Over the last few years, it has become a habit of mine to leave my phone on silent mode. I am sure (I am hoping!) that many of you can relate to this. I am often in meetings or other spaces where I do not want my ringer to go off. And even when I am at home or in the office, I still usually keep my phone in silent mode. Of course, when my wife wants to get a hold of me, this is not a good system to have. “You never pick up when I call!” There are so many sounds and notifications on my phone, it gives me anxiety to be hearing all of them all of the time, so I usually prefer to silence the noise and operate on my own timeline.
This week we begin reading the book of Leviticus/VaYikra/ויקרא. The opening Midrash on the Parsha (Lev. Rab. 1:1) begins to teach us the meaning of the Torah reading by use of a verse. “Rabbi Tanchum Bar Chanilai opened (Ps. 103:20), “'Bless the Lord, His messengers (malachav), powerful ones who fulfill His word, obedient to His spoken word.'/בָּרְכוּ ה’ מַלְאָכָיו, גִּבֹּרֵי כֹחַ, עֹשֵׂי דְבָרוֹ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל דְּבָרוֹ.” The Midrash concludes that this verse, when it mentions messengers or angels (malachav), is actually referring to human beings*.
The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, Poland 1847-1905) teaches that every single one of us has been sent (nishtalah/נשתלח) into this world to do the will of our Father in Heaven. There we are called messengers (shaliah/שליח) and angels (malach/מלאך). He goes on to teach that there is potential holiness in every act and everything, if we can only be attuned to it. When a person keeps him/herself ready and aware during every action that there is nothing that exists devoid of God’s will; when a person realizes that there is a mission to raise up holiness in everything that we do, that is when we are truly called “angels/malach/מלאך”. This is the meaning of “fulfill His word/osei devaro/עושי דברו”--that we actually merit to complete that which is spoken (she’oseen diduro/שעושען דיבורו) in every thing that we do. And this is the meaning of “powerful ones/giborei koah/גיבורי כח”--that we, the angels, grab onto the potential (koah/כח)** divinity in all things and make it a reality. So when our Parsha, Parshat VaYikra, begins with “And God called to Moses, etc./ויקרא אל משה” (Lev. 1:1), it teaches us that Moses was constantly ready to hear the sound of the call like an angel or messenger who is constantly engaged in service as if there was nothing else going on in the world.
Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him/משה רבינו עליו השלום, is our role model. This week, let us try extra hard to access his qualities. Let us try and turn on the ringers of our spiritual phones. If we prepare ourselves to be ready to do the right thing, then when we get the call, we will hear it and pick up immediately.
*The Midrash cites the next verse (Ps. 103:21) “Bless the Lord, all His messengers...” to teach this point. Messengers means humans, while “all messengers” refers also to heavenly angels. The lack of the word “all” limits our verse to only humans.
**Here the Sfas Emes is using a pun. Koah/כח literally means “power” or “strength”. However, he also uses it in the sense of “potential”. For him, there is potential (koach/כח) holiness in all things that can be brought into reality (po’al/פועל). For example, there is potential (koach/כח) holiness in the act of eating food. And when one makes a blessing/bracha/ברכה on the food and the act of eating, s/he is changing the potential (koach/כח) into reality (po’al/פועל) and bringing the holiness out of its core and up to the surface.
About twelve years ago, there was a reboot of the Batman movie series. Batman Begins tells the origin story of the superhero who was born as Bruce Wayne. He grew up as a child in his parents’ home with their guidance, preparing to one day carry the family mantle. However while still a child, he witnesses the tragic murder of his parents. After this, Bruce is filled with anger and a thirst for revenge. As he grows older, he travels the world, and loses who he once was. Bruce becomes involved in some shady activities and only once he realizes how lost he has become, does he find a way to get back home, and eventually become the hero we all know as Batman.
After we read this week’s double Parsha of VaYakhel Pekudei, we will read a special Maftir for Shabbat HaHodesh (Ex. 12:1-20). The second verse of this portion reads, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you/הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים, רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה” (Ex. 12:2). This maftir retells what is classically understood to be the first mitzvah (the mitzvah of sanctifying time) given to us as a nation, just before we are redeemed and leave Egypt behind us.
The Gemara (BT Shabbat 147b) tells a story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh who traveled to a region which had splendid wine and glorious waters. Rabbi Elazar got sucked into the physical world that surrounded him. Who could blame him? Great wine and a good schvitz! But when he got pulled into those pleasures, his Torah learning went with him, and he forgot what he had learned during all his years in yeshiva. When Rabbi Elazar came back from his vacation, he got up to read from the Torah and he was supposed to read “ha’hodesh hazeh lachem/הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם/This month shall mark for you” (Ex. 12:2), but instead, since he had forgotten everything, it came out, “haheresh hayah libam/החרש היה לבם/Have their hearts become deaf?” Immediately the Sages prayed for him. God had mercy upon him and returned Torah back to Rabbi Elazar.
The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, Poland 1847-1905) teaches that all renewal takes place when and where holiness was previously hidden. He reads the story of Rabbi Elazar to say that first hearts were deaf, and only then could they receive the mitzvah of HaHodesh. That is why we go down into Egypt in the first place. We go down into a dark place where we cannot see the light of Torah, so that we can be renewed and shown the light of redemption. We read this maftir as (hopefully!) the winter is ending, with Rosh Hodesh Nissan coming up next week and Pesah/Passover coming just around the corner. The cold and darkness we have endured leads to the redemptive light of spring that comes with Nissan and Pesah.
We live busy lives with real and immediate needs. It is easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily routines and to become servants to our smartphones and ever intruding technology. As we are pulled down into a world of mundane tasks and fleeting desires, try to look up and see the light that God is giving us. As Alfred says (played by Michael Cain in Batman Begins), “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Like many young children, I watched my childhood heroes through innocent eyes. I watched a lot of sports growing up, and I became attached to certain athletes. These were the coolest people on earth! And I wished I could be just like them. As Chicagoans, we all wanted to “Be Like Mike” (Michael Jordan). It was only after growing up a bit that many of us learned more and more about the real people behind the heroes that we placed on pedestals. Once I learned about Michael Jordan’s personal life and his many human flaws, I could never go back to seeing him the same way.
This week, we read Parshat Ki Tissa and Parshat Parah. Ki Tissa tells the story of our gravest national sin: The Sin of the Golden Calf/het ha’egel/חטא העגל. And we add a special maftir (Num. 19:1-22), which describes the laws of the red heifer/parah aduma/פרה אדומה and how we can use it to purify ourselves of impurity. The Sfas Emes asks the question, why do we read Parshat Parah on Shabbat? He explains that seemingly, Shabbat helps this type of purification. In a midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 14), God tells Moses that unto Moses will the reasons/ta’amei/טעמי for the Parah be revealed, and to others, they will just be given the rule. Why does Moses get to see beyond the rule? Why is he given the secret information? The Sfas Emes teaches that there is a reason/ta’am/טעם for the Parah, but one who has tasted the taste of sin (she’ta’am ta’am het/שטעם טעם חטא) cannot grasp this taste/ta’am/טעם.* And the Parah is supposed to be a remedy for the sin. This is why Moses can know the reasons for Parah. He was not part of the sin. He was up on the mountain. And on Shabbat, we have a tradition that Moses returns to us the crowns that we received when we received the first tablets (for preceding action to understanding/שהקדימו נעשה לנשמה). Shabbat returns us to a state of innocence that allows us to see the world and understand it the way we once did. And on Shabbat, we can understand reasons for mitzvot, we can understand true aspects of reality that we don’t get during the week. Just look around the Shabbat table, the faces you see have a different look on them than during the rest of the week.
I believe this idea can work for us. For example, after eating something spicy, it is near impossible to taste something sweet without some kind of palate cleanser. Shabbat Parah is our palate cleanser. It gives us the opportunity to achieve, as Paul Ricoeur coined, a second naïveté. This Shabbat, try to allow yourself to go back to that time before you became jaded. Hear the parsha and see the world the way it once was. This Shabbat, we are given an opportunity; we are given a “do over”. Grab onto it and see what is possible.
*The word ta’am/טעם means both taste and reason. I believe The Sfas Emes to be playing with this word here.
Over the past weeks and months, the Jewish community here in America has been threatened, and places of worship and burial have been vandalized. We have been made to fear for the safety of our property and our businesses. Threats to our community centers, schools and individuals have made us fear for our lives and the lives of our friends and family. I remember when my high school received bomb threats years ago and we had to evacuate the building. I remember thinking that it must be a prank to get out of a test or something. This has to be some kind of joke. Today, the threat we are facing is certainly not a joke.
This week, we read from Parshat Tetzaveh and we also read a special Maftir called Parshat Zachor (Deut. 25:17-19--this is where we are commanded to remember the evil that the nation of Amalek brought upon us and to wipe their memory from the earth). The opening line of the Parsha reads “You shall command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly/וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד (Ex. 27:20).” When this word command/tzav/צו comes up later in the Torah (Lev. 6:2), Rashi brings the midrash from the Sifra that teaches that this word, tzav/צו, always alludes to urgency.
The Sfas Emes teaches that every action that we do with urgency has permanency. This is the meaning of “you shall command/ואתה תצוה”, that the attribute of urgency should be brought into the hearts of the People of Israel. He further teaches that a constant inclination towards urgent action brings a person to piety. Amalek tried to take away our sense of urgency, as it is written “The Israelites urgently went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle/וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם מזרזין (Tar. Onkelos Ex. 13:18).” But, before we could get to where we wanted to go, we were terrorized. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God/זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם. אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִים (Deut: 25:17-18).” The quality of memory, states the Sfas Emes, is that it gets powerfully rooted inside a person at the core of their being, in a place where there is no forgetting. We remember Amalek on Shabbat because they are the two poles from which memory drives our lives. We remember Shabbat (זכור את יום השבת) and that gives us a positive vision of what the word can be. It gives us the tools to deal properly with the memory of Amalek.
Recently there have been calls to remain quiet about the hatred that has been directed at our people. There is a fear that if exposed, evil will gain strength and momentum. I challenge us to reconsider this position as a community. Our people’s urgent strides towards Torah and justice have been at the forefront of communal, national and global progress. Evil will not go away on its own. This Shabbat and moving forward, it is upon us to grab onto the torch of Torah and shine our light on the darkness. That is the only way to erase the memory of Amalek, and pave the way for a bright future.
The day before I got married I was sitting in shul, the shul outside of Chicago that my in-laws belong to, and I was sitting with some friends and family going about my normal Shabbat business: a mixture of davening and schmoozing. Since we had celebrated our Auf Ruf a couple of weeks earlier, this was supposed to be a low key Shabbat for me. There was a Bar or Bat Mitzvah that day and I was looking forward to just being a regular Jew in the pew. However, that all took a strange turn when the rabbi got up to speak towards the end of services. He announced that Laura and I were getting married the next day, and that we would be moving to Boston the following week. And then he found me in the crowd, locked eyes with me and said sternly, “just so you know, we all know how to get to Boston!”
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Terumah, God instructs us to “make Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among them/וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.” (Ex. 25:8). A Midrash on this verse teaches (Ex. Rabbah 33:1) that when God made the deal with us to sell us Torah, the deal did not just include the item, but the seller as well. This is like a King who has a daughter and she gets married to a prince from a different region. The King does not want to be completely separated from his daughter, so he tells his new son-in-law, “every place you go, you have to have a room for me so that I can live (adur/אדור) with you.” And this is just what God said to Israel, “I gave you Torah, but I cannot part from it, so, everyplace you go, make me a house so I can dwell (adur/אדור) in it, as it says “make Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among them/וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.” Our Sages of blessed memory/Hazal/חז”ל explain what may seem obvious. When we leave home, the Divine rests in our mini sanctuaries, in our synagogues (BT Megillah 29a).
The Rabbis have taught us, one who enters into [the month of] Adar/אדר increases in joy (BT Ta’anit 29a). We just celebrated Rosh Hodesh Adar earlier this week. Why are we supposed to be happy? The Chernobyler Rebbe explains that it is hidden in the name of the month. He says it is hinted that in this month (Adar/אדר) the Aleph dwells (aleph dar/א’ דר). Aleph stands for Alufo Shel Olam (Champion of the World=God, not the Pats!). And this month reminds us that God comes down to live with us in our world.
There is a lot to learn from entering this new month and reading this week’s Parsha. At the very least I learned that we need to keep our second bedroom open--Mom and Dad, you are always welcome! And, as we continue to work on ourselves as individuals and as a community, let us remember what we are building. We are building a space suitable for God. Wherever we go, wherever history takes us, we must continue to build spaces that are inviting so that God can come down and spend time with us.That is what brings us joy in this upcoming month of celebration and silliness.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.