Friday, January 31, 2014


1 Adar 5774 / Jan. 31 – Feb. 1, 2014

In this week’s portion, Terumah, we find God instructing Moses to accept gifts (in the form of precious metals, fabrics, etc.) from those who are so moved to give, in order to construct a portable sanctuary (the “Tabernacle”) so that the Divine presence would continuously dwell amongst the Israelites.  We are then provided with intricate instructions for how to build the Tabernacle, as well as some of the other ritual items meant to accompany it, such as an alter, a menorah, etc.

The major question I have is: why was there a need for a physical structure at all?  God communicated with Moses absent such structure, and we know that our tradition holds that the prophets who came later on also did not need to rely on such structures to have a connection with the Divine.  With a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire leading the Israelites during day and night, why was there a need for the Tabernacle (or any physical structure)?

Perhaps the Israelites, who had recently left Egypt and already shown a knack for returning to idolatrous ways (see, e.g., the golden calf incident) that were the norm for them during their centuries of enslavement, didn’t have an understanding or appreciation of the Divine as omnipresent.  I can imagine them asking: where was this supposedly omnipresent God who allowed us to be slaves for hundreds of years?

Today, there are a number of conversations taking place in the Jewish world as to whether or not centralized physical structures remain necessary. Many synagogues are struggling to afford (let alone fill with people) buildings much larger than they need as independent prayer groups and communities (often comprised of young adults) sprout up and synagogue membership declines. JCCs aren’t being frequented as often, as their fitness club revenue model struggles to compete with the large number of gym options that exist for consumers. Institutions that used to take up 5 floors in office buildings are now taking up 2 or 3 floors as they contract.

What do you think?

This Shabbat, reflect on your experiences with centralized Jewish communal structures.  Have those structures played a significant role in your own life?  Have your experiences with such structures been overwhelmingly positive or negative?  What role do you envision such structures playing in the future?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Find the Gem

24 Shevat 5774 / January 24-25, 2014

In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, we find a slew of rules for the Israelites to abide by.  We learn about some of the requirements for slaveholding, that the penalty for striking a parent is death, and that if a man sleeps with a virgin woman who is not betrothed, he must pay her bride-price to her father (and must marry her, unless the father says no).

Alongside some of these seemingly more archaic rules are others that in many ways are still observed today.  For example, we learn that if an ox attacks and gores a person, the owner of the ox is not responsible – unless the owner knew that the ox was in the habit of goring people, and failed to take proper precautions (a standard used in many, if not all, American states). Similarly, we find guidance as to who is liable if one leaves goods in the care of another and they’re damaged or destroyed, and learn that we’re not meant to charge interest when lending to other Jews (hence the creation of Hebrew Free Loan associations).

The Israelites are instructed to allow their animals to rest on Shabbat, to not spread false rumors, to not take bribes, and to return a wandering animal to its owner – even if the owner is your enemy. 

After hearing all of these rules and more, they respond affirmatively: “All the things God has commanded we will do!”

One of the most challenging aspects of this portion is that so many of the stated rules are clearly outdated, while others continue to make incredible sense even in our world today.  For many, due to the perceived outrageousness of the rules we’ve now come to view as unacceptable (and frankly downright offensive), the easiest thing to do is simply reject them all and refrain from engaging in a conversation about the text.  To do so, however, would keep us from finding the gems contained within, and would prevent us from appreciating how some of the rules enacted over 3,000 years ago and agreed to by our ancestors continue to make sense today, and in many ways, have formed the core foundation of Western legal thought (and thus our society).

This Shabbat, make it a point to read something from a source you usually wouldn’t due to a perceived difference in viewpoint.  Struggle to find meaning and value in the positions of others, and wrestle with our own text as well.  Strive to appreciate the richness and beauty of our tradition, despite (because of?) its ugly parts.  Try to find the gem in others.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Clean Socks

January 17-18, 2013

In this week’s portion, Moses reunites with his family, establishes the basis for our contemporary court system with guidance from his father-in-law, and the Israelites receive the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai.

Leading up to receiving the Commandments, as part of their preparations, the Israelites were instructed to wash their clothes.  Needless to say, I’m curious as to how much water was used / wasted (in the desert!) in order to make this possible for millions of people.

Many of us take for granted the ability to have freshly laundered clothing, while there are others who struggle to have clothing at all – regardless of its freshness.

How petty it often seems to be frustrated by coin operated machines as we long for the elusive in-unit washer and dryer…  Sweaty and grimy clothes often sit for a week or two at a time before being washed – the horror!

What is it about having clean clothes that speaks to us?

Do clothes make the person?  Should they? 

When do we “put on our best”?

At first glance it might seem weird that the Israelites were provided an instruction pertaining to hygiene.  But in reality, the focus was on preparing for a seminal moment – a moment that would inevitably be life changing.  The Torah is filled with instructions around purity, and one of the ways our ancestors were instructed was to wash their clothes.

This Shabbat, reflect on how you prepare for moments you anticipate as being special or life changing.  Find a meaningful way to express gratitude for the ability to wear clean clothing.  Consider donating clothing (maybe socks?) to those in need.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hungry? Why Wait?

10 Shevat 5774 / January 10-11, 2014

In this week’s portion, Beshalach, the Israelites have just left Egypt and are being led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night into the wilderness.  God has Moses encamp the Israelites alongside the sea, and then proceeds to harden Pharaoh’s heart one final time.  Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with his entire military might, and ultimately, the sea swallows up his forces as the Israelites cross over into freedom.

The Israelites then burst into spontaneous song, and Miriam leads the women in dance.

Only a few days after this incredible experience, the Israelites were already grumbling about the lack of water, and shortly thereafter, the lack of food.  I’m pretty sure this is where we learn that the surest way to keep Jews happy is with lots of food and drink (notice how many Jewish communal events offer refreshments!).

In response to their calls for food, God sends manna, which falls like dew each morning.  Interestingly, manna was only good for a single day (it would be moldy by the next), except on Fridays, when the Israelites were instructed to collect a double portion, because God would not send any manna on Shabbat (it’s the day of rest after all).  It’s due to this double portion on Fridays that we traditionally use two challahs to make hamotzi on Friday nights!

The Israelites are thirsty again, and God tells Moses to strike a rock, which will result in water coming forth from it.  Moses does so, and the water flows. (This is a bit hard to wrap one’s arms around, as later in the Torah, God instructs Moses to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water, but Moses instead strikes it and as a result is prohibited from entering the Promised Land… Moral of the story: pay close attention to instructions!).

At the end of the portion, the Israelites are attacked by the nation of Amalek.  Ultimately, the Israelites are victorious, and God declares that the memory of Amalek will be blotted out from under heaven.

I often have a really hard time understanding our Israelite ancestors, and why they couldn’t seem to simply have faith that everything was going to work out in their favor.  They had witnessed the 10 plagues, had gone out from Egypt with riches, and had watched the destruction of their former tormentors in the sea.  Yet only a few days later, they were already complaining to Moses again due to a lack of food and drink.  Perhaps their bondage wasn’t as bad as we think it was?  Perhaps they had developed a bit of Stockholm Syndrome? Or perhaps their fear of the unknown was truly more terrifying than the existence they had known?

Rather, what we can take away from this week’s portion is an appreciation of just how challenging it is to think beyond your next meal for those who are food insecure.  We often take for granted our ability to see the big picture and to have faith, given that much of our community is fortunate enough to have its basic needs met.

In 2012, 49 million Americans lived in food insecure households (33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children). 

That’s almost 15% of our population. 

And that’s in America – let alone the developing world.

This Shabbat, reflect on the blessing of knowing where your next meal is coming from.  Appreciate that others may not have the ability to think about big picture happenings, or to have faith that everything will work out, given their focus on simply surviving.  Take the food stamp challenge.  Commit to finding meaningful ways to help feed those in need, and to create sustainable changes in our systems and processes that will allow for none to go to bed at night hungry.