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Posted By The Stash

The opening verse of our Torah portion is a commandment that the Israelites bring purified olive oil to light the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp in the Tabernacle. How strange! The Tabernacle was built solely through voluntary offerings of materials and skills, how then can we explain why the supplying of the oil is a non-voluntary mitzvah?

The answer may lie in the specificity of the mitzvah. Only oil produced by the first cold pressing of the olives could be used. Various midrashim find great significance in this. Some take a Judeocentric view, remarking that the superiority of the oil parallels that of the Jewish people. Other midrashim note that oil, when poured into another substance, remains separate—just like the Jews who (at least historically!) refused to assimilate into their host societies. But neither of these lines of explanation speaks to the Intelligent Jew. We neither advocate Judeocentric superiority, and we fervently believe, as we learned last week, that actively combining “doing and learning” Judaism provides an antibody for assimilation. We will have to look elsewhere.

But Ramban finds an answer through a careful reading of the lengthy narrative of the Tabernacle’s construction. First, he notes that the people were commanded “to bring oil” while in every other case of Tabernacle work they were told “and you shall make.” He ingeniously argued that this reflects the fact that there was no possibility of actually “making” olive oil in the desert, all the oil was from supplies that had been brought out of Egypt. Ramban then argues that a close reading of the narrative of the Tabernacle’s construction uses the word “command” a number of times even though all the workers worked voluntarily. How can this be explained: by realizing that the voluntary workers acted as though these words were a command. This accounts for the precision and care manifested in the building of the Tabernacle, its furniture, and the elaborate vestments of those who officiated within.

Solomon Schechter famously wrote about “Catholic Israel”—the members of the Jewish faith who were totally unified (the Victorian adjectival meaning of “Catholic”) by practice to the point that everything their religion told them was “a command.” Rabbi Stern once spoke admiringly of the how well the Mormon Temple next to his shul in Birmingham, Alabama was maintained. This was because the members tithed themselves with work such as cleaning the building and maintaining the garden. The Tabernacle is a physical testament to the loving labour of those who considered it their duty to “build Me a sanctuary so I may dwell in your midst.”

We are the inheritors of this mighty ethic of “compulsory voluntarism” which the Torah calls the work of “those whose hearts are motivated.” In a society whose bonds are strained by the incessant chant of “me over we,” some would say this is a tired ethic needing rethinking. They are wrong. Our Torah portion’s olive oil lit a flame whose perpetuity depended on daily rekindling. The flame could not burn perpetually on its own without aid from those committed to it. That is the nature of religion—it is only as strong as we make it. As we celebrate Purim together, we can pause for a weekend of self-congratulation that we, and other shuls, are islands of community, camaraderie, and friendship forming a bulwark against a rising tide of individualistic narcissism. We need to remember Peter, Paul, and Mary’s sage advice: “don’t let the lights go out, they have burned for so many years.”

Posted By The Stash

Once again we reach the lengthy account of the building of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and we are compelled again to consider why the Torah devotes a very large amount of Sefer Shmot to elaborate on the detail of a temporary building that will be eclipsed by the Temple. The classic commentators clash over the reasons for the Tabernacle’s necessity: some see it as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while others see it as a necessary dose of corporeality for a nation still attached to idol worship who required “hands on” worship of an Invisible and Unknowable God.

But another explanation beckons. Nechama Leibowitz has famously shown the alignment of the account of the Tabernacle’s construction with the Creation story. But the original humans of Creation barely existed for more than a few hours on the sixth day of Creation before they were overtaken by temptation and ate the fruit of the Forbidden Tree. Adam’s punishment was “to till the soil from which you were taken, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” At first blush, this verse reflects the Bible’s jaundiced view of the farmer compared to the shepherd. The Biblical image of the farmer never quite loses the taint of Cain.

Yet, by the early 18th century, a Chassidic commentary observed: “Adam was exiled to become a farmer so that he could plant wheat, watch it grow while he prayed that there would be sufficient rain, harvest and thresh it, mill it into flour, bake it and then eat it after blessing it—only then would he realize how greatly he was diminished from Adam HaRishon, the first Man created with the very breath of the Holy One.” Here we see a new idea: the spiritual redemptiveness of manual toil. By late 19th century, Jewish nationalists and especially Socialists such as Gordon and Borochov wrote of the value of manual work and the importance of relying on Jewish labour to build a Jewish land. The Gordonian eschewing of native Palestinian labour in favour of unskilled but willing members of the Second and Third Aliyot between 1905 and 1914 built the foundation of the Jewish state of today.

Seen in this light, the specialized labour required for the building of the Temple assumes a new importance. All the material was donated, and those blessed with the talent for artisanship could then come forward to create the building and its appurtenances. One can well imagine the redemptive power of a skill once deployed in shaping stone for a Pharaonic pyramid now carefully crafting a golden pole for carrying a vital component of the Tabernacle. It was not by chance that the words “Holy to the L-rd” were engraved on the High Priest’s breastplate—the holiness came from the use of G-d given artistic talents in holy service. The Jews may be the People of the Book, but skilled labour used in a sacred cause is every bit as vital—if not more so—than “book smartness.”

The Intelligent Jew builds enduring Jewish lifestyle by combining book learning and hands-on practice. We become committed Jews by acting Jewishly, physically taking part in Jewish ceremonies and rituals. Sociology has underscored the importance of the words uttered at Sinai: ‘we will DO and we will listen.” Jews who DO Jewish tend to become deeply conscious of our religious rhythms. Those who simply learn academically become the equivalent of a traveler with a Fodor’s guide—they stand out and only see what the book tells them is important. Religion that will be transmitted to the next generation is about emotional involvement. Certainly fluent reading helps one pray, but only doing it brings one to the point where the words, the rhythm, the music, and the soul all fuse. May we be blessed with the power to learn by doing what so many of us have spent so much time learning through study.

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Our parasha marks a shift from the narrative to the legal, but don’t be fooled, it is not boring. Indeed, these laws of daily living are what should define Menschlichkeit, our great contribution to interpersonal relationships. The true Intelligent Jew is known by their behavior—and this parasha, along with Parashat Kedoshim in Vayikra, are the key elements of appropriate interpersonal behavior that will uplift those touched by it.

The Torah sets the bar very high. We read “keep far away from falsehood” which seems superfluous at first glance. The Torah directly commands us not to be false witnesses, orders judges not to accept lying testimony, and generally forbids people from dealing falsely with each other. What can this verse possibly add? Is this a mitzvah or a suggestion of best practice?

Nechama Leibowitz observes “‘keep far’ implies…meticulous care in refraining from anything that can conceivably savour of untruth, even though it was not obviously dishonest.” What does this mean in practice? A well known example is found in Bereishit when Sarah is told that she will have a child. She laughs inwardly and says that she is old and so is Abraham. But when G-d reports this conversation to Abraham, there is no mention of him being “too old to be a father.” Here we see the principle of “keep far” applied for the sake of shalom bayit, peace between husband and wife. The Gemara applies this principle to all cases when the witnesses are unreliable but the judge cannot prove it. Rather than simply rely on their testimony, the judge throws out the case. In Massechet Shevuot, devoted to vows and court proceedings, we read that a teacher who was owed 100 zuz only had one witness to this fact—and he needed two. He told his student to simply come along and not speak—so he would not violate the law of being a false witness—but his presence would still hopefully serve to ensure victory. The law is simple: when the judge sees that the second witness has nothing to say, they must throw out the case on the basis of “keep far from falsehood.” Jewish law wants only the unadulterated truth.

I shudder when I read this. A few weeks ago I heard a Jewish high school student proudly tell his friends he needed a new smartphone because his Blackberry was “out of date.” He related that he came up with a “quick solve on this one.” When a car backed up in the school parking lot, he arranged for the phone to “fall” under its wheels. He took the shattered phone to his parents and lamented its demise. Presto! A new iPhone! His friend told him how brilliant he was and that he would try this as well.

And this is but the most egregious example of what I see around me. Lying has become a routine matter for all the wrong reasons. Parents routinely lie when their children arrive late for school by inventing excuses such as “doctor’s appointments.” Is it any wonder then that their children routinely lie about everything under the sun, even when they are not under duress. Lying is fast becoming an acceptable behavior. Best Buy reported last year that they were losing millions on electronic equipment that was bought, used, and then returned under the false pretense that “it did not perform to expectations” after the cheaters had saved a great deal of money by using it. In many cases, we are rapidly moving towards a society in which inventive falsehood is honoured and chutzpah is rewarded. The internet has made this behavior much simpler and has added more avenues for falsehood to be deployed.

Our sages called the behavior of “keeping far from falsehood” the “dust of lying.” Dust has a way of accumulating in corners and then, if left untended, slowly covering everything in a room. So it is with the very high standard of “keeping far from falsehood.” If we lower the bar, we soon lower ourselves. Shabbat is surely a day to reflect on this and begin the journey back to truth.

Posted By The Stash

In our reading, Moses is reunited with his family courtesy of his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro comes both to return his daughter, Tzippora and her children to Moses, and to see how his son-in-law is doing as a leader. In the opening few verses, we discover an interesting fact not discussed earlier in the narrative. “And Moses’ father-in-law had taken in Moses’ wife Tzippora, after she had been sent away.” When had this taken place? We find no mention of it in the narrative of the plagues and the subsequent exodus.

Rashi brings a midrash that suggests that when Aaron met Moses at Mount Sinai after Moses’ encounter with G-d at the Burning Bush, an interesting reunion took place. After Aaron found out that this was Moses’ family, he asked where they were going. “They are returning with me to Egypt,” replied Moses. Aaron was shocked. “Why would you do that—we are upset about the fate of our children in Egypt, and you want to bring yours there!?” Moses immediately ordered Tzippora to take the children and return to Midian. But, as the Da’at Mikra points out, this raises a powerful strategic and psychological consideration: how does Moses the leader look to his people—ordering them to take risks while his family remains safe in far off Midian? We can also ask: in Sefer Bereishit we read about the lives of the Avot and Imahot in great detail, while in Shmot, this is but one example of the paucity of details about Moses’ family life. Why the shift in emphasis?

The Da’at Mikra answers by observing that Moses’ career is an example of self-abnegation. He always heeded the needs of the Israelites before his own family’s. Later in this chapter Jethro will find him “judging the people from morning till evening” in the belief that he was the only person qualified and respected enough to judge in a manner that “would bring the people closer to G-d.” At Sinai, he became so close to the Divine through both self-abnegation and modesty that he was able to speak to G-d “face to face just as a person speaks to their neighbor.” When he descended from the mountain, he was so changed that he barely communicated with his family.

Such is the sobering price of Jewish leadership. The spotlight of Sinai certainly never threw much light inside Moses’ familial tent. Even this supremely modest man, who certainly neither sought nor enjoyed his fame and recognition, could not avoid the burden of standing between a stubborn group of ex-slaves and their demanding Deity. Indeed, the effect of his leadership on his family fully justified his complaint at the Bush: “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” This chapter is the last time we hear of Moses’ children. The text’s silence reverberates through history. We hear of Tzippora once more—when she is broken hearted that her husband is too busy with G-d to have time for her.

In our busy and often narcissistic world, how should we attract a new generation of Jewish communal leaders? Recruitment is getting harder all the time while needs have never been greater. People are placing a new value on “family time” and limiting their communal activities as compared with a generation ago. Day schools, synagogues, and communal organizations are finding it harder to attract and keep board members with the time and ability to properly govern them. The Moses story is a cautionary tale and there are no easy answers. Perhaps the honest admission of the cost of leadership is a first step towards finding a new type of individual who can fit the role. As our Sages said, “The task is great and the time is short….” Let us pray that honestly admitting our challenges will encourage us to assess and meet them.




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