By Rabbi Josh Warshawsky
No, not a new Journey cover band. Our own journeys. Each one of us. This week we conclude the book of Shemot, the epic story of a people’s fight for freedom against an oppressor much stronger than them and their journey to become a new free nation, and next week we begin the book of Vayikra, which details the holiness code for behavior and interactions of the Levites. What’s going on here? We can learn a powerful lesson from the Torah here about our own individual journeys.
The Netivot Shalom, Rav Shalom Noach Berezovsky, maps out a lesson weaved from the beginning of our story up to this point. When Abraham leaves his homeland to go to a new land, he writes: Not one person has been exactly the same as one other person since the creation of the first human beings. And it happens that every person has their own destination and task that only they can achieve in their lifetime… each person has their own life path to follow, that cannot be compared to the lifepath of others. And this is all said in the language of walking (from Lech Lecha – “holech = walk”), to show that this is the task of every Jew, to always be walking and progressing forward on their path towards their destination.
Each one of us has our own journey that is entirely unique, and what is important is that we continue to progress on our own journey, always learning and growing. Jewish law is called “halacha” which can be translated as “the path” or “the way.” Our goal as human beings should be to never stop learning, never stop moving on our life pathways.
And so finally we arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei. In the very last verse we read, “For the cloud of the Holy One is on the Tabernacle throughout all their journeyings (Exodus 40:38)…” And we learn that it says, “throughout all their journeys,” with regard to the 42 stops on the journey enumerated in Parashat Mas’ei (later in the book of Numbers when we retell this story), the Ba’al Shem Tov writes: Every Jew throughout their lifetime goes through all 42 journeyings of the People of Israel. And so when it says, “These are the journeyings of the People of Israel,” it is referring to the journeyings of every single Jew, who came out of “Egypt (Mitzrayim),” which we can translate in English as “the narrow place.” Every human’s journey begins from when they exited their mother’s womb (the narrow place) to their arrival in the “land on high.”
And this is what we’ve learned in the book of Exodus, which starts with the portions on exile in Egypt and redemption, which was the birth of Israel. And then they begin on their 42 journeyings. Throughout their journeys there were times when they flourished and grew, like with the giving of the Torah, and there were times when they fell… just like every single person in their lifetime goes through moments of upward journeyings and downward journeyings, and through all of them they arrive at their purpose: to arrive at and make space for Holiness within themselves and in their lives.
So as we enter Shabbat this week, what are some ways you can open yourself up to holiness? How can you continue to learn and grow and walk on your own unique path? See you on the journey.
January – All for One and One for All
“Come together, right now, over me!” This Beatles lyric might be familiar to some, but what does it mean to come together? What does it truly look like? The Chassidic master Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the “Netivot Shalom” teaches us that throughout all of the people of Israel’s journeying, when the Torah talks about the places to which they traveled and the places in which they camped, a plural verb is used: They camped, they journeyed, etc. However, when Israel camps next to Mount Sinai, the text says, “vayichon sham Yisrael neged hahar (Exodus 19:2),” “And Israel (singular) camped in front of the mountain.”
בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃
19:1. In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.
19:2. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
The Ten Commandments are also written in singular form. Some commentators explain that this is because each person heard the Ten Commandments addressed to her/himself alone, in a way that that specific person could hear, understand, and internalize.
The Netivot Shalom offers us another explanation. He says that at the moment that the people camped at Mount Sinai and prepared for the giving of the Torah, they became, “b’lev echad k’ish echad,” “of one heart as one person.” They had joined their hearts and their souls together to become one. Not only that, each and every Israelite had to be there in order for that one heart, that one person, to be complete. Judaism comes alive when we celebrate it in community. It is only in gathering together that we can reach our fullest potential.
