Archive for the ‘Torah commentary’ Category

What appears to be a normal collection of data can be used either to benefit the people of a community or just to benefit the leader(s) sitting on the throne. A great example of this can be seen by comparing the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, to a story of King David that appears in two other books of the Tanach, II Samuel and I Chronicle. B’midbar begins with God giving Moses this commandment, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head.”  Moses and Aaron are then told to number those who are twenty years or older that are able to bear arms.  The purpose is to have the ability for the Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt to be able to return and occupy their promised land, Canaan.  Here are the key Hebrew words from the beginning of the verse:

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

S’oo et roshkol adat b’nai Yisra’el

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community”

A more literal translation of this phrase would be, “Raise up the head of each community member of the children of Israel.”  This phrase for doing a census was also used in Exodus chapter 30, at the very beginning of the parashah, Ki Tisa.  What is very noteworthy about the census described in Ki Tisa is the “raising of the heads” of the people was by not actually counting individual humans, but by counting the half shekel each was told to give to God, i.e. the organizing and creation of God’s Tent of Meeting that would be in the center of the Israelite camp. This can be seen as an attempt to not look at counting humans as just counting a material by putting something between the two.

The phrase used to describe taking a census in Exodus and Numbers is very different from the words used in the two versions of the story about King David. In each version, someone against the people tells David to count the people of Israel.  He goes ahead and does it in order to create an army, which he can use to conquer other lands.  The Hebrew word used in II Samuel chapter 24 and in I Chronicle chapter 21 is m’nei, which literally just means “count.” An additional word meaning “count” is also used in I Chronicle.  In both of the King David stories the words describing the census mean the counting of material items.  In Numbers and Exodus, the phrase of “raising heads” teaches us that counting people is supposed to be very different from counting materials.

What King David did was a sin for which he apologized to God for committing.  God punished David and his kingdom by sending a plague that killed a large number of Israelites.  David had looked at the people as a “material” he could use to increase the stretch of his power.  The use of the census in the Torah is for situations meant to benefit the whole of the Israelite people, not just their leaders.  That is implied by “raising their heads.”

The Holocaust provides a prominent historical example of looking at people like a material thing; as opposed to respecting humanity.  In the German concentration camps numbers were tattooed on the prisoners’ arms, which was one of the first steps in degrading them.  Removing the respect for Jews as people was part of reducing their resistance for either torture or murder.  This is one of the most violent, extreme historical examples.

In American history there is a non-violent, commonly used approach, not directed to physically harm people but is still a degradation of humans.  This is still relevant today – using the results of a census to create gerrymandered districts. Like King David, political leaders and parties are focused on their power, not the actual wants and needs of the people.  This has been a practice of politicians for almost two centuries.  It is legitimate to bring up the question of how current administrations, on both the federal and state levels, will carry out the 2020 census.  Will it make sure everyone is properly counted so that resulting districts will be legitimately represented?  Or, will it not gather the data properly, ignoring certain groups to keep the poor and minorities from being properly represented?

The real, final question is will the census be s’oo et rosh, i.e. raising the heads of all the people of our country, or just m’nei, counting people simply as material to the benefit of those in power?




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Who is the largest owner of property?  Is it the wealthiest people in our society?  Is it the federal government or combination of federal and state governments?  If we are actually serious about following religion, about living by what the Torah states, about approaching life in the most honest way, we should absorb a basic lesson from the first part of this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai.  The rituals outlined are rarely followed, but the underlying reason for the rituals should be the basis for how we approach life instead of either radical capitalism or Communism.  Each of those takes the control of property very far in the wrong direction.

The rituals outlined in Behar(Leviticus chapter 25) are the observance of either the Sabbatical year or the Jubilee year.  The Sabbatical year is done every 7thyear by not doing planting or cropping from land (read Leviticus 25:3 to 7).  Rashi considers this a rest in honor of God.  The Israelites were not to worry about having enough food, as they should be planning on preparing food for the year plus having cattle, lambs, or fishing. They were not to force resident aliens to sow or to harvest crops instead of Israelites.  Just as stated about Shabbat in Exodus 20, resident aliens are to be treated regarding this ritual commandment the same way as Israelites. Jubilee is done after every 49 years, again, not doing work on the land but also including a number of additional obligations.  For example, if you have another Israelite doing servitude slavery, they must be freed in the Jubilee year.

It is Leviticus 25:23 that makes the key point about property ownership “the land is Mine, you are but alien residents with me.”  God is the owner of all property, and we must live our lives knowing that we are beings different from God who are given the permission to use God’s land for our lives.  The central points of the Sabbatical years and Jubilee years are not doing the actual ritual, which has rarely been followed, but to teach us a moral reality in life.  Whatever we are proud of owning, however wealthy we are, whatever we believe – basic points of humanity must show us how to behave.

A huge mistake of some religious groups is the condemnation of people who are poor, saying they are poor as a result of punishment by God, or they are rightfully needy because of their own failures.  This approach is an attempt to get people to follow their own particular view of God, instead of actually doing what God commands us to do for other people, let alone actually care for other people.  In Deuteronomy chapter 15 there are further details about obligations to other people during the Sabbatical years we are supposed to follow. We are commanded to do all we can to reduce poverty, even though reality is we can never fully eliminate it. Further, we must release people from slavery.  We must forgive debts owed by those who do not have the means to repay them.

All of this, commanded by the Torah, is against what radical capitalism endorses. Many capitalists feel that ownership and money, concentrated in few people, benefits all of society.  It does not.  It is the attempt by the wealthiest to just increase their power, what they control.  This, by the way, is very different from a free enterprise system, which does promote true competition between businesses.  Fair competition provides many benefits not just for owners, but also for workers and purchasers.  Communism is the radical position on the opposite political side.  It claims to represent the workers however, all Communism does is substitute control by individual wealthy with control by an authoritarian government.  If we are going to act truly serious about what God commands, if we are truly serious about belief in God, our focus of living cannot be only on ourselves, but how we can live well plus help and respect those who cannot.

The Torah does not command specific policies on how to correct poverty.  It lays the basic groundwork, which is to not badly judge people who are suffering.  Human politics in its best scenario is our arena for evaluating human problems by considering different perspectives in finding a solution, not to force a particular point of view.  Politics becomes wrong when the verbalizing gets insulting, demeaning, and worst of all promotes propaganda instead of truth.  There is a midrash from Leviticus Rabbah about a key verse in Beharthat discusses using wrong words.

Leviticus 25:14 says, “If you sell something to anyone from your people or by something from the hand of your person, you cannot do wrong to each other.” The simple interpretation is not to defraud another person when doing business.  Leviticus Rabbah 33:5 offers a deeper interpretation.  Rabbis tell the story of how kings, described in the Bible, used words wrongly that hurt people and they were punished.  The midrash concludes that if a king gets punished for wronging someone with words, anyone should be punished for wronging people through words.

Jewish tradition does not end its interpretation of Torah with the plain meaning, but examines Torah verses to deeper levels.  The purpose is to urge us to look at life in a deeper way, which for most of us means to look beyond ourselves.  If we accept who is the true, ultimate owner of all the world’s property, then we better understand our obligations as the aliens living on that being’s land.  Our obligations include true caring for others, helping those less fortunate than us, and refusing to verbalize in a wrong, nasty way.  When political leaders get these values wrong, especially by not caring for people, it falls upon us to exemplify what God truly commands. Rashi points out that the Sabbatical years purpose is for us to rest in honor of God.  The Torah is clear that the “resting” is from our benefits to make sure we are honoring God through what we do for others.

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Those with fond memories of Mr. Rogers, or who have seen the recent sweet movies about him, know these lyrics he would sing, “won’t you be my neighbor.”  They represent the caring and love he was trying to teach children to have for all other people.  But as adults, many of us would prefer those lyrics to be “DON’T you be my neighbor!” We grow up to be sarcastic, judgmental, and intolerant of people who are not like us.  In the second part of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot/Kiddushim,is perhaps the most famous quote from the Torah, one that we even argue about the meaning, “Love your fellow (or neighbor) as yourself.”  Those with a universalist philosophy say it refers to everyone. Those who are more xenophobic tend to say it is only about their people.  In today’s world we tend to let our partisanship split us into the argument. Instead of recognizing that the phrase, within the context of overall Torah teaching, contains elements of truth from both perspectives, but in a differently than we tend to think.

A fuller context is to look at the Leviticus verses 19:17 and 18.                                                                                                                                                             לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha hoche’ach tochi’ach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav cheit.

You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart, rebuke your kinsman but incur no sin on their account.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ

וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Lo tikom v’lo titor et b’nai amecha v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, ani Adonai.

You will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.  Love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself, I am God.

These two verses are a climax in a list of moral commandments.  Our obligations are not just for us to follow them, but to help others as well.  In his commentary on these two verses, Nachmanides sees a chiastic structure between them.  For verses 17 and 18, part ‘a’ would be a prohibition, part ‘b’ a remedy, part ‘c’ a rationale.  Let’s start with part ‘a.’  Verse 17 is “You will not hate your kinfolk in your heart.” Heartfelt hatred is created by refusing to vocalize true feelings, in particular about something a person is doing wrong.  The parallel in verse 18 is, “you will not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.”  These actions are a product of heart-contained hatred, often leading to an even more inappropriate violent action.

Part ‘b’ in verse 17 is “rebuke your kinsman.”  If someone is doing something absolutely wrong, we must try to teach them what is correct.  Rashi comments that you do not do this in public, which exposes that person to shame.  Rather, you must do it privately.  This is extremely relevant today as too much rebuking is done on social media, creating shaming.  Part ‘c’ in verse 17 reflects how this impacts the person who either refuses to rebuke a wrongdoing, or does it in a publically shameful way – incurring a sin on the other wrong doer’s account.  It is a sin not to stand up for what is morally correct, but it must be done in a way that does not shame the person you know – as in your private conversation you may learn more about the person that you could not consider.  A further conclusion is by harboring anger; you might sin against the person you should properly reprove.

Part ‘b’ in verse 18 is “love your fellow (neighbor) as yourself.”  Nachmanides says this is a bit of an exaggeration. He cites Rabbi Akiva’s teaching from the Talmud, Bava Metzia 62, “Your life comes before the life of your fellow.” So the real meaning in this context of “loving your fellow as yourself,” is that we should want, and help, the other person to receive every benefit that we want for ourselves.  The ‘part b’s’ from each verse reflect the same obligations to others, but the first in a negative context, hatred, the other in a positive, love.  We need to rebuke, and we need to “love” the other person – meaning they deserve everything we do as long as our life is not in danger.  The act of reproving should be done out of love, not hatred.

Yet there is a deeper meaning to the act of love, which is connected to part ‘c’ in verse 18, “I am God.”  This takes us beyond the end of verse 17, avoiding sin, to the level of following the moral commandments outlined by God.  Now we can see the levels of what “loving” means.  Ibn Ezra comments that the hatred outlined in these verses is between the various Jewish people.  He points out how the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem was due to groundless hatred between Jewish groups.  Nachmanides, after quoting Rabbi Akiva presents that as the basic level of love, yet there is no limitation on how our love for others can grow.  That love can be for one of “us” or a very different person. Nachmanides points to how Abraham rebuked Avimelech in Genesis 21:25, a person not part of his people but who deserved Abraham’s caring.  In this week’s Torah portion, in the same chapter, verse 34 commands us to love strangers/aliens living among us the same way we love ourselves.  That verse also ends with the phrase, “I am the Eternal, your God” – a direct connection to the necessity of expanding “love your fellow as yourself.”

In the book of Proverbs 10:17, we are told, “He who observes musaris on the path of life, but he who refuses reproof goes astray.”  The word musaris translated in a numerous ways, most often ‘discipline,’ ‘instruction,’ or ‘morality.’ We should always interpret this word combining all three meanings.  We must have the discipline to teach in an ethical way. An ethical way to interact with a person through a rebuke is one evoked by love, not animosity, jealousy, or a lust for power.  Another way to provide love is to help them get the same benefits you have.  All of this begins in your relationships with your own people, but can and should grow to diverse relationships beyond those with whom you think are “comfortable.”  The Torah is clear that by caring beyond only our own people, we are displaying love for God.  We should be willing to sing to all other people “won’t you be my neighbor.”


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What is the real purpose of leadership?  In ancient Israel, as in many of the ancient cultures, there were two leadership segments, the actual government rulers, and the leaders of that culture’s religion. In ancient Jewish history religious leadership was the cohanim, priests.  What was the true purpose of the priests?  According to Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who wrote the Anchor Bible commentary books on Leviticus, the priests’ roles were to do as much as possible to ensure God’s presence in the community.  Moses, by the end of the book of Exodus, had literally brought God’s presence into the center of the Israelite community.  Numerous Midrashimfrom the rabbinic era state how human actions either increase or decrease the Divine presence. Milgrom’s commentary teaches how in the best-case scenario the High Priests’ focus was to lead the community in maintaining God’s presence.

Leviticus shows how the different aspects of the High Priests’ duties combine with the general population’s situations.  This starts with the sacrificial system, whose purpose was to communicate to God that the people had either made a correction for something wrong, or did something right.  A sacrifice was an invitation for God’s presence to return, or to increase.  Sacrifices could not be holy on their own, but only if they properly represented the Jewish people’s actions in moving towards holiness.  There were moral commandments spelled out in detail, outlining a large part of the population’s obligations.  The Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a primary example.  Morality was presented as a requirement to increase the Divine presence in our world.

An additional approach appears in this week’s dual Torah portion of Tazria/Metzora:  how to deal with a certain kind of disease.  Tazriagives great details in how priests should examine and diagnose the disease called צָרָ֑עַת,tzara’at, which is often mistranslated as leprosy. The symptoms describing what the priests would examine are not what we typically know as leprosy, but versions of different skin afflictions, anything from eczema, or psoriasis to deep infections. The priest’s diagnosis would determine if the person had to be quarantined, or was actually clean enough to stay in the community.  The priest who examined a specific case had to re-examine after a week.  If the affliction continued, he determined if it was on the level of an infection like leprosy, or something much milder.

The priesthood’s tending to the disease was part of their duty to ensure God’s presence.  There is no question that some priestly leaders were more efficient, more diligent, or more productive than others, but none of that undermined the level of their honesty or morality.  That was determined by the way a High Priest took his position and/or how he used his authority.  Stories of numerous corrupt priesthoods, most notably those egotistically desiring authoritarian power instead of focusing on God’s presence, are told in the first segment of the Talmud’s tractate Yoma. This was common during the era of the second Temple.

When we try to put this into today’s perspective, we can gain a lesson about how a leader should combine necessary medical science with duty to God.  While we can notice mistakes made in ancient times, because less was known about disease, the central point is to use medical knowledge to increase the holiness of a community.  That is not dependent, for example, on congregating in mass to praise God, but knowing when to isolate those suffering from certain diseases.  Saving lives is a key part of creating divinity in society. A true religious leader is not concerned about who shows up for an event, but who is healthy and who needs treatment – be it physical or spiritual.  The connections, between physical and spiritual illness, leap forward in this week’s second portion, M’tzora.

Beginning in Leviticus 14:33, a potential plague on the stones of houses, and how to address them, is described.  The same word is used to describe the stone plague as the skin disease in Tazriatzara’at.  A priest determines if the treatment needs to be just of the stones containing the affliction by removing or scraping them, or if the entire house needs to be torn down.  The context given in the Torah is when the Israelites took Canaan that this plague might exist in certain houses.  Rashi saw this as a way for the Israelites to find gold hidden in the walls by the Amorites, perhaps a lesson on the wrong way to focus on materialism.

A deeper interpretation of the reason for a house’s stone infections is a Midrash from Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 17. It says that tzara’at occurs to a house when the residents who have plenty of food refuse to give help to people who are starving, especially by lying. For example, if asked for wheat and they lie by saying they have none; the house gets the disease.  This illustrates how immorality causes a sick environment.  The very next Midrash in the same chapter of Vayikra Rabbahlists ten sins that will bring on tzara’at.  Besides sins against God, the list includes, stealing from the public, usurping a position for which one has no right, displaying excessive pride, using evil speech, and wrongly seeing others as evil.

If we put together an overview approach of this week’s double Torah portion, a leader truly dedicated to improving their community must correctly diagnose a disease.  They must be consistent in treating and reanalyzing the situation.  They must be aware of the immoral aspects, and cannot allow an over focus on existence simply for materialistic reasons.  God’s presence can increase only if human life is respected and served on the highest level.  Leviticus verses 14:46 and 47 show that a leader himself must be careful not to get over exposed to the affliction.  In the context of the midrashimwe can add that a leader must not get corrupted by the disease of “sin.”

These Torah portions give us a context to add key questions about the pandemic situation we are experiencing today.  How are our leaders protecting exposure?  Are our leaders making proper use of the available medical knowledge? Are they too focused on materialism over preserving life?  Are they leaders dedicated to God’s presence or to practicing their authoritarian wishes?  Is their focus on their personal situation, or what is best for the whole community? Are they providing what is needed for the poorest and most distraught?  Finally, what are, we as individuals, doing to increase the Divine presence?  Are we only concerned about ourselves or also caring about others?  Are we appreciating those who must do the most work in dealing with the problems caused by the pandemic, e.g. all health workers, teachers, deliverers, and leaders making hard decisions?  All of us can be part of the influence that when this is over, will God’s presence be more, or less.


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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.  The superficial way people are judged and condemned in social media are the labels of “liberal” and “conservative.”  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.


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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I was in our family business for 18 years before going to rabbinical school. It is this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, that opened my eyes in a totally different way to the relevance of our Torah to life, in particular to business.  I never thought that anything I was doing was even remotely related to actually living the Torah.  That insight came while studying in rabbinical school.

The parashahcontains a huge number of mitzvoth(laws).   They cover a very diverse group of life’s details, morality, justice, commerce, eating, the treatment of strangers, and the treatment of enemies. Some express high ideals e.g. Exodus 22:24 that commands not to take interest when lending money to the poor. Others seem silly and irrelevant e.g. Exodus 22:28 which tells us to give our fist born sons to God.  If we look at each law individually, they seem like a nitty-gritty detail.  But taken as a corpus, parashat mishpatim is teaching us that it is impossible to separate our religious lives from our secular lives.

These laws teach us that in the every day transactions of conducting business, as well as in the business of conducting our every day lives, these tiny details represent an opportunity for us to live the Torah.  If that seems a little strange, consider that in the latter part of this Torah portion we are commanded to observe the 3 harvest festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  The commercial lives of the Israelites were based in successful agriculture.  The cycle of their agricultural seasons were tied to religious observances.  The laws of the details that establish the measure of trust needed in every day transactions were the building blocks needed to reach each milestone in the commercial and the religious year.  Our Israelite ancestors were, and to a large extent we still are, dependent on what bounty God shares with us.

In the daily Amidahwe pray the bircat hashanim, which technically seems to be asking God for a year of bountiful crops.  But the real centerpiece of that prayer is the words sabeinu metuvecha, may we be satisfied with God’s goodness. In other words, any level of success we achieve.  We should be satisfied with what has been morally acquired and not try to achieve ill gotten gain.

When I first studied all of this, I remembered a comment my father had said when referring to some people he knew who made a lot of money, “He has walked over dead bodies to succeed.”  My dad was never able to bring himself to walk over any dead bodies to succeed.  He believed in 2 key ideals in conducting business.

  • Give quality and value. He was trained in his youth as a cabinet maker  while living in Germany.  He would always try to build more value in his produce, even if he could not always charge more for the product.  He wanted it to be beautiful and solid.
  • Become friends with your customers. Establish a relationship built on trust.  A relationship where each party enjoys doing business with the other has its own kind of holiness.

Our factory had many years of a good profit.  It took my studying in rabbinical school to see my father’s ideals as a way of trying to live the Torah while doing business, basically while participating in a major aspect of every day life.

Most people could care less about what Jewish philosophers have to say about various theological issues.  Most people could care less about the details of the entire Torah, both written and oral. Most people would not know or care about he difference between Mishnah or Mishneh.  Most of what I learned in classes during rabbinical school, while so fascinating to me as a student, would mean very little to the vast majority of folks in any congregation.  Life is about tachlis, details.  The power of parashat Mishpatimis in seeing a method for infusing holiness into the most mundane actions of our everyday lives. Our acts of business, our interactions with other people, our dedication to basic morality and justice is in truth encountering God.  We must make a choice.  Do we see the world as an obstacle to overcome?  Or, do we see every detail as a potential gateway to God?

After the long list of commandments are stated, through about 3 chapters of the Torah, the Israelites respond with these words in Exodus 24:7, “na’aseh v’nishma,”  “We will do and we will hear (comprehend).”  We must do the commandments that promote the details of our lives in a divine way.  We might not understand all the details, so we might not comprehend them right away. Jewish tradition stresses we should not wait to follow the commandments until we feel emotionally attached to and understand them.  Rather, we should make the basic commandments part of our lives, as that is the only way to really appreciate them.  If we have faith in taking the right moral actions, we can build a life of holiness.



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This week’s Torah portion contains a segment held in holiness not only in Judaism, but by Christianity – the first version of the 10 commandments.  In this parashah they are listed in Exodus 20.  A slightly different version is in Deuteronomy 5.  While both religions place high importance on the 10 commandments, the Jewish context and perspective is rather different.  Part of the difference is due to overall Jewish tradition.  Part is due to paying attention to the full Hebrew writing of each commandment.

In Jewish tradition, the 10 commandments, while significant, are just an introduction to the Torah’s 613 commandments. One can also argue that the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapter 19 is actually more significant than the 10 commandments. A combination of the wording of even similar commandments in Leviticus 19 as well as the presence of the most famous phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself,” makes a good argument that the Holiness Code is more instrumental than the 10 commandments.  Yet, it is the 10 commandments that are more universally influential.  They are often not only on display in synagogues, but also in numerous non-Jewish places, and in Christian dominated institutions as well.

That common use, by both Christians and Jews, is why we should look at the correct reading of commandments in their Hebrew origin in order to understand them correctly.  One common commandment that is misunderstood is the third commandment “You shall not take the name of God in vain; for God will not hold him guiltless who takes God’s name in vain.”  Some translations are worded, “You shall not swear…”  Numerous people take that to mean you cannot do cursing, especially using God’s name.  However, the overall Torah context indicates a different meaning – you cannot take an oath to something falsely using God’s name.  For example, if you swear by God’s name to tell the truth as a witness in a trial, you cannot lie.

The commandment I choose to discuss in more detail is the 5thcommandment, which serves as an interesting transition between those overseeing human relationship with God and those overseeing human to human relationships. That command states, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the land which the Eternal your God is giving you.”  Here is how the Christian Bible looks at the commandment through Paul’s statement in Ephesians 6:1 – 3:  “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’- which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’”  There are two key differences between this perspective and the Jewish one.

It is Maimonides who provides a lot of insight into how Judaism looks at the fifth commandment.  Here is Maimonides definition of honoring parents from chapter VI of his Mishneh Torah:

“What Does honoring parents imply?  It means providing them with food and drink, clothing and covering, the expense to be borne by the father.  If the father is poor and the son is in a position to take care of his parents, he is compelled to do so.  He must support his parents in accordance with his means, conduct his father in and out, and perform for him such personal services as disciples perform for their teacher.”

The commandment of honoring parents is not about obeying them.  We do that as young children.  Upon reaching full adulthood, it is not about obeyance, but about making sure our aging parents are taken care with the same concerns they took care of us as little children.  A reality of life happens while aging.  We shift places in certain ways with our parents.  There is a plethora of possible changes in their lives, physically and mentally, that Maimonides teaches we should address on their behalf.  Further, we must have extreme patience with how our parents exist and act as their lives shift, especially if they shift in a negative direction.  Although Maimonides does put a limit on how much a father can demand, here is an example of the tolerance a parent’s child must have of them:

“To what lengths should the duty of honoring parents go?  Even were they to take a purse of his (the child’s), full of gold, and cast it in his presence into the sea, he must not shame them, manifest grief in their presence, or display any anger, but accept the divine decree without demur.”

To summarize what Maimonides is trying to teach, we must be sure our parents are taken care of properly if they are insecurely aging, but it must be by no more than what we can afford or are able to do.  Further, we can hire someone to take care of them if that works better, as opposed to giving up our life to do so.  However, the bottom line is to respect and honor them if they lose the ability to care for themselves, and do the best we can for them.

Now we must look at part two of the commandment, “that your days may be long on the land which the Eternal your God is giving you.”  Here is the true difference between Paul’s interpretation of the meaning in Ephesians and the actual context for Jewish history in the Torah. Paul interprets that as having a long life on earth.  He sees honoring the parents as following their dedication to God, which will result in admission to heaven upon death.  The context of Israelite history and Jewish tradition is very different.

The Hebrew clearly is referring to the Promised Land that the Israelites are heading to during their exodus. They will be deserving of having that land a long time if the elderly are properly and kindly managed.  This is a basic morality of Judaism.  We can easily apply this to all the elderly, not just our parents.  For example, Judaism suggests that our teachers are supposed to be considered as additional parents, as our learning is so important. There is no question Jewish morality requires us to care for our loved ones.  And love ones is not defined simply by biological family.

This is extremely relevant today, as we must make proper care of the elderly a serious priority in our society.  Further, we can conclude if our care for the elderly is insignificant, our society, our country, will not deserve a long existence.  The commandments in the Torah are often much deeper than we think.  If we are not willing to look at the full meaning, and then follow as best as we can, we are failing to build the world in the way we should.  In Judaism, building this world is far more our central purpose than finding a way to heaven.





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