Friday, February 5, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Mishpatim

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18) outlines God’s rules that Moses is to set before the Israelites.  They are a compendium of civil and criminal laws and social and religious precepts that will have to be obeyed in order that Israel remain God’s covenant people.  After Moses repeats these laws to the people, they declare, “All that God has spoken, we will hear, and we will do!”.  

Following this acceptance, a strange ritual takes place.  Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel , “And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.  And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Ex. 24:10-11).  This same God, a few chapters from now, will tell Moses that no human can see God’s face and live.  ).   God, who has placed such emphasis on being incorporeal, not only allows Moses and the elders to see Him, but to eat and drink before Him!  

Modern academic commentators explain this passage by comparing it to ancient suzerainty treaties in which the vassal people ate a meal with the king to seal the treaty.  Rabbinic commentaries on the Torah generally understand that Moses and the leaders experienced a prophetic vision, rather than actually “seeing God”.  What I love about it is that a long list of very earth-bound laws and precepts, of concrete and understandable rules about daily life comes a powerful other-worldly experience of the ineffable Presence.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thank You Austin

I am regularly inspired by a little book called "Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon.  His simple wisdom and advice often helps me get back on track when I've fallen off.  I highly recommend it.
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon published by Workman Publishing Company, New York.  You can visit Austin at  Thanks, Austin.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23) depicts the climactic meeting between God and the Israelite people at Mount Sinai, and highlights the Ten Utterances, usually referred to as the Ten Commandments, spoken by the voice of God from the mountain to those assembled below.

Many years ago, on a Hillel retreat, a student of mine gave a d’var Torah on this portion.  He pointed out that all but one of the Ten Commandments had to do with our obligations: to God, to society, to parents, to our spouses, to community.  Only one of the ten is not a responsibility but a benefit, and that is to remember Shabbat.  Shabbat is a day to rest and renew, to look after our spirit and delight in friends, family, food, and song.  However you choose to observe it, make it a celebration.  It’s for you.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Beshallach

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16) tells of the greatest miracle in the Torah, the splitting of the sea of Reeds so that the Israelites might cross, but the Egyptians pursuing them are drowned.  Once the great crossing is over, though, the reality of life in the wilderness begins.  The Israelites suddenly realize they have no food, no water, and nowhere to live.  God provides food, the manna which will feed them through their forty years in the wilderness, and water, which God gives them by Moses striking the rock.  But other nations now know that the Israelites are in the wilderness, and Amalek attacks the fledgling nation at Rephidim.  
God also provides help for the Israelites in fighting their enemies, but we also learn a lesson in how to work with one another.  As Joshua leads the newly-formed army in battle, Moses stands above them on a hill, holding the rod with which he split the sea in his hands.  As long as Moses’ hands are raised, the Israelites prevail, but when Moses grows tired and lowers his arms, Amalek begins to win.   Aaron and Hur sit Moses down on a stone and hold up his arms for him until the sun set, so that Israel can win the battle.  Even as great a leader as Moses, and even with all of God’s support, also needs help from his fellow human beings.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Bo and on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

The first time I wrote this was three years ago, but once again, Parshah Bo and Martin Luther King Day fall at the same time, so I am re-running it.  LB

            It is a happy coincidence of the Hebrew and secular calendars that this week’s Torah portion, Bo, (Ex. 10:1-13:16), falls in the same week as the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday.  The Torah portion addresses the last three plagues of Egypt, and the exodus itself.  Within the first few verses of the portion, Moses and Aaron, speaking on behalf of God, utter the famous words, “let my people go”.  These words continued to resound throughout history.  Most notably, they were used by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and mentioned by Dr. King in his 1964 acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize:

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go." This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.
            Nor is that struggle at an end, no matter how far we have come.  The Haggadah for the American Family, written by Rabbi Martin Berkowitz in that same time frame of the 1960s, looks prophetically towards the future in this reading:

The struggle for freedom is a continuous struggle, for never does man reach total liberty and opportunity.
In every age, some new freedom is won and established, adding to the advancement of human happiness and security.
Yet, each age uncovers a formerly unrecognized servitude, requiring new liberation to set man’s soul free.
In every age, the concept of freedom grows broader, widening the horizons for finer and nobler living.1
   As we face this coming week, may each of us feel the need to continue the struggle for freedom, wherever in our world it may be needed.  

1And a tip of the kippah to Alice Meerson for bringing the Haggadah reading to my attention.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Vaera

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera (Ex. 6:2 – 9:35) tells of the first six plagues of Egypt, which come about after Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out into the wilderness to worship their God for three days.  Moses warns Pharaoh that the God of the Israelites is powerful and that there will be dire consequences for Pharaoh and the Egyptians if Pharaoh disobeys God’s will.  But God also tells Moses “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt (Ex. 7:3)”.  How are we to interpret this? If God is causing Pharaoh’s heart to harden, how can Pharaoh himself be held responsible for his actions?

Biblical scholar Moshe Greenberg writes, “Pharaoh conducted himself in conformity with his own motives and his own Godless view of his status.  God made it so, but Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God’s will”.  In Greenberg’s view, God simply used Pharaoh’s own natural stubbornness, rather than forcing him to do anything that was foreign to his nature.

Psychologist Erich Fromm notes that for the first five plagues, it is written “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”, meaning that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and only for the second five, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”.  He comments, “Pharaoh’s heart hardens because he keeps on doing evil.  It hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible.  The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes until there is no longer any freedom of choice left him”. 

Judaism teaches that we are born with free will.  But the case of Pharaoh illustrates that free will may not be limitless.