A Shabbat Thought

 by Rabbi Yaakov Traiger

Assistant Principal

ShabbatshalomParshat Pekudei is the climax of the parshiyot we have been reading for the past few weeks, for we have come to the point where the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert is now complete. In fact, not only is the Mishkan complete, but we also complete the reading of the Book of Shemot.

At first glance, Parshat Pekudei appears to be a recapitulation of earlier parshiyot describing how to build the Mishkan; what materials to use, the dimensions of the parts. However, the renowned Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz (1907 – 1997) of Jerusalem points to a number of places where the completion of the Mishkan parallels the completion of the world.

Looking back at Parshat Bereshit, the Torah says, “And the Heaven and the Earth were completed.” Our parsha says, “And all the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting was completed.” Both verses employ the same Hebrew root for “finish.”

The next parallel comes from the same two parshiyot. In Bereshit we read, “And HaShem saw what He made and behold it was good.” This parallels the verse in Pekudei, “And Moshe saw the whole Mishkan and behold they made it as HaShem commanded . . .” In this parallel the verbs “to see” and “To make” are used. In the first verse HaShem looks at the world He has created and considers it good. In the second, Moshe looks upon the Mishkan, which the Israelites have made and since it was done so according to HaShem’s instructions, the Mishkan is therefore good.

There is one final parallel between the two parshiyot. In Parshat Bereshit the Torah says, “And HaShem blessed the seventh day.” In Parshat Pekudei we read, “And Moshe blessed them.” In this last parallel HaShem and Moshe are bestowing a blessing, this blessing stems from the fact that what was created in “good.”

However, something even more significant is taking place. It is not enough that the world or the Mishkan have been completed. In Bereshit, once humanity is created, Adam and Eve are commanded “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the world a subdue it.” Humankind is commanded to use the world for the world has incredible potential and it would be a shame to let that potential remained hidden.

The same is found with the Mishkan. Next week we will begin reading the Book of VaYikra and in it the Israelites will learn how to use the Mishkan they have just built. They will learn what offerings to bring for various occasions, how to sprinkle the blood, when to bring the incense offerings. The true completion of the world and the Mishkan is evident only through their use, only through their benefit to humankind.

The world and the Mishkan are representative for human potential. Each of us has been graced with Divine gifts, and talents. These talents, the potential that we all have was not meant to remain dormant. Our potential was meant to be actualized, for the true humanity of a person cannot shine forth unless that G-d-given potential is unleashed. How much more can we do? How much further can we go – whether as individuals, or as a community? Think of what can be accomplished. We have the ability to do great things.

The Mishkan’s construction is now complete, the potential is there. As we complete reading the Book of Shemot may each of resolve to not only using our skills and talents, but to foster the same in others. In doing so, our best days lie ahead.

Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek!

Shabbat shalom.

ShabbatshalomFor the past few weeks we have been focusing on Leadership. Indeed the Torah has a lot to say about being a leader and how important it is. We see just how important it is daily as the presidential primary season is underway. Unfortunately, sadly, many of the candidates are more engaged in name calling and personal disparagement instead of dealing the real issues facing this country. (How upset would we be if our children resorted to the type of name calling that is taking place on the national stage?) In this week’s parsha, VaYakhel, we are presented with yet another aspect of leadership.

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.

While the presidential contenders are tearing each other down, we must instead build; and we have certainly built, for we have here at GBDS a special team dedicated to fostering a Judaism that is spiritually rich and meaningful, a Judaism that is compelling and compassionate.

Shabbat Shalom.

ShabbatshalomLeadership seems to be the catchword these days. In the newspapers I have seen workshops and conferences advertized devoted to the theme of Leadership. Indeed, here at GBDS we have a Leadership Academy and we have dedicated the year to Leadership as we have integrated The Leader in Me process into the school through the 7 Habits. I have been doing much reading about leadership in my graduate work. While I haven’t yet found a clear consistent definition as to what leadership is, we look for it, and we all know when it is absent.
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, 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 as if 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 worshipping 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 most that did worship it were the Eirev Rav, the Egyptian rabble that joined the Israelites when they came out from Egypt. When Moshe descends the mountain and discovers the Golden Calf he is furious, he throws it back into the fire, he grinds it into powder, sprinkles the powder into water and forces the Israelites to drink that water. 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. “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 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 Sack’s, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, whom I have quote before, 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.” Aaron is known as the one who would go to both people who had a dispute 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 working against the crowd. 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 but 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 and do things we can’t imagine. Moshe and Aaron were two such leaders, leading in different ways, yet bringing the people to new heights.

ShabbatshalomThe 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 this was a beautiful skin and it was used for the uppermost cover of the Mishkan.

As in 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 (I appear to be quoting chief rabbis this week) 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 task here at GBDS. May we continue to unite, to pool our collective talents, to work as one so that rich and meaningful Judaism emerges in all its beauty.

Shabbat shalom.

ShabbatshalomFor the last 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, and spectacular miracle of the sea splitting, and traveling between the walls of water and 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 know set about to create a society outside Egypt. Rashi comments on this first verse that the “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.”

This third man got it right. 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 and holidays, prayer, 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, how to relate to other people. 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 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.

Shabbat shalom.

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