To Their Last Breath: Passover 5782 – 2022

Passover 5782 – 2022
Exodus 12:21-51
Numbers 28:16-25

When the Israelites came to the banks of the Red Sea, on the seventh day after leaving Egypt, they were too afraid to obey God’s command that they “keep moving forward!” (Ex. 14:15) The Talmud (BTSotah 37a) records a tradition that only one person had the nerve – and the faith – to jump into the waters, Nahshon (identified later in the Torah as the head of the tribe of Judah). It was only after Nahshon demonstrated his courage and pioneering leadership by jumping into the surging sea that the sea split open and the waters parted. Then the rest of the people were able to walk through the sea on dry land.
Continue reading

Wholeness: Parashat M’tzora/Shabbat Ha-gadol

Torah Sparks
Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

How much control do we have over our bodies? What do we experience when we lose control of our body? Starting with last week’s Torah portion (- which is often combined with this week’s portion as one reading) and continuing into the reading for this Shabbat, the Torah gives us a few examples of a person enduring loss of control over their body or of some bodily function.

Last week we began with the experience of childbirth. Whatever preparations might be undertaken, the birth of a baby (- in times before inducing labor was possible) happened whenever it did, without the decision of the mother (or anyone else, of course). The next example discussed is a strange skin affliction, tzara`at. The affliction comes upon a person unbidden, and seems to leave the person without the Torah explicitly giving a reason or cause. And our Torah portion mentions other bodily problems – the involuntary discharge and emission of genital pus or seed or blood.

Continue reading

Stealthy Slanderer: Parashat Tazri`a/Rosh Hodesh/Shabbat Ha-Hodesh

Parashat Tazri`a/Shabbat Rosh Hodesh/Shabbat Ha-hodesh
Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Numbers 28:9-15
Exodus 12:1-20 

Most of our Torah portion deals with the phenomenon called tzara`at – a surface affliction that can affect a person’s skin and hair. If the priest examines the person and determines that their condition is not a medical one of disease, but is really this unique problem, the person becomes ritually impure. (To be clear: Disease does not render someone ritually impure; only this particular condition has such an effect.) The person is instructed to leave the encampment and dwell alone. They must leave their hair disheveled and wrap themselves in a cloak and call out: “Impure! Impure!” (Lev. 13:45) Continue reading

Choose to hear? Parashat Tzav

Destruction by Russian attack of peasant village of Yakovlivka in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Parashat Tzav
Leviticus 6:1-8:36

The name of our Torah portion, “tzav,” means “command.” God tells Moses to command Aaron and his sons to follow the rules of the priesthood rigorously. This sense of command is also mentioned at the close of our Torah reading – by Moses, as something he feels personally. (Lev. 8:35) (For a discussion of this last instance see Sparks for 2013.) The force and urgency of a command is called forth to reinforce the importance of the task to be performed and to galvanize the will of the person who is to fulfill that command. The Torah, God’s Voice, is heard to say, “That’s an order!” Continue reading

Bloodshed: Parashat Vayiqra/Shabbat Zakhor

Parashat Vayiqra/Shabbat Zakhor
Leviticus 1:1-5:26

“Bloodshed” is what we call it – the harm and death we inflict on living creatures, most especially upon our fellow human beings. The first time the Torah mentions blood is after a murder of a man, Abel, by his own brother, Cain. Or we call it “spilling blood,” as if we knocked over a milk container, only it’s blood that the vessel contained, blood that has spilt. We are constantly, senselessly, shedding and spilling blood. Is there any use crying over it?
Continue reading

Hidden Contours: Parashat P’qudei 

Parashat P’qudei
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38

Our Torah portion gives the final report on the construction of the Tabernacle. Last week we considered one of its essential elements – the ark – and we noticed the special feature of carrying rods that were attached to it so that it could be taken from place to place. This week we turn to another special element, the menorah. In contrast to the altars, the table and the ark, the menorah has no carrying poles!

Continue reading

Hidden Presence: Parashat Vayaq’hel/ Sh’qalim

Parashat Vayaq’hel/ Sh’qalim
Exodus 35:1-38:20

This Torah portion tells us that God’s instructions for the construction of a portable shrine – mishkan – were finally conveyed to the Israelites and that they responded with energy and passion. The descriptions of each of the elements of the Tabernacle follow, and they are often verbatim repetitions of the instructions given earlier in the Torah. (See Sparks 2011) So the commentary on this and the next portion is usually thin. On the other hand, we are given another opportunity to consider what we have read one more time and to revisit some of the details of this multi-detailed text. Continue reading

Foreign Essence: Parashat Ki Tissa

Parashat Ki Tissa
Exodus 30:11-38

Our Torah portion opens as a continuation of God’s imaginings of the wonderful creation of a Tent of Meeting, sanctified for the purpose of solidifying the bond between Israel and God. This dream is interrupted by the tragic shattering of that bond when Israel constructs a Golden Calf and worships it. The rest of the story concerns Moses’ desperate – and successful! – efforts to repair that break. And next week we will pick up again with the creation of a sanctuary. Continue reading

Need for Closeness: Parashat T’tzaveh

Parashat T’tzaveh
Exodus 27:20-30:10

Why did God take us out of Egypt? The Torah offers a number of explanations in various places. Our Torah portion mentions one of them. After detailing the elements that go into making the Sanctuary, and after describing the vestments of the priests who would minister there, God says: “And I shall dwell (v’shakhanti) amongst the Children of Israel and I will become for them an Almighty God. And thy will know that I am the Eternal One, their Almighty God, [and that] I took them out of the land of Egypt in order to set My dwelling among them; I am the Eternal, their Almighty God.” (Ex. 29:45-46)

In last week’s Torah portion we heard the famous saying, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8) Here we have a repetition of that idea, but with the added explanation that it is not only our own efforts to create a sacred home for God that draws God into our midst. In addition we learn that this was God’s purpose from the very first. God liberated us from slavery “in order to set My dwelling among them.” Rashi on our verse puts this notion in strong terms: “On condition that I will dwell among them.” Many commentators are taken aback by this wording. Could we imagine that our extrication from the suffering of slavery was not a supreme good in and of itself, but was conditioned on our acceptance of God’s Presence? What if we declined to accept God? Would our slavery then be acceptable? That idea is impossible to accept.

Nahmanides suggests a mystical answer. It is not only that we are called upon to accept God into our midst for our own benefit. God’s dwelling among us is a “Heavenly need – tzorekh gavo`ah”. Rational approaches to religion in general and to Judaism in particular make a basic assumption that God does not really need our prayers (and certainly not our animal sacrifices!). If religion has any value in that view, it is in the way it helps us build community and open ourselves to higher aspirations and to the presence of others. But Nahmanides’ radical concept tells us something very different: God needs us. And, in some ways, God’s need for us is more acute and more constant than our need for God.  Indeed, we may or may not accept God as our Companion, and we may not even feel the need to do so. But, says our mystical tradition, God constantly feels the need for our closeness. God is, thus, a Being with “special needs.” The Torah tries to sensitize us so that we may make the necessary accommodations for God’s dwelling among us. We are meant to learn how to make our lives and spaces “God accessible.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly d’var Torah

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein