Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Torah Readings For March 25, 2017 Shabbat HaChodesh

Readings for Saturday, March 25, 2017
Shabbat HaChodesh
Two scrolls are used on this Shabbat.  The first is for the regular weekly portion.  The second is for the special reading for Shabbat HaChodesh
To make this Shabbat even more special, we are finishing the second book of the Torah!

This year, 5777, is not a leap year which means Vayakhel and Pekuday are read on the same Shabbat

 In leap years two portions are read on separate Sabbaths.  They are both comparatively short and contain material on a related subject - Leprosy.  When the portions are read on the same Shabbat, it is seamless and only one Torah scroll is used.

First Scroll
Vayakhel (Assembled)
35:1-38:20 Shemot (Exodus)

Vayakhel is the tenth sedrah in the Book of Shemot.  It takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “Vayakhel Moshe” or “Moses assembled (Vayakhel) all the congregation of the children of Israel and said unto them....”  This comparatively brief sedrah describes the actual building of the Tabernacle and all of its furnishings.  It appears to be a recapitulation of the information presented in Terumah.  According to the sages, Terumah described the plan.  Vayakhel describes the actual construction of the holy dwelling places and its vessels.  As the commentators in Etz Hayim point out, Terumah began with a description of the items in the Mishkan and ended with a description of the Mishkan.  In Vayakhel, the order is reversed which would be logical.  First you build the edifice and then you make the things that will go inside.  (First you build the house, then you buy the furniture.)  The basic explication of the text will follow the divisions in Etz Hayim combined with sub-headings from the Stone Chumash as well as a couple from the author.  Together, they provide definition for the reading while avoiding the numbing detail found in some other texts.  The parenthesized notations indicate earlier mention of these items in Shemot.

1. The Convening of the People - 35:1-19

The People’s Response - 35:20-29

The Master Craftsmen - 35:30-36:1

·         The Sabbath

·         The Contributions for the Tabernacle

·         The Construction of the Tabernacle

The sedrah begins with Moshe assembling “Kol Adat B’nai Yisrael,” literally “all the congregation of the children of Israel.”  He has returned from his second trip to the top of Mount Sinai.  He has returned with the new set of Tablets.  So now it is time to reassemble the whole nation; to re-kindle the original spirit that had existed when the whole nation had stood at Sinai before the Golden Calf episode.  Moshe has called them together to begin the building of the Mishkan.  But he starts with a repetition of the commands concerning the observance of Shabbat.  From this we learn that the observance of Shabbat is of critical importance; it is even more important than building the Tabernacle, the Ark and the holy vessels.

2. The Overabundance of Donations - 36:2-7

The generosity of the people was overwhelming.  Moshe finally had to call a halt.  He had what was needed.  To go beyond that would be the kind of greed or self-aggrandizement associated with potentates, not Moshe or the Lord he served.  This generation stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the leaders described earlier (35:27-28).  They made their donations of precious stones for the breastplate only after the rest of the people had brought their donations.  According to some commentators they waited until last for what they thought was a good reason.  They assumed that there would be a shortfall in the offerings and they planned to make up for whatever had not been given.  If this was their fear, then they should have lead by example - if they had made generous contributions at the outset they would have encouraged the rest of the nation to do likewise.  In the game of life, leaders ante up first.

3. The Work of Construction - 36:8-36:37

·         Making the Curtains

·         Making the Cover

·         Making the Planks and Their Components

·         Making the Partitions

·         Making the Screen

4. The Manufacture of the Furniture and Accessories - 37:1-38:20

·         Making the Ark - 25:10-21

·         Making the Cover

·         Making the Table - 25:23-30

·         Making the Menorah - 25:31-40

·         Making the Incense Altar - 30:1-10

·         Making the Oil and Incense - 30:22-37

·         Making the Elevation-Offering Altar - 27:1-8

·         Making the Laver

·         Making the Courtyard - 27:9-19

·         Making the Screen




114.        The prohibition against making a fire on Shabbat (35:13):  “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.”

Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin


In reading Shemot, we have seen laws pertaining to Shabbat given over and over again.  Considering the obvious importance of Shabbat, it is quite fitting that the last commandment in Shemot should be one concerning the observance of our most frequent holiday.  The placement of the commandment just before the description of the building of the Mishkan and its furnishings provides the source for the Rabbis to deduce the 39 types of activities that constitute work and are thus prohibited on Shabbat.  According to the Oral Law, the prohibition against “kindling any fire” means you cannot create a fire on Shabbat but you can enjoy the heat and light from a fire started before Shabbat.  The Karaites, an eighth century sect founded in Babylonia, rejected the Oral Law.  Amongst other things, this meant they had no fires burning in their homes at all on Shabbat.  In modern times, the question has arisen if turning on an electric light violates this prohibition.  For the Orthodox it does.  For Reform it is a meaningless question.  And as usual, the Conservative Movement is split.

Once again the Torah provides examples of the importance of women.  They contribute along with the men when Moshe makes his request.  There are those who say that it was really the women who gave the jewelry because the men had wasted theirs on the Golden Calf.  Also, it was their mirrors that provided the copper for the holy vessels.  Finally, there is the explicit mention of the “skilled women” who did the spinning and weaving.

The Sukkah and the Mishkan
According to the commentators, Moshe told the people about building the Mishkan on the day after Yom Kippur.  In English we call the Mishkan the Tabernacle.  It is customary to start building a Sukkah after one comes home from the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur (which is technically the day after Yom Kippur).  In English we call the holiday of Sukkoth The Feast of Tabernacles.  Is there a connection between these two building activities?  Supposedly we build these booths to remind ourselves of the time our ancestors spent in the Wilderness.  Is a Sukkah a “poor man’s” Mishkan?  This is a question you can discuss at Sukkoth when you sit in your Sukkah.

The same Hebrew word that begins this sedrah is also found in Shemot 32:1.  In the earlier reading which describes the making of the Golden Calf, the text states, “the people assembled against Aaron” and demanded that he “make us a god.…”  Here, Moshe assembled the community to tell them about building the Tabernacle and to prove that God had forgiven them for the Sin of the Golden Calf.  Once again, it is not just what you do, but why you do it that matters.

More on the Mishkan
The Torah spends quite a bit of time describing the Mishkan or Sanctuary.  The question one must ask is why the Torah devotes so much space to describing a temporary edifice that will only be used until the building of the Temple.  Why is so much time and attention devoted to what is a “one shot deal?”  When the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, why didn’t they build a Mishkan?  Again, when the Second Temple was destroyed, why didn’t anybody build a Mishkan since they had the complete blueprint?  (In fact, they used an edifice that is not mentioned in the Torah - the Synagogue or Shul.)  This is your chance to supply the answer because I do not have one.

The Shabbos Goy
“Reb Nachum of Chernobyl once spent Shabbat at the home of Reb Shimon of Shlomo…  In accordance with the custom of the household a long candle was lit before sunset which was to last until morning, in order to give light to anyone wanting to rise and study Torah before daybreak.  A little after midnight, the host and his family saw Reb Nachum groping his way about the house like one moving in absolute darkness, and were afraid lest he bump into something and hurt himself.  Hearing that they were also awake, Reb Nachum asked them:  ‘Why did you not light a candle to last through the night?’  This they could not fathom; that very room was in fact illuminated by the candle they had lit.  They investigated and found that it had earlier blown out, and the gentile maid had relit it.  But because it had been lit on Shabbat, the tzaddik was able to see nothing by its light.”

This Chassidic tale is included in a compilation by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin of blessed memory.  The story is intended to reinforce the commandment found in this week’s Torah portion:  “You shall kindle no fire…on the day of Shabbat” (35:3).  But Reb Nachum may have been trying to teach us a deeper lesson.  Reb Nachum was no slouch since he was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the successor to the Baal Shem Tov.  It was a common practice among many observant Jews to retain a “Shabbos Goy,” a gentile who would perform functions on Shabbat that were Jews were forbidden to perform.  In the story we just read, it would not make sense for Reb Nachum not to have seen the light if the candle had been lit by a Jew.  But the gentile maid was not violating a commandment by lighting the candle on Shabbat, since only the Jews are commanded to “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  So if Reb Nachum could not see the light from a candle kindled by a “Shabbos Goy” lit in violation of the commandments we can assume that we are not supposed to hire people to perform activities forbidden to Jews.  For Reb Nachum, hiring the “Shabbos Goy” was not a way around the law, it was just another way for Jews to violate the law.

Pekuday (Count or Enumerate)
38:21-40:38 Shemot (Exodus)

Pekuday is the eleventh and last sedrah in Shemot.  It is also the fourth and final sedrah dealing with the construction of the Mishkan.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the portion.  “Ayleh Pekuday Hamishkan” or in English, “These are the countings (or enumerations) of the Tabernacle.…”  It is a brief sedrah.  Based on Etz Hayim Chumash and The Stone Chumash, the sedrah may be divided as follows:

1. A Tally of the Metals - 38:21-31

Moshe insists on a tally of the precious metals used in the construction.  The need for honest accounting did not begin with the financial meltdowns in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century.  The author(s) of the TaNaCh understood that people were only human where great wealth was involved.  The givers need to be assured that their offerings did not stick to any fingers.  And anybody can be accused of having sticky fingers, including Moshe.  In Devarim, he will proclaim his virtue by announcing that he never took anything and that nobody ever proved that he did.

2. The Making of the Priestly Vestments - 39:1-31

·         The Ephod

·         The Breastplate

·         The Robe of the Ephod

·         The Tunics of Linen

·         The Headplate

The message here is quite clear.  How we dress, how we appear to others says volumes about who we are and what we do.

3. Completion and Inspection - 39:32-43

According to Rashi, Moshe did not do any of the actual construction work himself.  But when the people brought the Mishkan to him, the walls were lying down.  It was Moshe who miraculously lifted the walls.  Also according to Rashi, when Moshe accepted the work of the people the blessing he offered included a prayer that God would rest in the Mishkan and the spirit of the Lord would abide among the people.

4. Assembly and Dedication - 40:1-15

Moshe is commanded to set up the Tabernacle and to anoint Aaron and his sons.  According to the text, this was all supposed to happen on the first day of Nissan, the month of the Exodus.  According to the Midrash, the work was actually finished in the month of Kislev.  In order not to hurt the feelings of Kislev, God promised that another Sanctuary would be dedicated during Kislev.  This promise came true with Chanukah when the Second Temple was re-dedicated.

5. Fulfilling the Instructions - 40:16-33

Here the Tabernacle is actually erected.  According to the text, Moshe did all of the work himself.  Earlier, we had wondered where the Tablets were kept before the Ark was built.  According to a comment by Ramban on 40:20, Moshe kept them “in a wooden box in his own tent…”  There is one difference between the instructions given to Moshe (40:1-15) and what he actually does (40:16-33).  He is instructed to anoint Aaron and his sons.  But, here at any rate, he does not do actually do it.

6. Appearance of the Divine Presence - 40:34-38

The sedrah and Shemot end with God showing his acceptance of the work of the Israelites by filling the Tabernacle with His glory.  This scene is reminiscent of the last part of the Seder called Nir’tza or Accepted.  It is a request that God accept the Seder we have completed.  For no matter how correctly we may think we have done it, without God’s approval it was for naught.  Well, the same is true of building the Tabernacle, or any other endeavor.  Until it has found favor in God’s sight, it has no real value.  God had “learned” from the experience of the Golden Calf.  The Israelites needed tangible proof of His presence.  So a cloud filled the Mishkan as a symbol of the divine presence.  When the cloud rose up it was time to move.  When the cloud stayed put, so did the Israelites.  The cloud was with them in the day and a pillar of fire showed that He was with them in the night.

Interestingly enough, there are none in this last sedrah of Shemot.  Could it be that God and Moshe sensed that the Israelites needed a rest from learning and needed time to savor what had happened?

Coming Attractions

All that has been described took place in the first month of the second year of the Exodus.  The next book, Vayikra (Leviticus) primarily concerns itself with laws pertaining to the Priests and the sacrifices.  The book following Vayikra, Bamidbar (Numbers), picks up where Shemot ends since its first words are “On the first day of the second month in the second year following the Exodus.…”

Moshe is told to anoint Aaron’s sons as well as Aaron.  This is proof that Moshe accepts the leadership role that is passing to his brother’s house.  Moshe does not ask for special favor for his two sons.  As a father, Moshe may have been bothered by the lack of a special place for his offspring.  But as a leader, he accepted the divine plan without a hint of complaint.

The phrase “that God commands” is written eighteen times concerning the building of the Tabernacle.  There are eighteen benedictions found in the Amidah.  Could it be that each time we recite the Amidah we are building our own Tabernacle, which we hope God will enter?

The Ark
What went into the Ark?  The text says Moshe put the Tablets in the Ark.  In Hebrew the word used is “Ay-doot” which is a plural form of the word.  From this, the commentators concluded that Moshe had put both the First (the broken) Set and the Second Set in the Ark.  In our highly disposable society it is interesting to note that our ancestor clung to the broken stones.  There is no mention of a place for the Torah.  Only in Devarim will we read of the Torah being placed in a special spot just outside of the Ark of the Covenant.

Limitations of Language
In Hebrew Moses puts the “Ay-doot” in the Ark.  The problem is that different authors use different English words in translating “Ay-dut.”  According to at least two sources, the word “Ay-doot” is the plural form of the word for Testimony so the Commandments can be viewed as a testimony to the relationship between God and the Jewish people.  “Ay-doot” is also the plural form of the word for a female witness.  There are those who believe that the Shechinah is a “female manifestation” of God and that it is the Shechinah that settles into the Tabernacle at the end of this Torah portion.  For those who believe this, it would be fitting to see the commandments as the perpetual witness who saw the development of the unique relationship God and the Jewish people begin at Sinai and who is always there to remind us of its timeless existence.

Positive Reinforcement
“And when Moses saw they had performed all the tasks - as the Lord had commanded…Moses blessed them” (39:43).  According to the Gersosnides, the 14th century French Talmudist, “We learn from this that a leader ought to bless those under his direction when they obey him so that they will be readier to do his will.”  Once again, we are reminded that one of the reasons that the Torah has been studied for so many centuries is because it speaks to the human condition without regard to time or place.  Here the Torah teaches the importance of saying thank-you and not taking it for granted when people behave in a desired manner.  Psychology majors will recognize what Moses did as the forerunner of B.F. Skinner’s concept of Operant Conditioning using Positive Reinforcement.  Since Judaism believes in the concept of Free Will, people can choose to do the right thing or to do the wrong thing, it is appropriate to thank them (in this case with a blessing) when they choose the right path.

Divine Revelation
The Hebrew word for fire is “aysh.”  At the beginning of Shemot God first appears to Moshe “b’lahbaht aysh,” “in a flame of fire.”  At the end of Shemot we read that “fire” or “aysh” is the nighttime sign of the Lord’s presence.  Not only that, but “aysh” is the last symbol of the divine presence that is mentioned in Shemot.  In other words, God’s first and last revelation comes in the form of fire.  He begins by revealing Himself in fire to one man.  He ends by revealing Himself in fire to the entire nation.  There is an even stronger connection in non-leap years when Vayakhel and Pekuday are read on the same Shabbat.  Vayakhel begins with a command prohibiting the kindling of fire or “aysh” on Shabbat.  Fire is a symbol of the divine presence.  We are allowed to enjoy a pre-existing fire on Shabbat.  We just are not allowed to create a fire on Shabbat.  This means that by observing Shabbat we enjoy the divine presence (fire) that is with us all week long but which we can only fully appreciate on the Day of Rest.

“The Medium Is Not the Message” by Mordechai Beck
The best known Jewish statement of principle on art is, unfortunately, the ban given at Sinai on making graven images with a likeness of “anything in the heavens above or the earth beneath”.  Despite this prohibition, a few chapters later the same jealous God commands Moses to erect a tabernacle and fill it with objects of beauty that are described with such precise detail as to suggest Divine acceptance of the power of the visual on the imagination of His children.  How do we explain this radical change of heart?  Is art not only to be permitted but even lauded as a means of reaching the Divine?

The key to this riddle is found in the figure of Bezalel - or to give him his full name, as it appears when he is first mentioned and again at the beginning of Pekudei - “Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, from the tribe of Judah” (Exodus 31:2, 38:22), who “made all that the Lord had commanded Moses.”  He was an artist and craftsman capable of fashioning objects that inspired awe, in the same way, perhaps, that the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo did for their contemporaries.  Does this mean that God repented his objections to the visual image?  What did Bezalel bring to his work that made it kosher?  According to Midrash Tanhuma, the answer lies in the very lineage mentioned in the Bible when Bezalel is introduced.  “What need is there to recall here the name of Hur?  Because he (Hur) gave up his soul for the Holy One, Blessed be He.  In that hour that they sought to make the (golden) calf, he stood before them - between the people and his uncle Aaron, the high priest - and rebuked them; and they stood against him and killed him.  Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Hur:  ‘By your life, I will compensate you for this…by elevating all your progeny.’  Thus it is written:  ‘See, God has called Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur…and filled him with the spirit of God.’”

The sudden explosion of Bezalel’s artistic activity is here seen as a response to the incident of the golden calf.  That incident proved to the hidden mysterious God that a spiritual life on earth was impossible without some visual, external props.  To this He agreed, but on one condition:  that the objects act merely as a medium, valuable only insofar as they brought greater glory and praise to God.  Said the invisible Creator of the Universe, recounts the midrash:  “Even My own children are not prepared to recognize the truth.  And if they, who saw with their own eyes all the wonders and miracles which I wrought in Egypt and in the Exodus from Egypt, do not believe, how much more so those who did not see such things!”  So God searched for someone who could distinguish between art and idolatry.  He searched and He found Bezalel.  Not that Bezalel was a born artist; rather, God saw his potential to serve the Divine purpose with his hands and heart and, given his lineage, could be presumed able to remain pure of idolatrous intent.  King Midas, of Greek myth, had hands whose touch turned everything to gold.  Everything gold touched by Bezalel turned into something holy.  Bezalel got similar results from silver, copper, ram skins, and acacia wood, as he did from stone and other materials crafted with sophisticated cutting techniques of high artistry.

The Torah’s extended descriptions of the objects of the Tabernacle fill chapters of Exodus, suggesting awareness of the profound need for the aesthetic in our lives.  Visual art, the Torah seems to concur, is a powerful tool.  It touches the root faculty of our humanity - our imagination.  It can be used to enhance or destroy us, depending on the purpose to which the artistry is put.  The medium, that is to say, is not always the message.  Often the artist’s technique disguises his true purpose.  The objection to idolatry is not to the materials themselves - since all material has its source in God - or to their being worked into tangible images.  The objection is to the assumption that material - or the image - has some intrinsic value.  For idolatry is when the material presence replaces the reality it represents.  This is what modern philosophers call reification, and what the Sages in their wisdom saw as a substitution of the container for the content.

Conclusion of the Reading
This marks the end of the reading of the book of Shemot.  Each time the congregation completes the reading of one of the Five Books of Moses it is customary to recite “Chazak, Chazak, ve-nit-chazek” or in English, “Be strong, Be strong, and let us be strengthened.”  Variants of this statement appear in several places and are tied to the study of the Torah.  One of the most common references is to the Book of Joshua where the statement Chazak ve-matz (Be strong and of good courage appears three times in Chapter one, verses 6 through 9).  In the mention in verse 7 the reference “is directly tied to importance of the observance of the Torah.”  So this Shabbat, you will have earned the right to stand and recite Chazak, Chazak, ve-nit-chazek.

Second Scroll
Shabat Ha-Chodesh (Sabbath of the Month)
12:1-20 Shemot (Exodus)

Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the fourth of the four special Sabbaths (not counting Shabbat Ha-Gadol) that proceed the holiday of Pesach.  Each of these special Sabbaths has a special connection with the story of the Exodus or the preparations for observing the holiday.  On Shabbat Ha-Chodesh two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scroll is used for reading the sedrah of the week.  The second scroll contains the special reading for the holiday.

This passage opens with the words “This month (ha-Chodesh ha-zeh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”  The month referred to is Nissan, the month in which Pesach falls.  The reading that is part of the sedrah called Bo describes how the Israelites are to behave on the night of the first Pesach.  This also provides us with the basic rules for observing the holiday in the future.  The Torah portion is always read on the last Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  If Rosh Chodesh Nissan falls on Shabbat then it is read on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.  When Shabbat Ha-Chodesh falls on Rosh Chodesh a third scroll is taken from the Ark.  The special reading for Rosh Chodesh (Bamidbar 28: 19-25) is read after the regular weekly reading but before the special reading for the special Shabbat.

Special Haftarah for Shabbat Ha-Chodesh
45:16-46:18 (Ashkenazim)
45:18-46:15 (Sephardim)


The Man:  Ezekiel was one of the three Major Prophets.  He was a younger contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah.  He was part of the Jewish population that went into exile after the destruction of the First Temple.  He preached to the Jews of Babylonia in what were some of the darkest days in ancient Jewish History.

The Message:  In this reading, Ezekiel describes the rituals and ceremonies that will be observed in the Temple that will be built by the returning exiles.  There is a strong message of ritual observance and purification in the public place most connected with the manifestation of the Divine Spirit.

Theme-Link:  This is one of those times when the connection between the haftarah is with the calendar and not the regular weekly Torah portion.  The emphasis of the special Torah portion is on the on the observances tied to the first Pesach.  The prophetic portion deals with the observances connected with the Pesach of the future.  Both Torah and Haftarah are directed at exiles.  The message of Shemot is directed at the exiles who are about to experience the Exodus.  The message of Ezekiel is directed at the exiles in Babylonia who are waiting for the day when they will be told that they are returning to the Promised Land.

March 25 Connection
On the Jewish calendar, March 25, 2017 is a Shabbat of double importance – We finish the reading of the second book of the Torah and observe on the Special Sabbaths that are the harbinger of Pesach with all that that means for our people.  But March 25 is also the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire a horrific event that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, many of whom were young Jewish female immigrants.  This tragic event was one of the seminal events in the development of the Jewish community in America and the American labor movement.  This Saturday becomes a tale of two buildings.  One is the Mishkan – a Tabernacle built with specific instructions to provide a home designed to express the spirituality of the Jewish people.  The other was a factory that came to personify the sweat shops of the garment industry where the drive for profit replaced the words of Moses, the Prophet who reminded us that God will judge us based on how we treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. 

Copyright; March, 2017; Mitchell A Levin



Monday, March 13, 2017

Torah Readings for Saturday, March 18, 2017 Shabbat Parah Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer

Torah Readings for Saturday, March 18, 2017

Shabbat Parah
Two scrolls are used on this Shabbat.  The first is for the regular weekly portion.  The second is for the special reading for Shabbat Parah.

Ki Tissa (When you take)
30:11 - 34:35 Shemot

Ki Tissa is the ninth sedrah in the book of Shemot.  The sedrah takes the name Ki Tissa from the second sentence of the sedrah:  “When you take (Ki Tissa) a census of the children of Israel…” (30:12).  Ki Tissa can be divided into three main parts - Additional commands pertaining to the Sanctuary, the Golden Calf and Reconciliation and Reaffirmation.  We have only two more sidrot before finishing Shemot.

Additional Commands Pertaining to the Sanctuary (30:11-31:18)
The first portion of Ki Tissa picks up where last week’s reading left off; with more rules relating to the Sanctuary.  First is the command tying the taking of a census with the giving of a half-shekel.  All those counted are to give the same amount and the money collected is to be used to support the Sanctuary.  According to the commentators, the equal contribution is a guarantee that all, rich and poor alike, will have the same stake in the holy activities of the Priests.  No person can own the Tabernacle and no person can be dispossessed.  This is one more way of reinforcing the concept of the People of Israel or the Whole House of Israel.  Moshe is told to make utensils, which the Priests are to use for washing when entering the Tabernacle.  This is one of the many sources for the customs of ritual washing that we follow today, including washing with a blessing before starting the Morning Prayers and washing with a blessing before eating bread.  Next is the instruction concerning the Incense.  The severe penalty proscribed for misuse of the incense gives an idea of how important God (and our ancestors) considered this.  (See Themes for more.)

Moshe will not have to build all that God has commanded by himself.  Instead, God appoints two craftsmen, Bezalel and Oholiab, to lead the project.  Bezalel means “in the shadow of God.”  There are numerous legends about him.  The Torah does tell us that Bezalel is the grandson of Hur, one of the two leaders Moshe named to serve in his stead while he was on Mount Sinai.  While Bezalel was from the large tribe of Judah, Oholiab was from the small tribe of Dan.  Everybody is needed to help build the Tabernacle (and the House of Israel) from the least to the greatest.  This section continues with yet another recitation of rules pertaining to observing Shabbat.  These Shabbat rules are placed here to remind us that observance of Shabbat is of the greatest importance, greater even than building the Tabernacle.  The section concludes with a tantalizing literary bridge:  “When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moshe the two tables of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.”

The Golden Calf (32:1-35)
Since this is only a summary, we can only hit the highlights of what is one of the most confusing episodes in Shemot.  There are numerous explanations for the events described.  A common one is that the people panicked and reverted to idolatry.  Others feel this is a misreading.  Yes, the people panicked when Moshe did not appear at the promised time, but this meant they had lost what they perceived as their intermediary with God not their God.  So they had Aaron build them another intermediary, this time in the form of a Golden Calf, which was a throwback to their Egyptian experience.  Regardless, God and Moshe are both upset about what they are hearing from the encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai.  In keeping with the tradition of Abraham at Sodom, Moshe argues with God to spare the Israelites.  But Moshe goes Abraham one better.  If God is going to blot out the Israelites, He might as well take Moshe with them.  Moshe shows one of the signs of a great leader.  He takes total responsibility for his people and identifies with them totally as well.  While God has promised not to destroy the Israelites, He has not said they will escape punishment.  Moshe hurries down the mountain to become the instrument of that punishment.  First he shatters the Tablets.  Then, in short order, the people are forced to drink of the ashes from the Golden Calf, the Levites put the apostates to the sword and finally a plague is visited on the Israelites.

The drinking of the liquefied ash is reminiscent of the rules pertaining to the unfaithful wife.  The image of Israel as the unfaithful bride of God is an oft-repeated theme, especially by the prophet Hosea.  The scene of the sword-swinging Levites should remind you of Levi avenging Dinah.  The same behavior that is wrong when used for personal vengeance can be rendered righteous when used for the service of God.  Hence Jacob curses Levi while the Levites gain their prominent role from this time forward for what appears to be the same sword-wielding behavior.

There are those who contend that the story of the Golden Calf was placed here by later writers.  It was part of a contest between the Northern Kingdom (Israel) that had golden bulls at its two sanctuaries and the Southern Kingdom (Judea) that had the Temple at Jerusalem.  It is also viewed as an attempt to discredit the House of Aaron, which supplied the priests for the Temple at Jerusalem.  I am not advocating this point of view, but want you to be aware of it as one non-traditional explanation of the events.  Certainly, Aaron does not come off as a stellar leader in the text.  According to Midrash and other commentaries, Aaron was stalling for time.  He really did not think the people would give up their valuables.  Also, Hur, the other leader named by Moshe to settle disputes while he was on the mountain, had been murdered by the people.  When Aaron saw how out of control they were, he sought to placate them to avoid adding to their sins with another murder.  Before we are too harsh in our judgment of Aaron, we should consider God’s view of it.  Like Moshe, Aaron will be punished by not entering the Promised Land.  But Moshe is punished for the sin at the rock, not the Golden Calf.

From the point of view of narrative, the Golden Calf episode is out of place.  It should have come after the end of Mishpatim (24:12-18) where Moshe ascends the mountain.  Then skip ahead to 31:18 where Moshe gets the stone tablets.  This is followed by the events of the Golden Calf and the second set of stone tablets.  With the Golden Calf, the Israelites had shown that they were not ready to deal with a totally spiritual concept of God.  They needed tangible signs of Him at all times.  It was this need that caused God to command the building of the Tabernacle and establish the sacrificial system.  Hopefully this interpretation will help make sense of the events covered over the last several weekly readings.  Please note; this is one interpretation, it is not the only one.

Reconciliation and Reaffirmation (33:1-34:35)
Like children who have angered their parent, the Israelites are waiting for “the other shoe to drop.”  Will God abandon them or will He accept their repentance and keep them as His people?  God repeats His promise to take the Israelites to the Promised Land.  But, like a very angry parent, God tells Moshe that it is better if He is not among the Israelites lest He forget His promise to spare the people.  Moshe communicates with God at the tent at the edge of the encampment.  (This is not to be confused with the previously mentioned Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.)  Just as Moshe had tried to gain insight into God at the Burning Bush, so now once again he pleads to know more of God.  While God agrees to reveal more of Himself, not even Moshe can see God face to face.  While we all seek to draw near unto God and God seeks to draw us near unto Him, there is a limit between the human and the Divine, even when that human is Moshe.

As a sign that the Israelites are still the Chosen People, Moshe will again bring down two tablets.  But this time it will be different.  Moshe must carve the tablets and bring them up the mountain.  Here we see a repetition of the Garden of Eden theme.  God gave Adam and Eve everything in the Garden.  They rejected His gift by sinning.  They got a second chance but this time around they would have to work for what God had once given them freely.  The first set of tablets were hewn by God and waiting for Moshe.  This time he would have carry the stones up that mountain to receive the law.  Considering Moshe’s age, this was quite a task.  For the purists among you, this time the writings on the tablets are called the Ten Words (literally) or Ten Commandments (New Jewish Publication Society Translation) (34:28).  God repeats His covenant.  He reminds the Israelites that He will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan so that we will not follow their practices.  He then lists the practices we are to follow - the Festivals and Shabbat.  Moshe returns after forty days and forty nights.  But this time the people have learned their lesson.  There is no Golden Calf; just the people waiting patiently for Moshe to return.  How do we know if we have been forgiven for our sin?  One rabbinic response says that if, when given the chance to repeat the sin, we do not do so, then we know we have been forgiven.  Why?  Because by not repeating the sin, we have shown that we have truly repented.  This action packed sedrah ends on a spiritual note.  Moshe’s face is now bathed in a strange radiance that requires him to wear a veil when in the presence of the Israelites.

105. The requirement that every Israelite give a half-shekel annually to support the sanctuary (30:13).
106. The requirement that priests wash their hands and feet when ministering at the sanctuary (30:19-21).
107. The commandment to anoint the High Priest with specially prepared oil (30:25, 26, 30).
108. The prohibition against using the special anointing oil on someone other than a High Priest (30:32).
109. The stricture against replicating the anointing oil described in the Torah (30:32).
110. The prohibition against using for private purposes the formula described in the Torah to make ritual incense (30:37).
111. The stricture against eating or drinking food or liquor that had been offered before an idol (34:15).
112. The prohibition against laboring on Shabbat even during plowing and harvesting times (34:21).
113. The stricture against eating milk and meat together (34:26).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Using Telushkin as the source, there is only one more commandment in the book of Shemot.

This week’s sedrah provides us with four readings for the Prayer Book:
30:17-21 The reading concerning washing with the copper laver opens the section called Korbanot (Sacrificial Offerings) found at the start of the Daily and Shabbat Morning services among traditional Jews.
30:34-36 The reading concerning the making of the Incense opens the section called Ketoret (Incense Offering) that follows the recitation of the Korbanot section.
31:16-17 These two verses are referred to as the Veshamru.  They are part of the Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions or Silent Devotion) for Shabbat and also recited as part of the Shabbat morning Kiddush.  Just as the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, so has Shabbat kept the Jewish people.
34:6-7 These verses are called the Thirteen Attributes of God.  They are chanted on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkoth after the Torah has been removed from the ark.  For those who have heard it, you know that the chant is a haunting one that is repeated three times in an increasingly beseeching tone.  According to Plaut, The Thirteen Attributes are as follow:
1 and 2. “Adonai, Adonai” The Lord, The Lord - Mercy twice over (repeating the name gave rise to the interpretation of it being “twice over” - God is merciful before man has sinned and after man has sinned and repented.
3. “El” (God) God is most high, the supreme ruler
4. “Rachum” Compassionate
5. “Chanun” Gracious
6. “Erech apayim” Slow to anger
7. “Rav Chesed” Abounding in kindness
8. “Emet” Truth
9. “Notzer chesed la-alafim” Extending kindness to the thousandth generation
10,11,12. “No-se avon vefesha ve-chata-ah” Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin
13. “Ve-nakeh lo yenakeh” Yet He does not remit all punishment.

Nobility of Labor
Judaism does not take a dim view of the concept of those who work for a living.  The commandment concerning Shabbat tells us that we shall work for six days.  Furthermore, in naming the craftsmen who are to build the Tabernacle, the Torah is pointing out the value of all work, including what some call derisively, manual labor.

The Torah has survived, in part, because it speaks to the human condition.  This week’s reading offers a textbook case in leadership.  Notice how Moshe identifies with the Israelites and how he takes responsibility for their behavior.  If they are to be punished, then he is to be punished in the same manner.  Compare this with the penchant for the double standard shown by our leaders (the Wall Street Bankers and so-called “Captains of Industry” are two modern examples) today and see if maybe the example of Moshe shouldn’t be the one taught at the Harvard and Kellogg schools of business.

Timing of the Tablets
Moshe went up to get the second set of Tablets on the twenty-ninth day of Av.  He actually received them on Yom Kippur.  According to some, the second set of Tablets is a sign of God’s forgiveness and His acceptance of our atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Levi, Dinah and the Golden Calf
In Bereshit, Levi drew his sword and killed those who had defiled his sister Dinah.  Levi had used a basic commandment from God, circumcision, as part of a plot to take the lives of others.  In other words, he had corrupted God’s word for his own purposes no matter how noble he may have thought they were.  As we can see from the blessing at the end of Bereshit, Jacob never forgave Levi for this.  In Shemot, the tribe of Levi draws its sword just as their progenitor had.  However, this time Levi drew its sword to defend the commandments of God.  According to some, it is because of this zeal for the Lord, that the tribe of Levi is accorded its special role as described in the Torah.  It is not always the deed that counts.  Sometimes it is the motive for performing the deed that counts the most.

The Sacred and the Profane
“You shall sanctify them (i.e., the utensils to be used on the altar) and they shall remain holy of holies; whatever touches them shall become holy.” (Shemot 30:29).  This is a thought provoking statement about the power of that which has been consecrated to the Lord.  And the statement is counter-intuitive.  Normally, one would assume that when something that is not holy comes in contact with something that is holy, the holy object becomes unholy.  Yet, here it is the other way around.  The holy object does not lose its holiness when it comes in contact with that which is not holy.  Could this be a ritualistic formulation of the concept we see later in this Sedrah?  The Children of Israel, the holy people, do not lose their holiness even though they have strayed and built the Golden Calf.  Once chosen by God, the Jewish People are always chosen.  The Jew may stray, but God is always there waiting for him or her to return to the path of righteousness.  It may not be Rashi, but it is something to think about.

This week we find a repetition of the injunction about milk and meat.  Echoing the words of Exodus 23:19 we read, “thou shalt not boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 34:26).  There are several reasons given for this injunction.  Some contend that this was part of the recipe for a drink used by some pagans in the idol worshipping ceremonies.  So this would be another example of seeing to it that the Israelites did not engage in any activity that even approximated the behavior of those who bowed to graven images.  Another explanation is that this is part of the conditions that God placed on the Israelites for letting them eat meat.  According to this explanation, God had not intended people to be carnivores.  Once He realized that there was a propensity for eating meat, He allowed the Jews to do it but with restrictions.  Since all life was sacred, including the lives of animals, certain rules were imposed as part of the tradeoff for the pleasure of eating animal flesh.  One last explanation has to do with the concepts of mercy and human decency.  If you must eat meat, do not be so barbaric as to figuratively consume the child in a sauce made from the very liquid of the mother that gave that child life.  Like all dietary laws, in the end, this one too falls under the category of Chukat - a commandment whose real purpose we will only understand with the coming of the Moshiach or Messiah.  Regardless, for those who want to try keeping kosher a little bit, this provides an easy entrĂ©e point.  Order the hamburger instead of the cheeseburger.  Have chicken instead of chicken parmesan.  And if you are having ice cream for dessert, eat a tuna or grilled cheese sandwich instead of a hot dog or burger.

In speaking of how we should observe the three pilgrimage festivals - Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkoth - the Torah says “None shall appear before me empty-handed” (Exodus 34:19).  One of the reasons given for reciting Yizkor, the Memorial Service, on these three holidays is to fulfill this command.  Each of the formularies for remembering the departed contains a promise to give charity in the name of the deceased.  For example, “May God remember the soul of … who has gone to his world, because I pledge (without vowing) to donate to charity for his sake.”  The idea is that if the person were still alive he or she would be the kind of righteous person who would be giving the charity.  At any rate, just as we do not come empty-handed to celebrate the three festivals, so do we not come empty-handed when we remember those who have gone before us.

Enjoy what I have or Have what I enjoy
Our tradition offers numerous lessons on this topic or its variants.  This week we read “And I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19).  In the Talmud, the sages extended this to read “And I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious:  Even to the undeserving” (Tractate Berachot).  To illuminate the point, the Chassidim tell the following tale.  A wealthy merchant would visit Reb Zusya (one of my favorite Chassidic characters)  and leave him gifts of food or wine or a bag of coins to help this wise but poor Rebbe.  One day he visited Zusya but Zusya was not at home.  When the merchant asked where Zusya was, he was told that Zusya was visiting his Rebbe.  The wealthy merchant pondered this matter.  If he had been blessed in his business dealings because he had been making donations to Zusya, just think how much more he would be blessed if he started making those donations to Zusya’s Rebbe (climbing the corporate ladder so to speak).  So the merchant stopped giving to Zusya and started giving to Zusya’s Rebbe, a man he assumed to be of greater merit than Zusya.  But lo and behold, instead of his business improving his business took a turn for the worse.  Realizing that he must have done something wrong by ignoring Zusya, the merchant went to visit the Rebbe.  “Why,” he asked,” is it when I used to visit you my business throve, but when I started visiting your Rebbe - who is presumably a greater Rebbe - success deserted me?”  Reb Zusya replied, “It is all very simple.  I am not a tzaddik at all and that is why when you used to give me money, even though I was unworthy of receiving it, the Heavenly Court was not particular with you, either, and you were granted prosperity even though you did not really deserve it.  But the moment you started being particular about evaluating people precisely, and decided to visited my Rebbe - who really is a Tzaddik - the Heavenly court decided to start being particular about evaluating you; and when they found that you weren’t in fact deserving of that prosperity, they withheld it.”

The Role of Aaron
If you are puzzled by the role of Aaron in the story of the Golden Calf, do not think you are the only one.  Abarbanel, the Sephardic sage, raises a number of questions on this matter.  “Why did Moses ask Aaron what the people had done to him to force him to make the calf?”  “In a case of idolatry,” isn’t one “supposed to die rather than let oneself be forced to sin?”  “Why are the people punished, and many of them killed, for making the calf that was actually made by Aaron?”  Why is it that Aaron, “is never punished for” making the calf “and is even made the High Priest, who will atone for the Israelites?”

Who Made the Calf?
God tells Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.  They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it.”  The Torah is quite explicit about God being the one who brought the Israelites out Egypt.  So who are these people who Moses brought out of Egypt?  According to the commentators, they were “the mixed multitude,” non-Israelites whom Moses allowed to join the Jews on their way out of Egypt.  But if this were true, then why punish the Israelites for building the calf when it was non-Israelites who did the deed?  Could it be that God was so angry with the Israelites that he disassociated Himself from them and referred to them as the people of Moses?  Since we already know that God was angry enough with the Israelites to destroy them, it takes no great leap of logic to believe that He was angry enough to disown them and palm them off on Moses.  If we accept this explanation then punishing the Israelites makes sense since they were the ones who indeed built the calf.  (You see, there are a lot more than Four Questions when it comes to the whole Passover Story.)

Tablet Tantrum
“…and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” (Exodus 32:19).  Moses came running down the mountain, saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf and he smashed the tablets.  The tablets contained the words of God - words that God had intended for the children to hear and to obey.  God did not tell Moses to deny His words to the people.  Moses made that decision.  While Moses’ angry response is understandable, it might be seen as yet another example of his hot temper.  And while Moses gets high marks for interceding on behalf of the Israelites when He threatens to destroy them, it would seem that his smashing of the tablets was an ultimate act of Chutzpah.  After all, who was he to deny the word of God to the Children of Israel?

Second Scroll
Special Reading for Shabbat Parah (Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer)
19:1-22 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Shabbat Parah - Sabbath of the (Red) Heifer is the third of the four special Sabbaths (not counting Shabbat Ha-Gadol) that precede the holiday of Pesach.  Each of these special Sabbaths has a special connection with the story of the Exodus or the preparations for observing the holiday.  On Shabbat Parah two scrolls are taken from the ark.  The first scroll is used for reading the sedrah of the week.  The second scroll contains the special reading for the holiday, the first 22 verses from chapter 19 of Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers).  This passage deals with the ritual of the Red Heifer.  In Hebrew, the Red Heifer is called the Parah Adumah.  Parah is translated as cow or heifer.  Adumah is the Hebrew word for red.  Hence the name of the Sabbath is “Shabbat Parah.”  The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for ritual purification.  In the days of the Temple, those who were unclean could not participate in the sacrificial process.  This reading reminds us of the importance of cleansing oneself prior to taking part in the sacrifices for Pesach.  We do not offer sacrifices.  Nor are we able to use the ashes of the Red Heifer.  So the reading provides a symbolic method of connecting us with the ancient ritual.  It also can remind us that Pesach is a time of new beginnings and that the time prior to Pesach can be used to cleanse ourselves spiritually just as we cleanse our homes of chametz.

A Tale of Two Bovines
At this time of the year we read the stories of two forms of livestock - The Golden Calf and the Red Heifer.  In the material world, a calf made of gold would certainly fetch a higher price than a cow that has not shown that it can produce a calf.  But in the spiritual world, the world where the word of God dominates, the red heifer is of the greater value because, unlike the Golden Calf, it serves His purpose.  When we measure the true value of things, it might help us to remember that the ultimate Judge is the one who determines worth, not the Wall Street Financiers or the gnomes of Zurich.

Special Haftarah for Shabbat Parah
36:16-38 (Ashkenazim)
36: 16-36 (Sephardim)

The Man:  Ezekiel was one of the three Major Prophets.  He was a younger contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah.  He was part of the Jewish population that went into exile after the destruction of the First Temple.  He preached to the Jews of Babylonia in what were some of the darkest days in ancient Jewish History.

The Message:  Ezekiel assured the people that they would return to their homeland after the Exile.  Here he stressed the importance of obeying a strict moral code once they had returned to the Promised Land.  Exile had been punishment for disobeying the commandments.  Redemption would only be successful if the commandments were followed.

Theme-Link:  Usually there is a connection between the haftarah and the weekly Torah portion.  This is not one of those times.  This week the connection is with events on the calendar - namely Shabbat Parah.  The emphasis of the special Torah portion for Shabbat Parah is on the need for ritual cleanliness.  This is tied directly to preparing for the observance of Pesach.  The haftarah serves to reinforce a similar message of the need for purity in all of our actions.

Copyright; March, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin