Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘God’

Pesach and God’s Face

In Exodus on March 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

We discussed Moses’ request to see God’s face in Torah study this morning. It was a very interesting discussion. People struggled with the idea of an abstract God whose “back” could be seen, but whose “face” could not be. If the sight of God is so awesome that it could destroy a man, what difference does it make whether you see God’s back or God’s face? What does it mean to look on God, as Moses did? What does this encounter tell us about ourselves, and our relationships with each other?

Is God’s face a dangerous secret?

What about Pesach, whose portion this is? Why discuss these issues on Pesach? One of the reasons we wear tefillin to daven is so that the name of God can be upon us (paraphrase from Shulchan Aruch). This is accomplished literally; the different ways of tying tefillin usually spell “Shaddai,” on of God’s names, on our body. So is that which bears the name, also the face? Is God’s face…..people?

Acceptable Idolatry

In Midrash on April 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Little cats dancing

charismatic cat dances

atop cold food god

D’var Torah given at Shacharis, Nissan 8 5772 – Tzav Parsha

In Exodus on March 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm

And now for something completely different.

The Book of Joshua, the first of the prophetic writings following the Torah, is the story of the Israelites’ initial conquest of Canaan.  Its a very violent book, being ostensibly a list of wars and genocides, enumerating in surgical detail the nations the Israelites conquered and the people they killed.  Its sterile tone makes the book seem callous at times, lending Joshua and the Israelites an cavalier and piratical attitude towards the land and the lives of the peoples in it.  Certain Rabbinic literature mentions “Joshua the Pirate.”  Sincerely playful, yes, but sincere first.

Let’s look at Joshua another way, a way we aren’t aware of, a way that has been lost in the West that modern man needs to study desperately.  It was introduced to me in an essay by Andre Neher, a gift to me from a beloved friend.   A Rabbinic derivation, invented by people who were as shocked by the text as we should be, this interpretation contends that Joshua sued for peace, not war, with the Canaanites.  Joshua’s story in a nutshell:  Moses is dead, Joshua is commanded by God to take the Israelites and conquer Canaan.  Joshua and the Israelites dwell on the shores of the Jordan for three days before crossing over and encamping on Jericho’s border, where Joshua has the people circumcised.  Joshua then sends spies into Jericho, before following God’s command to ride around the city for a week before the city walls fall.  The rest of the conquest takes place quickly.

Now for the questions.  How can the Torah assume a tone of peace and justify dispossessing people of their lives and land?  Why did Joshua hesitate on the banks of the Jordan for three days?  Why does Joshua wait to have the Israelites circumcised in hostile territory?  Why send scouts to Jericho, and parade around the city for a week?  Does this deviate from the previously straightforward command go into the land and possess it?  Why take all of this extra time when victory was divinely assured?  Was Joshua girding his people for war?  Or was Joshua giving the people every possible chance to build trust, have a dialogue, and find understanding, after precedents set by Moses and Abraham?

Does the Aleinu, attributed to Joshua in legend, read like a warrior’s ode to a fallen foe, or a peacemaker’s lament, caught between personal ideals and the real flesh and blood implications of divine expectations?  It is our duty to praise God and ascribe greatness to Him who has made our destiny different from theirs.

Does this have anything to do with our parsha?  We’ve just finished reading about the ritual of the sacrificial offerings, a portion we look at and say……why does God need a barbecue?

Let’s consider the matter seriously.  What were the Israelites trying to achieve here?  Every motion of the ceremony is described in such theatric detail that one can ask if the sacrifice itself is truly the point.  Could the idea be less about killing animals, and more about drawing the community together into a common religious language and identity?  Or is the whole thing an elaborate show?  Perhaps a little of both.  Judah Halevi notes that everyone in those days worshipped images, and Maimonides points out that sacrifice was the religious language of the time.  In other words, people believed with their eyes, and needed something to see and participate in.  (Have things really changed so much?)  Archeological evidence shows that Egypt worshipped a pantheon of images, and if the Israelites were as fickle as the episode of the Golden Calf suggests, did they worship a multitude of images too, each with their own rites and expectations?  Before monotheism could be substantively addressed with the community, did the individual tastes of the religiously cosmopolitan Israelites-in-Egypt need to be reconciled?  This idea is woven into the haggadah itself, which says Blessed are you, Adonai, who has gathered us from all people.  All of us, with our own unique customs, ideas, needs, hopes, desires, and prejudices come together at the Pesach table.  If the sacrificial rites drew the Israelites together, did the sacrifices themselves make their differences go up in smoke?

Two Temples were built.  Two Temples were destroyed.  Both perpetuated a decadent and out-of-touch theocracy, engaged in political intrigue, and promoted irrational self-interest.  Both were dedicated to God and idols, and both fueled family feuds and bloodshed.  Cattle sales boomed.  Does this sound like a house of prayer for all people, the sanctuary of a reconciled, harmonious community?  Or just another little house?

So barbecue wasn’t the answer, and guilt offerings weren’t our strong suit.  What else is there?  Does this make our tradition incomplete, as others wish we’d believe?  Or, as Nachmanides suggests, do the sacrifices have their own inner meaning?  Like the wise child on Passover, we ask ourselves “what does this all mean?”

Malachi, our haftarah prophet on this Shabbat Hagadol, begins by saying then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old.  But first I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me:  Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger.  He then talks about everything else we’ve done wrong.  This is comedy.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert teach us that comedy is prophetic.

Jeremiah is more succinct, saying for when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.  Walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you … For I (the Lord) act with love (chesed), law (mishpat), and righteousness (tzi’dakah) in the world; I delight in these.

God herself is the most succinct of all in 1 Kings, saying to Solomon of his temple, about this house you’re building, (can you think of a man who’d say that?) before referring Solomon back to the Law, which includes the command in Leviticus, you will bear no grudge against your kinsman, love your neighbor as yourself.  Why is this expression of love found at the heart of Torah, at the heart of the book about sacrifice?

So what will be our Passover offering?  Here are some final thoughts.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, a Spanish Rabbi and 15th century commentator, taught that the Tabernacle, the sanctuary for the tables of the covenant, is an expression of the world.  God made the world in the beginning, with a willing heart, and saw that it was good.  We are to make the world now, with a willing heart, and see that it is good, for ourselves and everyone else in it.

Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a Polish Philosopher in the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote that the tablets given to Moses by God were blank in the middle, waiting for our help filling them in.  Let’s make the story a good one.

The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, compiled sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, offers a midrash.  This is Judah Goldin’s translation.  Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins.  “Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”  “My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it?  It is acts of lovingkindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

It seems to me, if we’d really lost something important, we should grieve.  But we are instructed not to.

We are taught to search out and burn our chametz before Passover, and for a week we learn to do without bread.  If the goal is to sanctify time by ordering our inner worlds as we order our outer worlds, can this be a spiritual Spring Cleaning too?  Can you identify something about yourself, something dear to you, something that gets in the way of lovingkindness, that you could give up for a week?  I challenge us all to do this.  We may find, together, that we can sue for peace, like Joshua did, and make our differences go up in smoke.

Perhaps we’ll find that our precious, silly ideas preventing us from loving each other are the most holy sacrifices of all?

Is this why we must never let the fire go out?

This is my “I Have A Dream” speech.

Gut Shabbes.

Stone Hearted

In Exodus on March 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

You shall make a breastpiece of decision…

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones…

They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

Exodus 28.15,17,21

Parsha Tetzaveh

What does it mean that the breastplate is lined with semi-precious stones named for people?  Does it mean being stone-hearted towards our fellows?  Or does their placement over the heart mean to put others’ hearts before our own?  Does this mean to acquiesce to others’ desires, or to do what we know is best with others’ best interests in mind?  Is this informed by our perceptions, or theirs?  This brings us back to the question:  whose heart comes first?

Saul is unambiguously commanded by God to destroy Amalek and everything that belongs to him (1 Samuel 15.3).  Saul disobeys this command, sparing everything of worth (ibid. 15.9) and taking of the spoils (ibid. 15.15,21).  Why?  Saul admits his mistake, and says he yielded to the desire of the people (15.21) to offer sacrifices to God.  How does this strike you?

There are two possibilities here.  The first, the stated motive to sacrifice was the truth.  The second, the stated motive was a lie, the true motive being greed.  What is the difference between 1 Samuel 15.15 and 15.21?  How does it strike you?

What difference does this make in the big picture?  Samuel’s statement in verse 22:  Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command?  Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice.  Does this refer to the body of Jewish Law (halacha) or the 613 commandments of Maimonides?  Or something else?

What is obedience?  According to the dictionary, obedience is the act or practice of obeying.  In other words, obedience involves doing for others.  In Joshua, chapter 7, Achan takes of the proscribed spoils from Jericho, and God lets Ai defeat the Israelites.  Joshua asks God, what will you do for Your great name? (Joshua 7.9)  Rashi teaches that God’s name is part of our own name, for our name, Yisrael, is comprised of the word sar (prince) and El (God).  This is the derash.  So, does this make God’s name also our name, or our name also God’s name?  Is Joshua calling out God to be obedient to God’s own name?  What does that mean?

This leaves us with two big questions to think on.  What does it mean to be obedient to our given names?  What does it mean to be obedient to our family name Yisrael?

Precious Stones

In Exodus on February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What is more precious?
Gemstones, giving gemstones, or
men giving gemstones?

Parsha Terumah

You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

Exodus 25.2-7

These are the gifts that God requests of the people as a free-will offering to build the sanctuary in their midst. All of them would be quite valuable in the barter and trade economy of the time. Why does God request these things?  Why does God request them only from every person whose heart so moves him?

Our haftarah says of the house Solomon built, With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel. (1 Kings 6.12-13) Solomon’s house was built using forced labor (ibid. 5.27). What does this tell us?

What does it mean that the precious stones are meant for the ephod and breastpiece of the priest? (Exodus 28.4) What does it mean that the stones represent the people of Israel? (ibid. 28.9-12,15-21)

Isaiah says thou art precious in My sight, and honourable, and I have loved thee.  (43.4)  How does this inform our view of the parsha?  Does generosity relate to honor?  How?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

In Exodus on February 14, 2012 at 8:20 am

Walking down the street
looking left and right
one leg leads the other one.

Parsha Mishpatim

He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Exodus 21.17

Why does our parsha ascribe harsh penalties for offenses such as this?

Parents and Children

In Exodus on February 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

You sit there in the
corner, red-rimmed eyes, gasping,
shuddering, afraid.

You know, this hurts me
more than you can ever know.
How do I teach you?

I love you, child.
This estrangement, punishment.
You will know one day.

Parsha Beshalach

The Lord, the Warrior — 
Lord is His name!

Exodus 15.3

Our parsha emphasizes God the Warrior who protects who he chooses and smites everyone else.  A masculine image.  Deborah in our haftarah has this to say.

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.”

Judges 5.28-30

Why doesn’t our Torah text say this of the Egyptians killed in the Red Sea?  Why do the Israelites sing so joyously at the Egyptian’s deaths?  Or, put another way, why do the Israelites celebrate the death of fellow human beings?  Is God supposed to be a lion, a manly destroyer of his opponents, or a lioness, a feminine defender of her cubs?  Is one mutually exclusive of the other?  Are they supposed to be?

For I the LORD change not (Malachi 3.6).  Can they be?

Do mothers cry when they discipline children?

True Wealth

In Exodus on January 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I go to market
and see some people buying,
others just looking.

I go to the ones
who are looking and give each
of them a pence piece.

They buy candies and
toy whistles. They are happy.
They make me wealthy.

Parsha Bo

But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.

Exodus 12.4

Is it striking that the third thing we’re told is to be nice to each other? The first is it shall be the first month of the year for you. The second is take every man a lamb…a lamb for a household. The third is our text above.

Does this apply to The Exodus only, and Passover, when it is said that no Jew should have no place to go? Or to any Exodus situation? Define an Exodus situation.

Does this say the haves are responsible for the have nots? Or are the haves responsible for helping the have nots become haves? Is this a mere suggestion? Or a commandment to be sensitive to the needs of others, and not turn the needy away?

How does this instruction relate to the first two instructions received?  The hard part: I don’t want to hear about Passover.  Get creative!

Should the definition of needy be someone in need? Or someone who won’t help someone in need?

Even in hardship, do we affirm our humanity by affirming others’?

Do all creatures deserve to share our hours of triumph?

State of the Pharoahs Address

In Exodus, Midrash on January 25, 2012 at 8:00 am

Parsha Bo

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come upon the land of Egypt and eat up all the grasses in the land, whatever the hail has left.”

So Moses held out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the…Locusts invaded.

Exodus 10.12-14

Friends, countrymen, fellow Egyptians:

Our program of social inequality has never been more successful. The income gap is better than ever, with us Pharoahs living at the height of luxury, and the people making just enough to feed themselves and their children, which is all anyone really needs, isn’t it? Solid gold toilets are overrated, really. They chafe like hell and, at the end of the day, it all goes to the same place anyway.

No, the people don’t need solid gold toilets. Neither do we, which is why we downgraded to chased silver toilets in light of the plague crisis. They chafe more, but we all must make sacrifices, to please Moses and this God creep. And at the end of the day, it still goes to the same place anyway.

Maybe this is our problem. We need to find a way to keep our poo and their poo separate. I mean, this works for everything else. Our palaces, their houses. Our chaise-carts, their wheelbarrows. Our religion, their cult. This last one worked really well. Our religion gave us money. Their cult gave them values. The people are so stupid. Don’t they know that values have no value?

That’s why its so important to put a cash value on everything! Take human life, for example. Calculated Return On Investment tells us if paying insurance claims are worth it. After all, we all must make sacrifices.

Tying up self worth with net worth was another major lynchpin of our strategy, and a huge success. The people are driven to make money.  Why use old wineskins when you can buy new ones?  In order to do make money, they need to drive. No pun intended. Driving means gasoline sales, and we sell the gasoline. Higher prices means higher margin, higher profits, higher return on investment, and minimum risk to boot. Record profits! The best part is, when they can find work, they drive to work for us!

The valuation of belief systems has paid off too. How can we be wrong about anything when we’ve determined that all other beliefs and facts yield no value? This is how we can dismiss all opposing viewpoints out of hand. If details are blemishes, our beliefs are unblemished by such minute details as human rights, the rights of others to pursue happiness in this country, or lovingkindness.

Not that this devalues our belief in our essential right to pursue happiness. Remember, we valuated different belief systems. For us, its a belief. For people, its a blemish.

You may ask, with everything going so well, why is our economy in the dumps? Why are the people losing their jobs and their homes to the march of industrial progress, and their lives to Return On Investment? Why is our program, the resounding success that it is, being plagued with details, like equal opportunity and women’s reproductive rights, like so many locusts?

Here’s our answer: Moses won’t put his arm down!

English: Worshiping the golden calf, as in Exo...

Worshipping the Golden Calf

Eaten Alive

In Exodus, ReBlogged on January 24, 2012 at 8:53 am

I see the people,
eyes gray, skin pale, like the sky
Eating and sleeping

What do they have? Their
clothes, their beds, their food, their wives
eyes gray, and skin pale.

Parsha Bo

They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail.

Exodus 10.5

Ultra Orthodox Jews and the Modesty Fight (link)

A wonderful article by a courageous orthodox (male) rabbi. Responsibility for ourselves is in our own hands, no one else’s. Don’t the people he discusses have better things to do? Shouldn’t they be studying? Have they not learned anything?  Who are these people, really?

Take Pharoah in our parsha. He’s been through seven plagues already. Why does he invite an eighth?

God hardens his (Pharoah’s) heart and the hearts of his courtiers (Ex. 10.1). Yet the courtiers disagree with Pharoah’s established policy, saying “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10.7) Jeremiah, our prophet this week, says:


He made many to stumble,
they fell over one another.
They said: “Up! let us return to our people,
To the land of our birth,
Because of the deadly sword.”
There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt:
“Braggart who let the hour go by.”

Jeremiah 46.16-17

What were the courtiers doing here?  Were they trying to protect Pharoah? The Egyptian people? The Israelites? Or their own necks?

Is Pharoah serving Egypt’s interests? Or his own?

When we become our unbalanced selfish interests, do we lose ourselves? Are we eaten alive by locusts?