Thoughts from our senior staff on the weekly Torah portion
Our weekly Shabbat Shalom Messages are written by our senior staff: Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, Rabbi Emily E. Segal, Adam Kahan, Dr. Anne Lidsky, and Daniel A. Glassman. We hope you enjoy sharing in our love of Torah and Judaism through these messages.
When I come across a difficult passage or narrative in Torah, one of the first ways that I try to dig in and work through it is to turn to the rabbis of old, to our classical commentators. Before becoming familiar with these texts – which range from explanatory notes to parables and midrashim – one might assume that they interpret Torah in a straightforward and literal way, but actually, quite the opposite is true. It is a creative and playful mode of interaction with our Torah in which the rabbis of old engaged, recorded through the midrashim and commentaries that have been passed down to us through the ages.
Each Passover I marvel at how the Haggadah instructs us to place ourselves back in time and to consider that we, too, were freed from Egypt. In a sense we are told to go back and live in the past. But, there is much more to this command than simply dressing up, eating food, and reading the story. The Haggadah demands more from us. Often times, going back and reliving our past can be a negative and even a self-destructive process. We dwell on failures and cannot rise above them. We relive the pain and reopen old wounds that should have healed. Yet, the Haggadah specifically begins with the horror and the pain of slavery and asks that we go back to that space. I believe that one of the most important lessons of Passover is that we learn a healthier way of dealing with our past. To help understand this lesson, let us look at the life of Abraham and what we glean from the Midrash and from the Torah.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a combination of three Hebrew words, the translation of which is "from the narrow places." Our slavery is not relegated solely to the geographic landmass in the Middle East; it is a spiritual confinement, sometimes of our own doing.
I just returned from a week-long training as part of the National Association for Temple Administration (NATA). It was an extremely intense week of learning. We studied (and were tested on) topics such as communications, governance, and budgeting as well as a host of Judaic studies. I have been sharing the PowerPoints and notes for the latter with folks around the office and the typical response has been, “How does this apply to your job?” If I wanted to be a member of the clergy I would have enrolled at Hebrew Union College, not National Louis University.
It is such cool experience … that of cooking or baking … the feeling that you can take these raw items, mix them all together with some seasonings or substance, and then have the flavors all combine together to make a delicious new thing to eat … to experience. I find it so exciting, all the potential that exists before making a dish, and the satisfaction after having eaten that project. In this romanticized encapsulation, I’m skipping over all the chaos involved as I run out of counter-space for my little bowls of ingredients and cutting board, and the stress I feel as one of my children wants my attention just as my hands are covered in food-related goop … or the saucepan is sizzling and I must get the next ingredient in before it’s too late. Yeah, actually, it can be a little stressful, that actual process of crafting those ingredients into the dish, but still … it’s so worth it.
The Torah portion this week is Ki Tisa. The Israelites have been rescued from Egyptian bondage; they are in the freedom of the wilderness and have received the revelation at Mt. Sinai. They have received the instructions for how to build the tabernacle, that portable sanctuary that would serve as their focal point for ritual and relationship with God during their wanderings, until the Temple would be built in the land of Israel that they would enter and inherit. And Moses goes up the mountain to receive the written tablets. There he stayed for some 40 days and 40 nights.
This Shabbat is one of four special Shabbatot before Passover. This Shabbat, that falls right before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. There is a special addition to the Torah reading that comes from Deuteronomy and is a recap of a particularly devastating attack that took place shortly after the Israelites left Egypt:
The Torah is full of portions that we can all relate to. With this week’s parsha, Terumah, I feel as though it was written especially for synagogue executive directors. There are detailed instructions on constructing the Mishkan, “the first worship space,” and requests for pledges/donations from the community to erect the space. Short of drafting a budget and planning emergency procedures, Moses and Aaron could be the patriarchs to my profession. They even deal with suggestions and complaints of the community. However, I don’t believe they were ever able to adjust the temperature in Mishkan. All joking aside, Terumah is one of these nitty gritty parshot that covers in great detail what the Israelites are supposed to be doing while on their journey to the Promised Land. What was the purpose of building this elaborate space?
When I told my daughters, a number of years ago, that I was going to chaperone a rugged outdoor OSRUI trip called Mosh West, a grueling hiking trek through southeastern Utah, they responded, “Mom, are you having a mid-life crisis?” I trained for this experience by carrying enormous bottles of Tide in my enormous backpack, as I climbed the enormous Wood Oak sledding hill, in my spiffy hiking boots. When the real 40-pound pack was eventually put on my back, I immediately had to bend forward, hiking the first hours staring at my toes. With rolled socks used to pad my bruised collar bones and hip bones from the heavy load I did my best to carry, we made our way in 118’ temperatures, often in search of water sources, and marveled at our abilities to keep going.
I am a news junkie. Have been for a long time. I remember coming back home after a day of grade school, or junior high, and plopping down in front of the television to watch the Channel 5 news at 3:30, then again at 4:00 and 5:00. Ron Magers and Carol Marin would tell me all that happened around Chicago and the nation for that day. I would notice the repeated stories, and those that would change during each broadcast as the stories continued to develop. That evolving story left me with the feeling that I was hearing the latest … the newest information. I was in “the know.” At 5:30 they would send me over to Tom Brokaw, who would diligently tell me what President Reagan or President Bush were doing at that time, and the different developments as they unfolded and became our national history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, Baby Jessica in the well, the invasion of Kuwait, and first Gulf War. I wanted to know about it all, and hear all that comprised what was new … the news. It was no surprise that I pursued an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism. I wanted to be like Ron and Carol.