Archive | January, 2014

Commentary for Terumah

31 Jan

This week’s parshah mainly deals with the instructions for building the Tabernacle.  The reason for God’s desire that the Jewish People construct the Tabernacle is given in Ex. 25:8: “And let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  This phrase is troubling because it seems to go against the idea that God is omnipresent.  If God is everywhere, then isn’t God already in the Israelite camp?  And why does an omnipresent God need a special facility constructed to “house” the Divine Presence?

The answer, of course, is that God doesn’t.  The focus of the verse should not be “And let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” but rather “And let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  As we go about our day-to-day lives, God can sometimes be hard to find.  It is difficult to find the divine in the mundane monotony of the office.  God understands this, and so God has us create a holy space; a place where we can leave behind the mundane in order to help us find the Divine.

Holiness in Judaism requires human action.  Something only becomes holy if we designate it as such.  If we separate it from the rest and make an effort to treat it as something different.  The wine in the Kiddush cup is no different from the rest of the wine in the bottle it came out of until we make a blessing over it.  If we don’t abstain from performing melachah (biblically derived categories of creative or destructive work), the Shabbat is no different from any other day of the week.  Similarly, the synagogue, our present-day successor to the Tabernacle, is just a building unless we make an effort to make it something more.

The Gemarah in Berachot 6a asks “From where do we learn that The Holy One, Blessed is He, is found in a synagogue?”  The answer given is a quote from Psalms 82:1, which says “God stands in the Divine assembly.”  Rashi interprets “the Divine assembly” as being wherever Jews come together to pray. “And let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  A synagogue is only a synagogue if we make it one. We are all obligated to help create and sustain this holy place in our community that helps us bring God into our lives.  Whether we nourish its spirit by adding our voices to our communal prayer, or nourish its soul by organizing charity drives and social action campaigns, or nourish its body by simply making donations of time and money to help keep the light and the heat on, it makes no difference.  The Prayer For Those Who Serve the Community (on page 148 of the Sim Shalom siddur for Shabbat and Holidays) praises them all because they all help to turn four walls and a ceiling into a holy place.

Commentary for Mishpatim

24 Jan

The main body of this week’s parshah is a long list of laws.  The large majority of them are simple civic laws.  What happens if someone steals a bull?  What happens if someone kidnaps someone?  What happens if someone’s Ox gores someone else, causing death or injury? Some of the others instruct us to have a just court system.  They are laws whose purpose is simple to ascertain.  They are the basis for a workable society.


Many of the others are laws dictating the treatment of fellow human beings, be they slaves, the poor, or strangers.  Some of the others are laws about the treatment of our animals.  These laws, too, are simple to understand.  God wants us to be good people and to treat others well.


One or two of the laws are ritual laws, prohibiting the worship of other gods.  While these are not moral or civic laws, it is easy for us to understand why God would decree them.


Starting with 23:14, though, this section ends with a series of ritual laws discussing the holidays and some of their practices, before finishing off with the puzzling “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19).”  This series of laws feels woefully out of place.  What do pilgrimage festivals or a few of the specifics of the paschal sacrifice have to do with laws for setting up a civil and just society?


The last chapter of this parshah contains the Israelites’ formal acceptance of God and the Torah, including the well-known “everything God has spoken we will do and we will hearken (24:7).”  This statement was an expression of faith by the Israelites that God’s commands will not lead them down the wrong path, and thus, they will perform the mitzvot even if they do not understand them.


The commandments listed from 23:14 – 19 are all ritual commandments, but there is a lot of variation between them.  The commandment to celebrate Passover in the spring is fully explained right there in the text, while the commandment to celebrate it by eating matzah is referenced back to an early set of commandments and explanations.  Others, such as the commandment to offer the finest fruits of the first crop, is not explained, but a possible reason (to give thanks to God because it is God who makes the fruit grow) is easy to come up with.  Others, such as “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” has no reason given and seems to have no easily discernible reason.


Our vow of “everything God has spoken we will do and we will hearken” covers all of the laws.  It does not matter if they initially make sense to us or not, and it doesn’t not matter if God gives an explanation of them or not, or even if we cannot find an explanation of our own.  All of the laws come from God, and we must trust that there is a reason for them, whether we can understand it or not.  God is our co-pilot, and we need to have faith that God will steer us in the right direction.

Commentary for Yitro

17 Jan

Religion is, inherently, an experiential thing.  If it wasn’t, it would be government; just a plodding series of laws and statutes and regulations that we are required to follow.  Religion wants you to feel something.  You should be kind to your fellow man not just because the rules say so, but because you share a Creator who created you both in His image.  Despite this, we often approach religion from an analytical standpoint, and there two major reasons for this.

The first, simply, is that humans are analytical creatures.  When we see something, we want to understand how it works and why it is the way it is, and that is perfectly fine.  There is nothing wrong with pouring over every word of text about the four species and contrasting all of their characteristics to determine which piece of the lulav-etrog bundle goes where and which direction to point and shake them at which time, because in doing so, we will gain a greater understanding of what it is we are doing and thus, hopefully, have a more rich experience when we perform that mitzvah.

The second reason that we approach religion analytically is because experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate.  At the Seder, the Haggadah urges the participant to “see himself as if he was leaving Egypt.  We try to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and then finally experience freedom for the first time, but we have trouble because it is not an experience most of us can relate to.  Because we cannot directly relate to it, we take the facts we have learned about slavery and we attempt to analytically break them down into situations and emotions we can understand, but we cannot truly recreate them, and thus cannot really achieve the intended experience.

At times when an experiential connection fails us, we look to analysis to create an experience for us.  The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week’s parshah, is seen as a seminal moment in Jewish history.  The scene described in the text is a grandiose production of sights and sounds:  Thunder and lightning, pillars of clouds and smoke, shofars blaring all over the place, and a loud rumbling voice coming from the heavens.  Exodus 20:15 even tells us that the people experience a form of synesthesia, literally seeing sounds (“and the whole nation saw the voices).”  Because such an ecstatic experience cannot possibly be recreated in our minds, people have tended to focus on analyzing the Ten Commandments down to every last detail, to the point where there is actually disagreement between Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations on exactly where the divisions between some of the commandments are.

The Ten Commandments are unique among all of the other sections of the Torah because they have two sets of cantillation marks instead of the usual one set.  The first of these sets, the lower cantillation (named because the mark on the first word of the first commandment is below the word), divides the longer, more detailed commandment into multiple verses, while some of the shorter, two to four word commandments, are all contained within a single verse.  This version, used by people who are studying Torah, divides the commandments into verses reflecting normal sentence structure while its cantillation marks are used to fulfill their additional role as grammatical indicators and punctuation to help us understand and analyze the Torah.

The second set of cantillation marks are the upper cantillation (named because the first mark is above the first word), and is used for public Torah readings.  In this set of notes, the cantillation is much more flashy, with many notes that are very long, very high, or very low.  The commandments are divided into nine verses, with each commandment being its own verse, regardless of length, aside from the first two commandments, which are one long verse because those were the two commandments transmitted from God directly to the Israelites, without Moses acting as an intermediary, and were heard at the exact same time.  The upper cantillation is intended to help us try to recreate just some small portion of the experience at Sinai.  It tries to give us an experience to go with our analysis, because it is only through both experience and analysis that we can truly appreciate our relationship with God and God’s world.

Commentary for Beshalach

10 Jan

While they were wandering in the desert, the Israelites earn quite the reputation as grumblers and complainers, and most of that starts in this week’s parshah.  When the Egyptian army is bearing down on them, they complain that it would have been better to remain as slaves in Egypt.  After crossing the Red Sea, they complain first that they don’t have any water, and after God gives them drinkable water, they start to complain that they don’t have any food.  Many commentators both modern and ancient have criticized the Israelites for their lack of faith in either God’s ability or intention to provide for their physical needs, even after all of the miracles God has thus far preformed for them. While it is easy for us who were not there to criticize the Israelites lack of faith, many of their complaints do not seem so out of line for people in their position.  After all, God had provided them with freedom and protection by way of various miracles and displays of Divine power, so why would they not expect God to also provide them with food and water the same way?


Even so, for Moses, Aaron, and even God to get angry over this (Moses and Aaron get fed up with their complaining in Ex. 16, among other places, and Arachin 15a lists these incidents as some of the ten times the Israelite community tried God’s patience, mentioned by God in Num. 14:22), they must have done something wrong.  Some commentators have interpreted “They travelled three days in the wilderness and found no water (Ex. 15:22)” to mean that there was water, but the Israelites didn’t see it because they were so busy complaining.


When the Israelites finally do find some water, it is too bitter to drink (or at least they perceive it to be so.  Some commentators have stated that were the Israelites in a better mood, the water would have tasted just fine to them), and it is only after another miracle that the water ceases to taste bitter to them.  The Israelites were waiting for water to miraculously spring out of the ground, but in doing so, completely ignored the fact that water had already miraculously sprung out of the ground.  Just because there was no thunder or booming voice from Heaven or seeming defiance of the laws of nature doesn’t make the existence of food and water any less of a miracle of God.  The mere fact that our complex bodies can function properly is a miracle of God.  The Israelites ignored these common everyday miracles.  They took them for granted and refused to see God’s presence in the world unless it was accompanied by pillars of flame and smoke, and thus they upset God.  We must never forget that God’s presence is all around us.  We only need to put in the thought and effort to recognize it.

Commentary for Bo

3 Jan

This week’s parshah tells the story of the night of the exodus from Egypt. Every year for more than three thousand years since this event, Jews have gathered to retell it. It is a story that every Jew knows, from the most irreligious Jew you can find to the Rabbi with the blackest hat in all of Me’ah She’arim. It is a story that unites us all, and a story that hearkens back to a time when we were all united. Every Israelite was equal, all just lowly slaves hoping for salvation, and every Israelite was treated equally. Those plagues that struck the Israelites affected them all, and those that struck only the Egyptians affected none of them. God demanded that Pharaoh release every single Israelite, regardless of gender, age, physical capacity or mental capacity. All that mattered was that you were an Israelite.

Then, when the tenth plague is about to come and the grand moment of liberation is about to be upon them, this all suddenly changes. God commands that the Israelites offer the Paschal sacrifice and spread its blood on the doorposts of their houses so that “when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Ex. 12:13).” Before this moment, if the plague was not meant to strike the Israelites, all you had to do to be protected was be an Israelite. Why, then, before this final, most terrible plague, does God suddenly require obedience to the letter to this seemingly random task in order for each Israelite household to be protected?

Many commentators have remarked that is it during their journey through the desert that the Israelites truly transform from just the tribe of Jacob’s descendants into a full-fledged nation. They leave Egypt as a tribe of Abrahamic monotheists and emerge as the Jewish People. To be a member of a tribe, all you have to do is be born into it. To be a member of a people, though, you need to actively commit yourself to being a part of that people.

It is not enough to be born to a Jewish family. To be part of the Jewish People, one needs to engage themselves with their community, adhere to Jewish values and take part in Jewish practices. Anyone who refused to take part in the Paschal sacrifice and marking their doorpost with its blood would be showing that they did not wish to be part of the new Jewish People, and just like the contrary son in the Hagadah, who separates himself from the community, those people would not have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt.