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.
The scene is not hard to imagine. The Israelites have left Egypt and are heading towards freedom, but Pharaoh has realized what has happened and 600 elite chariots combined other chariots and officers are now giving chase. The Israelites arrive at the edge of the Red Sea. With the waters raging in front of them and the Egyptian army fast approaching from behind, the Israelites are trapped. There is nowhere to go. The situation is perilous indeed.
HaShem commands Moshe, "Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Israelites and let them go forward." Go forward? Where to? There is the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Where are they to go?
The Talmud records the incident. People from different tribes began to argue. This tribe did not want to go first into the water, and that tribe also refused. Suddenly, one man bursts forth and walks into the sea. He continues to walk and when the waters are at his neck, Moshe holds up his staff and the sea splits and what had been an obstacle, literally a death trap, becomes a clear path.
Who was this person that stood up, took a chance and literally changed the fate of his people? His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav. He was from the tribe of Yehudah and he was the brother-in-law of Aaron. Later, Nachshon was given the privilege of bringing the first offering to the newly inaugurated Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them during their sojourn through the desert.
Many centuries later, Nachshon ben Aminadav is still remembered for that one act. With boldness and selflessness (and possibly some impulsivity as well) Nachshon forged ahead and demonstrated to the Israelites that the situation was not lost; his actions helped lead the people to freedom, to new opportunities, to new heights as they would soon receive the Torah.
Nachshon ben Aminadav teaches us that no matter what the circumstances are, our actions do make a difference. We can change the world. We can, indeed we do, make things better. We, too, bring our small portion of the Jewish people to greater heights, even when it feels like the water is up to our neck.
Shabbat shalom to all!
This week we read Parshat Bo. The parsha introduces us to the mitzvah of Kiddush HaKodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish people's attention to the waxing and waning of the moon is the basis for the Jewish calendar, without which there would be no holiday observance. The Syrian-Greek king Antiochus realized this, for one of the prohibitions he placed upon the Jewish people was that of announcing Rosh Hodesh, for if the Jewish people did not know when the holidays occurred, they could not be observed. This was one of the ways he hoped to eradicate Judaism. The calendar therefore was crucial for our continued survival. When would we blow the shofar or have a seder if we did not know when it was Tishrei or Nisan?
We also find in the parsha the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice, the offering of a lamb right before Pesach. The blood of this animal was placed on the lintel of the Israelites' homes as a way to distinguish their homes from those of the Egyptians, in many ways like the mezuzot on our homes today. At the very end of the parsha there is a mention of tefilin and the Ramban. Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides (1194-1270, Spain) goes into a lengthy explanation that the Exodus from Egypt is so fundamental to our identity as Jews, so much so that we are commanded to mention the Exodus everyday. We do so in our twice daily recitation of the Shema.
What occurs to me is what an amazing tradition we have. We have wonderful rituals in Jewish life to be sure; rituals that bind us together as a family; as a people. But we must remember one important thing; Judaism is more than ritualistic. Jewish life is one that calls upon us to be responsible, to be compassionate toward other people, to stand up and act, and to think beyond ourselves. Jewish tradition provides us a template for living a full, moral ethical life, taking into consideration how we interact with other people. The rituals are nice; the rituals are important, but without the ethical part of Jewish tradition, the rituals are empty of meaning. To live as a Jew means to live with a sense of nobility. We will experience that nobility, even a touch of majesty tonight as we welcome the Shabbat Queen.