To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,
          Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10).  The focus of this parsha is on the holy garments worn by Aaron and his descendants in their fulfillment of their priestly role.  One of the pieces of apparel is called an ephod.  It is a kind of coat which is worn around the body, extending downward from the armpits and is supported by two shoulder straps to make sure that it stays in place (28:6-12).  The shoulder straps each have sown into them an onyx stone upon which is inscribed the names of the children of Israel.  Six names are written on each stone.
          The purpose of the inscriptions is to serve as a memorial.  Aaron is to bear the names before G-d as a reminder.  While the Torah text is ambiguous about for whom the reminder is intended (will it be Aaron, reminded of the sense of tradition passed down from one generation to the next?  or the Divine who is reminded of the everlasting covenant established between G-d and the descendants of Israel in every generation?),  Rashi, seems very is clear about its message.
          Rashi states, "G-d will see the names of the tribes written before Him and He will remember their righteousness."  Perhaps Rashi is recalling an earlier incident of the Divine's acknowledgement of the covenantal promise in the beginning of Exodus (2:24-25):  "and G-d heard their (the Israelites) groaning and G-d remembered the Divine covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And G-d saw the children of Israel and was aware of them."
          It is a fascinating and weighty notion to believe that our righteousness is dependent on the righteousness of previous generations.  Perhaps this might be described as moral DNA.  And yet while we may be guided, even model ourselves upon the attributes of those who came before us, we are ultimately responsible for ourselves and cannot rest upon the laurels of our ancestors.
          This may be why the stones of memorial are embedded in the ephod--stones resting on the shoulders of the next generation rather than serving as stepping stones for the next generation.
          I have been watching again a yearly cultural ritual of American academic life:  the college admissions process.  It is as mystifying as any ritual, either of a secular or religious nature, that I have encountered. Judging from the recent film, "Admissions," I am not the only one who is intrigued and bewildered by the byzantine process in which many of the best and brightest are rejected or, if they are so "fortunate," accepted at what are considered the crème de la crème of US academic institutions.  It seems that some are accepted more by entitlement, the stones upon which they stand, rather than what credentials they actually carry.
          Aaron wore upon his shoulders a reminder that he needed to live up to the standard established by his ancestors, but not to simply rely on that standard.  We are remembered by who we are and what we achieve through our own hard work and determination. When we dedicate ourselves to living up to our own potential we memorialize those who came before us and in so doing make their memory a blessing forever.
          Shabbat Shalom,
          Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Terumah (exodus25:1-27:19).  At the conclusion of last week's parsha, Moses is ascending the mountain to receive the commandments.  In this week's portion and for most of the rest of the Book of Exodus, the focus is on the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle.  These blueprints detail the elaborate structure within which the offerings (Terumah) of both flock and crops are brought and given as a sacrifice, an affirmation of an individual's commitment to something greater than him/herself:  a commitment to find the sacred in life experiences.

It is not surprising that the oft quoted phrase, "G-d is in the details," is attributed to the late nineteenth century architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for it is the architect, Bezalel, who is commissioned by Moses to construct the Tabernacle.  Yet the real builders are those who are willing to give the offerings of their hearts (25:2).  This obligation serves as the foundation for the physical structure and communal well-being of the covenantal community.  If peoples' hearts aren't "into it," then offerings, in whatever shape or substance they may be, become meaningless and hollow.

In the classic depiction of Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, Maurycy Gottlieb captures in his 1878 work the spectrum of emotional offerings:  some individuals look bored, others exhausted, some distracted, and yet there are those who seem to be moved by the experience which is the cornerstone of the sacred in life:  the realization of what we are called upon to build together as a community of faith, wherein the divine lives within us (25:8).

Taken literally, the purpose of the sanctuary is to be a place where "I (G-d) may dwell among them, according to the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all the furniture that shall be made." (25:9)  Herein lies our challenge:  if we understand the purpose as simply building the tangible structure, the sanctuary, then we are suggesting that the divine, the sacred in life, exists within it, but not outside of it.

But if we allow ourselves to understand the patterns as a spiritual map for fashioning our lives, then our guiding principle will be the continual reminder that our acts and motivations are guided by the moral imperative to affirm the sacred spark within each of us.

Sometimes, we live our lives as if we were on "auto pilot."  We travel to our destinations, but recall nothing of the journey.  Our patterns have become rote and we fail to use the well-worn as a vehicle to explore the unrealized.  The patterns for the Tabernacle described in great detail are an urging--that we need to live with a sense of awareness.  This is the "radical amazement," the sense of profound wonderment, which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of in the mutual searching between us and with the Other:  to, in essence, be constantly awe-struck by the potential we have to transform that which is common, into that which can be sacred.  G-d is in the details.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18).  As the opening verse simply states: "these are the regulations (mishpatim)..." and what follows is a broad spectrum of obligations between human beings and in relation to the Divine.

Recently, during a class discussion of the Book of Proverbs, a member of the class pointed out that the text focuses on the importance of wisdom as the key to living a meaningful life. Yet, she suggested, it seems to be all preamble, a whetting of one's appetite, to encourage a person to study sacred text in order to establish a framework for the pursuit of wise and knowledgeable choices in one's life.  I think she was absolutely correct.  Remembering an old fast food restaurant commercial, we might say "Where's the beef?"

That seems to be the same query this week's parsha begins to flesh out.  The latter part of last week's Torah portion offered us The Ten Commandments.  While they all too often have been trivialized (like the cartoon depiction of an individual  holding in his arms bottles labeled "mustard, ketchup, tabasco sauce, etc" and the caption reading "No, Moses, ten commandments, not condiments!") or used as fodder in contemporary political debate (in separation of church/state issues), those Ten Utterances are the preamble for detailed laws and precepts which serve as the foundation for every aspect of human relationships.  The "beef," if you will, is the legal and ethical obligations which are offered as a counterpoint to the narrative of a fledging community searching for an understanding of how to create a just and meaningful way of life for every individual.

In the midst of this initial detailing of the broad stroke rubrics of those utterances we are instructed to never lose sight of our own past travails when dealing with others. "And a stranger you shall not oppress for you know the heart of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (23:9)  Perhaps this is a way to understand "you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (20:13) or an insight into how easy it is for us to rationalize away even our most vile acts as a response to the prohibition against coveting (23:14).

Sadly, it is often the case that what makes another "a stranger" to us is that which hides deepest in our own hearts.  Rather than having the courage to open our hearts and make ourselves sensitive to another and vulnerable to our own fragility, we would rather believe that the other is truly "strange" to us.  Are we fearful that we will "catch poverty" if we aid the impoverished?  Have we so distanced ourselves from the most basic of human needs that we would rather describe the outreach to another as "charity to the unfortunate" rather than "acts of righteousness" to counteract the injustices perpetrated by selfishness, greed and myopia of the soul?

Each of us knows in our hearts what it feels like to be the stranger.  Each of us has faced and may still face our own Egypts.  Living a meaningful life is accepting the challenge to be aware of our own fragility so that it allows us to help others overcome pains which we understand only too well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this week is Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23).  Yitro is Moses' father-in-law.  The parsha opens with him offering Moses sage advice regarding the governance of the people (18:13-26).  Then Yitro and Moses go their separate ways.  Yitro plays an important role in Moses' life prior to the exodus and now again in its immediate aftermath as the Israelites begin their wilderness experience.

Yitro is a Midianite priest.  His wisdom serves as an inspiration to Moses.  We know very little about Moses' natural parents, but what is affirmed in our parsha is the profound impact people can play in another's life when they accept, even for a brief period of time, the role of parent:  teacher and guide.  This is so beautifully acknowledged in the rabbinic insight (Maimonides' Mishnah Torah) that a person who teaches Torah to a child, it is as if he/she was the child's parent.

The reciprocal of the responsibility of "parenthood" is found later in the parsha within the Ten Commandments (20:1-14), as the fifth commandment requires of the child that he/she needs to honor his(her) father and mother. Ideally, this seems like a mutually beneficial relationship:  a parent fulfills the obligation of instructing his/her child and in return the child acknowledges the life teachings by bestowing honor to his/her parent.  Yet what about the child who has been abused or abandoned?  And what about the child who has suffered through the narcissistic dysfunction of family life?  In those cases, the child has been "taught" by the parent, yet the "lessons" are anything but life-affirming.  Is the child then absolved from fulfilling the obligation of honoring?

We need to look at the entirety of the fifth commandment to perhaps find an answer:  "Honor your father and your mother so that your days may be long upon the land that Adonai your G-d gives you." (20:12, italics are  mine)  The Book of Proverbs offers an insight into the commandment's emphasis when in chapters 2 and 3 it states:

"my son, do not forget my teaching,

but let your mind retain my commandments;

for they will bestow upon you length of days,

years of life and well being...

so follow the way of good

and keep the paths of the just

for the upright will inherit the earth

and the blameless will remain in it."

The honoring affirms the strength within us, something that the parent might not have been able to provide but which the child can find within him/herself.  The challenge to honor is a lifelong journey.  Those hurt early on need to find the courage to not blame themselves, for as some biblical commentators reflect, "the land" does not necessarily mean a physical property, but rather the sense of personal safety and emotional wellness.

As the "child" journeys to find meaning and to affirm "the way of good," he/she lengthens his/her days.  It is not, as the Torah has already taught us through the life of Jacob, the number of days and years of our life span, but rather the meaning and purposefulness that we bring to each and every day.

The Hebrew word for "honor" is "kabayd." Yet, quite literally "kabayd" comes from the Hebrew root which means "to be heavy, onerous or burdensome."  When we are able to deal with the lessons of what we have been taught, both the good and the bad, we "honor" by lifting the "burden" from off our shoulders and our hearts.  Only then will our days be long upon the land which Adonai our G-d has given us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch