D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
12-Step Torah Terumah 5781
You only get out of it what you put into it
One important rule many of us have learned over the course of our lives is that we only get as much out of life as we put into it. Having learned this piece of wisdom however, doesn’t mean we always follow it. A good example is practicing the guitar.
I started taking guitar lessons about a year ago and although I do practice fairly regularly, sometimes I’m just too tired to practice. After a long and exhausting day I typically end up plopping down in my big poofy chair ready to do a little reading or catch up on the day’s news. Looking up, I often notice my guitar from across the room beckoning me to come and practice. I’m certainly motivated to practice. I have a degree in music and I play several other instruments. Even so, being highly motivated doesn’t always mean I am in the mood to practice. For me, the trick is to motivate myself even when I’m not in the mood. If I put in the time to practice no matter how I am feeling, my guitar playing will certainly improve.
In this week’s Torah portion Terumah, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to create a dwelling place – a Mishkan, or Tabernacle, for God. The Torah gives very specific instructions on how this Tabernacle should be built. For example:
וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ מְנֹרַ֖ת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר מִקְשָׁ֞ה תֵּֽיעָשֶׂ֤ה הַמְּנוֹרָה֙ יְרֵכָ֣הּ וְקָנָ֔הּ גְּבִיעֶ֛יהָ כַּפְתֹּרֶ֥יהָ וּפְרָחֶ֖יהָ מִמֶּ֥נָּה יִֽהְיֽוּ: וְשִׁשָּׁ֣ה קָנִ֔ים יֹֽצְאִ֖ים מִצִּדֶּ֑יהָ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה ׀ קְנֵ֣י מְנֹרָ֗ה מִצִּדָּהּ֙ הָֽאֶחָ֔ד וּשְׁלֹשָׁה֙ קְנֵ֣י מְנֹרָ֔ה מִצִּדָּ֖הּ הַשֵּׁנִֽי: שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה גְ֠בִעִ֠ים מְשֻׁקָּדִ֞ים בַּקָּנֶ֣ה הָֽאֶחָד֘ כַּפְתֹּ֣ר וָפֶ֒רַח֒ וּשְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה גְבִעִ֗ים מְשֻׁקָּדִ֛ים בַּקָּנֶ֥ה הָֽאֶחָ֖ד כַּפְתֹּ֣ר וָפָ֑רַח כֵּ֚ן לְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת הַקָּנִ֔ים הַיֹּֽצְאִ֖ים מִן־הַמְּנֹרָֽה: וּבַמְּנֹרָ֖ה אַרְבָּעָ֣ה גְבִעִ֑ים מְשֻׁ֨קָּדִ֔ים כַּפְתֹּרֶ֖יהָ וּפְרָחֶֽיהָ:
And you shall make a lampstand of pure gold; of hammered workmanship shall the lampstand be made; its shaft, and its branches, its bowls, its bulbs, and its flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come from its sides; three branches of the lampstand from the one side, and three branches of the lampstand from the other side; Three bowls made like almonds, with a bulb and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a bulb and a flower; so for the six branches that come from the lampstand. And in the lampstand shall be four bowls made in the shape of almonds, with their bulbs and their flowers. (Ex. 25:31-34)
The details and the effort put forth by the Israelites in the building of the Mishkan were important. After all, this was to be a place where God would dwell among the them. As Rabbi Shefa Gold writes: the purpose of the Mishkan was to send the Israelites to the space within where they could receive the Mystery of Presence. To build a dwelling place for God, the motivation had to come from more than just a sense of duty. The Israelites needed to be willing and generous of heart.
Whether we are learning to play guitar or building a place in which God will dwell, nothing meaningful in life comes effortlessly and nothing great can be achieved quickly. In the end, you only get out of it what you put into it.
12-Step Torah Parashat Yitro 5781
Bring the body and the mind will follow
We all experience moments in our lives when we feel stuck and not quite sure how to move forward. Maybe we have made a major decision to for instance, get a dog. Despite feeling unsure about whether this is a good idea, we move forward anyway and take the necessary steps toward achieving this goal. We search animal shelter websites, get advice from friends, fill out an adoption application when we find the dog we want; and prepare our home for the arrival of our very own adorable pooch. By taking the steps needed to bring a dog into our home, we temper the anxiety we might feel about making such a major change in our lives.
In this week’s Torah portion Yitro, the Israelites now free from slavery, have been wandering in the desert for three months. They now arrive at Mt. Sinai where they encamp, while Moses ascends the mountain to meet with God. When Moses arrives at his destination, God coaches him about what he should tell the Israelites. Make sure God says, to remind them of what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore the Israelites on eagle’s wings (Ex. 19:4). God tells Moses to also remind the Israelites that if they keep God’s covenant they will be to God: מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6)
When he comes down from Mt. Sinai Moses calls the elders together and reveals all that God had said to him. When he finishes the elders call out: All that God has spoken we will do and more specifically in next week’s portion the people say, נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע--Na’aseh v’nishma-- we will do and we will hear/understand.” (Ex. 24:7) While it may be more typical to listen to what someone tells you to do and then act on what you are told, the Israelites act on their promise to keep the Torah before they even understand what they are doing. Because of this, they temper the anxiety they might feel about making such a major change in their lives.
In the next few weeks I will hopefully be given a chance to open my home to a shelter dog. While I may feel a little anxious about this undertaking I have as an example, the Israelites’ faith in God and their willingness to נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע--Na’aseh v’nishma, to do and then to understand. In other words, if I bring my body my mind will follow.
12-Step Torah Beshalach 5781
God is never late
The slogan God is never late, reminds me of a similar 12-Step saying that goes something like: Not in our time but in God’s time. We may yearn to have a problem resolved, a pizza delivered, or see the end of a pandemic sooner rather than later, but often that isn’t the way things happen. Time and again we are left waiting and waiting for our desired outcome to materialize. Hoping to get what we want sooner rather than later, has little to do with when it actually happens.
In this week’s Torah portion Beshalach, the Israelites depart Egypt and in so doing leave slavery behind them. But while they depart Egypt quickly, the route they take is not the quickest one to the Promised Land. That route would have meant traveling דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים , through the land of the Philistines (Ex. 13:17). Instead, God leads them on a more circuitous and difficult route, דֶּ֥רֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר יַם־ס֑וּף , roundabout by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 13:18).
The text informs us God was concerned that if the Israelites took the short route where they surely would have fought the Philistines, they might have a change of heart and want to go back to Egypt. In addition, since the short path kept them close to Egypt, it would have been less complicated for the Israelites to return to a life of slavery.
The Talmud tells us that there is a long way which is short and a short way which is long (BT Eruvin 53b). In other words, when something comes to us too quickly as opposed to being hard earned, we don’t always appreciate it. Sometimes the harder way of doing something turns out to be the better way. God may have taken the Israelites on the longer route to the Promised Land and God may be taking us on the longer route to becoming free of the Coronavirus, but in the end God is never late.
12-Step Torah Bo 5781
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step
As I write this 12-Step Torah, it is the evening of Wednesday January 20th, 2021-- inauguration day. In his inaugural address President Joe Biden noted how just a few days after violence sought to shake our Capitol’s very foundation, we have come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power. During this most challenging time in our country’s history, Inauguration Day is a day of hope and renewal; an opportunity to take a step towards healing our very battered country.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, after 430 years of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are on the precipice of freedom. With the killing of the Egyptian first-born the Pharaoh more emphatically than ever, presses the Israelites to leave Egypt;
גַּם־צֹֽאנְכֶ֨ם גַּם־בְּקַרְכֶ֥ם קְח֛וּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּרְתֶּ֖ם וָלֵ֑כוּ
Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone. (Ex. 12:32)
Feeling newly empowered, the Israelites depart quickly—so quickly that:
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א הָעָ֛ם אֶת־בְּצֵק֖וֹ טֶ֣רֶם יֶחְמָ֑ץ
the people took their dough before it was leavened, (Ex. 12:34)
While the Israelites chose to leave Egypt, they could just as easily have decided to remain there. Better the devil you know than the God you don’t know. But after having witnessed numerous examples of God’s power, the Israelites elected to trust in God and take the first step towards freedom.
Trust is how we can move forward as a country. Rather than turn inward, President Biden is urging us to foster trust by standing in the other person’s shoes. When we are willing to do that it becomes easier to take that first step together. As the Israelites discovered and as President Biden understands, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
12-Step Torah Parashat Va'era 5781
Dwell on the problem and the problem gets bigger. Dwell on the solution, the solution gets bigger.
You know the old saying: when times get tough the tough get going. Not to state the obvious but as of late, times have been pretty tough. I suspect even the sturdiest of survivors, the toughest of the tough, have recently experienced days when they have struggled to stay positive and move forward in their lives. The trick of course, is to not let our problems get the better of us.
In last week’s Torah portion Shemot, Moses is living with his family in Midian, where he is gainfully employed by his father-in-law Jethro as a shepherd. It’s a peaceful life which is soon turned upside down when God shows up and instructs Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery and bring them to the Promised Land. Moses immediately finds reasons why he is not the right candidate for the job. After all, Moses says, I am כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן, slow of speech and slow of tongue (Ex. 4:10) Plus, what if the Israelites don’t believe me?
In this week’s Torah portion Vaera, Moses continues to dwell on why he is not the right guy to bring the Israelites out of slavery. Even so, he does tell the Israelites about God’s promise to free them from slavery and bring them to the Promised Land. But, just as Moses feared, the Israelites don’t believe him or listen to him. If the Israelites with their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Ex. 6:9) don’t listen to me, Moses tells God, why in the world would Pharaoh listen to me?
In the meantime, while Moses is dwelling on his problems, God is dwelling on solutions. You don’t think the Israelites will believe you? Show them these miracles I am about to show you. Surely, they’ll believe you after that. You’re slow of speech? Well, I’m the one who gave you the ability to speak. So go and I will help you speak and I will tell you what to say.
As the story of the Exodus continues, Moses will keep relying on God for solutions but he no longer argues with God about why he is the wrong man for the job. Moses has slowly come to understand that if you dwell on the problem, the problem gets bigger. But, if you dwell on the solution, the solution gets bigger.