Parshat Emor

Parshat Emor Torah Reading for Week of April 21-27, 2013

“Simulating Shouts” By Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D., ’10,
AJRCA Professor of Jewish Music History

Our capacity to pay attention fluctuates throughout the day. We concentrate more closely when we are wide-awake than when we are sleepy, when a situation is momentous than when it is mundane, when a task is challenging than when it is simple. Our focus is pulled by momentary intentions: factors that seem important at any particular time. We cannot help but pay attention when taking a difficult exam, navigating an unfamiliar road or engaging in stimulating conversation. The mental effort demanded in these instances leaves little space for the mind to drift. Yet, even when we are fully absorbed in the task at hand, we can be distracted by sudden changes in our surroundings. One momentary intention abruptly supplants another.

The tendency to jump from one attention-grabber to the next gave rise to our instinct to shout. Few things catch our notice more effectively than a loud burst of vocal noise. This is the reason we scream for help, bark out orders and yell across crowded rooms. It is also the reason our ancestors began blowing horns—instruments originally devised to emulate human shouts.

The link between shouting and horn blowing is apparent in Parshat Emor, more specifically, Leviticus 23:24: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” This day became known as Rosh Ha-Shanah, the autumnal New Year, and its primary ritual was the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn. Not coincidently, the term used for “loud blasts” is teru’ah, which literally means “raise a shout.”

The Israelites conceived of the shofar as an amplified human voice. When an event was especially prodigious or gathering especially large, vocal chords were insufficient for commanding collective heed. Thus the shofar was blown. Its raw and purposeful tone resembled that of an urgent voice, and its function was much the same. The attention-grabbing effect of the shofar and other horns made them fixtures at large-scale activities ranging from religious rites to military parades.

It was also believed that the shofar could summon the divine. In the Priestly conception, Rosh Ha-Shanah—the annual “Day of Shouting”—was an occasion for reminding G-d of His special relationship with Israel. As a result, the practical aim of drawing communal focus was joined with theological intent. Just as the sound of the shofar attracted Israelite notice, it was thought to tug at the ear of G-d.

Israel was not alone in thinking that loud noises could invoke supernatural forces. Many cultures of the ancient Near East considered high-decibel sounds to be potent instigators of divine blessings and holy interventions. When shouting was not powerful enough, most cultures availed themselves of percussion instruments. But Israel used the shofar, the blast of which mimics and magnifies a fervent cry.

This coincides with Israel’s high regard for the human voice. More than neighboring civilizations, Israel understood the voice to be an instrument divine. They put it to frequent use in sacred songs, poetry, shouts and utterances. They knew how difficult it was to ignore these forms of heightened speech, and envisioned G-d reacting to them in a similar way. Like the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, this conviction has persisted throughout Jewish history. Whether the sound is a melody or screech and whether it emanates from a mouth or ram’s horn, its ability to capture our attention is undeniable.

 

Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

Torah Reading for Week of April 14-20, 2013

 

“The Aftermath”
By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., President, AJRCA

More often than not, we read these two Torah portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, on the same Shabbat.  Notice the pairing of the words, which can be read:  “After the deaths [are] holy ones” or “holy things.”

In the sequence of the Torah, the reference is to the death of Aaron’s sons, who were recognized as holy ones indeed – they were anointed priests – but had acted impulsively, perhaps in a moment of religious ecstasy. As a result, G-d warns Aaron not to come into the holy areas at all times, and in fact to the Holy of Holies only once a year.  Then G-d gives the rules for Yom Kippur.  It seems important that strictures be established to prevent what, at the time of the golden calf episode, was referred to as “the people breaking loose” (Exodus 32.25).  Their energy had to be constrained and redirected.

The specific regulations for the priests are followed in the next parsha by commands that applied to everyone:  “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them….” Repeatedly, at the beginning of chapters 18, 19, and 20 of Vayikra, the whole people is called to responsibility.  Kedoshim spells out a whole series of commandments that apply to all aspects of our lives.  To our inner life – “Do not hate your brother in your heart” and to our speech – “Do not go about as a tale-bearer.”  Intimate relationships are singled out as important in the laws of forbidden unions, while even the details of clothing, shatnes (prohibited mixtures of wool and linen) are discussed.  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes, concerning many of these, that they bring attention to “the law of l’mino,” which we know from Genesis as “according to its kind.” Each and every species and type must, Hirsch says, be respected and honored.

“Holy things,” we must conclude, are not about ecstasy but rather, about embodiment.   Attention to the details of the remarkable order of creation, and our relationship to it, goes hand in hand with mindfulness about our own attitudes and words, lest they in some way mar our relations with others.  Holiness concerns our attention to an interwoven web of relationships to things, people, and G-d.  We might say, in twenty-first century language, it has to do with being fully present and committed.

But there is more.  “After the deaths, holiness”:  holy acts MUST be done.  An even fuller commitment to life is the only thing that can save us collectively from the finality of death.

How sad that here, in this week of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim, we had to face yet another tragedy, the deaths, and bodily mutilations, of dozens of people who were celebrating life, health, and the gift of the human body.  Yet we also saw that after these deaths, not a moment was lost:  people rushed to save others.  After such an abomination of evil, human beings again take up the cause of life.

So many times, after a tragic loss, families and friends band together to create something that will make the world a better place. Judea Pearl is an outstanding example, for the life-enhancing work he and his family have undertaken after the murder of his son Daniel; but one could name many more.  And in the Jewish calendar, we see a parallel dynamic.  In this same week, we remembered other times when lives were lost– Yom HaZikaron.  And after commemorating  those deaths, we remembered also Yom HaAtzma’ut, the effort to establish something better in the world — may it be the beginning of our redemption.

Violent deaths should never happen.  But when we are witnesses to such evil, we must engage even more fully with the work of perfecting the world.

After the deaths – holy things.  Holy consciousness, holy acts, that bring compassion and courage into the world once more.

 

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

Torah Reading for Week of April 7-13, 2013

“Does Memory Serve Us?”
By Rabbi Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, ‘11

 

We are a people of memory. We remember daily in our liturgy, weekly in our Torah readings, seasonally in our holiday celebrations, yearly in our lifecycle rituals.  We remember family members, inspiring teachers, archetypal leaders. We remember personal, communal and historic events.  We remember tragedy as well as triumphs.

Of his observation of Israeli and American Jewry’s commemorations of the Shoah, Prof. Efraim Sicher wrote: “The Shoah is a shadow that won’t go away. It is indelibly inscribed in our ethnic and cultural identity.  Many of the attempts to forge a new identity and mold a collective memory now seem simplistic or have been discredited.  What exactly is the place of the Shoah in Jewish history? What is it that we are to remember? Why? What do we do with this memory?”

Jewish memory this week is a paradox.  We remember the ancient teaching of the double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, in conjunction with modern history’s tragic teaching, the Shoah:   And G-d told Moses and Aaron that when a person had a tzaraat (a swelling, rash, discoloration, scaly affection, inflammation, or burn), it was to be reported to the priest, who was to examine it to determine whether the person was clean or unclean. Unclean persons were to rend their clothes, leave their head bare, cover over their upper lips, call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” and dwell outside the camp.

Reading the parsha with the backdrop of the Shoah in my mind brings chilling associations.  With each, a person suspected of some type of impurity was reported, to be examined, and determined whether they were clean or unclean.  With each, unclean persons were to be stripped, have their heads shaved, cleansed, and removed from the community.   It is hard to read this and not have images of Mengele at Auschwitz making determinations at the selection lines; prisoners being stripped, shaved, deloused, called, “Swine!” and, in this case,  interned in a camp where “work did not make you free.”

Torah teaches that when we are not one with G-d, we experience the departure of G-d in our lives (Nachmanides, Tzaria 47).  With this parsha we are confronted with the impurities of life. The inconsistencies, the paradoxes, the ugliness, the tzaraat we do not want to confront or address in the world much less in ourselves. This is manifested in our appearance as well as our actions.

An extreme example of this was the purification ideology of Nazism.  When we avoid looking deeply into ourselves for our own inner cleaning, we project our discomfort with our own un-cleanliness outwardly onto others.  Others are dirty, disgusting, ugly, embarrassing.  Rather than face the uncomfortable inner work of purification, we focus on trying to get rid of what we do not like externally.

But this does not work.  Our inner ugliness becomes acts of ugliness in the world.  Our thoughts turn hateful, producing hateful speech and subsequent hateful actions (in the extreme, the Nazi “aktions”).  We tend to respond more to the tzaraat of actions we can see, the horrors of physical atrocities.  Yet, it is often the unseen tzaraat—the hidden anguish, the shaming, of ona’ah devarim (hurtful speech)—that has more far reaching effects:  essentially, the murder of soul. 

Shaming erodes one’s sense of self to such a degree as to literally feel the blood of life drained.  The body exists but the spirit has long departed.  It is a slow, subtle, insidious, painful death.  Our Talmudic Sages taught that this type of murder is worse than the murder of the body, as this soulless body continues to inhabit the earth and spread its disease.  It is like a cancer that by the time the damage has been detected the prognosis is questionable.  It is much more pervasive than we want to know.  And, if at all attainable, the road to healing is long and arduous. 

My mother, who was 16 when she was liberated from Auschwitz, said it was the humiliation and shame, the loss of a sense of self—along with family, home, and community—that were most devastating.   As her first born, I have witnessed this effect through the generations, from her life to mine to my children.  We, as a people, have seen this shaming repeated countless times in our history as Jews.  Shame begets shame begets wrath begets shame—a vicious perpetual cycle.  What will it take for humanity to learn these lessons?

The Shoah was a horrific crime of humankind that cries out for attention.  And, yet, it is too overwhelming for our fragile psyches to confront, much less address. But, as part of humanity, confront and address it we must. The purity laws of Torah address the challenges of living in an impure world.  Our rituals of memory call us to remember our own addictions to enslavement, and to clean out our own hametz, our hidden corners of shame.  Otherwise, as the Israelites, we will continue to wander in the desert. 

Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of March 31-April 6, 2013

 

“The Temptation of New Beginnings”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04

Parasha Shemini, constituting Lev 9:1-11:47, is unusual in many ways. This is the only parasha named after a number–eight!  Why is ‘eight” important? And what does the number eight have to do with the two important thematic issues that constitute the majority of this Parsha– the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the detailed laws of kashrut (keeping kosher)?

We know that seven is the number of completion in Jewish tradition.  There are seven days in the week and the seventh day is Shabbat, the day of rest.  In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride circles the groom seven times under the chuppah (wedding canopy).  In Jewish funerals, the procession from funeral coach to gravesite stops seven times. The number seven figures prominently in delineations of Jewish time — the seven weeks of Counting the Omer, and the Sabbatical year marking the seventh year when the land rests and is renewed.  But what about eight?  Just as ‘seven’ refers to completion, ‘eight’ is associated with new beginnings.  A brit milah (circumcision) is conducted on the eighth day of a young boy’s life, after completing a week as an ‘unaffiliated’ infant, he is brought into the covenant and his new life as a Jew begins on the eighth day.  After the 49 days of counting the seven weeks of the Omer, the 50th day, the beginning of the eighth week is Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah…marking a radically new spiritual beginning!

Leviticus 9:1 tells us that Aaron and his sons have spent seven days being ceremonially prepared by Moses for their new priestly duties.  The seven day training period having been completed, on the eighth day they step into their new roles.

New beginnings offer opportunity and freedom.  The next section of our Parsha illustrates the potential dangers of freedom, as Nadav and Avihu, two of the four sons of Aaron who has just been invested into priestly service, perform some undefined ritually inappropriate act, and are killed. Be careful with new beginnings, this parsha is telling us.  Whether religious zealotry, misguided ritual passion or strong drink were the contributing factors is irrelevant.  The fact is that new opportunities have both positive and negative potential.  We are being reminded to handle new responsibilities thoughtfully, considering implications and understanding boundaries.

The parsha continues with details about kashrut, the “fitness” of the food we consume.  It details which kinds of animals and insects are permitted, describing their physical characteristics with anatomical details that are to help us discern what is and is not appropriate food.

Why do these details about kashrut follow the story of Nadav and Avihu? Their story is a warning about the potential dangers of a spiritual journey; Nadav and Avihu were explorers who overstepped their bounds.  It is fitting, then, to follow this narrative with the laws of kashrut which are designed to guide our steps … to set up boundaries within which we can safely explore.  Having experienced the tragic consequences of actions based on passion without appropriate limits, the necessity for boundaries becomes clear.  The last verse of the Parsha reminds us: “To distinguish between the impure and the pure.”

New beginnings are exciting, but can be dangerous.  Recognizing the wisdom of boundaries can help keep us spiritually nourished and safe. May we all step into our new beginnings well trained, spiritually prepared, and honoring appropriate boundaries.

Parshat Tzav

Torah Reading for Week of March 17-23, 2013

 

“Cleaning Out the Dust”
By Rabbi Andrew Feig, ’07, AJRCA Professor of Education

It just seems to be one of those weeks, where every little thing seems to present a challenge.  Small emergencies, last minute requests, and missed phone calls pile up and it feels like I am either constantly putting out fires, or getting nowhere on an infinite supply of items on my to-do list.  Frustration and anger mount, and as a result, a complete lack of patience for even the most mundane issue or task is the result.  Of course, this has nothing to do with the upcoming preparation for Pesach, which entails a great deal of consciousness, as well as attention to detail.

As I read this week’s Torah reading, I found a hidden pearl of quiet, holy wisdom conveyed in the story of a garment.  We read in Parashat Tzav, that the priest (the Kohen), wearing linen, must take the ashes from the burnt offering and place them by the altar, only later after a wardrobe change, to take them outside of the camp (Leviticus 6:3-4).  Why the attention to the Kohen’s clothing?  Why the details about sacrificial ash? 

The Mei Hashiloach, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Ishbitza, a 19th Hassidic leader,  quotes the Talmud in Zevachim 88a, noting that the linen garment atones for one’s anger and violence, as well as, atonement for sexual desire.  The Mei Hashiloach goes on to say that this seems to hint at the idea that one who is clean or has removed one’s anger or lust may come close to G-d.  The word for sacrifice, korban, has the same root as the word for drawing close, karov.

I think the Mei Hashiloach has much to teach us as we begin to enter Pesach reflected in the thoughtful, meticulous nature of the Kohen. First, our preparation for this holiday began weeks ago with the four special Shabbatot.  These cleansing weeks help us focus on the themes of equality and uniqueness (Shabbat Shekalim), memory and justice (Shabbat Zachor), spiritual purity (Shabbat Parah), and spiritual renewal (Shabbat HaHodesh).  We need these weeks to begin to not only clean out our homes, by removing the hametz, but clean our souls, by removing the spiritual hametz; the things that tear us away from fighting for justice in this world, and the anger and petty frustrations that distance ourselves from a chance at spiritual growth.  Like the Kohen who removes the dust of past sacrificial offerings, we can remove the dust of our spiritual past, our spiritual hametz, so we can become karov, close to others to G-d.  Hag Sameach!

Parshat Vayikra

Torah Reading for Week of March 10-16,2013

 

“Korbonot and Closeness: the Offering of Oneself”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ‘07

 

How do we fulfill our yearning for closeness with divine energy? How do we establish our relationship with G-d? How do we ask for forgiveness for our behaviors? How do we thank and praise G-d? There was a time when we offered animal sacrifices to express ourselves—at the Temple in Jerusalem. Now we offer prayers. Or perhaps, we offer silence, the result of not knowing how to sacrifice or pray anymore.

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korbon which shares the root of the word for becoming close, so inherent in the act of sacrifice is the kavannah/ the intention of becoming closer to G-d. In the Chabad Hasidic tradition, when we bring the animal sacrifice to G-d, we are bringing the animalistic part of ourselves to the sacrifice. When we burn the sacrifice in part or in whole, we are burning that aspect of ourselves that represents the sin that we have committed, our hubris, and our failings in the moral domain. When we bring an offering that is not an atonement, we are bringing our gratitude and our yearning and intention to come closer to G-d.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, prayer became the substitute for sacrifice, a different way to approach G-d. However, the lack of that physicality, that metaphoric relationship, has become lost to many. Perhaps a better translation for sacrifice today is “offering.” What are the ways that we can offer something of ourselves to become closer to G-d? How can we sanctify our relationship to G-d through some action that either represents atonement for our various sins or that offers praise and recognition for the gifts that we have received?

I would contend that another pathway to closeness happens when we offer time, money, or some aspect of comfort in our lives to benefit someone else. This could be time to visit someone who is sick, to advocate for a cause, to spend with family or even with ourselves. As a collective atonement for contributions to global warming, we could rearrange our consumption of fossil fuels, sacrificing some comforts perhaps for the greater good. As a family or individual, we could adjust our consumer spending and give our savings to a charity or cause that we believe in.

