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Archive for March, 2020

Let’s begin with a story. A man goes to a tailor to try on a newly made custom suit.  The first thing he notices are the sleeves being too long.

“No problem,” says the tailor.  “Just bend them at the elbow and hold them   out in front of you.  See, now it’s fine.”

“But the collar is up around my ears!”

“It’s nothing.  Just hunch your back up a little…like this.”

“But I’m stepping on my cuffs!” The man cried in desperation.

“Nu, bend your knees a little to take up the slack. Look in the mirror, the suit            fits perfectly.”

Twisted up like a pretzel, the man limped out onto the street.  Two women saw him go by.

“Oh, look at that poor man,” said one.

“Yes,” said the other, “but what a beautiful suit!”

Do the clothes make the person or does the person make the clothes?  We make a lot of assumptions about people based on the way they dress. For example, when we see someone wearing a blue uniform, a gun and a badge we assume that person is a police officer.  When we see someone wearing a white lab robe, we assume they are in the medical practice. In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, Aaron and his sons are appointed to be the cohanim, the high priests, over Israel.  From Leviticus 8:7 – 9, the priests’ clothing is described.  They wear beautiful robes, a breastplate, and the urimand thumim– a decorative front piece that no one knows exactly how it looked.  Did these clothes define the priesthood?

The question becomes very significant, because at a certain point, especially during the time of the second Temple, there were many official members of the priesthood no longer taking seriously the rites and duties, originally commanded to Aaron and his sons.   The Talmudic book of Yoma describes numerous times priests, over hundreds of years, became more politicized by their desire to be a High Priest.  Their concern was no longer the theological duty of doing rituals the Torah taught about helping to strengthen God’s presence.  They focused on holding a corrupt high position.  One of the reasons the Greek/Syrian emperor Antiochus intervened in the occupied Jewish state in the 2ndcentury BCE, was the fight between two Jewish men each claiming to be the High Priest of the Temple.  This is part of the actual story told in the book of I Maccabees, leading to Chanukah.  So again, were these men truly priests, or frauds?

The same question can be asked about other professions.  If a police person shoots and kills an innocent African American, a frequent occurrence, are they still truly a policeman?  If a doctor fails to respond to the needs of a patient, not making an error – that is human, but ignores a patient or treats them in a cold, nasty way, are they really a doctor?  Here is a deeper question.  How much do we judge a person, about their goodness and professionalism, through their appearance?

An interesting perspective was taught by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Just like the tent of meeting, where the priests had an inner alter and an outer alter, so too do people have an inner alter and an outer alter. The outer is dressed up by the clothes we wear.  It is the face we expose to the world.  This is our surface personality.  But inside, each of us has an “essential core.”  Just as sometimes we judge other people by what is only on the outside; sometimes we try to make other people judge us only by what is on the outside. We hide what is inside of us behind the beautiful clothes.  Sometimes it is better to keep what is inside hidden.  But many times that results in a disservice to the people around us.  It is wrong, Schneerson taught, to keep our inner selves as a private possession.  Rather, it should be part of what the world sees, part of our “clothes.”

As mentioned in last week’s Torah commentary, the inner self is the place within us where God dwells. Each of us can potentially bring a bit of divine presence into the world, when we do a mitzvah: study, prayer, ritual, moral deeds, caring, loving acts, or work for justice. Unfortunately, today’s technology provides a way through which we might display what is on our inside ends up in a “twisted suit.”  I am referring to social media.

Watching the posts, and even worse, the comments on Face Book, demonstrates the “twisted suits.” When people share their beliefs, whether in religion or politics, the discussion in the comments often takes an evil, nasty turn.  The name calling and condemning of someone for expressing a particular view is just plain low class and wrong.  It is totally fine to disagree, but the wording is so often terrible.  The ugliness of social media is highly exemplified by political discussions.  Part is the meanness, and a large part is also the sharing of falsehoods instead of true facts.  All of this denigrates a media that has the potential to provide situations for communicating divine presence.

How can social media raise divine presence through what we share from our insides?  Show how you care for others.  Celebrate special occasions for love ones.  Teach about your beliefs in a way that does NOT condemn others, but shows what is inside of your soul.  The posts can be serious, entertaining, or humorous.  If you care more about healing the world, you will not tear others down.  Instead, openly explain how you have reached your belief.  True liberalism is acting with an open mind to listen to other perspectives and accepting a truth that might be opposite your opinion.  Don’t necessarily agree with other opinions, but think about them.  True conservatism is about respecting individual rights and knowing how and when it is best to limit government intervention.  It is about preserving things of value and holiness with respect for authority.  The Talmud teaches that there are multiple perspectives God considers worthy.  God cares more about how we interact than a particular method to solve a problem.

In this difficult time we will increase God’s presence through caring, not condemning.  We need to stop twisting our clothes.  We need to open our souls to each other.  That is how we will rebuild our world in a better way.

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The summer after I finished my first year of rabbinic school in Israel, I worked as a limousine driver taking people from the Philadelphia area to one of the New York airports, mostly JFK.  Once at Kennedy, I would usually pick up arrivals to take back to Philadelphia. One morning at JFK I had a sole passenger who had returned from Bosnia.  He was a friendly gentleman appearing to be in his 60’s.  We had this conversation.

“Wow, Bosnia must have been interesting.”

“Yes it was.”

“Your first time?”

“No, actually this was my fifth time.”

“Really, what keeps bringing you back to Bosnia?”

“Well,” he replied, “Perhaps you’ve heard that the Virgin Mary has been appearing in Medjugorge, Bosnia.  All of my trips have been pilgrimages to there.”

Yes, I had read an article about the general increase in the sightings of Virgin Mary.  Thousands were flocking to Medjugorge at a time to witness this vision.  It struck me this was the kind of “calling” so typical of the Christian experience, a divine communication to see a holy vision.  So I had to ask him.

“Did you actually see the Virgin Mary?”

“No,” he said, “but I felt her presence within.”

This week’s Torah portion is the very first in the book of Leviticus.  Here is the first verse.

וַיִּקְרָ֖א

אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

Vayikra el Moshe vayedabeir Adonai elav m’ohel mo’ed leimor

“God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying…”

It is a seemingly straightforward sentence.  God is calling Moses to engage in the kind of encounter that to us Jews feels more Christian than Jewish.  In what manner does God actually call to Moses, to me, to any of us?  What would be the purpose of such a calling? Another question, why is God calling to Moses before speaking to him?  In the overwhelming majority of the Torah God simply speaks a command and Moses listens.  Why in this verse is the addition of “calling” before “speaking.”

Nachmanides points out that Moses is not called each time that God wants to speak with him.  But in this instance God’s presence filled the ohel mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, so intensely that Moses was afraid to enter.  So God did a gentle calling of his name, “Moses, Moses,” to express God’s encouragement and affection.  Moses needed the call to be aware he was supposed to enter the Tent of Meeting.

Rashbam teaches that this calling is connected to the very end of the book of Exodus, chapter 40 verses 34 and 35.  The cloud of God’s presence settles on the Tent of Meeting and fills it so Moses is not able to enter.  Yet God calls on Moses to enter just a few verses later, the very first one in Leviticus. What commentators do not say is how Moses could enter if God’s presence fills the tent so completely.  God must have done an act of tzim tzum, contracting just enough so Moses could participate in their interaction within the Tent of Meeting.  Perhaps the lessening of God’s self is an ultimate act of love for Moses and the people of Israel, as it contributes to Moses growing as a leader and a teacher while God contracts.  The example of God self contracting to make room for someone else is a potential lesson for everyone.

In a kind of contrast to Nachmanides, Rashi comments that God spoke in a loud, thunderous voice. But the voice only reached Moses’s ears. The voice would cease and not go beyond the Tent of Meeting.  This implies the call was for Moses only.  Rashi says that the use of the word elav, “to him,” is proof of the privacy of the calling.  But why the loud voice?  Because moments in the Torah are not only horizontal in time, but vertical as well.  Just as all future Jewish souls are to feel that they were at Sinai, so too are we to know that the words spoken to Moses reverberate throughout time.  They are ours as well.

What are the words God shares with Moses?  At first glance we would wonder why these words should be eternal.  They are about the responsibilities of the priests, and about sacrifices.  This appears to be a meaningless model for today’s world.  However, the underlying theme of Leviticus is not the superficiality of just sacrifices, but the necessity to act in a way that invites God’s presence to increase in our community.  In looking at the details of the next few verses, it is clear that responsibility does not just lie on the priesthood, but all members of the community. If someone brings a sacrifice, for example, they must lay their hands on it.  The priest is not a proxy for them.  In other words, all members of the community must work to increase God’s presence. That underlying lesson is “vertical” in time, i.e. eternal, not just meant for the Israelites in the Torah, but for every generation.

But we can get to an even deeper, more personal meaning.  Somewhere in the depth of each of our souls is an ohel mo’ed, a Tent of Meeting in which we must face our hopes, our fears, our selves and our God.  We might actually feel something beckoning us.  Perhaps it is loving and gentle.  Perhaps it feels loud and frightening.  What we feel in the depth of our soul stops at the edge of our own ohel mo’ed.  Rather than letting our fright prevent us from entering, we must enter. Upon entering we might sense not only God, but ourselves, not as we are but as we should be.  We might sense the world, not as it is, but as it ought to be. At first it is frightening to confront our responsibilities, our shortcomings, our vanities, but after a while we can become aware of our abilities, our strengths, our caring for others.  We can each grow.

Think of the passenger I had in the limousine.  His experience, his sensing the presence of Mary, was in the midst of a community of thousands of fellow believers.  His intensely private moment actually connected him to a much larger community, and not necessarily a physical one.  His experience was within the context of a shared tradition.

May all of us enter our own deep souled ohel mo’ed.  May each of us connect to the Divine, and thus in a meaningful way to each other.  Amen.

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This week, in Ki Tisa, we encounter one of the most famous, and disturbing, Torah stories – Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.  Moses had been called to go up to the top of Mount Sinai, where he would interact with God and receive the 10 commandments.  Some midrash teaches that before leaving Moses told the people he would be gone for 40 days.  Exodus 32:1 describes how the people reacted when they felt Moses was taking too long to return to them.  Here is the very beginning of that verse:

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה        לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר

Vayar ha’am ki vosheish Moshe laredet min haar.         

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain.”

One commentator says we should take the word vosheish which means “so long” and read it as ba’u sheikh, which would mean “came six.” The idea is the Israelites began to grumble about Moses not being with them at the sixth hour on the 40thday.  One explanation is how Moses did not count the day he was leaving as one of his days being gone, but the Israelites did.  So they panicked.  They demanded that Aaron should construct a god for them since they did not know what happened to Moses.

Aaron responded with this in Exodus 32:2:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי׃

Vayomer aleihem Aharon parku nizmei hazahav asher b’oznei n’sheichem b’neichem uvnoteichem v’havi’u eilai. 

“Aaron said to them, ‘take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’”

The key word in this verse is parku, usually translated as “take off” but also meaning “break off” or “tear off.”  This implies some violence in getting the gold needed to build the Golden Calf. This implies the opposite of the verbs used in the previous two Torah portions, “give” and “take from yourself” which imply how the people were donating to God’s presence through their hearts.  The verb parku illustrates this as a wrong development heading towards violence.  One explanation for the use of a word about a violent action to get the gold rings (tear or break off), is that the women refused to participate in this panicking false creation of a god, so the men turned to violence to get what they wanted.  This could make a logical connection to the next key word.

In verse 32:6, after the Golden Calf is created, the people are described as rising to dance.  The Hebrew word used for dance is l’tzacheik.  The root for this word generally means “play,” and the same root word is used to describe what Sarah sees Ishmael doing to the young Isaac in Genesis chapter 21, when she had him and his mother Hagar exiled from their camp.  The root for tzacheik can also mean sexual playing.  So the playing or dancing being done in front of the Golden Calf could have included sexual abuse of the women who refused to give their golden jewelry, ergo had it torn from their ears.

Now comes the key question about this episode.  Who is to blame for this disaster, the call for creating a false god; and doing the horrible activities during the process and worshipping this material idol. Rashi says it was Satan, an angel who was always trying to prosecute and condemn humans.  He says Satan showed the Israelites a false view of Moses lying dead on a bier.  Could the blame go on Aaron, for being unable to direct the people how they should act plus caving in quickly to their demands.  Or does the blame belong on the people, who were too susceptible to falsehoods and worrying.

Rashi says the people wanted numerous gods.  Ramban disagrees, saying they just desired a leader, because they were panicking over the absence of their leader, Moses, who got them out of Egypt.  When Moses returned and destroyed the Golden Calf, they did not protest at all.  Further, Aaron, according to Ramban, did not really mean for the Golden Calf to be seen as a god, but just as an activity of focus to stop the worrying over Moses. Rashi adds that Aaron thought Moses would come back in time before the people actually worshipped the calf.  Of course Aaron was wrong.

So let’s summarize the 3 possible blames for this disaster, Satan, Aaron, and the people.  Now let’s summarize what they represent, false information, poor leadership, and people routinely over reacting in a terrible way.  In a modern context, instead of Satan, we have social media, through which people post horrible and false versions of what is actually happening.  Social media provides space for various kinds of leaders, those who actually care about the people by trying to communicate properly to unite, not divide us.  It also provides space for leadership that is trying to create benefit for their own, narrow-minded behalf, or who appeal to unknowing folks by agreeing with their false perspectives instead of trying to model the truth.  Now look at the horrible activity of the panicking people. Rather than trying to find a way to relate to others who are different, they condemn those who do not completely agree with them, believe the same as them, or look like them.  Look at the name calling between supporters of different political candidates.  Look at how conservatives and liberals just denigrate each other, instead of acknowledging serious problems or searching for a peaceful ways to find a way to work together plus at least some commonality.

Like the Israelites, too many of us refuse to acknowledge the invisibility and calmness of God. That seems too difficult.  Instead we look for something physical and materially fancy to worship.  Sometimes that is a person who plays with our beliefs to benefit themselves.  Out of panic we are turning to a Golden Calf and “dancing” insanely, instead of having patience and caring.  I pray that we, the people and our leaders, can turn back to divinity instead of falsehood.  Amen.

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There is an interesting circularity in this week’s parashah Tetzavheh.  It opens and closes with closely related instructions, but each from a different approach.  The commandment states in the first verse that the Israelites must bring the most pure version of olive oil to keep a special lamp lighted, in Hebrew, tamid.  Here it is, Exodus 27:20:                                                                                                                                             וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

V’atah t’tzaveh et b’nai Yisra’elv’yikchueilecha shemen zayit zach kativ lama’or l’ha’a lot ner tamid 

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten loives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly

Most of us are familiar with the phrasener tamid at the very end of the verse,which we translate as “eternal light.”  The word tamid can be translated as either continuously, without interruption or simply “regularly.”  Nachmanides states that the light is always to burn, and that if the Levite checking it in the morning finds it is out, it must be rekindled.  Another commentator, Ba’al HaTurim states this must happen even on Shabbat.  When we put all of this together, we can reach the modern conclusion that the light, which appears in most synagogue sanctuaries, represents the eternal presence of God.

While the translation says the Israelites are instructed to “bring” the oil, in fact the word v’yikchu technically means “to take.”  This instruction is the same one given in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, in which they are instructed to “bring” gifts for the building of the Tabernacle.  Commentary states the real instruction is for each person to “take” from themselves what they feel can be given to create a special space for God in the community.  The same can be interpreted in this week’s command to “take” pure oil from themselves to establish the symbol of God’s eternal presence.  The commandment in each situation is not about the specific amount a person should donate, but each person deciding themselves what they are willing to contribute to the community.  The generosity of the Israelites in these two Torah portions is meant to be a model for all of us.

The second verse of this Torah portion declares it is Aaron and his sons who must do the constant work of keeping this special lamp constantly lit.  Part of the obligation of the priesthood is the constant reminder to all the people of God’s presence.  This is seen as needed in order for the Israelites to keep in mind the requirement of fulfilling God’s commandments.

The circularity at the end of the Torah portion occurs with a command to Aaron to burn incense on the lamps that he must make sure are constantly lit.  This is a sacrifice to God and serves as a reminder to the priests that they are laboring on behalf of God.  The first use of the word ner (lamp) is focused on providing for the people the eternity of God’s presence.  The use of ner at the end of the Torah portion is focused on the priests showing God their dedication to keep God’s presence going.  All of this is connected to the general theology, especially in Leviticus, that the strength of God’s presence depends on the people, on us.  The Ner Tamidis the reminder that God exists, but our actions determine the intensity of God’s presence.  Today, of course, we no longer have a priesthood.  The eternal lights are usually electronic in synagogues, so there is little work to keep it lit.  As a result we tend to forget that the ner tamidis a reminder of our moral and ritual obligations.

There is an interesting possibility of who are our modern reminders of God’s presence, which should make us consider our obligations to God’s commandments.  A section of Jewish tradition uses Gematria to connect different sets of words to important ideas.  Gematria uses the numerical values of the Hebrew letters to see what words and phrases are connected.  Here is an example that some might see as the answer to who is supposed to use lights to remind us of God.  The Hebrew word that opens this Torah portion, t’tzaveh, which means “command,” has a numerical total of 501. The phrase nashim tzaveh which means “women are commanded” also has the numerical total of 501.  A Gematria commentator sees this as a connection to the women’s obligation to light Shabbat candles.  Rather than seeing that as simply a woman’s ritual, we can interpret that as a declaration women are the post priesthood provider of a remindance of God’s presence, pushing us to remain aware of our Torah based obligations.

If we put this in a modern context, we must work hard to stop the physical and verbal denigrations of women.  Their suffering is a reminder of our failure to acknowledge the Divine presence as well as our failure to fulfill a commitment at least to morality.  Perhaps the true light that women provide for us today is not simply a physical light in a room, but a light into our darkened hearts and minds.

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