At the very beginning of Vayakhel, in the 2nd verse of chapter 35 we read:

Sheishet yamim tei’aseh melacha u’vayom hash’vi’ih yi’yeh lachem kodesh Shabbat Shabbaton la’Adonai … On six days, work may be done, but the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for God …

Shabbat is an integral part of our lives as Jews. It is the only ritual that is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, and it is mentioned more often in the Torah than any other mitzvah. Shabbat is a showcase for core Jewish values. It has a special place in our lives. After all, it occurs every week, whilst virtually every other holiday occurs just once a year. Shabbat is considered to be the most important day in the Jewish calendar, even more important than Yom Kippur.

The punishment for desecrating Yom Kippur is chareit (excommunication). As we read further on in the verse mentioned above, the punishment for desecrating Shabbat is death.

If we look at Shabbat from the point of view of observance and tradition, we see that the Shabbat has two tractates of Talmud (Shabbat and Eruvin) dedicated to it, as well as just under 200 chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. However, it is the next verse (verse 3) that can be viewed as one of the greatest bases for debate about Shabbat, possibly more than any of the above sources. It reads; “Lo-t’va’aru aish b’chol moshvoteichem b’yom haShabbat.” (You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on Shabbat).

This verse, which is then followed by all the details pertaining to the Mishkan, is one of the foundations used for the 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, developed by the Sages. Included in these laws, are the prohibition against kindling or extinguishing a fire (as explicitly mentioned in this week’s parasha), and subsequently cooking and baking as a category, even if they don’t require fire, or even if the fire was lit before Shabbat. Very rigid, and very prescriptive.

However, not every commentator is in agreement with the extreme rigidity and lack of ability to interpret this verse.

Regarding this commentary in the Stone edition of the Tanach says the following; “The Oral Law makes clear that only the creation of a fire and such use of it as cooking and baking are forbidden, but there is no prohibition against enjoying its light and heat. Deviant sects that denied the teachings of the Sages misinterpreted this passage, so they would sit in the dark throughout the Sabbath, just as they sat in spiritual darkness all their lives.”

Perhaps what this commentary is saying is that it is unnatural for us to ignore the fire, as a natural source of light and warmth, and that those who do so, are depriving themselves of enjoying their Shabbat experience. They chose to focus on the negative and restrict themselves.

As Jews living in the 21st Century CE, we have the ability and authority to provide our own interpretation on these kinds of debates, to enhance our experience of Shabbat through the laws and commentaries provided to us. Just like Irving Stone has done in his commentary, we too should look to these laws as ways of enhancing our Shabbat experience in ways that are special to us. The Torah is a living document, it is up to us to allow it to enliven our world.

How do people deal with a continually escalating experience? What happens to their expectations? How do they achieve satisfaction if they are always expecting more? Is there a way to temper expectations so that they are not on a continually upward trajectory?

The Israelites have much of this problem in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa. There has been a continuous build up from the beginning of the Book of Exodus: the arrival of Moses, the confrontations with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the triumphant exit from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and finally the revelation at Mount Sinai. And now, that momentum comes crashing to a halt. Moses, the one who has always been at the centre of the plot, the one who has been driving the action forward, is gone. He has been at the top of the mountain for 40 days and the Israelites, quite understandably, are left wondering, “What’s next?” Their answer to that is the great sin of the Golden Calf.

Rambam, a famous medieval philosopher and commentator, posits that the Israelites were not attempting to replace God with an idol, but Moses. Moses, their great leader has been gone for 40 days and nights. The people “didn’t know what happened to you [Moses] or whether you [Moses] would return or not’…” (to Exodus 32:1) In their need for further excitement or to continue the upward trend of expectations, the people took action to fulfil that craving. While misdirected, it is certainly understandable.

