Terumah: Holy sand

“Va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham”  Make Me a sanctuary so I may dwell in their midst.  (Ex 25:8)

So begins a DIY/Home Depot section of the Torah.  Many, many instructions follow in Terumah, this week’s parasha. Very detailed, very specific, very long.

Why?  I mean, not just why is the Torah so detailed, but why does God need a place to stay?  Can’t God pretty much stay anywhere?  Some commentators say if Israel is to be a “holy nation”, like it says earlier in Exodus, then they should have a holy place for God’s presence.  The word “mikdash” is related to the word “kadosh”, often translated as “holy”, but can also mean “separate”.  We have kadosh-people, with their kadosh-place, where kadosh-things happen.  Other commentators say that the Mishkan was a mini-recreation of the original Creation, back in Genesis.  I want to focus on the word “b’tocham”, within them.  In their hearts, their souls, in themselves.  Plural, yet singular.  Talking to each person in the community, Torah teaches that God is both in the community, and in ourselves.

The Mikdash, the Holy Place was portable.  The set up instructions were designed so it could be built, taken down, rebuilt, and taken down again, as the Israelites travelled around.  If it weren’t portable, we would all have been visiting some spot in the Sinai wilderness all these years.   The original Chasidic movement, in the 19th century, gained popularity precisely because it endorsed the heart-felt over the ritrualistic.  Surely the impromptu, personal prayers of a simple man in the field were as important those said according to a book, in a place, among the educated elite.  Each individual carried with them a mini-Mishkan, a place where God could dwell.  To make that place welcoming for God, though, it required a welcoming space.  One that wasn’t sullied by anger or intolerance. A place that was made holy because of what happened there, and then it was taken down, packed away until the people reached a new place, and made that place holy for God.

When I go to the Naval Base to teach the recruits about Judaism, we start each Sunday morning session with Havdalah, the set of prayers that separates Shabbat from the new week.  We do Havdalah partly to experience/teach the ritual, and partly because it’s a sweet beginning to the learning.  The Havdalah prayer says, “hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol”, to separate the holy from the ……well, often it’s translated as “profane”, but that’s not right.  The opposite of kodesh is chol.  Chol also means “sand”, like the sand in the wilderness.  The Mikdash was built on one plot of sand, it was holy sand.  The sand right next to the Mikdash wasn’t profane, it was just sand.  Regular old Wednesday sand.  Not holy Shabbat sand, but not bad, evil sand.  The opposite of the holy is the normal, the mundane, the regular old sand.  What made the sand holy is what happened there.

The sanctuary we build so that God can dwell within us is like that, both in our communities and in ourselves.  The body we carry around isn’t bad, isn’t profane.  It’s our task, however, to make a holy, separate space for God as we travel around in this world.


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Mishpatim: Coming off the mountain

Truth is, folks….it’s tech week, (for those who aren’t theater folks, find someone who is, and ask them what tech week is like) and I barely have time to breathe.  So, here’s a post from the past on this week’s Parasha, Mishpatim.  Enjoy.  See you next week with a clearer head!

One of my father’s favorite phrases was “It depends on whose ox is being gored.”  He said it whenever we were “discussing” a topic.    It was his way of making us consider the issue from someone else’s perspective.  Ever the judge, he wanted us to know there’s always another side to a situation.

Mishpatim, (Laws) this week’s parasha, spends a whole lot of time on oxen.  A lot of time.  You would think that was odd, right after the powerful experience of receiving the Torah, the Ten Commandments last week in Yitro.  Those Ten Commandments – They were lofty thoughts, and right away, we’re talking oxen?

“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished.  IF [and this is a big if], however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner though warned, has failed to guard it and it kills a man or woman…”, then the ox is toast and so is the owner.  (Ex 21:28)  Or, to put it another way, if out of nowhere, your dog attacks your neighbor, the dog is punished, but you’re not.  But, if this dog has caused trouble before, and you haven’t taken measures to keep that dog reined in, then both you and your dog are at fault if it causes damage.

From high on the mountain, to a lowly ox.  Or dog.  An Israelite could get whiplash from that kind of transition!  So why ruin the mood of Sinai with such mundane rules?  Couldn’t they just bask in the glow for a little longer?

The truth is, no.  We don’t live on the Mountain, in the glow, in the ecstatic moments of Sinai.  We live in the world where oxen and dogs go wild and do damage.  We live where neighbors let their livestock run amok on your property.  We live in the world where people have to go into debt, and there are rules about keeping the dignity of the debtor…in fact, these rules are right in Mishpatim (“If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing…in what shall he sleep?” Ex 22:25-26)  Don’t humiliate the person just because s/he owes you money.

These ideas are totally out of context, if you think about it. At this point in the story, no one owns anything, certainly not land.  There are no towns where people borrow money to build houses or businesses.  There’s no need for realtor rules and tort laws.  They’re wandering in the wilderness; of what possible use is it to hear this stuff now?

This is the message of Mishpatim: You won’t be here in the wilderness forever.  You’re going to settle down at some point and build a society.  And you need to know now what’s important.  This glorious gift of Torah will show you.  Mishpatim is the bullet points of a just society, something the Israelites had not experienced.  Slavery took them away from justice, away from being in charge of their own communal power.  Since they were so recently out of Egypt, they needed to be taught step-by-step how to build a community based on human dignity and respect.   Mishpatim gets right to it, all the while telling the Israelites to keep God in mind, keep God and Torah as the reason to do it up right.

Every once in a while, it’s nice to go back to the Mountain, feel the joy and power of that moment.  But that was God and Moses’ reality.  Our reality is to bring a bit of the Mountain down to us and infuse our daily interactions with it.

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Beshallach: Back to the beginning

Universe-LargeThere is just so much going on in this week’s parasha, Beshallach.  In a nutshell, the people leave Egypt, cross over the Sea of Reeds, Moses sings a song, Miriam leads women in song, the people complain about being thirsty and hungry, they get manna and water, they get some rules (and disobey them), Moses strikes a rock, more water, and they fight the Amaleks.

Like I said, this is one busy parasha.  So, rather than focus on any one part of this story, I want to talk about language.  The astounding language of the Torah, Hebrew, is one that give insights, makes connections, and reveals understanding, and just plain makes for fun study.

So, have fun with this.  Stated:  Beshallach mirrors Creation, employing the language of Genesis.  There is plenty to work with, with the image of birthing a people through the waters of the Sea.  But to break it down further, let’s start with the fact that the waters are parted, as stated in Genesis, when God created the worlds above and below, separating the waters to make room for the land.  At the moment of crossing, we read of wind, fire, water –a real sound and light show, just like in the depiction of Creation (and I might suggest, what happens at Sinai, another seminal moment in the life of the nation.)

As in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, the people are sent out into the wilderness from Egypt.  Now, I’m not comparing Egypt to Eden; far from it.  But the language and imagery are similar.  We don’t know about those first moments outside of Eden, but one would have to guess that Adam and Eve cried out to God for protection, as did the Israelites here.  Both were led out into a place where there was no food or water, but for what they could gather for themselves.  No doubt, God’s hand was present for Adam and Eve, like the manna and water appeared for the Israelites.

We read, “In the evening  you shall know….and in the morning  you shall behold….” (Ex 16:6-7)  Remember, this text was an aural experience,  and hearing “evening” and “morning” in the same breath, in that order, like Genesis…that’s Genesis language, and it’s designed to remind us of that.  Beshallach 16:13 starts with , “vayihi erev”, and it was evening.    “And it was evening and it was morning,…” each day of Creation ended this way.  It’s supposed to sound familiar.

So what’s to be made from this short exercise?  Is it just a mind game?  True, that sort of thing is enormously enjoyable to Torah geeks like me (and done with far better skill, by others) But moreso,  if the purpose of studying Torah is to find meaning in the words, then what meaning do we find here? The words trigger memories of earlier times in the story when other word images were evoked.  Any good storyteller knows how that works, and this is a Storyteller extraordinaire.    It’s no accident that Genesis language is throughout this parasha.  God was dealing not with individuals now, but rather with an entire community, and this was a-birth, a creation of a people.  If Genesis told the creation story of humanity in general, Beshallach is telling us of the creation of a nation.  The beauty of the Hebrew is in the rhythm of the words, which lead us back to Genesis, and asks us, the listeners, to make our own connections. In both moments, we are setting out on a journey that will forever connect the human to the Creator God, and the Israelite to the Redeeming God.  Creation. Birth. Beginning.

By the way…consider this a way of encouraging you…yes, you…to bring some Hebrew into your life.  Knowing the language of the story deepens the experience.  It’s not too late.  You’re not too old.  It’s not so hard.  Go ahead – try.




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Martin Luther King : Attention must be paid

This is a reprint of an article that appeared in this month’s JUF news. It speaks to me for today’s honoring of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.  He shined the spotlight and made us all pay attention. We have to keep it up.

“I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Ex 6:5)  I’ve always wondered why it took so long for God to hear the moaning.  That’s when God remembers the covenant?  Not before? Not when the people were suffering?

Many have asked that question, and I’m not sure I have a suitable answer.  But I do think about the idea of a people’s groaning getting so loud that attention, as Arthur Miller wrote,  must be paid.

Attention must be paid…by someone.  In the Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s wife demands that respect be given to her husband, the boys’ father, not just for the flawed human being he is, but for the basic human dignity that he deserves.  Willy had his own way of getting out from under the oppression of his psyche, and it didn’t end well.  But Linda knew he deserved  attention, just like every other human being.

The Israelites deserved it, too, and God is finally paying attention.  It’s only a first step.  Attention must be followed by positive, purposeful action, which is exactly what Moses did, and what Willy Loman didn’t do.  Under orders from God, the manifestation, the on-the-ground proof that God was finally paying attention was that Moses started to act.  He went to Pharaoh, he performed mysterious acts of God’s power, and he stepped up to lead them out of oppression.

God may hear, but humans act.  God can’t do it alone.  Not that God can’t; after all, God can do all manner of things.  But God doesn’t act alone here.  God finds someone on this plane to carry forth the work needed to be done.

Back when God first approached Moses about this particular work to be done, in chapter 3 of Exodus,  Moses doth protest greatly.  He says he’s not worthy, he says he can’t speak well, he asks how he is to call God’s name.  Reluctantly, Moses takes up the task, and goes with Aaron to the people, performs “signs in the sight of the people” (Ex 4:30) and they are convinced. Without the people’s confidence, Moses couldn’t have marched into Pharaoh’s presence.

Finally, attention was being paid to a people who need it, who have been so forgotten as to forget themselves what it is to be free.  It took a lot of miracles, true, but it took human miracles also.  It took humans who recognized that their own dignity was worth paying attention to.  It took conviction and courage to make a real change in their lives, regardless of how many signs and wonders showered down among the Egyptians.

We need that attention now.When people have had enough of oppression, when people have had enough of weeping and mourning, of being enslaved to violence, hatred, and intolerance, then attention must be paid not only by God, but more importantly, by us.  We can be the Moses they need.  We can be the miracle-workers they need.  But first we have to pay attention, hear the moaning of those under the tyranny of guns, wherever it is.  On the street corner, in the alleyways, in Israel, Europe, here at home.  Pay attention, and do something.  March into the halls of the Pharaohs, and make human miracles happen.


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Bo: Everyone is included


I have a teacher that lifts up the Torah text to the class and says, “We don’t live by this book.  We live by the commentary to this book.”  And he’s right; we don’t make the offerings in Leviticus, we don’t stone people to death, we don’t allow for women to be taken as concubines.  But there are underlying concepts and themes that transcend the text, and are very much what we live by today.

One is the idea of “B’tzelem Elohim”,  in the image of God.  We recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, because we were made in the image of God.  The laws of the Holiness Code in Leviticus, the Talmudic expositions on how to loan and collect money, they all come back to this idea.  Another idea is present in Bo, this week’s parasha.  Moses is coming yet again to Pharaoh, after seven plagues have hit the Egyptian society, and still Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites.  Moses has been asking for the people to go and be free to worship God/Adonai.  Pharaoh’s court has been worn down by all the plagues, and pleads with Pharaoh to let them all go.  “Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, ‘How long shall this one be a snare to us?  Let the men go to worship Adonai their God.  Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?’” (Ex 10:7)  Pharoah brings Aaron and Moses back to his court and asks who exactly will be going out into the desert, thinking that just the men will go, not the women and children.  Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th c Spain) says that Pharoah wanted only the leaders to go, that they were the important ones to worship God.    Moses responds, “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and our daughters..” (Ex 10:9)  Everyone will go.  Of course, Moses knew that none would be returning, so all had to come at that point.  But there can be no escaping the inclusiveness of the language.  Everyone is required to be there.

Long before there was Sinai, long before there was Talmud, before the rules and regulations were presented to the people, there was this idea – we all have a place in the community to worship God, to take part in the community, to be counted as equals.

Today, we don’t need a Pharaoh to put forth the divisive idea that only the male leadership, is needed to offer praise to God.  We have members of our own community that do it, too.  And it’s not just that men and women are separated;  “separate but equal” didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.  The ongoing fight for inclusion at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem brings this into harsh light.  Recently, a young woman became a Bat Mitzvah with the help of WoW, proudly and seriously reading her Torah portion, all the while enduring people who were screaming at her.  Women are still at the mercy of cruel and vindictive husbands who refuse their wives a Jewish divorce, and the laws of the community are almost powerless to help them.   Mounting pressure, communal censure (from outside) the offending husbands’ communities, may finally have an effect and get these women free from their oppressors.  In a myriad of ways, we have moved away from inclusion – of women, of LGBTQ, of disabled, of interfaith, of all the people who enter their Jewish lives through different portals.

Moses knew that in order to build a community able to survive outside Egypt, he needed everyone involved, praising God, celebrating, learning, doing, taking the lead and taking part.   Sadly, some members of our greater Jewish community have forgotten that.  Just as Moses spoke boldly to the Pharoah, we must continue to speak boldly.

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Va’era: In the court of kings or fools

pharoahs court wizards“Adonai said to Moses, “Look, I have given you (set you in the role) as God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.” (Ex 7:1)

As if Moses wasn’t elevated enough in the community’s eyes, you would think, here God is actually telling him he’s God to Pharaoh?   Except at this point, Moses is anything but a community leader here.  He’s still trying to convince God to pick someone else.  Moses is a bad speaker, and already he knows that the people weren’t going to listen to him, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!?” (Ex 6:12)  This is not the most confident man heading into the confrontation with Pharaoh.  To the people, Moses is certainly not God, and not even much of a prophet.

Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said that some think God had miraculously removed Moses’ speech impediment, just for the purpose of coming before Pharaoh.  Ramban (13th c Spain) said that Moses was certain he wouldn’t actually have to speak, that the accompanying elders would do it for him.  God told him that Aaron would do the talking, “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh” (Ex 7:2)  It would probably have made more sense to set Moses up as a prophet; after all, God speaks to the prophet, the prophet speaks to the people.  But Aaron is to be Moses’ prophet, which makes Moses God.

So, was God just giving Moses a pep talk, so he’d have more confidence when approaching the King/God/Pharaoh of Egypt?  It’s more than that. With these words, God certainly gave Moses more status, so he could come before Pharaoh as an equal.  Moses’ words would have the requisite weight… to Pharaoh, first, not the people.  God didn’t tell Pharaoh that Moses was his equal; rather, Moses presented himself as such, and everything else flowed from that. Even though the signs and wonders came later, Pharaoh had to buy in to the fact that Moses was his equal.

It worked for Moses, and for the Israelites.  However, we have to be careful with giving people with presence a pass.  We still put more weight into the words of those whom we perceive of as higher rank.  We take the words and opinions of those whom we see as the elite.   Most of us agree on certain standards; in any subject, a Masters probably knows more than an undergrad, a PhD  probably knows more than both.  But how many people manage to present themselves before the people as experts in a certain matter, with nothing stronger behind them than the way they present themselves? In the area of climate change, for example, pseudo-scientists are being debunked all the time, yet people still believe them, largely because they come to the table with a set of pre-established beliefs, and have found the “prophets” who espouse the same.

Moses did have the goods, and being able to present himself as God to Aaron, a god to Pharaoh, held him in good stead.  But for those around us today who don’t, yet still present themselves as all-knowing, all-powerful, beware.  Beware.   They are nothing but wizards in the court of false kings.

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Shmot: Cousins

Shemot“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph already being in Egypt.” (Shmot 1:1-5)

Seventy members of a family, arriving at a place to reunite with the one far-flung son, hoping to begin anew.

I just spent the week with a whole houseful of cousins, all descended from one man George, and his beloved Nancy.  George died this summer, and, as he was one of my husband’s favorite cousins (mine too) we went down to DC for a memorial/reunion.  It was wonderful.  Granted, we all missed George dearly, but to hear so many people talk so beautifully about this really remarkable fellow, it was wonderful.  George was impressive – not just all his accomplishments, of which there were many, but the impressions he made on all who knew him.  Colleagues, cousins, and most poignantly, from the grandchildren.   From here on, for future generations, the stories about George will be told and retold, cementing who he was and what he stood for.

The clan that arrived in Egypt was one family: uncles and aunts, cousins, cousins, cousins.  Perhaps they had heard stories about the uncle who had disappeared, presumed dead.   Perhaps once united, the families sat around and told more and more stories, cementing who they were and what they stood for.

When the new kind arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph, and how he had helped the Egyptian nation, that new king enslaved the people of Joseph, the Israelites.  It went on for 400 years, forging an entire nation in a crucible of slavery.  Yet every day, in our liturgy, we recall that personal connection, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel and Leah.  Family becomes community becomes a nation.  What connected that group of wanderers is still what connects us today.  Many commentators have written that this first parasha of the book of Exodus is the transition between being a clan and becoming a people.  The faith of Genesis was a personal faith; the faith of Exodus is a national one.  But the faith is based on the stories, the families, the community.

We’ve been telling all these stories all year, every year, for thousands of years.  It started with family, with cousins.  This last week, we talked a lot about religion and humanism and history and politics, and “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”  It’s that kind of family, so if you know me, you know I was pretty happy to marry into this group.  Ultimately, we disagreed on some major issues, agreed on others, laughed, loved, cried and flourished under the conversations and the cardgames. The power of the stories told about George this week, will continue to be told, and that’s what’s important.  God, no God, Jewish practice, Jewish identity of all kinds, the stories will always tell us who we are and what we stand for.

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