Pikudei -Exodus 38:21-40:38 March 7, 2008 by Barbara Brotman.
This Shabbat's Torah portion is about my friend Avra Cohn.Avra is sitting over there. Hi, Avra!
You may not recall anything in the Torah about Avra. But the Pkudei portion is about Avra nonetheless specifically, about what Avra does.
What Avra does is make things beautiful. Avra is co-chair with me of the temples membership/community committee. She organized and designed tonights evening. She is the person who made the room where we are about to eat our Shabbat dinner glittery and elegant and lovely. She does that with every dinner and party she touches, and youll see what I mean when you see the extraordinary Shabbat gift bags you are about to get. She has a gift; she has an eye. She uses them to make things beautiful.
And this Shabbats Torah portion is about making things beautiful. In Pkudei, we read about the building of the Tabernacle. It is some tabernacle. It and the priestly accoutrements are described in lush detail, from the gold threads worked into the blue, purple and crimson yarns of the ephod to the breastpiece set with stones - carnelian, emerald, turquoise, sapphire and amethyst. A diadem of pure gold, decorated turbans of fine linen, a robe with blue, purple and crimson yarns twisted into the shapes of pomegranates these are no commonplace items. They are beautiful extraordinarily and purposefully beautifully.
But to what purpose? Why the emphasis on physical appearance, even opulence? Are we to take away a sense of a god who demands emeralds and sapphires? That our synagogues should drip with precious metals and jewels? Those are disturbing and unsatisfying conclusions. Surely there have to be others.
But never mind the cost; whats happening is that the Tabernacle is being made beautiful. Lets look at that for a moment instead of the emeralds, and ask why? What is the purpose of making the Tabernacle beautiful? Or making anything beautiful? Why do we set a special table for Shabbat? Why do we use white tablecloths? Why do we put out fresh flowers?
They make us feel well, if not beautiful, then a sweet sense of pleasure. When we see something beautiful, whether a Shabbat table or a painting, it has an effect on us. Which brings up another question to ask: Why?
Why does seeing something beautiful evoke a powerful response in us? Why do we care?
Let me offer an answer that comes from Arthur Green of Brandeis College and Hebrew College. Rabbi Green, one of the worlds foremost authorities on Jewish spiritualism, spoke in Chicago a few years ago, and my Torah study group went to hear him. During the coffee-and-cake afterwards, he hung around long enough and was goodnatured enough to sit with our group and answer some questions. I figured, What the hey, and asked mine:
I asked him, Why do you believe in God?
Well, you might as well cut to the chase.
And what he said was this: Because there is no evolutionary advantage in my being moved to tears by a piece of music.
He was talking about beauty beauty in something we hear, but he could just as easily have talked about beauty in something we see. So much of existence can be explained in Darwinian terms. Our bodies and perhaps our minds work in certain ways because these ways confer evolutionary advantage. There is a point to things.
But what about beauty? What is the point of beauty?
If joy upon encountering beautiful music or art serves no evolutionary purpose, why do we feel it? Why do we have whatever internal receptors make us create and crave beauty if they serve no purpose?
Could it be that there is no rational reason that we are talking about a different realm entirely the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual, the holy? There are, to be sure, Darwinian possibilities: Maybe people are knitted together more tightly when they experience similar emotions when encountering a work of art, and it is that bond that confers evolutionary advantage. Maybe the endorphins released when we encounter art and experience pleasure help us live longer and procreate more. Maybe thats why so many first dates are to a museum.
Maybe. Or maybe just partly.
Isnt it possible that being moved by beauty is to some degree a spiritual response with no evolutionary purpose at all? Call it god, call it holiness, call is transcendence - the lump in your throat at a perfectly held note, the warmth that spreads through you when you look at an impressionist painting drenched in that magical Mediterranean light, the inward sigh of pleasure you feel when you look over a table glowing with candelight and flowers maybe we are hearing an echo of that still, small voice. Maybe we are, in a sense, seeing it.
Our tradition recognizes that transcendence. We set a special table for Shabbbat partly to hallow the day, but also to hallow ourselves.
So after this service let us go into a room made beautiful by my friend Avra. Let us feel that sweet delight, and let us consider the possibility that our savoring of it may be a thing of wonder itself; that the act of making something beautiful, whether a Tabernacle our a Shabbat table, lovely to behold may, may in a rational sense mean nothing and so, in a deeper sense, may mean everything.
Tricia Brauner Oak Park Temple, Shabbat Terumah 5768
Salamone Rossi, ebreo (Jew)—as all Jews were then designated—was probably born in 1570, lived and worked in the city of Mantua, in what is now northern Italy, and died sometime after 1628 (the last date for which we have any record of him).
Mantua—the city to which Romeo fled when he was exiled for killing Juliet’s cousin in Verona, the city in which the story of Verdi’s Rigoletto takes place—is about 28 miles south Verona, 100 miles southwest of Venice. Mantua was governed by dukes of the Gonzaga family, and while Rossi received some payments from the ducal court, he was also employed by the Jewish theatrical troupe of the city and had income from various business arrangements.
During the years 1589 to 1628 Salamone Rossi published 8 collections of Italian secular vocal music for 3 to 5 voices (meaning separate, independent parts), 4 collections of instrumental music, and 1 collection of Hebrew compositions for 3 to 8 voices.
To put those years in context, when Rossi was born Shakespeare was 6 years old; Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1594/95 and The Merchant of Venice in 1596/97. The early 17th century saw the first performances of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest; the first English settlements in the New World; and the development of a new music genre, the opera (one of the earliest of these, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, was written for Mantua in 1607).
In 1600 there was no such thing as Italy, of course. The southern part of the peninsula, as well as Sicily and Sardinia, belonged to Spain. A broad swath across the middle, spreading up northeast from Rome, was the Papal States. The north consisted of several independent entities such as the duchies of Mantua, Parma, and Tuscany, the Bishopric of Trent, and the Republics of Lucca and Venice, and of territories of the Austrian Hapsburg or Holy Roman Empire. The struggle to unify the country took place through much of the 19th century, culminating in 1871. I will use the name Italy tonight.
A little slice of history: In 1492, when the Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain and its territories, tens of thousands of Jews living in Spanish “Italy” left for other cities on the peninsula, while others went to the Ottoman Empire, doing business across the Adriatic with ports such as Venice and Ancona.
Soon Italian cities imposed restrictions regarding where their Jews could live, what work they could do, and what they could wear. The first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Others followed, those of Rome and Florence, for instance, in 1555 and 1571. Mantua’s ghetto was not formed until 1612. In 1630 Mantua was sacked and plundered by Ferdinand II’s imperial troops, the Jews expelled, and the ghetto destroyed. Rossi may have died in the plague that followed, or he may, with many other Mantuan Jews, have gone to the Venetian ghetto, where he had friends and supporters.
In the early 17th century, there were some 23 hundred Jews living in Mantua—perhaps as much as 8% of the population. Among them were bankers, physicians, musicians, merchants, butchers, and rabbis. In 1630 there were nine synagogues (some in well-to-do private homes) and 24 rabbis in the ghetto. Most of the synagogues belonged to the Italiani Jews who followed the Roman rite; a few were Ashkenazic; none were Sephardic.
Salamone Rossi’s relationship with Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I stood him in good stead. In 1606 the Duke gave him the privilege of not having to wear the compulsory yellow badge, two strips of cloth “half an arm long and a finger wide, [...one] to be set on the frock or coat, two fingers away from its buttons, the other on the hat or head garment [...] to be visible even from a distance.”(1) In 1619 Rossi was exempted from the sumptuary laws that restricted what type of clothing Jews were permitted to wear. Other privileges given—or more accurately sold—to Jews included the privilege to carry a weapon, to study medicine at the university, and to live outside the ghetto. Such privileges were given to actors, musicians, physicians, middlemen, and loan bankers—all occupations that served the Christians’ needs and brought the Jews into contact with Christians. However, after the death of Duke Vincenzo, Rossi’s connection with the court became less close, as the musical life at court declined along with the economic circumstances of the duchy. (From 1600 to 1620 about 30 musicians were on the court payroll; by 1628 there were hardly any.)
Jewish acting troupes played a significant role in Mantuan theatrical life. During the Carnival season preceding Lent, plays and processions for public entertainment were held outdoors, and from 1588 onward during Carnival the Jewish community honored the Duke’s visit to a synagogue with a play. Between the acts there would be scenes of music and spectacle (called intermedii) and refreshments. The Jews, of course, had to pay for these productions. A payroll from 1605 lists Salamone and his brother Emanuele as participants. Rossi is said to have composed music for the Jewish troupe’s intermedii, but none has survived.
Koleinu tonight is singing works from Rossi’s 1622 collection of settings of Hebrew texts, Hashirim asher li-sh’lomo (literally, The Songs that are Solomon’s). The title alludes to the composer’s name, Sh’lomo min-ha-Adumim, “Solomon from the Red Ones,” or, in Italian, Salamone Rossi, and is a play on the biblical book Shir hashirim asher li-sh’lomo (The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s). None of the texts, however, comes from that book—20 of the 33 texts are drawn from Psalms, one each from Leviticus and Isaiah, five are verse hymns or piyyutim, five are prayers, and one is a wedding ode. The liturgical texts are found in prayer books of the Roman rite from the late 16th century, while some of the other texts are found in books of Kabbalistic confraternities such as the one published in 1612 for the Shomerim Laboker (Morning Watchmen).
These compositions are polyphonic, combining three or more individual melodies. I should mention here that the Songs, like all vocal music of the 17th century, were printed as separate part-books—one for soprano, one for alto, and so on—to facilitate performance. Groups didn’t buy multiple copies of a complete score, but rather a smaller book for each performer, comparable to music for band and orchestra today.
There was no precedent for writing polyphonic works with Hebrew texts. Rossi’s pieces are essentially in the style of late-Renaissance Italian music (think Palestrina, Monteverdi). They don’t sound “Jewish” except for the texts. In his preface to the publication Rossi indicated that he “worked and labored” on the Hebrew compositions for years. They must have been performed privately, for he says that singers and listeners were delighted by them, and that friends urged him to publish them.
Rossi had a couple of hurdles to get over, however.
1) There was (and is) a strong animosity in orthodox Judaism to “art music”–the coined Hebrew word is musikáh—as opposed to traditional chant in the synagogue. While there is evidence of attempts to introduce some sort of part singing into Italian synagogues, the rabbinic responsa and discussions do not make clear exactly what sort of music it is. It might simply have been improvised harmony, of the sort we spontaneously do in “Avinu malkenu” in the section “Oseh imanu tzedakah va chesed.” It might have been polyphony or counterpoint, where the different voices don’t all sing the same words and rhythm, but this too can be improvised. A simple example is the round or canon we create when we sing “Shalom chaverim” or “Hine ma tov,” the voices beginning at different times with the same music. The complex polyphony of the Renaissance is composed, learnèd, art-full music, and it is in this style that Rossi wrote.
The resistance to musikáh was countered by Rabbi Leone Modena in a responsum of 1605. He argued that art music derives from the Temple, which used instruments and voices and which itself inspired Christian music.
2) There was no tradition of how to compose—and print—art music with Hebrew words. Hebrew reads from right to left, while European musical notation—which has evolved from the ninth century onwards and continues to evolve today—reads from left to right. According to Leone Modena, in Rossi’s eyes “it seemed better for the readers to pronounce the letters backward and read, in contrary order, the words of the song that are well known to all, than to reverse the direction of the notes from what is customary and have the readers move their eyes, as we Jews are used to write, from right to left, lest they lose their minds.”
Rossi placed each Hebrew word of the text—written normally, from right to left, and without vowel points, the way it appears in the Torah scroll—under the last note of the musical phrase to which the word was to be sung. Thus the entire word was easily grasped at once.
However, in many cases, there are more notes than there are syllables, and although the first and last notes are obvious, the distribution of the remaining ones is not.
For Latin and Italian texts there were conventional rules about how to do this. For example, the accented syllable—in Italian usually the penultimate—falls on the extra, faster notes. Or, syllables are not to be sung on the first larger note after smaller ones or on the smaller ones themselves. Or, in a dotted figure, separate syllables are not to be assigned to the smaller note or notes after the dotted one.
The only problem with these conventions is that in Hebrew, the accent usually falls on the last syllable. In the 33 pieces in Rossi’s collection, there are about 22 problematic spots, where the Italian conventions cause the Hebrew text to be mis-accented. The music adapts better to the Italian approach, suggesting that Rossi was not seriously concerned about this issue. Modern editors sometimes disagree.
Where were the Songs performed? Possible venues include the synagogue, the study hall (where they would be rehearsed), the house of a bride and groom, and other festivities in private homes. The texts are suitable for holidays, feast days, festivals, Sabbaths, weddings, circumcisions, times of rejoicing, banquets, and so on. They could be performed by talented amateurs (like Koleinu). The Mantuan Jews in 1610 were said not to have many singers for the intermedii, but there were certainly professional performers among them. We really don’t know how much the Songs were ever performed in synagogues. A few references from 1642 imply some might have been done on feast days, but musikáh didn’t ever catch on in the Italian rite, nor did it become an integral part of Ashkenazi ritual until the 19th century In fact, copies of Rossi’s publication are rare: only two complete sets of the 8 partbooks are extant, plus 11 additional partbooks, out of which it is impossible to make up another complete set.
But what is intriguing is the revival of interest in Rossi’s music in the late 19th and the 20th centuries, correlating with a revival of “early music” in general. There was such desire for Renaissance music suitable for synagogue use that adaptations were made. The Shir ha-ma’alot that opened our service is almost note-for-note the music printed in 1622, but the editor has added text repetitions to break up long melodies on a single syllable. The remaining pieces tonight come from an edition by Isadore Freed (1900-1960), a composer and organist who was Professor of Music at Hebrew Union College's School of Sacred Music. Freed wrote: "Synagogue music must be first good music; it must be living music; it must be functional music, and it should bear witness to the continuity of Jewish tradition, be it in language, expression, form or style."
Following his own precept, he derived from Rossi’s music a set of pieces suitable for a Reform Jewish Sabbath Eve service.
The Bar’echu, like Shir ha-ma’alot, is the piece Rossi published, with some adjustments in the rhythm to change the way the text is accented.
In Rossi’s liturgical pieces, the responses belonging to the congregation are not set to music, and he did not set the text of the Sh’ma. As far as I can tell, Freed himself composed this setting, using four times a motif that does not seem to come from any of the Songs.
For the Mi chamocha, Freed adapted a portion of Rossi’s setting of Ps. 146, Hallelujah nafshi et Adonai (Hallelujah! O my soul praise the Lord), with some changes in the rhythm to accommodate the different text.
The Adon olam has an even more complicated history. Rossi set this hymn for 8 independent voices, one of the most difficult of the works—and not the one sung tonight. In 1876 Samuel Naumburg, in Paris, set the text of Adon olam to Rossi’s Kaddish for 5 voices, which he recomposed for 4 voices. Naumburg was one of a number of musically trained chazzanim and choirmasters—among whom were Solomon Sulzer in Vienna and Louis Lewandowski in Berlin—who felt the traditional synagogue melodies should be given a “musical face lift” in accordance with the current taste. Naumburg’s arrangement of Adon olam was reprinted in Paris in 1933 and again in New York in 1954. I have not been able to compare Freed’s arrangement to Naumburg’s, but they both derive from Rossi’s Kaddish.
So we come around again to the premise that music in the synagogue should, as Rossi wrote, be used “for thanking God and singing to His exalted name on all sacred occasions” and that things old and new may be pressed into God’s service. Tonight, we are walking in Rossi’s footsteps.
(1) Don Harrán, Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 25.
D'Var Torah Terumah, Sh’mot (Exodus) 25-27,
2 Adar 5768, 8 February 2008 Mark Burger
Passages in Torah that get into heavy detail tend to be overlooked in the more liberal circles of Judaism. Besides the focus on minutae, there is a sense of the details conveying a sense of exclusivity. It has to be done this exact way by an elect person or persons, or it’s not acceptable or even dangerous. Details of rituals such as the High Priest intoning the word of God in the Inner Sanctuary on the Day of Atonement reinforce this belief.
One can believe that, or one can look at it another way. The details are meant as a template that can be done by anyone willing to undergo the effort, and spelled out in detail that does not require a special authority or intermediary to interpret it. The Ark is meant as a gift, “Terumah” to God, and a place where Our Creator may dwell. It is transitory and to be borne in a journey, such as life is meant to be.
But the ability to replicate is a singular benefit of this passage, as is the ability to replicate scripture and the ability to replicate temples and other places as sanctuaries. Each of you has the opportunity to take part in this replication, both daily and on special occasions. On March 14-16, the Oak Park Temple Retreat in Wisconsin will feature a “Build the Ark” exercise, as well as other wonderful opportunities to pray, study and socialize. Find out more at the Temple office. You can get a glimpse of the same wonderful feeling of building the Ark that was experienced by our ancestors thousands of years ago. You can help provide a sanctuary for God to dwell in, as well as a sanctuary for your own heart and soul. Amen.
Lauren Levrant, April 22, 2005
As translated by Everett Fox, this chapter begins with God instructing Moshe to tell the Children of Israel, What is done in the land of Egypt, wherein you were settled, you are not to do; what is done in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you are not to do; by their laws you are not to walk. My regulations you are to do, my laws you are to keep, walking by them. Of course this is followed by a laundry list of sexual encounters that must be avoided, but to me, the very first lines speak more broadly. The Children of Israel, they are not really Jews yet, have been living as slaves in Egypt for 400 or so years, and were then moving into the land of the Canaanites. They were always a people apart, and that is the way it was supposed to be. By following their own set if laws and not the ways of those around them, this small group was able to survive. They survived the destruction of their kingdom, twice. And by transforming into Rabbinical Jews, and staying a people apart, have been able to survive for close to 2000 years. We were instructed not to assimilate, and its worked. At least for now.
Right now, anti-semitism is once again rearing its ugly head, right in our midst. Some of it is right out there in the open, as when eggs were thrown at a memorial service in London, commemorating a World War II bombing that killed 134 people, mostly Jews. And some of it is cloaked in Anti-Zionism, as it is on many college campuses. When we try to hide who we are, and forget that we are a people apart as God commanded, we allow this to happen.
On Sunday, May 15, we have a chance to show our community who we are. That we stand with Israel. Regardless of whether we agree with their government, we need to show our support of the Israeli people. Our people. Please join us, right here in Oak Park, for our Solidarity with Israel Walk.
Cindy Barnard, March 12, 2004
Ki Tisa has a tremendous amount going on - for instance, the Golden Calf and the 13 attributes of God, Moses' radiance and veil - but I hope we'll talk about those tomorrow morning. Tonight I want to focus on one particular part of the parasha, and that is - Shabbat.
Exodus / Shemot 31:15-17 - Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest (shabbat shabbaton), holy to the Lord…(16) The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. (17) It shall be a sign for all time between me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.
Does this sound familiar….? Of course - it's the text of the V'shamru, which we just sang a few minutes ago. But look more closely at the language in verse 15 -shabbat shabbaton. What is the significance of this grammatic emphasis?
There are two key items I want to link together tonight. One is the language of the parasha, this shabbat shabbaton. And the other is our place in the calendar - that moveable feast which keeps us connected to the foundation of Judaism. Even and especially over the millenia in which we did not have a geographic home, we have always had the calendar, wherever we go.
So, here we are in the weeks leading up to Pesach, in the midst of the "four parashiyot," the four special Torah readings which are added to the usual portion for each week. A few weeks ago it was Shabbat Shekalim, the census; then it was Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat before Purim, reminding us of Amalek (and, by implication, preparing us for Haman)… and now it's Shabbat Parah. This shabbat, we add the section from Numbers which discusses the strange ritual of the ashes of the perfect red heifer which are used to purify after contact with death.
I don't want to dwell on this ritual tonight, but only to focus on the idea that this special parasha is about separation and purification, leaving behind one identity and becoming new, different - separating what we have been from what we will be. Now what does THAT remind us of… Shabbat and Havdalah, right?
Which brings us back to "shabbat shabbaton." What is this interesting construction and what does it signify?
First, notice where it appears in the parasha. God gives Moses incredibly detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle - even a bit tedious, really, to read. And guess what, the instructions are structured in seven sections (what is THAT reminiscent of?). And the seventh one begins, "HOWEVER" and then the commandment regarding the "shabbat shabbaton."
…However? In other words, build this Tabernacle; however, interrupt your building when Shabbat arrives.
So we have instructions to build the Tabernacle - and the first six sections are all about construction - and the seventh is to interrupt even this extraordinarily important construction to observe Shabbat!
In other words, Shabbat is the 7th portion – the completion – of the instructions for the tabernacle. And this reminds us of what? Creation - God created the world in six days & completed creation on the 7th. .
Shabbat is not just an absence of doing, it is a creative process all its own - more on that in a moment.
So, we learn from this "however" that time - Shabbat - is more important than space - the tabernacle - and God wants our time more than our material “stuff” - even the building of a temple to be God's place in our midst.
In fact, in a wonderful resonant twist, one of God’s names is MAKOM, the place – in other words, the physical places are really ephemeral, illusions, God is the REAL “place” - and wherever you go, that Place is with you.
So what do we have so far?
We have a special shabbat of separation and purification. We have the mitzvah of "shabbat shabbaton," which is so important it must interrupt even the building of the tabernacle. Now, this term - shabbat shabbaton.
The Lubavitcher rebbe says "shabbat" means to stop our normal work, and "shabbaton" means to begin our special Shabbat activity. Rashi, our 11th century endless source of insight into Torah, says "shabbat shabbaton" is not a "casual" rest. It's not "I'm tired, I'll rest." Even if we are not tired on Friday night, we still observer Shabbat! No, this is a rest which is profoundly creative, and in fact transformative.
Shabbat doesn't mean simply that we stop doing certain things. It also means that we do certain other things. It's not a day to recover from fatigue in the ordinary sense. It's a day in which to examine ourselves, spend the day on God's work rather than what the employer needs or the house needs or even the self thinks it needs. It's a day to work on being better as a person in God's eyes and to start the next week transformed.
If we are going to talk about Shabbat we have to see what Heschel has to say. If you have not read "The Sabbath" lately or at all, I must recommend it to your attention. Heschel points out most wonderfully that the first time in Genesis we encounter the word kadosh, holy, it is not about a thing - not about light, or earth, or man, or animals - but about - yes - Shabbat. "And God blessed the seventh day and made it kadosh, holy" - no OBJECT is so sanctified.
So, this is a special shabbat parah, or shabbat of purification and rededication. And today we are given the commandment to observe shabbat shabbaton, a shabbat of very special and complete rest and transformation.
It’s a day to devote to God’s work instead of our everyday work – not “casual” rest when we do nothing, but transformative rest when we undertake very specific activities which are not “work” but which teach us, change us. This is the special kind of "rest" which actually completes us and our work - just as it completed God's work of creation, and the Israelites' work on the tabernacle.
What a gift – not to be wasted - and the most precious evidence of Israel's chosenness. We could just stand here & read Heschel all evening - but here is one more wonderful thought he offers. If Shabbat is a time when God completed creation - not just a day of non-activity - then what was created on this day? Heschel tells us, "What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose…This then is the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space [and material goods]; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate."
With this, then we can truly understand the words of Ahad Ha-am, the 19th century Zionist, who wrote, "More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel."
Shabbat can transform us, if we will allow God the time to do so.
D'var Torah: Parsha Ki Tisa
February 21, 2003 by Morris Seeskin
During my childhood, there were two Biblical stories that puzzled me more than any others. One, of course, was the binding of Isaac and the other from today's parsha was the golden calf. I didn't understand why the Israelites standing at Sinai, waiting to receive the Law of The Almighty, would turn to such a base form of idolatry. As I have matured, both stories have remained puzzlements. To help make some sense out of the story of the golden calf I offer this midrash.
By our tradition when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Sea, and into the desert and later when he brought God's Law down from Sinai, all the Jewish people were there. Not just those we might think of as being present, but all those who would come. Your grandparents were there, so were you, and so were your as yet unborn childrens' childrens' children. Remember from the Passover Seder the story of the parent telling the wicked child, "It is because of what the Almighty did for me, when he led me out of Egypt."
Thirty two hundred years ago the Jewish people stood at Sinai to receive the word of Adonai, and by tradition each of us here tonight was present when Moses descended. Moses led YOU and ME out of Egypt and came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments while YOU and I watched. By tradition we all were there, not just in spirit, but actually there.
Remember now what happened in those long ago days. Our ancestors had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt for 400 years. During that time the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel had become a distant memory. Then one day Moses arrived from the Land of Midian. He said that he was an Israelite, but there were rumors that in fact he was an Egyptian, possibly of the royal house or maybe a priest. He claimed to have spoken with the almost forgotten God of our ancestors. Aided by Aaron, who he said was his brother, he demanded that Pharaoh release us from slavery. Some of us took him at face value, but many of us had doubts, doubts about Moses, doubts about his motives, doubts about his authority, and, yes, surely doubts about his invisible God.
Moses and Aaron said that unless Pharaoh let us go, their God would afflict the Egyptians with plagues. Pharaoh's heart hardened and he resisted. Ten plagues followed. Some said that the plagues were natural events and others said that they were evidence of a test of powers between Moses and Pharaoh's court magicians. Some said that Moses won a battle of wills with Pharaoh, that he wore Pharaoh down. Others said that he was lucky. Still others said that he was just a better magician. Of course, some said that Moses prevailed because he was doing God's will.
Whatever really happened, after the slaying of the first born of the Egyptians, Pharaoh finally relented and said that we could leave. Moses said it was due to the power of his invisible God, but many, maybe most, thought that Moses had been lucky, had outwitted Pharaoh, or possessed more powerful magic.
Moses led us out of Egypt in the middle of the night. By the time we reached the Sea, Pharaoh had changed his mind and sent his forces after us. The Sea parted and we crossed, but Pharaoh's pursuing forces drowned. Again Moses said it was due to the power of his invisible God. Moses and Miriam led us in songs of praise and thanksgiving. Many again said it was magic. Some thought it was natural, having to do with tides, winds, and the weight of people on foot as opposed to warriors on horseback and in chariots. Many of us weren't sure about the cause, but were not inclined to challenge Moses.
Moses goaded us into the desert. He said that God in the form of a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night would lead us. Not everybody believed him, but the pillars he promised did appear. They hardly seemed natural, but those who leaned toward magical explanations were sure that they knew what was going on. We all followed Moses and the pillars nonetheless. We wandered for months, finally arriving at the base of a mountain called Sinai.
One day Moses called us all together. He said that this mountain was holy to Adonai, who had summoned Moses to the summit to receive God's Law. Moses told us to wait in our camp at the base of the mountain for him to return with the Law. On pain of death we were not to touch yet alone ascend the mountain.
After months wandering in the desert, everybody, particularly the elderly, the infirm, and parents with young children, appreciated the opportunity to rest. We settled into daily routines and waited for Moses to return from the mountain. We mended torn clothing and tents. We repaired broken equipment, utensils, and tools. Injured and sick people and animals healed. Friends gathered around campfires to share memories and to tell stories. Children played.
Days passed and we waited. People began to wonder. How long would Moses be gone? What if he were hurt? What if he were dead? How would we know? A few wanted to climb the mountain themselves, but Aaron forbade it and no one was willing to oppose him.
Days turned into weeks and still we waited. We saw lightening at the summit, we heard thunder, and we were fearful. Some talked about returning to Egypt. No one said that directly to Aaron, but he knew. At least in Egypt there was real food to eat. Back to Egypt? Who among us knew the way? How would we recross the Sea? What if Moses returned to find us all gone? Wouldn't Pharaoh pour out his wrath on any who returned, particularly if Moses wasn't with us? We waited. In fear we waited.
One week ran into another. Real fear, a sense of dread, resided in our camp. At times even Aaron seemed to waver. During the days small groups of men gathered and talked in hushed tones, always looking to be sure that no one else overheard. At night husbands and wives whispered their fears to one another. The hearty stopped looking at the old ones, as if their mere looks would kill. The children seemed to understand that they might have no future at all. The boys became much more aggressive in their play; the girls turned inward, hiding in their tents.
After a month, ... after a month, life, if we can call it that, was filled with outright terror. Still there was no sign from the mountain. Moses had led us into the desert and abandoned us. Aaron stayed in his tent, afraid to face the community. Miriam, too, was unseen. Even Joshua, the fearless one, showed doubt in his face. People openly cursed the day when they had listened to Moses, following him out of Egypt and into the desert. What kind of God led people out of slavery and into the hostile desert to sit, to sit and wait, to sit and wait and die?
Do you now remember how it was? As we neared forty days in that hellish desert, someone recalled the almost forgotten story of Noah and the rain that killed everyone not in the ark. God had promised no more such floods, but had said nothing of the arid desert heat. Fear became terror, terror became anger, and anger became rage. The whispers were now spoken aloud. The spoken word became uncontrollable sobbing and screaming. Do you remember those days? All pretense of supporting one another disappeared. Moses was surely dead and soon we all would follow.
I was there to hear the first mention of the calf. I was ready to grasp at any hope and I was not alone. Do you remember? We gave our jewelry to make the calf. Aaron understood our need. We danced and we sang and we revelled. Lovers embraced. New lovers were found. After forty days of fear, hope returned and we welcomed it with wild abandon. We forgot about Moses and his invisible God.
And then, ... there he was..., Moses, with a radiant face and two stone tablets in his arms. There he stood and the rage that had so recently been in us rose in him. Ah ... the rest you know.
Until I started writing this D'var Torah, the meaning of the golden calf episode had escaped me. Think of it. The message we were to hear was the word of Adonai, our God. The messenger was Moses. We turned away, unwilling to accept the message and unwilling to listen to its holy messenger. Instead we chose to be with our ignorance, our fear, and our anger.
That was three thousand two hundred years ago when you and I were at Sinai. Today ... well today, the message of God's Law is the same. The messenger, though is different. Moses died before crossing into the Promised Land. Today the messengers are rabbis, teachers, and friends in Torah Study groups. Still today we often turn away from God's Law. We turn away in ignorance, fear, and anger.
And yet, we are only human and incapable of strictly following God's Law. God understands this, even if we do not always. What is more important than our strict compliance is that we strive to comply with Adonai's Law. It is the striving to comply rather than strict compliance that truly matters. Notwithstanding the golden calf, Aaron became the High Priest and the Israelites became a kingdom of priests, a holy people.
Despite our many faults, weaknesses, and set-backs, may we be counted among those who strive to comply with God's law.
Michael Fleisher, February 9, 2002
The portion for this week is Mishpatim. Mishpatim means rules or ordinances. In the book of Exodus the Israelites have just been saved at the Sea of Reeds and have just been given the 10 Commandments. The text in this portion covers such specifics as what to do with an ox that gores people or a slave that refused to be redeemed, how to provide restitution for destroyed property or lost virginity. Some of the Mishpatim seem legalistically precise and unequivocal, while others would be overturned by modern courts as overly broad. Some are clear, simple statements of offenses that require immediate Capital punishment. Some call for compassion, others for swift vengeance.
I would like to focus on two groups of verses.
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman's husband may extract from him, the payment shall be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death
When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death.
He who kidnaps a man-whether he has sold him or is still holding him-shall be put to death.
He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death
And one that have often quoted to my adolescent children
He who insults his father or mother shall be put to death.
Contrast these to:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt..
Previous legal codes in the area, such as the Code of Hammurabi, had included widows and orphans as deserving special protection. A society is judged by how it treats it's most vulnerable, and the Hebrew for "not ill-treat" is stated most emphatically as if to say "in no way whatsoever". This sentiment, that strangers must be treated fairly was a newly stated in the Torah. Ger means stranger or resident alien. The Torah mentions the Ger, 33 times and always to demand equal treatment. As Plaut says" The Ger was to be given every consideration, and care taken that not only his rights but his feelings be safeguarded. He must never be shamed." (Recall the hospitality tradition that was rewarded by God to Abraham and lives on in every Jewish mother). Plaut comments further that compassion is part of God's nature and therefore must be carefully nurtured by His children in their own lives. This sentiment is echoed in numerous other verses in Torah.
Because we were strangers, and because we know the feelings. We have empathy. The Israelites had empathy because they had just been through the persecution of being the Ger, the stranger, the resident alien, The Other. Sadly this was not the end of our empathy building experiences. Through countless humiliations, through expulsions, pogroms, and finally the Shoah we know all too well the oppression to which strangers can be subjected. Never again!
It does not say here, as it does in other places, that we should do this based on " I am the Lord". If empathy is not sufficient motivation, the harsh reality consequence might be. We are threatened with a fitting consequence, what goes around comes around; God will hear their cries and our families will become widows and orphans. There are many rules and commands in this portion but this is the only one that has a dire threat connected with failure to live up to the Law. This is an ethical mandate that comes from God, but for American Jews who are uncertain about God, or secular Israelis there is still good reason to behave this way. And we do.
Jews have been quick to respond to the outrages in the Balkans and Rwanda, to racial discrimination and racial profiling and more recently to attacks on Mosques and Moslems. Never again to anyone!
These concerns for social justice resonate with us as Reform Jews in the prophetic tradition. But there is another aspect to Justice, the protection of the individual against harm and the just punishment of those who are dangerous. Both Israelite and Canaanite, both Israeli and Palestinian, should be treated equally in cases where injury occurs. This is the spirit of not oppressing a minority, equal justice under law.
Exodus 21:22-25, the "eye for an eye" passage defines a way of reckoning the punishment of those who cause injury. The following verses appear to relate to a specific situation, that is two men fighting and injuring a pregnant woman, causing a miscarriage. This obviously is a very rare situation and one can hardly imagine this occurring even in ancient times. (People were probably gored by oxen far more frequently). For this reason, this passage has been widely interpreted as a general rule for punishment for violent acts.
Plaut states that this is one of the most misinterpreted verses in Torah. Christian detractors, eager to make the case for their "more compassionate" religion saw these lines as cruel, bloodthirsty and "primitive". This literal, legally sanctioned, physical retribution or "talion" was never carried out in any stories in the Bible. The context here speaks of unintentional consequences and the Rabbis have interpreted this to refer to restitution for the value of a life or limb in much the same way that modern insurance policies set a monetary value on loss of function. This section focuses on making the aggrieved whole. The other situations described in this immediate section deal with restitution and compensation plans that are rather generous, such as slaves going free for an injury, or dividing the price of an ox. The Rabbis knew that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
Even though many transgressions require certain punishment by death, testimony was made so difficult in capital cases that no one could be convicted and sentenced to die. One execution in seventy years was considered a "bloody court". Modern Israel has no death penalty except for genocide in time of war. Consideration for the "enemy" is encouraged in the verses chanted by the Cantor regarding returning and unburdening your enemy's ass. Innocents are to be protected.
All of this is not meant to imply that retaliation is never allowed. There certainly are many passages of Torah that permit and even encourage all out war, preemptory self- defense, and retribution. (Too many, in fact, to list here.) The ethical response to violence has always been very difficult to define. In practical terms we must do something. And we have.
As the Olympics are being held one cannot help but be reminded of those Olympics in Munich almost thirty years ago. The impact on millions watching the massacre live on television was horrifying and galvanizing for us in much the same way as last September's attacks were for a new generation. The Israelis responded to the attacks by sending out several assassination teams to revenge the deaths. Members and supporters of the terrorist group Black September were target by the Mossad. The leader of the successful team is still only known by his code name, Avner. These events are documented in the book by George Jonas, Vengeance and portrayed in the 1986 film Sword of Gideon.
A primary principle was for the team to act with zero collateral risk. Mossad did not want the team to act with the same recklessness and disregard of innocents as the terrorists they were hunting. "If the team killed only three terrorists, the mission is a success, although disappointing. However, if the unit killed all eleven on the list but also killed one innocent, the mission would be a failure."
In a case of mistaken identity, the first team shot the wrong man and an innocent waiter died in the arms of his pregnant wife. Avner's team was successful but he began to develop qualms about the project. In the film, (which may be fictionalized on this point, the book does not emphasize his ethical concerns) Avner visits the hospital to confirm the death of a target only to see his grieving wife and daughter. How can he now say that he has not harmed an innocent? Whether or not the real Avner reached this ethical crisis, the movie makes a powerful point. The real team suffered loses when targeted in turn and several members were killed.
Several months ago allegations were made by a long hidden survivor of one of these assassination attempts, that Avner was in fact Ehud Barak. Whether he was Avner or not is, in some ways, beside the point. This belief is marketable and cannot be effectively refuted. I realize that "the first casualty of war is the Truth" and propaganda is not to be believed, unless of course it is your own.
But what does all this have to do with the ethics in Mishpatim?
The Ger is always at risk of becoming the villianized Other. They are not like us, they are capable of horrendous acts. If one does this, they are all capable of this behavior. Any group that condones this is a danger and the leaders are to blame. We "otherize" you; you "otherize" us. We target you; you target us. Eye for an eye and everyone is blind.
Other than condemning a cycle of violence what insights can this portion offer us?
Two Jewish philosophers have given some direction in terms of translating these principles of not oppressing the stranger into specific behaviors, difficult but possible.
Martin Buber starts with mutuality of the individual encounter between people. Relationships that show respect for the other as a fully worthwhile individual are contrasted with those where the other is an object to be manipulated or used. This I-Thou / I-It dichotomy is so familiar that we lose sight of its power. The discipline that is required to maintain an I-Thou stance is often underestimated. Working to develop and further policies that institutionalize empathy and fair treatment is even more difficult when the Ger has hurt or threatened you. But this is what we must do.
Emmanuel Levinas extends these views of Buber while speaking in a totally Jewish context. The empathy he sees in this response to the stranger starts not with the recognition that we can be hurt, but that we can hurt others. Much of ethical behavior is based on the sense of vulnerability and how to protect oneself by setting up universal standards that we would want all to follow. For Levinas the facing of another in a fully moral way requires that (and I quote my friend Roger Gilman here) "I must think of your anxiety as taking precedence over my anxiety. It means listening with full attention- not impatiently calculating some profound psychoanalytic dismissal of your concern. Morality begins in patience (listening) not in processing (analysis). To be patient means (and here I quote Levinas) 'to be given over to a future which belongs to the other'- 'a liturgy of profitless investment'. The mutuality of dialogue will come in due course but it will be effectual only if a genuine trust comes first- comes in glance of eyes face to face. Real symmetry of relationship can only follow this asymmetry of response." As Jews we are required to go first in these trust- building activities. If this sounds like therapy it's because it is.
Exodus 23:2 You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong.
This has been interpreted by a tradition represented by Rashi to mean "Do not follow a majority blindly if your conscience demands otherwise." There are more and more reservists individually refusing to serve in the occupied territories, because they see themselves as oppressing the stranger. Jews are united as a people by a Covenant addressed only to individuals. As Levinas suggests, "Within this Covenant each person
finds himself responsible for everyone else; each act of the Covenant expresses more than six hundred thousand personal acts of responsibility" Why more than six hundred thousand? Because "this was the number of Israelites standing at the foot of Sinai."
To summarize this portion's lessons while I stand on one foot:
"What goes around comes around" is true for both violence and compassion; a Jew has to "go first" to relate differently, it is our commandment; and it is up to each of us as individuals to begin the healing.
We all have an opportunity to demonstrate this personal act of responsibility to not oppress the stranger, the other, in the room with us today. In our discussion today as we approach this very difficult topic we can follow Levinas, Buber and Mishpatim in the way that we relate to the "other" in our dialogue. Let us conduct our conversations in a mutually respectful way, in a way that befits Shabbat and befits us as Jews. Let us bring peace to our house, to our community and to our world. And let us say, Amen.
33: 21 Vayomer Adonay hineh makom iti venitsavta al-hatsur. God then said, "I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain.
33: 22 Vehayah ba'avor kvodi vesamticha benikrat hatsur vesakoti chapi aleycha ad-ovri.
When My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by.
33: 23 Vahasiroti et-kapi vera'ita et-achoray ufanay lo yera'u.
I will then remove My protective power, and you will have a vision of what follows from My existence. My essence itself, however, will not be seen.
To be given a special place on a rocky mountain
To live under the protection of Gods hand
To have a revelation of Gods existence
From my earliest days I have longed
I have longed for the vision of understanding and love
Implicit in Gods gift to Moshe
It is here, it is here, chavarim
Among our loved ones at our Seder tables
In our congregation in prayer and song
In our study groups as we deepen our commitment to Torah
It is said
It is not for us to finish the task
Neither are we free to desist from the task
We need only say as did our ancestors
Here I am.
D'Var Torah Ki Tisa
20 Adar 5760 25 February 2000
Mark Burger Sh'mot Exodus 30:11 - 34:35 Chant 33:12-23
One of the signs of our changing world is selecting different providers of telephone, electricity and natural gas services, which used to be regulated monopolies. These changes have resulted in price savings, confusion and a lot of dinner interrupting phone calls.
Companies selling us new service use the telephone, television, direct and electronic mail. With a lot of these transactions, we're asked to give a verbal yes to switching, often to a computerized recorder.
What happens a lot is that people revoke their decisions, claiming they changed their mind, they misunderstood or were possibly misled. Sometimes these disputes require a legal solution. Often the solution proposed is to have the customer agree to a switch in writing. This is called in the industry a "wet" signature, implying ink that dries. A "dry" signature is the oral agreement that's taped or done by e-mail.
The premise is that a "wet" signature signifies more thorough understanding. The industry doesn't like it because using paper copies drives up costs. It is also not clear whether a "wet" signature in itself results in a clearer understanding of what customers are getting. But many marketers also believe that getting a "wet" signature results in better buy-in by the customer, leading to a longer lasting, and more profitable, relationship.
Ki Tisa is about the ultimate relationship, God and Israel. The first giving of the covenant apparently did not work. It was apparently a "dry" signature. The subsequent breakdown required a closer interaction in the relationship. The closer interaction was Moses himself inscribing the new relationship - a form of a "wet" signature. It also occurred after blood was shed after the Molten Calf - a more pronounced "wet" signature.
But the covenant between God and Israel has been cast since. Was the "wet" signature better than the "dry" one? Do we understand better? Maybe not. But the relationship has been long lasting.
Shabbat Chol Hamoed 17 Nisan 5759 2 April 1999
Mark Burger (Shmot Exodus 34:1-9 Chant)
Pesach is about liberation and freedom, the first known rebellion for the sake of worship; the first time a weak people was known to have triumphed over a mighty nation – not to conquer it, but to free itself of it. Pesach is also about a second chance. A second chance to overcome fear, idolatry and denial. The Jewish people will always have a second chance, as long as the Covenant with God is in effect, perhaps whether we believe in that promise or not.
Second chances, however, are not guarantees or guaranteed to individuals, communities, even tribes of Israel. And because they are not like a 401k in a bull market, we get angry, and, if the anger is not addressed, doubts about who we are and our relationships with God begin to sprout.
Second chances came to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, even Pharaoh. Second chances did not come to the golden calf worshippers. Or to the first born of Egypt, or most of an earlier first born of Israel. This seems cruel, even though God warned earlier in Exodus that His miracles to free Israel were to affect Egypt down to the slave girl grinding her millstone.
Many of us get second chances in our daily lives. Many of us take advantage of them in a meaningful way. Going for a new job or career when the present one is comfortable; recovering from a serious illness or injury to undertake a great project or cause; or carrying on someone else’s work when that person is no longer able. Many of us fail to take a second chance because it’s risky, inconvenient or possibly unpopular. When a person or people fail to take advantage of second chances, they begin to die before their time.
We see Israel imperiled by disaster, whether by Pharaoh or the Amalekites in the Bible, or Rome, Spain or Germany in more modern times. I will not say these represent second chances in themselves, but what second chances come from them? What might be the second chance for Israel through the fear, the pain, the witness to evil? Is God stepping back for us? Is God stepping back in order for us to exercise our free will, which is the only way to love God according to the Covenant? Is God’s stepping back a second chance? After all, how well did we work when God hovered over us?
This stepping back is evident in this portion. Moses, taking the second chance to receive the Covenant for Israel, writes it himself. The first time, before the golden calf, it’s written by God. Did Pharaoh have a second chance? It appears he did not because God stiffened his heart. But the Hebrew word is "cha-zayk", which could also mean strengthen, as in "Be strong and of good courage". Maybe Pharaoh had a second chance, but was predisposed to fulfill God’s role.
Second chances are opportunities to grow. Noah did not plead for a world about to be destroyed, although he had the chance. When he had a second chance, he got drunk, possibly to erase the agony of the lost second chance out of his mind. Abraham pleaded with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, unsuccessfully, but he took the opportunity with the second chance.
Moses was the greatest second chance taker of all, successfully arguing for Israel, in spite of their sins, and even when God offered the ultimate second chance, to start Israel over by his seed. May we take advantage of second chances if and when they come with the same fortitude of Moses, if not with the same spectacular results. Amen.