Responsibilities of the People

This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 1/20/23 by Aron Unger.

This week’s parsha is Va’era, which tells the story of the turning of the tides against Pharaoh. Last week, Pharaoh increased the amount of work the Jews were required to do, but this week, he begins to get his comeuppance. First, we have the story of Aaron turning his staff into a snake, and when that fails to impress Pharaoh, the first 7 of the 10 plagues, each of which again fails to convince Pharaoh to “let my people go”.

When analyzing this parsha, the first instinct is often to look at the two main characters: Moses and Pharaoh. Maybe Aaron if we like hearing the sound of our own name. But I am interested in a group of people that has an extremely passive role in this parsha: the Egyptian people. When mentioning the slavery in Egypt, the Torah always says “the Egyptians enslaved the Jews”, never “Pharaoh enslaved the Jews”. The power is centered where it always fundamentally lies, among the ruled, not the ruler. The Egyptian people are specifically called out to be suffering greatly due to the plagues, yet they never even complain to pharaoh, let alone rebel against his leadership. So the obvious question is why?

We are actually told the roots of this extreme centralization of power. Let’s go back in time to the Joseph story. It was a time of famine, and times were desperate. Joseph had advised Pharaoh to save grain during the seven years of plenty. When the famine came, Joseph sold the grain on Pharaoh’s behalf to the Egyptians at an extreme markup. First for their possessions, then for their land, and finally for their own freedom. Inflation was even worse back then I guess. Once the crisis was over, it seems as though the Egyptian society was fundamentally altered, with the Pharaoh holding extreme power. The Egyptians were no longer able to see themselves as able to negotiate with the all-powerful pharaoh. This might also explain why they were so quick to enslave the Jewish people, creating a lower class and elevating themselves.

This also helps explain a phrase found in last week’s parsha:

וַיָּ֥קׇם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף

 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

Rashi, the famous medieval Jewish commentator, points to a Talmudic source which translates this phrase as “a new king arose over Egypt who acted as though he did not know Joseph”. Pharaoh must have known the story, but he somehow conveniently forgot that the power he now held was due to a crisis situation that was now resolved. 

There is also a callback to the Joseph story in this parsha. Aaron’s staff that turns into a snake swallows up the snakes conjured up by pharaoh’s magicians. This reminds us, and maybe pharaoh, of the swallowing of the fat cows by the thin cows or the fat grains by the thin grains in the Joseph story. It even uses the same uncommon word, בְלַ֥ע in both stories. 

Additionally, this parsha has an interesting phrase that gets repeated over and over: וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ – and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. The root of the word used here is חזק, which literally means “strong” or “powerful”. Pharaoh is obsessed with his own power. He, like many despots, is willing to let his entire nation suffer to maintain his grip on the throne. It is only when his entire society is crumbling that Pharaoh finally decides to let the Jews go, but even then he chases after them, only to finally perish in the Red Sea.

The story of the exodus is also the story of an Egyptian society that fails because it is grounded entirely in a “might is right” ethic. The Egyptian people are unwilling or unable to challenge Pharaoh, and Pharaoh cannot show any weakness, in fear of losing his throne. The exodus story ultimately culminates in a very different type of ethical system. One where value is placed on a moral code that everyone is beholden to. It does not matter what type of leadership a nation is under, individuals bear their own moral responsibility and must behave ethically. 

And that is one of the lessons I think we should take from this parsha. That we in our lifetimes will experience good leaders and bad leaders, on a personal, communal, and maybe especially national level. It is our responsibility as Jews to stand up for what’s right, speaking truth to power, to ensure that we as individuals and we as a society are behaving as ethically as possible. And what a fitting time to have this parsha, at the end of MLK week, commemorating a person and era where we can be proud to say so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, stood up for what was right. May we continue to follow in their footsteps. 

Shabbat Shalom

the best version of ourselves

This Dvar Torah was given by Deb Laufer at KICKS on 12/09/22

Jacob hasn’t seen Esav since he tricked his father into stealing his brother’s birthright. In this parsha, Jacob is planning his reunion with Esav, he is understandably anxious about how he will be received by his brother. In preparation, he sends his servants ahead with 200 goats; 200 sheep; 30 camels; 40 cows, 10 bulls; and 30 donkeys as gifts. That same night, he then sends his two wives, two maidservants, and eleven sons ahead.

His whole entourage of staff, animals, and family are continuing the journey and Jacob stays behind, in the dark, alone. 

Jacob tells Gd that he is unworthy of the kindness that has been shown thus far to him. Commentators say that Jacob is paralyzed with fear of meeting his brother, he either can’t go forward or is considering fleeing. His self doubt and fear that this point is palpable. 

Next, the text reads:”Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

At the end of this encounter, Jacob is left injured and in daylight, he can no longer run or hide and is forced to face his brother. 

Commentators refer to this man who mysteriously appears just in time to force Jacob into facing his fears as an angel. During the struggle, Jacob asks for a blessing to end the fight. The figure asks Jacob his name and then says: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have *striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃

It’s a little weird to me that an encounter with an angel who appears because of Jacob’s cowardice ends in a blessing about Jacob’s strength. The Radak suggests that God sent the angel to embolden Jacob and build his confidence before his confrontation with Esav.  Rashi refers to the angel as a representative of Esav, that Jacob is asking for validation that he deserves the blessings he has received from Isaac and from Gd despite the sins he has committed against his brother. 

The intended outcome is the same, that Jacob is left with the courage to continue his journey and face his brother. 

Much later in the parsha, Gd offers another blessing to Jacob:

“You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus he was named Israel.

Commentators tell us that both blessings mean that his name is no longer ONLY Jacob, and will from now on be Israel, but also still Jacob. 

Jacob/Israel’s name is referred to interchangeably throughout this parsha and the whole Torah. The next lines in this very parsha continue:

Jacob set up a pilar
Israel journeyed on,
Israel stayed in that land, 
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.

Or HaChaim comments that names describe the nature of its bearers’ souls, their essence. 

The name “Jacob,” means one who “holds on to his brother’s heel.” 

Jacob was jealous of Esav, he wanted his fathers love and Esav’s blessing. This name ties him to a past he tried to run away from. In this Parsha,  Jacob is confronted by those feelings and prevails. He says to his brother: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.”

Jacob wants to prove that the blessing he received originally by deceit is actually deserved.  In validation of this idea, He is no longer Jacob, the one who clings to his brother’s heel, but rather Israel who has wrestled with Gd and prevailed. 

But– he is not only Israel, he is also still Jacob. 

Jacob is owning his past, his mistakes, his fear and self doubts, but Israel is moving forward, he has struggled and prevailed. 

Rabbi Sacks says that we should view Jacob’s new name  “Not as a statement, but as a request, a challenge, an invitation.” That Jacob should Act in such a way that people will want to call him Israel.

The constant movement back and forth between the two versions of his name is intentional: It teaches us that wrestling with things is human – like self doubt or divine – like our faith is never intended to end. 

My goal for us tonight is to continue to strive to be the best version of ourselves. That we try to earn the name Israel, one who thinks to the future, faces challenges and overcomes;  but that we also be Jacob, and not forget our past mistakes and embrace the struggle and learn from it. 

Shabbat Shalom

Stops and Starts

7/29/22 by Erica Quigley

When I was in fifth grade, we were routinely required to memorize and recite something, usually a poem. It felt pointless at the time, but like most traditional practices, it had immense value I couldn’t see until I grew up. At some point I memorized Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I remember having a hard time the night before the recitation. My dad was giving
me cues to help me. There might have been tears. But the spare beauty of those words has stayed with me.

The poem’s narrator stops for a moment of awe in nature, as I often do. It’s the inverse situation from Parshat Balak from a few weeks back, when the donkey refuses to continue and his rider doesn’t see why they have stopped. In the Frost poem, the rider stops his horse in the middle of the woods, and the horse doesn’t understand why.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

That moment in the forest is transcendent, but the rider can’t stay there forever. Frost repeats the last line twice to emphasize the need to keep moving. Parshat Masei repeats itself 42 times, recounting every time the Israelites camped in the wilderness as they journeyed for 40 years towards the Promised Land. “They set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham.” Et cetera. Now that I’m learning to chant Torah, I appreciate sections like this. Like the rhymes in Frost’s poem, repeated phrases help us read and memorize text. (Reading all those place names, of course, is another story.)

When we encounter long lists in the Torah – censuses or offerings or place names – we tend to question the repetition. We know where we started and where we are now. Why do we need to hear about every single stop along the way? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks illuminates this passage in the context of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He points out that the history of the Jewish people is one of travel and rest. Both are essential. Each time we set out, we are called to move, to seek our purpose, to grow. Each time we encamp, we are called to stop, to catch our breath, to gaze in wonder at the beauty around us. We celebrate Shabbat because constant movement isn’t sustainable. Shabbat ends because we must continue the journey. The poem’s narrator, as Sacks writes, “knows that life has an ethical dimension also, and this demands action, not just contemplation. He has promises to keep; he has duties toward the world.”

There’s a darker side to a list of place names when it comes to Jewish history. We read this parsha during the Three Weeks between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, a time when we collectively mourn for tragedies from the destruction of the Temples to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and beyond. We haven’t always begun traveling because we’re fired up to do God’s work after a peaceful evening among the trees. In the words of Rabbi Reuven Spolter, “Maybe this list is both a lament and a foreshadowing; a kinah [elegy] of God for the lost time and the destroyed Jewish community which perished in the desert – a lamentation for the tens of thousands of Jews who died needlessly in the desert, and the tens of millions who would perish after them in the desert of the exile.”

We cannot get stuck in despair, or what historian Salo Wittmayer Baron called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” We learn from Ecclesiastes that there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. We learn from Parshat Masei that there is a time to travel and a time to rest. Robert Frost asks us to share a moment of wonder in a forested wilderness. Perhaps it is when we pause – in nature, in prayer, on Shabbat – that we can hear the echoes of our history. A history of encampments in the desert, of movement from slavery to freedom, of spiritual journeys inwards. May we find the rest and renewal we seek, and may it give us strength to continue the journey and keep our promises to ourselves, to one another, and to God.


Social Change is not Optional

Friday 4/22/22 by Liz Miraglia

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! So much of what we celebrate during Pesach
revolves around achieving freedom, and the heroism of those who helped save us. Tonight, however, I would like to focus on the outcomes of our journeys that we never have the opportunity to see.

Almost none of the original Israelites, including Moses who freed them, made it to the
promised land after leaving Egypt. They wandered in the desert for 40 years, praising g’d along the way, but it was only their children who finally arrived in the land of milk and honey. They were unable to see the fruits of their labor for themselves, but for the generations that came after them.

The questions I first want to raise are, if they knew they would never see their own
redemption, would they have continued on their journey? Would they have left Egypt in the first place? My answer to these questions is with another question: Did they have a choice?

In modern day, we undertake projects which require a lifetime investment, though we
may not always recognize them in that way. When it comes to issues of social justice, such as housing and income equality, decarceration, or climate action, we are taking up the work started by the generations that came before us. They will also be taken over by the generations who come after us. We are likely never to see the resolutions of the issues in our communities and in our world.

The reality of this is hard to accept. It is damaging to our egos. It poses to us an
impossible challenge: can I truly not solve this? Perhaps it is our unwillingness to accept this reality that keeps us going. But what would happen if we were to accept that we may not ever see the fruits of our labor? That we likely won’t?

I’ll start by saying that the Israelites did not really have a choice in leaving Egypt, nor i
not turning back. They could not remain in slavery, especially once they knew freedom was possible. If they had chosen to stay, or come back of their own volition, they would no longer be working in Egypt under duress. In other words, freedom is not an option; it is a right. Neither did Moses have a choice in accepting g’d’s command to free the Isreaelites from Pharaoh. G’d did not leave Moses the option to deny the task, or to pass the obligation to someone else. In fact, Moses would likely have been happier living among the Kenites for the rest of his life. However, freeing the Israelites was his responsibility, and something he was impelled to do.

In the same vein, we cannot see our commitment to social change as optional. In the
words of Jean Paul Sartre, “man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” And it is our moral imperative as Jews to prepare our world not just for ourselves, not just for our own children even, but for the children of every nation. As human beings, it is our moral obligation to recognize that often we are taking up this work from other indiginous communities that came before us. We do not deserve all the glory for solving the world’s problems, and one could argue that this is precisely why Moses was
not allowed to enter the promised land. We are simply one link in a long chain of people who do not make things better because they want to, but because there is no other way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Seeing is the precipice of understanding and action

*This Dvar Torah was written by Rachel Eisen but she was unable to deliver it in person due to an ice storm. Stephanie recapped the drash expertly, and now you have the opportunity to read Rachel’s original words:

2/4/22 Parashat Terumah

This week’s parashah, Terumah, details the construction of the traveling sanctuary that the Israelites are to build so God can dwell among them in the desert. This mishkan, this tabernacle, is ornate and elaborate, built from donations given by the people.

The parasha begins, as so many do, with God speaking to Moshe, giving him instructions. 

God says: “Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.” 

Then, three more times throughout the parasha, God refers to showing Moses what to do, saying in Exodus 25:40, “See/Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain”; in 26:30, “Then set up the Tabernacle according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain”; and once more in 27:8, “As you were shown on the mountain, so shall they be made.”

Each of these verses uses verbs formed from the root resh-aleph-heh, meaning “to see” or “to show” or “to be visible” depending on how the verb is formed. Even the command to “Note well” uses this root.

I was drawn to this repetition and this concept of seeing/showing. Why does God keep referring to what God is showing Moshe while describing it at the same time? Is God both showing and telling? 

Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century Spanish commentator also seems like he was drawn to these statements where God is emphasizing what God is showing Moshe. He has a few thoughts in particular on the first two verses where these verbs from the root resh-aleph-heh are used.

First–Ibn Ezra points out that we are talking about literal, physical sight as opposed to a prophetic vision or dream.

Second–he links the seeing implied in “note well!” to wisdom and perception, in other words implying that sight provides understanding.

Third–he notes some of the variable forms of the verb being used include some irregularities in how they’re being conjugated. In doing so, he also draws a distinction between seeing and acting.

This comment that separates seeing from acting stood out to me. At first I thought it implied that seeing was passive, but then I read Ibn Ezra’s note about seeing as a perceiving, and leading to wisdom, and it felt like there was something missing in the middle.

In a d’var on Terumah published on My Jewish Learning, Rabbi Brent Spodek writes about the Mishkan as a signifier of a moment in time. Some may think of it, he writes, as a moment in time from the past, and some may think of it as a representation of what could be in the future. 

But I’d like to ask: what about the present?

The Mishkan is meant to be a moveable dwelling place – a place for God to come and be amongst the Israelites here and now in the desert. In a way, it holds both the past and the future. The desert is a liminal place – in between the past of slavery in Egypt and the future of the promised land.

Which brings me back to the concept of showing and Ibn Ezra’s comments about seeing as wisdom and seeing being different than acting.

What if seeing, too, is a liminal sense? Ibn Ezra is right to link seeing – or any sense, really – with perception and knowledge. To sense something is to come to understand it. And understanding something can lead to action – for example, a greater understanding of God, through the sensing of God’s presence, might lead the Israelites to take up the actions incumbent upon them as Jews. Judaism, after all, is widely considered a religion of action over belief.

If so, then perhaps God emphasizing what Moshe has seen on the mountain makes sense – when Moshe sees what God has shown him, Moshe is still in that liminal space, on the precipice of understanding, and therefore on the precipice of the action needed to actually build the Mishkan. And since Moshe alone is being shown this, he has to find a way to bring this back to the Israelite people to help them understand and help them feel called to take up this important action. Moshe’s seeing here is all too important – for it is this seeing that will enable him to enable our people to come closer to God.

Shabbat shalom

KICKS 10th Birthday Torah

In honor of our 10th Birthday, we invited past and present leaders to give to comment on three different verses in this week’s parsha. We hope you click the links to read what people think about Ki Tissa and it’s connection to KICKS.

1. Exodus 31:13
Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you.
וְאַתָּ֞ה דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ כִּי֩ א֨וֹת הִ֜וא בֵּינִ֤י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם לָדַ֕עַת כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם

2. Exodus 30:15
The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons.
הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃

3. Exodus 31:16
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time.
וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם׃

Thanks to All the people who contributed to writing these divrei torah:  Alex Braver, Jacob Cytryn, Jeff Horowitz, Tatiana Becker, Rachel Silverman, Matt Goldberg, Emily Fishman, Lev Meirowitz Nelson, William Hamilton, Amanda Kauffman, Jordana Truboff, Sari Fein, Brian Meyers, Elizabeth Perten, and Deb Laufer.

Thanks to the 256 individuals who helped make KICKS great over the last 10 YEARS by teaching, greeting, leading davening, sponsoring Kiddush, hosting dinners, washing dishes, and working in committees to ensure that all these things happened! Here is a list of all of their names.


Jacob’s comfort

This Dvar Torah was given by Deb Laufer on 12/20/2019

In 10th grade English class, we read the Bible as a secular work of literature. Our assigned reading included Joseph’s grandiose dreams of his brothers bowing down to him and ended with them conspiring to kill Joseph and leaving him in a pit. The next day in class, my teacher said that this is an example of how dreams don’t always come true. He hadn’t read the next chapter!

The irony of my English teacher’s error is that this parsha does end in the middle of Joseph’s story. In prison, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler. The butler is about to be released from prison and Joseph asks him to intercede on his behalf with Pharaoh. Joseph’s predictions of the butler’s dreams are fulfilled, but the parsha ends harshly with the butler forgetting about Joseph. 

Earlier in the parsha, after Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit, they bring his torn and blood stained coat to Jacob as proof of his death. Upon seeing Joseph’s coat, Jacob tears his own clothes and mourns for his son for a long time. His family offers to comfort him, but Jacob refuses to be comforted וַיְמָאֵן֙ לְהִתְנַחֵ֔ם and says that he will mourn Joseph for the rest of his own life. 

There are laws in judaism about the limits of grief – shiva, shloshim, a week, a month, a year. There is no such thing as endless mourning. The talmud actively admonishes one who mourns too long and it can even be seen as a sign of disrespect to the person who has died.

Jacob takes Joseph’s torn coat, and his words seem to say that he accepts his son’s death. However, his refusal to be comforted implies he has not given up hope that Joseph could still be alive. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates Jacob’s reaction to parents of soldiers missing in action, who can’t go through normal stages of mourning if they maintain hope that their child is still alive. Their continuing grief is a type of loyalty. To reconcile and move on is to give up hope.

There is an apocryphal story of Napoleon Bonaparte walking past a synagogue on Tisha B’av and asks why the Jews are crying. His officer tells him they are mourning the loss of Jerusalem. “How long ago did they lose it?” He asked? The officer replied that it had been more than 1700 years. Napoleon said: “A people who can mourn for Jerusalem so long, will one day have it restored.”

Jews are the people who refuse to be comforted because they never give up hope. Jacob did see Joseph again, just as the Jews have returned to Jerusalem. 

Ending the parsha in the middle of the story with Joseph’s ups and downs and uncertainty in his future leaves us with a complicated mix of hope, a promise of greatness, and despair. Vayeshev, meaning settled, is a funny title for the parsha, because our main characters, Jacob and Joseph never really seem settled.

What can we learn from Jacob’s refusal to settle and accept the presumed reality of his son’s death? Or from Joseph, a bullied teenager believing in his own future greatness? 

It’s not as simple as if we refuse to accept a painful reality, then our dreams and goals will definitely come true. We still mourn on Tisha b’Av even though Jews have returned to Jerusalem, we still say yisgor and kaddish annually for loved ones we’ve lost. We can refuse to let go of our past experiences and memories of loved ones and keep them as a meaningful part of our future lives. 

Today is the second yarzheit for my mom. As I reflect on ending my mourning over a year ago and accepting the comfort that Jacob denied himself, I am thinking about what I want to hold on to and continue to work towards. In honor of my mom today I’ve learned and shared a little bit of Torah, I went for a long and fast walk outside, and shared some good scotch with a friend. 

My hope is that we find acceptance and comfort when due, but balance that with refusing to accept complacency and using our discomfort to actively work towards achieving our goals and righting the wrongs in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Rejoice Intentionally

This Dvar Torah was given by Rachel Eisen on April 6th, 2018

Passover 7th & 8th day/Shabbat – Rachel Eisen

I know that Passover feels like a lot. Last week, my Facebook feed was filled with the usual complaints about cleaning and plenty of jokes about what was found in the oddest of places, from chametz (leavening), to toys, and everything in between. I work at Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh, and every year someone writes a blog post for us about immersing before Pesach – not just to spiritually prepare themselves for the holiday, but also to find relief from all the prep.

Then, of course, there are the think pieces that circulate in response: don’t you understand that we have to tell the story of Passover as if we, ourselves, were freed from Egypt? The hard work that we do to scrub our houses clean can only make us appreciate the freedom we celebrate at the seder even more.

Indeed, there is a lot of work for Passover — here, I’m loosely defining work as “things that have to be done or gotten through.” The Torah we read throughout the holiday reflects that. On the first day, we read about the paschal offering we must make in remembrance of the angel of death passing over the homes of Jewish slaves in Egypt. We continue to learn about the laws of sacrifice on the second day.

On the seventh day, we read about a different kind of work — not the work of remembrance, but the work it took to get to freedom: the parting of the sea, the wandering, the desperate need for water.

And coming up, on this eighth day, we will read about the work our community must continue to do: we must take yearly tithes of harvests, and we are once more reminded that we must make offering and sacrifices in order to observe Passover.

But amidst all this work, we also rejoice. On the seventh day of Passover, we read about how the Israelites broke out in song upon their escape from bondage. In the Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover, we are commanded twice to rejoice. And when, like this year, the eighth day falls on Shabbat, our expanded reading contains yet a third mandate.

I think it is significant that these specific, multiple commandments to rejoice come on the last day of Passover. If you pay attention, you’ll actually notice that none of the three seem to have anything to do with this particular holiday: the first (which is part of the Shabbat extension reading) has to do with how we live our everyday, or rather, everyyear lives – it is a directive to rejoice during the annual tithing. The second and third are commandments to rejoice during the two other major week-long festivals, Shavuot and Sukkot.

But these two other festivals of course have everything to do with Passover.

While Passover celebrates our physical freedom from bondage and slavery, Shavuot celebrates our spiritual freedom, gained through Torah and our covenant with God, and Sukkot commemorates the journey we took to become a people, in order to realize that spiritual freedom. Shavuot and Sukkot cannot exist without Passover.

What’s interesting is that the celebration of the Israelites at edge of sea that we read about on the seventh day is not technically referred to as “rejoicing.” It is primal, and reactionary. The Israelites break out into song and dance at the pure relief of finally being physically freed.

The commandments, samachta, “you shall rejoice,” that we find in our reading for the eighth day of Passover are similarly public, outward expressions of celebration. But in contrast to the primal celebration at the edge of the sea that was marred by the concurrent drowning deaths of God’s creatures — foes of the Israelites, to be sure, but as two different sages remind on us on two separate occasions in the Talmud, God’s creatures nonetheless — in this rejoicing we are obligated to include not just ourselves, but also people of all genders and ages, our own slaves, the strangers and the needy among us.

This is a rejoicing that understands not just physical freedom, but spiritual freedom and the journeys one must embark on to understand the difference. It includes all peoples and it is grounded in justice.

As we now draw toward the end of Passover, this holiday which is marked by effort and work, and continue on our journey toward Sinai and covenant with God, I encourage you to consider what it means to rejoice intentionally and what it means to rejoice for justice and spiritual freedom, too.

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Tazria – focusing only on the necessary

This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 4/5 by Morry Safer

Shabbat shalom. Chodesh tov.

This week’s parsha is parashat Tazria. A couple of meta-drash points before I get started. First, from about 2nd grade through 4th grade, Parashat Tazria was my favorite torah portion. You may think it funny that a young student would have a favorite parsha, and even funnier to find out that this is it (if you already know the content). You see, having learned to read Hebrew, but not yet learned to chant torah trope, “reading” my mini paper torah from parashat Tazria looked the most authentic to me, with approximately half the torah rolled around each of the eitzim. I dare say, if Mrs. Maisel were to have a scene reading torah for the television audience, I’d recommend parashat Tazria as having the best visual.

Second, Parashat Tazria is often read combined with next week’s parsha, Metzorah. As I’ve taught before, the parshiot in this part of the torah fall shortly after we’ve made the determination, historically based on the observation of the vernal equinox, whether we are ready for the springtime holiday of Pesach or whether we need to delay by a leap-month. Since this year is a leap year, we spread these parshiot out in order to cover the weeks of Adar Bet.

Inherently, that means that Tazria and the parshiot immediately before and after are always read between Purim and Pesach. It is in that context that I’d like to discuss the content of the parsha.

Flashing back to Purim, many of you know that I have a long tradition of chanting Chapter 1 of the megillah (at KI and elsewhere) and since I spend so much time with its words, I’m always trying to gain new insights. This year, I was struck by a particular phrase in verse 8. To refresh the scene, we are three years into the reign of King Achashverosh, a character who is the epitome of foolishness in Rabbinic literature. To celebrate, he throws a big party for everyone in the kingdom – a party whose opulence is described in great detail: whites and blues and purples in the embroidery, silver rods, marble columns, couches of silver and gold. In verse 7, we learn that endless wine was served in mismatched golden vessels. Then, in verse 8 we learn:

וְהַשְּׁתִיָּ֥ה כַדָּ֖ת אֵ֣ין אֹנֵ֑ס

The drinking was according to the law, with no coercion”

What does this mean – “the drinking was according to the law”? King Achashverosh *is* the law. If he is throwing the party, by definition it is legal. In one interpretation in the Talmud, “the law” is connected to the previous verse about the golden goblets. There is a tradition that the mismatched golden goblets being used at the party were originally from the Temple in Jerusalem. To reinforce this interpretation, we chant these words of the megillah reading using the mournful Eicha trope. As the story goes, the previous Persian king threw a similar party and shortly thereafter died. Achashverosh, thinking he has learned from that King’s mistake, insists that his party goers be more careful with the Temple dishes. In a party full of showiness, drunkenness, and nakedness, the King makes sure that the wine is kosher! As if this wasn’t already a ridiculous visual, it is also a complete misunderstanding of the rules of the Temple. While we may be generally concerned about party kashrut, using the implements of the Temple at such a party crosses the line between the holy and the profane.

It is pretty easy to see how King Achashverosh might get confused. We are in the middle of a string of parshiot that do little to provide clarity. We’ve learned the holiness rules of the Temple korbanot and the profanity of the “strange fire” brought by Aaron’s sons to the Mishkan. Then we are presented with the clean and unclean animals, with different rules corresponding to the transfer of uncleanliness via contact and water. This week, in parashat Tazria, we get the purity laws related to menstruation and childbirth immediately adjacent to those of tzara’at – the infectious disease threat so serious that it can inhabit clothing and walls of houses.

And all of this discussion about tahor and tameh, purity and profanity, leads us up to the celebration of Pesach, whose traditional biblical observance centers around the consumption of the korban Pesach and the very clear division of the community into those who are tahor and can participate and those who are tameh and cannot. These classifications are taken so seriously that a month later, Pesach Sheini is introduced as a second opportunity to sacrifice the korban pesach for those who had transitioned from tameh to tahor in the interim. These types of community divisions are completely foreign to our modern day celebration of Passover – a holiday’s whose seder text proudly proclaims:

כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח

Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy come celebrate Passover”. All – the tameh with the tahor, the clean with the unclean, the kosher with the treif.

In our world today, in the absence of the Temple, our community survives in a perpetual “tameh” state – unable to purify ourselves. And, in a world where “ritual impurity” is hard to clearly separate from “unclean” which sounds an awful lot like “dirty”, it is easy to get confused. Throw in the added Pesach-specific complications of chametz, and like King Achashverosh, we don’t stand a chance. Are we to purify ourselves before the holiday? Complete a thorough spring cleaning to get rid of the dirt? Spend introspective time ridding ourselves of our personal “chametz” or “treif” or “tameh” – preparing for a spiritual Korban Pesach? It’s no wonder that Pesach is a holiday whose impending arrival can make us absolutely crazy!

For the specifics of how to prepare for Pesach, consult your local rabbi. But beyond those requirements, it’s time we take a deep breath as a community — making sure to take chametz seriously, but not conflating it with other issues of uncleanliness, ritual impurity or just every day dirt. These are the cumulative Torah lessons we read every year between Purim and Pesach. This year, on this Shabbat HaChodesh, when lengthy rabbinic sermons have long focused on Passover’s rules and regulations, let us be precise in our required targets for chametz cleaning, focusing only on the necessary, and enter the holiday as a community with a renewed energy for celebrating Z’man Cheruteinu, the season of our freedom.

Shabbat shalom.

Yitro: Connections Between Jethro and Moses

This Dvar Torah was given at KICKS on 1/25/2019 by Abbē Neumann

This parsha, especially in comparison to the previous parsha, is actually fairly short in length while the events depicted are incredibly powerful and important. In this parsha we read about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, learning of the miracles that God performed to help free the Israelites. We read about how Jethro is so in awe by these events that he travels to the Israelite people, meets with Moses and even extends advice to Moses out of genuine love and concern for the Israelite people and their future. We then read about the gathering at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the 10 Commandments, an incredibly dramatic and awesome scene where God speaks not just to Moses but to all of the Israelite people.

While reading this parsha, I found the dynamic between Jethro and Moses to be incredibly interesting. First, we have here the leader of the Midian people that, when he hears about the miracles that God has performed to help the Israelites, is so moved that he takes Zipporah, Moses wife, and their two children and ventures out to meet Moses and speak with him personally. His excitement for the development of the people and their relationship with God is passionate and inspiring. I think it’s important to remember that Jethro was not monotheistic but admits:

“Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].”

We then read that Jethro brings burnt offerings and sacrifices for God. Jethro’s words and actions are significant not just because he recognizes the power of God but that he expresses genuine respect for God and his chosen people. This is antithetical to Pharaoh who embodied smugness, conceit and refused to accept God’s plan for the Israelites. Pharaoh thought that he was more powerful than God whereas Jethro is humble before God and the people.

Later in the parsha, Jethro comes across a scene that puzzles and concerns him. He watches as lines of people gather morning into night, just to bring their problems before Moses and wait for his judgements and wisdom. Jethro reaches out to Moses and asks:

“What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

After Moses explains his role in this process, Jethro responds with:

“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Again we hear from Jethro a genuine concern for Moses, the people and their future. Perhaps this was something that only a neutral third party could see, perhaps it was something that Moses and the Israelite people have been thinking about this whole time but didn’t want to admit out loud. Whatever the reason was, Jethro had the love and compassion to extend his concern to Moses directly. Moses, a man who has been speaking to and fulfilling the commands directly from God! What’s even more amazing is that Moses immediately gets to work on following through with that advice.

I find the relationship between these two leaders fascinating. They both inspire each other, they greatly respect each other and they trust each other. There aren’t many words in this parsha that really go into detail about their relationship  but the actions that they take speak louder than words. Jethro didn’t come to Moses to impart selfish demands or to show off his power, he came out of the sheer excitement and beauty of the chosen people. Moses didn’t brush off Jethro’s advice or feel threatened by him, he took his advice to heart and followed through. This is a really beautiful moment in Torah, in my opinion. Moses is often depicted as kind of alone, tired, doubtful of himself and exasperated but here we see him with a level of comfort and mutual respect. Moses doesn’t doubt himself, he just does it.

Now maybe this was just the way father/son-in-law relationships were during this time period but I have to wonder because Moses isn’t just “some guy,” this is a man speaks to God and gets his orders from God. Maybe Moses and Jethro felt a connection with one another because they’re both people who are considered “others” or “outsiders.” Moses was raised as an Egyptian, not as a Jew. Jethro was a Midian priest, not even Jewish at all. Both of these men were living in foreign places; they were not living in a world that matched who they really were on the inside. Both men developed into the people and the leaders that they are at this point in the narrative, with the inspiration and strength from God. Maybe they felt as if they each uniquely understood the challenges of being a leader who was an “other” and therefore trusted in one another.

Regardless, I think we take this moment to reflect on our own lives and relationships. Often times when we are trying to do good work that helps others, we sometimes lose ourselves in the process. We find it difficult to see out of the narrow lens we’re looking through and find it more difficult to empathize with others when we feel overwhelmed and bogged down. This can risk us to lose sight of what is really important in the work that we do and can eventually unravel the hard work we’ve already put in. Hopefully we all have a Jethro in our lives that can recognize when we’ve lost our way and feel comfortable and confident enough to reach out and speak up. If we do not have people we feel we can trust in and if we cannot let ourselves relinquish all of the power, we end up doing the opposite of good and begin to do harm to ourselves, our communities and our future. So instead of isolating ourselves, let’s all think about how we can be a little bit more like Jethro and Moses in our own relationships.

Shabbat shalom!