D’var Torah For Friday, March 17, 2022
 Exodus 35:2
 Ibid. 35:5 https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2021/01/15/the-benefits-of-resting-and-how-to-unplug-in-a-busy-world/?sh=68dcab2b2133
 Exodus 35:2
 Ibid. 35:5 https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2021/01/15/the-benefits-of-resting-and-how-to-unplug-in-a-busy-world/?sh=68dcab2b2133
This week we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tisa. It begins simply enough with God commanding Moses to take a census of all the Israelite men who are able to fight; excluding those who are from the tribe of Levi. It also involves other mitzvot regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: the portable structure to be built by the Israelites to worship God. This is followed by another reminder that the Israelites were to observe Shabbat and refrain from all work, including work done to build the Mishkan. As an aside, all of the work entailed in building the Mishklan later became is the basis for all of the rabbinic prohibitions concerning work on Shabbat.
Then, just as Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai, where he has been conversing with God, the Israelites finally had enough of his absence. They approached Aaron and demanded that he build for them an idol. Aaron collected gold rings and gold earrings, melted it down, and used it to create the egel masechah, the molten or golden calf.
After learning of the matter from God, Moses pleaded with God to act with mercy upon the Israelites. Yet when Moses saw had transpired first-hand, he smashed or hurled or dropped the tablets of the 10 Commandments. He burned the calf into powder and made the Israelites drink of their disgrace. Moses then worked to control the unruly mob and helped them to see the error of their ways.
Then a little later in the portion, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai after carving two stone tablets. Moses then recited what have become referred to as the 13 Attributes of God’s compassionate nature. After which, Moses wrote down the 10 Commandments before delivering them once again to the Israelite people.
There is lot going on in this Torah portion. There are great highs and great lows. There is drama, there is communal sin, and there is redemption. There is anger. There is love. There is forgiveness.
Ki Tisa encapsulates many of the most important elements of the Exodus narrative. Here we find a reminder of the Israelites’ amazing talents at frustrating God and Moses. Yet, we also find God and Moses willing to work together to forgive the Israelites repeatedly.
It is as if the Torah is reminding us how anger and forgiveness are constantly circling each other, the great foes battling for our souls, if you will. Anger diminishes, forgiveness elevates. One is easy to give into, the other, much harder to bring to fruition. On this Shabbat, as we learn from Ki Tisa and the thirteen attributes, may we, like God, be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Please join us for services this evening where I will be speaking about some of my experiences and thoughts from my time attending the annual CCAR Convention which took place in Israel just a couple of weeks ago.
This week we will be reading from Parashat Tetzaveh. It begins with a conversation about the Ner Tamid, the Eternal light, and then continues with a detailed examination of the creation of the Priestly vestments for Aaron and his sons. In addition to reading from Tetzaveh, this week also is Shabbat Zachor. Throughout the year we have special haftarah portions that are connected to upcoming holidays and festivals. This Shabbat is no different as it is the Shabbat right before the festival of Purim, which we will be celebrating on Monday night, with a Purim carnival this Sunday.
This week we are supposed to read from both Deuteronomy 25:17-19 as well as from I Samuel 15:2-15:34. The reason for this is we are supposed to recall the attack by the Amalekites upon the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness. The Amalekites attacked the most vulnerable elements of the Israelite community, the children and the elderly who were at the rear of the pack.
This is why God commands us to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19). By tradition King Agog, who appears in I Samuel, was a descendant of the Amalekites. King Saul was commanded to utterly destroy him, which Saul failed to do. It was ultimately Samuel who had to step in for Saul, who fulfilled this command. This was also why the kingship was stripped from Saul. Later on, in Megilat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, Haman was described as an Agagite. The rabbis connect him to the line of Amalek, with Haman being the last of the descendants. Hence the connection between the Torah portion, the Haftarah portion, and the observance of Purim.
It is very curious how we choose to observe Purim. This is a festival where we survived oppressors who sought to destroy us, but we survived. The other celebration of survival is Chanukah. There we light the Chanukiah, sing songs and eat delicious fried foods. On Purim we sing songs, cast lots, read from the Megillah, and eat hamantaschen. But there is an added element, the tradition of the purimspiel.
The origins of the purimspiel dates back to the 1500s where bands of roving entertainers, often poor students, musicians, acrobats and the like, would perform for various Jewish communities. Over time, it evolved into the raucous and boisterous musicals that they are today. What many of them have in common is that we mock Haman and his ilk. It is not that we celebrate his destruction and the killing of his 10 sons, rather, we strive to make him look weak and feeble against the cunning and wisdom of Esther and Mordechai.
The use of humor as a weapon against our oppressors has been a relatively constant thread in our more recent history. It is both a way of detaching ourselves from the horrors we have experienced and continue to experience as well as a coping mechanism. Humor, through this lens, does not diminish, rather it strengthens and emboldens.
We continue to live in challenging times, and may we find the strength to continue to light the flames of the Ner Tamid, and the courage to laugh. For in laughter, we can find hope. For in laughter we can find fortitude. For in laughter we can find the strength not only to endure, but to persevere against all those who would seek to do us harm.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach,
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’rumah, we read “let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” What follows is a detailed description of what they are to build and how. One particular aspect of the sanctuary caught my eye this week. Above the ark, the Israelites are commanded to make two golden cherubim with wings outstretched. The Torah instructs of the cherubim, “They shall face each one towards the other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.”
The cherubim are placed above the ark where the Ten Commandments are placed. Why do you suppose it matters what direction they are facing?
Perhaps the cherubim are meant to show us how to stand when we are faced with Torah before us. If the cherubim were facing the heavens — the symbolism would be that we are to always look to G-d for the answers to our spiritual and Torah questions. If the cherubim were facing the congregation, the message would be that we are to seek the answers from without – from some other place or some other person. But the cherubim instead eternally face one another. One translation even renders this as that they “confront” one another – though I find this too antagonistic. The cherubim help us to see that the answers that we seek to understand Torah and mitzvot cannot be found in the heavens or from people that we are not engaged with rather that they can only be found in the insights discovered in chevruta – in conversation and learning from one another. This is the traditional way to study Torah.
The word chevruta comes from an Aramaic word meaning friendship or companionship. Unlike a traditional teacher-student relationship, in which the student memorizes and repeats the material back, classic chevruta style learning involves each student organizing their thoughts and making their arguments to each other. The two learners sharpen each other’s ideas and reasoning and, with luck, will often arrive at entirely new insights into the meaning of the text.
We read in Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Asei l’cha rav uk’nei l’cha chaveir — Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” And in 4:1 “Ben Zoma says: Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men, as it says, “I have acquired understanding from all my teachers.” May you make of yourself a teacher and also a learner, seeking wisdom from the Divine face manifest in others.
Cantor Sally Neff
Parashat Mishpatim contains a vast collection of mitzvot concerning worship, serfdom, injuries, property law, moral behavior and various religious observances. If Yitro, with the Ten Commandments, represents the lofty and the sacred, or the why of Judaism, then Mishpatim is a beginning of a conversation about the how to do Judaism. This includes the mitzvah, “you shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
According to Rabbi and scholar Dr. Reuven Firestone, “In fact, the commandment to care for the stranger is mentioned more time than any other commandment in the Torah — more even than the command to love God (v’ahavta). According to the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the Great noted that “the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 59b).”
A significant part of our Jewish journey is defined by how we treat the stranger. Several years ago, our congregation, in partnership with the Islamic Center of Rockland, in conjunction with HIAS, began pulling together resources to engage in their Welcome the Stranger Initiative. Together we have been working to help an Afghan refugee family find housing, employment, schooling, transportation, and other resources as they are acclimating to life here in the Rockland County.
With support from the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration, we are honored to once again welcome a refugee into our community and to learn his story, and also be reminded why the work we are doing is so important and so impactful.
Please join us either in person or virtually as we will be welcoming Daryosh Ahmadi who was evacuated from Afghanistan on October 25, 2021. First, he and his family were housed in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi for almost 10 months. Then they came to the United States on August 9, 2022.
And then stay for the delicious treats provided by Meals by Mahnaz, a bakery founded by Mahnaz, a refugee who in November 2017, as a young mother with 3 children left everything, she had known behind in Afghanistan to follow her husband to safety and a new life in the United States. Their lives were in danger because of the work her husband had done to support the American military.
We are also looking forward to welcoming our partners from the Islamic Center as well. It looks to be a powerful and moving evening. We are proud of the work that we have done as a congregation and as a community, and we hope you will join us in the work we will continue to do to more than not merely wronging or oppressing the stranger, but to welcome them and embrace them. For that is the sacred work we have been tasked with since our Exodus from Egypt.
 Exodus 22:20
This week we will be reading from parashat B’Shallach. It begins with the Israelites leaving Egypt. The Torah explains that the Israelites were guided “by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to give them light that they might travel day and night.” The Israelites also traveled in an unusual way. Instead of going straight to Canaan because they risked encountering the Philistines, the Israelites went through the wilderness towards the Sea of Reeds.
Of course, we know what happened next because we’ve seen the 10 Commandments and the Prince of Egypt, Pharaoh had a change of heart. Pharaoh took six hundred chariots with him and began to chase down the Israelites. At this moment, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Sea of Reeds and Pharaoh’s approaching army.
Newly freed, the Israelites began to panic. They shouted out, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?!”
God responded by telling Moses to lift up his rod and extend his hands, so that the Sea would part. It was at this moment that, according to the Midrash, that Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped forth. As an aside, we love to tell the story of Nachshon so much that many have come to believe it is in the Torah. Alas, it is not; instead it can be found in the Talmud.
Facing drowning or death, Nachshon began to wade into the water. Each step brought him closer to death, but Nachshon believed. Only when the water reached his mouth, did the water part, thus enabling the Israelites to pass through to freedom.
It was Rabbi Doron Perez who wrote, “The Jewish name Nachshon, through the ages, has become synonymous with fearless, heroic and daring leadership in challenging situations… Nachshon’s greatness lies in the fact that he was prepared to risk his life and commit to the daring act of going into the sea at this crucial time. Anyone could have done it, but nobody did. Nachshon was certainly not the greatest person present. There were certainly many more competent to take a stand and assume a leadership position during this compromised situation. But nobody did. Everyone got lost in the crowd and The Bystander Effect took place. Only one man stepped forward to be the trailblazer and the one whose actions would forever echo into eternity as the courageous leader heroically taking a stand and assuming full responsibility for a situation when others around him would not.”
On this Shabbat B’shallach, where we gather together to celebrate the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, and the redemption of the Israelites, may we also be reminded that each of us has the power, capacity and courage to be a Nachshon. All we need to be willing to do is take that first step.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
This week we will be reading from parashat Bo. In it we are told the stories of the three plagues of locusts, darkness and death of the first-born. These last three are some of the most significant of the ten plagues. We wonder, why would darkness be so significant to be listed as the penultimate plague?
First off, there is no negotiation between locusts and darkness. Immediately after the locusts were whisked away by a strong wind, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God then commanded Moses to lift up his arms where “there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness which may be felt.”
According to one commentator Gersonides, the reason for this was because the west wind that drove the locusts away also brought thick, dark clouds to remain over Egypt. Therefore, the sweeping away of the locusts and arrival of the darkness were the result of one action.
The rabbis were also really struck by the Hebrew word ve-yamesh, which indicates the darkness was so thick that it could be touched. According to Genesis Rabbah, this darkness was so dense that no candles or torches could pierce it for three days. Then on the fourth day, the darkness became even more impenetrable to the point that the Egyptians were no longer even able to move. The darkness was so dense it rendered them immobile.
However, the commentary went on to explain that the Israelites, who also were afflicted by the same darkness, were able to see even in its midst because they were accompanied by a burst of light wherever they went.
The plague of darkness is perhaps one of the most relatable. Darkness often represents fear and uncertainty. When faced with darkness, our imaginations often run wild. This is perhaps why the majority of scary movies take place at night. One never knows what the shadows may be hiding. But the lingering question remains, why was the ninth plague darkness?
The Midrash goes on to argue that the reason why the Egyptians remained in this situation was because they had chosen a life of spiritual darkness, whereas the Israelites chose to live by the light to the Torah. The Egyptians were surrounded by an impenetrable darkness because they had built their society up on the suffering of others, whereas the Israelites could see light everywhere even in darkness because they were preparing to build new lives on traditions of righteousness and justice, tzedakah.
In a sense, the darkness here was more than just a physical darkness, but also darkness of the soul. In contrast to this, even during the time of early winter’s dark, we are being reminded by Bo to strive to find the light and to embody the light. We are being reminded to seek justice and pursue it, and to bring light even on the darkest of days.
Tonight, we will also be commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the darkest time of our people’s history. This day was chosen because it was the day that Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian Army in 1945.
We look forward to sharing Shabbat with you both in the dark times and in the light.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Exodus 10:21
This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is all about endings. It is the last parasha in the book of Genesis. In it we find Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim. We also find Jacob’s final words to his children. In the words of the Plaut Torah Commentary, they are “a combination of prayer, blessing, curse, warning, psychological assessment, parable, recollection and hope.”
The parasha then concludes with the death and burial of Jacob, which is ultimately followed by the death and embalmment of Joseph at the age of 110. Before he died Joseph requested that his bones be brought out of Egypt to the land of his fathers, a little foreshadowing, if you will.
So too, this Shabbat we are observing secular endings as well. This past Sunday marked the start of the New Year. Even though we celebrate the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashanah, many of us also like to participate in this cultural annual milestone as well. Even amidst endings, new beginnings can also be exciting.
According to an anonymous sage in our tradition , “kol hatchalot kashot, all beginnings are hard.” To start a new journey takes both imagination and courage. Committing oneself to positive change and positive action takes work and commitment. It also means being willing to take risks and welcome the possibility of failure. This is perhaps part of the reason why so many are unsuccessful in fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions.
Perhaps this is why Jacob’s words to his sons were not simply words of pollyannish, unbridled hope. He knew the character of his sons and what the future held for them. Nonetheless, Jacob was cautiously hopeful. For hope, tikvah, is what has kept our people going through all the challenging times we have faced throughout the generations.
Perhaps the, that is enough for us on this first Shabbat of the secular New Year. As we enter this New Year, may we continue to hopefully be blessed with health and safety. We say farewell to 2022 for all of its challenges and the blessings we did find. We welcome 2023 for its promise of better tomorrows even though we know in our hearts kol hatchalot kashot, all beginnings can be hard.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff.
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 inquires 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.
Sadly, we have witnessed a continued rise of antisemitism and antisemitic tropes over the past several years including the use of coded language and hate crimes. 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, tradition, community and family. As we read in Vayigash, Israel’s family could have fallen apart at this moment of great crises. 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 2023, 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 A. Sharff
This week we will be reading from parashat Miketz. It is a continuation of the Joseph novella. It begins with Pharaoh having a dream, two years after Joseph’s imprisonment, that no one is able to interpret. Eventually the chief cupbearer finally remembers the kindness Joseph bestowed upon him when he was in prison and tells Pharaoh of Joseph’s interpretive abilities. To make a long story short, Joseph is released, cleaned up, and presented to Pharaoh. Joseph then tells Pharaoh what the dreams mean. Joseph predicts seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. At the end of it all, Pharaoh places Joseph as his right-hand-man to oversee the preparations for the seven years of famine.
What struck me is that Joseph truly is a stranger in a strange land. He adopts many of the customs of the Egyptians including his style of dress and appearance. Nonetheless, as the rabbis argue, Joseph remained faithful to Jewish tradition during his entire time in Egypt. He never lost that sense of being Jewish and connected to God and the burgeoning heritage he received from his family.
This is one of those years where Chanukah and Christmas overlap, and there is often an effort to merge these two vastly different religious celebrations. It is particularly noticeable in stores where they will often take Christmas items and simply paint them white and blue and declare them appropriate for Chanukah.
The reality is, Chanukah was all about a fight for religious freedom against the oppressive regime of the Selucid-Greeks. Christmas, on the other hand is a celebration of the birth of the Christian messiah. Perhaps the only true overlap is that because they are both winter festivals, we enjoy the use of light during these dark times.
Like Joseph, even as we are part of the broader society, we can remind ourselves that there is power in keeping our own customs and traditions. Chanukah is not simply Jewish-Christmas. It is its own celebration that is unique and special. From making latkes, to spinning the dreidel, to lighting the Chanukiyah, to the melodies of songs like Maoz Tzur and Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song, and the many myriad of acapella parodies, we are reminded of the importance of acknowledging our heritage.
Our tradition does not need to be subsumed by the larger societal celebrations. Chanukah and Shabbat are celebrations in and of themselves. And to observe them adds a richness and beauty to our Jewish journeys. We don’t need to lose that uniqueness to the consumerism brought on by this season. There is no need to buy a ‘mensch on bench,’ but if you come across a Star Wars menorah, let me know, I’d love to have one.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach,
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff