Posts

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 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.

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.

Creating a Spiritual Home

IMG_0421

Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

“A house is just a box where you keep your stuff.” A contractor tossed this comment over his shoulder as he left my new home, clearly thinking that he was dropping a pearl of wisdom.

I looked around. He had come to hang a painting over my bed that is too heavy for me to lift. It’s by an artist who was friends with my family. I’ve long admired her work, and until just a few years ago, the painting hung in my parents’ family room. My mother gifted it to me when she sold the house, after my father’s death.

I slowly turned, looking in all directions as I considered the “stuff” in my home. Art work, furnishings, books. Nearly everything tells me a story; about myself, about people I love, about places I’ve been and years gone by.

And I thought, “He’s wrong.” My house is so much more than a box filled with stuff. It was indeed simply an empty shell when the construction crew left, but now it is a home filled with meaning, not only because of the things in it, but because of my relationship with those things – because of the memories and happiness they ignite within me.

So too our houses of prayer. They are more than simply buildings. They are not important because they exist, but because of how they are used. They are places of worship, places that ignite memories, that link us to our tradition and our ancestors, that provide us with a communal space in which we can be in relationship, with each other and with the Divine.

And so too the Mishkan, the tabernacle that the Children of Israel built in the desert, following God’s detailed instructions. It provided a sacred space where the people could reach out to their God.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.46.55 PMIn this week’s Torah portion (Pekudei), the last in the Book of Exodus, the people complete the task of building and outfitting the Mishkan. The passage in Exodus 39:42-43 echoes the passage in Genesis 2:1-3 when God finished creating the heavens and earth: both use the same verbs, both end with a blessing. God blessed the Sabbath, Moses blessed the people.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.49.26 PMWhat I find most fascinating about both creation stories is that neither ends with the basic construction project. God doesn’t stop after creating the world; God “furnishes” the world with plants, animals, and finally humans. Moses and the people furnish the Mishkan with the altar and everything the priests need to perform their sacred duties.

No building is complete when the construction crew leaves. An empty synagogue is no different than an empty office building or an empty store. The task is not done until the requisite materials are brought in – desks for the offices, cash registers for the stores, ritual items for the synagogues.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.51.11 PMAnd still, the buildings are incomplete. Fully outfitted with every “thing” necessary, they are nothing without us. No work is accomplished in an empty office, no goods sold in an empty store, no spiritual connections made in an empty prayer space.

My congregation rents the space in which we meet. Other groups use it for other purposes when we’re not holding services. And when no one is there, it is simply a large, empty room, with two concrete walls and two glass walls that look out onto a park. The view is lovely. But the room itself is an empty box; no personality, nothing to recommend it.

But it’s not hard to turn an everyday room into a sacred space. Bring out chairs and place them in a welcoming semi-circle. Set up the portable ark, take the Torah out of its protective case, take out the candle sticks and Shabbat candles, place the challah on its tray under the embroidered cover, and put out the prayer books.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 11.53.12 PMThen open the doors and welcome in the people who have come to pray in community. And in that moment, an everyday room is transformed into a sacred space, a meaningful spiritual home that is no different from any other synagogue, anywhere in the world. Because an impermanent spiritual home can become a holy space by virtue of the memories, intentions, and actions of the people who inhabit it, even if only for a few hours.

Like the things in my home, the ritual items in our synagogue have deeper meanings beyond their mere functions. The pointer we use when reading from the Torah scroll, called a yad, was donated by a long-time member who died last year just before his 100th birthday. Every time I take it in my hands, I think of him. The scroll itself was donated by a Pittsburgh synagogue that was closing its doors and seeking new homes for its ritual items. The stand on which the Torah rests inside the ark was handcrafted by one of our founding members.

A building is just a box until it becomes something else. The transformation from structure to sacred space takes a two-step process – furnishing it with meaningful “stuff,” and populating it with people who care about each other and who seek meaningful interactions with each other, with the ritual items they use together, and with their God.

Remember the blessings that God and Moses gave after they finished their creations? The next time you walk into the sacred place where you pray, take a moment to bless the people around you. Because like God and Moses, together you have created something remarkable.

JS     Silbert

By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketch note by Steve Silbert.

People of the Building Fund: Four Paths Through the “Edifice Complex”

Vayakhel.PNG

Part of a yearlong Torah series about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

“Don’t give to the Building Fund,” said no synagogue leader ever.

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.56.09 PMMost community leaders would love to have Moses’ problem in “fundraising” for the Mishkan. Moses received so many resources from “everyone” to build Mishkan that he had to stop them from giving: “Let nobody bring any more gifts!” (Exodus 36:6).

Since then, Jewish spiritual life has felt nostalgic for the Mishkan’s universal generosity and collective plenty. Judaism isn’t alone: all spiritual communities must keep one eye on funding for needful realities, but who likes to talk about it? How many in spiritual life are left distracted, exhausted or dispirited by talk of money?

When does fundraising support wise spiritual building, and when does fundraising become a hamster wheel that spins away from spirituality? For all who care about wisely building the Jewish future, that’s a key question of Parshat Vayakhel.

Jewish spirituality is blunt about resourcing spiritual community: Ein kemach, ein Torah (“no flour, no Torah”) (Avot 3:17). The catch is raising “dough” for buildings that become a “structural fetish” rather than a sacred way to sense the sacred.

Bayit builder Ben Newman reminds us that God applauded Moses for shattering the tablets at the Golden Calf, teaching that no “things” are inherently holy – not even the tablets of the Ten Commandments – except as they inspire real spiritual experience. When resource drives elevate things over people, those things must break to teach us what’s truly holy and what’s just the latest Golden Calf that we began to worship.

When we build in ways that rely on major donors, less affluent others can get wrong ideas that weaken spiritual community. They can learn that their gifts are less valued. They can learn to outsource generosity to others. Some even learn to take community for granted. When we don’t feel a strong stake in community, community itself withers.

Thank goodness for angel donors who do a world of good in a world that needs all the good they can do. Thank goodness for vibrant Jewish spaces that nourish the Jewish future. Still, we must ask how we keep forgetting that everyone gave to the Mishkan? What happened to a generosity culture so universal that Moses had to say, “No more!”?

We must learn the Mishkan’s lesson about democratizing generosity. We must reorient Jewish spiritual building to the goal of cultivating a truly universal culture of giving.

This goal asks a different spiritual design than any “edifice complex” whose goal is a thing that relies on angel donors and projects “too big to fail.” Reorienting spiritual design asks for fundraising in ways that put people and spiritual experience above all.

Four Ideas to Build a Trust-Based Generosity Culture

Screen Shot 2019-02-23 at 3.52.06 PMHere are four ideas to build a more universal generosity culture while raising the dough. All four ideas entail risk because they ask substantial trust – but trust is paramount to build a relational and spiritual Judaism in which everyone feels that they fully count.

Teach universal giving as a core community value – and be explicit about it. Effective fundraisers know that tzedakah is a spiritual act that joins learning and prayer as Judaism’s three pillars (Avot 1:2). If we wouldn’t accept a Jewish life that raises even unintended barriers to learning or prayer, then we mustn’t accept an “edifice complex” that even inadvertently signals that anyone or their gifts are second rate. Teach and model the Jewish keystone principle that everyone gives and everyone gets, because that’s what binds and uplifts a truly vibrant community.

Segment fundraising campaigns so that success depends on both angel donors and “everyone.” Court major donors for key initiatives, but deliberately leave out something vital (like doors or programs) for the whole community to fund – and be explicit about it. Without those essentials for the community to fund, a major “edifice complex” would be incomplete, an empty shell or a boondoggle – and that’s the right message to send so that “everyone” has a stake in success.

Learn from our Christian cousins and “pass the plate” in Jewish ways. For communities uncomfortable handling money on Shabbat, try a pre-Shabbat online ritual, a #BeALight Havdalah giving ritual, or a Shabbat pledge card. For others, literally “pass the plate,” or spiritually uplift the tzedakah box. Teach so it feels spiritual rather than “pay to pray”: after all, Maimonides taught about giving before being asked. Torah was read on market days (when people handled money), so maybe we pass the tamchui (charity plate) when we honor Torah. Try alternatives, but send a clear message that universal generosity is as vital to Jewish communal life as Torah.

Make sure that giving isn’t only about money. Even when Moses stopped donations for the Mishkan, both time and talent were welcome. People less affluent in funds might be wealthy in time and talent. Solicit their gifts with the same honor as cash – not as a substitute for cash but as a complement. Plan for these gifts: pass the plate for them and make wise use of them. After all, aren’t these gifts of hands-on community among the reasons for spiritual building in the first place?

Conclusion

All four ideas – teaching universal participation, segmented donor campaigns, passing the plate, and soliciting non-cash gifts – entail risk. They ask trust in alternatives to the seeming certainty of big checks. This kind of trust can seem especially fanciful when plans and campaigns are “too big to fail.”

Spiritually speaking, this kind of trust is the point. People are the point. Making room for others is the point. If leaders don’t leave space for others to fill, and show everyone how important and needed everyone is, then others are sure not to step forward. Isn’t that exactly today’s problem in Jewish community life?

The Mishkan solicited everyone’s gifts, because “everyone” was the purpose of building. At long last, we in Jewish life today must do the same.

 

DEM2     Silbert-small

By Rabbi David Markus. Sketch Note by Steven Silbert

The Builder’s Holy Sledgehammer: Sometimes It Must Break

IMG_0339.PNG

 

Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Spiritual builders sometimes so deeply invest in their call to build that they can forget what that call is really about. This week’s paresha (Ki Tisa) redirects us with two related teachings: (1) nothing is too important to break, even purposefully; and (2) spiritual builders mustn’t confuse building with purpose, lest spiritual life itself become an idol.

After chapters of instruction to build the Mishkan, the story gets interrupted by the Golden Calf.  With Moses on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people get nervous that he’ll never return. They build a Golden Calf, point to it and celebrate: “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Moses sees the Golden Calf and shatters the two stone tablets on it (Exodus 32:19).

Sometimes It Must Break

Surprisingly, G!d isn’t upset that Moses shatters the tablets. Talmud records G!d to say, in essence, “More power to you!” (Yevamot 6a). We learn a key lesson: sometimes things must break. Sometimes behaviors, structures and things must break so new ones can arise.

IMG_0344

We might imagine that some things are too important to break. If Jewish tradition would hold anything to be too important to break (“too big to fail”), then surely it’d be the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But those tablets are exactly what Moses breaks, and G!d applauds.

Why? Precisely to teach that nothing, not even G!d’s tablets, or whatever we imagine to be holy, is too precious to break for the sake of core principle. Some principles are paramount above all, even what we believe comes from G!d’s own Self.

Breaking is the way of the world. In Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic description of creation, breaking is how G!d created the universe. G!d created vessels to hold infinite light, but they shattered, unable to hold Infinity. G!d began creation anew, from shards of that cosmic shattering. In this creation story, the world is sparks of light concealed by shards of the primordial breaking.

Everything we know is a product of breaking. Physically, we’re all stardust, recycled remnants of faraway stars that exploded, fusing the elements we know on Earth. Spiritually, we’re all pieces of the Infinite, and shattered shards surround us waiting for us to lift them to light.

“As above, so below”: as in the cosmos, so too for us. Sometimes our buildings (physical and spiritual) fall. Structures suitable for one era don’t serve another. Old institutions can’t evolve with hearts and souls. The past crumbles into raw material to build the future.

Lest We Miss the Point

IMG_0346

Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), in Meshech Chochma, offers this teaching about breaking the tablets:

“‘Moses became angry and cast the tablets from his hands’ – meaning that there is no sanctity or divinity without the existence of the Creator. And if [Moses] had brought the tablets, it would be as if they were exchanging the calf for the tablets…. Moses acted superbly in breaking the tablets… to teach that nothing has inherent sanctity….”

Moses knew that if he gave the tablets while Israel danced around the Golden Calf, they’d merely trade the Calf’s emptiness for an equally empty sense of the tablets. Moses saw his people making a classic spiritual mistake: confusing a symbol for what it symbolizes.

Buddhism offers a saying: “Painted cakes don’t satisfy hunger.” Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called this “mistaking the sign for the signified.” This is the Golden Calf’s second building lesson: don’t confuse a symbol for the reality it symbolizes. Don’t mistake any human building (or organization, siddur, tunes, leaders – anything or anyone you can touch) for the potential holiness it can represent, transmit, teach or empower.

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught borrowing a Sufi saying: “Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”

Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank told this story to illustrate the message:

“I didn’t want to sit in the temple because they have a Buddha they all bow to, and I thought it was pretty primitive. I told the roshi that and he said, ‘Come with me,’ and we went into the Zendo.

“He said, ‘Do you think we really bow to this thing?’

“‘Well,’ I told him, ‘It looks bad. How do I know you don’t?’ He took it by the head, turned it upside down, and opened the storage room, and flung it, very disrespectfully, bounced it into the wood storage room and slammed the door. He said, ‘If we were going to bow to it, do you think I would do that?’

“People came in and saw there was no Buddha and they bowed to emptiness. So I had no trouble after that, sitting in the Zendo where the Zen teacher could do that.”

Wolfe-Blank warned us against becoming “spiritual materialists” who pile up golden moments of spiritual experience as if we can hold them tight, sought for their own sake. Like light streaming through a window, any spiritual structure is only as valuable as the spirit – wisdom, learning, kindness, love, truth and strength – that flows through.

Don’t mistake any spiritual building for the spirituality that flows through. And if real spirituality doesn’t flow through, odds are good that it became a Golden Calf no matter what anyone may have intended. That’s when it’s time to break.

As we build the Jewish future, we must build for the flow, not the thing. Just as houses are for shelter, warmth and gathering (not roofs and walls), we must design, build, repair and even break to serve the spiritual experience within. That’s the point: everything else is just the pointer.

Even the tablets had to be shattered. Even the stars had to explode so we could form from their stardust. So don’t be afraid to break things for the sake of spirit. Sometimes what spiritual builders of the future need most is a holy sledgehammer today.

 

BenNewman Silbert-small

By Rabbi Ben Newman. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.