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Va'era posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/22/04

Torah Portion: VA'ERA
Book of Exodus
January 22, 2004

"God spoke to Moses: "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "El Shaddai," but they did not know me [as you will] as "Adonai' (YHWH). (Exo. 6:2)"

Just like the proverbial rose, "God" by any other name is still "God." When we give a name to someone or something there is usually a reason for selecting the particular name. I am named after mygreat grandfather whom I never knew, but I still assume a responsibility to carry on his attributes in how I live my life. I become a reflection of him. In the words of singer/composer Dan Fogelberg, "I am just a living legacy to the leader of the band." (the profound lyrics to this sing will be found at the end of this piece).

The names given to God become more than names but attributes to inspire us in how we live our lives. God was known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "El Shaddai." Some commentators suggest this name comes from the Hebrew word "Shaddiyim," meaning "breasts." God was a patient, forgiving and maternal/paternal "nurturer" of the Patriarchs. Little was demanded of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but much was promised.

Moses came to know God as both "Elohim," and, as noted in the above verse, "Adonai." The ancient Midrash (Jewish legends) suggests that "Elohim" was the name God used with regard to his/her attribute of "justice," while "Adonai" was used to demonstrate the attribute of "mercy." After risking his life, and that of the Hebrews, by going before Pharaoh to demand the release of his people on the word of God, Pharaoh turns the table on Moses and Aaron and throws them out. In anger, Moses turns to God and says, "Why did you send me? Every since I have come before Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people! (Exo. 5:22-23)"

READ, AGAIN, THE VERSE AT THE TOP! It says, "God (ELOHIM) spoke to Moses and said to him: I am the Lord (ADONAI )." The Midrash understood this to mean that "Elohim" (God of Justice) was ready to punish Moses for speaking back to him, but "Adonai" (God of Mercy) interceded. Our God is a Divine judge who demands justice AND mercy in his/her dealings with humankind. Therefore, we bear the responsibility of making these attributes part of our lives, as well. God's value-laden name is our inheritance.

A name is so much more than a name. It is a challenge to us, and a hope within us. Our name becomes, like it is for God, the foundation piece of our personal identification. We pass on our hopes for the future in the name we give our children. It becomes their constant reminder, even when parents depart, of what was hoped for them and expected of them.

The Leader of the Pack
Composed & Performed by Dan Fogelberg

Alone and wild a cabinet maker's son.
His hands were meant for different work and his heart was known to none.
He left his home and went his lone & solitary way,
And he gave to me a gift I know I never can repay.

A quiet man of music denied a simpler fate.
He tried to be a soldier once but his music wouldn't wait.
He earned his love through discipline; a thundering, velvet hand.
His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand.

(Chorus) The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old.
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.
I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band.

My brothers lives were different for they heard another call.
One went to Chicago and the other to St. Paul.
And I'm in Colorado when I'm not in some hotel.
Living out this life I've chose and come to know so well.

I thank you for the music and your stories of the road.
I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go.
I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough.
And, Papa, I don't think I said "I love you" near enough.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Bo posted by Rabbi Siegel on 01/30/04

Torah Portion: BO
Book of Exodus
January 30, 2004

As we approach the 8th (of the 10) plagues, God says to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have HARDENED HIS HEART AND THE HEARTS OF HIS SERVANTS, in order that I may display these signs (plagues) among them. . . . . in order that you may know that I am the LORD (Exo. 10: 1-2)."

The above verse creates a conundrum for the believer. If Pharaoh is willing to finally let the Israelites leave Egypt, why does God prevent this by hardening Pharaoh's heart? The answer is even more troubling: "in order that I may display these signs (plagues) among them, and you may recount in the hearing of your [children] how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them (Exo. 10:2)."

We are taught that POWER CORRUPTS, AND ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY. At the risk of sounding heretical, is it possible God has become self-absorbed with his might, authority, and power?

Our ancestors understood the heart as the seat of the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual life of the individual. A change in one's behavior was not a matter of a "change of mind," but a "change of heart." In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh's heart is "hardened" against change and mercy no less than 20 times-10 times by himself and 10 times by God. Pharaoh's character was clear. Even without God's intervention, he was a person with no moral or ethical compass. He was not about to change. God took advantage of this serious flaw of character to prolong Pharaoh's agony and teach a lesson for all time. Still, our Western Liberal orientation demands a reason for extending the pain and agony from the plagues by God's own hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

Modern sensitivities are usually based on short term concerns, rather than long term results. Yes, the Egyptians did undergo severe pain and suffering. In the short term, it looks unfair but what was the goal of the plagues? Liberation. Not just physical, but spiritual. God was intent on liberating the Israelites and the Egyptians from their belief in multiple deities and human god forms. To do so, God had to demonstrate, without question, that HE/SHE was the only omnipotent, all-powerful God in the universe. A few magic tricks would not suffice; neither for the Egyptians, nor the spiritually starved Israelite slaves. Since all they knew of their gods was based on magic, the One God's "magic" had to be absolute; so ultimately absolute that the Egyptians had to witness the death of their first born.

Even this was not enough to spiritually liberate the Israelites. A journey that could have taken weeks, took 40 years; long enough for the slave generation to die out and a new generation-born in freedom and monotheistic belief-to emerge.

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Mishpatim posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/23/04

Torah Portion: MISHPATIM
Book of Exodus
February 20, 2004

The expressions "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are intentionally laden with meaning. To not support abortion means you are not "pro-choice," but rather a denier of freedom in a country lauding itself as democratic. To support abortion means you are not "pro-life," but rather "pro-death." These expressions are the clearest example of what is meant by "black" or "white"; "good guy" or "bad guy." One or the other, you can't be both, or can you?

Judaism is a tradition that is most often found in the "gray." Very little in life is "black" or "white." To understand Judaism means to commit one's intellect to a full consideration of each and every issue, like abortion.

In the Book of Exodus (chap. 21:12), it is written, "He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death." The price for taking a human life is giving up one's life. Further on in the chapter (21:22), it is written, "When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined. . " Here we have a case where the loss is not a human being, but a fetus. Because the Torah demands only a monetary payment for the fetus in contrast to the "life for life" in the event of the death of a human, the fetus is not considered to be a full-fledged human being, and abortion is not murder.

Aha, Judaism is "pro-choice," and not "pro-life!" Not so quick! Yes, many authorities permit abortion to 1) save the mother's life, or 2) prevent maternal anguish over the prospect of giving birth to a child with severe defects, but these same authorities do not permit abortion as a retroactive form of birth control; not because the fetus is human (all Jewish authorities agree that until the fetus is born it is not considered a "full-fledged" human being), but because "abortion on demand" is a profanation of the God-given creative ability of humans.

The Torah teaches our bodies are not to be taken lightly, but treated as a Divine gift that must be nurtured and cared for. Sometimes abortion is warranted and necessary; other times it is not. Again, the strength of Judaism is not in the "black" or "white," but in the spiritual/intellectual realm of the "gray."

Rabbi Howard Siegel
Jewish Information Center of Houston

Terumah posted by Rabbi Siegel on 02/27/04

Torah Portion: Terumah
Book of Exodus
February 27, 2004

The common error made by a good percentage of synagogue-going Jews is attaching TOO MUCH significance to their "HOUSE OF GOD." Yes, a synagogue is a House of God, but no more so than our homes, places of business, schools, or environmental surroundings. This, in part, is the message of this week's Torah portion.

Having received the Torah on Sinai, and having reviewed some of the moral & ethical requirements, Moses now turns his attention to the task of building a portable sanctuary in the desert. To this end, God says "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8)."

The verse doesn't say "If you build it He will live IN IT," but "If you build it He WILL COME." If the ancient Israelites construct a sanctuary emblematic of God's moral/ethical presence in the world (and humankind's obligation to embrace these standards), then God will choose to dwell among them and in their midst. God's presence is not found in a building. It is found in the hearts and souls of the people who will fashion and sanctify the building.

The message of America is what you do in your own home or business is not a matter of religious concern. What is important is that you attend church each week; present yourself in the House of God. The Jewish message is different: What you do in your home or business (to quote from the familiar Shema prayer, "when you sit in your home or walk outside, when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)is what matters regardless of whether you enter a synagogue or not.

We build synagogues, and attend them, to inspire the discovery of Godliness within each of us. Rabbi Harold Schulweis writes, "Jewishness cannot begin nor end in the sanctuary. It must be experienced outside the threshold of the synagogue, pro fanum. Jewishness is brought into the synagogue from without."

The message IS NOT to deny the importance of the synagogue. For the ancient Israelite, as well as for us, the building of a sanctuary or synagogue-community requires builders who emulate the values and ethics of Jewish life. In turn, the synagogue becomes a tangible reminder of what it is God requires.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Ki Tissa posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/12/04

Torah Portion: KI TISSA
Book of Exodus
Chaps. 30:11-34:35

If we can't see it, touch it, feel it, or physically possess it, it's not real. Among my favorite books in the Bible, is the Book of Job (with a long "o"). Job has everything: a good income, large house, beautiful wife, wonderful children, and presumably a summer home in the mountains! He is described as God's greatest believer. And, why not? After all, he's got it all. He lives the American dream! The book challenges Job's faith by taking away his "things"-one by one-to determine his true faith. Want to know more? Read the book or the brilliant commentary Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote entitled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People.

The Torah portion, Ki Tissa, tests the faith of the ancient Israelites in the desert. Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. When he delayed in returning, the Israelites became frightened. In Egypt, they had become accustomed to gods who were represented by a physical form or idol. In the effort to wean them from idolatry and plant the notion of "One" transcendent God, they had mistakenly made Moses their human manifestation of God. Now that he has not returned from the mountain, the people need something they can see and touch to believe in. They turn to Aaron to build them a Golden Calf.

When Moses does return with the tablets of God, he sees the calf and in anger throws the tablets to the ground. The ancient Midrash (legends of the Torah) suggests several scenarios for Moses' action: 1) When Moses felt he was bringing God's word to a people eager to receive it, he could easily bear the weight of the two stones. When he had reason to suspect their intentions, suddenly the tablets become to heavy to bear. 2) When Moses saw the Golden Calf-a clear violation of the 2nd commandment-he broke the tablets in an effort to destroy the evidence.

Rabbi Chaim Potok, in his commentary in the Eitz Hayim Humash (pentateuch), quotes a 19th century Torah scholar who observes that Moses here makes the point that there is no intrinsic holiness in things. Only God is intrinsically holy. Physical objects can be holy only insofar as they lead people to God. When Israel disregards the words on the stone tablets, they become mere stones.

A wine cup is only holy when it is used to sanctify God's name. Candlesticks are only holy when they are used to sanctify God's time, and even the Torah scroll is only holy when its words cause one to follow in God's ways.

Things are just that; things. In and of themselves, they possess no intrinsic worth. A new wristwatch has one purpose, to keep time. When it stops functioning, it is discarded and another one purchased. Not so with regard to my grandfather's wristwatch. It hasn't worked for years, but every time I look upon it, I remember the loving and caring person he was and I am inspired. In a word, the things we possess are only as important as that which they reflect.

Rabbi Howard Siegel

Vayakhel/Pekudai posted by Rabbi Siegel on 03/19/04

Torah Portion: Vayhakhel/Pekudai
Book of Exodus
March 19, 2004

The final portion of the Book of Exodus has Moses performing an inventory of all the materials used in building the ancient portable sanctuary in the desert. Every fine metal, cloth, thread, peg, etc. is to be accounted for. As tempting as the gold and silver used in construction was to the average worker, a greater suspicion rested with the leader-Moses. Therefore, it is not God who requires the inventory, but Moses the Leader. His effectiveness is dependent upon the faith and trust of the people.

A good leader must be cognizant of who he is responsible to. Even with the overshadowing presence of God in the camp of the Israelites, Moses understands his first responsibility is the people. In the ancient midrashic (legends) text of Exodus Rabbah 51:2, it is noted, "A person should strive to please people as strenuously as one strives to please God."

One of Judaism's most important teachings is that God's presence is discovered in his creations. Demonstrating love, respect, and honor for this world, and all therein, is showing faith in God. On the other hand, fundamentalism-whether it be Islamic, Christian, or Jewish-tries to look at God, rather than at what God does. As a result, they are blinded by the light and subsequently indifferent to everything (and everyone) around them. It's like learning about the sun by looking directly at it, rather than the results of it.

If only God, or Allah, counts than anything or anyone in the way is expendable (in the name of God!). For the fundamentalist, who is unwilling to see God's reflection in humankind, putting on a suicide belt in the "name of God" is easy.

I want to believe that the roots of Islam, like those of Christianity and Judaism, reflect the ideals of our common prophet, Abraham. It is said that Abraham had a door on each side of his tent so that no stranger would pass without being invited in for food and rest. There was no entrance exam of faith or belief necessary before entering. All humankind was created in the image of God. For all people, then and now, there is a place at Abraham's table.

Rabbi Howard Siegel