Weekly Torah Commentary – Pekudei March 11, 2016

As the book of Exodus draws to a close, a cloud envelops and fills the newly completed Tabernacle.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.  Moses was not able to enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.  Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tabernacle, the children of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the Lord was on the Tabernacle day by day and there was fire on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.  Exodus 40:34-38

We may not have noticed but the cloud has been a major element throughout the book of Exodus.

cloud

When the Israelites first left Egypt, the cloud accompanied them:

The Lord went before them by day with a pillar of cloud, to guide them along the way. By night it appeared as a pillar of fire, providing them with light. They could thus travel day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire at night from before the people.  Exodus 13:21-22

From the day they left Egypt, like a brooding mother, the cloud protected them. It separated their encampment from that of the Egyptians, it led them through the sea and at the appropriate time, God Himself descended on Mt. Sinai ‘in a cloud’ which the people could see.

God said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that all the people will hear when I speak to you. They will then believe in you forever.’ Exodus 19:9

When God called Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai, he had to make his way through that cloud:

Then Moses went up the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord rested on Mt. Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.  And to the eyes of the sons of Israel, the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain.  Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. Exodus 24:15-18

These verses bear a striking resemblance to the verses quoted above describing the completion of the Tabernacle. The key concept in both is the ‘cloud’.

Think back to the incident of the golden calf. The people became impatient and confused; they felt abandoned due to Moses’ lengthy stay on top of the mountain. While that is understandable in the natural, the sin of the golden calf was the fruit of their lack of appreciation for God’s Presence in the midst in the form of the cloud. Because they turned a blind eye toward the ever-present manifestation of God, taking the ‘cloud’ for granted, they fell into sin.

Herein lies a key that applies to every person in every generation.

Though we may not see with our physical eyes, the ‘cloud’ of God’s presence with us by day and by night, the truth is that He is just as present today as He was then for He is the same – yesterday, today and forever.

Holy men and women throughout the centuries have taught the importance of living each day mindful of God’s presence with us.  That consciousness serves to protect us just as much as the cloud in the desert protected the Israelites.  When we do not take the ‘cloud’ for granted, as they did, we recognize more quickly the danger of entertaining temptation to do wrong and choose instead the ways of righteousness more readily.

In simple terms, cultivating the awareness of God’s presence with us at all times is a deterrent towards falling into sin, like a child who chooses to behave properly in his father’s presence while in the father’s absence may be more likely to transgress his parents’ instructions.

In Tune with Torah this week = look back over the past week and consider: how often have I been aware of God’s presence with me?  Are there times when I acted or spoke in ways that would not meet with the Lord’s approval?  If I had stopped then to consider His presence with me, would I have spoken or acted differently?   Let us be like David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, who declared:

I have set the Lord continually before me. Psalm 16:8
Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Re-eh August 14, 2015

Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

Choice is the unique gift of God to mankind; the Bible speaks of choice in terms such as blessings and curses, or life and death. Doesn’t it seem curious that we have consistently needed to be urged to choose life? What should be a ‘no brainer’ isn’t! Why would any sane person choose a path that leads to death over the blessed path of life? Yet since the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit has seemed the more attractive choice.

The alternative tree in the Garden should probably be called the Tree of Death though we have used the more acceptable description, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is thought of as an ‘option’ to the Tree of Life while in fact it is its utter opposite. It is the tree that represented a confusion of good and evil, a tree whose fruit distanced us from the source of Life itself while pretending to be the source of deep spirituality. This tree and its fruit forever represents the choices that lead to death: of experience without understanding and knowledge without godly wisdom.

This choice has not changed much since the days of Adam and Eve. In our generation, computer technology and the internet give us access to a staggering amount of information but good and evil are often blurred and confused.

How much of the information at our fingertips is reliable? How do we protect our children from randomly accepting as truth whatever they read on the internet? As intelligent adults, how are we doing at discerning good from evil in the midst of the barrage of words and images we are constantly fed?

And interestingly, isn’t it curious that one of the most successful computer companies in the world has as its logo a piece of fruit with a bite missing? Did its founder intend that as a message, a warning? Or is it just a coincidence?

Technology is not evil in itself; in fact, modern technology has brought many benefits to mankind in various fields such as medicine. However, it is the confusion of good and evil, the distortion of Truth and Godliness that must be recognized and avoided. Yet the fruit of the tree of death continues to entice and attract our imagination. Why? Are we hard-wired to self-destruct? Is the urge to experience the fruit of the ‘tree of death’ a stubborn desire for what we cannot have?

The prophet Daniel told us that in the end of days knowledge would increase. No generation before the present one has had such a tsunami of information overwhelm it. And it is precisely because of that, that we need all the more to be a discerning people, able to distinguish good from evil, truth from falsehood, particularly within the realm of biblical and moral thought and values. All of our modern sophistication has not made us immune to confusion; in fact, the opposite is true.

Now more than ever, we need a healthy dose of the fruit of the Tree of Life – of clear morals and righteous values that accurately interpret the enormity of information that defines modern life. Moral choices seem less cut-and-dried than those faced by previous generations. ‘Shades of grey’ seem to have obliterated the black-and-white of yesterday.

The message of this week’s Torah portion is that in every generation complex issues come down to one basic question: Which choice will lead me closer to the Source of true spiritual life?

The Word of God, symbolized by the Tree of Life, is THE source of unchangeable spiritual and moral guidelines. Evil clothes itself in deception, luring the soul with empty promises. The Word of God offers life, and that more abundantly. The promises contained therein are trustworthy; the principles clear and free of confusion.

The choice that confronted the Children of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land is the same choice that confronts us, individually and collectively, to this very day. Two paths lie before us, life and death. Moses reminded Israel – and reminds us today – to rise to the occasion, to raise our heads above the swirling clouds of confusion and fix our gaze on the Tree of Life.

Above all, Moses reminds us in this week’s Torah reading that we are capable of making the right choice – but it is a choice.

God, His angels and the heroes of faith throughout the generations, urge us: “Choose life.”

In Tune with Torah this week = we are about to enter the Hebrew month of Elul, the annual month of Repentance. While we search our hearts in preparation for Rosh Hashana, the Feast of Trumpets, it is an opportune time to review our own pattern of choices over the past year and to set a course for improvement in the days ahead.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Miketz November 28, 2013

Beresheit 41:1 – 44:17

Parshat Mikeitz overlaps this week with the celebration of Chanukah. Interestingly, it brings up an issue that defines the very essence of the holiday — Trust in God.

Joseph, released from prison, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and then offers a wise bit of unsolicited advice:

[And Joseph said to Pharaoh:] “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers over the land and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance.” (Genesis, 41:33-34)

Where does courage end and presumption begin? Why did Joseph presume to offer Pharaoh unsolicited advice and thus jeopardize the grace he had gained with the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams?

If Joseph was not punished for his apparent presumption, this was obviously what he was supposed to do. How did he know? What made him think that it was the will of God that he suggest to Pharaoh that an advisor was needed? How can we learn from Joseph when to have TRUST and forge on (as he did in this instance) and when to question our actions (as he should have earlier)?

Two of the times in history when the Jewish people were threatened are commemorated as holidays: Chanukah and Purim.

Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus — a victory in the face of hopeless odds, the victory of “the few over the many and the weak over the strong.”

Knowing in advance that there was no natural way they could possibly win, the Maccabees placed their faith in God, went to war, and succeeded in destroying the superior enemy. While there is no arguing with results, nevertheless, the decision to attack a vastly superior power could well have appeared foolish and suicidal at the time.

By contrast, when Haman issued his edict of genocide against the Jewish people, whose abolition we commemorate and celebrate with the festival of Purim, the Jews did not engage in war. The Book of Esther records public fasting and prayer and repentance as the method of resistance adopted by Jews. They did not attempt a war against hopeless odds. They called out for God’s help.

How can we account for the difference in the policy adopted by the Jewish people in the Chanukah and Purim stories, in the face of situations that appear so alike on the surface? Which policy was correct, and if they were both correct how do we explain the difference?

The Chofetz Chaim taught that the reaction of the Jewish people in each case was correct according to Jewish law because it was tailored to suit the sort of danger they faced.

Haman was threatening them with genocide. He was not offering clemency to anyone who would abandon his Judaism. All Jews were to be slaughtered no matter what.

Antiochus was offering clemency to anyone who was willing to abandon the practice of Judaism. All a Jew had to do, to gain the rights and privileges of all Greek citizens, was to adopt a Greek lifestyle.
Antiochus was not out to harm Jews at all. He was out to destroy their religion.

Because God commands Jews to keep His Torah at all times and not abandon it, resistance was required. Therefore, the people went to war and God favored them and granted them victory. The mismatch between the power possessed by the Jews and that wielded by their enemies was merely an indication of the great self-sacrifice that was being demanded. As God wins wars, not man, military power had no bearing on victory.

A war against Haman, however, would have been considered an act of suicide. As Haman’s edict was directed against Jews themselves rather than against their religion.

To demonstrate how strongly He backed the policy Israel adopted against the Syrian Greeks, God sent the Jews a most unusual miracle. Generally, miracles are not provided as gestures of pure affection and approval. But the miracle of the Chanukah lights was an exception.

In the absence of ritually pure olive oil, the Maccabees could have, under Jewish law, used tainted oil for the lighting of the menorah. But in appreciation of Jewish self-sacrifice God miraculously provided Israel with ritually pure oil. The purity of the oil was symbolic of the clarity of vision that was required of the Jewish people to decide to engage in this apparently hopeless war.

How can we apply this to situations we find ourselves in today?

The clash of cultures that Chanukah commemorates was over the willingness of the Jewish people to live in a practical but purposeless world, or to insist to the point of self-sacrifice on leading lives of significance and meaning, remaining true to their identity and destiny.

In Tune with Torah this week = learning to balance the ideal with the practical is a lifelong task. But when it comes to moral values and Torah commandments, there is no negotiating. Yet sometimes we find ourselves compromising. Let us be encouraged by the TRUST in God which the Maccabees demonstrated so that when “the right thing to do” is at stake, we have the moral courage to stand even alone, if need be, and do what is right rather than compromise ourselves for the sake of comfort.

Shabbat shalom