Color the Omer is here!

Mazal tov to Bayit builders Dr. Shari Berkowitz and Steve Silbert, whose collaboration brought Color The Omer to life and into print this week.

Here’s an awesome piece about the book at Sketchnote Army.

And here’s a blog post about the behind-the-scenes of how the book came into being, from founding builder R. Rachel Barenblat: Labor of love.

Read more about the book, glimpse a few interior images, and order a copy for just $13 USD on Amazon and its global affiliates!

 

Graceful Optimism / Graceful Masculinity – Ki Tisa

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

 

וַיִּשְׁמַע הָעָם, אֶתהַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּהוַיִּתְאַבָּלוּ; וְלֹאשָׁתוּ אִישׁ עֶדְיוֹ, עָלָיו.

The people heard this bad tiding and they mourned; and they, each man, did not put on his crown. (Exodus 33:4(

When G-d created this world, it was filled with hope, possibilities, and aspirations. On the sixth day of creation G-d said (Genesis 1:31) וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי׃ “And God saw all that G-d had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” At that moment, according to the midrash, G-d declared “I wish that there would always be as much grace before me as there is now.” The grace that G-d is referring to here is the grace that is found when the desire for evil (Tov Meod) is converted to good and then becomes “very good.”

This was ultimately achieved at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah. Even the angel of death was banished (Eruvin 54a) on the sixth day of Sivan. This moment was so essential to the purpose of this world that the Rabbis (Shabbos 88a) read “The six day,” in Genesis, as the acceptance of the Torah by Israel on the sixth day of Sivan as a condition for the world’s continued existence.

The Talmud explains that when we said “We will do and we will listen”, angels descended and wove two crowns upon our heads. Tragically this was undone with the sin of the golden calf, which the people requested when it appeared to them that Moshe was delayed in returning from the mountain (Exodus 32:1). The word for delayed בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ is understood (Shabbos 89a) as “with the sixth” hour of the day and it was at that moment that we lost our crowns.

Recanti (Vayeitzie) explains that חן / chein (grace) is a language of “crown”, as in Proverbs 1:9 when the traditions of parents are described as: “They are a graceful crown upon your head.” It is not coincidental that we find the word “grace” six times in this parsha as the remedy for our miscalculation.

G-d wanted to create this world exclusively through the strict attribute of judgment but saw that the world created in such a way wouldn’t last, so G-d made a partnership with mercy. The purpose of mercy, in this arrangement, is to create a path back to the ideal space, free from negative judgment. Ups and downs are certainly part of life, and the true test of our faith is what we do when we find ourselves in the lower spots.

Rashi explains that after the sin of the golden calf, they mourned the loss of their crowns. R’ Moses Feinstein (Drash Moshe) understands their grief coming from a mistaken sense of hopelessness. They felt that their distance from G-d was permanent and they would never be able to restore their former glory of closeness. The Shach explains (33:7) “Moshe took” as meaning that he returned the crowns to them on erev shabbos.

We are not static, which means we have the capacity to change for good. King David wrote (Psalms 24:3) “Who may ascend the mountain of the L-rd? Who may stand in G-d’s holy place?” Coming down from a mountain doesn’t mean we can’t still stand in a holy place.

The numerical value of the word חןchein (grace) is 58. The six times that “חן” appears in this week’s Torah reading add up to 348, the value of the word שמח, happy. Making amends for our mistakes is a mitzvah, and we are meant to serve G-d with joy. Our ability to correct the missteps of the past, and our faith in G-d’s desire for us to be imbued with grace, is a source of light and gladness even in dark and troubled times.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

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.

Esther 2021: From Darkness to Light

Purim retold, weaving tradition’s Book of Esther with actual transcripts from modern politics and news events ripped from the headlines. Join Rabbi David Markus and Bayit for this audiovisual remix of Purim’s timeless journey of empowerment and transformation from hate to joy and darkness to light. Trope / text mashup by R. David Markus; video editing by R. Rachel Barenblat.

Esther 2021: From Darkness to Light from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

Sources: Megillat Esther, interviews with President Trump, the Vice Presidential Debate, Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, Vice President Harris’ inaugural speech.

 

Trope mashup and recording by R. David Markus. Video editing by R. Rachel Barenblat.

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.

The Lot of One Year: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Purim 2021

New from Bayit’s Liturgical Arts Working Group comes a collection of poems, prayers, and artwork for this pandemic Purim. Here are meditations on (the) last Purim, and on our many-layered losses; poems on our world turning upside-down, on what our masks reveal, on grief and playfulness, on Esther and on Zeresh, on vengeance and its limitations; another new Al Hanisim looking back on Purim miracles that haven’t yet arrived; illustrations (including a printable coloring page that can be turned into a gragger); and more.

Download the whole collection here:

The Lot of One Year – Purim 2021 [pdf]

 

 

Here are tastes of what you’ll find within. From the introduction:

One year ago, our lives changed.
Purim,
holiday of abundant joy, enjoyment, silliness, and care,
marks the watershed moment between what was once—normal—
and what has become our new life…

From “Last Purim 4,” R. David Markus:

…We didn’t know that weeks later, our area would be a covid epicenter with the nation’s highest death rate. We didn’t know that a year later, the building still would be locked – laughter and Esther trope faintly echoing, an empty Corona bottle on the piano, Purim decorations on the walls, frozen in time like a Twilight Zone episode, sackcloth and ashes for millions dead.

From “Hilchot Purim,” R. Sonja K. Pilz, PhD:

Anoint yourself
Take baths and showers
Let no one you love come close
For twelve months
Or more…

From “When Esther Went In,” R. Rachel Barenblat:

…When she went in, she didn’t know
how she would miss the coffee shop
with its all-day backgammon players
and hum of conversation…

From “Purim Poem #2,” Devon Spier:

…My breath smells of wine
My pockets are filled with
Bad long sentences and
Some ancestor I don’t know’s old crumbs…

From “The 9th Chapter: We Won and They Lost,” Trisha Arlin:

So what happens when we win?
Not by much
And in the nick of time
It so easily could have gone the other way
And though there’s more of us
There’s plenty of them
And they are cruel.
What to do?…

From “On Masks and Revelation,” R. Dara Lithwick:

…But once we had skin and sex and then gender and clothes
We organized into roles
That became rigid and unforgiving
All of us, divine light, now hidden, concealed
Under the burden of the masks we wear…

Download the whole collection here:

The Lot of One Year – Purim 2021 [pdf]

 

  Allie Fischman     

Liturgy and poetry by Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi Allie Fischman, Rabbi Dara Lithwick, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz, and Devon Spier. Artwork by Rabbi Allie Fischman and Steve Silbert.

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.

 

Jars of Water – and two practices for washing away a zoom-bombing

Walking home, holding hands, skipping along the sidewalk.  There were jars of water on the stoop as we approached our apartment house.  I looked up at my mommy and asked, “who died?”

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 60s and 70s, in a co-op apartment, there were often jars. Mourners returning from the cemetery wanted to symbolically wash that dirt and energy off before entering the building, with just a hearty dash over each hand.  Co-ops are very New York:  you buy shares in a corporation, so you own your apartment, more or less.  It makes for stability and a sense of shared community.  Our building, and those around us, held a large contingent of Jewish families. 

With 48 families in our building, and 48 more in the building behind us where my grandparents lived, and 48 across the street where my cousin lived, there were jars.  After the jars came the shiva calls.  A small child could usually find some excellent cake or cookies.  A slightly older child might be asked to take out the garbage (to the chute in the hallway) or to put dishes in the sink.  A slightly older child might have a coffee, or a glass of wine on the sly.  If you were lucky, some other kid or cousin would be stuck making a shiva call at the same time.  Perhaps you could even sneak out to play after a suitable interval.  Shiva calls were non-negotiable. We were going.

Aside from the jars, there was the knock on the door.  Someone was collecting money to bring in food for the shiva.  Someone was coordinating the chicken for Tuesday, the deli for Wednesday, the platters coming from the bereaved person’s office, and onwards.  If you knew who was grieving, you had a pretty good chance of guessing who would be knocking.  If you missed the knock, you could go find that person.  Her name (always a woman) was listed on the death notice posted above the mailboxes.  It all ran like clockwork.  Was there a chairwoman of the jars?  Was it a race to get the jars out early and claim the unofficial mitzvah?  The jars were always there when they were required.

When we buried my grandma, I lived in a private house.  It dawned on me to put out my own jars before we left for the cemetery, because lunch after was at my place.  When we buried my dad, I have no idea what happened or who put out the jars.  Probably it was the friend who was at my house starting the big coffee pot and laying out the food.  My memories of that day are kind of swirly, but I do remember pouring water over my mom’s hands, and my children’s.

My building now is much more diverse, although still with a number of Jewish households of varied background.  Once so far (in 9 years), I put jars out for a neighbor.  The mourners were so touched by the gesture and thanked me repeatedly, which felt so strange for such a small thing.  Now, sometimes I don’t find out until after the fact; sometimes there is no notice by the mailbox.  Nobody knocks on my door.  

Yesterday, we buried a fellow congregant.  She was nearing 100 years old; she died at home, peacefully and surrounded by love.  Family members spoke so warmly, as our minyan spread out with our masks on.  She was a remarkable woman, truly. The rest of the congregation, family and friends attended via zoom, broadcast by an iPad on a tripod, deployed by the funeral director.  No shovels are allowed in a pandemic; we buried her with plastic cups full of dirt, or handfuls, until we blanketed her plain pine box.  We formed two lines for the mourners to pass through.  We schmoozed at a safe social distance on the way back to the cars.

It was there that I learned that our service had been zoom-bombed by anti-Semites.  Someone zooming at home had to call the funeral director to eject people from the meeting.  I won’t tell you how ugly it was.  But it was very ugly.

So somebody used their time and energy to find a link to a zoom funeral, solely for the purpose of adding more trauma to it.  Who is that person?  How do I see the spark of God in that person’s soul? Or should I even bother to try?  How can peace rain down on us with that person holding such hate?

A friend and I both stopped at the gates of the cemetery, to wash in the spigot there (often there is one if you look).  No jars, but I turned the garden-hose-style knob for her as she washed, and I washed. This time, though, I had something new to wash off.  So far, it has not left me.

 

Two Practices After A Zoom-Bombing

 

While washing hands at a sink, or while taking a hot shower:

 

May this water wash away the residue of hatred.

May this water cleanse my hands and soothe my heart.

May this water protect me like the waters of the womb before I was born.

May this water be my mikvah, connecting me with hope.

 

While inhaling a sweet scent: havdalah spices, a cinnamon stick, a sprig of herbs, even a teabag:

 

Breathing in, I take in the scent of Shechinah.

I ground myself in this place, and in The Place we call God. I am safe.

Breathing out, I let go of rage and anxiety.

I commit my hands and heart to building a better world.

 

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz is an associate professor of Communication Disorders and a speech-language pathologist. She serves as a lay service leader and trustee at Temple Beth El of City Island, NY, also known as “your shul by the sea.”