Spontaneity Versus Rules

Are you more a rule follower or one who likes to act as pleases you in the moment? We have both types of people in our tradition. The former is Moses, who as G-d’s emissary laid out the rules by which Israel needed to live. The latter are Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu who spontaneously offered “a strange fire which G-d did not command of them.”[1]

What was this foreign fire? Some say it was idolatrous, as אש זרה is very similar to עבודה זרה, the Hebrew term for idolatry. Others say Nadav and Avihu were drunk. Yet others say the offense was merely that G-d did not command them to offer this fire.

The irony is that Aaron in our tradition was reluctant to serve as a Kohen. The text reads ויאמר משה אל אהרון קרב אל המזבח[2] “Moses told Aaron ‘approach the altar.’” Why did Moses have to tell Aaron rather than Aaron approaching on his own? Rashi comments that Aaron was embarrassed over having partook in the golden calf and needed a push from Moses to know that G-d wanted him to serve as a Kohen.[3]  He needed affirmation that he was chosen for this holy work. Ramban adds that Aaron had in mind וחטאתי נגדי תמיד, “my sin will be before me always” and that he could not atone for his past, yet Moses told him that his work in the Tabernacle would serve as his atonement, כפרה.[4] This indicates that Aaron’s humility is what enabled him to become Kohen Gadol.

Unfortunately Aaron’s son react differently, wanting to feel self-important through offering a sacrifice of their own. They wanted their offering to be accepted and in the zeal of the moment they offered it directly before G-d. There are traditions that they even saw G-d’s face and we know from Exodus לא יראני האדם וחי, “no man shall see me and live.”[5] Rather than acting in accordance with the rules of Leviticus, the priestly manual, or תורת כהנים, Nadav and Avihu followed their hearts’ desire-and paid for it dearly with their lives.

What does this teach us? Must we never be spontaneous and always be rule followers? I would not go that far; rather it demonstrates the importance of taking care when engaged in holy matters. Aaron’s caution and reluctance is what merited him becoming Kohen Gadol in the first place. His sons’ brazenness in acting on their own is what led to their demise. In matters regarding the Divine one must take extreme care.

Shouldn’t we celebrate Nadav and Avihu’s zeal to give their own offering to the Almighty? Not in this case: we need to recognize that there’s a time and place for everything including tzimtzum: recognizing you’re not the right person to do something and restricting yourself. Another story about this is from the time of King David when the oxen pulling the Ark of the Covenant stumbled, and a Levite named Uzzah took hold of the Ark. G-d was displeased and struck him down.[6]  Why would G-d do such a thing? Because the only people supposed to touch the Ark were a subset of Levites called the Kohathites, and Uzzah was not one of them. He was not qualified for such holy work. While he had good intention, he needed to think before he acted if this was what he was called to do.

There’s a great story of four rabbis who went into paradise (פרדס) to seek out G-d. Only one of them came out with שלום, which I translate as “peace of mind.” Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went crazy, Elisha ben Abuya (known as “the other one”) became an apostate. Only Rabbi Akiva went in and came out with peace of mind.[7] One must be prepared for such an intense spiritual encounter. It’s like not being able to study Lurianic Kabbalah until one is 40 with children, with enough life experience and other learning to be prepared for what s/he will encounter.

When we are in a situation where we think it is time to break rules, let us first examine why those rules are in place and whether or not this particular situation calls for spontaneity. In so doing, may we avoid the pitfalls of Nadav and Avihu and have the humility of Aaron, being certain before we act that we are precisely the person who is called to do the given task.

