Dr. Elsie Stern’s interview with yours truly
Here’s the intro:
In this Community Learning call from November 21, 2017, Rabbi Maurice Harris talks about the strange way the Torah tells us about Moses’ up-close encounters with God, contradicting itself purposely within the space of nine verses. Two consecutive stories in the Book of Exodus confront us with a crucial paradox about how it is or isn’t possible to encounter the Divine, leaving us as readers with something like an “impossible” mental picture that we may be tempted to try to resolve or to hold as a fruitful paradox. Either way, the mental image these two texts generate beckon us to keep trying to look again and again, despite the endless loop the image generates in our minds.
Just click here or on the image below to give it a listen!
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tovah to everyone.
One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14
Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?”
Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations.
I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?Continue reading “Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together”
D’var Torah: Parashat Chukat – 5771 – July 1, 2011 – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat [Num 19:1 – 21:2], is fascinating. We open the parashah still in the second year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, but by the time we reach the end of the parashah we’re in year number 40. There are strange laws and unusual episodes, the deaths of leaders and of dreams, pitched battles, winged serpents, temper tantrums, water miracles, and leadership transitions, all within the contours of a single week’s reading from the Torah.
Chukat starts with a description of the priestly ritual that the Israelites are to follow whenever they come into contact with a corpse. The priests are instructed to take the ashes of a red cow and use them as part of a purification ritual. The laws of the parah adumah, or red heifer, have perplexed rabbis for thousands of years, and continue to be the subject of speculation to this day.
Then, the Torah portion jumps forward 38 years in time, leaving us to wonder what happened to Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the Israelites during all those long years in the desert. When the story resumes, we read about the death of the prophet, Miriam. Shortly after losing his sister, Moses and Aaron face a grumbling, thirsty population of Israelites clamoring for water. God instructs Moses to take his rod, approach a particular rock, and speak to the rock to give forth water for the people. Amidst the peoples’ complaints, however, an over-stressed Moses finally comes unglued. With Aaron watching helplessly, Moses throws a fit in front of the entire assembly, yelling at them for their endless rebelliousness and striking the rock repeatedly with his rod. Water gushes forth, but in the aftermath of this drama God informs Moses that he and Aaron will not be accompanying the Israelites into the Promised Land. It’s a shattered dream following almost 40 years of shepherding this difficult flock.
D’var Torah – Nitzavim/Vayelech 5770
Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR
Shabbat shalom to everyone on this, the last Shabbat before the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins. I hope to see all of you this Wednesday night, Thursday morning, Thursday night and Friday morning for Rosh Hashanah services, and then again Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat Shuvah services. It’s a lot of davenning, a lot of togetherness, and I pledge to bring my breath mints if you will too.
In our annual journey through the Torah, we’ve gotten very close to the end of the scroll. This week we’ve arrived at the double Torah portion known as Nitzavim/Vayelech. It begins with well-known words, spoken by Moses to the Israelites: atem nitzavim kool-chem ha-yom leefnay adonay. One translation reads: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God.”
It’s a moment in which Moses tells the Hebrews that they are about to enter into a covenant with God and in the fullest sense, become a nation bonded with God. There are several moments of covenant between God and Israel in Torah, and this one stands prominently alongside the pact made between God and the people earlier in the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Now, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land in just a matter of days or weeks, though, sadly, Moses won’t be making that journey with them. But for now, Moses informs them that they are about to ratify, once again, their sacred agreement, their eternal pact with God, as they get ready to transform from a wandering tribe of Hebrews to a nation within a land.
Moses goes on to remind the Israelites that if they keep the covenant they will create a just and prosperous society, and enjoy peace with their neighbors. If they violate the covenant, however, there will be sad and painful consequences. Ultimately, the land will spit them out, and they will find themselves in exile. Their beloved promised land will fall into ruin and destruction on such a scale that neighboring nations will pity them.
We read these words with dramatic irony. As readers we know that not one but two bitter and catastrophic exiles await the Israelites in the centuries after Moses’s life. After warning the Israelites that exile will be the cost of breaking the covenant, Moses tries to offer them hope should they ever find themselves in exile in the future. Here’s some of what he says:
When all these things happen to you [meaning when you do inevitably violate this covenant and find yourselves exiled from your land] … should you take [all that I’ve said] to heart amidst the various nations to which the Eternal your God has banished you, and should you then return to the Eternal your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and spirit…then the Eternal your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in motherly-love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Eternal your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the sky, from there the Eternal your God will gather you, from there God will fetch you. And the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; and God will make you more numerous than your ancestors were.
If we stop and look at this passage closely, we start to see how extraordinary it is. Here is Moses, giving his final speeches to a people he knows is deeply flawed, yet full of promise.
D’var Torah – Parashat Re’eh 5770
Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR
Shabbat shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, and in it we continue to listen to Moses’s final review of the laws and statutes that the Israelites are to observe as part of their covenant with the One who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, the Eternal One. Moses goes over many different topics in Re’eh, and tomorrow morning Ethan, our bar mitzvah, will focus on an area having to do with kashrut, the laws governing how we make eating food a holy act. In another part of this parashah, however, Moses gives an overview of the rituals involved in the celebration of the great festivals of the people of Israel. The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, get special attention. Tomorrow morning, when Ethan chants the maftir, or last few verses of the portion, he’ll be chanting words that describe some of the things we’re supposed to do on Sukkot. Listen to what the text says:
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths, chag ha-sukkot, for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the Eternal you God seven days, in the place that the Eternal will choose; for the Eternal your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
You might have noticed the emphasis on happiness and joy in this passage. There’s a key word that recurs in the Torah’s discussion of sukkot, and that word is sameach, or grammatical variations on it. Sameach is the word for happiness or joy, and in fact one of the various names for the holiday of Sukkot is Zman Simchateynu, or “Season of our Joy.” In the passage I just quoted above, the Hebrew root sameach comes up twice. We hear it first with the words “you shall rejoice in your festival” – v’samachta is the Hebrew for “you shall rejoice.” Then, towards the end of the passage, it says “ you shall have nothing but joy.” The Hebrew reads, v’hayitta ach sameach.
Eric Mendelsohn, a past President of Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, writes the following:
The grandchildren of the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, building on his commentary, note that the word “Simcha” … – “Be happy !” occurs three times in the description of Sukkot (and with the extra command “Ach Sameach” – “[really] be happy”, it is almost like a parents’ reminder — “Have a good time and by the way, have a good time.”) On the other hand, [even though this Torah portion also describes the other 2 great pilgrimage festivals, the word] “Simcha” is mentioned only once for Shavuot, and not at all with regard to Pesach.
In a d’var Torah he gave at his synagogue, he asks why this might be. Here’s some of what he writes:
The agricultural basis of these holidays provides a simple explanation. Passover is the time of lambing and the sign of spring, but there is great apprehension about the crops to come. The winter wheat is in but the barley and vegetables will take seven more weeks. At Shavuot – the barley is in and one can breathe somewhat easier. But Sukkot is the grand Thanksgiving feast, at which rich and poor alike are assured enough sustenance. Judaism teaches that one has the right to enjoy the material benefits of this world and we are enjoined to rejoice in having them.
The Rabbinic linking of the three festivals to history also provides a reason for the differing amounts of required happiness. At Pesach – Egyptian soldiers have been drowned; we cannot rejoice when others are suffering. At Shavuot we can be happy that we have received Torah, but there was the incident of the Golden Calf which mutes our joy. But Sukkot celebrates the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle of the desert). It provides the wholeness of having a spiritual center that moves with one — and that is cause for unbounded joy. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)”
Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009
Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.
The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer. The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.
Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness. With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission. The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.
But that changes quickly. Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh. Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”
D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769 (2009)
Rabbi Maurice Harris
On Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by the sages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’s Egypt just before the arrival of the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first born of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goes through to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”
In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins and ends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In the haggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (and I paraphrase):
How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. By Miriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as he floated in a basket down the Nile. … In the birth waters and in the Nile, these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. … The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to the Sea of Reeds.
A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water by a princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrow cavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out the other side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took a closer look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I was reminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this crucial moment, just before the 10th plague brings grief and sorrow to so many in ancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron and spits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter it as an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and on the side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with a visual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of a holding chamber and into a new existence.
The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this is part of
its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The key word is the Hebrew word for basin – saf – spelled with a samech and a final fay. This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.
Saf is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in the other two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describes baby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basket containing her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reeds is soof, spelled almost identically to saf. In the second instance – the liberation of the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word soof appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from which they emerged.
D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011
Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shabbat shalom. Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night. Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.” Deen is right. Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child. The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.
As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero. The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court. Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.
Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well. Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts. Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.
So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame? We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness. The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath. In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn… And the prophet, Hosea, says about God: In you the orphan finds mercy.
I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries. One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable. God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems. Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans. God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans. Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.
This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.
In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty. You know what happens next. As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my 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 commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'”
And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God.
When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it.
By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.” P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.
Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process! But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”