By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Chodesh Tov! Today marks the beginning of the Hebrew month Nisan – a name that actually came from the Babylonians. The original Hebrew name of this month was Chodesh Aviv – the month of Spring. With it comes the two-week warning that Passover is on its way, and in exactly 2 weeks, we’ll be gearing up for the second seder and the start of the counting of the Omer.
It’s a new month, and a new season. It’s also a new book of the Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus. The Book and parasha which bears his name speak to us about how to worship God. What offerings to bring, and when. We learn how to use that Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, the completion of which was one of the moments the Exodus was complete, as Rabbi Freedman taught us last week.
The korbanot (offerings) we read about and recall from both Tabernacle and Temple times, have long since been replaced with prayer services. Offerings of words rather than animals. Pleasing odors have been replaced by pleasing voices, and it is our prayers that bring us closer (karov) to God, ourselves, our Jewish community and the world. Karov – closeness is famously the Hebrew root of the word Korban, often translated as sacrifice or offering. A Korban is more deeply understood as a means by which we draw closer to God.
And how fitting that these Korbanot are elucidated in the Book of Vayikra which translates to “He called.” Two letters are shared in the root Vayikra (and He Called) Kuf-Resh-Alef and Korban (offering) Kuf-Resh-Bet. Calling out to one another, calling each other in, also draws us closer to each other. This connection is famously played upon in the Ashrei: Karov Hashem lechol Kor’av, lechol asher yikra’uhu be’emet – God is close to all who call Him; to all who call out to Him in truth. When we call out to God with honesty, sincerity, and integrity, we can draw closer to Hashem. So while the next few weeks will surely be filled with details about what and how to offer animals to God, I encourage each of us to consider the intentions behind these offerings, and examine how our words, our prayers, our songs can be offered up and draw us nearer to who we want to be, and nearer to God.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Precisely what was the moment when the Exodus from Egypt was complete? I think most people would answer that the Israelites’ crossing the split sea was the finish line. That physical border marked the transition in identity from slaves to free people.
But it goes deeper than that, says our tradition. A number of years ago I was a rabbi in New Jersey when I shared that the Exodus was truly complete only when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai 7 weeks later. We know this anniversary as the holiday of Shavuot, which is connected to Passover in a deep way: from the second night of Passover, Shavuot is exactly 7 weeks later, which demonstrates the deep connection between the two. The Jewish people began their physical liberation at Passover but became spiritually free only at Sinai when they received the Torah. Why? Because a people without a constitution is not a society but a mass prone to anarchy. The Torah is the Jewish people’s constitution, which outlines our holidays, values, memories, and norms. Expressing these marked the next step toward freedom.
When I shared this in New Jersey, we happened to be joined by a scholar in residence from JTS. Professor Ben Sommer was most recently from Chicago, and is a standout Bible professor. And he moved the finish line back even further than I did.
He says that it’s our portions this week – Vayakhel and Pekudei – that truly complete the story of the Exodus. This is obvious from a technical standpoint – these two portions conclude the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus. But this is true thematically as well. He says the goal of the Exodus was not only to liberate the Jewish people but to make G-d’s presence manifest in the world. And it is in these Torah readings when the Mishkan/Tabernacle was finally complete. Of course the Tabernacle served as the sanctuary, the physical manifestation of the spiritual relationship between G-d and the Israelites. It was in this space that G-d’s presence was most felt and obvious. In other words, G-d’s presence was felt in the world in a way that it simply could not be when Israel was enslaved.
I compare it to the feeling of returning home from a trip out of town. What is the moment when you ‘return home’? On one level, it’s the moment when you enter the front door again. That feels wonderful. But you are still tired and clutching your bags. The moment you are truly home is when you put your things down, sit on the couch, hug your family, and finally take a breath. In other words, it’s not a moment but a process.
The same was true for the Israelites: freedom was a process, and completing the sanctuary was an important step.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
While this saying may have originated with Alexander Pope in the 18th century, it is a tale as old as time, and its biblical origins may be found within this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa.
This week, our Mishkan-building story is interrupted by the famous communal faux pas where the Israelites, lacking their leader (as Moshe had been up on Har Sinai receiving the Torah from God for over a month), built Egel haZahav, the Golden Calf, to replace him, and/or to attract a new leader.
This incident seems out of place for the timeline of events surrounding our receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai back in parshat Yitro. But as we know, Ein Mukdam o-M’uchar baTorah, there is no early and late in the Torah. This is the very reasoning biblical commentators use to explain why something seems out of chronological order.
Using that logic, the Torah had not yet been revealed to them. That 2nd commandment, You shall have no other gods but Me, had not yet been given to them. Is it possible that the Israelites did not know that they were doing something wrong? Were they fully to blame?
The timing was such that perhaps they simply did not know that what they were doing was fully wrong or could be interpreted as sinful.
Sometimes we, too, make mistakes without realizing the errors of our ways. Whether accidentally or purposefully, transgressions happen, iniquities occur, and we still need to deal with the repercussions regardless.
Upon his descent from Har Sinai with the two tablets, Moshe smashes them in anger upon seeing the Golden Calf, then proceeds back up the mountain, where God was even angrier. It took Moshe’s convincing God not to punish B’nai Israel. God’s mercy is revealed to Moshe here, and shortly after this incident, we read the famous list of God’s 13 Middot (attributes), through which B’nai Israel are ultimately forgiven by God.
All people commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives them, and people are acting in a godlike or divine way when they forgive. This is my understanding of the famous quote: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” In the heat of the moment, it can sometimes be difficult to see the bigger picture. But by trying to emulate as many of the divine attributes as possible, we can make good choices in response to incidents that happen to us and to the people in our community.
We should take into consideration the 13 middot, those merciful and forgiving aspects of God, and always try our best to be our best. While we are fallible human beings, we always have the opportunity for self-improvement, for working on our relationship within ourselves, with one another, and ultimately with God.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
In this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh, God tells Moshe to instruct the people about the priestly garments, sacral vestments made of “Zahav, t’chelet, v’argaman, v’tola’at shani” – Gold, and blue, purple and crimson yarns.
In that list, I hear echoes of the very special materials used just last week in parashat terumah to make the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary used by the Israelites in the wilderness. Those included Gold, silver, bronze, blue and purple and crimson among other things.
When it came to creating a sacred space for God’s presence to dwell, it took the best of the best materials. When much of the same stuff is used to make the priestly vestments, it subtly shows us the holiness of the person wearing them. It even says, “Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment” Dignity and Adornment – l’chavod ul’Tifaret (Kavod and Tiferet). Respect and beauty.
We all know ‘clothes don’t make the man’ but what we wear does matter. Clothing allows us to express our individuality, or in the case of a sports jersey or other uniform, can communicate our association with a community, team or other collective. What we wear sends a message, and not only to those around us observing us, but our clothing can also send a message to ourselves. When we put on our Shabbat best, we show ourselves that Shabbat is a special day, worthy of being dressed up for — like a wedding. During the pandemic, I was on the job search, and I always wore my full suit — even the pants, belt and shoes — to my zoom interviews. Why? Nobody saw my shoes or below my waist. Would it have really mattered if I interviewed in a shirt, tie, jacket and pajama pants? I think the feeling of being in certain clothing affects how we perceive ourselves and thus impact how we act in the world.
There are many examples of the importance of our garments. Our Tallit and Tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot. On High Holidays, I wear an all-white Kittel, and a special hat called a Mitre to hearken back to the Priestly robes and headdresses — and all white to represent the purity I hope to achieve through the prayers and repentance. And perhaps most relevant with Purim just around the corner, (Monday Night and Tuesday — join us), we sometimes dress up in zany costumes as a profound reminder of how God can be concealed in everyday miracles, hidden beneath the surface of otherwise ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ events.
So what will you wear? And what do you hope your clothing will say about you to others? What will your outward appearance inspire you to be on the inside?
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
It makes perfect sense that people internalize their externalities. For example, children raised in homes with lots of books on the shelves tend to become readers. People who grow up with art around the house tend to appreciate art as adults. And so on.
This week we begin not only Parashat Terumah but an entirely new section of the Torah. G-d gives Moses instructions on how to build the Mishkan/Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Israelites through the desert. The very first item to build is the holy Ark, which speaks to its prominence. Precisely because it is supremely holy, the Ark is kept indoors and inaccessible, save for only the High Priest only on Yom Kippur. But if the Torah were truly central to Israel, how could it be kept out of sight?
That is true in a limited sense but not a global sense. This is because when we zoom out, we see that the Mishkan is located at the center of the Israelite camp. The 12 tribes are arranged in a square all facing the Mishkan, similar to how New York City is arranged around Central Park. In this sense, the Mishkan was the heart of the Israelite camp, and thus became embedded in the hearts of the Israelites.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
Believe it or not this Shabbat we mark Shabbat Shekalim, the first of four special Shabbatot as we prepare for Passover. Based on a law in the Mishnah, as we enter the month before Passover occurs, we are each asked to make donations to the synagogue and other Jewish institutions to ensure their health and vitality so that Passover (Biblically the first holiday of the year) can be celebrated properly, as well as all of the subsequent festivals to follow. In Torah times, each male over 20 was to give a half-shekel to contribute to this cause. While there are other times when those with more were asked to give more, at this moment, when we are celebrating our freedom as a people and our formation as a nation, everyone was to be seen as equal contributors and of equal importance In fact, Rambam takes this notion of unity one step further by noting that the reason everyone gave a half shekel was to teach us that no person is complete on their own – we can only attain full spiritual completeness when we are in relationship with others, when we are in a community of shared interest. This practice reminds us that every one of us has something to offer the community, every one of us counts, and only together can we reach our potential.
Though we don’t follow this custom per se in our own times, the lesson it teaches is still critically important. Each of us must contribute, for each of us count. And when we value ourselves, as well as value the contributions of others, we can achieve greatness and more fully fulfill the commandments given to us by Gd.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
One of the highlights of Parashat Yitro is the revelation at Mount Sinai, the receiving of Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments, or better translated, Statements/Utterances– to B’nai Israel from God.
I’d like to take a closer look at the first Statement: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Ex. 20:2)
This is a Statement of God presenting God’s self to B’nai Israel in this extraordinary and grand moment with the entirety of every single member of B’nai Israel gathered at the base of the mountain.
And yet, looking at the Hebrew within this first of the 10 Dibrot, “I am the Lord YOUR God” is worded in the singular YOUR, not the plural YOUR which has a different Hebrew suffix to differentiate it, unlike in English where YOUR is one and the same, whether singular or plural.
The 13th century French commentator, Chizkuni, explains this word choice: “God appeared to the Israelites as if a multifaceted portrait visible to a thousand people at the same time. The people each heard God’s voice in a similar manner. In this way every Israelite was able to claim that God had spoken to him individually, saying: “I am the Lord your God, etc.” This is the reason that God had not said: אלוקיכם “your God (plural)” but אלוקיך, “your God, (singular)”. He had addressed all of them in the order in which they stood assembled around the mountain. This corresponded exactly to God’s commandment to Moses in 19:12: והגבלת את העם סביב לאמור, “you are to set bounds to the people around.” Do not be surprised – as to each person the manna tasted according to his nature, and if this is so for the manna, all the more so with the 10 Dibrot.
I find this interpretation quite lovely, and yet, while in effect this is understood as God speaking to each of us as individuals, I’d like to think that perhaps the singular YOUR might simultaneously refer to B’nai Israel as one unit, one people. For earlier in the parsha, God referred to our ancestors here as Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goi Kadosh, a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People. This is one of those great instances of a group of many things, people in this case, being referred to as a singular group.
Perhaps when we stand together this coming Shabbat morning to hear and receive Aseret haDibrot, we can feel both the unique pronouncement to each of us as individuals but also the grand statement to the entire Jewish people. We are the descendants of B’nai Israel on that day at Har Sinai. May we continue to celebrate this special brit, the divine covenant that we have with God, both as unique individuals and also as the community of us standing in that moment as if at Har Sinai, reenacting the grandeur, recommitting ourselves each day to recognize God in our lives and our holy covenant we have with the Divine.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
When I dabbled in improv comedy, there was a game we played called “Sing About It!” where a scene would unfold based on audience suggestions, and some omnipotent other player would have the power of saying, “Sing About It!” and the actors would have to break out into song spontaneously about whatever it is that was happening. What made that game so silly is that a character might start singing about something entirely mundane, like grocery shopping or sitting in traffic or having nothing to watch on TV. And the audience knows that people don’t just break out into song for no reason.
When I first started learning how to write original song lyrics, I literally googled how to do it. Humble beginnings, I suppose. But the article I read was specifically about musicals, and it taught me that the music and lyrics allow the characters to express what ordinary speech cannot. The music comes only when the emotional state of the character is elevated beyond spoken word. It could be anything from jubilation, to devastation, to rage or panic or love, but unlike the improv scenes, a song in a musical reflects an emotional peak – not just groceries.
“אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה”
“Az Yashir Moshe uv’nei Yisrael et-haShira hazot L’Hashem, vayomru lemor: ‘Ashira L’Hashem ki ga-oh, ga’ah”
So Moses and b’nai Yisrael sang this song to God, and they said, “I will sing to God for He has triumphed gloriously.”
For the first time in the entire Torah, the entire Bible, we see the word “song.” Of course Andrew Lloyd Weber and Stephen Schwartz would surely acknowledge that earlier parts of Genesis and Exodus were dramatic and worthy of songs like “Spark of Creation” or “Any Dream Will Do” the Torah itself doesn’t show the characters breaking out into song until this moment. All it took was 200+ years of slavery, 10 terrifying plagues, and an unbelievable miracle at the splitting of the sea. The emotional height of our redemption and our freedom moved us to the state where speaking simply doesn’t cut it. So we call this Shabbat Shira – the Shabbat of Song. This Shabbat we will be joined by my friends from New York called “The Choral Torah Collective” who add beautiful harmony to many verses, one piece for every parsha in the Torah. They will add harmony to our participatory davening, they will perform for us, they will teach us and they will sing with us. I hope you’ll join the song and dance Friday Night and Saturday Morning and Afternoon. It’s sure to be a Shabbat worth singing about!
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
The moon gets a bad rap in our society. Nobody says “the moon, sun, and stars” because the sun is always named first. We also know that moonlight is merely the light reflected from the sun, not generated on its own. The moon is like the little sibling, able to tag along but not do everything like the big kids.
All of which makes it interesting that the moon is the key to the Jewish calendar, not the sun (though the sun plays a role too). It’s our Parsha this week, Bo, that gives us the Mitzvah of Rosh Hodesh, when G-d told Moses and Aaron in Egypt: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:1, 2). Even before they left Egypt, G-d gives them the Jewish calendar to free them psychologically. Thus the process of freedom begins before they are physically liberated.
Here’s what the Etz Hayim Humash adds: “Why does Israel count by the moon, with each month starting when the new moon emerges? Because the moon, unlike the sun, waxes and wanes, nearly disappears and then grows bright again. So the Jewish people go through cycles of prosperity and suffering, knowing that even in darkness there are brighter days ahead (Sefat Emet).”
Nothing is too small to make a contribution, not the moon and not the Jewish people.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
This week, we read in Parshat Va’era about the first seven makkot (plagues) that God sent to Mitzrayim (Egypt), with 3 more to come in next week’s Torah portion, Bo. On the most basic level, these plagues seem to be sent as a lesson for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Many p’sukim (verses) highlight that the makkot were supposed to educate Pharaoh and the Egyptians about God. For example, the first plague is delineated in Ex. 7:17: “God says: ‘Here’s how you will know that I am God.’ I shall use my rod to strike the water in the Nile, and the water will turn to blood.”
The Eitz Chayim Chumash comments on this pasuk: “It is only by experiencing God’s might that Pharaoh will be persuaded to let Israel go.”
By the time that we reach the 10th makka in next week’s parasha, the death of the firstborn Egyptian males, Pharaoh gives in and lets B’nai Israel leave. The lesson of the plagues is clear and God’s true might is visible to Pharaoh, as the final plague affected him more personally than any other plague.
Perhaps in that moment, Pharaoh recognized God’s true power.
We have a phrase in our liturgical tradition, Yirat Shamayim, literally, the fear of heaven. Yira comes from the Hebrew root, Yud-Resh-Alef, that can mean both awe and fear.
We can speculate that Pharaoh may have finally felt that fearful emotion of Yirat Shamayim in the moment of that final plague.
We recall this Yira emotion liturgically every month on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat Mevarkhim, where we announce the new month beginning that next week. This is one of those weeks, when on Shabbat morning during our Torah service, we will announce the new month of Shevat which will begin this coming Monday.
Within this blessing, we recite this phrase twice within Birkat haChodesh, the blessing of the new month: “May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, grant that this coming month bring us goodness and blessing, and bestow on us a long life, a life that is peaceful, a life … conscious of heaven’s demands and wary of sin…a life of love of Torah, conscious of heaven’s demands….”
The poetic translation of Yirat Shamayim in our Siddur Lev Shalem, ‘conscious of heaven’s demands,’ reminds us of the divine awe we should experience, not only with the passing of each month, but on a daily basis. In our siddur’s commentary on this monthly blessing, we understand that Yirat Shamayim “implies a consciousness of God’s presence in one’s life, so that one does that which is right in the eyes of God.”
While the plagues begin with Pharaoh’s stubbornness to let the Israelites go in this week’s parasha, they conclude next week with Pharaoh’s Yirat Shamayim, fear of God with the final of the ten plagues.
May we each strive to strike the right balance between the dual emotions of both awe and fear of God, Yirat Shamayim, reminding us to recognize God’s might and presence in our lives, inspiring us to find blessing within our lives each day of every month.