Terumah: What can we give You?

God spoke to Moses, saying: “Tell the children of Israel 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…oil for lighting…And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the design of the Tabernacle and the design of all its vessels – so shall you make it.” (Shemot 25:2-9)

What can we give You,
for the heavens and earth
and all that lie between are Yours?

Perhaps we can offer our merits
refined like precious metals
in the crucible of a willing heart.

Perhaps we can lovingly weave
the bright threads of our lives
into a tapestry of grace.

Perhaps we can purify the oil
to kindle the lamps
and banish the darkness.

Perhaps we can make of ourselves
a vessel, to hold
the essence of Your design.

In a blogpost on Terumah, http://www.rebjeff.com/1/category/terumah/1.html Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser asks what gift mortals can possibly bring to the God Who is “koneh shamayim va’aretz – the One Who owns heaven and earth.” He asks, “What do we truly possess that is not God’s already? What does one give to the Deity who has everything?” Reb Jeff cites Rabbi Haninah, “Everything is in the hand of Heaven except for the fear of heaven.” (B. Berachot 33b). Reb Jeff points out that this is understood as a statement about free will. God allows us to make our own choices and to act according to our inner moral compass.  He adds, “… the conscious decisions we make are all we have to call our own. We have nothing to offer to God but our own willing hearts. The choices we make in life are the gold, silver and copper we bring up to God.”

The Sefat Emet tells us that if we seek intensely enough, we will merit that the Shechina will dwell within us. In his book, The Language of Truth* Rabbi Arthur Green elaborates that every soul is a chamber for God, a vessel containing the divine light. He says, “This is the message the hasidic masters repeatedly associate with the tabernacle and all the details of its making; in all these ways are we to fashion our inner chambers, to make them a proper dwelling place for God…”

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out on the phrase, “I may dwell among them,” that God’s presence is not found in a building but in the hearts and souls of those who fashion and sanctify it.

*The Torah commentary of the Sefat Emet translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.


Mishpatim: At the Summit

God said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, then I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and commandments which I have written for you to teach.” (Shemot 24:12.)

Climbing to God
up the mountain,
gaining the summit
with a hammering heart.
Breathing deeply
drinking in the vista:
clouds float softly
ethereal and pure;
birds soar languidly
over the valley
above rugged slopes
sprinkled with flowers;
a cerulean sky
arches far above, as
the sun’s bright shafts
warm dreaming eyes.
Heartbeat slows as
mind awakens:
– there, ready
to receive the word of God.

The Kotsker Rebbe comments on the seemingly superfluous words “Be there.” Where else would Moses be but at the top of the mountain? The Kotsker derives the importance of being present and focused in the moment. He notes how often we expend great effort in climbing a mountain, but once we reach the summit, our minds are elsewhere. He says, “One may be standing on the mountaintop, but one’s mind may be in another place. The main thing is not the ascent, but actively being there, and only there, not being both above and below at the same time.”

Yitro: Holy Places

…in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.(Shemot 20:21)
Sinai was sacred
when the Torah was transmitted:
it radiated holiness
like a fire too hot to approach.
Here was the place
where we encountered God:
celestial sparks
showered down upon us.
Sinai is hallowed no longer
but wherever we retrieve a spark,
walking in holy ways,
there God will come to meet us.

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk* taught that Mount Sinai possessed no intrinsic holiness, nor acquired it by virtue of the theophany: the mountain was a place where God and human beings reached out to each other. The people were warned to stay away from the mountain before the giving of the Torah and afterwards they and their flocks could go up on the mountain again (Shemot 19:12-13).
The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS reflects on this verse that feeling God’s presence is not limited to Mount Sinai. Wherever we invoke God’s name, God promises to be with us and bless us. Spirituality, we learn, is not confined to any particular place.

*Rabbi Meir Simcha ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (1843–1926) was a rabbi and prominent leader of Orthodox Judaism in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. He is known for his writings on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which he called Ohr Samayach, as well as his novellae on the Torah, entitled Meshech Chochma.
R’ Meir Simcha was born in Butrimonys Lithuania, to Samson Kalonymus, a local wealthy merchant. Educated locally he somehow was able to evade the perodic roundups of Jewish boys. At age 17 he married and settled in Białystok, Poland, where he was supported by his wife, who opened a business to support him while he continued his Talmudic studies. After 23 years, and after refusing many offers, he accepted the rabbinate of the mitnagdim (non-hasidic Jews) in the Latvian town of Dvinsk, now known as Daugavpils. There he received visitors from the whole region, and was frequently consulted on issues affecting the wider community in Poland and Lithuania. He served in that position for 39 years until his death.
In Dvinsk, his counterpart was the hasidic Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon. The two had a great respect for each other, despite Rosen’s legendary fiery temper, and on occasions referred questions in Jewish law to each other. They also shared a love for the works of Maimonides.

Yitro: Who Stood at Sinai?

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain
smoking. (Shemot, 20:15)

Was it only men, bearded and pious,
who received the Torah?
Were women not present
at the revelation?
(Was the covenant, after all,
not with the House of Jacob?)
Was the crowd homogenous:
Caucasian; no strangers; no converts?
Were all normal and healthy,
neurotypical and sound of mind?
Was everyone cis-gendered
and heterosexual?
Were there no boat-rockers,
mavericks, free thinkers?
All the people, we are told,
met the Divine at Sinai.
Could it be we stood together
with the very diversity
that makes us whole?

The Torah tells us in this verse that all the people were present at the revelation at Sinai. Later, when Moses recalls the revelation and repeats the Decalogue, the Torah again speaks of the entire people being present, “Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them, “Hear O Israel…” (Devarim 5:1).

In an earlier verse, describing the journey through the wilderness, the Torah says, “Vayis’u meR’phidim vayavo’u midbar Sinai vayachanu bamidbar vayichan sham Yisrael neged hahar – Having journeyed from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness and Israel encamped there in front of the mountain (Shemot 19:2).” Rashi notes that all the verbs used in this verse are in the plural form “they journeyed…they came…they encamped” – except the last one “vayichan” which is singularIsrael as one entity encamped. Rashi comments that here they were “as one person with one heart” compared with other encampments where there had been dissension among them. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vurka* finds an etymological connection between “vayichun” and the word “chen – grace or favour.” He says,  “Each of the people found favour in the eyes of his fellow. That is how they merited to receive the Torah. Even though each person’s way seemed right in his own eyes, according to the root of his soul, yet somehow his fellow’s way found favour in his eyes – so they were like one person with one heart.”

*Rabbi Israel Yitzhak Kalish of Vurka (1779–1848) was the first rebbe of Vurka in central Poland. In 1829 he moved to Przysucha where he became a disciple of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, among whose other notable followers were Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Kotsker Rebbe), Rabbi Yitzchak Myer Alter of Ger (Chidushei Harim), Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz (Mei HaShiloach), Rabbi Yaakov Arye of Radzymin and Rav Chanoch Heynekh of Alexander. Eventually Rabbi Yitzhak settled in Vurka where the dynasty was founded.

Whereas the Kotsker Rebbe’s outlook was a pessimistic one reflecting a belief that the fate of the world is a dark one and almost superhuman powers are required to overcome obstacles, the Vurker Rebbe’s outlook was just the opposite. He believed that the original source of the world is a great love, and evil is a mere lapse in a peaceful world harmony. His love for all people was proverbial and the Kotsker said of him that even in heaven, the Vurker would find a place for everybody. (from Poyln: My Life Within Jewish Life in Poland : Sketches and Images vol 1 (2007) by Yeḥiel Yeshaia Trunk – a descendant of the Vurker Rebbe).

Tu Bishvat: The Almond Tree’s Awakening

Delicate white buds, pink-tipped,
tightly furled on barren branches,
battened down against the wind.

The weather oscillates:
sun rays conduct a premature warmth
interspersed with cold and rain.

And still a mass of pristine blooms
tinged with roseate blush bursts out:
a profusion against the azure sky.

Each year the almond tree awakens us:
don’t wait for perfect days
– put forth your flowers.

Beshalach: Cracking the Ocean

The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Shemot 14:14)
Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind all that night and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Shemot 14:21-22)

We flee to the shore, hearts drumming wildly,
our foes in relentless pursuit.

Fearful eyes stare at implacable waves:
we are caught in a merciless trap.

Moses lifts his arm: the waves split asunder,
awe-struck we tread on dry land.

God cracks the ocean: He opens a channel,
we forge our way through it to serve.

On the phrase, “Hashem yilachem lachem ve’atem tacharishun – the Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!” Rabbi Meir of Premishlan* makes a play on the words yilachem and tacharishun. He says, “Although God is the One Who gives bread to all living (yilachem from the word for lechem) never-the-less you have to work and to plough (tacharishun shares the root letters of lacharosh).

In a commentary on parashat Beshalach entitled Nothing is Unchangeable, Rabbi Elliot Kukla notes that the splitting of the sea was a critical moment in Jewish history. He points out that we tell and retell this narrative in prayer more frequently than that of the creation or the giving of the Torah. He asks why we need to hear this story so often. Rabbi Kukla suggests it is because it reminds us that nothing is immutable. If we saw that seas can split, then it opens up possibilities that barriers can be overcome and new and unimagined horizons can appear. He envisages the eradication of disease and poverty which currently seem unattainable goals.
He adds that the Israelites responded to the splitting of the sea with songs of praise. We find in the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:4) that this was the first time people collectively praised God and God then says this is what He has been waiting for. Rabbi Kukla wonders what God was waiting for – He doesn’t need our praise. Rabbi Kukla suggests that “God was waiting for humanity to recognize that the borders of our world are never fixed. And God was waiting for us to respond to this knowledge with awe and with action.” He adds, “The miracle … is not just that the ocean parted. After all, an omnipotent God could split the Sea at any time. The miracle is that the Israelites saw the ocean divide and, despite everything they had been taught about the way the world works, they charged forward into the narrow dry path which appeared like a sliver of hope between the waves.”

*Rabbi Meir the Second of Premishlan (1783–1850) was the most famous rabbi of the dynasty which was founded by his grandfather Rabbi Meir Hagadol of Premishlan (1703–1773) who was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. R’ Meir the Second was widely known as a miracle worker. He lived in abject poverty, yet exerted himself tirelessly for the needy and the suffering. He wrote no works, but some of his teachings were collected and published by his Chassidim after his death.

Beshalach: God’s Dilemma


In a beautiful blogpost on parashat Beshalach http://www.rebjeff.com/1/post/2012/01/beshalach-the-red-sea-and-your-marriage.html Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser cites the well-known midrash which says, “Arranging marriages is as difficult for the Holy Blessed One as was the parting of the Red Sea.” (Vayikra Rabbah 8).

Rabbi Goldwasser brings the question raised about this midrash in the Zohar which asks, “Was parting the Red Sea so difficult for God? Is it not true that as soon as God is resolved to do something, all obstacles are as nothing? How was it that the dividing of the Red Sea was difficult for God?” (Zohar II 170a).
The Zohar answers that God’s “difficulty” lay not, of course, in the splitting of the sea. His quandary was how to choose the lives of the Children of Israel over those of the Egyptians. The Zohar quotes the angel of the Egyptians addressing God before the Egyptians were drowned in the sea. The angel challenges God, asking Him why He is punishing Egypt and saving the Israelites. He asserts that they are all sinners.  He questions how a God of truth and justice chooses between the two peoples.
At that moment, the Zohar tells us, God is faced with a harrowing dilemma which is the  real difficulty of the parting of the Red Sea.

Rabbi Goldwasser points out that the Zohar finds a message about God’s agonizing choice embedded in a strange silence which is found between the two verses above: in verse 14, Moses enjoins the people not to be afraid. He tells them to stand and watch silently as God goes to battle for them. And then, in verse 15, God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!”
Rabbi Goldwasser asks what happens between those two verses? Moses’ cry to God is not recorded. How can the people advance before the waters have been parted? What, he asks, is missing from the story? He says that according to the Zohar, “the missing moment is the moment of God pondering the horrible dilemma. When God asks Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me?” the Zohar reads it as a moral challenge. It is as if God is asking Moses, “Did you really think that I would save you at the expense of the Egyptians because of your pleas? Don’t cry to Me. Rather, cry out to the Israelites and beg them to behave in a manner that will make them worthy of being saved! Tell them to “go advance” … in their behaviour!””
Reb Jeff says, “That is what is missing from the story — the way that God struggles over the fate of one imperfect people over another. None is without faults, yet some must flourish while others perish. God makes choices where there are no good choices, and God agonizes over it. Who will live and who will die? How can God make choices if human beings will not “go advance” in their choices?
And what does this have to do with arranging marriages? The Zohar wants to tell us that these tough choices are not just about nations and the broad scope of human history. They happen every day on a personal scale. Every wedding sets into motion events that will lead to “weeping for some and singing for others,” says the Zohar. It is hard, even for God, to discern how to allocate good and bad fortune in a world so clouded by uncertainty, human frailty and moral shades of gray.”

He concludes that marriage, and in fact all sacred relationships, are miracles as wondrous as the parting of the Red Sea. We need, he says, to recognize this and to make ourselves worthy of the miracle. When a relationship brings suffering, God also suffers over it. And in order for a relationship to bring joy, it is incumbent on the partners to work on it – to “go advance!”