Ki Tisa: Protect us, cover us.

11th_century_unknown_painters_-_Noah's_Ark_-_WGA19708There’s this wonderful aspect of Hebrew that never fails to keep me enthralled. Each word has a three letter root. If words have the same root letters, if they have the same “shoresh”, they’re connected, and it’s our profound challenge and joy to look for a connection.

This week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, is really, really complex. There’s a lot going on.  We have broken tablets of the Ten Commandments. We have the Golden Calf, and the restoration of the Covenant. We have God’s anger blazing forth, Moses pacifying God, and by the end of the parasha, we read that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7)  These are the words we say every year on Yom Kippur, the long day of atonement.  With these words, we remind ourselves of God’s love and care. We count on it for another year of life. We offer “Kippur” so we can be forgiven.

Kippur – the root is K-P-R.  It’s a shoresh we see a lot, in Leviticus, Exodus, all sorts of places.  Atonement, expiation, This is the same shoresh we find in the beginning of the parasha. We read that when the people take a census of the community, each shall pay a kofer (K-F-R), so that “no plague may come upon them “ (Ex 3-“11), and “when giving God’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money…” (Ex 30:15-16), l’chaper and hakipurim. The census “dues” are an offering of expiation.  There’s another place we find this shoresh, way back in Genesis.

We are in the story of Noah, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make the ark with rooms, and cover it with tar inside and out.” (Gen 6:14)  The word for “cover it”?  Kafarta – K-P-R (remember, in Hebrew P and F are the same letter, just depends on the vocalization).

Now the fun begins. What could be the possible connection between the word “expiation” and “cover”?

Perhaps we go back to Exodus and Ki Tisa. The money that is given for “expiation” is to keep the people safe, to keep them from any plague. Their “dues” gives them membership in a group that will care for them.  Their offerings, in this case, is money, but in other places where the word is used, the offerings may be an animal or some flour and oil.  Those offerings are made to keep the people in the graces of God, keep in God’s protection.  That’s just what the covering of the ark was for Noah.  It carried the future of the world, and the covering protected the ark from danger and harm.  In the ark were the humans and animals that would populate the world after the devastating flood.  The K-F-R in Ki Tisa will keep the people in the wilderness safe from a plague.

When the K-F-R is translated as “atonement” or “expiation”, we think of the individual doing atonement having done something wrong and now needs to be forgiven.  To think of it in the sense of protection, we can see that the act of forgiveness keeps that individual not just alive ,but in a state of holiness. The whole journey of Exodus is to bring the people who began as slaves to become an “am kadosh, a holy people, one that is under the care and protection of God.

We can be comforted in knowing that we are protected not only while we’re floating on the flood’s waters, but as we’re wandering in the wilderness, all in the quest to live as a holy people



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Tetzaveh and Purim: Extreme Project Runway

maskClothing conceals. Clothing defines. Clothing elevates.

Clothing is behind both this week’s parasha and the holiday of Purim, clothing in all of the roles it plays.  In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, there is a long complex description of Aaron’s vestments. He is to be the High Priest, and he needs special clothes that are appropriate to his standing.  Aaron’s sons , Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be included in this finery.  These are very fine clothes, indeed: a breastplate, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash.  There are precious stones, and colorful yarns. There are bells along the hems of the tunics. There are braided chains of gold and cords of blue linen.

When Aaron and his sons donned their vestments, they were transformed. They became the Priests. Certainly, without the clothing, there were still rules they had to live by.  But when they put on the garments, something wholly/holy momentous took place. There was an order to getting dressed for their jobs, a ritual in and of itself, preparing them for the work they were to do in the holy space.  Their clothes defined their work. To an extent, when they are wearing those very special clothes, they become very specialized people.  Yes, the clothes do make the priest.

Then there’s Purim. A holiday of clothes, too, but this time we’re looking to escape, be someone else, when we put on a Purim costume. Where Aaron becomes more of who he is, we try to become someone completely different.  Aaron and his sons were “dressed by God”.  For Purim, we choose our own costumes, and lose ourselves in the controlled chaos of the holiday.  Everyone in Purim was hiding, as the rabbis say, even God. God doesn’t appear as a character in the story, whereas God is everywhere in the Exodus passage.

All of the characters have clothes that define who they are…sort of: Achashverus is a king, but doesn’t rule beyond throwing parties. Haman doesn’t wear the clothes of a king, yet he rules the king from behind the throne, hiding his power until he wants to use it. Vashti wears the clothes of a strong, beautiful queen, but is de-throned, stripped of her vestments and her influence. Esther is a young girl who becomes a queen, wearing the clothes but not feeling the part, until she has to step up and finally act the queen she is.  To do this, she throws off her “mask” of hiding her identity, and wears her robes for real.  And Mordechai? His clothes don’t change, he is who he is – perhaps the only one in the story who is: a citizen, a Jew, a loyal subject of the King,  but with unwavering internal center.

Ever since the Garden, clothes have been crucial to defining ourselves. With my very first “corporate” job, I used to get up, put on the suit (back then, it really was suits),the makeup, do my hair, and put on my costume for my job. I looked in the mirror each morning, and asked, “Was it really me?”No, not at all, and I didn’t last long there. Now, however, I do the same thing, but it feels far more like me. I’ve grown into the costume, perhaps. When I get ready to go onstage, and I put on my character’s makeup and costume, it is a transformation that doesn’t happen when I’m just rehearsing in my street clothes. When I put on my tallit to lead or take part in prayer, it changes my behavior, my intention, my very bearing.

Who will you be for Purim?  Who will you be the next day?


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Terumah: Over the rainbow?

dorothy-over-the-rainbow“Find a place where you won’t get into any trouble!”

“A place where I won’t get into any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?”

Well, Dorothy and Toto tried to find that place, over the rainbow. It wasn’t exactly a trouble-free place, thanks to the Wicked Witch and the scary Wizard himself (until he’s exposed, literally). But the Israelites found a place like that, in this week’s parasha, Terumah.  “V’asuli mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham…Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell with them.” (Ex 25:8)

There are so many details in this parasaha about building the Mishkan. Measurements. Materials. Method.  But what sort of a place is this sanctuary? Why have it? Why does God need a place? Isn’t God everywhere? And why the details?

Naturally, the rabbis jump all over this, with beautiful and thoughtful commentary. Some of our favorite commentators – Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Sforno,  – each take a different view (of course!)  For Rashi (11th c France), the Mishkan is all about being a place for atonement. There is confusion as to whether this whole episode took place before or after the Golden Calf debacle; for Rashi, it happened after the Golden Calf, even though we haven’t gotten to it in the weekly schedule. Go figure – there’s no “time in the Torah”. For Ramban (13th c Spain), it’s simply that a holy people need a holy place; it has nothing to do with atonement.  For Rashbam (12th c France, Rashi’s grandson), all the blueprints and details simply mean that it’s a place for the community to meet. And for Sforno, (16th c Italy) the language of this section mirrors the language of creation, so the Mishkan is a representation of the creation of the world.

Like so many other moments in Exodus, Terumah represents all of these things…or none of these things…or one of these things…or something totally new. (Don’t you love commentary? It helps if you’re able to hold more than one idea in your head!) This was a people newly liberated, out in the middle of the wilderness, fresh from a ground-shattering communal experience, the giving of Torah. They are on a journey, literally and figuratively. The Mishkan is a literal expression of a virtual journey, one from slavery to freedom.  It doesn’t happen quickly, but rather, it’s a process. The detailed instructions of for building the Mishkan is a manifestation of the process it’s going to take to go from one to the other.  Building the Mishkan as a place for God to dwell is a process for the people to embrace.

Is the Mishkan a place where the Israelites wouldn’t get into any trouble? Well, if this happened before the Golden Calf, then clearly no. But even if it did, the Calf happened outside the holy space. It’s still a place apart from trouble. We all need a place like that – not God, but us. Terumah is outlining a process for the people, for us, to move from whatever is enslaving us to whatever can liberate us, bringing us to a place over the rainbow.

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Bo: Hold your signs high

Meryem Yildirim, 7, left, sits on her father, Fatim, of Schaumburg, and Adin Bendat-Appell, 9, right, sits on his father, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, of Deerfield, during a protest on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Ill. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

“They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts an the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it.” (Ex 12:7)

The Israelites were identifying their homes, so the Angel of Death would pass over them, and keep them from the 10th plague, the death of the first borns.  “And the blood on the houses were you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Ex 12:13)

One can imagine there was more than one audience for those blood smears.  God saw it, and knew the people were obeying God’s instructions.  Egyptians saw it, and would have surmised that they were about to be struck with another plague, one that, again, avoided affecting the Israelites.  And the Israelites saw it, knowing that their national identity was visible and their solidarity was on display.

Solidarity on display.  There have been many signs of solidarity on display over the last week.   Signs held over pink hats.  Signs calling for humanity and love. Signs against a hateful, fear-mongering ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees.  Signs of welcome for these same immigrants and refugees.  Signs of resistance to erosion of rights fought and died for.  Signs of determination to keep our voices heard.  Signs of vigilance and vision.

Many have said that these massive demonstrations don’t really do anything, that our voices are going to be ignored anyway.  But the signs on the lintels weren’t only for the Egyptians, the oppressors.  They were for the Israelites, too, so they would see they weren’t alone.  The signs were there to tell them why they were about to go into the wilderness, following one man with a vision and faith in a God they couldn’t see.  The signs told them that they would begin their journey together, and that if they kept their eyes on the signs all around them, throughout that journey, they would arrive at a place of plenty.

Keep making and holding high your signs.

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Mishpatim: Chandler was right.Could it be more relevant?

support-the-globeI keep thinking, that with each week that goes by, each parasha, (weekly portion) won’t scream “RELEVANCE.” But no, the blessing and the curse of Torah. It is always relevant.

This week our portion is Mishpatim. Laws, or rather, rules, and it happens right after the exhilarating, earth-shattering theological experience of Sinai. What happens after that kind of experience?  How do you get back to your life? Where to begin? The Ten Commandments began the long journey not just through a physical or spiritual wilderness, but through a social one as well.   God said, “Hey, you’re a people now!” and the people said, “Huh? How do we do that?”

Well, you build a society, one concept, one law, one rule at a time.  Like this one:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I shall hear their cry as soon as they cry out to Me.” (Ex 22:20-22)

The rest of the parshat Mishpatim is a seemingly random collection of do’s and don’ts…how to build a society. We read about ox goring, witnesses, treatment of slaves, thievery, monetary recompense for injuries and damages, and lending money.

There’s more in chapter 23:

Don’t carry false rumors or join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.

Don’t side with the mighty (the many) to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony to pervert it in favor of the mighty

Don’t subvert the rights of the needy in their dispute.

And then there it is again:

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9)

We have a brand new society, rising up from a bunch of traumatized slaves with a reluctant leader who grows in confidence each day, and among the oxen and first fruits, the needs of the most vulnerable in society are not only highlighted, but given God’s greatest care and concern; God will hear about it if you mistreat these folks.

It just doesn’t get clearer than that. At the core of a righteous and just society, a holy society, it is our responsibility to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the ones who are vulnerable and need protection..not from God, but from us. God only comes into the picture when we screw up, and mistreat them, causing them to cry out. So when we witness their oppression, it must be our own voices that cry out on their behalf, and we must keep at it if we are to ever think of ourselves as a just society again.






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Yitro: Breathing together

breatheawareness“The thing you are doing is not right.  You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.  For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”  (Ex 18:17-18)

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, gives Moses the staggered-breathing advice when it came to hearing the pleas and complaints of the people out in the wilderness.  Moses was the only one hearing their disputes, and he was setting up for quite a backlog.  So, Yitro suggested that Moses bring on others to share the load, and they created a system of “thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” to hear and judge the minor disputes, and the major ones that couldn’t be solved, they would bring to Moses.

I saw something on Facebook the other day, recalling the choral technique of staggered breathing.  When there’s a really long note to hold, not everyone can do it for the entire length of the note, but if everybody grabs a breath at some point when one’s neighbor isn’t breathing, it sounds like it’s one continuous note, but the burden is spread out among the chorus.  The post was referring to the marathon some of us are running, staying ever vigilant against the vitriol and incompetency coming out of the White House, and its current resident. (Although how often is he really there…he’s gone golfing nearly every weekend since the Inauguration….but I digress, which brings me back to my point.)

We have to stay focused, and we can’t do it alone.  I can’t be out there writing letters, postcards, posts, and marching on every topic that concerns me right now.  I can’t donate to every cause that is so very important and needs support.  But if we all take a piece of the challenge, if we all breathe when our neighbor isn’t, we can stay strong in the face of such overwhelming challenges.

Moses was right to take Yitro’s advice.  He would wear himself out if he tried to do it all alone.  We will wear ourselves out, too, trying to fight every fight ourselves.  Rather, we have to share the challenge so it all gets done.  “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this

.. you will be able to bear up, and all these people will go home unwearied” (Ex 18:22-23)  Ramban (13th c Spain) says about the word “unwearied”, rather “ ‘in peace’.  Currently being unable to get to you [Moses] to see justice done, no one can rest peacefully.”

We can’t rest until justice is not only done, but secured and protected for all.


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Beshallach: Song and strength

It’s tech week. As the Hebrew saying goes, “mavin yavin” (he who understands will understand). So, given “tech week tired”  this is a reworking of a post from Beshallach, 2012.  Astounding that it’s still relevant.  Song can change the world.  

Sometimes I open the next week’s text and just stare at it.  Some parashiot are so huge and layered and profound I just don’t even know where to start.  That would be the case this week, with Beshallach.  Crossing the Sea of Reeds.  Armies drowned.  Singing the Song of the Sea.  Miriam dancing with the women.  Beginning to travel as a people, not just tribes. Complaining about no water. Miracles of water. Miracles of manna.  More miracles of water. And Amalek attacking.

I mean, seriously, where do you begin?  A few weeks ago, millions of us marched or stood in protest, and many of us have made ourselves present at more marches and protests. We raised our voices in song.  The one I kept singing in my head, and out loud, was “Never Turning Back” by Pat Humphries.  (sung here by Judy Small)

The centerpiece of the parasha is the Song of the Sea – Shirat ha Yam.  It is the song of victory sung as we passed through the Sea of Reeds, safe from the Egyptian pursuers.  Not surprisingly, after such an escape, the people, led by Moses, broke into song and dance, taking  what they’d just experienced and translating the Divine into very human terms.

The Song of the Sea is bold and strong, militaristic and unbowed at the death of the Egyptians.  It’s loud and long.  It’s the cry of a new birth – those who have passed through the waters from a narrow place into the open, into a journey.  There was death and blood, crying and shouting…and a new life: tentative, scary, vulnerable .

The poem mentions chariots thrown into the sea, strength of God’s right arm, wind and fury.  Personally, I don’t find the Shirat ha Yam all that compelling, in its totality; the battle images don’t appeal.  But  I like parts of it.  At the very beginning of the poem is a verse that evokes more calm than fury.    We sing, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li yeshua” (Yah is my strength and song, Yah is my deliverance.)

God is my strength and my song, and that is what saved me.  (If you want to hear a beautiful setting to this verse, check out  a couple of recordings using Rabbi Shefa Gold’s melody to the text, or at a recent Limmud )

Ozi v’zimrat Yah-Yah is my strength and my song.  I love the idea of pairing strength and song. It does take strength to lift up your voice and sing.  I’m not talking about the “stage-fright-I-can’t sing” strength;  I mean “something is wrong here that needs to be righted” strength.   If you can sing about it, it’s real and lasting.  Song is what changes the world, and song changes us, too.  We have sung when the danger has passed, like the Israelites did here, and we have sung while we are still in the scary places, when we need the strength.  We sing to give strength to others.  We sing when something needs to change, and then sing again when it does.  We sing to remember, and we sing so we’ll never forget.

Vayihi li yeshua…and that is what saved me.  The Israelites were literally saved from their pursuers.  But they were being pursued by their past – what they had been: slaves.  Moses told them that the Egyptians they see that day they will never see again.  They must not see them again; they must not go back “there” to what they were.  There is only onward into the wilderness.  What pursues us today?  Our enslavement to whatever has kept us in our own “mitzrayim” (Egypt, but also “narrow place, from the word “metzar”, narrow), our indifference, our resistance to sing it out and sing it strong; who we’ve been, for which we need the strength to move onward.

Sometimes our songs are put to melodies, sometimes to dance, sometimes to words, and sometimes to our mere presence in a place.  These are the songs of the soul.

Ozi v’zimrat Ya-Yah is my strength and my song, and that is what will save me.

This is the Sabbath of song.  Go out and sing to change the world.

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