Let Us Connect! – Parashat Terumah

Image:  Model of the Mishkan at Timna, Israel on October 15 2008. Photo by Rafael Ben Ari/ Shutterstock. Notice that there are no human beings.

I’m always a little sad when we reach this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. I know that there is still plenty of Torah to find in the words and between the letters, but we’re out of great stories for a while. The child in me that loves stories misses Genesis and the first part of Exodus.

I normally begin the week by reading the Torah portion, and this week I was struck by all the things in this Torah portion. All of a sudden, God is into interior decorating: we’re going to build the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and it’s going to have a golden lamp, and here’s how the lamp will look, and it’s going to have a table, and a this, and a that. Then God is busy planning Aaron’s ordination: he’ll wear this, he’ll do that. Plans, plans, plans! This year, more than most years, I am irritated. I want stories. I want people.

I want connection.

 

Human beings need connection. We are social beings, even those of us for whom being social is difficult because of circumstances or disability. I think this is what distresses me about Parashat Terumah – suddenly Torah is all furniture and fixtures, just God dictating to Moses what is wanted in the new digs, and how Aaron’s ordination should go. I feel bereft.

Then, at the very end, God tells Moses:

The LORD spoke to Moses: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with the Divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of craft.

Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent; the table and its utensils, the pure lampstand and all its fittings, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the service vestments, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests; as well as the anointing oil and the aromatic incense for the sanctuary. Just as I have commanded you, they shall do. – Exodus 31:1-11
Suddenly, there is community again! Betzalel and his crew are going to be together, doing things, making things, empowered by “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” I imagine Betzalel with strong, calloused hands, he and his merry band of artisans, glowing with that divine spirit, the same ruach elohim that swept over the waters of creation:
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃
When God began to create heaven and earth—
the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the Divine spirit sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

The spirit of God, ruach Elohim, is not in things. It is not in golden furniture. It is not in great buildings. It is not in computers, and not in smartphones. In the modern Jewish world, we locate it in the actions of human beings who reach out to other human beings to do work, to learn, to love, and to struggle.

Let all who are able step out from behind our computer screens, look up from our smartphones, let us reach out to others for human connection. Let ruach Elohim, the spirit of the Divine, sweep over the boundaries between us.

Let us connect with our spouses, with our children, with the guy who carries away the garbage, with the lady at the cash register, with the guy wearing a baseball cap with a team insignia. Let us make eye contact, let us introduce ourselves, let us touch hands, let us connect.

For it is in those moments that we are filled with ruach Elohim, in those moments when we are most fully human, when we connect.

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Shifra and Puah — Who were they?

This is a wonderful examination of this week’s Torah portion by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild. She looks at the figures of Shifra and Puah, the midwives who defied Pharaoh. Her questions about the treatment they have received from the traditional commentaries bothers me too. What do you think about the questions at the end? Who WERE Shifra and Puah?

Shifra & Puah, midwives of our history. Parashat Shemot names some strong women without whom Moses w… – http://wp.me/p2PDCW-oj

Are You Coming or Going?

Parashat Bo begins on a curious note. We usually translate “bo” as “come.” But in Exodus 10:1, “Bo el Par’o” in Exodus 10:1 is usually translated, “Go to Pharaoh.” “Come to Pharaoh” would suggest that God is with the ruler of Egypt, and the next phrase seems to confirm it: because I have hardened his heart. So here we have a layering of paradoxes: a “come” that means “go” and a God who is somehow with Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil.

Most translators say, “Well, that can’t be right!” and change the more common “come” to “go:”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I might display these My signs among them; and that you may recount it in the hearing of your sons, and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” – Exodus 10:1-2, JPS translation

The Zohar offers one solution to the paradox of “go” and “come”.  It reads Exodus 10:1 as a metaphor in which God calls to Moses from Pharaoh’s throne room, summoning him into the cavern of a fearful serpent, the evil heart of Egypt’s soul.

The Kotzker Rebbe offers a different solution to the problem in apparent meaning: he suggests that God is telling Moses: “Don’t be afraid because I will be with you in the throne room! In fact, I’m already there waiting for you!”

The process of Exodus is like the journey from youth to maturity. Sooner or later, those who wish to become truly mature must confront the darkest parts of their personality. “Come,” our yetzer hara [evil inclination] calls to us, and we enter its chamber, filled with dread, because we know it to be powerful. “Enjoy yourself,” it murmurs. If we surrender to it, we give ourselves over to selfishness.  The task of the mature Jew is to take a sober look and see the evil inclination for what it is. This can be terrifying, precisely because the ugly thing is deep within us. As the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us, it is then  we may realize that despite the terrors of that place, God is with us every step of the way.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to be there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

All human beings have an inclination to selfishness. Indeed the rabbis assure us that we cannot thrive without a little of that yetzer harah. (Yoma 69b) That is not just human nature, it is the nature of all creation. But our task, as human beings, is to struggle with our selfish inclination and to keep it within the limits prescribed by Torah.

In the opening phrase of this week’s Torah portion, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that we have to go into the darkness – but God not send us there alone.

A slightly different version of this d’var Torah appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

 

Shabbat Shalom! Va’era

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) continues the saga of the struggle between God and Pharaoh. It deals with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, the obstinacy of Pharaoh, and the first seven plagues.

Beyond the familiar story, what can we learn from this portion of the Torah? Here are some divrei Torah that explore parashat Va’era:

On Plagues and Hardened Hearts – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Double Vision – Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Spirits in a Material World – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Vaera and God’s Many Names – Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

Moses was Twice a Refugee – Rabbi Joshua Stanton

Does God Hear Prayer? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Kicking It Up a Notch – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

And two of my own:

It’s Not About Us

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

There's an Easy Way?
There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.

Joshua and His Trees

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.