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Shabbat in Person: Present of Presence

In Vayekel Pikkudei, this week’s Torah portion,we read that Moshe  assembles the people of Israel and tells them the details of what is needed to build the Tabernacle. The rest of the portion discusses all of the giving and the artisans who set out to build the tabernacle. But before Moshe talks about the Tabernacle he reiterates the commandment to observe the Shabbat. There we read:

And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.’  ( Exodus 35:1-3)

In the Gemara in Shabbat this juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the Tabernacle is the root of 39 types of work used in making the tabernacle are categories of prohibited behavior on Shabbat. On another level , what is the connection between building the Tabernacle, Shabbat, and assembling people?

We also learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed…Who revives the dead. (Berakhot 58b)

In that the absence of a friend is tantamount to their death there is a clear value of connecting with people in person. In many ways Tabernacle was a place for us to connect “in person” with God. Likewise Shabbat is a chance for us to be in God’s presence.  That might be too hard to really connect with for most of us, so at least Shabbat should be a time for us to connect face to face with each other. In an era in which most of our relationships are filtered though electronic screens Shabbat is a real present of presence.

-Similar message in Technology Shabbat by Tiffany Shlain

 

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Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Speech for Tetzaveh and Purim

This week marks the first anniversary of Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. It is hard to believe that he is about to be 14 years old and in a few short month he will be off to high school.  To mark this moment I wanted to share the Dvar Torah Yadid gave at the ceremony he had at our synagogue.

When I was in Toronto, for my cousin Eliyahu’s Bar Mitzvah, our friends the Horowitz’s suggested I go to a high quality, low cost tailor nearby. I went to the tailor and I tried on a couple of suits. While wearing the suits I felt like a king. I started thinking about how clothes affect how people are seen and see themselves. My sister, Emi, can be intensely focused on her clothes and has said, “ Clothes is life”.  While I was learning with Rabbi Marder I had a thought that clothing has a role in helping people connect with the the idea of majesty. But how? You might ask.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the Bigdei Kehuna. Part of the Bigdei Kehuna is a vest that is turquoise- Techelet, gold and purple (Exodus 28:6-8). Like the blue color of a hyperlink linking web pages the Techelet connects the Cohan’s clothing to the Techelet  in our ancestor’s tzitzit, eventually to G-d’s  Kisei Hakavod– saphire heavenly throne. Now we see that our ancestors looked at the Bigdei Kehuna and saw a representative of God in heaven.

What does it mean to represent God? In regard to this I wanted to share  an interesting piece by Kafka. He wrote, ” The emperor of the imperial sun sent a messenger out with an important message; a strong indefatigable man running through the crowd. Every time the messenger met resistance he would point at his breast which bore the sign of the sun- the king’s symbol and people would get out of his way ( Emperor of China).

Maybe this is why my Abba is always getting on my case about wearing tzitzit?

So when our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol they saw a representative of God. If that is how our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol, how did the Kohen Gadol see himself?

We read in Tetzaveh that the Kohanim were dressed like this because, “ l’kavod uLetriferet” (Exodus 28:2). Meaning they were dressed up for honor and splendor. But whose honor and whose splendor? Who? The Kohanim, God, or even B’nai’ Israel? The answer is, likely, that it was for all three. The Kohanim are singled out and special. How could they not see themselves as special sporting the tekhelet and the special robes?

The symbolism of clothing, and its connection to both honor and position, is very much present in this week’s Haftorah as well. King Saul has failed to carry out G-d’s instructions and the Prophet Samuel announces that HaShem has now rejected Saul as king. Samuel turns away to leave and Saul grabs Samuel’s tunic, ripping it. In response to that Samuel said just like this, “HaShem has ripped the kingship of Israel away from you today.”  Here we see that the  clothing carries the full symbolism of the role.

In the words of the Bard, “Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man” (Hamlet). Saul admits to his wrong doing, then begs Samuel to not embarrass him in front of the elders of the people. He pleads Kabdeni– for his honor.  We hear the root Kavod here, echoing the use in the description of the Kohen’s clothing, “l’kavod ultifaret” and G-d’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne.  Saul is not worried about how he represents God’s honor, only how his honor is perceived by B’nai Israel. Unlike in this week’s parasha,Torah portion, when the Kohanim are serving God to honor God, Saul, having lost God’s favor, is not focused on how he represents God as the king. Rather, Saul is more concerned with how being king represents him in front of the people.  Sad for Saul.

Interestingly we see a similar discussion in Megillat Esther which I will be reading tomorrow at my Bar Mitzvah ( Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah was celebrated the next day on Purim). Achashverosh wakes up in the middle of the night and he has the book of chronicles read to him. It is brought to his attention that Mordecai saved his life and was never recognized or rewarded for this. Achashverosh asks Haman: “מַה לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הַמֶּלֶךְ חָפֵץ בִּיקָרוֹ- What he should do  “to honor someone the king wants to honor” ( This was according to Onkelos’ translation of  yakar as kavod )?  Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s clothes, wear the king’s crown and be paraded around Shushan on the king’s horse. The king agrees – well, sort off.  He says that Mordechai should be led around with the king’s clothes and the king’s horse. Notably, he excludes the crown. By Haman’s asking for the crown and the king excluding the crown we can see that both Haman and Achashverosh see the crown not just as another accessory of his outfit, but wearing the crown has symbolic value which means that the person donning the crown is king.  The clothing themselves imply something royal, and that crown seals the deal.

So, what connects our three texts? And how do they help our understanding of the concept of honor? In the Megillah, on a superficial way honor can be worn, but it is much harder to actually  attain. In the haftorah, we learn that even if one is stripped of kingship, one should not be stripped of honor.  There is a baseline of honor due to everyone, even someone who has failed God. In Tetzaveh, the clothing is there for honor as well, but it less so to demand respect as to a king then to inspire a connection to the King.

The berachah, blessing, for seeing a king is Shechalak Mikvodo lebasar v’dam– that G-d has shared some of his honor with flesh and blood. When you see a king you should honor them- give them kavodI can imagine at the moment of my being faced with a real life King- l’kavod uLetriferet with all of their pomp and circumstance I would be overwhelmed. The very nature of taking this moment to make a beracha to God reframes the experience. Like our ancestors, we can double click on the Techelet from the Bigdei Kehunah and be taken to an image of God’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne. The honor due to do a King is but a helek, a part, of God’s infinite honor.

It is true that we are all created B’Tzelem Elochim, in the image of God, and when we see a King we get a chance to see a magnified version God’s majesty.  This blessing gives us a way to give a flesh and blood king the proper respect regardless of their imperfection. This is like what we learn from Samuel. It also reminds us never to be fooled like Haman and Achashverosh into thinking  that majesty is as simple as wearing a crown. But how do we make sense of this blessing in light of the Megillah and in our world in which God is often hidden from view? As we will read in the Megillah tonight this corrupt world view leads to thinking that people can be bought and sold with no respect of their divine nature. Perhaps this is why we dress up in costume on Purim. In the absence of perceived God we can project an ideal that clothes might inspire us to seek out God and dress ourselves in the moral fabric that ensures that we treat everyone with respect and honor.

And when I stand here today in my Bar Mitzvah suit, I feel a little majestic. My family and friends are here from all over the world to celebrate me. But I take this moment to realized that clothes should inspire us to emulate something greater not make us think we are greater.

Thank you Rabbi Marder for helping me with my speech, thank you everyone for joining me for this coronation of sorts. Thank you Abba and Mami for helping me with troupe, planning and more, and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down and helping me see myself for what I can be with or without a majestic suit. Shabbat Shalom and have a majestic Purim.

I am still so proud of my majestic son.

Gratitude for the Hungry Dogs: Mishpatim and the Eagles

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 be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.( Exodus 22:30)

On this Rashi comments:

Why does the Torah say “to the dogs” ? Because the Holy One, blessed is God, does not withhold the reward of any creature, as it is said: “But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue” (Exod. 11:7). Said the Holy One, blessed is God, “Give it its reward.” [ Mechilta]

The Torah is telling us that we should show gratitude. Just as we hope that God will not let our good deeds go unrewarded, we show gratitude by giving forbidden meat to the dog.

I am moved to express gratitude for the Eagles and the people of Philadelphia. This past Sunday with their grit and determination they  taught us all that “hungry dogs run faster”. No one believed in them and yet they won. It is lovely seeing them get their just reward.

Image result for hungry dogs are faster eagles

And as I reflect back on the last few weeks watching my Facebook feed I realize I have been moved by a virtual sense of community. I was touched seeing all of my childhood friends from Philadelphia who now live all over the world having a real experience of galus from the town in which we were raised. We share much nachas from this “Philly Special” victory.

 

Image result for philly special t shirt

Blood on Our Hands

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. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of this blood?

An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Yosef and his brothers.

Originally, Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Yosef’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuven said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).

In the case of Yosef’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at times.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Yosef’s blood is on our hands for generations. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for looking out for people who are marginalized. Even today it is easy for us to hide behind a law, but without DACA innocent people’s lives will be destroyed. To fix this we might need to get my hands dirty.

Privilege Bingo

In Yitro,this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s reunion with his family and the giving of the Torah. In between these two events, we are privy to the advice which Yitro gives to his son-in-law, Moshe. Moshe was sitting from morning until night listening to the people who had come to seek God (Exodus 18:13-15). Yitro said , “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out- you as well as this people who is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Moshe outlived his entire generation, it was not as if he was going to weaken his strength to sit, govern, or adjudicate law. Maybe Yitro was concerned that people would grow tired or worse bored out of his mind. It is also possible that Yitro was worried that Moshe would grow corrupt without a system of checks and balances in place. If Moshe ruled alone he would become worn out by his own ego.

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.” Even if the idea of God is very distant, we can realize the deepest Torah in knowing that none of us are God. Being a religious person in a secular environment makes it easy to slip from seeing oneself as a beneficiary of God’s message to judging everyone who does not live according to your lifestyle.

The greatness of a person is his or her ability to become aware of his or her own privileges and limitations. While Moshe was great in his comprehension of the law, he earned his place in history in his ability to give up that throne. It was only when Moshe got out of that throne that the people were ready to see God sitting in it.

This past year has been a parade of unfortunate events in the world. In light of everything that has happened and is happening I have grown more aware of the myriad of privileges that I enjoy.  I am a cisgendered heterosexual able-bodied tall white man living in the New York area. I am a naturalized citizen and native English speaker ( but some might question that one). I am fortunate to have been blessed with an excellent education and a wonderful family. And on top of all of this and more I am an Orthodox Rabbi. Even before we sit down to play I  have already won the game of Privilege Bingo.

Image result for Privilege Bingo

It is hard for me to not hear Yitro saying, “The thing that you do is not good”. How is my sitting on the throne getting in the way of other people getting to revelation , let alone redemption?

 

 

Baby Moana Baby Mosche

Ever morning for the last few months our two -year-old daughter Libi has gotten up and asked to watch Moana. The movie is set on a Polynesian island. The inhabitants worship the goddess Te Fiti, who brought life to the ocean, using a special stone. Maui, the shape-shifting demigod and master of sailing, steals the stone to give humanity the power of creation. However, when he steals the stone Te Fiti disintegrates, and Maui is attacked by Te Kā, a volcanic demon, losing both his magical giant fishhook and the stone to the depths. A millennium later, Moana, daughter of the island’s chief, is chosen by the ocean to return the stone to Te Fiti.  Years later, after Moana has grown older, a blight strikes the island, rotting the coconuts and dwindling the number of fish caught. Most of the movie is her finding Maui and coaxing him into helping her. In the end Moana plays a critical role in manipulating the water helping Maui return the magical stone to Te Fiti.

This was an enjoyable if not formulaic Disney instant classic. What is interesting about Libi’s wanting to see it all the time is that she is only interested in watching the beginning of the movie- or as she says, “Baby Moana, Baby Moana”.

The part that she likes most is when Moana is a curious little girl and goes to see the “scary” beach. There she follows a baby turtle and protects it so the turtle can return unharmed to the ocean. Once there the ocean magically coaxes her to go in by dividing drawing her further and further out until she actually sees the lost stone of Te Fiti. It is clear that baby Moana has an insatiable curiosity and a special connection with the ocean.

Seeing this scene made me think about the connections between baby Moana and baby Mosche. When we first meet Mosche  he saved from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter Batya. She “draws him out of the water” giving him the name Mosche. Like Moana his identity is connected to water. Like Moana, Mosche grows up as royalty and feels a deep need to save his people. Like Moana, the small act of protecting a defenseless animal ( substitute sheep for turtle here) is the sign that this child will grow up to be the savior. Like Moana, in order to save his people Mosche must get them to leave the comforts of the world they know in order to thrive. The most iconic parallel is the images from this scene which we see in reading B’Shalach , this week’s Torah portion. What a powerful image of the water splitting for Mosche and Moana? One could say it is just derivative, or we could enjoy the similarities of these stories pointing to the holiness in the commonality of our humanity.

Bone Breaking: Between Liberation and Apotheosis

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the peculiar commandment not to break any from all of the bones of the Passover sacrifice. We read:

The Lord said to Moshe and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel shall offer it.(Exodus 12:43-47).

Clearly this commandment is connected to the general  commandment to remember the miracles of Egypt.  At most basic level we learn who gets to eat of the Passover sacrifice. This action very clearly helps us define the group and who is a part of our nation. But still what is the problem of breaking the bones?

About this the Sefer HaHinuch writes:

…it is not honorable for the sons of kings and the advisers of the land to drag the bones and break them like dogs. It is not a proper thing to do this, except for the impoverished among the people and the starving. And therefore, as we began to become the chosen of all nations, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and in each and every year at that time, it is proper for us to do acts that show in us the great stature which we achieved at that hour. (Sefer HaHinuch 16)

This argument suggests that breaking the bones on any day would be beneath us, but on Passover when we are reenacting our liberation and lounging ( leaning)  as kings, we should not gnaw at bones like slaves.  It seems that there is still more going on with this commandment.

I was thinking about this question a few months ago while reading up on my Norse mythology.  At the time I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok . As I learned Thor‘s chariot was pulled by two goats Tanngrisnir ( snarler) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder).

Thor (1910) by Johannes Gehrts

When Thor was hungry, as he had an epic appetite, he would kill and cook the goats. After eating them Thor resurrected them with his hammer and they would be brought back to life the next day. Once while on one of their many adventures Thor and Loki stayed a night at the home of peasant farmers. Thor invited them to share with them his goat meal. Despite Thor’s warning against it, Loki suggests to the son of the farmer that he should taste of the goat marrow because it will make him like a god. Sure enough the mortal follows the suggestion of the trickster and breaks one of the bones to taste of the divine marrow.  When Thor resurrects the goats the next morning, he finds that one of the goats is lame and becomes enraged. As a result, Thor maintains  the farmer’s son and his sister as his servants and join Thor and Loki on their adventures.

While I know that a lamb is not a goat, there is something interesting here between these two narratives. Many believe that the lamb was a god to the Egyptians. The act of sacrificing the Egyptian god was itself an act of defiance and demonstrated the Israelite commitment to leave and not return. In light of this story of  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, maybe the prohibition of breaking the bones is not that we are like dogs gnawing on bones. Maybe the prohibition is meant to stop us from listening to Loki the trickster. We might mistakenly think that we could become gods and ultimately just become servants. Our tradition is full of commandments that help us preserve the memory of our  exodus from Egypt. I believe this prohibition to breaking the bones of the Passover sacrifice is  to teach us humility. It is to remind us that this is a story of our liberation not our apotheosis.

-Also on Thor: Ragnarok: The Binding : Fenrir and Isaac  and Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 


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