Shabbat Tzav: The Boss of You

אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה

eysh tamid tukad al hamizbe’akh lo tikhbeh

Fire shall be kept continually burning on the altar; don’t let it go out (Lev. 6.6)

The parashat hashavua we immerse ourselves in all this week is called Tzav, literally “order” or “command” in the imperative form. It’s quite abrupt: one explosive sound. HaShem instructs Moshe: “order/command Aharon” to do the following. As often happens, HaShem commands Moshe, and Moshe commands Aharon.

Midrash tells us that the two brothers had a good relationship; Aharon, the eldest, seems quite graceful in accepting that his little brother is closest to HaShem, chosen for leadership and for a relationship with the holy unlike any other. Still, we might wonder how often their sister Miriam, in the middle of the birth order, ran interference for them. Moshe is depicted in midrash as jealous of Aharon, who returns the favor in a Torah account in BaMidbar.

Any latent tension in the relationship between the Prophet and the High Priest would be highlighted by this week’s parashah. Little brother is ordering big brother around, using the word at the root of our term mitzvah – divine command. To tzav is to impose a mitzvah. Aharon might have bristled, being only human; after all this is his little brother, unquestionable conduit to the Eternal, bossing him around!

The root meaning of mitzvah, tzav, is indeed an imperative: we Jews are to obey. In that way, we are all in Aharon’s shoes, high priests of ourselves, instantly dismissive in our Western philosophical way of the idea that someone else can command us concerning that which is holy.

It’s an interesting quesiton: who or what can tell you what to do? Before whom or what must you bow your head in acceptance? Most interestingly, can you identify whatever it is with the holy?

What commands you? The alarm clock, for one, on a work day. The instructor who assigns learning; the boss who assigns work. All these commands are clearly utilitarian, and we choose to obey within a limited context in which we can see the benefit to ourselves. Is that the holy in our lives? hopefully not!

Before what do you bow in acceptance? 

The philosopher Emanuel Levinas, true to his Jewish tradition, suggested that, ultimately, we are commanded by the Other: when we truly become aware of the fact that Other People Exist – not as extensions of infantile ego, not pawns on our chessboard, not less than us and, actually, not to be understood by us. He suggests that we cannot but bow before mystery, and our own inadequacy in its face. We owe the Other our appreciation and our respect because we cannot truly understand our own lives, and our own place in the world, until we see that we are not central; others exist and take up just as much space!

Recall the assurance HaShem gives Moshe: whenever we seek the holy, we should look for it in the space between the heruvim, the molded figures on the Ark. In rabbinic interpretation, we are those figures, and HaShem is present between us when we are able to truly see each other. 

There is a way here of accessing holiness, if we can get past our own recoil. Holiness not in some beautiful quiet transcendent forest or mountaintop? Holiness in the difficult meetings we have with each other? Chance encounters, necessary confrontations, random social groupings?

A teaching from the never ordained Talmudic teacher ben Zoma, our teacher in humility, goes like this: איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם – “who is wise? the one who learns from everyone” (Pirke Avot 4.1) and sure enough, Jewish tradition holds that whenever two are engaged in learning together, HaShem is present. 

We can make every single encounter with another into a moment of holiness if we keep this teaching on our hearts. It doesn’t matter a single solitary iota what the Other is bringing you, if you set youself to be alert to what you might learn.

In our parashah, the priests are commanded to keep a fire burning on the altar all the time; “it shall never go out.” (Lev. 6.6) On this Shabbat may you keep aflame on the altar of your heart the fire of curiosity, of humility, of a willingness to bow before the mystery of that which we do not know so that we might learn it. And most of all, gratitude to the ever outflowing Source of Mystery, Source of Learning, Source of Life in which we share this spiritual journey.

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat VaYikra, coming up on Purim: Nurturing the little Alef of our Future

אָח֣וֹר וָקֶ֣דֶם צַרְתָּ֑נִי וַתָּ֖שֶׁת עָלַ֣י כַּפֶּֽכָה 

You formed me before and after, You lay Your hand upon me – Psalms 139.5

Rabbi Yohanan recalled the verse Let us make the earthling in Our Image and Our Likeness (Genesis 1.26). Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar said, “at the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the first earthling, HaShem created them androginos, as it is said: Male and female they were created.” (Genesis 1.27).

What kind of society destroys its future? One that underfunds education and child care. One that sends young people to wars decided upon by elders who will never fight them. One that denounces a young person’s dysphoria as a sin against nature. In Jewish terms, one that does not discern, nurture and protect the small alef which signifies its future.

Our parashat hashavua is the first part of VaYikra, Leviticus. The appearance of the first word is poignant to see: the letter alef at the end of the word written so small, by scribal convention. Why? Each generation develops midrash upon that little alef. The first word of the alef bet, which by itself may mean beginning or future or self; the rest of the word without its alef, meaning “expensive” or “dear”. The separation between them looking like selfishness and greed on the one side, and the diminishment of future promise on the other.

The heart of every compassionate person must go out to the trans kids of Texas and the parents who seek to keep their children alive, much less happy. As a gloriously diverse congregation with a Rabbi who considers Torah Study to be improved by the application of a Queer lens, we of the Shir Tikvah community are appalled by legislative attempts in Idaho, Texas and other states to criminalize and persecute what they do not understand. 

There are those who long for a “normality” which closes its eyes to the diverse, hard to categorize, impossible to fully order, true vitality (and confusion!) of life. 

A Torah Study lens brought to the question of how best to understand – and not to condemn out of fear – diverse gender identities helps to remind all of us that the narrow definition of gender and sexuality taught in the West is ridiculously ignorant of millennia of human life. Our ancestors observed in the world around them the truth that human beings are fashioned in many diverse ways; there are discussions in the Talmud that pick up on ancient words of the Tanakh that we don’t generally know about – but it’s time we did.

Mordecai nursed Esther

Rabbi Yudan said, “he went to all the wet nurses but could not find one for Esther, so he nursed her himself.” Rabbi Berakhiah and Rabb Abbahu said, “Milk came to him and he would nurse her.” It is a teaching in the Mishnah: the milk of a male is tahor (pure).” – Bereshit Rabbah Noakh, 30.8

A Woman May Receive the Soul of a Man

She will not be able to conceive and get pregnant….the woman is male. – Hayim Vital, She’ar haGilgulim 9.2

A Trans Man is Halakhically a Man

Do not be surprised by this question, since all things are possible and there is nothing new under the sun. Rabbi Hayim Avraham Miranda of Salonica describes several cases like this, including one young woman who transformed into a man at the hour that she was being led to the huppah..and so it seems to me that now that he is not a woman but a full man, he should not say in the morning blessings “who has made me a woman” but rather “Blessed are You HaShem ruler of the Universe, who has transformed me into a man.” – Rabbi Yosef Pallache of Izmir, 1896, Yosef Et Ehav, Even haEzer, paragraph 5.

When the little alef of the first word of Leviticus is joined to the rest of the word, these two ideas – the future and that which is dear – come together to create the word “calling” or “naming.” May we learn to see that which can only occur when we bring together those who carry the future with that which is most important right now; and in honor of Purim, let a little chaos open the heart to a less settled, more vital life view.

מה גדלו מעשיך יה מאד עמקו מחשבותיך

How great are your works HaShem and how glorious, how deep Your thoughts! (Morning prayers, Psalm 92.5)

May this Shabbat bring rest and joy, peace and hope, and the affirmation that every variation of human being is an equally precious part of the Eternity in which we dwell.

Shabbat Pekudey: It’s Not a Sin to Take a Break

Actually, the opposite is true.

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ 

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day rest is holy (Ex. 35.2)

As of sundown today, the work has to be done. Whatever it is you are doing, after sundown on the sixth day it is no longer holy. In what can be seen as a kind of inversion, the holy becomes profane. Not the work itself, but the timing, is what Shabbat seems to be trying to tell us. 

In our parashah, Pekudey we are told that the work is done. The Mishkan, the gathering place which will be used to seek out the holy and our connection to it, is completed. Our parashat hashavua records the details of the work, the resources used, and the process of putting it all together.

We know very well that our work is not done, though, just because it’s the end of the sixth day. We who tend to live in space tend to define ourselves by our impact on our space; we try to bend time to our will. We grant extensions of time rather than curtail our impact on space.

What happens if we turn the text sideways, take a look at it from another perspective? 