The Israelites finally have that engagement after being ignored for so long, languishing as they did in slavery. Finally, God, embodied in their eyes as Moses, has come to pay attention to them, to care for them, to lead them out of Egypt. And all of a sudden, Moses is gone for 40 days. Even though a month before, the entire Israelite camp is entering into a direct and intimate relationship with God; the sudden cessation of the direct presence is jarring. It is a complete withdrawal that they are not yet prepared to deal with. The Israelites perhaps faltered because they mistook the miracles and wonders as gimmicks, not realizing that it was God being in direct and intimate relationship with the people. When the presence was altered, they faltered and turned to a gimmick instead of something of substance.

Today, we are bombarded with gimmicks that claim to offer substance. Things are vying for our attention, distracting us from the elements of true substance. As a society, we are continually seeking the next thrill, the next rush, the next excitement. We need to have substance in our lives, not gimmicks. We have actively chosen to be a part of this community of Emanuel because of the substance of the community, what it is we stand for and what we represent: a deep, meaningful and hopefully intimate exploration and experience of our faith and tradition.

I pray this week that we learn to understand our needs and to find ways to satisfy them, building our lives in a productive and fulfilling way. 

This week in our Torah portion we read the description of the garments worn by the High Priest in the Temple and we also celebrate the festival of Purim, a time where we dress up in fancy dress and allow ourselves the freedom to be whoever we want to be. The priest had prescribed ritual garments which he wore to denote his position in the community and to remind him constantly of his obligations to his people. Clothing in the Torah was more than an item to cover the body, it had symbolism and meaning and also imparted ethical and moral teachings to the people who wore it and those who saw it. Today, clothing continues to be more than a mere covering of the body. It can be a reflection of our identity, our views, it can be constraining and freeing. During the festival of Purim we focus on clothing, often seeing the chance to dress up as some frivolous fun. But perhaps it is more than that. Just as during Purim we wear masks, during our lives, we too wear masks, we conform to societal pressures, we sometimes have to hide who we really are. At Purim we are presented with the opportunity to release ourselves from those constraints, all the rules are turned on their head as we don a mask which rather than concealing who we are, can allow us to reveal who we really are. We can dress in whatever we choose, we can turn conventions and norms upside down and we can find the way to embrace all of who we are.

There is an interesting commentary in the Talmud which compares Purim with Yom Kippur. It seems that there could not be two more different festivals in our calendar. Yom Kippur with its solemnity, its focus on repentance and rejuvenation, meeting God and being stripped bare, naked and alone with our mistakes and failings. And Purim, the festival of fancy dress, mockery and fun, where nothing is sacred and everything is grist for the humour mill. So how are these two festivals alike? Yom Kippur is a day ke’Purim, like Purim, because on both festivals we have the chance to be whoever we want to be and we can realize the potential within us. We do this on Yom Kippur through a process of reflection and introspection, thinking about what is really important and then making the changes in our lives to make that vision a reality. On Purim, we dress up and we can become whoever we want to be. The constraints of our daily lives are cast aside and we have the freedom to embrace whatever we want to become. Both festivals are times when anything is possible, when we can allow ourselves to dream and then make those dreams real.

This Shabbat we also read the passages where the Torah exhorts us to remember Amalek. But what are we to remember about him? The midrash explains that Amalek was evil because he prayed on the weak and vulnerable, he exploited those least able to stand for themselves and so gained power which he used to further abuse those who needed him the most. This passage is always read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman, the protagonist of the Purim story, is a descendant of Amalek. In the megillah it is a brave, courageous woman, Queen Esther, who stands in the face of Haman’s power and fights for her people. This week as we read these passages I pray that we will stand up for the vulnerable, speak out against injustice and work to make changes in the world to make the lives of others better.

With the festival of joy, Purim, only a few days away (it begins on the eve of 11 March), we turn our attention to the themes of this festival – giving charity, doing acts of kindness, mascarading in fancy dress, reading the Scroll of Esther, to name a few.

The Talmud states that from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, we should increase joy in our lives and, I might add, increase joy in the lives of others.

Why do we mascarade in fancy dress on Purim? One of the explanations is that during the period before Purim, we have a chance to explore the different ‘masks’ we wear or the different roles we play in our lives: the child, the parent, the aunt, the professional, the friend, the music-lover, the sportsperson… (add your own to this list).

