The parsha begins soon after the incident with the Golden Calf. Moshe has come down from Mount Sinai after having spent another 40 days on its top. He has brought down another set of tablets which indicates that indeed there has been Divine forgiveness for what the people had done. Rashi says that Moshe came down the day after Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness.
The first two words of the parsha are, "VaYakhel Moshe" "And Moshe gathered." The word "VaYahkel," comes from the Hebrew root meaning to gather or to assemble. Interestingly, while vocalized slightly different, this same root is used at the beginning of the Golden Calf incident, "VaYikahel haAm al Aaron," "The people gathered around Aaron." The word Kehilla which is derived from the same Hebrew root, means "community". In both cases, a community was indeed formed however, they were very different. This first kehilla created had no leader to focus the people. There was no vision. There was only chaos which yielded tragic results.
This is where we see the greatness of Moshe. While the building of the Mishkan was certainly of Divine fiat, in this week's parsha, Moshe gathered the people together, and created a new kehilla, but this time there is a leader, there is a vision. Moshe has, in fact built a team and this team is dedicated to a holy purpose; to create a structure for the Divine presence to remain among the people.
HaShem had commanded Moshe to ask the people to make donations so that the Mishkan could be built. The first item requested is gold. Instead of gold being used for something negative, gold is used for a Divine, holy purpose. In fact, rabbinic tradition teaches that the people were so motivated to build the Mishkan that they donated so much that Moshe was forced to ask the people to stop. (It should be noted this took place in Parshat Terumah. There is a concept that not all the events in the Torah are necessarily in chronology order. Therefore there is an opinion within Jewish tradition that the Golden Calf incident took place prior to the command for the Mishkan to be built. It is beyond the scope of this piece to explore this deeper.)
A clear vision gives a path forward. However, a leader can't do it alone, therefore one of the best things a leader can do is create a team. Moshe is the consummate team builder and through Divine command he leads this team to build the Mishkan which not only "houses" the Divine presence, but this Mishkan would become the prototype for the 39 Melachot, the categories of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat. The significance of this team's efforts is very great indeed.
GBDS is our Mishkan. It is a place where a special team exists, dedicated to fostering a Judaism that is spiritually rich and meaningful ; a Judaism that is compelling and compassionate. May this Mishkan, situated in Oakland, New Jersey, be the vanguard of a vibrant Jewish tradition, and may we be worthy of this magnificent gift.
This week's parsha is Ki Tissa, and in it we read one of the more painful episodes of the experiences of the Israelites during their travel through the desert. It is the incident of the Golden Calf. Moshe has been on the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites miscalculated the timing of his return and are concerned when he doesn't appear on the day they expect. They react by going to Aaron, who has been left in charge. Aaron requests gold from the people and throws it into the fire from which emerges a golden calf.
Whether or not this was actual idolatry is not clear. A simple reading of the Torah text makes it appear that idolatry did in fact take place. Most of the commentators say that the Golden Calf was to replace Moshe so that there was no mass sin of worshiping an idol. Even if this Golden Calf did become the object of idolatry it was done so only by a very small minority of Jews and those that did worship it were the Eirev Rav, the Egyptian rabble that joined the Israelites when they came out from Egypt. Moshe is furious when he descends the mountain and discovers the Golden Calf. He throws it back into the fire, grinds it into powder, sprinkles the powder into water and forces the Israelites to drink the mixture. The question that is raised here is why was there a lack of leadership that caused this incident to take place?
When confronted by Moshe about the incident, Aaron denies responsibility. Instead he blames the Israelites. "Don't be angry, my lord," says Aaron, continuing "You know how prone these people are to evil . . . they gave me their gold and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf." The interesting point is that Aaron is not punished for this incident. The punishment he received of not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel was due to both he and Moshe becoming angry at the people and hitting the rock when the people complained about a lack of water many years later. Later in Parshat Eikev Moshe tells the people that HaShem was angry enough with Aaron because of the Golden Calf to kill him, but Moshe's prayers prevented that. Indeed, Jewish tradition on the whole does not take Aaron to task for this incident.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, makes a very compelling point. He suggests that the problem was not so much a lack of leadership, but rather the wrong type of leader. Aaron is known as man of peace. Pirkei Avot teaches, "Be like students of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah." If two people had a dispute Aaron is known as the one who would go to both and work to bring them back together. Aaron is considered a leader of the Jewish people, however in a different mold than his brother. Moshe is the one to stand up in front of the people, rallying them together at times, and standing against them at times. Aaron is among the people inspiring them from inside, making peace. Aaron's failure, writes Rabbi Sacks, was trying to be a Moshe. Only Moshe could be Moshe. Aaron was indeed a leader in his own right, but his leadership role, his leadership style, was different than Moshe's though no less important to leading the Israelites.
In any group, any organization, we need leadership. What is leadership? The answer may not be so clear, but what is clear is that there are different types of leaders. There are the leaders who stand up in front and rally the people. There are leaders who are quiet and influence from the inside. There are leaders who have the talent to do both. We never know what challenges we will face. We must have leaders who have vision, who have principles. We need leaders who are connected to people and who care about making their lives better. We need leaders who inspire. Then we can face those challenges that come our way and do things we can't even imagine. Moshe and Aaron were two such leaders, leading in different ways yet bringing the people to new heights.
The tenor of the parshiyot changes this week and for the remainder of the Book of Shemot. Except for the episode of the Golden Calf which will take place in two weeks, the main theme is the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them during their 40 year sojourn through the desert. This week we read Parshat Terumah which describes the various vessels the Israelites were commanded to construct for the Mishkan, as well the instructions for the Mishkan itself.
The Torah describes the materials used for the Mishkan one of which is the skin of a Tachash. This is an animal, which according to the Talmud, existed only during the time of Moshe and apparently only to be used for the Mishkan. Rashi quotes the Talmud which describes this animal as a multi-colored one with a horn in the middle of its forehead. Commentators say that the beautiful skin of this Tachash was used for the uppermost cover of the Mishkan.
As with many of the episodes in the Torah, there are so many lessons to be gleaned. The same is true here. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Palestine, taught one such lesson. He writes that the skin of the tachash with its many colors represents the talents of many people to be used together for one purpose.
In Parshat Noah, the people of the earth united and built a tower to the heavens. Unfortunately, that venture ended up as a failure, for even though they had a sole purpose, "to make a name for ourselves," it was ultimately a selfish one and the people were scattered and given different languages to keep them separate. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth makes the point that the construction of the Mishkan, which unified people as well, was different. The construction of the Mishkan was the "first great project" of the Jewish people. While the Mishkan was temporary to be sure, it brought the Israelites together for one united purpose. People brought materials, in fact they brought so much that Moshe had to ask them to stop, they brought their time and they brought their talents, with one Divine focus.
The Mishkan united the people. This period in many ways was one of preparation of the people for the time when they would enter the Land of Israel and create a new society there based on the teachings of the Torah. The difference was that the miracles that occurred during the 40 years in the desert were more overt than those later on. The people needed to learn to work together, and the Divine request for people to donate to this Mishkan teaches that everyone has something significant to contribute. There will always be challenges to be sure, but when people unite their talents, as represented by the Tachash, when there is a common, noble (in this case Divine) aspiration, unlike the Tower of Babel incident, greatness shines forth.
This is our mandate here at GBDS. May we continue to unite, to pool our collective talents, to work as one so that a rich, meaningful, beautiful Judaism emerges in all its splendor.
Wishing all a wonderful and restful Presidents' Week vacation
For many weeks we have been riveted with the saga of the Israelites in Egypt, their lives as slaves, the torment of the Egyptians with the plagues, and the thrilling escape of the Israelites from their tyranny. We experienced the fright of being trapped between the water's edge at the Sea of Reeds and the approaching Egyptian army; witnessed the spectacular miracle of the sea splitting, felt the fear of traveling between the walls of water, and were relieved by eluding the grasp of Pharaoh. Finally, last week's parsha concluded with the revelation of the Divine and the gift of the Ten Commandments. While the spine-tingling sense is absent this week with Parshat Mishpatim, the significance is no less crucial.
The parsha opens with "And these are the laws that you (Moshe) shall place before them." The parsha is essentially a litany of laws that are presented to the people as they now set about to create a society outside Egypt. Rashi comments on this first verse that "And ", the first word of the verse teaches that these laws are a continuation of the Ten Commandments that were given at Sinai. Commentators point out that these laws are more detailed in contrast to the Ten Commandments themselves which have a much more broad sense to them. To a certain extent, the Ten Commandments articulate a vision, whereas the laws in this week's parsha present the details of that vision.
The first law discussed in the parsha is about an Eved Ivri, the indentured servant. A person who stole and could not pay back what he stole, or one who was so impoverished that he could not support himself, could become an indentured servant for a period of six years. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth points out that the Torah is taking a historical experience and transforming it into law. The Israelites just spent centuries as slaves (Avadim) in terrible conditions. The Torah is legislating how one must treat the Eved. As Rabbi Sacks writes "Slavery is transformed from a condition at birth to a temporary circumstance." The parsha mandates that slaves not be beaten and experience the Shabbat. The back-breaking servitude the Israelites experienced in Egypt is now legislated into a relatively short-lived humane occurrence.
The remainder of the parsha is the same. The laws are given to enable the Israelites to weave together a new society based on how they relate to one another. In Jewish parlance these laws are known as Mitzvot Bein Adam L'Chaveiro, Commandments between People. Laws about causing bodily injury, damage to private property, stealing, and the like are enumerated throughout the parsha.
There is a story of three men who were employed to cut blocks from stone. When they were each asked what they were doing, the first answered, "I am cutting stone." The second answered, "I am earning a living." The third responded, "I am building a palace."
While all three correct answers, only the third man's answer is significant. He has the vision. Judaism is indeed a palace and a beautiful one to be sure. Parshat Mitshpatim is more than a legislation of law. It is part of the Torah's blueprint for building that palace. This palace is built on ritual to be sure, for Shabbat, holidays, prayer, and and kashrut are essential, but equally crucial to this edifice are these laws that help us to know what to do when we make a mistake and how to relate to other people and make their lives better. The Talmud teaches that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam, senseless hatred between Jews.
Last week, right before the revelatory experience at Mount Sinai, the Israelites are referred to as a Holy Nation. With the giving of the Ten Commandments the Israelites were entrusted with a mission. The laws in Parshat Mishpatim are the details necessary in order to actualize that mission, they are the values with which use to create a more perfect world.
May we be worthy heirs and continue that sacred mission.
The excitement that we experienced last week in Parshat Beshallach continues this week. The Israelites are now out of Egypt and beginning the task of building a new post-slavery life. We witnessed the challenge this task brought last week when the people complained about the food, the water, and even the accommodations. While the ultimate reason for the exodus, the giving of the Israelites the Torah and thus a framework to live as a free nation dedicated to the Divine, takes place at the end of this week's parsha of Yitro, that challenge is ever present throughout the Biblical narrative.
Yitro, a Midianite minister, is Moshe's father-in-law. According to Rashi, Yitro heard about the spectacular events at the Red Sea and what took place with Amalek and decided to cast his lot with the Jewish people. As is well known, Yitro sees that Moshe spends his days judging the people, listening to their issues from morning until night. Yitro admonishes his son-in-law telling him that he cannot do this on his own, for he will become worn out. Rather he must delegate the responsibility of leadership to others. And so Moshe, heeding his father-in-law's advice, sets up a system of judges to handle the minor issues; the greater issues will remain with Moshe. Thus we see one aspect of the greatness of Moshe's leadership, the willingness to take suggestions and allow others to lead.
One of the qualifications that Yitro says is necessary for leadership is that of truth. According to Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, a Spanish Torah commentator who lived from 1255-1340 and who is also known as Rabbeinu Bachya, this qualification of truth is really one of character. Indeed, Rabbeinu Bachya writes that while knowledge and wisdom are of course necessary, even prized, attributes needed for leadership, it is ultimately character that sits at the top of the ladder. Using verses from the Torah about each as proof, he points out that Noah, Avraham, Yaakov, and Moshe were all praised for their character, rather than their wisdom.
Ultimately this is what we strive to be: people of sterling character, people of integrity and truth. The Talmud teaches that the "signature of the Divine" is truth. Jewish tradition places great significance in knowledge and wisdom to be sure, however character refinement remains the most essential quality not just for leadership but for life.
The parsha concludes with the incredible event at Mount Sinai: the Divine revelation of the Torah. With the giving of the 10 Commandments we see in this parsha the two pieces of Jewish tradition that must exist in tandem with each other, the ritual side (interestingly enough, the only "ritual" in the 10 Commandments is Shabbat) and the ethical side. It is said that Jewish tradition is about action. This is indeed true. Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, and prayer are fundamental elements of Jewish practice; there is no Judaism without them, but they are authenticated only by character.
May the Judaism that emerges from this school be one that teaches, encourages, and supports both sides of this precious coin. Shabbat Shalom.