Graceful Companionship / Graceful Masculinity: Tetzaveh

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

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

And you will command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you clear olive oil, crushed, for illumination, to light a lamp continually. (Exodus 27:20)

Although G-d is speaking to Moses, Moses is addressed as “you.” Not only is Moses’s name omitted from the first verse of the Torah portion, his name is not mentioned in it at all! The Baal Haturim understands this phenomenon as a fulfillment of Moses’s request from G-d that he would like to be erased from the Torah if G-d wouldn’t forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:32).

Perhaps the reason why this location is chosen, for Moses’s perceived absence, is because “to light a lamp continually” is a reference to learning Torah, (L’horos Nosson). As King Solomon (Proverbs 6:23) teaches “a commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light.” Moses, by removing himself here, is exemplifying the teaching: “The matters of Torah do not endure except in one who considers himself as if they are nothing.” (Sotah 21b).

The word “erased” מח, is also an allusion to the מח, 48, ways of acquiring the wisdom (Avos 6:6) of the Torah, and is necessary in forming the word “wise” חכם. True knowledge leaves an impression and connects us to G-d. The Talmud teaches that: One who walks along the way without having someone to accompany them should occupy themselves with words of Torah, as it is stated (with regard to words of Torah): “For they shall be a chaplet of חן, grace, to your head, and chains around your neck.” (Proverbs 1:9 & Sotah 46b). 

“Tetzaveh” is a language of commandment, and also of connectivity. When we relate to G-d through the learning of Torah, then it accompanies us on our journey. It’s noteworthy that the Talmud chooses to highlight this benefit of Torah study when one is alone. We are taught (Pirkei Avos 3:2) if two are together and do not speak words of Torah then it is a meeting of scoffers. There is a unique, and perhaps deeper, connection when we are guided by those who are not physically in our presence. 

Our attachments affect and influence us. The Talmud (Taanis 5b) declares “Jacob our father never died.” The Rabbis challenge this claim by quoting the scriptures that mention his funeral. The teaching is then clarified by stating “Just as his descendants are alive, so too is he still alive.” When we affect another, their related actions are also an extension of our impact.

Yocheved, Moses’s mother, is credited by the Midrash with giving birth to 600,000 because of the role her son played in leading the nation to Mount Sinai. This is especially true for the learning of Torah. 

Reish Lakish (Avodah Zarah 3b) says: anyone who occupies themselves with Torah at night, the Holy One, Blessed be G-d, extends a thread of kindness over him by day, as it is stated: “By day, the L-rd will command G-d’s kindness, and in the night G-d’s song shall be with me” (Psalms 42:9). Rashi explains this Divine extension of kindness as “the person presenting with grace to others.”

We must strive to be Talmidei Chachamim, students and practitioners of wisdom.  When we allow G-d’s wisdom to guide our path in life, then we are always traveling with great company.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

A Graceful Table / Graceful Masculinity: Trumah

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

 וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת-הַשֻּׁלְחָן, מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת, וְאֶת-הַמְּנֹרָה נֹכַח הַשֻּׁלְחָן, עַל צֶלַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן תֵּימָנָה; וְהַשֻּׁלְחָן–תִּתֵּן, עַל-צֶלַע צָפוֹן.

You shall place the table outside of the dividing curtain, and the Menorah opposite the table on the southern side of the Tabernacle and the table you shall place on the northern side. (Exodus 26:35)

 

“Let them build for me a tabernacle and I will dwell among them”. God’s command at the start of Parshat Terumah is famously understood as “I will dwell in each and every one of you.” Why is it necessary then to build G-d a physical space, for the resting of the Divine Presence, if G-d dwells within us all? 

To better understand the purpose of the tabernacle and how it allowed us to come closer to G-d, particularly through offerings (the Hebrew word korban, offering, comes from the root meaning to draw close), it is helpful to see how we have responded to our current lack of a physical dwelling place for G-d.

“The altar, three cubits high…This is the table that is before the Lord”. (Ezekiel 41:22): The prophet starts with “altar” and ends with “table”. The Talmud explains the connection: “When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now (that the Temple has been destroyed), it is a person’s table that atones for them.” 

It is for this reason that many have salt on our tables, like the salt that was part of the offerings. It’s also this reason that many remove, or cover, any knives before the grace after meals. The Mechilta understands the prohibition (Exodus 20:22) of using hewn stones for an altar because “[the altar] was created to lengthen a person’s life, and iron was created to shorten a person’s life”. Since the altar should not have cutting implements, there is a tradition to remove them from our tables as well.

The Talmud teaches, “whoever extends their table, their life is extended”. The Rabbis understand this blessing to come when we are prepared to help a person experiencing food insecurity and, more broadly, inviting guests to come together over food.

On the verse, “Cedars are the beams of our house, Cypresses the rafters,” (Song of Songs 1:17) the Gra comments that although G-d dwells among each of us, we needed a singular place to gather and unify all of our individual hearts together. That place was the tabernacle, which was built by the collective, through the individual contributions of the heart. The main resting place for G-d is determined by our hearts coming together as one, whether at the giving of the Torah or in the Temple. 

Jerusalem is described by King David as “a city that is united together”, (Psalms 122:3), and is understood by the Jerusalem Talmud as “The city that brings everyone to friendship.” It is perhaps for this reason that we are taught that the Temple was destroyed because of blatant hatred. Destruction is simply the consequence of division and lack of caring for each other.

Being able to come together (socially distanced)  around the same table is an act of atonement for separation, and a restoration of the closeness that we once had for G-d, and each other. That is why it is so essential to bring the right intentions to the Table.

In Hebrew, the word for table — שלחן / shulchan — is parsed by the Ben Ish Chai as  של חן – shel chein / of grace. “Only when it is filled with grace will it atone” and bring people together. We find the power of the evil opposition alluded to in the word as well. In Psalm 23 King David says “ You prepare a table for me before my enemies.” The word “שלחן” (table) also contains the word “נחש”, snake, an allusion to the potential for food to be misused and cause a separation between people and God.

After nearly a year of being physically apart from each other in community, we find ourselves in Adar אדר which is understood as living together as one א -דר. This coming week we will celebrate Purim which is a holiday of tremendous “unity and togetherness.” Purim is also, though, the only holiday that is not observed by all Jews on the same day, as those in unwalled cities celebrate on the 14th of Adar and those in walled cities celebrate on the 15th of Adar. Being apart or different doesn’t mean that we are not connected, as long as we are able to see the holiness of the Divine in each and every one of us.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Forgiveness / Graceful Masculinity – Mishpatim

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

 

וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם.

And these are the judgments that you shall place before them. (Exodus 21:1)

When we ask G-d for forgiveness, in our daily prayers, we bless G-d as “the gracious One who pardons abundantly”. The Zera Kodesh explains our need for that “abundance” because even when we apologize to G-d for our mistakes, and regret them, we are limited in our understanding of the impact of our actions. Because we cannot fathom the full extent of our wrongs, we cannot adequately appreciate what we are asking for when we beg forgiveness. 

The Zera Kodesh offers a parable of a simple villager who breaks an ornate window belonging to the king. Not having any understanding of the exorbitant value of the broken window, the villager brings an inferior one to the king as a replacement when asking for forgiveness. The king, being compassionate and gracious, accepts the apology and the window, but then shows the villager the process of collecting and adding the precious stones and the exquisite artisanal embellishments required to return the window to its original state. Only then does the villager understand how much damage he really did and just how forgiving the king was in accepting the inadequate restitution.  

This is true in our human relationships as well. It is almost impossible to ever really understand the true depth of hurt and damage we cause another. Even when someone lets us know that our actions caused them pain, often our first reaction is to want to minimize our role to avoid taking full responsibility. It is perhaps for this reason that the Mishna (Bava Kama 9b), when teaching about damages, deviates from the standard third person language. Instead it uses the first person, to center the text in one’s ownership of one’s impact: 

כל שחבתי בשמירתו הכשרתי את נזקו הכשרתי במקצת נזקו חבתי בתשלומי נזקו כהכשר כל נזקו

Anything that I am obligated to safeguard, I am responsible if it becomes damaged. If I facilitated part of the damage it caused, I am liable for payments of restitution for damage it caused, as if I were the one who facilitated the entire damage it caused.  

Parshas Mishpatim opens with G-d telling Moses to “place [the laws]  before them”. Rashi explains that G-d was teaching Moses that when it comes to these laws, it is not enough just to teach and review until people have memorized them, but you must go further and expound on the reasons and explanations until it is clearly presented before them.

The Talmud, Eruvin 54b, asks: 

כֵּיצַד סֵדֶר מִשְׁנָה? 

“How was the teaching organized’?’ 

The Talmud explains that Moshe taught it four times, and this teaches that students need repetition and need to learn new material four times. Rav Nosson Gestetner explains that the four times is understood as a reference to Pardes, פרדס, the four levels at which the Torah can be understood. The Mishna is the P’shat – פשט, the simple teaching. The other 3 levels in Pardes (Sod – סוד, the hidden secrets,  Drash – דרש, homiletics,  Remez – רמז) all allude to the סדר, order.

An essential aspect of understanding the laws of damages is recognizing how deep and profound the effect of our actions can be. In other words: it’s not enough to simply teach commandments so that people understand the way to behave. We need to impart with clarity a sense of responsibility and ownership for the hidden, and often traumatic, impact of our actions.

The word “judgment” –  הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, is understood by the Baal Haturim, the author of the Tur, the precursor to the Code of Jewish Law, as an acronym:  הדיין מצווה שיעשה פשרה טרם יעשה משפט – “the adjudicator is obligated to make a compromise before issuing a judgment.” When two people are in conflict, and both feel entitled to something, they should each first try and share their experience with the other. When we ask someone for forgiveness, we may be asking them to compromise, to give something up.

Forgiveness can also allows for a reconciliation that brings people closer together, perhaps even closer than they were before. The Vilna Gaon understands the word rachamim (mercy) as the tool for forgiveness, and chein (grace) as the transformation of a negative act into a positive one. The blessing for forgiveness asks G-d to “Return us in complete repentance before you,” understood by the Nefesh HaChaim as “out of love”. Saying that we are sorry doesn’t undo what happened. But if we can approach apology from a heart-space, with a deep commitment to understanding how we negatively impacted another, the apology can go a long way to heal the pain of the past and build healthier relationships in the future.

 

 

Discussion questions:

What are some things to think about before we ask for forgiveness?

How can we make sure we focus on the other and not make it about us?

If our apology isn’t immediately accepted, how should we respond?

Why do we find it so hard to take responsibility for our mistakes? 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Emulation / Graceful Masculinity – Beshallah

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

 

As their Egyptian oppressors are swallowed up by the sea, Israel bursts into exultant song. It is a song of victory, a celebration of freedom and human dignity. The Israelites had been enslaved for hundreds of years, Moshe and Aaron had been fighting with Pharaoh for many months, and now finally the battle was over. 

The problem is that even after crossing the sea, the Israelites are still in the desert. Vanquishing our foes does not automatically lead to achieving our goals. Israel needs to move forward to Sinai to receive the Torah and forward further to the promised land, to create their ideal society. 

Midrash Tanchuma explains that Moshe had to push Israel to move past the sea. The people wanted to stay where they were, relishing their triumph and collecting the Egyptian baubles they found floating in the water. We can get stuck in a moment of success and forget that the real work has not yet even begun. The Song of the Sea contains advice for how to remember to orient towards our goals.

 עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָ-הּ, וַיְהִי-לִי   לִישׁוּעָה;   זֶה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ,   אֱלֹקי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ.

G-d’s strength and power have been my salvation. This is my G-d וְאַנְוֵהוּ; the G-d of my father and I will exalt G-d. (Exodus 15:2)

The word וְאַנְוֵהוּ is interpreted in multiple ways. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b explains: 

אַבָּא שָׁאוּל אוֹמֵר: ״וְאַנְוֵהוּ״ — הֱוֵי דּוֹמֶה לוֹ, מָה הוּא חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם — אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם

 Abba Shaul teaches: “וְאַנְוֵהוּ” means we must strive to be like God – just as God is gracious and merciful, we too must be gracious and merciful. 

Rashi adds:

הוי דומה לו – ולשון “אנוהו” אני והוא אעשה עצמי כמותו לדבק בדרכיו

 be like God the word ״וְאַנְוֵהוּ״ is an anagram of אני והוא, I and God. I will make myself like God and do as God does.

The mandate to continually strive to be more like G-d is the antidote for getting complacent in our current victory. The verse, and the moment, model the shift from being oppressed, and in the opposition, to channeling the freedom and momentum forward. 

There is a power and energy in fighting for freedom.  As long as we are in the opposition we have a clear goal, but it can be harder to maintain our drive once we are empowered to actually make things better. For human beings it is difficult to hold focus, but when we strive to be like G-d, we are always working towards a more perfect existence.

Talmud Bavli Sotah 11b teaches that when Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys be killed, the pregnant Israelite women would slip out to the fields to give birth in secret and then leave the babies there. In a lovely description of Divine nurturing, God cares for the babies and provides food and sustenance. When the children grow older they return home to their parents but they always remember their early encounters with the all-protecting Deity. At the Splitting of the Sea, these children are the first to recognize God, familiar as they are with God’s providence. They declare זֶה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵה, “This is my G-d and I want to be like God”, providing protection and sustenance to others. 

This is the essence of graceful emulation. We must strive to be like God, using our talents and energy to help others. The little boys who are cared for by God grow up to be men who perceive God and try to be like God in caring for others. This role is observed by the mystical work, Sefer Yetzirah, that teaches grace חן is governed by the letter ת, which (added to חן) forms the word חתן groom. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer compares a groom to a king in that they are the center of attention and have the power to influence all those around them. The letter ת has a numerical value of 400 and relates to the 400 years of enslavement, in which the Israelites’ souls, as well as their bodies, were shackled. At the splitting of the sea, the people found a physical and a spiritual liberation.

The word וְאַנְוֵהוּ can also be related to the Hebrew word נוי, or beauty. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b explains that זֶה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ is accomplished by performing God’s commandments in a beautiful way. We should not just acquire any shofar or lulav. Rather, we should be sure to get a beautiful one, and in so doing we beautify our relationship with God. Rav Gedalia Finkel in his work Imrei Gedalia teaches that an aspect of beautification is making sure that we protect and prevent our actions from falling below an acceptable threshold. This posture requires us to focus on advancing the good and not losing the hard earned progress. 

Even when we are united in purpose, we can still be waylaid by disagreements over implementation. Talmud Bavli Sotah 36b describes this scene right before the sea splits:

דתניא, היה ר”מ אומר: כשעמדו ישראל על הים, היו שבטים מנצחים זה עם זה, זה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים וזה אומר אני יורד תחלה לים, קפץ שבטו של בנימין וירד לים תחילה,   . . . והיו שרי יהודה רוגמים אותם

It was taught: R. Meir said: When the Israelites stood by the Sea of Reeds, the tribes were fighting with one another. One said, “I will go down first!” The other said, “I will go down first.” The tribe of Benjamin jumped and descended into the sea first. . . .and the officers of the tribe of Yehuda threw stones at them.

All of the tribes of Israel recognize that they need to cross through the sea. When the tribe of Benjamin jumps forward though, to actually do it, the tribe of Judah does not commend them. Instead they throw stones at them. If we want to work together to accomplish our goals, we must keep those goals in mind and not be distracted by arguments over who does what first.

This is not to say that the identity of change leaders is irrelevant. Real progress is often determined by who takes charge. Historically, men have been on the forefront of social movements because they have had the resources and social standing to make themselves heard. The beautification of today’s organizing is achieved through diverse representation and a deep unification of the collective, ensuring the soul’s ascendancy over the subjugation of gender inequality. 

 

 


By R. Wendy Amsellem and R. Mike Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Consolation / Graceful Masculinity: Va’eira

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

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they did not listen to Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work.

Exodus 6:9

 

Although this parsha brings with it the good news of liberation, the Israelites are not positioned to hear it. They couldn’t be comforted because they could not imagine a reality different from the one they were currently experiencing. The struggle for freedom and equality must include breaking the limitations in our minds around what is possible. This process of introspection is an essential stage in alleviating the pain of the moment and moving towards a better future.

Rashi explains that the Israelites were not consoled by Moshe’s promises of redemption. In Hebrew, the word for consolation, נחם, is the same as “reconsider.” In the time of Noah, before the flood, Genesis 6:6, G-d reconsidered having made people and was pained. Rashi there explains that G-d was consoled in part that at least humanity’s destruction was limited to this world. Consolation involves a considering of different possibilities, and it is precisely this flexibility of thought that eluded Israel and left them comfort-less.

We are told, Eruvin 13b, that for several years the Houses of Hillel and Shammai argued whether it was better for humanity to have been created or not. Finally they concluded that “Better to not have been created than to have been created, but now that we have been created we should examine our deeds.” The rabbis understand this teaching both as a reminder that the world that G-d created, in the garden before the sin, was perfect and well worth it, and that our current world, the consequence of our mistakes, can be restored by working on ourselves and society.

Sometimes it is hard to hear that things will ever be different and ever get better. In general, the words we use to describe something are rarely as expansive as the experience itself, especially about things that haven’t happened yet. Perhaps this is why G-d uses four different expressions of redemption – והוצאתי,והצלתי,וגאלתי,ולקחתי. 

Aspiring for a better future helps us get there. Ruth was able to see and appreciate the good, despite the severe difficulties of her life as a penniless widow. She says to Boaz, “May I continue to find favor, חן, in your eyes because you have comforted me and you spoke to my heart.” (Ruth, 2:14). Ruth can hear Boaz’s words of comfort and be affected by them. She knows that a better future is possible. Indeed, the medresh on this verse comments that she isn’t to be seen as a maidservant, הָאֲמָהוֹת, but as a Matriarch, הָאִמָּהוֹת. The only difference is the point of perspective.

In this week’s Torah portion we are told about the birth of Pinchas, who in tradition is associated with Elijah the prophet, the bearer of the good news of the future. In the daily grace after meals, we pray:

הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יִשְׁלַח לָֽנוּ אֶת־אֵלִיָּֽהוּ הַנָּבִיא זָכוּר לַטּוֹב, וִיבַשֶּׂר־לָֽנוּ בְּשׂוֹרוֹת טוֹבוֹת יְשׁוּעוֹת וְנֶחָמוֹת

“The Merciful One will send us Elijah the prophet, who is remembered for good, who will announce to us good tidings, deliverances, and consolations.”

We acknowledge and welcome his presence at the Passover seder and even have a 5th cup for him as a recognition of the redemption that we still need to work towards. By doing so, we open ourselves up to comfort and to the possibility of redemption.

Our ancestors were enslaved for 210 years and were not able to envision a different existence. We have now been in exile for nearly 2000 years and we are still more connected to mourning the loss than we are to rebuilding what was lost. The reason for the Temple’s destruction, blatant hatred, seems to only be intensifying by the day. We must be able to look at this sad reality, at least in part, with an optimistic lens — so we can see that contained in this separation is a path towards reunification and true healing. 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

 

Graceful Allyship / Graceful Masculinity: Parshas Shemos

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

 

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם; וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.

It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens; and he saw an Egyption man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren.  (Exodus 2:11)

 

Despite the brutal enslavement of his people, Moshe grows up safely cocooned in Pharaoh’s household. As the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moshe is protected from the torment and endless labors of Israel. Yet, as he grows older he chooses to turn away from his own comfort to see his brothers’ suffering.

His evolution is heart-centered. Rashi explains that he “placed his eyes and heart to be distressed over them.”1 In not averting, but aligning his eyes and heart, he unites against their oppression where his allyship was the natural consequence of feeling the connectivity of humanity.

We find this reflected in the prayer that we offer during the Torah service:  אַחֵֽינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הַנְּ֒תוּנִים בַּצָּרָה As for our brethren, the entire House of Israel who remain in distress and captivity… Although the entire people are not literally “all in distress”,2 the pain of the individual is the pain of the whole, and we must all feel it personally.

This act of allyship was not without a cost. It came at the expense of his own privilege. Midrash Tanchuma relates that Pharaoh had put Moshe in charge of the royal household. Yet when Moshe aligns himself with the suffering of others and defends them from the cruel taskmaster, Pharaoh turns on him and he is forced to flee. In just three verses Moses goes from running Pharaoh’s affairs to being on the run, fearing for his own life.3

The story reads as if Moses lost the option of working from within and being an agent of change, but in truth it was this act that allowed him to be worthy of  being truly impactful. The Midrash sees Moses’s focus on the enslaved Hebrew, both as the singular act that merited his unique closeness to G-d, and also as part of a daily spiritual practice of micro-affections. 

He was subversive and his subversiveness was an act of resistance. 

The Midrash comments on our verse: And he looked on their burdens.” What is, “And he looked?” For he would look upon their burdens and cry and say, “Woe is me unto you, who will provide my death instead of yours…” Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: [If] he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person, or a man’s burden on a woman and a woman’s burden on a man, or an elderly man’s burden on a young man and a young man’s burden on an elderly man, he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh.”

Moshe’s intervention is seen by the rabbis as the merit necessary for G-d’s reciprocity of divine intervention. The Holy One Blessed is G-d said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. I will leave aside the upper and the lower [i.e. ignore the distinction between Heaven and Earth] and talk to you. Such is it written, ” And when the LORD saw that [Moses] turned aside to see” (Exodus 3:4). The Holy One Blessed is G-d saw Moses, who left aside his business to see their burdens. Therefore, “God called unto him out of the midst of the bush”4

Moshe eventually becomes the spokesperson for G-d because of his heart forward posture. King Solomon alludes to in the verse: אֹהֵב טהור לֵב חֵן שְׂפָתָיו, רֵעֵהוּ מֶלֶךְ

A pure-hearted friend, his speech is gracious; he has the king for his companion.5 The King in this verse is a reference to G-d,6and the “friend” to Moshe whose grace-filled speech enables him to be God’s companion.7 The sincerity of Moses’ heart made his speech graceful. His heart and mouth were aligned with each other. Flattery, חנף, by contrast, is the additional disingenuous speech, פה, over grace חן.8

The voice of an ally must originate in the heart as an internal response to whatever agonizing humanitarian failure one is witnessing. It also empowers us to speak truth to power. The heart is a muscle that requires work and watchfulness to develop. We are taught9 that the entire purpose of every mitzvah is to fix and restore the heart.10 Indeed immediately after Moshe flees Pharaoh we are told about his activism at the well, coming from the same source of advocacy.11

This week, we start reading the book of Exodus and the atrocities of enslavement, torment and infanticide. The Bal Haturim observes that the first word “שמות”, is an anagram of שְׁנַיִם מִקְרָא וְאֶחָד תַּרְגּוּם, the rabbinic injunction to read the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and once in translation.12 The commentaries are curious about the placement of this teaching; why here? 

There is often an urge to try and avoid, and even deny, uncomfortable or difficult realities. Perhaps the timing of this reminder is especially critical here to instruct us that when we are made aware of injustices – our own or others – we should not turn away but instead look closer, and then look again, to understand why it happened to make sure it stops and never happens again.

Parashat Shemos also begins a period of time known as “shovavim,” an acronym of the upcoming Torah portions, meaning to return. Central to this story of development and maturity is a shift from self-focus to caring for others. These weeks collectively narrate the birth and growth of the Jewish nation and the development of Moses as the Israelites’ leader. In recounting both Moshe’s and the Jewish people’s progress they provide us with the scaffolding to support our own work as individuals, encumbered by the needs of the community.13 Redemption comes when we love others as ourselves, not as others. 

 


1.נָתַן עֵינָיו וְלִבּוֹ לִהְיוֹת מֵצֵר עֲלֵיהֶם

2. Zahav Misveh

3. Rashi 2:11

4. Midrash rabbah 1:27

5. Proverbs 22:11

6.Gra

7. Bamidbar Rabbah 15

8. ר.מ.ד. וואלי

9. Kad HaKemach, Shavuot 1:2

10. ודבר ידוע כי כל מצות שבתורה אינן אלא לתקן הלב כי הלב הוא העיקר

11. Exodus 2:15-16

12. ש.מ.ו.ת. שְׁנַיִם מִקְרָא וְאֶחָד תַּרְגּוּם

13. שובבים = מיצר ודואג Shovavim” has the numerical value of “oppression” and “worry”

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

A Meditation for Channeling Blessing

During 5781, a group of Bayit builders, led by R. Cynthia Hoffman, is studying the writings of the Baal Shem Tov. First and foremost we’re studying “lishma,” for the sake of the learning itself. We’re also keeping an eye out for short teachings that might give rise to practices, tools, and spiritual technologies for our time. 

Drawing on the Baal Shem Tov

The blessing that Isaac gives to Jacob in this week’s parsha, Toldot, includes this prayer for abundance: “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.” (Genesis 27:28)

Riffing on the idea of abundance, the Baal Shem Tov quotes Brachot 17b, in which a Bat Kol (a divine voice) proclaims, “The whole world is nourished bishvil / for the sake of My son Chanina, and for My son Chanina, a small measure of carob suffices from one Shabbat to the next.” (Chanina ben Dosa was a first-century sage and miracle worker.) 

The Baal Shem Tov reads bishvil (for the sake of) creatively as b’shvil, “in the path of.” That shift transforms the Gemara reference: now it’s saying that the whole world is nourished by a path or a conduit, e.g. a conduit for drawing down abundance for the world. This is the role of a tzaddik, says the Baal Shem Tov: to be a sh’vil (path) and conduit for drawing down blessing. With their deeds, a tzaddik can draw down the great flow of abundant blessing for the whole world. 

Our job is to seek to be tzaddikim — to act with justice and righteousness — so that we can become conduits for abundance and blessing. The spiritual uplift that we find in this practice can nourish us from one Shabbat to the next, like Chanina ben Dosa finding in his measure of carob enough sweetness to carry him through the week.

 

#BeALight* Meditative practice for after havdalah:

Sit comfortably with your palms facing up on your lap. Plant your feet on the floor. Feel yourself rooted in the earth.

Bring your attention up your body to the crown of your head. Set the conscious intention of opening your crown, like a faucet turning, opening yourself to the flow of blessing, as though it were coming in through your kippah. 

Imagine blessing flowing into you. Feel it filling you up. Feel it now emanating from your feet, sinking into the earth like rain. Feel it now emanating from your hands into the world.

Choose a justice-oriented act you will take in the new week. Resolve to perform that action with this flow of blessing coming through you. Set the intention of finding sweetness in that act, so that in addition to whomever this act helps in the world, it will also enliven you.

When you’re ready, gently close the faucet — not shutting off the flow of blessing, but putting a lid on your own structural integrity so you can return to paying attention to the world. 

 

*more on #BeALight

 

Source: Baal Shem Tov on Toldot, comments 8 and 9.

 

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

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah by R’ David Markus

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi David Markus. The text follows the video, in Spanish and then in English. Deepest thanks to Rabbi Juan Mejia for translation.

 

 

Hola mis amigos.  Desde mi corazón en Nueva York al vuestro en Cuba, envío mis bendiciones para esta sagrada temporada de “lo que viene después”.

“Lo que viene después” es nuestra eterna pregunta humana y también es nuestra pregunta espiritual para este mes.  Es una pregunta sagrada no porque este mes contenga fiestas sagradas, sino justamente por la razón contraria.

En nuestro calendario laico, es noviembre.  Escasamente puedo creer que ha sido un año entero desde mi visita a Cuba.  Aún un año después siento cuán viva se sentía Cuba en Noviembre comparado con Nueva York.  El poeta británico Thomas Hood escribió que todas las cosas más bellas terminan en noviembre.

Sin calor, ni alegría, ni saludable facilidad,

Sin sensación cómodo en ningún miembro-

Sin sombra, sin brillo, sin mariposas ni abejas,

Sin frutas, sin flores, sin hojas, sin aves,

Noviembre!

Pero no en Cuba.  Y no sólo por el clima.  Especialmente en medio de la dificultad, la comunidad judía de Cuba compartió  su tesón, su pasión, su espíritu de bienvenida y su propio ser.  Nos fuimos cambiados para siempre.  Parte de nuestros corazones todavía está con ustedes, especialmente ahora en medio de la adversidad que azota a gran parte del mundo.

Así que es especialmente significativo que este noviembre comience en el medio del mes judío de Jeshvan.  Jeshván es nuestro único mes sin fiestas-  sin tiempo sagrado dedicado a nuestros rituales, reuniones, devoción, orgullo, alegría, dolor, ansia y aprendizaje.  Después del intenso mes judío de Tishré, lleno de fiestas como Rosh Hashaná, Yom Kippur, Sukkot y más, súbitamente ya no hay más.

A veces la sabiduría más grande del judaísmo es sutil: el judaísmo nos enseña no sólo a través de las grandes fiestas y proclamaciones sino también a través de lo que el profeta Elías experimentó como la “tranquila voz susurrante” de nuestro interior.

Igualmente con Jeshván.  Un mes entero con una súbita ausencia de fiestas judías nos enseña que la vida judía no gravita alrededor de las fiestas.  Más bien, la vida judía tiene que ver con nuestro día a día, la rutina aparente con la que interactuamos los unos con los otros.  El judaísmo gravita alrededor de nuestra devoción, orgullo, alegría, dolor, ansia y aprendizaje a través de todo nuestra vida, y no sólo en ocasiones especiales.

Sí, las ocasiones especiales son jusatmente eso: especiales.  Son oportunidades especiales para reunirnos y celebrar, especialmente cuando el esfuerzo implicado en reunirnos es física y económicamente desafiante.

En contraste, Jeshván centra nuestra atención en el judaísmo y las mitzvot (mandamientos) de la vida judía en el resto del tiempo, ya que no vivimos sólo para las fiestas.  En efecto, vivimos todos los días. Vivimos para nuestras familias y amigos, para tener oportunidades de aprender, para tratarnos bien los unos a los otros, para buscar y encontrar gratitud por nuestras bendiciones así sean pequeñas, para la alegría de celebrar shabbat cada semana.  Buscamos y, a veces, incluso encontramos lo sagrado en nuestras vidas cotidianas.

Tal vez ese sea el secreto judío para sobrevivir y prosperar a través de los siglos.  Nuestro secreto está en nuestras fiestas compartidas, pero más aún en vivir nuestra identidad orgullosamente, nuestra misión y nuestro credo todos los días.  Que este Jeshván, el mes sin fiestas judías, nos recuerde que el amor, la alegría y el sentido de nuestra vida judía nos aguarda en cada día, en cada alma, en cada lugar y en cada momento.

Hello, my friends.  From my heart in New York to yours across Cuba, I send blessings for this sacred season of “what comes next.”

“What comes next,” our eternally human question, also is our spiritual question this month. It’s a sacred question not because this month brings sacred Jewish holidays, but precisely for the opposite reason.

In our secular calendar, it’s November.  I barely can believe that it’s been a whole year since my community and I visited Cuba.  Even a year later, I feel how alive Cuba’s November felt compared to New York.  British poet Thomas Hood wrote that most everything beautiful ends in November:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!

But not in Cuba – and not only because of climate.  Especially amidst hardship, the Jewish communities of Cuba shared with us your resilience, your passion, your welcoming spirit and your very selves.  We left changed forever. Part of our hearts still is with you, especially now amidst continuing adversity for so much of the world.
So it’s especially poignant that this November begins midway into Judaism’s spiritual month of Cheshvan.  Cheshvan is our only month with no holidays – no specially sacred times to focus our rituals, gatherings, devotion, pride, joy, grief, yearning or learning.  After Judaism’s intense month of Tishrei full of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and more, suddenly there are none.
Sometimes our Jewish tradition’s greatest wisdom is subtle: Judaism teaches us not only in the big festivals and proclamations but also in what Elijah the prophet experienced as “the still, small voice” inside.
So too with Cheshvan. A whole month’s sudden absence of Jewish festivals can teach us that Jewish life actually isn’t about festivals at all. Rather, Jewish life is mostly about our day to day, our seemingly routine of how we treat each other. Judaism is about our devotion, pride, joy, grief, yearning and learning together throughout our lives, not just on special occasions.
Yes, special occasions are just that – special.  They’re special opportunities to gather together and celebrate, especially when the effort of gathering can be physically and economically challenging.
But Cheshvan focuses us on our Judaism, and mitzvot (commandments) of Jewish life the rest of the time, because we don’t live only for festivals. After all, we live each day.  We live for our families and friends, for chances to learn, for treating each other well, for seeking and finding gratitude for blessings however small, for joyfully making Shabbat every week.  We seek and sometimes even find the sacred in our daily lives.
Maybe that’s Judaism’s secret of surviving and thriving over the centuries.  Our secret is partly in our shared festivals, but mostly in pridefully living our identity, our calling and our creed every day.  May this Cheshvan, this month with no Jewish holidays, remind us that the love, joy and meaning of Jewish life await us every day, in every soul, in every place and in every moment.
By Rabbi David Markus. Translation by Rabbi Juan Mejia.