D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Tetzaveh)

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses receives the following instructions: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” [​Exodus​ 27:20]. Our sages wrestle with a couple of difficulties in this verse. Why is the pronoun “you” necessary? We already know that Moses is being addressed with very detailed and voluminous instructions about building the tabernacle for God’s indwelling Presence. Why didn’t the text use the command form, “tzav”, which doesn’t require any pronoun, as with so many of the other charges given to Moses?

Our oral tradition gives many meaningful and penetrating answers to this question. However, one particularly resonates with me. According to this midrash or explication, Israel and the Holy One are compared to a blind and seeing person, respectively. The seeing person (the Holy One), guides the blind person, (Israel) to their home. Once they enter the house, the seeing person asks the blind person to go and light a lamp so that they may see in the darkness of the blind person’s home. Furthermore, the seeing person explicitly states their purpose in doing so: so that the blind person doesn’t feel beholden to them for escorting them.

First and foremost, this parable is an empowering narrative about human agency and the efficacy of those living with disabilities. Though the blind person appreciates the escort of their companion, upon reaching the darkness of the interior of their house, they become the escort, providing light for their guest who is not used to entering a space with this level of darkness, and thus might fumble and trip through the space. Moreover, it is the sighted person who encourages their companion to provide this guidance in order that the blind person feels the relationship to be mutually beneficial.

Looking closely at the nimshal, the lesson of the parable, we learn profundities about the relationship of the human and the Divine. When Israel enters their house, the mishkan, having been lead through the wilderness by the Holy One, they are instructed to make illumination, not because God needs it (unlike the human guest mentioned earlier), but because doing so invests them with a spirit of welcoming and symbolizes their ability to “kindle” a continuous relationship and partnership with God.

May we, during these difficult days, light the way for peoples of all abilities and strive ever to welcome beings human and Divine.

Cantor Michael McCloskey, Temple Emeth

D’var Torah: Shira Fishman ’91 (Mishpatim)

This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, opens in the middle of the story of the Israelites receiving the 10 commandments. It is almost as if you entered a play that was already half-way through.

The parsha begins, ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם These are the rules that you shall set before them… (Shemot 21:1) and continues for three more chapters with rules that range from how many years a slave should serve, the consequences of stealing sheep, and what happens when one insults parents (it is a good thing we no longer follow that particular rule). Out of nowhere, these laws interrupt the story of receiving the commandments. While some commentators, including Rashi and the Sforno, argue that these laws are a continuation of the 10 commandments, there is a clear break in the story. And then, just as quickly, the story resumes: ואל-משה אמר עלה אל-ה׳ Then he said to Moses, come up to the Lord… (Shemot 24:1).

In some ways, this break in the narrative of the Torah feels like our lives for the past year. Last March, our stories were cut off and interrupted by new rules (social distancing, mask wearing) of which we were totally unfamiliar. Fear of the unknown kept us secluded and alone and I imagine that B’nai Yisrael also felt similarly after leaving Egypt.

But by fall, our community had come together again. We learned that even while we kept our distance, we could still see each other, care for each other, and feel part of one community. To that end, we had to abide by a new set of rules and we all pledged, as a community, to keep to these new rules.

B’nai Yisrael makes a similar pledge to follow the new rules. כל אשר-דבר ה׳ נעשה ונשמע All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do (Shemot 24:7). On three different times, B’nai Yisrael say נעשה, we will do. But in two of these times, the Torah says that the people responded, יחדו, together and, קול אחד, in one voice (Shemot 19:8, Shemot 24:3).

In the same way, we came together as a community and, בקול אחד, in one voice, responded that we would follow new guidelines in order to keep our community safe. Like B’nai Yisrael, we took a leap of faith that these rules would allow our community to function effectively and safely. While this year has certainly not been easy, I am honored to be part of a community that responded together to support each other through the difficult times while looking ahead to happier times.

Shira Fishman ’91, Schechter parent