Friday, February 20, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Terumah

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19), begins the instructions God gives Moses for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the first sacred space that the Israelites will have to worship God.  “And let them make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).

In March of 2006, I was privileged to lead a group of college students to the Gulf Coast to rebuild houses destroyed by hurricane Katrina.  One afternoon, we went to New Orleans and visited Temple Beth Israel, the only synagogue completely ruined by the hurricane.  As we approached the building, I noticed, above the waterlines, that same verse in Hebrew.  We entered the building.  One of the students was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and he was very embarrassed, saying over and over, “If I had known we were going to a synagogue, I would have dressed appropriately.”  It was almost laughable.  The only really appropriate dress for that building was a HAZMAT suit.  It was a wreck.  Black mold covered the religious school posters.  All of its Torahs and sacred books had been taken away and were awaiting burial – seven Torah scrolls and over 3,000 volumes.  Velvet Torah mantles and prayer shawls, faded and streaked and matted with dirt, had been hung out to dry on the sanctuary’s railings.  We met with the president of the synagogue and two other members.  One of them had to wear a safety mask, because he had spent so much time cleaning the building during the previous six months that he had breathing problems from the mold.  And yet, the student who felt underdressed had sensed the holiness in that place, so palpable that there was no doubt in any of our minds that God still dwelt there, even though the accommodations weren’t ideal. 

The Israelites in this Torah portion are about to learn about sacred space.  God wants us to set aside a holy place to come to meet God.  And as the words of Exodus suggest, if we do create such a sanctuary, God has promised to be there.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Mishpatim

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18) follows directly after the children of Israel retreat from the voice of God and ask Moses to get the rest of the Law for them.  God gives Moses the laws of a just society.  God sets forth laws of property and damages, lending, penalties for crimes and strict prohibitions against idolatry.  Moses tells the commands to the people, they respond with a resounding, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” and Moses writes them down as the Book of the Covenant.  Animal sacrifices are made to God, and Moses reads the laws that he has written down.   This time, the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will hear”.  

Do the people have the words backwards?  Would it not make more sense to say, “we will hear and we will do”?  Most of the classic commentators understand it as eagerness; we will do what God has commanded, and if God has more to command, we will hear that, too!  Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, however, brings a spiritual light on the phrase, saying,

“’We shall do” refers to the revealed—that is to the commandments that one can fulfill, on one’s own level.  ‘We shall hear’ refers to the hidden==that is, to things that one cannot grasp.  For around each commandment, there are other things, which belong to the class of the hidden.  The commandment itself one can fulfill; but the spiritual work that surrounds the commandment is largely unknown, hidden.  This too is the relation between Torah and prayer: the Torah can be known and fulfilled; while prayer is generated in that area that surrounds each commandment, which is enigmatic.  For hearing is a function of the heart, as in Solomon’s prayer: “Give your servant a hearing heart”.  And the heart expresses itself to God in prayer.

May we fulfill God’s revealed commandments, and may we come to know the hiddenness that surrounds them.  Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23) begins when Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, brings Moses’ wife and sons to him at Sinai and continues with the preparations for the encounter between God and the Israelite people and that sacred encounter itself, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

The people Israel have seen God’s might in the plagues brought upon the Egyptians and in the splitting of the sea, but they are now about to experience God’s presence directly.  As the time approached, the mountain became covered in smoke, because God, says the Torah, descended in fire.  There is a display of thunder and lightning and the loud and prolonged sound of the shofar.   Upon God’s instruction, Moses warns the people against ascending the mountain or even touching it lest they die.  God makes sure that Moses takes precautions that, in their desire to be close to God, they do not endanger themselves.

But yet, after hearing God’s voice, they have had more than enough.  Some say that they heard God speak only the first two commandments, before they begged Moses to speak the rest.  Some say that God only got as far as the aleph, the first letter of “Anochi”, “I” before they could stand no more. “And all the people saw the voices and the torches and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking and when they saw it they stood at a distance” (Ex. 20:15) No more are they crowding at the foot of the mountain; they have literally been taken aback.  Many commentators have also pointed out the odd use of the verb “to see” to describe the experience of voices and the sound of the shofar.  Perhaps the experience at Sinai exceeded and crossed over the boundaries of the human senses. 

Today, humans still long for an encounter with God.  Perhaps the way the Torah describes God’s descent upon Mount Sinai is an appropriate metaphor, “Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke because the Eternal went down upon it in fire”.  Fire is life-giving and warming but it can also destroy that which comes too close.  When we set out to encounter God, we need to set a safe distance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Beshallach

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16) begins with the long-awaited exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt.  They journey to the Reed Sea and the chariots of Egypt pursue them.  Caught between the Egyptian army and the depths of the sea, God performs a miracle for the Israelites, splitting the waters of the sea so that they may cross on dry land.  When the Egyptians follow, God returns the sea to its normal state, drowning the army of Pharaoh.  Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in songs of praise, and then they continue through the wilderness.  Only three days after the miracle at the sea, the Israelites begin grumbling about the lack of potable water and food, and express regret that they ever left Egypt.  

God, through Moses, Aaron and Miriam, has set the Israelites free from slavery and saved them from their pursuers by spectacular means, and yet they voice neither awe nor gratitude, only a petulant longing for the security of regular meals.  This seems outrageous until we examine their state of mind.  

A slave does not have to make decisions.  A slave works as commanded, eats what he or she is given and dares not ask questions.   The Israelites could not see the big picture; they were accustomed to living one day at a time, one hour at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time.  In this way, they resemble trauma survivors, or the critically ill.  The miracles that they had witnessed had not yet been made a part of their consciousness.  They were only able to accept it, and the miracle yet to come at Sinai, over time. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16), recounts the last three plagues of Egypt, instructions for celebrating the first Passover and the exodus out of Egypt.

The slaying of the firstborn of Egypt is the catalyst that causes Pharaoh, finally, to let the Israelites out of Egypt.  The book of Exodus began with Pharaoh ordering the death of the Israelite male children.  Now, God carries out the death of the Egyptian firstborn.  It is the act that finally gets Pharaoh to let the children of Israel out of Egypt.  

As soon as they leave Egypt, though, God commands that the firstborn male of Israel, both human and animal, are to be consecrated to God.  Many ancient Near Eastern civilizations recognized a special relationship between their god and the firstborn child, but the last of the plagues and the first commandment the Israelites are given when they leave Egypt is too similar to be coincidence.  The Israelites must bear the burden of the plague that broke the intransigence of the Pharaoh, and the hearts of his people.  The firstborn males of Israel, ol this day, undergo the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the firstborn, to free them from Temple service, though the Temple itself has not been an entity for almost two thousand years.   Erev Passover is still today a fast day for firstborn sons, a sobering recollection that the firstborn sons of Egypt were struck down by God’s hand.  Egypt and Pharaoh were our oppressors, but they were still children of the God that we worship, and their deaths should not go unremembered.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Shemot

This week we begin a new book of the Torah.  Shemot, meaning “names” is known in English as Exodus.  The first parshah, also called Shemot (Ex. 1:1-6:1) picks up the story of Israel in Egypt many years after the death of Joseph.  A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.  The Israelites grew in number, which made the Pharaoh wonder if they would join the enemies of Egypt in case of war or “rise up from the ground” (Ex. 1:10), meaning that they might ascend from their place and take over the land. And so the Pharaoh set taskmasters over them and forced them into labor to build garrison cities for the Pharaoh.  All of the advantages for the descendants of Joseph’s family disappeared.

In the early 1930s, many Jews felt that their place in German society was assured.  They had wealth, land, businesses and connections.  Many German Jewish men were veterans of World War I who had fought for Germany with loyalty and distinction and had the medals to show for it.  And then Adolf Hitler ascended to power, and all of their advantages disappeared.  
The world is a strange and dangerous place.  Today in Paris, Jews doing their Shabbat shopping in a kosher supermarket were taken hostage.  Some were killed and others wounded, and none of the survivors will ever be the same.  History has a tendency to repeat itself.  Our challenge is to remember the past and protect the present.