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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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Song by the Sea, sung by Moses and the Israelites just after crossing the Sea of Reeds, completely escaping the Egyptian army, is without question among the highlights of the entire Torah.  One of its lines is chanted or sung during every morning or evening service throughout Judaism:

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

Mi chamocha ba’eilim Adonai, mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh, nora t’hillot oseh feleh.

“Who is like unto You O God, among the mighty?  Who is like unto You, glorious in holiness awesome in splendor, working wonders?”This is a song of redemption, the first in the history of the people of Israel, setting a precedent for a series of redemption songs throughout our history.

In today’s world there are countless versions of music for these words, ways to sing or chant.  The variance in styles of music present in Mi Chamocha reflects the variance in feelings represented and transmitted by each service.  There are moments of sadness, moments of happiness.  There are moments of anger, moments of joy.  There are moments of frustration, moments of celebration.  Yet in all the variables of prayer emotions conveyed through Mi Chamocha,the recognition of redemption, achieved by a combination of God and the Israelite people, links all of the emotions together.

The variance of how the Song by the Sea was sung by the Israelites is a subject of discussion in the Talmud, Sotah 30b.  Three versions are presented.  The first, by Rabbi Akiba, says that Moses would sing a line and the people would affirm by singing the first line Moses sang again and again.  Here is the example:

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted.”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God.”

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yosse puts it a bit differently.  He says the Israelites repeat each line after Moses sings it. Here is the example:

Moses: “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “I will sing unto God”

Moses:  “for God is highly exalted”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted”

The third method is the Israelites singing what Moses did then completing each phrase with what is considered their own words.

Moses:  “I will sing unto God”

Israelites:  “for God is highly exalted.”  (created by the people in response)

Let’s consider what each version of the singing style might represent.  The first one, in which the people repeat again and again the first phrase that Moses sang, can be seen as an affirmation of his leadership.  They are only following the leader, which is represented by singing no words of their own. The second can be seen as admiring the leader enough to model what he is doing (singing).  The third can be interpreted as the people learning from the leader enough to create something new.  The result is the leader and the people working together in order to move everyone forward in the most meaningful way.

In modern times it is easy to see how each version can be interpreted and applied in today’s politics.  The first might be seen as authoritarianism, the second as being obsessed with a celebrity and the third as the only correct version of a relationship between a leader and his/her people.  This kind of interpretation, however, misrepresents what rabbinic tradition is trying to convey by pointing out each version of the song.  It is not about determining which is appropriate, but recognizing that there are moments of need for all three.  In other words, life is way too complicated to focus on only one approach.  More important is how all aspects of life are properly balanced.

I would suggest that what is fully relevant for life today is not any of the means in which the song Moses begins and sings to, for, or with the Israelites. It is what comes immediately after the end of the Song by the Sea.  Here is that verse 15:21:

מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם

Vata’an lahem Miriam, shiru L’Adonai ki go’ah ga’ah, soos v’rochvo ramah vayam.

Here is a common translation, “And Miriam sang unto them, sing to Adonai for God is highly exalted, the horse and his rider God threw into the sea.” However the most accurate translation of the very first word, vata’anwould be “and she answered.”

What Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s prophetic sister, did was to answer the feelings of the people of Israel.  What Moses did was to use the song to establish some version of his leadership. There was nothing wrong with what Moses did.   It was just incomplete.  Miriam, however, was not focused on her role, but on providing an answer to the Israelite people.  It is clear that Miriam’s role is admired by our tradition through the Torah’s presentation of her death and the midrash on its result.

What is the relevant teaching about Miriam for today’s world?  Perhaps we can conclude that leadership filled only by men cannot possibly be complete.  We need women to provide leadership as well; for their perspective is the best way to balance the how men lead.  Indeed, given what we are learning about the reality of genders in today’s world, perhaps what we need is true gender diversity providing societal leadership. The name of this week’s parashahis Beshalach, which means “it came to pass.”  May it come to pass that we improve the content and quality of our leadership through diversity.  That will evolve our culture in a very positive way.

 

This week’s parashah, Va’eira, begins with God introducing a different name to Moses than God did to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus:6:2,3 states, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am יְהוָֽה (yod, hey, vav, hey).  I appeard to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יְהוָֽה .”  We generally read this name as “Adonai”.

The difference between the two name is significant and there is interesting discussion as to why the name revealed to Moses was not revealed to the Patriarchs.  The letters yod hey vav heyof the name revealed to Moses contain the root letters for the verb “to be (exist).”  In last week’s Torah portion, when Moses met God at the burning bush, and Moses asks what name should he reveal as God’s name, God answers, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which means, “I will be what I will be.” The implication is that God is to great to be defined by a name, rather the identity of Gd should be that which is eternally existent.  So we could then interpret God’s statement of “I am yod hey vav hey” as a statement, “I am Eternal.”

In the beginning segment of this parashah, God is informing Moses what God will be insuring is accomplished as Moses works to free the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt.  God makes the statement of  “I am Eternal” three more times in this opening segment of the Torah portion. This is not an unusual use of the statement in important interactions with Moses.  In Leviticus chapter 19, which reveals the holiness code, the phrase “I am Eternal” is a consistent ending piece to many of the commandments.

The Torah analyst Cassuto says the name of El Shaddai is often associated with the attribute of fertility, which is why it is so relevant to Abraham and Sarah, who end up with a child at such an old age (see Genesis 17:1,2).  The name of yod hey vav heyis more connected to the fulfillment of promises, exactly the context that Moses is being assured of in his first interactions with God.

In Exodus 6:6,7, and 8 there are indeed significant promises God makes to Moses about the future of the Isaelites.  Here they are:

  • hotzeiti– I will bring you out from the labors
  • hitzalti – I will deliver you from Egyptian bondage
  • ga’alti– I will redeem you with an outstretched arm
  • lakachti– I will take you to be my people
  • heiveiti– I will bring you to the promised land

Jewish tradition considers the first four to have been fulfilled.  Those four are the basis for the four part structure of our Passover seder.  The number 4 is also the basis for the four questions, the four sons of different style.  The fifth promise, “I will bring you to the promised land” connects to the fifth cup of wine left for Elijah, representing the hope for fulfillment in the future.

The typical question asked today is, how is the fifth promise not fulfilled with the existence of the state of Israel, our promised land?  A rabbinic explanation is that the fifth cup represents the messianic vision of an age of peace.  For now the promise is not fulfilled because Israel is not at peace.

There are two elements of conflict we can draw from this.  The obvious first one is the constant violent attacks by terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbullah.  Until that is resolved, we cannot say Israel exists in peace.  With the rise of anti-Semitism, we could add that this also applies to Israel as the name applies to all of the Jewish people in the world.  The second reality is the inability for Israelis, in fact Jews in general, cannot seem to be at peace with each other.  If we look at the five promises made at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we must say that God did wonderful things by freeing us from slavery, the authoritarianism of Egypt, saving us from the Sea of Reeds, and by taking us into a covenantal relationship.  But wouldn’t God have done us a bigger favor by teaching just teaching us how to get along with each other?

The Torah exhibits a long history of our people not getting along with each other.  The Israelites doubted Moses would actually get them out of Egypt.  Just after they did and crossed the Sea of Reeds, watching the Egyptian army drown, they began to complain about not having water.  The Torah is filled with Israelites’ complaints: water, food, boredom with eating manna, the trip back to Canaan being too long.   Korach, being jealous of Moses’ relation with God, rebels against him and Aaron.  Did God really want to hear all the moaning of these children of God?  Perhaps that is why God seems to be the absentee parent and Moses the au pair.  The Israelites never learned to play well with each other.

Sadly, the lack of peace in the Jewish world exists today.  Politically, the general political polarization has created deeper divides in the American Jewish community.  Yet the deeper source of conflict is the incredible number of religious movements in our small world Jewish population.  There are a couple of dozen factions in the Chasidic world, some of whom completely condemn not only non orthodox Jews, but other Chasidic communities.  This is in addition to the general conflict between the Haredi and progressive Jews. There are even conflicts in the non orthodox Jewish world, as some who have more radical views condemn those who do not agree with them.

Rabbinic tradition recognizes this weakness, not just among Jews, but among all people.  Consider this teaching from Pirkei Avot 4:3 “Do not despise any man and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no man who has not his hour and there is no thing that has not its place.” In greater detail, there are teachings that the people of Israel (worldwide Judaism) must care for each other.

What generations of rabbinic teaching stress is that our coming to the Promised Land is not God’s failure, but our failure.  God has given us the opportunity to truly obtain it.  But the responsibility lies with us.  Moses’ life is one of growth, of getting the chance from God to help the people of Israel and doing it.  He left a narrow form of life caring for a flock of sheep to realizing the necessity he had.  Moses learned his life was transient and God was eternal, yet he accepted a path.  If we can model Moses just a little, we can move us towards our Promised Land.

How do we fare when called upon to face unpleasant truths?  How do we manage that call to do a difficult, seemingly endless task?  How deep is our empathy?  This is the essence of what Moses is facing at the burning bush theophany in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.

Exodus 3:6 says, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  That raises a theological question.  If Judaism teaches God has no physical form, what was Moses afraid to look at? Cassuto points out that the Torah is careful not to imply a physical form, just that Moses knew God was presenting some kind of vision, and Moses was afraid to look at it.  However, Moses listens very attentively.  So he is receptive to hearing God’s message, but is clearly missing something.  Moses will accept the mission, but we can say he does so somewhat “blindly.”

Malbim takes the analysis of Moses hiding his face a bit further.  By hiding his face, Moses shows he is not ready for a complete relationship with God. Malbim says that the Hebrew verb meihabit is not seeing so much as giving full concentration on something.  Hiding his face is really Moses retreating into the material world, not able to spiritually and intellectually comprehend God.  The material world is kind of his safety net.  He hears God’s commands.  On some levels he understands what is being demanded of him.  But he is not ready for what eventually will be “knowing God panim el panim(face to face).” It is very important to note the intellectual component of the human/God relationship implied by Malbim.  Meeting God “face to face” is intellectually as well as spiritually demanding.

Did Moses act properly by hiding his face?  Sages who argue he did not say God would have shown him what was above and what was below – the secrets of existence (Shemot Rabbah 1:27).  Malbim’s commentary seems to agree with this by adding Moses was not ready for ultimate truth.  Ba’al Haturim, however, takes a slightly different tack.  He says that had Moses looked into God’s presence at the bush and asked for relief of the Israelites’ suffering, the exile would have been ended right then.  Israel would have been freed.  Thus we can ask, what is it Ba’al Haturim thinks Moses would have seen had he not hidden his face, that is, if he had tried to look at God face to face?

If we extend Ba’al Haturim’s reasoning, God would have shown Moses the full extent of Israel’s suffering in Egypt.  If we combine the comments of Cassuto, Malbim and Ba’al Haturim, we might construct this scenario.  Moses had seen the suffering of an individual Israelite, which led him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster.  Moses is listening to what God is trying to convey, but is not yet ready to grasp the enormity of Israel’s suffering.  Moses is not yet ready to perceive truth from God’s perspective – an intellectual and spiritual experience that is beyond him at the time of the call to his mission.  Moses is just human.  Trying to understand the full scale of human suffering and ultimate truth is a tall order. But Moses DOES listen, so he begins a path to lead the Israelites and finally know God “face to face.”

We can put reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism today in a similar context of Moses’ theophany.  Like Moses, we are obsessed with each incident as it happens in our individualized manner.  These include the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, the shooting in Poway, the shooting in Jersey City, and the knifing in Monsey, NY – just to name a few. Further, we tend to analyze them strictly on our political backgrounds and perspectives:  are we liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats – just to name the obvious examples.

We are quick to declare that the dominant form of anti-Semitism is on the opposite side of our political belief.  We are afraid to look at the whole picture, that there is hatred of Jews coming from across all the political, religious, and ethnic spectrums.  I read articles written by liberals who refuse to see the seriousness of anti-Semitism from certain people whose general political stands they support.  I read the same approach from conservative writers, who also stupidly condemn Jews like George Soros for his liberal approaches using anti-Semitic tropes.  I have yet to read a condemnation of pastor Rick Wiles by right wing Christians.  Wiles claims the attempt to impeach Trump is a “Jew coup.”  Meanwhile, those on the left use “intersectionality” to justify any anti-Israel approach, saying that Israel is an oppressive country and therefore Jews who support Israel can be condemned.  This opens the door to left wing anti-Semitism.

Like Moses, we are over focused on what is in our own minds instead of truly trying to “look at God face to face,” which means starting to see the larger picture, the full extent of what Jews must be facing today.  The best article on anti-Semitism that I have read is from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who gives a good insight not only into hatred of Jews, but racism and bigotry in general.  https://www.jta.org/2020/01/02/opinion/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-the-keys-to-understanding-american-anti-semitism-and-fighting-back?utm_content=buffer81f6b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=jtafacebook&utm_campaign=social&fbclid=IwAR3zqO4Nyr2Z0crZGRjBfrM2yHkYUf1hCeq6s2g-B5cnc5KAYqO-Ha2KRng

If, like Moses, we learn to look at God “face to face” and not just hide our face (really our minds), then we will see a much larger picture.  This picture not only includes the depth and diversity of anti-Semitic sources, but also the depth and diversity of those who are ready to stand with us Jews as we fight bigotry.  While a number of the New York attacks on Chasidic Jews are from blacks, the vast bulk of African Americans are deeply caring people who just want bigotry to end.  While the terrorism in the Middle East against Israel is through anti-Semitic Muslim groups (e.g. Hamas), I have met so many Muslims in America who stand with the Jewish people against hatred.  While there are people on the left wing who produce anti-Semitic narratives, the vast majority of liberals can be defined as liberal because they very strongly condemn oppression of Jews.  While some of the most violent anti-Semitic actions have come from right wingers, and there are increasing numbers of white nationalists who stress their hatred of Jews; most American conservatives fiercely condemn anti-Semitism.  If we are truly trying to see God, we will not only see those who hate Jews from all sides, but the vast number of those who will stand with us as our friends.  If we also hear all of these people’s pains and sufferings, and stand with them like they will stand with us, we will gain, like Moses, a deeper understanding of God.

God’s call to Moses at the bush is not about forcing a religious ideology upon the Egyptians.  It is not about violent coercion of any kind.  It is a call to lead a group of people to freedom, to alleviate suffering. When we hear the pain and suffering of others, we are starting to perceive God’s voice.  If we look at the truth of how humans act – the good and the bad – we have taken a step on the path to know God.  Ultimately there can be no hiding of our faces.  If we look into the vision God provides, if we really understand what we are being shown, then, when we dare to look at God face to face – we will find our own face staring back at us.

 

What does a blessing actually mean?  If we offer a blessing to another person, are we simply wishing them well or are we trying to get them to contemplate a perspective unlike they way they have thought and acted?  In this week’s Torah portion Vayachi, Jacob delivers blessings for his sons.  Yet, when we read them, we wonder if these are truly blessings.  Here is the beginning from Genesis 49:1 – 9.  I am showing the Hebrew in the first two verses.                                                                                                                            וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

Vayikra Ya’akov el-banav vayomer ha’asfu v’agidah lachem et asher-yikra etchem ba’acharit hayamim.

1)  And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.                                                                                       הִקָּבְצ֥וּ וְשִׁמְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְשִׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אֲבִיכֶֽם׃

Hikavtzu v’shim’u b’nai Ya’akov v’shim’u el-Yisra’el avichem.

2) Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father:

3)  Rueben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellence of power;

4)  Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it, mounting my bed.

5)  Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords.

6) Oh my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger, they slew a man, and in their wanton lamed an ox.

7) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and they wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide the in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

8)  Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be in the neck of your enemies; yourfather’s children shall bow down in your presence.

9)  Judah is a lion’s cub, from the prey, my son, you are gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

We can see from the beginning of Jacob’s “blessings” for his sons, the diversity in content, reproving for bad actions, praise for some sons, and predictions to their future. However, the predictions are not for their individual futures, but for the tribes who will descend from each of them. Indeed, we can read this as Jacob’s teaching on the developent from being an individual to a tribe, a society, even a nation.  One hint is the use of two names, Jacob and Israel.  It is Jacob who is calling his sons together for their blessings and followed by the name Israel, when they are told to listen to their father’s words of analysis and prophesy of the future.  We will expand on this, but first let’s review the improper deeds done by the sons receiving their reproofs.

Reuben, Jacob’s first born, laid with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, who was the mother of a number of Reuben’s brothers.  What is worse, he did this just after Jacob’s wife Rachel had died.  Simeon and Levi reacted violently to the incident with their sister Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, but was in love with her and wanted to marry her.  While Jacob agreed to the marriage if everyone in the town of Shechem would be dedicated to God (and the men were to be circumcised to officially proclaim that), Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the men while they were recovering from their circumcisions.  Jacob’s reproof of Simeon and Levi is a condemnation of their excessive anger, cruelty, and violence.

A key question is how will Jacob’s sons, and their descendents, properly direct their lives as they move from individuals to a nation, the nation of Israel?  In midrash Genesis Rabbah 98:2 3 three rabbis, Juden, Pinchas, and Abun, all interpret the Hebrew word el(look at the first two verses in Hebrew) to actually mean “God,” as Elnot only means “to” but also is a Hebrew word for “God.”  Rabbi Juden interprets the beginning of verse 49:1 to mean “And Jacob called God to be with his sons.”

In Genesis Rabbah 98:3 Rabbis Juden and Pinchas have a slightly different interpretation of who is being referred to by “God.”  Juden says it is the God of Jacob (their individual father) who should be the God of Israel (the eventual nation).  Pinchas teaches the sons must be honoring their father, and his teachings, at the same level they would honor God.  In either case we can draw a significant lesson very applicable to us.

Judaism is not only about the respectability of individuality, but the necessity to place our desires and thoughts behind what is necessary to create a successful society, community, nation.  Reuben’s action is seen as simply selfish, the desire to have sex with a woman despite her relationship with his own father.  While Simeon and Levi were justified in having anger over what happened to their sister, their reaction was a violent punishment way beyond the guilty person, but victimizing all the men of the town of Shechem.  They did not accept the attempt of Shechem to correct things and create a way to cooperate.

You can see the parallel in this world through entries in social media.   So many people refuse to consider a different point of view.  I have read so many nasty comments on FaceBook by people whose only interest is to condemn those who have a different perspective than them.  I never see a post of forgiveness for a wrongdoing, or apologies for demeaning others. It is also clear that so many of today’s problems can be traced to personal, political desires and egos as opposed to what is best for the community.  The assumption is that the personal belief opinion is best and NOT true listening to the approach of those who think differently, even friends.

How does God’s presence (as depicted by Genesis Rabbah midrash) impact these problems?  First, acknowledging God forces us to realize we are part of something much bigger and beyond ourselves.  Second, if we see God as a parent/creator, we know we must respect what exists and work to improve our larger family – the nation of our Jewish people and thus, the world. Are our actions creating conflicts or attempting to create understanding?  Judaism allows disagreement on topics but makes it clear that ALL perspectives are acknowledged by God.  We can stand up to defend ourselves but must balance our aggressiveness with kindness.

What was the response of Jacob’s sons according to these midrashim?  It is taught they recited the words of the Sh’ma, “Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”  Despite the diverse “blessings” each brother received from their father, they acknowledged a need to come together in a divine way.  The Hebrew of the Sh’ma uses two different names of God, which shows in its own way that diversity should not prevent unity.  Jacob’s response is, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the name of the glorious majesty forever and ever.

What is a blessing? It is a direction away from sin to a hope that we will find a moral and divine path in our future.