Archive for gener de 2012

I will espouse you forever” are the beginning words one says upon wrapping the tefillin around the fingers and this quotation from the prophet Hosea indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”. The tefillin embody the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; the tefillin stand with Shabbat and circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm each morning service (other than Shabbat and festivals) is a mitzvah that has waned and now waxes again, being practiced by women as well as men. Perhaps the study about tefillin will lead to the mitzvah of tefillin.

Tefillin, two leather boxes with leather straps, are worn on the hand (arm) and head. Inside the leather boxes are found the four passages from the Torah that mention the tefillin, two from the end of parasha Bo and two from the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah, all four passages mentioning tefillin teaching about our obligation to serve God.

The passages from Bo mention “this observance will be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead – in order that the teaching of God is to be on your lips – for God brought you out of Egypt with a show of strength” and “it will be a sign on your hand a symbol on your forehead that God brought us out of Egypt by force.” As such, the tefillin serve as daily, physical reminders of our delivery from slavery by “God’s might”. The passages from Deuteronomy connect tefillin with serving God through mitzvot. As Jews we understand that redemption derives from our connection with the Life Force and requires us to serve life and humanity with every fibre of our being.

The wearing of tefillin demonstrates how to serve, highlighted by the sentence in the first paragraph of the Shema to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The hand tefillin is placed on our bicep, a symbol of our strength and our ability to do, with the recognition (by placing it on our weaker arm) that our strength and autonomy have limitations. It rests near our heart, symbolic of the seat of our love and compassion. The head tefillin is placed with the box at the hairline between the eyes, near the “third eye” with the knot at the base of the skull. This placement emphasizes the nature of soul and intellect in our service. Heart, soul and body unite in service to God, as we literally bind ourselves with words of Torah. At that moment, we embody the values taught by Hosea and recited as we wrap the tefillin strap around our fingers in a sign of our commitment to the covenant: “And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice and with lovingkindness and compassion, and I will espouse you with faithfulness and you shall know God.”

The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. The essence of Torah and Judaism is service. Thousands of years later, the call to move from slavery to service remains true as ever. After decades of enslavement to greed and consumption, it is time to serve again.

Shabbat Shalom

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In the opening weeks of reading from the book of Shemot, 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.  Judaism understands God as the creator of all of which we are part; therefore we can communicate on a certain level with God, and consequently know that we are called to action in this life. Traditionally, these three aspects are known as Creator, Revealer and Redeemer, and they have been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well. 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.  Thus, 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.  What people really mean is not “I do not believe in being”, but I do not believe in how we have been told being manifests in life.


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 tells 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.

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Having finished Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, with the ominous words, “placed in

a coffin in Egypt”, we open the next book, Shemot, or Exodus, not surprised that

we are a people in need of redemption.  In quick fashion we are told that the 70

descendants of Jacob who were in Egypt have since multiplied and increased

greatly, that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (or the rest of Jacob’s family), and he oppressed the Children of Israel with harsh labor, followed by the intent to kill all newborn males.  While the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the foundational story for our people, one that nearly all Jews (and many others as well) know, because the Haggadah which recasts the story as we tell it at Pesach to focus on God, it is interesting to look at God’s partner and the other main character of Torah, Moshe, whom we meet this week.


According to tradition, Moshe is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and indeed, the remainder of the Torah revolves around the relationship and communication between God and Moshe.  That communication begins in Chapter 3 of this parashah, at the famous seen of the burning bush, where, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush.  Moshe gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.  Moshe said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’  When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moshe! Moshe!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.”  (Exodus 3:2-4).


Before Moshe has this first experience with God, he has had other experiences in

his life, and these the Torah presents in  short order: 1) Through the agency of heroic women (his sister Miriam, mother Yocheved, the two midwives Shifrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter), his life, among other newborn males has been spared; 2) Having grown up in the privilege and power of Pharaoh’s household, he “saw the suffering of his kinfolk and  saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew; 3) He intervenes to save the Hebrew’s life,  and the next day also intervenes in a confrontation when one Hebrew is beating another; 4) He flees to Midian, where heresies to the defense of women who are harassed and threatened by male shepherds, protecting them and watering their flock.  The few stories we hear of Moshe in the Torah have the clear intent of portraying a man who both  sees injustice and acts to correct it.  It is only then Moshe is called by God.


Most of us would flee like Jonah from God’s presence, but not so Moshe, who like Avraham before him responds, “I am here” when called upon.  While daunted by the mission to be the agent of redemption, Moshe nonetheless takes up the obligation.  The story that follows will show him fully human and not a god, but a human being who serves God through the service of humanity.  This first story of redemption in human history points to all others: redemption will not happen through some supernatural event, but only when human beings take the time to notice the extraordinary creation of which we are part and that not all share equally in its bounty because of our own selfish, unjust behavior.  Redemption will come when we choose to right the wrong, having the vision of Moshe and the courage to say as well, “Here I am.”


Shabat Shalom

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In concluding the book of Genesis this week, we lay the groundwork for the B’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel, becoming Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel. While Genesis has focused on interpersonal issues primarily within the family, the rest of the Torah will take its themes and apply them to the national level. For example, let us explore the development of one of Genesis’ themes, that of being “your brother’s keeper”. The rhetorical question Cain asked after his killing of his brother Abel is slowly answered through a series of stories about brothers: Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yakov and Esau, and finally Joseph and his brothers. Over the generations, we see animosity shifting to acceptance to embrace. By the time we read these concluding chapters in this week’s parashah, we see that “the children of Israel” are the true brothers of Israel. In this vein, Joseph assures his brothers, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus, says the Torah, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Vayechi contains Jacob’s blessing of his sons, in which we realize that the brothers are part of one whole family. Jacob’s (Israel’s) blessing of his sons demonstrates his keen analysis of their individual character and strengths and weaknesses. We, in our own families, recognize that while we are all imperfect individuals, there is something larger that holds us together as a family unit – not just our ancestral history and shared experience, but also our values and goals. This week’s parashah opens with Jacob’s death and the journey that all the brothers take from Egypt back to the Promised Land to bury their father there. It closes with Joseph’s death and the promise of his brothers to bury his bones in the Promised Land. A second major theme of the book of Genesis has been God’s covenant with the children of Israel to turn them into a great nation and bring them to the Promised Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance. Jacob’s insistence on burial in the land of Israel, and Joseph’s swearing on oath to do so, shows the importance of the inheriting the land for the family (especially given the cult of death through the building of and burial in pyramids in Pharaoh’s Egypt).

Thus, the book of Genesis closes with a sense of completion – we have affirmed that we are our brother’s keeper, and a group of brothers has acted in harmony as a larger family unit to lay claim to the land of Israel through the burial of their father there (and the promise to bury Joseph’s bones there as well.) However, Genesis is a prelude to the challenges that this family will face when they become a nation. What does it mean “to be your brother’s keeper” when that person is totally unknown to you, not part of your family at all? Further, what is the purpose of our inheriting the Promised Land if we are just to be another nation in another land? The remainder of the Torah will answer these questions for us, with the slavery we undergo at the beginning of the next book crucial to our family’s becoming a nation. Over time we will learn that “your brother” includes “the stranger” and that we have come to the land to be a holy people in service to the God of justice and compassion, of life, good and blessing. Genesis: the beginning of our journey; the rest of Torah – the teaching of what that journey means for us to this day.

Shabbat Shalom

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