Author Archives: Rabbi Danny Nevins

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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Thanksgiving in the Face of Sorrow: Vayetze 5781

On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their first three sons, Reuben, Shimon and Levi. Each name is plaintive, speaking to her sorrow and desperate hope for improvement in her marriage. Jacob’s absence from the naming of his first three sons is notable; does he even notice these boys? Finally, with her fourth son, Leah shifts focus from her indifferent husband to her munificent God, saying, “this time I thank the Lord,” yielding the name Judah, the child of thanksgiving.

Our sages puzzle over the shift in Leah’s perspective and the precise meaning of her words. In the Talmud (B. Brakhot 7b) Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai notes that Leah is the first biblical character to use this language of thanksgiving, but what does it mean? Midrash Bereshit Rabbah looks to arithmetic—Jacob had 12 sons from four wives, so it should have been three apiece, but Leah has borne four (so far). Her gratitude is the product of excess—the prophetic knowledge that she has been granted more than her fair share. This sense of plenty, her relative fortune despite her unhappy marriage, leads Leah to invent the language of thanksgiving. This reading is affirmed by Rashi in his Torah commentary, though in its one-ups-woman-ship it is not entirely honorable.

Midrash Tanhuma gives Leah even more prophetic insight—for each child she anticipates future failures among their descendants. For Judah, she foresees his own failure. Yet Leah also anticipates Judah’s remarkable willingness to admit error in the matter of Tamar (and I would add, in the matter of Joseph in Vayyigash). The name Judah hints at another meaning—modeh—confession, and it is this humility of her son that causes Leah to thank God. Indeed, the Midrash adds that it is due to Judah’s willingness to admit error that the entire Jewish people is named for him, and that King David and the messiah will descend from his line. We Jews are intended to be the people who acknowledge—error, dependence, and gratitude.

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Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes. True, they will soon occupy a tent together, and Isaac will love his wife,  but just now Rebecca is alone on her camel, and Isaac too is alone in his field. Each seems psychologically wounded. We don’t know much of Rebecca’s background—her parents are ciphers, but her brother Laban is a piece of work. He takes advantage of her, and will do worse to her son. She wastes no time leaving home, as her one word answer אלך, “I’ll go” makes clear. As for Isaac—mourning his mother’s death, and not so close to Abraham since Mt Moriah, he is alone in the dark.

To meditate. What was he thinking? Could the ambiguous verb לשוח relate to the shoots or shrubs growing in the soil? If so, then he was taking advantage of the cool time of day to inspect his crops, a symbol of renewed vitality. Or does the verb truly mean to meditate, as the rabbis insisted in B. Brakhot 26b when they said he was praying Minhah? Meditate? That’s an after the fact translation. The verb means to speak, but with whom? Is Isaac speaking with God? If so, then what is he saying?

In the field. A promising place to meet one’s partner, a place of fertility. It is also a place of concentration, as I often experience when outdoors in a quiet space. In mystical thought, “the field” refers to Shekhinah, the divine presence, and this time of day, Minhah, is when “judgment is dangling toward dusk,” as the Zohar states. Isaac himself is a symbol of divine judgment or gevurah, and so this evening scene is tense and potentially dangerous. The field is a place of encounter—but will it be a struggle, an embrace, or both? The same ambiguity will recur during Jacob and Esau’s reunion in the field. Is Isaac preparing for battle, or is he battling against judgment itself, seeking an opening for compassion? Hasidic writers imagine Isaac engaged in an exalted campaign—to “sweeten judgment,” not only for himself but for the world.

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Dreaming of the Future: Vayera 5781

Once again the pollsters blew it. As in 2016, so in 2020, predictions about election results have born little resemblance to the outcome. Why are we surprised? It is hard enough to describe events that have already happened with accuracy and perspective. The future? Who are we kidding? No doubt, explanations will be found for the significant gap between expectation and reality, but pollsters are no prophets.

Were even the prophets prophets? Did they hear the divine voice, see divine sights, and discern divine secrets? Or was their experience more like a dream or hallucination—vague patterns of uncertain significance? This question pits the two titans of medieval Jewish thought, Rambam and Ramban, against each other. Rambam stakes out a skeptical position in his Guide of the Perplexed, Section II: 42. Because for Rambam there is no material aspect to the divine realm, it is simply impossible for a prophet or any person to see or hear God or angels using sensory perception. Even Moses “heard” God speak through a process of intellection, not auditory perception. Rambam writes, “It should by no means occur to your thought that an angel can be seen or that the speech of an angel can be heard except in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, according to what is stated as a principle: I do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.”

That “principle” comes from the story in Numbers when God rebukes Aaron and Miriam for criticizing their brother, and indicates that prophets such as them are limited to dream like revelations. But Rambam leaves out the next verse, “Not so my servant Moses…” Moses sees the image of God, speaking face to face as if to another person. For Rambam this claim is unacceptable. That which is reported of the prophet’s experience is truly a reflection of their internal vision—a dream or an apparition, not an encounter in time and space.

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An Activist Covenant: Lekh Lekha 5781

Destiny is a seductive concept. The idea that our personal and even national history is somehow predetermined can be comforting, especially when hazards abound and the best path forward is hard to discern. Historian Niall Ferguson surveys the tenacity of deterministic thinking among religious and secular thinkers through the ages in his book Virtual History. Marxists have often matched religious fundamentalists in their conviction that history is governed by inexorable forces and their sense that personal agency is an illusion.

Ferguson responds to this fatalistic tendency with chapter after chapter of counterfactual accounts—moments when a different decision by an individual or group could easily have changed the course of history. What if the American revolutionaries, many of whom were loyal to the Crown just months earlier—had found a way to settle their differences without violence in 1776? Would American slavery have ended earlier and without civil war in the 19th century? Would the British Empire have survived the 20th? Ferguson’s point is not to promote a parlor game of what if, but rather to provoke readers into taking responsibility for major decisions in their own lives, and in their society.

Given the enormous uncertainty about how next week’s election will play out and the staggering ramifications of various outcomes, it remains tempting to throw one’s hands up and say, “what will be will be.” Of course—spoiler alert—that will not be my take away, but don’t we believe that “all is in the hands of heaven”?

Parashat Lekh Lekha presents a zigzag account of divine providence and human agency. God seems to be in control, commanding Abram to set out for “a land that I will show you.” But hadn’t Abram actually begun the trip of his own initiative last week? In chapter 14 Abram responds to Lot’s capture by taking charge and rushing to battle without so much as a prayer. Thanksgiving can wait until the work is done. If God is really in control, then the strings seem quite loose.

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