The Netivot Shalom usually likes to tie his teachings to Shabbat in some way, and this teaching is no exception. In this parashah we get the 4th commandment, to remember the 7th Day. Later on in the book of Shemot, it says,
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃ שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַה׳
“And Moses gathered the assembly of the people of Israel together and said to them, ‘these are the things which God has commanded you to do: for six days you shall work and the seventh day shall be for you a holy rest…” (Exodus 35:1-2)
The question is what are we supposed to actually do? This quote makes it seem as though Shabbat is just about refraining from doing. Rather, the Netivot Shalom says that what we are supposed to do is to follow Moses’s example and gather the people. When we gather together in communities and congregations, that is how we deepen the holiness of Shabbat.
After the events of last Shabbat in Colleyville, it seems even more daunting and dangerous to come together in community. But even in the face of that trauma, there are so many ways that we can connect and be together, support each other and “come together”. As we enter into Shabbat this week, I invite you to think about and discuss with your family the following questions:
May we see each other and gather and pray together again soon
December 9th – Healing with Tears
You may have noticed that there’s a lot of crying in this week’s Torah portion. Most of it is coming from Joseph. In fact some commentators call Joseph “ba’al bechi,” “the master cryer.” And they are in awe of Joseph for how expressive he is with his feelings. And there is one particular instance that sticks out that the commentators focus on. It is when Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers and he and his brother Benjamin embrace for the first time.
וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל צַוָּארָיו
And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept as well.
They’re weeping tears of joy at being reunited, but also tears of sadness for all that they have lost and for all that they have missed. Rashi gives what seems like a strange commentary to this verse. He says that Joseph is weeping for the two temples that will be destroyed that will be in Benjamin’s future territory, and that Benjamin is weeping for the Mishkan in Shiloh that will be destroyed that will be in Joseph’s future territory.
And the rabbis are confused by this! Reb Yechezkel of Kozimir says, “This doesn’t make any sense! At a time of reunification and brotherhood, why would they be crying about these things that will happen in the future? And all the more so, why are they crying about these things that won’t even be happening to them, but will be happening in a territory that is inhabited by the other one’s tribe?” And the answer is this. Benjamin and Joseph knew that the reason that they were separated by their brothers was because of Sin’at Chinam, senseless hatred. They saw the future destructions that would befall the Jewish people, and knew that these also would be because of senseless hatred. It is for this reason that they wept.
As I thought about this beautiful idea, I noticed yet again the words from the Psalms in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy: “Ohavei Adonai Sin’u Ra,” “Those who love the Divine, hate evil.” And this is what it is talking about. In a world of increasing divisiveness, it is so important that we recognize hatred and call it out. Joseph and Benjamin give us the answer to hatred. It is embrace. It is love. It is holding each other and crying together. If we can be true in our hearts, we can bring more light and joy to this world. Or zarua latzadik ul’yishrei lev simchah. Light is planted through righteousness, and joy comes to those who are true of heart. This can only happen together. It can only happen with love.
November 11th Thursday Thought:
The “I” Gets in the Way
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. In this week’s parashah, Vayeitze, Jacob runs away from Be’er Sheva, away from his brother Esau, and comes upon a certain place and stops for the night. There he has a famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and coming down. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati!” “Surely the Holy One is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Our sages teach us that every single word in the Torah is intentional and there is some meaning behind it. Rav Shimshon from Ostropol taught us to look at the last letters of each of these words: “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה” The last letters spell the word “נשמה,” “Soul.” Even though the whole world is filled with Divine Glory, the central essence of the Divine is in the soul.
But the key is “Va’anochi lo yadati,” “and I did not know it!” Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches about the verse, “אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-ה’ וּבֵינֵיכֶם (Devarim 5:5),” “I stand between the Divine and you,” I-ness, ego, self-centeredness, is the screen that separates between human and the Divine. If we are able to see through the screen of the ego, of our own self, we open ourselves up to the rest of the world, to what is greater than the self alone.
It’s not easy to see through the screen, to turn down all of the noise of everything else in our lives and find a moment of deep connection. That’s what Shabbat allows us to do if we find a time to truly allow ourselves to enter into it. This Shabbat, I pray that we find our way past the screen of “i-ness,” to find a moment of rest, a moment of divinity, a moment of true Shabbat.
October 21st Thursday Thought: Vayera
We’re exactly halfway through the month of Cheshvan, the second month on the Jewish calendar and one with no holidays in it. From the end of Simchat Torah to Hannukah (9 weeks!) we have no holidays to celebrate. Perhaps that’s why the Torah portions that we read during this time are some of the most iconic, with the most incredible stories and lessons to be learned. The creation story, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah and the adventures of our ancestors all the way through the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
We listen to and learn the incredible stories of these characters and how they navigated walking through the world in their time. They had so many flaws! Each of them made mistakes along their journeys, but they continued to strive throughout their lives to make themselves and the world better.
Amidst all of these stories, there are little gems and pearls of wisdom hidden on the pages that our chassidic masters pull out to teach us life lessons. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see Abraham arguing with God, asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find just 50 righteous people in the city. And God responds, “Im emtza Chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir… (Bresishit 18:26)” “If I find just 50 righteous people in the city…”
Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a famous chassidic rebbe, zooms in on those words “b’toch ha’ir,” “In the city” and discovers something incredibly powerful. He says, “It’s not enough to find 50 righteous people who are ‘benchwarmers’ in the study hall (i.e. studious rabbis and text learners who study in the ivory tower), rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still remain righteous! Only on the merit of those people will God save the city.”
It’s easy to be a tzadik, a righteous person, when you don’t engage with the world. It’s much harder to be out in the city, out on the streets, out engaging and interacting with human beings all the time, and still remain a tzaddik. To be righteous is to be able to interact with human beings at our worst and still find love and compassion and warmth in your heart for our fellow humans. As we enter into Shabbat this week, let’s strive to be righteous in the eyes of Rebbe Simcha Bunim and find a little more love in our hearts to spread over the world.
Sukkot Thursday Thought: Bring Your Own Spark 9/22/21
In 2013, I spent Sukkot in Los Angeles for the first time. I had moved to LA a month earlier to start a job as the artist-in-residence of a large Conservative synagogue and was living in a house directly behind the shul. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles actually has the right temperature for a Fall, outdoor holiday with celebratory evening dinners. It’s just like the ancient Israelites would have celebrated it!
I had grown up building a sukkah every year with my family, but this was the first year I would have a sukkah of my own. I was so excited, and decided I was going to design it myself and build it out of PVC pipes and tarps. I took measurements, mapped it all out, and went to Home Depot to pick up all of the supplies. A friend came over and we spent the whole day putting it all together. We were so proud of our creativity, independence, and handiwork, and I was especially proud of my design.
The next morning, I woke up and went to take a look at my beautiful sukkah, and it was in shambles on the ground. It had been a very windy night and the sukkah had blown over! The PVC pipes I had purchased were too narrow, and weren’t able to hold up the wooden beams and bamboo mats we were using for the roof. I was disappointed but undeterred. I went back to Home Depot and reinforced the side poles and put down sandbags to anchor the structure.
And it held! Seven nights and days of celebration ensued, with sukkah hops, teen programming, 20s and 30s meals, study sessions, and more. I loved getting to welcome people into my sukkah. In the Torah we read about Sukkot, “Kol Ha’ezrach b’yisrael yeishvu b’sukkot (Leviticus 23:42), Every citizen of Israel should dwell in sukkot.” The Ba’al HaTanye, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that the word “ezrach,” citizen, really comes from the language of “zericha,” shining. Every person shines and sparkles and lights up with all the goodness and the beauty. And every spark of holiness and the radiance of the mitzvot – that’s what we should bring into the sukkah.
One of the other names for Sukkot is “Z’man simchateinu, The time of our joy.” Our sages teach that “Z’man,” time, really comes from the language of “zimun v’hazmana – summons and invitation.” In this holiday we invite in joy to last us the whole year.
This Shabbat will be my first monthly visit to Beth El. I am so excited to begin this journey together this year – a journey of music, prayer, Torah, learning, and growth. I invite you to join me this Shabbat at Beth El as we celebrate the double joy of Shabbat and Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot together. Bring your individual holy spark, bring your singing voice, and we’ll create the joy of z’man simchateinu together.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom