Feel the Love this Pesah: Shabbat HaGadol 5781

What’s love got to do with it? We are accustomed to thinking of Passover as the festival of freedom, of liberation from enslavement, the march from Mitzrayim to Sinai, and on to the Land of Israel and national independence. The themes of Passover are those of justice, moral purpose, resilience and strength. Its foods symbolize toughness—flat breads for the road, maror and salt water to remind us of our bitter experiences, haroset to approximate the mortar the ancient slaves used to build edifices for their oppressors. Many of its melodies are survival songs, not celebrations of plenty. Yes, we relax into the seder, reclining and eventually eating and drinking luxuriously, but it is the meal of survivors, akin almost to the se’udat havra’ah eaten by mourners after a loss. What’s love got to do with it?

Love is the hidden emotion in Pesah,  but it is there if you seek it. Our greatest love poem, the Song of Songs, has been associated with Passover for well over a millennium. Tractate Sofrim, a composition from the land of Israel edited around the 8th century, remarks that it is chanted on the final two nights of the festival, but does not provide a reason. Later texts such as Sefer Abudraham (Spain, 13c) provide a link between the Song and Passover. In Chapter 1, verse 9, the male lover states, “I have likened you, my darling, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots” לְסֻסָתִי בְּרִכְבֵי פַרְעֹה דִּמִּיתִיךְ רַעְיָתִי. We must admit that this link feels tenuous, and one wonders how it even works as a romantic image. True, other ancient texts from Greece and Arabia likewise compare beautiful women to horses (for example Helen of Troy in Theocritus, and Lyde in Horace’s Odes–See Marvin Pope’s 1970 essay).

Michael Fishbane prepares us for the oddity of the Song’s romantic imagery, here comparing a young woman to a fancy horse, but advises, “a modern reader must pause and let the images have their primary effect—which is to create a strong sensual association between a feature of the human body and the world of nature (animals and topography). In so doing, one must try to cultivate a literary competence that appreciates the sensibilities of a shepherd’s heart over the theological sense of the (modern) interpreting mind” (JPS commentary, Introduction xxvi). There you have it—Passover challenges our imaginations, not only to experience enslavement despite our own happier circumstances, but also to feel love as it may have seemed to an ancient shepherd.

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Confessions of Joy: Vayikra 5781

The Hebrew word “semikhah” in various forms alludes to drawing close, leaning into or supporting another, or laying on of hands. In that purposeful contact there is a transfer of energy and the establishment of connection between two living beings. When Moses lays hands on Joshua, he confers spiritual power, ordaining Joshua as his successor. Like one candle lighting another, there is no sense of diminishment in the power of Moses as he ordains Joshua.

At other times, however, the practice of semikhah (or the transitive hasmakhah) is understood to transfer a quality from one being to another. This week we read that the priest is to lay hands on the burnt offering, “that it may be acceptable on his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev. 1:4, trans. NJPS). How exactly does this work? It seems from another context, Lev. 16:21, that physical contact was not the only component of the ritual. There was also a spoken intention, a confession of sin, that effected the transfer of negative energy, allowing for the priest and the community that he served to achieve atonement.

This brings us to the role of confession in the ritual offering. One would expect to find this verbal pairing only with regard to the hattat, or purification offering (and the similar asham). After all, the other sacrifices such as olah and minhah are about dedication, while the shelamim are about thanksgiving. For such offerings it would seem that confession is inappropriate. And yet, our text about the burnt offering implies a confession even if it is not explicit. Moreover, in Second Chronicles 30:22, we are told that in the days of King Hezekiah the Levites offered sacrifices of well-being (shelamim) and “confessed to the Lord.” Maimonides understands this not to be so much a confession (for wrong doing) but rather an expression of praise. But it is the same word!

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The Festival of Education: Shabbat HaHodesh 5781

Passover is sometimes called “the festival of education” (חג החינוך). I have been unable to find this expression in pre-modern sources, but it accords with classic rabbinic approaches to the holiday. For our sages the art of pedagogy includes multi-sensory inputs of sight, sound, touch and taste, as well as differentiated instruction for various learning styles, as seen in the questions of the four children.

The sages imagined Moses as a student struggling to understand the very first commandment that he receives in Exodus 12:2, “this month is the first of months for you, for the months of the year,” until God provides a visual cue. The word “this” (הזה) is understood by the Rabbis to imply a visual image. In Mekhilta D”RY we learn that Moses struggles to understand how to declare the new moon until God, as it were, points it out in the sky.

The Talmud (RH 20a) asks rhetorically whether later sages might fix the calendar by adding a day to the month just as they do by adding a second month of Adar seven out of every nineteen years. It immediately rejects this possibility based on our verse—when you see the new moon in the sky, you must declare the new month without delay. This implies that education requires a reality check—there is a danger that bookish learning can draw the student away from natural phenomena. The appearance of the moon in the sky impels a ritual response. Therefore, the sages need to station themselves outside to examine the night sky, and not seclude themselves entirely from the natural world.

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Purification after Violence: Parah 5781

Tony Hicks was fourteen years old in 1995 when he shot and killed a college student named Tariq Khamisa in a gang-related robbery. Hicks was convicted of murder, and was imprisoned until 2019, but meanwhile something quite unusual occurred. Five years after the crime, Tariq’s father Azim visited Tony in prison, and gradually the two men became friends. It took another fifteen years, but eventually Tariq’s sister Tasreen also visited Tony in prison, in 2015. They too became close friends. You can hear their own description of the first meeting in a new episode of Storycorps. It is now 26 years since Tony’s terrible crime, and the painful loss that he caused remains forever. And yet reconciliation of Tariq’s family with his killer has proven redemptive in all of their lives. Tony says that getting to know Tasreen’s children—the nephews and nieces of the man he killed before they were born—adds layers of sorrow for his terrible mistake. But layers of forgiveness have also accrued, allowing all of them to grow in their humanity, to honor the memory of Tariq Khamisa.

I tell this story by way of introducing Shabbat Parah, the week when we are commanded to read Numbers 19, the description of the red heifer ritual. I understand Parah as an antidote to Zakhor, the special Shabbat preceding Purim when we are commanded to remember the vile attack of Amalek, and paradoxically, to wipe out the memory of the very people we are remembering. Zakhor is a Shabbat dedicated to remembering and combatting evil. If Amalek murdered Israelites, then Israelites should wreak revenge by killing Amalekites, as Samuel does with King Agag in the haftarah, and Mordecai does with Haman and his sons in the Megillah. There is a cruel realism to this commandment—genocidal hatred remains in the world, and this fact requires recognition, remembrance and forceful response.

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A Tabernacle for Today: Terumah/Zakhor 5781

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ:

“And so shall they do,” is an unremarkable coda to God’s command to Moses that Israel must build a tabernacle in Exodus 25:9. Could this little phrase be a marker for our kind of Judaism, linked powerfully to the past but proudly innovative? That sounds like a stretch, but let’s try. The verse states that the people of Israel should make the tabernacle precisely according to the specifications shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. Various Midrashim depict God demonstrating the design of the ark, table and menorah through fiery holograms in the sky, which is fanciful but reflective of the Torah’s insistence that Moses reproduce the designs “shown” to him.

That coda, “and so shall they do,” could mean simply—tell the people to do what I taught you. But because of a claimed extra “vov” (“and”), the rabbis read this phrase to refer not to the initial construction, but to future generations of Temple builders. This raises the question—should future temples of the Jews be built to the precise measurements of the original tabernacle, which was designed for portability, or might they be altered to reflect the grander setting of a permanent location in Jerusalem?

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Reclaiming the Crown of Torah: Mishpatim 5781

In the Song of Songs (5:2) we read a romantic verse, “I was asleep, but my heart was awake.” אני ישנה ולבי ער—the plain sense of the verse is that the time of sleep is also a time of longing. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that the people of Israel before Sinai were asleep in the sense of inaction—they had no mitzvot to perform, but their hearts were awake, yearning to connect to God.

This yearning for Torah, this desire for action, explains their remarkable response in Parashat Mishpatim when they say, “all that God has commanded, we will do, and we will hear,” כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. Arguably this is the best line given by the Torah to the people of Israel. But what exactly does it mean? Let us look at the context:

Back in chapter 20, the people respond to hearing the Ten Commandments with terror. They tell Moses to go speak with God and fill them in later, “lest we die” פן נמות. And so, Moses speaks with God, and this week in Mishpatim, he shares many rules with the people.

In Chapter 24, Moses tells the people all the words of God, all the rules. As promised, they respond enthusiastically, “And the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה. Notice that they use only one verb—we will do it, נַעֲשֶׂה.

But the passage continues. Moses writes down “all the words of the Lord, and then in the morning he builds an altar, offers sacrifices and reads the Torah aloud to the people. At this point they respond, “All that God has spoken, we will do it, and we will heed it,” נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. What’s the difference between the two responses?

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Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom
Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

These stirring words from the post-Civil War anthem have been recorded and performed at important moments in American history. Odetta recorded a great version in 1956. Joan Baez performed it in 1963 at the March on Washington. The song gives me the chills, because it holds up freedom as the greatest good, greater than life itself. Black history month begins on Monday, and this is an appropriate moment to think about the differential experience of freedom in this land.

My brother just digitized a 1975 recording of my great grandparents, Sarah and Sam Mazer, who arrived in America on February 2, 1910. Sam was fleeing the Russian army’s “khopers” who could have conscripted him for 25 years. Both were eager to live free in America, and with many ups and downs, they did. This land was and is a place of freedom and opportunity for most American Jews. But for the brutalized people who first sang, “Oh Freedom,” America was not a land of freedom and opportunity, but of enslavement, cruelty, terror, and oppression.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad depicts a desperate flight from slavery to freedom through the experience of Cora. In the following passage she and Caesar have narrowly escaped capture:

They stopped running when they realized they had no inkling of where they were headed. Cora saw nothing for the darkness and her tears. Caesar had rescued his waterskin but they had lost the rest of their provisions. They had lost Lovey. He oriented himself with the constellations and the runaways stumbled on, impelled into the night. They didn’t speak for hours. From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots. If they had turned the girl back at the swamp. If they had taken a deeper route around the farms. If Cora had taken the rear and been the one grabbed by the two men. If they had never left at all.

No wonder that the song “Oh Freedom” asserts that freedom is the greatest good, greater than life itself. Nothing is certain in this life, but a decision to turn from slavery to freedom requires courage, strength, and fortune.

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Sworn to Sacred Service: Bo 5781

The most powerful ritual in American life is the oath of office administered to our President. The text is prescribed by the Constitution, but its choreography is a matter of convention. Most Presidents have placed their left hand on a Bible as they raise their right and swear to execute their office faithfully, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This ritual signals solemnity and anticipation for the work awaiting our new leader.

The weaker arm (left, for most of us) is strengthened by contact with Scripture, as if to say that true strength comes not from muscles but from virtue. This gesture recalls Deuteronomy 17:18-19 where the new king is commanded to write a copy of the Torah, to read it and keep it close by so that they will learn to revere God and guard the divine precepts. This pose also reminds me of wearing tefillin, with the left hand linked to the divine word, and the right ready for resolute and righteous action.

Those who take an oath—whether of testimony, of office, or of military commission—raise their right hand, alluding perhaps to Isaiah 62:8, “the Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm” (NJPS translation). In the civic oath ritual, the President commits to guard our American covenant with faithfulness, to draw strength from the people, and to hold nothing higher than their constitutional duties.

The raised right hand is open and empty, which to me implies transparency and readiness for action. One cannot commit fully to a new task while clinging still to an old one. This point is made in our Torah portion, just before the people of Israel commences its duties in worshipping God. Chapter 12 of Exodus contains instructions for the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, beginning with the designation of the animal. Moses calls the elders of Israel and says to them, “Draw out and take yourselves sheep according to your clans and slaughter the Passover offering” (Exod. 12:21, trans. Robert Alter).

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Hopping Mad in Mitzrayim: Va’Era 5781

Here come the plagues: blood, frogs, vermin…. The first triad relates to the Nile, whose “bloody” waters (reddened perhaps from sediment and algae washed down by heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands) kill off the fish and drive the frogs up on the land. The rotten flesh produces kinnim, maybe a type of fly or mosquito, that torments the population. Swarming mosquitos are surely loathsome, but frogs remain the most charismatic creatures in the plague narrative.

Ancient Egyptians venerated a frog-headed goddess named Heqet, who was associated with fertility. But the river had been used to kill off the Israelite boys. As such these first plagues may have been intended as “measure for measure” for Pharaoh’s genocidal attack. Since the plagues rise vertically from ground to sky, they teach both Egyptians and Israelites that the LORD is sovereign over heaven and earth.

Frogs are unusual messengers for such an exalted theological lesson. They may not be cute, but neither are they terrifying. As the fetching “Frog Song” puts it, “One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed there were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head, frogs on his nose, frogs on his toes, frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere!” The comical potential of this reptilian plague was not lost on our ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva notices a shift from plural to singular in Exodus 8:2: “Aaron reached his hand out over the Egyptian waters and the frog rose and covered the land of Egypt.” Can you imagine Akiva’s Godzilla scale amphibian? Apparently this was too much for some of his peers.

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True leadership: Humility, Compassion, Integrity. Shemot 5781

What was Moses doing just before his first divine encounter? The Torah’s description seems quotidian, utterly unremarkable. He was tending Jethro’s flock, and “he drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). That is, the moments preceding the theophany at the burning bush were spent caring for animals, far from human settlements. In Midrash Shemot Rabbah, the Rabbis notice this context and discern that God chooses servants who act with humility towards animals, and in this way prove themselves worthy. Humility is the first requirement of leadership.

Psalm 103:7-8 says of God, “He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (NJPS). Much later, when Moses asks God to reveal the divine ways, God responds with the famous attributes of compassion (Exod. 33). As Midrash Shemot Rabbah concludes, compassion is the essential divine quality, and compassion is the point of connection between Moses and God. It is not enough to be humble towards other creatures. We must also act with compassion, providing for their needs, and using our resources to protect them. Compassion is the second requirement of leadership.

Moses drove the sheep into the wilderness. Why? The Rabbis says that it was to avoid “theft.” Shepherds have trouble preventing their flocks from grazing on lands that belong to others. Some don’t even try, but Moses pushed his flocks away from settlements so that his animals wouldn’t graze on what wasn’t theirs. Mishnah Bava Kamma 7:7 says that it is forbidden to raise small animals like sheep and goats in settled areas of Israel because they will eat up the crops, and lead people to steal from each other. Moses moved to the wilderness not in order to meditate alone at the mountain of God, but for a simpler reason—to avoid taking what wasn’t his. He could have made excuses—the flocks belonged to Yitro, not to him. The animals followed their own appetites, and ate what they found. But Moses took responsibility for those in his charge, demonstrating integrity. Integrity is a third requirement for leadership.

The portrait of leadership that emerges from our introduction to Moses is of humility, compassion, and integrity. These qualities should not be taken for granted; they are the path to spiritual greatness. While none of us can hope to perfect our own qualities of humility, compassion, and integrity, we must name them as our ideals and integrate them into our practice with intention and intensity. This is the way of legitimate leadership and spiritual power.

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Menorah Meditations: Hanukkah 5781

Aryeh Kaplan’s classic book, Jewish Meditation presents many techniques for focusing one’s attention in order to perceive dimensions of reality that are otherwise hidden. I love his discussion of the letters shin and mem. The sound we make with sin/shin is a hissing noise, a chaotic cacophony. In contrast, the mem, Kaplan writes, “is pure harmonic sound, the epitome of order and regularity.” He continues, “the shin denotes a hot, chaotic state of consciousness (fire=aish), while the mem denotes a cool, harmonic state (water=mayim).” The idea is to move from a normal unfocused state of consciousness, of shin, to a focused stated of mem, which is associated with prophecy (as in the story of Elijah and the kol demmama of prophecy). The two letters combine to form the words sheim (name) and sham (there) which are associated with the “transition from the chaos of the general to the harmony of the particular.” (130) I might add that the splintered shape of the shin (ש) and the round shape of the final mem (ם) further indicate their respective associations with chaos and harmony.

You can practice meditating on these letters with a simple exercise. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Exhale with the sound of shin, inhale, and then exhale with mem. You can visualize these letters if you like. You may also add the ayin to complete the word shema. As Kaplan notes, ayin is valued in numerology as 70, a number associated with the creation. Saying the shema in a meditative state, we can share in the creative transition from chaos to cosmos.

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Earthy Expertise: Vayishlah 5781

Here is a verse on which I have never commented before: “These were the descendants of Seir the Horite who were settled in the land: Lotan, and Shoval, Tzivon Anah. Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan”(Gen.36:20f). I know! How have I allowed such a scintillating text to escape examination? Perhaps I have been distracted by Jacob’s midnight wrestling match with the angel and other dramas found in Vayishlah, but this snippet of Edomite genealogy is also Torah, and it has something to teach us, at least with help from Hazal.

In Bavli Shabbat 85a Rabbi Yohanan is reported to have explained a better known verse from Deuteronomy by reference to this one. There we are commanded, “You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations….” (Deut. 19:14). The straight reading is that later generations should respect the property lines left by their ancestors. Likewise, our verse in Genesis probably means that these Edomite clans inhabited the land prior to the time of narration, as Rashi explains.

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