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March 26, 2020 – Parsha Vayikra
Program Note: With Scouts and parents at home for a few weeks, how about working on your religious emblems. Cub Scout emblems are a great family activity. Scouts BSA and Venturing emblems can double as scholarly activities. For more information, workbooks and applications see https://www.jewishscouting.org/awards-and-emblems/
For weeks we’ve been learning about the Mishkan (Tabernacle) – how it was to be built, what vessels were to go in it, how the kohanim (priests) were to dress and how Moses was to anoint the kohanim and inaugurate the services.
The services to be held in the Mishkan and later in the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) that replaced it were different kinds of offerings, generally to atone for one’s sins. This is what the week’s parasha, Vayikra, describes for us.
For some sins, the offering was an animal, such as a bull, a ram or a dove. In some cases, the offering was grain. By permitting doves and grain to be offered, which were less expensive than bulls and rams, poor people were able to bring offerings. For most offerings, part of it was burned on the Mizbeiach (Altar) and the rest was given to the kohanim for them and their families, because the kohanim had no lands to farm. All of these offerings were salted as part of their preparation.
The First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE (about 2,600 years ago), and the Jews were forced to go to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel, a member of a priestly family, was one of them. In one of his prophecies he had a vision of the Temple of the future as shown to him by a guide. Ezekiel described the Mizbeiach: “The Altar, three cubits high, and the length thereof two cubits, was of wood, and so the corners thereof; the length thereof, and the walls thereof, were also made of wood; and he said to me: ‘This is the table that is before the Lord.’ ” (Ezekiel 41:22).
The rabbis of the Talmud explained the statement that the Mizbeiach “is the table that is before the Lord.” They noted that the verse opens with “altar” and finishes with “table” (meaning a dinner table). Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar explained that as long as the Temple stood, the Altar atoned for Israel, but now a person’s table atones for him. (Berachot 55a).
There are several similarities to the services in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and our dinner tables. Just as the priests ate part of the sacrifice, we eat the food that is served at our table. We use it as an opportunity to thank God when we say the blessings over the food we eat. If we have bread, we salt it in remembrance of the salting of the offerings at the Altar. Many people take a few minutes to study Torah at the end of a meal.
These things are all good ways to worship God, which is a way to atone for things we may have done wrong. That’s between each of us and God. But we can go beyond that, and honor God by using our dinner table to be kind to other people. We do this when we invite people in need to eat with us, such as someone who does not have enough to eat, or is ill or elderly and finds it difficult to make their own food, or is lonely and could use the warmth and lively conversation of a family meal.
While we are practicing social distancing to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus, we are not able to invite others to eat with us. We can do a similar kindness to people by reaching out to them with a phone call or a social media chat. Older members of your family would love to have a video visit with you.
So turn your computer into a temple, and make the world a better place.
March 19, 2020 – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei
This week, for many reasons, I am thinking of the founder of the Order of the Arrow, Dr. E. Urner Goodman. Last Friday, March 13, was the fortieth anniversary of his passing. He lived a happy life dedicated to leading Scouts in service to others. Leadership and service are two of the themes of this week’s Torah readings, and I write in memory of Dr. Goodman. He used to say that the greatest campout of all time was the Children of Israel spending 40 years in the Wilderness.
This week we read two portions, Vayakhel (assemble) and Pekudei (reckoning), and conclude the Book of Shemos (Exodus). These portions continue the story of the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its holy vessels. Just as the names of the portions suggest, Moses assembles the people and tells them it is time to carry out the detailed instructions God has given for building the Mishkan. At the end of the process, Moses takes a reckoning of everything that was used to construct and furnish the Mishkan.
At the assembly in Vayakhel, Moses does something a little different. Generally, God’s instructions came to Moses and then he gave them to the people as commands, which everyone had to obey. But in connection with building the Mishkan, there are several times when the instructions are just for those of the Children of Israel who want to volunteer.
A few weeks ago, in Parasha Terumah, God instructed Moses to tell the people “let them take a portion, from every man whose heart motivates him” of the materials necessary to build the Mishkan. (Exodus 25:1) Now, again in Vayakhel, Moses tells the people God says “everyone whose heart motivates him” is to bring materials to build the Mishkan. (Exodus 35:5) A few verses later (35:21) “every man whose heart inspired him” came to give his labor.
