This week is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. In ancient times it was one of two occasions in the year when the rabbi would give a sermon. The aim of the sermon was to remind the community about the forthcoming festival of Pesach and to expound a little about the laws and customs of this time of year, as the community prepared to celebrate Pesach.

This year, Shabbat Hagadol coincides with parashat Tzav, the portion where we read about the fire burning on the altar, a fire which must never go out. Rabbi Amiel gave an alternate interpretation of this command, suggesting that instead of the fire burning “on it” (referring to the altar), it can also be read as the fire burning “in him” (referring to the priest). Based on this reading, the passage then talks about the fire we should all keep burning in our souls and our spirits; a fiery passion for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Pesach is the most celebrated festival in the Jewish calendar. More than Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, Pesach is the time when the largest number of Jews make a connection with our people and traditions. It is the time that the fire is stoked and the flames burn brightest within. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the universal message of the seder and its celebration of freedom, equality and justice for all. We are taught that each one of us should move through the seder from degradation to uplift, from slavery to freedom, to each feel that we have been redeemed from Egypt. The seder teaches that the more we tell about the Exodus, the more we are praiseworthy. This passage is not about the number of times we tell the story but rather the depth with which we do so. In recounting the story as if we were there, we are provided with the opportunity to really meditate on what it meant to be a slave and what it now means to be free. It is an opportunity not just for sympathy but for empathy. Know that there are others who suffer like we suffered and commit yourselves to helping bring about their exodus.

We need to do more than read the words; we must internalize the teachings and then go out into the world and take action. It is not enough to be sympathetic to the plight of others; we are enjoined to take steps to make the changes we want to see in the world to feel empathy and be motivated to action. God did not redeem us from Egypt to do nothing; God redeemed us and then gave us a challenge: to follow the commandments, to change the world, to create the future we want to see. Ralph Barton Perry wrote: “There is no boredom like that which can afflict a people who are free and nothing else”. We cannot be free and nothing else. We are free in order to bring freedom, to end oppression and to create the future of which we dream and for which we pray.

Pesach is the time that the Jewish fire within us is kindled; our passions are aroused, moving us to use our freedom to shape the world we want to see.

Let us use the Pesach seder as inspiration to live each day as people who are committed to bringing freedom, hope and peace to others. Our challenge is to keep tending the fire burning within us throughout the year; to feed our souls and our spirits with the learning, beauty, delight and joy of Judaism and changing the world.

This week we begin reading from a new book in the Torah. The Book of Leviticus, Sefer Vayikra, is referred to by the rabbis of the Talmudic period as “Torat Kohanim” because of its overwhelming concern about matters related to the priesthood and their facilitation of sacrificial worship in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). Perhaps the most arcane book of the Torah in terms of how we practice our Judaism today, Sefer Vayikra none-the-less presents some deeply profound teachings about the nature of Jewish worship and how we relate to our God. The challenge, of course, is to make these most ancient of teachings relevant to our contemporary religious experience.

For over 2000 years the main mode of Jewish worship has been through prayer. It is well entrenched. So how can we relate to the commanded concept of animal sacrifice today?

This question has been asked for a very long time. Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbinic scholar, addressed this concern in his monumental work, The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides begins by asserting that God always considers human nature when interacting with humanity. A significant element of human nature is that human behaviors and attitudes cannot be suddenly and radically altered. Changes must be made gradually, without haste. Applying this notion to animal sacrifice, Maimonides suggests that God’s objective for Israel was to develop the people into a nation devoted to divine service – worship – and acts of loving-kindness. Emerging out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were used to animal sacrifice as the common and established form of worship. The immediate command to abandon sacrifice would have represented a radical change of behavior for the people at a very vulnerable time. Our later Prophets make it very clear that God does not require our burnt offerings. However, at the time of the exodus, a concession was made to human nature. The familiar and accepted form of worship was preserved, but with very specific parameters in order to differentiate Israel’s form of sacrificial offerings from those of the other pagan nations. Where, when, what and how to sacrifice were all clearly controlled and the priesthood became the standard-bearers of this newly commanded form of worship and of what was acceptable to God.

While traditional Judaism still maintains a messianic ideal of a return to sacrificial worship in a rebuilt third temple, there are others who suggest, like Maimonides, that, as a concession to human weakness, the original Levitical mandate of animal sacrifice was never intended as an eternal command. Many have proposed that the evolution from animal sacrifice to prayer based worship was an intended transition, moving the locus of offering from external to internal. When we approach the altar with our korban (“offering” – based on the root meaning of “to draw near”) we bring to God something that is outside of ourselves. In truth it is the animal that is making the greatest commitment. At the deepest level, sincere authentic prayer makes a much great demand on the worshipper. With prayer we bring an offering of the soul. We look deep within ourselves, sacrificing our egos and all the self-rationalizations and baggage we manifest in order to protect ourselves. We render ourselves vulnerable, opening ourselves up to truth and connection with the Divine. With prayer, the korban is you.

So what, then, do we do with the Book of Leviticus? Like the idea of the korban, we take the detailed commandments of the priestly handbook and we move its instructions inside. Animal sacrifice becomes a Midrash, a metaphor about how we are to engage in our efforts to commune with our God today. We embrace its call to spiritual purity and the kavanah (intention) of ritual. We move the altar into our homes and we become an entire nation of priests, drawing nearer to our God through our deeds without blemish and the mindfulness of our actions.

As finite creatures bounded by time, how we consecrate space and time are major ways that we create meaning in our lives. As far as we know, we humans are the only ones of the animal kingdom who live with a long term understanding of our physical limitations, our impending death, the memory of our early days and the passage of time between. As we come to the dramatic conclusion of the book of Exodus, with parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei, we hear of the people faithfully building the Tabernacle where God’s presence will be encountered. Additionally, we are again commanded to keep the Shabbat, the central marker of time for the Jewish people, the focal point for the opening of the Torah and the story of creation.

Our sages have noted the parallel between the opening of the book of the Torah, with the story of Shabbat at the heart of creation, and the conclusion of the book of Exodus, with the construction of the Holy Tabernacle. Just as in our first story of Genesis there are seven passages describing the creation of the universe (culminating with the Shabbat), so too in the final story of Exodus there are seven passages concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. Counting six days and then resting one, to make a week, is an extraordinary way to mark time — not based on any astronomical event like all other aspects of time, but requiring the ability of the human mind to count and so to make a difference. As far as we know, the seven-day week with the day of rest is a gift of the Jewish people to humanity. God is Eternal, ever present, yet for us to encounter God in time we need to stop from daily activity — Shabbat is the Hebrew for “stopping”.

Similarly, the Tabernacle that centers our understanding of space is a metaphoric parallel to the universe of God’s creation: it represents the meeting place for people and God. (The Hebrew word Mishkan, translated as tabernacle, means dwelling.) While God is present in and beyond all space, we as humans need to create sacred space to enhance our encounter with God. This parashah reminds us that to create this space each Israelite “whose hearts so moved them brought freewill offerings to the Lord” (i.e., to create the Mishkan, the holy space.)

We brought those gifts a few years ago to create a sacred and unique space for our religious practice — one in which ultimately we have a small chapel and large sanctuary used for our egalitarian services, our learning and our communal gathering. Our vision remains and continues to be achieved thanks to our heartfelt, freewill offerings. The stories we read this week inspire us to hold fast to our dream of creating sacred space.

The conclusion of the book of Exodus is a perfect parallel for the opening of the book of Genesis: beyond the specific regulations of Tabernacle and Shabbat comes the larger lesson: by creating sacred space to commemorate sacred moments, we add significance to our lives, so limited by time and space. Our contemporary synagogue becomes a place where finite ones can glimpse the Infinite One.

Our tradition teaches us that contained in the Aron – the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the wilderness – were the two sets of tablets that God gave to Israel at Sinai. There was the one complete set, on which was inscribed the words of the Ten Commandments, and then there were the shards of the first set, which Moses had smashed out of anger when saw the people dancing around the golden calf. Both the whole and the shattered were considered equally holy, equally important. The undamaged and the broken equally received the same honor. From this teaching we can learn much. The smashing of the tablets is described in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, gives an alternative explanation about how the original tablets were destroyed. When God saw that the People of Israel had constructed the golden calf in the camp, God tried to grab the tablets away from Moses on the top of Sinai. But Moses, the Midrash explains, was strong. A tug of war ensued between God and Moses and, as a result, the tablets were shattered.

The rabbinic commentator then asks: why did God never rebuke Moses for breaking the tablets? Obviously, under the circumstances, God would have preferred to keep the tablets rather than hand them to an idolatrous people. But it was better for Israel that the tablets be smashed on the earth rather than remain complete in God’s hands. If Moses had not brought the first tablets down and smashed them to the shock of the people, there never would have been an opportunity for Moses’ return to the mountaintop to fetch the replacement tablets for a redeemed Israel. The breaking of the tablets provided the opportunity for the “stiff-necked” People of Israel to renew their relationship with God and reaffirm their covenant through Torah. This is the concept of “Lo ba-shamayim hi — It is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), which suggests that God’s commands are not overwhelming but rather close to human hearts and capabilities. The whole point of Torah is to direct the human spirit and meet human needs. There is no need for Torah in the heavenly realm.

The breaking of the tablets also provides another insight into the ongoing struggles of life. The shards of the broken tablets remind us of the continuous opportunity for growth and renewal. There is always another chance to redeem ourselves; always the possibility of repentance.

This is the message of our Jewish tradition: life is never perfect. But that realization need not lead to despair. Rather than focus on some ideal afterlife or messianic perfection, Judaism has always been more concerned with our imperfect human state and providing guidance for healing and repair — Tikkun. This is our strength: we have learned to value and embrace the pieces and from them construct something even stronger.

We see this reflected in some of our best-known Jewish rituals. At the end of a wedding ceremony we break a glass to remind us that a shattered marriage can never be put back together in the same way. Marriage is never easy but from the shattered glass we learn to value the pieces, the moments of greatest intimacy, partnership and support, and on that foundation we can build a relationship of holiness.

When we become mourners, we perform Keriah — literally “tearing”. As we suffer a tear in the fabric of our lives we identify ourselves as mourners through a tear in the garment we wear. Symbolically, the message is that the time will come when we can sew the garment back together again. The tear is never permanent. We can repair the damage. We can become whole again. It won’t be perfect and it will never be the same, but it can be fixed. The scars on our bodies and souls will begin to fade, but the scar tissue that remains is often stronger than the unblemished tissue it replaced.

We desperately want to believe that everything is going to be all right. Perhaps there is a place somewhere in the divine realm where that is true. But we live in this world and here the truth is that there are times when things come apart. But, as we grow and mature, we come to learn from these experiences; we learn to appreciate the pieces. The most beautiful mosaics are made from broken pieces, as are the most beautiful lives. The most important lesson in life is not how to avoid becoming broken. It is to learn how to recycle the pieces and rebuild.

Parashat Tetzaveh – Dressing for the job

In this week’s portion we continue with the theme that defines most of the Book of Exodus: the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was used by the Israelites throughout their years of wandering in the wilderness, and all of the “holy implements” that were used within. Included among these “implements” were the Kohanim, the priests who performed the rituals and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his sons were selected to serve in this important and hereditary office of religious leadership.

Great detail is given about the elaborate ritual garments of the High Priest, who was to be regally resplendent in gold and precious stones. Like all the other elements of the Mishkan, the priestly garments were to be made of the finest materials, to be both functional and beautiful. The costume of the High Priest is to be symbolic of his responsibility to serve on behalf of the people. The text makes it clear that there is purpose for all of this ornamentation: “Make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for dignity and splendor” (Exodus 28:2).

Clothes make the man,” the old saying goes. Clothes certainly do seem to impress us human beings. Nothing makes a greater first impression than how one is dressed. It’s quite remarkable, really. We try to sum up a person’s entire character simply by how they are dressed. Jobs have been won and lost, relationships continued or ended, all based on the clothes we wear. The fashion industry certainly understands this important detail of human nature. So do schools and the military. The whole point of putting people into uniform is to minimize their differences; to make individualization impossible and to reduce independence. You are what you wear. When we dress the same as others, it is because we don’t want to be seen as different. And when we do want to stand out, we do so through the clothes that we wear.

The Torah certainly understands this as well. This week’s parashah devotes more than forty verses, an unusually high number for any single topic, to the subject of the Bigdei Kodesh, the holy clothing or ritual garments for the high priests. So what is so important about the garments of the High Priest? Does not Judaism usually focus on inner qualities, frowning on such an outward show of materialism? How can garments be holy? How can they alone bring dignity and splendor?

It seems that Torah is indeed telling us that clothes do make the man, or at least the role in which the man is serving. Aaron, already well respected and loved among the people, is to be dressed as befits a Kohen Gadol — a High Priest. When he engages in work that is holy, he is to be suitably dressed in holy garments; clothes that add dignity and splendor to the work. This is the notion of Hiddur Mitzvah — the enhancement of a Mitzvah (commandment) through the adornment of the act. This is why we say Kiddush over fine wine in a beautiful cup rather than over juice in a paper cup. Both will fulfill the minimum requirement of the Mitzvah, but by adding beauty we add to the holiness of the act.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) notes, however, that the commandment to dress the High Priest in garments for glory and splendor is not only to enhance the status of the priest himself, but also to enhance the glory of God. He notes that in the mystical teachings, dignity (kavod) and splendor (tiferet) are Sefirot, emanations of the Divine. Through these special garments worn by the Priest, God’s presence among the people is further demonstrated. This teaching suggests that the spark of God that resides in all of us is brought out in the priest and worn on the outside with his clothing.

When dressed in his priestly vestments, the High Priest is reminded of his special role and the sanctity of his calling. It is a symbol, a reminder. But holy clothes are really only holy when they cover a holy person. In this regard, one does not need to be a priest. We all have the potential for such holiness. We just need to find a way to allow our own holiness to be worn on the outside.

The narrative of the Torah comes to a grinding halt with Parashat Terumah, but that does not mean that some of the deepest meaning of our relationship with God cannot be found in the details of Terumah and the parshiyot ahead. 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 parashah, 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 two previous parshiyot, 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 sky-scape in the outback; enjoying a sunrise 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 Bet ha-Mikdash (a sacred house, normally translated as The Temple and the subject of this week’s haftarah). What about 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.

This week as we read Parashat Mishpatim, we truly come down from the mountain when Moses instructs the community about the rules for day to day life. No longer the lofty ten commandments, these laws deal with the practicalities of communal living, from the mundane to the crucial. There are laws about the justice system beside laws about returning lost property — in recognition that both are crucial to the functioning of a just and compassionate society. And in amongst the more than 50 commandments in the parashah, are a number of mentions of capital punishment for crimes including murder, idolatry and wayward sons who disobey their parents. From these very clear directives it would seem that the Torah, and therefore Judaism, has no problem with capital punishment for certain crimes. But the reality of lived Judaism is very different from the Torah pronouncement.

The rabbis of our tradition were uncomfortable with the notion of capital punishment, so they essentially legislated it out of existence. They did not change the Torah, but rather placed preconditions around the execution of the punishment which would ensure it could never be carried out. For example, two witnesses must see the person committing the entire crime, and they must warn the person that the crime they are committing is punishable by death. The person must acknowledge the warning and then say that they understand but they are going to continue with the action anyway, despite the fact it could lead to the death penalty. Further, the witnesses must then give identical evidence at the trial and no circumstantial evidence is to be accepted.

As well as these requirements, the rabbis go further in their quest to abolish the death penalty. They knew that they had put conditions in place which could not be met and that if they were, somebody must have acted illegally. So the Mishna says:

A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10).

The rabbis and their communities were very uncomfortable with the idea of humans taking the lives of others in these circumstances. The irreversible nature of the punishment, the fact that it leaves no room for repentance and rehabilitation, made the rabbis determined to eliminate it. Demonstrating the level of discomfort in the community about capital punishment, Maimonedes said in Sefer Hamitzvot: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death”.

The sanctity of human life and the fallibility of the legal system, no matter how just, led the rabbis to legislate the death penalty out of existence. At this time when there are people facing the possibility of execution for crimes they committed, we pray for their lives to be spared and that they be given the opportunity to contribute positively to the world and the people around them.


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