Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
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!
After the austerity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah provide color and noise and joy . . . and, as the name implies, there is no greater joy (simchah) than our joy in having the Torah.
Our joy in the Torah comes from the unique place this text holds in our tradition: it is through the Torah that we find our collective identity as a people; we learn our history, our values, insights into the human character and insights into God. The Torah constantly challenges us with spiritual and behavioral goals which can engage us for a lifetime. The Torah provides us with hope in our future as long as we have a community with which to study and live with and provides comfort to us through the Torah's many assurances of God's love for us and commitment to our covenant, our brit, with God.
One of the Torah's greatest gifts to us is itself: unlike many other ancient faiths, the knowledge of, engagement with our quintessential sacred text was never reserved for an elite few . . . just weeks ago, as we read the book of Deuteronomy at Shabbat services, we were witness to Moshe commanded that the Torah be read aloud as the entire people were gathered together: men, women and all those old enough to understand. Every single Jewish soul has a direct connection to our Source . . . to God and to sacred text God has put into our hands.
This is one of the reasons why Simchat Torah is so powerful: each of us holds a scroll in our arms . . . we dance and sing and rejoice in our identities as Jewish individuals in a thriving Jewish community . . . . and it is the Torah we embrace that makes us possible.
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.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
After taking something of a narrative hiatus in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus (which serves as a handbook for kohanim as the rules and roles of the sacrificial system are put into place and issues of ritual purity and impurity are defined) we are picking up where we left off at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus. In other words, we are "bamidbar" . . . we are in the wilderness. Specifically, still camped at the foot of Har Sinai.
Here we see Moshe as camp bus counselor (count the kids as they get on the bus at camp, count the kids when they got off the bus at the amusement park, count the kids when they get back on the bus back to camp . . . ): God turns to Moshe and instructs him to conduct a census, a head count. "We're breaking camp, packing up, and continuing the journey through the wilderness, Moshe, so make sure you know how many people you've got before you leave."
Then God delivers instructions further instructions for Aaron and his sons, the tribe of Levi: "At the breaking of the camp, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. They shall lay a covering of dolphin skin over it and spread a cloth of pure blue on top; and they shall put its poles in place. . . .Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for lighting ...they shall put it and all its furnishings into a covering of dolphin skin, which they shall then place on a carrying frame . . . Next they shall spread a blue cloth over the altar of gold . . . " (Bamidbar/Numbers, Chapter 4)
The act of packing up is also of significance . . . all the accessories that had been so lovingly crafted in order to initiate the sacrificial system connecting God and Israel are now to be packed up as well, and very specific instructions are given to the tribe of Levi concerning how that packing was to be done.
Just a few weeks ago, we at Torat Yisrael packed up the sacred accessories that had enhanced our worship in Cranston for 60 years: our sacred scrolls, the white high holy day mantles, the eternal lights and the different sorts of prayer books and bibles we read, the Torah crowns and shields and pointers, the memorial plaques and dedication plaques, the ark curtains and doors and the building full of mezuzot as well . . . . It was a jarring sight to watch these iconic items taken down, wrapped up, packed into trucks and transported to storage. I had a strong sense that the kedushah, the sanctity, of each piece was being wrapped up along with the item itself. These objects cannot be reduced to mere "things." They are infused with the sanctity of their roles as they cover the scrolls, point to sacred words, adorn the Torah, reflect God's light in our places of prayer.
Just as the tribe of Levy mindfully wrapped up those items preparing to leave Sinai, we have mindfully wrapped and stored our items in anticipation of the day when our new synagogue building will be dedicated. Then our Torah scrolls, our Torah pointers and crowns and shields and mantles will be unwrapped and brought into their new home. Then their kedushah will be released from its wrappings and will be free to infuse our new sacred space with the holiness of our Torah and our kehillah k'doshah, our sacred community.
A friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?" (Click here to read Rabbi Cohler-Esses' entire commentary)
I think the key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
This week's parashah / Torah reading and many other passages as well, contain rules for the Israelites regarding the treatment of the Hebrew slave (eved ivri) as well as non-Israelite slaves. These passages make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters:
2-3: When you will buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go out liberated for free. If he will come by himself, he shall go out by himself, if he is a woman's husband, then his wife shall go with him."
7-8: And if a man will sell his daughter as a maid, she shall not go out as the slaves go out. If she is bad in the eyes of her master who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall not dominate so as to sell her to a foreign people in his betrayal of her.
