One of the key elements of this week's Torah reading is introduced in the opening passage. God instructs Moses: "Send men and let them scout the land of Canaan that I'm giving to the children of Israel...." From that moment to this very day, Jews have examined the Land from outside her borders and used the culled information to sustain our bonds to that place.
This past week was one of the times when diaspora Jewish communities all around the world were focussed sharply on Israel. The Knesset was voting to appoint the 10th president of the State of Israel.
Many of us regretted, but reluctantly accepted the inevitability of , President Shimon Peres' retirement. Over the course of his decades of service to the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Shimon Peres has been much more a statesman than a politician. He has proven to be an insightful and wise leader and innovator.
After months of conjecture, lobbying, speculating and commenting, the members of Israel's Knesset have elected Shimon Peres' successor, Ruby Rivlin. Mr. Rivlin is a controversial figure from the point of view of Jews living outside the state of Israel.
I invite you to follow the link I've provided to read an insightful "Open Letter" to Israel's new president by Times of Israel blogger and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Yehuda Kurtzer. You'll find a balanced and intelligent review of Mr. Rivlin's career and an intelligent presentation of the concerns raised here in the American Jewish community. I join Mr. Kurtzer in hoping that our most dire predictions about Mr. Rivlin's presidency will prove baseless:
This week I'm writing about what the weekly parashah/Torah reading is not about! This final passage in the book of Sh'mot / Exodus describes the finishing touches to the priestly vestments. Moses checks that everything has been prepared according to God's instructions and God's presence fills the Tabernacle for the first time. All is ready for the establishment of the sacrificial cult, kohein/priest-driven, which will serve as the focal point of Israelite worship until the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
If ever there was Jewish clergy, in the sense of an intercessor between God and the people, who facilitated atonement, who held exclusive authority to perform rites and wear specific vestments it was the kohanim, the priests, the male descendents of Aaron. If all of Israelite experience, up until the destruction of the Second Temple, had centered around the sacrificial cult, there would be no Judaism, which is rabbinic Judaism, today. The Temple would have been destroyed and without the focal point of that sacrificial system, the Israelites would easily have been dispersed and absorbed into the surrounding cultures of the Roman Empire around them.
So what saved us? What was the safety net that caught us when the Temple fell?
The saving grace of our people was a populist movement that had begun to develop almost two centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: the rabbinic movement had begun. The existence of scholars who were not kohanim/priests is extraordinary in a general culture in which the leaders of pagan cultic worship held the esoteric texts and practices of their faiths in closely guarded, limited circles. The general population had no access to the most sacred texts and instructions.
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses decrees that everyone, men, women, children, will all have direct access to the Torah, the Instruction of God:
Everyone needs to learn, everyone needs direct access to the Torah. Extraordinary.
Those who came together to study and discuss Torah, while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, were a populist movement. The Torah describes these men: wealthy and poor, landowners and shoemakers, with one thing in common: a commitment to exploring the depths of the Torah and making sure that the precepts of the Torah were being faithfully followed in a location and culture and economy significantly different from the place and language and culture and economy of the nomadic wandering generations who were present at Sinai. These scholars asked each other questions: What does this word mean now? How do we fulfill this mitzvah in this time and place? How do we integrate this piece of new realia into the framework of the Torah?
It is a conversation that continues until this very day on many levels . . . including, and most important, among "the men and the women and the infants", not just the scholars, not just the rabbis, but everyone who is part of the community.
There are lots of Jewish "things to do" . . . pray, give tzedakah/charity, support the institutions of the Jewish community, support one another through illness and bereavement, chose to keep the dietary laws of kashrut . . . but the Mishnah (the earliest layer of rabbinic text redacted in the 2nd century CE) declares that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם / Talmud Torah kneged kulam / the study of Torah stands equally with all the other Jewish practices and observes combined. It's a bold statement. The traditional understanding has been that it is through the study of Torah that we will learn how and why and be inspired to pray, give tzedakah, support the community, take part in the community and deepen our individual Jewish identities.
The world of Jewish learning covers as wide a spectrum as the human experience itself . . . jewish learning leads to Jewish living. And Jewish living also covers a wide spectrum of identity and lifestyle and commitment.
It is for these reasons that the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island is offering our first public event: an evening of eclectic Jewish learning. Drash and Dessert. "Drash" is the Hebrew term for the exploration and interpretation of Torah. "Dessert", well that's self-explanatory: Jews come together and there has to be food, yes?
We are proud and inspired by the wide variety of topics on offer at our Drash and Dessert event tomorrow evening after Shabbat. Whether you have sent in an rsvp or not, we hope you will join us. Click here to see the full program including time table and descriptions of our 14 different study sessions involving 16 members of our Board of Rabbis!
This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
This week's parashah / Torah reading, Tetzaveh, finds us in the midst of an enterprise begun last week in which God instructs Moses about the Mishkan/Tabernacle to be constructed as a focal point of the ritual relationship between God and Israel. This week, Aaron and his sons are appointed as kohanim/priests in charge of the ritual sacrificial system and as part of this discussion, God describes the vestments that Aaron and his sons are to wear as they perform their priestly duties.
From time to time, I have the privilege of participating in interfaith functions with my clergy colleagues from all over the faith map. Often, the instructions we receive include a note to wear vestments. This leaves me, my fellow rabbis and our friends the imams, in our rather bland professional clothing as our Christian clergy friends show up looking glorious in their colorful, dramatic vestments. At times like this, I admit to "vestment envy."
Rabbis are considered teachers rather than a priestly class invested with esoteric powers endowed with ordination (like the power to grant absolution, for example). The rich vestments worn by Aaron and his male progeny were not worn by Moses, since Moses' role was not a ritual one.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the kohanim/priests lost the unique stage upon which they fulfilled their roles in offering daily sacrifices on behalf of the people and facilitating the personal thanks, purification, festival and atonement sacrifices individuals might bring. Since the destruction of the Second Temple there has not been a unique Jewish clerical uniform or vestment.
During the rabbinic period, a type of turban-like headress, called a "sudar", was associated with sages and scholars. Perhaps something like the headress on this classic rendering of Maimonides reproduced on an Israeli stamp...
In largely Christian medieval Europe, Jews lived in tight-knit communities. Medieval manuscript illuminations, like the one above, from a 14th century manuscript from Zurich, depicts a unique-shaped hat (on the right) that was associated with Jews.
For the most part, Jews have blended in and have adopted the dress and style of the surrounding culture.
Jewish tradition does not talk about a medieval Jew's hat or an 18th century Polish nobleman's fur hat . . . but it does set guidelines for us regarding how Jews should dress.
The guiding verse regarding the way a Jewish person should walk through the world comes from the prophet, Micah (6:8):
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
It hath been told you, Adam, what is good, and what Adonay requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Walking with humility with God, in Jewish terms, has come to mean dressing modestly . . . avoiding dressing seductively; making sure to dress appropriately for the occasion, not dressing extravagantly or flashily. Although, in certain circles, the discussion of modest dress seems to focus most on women, the truth is that this standard of moving through the world with appropriate humility applies to both men and women.
The glorious vestments described in this week's Torah reading were only meant for the kohanim/priests as they fulfilled their unique roles in sustaining the sacrificial cult of the desert Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. None of us, rabbi, scholar, Jew-in-the-pew should aspire to so much "bling." Our challenge is to walk with humility with God in our world, expressed through our dress and our attitude.
This week's Torah reading, Yitro, includes the definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. There is so much to be learned from this passage, there is an infinite amount of inspiration to be gleaned from this passage . . . and it is so powerful that we rarely look elsewhere in the parashah / Torah reading. So, this year, I direct your attention to a different moment in the parashah, the opening verses . . .
The methodology of naming our parshiot / Torah readings, is a practical one. Instead of serving as a title that summarizes or characterizes the parshah, the name of the parshah is basically a keyword. In a world of text, where so many paragraphs begin "Vaydabeir Adonay" (God spoke), or "Eilah" (these are) or "Vayomer" (He said), there needs to be a way to identify the opening verse of the passage in question, the parashah. Thus, the name of both the book of Exodus and the first parashah of Exodus is "sh'mot", "names." The opening words are "v'eileh sh'mot" . . . the word "sh'mot" is going to be more identifiable than the word "v'eileh" . . . and so the book and the parashah are named "sh'mot." The same is true of this week's parashah, which begins with the words "vyishma yitro" "And Jethro heard..." "Vayishma" is not going to serve as effectively as a keyword as "Yitro", therefore this week's parashah is named Yitro.
But in this case, Yitro is an excellent name for the text to come because it helps flag a passage that is so often dwarfed by the iconic revelatory moment encompassed by the parashah.
The parashah begins with an explanation: apparently, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, took his daughter and grandchildren back to Midian as God's campaign to free the Israelites intensified. Yitro hears the news that God has delivered the Israelites from slavery, redeemed them from Egypt and that they are safely encamped beyond the reach of the Egyptian army. So Yitro packs up his daughter and grandsons so they can be reunited with his ostensibly less-burdened son-in-law. The Torah relates:
And he said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law, Jethro, have come to you, and your wife and her two sons with her." And Moses went out to his father-in-law, and he bowed, and he kissed him, and they asked each other how they were, and they came to the tent. (Sh'mot/Exodus 18:6-7, Friedman translation)
So much to note, right here: there is clearly a warm relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, a relationship of mutual respect and affection. Jethro, we have been reminded a few verses before, was "kohein Midyan", priest of Midian...so both men served as religious leaders and had that common denominator to bind them as well as their familial tie.
There is a parenthetical note to be made about the absence of an account of the reunion between husband and wife, father and children . . . and there are more than one possible ways to understand this. Perhaps for another year's Yitro blog!
In the following verses, Moshe tells his father-in-law about everything that had happened in Egypt: the plagues, the confrontations with Pharoah, God's ultimate redemption of the people. Jethro, priest of Midian, replies:
"Blessed is God, who rescued you from Egypt's hand and from Pharaoh's hand, who rescued the people from under Egypt's hand: now I know that God is bigger than all the gods because of the thing they plotted against them." (18:10-11)
And goes on to make a sacrifice to his son-in-law's God and to break bread with Aaron and the other elders.
The next day, Jethro watches as his son-in-law conducts the daily business of leading the people: from morning to evening, a never-ending line of people are coming to Moses asking for guidance from God and from the newly revealed tradition. Jethro, an older, experienced religious leader, watches this and then challenges his son-in-law: "What's this thing that you're doing for the people? Why are you sitting by yourself, and the entire people is standing up by you from morning until evening?" (18:14)
Moses replies like any other clergy person you'd ask today: it's my job; they need me; I am familiar with the content of God's revelation . . . . Jethro replies: "You'll be worn out, both you and this people who are with you, because the thing is too heavy for you." (18:18) . . . and then goes on to teach the newly minted religious leader how to delegate authority and how to create a system that works for the people, for Moses and for God. And perhaps Moses will have more time for his wife and children this way, too!
Jethro's respect for the God of his son-in-law is deeply moving. He is, after all, entrusting the well-being of his daughter and grandsons to the God of the Israelites who he has never served. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jethro brings a sacrifice to Adonay after hearing of the love of God for the Israelites and the intelligence and humility of his son-in-law. We should not interpret Jethro's sacrifice as a "conversion" to the faith of the Israelites. Let's be mindful of the cultural assumptions of this time and place where polytheism was a cultural assumption and where "gods" were most often associated with specific geographic territories. Jethro, serving the gods of Midian, would have been impressed by the power of this Canaanite God to manipulate events in Egypt and would be acknowledging, as his words suggest, the unique power of the God of the Israelites. This is a milestone on the road to universal monotheism.
In his turn, Moses, touched by his father-in-law's words and actions, is able to hear the criticism as constructive and wise...rooted in love, respect and experience.
We who are leaders, we who are not leaders, we can all learn from Jethro's compassion, respect and wisdom. More often than not, there are those around ready to help us share the burden. More often than not, there are those around us who love us more than we are aware. It's ok to pick up our heads, look around and learn to share our burdens and our love.
Olim celebrate new Israel ID cards.
Israel is an exciting place: Just as I arrived about ten days ago, a plane load of new immigrants (olim) from the United States landed at Ben Gurion airport. Over half of those on board were children. All kinds of people were on board: Orthodox families, secular singles, retirees and students.
Watching the news that day brought me back to my own arrival in Israel as a new immigrant: I stepped off the plane with my husband and my 16 month-old daughter. I knew some rudimentary Hebrew and had visited Israel a number of times over the last few years. My husband's parents and grandparents and sisters had moved to Israel, so we had the benefit of immediate family, as well as extended family all over the country. With all that, I still had a tremendous amount to learn, and a tremendous amount to assimilate.
The magic and the privilege of living in Jerusalem never really wore off. But every day sights that would stop me in my tracks ... like a glimpse of the Old City Walls while standing at a city bus stop ... became part of the unnoticed everyday landscape. Getting on that bus and hearing Hebrew and Spanish and French and Russian and English and Amharic and Hebrew used to elevate the ride, bringing home to me the face that Israel is home to Jews from all over the world. Then, I stopped seeing my fellow bus passengers so much, engrossed in figuring out how to get my errands before and still be on time to pick up my kids from pre-school.
Watching the news of this plane load of new olim brought it all back to me. I was happy for them, thinking of all that awaits them: the magic of those glimpses of the old and the new, of breathing in the air of the one place on earth that is our place. I was even happy for them for all the challenges that await: learning the Israeli children's stories and songs, figuring out how to navigate through the Israeli bureaucracy of Ministry of the Interior and the municipal tax office.
This week's Torah portion, Eikev, includes Moses' exhortations to our wilderness-wandering ancestors on the eve of their entrance into the land of our matriarchs and patriarchs: remember God's gifts of Torah and manna; keep true to the commitments and inspirations of Torah no matter what distractions and temptations your neighbors may offer you; don't forget to stop and enjoy the beauties and blessings of our land; be prepared for lots of difference of opinions and public debate ... just don't lose sight of the essentials.
If you've never been to Israel, perhaps it's time to plan a visit to experience this for yourself. If you have been to Israel, then think about coming back to recharge your spiritual batteries. It will work during the week we read Parashat Eikev, or any other time!
At our Torat Yisrael annual congregational meeting last evening, I had the privilege of installing the officers and board members who will lead our congregation through the 2013-14 / 5774 year. This is one of the rabbinic tasks that gives me the greatest pleasure year after year.
Our congregation is led by an extraordinary group of committed lay leaders. I've said this for as long as I've been at Torat Yisrael, but now their accomplishments truly speak for themselves as we held an annual congregational meeting for the first time in our beautiful new synagogue building.
The booklet that is distributed at each year's annual meeting includes a list of the officers and the board members and the terms for which they are nominated to serve. About a third of our board has one year left in their term, another third has two years left, and the newest "class", of course, has three years left in their term. We designate new board members with an asterisk.
As I looked over the new list, I could not help but noticing that almost half of the group of board members who are beginning their three-year term are new to our board. That may not strike many of you as anything more than "expected." For our congregation, this is actually a very significant development. Our board includes many people who have served multiple terms: this creates an experienced leadership who bring a rich collective communal memory to the table as we plan for the future. Now, we are succeeding in reaching out and bringing new leaders to our board table. This will energize our discussion, broaden our horizons and help us develop the strong and experienced leadership that will be key to guiding our congregation in the future.
Happily, this week's Torah reading emphasizes the importance of just this dynamic of growing leadership for the future. Moses, elsewhere described as ענו מאוד [very humble / anav m'od] turns to God with concern for the welfare of the people after Moses himself will no longer lead. Moses says: "Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers/Bamidbar 27:15).
Exhibiting perceptive understanding of the vulnerabilities at times of transition of leadership, God not only indicates to Moses that the "heir" who will next lead the people will be Joshua, son of Nun, but further instructs Moses to bring Joshua before the people now, before the crisis in leadership arises, and make it clear to the people that Joshua is both God's and Moses' choice to serve next as leader of the people.
We witness, at the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of the book of Joshua, that this very contentious and irritable people, the Israelites, experience the transition from Moses to Joshua seamlessly. They mourn Moses, of course, but they are supported and led through challenging times by Joshua with complete confidence in the young leader's capabilities. Joshua was designated early on. Joshua was "trained by the best." Joshua was known and respected and had earned their trust before ever he was called upon to lead the people on his own.
Of course, our situation here at Torat Yisrael is not analogous to the transitions in leadership from Moses to Joshua. But as we laud our current leadership and look to the faces of our newest leaders, we can learn much from this week's Torah Reading about leadership development and planning transitions for the future.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
Moses, by Michaelangelo
Have you ever heard someone say: "Those people still think Jews have horns!!"
It's an image that has become the iconic expression of ignorant anti-semitism. We consider that a person who "still thinks Jews have horns" is a person who lives in such an isolated, ignorant world that they have never met a Jewish person.
It's an anti-semitic image that has been around for a very long time. But where did it come from?
Amazingly enough, this negative image that has plagued Jews for centuries is rooted in bad translation!
In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites are in the wilderness waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. God and Moses have been in "executive session" for forty days and nights, and the people are getting nervous. When Moses returns, the Torah reports:"And the children of Israel saw that "karan" the face skin of the Moses' face."
וְרָאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה, כִּי קָרַן, עוֹר פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה
The key is the word קרן / karan. The correct translation is the past tense verb, "shone" . . . but at some point along the way, someone mis-translated the word as the noun "keren" meaning "horn." Hence, Moses . . . and by association, Jews . . . have horns.
But Moses' face was infused with light from his proximity with God during the revelation of the Torah. This imagery is one of our most elevating legacies from Moses . . . we, too, can be infused with light in the presence of God and in our engagement with Torah.
So, we may not have horns . . . but we do have light!
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains one of my most favorite passages. Moshe and Aaron are back in front of Pharaoh for yet another round of pre-plague negotiations. Pharaoh asks who among the Israelites would go out into the wilderness to worship the God of the Israelites if Pharaoh were to give his permission. Moshe replies:
"We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and our daughters..." (Sh'mot/Exodus 10:9).
Pharaoh's reply is infused with skepticism: "He said to them, "Adonay would be with you like that, when I would let you and your infants go! . . . It is not like that. Go--the men!-- and serve Adonay, because that is what you're asking." (10: 10-11)
There is a good deal of formal counting of "noses" in the Torah: before getting ready to leave Egypt, at significant junctures in the 40 years of wandering, on the eve of entering the Land . . . Israel gets counted. In those counts, we've seen that it is the men who get counted: the heads of the tribes get counted, the heads of the households get counted, the males fit for military service get counted. So we might get the impression that women don't count in our defining text as the foundations of Judaism are laid down.
This passage shows us otherwise. Yes, males get counted when there needs to be a sense of how many political or socio-economic units make up the עם/ahm/nation of Israel, how strong a military force is available to defend our people. But when Moshe and Aaron are talking about who goes and who stays, the definition of עם is inclusive: men and women, young and old, sons and daughters, the able-bodied and the frail, the economically significant and the dependent. Moshe makes it clear to Pharaoh that when Israel leaves Egypt it will be all of Israel, every single Israelite soul counts.
So it is in the best of Jewish communities today: everyone counts. Everyone is valued for the talents and the experience and the intelligence and the creativity and the humor and the dedication and the resources we each bring to the community . . . each individual's configuration of these elements is valued as essential to the well-being of the community as a whole. No one has it all: some of us are great organizers. Some of us brainstorm inspiring ideas. Some of us reach deep into our pockets. Some of us are there to support mourners. Some of us lighten the mood at meetings. Some of us bask in the limelight. Some of us thrive behind the scenes.
One of my most beloved "us" moments here at Torat Yisrael is our Torah at the Table Shabbat morning study sessions (the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at 9:15 am). Around the table, covered with munchies and coffee mugs and chumashim/bibles, we read and discuss Torah. Any given Torah at the Table can see Cohen School kids and their parents, empty-nesters and grandparents, all studying Torah together, all listening to and pondering each others questions and suggestions. That's us. A community of young and old, sons and daughters brought together by Torah.
Moses described it. We live it.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.