The Parsha begins with the special laws governing the personal life of a Kohen and the Kohen Gadol. The priests were restricted in terms of whom they were permitted to marry and with which relatives they were permitted to contaminate themselves in the time of the death of the relative. It would seem that the Kohen was not permitted to fully devote himself to the mourning of a relative because of his larger role as a spiritual role model in a life of purity.
The other subject that is featured in this Parsha is the biblical description of all the national holidays. The overwhelming theme to festivals is one of rejoicing in the presence of the Almighty. The juxtaposition of the law of the Kohen in mourning and the nation in joy is echoed in the halachic practice that governs all of us when a family is confronted with the death of a loved one right before the national simcha of one of the holidays. The holiday takes precedence. The Jewish family is required to curtail its mourning in order to join the universal celebration of the Yom Tov. This is essentially the same situation for the Kohen, and especially for the Kohen Gadol. His dedication to the national spirit of ritual service to the Almighty supersedes his ability to grieve for a loved one.
The Torah commands us to sanctify Hashem’s name among the children of Israel (22:32), which is the biblical mandate for each Jew to ultimately sacrifice himself if required, even to submit to martyrdom in his devotion to Hashem. There have been stories of great Jewish leaders who understood this concept, as in the story of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom at the hands of the Romans in the 2nd century, C.E. In the final moments of his life, the Talmud records to us, and the Martyrology reminds us on Yom Kippur, that Rabbi Akiva was joyous in the thought that he was now able to fulfill this mitzvah in the ultimate performance of submission to God’s will. We look at those stories as being ancient history. Unfortunately, the 20th century brought similar stories. It is recorded that when the Nazis were taking Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman to his death in Tammuz 1941, Rav Wasserman engaged the Jews around him to encourage them that they were at that moment the most complete righteous Jews in the world. They were chosen to atone for the sins of all of Israel with their ultimate sacrifice. He motivated them to repent thoroughly in their hearts and minds because they were to become sacrifices on God’s altar. At that moment they were about to fulfill one of the greatest and most difficult mitzvot in the Torah. He quoted for them the special prayer of Minchah on Tisha B’Av where it is recorded that Hashem brings about the fire that now destroys but in the future will be used to build the House of Israel anew for all eternity. Martyrdom is not just for our ancient ancestors, but unfortunately was required of recent ancestors as well.
We count each precious from the second day of Pesach for forty-nine days, until the festival of Shavuot. This is known as the Counting of the Omer. Interpretations abound as the reasoning behind this Mitzvah, but I’d like to focus on a wonderful Kabbalistic tradition surrounding this marking of each night, the eve of each day, each unit of the Omer.
The Kabbalists see this period of seven weeks as an opportunity to prepare for Shavuot, the Chag in which we rejoice in the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. It is seen as a penitential period as well as a time for the uplifting of consciousness to make ourselves ready to accept the Revelation.
The forty-nine days form a multiplication of seven times the seven Sefirot. Sefirot are defined as the aspects of both Divine and human personalities and are:
~Gevurah (power, judgment, including anger)
~Yesod (the foundation, including sexual energy)
~Malchut (kingship, authority)
Each of these attributes contains all seven within itself, sort a wheel within a wheel. Making a total of forty-nine inner aspects of the Divine/human self. On each night of counting, we seek to restore or elevate within ourselves the combination of sefirot that belong to that day. For example, the first day is assigned the Chesed/Chesed combination. On that first day, we should try to summon up the love within the love, the purest, most selfless love we can find within our souls. On the second day, we focus on the Gevurah within the Chesed, the judgment or anger within our love. This progression is applied throughout the Omer period.
In this way, Counting of the Omer is not just a liturgical exercise but a meditative and morally restorative exercise, purging the self and preparing it to stand again at Sinai. We consider Shavuot to be a recreation of the receiving of Torah, and that all Jewish souls were there for that momentous occasion.
This Shabbat we reach the end of the second book of the five of the Torah. Pekudai marks the end of Shmot. It recounts the actual execution of the blueprints of the Mishkan, the movable sanctuary of the Wilderness.
We are told that the construction of the Mishkan served to atone for the great sin of the Golden Calf. The people of Israel were called upon by God, through Moses, to contribute materials to be fashioned into objects of wondrous beauty. One of the holy vessels placed in the Tabernacle was the washbasin of copper. It was used by the priests upon entrance into the Sanctuary, when they left the rather mundane environment of the camp to occupy themselves totally with sacred service. Thus, it served as a bridge between the secular and the holy.
Who contributed the materials for this particular holy thing? The Torah tells us that the women who assembled at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting donated their mirrors for its fashioning. What was the history of these mirrors? We look to the Midrash to provide illumination.
Rashi, the pre-eminent medieval Torah commentator, quotes Midrash Shir HaShirim: He tells us that during the worst times of Egyptian bondage, all of the men, the slaves, gave in to despair. They withdrew from their wives, thinking, “What is the point of bringing children into this existence?” But the women refused to give up. They had faith that this period of enslavement would end, that the Jewish people would be redeemed and that a future of freedom and opportunity awaited their children.
And so, the women beautified themselves in front of the mirrors and went to greet their husbands as they trudged back from their labors. The Midrash tells us that they would hold up the mirrors to reflect themselves and their men, and would say, “See how much prettier I am than you!” The men would be drawn back to their wives and, against all odds, they continued the generations.
This story of faith reminds me of a story from my family’s lore. When my grandmother and mother received a telegram that my uncle had been shot down over Germany in 1944, my grandmother told my mother, “He will come back to us. And there will not be a hair missing from his head!” This emunah was rewarded and my Uncle Mutt, even into his 90’s, had an enviable head of hair.
Moshe did not want to accept the mirrors for the construction of the laver. He thought that they represented vanity and such things had no place in sacred space. God, however, because of their role in Jewish survival, over-ruled him, saying, “These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else. Use them to make the washing-stand of the Mishkan.”
When the Mishkan was finished, the men were once again overcome by depression. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, there was no need for the Mishkan. God’s Divine Presence dwelt among the people. But the fall from grace caused the Shechinah to leave the people. From then on, the camp was divided – the camp of the Shechinah which was the Mishkan, the camp of the Levites and the camp of the Israelites.
The men had thought that while the construction was ongoing, there might be a reprieve from this situation. Now that it was completed and the permanence of the punishment for the Golden Calf became evident, they fell into despair. It was again the women who saved the day. They said, “Now is not the time to despair. Now is the time to look to the future and embrace the holiness of the Mishkan enthusiastically.”
In Egypt, the women’s faith saved K’lal Yisrael from physical extinction. In the Wilderness, their hope saved the people from spiritual death.
For these great acts, the women of Israel were rewarded with a special status regarding Rosh Chodesh. This is especially significant on Shabbat HaChodesh, as we announce the New Moon of Nissan. We will be having a special women-led Shabbat service on Friday, April 1st. If you haven’t yet been contacted to take part in this service, please call Karen Augenstern or me. The monthly festival of the New Moon celebrates the concepts of renewal and rebirth. The moon is continually waxing and waning, and, even in its darkest phase, we know it will regain its full measure of light and beauty. Because of the women’s faith in just these ideas, they are aligned with Rosh Chodesh and told not to labor on these days. Also, as my mother would tell my father, every woman is owed a new dress every Rosh Chodesh!
So, just as the laver in the Mishkan was able to elevate the Kohen from the mundane to the sacred, the women of Israel were able to raise the relations of man to wife from the physical realm to that of the spiritual.
May we strive to transform the everyday into opportunities for holiness and expressions of faith.
Strangely, my dvar begins and ends with two parables that involve crying men.
Here’s the first: There’s a story that the Chafetz Chaim was visiting a Jewish village. There he was greeted by the local dignitaries, who proudly told him that they actually had in their town a Society for the Keeping of the Sabbath. We are told that when the Chafetz Chaim heard this news, he burst into tears. “If you need a Society to keep the Sabbath,” he told them, “I have a feeling that you probably don’t do so.”
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, we read of the building of the Temple, of the creation of the golden calf, and of the tablets that Moshe destroys in anger. In the midst of all this drama, we also see God’s insistence of the importance of Shabbat. “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” And Moshe is instructed that even the building of the Holy Temple must cease on Shabbat.
Years ago, I attended a lecture that Rabbi Harold Kushner gave about the three world-changing contributions that the Jews gave to humanity. I don’t know what you might think they are, and we could certainly debate some of these points. But, for Kushner, they are: DIETARY RULES (kashrut); MONOTHEISM; and Shabbat, the holiness of a day of rest. A day that separates the mundane work week from the spiritual day that defines us as a people. There is something revolutionary about demanding a day of rest. However hard life must have been, however much the demands of the world call out to us, we are enjoined to observe/to keep the Sabbath. As God tells Moshe, it “shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.”
And here’s the second story: The rabbis tell the story of a man who was disenchanted with Judaism. He had discovered another religion, a religion that appealed to him so much that he decided to leave Judaism and convert out. His rabbi came to see him, and pleaded with him not to abandon the religion of his family, of his birth. The rabbi told him about the joys of the Torah, about being God’s “chosen people.” The rabbi reminded him of the excitement of his bar mitzvah a few years before. But nothing moved the young man. The rabbi even told him that he would go to hell if he adopted another religion. Again, the young man was not persuaded. After hours of this, the rabbi left, giving up in disgust.
A day or so later, a friend visited the man. They were reminiscing about their childhoods, and they began to remember their experiences of Shabbat. They talked about the food they loved, the prayers they chanted, the aromas that they savored as they entered their homes. They reminisced about the songs that they would sing on Shabbat, and they began to sing some of those prayers. The young man began to cry. His memories of Shabbat made him remember that he was a Jew, and how vital that was to his sense of his own identity. He did not abandon his Judaism.
I don’t know if that story is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. I am sure that we all have different Shabbat rituals, and I would guess that we can’t always commit as fully as we might like to Shabbat observance. Some people, for example, have no choice but to work on Shabbat. And I have NO DOUBT that we all reject the mandate that God gives Moshe in Ki Tissa that we should be killed if we violate Shabbat.
Even with all that, though, I do think that we all know—or, better, we all FEEL—the intense significance of this weekly day of rest. Of Shabbat. This was indeed a gift that the Jews gave to civilization, and it is a gift—a blessing—that we give to ourselves.
There is an unusual feature to the portion of this week, Tetzaveh. Moshe’s name is not mentioned at all. One explanation is that after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleads to God, “Now, if you would, please forgive their sin. If not, You can blot me out from the book that you have written.” You may ask, why is this episode being invoked when we haven’t even read about it yet? (It is read in Ki Tissa, next week.) This teaches us that the narrative of the Torah is not always in chronological order.
But, back to the absence of Moshe’s name in the Parsha. We can surmise that even though God forgave the people based on Moshe’s prayer, still his words were fulfilled and his name erased from one portion of the Torah. It seems that the words of a Tzaddik are powerful and not easily retracted. Another reason given is that Moshe’s Yahrtzeit, 7 Adar, falls this week, and the absence of his name is an appropriate symbol of his passing.
Chassidic sources ask us. “What’s in a name? Who needs a name? Does a person require a name of herself or himself?” They answer, perhaps we don’t really need a name. After all, we each know who we are. So, a name is for others to call us, address us. It’s only an external device, not relevant to someone’s inner worth or identity. The essence of every person is beyond any name or title.
So, why is Moshe’s name omitted? Because he asked for it? Because he spoke with chutzpah before God?
One response is that it should not be looked at as a punishment. Maybe it was Moshe’s finest hour. Since he put his name, his very identity on the line on behalf of his people, showing total commitment to his flock, his actions may have pleased God like nothing else he had ever done.
So, we can look at the Moshe-less Parsha as an ultimate compliment to Moshe. God does address him, but not by name. God speaks to him, Atah, You. God is speaking to Moshe directly in the second person singular. No one else has ever achieved such a closeness with God, an attribute cited later in the Torah, right before Moshe’s passing.
So, Moshe’s name may be absent, but his essence is front and center in Parshat Tetzavah.
This week’s parsha is Terumah. It tells of God’s mandate to the Jews to build the Mishkan, a temporary, movable sanctuary, a Tabernacle, to be used as B’nai Yisrael travels through the wilderness. God wanted a place that would be the focus of his Shechina, the holy Presence. The portion reads almost as a blueprint for construction, including precise measurements and calls for donation of specific materials to create this sacred space. In some cases, the materials used are no longer available today or even decipherable. Our challenge is to glean a spiritual, contemporary lesson from these rather dry, archaic instructions.
Terumah follows on the heels of Mishpatim, the Heaven’s civil code of behavior. What connection can we draw between those laws of monetary integrity and this week’s mandate to build a Mishkan?
Perhaps the Torah is telling us that any tzedakah we give must be from monies and goods we have acquired by dealing honestly in business. What we give must rightfully be ours before we donate it to a holy cause. I’m reminded of a large donation given to the Jewish Theological Seminary by a person later convicted of engaging in arbitrage violations. These monies were summarily returned by the Seminary, as well they should have been.
This concept of justice in the giving of tzedakah is buttressed by the prophet Isaiah who prefaces his call for charitable deeds with an admonition about justice. He states, “So said God, ‘Safeguard justice and do charity’”. First justice, then charity. Elsewhere he declares, “And justice lagged behind, and charity remained standing from afar.” Once again, we see this connection. When justice is not pursued, charity is not possible.
The rabbis tell us that the Mishkan served to atone for the great sin of the construction of the Golden Calf. You may say, we haven’t even read about this sorry event, but this out-of-orderness is a prime example of the rule, Ayne Mookdahm Oo’m’oochar BaTorah, that is, that there is no linear chronology in the Torah. The Golden Calf had happened already, and God is giving the Jews a means of repentance by calling for the construction of the Mishkan.
The actual finished products of the Tabernacle, including the Aron (the Ark), the Mizbayach (Incense Altar), and the Shulchan (the Table), were all examples of Hiddur Mitzvah, of doing mitzvot in the most beautiful way and with the most beautiful objects.
Let me share with you some of the beautiful details the Torah gives us.
The Aron, for example, was built from acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold, and with a golden rim around its border. It consisted of three chests. The innermost was gold. It fitted into a slightly larger chest made of the wood, sort of like Russian babas. The second box fit into the largest outer chest of gold. In this way, the wooden box was complemented from within and without by gold, as HaShem commanded.
We are told that the Ark, the beautiful vessel for housing of the luchot haBrit, the engraved stones of the Covenant, was built before the Mishkan itself-so important was it. Commentaries suggest that the aron represents the Torah. Just as Torah , according to Midrash, preceded the Creation of the world, so did God command that the aron be fashioned before the rest of the Mishkan.
Continuing the metaphor of the aron to the Torah, we see that gold is used because Torah is likened to gold. The middle, wooden chest corresponds to the description we use for Torah when we lovingly replace it in our aronim, our Arks, that of Atz Chaim, a Tree of Life.
The ark, the altar and the table were all made of acacia wood. As we said, the Hebrew word for this wood is Shittim. Rabbeina Bachya, a medieval commentator on the Torah, tells us that this word forms an acronym for the words, Shalom, Tovah, Yeshuah, and Mechilah-PEACE, GOODNESS, SALVATION and FORGIVENESS. These four wonderful blessings were the gifts the Jews enjoyed through the use of these holy furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan, and later, the Holy Temple.
According to some, the three holy objects represent the three crowns conferred upon the Jews by God:
• The Crown of Torah, represented by the aron
• The Crown of Kehuna, of priesthood, represented by the altar for incense
• And the Crown of Malchut, monarchy, represented by the table for the Showbread
In seeking to understand these three crowns, we might be inclined to see them as equal in merit. Or, we might think that the crown of Malchut, as representative of Kingship, is the highest. But both Malchut and Kehuna result from accidents of birth and thereby exclude many people. For this reason, it seems to me that the Crown of Torah ranks above the other two. The opportunity to become a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar, is accessible to everyone. As proof texts for this statement, we see that the commandments concerning the Mizbayach, the altar and the shulchan, the table are in the singular, “and you shall make them,” since access to Kehuna and royalty is restricted. But the sentence about the Aron reads, “and THEY shall make it”, showing that God wants the entire nation to aspire to be Torah scholars.
What about our times, when we no longer have these furnishings and vessels? How can we continue to receive these gifts?
The same Rabbeinu Bachya answers us by citing a passage from the Talmud, “Now that the Beis HaMikdash is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through his, or her, own table.” Which table atones for us and brings us blessings now that we don’t have the Holy Temple? Our own dining room table! If we feed the poor, welcome the traveler and host guests at our table, then any table becomes our own personal altar of atonement.
Rabbeinu Bachya concludes on this awesome note, “There is a custom among the pious people of France to construct their coffins from wood taken from their dining-room tables.” We can just see the imagery. The people who have known the departed, who have sat and shared his table, come to his funeral and see him buried in a coffin that looks exactly like his dining room table!
The message is clear. A person takes nothing from this world to the next world, Olam HaBah, except for the Torah learned and the mitzvot performed, the tzedaka given and the goodness shared with others around the dining room table.
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 continues 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 also includes 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.
What follows is a series of miscellaneous laws dealing with the perversion of justice, the taking of bribes, the oppression of strangers. Then, the Torah shifts to laws regulating the agricultural economy. Fields are to be worked for six years and allowed to rest during the seventh so that the poor and even the wildlife will be able to enjoy the land. Similarly, one must abstain from all manner of creative work on Shabbat.
An outline of the religious calendar is given beginning with Pesach in the spring. The calendar is followed by four laws that regulate ritual and ceremonial aspects of these holidays -- the prohibition of slaughtering the paschal lamb on the fourteenth of Nisan while the participant has not yet discarded all leaven products, the requirement that the fatty portions of the paschal sacrifice, those that attach to the stomach and intestines, be burnt before dawn, the requirement to bring the choicest of first fruits to the sanctuary on Shavuot; and the prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother's milk. So begins the need for two sets of dishes, OY!
Mishpatim gives us a blueprint for a just, humane and compassionate society and represents laws that are still relevant in our lives every day.
There are many ways to interpret Torah, as we’ve discussed in various contexts. One is the obvious one—the interpretation focuses on what is or what seems to be the literal message of the passage. That’s called pshat. And there are other ways, too. There is also gematria, where we count words or passages based on assigning a number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When we know what the number is, we can often draw connections to other ideas or mitzvot in the Torah.
But here I want to focus on another method of interpretation—a technique called gezera shava. In gezera shava, we look at how often a phrase or a word appears in the Torah; if a phrase or a word occurs only once in the entire Torah, for example, that may mean that there’s something significant about the phrase or word. And if a word or a phrase appears frequently, it doesn’t seem to have as much interpretive weight. And if identical phrases, or sentences, or terms appear INFREQUENTLY, we look for what meaning they might share.
This week’s parsha, parshat Yitro, which we read in its entirety, contains a phrase that has appeared in the Torah before, making it a gezera shava. Moshe’s father-in-law advises him to delegate some of the work he’s been doing. Yitro points out that Moshe is the only person the Israelites rely on, and that dependence is ultimately going to exhaust Moshe. It’s good advice, something that all of us can learn from. That we can’t do it all. But when Yitro observes Moshe, he is quick to pronounce judgment. According to Yitro, the situation is not good. Simple words, in both Hebrew and English. Lo Tov. Not good. And Moshe, wise man that he was, knows that he’s got to change his approach to ruling. So, what about that phrase lo tov? It’s so simple that you might think that it appears repeatedly in the Torah. Yet it does not. In fact, that phrase appears only one other time in the entire Torah. You may be able to figure out where is its earlier occurrence.
Well, the answer is that lo tov appears in Breishit—when God sees that Adam is alone, God declares that that situation is lo tov, not good. So this is a perfect opportunity for gezera shava. And then the question becomes: What might these two examples share? What can we learn from bringing them together?
We might notice that, in the first case, God the father is pronouncing judgment; in the second case, Yitro the father-in-law is pronouncing judgment. But I think we can also go beyond that. God makes clear that it is not good for a person to be alone. And he creates Chava, Eve. Here God is making a statement about the value of family, about the value of intimate partnerships, of love. A partner can provide balance, can help one to shift perspective, can pick you up when you’re down. When Yitro exclaims lo tov, he is declaring that it is not good for rulers to rule alone, for rulers to be alone. That every ruler needs partners, people with whom she or he can share not only the responsibility but also the weight of leadership. Yitro makes clear that justice cannot be the sole province of one person, even someone as wise as his son-in-law Moshe.
So here in these two lo tovs we see the mirroring of family and community, of the personal and of the political, of the private and the public. It is not good to be alone, not good for a society, a community, and not good for the individual. And we know that, for Judaism, the line between family and community is never absolutely delineated. Never clear-cut. Here gezera shava teaches us that it is not good to be alone, and that we are never alone as long as we have each other.
This week’s parsha is full of some of the most memorable scenes in the Torah. We know that the Israelites have now escaped from Egypt, and we see the Egyptians who chase after them destroyed in the Yam Suf. The song we hear celebrates not the death of the Egyptians OR the splitting of the sea, but rather the Israelites’ faith in God AFTER the sea splits.
These miracles are followed by yet another miracle, one that we are quite familiar with: the miracle of the manna. The passage that describes this miracle is somewhat ambiguous. Here’s what it says:
What is ambiguous about this section? It seems clear that God is going to provide food for the Israelite AND that the people must harvest that food on a daily basis. That part is pretty clear. But the ambiguity is in the last part of the sentence: WHAT, exactly, is the test that God is providing to the Israelites?
Think for a moment about what YOU think that test might be.
Our Eytz Hayyim offers a number of possible interpretations of God’s statement. The ABOVE-THE-LINE commentary tells us that there are two interpretations of what the test might be. The first possible test is the very fact that we have to treat the manna a certain way—that is, that we have to gather it each day and not store it, for example. That we have to gather only as much as we need—no more and no less. That interpretation seems to be the most literal understanding of God’s statement “TO SEE WHETHER THEY WILL FOLLOW MY INSTRUCTIONS OR NOT.” And, as we just read, we know that the Israelites fail this test, with some taking more than they need and some taking less. That’s not surprising, given that they had never experienced such a miracle before. The second possible interpretation, according to our Chumash, is that God is deliberately letting the Israelites suffer their hunger so that they can recognize their dependence on Him for sustenance and survival. God’s provision of the manna makes clear that they cannot survive without Him.
These interpretations each have their defenders.
Yet, BELOW THE LINE, which we know is written by HAROLD KUSHNER, we read two or maybe even THREE OTHER possible interpretations. Rabbi Kushner doesn’t tell us which he favors, but he does mention that some scholars think that the test lies in the fact that the people have no choice but to eat the same thing every day. That the manna is actually a DEPRIVATION, and the question is whether the “grumbling” Israelites can be content with it. Here too we know that they fail. And if we think about how we feel about matzah on the sixth day of Pesach, we can probably all relate.
Though Rabbi Kushner offers that explanation, he immediately follows it with another, a second view which is almost the opposite of the first one. There he notes that if people have all that they need without having to make any effort, will they remember to thank God for it? Will they remember, in other words, to be grateful? When we bensch Berkat HaMazon, we are thanking God for what God provides for us. And, beyond food, whether rich or poor, we have an obligation to express our dependence on God. And then Kushner adds another observation, which may or may not be a third interpretation: he notes that it is possible that the test is whether the people will have the faith to trust that the manna will come EVERY DAY, and not just the first day that they experience it. This idea is similar to the very first interpretation that I mentioned—will we trust enough that we don’t try to store it or take more than we need for our “daily bread”?
These are all—both the above the line and the below the line—reasonable interpretations of what God means when he tells Moshe that He is going to test the Israelites. But I want to offer YET ANOTHER interpretation. See what you think. The Israelites are hungry. God provides quail and manna—meat and bread—on a daily basis. They don’t have to do anything except pick it up and eat it. The Israelites, as I mentioned, don’t need to DO ANYTHING. There’s even a double portion on the sixth day to prepare for Shabbat. They don’t need to cook it or work to get it, and there’s nothing else there that they can combine it with. Their needs are taken care of. There’s even a midrash that tells us that the manna was such a miracle that it could become whatever food the person craved at the time.
What would that mean? To me, it would mean that the Israelites—however hard their life in the desert was—have free time. Think about being on vacation. What’s one of the nicest things about being on vacation? Your meals are provided for—and that then leads to free time. Which makes it a vacation. Especially, I’m sure, for those who provide meals and do the attendant work before and after a meal.
So perhaps the test involves that free time. Perhaps the test revolves around what the Israelites DO with that free time. Do they use it productively, to bless God, to pray, and to become a real community? Or do they waste their time with complaints and envy and a nostalgia for the past? I think we know the answer to that question. I guess that’s human nature. But it does make me think about the concept of “free time.” How do we spend it? How do YOU spend it?
I had to get rid of the bowling app on my phone because I played it so much. I realized that I was wasting precious time doing it. I wonder if anyone else here has little habits that lead to lost time. How constructively do we use our time? I know so many people here are volunteers for this shul. Others of you volunteer OUTSIDE the shul—spending time reading to kids, for example, or donating your time to a soup kitchen. MANY of you take care of grandkids, and that is a wonderful way to spend time. And time here in shul—whether it’s a morning minyan, or an evening service–that time is NEVER wasted. So, it’s important to think about whether there are ways that we can improve on how we use our time. Whether there are ways that we can better use our time to serve God and to serve others.
And I am guessing that some of you might be thinking: WHAT FREE TIME? Am I right about that? Maybe you feel that you have precious LITTLE time to do the kinds of things that you wish you could be doing. That you are running from one thing to another. Maybe you envy the Israelites who didn’t have to run to Zayde’s for kosher chicken. Here I think it’s important that all of us ask ourselves what are our priorities. How do we want to live our lives? What matters and what doesn’t? Should we be simplifying? Should we be dropping activities that we have typically done in the past but that no longer serve us? Is it time for us to imagine a different kind of time? What might that look like?
The brilliant Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” These are beautiful words. Let us resolve to learn from the shortcomings of the Israelites who had everything that they needed but failed to recognize it. Let us resolve to appreciate what we have, and to follow the advice of Emerson to guard our precious spare moments. Let us resolve to use those moments wisely—to see them as “the brightest gems.” Let us use wisely the blessings—Especially and Including TIME—that we have.
Moses announces the tenth plague to Pharaoh, the slaying of the firstborn sons of Egypt. God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh does not respond to his final ultimatum. Once Pharaoh sees his own family affected, he permits the Israelites to leave the country.
The way Pharaoh responds to the tenth plague gives us insight into his relationship with the people he rules. Pharaoh not only enslaved the Israelites, but he also enslaved his own plague-stricken people by his lack of concern for their welfare. He could not care less about the fact that his own people -- the Egyptians -- were suffering blow after blow.
Only when the angel of death is at his door is he willing to let the Israelites go; when only the people suffered, Pharaoh was not moved in the least. God then commands Moses to instruct the Israelites how to prepare the sacrificial meal that is to occur immediately prior to the Exodus. The people are to take a lamb, slaughter it on the 14th day of Nisan, at twilight, mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and eat the lamb on the eve of the 15th. On the same night, God strikes down all the first-born of Egypt. God further commands the Israelites to observe this festival -- the 15th of Nisan, Passover -- for all time.
It is well-known that the Hebrew calendar is lunar (more precisely lunar-solar). The author of the Sefat Emes understands the Hebrew lunar calendar as a metaphor for the miracle of outliving our persecutors. Whereas others may survive only when the sun shines upon them, the Jews have survived and managed to spread light, as the moon does, even in the darkness.
This portion forms the basis of our Passover Haggadah. A good strategy to spice up your Seder would be to read parts of this Parsha from a Chumash such as Etz Chaim with commentaries. This can be an adjunct to the Haggadah itself.
Exodus 12:24-27 emphasizes this in the commandment, "You shall observe this as an instruction for all time . . . you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, `What do you mean by this rite (ma ha-avodah hazot lachem)?' you shall say, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt .’
The phrase, "What do you mean by this rite?" is placed into the mouth of the wicked child in the Passover Haggadah. Often, we dismiss this question and view the child's inquiry more as a challenge rather than a request for more understanding. Yet, embedded in his comment may be a thought worth pondering.
The word, "avodah," derives from the very same word as "avdoot," slavery. The child's question is, therefore, "What makes servitude to God any better than servitude to Pharaoh? I thought the whole point of leaving Egypt was to be free and now it turns out we are "avadim," slaves, again!"
If we understand the child's question in this way, the "wicked" child is presenting a challenging question. One way to respond is to suggest that Egyptian bondage was purely utilitarian. Pharaoh has no interest in the welfare of the slaves. In contrast, being a servant of God is a means of becoming who we were intended to be at creation; and this requires discipline, which is meant not to crush us (as was Pharaoh's intent) but to focus our energies so that we can become a holy people.
The Haftorah somehow casts the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a positive figure since he will wipe out Egyptian society! I suppose, as Abba Eban once stated, “The enemy of our enemy is our friend.” Maybe we should re-install the missing NUN in our Ashrei!