Tetzaveh: Hiding

maskThis week’s parasha is for those behind the scenes, those unseen, those who don’t appear in the story, but are at work in the background.

For Tetzaveh, that means Moses.  For Purim, that means God.   It’s the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor.   For both, it’s a tale of what’s revealed and what’s hidden;  what’s needed for the now, and what’s needed for the later.

Tetzaveh is all about Aaron and establishing the priesthood.  We read about the bling, the clothes, the actual ordination of Aaron as High Priest, and his sons as the first priests, “And they shall have the priesthood as their right for all time.  You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons.” (Ex 29:9)  What follows is a description of the priestly investment.  The priests’  clothes are extraordinary, their ordination rituals are detailed and elaborate.  It’s a solemn celebration.

Tezaveh is also the rare parasha after Exodus in which Moses doesn’t appear at all.  The description of what goes on in building the priesthood goes beyond the travelling troupe in the wilderness – it’s for all time.  The priestly class is what will keep the people together as they enter the Land.  They are the ones that will keep everything Moses said available to the community.  They’re the link to Sinai, bringing the Divine Presence to daily life once Sinai recedes into the past.

Then there’s Pruim – anything but a solemn celebration, and nowhere is God mentioned in the story.  Many commentators have noticed that, and all sorts of interpretations abound. Purim is the story of masks and hiddenness. Even God is hidden, working behind the narrative, like one masked.

The story of Purim plays out in Persia, outside the Land.   From what we can tell,  there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in the population between Jews and non-Jews.  It seems that only when Esther and Mordecai  step forward and identify themselves as Jews, like when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman,  does anyone around them know.  The assimilated life in the Diaspora.

So where’s God in Purim?  Where’s Moses in Tetzaveh?  How are they at work in the background?  I think they’re both teaching us how to live without them actually present in front of us.  Moses’ teachings will come through the priests, keeping the people together, focusing through the future on the laws and commandments Moses received.  God is hidden in Purim, only holding back so the people can establish for themselves their public identity as Jews.

These days, between Facebook and Instagram, we play out our lives in the public. We are constantly deciding what we want to reveal and what we want to keep hidden.  We have to decide how obvious we want the Divine Presence to be with us, with who we are, how we act, what our lives mean.

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B’shallach: Higher than angels

Egyptians drowing in the seaTalmud  Tractate Megillah 10b: As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!”

It’s Beshallach, when we cross the Sea of Reeds, embarking on our new journey to freedom from slavery in Egypt. After we crossed the waters that had miraculously separated, allowing us to walk on dry land, the Egyptian Army followed after us, led by Pharoah. The waters, however, crashed in on them, drowning them all. Our oppressors were destroyed, our escape ensured, our future ahead of us unencumbered by the slavery of the past.

Then the angels rejoiced, and promptly got scolded by God. The Egyptians may have been our enemies, but they were still creatures who had been created by God. On the surface, the lesson seems to be that we shouldn’t celebrate death.

Yet, that’s exactly what Moses and Miriam do after we get to the other side. Moses leads the people in the song of praise, Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea, saying, “ Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea…[they] are drowned in the Sea of Reeds…You sent forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw…the earth swallowed them..” (Ex 15)

So humans get to rejoice and celebrate the death of their enemies, but it’s bad form for angels to do it? It seems that God expect much more empathy from celestial beings, but there are no such expectations from mere humans, otherwise God would have been upset with the Israelites, too.   Both angels and humans had the same reaction, yet one received immediate disapproval.

This Midrash is teaching us not only that death diminishes us all, but that unlike angels, we can hold the relief and joy at being saved, but not forget that others suffered. We are able to hold opposite and conflicting concepts at the same time.

Right now, there is far too much rejoicing at the deaths of our enemies – all enemies, in fact. We seek the “zero sum game” solutions. If I win, you have to lose, and if you win, I have to lose. Angels may not be able to hold conflicting ideas, but we can, and we must. We must aspire to go higher than the angels. We must be human.

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Bo: Leaving no one behind

break chain     You can tell a lot by what people choose to use for a bluff. So far, in Exodus, Moses has been telling Pharaoh that he wanted to take the Israelites out of Egypt to worship God: “Let My People go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” (7:16).   After a few plagues, Pharoah says fine, “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land.” (8:21), but Moses says that wouldn’t work, “It would not be right to do this, for what we sacrifice to Adonai our God is untouchable to the Egyptians.” (8:22) And even more detail, “So we must go a distance of three days into the wilderness, and sacrifice to Adonai our God…” (8:23).

Moses and Aaron knew full well they were leaving and not coming back. This was a bluff. But it is in this week’s parasha, Bo, that Moses tips his hand. Pharaoh offers to let the men go, but Moses said, “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and our daughters…” (10:9)

Some commentators suggest that this was Moses’ way of indicating that they weren’t coming back, so everyone had to be on that three –day trip.   But I think Moses is also stating an important concept in the development of the people: everyone is included. Everyone is necessary. Everyone is to take part in praising God, no matter where that praise takes place. Everyone is present, no one is to be removed.

Recently, there have been incidents where women have literally been erased from the scene. After the Paris killings, world leaders came together to demonstrate against the horrific acts. A photo was taken, which included German leader Angela Merkel. When it was run in an ultra-Orthodox paper in Israel, editors removed Ms. Merkel and other women from the photo. In other well-documented incidents, women’s faces in Israel have been removed from ads on the street and their voices from over the air on radio. Those the attempts to do so have been thwarted by enforcement of law, in parts of our community, men feel entitled to leave women behind. Something Moses wasn’t going to do just then.

These very words, “we will all go, young and old, we will go with our sons and our daughters…” come at the very beginning of the formation of the people Israel – the new society, after liberation from slavery. This new society, from its beginning, included everyone. Moses forgot that a few chapters later, when in preparation for the Divine Moment, he changes God’s instructions to speak only to the men of the community, telling them to “stay away from a woman” for three days; God didn’t say that, it was Moses’ edit.   We need to remember Moses’ inclusiveness at the beginning. We must remember and hold high the knowledge that when we first stepped away from slavery, into the new relationship with God and God’s Torah, we ­were all together. Every member of the community was important and required to be there and no one was left behind, forgotten, or silenced.

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Va’era: Needing a hardened heart

hard-heart“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 7:3)

Making Pharaoh’s heart heavy, making it “kaved”, (Hebrew root letters k’v’d) God sets in motion the plagues that will be visited upon Egypt. By making Pharaoh’s heart heavy, Pharaoh can’t see God and God’s power and oneness, foolishly maintaining his own version of himself, that he is the god of Egypt, king of all he sees. His heart becomes closed and heavy, laden with anger, with no room for compassion.

And, as we know from our years of sitting at Passover Seders, the ten plagues ensue, wreaking havoc upon the Egyptian land and its people. Poisoned water, frogs, lice, wild animals, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death. Ultimately, Pharaoh’s heavy heart proved heavy as a stone. He sank into the Nile, drowned with the rest of his army as the Israelites escaped across the water.

I have spent the last few days among people who bring great joy and do great work in the Jewish world and the world beyond. The Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Conference has been taking place in the spot on the globe known as Boulder CO, and it has been an exhilarating week. The theme of their conference, and indeed much of their rabbinate, involves Tikkun Olam – repairing a broken world. Passion and promise, hope and faith guide their individual spiritual journeys and their communal focus. I heard Ruth Messinger, from American Jewish World Service, speak about her work. There is so much to do, all around the world. The sheer number of plagues on the land, on the spirit, on the very bodies of those who are the least protected and the most vulnerable can destroy any semblance of optimism, no matter how dedicated you are.

Ms Messinger spoke about being overwhelmed with the work to be done. How is one not overwhelmed?  How do you keep your heart from breaking at the pain and sadness, injustice and despair? How do you say no to those who desperately need help? How, in fact, do you keep yourself from falling into the kind of paralysis that keeps you from doing anything at all? What toll does that take on one’s heart?

In short, how do you harden your heart against it all? Is there a time when hardening your heart is actually necessary?

Pharaoh saw the devastation around him. He saw the pain and chaos on the land. Every time a plague ended, Pharaoh promised to let the Israelites go. But he neither acted, nor re-acted to what he saw.

He said no. He reverted back to how things were before, and then another plague descended. And another. Until his world was destroyed.

Compare that to the hearts of those who engage in Tikkun Olam. Their hearts also have “k’v’d”, kavod; here it means honor and respect. They see the devastation around them, but do the opposite of what Pharaoh did. Their hearts are hardened just enough to keep let them get up every morning and begin the work anew. Their hearts are open enough to let in the despair, and then devote the rest of the day to lessening it, both for those suffering, and themselves, too.

The heart that is merely “k’v’d”, heavy and hard, will sink. But the heart that has “k’v’d” , honor in it, will rise above the waves of hopelessness, and start ending the plagues.

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Sh’mot: Seeing is believing

eyeWhat does it mean to see?

In the beginning of the book of Exodus, we come across many references to sight, seeing, realizing, being aware. Pharoah told the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to look and see whether the new baby was a boy or girl; they were to kill the boys, but they didn’t.   Yocheved, Moses’ mother, saw that her son was beautiful and knew he needed to be saved.  Pharoah’s daughter Batya didn’t hear the baby in the basket, she saw him, and moreover, saw that he was a Hebrew baby. She understood much at that moment – it was a baby, he needed saving, he was a Hebrew and her inability to accept her father’s systemic oppression of the Israelites came down to rescuing this one baby boy.

Moses saw his people’s labors and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and realized in a flash the injustice, the fear, the oppression…and saw he needed to take action. Even God saw the plight of the Israelites and finally set in motion the next part of the story.  And in the wilderness , Moses saw that God appeared in the Bush that burned wouldn’t burn up. Moses turned his head from side to side to look and notice the strange Bush, realizing that he was witnessing something profound.

The flip side to sight in the Bible is awe. The words are connected by their letters : sight (ro’eh) and awe ( yirah). Just as seeing is more than just seeing, awe is more than awe. The midwives “feared God” and so they used their sight to save baby boys. Moses was afraid when he realized his killing of the Egyptian could be known and fled at the realization that his own identity was coming to the surface, requiring action. And of course, in the wilderness, an angel appeared and Moses noticed this awesome sight, aware that God was in that place.

Sight and awe. When we truly see the people near us, when we see magnificent scenery, when we see deep into ourselves, we are filled with awe. And sometimes fear, too. The great moments of our lives come when not just our eyes are open, but when we are open. Those who saw in this Parasha, really saw, were open morally and spiritually, ready to act on what they were seeing. They could act with purpose because they saw with clarity.

With any great endeavor, especially at the beginning, a healthy dose of clear vision, awe and fear are most necessary. Moses realized this, as did Yocheved and Shifra and Puah. Awesome (literally) things happen when we are open to seeing things differently, turning our head this way and that, like Moses did, to experience a moment of real vision. It’s good to live our lives with eyes and heart, mind and soul open to those moments so they don’t pass us by.

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Vayechi: Happy New Year


Like the parasha “”Chaye Sarah” (the life of Sarah), which immediately tells of her death, this week’s parasha is called, “Vayechi” (and he lived), though the text is all about death. At the beginning, it is Jacob’s death that is described, and it takes up the bulk of the parasha. At the end, it is Joseph’s death that is told. Both father and son are embalmed, and mourned in an Egyptian fashion. However, both father and son ask that they not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of their ancestors. Both father and son die at peace with their sons and their legacies.

This is a parasha of transition. It is the end of the book of Genesis. The story moves from being one of the generations of a particular family to that of a particular people. Israel, the man who used to be called Jacob, will be Israel, the nation.

This week’s parasha comes to us at another point of transition, that of the secular New Year. I write this on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2015, in the quiet of a cold winter afternoon. There are those within the Jewish community who pay little, if any, attention to the Dec 31/Jan 1 transition; after all, “our” New Years was a few months ago. But I would suggest that, just as Israel’s sons Menasseh and Ephraim straddled the cultures of their Israelite lives and the Egypt that surrounded them, there is value in our doing the same.

People make all sorts of resolutions at this time, something we don’t tend to do for Rosh Hashanah. Sort of. At Tishrei, the Hebrew month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is a seasonal transition at this time, as we move from summer to fall. We are tied to the stages of the moon in our “natural” calendar, and we clearly begin again, with a new moon cycle. We look back and see where we missed the mark, recount our regret for those moments, and pray that we would be judged with mercy, regardless of those moments. We don’t sit in synagogue and say we’re going to keep to a diet. This is a spiritual transition, one that often calls us to cleanse and renew ourselves.

January 1 is different, but no less powerful. The dividing line between December and January seems more arbitrary, and there is certainly no seasonal distinction. We are in the middle of the dark time of the year. But we have just passed the Winter Solstice, ten days ago, and the days are ever-so-slightly getting longer, as we move toward spring. We engage in a different sort of acknowledgement. We celebrate, look forward, resolve ourselves to better habits and new endeavors….like keeping to that diet.

Just as Jacob’s and Joseph’s deaths marked a transition between living in a more insulated, tribal-based society to that of a separate nation living amongst other nations, we can see January 1 in a similar light. We can acknowledge both moments in our lives, one perhaps more inward-looking and the other perhaps more outward-looking. Past and future, poised between both.

In this parasha, too, we read that Jacob/Israel blessed Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim before he died, and it is this blessing that many Jewish parents use around the world to bless their sons. Why bless in the name of these two sons? Commentators talk of two reasons: first, as Laura Geller writes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (p. 300), “could it be because, like so many Jews throughout history, they grew up in the Diaspora and still remained Jews.” The second reason often cited is that these were the first two brothers in the entire Genesis narrative that didn’t fight with each other for blessings. A noble reason to invoke their names, indeed.

The two New Years, the two sides of ourselves, don’t have to fight for blessings either. Let us embrace both for what they can offer, and how they can enrich our lives.

Wishing you a very happy 2015….and a continued happy 5775!

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Chanukah 2014 Eighth Night

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.

Tonight, the gift of OPTIMISM

chanukah 8This includes both a sense of perspective and a sense of joy.  Life will be hard enough, so relish the good moments.  Our other gifts will help you stay strong in the face of adversity.  This one will help you savor its absence.  Focus on hope, equanimity, and a positive outlook, instead of on worry and pessimism.  Be a joyous presence in the world.  Count your blessings. Have fun.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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