Note: This week's "A Shabbat Thought" is coming early, as I will be away tomorrow in celebration of the Bat Mitzvah of my daughter Baila.
This week we read Parshat Terumah, and in doing so we begin a series of parshiyot which focus primarily on the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites transported with them on their journey through the desert.
As the parsha begins, the Israelites are enjoined to donate a terumah, a portion. However that portion was to be given voluntarily. The command was such that if their heart moved them do so, they should contribute. Rashi points out that this was a good will offering. The Torah then lists several precious metals, and other items that would be used ultimately to construct a Mishkan, a sanctuary dedicated to the Divine.
The Israelites were asked as individuals to contribute something that was greater then themselves. The Mishkan served as a focal point for the people, a reminder that the Divine was in their presence and part of their lives.
GBDS is our Mishkan. GBDS is our place where we are creating something great. We all give our personal terumah, our talent, our creativity, our passion for something greater than ourselves; to a greater good, the strengthening of the Jewish people, the continuity of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I am blessed to work with a wonderful group of people. One example where this is evident is every year after the Curriculum Fair. As most of the teachers will say, this event generates some anxiety as we prepare the students, working very hard to get everything done. In the end, the Curriculum Fair is wonderful; the students do extraordinarily well. What makes it work is the manner in which the teachers work together to create an event that showcases the students and highlights the school. Parents come away knowing what a special place GBDS really is. Last night’s Curriculum Fair was no different.
This week we read Parshat Yitro, and in it we reach a climax of sorts to the whole Exodus from Egypt saga. In fact, Jewish tradition posits that it was just for this event that the Exodus took place. This event, of course is the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
The Torah itself relates “. . . and the Israelites encamped there opposite the mountain.” Rashi comments that the Hebrew word for encamped is rendered in the singular which is irregular given there were 600,000 people. Rashi explains there was complete unity among the people. They were “like one person with one heart.” It was that unity that enabled them to receive the Torah. The Torah brought the people together, the Torah unified the people.
When we work together, with a common purpose, we become unstoppable. Yes, there will always be differences, a variety of opinions and idea, and numerous points of view, however once we realize the shared goal, and we work together towards that goal, there is really nothing that can’t be accomplished. The ancient rabbis speak of “70 faces of Torah”, acknowledging there is more than one point of view. Indeed Talmudic discourse is full of disagreements as the rabbis debated the minutia of law, but they were debates to understand how to fulfill the Divine will that was expressed in the Torah and that ultimately bound them as one. Today, we are the heirs to a rich and beautiful heritage.
As we read of the experience of the giving of the Torah, may we remind ourselves of Rashi’s comment of being “like one person with one heart,” that unity, that collaboration, working together towards a common goal is the key to great things. When we are one, when are united we strengthen not only ourselves but our community as well. The future becomes that becomes much brighter; success that much sweeter.
I wish everyone a wonderful, restful Presidents’ Week vacation.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
It must have seemed like something impossible, and indeed in most cases it probably was. They were down 21-0 at the half and then 28-3 at the end of the third quarter. Most probably felt it was over and turned off their televisions at that point. However, there was one group that believed differently and with two minutes left in the third quarter, and continuing into the fourth, they began a drive that would defy belief. By the end of regulation time they had scored 25 points to tie the game and throw it into overtime. Within minutes, another score and history was made, the New England Patriots won their 5th Super Bowl. This New England boy was mighty proud that night!
As Parshat Beshallach opens, the Israelites have left Egypt and once Pharaoh discovered what has happened he quickly changed his mind and suddenly with many men and nine hundred iron chariots they begin pursuit of their former slaves. The Israelites discover the Egyptians are behind them. Suddenly the Israelites find themselves at the edge of the Reed Sea, with only water in front of them and the Egyptians behind them. The Torah says that Moshe held his staff over the water and the midrash teaches that Nachshon ben Aminadav went forth into the water and when he was up to his neck, the sea split, and the Israelites had their escape route.
The parsha ends with another seemingly impossible situation for the Israelites. After the episode at the sea, after realizing there is no drinking water and then no food, the Israelites find themselves under an unprovoked attack by Amalek in the most heinous fashion. Moshe directs Yehoshua to lead men into battle against Amalek. The Torah records that as the Israelites fought Moshe stood on a hill with his arms held high. When his arms were up, the Israelites prevailed, when he lowered his arms, Amalek did. Finally, stones were placed under Moshe’s arms to help him keep his arms raised so the Israelites would be the stronger. Ultimately, the Israelites did indeed defeat Amalek.
The Mishnah asks a question. Was it really Moshe’s raised arms that helped the Israelites defeat the Amaleks? The Mishnah answers its own question. When the Israelites looked up and remembered they had Divine help they became the stronger. The Israelites were inspired. The sight of Moshe raising his arms towards the heaven gave inspiration to the Israelites so they would fight harder. Something inspired Nachshon, perhaps the sight of Moshe holding his staff over the sea, to enter the water.
There are times when we all feel as if we are down 28-3, when we find ourselves between pursuers and the raging sea with nowhere to go. The Israelites, and the Patriots, can teach us many lessons, so here are two. First, that giving up does not need to an option, that to persevere, no matter how difficult, is the way to go. Will we always score the needed 31 points to win? Maybe not, but the effort will give us other victories. Second, look for that person, to inspire you, find that individual to whom you can look towards and think “I want to be like him/her.”
Or better yet, be the person who inspires others, be that person that gives others strength, that encourages others to be their very best, to reach for the stars. We all need a Moshe to inspire us, through that inspiration may we be a Moshe.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
As I sit here this morning I am experiencing tremendous writer’s block. There is so much to say and yet I cannot put anything to paper (or computer screen). The parsha, Bo, is replete with all kinds of lessons from which we can learn. Pharaoh hardens his heart and yet again he will not let the Israelites go. By the end of the parsha after the final three plagues, locusts, darkness and the first born, have occurred that hardening has completely soften and Pharaoh tells Moshe to go. Surely one could make the case about the consequences of being stubborn.
The parsha also 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 be observed. This was one of the ways he hoped to eradicate Judaism. The lesson here is that of renewal. There are times we make mistakes, but just as the moon renews itself, we always have the opportunity to renew ourselves, to fix mistakes, to improve and do better.
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 there is a mention of tefilin and the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides (1194-1270, Spain) goes into a lengthy explanation as to how the Exodus from Egypt is so fundamental to our identity as Jews, so much so that we are commanded to mention the Exodus everyday and we do so in our twice daily recitation of the Shema.
And yet with all this I find myself blocked from finding one simple, coherent message for this week. What does occur 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. Judaism is more than ritualistic. Jewish life is one that calls upon us to be responsible, to be compassionate for other people, to set up and act, to think beyond ourselves. Jewish tradition provides as template for living a full, moral ethical life, taking into consideration how we interact with other people. The Torah provides us with wisdom and insight. To live as a Jew means to live with a sense of nobility, with kavod (honor). We will experience that nobility and kavod, even a touch of majesty, tonight as we welcome the Shabbat Queen.
By then I hope to overcome this writer’s block.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I picked up the phone to make a call. The first name of the person with whom I want to speak started with the letter H. Someone answered and I began “May I talk to Hhhhhh . . . ” I could not get the person’s name out. Click. The person hung up. I tried a second time, “May I talk to Hhhhh . . .” Click, again, the person hung up. When I made a third attempt, and the same thing happened, the person on the other end of the line said in a very stern fashion, “Stop making prank phone calls or I will call the police.” Click (this time with a slam). At that point my frustration tolerance bottomed out and on the fourth and ultimately final try as soon as the person answered, the words came out rapid-fire, “don’t hang up, I stutter!!!”
Such is the feeling Moshe must have felt the first time he stood in front of Pharaoh to request that he allow the Israelites to leave. In last week’s parsha, Shemot, Moshe does accept the mission (did he really have a choice??) but the first attempt was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh refuse Moshe, but Pharaoh took away the straw with which the Israelites used to make bricks. Now the Israelites would need to gather their own straw and make produce the same quota. In the end, the people reject Moshe for their labor became that much more intense.
As this week’s parsha, VaEra opens, HaShem is trying to strengthen Moshe, telling him that He has established a covenant with the Israelite people, and the land of Canaan (Israel) is part of that Covenant. While Moshe again uses the excuse of speech to get out this task, HaShem, doesn’t let Moshe out of the responsibility. He assigns Aaron to the role of mouthpiece, as Rashi explains. Moshe will speak the words to Aaron who will convey them to Pharaoh. Rashi also makes another interesting point. The Torah says, “HaShem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites . . . “ Rashi says on that phrase that Moshe and Aaron must have patience with the Israelites.
HaShem is letting Moshe and Aaron, particularly Moshe that he needs to have patience, not only with the Israelites, but perhaps with himself as well. Yes, that first encounter did not go well. Pharaoh refused the request and he increased the workload upon the Israelites, who also reject Moshe. However, that is only a temporary setback. It is not the end of the story. As time goes on, Moshe will persevere, he will succeed, and despite other setbacks and momentary failures, he will accomplish his goal. Ultimately, we know what eventually comes of Moshe.
Life is full of setbacks. We make mistakes, encounter obstacles, but we should see those moments as catalysts for growth and not let them keep us from our goals. As we mentioned last week, challenges make us better. We learn from the mistakes, but we find the way to succeed. Thirty five years later that phone call to H has a comical aspect to it, but I have (I hope) learned better ways of getting my message across.
By the way, H wasn’t home anyway.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger