Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Parashat Vayikra opens the Book of Leviticus. The portion begins: “He called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, the Tent of Meeting saying…
There are 2 remarkable things here in just these few opening words. The very first word,Vayikra /He called out to Moses, is unusual. Every other time G-d speaks to Moses the Torah says: vayidaber Adoani el Moshe leimor, and God spoke to Moses, saying… but here we have an additional phrase, that God called out, to Moses- vayikra . This book begins with an immediate statement about relationship. One can only call out of there is someone to receive the call.
We should note that the previous book of Exodus ends right after Moses erects the Tabernacle and the Cloud of G-d’s Glory fills the space. The Torah states that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and G-d’s Glory filled the Tabernacle. Now this book begins with G-d reaching out to Moses, as if to say, don’t be overwhelmed by my Presence. I want to connect with you. Please come in.
And not only this, but the Torah shifts the name of this wilderness Sanctuary from Mishkan to Ohel Mo’ed, from Tabernacle to Tent of Meeting. Throughout the Torah, three different terms are used for this space. The first term, מִקְּדָשׁ / Mikdash, comes from the root קדש/kodesh, meaning “holy” and which is translated as “Sanctuary” from the root, sanctus meaning, a holy place.
The second term is מִשְׁכַּן/Mishkan, from the root שׁכן /shochein, meaning “dwell,” thus the translation to “Tabernacle,” meaning a dwelling-place for the Divine Presence to reside. Now the third name used here in this first verse of Leviticus, is אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד / Ohel Mo’ed, meaning “Tent of Meeting”.
Of these three names, מִקְּדָשׁ /Mikdash/Sanctuary is by far the least common. The Torah uses it only 15 times. More usual is the name מִשְׁכַּן / Mishkan/Tabernacle which appears 104 times. But the most common name is אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד /Ohel Mo’ed/Tent of Meeting which appears 135 times. I would suggest that this new name speaks most directly to the primary intended purpose for the space; a place in which the human and the Divine might come into relationship for the sake of manifesting holiness. This is a beautiful vision of companionship and partnership.
This year, as in most years, this portion is paired with a special additional reading from the book of Deuteronomy. These three extra verses contains a decree that we must remember the actions of Amalek in the wilderness. We read these following verses on the Shabbat preceding Purim.
“זָכוֹר / zachor – Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt: how he chanced upon you on the way and attacked from the rear, all the weak ones who were straggling behind you, when you were tired and exhausted. And he did not fear G-d. And so, when G-d gives you respite from all your surrounding enemies, in the Land G-d gives to you as an inheritance – eradicate the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens: You shall not forget!”
The verses stress, we must remember what Amalek did and also eradicate its memory. What is the meaning of this? How shall we remember something and at the same eradicate its memory?
Gili Zivian writes, Amalekism is baseless hatred; Amalekism is cruelty to the weak who live among us; Amalekism is the discrimination against the strangers and the aliens who dwell in our gates; Amalekism is racism.
Torah teaches us to remember what Amalek did to us, remember how the weak and feeble ones were attacked, just as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land and become empowered over others. And it is every year that we read these words so that WE do not become like Amalek and allow baseless hatred to develop within us and turn to violence against those who are powerless. Torah teaches, remember that Amalek is a potential that lives in all human beings, that was expressed in the wilderness, that was expressed through Haman’s genocidal desires, that was expressed through Hitler’s actions, through the ideology of White Supremacy and through the murder of 49 Muslims at prayer this past week. Do not turn a blind eye. Remember Amalek and blot it out. Today we all must say, Zachor/Remember the threat that is White Supremacy and call it out. Amalek by any other name is White Supremacy and it is a threat to every Jew, every Muslim, every person of color.
Now what might be the connection between the Ohel Mo’ed/The Tent of Meeting, Amalek and Purim? In the Megillah of Esther, when the lives of all the Jews are threatened, Esther is at first reluctant to plead to the King for their lives. Mordechai sends her a letter with the following message:
“Don’t imagine escaping from the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews; because even if you keep silent at this time, salvation and deliverance will arise for the Jews from some other place – while you and your father’s house will be destroyed!” (Esther 4:14).
In other words, do not think that just because you live a life of privilege, you will escape the murderous hatred of Haman. The hatred of Amalek is a pervasive sickness fueled by xenophobia. Our survival and the survival of our brothers and sisters depends ultimately on developing a sense of shared responsibility rooted in our connection with one another. The אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, the Tent of Meeting is an inner space, a consciousness, where we all connect with the Divine that exists in one another. It is the theology of connection that unifies us and eradicates Amalek.
May our eyes behold the truth, that we are all of one parent, one source, one home from which we all emerge and to which we will all ultimately return.
Prayer for the murdered at Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand
By: Alden Solovy
Oh people of conscience,
Cry out against arrogance.
Cry out against hatred and anger.
Cry out against violence and oppression.
For G-d requires us to stand
In the name of justice and freedom,
For G-d requires us to oppose terror,
To muster our power and energy
Against racist aggression
And to protect all houses of prayer.
We implore You,
Look down upon the suffering
Perpetrated against churches, mosques and synagogues,
Against houses of worship in so many lands,
By the hand of wickedness,
By the hand of malevolence,
By the hand of ignorance and sin.
Today we remember with sadness the attack on Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch, New Zealand,
And the loss of precious life.
With Your gentle and loving hand,
G-d of Shelter,
Unite all of your children
Under Your canopy of hope and love.
Bring the light of salvation and healing
To the four corners of the earth.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as powerful, Human Beings are truly weak in so many ways. We are primarily guided by our desires and so, all too often, we fall prey to our own hunger and vanity. This week Michael Cohen emerged on the stage to reveal a most human weakness. Seduced by the glamour of wealth and power, he sacrificed his own integrity, his morality, and ultimately his personal freedom. His story is as old as time, but it is not yet over. Will it be one of true redemption? No one can tell, not even him. We will have to wait and see. But in the meantime, what will we learn from it? And what might Torah have to say about human desire?
Last week we read the story of the Golden Calf, of the misguided attempt of the Israelites to find security in a god made of gold. Torah says that the people gathered together/vayikahel, single mindedly, in a kind of mob mentality, motivated by insecurity. This week’s portion begins with a similar word: vayakhel, meaning ‘gathered together’. Moses gathers the people together as one to commit themselves single mindedly to a project of repair. Moses commands them first to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath on which to refrain from all work. This is followed by the command create a Tabernacle, a sacred space for the Divine indwelling, a prototype of Creation. It will be a place where the people can connect with G-d, make offerings and receive forgiveness.
Shabbat, a day of rest from creation and accumulation, is a necessary balance to the human tendency to become lost in the wilderness of time. So too, the creation of a sacred space, in which offerings of precious possessions are released, provides a practice so that the people might not lose themselves in the wilderness of materialism. These practices of Shabbat and the Tabernacle support the people in releasing attachments so as to avoid the pitfall of turning gold into god. Torah offers us the gifts of sacred space and sacred time in order to create a sustainable and healthy society in which human desire is held in check.
Torah speaks her truths through many devices including the architecture of the story itself. The Golden Calf story appears just after G-d communicates the blueprints for the building of the Tabernacle. Immediately after the Golden Calf episode, Torah resumes the description of the designs for the Tabernacle and concludes the book of Exodus with its creation and manifestation. The people donate more than is needed, the artisans build the Sacred Space and Moses sets it up. The chief purpose of the Tabernacle was to provide a method for repair and forgiveness, for kaparra/atonement. In this sense it is not surprising that the Golden Calf episode appears between the folds of the Tabernacle, between the pages of a Divine vision for Sacred Space and the people’s ability to create it. This story of fear and desire, of illusion and misguided loyalty is woven into the fabrics of the Tabernacle.
The possibility of turning gold into god is always present and possible, which is why our holy Torah provides an altar onto which we might transform the animals of desire into the service of something beyond the self. But the people must create it themselves and dedicate their hearts to it.
This week the people are called from the heart to contribute to the collective good.“Kol nidvat libo-all whose hearts are moved” and all whose hearts are endowed with wisdom are called to create a Sacred Space. The word heart/lev is found 14 times in this section of Torah referring to donors, builders and artisans. It takes a community of heart to create a holy place for the Divine to dwell. Vayakhel: and they were gathered together. There is great power when we gather together with a unified focus on serving the greater good. We can follow a golden calf or we can create a world that honors all that is sacred. The choice is both individual and collective. What will Michael Cohen choose? What will we choose?
 Sacks, Jonathan, Covenant and Conversation, p.282
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim moves us from the experience of the great revelation at Sinai to a discussion of civil law. It begins with the mitzvah of freeing the slave in the seventh year. One must ask, given all the laws needed for a society, why is this the first mitzvah mentioned?
The laws of a society reveal the values of a society. Generally, we find that the laws further the rights of the rich and do not necessarily support the lowest socioeconomic class. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery. This very first law given just after the Ten Commandments emphasizes that the people should not abuse their new freedom. Torah is concerned with the least powerful in society and therefore establishes a justice system that focuses, first and foremost on the rights of the weakest.
The Torah does not invent civil law. The Code of Hammurabi precedes Torah. Torah doesn’t eradicate the past but utilizes current societal structures and transforms them. Parashat Mishpatim begins with the presumption of slavery as a norm and adds to it an element of justice. In particular, it ensures that indentured servitude may not result in lifelong slavery. One may not abuse the slave. One must take care of him, treat him with respect and offer him freedom in the seventh year of service.
Similarly, throughout this Torah portion we read repeatedly the admonition that one must not oppress the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In fact, one great sage, Rabbi Eliezer states that the whole Torah warns against wronging the stranger 36 times, and some others say even 46 times.( Bava Metzia 59b)
And the Torah goes well beyond these admonitions and states that the stranger must be loved. “ When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am, the Lord your G-d.”( Lev. 19:33-34)
The essence of Judaism is revealed in its laws. The ongoing concern for the weakest members of the society and, especially for foreigners, sets Jewish law apart and ties it directly to the lived experience of the people. “Because you were once a stranger in a strange land” begins with the journey of Avraham who is commanded to leave his native home. His descendants will know the suffering of slavery and their descendants will eventually be taken as captives into Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria and Rome. Their descendants will know what it is to live in a ghetto in many lands and later face expulsion from many of these countries. The lived experiences of the Jewish people as objects of xenophobia transcends all borders. And then we arrive at the horror of the 20th century, the Holocaust, fueled by a propaganda machine that defined the Jew as the ultimate ‘other,’ a subhuman creature to be feared. Is there another people on the face of this earth who have experienced thousands of years, living and dying as a stranger in a strange land?
These are the people, to whom the eternal voice of Torah speaks, “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” Our Torah takes a powerful and consistent stand against the tendency in every human heart to revile the stranger, the other, the one who is different. I conclude with the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who writes the following about G-d’s message to us:
You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers- for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says G-d, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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