Cloud Control (longer comment, corrected, on Torah portion Va-yakhel – Pekude

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).”

Why We Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Despite the violence that plagues American cities and the growth of terrorism around the world Jews will welcome Rosh Hashanah 5777 on Sunday evening, October 2, with hope that the New Year will be better than the last.

Our New Year celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world. “This is the day of the world’s birth,” we proclaim each time we hear the Shofar’s (ram’s horn) blast on Rosh Hashanah!

Rosh Hashanah receives very little mention in the Torah, but it grew into the major celebration it is today because our people needed a day to celebrate the message and ideals of Genesis’ magnificent Story of Creation.

The Creation Story is not a scientific account of the world’s creation. It is a religious poem teaching us why we are here. The truths of the creation story are the religious ideas that it sets forth–ideas upon which all subsequent Jewish thought rest.

The first assumption of the story is that God is behind creation.

However the world came to be, our story contends that a single, good caring God initiated the process. God acted with purpose and meaning. That leads to the story’s second assumption: Our lives have purpose and meaning.

In the story, everything builds on what comes before. Note the rhythm and the repetition of certain key phrases: “And God said, “Let there be … and there was … And God saw … that it was good.” And there was evening and there was morning …” These recurring refrains convey a sense of order and intention.

Third, the story teaches that we human beings—not the rhinoceros, the crocodile or the Tiger–are created בצלם אלהים “in the image of God.” That does not mean that we look like God.

It means that we humans are in charge of and responsible for the world.

The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) teaches that we human beings stand midway between God and the rest of the animals. Like the animals we eat, sleep, drink, procreate, eliminate our waste and die. But in a God-like way we have the power to think, analyze, create and shape the environment in a way that far surpasses any other creature.

We are the only creatures on earth that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, and turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel and with that steel forge the most delicate of surgical instruments to heal and to save lives.

We are, also, the only creatures that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore and from that ore fashion bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill and to maim.

The overriding message of the story is that God wants us to use our power to form a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth. But we–not God–must decide if we will.

The final religious teaching of the story concerns Shabbat. On the seventh day God rested, and God wants us to rest too, but not just in the sense of relaxation. God wants us to have a day each week to step back and ponder how we can do a better job of fashioning the type of society God wants.

Genesis’ magnificent creation story teaches that God entrusts the earth to our care. It is, though, as the Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) reminds us, the only earth we will get.

May that knowledge inspire us to care for it lovingly and use the talents with which God has blessed us to hand over a safer, sweeter more ecologically sound world to our children and grandchildren! That is the hope we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. May all who read this essay–wherever you may be in the world–revel in the potential of Creation, and may the blessings of health, joy and meaningful living await you in the New Year!

Rabbi Stephen L FuchsAn apple dipped in honey is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize our hope for a sweet New Year.

What Does “Created in God’s Image” Mean?

 As I recover I continue to seek inspiration and new insights in some of the essays I have previously posted. This piece presents my answer to one of the questions I am most frequently asked

   It certainly does not mean that we look like God. It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is: Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth. 

Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance’ afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

 

Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today.

But we have free will!

We-–not God—will decide if we choose to do so or not.