Refreshing Yourself – Parshat Ki Tissa 5780

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I’m terrible at taking time for myself. So terrible, in fact, that unless I put it on my calendar, it won’t happen. I set reminders for self care, and sometimes I go so far as to ask others to remember not to email me on my day off, because emails will inevitably suck me in. It isn’t that I don’t find time away refreshing, or that I’m necessarily a workaholic; it’s just that I sometimes forget to stop and take a breath. I forget to look around at the world, my family, and my community and marvel in the gifts I receive from them. The one saving grace is Friday, when I tend to move just a slight bit slower for at least those two hours at the end of the week going into Shabbat. Sadly, though, the rest of Shabbat isn’t usually restful. Between the programming, the services, and the time chasing after my own kids, I’d say on average those two hours of actual “resting time” each Shabbat are about all I get. 

Throughout its text, the Torah reminds us of our obligation to ourselves and others to rest periodically. From the beginning, we have God resting at the end of creation, and there are similar reminders following, including in this week’s Torah portion. 

This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa from within the story of the Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they are now set to continue on their journey, learning from Moses and God. When Moses is on top of the mountain, he’s delayed in coming down. The Israelites are scared, unsure of this God that they have yet to trust. They gather their gold, craft an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible. 

Interestingly, right before the saga of the Golden Calf, we are again reminded of our covenant with God for all time regarding the observance of Shabbat. These two narratives – the peaceful rest of Shabbat and the frantic rashness of the Golden Calf – seem vastly different from one another, yet they are linked through their parshah, Ki Tissa. We know Moses was on the mountain for 40 days, plus one extra day. However, we don’t learn much of what Moses did on that extra day, we only hear how anxious the Israelites were to have him back and move on with their journey. 

The proximity of these ideas in the timeline of the Torah begs the question of when it’s appropriate to be refreshed, following that commitment to God. Was the Israelites’ behavior really the best time for Moses to take a personal day? Perhaps Moses took an extra day so he could gain some perspective by taking it all in. Or perhaps the lesson is that had the Israelites actually taken the same opportunity to rest, they would not have acted out by engaging in idolatry. 

Whatever the reason for the extra day was, the message is clear. To be in covenant with God and community is to hold back, to slow down, and to take time to refresh and reinvigorate yourself. Take your “plus one” and I’ll try to do the same.

Here, There, Everywhere – Parshat Tetzaveh 5780

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At our twice-monthly Tot Shabbat celebrations, we sing about how “God is everywhere, and God is one.” We then ask the children to tell us where they might find God, and the range of answers is beautifully diverse. We find God in the sky, the trees, the sun, and the moon. And apparently we find God in places like ice cream, unicorns, and fire trucks. We find God in our mommies and daddies, and we find God in our hearts.

Every time we sing this prayer, I am awestruck by the different ways in which our children are able to “see God.” They understand and acknowledge that different circumstances call for different visions of God, and the way their week has gone is often the determining factor in how they see God working in our world. Most importantly, however, they ALWAYS see God.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, 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 wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests 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 and what they are to look like. 

There are precise garments and colors that the Priest is mandated to wear. They are made up of linen and wool and defined by certain colors as well. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a modern commentator on the Torah, the linen represents the vegetable/plant world and is white, the color of purity. The wool, a symbol of the animal world, is red, purple, and crimson. Other garments are blue, like the sky. Each color and material represents a different part of our world, a different level of connection with our natural surroundings, and thus a different type of connection with God. 

Just like these various articles of clothing, there are many levels by which we may connect to God and each other. It might be on an earthy, deep, dark crimson level, or flying high like the bright blue of the sky. We might feel plant-based and pure, but relatively still, or we could be purple and red and animalistic in our tendencies.

The High Priest wears each color and material as a representation of how diverse our community is, and the priest serves them all at any time and any stage. What a wonderful example for leaders today. Though they may not represent it by their clothing the way the priests did, modern leaders must be equipped to work with a variety of people and maintain a variety of relationships. This is the type of community in which God is most surely present.

Connected to Each Other – Parshat Terumah 5780

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In some homes on Shabbat, families have a tradition of touching the challah as it’s blessed. In larger groups, the tradition is that each person touches someone who is touching the challah, so that everyone present is connected to the things that nourish and sustain us, like food and family.

Every week at Foundation School when we celebrate Shabbat, we raise up our hands, stretch our bodies, and ask the person next to us if it would be ok if we rest our hands on each other’s shoulders and create a circle of blessing from one person to the next. We then move into blessing the challah in this same embrace, as we pass the connection to the challah from one person to the next. This is one of my favorite Friday morning moments because of its intimacy and human-to-human connection. And in the process, we’re also teaching our children consent as well as the power that comes from an entire community reaching out and connecting with one another. It’s a beautiful final moment to hold onto before we disperse for the weekend.

So much of who we are as a people is tied to this feeling of intimate connection, and it stems from the Torah. This week we read Parshat Terumah. Terumah recounts for us the building of the Tabernacle, and we receive instructions for the beautification of the space. Each vessel, covering, light fixture, and costume piece is listed so that the space is constructed to God’s exact specifications. Each piece is named individually, and each piece has a precise purpose. Assembled together, this will become the dwelling place of God.

As part of the discussion of the cherubs that would adorn the ark, we read, “They shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” In other words, the cherubs all must be connected to the others, not facing God alone. The idea is that in order to fully connect as a community, we must be as connected to fellow human beings as we are to God.

It’s easy to get caught up in the routines and problems of daily life, closed off with our “wings” covering our faces so no one can connect in. Parshat Terumah reminds us that building a a sacred space together isn’t just about connecting with God; it’s about the face-to-face connections we have with each other.

Stealing from God – Parshat Mishpatim 5780

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It seems like every conversation with my children includes me reminding them to say “please” or “thank you” in some context. From their first moments on earth, we have tried to teach our children gratitude and manners, modeling by saying “please” and “thank you” ourselves as often as we possibly could to instill in them this very important part of what it means to be a kind human. While it may not be the most significant act of social kindness, there is at least a small measure of compassion that’s transferred from person to person every time you engage in polite exchanges like this. Someone holds the door open for me? I say “thank you” with a smile. I need something on a taller shelf and someone notices my struggle and offers to help? “Thank you.” When we use these words, we are acknowledging the humanity in one another. We are expressing gratitude for the gift of partnership. And I would argue that to walk through the world without this is to steal that gift. 

The Torah reminds us of this sentiment as we read Parshat Mishpatim. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. As we read last week, they have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, and interpersonal relationships make up the core of the laws set forth in this section of text. After first establishing a basic framework to guide our lives, the Torah then turns toward how we treat one another personally and professionally.

As the laws are being laid out, we encounter an odd situation in which an angel or messenger of God comes to greet the Israelite nation. During this encounter God describes what will happen: “You shall serve the Lord your God, and you will bless your bread and your water.” It is from this verse that the Babylonian Talmud understands that we are to bless our food before we eat it. This is the “please” so to speak. And of course we have the “thank you” food blessing afterward. The sages go so far as to say that anyone who enjoys the goods of this world without thanking God for them is like a thief.

When we take food or accept kindness from others, the Torah warns us not to take for granted the work that went into that one action. When we forget the common decency of manners, we “steal” the opportunity to recognize the good in each other and in God. When we stop acknowledging the gifts we’re given, we might start to think these things are owed to us, that they are automatic. Parshat Mishpatim teaches us that building a society based on manners means recognizing the kindness in others. When we do this, we are creating the world that God hoped we would be living in.

Louder and Louder – Parshat Yitro 5780

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There are certain phrases my parents repeated when I was a child that stick with me to this day. At certain life moments they ring in my head, just as loudly as they did when I was a child. “You’ll do this willingly or unwillingly.” “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.” “Bedtime for Bonzo.” (Although looking back, maybe it was a little weird that my parents were referencing a Ronald Reagan movie.)

Like muscle memory, I repeat these phrases when I’m in certain situations with my own children, and they are equally meaningful to me now as they were then. Some lessons in life resonate long after we’ve walked through the original experience. They don’t fade away with the gift of time; instead, they continue to push their way into our daily existence. 

The Torah, in a way, plays the same role as those phrases. The lessons are timeless and seem to become louder or softer in the echoes of our minds, based on world events. Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Yitro, paints a familiar picture of God as the parent. The text begins with the Israelites arriving at Mount Sinai and the preparations for the presenting and accepting of the Commandments. As a side note, this event is sometimes called a “theophany,” which is a term of Greek origin to describe a manifestation of God. Following this momentous event, the Israelites are able to move on in their journey in the desert, now in possession of the laws meant to help them build a healthy society. 

Chapter 19, verse 19 details the atmosphere surrounding the receiving of the 10 Commandments. This is the moment the Israelites are all gathered together, and you can almost picture this awe inspiring moment: the mountain lit with lightning and the deep roll of thunder. There was awe and fear, excitement and nervousness. And in the midst of it all, there was a horn that was being blown, and as Moses spoke, that horn got louder and louder and louder. The Torah marks this moment vividly, to the extent that you can almost feel yourself present during the theophany, in that incredible moment. 

Normal sounds fade; the vibrations in the air dissipate, and they are no longer detectable. The Torah, like that horn on Mount Sinai, is different. The blare of the horn and all the other events in the Torah are meant to be louder each time we read about them. Not only are the laws and rules that were given to us still relevant now (though our interpretations might change over 3000 years), but it’s more vital than ever that their echoes never fade.