Monthly Archives: March 2016

7 Days of Joy and Sorrow: Tzav 5776

Joy and sorrow, birth and death, creation and destruction—these opposites are bound together; one is not possible without its antithesis. All too often does joy come attended by sorrow—Purim is the great example of a “redemption” that is tempered by ongoing exile, of a victory which leaves the victor debased in his resemblance of his drunken oppressors. It is a joyous sorrow or a saddened joy—neither a tragedy nor a clean escape. As we turn back to the Torah cycle, the pairing of joy and sorrow will be a recurrent theme.

The number seven is symbolic in both directions—seven days are dedicated to celebrate a marriage, and seven to mourn a death. Seven are the days of creation in Genesis, and seven are the days of dedication of the priesthood at the end of Parashat Tzav. The Talmud in Megillah 10b famously announces that the introduction ויהי, “and then it happened…” always augurs disaster. This is the opening word of Megillah Esther, and also of next week’s portion, Shmini, and both texts do indeed include disasters. Yet even these tales they are not entirely unhappy. As the Gemara notes, the same word ויהי links the creation narrative to the dedication of the tabernacle, also in Shmini. A beraitha claims that the day the tabernacle was dedicated was God’s happiest day since creation. Why the sorrow? Continue reading

Amalek Inside–Zakhor 5776

It is considered a mitzvah this Shabbat for every Jew to “remember what Amalek did to you,” to blot out the memory of Amalek, and not to forget. This mitzvah is easily fulfilled by listening to the maftir reading in synagogue on the Shabbat before Purim, but it is not at all easy to understand the passage that we will read. 

First of all, the commandment is self-contradictory. If we were not so intent on remembering Amalek, then its name would be long forgotten. How can you blot out a memory that you constantly recall?

Second the command is to remember what Amalek “did to you,” and we get the sense that the concern is not only external—a cowardly attack on the weakest Israelites—but also internal. Our sages have long intuited that Amalek represents, yetzer ha’ra, internal corruption. The verses just before this passage in Deuteronomy 25 speak about unethical business practices—the keeping of uneven weights by merchants, which is an “abomination to the Lord.” The juxtaposition implies that it was our own corruption that made us susceptible to attack. Amalek is the evil inclination, and when we allow its voice to control our conduct, then we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, Amalek’s attack is preceded by the complaints of Israel, who said, “is the Lord in our midst or not?” In both places internal discord leads to external disaster. This is hardly a coincidence. Continue reading

On Being A Jewish Installation–Pekudei 5776

One of the hardest adjustments for me as a young rabbi in a large suburban synagogue in Michigan was learning how to sit on the raised bimah of our enormous sanctuary, which sat 1,500 on the holidays, and frequently held 500-800 people on Shabbat. I learned the costume—dark suit, black shoes, white shirt and tie—and even a black robe that I was asked to wear for the first 5 years (that went away my first Shabbat as senior rabbi). But it was not only the clothes that felt formal and foreign. Sitting on that big chair looking out at the congregation always felt strange. Suddenly my prayer life was not primarily internal but was on full display—how I sat, how I stood, how I spoke and how I greeted people as they came and went for aliyot was all a highly scrutinized behavior. It was completely the opposite of my naturally informal spiritual state.

I chafed at the formalism, including the policy that my young children could not come visit me on the bimah until Adon Olam.  Nevertheless, with time I came to understand the importance of modeling worship for the culture of this community. Entering the sanctuary, the people wanted to see their clergy in place on the bimah, to hear the sounds of Jewish worship, and to feel connected to earlier generations of their family and to Jewish communities across the world, all celebrating Shabbat or the festivals in one (somewhat dissonant) global chorus.  My task, as I came to understand it, was simultaneously to cultivate this spiritual decorum and at times also to disturb it by making intentional variations from the script in order to shake people out of their trance-like state of formal worship (or lethargy). The tools varied—from humor, to song, to movement, to political statements—but the goal was to make the experience real and alive even while preserving the dignity and beauty that people craved in these sacred moments of their week. Continue reading

Hold Your Hands Up! VaYakheil-Shekalim 5776

Sometimes it is not ornament but infrastructure which is the most interesting and enduring feature of a building. The tabernacle was a beautiful building with bronze, silver, gold as well as luxurious and colorful fabrics. Underneath all that was the acacia wood, atzei shittim, with upright planks that were held together by staves—also made of acacia and also plated with gold. In chapters 26 and 36 of Exodus we read that there were five such bars on each flank of the tabernacle—north and south—as well as on the shorter western wall. To the east the tabernacle was open with just the screen barring access to the entrance. The bars were mostly hidden, but they lent structural integrity to the entire tabernacle, and they were invested with their own special symbolism.

There is a curious detail about the middle bar. The Torah states that the four upper and lower bars each ran half the length of their walls, but the middle bar ran from end to end. The Talmud says somewhat cryptically that the middle bar “stood by a miracle” and some interpreters have claimed that the stave somehow bent without breaking around the corners so that it was a perimeter bar, running literally from end to end of the entire structure. But this explanation is not supported in most commentary, especially because the mystical tradition finds significance in the five bars of each flank, with a long bar in the center. The bars are like fingers, making the two sides like two hands cradling the tabernacle. Continue reading