Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Kee teesa

“Aaron said to them, “[You men,] take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2)
Each year, as I begin reading the story of Aaron building the Golden Calf, I think of a humorous story. Two men are being led out to be executed by a firing squad. The leader tells the men, “Before I blindfold you, do you have any last words.” One man begins to speak when the other pokes him in the ribs. “Quiet, you don’t want to make trouble.”
There are some people who simply don’t want to make trouble. One was Aaron the brother of Moses, inaugurated as the High Priest. The people confront him, why was Moses delayed coming down the mountain? Make us a god to lead us through the wilderness. This will be the god who took us out of Egypt. Aaron does try to delay them. He tells the men to bring their gold, hoping that they would refuse to give up their valuables. He delays them until the next day, hoping they will change their minds. Perhaps by then Moses will come down from the mountain. But in the end, Aaron makes the Golden Calf.
The Rabbis try to justify his actions. They claim that the people at first confronted Hur, another leader of the Israelites. When Hur refused, they put him to death. Then they confronted Aaron. When Aaron saw how angry the mob was, he built the idol to save his own life. One can understand his motivation. But Jewish law is clear, it is better to die then to commit idolatry. So, what motivated Aaron? And in the end, why was Aaron not punished for building the Golden Calf?
I believe the answer is that Aaron was a peacemaker at heart. He truly did not want any trouble, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to calm the people down. Pirke Avot speaks about the personality of Aaron. “Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah” (Avot 1:12). The Midrash teaches how, when people get into fight, he would go to each one separately and says the other wants to make peace. When a husband and wife quarrel, he would tell each that the other wants forgiveness. He was truly a peacemaker.
In fact, the Talmud compares the two brothers Moses and Aaron. “Moses would say, let the law pierce the mountain. But Aaron loved peace and pursued peace” (Sanhedrin 6b). It is fascinating that the people mourned Aaron’s death more than Moses’ death. Moses was a law person, while Aaron was a people person. As a peacemaker, he earned the love of the people. But if this was his personality, one could understand why he built the Golden Calf. Perhaps that is why God was willing to forgive him. God recognizes that Aaron was a man who only wanted to pursue peace.
Being a peacemaker is a virtue. The Bible teaches, “There is a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). The Byrds built their peace-loving song “Turn, Turn, Turn” on this passage from Ecclesiastes. But they ended the song with the line, “A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” We all want peace. But perhaps we can learn from the story of Aaron that peace is not always the correct choice. There is a time to take a hard line and not make peace. Perhaps if Aaron realized that, perhaps if he were a bit more like his brother Moses, there never would have been a Golden Calf.

“Then he [Aaron] took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)

When I was a child my mother used to share a nursery rhyme with me. “I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.” I am not sure the point of the nursery rhyme; I guess it meant to be happy I am not a purple cow.. But this week we do read about colored cows. In the first Torah we read about a gold cow, or perhaps more accurately, a golden calf. In the second Torah we read about a red cow, or perhaps more accurately, a red heifer. Are these two cows related in some way? That is the idea I want to explore.
There is a principle in Jewish law, hapeh sh’asar hu hapeh sh’hiter, “the mouth that forbids is the mouth that permits (Mishnah Ketubot 2:5). If a woman comes from a distant place and says, “I was married but now I am divorced,” we believe both halves of her statement. By saying she was married, she became forbidden to marry anyone else. But by continuing to say that she is divorced, she is now permitted to marry someone else. The same mouth that first forbid her is now the mouth that permits her. The Talmud gives several other examples.
The idea is that the same thing that could make something forbidden can now make something permitted. In a similar way, the same thing that brings someone down can now bring someone up. The very item that can make someone sick can now heal. Perhaps the best example is vaccines. We consider a pathogen that can make us sick and find a similar substance to make us well. Smallpox used to be a horrible scourge. Doctors took a similar pathogen that was less lethal,, cow pox, and began to vaccinate people with it. Thanks to the cow pox pathogen, smallpox has now disappeared from the face of the earth. What brought us down can now bring us up.
That is the idea behind the golden calf and the red heifer. After the exodus from Egypt and the moment we stood at Mt. Sinai, the people immediately sin. Frightened that Moses would not return from the mountain, they force Aaron to build them a golden calf. They then worship the calf, crying out, this is our God. Of course, Moses in his fury breaks the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is a sin that needs forgiveness.
In the second Torah we read a very strange law about a red heifer. The ashes of the heifer are mixed with various plants and poured on any person who has become impure. The red heifer purifies. We read this shortly before Passover so that people will go into the festival in a state of purity. Of course, today nobody has ever found a totally red heifer. But there are people actively looking. They need it to someday rebuild a Third Temple, so people can enter it in a state of purity.
The Rabbis related the two events. It was a gold cow that made us impure. And it will be a red cow to make us pure once again. That which makes us impure is precisely that which makes us pure. It is a coincidence that both these Torah readings fall in the same week. It does not happen every year. But it teaches the lesson that sometimes we need that which brings us down to bring us up once again.
This can be relevant for those struggling with bad behavior today. The great teacher Maimonides speaks about what true teshuvah “repentance” is. We must find whatever led us to sin in the first place. Then we must confront that same thing and see if we have changed our ways. The alcoholic must go to a place where alcohol is served to see if she can control her addiction. A man who cheats on his wife must face the same opportunity to cheat to prove to himself that he has become a new person. Only whatever brought us down can now bring us up.
There is a deep lesson in the juxtaposition of two very different Torah readings. Often in life we are brought down. But whatever brings us down can now be used to bring us up.


“When the people saw that Moses was so long coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said, come make us a god who shall go before us, for the man Moses who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

One easy part of the Hebrew language is the use of three letter roots for so many words.  Most verbs and many nouns are built on three Hebrew letters.  For example, the Hebrew root kuf –  hey – lamed,  k-h-l means to gather together or to make a community, or to quote the Beatles, “Come Together.”  Multiple words can be built from this root.

The term kahal could mean a crowd or a community, or even the public.  A kehila is a congregation.   Often, you can see the letters k – k before the name of a congregation.  This stands for kehilat kodesh or holy congregation.  The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism uses the term kehila (plural kehilot) to refer to its member synagogues.  Whenever you see the three Hebrew letter k – h – l, know that they refer to a group of people gathering together.  And humans being human, sometimes people come together for a good cause, and sometimes for a bad cause.

The letters appear as a verb in both this week and next week’s portion to describe people coming together. In this week the Torah says vayekahel “gathered together,” the people gathered together to build a golden calf.  In next week portion the Torah says vayakhel, Moses gathered the people to build the holy tabernacle.  The same root is used for two verbs with two different meanings.  In one case, the people gathered together and became a mob, bent on doing something evil in the eyes of God.  In the other case, the people were gathered together to do something good, necessary for the Israelites wandering through the desert.  It is not a coincidence that the Torah uses two forms of the same verb for two very different actions.

It is a mob, out of control, who committed the sin of the golden calf.  The Midrash asks why Aaron participates in this evil undertaking.  The answer is the mob had already put to death Aaron’s fellow Hur.  Aaron, fearing for his own life, asks the people for gold and other valuables.  He hopes his request will discourage the mob.  When they hand Aaron their gold, according to his own report, he throws it into the fire and the golden calf came out.  It is as if the calf created itself.  This portion is the story of an out-of-control mob.

We do not need to look to the Bible to see the harm caused by an out-of-control mob.  We simply need to read newspaper reports of January 6, 2021, when a mob broke into the Capitol building in Washington D.C., threatening senators and congresspeople and damaging the building.  Seven people died as a result of these actions, and the mob came extremely close to disrupting the results of the presidential election.  Some have claimed that the capitol riot was simply a peaceful protest, contesting the presidential election results.  Perhaps some people gathered in Washington for peaceful purposes.  But like the golden calf, these events are an example of what can happen when a mob is out of control.  Fortunately, many of those who broke into the building have been identified, arrested, and are now serving jail time.

Often one can see the danger of mobs out of control.  People claim, “I was caught up in the moment.”  An experiment with college students was conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in 1971.  This is often known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.  Students were divided into prisoners and guards.  They were given appropriate uniforms as prisoners or guards.  Within a very short time the student guards became extremely abusive towards the student prisoners.  Zimbardo was forced to shut down the experiment early.  A similar result happened in Los Angeles in the 1992 Rodney King race riots.  A group of rioters pulled an innocent truck driver, Reginald Denny, from his vehicle and beat him, leaving him permanently injured.  They were arrested and claimed in their trial that they were caught up in the moment.

The Torah teaches, “Do not follow the crowd to do evil” (Exodus 23:2).  Whether the golden calf, the Rodney King riots, or the attack on the Capitol, too often we humans are caught up in the moment and commit acts of evil.  Comparing the building of the golden calf to the building of the tabernacle, we can see how a crowd can gather for evil or for good.  There is a powerful lesson in the root of a simple Hebrew word.


“He [Aaron] received them from their hand, and fashioned with a graving tool a molten calf; and they said, These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 32:4)

During four weeks around this time in the Jewish calendar, we read from two Torahs on Shabbat.  This week, by a coincidence of the calendar, the two Torah readings teach a related theme – a calf.  In this week’s regular Torah portion, we learn of the great sin of the Israelites, building and worshipping a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai.  In the second Torah reading we read about a red calf, or red heifer, used to purify the people as they prepare for Passover.

The Rabbis of the Talmud saw a relationship between these two calves, one gold and one red.  The first makes the people impure, while the second makes the people pure.  The Midrash explains it with a parable.  “A maid’s child once dirtied the royal palace.  Said the king, let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess.  By the same token, God said, let the red heifer come and atone for the sin of the golden calf.”  (Midrash Tanhuma, Hukkat 8)  Out of this comes a principle often found in Jewish tradition.  The very thing that makes one impure or forbidden can be used to make one pure or permitted.

Let me give a couple examples.  If a woman testifies to a rabbi, “I was married but now I am divorced,” is the rabbi permitted to perform a new wedding ceremony with no further investigation?   The Rabbis say yes, based on the Talmudic principle hapeh she asar hu hapeh sh’hiter.  “The mouth that forbids is now the mouth that permits.”  (Ketubot 22a)   Since it was her testimony that first proclaimed her to be forbidden (a married woman), we believe her testimony that proclaims she is permitted (a divorced woman).

On a totally unrelated topic, the dietary laws teach that if a cooking utensil becomes unkosher, the same method is used to make it kosher.  If you accidently boil milk in a meat pot, you use boiling water to make the pot kosher once again.  But if you broil meat over a flame on a pan used for milk, boiling water is not enough.   You need to make the pan red hot over a flame to make it kosher.  Like the story of the two calves, whatever first made something impure is necessary to make that thing pure.

This principle has many applications for our own lives.  When we discussed this at Saturday afternoon services, someone pointed out an example.  A person who is suffering from a drug addiction can often find the best treatment by someone who in the past had the same addiction.  A former addict is often the best healer of a current addict.  The very thing that  caused the impurity to begin with is often the best course for making something pure.

Let me give another current example in the news today.  How do vaccines work?  In general, a weakened or dead form of a pathogen is injected into the body, causing the body to develop antibodies.  These antibodies can then fight off the real pathogen.  (Note – The Covid vaccine is a bit more complex.   The corona virus is not used in the vaccine.  You cannot get Covid from the vaccine.)   As a general rule, vaccines use the very things which might make you sick to make you well.

My favorite story to illustrate this issue involves the son of the king who thought he was a rooster.  He took off his clothes, crawled under the table, and would only eat table scraps.  The king was desperate because nobody could cure him.  One day a wise man came to the palace.  “I have an idea to cure your son.”   The wise man took off his clothes, crawled under the table, and started to eat table scraps.  The king’s son asked, “What are you doing?”  The wise man said, “I am a rooster too.”  After a short while, the wise man started to put on his clothes.  “What are you doing?”  “Who said a rooster can’t wear clothes?”  So the king’s son put on clothes.  Then the wise man took a chair at the table.  “What are you doing?”  “Who said a rooster cannot sit at the table?”  So the king’s son sat the table.  Step by step, the wise man led the king’s son to being a prince again.  He had to become a rooster to cure the king’s son from being a rooster.  The very thing that makes one impure can be used to make one pure.


“Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the tent of meeting and the altar.  Put water in it.”  (Exodus 30:18)

I often hear people tell me that ancient Judaism is simply a series of health laws.  For example, the dietary laws exist because the flesh of pigs and lobsters is often diseased.  And putting milk and meat together can cause bacteria to grow.  Circumcision is a health measure to prevent penile cancer.  And on the eighth day the baby’s hormones are at just the right level to maximize healing.

Personally, I think this is nonsense.  I observe Jewish law not to be healthy but to be holy.  But sometimes there is a touch of truth to this kind of idea.  In this week’s portion God commands Moses to make a copper laver filled with water, so that the priests can wash their hands and feet.  Later Judaism tried to make everybody into a kingdom of priests.  So, Jews traditionally wash their hands when they arise in the morning, and whenever they break bread at a meal.  (Jewish tradition does not say much about washing feet, although it is part of Catholic tradition.)  When the priests bless the congregation, they must first wash their hands.

This constant washing probably brings health benefits.  During the black plague in Europe, Jews were the targets of vicious antisemitism.  People blamed the Jews because they seemed less susceptible to the plague.  Some scholars say that the Jewish tradition of constantly washing one’s hands contributed to a higher survival rate.

Today we are facing a new plague, although not as deadly as the black plague or even the influenza virus in the early twentieth century.   Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) seems to have begun in Wuhan, China, and is quickly spreading around the world.  Many people have died from the virus although most experience mild symptoms and recover.  There is fear throughout much of the world, with the stock market plunging, people avoiding travel and cruise ships, and even entire communities cancelling all public events and going on lockdown.

Many people have asked my thoughts.  I think we must always walk a tightrope between precaution and panic.  The precautions are reasonable; the same ones mentioned in Judaism.  Wash hands, or better still, use hand sanitizer.  Do not shake hands or kiss others.  Do not handle food to be shared with others without wearing gloves.  Watch for symptoms such as a high fever and quarantine one’s self if one is exposed to someone with the virus.  We are already making changes in our synagogue.  We are constantly scrubbing down everything, and I no longer pass out hallah using ungloved hands.  We do not shake hands or kiss during our Torah processional.

However, many people have moved beyond precaution to panic.  I have been asked why we do not shut down the synagogue, cancelling all services, pre-school and religious school classes, adult ed, and social programs.  Some synagogues have done this, including a big Orthodox synagogue in New Rochelle, NY.  People there were exposed to the virus in that synagogue.  But so far in our community, we do not have any cases of corona virus.  If the health department recommends that we close, we will do so immediately.  Until then we will remain open.

There is a wonderful insight in Rabbinic tradition about this issue.  The Torah does not know the corona virus, but it does speak of a horrible skin disease called tzaraat (often mistranslated leprosy.)  If a person suspects they have the disease, a kohen (priest) is called to inspect their skin.  If it is the disease, they are quarantined for various lengths of time until the skin condition disappears.  The initial quarantine is for one, then two, then finally three weeks.  (This is similar to our two-week quarantine today.)  But here is the fascinating Rabbinic insight.

The Kohen cannot check for the disease at all times.  It is forbidden on Shabbat.  And according to the Mishnah, it is forbidden to check a groom the week of his wedding or a person celebrating a Jewish holiday (Mishnah Negaim 3:2).  Precaution is important but so is the ability to continue to celebrate life.  Or as we say, even in the face of this virus, life goes on.

“The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed, the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but will no way clean the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Greetings from Cali, Colombia. I was here to perform a beautiful Jewish wedding.
I have often taught that Judaism is not what the Torah says. Judaism is what the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash teach the Torah says. And often these Rabbis radically reinterpret Biblical verses to suit their ends. I often call this “the chutzpah of the Rabbis.” (For the non-Jews reading this, chutzpah is a good Yiddish word meaning brazenness or nerve. The classical example is the man who kills his parents, and then asks for mercy because he is an orphan.)
Let me share one particularly blatant example of this Rabbinic reinterpretation of a text from the Torah. This week’s portion speaks of God’s mercy, beginning with the words in Hebrew, Adonai Adonai El Rahum vaHanun … “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious.” Jews call this passage the thirteen attributes of God, and they sing it over and over on Yom Kippur. The passage we sing on Yom Kippur ends with the word venakeh, “and makes clean.” It sounds wonderful on Yom Kippur when we are reminded of God’s mercy. But that is not what the Torah says. The Torah says vanakeh lo yinakeh, “no way cleans the guilty.” The Torah and the Rabbinic interpretation are precise opposites. Here is a precise example of the Chuzpah of the Rabbis.
Let me give another example from the Torah reading from next week. Next week we mention the laws of the Sabbath, and we are commanded not to light a light on the Sabbath Day. The Rabbis did not believe we should sit in the dark and the cold on the Sabbath. So they ruled that on the Sabbath Day we cannot light a light, but before the Sabbath Day (eighteen minutes before) we are commanded to light a light. They even wrote a blessing which is said, usually by the woman of the house, to this very day. She thanks God for sanctifying us with commandments “and commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.” Nowhere in the Torah is there a command to light Sabbath lights. It is the Chutzpah of the Rabbis.
Let me share a third example, one that is often raised by members of my synagogue. A few weeks ago we read “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” From the beginning the Rabbis said that this is not talking about real eyes and real teeth. To quote Fiddler on the Roof (which I am taking our teens to see this weekend), “The whole world would be blind and toothless.” The Rabbis taught that this law refers to money. After all, what if a person with two eyes puts out the eye of someone with only one. If one person injures another, they must pay a financial penalty. How much? The worth of an eye or the worth of a tooth, based on what a person would receive on the slave market. (Yes, slavery was permitted back then.) Again, the Chutzpah of the Rabbis.
There is a profound theological idea behind these interpretations and thousands more. God gave the people Israel a Torah open to interpretation. It is not set in stone. Rather, it is given to the Rabbis of each generation to study and interpret according to the needs and the ethical insights of that generation. Perhaps the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best. “The Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation.” When the Rabbis use their wisdom to interpret the Torah, they are doing what God wanted them to do.
In my PhD dissertation, I spoke at length about the work of the French Jewish existential philosopher Jacques Derrida. Many see Derrida’s work as extremely radical. I see it as extremely rabbinic. He taught that, “there is nothing outside the text.” He meant that there is nothing that holds the text to any one particular reading or understanding. He famously calls for what he terms “free play of the text.” Texts are open to multiple understandings and interpretations. The Rabbis famously said that every line of the Torah is open to seventy interpretations.
I believe that the Chutzpah of the Rabbis is really God’s will. God wants each generation of Rabbis to study the text and apply to the reality of their world. It is a deep and important religious idea.

“I said to them, Whoever has any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me; then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)
Two weeks ago, I described the precision that went into the making of the golden Menorah. It was cast out of a solid piece of gold by an artist who carried a God given vision. The menorah had seven branches with carefully carved petals and flowers along each branch. I compared the carving of the menorah to Michelangelo’s carving of the statue of David. Michelangelo shared how he looked at the solid piece of marble and chiseled away everything that was not David. In the same way, Bezalel looked at the gold and cut away everything that was not the menorah.
Two weeks ago, we described a work of art developed by the vision and the skill of the artist. But this week we have a very different image. The Israelites led by Moses’ brother Aaron built a Golden Calf. Moses confronts his brother, asking how this could happen. Aaron says that he collected the gold from the people. He hoped that the people would hold on to their valuable gold, thus avoiding the building of an idol. But the people willingly gave Aaron their gold. Aaron claims that he threw the gold into the fire, and the Golden Calf simply emerged on its own. The commentator Rashi writes that Aaron cast it into the fire not knowing that this calf would come out. It just happened.
The Golden Calf just happened. There was no will, no vision, and no skill behind it. It was pure happenstance. Aaron did not mean for it to happen. It was out of his control. It is as if the calf created itself. If an event happens by chance, on its own, then nobody is to blame. And one of the fascinating facts of this story is that Aaron is not blamed and not punished. It was an event beyond his control.
There is an important insight here. When something good happens like a work of art, we are willing to give full credit to the artist. When something bad happens like a Golden Calf, nobody is to blame. It just happens. How often do we take credit for the good things we do but take no responsibility for the bad things we do? How often do we say, “it just happened?” We were caught up in events beyond our control. Our genes made us do it. Or our upbringing made us do it. We are victims. “The devil made me do it.” It is not a sin but an illness. It just happened.
I often think of a Midrash about the world’s first murderer Cain, who slew his brother Abel. God asks Cain, where is your brother, and Abel answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Midrash compares it to a thief who runs into the night watchman after committing a robbery. The thief says, “I am a thief, I am simply doing my job. But you are a watchman. You should have done a better job guarding these items. You the watchman, not me the thief, are to blame.” In the same way Cain blames God. “You created me. You gave me my evil inclination. God, it is your fault that I killed my brother.” (Midrash Tanhuma)
We live in an age where people avoid blame. Events just happen. But if we are to take credit for the good things we do, we need to accept blame for the bad things we do. If an artist made the menorah, then an artist also made the Golden Calf. Accepting blame is the first step towards true repentance. Aaron was unwilling to accept the blame. He said the Golden Calf just happened. Perhaps if he had accepted responsibility, the Golden Calf would not have become the worst sin of the Israelite’s sojourn through the wilderness.
Aaron to his credit tries to stop these events. The Midrash teaches that the people first turned to Hur to build the calf, and when he refused they put him to death. They then turned to Aaron. Maybe Aaron feared for his life. But taking responsibility is part of maturity. The calf did not simply happen; someone made it happen. Our sins do not simply happen, someone makes them happen.

“The Lord said to Moses, take the herbs of stacte, onycha, and galbanum, these herbs together with pure frankincense, let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred.” (Exodus 30:31-32)
When I hear the word “incense” my memory goes back to my younger days, coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies. When I would visit someone, the rock music was playing – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and the dark lights or perhaps a lava lamp was glowing. And always there was the smell of incense. Incense brings may back to those early days of radical change.
Of course, holy incense is an important part of the Catholic Church ritual and other religious groups. We do not really use it in Judaism, unless you count the pleasant fragrance of spices during Havdalah on Saturday night. But this is usually cloves and cinnamon. We do not use stacte, onycha, and galbanum; in fact, I do not even know what these various items are. But I do know that the holy incense was an important part of the ancient Temple service. Perhaps the fragrance was meant to overcome the smell of the various animal sacrifices which permeated the Temple. In the Bible, there is the image of God actually smelling the incense offerings and finding pleasure in them.
There is a wonderful insight in this strange ritual brought by the commentator Rashi. Galbanum, in Hebrew Chelbanah, has a malodorous smell. Particularly when burnt, it gives off a pungent odor. Our Biblical commentary says that it is a gum resin extracted from a plant that grows in Turkistan, Persia, and Crete. The fascinating question is why something with a foul smell was used in the holy rituals of the ancient Temple.
Rashi comments that we include the galbanum as a reminder that “on your fast days and in your prayers sinners are counted equally with everyone else.” In other words, sinners are welcome into the congregation. This point is made explicitly on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, at the beginning of kol nidre services. “By the authority of the heavenly court and by the authority of the earthly court, with divine consent and the consent of the congregation, we hereby declare that it is permissible to pray with sinners.” Or as I often explain this passage, we are not allowed to begin our Yom Kippur prayers unless some sinners are present. In truth, this has never been a problem.
As a rabbi, I often speak with people who are planning a bar/bat mitzvah, a wedding, or other big family function. There is always someone on the list who they do not want to invite, the uncle who drinks too much, the cousin who makes degrading comments, the brother who is a show off. They will feel guilty if they do not invite these people, but they do not want to. They want to spend the simcha only with people they like, not people who make them uncomfortable. Obviously, nobody should ever feel forced to invite someone who they know will ruin the party for everyone else. But if they are not sure, my advice is to invite everyone. Difficult people belong within the family like everyone else.
What is true for a wedding is true for a synagogue. How often have people said to me, “Rabbi, I do not like synagogue. There are too many hypocrites there.” I want to answer, “Of course there are hypocrites there. They are exactly the people who need the synagogue. To say that only good people are welcome in synagogue is like saying that only healthy people belong in hospitals. Everybody needs synagogues.”
This week, after reading about such details as the incense in the Temple, we will read about the Golden Calf. It was a moment of great sin for the community. But even those who built and worshipped the Golden Calf, including Aaron who built it, were part of the community. The story of the galbanum teaches us to welcome everyone.

“This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4)
The central issue of this portion is the building of a golden calf, a clear act of idolatry. The Israelites are frightened when Moses is delayed on Mt. Sinai (according to the Midrash, they miscalculated when he will return.) They approach Aaron to build them a god they can worship in Moses’ absence. Aaron takes the gold and thrusts it into a fire, and out comes the calf. The people bring offerings and dance before this false god.
Of course, we know what happens. Moses in his fury breaks the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. He grinds the calf to powder and makes the people drink it. The leaders (except Aaron) are punished. But Moses) then defends the people against God’s wrath. Moses says to God, “If You will forgive their sin [well and good], but if not, erase me from the record which You have written.” (Exodus 32:32) In the end, God is a forgiving God.
What was so terrible about building a golden calf? People need symbols. Many faiths have symbols of their god that inspire people when they worship. Most well-known is the Hindu faith, with multiple gods and powerful physical symbols of those gods. But even among Western faiths, Orthodox Christianity has developed powerful icons symbolic of God. After the events in this portion, the people build a portable tabernacle to carry through the desert. Why is a tabernacle permissible and a golden calf not permissible?
The easy answer is that the golden calf violates the second of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:3-5) Every Jewish child learns that it is forbidden to draw a picture of God. Michelangelo’s painting of God creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a powerful image, but no traditional Jew would have ever painted it.
Why are images of God so strongly forbidden in Judaism? In all my years of being a rabbi I never came up with an answer that completely satisfied me. Then I came across a teaching of the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. (I want to thank Rabbi Arthur Green for bringing this teaching in his little book Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas.) According to Heschel, why are we forbidden to create anything on earth and say it is the image of God? Because there is only one thing on the earth that is made in the image of God – human beings. Green quotes Heschel, “To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it – that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.”
We can build on this idea. It would be wrong to see anything in this world as more important than human beings. To worship not just money, but law, art, sports, or even religion is wrong if human beings become secondary. I have seen too many people that make religion into an idol, making the religion itself more important than people. I am not simply talking about terrorists who kill in the name of God. I am talking about anyone who lets their religious faith take priority over real human beings. I think of the people who refuse to talk to their own children for religious reasons because their children have come out of the closet and announced they are gay. I think of people who boycott a family bar or bat mitzvah because they do not like the synagogue where the ceremony is being held. I think of human beings who cut themselves off from other human beings over religion.
What was so awful about the golden calf? It became more important than people. Previously one of the leaders of the Israelites was Hur, who stood besides Aaron when the Israelites battled Amalek. Suddenly Hur disappears from the story. Where did he go? The Midrash teaches that the people approached him about building the calf and he refused. So they people killed him, and then approached Aaron, who felt compelled to build it. (See Sanhedrin 7a). When anything, even a symbol of God, becomes more important than a real person, it is idolatry.
Why are humans forbidden to build an idol? To quote Green, “You can’t make God’s image; you can only be God’s image.”

“This [the gold] he [Aaron] took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4)
There is a principle of Jewish law introduced this week and next week, that can also teach us a powerful spiritual lesson.
This week we read about the building of the golden calf. The Israelites, frightened because Moses has been delayed on the mountain, pressure Aaron into building a golden calf. They declare that the calf will now be their god, who took them out of the land of Egypt. Moses hears about the calf and descends down the mountain, thrusting down the tablets of the Ten Commandments and then destroying the calf. He punishes the people for their actions, but then tries to assuage God’s anger at the people.
How do the Israelites find atonement for a golden calf? Next week there is a special Torah reading called parah, a portion read each year in the weeks leading up to Passover. It speaks about the use of a red heifer, a red calf whose ashes lead to purification. Why a red calf? Rabbinic tradition clearly links the two Torah readings. The people sinned with a golden calf, and so they find atonement with a red calf. The hand that hurts becomes the hand that heals.
This principle became a fundamental part of Jewish tradition. According to the Jewish dietary laws, one must keep separate dishes, utensils, pots, and pans for meat and dairy. What if somewhat made a mistake – cooking a meat soup in a dairy pot? Whatever made the pot unkosher is now used to make the pot kosher. Since food was cooked in the pot, the pot becomes kosher by boiling water until it boils over the top. However, if a pan becomes unkosher through broiling on a flame, then only a flame can make it kosher. (No, we do not bury the silverware nor the pots in the garden to make them kosher.) Again the hand that hurts becomes the hand that heals.
This would become a principle in Jewish law regarding testimony. Suppose a court wants to ascertain whether a person is married or not. There is no evidence one way or the other. If the person says, “I was married at one time, but now I am divorced, they are believed.” The Talmud teaches that hapeh sheasar hu hapeh sheheter – “the mouth that forbids is the mouth that permits.” (Talmud Ketubot 16a) If we believe the person regarding their status as married, then we must believe the person regarding their status as divorced. The same mouth says both.
There is a profound spiritual teaching for modern day people based on this principle. If we go down on wrong path at some point in our lives, whatever caused us to go down that path becomes a part of the healing process. Let me share an example. I know a man who had a severe drinking problem. After struggling with alcoholism for a long time, he finally decided that it was time to turn his life around. He began attending twelve step meetings, staying away from events where alcohol was served, and managed to stay clean for several months. But for complete healing, he needed to put himself through a final test.
Maimonides taught that we have not totally changed our ways until we have the same opportunity to go down the wrong path as before, but this time we choose differently. The man had to go to a social gathering where the alcohol was flowing. He could have given in to temptation and gone down the wrong path. But he resisted, nursing a diet coke all evening. The very alcohol that had hurt him in the past now became proof that he had changed his ways. The hand that hurts is now the hand that heals.
An important part of life is confronting whatever hurt us in the past. It could be alcohol, or a toxic relationship, or poor life choices. Perhaps the very thing that sent us off in the wrong direction can now become the motivation to send us in the right direction. The golden calf that made us impure becomes the red calf that makes us pure. This is a story of healing.
“When the people saw that Moses was so long coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)
Sometimes Judaism is lost in translation. The original Hebrew contains insights that disappear when translated into English. Let me share an example from this week and next week’s portion.
The Hebrew root pronounced k-h-l kahal means “to gather together.” We often use the term kahal to mean “the public”. The Conservative Movement has decided that they will call their synagogues and institutions kehilot (singular kehila) – gatherings of people. If you look at the sign in front of an old synagogue, you often see the Hebrew letters k.k. which stands for kehila kedosha – “a holy community.” At the heart of our tradition is kehila – Jews gathered together for a holy purpose. But just as people gather for a holy purpose, so they sometimes gather for an unholy purpose.
So we turn to this week’s portion which speaks about the sin of the Golden Calf. It begins with a word with the same root – vayikahel – literally “gathered themselves.” One sees the image of a mob gathering themselves to challenge Aaron to build a calf. The Midrash teaches that the reason Aaron built the calf was that he feared for his life in the presence of a mob. It is a gathering, but a gathering for a nefarious purpose. And the verb form is passive; there is no one gathering the people together. They are bringing themselves together, ready to sin against God.
In next week’s portion we have the same verb in a different form – vayakhel. “Moses gathered the whole community of Israel together and said to them …” (Exodus 35:1) Moses first gives instructions on the laws of the Sabbath. He then commands them to build a tabernacle, a portable tent which they will carry through the desert. We have the same verb but an altogether different mood. This time someone causes the people to gather together. They are gathering for a holy purpose. They are organized in a way to do the will of God.
So we have two stories in the Torah, one right after the other. Both use the same verb in different form. The people gather themselves together to build a Golden Calf, creating a false God. Then the people are gathered together to build a holy tabernacle, fulfilling God’s will. The fact that the same verb is used in both examples is no coincidence. People can gather together for nefarious purposes. Or people can gather together for holy purposes.
Whenever I think of a mob gathering themselves, I recall the true story of Reginald Denny. Denny was a truck driver who was caught in the wrong place during the 1992 Los Angeles riots over Rodney King. Denny was beaten nearly to death by four men who dragged him from his truck. He is still suffering from disabilities from the beating. The men who beat him were arrested and tried. Part of their defense was that they were caught up in the moment, swayed by the action of the mob. It was in situations like this that the Torah teaches, “You shall not go after the majority to do wrong.” (Exodus 23:2) It is easy to be swept along by the mob. These are gatherings to be avoided.
On the other hand, there are gatherings where people are brought together for a higher purpose. I will confess – I love the Olympics. And I particularly love the Opening Ceremonies. I watched spellbound last week as the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, Russia. Here were thousands of people gathered together to perform a history of Russia. Someone had to gather them, train them, and rehearse them. And out of all this training came something beautiful. It is a simple example of gathering for a higher purpose.
Our tradition calls upon us to gather for a higher purpose – to work together and perfect this world as a kingdom of God.

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
At the end of the Passover seder is a song loved by children called Echad Mee Yodea – “Who Knows One.” It is a riddle song. Who knows one, who knows two, all the way up to who knows thirteen? The answer to the last verse is that thirteen are the attributes of God. In this week’s portion, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God appears to Moses as a voice saying the words, “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious.” There are thirteen words or phrases in the passage. And each one is another synonym for God’s mercy.
This passage has moved from the Torah into our liturgy. At Selichot prayers (prayers which speak about forgiveness), on each of the festivals, and most prominently, over and over on Yom Kippur, we sing these words. Adonai Adonai El Rahum v’Hanun. “The Lord is a merciful God.” We cry out to God, “have mercy on us and forgive us for our sins.” Mercy is an essential attribute of God. It would be worthwhile to explore the meaning of this quality called “mercy.”
First, the Hebrew word for mercy is rachamim (the adjective is rachum). The term comes from the Hebrew word for womb – rechem. It seems to be a feminine quality. A mother is expected to have particular mercy for the child that she actually carried in her womb. We often see mercy as something feminine, while strict justice is more masculine. (“Wait until daddy gets home!”) But then the book of Psalms surprises us. It considers mercy a masculine trait. “As a father has mercy on his child, the Lord has mercy upon those who fear him.” (Psalms 103:13) The mystics teach that there are male and female aspects of God, but mercy is a fundamental quality of both of them.
But is there a limit to mercy? If a judge is merciful with every defendant who comes before him or her, could society function? Is there not room for justice in the world? Is not punishment, even harsh punishment, sometimes necessary for the safety of society? Last week’s haftarah, chanted on the Shabbat before Purim, is one of the most difficult in the liturgical calendar. Saul shows mercy to the king of the Amalekites, Agag. But by allowing him to survive, he became the progenitor of Haman, the vicious enemy of the Jewish people. Saul loses the kingship for the sin of this act of mercy. If you think this is just an ancient story, I invite you to see the disturbing movie Zero Dark Thirty which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It is about the effort to track down and kill the leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden. Would mercy be the right reaction in this case? The Midrash teaches, “Whoever is kind where he should be cruel in the end will be cruel when he should be kind.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:16)
Life is a balance of justice and mercy. The Midrash teaches that when God made the world, it was like a craftsman making a delicate piece of glass. If he poured hot water on it, it would burst; if he poured cold water on it, it would crack. So he mixed the hot and cold water together. So God when creating the world mixed justice with mercy. (Genesis Rabbah 12:15) There must be a balance. So it is with life. There must be a balance of justice and mercy. Or perhaps better, there must be justice tempered with mercy.
What does this mean for us in our day to day lives? There is room for justice in the world. But we pray constantly on the High Holidays that God will move from the Throne of Justice to the Throne of Mercy. So we need to move in our relationships from justice to mercy. We cannot pray for God to forgive us until we are willing to forgive one another. We cannot expect God to allow us our shortcomings until we are ready to allow for the shortcomings of others. Or perhaps the best way to put it; we live in a world where other people may cause us pain. We can be bitter and demand justice. Or we can be compassionate and show mercy to others. As God is merciful, so we need to be merciful.


“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight – twenty gerahs to the shekel – a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord.”
(Exodus 30:13)
For two weeks we have been reading about the details of a portable sanctuary to be carried through the wilderness. This sanctuary became the model for the great Temple in Jerusalem. And the Temple became the model for our local community synagogues. This week’s portion begins with a half-shekel tax placed on every Israelite household to support the sanctuary.
The half-shekel tax was considered so important by our sages that we read it twice. We read it this week as part of our weekly Torah reading. Then we read it on a special Shabbat called parshat shekelim. (This year it falls in two more weeks.) The purpose of this portion is to answer a difficult question: how do we support our religious institutions? Even in the wilderness there was a concern with bringing in enough money to support the sanctuary and its cult. Today, the question remains. How do we bring in enough money to run synagogues and other Jewish institutions?
The churches have been very successful at teaching their members to tithe (pledge 10% of their income.) Of course churches can also pass the basket at Sunday services. Jewish law forbids the handling of money on the Jewish Sabbath and major festivals. Many countries, particularly in Europe, use government money to support established churches. In Israel, the government pays for synagogues and rabbis in every neighborhood. Those synagogues and rabbis are Orthodox, the only branch of Judaism officially recognized in Israel. Non-Orthodox synagogues are on their own, and must use dues and donations to survive.
What about America? Here we have a long established tradition of separation of religion and state. It is forbidden for the government to establish any religious institutions. (Even that is not absolute in America; the law allows religious institutions to be released from property and other taxes.) But synagogues like churches in America depend on the largess of their members and the community at large to pay their bills.
For the last fifty years or more, there was a business model to support synagogues that seemed to work. Families who wanted their youngsters to have a bar/bat mitzvah joined synagogues, paid dues, religious school fees, and building funds. After the bar/bat mitzvah years, some left. But many stayed on and continued to pay dues. They wanted a place to worship on the High Holidays, a rabbi available for life cycle needs, and they simply believed that synagogues needed support. My parents were always members of a synagogue from when my brothers and I were young until my parents became too frail to continue to belong. And when a synagogue fell short of funds for their operating budget, there was always an angel or two in the business community who could write the big check.
Life is changing today. It is no longer necessary to join a synagogue to provide a bar/bat mitzvah for one’s youngster. There are Chabad Houses in every neighborhood that will do it for a minimal financial commitment, (as long as the child meets the strict Chabad standard of Who is a Jew.) Free-lance rabbis and cantors are available to train youngsters, some of them not really rabbis or cantors. Here in Florida every condo community runs its own High Holiday services. And if one has any spiritual need, there are rabbis available for a fee. The business model that sustained synagogues for half a century is slowly unraveling.
How do we sustain the religious institutions vital for our community and for the future of our faith? When I meet with colleagues, we often talk about the need for a new business model. None of us know exactly what such a model will look like although there are some very creative synagogues around the country that are experimenting. But perhaps the time has come to put our greatest business minds to work on the question: how do we sustain our religious institutions into future?



“Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him.” (Exodus 34:30)

It is a story I have heard numerous times over the years. One of my members meets someone from a small town or out-of-the-way community. It may be in a college dorm or military base, or even a business meeting. This person learns that he or she is speaking to someone Jewish. And then the question is asked, “How come you don’t have horns? I thought all Jews have horns.”
How could such a preposterous idea even be considered? Actually, it is not so preposterous. One of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, commissioned in 1505, depicts Moses with horns. But the original idea comes from this week’s Torah reading. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai after his forty day and night encounter with God. His face is radiant, so much so that the people shy away from looking at him. Moses must make a mask to cover his face.
The Torah actually describes rays of light coming from Moses’ face. But the Hebrew word for ray, keren, is also the Hebrew word for horn. One could easily mistranslate the verse that Moses came down the mountains with horns on his head. Some people, particular defenders of Michelangelo, say that horns were actually a symbol of authority. But of course, eventually the idea that Jews have horns became a nasty anti-Semitic canard.
Perhaps there are insights from this image of Moses coming down the mountain. Moses had spent time in God’s presence. Did Moses see God face-to-face? The Torah is inconsistent. This week’s portion has God saying, “You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) But later in Deuteronomy the Torah teaches, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out face-to-face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) Obviously God does not have a real face. But God does have a presence, and Moses stood in that presence. Being in the presence of God transformed him, and that transformation become noticeable when Moses walked down the mountain.
Other faiths also speak of an almost physical transformation after being in the presence of God. Buddhism is not a theistic religion, and yet it describes a similar story about the Buddha. I used this story in the introduction to my book The Kabbalah of Love: Once in a far off land there lived a great spiritual teach¬er with a huge following of students and disciples. As the years went by his following grew and he became extremely popular. People came from all over to visit him and learn at his feet.
One day a reporter came to write a story about this spiritual teacher. She asked, “Tell me, do think you are God?”
The spiritual teacher answered, “No, I am not God.”
“Do you think you are an angel?”
“No, I am not an angel.”
“Do you think you are a prophet?”
“No, I am not a prophet.”
“Do you think you are a saint?”
“No, I am not a saint.”
The reporter looked at him with great skepticism. “If you are not God, nor an angel, nor a prophet, nor a saint, tell me, what are you?”
The spiritual teacher answered with great simplicity. “That is simple. I am awake.”
Being in the presence of God ought to be a transforming experience. The German Romantic poet Novalis once called the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza “a God intoxicated man.” If Spinoza, excommunicated by the Jews of Amsterdam was God intoxicated, how much more so those Jews who practice the faith. Jews may not have literal horns. But living in God’s presence ought to make us give off a light. After all, the prophet Isaiah teaches that the Jews should be “a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6)



“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)

Why would the people, after seeing God’s miracles, gather together to make a Golden Calf? Were they so lacking in faith? The incident of the Golden Calf must reflect some deep inner human need.
The people made the Golden Calf when Moses delayed coming down off Mount Sinai. Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights, receiving instructions on the building of a tabernacle. According to Rashi’s commentary, the people miscalculated the date he was to return, expecting him a day earlier than he had promised. The people waited, I imagine on shpelkes (“nervously and anxiously”) to quote an old Yiddish term. When Moses did not show up, they could not wait any longer. They had to do something. So they sinned with the Golden Calf.
Perhaps this shows a deep human need. There is a limit to how long people can sit around doing nothing. Moses was preparing a wonderful project, the building of a tabernacle. When Moses did not return as expected, the people began a terrible project, the building of a Golden Calf. The Jerusalem Talmud makes an appropriate comment: “What a peculiar people. When asked to build the tabernacle, they gave generously. When asked to build an idol, they gave generously.” (JT Shek. 1:1) The people needed to take action, and when appropriate action was not available they took inappropriate action. When people have no legitimate work to do, too often they find illegitimate work.
This idea rings true today as it did when we were encamped at Mt. Sinai over three thousand years ago. Over the past months I have met more and more people who are unable to earn a living. They have lost their jobs or been forced to close their business during this economic crunch. Or else they have endured cutbacks, salary cuts, and limitations on hours. I have met young people that are unable to break into the job market because there are no jobs, and because more and more people keep working well beyond retirement age. We live in scary times.
People need to get up each day and go to work. They need to work not only for financial reasons. They need to work because human dignity is based on doing something valuable each day. How often have I met people here in Florida who decide to retire and give up their jobs. Many only last a short while before going back into the workplace. Others immerse themselves in volunteer activities, classes, or special projects. Very few people are satisfied simply staying home and doing nothing. As humans we need to work. I understand how the Israelites grew restless after sitting around doing nothing for forty days.
One of the sad realities of these hard economic times is the growth of depression and the lowering of self-esteem amongst people who are unemployed. One of the classic signs of depression is an inability to get up each day and do something. But what comes first? Do people not get up and do because they are depressed? Or do people who have nothing to do, no job and no activities, find themselves sinking into depression? How do men of my generation, taught that being a man means being a good provider, cope with the inability to earn a living? And how do women in this egalitarian age, often the sole providers of their children, possibly manage? The pain is out there.
As a rabbi, I wonder how I can help people enter the workforce. Can I play matchmaker between those seeing employment and those seeking workers? Could the synagogue actually run some kind of job fair, or at least a support group for those seeking employment? Perhaps these are some the ideas that are worthy of exploration.



“So Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him.” (Exodus 34:29)

If you have seen the famous statue by Michelangelo of Moses, you will notice the two horns that come out of his head. This is the basis for the nuttiness still believed by some that Jews have horns. Actually the term “horns” is based on a mistranslation by the early church father Jerome. The Torah actually states that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after being in the presence of God forty days and forty nights, his face was radiant with beams of light. Moses actually had to wear a mask to speak with the people.
Being in the presence of God made Moses face shine. But did Moses actually speak to God face to face? This portion certainly says that he did. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” (Exodus 33:11) And yet there is a contradiction. Later in the portion Moses asks to see God’s very essence. And God has Moses hide in a crack in the rock, so he could see God’s back. He tells him, “You cannot see My face, for man may not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) How can we explain this clear contradiction? Moses was in the presence of God, as much as any human being can be in God’s presence. But God has no body; one cannot literally see God face to face. But there are moments when we humans can feel an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.
Can people today relive that experience of being in the presence of God? We live in far more skeptical times. When someone says that they felt in the presence of God, we tend to look at them askance. Even religious believers can be skeptics about those who claim direct religious experience. And yet I believe even today standing in the presence of God is possible.
The most obvious place to feel God’s presence is during religious worship. I recently listened to a talk given by Rabbi Brad Artson, head of the Rabbinic program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Rabbinical students were asking about prayer. How should we modify our religious services to make them more “user friendly?” More English? Less English? Instrumental music? New tunes? Changing the format? Changing the length? More explanations? Artson replied that in all the debates about worship services, we have lost track of what is truly important. Prayer is about standing in the presence of God.
I do my best to pray three times a day. Do I feel like I am standing in the presence of God? Occasionally. I feel closest to God when there is a crowd and everybody is singing, when the words are ancient, when some brilliant insight comes jumping out at me from the Torah. I feel closest to God at select moments – particularly Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur after a twenty-four hour fast, when the ark is open throughout the service. Prayer is a discipline that sometimes leads to those Godly moments. But those moments make daily prayer worthwhile.
Some people feel in the presence of God in nature. I have stood in awe on the rim of the Grand Canyon or watching the sun rise over the Dead Sea from the top of Massada. I have felt it in the mountains and on the beach. (In Florida there are plenty of beaches, but I need an annual trip to the mountains for my sanity.) Nature can be an awesome place to find God. But nature is also fickle. It can be ugly and cruel. The same God who made the majestic mountains made the mosquito infested swamps. The Torah teaches that God made nature, but God is not within nature.
I have found God in the study of sacred texts. In Judaism study is the door to holiness. Moses went up onto the mountain for forty days and nights of learning, and only then did his face shine. I love my weekly Bible study class in Coral Springs. For some people, being in the presence of God’s word is as close as they can come to being in the presence of God.
Prayer, nature, study are all paths to the presence of God. But there is one path that is the greatest of them all. To be in the presence of another human being, in the full relationship of the moment, is a glimpse through to God. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber spoke about moments of I-Thou relationship with the other. “Each thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.” Perhaps moments of at-on-ness with other human beings are the surest way to be in God’s presence. If we are lucky, we can walk away from such moments with light shining from our faces.



“And the Lord said to Moses, Take to you sweet spices, storax, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight.” (Exodus 30:34)

Now and again I run into someone who tells me, “Rabbi, I never set foot in a synagogue. I find it to be full of hypocrites and sinners.” My answer is, “Of course the synagogue is full of hypocrites and sinners; if only good people went to synagogue it would be sad. It would be like only healthy people going to the hospital. We need places of worship not only for good people, but for difficult people. Maybe the synagogue will make them good.”
On Yom Kippur evening we begin our prayers with a line that “we are permitted to pray with sinners.” This probably goes back to the days when many Jews converted to other faiths, but would wonder back into synagogue on the holiest day of the year. When I comment on this prayer, I often say, “We are not allowed to begin our Yom Kippur prayers unless there are some sinners present here. Thank God this is not a problem in our synagogue.” As I look out at my congregation, I see wonderfully saintly people. And I also see very difficult people. All are part of the congregation.
This idea is made explicit in this week’s portion. It speaks of making of the holy incense, the various spices which were combined and burned on the altar in the ancient Temple. Among the spices mentioned ishelbana, usually translated galbanum. This spice is known for its foul odor. The great commentator Rashi makes the comment, “Scripture includes this among the spices of the incense to teach us not to be afraid to allow sinners of Israel to join the community in prayers.” Human beings who are difficult, who take the wrong path, who are hard to get along with, are still human beings. They are as worthy as anybody else.
I recently spoke to a man who has had no contact with his son for many years. I asked him why, and he told me, “My son is very difficult. My life is easier if I have nothing to do with him.” I could only answer, “How sad!” Most of us cannot totally cut ourselves off from difficult people. They may be family members, co-workers, or members of the community. Just as the galbanum was included among the spices, we need to include them in our lives.
How do we deal with difficult people? People say to me, “How can I invite my brother to my son’s bar mitzvah – he will ruin it for me.” The first answer is “be courteous.” Courtesy and good manners are the lubricant that allows society to function. Being nice to people we do not like may sound hypocritical, but it is vital if we are to live in a civilized world.
The second answer for dealing with difficult people is to listen to what they have to say. I have had someone call me for an appointment and know that they intend to yell or express anger. I dread the appointment. When they come in, I sit back, let them have their say, and listen. I may agree or disagree with their point. But when they leave, I want them to say in their heart, “At least the rabbi listened to me.”
I have discovered a third answer to people who are truly difficult, people who find joy in making the lives of other people miserable. My answer is to pray for them. Prayer allows us to recognize their humanity and see the real person. And who knows, sometimes God does hear prayers. Sometimes people really do change their ways. We are all spiritual beings created in the image of God. And sometimes we can connect with a person in spiritual way even when we are not physically present.
Finally, when confronted with difficult people, it is important to look for the good in them. In ancient Israel a court of twenty-three rabbis could not find a person guilty of a capital crime unless at least one rabbi was willing to argue the person’s good points. Everybody has some redeeming quality. Who knows, maybe that redeeming quality is the reason God put them in the world.



