With this week’s Parasha, the focus of Torah shifts. From the dramatic stories of the antediluvians and our patriarchal ancestors in Genesis, to the powerful story of redemption from slavery in Egypt and revelation of God’s presence at Sinai, we now move to the details of building the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the shrine to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Covenant, and the details for its construction provide the content for the remainder of the book of Exodus, except for the story of the Golden Calf. From here through the end of the book of Leviticus we will hear of the role of the priests within the space of the Tabernacle, teachings that do not provide good material for bedtime stories or epic movies. Nevertheless, these teachings concern one of the core questions humans have asked as far back as we can remember: how can we, who understand there is a mystery of Life, develop a relationship with it?

In the early stories of Exodus we learn that our ancestors had a profound transformative experience in their flight to freedom from Egypt and their hearing first teachings from God at Sinai. How could they recapture those experiences? To write, or speak of them, was not enough. Rituals needed to be developed to be able to transmit the experience of the spiritually powerful to the generations who had not been there at that moment. As we read in last week’s parasha, Mishpatim, one way to transmit that experience was through the system of mitzvot, specific deeds or commands that formed a just and compassionate society. In the previous parshiyot, Beshallach and Yitro, the concept of sacred time has also been taught through the keeping of Shabbat and the commemoration of Pesach. This week we turn our attention, as we do in the weeks ahead, to the establishment of sacred space.

The notion that time or space can be sacred, however, seems incongruous to our understanding and teaching of God. After all, our ancestors were the first to teach that there is one universal, infinite God, beyond time and space. Can we not encounter God any time and anywhere? Walking in the mountains and breathing the fresh air; seeing the skyscape in the outback and the wilderness; enjoying a sunrise or sunset stroll (depending upon one’s coast) at the beach – are not each of these the most incredible spiritual moments and places? For what do we need to build a Tabernacle – or for that matter a Beit HaMikdash (a sacred house, normally translated as Temple) or a synagogue? Yet, just as our ancestors spent so much time on the detail of their holy places and spaces, so too should we. The creation of holy space is essential in our ability to encounter the intimate indwelling presence of the life source, to transcend to the beyond.

The Torah teaches this week that God says, “let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) and the corresponding haftarah concludes, “With regard to this House you are building – if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake my people Israel.” (I Kings 6:12-13). These places are the places where we can come to encounter God’s presence. Our ancestors were not simplistic – far from it. They understood that the Source of All Existence will be forever present beyond time and space and within all time and space. While that may be true of the Infinite, the finite – the very limited humans briefly passing through this place – need to construct places and times and ways to meet the Infinite. That is the essential nature of the relationship.

The Torah has dealt with – and will continue to deal with – questions of justice, compassion, and sacred time. It now opens the notion that sacred space is also essential to encounter the divine. Certainly, the Life Source can be encountered on a mountaintop, in the outback or on the beach. Nevertheless, the designation by humans of space as specifically holy – whether Tabernacle or Temple or synagogue – adds another element: the human consciousness. We create those spaces specifically for sacred encounter, shared with community and generations to come; we establish a living tradition of spiritual encounter that can be transmitted.

Each one of us has the potential to have a personal spiritual experience at any place and at any time. If we hope that those spiritual experiences will have religious impact, then we need to construct means to structure and transmit them. The Tabernacle is the first model for what will become in today’s terms the synagogue – the place where we seek to transform ourselves and the world in our profound encounter with God.

Parashat Mishpatim

Last week we read the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments: the sweeping, lofty ideals of Judaism. This week we turn to mishpatim, the day-to -ay implementation of those commandments. It reads like case law, one example after another of the practical application of the law, dealing with diverse subjects from the way we treat our slaves, to our obligations to our neighbors for their safety and well-being. Amongst these rules is the phrase: “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This has long been the basis for the extensive rules of kashrut prohibiting the mixing of meat and dairy in our food. However Ibn Ezra, one of the great Torah commentators, offers a completely different understanding of this verse. He says the word for kid (g’di) has the same root as the word for delicacies (meged). Following on from this, Torah commentator Nahum Sarna refers to an older commentator who said it should be translated as “berries”. Nahum argued that “mother’s milk” refers to the juice of the unripe berry. This interpretation then suggests that the ruling is that a person must not bring their first fruits to the priest before they are ripe.

Rabbi Sheldon Marder brings these commentaries in his Torah discussion of this parasha and he says: “why rescue these little-known commentaries from their obscurity? To dramatize one important point: at one time in Jewish history there existed an exegetical open mindedness and creativity that virtually disappeared after the Middle Ages — an open mindedness that allowed commentators to reinterpret, and in effect challenge, a verse that is the cornerstone of kashrut.” (Voices of Torah p. 210). Rabbi Marder draws attention to the fact that Judaism is a religion which questions assumptions — it debates and discusses issues and nothing is off the table. Everything is open to new interpretations and understandings. The tradition says that Torah is like a jewel with 70 facets, “turn it turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” (Ben Bag Bag, Pirkei Avot). We are to analyze and find the 70 meanings, the different interpretations and explore them all.

This week we celebrated the breaking down of some of the rigidity with which we have seen the Torah interpreted, with the Israeli government’s decision about the Kotel. After 37 years of challenging and fighting against discrimination, Anat Hoffman and her group Women at the Wall have finally celebrated a victory. After intense lobbying from Women at the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Federations of North America, the Israeli cabinet has decreed that henceforth there should be three sections at the kotel: one for men, one for women and one egalitarian, mixed section. This decision, when affirmed by the Kenesset, will remove the authority for the kotel from the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox and place it in the hands of the secular authorities. Then, the wall will truly be a place where all Jews can pray. Families will be able to stand together at the ancient stones and pray side by side, mothers and fathers can be with their children as they celebrate bar or bat mitzvah, and women will now be permitted to read from the Torah at this holy, sacred site.

Anat Hoffman said: “This is a groundbreaking agreement. After years and years of insisting that we have an equal place for prayer, after enduring campaigns of abuse against us, and being encouraged by a wave of Jewish support from across the globe, we have accomplished this extraordinary first step. We will be able to stand as part of living history, read the Torah, and pray in the spirit of pluralism and equality that we believe is critical to a vibrant Judaism.”

We look forward to celebrating many more victories in the struggle to bring equality and pluralism of religious practice to Israel and the Jewish world.

This Shabbat we read one of the most central narratives in the Torah and in our journey as a people – the revelation at Mount Sinai, the reception of the Torah conveyed through Moses. From hereon in, everything changes. The people enter into a covenantal relationship with God.

At the heart of this narrative are the Ten Commandments (or the Ten Utterances [aseret ha-dibrot]), the core principles understood later by Jewish tradition to be the foundation of all the mitzvot, the fabric of Jewish life.

The very first commandment (“Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord, your God) doesn’t really sound like a commandment, but rather a statement. While the Ten Commandments are not openly framed as commandments; they are presented as ten utterances (dibrot), and you could argue that the first commandment is a proclamation.

We are told that in ancient near eastern context, from which the Hebrew Bible emerged, such a proclamation often served as a declaration of ultimate divine authority – a preface that introduces the content and legal requirements that will follow.

We also learn that later Jewish academics and philosophers understood the declaration “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” to be the first mitzvah stipulated at Sinai, and therefore the proclamation upon which the rest of the mitzvot are based.

Amongst those later Jewish academics and philosophers is the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), who wrote the ‘Mishneh Torah’ – a code of Jewish law that arranged the vast amount of Talmudic thought into one source of defined decisions. The Mishneh Torah includes a series of instructions concerning ‘appropriate belief’, outlining them as “Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah” (the laws of the foundations of the Torah).

The Rambam proclaims that the performance of mitzvot begins with the acknowledgement of the root of all commandments, which is to believe in God. The statement “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” is not articulated in the same manner as the rest of the dibrot. It implies a self-evident nature of divinity, that is to believe in God or a divine presence.

But how are we to understand such belief? And what does it mean to require it as the foundation for Jewish religious practice? Can a person live a faithful life of mitzvot without faith? And how is true faith to be defined and understood?

For the Rambam, the answer to this question is clear and absolute: the primary commandment, from which all else in the religious-halachic life flows, is to believe that God exists and is the first cause of all being. He states in the Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah; “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a first being or presence that brings forth everything else that exists”. He goes on to explain that this knowledge is a positive commandment, as it specifies; “Anochi Adonai Elohecha”.

In the Rambam’s view, God is the matzui rishon (the first existent), which has no body and no image, and its true reality lies beyond the limits of human perception. In short, God is transcendent.

We could extend that thought and read the powerful text of Exodus 19 & 20 – the narrative that embodies Parashat Yitro, as follows. The declaration “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” is a call to awareness, lifting the spiritual awareness within us to a new perspective of the commandments. Such a declaration stands at the beginning of the list of commandments; all of the subsequent mitzvot, the particulars of ritual and halachah – so they are all be guided by a mindfulness of “Anochi”, an awareness of divine presence.

The mitzvot flow from that awareness and they lead back to its realisation. The intention leads into the practice, and the practice in turn enables a fresh awareness of spiritual meaning. The circle of awareness and practice is comprehensive and never-ending. We read that at Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel, having recently become a people, and having even more recently been redeemed from slavery, pledged their commitment to the commandments by proclaiming to God; “na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will do and we will listen/understand).

When we approach the first commandment (at Mount Sinai) with the same level of acceptance and commitment, we discover a fresh approach to “Anochi Adonai Elohecha”, one which allows us to do and learn, and learn and do.

This week we read the climax of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Parasha Beshallach, also known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song. It receives this name because of the song that was sung by Moses and Miriam and the children of Israel as our ancestors experienced their miraculous deliverance from slavery and reached freedom on the opposite banks of the sea. At that moment of supreme joy and celebration, the Israelites burst into song, giving voice to their delight. The Haftarah compliments the Torah portion by telling the story of Devorah, who along with Barak and Yael, also experienced a miraculous deliverance. Devorah, like her ancestors before her, burst into song. These parashiot are linked by song and by women, two of whom, Miriam and Devorah, are described as prophets, and who led their people in time of struggle to victory. While this Parasha features songs of gratitude for that salvation, there are so many reasons in life to sing.

As we sing in our synagogues around the world “The Song of the Sea” and “The Song of Devorah,” we are reminded that song is at the heart of human creativity, a crucial aspect of our learning, worship and faith community. Many Jews know the key phrase from the Song of the Sea that appears in every service in the blessing after the Shema: “Mi Kamocha B’elim Adonai” – who is like You among gods that are worshipped? In this verse we acknowledge the uniqueness of that which we call the creator, for God itself is understood in Judaism as infinite selfcreated being out of which all else emanates. That is, according to our spiritual understanding of life, matter evolves out of being, not the other way around. We all recognise the reality of conscious being; whether it emanates from matter or matter from it is the great mystery and also the crux of the debate between “religion” and “science”. One area the two life approaches meet is in their recognition that creation itself is made up of vibrations, both in the mental and material worlds. Song is the beautiful melding of vibrations.

Song is found in nature itself. The Shabbat of Song always falls on or leads into Tu Bishvat, which falls on the full moon of the month of Shvat, this year Sunday night and Monday. Tu Bishvat is one of four new years described in the Talmud – it is the New Year for trees. It is the time in our calendar where we pause to celebrate and consider our environment and our impact upon it. We reflect on the beauty of nature and this precious planet that has been entrusted to our care. There is also a link with the Parasha and with song. Just as all in nature has its vibrations, two great Jewish mystics, the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, both suggest that every plant, tree, flower and shrub has its own song. Even blades of grass sing their own unique melody. The voices of the plants then join together in a beautiful harmony and the song they sing together, circles the world, resting gently upon us all. At Tu Bishvat, we take the time to listen for the song, to hear the harmony flowing through nature and to connect ourselves to that aspect of the world.

So, this Shabbat Shira, Shabbat of song, may we all hear the song of the universe, celebrating the beauty and wonder around us, and may we all add our own notes to create an even more wonderful and lasting harmony.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the whole thing is to have no fear at all.” Rabbi Nachman’s teaching reminds us that we are bound by time, the infinite that preceded our birth identical to that which will greet us on our death. In this narrow bridge of our world we are impelled to make meaning in our lives, and knowing that our experience in these bodies is so finitely limited, one way we do so is by making meaning in time. Judaism excels in creating meaning in time. We choose counter-intuitively to begin our days with the sun’s setting; we then count seven days to create a unit of time known as the week. We fashion Shabbat that one precious day in seven to stop and re-soul, remembering that each of us has a spark of infinite being and that each of us has the right to freedom. While the seven-day week is a product of the human imagination, marking time by the natural month also has significance.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century Hasidic Torah scholar and commentator known as the Sfat Emet, has taught, “Why does Israel count by the moon, with each month starting when the moon emerges? Because the moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows bright again. So the Jewish people go through cycles of prosperity and suffering, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter days ahead.” The 19th century modern orthodox rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, has added, “God shows Moses the sliver of the new moon as a symbol of Israel’s capacity for constant renewal.” (Quoted in Etz Chayim Torah Commentary on Exodus 12:2). Each moon month gives us the opportunity to think, both as individuals and as a people, of the waxing and waning of our life. If we think of ourselves within the context of a single moon, we are reminded of our birth and our death, our growing strength and diminution in between. As Jews, we know that even though we come and go as individuals, we are part of an ancient people who have been here for many moons and will be here for many moons to come. Each moon has its significance within an annual cycle, its deeper meaning connecting us to the past and encouraging us in the present to shape the future.

The month of Nisan is most significant in our people’s consciousness, indicated by this week’s Torah portion, which commands us to begin the counting of our months with the moon of Aviv, known to us now as the month of Nisan. “God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the Land of Egypt: ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.’” (Exodus 12:1–2). It is in this month, as the moon grows in strength that we are commanded to take a lamb, holding on to it until the evening of the 15th; with the full moon, we slaughter it and place its blood on the lintels of our doorposts, the first Pesach. As the first of our months, Nisan teaches us the centrality of the Exodus for our people’s consciousness.

Many Jews, no longer as literate in our tradition, assume that just because our year begins in Tishrei, so too the counting of our months. Rather, Tishrei is our seventh month – and with the commemoration of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah – is special like Shabbat. Similarly, just as the first day of creation symbolises the mystical moment in which time and space begins, Nisan is the in which we as a people begin our journey in time and space. “Yetziat Mitzraim”, leaving the servitude in Egypt to engage in service to God makes us who we are. Over and over, Moses has given Pharoah God’s message: “Let my people go that they may serve me.” Throughout the Torah we are reminded of this event, compelling us to be good to the stranger, to love the other, to work for justice and equity, in general to serve the source of all conscious being.

Judaism’s take on time teaches us to make each day, each week, each moon significant. Parasha Bo reminds us that as Jews, our lives have meaning beyond our individual context, for we share an ancient experience with its memories and lessons. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you”; without our memory of oppression deeply ingrained, we will not remember our calling as a people to serve.

This week marks the first anniversary of the murders at the offices of Charlie Hedbo and at the kosher market in Paris. In does not seem like the world has improved much since then and, as often, religion gets the blame. While much conflict arises along sectarian fault lines, religion should be reclaimed as the human discourse about the spiritual life. As we open our second book of Torah, the book of Shemot, we explore the realm of God as understood in our ancestral story.

In these opening parshiyot, we come across Judaism’s three major ways of understanding how God works in our lives. The first two appear in last week’s parashah, the third in this week’s. First, Judaism defines God as the creator of all existence of which we are part; second, Judaism reasons that as aspects of the infinite, we can communicate on a certain level with it; and thirdly, we have responsibilities toward creation because of our role within it. Traditionally, these three aspects of God are known as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, and they have been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well. It is incumbent on all our religions together to teach the difference between that which is in “the realm of God” and that which “is in the realm of human.”

Last week, standing at the burning bush, Moshe encounters God for the first time who when asked for a name, says “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, which is virtually not translatable but essentially means “I Am that which I Am” or “I Am becoming that which I Am becoming”, or a permutation of those ideas. In other words, Judaism teaches that God is a verb, a form of “to be”, and thus God=Being. I am always puzzled when people say “I do not believe in God.” It is as if one says, “I do not believe in being”, which considering we are being is a hard position to hold. Either all that exists manifested out of nothing, or out of being. In humility, we must at least acknowledge the mystery of it all.

Assuming God is being, and we are part of that being since we exist, then it follows that on one level each of us draws down the smallest aspect of God’s being or consciousness. This is what we mean by God Reveals – as in the communications that happen between God and Moshe, or in a few weeks time, the communication that happens between God and the ancestors of the Jews, the children of Israel who stood at Sinai to receive the commandments. Most of us today question not so much God, or even the possibility that God can communicate with humanity, but the content of the revelation from God to humanity. Outside of Orthodox understandings of religion – no matter what the religion – practitioners choose to follow the received traditions as the valued ancestral attempt to draw down God’s consciousness. The Torah is our story of how we have understood and choose to live that life.

Each religion has its own story. The essence of the story of our ancestors, the path of redemption that we are called to walk, is told at the beginning of this week’s parashah, where God again reveals in a speech to Moses that famous passage that makes its way to our Haggadah and forms the basis of the four cups of wine plus the cup of Elijah. God tell Moshe (and the children of Israel), “I will free you…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…and I will take you … and I will bring you into the land.” In other words, the crucial event of our past is the being freed from the slavery in Egypt in order to come to the land of Israel where we are to serve God as a model nation. We can always discuss the finer parts of the story, the details of what has been revealed, but we should understand that our conversation is not as much about God Itself, as to what it means to serve God. Each individual has his or her way; each people its. These crucial stories at the beginning of Exodus establish that the story of Israel is one that takes us from servitude to humans to service to God, and thus humanity and life.

Whenever anything is done that is in disservice to humanity, and destructive of life, it cannot be in the service of God. More than ever, we need to clarify that point so that we do not blame religion for the horrible things that humans do. Rather, religion should be understood by each of us as a path toward service in life, a way of engaging in conscious being.

Parashat Shemot begins the book of “exile and redemption” of the people of Israel. Even though the fate of the Jews in general is at a cross-road, it is not easy to distinguish between this and the special personality of Moses, the leader and redeemer. How is the character of a person like this built? How are we able to determine any central points in his personal development?

We meet the “grown up adult” Moses when he goes out to his people, the Hebrew slaves, and he sees their suffering. He cannot restrain himself, nor remain silent, when he sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, and he reacts by killing the Egyptian.

Because of this event, Moses is forced to flee Egypt. He goes to Midian, where he encounters some shepherds who drive away the daughters of Yitro and he resolves to save the daughters, even caring for their sheep.

The courage and the firm stand shown by Moses against injustice is nothing less than remarkable. He is an individual against many, and is a stranger up against the locals. It is as if he experiences an internal awakening of the “good” within him when faced by the existence of evil.

This awakening, according to the Rambam, is the first level of “prophecy”, and is a form of meeting between a person’s inner awareness and a divine inspiration that gives the awareness of its strength and power.

The Torah continues; “Moses was grazing the sheep of Yitro … he guided the sheep far into the wilderness, and he arrived at the Mountain of God.”. Why does Moses guide the sheep “far into the wilderness”? Our rabbis see in this phrase a desire for Moses to distance himself from theft and wrongdoing, so that the flocks would not graze in the fields of other people. In addition to this recollection, there is a Midrash, which tells of Moses arriving in the desert by following a young lamb that was separated from the flock and so it became lost. Moses ran after it to save it.

Both of these explanations follow on directly from what has already been alluded to in the Torah, namely that prophecy is only “awarded” to someone whose moral and personal attributes are complete.

It seems that these challenges that Moses faced were God’s way of determining if Moses was worthy of the difficult and challenging tasks that lay ahead. God saw Moses’ selfless nature, and was satisfied with his commitment.

There is another landmark occasion in this week’s parasha that further helps to define Moses’s mission and presence. The burning bush, to which Moses was exposed when he arrived in the desert, also has a pivotal role to play in the process of Moses being chosen as a leader and a prophet. From the story of the burning bush onwards, we find a progression in Moses’ attitude and a development in his reverence for God. In this week’s parasha, Moses is described as a man who, according to the Torah; “was afraid to gaze towards God”, and he therefore hides his face when God is revealed to him.

Later on in the Torah, we are told of a Moses that stood facing God and was not afraid to seriously argue with God, regarding being divinely chosen to take the people out of Egypt.

What we find is that Moses goes on the mission both as a man obliged to go, and also as a man who, at the end of the day, chooses to go. We learn that it is okay to fear God, yet we are required to look at our development in attitude towards God, religion, and humanity.

This parasha shows us is that we are constantly being tested, not just by God, but also by our fellow human beings, and by ourselves. What may seem like an irrelevant task or occurrence, should be seen as an opportunity for us to act in a responsible and accountable manner, and to lead by example.

It is with this level of knowledge and understanding that we should approach the challenges and tasks that await us, and let us reflect on the path that Moses chose and the courage that he showed, and let us walk in the ways of the just and righteous.


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