Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Parashat HaShavua

Parshat HaShavua - Tazria

How incredible it is to learn and relearn Torah such as this week’s Parashat Tazria through the lens of the current moment. Why, the question is asked, is a woman required to bring an offering to God after childbirth? Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, focusing his attention on the offering of a “young dove or turtle dove / וּבֶן־יוֹנָ֥ה אוֹ־תֹ֖ר,” (Lev. 12:6) explains that it marked the milestone of her ability to return to the Sanctuary after being unable to for a period of time after childbirth. As Nechama Leibowitz illustrates, the yonah, the dove, is a symbol of homesickness and return; the prophet Isaiah refers to people as “doves returning to their nests / וְכַיּוֹנִ֖ים אֶל־אֲרֻבֹּֽתֵיהֶֽם.” (Is. 60:8) She further connects the idea of a mother returning to the Sanctuary with the idea of bird returning home in the following passage from Tehillim: “The sparrow has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, on your altar / גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר מָ֪צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֚וֹר קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֪תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֖זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ.” (Ps. 84:4)

Remember also the yonah from the story of Noach. At first, “the yonah did not find a place to rest its foot / וְלֹא־מָֽצְאָה֩ הַיּוֹנָ֨ה מָנ֜וֹחַ לְכַף־רַגְלָ֗הּ.” Then the dove did find dry land, but still not enough to live, instead returning with “an olive leaf plucked in its mouth / עֲלֵה־זַ֖יִת טָרָ֣ף בְּפִ֑יהָ.” (Gen. 8:11) And then, finally, there was enough dry land for the yonah to make a home for itself and enough for humanity to live on land again. The resonance today is profound: we need the hostages released and back home again; only then can we feel at ease in our own homes as well, and that we are living in a world that is fully habitable.

And we pray, always, that God is protecting them now and will bring about their release. In the Midrash, one of the reasons given for a mother’s offering after childbirth is gratitude to “God who protected the fetus / בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְשַׁמְּרוֹ.” (Lev. Rab.14:3) And then there is this explanation offered by Rabbi Levi: “The way of the world is that when a person is incarcerated in prison, no one pays attention to him. If one would come and free him, and take him out of there, wouldn’t he feel a debt of gratitude toward him? So it is that the fetus is located in a mother’s womb and is released and taken out by the Holy Blessed One / רַבִּי לֵוִי אָמַר אוֹחֲרֵי, בְּנֹהַג שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם אָדָם חָבוּשׁ בְּבֵית הָאֲסוּרִין וְאֵין כָּל בְּרִיָּה מַשְׁגַּחַת עָלָיו, בָּא אֶחָד וְהִתִּירוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ מִשָּׁם, אֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק לוֹ טוֹבָה, כָּךְ הַוָּלָד שָׁרוּי בִּמְעֵי אִמּוֹ וּבָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְהִתִּירוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ מִשָּׁם.” (Lev. Rab. 14:2) While the analogy here to captivity is imperfect, the description of someone in captivity being forgotten and then saved strikes us to the core.

May we soon see the day, with our continuing insistence that the world not forget them, and with God’s help, when all the hostages are released to their families and homes, and to the loving embrace of us all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor


 

Parashat HaShavua - Shemni

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁון הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

Pesach is coming! And, if you need a reminder - this Shabbat we celebrate Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Nissan. The Jewish month of Nissan begins next Tuesday and Pesach starts two weeks later, on the 15th of Nissan. On Shabbat HaHodesh, we read a special selection from the book of Shemot (chapter 12). In these verses, God commands Moshe and Aaron to begin counting months. In actuality, God instructs the Israelite to begin to observe a lunar calendar and to begin to mark time collectively. This commandment is understood by many commentators to be the first commandment given to the Israelites, highlighting the importance of the calendar to our community. 

Ramban (13th century, Spain) reminds us that throughout the Torah, months are always referred to by their number. The names we use today were acquired during exile in Babylon. Ramban suggests that when God instructs Moshe and Aaron to count the months from this very moment, God does so in order that this moment will be remembered forever. As an example, explains Ramban, when we count the days of the week - in Hebrew we do this numerically as well - we are counting from Shabbat. In doing so, we fulfill the commandment of “remembering Shabbat” - we remember it each day that we say - today is the third day (since Shabbat) or the fourth day (since Shabbat). In this way, we go through the whole week thinking about the centrality of Shabbat

Similarly, says Ramban, when we count the months, we do so from the very first month – the one starting next week! – which is when we experienced Redemption. In this way, when we count the months, we remind each other and ourselves of the centrality of the Pesach story to our collective Jewish narrative.

A few weeks after October 7, Rabbi Noam traveled to Israel on a UJA mission for NY rabbis and educators. When he returned, Rabbi Noam shared with us that he had met with Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s parents and amongst others, they asked that we count the days from October 7 to keep the hostages at the forefront of our minds and hearts. 

In an ordinary year, when we read Parshat HaHodesh, this special Torah reading, we think about the relationship between structure and freedom. Before they were even ready to escape slavery and become a free People, the Israelites needed a calendar, they needed to understand and sanctify time as that would allow them to express their freedom through their religious practice. 

This year, which is no ordinary year, as we mark the 183rd day since October 7, we don’t have the privilege of counting from redemption rather we are counting towards redemption. As Ramban teaches us, counting from a particular moment keeps that moment at the core of our experience. Not a day goes by at Heschel, when we don’t talk about the hostages and pray for their immediate release.

I hope to see many of you on Sunday at the rally. I look forward to the moment when we stop counting the days from the horrors of October 7 and begin counting the days from the moment when all our hostages are home and reunited with their families.

Amen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head

 

Parashat Hashavua - Tzav

Does an expression of gratitude have less meaning when offered out of a sense of obligation? In this week’s reading of Tzav, included among the korbanot – offerings to God – is the peace offering, or zevach shelamim. It can be offered for three reasons, one of which is todah, gratitude. What seems optional in the Torah, however, is connected by Rashi to situations where gratitude is required, “on account of a miracle done for someone, for example a voyage by sea, traversing deserts, being kept in prison or healing from sickness, when one is required to give thanks / עַל נֵס שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה לוֹ, כְּגוֹן יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם וְהוֹלְכֵי מִדְבָּרוֹת וַחֲבוּשֵׁי בֵּית הָאֲסוּרִים וְחוֹלֶה שֶׁנִּתְרַפֵּא — שֶׁהֵן צְרִיכִין לְהוֹדוֹת.” (Lev. 7:12)

But why must we be required to give thanks under the most dramatic circumstances? Wouldn’t that be precisely when we instinctively do so? The Rabbis derive the requirement to thank God that Rashi cites from a verse in Psalms: “They shall give thanks to the Lord for His kindness, and for His wonders to humanity / יוֹד֣וּ לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה חַסְדּ֑וֹ וְ֜נִפְלְאוֹתָ֗יו לִבְנֵ֥י אָדָֽם.” (Ps. 107:21) There is a list of specific examples of God’s kindness and salvation preceding and following that verse, and from that list are derived the circumstances that require gratitude. Still, the question stands: why should a requirement be necessary?

Perhaps the beracha we recite to express that gratitude helps answer the question: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God King of the universe, Who gives goodness to those who are liable, Who has given every goodness to me / בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַגּוֹמֵל לְחַיָּבִים טוֹבוֹת שֶׁגְּמָלַנִי כֹּל טוֹב.” In other words, after we feel that God has come to our rescue in some way, a heartfelt thank you is not enough. We actually say that were it not for God’s kindness, we would not have been saved. Put another way: God saved us even though we didn’t deserve it!

This sounds rather harsh, a particularly heavy sentiment in a moment of gratitude. However, it seems to me that this beracha can be understood in another way, one with a positive message that needs to be heard and felt after a moment of crisis. When one endures a challenging situation, there is tremendous potential to feel an impending sense of doom, to feel that while this time things might have worked out, the next time, maybe not so much. Challenges might be so dramatic as to scare us and cause us to forego gratitude to God because we feel unworthy. The message of this beracha, and of the requirement to recite it, is that we should never feel unworthy of God’s kindness; it is precisely in our most difficult moments and lowest points that we pray that God’s kindness is at its greatest, with full faith in our worthiness to receive it.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Purim 2024

וַתַּ֨עַן אֶסְתֵּ֤ר הַמַּלְכָּה֙ וַתֹּאמַ֔ר אִם־מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְאִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ ט֑וֹב תִּנָּֽתֶן־לִ֤י נַפְשִׁי֙ בִּשְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י וְעַמִּ֖י בְּבַקָּשָׁתִֽי׃

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request.

For me, this moment is the dramatic peak of the megillah, when Esther takes a big risk and reveals her kinship to the Jewish people in the hopes that the King will spare her life and the lives of her people.

Yesterday, I participated in two important moments of אחדות, of experiencing a sense of kinship with the Jewish people.  As it happens, both took place in the context of saying the shema, both times in an unusual context for me.

At 11:30 AM, I went to the dining hall where all of our 3rd grade students gathered just before eating lunch.  If you think back for a moment to elementary school, I’m sure it will not surprise you when I say that in general, our dining hall is one of the most — shall we say – vibrant and energetic spaces in the school.  But not yesterday.  As we connected to the livestream of the worldwide sh’ma, I did not need to remind the students to quiet down as I usually do. A hush fell over the room as we prepared, and then truly as עם אחד לב אחד — one people with one heart – we joined Jews across the world in saying the shema.   I saw teachers crying as they observed the solemn and serious way the students approached the moment.

A few hours later, I entered the chapel at Riker’s Island (the rabbi for the women’s prison had surgery recently and I have been substituting for her from time to time)  and sat down with three women to study Torah and pray.  We discussed the Purim story; Vashti was their clear favorite as a character.  We studied some Hebrew.  And then we prayed.  This time, it was just four women in a small room.  But it was equally powerful to witness their identification with the Jewish people and their wish to pray and to learn.

The Book of Esther invites us to ask questions about what is hidden and what is revealed.  It is one of only two books in the Tanakh (the other is Song of Songs) where God’s name does not appear.  It is also a book that has an amazing, dramatic moment of revelation, as quoted above, when Esther finally reveals her true self no matter what the consequences may be.

We are living in a time when there is a lot of pain in bearing witness to both what is being revealed and what is being hidden.  Pictures of Esty’s Cafe, defaced with terrible anti-semitic rhetoric, were seen this week.  The days pass and a plan for releasing the hostages and ending the war in Gaza continues to feel deeply hidden. 

I was grateful to have two moments when I could see loyalty and love for the Jewish people peek out yesterday.  As we enter the happiness of Purim, it is with the prayer for the hostages in mind:

וּפְדוּיֵי יְיָ יְשׁוּבוּן וּבָאוּ צִיּוּן בְּרִנָּה וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם. שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה יַשִּׂיגוּ וְנָסוּ יָגוֹן וַאֲנָחָה

God’s redeemed shall return to Tziyon, and the joy of the world shall be upon them. Happiness and joy shall be found, and sorrow and sighing shall be forgotten.

Rabbi Anne Ebersman
Director of Jewish Programming N-5 and Director of Hesed (Community Engagement) and Tzedek (Social Responsibility) 

Parashat HaShavua - Pekudei

Finish strong. It is not how you start, it is how you finish. These are the types of expressions we use to keep us going as we work to achieve a goal that at that moment may or may not actually feel achievable. This week as we conclude Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, what can we learn from parashat Pekudei about celebrating work already done while looking forward to achieving what still needs to be done?

First, Pekudei opens by teaching us the importance of reflecting on what has been accomplished, with attention to detail and not in a cursory manner. “These are the pekudei of the Mishkan / אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙.” (Ex. 38:21) What does pekudei, the namesake of this week’s parasha, mean? More, it seems to me, than simply counting or recording, as some would have it, because this word echoes momentous occasions such as when “the Lord pakad Sarah / וַֽיהֹוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה” (Gen. 22:1), and she conceived a child. Sarah was remembered by God, seen in a profound way. And so it is again this week, when the many details of the Mishkan are reviewed, including the specific people who led the fulfillment of God’s instructions.

Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov Sforno (Italy, 1475-1549) explains as follows regarding the detailed listing and relisting of Mishkan elements: “Each and every one of these items was important enough to be known by its specific name…and in this way they were never forgotten; as the Rabbis said – lest anyone think that a utensil could ever become obsolete – they will endure forever / וזה כי כל אחד מהם היה ראוי להיות נחשב ולהקרא בשם באשר הוא זה הפרטי… ולזה לא נפסדו, כאמרם ז"ל שמא תאמר אבד סברם ובטל סכוין…שעומדים לעד ולעולמי עולמים.” (Ex. 38:21)

Second, we can learn from Pekudei to be expansive regarding who is included in one’s reflections. The Torah makes this point by going out of its way to credit all Bnei Yisrael with the holy work of building the Mishkan. “All the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting was completed, the children of Israel had done; according to all that the Lord had commanded Moshe, so they had done / וַתֵּ֕כֶל כָּל־עֲבֹדַ֕ת מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר .צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־משֶׁ֖ה כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ” (Ex. 39:32) And this point is reiterated just a little later: “In accordance with all that the Lord had commanded Moshe, so did the children of Israel do all the work / כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־משֶׁ֑ה כֵּ֤ן עָשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֵ֖ת כָּל־הָֽעֲבֹדָֽה.” (Ex. 39:42)

It seems, in fact, that credit is given to Bnei Yisrael even beyond their due. As Moshe Alshich (Israel, 1508-93) observes, “Bnei Yisrael were not expert in the work of the construction, which was executed miraculously on its own accord through Divine Providence… Despite this the text attributes all the work to Bnei Yisrael / לא היו בישראל בקיאים במלאכה אך היתה נעשית מאליה על ידי השגחתו יתברך… ואף על פי כן מעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו ישראל עשו הכל.” (Ex. 39:2) The Or Ha’Chaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe (Morocco/Israel 1696-1743) elaborates on why this would be all Bnei Yisrael and not just the main artisans of the Mishkan: “The Torah is observed collectively, by the people as a while, with each individual benefitting from the observance of another and each individual’s actions complementing the other / מחברת הכללות בקיום התורה והראה כי בני ישראל יזכו זה לזה והתורה ניתנה להתקיים בכללות ישראל כל אחד יעשה היכולת שבידו ויזכו זה לזה.” (Ex. 39:32) As Nechama Leibowitz beautifully puts it after quoting these commentaries: “the Torah can only be realized in practice by the nation as the whole. Similarly, the Mishkan was constructed through the participation of the people as a whole.” (p. 700)

Finally, when we conclude Shemot this Shabbat, as with every sefer, we will declare “chazak chazak ve’nitchazek / may we be strong, be strong, and be strengthened together.” A more elaborate expression of this sentiment is offered by Yoav in Sefer Shmuel II: “Be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves on behalf of our people, and on behalf of the cities of our God; and may God do what is good in his eyes / חֲזַ֚ק וְנִתְחַזַּק֙ בְּעַד־עַמֵּ֔נוּ וּבְעַ֖ד עָרֵ֣י אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וַֽיהֹוָ֔ה יַעֲשֶֹ֥ה הַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינָֽיו.” (II Sam. 10:12)

May we take the time to reflect deeply and positively on our accomplishments, giving credit to others as we reflect; and when we look ahead to the work yet to be done, may we go from strength to strength, finding strength in one another, for the sake of each of us individually and all of us collectively.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Vayakhel

In my fourteen years teaching at the Heschel School, it has not yet failed to shock me that we have a student body filled with adolescents not only invested in but excelling in a huge swath of interests. Of course, we have sports programs that are bursting at the seams with talented athletes, academic competitions like Model UN, Mock Trial, and Moot Beit Din that showcase intellectual prowess, and a Celebration of the Arts that magnifies our wealth of artistic talent.

But, truth be told, many schools could boast such a record. Many terrific high schools can laud their students who excel in the arts, or in sports, or in academics. I am so extremely proud of every one of those students in their areas of expertise. But for me, it is not those achievements that define our school. It is something else.

In parshat Vayakhel, Moshe has just descended from Har Sinai with a fresh set of two tablets, ready to give over the bulk of the laws of the Torah to B’nei Yisrael. And after a few introductory mitzvot - including Shabbat - Moshe begins to instruct the people on the construction of the mishkan, the mobile sanctuary wherein B’nei Yisrael will serve God through sacrifice and prayer. Moshe calls upon the people to donate material possessions and skilled labor to its construction, if they are willing. And it is here where the Torah says something quite surprising. 

In Shemot 35:21, the Torah reads:

וַיָּבֹאוּ כּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ הֵבִיאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַת יְהֹוָה לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכל־עֲבֹדָתוֹ וּלְבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ

Every person whose heart lifted them and every person whose spirit compelled them came, bringing an offering to God for the construction of the Tent of Meeting, all its service, and its holy garments.

Our commentators are struck by the phrase “כּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ - every person whose heart lifted them”. Ramban comments that there are two phrases referring to people here, but of the two, the other (“כֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ - each whose spirit compelled them”) is expected, is obvious. The language of “being compelled” is common in Tanakh, the phrase used to regularly express this kind of volunteerism. But “each person whose heart lifted them”? That’s new. That’s unique. That’s the truly magical addition to this moment. Ramban expounds and suggests that this new, unexpected category - those whose heart lifted them - is not the skilled laborers, the craftspeople who dedicate the skills they’ve already mastered. Rather, these “lifted hearts” are those amongst B’nei Yisrael who come forth to dedicate their time and efforts to the project of building the mishkan, of building both structure and holy community. Specifically, it is those who, despite being completely unskilled and untrained, simply felt deep inside themselves that this work was something they could do, so they stepped up to help.

It is this spirit that embodies what makes Heschel such a truly unique institution. It is our students who stay after school week after week to learn how to run the tech booth for our musical, despite never having touched a soundboard before. It is our 9th graders who stand in front of our entire student body to ask pointed questions of a visiting speaker. It is the teachers who go out of their way to find opportunities to support all the creative work their colleagues are doing. We are a community driven not by the talents that our students and teachers bring into the building already, but by the hearts that are lifted within and outside our classroom. And that is the true Heschel spirit that makes our school such an amazing place to learn.

Shabbat shalom and hodesh tov!

David Riemenschneider
Grade 10 Dean and High School Limudei Qodesh Teacher

Parashat HaShavua - Ki Tisa

Can we view others favorably, and see opportunities for growth, even when it would be more justifiable to see the negative and find fault? While atop Har Sinai, God informs Moshe that the nation has built egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. God is prepared to unleash his holy wrath upon the nation and start from scratch with Moshe, but Moshe dissuades God from such drastic action. (Ex. 32:7-14) As Moshe reunites with Yehoshua on the way down the mountain, Yehoshua observes, “There is a cry of war in the camp / וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה ק֥וֹל מִלְחָמָ֖ה בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה.” (Ex. 32:17) The narrative continues: “He said: It is not the sound of the tune of triumph or the sound of the tune of defeat; it is the sound of song that I hear! / וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֵ֥ין קוֹל֙ עֲנ֣וֹת גְּבוּרָ֔ה וְאֵ֥ין ק֖וֹל עֲנ֣וֹת חֲלוּשָׁ֑ה ק֣וֹל עַנּ֔וֹת אָנֹכִ֖י שֹׁמֵֽעַ׃.” (Ex. 32:18)

Is Moshe hiding the truth from Yehoshua about what God told him is actually happening in the camp, the worship of an idol? No, according to Rabbi Saadiah Gaon. Rather, Yehoshua was still speaking, and after first thinking he heard the sounds of war, he realized there were not competing sounds coming from the camp as there would be in war, but rather one sound that everyone was making together.

Ibn Ezra, however, says otherwise, reasoning that since the following pasuk specifically mentions Moshe approaching the camp, the previous “he said” was referring to Moshe as well. If that is the case, then why didn’t Moshe tell Yehoshua exactly what the sounds were, based on what God told him? According to Ramban, Moshe might have wanted to teach Yehoshua something in that moment, and also to maintain some degree of optimism about Bnei Yisrael.

With regard to Yehoshua, Ramban quotes a midrash as saying that when Yehoshua commented on what he was hearing from the camp, Moshe wondered to himself, “Is it possible for one who is destined to lead Israel to not distinguish between the different kinds of sounds? / מי שעתיד לנהוג שררה על ישראל אינו מבחין בין קול לקול?״ (Ex. 32:18) Moshe, as “the father of wisdom and recognized the musical character of all sounds / אב בחכמה הוא ומכיר ניגוני הקולות,” proceeded to say what he heard to impart that knowledge upon Yehoshua.

According to Ramban, at that moment Moshe also did not want to rush to speak harshly of Bnei Yisrael, despite what God had just told him: “Moshe in his great humility did not tell Yehoshua the cause of the noise, as he did not want to speak of Israel’s shame, and so instead told him that it was a noise of merriment / משה בענוותנותו הגדולה לא הגיד הענין ליהושע, כי לא רצה לספר בגנותן של ישראל, אבל אמר לו כי קול שחוק הוא.” (Ev. 32:18) Moshe might have also been hoping that what God told was not actually happening, even though it came from God. This might help explain the seemingly impulsive reaction of smashing the tablets, as though he didn’t already know what he was about to see! In his heart of hearts, he hadn’t believed that Bnei Yisrael could possibly be doing what God said they were.

May we learn from the example of Moshe, that even under difficult circumstances, we always seek opportunities for learning and optimism. 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor


 

Parashat HaShavua - Terumah

Why is parashat Terumah here? At the end of Mishpatim last week, we read that, “Moshe came within the cloud, and he went up to the mountain, and Moshe was upon the mountain forty days and forty nights / וַיָּבֹ֥א משֶׁ֛ה בְּת֥וֹךְ הֶֽעָנָ֖ן וַיַּ֣עַל אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְהִ֤י משֶׁה֙ בָּהָ֔ר אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה.” (Ex. 24:18) This narrative resumes two parshiyot from now in Ki Tisa, when the Torah tells us that when God “had finished speaking with [Moshe] on Har Sinai, God gave Moshe the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets, written with the finger of God / וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְדַבֵּ֤ר אִתּוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י שְׁנֵ֖י לֻחֹ֣ת הָֽעֵדֻ֑ת לֻחֹ֣ת אֶ֔בֶן כְּתֻבִ֖ים בְּאֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹהִֽים.” (Ex. 31:18) 

Rashi, based on the midrash, famously explains that “the Torah is not written in chronological order / אֵין מֻקְדָּם וּמְאֻחָר בַּתּוֹרָה.” (Ex. 31:18) Thus, in real time – contrary to their order in the Torah – first came Har Sinai in Yitro and Mishpatim, then Egel HaZahav (the Golden Calf) in Ki Tisa, and then the entirety of the mishkan narrative. However, this only begs the question: Why are Terumah and Tetzaveh, and a bit of Ki Tisa, inserted here? Why now?

One reason, I think, can be found in how Mishpatim ended last week. We were told that “Moshe alone will approach the Lord / וְנִגַּ֨שׁ משֶׁ֤ה לְבַדּוֹ֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה” (Ex. 24:2), but before he did, he “told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances / וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים.” (Ex. 24:3) He read the “Book of the Covenant / סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית” as well. (Ex. 24:7) After offerings are made to God, “Moshe took the blood and sprinkled [it] on the people / וַיִּקַּ֤ח משֶׁה֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֔ם וַיִּזְרֹ֖ק עַל־הָעָ֑ם.” (Ex. 24:8) All told, significant emphasis is placed upon the lofty status of Moshe and his actions as compared with the people. They, meanwhile, are passive recipients of the law and mainly on the receiving end of a dramatically gory ritual. What was there for them to actually do?

Enter Terumah. This is where they are active: God first has Moshe instruct Bnei Yisrael that “you will take an offering for Me / וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה,” (Ex. 25:2) and then “you make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in their midst / וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָֽׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם.” (Ex. 25:8) Not only are they active, they are also in partnership with God, who will be among them and not only above them. Rabbi Avraham Menachem Rapaport (Italy, 16th century), in his commentary Minchah be’Lula, asks why that first verse uses the language of “you will take / וְיִקְחוּ” instead of “give” to God. He says that “when a recipient is important, the giver is seen like the recipient / כשהמקבל אדם חשוב, אז נחשב הנותן כמקבל.” (Yalkut Perushim LaTorah) They are giving and receiving, and God is receiving and giving. There is a reciprocity in their relationship, even as God maintains a higher status. 

While this can all be understood as a corrective for Egel HaZahav, we see already after Mishpatim that there is reason enough to recalibrate – change the alignment of – the relationship between God and the people. Terumah does that work.

Of course, one could argue it doesn’t do that work well enough, nor does Tetzaveh, in light of what happens in Ki Tisa. I propose another way of looking at it: how much worse would Ki Tisa seem – discouraging, depressing – without Terumah? In Terumah we see Bnei Yisrael at their best, before we read of their horrible mistake of the egel. We see all the work being done for the long term, a future with God in our midst, and we know while reading Ki Tisa that it is not the end, no matter how bleak things are. Nechama Leibowitz quotes a beautiful connection made by Shemot Rabbah between “you will take an offering for Me / וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה,” and the pasuk “I am asleep, and my heart is awake / אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה וְלִבִּי עֵר” from Shir HaShirim. (5:2) No matter how “asleep” we might feel, God is awake, our ancestors are present with us. Our heart is awakened by God to give. (33:3)

\May we learn from Terumah – whether it is in chronological order or out of order – that we are ever in a mutual relationship with God, no matter God’s exalted status; and that even when we make our worst mistakes, there is always hope for a better future.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor

Parashat HaShavua - Shemot

כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.  

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 22:20)

Growing up in Israel, my mother used to teach her daughters that we all stood at Sinai and that we all survived the Holocaust. I understood my mother, whose Zionism caused her and my father to make Aliyah shortly after I was born, to be teaching us about Jewish Peoplehood. My mother believed in the collective and was trying to impart to us that since we too had experienced the pivotal moments in Jewish history, we were part of the collective.

This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, echoes the important Passover teaching that in every generation we must see ourselves as if we left Egypt. Moreover, we are instructed to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and therefore we need to be sympathetic to the plight of the stranger in our midst. Later in the Torah portion, the prohibition to oppress the stranger is repeated and this time it not only mentions that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but that we therefore know the feelings – understand the experience – of the stranger. This suggests that feelings of empathy lead us to treat others with the care they deserve.

The question this teaching raises is whether we should treat others in our midst – the stranger, the widow, the orphan or (as Rashi states) anyone who is underprivileged – with dignity and respect simply because it is the right thing to do or only once we can empathize with them having gone through a similar experience to their own. To quote Rabbi Heschel: “Justice is good not because we feel the need of it; rather we ought to feel the need of justice because it is good.” 

We were slaves in Egypt. We therefore have a unique ability to empathize with those in our immediate community and beyond who need our help. Rabbi Heschel reminds us, even if we are not able to empathize – even if we cannot personally connect to their plight – we should work to alleviate their oppression because it is the right thing to do.  

Rabbi Dahlia Kronish
High School Associate Head

Parashat HaShavua - Yitro

Who has more decision making authority, Moshe or Bnei Yisrael? One might think Moshe, of course, as the greatest leader of our people. A closer look at Parashat Yitro, however, causes one to think again. According to Shadal (Samuel David Luzzato, Italy, 1800-1865), Bnei Yisrael is presented with the Torah in a way that they had a choice whether to accept it. “Moshe came and called the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him / וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת ל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ יְהֹוָֽה׃” (Ex. 19:7) Comments Shadal on the word “before them / לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם”: “whatever is in front of a person, is at their disposal and under their control to enjoy as they wish and do with it as they see fit /ומה שהוא לפני האדם, הוא ברשותו ותחת ידו ליהנות בו כחפצו ולעשות בו כטוב בעיניו, והבא לעכב על ידו יקחהו תחלה מלפניו; ולפיכך הושאלה מלת לִפְנֵי להורות שהדבר הוא ברשות פלוני ליהנות בו כרצונו.”

At that moment, Bnei Yisrael had a choice. As Shadal continues: “When Moshe told Israel the words of God, he left it up to them whether to accept or not to accept, because the beginning of the giving of the Torah to Israel was not by way of command or compulsion, but according to their will, and with a desire in their hearts, they entered into a covenant with the Lord their God / כי משה הגיד לישראל את דברי ה', והניח הענין ברשותם לקבל ושלא לקבל, כי תחלת נתינת התורה לישראל לא היתה דרך צווי והכרח, אלא ברצונם ובנפש חפצה באו בברית את ה' אלהיהם.” 

And Moshe? He, meanwhile, has nowhere near the same degree of choice as Bnei Yisrael! In Chapter 19 verse 3, “the Lord called to [Moshe] from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakov and declare to the children of Israel’ / וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְהֹוָה֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃.” (Ex. 19) Moshe dutifully goes to the elders, as described in verse 7 quoted above, and puts God’s words before them. Bnei Yisrael made their choice: “All those assembled answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” / וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ ל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה,” after which “Moshe brought back the people’s words to the Lord / וַיָּ֧שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה.” (Ex. 19:8)

Moshe, to say the least, is not in this for himself. This is even echoed in the context of one of the most glorious moment’s of Moshe’s leadership, after the splitting of the sea last week in. Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, based on the teaching of Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin in his book Tzidkat HaTzedek, observes as much when the Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael “believed in the Lord and in Moshe his servant / וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהֹוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ.” (Ex. 14:31) You might think the statement that Bnei Yisrael believes directly in Moshe is very much about Moshe, even as he is also described as God’s servant. However, according to Tzidkat HaTzedek, says Rabbi Shapira, this wasn’t only – or maybe even primarily – about Moshe (https://mercazharav.org.il):

“The meaning is that they also believed in themselves. They believed that the Holy Blessed One who sits in heaven wants to see what the people here on earth are doing. They believed that just as the Holy Blessed One cares about our Moshe our teacher – who is indeed a prophet, but after all he is flesh and blood – is a sign that the Holy Blessed One is also interested in what we do. Says Rabbi Tzadok, this is also included in “and they believed in the Lord and in Moshe his servant,” that Bnei Yisrael at this moment understood that they were important to God.

"הכוונה היא שהם האמינו גם בעצמם. הם האמינו שהקב"ה היושב בשמים רוצה לראות מה עושות הבריות שנמצאות פה בארץ. הם האמינו שכמו שאכפת לקב"ה ממשה רבינו שאמנם הוא נביא, אבל אחרי הכל הוא בשר ודם, סימן שלקב"ה יש עניין גם במה שאנחנו עושים. אומר ר" צדוק, גם זה כלול ב"ויאמינו בה" ובמשה עבדו" – שלבני ישראל התברר שהם חשובים לפני המקום."

This expectation of leadership is of course challenging for anyone, including Moshe. It is not surprising that Moshe himself does not fully own the biggest mistake he made, in light of his limited personal agency. In Bemidbar we read that after Moshe hits a rock for water at Mei Merivah, rather than speaking to it as God instructed, God informs Moshe and Aharon that they “​​shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them / לֹ֤א תָבִ֨יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם.” (Nu. 20:12) However, in Devarim when Moshe is later recounting some of what has happened over the years in the wilderness, he attributes his exclusion from Israel to the Sin of the Spies: “The Lord was also angry with me because of you, saying, ‘Neither will you go there…’ / גַּם־בִּי֙ הִתְאַנַּ֣ף יְהֹוָ֔ה בִּגְלַלְכֶ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר גַּם־אַתָּ֖ה לֹֽא־תָבֹ֥א שָֽׁם.” (Deut. 1:37) Perhaps it is his limited personal sense of agency that leads him to say that he is a victim of bad choices by Bnei Yisrael.

Nevertheless, Moshe remains our paradigm of leadership, closer than anyone else to perfection. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains (The Leader as Servant):

“In Judaism leadership is not a matter of status but of function. A leader is not one who holds himself higher than those he or she leads. That, in Judaism, is a moral failing not a mark of stature. The absence of hierarchy does not mean the absence of leadership. An orchestra still needs a conductor. A play still needs a director. A team still needs a captain.

“A leader need not be a better instrumentalist, actor or player than those he leads. His role is different. He must coordinate, give structure and shape to the enterprise, make sure that everyone is following the same script, traveling in the same direction, acting as an ensemble rather than a group of prima donnas. He has to have a vision and communicate it. At times he has to impose discipline. Without leadership even the most glittering array of talents produces, not music but noise. That is not unknown in Jewish life, then and now.”

May we see a time soon when more of our leaders heed this call, when they recognize their obligation to serve the people they lead.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jack Nahmod
Middle School Judaic Studies Head
Rabbinic Advisor