26-27: And if a man strike his slave's eye or his maid's eye and destroy it, he shall let them go, liberated for his eye. And if he will knock out his slave's tooth or his maid's tooth, he shall let him go liberated for his tooth. (translation by Rabbi Richard Friedman)
For certain, there are passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in what we deem our holy text. (A master is, for example, allowed to strike a slave, but not, as we've seen, cause any lasting bodily harm. In a related verse, a slave is referred to as the master's money or asset.) All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a very modern-looking television remote control. The recipient of the gift expresses very understandable confusion.
If the passages of Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been profound confusion. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time who could understand and commit to implement those laws.
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture and dress were handed a medieval farming implement and were expected to use it. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, is always about the lives we are leading right now.
Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
This Shabbat, our Torah reading relates the unique, definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. The people (and the Midrash teaches us, every Jewish soul for all time) are gathered together in the middle of the wilderness to receive the Torah, God's most precious gift to our people.
The Torah is our foundation, it is the sacred text that establishes God's role in the world and God's relationship with our ancestors, the Israelites. The Torah preserves the core of our collective identity and provides us with infinite inspiration and guidance.
With all this in mind, I find a teaching from the early rabbinic compilation, the Mishnah (compiled by the end of the 1st century) to be perplexing:
"Rabbi Yossi says: 'be prepared to learn Torah, for it is not part of your natural inheritance . . . '" (Mishnah Avot 2:15)
Now I would have made the case that this week's Torah reading establishes for all time that the Torah is precisely, the inheritance of every generation of the Jewish people. What can Rabbi Yossi mean by his statement?
The best way to understand Rabbi Yossi's statement is to read both parts together: we need to learn Torah . . . why? because we haven't inherited it. Perhaps "inheriting Torah" in this context means inheriting qualities like our senses, intuition, intelligence, our emotional and spiritual lives.
Rabbi Yossi reinforces for us the centrality of Torah in our lives . . . Torah is as essential to our existence and character as our intelligence, our intuition, our senses and our emotional and spiritual lives. But unlike those qualities, we need to make the effort to integrate Torah into the fabric of our lives, it does not happen naturally like those other inherited qualities.
There is a beautiful tradition in which we stand as the revelation at Sinai is read from the Torah scroll each year on this Shabbat. Here is body language for acknowledging the wisdom of Rabbi Yossi's insight: we can't sit back and receive Torah passively, we need to stand, to step into revelation. We need to learn.
Parashat Vayigash Torah Reading: Genesis 44:18-47:27
Do you ever talk to the tv? You know the protagonist shouldn't go into the cave or whatever, and you're sitting there calling, "no! don't go there!"
And you're right, of course, because you've seen it before . . . the bad guy is lurking in the shadows or the rock slide seals your hero into an apparently impossible situation.
And that's how I feel reading Parashat Vayigash, this week's Torah reading. Joseph is at the height of his powers and reputation. All of his brothers and his father Jacob are graciously settled onto prime real estate by Pharaoh as a tribute to Joseph's vision and plan saving Egypt from famine. And as the family of Jacob settles into Goshen, I'm moved to call out "no! don't go there! Your great grandchildren are going to be doomed to slavery!"
Because, of course, I've read this story before. Every year. I read it in Religious School when I was a kid. I studied it, with all the commentaries, in rabbinical school. I review it every year when we come to this Shabbat, as well.
How many times can a person go back to the same story? If the story is in the Torah, there's no limit.
What is it about the Torah that keeps us coming back? Yes, it is engaging literature. Our spiritual connection to the text is the divine revelation integrally woven into every word.
But I think the real draw for us as Jews is the fact that it is our story. Revisiting the text of the Torah year after year is like sitting around the table with family and hearing your parents and grandparents tell and re-tell the family stories. I admit that when my Aunt Gladys gets started on those stories, I have a tendency to roll my eyes. But you know what? I love those stories and I love the way Gladys tells them. And every time I listen to them, I hear a little something that I didn't hear before. And every time I listen to them I feel embraced by the narratives . . . I see myself and where I've come from. It's a powerful and precious experience.
When we read and re-read the Torah, we are reading the story of our past, the story of our roots, the story of what ties us together as a community and a people. So, even though we know how the story ends, we never get tired of returning to the story. There is actually comfort and confirmation in knowing what happens next in the story . . . because this is the story whose narrative continues through the generations right up to us at this time and this place.
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.