Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chol Hamoed Pesach

People often ask me why some celebrate seven days of Passover and others eight.  Should we eat matzah for seven days or eight, celebrate one seder or two?  The Torah specifies that Passover be celebrated for seven days.  “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread…” (Exodus 12:15)  In Israel the holiday is observed for seven days.  In diaspora communities such as our own it is celebrated for eight days with two seders.  Why the difference?

Millennia ago when the rabbis were establishing the calendar they insisted the new month be attested to by witnesses.  Despite the fact that they had already developed mathematical calculations to make this determination, they asked for witnesses to come before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  “Where did you see the new moon?” they asked a witness.  (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:6)  Once they were satisfied by the testimony they declared the next day Rosh Hodesh, the first of the Hebrew month.  Beacon fires were set on hilltops to declare the news throughout the Jewish diaspora, which at this time stretched throughout the Middle East.

But even then the Jewish people did not get along with each other and the Samaritan sect for example began to light the signal fires at the wrong time in order to sow confusion.  So the rabbis resorted to sending messengers to even such far away Jewish communities as those in Egypt and Babylonia.  But obviously a messenger takes much longer to deliver this message of a new month. 

Thus the rabbis established “yom tov sheni shel galuyot—a second holiday day for the diaspora.”  Those living outside of the land of Israel were told to observe two days of holidays. In essence this ruling was a safety measure to ensure that people were observing the holiday on its proper day.  This custom persisted even after the calendar became fixed and was no longer dependent on the testimony of witnesses or a declaration from Jerusalem. 

Centuries later the Reform movement argued that two days of the holiday no longer made sense.  Especially in an age of computers when we can determine with extraordinary accuracy and speed the dates for holidays this custom should be cast aside as a relic of the past. 

And yet the Jewish tradition has always viewed the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem as the ideal place for a Jew to live.  These were always the places associated with our Jewish dreams.  Despite one’s judgments about present realities there in Israel this dream has remained unchanged.  It was from Jerusalem that our holidays were proclaimed.  It is the land of Israel’s seasons that continue to dictate our prayers for rain or for that matter the logic of a new year for trees in the middle of our New York winter.

About this as well the early Reform rabbis argued that America is our new Zion.  They sought to replace the ancient Jewish dream with a new one that revolved around where they presently found themselves.  But for all my love of America I am hesitant to let go of the age-old Jewish dream.  Too often we seek to change our dreams and ideals so that they match with our current practices and lives.  Why?  In order to better achieve self-fulfillment we let go of past dreams.  We are advised to adjust our goals so that we can find satisfaction and contentment.

I prefer instead to hold on to my dreams, even those I suspect I will never achieve.  I observe Passover for eight days if for no other reason that it reminds me that my dreams should never remain mine alone.  My Jewish dreams must always be tied to others.  The ideal place is the land of Israel.  The city of our dreams is Jerusalem.  This is my people’s dream. 

As much as I love living here in New York, in the United States, my Jewish dream is elsewhere.  Our Jewish dream is in another land.  That is how we concluded our seders on Monday, and Tuesday, nights.  L’shanah haba-ah beyurashalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem!

Friday, March 22, 2013


Some thoughts about Passover.  Let me begin by offering an apology.  I told many of your children that they can recline at the Seder table.   I know that you probably spend a good deal of time telling them to sit up at the table, or not to slouch or perhaps even not to put their elbows on the table, so I am sorry for undermining your authority, but at the Passover Seder all are permitted.  At the Seder we are supposed to express our freedom, even if it appears ill mannered by contemporary standards.

The fourth question asks: “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights we can sit upright or recline, on this night all of us recline.”  The rabbis modeled their Seder after the Greco-Roman banquets of antiquity.  This was how the free ate their meals, they reasoned.  Free people reclined.  Others served them.  It is also customary to serve those sitting next to you at the Seder table, most especially pouring wine for them.  Make sure their glass is never empty!

The Seder is replete with symbols.  I explained to our Religious School students that all the symbols and prayers seek to accomplish the teaching of one of two ideas.  Each point to one of these messages: 1. We were slaves in Egypt.  Or 2. Now we are free.  If you take in these messages then you have understood the purpose of the Seder.  Its goal is to teach these lessons.  The food, the words and the songs are not ends in themselves.  They seek to have us reach beyond ourselves.  Each and every year we must take to heart our freedom.  We must re-learn that it can never be taken for granted. 

This morning I delivered 100 lunch bags, packed by our seventh graders, to a local soup kitchen where they were immediately distributed to day laborers who were found huddling at street corners in the cold (spring!) air.  On Monday evening we will read: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.  Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.  This year we are still here—next year, in the land of Israel.  This we are still slaves—next year, free people.”  For Jews, freedom was never about eating as much of whatever we want.  All of the food arrayed on our Seder tables might suggest otherwise, but the point of the bitter herbs and charoset are, for example, to remember the taste of slavery, the message of the delicious brisket and wine is to remind us of the sweetness of freedom.

It was never about the taste.  It was always about the message.

So how remarkable indeed to be reminded of our holiday’s import by the President of the United States! There in Jerusalem, President Obama said: “[Passover] is a story of centuries of slavery and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution and faith in God and the Torah. It’s a story about finding freedom in your own land. And for the Jewish people, this story is central to who you’ve become. But it’s also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering but also all of its salvation.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Mark Twain once quipped: “The clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

This week’s Torah portion describes the priests’ vestments.  The priests were required to wear four garments: linen shorts, a tunic, sash and turban.  The High Priest wore an additional four adornments: a robe, an embroidered vest, a breastplate, and a golden jewel inscribed with the words “Holy to Adonai” affixed to the turban.

If he did not wear even one of these garments he could not serve as a priest.  The Talmud reports: “Rabbi Abbahu said in Rabbi Yohanan’s name: ‘When wearing their appointed garments, the priests are invested with their priesthood; when not wearing their garments, they are not invested with their priesthood.’” (Zevahim 17b)

To serve as a priest one must first be born to a priestly family.  This week we also learn that in order to perform the sacrificial rituals the priest must wear the appropriate attire. Today we adorn the Torah scroll as we once dressed the priests.  A book becomes our High Priest.  The Torah assumes the priest’s mantle of authority. 

Let’s reflect on the theory of dressing for authority.  As contemporary culture becomes more and more casual will there come a day when professions will no longer be identified by their attire?  Will doctors no longer wear white coats or scrubs?  Could rabbis be seen leading services in jeans and not wearing a tallis and kippah?

During the early years of the Reform movement, its rabbis argued that Jews should not wear clothes distinguishing themselves from gentile society.  Tallis and kippah were viewed as from a different age.  The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform declares: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”  Rabbis wore robes and in some instances even top hats and tails. 

The question remains: how does clothing convey authority?  For the priests of old it was apparently synonymous with their leadership.  The High Priest’s robe conveyed to all that this was the person invested with the requisite authority to offer sacrifices in the people’s behalf.  From where does that authority emanate?  Does it come from contemporary society or from our ancient traditions?  The early Reform rabbis argued that it must come from contemporary society.  Thus rabbis dressed in the style of their age.  People appeared to think, if clergy of other faiths are wearing robes or tails then our rabbi should wear similar garb.   

Still the authority to lead our prayers also hearkens to the past.  We recite ancient words, in an ancient language.  Must we then not only dress, if only partially, in an ancient garb?  In what other area of life do we wear the garments dictated by ancient traditions? 

Contemporary fashions come and go.  Now very short skirts are in, even though they should not be.  The tallis and the kippah remain.  They are not a fashion dictated by designers or styles.  And that alone offers us a measure of spiritual power.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013


The guilt offering, asham, concludes this week’s Torah portion of Vayikra, the first reading in the Book of Leviticus.  It follows the details for the burnt, meal and well-being offerings, regular sacrifices that were offered on a daily basis.  The sin and guilt offerings, by contrast, were only performed when the need arose.

They were offered when there was a wrongdoing to correct.  It should be noted that, despite popular belief, such rituals never offered remedies for intentional wrongs.  One can never say, “I will steal this or that and then bring some really beautiful turtledoves or pigeons, sheep or goats, to the Temple to mend my ways.” 

The asham sacrifice was therefore about remedying unintended wrongs.  When people realized their wrongdoing they would then bring this guilt offering.  The chapter offers a litany of wrongs for which the guilt offering helps to make amends.  Each concludes with the refrain: “…though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt.”  In other words the wrong was originally overlooked or perhaps forgotten, but then later recalled.  The Torah offers a corrective, the asham, the guilt offering.

Yet such situations occur far more frequently than the portion suggests.  How often do we lie awake at night and say, “I really should not have said that.”?  We awake and discover ourselves plagued by guilt feelings.  If only there was an asham sacrifice to offer come morning.  Contemporary culture however suggests that we disavow and distance ourselves from these guilty feelings.  Guilt prevents us from realizing our potential; it stands in the way of personal fulfillment.

How many unintended wrongs remain then lingering to be remedied?  Perhaps this was the purpose of the asham sacrifice.  To be sure it often sought to make amends for ritual wrongs. “When a person touches any impure thing…”  Then again it could serve as a goad to action, a prompt that we seek out those we have wronged.  The animal is brought before the altar and the sin is confessed.  The Hebrew hints at the offering’s greater purpose.  The verb to confess is reflexive.  It is as if to say, “One shall admit to oneself.”

Our feelings of guilt lead to such an admission.  Rather than burying these feelings, ignoring them or even viewing them as the root cause of psychological crisis, we should look instead at this angst as our contemporary offering.  We should allow it to motivate and move us to greater good.  Freeing ourselves of guilt could perhaps lead to greater personal fulfillment.  But there is always a cost. 

The price is our relationship with others. 

The Hebrew for sacrifice is korban.  It derives from the word to draw near.  To the ancient mind the purpose of the sacrifices was to draw nearer to God.  Perhaps the lesson of the sacrifice is that they can also help us draw near to others.

Guilt feelings are sometimes the beginning of repair.  And repair is often all that relationships require.

This could be our greatest of offerings—in any age.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

In Friday’s New York Times David Brooks writes about the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  “All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”  Brooks suggests that the Orthodox are indeed the future.

He writes of their numerical significance.  “Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.”

Part of their secret is Shabbat about which we read in this week’s portion.  “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.  On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put death.  You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”  There is listed here one positive command: rest, and two negative: no work and no fire.  The tradition spends much time discussing the definition of work.  About fire it is easier to detail. You can’t light a fire.  That is why many Shabbat recipes are for foods that are slow cooked.  You can keep a fire burning, but you can’t light it.

Work is more complicated to define.  The rabbis reason that there are 39 labors.  There are major categories of work.  They base these on the labors detailed for the building of the tabernacle that follows the commandment to observe Shabbat.  So for example one cannot carry on Shabbat.  In particular one cannot carry outside of one’s home, one’s private domain.  This is why an eruv is required.  It in essence widens the limits of the private domain.  Of course the eruv is also a source of controversy because it defines an area as Orthodox. 

There is another category of work called muktzeh.  This would be an illustration of a fence around the law.  So for example even though you can technically lift up a hammer in your home you would not do so because it is usually used for forbidden work.  The list goes on and on and the details are unending.  I am sure many of us think such details are ridiculous.

A story.  One Shabbat, some years ago, I spent in Ashkelon at my friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.  I was the only Reform Jew among a sea of Conservative Jews and rabbis.  It was a beautiful Shabbat.  We walked everywhere.  My friend and I roomed together.  He is shomrei Shabbat and I was the kid who kept asking when can I watch TV?  “Look out at the sea; there are three stars.”  One measure for havdalah is seeing three stars in the sky.  “Steve, those are a ship’s lights…”

Still I have a certain admiration for living by the law.  For the tradition, Shabbat is likened to a building that we construct out of a myriad of laws; it is in Heschel’s words a palace in time.  “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space, on the Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”  For the Orthodox Jew one’s own ego is sublimated to the demands of the law.

Reform Judaism offers a critique.  It asks, where is the personal meaning and fulfillment?  Where are the individual’s wants and desires?  It looks at the mountain of laws and proclaims that the intention and meaning of Shabbat can no longer be seen because of the details of an eruv, carrying and a hammer.  So much time is spent debating about what is permitted and what is prohibited that the beauty and luxury of Shabbat is obscured.

I believe in the Reform critique.  How can you see Shabbat through the thicket of so many laws?  But the more important question and critique is what have lost by asserting the individual over the community?  In our liberal world, we have so elevated personal choice that we have lost much of the meaning of obligation.  Can we ever say, I am sorry you can’t do that, but your family comes first, your congregation comes first, your people, your country?  Can we ever just say anymore, you have to do that?  Perhaps we have given up too much in our quest for personal fulfillment and meaning.

Sometimes the greatest meaning can be found in what others want us to do, what the tradition asks of us rather than what we want to do.  The Talmud argues that it is best to do a mitzvah solely out of sense of being commanded rather than for an ulterior motive such as personal fulfillment.  Why?  Because a commandment is always more reliable than that fleeting goal of spiritual meaning.  When you no longer find the action fulfilling, you might no longer do the mitzvah.  And for the Talmud the goal is to get us to do what is asked of us by God. 

In the traditional world, obligation and community precede personal choice and individual fulfillment; rootedness and meaning are found in obligation and community.  I don’t want to give up my personal choice and my quest for spiritual nourishment.  But we need to consider that we may have lost something in the process.

David Brooks writes: “The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.”

Perhaps we would gain more meaning by adopting at least a measure of this approach.  Then we might make our faith an everyday reality and no longer just an infrequent desire.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


In this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community…  This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5)

In last week’s we read: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1)

In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad.  This week they gathered to build the tabernacle, in last week’s the golden calf.  The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive can sometimes be to the negative.

I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  It was an extraordinary experience to sit with 12,000 people who share my passion and commitment for the modern State of Israel.  I am proud that seven from our congregation joined me at this convention.  Two thirds of United States senators and representatives attended as well.  There were many interesting speakers including Vice President Joe Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Senator John McCain.  All shared their unequivocal support for Israel.  All spoke of the looming threat from a nuclear Iran and the dangers of Syrian arms falling into the hands of Hezbollah.

One afternoon I took a break from the intensity of the sessions and walked around Washington’s beautiful National Mall.  The Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Reflecting Pool and Tidal Basin, the US Capital and White House are breathtaking.  I made my way to the new World War II memorial.  Its Freedom Wall is decorated with 4,048 stars, each representing the 100 US service personnel killed or missing in the war, amounting to 405,089 dead.  At the Vietnam War memorial the loss is more personal.  Each of the 58,272 names is etched on its black granite wall.

Such losses are staggering.  Even when war is justified and necessary it is never without loss.  War brings with it destruction.  War sacrifices a nation’s youth.  In an age of drone wars, we too often forget that it also devastates those who call its battlegrounds home.

During the convention I lost count how many times we applauded speakers for their strong statements about Iran.  I certainly agree that Iran represents a threat to Israel and the United States, as well as the Middle East and the Western World.  Nonetheless the applause and standing ovations for calls to attack Iran gave me pause.  I wonder if we are guilty of worshipping our military prestige. I worry about an over confidence that military means can solve our problems and overcome hatreds.  War can perhaps offer temporary defenses but rarely long term solutions.  Our defense forces should most certainly protect us.  To live in safety and security is our right.  Too often in the modern age it must be vigorously defended.   

When antisemites stand up, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has done, to say that they want to annihilate the Jewish people and destroy the Jewish state, we should believe them.   I have often said, and continue to believe, that history has taught us that we should take antisemites at their word.  The import of Jewish history is that we no longer have the luxury to dismiss such claims.  The meaning of the Jewish state is that we now have the power to defend ourselves, to protect our Jewish home.

That is the difference in Israel’s war memorials. They are interspersed within neighborhoods.  One walks along the streets of Jerusalem and happens upon a memorial to ten who fell in the 1967 war near, or even at, the very spot one stands.  One of the ferocious battle sites of that war, Ammunition Hill, sits near Jerusalem’s trendy neighborhood of French Hill.  There it is clear, and then it was apparent, that war was about defending one’s home.   

Sitting with like minded delegates it is more difficult to discern.  The applause gathers to a chorus. 

One lecturer suggested that the United States and Israel come to the threat of Iran with different traumas.  Israel is traumatized by the Holocaust and the resolve that it must never happen again.  The United States is traumatized by the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the innumerable sacrifices we have made over there for the sake of freedom here.  Sometimes thousands of miles of ocean make it more difficult to give meaning to these distant sacrifices.  Nonetheless, we dismiss both traumas to our peril.  I wonder, perhaps only a leader traumatized by war should make the decision to go to war.

I am left uneasy applauding war’s use.  I am left reeling.  What is the meaning of my cheers? 

Last week we read: “When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses, ‘There is a cry of war in the camp.’”  (Exodus 32:17)

And this week, “So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence.  And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting…” (Exodus 35:20)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ki Tissa Sermon

Let me offer some words of Torah before turning to our concluding prayers... This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tissa. It contains the story of the golden calf, considered the greatest sin in the Torah, when the Israelites rebelled against the Torah’s laws, Moses’ leadership and of course God. Idolatry, its definitions and prohibitions, occupy many laws in the Torah. It is of course expressly forbidden and this is repeated quite often. Anything that even approaches an idol is not allowed. So for example we don’t have any images of people in our sanctuaries. The question still haunts us today. What is an idol?

There are those in the Jewish world who believe that anything which is foreign is an idol. If it is not written about or talked about in our tradition, if it is not mentioned in the Torah, Talmud or traditional literature then it must be rejected. Then it is forbidden and labeled an idol. It must even be destroyed. It has no place in the Jewish world.
I do not however believe the lines are so clear. Anything can be turned into an idol. Anything that is worshiped as an end unto itself can become an idol. Even our holy Torah can become objectified. If it is not about the values taught and pointed to in its words then it is an idol. If the mezuzah becomes not a reminder but a protective amulet it veers toward an idol.

On this Shabbat we have modern instruments accompanying our services. Some would say that such instruments and music steer people away from Judaism. I of course reject this view. They elevate and enhance our prayers. Instead they can pull us in and towards our traditions. They can help us reclaim and renew our Jewish lives.

There are those who believe in stark lines. Their world is black and white. There is only what they call holy. And everything else that is foreign is deemed an idol.

But the world is changing. In Israel there is a resurgence of Jewish music. Contemporary musicians are taking traditional prayers and poems and reclaiming them as their own; they are using the tools of modernity to enhance the tradition. But there are also the values of modernity with which we must contend. Not all is foreign and should be forbidden. This battle is being waged in Israel more than here. In fact the coalition talks are now stalled because of this very question.

It is possible that soon the ultra-Orthodox will be required to contribute to the state. For years they have treated the state as an idol. Its values, its institutions must be shunned, they argued. But Zionism is about fusing the modern with the ancient. Now the ultra Orthodox may in fact be conscripted into some form of national service. It is this very question that has impeded Netanyahu’s ability to build a coalition.

The stark, black and white lines of yesterday are fading. It is not religious or secular, foreign or mine, idol or holy but instead a fusion. There are no clear lines; they are all grey.

Here is a fascinating, recent development. Every new Member of Knesset gives a speech. Ruth Calderon, number 13 on Yesh Atid’s list, instead taught Talmud. Here is a secular Israeli, a PhD in Talmud, teaching Talmud to Israelis of every stripe, to rabbis and Israeli Arabs. She, by the way, is also a student of David Hartman.

Ruth Calderone concluded her speech with the words:
I am convinced that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel. It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it as we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.
I believe things are changing. The lines of what is an idol and what is not, of what is holy and what is profane, of what is religious and what is secular, are no longer so clear. In fact they never were. It is all grey. And that is good. And that is a blessing. And that is the greatest and most lasting lesson of the golden calf.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Ki Tissa

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with the instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle.  It concludes with the first of many rebellions, the building of the golden calf.  Why was the building of one a transgression and the other a holy task?  The first and most obvious answer is that the mishkan was commanded by God and the golden calf was not.  Yet we read that the chief architect of the tabernacle was a man named Betzalel who “God endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft…” (Exodus 31: 3)

Often when we use the similar phrase “divinely inspired” it suggests that a person is remarkably creative.  I wonder, what are the limits of creativity?  When does a human creation become idolatry?  The people were afraid.  They wondered why Moses was taking so long to come down from the mountaintop.  They only did what they knew how to do.  They built a golden calf.  Was it beautiful?  Undoubtedly.  Was it expertly crafted?  Certainly.  Still it was an idol.  And the people were severely punished.  The intention is secondary to the action.

Since the destruction of the Temple the rabbis argued that all construction projects are flawed.  Even the best are imperfect.  The worst are idols.  And so Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that it is better to build not a tabernacle in space but in time.  We build a day.  Shabbat and its observances is our holy temple.  It and it alone, is called a sign for all time between God and the people of Israel.  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:17)

In fact this entire Torah portion is about our imperfect attempts to approach the divine.  First there is the tabernacle, next the golden calf and finally Moses meets God face to face.  Yet even Moses cannot see God.  The Torah reports: “And I will take away My hand, and you will see My back; but My face will not be seen. (Exodus 33:23) 

The Hatam Sofer, a 19th century Jewish thinker, comments: “One is only able to recognize God’s ways and God’s actions after the fact.  Only after time has passed is it possible to link together all the facts, can one understand a little of the way God acts.  At the time itself we cannot understand God’s deeds and we stand amazed.  Thus, ‘you will see My back’ – after some time has passed you will understand My actions, ‘but My face will not be seen’ – at the time of the events themselves, you will not see Me.”

No matter what we build, no matter what we behold, it is still only a glimmer.  It is only when looking back, through the arc of our lives, that we are able to glimpse God’s handiwork.


Purim is of course all about fun.  It is a holiday unlike all other holidays.  All normal rules are suspended.  Costumes are worn.  Drinking is not only encouraged but required.   We laugh and sing, celebrate and feast.  As we read the Purim story we drown out the evil Haman’s name with noisemakers.  The story is almost farcical.

Curiously God is not even mentioned in the story.  Imagine that.  Here is the biblical book of Esther and the Bible’s greatest hero is absent.  Is it possible that our Bible is satirizing our history and traditions?  That is certainly one perspective that Purim offers.  Don’t take yourself so seriously—at least one day a year.  Even our holiest of books is treated with a certain irreverence.

I have been thinking about the proper place of irreverence in our lives.  I just saw “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway.  I have to admit that the last time I laughed this much was when I say “Avenue Q.”  In both instances what was so extraordinarily funny was that which we hold most sacred was subjected to withering ridicule.  To see the puppets that so many of us watched as a child perform all manner of adult behaviors was hilarious.  To view religious tenets mercilessly satirized makes us laugh as well. 

Can there be a place for such sentiments within our religious lives?  Purim suggests that the answer is yes.  Even our most cherished beliefs must be held up and ridiculed, if only briefly.  For those who are secure in their faith, there is no worry that such parodies will undermine belief.  It is the weak of spirit who worry about such things.  A Mormon leader was for example quoted as saying, “Of course, parody isn't reality, and it's the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously..."

Satire, and even irreverence, can serve to strengthen faith.  That is Purim’s greatest lesson.

Tetzaveh Sermon

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is filled with exquisite detail about the priests’ clothes.   Today we no longer have priests so we don’t have need for their vestments.  Instead we lavish such finery upon the Torah that is adorned with a crown and breast piece for example.  Rather than a man we dress up a book as a king.

The portion also speaks about the ner tamid, which is often translated as the “eternal light” but it would be better to understand it as “always light” because it always had to be tended to.  The Hebrew suggests this meaning rather than the more familiar eternal light.  The ner tamid is the only commandment associated with the ancient tabernacle that we still do today almost exactly as it is commanded in the Torah.

Here is our question for this evening.  Why is light the most common symbol for God?

One answer, suggested in the Etz Hayim Commentary, is because light itself cannot be seen.  We become aware of its presence when see other things that it illuminates.
So too with God.  We become aware of God’s presence when we behold the beauty of the world, or the love of others, or the goodness of others.  It is only in light’s reflection that we discern its reality. 

Rabbi Harold Schulweis once wrote a beautiful poem entitled “Touch My Heart” that beautifully expresses this idea.  The entire poem can be found here.  The poem concludes:
Not where is love
            not where is God
But when is love
            when is God
Recall the meeting
            the moment, the time.

The analogy to light and fire points to Schulweis’ insight and understanding.  Fire is also not an object.  We become aware of its presence when we feel it.  Fire is also a process of liberating energy from something combustible.  Fire requires our efforts to tend it.  That is why the ner tamid must be the “always light.”  Thus God becomes real in our lives when we liberate the potential energy within ourselves for good.

People often ask where is God?  I admit that the light and fire of God can too often be obscured.  But the helpful message of these metaphors is that we have to look very hard to discern their reality.  Light and fire are often perceived by the glow or warmth they create rather than in their own realities. 

What is the Bible’s most familiar image for God?  It is the burning bush.  When Moses stands before the bush he is amazed that it is not consumed by the fire.  You have to stare a great while before discovering that the bush was not consumed.  Miracles are discerned over time not immediately.  Making God a reality requires effort.  It is a matter of looking carefully.  It is a matter of always tending the fire.  It is not a matter of magic.  It is instead a matter of recognizing when and searching for the glimmer and reflection of light.