Category Archives: Exodus

Parshat Mishpatim (5776)

 Exodus 21:1–24:18

Setting the Table and Letting People Taste the Torah


“This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.” [Photo Credit: Lucy Kleinberg]

Have you ever been to a wonderful dinner and enjoyed the presentation? Have you ever been to a great restaurant and had wonderful meal, greeted by a chef who is enthusiastic to explain the fine points of his dishes? I think that is what most of find most appealing about fine dinning.

Now I have learned a little bit about fine dinning recently. Not that it’s necessarily my first time. However, I’m more than comfortable to admit that my everyday food fare is generally less than sophisticated. I eat a lot of simple foods and humble dishes, stuff that I can eat on the run. So being treated to a fine dinner prepared by an internationally acclaimed chef was a thrilling treat!

Chef Moshe Basson, of Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, prepared one of his acclaimed meals based on biblical ingredients and themes, last weekend for a large group of us from Beth Shalom of Whittier. Chef Basson is known worldwide for skillfully blending middle eastern flavors and holy land tastes in his dishes, taking peoples taste buds on a journey through the region and through history.

We stuffed ourselves on Israeli style salads, hummos, lentil soups, lamb stew, baked figs filled with savory meat, broiled eggplants drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce, all forms of delightful couscous dishes, and more. However, the star of the show seemed to be the maqluba – a traditional Palestinian-Jordanian style upside down casserole (similar to Tebit, often considered the Iraqi take on cholent).

And still I must admit, one of the things I loved most about the meal was how passionate he was about each dish, and the care he took in explaining the bold flavors and the subtle hints of each of them. He helped me learn about the depth of this food and of the unique touches, and so I was able to really appreciate what he was so finely placing before me.

Now normally I don’t start out with a story, especially one which risks distracting people with hunger. However, this is the thought which immediately comes to mind as I read and consider the first line of this weeks Torah portion.

Our text reads:

“And these are the ordinances

that you shall set before them.

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים |

אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם: |

Exodus 21:1

V’ayleh hamispatim asher tasim lifneihem.” What does this text mean? That Moses is commanded to set these mishpatim – these ordinances, rules, judgments and these matters of justice – before them? Who is this “them” being spoken about here? They are the children of Israel, who are now receiving the Torah at Sinai.

This parsha is one of the parashiot in which G-d is mostly laying out a good-sized list of mitzvot which Moses is to communicate to the Israelites. And it is in this parsha that Moses is told to write these laws down and explain them to the people.

But why does this text here brings to mind for me my experience with the good chef and his fine meal? It’s because of a most interesting and very important commentary by Rashi for this text here.

The Rashi for this verse reads:

that you shall set before them: the Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them the chapter or the halacha [law, or rule] two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table, set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone. — [From Mechilta, Eruvin 54b]

אשר תשים לפניהם: אמר לו הקבה למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק וההלכה באו גפעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה, ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשלחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם:

Rashi. Exodus 21:1

In this midrash the rabbis want to try to fill us in on the details of a conversation they imagine between G-d and Moses. And G-d has some news for Mosheh Rabbeinu – for Moses our teacher.

G-d tells Moses in this story “lo ta’aleh al datecha.” Don’t even think about it Moses! Don’t even conceive of the thought that you going to get off easy when it comes to teaching this Torah to these people.

And here in this midrash the rabbis have G-d addressing Moses, our greatest teaching, challenging the very foundations of standard education. G-d tell Moses something which goes against the conventional method of instructing people.

Here we learn from this that Moses was taught from the beginning that he was not going to be able to just toss the Torah before these people and expect them to learn. Nor would Moses find himself only having to teach it to them maybe even two or three times. Repeating it to them just until they could memorize these laws and matters well enough to recall them. According to the rabbis G-d say no, that will not do!

And here we get more than just a jab at the rote method of learning! We actually get a negative characterization for those who use this method. You can take it as a description of either laziness or arrogance, but our rabbis here have divine charge against those who feel like they don’t have to give people reasons and explanations for the Torah’s laws.

This midrash calls our attention to be careful of the almost natural tendency of the teacher to retire to the idea that it’s just their job to make sure people get the basic material, without following through in helping people actually understand the deeper meanings of it.

I also read this text another way, I think many of you Hebrew speakers will see what I’m getting at. I think that there is a more full way of way of understanding the phrase: I shouldn’t have to trouble myself with figuring out how to get them to understand the reasons behind the laws and their specific meanings.

You know for all the warning our ancient rabbis gave us against this folly, it still happens in Jewish education today. Far too often in Torah learning and when being taught regarding the mitzvot, people have been told what they should remember to do religiously, though left without any understanding of why. And for this reason the Torah and its mitzvot remain yet incomprehensible to many people.

Now I know that far too often us Jewish educators spend too much time on pedagogy, discussing how we need to change Jewish learning to save Judaism today. However, this lesson touches me more as a personal and student level, than as a teacher.

When I was young I used to annoy both my teachers and my parents, because I always had to known why something was so. I was always asking questions, wanting to known the specifics of the how and why. And this really flew in the face of the culture of my family and home, being raised by a hard-nosed family who just couldn’t be bothered.

When I was a kid I was most often told in anger, “I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.” So the very thought of having someone repeat themselves was something always avoided. And I grew up in an environment where people firmly asserted, “I shouldn’t have to explain myself! Just do it.” Which left me frustrated and confused.

Interestingly, one of the other issues between me and my family was my picky eating. I always wanted to know what was for dinner and what was in it, because I just didn’t know a lot of foods. However, this was always met with the standard parental response of: “If you’re gonna eat, you’ll eat what I make and put on the table!” So the fact is I just didn’t eat many times.

Truth is I have learned from this negative experience. And with this generation of kids in my family I am always the one to answer their questions, wanting to help them grasp knowledge and also enjoy the experience of learning.

And these kiddies tastes are even pickier than mine, so I go out of my way to make things which are going to appeal to them. Though sometimes I certainly do have to go out of my way to show them why they are gonna enjoy this dish I made for them. Pointing out the flavors they will appreciate in order to spark their appetite. All this fuss simply because I want them to eat well, and also enjoy eating some of our cultural favorites instead of dreading them.

Why does all this also come to mind right about now as I reflect on this text? Why am I back talking about food again? It’s because of this analogy used here in the midrash to help us visualize exactly how to instruct people regarding these Torah ordinances.

Our rabbis here present us with a most famous phrase to bring the lesson of this midrash together in a very beautiful way: “L’kach ne’emar asher tasim lifneihem kashulcha he’aruch umukhan le’ekhol lifnei ha’adam / This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.”


Chef Moshe Basson, of “Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, with our hostess Rita Rubin. Serving roasted eggplant, drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce.

When the rabbis present the concept of setting the Torah before the people, they would have us see ourselves setting it before people like we would a set table. They would have us imagine the Torah as a fine meal, filled with all kind of delights and delicacies. While it is our job to make it palatable to people, as well as accessible to them. Indeed we need to prepare it well, so that it is ready for one to devour it. And we are also told that we need to serve it up, by setting it right in front of them.

And this is the lesson of the rabbis. Don’t think that you are going to get off easy teaching this Torah to people, just tossing the basic ingredients their way a few times and leaving them without instructions. Expecting them to make it and eat on their own; and indifferent to if they don’t or cannot. Instead we need to humble ourselves in order to cater to the needs of those who are spiritually starving, so that they can begin to appreciate and learn how to partake of it for themselves.

This may sound like a lot of work and dedication. However, for those of us who are truly passionate about the Torah we aught to be nearly as intentional and creative about what we are presenting to people, as a chef is about setting the table for his fine food. Even explaining what makes this table fare such a wonderful treat for each to enjoy!

We need to present the Torah in a way which is palatable, indeed we need to make it appetizing for our people and children. And it must be something finely prepared for each person to immediately partake of, presented in a way which is easily digestible (no puns intended; but all puns appreciated).

Here our rabbis are making a very vivid illustration of how we are to present the Torah to people. Of how we have to get people to take the chance to taste and see that G-d’s Torah is good (Psalm 34:8). To readily eat from it and be nourished with holy inspiration.

Something to consider: In the year 1563 the Sephardic master Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Maran) codified the rules of Jewish law; calling the work the Shulchan Aruch – “the set-table.” It then inspired a work of glosses which were added to it, by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), regarding the Ashkenazi customs for applying Jewish law; which became know as the mappa – “the table clothe.” This body of work has together become popularly known as the “code of Jewish law,” which religious Jews turn to for rulings of Jewish law.

These works tell us how to apply Jewish law for each matter, according to both customs, in a concise fashion. Listing each law, so that people don’t have to go hunting through the Talmud to know the halacha (law).

This form of codification has taken a huge role in defining Jewish law ever since. While this form of comprehensive listing of laws has certainly helped people quickly find answers, some rabbis suggest that too much emphasis upon these codes actually strangles halachic invitation and flexibility. [See: “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. As well this fine tradition response: “Against the Shulchan Aruch: The Critique of the Maharshal” by Shlomo Brody]

I’m not so sure how I feel about this entirely, but am intrigued by this discussion. How do you feel about this?

Nonetheless, I do personally think that it can most correctly be asserted that merely giving religious people something like a little Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – a further abridged form of a standardized book of rules – and then expecting people to get something out of these mitzvot is not what our sages had in mind; that was not really their intention for how we are to be laying out these Torah ordinances before our people.

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Parshat Bo (5775)

Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh here and should be worried if we find that we really do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this, those who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Parshat Shemot (5775)

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.
The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokans, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics and growing influence. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Stow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Stow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by identifying with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the
This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Servicemen and civilians of the day attacked these youth citing a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.
Servicemen and civilians attacked these youth, citing excess in dress style and a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten
Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenges. And furthermore they even grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites, and looking at these people constantly reminded them of that. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc. All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? How could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:

Parshat Pekudei (5774)

Exodus 38:21-40:38

What Moses Teaches Us About Blessing People’s Accomplishments


What is this blessing really for? The objects or the people? And why does Moses bless them at the end of their task, and not at the start?

Do you think our religious communities do enough to honor and encourage artistic contributions? What examples does the Torah have for us on how to respond to people’s creativity?

We are going to discuss creative artistry again this week. Are you proud of your craft and trade? Are you a person who takes pride in the beautiful and goodly things which you have helped create?

This week we are completing Shemot (The Book of Exodus), with the reading of Parshat Pekudei. We are also going to begin to look at our parsha from the point in which the people have just completed their work on the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

In the fourth aliya we read that after the people made everything, “now they brought the Mishkan to Moses, the tent and all its furnishings…” (Exodus 39:33) Everything, all the items, including the items to be housed inside. They are all accounted for as they are brought before Moses in this fourth Torah reading.

Now that these items are completed, the objects and the people are blessed, as our text reads:

“Moses saw all the work

and behold, they done it;

just as the L-rd commanded,

so they had done it.

So Moses blessed them.”

| Vayar Moshe et-kol-hamelachah

| vehineh asu otah

| ka’asher tzivah Hashem

| ken asu

| vayevarech otam Moshe

Exodus 39:43

How notice it might appear that Moses was blessing the items. The people had made them just so, and now he blessed them – the items of the Mishkan. However, many of our rabbis contend that the final blessing is primarily for the people, and not necessarily for the items themselves. The people made good in actualizing the vision of the Mishkan as delivered through Moses, so he blessed them.

Their reason for seeing it this way is because this type of application of “vayevarech” is quite often used for people. From the beginning of the Torah, the phrase “vayevarech otam” is used in relation to people and living things; otam means them, them people. After man and woman were created, we see that G-d blessed the people. Our Torah reads, “vayevarech otam elohim vayomer lachem elohim peru urevu umil’u et-haretz / And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” (Genesis 1:28) The “them” is the people, not the objects.

As students of the rabbinic tradition, we choose to see it this way because we are aware that we have a living Torah. When we look into the lessons of Torah, they are not just existent for one distant point in history. We are able to, and indeed we must find, an application for our lives today. In a post-Temple reality, the true focus is the building up of people and not shrines.

However, in all honestly I must point out that we do actually see the term vayevarech used to mean a blessing for people, as well as conveying a blessing upon their possessions by extension. We see this was even true already in the time of the Judges, and even in the presence of the Tabernacle items themselves: “And the Ark of G-d remained with the family of Obed-edom in his house three months; and Hashem blessed (vayevarech Hashem) the household of Obed-edom, and all that he had.” Because of their act of hospitality to the Ark they were blessed, along with their possessions.

Now just for a second, I want to hit on that topic of sacred space. Making space for G-d in our lives. In fact that is what the whole point of this Mishkan is for, in order that people make a dwelling place for G-d. As commanded, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (veshachan’ti betocham).” (Exodus 25:8)

When we consider it, our understanding of the Divine is that G-d is beyond any understanding or representation. Nothing created, in fact not even all of creation, would be able to contain G-d’s type of raw energy. G-d is just that awesome and transcendent.

So why are they doing this? We actually don’t need to ponder too much. We act like what the Israelites were doing here is so strange and weird, making this Mishkan. When in reality they were just doing what we also do today, taking ordinary things of a mundane nature, then making something holy and extra-ordinary out of them. By taking what they had and making a mitzvah out of it, the Israelites elevated their possessions and raw materials to a level of sacredness that wasn’t there for them before.

The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks calls our attention to the human element over the physical relics even more so:

“’Let them make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them’ – not ‘in it’ but ‘in them‘ — not in the building but its builders, not in wood and metal, bricks or stone, but in those who build and those who worship. It is not objects, buildings, or places that are holy-in-themselves. Only acts of heart and mind can endow them with holiness.” [emphasis added; to show how the Rabbi is directing our attention to his understanding of the ב in this phrase]

G-d does not just ask us to make Him a place to dwell with us, but to dwell within us. G-d is not One to merely dwell in objects, He is manifesting in us through the creative acts which we dedicate to His service. In our handiwork we are able to create things of holiness and sanctity. We are able to make sacred space in ourselves, and through toil actualize it as a physical reality as well. The more we create, the more presence of the Divine we have in our lives.

Through our skills and creativity, we make a space for the Presence of G-d to dwell with and with-in us.

Now to bring us back to the blessing itself. As the people finish bringing forward all the fixtures, now Moses blesses the people and the items they have made for the Mishkan. Let us take notice of how Moses responded to their handiwork. He didn’t just give them a “thank you,” nor did he merely praise them. No instead, “vayevarech otam Moshe / Moses blessed them.”

Now what is the difference? And why does he bless them here at this point, after they created everything? This is actually a curious question, because as we know, in nearly all cases we bless before we perform a mitzvah. (Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7) One ought to bless first, but here we have their blessing last.

It’s even more curious to many of us Sephardim and Chassidm, as we are most often used to asking our Rav and Rebbe (our personal rabbi) for a blessing before we embark on any big venture or task. Seeking a sign of approval from our Rav, which also comes with a blessing to help us along in whatever our pursuits are. But this is something different here, when Moses blesses them last. So why is this?

First off, we should take notice of how G-d Himself blesses. As we spoke of in Genesis chapter 1 with the creation of people and animals, they are worthy of blessing upon their completion. Humans being blessed after their creation was complete. After they were completely formed, “vayevarech otam / [He] blessed them. Moses likewise blessed upon the completion of the Mishkan items. Something is especially worth of a blessing once it is completed.

Actually, if we consider it. The fact that we accomplish something is a reason in itself to bless. Many people, myself included, have put their hand at many projects. But few of them actually get completed in the end. Be it circumstance or just a matter of our own waning enthusiasm, completing a project is not as easy as starting. Many of us can look back over the years and see numerous half-built and incomplete endeavors along our journey. For this reason it is even more appropriate that we should also bless after a completed project. To start a great task is honorable, but to complete a task is really worthy of blessing.

As a community, we should recognize and receive the creative and artistic works of the people in our communities with our blessings. Taking notice of skill and complexity of people’s contributions. Embracing their imaginative forms of Jewish expression, especially through the arts. Honoring the dedication and skill that went into producing them. Blessing the items, but also blessing the people as well. But how should we then bless?

Though the Torah does not tell us how Moses blessed, Rashi tells what the rabbis believed he said. The commentary surrounding this reads:

So Moses blessed them: He said to them:

May it be His will that the Shechinah should rest in the work of your hands.

And may the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us and establish the work of our hands for us, and the work of our hands establish it.” (Ps. 90:17)

This is one of the eleven psalms in “A prayer of Moses” (Ps. 90:1).”

ויברך אותם משה: אמר להם

יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתִּשְׁרֶה שְׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲשֶֹה יְדֵיכֶם:

וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ: (תהלים צ יז)

והוא אחד מאחד עשר מזמורים שבתפלה למשה:

Rashi to Exodus 39:43, from Num. Rabbah 12:9

As we look at these blessings we are presented with one phrase which was handed down through our rabbinic tradition, and we also have another verse from one of the eleven Psalms attributed to Moses.

Now what do we notice about these blessings? As I have asserted, they do also seem to apply to when one blesses actual items; mere objects. This is obvious from the use of the phrases “bema’aseh yadechem / in the works of your hands” and “uma’aseh yaddeinu / the works of our hands.”

But its is also completely logical for the rabbis to make the assertion that we are talking about a blessing primarily for the people right now, as later on the items are actually consecrated themselves. By looking at it this way, the tone of the statement changes. So that we are asking G-d to bless others and ourselves in our ma’aseh yadeinu – in the works (ma’aseh; the actions, the deeds; the positive actions) of our hands.

In such a blessing as this one it is asking for a person’s creative abilities and actions to be blessed, so that we will see many more good deeds to come in the future. From Moses’ example we learn that we should spring forward to bless people for the works of your hands. This is more than just a mere thank-you, and acknowledgement that one did a good job. When we bless a person we are doing so much more. We bless them with the hopes that G-d gives them the strength to continue to be a blessing to the whole congregation of Israel.

So now as we complete the book of Exodus, and move into the next book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik / Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen!” May we take strength is our completion of this book of Torah and be strengthened with blessings for the journey yet ahead!

Things to Consider: Can you say that you truly take pride in the things which you have completed? Can you identify some projects and goals that you have not yet fully actualized yet? How do you keep momentum up while working on long projects? What helps you keep focus, so that you follow through until the end?

One of the reason it is important to complete our goals, and not just shy away from them because of distraction or even boredom, is because as we fulfill our goals our confidence increases. The feedback from our accomplishments and the pride we have in the final deeds, this nurtures our self-confidence. Just by virtue of completing what we start, we reinforce in ourselves that we have what it takes to complete our goals in the future. However, leaving incomplete goals scattered about can be demoralizing,

Related articles:

Parshat Vayakhel (5774)

Exodus 35 – 40

What Grandpa Taught Me About Making Olive Oil

olive-press-capernaumThis week we are going to talk about inherited wisdom, while exploring the significance of the Menorah instruments and the precious oil with which the lamps were filled.

All throughout the detailed description of the creation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) we have heard that G-d has given abilities to the chachmah – the wise-hearted, people of wisdom and understanding. (see Exodus 31; Parshat Ki-Tissa 2013) But what do we mean by wisdom? This is what we are going to explore, because wisdom is something more than mere “knowledge.” It is something that most often comes from personal experience. Experience which is often transmitted through our traditions.

Let us to jump right into text:

“The Menorah for lighting

and the implements,

and its lamps

and oil for lighting.”

| Ve’et-menorat hama’or

| ve’et-keleiha

| ve’et-neroteiha

| ve’et shemen hama’or.

Exodus 35:14

Here near the start of our parsha, during the listing of all the items that need to be constructed for the sanctuary, we have this description of a complete Menorah provided for us. It is right in between the listing of the components from which the Mishkan was to be built, and the mention of the sacred items such as incense and the anointing oil (which we discussed last week, see Parshat Ki-Tissa 5774).

As we see from the description offered here, this candelabrum – the Menorah – it was made of a huge mass of gold. Most of us can picture what is needed to construct a functioning menorah. We need the candelabrum and the lamps which need to be lit. We understand that they also need to have oil for it to function, which we will further discuss as we continue.

However, there are certain things which some people do not so quickly recognize in this description. Right along with the mention of constructing the Menorah we are told that G-d orders the making of the matching implements, the utensils (keilecha).

What are these utensils, and what were they made of? We are told later on in our parsha, in the sixth aliyah, when their creation is tallied:

“And he made seven lamps, and the wick-tongs and the ash-scoop, of pure gold.

“He made it of a kikar (a talent) of pure gold, including all its implements.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶתנֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר:

כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּלכֵּלֶיהָ:

Exodus 37:23-24

All of the Menorah and its various parts were made of one huge chunk of gold. From it was beaten the candelabrum itself, as described in the previous verse (v.22); it is one entire piece, hammered into shape.

In Rashi's commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי"ש" – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as sown here. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

In Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי”ש” – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as shown above. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

Here this verse tells us about the additional seven lamps individually crafted to go on top of the candelabrum, and filled with pure olive oil. In order to position the lamps in the correct direction – with all the wicks facing inward toward the center of the Menorah – it was required to use the wick-tongs. And later when cleaning and redressing the lights after their use, the ash-scoop would be used to clear the burnt remains from the lamps. And then the lights are reset again using these wick-tongs.

One of the reasons why we miss the point of the usefulness of these items, is because we don’t have the presence of these items as part of our Chanukah menorahs. Also, today most often people use wax-candles instead of the original oil lamps. In the lack of practice, or experience with oil lamps, the actual usefulness of these items doesn’t really appear obvious to most people.

As we have previously discussed, Sephardim and Chassidim still hold by the custom to ideally light with oil lamps. Not just on Chanukah, but also on Shabbat and festivals as well! (see “Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash” and “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil”)

However, even though these implements might seem practical for people who regularly utilize olive oil lamps, our lights are only temporary and so do not need to be constantly tended and trimmed like the Temple Menorah. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are not allowed to fix the wicks of our nerot (lamps, lights). If they go out or begin to smolder we must just let them go out, we are not permitted to tend them on the sabbath.

The need for these items is mentally superfluous for us. But the Torah and the rabbis harp on these points because we are not just talking abstractly about a sanctuary, as part of a mental exercise. We need them, because in a real world they are useful.

One of the reasons that these utensils are also not so necessary for our own sacred light sets is because we take special care regarding the oil itself, in order to make sure we do not need to tend our lamps or trim our wicks.

If we look in the halachic works, like the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, some of the most heavy discussions we have is surrounding is the quality of the oils (shemen; oils, or fats such as tallow-wax) and when one needs to use new wicks. We learn how it is that the finest and purest oil, the best grades of oil, burn steady without separating.

Also on special nights such as Shabbat and holidays we are instructed to additionally use new cotton wicks, as they are able to soak up a fine oil better. Use the best oil and wicks so they burn without incident, providing a steady and soothing light until they extinguish.

Lights which burn without flicker, which we think of as symbolic of competing and fighting which we want to also avoid during our sabbath’s rest. We consider the idea that we should burn steady and strong, without neither flaring up nor smoldering out. Aspiring that our names and honor be good, as good and fine as pure olive oil. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) For all these reasons, traditional people prefer oil lights.

I would encourage people to take a look at the many halachic works regarding the details of lighting of nerot – of lights. Their instructions offer us some practical life experience many of us miss today. This is also something helpful for my many friends who are also reclaiming the ancient tradition of lighting with oil lights for themselves.

The oil of the Menorah. It is last, but not the least, among the Menorah dressings that we will address.

Not only is it last mentioned here in our key verse above, but interestingly the shemen zayit – the olive oil – is also the very last item mentioned later on when we read of the actual completion of the Mishkan. It is the last item that is presumably made. Without it, the rest of this whole operation will not function. (see Exodus 37:29)

Now interestingly, most of the knowledge and wisdom I have to teach about olive oil doesn’t actually come from books. It comes through experience with making olive oil.

Though in our own books, in the very commentary of the Torah itself by Rashi, it is there that I am reminded that some things are only taught through a lot of hands-on experience. And that making olive oil is a complicated task reserved for the wise and most skilled, as it is just as hard as any other skilled craft. The commentary reads as follows:

And the oil for lighting: That too required wise-hearted [people] because it was different from other oils, as is explained in Menachot (86a): he picks it [the olives] at the top of the olive tree, and it is crushed and pure.

ואת שמן המאור: אף הוא צריך חכמי לב, שהוא משונה משאר שמנים, כמו שמפורש במנחות (דף פו א) מגרגרו בראש הזית, והוא כתית וזך:

Rashi for Exodus 37:14

Rashi asks us to remember the Talmudic discourse regarding this matter of making olive oil. We are taught there in detail, the olives are picked from the tree starting from the top. A tree is harvested from the sun-beat top olives, working your way down until you get to the bottom olives. Three harvests from a tree in total. Working your way down until all that is left is softened olives below, so soft that they must actually be sun-dried before they are pressed for oil. This systematic way of harvesting helps maximize the output of oil and reduces spoilage.

Furthermore, different grades of olive oil that are produced from each harvest. During the first pressing the olives are milled, basket-ed and drained of oil. The second is a pressing with a wooden mortar, a pressing beam made of wood. The third pressing would be once again through mill to get any last bit out. This is how olive oil is extracted today.

Of course the first pressing is the best. This is oil of this purity and wholeness is akin to the claims of the extra-virgin olive oil grade of today. Then the purity and usefulness goes down from there, the more times you press the fruit. How can this be? Our Talmudic text doesn’t really elaborate. It just tells us not to soak the olives in water. But it’s not exactly clear otherwise. Only a skilled craftsmen of oil would understand the meaning of these instructions really.

When I think of the skill and complexity of olive oil making, the first person that comes to mind is actually my grandfather John Hernandez Briones. He was the one who taught me how to make olive oil.

I think back to when my grandparents lived in that old small house, the pink one with all the olive trees in yard back in Mexico. My grandfather would lay down tarps under the trees, hand us baskets, and we would go up into these thick trees to pick the olives. The raw olives would then be taken and pressed almost exactly like the process described in the Talmud.

Olive Oil PressingThe olives would be carefully and thoroughly crushed, expressing everything held in the fruit. The pulp and solid matter being carefully retained, and only the oozing goodness of the olives would drip from the press to the vats. (see a demonstration of this process in a beautiful blog piece by the Emmett Family of their visit to an oil press in Israel)

Notice there is no previous soaking or processing that is involved or allowed in making of olive oil. As mentioned, we are not allowed to soak the olives. Soaking and brining them makes them edible, but it makes them impossible to press for oil. The reason is because as we juice the olives we are not just removing oil. Along with it we are also removing all forms of vegetable fluid from the fruit; water.

The more times you press the fruit in order to get the most out of them, the more of the pulps water is released and flows into the mix with the oil. Thus the last pressing of oil is the least useful, often separating between oil and fluid in use, making it inferior as a fuel for oil lamps. The fluid would eventually snuff out the oil lights. However it is edible, just not as tasty as the golden first pressing.

When we look at the Talmud in this light, it thus makes very obvious sense why we are told the first pressing is fit for the Menorah, while the second pressing is fit for the grain offerings. Not only was the oil used for lighting, it was an essential ingredient that was needed for the sacrificial offerings. Being mixed in with the grains offerings on the altar as well.

One of the reasons that we read of the mention of the olive oil first, when the items are ordered by G-d in the first account, is because the oil is a necessary prerequisite to making the incense and anointing oil that are next mentioned.

However, the olive oil is mentioned last during the account of the actual construction of the Mishkan, because it was the last and essential craft needed in order for this tent of light and offerings to function. Without it you didn’t just lack light, you also lacked the ability to sacrifice as well.

Many people get “bored” as they read through all the details of this. The points of all this, to mere religionists, is pretty dull and seemingly useless because they have no life application for it. It’s merely a mental game. All of this seems cold. And to the speculative its even demanding and cruel in their minds, that for some unknown reason G-d only wants the best oil for His Menorah. It’s easy to come to strange conclusions until someone has personally shown you the how and why of this craft.

The point of such descriptiveness is to demonstrate that there is a real practical nature of these Torah instructions. It’s about real deeds, not myth. We aren’t talking about abstract spiritual ideas, we are talking about a real lifestyle and its cultural ingenuity.

In light of all this, it makes sense to us when the Torah likewise says:

“And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶתבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִיתלַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

Exodus 27:20

And this is the point that I would like us to consider this week. Our sages further tell us that when the Torah commands the children of Israel regarding the making of olive oil to bring to Moses, it wasn’t because there was just a one time pressing. Indeed oil would be continually needed, it was regularly being made and brought forward to meet the needs of the congregation. (Sifrei, Parshat Chukat)

When we talk about these things, we aren’t talking about lessons that were useful at some point in the past. These lessons are here for “v’yik’chu elecha / for when you bring.” We focus on the “when,” as a future and continuous act that stretches to us today.

Our Discussion Point: I have learned so much from my family growing up. Most often from the elders of my family, they loved to show me everything because I was always curious and easily engrossed in their activities. So I have so many good memories, and a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, I’m more knowledgeable about our culture and traditions than even my parents, who didn’t have the same space and time to explore their roots as I did. My grandparents were mindful to pass the language, the arts, the recipes, the crafts and the stories to me. Show me how it was done, so I could show the others.

We all should ask ourselves, are we passing on our culture and traditions? Are we passing on our cultural and religious know-how to others, so that it doesn’t just end with us?

One of the reasons we need to pass on our traditions is because often times once a craft is lost, it is not easily regained. My many ethnic friends often warm me against loosing touch with one’s own roots, as through ignorance and apathy many groups are left unable to reproduce their own beloved culture. I’m warned not to let the Jewish community also become accustomed to thinking of their native crafts and delicacies as, “Ahh… just like grandma used to buy.”

Can we reclaim culture over consumerism? What essential tasks or crafts do you want passed down through the generations, which your family and community would not be the same without? Though we are in an era in which we are often out of touch with hands-on cultural expression as in days gone by, can we reclaim some of that organic cultural diversity for ourselves? What have you learned which you want to pass on?

Related articles:

Parshat Ki-Tissa (5774)

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Galbanum: Why include this vile fragrance?

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

This week we are going to explore Torah through our sense of smell. We are also going to discuss the different types of scents; good and bad, sweet and sour, pleasant and bitter. We will discuss the way that fragrance can inspire people’s moods. We will also discuss how at other times in our tradition a scent can be used as an example of certain type personality.

In this parsha we get beyond just the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and now we get into the practical measures to make it a working reality. In last weeks parsha we had presented for us the instructions for making the Ketoret – the Temple Incense (see Exodus chapters 25 and 35). Now in the same vein, this week our parsha is discussing the making of the Shemen Meshechat – the fragrant Anointing Oil (שמן המשחה) which was needed for the inauguration. This parsha will also detail how the incense and oil are to be used.

Both of these discussions are very similar. They are both sacred compounds which were made of herbs, spices and resins; made into exclusive blend which could only be used for ritual purposes. They were also made of much of the same herbal products.

In Hebrew the term for herbs and fragrant spices is samim (סמים). A sam (סם) is any type of spice, be it used as a fragrance or as a medication. For this reason the word sam also means a drug or a narcotic. As we know, drugs and medications are often the exact same compound, it’s just a matter of whether or not people are using them properly, and to what concentration. (see similar topic for Parshat Re’eh 2012)

Actually, making perfumed and medication are quite similar in process. The active and fragrant ingredients, which are held in the essential oils of herbs and spices, can be released and collected. These oils from the herbs (samim) can be infused into regular oil (shemen). In this case, olive oil (shemen zayit). (Although it is also common for jojoba to be used as a carrier as well, see “Mystical Aromatherapy: The Divine Gift of Fragrance”)

This is the process which we read of in this weeks parsha:

“And you shall take for yourself top-quality spices: 500 [shekels] of pure myrrh; of fragrant cinnamon, half as much, 250; and of fragrant cane, 250;

And of cassia, 500, after the weight of the sanctuary; and a hin of olive oil.

You shall make it a holy anointing oil, a perfumed compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”

וְאַתָּה קַחלְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָרדְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָןבֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵהבֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִ.

וְקִדָּה, חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת, הִין.

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁרֹקַח מִרְקַחַת, מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵחַ; שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה.

Exodus 30:23-25

In the commentary by Rashi for these verses, we are reminded of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the way in which the fragrant anointing oil was made. There are two common method that could have been used to make such a perfumed substance. (also see the source, Talmud Bavli, Keritot 5a-6b)

The first being the boiling of the spices in oil, thus releasing the scent directly into the oil and then straining out the spices. This process I understand well, it is a process that people like myself commonly use for extraction of the medicinal substances from natural products like cannabis (As you know, I have been battling a life threatening illness. See a demonstration of medical marijuana extraction into fats in this video, “How To Make Cannabis Butter, Cooking With Marijuana). This is the method suggested by Rabbi Meir.

The second option is actual perfuming, in which you merely capture the scent of the spices alone through contact and exposure (thank you Rabbi Juan Mejia for enlightening me on this!). This is something new to me, but interesting to learn. In the old days perfume was most commonly made by taking fresh spices, flowers and hydrated barks and placing them directly into oil. (see this method explained “Making Essential Oils at Home”) Yet another method of perfuming still relies on contact transfer as well. It is when the herbs are placed in water to release the oils, olive oil would then be floated over the surface to capture the essential oils and fragrances of the spices, the mixed oils would then be skimmed from the mixture or distilled off; the water in the mixture is very slowly boiled off, leaving only the fragrant substance. This latter method is suggested by Rabbi Yehudah.

I find this topic fascinating, because it a good demonstration of how much knowledge we have lost in the consumer age. In days gone by, people readily knew how to made extracts and perfumes, but in the lack of practice the details are not understood by most of us today.

I’m not going to take on that debate at this time, as we don’t really know the final answer to the question of which method was used anyhow. Both methods compromise a certain precondition, either the purity (clarity) or the need to be throughly mixed. What we do know is that what ever method used had to get the essence of 75 pounds of spices into a hin of oil; about a gallon of oil. Either method is quite difficult and requiring great care, considering in most cases even anything over a 1% solution of cinnamon alone could burn the skin!

The creation of this composition, for now will have to remain a mystery. We are further told that we are not allowed to recreate this formula of anointing oil. We cannot experiment with it to find out. It is sacred, and should not be poured directly on to human flesh (al basar adam lo yisach, see verse 32). Do we mean it should not be poured, just rubbed on to a person? The next verse seems to clarify by suggesting we cannot place this on foreign, non-priest, (al zar, see verse 33); it can only be used for anointing the priests.

This is what we appear to observe concerning the oil, which was to be placed directly on to Aharon and his sons to sanctify them for their priestly service.

Now it is most obvious to many of us why it is so important that this anointing oil be fragranced, as in our tradition spices are of great significance. Spices are said to awaken the soul, and enlighten the eye. For this reason we use spices during Havdalah – to end Shabbat we inhale the spices deeply to reawaken our souls for the week of labor ahead. The pleasantness of spices moves us in a way that is inspiring.

But what about spices that don’t smell so good? In fact, many medicinal herbs do not smell nice. Notice it is their horrible smell which also makes them unpalatable, just too awful to want to be tasted. Things which are too bad to drink or even smell on their own.

Actually in our parsha, we are faced with just that. This discussion is also in close chronologically with the Talmud as well. This topic arises surrounding the equally sacred Ketoret incense.

And Hashem said to Moses:

Take for yourself spices;

balsam sap,


and galbanum;

spices and pure frankincense;

They shall be of equal weight

And you shall make it into incense,

a compound

according to the art of the perfumer,

well blended, pure, holy.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| kach-lecha samim

| nataf

| ushchelet

| vechelbenah

| samim ulevonah zakah

| bad bevad yihyeh

| Ve’asita otah ktoret

| rokach

| ma’aseh roke’ach

| memulach tahor kodesh

Exodus 30:34-35

In the production of the Ketoret, there are eleven spices that are used to create that blended compound. The spices and mixtures were prepared by grinding them down very fine, and then mixing them together by spatula blending. Turning over and over, utill mixed.

All the ingredients seem to make sense except for the galbanum. That is one of the substances that we understand the least, but which is the most discussed among the curious. There is a reason why we want to understand this, as our rabbis are also of the opinion that small amounts of all of the ketoret spices are placed into the anointing oil as well. Galbanum would have naturally have been one of the ingredients.

Today modern science sheds some light on the origins and possible usefulness of this herbal ingredient.

First off, we know that this that chalbena/galbanum comes for the east, deeper into Asia. Native to Iran and then spread through the regions of Afghanistan, it subsequently was brought west to Syria and Canaan. It likewise spread into India and China, who have the finest specimens we favor for medicine to this day. This plant has a bamboo-like cane stalk, and is commonly called “the giant fennel.”

What is it used for? More often than not, in literature it is used for burning, such as for making torches in classic Greek literature. It also most commonly used externally as a natural remedy. Whereas many items are applied to the skin, galbanum can also be used as an inhalant and a fumigant as well. It’s external uses are said to cure many things, but namely for releasing muscle spasms. It has also known to be used as a remedy for epilepsy, hysteria and giddiness, among other things. It is also useful as an insect repellent, when utilized as a fumigant (through smoke; interestingly that is one of the few observations about the Ketoret and Temple in our tradition, there were no presence of flying insects)

Galbanum can also be used internally, to treat a cough and asthma. When mixed with other compounds like myrrh it can be used as antidote for poison, with honey it can be used as a laxative and deobstruent. It’s apparently very good for the stomach, liver and spleen. Although today, much of the knowledge necessary for medicinal use is lost in it’s countries of origin. (see Encyclopædia Iranica: Galbanum)

However, today people still make extracts of galbanum and place them on neck, temples and on spasming muscles.

The problem with using galbanum is that it is terribly hard to use, since it smells so terrible. It‘s odor is described simply as “intense green,” by most people. A green and almost piny fragrance. However, raw and in its purer form, people merely describe it as smelling like turpentine.

There is no way around it, process it all you want, the stuff is awful. So why is it that we are asked to use something so foul and bitter smelling in the incense, and thus in turn also include it in the anointing oil?

Rashi brings up this point as well in his commentary regarding the smell of chalbana/galbanum. Rashi says:

And galbanum: A spice with a vile odor, called galbane [in Old French], galbanum. The Scripture counted it among the ingredients of the incense [in order] to teach us that we should not look with disapproval at including Jewish sinners with us when we assemble for fasting or prayer. [The Torah instructs us] that they should be counted with us. [from Ker. 6b]”

וחלבנה: בשם שריחו רע וקורין לו גלבנא, ומנאה הכתוב בין סמני הקטורת, ללמדנו, שלא יקל בעינינו לצרף עמנו באגודת תעניותינו ותפלותינו את פושעי ישראל שיהיו נמנין עמנו:

Rashi to Genesis 30:34

Here Rashi brings us back to the Talmud, to the same sections we were previously discussing. And in this commentary we have it reaffirmed for us, we are all in agreement that this substance smelled “ra,” it was a bad and dare we say “evil” smelling substance. It smells nasty, that’s what ra means. It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that.

And this is why we most often discuss galbanum, people want to know why this vile smelling ingredient needs to be included. Our rabbis, since as far back as any of us can remember, have taught that the reason we include the chalbana is because the mixture would be incomplete without it, it just wouldn’t smell right. The rabbis not just make the point that it needs to be mixed in with other substances to be acceptable. But that the other spices of the Ketoret would themselves not smell right unless this bitter ingredient was included in the mix. This re’ach ra – this evil smell.

You know more often than not when I talk to people about going to synagogue or joining in a Jewish event, I often have people tell me that they don’t belong. Few will tell me that they are just too much of a sinner. But that’s what many suggest. Instead many people instead suggest that they are just too bitter of a person to fit into a community. There is no place for them, they aren’t needed.

Our tradition would suggest that even if it were true, that one could claim that either themselves or some other Jew is just too bitter, in fact too sinful of a person to be part of the Jewish community; that is the very reason why that person needs to be included.

Just like mixing incense or perfumes, a really good fragrance is not just one type of smell. It’s nice, but that will never do. In a good mix, in a proper blend we have several smells mixed together, each complimenting each other. On their own they are lovely, but together they can be something amazing.

It’s no different when it comes to community, the personalities can often temper and compliment each other. It is good that we be in the mix with other Jewish people, even us sharp personalities like myself. Other people can help take the edge off us. Our friends and loved ones bringing balance to us.

But even more so, we need to all recognize that we as a community are incomplete if we don’t have some of those more intense and strong personalities that most people would rather avoid. Even those bitter persons. We need to have some of their sharpness and distinctive intensity, they accentuate us. They are needed to bring balance and wholeness to us all.

The Talmud, which Rashi is paraphrasing here in his commentary, actually takes it one step further. We are taught that we are not to look down on the person who comes to be included in the prayers of the Jewish people. When they come on holy and auspicious days like Yom Kippur, we don’t belittle them. Think about it, what point is a day of fasting and repentance if the sinners where not included? We need their prayers to be part of ours in order for our supplications to be complete.

The great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l clarifies on this for us, by taking us down a mystical route. So I quote the master:

The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor… which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.

Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6b) states: ‘Every communal fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast.’ This is derived from the fact that the incense included Chelbenah-galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must re-elevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a communal fast must include ‘the sinners of Israel.'”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Innerspace” p. 87

Are you bitter? Then you have a place with us! Are you an unpleasant person? The Jewish community needs you! Are you a sinner? Then we need you to be part of this as well. Maybe you feel like the 11th ingredient, the odd-man-out; but you aren’t useless, you are part of our essential make-up. We are incomplete without you. You are part of the blend that makes the Jewish people so unique and so intense. Your distinctiveness is needed to help elevate the spiritual and communal experience of the rest of us!

Do-It-Yourself Project Suggestion:

Want to experiment with some of what we have learned today about the production of oils and perfumes? As we have discussed, there are several ways of transferring fragrances into oil. If you can make iced tea, you can make perfumed oils. Learn how to make Lavender Scented Oil today from the video below.

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Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)

Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.

We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.

As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.

However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.

And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.

I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.

Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:

Exodus 27:4

As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.

However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.

As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.

Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:

“And you shall place the cap

on his [Aaron’s] head,

and you shall place the holy crown

upon the cap.”

| Vesamta hamitznefet

| al-rosho

| venatata et-nezer hakodesh

| al-hamitznafet

Exodus 29:6

This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.

What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.

Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):

“Vechagarta otam avnet Aharon uvanav vechavashta lahem migba’ot,

וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,

JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them

Exodus 29:9

Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?

Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”

Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.

Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.

And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.

Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.

The Cyclopaedia – Chambers of 1728

One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!

However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.

If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.

However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.

Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).

Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:

The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”

However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:

The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”

As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.

Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.

Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.

Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.

However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.

Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:

It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”

He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.

Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness

To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.

As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.

In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.

That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.

The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.

The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.

And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.

Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.

As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.

You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”

And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.

These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.

But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.

One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.

Shmueli GonzalesEven more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.

Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.

As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:

CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”

SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”

And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”

Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.

This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.

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Parshat Terumah (5774)

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

G-d Asks for the Work of the Artisan

This parsha is about beauty and closeness to G-d. It is displayed for us through the story and details surrounding the creation of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – as well as the holy ritual objects of the sanctuary. Today our chumash reading explains the work and artistry that went into the creation of the first temple compound. So this week’s lesson is about the work of the artist as well.

This iotti tailors one of the most loved of the parashiot for the artists and the craftsman. This parsha lays out the details of the holy place and items that were to be constructed. We read not just of the holy tent, but also learn the details concerning the most sacred and precious items such as the Ark of the Covenant and Menorah. For this reason architects and artisans alike have often turned to this parsha for grand inspiration.

So I come looking for something to speak to that creativity deep in me. And most surprisingly I find myself lingering here in our fifth reading.

At the top of our text it presents us with the instructions for certain items that needed to be woven for the mishkan. Among them are the parochet and the masach – the dividing partition and the screen-door to the inner-sanctuary.

This reading begins by detailing the first of these items that secure the tent sanctuary. It starts with the parochet – the cloth partition wall, the so-called “veil” of the tabernacle. We read:

“And you shall make a dividing curtain

of blue,



and fine twisted linen –

the work of a master weaver.

And woven on to it shall be cherubim.”

| Ve’asita parochet

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh choshev

| ya’aseh otah keruvim.

Exodus 26:31

Near the end of our reading we have an almost identical verse as it describes the masach. Here we also read:

“And you shall make a screen

for the door of the tent

of blue,



and fine twisted linen –

the work of an embroiderer.”

| Ve’asita masach

| lefetach ha’ohel

| techelet

| ve’argaman

| vetola’at

| shani veshesh moshezar

| ma’aseh rokem

Exodus 26:36

These verses may not seem very deep, but they speak a lot to me. Of course for the scholar and the masters there are many deep and amazing things that can be brought down for these verses. About the colors spoken of (tichelet!), about the use of linen and the use of wool, or even the glory of G-d that they are supposed to be shrouded within. But today I’m not talking to scholars or tzadkim – I’m talking to the ben-oni, the common man like me, who face the everyday hardships and sorrows. I’ll tell you what I see.

When I look at this verse, even in my very common ways, I can’t help but be struck by the beauty of these verses. Me of all people, who is known for being rough. Yes, the punk exterior of me and my pals often comes off as boorish and untamed to some people. And then I sit and ask strangers to entertain the beauty of weaving and needlepoint, as with this text. That’s just my way.

They listen to me because of my sincerity as I ask them to practically consider crochet and doilies. With an attention to the delicacy that is so polar opposite to the role I’m supposed to play in their mind.

I can talk about it with passion because in this I see more than the facts and the Talmudic connections that slice through this text in my mind as I read. I get caught in the colors and the texture of it all.

And truth is, this text also touches me in a way that even I least expect. Not just because of the frilly and froufrou nature of these works. But also because these verses talk about division and separation. The protecting of the sacred space, by shrouding its inner sacredness from the outside. My rebel nature doesn’t like the idea of not being let in, I want to see it all and right now. That is how my anxious and curious nature normally works.

And so it is in the minds of many anxious and inspired readers as they read this parsha. We notice of all the wonders of the holy space and the sacred objects, and just when we get to the good parts, we then read about the partitions and screens that only the priests would be allowed to pass through.

Now notice these partitions are of wool threads and the screens of linen. The parochet is woven, the masach is likewise of cloth though it is embroidered. On the parochet we are told there were keruvim – cherambim, the forms mystical creations – woven into it.

What extra details can our tradition give us about this type of craft? The Talmud, and Rashi in-tern, describe this type of work more clearly when expounding upon verse 36. We are taught that the embroidery of the screen-door was blue, purple and deep-red like the parochet, but here Rashi also tells us that the needlepoint was done on the face and on the reverse as well. Both sides of the screen were covered with matching embroidery running through them, made of the richest threads they could produce. This wasn’t just a hollow-set or poster approach, it was adorned and decorated for appreciation outside and within, both front and back.

Yes, my restless mind wants to go inside, as there is something yet to be seen. So what stops a person here? Nothing more than the beauty of the threads and boldness of their colors. Even though one’s mind should tell them to rush forward in curiosity, the patterns catch my attention and mentally draw me back. You see the body and spirit wants to rush forward, but the soul stops it all at the patterned threads. And so in the face of these holy, royal and cautious colors I stop to consider the art instead.

Now there is a part of us all, which in the face of this type of example, wants to ask, “Why?” Why can’t I go inside to see what it looks like? Is it really the same? What are they hiding in there? We can’t help but ask why this is so, as the tabernacle veil is the archetypal example of spiritual barriers and limitations.

So what is this partition which drapes the sanctuary? We don’t really need a difficult explanation delivered to us. We know what is being protected. And when we consider it, the Holy of Hollies isn’t being protected from us. Quite to the contrary, we are being protected from the wonders within. From the amazing glory of Hashem. We are all aware of the safety measures taken for the priests, for when they are allowed to go there, and of their care in order to preserve their lives.

Yet our master Rashi, always in his tone as personal teacher, points this out again with care. He demystifies the masach as being a viylon – a curtain or a drape, not much more. Citing Job 1:10, Rashi tells us that this is like a hedge of protection; he uses his understanding of a mutual meaning as shared by the similar sounding, yet differently spelled, root words. By focusing on this thought, he asks us to consider the protection that G-d sets around those whom He blesses. This is what we understand as he says this, that by masach (screen-door) we are actually talking of lishon magen – a term for a protection, a shield.

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

Does art bring out the softer side in you too?

These screens and partitions bore symbols of warning blazoned on them in brilliant threads. But not the “magen David” – the Shield of David, the “star of David.” No, instead they bore the symbols of the cherubim, the angelic creatures which guarded the inner chamber. This artistry was a warning to the outsiders of the danger and the glory within. Inside and out, they were woven and embroidered in this matching way to scream this in shocking colors.

However, as I look over the text I can’t help but entertain a thought. Could it be that there another reason still? Another reason to give a vision of this wonder on these partitions, one aside from warning people?

It appears to me that G-d did not just shut out the people from the Holy of Hollies without giving them a glimpse of the amazing and terrible realities within. On the very barrier instituted as a safety, on it G-d asked for the artisans to display a presentation for what was inside. These patters mirrored the golden standing cherubim within the Holy of Hollies and over the Ark of the Covenant.

For those who were not able to go inside and witness for themselves, it was displayed on the exterior. So that the average Israelite wouldn’t be left wondering and ever longing to see the deeper things.

In these so-called veils, we see the most exquisite craft works of the finest materials. Of the highest quality, and of the most delicate skill. But for as rich and precious as these works are, they are not really made for the benefit of G-d. They are made for us, for the benefit of the people. To protect us, and give us vision.

G-d doesn’t really need yarn crafts and needlepoint. It’s for people like you and me.

So when I see this barrier instead of wanting to mentally yank it down and march on in philosophically, I get stopped by the texture of the brilliant threads. The gentle artist in me demands I consider the layers of truth symbolized through these many loops and pulls woven into the pattern.

Now the artist in me also finds his eye lingering and his mind settling around another point. One which we first notice in the wording of verse 31, and that is then rightfully touched upon in the commentary for verse 36. Rashi’s commentary brings our attention to the final word of verse 36, and reads:

An embroiderer: Heb. רֹקֵם, the name of the craftsman, not the name of the craft. Its Aramaic translation is עוֹבַד צַיָיר, work of an artist, but not עוֹבֵד צִיוּר, work of artistry.”

רקם: שם האומן, ולא שם האומנות, ותרגומו עובד צייר.

Rashi to Exodus 26:36

Our teacher points out to us here, that when Hashem gave this command to the people He did not ask them to make art works for Him. Nor did He asked them to make crafts. What He asked the Israelites to do is make “maaseh rokem,” – works of artisans, the works of craftsmen. It mentions rokem – craftsmen, though not the craft itself.

In this view G-d is actually more interested in the artists, more than the art itself. After all, it wasn’t really for Him anyway. Though this artistry and toiling was done for the honor of Hashem, it was primarily prescribed in order to give us security and inspiration. G-d calls people to do this work, creating these screens and adorning them. He wants the works of artisans and craftsman – but the crafts are just the product, though not the impetus.

Here in the most unlikely of lessons, one seeming as exciting to a grown man as talking about frills and lace, we end up getting a touching lesson on how to reach the hearts of the restless masses.

I wish more of us were like Rashi and able to understand art in a deeper away. But not just “art for arts sake”, but art for the sake of the artists. For the interest of the people. Art which displays both the wonders and dangers of spiritual exploration. Here we are challenged to use ones skills and gifts to take people mentally and spiritually beyond what the physical limitations normally allow. A closeness to the spiritual other-side that can’t be safely achieved by any other way. In vivid and stylized forms, G-d asks the artisan to give his art.

In this lesson the Torah reaches out to people like me who are tough, and often hard to reach by any other means aside from art. And likewise, Rashi as a wise teacher reaches out to the seeming “youth at risk” and gives us art to display our creativity through, as opposed to rushing to do damage.

So now I hand this over to you. Take a good look for yourself. What do you see in the pattern?

Art Project Possibility: After I posted this lesson I came across this project in the newsletter of my hometown synagogue, it’s a communal art projects called “Torah Stitch By Stitch” started by Canadian artist Temma Gentles.

She explains the project this way, “Torah Stitch by Stitch is a project of ordinary people who want to experience the purpose, rigour and spirit of producing the holy texts. Rather than quill, ink and parchment, cross-stitch embroidery is used – a traditional method in many cultures for teaching young women to sew and to read.”

Their mission is described as follows: “It is possible – with 1463 volunteer stitchers plus fabricators and other helpers – that we will will produce the text of the Five Books of Moses. When these are assembled into 248 columns that comprise a Torah scroll, the artwork will occupy a space approximately 2 meters high by 86 meteres long. That would be a spectacular sight! And one tha tis sure to interest several prestigious museums.”

 See their website to sign-up for the $18 registration starter-kit!

Related articles:

Parshat Yitro (5774)

Exodus 18 – 20

Why are there so many warnings from Moses in this parsha?

This week we are going to discuss the importance of the individual and the collective. About the importance of each individual to G-d, as expressed by our tradition. And our importance as being a member of a community.

Har Sinai - Mountain on FireMore often than not, in recent years people know to expect this parsha to be about converts and conversion; as Yitro, whom this parsha is named after, was a convert to Israel. Though this is very meaningful to me and to many people in my circle of travelers, it has been discussed before in great depth. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) We will explore this more in the future. However, for now I would like to move our attention forward. To what’s next.

In this parsha we also have the Torah given, along with the reading of the Ten Commandments. This is the pinnacle moment of holiness and awe for the Jewish people, her during the revelation at Sinai. We see this begin in the sixth reading of our parsha this week. So that is where I would like to pick up today. We will not explore the actual matan Torah, but more so look at an interesting exchange before this. So this week we will be discuss what happened between these two notorious discussion points in our parsha. And some commentary surrounding this incident that is intended to awaken our sense of compassion for people.

Our reading begins with Hashem descending upon mount Sinai (vayired Hashem al har Sinai; see Exodus 19:20). What do we mean by descend? I’m not exactly sure, and I don’t think anyone really is. None of us have never witness that type of holiness and spiritual revelation. So what should this mean to us, vayired Hashem – that G-d descended?

Rashi says that this description might suggest to people that G-d somehow came down to this mountain, in some actual form. So to counter that, what Rashi begins to describe is the G-d who fills all the heaves and earth, that He made a connecting point here on the mountain. To prove this he shows us that later on G-d is described as speaking “from heaven.” (see Exodus 20:18). So G-d somehow causes “the upper heavens and the lower heaven” to descend and touch down with reality here at Sinai. Our commentary describes this to be like a sheet touching down on a bed. G-d’s spiritual plane shrouds the mountain. And so this mountain was filled with G-d’s Presence, and therefore He calls up Moses to meet with Him.

And this is where it the story gets stranger, in our second verse of the sixth reading. This is our key verse for this week:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

Go down and warn the people,

lest they break though [the barrier]

unto Hashem to gaze [upon Him],

and many of them fall.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| red ha’ed ba’am

| pen-yehersu

| el-Hashem lir’ot

| venafal mimenu rav

Exodus 19:21

So what is it that makes this verse strange? That G-d calls up Moses, and then immediately upon climbing up He sends him back down to warn the people to not ascend Har Sinai.

Moses notes this in his response in verse 23, that he had already warned the Israelites. Moses then mentions that he had already spent three days prior to this marking boundaries with them (ha-givel; meaning limitations or restrictions, as well), and sanctifying the mountain. This is what our parsha text has concerned itself with from Exodus 19:17 and on, until we get to this event when Moses alone ascends.

So in this scene we see this strange back and forth. That once Moses goes up he is commanded to back down with a second round of warning. Moses says he already has. Yet G-d tells Moses to do it again, anyhow. And then G-d reiterates the point to Moses, a third time yet to make sure he understands as well (v.24). Only after this, do we have the Torah given over to the people.

So in Exodus 19:25 we hear of the warning that is given, and then G-d tells Moses the words of the warning which He wants relayed to them here in this last verse of chapter 19. Here we have the first taste of the whole Torah to come, through the Ten Commandments. So now here in Exodus chapter 20, we have matan torah – the giving of the Torah.

I can only imagine that this was frustrating for both Moses and the people. They were already prepared in their minds for their reception of Torah, and to experience G-d as He makes His presence known in smoke and fire. They have prepared over, and over, and over yet again; three days. But then they are sent with another warning before the commandments are even given. I can only imagine their anxiousness and excitement.

And it is this anxiousness which Rashi addresses, when he asks answers the question for us of why they need a warning at all. Why does G-d need to send out another warning and define some restrictions? The commentary reads:

Lest they break, etc: their position [i.e., their ranks] because of their longing for G-d, to see [Him], and they move too close to the side of the mountain.”

פן יהרסו וגו‘: שלא יהרסו את מצבם על ידי שתאותם אל הלראות ויקרבו לצד ההר:

Rashi to Exodus 19:21

It seems to Rashi that G-d understands that the people are desperate and excited to “see” Him, to experience Hashem. And in this excitement they might break away from the units in which they are organized, and rush the mountain to witness this wonder. And in doing so, “v’nafal / they fall.” Not that they fall off the mountain, no that they fall over and to their demise! That they might move too close and then encounter G-d, and in this run-in get consumed by His overwhelming nature. They are warned so they don’t perish, so they don’t drop dead.

So this is what we see. For three days the people prepare, and then Moses their leader goes up. And He is told to warn them again, and he himself is also warned and instructed again before the Ten Commandments are relayed to him. He relays the warning to them so they don’t have an explosive encounter with G-d that harms them spiritually and mortally.

But doesn’t all of this seem like a bit much? Doesn’t this warning and self-preparation seem like a bit of overkill? To some observers this totally might seem excessive and even a bit paranoid. However, Rashi enlightens us to why this is so important for both G-d and for Moses as a leader. Our commentary reads:

And many of them will fall: Heb. וְנָפַל. Whatever [number] falls from them, even if it be even a single person, to Me it is considered [as if] many [have fallen]. — [from Mechilta]”

ונפל ממנו רב: כל מה שיפול מהם ואפילו הוא יחידי חשוב לפני רב:

Rashi to Exodus 19:21

I find this commentary so very beautiful, it’s enough to warm my heart.

Rashi shows us why we should be receiving these warnings as something other than as expressions of authoritarianism, control, suspicion, and nagging. These boundaries are stressed and warning are repeatedly given, so that not one person would go and fall. So that no one unknowingly goes rushing towards their fall. No one, not one person. Because the fall of one of His own is not like a fall of just a single solider, its like loosing a whole company in His eyes.

We all know this Talmudic adage which says that whoever destroys a soul it is as though he as destroyed an entire world, and who ever saves a soul is as though he has saved an entire world. (Talmud Bavli, Sanheidrin 37a) Each person is like a whole world to Hashem. We all matter that much. We are all a world of possibilities that needs to be allowed to thrive.

On an individual level, we are profoundly important to G-d. We matter significantly in this big universe. So much that we as a people are warned by the Torah and our leaders again and again, in order to make sure people are told of dangers ahead. Though the message might seem like it’s not for us at times, and thus feels needlessly bombarding, it might be really necessary for that one person among who might not know. The review and reproof are for that one person, that might not know or understand. In Hashem’s eyes, each person is worth the fuss and concern that we should be asked to all give heed to His warnings and boundaries yet again. Signs and warning, marked out for the benefit of everyone and not intended just to glare in our face.

Now though it may seem cynical for one to ask, nonetheless experience with my own generation tells me some people do find themselves openly asking, “Why should this matter to me? Does this have anything to do with me, that I should care?” The truth is, it should concern us. Even if correction that comes down to us isn’t related to us specifically, it does have implications for the rest of the community and society as well. It does concern us even if we don’t know it. Because when we as individuals fall, we don’t fall alone. The community does take a hit as well. Let me explain, in conclusion.

Rashi in his continued commentary for verses 21 and 22 of Exodus chapter 19, he brings our attention back to the word yehersu – the word “to break off.” Rashi contends that it not just means to break off from one’s regiment and position, and go running off to their demise. It also means that one is literally broken off from something, broken off from a larger construct. Or even like a room demolished on a building, that is the actual example Rashi uses. We are part of a greater construct.

When a person is harmed, when they fall, part of us falls. When one of us falls, part of the collective “us” is left devastated. When one person in our community falls there is a breach left in us, in that person’s place there remains a gaping hole. The community and congregation are left incomplete. That’s how much a single person matters.

Each person is important, not just as an individual. But also profoundly important as a piece of a bigger construct – the Jewish people, and the brotherhood of humanity.

Our Focus for this Week: This week I challenge our community leaders, be open to the warnings and words of correction handed down to us. Understanding that we need to help keep people in our care from falling by the wayside. From stumbling to their demise. We need to take a look at our position, are we and our people within the safety zone as defined by Torah?

And as members of a community, in our capacity as lay people, we need to also be more receptive of the words of warning offered to use as advice. When we face reproof by our caring leaders, we should be open to receiving their words first as ones of concern and not accusation.

Related articles:

Parshat Beshalach (5774)

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Moses, why are you still praying? Go forward!

Jewish Woman Praying at KotelAre you a person who is inclined to prayer and meditation? Do you find your spiritual devotion through prayer to be meaningful? Many people today like to discuss the benefits of prayer. Most often we talk about how doctors notice the benefit prayer has on the outlook of a patient so inclined.

I’m one of these people that is so inclined. I don’t base my belief in prayer off of pseudo-science or because polls tell me it should matter. I find the act of prayer to be very meaningful and comforting to me. And I’m not even a supernatural minded person, but I benefit very much from prayer. So much do I love prayer that I dedicate most of my time to transcribing and translating siddurim – Hebrew prayerbooks. I find the way the way that humans make a song of their pains and hopes to be very powerful and captivating. It also gives me personal strength.

Even as much as I love prayer, I have come to realize one needs to have more than just that in our lives. Our Torah seems to suggest that there are times when people may be spending too much time praying and too little time doing.

Let me put this weeks Torah reading and this discussion in context. The children of Israel are with their backs up against the wall for the first time. Quite literally, when they are being pursued by Pharaoh and they are locked in by the Sea of Reeds on the other end. The people immediately begin to complain and consider breaking ranks. They lament to the tune of: We told you so, Moses. We wanted to just be left alone. We are okay with being slaves to the Egyptians. But now we are going to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:10-13)

We will pick up the text with this next verse. We will start with our Hebrew text, and then later I will transliterate our key verse for the benefit of all students. Our text reads:

“And Moses said to the people |

don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see |

the salvation of Hashem |

which He shall work for you today |

For the way you see the Egyptians is only for today. |

But you shall no longer continue to see them this way |

for eternity. |

Hashem will fight for you, |

but you shall remain silent.” |

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶלהָעָם

אַלתִּירָאוּהִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ

אֶתיְשׁוּעַת יְיָ,

אֲשֶׁריַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:

כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶתמִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם

לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד,


יְיָ, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם;

וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן

Exodus 14:13-14

I could simmer on so many points here in this text. The murmuring. The disappointing lack of faith even after all they had previously experienced. The fact that people were so complacent and defeatist that they professed to preferred a life of slavery, as that was something they understood. Faced with freedom and the consequences of it, they react with fear. This was more than they expected, so the children of Israel panic and complain.

However I would like to bring out attention to how Moses challenges them with this statement. He calls them to not be afraid; stand firm and watch G-d work a salvation for them. G-d is going to save them, He is going to rescue them from this danger.

However, before Moses begins to explore their options and talk about G-d “fighting” for His people, Moses beings to address the harder issue. The bigger obstacle for them to overcome was in themselves, even before they could face the enormity of their threat by the Egyptian army. Their own lack of self-determination and belief in themselves was their issue. They didn’t feel worthy of freedom, however they did understand their former roles as beaten-down slaves to a master.

But then Moses tells them, the way that they see the Egyptians is just for today (ha-yom). That is their reality today. That might be the way that they see their masters today, as strong and overwhelming. Though that is just today’s reality. Even though one might feel that way to-day (ha-yom), tomorrow they wont.

Rashi focuses on some key words here, and directs his attention to the way the Hebrews see the Egyptians. Rashi interprets this phrase to focus on, “Mah sheritah otam / on how you perceive them.” To Rashi this phrase is more than just saying that G-d is going to magically pull off a now-you-seem-them now-you-don’t routine by magically getting rid of the Egyptians. Moses had to struggle with the Hebrew’s perceptions that crippled them in fear. The way they understood their masters (asher reitem) and in-tern themselves, it was debilitating to them.

Here Moses performs the effective role of a good and concerned leader. He comforts his people through this. He assures them that they are not always going to feel this way. And as for this threat, this too will also pass, he assures them. But more so, Rashi seems to focus on the idea that the people had always seen their Egyptian masters this way, but now it was going to be over.

In contrast, Ibn Ezra takes a different approach. He is of the opinion that we should emphasize the word “ha-yom” (today), because what they were seeing of the Egyptians that actual day was actually unprecedented. Never had the Egyptians been so fierce and threatening. Ibn Ezra has has Moses saying they have never seen anything quite like that before, but that it should be of no consequences because they will never see it ever again.

The people are pushed up against the water now, and the Egyptians are coming at them with everything they’ve got. Moses tells the people to not fear, and to be quiet. He says tichrashu – be quiet, Not just to be quiet and stop their complaining. To restrain oneself. The root word implying to act as though deaf and dumb. Almost like a parent Moses seems to push the people to the side like children, as though telling them to put their fingers in the ears and hum out world as he faces this problem coming at them. G-d will fight for them.

However much comfort and assurance Moses gave the people, it seems that he doesn’t seem to take his own advice to heart. He appears to begin to freak out over the situation himself, while still trying to calm their fears.

How can I assert this? Look the next statement, in our key verse for today. This next verse begins at the top of our fourth reading:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

What are you crying out to Me?

Speak to the children of Israel,

and have them go forward!”

| Vayomer Hashem el Moshe

| mah titz’ak elai

| daber el benei Yisrael

| veyisa’u

Exodus 14:15

What do we have Hashem saying to Moses? Immediately after Moses tells the people to hold ranks and to be quiet, the next thing we hear is G-d asking Moses, “Mah titzak elai / why are you crying out to Me?” Moses silences the people, but then in the next sentence G-d is asking Moses why he is shouting at Him. Why are you yelling, why are you complaining at Me? Mah titzak elai?

Whereas Moses tells the people to hold their peace and await G-d’s salvation, he does not stand by quietly. We learn by way of G-d’s response, that Moses is desperately and fiercely crying out to G-d for help. As a leader, Moses cannot just sit back silently. These people are looking to him for a solution.

Now how does Rashi understand this part of the text? Our master’s cometary for this verse reads:

Why do you cry out to Me: [This verse] teaches us that Moses was standing and praying. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.’

Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,” as it is said further [in Scripture]: “Concerning My children and the work of My hands do you command Me?” (Isa. 45:11). — [from Mechilta, Exod. Rabbah 21:8]”

מה תצעק אלי: למדנו שהיה משה עומד ומתפלל, אמר לו הקבה לא עת עתה להאריך בתפלה שישראל נתונין בצרה.

דבר אחר מה תצעק אלי עלי הדבר תלוי ולא עליך, כמו שנאמר להלן על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני” (ישעיה מה יא):

Rashi to Exodus 14:15

I include the second explanation here as well. In these latter lines Rashi goes on to give us another interpretation that is key as well. In it he acknowledges that Moses is using a tone that is reprimanding of G-d. The other meaning of the work tzak.

However, as a master rabbi he first tempers the tones a bit. He provides a bit more of a dignified and reverencing tone for our dear Moses. He wants to show Moses as being respectful to G-d. And in doing so he actually accuses Moses of doing something that is just as terrible, if not more so in our eyes.

Rashi says Moses was too busy praying to act. Moses was standing there saying lengthy prayers. Though these actions on the part of Moses would on one hand seem honorable, they are also obviously misguided. And that is the lesson that Rashi delivers to us today.

This isn’t the only place that we have this type of example of “crying out” being related to prayer in the Torah. In Parshat Pinchas was also have a case where the people were literally crying out. In Numbers 25:6, we are told that when rebellion and a plague broke out the elders were too busy “bochim / crying” to do anything about what they were witnessing. There we are told by our rabbis that the leaders were too busy praying there as well. But in that case, in sorrow and wailing. Crying with tears.

However here, Moses’ crying out was one of protest and and desperation. He calms the people as they look to him, but now he demands that G-d answer him. And G-d instead turns the situation back on to Moses.

In the alternative interpretation Rashi has G-d acknowledging that He is indeed responsible for this people. G-d doesn’t need to be told who is really in charge of the entire universe, and therefore responsible for this situation as well.

Though from G-d’s perspective, what is really needed is for Moses and the people to take ownership of their situation and move forward for themselves. G-d assures them that He will help them, but they need to nasa, the Hebrew root for veyisa’u they need to push forward, the need to move ahead, they need to travel, they need to drive on.

And therefore in our next verses of the parsha, we have the most famous moment in all of Jewish history presented.We read of the command of Hashem for Moses to hold out the staff and part the Sea of Reeds. And then they cross over on dry land.

Almost all people have strong feelings about the phrase, “G-d helps those who help themselves.” I think we can all see some truth in this, and yet also recognize the cruel oversimplification of personal hardship made by these words. But in this parsha our scriptures and tradition comes close to making this statement. It’s not as judgmental, yet it is even more personally demanding.

Instead of standing put in prayer and meditation, we need to move forward. We need to drive on, and out of our situation. Why do I throw meditating into that mix there? It may seem out of place to make such a charge, but it is less so for the student of Kabbalah who practices meditation as an active form of mysticism.

You see the power of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds is one of the most revered displays of the Divine in all of human history. To the student of the mystical tradition, this is a key moment in the Torah to study as it displays how a direct intervention of G-d works. So sacred is this moment that we have many kavvanot and piyyutim – guided meditations and liturgical songs – based on this very moment in the Torah. That seek to connect us to the mystical power of that miracle.

The 72-Letter Name of G-dKavvanot and piyyutim – these meditations and liturgical songs, they are detailed and focused forms of prayer and concentration. They take real mental energy, and often take some time to get to know well. They are a beautiful way of centering oneself, but it takes time and effort. Not so much action, but they are very time consuming and engrossing. And for the deeper mystics, some even meditate upon the 72-Names, a mystical prayer form that some Kabbalsists say helped part the Sea of Reeds. There are some that contend that the people meditated upon the 72 Names of G-d; hidden in cypher in the words of Exodus 14:19-21. And upon doing this G-d parted the Sea of Reeds.

One might think that the Kabbalists – who actually embellished and extended prayers more than any other group, who added layer after layer of meditation to our prayerbooks, created pauses in the prayers to direct your thoughts, and further added a heavy wealth of liturgical poems – that they would disagree with Rashi’s harsh rebuke.

Yet even our mystical tradition challenges us, that when we are pushed up against a body of water – when our backs are against the wall – we need to move forward. Our Kabbalists don’t tell us to just chant and pray, and wait for everything to turn out all right.

They would bring to our attention back to our Midrashic tradition. Our inherited wisdom through folklore, which tells us that Nachshon, a prince from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah) was the first to lead his men into the waters. The midrash stresses that not until he had immersed himself into the problem, this being the Sea holding them back, did G-d intervene and split the waters before them all. (see “Split Your Sea” at; Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7)

Our tradition, both in the basics and in the advanced practice, teaches us that we need to do more than just pray about our problems. We need to do more than think about how we are going to be saved. We need to even do more than just get our feet wet, we need to be bold like Nachshon and jump into the problem. It’s not enough to just sit by the banks and consider what to do next. It’s not enough to just wait for G-d to rescue us.

Whereas our Torah only superficially reveals a command for Moses to compose himself and extend his staff over the waters as our call out of complacency, our deeper tradition even goes further and says we should be willing jump into the problem up to our nostrils before we start expecting that G-d has to help us out of our troubles.

It is not commendable to just pray and hope for the best. Our prayers are not supposed to distract us and release us of the responsibility to make as much progress on our own behalf as we can. To have to face the real problem for ourselves. Our prayers and meditations are supposed to give us strength. Strength to help us move forward. And to direct the focus of our hopes. Not to keep us stuck ascetically in one spot, mystically waiting to be saved from our problems. If we do our part, then we instantly enable ourselves with the opportunity to further see how G-d can help us work a salvation in our lives.

About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am an author and translator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

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