Each role we play is another opportunity for our inner light, the light of our Neshamah (Soul) to shine and be expressed in this world.

The Ger Rebbe of the 18th Century, Eastern Europe, explained in his book, the Language of Truth, that our Neshamah is a principle of divine energy that needs the vessel or the structure of various roles in our lives so that it can function and be expressed.

This festival is not only a one-day event, but also a process of engagement over a number of weeks preceding the festival. For Purim, we are invited to be mindful of the different roles we take on in our lives, how we switch from one to the other and reflect on how our inner unique divine light is activated by these masks or hats we wear in our lives. This is a time to get to know the different roles more deeply, and in that way, get to know ourselves and others better.

In the next few days consider which roles you play in your life, how you feel when you are in those roles, which people you associate with, what clothes you wear, and how different it is with each role you play in your life. Also, notice this in others. Notice the different modes people close to you have. Notice how people are different when they are in different roles or functions or modes.

Be mindful of how you connect with people close to you and how you click into certain roles with certain people. In yourself, consider some parts of yourself that are still waiting to be expressed, the artist, the traveller…

This is connected to the idea that God, who is infinite and unlimited, is contained within different vessels or modes. The Infinite One, created and constantly creates formed beings and structures through which It can be expressed. In this week’s Torah reading, we read how God gave Moshe instructions on how to build the sanctuary and how that sanctuary is designed to receive the Divine Presence within it. In as way this is understood to mean that the infinite light is looking for a place to be contained.

Building on this idea, the Sages state that each person is a temple in which the divine dwells. We express that divinity through the different aspects of our character and the roles we fulfill. Some aspects of our lives feel more connected to that holiness than others. A blessing in the lead up to Purim is that we might see ourselves and others as vessels for holiness and be able to bring that divine energy even into the various mundane activities we perform in our lives, every moment being an opportunity for compassion and clarity.

What does it mean to be a stranger? Is it someone who does not belong? Or is it someone who is not familiar? Is it someone who believes differently? Who looks differently? Someone outside your family or circle of friends?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, twice we are admonished on how a stranger should be treated:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20).”

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9).”

The rabbis are fascinated by the repetition of what seems like the exact same commandment. There is a dictum in rabbinic exegesis that there are no superfluous words in the Torah, therefore, any words or phrases that are repeated must have a meaning aside from simply a repetition of an idea.

Some agree that the repetition of the phrase is referring to two different kinds of strangers, a physical stranger and a spiritual stranger.

There is another thread that some follow which states that the repetition is referring to different behaviours that we should refrain from, specifically taunting with words and with actions.

What both these verses have in common however, is the reason for the commandment. At that time, we knew what it was to be strangers and for the first time, we were moving to a position of being in the majority. Yet we were commanded not to simply accept the morals of the time, but to strive to be better, to learn from our experiences so that no one else would be subjected to what we had gone through. We were not to model ourselves on the societies that existed, but to create a new moral compact with a higher standard.

Today, as we have existed for most of the past two thousand years, we are in the minority and we have a collective memory of how we have been treated as a minority. We know how those just like us in the greater society should be treated, whether they are immigrants, refugees, or even converts into our own community. We are charged not only to welcome them, but to fight for them, in whatever way they might be oppressed, verbal, physical, or otherwise.

From our experience comes a wisdom that we hope to not only impart, but make a part of the collective consciousness of all the world.

The Haftarah that we read this Shabbat is from Isaiah, predominantly from chapter 6, with a few other verses from chapters 7 and 9. Isaiah goes through a mystical experience, contemplating God, and he hears the angels accompanying God calling to one another; “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tzeva’ot M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vado” (Holy, holy, holy is the God of heaven’s hosts, whose Presence fills all the earth) [Isaiah 6:3].

It’s a verse we are all familiar with, as it appears in the Kedushah section (the 3rd blessing), every time we recite the Amidah aloud. Not only are we standing during this part of the service, but we also rise on our toes each time we say the word ”Kadosh” (holy), symbolically lifting our praise in saying Kadosh, towards heaven. This action increases our intention of proclaiming our acknowledgement of God’s holiness.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains that the Kedushah is considered to have been influenced by prayers that originated in ancient mystic circles, and originally the recitation of the Kedushah took place only on Shabbat and Festivals. Later, during the time our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, the Kedushah became part of the daily ritual, and that’s our practice today. The terms Kedusha (3rd blessing of the Amidah), Kadosh (holy), Kodesh (holiness), Kaddish (memorial prayer), and Kiddushin (the wedding ceremony), and Kiddush (Shabbat blessing) are all derived from the same three Hebrew letters (Kuf, Daled, Shin), which can be pronounced different ways, depending where you place the vowels.

The basic meaning of that word is “to set aside” or “to be apart”. Over time, we have come to accept the generic terms of “holiness” or “sanctified” as the most apt translation. It seems fitting then that we apply the same sense of holiness and sanctity to this section of prayer, where we proclaim God’s Sovereignty, as well as the sacred and impressive attributes of the Seraphim (the fiery angels that accompany God) as they focus on worshipping God and singing God’s praises.

Moreover, the Kedushah is only recited when we have a minyan present, when the full sense of Jewish community is expressed. There are a number of reasons given as to why we only recite the Kedushah when we have a minyan. Some say it is because the Kedushah is an act of sanctifying God’s name, which can only be done when others are present, as it causes all of us to recognise God’s greatness and sanctity. There are others that relate the Kedushah to mystic practices, saying that Judaism frowns upon the private practice of mystical exercises as they can lead to dangerous outcomes.

Perhaps the explanation that would best resonate with us, is that Kedushah (in this case, holiness) is not attainable in isolation. It is only when we consider ourselves to be part of a community, part of something greater, that we are able to aspire to be holy. Just as the angels proclaimed to each other; “Holy, holy, holy”, acknowledging that their declaration was not in isolation, so too should our proclamations of Kedusha inspire our sense of community and holiness.

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Shira,” the Shabbat of song because during our services we read three songs and poems to God. The first two come after the Israelites have crossed the parted waters of the sea, escaping Egyptian slavery. After years of oppression and fear they are finally free and they sing to God, first Moses and then Miriam leading the community in song and dance. The third song is in our Haftarah reading from Deborah, following a military triumph. In each of these cases, a miraculous deliverance has taken place and the people respond with song.

Music is incredibly powerful, it can evoke strong emotions but can also be an expression of our deepest fears, hopes, dreams, yearnings, joy and sorrow, in a way which words cannot convey. Music touches the innermost recesses of our souls; it can express what words sometimes cannot contain. At the shores of the sea, Moses did not gather the people and give a speech, instead he sang words of poetry. And Miriam, encouraged everyone to join together in song and dance, so that all could express their joy, relief, excitement in that moment and for what the future would hold. And that moment was made all the more powerful because the community joined their voices together, they played their instruments, they reached into themselves and allowed the song to ring out.

We too can feel that connection through music and the link with community. Rabbi Pinchus of Koretz said: “alone I cannot lift my voice in song. Then you come near and sing with me. Our prayers fuse and a new voice soars. Our bond is beyond voice and voice. Our bond is one, spirit and Spirit.” When we join together in song we meet in a place which is beyond words, we connect through music to the joy and beauty of our tradition and the power of community. And when we listen to each others’ voice, we are heard in a profound way.

This week we also commemorate Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, the time when we acknowledge and celebrate the natural world. A story is told of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the chief rabbi of Israel. He was walking in the fields deep in thought when the young student accompanying him plucked a leaf off a branch. Shaken by this act, Rav Kook turned to the student and said to him “believe me when I tell you that I never pluck a leaf or a blade of grass unless I must. Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song, breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of creation.” And from that moment the student learned to show compassion to all creatures. It is not only we who sing a song, the whole of creation sings its own song into the world and it is for us to pause, listen and hear the music and join in with our own song to create a beautiful harmony.

I pray that this Shabbat of song, we can all create beautiful music together, join our voices with all of creation and sing from the depths of our souls.