Team Effort – Parshat Ki Tissa 5781

Team effort

When I was younger and went to summer camp, we used to play this game where we’d each begin writing a story on our own. We’d only write a few lines, and the counselors would have us switch papers. Our job was to read the last line written by the person before us and continue the story with only that previous line of knowledge. I’ll just say it: I hated this game. I always had a vision for my story. I knew where I wanted it to go, I knew how I anticipated moving the plot along, and no one who continued my story ever seemed to share that vision. 

Of course the goal of the game wasn’t to create the perfect story. When the stories were completed, we usually ended up with silly, nonsensical (sometimes incomprehensible) plots. But the activity leader usually shared a lesson at the end, reminding us that when we write full stories on our own, they’re only from our perspective. Doing it this way as a group may not make much narrative sense, but it’s definitely a way to see things from someone else’s point of view. In a way, it’s a model of society. Your personal story overlaps with people you come in contact with, meaning we’re constantly adding plot points and continuing each other’s story. 

The Torah, which we read as our core story, has a bit of this element to it. While, for traditional purposes, the Torah is taken to be the word of God, I hold the belief that it is divinely inspired and humanly interpreted. God inspired it, “spoke” it to Moses, and Moses transcribed it to share with the rest of us. In our Torah portion a few weeks back, when the Israelites received the 10 Commandments, they heard God’s voice and couldn’t bear the intensity, so they needed Moses to be a go-between with them and with God. This partnership continues to hold true in Parshat Ki Tissa this week.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we receive that next set of rules to help create this successful society. There are rules for giving, rules for receiving, and rules for counting and being counted. The text ends with the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites navigating what it means to transfer leadership and have faith.

The text is full of so many fascinating events. In particular, one climactic moment in this text is when Moses gets so angry at the Israelite nation that he smashes the original tablets. While this is often a memorable moment of the portion, there’s one aspect that may not be as familiar. Those original tablets, the ones Moses smashes, were given to Moses from God completed. In other words, they were carved and inscribed by God, then handed down to Moses and the people. It wasn’t a collaborative effort; it was decisively individual, if you can call God individual.

However, after Moses smashes the tablets, God asks him to create a new set. And for this new set, Moses carves the structure of the tablets first, and then God inscribes them with the mitzvot. It becomes a joint law making effort between humankind and the divine. This time the tablets, the material used to carry the message, are made by an imperfect human being, rather than a perfect deity. In this way, the rules written on them also become more human, more tangible, and more collaborative.

It’s hard to let go of your own story, your own vision. Even so, the Torah teaches us that when we work in partnership, our efforts are stronger and last longer. When we work together, we strengthen one another, and the product of our community is so much richer for it. 

Habit Forming – Parshat Tetzaveh 5781

You may know this about me, but I am a creature of habit. Some habits are helpful, like my habit of making sure clothes aren’t inside out before they go in the laundry (since I’m the one who always does the folding). Other habits are more superficial, bordering on ridiculous, like having a certain outfit I always wear on airplanes. Most habits fall somewhere in between, and have just become part of my daily routine for one reason or another. 

In particular, my favorite habit is one that began when I had children. We now sing the Shema together every night with them at bedtime and sing Modeh Ani upon waking up. This routine, done day after day, provides me with a way to verbalize my connection to both my children and our faith. It’s a nightly proclamation that there is a God, that God is one, and that we are connected to God.

Even though I’m a rabbi, I haven’t always been able to find that daily connection. In rabbinical school I prayed with a minyan at least once a day, and often three times a day, and while I loved the ritual that filled my senses, it didn’t always bring me a connection to God in the same way that seeing the ocean or going for a sunset walk did. However, I learned that simply having the ritual itself was enough of a connection, and “feeling it” every time was much less important. This idea begins in our Torah portion this week, Parshat Tetzaveh. 

In Parshat Tetzaveh, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are designated to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. 

The ritual part comes towards the end of the portion, when we receive the laws of the “regular burnt offering.” In Hebrew this is called the Olat haTamid, and it is the core of the sacrificial system. Twice a day a lamb was wholly burned on the altar. Needless to say, we’ve long since removed literal sacrifices from our worship, but when this ritual was put in place, it was a big step for the Israelites. Having a priest designated and a sacred altar prepared, the Israelites now finally had a physical way to connect with God twice a day. 

The 19th century Orthodox rabbi Rav Kook suggests that until now, holiness was manifested only occasionally and sporadically in the world. Now that Israel has received the Torah, the world would know holiness on a regular, daily basis. The daily offering is the commandment to stop at least once a day and connect with God in whatever way you can. From daily minyan or a daily walk to a tight snuggle and Shema before bed, the parshah and our Torah remind us that it’s the act of doing that makes the habit. 

God on the Guest List – Parshat Terumah 5781

If you could invite God to your Passover seder, what would the invitation look like? If you were expecting God at Shabbat dinner, how would you set the table? If God attended your child’s mitzvah celebration, would you expect a gift?

In our earliest experiences with Judaism, we’re taught that we don’t need to “invite” God because “God is everywhere and God is one.” God isn’t like Elijah, with his saved cup of wine and ceremonial door opening. God is always present.

This idea that God doesn’t need an invitation somewhat contradicts this week’s Torah portion, in which Moses receives a very clear and detailed instruction manual for building the Mishkan, an earthly shelter of sorts for God. In our parshah this week, Terumah, God asks the Israelite nation to build a sanctuary so that God may dwell among us. As a side note, how interesting to read about God wanting to dwell among us at a time when we can’t even dwell together. But this Torah portion isn’t only about a sanctuary building; we are to build holiness among us so that God will be present in those human connections. 

Some time ago, I asked our Foundation School preschoolers what it means to build a holy, safe space, and their answers included lifting each other up, problem solving, kindness, sharing, and having fun. But more importantly, all the answers came in first person plural. “We lift each other.” “We solve problems.” “We are kind.” They answered my question with the word “we” because to the youngest in our community, sanctuary and holiness are created when we include one another in our lives. 

Parshat Terumah teaches us that God dwells among us not because of an ancient Tabernacle or a modern synagogue building, but because of the moments when our actions reflect holiness. Yes, God is everywhere, but the invitation still matters. When we treat each other with dignity, love, and respect for all of our beautiful gifts, we create a world where God dwells among us every single day.

Not the Current Me – Parshat Mishpatim 5781

I used to be the odd ball kid. (OK, to be fair, I’m still pretty weird). As a child I had high emotions all the time and struggled in large group settings. I was awkward and bookish and not very popular. I simply did not fit in with my peers for most of my life. It wasn’t until I went to college and then graduate school that I finally found a group of people I could connect with in an honest and open way. I felt as though I finally found a group of people where I fit in and understood what it was like to be part of a community. Of course maturing in age and experience probably helped some too. Unfortunately, even as an adult I’ve found that many of the people I grew up with still see me as who I used to be. No matter how much I have personally grown and changed, to some people I will always be that same strange kid, but in an adult body. If nothing else, it certainly has me hesitant about attending my 20-year reunion this year, even if it’s only on Zoom. 

We all experience this to some degree as we grow and change throughout our lives. While our past genuinely does contribute to who we are as individuals today, we’re not who we used to be, and being reminded of our past, especially if it’s painful, can be devastating and destructive more than nostalgic.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, actually forbids dwelling on parts of a person’s past. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim, focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.

In chapter 22, verses 19-20 we read, “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word for stranger is ger, which is also used for someone who has converted. It was from these verses that the sages forbade belittling sincere converts by reminding them of their idol worshipping days. 

The current version of who you are may appear quite different to those who knew you when. Similarly, people who only know us as adults may be surprised when they learn things about our former selves. The Torah reminds us not to hold on to who we used to be or to dwell on memories that no longer reflect reality, but to let the past go when necessary and support and welcome ourselves and others in the present. 

Snow Plow Dreams – Parshat Yitro 5781

I have been traumatized by snow ever since moving to Portland. I grew up in Michigan where snow wasn’t really a big deal. It snowed most of the winter, but since that was the norm, the city was built to deal with it. We had ample snow plows and systems in place to keep roads safe. At 3:00 a.m. on snowy mornings I’d often be woken up by the sound of the plows clearing driveways and streets, knowing we’d have school that day.

When it snows in Portland, the city shuts down. We don’t currently own a car with all-wheel drive, and we live at the bottom of two slightly sloping hills in our neighborhood, so when it snows, we’re stuck until it melts. The longest we’ve stuck at home was seven complete days, back when we had a 3-year-old and 3-month-old. To say it was traumatizing is an understatement. Now every time they predict snow, I run to the store to stock up on essentials (and then some) so we won’t be stuck without. My stomach ties in knots just thinking about the first flakes falling to the ground. The weird thing is on the few snowy days we have, I’ll still wake up in the middle of the night because I think I hear a snow plow whisk through our street, pushing a path to freedom.

Why do our brains do this? Why do certain smells or sounds trick us at our most vulnerable moments? I can’t explain the biology of it, but I can tell you this happens in the Torah too, especially in our parshah this week, Yitro.

The central piece of the portion is the giving of the Ten Commandments by God to Moshe and the people Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free people outside of slavery. But before the Torah gives us these laws, it reminds us of the family relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system. And the end encapsulates the experience of intensity of being at Sinai, but in an odd way.

Chapter 20, verse 15 reads, “All the people saw the thunder and the blare of the horn.” Why is the wrong verb used here? We don’t see thunder and hear lightning, we hear thunder and see lightning. Why the reversal? A common interpretation is that the experience was so intense and so overwhelming that their senses were all in a tizzy and they experienced something beyond what they knew as reality. And the key is it doesn’t matter if the thunder was actually visible in some miraculous way, only that it seemed that way to the Israelites. It’s not necessarily that the scrambling of the senses caused an intense experience, but perhaps that the intense experience caused the scrambling of the senses.

What a fitting reminder about this past year – the pandemic has our sense of reality and time all confused. How many times have you heard someone joke about not knowing what day it is or feeling like it’s the same day over and over again? The human mind is amazing at adapting and solving problems, but it can also trip us up and cause even more problems. Your trigger might not be snow flurries, but we can still rely on each other for the mental and emotional support we need as we plow ahead together.