Word from Our Rabbi

Is the Torah “Inscribed” in the Human Soul?, May 2018

The Book of Leviticus, Vayikra in Hebrew, definitely betrays the hand of a priestly writer. There are constant references to the Levites and Cohenim, most with minute detail in the laws and precepts for which they were responsible. Leviticus also goes into great detail on the specifics of animal sacrifice, a subject that is not very appealing to the discerning 21st century reader. But, embedded in the priestly laws and statutes is a theology of individual and corporate responsibility that has become a cornerstone of Western society. It is no secret that I see the grounding of Western law and ethics on principles enunciated in the Torah as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. We chant, as a part of every Shabbat Torah service, the second part of Isaiah 11:3: “For the Torah will go forth from Zion, and the Word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” But we stop just short of verse 4, which goes on, “And God will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples. And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.”

A good example of Leviticus/Vayikra’s emphasis on individual and corporate responsibility is Torah portion Bechukotai, which is read this year on Shabbat, May 12th. That portion begins, “Im bechukotai telechu—If you walk in my statutes” or alternately “by my decrees….” The passage goes on to enumerate the rewards that will accrue to the people of Israel for keeping God’s laws, but also providing a list of some of the direst consequences in the biblical text for breaking God’s commandments. The Hebrew root of that parshah’s name, Bechukotai, is chuk (chet-quf). Translated as “statute” or “decree,” the root literally means “engraved.” This undoubtedly hearkens back to the idea that God’s laws, the Ten Commandments, were engraved on stone tablets. Later sages have invoked the root meaning of the word to demonstrate that the Torah of Adonai is imprinted on an individual’s soul. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi put it, “There is a dimension of Torah that is chuk, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with God that is the very essence of the Jewish soul.” (“Parshat Bechukotai In- Depth.” www.chabad.org)

The rewards detailed in this Torah portion for the keeping of God’s statutes are many and lush. It should also be pointed out that they are given by the Almighty in the first person. God says, “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments…, I will give you rains in their seasons…, the land will yield its produce…, the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Your threshing will last until your grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. I will also grant you peace in the land… I will also eliminate harmful beasts from the land, and no sword shall pass through your land… You will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you… I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will confirm my covenant with you… I will make my dwelling among you… I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Lev. 26:3-12)

The punishments ascribed for disobedience to God’s laws are devastating to the point of being catastrophic. Again, they are stated by the Almighty in the first person, “But if you do not obey me and do not carry out all these commandments…, I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away…. You shall sow your seed uselessly, for your enemies will eat it up. You shall be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when no one is pursuing you.… Your land shall not yield its produce and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. … I will let loose among you the beasts of the field which shall bereave you of your children and destroy your cattle and reduce your number so that your roads lie deserted.” (26:14-22) It gets far worse, but let this suffice for our discussion now.

The blessings and curses enumerated in this passage have sparked the ages-long debate over whether these rewards and consequences are to be taken naturally or supernaturally. The supernatural view would envision an omnipotent God sitting in the heavens dealing out divine judgments for obedience or rebellion. A more natural view would assert that a mindful Creator has built into the universe certain laws of cause and effect that cannot be abrogated. One cannot jump out of a second story window, for example, and expect not to smack into the ground. Actions have consequences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, “You cannot over eat and take no exercise, and at the same time stay healthy. You cannot act selfishly and win the respect of other people. You cannot allow injustices to prevail and sustain a cohesive society. You cannot let rulers use power for their own ends without destroying the basis of a free and gracious social order.” (“Bechukotai—The Politics of Responsibility,” www.aish.com) There is nothing necessarily supernatural about these consequences, but as Rabbi Sacks points out they are absolutely moral.

One of the many things I love about progressive Judaism is that it gives to every individual the freedom to choose whether a supernatural, natural, some combination, or even neither of the two views of positive and negative consequences resonates best with his or her own conscience and convictions. Regardless of the view one chooses, it cannot be denied that this concept of justice, tzedek—“doing the right thing,” has been chuk—engraved on the Jewish conscience from ancient times. The Torah’s view of individual and corporate responsibility as it relates to social justice is deeply ingrained. The rich cannot buy special favors, nor should the poor be deferred to because of their poverty. Every soul is an indispensable part of the social fabric and should be treated as such. The needs of one are seen as the needs of all. This Jewish sense of individual and corporate responsibility, purpose, and destiny is very succinctly stated in the words of the British Catholic historian, Paul Bede Johnson:

    No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted into Promethean endeavors to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose. (A History of the Jews, p. 2, Harper Perennial, 1988)

In affirming Mr. Johnson’s historical analysis, I attempted to find words to inspire my readers to take the precepts of the holy Torah to a new level, applying them daily in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. But, I am hard-pressed to find words more moving than those already written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his comment on Johnson’s observation:

    The people who change the world are those who believe that life has a purpose, a direction, a destiny. They know where they want to go and what they want to achieve. In the case of Judaism that purpose is clear: to show what it is to create a small clearing in the desert of humanity where freedom and order coexist, where justice prevails, the weak are cared for and those in need are given help, where we have the humility to attribute our successes to God and our failures to ourselves, where we cherish life as the gift of God and do all we can to make it holy. In other words: precisely the opposite of the violence and brutality that is today being perpetrated by some religious extremists in the name of God. (“Bechukotai—A Sense of Direction,” www.aish.com)

All I can add is…Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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The Miracle of Passover: A Kingdom of Priests, A Holy Nation is Born!, April 2018

I cannot talk enough about the profound effects that the writings and teachings of Judaism have had on the other two major Western religions, Christianity and Islam. Through those two faiths, concepts of the Creator and principles which originated in the Torah have been disseminated worldwide. The Passover was a critical link in the development of the Jewish faith-tradition. As we prepare for our annual observance of that ancient holy event, my thoughts turn to what might be the greatest Passover miracle of all: through faith in the Almighty God, a battered down and oppressed group of slaves was ultimately liberated and transformed into a chosen people, a blessed nation, and a “light to all nations.” That light, of course, is to be a reflection of the Holiness of Adonai—God’s creation, God’s ways/laws, and God’s purpose for humankind’s future.

The concept of holiness is addressed often in the Torah, but perhaps nowhere more forcefully and succinctly than in Torah portion Kedoshim which we read this month. That portion, the 30th weekly portion in the Jewish Torah reading cycle, is the 7th reading in the book of Leviticus (19:1-20:27). At 64 verses, it is one of the shortest portions in the Torah reading cycle. Kedoshim is read twice a year, both as part of the weekly cycle and as the special reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Some of you may recall that Kodoshim is also the title of the fifth order in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud.

The Torah portion begins, “And Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Now, I have said in jest many times that the Almighty did not choose the descendants of Abraham and Sarah because they made good bagels, although they do. The Torah is very clear that these descendants were called for a very specific purpose, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The Creator apparently saw in Abraham and Sarah the qualities of loyalty to God, to God’s laws, and to God’s plan for humankind, and the Creator must have known that these qualities would carry on in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. I like to call this the “Family Plan” for spreading the Torah message to all humankind, because as the descendants of Abraham and Sarah role model these lofty statutes and ethics, the Prophets tell us that eventually all humankind, indeed every nation, will adopt the Creator’s laws and plan. This will lead to a time when war, sickness, and famine will be completely done away with according to the Hebrew Prophets.

Kedoshim is the masculine plural form of Kadosh—holy. But, what exactly does holiness mean as the term is used in the Hebrew Bible? When one thinks of holiness one usually envisions a monk, cloistered in a medieval monastery, reading holy writings, meditating on heavenly things, and abstaining from most of the joys of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, etc. This view derives from a Greco-Roman concept of holiness, often referred to as a dualistic worldview, in which the heavenly realm, the spiritual, is deemed to be good, but in which earthly things, the physical, is considered inherently corrupt or tainted. That is not the Hebraic view. At the time of creation, Adonai saw six times that those things which were created were good. Upon the completion of God’s ultimate creation, man and woman, the Hebrew Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:32). So it is, in Jewish tradition, that holiness is not entailed in the abstinence from enjoying those elements of creation that God has graciously given to us, but rather in their judicious and moderate use. As summed up in Talmud, Yevamot 20a, we are instructed, “Sanctify yourself also regarding that which is permissible to you.”

Holiness in Judaism is not so much a state of mind, and definitely not a system of belief. Rather, it is the demonstration of very specific behaviors toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Those behaviors cannot be done in seclusion. That is why many sages have pointed out that the opening words of the Torah portion, “speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel…,” have the implication that holiness is not something done while cloistered away, but is something that is engaged in with and for the community. The specifics of the behaviors that define holiness are not left to subjective choice. Fortunately, they are very clearly spelled out in the Torah and in the later writings of the Jewish sages. Chief among the enumeration of those laws would, of course, be the Ten Commandments, given in the Torah in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Levi shows us that the Ten Commandments are, in fact, restated in Torah portion Kedoshim:

  1. “I am the Lord your God,” is stated here also as “I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:3).
  2. “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears as “Nor make to yourselves molten gods” (19:4).
  3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is written here as, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (19:12).
  4. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” is restated as, “And keep my Sabbaths” (19:3).
  5. “Honor your father and mother,” is rendered here as “Every man shall fear his mother and his father” (19:3).
  6. “You shall not murder,” is conveyed in the passage, “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (19:3).
  7. “You shall not commit adultery,” appears here as, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (19:10).
  8. “You shall not steal,” is written here as, “You shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie to one another.” (19:11).
  9. “You shall not bear false witness,” is entailed in “You shall not go about as a talebearer” (19:16).
  10. “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s,” is more than reflected in, “Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18).

    (Translated in “Parshat Kedoshim in Depth,” www.chabad.org)

It has always impressed me that in this “holiness code,” as it is often called, relatively few of the verses are devoted to our relationship with the Creator and to holy things such as Sabbaths and offerings. The vast majority of verses are devoted to our relations with fellow human beings. The level of compassion given to that topic in this portion is palpable. Think for a minute about such seemingly simple, but powerful, actions as not reaping to the corners of your field so that there will be gleanings left behind for those who are in need (v. 10), not allowing the wages of someone hired to remain with you even overnight (v. 14), not allowing injustice in judgment even to the extent of being partial to the poor nor deferring to the great (v. 15), not going about as a talebearer, or in other words slanderer, among your people (v. 16). And then, of course, there is the ultimate commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). This principle has become a cornerstone of most of the world’s major religions. And, lest one think that one’s neighbor only refers to fellow countrymen or women, the Torah is crystal clear: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34).

The level of devotion to one’s neighbor and compassion for those in need found in this Torah portion connects strongly with the constant theme of the Hebrew Prophets, social justice. Micah sums it up best in the statement, “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). The fact that “love your neighbor as yourself” has become a core belief of so many world religions is proof to me that the Almighty’s “Family Plan” is working. When the adherents of those religions truly apply those lofty principles, putting them into action through their behaviors, behaviors laid out so specifically in this Torah portion, humankind will surely enter the time spoken of in the Prophets when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). My prayer is that we could live to see this fulfilled in our day. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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L’Shanah Tovah—Again!!, March 2018

Of course, Purim is just around the corner, and if you would like to revisit my last article on that holiday, it is still available on the web at http://www.hickoryjewishcenter.com/messages.html (Go to article). But I want to turn our attention to another holiday that is just a bit later this March—the Jewish New Year. Did I get your attention??? In last month’s bulletin I discussed the Spring readings known as the “Four Parshiyot.” Two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, March 17th, is Shabbat Hachodesh. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Hachodesh, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 12:1-20. Shabbat Hachodesh is the Sabbath that corresponds with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year, 2018, Shabbat Hachodesh falls on the first of Nissan.

The twenty verses in the Shabbat Hachodesh maftir reading detail the taking of a Paschal lamb into the home in preparation to observe the Passover, followed by instructions for the seven days for the eating of matzah, unleavened bread. The passage opens, “Now Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.’” (Ex. 12:1-2) This is quite an amazing statement to a modern Jew who has grown up with the understanding that Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishri, is the Jewish New Year. The Talmud records an interesting debate between Rabbi Eliezer who believed the world was created in Tishri and Rabbi Joshua who believed the world was created in Nissan. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishri the world was created; in Tishri the patriarchs were born; in Tishri the patriarchs died. Rabbi Joshua says: Whence do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says, ‘And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit.’ Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees [begin to] produce fruit? You must say that this is Nissan.” (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a) The ruling, based on the Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1, is that “There are four New Years; the first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals; the first of Tishri is the New Year for years, for agriculture, and for vegetables; the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees, the School of Shammai, and the School of Hillel say it is on the fifteenth.”

It should not seem unusual to a modern reader that a year might contain many beginnings. The beginning of our calendar year is January 1, but a fiscal year typically begins on July 1. The school year traditionally begins in early September. It has also been pointed out that the progression of times and seasons is cyclical. You will recall that a circle famously has no beginning or end. So, truly, any point on the circle might be designated as the beginning. (See, e.g., “Our Other Head,” by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, http://www.chabad.org/) What is interesting is that this very first commandment given to the Israelite people as a nation involves time at all. According to Rashi, these verses are “the true beginning of the Torah.” (“Shabbat Hachodesh,” Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, https://www.ou.org) You see, prior to Exodus 12, the Almighty had already given humankind ten laws, according to the sages. The first, of course, was the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” found in Genesis 1:28. That is followed by the seven Noahide laws, derived by the rabbis from Genesis 9. These eight taken together would apply to all humankind. Later in Genesis we read that God gave our father Abraham the commandment of circumcision specifically for himself and his descendants. (Gen. 17:10-14) The tenth ordinance in the Torah is the prohibition given to Jacob and his descendants of eating the sciatic nerve of any animal. (Gen. 32:33)

What makes the laws of Exodus chapter 12 different is that they are given to the entire nation of Israel and that they relate to time. Moses and Aaron, upon the receipt of these instructions, are commanded, “Speak to all the congregation of Israel.” (v. 3) It is significant that these first national commands involved the keeping of time. Slaves do not need to mark time. They go to bed, get up, eat, and work as they are commanded by their master. Free peoples, on the other hand, are in control of their own destiny and thus have the need to order and budget their time. Even more importantly, the new nation of Israel was being called to a very specific purpose, according to the Torah, to be witnesses to the Creator God and to role model the Creator’s laws to the other nations of the earth. The Torah records the Almighty’s passionate words to Moses while on the holy mountain, Sinai, “Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6) A crucial part of being witnesses for Adonai was the observance of “holy time,” most notably the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day, as instructed in the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 20:8-11) The Sabbath calls humankind’s attention to God’s creative work, but also to God’s redemptive work as the One who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt to be a holy nation. (See Deut. 5:15) In addition to the weekly Sabbath are the annual festivals, which the Almighty refers to in Torah as, “Adonai’s appointed times which you shall proclaim as holy convocations—My appointed times are these.” God is referring, of course, to Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. These holy times are detailed quite clearly and concisely in Leviticus, chapter 23.

But the whole concept of marking time in general, and holy time in specific, begins for the Israelite nation in the 12th chapter of Exodus. One can understand why Rashi viewed this as the true beginning of the Torah. It is instructive that the rabbis of the Mishnah viewed the first of Nissan as the “New Year for kings and for festivals,” for surely a large part of the responsibility of being a “kingdom of priests” is the observance and communication to others of the importance of Adonai’s holy times. It is a sad fact that for many centuries the vision of the Jewish people to be a kingdom was purely a matter of the heart. Living in exile we did not have an earthly kingdom of our own. But our longing for one never faded, as is summed up poignantly by this poem of the German-Jewish poet, Ludwig August Frankel, from a century and a half ago. It is entitled, “Juda’s Farben (Judah’s Colors)”:

    The Jew turns his gaze to the east
    And the worries of his soul;
    He thinks of his kingdom’s fate
    And the morning of freedom.
    Like a ruler who has been banished,
    Who, in the pains of exile
    Still feels himself in his heart
    To be the king of his lost country.

    from “Judaism: The Meaning of Shabbat Hachodesh,” Daniel Pinner, https://www.ou.org

I have remarked many times, what a miracle it is that we have lived to see the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in our ancient, sacred land. Something that was only a dream for our people for almost 2000 years is now a reality. But, with this great miracle/gift comes great responsibility. May we as a people never waver from the high ethical standards of the holy Torah that is entrusted into our care. So, as we begin the biblical cycle of another Hebrew year, will you join me in recommitting to those lofty statutes and to this high calling. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Shabbat Shekalim -The Power of Giving!, February 2018

When congregation Temple Beth Shalom next assembles for the public reading of the Torah on Sabbath, February 10, 2018, we will begin a special s e r i e s o f To r a h readings often known a s t h e “ F o u r Parshiyot.” These four readings occur in the Spring, two are before Purim and two before Passover. The readings are Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah, and Shabbat Hachodesh. Saturday, February 10, is Shabbat Shekalim. The additional Torah passage for Shabbat Shekalim, done in most synagogues as the maftir reading, is Exodus 30:11-16. According to the Mishnah, Masechet Shekalim 1, “On the first of Adar a public announcement is made concerning the payment of the shekel.” So, customarily, Shabbat Shekalim coincides closely with Rosh Chodesh Adar—the first of Adar, the 12th month of the Hebrew calendar, or with Second Adar in the years when the 13th month is added (as it is this year). This public announcement then gave the people one month to prepare, as the sages tell us the actual collection occurred historically on the first of Nissan, the 1st Hebrew month.

This special reading details instructions for a census that was taken during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness where the commandment is given to pay a half shekel “tax” toward the maintenance of the tabernacle in the wilderness. The Torah states, “When you take a census of the children of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD…. This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary.” (Exodus 30:12-13) While the reading for Shekalim is brief, only six verses, the sages of Israel have derived many important teachings from these verses. Some sages have assumed from the reading of the portion that individuals 20 years of age and older paid the half shekel assessment. Then the money was counted, not necessarily the individuals. This would reinforce the idea that souls are of very high importance in the sight of Adonai and are never mere numbers on a ledger sheet. (See Tracey R. Rich, “Special Shabbatot,” www.jewfaq.org)

According to the Torah, “The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel…” The half shekel assessment was to be paid equally by the well-off and the needy! Not only does this command remind us that all humans are equal in the eyes of the Creator regardless of financial status, but it also stresses the importance of putting aside personal position in favor of uniting for a common good. Imagine how important this corporate responsibility must have been at the time when a loosely affiliated group of slaves escaped from the greatest superpower on earth and began to establish a new and unified nation. Individual needs and wants would have needed to remain secondary to the good of the community. (See Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, ArtScroll Stone Edition of the Chumash.)

The Torah goes on to say, “And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall give it to the service of the tent of meeting.” The Talmud is very explicit that in the current absence of either the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem, we are not technically obligated to the half shekel contribution. Yet, the principle remains that support of holy places, such as houses of learning and houses of prayer and worship, is a critical part of a person’s responsibility to the community. In modern terms, the spirit of this mitzvah could be maintained by contributions to our local synagogues. (Most rabbis are quick to point that out…very big wink!)

The reading for Shabbat Shekalim is also connected with the holiday of Purim on another level. Resh Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the one who spoke and the world came into being that Haman would spend a large sum of money in order to destroy Israel, as it is so written in the third chapter of Megillat Esther. Therefore, God preceded Haman’s silver by Israel’s silver. And, this accords with what the Talmud says in Masechet Megillah, ‘On the first of Adar, an announcement is made concerning the shekalim.’” You see, the sages were skilled at making connections based on the Hebrew words. They saw in the phrase “and you shall take the silver/ money of atonement,” kesef hakippurim in Hebrew (Ex. 30:16), another Hebrew phrase, kesef ha ki purim—“the silver which is on account of Purim.” Thus, it is believed that the atonement money which was paid by the congregation in the wilderness served as the ransom for the deliverance of the children of Israel from the evil plot of Haman centuries later. (See Orthodox Union, “Parshat Shekalim, www.ou.org)

Another interesting ancient reference to the half shekel census/assessment is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:4. It states, “Rabbi Meir said, ‘the Holy One, may God be blessed, took a type of fiery coin from under the Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe. God said to him, “This shall they give.”” One might ask what connection the fiery coin might have with the mitzvah of the half shekel. The connection, again, is based on the Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for silver or money is kesef. In other verses in the Torah, for example Genesis 31:30, the same Hebrew root is used for the translation “strong longing”—kasaf. When one acts upon the principles of Torah with a deep passion for the Creator and a deep longing to serve the Jewish community and all humankind, one truly fulfills the commandment of the mechazit hashekel— the half shekel contribution. This is the meaning of the “fiery coin” that Moses was told we must give to Adonai. (See Rabbi Zvi Belovski, “Shekalim: The Power of the Fiery Shekel,” www.aish.com)

The special Haftorah reading on Shabbat Shekalim is from Second Kings 11:17-12:17. It recounts a time during the history of Israel and Judah when repentance was being made for having engaged in the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. The Temple in Jerusalem had fallen into disrepair until Jehoash, the King of Judah, once again implemented the practice of using the census money for repairs on the Holy Temple. Interestingly, the priests took a box and put it beside the altar with a hole in the lid for worshipers to make contributions. The priests and the leaders were amazed at the amount of money that was placed in the box. People clearly went above and beyond the half shekel requirement.

Many of the specifics of commandments in the Torah are not possible in our place and time, because we are outside of the Land of Israel or because the Holy Temple no longer stands. But the lofty ethical principles behind the mitzvot endure forever. As the psalmist affirms, “The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.” (Psalms 19:8-9) The Hebrew Prophets tell us that one day, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14) Support for houses of prayer, worship, and study is an ongoing need. And, those who do so, particularly with a cheerful heart, can rest assured that they are paving the way for a brighter future by fulfilling an ancient command. Will you give your “fiery shekel” today? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will.

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Shemot—The First of Many Redemptions!, January 2018

As we head into a new year, 2018, we also turn to a new book in the Torah reading cycle. Leaving Genesis (Bereishit in Hebrew) on Sabbath, January 6th, we read from the book of Exodus (Shemot in Hebrew). Thus, we consider once again the exciting story of Moses and the liberation of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. We begin in Torah portion Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1, with the appearance of Adonai to Moses in the “burning bush” on Mount Horeb. (Ex. 3:6). It is here that Moses receives his first commission to go to Pharaoh and to the children of Israel. The Almighty reiterates the commission to Moses and Aaron a second time to go to Pharaoh requesting freedom for the Israelite slaves in Torah portion Va’eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35. This is followed by a brief genealogical discussion, tracing the descendants of just three of the sons of Jacob/Israel: Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. It is obviously interjected to establish the pedigree of Moses and Aaron and to identify Aaron’s descendants who were to become priests or cohenim. (Ex. 6:14-25)

After Moses and Aaron’s first commission in Torah portion Shemot, they do approach Pharaoh as commanded, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me in the wilderness.’” (Ex. 5:1). Not only do we learn that Pharaoh is unresponsive to their request, stating, “Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh intensifies the burdens of the Israelite slaves by instructing their taskmasters to no longer provide the straw needed to make bricks while keeping the quota of bricks the same. This forced the Israelites to add the task of gathering straw to their labors. When these requirements proved difficult to fulfill, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy and subjects their leaders to beatings. This situation causes Moses to question the Almighty’s plan, “Oh LORD, why hast Thou brought harm to this people? Why didst Thou ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Thy name, he has done harm to this people, and thou hast not delivered thy people at all.” (Ex. 5:1-23) Thus closes Torah portion Shemot.

Va’eira opens with a quizzical self-identification by the Almighty. “God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yod-heh-vav-heh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai (usually translated Almighty God), but by my name, Yod-heh-vav-heh (usually rendered as Adonai), I did not make myself known to them.’” (Ex. 6:2-3) I use the term quizzical because there are several instances earlier in the Torah where the text specifically states that Yod-heh-vav-heh/Adonai did appear to the patriarchs and matriarchs. One vivid example is in Genesis 18 where we learn that Adonai appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This appearance was to inform Abraham of the coming destruction that God had planned for Sodom and Gomorrah. If the Divine Name had in fact not been revealed at that time, it is puzzling that the Almighty would say of Abraham, “For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yod-heh-vav-heh by doing righteousness and justice in order that Yod-heh-vav-heh may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Gen. 18:19) Now, there are two possibilities here. A conservative scholar might say that the text of Exodus 6:3 is literal, and that the Tetragrammaton, Yod-heh-vav-heh, was not known to the patriarchs and matriarchs, but was written back into the earlier accounts by the Torah author, presumed to be Moses, after the revelation of the Name. A second possibility is that the verse was not intended to be taken literally, but to subtly differentiate between different aspects of God’s interaction with the creation, and, perhaps, to criticize Moses for his questioning and lack of faith.

The tradition in Judaism is that the creator is, in fact, very far beyond our ability to comprehend God’s greatness—absolute, infinite, and limitless. Thus, in many respects it is inappropriate to limit God by using the name. In this line of thinking, the names of God become descriptions of various aspects of God’s character and of God’s interactions with the cosmos. Rashi contends that the use of the name El Shaddai in this passage was to demonstrate the matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ complete trust in the Almighty. Promises were made to them about the multitude of their descendants and about their possession of the Holy Land, most of which they did not live to see fulfilled. Yet, they trusted God without questioning. On the other hand, here was Moses directly questioning the Divine plan. (See Rabbi Yehoshua Berman, “Va’Eira The Tightest Bond,” www.aish.com)

In many respects then, the plagues with which Adonai punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians can be taken as signs not just for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, but also for the Israelite people and their leaders, and by extension, the entire world. The plagues bear a progression that is seemingly part of a larger didactic purpose. Surely, the Almighty, given God’s limitless power over creation, could have flattened Egypt with a single blow and allowed the children of Israel to go free. Yet, the Almighty chose to work in stages, with careful attention to the response of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to each phase of the plan. Taken as a whole, the plagues can be seen as countering four definite misconceptions which were held by the Egyptians. It might also be argued that since Moses was raised as an Egyptian and since the Israelite people had lived among the Egyptians for so many centuries, they too might have been subject to these same misconceptions. 1. They denied the Creator, believing that the world was infinite and had no beginning or end. 2. They denied the Creator’s interest in or care for God’s creation. 3. They denied the Creator’s ability to intervene in the laws which were part of the creation. 4. They denied prophecy, the Creator’s ability to communicate with human beings through ongoing revelation. The plagues were orchestrated by the Almighty incrementally to counter these misconceptions and to show that: 1. God did create the universe and all that we perceive. 2. God does, in fact, care about human beings and their actions. 3. God does have the ability to intervene in the laws of nature. 4. God does communicate with humankind—Moses being the first in a line of prophets that was intended to continue throughout time. (See Deut. 18:18-22) It has been pointed out that the ten plagues correspond with the ten “utterances of creation.” In the creation account of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God says, “Let there be…” exactly ten times. This would reinforce the idea that the plagues were Adonai’s proof of control over the very natural realm that God had willed into existence. (See Rabbi Avi Geller, “Pharaoh’s Stubbornness Earns the Egyptians a Serious Beating,” www.aish.com)

Further proof of the targeted nature and the didactic purpose of the plagues is that they seem to stem almost naturally from the first plague, the turning of the Nile River into blood. This is clearly a direct affront to the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, who had claimed ownership over the Nile River and was even considered by himself and the Egyptian people to be a god or the son of a god. The Haftorah portion associated with Torah portion Va’eira, Ezekiel 28:25-29:21, makes this clear. Pharaoh is referred to as “the great monster that lies in the midst of the rivers.” In Ezekiel, Pharaoh exerts his own deity by saying, “the Nile is mine, and I myself have made it.” In this context it becomes clearer why the Almighty would have chosen to exact punishments on the Egyptians appropriate to their level of evil and idolatry. Now, in general, Judaism would reject the idea that our faith is based on the need for miracles. Rather, as Martin Buber has pointed out, our traditions are rooted in an ongoing historical interaction between the Creator, God, and the descendants of Abraham. That historical interaction is verifiable fact. Time and time again events have intervened to deliver our people from the hands of oppressors. It is our faith to attribute those serendipitous events to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. (See Rabbi Yehuda Appel, “Miracles and Magic,” www.aish.com)

We see in the book of Exodus the Almighty’s reassertion of power over the creation, as God opposes the greatest superpower on earth at that time, Egypt, and begins to form a family clan of slaves into a new nation. Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of that plan is God’s statement in Exodus 7:3, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt,” and the implications that such a statement has for the concept of free will. Many sages have wrestled with that topic, and the ideas are as interesting as they are diverse. But, I will save that discussion for another message.

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