“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)

Last night I was teaching the teens in my synagogue who participate in my Torah Corps. One of them said to me in his usual provocative way, “Rabbi, if we could only get rid of religion, there would be no more conflict in the world.” I replied, “Even people who share the same religion are full of conflict.” I continued, “If only we could get rid of people, there would be no more conflict in the world.”
Of course I was speaking tongue-in-cheek; I hope the young people caught my humor. But I was trying to teach these young people a deep truth. Conflict is part of human nature. We are born to disagree, and often to fight with one another. Religion at its worst can add fuel to fire and increase the conflicts in the world. Religion at its best can be a source of peace between human beings. That is why we need religious people who are peacemakers.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) And Judaism sees Aaron the brother of Moses as the ideal peacemaker. The great sage Hillel taught, “Be like the students of Aaron, making peace and pursuing peace.” (Avot 1:12) According to an ancient Rabbinic tradition, Aaron spent much of his time preventing conflicts and seeking reconciliation. When two people were angry with one another, he would go to the tent of one and say that the other wants forgiveness. Then he would go to the tent of the second and say the same thing. He particularly practiced such reconciliation between husbands and wives. Perhaps that is the reason that the people mourned the death of Aaron even more than his brother Moses.
Aaron’s personality as the ultimate peacemaker explains a difficult problem in this week’s passage. Why did Aaron make a Golden Calf? But more serious, why did God not punish Aaron for this transgression? Some commentators say that Aaron was forced on the threat of death to make it, and therefore he did not act of his free will. However, I prefer an alternate explanation. I believe that God knew Aaron’s gift as a peacemaker. Perhaps in this case Aaron went too far. But the role of making peace is so important that God was willing to overlook this transgression.
A number of years ago, after trying to counsel both sides in a particularly ugly divorce, I decided to try to sharpen my own skills as a peacemaker. I took a five day intensive course in mediation, particularly family mediation. In mediation a neutral party, usually an attorney but sometimes a psychologist or even a clergyperson, tries to facilitate an agreement between two parties. The mediator is not an arbitrator; he or she has no right to force an agreement on the parties.
The role of the mediator is to help the parties speak to one another and come to their own agreement. A good mediator will begin with a search for ideas that both sides can agree to. For example, in divorce mediation, perhaps both sides will at least agree that a child deserves both a mother and a father in his or her life. If they cannot agree in that simple statement, we are in deep trouble.
In my pursuit of mediation training, I looked once again to the Biblical Aaron as a role model. According to a rabbinic tradition, Aaron raised a question about the biblical verse “Justice justice shall you pursue” (Deuterono¬my 16:20). Why the double usage of the word “justice?” One is pure justice, which is decided by a judge through litigation. The other is mediation, finding a fair middle ground that both sides can agree on. (Sanhedrin 32b.) In a divorce, the second type of justice seems far closer to God’s ideal.
Any peacemaker will occasionally make a mistake. Certainly Aaron did with the Golden Calf. But peacemakers at their best are truly God’s agents in perfecting this world. Perhaps we can look forward to that day when religion becomes a source not of conflict but of peace. For after all, Shalom – peace is one of the names of God.



“So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since He had spoken to him.” (Exodus 34:29)

I was flipping through a catalog of spiritual audio tapes when I saw a series of tapes by Jack Kornfield with an intriguing title – After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. The title succinctly summarizes the issue of our many spiritual quests. When we are finished with our spiritual experiences, we must reenter the world. We can confront God, have a mystical experience, enjoy rapture, but than there is laundry to be done, bills to be paid, children to be raised. How to we go from the spiritual heights to mundane reality?
At the end of this week’s portion, Moses finally came down the mountain after forty days and nights of communing with God. According to the Torah, Moses neither ate nor drank during that period. He was in a world beyond physical needs. Then he came down the mountain and rays of light shone from his face. (The Hebrew for a ray of light is keren, which can also be translated “horn.” Based on this misreading of the verse, Michelangelo placed a horn on his statue of Moses. Some ignorant people still think all Jews have horns. If only they thought all Jews give off God’s light.)
The light that came from Moses face was overwhelming, and Moses was forced to wear a mask when he held day to day conversations with people. The image is powerful. Here was a man who had such a life transforming religious experience that he literally gave off a light when he dealt with people. Those who met Moses after this experience knew that they were in the presence of a holy man.
What is the lesson for today? We live in a time of spiritual seeking. People try to find intense spiritual experiences. They may find them in prayer, in the classical worship of the synagogue, church, or mosque. They may find such spiritual power in meditation, yoga, or other sacred rituals and disciplines. Jews have traditionally found such a moving spiritual experience in the study of sacred texts. Some have found such moments in the simple rituals of the home such as a lighting Sabbath candles and eating a family dinner or participating in a Passover seder. And some have found such experiences in pilgrimages to sacred places – Jews to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Moslems on the Hajj to Mecca, Catholics to the Vatican or to sacred shrines, Buddhists to visit learned teachers among the monasteries of the Himalayas.
Some spiritual traditions seek to leave this world altogether, enter nirvana or some higher spiritual plane. Part of the wisdom of my own tradition is that spiritual highs are never permanent. We seek God on the mountain, and then like Moses, we must come down again. We must reenter the world, hopefully inspired and recharged. We must do laundry again, and more important, we must interact with people on a day to day basis. Does our spiritual experience make us give off light?
Last week I wrote about Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Is the movie good or bad? What I wrote is that for many people, the movie is an intense spiritual experience. My question is, when they walk out of the movie, are they better people? Do they give off light?
I can ask the same question of people who come to our worship services. Do they walk out spiritually charged, more compassionate, more sensitive, more accepting, ready to reenter the world and perfect it? Do they see the image of God in the people they meet, and are they ready to love a little more and criticize a little less? Do they carry God’s light into the world as Moses carried it off the mountain? If so, then our spiritual experiences are worthy? If not, why not?
In this age of spiritual seeking, our ultimate goal is not to escape the world, but rather to see the world with the eyes of God. We first touch the face of God, and then reenter this world to bring God’s light.



“Moses saw that the people were out of control – since Aaron had let them get out of control – so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.”
(Exodus 32:25)

Aaron was a great man. He was Moses’ older brother, the spokesman before Pharaoh, the first High Priest, the man responsible for the rituals in the ancient tabernacle. How could such a man make a Golden Calf?
Aaron=s greatest strength also became his greatest weakness. Aaron was a peacemaker. The Talmud calls Aaron a man who loved peace and pursued peace. (Avot 1:12) Later Midrashim see Aaron as the great mediator, trying to end conflicts between husbands and wives or between friends. He would speak to one party in a conflict, telling how bad the other party felt and how he or she wanted to apologize. Then he would do the same to the other party. He earned his reputation as a peacemaker.
Moses on the other hand, had a very different personality. He was a man of laws and rules, with little patience for those who would bend the laws. He used to say, “Let the law pierce the mountain.” He did not care whether people loved him or not. What was important was that people live according to God’s laws of right and wrong. Moses was not afraid to take a stand or make people uncomfortable. He was not afraid to display anger.
It is fascinating to compare the Torah’s description of the deaths of Aaron and of Moses. The people truly mourned Aaron, their beloved peacemaker. They seemed far less saddened by the death of Moses, despite his greatness as a law giver. People love a peacemaker.
Moses was delayed coming down from Mount Sinai. The people, fearing he was dead, demanded a Golden Calf as their symbolic leader. Aaron the peace maker tried to stop them. But in the end Aaron did not want trouble. He acquiesced to the people=s demand and personally built the Golden Calf. What is surprising is that Aaron was never punished for his actions. It is almost as if God understood that this was Aaron=s personality, and he was only following his own inner drives. Aaron represented the leader willing to pursue peace, whatever the price. But in this case the price was too high.
Peace is certainly the ideal. Three times a day we Jews say a prayer for peace in our Amida, the central prayer of our liturgy. We end our mourners kaddish with the words, “May the One Who makes peace in the heavens make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say Amen.” The Torah teaches that “when you approach a town to attack it, first offer it terms of peace.” (Deuteronomy 20:10) Peace is the ideal and the dream; war and conflict are a last resort.
Yet perhaps we can learn from Aaron that peace is not necessarily the right course to pursue in every situation. Sometimes by pursuing peace we allow injustice, or even evil to flourish. Sometimes by pursuing peace we tolerate that which ought to be intolerable. That is the reason why the great prophet Jeremiah taught “Peace, peace, but there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14) There are times when the world needs not a mediator or a reconciler, but someone willing to take a stand.
Today our nation is at the brink of war. Our president has called for military action against Iraq if it does not cease and desist from the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Should Iraq be attacked, there is a good chance that she will strike out at Israel. Having said that, if Iraq is not stopped there is a good chance she will develop weapons that will be a much greater threat to Israel in the future. Meanwhile, around the world hundreds of thousands of people, including many Jewish groups, are marching for peace and against any preemptive attack against Iraq.
I pray that there is not a war, but I am not hopeful. I have mixed feelings about attacking Iraq, but I do believe the president is making a powerful case. Sometimes, even if you love peace, you have to take a stand against evil. Aaron=s refusal to stand up for what is right led to the Golden Calf. Our refusal to take a strong stand for what is right can lead to consequences far more deadly.



“Then he (Aaron) took it from them and cast it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they proclaimed, This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
(Exodus 32:4)

As a rabbi, how do I make religious decisions for my congregation? Allow me to share a passage based on this week=s portion from my book God, Love, Sex, and Family.
I have found great wisdom in my favorite talmudic passage about religious leadership. It compares the personalities of Moses and Aaron, the only two brothers in the Torah who got along with one another:
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)
Moses, the younger brother, was a man who loved the law; he spent forty days on the mountain studying with God Himself, neither eating nor drinking. Yet in his passion for the law, he often had little patience for the weaknesses of the human beings whom he served. Much of the book of Numbers shows him as an angry and frustrated man; his anger eventually prevented him from entering the Holy Land.
In one poignant moment in the Torah, Moses rebuked his brother Aaron for a mistake regarding the sin offering. (See Leviticus 10:16-20) At that moment Aaron was still in mourning for two of his sons. But Moses only cared that Aaron had broken one of God’s laws. Aaron responded to his younger brother, after such a tragedy, does God care about the details of the sin offering. Moses could only be silent. He was a law person, not a people person.
Aaron, the older brother, loved people. He was a compromiser and a peace maker. He loved the public role of High Priest, finding atonement for the people’s sins. Rabbinic lore says that he would go from home to home mediating disputes. Often he would tell an estranged wife “your husband wants you to forgive him”, and then tell the estranged husband “your wife wants you to forgive her.”
Despite these beautiful qualities, Aaron’s passion for peace sometimes made him lose sight of God’s law. He was willing to build a golden calf and lead the people in its worship as God. (See Exodus 32:1-6) He lacked the leadership to say, “no, this is wrong!” He was a people person, not a law person.
Both Moses and Aaron were spiritual leaders; both were role models for me as a rabbi. Moses represents the God of law, the keeper of standards, the attribute of justice. Some would call this the masculine persona of God. Aaron represents the God of love, the lover of compassion, the attribute of mercy. Some would call this the feminine persona of God. Authentic religious leader¬ship means finding a balance between the two brothers, between the two attributes of God.
There is a tightrope to walk between Moses and Aaron, between the God of law and the God of love, between the establishment of standards and the teacher of compassion. If I tip too far towards Moses I risk the danger of becoming judgmental and intolerant, an authority figure rather than a pastor to the afflicted. If I tip too far towards Aaron I risk the danger of becoming anarchis¬tic and inauthentic, a therapist rather than a guardian of religious tradition. By setting standards and at the same time recognizing the needs of real individuals who fall short of those standards, I can be an authentic religious voice.
It is precisely this balance that the rabbinic midrash defines as the religious ideal:
`The Lord God made earth and heaven’ (Genesis 2:4). A parable of a king who had cups made of delicate glass. The king said: If I pour hot water into them, they will [expand and] burst; if cold water, they will contract [and break]. What did he do? He mixed hot and cold water, and poured it into them, and so they remained unbroken. Likewise, the Holy One said: If I create the world with the attribute of mercy alone, its sins will be too many; if with justice alone, how could the world be expected to endure? So I will create it with both justice and mercy, and may it endure. (Genesis Rabbah 12:15)



“Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, whoever is for the Lord come here. And all the Levites rallied to him.” (Exodus 32:25)

How old was Aaron when he built the Golden Calf? Probably slightly more than eighty three years old. At every age we have the potential to do wrong.
How old should someone be before they are fully responsible for their misdeeds? In my own community, Lionel Tate has made national news after receiving a life sentence with no possibility of parole for a vicious murder of a young child. Lionel is fourteen years old.
In San Diego a fifteen year old boy is going on trial as an adult for the school shooting deaths of two of his classmates and the wounding of several others. A nephew of the Kennedy’s, now an adult, is on trial in Connecticut for a murder he allegedly committed as a young teenager. At what point are teens considered adults and expected to take full responsibility for their actions, including a lifetime in an adult jail?
Certainly in Jewish tradition, the age of responsibility is thirteen for boys. In an Orthodox synagogue, a father recites the words “Blessed is He who freed me from punishment for this one’s sins.” A girl becomes responsible even younger, at twelve. But does that make a twelve or thirteen year old fully an adult, bearing the full responsibility for everything they do?
When Moses destroyed the Golden Calf, he called everyone opposed to this idol over to his side. The tribe of Levi came over. As a reward, they were given responsibility for carrying the tabernacle through the desert and assisting the priests at worship services. Later, we learn that a Levi was not allowed to begin his training for these responsibilities until he was twenty five years old. He did not actually start his work in the tabernacle until he was thirty years old. (see Rashi on Numbers 8:24.) Thirteen and even eighteen were too young for work in the tabernacle. Different levels of responsibility come at different ages.
Our secular law recognizes that different levels of responsibility and different consequences come at different ages. In most states, youngsters cannot drive until they are sixteen years old. They cannot vote, marry, or sign legal documents until they are eighteen years old. They cannot drink or gamble until they are twenty one years old. I see many young people in their mid-twenties or even early thirties before they truly start acting like adults. Fourteen and fifteen year olds are too young to be held to adult levels of responsibility.
Being an adult does not happen instantaneously. It is a long, slow process that begins with breaking away from parents and seeking one’s own identity. Anyone who works with teens knows that they often act in immature ways, heedless of the consequences of their actions. Too many of them experiment with drugs or heavy drinking, irresponsible sexual behavior, aggressive driving, running away from home, unhealthy eating disorders, gangs and criminal activity, and sadly, sometimes suicide attempts and too often, violence. Too many teens have still not learned to control their appetites.
The rabbis teach that the evil inclination acts within a human being from birth onwards. The good inclination is there in potential, but does not become fully activated until the age of majority. For young people, too often they do not learn maturity and self-control until well into adulthood.
Does that mean that there should be no consequences for teenage criminal activity? Of course not. The teenager who causes harm, whether by irresponsible driving or by shooting in a school, must pay the consequences of his or her actions. But life imprisonment for a fourteen year old, however heinous the crime, is unduly harsh. Certainly a lesser punishment can be conceived that would be significantly punitive and still give hope that someday this life can be redeemed.
Meanwhile, as we ponder how to handle teen violence, let us all take responsibility to help guide our teens in one of life=s most important lessons, self-discipline and self-control.



“Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:23)

What do we know about God? Moses, our greatest prophet, wanted to see God face to face, as a man sees his fellow. He asked for this favor from God – and God turned down his request. “Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.” (Exodus 33:21-22) The passage continues that Moses would only see God’s back, not God’s face. According to Maimonides, all Moses could see was God’s attributes, His actions, how God behaves in the universe. The essence of God is unknowable to us mortals, including even Moses.
When we speak of God, we can only use metaphors to give a human understanding to this unknowable essence. When we say Our Father, Our King in our High Holiday prayers, we are merely stating that God acts towards us as a father towards his child or as a benevolent king towards his subjects. Ultimately, we must resort to metaphors because the human mind is limited in its understanding. We cannot know the essence of God.
There is a famous Midrash that at the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites saw God as a warrior fighting in battle. Seven weeks later at the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites saw God as an elderly man filled with mercy. (Mechilta on Exodus 20:2) Could both be the same God? God does not change, but our perception of God changes at different times.
When we are growing up and preparing to leave home, as we search for our own identity, we see God as our Parent.
When we learn right from wrong, and the self-discipline to succeed in this world, we see God as our Teacher.
When we search for a spouse and a companion to share our life within a lonely world, when we search for love, we see God as our Lover.
When we go out into the work world to earn what we need to care for ourself and our family, we see God as our Provider.
When we deal with our physical body and try to find a way to stay healthy, we see God as our Creator.
When we confront adversity and find ourselves walking “through the shadow of death,” we see God as our Shepherd.
When we realize that there is a spiritual dimension to life and we try to relate to the ultimate reality, we see God as our Dwelling Place.
When we move beyond ourselves and seek out a community, working with others to improve their lives, we see God as our Helper.
When we find ourselves on the wrong path, feel guilt, and seek a way to find atonement and return, we see God as our Judge.
When we confront our own mortality, but realize that a new generation will have to carry on our sacred tasks of perfecting the world, we see God as our Redeemer.
(Note – These ten metaphors will be at the core of my new book, entitled The Ten Journeys of Life.)