Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

Assembling Big and Small

As we come to the close of the book of Exodus with Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei we come together to  assemble. At the start of this week’s Torah portion we learn:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל  

Moshe then assembled the whole Israelite community… (Exodus 35:1)

On a related note Rav Nachman of Breslov the 18th Century Chasidic Master taught:

The essence of Teshuva– return is in the month of Elul because it is during these days of favor, when Moshe ascended Mt Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets and opened an yet-charted path in which to go. Now, the path which Moshe made is this: Moshe bound himself with even the smallest Jew, and gave of himself for them, as it is written, “But if not, please blot me out!” (Exodus 32:32). This is also the meaning of: “And Moshe assembled…” (Exodus 35:1)—that Moshe would gather, unite and bind himself with all of Israel, even with the smallest of the least. This is the meaning of “They have entirely withdrawn; together” (Psalms 53:4). Even when I see a Jew who has totally withdrawn from God, I nevertheless need us to be “together”—I must unite and bind with him, just as Moshe did. (Likutei Moharan, Part II 82:3:1)

I was thinking about this Torah from Rav Nachman this last week.  This last week was supposed to be FJC’s Leader’s Assembly. In this biennial conference we bring together 800 Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders, and supporters of the field of Jewish summer camp Sunday- Tuesday in Baltimore. In addition I was planning to spend last Shabbat with over 40 camp directors from outside of North America.  Alas with the onset of COVID-19 – this did not happen. A week prior we called it off and then within 48 hours the team turned it around and produced an amazing virtual conference.

It was an amazing experience to get together with that many people in the cloud when so many of us were quarantined at home. The FJC team did an amazing job helping the field of Jewish camp chart a new path to assemble and connect with each other. While we know that the coming weeks and months we find ourselves in uncharted territories, together we must keep our eyes on the future of the field, its continued growth and the important, life-long community that camps build. Despite the mandate for social distancing we know that we still need to assemble.

Amidst these tumultuous times it is clear to me that camp leadership are acting as Moshe did giving of themselves and doing whatever it takes to draw our community together no matter the barriers or challenges.  Like the days of Elul- in coming to Jewish camp we return to a utopian vision of the world and do Teshuva to return to better versions of ourselves. Camp is the opposite of social distancing. Camp is the place of belonging. From the smallest camper to our teens, to new staff members, to year round professionals, to their families, to board members, to all of our supporters Jewish camp brings them “together”. It is at camp that any Jew big or small can connect to Jewish Life, develop a passion for Israel, feel like a part of a vibrant Jewish community, or even discover God.

This Leaders Assembly was proof that people really just wanted to assemble. I am in awe of these leaders’ capacity to give of themselves. Right now the world needs Jewish camp more than ever. We all seek belonging and they are playing a critical role. Together we need to “unite and bind” us and assemble all of Israel.

Biblical Proportion: Making Meaning in Difficult Times

In these troubling times we find ourselves amidst a plague, governmental incompetence, and political unrest of biblical proportions. I find it hard not to connect to this week’s Jewish calendar and Torah portion in visceral ways. First we have the odds game with COVID-19 and the lots drawn on Purim sealing our fate as people. My family’s lack of patience waiting at home to leave voluntary quarantine and the Israelites’ impatience as Moshe to come down from Mt.Sinai. Moshe himself spending 40 days up on Mt. Sinai and the endless hours in the Zoom Cloud. In thinking about Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, I am struck by  the interaction between God and Moshe after the GCI (Golden Calf Incident). 

While Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai getting the Ten Commandments the people are below sinning with the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai and deals with his people.  And then we  read,

31 And Moshe returned unto the Lord, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray of You, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the Lord said unto Moshe: ‘Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. (Exodus 32: 31-33)

If God does not keep God’s promise to the Israelites, Moshe asks to be erased. While Avraham confronted God at his destruction of Sodom, Moshe pulls off the ultimate Keyser Söze. As imperfect as they are, Moshe puts himself on the line and casts his lot with the people of Israel. One compelling reading is the Moshe breaks the fourth wall sharing with us the reader his consciousness of being the protagonist of our story ( see Stranger Than Fiction). 

Another understanding of this is that Moshe was opting into a life of meaning with his people and with there narrative. As Viktor Frankl said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” Moshe is modeling for us what it means to opt into a life of meaning and allowing his narrative and our collective narrative to be one. In so doing, Moshe is the model for living a life of biblical proportion. Like Moshe, we can read ourselves into the narrative we can share our suffering and add meaning to our lives. 

image1.jpeg

Eventually COVID-19 will pass and we will leave this quarantine. The next time I see a person wearing a mask I will just think of Moshe  descending Mt Sinai with his radiant face having to cover his face with a veil(Exodus 34:33). I cannot be the only one living a life of biblical proportion.

