Archive for febrer de 2017

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.


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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.

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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.

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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 God, 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, to serve with justice and compassion.

The tefillin embody the covenant, the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; the tefillin stand with Shabbat and circumcision as the signs 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 the 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 give more than we consume, which we as Jews understand is gauged by how we serve humanity and the planet that sustains life on it.

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