This past weekend, I participated in a training session on lobbying in D.C. with the American Jewish World Service. I then had the opportunity to visit with the staff of my senators and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to advocate for reforms to the foreign aid portion of the US Farm Bill. The reforms support reducing food insecurity and global hunger for 17 million more recipients of US Aid as well as increasing food sovereignty for countries to end the need for foreign interventions.

Some would say that I sacrificed time, money, and energy, in the way that we interpret that term, as giving something up. Rather, I would say that I was able to offer something of myself to become closer to G-d. Standing on Capital Hill, walking through the halls of Congress, I felt so privileged to be able to speak up for the values that emerge from Judaism — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the widow, orphan, and stranger. I found another way to sacrifice, to pray, to break through the silence. When we speak of korbonot/sacrifices in the modern world, our atonement and our praise needs to find different expressions. Our sages say, as it is below, so it is on high. We can transform the world by the offerings that we make of ourselves, in atonement and in gratitude, which bring us closer to the manifestation of G-d’s goodness in the world.

Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei

Torah Reading for the Week of March 3-9, 2013

“Hiddur Mitzvah – Holiness Beyond Ceremonial Objects”
By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ‘03

 

Recently someone came to our synagogue gift shop and said, “I want to buy a mezuzah for a Jewish friend for their new home. Rabbi, would you bless it for me?” I complimented them on their choice of a beautiful painted wooden mezuzah case, made sure they also had acquired the kosher parchment scroll to go inside, and then explained that we don’t bless objects, but rather the mitzvah, the commandment, the action, the holy service in which that ceremonial object is used. To sanctify Shabbat and usher in holy days we make a blessing over the wine, not of the wine; a blessing over the candles, not the candles themselves. I said that I would be happy to come to the house and arrange a Hanukkat Ha-bayyit, a home dedication, at which we would offer blessings, and affix the mezuzah to the doorpost.

It is with this concept in mind that we read this week’s double portion Vayakhel and Pikudei, both dealing with gathering to celebrate the completion of the construction of the Mishkan – Tabernacle – in the wilderness by the Children of Israel, echoing the instructions given in previous Torah portions Terumah and Tetzaveh. The work was accomplished by skilled workers under the inspired artistic instruction of Betzalel, the first acknowledged artist, as we read, “G-d… endowed him with a divine spirit of skill… in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs… and to give directions” (Exodus 35:30-34), enabling him to turn Moses’ blueprint dictated by the Holy One into concrete architecture, and ceremonial objects in precious metals for worship.

Vayakhel has as its root the letters kuf-hey-lamed giving rise to related words such as “gathering together,” “congregation,” community,” and “chorus.” So this retelling of the completion of the Mishkan is no mere listing of a giant building project with all its component parts completed and accounted for. Rather, this is a recounting of the joyous moment of unification when intention was carried through so that the finished product could be sanctified and used for its holy purpose as the people gave their “freewill offering to G-d” (Exodus 35:29).

This is like when we gather together for worship on Shabbat and holy days, and bring out our silver candlesticks to be lit at the onset of Shabbat, as we look around at the ark holding the Torah scrolls, with the Ner Tamid – Eternal Light – glowing above it. All of the ceremonial objects and the very structure itself become our version of the Mishkan; and the contributions of money, time, planning, and volunteer efforts are very much like the planks, posts, poles and generously donated and crafted contributions of our ancestors. At our services, we use our ceremonial objects, and we sit in sacred space, but the point is to do the inspired and holy journeying we do together through the prayers, the offerings of our hearts, as our ancestors did with the sacrifices on the altar.

“Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meetings. The Israelites did so; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did…. And Moses blessed them” (Exodus 39:30-31, and 39:43). The blessing, the ceremonies of setting up the Tabernacle, the ark, the altar, the menorah, etc., with attention to anointing and dedicating each part… these are the powerful, culminating actions that lead to the Cloud of Glory, G-d’s presence, filling the Tabernacle!

During my seven years as Museum Educator at the Skirball Museum in the 1980’s, we created many exhibits and honored artists who crafted a wide range of ceremonial objects to enhance worship through Hiddur Mitzvah, the enhancement of carrying out the commandments with beautiful objects and devoted intention. We made sure to communicate the holy uses of these objects in synagogues and homes, to make Jewish culture come alive with these objects, but never lose sight of their ultimate purpose beyond their own beauty.

May we continue to build the Mishkan as in ancient times, but with the deep understanding that it is not in the objects or projects themselves that the holiness resides, but rather in the opportunity to focus our attention, our prayers, our offerings – the essence of creating holy space. Remember “If you make me a holy space I will dwell among you, within you” from Terumah (Exodus 25:8). That vital instruction is still playing out here. It is our care, our intention, our devotion, our blessings to carry out mitzvot that make these beautiful, artistically designed ceremonial objects valuable and important.

Hazak hazak v’nit-hazek. May we be strong and strengthen each other as we end the reading of the Book of Exodus and continue on our sacred journey.

Parshat Ki Tisa

Torah Reading for Week of February 24-March 2, 2013

“A Second Calling”
By Michael Raileanu, AJRCA Third year Rabbinical Student

 

I admire Allan Page. For those unaware of who he is, Mr. Page played professional football for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears from 1967 – 1981. His career in the NFL was both long and outstanding. He was truly a dominant figure at his position, Defensive End, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was named one of the top 100 pro football players of all time and on top of all of that he was a respected and admired leader in the National Football Players Association (the player’s union) for most of his career. He was an exemplary member of the NFL fraternity throughout his career and left the field with pride and the respect of his peers. For most people that would have been enough. However, Mr. Page is also a lawyer. He is not just a “regular” lawyer. Rather, since 1992, Mr. Page has been an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. In his years on the court he has once again proven himself to be one of the very best at what he does and has accumulated numerous accolades and awards.

Mr. Page excelled at one career, turned around and became one of the very best at something else. Most of us strive to be very good at one thing during our lifetime. Achieving it twice, and at such a significant level as he has done, is truly amazing.

Victor Schoenfeld is a friend of mine. I admire him, too. The next time you pick up a bottle of Golan Wine, please look at the back. You will see his signature as he is the head winemaker. Vic is one of the few people I have ever known in my life who knew what he wanted to be when we were kids and has grown up to do just that. When we were in high school he knew he wanted to make wine. He went to UC Davis for his degree in Agriculture and then a Masters in Oeneology (the science of wine making). He is successful and happy. He is doing what he wanted to do, does it well, and people all over the world see his name everyday without even knowing the really great guy who is literally behind the bottle.

This week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, speaks to the issue of who does what and how well it gets done. G-d speaks to Moshe “…singling out Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft (Ex 31:1 – 3).” Now in Exodus Rabbah we learn that Moshe was expecting to be the only person holy enough to make the accoutrements of the Temple. However, G-d has another plan in mind. If given the right instructions, one can construct just about anything; however in order to make something valuable, something of true beauty, requires a higher level of understanding.

Moshe had been a prince in Egypt and a successful shepherd in Midian but his real calling, the thing he was destined to do, was to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and to lead them in the new and somewhat baffling ways of G-d. He could have made “nice things” for the Temple but would that have been the best use of his time? Would he have made them as beautifully as someone who has been touched by G-d? Doubtful, even for Moshe.

On top of this the Midrash teaches us that Bezalel might have been as young as 13 years old. Moshe many years his senior, and by the way, Bezalel’s uncle, must have been taken aback. Furthermore, for his assistant G-d chose Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, the smallest tribe. (One from Judah, the greatest of the tribes and one from Dan, the lowliest of the tribes, a clear demonstration that we are all called to serve G-d no matter our societal standing.) Moshe challenged Bezalel’s qualifications by ordering him to first build the Holy Ark, then the tools, and, finally, the Tabernacle. Bezalel considered this command and replied, “Moshe, my teacher, it is proper that people should first build their home and provide the furnishings. If you ask me to make the furnishings and then build the sanctuary, what will I do with the furnishings when there is no sanctuary ready to receive them?” Moshe was delighted with Bezalel’s wisdom and replied, “You are right, the command was given just as you say. You are ‘in the shadow of G-d’ and that is how you knew.” (Legends of the Bible, Louis Ginzberg)

Allan Page had a successful career and moved on to a second where he has enjoyed tremendous success (like Moshe). He did not become a lawyer and a doctor and a dentist and an accountant, like Moshe, trying to do everything for the people and G-d (remember the advice from his father-in-law Yitro). He found that second particular calling and rose to the very top. Vic Shoenfeld, on the other hand, started from a young age, pursued his passion and enjoys a very specialized career and great success (my very own Bezalel).

Most of us at the AJRCA are following in the footsteps of Moshe. We have pursued one career and now find ourselves preparing for something else. If we are thoughtful, studious, and serious, we too will enjoy success and contentment, hopefully more contentment then Moshe knew. It is my prayer that we will take on the leadership responsibilities with the seriousness of purpose that Moshe demonstrated and with Bezalel’s youthful enthusiasm and artistic appreciation for all that is beautiful.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Tetzaveh

Torah Reading for Week of February 17-23, 2013

“Dress Code”
By Batshir Torchio, Fifth Year AJRCA Rabbinical Student

During my last visit to New York, to the home where I was raised, my mother gave me a precious gift, an album she created which chronicled in photographs snapshots of my life from birth until about age 18 or so.  I stepped back in time to visit myself, age 6, in a sun-burst one-piece bathing suit on the shore at West Meadow Beach, metal pail in hand, and in another photo I am sitting on the ledge of the Empire State Building wearing a gray wool winter coat, red beret upon my pig-tailed hair, and linen white gloves on my neatly folded hands. I was ten years old.  My brother Daniel, 4 years my senior, is seated beside me in that photo, dressed impeccably in a soft brushed camel wool coat, his short black hair flawless and restrained by pomade.  We are smiling – my brother because camera posing prompted it, and I was plotting the pocketing of an indigent dime I spotted on the cement floor a few feet from where we sat.  My memory was activated and I was transported by these photographs, but even more striking to me, I was able to see my life beyond the shutter. When reading these photographs one is able to capture what my parents valued and what they strove to provide for each of their 11 children.  Very strict protocol informed my parents’ sense of dress-code, a la Captain Von Trapp. For my sisters and me, pants were part of the play-clothes wardrobe and not to be worn at school, and we were never to experience the sockless shoe trend of the early 70s popularized by penny loafers.  Photos of pleated pink-ribboned braids, starched collars, and hanky-rubbed shiny faces provide the proof:  when the moment and Mom dictated it, we were Ivory soap clean and apparently, very well-dressed.  It helped significantly that my mother handmade most of our clothing.  She was, and remains, a talented seamstress.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, just three verses into the parasha, we read in elaborate detail descriptions of the priestly vestments to be used in consecrating the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest for service.  Fine linen, precious stones, gold, blue, purple and crimson colored threads are among the designated materials for the construction of the robe, tunic, headdress and breastplate for the kehuna.  Picture an ancient version of Project Runway (Tim Gunn, fashion consultant, as Moses):

 

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for
dignity and adornment.  Next you shall instruct all who
are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill,
to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve
Me as priest.   (Ex 28:2-3)

 

The text describes these special clothes as vigdei kodesh, literally holy clothing, l’kavod ultifaret, for honor and glory.  On the surface it makes perfect sense that the unique priestly couture worn in the service of G-d reflects the awesome sacred duties.  As Nehama Leibowitz commented, “the sons of Aaron who minister in their priestly office in the House of the Lord do not serve G-d in their ordinary, everyday garments.”  My parents would agree, overalls are worn for playing in the sandbox.   The vestments worn by Aaron and his descendants distinguish them, as well as the service in which they are involved.  We might ask (as do my 8th grade students who argue against the more strict dress code for Tefillah service at school) would the priest be eligible for the task — would his prayers be acceptable and his heart adequately elevated if he entered the sanctuary in his play clothes?  One perspective is found in the Shulchan Arukh which describes a dual role for the bigdei kehuna.  The parasha reads that the special priestly garments are for the purpose of le-kadesho le-khahano li, “to sanctify him to serve Me.”  (Ex 28:3) On one level the garments serve the purpose of le’khahano li, as a demonstration of respect for G-d and for the act of prayer, of avodah.  But additionally, wearing special clothes for prayer has the effect of le’kadesho, showing honor and respect to oneself.  Though arguably somewhat subjective, special shul-going attire is an instant reminder to one’s self and others that we are dignified, respectful, and fulfilling a sacred duty.  The special clothing created an important distinction between priest and layperson, and therefore, respect expressed between community and priest, and priest and G-d.  Conversely we might ask, would the priest’s sacred performance (and would my prayer obligation) be diminished or denied in the Heavenly realm if presented while wearing torn jeans and t-shirt?  Is the clothing made holy because it meets Divine specifications, or as a result of the wearer’s devotion to G-d and one’s purity of heart?  Nahmanides provides a meaningful response to this question.  According to the Ramban, the priestly garments were made for their own sake, not merely as priestly accoutrements.  And here is where the Ramban elaborates a subtle and most meaningful interpretation of the text.  The artisans who are appropriated for making the clothing must do so with proper kavannah, with all their heart, so-to-speak, with a wise heart, fully aware of the purpose of the vestments.  That is the meaning of  ””כּל חכמי-לב found in Exodus 28:3.  “A wise heart…”

Though I fought against not being able to wear jeans to school, I can appreciate that my parents believed (and still do!) that what we wear, and how we wear it, can express deference, admiration, and reverence for people and places, including oneself. But intention of the heart matters too, and where the cloth and heart intersect each can greatly elevate the other.

Parshat Terumah

Torah Reading for Week of February 10-16, 2013

 

“The Mishkan: How Does G-d Fit Into This?”
By Rabbi Avraham Greenstein, AJRCA Professor of Hebrew  

 

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.

(שמות כה, ח)

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

 

כִּי,הַאֻמְנָם, יֵשֵׁב אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָרֶץ; הִנֵּה הַשָּׁמַיִם וּשְׁמֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, לֹא יְכַלְכְּלוּךָ–אַף, כִּי-הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּנִיתִי.  (מלכים א ח,כז)

 

But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded! (1 Kings 8:27)

 

Upon dedicating the Temple, King Solomon expresses his wonderment as to how a mere edifice of cedar-wood and costly stone could possibly contain G-d. Moreover, he is amazed that G-d can even “dwell” on this earthly plane. Despite King Solomon’s incredulity, G-d’s promise stands: Make a sanctified place, for My sake, and I will dwell amongst you. We are promised that if we dedicate a holy space to G-d in our lives and in everything we do, G-d Himself will occupy it.

To help us understand this paradox that finite human endeavor can be a vessel for the infinite and the ineffable, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya offers a unique explanation.[1] He suggests we use a different metaphorical language than we usually do to understand the divine. Normally, the operative metaphor for G-dly revelation is that of light. That is to say, we have an entrée into understanding the divine and into relating to the abstract notion of “G-dliness” through the readily relatable idea of light. Light is familiar to us. We have all experienced how the introduction of light can change our perspective on anything upon which it is shined. Light brightens, clarifies, and purifies. For this reason, we speak of spiritual “enlightenment” and the clarity of vision that the bright light of divine revelation can give. We find it easier to speak of the divine in terms of light.

Nevertheless, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya explains, a metaphor of darkness and shadow is no less useful than that of light in discussing the divine. In fact, it is most useful in discussing G-d as He is unknowable and beyond our perception. In the words of the Psalmist, “He made darkness His hiding-place” (Psalms 18:12). Particularly apt is the metaphor of the shadow: “the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand” (Ibid. 121:5). Like a shadow, G-d moves with our every step, is with us wherever we are, takes our very shape, and never leaves our side. Although intangible and other, our shadow is real to us and inseparable from our person. So it is with G-d. A shadow is visible and describable, yet it is merely the negative image produced when light meets our bodies. It is not the light itself, but the impression it makes. In this same manner, we receive and process an awesomely bright G-dly light into our persons and give it shape through our actions. It takes the shape of our movement through this world, and mirrors our every gesture. Thus, the edifice we build of our lives is built with the very imprint of the divine, and when our lives reflect a G-dly consciousness and holy ideal, this edifice of our lives is a manifest sanctuary to G-d. The lesson of “G-d’s shadow” and that of the mishkan is that although, in many respects, we relate to G-d from a distance of knowledge and perception—the distance of a primarily earthly reality from a purely divine one—this is no less of an intimate relationship, and our interaction is no less substantive and powerful.



[1] מאמרי אדמו”ר הזקן על התורה והמועדים