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Archive for febrer de 2016

This week we read the infamous story of the golden calf. Moses is on the mountain with God, inscribing the tablets with the law and the children of Israel are left to fend for themselves. While Moses is gone, they construct an idol of gold which they proceed to worship with great fervor. When Moses returns from the mountain, he discovers the Israelites dancing and praying to a god made of gold. In his anger and frustration, Moses throws the tablets to the ground and smashes them into pieces.

Moses then returns to the mountain and, with God, creates a second set of tablets. But what was the fate of the broken tablets Moses brought down from the mountain? What do the Israelites do with them? They do not throw them away, they do not discard them, rather, they take them and place them inside the ark with the new tablets. The broken, shattered pieces sit there, beside the ones which are whole, forever a reminder of the incident of the golden calf. A physical memory of their transgressions, an ever-present symbol of what they did wrong.

If that were where it ended it would lead to an extremely problematic story, for there would be nothing to learn from it other than the continual reminder of a stain and blot on the people’s record. I believe that there is a further power in this story; that there is more to the placement of the broken pieces than merely reinforcing the negative message of the incident. I think it is a reminder not only of the tablet’s shattering and brokenness, but also of our own brokenness. It is a reminder that we are all flawed, we are human, we struggle and suffer, we have pain and hurt, and sometimes we act from places which are far from noble. We are not perfect, we make mistakes, we get it wrong and that is ok because that is what it means to be human. In so many instances where people do not accept responsibility for their behavior, I think it is because we are not supposed to show the flawed side of who we are, we are supposed to be perfect, to never make a mistake, never get it wrong. But that is not the message of Judaism, that is not the message of our parasha. The broken tablets sit there in the ark, beside the perfect ones, to acknowledge the brokenness of us all. To say, it is alright to get it wrong, it is ok to acknowledge our frailty and our humanness, and it is only when we do so that we can grow and become who we are truly going to be in the world.

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This week’s parashah continues the intricate and essential instructions we started learning about last week, regarding the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The very first verse from this week’s parashah reads; “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly”.

It is from this verse, that we establish the custom and practice of the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light).

The Ner Tamid is a light found in every synagogue, and represents the Menorah that was in the Mishkan, and that later stood in the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the continuously burning fire on the altar of burnt offerings in front of the Temple. It exists in our sanctuaries, usually placed above the ark, in the center, so that it can be seen by everyone.

It is a symbol of God’s Presence, and is therefore never extinguished. Our sages remind us that it is the divine light that was originally created on the first day of creation, but then hidden away for the messianic age. It is the light of Torah that guides us through the dark world, helping us, like a little lamp, to see the obstacles and roadblocks in our way so that we do not trip and fall.

There is also an explanation that teaches us that this is not just God’s light, but it is also ours. It is the light of the mitzvot that we do. It is the shining of our souls. This olive oil that was used in the Tabernacle came from us. It is our physical contribution to the maintaining this eternal light.

There is also a spiritual contribution and connection to that light. Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (The Slonimer Rebbe) provides an interesting explanation as to why we use olive oil. He explains that the olive is unique amongst fruits in its duality. When you squeeze or crush most other fruits, they become a liquidized version of that fruit, nothing more. The olive, however, produces oil. But even after the olive has been crushed, the oil that is produced becomes a whole new object, a vehicle for light.

In the same way, the Ner Tamid and Menorah, fueled by the olive oil, both represent illumination and clarity of the mind. Even after it appears that we are crushed, we expose a hidden light deep within us which shines through and enables us to go on.

Another interesting observation on the Ner Tamid is its position in the Torah text. It is placed almost in the center of the instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle. Some say that as an instruction concerning the ingredient to be used for the lighting; “clear beaten olive oil”, it should have been included earlier, with the description of materials.

And as an instruction concerning the process of lighting, it should have come later, together with other instructions concerning the daily tasks of the Kohanim, in the book of Vayikra.

This further emphasizes the centrality of the Ner Tamid in our physical existence, and its importance in our spiritual existence. May it continue to serve as a reminder of the light that guides us in our physical and spiritual journeys.

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With this week’s Parasha, the focus of Torah shifts. 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 parasha, Mishpatim, 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 previous parshiyot, Beshallach and Yitro, 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 skyscape in the outback and the wilderness; enjoying a sunrise or sunset stroll (depending upon one’s coast) 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 Beit HaMikdash (a sacred house, normally translated as Temple) or 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.

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Parashat Mishpatim

Last week we read the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments: the sweeping, lofty ideals of Judaism. This week we turn to mishpatim, the day-to -ay implementation of those commandments. It reads like case law, one example after another of the practical application of the law, dealing with diverse subjects from the way we treat our slaves, to our obligations to our neighbors for their safety and well-being. Amongst these rules is the phrase: “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This has long been the basis for the extensive rules of kashrut prohibiting the mixing of meat and dairy in our food. However Ibn Ezra, one of the great Torah commentators, offers a completely different understanding of this verse. He says the word for kid (g’di) has the same root as the word for delicacies (meged). Following on from this, Torah commentator Nahum Sarna refers to an older commentator who said it should be translated as “berries”. Nahum argued that “mother’s milk” refers to the juice of the unripe berry. This interpretation then suggests that the ruling is that a person must not bring their first fruits to the priest before they are ripe.

Rabbi Sheldon Marder brings these commentaries in his Torah discussion of this parasha and he says: “why rescue these little-known commentaries from their obscurity? To dramatize one important point: at one time in Jewish history there existed an exegetical open mindedness and creativity that virtually disappeared after the Middle Ages — an open mindedness that allowed commentators to reinterpret, and in effect challenge, a verse that is the cornerstone of kashrut.” (Voices of Torah p. 210). Rabbi Marder draws attention to the fact that Judaism is a religion which questions assumptions — it debates and discusses issues and nothing is off the table. Everything is open to new interpretations and understandings. The tradition says that Torah is like a jewel with 70 facets, “turn it turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” (Ben Bag Bag, Pirkei Avot). We are to analyze and find the 70 meanings, the different interpretations and explore them all.

This week we celebrated the breaking down of some of the rigidity with which we have seen the Torah interpreted, with the Israeli government’s decision about the Kotel. After 37 years of challenging and fighting against discrimination, Anat Hoffman and her group Women at the Wall have finally celebrated a victory. After intense lobbying from Women at the Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Federations of North America, the Israeli cabinet has decreed that henceforth there should be three sections at the kotel: one for men, one for women and one egalitarian, mixed section. This decision, when affirmed by the Kenesset, will remove the authority for the kotel from the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox and place it in the hands of the secular authorities. Then, the wall will truly be a place where all Jews can pray. Families will be able to stand together at the ancient stones and pray side by side, mothers and fathers can be with their children as they celebrate bar or bat mitzvah, and women will now be permitted to read from the Torah at this holy, sacred site.

Anat Hoffman said: “This is a groundbreaking agreement. After years and years of insisting that we have an equal place for prayer, after enduring campaigns of abuse against us, and being encouraged by a wave of Jewish support from across the globe, we have accomplished this extraordinary first step. We will be able to stand as part of living history, read the Torah, and pray in the spirit of pluralism and equality that we believe is critical to a vibrant Judaism.”

We look forward to celebrating many more victories in the struggle to bring equality and pluralism of religious practice to Israel and the Jewish world.

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