Archive for gener de 2014

Parashat Terumah

The Gift Of The Heart


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?

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Parashat 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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Parashat Yitro

Torah as our way toward God

 Parashat Yitro is one of the most extraordinary pieces of human literature ever written. In it we hear the original revelation of Torah at Sinai – the only time ever recorded in human history that God revealed Self to an entire nation, as opposed to one individual. “Torah mi-Sinai”, that Torah has been revealed at Sinai, is a central principle of Judaism. Debate within the streams of Judaism exists as to what precisely we mean by this term. In the Torah itself, the precise timing and nature of the revelation is opaque (did it happen in one instant, over 40 days and nights while Moses communed with God, over the 40 days of wandering in the wilderness ?). The answer to that question will place one along a continuum of how much of the entire Torah is the record of revelation.

 Orthodoxy has claimed that the entire five books must be taken as the literal revelation from God to Moses; any other position, for them, is heresy. (They also include the Mishnah as the later recording of Oral Torah that had been handed down from Moses, to Joshua, to the prophets to the sages and then to the rabbis as part of the precise revelation from Sinai.) The unorthodox approach states that Torah is a process of communication, and that the human hand is inevitably interwoven in the revelation by having written it down. No matter where one stands on the continuum, Torah becomes the content of our covenant with God.

But, this week’s Torah portion is also remarkable in that it opens up with a much more mundane story of Yitro, a non-Jew, who guides Moses as to how to administer law to the people. From this, and other aspects of Scripture itself, we learn that wisdom and knowledge are not unique to Judaism, but an aspect of what it means to be human. The following comments come from the desk of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks regarding God’s covenant with humanity and with Jews. “Judaism has an unusual dual structure. On the one hand, there is the covenant with Noah, and through him, with all humanity. On the other, there is the covenant of Sinai, specific to the Jewish people. This means that though Judaism is a particularist faith, we also believe that all human beings have access to God, and – if they are righteous – a share in the world to come.“Corresponding to this, Judaism has a dual epistemology (theory of knowledge). There is hokhmah, wisdom, which is the universal heritage of mankind. It flows from the definition of humanity as the image and likeness of God.

 Rashi translates ‘in our likeness’ as meaning, ‘with the capacity to understand and discern’. On the other hand, there is Torah, the covenant binding Israel to the sovereignty of God. There is nothing universal about this. Torah flows from the highly specific historical experience of the patriarchs and their descendants. It sets forth a unique code of sanctity, by which the people were to govern their lives.

 “Among the differences are these: wisdom is the truth we discover, by reason, observation and experience. Torah is the truth we inherit. Revealed at Sinai, it has been handed on from generation to generation. Wisdom teaches us facts; Torah teaches us laws. Wisdom tells us how the world is; Torah tells us how it ought to be. Wisdom is subject to proof; Torah requires something else, authentication, meaning that it has come down to us through the centuries by way of a reliable chain of transmission from sage to sage.” Sacks’ comments should help all Jews, no matter where we stand along the continuum of understanding Torah, to accept it as the basis of our story that compels us to right action. It should also enable us to see how we can embrace both Torah and humanity, celebrating, not rejecting the wonderful wisdom of the world in the arts, philosophy, history and science. This week’s parasha can open our eyes to being part of this world while working to improve it at the same time.

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Parashat Beshalach

Just Do It !


This week we read the story of the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery with the parting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites are trapped, the Egyptian army is advancing on one side and on the other is a sea, there is nowhere to go and they cry out to Moses asking, “did you just bring us here to die?” Moses cries out to God, “God please help us.” God responds that it is not the time for prayer and instructs Moses to hold his staff across the waters and they will part. Moses does so, but according to Midrash, the seas do not part until one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, steps into the water. He walks forward with the waters reaching ever higher, until they are at his nostrils, threatening his very life, and in that moment, the seas part.



So why create this tale of Nachshon, and why does God not intervene when Moses asks, why require the holding of the staff across the waters? The answer is that in that moment, prayer and words were not enough, what God required was action. God wanted a commitment from Moses and the people, wanted their involvement in their own deliverance. There is a time for prayer but prayer alone is not enough, we need to be a part of the change we want to see in the world and for ourselves.


There is a powerful prayer written by Rabbi Jack Reimer which appears in our prayer book and I would like to share the words with you this Shabbat as inspiration for us to go out into the world and make it the best it can be.


We cannot only pray to You God to end war for we know that You have made the world in such a way that we must find the path to peace within ourselves and our neighbors.


We cannot only pray to You God to end starvation for You have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world, if only we would use them wisely.


We cannot only pray to You God to root out prejudice for You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in al people if only we would use them rightly.


We cannot only pray to You God to end despair for You have given us the power to clear away the slums, to give hope, if only we would use the power justly…


We therefore pray to You instead God for strength, determination and willpower to do instead of only to pray, to become instead of merely to wish.”

Rabbi Jack Reimer


Now, as we walk into this new secular year, may it be a year of action, of changing the world and making it a better place.


Shabbat Shalom.

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Parashat Bo

Being Bound to our Service as Jews

“I will betroth you to me forever” are the beginning words, taken from the prophecy of Hosea nearly 2,800 years ago, one says upon wrapping the tefillin around one’s hand. The quotation from Hosea continues with the notion of being betrothed to the source of existence with the core principles of how one should act as a Jew: “with righteousness and justice, with love and compassion”. This recitation indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”; we wrap ourselves with words of Torah, reminded of our core purpose in life. 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. 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 this parasha Bo and two from the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah, are placed within it, and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah. Scholar Stephen Bailey notes that all four passages of Torah that mention tefillin have a common conceptual thread, teaching about redemption and service.

The passages from Bo state “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 concept of redemption in Judaism requires us to recognize that our freedom is dependent upon our connection with the Life Force and that in return we must serve life and humanity 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 of our weaker arm, the symbol of our strength and our ability to act with righteousness and justice in this world, 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 stand in service to God, the Life Force.

The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. Alas, our world slips further in enslavement to greed, consumption, and entitlement. We need daily reminders it is time to serve God again, which we as Jews understand is gauged by how we serve humanity and the planet that sustains life on it.

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