|In its account of the completion of the desert tabernacle, the Torah includes a startling detail: When the work of the Mishkan (tabernacle) was complete, a cloud of smoke filled the sanctuary. It was so thick that Moses himself could not enter. Only Aaron and his sons had the privilege. (Exodus 40:35)
Professor Ellis Rivkin, z”l, of the Hebrew Union College in his 1971 book, The Shaping of Jewish History wonders: How could it be that Moses who regularly went out to the simple tent of meeting to commune with God and relay God’s instructions to the Children of Israel (Exodus 33:8-9) could not even enter the elaborate Tabernacle whose completion the Torah celebrates?
The answer, Rivkin writes, is that by the time the Torah was actually written, descendants of Aaron had effectively taken control not only of religious life in ancient Israel but political and economic life as well. Moses’ role in our people’s history would never be matched, but it would never be replicated! The cloud in the Mishkan excluding Moses but allowing Aaron and his sons to enter represented this starling takeover.
The Clouds Are Still There
To a significant extent the cloud still fills the sanctuary. There are those who would stifle the Progressive Jewish voice and leave many to regard our precious heritage as a daunting set of rules and regulations which they do not understand.
We must push that cloud up off of the tabernacle that represents our sacred tradition! Each of us should encounter and understand God in our own way as Moses did before the cloud filled the sanctuary.
Before the cloud descended God made a sacred Covenant with Abraham and with our people forever! In that Covenant God promised to:
· Protect us
· Give us children
· Make us a permanent people – 4000 years certainly strikes me as permanent –
· Give us the land of Israel!
A Reciprocal Covenant
But a covenant is reciprocal; we do not get those wonderful rewards for nothing. In return God charged us to do three essential things:
· “ברכה והיה Be a blessing!” (Genesis 12:2)
· “תמים והיה לפני התהלך Understand and follow God’s teachings as best we can! (Genesis 17:1),” my translation. Literally: “Walk in My ways and be worthy!”
· Fill the world and teach your children and future generations to fill the world with: ומשפט צדקה Righteousness and justice! (Genesis 18:19)
To Repair the World
When we push the cloud off of the tabernacle, we shall realize that the essential message of Judaism is for each of us to work in our own way and with our own individual talents and interests to uphold our end of our Covenant with God. In so doing our ultimate goal is: העולם את לתקן to repair this broken world, fill it more and more with “righteousness and justice”, and leave for our children and grandchildren a more just, caring and compassionate society than the one in which we now live.
ומשפט צדקה–וצדקה משפט Righteousness and justice – justice and righteousness! These are the values the prophets continually exhorted our people to uphold. These are the values that have inspired the world at large!
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded his most famous speech in August, 1963, on the Mall in Washington DC, he invoked these values in an unattributed quotation from the Prophet Amos (Amos 5:24): “Let (משפט) –justice—roll down like waters and (צדקה) like a mighty stream!”
The Cloud over Israel
Nowhere, perhaps, will the cloud of entrenched religious authority be harder to lift off the tabernacle than in Israel itself. The work of Progressive communities – which I have seen with my own eyes – in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Mivaseret Tzion, Modi’in, Haifa, Rosh Ha-Ayin, Carmiel, and Tivon is inspiring. Our rabbis there have built communities against all odds starting from scratch.
In Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv. Standing on the balcony with Rabbi Meir Azari of Mishkanot Ruth, with a panoramic view in every direction, he told me, “Within our sight range there are more potential Progressive Jews than anywhere in a similar sized area in the world.”
The Prophet Isaiah taught us more than 3000 years ago (Isaiah 2:3): “From Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem!” Israel is the birthplace of our history and the symbol of our ideals. Our love for her – with all her imperfections – is without measure!
We Need Israel, but Israel Also Needs Us
Yes, From Zion shall go forth Torah, but the reverse is also true: To Zion we must bring Torah and the word of the Eternal One to Jerusalem! Israel needs our visits, our wisdom, our experience, our encouragement and our support. When Israel appears to fall short of the values of “righteousness and justice” we must stand with those within Israel who offer their loyal critique!
When I first visited Kehilat Bavat Ayin in Rosh Ha-Ayin six years ago, Rabbi Ayala Miron spoke of the difficulties she encountered as a female Reform rabbi in a heartland city in Israel with a strong Yemenite Orthodox tradition. “You can be sure,” she said, “that the City Fathers did not greet me with flowers.” When I spoke there three years ago, I made it a point to greet her with flowers to let her know: “Jews around the world are with you!”
But we have a long way to go!
As Vickie and I sat with the professional staff of Bet Daniel in Tel Aviv they shocked us when they said: “The biggest problem in Israel is assimilation! If we begin our most important prayer: “שראלי שמע, Hear O Israel“ they continued, “an alarming percentage of Israelis would not be able to complete the sentence from Deuteronomy with, “”The Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone (Deuteronomy 6:4)!”
We must push the cloud of the Tabernacle and replace it with knowledge and spiritual meaning. We must restore our houses of worship to their original purpose: a place where God’s spirit can dwell (Exodus 25:8) If we wish to meet that formidable challenge, we must offer our people serious study of Torah and an understanding of the meaning of our prayers.
We must make our mishkanot worthy of the description of the word we often sing on entering the synagogue: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your mishkanot –your tabernacles – O Israel (Numbers 24:5)!”
If we are to push the cloud away we cannot simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We must know and teach what they mean, what their historical context is, and how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!
No outside force can destroy us!
As the children of Israel were on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land.So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam – try as he might – could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents…” When we understand its biblical context, the ancient prayer teaches us a vital modern lesson:
No outside force – no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, and no Hitler – can ever destroy us!
But Will We Destroy Ourselves?
Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to keep pushing the clouds that block understanding, purpose and meaning from our lives as Jews! We must always strive to push the cloud off the tabernacle and make real the world of which the prophets Isaiah and Micah dreamed when they said:
“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal On as the seabed is covered by waters (Isaiah 11:9).”
And all humankind shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4).”
On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.
We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”
It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!
The moon of Av wanes rapidly,
And soon Elul arrives—
A holy month, our Sages taught,
A chance to examine our lives.
We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe
The Holy Days just ahead.
We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,
“What might we have done instead?”
To better live true to the Covenant
The Almighty asks we uphold
To work to create a better world
As our lives unfold.
Will our world be a kinder realm
Because God planted us here?
Will we strive to make the earth a place
Where no one needs to fear?
As the moon of Av wanes rapidly
And sacred Elul arrives
May these be the questions we ask ourselves
As we examine our lives!
One of the great examples of Reform or Progressive Jewish thinking–some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism– regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot was strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of when our biblical ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened, but I imagine a scenario much like this:
A group of concerned rabbis was discussing the state of Jewish life. One Sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”
A second Rabbi answered: “That’s true, but it’s understandable. Times have changed!”
A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean so much to many people.”
First Sage: “What can we do?”
A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That’s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly we can make the connection. From now on we can celebrate Shavuot—in addition to its biblical significance–as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai”.
A fifth Sage asks: “Can we do that?”
The fourth responds: “Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.”
In this way, I imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading festival and gave it a historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when ninth or tenth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot should continue to inspire our thinking as Reform or Liberal Jews today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!
When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent–not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages reformed biblicalJudaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME walks an important line between fundamentalism and fairy tale and fills an important niche in Torah commentary. Fundamentalist perspectives on Scripture abound and so do commentaries denigrating Scripture as unscientific and unhistorical.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME cares nothing about science because the Bible is not a science book. It cares little about history as well. The premise of the book is that its stories were carefully selected for what they can teach us about living more meaningful lives and becoming better people.
Torah presents to the world a deity unlike any others that people worshipped. In the pagan world into which Torah emerged gods and goddesses were force that people worshipped because they presumed these deities had power. The only purpose of worship was to bribe these gods with offerings so that they would not use that power to hurt or to induce the deity to use their power to help those who worshipped them. Ethics, morals and human interaction were of no concern to these gods.
God in the Torah is entirely different. Of course we only worship one God and our God is invisible. But as crucial as these differences are they are NOT the most important.
The most important difference is the agenda of Torah’s God. From the story of Creation on God’s desire is that human beings – we creatures who are in charge of and responsible for the quality of life on earth – use our power to create a just, caring ad compassionate society. All of our religious behavior as Jews – Holy Days, festivals, and life cycle celebrations – is designed to inspire us to work toward God’s ultimate goal.
There is no overstating the importance of this difference. Yes, there are sacrifices in the Bible, but their purpose is to inspire ethical and moral behavior not assuage God’s anger. Over and over again the prophets particularly those of the eighth pre-Christian century, Amos Hosea Isaiah and Micah, instruct the people of Judah and Israel that sacrificial observance unaccompanied by ethical and moral behavior is an abomination.
How desperately we need that message today! Our religious observances only have meaning in so far as they inspire us to care for those less fortunate than we are, to seek housing for the homeless and food for the hungry. In Jewish thought there is no place for an innocent bystander in the face of poverty and injustice. This is the Torah’s timeless message . That is the message I hope my book will help its readers make their own.