We’ve prayed, we’ve studied, we’ve eaten, we’ve fasted, and we’re hoping we did enough of everything to bring the renewal we need to accomplish the transcendent goals we’ve set for ourselves. And along comes the very first word of Torah to assure us we’ve got the right stuff.
The Hasidic method of taking the first word or sentence of a parshah and writing volumes about it teaches me again and again how much a single letter of Torah yields. Let’s take Bereshit and play with the rabbis. This is usually translated, In the beginning, with the c meaning “in”, but we know that the prefix can also with “with” or “for.” With this the rabbis are off and running. The Midrash tells us that Torah begins with a purpose: everything carries a “bet.” We are all here for the sake of creation, for the purpose of repairing the world. Our work is to find our gifts and to discover how each of us can accomplish this. So on the days when we wonder why we’re here, we can remember the prefix connected to us to us and go forward.
When Noach woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him., he said, “Cursed be Canaan.”
Two years ago I read a modern midrash linking the Holocaust to the first holocaust in Learning Torah With. (I wish I could remember who wrote it) that I’d like to retell.
Right after Noach re-enters the mikvah-washed world, he makes wine, passes out naked in a drunken stupor, and is seen by his sons. From the posuk above the Midrash infers that Ham either raped or castrated his father.
In post-war Warsaw a young man serving as an acolyte on his way to priesthood went to his senior priest and told him the following story: “I was a boy of 14 working in my father’s wine bottling factory when the Nazis invaded Poland. Because I was adept at filling bottles, they kept me working for them while the rest of my family perished.” He pauses. “I was beautiful and the soldiers took me for their pleasure. After the war I survived by continuing to ply my ‘trade’ for the Communists. One night an older man came to me and began to be abusive. I took the knife that I kept for such purposes and cut the part of him with which he was abusing me. He lost consciousness. Terrified, I turned him over and then I saw the numbers on his arm.”
Survival is more than physical–Jewish continuity is not about bodies but souls. Let’s pray for the healing of our collective soul by seeing each other as members of an eternal community that believes each of us is made in the image of God.
Abraham is told, “Lech Lecha,” go, go into yourself. Leave behind the power that comes from being known in your land, from the love of your family, and from your father’s wealth. God knows that Abraham will suffer without external power, but the only way to find one’s personal power is to take the long, lonely journey within oneself. In finding himself, Abraham will find God. God has promised that Abraham a new place of belonging on earth, abundance, and a new family.
How did Abraham get picked for this job? Surely in ten generations others figured out that worshipping a piece of wood had its limitations. The hint comes when God says, “And you will be a blessing.” Abraham was a blessing because he was full of loving kindness. He needed to be of service to others, and this was the first lesson God wanted us to learn. Without compassion, the world cannot survive.
The Freudian and feminist within us delights in this week’s parshah. It begins with Sarah’s death, which was caused, according to Midrash (Ber. Rabbah), by the grief that came from nearly losing her son. What then follows is Abraham’s instruction to Eliezer to find a wife from his native land for Isaac. How does he know which girl to choose? Eliezer needed her to be kind–he wanted a woman who not only offered him water but his camels, too–but he also needed her to be extra-intuitive. Sure enough, she gives him her jug and then offers to water the camels. She not only saw to physical needs but intuited the characteristics he was seeking in Isaac’s partner.
Margaret Mead said that women’s intuition is nothing more than one human being spending time with a non-verbal being, i.e. a baby. Rebecca’s hesed reveals her ability to know needs and wants without words, and all of us can develop this within ourselves.
As for Freud, Torah tells us that Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother’s tent and she consoled him for the loss of his mother. Again, without words, Rebecca responds to Isaac’s need.
Here is the sermon on unconditional love. In this portion we begin to get into the deep dysfunction of our primal family. “Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating his game, but Rebecca loves Jacob.” We are told why Isaac loved Esau but why does Rebecca love Jacob? Also note the difference in tenses.
Isaac loved the physical, that which he could see and taste. But when the food was gone, what about the love? Maybe that’s why it’s in the past tense: the love is conditional. On the other hand, Rebecca loves Jacob, not once before and sometime in the future but always she loves her son. We aren’t given a reason because the love is unconditional. She loves him for who he is. This is the toughest kind of love; we all know how easy it is to love the giver, the smiling baby, the beautiful face. But to love each other just as we are is to love the way God loves. By loving unconditionally, as Rebecca loved Jacob, is the way we bring God’s presence between us.
If ever there were a Biblical character with whom we, in our self-conscious age of transformation, can easily identify, it is Jacob. Leaving home was traumatic for him but as he journeys home, he is, as Torah describes him very frightened and distressed. He has plenty to worry about, because he is about to face his big, bad brother whom he has duped of his birthright and has stolen his blessing.
Once again Jacob has a night vision and he is visited by a “man” the Rabbis understood to be the guardian angel of Esau, because by this time Jacob had been changed by his exile. He is no longer the purely spiritual and has incorporated some of his brother in his character. The material and the spiritual wrestle on the ground, here on earth in a wrestle familiar to all of us. In the end, a new being is born with the name of Israel, the one who struggled with God and prevailed. To become Israel, to become a whole person, Jacob can no longer reject his brother but will embrace him.
Jacob was forced to leave his tent to make a living, which the Mishnah regards as a good thing: busy people don’t have time for sin (paraphrase of Pirke Avot [2:2]. Now Jacob is in Hebron, weary of battles, raising twelve children, and losing his beloved Rachel. Rashi says that the verb vayeshaev implies that Jacob wanted nothing more than to dwell in peace, but it was not to be–Joseph’s disappearance broke his heart.
Jacob shouldn’t have taken this personally, because the tradition teaches that every sentient being has work to do here: leisure has no place. (The deep rest of Shabbat is not just to feel good but to give us the time and strength to contemplate Creation.) The Rabbis taught that sin is impossible if you have no time for it.
Yet we must rest and renew ourselves, but we do it for the same reason we do everything, to help repair the world. By taking care of ourselves, we can do the work God wants us to do The point is, if Jacob didn’t get a rest, it’s because leisure, like pleasure, is a dangerous goal.
But let’s not confuse joy with pleasure. May your Hanukkah be filled with joy, laughter, and latkes so that we are renewed in our wish to dedicate ourselves to Torah and its power to transform the world. Happy Hanukkah!
The prisoner cannot secure his own liberation from prison.
My rabbi, Harold Schulweis, once said that the trajectory was Torah, Talmud, and Freud. This week’s portion supports the claim that Torah is our collective, eternal dream, our metaphor for understanding ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Miketz begins: And it came to pass at the end of two years…Joseph has been in prison for two years because of a false charge of attempted rape.
He has also been a prisoner of his gift. Handsome, his father’s favorite and a messenger of divine message via dreams, Joseph flaunts his advantage, insensitive to his father and brothers. When he emerges from his physical prison, he is also released from his ego prison. Perhaps, in his dark solitude he hears himself brag, feels his breaking heart.
He interprets Pharaoh’s dream correctly and Pharaoh gives him great power to oversee the land. Joseph knows now that he is to use his gifts to repair the world.
And Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took a drum in her hand; and all the women went out following [Miriam] with drums and dancing. (Ex. 15:20). Here is a lesson in exuberant faith and we learn it from the forgotten voice of Torah, i.e. the women. After Moses sings his over-the-top song of praise to God for getting us born, i.e. emerging from the broken waters of the Sea of Reeds, Miriam and the women do more than sing. They dance with drums. The Midrash has Moses asking Miriam how she and the women should happen to have drums with them, when they had to flee in such haste that they didn’t even have time to let the bread rise! Miriam answers her brother, “We packed our musical instruments because we knew we would need them to sing our heartsong after the deliverance.” The women believed God and came prepared to celebrate.
If Torah were a movie, the scene in this week’s parsha is the grand climax, the receiving of the instruction manual we desperately need to live our lives. The Exodus was birth and freedom, but we were babies until we received Torah, our direction. Despite the centrality of Torah here, the portion is called Yitro, after Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. The Tur noticed that the numerical equivalent of vru,v and ur,h were the same. Jethro was a Midianite, an outsider who came to accept God, and so too, were we, more Egyptian than Jew, who came to stand at Sinai and accept God as a people.
Jethro teaches Moses a key lesson–to let go and trust others. Moses knows that he carries God’s knowledge and therefore only he can judge correctly. But this is impractical; he physically cannot judge every dispute, so Jethro advises setting up lower courts. He teaches Moses that God is revealed in more than one person, that the best teaching is to teach others what you know so that the knowledge transcends and reaches all the people. When we feel secure enough to reveal our limitations as well as strengths, relinquish control around us, then we become teachers.
And these are the statures that you will set before them. (Ex. 21:1)
The first word is our clue: And these… The and ties the Ten Commandments in the preceding chapter to the civil laws of this chapter. In the last chapter Moses ran up and down the mountain many times, and the rabbis understood that, like Jacob’s ladder, the trick is to keep your feet on the ground while you reach for heaven. In other words, our work is to bring heaven to earth. Sometimes, especially after one of the ecstatic Kabbalat Shabbat services here on the upper West Side of Manhattan, I can barely walk outside the shul. I want to stay in that space, that place close to the One, forever. And at other times, when I’m feeling nothing but too much work and a lot of cynicism, I cannot imagine heaven. So here, in one word, we are reminded that everything is One, that there is no separation between our agreement with God and our agreement with each other. They are equally binding and carry equal possibilities of revelation.
Here is the psychedelic chapter we’ve all been waiting for, the description of the building of the Mishkan in extraordinary detail. In fact, from here to the end of Exodus, except for the unfortunate golden calf episode, the book concerns itself with the Sanctuary’s construction. Is this where the edifice complex in shul building began? The colors, the stones, precious metals, and fabrics are almost beyond our imagining. What’s this about? Here we have a God we cannot see and yet the place for the One to live is spectacularly, well, let’s just say it, materialistic.
Rambam, playing with the semichut of the Mishkan and golden calf, understands that we human beings think in literal terms. The generation in the wilderness had been slaves living in an idolatrous society. No matter how much rock and roll they sensed at Sinai, the next day it seemed a dream. The way to keep these people from building golden calves is to direct their need for the visible and intend their hearts to make a visible dwelling for the invisible God.
Last week I offered Rambam’s realistic explanation for why the Sanctuary is to be built with such attention to detail and beauty. Here is a Hasidic reading that compares this week’s parsha with last week’s. The Mishkan is built only with what a person’s heart is willing to offer; it’s a voluntary contribution. The first object to be put in it is the ark that will hold the tablets of the law. The Torah will live in this house and each person, according to his heart’s desire and capacity, will learn from its teaching.
This week, the first word is tetzaveh, “you will command.” No options here. In this chapter we learn about the specific manner of sacrifices, the avod ah, service. Torah is an individual journey where we each find ourselves in the story, but with the laws we find in Torah, we follow rules. We need Torah, our own journey, and Mitzvah, the commandment outside us, beyond our rational mind, to guide us.
Once again we are into the God as architect with Moses as general contractor for the Mishkan. But here the portion opens not with an activity guide but with prohibition to work on Shabbat. The rabbis understood the Smic hut, the placement of these two things next to each other, to mean that even the building of the Mishkan must stop on Shabbat.
We’re always telling our children to work harder, yet here we are commanded to stop even from holy work. No mitzvah appears without good reason. Humans like to keep busy; in the hum and buzz of doing we feel virtuous. Yet it is only in the stillness of being, i.e. Shabbat as meditation, that we feel what is greater than our individual, finite, temporal selves.
The 39 work prohibitions of Shabbat are based upon the activities necessary for the construction of the tabernacle. Yet the idea is not to see work as less than rest. “Six days shall work be done” (Ex. 35:2). The idea is not to disappear into a heavenly realm but to build a place here on earth where the heart opens and knows it is not alone, that it belongs to eternity.
Here is a CPA’s dream. Pekudei, meaning accounts, is about the measurements and weights of the vessels inside the Mishkan. But the Rabbis said, “Blessing is never found in that which is counted.” You know how they count people in Yiddish? Not one, not two, etc! Maybe we are afraid to count heads after the plague which followed the census in Ki Tissa.
Yet here we bump into our limitation as humans, hard-wired to need the material realm and to take an accounting of it. Even within the place we build for God, we must acknowledge human limitation.
But counting and measuring with diligence is praiseworthy. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair in the Talmud lists ten steps necessary to drawing close to God, i.e. becoming a better person. The first two are diligence. “God is in the details.” I wish that came from the sages, but it was the architect, Mies van der Rohe, who said it. But since these parshiot of the last few weeks are about the building of the Mishkan and its design, maybe it’s OK to quote him.
I knew that this was the first word a little one learned from the Chumash, because this was the first portion. Since it was my firstborn’s portion for his Bar Mitzvah, I paid special attention to why a portion dealing with barbecuing small animals was chosen to introduce a child to Torah. Two answers. The cynical one is that if a child can get through this, the rest is downhill.
The second one is sweeter. The word, vayikra, is written with a small aleph at the end, a little letter that begins the alephbet, as every little child begins a generation. Vayikra, and God called. The language is loving, as we would speak to our beloved, saying, sweetheart, or my love. (Really, this is Rashi, not me.) Without the aleph, the word means the same, vayikar, but it’s cooler, more casual. It’s the way God talks to the prophet Balaam.
So why shrink the letter? Moses was a man of the greatest humility, and remember, he was writing the book. He didn’t want to boast of his special relationship with God, that God distinguished him from others. He couldn’t change God’s words, but he could lessen the impact by altering the letter.
Somehow I managed to avoid the whole subject of animal sacrifice last week, but since we’re still dealing with it in immense detail, this time the words being directed specifically to the priests, it’s time to get down to it. Jonathan Omer-man taught me that no one can understand the sacrifices–that’s all I need to hear to get me working on it.
I just read a piece in Ms Magazine by a mother whose daughter has just gotten a tattoo. The young woman has also cut her arms to create scars that remind her that she substituted those cuts for committing suicide. She has also pierced her body. The victim of childhood sexual abuse, the daughter is reclaiming her body, marking it as her own, externalizing the pain she kept secret for years.
Sacrifices, like prayer, express what we don’t have words for, for grief, joy, terror, awe. We live in a time that tells us words are enough, rational thought is enough, feelings are enough. I’m not recommending tattoos or turning our bimas into animal holocaust, but I struggle to find ritual for the ineffable within myself and, I suspect, you.
Anybody besides me who has trouble with two noble, well-intended, nice Jewish boys bringing something special to God and being killed for it? Here we step onto the slippery slope of: why do the righteous suffer? The rabbis, Rashi included, maintain that God knows what God is doing, God doesn’t make mistakes. If Nadav and Abihu died, they deserved it. Rashi says they were drunk when they brought their offering to the altar. Others say they weren’t married because they were too picky, thought too well of themselves.
Rabbi Abraham Twersky, Orthodox rabbi and psychiatrist, suggests that their sin/error was in being greedy, wanting to heighten their experience artificially; that’s why they drank wine. He claims that the desire to expand thought and feeling is nothing new–that’s why Adam and Eve tasted the magic apple that would enhance wisdom. Now, what do we do with the Kiddush? I’m about out of room here, so I’m depending upon vigorous response from you wise and discerning (and sober) readers.
This is the portion that guides and consoles. We are consoled by it because here we are reminded of our royal descent: Be holy for I am holy. In this parsha there is a new giving of the Torah in preparation for renewed contract between us and God to repair the break that occurred with the golden calf. We learn that mistakes are holy, because they lead us to a higher place; we need them for our spiritual journey. Our ancestors lost faith, Moses lost his temper, count on our losing it from time to time, too.
All the ten commandments are represented in Kedoshim, and after each series of laws, I am God follows. Ramban explains that each fulfillment of a mitzvah brings us closer to God. The first command is, Fear every man his mother and father and keep my Sabbaths, I am Adonai your God. This is an important teaching for us as parents and teachers. We teach children how to love God because in the beginning we are God to our children. They learn trust, faith, commitment, loyalty, and reverence for God by experiencing these things first with us. Pray that we are worthy of our children and God in this holy work.
Emor, speak. This is how the portion begins, with words. It is not enough not sanctify our actions, but our words, too. The last portion, Kiddus hin, is addressed to everyone, while this portion is addressed only to the priests. We are a nation of priests and a holy people but there is a higher degree of holiness expected of the priests. The power of the word runs through our tradition, beginning with the One who spoke the world into being. A couple of weeks ago we read of physical blemish that marked the one who slanders. The Baal Shem Tov said that the way to avoid lashon ha-ra, malicious gossip, is not to say anything about anyone. This is not only not much fun, it may not even be possible. I think the point of all the attention drawn to words is to bring us to greater consciousness about why we say what we do. Even a seemingly neutral or benevolent statement can be wrongly intended. If I tell you that the Shwartzes are moving to Beverly Hills, maybe I’m “sharing the news” or maybe I’m looking for a partner in thinking that they have no business being in that neighborhood. When we speak, let it be what we hope God would say.
All the laws in Vayikra come from a booming voice in the Mishkan, telling Moses what laws must be followed to enter God’s house. By following the laws of holiness concerning sacrifices, priestly clothes, and ritual purification we reconnect ourselves to God and repair the damage of the golden calf. The word mishkan has the same root as Shechinah, to dwell, and it represents the world we have sanctified so that God can be with us. In this portion, God speaks to Moses in the mountain, behar. Sometimes God hunkers down with us here and sometimes we climb high to be nearer to the One. Like Moses, we can’t stay up there in the safe, rarified air of solitary meditation and prayer. We have to be down in the real world confronting the parts of ourselves and others that is not so tied to heaven. But we carry the memory of being within the great mountain, steady as eternity and strong as truth.
The chapter tells of the jubilee year, the fiftieth year when all slaves are freed and all return to the land of one’s family. Yovel, the root of the word, means shofar. One day, we’ll go back and forth between heaven and earth and the trip won’t seem so long. That’s when we’ll blow the shofar to proclaim our freedom.