Friday, April 22, 2016

Thoughts on Passover 5776



This week, we interrupt the weekly Torah cycle to read the special portion for the first day of Pesach (Ex. 20:21-51), which describes the events of the exodus from Egypt.  This year, the first day coincides with Shabbat.

Many years ago—in 1988, to be exact-- I was a member of the Ritual Committee at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, and was privileged to take part in producing a haggadah for the congregational Seder.  Presented here are the paragraphs of that haggadah which correspond to the Torah portion which will be read tomorrow:

At last came the final, endless night.  We splashed our doorposts with lamb’s blood, and sat up late at our tables, robed and belted, our staffs at our sides, our few possessions at our feet.  It was the month of Nisan, and the night air was sweet with spring.

We ate in haste.  In the hushed night, we could hear the beating of our hearts. At midnight, a great cry shattered the silence.  As it is written, “At midnight, God smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt and Pharaoh rose in the night, he and all his servants, and there was a great cry in the land of Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead (Ex. 12:29) But our dwellings were spared.

In haste we rose from our tables, snatching our possessions, hurrying our children, packing the flat loaves that had not had time to rise.  Our kneading troughs on our shoulders, we burst into the night, streaming through the streets of the cities that had been our prisons, through the great avenues we had built with our tears, past the lifeless eyes of the sphinxes and the dead stone of the tombs, and then beyond, out into the wide clean darkness: free.

May all know the joy that comes with freedom, and may we dedicate our lives to bring freedom and redemption to all the world.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Tzav



This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Lev. 6:1 – 8:36) continues the details of the various sacrifices and ends with the order of the consecration of the priests.  Towards the end of the section on sacrifices, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelite people, “And you must not eat blood, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements.  Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from his kin” (Lev. 7:26-27).

This is not the first time in the Torah that we are told that it is off-limits to eat blood.  When God makes a covenant with Noah after the flood, it is the first time God gives permission for humans to eat the flesh of animals, but, “You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it” (Gen. 9:4).  Immediately following this instruction is the prohibition of shedding human blood.  A line is drawn between humans and other animals.  However, it is reiterated that the blood of the sacrificed animals is to be drained before being eaten.  Blood is not to be ingested.

Why this prohibition?  The propensity towards violence appears throughout human history.  Many Torah commentators believe that God permitted the limited consumption of meat, and animal sacrifices in the Tabernacle as a substitute for human sacrifice, and for shedding human blood.  Predatory animals eat indiscriminately of their prey; skin, blood, organs and all.  The detailed instructions given in this Torah portion remind us that we are created in the image of God, with the ability to choose to control our animal instincts. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Vayikra



               This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Lev. 1:1 – 5:26) begins the book of Leviticus, which describes the priestly functions, and the details of the sacrifices the Israelites bring to God in the Tabernacle. In last week’s Torah portion, the last of the book of Exodus, we learned that the Tabernacle had finally been completed, and the presence of God, as promised, entered the sanctuary. The very moment that Moses finished the work, “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle.  Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34-35). 
                In the Torah study group at my synagogue, the rabbi asked us why we thought Moses could not enter the sanctuary.  Had not Moses just spent forty days with God on the mountain?  I thought that the reason was an act of courtesy.  It is as if you participated in a work of tzedakah by building a house for a family through Habitat for Humanity.  When the house was finally completed, and the family took possession of it, wouldn’t they want some time alone to appreciate their new home?  How much the more so, if a holy residence had been built for God, should God not be given the time to appreciate it?  And with the first word of parshat Vayikra, Moses receives God’s invitation.
                Vayikra”-- God called to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting.  Rashi understands the use of this word as one of endearment, of invitation.  Most of God’s utterances begin with vayomer, He said, or vay’daber, He spoke, or vayetzev (He commanded).  The only other time in Torah that God uses vayikra to Moses is when He invites him to Mount Sinai.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his opening essay on Leviticus in his work Covenant and Conversation writes: “Vayikra is the language of invitation, friendship, love.  In love God called Abraham to follow Him.  In love God led the way for the wandering Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day, fire by night.  In love God calls the people Israel to come close to Him, to be regular visitors at His house, to share His quality of holiness, difference, apartness: to become, as it were, mediators of His presence to the world.”
                Let us accept God’s invitation to be a regular visitor, to be at ease and know that we are welcome in God’s home.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Pekudei



In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, (Ex. 38:21 - 40:38) the last portion of the book of Exodus, the work of the Mishkan is finally finished.  In the last few weeks, we have heard God describe the work to Moses, Moses describe the work to the Israelites, and now the work is finally done, and Moses blesses the people for what they have accomplished.

In a wonderful essay on this portion published in the current edition of The Jewish Week, Dr. Erin Leib Smokler brings ancient and modern sources to prove a point that Moses, when he blesses the people (Ex.39:43), is subtly reminding them that all their work has been for one purpose: to make a place for God to dwell among them.

One wouldn’t think that they would need that reminder.  After all, they have spent all this time, effort and expense doing God’s will to exact specifications in the building of the Tabernacle.  How could they forget it?
A number of years ago, when I was a Hillel director, I attended a national conference.  At a dinner, one of the people seated at my table was the director of a very prominent Hillel foundation which had just completed a brand new, large and beautiful building to house its programs.  “How do you like the new building?” someone asked him, “Thank God that it’s all over,” he said, “For the last two years, I’ve been a fundraiser, an architect, and a building supervisor.  Now I finally feel like a rabbi again.”

When working on a project, it is easy to get caught up in the details, and lose sight of the overall goal.  The children of Israel had Moses to remind them of their ultimate goal, and we have Dr. Smokler’s incisive commentary, which you may find at http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/sabbath-week/inviting-god-gods-house.  I borrow her final sentence: “May we all be blessed not to lose God in our pursuits of God.”

Friday, March 4, 2016

Torah Thoughts on Vayakhel



                In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel (Ex. 35:1 – 38:20) Moses repeats to the Israelites the detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle that God had given to him.  Moses names Bezalel, who he says, “God has singled out” as the director and chief artisan of the enterprise.  Indeed, in Exodus 31, God tells Moses that He has endowed Bezalel with “ruach Elohim”, divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.  Ruach Elohim” is the same phrase used in the opening words of Genesis, just before God speaks to create light.
                 In Midrashic literature, Bezalel’s name is deconstructed to b-tzel-el, meaning “in the shadow of God”.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, in the Etz Chaim Torah Commentary, takes this to mean that, because of Bezalel’s work, people will be able to see in it, in limited manner, the presence of God.  Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her work The Particulars of Rapture points out that in order to create his artistic works,especially metalwork,  Bezalel must master the use of fire.  Just as God creates and destroys, so Bezalel uses fire, which also has creative and destructive properties. 
                Legend says that not only Bezalel, but his assistant Oholiab and all those who worked on the Tabernacle were also gifted with ruach Elohim.  So too is every person who makes art, or literature or music given this divine spirit.  With that spirit, we create, and in the words of the Baal Shem Tov, string pearls for the delight of Heaven.