Tsav: The Vigil

You shall not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days. Everything done today, the Lord has commanded to be done to make expiation for you. You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge [vigil] — that you may not die — for thus I was commanded. Vayikra 8:33-35)

The sacred fire is kindled still:
no flood could douse the blaze;
protected through the centuries
the light has been sustained.

But labyrinthine palisades,
accretions of the years,
were zealously constructed
to insulate the flames.

Far out on the periphery
the glow is faint and cool,
and those who seek the radiance
must penetrate the maze.


Parashat Tsav opens with a description of the ritual burnt offering and continues immediately with the injunction, shortly after repeated, that the fire on the altar should burn perpetually and not be allowed to die out. The Rabbis teach that the Torah itself is analogous to this fire – a gift of  God requiring humans to tend it and perpetuate it. The parashah concludes with the investiture of the priests.
In his book The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading, Rabbi David Bigman notes that after the sanctification of the priests and the Tabernacle, Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to remain inside the Tabernacle for a week. He remarks that before we address the content of Moses’ instruction, we immediately notice the strange phrase with which Moses concludes, “…for thus I was commanded”. Rabbi Bigman wonders why Moses added these words – surely it is obvious that the command has been given by God. He suggests it indicates a need to strengthen Moses’ words and he speculates what in this passage might require explicit divine endorsement.
He says that the passage itself contains a reasonable explanation. Moses tells the priests to keep God’s “charge,” or as Rabbi Bigman translates it,”vigil”. He continues, “…if this were not written in the Torah, one would be forbidden from saying it! Is God in need of a vigil? Does He need to be guarded? This is a surprising anthropomorphism – it is as if God were physically present within the Tabernacle, constantly protected by His attending priests.”
Rabbi Bigman explains that Moses has to add the words “for thus I was commanded” in order to rectify the misapprehension that the aim of the vigil is to protect God, when in fact it is simply because He decreed it. He suggests that these ideas apply in our own day and age, “It is clear to us that God is not in need of our protection, but don’t we sometimes treat Him and His Torah as if they were? It would seem that the decrees of the early Rabbis that extended the purview of the commandments touch the heart of this question. Does our Torah really need to be protected by extending the range of its prohibitions? Isn’t it within the Torah’s power to protect its own observance?”
Rabbi Bigman cites the Talmud (Yevamot 21a) in which Rabbi Kahana comments on a very similar phrase in the final verse in Parashat Acharei Mot: “You shall keep My charge [vigil]…” (Vayikra 18:30) which led the Rabbis to the concept of “making a fence around the Torah” – expanding the domain of the prohibited to protect the Torah, now and in the future, from inadvertent violation. Rabbi Bigman pinpoints the Sages’ dilemma in the balancing of two opposing tendencies, “On the one hand, they are commanded to set up a “vigil” to ensure the observance of the Torah; on the other hand such moves may be inappropriate, since they assume the Torah is in need of protection. More than anyone else, those charged with overseeing the practical observance of the Torah must avoid creating the impression that they are its “guardians.” Their role is to establish only those halakhic decrees necessary to allow people to observe the commandments while remaining aware that the Torah itself has no need for their protection.”

In the introduction to his book, For God’s sake!? Perspectives on Chumrot [Stringencies], Chaim Burg briefly surveys how the Jewish people has undergone a tumultuous history and radical changes: from desert nomads to an agricultural society; from twelve disparate tribes to a unified and later divided kingdom; from life in its sovereign land to a scattered people in Diaspora, and then back to its own land. The major thread that traverses the entire story is the Torah – wherever they were, the Torah guided every aspect of their lives. The Torah, given at Sinai, remains unchanged, but the Halachah, the practical application, can change and has done so. Burg points out, “To remain viable in the varied history of the Jewish people, practices of Jewish law had to go through changes, adaptations and variations. These are reflected in the multitude of customs, practices and rabbinic decisions over the years.”
Burg notes that aspects of practice could be changed because of “Halacha’s (Jewish law’s) internal, built-in flexibility” and rulings could be less or more stringent as long as they fell within the framework of Torah. He adds that changes were introduced to protect the observant way of life, or to protect the people, sometimes from the surrounding population.
He remarks that Halachic decisions by rabbis both famous and less so, have varied from the very strict to the very lenient. The tendency, he notes, has been to choose the more conservative and stringent opinions because the assumption is that the flow would always tend to increasing leniency over time. And he notes, “…when we look at so many of the practices and rulings of the current era we see that leniency (kulah) is out – stringency (chumrah) is in.”

In her book, Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism, How to Respond to the Challenge, Faranak Margolese has a chapter entitled “Narrow definitions of being observant” in which she says, “Being properly observant today involves meeting a very narrow and well-defined criterion that involves not only halachah but also a host of other requirements regarding beliefs, dress, conduct, and other things that inherently have nothing to do with religiosity.” She notes, “This is particularly problematic when our definitions of proper observance have more to do with our own expectations than God’s. When our definitions move outside the realm of halachah as they often do, they have the added undesired effect of replacing God and His Torah as the measure of what is right with ourselves.” She adds that narrow definitions blur the understanding of proper observance, “Narrow definitions make the road sometimes too narrow to walk; they create an all or nothing attitude, blur the real meaning of what it means to be frum [observant], and displace God as the measure of proper behavior. This makes it all too easy to go off the derech [path] – or rather to fall off of it.” Margolese concludes that ultimately, differentiating between halachah and chumrah and broadening the road as much as possible facilitates orientation somewhere on the highway of Jewish life.

Vayikra: The Call

He [God] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Vayikra 1:1)

We walked past walls of water
and traversed the burning sands.
We trudged from darkness, eyes
asquint beneath the dawning light.
We stood and trembled at the mount
afraid to hear Your words.

And yet Your voice still calls us,
encouraging and tender,
and though we may dissemble
as do children rapt in play,
we are never out of earshot
of the still small voice.


In a commentary on Vayikra from Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, (Vol 1) by Rabbi Arthur Green et al*, the authors cite the Me’or Eynayim** who teaches that God brought us out from Egypt, split the sea for us and guided us through the wilderness. Then He gave us the Torah and subsequently commanded us to build the Mishkan, so that “I might dwell within them.” (Shemot 25:8) The Me’or Eynayim notes that the text says “within them” and not “within it”. He describes someone who has always lived in darkness, never having seen the light, and he says that such a person would have to be exposed to daylight gradually (first through a small crack then widening it to a window and then bringing him outside) otherwise he would be dazzled by the brightness. He compares such a one to the children of Israel. “In Egypt they were submerged in fifty levels of impurity. Had He shown them the radiance of His presence immediately, they would not have been able to bear it. They needed all these steps along the way. But the whole purpose was, “Let them make Me a Tabernacle that I might dwell within them.” ”
Rabbi Green et al explain that the Me’or Eynayim is showing why the book of Vayikra is at the centre of the Torah – all that has gone before has been leading up to this point: “the moment of the call to serve”. He says the entire narrative until now is preparation for “He called to Moses.” The authors add, “So too our own narratives. All of our life stories up to this moment are there to prepare us for that call. The Hasidic reading of be-tokham as “within them” rather than “in their midst” means that the call comes to each person. The Tabernacle is being prepared within our heart; it is from there that the word calls to us. everything else leads up to this.”

In a further teaching on the same verse, the Me’or Eynayim comments on the small aleph at the end of the first word of Parashat Vayikra, from which the parasha and the book derive their name. He teaches that God is present in a contracted form in every one of Israel, even the most wicked. The proof of this, he says, is that every transgressor has thoughts of repentance, which is really God Himself calling to him saying, “Return to Me,” only he does not realize that it is God calling him. The Me’or Eynayim continues that the phrase “He called to Moses” is written with a miniature aleph denoting that God, the “cosmic” aleph, is present in contracted form within each one of Israel, calling us to return. These are our thoughts of repentance, but we do not recognize them as God calling to us. Thus, he teaches, the verse says, “He called” and not “God called”. But once we realize it is God calling and we turn back to Him, then the verse continues, “God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
Rabbi Green et al add, “The call of God is present in each of our lives. None of us, despite both our sinfulness and our claims of disbelief, is so far from God that we have no voice of conscience.” They conclude that perceiving conscience as God’s voice speaking “anonymously” initially, and then identifying it as His call, is the first step in an ongoing process.
In a further discussion on this one opening word of the parasha, “Vayikra – He called”, Rabbi Green wonders, as do the Chassidic Rabbis who are quoted, what it means to be called by God. He asks whether it only occurs in biblical times (as to Abraham, Moses and Samuel) or whether any life of devotion is a response to God’s call, even if it is an inaudible call.  Or N. Rose adds that although the metaphor of God’s call is a compelling one for him, he prefers the term “discernment” which he understands as investing effort in “exploring core values and commitments and the needs of the world around us.” This, he believes, requires listening both to external wisdom – of the sacred traditions and of trusted friends – and to inner voices. This he perceives as attunement to God’s call.

In his book Orchard of Delights, The Ohr Chadash Torah Commentary, Rabbi Avraham Aryeh Trugman addresses Rashi’s comment that God’s voice reached Moses’s ears only but the rest of the people did not hear it. This, he submits, is reminiscent of Elijah the prophet, who initially thought that God was in the fierce wind, then in the earthquake, and then in the fire. Finally he heard God in the “still small voice.” (1 Kings 19: 11-12) He suggests that God calls to us in a still small voice through the circumstances of our lives.

And finally, on a different theme on the same opening verse, in a commentary on Parashat Vayikra from 2013, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=10203, Rabbi Aaron Alexander reflects on “the elusive art form of difficult-conversation starters.” He looks at the first verse of the parasha, “And God called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Vayikra 1:1). He notes that this seems fairly straightforward: God wants to tell Moses something so He calls him and starts explaining about sacrifices. However, careful examination of the text raises the question of why God first called to Moses before speaking to him. Rabbi Alexander notes that they were both in the Tent of Meeting so why did it not suffice to say, “And God spoke to Moses”?
Rabbi Alexander cites Rashi, “This “calling” is an expression of affection, the mode used by the ministering angels when addressing each other, as it says, “And one called to the other and said…” So Rabbi Alexander suggests that this represents “a gentle and thoughtful invitation, a tender communication from God to Moses.” He says that although God and Moses were already in the same place, God was inviting Moses to “join the conversation… and be fully present.” He believes that this interpretation is worthy of emulation, offering a better model of engagement in human interaction than we frequently employ. He describes this as “loving invitation.” He says, “Even in an assumed safe space, an ohel mo’ed interaction demands thoughtful, kind, and honest entry. Jumping right in with a “we need to talk” followed by whatever needs to be said may not allow the listener to prepare for the difficult message to be delivered. The example set forth by God and angels offers an alternative access point for the adrenaline-filled moments that can consume our day-to-day experience… The challenge is that each opportunity demands precisely the kind of warmth that Moses must have heard when God called him in that Tent…”

*Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose

**Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky (c. 1730 – 1797) was the founder of the Chasidic dynasty of Chernobyl which is named after the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, where he served as the maggid (preacher).
Rabbi Twersky was a student of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Hasidic movement) and his student and chief disciple the Maggid of Mezritch. He is considered one of the pioneers of the Hasidic movement. His book, by which he is known, the “Me’or Eynayim” (meaning “vision”, lit. “the light of the eyes”), comprises insights on the weekly parasha, and reflects his predilection for Kabbalah. It is considered one of the major works and foundations of Hasidic ideology.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl – also known as the Chernobyler Magid, who himself was succeeded by his son R’ Aaron of Chernobyl. All of Rebbe Mordechai’s eight sons became rebbes in different cities.
Thus the Chernobyl dynasty includes the rebbes of Chernobyl, Cherkas, Turisk, Talne, Korestchov, Makarov, Skver, Rachmastrivka, Malyn, Hornosteipl, Machnovka, Ozarnetz, and several others.
Chernobyl Hasidism as a movement survived the ravages of the Holocaust, although many of its members perished. There are many scions of the Chernobyl dynasty alive today, and anyone with the last name Twersky (or Twerski) is likely to be a descendant of the Chernobyl dynasty.

Pikudei: All our journeys

When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on all their journeys, but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. (Shemot 40:36-7).

A pillar of cloud
portending God’s Presence
led us through the barren wilds.

Divine proximity is now obscured.
Impelled, we must now navigate
through turbid mists.


In her blog, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2009/03/perceiving-god-radical-torah-repost.html, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat comments that the Israelites received clear guidance on their journeys by the very tangible pillar of cloud that showed them the way and when to move on. God’s presence was very clear and real to them. She compares that with today and asks, “How do we know when God is among us? How do we know when to stay encamped, and when to pick up stakes and keep moving? Sometimes we don’t, and we have to learn to do the best we can anyway. We have to believe that our journeying has a destination, even when we can’t see the pillar of smoke leading us from hither to yon. If we find that our lives map to a roundabout route, we owe it to our Source to trust that the divagations have a purpose.”

The Yalkut Yehudah* also points out that even when we are ostensibly settled peacefully in one place which appears like an encampment, we need to know that it is actually only a way-station and a new journey lies ahead.

On the phrase, “all their journeys,” Rashi comments that also their encamping was called a journey because from each encampment they would set off elsewhere. In a commentary on this parasha, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5769-vayakhel-pekudei-encampments-and-journeys/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this point, saying, “Rashi has encapsulated in a few brief words – “a place where they encamped is also called a journey” — the existential truth at the heart of Jewish identity. So long as we have not yet reached our destination, even a place of rest is still called a journey – because we know we are not here for ever. There is a way still to go.” Rabbi Sacks cites from a poem by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.**

Rabbi Sacks concludes, “To be a Jew is to travel, and to know that here where we are is a mere resting place, not yet a home…”

*Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg (1888–1946) was a Rabbi in Denver, Colorado. He moved to Denver from Yaroslavl, Russia where he had served as Rabbi. He is best known for his commentary on various parts of the Torah and rabbinic writings which deal mostly with the ethical teachings found within them.
In most of his works (especially Musar HaMishna and Musar HaNevim) Rabbi Ginsburg tried to find ethical teachings within the legal framework of the Mishna or the text of the prophets. In Yalkut Yehudah, however, he collected midrashim and presented a commentary on them.

**from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost.

Vayakhel: Sacred beauty

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments…And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Betsalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of designer’s craft and to give directions. He and Oholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work — of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver — as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs. (Shemot 35:21, 30-35)

The spirit traverses the generations,
divined, unbidden behind closed eyes –
a vessel of beauty wrought of a vision:
fashioned in silver, embellished in gold,
brushed on parchment with vibrant hues,
chiseled in wood, and shaped in clay,
intoned in dulcet harmonies.

The spirit traverses the generations:
embroidered, a shining thread that runs
through richly-colored folds of cloth;
glowing bright as leafy vines
stitched lovingly round sacred words.


Parashat Vayakhel repeats the instructions for the building and furnishing of the Tabernacle already issued. It describes how the people answered the call with great generosity to contribute their most precious possessions and their skills. The Etz Hayim commentary notes the mention in the Torah of skilled women who spun and dyed the fabrics, and their contribution throughout the ages to “hiddur mitzva – the beautifying of the mitzva” which is the practice of fashioning objects for ritual use so that they are not just utilitarian, but also beautiful.
The verse in Parashat Beshalach, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2) is explained in the Midrash Mechilta which asks whether a human being can add glory to his Creator, and answers that this refers to beautifying ritual objects. This idea is expanded upon in the Talmud (Bava Kama 9b), and was understood by succeeding generations as a duty, when possible, to make beautiful items used in Jewish life and worship, both physical and textual.
In a commentary on Parashat Teruma from 2011, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/terumah/5771/our-gifts-world Dr David Roskies observes how explicit the details were, of both measurements and materials, for the structure and appurtenances in the Tabernacle. And all for a portable and temporary structure which was to be replaced after the desert wandering, by one intended to last indefinitely. Dr Roskies adds that according to the JPS Torah Commentary on Shemot by Nahum M Sarna, Solomon’s Temple was twice as long and as wide and three times as high as the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And this, says Dr Roskies, was the beginning of the adaptive process, “…because the divine blueprint handed down at Sinai became for Diaspora Jewry the transformational grammar of Jewish sacred space, at once utterly distinctive and infinitely adaptable. Just think of the shuls we daven in today! Some are built like a temple, of brick and mortar, marble and stained glass, while others are makeshift: a rented basement, a chapel, a room…”
Dr Roskies then describes the work of the revolutionary, playwright, poet and intellectual, Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport, better known as S. An-sky* who also became famous for the landmark ethnographic expeditions that he led. Starting in 1907, he systematically collected examples from Jewish communities, and published an article, on Jewish folk art. Whereas contemporaries in the Russian Empire, such as Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, were intrigued by the Hebrew folklore of the Talmud and Midrash, An-sky had a populist’s impulse to collect oral texts from living sources. He obtained funding and organized an ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement. He and his team (including his 17 year old nephew Solomon Iudovin who was an amateur photographer, Joel Engel who was an ethnomusicologist equipped with the latest technology for field recordings, and others) traveled through Volhynia and Podolia in the summers of 1912–1914 and gathered 2,000 photographs, 1,800 folktales, 1,500 folk songs, 1,000 melodies, 100 historical documents, and 500 manuscripts. They also purchased 700 sacred objects for 6,000 rubles, and recorded 500 wax cylinders of folk music.
He elected to travel this region in order to try to preserve the rich tradition of the shtetl*. Dr Roskies notes, “[S. Ansky] saw his ethnographic expedition to Ukraine as a rescue operation, an act of cultural triage. East European Jewry was on the move — from the shtetl to the big city, from the Old World to the New — and was marching to the drum of emancipation, revolution, and national liberation. What would become of the shtetl and its civilization?”
Dr Roskies continues, “An-sky and his team were overwhelmed by the wealth of what remained: priceless folk treasures scattered everywhere! Most were housed where he least expected to find them. Based on prior fieldwork among the Russian peasantry, An-sky planned to conduct most of his research out-of-doors, in the home and the workplace. Instead, most of the art and artifacts were to be found in the synagogues, shtiblekh, and study houses large and small, in town after town after town. What distinguished the Jews from their neighbors were these sacred spaces, no matter that they had fallen into ruin. In out-of-the-way places, far off the beaten track, they came across massive stone synagogues, built like fortresses, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. More startling still were the ornate wooden synagogues from the 17th–18th centuries with elaborate latticework and multiple tiers. Both inside and out, these wooden synagogues exemplified for An-sky the genius of the folk capable of creating artistic and architectural masterpieces out of the simplest materials — not from acacia wood with overlays of gold. An-sky returned to Saint Petersburg bearing 2,000 photographs, 500 wax cylinders of Jewish folk music [some of the vast collection of cylinder recordings made on these expeditions has been transferred to CD] and 700 sacred objects: parohets, menorahs, yads, keter Torahs, breastplates, sefer Torahs, kiddush cups, spice boxes, amulets. The finest specimens he displayed in the Jewish Ethnographic Museum, which opened on the ground floor of the Jewish Almshouse on Vasilievsky Island.”

After the Bolshevik Revolution, An-sky fled from Russia to Vilna, the museum was closed and its contents dispersed. In December 2010 Dr Roskies and his wife visited an exhibition on the “Ordinary Synagogue” at the State Historical Museum of Religion (formerly the Museum of Atheism) in Saint Petersburg which had been extended by popular demand. They found that the curator, Dr. Alla Sokolova and her son, an architect, had recreated a “sacred space” that housed some of An-sky’s collection. It seemed like a continuation of the generous spirit and artistic skill from the time of the Torah throughout the ages, fueled by religious inspiration and generating beautiful ceremonial artwork.

*S. An-Sky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport) (1863 – 1920), known by his pseudonym S. Ansky (or An-sky), was a Russian Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, polemicist, and cultural and political activist.
Rapoport was born in Chashniki and grew up in Vitebsk, in a family poorer than that of many contemporary writers. His mother, apparently separated from her husband, ran a tavern. Rapoport’s formal education stopped after “cheder“, but he and a close friend read Russian literature and criticism on their own. In his late teens, Rapoport left home. He worked as a tutor in Liozno until Jewish community leaders discovered that he was disseminating radical ideas; he was consequently dismissed in 1882. When he was 21, his first novel was translated from Yiddish into Russian and published.
Under the influence of the socially-conscious, people-orientated Russian narodnik movement, Ansky became interested in ethnography, as well as socialism, and became a political activist. This fueled his ethnographical expeditions for which he composed a detailed ethnographic questionnaire of more than 2000 questions.
An-Sky’s ethnographic report of the deliberate destruction of Jewish communities by the Russian army in the First World War, The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I, has become a major source in the historiography of the war’s impact on civilian populations. He is also said to have authored his most famous work, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds, in 1914, inspired by his ethnological expeditions.

**The shtetls (Yiddish) were small towns with large Jewish populations existing in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Shtetls were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and Romania.
The concept of shtetl culture describes the traditional way of life of Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks. The Holocaust resulted in the disappearance of shtetls, through both extermination under Nazi occupation and exodus to the United States and Palestine — as well as to the main cities of Russia, open to Jewish habitation since the fall of the Russian Empire.
The oldest Eastern European shtetls seem to date back to about the year 1200 and saw long periods of relative tolerance and prosperity as well as times of extreme poverty, hardships, including pogroms in the 19th century Russian Empire.

Ki Tissa: Seeing God

Moses said to the Lord, “…You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’ Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.”…He [Moses] said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And the Lord said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence 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 shall remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Shemot 33:12-13, 17-23)

When God Himself has turned away,
the ties that bind are loosened;
yet we yearn for closeness – for a sign of love.

We search for light to oust the shadows,
chasing answers, hearing whispers
faintly sighing, as the wind blows past the cliffs.

Although we seek, we cannot see God’s face:
He shows the knot betrothing us to Him;
perhaps each time it furls a little tighter.


In the Talmud (Berachot 7a) we learn that when Moses asks to know God’s ways, he wants to understand how God metes out judgment: why sometimes the righteous prosper, but sometimes they do not, and equally, why sometimes the wicked prosper, even though sometimes they do not. According to the Ramban in his commentary on the book of Job, this issue strikes at the very heart of faith, to the foundation on which the Torah itself stands. Many commentators consider that the book of Job was authored to discuss this topic, and indeed, there is a view in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) that Moses himself wrote the book of Job!
In a commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa from 2005, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5381, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz addresses this timeless question of God’s role in suffering. She highlights the perennial human struggle in the face of tragedy and loss when it is hard to find God’s beneficent presence when really the feeling is more one of “abandonment, alienation, and absence of the goodness, mercy and power we expect from God…” a feeling she describes as that of God having turned His back on us.
She cites the verse, “Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Shemot 33:23) and continues, “After all they have been through – the trials and tribulations leading up to the giving of the Torah, the building of the Golden Calf, Moses shattering the first set of the tablets, the tribes having just killed 3000 people as they struggle to realign themselves with God – now God says – I will turn my back on you and you will not see My presence?”
Rabbi Peretz considers human relationships, and notes that frequently the anger and pain engendered when one party turns his back, leads to the other doing so in response. However, she adds, “Yet, we know that the ties that bind us to those dearest to us often nurse us to re-establish contact and to rebuild the relationship with new understandings and interactions… ”
The Talmudic sages see a parallel in our relationship to God even when He appears to turn from us. Concerning the verse, “Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back,” Rav Chana bar Bizna said in the name of R’ Shimon Chasida, “This teaches that the Holy One Blessed be He, showed Moses the knot of tefillin which is worn at the back of His head.” (Berachot 7a) Rabbi Peretz says, “The knot of God’s tefillin – the very symbol through which we Jews and God bind ourselves to one another each and every day in a symbolic marriage. In the moment of greatest struggle to understand God’s place in the world, the Talmud invokes the image of greatest intimacy and connection.”
(The verses recited as the tefillin are donned each day, “And I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness: and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22) carry us back to the Revelation on Sinai where we entered into a “spiritual marriage” with God, with the Torah as a dowry. According to the Soncino commentary, the threefold repetition of “I will betroth you“, denotes affection and permanence.)

In another commentary on the parasha by Rabbi Simon Jacobson, http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/1777535/jewish/When-I-Wanted-You-Did-Not.htm, he too addresses the question of why bad things happen to good people. However, Rabbi Jacobson traces the beginning of this dialogue between Moses and God to the episode of the burning bush.
In Ki Tissa, Moses asks to be shown God’s glory but God declines saying that no-one can see His face and live.
It is pointed out in the Talmud in the same discussion cited above (Berachot 7a) that God wanted to reveal Himself to Moses at the burning bush but “Moses hid his face, for he feared to look upon God.” (Shemot 3:6). A beraita* was taught in the name of R’ Yehoshua ben Korchah: “This is what the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses, “When I wanted to reveal Myself to You, you did not want, now that You want, I do not want.” ”
Rabbi Jacobson wonders how to understand this passage, “Either Moses deserved to see the Divine face or he doesn’t…” He dismisses the notion that God is being “petty” and paying Moses back. He notes an opinion in the Midrash which maintains that Moses was being respectful and hiding his face and was rewarded for this later. He adds that since the verse tells us that no-one can see God’s face and survive, the Talmud is hinting here that had Moses looked at God earlier, he could have done so now too. But in any event, Rabbi Jacobson asks why Moses was first reluctant, and now suddenly and urgently desires to see God’s face.
He examines the episode of the burning bush, in which we learn that the bush was a thorn bush, and that God tells Moses that He has seen the suffering of the people and heard their cries. Rashi comments that the lowly, prickly thorn bush signifies that God was with the people in their suffering and humiliation. Rabbi Jacobson adds, “And now, G-d wanted to show Moses the deeper mystery of good and evil, life and death – “what is above and what is below, what was and what will be.”
“But Moses did not want to see G-d’s face in the Holocaust. He did not want to “understand” G-d’s “reasoning” for allowing the death of millions of innocent children. He wasn’t willing to face the ultimate paradox and “hear” Divine explanations for human suffering. “He feared to look upon G-d” when he saw the lives being consumed by the burning bush, even as the bush itself was not being consumed. Moses “hid his face” and just wanted to cry.”
Rabbi Jacobson continues, recalling how God indeed redeems the people, culminating in the Revelation on Mount Sinai, and then disaster strikes in the form of the panic-stricken people fashioning and worshiping the Golden Calf. Moses descends from the mountain and has a double task: to arouse God’s compassion; and to offer the people a route to repentance. Rabbi Jacobson says, “Moses knew that now he needed to return to the “burning bush,” the place where good and evil meet, where joy and suffering converge – the place where the Divine can be found in the darkest corners of existence. He understood that only this impenetrable place contained the answer to solve the ultimate paradox: How to repent from sin; how to heal from wounds – how the “bush can burn and not be consumed” – the power of Teshuvah.”
He cites the Midrash which relates how God imparted to Moses the methods of purification from defilement and Moses asked how purification can be obtained from the impurity of death, and God taught him the rites of the Red Heifer. He says that Moses then had a heightened awareness of the mysteries of life and death. So, he says, “…at this point, recognizing the need to heal from the “death” brought upon by the Golden Calf, Moses implored of G-d “I beg you, show me Your face.”
Rabbi Jacobson continues, “And here G-d revealed to Moses one of the most profound secrets of all: “I show you My face not in pleasure, but in the burning bush – in pain and suffering. I show you My face not when you want to see it, but when I want you to see it.”
“”When I wanted you didn’t want; now when you want, I don’t want.” G-d was not “getting even” with Moses; He was baring His Essence and telling Moses “I want a partner. I cannot show you My face if you do not partner with me. Had you looked at me when I wanted to show you My face, even though it was in pain, then you would have joined Me in the mysterious journey of grief and joy, and you would be able to see My face and gather strength. You cannot come and expect to see My face on your terms – when you like it. You have to respect the moment when I want to show it to you.”
But he notes that God did show Moses His goodness.  He concludes, “When we face unfathomable suffering, we are not expected to be better than Moses. We too close our eyes and just weep. Maybe it takes a G-d to witness so much pain and be able to bear it…We don’t want to look at G-d’s face in such moments…Yet, whether we like it or not, G-d wants us to partner with Him…How many more bushes have to be burned before the Divine presence is revealed?”

*Beraita (Aramaic: “external” or “outside”) designates a tradition in the Jewish oral law not incorporated in the Mishnah. “Beraita” thus refers to teachings “outside” of the six orders of the Mishnah. Originally, “Beraita” probably referred to teachings from schools outside of the main Mishnaic-era academies – although in later collections, individual Beraitot are often authored by sages of the Mishna (Tannaim).

This poem and its commentary is dedicated in loving memory of Rachel Herold z”l (1921 – 2015) who died this week. Rachel was my Hebrew school teacher. Apart from my father, z”l, who was my first and ongoing teacher of Yiddishkeit, Rachel taught me the most. She had an incredible gift for imparting the intricacies of the “technicalities” like grammar (under her tuition I learned to parse almost any verb in the Tanach) and translation. She loved Torah, the Jewish people and the land of Israel and she enthusiastically taught us the gamut of Jewish subjects including Halacha, Mishna, history. But much more than that she embodied a beautiful and balanced example of a very observant but non-dogmatic Judaism. She was very particular both with the mitzvot “bein adam laMakom (between Man and God) as with those “bein adam lechaveiro” (between Man and his fellow). She was kind, gentle and non-judgmental.

Rachel learned with us Rashi’s commentary from several parashot, and as it transpires, one of these is to be found in Ki Tissa – the parasha of the week in which she died, and the part we learned with her deals with exactly the subject addressed above.
Although Rachel’s English was fluent and elegant, she had a German accent, so as a youngster, if I thought about it at all, I would have assumed that she had been born in Germany and at some point came over to England with her family. From the hesped that Rachel’s son gave, I learned that Rachel, an only child, had arrived in England in 1939 as a lone seventeen year old, sent by her courageous and foresighted parents whom she never saw again, as they perished in the Holocaust.
So for Rachel, the burning question of why the righteous suffer must have been far from a theoretical one. Yet she kept her faith. (I also just learned that her family had been much less observant, but under the burgeoning anti-semitism in Germany she had to leave her public school and so she transferred to a Jewish one, the Carlebachschule in Leipzig where she became religious).
Despite all odds, Rachel maintained the integrity of the chain of Jewish life and learning, and not only did she not permit the ties that bound her to her faith to unravel, she strengthened them in the coming generations.
May her memory be for a blessing!