Heroic Breastplate

There is so much heaviness in the world right now. I really just wanted to think about something positive and protective. In Tetzave this week’s Torah portion God instructed Moshe to make sacral vestments for Aaron: a breastpiece (the Hoshen), the Ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen breeches. The Hoshen is particularly ornate with its rows of stones. There we read:

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28: 17-21)

This sacred breastplate was worn by the High Priest. It has a number of names. It is called the efod, the Hoshen Mishpat- the breastplate of judgment, and the Urim and Thummim. With all of its splendor and their names engraved, this was clearly a central symbol of unity of the Israelite Tribes.

I was thinking about this image a few month ago when we brought in Isaac and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik to do a workshop for a group of assistant camp directors. Their work had us bring together pop culture, comic books, art and Torah study to make out our own Paper Midrash. It was a  sophisticated text study through a unique art practice, leveraging contemporary narratives from comic books, movies and other pop culture to inspire new insights into traditional texts.

In their workshop I let my mind go and explored my own understanding of leadership in light of comic book heroes and this vision of the High Priest from this week’s Torah portion. I came up with this:

 

 

In my breastplate the stones themselves where made out of the breastplates of 12 different comic book heroes. It is interesting to realize that they all wear their identity on their chest for all to see. The bottom of this is Kavod, the honor and respect, that is the foundation of all leadership. If you do not lead from that place  you are no superhero. It seems that now more then ever we need unity, protection, leaders who put themselves out there and a renewed foundation of respect.

Cultural Gifts of the Heart: Encounter and Terumah

As Torah portions go, this is a big week. In Terumah we start getting the blue print for the Tabernacle. There is a clear plan for what will be built and made, but that is not where they start off this large-scale project. Rather, they start off with themselves. As we read:

‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.( Exodus 25:2)

While their gifts are going to fit into a very clear and focused plan, their gifts were not all the same. The gifts were not of the same value, but all valuable becasue they were from the heart. At the center of our national narrative is a collaborative non-profit project that celebrates the diverse offerings of every individual while working toward a common goal. And about this project God says:

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

The text does not say “make this building so that I can dwell in it“- the Tabernacle, but rather in “them”. When building the Tabernacle we were building a place for God to be with us.

Image result for encounter israel

I was thinking about it this week while I was in Israel on Encounter. It is am amazing program that seeks to grow the Jewish community’s capacity to contribute to a durable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which all parties live with respect, recognition, and rights. One theme that emerged from the myriad of lessons that I learned this week is the need to divide the seemlingly intractable political and security issues of the conflict from the cultural and human elements. Had the conflict preempted my ability or interest to see Palestinians as a people with a unique a rich culture? Did this two dimensional image of Palestinians bar my ability to see them as anything other then enemies?

While there is no clear blue print for building a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the one thing that is clear is that the Deal of the Century is not the answer. Nothing unilateral will work. Before we get to solutions that will cost a lot of money or bloodshed we need to do something that costs us nothing. We need to pay each other respect. Nothing will work if it does not allow for all of the different voices in the conflict to be heard and respected.

Encounter was filled with experiences of Palestinian education, arts, and culture which transformed me. I am not saying that this shift will erase the conflict, but I know that erasing Palestinian culture does nothing good for anyone. When we are open to what our neighbors contribute to our larger society, we start to see each others as people and it has the potential to sactify the world. In contributing to the larger society we see our national worth. In appreciating each other’s contributions we learn to respect for each other as nations. We do not need to get lost in who gave more or less, we just need to see, enjoy, and respect the gifts of the heart. When we give and receive these gifts of culture we can make room for each other and even God in our lives.

The Failure of Democracy

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute -after the majority must one incline —nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23:2-3)

Simply put it is suggesting that justice cannot be political. The adjudication of what it right or wrong cannot be defined by what is popular. The law to follow the majority is the birthplace of democracy.

This principle comes into play in the story of Tanor Shel Aknai. The story starts with a debate over the halakhic status of a new type of oven but ends with a crazy disagreement of the nature of law and authority. Rabbi Eliezer standing by himself uses miracles and even a Bat Kol to prove his side of the debate. The Rabbis hold their ground saying that God does not have authority over the Torah after giving it to humanity and the law must follow the majority. Check out this video from Godcast z”l on the story:

There in the Gemara we learn:

Said Rabbi Yeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline”.( Exodus 23:2) (Baba Meitzia 59b)

This means that we need to follow the majority and overlook the divine will expressed in miracles. The power and authority sits with those who debate within the walls of the yeshiva. We literally silence the divine voice to make room for the voice of the human majority.

This reminds me of a story that my brother Daniel shared with me. He was an avid rower in college and even coached. A while back he sent me the following joke:

Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours every day, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team. So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge, Mass. , and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practice.

After a week, Morris returns to Yeshiva. “Well, I figured out their secret,” he announces.
“What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
“We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.” 

Who is rowing and who is leading? Too often we think we are leading by screaming and not just rowing. Successful rowing is by definition not a democracy.

These stories have a strange relevance to this moment in our politics. For right now we see the Democratic candidates all screaming at each other and no one is driving the boat toward the finish line. We are at a scary moment in our democracy where an impeached president is going unchecked. This is leading him to continue to behave as if his voice is divinely ordained, he necessarily in the right, and should win every debate. With Russian meddling in the news again many fear that they will pervert the voting process again. People do not trust that their vote represents their voice. How might we go “after the majority” if we do not trust our capacity to hear their voice? This is the failure of democracy.

As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

Let’s just try to scream a little less.

– For more on this story of the Tanor Shel Aknai- check out this source sheet

Separation of Powers: The Wisdom of Yitro

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, the nation of Israel received the Torah. The Sinai experience, arguably the main event in our history, is introduced by and named for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. He did not just come to visit and bring his daughter and grandchildren back to Moshe. Yitro plays a critical role of giving Moshe the feedback on his leadership that he needed to hear. His critique seems to bring about the giving of the Torah. Right before revelation we read:

Next day, Moshe sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moshe from morning until evening. But when Moshe’s father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moshe replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” And Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Hearken now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you will be for the people before God, and you will bring the causes to God.( Exodus 18: 13-19)

What is “not good” about what Moshe is doing?” Seeing Moshe working himself to the bone, Yitro gives him a plan to organize the adjudicating of the law. In order for them to keep the law they needed a system for teaching the people the law. It just was not efficient or efficacious for Moshe to be playing this role.

On another level Yitro is helping Moshe see that God’s law is just that God’s and not Moshe’s. It is noteworthy that in the Haftarah from Isaiah we see God alone sitting on God’s Throne. There we read:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. ( Isaiah 6:1)

The coupling of this Haftarah to Yitro underscores the notion that Moshe was never supposed to be construed of as God. It was not Moshe who was seated in judgement “from morning until evening”, but God alone.

On a third level we see Yitro’s critique as the birth of the separations of powers. One of the fundamental principles of the United States Constitution is the balance and separation of power among the three branches of the Government: the Legislative, the Executive branch, and the Judiciary. The distribution of power among the three branches is meant to ensure that no one branch of the government is able to gain a disproportionate amount of power over the other two. Each branch has separate and unique powers the others cannot impinge upon, but which are nonetheless subject to acceptance or rejection by the other two branches. This is how the balance of power is kept in check. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands… may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny

Yitro’s message was one to preempt the tyranny of the Executive over the Judiciary.

Yitro’s message could not come at a better time. It is clear that Trump needs to understand that he is not his office and his office needs to be kept in check.

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack. “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” In light of this quote it seems clear that Yitro was trying to separate Moshe from that throne of power. It is only when Moshe is removed from the potential of becoming a tyrant that we could receive the Torah.
We are living in a time of tyranny where the President thinks he is above the law.  The constitution of this republic and this democracy itself is in peril. Who will be our Yitro?

My Heart: A Different Love Song

This year I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. I guess it is not shocking that I love his music.

Most recently I have been listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart.Here is a live version he performed with Omer Adam. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics to this song. I am actually in a process of making another contemporary page of Talmud. I am not done yet, but I just could not resist sharing a thought on this song seeing that we read BeShalach this week. The song starts off:

My heart is split in two

What the maidservant did not perceive by the water

Like a storm from the sea, it throbs

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world

My heart hold hands up

I stumble, can no longer stand on my feet

Just a wreck with no purpose

And the skies are like a wall to me

How shall I pass through the sea on dry ground

Ribo masterfully weaves together language from BeShalach to write a love song. In BeShalach  we learn of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds by Moshe. The Israelites escape from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground with the water on each side of them like walls.  After the miracle we hear the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of BeShalach  I have a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a midrash. There we learn:

A Roman Matron asked Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, “In how many days did God create the world?” He said, “In six, as it is said, ‘Since six days God made…’ (Exodus 20:11) “And since then,” she asked, “what has God been doing?” “God sits [on the Heavenly Throne] and makes matches: the daughter of this one to that one, the wife [i.e. widow] of this one to that one, the money of this one to that one,” responded R. Yosi. “And for merely this you believe in God!” she said. “Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage.” R. Yosi, “Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds.” Whereupon, Rabbi Yosi took his leave. What did she do? The Matron lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. She said to them: “What do we have here?” and they each said to her: “I don’t want this one” [with whom you matched me.” Immediately, she summoned R. Yosi and she brought him to her and said: “Your God is not like our god, and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely.” (Genesis Rabbah 68:4)

What has God been doing since the creation of the world? God has been making matches. But how difficult is that? It is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Like the Matron we could easily assume that making matches is easy, but we would be wrong.

Ribo is writing about that moment when he realized that he has found his match. That moment is overwhelming. That moment was as rare as splitting the Sea of Reeds. This song is about his divine love for his partner. Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song.  


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 199 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: