Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Tachash, Diversity and Inclusion


In describing the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah says that the Mishkan would be covered by a tarp made of the skin of the Tachash. Later in Bamidbar we are told that Tachash skin was also used to cover the vessels of the Mishkan while they were in transit. And in the Book of Yechezkel, God describes the care He showed to the Jewish People while they were in the Midbar after leaving Egypt; one of the ways was by providing Tachash skins for their shoes. What was the Tachash?  Nobody knows for sure.

      One of the defining characteristics of the Tachash according to many opinions is that it was multi-colored. The Talmud in Shabbat 28 states that the Tachash was known in Aramaic as Sasgona (as it is referred to in Targum Onkelos) because it was sas begavvna- it rejoiced in its multitude of colors.

      The Tachash skins differed from the other materials in the Mishkan in that they did not require dyeing; their color was part of the fabric.  Most of the skins and threads used for the Mishkan and the Bigdei Kehuna were dyed to appear colorful, whereas the Tachash skins were naturally colorful and did not have to be treated. Fundamental to the Tachash was the intrinsic diversity of colors that were naturally inherent within its skin. The Tachash can be a symbol of the beauty of diversity. Diversity is a theme that comes up in a number of ways in the Mishkan. Different people - men and women - contributed in different ways to its construction. Kohanim Leviim and Yisraelim all had critical roles in the construction and ongoing Avoda in the Mishkan- each with their own strengths and their own focus. We are a diverse shul. I often say that everyone can find their place in our community- except for someone who’s uncomfortable being part of a diverse community. 

      Rabbi Shmuel Fine in his Sefer Yalkut Shmuel wonders: what is the relevance of the Tachash being happy with its multi-colored status? Why attribute emotions to the animal? Rabbi Fine explained that the Tachash is not only a creature of diverse colors, but it takes joy in its diversity! Diversity is not merely something to tolerate. Rather it should be embraced and understood to be the path through which everyone is elevated.

      This is the underlying principle of inclusion. As I once saw someone put it, the difference between diversity and inclusion is: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Inclusion demonstrates the awareness that including different people makes everyone better. This was one of the most poignant lessons I took away from my conversation with Avi Samuels, Golbal Chairman of Shalva. Avi pointed out that the philosophy of Shalva, formulated by his parents in his own home, is that inclusion of people with different abilities has a positive impact on everyone. February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. It is also Black History Month. It is an opportune time to consider the lessons of the Tachash. Its multi-colored skin teaches the lesson of diversity. The fact that it rejoiced in its diversity is a lesson in inclusion. The Tachash skin was on the outermost layer of the Mishkan, closest to Hashem. I believe that is because respect for diversity and efforts at inclusion are Godly and holy.  

The Life Worth Living


Among the many laws delineated in Parshat Mishpatim is the prohibition of sorcery. In this week’s Parsha the prohibition is expressed as (22:17): “Mechashefa Lo Techayeh,” generally translated as “you shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

         When describing prohibitions that are liable for the death penalty, the Torah usually uses a language of “death” ie “Mot Tamut”, “you shall surely put them to death.” The phrase “Lo Techaya” is unusual and caught my attention.

         Though this is not the literal interpretation, I think the usage of this phrase can teach us some important lessons about life.

         Two of the characteristics of sorcery are that 1) it alleges that it can predict the future and 2) it alleges that it can control events that Judaism believes are within the exclusive purview of God.

When we recall these attributes about sorcery then I think the Torah may be teaching us something relevant to keep in mind, even in societies in which sorcery is not common:

         A life in which we are fixated on the future and trying to predict what will happen next- Lo Techayeh, is not real living. We must never ignore the present, nor take the present for granted as we plan for the future. The present is a gift (that’s why the two words are synonyms) and if we forget this and focus only on the future, then there is a distinct possibility that we will never be able to experience that future to which we look forward; for once it’s here, we are already busy looking ahead.

         Second, a life in which we believe we can and shall exclusively control our destiny, without making any room for God, is also Lo Techayeh, not a viable life plan. We must do our part, but then we must surrender and admit that we are not in total control. Though this may be difficult for us control freaks at first, in the long run it allows us freedom, knowing that no matter how much we worry or perseverate over matters we still are not completely in control.

         In these ways, the prohibition of sorcery in Mishpatim helps us think about what it means to live and not to live, and what the path is towards a life worth living. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Opportunities Within Change

 

One of the instructions Hashem gave to Bnai Yisrael before Matan Torah is:

prepare (them) today and tomorrow,

 

וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם

This preparation is called kedusha, sanctity, because Bnai Yisrael is challenged to add kedusha to their lives. One adds kedusha by doing more - in both the ritual and interpersonal realms of mitzvot, and by doing what we have done all along - but with more frequency and more kavanah, intensity. Bnei Yisrael are challenged to add kedusha to their lives not just Hayom but also Machar. To maximize our potential we must commit to a trajectory of growth, now and into the future. Each person from his or her unique starting point, in their own way, and at their own pace - so long as we are all headed in the same direction.

 In a fascinating grammatical comment (I don’t say that too often), Rashi quotes the Mechilta on this pasuk:

and prepare them: Heb. וְקִדַָּשְׁךְתָּם, and you shall prepare them (Mechilta), that they should prepare themselves today and tomorrow.

 

וקדשתם: וזימנתם, שיכינו עצמם היום ומחר:

 The Torah states that Moshe needed to prepare the people. However the Midrash clarifies that Moshe’s role was to inspire the people to prepare themselves. This is a key, yet often overlooked, aspect of spiritual leadership: not only is it a leader’s role to lay out an inspirational vision and create opportunities to be inspired, but leaders must also inspire people to inspire themselves. 

The Midrash explains that when Moshe went up to heaven to receive the rest of the Torah, the angels tried to stop him from taking it. They felt that the Torah was too holy and humans would contaminate it. Moshe responded, “do angels get jealous, whereby it makes sense to command them Not to be jealous?” Our humanity makes our allegiance to the Torah far from certain - and that’s what makes it so meaningful. In Zecharya, the prophet states:

וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ מַהְלְכִים בֵּין הָעֹמְדִים הָאֵלֶּה:

and I will give you mobility among those who stand still.

The Vilna Gaon explains that angels are called Omdim - they have only one station in life because they lack free will. We humans are meant to be on the move - take risks, imagine ourselves different tomorrow than we are today. Sometimes we make mistakes (the bigger the plan, the greater the potential fall.) But even our mistakes are opportunities for growth.

The Torah was given to humans because we are on the move and we honor the Torah when we keep moving and developing. Reminds me of a T-Shirt I remember seeing while participating in a Half Marathon a few years back. It said: “Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up.” 

Our Parsha tells the story of Bnai Yisrael at a moment of change over 3,300 years ago. To navigate that change Moshe teaches Bnai Yisrael the importance of embracing the change and committing to grow.

 

 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Power of Perspective


In the aftermath of the splitting of the Red Sea and the ensuing drowning of the Egyptians, The Torah uses these three words to introduce the Shirat Hayam. The Midrash offers a perplexing comment on the choice of the word Az:

Amar Moshe Lifnei Hakadosh Baruch Hu: “Yodeia Ani Shechatati lefanecha b”Az” …… l’kach ani meshabeichacha b’Az’.”

          The Midrash refers back to the beginning of the Exodus story in Parshat Shemot (5:23). At that time Moshe was reluctant to represent Hashem in the process of redemption. Only after Hashem promises Moshe that his efforts will be met with success does he agree to embark on the mission. However his first meeting with Pharaoh was a complete disaster. Instead of things getting better for the Jews Pharaoh decrees that the slavery will intensify; no longer will the Jews be provided straw, and their output of bricks must remain at the same level. Moshe, feeling dejected and embarrassed, turned to God and says, “Why have you caused evil to this nation? Why have you sent me?” “Umei’Az bati el Paro ledaber bishmecha, heirah l’am hazeh- Since I went to speak to Pharaoh in Your name, God, things have just gotten worse.”

          Fast forward to today’s Torah reading, Beshalach. After the Egyptian army has been decimated and the Jews are free, the Torah chooses to use the word Az once again to introduce the Song at the Sea, indicating that Moshe wishes to atone for his usage of the word Az at the beginning of the story by using it again here.

          Rabbi Moshe Amiel, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in the 1930’s explained that this Midrash is teaching us a lesson about the power of perspective. Our perspective can be a description or an aspiration. Sometimes our perspective is based on the reality as it seems. That is how Moshe used the word “Az” at the beginning of the story. After initially meeting Pharaoh Moshe could only see the reality as he confronted it; his meeting met with utter failure.

          The Torah comes back to the word “Az” to introduce the Shirat Hayam- once again spoken by Moshe but this time with a completely different meaning. Here Moshe is leading a people that is tasting its first moments of freedom. The possibilities at that moment are endless and Moshe capitalizes on the moment by using the word Az, but this time to indicate the potential that Bnei Yisrael now have under the direction and protection of Hashem. Using the word Az here indicates Moshe’s realization that man has the capacity to see the world not only as it is, but also as it can be.

          We all experience moments of inspiration and insight. Moments when we are inspired to take action. Moments when we realize change is in order. Moments when we understand that the way things have been need not be the way that things continue to be. By noting the word Az here and how it is compensating for its earlier usage, Chazal want us to understand that Moshe (and Bnei Yisrael) experienced such a moment of inspiration and insight at the Yam Suf.

Friday, January 22, 2021

With Our Youth and Our Elders



At the beginning of Parshat Bo, Pharaoh’s advisers urge him to acquiesce to Moshe’s demand to allow the Jews a three day spiritual retreat. Taking their advice, Pharaoh tells Moshe that the Jews can go, but then he asks “Mi VaMi HaHolchim?” ie “Who are you taking with you on this three day journey?” Moshe responds (10:9): 

יֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֨נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־ה, לָֽנוּ:

Moses said, “With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our cattle we will go, for it is a festival of the Lord to us.”

      In Egyptian society, knowledge and religious service was reserved for the elite class. Knowledge is power. Spirituality provides meaning and purpose to one’s life. In a democracy, we have come to expect everyone to have the freedom to learn as they wish and to worship as they wish.  Yet we know that that is not the case, even today, in many parts of the world. That was certainly not the case in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian nobility wanted to keep the masses ignorant so that they would not challenge their authority. Even when Pharaoh agrees to allow the Jews to leave, he assumes that Moshe will be going with just a select group of the Jewish men. Even if Moshe was proposing the radical notion that all men should be allowed on this excursion, Pharaoh could not fathom any good reason to include women and children. In his response, Moshe makes clear the difference between Egyptian and Jewish society. In Egyptian society, there are important people who rule and the rest of the people are forced into an obedient, lesser role. In Judaism, everyone is important. Different people may have different roles, different specialties, and different focuses, but everyone is special and integral and needed: men, women and children.

      Moshe’s call for inclusion and the importance of every member of the community resonates with me each year on this Shabbat. According to Halacha once ten men gather in prayer they can constitute a minyan. Do we care if an eleventh or twelfth man comes to shul? What about women who do not count towards the minyan? Is there any reason for them to attend? Do we care if children (of either gender) participate in Jewish communal life, or do we not care until they reach Bar/ Bat Mitzvah? From Moshe’s response to Pharaoh the answers are clear. We were not leaving Egypt without everyone. We need everyone’s presence and participation in order to function our best as a community.

      Many people have not been to shul since last March. Due to the pandemic we are still unable to offer youth groups and babysitting on Shabbat morning.  Much of our programming has been moved online. Some who have returned to shul like it the way it is now. There are no “noisy kids” in shul. There’s no noise at all, as people sit too far apart to talk to their neighbor during davening, not to mention the masks. I am here to tell you that we committed to the charge, first expressed by Moshe in this morning’s Parsha. We will not be satisfied until we are able to welcome back all of our community members, men and women, young and old. We know that we must remain patient. It will take time for people to feel comfortable enough to come back. Others may have found alternate prayer arrangements for themselves during the pandemic. We must look to accommodate different prayer preferences as we invite everyone back to shul, over the weeks and months ahead. Only when we are able to accommodate all segments of our community can we declare a festival to Hashem, may it happen soon B’Ezrat Hashem.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Power of Shabbat

 

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, US Congressman Chip Roy from Texas wrote that he is taking an indefinite leave from social media, inspired in part by how he saw Jews in Israel celebrate Shabbat. “We were inspired by seeing our Jewish brethren in Israel celebrate Shabbat, which reminded us of the Sundays we grew up with in the 1970s and ’80s,” he writes. “Ever since, one-seventh of our time has been immeasurably better, and Sunday dinner is a highlight of our week.” Congressman Roy continues, “I’m doing so not to make a political statement, but in the hope that America can return to kitchen tables, churches, taverns, coffee shops, dance halls (it’s a Texas thing) — whatever it takes to look others in the eye and rebuild our communities and humanity.”

      Shabbat is a gift that allows us to disconnect from lots of the noise and distraction that we encounter during the week. Shabbat provides us with the opportunity to be fully in the moment and fully present with others. Even Pharoah understood the power of Shabbat. The Midrash Rabbah writes that Moshe convinced Pharaoh to give the Jews a day off from their hard labor. He sold Pharoah on this idea by explaining that overall production will increase if the Jewish slaves were given a day off to rest and recuperate. Pharaoh agreed to this request, for his own self interest. In his wisdom, Moshe suggested Saturday as their day off. Soon enough Pharaoh had a change of heart (one of many that we read about):

תִּכְבַּ֧ד הָֽעֲבֹדָ֛ה עַל־הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים וְיַֽעֲשׂוּ־בָ֑הּ וְאַל־יִשְׁע֖וּ בְּדִבְרֵי־שָֽׁקֶר:

Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about false matters. (Shemot 5:8)

      Here the Midrash explains that Moshe had encouraged the Jews to utilize Shabbat not only for physical rest but for spiritual rejuvenation. To help with that, Moshe gave the Jews scrolls to learn. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky suggests that these scrolls contained lessons about God’s dominion over the universe (even Pharaoh!) and the beauty of Shabbat. Pharaoh found out about this and realized that if the Jews were using Shabbat in this spiritually uplifting manner, then there was a significant risk that the Jews would no longer view themselves as slaves to Egypt, but rather servants to Hashem. In response, Pharaoh called these scrolls “false matters” and cancelled Shabbat, even though it was also to his detriment in terms of production. Pharaoh understood the power of Shabbat. Do we?

 

      Although Shabbat only occurs once a week, its lessons are meant to stay with us and influence our entire week, on an ongoing basis. This is Hashem’s message at the beginning of our Parsha

“I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.”

      The name Sha-dai is derived from the word Dai – enough (like Dayeinu).

      The name Hashem (4 letter name that we do not pronounce as it is spelled) is a contraction of the words: Haya Hove Yihyeh. It refers to God’s Omnipresence- all the time; past present and future.

Hashem told Moshe that in the times of the Patriarchs, God appeared on an as-needed basis. But now that this clan has turned into a nation, it is necessary for God’s Presence to be manifest on an ongoing basis.

      We need Shabbat, today more than ever. Let us take advantage of the 25 hours of Shabbat and allow its lessons to influence and improve our lives during the other 143 hours per week of Chol (weekday).

 

 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Protecting and Strengthening Our Country


      On Wednesday a mob stormed the Capitol building, inflicted damage, and violently clashed with police. This riot was preceded by a protest rally featuring President Trump at which the results of the presidential election were questioned and rejected as fraudulent. January 6, 2021 will be a date that lives on in infamy. The events will be recorded in history books and taught to students. First political commentators and then historians will offer analysis and theories as to both the proximate and underlying causes of the unrest.

      Some have already declared the event to be a coup, an assault on our democracy and our country. These types of uprisings happen in other countries, not America. The world looks to the US as a beacon of democracy. One major indicator of the strength of American democracy has been the peaceful transfer of power, regardless of how heated the elections were or how much the candidates disagreed with one another.

      This peaceful transfer of presidential powers has always begun with the losing candidate conceding to the winning candidate. Until this year. There is no requirement for a concession to be offered, but it is a way for the losing candidate to demonstrate that the campaign was about a cause greater than him/herself. A concession indicates that win or lose, country, and the values upon which America was built, come first.

      We are living in hyper-political times. Extremism is too common and moderation is viewed as a weakness, along with compromise. Too many people live in echo chambers, never bothering to listen to different points of view. It starts with not listening, and it ends with demonizing those with whom you disagree.

      While there is still much to digest about the events of January 6, 2021, I’d like us to consider two thoughts that come to mind. First, we need to learn how to be good winners and good losers. In life we sometimes win and we sometimes lose. The rules of sportsmanship that we teach our kids when they’re young are no less important for us to live by as adults. Some might argue that when the stakes are high we are no longer bound by the proper conduct of winning and losing. The opposite is true: the higher the stakes, the more important it is for everyone to commit to not being sore losers or sore winners.

      Over the last two months I am reminded of what I would tell my kids all the time when they are playing games with others: Just because you lost, doesn’t mean that the other person cheated. Such a simple and basic lesson of sportsmanship has been lost on so many people today, with tragic outcomes for our democracy.

      Second, we should not always trust our feelings. In explaining why President Trump was pursuing legal challenges to the election, a campaign official said, “ Last time I checked the people were still in charge of the United States of America and there are about 74 million people out there who do not feel like the result of this election that's been presented is accurate.” Feelings can be terrible indicators of facts. We can acknowledge our feelings and try to understand why we are feeling the way we are. But before we trust our feelings we must investigate them and find facts that either support or challenge those feelings. Even after the facts prove your feelings wrong, it’s still Ok to feel a certain way, ie disappointed or angry. So long as you realize that your feelings are not consistent with the facts, because otherwise you enter into the dangerous arena of delusions.

      Every Shabbat we proudly pray for the welfare of the Unites States of America at each minyan. As we do so this Shabbat, let us remember that God helps those who help themselves. We must do what we can to protect and preserve a country and a form of government and political discourse that has been so beneficial for all American citizens and especially American Jews.