Pikudei: The Blessing

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.(Shemot 39:43)

The tabernacle is long-gone
but the imprint of holiness
is still within our hearts.
So we build our sanctuary within,
with deeds and all the skill
that we can muster:
may it be God’s will
that the Divine Presence
will rest upon the work
of our hands.

A theme to which the Sefar Emet frequently returns, is of the imprint of holiness, the unquenchable divine spark which we all carry in our hearts, and the ongoing work to make God’s presence in the world as visible now as it was when the Mishkan and the Beit Mikdash were still standing.

Rashi supplies the words of the blessing with which Moses blessed the people, “May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence will rest upon the work of your hands;” and he cites the continuation, “May the pleasantness of the Lord our G-d be upon us. Establish for us the work of our hands, O establish the work of our hands.” Rashi notes that the latter phrase is part of one of the eleven psalms in the section beginning with Tefillah LeMoshe, A Prayer of Moses. (Psalm 90).


Vayakhel: What they brought

…This is what the Lord has commanded: take from among you gifts to the Lord: everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them – gifts for the Lord… (Shemot 35:4-5).
And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded… (Shemot 35:10).

They brought their gifts:
lustrous gold, silver, bronze,
glowing gems, fine-spun cloth,
rainbow yarns and supple skins,
oils and wood and fragrant spices.

They brought their talents –
able minds, dextrous hands
and eyes that cherished beauty:
weavers, smiths and carpenters,
all faithful to their craft.

The congregation answered:
willing throngs assembled
yearning now to serve their God –
and with their precious offerings
they brought their ardent hearts.

The phrase “whose heart so moves him shall bring them,” should literally be translated “whose heart so moves him shall bring it.” The Sefat Emet taught that this phrase means that the people did not only bring material gifts but also brought their willing hearts.

In subsequent verses (Shemot 35:20-29) we read the details of the outpouring of the people’s generosity. In verse 21, the Or Yesharim* makes a play on the words, “Vayavo’u kol ish asher nesa’o libo…oto heviyu et terumat HaShem…And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him…that they brought as an offering to God.” He comments, “That they brought – (means) the heart. It is not enough to contribute to the Mishkan, but the contribution should be with a whole heart.”

*Rabbi Moshe Chaim Kleinman authored Or Yesharim, which was published in Pietrokov in 1924. I can find few biographical details except that he seems to have come from Brisk and the book is a collection of the wisdom of four hassidic luminaries: R’ Mordechai of Leykovitch, R’ Noah of Leykovitch, R’ Moshe of Kobrin and R’ Avraham of Slonim.

Ki Tissa: The Chamber

The King cannot bear the distance
as His cherished children drift away.
He gave us sacred places
to seek Him; to come close.
But in our hearts,
that inner chamber still exists:
we only need recall the word; to
free the latch and let Him in.

The Sefat Emet cites Rashi, according to whom the commandments relating to the Tabernacle were only given after the sin of the Golden Calf. He takes this as evidence that the first tablets were intended to be right there in Israel’s midst, with no intervening ark or tabernacle. The Sefat Emet retells the parable of the king whose daughter weds a prince and prepares to depart. The king cannot keep the young couple from leaving, but cannot envisage life without his daughter. So he says to the two of them, “Wherever you go, make a little chamber for me and I will dwell with you.” The Sefat Emet says that had they not sinned, the people would not have been separated from God. The tabernacle was intended to bring them close again. In his book, The Language of Truth,* Rabbi Arthur Green suggests that religion is only necessary because we have become remote from God. While we have used the Mishkan, Beit HaMikdash and synagogues to enable us to get closer, he says, “…all of us bear in our hearts the memory of a moment when the word was right there, inscribed clearly within us, readable in our own hearts. Then we had no need for such “means” of access to the holy at all.”

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

Ki Tissa: The cleft in the rock

God said, “See there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and as My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Shemot 33:21-23)

Safe in the cleft of the rock,
vast boulders looming,
the unbearable blaze
as God passes by
is shielded by His hand:
His light is only discernible
in hindsight.

The Hatam Sofer* teaches that we cannot see God directly: we can only see the difference He has made after the fact. He says,”The way God conducts His world can only be seen and recognised after the event. After some time, when we have before us a full review of events, it is possible to understand a small part of God’s actions, but at the actual time, our understanding is too limited, and we are left wondering. As it says in Tehillim 28:5, “For they do not understand the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands.” And here, “You will see My back” – at the end of days you will see and understand Me, and “My face will not be seen” – at the time of the occurrence, in the middle of it all, you will not see Me.”

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS says of the words, “My back” “this daring human image for God, contrasted with the usual biblical term “panim, face or presence“, refers to the traces of the Divine Presence, the afterglow of his supernatural radiance.”

*Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Sofer)(1762–1839) is also known by the name of his main work Hatam Sofer(meaning Seal of the Scribe and acronym for Chiddushei Torat Moshe Sofer). He was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century.
He was a teacher to thousands and a powerful opponent of the Reform movement in Judaism, which was then attracting many people from the Jewish communities in Austria-Hungary and beyond. As Rabbi of the city of Pressburg, he maintained a strong Orthodox Jewish perspective through communal life, superior education, and uncompromising opposition to Reform and radical change.
Rabbi Sofer established a yeshiva in Bratislava, the Pressburg Yeshiva, which became the most influential yeshiva in Central Europe, producing hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry. This yeshiva continued to function until World War II, first under the leadership of his son Abraham Samuel Benjamin Wolf (1815- 71), known as the Ketav Sofer (Writing of the Scribe), who, in turn, was succeeded by his son, Simchah Bunim (1842-1906), known as the Shevet Sofer (Pen of the Scribe); subsequently it relocated to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Hatam Sofer’s great-grandson, Rabbi Akiva Sofer (1878-1959)(the Daat Sofer – the Opinion of the Scribe).
The Hatam Sofer published very little during his lifetime. His posthumously published works include more than a thousand responsa, novellae on the Talmud, sermons, biblical and liturgical commentaries, and religious poetry. He is an oft-quoted authority in Orthodox Jewish scholarship. Many of his responsa are required reading for semicha (rabbinic ordination) candidates. His Torah chiddushim (original Torah insights) sparked a new style in rabbinic commentary, and some editions of the Talmud contain his emendations

Tetsaveh: The stones on the breastplate

Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. (Shemot 28:29)
Carnelian, chrysolite, emerald,
turquoise, sapphire, amethyst,
jacinth, agate, crystal,
beryl, lapis, jasper.

Gemstones framed in gold,
aligned in parallel rows,
mounted in series, engraved
each with the name of a tribe.

Radiant and iridescent,
the jewels on the breastplate
connote the rainbow, spanning
the spectrum of the whole.

A reminder to the bearer
who wears them on his heart
that each one has a place
– and he attends them all.

In an article on Parashat Tetsaveh, Dr Aviad HaCohen notes that the parasha goes into great detail about the High Priest’s clothes, and within the detail, focuses even further on the choshen mishpat, the breastplate, to which no less than 15 verses are devoted. He wonders therefore, what is the special nature of the breastplate and why the High Priest wears it over his heart at all times when he is serving in the Tabernacle. He suggests that the multicoloured stones might reflect the multiplicity of “hues” among the people and the different tribes of which it is comprised. He says the different stones remind those who judge the people, that all are equal before the law – each stone mounted in its encasing is of identical size; however, the judge also has to bear in mind that each litigant comes from a different background. As to the repeated instruction to Aaron to wear the breastplate over his heart, Dr HaCohen notes that Sforno*, Chizkuni** and others comment that this is more than a hint that a good judicial system cannot be purely analytical and mechanical, but must also be rooted in the intention to serve the people and not be isolated from them.

In an article on the Parasha entitled Responsible Clothing, Rabbi Dorothy Richman comments on the word remembrance and reflects on what it might mean, as it is emphasized through its repetition. She asks what Aaron is meant to remember. Rabbi Richman cites one commentator who suggests Aaron wears the names to remember those for whom he is spiritually responsible. She adds, “The visible names heighten Aaron’s awareness of those he represents. This awareness may be visceral, evoking Eduardo Galeano’s definition of remembrance from his native Spanish: “Recordar: to remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.” Wearing the names and emotionally connecting to the people they represent, Aaron’s own awareness of personal responsibility is heightened.”

And in her blogpost http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2008/02/this-weeks-port.html Rabbi Rachel Barenblat ponders the significance today of the sacral vestments. She concludes, “I want to single out one other piece of High Priestly garb: the jeweled breastplate bearing the names of all the tribes of Israel. Names remind us of the people they represent. Imagine wearing the names of everyone in your family on your chest: the ones you love, the ones who maybe drive you a little crazy, siblings and distant cousins alike. Imagine carrying those names with you on every journey inward into prayer. What would that feel like?”

* R’ Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1475 – 1550) was an Italian rabbi, biblical commentator, philosopher and physician.
In the era of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, Jewish life in Italy was thriving. In Spain, centuries of Jewish learning and culture came to an end, while in Italy Jews were free to pursue scholarship.
The family of the Sfornos had been well known in Italy for several generations as rabbis and leaders of their community. R’ Obadiah ben Jacob was the most famous scion of the Sforno family.
Obadiah was born in Cesena, Italy in about 1475. His father was a great scholar and the boy’s first teacher. Obadiah, while still very young, showed an aptitude for the study of Torah and started to write his own commentaries. He also proved to be gifted in mathematics and philosophy. When not quite twenty years of age, he left for Rome to study medicine. Not wanting to use his great knowledge of the Torah as a means of earning a living, he wanted to earn his livelihood as a physician (like the Rambam and others).
R’ Obadiah wrote a philosophical book, called “Or Ammim” in which he refuted the ideas and principles of non-Jewish philosophers who did not believe in God. He wrote it in Hebrew and then translated it into Latin, the language widely used by non-Jewish scholars in those days. The book was not printed because the leaders of the Catholic church did not approve it.
Another work of his analysed the eight books of Euclid’s Geometry and was considered the most complete analysis of mathematics and geometry of the time.
In 1525, Rabbi Obadiah left Rome for a somewhat nomadic life on the continent, practising medicine at the various royal courts and visiting the Jewish communities there. Subsequently, he returned to Bologna and opened his own Yeshiva which he headed until he died aged 75.
In his introduction to the commentary on the Chumash, called “Kavanat Hatorah,” he credits previous great commentators like Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam and the Ramban. His own method of interpretation was based upon a selection of their best methods. The characteristic features of his exegetical work are respect for the literal meaning of the text, applying great philological and philosophical knowledge. He was very reluctant to entertain mystical interpretations but took every opportunity to develop the ethical teaching implicit in the text. The Sforno commentary is favored for its simplicity and clarity.
In addition to the commentary on the Chumash (published in Venice 1567), R’ Obadiah wrote commentaries on Shir Hashirim, Koheleth and Tehillim (1586). His commentary on Job (Mishpat Tzedek) was published in about 1589, while his commentaries on Jonah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah were included in a larger collection of different commentaries and published later, in Amsterdam in 1724. The Machzor printed in Rome contains his explanations to Pirkei Avot. Other works, like a collection of his sermons and a Hebrew grammar have been preserved in the form of manuscripts which have not been published.

**Hezekiah ben Manoach, the “Chizkuni” was a 13th century French rabbi and student.
In about 1240 he wrote a commentary on the Chumash which he entitled Chizkuni, in memory of his father. He based his exegesis principally upon Rashi’s commentary, but he also used many other commentaries. It was first printed in Venice in 1524 and subsequently in several other places.

Tetsaveh: Sacred vestments

Make sacred vestments…for honor and splendor. (Shemot 28:2)

The priests were arrayed
in honor and splendor,
in garments of gold,
purple, crimson and blue.

Their fine linen raiment
signified holiness:
the priests’ dedication
to the service of God.

The body’s the garb
of the spark of our soul:
may our deeds clothe our spirit
in radiant attire.

The Sefat Emet notes that the commandment regarding the oil for the menorah is followed by that concerning the priestly vestments. He says that oil hints at the mind and intellect, that they should remain pure and clear. The priestly clothes, he says, hint at the physical – the body which clothes the soul, which should be “for honor and splendor.” He quotes from Koheleth (9:8) “Let your garments be always white: and let your head lack no oil (ointment).” and comments that purity of mind and body should be linked together.

In a blogpost on Tetsaveh http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2008/02/this-weeks-port.html, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat comments that the priestly garments, which are described in great detail, are important because they symbolize service. “Aaron and his sons will dedicate their lives to serving God; in return, their community enfolds them in these beautiful garments, made to reflect their innate kavod, honor, and tif’eret, beauty.
Today there are no priests, and no temple in which to serve. Instead each of us serves God in the temple of our own hearts, offering words and intentions instead of bulls and sheep. What would it mean to dress ourselves in garments like these?” Rabbi Barenblat brings a teaching by the Rebbe of Chernobyl* who taught that the body is a garment for the spark of godliness within each of us. Rabbi Barenblat asks, “How can we bring all the glory, all the splendor, all the honor of our being into living in a way that keeps us mindful of our Source?”

*Chernobyl is a Hasidic dynasty founded by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky who was a maggid (a skilled narrator of Torah and religious stories) in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl. Rabbi Twersky was a student of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic movement) and of his pupil and chief disciple the Maggid of Mezeritch. He is considered one of the pioneers of the Hasidic movement. He is known by the name of his work, the Meor Einayim, which is a compilation of insights on the weekly parasha and which achieved widespread acceptance as one of the major works of Hasidic ideology.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl – also known as the Chernobyler Magid. His thoughts, sermons and discourses were published in his book Likutei Torah, which was praised for its holiness by other Hasidic leaders. Throughout his teachings, Rabbi Mordechai stressed the importance of pure speech and pure thought as a condition for a proper prayer connection. Rabbi Mordechai was succeeded in Chernobyl by his son Rabbi Aaron. All of Rebbe Mordechai’s eight sons became rebbes in different cities.
The Chernobyl dynasty includes the rebbes of Chernobyl, Cherkas, Turisk, Talne, Korestchov, Makarov, Skver, Rachmastrivka, Malyn, Hornosteipl, Machnova, Ozarnetz and several others.
Chernobyl Hasidism as a movement survived the devastation of the Holocaust although many of its members perished. There are many scions of the Chernobyl dynasty alive today and anyone with the surname Twersky is likely to be a descendant of the Chernobyl dynasty.