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SMS Torah

A project of Hillcrest Jewish Center

Truma: Take me!

The opening verse of this Torah portion says, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering.” (Ex. 25:2). Hashem demands different materials to be brought to Moses in order to build the tabernacle and the utensils. This is the simple and plain meaning of the text but the rabbis play with the Hebrew expression “Vaykechu Li Truma” and change the subject and the object. According to the Midrash, God said “Vaykechu Li (lit. take Me)”: “The Holy One said to them: The Torah was mine, and you undertook it. Take me along with it.” (Tanchuma Buber, Teruma 2). With a slight shift of Hebrew punctuation instead of reading, “Take for me” the rabbis in the Midrash read the text as saying, “Take me”.

Hashem owned the Torah and then He gave it to the Jewish people but now He is demanding that we don´t forget about Hashem and that we take Him with us too. What the rabbis are trying to remind us is that many times we can be observant Jews, following the laws of the Torah, without being religious Jews, without connecting with Hashem and without having Him in our thoughts. The biggest Truma (offering) we can give to Hashem is having Him with us, in our thoughts and in our actions, all the time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

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Mishpatim – Forever is not forever

One of the many laws of our Torah portion seems to be very clear: “And if the servant shall plainly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him unto the judges. He shall also bring him to the door or unto the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.” (Ex. 21:5-6). If a slaves rejects the option of becoming a free man after six years of paying the debt to his master he must remain a slave forever. Very simple! Surprisingly Rashi, following the steps of the traditional rabbinic commentaries, explains that the term forever does not mean what we think it means but rather “Until the jubilee year”, a period of fifty years is called “forever” (L’olam).

I honestly, like many medieval commentators, doubt that this is the true meaning of the term L’olam but despite this fact I still find a very powerful idea behind Rashi’s reading of the term. Nothing is indeed eternal; nothing is forever. Even though it may appear to us as something that will never end, Rashi suggests that sooner or later the jubilee will arrive and you will have a new beginning. Every pain, every broken heart, every moment of anxiety or uncertainty, will not remain like that forever. Like Rashi suggests the Jubilee may be one year away or 49 years away, but there is always a new beginning.

The next time you think that something will be  forever just remember that according to our Jewish tradition  forever is not really forever.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Yitro – How many names do you have?

 Yitro is the name of our Torah portion. Yitro is the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro appears at the beginning of our Torah portion giving advice to Moses regarding what Israel’s legal system should look like. But Yitro, according to the rabbinic tradition, does not have only one name but many, seven to be accurate (see Mekhilta 18:1, Sifrei BaMidvar 10:29). These are his names: Reuel, Yeter, Yitro, Hobab, Heber, Keni and Putiel. According to the rabbinic imagination each one of the names that appear in different parts of the Bible about Yitro denotes another quality or virtue of this famous priest from Midian. For example he is call Yeter (lit. “add”) because a whole section of the Torah (our Torah portion that includes the ten commandments!) was included because of his own merit. Hobab (lit. “love”) because he loves the Torah. Reuel because he was a friend (Re’e) of God (El). And so on. 
 
But Yitro is not the only one with different names. God himself possesses different names. According to the rabbis He also has seven holy names which can’t be erased but in the Jewish tradition over the centuries God was called by many more than seven names (the mystics have 72 names for God!). Some of the names referring to God are: Elohim, IHVH, El-Shadai, Tzevaot, Makom, Shekhina, Hashem, Adonai, etc. Once again the Sages suggest that each name denotes another quality of our God. 
 
But Yitro and God are not the only ones with a multitude of names; according to a famous Midrash each human being receives at least three names (the name given by the parents, the nickname given by the friends and the one s/he creates for himself or herself). All our names, nicknames, titles and adjectives people use to refer to us are other angles  of who we are. 
 
Let’s use this Shabbat (during the festive meal may I suggest) to explore, remember and share all the names (and nicknames and adjectives) we have received during our lifetimes. Which one is your favorite? Which do you dislike?  How would you like to be called? 
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Uri

Bo – Pray for me

Pope Francis usually ends his sermons or speeches saying “Pray for me”. But he is not the first one to use this expression:“…Take also your flocks and also your cattle, as you have spoken, and go, but you shall also bless me.” (Ex. 12:32). After the last plague strikes Egypt Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and allows them to go with everything they ask to serve Hashem, but he demands something in return “You shall bless me – Uverachtem Gam Oti”. The Scholars argue about the exact meaning of his request. According to Rashi Pharaoh asks them to pray for him “that I should not die because I am a firstborn”. The Ramban suggest that Pharoah asks for the Israelites to pray for him as a king and for his kingdom. But the real question is, why after everything Pharaoh has done he wants the Israelite people to pray for his welfare? Apparently he does because now he finally understands what suffering is all about (his own son dies!) and how much suffering he has afflicted upon the Israelites for years. He finds himself vulnerable and knows that his entire world is falling apart. He asks for a final act of mercy. A few moments ago he was a God to the Egyptians and now he has to ask his former-slaves to pray on his behalf. He feels powerless.

At the end the Israelites will never pray for Pharaoh but from his request we can all learn an important lesson: we all need people praying for us. Even Pharaoh, and according to the Talmud, even Hashem prays for himself too (Talmud, Brakhot 7a). When we ask someone else to pray for our welfare we are recognizing our humanity and our imperfections, we open our hearts to others expressing that we are vulnerable and in need of help. But we are not only doing that but rather we are empowering others, telling them that they have the power to pray, we are establishing a relationship as equal partners before God.

May we all have the privilege to bless and be blessed!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Va´era: 80 years are just a (new) beginning 

“And Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron was eighty three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (Ex. 7:7) Why was it so important for the Torah to tell us the age of these two leaders? Yosef Caspi (c. XIII, France/Spain) says that it’s to teach us that they were advanced in age meaning that they have acquired wisdom. David Zvi Hoffman (c. XIX, Germany) understands that this comes to teach us that the heavy responsibility of redeeming the Israelite people was given by Hashem to the elders.

Let me suggest another possible reading. Sforno (c. XVI, Italy) correctly points out that “in those days eighty was an age which was considered what we call “old age.”  The lifespan in biblical times was 70 years old; reaching the age of 80 was considered a great feat: “The days of our years because of them are seventy years, and if with strength (gevurot), eighty years; but their pride is toil and pain, for it passes quickly and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). But the rabbis read this verse in a subversive way; they say that by the age of 80 one acquires strength (Pirkei Avot 5:21).

In those times reaching to the age of eighty was an anomaly, but today for many of us, and for our parents and grandparents it is something normal, almost standard. And while many people see that reaching that age is the beginning of a decline the Torah and our rabbis tell us that is just the beginning of a new epoch, the beginning of our strength. Moses was only (!) 80 years old when he undertook the responsibility of freeing the Israelites from Egypt. Rabbi Akiva was only (!) 80 years old when he started to teach Torah (Sifrei Devarim 34:7). You are never too old is not a cliché, it could be a reality if you really believe it and if you have a family, community and society that encourage you to seek new beginnings!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Shemot – Bet on life

In ghettos all over Europe during WWII young Jewish couples were still being secretly married. In the midst of concentration camps Jewish children were still being born. In the hardest moments of our history couples still got married and mothers still delivered babies in the most difficult scenarios. In this Torah portion we are told that “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.” (Ex. 2:1) During harsh times when our people were slaves in Egypt couples still found time to love and to dream of a life together. And not only that, even after Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew boys should be thrown to the river the couple decided to bring a new life into the world, “The woman conceived and bore a son…” (Ibid, 2:2). This anonymous couple from the tribe of Levi in the hardest moment of our short history as a people, up to that moment, despite all odds, decide to bet on life. They get married and conceive a child. Fear did not stop them. As millions of Jews will do throughout history they believed in the future and they bet on a better future and for that reason they bet on life. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, neither for them nor for their children, but they knew that somehow and sometime things would be different and they wanted someone to be there in order to see the sun finally shining after years of darkness. And their son, as in the case of Moses, may not only be able to see the sun rising on the horizon but will be the one who brings new light into the world and to his people. Despite all odds, bet on life. Is not easy but is worthwhile. 
 
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Uri!

Vaygash – Benjamin´s children

When Yaakov and his family start the move towards Egypt the Torah names the offspring of all his sons. About Benjamin it is said, “And the sons of Benjamin were Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Na’aman, Ehi, and Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.” (46:21). According to the Midrash when Yosef, still without revealing his true identity, found Benjamin he asked him if he had children. He answered affirmatively, that he had ten children all of whom were named in memory of his lost brother:

“I had a brother whose actions were seemly and pleasant and he was taken away captive from me, and so I named my sons after what had befallen him: Bela because he was swallowed (nibla), Becher because he was the firstborn (bechor) of his mother Rachel, Ashbel because he was kidnapped (nishba), Gera because he lives (Gar) in a strange land, Naaman because his acts were pleasent (naim), Ehi because he was my real brother (ahi), Rosh because he was my leader (Rosh), Muppim because he was very good (Iafe) in all chores, Huppim because he could not be in my marriage (Chupa) or I in his, Ard because it resembled a rose bloom (vered). (Bereshit Rabbah 94: 8)

Ten children, ten memories. 22 years have passed since these brothers, Yosef and Benjamin, were separated. Benjamin was still young when they told him that his brother “was devoured by a wild beast” but he never forgot him. And each of his children is named after an event or quality of an uncle that until now they never knew. Benjamin according to the Midrash honored his brother by ensuring that the following generations would never forget Yosef, his beautiful qualities and his terrible misfortune.

Naming a son or daughter in memory of a loved one is an ancient Jewish tradition. The Ashkenazim do it only with relatives already deceased while the Sefaradim do it even when they are alive. This beautiful tradition allows us to make immortal here on earth those people we love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rab. Uriel Romano

Miketz – Going up and down!

Joseph’s brothers come twice to Egypt to buy food for their family. The second time they say: “Please, my lord, we came down at first to purchase food…” (Gen. 43:20). The literal meaning of this phrase is that they physically come down, from north to south, from Canaan to Egypt, to buy food. But the Sages choose to read the Hebrew expression Yarad Yaradnu (we certainly came down) as referring to their status, “This is degradation for us. We were accustomed to sustaining others, but now we must rely on you.”  (Rashi, based on Genesis Rabbah 92:3). They not only go down physically to Egypt but they also descend in their hierarchy in society; at one time they were rich and able to provide food for others in need now they are the ones in need.

The Talmud teaches us that “the world is like a revolving wheel” (b. Shabbat 151b). Sometimes we are at the top but suddenly we can fall to the bottom. This is the story in a nutshell of Joseph and his brothers, a continuous wheel going up and down; Joseph from being the favorite, to the pit, from there up again in the house of Potiphar, then to jail and later on up again to become the viceroy of Egypt. And this is why Joseph feels compassion towards his brothers, because he understands what it means to be up and then to fall very low. He has been there.

From the words of Joseph’s brothers and from his personal story we should learn the value of generosity in order to give when we are able to do so, and the nee for humility in order to be able to ask when we are in need. Let’s act when we are up like we would like to be treated when we are low.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Vayeshev – The Sins of Er and Onan

Yehuda had three children: Er, Onan and Shelah. According to the Torah, the first two sons did what was “evil in the eyes of the Lord” and for that reason they died.  The Torah is explicit about the transgression of Onan: “Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother.” (Gen. 38:9) But what was Er’s transgression? The Torah is silent about it but the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, tells us that his transgression was the same as Onan’s: “Now, why should Er waste his semen? So that she (Tamar) would not become pregnant and her beauty be impaired.” (Yebamot 34b). Er and Onan sinned in the same way but with different purposes: the first did not want to make his wife pregnant so that she would not lose her beauty and the second did not want to have a child named after his deceased brother. In other words, the Sages want to tell us that “doing evil in the eyes of God” is often related to selfishness and pettiness. Er and Onan were punished for thinking only about themselves without thinking about others. While there is no certain and accurate criteria to be sure that our actions will find grace before God we can venture to say that if we act only on self interest to the detriment of others, surely those actions will not find favor in the eyes of God.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Uri

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