Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Let’s Get It Right: Sacrificing Sacrifices and Learning to Use our Words

Posted on March 9, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

It’s that time of year again when Jews around the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Vayikra — Leviticus. Most modern people have some degree of difficulty with this parasha because it deals primarily with the sacrificial system. Whether you salivate at the thought of a fleischig kiddush, or can’t stand the idea of harming animals as part of worship, there’s an awful lot of time spent detailing these offerings. The attention to detail is quite moving. Ours is and was a people who wanted to get it exactly right when it came to worship. Now, 2000 years since we last had a Temple for these animal sacrifices, what can we learn from this system about worship?

There were several kinds of offerings: The Olah – burnt offering, Mincha – grain offering, Hattat – sin/purification offering, Asham – guilt offering, Zevach Shelamim – the peace offering. The Zevah Shelamim also has three types: A Todah – thanksgiving, Neder – vow, and Nedavah – free-will offering.

Prayer has replaced sacrifices as the model for connecting with God, and I believe that the kinds of prayers we offer parallel these offerings like so:

The Olah was fully consumed to demonstrate complete devotion. Prayers of song and praise found in P’sukei D’Zimra allow us to raise our voices in deep devotion to God. Our voices are like the reiach nichoach (pleasing odor) of the smoke rising straight upward.

The Mincha offering was directly replaced by the Mincha service. Mincha offerings required no animals – just flour, oil and some frankincense. Similarly our mincha service is short and sweet, allowing us to check in each afternoon.

In our Tachanun prayers, we ask forgiveness and mercy for the ways in which we missed the mark. And in our Amidah, too, we pray for forgiveness for our sins. Sometimes our sins are bein adam l’Makom (between a person and God), and other times our sins are bein adam l’chaveiro (between multiple people). These prayers and supplications which give us room to reflect, apologize and seek forgiveness are mirrored by the Chatat and Asham offerings. These sought to purify us from our mistakes.

Zevach Shlamim – peace offerings included gratitude, vows and free-will offerings. Much of our liturgy focuses us on Gratitude, particularly in Hallel or Birkot HaShachar. Prayer offers us the chance to resolve to be better and can be a time when we make pledges to give Tzedakah – a feature of the Yizkor service. And the free-will offerings are analogous with the prayers of our hearts. Rather than our usual keva – fixed liturgy, I believe that the voluntary offering is much like our kavanah – our personal intentions, the prayers we say spontaneously or as needed. This way of prayer was always concurrent with sacrifices, modeled by Hannah and other pray-ers in the Tanakh.

I hope that when you come to shul this week and the weeks ahead, you can look closely at the translations, commentaries and footnotes of our Torah reading, so you might begin to see that we’re not so different from the Israelites in our quest to feel close to the Divine. We’ve simply taken a page out of every mothers’ playbook and learned to “use our words.”

Unique Journeys

Posted on March 2, 2022

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.

Shabbat shalom

 

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:

 

  • When this week did you feel like you were a part of a community?
  • When did you feel so connected that you were almost “b’lev echad k’ish echad”?

 

May we see each other and gather and pray together again soon 

Shabbat Shalom

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.

Shabbat Shalom

 

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.

 

Shabbat shalom.

 

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.

Shabbat Shalom

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

 

 

 

 

 

Being Counted

Posted on February 22, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett 

G-d spoke to Moses saying. When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, each one shall be counted…” (Exodus 30—the beginning of the maftir reading for Shabbat Shekalim)  

This Shabbat marks the first of four special Shabbatot leading up to Passover (what, already?) It’s called Shabbat Shekalim, and We are forever counting. Counting years. Counting days. Counting down. Counting up. Counting the days until we can all find a sense of real “normal.”

In the daily life of NSS Beth El we count numbers too, and even one person can make the difference in the life of a mourner. In the lifeblood of our kahal (community). Ten adult Jews are needed to make a minyan and make it possible for someone in mourning or observing a Yahrzeit to say Kaddish.

To give them the comfort of saying the familiar words and being embraced by community. And in these days of COVID, of winter and bad weather, “getting to ten,” can be a challenge and has been a challenge, especially on those days when we are in person. You can, and must, be counted.

We all count. Our votes count on election days (I’ve been involved in enough tight political races to know that!); our commitment and presence count on Mitzvah days counts and can make the difference between someone in need getting help—or not. You may think one voice, one pair of hands, one vote, one person in the sanctuary can’t truly make a difference. But they all do. You do. We do. We count as we are counted.

There is a wonderful song called “G-d’s Counting on Me,” written by the legendary troubadour Pete Seeger (who, while not Jewish, had in his repertoire a great many Jewish songs, including his own take on Kohelet—Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The refrain eloquently express the essence of community, of being counted.

“G-d’s counting on me; G-d’s counting on you…

“Hoping we’ll all pull through, me and you.”

The verses are changeable to the situation at hand, so I offer this original verse, with all props to Pete Seeger and Shabbat Shekalim:

We all need to lend a hand, every woman every man

G-d’s counting on me; G-d’s counting on you.

Minyan or Mitzvah Day; we know it’s the Jewish way

G-d’s counting on me; G-d’s counting on you!  

Hoping we’ll all pull through, me and you.”

 

Parashat Ki Tisa – Turning the Ordinary into Extraordinary

Posted on February 16, 2022

 

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Judaism strives to turn the ordinary into extraordinary. For example, ordinary candles lit on Friday night become Shabbat candles. Ordinary 13th birthdays become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. These intentional transformations of objects or times make them holy.

Each of you has an opportunity to do the same thing in your workplace. Whatever your profession, I bet there is a way to do your job to serve both G-d and the Jewish people.

This lesson flows from this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa. Moses, our greatest leader, is somehow not chosen to build the magnificent Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle (sanctuary). Instead, an unheard-of boy is selected – Betzalel. We are told that G-d “filled him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” (Ex. 31:3). Today we might say that certain artists, musicians, and athletes have “G-d-given talent.” The Torah teaches that explicitly about Betzalel.

A construction job can be an ordinary building project. However, when the goal is building a synagogue, it becomes a holy act. Architects become more essential than rabbis, which is why Betzalel was chosen ahead of Moses.

Your work can be considered religious or holy even if you don’t work in a synagogue.  Indeed, it is not about the physical location of the work but the purpose behind it.

Musicians can be ordinary musicians; but when they play at a Simcha, their work is holy.

Journalists can be ordinary journalists; but when they inspire people to act for a cause, their work is holy.

Betzalel was an ordinary artist until he crafted the Mishkan.

Each of us is granted “divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge” – though we’re not always sure what it is. Many people can’t do well the job that you do. We all have the opportunity at some point to use our skills to serve G-d and the Jewish people. That transforms our work from ordinary to extraordinary – and it transforms us as well.

Disney’s Encanto: Lessons For Contemporary Jewish Life? 

Posted on February 10, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

As many of you know, Disney came out with a new movie, Encanto, which is an Oscar-nominated animated film featuring the cultural traditions of Colombia.  Fascinatingly, in a recent article, author Rudy Malcom ponders the question of whether the Magical Madrigals, the main characters in the movie, are actually Jewish.  As he writes, “They’re close-knit to the point of being smothering. They’re successful yet grappling with generations of pain. And their powers come from a candle that has miraculously burned for 50 years — kind of like oil that lasted eight days.” Further, he cites that a Tik Tok user made interesting parallels between the fictional Madrigals and the Conversos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism after persecution during the 14th and 15th centuries.  In fact, a 2018 study demonstrated that a full quarter of the Latin American respondents had traces of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.  What is more, soundtrack creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) has strong Jewish connections, including being in a Jewish a cappella group in college and the fact that he considered making a musical out of Hayim Potok’s famous book, “My Name is Asher Lev”.  Add to that, the name Madrigal, itself, is identified by nameyouroots.com as possibly a Sephardic name from the Middle Ages.

What might be even more interesting, though, is Malcolm’s observation that regardless of whether the movie creators intended the main characters to be Jewish, the story of the Madrigals resonates with Jews today and could contain some lessons for us.  The character Abuela Alma Madrigal miraculously received her magic-giving candle after soldiers killed her husband and forced her and her fellow villagers to flee their homes.  Fifty years later, every child in the family has received a magical gift on their fifth birthday — except for 15-year-old Mirabel, who learns that her family is losing their magic.  She learns that their candle is flickering, and that their enchanted home, Casita, is cracking, because of family issues that relate to their heritage and history.

As Malcom writes, “We Jews can surely relate to how pain is passed l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation”. And we can also relate to the fact that there is often much for contemporary Jews to negotiate when deciding how much of our tradition to keep intact, and how to pass it on, while still maintaining our own personal happiness in contemporary society and while achieving our personal goals.

Therefore, perhaps the fears of the character, Alma, resonate with our own: our anxiety over the precarious nature of American Jewish life. As Malcom writes, “We’ve built places of power and safety (like Casita) and, in many ways, become part of the establishment, yet we carry the impact of antisemitism in our minds and bodies. And our synagogues face the real threat of white supremacist violence and conspiracy theories that Jews control the world.”

It is instructive to note that in the movie, there is a happy ending.  So, while we can’t be sure the Madrigals were intended to represent the descendants of Sephardic Jews, perhaps they can give us hope.  Even though our metaphorical Casita may have cracks, there is a bright future for us where the candle keeps burning and our people continue the age-old Jewish tradition of finding the magical balance between flourishing in contemporary times and preserving the sacred nature of who we are and what makes us special.

Where Does G-d Live? Where does G-d Come Alive? 

Posted on February 2, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler 

In this week’s parasha Terumah, we read a verse which has become fairly well known. Exodus 25:8 reads, וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם: “ve’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.” “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.” The Mishkan and its successors the Beit HaMikdash and the modern synagogue became emblematic structures that represent “G-d’s House” or G-d’s dwelling place. However, that’s not what the text says. G-d doesn’t say ‘make Me a sanctuary so I can dwell in it’ but rather, G-d will dwell in us.  

So there’s two lessons I see in this: One is that Judaism can’t be solely confined to a building. It has to live in us! G-d, tradition, ritual and values that are the foundation of Jewish life should be alive in each of us, and taken with us wherever we go. As we read each morning in the second paragraph of the Shema – b’shivt’cha b’veitecha uv’lecht’cha vaderech – when you’re at home and when you’re away. Wherever we go, G-d’s presence and our Jewishness should dwell in us. And we bring that presence to the rest of the world through our deeds–mitzvot, study, and acts of chesed (kindness). 

The other lesson is that we still shall make for G-d a Sanctuary. It is true that we must go out and live our values, and it is important that we have a Sanctuary–a structure that allows us to gather and bring our individuality to the collective. The Mishkan was transportable, allowing us to be at home and away at the same time. Now we have more permanent buildings where we come together for prayer, study, mitzvot and community. We should, when we’re comfortable to return, continue making our Sanctuary by filling it with song, joy, comfort and each other. It is so crucial to create physical spaces for spiritual moments. This way, there’s a designated place where G-d’s presence can come alive for us–a place where G-d can live. And just like many of us are looking forward to leaving our homes, let’s not keep G-d’s presence confined solely to the “Houses of G-d.”  

When we read parshat Terumah this week, let’s remember to create spaces for spirituality where we can gather and also bring the Presence of G-d with us there and everywhere we should happen to go. Let us make for G-d a sanctuary, so that G-d can dwell in each of us 

 

 

Making it Real: From Sinai to Our Daily Lives

Posted on January 25, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

In last week’s Torah Portion, Yitro, the Israelites received the 10 commandments. A more dramatic Biblical story is hard to find. Trumpets, clouds of smoke, pillars of fire. Moses on the mountaintop. Lofty words from the highest heights. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (20:15).

But this week, we are back on the ground, as it were. The follow-up to the grandeur of Yitro is the parasha Mishpatim, containing more than 50 separate mitzvot dealing with kidnapping, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and alleviating the suffering of animals. Giving the land (and ourselves) a Shabbat rest. And much more.

We no longer find ourselves up there in the clouds with Moses, but grounded with the more everyday rules that govern our very human behavior. But are the two portions are inextricably connected.

There’s a famous midrash about the angels complaining to G-d that they didn’t receive the Torah. “Why people? Why Moses? Why not us?” they want to know.

Instead of responding directly, G-d instructs Moses to explain. Essentially, he says the Torah is not in Heaven. Not given to the “ministering angels,” but to humans who have to deal relate to each other, and so much of Torah takes us back to the fundamental Torah concept of “V’ahvta L’rayacha Kamocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). What would angels do with such guidance as the Torah provides; the angels already have a profound relationship God. They don’t need the constant reminders and prodding.

This juxtaposition of the two: the literal and spiritual “high” of Mount Sinai. And the down-to-earth details of Mishpatim—the fine print, as it were send an important message.

God is in the details as much as atop Sinai.

To make the most of our Sinai moments, we must make it real in our world, and not on a lofty mountaintop, but down here on the ground. But you still need Sinai.

The Zohar explains that the ideals of Sinai must be internalized and absorbed into our very bones. Whenever we have a moment of insight and clarity, we must channel that into action.

 

 

January – All for One and One for All

Posted on January 19, 2022

 

 

“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:

  • When this week did you feel like you were a part of a community?
  • When did you feel so connected that you were almost “b’lev echad k’ish echad?”

May we see each other and gather and pray together again soon 

Shabbat Shalom

Long and Short of Journeys

Posted on January 11, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

There’s a funny Israeli commercial that shows Moses and the Israelites lost in the
desert. They kvetch. They complain. They pester. Then behold! A miracle! A great ball
of fire descends earthward, and when the ashes disappear, Moses cradles this gift from
G-d. Is it Manna from heaven? No, it’s better. It’s a GPS with an arrow pointing toward
the Promised Land.

Humor aside, the video raises a serious question. If the path from Egypt to Israel –
slavery to freedom – was straightforward, why did they opt for the roundabout road
instead of the shortcut?

This week’s Torah reading, describing the action of the Exodus as it happens, tells us
that G-d sent them on the long path even though there was a shorter alternative.
Perhaps the people would reconsider when they saw war and return to Egypt. In other
words, says Rashi, if they were so quick to reach Israel, they might be just as quick to
leave Israel. Maimonides writes: “G-d wanted to accustom them to hardship, to prepare
them for the task of conquering and settling Canaan.”

In the short term, this took longer. But in the long term, it was a worthwhile investment.
Here is my favorite answer, which connects to one of the best stories in the Talmud
(Eruvin 53b). Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananyah was traveling and met a kid at an
intersection. He asked the kid which way to the city. The boy answered, “This way is
short but long, while that way is long but short.” The rabbi started on the ‘short but long’
way but hit a dead end with gardens and orchards. Forced to turn around, he asked the
boy, “Didn’t you tell me this was the short way?” The boy answered, “Didn’t I say it was
also long?”

This story teaches us that sometimes shortcuts end up taking longer because we may
hit a dead end. And that sometimes the long path is better because it’s slow and steady.
One example – ironic because it deals with roads – is that sometimes the nearest DMV
location is so backed up with lines that it’s faster if you shlep out to a farther one. I had
to do that in New Jersey.

But this advice is sage when it comes to life journeys as well.

One of the best decisions I ever made was taking a gap year after high school. I spent
the year in Israel on a program called Nativ. When I got to college I was a year older
than everyone…but also a year more mature. I was more sure of who I was, what I
wanted to study, how I wanted to spend my time. I made better use of my time in
college because of that year in Israel. The longer path was better for me, even if my
roommates called me Grandpa.

Hurdles and pitfalls faced the Jews of the Exodus beginning the march to freedom
thousands of years ago… and us today. We each face challenges and choices. There is
not enough time for everything. In our work, in our relationships, in our family, we are
constantly asking ourselves, how much time should I spend on this? Should I take the
long road or look for a shortcut?

I think the Torah and the Talmud remind us of something we know in our heads but is
difficult to do with our hands: focus on the long term as much as the short term. For the
long path is today’s investment in tomorrow.

Maybe that’s why people have two eyes: one to focus on today, the other for the future.

That’s the long and short of it.

What Do You Do When You Get What You Have Always Wanted

Posted on January 5, 2022

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

For hundreds of years the Israelites have been enslaved.  In our parsha this week, Bo, they are finally set free.  For sure this is a moment of great celebration — the Israelites have finally gotten what they wished for over the course of so many generations.  Interestingly though, the Torah does not initially speak about the Exodus in a primarily joyous context.  We will have to wait for the next parshah for that after the splitting of the sea.  Instead, our parsha speaks immediately about how this incredible event in the history of our people should be remembered and made sacred in the future.  As the Torah transitions, “ (41) It was at the end of 430 years  . . . that all of the hosts of the Lord departed from Egypt . . . (42) it is a night of vigilance of the Lord . . . (43) The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, this is the state of the Pascal lamb . . .”  Almost immediately after describing the Israelites finally leaving Egypt the Torah transitions to describing the Passover holiday that will be celebrated by future generations and concludes the Torah portion on this subject alone.

What is the message here?  Why state the unbelievable fact of the Exodus and go right into speaking about the holiday of Passover?  I believe that the Torah is reminding us that when something life-changing occurs, we should not only celebrate it in the moment but find a way to incorporate the meaning behind what has occurred into the rest of our lives.  A joyous celebration would be welcome and appropriate but that celebration will end and life will move forward.  The question is whether the wonderful turn of events will change the way you live moving forward and be appreciated in the future.  By immediately marking the miracle of the Exodus with a sacred ritual that will be observed for all time, the Israeilites will be able to take their appreciation for what occurred, as well as the lessons they learned, well into the future and even pass them on to future generations.

Thus the Torah gives us an important perspective on how to view such events in our own lives.  And what is more, the Torah teaches us that  we should appreciate the great gift that sacred ritual gives to us, which  allows us to re-live the great lessons and miracles of our ancestors each and every year.