So you see, the people volunteered to do this work. In these efforts, they followed some inspired leaders. At the beginning of Pekudei, we learn that Moses was in charge of the entire project. The Levites worked under Issamar, son of Aaron. The crafting of the vessels and hangings was led by Bezalel and Oholiab. Between the leadership of these men and the dedicated service of the people, the Mishkan arose in the desert, a place that became the home of God’s Glory.
This effort can be an example for us, today. Working together under wise leaders to achieve a common goal for the good of the community, we can create a “place” where God’s glory will rest. As God said in Parsha Terumah, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary (a place of holiness) and I will dwell in their midst.” (Exodus 25:8).
The place may be a real location that you could point to on a map, like a food pantry for those in need, or a clinic where people can get well, or a school where children can learn.
These days, with everyone keeping their distance from each other to keep from getting one another sick, the “place” where God’s glory can rest could also be the group of us who care so much for our friends and family that we stay away from them.
Perhaps, in these times, God’s glory is found in the spaces between us?
March 12, 2020 – Parsha Ki Sisa
There is a lot of counting going on in this week’s parasha, Ki Sisa.
It begins with God’s instructions that, when Moses takes a census of the Children of Israel, he is to do so by collecting a half-shekel from each person over 20 years old. The words Ki Sisa mean “to raise up,” which was appropriate because the coins collected in the census were used for the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so the people became elevated by using their means to honor God.
We are unsure as to whether a census was taken at that time. Ramban says there was, but Rashi disagrees – another count, 1 to 1.
After receiving instructions about the construction of the laver – the large copper basin in which the priests wash their hands and feet before performing the holy service – we start counting again, this time with exact numbers of the fragrant spices that go into the oil to be used to anoint the priests. Then God directs that the incense to be burned in the Mishkan will be made of equal measures (more counting) of four spices – stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense.
After designating the two artists who will build the Mishkan, Bezalel and Oholiab, God discusses Shabbat, and goes back to counting: “For six days work may be done and the seventh day is a day of complete rest.” The reminder of the holiness of Shabbat follows instructions for making the Mishkan which teaches us that even the holy work of building the Mishkan may not be done on Shabbat. In fact, the 39 types of work that are prohibited on Shabbat were derived from the tasks done in putting up and taking down the Mishkan.
Then we have a miscount, which brings about a tragedy. Moses told the people he would ascend Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the Torah. The people think they should count the day he left as the first day, but Moses meant he would be gone for 40 full days, so the count would start the next morning. When Moses does not return on the day the people expected him, they fear they are now leaderless, and seek something to be a symbol of their relationship with God. They revert to familiar things, and call for Aaron and Hur, whom Moses left in charge during his absence, to build an idol. Tradition tells us that Hur opposed those calling for an idol and they killed him. Aaron, to calm the crowd, tells the people to bring their gold jewelry. He melts it down and fashions a golden calf. To direct the people’s attention away from the idol and back to God, Aaron says there will be a festival for God the next day. Some of the people begin dancing around the idol and worshipping it.
Moses returns to the camp and learns what has happened. He smashes the stone tablets on which God has inscribed the Ten Commandments, then he smashes the idol, pounds it to dust, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it.
Now Moses calls out, “Whoever is for God, join me!” The Levites, who have not taken part in the sin of the golden calf, join Moses, and they strike down about 3,000 people who worshipped the idol.
Moses then carves new stone tablets, goes back up Mount Sinai, where God again inscribes the Ten Commandments on the tablets. God teaches Moses the prayer we use to ask for forgiveness (counting again) the Thirteen Attributes: “Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth. Preserver of Kindness for thousand [of generations], Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin and Error, and Who Cleanses.”
The counting that means the most to me was by Moses. He prayed for the people twice.
First, just before he came down Mount Sinai, God said “Let My anger flare up against them and I shall destroy them and I shall make you a great nation.” Moses pleaded with God not to do this, reminding God they were “Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt.” He also reminded God of the promises to the Patriarchs, to whom You promised to make their offspring as numerous as the stars and give them the Land of Israel.
Then, the next day, when Moses returned to the top of Mount Sinai, he prayed that God would forgive the people, “But if not, erase me now from this book that You have written.”
The math that Moses used calculated the Children of Israel as everything, and himself as nothing. He served the people selflessly, and the people could “count” on him at all times.
That is why, when we count the prophets, Moses is number one. Can the people who need you count on you like the Children of Israel could count on Moses?
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