Midrash & Divrei Torah

Leyl Shavuot, 2017

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I am here tonight to talk about Revelation at Sinai …but mostly, I want to talk about ways of perception… We have 5 senses: Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling

How do we and God relate to each other using our senses…and which ones?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch groups the five senses into two categories.

Two of the five senses, touching and tasting, require direct and intense contact with what one is sensing. Otherwise, one cannot say that one knows how something tastes or feels.

In serious contrast to this are the senses of sight and sound. When one hears or sees something, there is absolutely no direct interaction with the thing being perceived.

But into which of these two categories does the sense of smell fall? Both.

Let’s start here: How does one smell things? What actually enters into one’s nose? When it comes to touch or taste, the object itself comes into contact with the sensors. With sight, only light hits the retina; with hearing, only sound waves hit the eardrum. And smell?

The tiniest molecules of, say, roasted meat enter into one’s nostrils. The object could be quite a few feet away, yet the smallest bits of this object do indeed enter the nose upon smelling. It is not full direct interaction, but it is not zero interaction either (this according to Devir Kahan is the Editor of Daf Aleph).

What’s with smell?
Smell is the loftiest & most transcendent sense. In Temple days there was a special altar for the Ketoret incense offering. On Yom Kippur, in addition, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies …(nose first, mind you)…with a pan of smoldering coals in his right hand, and a ladle filled with ketoret in his left; there, he would scoop the ketoret into his hands, place it over the coals, wait for the chamber to fill with the fragrant smoke of the burning incense, and swiftly back out of the room. The moment marked the climax of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple.

Now… all we Smell are spices at havdalah … the etrog on Sukkot…and what else? It pales in comparison. If you don’t believe me, ask Proust.

Noses & nostrils are important.

In the Beginning, (pun intended) we have God breathing life into Adam’s nostrils

The very first mention of God smelling the aroma of a burnt offering is found in Genesis 8:21. Noah offered a burnt offering after leaving the ark.. It was a “pleasing” aroma (reiach nichoach) to God.

But on 16 different occasions in the book of Leviticus, an “aroma” is mentioned as something pleasing to the Lord. Specifically, the aroma of a sacrifice is important to God.


How do we explain “reiach nichoach”?
A blogger Rabbi : Again and again what are we to make a ריח ניחח, a pleasing scent, to Adonai? The Rabbi hears those words and thinks of wood smoke, fine incense, the mouthwatering aroma of good barbecue. Once upon a time we understood our korbanot as our way of putting something fragrant into the air for our invisible Deity. Now, she concludes that she likes to think of the reiach nichoach created by our choices. Do our actions create a reiach nichoach, a sweet scent, for Adonai? She asks.

Hmmm. I don’t know about that. She has turned it into a metaphor. Beware of metaphors. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But we will get to that later.

Even humans nostrils are implicated…we have in Job 27:3: All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.

One last beautiful teaching about Ketoret and smell.(Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

God encounters sacrifices as smells; Korbanot/sacrifices are not the finished product. Korbanot are promises of something more to come. The offerer’s work is far from over.

A korban is a signal to God that “this is just the beginning.” The pleasant smell of the korban implies/hints at something even greater to come.

The Torah concludes its discussion of the mishkan ( in Tetzaveh) with the ketoret. It is the high point of the whole endeavor. The mishkan is meant to be only the tiniest piece of something that promises to be much greater even when one is no longer physically in its presence.


Enough about smell.
Let’s talk now of the category of senses that include hearing and seeing.

Note how we alert each other, call attention to what we want to convey:
Tirei …”Look” “You see…” “Look here!”
We bring people to the realm of logic. Be logical, be sensible. Hey, pay attention.


Shema…in English we say “Listen” “Listen to this” “Listen to me”

But when God calls out “Hear oh Israel…” he is summoning us to his hidden place. Speaking and hearing are God’s preferred means of communication.
We also know to “listen to your heart.”

Clearly there are situations that require listening or hearing and others that do better with seeing or looking. God does not want to be seen. When he appears camouflaged in a pillar of smoke or fog, he is obfuscating. He is hiding. He likes noise: thunder, cracks of lightening, blasts of horns.


There is an amazing British therapist from the 1930’s, Joanna Fields (aka Marion Milner) who has studied perception, her own, to the nth degree.

She came to understand through self-observation that she learns “not from reason but from my senses.” And she identifies different ways of perceiving:

  • narrow focus with the center of awareness in my head. The way of reason!
  • wide focus, knowing with my whole body. The way to happiness. 

Who hasn’t had the experience of attending a concert and losing track of the music? Our attention gone to pervasive chattering in the mind. How hard it is to be here now and listen and hear.

She learned that she could move her center of awareness at will. She called it a gesture of mind. A gesture of the mind that puts us out of ourselves—maybe into the soles of our feet, or maybe out in the hall, maybe right up close to the orchestra or even into the action…anywhere but in our narrow focus of intellect.

Think of the Hebrews sensing that they could not hear God and certainly what God had to say. They said first to Moses: You tell us what God says. They delegate twice. Later they say: we’ll do and we’ll listen. They put themselves—their bodies, not their minds– into the action, the story line, the laws, the words, the thunder…and then, and only then, could they hear. (obey vs hear issue)

As an aside, it is not clear when they stopped listening or hearing properly. We have a possible hint in that the first 2 commandments are in the first person I; all the rest are in the third person, as if Moses is now speaking.

Thunder, lightening, earthquakes, fire are all natural occurrences. But immaterial horn blasts are true miracles.

At Sinai there were waxing horn blasts. But according to Nachmanides, there were no horns. God produced that effect. Rashi says the sound was soft as first and grew louder and louder so as to habituate the listener.

We will now hear the blasts. They will get loud and louder. Your eyes are useless, so close them. Move your center of awareness away from your ears. Choose another point…like the soles of your feet, your solar plexus, maybe your fingertips, or maybe the top of the room.

Just stay with your choice.

Yossi blows the shofar repeatedly.


At Sinai, “just for a moment we became aware of our own awareness.” says Lawrence Kushner in The River of Light. There is some dying or shattering that happens between the two efforts to give us Tablets, he adds.

Either Moses shatters them or the people die and God takes back the Tablets and the people live again.

What did God basically say: I am. This is God’s self awareness. Perhaps he means to say also: “When you learn who I am, you will learn who you are. “

and from Adin Steinsaltz I gleaned…
The importance of this event is not so much what was said but rather that God appeared before man and told him what to do. Contact rather than contract.

There is the giving of the Torah and… there is the receiving of the Torah.

The first happens in a single historic moment.

The second is an enduring process…readiness to absorb and absorb and absorb again.

Art Green follows up on that with some pearls…. (Seek My Face, Speak My Name)
yod hey vuv hey –all vowels–is but a breath, no form, an essence, an abstraction. /37

“Revelation reveals the possibility of revelation” says Green and I add: …again and again. /113

“I shall be that I shall be” yod hey vuv hey is interpreted by the rabbis as: I shall be with you again as I was with you then.

Isaiah says: “You are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God.”

This implies that if they are not there to receive, then I am not God.

There is the contract. That is the “decisive moment.”

“Faith in Sinai also commits us to a life of study. Judaism is a process of ongoing commentary. To be a Jew is to be a student. To be a self-affirming Jew is to love and study Torah. …the rabbis considered study equal to all the other mitzvot combined as one.” That was a quote and here’s another one. The “unchanging text serves as counterpoint to our constant evolution and development” Our fallible text needs commentary. Are we ready to be students? /137 /138

We should be sure our awareness can move at will and capture all the nuances of this event. What is the point? To give out rules? To get someone to listen and accept a contract? To form a nation? To scare the wits out of us? To promote Moses as a prophet? To assert one’s God-ness? Let us make sure that in our changes of focus, we do not become “narrow” but keep the possibilities “wide”–to use not just our intellect but all our senses—our whole body.


And what do the mystics say via Perle Besserman i(Kabbalah & Jewish Mysticism)

According to Ibn Gabriol (11th cent Spanish mystic) who named it, Kabbalah, the received tradition is the “teaching from mouth to ear.” “Kabbalah cannot be taught; it must be experienced.” Think about the times in biblical text or midrash that we hear of words spoken into ears. (Exo.24:3)

Lurianic Kabbalah (Safed 1543-1620) used “every sense in bringing about unwavering meditative concentration required by the practitioner of the yichud method. Even incense, snuff, fragrant herbs and spices to heighten the meditator’s sensory awareness.”

Formation of the Israelite nation happens at Sinai. Powerful experience and a powerful memory. The mystics fought to keep that experience from becoming a metaphor. They insisted that it was a continuing revelation… available to all. The mystics became marginalized. The mystic’s goal was to become at one with Torah as well as living according to its codes, etc.

Moses de Leon, the author of the Zohar said: God’s words resounding at Sinai, “were heard as 70 sounds that were simultaneously revealed as 70 lights. This experience of synesthesia was had by all….present at Sinai” … and even into the future.

Before we end, I should say something of the oh so famous phrase “naseh venishma (we will do and we will hear)” The hidden world, says Rabbi Nilton Bonder (Yiddische Kop), is made accessible first through experience and only then as perception. He presents 4 Realms in a lesson from the Alter Rebbe. In the Apparent Realm of What is Hidden, we are in the world of intuition. Our ancestors must have known in their bones how to absorb this momentous event in their national, spiritual and psychological history.


On a different note, I want to quote another Jewish sage directly from the pages of the NYTimes… 3/21/2017

David Brooks writes about the loss of an American mythology that was built on the Exodus story.

The Exodus story has many virtues as an organizing national myth. It welcomes in each new group and gives it a template for how it fits into the common move from oppression to dignity. The book of Exodus is full of social justice — care for the vulnerable, the equality of all souls. It emphasizes that the moral and material journeys are intertwined and that for a nation to succeed materially, there has to be an invisible moral constitution and a fervent effort toward character education. (All that comes after the 10 commandments and before the Tablets)

People who see their lives defined by Exodus move, innovate and organize their lives around a common eschatological destiny.


When I lived on a kibbutz…we did not worry about all this. Shavuot was simply the best Jewish holiday. Each school grade was assigned a branch of the Kibbutz industries & agriculture…they brought corresponding first fruits to the community elders standing on a podium right beside the swimming pool. Calves from the dairy; fish from the fish ponds, apples from the groves, and new mothers brought their babies. There were costumes and dances and lots of singing. The whole Sinai experience was pushed to a distant back burner and probably smoldered there. All the focus was on the agricultural part of the holiday.

They may have missed something important…but we here in the cities and towns also miss something important—that other aspect of the holiday that has disappeared into blintzes and cheese cake.

When we come to shul tomorrow to hear the 10 Commandments, how will we choose to approximate the Sinai experience?



Terumah, 2017

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Why a d’var torah?
If our Bible were simply a history book…then one reading would be sufficient.
There may be some history telling, but also memoir, short stories, laws and poetry.

It’s all about interpretation!

We are in dialogue (Author and Reader…God and humankind)
This parsha seems to be mostly a blueprint with a list of building materials…a detailed manual and yet quite unclear. It is wide open to interpretation…and that is why I am here today to offer some insights… but also lots of questions.

Here are 3 very loosely related topics:


1. “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them” Exod 25:8

The Israelites prayed everywhere…by the sea, in their tents, on mountains…why a sanctuary now? The physical place is not the essential, but rather the involvement of the community. Joining together to MAKE! The men and the women, everyone. This is the only biblical example of an active female role in the official cult.

The verb “to Make” is found 200 times in the building of the sanctuary.(I didn’t count)

The people are transformed from passive recipients into active partners with God.

A partnership to bring holiness: God & us. The Temple is gone.

How do we feel about our synagogues today? Is there a lesson here for us? How do you feel about Jews who have not joined us? Those who come occasionally but don’t join? And those who pay up but never show up? What makes a partnership, a holy community kehila kedosha? (point out congregants who participate at various levels in the community.)

Another thought about the tabernacle—about temporariness and permanence. The Mishkan that was described today is a temporary tent structure.. Tent dwellers are always moving, always taking down their tents and setting them back up. Change was the constant and the tent mechanics were incredibly repetitive. A tent dweller is loosely attached to this world. Back then, it was God who decided when they moved and where to. Consider the alternative: King Solomon built the first Temple. It certainly was meant to be permanent…so was the second temple. Yet when these structures were destroyed by enemies it was a cataclysm. When the permanent is torn down it means defeat, subjugation and exile.

Why did we need a huge grandiose structure? What did it provide that we did not have with the Ohel Mo’ed Tent of Meeting?


2. Kaporet/Parochet & Cherubim

A few years ago I gave a d’var torah on the rituals of the High Priest on Yom Kippur when -alone- he presses past the parochet (the curtain before the Holy of Holies) to perform his secret rituals over the kaporet (the gold cover over the aron which contains the Tablets of the Law). 

A permutation of the letters pey, resh, kaf, tav to kaf, pey, resh, tav mirrors a Priestly act that is transformational and redemptive: A spiritual reversal.

Three parshas ago, I spoke about the aron containing Joseph’s bones versus the aron designed by God for the Tablets of the Law. Today I want to explore a few other ideas:

Aron & Kaporet
The rabbis discuss whether the aron and it’s cover, the kaporet are one thing or two. I thought what a curious question to ponder! But I so liked the argument for two separate items that I wanted to share it with you. The aron has the honor of holding the Tablets with God’s Laws. The Kaporet with it’s embracing sheltering cherubim who form God’s throne and between whom God’s presence can appear …that is where we can return, atone and climb into God’s sheltering embrace. These are the two legitimate ways to be with God: by following His mitzvot or by returning through atonement. I think that is quite beautiful and despite some reservations based on logic, I am prepared to accept the two items as separate.

a) In Terumah cherubim are winged beings with human faces that sit on the kaporet facing each other with extended wings forming a protective throne or sheltering embrace.

But our texts are not all agreed what they are, what they look like and what they do.
Here is a verse in Psalms 18. “God mounted a cherub and flew. He flew on the wings of the wind”

Cherubim were clearly also living chariots. In Babylon, cherubim symbolized the wind.

These creatures, in some form, can be found in all the surrounding cultures (the Greeks use wings on their mythological beings, many are found on Egyptians monuments; Hittites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, etc) all have winged creatures or gods.
And here is a line in Psalms 17 “Hide me in the shadow of thy wings.”

b) Consider this: God set cherubim at the eastern gate of the Garden of Eden to prevent the expelled Adam and Eve from returning. They exited eastward. The cherubim on the aron and kaporet are in the Holy of Holies which is in the most westerly space in the Tabernacle (tent or Temple). In the plans for the Temple in Jerusalem, one entered into the sanctuary from the east into the women’s court and passed through various spaces until one entered the Holy of Holies. There was no west entry or exit. Further west, conceptually would be Eden. The cherubim were right there like border patrol….in both cases. I think that is interesting. Remember also that Jacob meets angels or some representative of God as he leaves to land and when he returns. I call them border patrol agents…

c) The varied and distant descendants of paired cherubim are pairs of birds, eagles, deer and lions. They are everywhere in Jewish ritual and folk art. They stand guard on the aron kodesh of countless synagogues, Torah covers, ketubahs, mizrachs, even tapestries.

3. Moses the Mechokek (the lawgiver, the engraver, and the engraved, incomplete)

Read the Torah text ending with Exodus 25:40

See and Make” What is God telling Moses to see? This calls for a midrash…Tanchuma Yashan Shimini. READ translation.

Design instructions are incomprehensible! 4 color fire explanation?
So God engraved the Menorah design on Moses’ palm.

Also…. The order of events. The amount of gold. Tabernacle full of hidden gold vs. Golden calf incident.
The Menorah is the symbol that remains exclusively Jewish.
Becomes the “coat of arms” for Judaism. And the emblem for the modern State of Israel.

End with…
Tree/palm/menorah shape
Moses’ hands in other stories. Open hands of blessing and teaching versus hands grasping a staff.


A Journey with Joseph’s Bones, 2017

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This parsha has a tremendous amount of important and interesting moments and language to explore. We run from encampment to encampment, Pharaoh’s army chases us, we cross the Red Sea, we are delivered, the Egyptians drown, the Song of the Sea, Miriam sings & dances….and then the grumblings. But this year we read only the first 1/3 and we only get to the troublesome drowning part & triumphalism.

So …I chose to focus only on the 3rd verse we read today, beginning …וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ And Moses took Joseph’s bones with him… I thought I had a unique topic until I discovered whole books on the very same subject. In the Bible, very little is written; but ideas abound in midrash.

The Bible provides four details about Joseph’s bones.

  1. at the very end of Genesis (Gen.50:25): So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” meaning out of Egypt and back to Canaan.
  2. Followed immediately with(Gen. 50:26) Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
  3. In Exodus, in today’s parsha (Exodus 13:19) we are told that Moses fulfilled the pledge. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” That’s our verse 3.
  4. The final act at the very end of the book of Joshua (24:32 ), the 6th book of the Bible; the first one after the Torah The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem in a parcel of land Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor, father of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of silver.”

Two vital men in our history, Joseph & Moses are featured.

  • They both changed our direction—literally and morally.
  • One was raised as an Egyptian prince but always remembered he was a Hebrew and became God’s confidant; The other became an Egyptian prince, assimilating and grateful to have forgotten his “father’s house.” That was a quote! They were both bi-cultural Jews…way before we had a name for that.
  • One was 80 when he went to speak to Pharaoh; the other was 30 when he was beckoned to listen to Pharaoh.
  • They were both 17 when their lives changed dramatically. Joseph was sold as a slave. Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster and escaped into exile. Moses doesJoseph is done to.
  • Joseph’s push-me-pull-you deceptions with his brothers prefigures Moses’s give and take with Pharaoh.

And here in today’s 3rd verse, their names are found together for the one and only time.


I would like to explore two topics:

  1. Practical / the what and how
  2. Ethical / the why

What were the bones of the Viceroy of Egypt stored in? (He was embalmed, but we speak of bones)? Imagine the Israelites trudging through the wilderness, across the Red Sea, and for 40 years with this container. And only at the end of the Book of Joshua do the bones finally get buried.

Let’s talk aesthetics. What construction do we think of as splendid, truly majestic? We are informed by the culture that surrounds us. Luckily, we have a wide net to draw from. (How about: Queen Elizabeth’s throne room, Bernini’s Baldachin in St Peter’s Cathedral or…the lobby of Trump Towers). But imagine what a Hebrew might know after 400 years of Egyptian residence. Those Egyptian processions and funerals must have been spectacular! And they were the gold standard; and that’s all the Hebrews knew.

And let’s think about how these chests/caskets/coffins were designed and transported. I found plenty of images.

Two staves indicate that they would be carried by several men.

The rectangular caskets were almost always made of wood. The finest—of cedar, others were made of sycamore or acacia.

Gold and silver were reserved for kings, Gilding in gold or silver indicated a close connection to the king

Some were equipped with sleds, to be dragged to the burial place.

After the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites get instructions for building the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle). But also on the construction of a very special container called in Hebrew aron and translated as ark (not the same word as Noah’s ark: tevah). Aron means closet, cupboard, ark, coffin or casket.



Instructions are found in the Book of Exodus (25:19; 37:6)

It is to be 2½ cubits in length, 1½ in breadth, and 1½ in height (approximately 52×31×31 in). Then it is to be gilded entirely with gold, and a crown or molding of gold is to be put around it. Four rings of gold are to be attached to its four corners, two on each side—and through these rings staves of shittim-wood overlaid with gold are to be inserted; these are for carrying the Ark and are never to be removed. A golden lid, the kapporet which is covered with 2 golden cherubim, is to be placed above the Ark.






And Cherubim…what are they exactly? Beings with wings. Not exactly angels, but certainly not humans.

In the ancient Near East, wings above a king or even a god serving as protection was common. Tutankhamen’s throne had massive wings on the sides as armrests. The winged sun-disc was a standard iconographic feature in Egypt. In the Mishkan, however, they served either as God’s throne or as protectors surrounding the deity. The Ark of the Covenant was to be the footstool, seat, or podium for God. (Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber – TheTorah.com)

So imagine now, the Israelites after the Sinai revelation are trudging through the wilderness with not one, but two very special containers.

One, with the bones of Joseph and the other, the ark holding the tablets of the law.
One designed in Egypt when Joseph was the Viceroy and the other designed by God!

Let’s leave aesthetics and visuals aside and consider this:

The Hebrews were in Egypt for hundreds of years. They remembered their ancestors’ promise to Joseph. They dragged his aron with his bones with them when they escaped Egypt, through 40 years of wilderness wanderings, through battles for the land under Joshua, and finally buried him in the land of his fathers.

That’s Astonishing…………….I would call that the epitome of Loyalty and Integrity!

Although our text does not mention the “other” aron that is being carried or dragged alongside God’s aron, the Rabbis certainly did take notice. It was clearly troubling and out of that comes midrash.

In Mekilta Tractate Beshallah we hear several propositions.

  • The Israelites would explain the 2 side-by-side chests by saying: “one is the ark of God and the other is a coffin with a dead body.”
  • Explaining that odd statement they justify Joseph’s aron by saying : “the one lying in this coffin fulfilled that which is written on what lies in that ark.”
  • But Joseph died hundreds of years before there were Ten Commandments. The assumption here is that somehow these Hebrews are truly full of reverence; that they have a profound understanding of Joseph, his morality, God’s laws and how these interact.

Meanwhile our Torah text repeatedly tell us of God’s frustration and disappointment with this people. He is tempted to wipe them out and start again with Moses. Do we believe God’s version? Or the Mekilta? Can an unworthy people really be able to revere someone for centuries just because he was such an evolved and moral person? God has no confidence in His people. An entire generation that experienced Egypt dies in the wilderness. Only those who never knew slavery get to enter the promised land. Not even Moses.


What does Joseph’s aron represent to these people? What does Joseph represent?

God does not trust them…but Joseph did. They are loyal to the man who trusted them to fulfill a pledge. Joseph did not ask his brothers, nor God, to be immediately taken back home for burial. His father Jacob asked for exactly that and got it. Joseph left this task to the later generations…to a time when God would take note of his people….God’s people? …. Joseph’s people?

Now I am left in a tricky spot. Did we have split loyalties? Is there a contest between following Joseph—a sort of ancestor worship… and obeying this new, demanding God, who claims his role as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (more ancestors)? Scholars have explored this divide. Ancestor worship, they argue was the original religion of Israel before Yahvism was introduced by Moses and the Prophets.” (J. Jacobs, Jewish Encyclopedia)

This is where following Joseph’s bones have led me.

Between the scholars and the midrash writers we can keep exploring.

Do you know….1/3 of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the story Joseph. That’s a lot. Actually there is one interruption: 30 verses– that switch to Judah’s story. The Judah/Joseph parallels are deeply important but not our topic today. Maybe next year.

Genesis ends with Joseph’s death followed logically with the Book of Exodus.
Years of slavery are mostly glossed over.

In Shemot, the first parsha in Exodus (4 weeks ago), we got to hear an unusual message from God that validates Moses by linking him to Joseph. In chap.3:16 God tells Moses to go talk to the elders of Israel and say: פָּקֹ֤ד פָּקַ֙דְתִּי֙ I have taken note. And with that coded language they know that he knows about Joseph’s prophesy and that he, Moses is the man to follow. Today we read the fourth parsha of the Exodus story. I focused on one line that had nothing to do with the bulk of the parsha. It is a tag line that glimpses back to Joseph. We will get one more glimmer of Joseph at the end of the book of Joshua. Just glints that remind us that ….there is a sub-text …that seems to have completely disappeared.

Have you ever wondered why we have a pentateuch and not a hexateuch? Why 5 books and not 6 to read over and over each year… Our story is left hanging at the end of the Torah.

We are forever leaving Egypt and never getting in.

But after Joshua…
and after we bury Joseph…
we have arrived.

Ha’azinu, 2015

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On this Shabbat directly after Yom Kippur, I would like to loosely weave together three themes that have touched me during these recent holidays. I hope you will see the link. And… the culmination is today, with the death of Moses.


On Yom Kippur we read from the Torah (Leviticus 16) about the role of the High Priest. About the 2 goats and the sacrifices and about what happens in the Holy of Holies once a year.

The High Priest will bathe and wear a tunic with breeches, sash and turban – all in white linen. He will go alone behind the parochet, the curtain.

There, in the Holy of Holies are the Stone Tablets that God gave Moses. They are in the gold-plated wooden chest—the Ark of the Covenant

But lest he die from such a sight, from such proximity, the High Priest will throw incense on God’s fire – and cloud his own view. What is it that he should not see? The kaporet, the cover of the golden chest? Kaporet? Why is this like kapara, or kippur. What does the root Kaf, Peh, Resh mean?

Rashi explains kaparah as wiping out

Ibn Ezra as hiding, covering

Rambam as ransom for a soul; atonement

Kippur is often translated as Atonement and Kapara as Sacrifice

The text says: “He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the Parochet/curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the Kaporet/cover and in front of the Kaporet/cover.”

Kaporet (Kaf, Pey, Resh & Tav) ……..Parochet (Pey, Resh, Khaf, Tav)

Same letters; different order.

Behind the Parochet is the Kaporet

I understand that something terribly important happens between the two—

between Parochet and Kaporet:

But what?

It is a permutation of letters, but a reversal that is transformational…that is, in fact, redemptive.


The second theme is the 2 goats

One is sacrificed by the High Priest as a sin offering.

The other goat, the scapegoat, is burdened with all the sins of the people and sent off to make expiation into the wilderness, to Azazel (whatever that is. Our Rabbi spent time on Yom Kippur exploring this in his sermon).

Rituals are powerful. Perhaps the ritual of the scapegoat inspires Jews to repent because it symbolizes that we can divest ourselves of past sins. The goat is left standing alive but sent off to possible or probable death… but we will not witness its death in the wilderness.

And, so in this week’s parshah … I imagine Moses… standing… high up on the peak—that is, on Pisgah. Is he perhaps the 2nd goat and is he also the High Priest pouring out the past and future sins of the people? His poem or song describes what will happen to us when (not if) we betray God.

It’s a history lesson—a harangue—an accusation—a warning—a witnessing …and a promise of God’s redemption. He speaks about God …and for God.

The last line (verse 43): ve’khiper admato amo translated variously as:

God will “cleanse the people’s land.”
or “appease His land & His people.”
But admato may be a scribal error for u’dmaot
Meaning, therefore, He will wipe away His people’s tears” (not land).

Cleanse, appease and wipe …are all used for the word= khipper…which we know as atone or sacrifice.

Are the sins poured on our heads or has Moses taken them on like the goat? Is he somewhere between parochet and kaporet expiating our sins.


And later, on that very day Moses dies somewhere in the wilderness

Much has been made of why he is prevented from coming into the Land…But I see this moment in the story as a sacrifice—a not so willing one.

14 years ago I wrote this midrash:

(Moshe and God on Mt. Nevo: a Midrash on Deut. 34:4-6)

So, the day was ending, and Moshe climbed the narrow trail to the other face of Mt. Nevo. Earlier in the day, at Pisgah, God had shown him the entire Promised Land and all that would befall Israel in the future. He saw more than he cared to.

So his thoughts turned to the past. He thought of Avraham who also climbed a mountain…that time, to sacrifice his son Yitzhak at God’s command. But God intervened and substituted a ram. “Maybe God will ……” he half suggested raising his eyebrows as if in conversation… and one hand opened to express the possibility.

He thought of his own sons, and wondered if he could have withstood such a test. His throat tightened around a flood of memories…so many recent deaths…

As he continued his climb, his thoughts wandered over the years. He recalled protesting to God that he was “not a man of words…that he was heavy of mouth and speech.”

But, I suppose I did alright these last 5 weeks… teaching the people…with God’s help, of course” he added quickly, for he remembered God answered him then rather impatiently:

Who makes a mouth for man…Is it not I, Yod-Hey-Vuv-Hey. So now go! I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.”

Oh yes, he remembered well, and everything. He had pleaded with God so often—but he knew that no plea would change God’s decision now. He was not going with his people across the River Jordan. He would die here. Certainly, it was not because he had no strength or no skill. …for he certainly had the ability to persuade… even God. But, not this time.

The evening sun stood sentinel. “I understand,” he said suddenly out loud, startling himself.

The Man of God stepped surely over stones and brush to reach the place — haMakom… the very place where God would meet him, as promised.

Hineni. I am here.”

Friend,” said the voice of God softly, “I, too, am here.”

Moshe knelt.

You are my faithful servant,” pronounced God, raising Moshe’s already lofty status to that of Servant of God! A servant, after all, is permitted to enter the inner chamber of the king. Moshe would surely see now more than the afterglow of God’s passing presence.

Even kneeling Moshe was dignified.

God enveloped him and placed His mouth on Moshe’s mouth and reversed the act of creation. Yod-Hey-Vuv-Hey had breathed life into Adam’s mouth.

Now, He held His Godly breath and Moshe expired.

God carried Moshe’s body down to the valley and buried him Himself.

And that night, we are told, I-Am-That-I-Am was heard crying on Mt Nevo.


Well, a lot has happened to me, as you can imagine, in the last 14 years.

Which brings me to the next and last theme.

During these Holy Days we did a lot of remembering of our parents, our teachers. I thought about how hard it is to separate from them. To keep them close (in love and in hate) ….and to become separate—to become oneself.

I thought about the admonitions, criticism and other, shall I say, “poems” my father aimed at me and I wondered if I was any freer from perpetuating these “sins” than the Israelites were after hearing Moses tell them how they would fail repeatedly.

I thought about the role of parent/teacher—like Moses, like my father and now like me.

I am not sure that any of us know what we are doing with our warnings & predictions if not insuring that they will indeed happen.

But I do know that God loved Moses… and retired him from his job as father/leader/teacher in the only way possible. Moses died and there is no grave to visit, to mourn, to protest and cry at, or even fight over.

The Israelites had to make their own way with their own mistakes…just as I had to & just as our children must… in spite of who our parents were… but also because of who they were.


The last few days have been filled with remembering: of sins, of sacrifices, of deaths and then… then atonement.

The Baal Shem Tov said that “remembering is the secret of redemption.”

As we come back to the mundane world from our own personal Pisgah experience…

…from the intensity of the mystery between Parochet & Kaporet…

…from our restoration through reversals & teshuvah…

…from cleansing and appeasing and wiping away tears…

…May we go forward guided by the memory of a courageous Moses and the Torah he taught. On his yahrzeit, may his memory be for a blessing.

This year, Moses will be the first guest in my Sukkah.

Parshat Noach, 2009

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As you just heard from Ruth Katzner, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month in the US and our CBI taskforce decided to do a d’var Torah to help raise awareness of this difficult issue in our own Jewish community.

I was assigned Parshat Noach and wondered how I would make this work.

This is a parsha with lots of measuring and building going on. It begins with the story of Noach and the command to build the ark, collect all the animals … and ends with the dispersion of the people after the skyscraper debacle of the Tower of Babel. Not too obviously promising for my theme…

But something did catch my eye and got me started in my exploration. The rabbis also noted this curious detail.

  • God commands that Noah, his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives should go into the ark that Noach is to build (Gen 6:18).
  • Two more times (Gen 7:7; 7:13) we are told that Noah, his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives enter the ark.
  • One year later God tells them to go forth out of the ark…but this time it is: Noach, his wife, his sons and his sons’ wives. (Gen 8:16)Why the change of order?

Textual inconsistencies are what Bible commentators live for! This is, after all, how midrash is created… to explain the quirky, the alternate spelling, the missing person, and to build meaning out of sometimes obscure stuff.

  • The animals entered the ark as commanded two by two, male and female of each species.
  • But the humans are told to enter first males and then the females. Not as couples.
  • One year later there has been, miraculously, no procreation among the humans nor the animals.
  • The change of word order is explained by Rashi to mean… that there was sexual abstinence during the entire time they were in the ark.
  • The humans were so busy feeding the animals day and night that there was no time for sleep or sex.
  • That the animals did not procreate was a miracle, although one rabbinic reading suggests that the animals were also gender separated during the entire year. This would, of course, remove the need for miracles!

A year of abstinence does not explain to me why they leave the ark as couples… two by two. What happened during this terribly confining year on the ark, during which they became the only humans in the world?

  • There is a parallel story of destruction and a select few survivors. And that is: Lot and the destruction of Sodom.
  • Both Lot and Noach are chosen by God to survive the destruction of their extremely corrupt worlds. Both found comfort in wine and oblivion.

Leaving Lot’s unfortunate daughters and Noach’s strapping sons aside for now… let’s focus on Mrs. Lot and Mrs. Noach—two women with no names.

  • The rabbis give them names but they don’t work at all for me.
  • What are they doing while Noach and Lot get directions from God or angels and are busy building or negotiating?
  • What would you be doing if you were told that the world or your city was going to be destroyed?
  • When we move to new places or into new relationships, what gets left behind and what do we choose to take along?

Lot and his family are repeatedly told not to look back at Sodom being destroyed. Mrs. Lot can’t help herself and she gets turned into a pillar of salt. Sodom was supposedly a disgusting, corrupt place and yet she looks back. What did she hope to see? What did she leave behind that she longed for?

Noach’s ark was built with no windows—only a sky light. They were not going to be able to see the destruction of all they had known, the drowning death of their neighbors, of the animals, the submerging of their villages.

They are spared the horror.

So what do we:

  • Take along: Memories, photos, a culture, perhaps a story of who we are.
  • Leave behind: material stuff, burdens, obligations, neighbors, some friends, a culture, a name perhaps.
  • And the stuff that comes along even when we try to discard it? Personality, shticks, relationship issues, and memories


Getting back to my question of rank and gender order…

Besides feeding the animals, what did Noach and Mrs. Noach do during that year together? Something happened or changed… that is for sure.

Was it like a retreat where husband and wife could focus on each other without the grotesque distraction of the corrupt world around them?

Or did they fall in love again after years of dull routine?

Was it an ‘age’ thing, where Noach and his wife had more in common with each other than he with his sons, and she with her daughters-in-law? The younger folk get to walk out of the ark as couples, too.

Sometimes home is a retreat, a refuge… but sometimes it isn’t… it can be a prison.
What was the ark?

The ark year seems to have been a good thing for Mr. & Mrs. Noach. They walked out hand-in-hand, knowing they had been saved by God to care for the new world. Noach sacrificed to God and planted the first-ever vineyard. And then became drunk…and well, that’s another story and a painful one, too.

I never understood why God didn’t just recreate humans from earth again instead of saving a few flawed ones.

We never hear of Mrs. Noach again. The story reverts to the male descendants. In fact why did we need Mrs. Noach at all? The only reason I can see is that everyone must have his or her mate on the ark. And there is a midrash on that, too.

One midrash says that Deceit wanted to get on the ark but was rejected because he had no mate. He invited Want to be his mate. They struck a deal for eternity: Whatever Deceit acquires, Want takes away. Together they got on board and are still with us.


Let us look at 3 more couples.

1. Sarah is barren but Abraham never prays to God for her. He will intercede on behalf of many people but not for his wife. Indeed God’s promise of countless descendants makes no sense if Sarah is to remain barren.

He endangers Sarah on their visit to Egypt by insisting she pretend to be his sister lest Pharaoh kill him to get her for himself. At 65 she must have made quite an impression! And Avraham repeats the subterfuge with Abimelech.

What does one say about such a relationship?

Unlike Mrs. Noach, Sarah is essential to the story. Although Avraham has his son Ishmael, God’s covenantal promise is through Sarah, not Hagar. -Avraham seems somewhat incidental. God tells him to listen to Sarah’s words. This is a partnership of equals, who have traveled a long way together and together have brought followers to their God. They are alienated from their past together. They are barren together. And then they are fruitful. It is a strange and poignant balance.

Isaac is born to them after the physical covenant is made with Avraham.

By the way, Sarah also disappears from the story after the Akeda. Midrashim abound! Isaac feels his mother’s loss profoundly; her tent awaits Isaac’s bride.


2. Rebecca is also barren, but Isaac “entreats the Lord for his wife” (Gen. 25:21) and she conceives. This is an arranged marriage that is a story of love—if not exactly a love-story. Rebecca eagerly leaves her home to be with this distant cousin. When she and Avraham’s servant Eliezer approach Isaac after the long journey, she asks, Who is that man?
Rashi says: She saw him majestic and she was dumbfounded in his presence.

Aviva Zornberg writes that what Rebecca sees in Isaac is “the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers.” She comes from a different place, “the sunlit world of hesed (loving-kindness)” and although they are a monogamous couple, they never quite understand each other.


3. Jacob and Rachel are also cousins. He does not pray for his barren wife although she pleads with him: Give me children or else I die.

He responds: Am I in God’s stead who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?

How can he speak to her this way? This is the woman he adores, for whom he has worked 14 years. Rachel does as Sarah did and offers Jacob her handmaiden Bilha. Rachel manages to conceive after she prays for herself.


Let’s go back to my second theme: What did each take along or leave behind?

  • Abraham and Sarah left everything behind to start anew together as equal partners.
  • Isaac has been stripped of everything except the tremendous burden of his inheritance. He waits for someone or something to complete him.
  • Rebecca jumped at the chance to leave her parents and follow the servant who brought so many gifts. Was this gracious and out-going woman striking out on her own, or running away from her difficult family?
  • Jacob leaves home with nothing except the stolen blessing from his father. But he carries with him great fear of Esau’s vengeance.
  • What caused Rachel to steal her father’s gods when they leave the only home she has ever known?

When or how do we make ourselves ready for important journeys—real or metaphoric?
What do we need to take with us and what are we willing to leave behind?
When we go, are we primarily moving away from something or toward something?
How to let go, in order to be able to take hold…

We find ourselves in these stories, in these mythic individuals, and their predicaments. The information we have in the Torah about couples is sparse and terse. What we know about the people in our families and in our community is often also sparse and terse and simply hard to really understand.

And what about ourselves?

Are we able to look at our own journeys and choices in a dispassionate and creative way? Can we fill in the details with midrash to help us continue our journeys, or to help us change the journey?


I’ll end with a Midrash

Now Mrs. Noach was past child-bearing age when the world began anew. Her sons had married fine women and they started their respective families. But Noach was hard to talk to after the flood.

During the year on the ark, they had worked hard and always together.

And they had talked while they worked. They talked of their hopes for the future, for their future grandchildren.

They remembered together their youthful days when they worked the land and struggled to feed the growing boys.

But now, Noach was quiet and kept to himself. He planted a vineyard by himself; a whole vineyard! Who ever heard of such a thing? He harvested the grapes and made wine and nearly every night he drank himself into oblivion. This was not the man she had loved. She did not understand him.

She had left the ark full of hope and now she was more alone than ever. The Lord blessed Noach and her sons and told them to multiply. She was past all that and wondered what exactly God had in mind for her.

And so one day, Mrs. Noach took a walk and kept on going. She never looked back… and no one ever came looking for her. One day, a dove circled overhead and alighted on a nearby branch. The dove seemed to be cooing… something about Noach… that he was unwell and had cursed their youngest son…and then it flew away.

Mrs. Noach was not sure she had understood, but found herself humming softly as she walked, and after awhile, as the path got easier, her voice became full and her singing filled the air.

Aharei Mot & Kedoshim, 2009

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Today’s double parshiot, Aharei Mot & Kedoshim are all about Holiness.

How to become Holy and stay Holy.

I want to review the highlights of the reading and then focus on what I have been studying this month.

In Aharei Mot, we begin, importantly, with a reminder of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu and God’s command to Moses to tell his brother Aaron to be careful when to go into the holy of holies to avoid a death like his sons’.

The rituals of the High Priest on Yom Kippur follow. Today’s parsha is, in fact, the one we read on Yom Kippur. The reading of this ritual became a stand-in for the actual ritual that can no longer be performed since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We get a description of the special holy white linen garments the High Priest puts on. And by the way, we will all be dressed this way eventually, because these clothes are the model for the shrouds that Jews wear when they are buried.

28 verses describe the sacrifices (lots of blood and guts and really strange rituals), the changing of garments, etc. and the commandment that we must do these Yom Kippur rituals “for all time.”

The Parsha continues with prohibitions against drinking blood, against being like the other peoples and following their ways, and a long list (13 verses) of whose “nakedness” one may or may not uncover. A fool-proof system for controlling appetites and protecting familial lines & societal order.

But there are many more prohibitions:

  • No sex with…
    • menstruating women,
    • your neighbor’s wife,
    • a man as with a woman,
    • animals;
  • No sacrificing your children to Moloch;
  • Do not profane God’s name;
  • Do not defile the land or it will spew you out, and you will be cut off from your people.

Kedoshim, the second parsha has more laws about how to be holy.
It is the Holiness Code: an expansion of the 10 commandments:

  • Revere your parents;
  • No idols;
  • Sacrificing correctly;
  • Leave the corners of the fields and fallen fruit for gleaners and the poor;
  • Don’t steal;
  • Don’t deal falsely;
  • Do not profane God’s name;
  • Don’t defraud or rob;
  • Pay your workers promptly;
  • Don’t insult the deaf… nor place stumbling blocks before the blind;
  • Don’t judge unfairly; don’t favor the poor nor show deference to the rich;
  • Don’t profit at the expense of others;
  • Don’t hate;
  • But do reprove your kinsman;
  • No vengefulness or grudge-bearing;
  • Don’t mix species. …animals, nor seeds, nor 2 kinds of material in your clothes;
  • Make amends for improper behaviors;
  • Pick fruit from trees that are 5 years or older;
  • Do not eat blood;
  • No magic, divination, speaking to ghosts, etc.;
  • Do not cut the hair from the sides of your head and beard;
  • Do not cut nor tattoo yourself;
  • Do not prostitute your daughter;
  • Keep the Sabbath and venerate the sanctuary;
  • Show respect to the elderly;
  • Be kind to the stranger for you were once a stranger in Egypt;
  • No false weights & measures;
  • Be honest.
  • Again, no offering of one’s children to Moloch.


Now, to my topic.

I was intrigued by the ritual of the two goats. There are many examples of “twosomes” in the Tanach and some of them have a connection to these two goats and what they represent. First the goats and what happens to them:

Leviticus 16: 5-10

And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 6 Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. 7 Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; 8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.

Lev 16:15

15 He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain (parochet), and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the cover (kaporet) and in front of the cover.

Lev 16: 20-22

20 When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. 21 Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. 22 Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

The Hebrew for this “wilderness” is called Azazel. In English we call the second goat the scapegoat, as in the one who escapes.

The word “Scapegoat” is an inaccurate translation of the word Azazel.

In 1530, when William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, he understood the word Azazel as ez ozel – literally, “the goat that departs”; therefore “(e)scape goat.” This was adopted in the King James version in 1611. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But the Talmud (Yoma 67b) says it is a contraction of az (harsh) and eil (strong) and points to a rugged mountain. This explication is seconded by Rashi, who said it was the name of a specific mountain or cliff over which the goat was driven.

Another English scholar (R.H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Oxford) said it was the home of the fallen angel Azazel. Modern scholars generally reject Tyndale’s (e)scape goat interpretation and favor the fallen angel/evil demon version.

In modern Hebrew we now hear lekh la-Azazel (“go to Azazel”), as in “go to hell“.


So let us look at some of those other interesting twosomes…

Keep in mind the preference for flesh and blood offerings versus milder vegetation ones. Note the wilderness option and what all these things mean in each story. In all cases, except the last, the 10 commandments and the holiness code we read today had not yet been given.

Cain and Abel

Cain was a tiller of the soil and his younger brother was a shepherd. They both made offerings to God; Cain presented “fruit of the ground” and Abel presented an animal. Abel’s offering was accepted but not Cain’s. Cain murders his brother in jealousy and when God asks him where his brother is he cries out: Am I my brother’s keeper?” God says that Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground. So Cain finally has his blood sacrifice but God is not pleased. Rather he is sent out to be a “ceaseless wanderer on the earth. This is a coded story I think. Two males of a species; indeed—two brothers; one is sacrificed and the other is sent out to the wilderness—much like the two Yom Kippur goats.

Ishmael and Isaac

Isaac is nearly sacrificed by his father. A ram miraculously appears and is substituted for the boy. But earlier it was Ishmael who is sent to the wilderness to fend for himself and probably die. God saves him but he lives apart mostly. God then tests Abraham’s faith by ordering a human sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham passes the test by agreeing to God’s demand. Here is a decisive moment that tests faith but comes down on the side of animal instead of human sacrifice. Two males of a species; indeed—two brothers; one is nearly sacrificed and the other is sent out to the wilderness—much like the two Yom Kippur goats.

Esau and Jacob

Jacob is known for cooking red lentils and Esau for his hunting skills and roasted meat he prepares for his father Isaac. Esau is the first-born twin and his father’s favorite. Jacob and their mother Rebecca trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the first-born. The mother provides and prepares the meat. We are now in the third generation and there is a blending of the various options. We are the descendants of Jacob, not Esau. His is not to be our path. Esau is a man of this world, of the earth, of passions and he is pained by his loss and goes his way. Jacob, the future God-wrestler, grabs what is needed for his journey—the birthright. And then he must leave far away to escape his brother fury. Sacrifice becomes something different—more akin to how we use the word today. And wilderness is something that exists between known places… perhaps the wildness between frightened and angry brothers.

Two males of a species, indeed—two brothers; their relationship is sacrificed and they both go out to the wilderness—both Yom Kippur goats.

Joseph and his Brothers

First-born of Rachel but eleventh son of Jacob, Joseph is “sacrificed” by his brothers. They argue the possibilities: kill him or sell him. Joseph is sold, but the brothers slaughter an animal and soak Joseph’s coat in the blood to explain his “death” to their father Jacob. Joseph becomes both goats—the sacrifice and the expiation. A long journey far from home and family, a wilderness of loneliness eventually puts Joseph in the right place at the right time to forgive and redeem his brothers. Brothers, indeed—but the sacrifice and the redemption are all in Joseph.

Nadav and Avihu

And now back to the parsha…

We have seen that those who become close …karov …to God become the actual korban…the sacrifice. This was no accident. They brought their fire to God’s fire and the intensity was fatal. Their death it seems was a sacrifice necessary to properly sanctify the Mizbeah and future Temple. After all, the word Sacrifice means to perform a sacred ceremony (in Latin: sacrum facere)

Moses said to his brother: “Of this did God speak, saying: ‘I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.’ And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)

Moses must have thought this would mean himself and maybe Aaron too. Two brothers.

A midrash explains.

Moses told Aaron: “Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Temple would be sanctified through someone very holy and close to God. I thought it had to be either you or me … but now I see that they, Nadav and Avihu, are greater than we are [as they were selected].” (Talmud, Zevochim 115b)

And so it seems, Nadav and Avihu were also scapegoats of a sort; their deaths were required to inaugurate the Temple for the rest of us. Their brothers Eleazar & Ithamar will take over.

We know that the Lord is our shepherd.


One last thought.

Today was brought to you by the letters: Kaf Pey Resh & Tav.
I want to bring your attention the permutations and what they might indicate.

Kippur meaning atonement and Kapara meaning Sacrifice are both Kaf, Pey, Resh.

The High Priest enters the Holy of Holies alone only once a year on Yom Kippur. This is where the gold covered box holding the tablets of the law is kept. The cover of the box is called the Kaporet (Kaf, Pey, Resh & Tav)

Part of the sacrifice ritual includes putting blood on this cover.

In front of this is the ark curtain, Parochet in Hebrew. (Pey, Resh, Khaf, Tav)

Same letters; different order.
Behind the Parochet is the Kaporet.

You may have heard of the ritual of Kaporet? Get a chicken, swing it around over your head to indicate that it covers you or takes on your sins, then slaughter it. Still done today in Orthodox communities, it is a sacrifice done to expiate one’s sins. The animal is a substitute for us.

Therefore the Holy of Holies is also called Beit Kaporet (house of the cover or house of sacrifice).

I understand now that something terribly important happens every year between the curtain and the cover — between the Parochet and the Kaporet:

It is a reversal that is truly transformational…
It is redemption.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dvar Vayetzei, 2008

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Vayetze! (And he left) What a Parsha! Let’s review a summary:

  • Jacob leaves home to escape his brother Esau’s vengeance, and to find a wife among his cousins in Haran.
  • He has a dream that marks the spot where divinity abides.
  • He arrives in Haran with no gifts and falls in love at first sight with his cousin Rachel by the well.
  • He spends 20 years in exile in Haran—years and pages filled haggling with Laban for wives and for sheep and goats. And the wives barter for their time with Jacob.
  • He fathers 12 children with 4 women… 11 sons & 1 daughter.
  • Jacob leaves again… actually…he escapes again…

or runs away from Laban with all his wives, children, servants and flocks.

  • He negotiates a treaty with Laban, who sets a boundary which neither of them will cross.
  • The Parsha ends just before Jacob prepares to return and meet with Esau. He becomes Israel after a transformational struggle with a “messenger.” But that’s next week!

What I left out …
are the enticing details that we and the rabbis have been pondering ever since.

Here are 10 of them:

— Is Jacob the trickster who gets justifiably tricked in return? (fooling his father is followed later by getting the wrong bride) Is he genetically bound to be devious as the son of the wily Rebecca and the nephew of the insatiable and untrustworthy Laban, a man who makes up the rules as he goes along?

— Or, alternatively …is Jacob fulfilling the message from God to his mother Rebecca…the one she heard when she was pregnant with twins… that the older will serve the younger.

Is God’s plan put into action through dubious but necessary human maneuvers?

— What happens to Rebecca & Isaac after Jacob leaves home? They are stuck with the embittered older son, Esau, the 3 unfavorable daughters-in-law. They never see Jacob again, nor his wives, nor their grandchildren. This is a tremendous sacrifice ( I use the word intentionally) to fulfill the covenantal promise. There is room here for a midrash!

— Do the stones Jacob sets out at the beginning of the parsha marking the gateway to heaven of his ladder & angel dream have anything to do with the stones at the end of the parsha that Laban sets up as a boundary marker?

— And why are 20 years of negotiating with Laban important in the Jacob’s story? Why does Laban merit hearing God speak to him? And why does he not give up his idols after this revelation?

— What do women have to do with sheep and goats? Rachel (rahel) means ewe lamb (a baby female sheep). Laban and Jacob argued and negotiated about all of them—women, sheep and goats.

— Here’s a good one:

Two sisters become wives to one man. One is loved and the other isn’t. One has children and the other is barren. What is that about?Ruth Ever’s father taught us last week in his wonderful dvar that barrenness followed by births in our Matriarchs is nature’s course being altered by God at His will. And prayer paving the way.

Mr. Ever spoke of the order reversal of older and younger siblings as being God’s decisions despite the social order of the time… and indeed assurance that, as Jews in minority status, we will survive and thrive. These sibling reversals & struggles permeate the Bible: Cain and Abel. Yishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Tamar’s twins Peretz and Zerach. Aaron and Moses. And, of course, Leah and Rachel.

— Why is the beloved Rachel not buried next to her husband in the family tomb, and Leah is? There in Hevron are Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah. But Rachel is buried on the road near Bethlehem where she died ironically and poignantly in child birth.

— All the mothers get to name their children. The names are related to the mothers’ feelings or longings: See a Son, God heard, My husband will be attached to me, Praise God, What luck!, What fortune!, God has rewarded me, My husband will exalt me, etc. Before she dies, Rachel calls her 2nd baby Ben-Oni “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob translates Oni as “of my strength. And yamin from Ben-yamin means “right” as in right hand, the hand of my strength. Jacob redirects the name to reflect his feeling rather than Rachel’s. It is about his strength or virility. What do we make of this?

— Jacob is the sort of guy who allows things to happen to him. Rebecca directs him in the stolen blessing scene, in his escape to Haran, in his search for a wife. He is not in position to “buy” a wife with gifts, so he becomes a worker of Laban’s. He accepts the conditions of the contract without dispute and though angered at the wife-switch perpetrated on him, he accepts that too. Finally, he runs away from Laban by night rather than confront him. And his only firm and decisive words are a vow to kill whomever has stolen Laban’s idols. Not a good thing considering Rachel is the guilty party!

He is not heroic. And what has he done in 20 years that relates in any way to his ladder and angel dream experience? Because he is so human, I love him. He is like us; daring only sometimes; judgmental at the wrong times; easy victim of life’s vicissitudes.

Indeed look how different his meeting at the well is from that of Eliezer searching for Isaac’s bride. Jacob, a man, does all the things that his mother Rebecca, a woman, did a generation earlier. He runs to meet Rachel, he waters her flock, and he weeps. These friendly, endearing traits do not prepare him well for the likes of Laban.


These are all the topics, and more, that I have been intensely thinking and reading about recently. I simply share them with you… so you can think about them too.


What I want to focus on in the next few minutes
is about yearning for what we do not have …
and creating the future by changing one’s destiny.

According to the text…
Leah loves Jacob who does not reciprocate the feeling.
Jacob loves Rachel,
but Rachel yearns only for children.

What could be more hellish than to be stuck in such a configuration?

Indeed Jean Paul Sartre wrote the morality play No Exit about just such a triangle. Each has expectations and needs of the others and none of them are met.

It is Leah whom I find intriguing.

According to midrash she was meant to marry Esau and Rachel to marry Jacob.

Rebecca’s 2 sons were a match for Laban’s 2 daughters;the elder with the elder and the younger with the younger.

Leah sat by the crossroads and heard these things. She asked about Esau, her intended and heard that he was a bad sort, a robber. She asked about Jacob and heard that he was gentle and studied Torah. So she cried her eyes out. This explains her “weak eyes.” (Gen 29:17) But, with her crying, she chooses to change the course of her destiny…at the crossroads… and plans to get Jacob as her husband instead. Indeed perhaps she, not Laban is the actor in this theater.

When Jacob discovers Leah in his marriage bed instead of Rachel and confronts her, I think … I think that Leah must have quietly reminded him that they were made of thevery same cloth. He had changed his limiting destiny as a 2nd son and had become the bearer of the father’s blessing and the next patriarch. She had changed her destiny and would produce half the tribes of Israel. He needed her as much as she needed him. She adds (I think) that he, not she, had weak eyes and could not see what was right in front of him…. much like his father Isaac.

Leah, in her own quiet way was much like his mother, the take-charge Rebecca. Leah tells him that his choice of Rachel, based on “love at first sight” is doomed. He cried when he first saw Rachel and he will cry again when she dies in childbirth. His passions will rule, and even cloud, his ability to raise Rachel’s sons with equity and good judgment. Preferential treatment given to Joseph will spoil him and make his brothers envious.

All this she tells him, (I imagine) and then she is silent. She waits to see what Jacob will say or do. True to his style, he accepts her leadership and wisdom. He is passionate about Rachel, but he grows to respect Leah. Leah, for her part has the will to create her future, unlike Sartre’s doomed characters in No Exit, who are stuck in their destinies and replay the past ad nauseum. That is their hell.

And that leaves Rachel. Her role is entirely out of the ordinary. She yearns for children but her role is rather as creator of redemptive powers. One will be Joseph who will save his family, and the other is found in her tears, understood by the rabbis as the redemptive power that will bring the exiles back to the land. That is why she is buried “on the way.” It was on the way back to Canaan for Jacob, but it will be on the way to Babylon when the Jews are exiled. They will hear her crying and will know that they will return.

There are two interpretations on what becoming “one flesh” means.

–According to Rashi, “one flesh” is the resulting child.

The marriage of Jacob and Leah is like this. They can project into the future.

–But according to Ramban, “one flesh” is the union of two people for eternity with no link to progeny. That is the marriage of Jacob and Rachel.

Jacob has both marriages and has the opportunity to understand the difference and to synthesize the experiences.

When is this part of the story over? When is it time to return to Canaan?

It is after Joseph is born that Jacob feels safe enough to return to Canaan and meet with his brother. Joseph’s future role is a guarantee of sorts.

But Jacob has learned much … He will struggle (in the night) and change his destiny too.


This is an unusual family. It hasn’t been a normal nuclear family in the past, and will not become more normal in the future. Abraham and Sarah were cousins and/or half-siblings. Hagar and Sarah were at odds, so Abraham’s sons are separated and become tribal enemies.

Isaac is nearly killed by his father and remained affected the rest of his life. Sarah died from the shock. Rebecca sets in motion a corrective to the natural order of her twin sons, but separates them in enmity as well. Jacob has to balance two sister wives, looses his favorite one and her two sons are nearly lost as well. The older one, Joseph becomes a bi-cultural economic ruler of Egypt. The younger one is involved is a stolen goblet caper that mirrors oddly Rachel and her father’s stolen idols.


I turned 60 last shabbes.

Once, I thought I could correct the choices made by earlier generations in my family.

But, I have been humbled by the persistent repetition of patterns… generation after generation… in spite of every effort. In other words, it is hard to do what Leah did …to change one’s destiny.

Bechukotai, 2001

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Last year, my family pledged a gift to the Solomon Schechter Day School that stretched our budget, but we were pleased to help fund this Jewish institution. How were we to anticipate that our eldest daughter would announce her marriage plans for the following year in Israel! These financial responsibilities led me to re-examine the text that I read today from the Torah. Leviticus 27, verses 9-15 is about vows, the valuation of gifts to the Sanctuary, penalties and the role of the priests.

What we learn is that contracts are serious.

Vows, even if freely given, are serious.

In Biblical times, should I wish to voluntarily donate money for the maintenance of the Sanctuary and grandly declare that I pledge the value of my goat or my house … I enter into a contractual arrangement that has serious consequences.

Should I wish to retract my vow, redeem or change my pledge, I incur a penalty that allows no compromise. Whatever the value of my pledge—whether it be goat or house—I now will have to pay the value plus a penalty which is equal to a fifth of the original value. Ve’yasaf chamishito al erkecha.

Should I wish to exchange the goat for one of different value—even a higher value—then both goats become “holy unto the Lord”…both become pledged. There is no getting out of this contract.

Hubris or generosity may have prompted the declaration of a freely given gift…but not bekeri (not in casualness) may these vows be made.

In the Hertz Tanach that we use here, the word keri is translated many times as ‘contrary’. I prefer the Stone translation that uses the word ‘casualness’ which is closer to the root meaning.

Chapter 26 is full of God’s terrible admonitions—the tochachot. God threatens that should we deal with Him and His statutes bekeri—in casualness—

then He will deal with us in casualness too. And, even in a ‘fury of casualness’.

God drafts a contract…a covenant with us … and the breaking of this contract has serious consequences.

When Moses went to get the commandments on stone tablets and came down from Mt Sinai to find the Israelites had made an idol, a golden calf…he threw the tablets down and broke them, as we had broken our side of the covenant. And at that time we didn’t even know that there was a contract.

Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.


Not by chance, chapter 27, the very next chapter dictates the laws of freely-entered-into vows. Our vows, if we make them, are to be made with profound seriousness… because the consequences of casualness are even more serious.

In the Bible, keeping our vows is a matter of law. These days, we are more accustomed to saying that it is a matter of integrity.

Integrity is the cornerstone in the building of our character… as well as the maintenance of our Sanctuaries.

Our word must be our bond.