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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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
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.
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.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
In this week’s parasha Va’eira we read of the first five plagues brought down upon Egypt. Who needs Christmas in July when we can have the Passover Story in December, right? With each plague, we get closer to redemption, and yet we simultaneously read that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I’ve always found this really troubling. Far be it from me to limit G-d’s ability, but how can I fully blame Pharaoh for our suffering if it was G-d that hardened his heart? As one who dabbles in creative writing, I understand that I’ve allowed and even encouraged poor behavior of my characters in order to illustrate a lesson or build the conflict–it wouldn’t be a compelling narrative if it was all easy. However, in the grand story of life, and the story of our people, can I dare to hold the Author accountable?
It’s a reasonable question, and none of us are inherently heretics for asking it. Maybe it was a necessary step in solidifying the faith in G-d as our redeemer. Maybe it was all part of the divine recompense due for years of slavery that occurred prior to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I’m actually less concerned with why G-d did that, and more interested in whether G-d still does it from time to time.
Has G-d hardened my heart? Or yours? Did we know when it was happening? How did it affect us? And, as someone who believes in free will, could we have refused?
Reading about the plagues hits differently than it used to. Now that we’ve spent nearly 2 years in a plague of our own, I’ve had some difficult questions. Is this a divine punishment? Do I really believe in that? What did we do, and how can we fix it? Is this meant to teach us something? Did we learn it? Have we forgotten the lesson already? And how are our hearts doing? Are they hardened by a stubborn desire to return to normal? I know folks who are so done with masks, but with a new variant that spreads quickly, we simply aren’t done yet. I know folks who won’t get vaccinated. Have their hearts been hardened by systems that leave them unable to trust in institutions?
And perhaps I’m optimistic, but maybe this is just how redemption works. Maybe these challenging times–these plagues–are meant to give us a needed shift in perspective that only radical change can provide. And some of us will pivot, and grow, and be redeemed. Others will harden their hearts, and let the sea consume them. My prayer for all of us as we continue navigating this plague, is that we continue to reflect on the world around us, allow our hearts to remain soft and open, and do everything we can to be G-d’s partner in the redemption that surely awaits us on the other side of this pandemic.
by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
Today is the winter solstice. The day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the calendar year—the longest, darkest night. As I stood this morning above the shore, as I often do, to capture the sunrise on my camera, it struck me—this profound interplay of light and dark, of day and night, of water and sky. Not quite day, not quite night. The moment of creation—a new day is born. In the days and weeks ahead, minute by minute we will inch into the light—earlier in the morning and lasting later into the evening.
It impossible not to be awed by the power of this moment, which unfolds each day—mundane in one sense, but far from it in appreciation and “wow” of observing the sun creep over the water, this morning a magenta-red impossible to capture in the limitation of the camera lens, much like the impossibility of capturing so much of the brilliance of G-d’s creation: the mountains, the glaciers, the sea, a thunderstorm, a rainbow. They must be experienced first-hand—no photograph (no matter how many filters or wizardry I might employ in trying) come close.
I imagine as we cross from the promise of the end of book of Genesis, finished last Shabbat into the shadows of the early chapters of Exodus, which we begin this Shabbat. Rescued from famine and settled in Egypt, reconciled with Joseph, the B’nai Yisrael conclude Act I of our story with great promise in the land of Goshen. But where the story picks up four centuries later, there “arose in Egypt a new Pharoah who did not know Joseph.” Our ancestors are in their darkest days without even the barest glimmer of light, of hope as they cry out to G-d from within the depths of slavery.
Moses, having fled from Egypt, tends sheep, far afield from prince of Egypt he had been and equally far from the leader he will become later in the story (I’m sure I’m not divulging any big spoilers here!). Moses is distracted as he tends to his sheep, caught by the sight of the bright, inexplicable light of a bush afire, burning, yet not consumed by the blaze.
From within the brightness and the flame emerges G-d’s voice calling upon Moses to be his partner in freeing the B’nai Yisrael from the horror of slavery. For Moses to come—reluctant as he is, unqualified as he believes himself to be—from the shadows and shepherd his people to freedom. Bring them from the darkest day and into dawn of freedom.