A deep mystery…

March 10th, 2010

Vayakhel - A deep mystery...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Vayakhel: Exodus 35:1-38:20

"And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood…" (Exodus 37:1)

The Sages use an obscure device to get to a critical problem: what is the Eternal One’s role in human suffering? Let me explain the device first, then we’ll move on to the midrash, and my thoughts on what it can mean for us.

The device is the word shittim, which in Hebrew means both a place ("Shittim") and the word for acacia wood. The place Shittim is one of the many where we Israelites got into trouble, which creates an opportunity for interpretation: why should the Ark of the Covenant be made from wood that reminds us of our rebellion against G!d’s laws?

I have abridged the midrash somewhat, as the Sages give many examples of the thesis they are promoting, namely: G!d heals us by wounding us. An astounding paradox! Listen:

It is written, For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds (Jer. 30:17). The ways of G!d are unlike those of man; for a man inflicts a wound with a knife, and heals with a plaster, but G!d heals with the very thing with which He wounds, as it says, And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah. Why? For they were bitter (Ex. 15:23). R. Levi said: That generation was bitter in its deeds.

And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree (ib. 25). What kind of tree was it? Some say that it was an olive-tree, others that it was a willow-tree. Some think that it was an laurel, and still others say that it was the roots of fig and pomegranate trees. But whatever it was, it was bitter; and this he took and cast into the waters, And the waters were made sweet (ib.). A clear illustration of I will heal thee through thy very wounds.

You will similarly find it written of the days of Elisha: But the water is bad, and the land miscarries (II Kings 2:19). And Elisha said [unto the men of the city]: Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him (ib. 20), and then we read: So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke (ib. 22).

In like manner, it was in Shittim that Israel sinned, for it says, And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Num. 25:1); but it was also through shittim (acacia-wood) that they were healed, for it says, And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus L:3

Now, the problem of theodicy – the presence of evil in a G!d-created world – is perhaps the greatest challenge that any theology must face, especially if it says that G!d is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving. As Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, you can only have two of the three, unless you’re willing to say that there are "higher purposes," unknown to mere humans, which are served by (for example) the deaths of innocent babies.

However, most of these problems exist at the "boundaries" of our experience: those disturbing extremes that create huge challenges for every religion. For me, this notion – that we are healed by the wound that G!d inflicts upon us – is a paradox that can strengthen us in that broad middle of the road, even if it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the problems at the extremes.

Do you know how we build up our muscles, and therefore become stronger? We do it by breaking down muscles, tearing them apart in exercise. Then when they heal, they come back not merely repaired, but with more volume, and more power.

Do you know how we keep our intellects sharp, our brains healthy (and, as it turns out, as a result our bodies)? By taking on challenges that stump us; by exercising our cognitive skills in much the same way as we do our physical bodies.

I believe that the challenges that we encounter are opportunities to engage with G!d and thereby become healed – and strengthened. Am I ready to say that the Holy One, Kadosh Baruch Hu, sends us pain and suffering to improve us? No, I am not.

I am, however, ready to say that the Eternal One is a healing force that is always available to us, and that the quality of the challenge we find most difficult to face is often the one that will lead us to the most growth if we can encounter it in a spiritually positive manner.

But allow me to take this a step further. I do not believe that we can successfully have a full encounter with G!d’s healing power as individuals. I believe that we must heal each other as agents of the Eternal One, in community. All too often we forget that the brit, the covenant we have with G!d is between G!d and people, not G!d and individuals.

So, we are obligated as creatures not only made in the image of the Divine, but as sparks of the Divine in this world, to reach out to each other and help heal the wounds that have been inflicted, by whatever means.

Then, I believe, it will be true that G!d will heal us – the Divine in each of us can and will heal each of us.


Why the second post for this portion? The last one contained thoughts on a midrash, but the illustration was only peripherally related to those thoughts. Now, it happens that the midrash M’ Shoshannah and I each wanted to share is one that happens to be one of my favorites. I am pleased to say that she found it also to be quite compelling! So, now that we have overcome the technical difficulties that prevented us from delivering the "full package" earlier, please treat yourself to a second portion of midrash – in words and colors – with our distinct pleasure.

The chicken or the egg?

March 8th, 2010

Vayakhel - The chicken or the egg?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Vayakhel: Exodus 35:1-38:20

"And Bezalel made the ark…" (Exodus 37:1)

The problem the Sages wrestle with this week is the matter of which should be built first: the Ark, or the Tabernacle in which it is found? While the answer is given (it is the Ark), they ponder, why?

In order to understand why, they begin by drawing an analogy to the Creation: which came first: the world, or the Light? On this matter, the two Rabbis named in the midrash (and pictured above) cannot agree; each makes an argument about why it should be one order or the other.

And that’s where the sweetness finds its way in. Instead of trying to resolve the question, they ask an even deeper question: how was light itself created? And in answering it, they come up with a beautiful image that forms the heart of the midrash, and my comments thereafter. Listen:

It is written, The opening of Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple (Ps. 99:130). When God created the world it was full of water everywhere, for it says, And darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). This formed the subject of a discussion between R. Judah and R. Nehemiah. R. Judah said: He created the light first and then the world… R. Nehemiah, however, said: The world was created first…

R. Simeon b. Jehozadak once asked R. Samuel b. Nahman: ‘Since I have heard that you are a master of Aggadah, can you tell me how the light was created?’ He replied: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself in a garment, and the whole world from end to end became resplendent with His brightness, for it is written, Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment; and this is followed by, Who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain (Ps. 104:2). This is why it says: ‘The opening of Thy words giveth light.’ It is from God that the righteous learned that when they entered upon any work they should commence with light. Thus you will find that when God told Moses to build the Tabernacle, Bezalel inquired, "With what thing shall I begin first? I had better start with the Ark," as it says, And Bezalel made the ark.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus L:1

Does this seem obscure? Sure – let it be. Instead, pay attention to the imagery, and the lesson. First, the visual: the fantastic image of a huge tallit (prayer shawl), which immediately bursts into light and becomes the physical universe. It is this same image (and verses) that we who pray in a tallit use to invite G!d’s blessing upon our prayers, and in truth I cannot imagine a more powerful, comforting image than being wrapped in a shawl of light – which is the Eternal One’s love.

And then on to the lesson: whenever we begin any endeavor, we should begin with light. Think of it; imagine it; try it! Any time you are about to embark on a new task, a chore, a conversation with someone else – start by taking a moment. Clear your mind – "begin with light." Clear your soul with a swift, cleansing breath, that same breath that was breathed into us at Creation. Wrap yourself in the clear, bright intention to be a reflection of that Divine Image in which we are all made. Perhaps even vocalize that intent, with the simple phrase "L’kavod Shabbas" (For the glory of Shabbat) or "LeShem Shamayim" (For the sake of Heaven).

See what a difference a little light can make!

Oh, freedom!

February 28th, 2010

Ki Tissa - Oh Freedom!
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35

"And the tablets were the work of G!d…" (Exodus 32:16)

This week, the sages play upon a single word to discover – or is it release?! – meaning from the passage at hand. But first of all, the question must be, what is the question they are struggling with?

The question at hand is rarely stated explicitly; sometimes it is obvious, and more often it is far more difficult to discern. I will begin with my best guess as to what the question is, then share their attempts to resolve and illuminate the passage, and finally share my own thoughts about a very different resolution of the same problem.

The problem revolves around the Hebrew word haruth, which means something like "etched" or, as Rashi tells us, "cut into." That the Sages don’t like this word is clear, but what is their problem?

It helps to recall the setting: Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai with these first set of tablets, where he will discover the people dancing in front of the Golden Calf, and it is these tablets, "haruth" by the hand of G!d, that he will destroy.

So nu? Shouldn’t the fact of the tablets’ demise be more important than how they were created?

I think the problem has to do with the problem with "graven images," forbidden to us. Can the Holy One be in the business of making graven images? Or would we, given something engraved by G!d, come to worship it as an idol?

This is, I think, the problem. Now let’s see how the Sages solve it. Listen:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: A heavenly voice issues from Mount Horeb every day, saying: ‘Woe unto those creatures who neglect the study of the Torah.’ For whosoever studies not the Law continually is rebuked by God; as it says, and the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tablets (Exo. 32:16). What is the meaning of haruth?  This was discussed by R. Judah, R. Jeremiah, and the Sages.

R. Judah said: Read not haruth (graven), but heyruth (free) from captivity. R. Nehemiah opined that it means free from the Angel of Death; whilst the Sages were of the opinion that it means free from suffering.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XLI:7

The Sages change "engraved" to "freed from," and then speculate about what it is that Torah frees us from: is it from captivity, like the slavery of Egypt? Or is it freedom from death, as in meriting a place in either Olam Haba, the World to Come, or at the coming of the Messiah, may it be swift and in our day? Or does it simply mean that the Torah frees us from suffering?

How can Torah free us from captivity? There is an epithet – meaning, another name for – Jews who have lost touch with their Judaism: they are referred to as the "captive children of Israel." In other words, they have been "captured" by the world, and must be "freed" from that captivity. In that sense, studying Torah indeed frees us from captivity.

Does Torah free us from death? The danger to answering "yes" to this is that it could be taken to imply that the penalty for not studying Torah is death. The only way that a "yes" to this question makes sense to me is that Torah is one of many ways to achieve a personal connection with G!d, and that any such connection – by any means, whether by Torah or not – revives our spirits.

As for Torah freeing us from suffering, alas, there are far too many today who, G!d-forbid, suffer, whether they are students of Torah or not. But I can tell you that in those moments in which I am able to immerse myself in the study of Torah, for those sweet moments of time, whatever suffering I am enduring lifts. So, in a sense, Torah can free us from suffering.

Now, as I told you, I think there is another meaning to the "freedom" of the creation of the tablets. Think about the process by which a sculptor creates: we are told, especially in the case of truly talented artists, that they take a block of stone, clay, or whatever, and simply “remove” what does not belong to the finished work. They “free” or “liberate” the work from its encasing media. So, in a sense, G!d “freed” the words from their encasing stone. But I think we can take it even deeper.

We have been taught, rightly so, that the words of Torah are living, alive for us this day. Every time we study Torah, we are given the chance to learn something new, something that never was there for us before. It is in this sense that the Torah itself must be free of the rigid constraints we might, in error, attempt to place upon it. Indeed, we must free those living words from a fixed, stone-like interpretation, and breathe life to them with our actions so that we – and they – can be alive to the world around us.

This is, for me, one more way in which G!d created words of Torah by "freedom," not "engraving." May we each be blessed with many opportunities each day to see how those words can live in our lives, and breathe life into others.

On what merit?

February 21st, 2010

Tetzaveh - On what merit?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10

"And this is the word/thing…" (Exodus 29:1)

The sages use this midrash to take the dilemma of Aaron’s participation in the creation of the egel hazahav (“golden calf”) to explore the question of worthiness in being chosen by G!d. In so doing they teach a sweet lesson about the power G!d’s promises.

This is a longer midrash (which I have abridged somewhat), with deep teachings. It is "launched" from the fact that the Hebrew "d’var" means both "word" and "thing." Also, I have placed M’ Shoshannah’s reflections on her illustration in the at the end of this post… Enjoy!

It is written, Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven (Ps. 119:89). Does then the word of God stand fast only in heaven, but not on earth? R. Hezekiah b. Hiyya said: This is because God made a promise in heaven, which was fulfilled on earth for that righteous man Abraham after two hundred and ten years. How so? When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: ‘Get you out of your country… and I will make of you a great nation’ (Gen. 12:1f), the latter replied: ‘Lord of the Universe! What benefit do I derive from all these blessings, since I am about to depart from this world childless?’

Said God to him: ‘Are you sure that you will no longer give birth to a child?’ The reply was: ‘Lord of the Universe! My horoscope tells me that I will be childless.’

‘So you are afraid of your horoscope?’ God retorted. ‘As you live, it will be as impossible to number your offspring as it is to number the stars of heaven.’

R. Judah b. R. Simon said in the name of R. Hanin: It was then that God raised Abraham above the vault of the heavens and said to him: Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them; and He said unto him: So shall thy seed be (ib. 15:5); that is: Just as you see all these stars and cannot count them, so numerous will your children be, for none will be able to number them… a proof that ‘Forever, O Lord, Your word stands fast in heaven.’

This also you now find in the case of Aaron: God made a promise to Moses, saying: And bring you near to you Aaron your brother… that he may minister to Me in the priests’ office (Ex. 28:1), an assurance which He kept when He said: and this is the thing that you shall do to them, etc.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXVIII:6

In the simplest terms, Aaron "merits" the honor of being the first High Priest for a basic reason: G!d promised it, and the Holy One’s promises are always kept. Is this, however, a sufficient answer? If it were, why would we need the story?

Read the story again: it is about Abraham’s doubt, his downright mistrust of the promise of "a great nation," expressed explicitly to the Eternal One. And upon what does he base that doubt? On the predictions of astrologers, who have measured his "planet" (as the original states).

What happens when Abraham expresses such bold skepticism? He is elevated to the heavens, to look upon all of Creation, and see the love that G!d has for him – and us. Then he is told, "Trust Me. Be patient. It will be."

Was Aaron any less worthy than Abraham? Other midrash (as M’ Shoshannah relates) suggest that he was an unwilling participant, but was just trying to keep the peace. Like Abraham, he is in the company of pagan practices, and perhaps even listens to them. But HaKodesh Baruch Hu remembers the promise, remembers the Love for us, and elevates him.

If Abraham, who speaks directly with G!d, can doubt G!d and still be elevated; if Aaron, who has heard G!d and seen the miracles in Egypt can help build an idol and still be elevated… cannot we, in our troubles and doubt, be granted the same?

And notice, finally, that no severe repentance was necessary: "all" that had to be done was to stay in conversation with G!d.

Listen for that still, small voice. It calls to us in Love.



Maggidah Shoshannah writes:

Aaron decides to be the one to lead the people in making the egel hazahav (golden calf), since he is a kohen (priest), but he looks very pained.

How does it feel? They just committed themselves to HaShem (G!d), Moshe (Moses) is still on the mountain, and now those spoiled people want to go back to man made statue ‘gods’ like in Mitzrayim (Egypt)! Feh, feh, feh! He must have cried, he must have been angry, and then he decided to do the best he could in bad circumstances.

Behind him Moshe looks suspiciously around with his luchot (tablets). I did not paint Moshe descending the mountain: instead, he is there in Aaron’s thoughts. Aaron knows what they do is wrong, hence his distorted face and his whole posture which ‘screams’ repulsion.

The egel stands in the middle like a ‘real calf,’ is is an idol without power: I show it blue and not golden.

The people are feasting in the bottom left corner, but like Aharon they do not show bliss and real pleasure, or intense hitlahavut (spiritual ecstasy, like dancing Chassidim). No, they show contorted faces: it’s an orgy, they are in frenzy, but derive no real pleasure of this.

In the arch of the sky I show Avrom Avinu (Abraham our father), who feared because the astrologer (planet) predicted that he would have no children. But now he is surrounded by the stars, as numerous as the b’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel.

It’s always there…

February 14th, 2010

Terumah - it's always there...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Terumah: Exodus 25:1-27:19

"That they take (to) Me for an offering…" (Exodus 25:2)

This midrash begins with an examination of the thing we have been told over and over – that there are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah. It turns out, there’s a problem with that number, which the Sages then turn to an important lesson about managing to balance spirituality and earning a living.

Now, I could just put in the lesson, but for those who are interested in gematria – Jewish numerology – I thought I would include this rather unique calculation as well! Listen:

It is written, Moses commanded us a law, etc. (Deut. 33:4). R. Simlai taught: Six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Israel through Moses, this number being the numerical value of the word Torah. Should you object that this is not so, since the word only amounts to six hundred and eleven* and ask where, therefore, will you obtain the other two? In answer, the Sages said: The two commands of ‘I am the Lord’ and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me’ were heard from the mouth of the Lord Himself, and Moses only told them six hundred and eleven, as it says, ‘Moses commanded us a law,’ an inheritance (morashah) of the congregation of Jacob: it is an everlasting heritage unto Israel.

Imagine a prince who has been taken captive across the sea when small; even after the lapse of many years he is not abashed, for he consoles himself by saying: ‘I will yet return to the possession of my ancestors!’ So it is with a scholar who departs from the study of the Torah and engages in other pursuits, yet even after many years have elapsed when he wishes to return to its study he is not abashed, because he says: ‘I am returning to the heritage of my ancestors.’

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXXII:7

In the classic metaphor of Jewish stories, we are "captured" (as the prince in the story is) when we become bound up in the material world, and forget the spiritual reality that pervades all life. We can be "rescued" from this bondage at any time by returning to it, although there are times when such a rescue seems far too difficult and distant to achieve.

Nonetheless, there is much in the way of good news here: first of all, our heritage – that of having been given the Torah, in the broadest sense of the word: our spiritual life – is eternal and never diminished. When we return to it, we should not be abashed or ashamed at having left, but simply rejoice in having been rescued!

And secondly, we are told that listening to holy stories is the equivalent of studying the deepest mysteries of G!d: and what could be more pleasant than listening to holy stories!?

The lesson? We are never so far removed from the spiritual world that we cannot get a taste of it, in its full glory. And, since we have also learned that "without bread there is no Torah, and without Torah there is no bread," all we need do is establish a rhythm to those returns, and thereby find all the nourishment – spiritual and physical – that we need.

Finally: if you find yourself running out of stories, let me know! I have a few in my back pocket I would be glad to share with you – or your community!


* There are four letters in the Hebrew word Torah, which are difficult to reproduce in this blog, which does not include a Hebrew font. They correspond to the English sounds T (400), O (6), R (200), and AH (5), or 611 in total.

What’s your preference?

February 7th, 2010

Yitro - You heard it here first
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18

“Now these are the ordinances…” (Exodus 21:1)

Sometimes a value seems very clear: don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t lie. In the face of these simple, clear values, the question arises, why do we need a story? Why all these extra words? Isn’t it enough to just say, "treat everyone fairly?"

When the Sages developed midrash, they were trying to make things understandable that were either confusing or hidden within the text. Sometimes they would use a logical explanation, but often they would turn to story – to aggadah – to illuminate their point even more clearly.

This midrash – like all of the ones we choose for these emails – uses aggadah to highlight a "simple" concept: don’t prejudge people. After you’ve considered it… well, for now just listen:

It is written, Keep ye justice, and do righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). This bears out what Scripture says, These also are the sayings of the wise. To have a preference persons in judgment is not good (Prov. 24:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘What caused the judges to know how to judge? The fact that you received the Torah in which is written, These are the ordinances, etc. Know ye therefore that "To have preference for persons in judgment is not good."’

What is the lesson of, ‘It is not good?’ It seems so obvious! But consider this: when the judge sits and judges in truth, G!d, as it were, leaves His topmost heaven and causes His Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to be at the judge’s side; but when He sees that he has a preference for some over others, He removes His Shechinah and goes back to Heaven. The angels then say to Him: ‘Lord of the Universe! What is the matter?’ He replies: ‘I saw a judge who prefers some persons and I have removed Myself from thence.’

What does G!d do? He draws His sword in front of him to remind him that there is a Judge above, as it says, Be ye afraid of the sword; for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment (Job 19:29).

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XXX:24

For me, the imagery of this midrash – captured so eloquently above by M’ Shoshannah! – is quite powerful. Using a very sweet carrot, we are told that the Shechinah – G!d’s divine Presence here on earth, understood to be a feminine force – sits beside a judge who judges justly, without prejudice. Yes, the stick is there too – the sword of death – but the promise of the reward is quite compelling on its own!

Taking it beyond a simple reward, it is worth considering what it means to have the Shechinah present. The Shechinah is that "surface" where the Eternal One – who is in a Wholly/Holy different world – actually touches and interacts with our own mundane world. She is not a reward, per se, but is the actual event of G!d’s power intervening in our lives!

Think on it for a moment – this midrash says that G!d is actually intervening in our world every time justice is meted out justly. (The three red letters in the illustration say "Tzedek" – Justice). By a "simple" human action, we are given the ability to invite the Divine into this world – and also given the promise that the Eternal One, in the guise of the Shechinah, will indeed appear!

How wonderful a privilege! And all we must do is be impartial in our judgments.

Now, isn’t that a better presentation than the simple "don’t prejudge others"?


What do you see?

M’ Shoshannah’s art is filled with imagery that reflects her deep understanding and interpretation of each week’s midrash. While she and I discuss these elements each week, we do not impose them upon you, the reader.

This is because, no matter what the intent of the artist, the viewer creates yet more art, more understanding, more meaning as they view the work.

So, share with us, please – what do you see? Leave a comment below, or drop us an email!

Our Havurah!

February 2nd, 2010

Read about our havurah in InterFaithFamily.com!

Many thanks to Nina Amir