “This is the day of the world’s birth.” (E.g., Gates of Repentance, pp. 143, 144) It has long been the tradition in the Reform Synagogue to read from Torah portion Bereishit, the creation story (Gen. Rabbi, Morton Kaplan, congregation Temple Beth Shalom began the tradition of reading from Bereishit on the first day of the holiday). This custom shifts the emphasis of the holy day from a day of judgment to a day of new beginnings—new possibilities. Every time I chant the creation account I am overwhelmed by the power of the passage and by the power of the day.

Many skeptics and detractors over the years have seen in the creation story of Bereishit a pseudoscience that is, on its face, at odds with accepted discoveries from many scientific fields. But that is absolutely not the case! The sages of Israel, even as far back as two millennia ago saw in the creation story a powerful poem, in parable form, with multiple layers of meaning. They cautioned novices not to even explore the depths of the mysteries underlying this powerful account without guidance. (See, e.g., Talmud Chagigah, 11b) Rabbi Kaplan taught often of the competing principles of unity and diversity described so beautifully in the creation story. The juxtaposition of those forces of unity and diversity works together to magnify the power and purpose of the Creator. The diversity of the creation can be thought of as an impediment, or it can be a source of strength and benefit on both the ecological and societal levels. The universe’s vast diversity ultimately does flow together as a unity, because the entire cosmos truly is interconnected as has been proven through scientific discoveries in the 20th and 21st centuries. (See, Dr. Gerald Shroeder, “Age of the Universe,” www.aish.com)

Even as great a commentator as the 11th century biblical scholar, Rashi, said that the Torah “ought to have started” with Exodus 12:2, because that is the first commandment in the Torah actually given specifically to the children of Israel. Most other scholars disagree, for example the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who pointed out, “With its opening statement, the Torah is establishing that it is not merely a rulebook, a listing of things to do or not do. It is God’s blueprint for creation, our guide for realizing the purpose for which everything in heaven and earth was made. Every creature, object, and element; every force, phenomenon, and potential; every moment of time was created by God toward a purpose.” (“Parshat Bereishit In-Depth,” www.chabad.org)

Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, concludes, “Torah is not a book of history even though it includes history. It is not a book of science even though the first chapter of Genesis…is the necessary prelude to science, because it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will, and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious.” Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that everything the Torah contains, which would include not only the laws, statutes, and commandments, but also the narratives, particularly the creation narrative, has the driving purpose of ethical and spiritual instruction. (See, “Bereishit—A Living Book,” www.aish.com)

Rosh Hashanah truly is, in many respects, the beginning of all beginnings. There is, I believe, in the core of every Jewish soul a deep connection with the creation and the Creator. The faith and traditions of our people that have been passed down from generation to generation have imbued us with an innate sense of purpose and responsibility. Though some may be able to deny that purpose and responsibility for a time, and all fall short of the highest goals we set for ourselves in that regard, Rosh Hashanah is that recurring “day of remembrance,” that brings us back to not only who we truly are, but also to who we can be.

Getting back to Rabbi Kaplan’s teaching, the vast diversity of our creation can be seen as a problem. When human beings choose to use that diversity to promote fear and tribalism, only division and evil can result. That same diversity, though, can serve as a springboard to greater creativity and strength. Rabbi Kaplan points out that in times of economic difficulty the worst elements of humankind’s nature tend to manifest themselves; whereas, in times of prosperity we see less of that. Our challenge in going forward is to choose a higher road even when others may be choosing the lower.

As we pray and worship together and listen to the blast of the shofar on this Rosh Hashanah, it is my prayer that we each recommit to those lofty principles given to us by our Creator in the Holy Torah and preserved for us by our ancestors. The Hebrew Prophets have for millennia held out a vision for humankind that is breathtaking. They foresee a time when sickness, famine, and war shall be completely eliminated. It is my absolute belief that this vision is the will of the Creator for this miraculous creation. It is my further belief that through our good deeds, our works of Torah, we can bring this vision to fruition. As we begin the New Hebrew Year 5777, may each of our parts in this holy endeavor become clearer to us. Won’t you join us at Temple Beth Shalom as we pursue this Divine connection and purpose together? L’shanah tovah tikatevu!!—May you be written down for a good year!!

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Food for Thought from Torah Portion Shoftim, September 2016

I have long considered it somewhat ironic that almost all of Christianity and a very large segment of traditional Judaism have put their hope in the coming of a Messiah, an anointed king of David’s line, when a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests to me that God never wanted a king for the people of Israel at all. If this statement surprises you, then read on! My explanation begins in the next Torah portion that we will consider at Temple Beth Shalom, Shoftim—Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. Shoftim is the Hebrew word for “judges,” the first word of this Torah portion. Shoftim is the 48th weekly Torah portion in the annual cycle; it is the fifth reading in the book of Deuteronomy. In general, the portion deals with an ideal balance between three “branches” of the government of the emerging Israelite nation—priest, king, and prophet. Interesting that the founders of the United States also composed the Constitution balancing three branches of government, but that is a topic for another day.

Getting back to my claim that Adonai never wanted a monarchy for Israel to begin with. The first thing one notices when one reads the book of Deuteronomy is that with respect to just about every law, the Israelites are commanded not to do as the nations around them have done. But, when it comes to the command concerning kings, we read, “When you enter the land which Adonai your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, you will say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations around me.’ You shall surely set a king over you….” (Deut. 17:14-15) The fact that the establishing of a king was the only way in which the Torah allowed the Israelites to be like the nations around them did not escape the notice of the sages of our people over the centuries. Commentary on this portion has been ample and varied. While Maimonides considered the appointment of a king to be an obligation, Ibn Ezra asserted that it was an allowance. Abarbanel claimed it to be concession by the Almighty, and Rabbenu Bachya went as far as to say that it was a punishment. (See, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Shoftim—Learning and Leadership,” www.aish.com)

One cannot help but notice that the commands regarding kings are predominately prohibitions. The king was not to “multiply horses for himself,” nor “multiply wives for himself,” nor “greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” Many of our sages have pointed out that two of Israel’s greatest kings, David and Solomon, broke all three of these commands. (See, Talmud Sanhedrin 21b)

Torah portion Shoftim refers us ahead to a time when the children of Israel would come into the land which God had promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs. The actual occurrence of this eventuality is recorded in the book of I Samuel. The Israelites had indeed conquered and occupied the land promised to them under the leadership of Joshua and successive judges. Samuel was serving as prophet and judge in Israel at the time. Samuel has been considered by many Jewish sages to be a prophet second only to Moses in wisdom and spirit. Late in Samuel’s life, the elders of Israel approached him saying, “Behold you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” (I Sam. 8:5) Samuel was grieved by the request, and Scripture tells us that he turned to Adonai in prayer. Adonai’s answer to Samuel is instructive. “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all they say to you for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (v. 7) And, as if that were not bad enough, Adonai goes on to compare the Israelite’s request for a king with the many rebellious things they had done during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness.

While Samuel is told by Adonai to grant the people’s request for a king, he is instructed by God to give the people the following “solemn warning:”

    This will be the custom of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen…. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but Adonai will not answer you in that day. (I Sam. 8:11-18)
Pretty bleak! In fact, quite scary! What is even scarier is that according to the biblical history recorded in the rest of I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles, all of these dire warnings were, in fact, realized. The transgressions of Israel’s kings led first to the splitting of the nation into northern and southern kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This was followed by several destructions and captivities. Northern Israel was destroyed and taken captive by Assyria, and Judah, in the south, was destroyed and taken captive by Babylonia.

It was in the midst of these destructions and exiles that the great prophets of Israel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others began to get glimpses of a future time which would be very different than what the nation was currently experiencing. They foresaw a time of peace and prosperity, a time when war and famine would be no more. And, while there are references in the Hebrew Prophets to a messianic King of the line of David, those references are very few in number. What has tended to happen, primarily by Christian commentators and to a lesser extent by Jewish commentators, is that every future good deed mentioned anywhere in the Prophets has been superimposed on the idea of a messianic king. Now, fortunately, Reform Judaism, has progressed beyond this interpretation, and does attribute most of the good things promised in the Hebrew Prophets to the actions of righteous men and women of all nations.

I have often wondered if some of the great things spoken of in the prophetic books might not be facilitated by another leader who is introduced in Torah portion Shoftim. This figure has been referred to by many sages as a “prophet like Moses.” In Shoftim, the fledgling Israelite nation is told that they did not need to resort to witchcraft, divining, or fortune-telling. Adonai promises, “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Deut. 18:18) Just a disclaimer here, that while the ancient text uses the masculine pronoun, my interpretation would be more egalitarian. I would assert that the point of this promise is that there would always be a Divine connection— prophesy among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. We read often in our ancient, sacred writings about such a connection historically. Where is that clear direction from the Almighty today? Is it something that we should be hoping for, perhaps even praying for?

This is why I find the study of Torah and the Prophets so exciting. Not only do they detail amazing interactions between the Creator and humankind in the past, but I believe they contain the seeds of profound changes that are possible in the future. But, the task is ours to study, interpret, and apply these ancient holy writings of our rich Jewish tradition to the difficulties we face in the modern age. Won’t you join me for services at Temple Beth Shalom as we make an effort to do just that? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Shabbat Chazon—A Time to Remember, August 2016

When congregation Temple Beth Shalom ends its summer break, and begins Sabbath services on August 12th and 13th, we will be observing Shabbat Chazon. Shabbat Chazon is the Sabbath that immediately precedes the fast of Tisha B’Av—the 9th of Av. The Torah reading that day is actually Devarim. Shabbat Chazon—“Sabbath of vision,” takes its name from the special Haftorah reading which comes from the book of Isaiah, 1:1-27. It is a dire Haftorah portion, containing words of doom and rebuke. Even the trope of the portion is changed to a more soulful melody. You will notice the difference as Alec Davidson, who will be observing his Bar Mitzvah on that Shabbat, chants several verses from the Isaiah Haftorah. The fast of Tisha B’Av is a solemn time on the Jewish calendar. So solemn, in fact, that when it falls on a Shabbat it is never observed until the following day. That is the case this year, 2016. While the primary purpose of our mourning during this time is given by the sages as the destructions of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians then of the Romans, the sages also saw the darkness of these days as deriving from incidents which occurred at the time of the Exodus. For example, the 17th of Tammuz, in the fourth month of the Hebrew calendar, which precedes the 9th of Av by three weeks, commemorates the day in 70 C.E. when the Romans breached the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. Rashi tells us that it also corresponds with the timing of the “golden calf” incident following the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. (Rabbi G. Rubin, “Matan Torah According to Rashi,” http://ohr.edu/991)

According to the Rabbis of the Mishnah, the time of sadness culminated on the day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, in the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar. They stated, “Five misfortunes befell our fathers ... on the ninth of Av. ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up.” (Mishnah, Ta'anit 4:6) Recall that Moses had sent twelve spies into the land of Canaan ahead of the arrival of the children of Israel, and when those spies returned, they reported to the people that it would be impossible for the Israelites to overcome the inhabitants of the land. According to the Torah, the people believed the spies negative report, and, sadly, Adonai decreed that that doubting generation would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel. (Numbers 13:25-14:45) This “sin of the spies” seems to have put a black mark on the day which has persisted throughout history. Particularly disheartening to the sages was the fact that the focal point of Israelite worship, the holy Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed first by the Babylonians (586 B.C.E.) then after its rebuilding, by the Romans (70 C.E.) on the very same day. And, fresh on their minds were the slaughter of over 500,000 Jews at Bethar and the plowing of the destroyed city of Jerusalem by the Romans at the time of the Bar Kochbah revolt (135 C.E.) In addition to the tragedies falling on the 9th of Av, as enumerated in the Mishnah, a host of dreadful events have befallen our people on or very near that day throughout history:

  • The First Crusade began, August 15, 1096, in which 10,000 Jews were killed in the first month alone.
  • The Jews were expelled from England, July 18, 1290.
  • The Jews were expelled from France, July 22, 1306.
  • The Jews were expelled from Spain, July 31, 1492.
  • Germany entered World War I, August 1, 1914.
  • Himmler approved the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” August 2, 1941.
  • The deportation of the Jewish population from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka began, July 23, 1942.
  • (See Tracey R. Rich, “Judaism 101,” http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayd.htm)

    Customs for observing Tisha B’Av have varied from community to community and from time to time. During the nine days from the 1st to the 9th, many observant Jews abstain from cutting their hair or shaving, abstain from the drinking of wine or eating of meat except on Shabbat, and abstain from pleasurable activities and recreation. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the fast of Tisha B’Av was to be every bit as strict as the fast of Yom Kippur. Extending from sundown to sundown, the individual is prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing, applying creams or ointments, wearing leather, or enjoying marital relations. The sadness of the day is intensified by the reading in the synagogue of the woeful book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Bible. The only difference from the High Holiday fast of Yom Kippur is that if the 9th of Av falls on a Shabbat, it is not observed until the next day. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, pp. 593-597)

    It is a truth of life that while we have periods of remembrance and mourning, those are also followed by periods of joy and celebration. This is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition as well. The solemnity of the fast of Tisha B’Av is followed by a day of celebration that many are not aware of— the 15th of Av. That day falls this year on Friday, August 19. “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” (Talmud, Ta’anit 26b) In fact, the Talmud goes on to record at least six major positive events that occurred on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av. The Mishnah tells us that the “daughters of Jerusalem” would borrow fine linens and go out to dance in the vineyards. Young men who were not yet married would look upon the maidens to find a suitable wife. (See, Yanki Tauber, “Why Do We Celebrate the 15th of Av?” http://www.chabad.org/) As nights became longer, the intense heat of summer began to fade, and the early cool breezes anticipating fall began to blow, the Rabbis encouraged the Jewish people to turn from their time of mourning to a time of joy. The recurring theme of Jewish history is that times of oppression and tragedy have been followed by times of redemption, victory, and joy, by the hand of the Almighty.

    I look forward to ending our summer hiatus and being together again as a holy congregation this month. And, how appropriate that we do it on a Sabbath with so much meaning and history in our rich Jewish tradition! There is a story told of a 19th century British politician who was walking outside of a synagogue on the 9th of Av. From inside the synagogue walls, he heard the reading of the book of Lamentations and the weeping of the people. Upon inquiry, he was informed by a bystander that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple and the many tragedies that have befallen their people during this time of year. So impressed was he, that he exclaimed, “Surely a people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after 2000 years, will someday regain that homeland.” (Telushkin, p. 595) Amazingly, we have regained that homeland, modern Israel, and are prospering there. And, this return was predicted by the Hebrew Prophets over 2500 years ago.

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    A Theology of Responsibility, June 2016

    Torah portion Bechukotai is the 33rd weekly portion in the Jewish Torah reading cycle. It is the 10th and last reading in the book of Leviticus. Found in the Chumash in Leviticus 26:3-27:34, at 78 verses it is another one of the shorter portions in the Torah reading cycle. In regular years, Bechukotai is often combined with the previous Torah portion, Behar. In years when a 13th month, Adar II, is added, Bechukotai is read alone.

    The Torah portion begins, “Im bechukotai telechu—If you walk in my statutes” or alternately “by my decrees….” The passage goes on to enumerate the rewards that will accrue to the people of Israel for keeping God’s laws, but also providing a list of some of the most dire consequences in the biblical text for breaking God’s commandments. The Hebrew root of the parshah’s name, Bechukotai, is chuk (chet-quf). Translated as “statute” or “decree,” the root literally means “engraved.” This undoubtedly hearkens back to the idea that God’s laws, the Ten Commandments, were engraved on stone tablets. Later sages have invoked the root meaning of the word to demonstrate that the Torah of Adonai is imprinted on an individual’s soul. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi put it, “There is a dimension of Torah that is chuk, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with God that is the very essence of the Jewish soul.” (“Parshat Bechukotai In-Depth.” www.chabad.org)

    The rewards detailed in this Torah portion for the keeping of God’s statutes are many and lush. It should also be pointed out that they are given by the Almighty in the first person. God says, “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments…, I will give you rains in their seasons…, the land will yield its produce…, the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Your threshing will last until your grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sewing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. I will also grant you peace in the land.… I will also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword shall pass through your land…. You will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you…. I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm my covenant with you I will make my dwelling among you…. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Lev. 26:3-12)

    The punishments ascribed for disobedience to God’s laws are devastating to the point of being catastrophic. Again, they are stated by the Almighty in the first person, “But if you do not obey me and do not carry out all these commandments…, I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away…. You shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. You shall be struck down before your enemies, and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you. Your land shall not yield its produce and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. … I will let loose among you the beasts of the field which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your cattle and reduce your number so that your roads lie deserted.” (26:14-22) It gets far worse, but let this suffice for our discussion now.

    The blessings and curses enumerated in this passage have sparked the ages-long debate over whether these rewards and consequences are to be taken naturally or supernaturally. The supernatural view would envision an omnipotent God sitting in the heavens dealing out divine judgments for obedience or rebellion. A more natural view would assert that a mindful Creator has built into the universe certain laws of cause and effect that cannot be abrogated. One cannot jump out of a second-story window, for example, and expect not to smack into the ground. Actions have consequences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “You cannot over eat and take no exercise, and at the same time stay healthy.

    You cannot act selfishly and win the respect of other people. You cannot allow injustices to prevail and sustain a cohesive society. You cannot let rulers use power for their own ends without destroying the basis of a free and gracious social order.” (“Bechukotai—The Politics of Responsibility,” www.aish.com) There is nothing necessarily supernatural about these consequences, but as Rabbi Sacks points out they are absolutely moral.

    One of the many things I love about progressive Judaism is that it gives to every individual the freedom to choose whether a supernatural, natural, some combination or even neither of the two views of positive and negative consequences resonates best with his or her conscience and convictions. Regardless of the view one chooses, it cannot be denied that this concept of justice, tzedek—“doing the right thing,” has been chuk—engraved on the Jewish conscience from ancient times. The Torah’s view of individual and corporate responsibility as it relates to social justice is deeply ingrained. The rich cannot buy special favors, nor should the poor be deferred to on account of their poverty. Every soul is an indispensable part of the social fabric and should be treated as such. The needs of one are seen as the needs of all. This Jewish sense of individual and corporate responsibility, purpose, and destiny is very succinctly stated in the words of the British Catholic historian, Paul Bede Johnson:

      No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose. (A History of the Jews, p. 2, Harper Perennial, 1988)

    In affirming Mr. Johnson’s historical analysis, I attempted to find words to inspire my readers to take the precepts of the holy Torah to a new level, applying them daily in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. But, I am hard-pressed to find words more moving than those already written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his comment on Johnson’s observation:

      The people who change the world are those who believe that life has a purpose, a direction, a destiny. They know where they want to go and what they want to achieve. In the case of Judaism that purpose is clear: to show what it is to create a small clearing in the desert of humanity where freedom and order coexist, where justice prevails, the weak are cared for and those in need are given help, where we have the humility to attribute our successes to God and our failures to ourselves, where we cherish life as the gift of God and do all we can to make it holy. In other words: precisely the opposite of the violence and brutality that is today being perpetrated by some religious extremists in the name of God. (“Bechukotai—A Sense of Direction,” www.aish.com)

    All I can add is…Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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    You shall be holy…, May 2016

    Torah portion Kedoshim is the 30th weekly portion in the Jewish Torah reading cycle. It is the 7th reading in the book of Leviticus. Found in the Chumash in Leviticus 19:1-20:27, at 64 verses it is one of the shorter portions in the Torah reading cycle. In regular years, Kedoshim is often combined with the previous Torah portion, Acharei Mot. In years when a 13th month, Adar II, is added, Kedoshim is read alone. It is also from Torah portion Kedoshim that excerpts are read, according to the Reform Prayer Book, Gates of Repentance, for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. Many will recall that Kodoshim is the title of the fifth order in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.

    Torah portion begins, “And Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am a holy.’” Now, I have said in jest many times that the Almighty did not choose the descendants of Abraham and Sarah because they made good bagels, although they do. The Torah is very clear that these descendants were called for a very specific purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Creator apparently saw in Abraham and Sarah the qualities of loyalty to God, to God’s laws, and to God’s plan for humankind, and the Creator must have known that these be qualities would carry on in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. I like to call this the “Family Plan” for spreading the Torah message to all humankind, because as the descendants of Abraham and Sarah role model these lofty statutes and ethics, the Prophets tell us that eventually all humankind, indeed every nation, will adopt the Creator’s laws and plan. This will lead to a time when war, sickness, and famine will be completely done away with according to the Hebrew Prophets.

    Kedoshim is the masculine plural form of Kadosh, holy. But, what exactly does holiness mean as the term is used in the Hebrew Bible. When one thinks of holiness one usually envisions a monk, cloistered in a medieval monastery, reading holy writings, meditating on heavenly things, and abstaining from most of the joys of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, etc. This view derives from a Greco-Roman concept of holiness, often referred to as a dualistic worldview, in which the heavenly realm, the spiritual, is deemed to be good, but in which earthly things, the physical, is considered to be inherently corrupt or tainted. That is not the Hebraic view. At the time of creation, Adonai saw six times that those things which were created were good. Upon the completion of God’s ultimate creation, man and woman, the Hebrew Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). So it is, in Jewish tradition, that holiness is not entailed in the abstinence from enjoying those elements of creation that God has graciously given to us, but rather in their judicious and moderate use. As summed up in Talmud, Yevamot 20a, we are instructed, “Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.”

    Holiness in Judaism is not so much a state of mind, and definitely not a system of belief. Rather, it is the demonstration of very specific behaviors toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Those behaviors cannot be done in seclusion. That is why many sages have pointed out that the opening words of the Torah portion, “speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel…,” have the implication that holiness is not something done while cloistered away, but is something that is engaged in with and for the community. The specifics of the behaviors that define holiness are not left to subjective choice.

    Fortunately, they are very clearly spelled out in the Torah and in the later writings of the Jewish sages. Chief among the enumeration of those laws would, of course, be the Ten Commandments, given in the Torah in both Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. In the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Levi shows us that all of the Ten Commandments are, in fact, restated in Torah portion Kedoshim, usually with some elucidation:

    1. “I am the Lord your God,” is stated here also as “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:3).
    2. “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears as “Nor make to yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
    3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is written here as, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (19:12).
    4. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” is restated as, “And keep my Sabbaths” (19:3).
    5. “Honor your father and mother,” is rendered here as “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
    6. “You shall not murder,” is conveyed in the passage, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (19:3).
    7. “You shall not commit adultery,” appears here as, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (19:10).
    8. “You shall not steal,” is written here as, “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another.” (19:11).
    9. “You shall not bear false witness,” is entailed in “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
    10. “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s,” is more than reflected in, “Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).
    (Translated in “Parshat Kedoshim in Depth,” http://www.chabad.org)

    It has always impressed me that in this “holiness code,” as it is often called, relatively few of the verses are devoted to our relationship with the Creator and to holy things such as Sabbaths and offerings. The vast majority of verses are devoted to our relations with fellow human beings. The level of compassion given to that topic in this portion is palpable. Think for a minute about such seemingly simple, but powerful, actions as not reaping to the corners of your field so that there will be gleanings left behind for those who are in need (v. 10), not allowing the wages of someone hired to remain with you even overnight (v. 14), not allowing injustice in judgment even to the extent of being partial to the poor nor deferring to the great (v. 15), not going about as a talebearer, or in other words slanderer, among your people (v. 16). And then, of course, there is the ultimate commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). This principle has become a cornerstone of most of the world’s major religions. And, lest one think that one’s neighbor only refers to fellow countrymen or women, the Torah is crystal clear: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34).

    The level of devotion to one’s neighbor and compassion for those in need found in this Torah portion connects strongly with the constant theme of the Hebrew Prophets, social justice. Micah sums it up best in the statement, “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). The fact that “love your neighbor as yourself” has become a core belief of so many world religions is proof to me that the Almighty’s “Family Plan” is working. When the adherents of those religions truly apply those lofty principles, putting them into action through their behaviors, behaviors laid out so specifically in this Torah portion, humankind will surely enter the time spoken of in the Prophets when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). My prayer is that we could live to see this fulfilled in our day. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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    Happy New Year!!, April 2016

    When congregation Temple Beth Shalom next assembles for the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath, April 9, 2016, we will be continuing in a special series of Torah readings often known as the “Four Parshiyot.” As mentioned in my last D’var Torah, these four readings occur in the spring, two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, April 9, is Shabbat Hachodesh. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Hachodesh, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 12:1-20. Shabbat Hachodesh is the Sabbath that corresponds with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, 2016, Shabbat Hachodesh falls on the first of Nissan.

    The twenty verses in the Shabbat Hachodesh maftir reading detail the taking of a Paschal lamb into the home in preparation to observe the Passover, followed by instructions for the seven days for the eating of, matzah, unleavened bread. The passage opens, “Now the Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.’” (Ex. 12:1-2) This is quite an amazing statement to a modern Jew who has grown up with the understanding that Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, is the Jewish New Year. The Talmud records an interesting debate between Rabbi Eliezer who believed the world was created in Tishri and Rabbi Joshua who believe the world was created in Nissan. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the patriarchs were born; in Tishri the patriarchs died…. Rabbi Joshua says: Whence do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says, ‘And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit.’ Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees [begin to] produce fruit? You must say that this is Nissan.” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a) The ruling, based on the Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1, is that, “There are four New Years; the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals; the first of Tishri is the New Year for years, …for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say on the fifteenth.”

    It should not seem unusual to a modern reader that a year might contain many beginnings. The beginning of our calendar year is January 1, but a fiscal year typically begins on July 1. The school year traditionally begins in early September. It has also been pointed out that the progression of times and seasons is cyclical. You will recall that a circle famously has no beginning or end. So, truly, any point on the circle might be designated as the beginning. (See, e.g., “Our Other Head,” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, http://www.chabad.org/) What is interesting is that this very first commandment given to the Israelite people as a nation involves time at all. According to Rashi, these verses are “the true beginning of the Torah.” (“Shabbat Hachodesh,” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, https://www.ou.org) You see, prior to Exodus 12, the Almighty had already given humankind ten laws, according to the sages. The first, of course, was the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” found in Genesis 1:28. That is followed by the seven Noahide laws, derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9. These eight taken together would apply to all humankind. Later in Genesis we read that God gave our father Abraham the commandment of circumcision specifically for himself and his descendants. (Gen. 17:10-14) The tenth ordinance in the Torah is the prohibition given to Jacob and his descendants of eating the sciatic nerve of any animal. (Gen. 32:33)

    What makes the laws of Exodus chapter 12 different is that they are given to the entire nation of Israel and that they relate to time. Moses and Aaron, upon the receipt of these instructions, are commanded, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel.” (v. 3) It is significant that these first national commands involved the keeping of time. Slaves do not need to mark time. They go to bed, get up, eat, and work as they are commanded by their master. Free peoples, on the other hand, are in control of their own destiny and thus have the need to order and budget their time. Even more importantly, the new nation of Israel was being called to a very specific purpose, according to the Torah, to be witnesses to the Creator God and to role model the Creator’s laws to the other nations of the earth. The Torah records the Almighty’s passionate words to Moses while on the holy mountain, Sinai, “Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6) A crucial part of being witnesses for Adonai was the observance of “holy time,” most notably the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day, as instructed in the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 20:8-11) The Sabbath calls humankind’s attention to God’s creative work, but also to God’s redemptive work as the One who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt to be a holy nation. (See Deut. 5:15) In addition to the weekly Sabbath are the annual festivals, which the Almighty refers to in Torah as, “Adonai’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations—My appointed times are these.” God is referring, of course, to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holy times are detailed quite clearly and concisely in Leviticus chapter 23.

    But, the whole concept of marking time in general and holy time in specific begins for the Israelite nation in the 12th chapter of Exodus. One can understand why Rashi viewed this as the true beginning of the Torah. It is instructive that the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed the first of Nissan as the “New Year for kings and for festivals,” for surely a large part of the responsibility of being a “kingdom of priests” is the observance and communication to others of the importance of Adonai’s holy times. It is a sad fact that for many centuries the vision of the Jewish people to be a kingdom was purely a matter of the heart. Living in exile they did not have an earthly kingdom of their own. But their longing for one never faded, as is summed up poignantly by this poem of the German-Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankel, from a century and a half ago. It is entitled, “Juda’s Farben (Judah’s Colors)”:

    The Jew turns his gaze to the east
    And the worries of his soul;
    He thinks of his kingdom’s fate
    And the morning of freedom.

    Like a ruler who has been banished,
    Who, in the pains of exile
    Still feels himself in his heart
    To be the king of his lost country. (In “Judaism: The Meaning of Shabbat Hachodesh,” Daniel Pinner, https://www.ou.org)

    I have remarked many times, what a miracle it is that we have lived to see the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in our ancient, sacred land. Something that was only a dream for our people for almost 2000 years is now a reality. But, with this great miracle/gift comes great responsibility. May we as a people never waver from the high ethical standards of the holy Torah that was entrusted into our care. So, as we begin the biblical cycle of another Hebrew year, will you join me in recommitting to those lofty statutes and to this high calling. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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    Shabbat Shekalim, March 2016

    When congregation Temple Beth Shalom next assembles for the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath, March 5, 2016, we will begin a special series of Torah readings often known as the “Four Parshiyot.” These four readings occur in the spring, two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, March 5, is Shabbat Shekalim. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Shekalim, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 30:11-16. According to the Mishnah, Masechet Shekalim 1, “On the first of Adar a public announcement is made concerning the payment of the shekel.” So, customarily, Shabbat Shekalim coincides closely with Rosh Chodesh Adar—the first of Adar, the 12th month of the Hebrew calendar, or with Second Adar in the years when the 13th month is added (as it is this year). This public announcement then gave the people one month to prepare, as the sages tell us the actual collection occurred historically on the first of Nissan, the 1st Hebrew month.

    This special reading details instructions for a census that was taken during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness where the commandment is given to pay a half shekel “tax” toward the maintenance of the tabernacle in the wilderness. The Torah states, “When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD…. This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary.” (Exodus 30:12-13) While the reading for Shekalim is brief, only six verses, the sages of Israel have derived many important teachings from these verses. Some sages have assumed from the reading of the portion that individuals 20 years of age and older paid the half shekel assessment and then the money was counted not necessarily the individuals. This would reinforce the idea that souls are of very high importance in the sight of Adonai and are never mere numbers on a ledger sheet. (See Tracey R. Rich, “Special Shabbatot,” www.jewfaq.org)

    According to the Torah, “The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel…” The half shekel assessment was to be paid equally by the well-off and the needy! Not only does this command remind us that all humankind are equal in the eyes of the Creator regardless of financial status, but it also stresses the importance of putting aside personal position in favor of uniting for a common good. Imagine how important this corporate responsibility must have been at the time when a loosely affiliated group of slaves escaped from the greatest superpower on earth and began to establish a new and unified nation. Individual needs and wants would have needed to remain secondary to the good of the community. (See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, Art Scroll Stone Edition of the Chumash.)

    The Torah goes on to say, “And you shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel, and shall give it to the service of the tent of meeting.” The Talmud is very explicit that in the current absence of either the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem, we are not technically obligated to the half shekel contribution. Yet, the principle remains that support of holy places, such as houses of learning and houses of prayer and worship, is a critical part of a person’s responsibility to the community. In modern terms, the spirit of this mitzvah could be maintained by contributions to our local synagogues. (Most rabbis are quick to point that out…very big wink!)

    he reading for Shabbat Shekalim is also connected with the holiday of Purim on another level. Resh Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the one who spoke and the world came into being that Haman would spend a large sum of money in order to destroy Israel, as it is so written in the third chapter of Megillat Esther. Therefore, God preceded Haman’s silver by Israel’s silver. And, this accords with what the Talmud says in Masechet Megillah, ‘On the first of Adar, an announcement is made concerning the shekalim.’” You see, the sages were skilled at making connections based on the Hebrew words. They saw in the phrase “and you shall take the silver/money of atonement,” kesef hakippurim in Hebrew (Ex. 30:16), another Hebrew phrase, kesef ha ki purim—“the silver which is on account of Purim.” Thus, it is believed that the atonement money which was paid by the congregation in the wilderness served as the ransom for the deliverance of the children of Israel from the evil plot of Haman centuries later. (See Orthodox Union, “Parshat Shekalim, www.ou.org)

    Another interesting ancient reference to the half shekel census/assessment if found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:4. It states, “Rabbi Meir said, ‘the Holy One, may God be blessed, took a type of fiery coin from under the Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe. God said to him, “This shall they give.”’” One might ask what connection the fiery coin might have with the mitzvah of the half shekel. The connection, again, is on the basis of the Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for silver or money is kesef. In other verses in the Torah, for example Genesis 31:30, the same Hebrew root is used for the translation “strong longing”—kasaf. When one acts upon the principles of Torah with a deep passion for the Creator and a deep longing to serve the Jewish community and all humankind, one truly fulfills the commandment of the mechazit hashekel—the half shekel contribution. This is the meaning of the “fiery coin” that Moses was told we must give to Adonai. (See Rabbi Zvi Belovski, “Shekalim: The Power of the Fiery Shekel,” www.aish.com)

    The special Haftorah reading on Shabbat Shekalim is from Second Kings 11:17-12:17. It recounts a time during the history of Israel and Judah when repentance was being made for having engaged in the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. The Temple in Jerusalem had fallen into disrepair until Jehoash, the King of Judah, once again implemented the practice of using the census money for repairs on the Holy Temple. Interestingly, the priests took a box and put it beside the altar with a hole in the lid for worshipers to make contributions. The priests and the leaders were amazed at the amount of money that was placed in the box. People clearly went above and beyond the half shekel requirement.

    Many of the specifics of commandments in the Torah are not possible in our place and time, because we are outside of the Land of Israel or because the Holy Temple no longer stands. But, the lofty ethical principles behind the mitzvot endure forever. As the psalmist affirms, “The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.” (Psalms 19:8-9) The Hebrew Prophets tell us that one day, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Support for houses of prayer, worship, and study is an ongoing need. And, those who do so, particularly with a cheerful heart, can rest assured that they are paving the way for a brighter future by fulfilling an ancient command. Will you give your “fiery shekel” today? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will.

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    God is in the Details, February 2016

    Torah portion Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18 is the eighteenth reading of the weekly Torah cycle. The Hebrew word mishpatim means “judgments.” It is based on the verb shafat, “to judge.” The Torah portion covers various interpersonal laws dealing with finance, redress of injuries, and the treatment of property. It contains an underlying theme of kindness to strangers. (Ex.21:1-23:9) That is followed by details of what would be traditionally thought of as religious laws, including commandments regarding the sabbatical year, specifics of Sabbath observance, the first mention of the three so-called pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and rules for sacrificial offerings and the ethical treatment of animals. One of the most well-known of these is, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Ex. 23:10-19) The Torah portion closes with the congregation of Israel agreeing to the covenant with the Almighty, after which Moses and Aaron and seventy elders of Israel ascend Mount Sinai and actually see God. Moses stays alone and spends forty days on the mountain. (Ex. 24:1-18)

    Upon reading Torah portion Mishpatim, one immediately notices a stark contrast between this portion and the grand narratives of the last several Torah portions. In the closing chapters of Genesis, we read the incredible Joseph story including his sale into slavery, his ability to interpret dreams, his coming into power in Egypt and ultimate saving of his family during the time of famine. That is followed in the early chapters of Exodus by the stirring story of the burning bush and the commissioning of Moses to go to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves. Next is the Passover story with its dramatic interplay between Moses and Pharaoh, the ten plagues, and the ultimate redemption of the Israelite people including the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Following that, the people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai as Moses received the Ten Commandments from the Almighty with the accompanying phenomena of lightning, thunder, and the blasting of a shofar. When compared with those large-scale events the specific religious and ethical laws laid out in Torah portion Mishpatim seem somewhat tedious and mundane. So stark is the contrast, in fact, that Rashi commented, the Torah portion begins, “And these are the judgments…,” rather than simply, “These are the judgments…,” specifically so that the reader would connect these detailed statutes with the amazing stories and revelations that preceded them. (Rashi on Shemot 23:1).

    I would assert that the laying out of the property and religious ordinances in Torah portion Mishpatim are a necessary component of the overarching vision established by the grander narratives and revelations of the Torah. A well-known story is told about three block masons who are asked what they were doing. The first stated, “I’m turning a block of stone into a brick.” The second, “I’m earning a living.” But, the third replied, “I am building a castle.” Surely the largest and most beautiful palace could not be built without care and detail given to every component, including the bricks. Similarly, the divine plan for mankind, with its overarching ethical imperatives: the Ten Commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your might,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” presents a lofty strategy for humankind’s existence on the planet. But, how does one show love for God? How does one honor his/her parents? How does one show love for his fellow humans? This is where the details of the ordinances set out in Torah portion Mishnah become more than helpful, yes, even essential. Judaism has always been a religion that has expected its adherents to know, understand, and do the laws of God. The seeds of that level of observance were sown, perhaps, right in this very Torah portion where it says of Moses, “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’” (Ex. 24:7) Josephus was able to write in his day, at the turn of the first millennium, “Should anyone of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls. Hence to break them is rare, and no one can evade punishment by the excuse of ignorance.” (Contra Apionem, ii, 177-8, as quoted in “In the Details,” Rabbi Lord Sacks, www.aish.com) This attention to law and detail has not been for the lack of love of the Creator, of humankind, or of the earth. On the contrary, it has been our manifestation of that love. Even the grandest of visions can only be accomplished one step at a time, and the orchestration of the steps is accomplished through the details.

    As the modern reader considers the specificity of the statutes and ordinances laid out in Torah portion Mishpatim, it is critical to remember that these laws were given to a fledgling nation not far removed at all from a condition of subjugation, servitude, and abject poverty. The overarching objective was not to institute mundane legalisms but to provide specific instructions for the building of a just society. (See “Exodus Morality,” Carol Towarnicky, www.myjewishlearning.com) Sensitivity to and empathy for the needs of others, based on the Israelites’ own history and human experiences, was not to be forgotten. Thus the twice stated command, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21); “You shall not oppress a stranger since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) The idea that the oppressed must never become the oppressor is deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche as it is recounted annually not only through the reading of this and similar Torah portions but also through the recitation of the Passover Haggadah. In reenacting our own servitude and liberation, we heighten our awareness of the plight of others. It is incumbent upon us not only to avoid oppressing others but also to give assistance to those who are oppressed. This is the substance of the passage which states, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” (Lev. 19:16)

    Neither miraculous historical events nor great visions of future peace is, in and of themselves, enough to sustain a just and compassionate society for the long haul. Detailed regulations governing human interaction become necessary at some point. And, that is where Torah readings such as Mishpatim come into play. The modern reader might be incensed that the Torah portion opens with regulations on the ethical treatment of slaves. But, it but must be remembered that these passages were penned at a time that slavery was considered the status quo. In fact, it was not only until the 19th century that slavery was abolished in as enlightened of countries as the United States of America and Great Britain. And, while the regulations of the Torah did not bring an immediate end to slavery, they did give guidance and direction to a compassionate society which would eventually bring slavery to an end. That is why we continue to turn to the sacred writings for study, guidance, and direction. (See, “Mishpatim: Vision and Detail,” Rabbi Lord Sacks, www.aish.com) Judaism has never sought to make a distinction between the heavenly and the earthly in terms of one being good and the other evil. Rather we strive, through the observance of Torah, to bring heaven down to earth and to elevate every act, every behavior, as a lofty and spiritual endeavor. According to our belief, every man, woman, and child is created in the image of God and, therefore, possesses the divine spark with in his/her soul. The time of peace and prosperity spoken of so often by the Hebrew prophets cannot come until we begin to extend to every human being the rights we demand ourselves, and until we consider the needs of others as equal to, if not more important than, our own. Ken yehi ratzon! (May this be God’s will!)

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    Va’eira: Why did you ever send me?, January 2016

    Torah portion Va’eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35, is the fourteenth parsha of the Torah reading cycle and the second reading from the book of Exodus. It begins with Adonai answering a question which had been posed by Moses at the end of Torah reading Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1. In Va’eira, the Almighty self-identifies to Moses as the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs for the second time. The first was at the appearance of the “burning bush,” Ex. 3:6. The Almighty proceeds to commission Moses and Aaron a second time to go to Pharaoh requesting freedom for the Israelite slaves. The first was on Mount Horeb, Ex. 3:18-4:16. This is followed by a brief genealogical discussion, tracing the descendants of just three of the sons of Jacob/Israel: Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. It is obviously interjected to establish the pedigree of Moses and Aaron and to identify Aaron’s descendants who were to become priests or cohenim, Ex. 6:14-25. The remainder of parsha Va’eira is taken up with a delineation of the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, gnats, insects, pestilence on livestock, boils, and hail, Ex. 7:17-9:35.

    After Moses and Aaron’s first commission in Torah portion Shemot, they do approach Pharaoh as commanded, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Ex. 5:1) Not only do we learn that Pharaoh is unresponsive to their request, stating, “Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh actually intensifies the burdens of the Israelite slaves by instructing their taskmasters to no longer provide the straw needed to make bricks while keeping the quota of bricks the same. This forced the Israelites to add the task of gathering straw to their labors. When these requirements proved difficult to fulfill, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy and subjects their leaders to beatings. This situation causes Moses to question the Almighty’s plan, “Oh LORD, why hast Thou brought harm to this people? Why didst Thou ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he has done harm to this people, and thou hast not delivered thy people at all.” (Ex. 5:1-23) Thus closes Torah portion Shemot.

    Va’eira opens with a quizzical self-identification by the Almighty. “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yod-heh-vav-heh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai (usually translated Almighty God), but by my name, Yod-heh-vav-heh (usually rendered as Adonai), I did not make myself known to them.’” (Ex. 6:2-3) I use the term quizzical because there are several instances earlier in the Torah where the text specifically states that Yod-heh-vav-heh\Adonai did appear to the patriarchs and matriarchs. One vivid example is in Genesis 18 where we learn that Adonai appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This particular appearance was to inform Abraham of the coming destruction that God had planned for Sodom and Gomorrah. If the Divine Name had in fact not been revealed at that time, it is puzzling that the Almighty would say of Abraham, “For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yod-heh-vav-heh by doing righteousness and justice in order that Yod-heh-vav-heh may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Gen. 18:19) Now, there are two possibilities here. A conservative scholar might say that the text of Exodus 6:3 is literal, and that the Tetragrammaton, Yod-heh-vav-heh, was not known to the patriarchs and matriarchs, but was written back into the earlier accounts by the Torah author, presumed to be Moses, after the revelation of the Name. A second possibility is that the verse was not intended to be taken literally, but to subtly differentiate between different aspects of God’s interaction with the creation, and, perhaps, to criticize Moses for his questioning and lack of faith.

    The tradition in Judaism is that the creator is, in fact, very far beyond our ability to comprehend God’s greatness—absolute, infinite, and limitless. Thus, in many respects it is inappropriate to limit God through the use of the name. In this line of thinking, the names of God become descriptions of various aspects of God’s character and of God’s interactions with the cosmos. Rashi contends that the use of the name El Shaddai in this passage was to demonstrate the matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ complete trust in the Almighty. Promises were made to them about the multitude of their descendants and about their possession of the Holy Land, most of which they did not live to see fulfilled. Yet, they trusted God without questioning. On the other hand, here was Moses directly questioning the Divine plan. (See Rabbi Yehoshua Berman, “Va’Eira The Tightest Bond,” www.aish.com)

    In many respects then, the plagues with which Adonai punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians can be taken as signs not just for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, but also for the Israelite people and their leaders, and by extension, the entire world. The plagues bear a progression that is seemingly part of a larger didactic purpose. Surely, the Almighty, given God’s limitless power over creation, could have flattened Egypt with a single blow and allowed the children of Israel to go free. Yet, the Almighty chose to work in stages, with careful attention to the response of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to each phase of the plan. Taken as a whole, the plagues can be seen as countering four definite misconceptions which were held by the Egyptians. It might also be argued that since Moses was raised as an Egyptian and since the Israelite people had lived among the Egyptians for so many centuries they too might have been subject to these same misconceptions. 1. They denied the Creator, believing that the world was infinite and had no beginning or end. 2. They denied the Creator’s interest in or care for God’s creation. 3. They denied the Creator’s ability to intervene in the laws which were part of the creation. 4. They denied prophecy, the Creator’s ability to communicate with human beings through ongoing revelation. The plagues were orchestrated by the Almighty incrementally to counter these misconceptions and to show that: 1. God did create the universe and all that we perceive. 2. God does, in fact, care about human beings and their actions. 3. God does have the ability to intervene in the laws of nature. 4. God does communicate with humankind—Moses being the first in a line of prophets that was intended to continue throughout time. (See Deut. 18:18-22) It has been pointed out that the ten plagues correspond with the ten “utterances of creation.” In the creation account of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God says, “Let there be…” exactly ten times. This would reinforce the idea that the plagues were Adonai’s proof of control over the very natural realm that God had willed into existence. (See Rabbi Avi Geller, “Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Earns the Egyptians a Serious Beating,” www.aish.com)

    Further proof of the targeted nature and the didactic purpose of the plagues is that they seem to stem almost naturally from the first plague, the turning of the Nile River into blood. This is clearly a direct affront to the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, who had claimed ownership over the Nile River and was even considered by himself and the Egyptian people to be a god or the son of a god. The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Va’eira, Ezekiel 28:25-29:21 makes this clear. Pharaoh is referred to as “the great monster that lies in the midst of the rivers.” In Ezekiel, Pharaoh exerts his own deity by saying, “the Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.” In this context it becomes clearer why the Almighty would have chosen to exact punishments on the Egyptians appropriate to their level of evil and idolatry. Now, in general, Judaism would reject the idea that our faith is based on the need for miracles. Rather, as Martin Buber has pointed out, our traditions are rooted in an ongoing historical interaction between the Creator God and the descendants of Abraham. That historical interaction is verifiable fact. Time and time again events have intervened to deliver our people from the hands of oppressors. It is our faith to attribute those serendipitous events to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. (See Rabbi Yehuda Appel, “Miracles and Magic,” www.aish.com)

    So we see in Torah portion Va’eira the Almighty’s reassertion of power over the creation, as God opposes the greatest superpower on earth at that time, Egypt, and begins to form a family clan of slaves into a new nation. Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of that plan is God’s statement in Exodus 7:3, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt,” and the implications that such a statement has for the concept of free will. Many sages have wrestled with that topic, and the ideas are as interesting as they are diverse. But, I will save that discussion for another message.

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