Parashat Vayak’heil-P’kudei • Exodus 35:1−40:38

Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.

I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.

As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t’reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.

The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”

Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat T'tzaveh • Exodus 27:20−30:10

How are we supposed to lead?

There are many different types of leaders in the world. People have different styles and different motivations for their leadership.  The things I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t tell us that there is one right way. Some people like to lead from the front, and create a following. Some lead from the top and tell the people below the way to go. And then some lead from within the group.

In the book of Exodus we have these three different leadership models. Miriam who leads from the front and has the people follow her example. Moses who leads from the mountain and has the people listen, and Aaron who lives among the people and attempts to solve their disputes and appease them when they are upset.

When Aaron is appointed the high priest over all of Israel, Moses is told, “Draw near to you Aaron you brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priests office” (Exodus 28:1). We learn something about the third type of leader from this text, the one who leads from within the people.

Why is Moses told to bring Aaron and his sons to become the priests from among the people of Israel?

According to Benei Yisachar, an eighteenth century Chasidic commentator, “the leader of a nation must not be above the people but close to them, within them”. In other words, unlike Moses and Miriam, Aaron was a leader not by standing in front of the people, or by standing above them, but rather his leadership style was to stand among the people. 

This leadership style, because it’s not flashy and in some ways requires more patience, work and individual attention, often is overlooked. According to another commentary, the Mei Otzar Ha Torah, “the priest needed to be from among the people, involved with them and know their weaknesses and faults.” When you lead like Miriam and you lead like Moses it becomes a lot tougher to know the faults and weaknesses of your followers. Because Aaron was chosen to lead among the people he was in a unique position as a leader because he was able to know who they were.

There are many ways to lead and our tradition shows us three great examples all in the book of Exodus. However, for me, I take something special from Aaron. While leading from the front or leading up front might get the job done in the short term, in order to create something sustainable, a great leader is most able to effect change and teach the people when they are among them and not above them or ahead of them.

Parashat T'rumah • Exodus 25:1−27:19

This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, opens with the command to Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” Gifts of finery, for the construction of the tabernacle, were to be brought by everyone in the community through a then-unique system. As opposed to a uniform contribution requirement, placing an outsized burden upon the disadvantaged members of society, everyone was required to invest their heart as well as their “dollars.”

The tabernacle, the most sacred site in the early Israelite religion, demanded more than financial contribution. By asking individuals to invest to their hearts in the service of God, the construction of the tabernacle thus became a community building project in addition to a physical construction project.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Yitro • Exodus 18:1−20:23

This week’s Torah portion establishes [at least] two important foundations for the Jewish people. The first – and much better-known – is the giving of the Ten Commandments from God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It is more than a moment of fire and brimstone emblazoned in our memories; it is the beginning of our formation – who we are, what we believe, and how we interact with the people who both make up our community and who find themselves separate from it. The second – and I argue, more profound – is the sharing of perspective from Jethro to his son-in-law Moses about the latter’s style of leadership. Indeed, it is Jethro, a non-Jew, who is able to see what Moses himself cannot see; that the burden of leading a people should not fall upon him alone. Jethro teaches Moses that governing is not meant to be a solo effort – and through this we learn that in life, in work, in learning and in love, we are better together than we are on our own.

It is a perfect message for this weekend’s celebration of our Adult B’nai Mitzvah students; five individuals who have committed to well over a year of devoted study so that they can, this Shabbat, read from the Torah and lead our community in prayer. These five souls have worked together over these many months, lifting one another up and inspiring their teachers through their commitment to a Jewish ritual typically bestowed upon teenagers. These adults have chosen to pursue this meaningful accomplishment in their own lives and together will be called to the Torah as members of our Temple community. We welcome you to join us as we celebrate their accomplishments and learn from their experiences, making into a tangible reality that original teaching from Jethro himself: we are better together than we are on our own.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat B'shalach • Exodus 13:17-17:16

Having crossed the Sea of Reeds, before even uttering a sigh of relief, the Israelites break into song. Known as Shirat HaYam, or Song of the Sea, the lyrics found in this week’s Torah portion are considered by scholars to preserve perhaps the oldest grammatical forms in all of Torah. “Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped,” our ancestors cried: “Mi chamocha b’eilim Adonai!

It seems appropriate that one of the oldest ways of approaching God in Jewish tradition is through song. Singing offers us a bridge and a direct connection between the head and the heart, uplifting our spirits in times of trouble and elevating our gladness during times of joy. Even those of us who are tonally challenged can find pleasure in song! Come, let all of us sing a new song unto God, we read in Psalms, and I really do hope you will join us. This Shabbat, our varying worship styles converge in one service on our Bellevue campus at 6:00 PM as our many musicians offer praise. A nosh and talk by Justice Madsen of the Washington State Supreme Court follow immediately after.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Bo • Exodus 10:1-13:16

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”  In other words, according to one school of thought, God does all things for the greater good and controls the universe and all that is in it.  If this is true however, how do we reconcile the verse in this week’s Torah portion Bo where it says: Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. – Exodus 10:1.  If God works for the good then how does hardening the hearts of Pharaoh and his courtiers serve the good?

One explanation is that this is a matter of translation.  According to the Women’s Torah commentary: “Hardened” literally, God, “Made [Pharos’s] heart heavy” (from the root k-b-d, “to be heavy).  The image of the heavy heart may relate to the ancient Egyptian conception that in the afterlife, when weighed on the scales of judgement, the virtuous soul is found to have a heart that is lighter than a feather, whereas the sinner has a heavy heart.  Therefore, in this reading, it is not that God made Pharaohs heart hard, it is that it is heavy and found wanting.

Another explanation for how a good God could harden Pharos’s heart is that of free will.  Again, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Free will: The free will defense begins by distinguishing two kinds of evil. Moral evil is evil that occurs through rational action — that is, through wrongful exercises of will on the part of rational beings. Natural evil, by contrast, is owing entirely to the operation of natural causes… The significance and pervasiveness of extrinsic moral evil is easy to underestimate, because a lot of the suffering and hardship that belongs in this category tends to masquerade as merely part of the human condition, and hence as natural evil. But it is not so. Many of the hardships that befall humankind — disease, ignorance, poverty and the like — owe their existence at least in part to wrongful willing.

Therefore, according to this reading, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the culmination of natural evil and moral evil. God hardenes Pharaoh’s heart, not out of an act of malice, but as a result of the free will that stems from moral evil.   What happens to all of us is that moral free will eventually turns in natural free will. The decisions we make as a result of the gift of free will affect us, perhaps not at first, but over time our choices affect us spiritually, psychologically and physically.  Therefore, we must remember that our free will has consequences that transfer over time from the realm of the moral to the realm of the natural.  That is how our bodies and souls are built. 

Elsewhere, we learn that Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah builds upon another, whileaverah gorreret averah, one transgression builds on the next.  Pharaoh made enough moral decisions leading up to God hardening his heart, that it was actually merely the natural outcome of his behavior.  Humans are creatures of habit.  This week’s torah portion teaches us that the good habits build a good body soul connection while the bad ones deteriorate that connection.  As a result, we like God, must work to do good so our hearts are found to be light and virtuous.

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Custom during the Passover Seder is to remove ten drop of wine from the second glass, diminishing our symbol of joy in deference to the plagues which befell the Egyptians. Indeed, the sacred and eternal message of Passover is to remember that suffering, to remember that we were strangers in Egypt – and to act accordingly in every subsequent day and age.

Our Torah portion this week, Va-eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), recalls the harsh treatment of our ancestors and the beginning of the plagues Moses and God brought before Pharaoh to secure their redemption. We are ritually reminded of this message every year, not because we are not all wise, not all students of history, but because situations and context continually change. I hope you will join us at 7:00pm in Seattle this Erev Shabbat as Dr. Roberto Dondisch, the Jewish Consul of Mexico, shares the concerns of his community: Mexican immigrants made to feel as strangers in our land. Together may we remember the lessons of our sacred tradition and find new application for these ancient words.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Sh'mot • Exodus 1:1-6:1

What’s in a name? That’s the question coloring this week’s parashah, Sh’mot, as we open the book of Exodus this week. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Isaachar, Zeubulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.” (Ex. 1:1-4) Through the familiar names of the brothers of Joseph, our text creates a bridge between the closing narrative of Genesis and the beginnings of our oppression as slaves in Egypt. It then moves quickly to introduce a new character, Pharaoh. “Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile … they multiplied and increased greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” (Ex:1:6-8) Joseph’s name and legacy mean little to this new leader, a man intimidated by the sheer number of Hebrews in his kingdom.

And so a system is established – one known far too well by cultures and societies throughout the generations – of the powerful oppressing the weak; of one group’s potential constrained and controlled by another. Our ancestors enter into slavery under the rule of the Egyptians, which eventually gives way to the killing of newborn Hebrew boys, which eventually introduces us to Moses, father of our liberation. Moses quickly becomes an adopted son to Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up in the palace of the very person who first ordered his death. Moses then reaches a pivotal moment of morality, striking down an Egyptian guard whose abuse of a Hebrew slave churned in Moses like a fire. He soon flees to the land of Midian and the house of Jethro, marring his daughter Tziporah and establishing a life in the wilderness.

We soon come to experience the first meeting of God and Moses at the Burning Bush and with this encounter we witness the early beginnings of our Exodus story. In Genesis 3:13 as the bush is alight with fire but not consumed, Moses – struck by this overwhelming sight – asks God to share God’s name – “the people will ask ‘what is this God of yours’ name?’ What should I say to them?” And God responds to Moses, “ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I will be what I will be.” This name is, to this rabbi, the most resonant, honest and sacred moment of clarity in all of Torah. God does not respond “My name is God,” the way most of us would introduce ourselves to someone new. Rather, God chooses to share with Moses – and, really, with us – that God’s identity is always growing, always evolving, and is in the process of becoming its ultimate self. Similarly, we humans are always growing and evolving as we make our way through life. For God to identify God’s self – in this premiere moment of the most significant story in our collective Jewish identity – as ever-evolving, still on its way to becoming what it fully is, is breathtaking. It also returns us to our initial question, what’s in a name?

This past weekend we honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His name, for us modern Jews, is synonymous with civil rights and social justice. His name evokes recognition of Selma, of marches, and “I Have a Dream.” Like God, Moses, and Joseph before him, MLK’s name has become over time a symbol of something greater than him alone: a reminder of the power of our words, actions and deeds. A harbinger of hope, equality and grace. A lesson to children and adults alike that we all possess innate strength to do what is right and just in the world. As we enter a new chapters of Torah, life and American government this week, let us remember the potential and power of a name.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat Va-y'chi • Genesis 47:28-50:26

 “All good things must come to an end,” wrote Chaucer in the 1380s – and it’s possible he was referencing parashat Va-y’chi when he did. In this week’s parashah we bid farewell not only to the narratives we well know from Genesis, but also to the nuclear family of Jacob as his and son Joseph’s lives meet their respective ends. Yes, it is a time of endings and beginnings as the sun sets on the biblical patriarchs and rises again with Shemot – the earliest tales of our time as slaves in Egypt – next week.  
The beauty is in the simplicity of Va-y’chi – it contains a sweet goodbye between a father and the son he once thought he’d lost. “Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So Joseph brought [his sons] close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.’ Joseph then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground.” (Gen. 48:10-12) The patriarch Jacob – he whose earliest tales involve deceit, deception and fleeing from his father’s home, has come full circle. He mirrors the scene that once involved his own ailing father and brother, extending a blessing toward the grandsons he never expected to know. Jacob echoes the actions of years earlier by choosing to bless the younger Ephraim over firstborn Menasseh, sharing with Joseph, “[Menasseh] too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.’ So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.” (Gen. 48: 19-20) 
From this very scene we moderns have adapted the blessing over our children on Shabbat evening, one I vividly remember my father invoking before every family Shabbat dinner: “May God make [our daughters] as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah … May God make [our sons] as Ephraim and Menasseh.” This gesture resonates with even greater power because of the very scene in Va-y’chi from which it was drawn. It is a scene many of us know all too well – a goodbye in the waning hours of a loved one’s life. Instead of speaking words of rebuke – Jacob saves some of them for his other sons – the words shared are those of acceptance and empowerment. In spite of everything that’s happened to their family, Jacob and his beloved Joseph close their chapter with love. 
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen 

Parshat Mikeitz • Genesis 41:1-44:17

Years of abundance followed by years of famine. Years of gladness followed by years of sorrow. Years of good followed by years of bad. All predicted by dreams in which thin, shriveled sheaves of grain swallowed healthy stalks and thin cows consumed their sturdy counterparts. In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Joseph helps Pharaoh interpret his dreams and then prepare for the difficult years to come. His sage advice causes him to quickly rise from Pharaoh’s prisoner to his trusted advisor.

Miketz falls at an auspicious time on our secular calendar. Many count down the days of 2016 while feeling uncertain about the future. Will the abundance of the stock market continue? Are we facing years of sorrow in the many geopolitical hotspots the world over? Will 2017 bring the good many feel sorely lacking? As Joseph tells Pharaoh, there is much we can do to  prepare. We are actors, not observers, of our own destiny. May Joseph’s reassurances bolster us all as we enter a new year!

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer