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Archive for febrer de 2012

TERUMAH

Parashat Terumah is one of my favorite in the Torah. It is not a parashah filled with drama and action, there is no murder, intrigue, death or sibling rivalry, it is a portion about construction. The children of Israel are building a building. Cecile B. Demille will not be rushing to make this movie and Harrison Ford won’t be calling his agent to beg for the part of Moses but despite this lack of action, the imagery

is some of the most beautiful in the whole Torah.

I imagine the scene. It is a warm, sunny day, the kind of day which makes you stop and pause from the routine of daily life to breathe and just feel the energy of it. The children of Israel have temporarily stopped from their continual movement and wanderings to build a mishkan, a sanctuary. Since daybreak, a line of people have been slowly weaving their way across the desert sands, bearing their terumah, the gifts from their hearts, gifts for the holy work of creating a mishkan. The colors are spectacular; crimson cloths waving in the breeze, mingling with the purple yarns and the blue silks. The sunlight glints off the golden pieces being brought to construct the lamp-stands and rings, tapestries and pieces of cloth, jars of golden oil, wicks and bowls to make the lamps, stone masons carrying their tools, all in a line waiting for the instructions about where to put their contribution, what to do with the pieces they brought forth.

I imagine the feelings of the Israelites; the ones who had been freed from slavery, heard the voice of God, witnessed the power of God’s miracles. They did not have much, for each of them had fled the fleshpots of Egypt with little more than the clothing on their backs, some gold and jewels from the Egyptian women. But each of them gathered their belongings, items of sentimental value, things which

reminded them of Egypt, of family, friends, loved ones who toiled beside them during the arduous years of enslavement, those who were no longer beside them. God had asked for terumah, but not just any gift, a gift from the heart, a gift which, when placed in the tabernacle would infuse the space with a small piece of the people who constructed it. More than their material wealth, this mishkan was made from raw emotion, from the memories and feelings of a nation who had experienced slavery, intolerance and injustice as well as deliverance and freedom. When the people brought their gifts they added a piece of themselves to the sanctuary and made it their own. Each of them was engaged in holy work, the work of building a dwelling place for God.

This Shabbat, as we read the words of this parashah and imagine the creation of the mishkan, we see around us a world which is heavy with pain and suffering, a place crying out to be infused with holiness. Our task is to create a mishkan on earth, a place where God will dwell amongst us and we do that when we give gifts from our hearts, when we reach out and touch one another with goodness and kindness, when we hear the cries of humanity and act. God called upon our people once in the desert, “make me a sanctuary,” a holy place for me to dwell. Do it by bringing gifts from your hearts. God is calling us again to build a sanctuary, to make our world a place of shelter, of peace, brushed with holiness and goodness. Will we hear the call? Will we bring our pure gifts of the heart?

Shabbat Shalom

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During Jethro´s visit to the Israelite cam, he notices long lines of people waiting to bring their disputes before Moses. Sitting alone from morning until evening, Moses listens to each argument, hears each problem and states his judgement on each situation brought before him. Jethro is astounded. “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? He asks Moses. Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah of Akko detected a dangerous element of conceit in Moses, why –he asks- did Moses tell Jethro that “the people are coming to me” instead of saying that “the people are coming to God”? Rabbi Judah’s question raises other questions about Moses. Did he believe that he was superior to his people or even to God in helping them to solve their problems? Was he beginning to assume that he alone had the wisdom to advise them?

Rabbi’s Judah’s questions seem to imply that Jethro was upset with Moses because he saw him losing his humility; becoming a pompous leader who believed only he could make decisions for his people. For that reason, Rabbi Judah argues, Jethro criticized Moses and told him to find others with whom to share the responsibilities of leadership.

If you meet the Buddha on the road” the Zen master teaches the disciple, “kill him”. Do not let any human being become the measure of your life. Eliminate whatever you would be tempted to idolize, no matter how worthy the object. The role of the spiritual leader, in other words, is not to do martinets out of people; it is to lead them to spiritual adulthood where they themselves make the kind of choices that give life depth and quality. Doing what the rabbi says is not the goal of Judaism. Following the leader is not the end for which we are made; finding God is.

In our own culture, becoming someone important, climbing the corporate and congregational ladder has so often meant pleasing the person at the top rather than doing what conscience demands or the situation requires. That kind of leadership is for its own sake. It makes the guru, rather than the Torah, the norm of life. That kind of authority is not Jewish and it is not spiritual. That kind of authority so often leads to the satisfaction of the system more than to the development of the person. That kind of authority breeds Watergate and My Lai.

In 1950, in the first talk the Rebbe of lubavitch gave upon assuming leadership of the Lubavitcher movement he said “Our faith demands that everyone must do good on his own, and not depend on his rebbe. Do not deceive yourselves into thinking that I will lead and you will engage only in singing songs and that that will be enough. Each of you has your own load, your own battle. I do not decline from helping, but nothing –even heaven- can replace personal responsibility.”

Judaism wants a community that is led, but not driven.

The concept is clear: people are not acquitted of the responsibility for their own soul. Personal decisions are still decisions, personal judgements are still judgements, free will is still free will.

Perhaps the most important result of a model of authority like this is the environment it creates. The synagogue is not a royal court, a military barrack or a detention home. The role of leadership is not to make lackeys or foot soldiers or broken children out of adult Jews.

The Purpose of Judaism is to gather equally committed adults for a journey through life to a dazzling light that already flames in each of us, but in a hidden place left to each of us to find. The function of authority is not to control the other, it is to guide and to challenge and to enable the other. Jewish leadership is a commitment to that, a promise of that

A midrash on Genesis points out: “God prefers your deeds to your ancestor’s virtues” We are not here simply to follow someone else. Being part of something good does not automatically make us good. What we do with our own lives is the measure of their value. We are here to learn to take ourselves in hand.

According to Jewish tradition, human beings can only fulfil themselves fully in relationship. Community is the place of our relationships. Furthermore, Judaism as a civilization can be experienced solely in community, can be passed on effectively only through community. Building and sustaining communities is critical to human fulfilment. As Jews we strive to create communities that manifest justice, holiness and peace.

The function of the leader, in the context of this Jewish value then is to call each individual to become more tomorrow than they were today. The point of that is not how the calling is to be done, with firmness or tenderness or persuasion or discipline. The point here is simply that the calling is to be done. The person who accepts a position of responsibility and milks it of its comforts but leaves the persons in a group no more spiritually stirred than when they began, is more to be criticized than the fruitless group itself. It was Eli, the father who did not correct his sinful sons, whom God indicts, not the sons alone.

The leaders of the synagogue, the rabbi and the officers of the board are to remember what they are and what they are called. What they are is clear: they are people just like everybody else in the community. They are only people who struggle and fail just like the people they lead.

There is a hassidic story that leaders may understand:

When in his 60th year after the death of the kotzker rabbi, the Gerer Rabbe accepted election as leader of the Kotzker hassidim, the rabbi said: “I should ask myself: “why have I deserved to become the leader of thousands of good people?” I Know that I am not more learned or more pious than other. the only reason why I accept the appointment is because so many good and true people have proclaimed me to be their leader. We find that a cattle-breeder in Israel during the days when the Temple stood was enjoined by our Torah (Lv 27:32) to drive newborn cattle or sheep in to an enclosure in single file. When they went to the enclosure, they were all of the same station, but when over the tenth one, the owner pronounced the words “Consecrated to the Lord” it was set aside for holier purposes. In the same fashion when the Jews pronounce some to be holier than their fellows they become in truth consecrated persons.”

Once chosen, it is their weaknesses itself that becomes the anchor, the insight, the humility, and the gift of a leader, a rabbi, a parent a teacher or a director, but only if they themselves embrace it. It is a lesson for leaders everywhere who either fear to lead because they know their own weaknesses or who lead defensively because they fear that other know their weaknesses. It is a lesson for parents who remember their own troubles as children. It is a lesson for husbands and wives who cannot own their weaknesses that plague their marriage. We must each strive for the ideal and we must encourage others to strive with us, not because we ourselves are not weak but because knowing our own weaknesses and admitting them we can with great confidence teach trust in the God who watches with patience our puny efforts and our foolish failures.

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MISHPATIM

This week’s Torah portion Mishpatim contains more than 50 of the 613 commandments. And as the Torah is written with no vowels and no punctuation, every sentence, every word, of all of those commandments have a multitude of interpretations. Judaism and Jewish scholarship is alive with debate and discussion about exactly which interpretation should be given to any one passage. Almost all the texts which have been compiled and written since the Torah have been concerned with understanding exactly what it is God wants from us, and deciding how to implement the laws. This is the journey of the Jew, to discover what God’s hopes and dreams are for the world, and to work to make them a reality. So how do we know which interpretation is correct?

In the Torah Moses asks God how the people will know who is a true prophet. God replies that they should not rely on signs and wonders because sometimes God will give false prophets the power to perform signs and wonders to test us. Instead we should look at the message that the prophets are giving and be sure that it is consistent with the intent and message of the rest of the Torah. It is not enough that they appear to have God’s truth, if they are spreading a message which is inconsistent with the spirit of the Torah then we know that they are not to be followed. It is the same with the laws and interpretations, we need to be looking at the spirit behind the suggested understandings as well as the literal reading of the text and be sure that it is consistent with the overall message of the Torah.

If we look at the commandments, we would expect there to be a large number about faith, belief in God, theology, but actually they number very few. The large majority of the commandments are concerned with the way in which we treat one another. They call upon us to care for the vulnerable in our communities, to share what we have with those in need, to be kind and compassionate. The refrain over and over is to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, to remember what it is like to suffer, to be oppressed and to be sure to never treat others in that same manner. And it is with this in the forefront of our minds, with this spirit, that we should be understanding and interpreting the multitude of laws and directives in our tradition. It is imperative that we consider the people and not just the letter of the law, to ensure that we apply them with compassion and love of humanity.

Sadly though, when we look to Israel, we hear more and more stories of people interpreting the laws of the Torah to spread hatred, fear and discrimination. Advocating for buses where women and men are to sit separately, areas where there is a footpath for men and one for women, condoning the assault of a woman because she had marks on her arm left from laying tefillin, a woman attacked and arrested for carrying a Torah, a call not to rent or sell property to anyone other than Jews, people being physically attacked in charedi neighborhoods because they are not deemed to be strict enough in their adherence to the laws, young people murdered for visiting a center which counsels and supports people who are gay. How can any of these acts sit together with a Torah that promotes tolerance, harmony and love between people? The same Torah which reminds us over and over again to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, to remember what it is like to be oppressed, treated with cruelty, and commands us to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, because they are dear to God? They cannot. And we must not stand by and allow our tradition to be used to condone violence, bigotry and hatred, not in the Jewish homeland and not in our own back yards. We must be advocates for the Torah, for its holiness, its goodness and the true spirit in which it was given; as a means for us to change the world for the better, to bring harmony, justice and peace. We must continue to love and support Israel whilst at the same time speaking out against these crimes against the Torah, against God, against human beings. And where we see it here in our own communities too we must speak out, be the voice for the other interpretation, the reading which is consistent with our values and what is at the heart of the Torah: to love God by loving humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

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Lending an Ear

On this Shabbat, during the reading of the Torah, Jews throughout the world will rise from their seats and witness a most dramatic scene – the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This theophany, a scene in which God appears to human beings, forms one of the most memorable episodes in the entire Torah. And yet, the parasha from which we read is called Yitro, the Hebrew name of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a seemingly strange selection for such a monumental reading. Who was Jethro and why was he so important?

Although we are first introduced to Jethro in the opening chapters of Exodus, the significance of his presence is not felt until the Israelites have left the land of Egypt. Following the Israelites’ journey through the Sea of Reeds and a series of random grumblings, Moses appears overtired, overworked and overburdened. After witnessing his son-in-law’s conduct, and hearing from Moses directly that he spends every waking hour addressing the people’s complaints, Jethro instructs Moses to seek out magistrates who will serve as judges over the people. These magistrates will create a system for handling minor disputes, leaving Moses to address the larger issues.

Although Jethro offers a solution for Moses’ exhaustion, it is clear that he cares about Moses’ well-being, and that he listens to Moses’ concerns. Many times, the act of listening, in addition to offering empathy and support, is the best assistance that we can provide another person in a time of difficulty. As Dr. Michael Nichols writes in his work, The Lost Art of Listening,

The obligation to listen can be experienced as a burden, and we all sometimes feel it that way. But it is quite a different thing to be moved by a strong sense that the people in our lives are eminently worth listening to, a sense of their dignity and value. One thing we can all ad a little more of is understanding— respect, compassion, and fairness, the fundamental values conveyed by listening.”

And to accomplish such a goal, all we need to do is to open our ears and offer our hearts.

In all likelihood, Jethro as a character had nothing to do with the naming of this week’s parasha. Books of the Torah were divided into parashiot during the Middle Ages, around the same time that Scripture was rendered with chapters and verses, and only six parashiot out of fifty-four are named for a biblical character. Most times, the name of a parasha is simply one of its first words. How appropriate it is then that Parashat Yitro opens with the words Vayishma Yitro, “And Jethro listened.” May we come to recognize that we are responsible for listening to one another, and understand that in many circumstances, when a friend or a loved one seems to need a helping hand, what they need most is for us to sit with them and lend an ear.

Trivia Question

Yitro is one of six parashiot named for a character in the Bible. Can you name the other five?

Shabbat Shalom

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