Purim Shpiel 5782

I imagine that I will not be the only one attempting a “balancing act” this Purim: balancing joy & sorrow, past & present, and religion & life. Perhaps, there is no need for me to explain, and you, dear reader, are already beginning to get an inkling of what I am about to say. Purim is quickly approaching; yet, my thoughts are preoccupied with a modern-day Purim story, wherein the archvillain is intent on destruction, despite the opposition.

Abraham Heschel advocated for a Judaism that is not wrapped up in its past glory, in spite of the prevailing circumstances of life. How can I celebrate Purim in a joyous manner, knowing that a real-life situation demands my attention, prayer, and support? To go along with Purim-as-usual would create a great disconnect between what is meant to be a living faith in touch with the challenges of life and the actual challenges that present themselves, despite the timing.

The war in Ukraine will not be put on hold for the celebration of Purim. This is the stark reality that many of the Jewish refugees who have managed to cross the border know. And the unfortunate ones, who for whatever reasons are still in Ukraine, sheltering in basements, or fighting to defend their country also know this all too well. The rejoicing in Shushan and the lands of Ahasuerus did not occur until after victory was procured for the Jewish people, who were previously threatened by the evil designs of Haman.

Today, rejoicing over this past victory will in all likelihood be diminished in light of the present reality. Whatever lessons we are able to glean from Purim, I would encourage that these be applied to our response to the events of today. Otherwise, as Heschel wrote, we risk ignoring “the crisis of today,” “because of the splendor of the past” (Heschel, G-d in Search of Man, ch.1).

The Wise-Hearted

“And all the wise in heart made the Tabernacle.”

– Targum on Exodus 36:8

According to Maimonides, although scripture does not specifically state so, Moses related to the builders of the tabernacle, everything in its prescribed order. This gives the impression of a divine blueprint, being explained to the wise-hearted in precise details, according to the order of its intended construction. In light of the creation narrative, bringing order out of chaos, a parallel is also seen here in the building of the Mishkan, that follows the chaotic descent into idolatry at Sinai.

We need to ask ourselves, whether or not our own endeavors are wise-hearted. At a time in history, when chaos seems to prevail, and the world appears to be moving towards dystopia, rather than utopia, we need to make an assessment of our own values. We should focus on the pure unadulterated goodness of G-d’s divine agenda. For, regarding those whose designs are based on a godless blueprint, “do they not err that devise evil? But mercy and truth shall be to them that devise good” (Proverbs 14:22).

The Mishkan (portable tabernacle in the desert) was designed with the inspiration given by G-d’s Spirit, the Ruach Elokim, that imbued Bezalel, the main craftsperson, who built the Mishkan. All the wise in heart contributed. If we would like to contribute to G-d’s overall plan today, then we need to consider what efforts will be required on our part in order to do so. Our commitment to serve G-d with the discernment granted to us from Above is primary. For only G-d is able to bring true order out of chaos, and establish His Kingdom (Malchus HaElokim – the Kingdom of G-d).

Shabbos Zachor: Ki Tisa 5782

“The L-RD said to Moses: Take for yourself – spices – stacte, onycha, and galbanum – spices and pure frankincense.”  – Exodus 30:34

The incense was offered every day in the morning, and in the afternoon.  The incense fragrance connotes the understanding that we are to serve G-d in a pleasing manner; inasmuch that we are His servants, it is our responsibility to serve Him.  Yet, He would like us to develop the inward desire to serve Him.  This is reflected in the two ways of obeying His commandments – out of fear, and out of love.

To observe His commandments out of fear, requires acknowledgment of H’Shem as “the L-rd thy G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2).  Accepting the sovereignty of H’Shem is primary; once we accept His authority, then the commandments follow as divine decrees (Baal Halachos Gedolos).  

Lifting up our hearts to Him will help us to develop ahavah (love) for Him. In serving Him out of love, we are commanded to love him with an undivided heart (Sifrei), as is written, “thou shalt love H’Shem thy G-d with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).  Moreover, Maimonides writes, “Once a person loves G-d appropriately, he will fulfill the commandments out of love” (Hilchut Teshuva 10:2).

Yet, both love and fear are necessary, like the wings of an eagle; for without fear (awe, reverence, respect), there is not the proper attitude conveyed towards Him.  Without love, we may not be able to fly towards Him, higher and higher on our journey; yet, we continue climbing, as it is, for we will reach Him with dveykus: constant clinging to His Essence.

This Shabbos we also read parashas Zachor, concerning Amalek. We flounder on the path at times, perhaps, symbolically, because of Amalek (representative of doubt), letting our avodah (service) to H’Shem cool down. Yet, we are reminded to persevere despite the challenges in our lives. Soon we will celebrate Purim and recall the hidden miracle: our deliverance from Haman, a descendent of Agag, an Amelekite; our victory over the enemy who rose up against us within the 127 provinces of King Ahasueros.

Around this time, we are especially called upon to recognize the miracles in our own lives.  The potential for us to experience shefa (everflowing grace) from H’Shem is always offered to us when we look towards Him in our struggles. We should be thankful to Him for the blessings that we receive every day. Additionally, we should praise Him every day, for He has given us the breath of life; each and every day is an opportunity to lift our voices to Him in appreciation, thanking Him for all that He has given us. 

Carry On

parashas Tetzaveh 5782

“And thou shalt make staves of acacia-wood, and overlay them with gold. And thou shalt put the staves into the rings on the sides of the ark, wherewith to bear the ark. The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.” – Exodus 25:13-15, JPS 1917 Tanach

On the commandment, “they shall not be removed from it” (Exodus 25:15), R’ Hirsch comments that because the poles that were placed in rings on the sides of the Ark of the Covenant were to always remain there, to carry the Ark, symbolically, this represents that the Torah itself is not bound to any one place; rather, wherever one goes, the teachings are meant to accompany him or her. Thus, G-d’s words are meant to be our companions, so to speak, even as we look towards His presence to guide us.

I would proffer, that the same idea holds true, chronologically, that the veracity of Torah carries its own weight, and holds true across the ages. Thus G-d’s commandments should be no less compelling today, then they were on the day that they were given at Sinai. Yet, even so, many forces in society tug at the heartstrings of the average human being, attempting to lure one’s understanding away from the truth. We are challenged to remain steadfast, by not going along with the zeitgeist; rather, that we remain loyal to G-d, even though many people may view the commandments as passé, a relic of the past.

G-d’s words through Moses and the prophets, as well as all throughout all of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) are a moral compass, especially in times of tumult and confusion. Without the express knowledge of the pure unadulterated truth, how can mankind even know left from right, up from down, or good from evil? In general, we would not even know what direction we are headed, unless we have the “divine blueprint of life” to guide us along the way. So, let us not stray from the path, nor err in our judgment, as we encounter various elements in society that are not in accord with the truth. For, truth is not relative; rather, truth is an essential constant, like a compass always pointing in one direction.

Sanctification of the Self

parashas Terumah 5782 – A Model of Sanctification

The sanctification of our lives is dependent upon recognizing the difference, not only between sacred and mundane, rather also between sacred and most sacred. Therefore, in light of a godly perspective, we may characterize these aspects of our lives in the following manner: In accordance with the template for our lives, as per this discussion, the Mishkan contains two spaces within. The Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies), where the ark of the covenant was kept; and, the Kadosh (Holy), where the incense mizbeach, menorah, and showbread table were contained.

These three components within the Kadosh, may be said to represent prayer, wisdom, and kitvei kodesh (holy scripture). Inasmuch that it is written, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of G-d,” we may view bread as symbolic of the word of G-d. The light of the seven-branched menorah was maintained by seven oil lamps on the top of each branch. In kitvei kodesh, both light and olive oil represent wisdom. And, finally, the smoke of the incense mizbeach (altar) is indicative of our prayers rising up toward Heaven.

These three components were essential to the avodah (service) of the Mishkan, performed by the Levites. And the corresponding attributes are key for our avodah (service) to G-d. Primarily, if we “feast” upon the word of G-d, especially on Shabbos (the Sabbath), which was when the twelve loaves on the showbread table were eaten by the kohanim (priests), then we are providing ourselves with a rich banquet of truth, and the values derived thereof, in order to nourish our soul. Through abiding in the word, we will acquire wisdom; and our prayers may be based on scripture as well. The three aspects of the accoutrements in the Mishkan are part of the whole.

Continuing on with the extended metaphor for sanctification, we find the significance of the Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies), such that the ark is the repository for the commandments of G-d, that we are to follow, in order to obtain a level of morality in accordance with what was prescribed from Above. These are unchanging, a certain guide in the storms of life, and not subject to the shifting sands of modernity. They are the backbone of our uprightness in the eyes of G-d. As such, they also represent the crux of our thought, speech and action – directives for the guidance of the soul. Moreover, because G-d’s presence rested upon the kapores (cover) of the ark, we are reminded of G-d’s presence within us, when we make ourselves tabernacles.

So, while on the one hand, it is well known that we need to keep ourselves from becoming entangled in the mundane affairs of the world, in order to focus on what is sacred in our lives. We need to also recognize the role of the Most Sacred in our lives, the potential to remain in G-d’s presence, as long as we maintain a constant diet of the word, enlighten our souls with the wisdom of G-d, and pray in all sincerity, so that are prayers are lifted up to Heaven.

The inner sanctum of our souls, where only we may reside, along with G-d’s presence, is a place where G-d may communicate to us as individuals. Whether through our intuition, insight, or other kinds of influence, this is our refuge, where others may not enter. We do not need to take everything about ourselves outside of the holy place within us, for others may not always understand. Yet, G-d is our Counselor, and Guide, whom we should be able to communicate with, from the depths of our heart. He serves this role for all who seek Him, because as human beings we are limited in our ability to shoulder all of our burdens on our own. And, while others may help us, scripture tells us, “Cast thy burden upon the L-RD, and He will sustain thee” (Psalms 55:23, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Acceptance of His Sovereignty

parashas Mishpatim 5782

“The L-RD said to Moses, “Ascend to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them.'” – Exodus 24:12

“The voice of the L-RD cleaves with shafts of fire.”  – Psalm 29:7

(His words sprang forth like fire, when inscribed on the tablets)

Even before receiving the commandments, B’nei Yisrael cried out, naaseh v’nishmah (we will do and we will hear. It is a profound statement: the saying connotes a willingness to follow the commandments, before hearing (understanding) them.  This denotes the emunah (faith) of B’nei Yisrael, inasmuch that they were committed to following the commandments without fully comprehending their significance. Today, in the modern world, most people would prefer to consider, according to their own understanding, whether it makes sense to take such and such a course of action.  This is because of our reliance on our own ability to reason.

Ever since the Age of Reason, belief in the Divine is relegated to the back burner, as man places himself on the Throne.  Yet, we still have a choice, everyday in our own individual lives, to place the L-RD on the Throne, or place ourselves on the Throne. The daunting realization should be that even if we appear to place ourselves on the Throne, as if we were G-d, this is only a delusion. He, the Blessed and Holy One, is always in His Makom (place) on His Throne in Seventh Heaven.  To truly accept His Sovereignty (Malchus), we must step down, so to speak, from the illusion that we are in charge of every facet of our lives. 

It’s Covenantal

parashas Yisro 5782

“Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the L-RD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.” – Exodus 19:18, JPS 1917 Tanach

“He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under His feet.” – Psalm 18:10

The L-RD descended upon Mount Sinai, in the midst of fire and smoke. Later, the Torah records the phenomenon that surrounded His awesome presence, inclusive of thunder, lightning, and the sound of ram’s horns (shofars). How was the L-RD, who sits on His throne in Seventh Heaven, as a transcendent G-d, able to descend upon Mt. Sinai, demonstrating His immanence? “He bowed the heavens,” stretching the heavens towards earth, so that He could simultaneously continue to reside in Heaven while appearing on Mt. Sinai. This may be understood as figurative language, inasmuch that the human mind can not comprehend this magnanimous feat.

And, yet, the language of “bowing down the heavens,” may very well in and of itself, describe something that took place beyond our understanding. There are of course examples of visions, amongst the prophets, who saw G-d in Heaven; yet, this was G-d’s actual presence arriving upon Mt. Sinai. The Revelation at Sinai is the pivotal event in the lives of the Children of Israel, who as former slaves were brought into an official covenant relationship with G-d, when the commandments were given at Sinai.

Thus, we became His people, and He became our G-d, inasmuch that this covenant stands today within the framework of a continuous relationship with the L-RD; this covenant is extant today for Israel, as well as all, who like Yisro sought to join with Israel. “And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for G-d; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before G-d” (Exodus 18:12, JPS). Thus, foreshadowing, entrance into the covenant through faith (Exodus 18:11).

Moving Beyond

“The children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left.” – Exodus 14:29, JPS 1917 Tanach

Passing through the Sea of Reeds, B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) walked along a corridor created by a wall of water on their left and their right. The path towards the other side of the sea, where a safe haven could be found, was their road to freedom; in a sense, this is also, figuratively speaking, the path presented to us. Our walk with G-d compels us not to deviate to the left, nor to the right, thus permitting only a small margin of error as we journey along the path of life.

The road towards freedom, where we are able to transcend the limited constructs of our worldly existence, requires an effort to leave behind our personal Mitzraim (Egypt), by moving past our limitations in life to greater freedom. For, the shoresh (root word) of mitzraim means “limitations.” Therefore, we may apply this idea to our own weaknesses, negative character traits, and maladaptive behavior that limit our service to G-d, as well as our own personal development in life.

The truth is that our greatest limitations are often brought to our attention, for the most part, when we encounter the various nisyanos (trials) that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) elicits in our everyday lives. Yet, we should not give heed to these machinations on the part of our yetzer hara; rather, it is better to walk the narrow road to freedom, by not deviating towards the right or the left. Moreover, learning how to improve our character; for this will compel us to move beyond our limitations.

In like manner as B’nei Yisrael, the road to freedom is straight and narrow, and more challenging to walk upon, than when we give in to our “lesser selves,” by cruising through life on autopilot; yet, when we follow our “G-d given conscience” by doing what is right, we may excel even beyond our current level of connection to G-d; subsequently, there will be an increase in the positive effect of our choices, resulting in the elevation of our character to a greater degree than was previously known.

Crossroad to Freedom

parashas Va’eira 5782

“I am the L-RD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be my people, and I will be your G-d.” – Exodus 6:6, JPSN

Out of the four types of redemption that would be successively enacted, for the benefit of the B’nei Yisrael (Children of Israel), “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” refers to the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Thus, after the burdens of slavery ceased, and they were brought out of Egypt, they passed through the Sea of Reeds, dry-shod, crossing over to their freedom.

Yet, the purpose of this newfound freedom was not to have free reign over themselves, as if now they were free to live in accordance with their own designs and proclivities; rather, this freedom was for the sake of becoming G-d’s people, as opposed to being slaves of Pharaoh. Thus, in effect, upon becoming G-d’s people at Sinai, through the covenant made with G-d, as ratified by Moses through offerings, they acquired the responsibilities that the covenant entailed.

This new life was a transfer of purpose from serving a foreign master for the benefit of his people and country, to becoming servants of G-d, for the sake of His Kingdom. So, the transition of power over their lives was one that brought them out of bondage to a meaningless existence, into the glorious promises of the One who would provide for all of their needs in the wilderness, while encouraging them to adhere to the requirements of a covenant that brings purpose and fulfillment.

For, in Egypt the Children of Israel were compelled to build structures for Pharaoh in swamps, that led to the sinking of those structures, thus causing their work to be fruitless. Yet, the work of the Kingdom brings fruition to all of mankind, who are compelled to enter into covenant relationship with the G-d of Israel. Truly remarkable is this journey from darkness to light.

parashas Shemot 5782

parashas Shemot 5782

Humble Origins, Humble Beginnings

“And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.” – Exodus 2:2

Enslaved, at the bottom of the pyramid of the social structure, and strangers in a land that is not their own (Genesis 15:13). The words of Joseph, pekod pekodti – G-d will surely remember you – drifted across the generations, in the hearts of young and old. The redeemer, foretold, who would free the captives, and bring them to a land of milk and honey. And, he, himself, is born a slave, like unto his brethren, so that from this lowly start, he may serve as interlocutor between G-d and man (Exodus 20:19, Deut. 5:5, Psalm 106:23).

Thus, he enters the world at a time of darkness, when the ruler seeks to prevent his birth. For, Pharaoh had been told by his prognosticators, that a redeemer would be born. Pharaoh makes a drastic attempt to prevent the redeemer from fulfilling his role, by making a decree against all male infant children. Yet, the infant Moses, through divine guidance, is spared from this decree in a remarkable way.

“And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and smeared it with tar and pitch, and put the child inside the ark; she placed the ark in the river, near the bank, within a clump of reeds.”

– Exodus 2:3

Pharaoh’s daughter, who traditionally is named Batya, found the babe, had compassion towards the Hebrew child and raised him as her own son in the palace. Moses grew up cognizant of his heritage as a Hebrew, because he was nursed by his natural birth mother. Moreover, this awareness remained with him, in terms of having a clear sense of his own identity as a Hebrew.

And, so, he went out amongst his brethren one day, in his adult years, he sympathized with their persecution. He fled Egypt, because he attempted to foment a rebellion of the Hebrew slaves against Pharaoh. In Midian, he married, and herded sheep for his father-in-law; until one day, he saw something very surprising – a vision of sorts. A bush in flames; yet, the bush was not consumed. An angel appeared to him in the bush; and, G-d spoke to him.

Moshe received his mission from G-d, to serve as the redeemer of his people, the children of Israel. Yet, Moshe, the humblest man alive at the time, as recorded later in Torah, hesitated to take the mission. The L-RD assured him that his older brother Aaron would help him along the way with the mission; and, so, he set out riding on a donkey to Egypt, where his brethren were still enslaved.

“And Aaron spoke all the words which H’Shem had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the L-RD had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exodus 4:30-31, JPS 1917 Tanach).

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