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Yom Shabbat, 2 Adar 5778

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find a mishmash of mitzvot (commandments). Of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah, 53 of them can be found in Mishpatim. The laws cover a gamut of subjects from those regarding slaves to damages, loans, rumors, and the three Pilgrimage Festivals.

However, perhaps one of the most relevant for us modernists is “When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact” (Exodus 21:22). Now the patriarchal implications notwithstanding, what this passage is stating is that the fetus is not considered a human being. Otherwise the death penalty would apply.

Judaism has a complex relationship when it comes to when someone is considered alive. Unlike other religious traditions where life begins at conception, in Judaism life begins when the child graduates from medical school. All kidding aside, according to classic interpretations life does not begin until the crown of the head emerges from the womb.

As the Talmud argues, the first forty days the zygote is considered “simply water” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b). At no point is the fetus viewed as a full-fledged human until the baby emerges from the womb.

Judaism does not view abortion as murder unlike some other religious traditions. In the words of Dr. Elliot Dorff, “there is a clear bias for life within the Jewish tradition. Indeed, it is considered sacred. Consequently, although abortion is permitted in some circumstances and actually required in others, it is not viewed as a morally neutral matter of individual desire or an acceptable form of post facto birth control” (Matters of Life and Death pg. 128). For example, if a woman’s life is in danger, Jewish law specifically requires it whether it be her life or health – physical or mental.

I mention all of this because we currently live in a world where people take positions based on absolutes and religious convictions. One of the reasons why I love our tradition is it rarely takes these stands when it comes to complex issues like abortion.

Instead we like to look at issues from a multitude of angles. Generally speaking Judaism is not in favor of abortion as a means of birth control. But it also recognizes that there are valid and sometimes compelling reasons to allow it if not require it. One can speak on behalf of this issue from genuine religious conviction and be both anti-abortion and pro-choice at the same time.

When it comes to matters of life, as our tradition teaches, there are no simple answers. We proudly live in the gray areas, and we can use the teachings of our tradition to help shape our arguments and our beliefs. We can then take those values from our tradition out into the world, and argue that there is more than one religious perspective especially when it comes to issues related to medical ethics.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week we will be reading parashat Yitro. Yitro is the seminal moment where God presents the first version of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. According to tradition, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments, the second of which can be found in Deuteronomy 5. However, one could also argue that there is a third version to be found in Exodus 34, but that is a conversation for another day.

Regardless, the Ten Commandments, for many of us, is something we believe we know well. However, when we study it closely, we may find that what is stated does not exactly match with what is written. For example, many of us remember the Torah stating “Thou shalt not kill.” When, in actuality, what the text is saying is “you shall not commit (first-degree) murder” (Exodus 20:13). The two concepts are certainly related, but not interchangeable.

Also, the Ten Commandments do not explicitly state, “you shall not lie.” Instead, the Ninth Commandment says “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13). The premise of not bearing false witness means that if one is giving testimony, one is expected to be honest. Which, in a way, means no lying, but it is a slightly more nuanced approach.

All that being said, Jewish tradition places a lot of emphasis on honesty. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud, we are taught “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be God” (BT Shabbat 55a). As the great medieval commentator Rashi interprets this to mean, “The God of truth is found wherever there is truth, and God’s absence is felt when there is falsehood.”

This is not to say there can be situations where one can tell a “white lie” for the sake of shalom bayit, peace in the home. The most often quoted passage to reflect this is that one should always tell a bride how beautiful she is on her wedding day (BT Ketubot 17a). Or a general guide is if one is telling a lie to benefit themselves, it is wrong, but to spare the feelings of another, it might be ok under certain circumstances.

Sadly, we live in a world where the very notion of objective truth telling is being challenged to its core. This does not mean we should get caught up in it. As our prophet Zechariah taught, “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth” (3:13).

This all falls under the Jewish value of Shemirat Lashon, guarding our tongue, or really watching our words. Judaism sets the bar high for when it comes to truth telling, and it is certainly a core concept that can be difficult to live up to. Truth be told, in the words of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, we should always strive “to be truthful … in the direction of moral truth and integrity” (My Jewish Learning: Truth and Lies in the Jewish Tradition).

Or to put it another way, as Mark Twain famously said, “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we have the last few plagues and the commandment to observe Passover. “This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to G-d throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.” (Ex 12:14). The Torah commands us regarding the length of the festival, the rituals, the food, and more. The Torah continues, “and when your children ask you, what do you mean by this rite? You shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to G-d, because G-d passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when G-d smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” (Ex 12:26-27) Notice that the Torah says, “When your children ask you,” and not, “IF your children ask you.”

Passover is a weird holiday. Everything about it is strange; its rituals seemed designed to make us ask why – as if we weren’t already a people always asking why. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post bemoaning the fact that seders have become pediatric. Click here to read that blog.

Every year, I revisit my thoughts on this question and become increasingly conflicted. On the one hand, we should meet people where they are. On the other hand, most of us, as children, attended family seders with lots of Hebrew and lots of singing, and still came away with strong, warm memories.

When my grandfather was a very young child, he came down to his family’s seder. He looked at the beautifully set table with the fancy dishes and noticed that something was wrong. “So nu,” he said, “Vere’s the bread?” I think that the answer to the question of how to do a seder is given to us in this week’s Torah portion. Maybe it doesn’t matter much how much Hebrew or English there is, but rather what matters is making it VERY DIFFERENT from an ordinary meal. Our seder should invite questions of the young and old. The questions should lead us to discuss the story, to try to imagine ourselves in it, and to “remember that WE were slaves in the land of Egypt.” A seder can be pediatric, but it shouldn’t provide the answers – it should create room for the CHILDREN to ask questions – and not just the ones scripted in the Hagaddah. Thus Passover will continue to be a day of “remembrance,” and an “institution for all time.”

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff

This week’s Torah portion is B’shallach. As you may recall, B’shallach is the apex of the Exodus story with the Israelites fleeing Egypt and the Egyptian army nipping at their heels. However, upon further reflection, the story is a bit more complicated. At first Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go. They were guided by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. And they encamped at numerous locations before finally reaching the Sea of Reeds.

Only then did Pharaoh have one of his classic changes of heart. He sent out six hundred of his best chariots and numerous other soldiers and chariots to chase down the Israelites. When the Israelites witnessed this thundering army, they began to panic. They demanded to know why God brought them into the wilderness only to die at the hands of the Egyptians.

Moses replied to them, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Eternal will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again” (Exodus 14:13).

There is much more to this great story including that when Moses held out his arms, a wind blew all night. It was not the sudden parting of the seas like the Ten Commandments or the Prince of Egypt. Then the Israelites crossed through and the seas came crashing down upon the Egyptians, drowning them.

Having witnessed this great event, the people began to sing. This song, the Song at the Sea, contains the Mi Chamocha, which we sing every week. According to tradition, the song was spontaneous, and the voices of the Israelites reached all the way up to the heavens.

Music has been and continues to be at the heart of the Jewish experience. There were other miraculous moments of song throughout our history. In modern times, as depicted in the movie Exodus, when the State of Israel was proclaimed, the entire new nation broke out into the singing of Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.

I believe music is the ultimate way to express what is in our hearts. That is why so many songs resonate with us, be they songs of love or songs of loss. We are especially influenced by the songs of our youth.

Tonight, we will be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, with our amazing choir and our spellbinding Cantor. It will be filled with classic and more modern melodies. It will be a service filled with lots of joy and rejoicing. In one sense, we will be trying to recapture that feeling, that essence, of how our ancestors must have felt when they saw the seas parted and their enemies vanquished. By celebrating in this moment, we are able to bring alive all those great miraculous times as well as those little times in our lives where we are reminded that music has the power to touch our very souls.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va-eira, Moses went to the Israelites to speak to them of their upcoming redemption. But as the text teaches, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Following this, God encouraged Moses to go instead and speak to Pharaoh. Moses responded by saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12).

Much has been made of this phrase “araval s’fatayim”, “impeded speech,” “heavy of tongue,” or “uncircumcised lips.”

According to a midrash, Moses gained this speech impediment due to a test from Pharaoh when Moses was a little child. According to this midrash, Moses, as a baby, kept reaching for Pharaoh’s crown, which Pharaoh interpreted to mean that Moses was going to supplant him. Fearing this, Pharaoh arranged a test. He placed in front of Moses a golden bowl and a burning piece of coal. If Moses reached for the bowl, he would be executed. When Moses began to reach for the bowl, an angel guided his hand to the glowing piece of coal instead, which Moses grasped then put his burning finger in his mouth, thus sparing his life, but also giving him a speech impediment.

The most common interpretation is that Moses had a stutter. According to Bahye Ben Asher, a 14th Century Commentator, Moses had trouble pronouncing certain words because he had a stutter.

However, there are also other interpretations. In the words of Ibn Ezra, an 11th Century Commentator, Moses always had a speech impediment, and he was only able to speak freely because God enabled him to pronounce difficult words.

What this interpretation teaches us is that Moses had trouble finding the right words, especially words of compassion, until he tapped into the Divine Source of inspiration. Or to put it another way, words of compassion should come from a place within the heart that is both holy and sacred.

Sadly, we live in a world where words, phrases, and ideas are being thrown around that are neither holy nor sacred. They are denigrating, mean, and hurtful. It is easy to get caught up in the trap of either repeating the same words or returning the rhetoric with our own hurtful speech.

In Judaism, we have the wonderful tradition of shemirat lashon, or guarding one’s speech. May we find inspiration in the story of Moses, whose lips were Divinely opened to offer words of comfort and compassion. And may we be so inclined do to the same.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff