Shabbat Parah: It’s The Same Gold

רבי יוסי בן חנינה אומר ועשית כפרת זהב טהור, יבא זהב כפורת ויכפר על זהב עגל

R. Yossi ben Hanina says: “Then you shall make a kappōret of pure gold …” (Exod. 25:17)—Let the gold of the kappōret atone [yekhaper] for the gold of the calf.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parah, Shabbat of the [red] Heifer, so called because of the special extra reading added to the regular parashat hashavua. As one of the Four special Shabbatot that count us down to Pesakh, on it we include the recipe for ritual purification. One had to be tahor, ritually ready, in order to offer a sacrifice, and the entire people were meant to participate in the upcoming Passover sacrifice.

Our Shabbat Ki Tisa is about another kind of cow: the Golden Calf. What does the juxtaposition of Purim, which we celebrated this week, have to do with this story?

On Purim we are to upend and dethrone every sacred cow; on this Shabbat Ki Tisa we suffer the consequences of choosing the wrong time to question authority, and reject it.

In other words, 

תַּפּוּחֵ֣י זָ֭הָב בְּמַשְׂכִּיּ֥וֹת כָּ֑סֶף דָּ֝בָ֗ר דָּבֻ֥ר עַל־אׇפְנָֽיו

A word fitly spoken Is like apples of gold in settings of silver

– Mishle (Proverbs)25.11

If it is not “fitly spoken,” at the right time in the right way, the Rabbis tell us, it would be better not to speak at all. Is it is a Red Heifer or a Golden Calf? Without history, without context, without details, we cannot say.

On Monday night, we were to make light of everything – to eat, drink and be merry, the better to bear our lives with grace. This Shabbat, we relive the catastrophe of the chaos that nearly overtook our people when we “sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance” (Shemot – Exodus – 32.6) As Aharon the High Priest might have said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We can’t always know in advance how something will turn out – actually we can almost never know. That is how our ancestors learned to define wisdom as 

איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד

Who is the wise person? The one who sees and anticipates the consequences of his behavior.

– Babylonian Talmud Tamid 32a

Life keeps changing. What was an ethical act yesterday may not be so tomorrow, because in each instance the particulars are unique. As the Talmud asserts, the minority opinion today may be the correct decision at some other time. 

And life is a constantly changing balance, and we are on the narrow bridge that sways – sometimes toward openness and mercy, sometimes toward setting boundaries and judgement.

The answer we seek may keep changing in its particulars, but for us Jews, barukh haShem (thank G*d) the context is our Torah community.


for more on the Ark as atonement for the calf, see:

Shabbat Tetzaveh: Forget All That

אָמַר רָבָא: מִיחַיַּיב אִינִישׁ לְבַסּוֹמֵי בְּפוּרַיָּא עַד דְּלָא יָדַע בֵּין אָרוּר הָמָן לְבָרוּךְ מָרְדֳּכַי. 

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.

I heard this week that Jews are leaving shuls because Soul Cycle gives us everything we need spiritually. So I’m pleased to announce that our shul is in the process of buying 200 stationary bicycles!

Just kidding. That, my beloved companions in Torah, is called Purim Torah. We take everything that we hold sacred and get playful with it. Purim is the holy day upon which we are to transition from winter and its discontents to spring and giggles.

If that seems like a struggle to you, you’re not alone. Consider this Talmudic story:

רַבָּה וְרַבִּי זֵירָא עֲבַדוּ סְעוּדַת פּוּרִים בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי. אִיבַּסּוּם. קָם רַבָּה שַׁחְטֵיהּ לְרַבִּי זֵירָא. לְמָחָר, בָּעֵי רַחֲמֵי וְאַחֲיֵיהּ. לְשָׁנָה, אֲמַר לֵיהּ: נֵיתֵי מָר וְנַעֲבֵיד סְעוּדַת פּוּרִים בַּהֲדֵי הֲדָדֵי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לָא בְּכֹל שַׁעְתָּא וְשַׁעְתָּא מִתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא. 

Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy, and revived him. 

The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. Zeira said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour! [and I do not want to undergo that experience again.]  – BT Megillah 7b

You and I might feel like Rav Zeira – trying for happiness in our lives and getting, metaphorically speaking, murdered. Jewish tradition urges us: mishenikhnas Adar marbim simkha, when Adar begins, simkha increases – but events in Portland, in the U.S., in Israel all seem to conspire against joy. 

It’s in this context that we read in our Torah this week, Shabbat Zakhor, that we are commanded to forget Amalek, the Biblical figure who attacks us for no reason, as recorded in parashat Beshalakh. From the Torah until today, our people has a custom to name those who try to erase us as Amalek. (The bad guy in the Purim story is no exception.) What does it mean to erase evil?

Purim in that light is most interesting, because our ancestors were not less challenged than we in this way. They never give in to the world and its threats, though; and so we’re offered the support of a larger perspective, of history and community, to see our lives in some sort of context. Most of all, a community context (with or without bicycles). Amalek doesn’t prevail, after all.

There are only four mitzvot that we are to observe on Purim: 

  1. Hear the reading of Megillat Ester, the scroll of Esther – on Monday evening this year, which is Erev Purim
  2. Send gifts to the poor – matanot l’evyonim doesn’t mean only poor in funds but poor in spirit. Who needs a lift? Who might be cheered by the unexpected delivery of a small gift of hamantaschen or some other small treat?
  3. Share gifts with friends – mishlo’akh manot, also called shlakhmanos in some dialects, is a lovely idea because it has nothing to do with need. We’re just sharing some fun.
  4. Feast! Eat something you don’t normally allow yourself; Purim is that special occasion to open the bottle you’ve been saving. 

These mitzvot are all meant to help lift winter’s gloom, whether of meteorology or mood.  That’s why costumes help – anything that gets you out of your Self helps. Be silly! For a change. Try your best to lighten up your perspective, as the sky lightens in early spring and lifts us up just a bit.

Forget Amalek, we are commanded this Shabbat, just for a bit. Forget all that which looms murderously over your joy of life. Make like the daffodils! which are already singing the praises of HaShem as the snow disappears, and spring is surely on the way.

Shabbat Terumah: Balancing Heart and Hands

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כׇּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃ 

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. (Ex.25.2)

Life is so often about balancing contradictory opposites, or at least clashing inputs. Our parashah begins with such a moment. At first glance we seem to read a message that all of us are equally valued in equal ways – and this tugs at some deep place in us that longs for safety in the group and value for our contribution.

The second verse in the parashat hashavua is therefore a bit of a harsh surprise:

וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם 

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them (Ex. 25.3)

This seeming contradiction is a lesson we can only learn in a group: that heart and hands are two very different aspects of human being and interaction.

In community one sees this all the time: not every follower is a leader. It flies in the face of an ideal which seeks to value each of us equally. Or it seems to; but only a Procrustean equality insists that we are all the same. In the Talmud a midrash is preserved that describes one of the sins of the people of Sodom:

הויא להו פורייתא דהוו מגני עלה אורחין כי מאריך גייזי ליה כי גוץ מתחין ליה 

They had beds on which they would lay their guests; when a guest was longer than the bed they would cut him, and when a guest was shorter than the bed they would stretch him.  (BT Sanhedrin 109b)

Real equality, as any DEI (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) expert will tell you, requires us to see each individual for who we are and what unique gift we bring. It’s a necessary exercise in noticing each other when we tend toward generalities just to bring the scale of our existence into a manageable embrace.

So while it may be a lovely gesture to welcome all contributions equally, such an approach actually erases our uniqueness. This is why the Torah imagines the holy mishkan which we are to build to be made of all our heartfelt gifts filtered through the actual reality of what is needed to create the structure, and who is best able to do each task.

There is room for us all; each task needs to be addressed. But first we have to come to know not only what our heart yearns for, but what our hands are capable of bringing. This is no time for participation trophies that overlook the precious differences that make us each who we are. 

Some of us are leaders, some followers; some teach, some learn. Some have superior executive function, others can read a spreadsheet, and others can lead a dance. Betzalel is singled out by HaShem to lead the building; not you and not me. We can either sulk because we weren’t nominated, or applaud and support the talented person who was. 

The mitzvah needs doing; how shall we do it best? Not by fighting over our place in line but by learning to balance our heart and our hands, our desires and our capacity. All of us is best at something, but we won’t learn that through envy of what others have or do.

I like to sing; our Gabbai;s voice is better. I enjoy working with our brit mitzvah candidates; our Brit Mitzvah coordinator’s talent is greater. I can’t read a spreadsheet; our Executive Director can even create them. My job is to figure out in what way my heart’s gift is best offered. That’s how we’ll get this mishkan, this holy place, sustainably and joyfully built.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Yitro: Listening As Best We Can

Where do you get your inspiration from, when you’re confronted with a challenge? It might be social injustice, relationship upheaval, or just getting up in the morning – and we all need inspiration from outside our own capacity sometimes. Human beings aren’t perfect, and certainly we are not perfectly whole all by ourselves.

Consider Moshe at the beginning of our parashah. He has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the newly-formed group of refugees calling ourselves the Israelites. We are following a hope more than an articulated reality. As we should have expected, in no time at all there were many disagreements and much anger between individuals and groups of us. 

And so our parashat hashavua begins with Moshe sitting and listening to argument after disagreement, expected to decide between each angry pair and rule justly.

It’s at this point that Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, shows up in the narrative; he’s a Midianite priest and, with his professional experience as a leader, sees that Moshe’s fledgling justice system is dysfunctional and bogged down. And so he offers advice:

עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ 

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you (Ex. 18.19)

We can make jokes about free advice, especially from in-laws, but Moshe is both smart and humble, and he realizes that Yitro is right, and he takes his advice.

What’s the connection to the revelation at Sinai that’s about to happen? Possibly as simple as the court case backlog getting cleared out, so that no one had outstanding grievances distracting them from the opportunity to experience the presence of HaShem. 

Or possibly it was Moshe’s public demonstration of the reality that truth can be found in any mouth, from any human, at any time. Perhaps it is that being able to hear a human voice is a prerequisite to hearing a divine voice. Especially when it comes from an unexpected place – or a place we’ve already ruled out.

And so the sages of the Babylonian Talmud were inspired to teach:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:  

He [Talmudic sage Ben Azzai] used to say: do not despise anyone, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no one that has not their hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.  (Pirkei Avot 4.3)

On this Erev Shabbat when we are invited to hear the most important words of the Torah, the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances of Sinai, it’s useful to remember the traditional Jewish teaching that we each hear according to our ability. May we do our best to remove our own prejudices about where we need to listen. May we hear what we need to hear to be inspired to achieve justice and peace in our own lives by seeking it for others.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat VaEra: Breathe

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exodus 6.9)

Traditional Jewish teaching about the escape of our ancestor Israelites from Egypt maintains that it could not occur until we cried out and our cry reached HaShem. One might ask, wouldn’t HaShem already be aware of what’s going on? Isn’t a god supposed to be omniscient? 

It’s not an either/or for Judaism. On some transcendent level, all is connected and everything intersects with everything else; small movements can echo through space and time in ways we cannot predict (this idea is called the Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory). A midrash recounts how, although many people were doing terrible thing, it was the torture of one righteous young woman led to the complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In our own day we know how many young Black people are murdered by police; yet it was the murder of one person, George Floyd, in May of 2020 which led to an uprising against state injustice that swept the U.S. 

The mystics of our people insist that this intimate interconnectedness exists everywhere and at all times; it is the condition of Being in the entire Universe (uni verse, not multi verse). But when Moshe, the reluctant prophet, is pushed by HaShem to go speak to the Israelites and let them know that HaShem has heard them, that their cries have caused (finally) the world to move, they cannot hear it.

Pharaoh had succeeded at this stage in making the people forget their dreams of freedom or at least improved conditions, by burdening them with additional hard labour. (Chizkuni, Exodus 6:9:1)

Remember back when the message that drove Western society was do more, produce more, and some of us boasted of our workaholism? Then came the pandemic, which demonstrated for us all that we and the planet could be healthier if we didn’t do so much all the time. But what happened? It’s as if Pharaoh doubled down, insisting that we produce at the same rate with less support. Come back to the office, ignore the pandemic’s effects, work harder with less job security. And to distract from this essential injustice, marginalized communities are singled out for torture: trans people, Black people, Jewish people, drag queens….until we are all so anguished that it’s all we can do to focus.

If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths. (Rashi)

The Pharaoh of our days is that which drives us toward hopelessness and cynicism; it’s too hard to believe that our cries can make a difference against the might of today’s Egypt. It’s too hard not to feel overwhelmed. Some days we feel so constrained by stress that we can’t breathe deeply enough even to scream – much less sing of our hope.

Studying the sources for this parashah I found a curious proverb in connection with this verse about the people being unable to believe in words of a better future.

“There is no benefit to be derived from acacia wood except when it is cut down.”  (Midrash Tanhuma VaEra 2.1)

The proverb is offered to explain that directly after Moshe’s mission fails, HaShem then sends Moshe to Pharaoh, indicating that there’s more, much more, to come: “an old proverb indicating that one must wait until an episode is concluded to learn the result.”

But the proverb might be understood another way. We who feel more like a lonely acacia tree in the wilderness, barren of the ability to produce fruit or even much shade, are not yet without  potential – we may just not have discovered where our hope lies, yet. For some of us, it’s in some kind of sacrifice of ourselves that we will find purpose.

Is it in letting go of the idea that we’ll be “back to normal” in our lifetimes, and considering what a “new normal” might be?

Is in coming to the realization that our lives may be “over” in some way, but the children of our community may yet see a redemptive future?

An acacia tree cut down is no longer alive. And only then is acacia tree’s wood able to create the Ark to carry the most important hope of our people.

To recall the prophetic words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, we may not each get there, but if we are able to remain together and find a way to sing our hope, each one of us can aspire to the exalted fate of that acacia tree. Seemingly alone but yet so necessary to what is most important, each in our own, small way.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat VaYekhi: Deathbed Blessings

Two good things are near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you: 

Repentance is near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you.

Death is near to you and far from you, 

far from you and near to you.

Kohelet Rabbah 8.17

In parashat VaYehi we read of the death of Jacob, who according to our ancient tradition had at least 13 children (although there is a midrash that states that with each of the 12 songs, a twin sister was born!). The scene is classic: all the offspring gathered around the deathbed.

Many of us will have the opportunity to be at the deathbed of a beloved relative; grandparent, parent, sibling, friend, or, has v’halilah, an offspring. In these moments we feel the pull to be present, and in Jewish tradition it is important to reassure the soul that it will be okay although its lifelong envelope is expiring.

Often it seems that there is something we want to hear – or to say. But how?

It will come to each of us. Imagine the moment when those who love you gather around you as you are dying, looking for some meaningful word. In our parashah, the Torah relates the mixed blessing that ensued when the Patriarch Jacob summoned his children to his deathbed. 

Gather yourselves together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the End of Days. Assemble yourselves and listen, o children of Jacob; listen to Israel your father. (Genesis 49.1-2)

 Jacob did not know how to begin, but began anyway. In his opening words we can hear what he wanted to say. He wanted his children to stay together, to remain an “assembly” that listened to their parents and together carried on the meaning of their lives.

The dying man begins to speak, and his opening words are not pleasant, but they are honest. He gives voice in these moments to that which usually goes unspoken, too difficult to say. It’s not easy: at one point he cries out, “O G*d, I wait for your salvation!” (Genesis 49.18)

After his death, his son Joseph kisses him; in Hebrew kiss is neshek – and it is also armor, which leads us to ask. If there will be a moment of neshek, what will it mean in your life and your death?

The deathbed moment in Jewish tradition may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. You choose the neshek: will your life end with armor, or a kiss? Will you and those around you shrink away from the risks of honesty and openness, and keep your emotional armor strong? Or will you manage to reach through the patterns, and the fear, toward the closeness of the kiss?

Jacob wished to bless his children, but was in doubt whether he ought to bless them since they had caused him so much pain… He turned his eyes and heart heavenwards, and cried out whatever G*d would put in his mouth to say. (Mei haShiloakh commentary on Bereshit Rabbah)

Those with the most unfinished business have the most difficult time with death. One waits all one’s life for someone to say I love you; one never does ask about a long-ago heartache, because it was too painful to bring up, and so the ache remains. There is hesitation on both sides, and why, anyway, expect the pattern of a lifetime to be overcome, just because death is near?

Jacob speaks to each of his children of the choices that have already defined the life of that child for good or for ill. There’s no guarantee that deathbed honesty will change someone’s life. But at the very least, Jacob’s gift to his children meant that they were not left to wonder, all their lives long, what dad might have said.

May this Shabbat be one on which you are able to contemplate Eternity and your precious place in it, and what your life means not only to you but to all those with whom you share meaningful community.

Shabbat Miketz: Ambiguity is Painful

Parashat Miketz always falls during Hanukkah. As such we search it for insights at this darkest, coldest time of the year, and it does not disappoint – more, it can overwhelm. Consider the terrible emotional ambiguity of just one question that arises from study of the parashah: 

“How is it that Joseph, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days’ travel from Hebron! And respect for his father would have justified even a year’s journey.” (Ramban, Gen 42.9).

And just like that, the wonderful story of a smart Jew rising to unbelievable power in Egypt is made fraught with emotional distress. Why didn’t Joseph send a note to his dad? Some commentaries answer Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman’s question by suggesting that there was a purpose, either divine or human: perhaps Isaac (still alive?!) knew but realized that if Jacob did not, HaShem preferred to keep it from him for some reason. Or perhaps Joseph calculated that his brothers needed time to repent of their actions, and that time had not yet come (as we will see next week, it took some doing). But in all this, to let his father suffer so?

And so we are left with the uneasy feeling of not being sure how to judge Joseph. Suddenly the figure of this Jewish hero is not necessarily so heroic. People are complicated. The Mayor of Portland is, in his choice to follow in the steps of other elected leaders throughout the U.S. to criminalize homelessness, and Joseph is, when he manipulates a multi-year famine to make free farmers Pharaoh’s serfs as the price of their survival, too.

The snow that has fallen overnight in Portland Oregon, as in many places in the U.S. in the icy storm system that came through, might occur to be simply a beautiful transformation of our surroundings. But for those who are suffering from it, houseless or heatless or both, the simple beauty becomes painfully confused. For those who are privileged to experience snow from beside a warm fireplace or heating vent, how do we navigate the conflicting feeling of guilt that spoils our sense of innocent joy?

The next question is even more personal: why does it matter what we feel? Why not just curl into a little ball of enervation when confronted with such an overwhelming emotional challenge?

Because you matter, and your existence makes a difference. The challenge is to still be you in the world, a spiritually functional you, and not to sacrifice either your awareness of the pain in the world, nor yourself, in the process. 

From our Jewish ethical tradition comes the vital practice of balance. It bids us neither to look away nor to be consumed, but to find a middle position. Come and hear, as our ancestors said: all the beauty and all the pain exist, all the time. We sing psalms of praise for the glory of nature and we follow them with prayers begging relief from the pain of our lives. We are capable of doing both, and in this unredeemed world that is what we are called upon to do.

“On the one hand” and “on the other hand” is an old Jewish joke for a reason. But never forget how the joke ends….”on the third hand.” There’s always a position that balances between the two opposites you behold. As a people that continues to light candles every erev Shabbat despite pogroms, cossacks, and what is worse, betrayal among our own people, we are meant to have regular practice in this realization. We keep singing in the icy darkness, and in this way we keep adding light to the world.

On the one hand, the snow is, indeed beautiful. On the other, the cruelty of U.S. government attitudes toward the vulnerable among us makes the snow deadly for our fellow human beings. And what is our balance? Intellectual contemplation of this reality is Torah study; feeling the emotion of it is prayer; and according to our tradition, the culmination of these is action.

Extend your third hand, the spiritual one that finds the prayer-study balance in action; the one that reaches out to lift the shamash candle to light the others in your Hanukkah menorah. The balance that saves us from despair is expressed in the Jewish mystical tradition as compassion. Take that guilt and pile it up on the altar of your heart, just as our ancestors once knew how to do. Light it afire with your anger at the senseless suffering of so many. Feel that act spur you toward doing what you can, energized by your ability to not only discern but to evoke light in the darkness – for today, you need not give in to sadness. For today, keep feeding the light.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameakh!

Shabbat VaYeshev: Not Home Yet

וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן

“Jacob settled in the land where his parents had lived” – Gen 37.1

The narrative of Jewish history, that is to say the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from, is rooted in the myth of a garden. Eden, as the mythical birthplace of humanity, is a place of peace and fulfillment, and, most of all, connectedness. Psychological and mystical insights alike speak of the mothering from which we separate as we learn to stand and walk on our own, but that we miss as a hole in our wholeness from that moment on. The mystics promise that we can experience it again, in precious moments when we lose our sense of separate self and are swallowed up into an endless Oneness; they say that at the very least, we’ll know that feeling of wholeness again at the moment of our death.

This week’s Torah reading, VaYeshev, begins with what seems to be for our ancestor Israel (aka Jacob) an end of wandering, now “settled” with his large family where his parents had lived. He has come home. Throughout the Torah, the land called Canaan then and now Israel is for the Jewish people our Eden.

Yet, as the commentary Haamek Davar notes, this is “the land of his parents.” It wasn’t his home…the blessing of home would not be his until after they experienced ‘exile in a land not theirs’” (Ha’amek Davar, Bereshit 37.1).”

That land, of course, is Egypt, where we will be enslaved for four hundred years. Haamek Davar is noting here that the prophecy Jacob’s grandparent Abraham had experienced has yet to be fulfilled. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה

HaShem said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years (Gen. 15.13)

Just because you’re in a place doesn’t mean it’s home. Conversely, as Haamek Davar goes on to suggest, the place you are in might be home, at least in your generation, if – and here’s the key for us – if it is a place of Torah. 

“If it is a place where we can be rooted in Torah, then it is good to be there. The Talmud declares that in the days of vibrant Jewish learning in Babylon, that place was the best place in the world to be.” (Continuation of Haamek Davar Bereshit 37.1)

It is tragically difficult to see the State of Israel right now as the fulfillment of any Jewish wholeness, while successive governments maintain the occupation of land that should be a Palestinian state, and a known transphobe is appointed supervisor of the Ministry of Education by the incoming coalition. 

A Jewish state is one in which Jewish values are upheld, or at least held up: do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex.23.9). Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion (Zekharyah 7.10). Justice, justice you must do if you would thrive on the land where you live (Deut. 16.20)

We who do not live in Israel are nonetheless tied to Israel by history and by fate. To turn away is a naive choice and one which distances us further from Torah. As Jews we must understand that “this too is Torah, and I need to learn it,” as Rabbi Akiba said. 

It’s not easy to engage in a world full of antisemitism that gets mixed up in legitimate criticism of Israel. First we need to know how to articulate our own sense of paradise lost, and acknowledge the sad sense of separation. That is our current exile, and it will not end until the place where we are – wherever we may find ourselves – is a place of Torah.

I invite you to join me on January 13 (stay tuned for details) to begin to engage in an ongoing conversation, in a safe place, about Israel as the Jewish homeland, and how to balance our longing for its promise with our sorrow for its reality.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Moving Past Anger

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Gen 33.4)

Rabbi Yannai said, why is [the word ‘kissed’] dotted? it teaches that [Esav] came not to kiss [Yaakov] but to bite him, but our ancestor Yaakov’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Yaakov] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.  Bereshit Rabbah 78.9


Shalom Shir Tikvah Kehillah Kedoshah,

The urge to stay angry is very satisfying. It must be; otherwise grudges would be unknown to the human race. It also must be quite natural, since the prevailing tradition regarding the fateful meeting in our parashat hashavua insists that Esau must still be murderously angry at his brother Jacob for stealing his birthright twenty years earlier. 
The midrash about Esau mostly expects him to be nursing a giant grudge, still angry after all these years.

While we all know that anger is a natural emotion, and that sometimes it is the correct response to a situation, teachers of Jewish ethics nevertheless assert that anger remains the most dangerous of our emotions. Our judgment while angry is unreliable; feelings are not thoughts, nor are they amenable to reason in the heat of a moment. When HaShem gets angry at the Israelites, the consequences are catastrophic; our rabbis warn that we, created in the Divine image, are also capable of destruction through our anger. 

*Two young people reject a third who until yesterday was one of their closest companions in the mutual aid work that defines their lives. Who suffers most? Might it be the people who won’t be helped because those who are not (yet) ruled out of the “in group” are fewer in number, with less capacity to do their work?

*A member of a board isn’t consulted in a big policy decision. Certainly they can choose to claim that their anger is righteous, and they have every right to walk away denouncing the lack of disrespect. Yet wouldn’t it make more sense if years of camaraderie and the sense of getting good work done outweighed one moment of feeling left out?

*A person age sixty is still angry at their mother, for never apologizing for hurts suffered in childhood. The mother has dementia; the offspring will never hear the only words they’ve sworn will end their anger. Over time, tragically, the quest for healing has gone from reasonable to absurd.

We all live in a world of hurt. Jewish ethics teaches us to recognize that our anger is real, yet not to let it rule over us. We can choose not to defined by a powerful emotion, but to bring into our hearts our capacity to think, and learn, and judge, as well. 

According to our Torah, Esau did just that: he grew past his anger by acknowledging, also, that he had a relationship with his brother that he did not want to lose. And so he made a life for himself with what he had. He chose to live in the present, and not permit the past to continue to hurt him. And he welcomed his brother when Jacob got up the nerve to finally come home.

No matter what justifications Rabbi Yannai of the Talmud and others fabricate for the patriarch, in this long-delayed meeting Jacob himself shows awareness of his sin toward his brother. His attempt to make atonement is clearly indicated in the words “please take my blessing”. Take it back, in other words.

קַח־נָ֤א אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הֻבָ֣את לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־חַנַּ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים וְכִ֣י יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹ֑ל וַיִּפְצַר־בּ֖וֹ וַיִּקָּֽח׃

Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Gen 33.11)

Esau’s response is that he doesn’t need it; he has created his own blessing. He has been able to overcome his anger. Righteous though it may be, he has chosen to move on. This is in line with the teachings of Maimonides, the great Sephardi sage of Al Andalus and Egypt:

כַּעַס וְאַכְזָרִיּוּת הוּא מֵחֶסְרוֹן הַדַּעַת. וְכָל מַה שֶּׁמִּתְרַבֶּה הַדַּעַת נִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וּמִתְרַבֶּה הָרַחֲמָנוּת וְהַחֶסֶד וְהַשָּׁלוֹם. עַל־כֵּן עַל־יְדֵי עֵסֶק הַתּוֹרָה, שֶׁעַל־יְדֵי זֶה נִמְשָׁךְ דַּעַת,
עַל יְדֵי זֶה מִתְבַּטֵּל הַכַּעַס וְנִמְשָׁךְ רַחְמָנוּת וְשָׁלוֹם:
(לק”א סי’ נ”ו אות ו’)

Anger and unkindness arise when people’s understanding is limited.
The deeper their understanding the more their anger disappears, and kindness, love and peace spread.
This is why the study of Torah, which deepens the understanding, brings love and peace into the world and banishes anger
(Rambam, Likutei Etzot, Anger 3, 56:6).

Where in your life do you feel anger? What do you need to move past it? May you find the necessary understanding to let go of anger, and allow yourself peace.

Shabbat VaYetze: This is a holy place, and I didn’t know it!

“What if this is the darkness not of the tomb, but of the womb?” – Valarie Kaur, Revolutionary Love Project

In our parashat hashavua a young Jacob is on the lam. He is escaping the rupture of his family relationships, with no clear sense of what he is running toward. He flees his brother’s wrath, his father’s sorrow, his mother’s disappointment. He runs until nightfall, and then he finds a rock to lay his head down on, and sleeps.

The act is curiously expressed in the Hebrew of the Torah:

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Gen. 28.11)

The Hebrew for “his head” is, curiously enough, a plural: רַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו ra’ashotav. None of the classic sources stop to discuss this; they are all too taken with the ladder that will appear in the next verse. But I see here a hint that Jacob is torn; the son, the brother, the human being, all at odds with each other. He is not “of one mind” even with himself. He is at his worst, feeling very small, and here comes the darkness.

We may feel that way as individuals. How small we are against the fear of what we cannot see; how frightening the darkness that grows this time of year, along with life-threatening cold.

It’s a good time to remind ourselves that to name a Jewish community as a kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, in line with ancient Jewish tradition, is an aspirational – and inspirational, we hope – statement. Most of the time in our own little lives, I wager that we do not feel particularly sacred, nor capable of making anything holy.  

But that’s where we are wrong, for as Jews we are taught to sanctify as one of our earlier acts. When a small child watches and learns to participate in the erev Shabbat candle lighting, they witness and begin to be part of a profound act of kedushah, of the act of making holy. You do no less when you speak the blessing in that moment, and in so doing turn a regular Friday night into a special time, set apart in whatever way you choose to end the week. 

To make sacred is to take the extra step of mindfulness. It is to go about your regular day but to see in it the holy moments, waiting to be revealed. For Jews, the world is full of holiness, and we just have to notice it. In the teachings of mysticism, every mitzvah pulls back the veil over a spark of the presence of HaShem. 

It’s religious peek-a-boo, with amazing results: suddenly you are walking through a garden of potential amazement at any moment. All you have to do when confronted by the world is to assert your Jewish spiritual perspective, to ask the Jewish question: where is the mitzvah of this moment? What is the mitzvah I need to do?

Mitzvah doesn’t mean “good deed,” although some mitzvot are indeed acts which reflect Jewish ethics. Many other mitzvot are technical, and they express, very simply, the Jewish concept of the world as built upon learning, community, and doing kindness.

Mitzvah is connection; it asserts your ability as a human being to act effectively in the world. When we come together as a community in that cause, we are a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah. 

There are so many good mitzvot that will distract you from worrying about the dark, and find comfort in doing something to alleviate someone else’s need. Choose one, commensurate with your capacity. Let it lift you up, so that like Jacob, you can wake up in the morning and realize that wherever you are, this is a holy place – and I didn’t even know it.