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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Tetzaveh

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5776)
WHEN MINDS TOUCH
“On the hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:33-34)
My wife and I just returned from a wonderful if freezing visit with our daughter and son-in-law in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. Of course, the highlight of the trip was spending time with our new baby grandson. I bought him a toy, full of different colored moving parts and sounds. He reacted to the sights and sounds, at least when he was not crying for the taste and smell of his baby formula. A baby learns about the world through his five senses.
Then came a particularly precious moment. I held him on my knees and looked at him in the eyes. He reacted to my stare by smiling and cooing. It was more than sensory perception. He was not simply seeing my face. He was sensing my presence in his very being. For those few moments, it was as if our minds were touching. It was a moment of insight into an idea that I have often shared with my congregation – minds can touch one another across space..
I want to explore this matter further. But first let us look at this week’s portion. Much of it speaks about the symbolic clothing worn by Aaron and his sons, who will serve as the priests in the tabernacle. In particular, Aaron as high priest had to wear an elaborate robe with little metal pomegranates and bells around the hem. The robe would make a sound whenever Aaron walked, and in particular when he entered and left the Holy of Holies. “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out – that he not die.” (Exodus 28:35)
Here the midrash takes over with some very good advice. Rav declared, it is forbidden to enter anyone’s room without first announcing your presence. When R. Johanan went to enquire after the welfare of R. Hanina, he would knock at the door, in conformity with the words “so that the sound of it is heard when he comes in.” (Leviticus Rabbah 21:8) We are not allowed to surprise or scare people by sneaking quietly up on them. I have given a lot of thought to this particular teaching. Is it truly possible to sneak up on someone without them sensing your presence?
I have found that if you quietly walk behind someone and stare at their back, they will quickly realize you are there and turn around. (Do not try this in a crowded supermarket.) If you look at someone, unless they are extremely distracted, they will realize that you are looking at them. Even if our eyes are not focused on the other person, our mind senses the presence of another mind. This is the reason that I believe that minds can touch one another even at a distance.
Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone who you have not been in touch with for a while? They are on your mind. Suddenly the phone rings and they are calling. It is almost as if the minds connect before the electronic connection of the telephone. (For the younger people here, they probably would not phone but text you. Same idea.) We sense the presence of a mind even before we see or hear from them.
I believe that a mind, a spirit, a consciousness, or to use religious language, a soul, does not have a physical location. It is not located in our brain. That is why so many people in emergency rooms claim to have out of body experiences. I believe that if a mind does not have a precise physical location, then a mind can touch another mind even across a physical distance. In fact, I believe modern science points in that direction. (For those interested in exploring this further, look up the EPR paradox and Bell’s Theorem in quantum theory about how particles can instantaneously affect one another even if they are separated by huge distances.)
There was a moment when my mind and that of my four month old grandson touched one another. There are moments when each of our minds can connect with another mind, whether in the same room or to quote the Beatles, “across the universe.” Those moments when one mind touches another are the holiest moments we humans can experience.

PARSHAT TETZAVE – PURIM
(5775)
DON’T LET THE LIGHTS GO OUT
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)
One of the most enduring symbols of Judaism, mentioned at the beginning of this portion, is the ner tamid – the eternal light. Every synagogue in the world has a light before the ark that is kept burning 24 hours a day. I know in our synagogue we check the ner tamid on a regular basis to make sure the light bulb has not burnt out. There are few things more upsetting to a congregation than having an eternal light that is not eternal.
There is multiple symbolism of a light that continuously burns. It could symbolize God, or the Torah. According to a very popular Hanukkah song written by Peter Yarrow and performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary, it symbolizes the Jewish people. They sing, “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years. Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.” The song speaks of lighting a candle for the Maccabee children, and their struggle for freedom against oppression. It goes on to speak of all who struggle against injustice and keep hope alive. And that brings us to Purim.
This week we celebrate the festival of Purim, our joyous, carnival-like, late winter festival. We remember a vicious foe, Haman, who tried to destroy us, and a heroic woman Queen Esther, who risked her life to save us. We tell a story of Haman’s threat to put out the light, and remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And we recall a Jewish woman, Esther, married to a non-Jewish king, who hid her Jewishness until the key moment when she was able to speak out and save her people.
I am always intrigued by the question – how committed to Judaism was Queen Esther? The Talmud pictures her as a very pious Jewish woman. She was forced into the king’s household against her will, and was utterly passive as the king forced himself upon her. Secretly she kept the Jewish dietary laws and observed the Sabbath. This image of a totally secret Jew would later serve as an inspiration to the hidden Jews during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. One could maintain one’s commitment to Jewishness in secret while maintaining a public image as a non-Jew.
I do not agree with this view of Esther. A view I like much better is that Esther was not a committed, practicing Jew. She willingly entered the beauty contest to marry the king. Sometimes when I discuss this with my high school students, I ask them, “If Prince Harry of Great Britain had a contest to find a bride, how many of you girls would enter?” Surprisingly, most admit to their rabbi that they would. Given a chance to marry a king, how many people would let their Judaism lapse?
But this brings me to the main point. In the end, the Jewish commitment of Esther came through. The light did not go out. The light may have been hidden, but at a key point it came through. Esther is reluctant to confront the king about Haman’s wicked plans. Her cousin Mordecai exhorts her, “For if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows whether you came to the royal estate for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) In the end, Esther the assimilated Jew, stepped forward and rescued her people.
Perhaps Purim is a celebration of those Jews who we believe are lost from their people. I regularly meet people born Jewish, often raised Jewish, who have given up any religious practice and any connection to their people. One might say that the light has gone out. One thinks of Theodore Herzl, a totally assimilated Jew who became the father of modern Zionism. The book of Esther proves that there is still a little spark of light, often hidden deeply within such people. When the time is right, that eternal light shines once again.
PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5774)
HELPING THE HELPER
“Attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his shoulder-pieces for remembrance before the Lord.” (Exodus 28:12)
There is a story told about Joseph Grimaldi, a famous clown from the early 1800’s. One day a middle aged man walked into a doctor’s office and shared with the doctor how unhappy he was. The doctor responded, “You need to find a way to cheer yourself up. Look, the circus is in town. I hear there is a wonderful clown named Grimaldi who is extremely funny. Go see him. It will lift your spirits.” The man answered, “Doctor, you do not understand. I am Grimaldi.”
I have heard that story told numerous times. There is reason to believe it is true; Joseph Grimaldi had a reputation for being very depressed. Of course, it raises a question. Who does a clown go to when he needs someone to lift his spirits? Who does anyone who carries the burdens of others go to help carry his or her burdens? Where does a doctor go when he needs medical advice? Where does a lawyer go when she needs legal help? And where does a rabbi god when he or she needs spiritual guidance?
This week’s portion is centered on the High Priest, the religious leader of the community of Israel. Much of the portion describes special clothing worn by the High Priest. There were eight different articles of clothing. Among these was a special breast plate containing twelve precious stones. These stones symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. The Torah literally describes the High Priest as carrying the entire community of Israel on his body whenever he dressed in these clothes and performed the priestly rituals. It was a huge responsibility.
Later when the great Temple was standing, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. There he would pronounce God’s holy name (the only time it was permitted to be pronounced) and make a confession for the entire people Israel. The High Priest had to be totally focused. One stray thought could ruin the efficacy of the entire ritual. Imagine the burden on the High Priest on that day.
As I prepared this portion, a thought kept coming to mind. Suppose the High Priest, responsible for the entire people Israel, needed to unload his own burdens. Where would he go? Who could he talk to? How could the man (the High Priest was always a man) responsible for so many other people find someone else who could help him at this moment? I imagine the High Priest felt very lonely.
Let us consider these thoughts in contemporary times. Sometimes I think about the President of the United States, with his huge responsibilities. Does he have a therapist he can talk to about the burdens of his office? What about other leaders – in business, in politics, or for that matter, in religion. I know the Pope goes to religious confession, but does he ever sit with a counselor and unburden his soul?
The problem with many people in such powerful positions is they are very proud. It becomes difficult to open up and share their weaknesses, their doubts, and their burdens with anybody. If the Priest can carry on his breastplate the entire people Israel, he can carry himself as well. Pride gets in the way. But as the Bible so wisely teaches, “Pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Too much pride, an unwillingness to open up to someone, can lead to destruction.
As I look over my career as a rabbi, I have sometimes needed spiritual guidance. It was usually an issue about which I had counseled others. But it was different when I needed the help. I truly appreciate the fact that there are other rabbis out there were ready to give their time to give me spiritual guidance. I know from personal experience that even the helper needs help.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH – PURIM
(5773)
THE SYMBOLISM OF CLOTHING
“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.”
(Exodus 28:2)
Does anybody remember the days when people used to dress up to take a plane flight? This is when flying was an occasion worthy of feeling special. Today, with long lines, crowded flights, constant fees, and no food, flying has become a test of endurance rather than an occasion. And today people dress accordingly.
We live in an age of dressing down. People used to dress up not only on airplanes, but to go to the theater or to a concert. They certainly dressed up to go to synagogue on the Sabbath. And of course, they dressed for work. Many followed the old adage to dress not for the job you have but the job you want. Clothing reflected the importance of the occasion.
Those days have passed. Today dress down Friday has become dress down every day. This informality has been led by Silicon Valley and the high tech industry. But Israel has long been the leader of such dressing down. You rarely see Israelis wear a suit. I remember getting dressed to attend a wedding in Israel. I put on a suit and was tying my tie, when a friend remarked, “If you wear that, they will think you are the groom.” Clothes have lost their symbolic value.
Of course, not everyone in Israel agrees. I remember being invited to one of my professors, an American on sabbatical in Jerusalem, for a Shabbat dinner. It was a lovely occasion with my professor and his family. But it was made clear to me that I was expected to wear a jacket and tie at dinner. Even in Jerusalem this professor followed some old fashioned rules. And in a sense, perhaps that was a good thing.
This week’s portion teaches that clothing has symbolic value. Eight special articles of clothing are to be made for the High Priest, four articles for each of his sons. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the High Priest changed his clothes no less than five times. The Torah said that this clothing was worn for “dignity and adornment.” The symbolism of clothing goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and realize their nakedness, they cover themselves with fig leaves. They are no longer animals, running through the garden naked. They have reached a different ontological level. God realizes this and changes their fig leaves for animal skins. Now that they are not animals, it is permitted to use the skin of animals for clothing.
Clothing symbolizes something. The way we dress tells the world how we feel about an occasion. I have debated whether the come-as-you-are custom for Friday night services was a wise move or not. It brings more people into the synagogue, particularly young people. But does it also take away some of the dignity of the service? There is no simple answer. We used to ask people not to come to our weekday services in shorts. Today more and more people wear shorts (this is Florida, after all.) It has become accepted. But I hope we have not lost something by being more open.
This brings me to Purim, the holiday of costumes and masks. We deliberately dress differently than who we are. It is the one day in Jewish tradition where men are permitted to dress as women and women as men. People pretend to be someone else. Perhaps this reflects the meaning of Purim, whose heroine Esther has a name that means “hidden.” She hides her Jewishness from the king and everyone else in the court. God actually hides God’s self; the Name of God is never mentioned in the book. One day a year our clothing hides who we really are; we become someone else. Every other day our clothing matters.
Perhaps the lesson of this week is that clothing matters. Our change in dress standards perhaps is a symptom of a deeper malady – the loss of holiness in our society. The Torah, reaching all the way back to the Garden of Eden, teaches that the clothes we wear become a source of the holiness we feel.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5771)

AN ENCOUNTER ON THE ROAD
“You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron. Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28:1 – 2)
Let me share an encounter I had this week. I was driving my daughter from Maryland down to Florida, and we stopped for the night in a small town in South Carolina. In a moment of klutziness, I managed to knock the passenger side view mirror off the car. It was hanging by a thread. I was thinking, can I drive without a mirror? Is there a Wal-mart nearby where I can pick up some superglue? And would that hold it? God did not bless me with great fix-it abilities?
Then we saw at our hotel a young man go to his truck, which had the name of a metal works company on it. I decided to approach a total stranger and ask for help. He looked at my mirror and told me that it should be easily fixed with a little epoxy. He took everything he needed out of his truck. I offered to pay him, but he turned me down. He said, “I always learned that it is good karma to help someone else. Someday it will come back to help me.”
We chatted briefly. He was from Greenville, S.C. where his family owned a metal work business. He was in this town to do the metal work for a local hospital. I told him that a few years ago I went to Greenville to give a lecture. I can speak to a community about love, sex, and marriage, but ask me to fix something and I am helpless. He replied that he could never speak publicly about such things, but he could fix most anything. Again he said that helping us will come back to bless him.
I have often spoken about how we meet angels who help us, and then go on their way. The right person appears at the right place and time. It could be mere happenstance. But if you come from a religious outlook, you begin to wonder if there is something more going on. Is there a spiritual force that brings certain people into our lives? I do not know. But I do know that good deeds come back to bless us.
There is another insight that came to me from this encounter with a total stranger outside a hotel room in South Carolina. We each bring certain gifts and talents to this world. We also bring certain shortcomings to this world. That is why we need other people. As the Christian thinker Reinhold Niebuhr taught, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” We need other people in our lives to do the things we cannot do ourselves. Those of us who can speak need people who can fix things. I like to hope that those who can fix things need people who can speak.
There is a hint of this idea in this week’s portion. This is the only portion in the Torah from the beginning of the book of Exodus onwards where Moses’ name is never mentioned. The whole portion focuses on Aaron, the clothing he and his sons will wear and his dedication for the priesthood. It is as if Moses deliberately stepped back and let his brother have the glory. Later the Midrash will comment on this. “Who are the brothers the Psalmist referred to when it said, `Here is what is good and what is pleasant, for brothers to dwell together.’ (Psalms 133:1) Moses and Aaron honored one another, Moses took the kingship and Aaron the priesthood, and they did not hate one another. Rather each was proud of the greatness of the other.” (Tanhuma Shmot )
Each of us has a small part in perfecting this world. Each of us meets other people who also have small parts in perfecting this world. Often these other people can do the parts we cannot do. Like Moses, each of us needs to step aside and allow the other to do their part. As we say in our daily prayers, together we will be able to perfect this world as a kingdom of God.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5770)

PURIM, MARDI GRAS, AND THE SUPERBOWL

“You shall also make for them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs.” (Exodus 28:42)

This February would be a wonderful time to live in New Orleans, particularly in light of the fact that the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina less than five years ago. First, on one of our most celebrated secular holidays, Superbowl Sunday, the New Orleans Saints won an exciting game. And bit more than a week later was the annual celebration of Mardi Gras. And then if you are Jewish and live in New Orleans, you can celebrate Purim this Saturday night. (Yes, there are Jews in New Orleans. Last time I was there I even ate in a kosher restaurant.)
Does anything link these three celebrations together? Purim is our most carnival-like festival. Jews love to celebrate with costumes (the one time a year Judaism tolerates cross dressing), carnivals, and of course, a little too much drinking. According to Jewish tradition, one ought to imbibe enough so that they cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” Passover, our festival of redemption is a month away. It is as if we need the party-like atmosphere of Purim before the serious business of preparing for Pesach. Indeed, we must eat all the hamentaschen before changing dishes and removing all leavened products from our homes.
Mardi Gras, or Carnival as it is know in Rio, is part of the Christian liturgical calendar. Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday,” and it is the day before Ash Wednesday. Following Ash Wednesday is the serious forty days of self-reflection known as Lent, leading up to Easter. And of course, for Christians, Easter is their holiest day of the year, their festival of redemption.
So we see a theme emerging, the need for a big celebration before beginning the serious business of preparing for redemption. The fact that these Jewish and Christian celebrations fall at the end of winter (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), with hope of spring on the way, adds to their celebration. It appears that we humans need an end-of-winter day of total celebration before we begin the serious move towards the redemption holidays that fall around the spring equinox. Again the liturgical calendars of very different faiths seem to match some deep human spiritual desire.
This brings me to the Superbowl. I am amazed how a football championship game has gone from a mere sporting event to a major occasion. Restaurants are closed but bars do a booming business. Stores that sell large televisions make a killing. People plan their day around their Superbowl parties. And someone who is not invited to someone’s party, or at least a home with a large screen television goes into a depression. When our oldest son was a year away from his bar mitzvah, we had to switch the date. The Superbowl was coming to Miami the weekend of our original date. We learned that flights into town and hotel rooms would be at a premium. It was easier to move a week later.
Of course, there is a danger with all of these celebrations. We all recall Superbowl half times shows where the line was crossed regarding inappropriate sexual behavior. Carnival as celebrated in Rio can often move beyond Samba lines to erotic behavior. And although drinking is encouraged on Purim, the Rabbis warn about what can happen if alcohol is out of control. Much of these warnings hearken to this week’s portion that warns the Priests to keep themselves covered. Even wild celebrations have their limits.
Obviously Superbowl Sunday is a recently addition to the yearly calendar of celebrations. It is a secular, particularly American occasion. But it certainly fits the human need for a late winter chance to party before the spring begins. Happy Purim!

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5769)

CREATING DARKNESS
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)

Before Friday night services begin we light two large white candles in our social hall. They burn throughout the service. At the end of services we move to the back to bless the candles, the wine, and the challah. I always worry that the candles will burn down or blow out before we finish services. Last week we could not light the candles at all; the air conditioning kept blowing them out. Finally I had our maintenance people turn off the air conditioning. Better to sit in a warm sanctuary then to have Shabbat candles blow out.
This week’s portion begins with the laws of the eternal light. The ancient tabernacle and every modern synagogue contains a lamp that always burns and is never allowed to go out. In the ancient tabernacle the priests were responsible to assure that the flames never went out. In our modern synagogues our maintenance staff checks the eternal light. There is nothing more upsetting for modern Jews than for the light to go out.
The symbol of a light that burns forever is fundamental to Judaism. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote a very popular Hanukkah song called Don’t Let the Lights Go Out. Many years ago when we went through a severe financial crunch in the synagogue, we had an emergency “Don’t Let the Lights Go Out” campaign. Our children sang the Yarrow song, we spoke about keeping the lights burning in the synagogue, and we raised several hundred thousand dollars. The light that always burns is one of our deepest symbols of Jewish survival and of God’s presence.
Nonetheless, inevitably lights must burn out. Candles, even without air conditioning, even those meant to burn for seven days, burn out. Light bulbs, even the most green, energy-efficient, must burn out. Every light that has ever been created must eventually stop burning. The sun itself will use up all its hydrogen fuel and burn itself out; fortunately it is several billion years away. If we humans still exist when that happens, hopefully we will have found away to move to another planet in another solar system.
In fact, most scientists believe the entire universe will eventually burn itself out. Robert Frost wrote the words, “Some say the World will end in Fire, others say in Ice/ From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire.” Perhaps the world will end in a fire, some kind of big crunch. But most scientists today believe it will end in ice, it will simply burn out. The great philosopher Bertrand Russell, defending his atheism, argued why anybody would have religious faith. Whatever we humans do, in the end the universe is simply going to burn itself out. It is a dreadfully pessimistic view of reality. In the end there is only darkness.
All candles must burn out. Darkness seems the inevitable end to everything. And yet, there is a strange statement in the book of Isaiah regarding darkness. “I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil.” (Isaiah 45:7). The verse with a slight change has become part of the daily prayers of Jews. “God forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything.” Darkness is not just the lights going out. Darkness is an essential part of God’s creation. God made a world in which there is darkness, so darkness must serve part of God’s purpose. God made a world in which lights burn out, so there must be something positive in such a world.
I have always struggled with the idea of God creating darkness. And yet I find myself beginning to grope towards an answer. Perhaps it is in the darkness that the greatest creativity takes place. Perhaps it a world where everything winds down, new forms and patterns are then free to emerge. Maybe there is absolute truth to the words that “it is always darkest before the dawn.”
This week when we celebrate Purim, the darkest days for the Jewish people turned into our most festive holiday. Let us keep the lights burning, but when things go dark, let us use it as a time of renewal and creativity.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5768)

DIGNITY
“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28:2)
I saw a wonderful movie this week at the recommendation of several congregants. The movie is entitled The Bucket List. Two older men, both suffering with cancer, decide to take off together on a series of adventures before they “kick the bucket.” Morgan Freeman plays an auto mechanic who is a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. Jack Nicholson plays the crotchety owner of the hospital, a wealthy business man with far more money than love in his life. They meet in a hospital room where both learn that their cancer is terminal, and decide to live all their dreams before their time comes.
The two men become best friends as they decide that they should not spend the last months of their lives connected to tubes in a hospital room. This is the ultimate “death with dignity” movie. They sky dive, drive racing cars, fly to Europe to dine in Paris, climb the pyramids, and travel to Hong Kong to be fitted with hand made silk suits. But something happens before they ever visit that Hong Kong tailor. I do not want to give away the ending, which is very moving. But the ending should come as no surprise if you ever go to the movies, or if you ever listen to my sermons. True human dignity is not about clothing and adventures. It is not about climbing mountains or driving expensive cars. And human dignity is not about clothing. Rather it is connected to those we love and those who love us.
This week’s portion mostly deals with clothing, in particular, the fancy clothing worn by Aaron and his sons as they served as priests in the ancient sanctuary. The clothes are described in great detail. One can imagine that these outfits were quite beautiful and made the priests stand out from the crowd. Ultimately, the purpose of the clothing was for “dignity and adornment.”
Clothing can be a source of human dignity. There is nothing wrong with dressing nicely. Sometimes I feel that we Americans have lost that sense of clothing as a source of dignity. When people come to Sabbath services in jeans and tee shirts or when I see people flying on airplanes in shorts and sandals, I wonder if a sense of occasion has been lost. It is nice to dress up now and again. But in some kind of ultimate sense, human dignity can not come from clothing.
I perform too many eulogies here in south Florida. It is part of the reality of living in a retirement area. Often I will speak about how the deceased was impeccably dressed, how she never left her home without having her hair done and putting on make-up, how he loved to wear a good looking suit and tie. Sometimes I will speak about people’s “bucket list,” how in the last part of their life they went on an African safari or went bicycling through Europe, how they walked on the Great Wall of China or climbed onto a glacier in Alaska. Such events are important. But they are not the ultimate source of human dignity.
Ultimate human dignity comes from the first words God speaks regarding the human beings God created. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Relationships are what make us human. Dignity comes from those we love, and from those who loved us. That is why it is so important as the end of life approaches to make peace and spend time with the people we love. Relationships are what give our lives dignity.
I recently spoke with a woman whose mother had died peacefully after a long illness. The woman certainly was sad. But she also felt a great comfort. “There were no secrets. Everything that needed to be said was said while she was alive. And when she died, she knew we were all there with her.”
I can think of no greater example of death with dignity.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5767)

THE MASKS JEWS WEAR

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.”
(Exodus 28:2)

It is a coincidence that this week’s portion often falls around the Jewish celebration of Purim, which begins Saturday night. This week’s portion deals with clothing, in particular the special garments worn by the priests for dignity and adornment. As any teenager can tell us, clothing has powerful symbolic value. And Purim is also about clothing, the costumes we wear and the masks we use to cover our true selves. If the Torah portion is about showing our true selves by the clothes we wear, Purim is about hiding our true selves by our clothing.
What is Purim? In many ways, Purim is the Jewish version of Carnival or Mardi Gras. It seems that we humans, sometime near the end of winter, need a day to let go, party, wear masks, and celebrate survival. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that on Purim we should become sufficiently inebriated so that we cannot differentiate between “Blessed is Mordecai” and “Cursed is Haman.” (In this time when drinking is often out of control, especially among our young people, I would recommend a limit on this practice.)
Purim is fun, but underneath the story of Mordecai and Esther is a more serious message. First of all, the very name Esther comes from a Hebrew root “to hide.” Esther hid her identity from the king and from the people. God hides God’s face from the people; in fact, the book of Esther never once mentions the name of God. It is as if God steps out of the picture, telling us humans to handle our own redemption. And we humans, as we celebrate Purim, wear masks to hide our real selves. We go into this most joyous celebration with a sense that something is hidden.
Many years ago Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a prominent Reform theologian, wrote a book called The Masks Jews Wear. We Jews have made it in this country. But in doing so, we must hide our true selves, showing the world an artificial face. We Jews are often the best comedians around, we put on a happy face but cannot show our true selves. It reminds me of the well-known story of a very depressed man who goes to see a psychiatrist for help. The psychiatrist recommends he go to the circus where a well-known clown was performing. “I hear the clown is very funny. He will lift your spirits.” The man answers, “Doctor, you don’t understand. I am that clown.”
In a similar way black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes – This debt we pay to human guile, With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” In Dunbar’s time and some would say today, blacks could not show their true selves to the world. And Jews often believe they cannot show their true selves. When Jews came to this country, they were often told, “Be a Jew at home but a man in the street.” Can Jews show their true selves in the street? Ask any Jewish student at a major university in this country who attempts to speak up for Israel, and we still see the necessity of wearing a mask.
After Purim, Jews finally take off their masks. Esther took off her mask and revealed her true self to the king. In doing so, she put her life on the line. But in doing so she rescued her people.
This Purim let us take off our masks and reveal our Jewish identity. Let us not simply joke about our tradition, but be proud of it. For after all, we the heirs to an inheritance that has transformed the world.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5766)

MOSES’ EGO

“You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests; Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.”
(Exodus 28:1)

Last week I wrote about being “in the zone,” those moments when athletes and the rest of us are fully present, performing at the highest level. I used the term dasein from existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, usually translated as “being there.” One of my readers wrote back a wonderful insight. She said that in those moments of dasein, the ego seems to disappear. There is only a sense of being totally present, without distractions of the self, the ego, or worrying about one’s particular needs. It is nearly impossible to be in the zone when one is busy worrying about how one is doing.
In a similar sense, I often speak about the highest level our soul can reach in this world according to kabbala, the level of chaya or life. We particular reach this particular level in moments of total relationship with the other, those moments that Martin Buber called I-Thou. At such a moment time and space pass away, the self disappears, the ego is not present, and there is simply that moment of being fully in the presence of the other. We can reach such ego-less moments in the presence of other people, although inevitably such moments are temporary. Ideally, we can reach such moments in the presence of God, Whom Buber calls the Eternal Thou. Again, we cannot reach it when we think of ourselves and our needs. Reaching chaya means letting go of the ego. In fact, that is one of the greatest teachings of mysticism in all faiths, letting go of the ego.
To reach the highest level in life, whether in sports, in relationships, or any other endeavors, requires setting aside our ego and not worrying about ourselves. We learn this from the greatest teacher, Moses. According to the Torah, Moses was known for his extreme humility. Later the Torah will teach, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) No one knows Moses’ burial place, and later Judaism did everything to avoid becoming a cult of Moses. Moses did not want to be the center of attention. No one knows where he is buried, so his gravesite will not become a shrine. Next month, when we read the Passover Haggada, Moses is not even mentioned in the telling of the story. Moses was here to serve God and teach God’s law, not to serve himself. From the beginning Moses set his own ego aside.
This week’s portion tetzaveh is always read near Moses’ yahrzeit, the anniversary of Moses’ death, which occurred on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Perhaps more than any other portion, this one proves that Moses was willing to set his ego, his self, and his needs aside. This is the only portion from the beginning of Exodus onwards where Moses’ name is never mentioned. The entire portion deals with Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, the special clothing they wore, and their investiture into the priesthood. Moses was proud of his brother. It is almost as if Moses deliberately stepped aside, telling his brother, “Aaron, this is your moment of glory. The Torah needs to focus on you, not me. I am going to leave my name out of this portion.”
What a lesson for us today. I have met people who can never step aside and let someone else have a moment of glory. I have seen the mother of a bride try to outshine her daughter at the wedding. I have seen the bar mitzvah where the focus was on other family members to the detriment of the bar mitzvah boy. I have seen people’s egos, and their need to be at the center of attention, get in the way of other people’s moments of celebration.
Of course, we are human beings who live in a real world. We have egos. We have needs. Perhaps a few saintly people can go through life totally setting aside their own ego. Most of us will focus on ourselves. But perhaps like Moses, we can practice the discipline of setting our own egos and our own needs aside. It is the best way to reach the highest level we can reach in this life.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5764)

MEL GIBSON’S PASSION, AND MINE

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.”
(Exodus 28:2)

This week’s portion speaks of the clothing of the High Priest and the other priests who served in the ancient Temple. The clothing was a symbol of dignity and adornment. The Priests were not allowed to perform the Temple rites in street clothing. The clothing made the man and the priests wore these garments proudly.
Last week I watched Mel Gibson’s new movie The Passion of the Christ. The movie showed the High Priest Caiphas and his fellow priests in a very different light. Dressed in the same garments of the priesthood, wearing tallises to show clearly their Jewishness, the priests were the villains. They were the ones who urge Pontias Pilate to crucify Jesus. The underlying message – the Romans may have killed Jesus, but they were acting at the behest of the Jews.
How am I to react to the popularity of this movie? First, it is extremely violent, bloody, deserving of its R rating. It is basically the story of the vicious torture and murder of a man, shown in excruciating detail. The problem is, to a huge number of people throughout the world, the tortured man was actually God incarnate. According to their religion, his suffering and death was to redeem us from our sins. That is the reason that the woman sitting behind me in the theater sat crying throughout the entire movie.
As so many others have commented, Jews and Christians who view this film see two completely different movies. They can witness the same footage, but what they see is totally different. This is not surprising. Jews and Christian face the world with different sacred stories. That is why the first thought that came to me after seeing The Passion of the Christ was, this is not my story.
What are the two stories? They are based on the verse in the Bible, “He was wounded because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) Who was wounded? To Christians of course, it was Jesus who they call the Christ (Greek for Messiah) who was wounded for our iniquities. Gibson is telling the story of God becoming man, suffering great pain, and dying for our sins. When a Christian sees this movie, he or she is focused on the pain and suffering of Jesus. Each blow becomes atonement for the sins of the world. According to Christians, by his suffering are we saved.
We Jews see a very different story. Who was wounded for the sins of the world? The suffering servant of Isaiah is the Jewish people, the eternal victims of history. Jews are the canaries of the world, the ones who suffer and die throughout history. When Jews see the movie they are not focused on the suffering of Jesus, but the blaming of the Jews. Never mind that historically it was the Romans who killed Jesus. Even in the movie the Romans are portrayed as evil and sadistic. But it does not matter, they were doing their dirty work of torture and crucifixion at the behest of the High Priest and other Jewish leaders. For Jews, it is a story of blaming the Jews.
There are two ways to interpret Isaiah’s vision of a suffering servant. And therefore, there are two different movies. For Christians, it is the story of the suffering of their Lord. For Jews, it is the story of the historic suffering of the Jewish people.. How are we to react to these two different stories?
I am convinced that religion is worthy if and only if it makes people better. Can the Mel Gibson’s passion make Christians better. Yes, but only if they view the suffering of Jesus and say, “If he went through that for me, I need to live by his greatest teachings to be worthy of his suffering. I need to learn to love as Jesus loved.” I believe the movie has the potential to make my Christian neighbors and friends into better human beings.
What about my fellow Jews? Can this movie make us into better humans. Yes, but only if we remove the siege mentality that afflicts so many of us, that sees us as victims once again. We need to use this as a time to dialog with our Christian neighbors, and to understand their passion for this story. We need to realize that Judaism is meant not to separate us from our neighbors but to influence us to make this world better. As a Christian, Mel Gibson has his passion. As a Jew, my passion is totally different. How can we use the ancient wisdom of our scriptures to make this a better world? If Mel Gibson’s movie helps accomplish that, he has done a great mitzvah.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5763)

MOMENTS BEYOND TIME

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting a (ner tamid) eternal light.”
(Exodus 27:20)

The woman had not set foot in synagogue for years. Yet she decided to lecture me on how to make my synagogues more attractive. “You rabbis need to overhaul synagogue services. Nobody understands Hebrew. You need to conduct services in English so people can follow them. And you need new modern music, and musical instruments to attract young people. Then maybe I would come.”
I told her that rabbis had tried all her ideas. Even the more liberal Reform Movement is returning to more Hebrew and more tradition in their services. They have discovered that people want something more in a spiritual experience than the modern and the transient. They want a touch of eternity.
In this week’s parsha we continue the detailed directions for the building of a portable tabernacle. The Israelites were to bring clear olive oil for a flame that would burn continuously. The idea of keeping a flame burning at all times developed into one of the most prominent features of synagogue architecture, the eternal light. A synagogue keeps a light burning at all times, the symbol of that which is permanent and not transient.
People need a touch of eternity in their lives. They need moments when they step out of time, and step into something that was there before they existed and will be there after they are gone. When we conduct traditional Hebrew services, using the same prayerbook and the same melodies as our ancestors, we are stepping outside of time. When I say the Amida (the central prayer of every Jewish worship service), I am saying the same words that the early rabbis in Babylonia, the medieval rabbis of Spain, my family ancestors in the pale of Russia, and Jews today from Israel to South America to throughout the United States are saying. I become part of something greater than myself. I step out of time and space into eternity.
I can certainly replace the Amida with some modern American poetry, some folksongs, some inspirational readings. Such a worship experience may even move me more than the traditional Amida. But it would lack that feeling of eternity, of standing outside of time. In a similar way, I could certainly rebuild our entire worship service in English, filled with creative reading, poems, and folksongs. It may even be as popular as the latest television fad. But I doubt such a service would have the holding power to attract generations of Jews. People who come to pray want to touch eternity.
One of the favorite questions I am asked is, “Rabbi, what do you do when the eternal light goes out?” The answer is simple; “we change the light bulb.” We all know that nothing in this material world lasts forever. Our classical Hebrew prayers, no matter how revered, did have a beginning and do change over time. As Ira and George Gershwin wrote in one of their most famous lyrics,
In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
They’re only made of clay;
But our love is here to stay.
The Gershwins are saying that all material things must end. That is why we humans, created in the image of God, need to step outside of time. We need love. We need God. And we need moments of eternity.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5762)

CLOTHING

“Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28:2)

This week’s portion carefully describes the eight sacred garments worn by the High Priest and the four worn by ordinary priests as they performed their duties. Whenever I read this portion, I think about the meaning of clothing in our modern world.
In the Garden of Eden we humans were “naked and not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) We were like animals, or young children, who do not need clothing. Then we ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, became aware, and made the first clothing – fig leaves. (Genesis 2:7) Eventually God fashioned animal skins for the first man and woman. (Genesis 3:21)
Of course, clothing protects us humans from the elements. (Obviously here in Florida, less clothing is needed then in chilly New York. And if you walk on South Beach in Miami, it is obvious that there is a tradition of wearing less.) Having said that, our tradition also teaches the importance of modesty as a key to holiness.
However, in this week’s portion, we see another purpose of clothing. What we wear has symbolic value. Our clothing gives a message to ourselves as well as others who see us. The High Priest and the other priests had to wear the special clothing whenever they offered their sacrifices. The clothing was carefully designed, and “they shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die.” (Exodus 28:43) Quite literally, for the High Priest, the clothes make the man.
Today priests no longer bring sacrificial offerings dressed in special clothing. But clothes still have symbolic value. We wear one kind of clothing at the beach or to play tennis, another kind of clothing to run our day-to-day errands, still another when we conduct business, meeting our customers, clients, or patients, and still another at formal occasions such as a wedding or a banquet. Our choice of clothing makes a statement regarding our feelings about the occasion. I am always amazed at people who attend a funeral wearing shorts, or who come to synagogue services in an jeans and a tee shirt. As many motivational speakers have taught, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.”
I drop my daughter off at the local high school and watch how the youngsters dress. Often I see not only a lack of modesty in their clothing, but a lack of respect for the institution. I often wonder whether more appropriate dress would help students behave more appropriately and create a better atmosphere for learning. That is why I support uniforms, or at properly enforced dress codes. Our schools could use some more dignity and respect.
Purim is coming, known for its gaiety, drinking, and of course, its costumes. I will be in costume Monday night for the Megillah reading, and invite all of our youngsters and adults to do likewise. On Purim we deliberately wear clothing that would be inappropriate any other time. Purim is the one day where men may dress like women and women like men, usually forbidden by Jewish law. Outrageous clothing sets the mood for the merriment. So, day by day, what we wear sets the mood for how we see ourselves and how others see us.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5761)

SIBLING RIVALRY

“You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests.” (Exodus 28:1)

This is the only portion in the entire Torah from the book of Exodus onwards, that Moses is not mentioned by name. The portion speaks of the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. It is almost as if Moses has stepped back and let his brother have all the glory.
There is much wisdom regarding the relationship between siblings that grows out of this portion. I wrote in my book God, Love, Sex, and Family: The midrash teaches that Moses and Aaron loved and honored one another; at the moment that Moses took the political leadership and Aaron the priesthood, each was happy in the success of the other. Regarding Moses and Aaron, the Psalmist wrote “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.” (Psalms 133:1) (Midrash Tanhuma Shmot).
Why did these two brothers get along, when other brothers in the Bible hated one another? If we can answer this question, perhaps we can find the key to avoiding sibling rivalry. Moses and Aaron were two very different types of human beings. Moses was the law giver, disappearing onto the mountain for forty days to commune with God, unable to speak without a stutter, impatient with the people and uncompromising in his commit¬ment to the law. Aaron was the priest, a peace maker, who enjoyed the public role of being the spokesman before Pharaoh, a man proud to wear the Priestly garments.
There is a classic rabbinic passage on the difference between the two brothers.
“Moses motto was, let the law cut through the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man.” (Sanhedrin 6b)
The two brothers each excelled in different areas, fitting their particularly personalities. So each was able to celebrate the success of the other, without bitterness or jealousy.
Social scientists who have studied siblings have noted that brothers and/or sisters will show their independence from one another by staking out their own particular areas of talent, and ceding other areas to their sibling. By staking out their own areas, they can then take pride in their sibling’s accomplishments.
Francine Klagsbrun has noted:
“[There is] the need brothers and sisters have to be different, to distinguish themselves from one another, to establish their own identities. . .
“For many siblings, asserting differences is a path that sets up demarca¬tion lines, as if to say `Here you are and here I am, so we do not need to get in each other’s way.’ It is also a path through which envy and competition may be held at bay.” (Mixed Feelings, p. 27-28)
Klagsbrun uses the term role assump¬tion to describe this. Moses and Aaron each assumed roles, one took the more private role as law giver, the other more public role as priest.
Siblings rivalry can only disappear when siblings step back and allow their fellow sibling to find an area where they can shine.

PARSHAT TETZAVEH
(5760)

THE ROLE OF CLOTHING

“Make sacred vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.” (Exodus 28:2)

Last week I spoke about clothing as a means of achieving holiness by covering up. I spoke of the laws of modesty as part of what lifts us humans above the animal kingdom. In the Garden of Eden story, God made clothing for Adam and Eve, an act of kindness we are to emulate.
In this week’s portion, we see that clothing has a role beyond covering up our bodies. Clothing can also serve the purpose of dignity and adornment. God commanded Moses to make special clothing for Aaron the High Priest, to add to the dignity and power of the religious rituals. Aaron was permitted to lead the religious rituals only while wearing this special clothing.
We live in a society that likes to dress down. There was a time when people dressed up to fly on airplanes, go to the theater, even go out to dinner. Today even businesses have dress down days. In some businesses, particularly in newer industries such as software, every day is dress down day.
There is a certain comfort in dressing down, enjoying moments of informality. I know of rabbis who have lost their jobs because they were seen outside wearing shorts. I will be the first to admit that one of the joys of Florida is wearing shorts year around. I often do so around the house, running errands on my day off, or even walking to synagogue on hot summer days. (I have a room to change.) However, in our bid to dress down, how easy is it to forget the way nicer clothing lifts us up.
I often pass the local public high schools and watch how youngsters dress – baggy pants, teeshirts with various messages, undergarments showing, bare midriffs. I wonder what kind of learning takes place in schools where the dress codes are non-existent. My own children attend schools with uniforms and relatively strict dress codes. I believe that dressing for school helps youngsters take learning more seriously.
On the job, we often hear the maxim, dress for the position you want, not the one you have. Underlying this is an ancient idea that our dress effects our behavior. When we dress up for an occasion, we often behave in a more dignified way.
There is much discussion in our synagogue about how people dress for worship services. Certainly nobody ought to be turned away from participation in worship because of what they wear. Sometimes people do not have the clothing (I have had bar mitzvah guests fly down to Florida while their suitcases went to Cleveland.) Having said that, I do believe that dressing up for synagogue adds to the dignity and respect for the occasion. Our dress does affect our behavior.
Kids tell me, “Why can’t I wear jeans and a tee shirt to synagogue?” I tell them, “Suppose you were going to the Oval Office to meet the president. How would you dress?” How much more so if we are to encounter the One Who is Creator of heaven and earth.
We live in an informal society. (Everything is relative. In Israel I once wore a tie to a wedding, and I was told that people would mistake me for the groom.) Perhaps this week we learn that there is a limit to informality. There is a time to dress down, and a time to dress up.