954-721-7660 Ext 123

Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Vayakhel-pekudai

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5776)
THE CHUTZPAH OF THE RABBIS
“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)
This week’s portion is an account of the careful building of a portable tabernacle to be carried through the desert. But before the building begins, Moses gathers the people and commands them to observe the Sabbath day. In particular, they are to light no fires in their habitations on the Sabbath.
The rabbis of the Talmud built an entire structure of laws based on these verses. 39 activities are forbidden on the Sabbath, each directly tied to the building of the tabernacle. Even when doing God’s work, we must refrain from labor on the Sabbath. These 39 categories of forbidden work are the basis of the Sabbath laws by observant Jews to this day. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote that just as the Israelites worked to build a sanctuary in space, so by not working they are building a sanctuary in time.
The rabbis knew that there was little scriptural basis for these detailed Sabbath restrictions. They admitted that the Sabbath laws were like “a mountain being held up by a hair.” (Hagigah 1:8) Sabbath observance is so important to Jewish survival that the rabbis needed to find a clear structure of laws, and the building of the tabernacle provided a worthy foundation for those laws.
What about the one Sabbath law that is mentioned explicitly in this week’s portion? It is forbidden to light any fire in our habitations on the Sabbath day. It appears that the Torah wishes the Israelites to sit in the dark and in the cold on the Sabbath. This is precisely how the Karaites, a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism by teaching a more literal reading of scripture, practice the Sabbath to this day. The rabbis of the Talmud were not interested in a dark and cold Sabbath; it was not in keeping with their image of oneg – Sabbath joy.
Based on this, the rabbis outlawed the lighting of a fire once the Sabbath commenced. But before the Sabbath begins at sundown, each household was commanded to light a fire. Approximately 18 minutes before the sun sets, the woman of the household, or if there is no woman, the man of the household, lights Sabbath candles. They symbolize the desire that the Sabbath should be light and joyous. The candles are light first, the eyes are covered, and a blessing pronounced. Then the eyes are uncovered to look at the light candles. The Sabbath has begun.
What is the blessing said when the candles are lit? The English translation is – “Praised are You Lord our God King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath lights.” We are blessing God for commanding us to light these candles on the Sabbath. Here comes the profound question. Where does God command us to light the Sabbath lights? The Torah says not to light lights on the Sabbath. It is the rabbis of the Talmud who commanded us to light lights. At best, we can say that the Torah commands us to listen to the rabbis.
This is one of numerous examples I can site of the chutzpah of the rabbis. (For those who do not know the word “chutzpah,” it is a Yiddish word that has become part of English. It means brazenness.) The rabbis felt that they had the authority to interpret the words of the Torah according to their understanding of the needs of the community of Israel. In fact, the rabbis mentioned explicitly what gives them this authority. Perhaps the most famous passage is the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua over a minor point of Jewish law. The majority of rabbis agreed with Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Eliezer brought proof after proof from nature that he was right, ending with an actual voice from heaven. Rabbi Joshua turned to the voice and cried out, “the Torah is not in heaven.” (Deuteronomy 30:12) The Torah has been given to the rabbis to interpret. The story continues how God at the moment laughed and said, “My children have defeated me.” (Baba Metzia 59b)
Susan Handelman, the author of the book on Rabbinic interpretation The Slayers of Moses, speaks of the difference between Christianity and Judaism. For Christianity the central divine act is incarnation. For Judaism it is interpretation. Judaism is based on the right of the rabbis – some would say the chutzpah of the rabbis – to interpret the text of the Torah.

PARSHAT PEKUDAI
(5776)
OUR ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
“When Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39:43)
It is considered common wisdom that much of our ecological crisis, from global warming to the diminishment of the ozone layer to the loss of species throughout the earth, is the result of Western religion. Lynn Townsend White Jr. wrote a pivotal essay in 1967 called “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.” To quote a few lines of his essay, “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. . . . Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions . . . not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” He continues, “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
Other writers have taken up this same theme. I recently finished reading the 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn entitled Ishmael. The novel tells of the myth of modern civilization – that the world was made for mankind to exploit to his own ends. According to the novel, there are two kinds of people in the word, which the novel calls “givers” and “takers.” The givers are the indigenes people of the land, living at one with nature. They have often been thrown out of their homes if not murdered by the takers, who believe that nature was given over for their own selfish use. The novel teaches that the only way to stop the current destruction of the world is to return to the mindset of the givers, learning to live within nature rather than exploit it.
I am convinced that it is this belief that Western religions are destroying nature has led to the contemporary return to paganism, Wiccan, and other nature-worshipping religions. These ideas have crept into our mainstream culture. Think of Disney’s Pocahontas turning to an ancient gnarled tree whenever she needed advice and support. Indigenes people know how to live at one with nature while those followers of the Western religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are destroying nature.
But is this true? There is a hint at the end of this week’s portion that perhaps religion is not so anti-nature. The people Israel finish the building of the portable tabernacle, and Moses blesses them for completing all their creative work (in Hebrew melacha). It is the exact same word that the Bible uses when God completes the six days of creation. In fact, there is a clear parallel in the language between God finishing the universe and Moses finishing the tabernacle. All the melacha is completed.
The word melacha means creative work that transforms the world. Farming the land, harvesting crops, shearing sheep, weaving cloth, building houses, making fires are all examples of melacha. Just as God did creative work in building a universe, so we humans are to do creative work in building a civilization. Perhaps White’s essay is correct when he writes that nature has been given over to us humans to build and create.
But here is the insight. Melacha has another meaning in Judaism. It is precisely those things we are not allowed to do on the Sabbath. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that there are 39 categories of melacha forbidden from sundown Friday until darkness on Saturday. These include farming the land, harvesting crops, shearing sheep, weaving cloth, building houses, and making fires. In other words, one day a week we leave nature alone. Six days a week we can exploit nature to human ends. But on the seventh day we must remember that nature does not belong to us. We leave God’s world alone. And in doing so, we proclaim the words of the Psalmist that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1)
There is a serious ecological crisis that the international community must work to overcome. Perhaps we should begin with the profound Jewish teaching that the earth does not belong to us.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL – PEKUDAI
(5775)
YOU SHALL REST
“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:2)
One of my all time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire, which won the best picture Oscar in 1982. The powerful theme song was the ring tone on my phone for years. The movie tells the story of two British runners preparing for the 1924 Olympics. Eric is a devout Christian, who refuses to run on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. Harold is a Jew who faces anti-Semitism even in the world of athletics. For the Christian the number one issue is piety; for the Jew the number one issue is hatred.
What would have happened if it were the other way around? What if the movie was about a Jewish athlete who refused to compete on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath? It is extremely rare to see a movie about a Jew who keeps the Sabbath. (An exception is the comedy The Frisco Kid where Gene Wilder plays a rabbi who refuses to travel on the Sabbath.) In real life, at least on Yom Kippur, there are Jews who will not compete. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, numerous Israeli athletes were disqualified for refusing to play on Yom Kippur. One Israeli gymnast, Revital Sharon, was allowed to change her schedule to compete at night after Yom Kippur was over.
Could one imagine a serious movie about a Jew who for religious reasons will not compete on the Sabbath? We simply cannot imagine Jews being that religious. And yet Sabbath observance is central to the Jewish religion (as well as Christianity and Islam.) Jews celebrate their Sabbath from sundown Friday night until nightfall Saturday night. Christians keep their Sabbath on Sunday and Moslems on Friday. But all three Abrahamic religions teach that one should live by a pattern of work and rest – six days of work and one day of rest.
Sabbath rest is a central theme in this week’s portion. Most of the portion is a detailed description of the Israelites building a portable tabernacle to carry through the desert. Everybody contributed to this building, which would symbolize God’s presence in the midst of the community. People contributed all the materials to such an excess that Moses had to stop the contributions. The women weaved curtains and the men built the wooden frame. Bezalel and his team of artists took charge of the details. It is a powerful image of an entire community working together.
Nonetheless, at the very beginning of the portion, Moses tells the people to stop working on the Sabbath. Even working for God must come to a halt once every seven days. Later in Rabbinic literature, the rabbis would discuss exactly what kind of work is forbidden on Shabbat. They came up with thirty-nine categories of labor, each an activity used in building the tabernacle. The building of the tabernacle became the paradigm of forbidden Sabbath work.
Today we have lost the pattern of work-rest-work-rest which is part of all Western religions. We speak of everything being 24-7. We are constantly on call. Businesses are expected to open at all times. And even if a business closes overnight, the internet is always open. Today, even on days that are set aside for family and rest such as Thanksgiving, more and more stores open early with Black Friday sales. We live in a world where we are expected never to stop.
People of all faiths are realizing the importance, or to use the term I prefer, the holiness of stopping work one day a week. We are spiritual beings, and our spirit needs a weekly chance to refresh. We speak of how we were once slaves in Egypt. Slaves work seven days a week. Free men and women have the ability to stop.
I am not necessarily looking for people to observe an Orthodox Shabbat – no driving, no cooking, no turning on lights. But I believe we would be a healthier society if people would give up something on their Sabbath. I can see a day with no shopping or no laundry or no paying bills, or even no smart phones. The time has come to rediscover the holiness of a day of rest.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5774)
WISDOM, UNDERSTANDING, AND KNOWLEDGE
“Moses said to the Israelites, see the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Exodus 35:30-31)
This week we return to the building of the tabernacle, a portable tent carried through the wilderness during the Israelites journey. The tabernacle will be described in great detail – every curtain, fastener, piece of furniture, and utensil. Moses received a detailed picture of what the holy tabernacle would look like. But Moses was a lawgiver, not an artist. The detailed handiwork was given to Bezalel, a man blessed by God with unusual artistic gifts. Today there is an art school in Jerusalem that carries his name, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
Artists have a gift from God. The Torah actually mentions Bezalel’s three gifts, wisdom (Hochma), understanding (T’vuna, usually called Bina), and knowledge (Daat). These three are often mentioned together in Jewish tradition. We pray for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. What do these three words mean? To answer that question, we need to turn to the Jewish mystical tradition or kabbalah.
The kabbalah teaches that God did not create a universe separate from God’s self. Rather God’s self literally flowed into space-time, through a series of steps called sefirot. These sefirot are like a transformer, taking the power of God into the material world. The metaphor I have heard is that it is like the power of a hydroelectric dam. You would not try to plug your iphone into Hoover Dam to charge it. You would probably blow it up. There are a series of steps to bring the electricity of a dam to the plug in your bedroom. So there are a series of steps or sefirot going from Ein Sof (the unknowable God) to the material world we live in.
Three of those sefirot near the top are known as the intellectual sefirot – Hochma, Bina, and Daat. (Technically, many kabbalists do not count Daat as an actual separate one of the sefirot, but see it as a quasi-sefirah. For our purposes we will count it as one of the sefirot, the divine steps in the emanation of the world.) What are these three steps?
Hochma means wisdom. It is that first seed of an idea, that aha moment. The kabbalist saw the Hochma as something masculine; just as males create with a seed, so Hochma is a mere seed. To explain this, I keep thinking of Einstein’s aha moment when he discovered relativity. He sat in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, thinking about what would happen if he chased a ray of light. As he moved faster, the ray of light would appear to slow down. If he could go fast enough, the light would appear stationary. But Einstein knew that was impossible; light always goes at the speed of light.
It was here that Einstein had his aha moment, his Hochma. Light may go at a constant speed. But space and time contract and expand. The universe of space and time are not what we think; they are malleable. Einstein understood why he could not catch up to the ray of light, the faster he travelled the more space would shrink and time would stretch out.
Bina means understanding. A seed to grow must be implanted in a womb. The kabbalists saw Bina as feminine, a structure in which the seed could grow. As Einstein’s seed of an idea grew in his head, it did not occur in a vacuum. Einstein already knew about Lorentz transformations, a mathematical way to turn space into time and time into space. Lorentz’s ideas would fit perfectly with his aha moment. Of course Einstein’s head was filled with other ideas including Newton’s laws. These became the structure in which his aha moment grew.
Put Hochma and Bina together and they become Daat, which means knowledge. Suddenly Einstein had new knowledge of the universe. Up until that moment, every physicist assumed that matter could not be created or destroyed. But if Einstein’s ideas were correct, matter could be turned into energy and energy into matter – E=Mc2. Out of an aha moment, Einstein had discovered how to split the atom.
Hochma, Bina, and Daat are three steps in intellectual creativity. In fact a large Hasidic group takes the first letter of these three words to create their name – Habad. Whether it is Betzalel building a tabernacle, Einstein discovering relativity, or each of us using our intellect, we humans have God’s gift of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.
PARSHAT PEKUDAI
(5774)
MOSES THE ACCOUNTANT
“These are the accountings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding.” (Exodus 38:21)
Many years ago, when I worked at various summer camps, I used to challenge the teens in the camp with riddles. One of my favorites I called “the missing dollar.” Three men check into a hotel room, and the clerk tells them $30. ($30 for a hotel room! You can tell how old this riddle is.) They pay $10 each and check into the room. Afterwards, the clerk decides that he has overcharged them. He gives the bellhop $5 to return to the three men. However, the bellhop is dishonest. He pockets $2 and returns $1 each to the three men.
So the three men paid $9 each. That is $27. The bellhop pocketed $2, adding up to $29. But we started with $30. Where did the extra dollar go? Feel free to email me your answer.
Sometimes following the money is like following the ball and cups used by many street swindlers. It is nearly impossible to tell which cup the ball is under. So it is with some financial transactions; it is impossible to tell where the money went. (I think of banks that debit big purchases first, putting an account in the negative, and then charging an overdraft fee for a number of small purchases.) All of this points to the importance of a good accountant.
My father wanted me to become an accountant. He had a very successful Certified Public Accountancy firm in Los Angeles, and he started training me when I was a teenager. I learned to reconcile bank accounts and track every penny of a bank statement. It was a good skill. But soon I learned that my eyes would glaze over when people would speak of debits and credits, assets and liabilities. I decided that I would focus on spiritual matters and let others deal with financial matters. My father was disappointed but made his peace with my choice.
Moses was certainly our greatest spiritual leader. He was the law giver and the political head of the people. But in this week’s Torah reading Moses took another role. He became an accountant. At the beginning of the portion, Moses gives a careful accounting of the building of the portable tabernacle carried through the desert. How much gold went into building it? How much silver? How much copper? Every coin and piece of jewelry needed to be accounted for. In fact, the Midrash teaches that Moses wore clothing with no pockets. No one could accuse him of taking for his personal use a gold coin or precious jewel.
Later Jewish law would insist that two people always be in charge of the Temple treasury, so they could keep an eye on each other. And even when Moses did his accounting, other people were with him. (Exodus Rabba 51:1) Somebody trusted needs to keep track of the money and account for every coin. And so it should be in our lives today.
There are few areas where we humans are more vulnerable than in our pocketbooks. Just look at what Bernie Madoff did to so many Jewish individuals and organizations with his fraudulent financial scheme. Here in South Florida, many individuals, particularly seniors, have been the victims of financial fraud. And clever crooks are constantly thinking of new schemes to separate honest people from their money.
Accountants are not simply there to protect people from fraud. They are there to oversee the finances of businesses and individuals, and give people advice on how to handle their money. I used to challenge my dad. “Don’t you just deal with money all day?” By dad would answer, “No, I deal with people all day.” My dad was a wonderful people person. That is why, even when he began to become ill in the last years of his life, loyal clients refused to leave him. They trusted him as a financial advisor.
In this week’s portion Moses became an accountant. Perhaps this week, in the middle of tax season, we should thank the accountants in our midst for the wonderful work that they do.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDAI
(5773)
DOING GOD’S WORK
“Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
(Exodus 40:34)
Greetings from Washington D.C., where the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual policy conference just ended. I joined some 13,000 other delegates, including over 400 rabbis and some 2000 young people, high school and college students from all over the country. Representing our synagogue besides me, we had two USY’ers, one college student, and numerous adults. I hope to have many more next year. The purpose of the conference is to advocate for Israel among the political leadership of our country. One of the highlights was the roll call of members of congress in attendance; it included close to three hundred names.
As my cab drove towards my hotel, we were forced to take a detour. The street was blocked off. My Asian cab driver said, “They are demonstrating against Israel.” Sure enough, a small group of very loud demonstrators were outside the convention center calling for the destruction of Israel. I am sure the group including many radical Jews. What caught my eye were a number of ultra-Orthodox rabbis marching against Israel. They carried signs like “Real Rabbis do not Support Israel” and “Judaism Rejects Zionism.” I expect some people to hate Jews, but to meet rabbis who hate Jews is exceedingly sad.
Why would a rabbi demonstrate against the state of Israel? The answer is that Zionism was a secular movement. For some religious Jews of a particular extreme point of view, it is forbidden for Jews to take matters into their own hands and form a state. Jews must patiently wait for the Messiah. Only when the Messiah comes will God bring the Jews back to their homeland and create a Jewish state. To some Jews of an extremist bent, Zionism is about humans doing the work of God. Only God can create a Jewish state. So this small group of Jews, most of them identifying with the Satmar Hasidim, have called for an end of the state of Israel. (For a wonderful image of growing up in this community, read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman.)
I believe with all my soul that this view is dead wrong. When Jews built the state of Israel, they were doing God’s work. When Israel welcomed refugees from throughout the world, flying airplanes to Yemen and Ethiopia to ferry dark skinned Jews who had never in their lives seen an airplane, they were fulfilling Biblical prophecies. . When Israel was the first to send a trauma team to Haiti when the horrible earthquake struck, they were being partners with God. When Israel brings Palestinian children from the Gaza Strip who require medical care to Tel Aviv hospitals, they are fulfilling God’s commandment to love the stranger. When the United States helped Israel establish the iron dome to protect its civilians against incoming missiles, America was a partner in doing God’s work. And if Israel could ever sit down with its Palestinian neighbors and find a way for two peoples to live in one land in peace, God’s presence will truly rest on the land.
This week’s long double portion speaks of the work in building a portable tabernacle to be carried through the desert. Each detail of the work from the making of tent covers to the weaving of clothing is carefully outlined. Each detail is lovingly articulated. And then when the work is finished, when Moses puts all the final pieces together, God’s presence comes to rest in the tabernacle. It is almost as if God waited for humans to do God’s work. God needs us, or as I put it in a recent High Holiday sermon, we are God’s hands.
I gathered with 12,000 Jews and Christians, Democrats and Republicans, young and old, to work for the future of Israel-American relations. We are not waiting for God to do the work. We are doing the work. And like the tabernacle of ancient times, if we do our work properly, we know that God’s presence will come to rest in the state of Israel.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5771)

FOLLOWERS AND LEADERS
“And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate;
And spice, and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense.”
(Exodus 35:27 – 28)
Greetings from Cali, Colombia. It has been a thrilling and exhausting few days. I am teaching a seminar in basic Judaism to a group of about 200 people interested in learning; most of them are planning to convert to Judaism. I have a translator carefully repeating each sentence into Spanish. And much to my own surprise, I am picking up some Spanish words.
I shared with them an insight from this week’s portion. The Torah summarizes the various gifts brought by various Israelites to be used in the building of the tabernacle. The Torah begins with all the gifts of the ordinary men. It then mentions the gifts of the ordinary women. Finally, after all the gifts are listed, the Torah lists the gifts of the leaders, princes of the people. The princes brought the precious stones for the ephod, the spices, the oil for the light, the anointing oil, and the sweet incense. But it is surprising that the princes waited until the last, after all the other gifts. It is as if the leaders wanted to see what the followers were doing before they stepped forward.
Every fundraiser knows that when an organization wants to raise money, they first look for leadership gifts. Only when the leaders have set the level of giving do others make their commitment. Leaders come before followers. But in the ancient tabernacle it seems to be the other way around. The followers came first and the leaders only came later.
This idea hit home with my students here in Cali. This is a group of people who have come together to study and practice Judaism for years, many of them more than a decade. They make Shabbat together, keep the cycle of festivals, pray, and study the weekly portion every Tuesday evening. All they asked for is a rabbi to come and teach them. But they could not find a rabbi willing to come forward.
I became involved when I oversaw the conversion of a member of this group, now a member of our synagogue. She asked me if I would be willing to teach others. They could not find a rabbi. I said that I do not speak Spanish; there must be a Spanish speaking rabbi ready to teach this group. But they had not succeeded in finding such a rabbi. And so I found myself on a plane to South America, trying to pick up a few Spanish phrases (Buenos Dias. Bienvenido a mi seminario.) And I found a group of not-yet-Jews eager to learn anything I could teach them. They were followers in search of a leader.
My experience here has convinced me that the world is filled with spiritual seekers. Many have rejected the faith of their birth and many others have been raised with no faith at all. Some are Jews who have wondered away, but many are gentiles who see great joy and wisdom in Judaism. Unfortunately, through much of Jewish history, rabbis have been reluctant to open the door to spiritual seekers. The immediate reaction of many rabbis is to circle the wagons and protect the faith. But opening up the doors of Judaism to spiritual seekers can only enhance our people. Most of the people I have met here are serious, committed individuals. They want to learn, they want to practice, and they want to commit themselves to the Jewish people.
I feel very honored that I was chosen to conduct this seminar. I hope that my efforts here will help open the doors of Judaism to a group of seekers. And to my fellow rabbis, I can only say, there are followers out there. Let us be leaders.

PARSHAT PEKUDAI
(5771)

A CERTIFIED AUDIT
“This is the sum of the things of the tabernacle, of the tabernacle of Testimony, as it was counted, according to the commandment of Moses, for the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, son to Aaron the priest.” (Exodus 38:21)
I wrote last week about the seminar I gave on Judaism to a large group of potential converts down in Cali, Colombia. I did eight modules covering the basics of Judaism. My eighth module I called “Food, Sex, and Money.” I chose that title deliberately. If Judaism is about controlling one’s appetite in the quest for holiness, then there are three areas where the appetite often controls us: food, sex, and money.
Let me speak of the last of these three areas. Money is a difficult issue for so many people. We are obligated to go out into the world and earn a living. Nonetheless, it is so easy for people to be less than scrupulous about how they earn that money. That is why the Torah warns over and over about honest weights and honest measures. That is why it warns against putting a stumbling block before the blind, meaning misleading people in a business relationship. And that is why judges are told over and over not to take bribes. It is a popular notion that “everyone has a price.” The Biblical view is that, no matter what the price, we can control our taste for money.
This portion begins with a careful accounting of the precious metals and other materials used by Moses in the building of the ancient tabernacle. In fact, the meaning of the term pekudai means “accountings;” Moses must account for the fact that none of the money donated by the people was misappropriated. I often see this portion as the world’s first certified audit. (My father was a certified public accountant, so I like that language.) Every piece of gold and silver must be accounted for. Moses as leader of the people must be beyond reproach.
I mention this as we read about political, business, and religious leaders who misappropriate funds. Our local community has endured too many news stories of local politicians now in jail or facing trial for taking bribes. It is so easy for a city council member to sell a vote to a developer for a few thousand dollars. The Torah is saying that how we conduct business must be absolutely honest. In fact, the Talmud teaches that when we arrive in the next world, the first question we will be asked is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”
The Talmud tells the story of the Garmu family who were the experts in making the shewbread for the ancient Temple. They were held in high esteem because fine bread was never found in their home. No one could ever accuse them of stealing the bread of the Temple for personal use. Similarly the Abitnas family made the incense for the ancient Temple. No woman from this family ever wore perfume, so that no one would think the family stole the ingredients from the Temple. (Yoma 38a) These stories emphasize that not only is the misappropriation of property wrong, even the appearance of such misuse of property should be avoided.
Moses begins this portion by taking a certified audit of the gold, silver, and bronze used in the building of the ancient Temple. Perhaps this is a sign that we all ought to take a certified audit of our lives. Where did the money we make and the property we own come from? Did we acquire it honestly? And once we acquired it, how do we spend it? Have we been beyond reproach in all our business dealings?
The last thing I spoke about in Cali was honesty in business dealings. This seemed like an absolutely appropriate topic to end a seminar in Jewish living. Judaism is about controlling one’s appetites. We all have an appetite for money; after all, we need it to survive. That is the reason why the Torah warns us over and over about the danger of greed. Honesty in business dealings seemed the perfect topic to end a two day seminar on the Jewish quest for holiness.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDEI
(5770)

BUILDING FROM THE INSIDE OUT

“They made the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.”
(Exodus 36:20)

This week’s double portion describes in great detail the building of a portable tabernacle to be carried through the wilderness. It was a symbol of God’s presence in the community. The artist responsible for the building was Betzalel, but of course the instructions came from Moses following a revelation from God.
I wrote the following message for our synagogue’s April-May bulletin. Since it is built on this week’s Torah reading, allow me to share it now.
The walls of our new building have finally gone up. It is exciting seeing this building as a reality. In a few months we will be making our formal move, with plans to hold High Holiday services in the building.
People ask me how I feel about the walls going up. For all the excitement about walls, there is a thought upon my mind. I am focused not on the walls, but on what will happen in that building once the walls are up. How do we turn a building into a spiritual home for Jews from Western Broward County?
When Moses received from God the plans for the building of a portable tabernacle in the desert, he first received the details of the inside of the building. He learned how to make the holy ark, the Cherubim, the altar, and the menorah. Only afterwards did he focus on the curtains and wood that makes up the walls.
Moses then shared his plans with Betzalel the artist-architect who designed the structure. According to Rabbinic Midrash, Betzalel challenged Moses. “You do not build a building from the inside out; you must start with the outside and build inwards.” When Betzalel began building, he went in the opposite order of Moses, beginning with the outer walls.
As I look at our new building, the architect, contractor, and building committee are like the artist Betzalel. They are building from the outside inwards. As the rabbi, I feel like Moses, focused on what will happen inside that building. How will we run religious services and other spiritual activities for our members and the greater community? How will we educate both children and adults in the joy of their heritage? How will we run social activities and projects to transform our community? How do we make a building into a Jewish center for a spread-out community like ours?
I watch the walls that shape the outside of the building and think about the activities that will happen inside that building. This is how Moses felt when he watched Betzalel constructing the tabernacle. A building is both a physical and a spiritual place. I can already see that the physical place will be beautiful. Now, how do we make our new building spiritually beautiful? That is my challenge as the rabbi. That is the challenge for all of us as a congregation.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDAI
(5769)

MOSES AND MADOFF
“This is the sum of the things of the tabernacle, of the tabernacle of Testimony, as it was counted, according to the commandment of Moses, for the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, son to Aaron the priest.” (Exodus 38:21)

My father was a certified public accountant with a very successful practice in Los Angeles. One of his dreams was that, as his oldest son, I take over his practice. I spent many summers during by teen years working in his office, where I learned how to balance and reconcile a checkbook. But the subtleties of accounting never quite sunk in. Recently a CPA in our synagogue helped me learn debits from credits so I could help my daughter with an accounting class. But I realize it is not my passion.
Having said that, I thank God there are excellent accountants in the world. One of the first was Moses. In the midst of the building of the tabernacle, he did one of the world’s first certified audits. Exactly how much gold, silver, and copper were used in the building of the tabernacle? What was it used for? Moses gave a carefully detailed report, so the people would know that none of their precious offerings was misappropriated. Even in Biblical times, someone had to make sure that all money was used honestly. How much more so in our complex financial world!
This brings me to Bernie Madoff and his horrendous ponzi scheme. He committed one of the oldest frauds in the book; taking money from later investors to pay big returns to early investors. He played upon his trust in the Jewish community, defrauding wealthy and not so wealthy Jews (plus plenty of non-Jews). Among his victims were large charitable funds such as Hadassah, the Elie Wiesel foundation, and Yeshiva University. Many people lost everything to this fraud.
Today Madoff is on his way to jail, probably for life. He is trying to protect the assets of his wife and other family members. Yet if they acquired these assets illegally, why should they be allowed to keep them? There is a complex discussion in the Talmud whether a son whose father was a crook must pay back his father’s victims out of money he inherits. Is paying back the victims a way of honoring a father and giving back his good name? Must one honor a father who was wicked? This is a lengthy discussion for another time.
My question now comes from an accountant’s son. Where is the oversight? How is someone allowed to take people’s money for investment purposes year after year without any kind of proper audit? How come nobody knew what was happening until Madoff’s own family turned him in? When was the Securities and Exchange Commission or whatever other government agencies were in charge?
Our tradition teaches that people have a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. That inclination must continually be kept in check. One of the areas where we are most susceptible to the evil inclination is in the area of financial greed. We joke that everybody has a price. For enough money, almost everybody is willing to bend the law. That is why so many public figures find themselves embroiled in bribery scandals and other improper financial behavior. It is so easy to steal from others, especially in this age of complex financial instruments. Madoff was only the worst of many out there. And the fact that he purported to be a traditional Jew with deep links within the Jewish community only deepens the pain.
All this shows that there must be public oversight of those who use the funds of the public. Corporations, investors, and organizations must have someone auditing how funds are used. Moses did the first public accounting of his funds. Since a public audit is as important today as it was in Biblical times.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5768)

HOW GOD CREATED THE WORLD

“Let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded.”
(Exodus 35:10)

This portion describes in superb detail the step-by-step building of a portable tent which the Israelites carried through the wilderness. The Rabbis read the words as an analogy to God’s creation of the universe. The language seems clear – just as we built this portable sanctuary, so God built an entire universe. Just as God commanded the Israelites to rest from work on the Sabbath Day, so God rested on the seventh day from creation.
We can look at this portion and ask the question, how did God create the universe? Did God start from nothing and create everything in its complete and current form in one vast act? (This is known as creatio ex nihilo – something from nothing.) In six days did God go from nothing to the world as we know it? This belief is the source of all the silly arguments between modern science and Biblical literalists, between creationists and evolutionists. In truth, I prefer a more mystical understanding of how God created the universe. Looking at ancient kabbalah, the vision seems far closer to contemporary science.
Kabbalah speaks of God creating four worlds, each within the other as Russian nested dolls. Higher worlds lead to lower worlds and what we do in the lower world can influence the higher world. It is a powerful idea that is worth exploring in greater detail.
At the highest level is the spiritual dimension of reality, which flowed from the One as light flows from a light source. That is why it is called Olam HaAtzilut – the World of Emanation. It is a world beyond space and time. If you wonder how anything can exist beyond time, consider how Einstein’s theory of special relativity viewed light. Light is timeless; a photon never ages. In the spiritual dimension nothing ever ages, including God, including light, including the human soul which the Bible calls the “Light of God.” Consciousness comes from this spiritual world. Science deals with the physical, material world and can say nothing about this spiritual dimension of reality.
The next world is called Olam HaBeriyah – the world of creation. It comes from the Hebrew word boreh which means “to create” and refers to something from nothing. This is the creatio ex nihilo we spoke about. Scientists call it the Big Bang. Remember the classic Doors song “Break on through to the Other Side.” The spiritual world enters the world of time and space, energy becomes matter. Einstein’s equation E=mc2becomes the basis of this break through. The miracle is how something exists where nothing ever was. In the beginning the something is undifferentiated reality. As the universe cools, the symmetry of particles and forces also breaks down and our world comes into being. (Could this be like the breaking of vessels which is a classical idea in Kabbalah.)
The third world is called Olam HaYitzirah – the world of formation. It comes from the Hebrew world yitzer which means “to form.” Formation is putting more complicated things together from less complicated things. (Think of legos.) We are no longer speaking of something from nothing, but rather the emergence of more complex from less complex. Hydrogen atoms become stars, which creates fusions into helium atoms, which explode creating higher forms of matter. A planet is formed and organic molecules begin to form in the sea. This is the world of evolution as higher and higher forms of life emerge. Neural cells come together to form brains, and within brains consciousness enters the world. The spiritual is now part of the material world.
Finally we come to the fourth world, the material world we humans function in. The final world is called Olam HaAsiyah – the world of action. It is our familiar world of time and space, matter and energy. It is the world where we humans can build a portable tent, where we can work to perfect the world God has given us.
Kabbalah teaches that God created four worlds and we must live within all four. The central theme of my newest book, about to be published, is how we humans can love one another in all four worlds of creation.

PARSHAT PEKUDAI
(5768)

MOSES THE ACCOUNTANT
“These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding.” (Exodus 38:21)
We have all heard of the shoemaker’s son who had no shoes. I am the accountant’s son who cannot follow finances. My dad wanted me to take over his successful Certified Public Accountant practice, but I never had a taste for it. My eyes gloss over trying to follow the monthly financial reports in our synagogue. This year I finally learned a little accounting. My daughter took a class at the University of Central Florida in hospitality industry accounting, and I had to help her set up t-accounts for a restaurant. Lucie Reisch, a CPA in our synagogue, tutored me so I could tutor my daughter, and now I am beginning to comprehend debits, credits, and equity. My dad would be proud.
Does a rabbi need to be an accountant? Rabbis deal with questions of the spirit; accountants deal with questions of the pocketbook. And yet, without a full understanding of financial matters, we cannot fully focus on the spirit. The Talmud teaches, “Without bread there can be no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) Of course, the same passage continues, “Without Torah there can be no bread.” The financial and the spiritual are intertwined. And nowhere is that more obvious than in this week’s Torah reading.
In this week’s portion Moses becomes an accountant. All the weighty spiritual matters are set aside. Moses the law giver, teacher, and prophet become secondary. Instead, we see Moses giving a certified audit. How much gold was used in the building of the tabernacle? How much silver? How much copper? Was everything accounted for? The purpose of the audit is clear. Moses collected all the precious metals and materials for the building of the tabernacle. He had to be personally beyond reproach. If there was the least suspicion of misappropriation of funds, his spiritual leadership would quickly disappear. There could not even be the appearance of impropriety.
The Talmud (Yoma 38a) speaks about the house of Garmu as the family who would prepare the showbread for the ancient Temple. This family was especially honored because their children were never seen eating fine bread. Nobody should think that the family was misappropriating offerings that did not belong to them. In a similar way, the family of Abtinas used to prepare the precious incense used in the ancient Temple. None of the women of this family would wear any perfume, lest people think they were taking the fragrances for personal use. The Midrash teaches that the official who collected the half a shekel offering (which we read about this week with the special reading of shekelim) would wear a garment with no pockets and no long sleeves. (Exodus Rabbah 51:2) Even the appearance of impropriety is forbidden.
Moses was careful to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But people love to find fault with their leaders. The Midrash tells how people would watch Moses and if he had gained any weight, they accused him of eating from the various offerings the people brought to the sanctuary. Later, following the great revolt led by Korach and his followers, Moses cries out to God, “Pay no regard to their oblation, I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” (Numbers 16:15)
All leaders, whether politicians or business people or sports heroes, can become the subject of gossip and speculation about improprieties. But religious leaders are particularly susceptible to questions of impropriety. Perhaps this is the legacy of the many televangelists who have been brought down after a public audit of their financial dealings. (Never mind their sexual misconduct.) Those who preach about spiritual and ethical matters need to be particularly careful about their personal spiritual and ethical life. But money can be tempting. This is why Moses had to account for every piece of gold and every bit of cloth, every jewel and every piece acacia wood that went into the Tabernacle. When a person becomes responsible for the public’s money, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety is vital.
Does this mean that rabbis should become accountants? I hope not. I admire people who can look at financial records and make sense of them, and I hold in particular awe those who can prepare a complex synagogue budget and track it week by week and month by month. But I think rabbis and all spiritual leaders ought to know that money is a sacred trust. In this portion the people Israel give money to serve God. Anybody who handles the public’s money ought to be able to stand before the public and say, I am using this money to serve God. In this small way, rabbis ought to become accountants.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDAI
(5767)

HUMAN CREATION

“Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites did so; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.”
(Exodus 39:32)

At the beginning of the book of Genesis God creates a universe. At the end of the book of Exodus humanity creates a tabernacle. The language is nearly parallel. It is almost as if human creative activity reflects divine creative activity. We humans are able to use our imaginations and our dexterity to transform nature and to create a better world. This is part of the meaning of being made in the image of God. Like God, we have the power to create.
However, the Bible also contains warnings. In Genesis we humans create the Tower of Babel, in order to make a name for ourselves and challenge God. In Exodus, right before the building of the tabernacle, we Jews build a Golden Calf to serve as our god. The message is that creativity alone is not enough; we need morality to go along with it. Technology cannot teach us right and wrong.
Let us move from Biblical times to modern times. We humans have proven our technological mastery of the earth. We can communicate anywhere in the world instantaneously, travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. We have explored space and split the atom, uncovered the human genome and cured diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. Our technology is wondrous. Unfortunately, our technological growth has not led to a parallel growth in our morality. One of the lessons of Nazi Germany was how technology and bureaucracy can expand the reach of evil in ways the Bible could never imagine.
Human creativity raises numerous ethical issues. We have cloned a sheep and soon we will develop the ability to clone human beings. But is it proper to do so? We are exploring the use of embryonic stem cells to cure diseases. But what are the implications for human life? We have vastly improved the comforts of life by the internal combustion engine. But are irreversible climate changes an unintended result? We have harnessed the power of fusion in the nucleus of the atom. But have we found a way to prevent the Bomb from falling into the wrong hands? We have built marvelous cities, centers of commerce and culture. But have we destroyed too many of the primal forests which feed oxygen into the air and keep our species alive?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke of returning to a state of nature. And the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau spoke of living in the woods. But we humans are not going to give up our ipods and big screen televisions, our jet planes and automobiles, and return to a state of nature. Pandora’s Box has been open, and will not be closed again. The questions is not doing away with technology but finding our way back to morality.
How do we learn right and wrong when it comes to applying our technology? Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists spend a lifetime struggling with this question. Again there are no easy answers. But there is a hint in this week’s portion. Before the Israelites begin building the tabernacle, God reminds them not to work on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder that the world does not belong to us humans. Ultimately, as the Psalmist taught, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalms 24:1) If the earth belongs to God, we humans must handle it with respect.
The Torah wants us humans to use our creative power. But the Torah is also filled with laws which put limits on our technological prowess. We cannot mix diverse kinds of seeds when we plant or make clothing with a mixture of plants and animals. If we build a home we must put a parapet around the roof so people will not fall off. And one day a week we must stop our work and consider the implications of the fact that the world belongs to God.
All of these laws serve the same purpose; we are to respect the integrity of God’s creation. Perhaps it is time to heed these warnings again. Only then will our morality catch up with our technology. Only then can we truly become God’s partners in our acts of creation.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL – PEKUDAI
(5766)

JOINING TOGETHER

“Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them, these are the things that the Lord commanded you to do.” (Exodus 35:1)

Sometimes the Hebrew language gives us powerful insights which are lost in translation. For example, the Hebrew root k-h-l means “gather together.” In modern Hebrew a kahal is a community. When the people gathered together to build the Golden Calf, the word is used. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down the mountain, the people gathered themselves (vayekahel) against Aaron and said to him, Come make us a god who shall go before us.” (Exodus 32:1) At the beginning of this portion, when Moses gathers the people together to build a holy tabernacle, the same word is used. “Moses then gathered(vayakhel) the whole Israelite community.”
The Torah deliberately uses the same word. In the Golden Calf story, the people gather themselves together; it is a mob mentality. In the tabernacle story, Moses gathers the people together, it is a team mentality. The connection is clear. People can gather themselves into a mob to do evil in the world. Or a leader can gather people together as a team to do God’s work in the world. People need people. But when they gather, will they build a Golden Calf or will they build a tabernacle?
A central theme of this portion is the importance of forming a community. We live in a world where individualism reigns. Sociologist Robert Putnam recently wrote a book entitled Bowling Alone. The title says it all. Anything we want to accomplish takes other people. That is why the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” We need to join together, or be joined together. Max Kirsch, my professor at Florida Atlantic University, has written, “Western culture, and especially US culture, is deeply rooted in a model of the individual as primary actor and subject.” (Queer Theory and Social Change, p. 36) His book is a critique of individualism and a call that social change begins in the realm of the social. People need people to accomplish anything worthwhile in the world.
Of course, people join with other people for both good and evil. They can join together to build a Golden Calf or to build a tabernacle to serve God. They can join together to carry out suicide bombings or to work for peace in the world. Working together, people can transform the world. But are they transforming it for good or are they transforming it for evil? Are they a mob or are they a team?
Again the Hebrew is the hint. In building the Golden Calf, people joined themselves together. There is no subject, no person who joined them together. A mob mentality formed. According to tradition the people murdered Hur when he refused to build the calf, and threatened to murder Aaron until he agreed. There was no vision, just people’s unleashed wants and desires. The Golden Calf story is about passions out of control.
On the other hand, in this week’s portion Moses gathers the people as a team. There is a vision. There is wisdom. There is leadership. To transform the world, first there must be a person of wisdom willing to present a vision. There must be a leader. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) In the Bible, Moses was the man of vision able to gather the people for holy work. In a similar way today, the world needs people of vision who can gather people and inspire them to do holy work.
Our task as human beings is to transform the world. It begins with people of vision willing to become leaders. It continues with people not as atomized individuals, but gathered together with others. From a religious perspective, God’s waits for us to work as a team and take on these holy tasks.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PEKUDAI
(5764)

TIME VERSUS SPACE

“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work shall be put to death.”

What is more important, space or time?
To anyone who has studied Einstein, this is an absurd question. There is no difference between space and time; we live in a space-time continuum. This strange idea is reflected in classical Hebrew, where the same word olam means all of space and all of time. The word can be translated “the universe” or “eternity”, and the prayer adon olam can be translated “Lord of the Universe” or “eternal Lord,” or perhaps best “Lord Who dwells beyond space and time.”
Nevertheless, for us mere mortals who do not understand Einstein, space and time are daily realities. We sanctify space, with shrines, sanctuaries, and holy places. We sanctify time, with Sabbaths and festivals, and holy times. Which is more important?
The answer is clear from this week’s portion. Time takes priority over space. Most of the portion describes the detail of the building of holy space, a portable sanctuary symbolizes God’s presence to be carried through the wilderness. But work on the sanctuary must stop every seventh day. Sanctifying holy time took priority over carving out holy space. That is why Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Jewish Sabbath “a cathedral in time.” Other faiths build beautiful cathedrals. For Jews, there are certainly beautiful synagogues in the world, but our holiest place is the remains of an ancient wall in Jerusalem. We Jews are far better known for our sanctification of time.
There is a reason for this Jewish focus on time. I was recently listening to a tape by cosmologist Brian Swimme dealing with the formation of the universe. Swimme mentioned how the ancient Pagans had no sense of history. They saw the universe as the eternal return, great cycles that would happen over and over. The Greeks, particularly Plato, searched for what was eternal and unchangeable. How did we get the sense that time has a direction and a purpose. Swimme said that this was an insight of the Jews.
Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gift of the Jews, makes the same point. He wrote, “All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. . . . The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world.” With the Bible, the world received a sense of history. Time had a direction and history had a purpose. Suddenly time could be sanctified. We humans left the realm of holy space and entered the realm of holy time.
My fear today is that we have lost that sense of the holiness of time. A new phrase has entered our vocabulary – “24 – 7.” We live in a world where nothing ever shuts down. With the internet, with our cell phones, with our pagers, we are connected to the world every minute of every day. There is no time to stop and refresh. Merchants are under great pressure to keep their businesses open longer and longer hours. Our kids are so over scheduled that the family meal has become a thing of the past. Fast food has replaced relaxed restaurant dining. The notion of time standing still, taking time, even a slow, timely Sabbath dinner seems strangely archaic. There is never a time to say no from the countless day to day errands that call upon us.
This week I traveled to New York City with a group of High School kids from my congregation. Among the many sites we visited was the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I studied to become a rabbi. Among the new facilities which did not exist when I was there is a new modern computer lab, with links not only to American and Israeli websites, but all the classic books of Jewish literature on cd rom.
Most important, the computer lab is always open. At least almost always open. Our guide commented that the lab was available to students 24 – 6. On the Jewish Sabbath it shut down. How refreshing! Maybe we need more in our lives that are only 24 – 6. After all, even God shut down on the seventh day.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5763)

BETWEEN THE CHERUBIM

“The Cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other, the faces of the Cherubim were turned toward the cover.”
(Exodus 37:9)

This synagogue used to have a strange tradition. When we would say the weekly prayer for the sick, we would open the door of the ark and literally speak into it, as if God dwells there among the scrolls of the law. The ark certainly contains the Torah, just as the ancient ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is the place symbolic of God’s ethical teachings. However, God does not live there.
If there is any spot more symbolic of God’s presence, it is above the ark. There were two Cherubim, human figures made of gold. They faced each other with wings that touched above their heads. According to the Torah, God spoke from between the faces of the two Cherubim. “There I will meet you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:22) If we are to meet God anywhere, it is between two human beings who stand face to face.
Rabbi Mordecai Gafni, in a brilliant essay (I wish I had written it, but he says it much better than I could have), wrote, “There are forty five muscles in the face, most of them unnecessary for the biological functioning of the face. Their major purpose is to express emotional depth and nuance. They are the muscles of the soul.” (“On the Erotic and the Ethical”, Tikkun, March – April 2003) In other words, we humans have been biologically created to face one another and communicate. It is in such human interaction that God’s presence dwells. As Martin Buber put it, “Every Thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.” Every intimate human interaction points the way to the God Who made us humans in His image.
Who were the Cherubim? Most of us picture two children with angel’s wings. However, Rabbinic and mystical sources saw the Cherubim in a far more erotic way. They represented the male and the female in a sexual embrace. “R. Kattina said, Whenever Israel came (to Jerusalem) for the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the Cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another. They would be addressed, Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.” (Yoma 54a) Humans, unlike animals, have sexual relations face to face. According to the mystics, in such an erotic moment God’s presence is found.
So from where does God speak to us? According to this image God is in the passionate relationship symbolized by the Cherubim who stood above the ark, rather than in the tablet of the law within the ark. God is in love, not in law. God is in passion, not in rules.
Nevertheless, to return to Gafni’s essay, this passion must be balanced by rules. The erotic must be together with the ethical. Love and law must go together. Paganism taught passion without restraint. On the other hand, laws without passion become mere behaviorism. God is both above the ark and within the ark, between the Cherubim and within the Ten Commandments, in passion restrained by ethical boundaries. The Cherubim symbolize love; the ark symbolizes law. We need both if we are to find God.

PARSHAT PIKUDEI
(5763)

BEYOND REPROACH

“These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding.”
(Exodus 38:21)

Moses played many roles in the Torah – liberator, political leader, lawgiver, prophet. In this week’s portion he played a role different from any other. He became an accountant. The portion begins with a certified audit of all the gold, silver, and copper used in the construction of the ancient tabernacle carried through the desert.
Nowhere does God order such an audit of materials. Moses did it on his own initiative. Nobody should ever say that Moses pocketed some of these precious metals for his own personal use. As the leader of the people, he needed to be beyond reproach.
The Talmud later speaks of two prominent Jewish families. The Garmu family was responsible for preparing the showbread, the fine loaves of bread on the table before the ark. They never had fine bread in their home, so that no one would even suspect that they were using the Temple’s bread for their personal use. In a similar way, the Abtinas family was responsible for preparing the sacred incense used in the Temple. The women of the household would never wear perfume so that no one would suspect that they were using the sacred ingredients for personal use. (Yoma 38a) Both families understood that, to have public responsibilities means being beyond reproach.
It is not enough that there be no impropriety. There must not even be the appearance of any kind of impropriety. That is why Jewish tradition developed the notion of marat eyin (literally “the appearance to the eye”.) One must not only act in a way that is proper in the eyes of God, but one’s behavior must never be questionable in the eyes of one’s fellows. There should not be room even for rumors that someone acted improperly or illegally.
People love to find fault with their fellow human beings. Those in positions of leadership – politicians, business people, clergy – are particularly subject to scrutiny and fault finding. Even Moses later will cry out, “I have not taken a donkey of any of them nor wronged any one of them.” (Numbers 16:15) When a person is in a position of public responsibility, he or she must bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Even if he or she knows that there are no faults before God, there must also be no faults before one’s fellow humans.
Moses had the wisdom to do a public accounting of the gold, silver, and copper used in the building of the tabernacle. Those in positions of leadership must be prepared to do the same kind of public accounting of their actions. People can always say, “I do not agree with this person’s decision.” They should never say, “This person behaved in a way that was dishonest.” May all of us learn to behave in way that is beyond reproach.

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL – PEKUDAI
(5762)

WORK THAT CHANGES THE UNIVERSE

“Six days do all of your work (melacha) but the seventh day shall be a holy day of rest for God, whoever does work (melacha) on it shall surely die.” (Exodus 35:2)

People frequently ask me, “If it is forbidden to work on the Jewish Sabbath, why do you go to work?” Great question. The answer is that the work I do, conducting services, delivering sermons, teaching Torah, as stressful as they may be, are not work forbidden on the Sabbath. To use the proper term, they are not melacha.
The Torah uses the term melacha in three different contexts. From these three, we can learn profound insights into the role of us humans in the universe.
First, melacha refers to God’s work in creating the heavens and the earth. “On the seventh day God completed all God’s work which God had done, and God rested on the seventh day from all God’s work which God had done.” (Genesis 2:2) It means creative work, those activities that form a universe and allow it to function.
Second, melacha refers to the human tasks of building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle which the Israelites carried through the desert. “Moses saw all the work (melacha) and behold, they had done it as God had commanded it be done, and Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39:43) These included most of the fundamental tasks we humans do to show our mastery of the universe: growing plants for both food and dyes, spinning and making cloth, building, metalwork, writing and drawing, and of course, using fire.
Third, melacha refers to those acts forbidden on the Jewish Sabbath, from sundown Friday night until nightfall Saturday night. “Six days do all of your work (melacha) but the seventh day shall be a holy day of rest for God, whoever does work (melacha) on it shall surely die.” (Exodus 35:2) The Rabbis of the Talmud counted thirty nine categories of forbidden work. These were precisely the activities which were done in building the tabernacle.
Now we have a definition of melacha, work – any creative activity that changes the universe. From this we can reach a powerful understanding of what it means to be a human being at work in the universe.
God created a universe. We humans have been given the creative ability to be God’s partners, to transform the universe God made. Animals live in the world; humans change the world. If animals eat plants they gather, we humans grow our own plants, if animals eat food raw we cook our food, if animals seek shelter in the wild, we humans build our own shelter, if animals have fur to protect them, we spin, weave, dye, and create our own clothing. We humans make tools and have control of fire and energy. Today we humans explore space, use the power of the atom, build great structures, unlock the genetic code, cure diseases. When God created the universe, God looked and saw that it was “very good” – very good but not perfect. We have been given the technological ability to perfect this universe.
God also put a limit on our technological ability. One day in seven we must leave the universe alone. We are to avoid any activity that changes the universe. We do this as a reminder that God made the world and that we are not to see ourselves as gods. In the Tower of Babel story, we humans built a skyscraper to make a name for ourselves. Some would use our technological prowess today to make a name for ourselves, for example, to clone a human being. Therefore, we stop and remember that it is God’s world. We were placed in this world as God’s partners, to quote the Alenu prayer said at every synagogue service, “to perfect this world as a kingdom of God.”

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL-PIKUDEI
(5761)

OUR UNIQUE GIFTS

“See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.”
(Exodus 35:30-31)

This long double portion describes the detailed building of a portable tent or tabernacle. It was truly a work of art, involving precious metals, jewels, cloth, and wood. The artist who put it together was named Bezalel. Today, Israel’s art academy in Jerusalem bears his name.
The Torah teaches that Bezalel was given a gift from God, a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft. His artistic ability was an innate gift. What he accomplished with that gift makes up most of this portion. Today, there is a beautiful gift book put together by an artist that recreates Bezalel’s work.
We are all given gifts by God. We may not all be artists. (I certainly am not, I still draw stick figures.) Hopefully, I have other gifts and talents. So we all have gifts and talents.
A wise person once wrote, “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we do is our gift to God.” What will we do with the gifts that God has given us? Will we use them, or let them go to waste?
I have written elsewhere that every human being has a unique mission, a reason why God put him or her on this earth. In my forthcoming book The Ten Journeys of Life, I recommend that people do a search for their particular talents and gifts. “Take out a pen and paper and begin a careful self-evaluation. Or perhaps keep a journal, asking the following questions: What unique gifts do you have? Are you good with people? Are you artistic? Do you love solving problems? Are you a writer? Do you have a taste for adventure? Do you have unusual athletic talent? Can you play a musical instrument? Do you enjoy solving people’s problems?”
I continue with other advice for finding our unique gifts and our unique mission. “You need to ask, what are you passionate about? What do you dream about late at night when you are unable to sleep? If you had only one year to live, what would you accomplish with your life? What do you want to be remembered for? In what areas are you absolutely irreplaceable? If you had enough money to meet your financial needs, how would you fill your time?”
“Who are your mentors? Who are the teachers that attract you? For many people, their parents are their mentors. Who are the other major individuals, both living and dead, both those you know personally and those you know only by reputation, whom you admire? Who can serve as your role models and guides? Who do you want to be proud of our work?”
Each of us pursuing our own unique God-given gifts, creates the tapestry of life that builds a better world. It is easy to say that me and my gifts do not matter. With difference can I make in the world? God waits for each of us to use our unique gifts.
There is a story about Sir Michael Conti rehearsing the London Symphony to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The full orchestra and a large chorus were singing the fourth movement, when the piccolo player suddenly stopped playing. He said to himself, “Everybody else is so loud, they cannot hear me anyhow. What is the difference if I play?” Sir Conti suddenly stopped the rehearsal and shouted, “Where is the piccolo?! I do not hear the piccolo?!”

PARSHAT VAYAKHEL
(5760)

TECHNOLOGY: GOOD OR BAD?

“Do not light a fire in any of your habitations on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)

This is the perfect week to speak about technology. Most of the portion describes the detailed building of a tabernacle, a portable tent which the Israelites carried through the desert. Of course, the tent was handcrafted; there were no advanced technological methods available to the ancient Israelites. Nonetheless, there are lessons that apply even today.
Rabbinic tradition sees a parallel between the Israelites building a tabernacle and God’s original creation of the world. The same Hebrew words are used for both. Building the tabernacle was the ultimate technological feat for its day and age. Humans imitated God as creators. The tabernacle became a paradigm for human ingenuity and creativity.
In the Bible, fire is the symbol of creative power. After all, light was the first thing God created. How does God feel about our technological prowess, of our using fire? To the ancient Greeks, technology was the realm of the gods. When Prometheus stole the fire, he was trespassing on property not permitted to him. Fire, and by extension, all technology, was not for humans.
The Biblical view is very different. Fire is given to us humans to use. We are permitted to use our technological prowess, to create and build, to imitate God in making things for this world. At least, we are permitted to do so six days a week. Once a week, we leave fire alone, we remember where it came from we remind ourselves that we are not God.
The tower of Babel story contains the same message. The people built a giant tower “to make a name for themselves.” The moral of the story is not that skyscrapers are bad. Quite the contrary, the city of New York is a technological marvel (when it works.) Rather, the moral is that building a skyscraper to challenge God is wrong. God gave us the brain to use our creative skills, but we must remember that we are not gods. We are human beings.
How are we to relate to the technological achievements of our own day? How ought we to view modern medical instruments? Nuclear power? Genetic engineering? Space travel? Artificial Intelligence? Are these good or bad?
Technology itself is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad. It all depends on how it is used. Farmers use technology to increase crop production and feed the hungry. The Nazis used technology to destroy human beings more efficiently. Genetic engineering can cure diseases. Genetic engineering can also bring out the worse of eugenics, creating designer babies. Nuclear power can light up a city. Nuclear power can also destroy the world. Artificial intelligence can help us use computers to predict killer storms. Artificial intelligence can also be used to argue that if computers can imitate humans, than we humans are no better than sophisticated computers.
On the seventh day we are not to build the tabernacle, not to light a fire, not to use our technological prowess. It is a reminder that these are gifts from God. Whenever we develop a new technology, we must ask a question: Are we using this technology as partners with God? Or are we using this technology simply to make a name for ourselves?

PARSHAT PEKUDAI
(5760)

ARE WE MACHINES?

“When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.
(Exodus 40:33-34)

Last week we spoke about God’s gift of technology. The ancient Greeks believed that we humans stole our technology from the gods. The Bible teaches that technology is a gift from God, to be used for ethical purposes. Technology itself is morally neutral. It all depends on what we do with our God given creative power. This week I want to dig deeper into that question.
The building of the ancient tabernacle that the Israelites carried through the desert required great technical skill. Rabbinic legend saw it as equivalent to God creating a universe. The chief designer was Bezalel, who was given wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. According to the rabbis, Bezalel received the gift of God’s secret creative power. (Berachot 55a) He created a technological marvel where God’s presence rested.
In discussing this issue, the Talmud raises a fascinating question. Is there a limit to our technology, a line we humans should not be allowed to cross? For example, if we humans have the ability to create a human being, should we be able to do it?
The Talmud says that Rabbah actually created a “man.” (Sanhedrin 65b). He sent the “man” to Rav Zeira who spoke with him and received no answer. Rav Zeira then said, “You are a creature of the magicians. Return to the dust.” Out of this Talmudic story grew the legend of the Golem. According to this classic legend, Rabbi Jacob Loew of Prague created an artificial man, known as the Golem to protect the Jews. He used God’s name to give the man his power. When Rabbi Loew realized that his creation was out of control, he took away his power and sent him back to the dust.
Obviously, the creation of an artificial person is not just a Jewish legend, but a human legend. Mary Shelly wrote her novel Frankenstein just when scientists were discovering the power of electricity within the human nervous system. Two questions are asked even today: Could we build a human being? And if we could, should we?
Today there is serious computer research in the area of Strong Artificial Intelligence. Could a computer be built that can totally simulate a human mind? Could a computer know and do everything a human can? If so, could we build such a computer? Or to put it differently, could we build a robot with a soul?
Some scientists claim that no computer, no matter how sophisticated, could imitate the mind of a human being. (I have used a theorem in mathematics called Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem to try to prove this point.) Others say that we humans are sophisticated computers, and someday we will create a human.
This raises deep ethical questions. If we could create a human being, would that human being be created in the image of God. Could we then destroy it if it no longer works. After all, when my computer no longer works, I throw it out. Or perhaps, if we humans are mere machines, when we no longer work we can be thrown out. There are forces in society today that want to throw out people when they no longer can function. Is there a difference between a human and a machine?
I raise these questions although they have no simple answers. God gave Bezalel, and by implication, all of us, part of God’s creative power. It is our job to use it wisely.