Tag Archives: relationship with God

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

24 May

This week we read the laws of the Sabbatical Year. God instructs us to leave our fields fallow every seventh year, and modern science has proven that this is very beneficial for the land, allowing it to replenish its nutrients, which is in turn beneficial to us as those nutrients are passed to the crops we grow and then to us. This has made this mitzvah a favorite of Jews who try to spread the good word to their non-observant fellows, and when combined with studies about the mental health benefits of Shabbat observance and other such things is used to weave a message that can essentially be boiled down to the following statement: “our omniscient God knows what is best, therefore it is best for you to do what God says.” And there is nothing false about that statement. The problem is that this approach tends to result in people viewing their observance of mitzvot through two possible lenses. The first is “I am doing this because I believe it is best for me” while the second is “I am doing this because God says that this is best.”
Both of these views share the same flaw, which is that they ignore the importance of the two-way relationship between God and us. Your doctor might tell you that you need to eat healthier and instruct you to eat less ice cream and more Brussels sprouts, or perhaps you yourself found an article online that said that people who replace ice cream in their diet with Brussels sprouts will lose weight. You might eat the Brussels sprouts instead of the ice cream, but most people aren’t going to be happy about it.

 

While one who fulfills a mitzvah simply because he or she thinks it will be better for him or her in the long run to have done so than to have not done so has still Halachically fulfilled the mitzvah, and one who fulfills a mitzvah because it is God’s will that the mitzvah be fulfilled is certainly doing something theologically laudable, something is missing when mitzvot are performed in such a cold, computational, almost emotionless way. In a week and a half we will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday where we show our joy in having received the Torah and all of the mitzvot therein. That sense of joy comes not because we like being told what to do and not out of some sense of selfish joy at having been given the secrets to wind up better off in the long term, but out of a celebration of having been given these mitzvot to help us explore our relationship with the One who gave them to us.

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Commentary for Shmini

26 Apr

This week’s parshah is called “Shmini,” meaning “eighth.” This name comes from the fact that it begins with the eighth day of the ceremony to inaugurate Aaron and his sons as the priests and to consecrate the Tabernacle, the first seven of which we read about in the previous parshah. It seems odd to not include all eight days of the ceremony in the same parshah, but everything in the Torah happens the way it does for a reason.

To understand the significance of the number eight in Judaism, it is first necessary to understand the significance of the number seven. Seven represents completeness, such as the seven days in a week or the seven weeks of the Omer or seven aliyot in each parshah.

If seven represents completeness, then eight represents that which comes next. A bris, representing the entry into the covenant is held on the eighth day of a baby’s life (unless there are medical complications). The Shmini Atzeret is either a one-day holiday coming after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot or it is the next phase of Sukkot, coming after an initial seven-day phase.

The eighth day that our parshah begins on also marks such a moment for the Jewish People. The inauguration of the priests and the consecration of the Tabernacle are major changes to how the Israelites worship God. There will now be a central location at which all sacrifices are to take place and designated people who will work there in order to ensure that the sacrifices are carried out in accordance with the new guidelines Moses has received. After a week’s worth of ceremonies during which poor Moses had to erect the Tabernacle each morning and then take it down each night all by himself, the Tabernacle will now be left up, and it will be Aaron and his sons, not Moses, who are in charge of facilitating this avenue of the Israelites’ relationship with God. This is a moment of major change in the way the Israelites relate to God.

This theme of a change in the nature or focus of the relationship between us and God is a theme that is found throughout these “eighth day” occurrences. On the seven days of Sukkot we offer a total of seventy sacrifices, one representing each of the other nations of the world, but then, on Shmini Atzeret, we offer only one, representing the Jewish People, and shift our focus from worldly matters, such as the celebration of the harvest, to our relationship with God. A bris represents an inauguration into the Jewish People and becoming part of the covenant that our ancestors made with God.

This theme even goes all the way back to the very first “eighth day” in history. In discussing why we bless God as the One “Who creates the illuminations of fire,” during the havdalah service but not any other time we use candles (such as lighting Shabbat candles) the Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says that fire was created at the conclusion of the very first Shababt. A midrash expands on this statement, explaining that the light God created at the beginning of creation was an all-encompassing light, illuminating everything, with no connection to any celestial or terrestrial source. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, part of their punishment was to be the removal this light from the world they inhabited. The midrash further explains that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge just before Shabbat started, so God decided to delay their punishment until after Shabbat ended. When Shabbat ended and the sun went down, Adam and Eve experienced darkness for the first time in their lives, and they were utterly terrified. Seeing their fear, God gave them the gift of fire so that they would not be afraid whenever it was dark.

Transitions are never easy. They are stressful, worrying, and even sometimes downright terrifying. In these difficult and uncertain times it is important to remember the lesson of Shmini: No matter what else changes when the seventh day ends and the eighth day begins, God will always be there for us.

Commentary for Yitro

6 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. While chapter twenty deals with the commandments themselves, chapter nineteen does the important job of setting the scene in which this revelation takes place. Exodus 19:4 contains not only the famous phrase “I have borne you on the wings of eagles,” but also the much less well know and more theologically puzzling end of the verse “and I have brought you to Me.” If God is omnipresent (and, indeed, during the Passover Seder, God is often referred to as “The Omnipresent”), why did God need to “bring” the Israelites to a specific place where God was?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be that the verse is meant in a spiritual sense, not a physical one, but this doesn’t seem to hold up within the Torah. Exodus 2:23 tells us that “their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God,” which tells us that they believed in God all along. Why, then, could the revelation not take place in Egypt, or by the Red Sea, or in Rephidim or Marah or any of the other places the Israelites stopped along the way? We have the same Israelites and the same omnipresent God who they believe in, so why wait until they reach this one place for this grand revelation?

In every stop along the way, we are actually shown God’s omnipresence through a display of Divine power in some way or another. In Egypt and at the Red Sea, God’s power as the Redeemer of Israel, the Eternal Judge, and the Master of Nature are on full display. At Rephidim and at the Red Sea, God functions as our protector. At Marah and at Elim, God provides for us by giving us fresh water where there previously was none and by giving us the manna. At Sinai, though, none of these facets of our relationship with God is more prominent than any other.

The preparations that Moses instructs the Israelites to take before the revelation are performed by each individual rather than by the people as a whole, with Moses or Aaron or someone else acting as an intermediary. When God offers the Israelites the covenant, it is not the mass group of “the nation” or “the Israelites” that respond, but rather “the entire people (Ex. 19:8) and it is again “the entire people” who are recorded as having experienced the revelation in Exodus 20:15. Each individual was a part of the covenant because Sinai was a place where each individual could explore his or her own unique relationship with God.

But if all of the Israelites are individually engaged in the covenant through their own unique relationship with God, then why have a revelation at Sinai at all? Why not just let it come to everyone in his or her own time?

A few parshahs later, we run into a similar theologically problematic statement related to God’s omnipresence, when God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” To make a long story short, the lesson from this verse is not that God needs us to build a house for God or else God will be absent from the world, but rather that we need a space where we can come together to focus to help invite God into our lives. Just like us, if left to their own devices, it probably would have taken the ancient Israelites quite a while to find the time to focus on their relationships with God and to make themselves ready to accept the covenant. At Sinai, which served as a precursor to the Tabernacle discussed in Ex. 25:8 and to our modern synagogues, the Israelites were all given a time and a place to focus on those relationships, both as a community and as individuals within that larger community.

Commentary for Shemot

11 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the famous story of God calling to Moses at the burning bush. God calls out to Moses by repeating his name twice (Ex. 3:4). The only other person in the entire Torah to whom God calls out in this way is Jacob (Gen. 46:2). While both men respond to God’s calling by saying “here I am,” the similarities between the two episodes end there.

 

When God calls out to Jacob, it is in response to Jacob offering a sacrifice. After Jacob responds “here I am,” God goes on to tell Jacob that the sojourn his family is about to take down to Egypt will be the very trip which results in the hundreds of years of oppression that were foretold when God made the Covenant Between the Parts with Abraham in Gen. 15. Despite knowing that he is about to take actions that will lead his descendants into generations of slavery, Jacob marches on, confident that he is making the right choice because of the Divine promise that God will always remain with them and will eventually bring them back to inherit the Promised Land.

 

With Moses, on the other hand, God comes to him completely out of the blue as he is going about his day herding sheep. God tells Moses that he has been chosen to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, but Moses balks and asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 3:11)?” When God promises Moses the same reassurance of Divine protection that was promised to Jacob, Moses still balks. Even when God lays out a step-by-step plan for how to liberate the Israelites, Moses still spends the first half of the next chapter questioning just about every part of God’s plan. After God performs not one but two miracles for Moses, Moses concedes that God’s plan will work, but immediately starts asking God to find someone else to do it in his place.

 

It is interesting to note that Jacob, when being asked to do something that will doom his family to generations of oppressions, goes along with God’s wishes with no complaint, only needing Divine reassurance that things will turn out well in the end, while Moses, being asked to end the slavery and oppression of his people and lead them into the Promised Land, repeatedly balks at the idea and tries to make excuses for why the plan won’t work, despite being shown a more detailed plan and more Divine power than Jacob was. This is because of the backgrounds of the two men. God had been an important part of Jacob’s life since he was a child. His parents raised him to believe in God and Jacob had spent his whole life developing his own intimate relationship with God. Moses, on the other hand, was at a point in his life where his relationship with God was just starting to form. Thus, even when he is being asked to do something that will cause suffering to his descendents, Jacob does not hesitate because he knows God will be with him and with his descendents, and will redeem them, while Moses, when asked to perform a task that, while challenging, will help hundreds of thousands of people, hesitates and tries to find reasons not to do so, despite having been assured Divine aid. As we seek to develop our relationship with God, it is important to remember that the first steps are always the hardest, but the more we press on down God’s path, the easier establishing that relationship becomes.

Commentary for Eikev

15 Aug

This week’s parshah, like many in the book of Deuteronomy, is a long speech by Moses to the Israelites. Chapters seven, eight, and the beginning of chapter nine talk about all of the great things God has done for the Israelites and all of the great things God will continue to do for them. Chapter nine then transitions into a warning to not let success go to their heads, telling them to always remember that God is the one behind their success, and that they should not turn away from God. In the final two thirds of chapter nine Moses reminds them of all of the times they angered God in the desert, and of how often God was tempted to destroy them. Chapter ten then discusses the ways the Israelites have served God in the desert, and the ways they should continue to do so in the Promised Land. Chapter eleven then combines all of these ideas, with Moses making it clear to the Israelites that all of their success, be they military, agricultural, or financial, will be dependent on their faithfulness to God. In essence, the Israelites are being asked to choose what they want their relationship with God to be like. Will they love God and embrace God’s ways, or will they be ungrateful and disobedient, and thus bring the wrath of the Lord down upon themselves? Will they make God an adversary or a friend?

Moses’ reproach of the people in the second part of chapter nine begins with recounting the events at Mt. Sinai. He sets the stage by describing his own activities while on Mt. Sinai: “ I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain of out of the fire on the day of the Assembly (Deut 9:9-10).” The phrase “the finger of God,” used here to describe the carving of the Tablets of the Covenant, is used in only one other place in the entire Torah. Upon beholding the power of the third plague, which their tricks could not replicate, Pharaoh’s magicians describe the plague as “the finger of God (Ex. 8:15).”

It is interesting that this phrase, used only twice in the Torah is once used to describe the creation of a physical symbol of the Covenant between God and the Jewish People, and once used to describe God’s persecution of a sinful people. One time it is describing a positive aspect of the relationship between man and God, and the other time it is used to describe a negative aspect of that relationship.

Just like the Israelites in this week’s parshah, we have a choice of how we want our relationship with God to be. We can look at it as a positive, as Moses does, and embrace the partnership symbolized by the Tablets of the Covenant that were inscribed by the finger of God at Mt. Sinai, or we can view it negatively, as just a set a of restrictions on our time and activities, to the point where it feels like punishment the Egyptians experienced from the finger of God in Egypt. If we choose the former, we are not just embracing a partnership with God, but also with the community of our fellow Jews. If we choose the latter, we are cutting ourselves off from our community, and the wonderful relationships and opportunities a community creates.

Commentary for Tzav

14 Mar

In this week’s parshah we are given the commandment to keep a flame burning eternally in the Tabernacle.  Similar things such as setting lamps and incense to burn in the morning and in the evening had been mentioned during the Tabernacle’s construction during the book of Exodus, but a fire that specifically “shall be kept burning, not to go out” is first mentioned in Lev. 6:5.  This fire, described in the next verse as “perpetual” has become a strong symbol for the relationship between the Jewish People and God.

The metaphor of a perpetually burning flame representing the relationship between the Jews and God has been explained in many different, equally correct ways over the ages.  Some have focused on to the eternal nature of the flame, while others have latched onto the idea of the flame itself to explain that in times of difficulty, God will always be there to light the way for us, while still others have noted that just as fire burns wood and turns it into energy, so to can we use our relationship with God to turn mundane objects into things used for a spiritual purpose, among many other explanations.

While the metaphors all teach different lessons, they all share one important basis: God and man come together in a partnership.  One provides a foundation and the other acts upon that foundation.  Appropriately, this relationship is found in the upkeep of the flame itself.  In Lev. 6:5, the priests are commanded to feed wood to the fire every morning to keep it burning.  In Pirkei Avot 5:7, we learn that God ensured that fire would not go out when it rained. God and the Jewish People work together in a partnership that will be eternal so long as we have the desire to fuel it.