Feb 15 2018

Building the Tabernacle

This piece is dedicated in memory of my father in law, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld z”l, who, besides so many other accomplishments, was instrumental in helping the work of Project Genesis through his classes and answers to students. Please remember HaRav Azriel Yitzchak ben HaRav Avraham Zvi z”l in your learning.

Our Torah portion, Terumah, talks about building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert — the precursor of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At first glance, you might wonder what the connection is between this portion and the last one.

As we discussed, last week’s reading discussed Mishpatim, judgments, laws necessary to create a moral and just society. Those are “baseline requirements,” things that apply to everyone, and the Torah certainly isn’t done speaking about those types of laws. Building the Tabernacle was totally different. No one was required to participate, not even a “suggested donation.” “You will take my donations from anyone whose heart moves him to do so” [Ex. 25:2].

Why does the Torah intertwine these laws? Last week we mentioned that the Torah speaks briefly of building the Mizbeyach, the Altar, immediately between the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, the judgments, to show us that the place of judgment, the location of the High Court, should be next to that Altar. The lesson we learned is they are intimately connected, that following judgments is as important to G-d as our prayers.

Placing the donations for the Tabernacle after the judgments takes matters a step further. Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that building a Jewish society with justice and humaneness is a prerequisite, before we can build something as holy as the Tabernacle. It is the foundation, without which the gifts to the Tabernacle are no Mitzvah at all.

This is true in the most literal sense. If a person steals a Lulav, the palm frond taken on Sukkos, then it’s no Mitzvah to use it. It is pasul, unfit — just as a frond whose tip is cut off or whose top leaf is split open.

And as we see, the Torah takes exactly the same precise and demanding approach to both types of laws. For example, even though one cannot take and use a stolen Shofar, the ram’s horn blown at the New Year, in that case one who does so has, in the end, performed the Commandment. Why is this different? Because in the case of the Shofar, the Mitzvah is to hear its sound. Since theft does not apply to listening to a sound, one cannot say that the person didn’t do the Mitzvah. But with a Lulav, the Mitzvah is taking and waving it, which one cannot do with stolen property!

Needless to say, taking stolen funds and giving them to charity is, similarly, no Mitzvah at all. What Rabbi Hirsch is telling us is that this is true in a much larger sense, as well — if we want to build a Holy Tabernacle, even within ourselves, even within our own homes, the first obligation is to strive for honesty, upright conduct and justice, in every area of life.

Feb 08 2018

Mission of the Mundane

This week’s reading, Mishpatim, judgments, is aptly named. Yes, the Hebrew name of a parsha, a reading, is simply its first uncommon word, but there are no coincidences, right? Mishpatim is filled with exactly what the name implies: judgments, interpersonal laws. We have Commandments which testify to our belief that G-d Created the world and brought us out of Egypt, Commandments which we observe even without truly understanding their deeper meaning, and then, in the third category, we judgments necessary for a civilized society.

There are fifty-three Commandments in this week’s reading. That is to say, more than we learned in all of the Torah that we have read so far since “In the beginning,” combined. It is a reading packed with Mitzvos!

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, says that our reading begins with a bridge. He tells us that when we see the word Eleh, these, it means “these and not what came before.” It means what was previous to Eleh is discarded. But V’Eleh, and these, adds on. In this case, just as the previous laws came from Sinai, these laws are also from Sinai.

But why? If these regulations are necessary for a civilized society, we could, of course, devise our own system. In fact, when G-d gave Noah the Seven Commandments that apply to all of humanity, He only Commanded that they not steal, not murder, not commit immorality, and set up courts of justice. That was entirety of the interpersonal laws. Yet we have dozens of very specific Commandments, which, as understood by our Rabbis, add up to volumes of rules and regulations. Every first-world country has detailed laws, yet ours were given to us.

Last week’s reading concluded with building the Mizbeyach, the altar. Rashi says this too, teaches us a lesson: the Sandhedrin, the Supreme Court, was to sit in judgment at the site of the Holy Temple, near the altar.

If we imagine that Judaism lives in the synagogue, we are making a mistake. And it doesn’t reside in the home, either. Both are important, but Judaism is something we carry with us every minute of every day. The way we do business is different, because we have our rules. The way we interact, the behavior we expect of ourselves, must be different.

Our interpersonal laws are not simply another civilized system of justice, but part and parcel of our Divine Mission. And that means they are not merely a requirement, but an opportunity. We spend more time doing other things then we do praying, and our unique mishpatim give us the opportunity to grow closer to G-d even while doing mundane daily activities — to sanctify the ordinary, all day long.

Jan 11 2018

Read the Writing on the Wall

In this week’s reading, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon to show Pharoah the miraculous signs that prove Moshe is speaking on G-d’s Command, and Pharoah must indeed let the Jews go free to worship. G-d predicts that Pharoah will test them in this way: “when Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, give for yourselves a sign, you will say to Aharon, take the staff and toss it down before Pharaoh, and it will be a snake” [7:9].

And this is exactly what happens. Pharoah demands the sign, and Aharon provides it. Pharaoh then calls upon his magicians, who similarly make their sticks transform — but then Aharon’s rod consumes theirs [7:12]. And Rashi says that Aharon’s staff did so not while it was a snake, but after it had turned back into a staff, as the verse says: “and the staff of Aharon consumed their staves.”

In other words, what Moshe and Aharon were able to do immediately went beyond the capabilities of ordinary tricks and even black magic. It was clear that they had delivered precisely the sign for which Pharaoh had asked, and yet Pharaoh did not respond. He did not allow the Jews to go, because his ego and previous beliefs forced him to deny reality.

People often ask why it was fair that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to permit the Jews to go. But our rabbis explain that G-d hardening Pharaoh’s heart did not force his refusal, but, on the contrary, preserved Pharaoh’s freedom to choose. The miracles and plagues were so overwhelming that any rational person would have been forced to release the Jews and avoid further destruction.

In the beginning, it was not so. The signs were there, and the signs were clear, but the signs were not so overwhelming as to deny Pharoah his freedom of choice without special Divine Intervention.

I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, in 1991. Dozens of SCUD missiles were fired at Israel’s cities. A single missile hit an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty-five soldiers and wounding nearly 100 more. Yet only one or two Israelis were killed by all of the missiles that were fired.

And the stories were legion.

A building collapsed, and a survivor was left with only his head visible above the rubble. When they extracted him, he was completely unharmed.

A neighborhood had just completed a new and improved bomb shelter. But when the sirens went off, everyone ran to the old one by habit. Not a single person went to the new shelter, although everyone knew it was available to them. The new and empty shelter sustained a direct hit and was completely destroyed.

A pair of young men were living in a Tel Aviv apartment, aware of their elderly neighbor in the next building who needed help getting around. Hearing the sirens, they spontaneously decided to run to their neighbor to help instead of staying in their own sealed room. The missile landed directly in front of their building, destroying their apartment. They were caught outside between the buildings, but were entirely shielded from the blast.

Those were the stories. And a pair of obviously religious Yeshiva students were in a taxi in Jerusalem, driven by an older, bareheaded driver, as the radio played an interview of a woman who had survived one of the missile attacks. The reporter asked her what she thought of all the miraculous events, and she said “miracles? What miracles? We just got lucky!”

At that point the taxi driver said loudly, “she’s still in shock. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’ll come to her senses and realize what’s going on!”

We should not expect to be shown signs so overwhelming that, like Pharoah, we would be forced to concede without Divine Intervention. But if we look around us, we can perceive the signs we need, even in events much less significant than the explosions of SCUD missiles. Stay on the lookout, and they are not difficult to see, and always inspirational when we find them.

Jan 05 2018

Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

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