[1] Leviticus 10:1

[2] Leviticus 9:7

[3] Rashi on Leviticus 9:7 ויאמר משה אל אהרון קרב אל המזבח ד”ה

[4] Rashbam on Leviticus 9:7  ויאמר משה אל אהרון קרב אל המזבח ד”ה

[5] Leviticus 33:20

[6] 2 Samuel 6:1-7

[7] Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b


Moses and the Tent of Meeting

One of the more peculiar sections in the Torah comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, when we close the Book of Exodus. We are told that “Moses could not enter the אהל מועד, the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and G-d’s presence filled the Tabernacle.”[1] Moses, the one who spoke to G-d פנים אל פנים, face to face, had limitations on when he could connect with G-d! Rashi also finds this perplexing, point out that “another verse states ‘when Moses would come to the tent of meeting.’”[2] The answer is brought by a third verse, that great principle of Rabbi Ishmael, which says “for the cloud rested upon it”; while the cloud was on it Moses was unable to enter, and when the cloud was raised up, Moses would enter and was with G-d.

This demonstrates that even Moses’ contact with G-d had limits. He was only able to have a direct encounter with G-d at certain times, when G-d gave him permission. This teaches us that even Moses had limits. In his article “Leading from Within,” Parker Palmer writes about five “shadows” that leaders face. One of the shadows is functional atheism, a belief that “everything rests with me.”[3] Moses had begun to overcome his functional atheism in Parshat Yitro, when he heeded his father-in-law’s advice and established other judges to hear cases. Two weeks ago, in Parshat Ki Tisa, Moses implored G-d to let him see G-d’s face, and G-d only let him see His back.[4] Here Moses finally recognized that as great a leader as he is, his relationship with G-d has limits. He needs to do some personal tzimtzum, contracting his self-grandeur and only entering into face-to-face, פנים אל פנים, relationship with G-d when granted permission.[5]

I will never forget a conversation I had while doing a rabbinic internship with the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs in Chicago.  Two days a week I went into South Chicago to work at the Inner City Muslim Action Network: a Jew working with Muslims to do criminal justice reform to largely benefit African American Christians. I am by nature a person who likes excitement and adventure, wanting to change the world, and I was frustrated that some days were slow at the office. I spoke with my mentor, Kyle Ismail, who said to me, “Ben-you care about doing, but just your being present here means a great deal.”

I was flummoxed by Kyle’s statement: being present? Aren’t we supposed to be doing things to make a difference? After all, we do a lot in Judaism, whether it is preparing for Shabbat, coming together for daily minyan, or participating in programming like Casino Night in March and Sandwich Sunday in early April. Yet I think there is an inherent truth in knowing our personal limits and when we must undertake some tzimtzum, changing our focus from doing to being present with whatever we are encountering. Moses is often thought of as impatient, one who wants to lead through action, yet here he waits until the moment is right for him to enter into relationship with G-d.

As we conclude the Book of Exodus, a book centered on journey from slavery into the first stages of freedom, and we transition into Leviticus, a collection of laws that largely do not apply to us without a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, let us take a step back, doing our own personal tzimtzum, being patient for the right moments to step forward and waiting when the time is not right. May we learn this lesson from Moses’ example and make it our own.

[1] Exodus 40:35

[2] Numbers 7:89

[3] Parker Palmer, “Leading from Within” in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2000), p. 9.

[4] Exodus 33

[5] See Or HaChaim Exodus 40:35 ד”ב ולא יכול משה לבא אל אהל מועד

The Cherubim Protecting the Ark

Raise your hand if you have an amulet, a piece of jewelry warding off evil forces. For those of you who do not have your hands up, do you have a hamsa to ward off the evil eye? When I went on the 2015 Jericho Jewish Center Congregational Israel trip, I brought back hamsas for all of the office staff.

The device protecting our ancestors was not a hamsa but rather the Cherubim. In Parshat VaYakhel we read ויהיו הכרבים פרשי כנפים למעלה סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפרת ופניהם איש אל-אחיו אל-הכפרת היו פני הכרבים, “The cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other; the faces of the cherubim were turned towards the cover.”[1] This was not just an elaborate art piece; the cherubim were supposed to protect the ark and the tablets therein.

The first mention of the cherubim appears in Genesis after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. We read there וישכן מקדם לגן-עדן את-הכרבים, ואת להט החרב המתהפכת לשמר את-דרך עץ החיים.

“G-d placed the cherubim at the east end of the Garden of Eden and gave them a flaming sword which turned each way to guard the Tree of Life.”[2] G-d’s given reason for expelling Adam and Eve was not that they sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but rather that they would eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal. Therefore, he needed to enlist the cherubim to protect the Tree of Life.

In our Prophets class, we recently began the Book of Ezekiel. In one of Ezekiel’s visions he wrote about the cherubim and their role. He writes: “Then G-d departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.  While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground…”[3]  The cherubim are thus serving as G-d’s protectors, following G-d’s movement. That is their function in the Tabernacle as well-to protect the Ark, the place in which G-d dwells when G-d is directly encountering Israel.

The idea of the cherubim serving as a source of protection, like our hamsas or “red threads,” is one to which I hold dear. They are, in Samson Raphael Hirsch’s words, the “guardians of the Torah.” Hirsch asserts that the cherubim are not an end unto themselves but rather they “depict Israel and show them how they are to emerge, as a consequence of their accomplishing the keeping of the Torah.” He goes on to say, “If Israel keeps the Torah which is entrusted to it, with gold-like firmness and strength…being one of the bearers of the Glory of God on earth-then Israel will become a pair in cherubim who in mutual respect and consideration are peacefully directed one to the other, each one there for the other, each entrusted to the other-in brotherly co-operation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the Torah, and together in achieving a throne for the glory of G-d on earth.”[4]

Our actions have an impact on the cosmos. Through living a life of Torah, we can become a cherub, a מלאך, an emissary for G-d. Our actions have a greater impact than we can fathom, and through guarding the Torah, we become protectors of the Torah. Hirsch brings home to us the direct role we can have in being the stewards of Torah. It is not to us to look externally for where the angels and messengers of G-d are; rather we need to become those emissaries, the ones who protect Torah.

As we prepare to conclude reading about the Tabernacle, the first House of G-d, let us think about what we can do to bring Torah into the world and to protect its importance. Perhaps a start is to turn towards each other with kindness and love, recognizing that we are all trying to accomplish the same goal even if we go about it in different ways. May we have success in working together as guardians of Torah and yiddishkeit.

[1] Exodus 37:9

[2] Genesis 3:24

[3] Ezekiel 10:18-19

[4] Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 25:20 ד”ה סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפרת

Turning Towards Each Other

One of the challenges with Parshat Ki Tisa is that it deals with turning away from the proper path rather than turning towards it. After our ancestors made the golden calf, G-d said to Moses “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.”[1] Because they turned away from G-d, G-d turned away from them, proclaiming “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them…”[2] Moses, however, intervenes, refusing to let G-d destroy Israel. He says words which we repeat every fast day: שוב מחרון אפך והנחם על-הרעה לעמך; “Turn away from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.”[3] In so doing, Moses makes two very important points: Israel remains G-d’s people as opposed to a “stiff-necked” people independent from G-d, and G-d does not need to turn away from Israel just because they have turned away from Him at this particular moment.

The term “turn away” struck me because of the work done by marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman writes that the married couples he see who turn towards one another at times of conflict stay together 86% of the time, whereas those who turn away from each other stay together only 33% of the time.[4]  In our tradition, G-d and Israel are a couple, bound together by a ברית, or covenant, just as a married couple is bound by a Ketubah. In our portion because Israel has forsaken its end of the bargain, worshiping other gods, G-d is going to follow suit and strike them from the earth-that is until Moses intervenes. He says to G-d, ‘calm down; take a chill pill,’ and he gets G-d to refrain from forsaking the covenant. וינחם ה על-הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו, “G-d forsook the evil that G-d had said he would do to His people.”[5]

There are two reasons to speak about this today. First we are celebrating the conversion of Amber Marshall, her making the choice to affirm her covenant with G-d as a Jew. In the paper she wrote for the Beit Din, Amber said the following: “It takes effort to be more mindful and to think about G-d in all parts of my life. But as I’ve done so, many things have gained texture and richness. For example, as a non-profit lawyer, classically underpaid and overworked, there have been days I’ve asked myself — why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself, my partner, my family, and my friends through this? And over the past year, I’ve found answers in my developing relationship with G-d. It’s tikkun olam—repairing the world. It’s Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof—Justice, Justice, Shall you Pursue. These answers make it that much easier to get up and start again the next day after inevitable setbacks and failures. But it’s also asking myself if staying that extra hour at work is really necessary. It’s focusing on ritual and observance which finally taught me how to make my relationship with G-d a priority. It’s seeing how that observance creates more space for family life.”

This paragraph emphasizes the essence of brit, of a relationship. Each relationship is a give-and-take, whether the work-family balance, the public-private life or the sacrifices versus benefits. Amber so eloquently stated an essential truth of Judaism-that we get up each and every day attempting to grow in our relationship with G-d while concurrently striving to make the world into a better place.

The second reason to touch on this is because Amber and Justin will be getting married this coming fall. As I will not be able to do your aufruf, I wanted to touch on marriage today. Marriage is one of if not the most important relationship in life, a partner with whom one forms a team. There are benefits as well as responsibilities with marriage, many of which are detailed in the Ketubah. Amber had mentioned to me that it was important to her to observe the entire calendar as a Jew before getting married, and she has been doing so this year. I know that in continuing to grow in your Jewish observance (through Shabbat dinners cooked by Justin, not working on Saturdays and exploring keeping a Kosher home) you will also grow in your relationship with one another.

My prayer for you Amber and Justin is that you always turn towards each other, recognizing that your relationship supersedes any specific issue at hand, and in so doing may you strengthen your true love each and every day. Mazal Tov on this celebration of Amber’s conversion and on your soon-to-be marriage to each another. In order to crystallize the excitement that each of us feels for Amber, please turn to Page 841 and continue with me responsively.

[1] Exodus 32:8

[2] Exodus 32:9-10

[3] Exodus 32:12

[4] https://www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/

[5] Exodus 32:14

How Lavish a Shul Do You Want?

In the United States we often have an “edifice complex.” We want synagogues to be bigger and more elaborate, with more and more donations for capital campaigns. At the same time, we know that bigger does not always mean better. Many synagogues today wish they had a smaller building that was easier to take care of.

We see in this week’s reading that our ancestors were the same in being directed to have embellishment. They were told to make an ark out of acacia wood, which needed to be imported, as well as overlaid with pure gold. The ark cover also needed to be overlaid with gold. Four gold rings needed to be attached to the four feet of the ark. The poles needed to be made out of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The cherubim outside the ark needed to be made from hammered gold.

Why does everything need to be ornate and elaborate? Why not take a more simple approach? An obvious answer is because this is God’s house so it needs to be as elaborate and high-end as possible. Rashi comments that the mishkan “symbolizes the crown of royalty” and “represents wealth and greatness.”[1] Rashi comments further on the requirement for hammered work for the Menorah “it shall not be made of segments; it must all be made from a single piece of metal.”[2] This is much harder to do and requires the best craftsman in order to construct it.

Ever since the story of Cain and Abel we understand the importance of giving G-d the best that we have. We needed the best craftsmen and the most expensive materials in order to build a home fit for The Almighty One. As each synagogue is considered a מקדש מעט, a miniature sanctuary, and our contemporary synagogues were constructed in a similar way: the best craftsmen, the most majestic structures and the most expensive materials one can afford. We were awed by the clergy team from on high, as if they were in the heavens. At the same time, many today, especially of my generation, are not impressed by these majestic structures of yesteryear, questioning their value. If G-d is everywhere, and we can connect at any place, why do we need such a “pretty room”?

When I was a rabbinical student, I prayed at independent minyanim which were located in church basements. I remember someone covering the image of Jesus with a sweater before Kabbalat Shabbat services at Kol Zimrah. Although it was not a beautiful space, I got such intense feelings of spirituality based on the people I was praying with and the prayer experience itself. At the same time, I feel the inherent beauty in praying in a gorgeous space like this. In my experience, it’s the people and the music which together create the sense of beauty more than the structure itself.

The challenge is that prayer spaces have been set by those who came before us, so how do we create a prayer space that speaks to younger people? I would argue that more than the space it’s what we do that attracts people. If we do not have a worship product that touches people’s souls, it does not matter how gorgeous the prayer space is. Conversely, the more inspirational the prayer experience, the more people will come despite what the room might look like. Today it might feel that our gifts from the heart matter more than the previous generation’s gifts from the pocket which endowed such a beautiful Sanctuary.

When we think about what our Terumot, our personal contributions, will be, let us consider gifts from the spirit as much if not more so than gifts from the pocket. Let us appreciate our beautiful prayer space, which is not “free” to maintain but may we also consider how we can shape our prayer experience to be welcoming and inviting to those of all ages. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 25:24 ד”ה וצפית אותו זהב טהור

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:31 ד”ה ועשית מנרת זהב טהור

Are Our Leaders God?

We know that people have short memories. One of the key questions that gets asked subconsciously is “What have you done for me lately?” The comforting news is that as Ezekiel said “There is nothing new under the sun;” our ancestors were exactly the same way-and we can learn from their example of what not to do.

In his book The Rational Bible, Dennis Prager details crises between Moses/God and Israel that arise after Israel crosses the Sea of Reeds. The first is when they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. Prager points out “It took the Israelites a mere three days to lose sight of all the miracles God had performed and to start complaining.”[1] After Moses throws his staff in the water to sweeten it, the second crises emerges when our ancestors complain about food. They whine, “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!”[2] Prager has a compelling insight there: “It is a myth people yearn most for freedom. Some people, thank God, do. But many, if not most, people prefer to be taken care of-even at the price of a loss of freedoms-rather than to have to take care of themselves.”[3] So quickly Israel goes from a triumphant people celebrating the Song of the Sea to a nostalgic people with an “exaggerated, idealized picture of the past.”[4]

The result of the dearth of food is manna raining down from the heavens. Yet God brings manna with a test, instructing Israel to eat their entire portion on the day they receive it as well as that they will receive a double portion of manna on Friday as they will not receive it on Shabbat. Moses and Aaron find this compelling, proclaiming that “by evening you shall know it was God who brought you out of Egypt.”[5] Will the miracle of the manna do what the plagues could not? Not at all. As Prager points out, “miracles sustain faith for only a brief period.”[6] Israel disobeyed Moses twice: “Some of them left some of it until morning and it became infested with maggots and stank”[7] and “the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found nothing.”[8] By this point God is furious, proclaiming “How long will you men refuse to obey my commandments and teachings?” (Ex. 16:28).

What’s fascinating to me is the interplay between Moses and God in this week’s reading. First Moses cries out to God to save Israel after they are in danger of being engulfed by Egypt at the Sea of Reeds. God’s retort is “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to Israel and move forward!”[9] Later on Israel cries to Moses, “Give us water to drink,” and Moses replies “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try God?”[10] It is as if “the Israelites do not seem to differentiate between God and Moses; they demand that Moses, not God, provide them with water.” On one hand this should not surprise us, as Pharaoh viewed himself as a God, so Israel is used to viewing themselves as God. God has already placed Moses in the role of God (elohim) to Pharaoh. On the other hand Moses fears Israel asking God “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”[11] It is as if Moses is not comfortable with his role as the representation of God before Israel.

I think of how as a man of faith and the one viewed as God’s emissary this interplay works out. In rabbinical school I heard a story about a man whose wife was very ill. The rabbi came in for bikkur holim (visiting the sick). The husband shouted out, “Rabbi-we’re not ready for you yet!” It is as if the rabbi was God’s escort (or for a more negative reading the Angel of Death), bringing the woman up to heaven. How often are the leaders of the Jewish community viewed as God-like? Moses might have felt like he was just a man but that’s not how he was viewed by the people.

As we celebrate Jake!s Men’s Club Shabbat, let us bless the leaders of our Men’s Club representing that while they might feel they don’t do much, they do a great deal to sustain the Jericho Jewish Center. Let us thank Michael who tirelessly organizes the service leaders, Torah and Haftarah readers year after year; Dan who does all the behind-the-scenes work to make Jake!s Mens Club operational; Sherwin for doing the beautiful Shabbat sheet and Jake in abstentia who is the face of the Men’s Club just like Moses was the face of the Jewish people. We are so grateful to be able to celebrate together with you at Shabbat Shirah and demonstrate by example the power of Jake!s Mens Club. When we (God forbid) have a short memory and think “What has JJC done for me lately?” let us remember this special Shabbat and give thanks to our leadership for making it possible.

[1] Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible, page 176.

[2] Exodus 16:3

[3] The Rational Bible, Page 182.

[4] Ibid

[5] Exodus 16:6

[6] The Rational Bible, Page 184.

[7] Exodus 16:20

[8] Exodus 16:27

[9] Exodus 14:16

[10] Exodus 17”2

[11] Exodus 17:4

Uncircumcised Lips

It is so wonderful to have my parents and siblings here for my daughter’s special Simhat Bat weekend.

Last week we discussed Moses going outside his comfort zone but not without challenging G-d. In Parshat Shemot Moses described himself as כבד-פה וכבד לשון, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”[1] In Parshat VaEra, he took things to another level. He said ואיך ישמעני פרעה ואני ערל-שפתיים, “How will Pharaoh listen to me for I am of uncircumcised lips.”[2] Aaron becomes his spokesman and G-d replies נתתיך אלקים לפרעה, “I have placed you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh.”[3] In other words, your perceived weakness is really your strength. It is through Moses repeating G-ds words, and Aaron translating them to Pharaoh, that the plagues will occur.

In life there are plenty of things we wish we did not have yet the fortunate person views them as gifts from G-d. When other kids were going to soccer practice or dance, I was going to speech lessons two to three days a week. I had trouble with many different letters, including “s,” “r” and “th.” There were periods in my life where I thought I would never get the letters right. However, I kept going, and eventually three days turned into two, then one and finally zero. At that stage in my life I would have never imagined that I would be giving public speeches every week. Nor would I have envisioned going to nationals in Forensics (Speech and Debate) in Student Congress in High School, winning First Place in, among all things, Catholic Forensics League National Qualifiers. Without taking small steps, day after day, I would never have made it to a point where most people could not tell that I have had speech therapy and where my speaking has become my strength.

By the end of the Torah, Moses goes from having “uncircumcised lips” to becoming our people’s greatest teacher, so much so that he was referred to as משה רבנו, Moses our teacher. As G-d said in a rebuke to Moses in last week’s parsha, מי שם פה לאדם, “Who gives man speech?”[4] Often in life, rather than wishing things were otherwise, we need to appreciate both our perceived strengths and weaknesses as gifts from   G-d.

Another lesson from our reading is that when we have a weakness we work together with others as a team to overcome it. Moses was given his brother Aaron as his spokesman. As we know from Ecclesiastes, טובים השניים מן האחד אשר יש-להם שכר טוב, בעמלם “Two are better than one for they have good reward through their labors.”[5]

In a similar vein to Moses and Aaron working together, Karina and my hope and prayer is that Ariela and Leora will do the same. Each of our daughters will have strengths which will shine forth in the world as well as challenges to overcome and one way to help do that is to have a support, a friend for life, a sibling. Moses’ weakness, his uncircumcised lips, was Aaron’s strength. Looking at what Moses and Aaron accomplished together, we see the power of siblings: both were needed to blaze the trail forward and get our ancestors out of Egypt. So too may it be the case for us and for our family members and life partners.

[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] Exodus 6:12

[3] Exodus 7:1

[4] Exodus 4:11

[5] Ecclesiastes 4:9