Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya
You might recall the very First Yom Kippur when Moses, through his wisdom, passion and charisma achieved forgiveness for the people, for the sin of the Golden Calf. This takes place on the 10th of Tishrei, marking the very first Yom Kippur. This experience of asking for and achieving forgiveness from G-d becomes an everlasting, annual ritual of atonement and purification. One of the specific rites includes two goat offerings; one for G-d and one to be sent into the wilderness to Azazel, carrying off the sins of the people. This ritual is detailed in this week’s Torah portion and read again in the synagogue on every Yom Kippur morning.
It is important to first consider, why is this an annual ritual. It exists because because G-d expects the people to fall all the path. It is understood that we are far from perfect, that we will make mistakes, and so we are given this gift of Yom Kippur as a way for making repair and becoming whole as an individual, as a family member and as a community.
After Moses’ first Yom Kippur, the Torah instructs the first High Priest in a very specific ritual to effect atonement for himself, his family and the people. After many hundreds of years of observing Yom Kippur in this way, after the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis create very specific rituals actions for us, as individuals, in order to achieve atonement for our misdeeds.
We fast. We wear or don’t wear certain types of clothing. We come together as a community. We recite specific prayers. We recite a confession. We tap our chests. We listen to specific melodies…
Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply go around and apologize to everyone, to set aside one day to go around and make things right with people? It could have been like that, but it isn’t. Instead we have an elaborate ritual, and I would like to put forth here, that the ritual itself is important, that the ritual itself has a certain kind of power. A ritual is an act, repeated through time and whose components remain steady through time.
At its most basic, we have the example of a birthday ritual. I just celebrated my birthday this week and with it came the cake with the candles and the Happy Birthday song. When I experienced that moment of sitting before a cake about to make a wish, some deep part of myself awoke as I connected to every birthday I have ever experienced. And I would propose that in that moment the singers as well became connected to every birthday they have experienced.
Rituals create a tether to the past and to the future. They anchor us in time so that we do not become lost as we are confronted by change.
And so, we have rituals for all the significant moments of transition in our lives; for the birth of a child, for coming of age, for marriage, and rituals for the mourners at the time of death. These are moments of transition in our lives in which our rituals create a structure, a framework, and an anchor for us to mark that time of transition. The rituals connect us with our past, with all those who have also gone through these rituals, and it connects us as well to our hopes and dreams for the future.
Rituals help us embody our values. They create a form and a structure to express our ideals. And when we do that, it helps to deepen our commitment and relationship to those ideals and values. When we come together in this Jewish community for Shabbat, whether for a Friday night service or a Shabbat dinner or Saturday morning service, we sing the same prayers our ancestors sang as we celebrate this transition in time from one week to another. We ritualize this sacred pause and express our hopes for a world renewed, as we deepen our commitment to the values we and ancestors hold as sacred.
Our Rabbis, in their great wisdom created rituals for us to mark every season and every transition so that we do not become lost in time or lost from our most cherished values. Judaism is an enterprise concerned with the betterment of the individual and the society we create. Our rituals allow us to embody and concretize these ideals.
Today, the danger that Judaism truly faces, is the loss of our rituals in favor of the preservation of Jewish culture. To liken the Jewish enterprise to a physical body, one could say that the rituals are the skeleton upon which the flesh of culture, of music, of language and recipes, reside. Without the structure of the skeleton, the flesh will eventually lose its form. Perhaps this is an old argument you have heard before and perhaps you do not agree. Nevertheless, I suggest that you take up this conversation as the RJC continues its Jewish journey into becoming.
Barbara Meyerhoff in Number our Days states the following: No primitive society… expects to cause rain by dancing a rain dance. A rain dance is a dance with the rain, the dancing of an attitude…attending, dramatizing, making palpable unseen forces, setting apart the flow of everyday life,… stopping time and change by presenting a permanent truth. If the spirits hear and it rains, so much the better, but the success of the ritual does not depend on the rain.
Meyerhoff reminds us that our rituals engage us in a conversation with the soul, a dialogue with the past, present and future, a heart-to-heart with the Eternal.
May we rejoice in our inheritance.
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.”