TETZAVEH

TETZAVEH

SERMON FOR BEIT WARSZAWA

Our portion for this Shabbat comes from the second part of the Book of Shemot, of Exodus – the part which is largely formed of an instruction book for making the ritual objects which God commanded to be made as a consequence of the catastrophic incident of the people worshipping an idol, a golden calf, immediately following the revelation on Mount Sinai (although, confusingly, this is described later.) It became suddenly clear that the Israelites needed more than an abstract concept of God, a cloud or a divine voice or an enigmatic ”I am who I am”; they needed something solid that they could see, they needed something physical they could do.

This is a standard human failing – and I use the word ‘failing’ advisedly for we believe strongly in things we cannot see but feel – such as love, or fear – and yet often we cannot believe in other things unless we have a picture or a model in front of our noses. Where would Christianity – even Protestant Christianity – be without icons and pictures of a nursing mother or a man nailed to two wooden beams? Where would Buddhism be without statues of the Buddha? Although Islam shares the Jewish prohibition on pictures of God there is much Islamic art portraying prophets and heroes. It is interesting how many ultra-Orthodox Jews have no problem with collecting fantasy portraits of bearded and turbaned ancient rabbis, or pictures of priests in their robes and headgear standing at the altar, or even models of the long-destroyed Temple. Of course we also know what an impact a tall stone wall, or a rather dusty, crowded city, can have upon the feelings of otherwise-rational people. People are prepared to die so that they can rescue a flag or a banner from being captured…. giving their lives for a square of coloured cloth, because it symbolises for them so much more….. 

This is an essential element of almost all religions. Those who do not believe, do not understand the power of this symbolism – or else they try to replace it with something else.

Our sidra is therefore embedded in a series of sidrot which, although rather mixed-up chronologically (to the extent that Rashi commented that one cannot understand the sequence at all – ”Eyn Mukdam uMe’uchar baTorah” – ”There is no Before and After in the Torah narrative” – are occupied with detailed ritual instructions. (As I have already hinted, one major problem in this respect is that the incident with the Golden Calf is actually introduced in Chapter 32, in the NEXT sidra!)  At the very end of the sidra ‘Yitro’ in Chapter 20, directly following the ”Asseret HaDibrot”, the Ten Words or Ten Commandments, God commands Moses that the Israelites should build only a very simple altar out of earth or at most use uncut, natural stones, they should have no silver or golden idols of gods, and they should take care not to make the altar too high so that they might reveal immodest and embarrassing sights when climbing up to them. One gets the feeling that whoever wrote that had indeed seen Egyptian priests in mini-robes climbing the steps and knew what he was talking about. All is to be modest and natural and – yes – essentially abstract.

Then comes the sidra ‘Mishpatim’, which concentrates initially on civil laws, laws of damages and property (including human property, slaves), accidental damage and loss and seduction. But then in 22:17-19 we are abruptly told: Don’t let a magician or wizard stay alive; anyone who has sex with an animal, should die; anyone who brings a sacrifice to any other god – should come under ”Cherem”. Following which alarming prohibitions and punishments the text for the rest of Chapter 22 and all of 23 reverts to issues of social justice.  But suddenly in Chapter 24 God calls Moses to come to the Mountain with his brother and his two eldest nephews (not the other two!) and seventy ‘Elders’ and Moses builds an altar with representations of the Twelve Tribes – the Shivtei Yisrael, mentioned here as Tribes for the first time – and this delegation climbs the mountain and sees God…. and there is a festive meal – and THEN God tells Moses to come to the summit to receive the stone tablets with the revelation. So he does and is hidden in a cloud for forty days.

At which point the next Sidra ‘Teruma’ starts (Chapter 25) and here God starts with ritual instructions, for offerings, for a mobile holy structure that is formed of a box that can be carried on poles, all from acacia wood and pure gold, then in Chapters 26 and 27 complex and detailed instructions for the inner furnishings, the curtains and the carpets, also the altar with its copper covering, almost like one of those magazines for internal decorations.

So our sidra Tetzaveh starts with the instructions for the lighting, then in Chapter 28 for the appointment and robes of the Priests (Aharon and, this time, all four of his sons), then in Chapter 29 we start describing the ordination and formal robing of the priests and the sacrifices, including the daily routine sacrifices which are so to speak the basis for the ritual – the altar will be in continuous operation, the lamps will burn, the fire will glow the whole time, whether or not individuals bring their own sacrifices as well.

I have spent a lot of time giving this context because these are in the narrative very significant days and weeks for the Israelites; they have ”left” Egypt – the word ”left” is here a euphemism because they were both pushed and dragged out at the same time – they left involuntarily – and they were totally lost and disorientated in a new environment, a desert, not knowing where they were heading or what was really going on, who was leading them and why. (Moses was, after all, a stranger who had turned up out of nowhere, he was not one of them, not someone whom they knew or trusted, not someone whom they had chosen to be their leader.)  We who have our printed Bibles and know how the story continues have an enormous advantage over the poor former slaves who find themselves liberated from all that they knew – their homes, their work, hard though it might have been – and cast out into an empty space. The Rabbis traditionally spoke very dismissively of the ‘Dor HaMidbar‘, the generation of the Wilderness, who were so afraid, too afraid to move forward when told to, but I believe that those of us who have experienced either directly or indirectly some of the mass population movements and expulsions of the last century, who know the family histories, should have more empathy for them. After several hundred years of existence in Egypt – an existence made bitter by hard labour and State persecution, but at least they knew where they were and they had food and water and homes – now they are in the middle of a wilderness and of course, once the first shock is over, they clamour for water, for food, for shelter, for safety, for direction. Soon they will start to look back with nostalgia on the former days, back in Egypt…..  This is normal for almost all refugees and deportees. Home remains Home, even if someone has stolen it from you and thrown you out.

How do you build a nation out of a rabble? How do you introduce a radical new State religion to replace the multitude of old customs and superstitions and scraps of Egyptian religion that the people had had until now? How do you create a new centre for worship, a new cadre of priests, a new range of sacrifices to fill the gap left by the loss of all the old certainties? Egypt had been a place where religion was taken very seriously, a place filled with Temples and Tombs, with holy statues and people who – much like those who now choose to be cryogenically frozen – were planning to come back to life at the right time and, in the meantime, were kept mummified in their cases. The rulers expected to continue ruling even after they had died, and expected to be provided with their furniture and their servants so that they could continue in comfort. They were static, not dynamic. But now the people of Israel will have to make do with a mobile sanctuary and no fixed place to stay until they reach a land vaguely referred to as ”promised to your ancestors”.

What is noticeable and sometimes frustrating is how the Torah text ranges abruptly between broad, emphatic general principles – ”Love God! Respect your Parents! Keep the Sabbath!” and then devotes itself obsessively to tiny obscure details regarding the clothing of the priests or the amount of oil to be mixed with the flour and precisely how many lambs are required for a specific ritual. Is it all really important? Would God get angry if one sacrificed only one ram and not two in Chapter 29 verse 1? Would the whole system fall apart if one of the priests forgot a part of his underwear in Chapter 28 verse 42? Or if the incense was missing one ingredient in Chapter 30 verse 9?

Well – yes and no. It does not take long before two of the priests, inexperienced and maybe over-confident, are burned up because they make a mistake. It appears from the text to be more an accident than a punishment but even so, it demonstrates that these regulations are to be taken seriously and followed carefully.  And the other main function is that the people should not feel so alone. Rather than looking backwards for divine help they should look upwards; rather than thinking of the Gods back in Egypt they should be constantly aware of the God in the midst of their camp. They will still have a divine partner with whom to speak, should they be in fear, should they have questions, should they have specific wishes, should they feel grateful or guilty.  These people have never read the Book of Genesis, they know little of earlier stories and generations, even if they have brought Joseph’s mummified body with them. God demands a lot of them and, psychologically, they are not yet ready for the next leap forward. It is one thing to shout ”Na’asseh veNishmah!” – ”We will do it, we will listen!” – but quite another to head through the Sinai desert to a country which, their scouts tell them, is well-fortified and inhabited by giants.

These are people who had been slaves all their lives, had had no military training, had beaten back one nomadic tribe of Amalekites but otherwise had no experience. All their lives they had been told what to do, and now they were being told to trust an invisible God, and to make decisions!

 So this week’s sidra is a part of this important transition phase in the history of the People of Israel. After the twin melodramas of the crossing of the Sea and the voice that spoke from a cloud over a mountain, comes the anti-climax and the need to establish new routines, new rituals.

And we? Are we any better? Are we able to pray to God without special decorated buildings and special professional ordained staff in complicated robes?  Are we prepared to move forward into an unknown future, are we able to trust, are we able to hope?

We can read the old texts and see how it was done then, but how do we apply these lessons to our own lives and our own times? Can we separate the broad principles of morality and humanity from an almost neurotic obsession with ritual and detail? A few weeks ago I attended a synagogue where women, kept in a separate cage, reached their arms out towards the Sefer Torah as the men carried it around, then held their hands to their mouths and kissed them. This was the closest they could get to this mysterious, invisible God whose presence they felt and yet they could not reach. Rather than sitting with an open Chumash and reading the Torah text in whatever language, original or translation, they needed, they yearned instead for non-physical contact with some invisible rays spreading from the tightly-rolled, closed and covered parchment. I watched with sadness and felt that this was somehow an important symbol of the need to identify with the Sefer rather than the Torah. I know of people who speak with authority about the exact way Tefillin should be worn and where the knots should be, but I wonder when they last read the texts which are incorporated within.

The Sidrot that follow will continue this theme of building the ritual infrastructure and the book Vayikra will also devote much attention to its use, but it will be left to the prophets, much later, to remind us that ritual alone is not enough, that temples can be lost and destroyed – and deservedly so – if religion becomes merely a matter of ritual habit divorced from inner content. This is a challenge that faces all religions, all the time. We are no exception.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild. 

What does the Tabernacle symbolize?

What does the Tabernacle symbolize?  

Mati Kirschenbaum

Adonai, enthroned on cherubim, is king, peoples tremble, the earth quakes. (Ps 99:1.)

We recite these words every week during Kabbalat Shabbat. They refer to the vision of the Eternal sitting on the cherubim in the Tabernacle, whose construction is being described in this week’s Torah portion Terumah. In this Parashat we read about the instructions regarding how to construct the Tabernacle which Moses received from the Eternal. Moses conveys these instructions to the Israelites, ordering every person whose heart so moves them to give offerings which will be used to build the Tabernacle. Its completion is supposed to allow the Eternal to dwell AMONG the Israelites. This way of phrasing it suggests that, contrary to Middle-Eastern deities, whose temples were considered to be their homes, the Eternal was not going to live in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was meant to be only His symbolic dwelling. However, the instructions regarding the way in which this dwelling should be built are very detailed. We could ask why a structure holding a purely symbolical meaning is being described in such a detailed way.

Our scholars were interested in this question already in ancient times. Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the first century of the common era, claimed that the Tabernacle symbolizes our world. The two parts of the Tabernacle which the priests had access to –  the Courtyard and the Holy Place, were supposed to symbolize heaven and earth, whereas the Holy of Holies was supposed to symbolize the place of God’s presence which was  inaccessible to humans. The twelve loaves of bread were meant to symbolize the twelve months of the year. The four kinds of materials from which the curtains of the Tabernacle were made were supposed to symbolize the four elements.

On the other hand, Shemot Rabba, the collection of Midrashim on the Book of Exodus, views the Tabernacle as an earthly manifestation of the Eternal’s creative power. According to this  interpretation the curtains in the Tabernacle symbolize the sky, which according to Psalm 104:2 was spread by the Eternal. The division between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place was supposed to symbolize the division of the waters caused by the creation of the heavenly vault, as described in Genesis 1:6. The lights in the Tabernacle were supposed to remind that all Light comes from the Eternal.

The above mentioned interpretations of the Tabernacle’s construction provide different explanations as to why the instructions are so detailed. However, what they have in common is the belief that the Tabernacle represents the multidimensionality of the world created by the Eternal. This model shows us that in this world we do not have access to all the aspects of reality. However, we are able to learn a lot as we try to portray them using the means which are available to us. Moreover, the very process of building such a model brings us closer to the Eternal.

Nowadays building a Tabernacle for the Eternal does not entail erecting impressive constructions. Today we build such a Tabernacle by means of good deeds. Every act of helping your neighbor, every demonstration of our social engagement contributes to erecting a Tabernacle here and now, a Tabernacle in which the Eternal will dwell among us. May this moment arrive speedily in our days. Ken Yehi Ratzon Bimhera Beyameynu. Shabbat Shalom!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum

 

 

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy.

Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

Menachem Mirski

This week Torah portion contains stories that are famous and widespread in the entire western culture. It tells us about Pharaoh chasing after Israelites, to force their return to Egypt, splitting the Sea of Reeds; Israelites experiencing their first thirst and hunger in the desert, Moses bringing forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, manna raining down from the heavens and so on.

But today we will focus in the story told in the last verses of our Torah portion. They tell us the story of Amalek, who brutally attacked our people in Rephidim, but was fortunately defeated by Moses’ prayers and an army raised by Joshua. However, it’s just the beginning of Amalek’s and Amalekites story, which is already announced in the last verses of our parashah:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Shemot/Exodus 17:14-16)

In the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible, the people of Amalek occupy a unique position: they were among Israel’s enemies, but alone among these their enmity will last forever. It would by divine fiat be irreconcilable and only complete disappearance of the Amalekites would satisfy God’s anger. The necessity of their disappearance is strongly emphasized in the Torah: as many as three from 613 commandments enumerated by Maimonides concern Amalek:

598 Deut. 25:17 – Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites

599 Deut. 25:19 – Wipe out the descendants of Amalek

600 Deut. 25:19 – Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

What Amalek and the Amalekites did in fact to Israelites? The rabbis believed that the Torah used ‘euphemistic language’ to describe what they did. The Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Midrash Tanchuma 10; Rashi on Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.

There’s another question about it. Exodus 17:14 says that God himself will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, whereas Deuteronomy 25:19 states that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and, Do not forget! Is this a contradiction? It is not and I will explain it below.

Indeed the Israelites failed in fulfilling these commandments numerous times, starting from king Shaul, who spared the life of king Agag for one day, even though he was commanded exterminate all the Amalekites, immediately:

Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3)

Shaul “fixed his mistake”, but during that one night Amalek, as the Midrash tells us, conceived a son, which made the Amalekites survive. As a result of that we have then, centuries later, Haman the Agagite, who, in the Book of the Esther, wanted to exterminate all the Jewish people. Then we have the king Sennacherib, who, according to the Book of Isaiah erased the borders of peoples; have plundered their treasures, and exiled their vast populations. (Is 10:13). What happened then? According to traditional, rabbinic interpretation, the Amalekites have been spread among all the nations and it is called sometimes “the transmigration of Amalek”.

There are various interpretations regarding this issue: who are the contemporary Amalekites? How to recognize them? And so on. We will leave this aside here. What I would suggest in this drasha is the following: Amalek represents chaos; we and our tradition – order and the rule of the law. Amalek represents war and hate, whereas we and our tradition – peace and love. Amalek is an enemy of every decent and sensitive human being. And since there is a debate whether he is a real, personified enemy or our own, “internal enemy”, in the form of all our internal negativities, I will suggest that he is both.

In fact, in order to fight hate and chaos we must first overcome it in ourselves. Only then we will have enough strength for fighting them in the ‘external’ world, by having the ability to come out of the context of hatred and face it with our backs straight and our shoulders back. It does not mean simply to fight evil with good; no, the matter is not that simple. It depends on the balance of power, when facing evil directly. We can fight evil with good effectively only when there is a strong advantage of power on our side. If the forces of evil have a significant advantage of power over us the only thing we can do is run away from them. Otherwise we will become victims and that’s not the scenario we would like to embrace, at least, most of us. Thus we need to make sure that there’s enough power in us. If we lack it, we must necessarily get it from all possible sources. Thus we need to be united, since unity is one of the main things that power flows from.

Fighting the contemporary Amalekites, that is, all the dark powers in us and in the world is in fact divine-human enterprise. In my opinion that’s precisely the reason that the Torah states it twice and differently, firstly about God blotting out his name and then about our obligation to do so. I strongly believe that with the divine help we are all able to fight Amalek in us and in the external world. And that’s the goal, the most important goal of our time – to overcome hate and chaos.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

Freedom Once Gained Must Never Be Given Up

Freedom Once Gained Must Never Be Given Up

Thoughts on Parashat Bo

Menachem Mirski

The story we find in this week’s Torah portion to a certain extent serves as a matrix for many processes which took place over the course of the world’s history. It describes the slow collapse of tyrannical power. Slow and dramatic, since despotism never ends suddenly and painlessly. When I speak of despotism, I don’t mean the dictatorial inclinations and the abuse of power by a certain group which came to power one way or the other. What I have in mind is a well-established and functioning system of social and political enslavement.

However, on the other hand our Biblical story is very specific and it differs from other stories describing other cases of the collapse of despotism. First of all, actually only one group – the Israelites – gets liberated from tyranny here. Secondly, they gain freedom without sustaining much real damage, and it is only at a later time that they will have to pay a price for this freedom (however, here one could point to certain historical parallels, such as the collapse of the communist rule in Poland and what happened afterwards.)

And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians — because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Shemot/Exodus 12:30.)

The Pharaoh, just like all of Egypt, is devastated by the plague of the firstborns’ death. Let’s imagine a similar disaster were to happen in one of the modern societies and what kind of social and political consequences that could have…. On the other hand, there is something unbelievable and astonishing in this drama. Egypt says to the Israelites – go and take whatever you want, we’ve had enough of you; but at the same time there is no (direct) act of revenge at all.

Right after Israel, now freed from under the Pharaoh’s tyranny, leaves Egypt, in the Biblical narrative we find a series of laws regarding the observance of Passover – the festival of liberation and freedom. Both the Torah and our tradition which derives from it place a very strong emphasis on observing all of these laws. Why? Because we must never lose the freedom which we’ve already gained. We must never go back to Egypt, even if the memory of it might be tempting, just as it happened many times during the Israelites’ journey across the desert.

This applies not only to us, Jews, but also to all of humanity and to the entire world, since nothing has changed with regards to this matter since ancient times. Our freedom is always under threat. It is mostly radical groups, led by radical ideologist, both from the political right and left, who seek to limit it or take it away from us altogether. They all tell us lies, presenting their ideological ideas as a path to “true freedom”, a path that in reality almost always ends with the enslavement of at least a certain part of the society, if not of all of it.

Therefore we must not be deceived by their promises, no matter how appealing they might seem to us. Freedom is taken away from us step by step, selectively, in a way that is impossible to notice from a short-term perspective. Mussolini said that you must pluck a chicken one feather at a time, so that it won’t put up too much resistance. Even tearing out a whole handful of feathers won’t be met with a determined, staunch resistance, if the remaining feathers of democracy, freedom and the rule of law don’t seem to be at risk for the time being and if they seem to be enough to guarantee survival. Also, as we know very well from history, the fact that someone has come to power in a democratic and constitutional way does not necessarily mean and does not guarantee that they will wield that power in a way that is democratic and safe for the citizens. There are many warning signs cautioning against this looming threat. One such sign are the attacks on the freedom of speech, which also entail attacks on the freedom of thought, public expression, publishing etc. Every tyrant wants to wield absolute power over people’s minds. Such authoritarian inclinations can be noticed both on the right and the left side of the political scene. Actual human enslavement starts with the enslavement of the mind. Every attack on the freedom of speech, on the freedom to talk and express oneself freely, is an attack on the freedom of communication – and thereby on the freedom of thought and the right to hold one’s own views. That is why it is so crucial to cultivate everyone’s freedom of thought, beliefs and speech as well as everything that reminds us of their importance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Menachem Mirski

 

 

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Parashat Vayera

Parashat Vayera

In this week’s Torah portion Vayera the Eternal commands Moses to inform the Israelites that their bondage is about to end. Moses is supposed to convey the following message to them:

I am the [Eternal]. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the [Eternal], am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:6-7.)

Shemot Rabbah, the collection of Midrashim containing explanations regarding the Book of Exodus, draws our attention to four verbs: free, deliver, redeem and “take you to be My people” – which are used in this passage to describe the liberation of the Israelites by the Eternal. According to the explanation presented in this collection of Midrashim, the four cups of vine which we drink during the Passover Seder are supposed to remind us of the promise regarding the four-stage liberation made to the Israelites by the Eternal. Every year, as we drink the four cups of wine, they remind us of the promise which was fulfilled by the Eternal.

In our Parashat the Israelites initially did not pay attention to the words of the Eternal:

But when Moses told this [the Eternal’s pledge] to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.(Exodus 6:9.)

The Eternal, not discouraged by the Israelites’ lack of enthusiasm, commanded Moses to go to the Pharaoh and request that he frees his people. The Pharaoh was supposed to be convinced by the plagues inflicted upon Egypt. Midrash Tanchuma ascribed a different significance to the plagues: They were supposed to free the Israelites from the hard labor and the oppression inflicted on them by the Egyptians. The first plague, the transformation of the Nile’s waters into blood, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to revoke his prohibition and allow Israelite women to use the mikveh. The second plague, the frogs, was supposed to force the Pharaoh to take back the order forcing the Israelites to bring crawling creatures to the Egyptians, since such creatures were an abomination to the Israelites. The third plague, lice, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to revoke the order forcing the Israelites to clean the streets. The fourth plague, wild animals, was supposed to prompt the Pharaoh to prohibit forcing the Israelites to partake in hunting for wild animals. The fifth plague, boils, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to stop forcing the Israelites to carry hot objects.

According to Midrash Tanchuma, the aim of all the other plagues was also to force the Pharaoh to revoke various decrees which were making the Israelites’ lives miserable. This Midrash seems to suggest that the Egyptian plagues were supposed to convince the Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, as well as to convince the Israelites to put trust in the Eternal’s promise. The Israelites were supposed to learn to trust the Eternal by noticing how the quality of their lives was gradually improving.

What can we learn from such an interpretation of the Egyptian plagues?
That sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by numerous everyday problems, we might overlook small changes foretelling that better times are coming. During this winter Shabbat I encourage you to take a look at the problems which have been at the center of your attention for a long time now. Who knows, perhaps it will turn out that the worst is already behind you?

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

One Person Can Change the History of the Entire World

One Person Can Change the History of the Entire World

Thoughts on Parashat Shemot

The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.” (Exodus 4:19)

Such good news is conveyed by God to Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Of course this is not the beginning of this story, so let’s remind ourselves what happened earlier. Moses was forced to flee from Egypt to Midian after he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man. He made this decision when he found out, as he was trying to break up two other fighting men – this time two Hebrews – that the news about his deed had spread out and that the Pharaoh wanted to catch him and kill him. In the land of Midian Moses stops by a well, where he defends the seven daughters of priest Jethro from the local shepherds. Moses waters their sheep and then he goes back to their father’s house with them. He decides to stay there, and Jethro gives him one of his daughters, Zipporah, as his wife. Soon she gives birth to his first son, Gershom.

Then God reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush, where He entrusts him with the mission of freeing the people of Israel from the Land of Egypt; God describes the plan of his mission to Moses, He explains what the division of responsibilities between him and his brother Aaron should be etc. Moses says goodbye to his father-in-law, he takes his wife and sons and he sets out on a journey back to Egypt.

Everything seems to be headed in the right direction. The only problem is that as Moses sets out on his journey back to Egypt, God suddenly decides to kill him:

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. (Exodus 4:24)

What is this all about? Doesn’t this seem absurd? God appoints him as a prophet and savior of Israel, and soon after that He decides to kill him? The traditional Rabbinic reply to this question states as follows: Yes, since Moses committed a sin – he neglected the duty to circumcise his son. This is also suggested quite clearly by the next two verses of the Torah:

So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:25-26)

Of course, the Rabbis asked which one of Moses’ sons was this story referring to. Rashi suggests that it was not his firstborn, Gershom, but rather his second son, Eliezer, who was born right before the journey. In addition, our commentator provides an explanation for the behavior of Moses, who, besides the fact that he had to take care of practical, journey-related matters, was also weighing it up rationally: If I circumcise my son now and we embark on our journey to Egypt, his life will be endangered for three days. And, since we will be traveling, the danger will be even greater.

However, let us focus on something else: Let’s ask ourselves what would have happened if Zipporah had not circumcised their son. Would God have killed Moses? Considering how often He acted ruthlessly towards the Israelites (and not only them), one can assume that in all likelihood that’s exactly what would have happened. And what would have happened later? It’s hard to tell; perhaps the history of the entire world would have followed a different path. Possibly the Israelites would have stayed in Egypt forever, or someone else would have led them out of there. Fortunately, Moses’ wife took matters in her own hands and she rectified her husband’s mistake. Just like Joseph and Esther, Zipporah is one of those Biblical characters whose actions determined whether the entire Jewish nation would survive or not, and thus determined the fate of the entire world as well. Therefore, our Biblical history is yet another story emphasizing the importance of human vigilance and responsibility. Generally speaking, the higher our social status is, the greater responsibility we face. Therefore, let us always try to live and act in such a way so as to never give irresponsible people a chance to determine our fate.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz

Turning point. Thoughts on the parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion for this week contains the famous story of Joseph, Pharaoh and his dreams of seven fat cows that are swallowed up by seven lean cows, and of seven fat ears of grain swallowed by seven lean ears. Joseph interprets the dreams to mean that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of hunger, and advises Pharaoh to store grain during the plentiful years. Pharaoh appoints Joseph governor of Egypt. Joseph marries Asenath, daughter of Potiphar, and they have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

Since our biblical story first shows us Pharaoh’s dreams, and then tells us about the real, according to its narrative, events which closely related to those dream visions, we must immediately ask the following questions: What is the connection between Pharaoh’s dreams and reality? Was the Pharaoh a prophet? Was Joseph a prophet? Or maybe they were together “one prophet”?

This question is answered in the verse 25 of this chapter (Bereshit 41):

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do.

Since the dreams concerns affairs of state – the need to prepare for the coming calamity – God revealed it to the chief of state. And since it was a Divine communication, God wished to reveal its interpretation through His own servant, rather than the wizards of Egypt.

Pharaoh was concerned about this dream and this is a clue for us (Bereshit 41: 8). He was so frightened that he commanded all Egyptian fortune tellers and wise men to be called. He was at least as worried as if he knew what the dream was prophesying: that its content is not really about the seven years of abundance, but the following seven years of famine, as noted by Nachmanides:

For the truth of his [Joseph’s] word was not known until the years of famine began, since the years of plenty were not something out of ordinary.

It was the fear of Pharaoh that made him decide to get the advice of the sages. In fact, periods of famine (or using modern analogy: the economic crisis) occur periodically. Pharaoh had to be an enlightened man and he must have known that situations like that had happened in history or perhaps crop failure and famine disaster had already occurred during his reign earlier.

The symbolism of both pharaoh’s dreams is in fact quite simple and, as Joseph himself notes, it is one dream (Bereshit 41:25). We have the river Nile, on which the prosperity of Egypt depends entirely. We have crops and cattle, and therefore vegetation, including animal feed and animals themselves. All this is human food, the foundation of human existence with which something disturbing happens in this dream. Also, the external features of cows symbolize issues that are perennially connected with each other: prosperity and beauty as well as poverty and ugliness. In times of widespread prosperity, people become more beautiful to one another, both internally and externally, whereas in times of poverty and great misfortune the entire „inner ugliness of man” becomes, usually, widely revealed, and the beauty, especially the internal one, becomes a much rarer phenomenon.

Josef, apart from the fact that he quickly read this symbolism, is, according to our story, a man of extremely strong character. Despite the fact that really hard times are approaching, once again we see him calm and rational, and invariably cunning:

 

Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt.

(Bereshit 41:33)

Why did he say that? The first thought that appeared in my mind while preparing this drasha was the following: he had himself in mind. A moment later, I discovered that this opinion was already expressed by the medieval commentator of the Bible, Nachmanides, in his commentary on this verse. Joseph must have viewed as providential the sudden and dramatic manner in which he was brought before Pharaoh. He still had faith in the fulfillment of his adolescent dreams (Bereshit 37:5-9) and felt that the long-awaited turning point in his destiny had finally arrived. If so, he had to utilize this unique opportunity. He did so by offering his counsel. His advice was so relevant and wise that Pharaoh was enormously impressed.

Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

(Bereshit 41:50-52)

At the same time, Josef got rid of the trauma that had constantly affected him. It disappeared completely when his first son was born. Why? To put it colloquially: Joseph simply grew up. He gained a position, set up a family and adopted full responsibility for everything in his life. From a materialistic and practical point of view, he did not have to do it. Having such a high position in this ancient, patriarchal system, he could lead a ‘rakish’ lifestyle, having many wives and concubines and not being obliged to take direct responsibility – besides the material one – for his family and offspring. It was the prospect of difficult times that made his entire situation serious.  What I believe is that it was the sum of all these events that brought this turning point to his life and made this young man a real man. I also think that this lesson made him later able to forgive his brothers. We are dealing here with a somewhat paradoxical situation: precisely because of the fact that he took up a fully adult life and took full responsibility, not only for himself, but also for others, his youthful dreams were realized.

This story gives us example how a one conversation or one meeting can diametrically change someone’s fate. It also shows how crucial is the proper awareness of the place and time and the ability to use them. This history teaches us that in order to radically change our individual fate it is often enough to be simply vigilant and open to what is happening in the world around us; that it is crucial and at the same time completely sufficient in certain circumstances.

But this story also teaches us that we must not waste our resources; it teaches us something that humanity has been trying to learn for centuries and still cannot learn it.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Wrestling in the night

Wrestling in the night

Mati Kirschenbaum

You’ve prepared your clothes for the next day. You brushed your teeth. You turned off the light. You’ve assumed your favorite sleeping position. But  somehow you cannot fall asleep. Does this sound familiar?

Many of us experience problems with falling asleep. We are bothered by thoughts for which we did not have time throughout the day, as we were busy crossing out subsequent positions from our long to-do lists. But under the cover of the night – the time which we have set aside for rest – our mind gives itself the right to take a look at matters which we have pushed aside for later, since dealing with them during the day could make it difficult for us to fulfill our responsibilities. These thoughts often reflect our worries – about work, about money, about health, our relationships or the future of our children. They make it hard for us to fall asleep, and we often wrestle with them for many hours. The next day we are sleep deprived, which makes it harder for us to fulfill our current responsibilities.

In this week’s Parashat Vayishlach Jacob faces a completely different challengbe – he is forced to fight with a mysterious being, whom many commentators describe as an angel. His wrestling is described as follows:

Jacob was left alone. And [someone] wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”  Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”  Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there (Genesis  32:25-30.)

Our sages were not sure how to interpret this wrestling. Pirkot DeRabbi Eliezer, a collection of medieval Midrashim, explains this wrestling with an angel as a kind of punishment imposed by the Eternal on Jacob for not keeping the promise which he made in Betel, where Jacob pledged that he would offer a tithe to the Eternal, which he did not do. Ramban, the Medieval Spanish scholar, viewed this struggle as a metaphor for the fate that would befall the people of Israel – the conflict with the Romans (who were perceived as the spiritual heir of Esau), in which the descendants of Jacob would prevail,  managing to preserve Jewish tradition in spite of persecutions. Radak, the Medieval French Torah commentator viewed the injuries suffered by Jacob as a harbinger of the misfortunes awaiting his daughter Dinah. In addition, Radak claimed that his wrestling with the angel was a kind of punishment for Jacob not trusting the Eternal – which manifested itself in the meticulous preparations for his meeting with Esau, which suggested that Jacob did not trust that the Eternal would be able to protect him from Esau’s wrath.

The above mentioned examples of various possible interpretations of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel serve as proof of the ambiguity of this story. In addition, they tell us what kinds of problems were associated with this struggle in the view of our sages. These were problems related to taxes (since a tithe is a kind of tax), health problems (problems with the hip socket), concern about the future of our children (the issue of Dinah’s future) and the fight for the right to remain yourself even in unfavorable conditions (the future conflict with Rome). It turns out that our sages viewed Jacob’s struggle with the angel as a metaphor for various problems which can give us sleepless nights in our own times as well. What’s important is that our Parashat teaches us that we can in fact overcome these problems. This belief is reflected in the use of the word “Israel” – this is the name that was given to Jacob after his struggle and it denotes someone who successfully wrestles with the world. I hope that you will think of Jacob-Israel’s victory whenever your problems start to bother you again in the midst of the night. Perhaps this will help you fall asleep faster that Jacob did, before the break of dawn.

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translation from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

To lie or not to lie? Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze.

Menachem Mirski

And Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When he had stayed with him a month’s time. (Bereshit 29:14)

Jacob, at the urging of his mother and father, escapes from his brother, Esau, who, overwhelmed with anger at the lie and theft of the birthright decides to murder Jacob. In fact, the words of the verse quoted above have a deeper and a bit ironic meaning. It just so happens that both Laban and Jacob were liars. Of course, it is not only them who tell untruth, it is also done by Rachel, Sarah, Abraham… But in the context of the story from our Torah portion it can be concluded that Jacob’s karma returned to Jacob.

As you know, I have served your father with all my might; but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. (Bereshit 31:6-7)

This is how Jacob summarizes his long-term relationship with his father-in-law after following the voice of the Eternal that makes him decide to leave Laban, with all his family and belongings, and return to the land of his ancestors. Karma, therefore, returned to him, despite the fact that the intrigue of the „taking over of the birthright” was not his own idea, but of his mother, Rebecca. It returned to him in spite of the internal transformation that had taken place on his way to the country of Laban. The fact that both stories follow each other is not a coincidence (nothing in the Hebrew Bible is a coincidence and everything creates a logical, thoughtful whole, no matter what theory of its creation we accept). In fact, the message of these two stories can be read as: karma returns. And also, when we take a closer look at our story, Jacob, especially compared to the other people appearing in it, seems to be someone righteous.

But what does our tradition teach about speaking untruths, in more specific way? The Torah says: „Distance yourself from words of falsehood.” (Shemot 23:7) This is the only sin regarding from which the Torah warns us to „distance” ourselves. In general, Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of telling the truth, but not always. Even the ninth commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Shemot 20:16) makes the prohibition of speaking untruths relative. What is the idea behind it? Telling untruth is strictly forbidden only when it is aimed at harming another human being. In other cases, this prohibition is not categorical and there are cases where it is allowed to say untruth.

Our rabbinical tradition (for example Talmud, Bava Metziah 13a) allows untruth to be spoken (understood basically as a „modification of the truth”) in the following cases:

  1. Changing the truth in order to practice humility. For example, one may claim ignorance of a certain Talmudic tractate even if one does actually know it.
  2. Changing the truth in order to maintain modesty. One does not have to tell the truth when being asked, for example, about personal or intimate matters.
  3. Changing the truth in order to protect someone else from harm or inconvenience. For example, if a host was very gracious, and one is asked about this, one should not tell all about his magnanimity as this may cause too many guests to flock to him. On a similar vein, if a person has an incurable illness, and informing him of this will be detrimental to his health, it may be proper to withhold this information from him.
  4. A ‘white lie’ said in order to protect someone from embarrassment. An example of this is that one may say that a bride is beautiful even if she isn’t particularly beautiful.
  5. There are some circumstances under which one is allowed to be deceptive in order to recoup losses that are owed to him. Our patriarch Jacob employed this method to protect his lawfully earned gains from being defrauded him by Laban. We are therefore allowed to say untruth to overt liars who act to our detriment. And we are definitely allowed to lie in order to save someone’s health or life.

Despite all these allowances, one should always attempt not to say an outright lie, but rather to tell half-truths if telling the whole truth was something dubious or harmful. We should also try to avoid lying to children, so as not to train them to lie. Also, even in these circumstances, one should try not to lie on a constant basis.

Jacob’s lie, committed in order to take over the birthright does not fall into any category of „allowed untruths”, since its direct result was the harm of another man – his brother Esau. However, are we, as Jews, descendants and spiritual heirs of Jacob-liar? We are not, because we are all bnei-Israel and not bnei-Yaakov. We are not children of Jacob, but of Jacob-Israel, the one who underwent spiritual transformation and ceased to be Jacob-liar.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,

 

 

External and Internal Beauty.

External and Internal Beauty.

Thoughts on Parashat Chayyei Sarah.

Menachem Mirski

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Within the first seven seconds of meeting someone new, a person will judge another solely on their appearance. That means that in seven seconds your brain will determine whether you decide to continue your interaction with a stranger or not based purely on what you visibly see about them. There is a story of a woman who has undergone a plethora of treatments at the hospital in order to desperately look like everyone else. She recalls her earliest childhood memories of people looking away, horrified by her appearance. The woman was hoping her current treatment would be her last as they began to remove the bandages.  If the treatment was unsuccessful, the doctor informed her that she would be sent away to be with others who also suffer from her ailment. This story may sound familiar to you. It is from the original “The Twilight Zone,” from the episode titled Eye of the Beholder. What does an episode of “The Twilight Zone” have to do with this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sarah?  The idea of beauty and its relevance to Rebekah, as Eliezer is on his mission to find a wife for his master Abraham’s son, Isaac.

In Bereshit 24:16, the narrator describes Rebekah coming out to the spring as, “The maiden was very beautiful, a virgin who no man had known”. Why is it important that Rebekah was beautiful? What role does her physical beauty play in the moral value of this text? Was it because of Rebekah’s beauty that Eliezer asked her for a sip from her water jar? If she was “physically ugly” would he still have asked her for some water? She was probably not the only woman at the well; in those days and in this region of the world, a well was a place around which social life was going on: people made acquaintances there. A well was something like a bar or a pub is today.

Why almost all the women in the Torah are described as beautiful? Except for Leah, she had weak eyes and we all know that her younger sister Rachel got all the looks in the family. But did it really matter what they looked like?

One medieval commentator, Sforno, states that, “she had a beautiful skin coloring”. Other commentators did not have much to say on Rebekah’s beauty, they were more focused on her being, “a virgin whom no man had known” (Gen. 24:16.)

So, is beauty a Jewish value? There is a view that the Bible mentions the physical characteristics of certain persons to highlight their internal traits. For instance, Rebecca’s beauty seems to be connected to her moral character. This is made even more clear in the following verses, Bereshit 24:18-20, when Rebekah shows her chesed, loving kindness, by giving water not only to the stranger, Eliezer, but also to his ten camels; along with opening her family home to him (Gen. 24:25.) Rebekah’s actions of chesed provide evidence to Eliezer with regards to the ethical test for which he asked God to find out which maiden is worthy of Abraham’s son (Bereshit 24:12-14.) Therefore, Rebekah being referred to as a beauty is not based solely on her physical looks, but rather on her being a moral compassionate person as we see from the narrative. Whereas, the opposite applies to our society today.

Beauty seems to be based on what the media and the fashion industry tell us is beautiful. They told us back in the 1950’s that Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman; as she was a model, actress, singer, and starlet. Marilyn was a size 14; she had an hourglass shaped figure with everything else fake; from her dyed blonde hair, her walk, talk, and behavior in public was all an act. Originally named Norma Jean, a brunette and from a broken home, she could not get a job. Turning into the iconic Marilyn Monroe allowed her to become a star. This was all based on her exterior, of course. Her true self was of a good and kind person, but she was also broken, dealing with her own demons and self-medicating. Marilyn would not be able to fit into the moral fiber of beauty the same way Rebekah does.

To conclude, external, physical beauty is basically in the eye of the beholder. It is, to a large extent, a matter of subjective taste and cultural conventions that influence the taste of individuals. In this matter we cannot actually be right or wrong. It is the subjective categories that govern here: either you like something or you don’t. Is there room for any objectivity here? We cannot deny it a priori, it is a material for extensive studies in aesthetics, since there were some very vital criteria of beauty that have been created in the course of history and they are widely recognized today. Inner beauty is, however, something from a bit different realm. It is a matter of knowing a given person. At the beginning, when we barely know him or her, we cannot judge whether he or she is internally beautiful or not. We may be attracted by some sparks of his or her inner beauty and then, after some time, we may discover also some traces of ugliness. But in this case, after some time, sometimes a very long time, we can clearly see the proportions of the internal beauty to the internal ugliness. And at that point we can be definitely right or wrong. But then we are able to accept both, the inner beauty and the inner ugliness, which is not the case at the beginning, when we don’t know the person deeply and don’t know where the inner beauty or ugliness come from.

 

Is beauty a Jewish value? Inner beauty, understood as an expression of spiritual perfection, definitely is. It can be perfected over time. And outer beauty? It is a manifestation of physical, and so, temporary perfection. The possibilities of its improvement are quite limited.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

progresive judaism in Poland, reformed judaism in Poland, Beit Polska, Beit Warszawa, congregation Beit Warszawa,