A well-known and respected modern commentator on the Torah, Nehama Leibowitz, has long been a regular touchstone for Shir Tikvah Torah Study. In this week’s exploration of the parashah, she shares a fascinating parallel between the completion of the work of the mishkan and that of the creation. First, the verses from our parashah:

וַתֵּ֕כֶל כׇּל־עֲבֹדַ֕ת מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד 

Thus was completed all the work of the Mishkan

וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה

The people of Israel did as HaShem directed (Ex.39.32)


וַיְכַ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּלָאכָֽה

And Moshe completed the work (Ex.40.33)

Leibowitz compares this account to that of the Creation of the World. Look at the way that the words relating the completion of the mishkan are a precise echo:

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ

Heaven and earth were completed


And all their hosts (details) (Gen.2.1)

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה

And HaShem completed all the work (Gen. 2.2)

Now we know very well that the work of creating the world actually continues; in our morning prayers we regularly repeat our appreciation וּבְטוּבוֹ מְחַדֵּשׁ בְּכָל־יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית “for the goodness which recreates the world each day”. On this week especially, we see all too well the unfinished nature of human beings and our creations.

On the Shabbat of a week of horrible images of war, it seems naive or even criminal to obey the directive to stop doing, to cease the work that creates holy places in the world, just because the end of the sixth day has come. And for piku’akh nefesh, the saving of life, that is true – we continue that work regardless of Shabbat, as generations of halakhah tells us.

But the stubbornly incomplete work of our hands will not be redeemed if we enslave ourselves to it. Here is the inversion: that which lifts us up, and makes us like HaShem in our capacity to create and change and develop, becomes that which destroys us on the seventh day. HaShem models the holiness of rest on the seventh day; it’s the perfect message for the hubris of our society. You’re not G*d. You can take a day off. And on the flip side: you are a precious and holy part of the world; your worth has nothing to do with your work. 

Today is the beginning of Adar II, the month in which Purim will come. It is a holy obligation for us to turn our perspective upside down. It is a divine imperative: remember your humanity. Otherwise, how will you remember that of others?

The world is not finished, nor your work. It will still be there to lend meaning to your life when Shabbat is over.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Rosh Hodesh Adar!

War In Ukraine


לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ 

For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being

לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ 

for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good

Psalm 122. 8-9

Congregation HaTikvah of Kyiv Ukraina spring of 2003. Rabbi Ariel Stone and Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny are at lower right in second row.
When in 2003 I came to Congregation Shir Tikvah of Portland Oregon at the invitation of the fifteen founders who midwifed the community into existence, I came directly from a two-year academic fellowship in Jerusalem. But the beginning of our relationship coincided with another significant date in my life: in 1993, ten years before, I had become the first Rabbi of Congregation HaTikvah of Kyiv, Ukraina.

Ever since, we have maintained a relationship, me and Congregation HaTikvah. At times Shir Tikvah has participated in it. There is a special and unique link between the two congregations through me, and at this terrible time I want to offer you some learning (because we are a learning congregation) regarding what you need to know, and how you might choose to act in response to the horrifying events unfolding so far from us, yet so close.

1. The current spiritual guide of Congregation HaTikvah is Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny. Although he is a descendent of the Rizhiner Rebbe, when I met Shurik he was working as a tour guide. He became my translator during our Shabbat prayers for my first few weeks in Kyiv until my rudimentary Russian (yes, Russian, because that is the international language of the Former Soviet Union) improved enough to be understood – most of the time – by my congregants.

Rabbi Dukhovny sent me this video earlier this week. Please watch it.

2. Tomorrow our local expert on Ukrainian history, Professor Natan Meir, is offering an hour of explanation of the history of the Jewish community of Ukraine and the Ukraine-Russian relationship tomorrow,  Wednesday, March 2 from 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. Learn more here and get the Zoom link: Explaining Ukraine 

3. what can you do to help? In the video, Rabbi Dukhovny mentions an emergency fund for the Jews of Ukraine created by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (which supported my work in Ukraine, along with the JDC). Please consider supporting this emergency fund if you are able: Ukrainian Crisis Fund 

Finally, my companions in study and prayer, please pray with me. With your heart, send healing energy in the direction of all who suffer in Ukraine and everywhere war creates chaos and misery. And pray with me with your hands and feet, joining me in doing what we can to answer hate with kindness, choosing the risk of love over fear.

אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא: אָנָּא יְהֹוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא: 

Help, we beseech, save now
we beg, we plead, save now
help us, HaShem, speed the way to peace;
we beseech, may the struggle to live succeed.

(Psalms 118:25) 

May we see the restoration of peace speedily in our day, ken yehi ratzon, may it be so…

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat VaYakhel: There But For The Grace of G*d

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד        

They made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Ex. 38.8)

Last Saturday night a 60 year old woman helping to hold space for a gathering in Normandale Park was shot to death by a white supremacist. It didn’t take long for the thought to cross my mind: there but for the grace of G*d go I. The Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance, which I convene, exists to demonstrate that people of faith accompany justice-seekers in the streets – and I’m about to reach my 60th birthday, G*d willing. 

But later I realized that the phrase is wrong. The Hesed we translate as “grace” is not about determining who lives or dies, who is lucky enough not to be killed by the bullet of a person filled with hate, or by the bombs falling from warplanes that murder one innocent or another.

No. Hesed is how we care for each other. It’s “the grace we show and the compassion that we give.” If that phrase sounds familiar, it should: HaShem declared it to be the divine essence of our path only last week, in parashat Ki Tisa. 

There is so much that is painful in our lives right now, beloveds. Evil, dominating and strong, is breaking out from Ukraine and so many other places, right down to here, in our neighborhood, in our city of Portland Oregon. Some people who are traumatized have no strength left to show grace or to feel it – which makes the instances so precious when we do find them.

Tellingly enough, in all the smoke and confusion we hear the voice of women, of mothers and of nurturing, rising up against the tide of terror. A Ukrainian woman walks directly up to a young Russian soldier, armed to the teeth against her people, and tells him as a mother to go home, despite the devastation and fear surrounding her. A Black woman in Portland Oregon speaks clarity and hope from a movement of thousands that she’s built over years of patience, despite the misogyny and racism she deals with every day.

We who are daily tempted to violent emotion need to learn this: that we have the incredible healing power of hesed to share, and in this way, we with the grace of G*d can go.

In this week’s parashah, we see them: the women at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah is indefinite about what their tasks are, but Midrash helps us understand:

The women asked themselves: “What contribution can we make to the sacred place?” They arose, took their mirrors, and brought them to Moses. When Moses saw them he angrily asked, “What purpose do these mirrors serve?” The Holy Blessed One called out to Moses: “Moses, do you mistreat them because of these? These very mirrors produced the hosts in Egypt. Take them and make a basin of brass and its base for the priests, that they may sanctify the priests from it,” as it is said: The laver was made of brass, and base of brass, from the mirrors of the serving women that did service (Ex. 38:8), for they had produced all the hosts. (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 9.4)

This story is based upon another midrash in which our mothers are praised for their ability to maintain life during Egyptian slavery; by using their mirrors to flirt with their exhausted partners, they were able to keep creating new life despite the oppression of Egypt. The word which links these two stories is tzov’ot, which can mean “serve” or “hosts.” The Midrash derives from this that the women “served” by bringing into the world “hosts” of children, and they ensured the survival of the Jewish people.

Now they stand at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, literally, and it is they, by their work, who create access to the holy.

Jewish mysticism teaches that it is the mothering attribute of hesed that nurtures and supports life. It is quieter than bombs and guns, but in the end it is so much more powerful. May we all listen for the voice of the divine feminine within us and within the world, sharing Hesed as we are able, and showing compassion as it is needed, keeping open by our work the touch of the holy – the whole – which we all need so badly.

In memory of June Knightly, and in honor of Letha, Teressa, and all who mother Life.

Shabbat Ki Tisa: False Gods and Fear

Jews are still waiting; we don’t live in a world already redeemed by the advent of the Messiah. We live not in a world of Messianic ethics, where questions are resolved and the path forward is clear; we live in a world of “messy ethics.” – Dr. Byron Sherwin ז״ל

Everything that seemed so promising so recently now seems doomed. The Israelites are in the wilderness, unsure of everything, aware only that Moshe is our leader, to whom we look for answers. But for weeks now he has been absent. Everything is endangered; ill omens abound. Fear grips the people. Now, they demand: now, we want an answer.

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32.1)

Make us a god. Make us something we can believe in, that we can trust in, that will save us. We can hear them sounding a lot like us as they demand it: give us clarity, give us a solution, once and for all, to the problems that plague us and our society. 

We may derive insight – but also a warning – into our own moment in time, from this story and its outcome. Let’s look at the continuation of this story, which recounts the creation of the Golden Calf:

וַיִּתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כׇּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאׇזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.

וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

This he took from them and cast, and made it into a molten bull. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

וַיַּ֣רְא אַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לְפָנָ֑יו וַיִּקְרָ֤א אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר חַ֥ג לה’ מָחָֽר

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of ‘ה”  (Exodus 32.4-6)

So far it doesn’t look so bad; who doesn’t love a street festival to celebrate our community? But the close readers of our rabbinic tradition ask: what did Aaron see, in verse 6? According to a chilling midrash, he saw that the people had killed his sister Miriam’s partner, Hur when he stepped forward to reason with what by now was an unreasoning mob. Out of justified fear for his own life, then, Aaron went along with the energy of the moment, and facilitated the creation of a false god.

In our own time and place, many of us feel that the leadership that should attend to our needs and our safety is absent. Like the Israelites, we cast about looking for strong leadership and for certain security.

Make us a god. Make us something we can believe in, that we can trust in, that will save us. 

How much frustration does it take to lose our ability to reason, to become a sort of mob ourselves, or to feel forced to go along with what the majority is demanding, no matter how unethical it is? What happens to our ability to reason, and to care about others, when we do?

In our Portland community, there is for some people a growing sense that “something must be done” about a number of social plagues. One of them is houselessness.

No one can fail to see the growing number of tents throughout our community. The starkness of the failure of our society to prevent this horror can bring out the yetzer hara’ in us, encouraging us to believe that it could never happen to us, these people are all either mentally ill or drug addicted. This is outright idol worship, because it sets up a false certainty that we then rely upon in order to determine our treatment of other human beings. It gives the lie to the teaching we use when we ourselves seek to be treated justly and with compassion in our non-Jewish and sometimes antisemitic environment: all human beings are created in the Image of G*d. 

Either they are or they are not. If we truly believe in the Jewish ethical tradition that offers us its guidance, we have to find a way to deal with the messiness. We can’t react out of fear, and we can’t believe in one answer to a complex problem.

So what are some of the complex, messy, humane answers? To learn more about compassionate, i.e. Jewish responses to houselessness, learn from Street Roots; the Portland Street Response; from Home Together’s Road Map, featured in the January 24 2022 Oregonian (read it here) and backed by leaders as diverse as Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Michael Liu of Fubonn Shopping Center on behalf of the Portland Business Alliance, and Brandi Tuck of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. The Road Map is endorsed by Shir Tikvah, among 190 other community leaders.

“We don’t solve complex problems by sowing fear and frustration. We can only solve them by bringing people together, listening to the experts who work on the front lines, and taking action on proven solutions to meet our needs both now and in the years to come.”

The nice thing abut a god is that we can relax, because finally, something greater than us is in charge. But according to the teaching of this parashat hashavua, a false god is created by fear, and it brings not security and hope but disillusion and death. 

In the Torah it is written:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ        

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive on the land where HaShem has given you to rest. (Devarim 16.20)

Our rabbinic tradition derives the teaching that we must pursue justice justly. It’s a higher standard, yes. Not everyone can manage it. But that’s the mitzvah – the sacred obligation. 

With gratitude for Torah study, where we create and hold space for frustration and fear, inquiry and doubt, hope and companionship.

Shabbat Tetzaveh: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

At the very end of our parashat hashavua this week we find this instruction about the altar we are making for a way to focus communication with HaShem:

לֹא־תַעֲל֥וּ עָלָ֛יו קְטֹ֥רֶת זָרָ֖ה וְעֹלָ֣ה וּמִנְחָ֑ה וְנֵ֕סֶךְ לֹ֥א תִסְּכ֖וּ עָלָֽיו׃

You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it. (Exodus 30.9)

“Alien” is not defined, but that doesn’t stop every organized religion, and every other coherent system of human belonging, to spend a great deal of time determining the boundaries between what’s in and out – and who is in, and who is out.

To our great detriment as a species, influences on our makeup beyond our conscious control have led us to violate the greatest of all mitzvot – that of honoring the Other as equally made in the divine Image – in ways that embarrass and confound us, once the scales fall from our eyes.

“It’s written in the Torah” is, as every learning Jew knows, not a basis for Jewish ethical behavior. The Torah is more correctly seen as part of a much larger conversation that the Jewish people has been having, and will continue to have, as a people that follows a particular spiritual path. 

If we go no further than the surface meaning of the Torah, our understanding of what is Jewish and who we are is terribly narrowed down and impoverished. We are left believing that our tradition is shallow and inhumane, when in truth there is nothing more passionate and courageous than good deep Torah Study.

And there is no group more willing to ask questions of our own assumptions and truths than learning Jews, neither today nor in the past. We see indications of this throughout the Talmud. For example, many of us assume that the notion of a spectrum of gender identity is a new idea; in reality, it is an idea that is being re-discovered, rather like the works of the ancient Greeks had to be rediscovered in medieval Al Andalus after being lost in the ignorance fostered by European Christianity’s animus toward anything alien to its teachings.

Indeed: our Talmud is aware of and has terminology for eight separate genders, and deals at length with how each exists as part of Jewish society. None are considered alien, or, worse, morally wrong. Rather, our tradition regards each kind of human being as equally precious and equally to be respected: 

“There are many with me” (Psalm 55.19) and who are they? They are the angels that watch over people. Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi said: an entourage of angels always walks in front of people, with messengers calling out “make way for the Image of the blessed holy One!” (Devarim Rabbah, Re’eh 4)

The xenophobia currently rampant in U.S. discourse demonstrates the danger of defining too much that one encounters as “alien” and therefore wrong or bad; much is being lost in the ignorance fostered in our own day, including our own sense of safety. Torah leaves the term alien undefined here, and everywhere else the term exists; it’s up to us to join the rich learning conversation that explores the intersection of textual encounter and living teachings.

This week the Torah begins with a passage that has become famous for its use in building campaigns throughout the Jewish world:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham

Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25.8)

Our parashah is called Terumah, “gift.” The verse above is ideal for an egalitarian fundraiser because the concept is that all of us are to bring that which is our own unique gift to the building of the common sacred space – and because that gift is to be freely given, a gift of the heart.

But we’re not ready for that verse, and all that it implies, yet. (Turns out that the Israelites weren’t either.) This is why: if you look at our communal trajectory, we are not yet a group settled into a space. We are just beginning to arrive there, and we are arriving in stages – like our ancestors, in waves: some who have been using the space for some time now, and others who have yet to enter it. Some still limping from the effect of the crossing of the Sea, others unnerved by the very nature of change, and all recovering from the trauma of Egyptian slavery.

We have crossed over, and now we have work to do: the same work that the Israelites now need to do. Not the building of sacred space – that will come, but not only through the successful ingathering of gifts that secures the roof over our heads. The work upon us now is indicated by the next couple of parshiyot, in which we begin to build, only to be distracted by the unfinished business of clarifying and cohering, not the floor plan, but the shared essence of those who are doing the building.

The gifted Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg follows earlier interpreters of this section of Torah in suggesting that it is placed here out of order, to obscure a deeper truth; that, in reality, the Israelites’ traumatized experience of terror led to murderous dysfunction, all out of proportion to the actual danger they were in. 

Just as for the ancient Israelites, our exercise of building the sacred space can only truly take place when each of us listens to our hearts:

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

Tell the Israelite people to bring gifts; you shall accept gifts from every person whose heart so moves (Exodus 25.2)

Our hearts are, at the very least, distracted. After so many months of so many plagues – COVID-19, then the vaccination, then the Delta variant, then a few months of what we thought was oftentimes, then the Omicron variant, all against a background of climate urgency, housing emergency, and social unrest, until we come to realize that there will not be an “after”, not anytime soon…..

Like the ancient Israelites who were suddenly surrounded by trackless wilderness, full of real dangers, the society we live in has turned frightening: from Pittsburgh to Poway to Colleyville, those of us who thought we were safe have realized we are not. The myth of individualism leaves us lonely and vulnerable when what we need is to be able to trust in and rely on each other in meaningful Jewish community – and we barely know what that is, or feel that we have the strength to act toward it, some days. We are having a difficult time, and we tend to take it out on each other.

We have only begun to face the reality of what it means to be a community that can build a truly sacred space. We have a lot of building to do to be the community we can be. Thankfully, it is full of those who are already showing the path, through their compassion and steadiness. May their lights shine bright for the rest of us, reassuring us and showing us the way toward peace within, even in a time when peace without is so far away.

אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 4.1)

Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville

When Shabbat ended yesterday I saw what riveted the Jewish community in the U.S. and Israel all day: the entry of a human being, suffering from anger and in misery, into a shul during Shabbat livestream prayers. He held the human beings he found hostage all day. The day ended with all hostages safe and the hostage taker dead, regrettably but not surprisingly.

This is a fact: being Jewish brings a measure of insecurity. Being part of an organized Jewish gathering place such as a shul can put one in danger. For those of us whose forebears turned to the United States as a place where they and their children would be safe from the persecutions we fled in Europe, these days are bitterly disappointing.

It is only human for us to react by seeking to secure, even augment, our safety. This is as natural and as necessary as is a COVID-19 mask. The way we react as Jews is more nuanced: how to keep the doors of our compassion open, and our hearts awake and aware. 

Yes, it makes sense to enhance our doors. Yes, we must be thoughtful in our signage or other indications of who’s inside. But we must not delude ourselves that we can circle the wagons and never have to be afraid again. 

What we have learned through the pandemic is useful here: even when we are as careful as we know how to be, we can never be completely safe. All we can be is conscious of how our acts accord, or not, with the highest, deepest and best we mean to be as thoughtful and ethical Jews. We cannot avoid fear; all we can do is to be afraid together, carefully, with awareness; we can deliberately choose to continue to lead with love, not with fear.

Synagogues go out of our way to care for each human being who comes within the light we shine so brightly, of love and belonging and compassion. I am confident that we will continue to shine that light, in ways that will secure us in the knowledge that we may not ever be entirely safe in the world, but we have always acted in accord with our best Jewish ethics as we thoughtfully consider each situation that arises.

with love and with hope as another week begins, shavua tov.

Shabbat BeShalakh: What It Takes To Get Across the Sea

Evil consists in ruining someone else’s life rather than examine one’s own. – M Scott Peck, People of the Lie

As we follow Torah’s narrative of the Israelite escape from Egypt, this week’s parashah relates a tense, utterly human moment. It’s the well-known sense that often sets in immediately after one takes an irrevocable step, that the step was absolutely wrong.

And so it is with our ancestors as they head out of Egypt. The land is ruined by plagues, the first born is dead in every house, and a panicked motley group of slaves is stumbling forward into the unknown. 

Almost immediately, they reach the Sea of Reeds. 

וַיִּרְדְּפ֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיַּשִּׂ֤יגוּ אוֹתָם֙ חֹנִ֣ים עַל־הַיָּ֔ם כׇּל־סוּס֙ רֶ֣כֶב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וּפָרָשָׁ֖יו וְחֵיל֑וֹ

the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out. (Exodus 14.9-10)

Death – or, at the very least, the complete failure of what they thought was their way to freedom, seems to be staring them in the face. What does this group of people do? They do what most frightened people do: they turned on their leaders.

According to a famous midrash, the People of Israel not only attacked their leadership for the move, they also attacked anyone who tried to take steps to deal with the situation at hand. When Hashem said to Moshe, “Tell the people to go forward (into the Sea)”

זֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם וְזֶה אוֹמֵר אֵין אֲנִי יוֹרֵד תְּחִילָּה לַיָּם קָפַץ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן עַמִּינָדָב וְיָרַד לַיָּם תְּחִילָּה

this [tribe] said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea,” and this one said, “I will not be the first to go down to the sea.” 

As they argued among themselves about this next step (apparently even when HaShem says it will be okay, Jews have always reserved the right to doubt!) they literally attacked anyone who attempted to go forward in fulfillment of HaShem’s urging, by pelting them with stones. At this point, all seemed lost. But then:

Then Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and went down first to the sea….(BT South 37a)

We all know how the story ends; the act of faith of plunging into the Sea itself causes the Sea to part, even as we have seen in our own lives how reality can be shaped by one courageous act. Yes, stepping forward is frightening even when it seems to be the only way. The question that remains is why some would rather stay sunk in anger, in despair and in fear, rather than hold hands and take a scary step together.

A rather sobering midrash asserts that only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt with Moshe. The rest, majority voice though they be, are never heard from again. On this Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr day and Tu B’Shevat 5782, we’ll lift up the inspiration of the Nakhshons of our knowing – those who step forward into the unknown because it is the only way to walk away from what enslaves us. It is in their visionary steps that we find our own way toward all that spring means.