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Torah

Vayera: Guest D’var Torah by Rabbi Paul Yedwab

A few years ago, several local Metro Detroit Jewish organizations began giving out bumper magnets (bumper stickers 2.0?) to promote their organizations. I had collected a number of these and thought it would be funny to affix them all on the back of my wife’s minivan’s bumper for a photo. I Photoshopped a personalized Michigan license plate that read “Rabbi J” and then posted the photo to my Facebook page. A couple week’s later learned that it had been the opening for a sermon delivered by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. It’s a wonderful D’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera, and I thought I would post it here for others to enjoy and learn.

Vayera: Labels
By Rabbi Paul Yedwab,
Temple Israel (West Bloomfield, Michigan)

A friend of mine, Rabbi Jason Miller, whom many of you know, recently tagged a photo on his Facebook page showing a car bumper with a Temple Israel bumper sticker magnet (available by the way, on the table just outside the door if you’d like to sport one on your vehicle.) And, in this picture, right next to the Temple Israel sticker, is a Friendship Circle bumper sticker, a Hillel Day School bumper sticker and a Tamarack Camps sticker as well. And the caption under the photo reads: “Time to get a second bumper.”

Detroit Bumper Stickers (Magnets)

I have long been fascinated by this concept of labels. Is the owner of a car really defined by the labels on her bumper? And if she were, how many bumpers would she need to let us know that she is a proudly Jewish, caring mom, tree hugger, vegetarian, Zionist, who is politically moderate, loves animals, nature, Swirlberry frozen yogurt, crossword puzzles, Gucci, Glee and her alma mater. Forget a second bumper; she would need a tractor trailer.

In our Torah portion, God is speaking to Abraham and telling him that he is going to have to take his son up to Mt. Moriah, there to sacrifice him on the altar. But the words God uses to break the bad news are very deliberate. Take your son, God begins, bincha, and then y’echidcha, your only son, asher ahavtah, the son you love, and then and only then, God finally identifies Isaac by name.

Now classically, the Midrash tells us that God stretches out his description of Isaac in order to break the bad news to Abraham slowly…gently. But I am not satisfied with that explanation. After all Abraham was not an idiot; he knew exactly to whom God was referring from the very beginning of that dreadful conversation.

So here is another interpretation. In our tradition God is the one being in all the universe who is ineffable, which means beyond labels. God is not a male or a female, a Democrat or a Republican (although you would never know it from some of the political ads that have cropped up recently). And, according to the Torah, God does not even have a name other than Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, I will be what I will be, or in other words, you can’t put a label on Me. And therefore it follows that, since we human being are made in God’s image, God understands us too as holistic, complex, multi-dimensional creatures. No single label can fully capture the essence of a person. You know, that rabbi with the gray hair at Temple Israel. No, no, not him….the other one…the short one. Oh! Rabbi Yedwab. Labels really never tell the whole story.

So God tries to supply a multi-dimensional description of Isaac, whom after all is so much more than his position in the family, or the feelings his father has for him, or even his name. You know, Abraham: Isaac, the one whose essence is way beyond what any name, label or verbal description can possibly capture, your son, Yitzchak.

I think I was led to read the Torah in this way this week by some interesting new research that has been done recently into the field of language and epistemology. This researcher claims that language does not follow the development of thoughts, as was previously believed, but that in fact, language creates the thoughts—indeed is the thoughts. That, as babies we have islands of understanding and perception in our brains that can only be connected when we learn the words that tie them together. So we may understand the concept blue, for instance, and ball, and door, and left, but it is only words which help us to link the concepts so that they become useful thoughts. “Oh,” says the toddler to himself, “my favorite ball is to the left of the blue door.” And off the happy toddler goes to retrieve it, and probably throw it at the poor dog sleeping peacefully over in the corner minding his own business.

Categories
Torah

Paying Tribute to Architects – Betzalel and the Tabernacle

I was recently interviewed by Shmuel Rosner of the Jewish Journal about this week’s Torah portion Teruma for his “Torah Talk” video series. The video interview, which is below, prompted me to think more about architectural design and the credit due to the architect for constructing the structure.

God says, V’asu Li Mikdash, V’shakhanti B’tokham — “Make for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you.” The function of such a spiritual home for God is difficult to comprehend, and to envision how such a structure will look is confusing as well. Further, who will be the chief architect for such a holy task?  Who is skillful and pious enough to design a home for God? The master artisan chosen is Betzalel, who beautifully implements God’s instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle.  He, like Moses, is a faithful servant of God. He is described as one who has been filled by God with ruach hakodesh, the divine spirit of God in practical wisdom, discernment, and knowledge in all kinds of workmanship.

True, the Torah recounts that Betzalel, the master builder of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, received the blueprints for the project from God, but as I explained, the Torah wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the character of Betzalel were he not an important figure in the building of the Tabernacle.

Several years ago I was at Israel’s Diaspora Museum (Beit Hatefutzot) in Tel Aviv and toured an exhibit displaying synagogues from around the world. Located in a huge room were about twenty architectural models, encased in glass, of the most famous synagogue buildings designed to scale. While I don’t consider myself a student of architecture and design (I leave that up to my wife’s uncle Stephen Sussman), I nevertheless was mesmerized by the different layouts and structural designs, the detail inside the sanctuaries, and the unique shapes of the exterior. They were all different edifices from different places around the world – synagogues from India, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, the Colonial U.S., and from South America.  Each of these synagogues echoes its cultural and regional diversity. They are all so different, and yet, they all share something in common – they are all holy spaces. They were all built for the same purpose, to be a spiritual house of assembly – a beit kenesset.

Too often today, we take the focus off the actual buildings, the physical structures. We say that what is important is what happens inside of the structure. We believe we must put all our effort on the intangibles, on the actions that take place inside of the building, but we should not overlook the buildings themselves. To do so is to miss beautiful architecture and skillful craftsmanship.

Here in the Metro Detroit area we have two unique synagogue buildings that can be seen from the roadway. Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, Michigan was designed by the world renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1973. Yamasaki, the Japanese and American architect, was of course best known for his design of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Township, Michigan
Categories
Torah

Vayera: Be Our Guest (The Mitzvah of Hospitality)

We can learn a lot about the value of hospitality from our patriarch Abraham and matriarch Sarah in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera. On the third day after Abraham had circumcised himself he hosted three angels who appeared in human form.  Recovering from this procedure in the excruciating heat of the midday sun, our patriarch still urged them to receive his hospitality.  Not only that, but as soon as Abraham saw these three men standing near him, he ran to greet them (vayaratz likratam).  Not realizing these men were angels, Abraham took these strangers into his home and offered them water to wash their feet and shade to rest.  With his wife Sarah’s help, the guests were treated to a feast of bread and meat, curds and milk.  He personally served these strangers the delicacies and attended to their needs.

Sarah Abraham
Abraham and Sarah (Providence Lithograph Company – Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

In Tractate Bava Metzia of the Babylonian Talmud, we find a midrash explaining that the Israelites benefit later on as a result of Abraham’s kindness to these strangers:

Rab Judah teaches in Rab’s name: Everything which Abraham personally did for the Ministering Angels, the Holy One Blessed be God did for God’s children [the Israelites]; and whatever Abraham did through a messenger, the Holy One Blessed be God did for God’s children through a messenger [Moses].  

Therefore, just as Abraham ran to the herd to get a tender calf to cook for his guests, a wind from God started up and swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp (Numbers 11:31).  Just as Abraham took butter and milk, God rained bread from heaven for the Israelites (Exodus 16:4).  As Abraham stood by the guests under the tree, God stood before them upon the rock at Horeb (Exodus 17:6).  And like Abraham went with them to bring them on the way, God went before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day (Exodus 13:21).  Finally, Abraham had water fetched for the three men, and similarly God commanded Moses to strike the rock for drinking water to come out of it for the Israelites (Exodus 17:6).

Categories
Education Torah

Jewish Learning Opportunities During the Omer

It is customary to study Jewish texts – mostly commonly Pirkei Avot – during the period of time between Passover and Shavuot. Many take the opportunity to occupy themselves with Torah study in the late Shabbat afternoons when the days are longer. The sages believed it was a worthwhile practice and would keep people focused on Sabbath observance.

Here are four opportunities for online study during this period:

 

TORAH DAILY
I launched the Torah Daily Facebook page after reading Jennifer Preston’s article in the New York Times about Jesus Daily. I was convinced that there was a need to provide spiritual and inspirational texts and quotes from Jewish wisdom. With the encouragement and assistance of the leadership of Clal’s Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, I created the Facebook page and invited friends and colleagues to follow it. It quickly gained a following and then one of my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbi’s Without Borders fellowship program Rabbi Juan Mejia worked with me to create the Spanish language version called Torá Diaria. Torah Daily has close to 1,000 followers on Facebook, which is nothing close to the 17.5 million fans Jesus Daily has but it’s become a dependable source for inspiration. Several rabbis and Jewish educators contribute meaningful lessons to inspire Torah Daily’s followers. The almost daily posting of quotes from Jewish wisdom can be shared with friends on Facebook and discussed using the Torah Daily Facebook page as a forum. I described the need for Torah Daily in a Huffington Post article.

 

Huffington Post - Torah Omer Learning

 

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Amalek D'var Torah Francis Bacon Hitler Holocaust Ki Tetzei Levirate Marriage Names Purim Torah Yibum Yom Hashoah

Ki Tetzei: Our Names, Our Heritage

As a rabbi, one of my favorite phone calls to receive is from expectant parents who are in search of Hebrew names for their future child. Before even suggesting any potential names, I always preface my response with an explanation of how important names are to us as Jewish people. Our name is our legacy. It is not only our identifying label in the community, but it is also how we will be remembered.

“Crown of a Good Name” by Artist Mordechai Rosenstei

When you go up to the Torah for an aliyah, you are beckoned before the minyan and before God with your moniker including your parents’ names. You are not receiving this kavod (honor) alone, but rather with your entire heritage. In many lifecycle events, our Hebrew name is invoked and thereby our heritage is invoked as well. For our name is more than mere nomenclature, a classifying label – it is who we are, what we stand for, and from where we have come.

In Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Sages, R. Shimon taught: “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all.” To become a king or a priest, one must be born into this position. However, to achieve the crown of Torah, one must have a quick mind and a sound memory. One must be willing to learn and to grow. Thus, the crown of a good name transcends them all, for it is open to all.

Parashat Ki Tetze ends with the famous commandment to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors and to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Timche et-zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim. Lo Tishkach. We must at the same time remember what the Amalekites did to our ancestors and also blot out their name. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation explains, we are not being commanded here to eradicate all recollection of the Amalekites. Indeed, we are commanded to remember forever what the Amalekites did. We must both remember what they did as well as erase their name. That, the Torah seems to be teaching us, is the ultimate revenge – to eliminate or wipe out a name.

On Purim, when we hear the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek, read from the Megillah, we literally drown out the name. So too, when we utter the name of Hitler, arguably another descendent of Amalek, we make sure to add the words “yimach shmo,” that his name should be erased. But these stand as negatives; ways to blot out the name of evil individuals. If we look back only a few verses before the mitzvah to eradicate the name of Amalek, we learn of another mitzvah concerning names; but in this instance, it is a positive commandment. It is to carry on the name of an individual – the man who dies childless.

Levirate marriage or yibum is the commandment stating that the brother of a childless husband is obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law and the first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother that his name should not be blotted out in Israel. Thus, the underlying intention of this mitzvah is that a man’s name should not disappear forever if he dies leaving no children to carry on his name. His legacy will be assured. We learn in the Book of Ruth, when Ruth’s relative Boaz marries the widower Naomi, that yibum is considered the ultimate in loving-kindness.

There is simply no better way to honor ones memory than by perpetuating ones name. Inherent in a person’s name are all of their achievements, their beliefs, and their ethical creed. Indeed, the memory of our loved ones is bound up in their name. When we remember their name, we maintain an enduring nearness to their neshama, to their soul.

On Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – throughout the Jewish community, on college campuses, in Jewish day schools, and in synagogues, the names of all six million Jews who perished during the Shoah are read to show respect to the dead by helping their names live on. Pronouncing these names, the names of those whose lives were cut short during the darkest time in our people’s history, is not only one of the greatest way we can carry on their legacy, but also the greatest way we can ensure that we remember what Amalek did to us and blot out their name. Zakhor, remembrance, can be for both good and evil. In remembering the good, we too, erase the evil.

We understand that while our body will eventually cease to function, our name will continue on. As a community, we have the mitzvah to perpetuate the name, the legacy, of others by carrying their name forward throughout the generations. Francis Bacon, the famous English essayist, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, once said: “I bequeath my soul to God… My body to be buried obscurely. For my name and memory, I leave it to men’s charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and the next age.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Animation Balak D'var Torah Donkey Dreamwords Exodus Harry Potter Israel Jewish Moab Morals Movies Parshat Balak Shrek Shrek Movies Torah

Shrek, Harry Potter & Parshat Balak

Several years ago I sat in a movie theater with my then three-year-old son and my father. I couldn’t get over the fact that all three of us were enjoying the same movie so much. Each of us represents a different generation and therefore has different tastes and different senses of what is funny. But we each enjoyed sitting in that theater for two hours watching the animated feature “Shrek the Third” on the big screen. We each found the movie entertaining, humorous, and memorable. The “Shrek” series has succeeded in entertaining a multi-generational audience through its fun story and animation for the kids that includes puns and humor aimed at adults.

Dreamworks Animation SKG

Just as “Shrek” has encouraged multi-generational enjoyment at the movie theater, the “Harry Potter” book series has fostered multi-generational literary enjoyment and commitment to reading. Author J.K. Rowling has created books that appeal to very young children as well as sophisticated adults. Parents have found as much pleasure in these tales of wizards and sorcerers as their kids. And the bond that is created when parent and child can discuss literature together is priceless.


The three “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” novels share a strong connection in several important ways to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The most striking connection between the animation and the parashah, of course, is the talking donkey in the Torah narrative. The link between “Harry Potter” and the parashah is in the magic, spells, curses, and sorcery.

When Balak, the King of Moab, saw the Israelite victory over the Amorites, he was alarmed. He commissioned Balaam, the world’s most powerful wizard, to put a curse on the Israelites for Balak to drive them out of the land. God tried to dissuade Balaam from cursing the Israelites, a people blessed from the time of the Patriarchs, whose divine blessing cannot be reversed. Balaam refused, but was later asked to reconsider his mission. God allows him to proceed so long as he does what God tells him.

Riding his donkey, Balaam comes upon an angel of God but does not want to stop. The donkey thinks otherwise and is beaten for trying to break for God’s messenger, whereupon God opens the donkey’s mouth for the donkey to verbally berate Balaam. Balaam then offers three oracles of blessing to the Israelites, including the well-known blessing, “How fair are your tents O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.”

There is much to be learned from this narrative. Most notably is the power of God to ensure that the Israelite nation remains blessed no matter how badly someone wants to curse them. What is remarkable about the story, however, is that appeal it has to both young and old. The basic story of a magician riding a talking donkey who is hired to curse a people seems to be taken right from a fairy tale. However, the deeper concept (the subtext) of the story is a powerful theological statement about the omnipotence of God and the eternally blessed nature of the people Israel.

In the brilliance of the Torah, the narrative captivates diverse generations just as the “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” series do. There is truly appeal for everyone. This is a lesson for us. We need to make Torah study in particular and Judaism in general attractive to young and old alike. We do this with our Passover seders each year and we should strive to do it year round.

There are “Shivim Panim LeTorah” (seventy faces of the Torah) meaning that the Torah can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. This also means that there are enough ways to make the Torah accessible and captivating to all ages. Some stories of the Torah might already be written as exciting narratives for young people as well as adults, such as the Flood, the tales of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the Exodus. Some, like the Balak narrative, might even have all the elements of a fantasy. For those sections of the Torah that do not automatically present themselves as intriguing for young people, it is up to the adults to translate the text into exciting drama. Through midrash, many texts have already come to life for our youth.

If you haven’t already seen the Shrek movies, go see them. And even if you’ve seen them, I encourage you to see them again with your children and/or grandchildren so that we may all seek out the multi-generational appeal of Talmud Torah. When the different generations spend time being entertained and learning together, in the words of our Torah, our people and dwellings will truly be blessed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Aaron Anger Chukat D'var Torah Domestic Abuse Domestic Violence Hitting JCADA Jewish Women Leadership Marriage Moses Spousal Abuse Temper Torah Violence Women

Domestic Violence is Real (Chukat)

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, Moses is once again feeling the stress of leadership. Tired and quickly losing hope following the death of his sister Miriam, the Israelites complain to Moses that they would have rather died in Egypt. They go so far as to wish they had died a horrible death along with those punished for joining Korach’s rebellion. They grumble that they were happier during their slave years in Egypt, where at least they had certain assurances compared to their current nomadic experience. They protest that they have been brought to a wretched place with no good food to eat or water to drink.

To produce water for the people the Lord commands Moses and his brother Aaron to assemble the community and order a rock to yield its water for the Israelites to drink. Rather than obeying God’s order verbatim, Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock twice producing drinking water. Immediately, Moses is condemned by God to die in the wilderness rather than being allowed to marshal his troops all the way to the Promised Land “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.”

This certainly seems a harsh punishment for Moses’s actions, but upon deeper examination there is much to learn from both the mistake and the punishment. Rashi comments that the double striking of the rock was unnecessary and proved insulting to the sanctity of God by diminishing the greatness of the miracle. A midrash explains that the sin of Moses was not merely the physical act of striking the rock, but also that he lost control of his temper during Israel’s rebellion. The commentaries of Maimonides and Samson Raphael Hirsch concur that the severe punishment was for losing patience with the Israelites and striking the rock twice in frustration. In the Talmud we find the lesson that “When a prophet (like Moses) loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him.”

Several excuses can be made in defense of Moses’ action. Clearly the leadership of such a complaining nation in the hot desert grew taxing on Moses, raising his stress level and making it more difficult to reason with the Israelites. Further, he did have the best interest of the people in mind when answering their call for more drinking water. However, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him and resorted to hitting rather than speaking. While Moses hit an inanimate object rather than speaking to it, his action should alert us to a serious problem today.

Domestic violence occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate of 15% as in the general community. However, studies demonstrate that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships two or three times longer than those in the general population. The misnomer that domestic abuse is not a Jewish concern further exacerbates the problem by discouraging abused women from reporting the abuse to others.

Rather than speaking to each other about difficult issues within the relationship, many partners (mostly men according to statistics) resort to violence. Oftentimes, men blame their abusive actions on stress from work and they allow their emotions to impair their better judgment. Regardless of how demanding one’s life may seem with weighty responsibilities at home and at work, resorting to abuse is never acceptable. The lesson of Moses aptly demonstrates this for us. His punishment was indeed severe, but so is the message it sends to our community. It is always better to use words than to hit.

For more information on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, visit www.jcada.org.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
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D'var Torah Korach Leadership Prayer Spirituality Tallit Torah

Korach Challenges the Leadership of Moses with a Tallit

This D’var Torah for Parashat Korach was published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The Tallit: A Reminder of Our Relationship With God

Hanging in the back of my closet is a beautiful tallit that was hand-woven in Ethiopia. This colorful prayer shawl was purchased by my grandmother several years ago when the renowned “Mitzvah Man” Danny Siegel visited Adat Shalom Synagogue. The tallit is waiting in my closet until my oldest son becomes a bar mitzvah and, God willing, my grandmother can present it to him as a gift.

The tallit is a fascinating garment. There are many different styles and fashions of the tallit that we see being worn at synagogue during prayer services, but the most important component to the tallit are the fringes that hang from the four corners.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following about the tallit:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute…

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget:
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin Korach mounts a rebellion against him. Korach argues that he has as much right to lead the Israelites as Moses or Aaron, who are in the same generational line on the Levite family tree.

The tallit plays an interesting role in this biblical story of mutiny. The Korach narrative begins with the words Vayikach Korach, which come immediately following God’s instructions regarding the laws of tzitzit, the fringes with a blueish/purpleish cord (a p’til tekhelet) that are commanded to be attached to ones tallit. Each four-cornered garment must have four tzitziyot hanging from each corner. Midrash Tanchuma notices the words Vayikach Korach – “Korach took” and imagines what Korach took by associating that phrase to the section preceding it.

The Midrash imagines that what Korach took were the words from above in the text concerning tzitzit. The Midrash presents a story in which Korach tries to embarrass Moses by challenging him with a difficult question. He says, “You told us to put tekhelet on the tzitzit, tell me if the tallit is entirely made up of tekhelet, would such a tallit still require four tzitzit?” Moses replies that it would still require tzitzit.”

Korach then responds with a challenge, questioning the fact that four strings of tekhelet can allow you to wear a tallit, but a garment made entirely of tekhelet cannot be exempted from this restriction?” Korach isn’t simply challenging Moses’ authority, but also mocking him, and by extension mocking God’s Torah.

Korach uses the tallit, a holy ritual object, for a negative purpose. The tallit is a ritual garb that shows that the Jewish people are a holy nation of priests. Korach uses the tallit to make Moses look silly. He uses the tallit and tzitzit to undermine Moses’ authority.

Whether Korach was correct or not in challenging Moses’ authority, he was wrong for using a holy garment for the purpose of mocking the Israelite leader. The tallit is a reminder for us. It is used during prayer as a sign of our relationship with God through the commandments.

When we wear the tallit, we should look down at its fringes, the tzitzit, and be reminded of God’s love for us and of God’s gift of the Torah. We should also wear it proudly and let it serve as a reminder of how Moses and the Israelites did not allow Korach and his gang to overthrow their leadership.

Each morning when we wrap ourselves in our tallit let it serve to show that Korach was defeated and that the tallit should not be used for such negativity. Let us consider the words of Yehuda Amichai and be ever cognizant of the ritual of tallit – from taking it out, to folding it and putting it back in its bag.

The tallit that I wear on Shabbat has an additional special meaning for me. This white tallit was a gift from the Jewish Theological Seminary upon my ordination as a rabbi. Like any tallit it has stories to tell. It has significant meaning because it reminds me of my experience in rabbinical school. It also brings to mind the many life-cycle events when I was wrapped in its embrace.

The tallit is a beautiful way for us to wrap ourselves in God’s embrace and be reminded of God’s love for us. Korach’s error was in using the tallit to undermine Moses’ authority and publicly humiliate him. Let us use the tallit for good. Let us wrap ourselves in the tallit and give thanks for leadership rather than trying to weaken it.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
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Holidays Jewish Revelation Shavuot Sinai Spirituality Torah

I Was at Mt. Sinai: A Personal Revelation Story

Cross-posted to the Huffington Post

Much of the disharmony in the Jewish community today can be attributed to the divergence of opinions concerning the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Regardless of what individual members of the Jewish faith believes actually occurred at that mountain, the essential issue for the Jewish people on the eve of the Shavuot festival is that we feel a part of divine revelation.

How do we internalize the midrashic tradition that all Jews stood at Sinai as the Jewish Bible was revealed to Israel? Just as we Jews seek the spiritual connection to see ourselves as having escaped Egyptian slavery on Passover, we also attempt to envision ourselves at Sinai as the Torah was revealed several millennia ago.

Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending the Shavuot holiday at a synagogue in Metro Detroit where I was serving as youth group adviser. The new assistant rabbi decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) for the first time, and then at dawn, we would participate in outdoor morning prayer services complete with a special reading of the Torah.

The Israelites standing at Mt. Sinai – Photo: Zipiyah

It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about 30 of us managed to stay up the entire night. At around 5 in the morning we convened outside in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.

The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Mt. Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. I was called up for an honor, and as I stood at the Torah for my alliyah the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”

At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. I grabbed the Torah and ran inside to the chapel where the scriptural reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be what divine revelation felt like. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.

This was a liminal moment in my life. The experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the ensuing years. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Mt. Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.

That was my revelation. That spiritually charged moment had the three ingredients that shape the lives of the Jewish people: God, Torah and Israel. I felt the awesome force of the Holy One, I was touched by the words of Torah, and I stood together with my fellow Jews.

What’s your personal story of revelation?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Ethics Holidays Lessons Morals Moses Mussar Omer Spirituality Torah

Do-overs and Learning From Mistakes

This is my contribution to the HuffPost Religion’s Omer Liveblog, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot:

“The broken tablets were put with the new ones into the Ark.” –Talmud, Menachot 99a

What can we learn from the fact that Moses put the broken tablets into the Ark along with the new tablets? We move on from our mistakes, but we also take the lessons along with us.

In helping to form a new nation, Moses made many mistakes. He overreacted when he saw the people sinning before God by dancing around the Golden Calf, and he threw the tablets to the ground. Forty days of hard work were lost.

As a leader, Moses owned his inability to handle the situation calmly. He did a “do-over” and received new commandments, but the experience of breaking the tablets wouldn’t be erased from memory. It was part of his narrative as a leader and part of the historical record of the Israelites. The broken tablets would endure alongside the new ones.

We all make mistakes on the way toward our goal. As a business owner and entrepreneur, there is a story upon which I often reflect that was shared with me by Josh Linkner. Everyone is familiar with WD-40, the water-displacing spray that was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, but was later found to have numerous household uses. Many people, however, don’t realize that WD-40 stands for “water displacement 40th attempt.” It was the inventor’s 40th attempt at a successful product. Norm Larsen had 39 do-overs before finding success. By naming his product WD-40 he kept the first 39 attempts with him as a lesson, just as Moses preserved the broken tablets as a reminder.

May we all make mistakes and then remember those mistakes as lessons as we achieve our goals.

This is a reflection on the fourth day of the Omer. Join the conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller