Posts Tagged 'Revelation'

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?

Woven into the Fabric: Tzav and the Jewish Calendar

I look back on almost 10 years of writing this blog and I realize that have basically ignored Tzav, this week’s Torah portion, every year. It is probably because it gets lost in the Purim shuffle. One thing that caught my eye this year reading Tzav was the a description of the priestly garments. There we read:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and you should assemble all the congregation at the door of the tent of meeting.’ ( Leviticus 8:1-3)

On this Rashi comments that it was seven days before the erection of the Mishkan which itself happened on the first of Nissan. That would put it at the 23rd of Adar in the period between Purim and Passover. What is the significance of this happening during this period of time?

It seems that we wear costumes on Purim to imitate Esther. She got her position of power by masking her identity. Ultimately she revealed her hidden identity and saved herself and her people. A month after Purim is Passover. It is interesting to note the Midrash as to why we were worthy of being redeemed from Egypt. There we read:

Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians. (Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a )

Where in the Megilah Esther saved her people by hiding and then revealed her identity, in Egypt we were redeemed specifically because we kept our public identity including our clothes. Our redemption starts with Esther’s revelation of unmasked self, goes to redemption of our ancestors who were advertising their identity with their clothing in Egypt, and then 50 days later on Shavuot we commemorate God as it were taking off God’s mask and reveal God’s self to us at Sinai.

Amidst this cycle we have the priests getting dressed. Like Esther they get their position of power by masking their personal identity. In many ways their garments made them who they were to the people. Like the Israelites in Egypt the priests in their garments were an iconic representation of Jewish identity. It is also through the cult of the Temple that the people would experience the unmasked presence of God as we did on Shavuot.

It turns out the Tzav is not lost behind Purim, it is just woven into the fabric of this longer cycle involving clothing, redemption ,and revelation.

 

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?

 

 

Standing There Today

Recently I have been thinking about the lines between performers and audience. Specifically I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean “whoever is not here’? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Even if we accept that all of our souls were brought to Sinai and that in some way our souls accepted God’s Torah as binding upon us, how could that acceptance and oath be valid? We certainly have no recollection of ever being present at Sinai and making an oath. So, how are we to understand the Midrash and the Rashi who claim that all of the generations were at Sinai, accepted the Torah, and that it is a binding agreement?

This question gets spelled out graphically in the Gemara in Shabbat. There we learn:

“And they stood under the mount” ( Exodus 19:17)  Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This [literal reading ‘under’] teaches that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah [It provides a legitamate excuse for non-observance, since it was forcibly imposed in the first place.] Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh [the King from the Purim story in the book of Esther] , for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]”( Esther 9:27) [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. ( Shabbat 88a)

The Gemara reframes the acceptance of the additional commandments instituted around the holiday of Purim to be an acceptance of the entirety of the Torah. This is interesting in many ways. The part that interests me today is how it shifts their role. In the Revelation story, God is on stage and we are the audience. In the story of Purim we are not even sure if there is a divine audience, but we are clearly on stage. At Sinai we were the consumers of Torah and then on  Purim we become producers. When Jews choose to participate in Jewish life, we too becomes producers and enjoin ourselves to divine act of revelation. In this way we are really standing there today.

 

Taking Torah This Day

In the fourth aliyah of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read how Moses and the elders charged the people to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, coat them with plaster, and to inscribe on them all the words of the Torah as soon as they cross the Jordan River. There they are to build an altar to God made of stones on which no iron tool had struck, and they were to offer on it offerings to God and rejoice. At the end of the aliyah we read:

And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day you have become people to the Lord your God. You shall therefore listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do God’s commandments and God’s statutes, which I command you this day.’ ( Deuteronomy 27: 8-10)

On this Rabbi Yehudah asked what is meant by  “this day” ( Berachot 63b).  Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel; was that day not at the end of the 40 years of the wandering in the Wilderness? Rabbi Yehudah explained that the words “this day” served to teach that every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when God gave it at Sinai. But why at this moment are we reminded of the revelation at Sinai?

When my brother was in medical school he shared with me how they were teaching him to become a doctor. He said, ” To learn a procedure we would see one, do one, and teach one.” Different people will learn at different stages. For some people if they see something they will learn it right away. For  others they need to practice it to master it. And everyone will have mastered the procedure if they are able to teach someone else how to do the procedure. It has stayed with me throughout the years that this is probably true in the case of all learning.

It was one thing for the nation to see revelation at Sinai. Making these stone pillars was enacting a commandment of the Torah. On another level making these pillars was a national expression of our teaching the Torah to the world. While we might have been given the Torah at Sinai, it was only when we entered into the land and built these pillars that we took the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah was right. Every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when the nation of Israel took the Torah of Israel  in the land.

A Cinderella Story

The familiar plot of the story of Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here). Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings.

 

Closer to Revelation

This week we start reading Veyikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding sacrifices. You could understand why it seemed strange to learn the Midrash when it said:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai, but it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today.   So too korbanot, this drawing near, is not limited to the sacrifices, but needs to be about making connections. Now more than ever relevance is a prerequisite to revelation.

– This blog post is written in honor of the wedding of Daniel Infeld and Rachel Ross


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