Triennial Reading-Terumah, Exodus Chapter 26,
verse 1, through Chapter 26, verse 30
Second Torah, Parshat Zachor, Deuteronomy
Chapter 25, verses 17-19
Inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark. Inside the Ark were the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. There were other items in the Holy of Holies that we know about through tradition. There was an urn with Mannah in it as testimony to these events for future generations. In addition, there was the anointing oil that Moshe had made to anoint the Kohanim in the Tabernacle. Next to the Aron was the Staff of Aharon which had sprouted flowers and almonds (Numbers 17:25). The High Priest’s vestments were also kept there. The broken Tablets of the first set would be in the Holy of Holies as well. In addition to this list was also the Torah scroll that Moshe had written himself, also right outside the Aron.
This entire Parshah is puzzling to us. We live primarily in Exile, and we have no Mishkan or Holy Temple. There is no High Priest and there are no sacrifices. What good then does it do us to read about how the Mishkan was constructed? Why do we have to know how the beams and pillars were made and what their dimensions were, and how the priestly vestments were made? What use is it to us to know how the sacrifices were offered? There are no practical applications of these things today. If you are going to tell me that we need them to know how to do it in the future, it is really not necessary. The future construction of these utensils and the Holy Temple will come only when the Mashiach is here. And by definition the Mashiach will be the King and he will teach us how to make all these items and how to keep them. So, our understanding of this portion and its intricacies are subject to the Mashiach’s review and endorsement. Without his say the future is not going to happen. Therefore, this question remains: why read and study it if there is no application for this knowledge today?
One answer we glean from rabbinical writings is that studying these portions of the Torah earns for us the merit of actually performing the construction of the holy objects.
Maftir: Parshat Zachor
The second Torah reading this morning is one that gives this Shabbat its name, Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. We are commanded to remember the atrocities of Amalek. They attacked the stragglers of B’Nai Yisrael, those least able to defend themselves. We are told that, in every generation, members of Amalek rise up to do us harm. History has shown us that this teaching is, regrettably, true. We always commemorate this Shabbat right before Purim, a story of a member of Amalek seeking to wipe us out.
The Haftorah provides us with another example of the evil of Amalek, who attacked the Jews in the Wilderness and still constituted a threat in the days of King Saul. Saul’s failure to totally annihilate Amalek, as God commanded, sets up later attacks on Israel. It also spells the end of his favor in God’s eyes, and leads to his removal as monarch.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
Exodus Chapter 22, verse 4 through Chapter 23, verse 19.
This Shabbas is one of three Torahs-pretty rare on our calendar. We have the regular reading. Mishpatim, the reading for the New Moon and the commemoration of Shabbat Shekalim, explained below.
The chapters in Parshat Mishpatim cover a vast array of social rules, moral imperatives, ethical injunctions and civil and criminal laws, all of which are linked to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which were read last Shabbat.
Compensation must be made for damages caused by one's animals grazing on another's property or from a fire that one carelessly caused. Responsibilities of guardianship, situations in which someone is guarding that which belongs to someone else, are also discussed. The general principle is that liability increases with the benefit that the one guarding the property receives or expects for his services or that he gains from the entrusted property.
The subject matter moves from "stolen property to the stolen heart" and deals with the man who seduces an unmarried woman and is required to pay punitive damages to her and/or her father and must marry her provided that she consents. Three capital offenses described as "toevot" (abominations) follow -- the prohibition of sorcery, bestiality and apostasy.
This section concludes with laws that express concern for the disadvantaged of society -- the stranger, the widow and orphan, and the poor. The Torah states, for example, that one who lends money to a poor person should not demand repayment when none is reasonably forthcoming. Included in this passage is the prohibition of charging interest on personal loans. Additionally, if one takes a poor person's bedding as security for a loan, it must be returned each evening for his use.
One is forbidden to curse judges, The Judge, God, or leaders of the people. One should not withhold the gifts (e.g., firstlings of the soil, of the human womb and of domesticated animals) from God. While the latter laws deal with animals that are to be dedicated to God, the following law refers to those prohibited for human consumption. A "treifa," literally an animal torn up by a predator and left to die, is forbidden to eat.
This section concludes with laws intended to maintain the integrity of the judicial system and those regulating humane treatment of one's enemy. For example, courts many not hear one side of a dispute without the other party being present. Included in this prohibition is not to be influenced by rumors, Lashon HaRah. Judges may not accept testimony from unworthy witnesses. In their deliberations, judges must be careful not to do anything that might pervert justice or unfairly shift the feelings of the court against the accused. Generally, rules of law are determined by majority vote of the judges. Judges may not show favoritism, even towards the less fortunate.
Special Haftorah: Shabbat Shekalim
This haftorah signals the onrushing of special days on our Luach. It precedes Purim, and this haftorah, along with three others, lead us into the cherished days of Pesach. Despite our reluctance to speak about money on Shabbat, this haftorah emphasizes the monetary donations that ensured the upkeep of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We can perhaps draw from this reference that, since we no longer have a place for sacrificial offerings, our support of worthy, Jewish causes takes the place of lambs and goats on the altar. And it’s so much more streamlined to donate funds rather than lead an animal to Jerusalem for ritual slaughter!
Parshat Yitro, February 6, 2021
Exodus, Chapter 19, verse 1 through Chapter 20, verse 23.
In this week’s Parsha, we, through our ancestors, are endowed with the giving of the Ten Commandments. This cataclysmic event gives us, the Jewish people, temporal boundaries, that is, boundaries between the time before and the time after the giving of the Law, marked by the blasting of the shofar. We read of spatial boundaries, for example, the boundary between the mountain and the people. There are gender boundaries--the men, for example, are commanded "do not go near a woman." But the boundaries go beyond gender, to the divide between oneself and one's neighbor, whom we now must recognize as different from us—we must not covet, the tenth commandment tells us, because we know that what is our neighbor's is not ours. These commandments articulate ethical boundaries as well, between what is right and what is wrong. The fifth commandment—what some have called the “hinge” between our love for God and our love for our fellow human beings—marks a boundary between generations: Honor thy father and thy mother.
And though we would never dare to describe any of these bounded domains as more sacred or special—remember that there is no hierarchy among the mitzvot—I think that the separation that is most meaningful to me is the boundary between Shabbat and all other days. Here in Yitro, we read Zachor et Yom HaShabbat L'Kodsho: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Later in the Torah, this mitzvah is repeated, with one important difference. There it reads, Shamor et Yom HaShabbat L'Kodsho.” “Observe (or GUARD) the Sabbath and keep it holy.” “Zachor” prompts us to positive observance of the Shabbat, for example, making Kiddush and having meals of mitzvah; “Shamor” instructs us to refrain from activities that will desecrate the Shabbat.
This dual treatment of Shabbat is alluded to in the beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, L'Cha Dodi. It begins, Shamor v'Zachor b’deebur echad. There we hear “zachor” and “shamor” in one utterance. That unity reflects our belief that God voiced these two words about Shabbat simultaneously. No more boundaries--God was harmonizing with himself! When we pray together and lift our voices in harmony, we should “zachor” ,remember, how much closer we are to God. And when we do acts of loving-kindness and create harmony among people, how much like God are we?
May we strive to create harmonies, by our voices and our actions, throughout our lives. Amen.
Parshat B’Shalach, Shabbat Shirah
Exodus Chapter 14, verse 15 through Chapter 16, verse 10.
In this week’s Parsha—B’Shalach—we read of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and of B’nai Israel’s escape to freedom after over 400 years in Egypt. The Parsha includes Moses’s famous Song of Redemption—Az YaShir—a song, we believe, that was taken up spontaneously by every Jew on the far shore of the Sea. In fact, that experience of song might be, some commentators suggest, the first act that the Jews all do together as Jews. This song gives the Shabbat its name of Shabbat Shira.
There is so much in this well-known Parsha that one might choose to examine in more depth, but I want to focus on one event from B’Shalach:
A midrash tells us that each Jew saw lying on the shore the dead body of an Egyptian he or she had personally known during their time in Mitzrayim. Another midrash is even more specific: it has every Jew seeing the dead body of his or her taskmaster. A third midrash tells us that after the Song of the Sea the angels took up a celebratory song, at which point Hashem enjoins them to stop: God tells them, “There should be no joyous songs while My handiwork lie “dead in the Sea.”
What are we to make of these midrashim and the concepts and principles implicit in them? Imagine: here at this moment of great relief, where we Jews have finally been blessed with freedom from bondage and we have witnessed the awesome miracle of the sea’s parting and victory over the mightiest army in the world? Nothing, we are told, could have defeated those charioteers, nothing, that is, except for simple mud. How could we not burst into song?! Even the angels are moved to song! Yet Adonai does not urge singing; whatever joy He might have felt at this new phase of his people’s lives, He reminds us of the dead lying there, dead through their own bad choices and the evil they foisted upon the Israelites, but dead nonetheless.
As I think about these narratives and their relationship to the Parsha, I cannot help but think that what connects them all is not the salvation of the Jews but the deaths of the Egyptians. However many miracles they saw and warnings they heard, the Egyptians went after the fleeing Israelites. There is no doubt that, unless the Egyptians were overcome in this mighty way, there would have been no escape. But God’s caution to the angels and the Jew’s recognition of an Egyptian serve to remind us that life must not be taken away lightly—even the life of our enemy. Perhaps even more so when it comes to the life of our enemy. This is not meant to suggest any definitive solution to the complicated ethical issues of capital punishment or prosecuting a just war or even killing in self defense. Rather, I interpret this excerpt less about what we do and more about how we do it.
The Egyptian enemies were not faceless; in some way, perhaps, then, we should strive to give all of our enemies faces. The Torah tells us, we must not even uproot a fruit tree —fruit trees whose lives we also celebrate this Friday night as we commemorate Tu B’Shvat. Using the principle of Kal V’Chomer (light and heavy), it would follow that the demand on us to preserve human life whenever possible is all that much stricter. And if it is not possible to preserve human life, (for example, in a just war) then it would seem that we must not glory in life’s destruction but rather minimize suffering and celebrate the lives granted to us by God.
We read about the last three of the ten plagues visited on Egypt in this Parsha. Why is the darkness the next-to-last plague? We are told that the plagues get worse as we go from one to ten. Wouldn’t you think that, after vermin and bloody water and locusts and boils (sh’chin), that a little darkness couldn’t have been so awful? Couldn’t they have just lit candles? Couldn’t the Egyptians simply sit tight until the plague ran its course? And this plague, unlike the others, doesn’t seem to cause any tangible harm.
I think we could think about this in a couple of ways. The first is that without light, everything around us becomes an obstacle. Anything, even vast riches, can trip up a person who walks in darkness. In other words, the very objects that might have helped us to improve our lives in the light become dangerous threats to us in the absence of illumination.
Another thought: light motivates us to action. Darkness breeds depression and passivity. Think about how happy we all are to add a minute or two of light to each of these days! When we are “in the light,” can raise our consciousness and move beyond our own immediate needs. During the Ninth Plague, the Egyptians were in a state of total spiritual darkness. They couldn’t even see their “brother,” meaning that they couldn’t care about anyone but themselves. And even candles couldn’t save them. The Israelites didn't suffer from the plague, because their light was provided for by Torah and mitzvot—As Proverbs tells us, "A mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light.” When we have the brightness of the Torah and its mitzvot, a whole new world comes to light. Obstacles are no longer obstacles; instead, they become God’s creations meant to assist us on our spiritual journey.
The ninth plague teaches us that it is in our hands to brighten our lives; we have all the tools we need to do so. And when we manage to live in light despite the darkness that surrounds us, we are able to see our brothers and sisters, to rise above our own immediate needs to become a community, a true people.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
We read in the Torah narrative of our oppression in Egypt, beginning with Pharaoh ordering all Jewish males to be murdered at birth. Due to the heroic actions of two women, Shifrah and Puah, the ruler’s diabolical plan was thwarted.
Commentaries abound about these women--they were Egyptian, they were Jewish, they were Moses’ mother and sister, but one thing is indisputable: their names. They were named for the actions they performed in childbirth. One (Shifrah) would smooth the baby’s limbs and the other (Puah) would coo gently to the newborn.
It is strange that these mundane activities would be the basis for their names. Rabbi Isaachar Frand suggests that their names might have more appropriately been G’oola and Hatzilah, Redemption and Saving. Instead of focusing on the huge and dangerous acts of kindnesses they were doing, their names tell of the small, comforting things they did.
A story is told in the Talmud of Rabbi Yossi who taught Torah under threat of death by the Romans. A colleague visited him and asked why he was risking his life when God had obviously allowed the Romans to hold sway. He replied that he felt it was his duty. Yossi then asked his friend if he thought he would merit the World-to-Come. His friend asked him what good things he had done in his life, to which Yossi replied, “I once had money for tzadakah that I put in my pocket with my own money. When I reached the synagogue, since I had mixed the monies together, I gave everything I had in my pocket to charity.” Yossi’s friend then told him that he certainly merited a place in Olam HaBah!
These examples show us that it is not the headline-grabbing actions that define us and earn us our Reward, but the small kindnesses we perform on a daily basis. How fortunate that all of us have daily opportunities to perform such acts.
May we all look for ways to show and act on our impulses of kindness--every day!
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, Exodus. We have seen the Torah describe the evolution of a family throughout the first book, Breishit, Genesis. This concept of family is a consistent theme and reaches greater heights with the evolution of a nation as described in Shemot. Each story in the narrative of Breishit tells of a younger son rising in prominence over his older sibling, usually with dismal results. The final narrative in Chumash Breishit is the one story of two brothers with better results. It does not result in any form of hatred or jealousy, and that is with Ephraim and Menashe. In our story now, in the beginning, it is not an issue either, as we see Moshe, the younger son, rise to prominence over his older brother, Aharon. Their relationship, in fact their partnership, demonstrates a true role model of a familial relationship that includes love and care. The final result is Geulah, Redemption. This Aleph and Mem partnership of Aharon and Moshe can also be seen in other stages of Redemption with Esther and Mordechai in the Purim story, and ultimately in the final Redemption, Eliyahu the Prophet and the Melech HaMashiach – Aleph and Mem.
In our Parsha this week, as a way of being introduced to Moses, we see three incidents from early in his career. He comes on the scene when an Egyptian taskmaster is beating a Jewish slave. Moshe intervenes and kills the Egyptian. In the second vignette, two Jews are fighting among themselves and Moshe intervenes. The third case is in Midian when Moshe comes upon a well and finds the shepherds contending with the daughters of Yitro. In each situation Moshe was an outsider. It is of interest that the three cases are Jew vs. non-Jew; a Jew vs. a Jew; and then non-Jew vs. non-Jew. These are three totally different types of situations, and in each case, Moshe did not hesitate to take action. He involved himself in order to right the wrongs he witnessed, and to create a sense of justice and morality. Although covered in short sentences, the Torah describes Moshe’s actions with terse, non-judgmental language. Despite the lack of fanfare in the Torah, what Moshe was doing was demonstrating tremendous character development. Moshe is then chosen by Hashem once he has proven himself worthy of the position that he is given.
As we read this Parsha this coming Shabbat, we are completing the first of the Five Books of the Torah. Jacob is pictured on his deathbed and he “blesses all his sons” who are gathered around him, he is primarily seeking to identify the future leader of the nation of Israel. Yosef is the current leader of the tribe. He is the Viceroy of Egypt and is sustaining the entire family economically, and proves himself to be a very successful leader. Yet he is not the leader of the future. The one major drawback to Yosef is that he was never able to develop a loving relationship with his brothers. Consequently he is disqualified from future leadership. Yehudah, on the other hand, is the clear leader of the tribal nation. The commentators all look at Yaakov’s words to indicate the leadership of the descendants of other tribes, as in the case of Shimshon being descended from Dan; Gideon is a descendant, as well as Yiftach and Yehoshua. These are all successful leaders in their time. Once the first leader emanates from the tribe of Yehudah, which was King David, then all future kings are supposed to be from the tribe of Yehudah. Yehudah earned this when he offered himself in Binyamin’s stead to the Viceroy of Egypt. He had displayed leadership qualities earlier but failed to rescue Yosef and was degraded in the eyes of the brothers at that time. Here he has now regained the respect and honor, and his position for the future is secured. Professor Nechama Leibowitz pointed out in one of her lectures that the Aramaic word
– Ivrim is now translated by the Targum, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, to be Yehudaim. Yehudim, as we see it in Hebrew, is derived from the tribe of Yehudah. Forever in the future the Jewish people are known as the descendants of Yehudah – a true mark of his leadership.
Rashi points out a Midrash that is noteworthy. He states that the Rabbis commented that once Yaakov died and was buried, the entire family returned to Egypt to live out the rest of their lives there. During their stay in the post-Yaakov period, Yosef never invited the brothers over for dinner ever again. During the time of Yaakov’s life there was brotherly love and a spirit of camaraderie displayed at all times. By pointing out the change after Yaakov’s death, our Sages were commenting that maybe time did not heal the old wounds. There was no total forgiveness offered by Yosef. The hatred subsided. There was no display of strife, but the embrace of love was lacking in the relationship among the brothers at this time. This is a very telling Midrash, one that does speak to normal, natural state of affairs. Once a close relationship ends, it is extremely difficult to mend the relationship and to put it back together again as it was earlier.
These Torah relationships can give us insight into the connections we have in our own lives today. Are there relationships that have gone sour? Is there a chance to improve them? Even if you feel there is little chance to salvage a relationship, perhaps we can take some solace in knowing that our Patriarchs also were challenged by the same things in their lives.
Yaakov began his journey to Egypt. While stopping at Be'er Sheva, God appears to him in a dream and proclaims, "I am the God of your father Yitzchak. Do not fear to go down to Egypt... I will go down with you into Egypt and will surely bring you back" (45:3-4). What fear is God referring to here? Moreover, why is He convincing Yaakov, who had already packed his bags and was well on his way, to go down to Egypt? Rashi asserts that Yaakov was afraid to leave the Land of Israel; his father, Yitzchak, had been instructed not to leave the land and he feared that this command applied to himself as well.
We may question, however, why Yaakov would be worried about this either. He was already at Be'er Sheva and did not seem worried about this problem. Furthermore, Yaakov had already lived outside Israel for twenty-two years in Lavan's house and he knew that his father's restrictions did not apply to him! The Netziv contends that although Yaakov was not afraid for himself, he feared that his children would assimilate into Egyptian culture and lose their unique identity. Thus, God declares "I will make them a great nation there" (45:3), proclaiming that, even in Egypt, Israel will always retain its special national character. Chizkuni states that Yaakov feared that he was entering the exile which God had foretold to Avraham. God, therefore, assured Yaakov that this exile was only the first part of His promise to Avraham. Yaakov's descendants would become a great nation and eventually return to their native land. God declares that it is in Egypt that Israel will find itself. God will himself go down with Yaakov and will bring his children out again.
The immediate and direct result of Yosef's accomplishment is recorded in this week's Parsha. After Yaakov discovered that his son Yosef was alive and well, the Torah states, "And the spirit of their father, Yaakov, was restored to life" (Bereishit 45,27). Rashi quotes Chazal who explains that Yaakov's spirit here refers to the return of Hashem's Divine Presence to Yaakov. Due to Yosef's absence from Yaakov's household Hashem's Divine Presence ceased to rest upon Yaakov. Now, after twenty-two long years the household of Yaakov was finally reunited and the Divine Presence of Hashem returned to Yaakov. Due to Yosef's absence from Yaakov's household Hashem's Divine Presence ceased to rest upon Yaakov. Now, after twenty-two long years, the household of Yaakov was finally reunited and the Divine Presence of Hashem returned to Yaakov.
This final result is indicative of the future experience of the Jewish people. They will also be divided for thousands of years and Yosef and the Ten Tribes will be lost from Israel. This division, as in the days of Yaakov, will force Hashem to remove His presence from amongst the remainder of Israel. But the time will eventually come for the Jewish people to reunite and the kingdom of Yosef and Yehuda will become one inseparable entity. In response to this miraculous development of unity Hashem will return His Divine Presence to the Jewish people and the spirit of Israel will be revived forever.
This is an appropriate lesson for these times of so much diversity among us. We pray not only for unification but also for respect for each other’s difference.
Yosef named his first-born Menasheh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” The narrative then resumes telling of the end of the years of plenty and the beginning of the famine; and of the apparently instant starvation that overtakes the population, so that they have to appeal to Pharaoh–and, at his behest, to Yosef–for food. Interrupting the flow of this narrative is the description of the birth and naming of Yosef's sons, "before years of famine came." Both names are fraught with paradox. Menasheh is named for forgetfulness. Yosef seems to celebrate the oblivion, not only of his suffering, but of "all my father's house" that God has granted him. The Midrashic tradition indicates that he is referring specifically to his spiritual heritage (his "Torah learning"): he names his first-born son for the alienation that he experiences from his native culture, from "the best that has been thought and known." Commentators state that Yosef is acknowledging the mercy in oblivion: he is grateful not to be haunted by memory. The dangers of obsession with the past are very real for Yosef; they have the power to cripple him in the essential task he has undertaken. Not only the evils of the past but its loves, its beauty, and its sweetness – all have become perilous to one whose business is sheer survival. Yosef's task, quite simply, is to ensure–in the phrase that is used more than once to express the overriding value of survival–"that we may live and not die" (43:8,47:19). Nostalgia, yearning for the "sweetness and light" of his own culture, might hamper him in his single-minded role as life-sustainer for many nations.
Don’t we all, especially during these days that we wish to soon be over, long for the return of a previous chapter of our lives? Is nostalgia a positive or a negative emotion?
It can evoke an almost physical response, a strong desire to have things as we once had them. Certainly, after the loss of a loved one, we pine for the days when we had them in our lives. This Torah portion gives us a glimpse into the mind of our forefather Joseph, as he grapples with fame and new circumstances. Even though he was in a position of great power, perhaps he longed for the time when he had no responsibilities? Maybe he longed for the easier days in prison! When does nostalgia, sometimes defined as a feeling of homesickness, overtake you? Know that you’re not alone, that even the Torah sustains your feelings.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman