5783 Musical Torah Journey
Shavuot 5783 – Letter in the Torah
Three… Two… One!
Countdowns are always exciting. Even just typing those numbers, I felt my heart start to beat faster… what are we counting down to?! What will happen at the end? We learn this anticipation from an early age – even my ten month old daughter gets excited when I count down before lifting her up or starting a song – she knows what’s coming! We have lots of moments of counting in Judaism, and for me it all reflects back to the idea that in Judaism everything is about awareness – noticing and marking moments in time and giving each moment an intention and a blessing!
In Judaism we count a lot of things, but we have a tradition not to count people. When we count to see if we have a minyan, many use a ten word phrase like hoshia et amecha u’varech et nachlatecha, ureim v’naseim ad olam rather than numbers to count. But there are a few times when counting people is really important and those customs and discomfort get put aside, and a census is one of those times. The main focus of last week’s Torah portion was a specific accounting of the entire People of Israel.
Right before we get into the numbers themselves, there is an important introductory sentence:
כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה׳ אֶת־מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפְקְדֵם בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי׃
As God had commanded Moses, so he recorded them in the wilderness of Sinai. (Bamidbar 1:19)
This counting of the people actually was the moment of Moses learning Torah.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that this counting of the people actually was the moment of Moses learning Torah. You see, according to the Chasidic masters, every single person present at Sinai (which includes all of us!) has their very own letter in the Torah. And in counting up the people, Moses was stringing each of the individual letters together, learning and giving the Torah to the people at the same time. Without every soul present, it wouldn’t have been complete.
When I was a kid, I learned an amazing song by Sam Glaser called “Letter in the Torah” that sings out this exact idea. Fifteen years later, Sam produced my first full length album “Mah Rabu” and then honored me with singing that same song on his 25th anniversary anthology.
As we count these last days towards receiving the Torah, how can you find ways to be present, and how can we make sure to see every other person as the divine and unique letter they are?
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Matan Torah Sameach,
Bamidbar 5783 – Ahavah Rabbah
I used to play monopoly a lot when I was a kid, and I was recently thinking about the Go Square on the Monopoly board. It’s the first square on the board where everyone starts the game. Each time you pass it throughout the rest of the game, you collect $200. It’s like a fresh start, propelling you forward with some new energy and cash flexibility for your next revolution around the board.
This week we’re entering the Shabbat that comes right before Shavuot, and I’m thinking about Shabbat and that Monopoly Go Square. On this Shabbat, we read Parashat Bamidbar, the beginning of a new book, and we find ourselves in the desert with possibility and new direction laid out before us.
The Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905, Poland) teaches that Shabbat was given to the People of Israel right before receiving the Torah. If you think about it, you might remember this order from the song Dayenu that we sing at the seder on Passover,
“Ilu natan lanu et haShabbat v’lo keirvanu lifnei har sinai dayenu… ilu keirvanu lifnei har sinai v’lot natan lanu et hatorah dayenu.”
If God had given us Shabbat and had not brought us before Mount Sinai it would have been enough. If God had brought us before Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah it would have been enough.
That Shabbat is what allowed us to truly come together “״,כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד “as one person with one heart,” and only when we were unified through Shabbat could we be spiritually ready to receive the gift of Torah.
Shabbat reinvigorates us. Shabbat helps us prepare for what lies ahead. Shabbat allows us to truly be present in the moment. This is one reason why so many of our holidays (Sukkot, Passover, Hanukkah) last for eight days – so that we can celebrate the holiday and experience it anew through Shabbat. It is also why we celebrate our Jewish covenantal rituals on the 8th day of a child’s life – so that they truly will have experienced the power and beauty of Shabbat before fully entering into this tradition.
Shabbat and Torah are these two incredibly special gifts, given back to back, out of great love and connection. That’s what the words of the prayer Ahavah Rabbah are about. A great love between God and a people that facilitates this incredible gift and partnership. You loved us so deeply that you gave us the greatest kindness – חֶמְלָה גְדוֹלָה וִיתֵרָה חָמַלְתָּ עָלֵינוּ – that kindness being Shabbat. And then you light up our eyes with your Torah – וְהָאֵר עֵינֵינוּ בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ וְדַבֵּק לִבֵּנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתֶיךָ.
Coleen Dieker and I just wrote this piece last week, and we are so excited to share it with you as we make our way towards receiving the Torah. As you move into this Shabbat of preparation, how do you want to receive these gifts, and what will you choose to do with them?
Behar/Bechukotai 5783 – Nasu
After a fantastic weekend on the Jersey Shore at Congregation Torat-El, this week I’m back home in Columbus along with Coleen Dieker, my musical chevruta (study partner), immersing ourselves in music and creating some new melodies. We can’t wait to share them with you! We’ll be premiering a few at our concert this Thursday at Agudas Achim in Bexley, OH.
This week has been a much-needed pause and re-engagement with music and prayer after running and traveling all over for many months. In parashat Behar we receive the laws of Shmita, a mandated rest to allow the land to lie fallow for a year. In the midst of the instruction, Moses rhetorically says,
וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה־נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת־תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ׃
And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” (Vayikra 25:20)
A pretty understandable question! There’s a story told about a student of Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, who was complaining about his bitter luck and worried about what he was going to eat. The rebbe told him to pray to God and God would send food. The student replied, “I don’t know how to pray,” and continued to complain. The rebbe replied, “If that’s the case, you should worry about that more than you worry about food!
We spend so much of our time worrying about our physical sustenance – about money, about work, about taking care of our families. I think we tend to spend much less time worrying about our spiritual sustenance – about our mission, our happiness, and our sense of satisfaction and connection. This is arguably equally as important. For me, prayer serves not as a way to awaken God to act, but to awaken myself to my own needs, desires, and dreams. How do I want to walk in the world today? This week? This year?
This prayer, Nasu, comes at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat like the crest of a wave. It asks us if we can find a way, amidst all the noise and commotion in our lives, to find space for holiness.
“מִקּלוֹת מַיִם רַבִּים אַדִּירִים מִשְׁבְּרֵי יָם, מִקּלוֹת מַיִם רַבִּים אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם ה”
And above the thunder of the mighty waters, more majestic than the breakers of the sea, is the Holy One, majestic on high, if only you can hear the sound.
Today is Lag Ba’omer, the 33rd day of our counting towards receiving the Torah. It is traditionally a day of celebration and coming together. 33 in Gematria (Hebrew numerology) is also גל – a wave. As we ride the waves of life, how can we navigate towards spiritual sustenance as well?
Wishing you an uplifting Lag Ba’omer and early Shabbat Shalom,
Emor 5783 – Come to Light
My mom always says that you can tell an optimist by the kind of bananas they buy: the green ones! If you’re buying a green banana, it means you believe you’re going to live long enough to see them ripen and eat them.
Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Rozhin (1796-1850 Ukraine) says the same thing about those who count the omer: “Tomorrow is a nickname for faith.”
In this week’s parsha, Emor, we read the instructions for counting the omer:
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמַּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה׃ עַד מִמַּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם׃
And You shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, you shall count off seven complete weeks. You must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days… (Lev. 23:15-16)
The phrasing of the first three words of this instruction is of particular interest to Rav Yisrael.
וּסְפַרְתֶּם usfartem – Rather than reading this literally as “you shall count,” Rav Yirael understands it to be from the word סַפִּיר sapir, sapphire – i.e. one should clean and purify their thoughts and actions like a shimmering sapphire.
לָכֶם lachem – to you. This is inner work you should be doing – to you and for you.
מִמַּחֳרַת mimachorat – tomorrow. Why is tomorrow a nickname for faith? Because a person has no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow, or if there will even be a tomorrow!
A person who believes that there will be a tomorrow and that tomorrow matters will do this work of cleaning and purifying today. Because if today is the only thing that matters, what’s the point of improving and striving to be a better version of ourselves? The work of tomorrow must take place today.
This is what we hope for at the close of Shabbat as well. This song, Come to Light, is a love song to Shabbat. It is a moment of anticipation, of saying goodbye to the beauty that was today and looking forward into tomorrow and the week to come.
As we count the omer, we are supposed to think of each day as a step on the ladder of holiness, each day a step closer to receiving the Torah. Yesterday we passed the halfway mark. Today the work of tomorrow begins. What do you need to do in order to find and be the best version of yourself tomorrow?
Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5783 – Yedid Nefesh
“The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
In this week’s parsha, Acharei Mot, God says to the people of Israel,
כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃
“Do not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow in their ways.” (Lev. 18:3)
As Nehama Leibowitz writes in her Torah commentary, “The children of Israel, who had left and were about to enter a highly civilized environment after their long wanderings in the desert, were particularly susceptible to the cultural attractions… of their past and future neighbors. We know today, only too well, how the technical achievements of civilization do not always reflect similar advancement in the field of ethics and morality.”
Instead of assimilating and becoming like their neighbors, God says,
“וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה'”
You shall keep My laws and My rules, and in doing them you shall live: I am Adonai.” (Lev. 18:4)
Judaism is a counter-cultural religion. In a society where prosperity and work are paramount, Judaism reminds us to take care of those who are vulnerable and to take time to rest and gather in community. These instructions, these ways, allow us to truly “live” as opposed to just racing through life.
And so we can reread another verse earlier in the parsha in this lens as well:
וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ
God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at all times into the “Holiness.” (Lev. 16:2)
Don’t come at all times to the Holy of Holies. Too much of anything is not a good thing. This goes both ways. It goes for the true holiness of the Kodesh Kodashim, and it goes for anything else we might call holy, or hold as holy in our minds. If work, for us, is holy, and we are working all the time and claiming its importance, that’s problematic too. That’s what Shabbat does for us. It’s a pause. A gift of presence. A moment in time. And it’s a moment where we come running to be together with our beloved, with God and with family and friends.
That’s what Yedid Nefesh is all about. Yarutz Avdach kmo ayal…like a deer we come running. Nafshi cholat Ahavatach…my soul is sick with longing for you. Even when we’re hurting, especially when we’re hurting… Az titchazek v’titrapeh, in coming together we will be strengthened. We will be healed. This intense emotion that we’re feeling needs a place of release. This can’t be our normal. וְאַל־יָבֹא בְכל־עֵת, V’al yavo b’chol eit, don’t let this be our every moment. Don’t be susceptible to the rat race around you, but rather let this Shabbat serve as our eit kodesh, our momentary, fleeting holiness.
Tazria/Metzora 5783 – Six Feet Apart
I know after Passover and after three years of covid we’re probably sick of talking about plagues, but that is the focus of this week’s double portion, Tazria/Metzora. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the chassidic masters mostly seek to reinterpret and understand these issues in metaphorical ways to teach us lessons about how to live our lives. But there is something interesting happening in the literal words and instructions that I wanted to point out this week. In the Torah we read:
ובא אשר לו הבית והגיד לכהן לאמר כנגע נראה לי בבית (ויקרא י”ד:ל”ה)
“The owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘something like a plague has appeared upon my house.’” (Vayikra 14:35)
Rashi explains that even the wisest sage, a Talmid Chacham, who clearly knows what this plague is supposed to look like, still should never say “a plague has appeared upon my house,” rather, “something like a plague” in their house. And if you can’t say it about your own house, all the more so you can’t say it about a neighbor or friend’s house. From here we learn that no one should be too quick to point fingers or to diagnose an issue.
Then there is the cleaning procedure: When one sees something “like a plague” and reports it, they have to take everything out of their house before the priest comes in, but the house is assumed to be clean until proven impure. And if it is shown to be impure, the house is closed up for seven days. And then if the plague is shown to persist deep into the wall, you remove only those stones which have been specifically affected by the plague. There is a clear message here. You don’t destroy the entire house just because there is something wrong with it.
There is a process outlined in detail to fix the issue. First, you notice a problem. You let it percolate for a while. You discuss with experts. If you come to the conclusion that this problem is real, you go to the root of the specific problem and you fix it. And once you fix it, you reevaluate again to see if that solution is viable and if it actually fixed the problem. The constant re-evaluation and consideration help us to discern at each step along the way if we are making the right choices.
And we’re not just talking about a literal plague. We could be talking about any problem that we’ve noticed within our home. So how can we create checks and balances for ourselves and our communities to continue to make sure we are serving our communal needs? And if we do find an issue, how do we make sure to find a solution that solves the specific problem without tearing our whole house down to fix it?
I wrote this song, “Six Feet Apart,” in March 2020, at a time when we had no idea about the extent of the plague we were about to find ourselves in. It’s a song of desperation and a song of hope, a song of seeking and a song of reaching out to find each other even when we were further apart than we’d ever been. Towards the end the lyrics are, “And one day soon we’ll all be in one room, but until then…Sing a song even when no one can sing along, you know they’re there on the other side of the screen.”
Thinking about it and singing it in rooms across the country brings me so much joy and new hope. As we head towards Spring and new beginnings, what are you hoping for?
Shemini 5783 – Hameirah
This Shabbat I will celebrate the 20th (!!) anniversary of my bar mitzvah. I sponsored kiddush at my synagogue in Columbus, OH, I’m reading the whole Torah portion and Haftorah, and I’ll have one of my best friends in town visiting who was there in shul back on March 29th, 2003 when I read it for the first time! I won’t share with you my d’var torah from that weekend (it was about Nadav and Avihu), but as we make our way out of Passover and head towards Shavuot I wanted to share one insight about this week’s Torah portion that the rabbi’s fascinatingly point out. This week amidst lots of drama and intense events we read this verse:
וְאֵ֣ת ׀ שְׂעִ֣יר הַֽחַטָּ֗את דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֣ה שֹׂרָ֑ף
Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! (Lev. 10:16)
According to tradition, in between the words darosh darash is the exact middle of the Torah if you count all of the words. I have not counted all of the words to see if this is accurate, but we are a few Torah portions into Vayikra, the middle book of the Torah, and the first two books are longer than the last two so it seems plausible. But why do they rabbis choose to highlight this point for us? Reb Moshe Teitelbaum, who was the leader of the Satmar Hasidim, explained that even Moses, who had studied the Torah directly from God, is only halfway towards understanding the Torah. Any wise student of Torah knows that the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know and must continue on this path of learning and growing. It’s incredible that even the Torah itself puts “seeking” at it’s very core.
Similarly, Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught about the creation of the world that even now, far after the world was created, it is still as far as we are concerned “in the beginning”. Because this particular creation is not like a typical creation that is made by the hands of an artist, where after it is made it no longer requires “a maker.” Rather, every single day and at every hour the world is in need of renewal, and should energy and a higher power cease to be put into it (God forbid), the world would return to chaos and disarray.
That’s what this song, Hameirah, is all about. Every single day we have the opportunity to experience the world anew, to be partners with God in creating newness and beauty in the world. And not only that, each day is a new opportunity to be a doresh, to be a seeker. To seek knowledge, to seek understanding, to seek justice, to seek kindness, to seek peace.
Twenty years ago at my bar mitzvah I could never have imagined my life today. Every day that has led me to this point I try to find new ways to grow, to seek, to learn, and to bring more love and kindness into the world.
What are you seeking this week?
Passover 5783 – Echoes in the Valley
No, not the shank bone. A valley filled with dry bones. I know we’re past it already, but I couldn’t let all of Passover go by without mentioning the fact that the Haftorah for Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Pesach (the intermediate days of Pesach) is one of the strangest in our canon. It comes from the book of Ezekiel, and in it Ezekiel has a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. God asks him to prophesy to the bones and tell them that they will live again. Miraculously, as Ezekiel is speaking, the bones begin to shift and shake – sinews and skins form over them, but they are just skin and bones. God asks Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time to the winds, telling them to fill these empty vessels with the breath of life! Then, a final instruction to Ezekiel: Tell these bones that they shall live again, they shall be filled with hope, for they have lost it. The language used in this verse should be recognizable to most:
הִנֵּ֣ה אֹמְרִ֗ים יָבְשׁ֧וּ עַצְמוֹתֵ֛ינוּ וְאָבְדָ֥ה תִקְוָתֵ֖נוּ נִגְזַ֥רְנוּ לָֽנוּ׃
‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.’ (Ez. 37:11)
If you read this verse and have ever sung Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, I imagine you’re singing along with me now: Od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope has not yet been lost. At our first seder this year, my father-in-law invited us to read from a new “Freedom Haggadah”. It included essays and poems by some of Israel’s greatest authors and thinkers about the last few weeks of protest and defense of democracy as Israelis marched to protect the independence of the Supreme Court. We are not yet on the other side, but the fact that these events occurred right before we retell the story of our freedom, right before we read this strange tale in the book of Ezekiel, fill me with hope and determination. V’hi she’amda la’avoteinu v’lanu… there have been those in every generation who have sought to destroy us, some who even looked like friends and relatives and “saviors.” Yet to me this is all a reminder that we must not lose hope, and we must keep fighting and speaking out and engaging and standing up for what we know is right.
“Echoes in the Valley” is one of the first songs I ever wrote. The chorus shouts out hala! Forward! We must march forward together.
May you have a wonderful and uplifting rest of Passover, moadim l’simchah!
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,
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.
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!
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?