Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Parshat Pekudei: Why did God appear at that moment?


Why did God appear at that moment?

The parshah ends by telling us,  “When Moses had finished the work (hamelachah), the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God’s Presence filled the Tabernacle.’ (Exodus 40:33b-34) What is it about this particular moment that caused God to become present in a material way?

Let’s go back to the beginning of our quote, at just the moment the cloud appeared: “…When Moses had finished the work [on the tabernacle].” (Exodus 40:33) The word used here for work is melachah which is the same word used for God’s work of Creation (Genesis 2:2). Melachah, a type of work that has a strong element of creativity within it, is also the type of work that we are not allowed to do on Shabbat.

Once the Tabernacle was completed, it was time to begin the journey (masa) to the Promised Land. Rashi, the 12th century commentator, notes that the term masa is mentioned twice. The first time (40:36), the cloud lifts and the Israelites set out on their masa/journey. The second time (40:38), the cloud rested in the Tabernacle as they encamped.  According to Rashi, “Because they always set out again from the place of encampment on a new journey therefore all the different stages of their journeys (including the places where they encamped) are called masa’ot/journeys.” 

At the beginning of Genesis, God created the universe and the Divine presence is felt throughout the world.  At the end of Exodus, Moses completes the Tabernacle as a home for God, almost as an in-law apartment, a place for the imminence of God’s presence to dwell. Even though the Israelites had experienced miracles, they still required a constant material reminder of God’s presence.

The Akeidat Yitzchak, a 15th century commentary, writes that “… the universe could be shown to have been a successful creation only if it were able to function on its own, without constant directives from its Creator.”  

While we no longer require constant directives from God, we still require signs that God’s presence is among us. It is much more difficult in modern times to recognize the miracles wrought daily unless we train ourselves to do so. To this end we must remember that each of us is a mishkan, a tabernacle. Each of us not only contains a bit of godliness but are also required and able to manifest this godliness in everything that we do.

From the melachah of Creation to the melachah of the Tabernacle to our continued melachah of forming holy communities and bringing godliness into the world – this is our task, this is our purpose.

Table Talk Questions: 

  1. Where do you find God’s presence in your daily life? In the world? 
  2. What meaning does it mean to you the word journey is not only the going from point A to point B, but also all the stages along the way? 

First published in the Washington Jewish Week, March 7, 2019

Friday, September 21, 2018

Ha'azinu: Moses and the Ministry of Presence

Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, is Moshe’s farewell to the people Israel. It is his way of shaking them up, of offering them his final words of wisdom so they will not become complacent as they enter the Promised Land.

To my mind, it is also Moshe’s way of reminding himself that he did well. That he has a legacy to impart.

Ha’azinu is the beautiful poem with which Moshe ends this address. In it he said, “Ask your father, he will inform you; your elders, they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Don’t forget what happened, Moshe is saying. Ask your elders, they will remind you, they will teach you.

As a chaplain, I accompany people during different stages of their lives. What exactly is a chaplain? Someone who serves the spiritual and emotional needs of others by being fully present to the needs of the moment, usually through visiting, listening and prayer.

I work with elders, particularly those with dementia, those who are ill or nearing the end of life. While they aren’t always in the mood to talk, they know that I’m there for them when they are. The important thing is that I present myself as someone who respects each person as an individual who has something important to offer, and who I am willing to listen to and learn from. One can learn a great deal, even just sitting with someone in companionable silence. In chaplaincy-speak we call this the “ministry of presence.”

Just as Moshe did, we all look to the end of our lives and wonder what those final moments will be like. We want to leave a legacy. Unlike Moshe, we do not know the circumstances of our death and are not able to plan a grand farewell speech, particularly while we are in good health, to those we are leaving behind.

During this season of self-examination and rededication, I want to remind all of us to pay attention to the elders around us. Take the opportunity to benefit from their wisdom. As we age, let us take the time to share our wisdom with the next generation, so that they know who we are and the lessons we want to pass on. Then, if the time comes that we can no longer speak, know that the heavens and the earth will bear witness to the thoughts and prayers in our hearts and souls.

This Dvar was first printed in the Washington Jewish Week 9/21/18 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Parashat Ki Teitzei - Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet/ guard-rail for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house when/if a faller should fall from it.” (22:8)

Rashi, the medieval commentator, links this verse about building parapets to the section that immediately precedes it about not taking a mother bird and her young on the same day. He comments as follows: 

WHEN YOU BUILD A NEW HOUSE - If you have fulfilled the command of letting a mother bird go you will in the end be privileged to build a new house and to fulfil the command of making a parapet, for one good deed brings another good deed in its train, (Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah) and you will attain to a vineyard (v. 9), fields (v. 10) and fine garments (vv. 11—12). It is for this reason (to suggest this) that these sections are put in juxtaposition (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1).

People respond to the challenges of the world in different ways, each according to their own nature. Some of us are active, loud, aggressive. We raise our voices in protest, pray with our feet, lead by example, use our entire bodies when necessary. Others of us shy away from any type of physical confrontation but perhaps feel comfortable writing a letter to an elected official, signing a petition, or posting on social media. Others of us freeze, seized with fear and worry, perhaps hoping that if we keep our heads low and our voices quiet the whole situation will blow over in time. If it doesn’t directly impact us maybe things will just be okay if….

What we must understand, what Rashi teaches us here, is that our good and bad deeds are not discrete, disconnected acts. Our deeds are interwoven. Doing a mitzvah leads on to other good deeds, impacting not only those around us but also, more deeply, ourselves. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one good deed brings another good deed in its train. 

We don’t all need to be heroes. 

Ordinary acts of compassion for animals lead us towards having compassion for humans too; putting a guard rail up on the roofs of our houses ensures that people won’t fall off due to our lack of thought. The verse quoted above contains an oddity - it refers to the person who might fall off your roof as “a faller” not “a person”. The implication seems to be that someone really would have fallen off your roof if it were not for your building a parapet. What begins with a concern for the feelings of a bird ends with actually saving a human life.  

Don’t start big; you can start really small! You don’t have to do something big like organizing a rally or storming the White House to make a difference. Start with small acts of thoughtfulness and compassion. Every action makes a difference because ultimately good follows good. Mitzvah goreret Mitzvah. The complexity of the modern world makes us feel as if we are impotent. But we are not.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community Chaplain in the Washington, DC area. 
Rabbi Joel Levy is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. 

This Dvar has also been published in the Washington Jewish Week Newspaper. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On the Border with Gaza: My visit to Netiv HaAsara

I am feeling incredibly saddened and angered by the most recent round of rockets and mortar shells from and to Gaza in the last 24 hours. And the weaponized children’s toys - the kites and the balloons with incendiary devices attached to them that have become part of this summers reality. Too many of the people living in Gaza have become hostages to Hamas and terror groups. The people living in Southern Israel and increasingly in places deeper into Israel are also being held hostage to the fear and the reality of not knowing when a rocket is going to appear, when a siren will sound, when their life will be in danger and they will have to run to the nearest shelter. 

I was in Israel the summer of 2014 during the last summer of terror. I remember spending time in bomb shelters. I remember being caught outside, cowering, watching, in awe and with prayer and pride, as the Iron Dome, intercepted rockets. I remember my fear as my daughter traveled around the country and all I could do was pray. 

And I was an American, a tourist, just living in Israel temporarily. Though my heart and soul reside in Israel, my main residence is Maryland.  I went home. And I came back this summer for nearly 2 months. Now I’m home in the States again. 

Last month my adopted big sister Ohelli, who lives in Ashkelon, found a balloon wafting into her kitchen. She almost had a heart attack. Thank God it did not have its incendiary device attached to it. Yesterday, my cousin, Ohelli’s daughter, and her little girls, had a bomb explode near their home in Beersheva. It hurts my heart to say that unfortunately this is not she first time has experienced such horror. But her daughters? They are babies. They should not have to experience such things. No one’s children - Jew or Arab - should have such childhood experiences. 

A few week’s ago, when I was visiting Ohelli in Ashkelon, she reminded me that she lived only 11 kilometers (just about 7 miles) from Gaza. Although I was a senior (read: elderly) transportation and mobility specialist for many years I have very little conception of distance. So to illustrate just how close Ashkelon was to Gaza, we drove to a Moshav called Netiv HaAsara.  

Netiv HaAsara is the closest community in Israel to Gaza. The moshav was founded in 1982 by 70 families who were residents of the former Israeli settlement of Netiv HaAsara in the Sinai Peninsula which was evacuated when Israel turned over Yamit to Egypt as a result of the Camp David Accords.  The original moshav had been named for ten soldiers that were killed in a helicopter accident south of Rafah in 1971. 

I must admit that the name of the Netiv HaAsara was familiar to me not from the historical context that I just wrote about, but only from the Red Alert App that I have on my phone. Actually, as I wrote this blog two alerts went off indicating sirens sounding in Netiv HaAsara at 21:15:20 and 21:15:26. At Netiv HaAsara they have 15 seconds to a get to a bomb shelter once they hear the sound of the siren. 15 seconds. That is not a lot of time. By comparison, in Jerusalem one has 1.5 minutes. In Ashkelon one has 30 seconds. 

There are quite a few families who live in Netiv HaAsara. It is actually quite lovely. The children go to school in a neighboring Kibbutz, Yad Mordechai, which also has a 15 second siren to shelter time period.  I remember going Israeli dancing there in the early 1980s. Anyway, houses are still being built in Netiv HaAsara - new families are still moving in. People want to live there, they feel it’s important to live there. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “In the 2010s Netiv HaAsara became an increasingly popular tourist attraction among foreign visitors drawn to a community where ordinary life continues despite constant threat of rocket attacks from neighboring Gaza.”

There is a wall that separates the Moshav from Gaza. It is decorated with ceramic art work by a local artist. It’s beautiful really, as are the bus stops which are also the bomb shelters. The human spirit wins out. Beauty out of desolation. The main drag, so to speak, is called Netiv L'Shalom - the Path to Peace
Kein Yehi Ratzon - So May It Be. 

picture of the balloon bombs being thrown from Gaza

The remains of an exploded balloon

Welcome to Netiv HaAsara

 The fence with Gaza

Netiv L'Shalom  ~  The Path to Peace

Bus stops/Bomb Shelters

An ordinary house.....