This week we will be reading from parashat Ki Tisa. It begins with God commanding Moses to take a census of the Israelite followed by instructions to empower Bezalel, Uri and Oholiav to oversee the construction of the Tabernacle. However, all of this is pretense to the story of the Egel Zahav, the Golden calf.
As we learn from Exodus 32:1-2, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered ‘against’ Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”
Previously we learned that Moses had ascended Mt. Sinai and remained up there for forty days and forty nights in seclusion from his brother and the rest of the Israelite leadership. Needless to say, in reading this text, we get the sense that the Israelites are growing increasingly anxious about Moses’ absence. In addition, up until Sinai, their only experience of gods in Egypt were those of idols, so it makes sense that given their anxiety, they would want to return to something familiar to seek comfort and solace.
Anxiety is not a uniquely Jewish experience, yet given our experience as Jews, it is not unusual for us to be anxious as individuals and as a people. Though the truth is, we do not have a higher rate of anxiety than any other peoples in the general population.
That being said, in this time where there is a great deal of worry about the Coronavirus, it is hard not to feel a generalized, if not specific level anxiety. The question is, what do we do with that feeling? Our ancestors used it to justify the creation of a golden idol to be celebrated and worshipped. They did this because they believed Moses had abandoned them, and without Moses what hope did they have to encountering God?
For us, having just completed the celebration of Purim, a holiday built around anxiety, we are presented with an opportunity. Like Esther, we can choose not to give into our worries and fears, but instead act in positive ways. Here at RTR, we are working with local and state officials as well as our professional organizations to best continue to prepare and institute policies and procedures designed to keep us all as safe as possible. We will be working as well to keep you informed through our various means of communications as to our plans as realities change in our community. We also continue to offer streaming services (www.rtrny.org/live), so that you can connect with us virtually if you are not able to join us in person.
One of the main lessons of the Golden Calf is that panic is no way to respond to anxiety and fear. We are striving to be judicious and deliberate to do our best to keep you safe and keep our congregational family safe during this time of uncertainty.
I would like to offer up the following prayer. It is not intended to solve but instead to help provide both comfort and guidance:
Eternal God, You abide though all things change. We are anxious and fearful, and we turn our hearts to You, looking to You and leaning on Your strength.
It is written (Psalm 84:5): Blessed is the one whose strength is in You.
Bless us now with faith and courage. Help us to feel that You are with us, steadying and sustaining us with the assurance that we are loved.
Be with us and bring us hope, that in the days to come, our aspirations may be fulfilled for our good and the good of those we love who depend on us.
Banish our fears with the sense that you are always present, to uphold and sustain us, as it is written (Isaiah 41:10) Have no fear, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with the power of My righteousness. Amen.
May we all be safe, healthy and happy during this challenging time. And may our tradition help to guide us as we work within the greater community to keep all safe healthy.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
“G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Terumah, G-d lays forth a plan for creating a holy space – a portable sanctuary to be carried through the wilderness. G-d begins by asking for gifts. If the whole of creation belongs to G-d, why does G-d need gifts from us?
The answer is two-fold, and we can understand it by looking at the items requested. The first is that these are all objects of value and difficult to find. Blue, purple and crimson yarns are rare and expensive. The metals and skins would have been heavy to transport and hard to get. And… dolphin skins? In the desert? Really?
Finding, gathering, and then donating rare and valuable items is a hardship. G-d is asking people of means to give a real piece of themselves to the building of this Tabernacle. This is an investment, and when we finance a project, we often devote ourselves to it emotionally as well. This is the first layer.
You will notice that G-d doesn’t ask people to bring a gold lamp, a silver breastpiece, or a blue mantle. The items that G-d requests are all raw materials out of which these can be fashioned. G-d then spends the rest of the parshah describing what the artists should create. This brings us to the next layer of G-d’s request – the emotional and artistic investment. Those who have been blessed with artistic skill will now give of themselves to fashion this house of G-d out of the raw materials brought by those of means. The people will literally “make” a sanctuary for G-d – devoting their time, energy, and creativity to the project. G-d said, “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell there.” It is the act of making that allows God to live among the people.
We are all busy, but we find that we make time and space for those things that are most important to us. We build a sanctuary to those things. Sometimes we accidentally reserve too much space for things that have little lasting value. This week, let us ponder what things we are devoting our time, money, and energy too. Are we building space for the things and people that matter? We have the opportunity to build sanctuaries for the Divine in the world through acts of lovingkindness and social justice, through precious time with family and friends, as well as through our connection to the Jewish community. What sanctuaries do you wish to build?
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from parashat Mishpatim. It is the Torah portion immediately after Yitro, which told us the story of Matan Torah, the giving and receiving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Unlike Yitro, which lays out ten fairly straightforward mitzvot, Mishpatim is a hodgepodge of laws. Of the 613 commandments found in the Torah, mishpatim contains fifty-three. Twenty-three are positive commandments (thou-shalts) and 30 are negative mitzvot (thou-shalt nots). There are laws on worship, injuries, property-law, moral behavior, sacrificial laws, the commandment not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19); the basis for the rabbinic mitzvah of separating milk and meat.
In Exodus 23:1 we find the curious phrase, “you must not carry (tisah) false rumors …” There is a lot of conversation among the rabbis as to what this really means. Rashi states that what this mitzvah is telling us is that we must not accept false rumors, meaning it is a mitzvah not to listen to gossip. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson goes farther to argue that when you hear a rumor, you are to investigate as to whether it is true or not. Then there is ibn Ezra who takes it one step even further to argue that one must neither invent something false nor repeat something that one is not sure about.
All of these rules fall under the general rabbinic principle against lashon harah (literally evil speech) or gossip. As we learn from Jewish ethics, “The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired. For this reason, some sources indicate that there is no forgiveness for lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech).
A Chasidic tale illustrates this point: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”
Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.”
On this Shabbat where we offer the following prayer at the end of the Amidah “Elohai Neshamah, My God, guard my speech and my lips from deception …,” may we be reminded by these words and our parasha to always guard our words, whether spoken, written, tweeted, or through text. For what is unsaid can often be even holier than what is said.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week we will be reading from parashat Yitro the revelation of the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. When reading it, I was reminded of an old joke, “don’t feel badly if you have a hard time keeping all of them, just remember Moses broke all of them at once.”
The theologies of revelation define many of the differences between the various streams of Judaism. In traditional Judaism, all of the Torah including the writing and Oral Torah were given to Moses at Sinai. According to Conservative Judaism, the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. According to Reform Judaism, something happened at Sinai, but we are not sure if the Ten Commandments were Divinely given, Divinely inspired, or part of a theological-mythological oral tradition representing a creative history. However, I should note that the previous statement is in many ways an oversimplification of our understanding of Sinai to illustrate some of the theological differences between the various movements. It is in no way meant to reflect your personal religious beliefs.
If we have different understandings of Sinai, what then defines us as Jews collectively? Being Jewish is more than just theology and belief. It is also shared practices, shared rituals, a shared history, a shared experience, and a fundamental wrestling with all of it to try to understand how to bring holiness into the world. As Reform Jews, we may not be bound by Halacha, Jewish law, but we are more than a people who define themselves by what we don’t do.
Sinai, whether historical, theological, or mythological, became a defining moment for us as a people. The Ten Commandments represented the beginning of an ongoing process of revelation, whether truth and sacredness are literally being revealed or unearthed. It is our charge to be engaged in the process of seeking out greater holiness.
There is a wonderful midrash, rabbinic story, that we all stood together at Sinai, meaning we were all bound together and that we are all responsible for one another. It is not an easy task, and we can be a difficult and contentious people to others and to each other. Given the difficult times we live in, it is all the more important to celebrate the giving and receiving of Torah at Sinai, no matter our understanding of what may or may not have transpired. For when times are their most challenging, it is all the more important for us to bind ourselves together and to celebrate our collective heritage and tradition.
Though Moses may have broken all ten at once, he got back up, wrote them himself and continued to lead the people from the wilderness to the Promised Land. So too, we continue to be a light in the wilderness until all can enter into the Promised Land.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
If you haven’t, please do take a few minutes to register and vote in the WZC elections that are ongoing. You can go to ARZA.org to register and vote. There are only 25 days left.
This past Shabbat, I was having a conversation with one of our congregants, Lillian Spier. Lillian just turned one-hundred years old. I half-jokingly asked her what the secret was to her longevity. I expected her to talk about being active, making healthy eating choices – something like that. But instead she said, “I’m a hope-a-holic.” To her, the secret of her long life was all about attitude, all about the way that she chooses to see the world.
It’s funny how sometimes things come together all at once. The next day, I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was talking about how important it is to take “delight” in the world. This too, is about how we choose to perceive events around us. Yet, it was also a challenging week last week, and the state of the world seems quite bleak. How can we be hopeaholics at a time like this? How can we take delight in such a world?
This week’s Torah portion, parshat B’shallach, contains one of the most famous miracles in the Torah. The children of Israel have finally escaped Egyptian slavery and encounter before them a body of water. Moses raises his rod over the waters and they part. The people cross to freedom on dry land. Once they are safe, Miriam and the women take up their tumbrels and sing one of the oldest songs: “Mi Chamocha, ba-eilim, Adonai” – “Who is like You G-d, among the gods that are worshipped?”
We don’t experience miracles like this anymore. In fact, most people would agree that the age of miracles has passed. But perhaps not. Maybe, in order to see the miracles today, we have to strive to be hopeaholics?
One of my favorite liturgical poems speaks to this. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote in his prayerbook, Siddur Hadash:
We look for miracles in the extraordinary, while too often we remain oblivious to the miracles, which abound in the ordinary moments of our lives.
Our lives are drenched in miracles. Miracles are all around us – and within us. We are each walking miracles.
When we are bruised, what miracle heals us? When we sleep, what miracle restores us? When we see beauty, what miracle elevates us? When we hear music, what miracle moves us?
When we see suffering, what miracle saddens us? When we give and receive love, what miracle warms us? When we pray, what miracle renews us?
Every springtime is a miracle; every snowflake is a miracle; every newborn is a miracle. The thoughts we think, the words we utter, the hopes we cherish – each is a miracle.
We live from miracle to miracle. That is why the Modim reminds us: be thankful for God’s miracles, which are daily with us.
On this Shabbat, in which we read the Mi Chamocha from the Torah, let us be reminded to seek the miracles, the look for the delight that will lead us to declare in wonder, “Who is like You?”
Cantor Sally Neff
In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Va’Era, we get the first group of plagues against Egypt. As each horrific plague hits, Pharoah is inclined to let the people go and worship, but then his heart is hardened to their plight and he does not let them go. This year’s observation of Martin Luther King’s birthday lead me to think a great deal about the ways in which we open and harden our hearts to the plight of others. On MLK day, everyone is thinking about equity in our country, quoting the best MLK quotes, thinking about how far we have come and how much further we have to go. For many in the black community, these observances seem hollow because one day does not make up for the three-hundred sixty-four other days where hearts seem hardened to even discussing issues of race in this country. As one facebook friend put it, MLK is the day when it is “safe” to talk about race. When G-d sent the plagues, Pharoah was moved by each one, but as soon as the misery was no longer in his face, he returned to his old way of thinking. This path only leads to destruction and death for him.
Every year at many modern Passover seders, people talk about the contemporary plagues that we experience: plagues of war, famine, homelessness, crime, racism, antisemitism, sexism, climate change, and on and on. But the truth is that most of us cannot stand to think about these plagues in an every-day sense. We harden our own hearts to them, and this can only lead to a bad end for all of us.
There are three types of words used in the Torah to describe the hardening of Pharoah’s heart – Kaveid – this root means heavy, or hard; Chazak – strong or stubborn, Kasheh – hard, difficult. I would suggest that we open our hearts by changing each of these words just a little and being inspired by three words very close in sound and spelling. Instead of having a heart that is kaveid, heavy and rigid– let us be inspired instead by kavod – honor. Let us work to earn honor in the world and to honor the legacy of freedom fighters like Moses and like Martin Luther King Jr. by trying to live up to their legacies. Instead of being chazak – strong (but in this case more like obstinate), let us be inspired by chazon – vision. And instead of being kasheh – hard, let us be inspired by the keshet – the rainbow that is all our community is, and all it has the potential to be.
Wishing you a Shabbat of vision, honor, and filled with the diversity that humanity has to share.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Exodus and retells the grand story of the enslavement and redemption of the Jewish people. The Jews were vilified and enslaved because “a new king arose who did not know Joseph.” This Pharoah felt threatened by the large numbers of Israelites in his midst and decided to oppress and enslave them as a means of weakening and controlling them. There were many horrendous decrees that came along with this enslavement, but I’d like to focus on the beginning.
Moses and Aaron make their first request to Pharoah, and it is a relatively simple one. “Let my people go, that they may celebrate a festival for Me [G-d] in the wilderness.” They are not yet asking for complete freedom. Pharoah accuses Moses and Aaron of trying to distract the people from their work. He punishes them by telling the taskmasters and foremen that the slaves would no longer be provided with straw for making bricks, but must gather the straw themselves. Despite this extra load of work, they would be expected to make just as many bricks as before.
As one can understand, the people were not happy with this decree, but they went to attempt to fulfill it. Of course it was not possible for them to complete the same amount of finished work as before and so the foremen were beaten by the taskmasters. The foremen needed someone to blame, so they went to Pharoah. But they did not find fault with him, nor did they reason with him. Instead, they said, “No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.” The foremen blame the Egyptian taskmasters.
Pharoah responds by calling the Israelites lazy. “You are shirkers!” he says. He claims that the fact that they want to go to worship is proof of their idleness. So the foremen go and blame Moses and Aaron for making them appear “loathsome to Pharoah and his courtiers.” Moses, in turn goes to G-d and said, “Why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharoah to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” Moses blames G-d.
Remember, this is the very beginning of the story, and already we are impatient, full of blame, lacking in trust. Change is a slow process, redemption does not occur overnight.
This weekend, we will mark the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King had a dream. Some of his vision has come to fruition. So much of it has not. We are quick to blame when we think about all the reasons that our world is still so full of hatred. We are quick to blame everyone else, and sometimes those people are to blame, but the blame is not the point. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is afraid to speak out for justice and he says to G-d, “I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” G-d responds “Who has made a person’s mouth? Who makes the mute, or deaf, or the seeing or the blind? Is it not I, the Eternal One? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say.”
We feel this G-d-inspiration in our desire to make the world equitable. But fear stops us. Blame stops us. History stops us. As we begin the book of Exodus, the Torah reminds us not to stop, not to blame, not to fear. The future lies before us – redemption, or enslavement. Our path depends on opening our mouths and speaking out for justice for all. We ARE impatient. It IS taking too long. But that cannot not stop or slow us from fighting the fight.
Cantor Sally Neff
This week we will be reading from Parashat Shemot. Shemot is the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus. It sets the stage for the narrative that will consume the rest of the book of Exodus namely, the enslavement and ultimately, the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. This story we know well not just because we read about it every year, and not just because there were at least three movies (The Ten Commandments both the silent and non-silent versions, The Prince of Egypt) and one tele-movie (TBS’ Moses with Sir Ben Kingsley as Moses) made about the Exodus, but because we recall it at every Passover Seder. During every seder we take time to also reflect how none will truly be free until all are free.
In reflecting upon this, there is another exodus in our modern history that we rarely speak about, and that is the forced exodus of Jews from Muslim countries beginning around 1948 in response to the establishment of the State of Israel. According to Jimena.org, an organization created to share the stories of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, “estimates that the number of Jews living in Arab countries and Iran totaled more than 850,000 at the time of Israel’s independence. Some scholars even think the number is closer to one million. In the North African region, 259,000 Jews fled from Morocco, 140,000 from Algeria, 100,000 from Tunisia, 75,000 from Egypt, and another 38,000 from Libya. In the Middle East, 135,000 Jews were exiled from Iraq, 55,000 from Yemen, 34,000 from Turkey, 20,000 from Lebanon and 18,000 from Syria. Iran forced out 25,000 Jews.” Needless to say, this was an immense tragedy for the Jewish people, that all too often is forgotten in modern narratives.
All that being said, there are still an estimated 9,000 to 15,000 Jews remaining in Iran. The Jews of Iran trace their lineage back to the Persian conquest of Babylon around 539 BCE. “King Cyrus the Great authored what is widely regarded as the first ever declaration of human rights. It advocates fighting oppression, defending the oppressed, and respecting human dignity and the principles of justice, liberty and free expression. It also includes an edict allowing the Jews living under his rule to return to their native lands. The Book of Ezra credits Cyrus with the Jews being able to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem and the Book of Esther provides an early first glimpse of Jewish life in Iran as it chronicles the rise of a Persian Jewish woman in 478 BC (Hebrew years 3283-3284) to the rank of Queen, enabling her to save her people from slaughter.”
The Jewish community’s relationship with Iran had its ebbs and flows which includes the interesting fact that Jews have at least one guaranteed seat in the Iranian Parliament. Also there were at least three thousand Jewish refugees who fled to Iran during WWII and were offered safe haven there throughout the war.
I am not mentioning any of this to justify or support in any way Iran’s ongoing support of terrorism and the killing of Americans and Israelis. I also do not wish to articulate that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is anything less than an existential threat to the State of Israel. Instead I write this as a way of helping us understand that it used to not be this way. The world seems now on the brink of war once again in the Middle East. If the past is any indication, there might be other ways out of this escalating conflict; one that might be both beneficial to us as the United States and one to us as the Jewish people. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, we pray for the safety especially of the American service men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day, for the safety of our brethren in the land of Israel, and that peace will one day soon reign in the region so weary of war, death, persecution, and destruction.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
ForeignPolicy/Issues/Pages/ Jewish-refugees-expelled-from- Arab-lands-and-from-Iran-29- November-2016.aspx
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we find the culmination of the Joseph narrative. His brothers are now standing before an unrecognizable Joseph, pleading for mercy for their brother Benjamin. At this point, Joseph inquiries about his/their father. After learning that Jacob is still alive, but that if anything happened to Benjamin, he would be devastated, Joseph chose this moment to reveal himself to his brothers.
It is an amazing story of reconciliation, forgiveness, and acceptance. When the news reached Pharaoh’s ears, he offered the sons of Israel prime land in Egypt. He also gave them all the assistance they could need in order to go to Canaan in order to bring Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt.
Throughout our history in the Diaspora, we Jews have depended upon the kindness and generosity of merciful and welcoming royalty and rulers. We have also suffered tremendously when the offers of protection and assistance were revoked. As the old joke goes, “they tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” However, as history teaches, more often than not, we didn’t win, but instead, found ourselves in exile time and again through no fault of our own except that we were Jews. This is one of the classic antisemitic narratives.
Today’s narrative is a little bit different. We do not simply look to the kindness of benevolent authorities to protect us. Instead, we as individuals, congregations, organizations, and communities have worked to forge, sustain, and build upon our relationships with local officials and the interfaith community. The response this past Monday as well as the planned gathering on Sunday are a demonstration of the importance of such relationships.
Sadly, antisemitism and violence often go hand in hand. But we as a community are resolute and strong. We are also grateful to have so many allies in the community as well, willing to shine the light on hatred, anger and fear.
We also note that we are not Jewish because of antisemitism. We are Jewish because we celebrate life, Torah, mitzvot, community and family. As we read in Vayigash, Israel’s family could have fallen apart at this moment of great crisis. Instead, they overcame their animosity and distrust, to become one family again. The Torah is not pollyannaish, there was still strife between the brothers. But they were able to set aside their differences to establish what would become the everlasting foundation of the Jewish people.
So too for us, as we enter into 2020, may we find strength in our community, both Jews and non-Jews alike, and may we embrace our heritage, and may we never let hate or violence decide how we choose to celebrate what it means to be Jewish.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
There was a debate in the Talmud between the houses of Hillel and Shammai over the method of lighting Chanukah lights. The House of Shammai felt that you should start with 8 candles and decrease each night, indicating the number of nights left. The house of Hillel felt that you start with one and light one additional one each night based on the idea that in matters of sanctity, you do not downgrade –you INCREASE the light on each successive night. Among the darkest days of the year, the season of lights arrives. Chanukah candles, Christmas lights, even the New Year’s sparkle brings sparks of warmth to an otherwise dark, and depressing season. But Chanukah lights aren’t like other holiday lights. Chanukah lights are themselves holy. The prayer says, “haneirot hallalu kodesh heim… v’ein lanu r’shut l’hishtameish bahem ela lirotam bilvad.” (These lights are holy… we do not have permission to use them except for seeing them alone.) The lights do not just turn on by plugging them in. They must be lit, blessed, and looked upon. They are kindled by the shamash – the head candle – a candle whose sole role is to bring light to all the others. The shamash is the candle that holds the hope, the light, the future, the agency to bring holiness and light into the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mikeitz, Joseph is put in a position that allows him to be a shamash for the first time in his life. Up until this point, everything has happened TO him. He has been put in very difficult circumstances, and has had few choices in how things played out. Now, this week, Pharoah tells him his dreams and Joseph not only interprets them, telling Pharoah that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but suggests what Pharoah can DO about it. He kindles the light that will lead Pharoah to put him in charge, to save food, and to save people from starvation.
This Chanukah season, I listen to the news, talk to friends, read social media, and feel so much darkness in our world. I see violence, hatred, the inability we have to listen to one another with empathy, and it feels easy to feel hopeless. But the Joseph story and the lights of the Chanukiah come together to remind us that hope lies within. We have the agency to be the shamash – to bring light, hope, warmth, love, friendship, and a listening ear to those around us. Without that one candle, that one small flame that doesn’t even count in the counting of the candles, the darkness would remain. The light moves from candle to candle until on that last night, all are lit and the brightness of the menorah sparkles in our eyes. It is up to us whether we will then continue on the next night to bring light to the rest of our world.
Cantor Sally Neff