Tetzaveh: becoming mitzvot, bringing light

One-candle

This week we’re in parashat Tetzaveh. The Torah portion takes its name from its first word, which means “You shall command.” (It comes from the same root as mitzvah, commandment.) God is telling Moses to command us to kindle an eternal light in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. That’s a mitzvah that we still fulfill today — now with the eternal light in every sanctuary.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet reads this verse in a beautiful way. First he notes the verse from Proverbs, “The candle of God is the soul of a human being.” When we are in dark places, we light a candle to help us see. And God’s response to dark places is us — we are the candles that God lights in order to bring light into the world. It’s our job to bring light.

I want to say that again, because it’s so beautiful to me. We are God’s candles. There’s a ner tamid (eternal light) in every synagogue sanctuary, but the point of that lamp isn’t just to be a lamp: it’s there to remind us that it’s our job to be sources of light in the darkness. The darkness of grief, the darkness of cruelty, the darkness of fear. We can dispel those with our light.

That word tetzaveh, “you shall command” — the Sfat Emet reads it creatively to mean, “you shall bring mitzvot into the souls of the children of Israel, so that they themselves become mitzvot.” Bring mitzvot into our souls, and we ourselves will become mitzvot — holy acts, connected at our root to the Source of all goodness. That’s what it means to be a light in the world.

The blessing for a mitzvah — lighting Shabbat candles, or affixing a mezuzah — contains the words אשר קדשנו במצוותיו / asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, “Who makes us holy in connecting-command.” The Sfat Emet is saying that this goes deeper than just blessing God Who gives us mitzvot. When we bring mitzvot into our hearts, we ourselves become connections with God. 

Rabbi Art Green writes in his commentary on the Sfat Emet that this is actually the purpose of our lives as Jews: to so thoroughly embody the mitzvot that we ourselves become mitzvot. To so thoroughly embody Jewish practices and values that they become who we are. And maybe that’s another way of saying what Proverbs says, that our souls can be God’s candles.

In Proverbs we read that a mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light. A mitzvah is a candle, an opportunity to bring light into the world. And Torah is light — we sing those words every time we dress the Torah scroll, תורה אורה / Torah orah!  For our mystics, the physical Torah we study in this world is a stand-in for the supernal Torah on high, and that Torah, the real Torah, is light.

So let’s recap: our souls are light — we’re God’s candles. The mitzvot are light — they too are candles waiting to be lit. And Torah is light. Which takes me to the other words we sing when we’re dressing the Torah, from the Zohar: ישראל ואורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוה  / Yisrael v’oraita v’kudsha brich hu chad hu, “Israel, and the Torah, and the Holy One of Blessing, are all One.” 

Us, and Torah, and God: the Zohar teaches that these are all fundamentally one. Our deepest essence is that we are One with Torah, we are One with God, we are One with the source of all light. Right now it’s Shabbes: we can bask in that light. And in the new week, we can strive to live it — to embody Torah, to embody the mitzvot — so that we can be bearers of light in the world.

Rabbi Rachel adds: This is the d’varling that I offered at CBI on Shabbat morning, and it is cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi. It is offered here with gratitude to my Bayit hevre for studying the Sfat Emet with me each week.

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Tetzaveh.

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. This week we’re reading from parashat Tetzaveh.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

Also, it’s been brought to my attention that last week’s Builders Blog link was an incorrect link. Apologies! Here’s the correct link for last week’s commentary from Bayit: Building for Mobility: Spiritual Life on the Move by R’ David Markus.

And here are commentaries from the URJ on this week’s parsha:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Terumah

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. This week we’re reading from parashat Terumah.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi David Markus and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Right speech beneath the sapphire sky

MishpatimYou must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

There’s a very similar instruction in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus 19:16, “don’t be a talebearer.”) Speaking ill of someone has a name in Jewish tradition: lashon ha-ra, evil speech.

Jewish tradition holds that lashon ha-ra is equivalent to murder. Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that “Lashon ha-ra kills three: the one who speaks it, the one spoken of, and the one who hears it.”

Maybe you know the parable of the man who gossiped and then went to a rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi took a feather pillow, cut it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away. And then he said, “lashon ha-ra spreads even more thoroughly than these feathers.” Because speech, once heard, can’t be un-heard.

The worst form of lashon ha-ra, our tradition teaches, is motzi shem ra, telling lies about someone. That’s false tale-bearing — the thing explicitly forbidden in this week’s parsha, Mishpatim. That word means rules, or laws, or justice-commandments. This week’s parsha is packed with justice-commandments.

Torah is made up of both narrative, and legal material (commandments, ethical instructions). And I know that for many of us the stories can be more compelling than the legal sections. The stories are interesting, or thought-provoking, or occasionally distressing. The lists of laws can leave us yawning, especially when those laws seem out of date for today’s realities.

Like “If an ox gores someone” (Ex. 21:28) — I mean, who among us has an ox, these days? Though of course that verse is really about responsibility for someone else’s harmful behavior, and tradition teaches that ultimately we are all responsible for each other. Still, I’ve noticed over the years that in our Torah discussions, people often engage more with story than with law.

That’s why often, when we reach this portion in the Torah each year, I focus on the beautiful tale of Moshe and the elders ascending to God and their vision of the floor that was like bricks of sapphire. It’s poetry: there’s so much meaning to be found and made there! I love that story. I love singing Nava Tehila’s setting of one of those verses, as we’ve done here today.

But I think Torah is wise in juxtaposing our poetic stories with our prosaic laws. Poetry doesn’t mean anything — beautiful visions of God’s presence don’t mean anything — if not grounded in ethical behavior. Without the emotional and spiritual safety that come from right conduct and right speech, pretty visions of holiness are hollow at best and spiritual bypassing at worst.

One of my favorite teachings about the tchelet, the thread of blue that winds through our tzitzit, is that it reminds us of the Sea of Reeds — our place of liberation. And it reminds us of the sapphire pavement upon which God is described in this week’s parsha. And sea and sky can be mnemonics, reminding us of tzitzit, which remind us of mitzvot, including right action and right speech.

May every glimpse of sea and sky and tzitzit remind us that the path to the sapphire heavens and the Holy One of Blessing must be paved with ethical choices. Otherwise our holiness is false and even dangerous. We may yearn for celestial brickwork of sapphire, but what really matters is building a community of holiness, right speech, and ethical choices here on the ground.

 

This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Mishpatim.

Dear all,

Shavua tov! Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Rachel. This week we’re reading from parashat Mishpatim.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by Rabbi Evan Krame and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Shavua tov! Looking forward to Shabbat Yitro.

Dear all,

Oops — we forgot to send this out on Monday! Deepest apologies. Here’s your belated weekly Shabbat / Torah / commentaries update:

Please join us on Saturday at 9:30am for Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Pam Wax. This week we’re reading from parashat Yitro.

If you’d like to read some commentaries on this week’s parsha, here are a few:

Here’s Torah commentary at Builders Blog (a project of Bayit: Your Jewish Home), this week written by CBI’s own Steven Green and sketchnoted as always by Steve Silbert:

And here are commentaries from the URJ:

Hope to see you soon at CBI!

Blessings,

Rabbi Rachel

Interfaith Teen Gathering – Responses Requested

Dear CBI members and friends,

There are plans in the works for a Northern Berkshire Interfaith Youth Group for teens in 9th through 12th grades. This initiative arose in our local Christian community, and they reached out to us to affirm that they want to make the youth group comfortable, welcoming, and appropriate for Jewish teens as well as Christian ones. Here’s the description:

“A gathering of teens of faith who want to support and encourage one another while exploring life’s questions and discerning what actions we’re being called to take. We will provide a fun, engaging, open and affirming space and see where the discussion leads!”

As of now, this project involves leadership from All Saints’ Episcopal North Adams, Congregation Beth Israel North Adams, First Congregational Church Williamstown, our local Muslim community, New Hope Methodist Church North Adams, Second Congregational Church Williamstown, and St. John’s Episcopal Williamstown.

The intention is to begin to provide high schoolers with regular opportunities to gather 1x per month. And the hope is that this will primarily function as a teen-guided Interfaith group, with adults supporting by managing logistics and food and so on. In other words: the teens themselves will set the agenda and determine what they want the group to be and to do.

College students from the Jewish and Muslim communities at Williams are excited about serving as facilitators and mentors to our teenagers.

The group is considering meeting on Friday nights (with pizza), Saturday early afternoons (with snacks), Saturday later afternoons (with pizza), or Saturday nights (with pizza).  If you have a teenager in your household who is between ninth and twelfth grades, we’d love to know a) whether your kid is interested in taking part in something like this and b) if so, which of the possible meeting times would be best. Let me know?

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Rachel