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Parashat HaChodesh is a very “do it yourself” introduction to that most interactive of our holy days: Pesach. The essence of the Torah’s commandment that Nisan is to be the first month of the calendar is captured by the second verse’s striking repetition: “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; this shall be the first of the months for you.” This repetition leads to the well known law that the months could only be sanctified after witnesses had directly observed the new moon and the Sanhedrin had verified their testimony. Holiness is acquired by action, by taking G-d’s creation and using it to fulfill mitzvot. After all, the Torah asserts that the sun, moon, and constellations were placed in the sky “to be signs and markers of appointed seasons.” It is the job of the Jewish people to physically testify to the moon’s cyclical rebirth and not take it for granted. Our present calendar, with its mathematically calculated months, is a concession to the vagaries of our history.

The desire to serve as witnesses to the moon parallels the Sages’ fervent efforts to make the haggadah a re-enactment of acquiring freedom, and not its mere recapitulation through words alone. To take but one example, consider the origin of the Four Questions. The Torah notes: “and when your child shall ask, what is this service to you?” Our Sages see this as a positive mitzva to be fulfilled, and thus worry: what if your children have nothing to ask about on Pesach night? Then, G-d forbid, they would be unable to fulfill a mitzva! So, the Sages created a text full of questions, and added removals of the small tables on which dishes were served to ensure that these questions received the attention of children at the Seder table. Once again, the actions of the Seder participants is what sanctifies them. That explains the detailed prescriptions—and the huge arguments over their exact quantities-- for exactly how much matza must be eaten, marror must be sampled, and wine must be imbibed at the Seder to meet Jewish legal standards. The desire for exactitude in actions is a search for holiness—we cannot see G-d, but we can carefully do what we believe G-d asks of us. Contrary to what many Jews may think, Pesach’s precision is prescriptive rather than proscriptive.

Precise actions require intentionality. And this is the key point for Intelligent Jews. We see the details of Pesach as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Thinking of what we are doing and why is a core concept. Precision matters. It was vital for witnesses to know exactly where the moon was, its shape and size, if their testimony was to be accepted. Rabban Gamliel even made moon images for witnesses to point to when they reported to the Sanhedrin. How much matza to eat, when to eat it, and exactly why we do are vital issues as long as we recall the symbolism of matza and its resonance in various ages of our history. In this way we become like the witnesses who came to the Sanhedrin: their precise testimony benefited all Israel when the new month was declared. Similarly, our precise carrying out of the laws of Pesach will benefit all those who sit at our Seder tables when we enthusiastically and knowledgeably move beyond the text of the haggada and grapple with other questions beyond the mandated four. So, buy a new haggada tomorrow and start learning. Prepare some questions. You are training others to bear witness to history.

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Very early in this parasha, we are confronted with a passuk describing the service that was part of the dedication of the Mishkan: “And Moses said [to the people] this is what G-d commanded and you shall do, and glory of G-d will appear to you.” What was to be done and how the glory of G-d would consequently appear is not clear and has been debated by our commentators.

The Rabbi of Ger, the Sfat Emet, who combined Chassidism with profound Talmudic erudition, had a unique understanding of this passuk. He focuses on the fact that the verse neither specifies what was commanded or what must be done. Yet it is clear from the Hebrew (“zeh ha’davar”) that the verse refers to a specific action that will bring the “Glory of G-d” forth openly in front of the Israelites. The Rebbe then suggests that the word “you shall do” (ta’a’su) refers to all the deeds, all of our mitzvot. The Gerrer then argues that if we do the mitzvot with an awareness of G-d’s presence, G-d’s glory will certainly appear.

The Sfat Emet’s stance is very important: it is not enough to merely do the mitzvot—they must be performed in such a way that they recognize G-d’s presence in the world. Note that the Sfat Emet was no philosopher—he was above all a chassid, profoundly concerned with the cosmic effect of every human action and profoundly convinced that every mitzva performed with the proper intention could produce an extraordinary ripple effect that would increase the visibility of G-d’s presence—what the verse terms “and you shall see the glory of G-d.”

We can learn much from this apparently esoteric comment which is actually very down to earth. First, mitzvot should be done with active intentionality—thinking about what we do keeps our actions fresh. We may say “hamotzi” many times, but it would be so much better if we thought each time about how fortunate we are to eat that piece of bread. Second, if we think G-d is “far away” and “remote”, the cure lies in our hands. And finally, note how the Sfat Emet took a verse that seems to be focused on the comparatively narrow context of the sacrificial system and made it resonate even in a time when there is no Mishkan or Temple.

Shabbat is a day to reflect, think, learn, and grow. It is a day for socializing with friends, and finding quiet time for reading and reflection. Let us learn from the Sfat Emet, and dedicate our prayer time towards singing those familiar words with fresh appreciation, and becoming even closer to G-d during our prayers.

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This week’s parasha speaks of the eternal fire that will burn in the Mishkan “which must never be extinguished”. Chassidic commentators liken this to the “fiery love of Torah” which we must keep alive and burning throughout our lives. But these commentators acknowledge this is a difficult task. Enthusiasm is relatively simple to summon when we are young—stand outside a Grade 1 class practicing for their siddur ceremony and you will quickly agree. But as we get older, the flame of excitement wanes and flickers dangerously. What was once exciting becomes rote. How do we retain our enthusiasm for Judaism even while doing the “same old commandments”?

The confluence of Purim with Parashat Tzav suggests an interesting answer. Rabbi Naftali Reich cites a verse in the Megillah (9:27), “The Jews upheld and accepted upon themselves, and on their offspring and all their adherents.” He observes: “Our Sages infer from the words “the Jews upheld and accepted upon themselves” that “the Jews upheld what they had previously accepted.” The Jewish people had stood at Mount Sinai a thousand years before, and they had accepted the Torah directly from G-d.” But, observes Rabbi Reich, much of our ancestors’ belief was rooted in their direct experience of miracles. They believed in G-d because they had been freed miraculously from Egypt and directly heard the Divine voice at Sinai.

But as the years passed, the direct exposure of the entire nation to miracles decreased. And the fire of their belief began to wane. Enter Purim. Its name connotes randomness—it is based on “the lot” that Haman drew to determine the date for the Jews’ destruction. Enter the miracle of Purim—a hidden miracle apparently wrought of a series of random events: Vashti’s loss of favour, the chance choice of a Jewish girl to replace her as Queen, that Mordechai happened to overhear two of the king’s bodyguards planning his execution, and the like. In fact, Esther’s name—her false name—for her Jewish name was Hadassah—connotes “hidden/secret”. After the miracle of their deliverance, the Jews celebrated. But—and this is significant—Mordechai and Esther realized the changed nature of the miracle, and therefore commanded the people to “celebrate the second anniversary of Purim.” Mordechai and Esther understood that it was now their responsibility to preserve this celebration. The nature of the miraculous had changed—it presents far more subtly—and the Jewish people needed to understand that if they were to retain their faith.

Indeed that day marks the dawn of modern Judaism, when the miraculous is muted and we need to feed our spiritual fires through learning, camaraderie, and doing mitzvot rather than waiting for G-d to appear. We are in charge of the miracle of Jewish survival and spirituality—and that is why we will celebrate so noisily on Purim!

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Ah, the Book of VaYikra, a veritable recipe book of various offerings brought long ago in the Temple on specified occasions, or for errors of omission or commission. As the 1947 Conservative siddur observed “how great was our forefathers’ love for You as they came to the Temple in the days of yore….” Note the use of the past tense, which mirrored the 1946 Conservative movement’s decision to switch to the past tense in the Hebrew prayers about the Temple. Suburban Jews were moving on, and the Temple cult was not for the squeamish; better to elevate its purpose and downplay the details.

This has led to modern commentators choosing to ignore the offerings because they are uncomfortable with the visceral images of Cohanim ritually slaughtering offerings and smearing blood on the altar in a prescribed manner. But choosing to ignore the offerings entirely has serious disadvantages. Chief among them is a lack of appreciation for most of the Book of Vayikra. If the Torah is a holy book, then its message must be eternal, and even in the absence of the Temple its words should resonate. And indeed it does, if we examine what the offerings could not atone for and when they were given. The best example is the sin offering—for that word has such a powerful connotation to us in English that is entirely absent in the Hebrew.

Rabbi J. Sacks puts this very eloquently: “if we commit a sin we have objectively transgressed a boundary. The word chet means to miss the mark, to stray, to deviate from the proper path. We have committed an act that somehow disturbs the moral balance of the world. To take a secular example, imagine that your car has a faulty speedometer. You are caught driving at 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile an hour zone. You tell the policeman who stops you that you didn’t know. Your speedometer was only showing 30 miles per hour. He may sympathize, but you have still broken the law, transgressed the limit, and you will still have to pay the penalty.

That is what a sin offering is. According to R. S.R. Hirsch it is a penalty for carelessness. According to the Sefer Ha-Hinnukh it is an educational and preventive measure. Deeds, in Judaism, are the way we train the mind. Having to pay the price by bringing a sacrifice will make you take greater care in future. But, you may ask—how does that faulty speedometer affect the moral fabric of the world? Sacks continues: “What the sacrifice achieves is kapparah, not forgiveness as such but a “covering over” or obliteration of the sin. Noah was told to “cover” (ve-chapharta) the surface of the ark with pitch (Gen. 6: 14). The cover of the ark in the Tabernacle was called kaporet (Ex. 25: 17). Once a sin has been symbolically covered over, it is forgiven, but as the Malbim points out, in such cases the verb for forgiveness, s-l-ch, is always in the passive (venislach: L:ev. 4: 20, 26, 31). The forgiveness is not direct, as it is in the case of repentance, but indirect, a consequence of the sacrifice.”

Sacks explains why this is true. “The third dimension of sin is that it defiles. It leaves a stain on your character. King David says to God, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (me-chatati tahareni, Ps. 51: 4). About Yom Kippur the Torah says, “On that day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you [letaher etchem]. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (Lev. 16: 30).” The conclusion? “The law of the sin offering reminds us that we can do harm unintentionally, and this can have psychological consequences. The best way of putting things right is to make a sacrifice: to do something that costs us something.” And that is why charity has taken the place of the offering. Sin has nothing to do with guilt—that is Christian and Kantian. Sin has to do with damaging the fabric of the world, and only positive educational steps can put us back on the right track. Something to think about while we read Sefer Vayikra.

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Our parasha, and by coincidence the special maftir of Shabbat Shekalim and the Haftara are all associated with religious accounting. Each of these readings is concerned with keeping a proper record of donations given to either the Temple or Tabernacle. Indeed, the title of our parasha translates as “an accounting”—for Moses gave an exact numerical accounting of precisely how all the gifts of the Israelites were used in the Mishkan’s construction, right down to the last shekel.

Midrashim explain that Moses asked Aaron to verify the accounting, and that some suspected the brothers of colluding and cheating the people. And that is why, concludes this midrash, each section of the chapter ends with the words “just as the Lord commanded Moses”—to signify that Heaven attested to the fact of Moses’ and Aaron’s probity. Despite this, people remained distrustful of how donations were accounted for, as the following Midrash indicates: “The person who collected money for the Temple would not wear a double hemmed garment, or a hollow belt, or even pants. All these were garments in which money could be hidden. Therefore, if the person became rich later, people could not say ‘He became rich from the communal treasure.’ Just as a person must behave in a manner which G-d would consider faultless, so should people ensure that their actions leave them free of suspicion in others’ eyes.”

Here of course, is one of the central tenets of Intelligent Judaism: your actions must be seen to match your words. No hint of hypocrisy shall ever be detectable in your religious practises. And when it comes to money, people are ever suspicious and the demand for transparency even greater. As our texts reveal, these expectations have remained constant since Biblical times.

Another constant theme in communal donations is the generosity of the Jewish people. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud comments: “what a strange people the Israelites are—they donated eagerly in the same parasha both to the building of the Golden Calf and the building of the Mishkan.” We sometimes don’t choose the right causes—but we give, and that is vital. This communal commitment to tzedaka has remained a distinguishing factor of Jewish identity that cuts across lines of religious observance. Naturally, this type of almost universal generosity has also caused controversy. Certainly we can debate the criteria of who the needy really are, or how to arrive at a hierarchy of which charities are most deserving. It is vital that those who give participate in these debates and discussions rather than just give. Tzedaka needs to be directed. We also need to involve ourselves in more “in kind” and “hands on” tzedaka projects, in which we actually are involved in the process of Tikkun Olam (Improving the World). Younger generations of our community love this type of tzedaka, and it should be encouraged.

In sum, it is for us to continue the generosity of our ancestors, and to set new paths for new challenges. As winter fades, and spring beckons, it is time to revitalize our commitments to others and ensure that we do our part to improve the world we live in both as Jews and as human beings.




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