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Vaykra: Don´t rely on miracles 

I love the idea of miracles but at the same time I´m afraid of them. On the one hand the notion of a miracle helps us believe that “anything” is possible, that all of the sudden a terrible situation may change dramatically to have a positive outcome after all. Belief in the possibility of miracles gives hope. But on the other hand believing in miracles may induce people not to do everything in their power to control a situation counting on a miracle happening.
At the beginning of the book of Vaykra many different types of sacrifices are described. Among the preparations for these offerings it is stated, “And the descendants of Aaron the kohen shall place fire on the altar, and arrange wood on the fire.” (1:7). But the Talmud (Zevachim 18a) tells us that the fire, which consumes the sacrifices, descended miraculously from heaven. This was the way to show the people that God accepted their offerings. So if the fire came miraculously from the sky, why did the priests have to bring the wood to make the fire? To teach us, I would like to argue, that even though miracles may occur we should operate in our world and in our daily tasks as if miracles don´t exist. The priests knew that every day Hashem will make his fire descend from heaven but still they went and brought wood. For this type of thing the Talmud says: “We do not rely on a miracle” (BT, Pesachim 64b). Believing in miracles is good, relying on them not so much.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Uri

Ki Tisa – The real Shabbat (Shabbat Shabbaton)

After specifying all the details about the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) Hashem halts the rhythm of the text and demands that the Israelites observe the Shabbat. “Yes”, says Hashem, “it is important to build a holy place for  Me but more important is the holiness of time and therefore the building of the tabernacle should not override the rest of Shabbat”.

 

In one of the many verses which talk about Shabbat the Torah says, “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day is a Shabbat Shabbaton…” (Ex. 31:5). Shabbat Shabbaton is usually translated as a “Shabbat of complete rest’”, a true Shabbat we may add. This is the reading of the Shadal (Shmuel David Luzzato, Italy, c. XIX) who argues that the double use of the term Shabbat is to strengthen the commandment of resting during Shabbat. But Rashi explains this redundancy in the following way:  A reposeful rest, not a casual rest.” According to Rashi Shabbat should be a day of a reposeful and conscious rest not an occasional nap or casual rest. We have to plan our “resting day”. The need for resting should not overtake us by surprise but rather we should “get ready to rest”. Shabbat shouldn’t be like the laborer who after many hours of hard work, after eating a sandwich suddenly falls asleep. For the rest of Shabbat we should plan ahead, cleaning our house, preparing food the day before, setting the timers… In order to appreciate the true holiness of Shabbat we need to plan ahead, we need to prepare ourselves to receive Shabbat. The Talmud says in this regard “He who prepares on Friday, will eat on Shabbat.” (Avodah Zara 3a). The preparations for Shabbat are as important as Shabbat itself.

 

May this Shabbat be a reposeful rest!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

 

Tetzave – What leadership is all about

If our last Torah portion, Terumah, was about the building (i.e., the Mishkan/Tabernacle) our Torah portion this week is all about its leaders and functionaries (i.e., the Kohanim/Priests). Once and again the Torah reminds us, and the Kohanim, what leadership is all about:  being a leader means (or should mean) to serve and not to be served. Unfortunately, I believe, in our generation this notion has been disrupted and reversed: leaders want to be served but not to serve. Many of our leaders, especially in politics, but this is true in other areas as well, have forgotten what leadership is all about. Leaders talk about their rights, their privileges, their special status and they usually treat other people as if they were less important than themselves because of their high position. 

In contrast, our Torah portion several times reminds us that the true goal of the Kohanim, and every leader as well, is to serve others and not to be served — that being a leader is more about responsibilities than privileges.  Hashem says, “[so] that he serve Me [as a kohen].” (Ex. 28:3). Rashi, commenting on this verse adds, “The expression of kehunah means service, serjanterie in Old French”. Being a Kohen means to serve, to serve Hashem but also to serve the Jewish people. And this is why many of the Kohen’s garments should serve to remind him that he is serving, not himself, but the Israelites (see, Ex. 28:12, 28:30, 28:38). 

When you are a leader it is easy to forget what your position is all about and that is why our Torah makes sure that with symbolic garments on the forehead, on the shoulders and in the heart the Kohen remembers that he is not there for others to serve him but he is there to serve Hashem and the Jewish people. 

Let this be a reminder to all of us in a position of leadership what our position is all about. 

Shabbat Shalom!

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

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!

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