5783 Musical Torah Journey
Tzav 5783 – Mah Nishtanah
Today I was working with some students at my day school (Solomon Schechter of Metropolitan Chicago) to prepare for our annual chidon haTanach (Bible contest) which will take place in a few weeks. We went around the room and every student shared their favorite book of the Bible. For me, this went better than expected because I was thrilled that each student even had a favorite book of the Bible in the first place (with a well thought out explanation as to why!). But one student asked if they could share their least favorite book, and they said Vayikra. I asked why, and they said it was because it felt boring and mundane with lots of rules and rituals that are inapplicable or don’t relate to us today. I agree in theory, I said, but that’s only if you just take these words at face value. That is not how our chasidic commentators understand these texts, and I am continually inspired by how they reread texts to create meaning for us in our lives today.
This week’s parsha is Tzav, the second parsha in the book of Vayikra, and at the very end there are a few verses about a minor but important priestly act known as Terumat Hadeshen, “the lifting of the ashes”.
וְהֵרִ֣ים אֶת־הַדֶּ֗שֶׁן אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאכַ֥ל הָאֵ֛שׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָ֖ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְשָׂמ֕וֹ אֵ֖צֶל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃
“and the priest shall take up the ashes that remain from the fire of the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.” (Vayikra 6:3)
At first glance this instruction might simply be to keep the area clean, beautify the sanctuary, and to help the fire burn brighter. But Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the removal of the ashes speaks, on a metaphorical level, to the need for us to approach everything we do as if we are doing it for the first time. There are so many things that we do for the first time with joy and enthusiasm, but after doing these things repeatedly, sometimes day in and day out, our joy and enthusiasm begins to wane. Removing the ashes allows us to start the next day as if we are doing it for the very first time.
We are approaching Passover next week, the most celebrated Jewish holiday. The seder brings with it joy and celebration as well as memories of seders past. We want to hold onto all of those incredible memories, but at the same time we don’t want the seder to be exactly the same every year. How can we “clear out the ashes” in our memory and find a way to approach this Passover and this redemption as if we’re experiencing it for the very first time?
I wrote this song, Mah Nishtanah, as my own fun take on the order of the seder and experiencing Passover through new eyes each year.
Enjoy, and wishing you a chag kasher v’same’ach,
The Greatest Offering
Vayikra 5783 – El Baruch
The entire universe is made up of letters. Every creation, every living thing, contains H’s and C’s and O’s (H2O, CO2, etc.) in myriads of formations that make each one of us unique but at the same time connect us to every other living thing that is made up of the same stuff as us. We each have our own way of walking through the world, our own individual perspective on creation and the world around us. When we sing an acrostic prayer like El Baruch, we acknowledge our own smallness in the space of the universe and at the same time our connection to each individual letter. The word אוֹת, “letter,” also means “symbol.”
Our prayers are made up of individual letters, each aleph and bet and tet with its own purpose and symbolizing its own idea. Even if we aren’t sure what we want to say when we pray, our mystical praying ancestors imagined the letters we recite floating in the air and forming new words to actualize our thoughts and intentions. So even though the specific prayer itself that we say every day remains the same, the words and letters are imbued with our kavanah, our intention, and change their meaning before our very eyes.
In this week’s parsha, Vayikra, God calls to Moses and explains the laws of various sacrifices:
וַיִּקְרָא אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר׃ דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַה׳ מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קרְבַּנְכֶם׃
God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to God: You shall choose your offering from the herd or from the flock. (Vayikra 1:1-2)
The word mikem, “from you,” in this sentence is superfluous. But our commentators believe that every word matters, and so they understand that this word means that each one of us is like a letter. We each have our own specific offering to bring, and God desires not just an offering in general but our specific offering! Your gift, your You-Ness, is the very thing that is most desired.
How would it change the way we pray and the way we walk through the world if we believed that the prayers we offer and the gifts we bring to the world are just what the world needs?
Vayakhel/Pekudei 5783 – Ki Tzarich
There is a famous teaching of Reb Simcha Bunim that states, “Each person must walk through the world with two pieces of paper in their pockets. In one pocket, a note with the words, “The whole world was created for me,” and in the other pocket, a note with the words, “I am but dust and ashes.” Around the same time as Reb Simcha Bunim was teaching this teaching in Poland, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was teaching in the Ukraine. His magnum opus was a collection of teachings called Likutei Moharan (the teachings of Moreinu Harav Rabbi Nachman), and in the opening of the fifth chapter, he writes,
“Every person must say to themselves, ‘the whole world was created for me.’ Once I realize that the world was created for me, I must, at all times, seek out ways to do tikkun olam, and to fill up the holes in the world, and to pray on the world’s behalf.”
There are so many layers to this teaching. What stands out to me the most is the fact that not everyone has the privilege of being able to say “the whole world was created for me.” But if you do have the privilege of being able to say those words, it comes with the utmost amount of responsibility to do something about that. To find ways to change the world. To “fill up the holes in the world.” Rebbe Nachman teaches that there are holes in the world that each person is uniquely suited to fill up, and that only we can help the world in that particular way.
Each one of us is on our own individual and unique journey. And this is reflected in this week’s Parashah, Vayakhel/Pekudei. In the very last verse of the book of Exodus we read,
כִּי עֲנַן ה׳ עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כל־בֵּית־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכל־מַסְעֵיהֶם׃
For over the Tabernacle a cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Ex. 40:38)
These last few words seem superfluous. It already says day and night, why do we need “throughout their journeys?” The Ba’al Shem Tov writes: Every Jew throughout their lifetime goes through these journeys. They come out of “Egypt,” the “narrow place” from when they exited their mother’s womb to their arrival in the “land on high” (the next world). Amongst our journeys there were times when we flourished and grew, like the Israelites at the giving of the Torah, and there were times when we fell, like the Israelites at the golden calf.
We all have moments in our lifetime of upward journeyings and downward journeyings, and through all of them we are constantly trying to move forward, to be the best version of ourselves. Sometimes we need that note in our pocket that says we are everything. Sometimes we need the one that says we are dust. But more often than not, we just need to remind ourselves that there are things in this world that only we can fix.
As we approach the holiday of Passover, the Israelites pause on their journey and take stock in the desert, so we should do the same. Where are you on your journey today? How does your one puzzle piece fit into the collective? You are unique. You are Holy. Your journey is important. You are essential.
Ki Tisa 5783 – Anim Zemirot
Every day, the words we read and pray in the siddur remain the same, but the person who arrives at that moment of prayer is different, bringing with them new experiences, memories, and emotions. So sometimes, if we continue to come back to them, new insights, inspirations, and meanings can strike when we least expect them to! I love finding a new way to read or think about a prayer I’ve been saying my entire life.
Lately I’ve been rethinking the Mi Chamocha prayer. So iconic! The Song of the Sea! We sing it twice a day: “Who is like You, God?!” I’ve recently decided to read these words as a rhetorical question, directed back at the pray-er, as if they were saying it in the mirror, “Who is like You, God? I’m supposed to be like you! I’m made in your image!” And the preceding paragraph gives us the answer of what it actually means to be like God. Right before Mi Chamocha, we describe God in the following way:
רָם וְנִשָּׂא גָּדוֹל וְנוֹרָא מַשְׁפִּיל גֵּאִים וּמַגְבִּֽיהַּ שְׁפָלִים מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים וּפוֹדֶה עֲנָוִים וְעוֹזֵר דַּלִּים וְעוֹנֶה לְעַמּוֹ בְּעֵת שַׁוְּעָם אֵלָיו
God is exalted and uplifted, great and awesome: God humbles the prideful and raises the humble. God frees the captive and redeems those in need, helps the impoverished, and answers God’s people when they cry out. (Morning liturgy)
What it means to be like God is to do these things that we say God does! The moment we first recited this prayer was the first moment we sung out as a free people as we crossed the Red Sea. Now that we are free, it comes with an immense amount of responsibility and care and concern for those around us. It’s as if the prayer is asking us how we can expect God to help us and help others if we don’t do the same?
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, Moses asks to behold God’s presence. God responds that no one can see God’s presence and live, but that God will:
אַעֲבִיר כּל־טוּבִי עַל־פָּנֶיךָ וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהֹוָה לְפָנֶיךָ וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם׃
I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name YHVH, and I will grant the grace that I grant and show the compassion that I show (Ex. 33:19)
The Chasidic Rabbis explain that what God is saying to Moses is that God responds to humans measure for measure – showing grace and compassion to those who show grace and compassion. That’s our mission and what it means to be free – to show grace and compassion, lift up those who are in need, and answer the call of those who cry out.
The rabbis in the Talmud have another interpretation of this verse, and they explain that when God passes by Moses, God shows him the knot on the back of God’s tefillin (BT Brachot 6a). And what is written in God’s tefillin? ״וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גּוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ״, “Who is like Your people, Israel, singular in the land?” (Chronicles 17:21) – The reciprocal of Mi Chamocha! God and the people of Israel are mirror images of each other, ideally each reflecting back each others’ best qualities.
In this prayer, Anim Zemirot, we longingly and lovingly sing out to God, yearning to be close to our soul’s partner. Later in the song, the author writes:
קֶשֶׁר תְּפִלִּין הֶרְאָה לֶעָנָו תְּמוּנַת ה’ לְנֶגֶד עֵינָיו. רוֹצֶה בְּעַמּוֹ עֲנָוִים יְפָאֵר
God showed the knot of God’s tefillin to God’s humble servant (Moses)…God desires God’s people, God will glorify the humble.
Moses is humble so God glorifies the humble and honors his request. The more goodness and grace and compassion and deep listening we put into the world, the more those qualities reverberate out and come back to us as well. May we always strive to answer the question “Who is like You, God?” by embodying the image of God and Godliness in the world.
The New Fit
Tetzaveh 5783 – Shuvah
What do your clothes say about you? Clothing and fashion have been a language and a representation of culture for hundreds of years. The type of dress we choose to wear looks very different in communities all over, and varies depending on your gender identity and expression as well. But can clothes be holy? They can definitely be holey, (thanks to my dad for always inspiring me to make the dad joke!) but we don’t usually think of our clothing as being particularly sacred.
In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, God tells Moses to make special clothing for his brother Aaron, the priest:
וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת׃
Make holy clothing for your brother Aaron, for honor and splendor. (Ex. 28:2)
The priests need special clothes to wear! Why? God says it is for honor and splendor. The Sefat Emet (1847-1905 Poland) notices that this instruction comes right after the instruction for the priests to light the ner tamid, the eternal flame. The oil to light the lamps hints at knowledge and the brain, which should always be pure and clear, and the priestly clothing hints at the body, the container for the soul, which should provide a housing for the soul that is filled with honor and splendor. And these two must go hand in hand! The thoughts in our head and the outward garments should be in line with each other.
We have paragraphs and paragraphs in the Torah about the garb that the priests should be wearing, but for me, one verse from our weekly Torah service supersedes everything else:
כֹּהֲנֶיךָ יִלְבְּשׁוּ־צֶדֶק וַחֲסִידֶיךָ יְרַנֵּנוּ׃
Your priests are clothed in justice, and those who love You sing for joy. (Psalms 132:9)
These words sit buried at the end of the Torah service, right before the most famous lines that we sing every time we return the torah to the ark: Etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah, the Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. But we skip over these powerful lines that come before it! How do we make the Torah into a tree of life? By heeding this verse – when priests are robed in justice, then those who love You will rejoice.
It turns out that the robes and breastplates and uniforms that the priests are supposed to wear, covered in jewels and gold? Those don’t matter. What matters is for our priests to be robed in justice. What does it mean to wear justice? What would it look like if people could look at our leaders, look at us, and see justice on us? What could the world be like if we could look around and see justice on people’s bodies just as clearly as a pair of pants or a hat? How can each one of us take steps to make it clear that this is what we stand for? That is our aspiration and the hope of this song, Shuvah.
This week, as is sadly so often the case these days, we need this message so much. It’s not about the tzitzit hanging from our clothing. It’s not about the American flag pin on our suits. It’s about our actions and the way we walk in the world. We learn from the prophet Micah,
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה־טּוֹב וּמָה־יְהֹוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם־עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃
Gpd has told you, human, what is good, And what is asked of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Kein yehi ratzon, may this be our intention.
Terumah 5783 – Ein Kamocha
Where do we find holiness? In the Musaf Kedushah we call out,
כְּבוֹדוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם
God’s glory fills the whole world! But then the angels call to each out,
מְשָׁרְתָיו שׁוֹאֲלִים זֶה לָזֶה אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ
Where is God’s holy place? Like the game show Jeopardy, the answer comes in the form of a question. Where do we find holiness? It’s everywhere! It fills the whole world! And yet, our response to this question in the kedushah is,
בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה’ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ
Blessed is God from God’s place. Where is that place? We learn in this week’s parashah, Terumah, that the dwelling space for Holiness is in the Mishkan. So how was it made?
In this week’s parashah, Terumah, we read:
וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי (Ex. 25:1)
God says to Moses to talk to the people of Israel and receive gifts from them: “From every person whose heart so moves them, receive a gift” to build the Mishkan. What is the gift?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that each person brings the gift of good that is inside of them, הַטּוֹב שֶׁבְּלִבָּם. Because the Mishkan, that dwelling place where holiness lives, is built on the good that is found within each and every soul. And in each soul it looks different!
זָהָב וְכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים (Ex. 25:3-4)
Gold and silver, bronze and t’chelet, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair.
Your gift, your goodness, doesn’t look like somebody else’s goodness. It is uniquely yours. And all of these gifts, these unique sparks of goodness from every willing soul, are accepted, fully, by God, as one complete gift. We know this because all these gifts are listed and then the Torah says, “זֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה”. This is the gift – in the singular. All these gifts come together as one – כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד, as one person, as one heart.
That unity takes us back to the moment we received the Torah, when our shared purpose was established as we shouted out, נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע, we will do and we will listen!
We reenact that moment three times a week as we take out the Torah, and invite even more pomp and circumstance into that particular reenactment on Shabbat. Week after week, we take out the Torah and learn its lessons, and renew a partnership and relationship with God and our tradition. We call out to a God who is “lawmaker”, a God who gives strength, a God who protects. And at the same time we call out to God who is a parent, God of compassion, and justice. This brand new melody for the opening of the Torah service, commissioned by Beth El Synagogue Center’s Shoresh Halev Center, attempts to capture all of these emotions and aspects of relationship: the closeness and the distance, the energy and the longing.
As we take the Torah out each week, how do we take its lessons to heart? How do we mean what we say? How do we utilize its wisdom to walk as a Jew in the world and be the best version of ourselves?
I hope you enjoy the world premier of this new melody for the Torah service, and I hope to get to sing with you soon!
The Shabbos Vibe
Mishpatim 5783 – Riverdale Niggun
How do you get ready for Shabbat? When I visit a community for a Shabbat residency, I always try to arrive on Thursday so that we can gather together that evening to sing and prepare for Shabbat. We fill ourselves up with the melodies and the words so that by the time Shabbat arrives they feel like old friends. Shabbat is going to arrive every week, but the way we prepare for Shabbat can change the way in which we enter into it. We have the ability to choose how Shabbat is going to impact us and our community around us.
In Parashat Mishpatim, we read about Shabbat:
שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest… (Ex. 23:12)
Why are these words lema’an yanuach (so that they may rest…) necessary? When we received the commandment of Shabbat before, it was just a list of everyone who was supposed to rest: ata u’vincha u’vitecha (you, your children, your household etc.), but here we have these words lema’an yanu’ach – “so that…” The Gerrer Rebbe explains that your preparations for Shabbat, your rejoicing and holiness and rest, should affect everything around you. Shabbos joy, Shabbos rest, Shabbos peace, should leap out from within you and impact the entire world around you.
In the Talmud (Shabbat 119a) we learn of various different ways the Rabbis would prepare for Shabbat. Rabbi Ḥanina would wrap himself in his garment and stand at nightfall on Shabbat eve, and say: “Come and we will go out to greet Shabbat the queen!” Rabbi Yannai put on his garment on Shabbat eve and said: “Enter, O bride. Enter, O bride!” Others would get meat from every butcher in town, or prepare their houses to welcome guests. Shabbat allows us to actively and intentionally change our state of being for 25 hours.
So how do you prepare for Shabbat? This melody, the Riverdale niggun, is a wandering niggun. It is a melody sung by a Jew on their way to shul for Shabbat, humming to themself as they walk down the road. As they proceed they are joined by friends along the way and the energy builds and builds so that by the time they reach the shul they are jumping for joy, holding each other and celebrating as they enter into Shabbat together.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape, for the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.”
This Shabbat, how will you prepare? What do you need from Shabbat and how can you set an intention to receive it?
The Pious Sieve
Yitro 5783 – Yehi Shalom
What type of learner are you? Human beings learn and retain information in a lot of different ways. The main three ways we categorize these styles are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learning. I am a visual learner. As a musician sometimes this surprises people, but I need to see things, read through them, and take down notes in order to really let them sink in. And only after I retain the information am I able to truly process or act on it. In Pirkei Avot (Teachings of our Ancestors) there are two really poignant back to back passages in chapter five about different types of learners:
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּהוֹלְכֵי לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. הוֹלֵךְ וְאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה, שְׂכַר הֲלִיכָה בְיָדוֹ. עוֹשֶׂה וְאֵינוֹ הוֹלֵךְ, שְׂכַר מַעֲשֶׂה בְיָדוֹ. הוֹלֵךְ וְעוֹשֶׂה, חָסִיד. לֹא הוֹלֵךְ וְלֹא עוֹשֶׂה, רָשָׁע
There are four types among those who frequent the study hall: One who attends but does not practice: they receive a reward for attendance. One who practices but does not attend: they receive a reward for practice. One who attends and practices: they are a pious person; One who neither attends nor practices: they are a wicked person. (Pirkei Avot 5:14)
In this passage, it is clear that the rabbis show preference to one who not only attends the lessons in the study hall but also acts on those lessons in their life. It is not enough to just learn but leave the lessons in theory, or to act without understanding why you are acting in this way. We need the action and the understanding behind it.
אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים. סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. מַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּיִן וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַסֹּלֶת
There are four types among those who sit before the sages: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve. A sponge soaks up everything; A funnel takes in at one end and lets out at the other; A strainer lets out the wine and retains the sediment ; A sieve lets out the coarse meal and retains the choice flour. (Pirkei Avot 5:15)
In this passage, the students are all likened to household objects. The sponge takes in everything their teacher says whether or not it is actually something important to retain. The funnel is great at receiving information but struggles to retain any of it. The strainer takes everything in, but seems to have trouble processing and ascertaining which information is important and only remembers the trivial. The sieve learns and receives with all the other students and is able to determine and remember the essential teachings within the lessons.
At times I am sure we have been each of these students. And also sometimes we become one or the other because of the methods and teaching styles being utilized. The personality, character, and style of the teacher impact our ability to be our best learning selves.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, the people of Israel gather at Mount Sinai to learn and receive the Ten Commandments. They are so ready to receive that they even respond to God that they will do all that they hear before they even receive the Law! As we read in the Torah:
וְכל־הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת־הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק׃
All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Ex. 20:15)
This was a miraculous moment – they saw thunder and heard lightning! But Rav Samuel Jacob Rubinstein (Early 20th century French Rabbi) explains that really what it means is that what they heard at Mt. Sinai they saw afterwards in their homes, in their behavior, and the way they lived their lives. What they heard they saw also with the sense of visibility: in the spirit of Shabbat, Kashrut, and Purity.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The moment at Sinai depends for its fulfillment upon this present moment, upon all moments…Revelation is the beginning, our deeds must continue, our lives must fulfill it.” In that moment, the people of Israel channeled the pious learner and the sieve from Pirkei Avot: They experienced an incredible teaching, they distilled the most important parts of that moment, and they lived the lesson in their lives.
In Yehi Shalom, we pray for the ability to learn well and find a community and a home with shared values. What can we do to walk our values and live Torah in our own lives? What kind of community and home would that be? May we find it soon.
The Song of the Future
Beshalach 5783 – Va’ani Ashir Uzecha
How do we know what events will be remembered? What will go down in history as something extraordinary? Something life-changing? Living in the present, we can never know if an event will stand the test of time. Unless, of course, that event is the splitting of the Red Sea. An event so monumental that even as it was happening, it was as if it was already recorded in the annals of history.
Rav Akiva Eiger (Early 19th Century Rabbinic leader in Hungary) noticed that when Moses sings the Song of the Sea after the people of Israel cross to freedom, the verse is written in future tense, “Az Yashir,” “And he will sing,” as opposed to “Az Shar,” “And he sang.” Rav Akiva notes that the only way a historic event is truly remembered and known in the future is if the story is sung out. There is a story of the splitting of the sea and the People of Israel crossing in the book of Joshua as well, but is has been almost forgotten in comparison to this crossing out of Egypt. Why? Because this sea-crossing is retold in song! “And the women dancing with their timbrels followed Miriam as she sang her song…” “Mi Chamocha Ba’Eilim Adonai?!” “Who is like you, O God?!” These are words we sing every day in our prayers and remember this moment. To sing is to publicize, to share.
Perhaps the most familiar line from the Song of the Sea is “Ozi v’zimrat Yah vayehi li li’yeshua,” “God is my strength and my song, and God will be my salvation.” There is a midrash (story/explanation – exegesis) from Shir Hashirim Rabbah (Exegesis from the Song of Songs) that expands these words in such a powerful way. Shir Hashirim Rabbah is filled with parables of royalty and their relations with various people in the kingdom. In this particular midrash, a royal ruler has in their possession many precious jewels and stones; rubies and emeralds, diamonds and gold. The ruler’s child approaches them and says, “My parent, let me have those.” And the ruler says, “They’re yours, they’ve always been yours, and to you I give them.”
The rabbis liken this parable to the people of Israel as they stand at the shore of the Red Sea before it has been split. The Egyptians are at their backs and they are frightened. They call out to God and say, “God! Give us strength! Ozi V’zimrat Yah! Be our strength!” And God replies, “mah titz’ak eilai?” Why are you crying out to me? “The strength is yours, it’s always been yours, and to you I give it.” And the rabbis do something very interesting with the word “oz” here in the midrash. They say, “v’ein oz ela Torah”, “There is no strength except for Torah.”
So what does it mean for the Torah to be our strength? And what does it mean to sing out our strength? To publicize it to the world? In Psalm 59 we sing, “Va’ani ashir uzecha”, “And I will sing your strength.” How can we keep the stories, events, and lessons of the Torah present in the world? We learn from Rabbi Eiger that the answer is to sing them. To sing for the future.
Singing and remembering our history is so important for us as a community, but all the more so it is powerful as an individual imperative. In the beginning of this psalm you’ll notice that we sing “Va’ani ashir uzecha”, “And I will sing your strength.” But by the end of the song we are singing “uzi eilecha azamerah”, “my strength I will sing out.” Through collective song we are able to find the power of our own individual voices.
This Shabbat, as we rise to hear the Song of the Sea, I hope we take a moment to think about what stories we should be singing out in our own day. What is it that we need to be remembering? What is it that we need to teach and share with generations to come? And how can this collective action also strengthen each individual voice and allow it to be highlighted and lifted up as well?
Bo 5783 – Ilu Finu
I am a classic overpacker. This week I’m in the middle of four Shabbatot on the road in a row so I’ve been thinking about packing a lot. When I start packing, I count out how many days and how many outfits I’m going to need. Invariably, even if I am just gone for 2-3 nights, I somehow manage to pack way too many items of clothing, just to be prepared in case I need something more (I never do and always come home with many outfits untouched). But it’s good to be prepared!
In Parashat Bo, Moses again finds himself before Pharaoh asking to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh has agreed to let them leave Egypt to worship their God as long as they leave their sheep and cattle in Egypt. Even the children are allowed to go! But Moses says this is insufficient. They need all of their livestock to go with them as well:
וְגַם־מִקְנֵנוּ יֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ לֹא תִשָּׁאֵר פַּרְסָה כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ נִקַּח לַעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקֵינוּ וַאֲנַחְנוּ לֹא־נֵדַע מַה־נַּעֲבֹד אֶת ה׳ עַד־בֹּאֵנוּ שָׁמָּה׃ (שמות י:כו)
Our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:26)
Why is this such a sticking point for Moses? Why do they need to overpack and take all of their livestock with them? The Ger Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Me’ir explains that the words, “we shall not know with what we are to worship God until we arrive there” aren’t talking about the sacrifices themselves, but about worship in general. We don’t know what value there is to worship yet, so we have to be prepared for every possible outcome! We just don’t know how to do this thing yet, we don’t really know what “worship” is! We don’t know if it’s going to work, and to be honest we don’t even know what “working” looks like.
This is a feeling I still have when I enter a space of prayer. And my answer for what “working” looks like can (and should!) change all the time. For me, prayer is supposed to help me figure out how to be the best version of myself. It helps me orient my day and set myself up for success. It is a moment to look inward and outward, to talk to God, to be in community, and to talk to myself. But I often don’t know exactly what it will look like or what I will need until I enter into that space, and the more I allow myself to enter and be open to possibility, the more I can feel lifted up and centered by my prayers, which to me feels like “success.”
We echo this sentiment every Shabbat in our morning prayers. We say, “Ilu finu male shirah kayam… v’ein anachnu maspikim l’hodot lecha al achat me’elef alfei alafim she’asita im avoteinu v’imanu,” “were our mouths filled with song like water fills the sea… we still would be unable to thank You for the thousands upon thousands of things You have done for our ancestors and continue to do for us.” The melody of this song lifts these words up high as if they were carried on the waves of the sea, buoyed higher by the ability of voices to come together in harmony, even greater than one voice on its own.
Prayer is one of the hardest things a Jew is ever asked to do. We struggle to find the words to say, the methods to use, to express our gratitude for the wonder of our own existence. So what is the role of words in prayer if words can never be enough? If we can begin to understand the depth of meaning layered in the words, perhaps the words will begin to soften our hearts, guide us, change us, and inspire us. And perhaps that is the ultimate goal of prayer. We might not know what we hope to achieve when we start, but hopefully when we arrive, we’ll know we are there, and we’ll know we’ve come prepared.
Va’era 5783 – Wonder (Asher Yatzar)
Human beings are creatures of habit. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The House of the Dead, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” Some allow themselves to settle into such a monotonous routine that they walk through life like zombies. And yet, this characteristic means that even in the harshest conditions humans find ways to persevere and to survive.
At the same time, illumination flashes in the most surprising places. We never know when or where it might strike. We read in this week’s parsha, Va’era, about a strange hail:
וַיְהִי בָרָד וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד כָּבֵד מְאֹד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־הָיָה כָמֹהוּ בְּכל־אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָז הָיְתָה לְגוֹי׃
The hail was very heavy – fire flashing in the midst of the hail – such as had not fallen in the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. – Ex. 9:24
This fiery hail is an oxymoron and an impossibility in and of itself – fire within rain. It was something so unheard of, so strange, that it served as a lightbulb of sorts for the Egyptians. They had forgotten who they were as a nation: founded as a land of beauty and hope and bounty along the Nile, welcome to strangers and suffering peoples in need during times of trouble and famine.
After seven (a number of completion!) plagues, a flash of illumination within the hail wakes them up and shakes them to their foundation. Before the next plague, the courtiers speak up for the first time, finally asking Pharoah to come to his senses and let the people go before Egypt is completely lost. This act is a flash of hope of a better tomorrow for the Israelites.
This song, “Wonder” is about the small miracles that happen in our lives every single day. Though day to day we may walk through life in routine, if we take a moment to pause, think, and open our eyes, we begin to notice and see the world anew. The Hebrew words in this song are the prayer “Asher Yatzar”, the prayer that Jews say after we go to the bathroom. Why do we say a prayer after we go to the bathroom? So many things in our bodies have to work properly in order for us to live each day, so many parts have to open and close at the right times. If we say a blessing to acknowledge the smallest things happening in our own bodies, all the more so we should be looking around and noticing the miracles and wonders all around us! This Shabbat, what will serve as a flashpoint for you? What needs changing in your routine or our collective psyche?
Shemot 5783 – Tefillah
When was the first example of communal prayer in the Bible? There are tons of examples of individual prayer: from Hagar crying and calling out in the wilderness to Rebekah seeking God, Eliezer praying to his master Abraham’s God and Rachel calling out in her pain and later gratitude, but when did a group of people first gather to call out to God? The rabbis believe that it happened in this week’s parsha, Shemot. We read in the Torah:
“וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹקִים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה. וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹקִים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹקִים אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃” – שמות ב:כג
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” – Ex. 2:34
The people of Israel were suffering and in pain, they called out in anguish, and God heard their cry! But what actually happened in this moment? The rabbis have a machloket, a disagreement, about this intense experience. In the Zohar, Rav Judah explains that, “of all the three expressions for prayer used in the Exodus narrative, crying out is the greatest of all because it is entirely a matter of the heart. Rabbi Berachiah said: When people pray and weep and cry so intensely that they are unable to find words to express their sorrow, theirs is the perfect prayer, for it is in their heart, and this will never return to them empty.”
At the same time, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, a medieval Biblical commentator, teaches a different midrash: “The children of Israel groaned and cried out to the Lord… Immediately the ministering angels recited, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, who hears prayer.” Notice what he is doing here! This is an important shift towards fixed prayer. Rabbi Daniel Landes notes that “by having the angels recite a central line from the Amidah that will only be invented epochs later, the author of the midrash has the angels confirm the need for fixed prayer, that is, a set liturgy beyond spontaneous “crying out,” such as the Zohar would have it.”
We are still engaged in this ancient debate around fixed versus spontaneous prayer today. I believe communal prayer is collective emotion coupled with the ancient words of our tradition. We need both! Without emotion, our prayer is meaningless, it doesn’t affect us in any way. But the words of the siddur serve as a conduit, a channel, to give the words of our hearts direction and to unite our hearts with the hearts of those with whom we come together.
This song, Tefillah, is a hybrid Psalm. I took verses from different Psalms and brought them together around a theme. In the midst of the pandemic I was feeling alone and far from community, and I collected these verses and wrote a melody and a prose translation around what it might feel like to call out from that place of loneliness and hear a response.
This week, as we remember our ancestor’s first collective prayer, how can we unite our hearts around shared purpose, and sing out our own prayers and the prayers of those with whom we gather?
Vayechi 5783 – Emet
The Shema is probably the most iconic Jewish prayer. It is one we all know. They are words we say when we rise up and when we lie down. Words we sing to our children, words we whisper and words we proclaim with joyous song and melody. There are powerful stories and midrashim about rabbis and martyrs whose last words were the words of the Shema as their lives were taken from them. But when did the people of Israel first say the Shema? Our rabbis teach us that it was in this week’s parsha, Vayechi. In Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:34 we learn:
When did Israel first merit to be given the Sh’ma? From the moment that Jacob lay down on his deathbed, calling to all the tribes [i.e., his sons] and said to them: “Come together and listen/שמע, sons of Jacob.” What did he mean by this? He meant “From the moment I pass from the world you will bow down to another God.” And they answered him: Shema yisrael/Listen [to us] Israel – Adonai eloheinu/Adonai is our God – Adonai echad/only Adonai (Deuteronomy 6:4)
What is happening here? Jacob is frightened! He’s in a new land, in the diaspora. His children have had traumatic experiences with each other and he is worried that when he leaves this world his new religion, his entire Truth, will leave along with it. How will they be able to carry on the tradition? And how do his sons respond? They recite the Shema back to him! They say, “Listen, Israel (our father Jacob whose name is also Israel), your God is our God, and God is the only God.” We are here to carry on your Truth, they say. This is what we are affirming every time we say the Shema. This tradition, these values, this pathway to walking through this world, is one that we choose every single day.
In the end, all we can do is live and walk and practice our values throughout our lives. The words of this song, Emet, come from the paragraph before the last blessing surrounding the Shema. They are buried in the middle but contain everything. The word אמת, Truth, is an all-encompassing word – it contains the entire Hebrew alphabet from Aleph to Tav (with Mem right in the middle of the alphabet), and it contains the entire lifecycle of a human being from אֵם to מֵת – from the womb (mother) to death. This is our mission all the days of our lives: to lift up our truth and to walk with it, to hold onto our traditions and make them new each day.
This Shabbat, may we find a way to lift ourselves and the people we care about, to sing out and walk the path we were meant to walk in the world.
Vayigash 5783 – Lechu Neranenah
“But prayer is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. An opening up. A hardened heart beats with renewed passion, a dream is revived, a hope is rekindled, a soul starts to believe, a body soon begins to stir. Prayer ignites us to act. Instead of proceeding in a state of numb acceptance, prayer rouses us out of our indifference, it resurrects our outrage, our anger, our longing, our faith, our strength.” – Rabbi Naomi Levy
What is prayer if not a moment to pause and reflect? On Shabbat we are told in the Torah that we must refrain from work. But if that is the case, what is it that we are supposed to DO on Shabbat? How do we observe Shabbat in actuality? The opening word of Kabbalat Shabbat are “lechu”, “let’s go!” from Psalm 95. Lechu demands an action. We have to go out. We have to make a change in order to enter Shabbat.
And that is what Vayigash tells us. Some sort of encounter has to take place. In the parsha it says “Vayigash Eilav.” “And Judah went up to him.” It would seem at first glance that the encounter in this story is between Judah and Joseph. But Rabbi Dovid of Kotzk says that that word “Eilav” is superfluous, we don’t need it there. And so he reads it differently. He says the Eilav means “to himself.” Judah went over with himself his actions and his words, and then went up to speak to Joseph.
Both of these actions are needed on Shabbat. We need to go out and come together in community, but we also need to take a moment to pause and look inwards at ourselves. Kabbalat Shabbat is written in the plural, “lechu neranenah,” “Let us go out,” but “Vayigash eilav” is in the singular. These words tell us that before we join together on Shabbat, we have to take a moment to turn inwards, to look at ourselves.
On this Shabbat in particular we have the opportunity for even greater reflection. As we approach the end of the calendar year, What is it that we need this Shabbat? How can this pause help us jump into action in 2023? My hope for us this Shabbat is that we are able to take time to pause and reflect, and to actualize our reflections, hopes, and dreams in the coming year.
Hanukkah 5783 – Hanerot Halalu
On these miracles, and on these wonders, on these salvations, and on these comforts
Al Hanisim v’al hanifla’ot v’al hateshu’ot v’al hanechamot
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנֶחָמוֹת
These words may sound familiar from the beautiful prayer that we sing on Hanukkah and Purim to celebrate miracles. They appear in Hanerot Halalu, one of the songs we sing after we light the Hanukkah candles. Last year, I wrote about the powerful message of these words: teaching us about the gift of presence as the only thing we are allowed to do with the candles is to bask in their glow and be together with friends and family.
This year, the words above are calling out from the page. The phrase may seem a little off to some readers because in the Ashkenazic (Jews of Eastern European descent) version of the text the last word in the phrase is milchamot, battles. We give thanks for the miracles, the wonders, the salvations, and the wars that You fought with us in those days at this time. In the Sephardic (Jews of North African and Spanish descent) version of the text, the last word in the phrase is nechamot, comforts.
I chose to use nechamot or comforts in this melody because that is what I believe we so desperately need, especially now. Hanukkah happens during the darkest and coldest time of the year. There is a reason that so many religions have “light” holidays around this time. What we need more of is light and warmth and comfort, and so we give gratitude to the Holy One for being a source of comfort for us then and now.
And yet today as I write this I am thinking of the word milchamot, the battles. Each one of us has battles we are fighting that those around us may know nothing about. Each one of us struggles through moments externally and internally. And so I believe today we must take both versions of this text together — the comforts and the battles.
May these words serve as an inspiration to us to be there for each other in our times of need, whether we know we are needed or not. You are not alone. We are not alone. We don’t have to fight these battles alone. Let those close to you serve as nechamot, as comforters.
Wishing you a holiday filled with light, warmth, and love,