Graceful Beauty / Graceful Masculinity: Chayyei Sarah

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

The life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, these were the years of Sarah’s life. (Genesis 23:1)

The parsha opens with the story of Sarah’s death, but it begins with a description of her life. There are two unusual aspects to this verse, both of which have made it a particularly fruitful site for exegesis. First there is the fact that the verse references the life of Sarah twice. Rashi explains that the repetition is coming to praise her, and teach us that the years of her life “were all equal for goodness.” The first word, וַיִּהְיוּ, is a palindrome reflecting this teaching that from beginning to end, and everything in between, Sarah’s life was equally good. This is an unusual assertion as Sarah’s life certainly had its ups and downs. After struggling with infertility for decades, miraculously having a son at 90 must have felt like a life changing experience. The first word of the verse, having a numerical value of 37, also signifies this distinction by highlighting her 37 years of being a mother. 

The Sefas Emes1 writes that Sarah’s days were all equally good because she was able to place G-d in front of her, always. Her clarity and awareness of G-d’s presence was so real and consistent, it was powerful enough to heal from the trauma of the original sin. R’ Gedilah Schorr taught that this is alluded to in the verse “She bestows goodness, never evil, all the days of her life.”2 There was no mixture. Nothing impure.

Second, our verse also notes that Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years old, instead of saying more efficiently that she was one hundred and twenty-seven years old. Rashi comments that this alludes to the fact that when she was 20 years old she was like a seven year old with regard to beauty. Admittedly it is a very strange compliment. What is the Torah trying to teach us is praising her in this way?

Sarah’s beauty is lauded repeatedly in the Torah, prompting Abraham to fear that he would be killed by men who coveted her. The Talmud3 explains that one of the reasons that Sarah was also called Yischah, in Genesis 11:29, was because everyone wanted to gaze at her beauty.4 Yet despite her reputation for being gorgeous, the Midrash5 claims that Abraham eulogized Sarah with the words from King Solomon’s Woman of Valor6  which include: “Grace (Chein) is false and beauty meaningless, but a woman who is God fearing should be praised.” Why is the Torah focusing on Sarah’s beauty if ultimately, beauty is not of true value?

The Torah is not singing her praises as much as it is praising her song. Whether high or low, she is consistently connecting to G-d. The rabbis observe7 that the word for song שיר / shir  is the same letters as straight ישר / yashar. Songs, like life, consist of changes. Wherever we are, we can respond by connecting straight to G-d. The Talmud8 explains the verse in Psalms9“I will sing of loving-kindness and justice; unto You, O Lord, will I sing praises” to mean: If it is loving-kindness, I will sing, and if it is justice, I will sing.

Sarah was exceptionally beautiful because she presented as the purest form of the divine image, like the natural holiness of a child. Expressing that connection constantly is what made her life good. When the physical is elevated, in service of heaven, then the physical is also praiseworthy, because it is being used as a tool for spirituality.

Rabbi Akiva teaches10 that Esther merited to rule over 127 provinces of the Persian Empire because she was the descendant of Sarah who lived 127 years.  Sarah modeled an embodied revelation of the hidden that continues to give strength, especially in the hard times of exile and G-d’s hiding.

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov11(1783-1841) explains that Rebecca and Miriam also had this spiritual beauty that inspired people to connect more deeply to G-d. Unlike the superficial beauty, true chein/grace produces a transcendent attraction that draws us closer to G-d, and to a deeper understanding of each other. 

We read this Parsha on the Shabbat that we bless the upcoming month of Kislev. In Hebrew כסלו is understood as כס-לו a covering for the 36 hidden lights of Chanukah which we experience at the end of the month. Each month is connected to a different order of the four letters of G-’s name. Kislev’s is organized ויה-ה 12 the same as the last letter in the first four words of our initial verse, וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה and corresponds to the mourning of Jacob,13 who is brought for burial in the cave on Chanukah.14

As we enter into the dark winter months, may the light of our connection to the Divine shine forth and bring true beauty to the world.

 

1.656

2. Proverbs 31:12

3. Bavli Megillah 14a

4.Another reason that is offered is that she saw with Divine Spirit

5. Tanchuma 4

6. Proverbs 31:10

7. Sefas Emes 633 Beshalach

8. Bavli Brachos 60b

9. 101:1

10. Bereishit Rabbah 58:3

11. Igra D’Kallah

12. Beni Yissascher M’1

13. Genesis 50:11 וַיַּרְא יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי

14. Emunas Asecha

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

Running With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeira

וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

And he said, “my lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.” (Genesis 18:3)

 

Vayeira begins as Avraham, recovering from his recent circumcision, is conversing with G-d in a prophetic state. Suddenly, Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees three angels, presenting as men, approaching. He runs to greet them and then says, “My Lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.”

With whom is Avraham speaking? If he is speaking to the three men, why does he address them in the singular?  Rashi offers two understandings of Avraham’s words. First Rashi suggests that Avraham is speaking to the three men, but he is addressing the most important of the three and that is why he says “my lord.” Then Rashi shares an intriguing, alternative approach. Avraham is actually speaking with G-d, asking G-d to wait while he goes to welcome the potential guests.

Based on this understanding of the verse, the Talmud teaches1 that “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence”. But if Avraham is asking G-d not to pass on from him, why does he first run to the three men? Would it not make more sense to take his leave of G-d and then run to greet his guests? Also, how did Avraham know that it was acceptable to keep G-d waiting in order to service guests? 

The Ramchal frames2 all of character development as an attempt to better understand G-d in order to act as G-d would act. “Walking in G-d’s ways – this includes all matters of uprightness and correction of character traits.” He explains that is what the Talmud3 means when it teaches “Just as God is full of grace and compassion, we should similarly be merciful and compassionate.4

The commentators5 observe that Talmud could have simply taught that we should be graceful and compassionate because G-d is, but instead the Talmud links our actions to G-d’s by making them conditional to be G-d like. In other words, the more we study and come to know G-d and the appropriate applications of G-d’s attributes, the more similar we can be to G-d.

Abraham started his quest to understand G-d very early on and now, 96 years later, he had perfected his body to be aligned with the Divine Will. R’ Nosson Gestetner writes that Avraham’s 248 limbs were so attuned to their corresponding 248 positive commandments that his body naturally was performing in G-dly ways. 

As soon as his feet began to run towards the guests, he assumed that was what God wanted him to do. Because G-d is charitable, Avraham knew that he was also meant to be. Perhaps our verse should be understood as a question of approbation, after having left the prophetic state, asking “If I have found grace in Your eyes, if I have understood You correctly, this is what You want me to do – If I have properly found your way of gracefulness, please don’t leave me because I am not leaving you.” Avraham wasn’t just walking in G-d’s ways, but he was running!

Our relationship with G-d, however asymmetrical, is still reciprocal. Whatever Abraham did for his angelic guests himself, G-d performed directly for Abraham’s descendants. But whatever was done through a messenger, G-d also performed indirectly; mida k’neged mida, measure for measure.  This principal can also be understood, homiletically, as reflecting G-d’s Midos, character traits. The more we understand G-d the more we can be like G-d, and then the more G-d shares G-d’s self in relationship with us. 

Perhaps the mitzvah of welcoming strangers is the example given because one of the ways that we come to better understand G-d is by seeing different aspects of G-d in other people. It is now also a way to express to G-d, like Abraham did, that we come closer to  G-d by treating people with kindness.

 


1. Bavli Shavuot 35b

2. Introduction to Path of the Just

3. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b

4.Rashi explains this teaching about grace, from Abba Shaul on the verse in Exodus of זה א-לי ואנוהו, through the etymology ואנוהו = אני והוא, me and G-d – that we should make ourselves like G-d by doing as God does, adding to the Braisa’s understanding of אנוהו as the act of beautifying a mitzvah

5. בלבבי משכן אבנה

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

Covenantal Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Lech Lecha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיְהִי אַבְרָם, בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים; וַיֵּרָא יְקוָק אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-קל שַׁקי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Abram and said to him. “I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)

God commands Abraham to be entirely perfect. It is difficult to perfect one’s body and soul as the partnership between them is naturally contentious. The body is formed from the earth and the soul from Heaven, and each yearns towards its source. Without work, they will be in opposition to each other. This lack of harmony, according to the Sefas Emes, is the deficiency that bris mila, circumcision, comes to fix.1 Circumcision takes a site of physical desire, and consecrates it for spiritual purpose. 

The commentators famously ask “If Abraham kept the Torah,2 even though it had not yet been given on Mount Sinai, why did he wait to be commanded to be circumcised?” One simple answer might be that circumcision is more than a physical act. It is the instantiation of covenant. You can’t enter into such an intimate space  — the space of covenant —  without the consent of the other. Circumcision reminds us of the holiness of actions being determined by the will of another. Until G-d said “I want you …,” it couldn’t be fulfilled.

For bodies to whom circumcision applies, circumcision allies the body to the soul, which provides a continuity of our actions. The temporary nature of the physical world gains permanence through a spiritual attachment. The Bris Kehunas Olam observes an allusion to this in the verse (Psalms 144:4) “ימיו כצל עובר / His days are like a passing shadow.” In Hebrew, the phrase has a numerical value of 484; the same as “body-soul” גוף נשמה. With the sixth letter vuv, “ו” the conjunction “and,” it equals תמים, perfect. The Zohar says the letter “vuv” alludes to the site of the bris milah. The soul is connected and partnered with the body.

The early mystical work Sefer Yetzirah3 writes that there are actually two covenants: a covenant of speech, and the covenant of circumcision. “When Abraham our father looked…G-d made a covenant between the ten fingers of his hands – this is the covenant of the tongue, and between the ten toes of his feet – this is the covenant of circumcision, and G-d bound the 22 letters of the Torah…”

A fascinating observation is made by Ohr Tzvi. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet can map to the body. Starting with the toes of the right foot, those letters represent א-ה. The next letter vuv, “ו”, is the “covenant between the toes” or the place of circumcision between the legs. If we continue to count the next five toes of the left foot, these are then aligned with ז-כ. The count then moves to the five fingers of the right hand ל-ע, and then to the mouth which is between the hands, which correlates with the Hebrew letter פה, which actually means mouth and represents the covenant of the tongue. We conclude with the five fingers of the left hand צ-ת. So all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are represented on the the body. And this connects the covenant of the tongue with the covenant of circumcision.

The Talmud4 relates that right before Rebbe, the redactor of the Mishna, passed away, “he raised his ten fingers toward Heaven and said: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the Torah, and I have not derived any benefit from the world even with my small finger.” Reb Tzodok HaKohen explains this Gemara as a reference to being faithful to the covenant.5

The holiness of circumcision is dependent on speech. The numerical value of פה / mouth is equal to that of מילה / circumcision. King David writes in Psalms “grace/chein is poured on to your lips.” (Psalm 45:3) Perfection of speech requires mastering how to speak, when appropriate, but also mastering when to be silent.6 Noach found grace and was called “perfect” in his generation. He is also praised for his use of sensitive speech.7 However, he was deficient in that he didn’t use language to help those around him to improve themselves and be saved from the flood.

The Magid points out that the measurements that the Torah gives for Noah’s ark: 30, 300, and 50 spell “לשן”, speech/tongue — but the word is missing the “ו”, vuv. Noah wasn’t connecting to others through speech the way he should have, and in the end that manifests in a defilement of his body.8

Correctly using our mouth involves both putting words out into the world through speech, and silence in holding words back. This dynamic of expansion and containment is reflected in the two covenants. Rashi says that G-d’s name E-l Shaddai is the name of G-d used in the passage about circumcision because there is די / dai  (sufficient) divinity for all. Yet the Talmud9 relates that the dai in the name E-l Shaddai is also in the context of G-d saying to the creation of the world: “that is enough.”  How can the same name of G-d refer both to G-d’s relationship with the world as limitless but also contained?

Chein / grace is produced by expanding the holiness of our spiritual connections, elevating the mundane and each other, while minimizing the physical that could be in opposition with the spiritual. Pursuing perfection comes from increasing our awareness of the Divine Presence, knowing that when we attach ourselves to G-d, we are made for each other.

 

1. Rashi here shares an interpretation that this verse is referring to the commandment to be circumcised.
2. Yoma 28a
3. Sefer Yetzirah 6:7
4. Bavli Ketubot 104a
5. Takanas HaShavin
6. Sefas Emes succot
7. Pesachim 3a
8. Genesis 20:9
9. Chagigah 12a

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

Having Something Graceful to Say / Graceful Masculinity: Devarim

 

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן:  בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת–וְדִי זָהָב.

These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel, across the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Plain, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Laban, and Hazeroth and Di-zahab. (Deuteronomy 1:1)

 

The book of Deuteronomy consists almost entirely of one exceedingly long speech delivered by Moses at the end of his life. The speech is so long that Midrash Tanchuma reports the Israelites saying, “Yesterday you said ‘I’m not a man of words”, and now you have SO much to say!”1

The people listen to all of Moses’ words. And as we read Deuteronomy between now and Simchat Torah, we listen as well. Moses does have a lot to say, and much of it is a rebuke to the Israelites for their misbehavior during the previous forty years. In our own time of great division and non-communication, we can learn a lot from Moses’ unifying final words.

Moses’ wordiness here appears out of character. In Egypt, Aaron was the talker and Moses described himself as having sealed lips (aral sefatayim). Yet over the course of their journey through the wilderness, Aaron has learned to be silent (Leviticus 10:3) and Moses has learned to speak. Rashi, on the famous verse in Ecclesiastes 3:7 “there is a time to be silent and a time to talk,” references Aaron and Moses, in that order. Each leader was able to expand beyond their natural tendency when the time called for it.

Moses’ speech begins on the first day of the month of Shvat, just 36 days before his death.2 Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Pentateuch, is called the Mishnah Torah by the Rabbis. It’s name, משנה, can be parsed מ’ שנה – forty years. This marks the fact that 40 years have passed since Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and the children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It also alludes to the 40 generations from Moshe to Rebbe Yehudah HaNassi, who redacts the Mishna that becomes the basis of our Talmud.3

The letter מ is also the first and last letter of the Oral Law. The first mishnah in the first tractate begins with the word מאימתי and the last word of the last tractate ends with the word שלום.  (me’amatai and shalom). The two מ’s together have the numerical value of 80 which corresponds to the Hebrew letter פ – peh, the mouth. This book is understood as the Torah Sheba’al Peh, the Oral Torah, in that Moshe is teaching the Divine word differently than in the first four books.4 (Notably, in his retelling, some things are different than the first time around.)

Just as it was necessary for everyone to be united by the revelation at Sinai, here also it is essential for the community to be unified in hearing Moses’ words. Rav Wolfson in his work Emunat Atich explains that all of Israel needed to be present at the same time, not just to hear Moses, but also to teach and learn from each other.5 The letter ל / lamed appears at the end of each word in the phrase אל כל ישראל, (al kol Yisrael, “to all of Israel”) and that letter  ל is the root of the word לימוד / limud, meaning learning.

Today we often place ourselves in siloed, self-selected groups with the goal of having easy conversations with like-minded people. In contrast, Moses gathers all of the people, all together, for a difficult conversation. Rashi, citing the Sifrei, explains why it is crucial that everyone be present at the same time: if some folks were in the marketplace during Moses’ speech they would claim that had they been there, they could have refuted Moses. Moses speaks to everyone, engaging them with an opportunity for each individual to disagree and speak up if they choose.

The Zohar6 attributes Moshe’s success to his chein (grace) and connects him to the verse in Psalms 45:3 “grace is poured upon your lips”. The distinction between lips and speech is significant. The mystics7 observe five distinct body parts integral to speech: the (1) throat, (2) palate, (3) tongue, (4) teeth, and (5) lips. Of the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, only 4 letter sounds are articulated by the lips.8

The Sefas Emes9notes that lips are unusual in that they serve two speech functions. They both create sound, and prevent sound from leaving the mouth. Moshe uses his lips expertly. He speaks when he has something to say and is silent when he does not. 

The Sefas Emes also understands the two lips as working in counterpoint together. He says the lips allude to Moses and Aaron; and later, Hillel and Shammai. The two lips also represent different attributes. Silence is din (judgement) and talking is rachamim (mercy). The Written Torah represents strictness of the law, while the Oral Torah represents mercy and compassion.10

Compassionate speech doesn’t mean indulging in one’s own desire to talk, but rather creating opportunities for people to truly hear what needs to be said. Moses’ authenticity of being, reliability of presence, and consistency of selflessness allow the words that come from his heart to enter the hearts of others. Like Moses, we must lead with love, and learn from each other.

 

Discussion questions:

 

How can we determine when we should speak and when be silent?

Is it ok to rebuke someone for doing something we ourselves do?

When someone isn’t likely to listen to what we have to say, should we still say it?

Why might the Hebrew word for “thing” דבר – davar, be the same word for speech, debar?

 


1. Tanchuma 2

2. אלה = ל”ו

3. Megaleh Amukos 246

4.Zohar Genesis 28:10

5. This is reflected in talmudic discussion about the proximity of teaching; even though some don’t learn from the juxtaposition of verses, in the first four books, here they do.

6. Parshas Bo

7. Sefer Yetzirah 2:3

8. בומ”פ

9. Succos 654-6

10.עיין ספר הזכות: לא איש דברים אנכי ס”ת שמאי, הוא יהיה לך לפה ר”ת הילל

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

 

Coming Closer Through Protest / Graceful Masculinity – Balak

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃

He declaimed his parable and said: ”The words of Bilaam son of Beor, the words of the man who is shetum ha-ayin .” (Numbers 24:3)

 

Bilaam, the famous Midianite prophet, is described as shetum ha-ayin, understood by some commentaries as sharp-sighted, and by others as half-blind. Indeed, what Bilaam sees and does not see is critical to his appraisal of the people of Israel. 

At first, never having laid eyes on Israel, he agrees to try and curse them. Later, having caught a glimpse of Israel, he is moved to bless them. Then gazing on them fully, he blesses them so powerfully that his words become the start of our daily prayers – mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, how goodly are your tents, Jacob.

This trajectory is what we always hope for – that when we know each other better, we will be less prejudiced and more loving. The Torah is filled with examples of how it is easier to hate from afar. Joseph’s brothers see him from a distance and it is then that they plot to get rid of him. Esav wants to kill Jacob when he is not with him, but then when he actually confronts him he embraces and kisses him. 

Yet Bilaam is not understood by our tradition as an example of successful bridge-building. His prophecies, though gorgeous, are understood to lead to Israel’s subsequent sin at Shittim. As the midrash in Devarim Rabbah 1:2 explains:

One who protests/reproves a person will afterward find more grace than one who speaks with a smooth tongue (Proverbs 28:23)

One who protests/reproves – this is Moses . . .

Find more graceas it is said, You have found grace in My eyes (Exodus 33:12)

Than one who speaks with a smooth tonguethis is Bilaam who flattered Israel with his prophecies and their hearts filled with hubris and they sinned in Shittim.

Although Bilaam sees Israel and speaks beautifully about them, the Midrash complains that he does not authentically engage with them. His words are seen as superficial flattery that inflates Israel’s sense of self and leads them to a gruesome fall. By contrast, Moses has a trustworthy relationship with Israel, filled with love, expectations, and accountability.

Honest engagement is often uncomfortable. We hear and speak unpleasant truths. Yet the midrash says that one who protests/reproves finds more chen than who elides the discomfort. According to the midrash, these real, if awkward, conversations are the essence of chen. True grace requires an investment in growth.

Bilaam’s name is parsed by the Talmud as B’li Am, free from people. As a quintessential outsider, Bilaam had a unique perspective on the people of Israel. Had he been willing to do the emotional labor of having the difficult conversations with them, he would have helped them be better aware of themselves and advanced a more just coexistence.

Mishnah Avot 5:19 teaches that Bilaam is emblematic of the evil eye. He didn’t view himself as part of the collective, nor did he feel responsible for anyone else. The Torah teaches that the proper perspective is to see people as worthy of effort and investment as part of humanity’s development and evolution to a more perfect society. In doing so, we are partnering with G-d in the ongoing process of naese adom, “Let us make a person”. Humanity is more idyllically formed when we work together to elevate each other towards communal perfection. 

The midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah 2:12 observes the attitudinal difference that Moses and Bilaam have towards people. Biliam compares us to dust (Numbers 23:10), whereas Moses describes us as the stars in the sky (Deuteronomy 1:10). While both dust and stars are too numerous to count, Moses’s blessing reflects the aspirational reality that the closer we get to people, like stars, the greater they appear. 

At a time when many people are becoming mobilized to protest racial violence, police brutality, and LGBTQ inequality, we must be careful not to fall into Bilaam’s trap. We must expand beyond smooth slogans and superficial alliances and instead form deep coalitions based on relationship building and respectful dialogue. We must commit to working together with a deeper understanding of each other; listening tirelessly and consistently while devoutly showing up with a unifying love. Together, we can see one another more completely and stand up for each other more authentically, so that we may all be part of a more just world.

 

Discussion questions:

What are some ways to expand our relationships with communities that are different from our own?

Are there books or other sources of personal stories that have moved you to get more involved?

How would you advise someone who asks you why antisemitism exists and how to best respond to it?

What are some ways of framing rebuke in a loving way?

 

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz.

Holding complexity, simply / Graceful Masculinity: Yitro

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אָנֹכִי יְקוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:  I am Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. (Exodus 20:2)

The Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai was God’s coming out speech. In it, G-d tells us about G-d’s self. G-d is everywhere, all of the time, relating to everything in this world in countless ways — and G-d is One. Indeed, what may be most complicated to grasp about G-d is G-d’s utter simplicity.1

“I am Hashem your God” is confusing for us. The verse includes two different names for G-d – Hashem and Elokim.  One name for G-d seems to be individualized (Elokecha, “your” God), while the other name sounds absolute.2 The variations we perceive between these different names of G-d are a result of G-d reflecting our diversity back to us in relationship.

It’s interesting that G-d introduces G-d’s self as the G-d of the Exodus from Egypt. Here, at Mount Sinai, G-d presented as “an old man full of mercy.” Earlier, at the splitting of the sea, G-d appeared as a “mighty warrior.” Even though the people of Israel perceived God differently, God is in fact One and the same. G-d is explaining: “Since I change appearances, do not say that there are two different powers”.3

G-d’s simplicity continues to be complex for us. It certainly could have been a more powerful claim to simply state: “I am Hashem your G-d who created the universe.” But that is harder for us to relate to. No one was there at the time of Creation, but everyone at Mount Sinai had just witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea.

In preparation for experiencing the revelation of G-d at Sinai, the verse testifies, “Israel (singular) encamped there, opposite the mountain” וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר. (Exodus 19:2) Rashi explains that Israel is described in the singular to indicate that they encamped as one person with one heart. To encamp, וַיִּחַן,  is a language of grace.4 Gathering the entire nation, unified in purpose and intention is not a small task, and was only made possible because of this attribute of grace. It allowed everyone to see each other’s character traits, and not to hate or separate from each other because they were different.5

The Divine revelation required a process of relatability: separate and distinct things coming together as one. In truth, we are all made of the same traits, attributes, and characteristics, just blended in unique ways with individualized expressions. Below the surface we all carry similar things, just in different ways, the result of our own life experiences.

We are each a part of the whole of humanity. Nothing is found in the whole except that which is found in the individual.6 There is a part of each of us in the other. This is true of the commandments as well. For example, there is a mitzvah to honor the Sabbath; and every mitzvah also has an aspect of honor in it. The red heifer is emblematic of an unintelligible commandment; and we also recognize that every mitzvah has aspects beyond our comprehension. “I am Hashem your G-d” is necessary for it all.

The manifestation of a trait, as the dominant expression in the moment, doesn’t minimize the existence of all of the other attributes that also make us who we are. When we dismiss people by what we think defines them, we flatten the depth and deny the complexities of G-d’s creations. When we recognize each person as valuable for specifically the constellation of character traits that makes them unique (and different from us), we come closer to perceiving and understanding the total unity of G-d.

 

Discussion questions:

When we first introduce ourselves to someone, we know that it takes a long time to really get to know someone. Why then are we so quick to judge each other?

What are some ways that we can build relationships with those who see the world differently than we?

The Talmud is filled with righteous people arguing. What are appropriate ways for reasonable people to disagree?

How can we foster more robust conversations about complex issues with more grace and respect?

 


 

1. R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s fifth principle about Hashem: “One must further know that Hashem’s existence is simple, without any composite or multiplicity. All perfections in their entirety are found within G-d in a simple way (שמציאותו יתברך שמו מציאות פשות).

2. עיין בתפארת ישראל קז

3. Rashi 20:2

4. הרבי מוורקה

5. כד הקמח

6. אין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

The Freedom of Control / Graceful Masculinity: Bo

word cloud

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’, בְּפִיךָ:  כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה, הוֹצִאֲךָ ה’ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

And it will be for you a sign on your hand and for remembrance between your eyes so that G-d’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand G-d removed you from Egypt. (Exodus 13:9)

 

Speech is most powerful when it is simultaneously controlled and free. We need the liberty to express ourselves, but if we do not exert care and restraint in what we say, our words cannot be optimally effective. Tefillin, טוטפות – an expression of speech,1 is the first daily mitzvah commanded in the Torah and also models both freedom and constraint. We bind ourselves to God’s words with leather straps and in doing so we exercise free choice to demonstrate a powerful religious commitment.

The purpose of tefillin is לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’ בְּפִיךָ so that our mouths will be filled with Torah. Tefillin is understood as a covenant of our mouths.2 Even though tefillin contain the words of the Written Torah, it is a symbol of the Oral Torah as well.

Tradition teaches that this commandment was delivered on the eve of Passover, right before the exodus from Egypt, in part as preparation for the redemption of speech. The Hebrew word for Egypt, מצרים,  like the Talmud, starts and ends with the letter “מ” mem. The Talmud teaches3 that the “מ”4 is sometimes open and sometimes closed (a regular mem has an opening; a final mem is a closed shape) to demonstrate that some things should be said and sometimes we should instead close our mouths and not speak. The first letter in the Mishna and in the word Mitzrayim is open, while the last letter in both is closed. The letters that remain in Mitzrayim form the word “desire” יצר yetzer.

Another name for the yetzer is michshol5 (to stumble) מכשיל. 6When one wraps the straps around the ring finger one recites “I will betroth you to me forever…with faithfulness”, with the joy of a groom under the chuppah. 7 Vilna Gaon says the two shins “ש” on the tefillin form the word sus, the root of ששון / celebration. We commit in relationship to renew our identity as a chason, groom, and remind ourselves of the need for self control to prevent falling short.

The rabbis fear that emotions, even joyous ones, can become too expansive and cause us to stumble. Rabbah noticed that Abaye was exceedingly happy and said to him: “rejoice with trepidation!” (Psalms 2:11) He responded by saying “I am wearing Tefillin.”8 The Gemara then continues with the story of Mar who made a wedding feast for his son and thought the rabbis were having too good a time. He bought an expensive glass that was worth 4009 zuz and broke it in front of them to contain their joy — and this, according to Tosafot, is why we have the universal custom of breaking a glass at a wedding.10

There are several differences between the tefillin of the arm and the head. The one we wear on the head, like the intellect, is compartmentalized. There are four separate texts, each in their own space, like the four senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell, each having their own domain. The one on the arm corresponds to the heart, and like our emotions, is total. The one on our head is revealed, the one on the arm concealed to remind us of the need to process our feelings into words that are appropriate for another to hear.

How we interact with others says a lot about who we are. Our ability to control ourselves and act properly testifies about our character, especially in emotionally charged situations.11Maturity has been defined as the intellect’s ability to control the emotions and support a healthy balance of the two. 

With the Exodus of Egypt came the birth of a nation and the need to relearn how to speak properly. The word Passover in Hebrew is פסח — “Peh Sach,” the mouth that speaks. All of the mitzvos of the seder — telling the story, eating matzah, drinking wine — involve the mouth. Paroh is understood as פה רע / “Peh Rah” — the evil mouth. The more we fill ourselves with Torah the more empowered we are. For there is no freedom when we are not in control; including controlling the words that come out of our mouth.

 

Discussion questions:

 

We do not wear tefillin on Shabbos. What might that tell us about the way we speak today?

What else in Judaism is called a “sign?” What do they have in common?

What are some strategies to better use words as a way of improving a situation?

Why do we often feel better after we have spoken about our feelings?

 


1. Rashi Exodus 13:16

2. עיין שפת אמת פ’ נח תרנ”ד

3. Shabbos 104a

4. Spelled מם with both letters, the first “open” and last “closed”.

5. עיין בן יהוידע ברכות ה: רע עין = 400 on the story of 400 barrels of wine that turned to vinegar

6. Michsol also has a numerical value of 400, the same as ת in חתן, leaving חן remaining.

7. Malbim hosea 2:21 כמ”ש ומשוש חתן על כלה ישיש עליך אלהיך, ויהיו אירוסין חדשים

8. Brachos 30b

9. Also an allusion to Esev who came after Jacob with 400 men.

10. The Tzlach explains that we are similar to glass in that we are also made from the earth and that we fall and break (through sin) we can also be reformed, like glass, through repentance.

11. In the verse of Shema, the first and last letters are large and form the word עד, meaning testimony. The Gra observes that the remaining letters in those two words form אשמך – to rejoice.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Charismatic Faith / Graceful Masculinity: Vayechi

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף, בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי-עָיִן; בָּנוֹת, צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי-שׁוּר.

A charming son is Joseph, a charming son to the eye; each of the daughters climbed heights to gaze. (Genesis 49:22)

 

Although Joseph was aware of his exceptional desirability, he never relied on his good looks or the privilege of being Jacob and Rachel’s oldest son — or on the financial success or political power that he accrued in Egypt. We read in Psalms that praiseworthy is the person who has made Hashem their trust (Psalms 40:5). According to the midrash, this refers to Joseph.1 He is the paradigm of a person who trusts in G-d. When the baker and the cup-bearer are disturbed by their dreams, Joseph tells them, “G-d has all dream interpretations.” (Genesis 40:8) When Joseph is later summoned to explain Pharaoh’s dreams, he declares, “It is not me. G-d will answer the peace of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:16). 

Yet, the same midrash faults Joseph for asking the cup-bearer twice (Genesis 40:14) to help him get out of prison. Because Joseph relied on a person, by asking for their intervention, instead of just having faith in God, he was forced to spend an additional two years in prison, one for each of the requests. It is implied however, that had he only asked once he wouldn’t have been punished at all. So why isn’t Joseph simply sentenced to one year, for the one unnecessary ask?

This midrash highlights one of the paradoxes of living a life of faith. Faith can be a propelling force that drives a person to seek and effect change, or it can comfort a person with the belief that everything will be ok so they don’t need to act. How can we balance our belief that God will cause everything to turn out as it should with the imperative to try our hardest to accomplish what we can? Wasn’t it proper for Joseph to try to get himself released from jail? Shouldn’t we always try to better our situation without sitting back and waiting for God to make it better?

Faith, or bitachon in Hebrew, enabled Joseph to tell his brothers time and again (Genesis 45:8, Genesis 50:20) that it was G-d’s plan that he go down to Egypt. Rashi translates “a charming son” as “a son of grace, chein.Bitachon, בטחון, is an anagram of  טוב חן – good grace. Jealousy only exists in the absence of faith in G-d’s wisdom and oversight. If we really believe that G-d has given each of us what we need to fulfill our unique purpose in this world, how could we possibly want what another has? 

Our rabbis point point out that the Hebrew word for worry is dayga, דאגה, which has four of the first five letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and is just missing the bet, ב, for bitachon.  It is that bet “ב” that we find as the first letter of Genesis. The stories in it, known as aggadah / אגדה (those same four letters again!), help inspire our faith, reduce our anxiety, and build the foundation for our relationship with G-d and each other.

The Gra says that the large “ב”, in the first word of the Torah “בראשית”, “In the beginning”, represents “בטחון”, faith. He further teaches that the first word can be parsed as “בראש-ית” at the head of “ית” , an allusion to the three letters in the Hebrew alphabet that head “ית”: namely ב,ט,ח2. Together, these three letters form the root of “faith” — in Hebrew, בטחון, which can be understood as G-d’s promise of our committed relationship.3 Joseph was in an exceedingly intimate dynamic with G-d. He lived with a deep awareness of G-d. But the moment he diverted his focus to another, he lapsed in his awareness of G-d — to the extent that it was clear to God that even the first time that he asked the cupbearer for help, he had the wrong motivation, and was therefore held responsible for both requests.

Motivation matters. And our connection with G-d matters. And — one never loses by doing the right thing. Our task is to seek to do the right thing, with the right motivation, maintaining our connection with our values and their Source. If we believe that G-d is the source of everything, how could we possibly advance our position by going against the will of the Creator, hurting another person, or misusing our resources for selfish gains? Each one of us has a connection to G-d, the Torah, and each other. We must see ourselves as partners and coworkers in the elevation of it all — and like Joseph, allow our charming and grace-filled faith to sustain us in the work in healing this broken world together.

 

Discussion questions:

The stories in our tradition are meant to model what our good and bad choices can lead to. What is your favorite Jewish story where faith led to a happy ending?

If Joseph was alive today, what do you think he would be doing with his time to fix our world?

Charisma is powerful. How can we make sure that it is used for in the right ways?

Who today, is a good example of one who using their status for the greater good?

 


1. בראשית רבה פ”ט:ג

2. בית, טית, חית

3. תי = 410 = קדוש

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

 

Responsibility as Redemption / Graceful Masculinity: Vayigash

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1)

 

One of the most dramatic moments in the Genesis narrative is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, declaring “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The medrash explains that it was Judah who brought Joseph to a point where he could hold back no longer and therefore divulges his true identity. Rabbi Chiya bar Abba posits that Judah’s speech, although directed at Joseph, is actually constructed to appease Joseph, Benjamin, and the other brothers.

We understand why Judah needs to apologize to Joseph and Benjamin. It was Judah’s plan to sell Joseph as a slave, upending Joseph’s life and robbing Benjamin of his only brother from the same mother. But I find it interesting that Rabbi Chiyah also thinks that Judah is appeasing his other brothers as well. The other brothers had wanted to kill Joseph, while Judah suggested they could make some money by selling Joseph as a slave. Judah could argue that his other brothers are equally complicit in what was done to Joseph, but instead he chooses to take full responsibility for the situation.

In a relationship, it is an act of grace to take responsibility for our actions and inactions without trying to share the blame. Our choices are meaningful because they represent our will, and as a result they are ours to own. We should make it a daily practice to take stock of our deeds,  but Yom Kippur is especially designated as a particular Day of Reckoning in the Jewish calendar. The High Priest in the Yom Kippur Temple service takes full responsibility for the deeds of Israel. He is compared on this day to a graceful groom, reflecting the magnanimous nature of his behavior and the joy of the experience. 

The Midrash says that the meal which precipitated Joseph’s revelation happened on Shabbos. Shabbos is a time when we are able to access and orient ourselves to the truth of being G-d’s creations. The Hebrew word for face, פנים, is the same as a word for “inside” because the face gives expression to what is going on internally within a person. Our rabbis teach that the light that emanates from a person’s face is different on Shabbos than during the week and has its source in the holiness of the Garden of Eden. Even Adam, after the sin, didn’t lose that light until Saturday night. Shabbos invites us to remember and take action, to return to the ideal and work to fix the things we broke. 

The brothers are rendered speechless by Joseph’s revelation. The medresh uses this as a model for us and our own day of reckoning: “Woe to us on the day of judgment, woe to us on the day of rebuke.” If the brothers were not able to answer Joseph, how are we going to be able to answer G-d?

Joseph has not rebuked his brothers. He has simply revealed the truth of the situation. Chein (grace) can be understood as an acronym for chochma nistera, hidden wisdom. The brothers had originally thought that Joseph was extraneous and expendable. The “judgment” came with Joseph simply letting them know that they had gotten it wrong.

On the Day of Judgement we will all be confronted by the truth of our potential. The prospect of this is terrifying. When people become aware of their failings, they can feel embarrassed and even give up hope of correcting bad behavior. Chein is the ability to see the greatness of the hidden and bring it out. The groom, on the verge of marriage, epitomizes embracing one’s potential and turning it into reality. It is that commitment to the ideal that empowers the groom to take responsibility for inevitable bumps along the way. Acknowledging our mistakes allows us to make amends for the past and better positions us for a more perfect future.

 

Discussion questions:

 

What are the consequences of minimizing our own potential for change?

How can one break the cycle of bad habits?

What are some best practices in saying “I’m sorry”?

It isn’t easy to admit that one was wrong. How can those receiving an apology best support a healthy outcome?

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Rising With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Mikeitz

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיֹּאמֶר–הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; רְדוּ-שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ-לָנוּ מִשָּׁם, וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת.

And [Jacob] said. “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt; go down there and purchase for us from there, so that we may live and not die. (Genesis 42:2)

 

This week’s parsha finds Jacob in a dark time. He is in deep mourning for his son Joseph, a serious famine has descended upon the region, and Jacob and his remaining sons are in danger of starvation. Amid these difficulties, Jacob bids his sons to take a treacherous journey to Egypt in the prospect of procuring food. The medresh is bothered by Jacob’s use of the word “שבר” for food. Why not use אכל, which would be a more common term?1 The medresh answers that Jacob wanted to convey an aspect of hope. The root שבר  appears in psalms with a connotation of hope: אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ   עַל־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽיו –  Happy is the one who has the G-d of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the L-rd their G-d. (Psalms 146:5)

Jacob tells his sons רדו שמהdescend there. The word רדו has the numerical value of 210, which is an allusion to the 210 years of being enslaved in Egypt.2 This trip down to Egypt is emblematic of future struggles. Faith in our ability to create positive change nourishes the movement of the moment. That is the destination on the other side of the descent. “There” – שמה – has the same letters as משה, Moses, teaching us that after the 210 years there will be liberation, the giving of the Torah, and freedom. 3

The word שבר can also mean brokenness. It’s easy to experience brokenness as hopelessness, but our rabbis embrace a process of humility and empowerment. When things are difficult, we are easily tempted to give up. It takes a unique strength entwined with a particular grace to descend into the darkness and fight for light and life. The miracle of Chanukah is that in the aftermath of horrific trauma, we didn’t surrender or stop searching for light. We went down into the shattered fragments, and came out elevated on a supernal plane.

We are told that things do get better, but we are rarely aware of where we are in the arc of it all. Being created in the Divine Image means that we, like G-d, have the ability to create new realities. The power of our impactfulness is so great that we must constantly be alert and cautious. We are taught: “Do not believe in yourself [that you will always get it right] until the day of your death; for Rabbi Yochonon was the High Priest in the Temple for 80 years, but at the end of his life he denied Divine authority.” 4 Even someone who seems to be doing everything right might make mistakes… and even someone who seems to be doing everything wrong can always improve. 

The Chanukah liturgy recalls the brave actions of Matisyahu ben Yochonon, the High Priest, who led the resistance against the Greeks.5 There is a tradition that Matisyahu is the son of the High Priest who rebelled. His actions that we celebrate on Chanukah are the corrective act that restores our faith in the Divine and repairs his father’s mistake. As a result of his efforts to fix what was broken we now have another mitzvah in the Oral Law, and he is seen as an embodiment of (ben) his father’s true identity of grace 6 (The word chein, grace, is hidden within the name Yochanan: יוחנן).7

Matisyahu was committed to a more perfect existence. It’s reminiscent of the story  of Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah’s.8 At the end of his life, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordiah recognized all of the desecration and defilement that he had caused, and his transformation triggered a revolt of holiness and sanctification that the physical limitations of the earthly world could no longer contain, manifesting the miraculous.9His internal change came about through grace.  So too, later in this week’s parsha, when Joseph raises his eyes to his brother Benjamin, and asks G-d to bless him with grace (43:29), the mystical tradition sees this as a blessing for Chanukah. It is grace that allows us to rededicate ourselves to hopefulness and to spiritual pursuits.10

 

Discussion questions:

There is no shortage of things that are broken in this world. Where should a person look first to try and fix it?

How is the process of increasing light difference for the individual and the communal?

What are examples of the miraculous or supernatural accomplishments, of our times, that are good models for the work that still needs to be done?

Does optimism require faith or is it a rational expectation that things will improve?

 

 


1. ב”ר פצ”א ו

2. Rashi quoting Midrash Rabbah

3. עיין צמח צדיק

4. ברכות כט.

5. עיין בני יששכר מ”ד כה

6. שם כד

7. It is noteworthy that the three letters that remain, without חן grace spell Yavan יון , the Hebrew word for “Greece” and demonstrate a literal decent, as Hebrew is read from right to left.

8. Tractate Avoda Zarah 17a: Rabbi Elezer ben Dordiah spent his life exploiting women for pleasure and after traveling the world pursuing physical indulgence he repents from such a depth that his soul leaves his body and is ushered into heaven with a Divine Voice calling him Rabbi.

9. The AriZ”l taught (פרע”ח) that he was a reincarnation of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.

10. מאור ענים

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.