Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya
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.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, begins as G-d speaks to Moses explaining how G-d will redeem the Israelites. It opens with the words, “G-d spoke to Moses and said to him, I am Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make myself known to them by my name Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh.(Ex. 6:2-4) G-d reveals that the ancestors knew G-d by one name, El Shaddai, which seems to allude to a different quality of their relationship. Now, G-d reveals a new name to Moses that speaks to a new way in which the Divine will be known in the world.
Let us also recall that in last week’s Torah portion, Moses stands at the burning bush and asks the Divine Presence for a name to bring back to the Israelites. G-d responds saying, “my name shall be Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I will be which I will be) and this will be my name forever!”
What is the meaning of these different names for G-d? Why are they changing? What do they reveal about the changing relationship with G-d and why is it necessary to reveal this to Moses at this time?
Beginning with the name El Shaddai, the name known to our ancestors, midrash explains its meaning by parsing the word Shaddai into Sheh-dai meaning ‘that is enough.’ El Shaddai would then mean ‘the G-d who is enough.’ This is the G-d who meets the needs of the ancestors the way a mother nurses her child. In Hebrew the word for breast is shad, so we can also read El Shaddai as ‘G-d my breast.’ There is a midrash that states that when G-d created the world, the universe expanded until, at a certain point, G-d spoke the word dai meaning enough, and the expansion ceased. El Shaddai is the G-d known to the ancestors who were sustained with just enough, in a world that was limited by the boundaries fashioned by G-d.
Once the Israelite family descended into Egypt where they were eventually enslaved, they no longer remained in relationship with El Shaddai. For them, there was not enough, there was no comforting breast or limit to their suffering. When Moses brings the news of the coming redemption, they cannot accept it for they are kotzer ruach/short of breath and crushed in spirit. They are so weakened that they cannot even imagine the possibility for change. It is for them specifically that
G-d tells Moses to relate a new name. The new name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh/I Will Be That Which I Will be. In this name G-d communicates a new concept and a new relationship. G-d includes all possibilities of being. This is the G-d who is not locked into past patterns and forms. This is the G-d of all potentialities.
But this name is not yet enough to impact the Israelites and gain their partnership in the process of redemption. In this portion G-d presents a new name- Yud-Heh- Vav-Heh- the name which includes all of time. It is a name that speaks of the Eternal, for in its root are the Hebrew words for was (hayah), is (hoveh) and will be (yihiyeh). This is a name that includes all potentialities of Being throughout all of time. Unlike the quality of Shaddai, this name reveals the transformative power of the One who will undo all limits, turn the natural world upside down, lift up the lowly, free the slaves and open the sea to dry land. This is the Master of All Transformations throughout time and space, the Maker of Miracles. This is the face of G-d that will become known to the Israelites, the Egyptians and all of humanity.
When God announces G-d’s Self here as Y-H-V-H- the Eternal Potentiality of all that ever was, is and will be, God announces Divinity as the ground of All Being in Eternal Process. This is the face of God that makes all change possible, that makes redemption possible. And this quality of G-d is the transformative capacity implanted in each human being and in all of life. For all of life is transformation.
This is so very hard for us to remember. We are impatient. We want change yesterday. We see suffering and injustice and we long for a peaceful world. Our greatest enemies are cynicism and despondency, which can also be called kotzer ruach/ crushed spirit. The Hasidic Masters teach us repeatedly that each human being contains a Divine root, a holy spark of Elohut- Godliness which is our capacity to change and build a transformed world. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday approaches. It is this transformational aspect of God that Martin Luther King understood as the root of humanity and he was willing to bet his life on it. He said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
I was so deeply heartened yesterday by the images of our newly transformed House of Representatives. To see a chamber filled with women, people of color and Native Americans representing our diverse nation, brought tears to my eyes. YES! We have much work to do to realize the kind of world we want to see. This week and every day let us rejoice in the transformative face of G-d revealed to our ancestors and to us through the ever-unfolding process of a world becoming. As MLK once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Darkness comes in many forms; physical darkness, emotional darkness, intellectual darkness and spiritual darkness. Our festival of Chanukah was established at the darkest time of the year. In December we encounter the shortest day, a day with the least sunshine of the entire year. And as Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the lunar month, during the waning moon cycle, the nights are also their darkest.
At this time of year when we turn inward, when cold and darkness are abundant, the Rabbis, created this festival of light, as if, in answer to our yearning for light and warmth. The beauty of the Jewish calendar reveals the ever-changing nature of life and gives us spiritual tools to navigate these changes. In the winter season of shortened daylight, lest we fall into despair, we kindle lights for eight nights. We are reminded that the light is returning, that the light in fact, always returns. We nurture an attitude of trust in the returning light even when there is an abundance of apparent darkness.
Unlike all biblically-based holidays, there is no Havdalah, no ritual of separation to divide between Chanukah and the rest of the year. Rabbi Dovber Pinson teaches that this is because spiritual light and the quality of trust are always available to us at any time, in any day, week or year.
At Chanukah, in particular, we are reminded of the spiritual power of trust. We are nourished on the story of a small band of people and a small cruise of oil that defied the odds and restored light within the apparent darkness of that time. It was through the Maccabees trust in their spiritual mission that they persisted and were victorious.
Alan Morinis describes the quality of bitachon/trust in this way: Bitachon gives us the capacity to act fearlessly. A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds on our heart. Living with a sense of trust in the unfolding of life’s events, allows us to become fearless and loving human beings. Bitachon is the inner attitude that respects that whatever is happening in our lives is nothing more or less than the curriculum given to us, that brings us to the threshold of growth that we would likely never otherwise approach.
As we read the continuing story of Joseph in the Torah this week, we see the evolution of his character into one who has come to trust in the unfolding of his destiny. Despite the pain of his situation, his exile from his family, his long imprisonment, Joseph displays an attitude of trust that all of his hardships were ultimately for a higher good. And it is this quality that will allow him to forgive his brothers and achieve peace, finally, peace in their family.
Joseph expresses trust in the unfolding of a plan that is greater than himself or any of the other players. Somehow, from the dungeon of his experience he has come to trust in the presence of the Divine in the unfolding of his life and the circumstances around him. Trust is one of Joseph’s great teachings - not blind trust or passivity that relinquishes responsibility, but rather, trust as a foundation from which one can act with intent and purpose.
It is Joseph’s inner quality of bitachon/trust that makes it possible to perceive the deeper truth of plenty in the face of scarcity. Joseph will interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams as one in the same. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but Joseph will supply the solution to the years of famine. By storing up the grain in the years of plenty, there will be enough to feed the people in the years of famine. Joseph is able to see that even in times of scarcity there can still be abundance. It is the faculty of trust in G-d, trust in the ever-changing nature of life and trust in the goodness of this world that allows his vision to expand. He can see what others cannot and it is through his expanded vision that he can create and execute a successful plan for redemption.
In Hebrew the word bitachon means trust but it also means security, for true security is ultimately a state of mind, a state of being. As we light the Chanukah candles this year, as we move more deeply into this season of winter, let us try to cultivate the quality of trust. May we find in our challenges, whether personal or collective, an opportunity to stretch ourselves a little bit further. The constriction of fear is lifted through the expansion of trust. Then, our vision can broaden and solutions, otherwise hidden will inevitably appear.
May it be so.