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Lessons In Leadership: Vayak’hel-Pekudei

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

When it came time for me to decide on a topic for my rabbinic dissertation, the choice was easy. I recognized it early on, when I was yet a first year student at Hebrew Union College. It would be about chapters from the Midrash—the rabbinic teachings of the first millennium—dealing with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In retrospect, I understand now why that choice was so clear. My experience as a second generation Holocaust survivor had prepared me. As a child growing up in Israel, just about every adult I knew was a Holocaust survivor. Everyone I knew was trying to rebuild his or her life, starting from scratch.

Later, as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t only true for the people I knew personally. It was true for the whole Jewish People—in fact, for the entire world population, Jewish and Gentile like. World War II and its horrors changed us forever. We had witnessed the most terrifying cruelty, the most evil acts ever perpetrated by humanity, and we were no longer the innocent human race we were before.

Reconstructing humanity, rebuilding civilization from the ashes, is no simple matter.

In the Midrash, the Rabbis viewed similarly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem was the heart of world Jewry. Though Jewish communities existed elsewhere, the Kingdom of Judea was the epicenter of Jewish sovereignty. With that gone, spiritual renewal became crucial if Judaism and the Jewish People were to survive.

Perhaps the wise rabbis, authors of the Midrash, looked to the Exodus from Egypt as their model. The second book of the Torah, Exodus, actually contains two parts: First comes the story of the redemption from Egyptian slavery. But the entire second half of the book takes place afterwards, in the Sinai wilderness. Now its focus is not on the Hebrews as slaves, but rather as free builders of the Tent of Meeting—the Tabernacle—the temporary temple that the Israelites carried with them during their wanderings in the Wilderness. Instructions and blueprints for the Tabernacle are given and repeated in minute detail. In this week’s double portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei (Ex. 35:1—20:38), the story comes to its conclusion with the assembly and completion of the Tabernacle, replete with the magnificent gold menorah, the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and the splendid tapestries woven with expensive and colorful thread and material.

As slaves, the Israelites were not able to build or structure their own lives. The orders came from Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Everything was dictated: So many bricks per day, so many buildings and storehouses every week, month and year. The kingdom of Egypt was built by slaves, many of whom did not live to see the end of the day in the harsh desert sun. Added to this was the genocide we suffered at Pharaoh’s decree: With every newborn male that was thrown into the Nile, we saw our future swept away by waves of hatred, misery and oppression.

Rebuilding the nation was not going to be easy, but Moses had the wisdom that this project required.

First, Moses gave us hope. Moses reassured us that God had not forgotten us; that the time was coming when God would fulfill the pledge made long ago, to lead us out of slavery and take us—on eagles’ wings—to the Promised Land. With hope rekindled, we found new spirit within us to face the future, no matter how bleak life was at the moment.

Next, Moses gave us faith.

An invisible God is not easy to believe in. All around, people were worshipping idols. Egyptian mythology is filled with fantasy creatures that people actually believed in, half-animal, half-human creatures that led their own lives, detached from humanity, all involved in their own problems and mysteries. These were images of gods and goddesses who required sacrifice—often enough human lives—to appease their insatiable lust for power and pleasure. In fact, Pharaoh himself was a god, which permitted him to do anything he wanted to: he could decree war or peace; he could issue laws and appoint judges to benefit himself or anyone else he wished to favor. He was provider of food and water, shaper of global history. Why, he could even command life and death!

Moses taught the Israelites a different faith. He taught us to believe in a supreme God characterized by justice, compassion and fairness; a God before whom all human beings are equal, and who judges all beings by set rules of what is holy and what is evil. The God that Moses taught us about is not fickle, like those worshipped by the Egyptians, but rather a God of consequences: to each according to his or her own deeds.

Thirdly, along with hope and faith, Moses gave us something to do, presenting us with a project that each individual, big or small, young or old, could participate in. He gave us instructions for a Tabernacle to be built with materials and goods we supplied of our own free will, with everyone contributing of his or her talent, ability and means. Response to this was overwhelming—so much so, the Torah tells us, that the offerings brought forth far exceeded the actual need.

Similarly, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the rabbis of the first millennium gave us hope again. They taught that the Messiah would restore Jerusalem to its former glory and reassemble our exiled people from all corners of the world. The rabbis reinforced our belief in a God who was supreme to any earthbound ruler, albeit a God whose vision lay far beyond our mortal grasp and understanding.

Like Moses, the rabbis, too, then presented us with a building project. They instructed us to build not one temple, but many tabernacles and temples. They showed us how to construct houses of worship and study that would accompany us along our journeys and which would be our spiritual homes during throughout our wanderings in the Diaspora. They taught us about tikkun olam, encouraging us never to give up hope, never to stop believing, to continue offering our free-will donations and to persist in our endeavors to turn the entire world into a holy dwelling place for God.

Post-Holocaust, today we find ourselves in a similar quandary. With our own eyes we have seen the collapse of mighty empires, with new nations rising and once-oppressed peoples re-asserting their lost identity. In the wake of destruction, hope for a new world order, for world peace, returned.

For the Jews, there is no greater miracle or proof of God’s power than Israel restored, with its heart still beating in our ancient—now-rebuilt—capital, Jerusalem.

But problems persist and abound. Waves of anti-Semitism have been cresting both globally and locally. Israel is again—or perhaps still—under physical, legal and moral attack by its enemies.

Tensions all over the world are rising. Global alliances are falling apart. More countries than ever now possess nuclear power and are intent on developing the means and technology to use it against others. Our fragile environment continues to be eroded by greedy corporations. Affected by climate change, entire regions of the world are reeling from the effects of massive storms, drought and famine, while new plagues and diseases ravage whole populations. And yet people still worship false, corrupt gods of money, lust and power, denying responsibility, believing themselves to be beyond reach, unaccountable for their words or behavior.

Facing enormous problems, it would behoove world leaders today to review the lessons taught by Moses and the ancient Rabbis. Tweeting insults in the middle of the night; denying health benefits to the most vulnerable among us; turning against the stranger, the refugee, the impoverished; returning to past norms of prejudice and persecution—these are not the markers of the path to the Promised Land, but rather back to the dank and miserable past we had left behind.

Moses taught us to have faith in a just and loving God. From the rabbis we learned about tikkun olam. Throughout the ages, we have not lost our hope to see and live in a better world.

These lessons are important to remember especially today, in an age of uncertainty and change, an age when ethics and morality are challenged daily by unbridled greed and corruption. The most important lesson our leaders can internalize today is that a great leader is not recognized by the gold and ivory with which he surrounds himself, but rather by the hope he inspires, and by the unity and purpose he brings to his people. These are the signs of true leadership. These are the signs of a great civilization. May we all benefit from these eternal lessons, so that our nation will truly once again shine as a beacon of hope for the whole world and all its inhabitants.

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A Quantum of Holiness

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1—20:23), more than any other passage in the Torah, contains the most transformative and eternal moment in the entire history of the People in Israel. It is in this portion that the People of Israel receive the Ten Commandments.

Yitro, after whom the portion is named, is Moses’s father-in-law. Years earlier, after killing an abusive Egyptian slave master and arousing Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses fled to the wilderness. There he meets Jethro and marries one of his daughters, Zipporah. Years later, no longer a fugitive but rather now leader of the redeemed People of Israel, Moses returns to the wilderness. Jethro comes out to meet him, and the two greet one another warmly.

Yitro observes Moses as he struggles from early in the morning and deep into the night, trying to bring law and justice to the Israelites. A wise leader in his own right, Yitro offers Moses sound advice on how to organize, regroup, govern and judge the unruly mass that the Israelites are at this point in their journey.

Had our development stopped right there, I doubt we would still be here today, more than 3000 years later. Many civilizations had developed law codes, established courts, judges and a magistrate system. Precious little remains of them today. But Israel was destined to do something greater than that, and if for that reason alone, it is still here.

Israel is to be a unique people in all history, a people that stands alone and apart from all other nations, and moreover, a people that exists in a unique and special relationship with God.

In its relationships with other nations, Israel will find itself navigating uncharted waters. On one shore, the one we left behind, is Egypt. On the other side lies the Promised Land. On its journey from the one shore to the other, Israel will encounter many nations and peoples. Some will want to see us cursed or destroyed; others on the other hand, will be of help, sustenance and support. Moses understands that for the sake of physical survival, Israel needs to be organized along well-defined lines. Existential dangers lie along the way, including a people called Amalek, a people who will come to symbolize all that is evil and dangerous in the world.

But if, in addition to simple survival, Israel is to accomplish the high spiritual goals that God has envisioned for us, there has to be more. And so, with due courtesy and affection, Moses sends his father-in-law, Yitro, back home, while he and the People of Israel turn eastward and take their first steps toward their promised home.

Almost immediately, however, they arrive at, and encamp, before a mountain the Torah calls the Mountain of God. It is here that they enter into the Covenant with God, the Covenant that will ensure not only Israel’s physical survival, but also its spiritual legacy, its special charge of being a Holy People, a “light unto the nations.”

Certainly there are many reasons to climb mountains. When Sir Edmund Hillary returned from his famous ascent to the peak of Mt. Everest, he was asked why he climbed the dangerous mountain. His often-quoted reply was, “Because it was there.” Without a doubt, mountains present physical as well as spiritual challenges. Mysterious but beautiful, ever since the dawn of humanity mountains were seen as the dwelling place of the gods.

It was at this very mountain, the Mountain of God in the Sinai Wilderness, where Moses first encountered a vision of God, appearing in the burning bush. Now it was Israel’s turn.

Unlike other religions, whose founders were alone when their god appeared to them, the Revelation at Sinai was for the entire People of Israel to behold. Forewarned not to touch the sacred mountain, the people felt nevertheless drawn closer and closer to it, as though through some powerful force that they could not understand. This force was God’s presence, appearing in fire and smoke, accompanied by a loud blast of a shofar, a sound that—according to the ancient rabbis—reverberated from one end of the world to the other. God’s voice rose louder and louder, calling out, singling the People of Israel out from all other nations, inviting us—challenging us—to be God’s Chosen People.

Frightened, the people ask Moses to intercede, for him to speak God’s words with his voice, a voice that they could understand and absorb. And so the Ten Commandments come to be our legacy, a moment that transcends history and time. At that moment, Israel ceased being a nation like all other nations, and became a force acting with God, in partnership with God, a people whose survival would be warranted not only by physical strength, but also by spiritual power.

But along with the more famous and often quoted (and misquoted) Ten Commandments, there is actually another, an eleventh commandment that we Jews have taken to heart. Whereas the Ten Commandments embody what is good and holy, the 11th commandment addresses evil.

Among the many people and tribes that the Israelites meet along their journey in the wilderness, one tribe stands out for its viciousness and cruelty: Amalek. Amalek is actually the first tribe that engages the Israelites in battle, immediately after the Exodus. It is a hard battle, and not immediately won. During the forty years that Israel wanders in the Sinai Wilderness, the Amalekites will attack again and again, earning a curse from God, who swears to eradicate not only the people but also its very name and memory. Following one of those battles with the Amalekites, Moses issues a commandment: “Zachor,” he says, “Remember that which Amalek has done to you when you came out of Egypt.”

To some of us, this Zachor, this commandment to remember the people who tried to kill us, who concentrated all their evil on the weak and defenseless among our nation, has become the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt never again allow your enemies to slaughter you unprotected.”

The Midrash relates that “When God gave the Law, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Seraphim ceased from saying ‘Holy, holy,’ the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the Divine voice said, ‘I am Adonai your God’” [Ex. Rabba, Yitro, XXIX, 9]. We have been hearing those words ever since then; they are still reverberating within our hearts and souls today.

Israel’s survival through the ages has depended on these Commandments. The Revelation at Sinai proved a force that has kept us unified despite the vicissitudes of our existence, despite our long history of exile, destruction and rebuilding. In days of glory and peace, our Covenant with God has enabled us to enjoy life with all its pleasures and gifts. During the long and dark nights of oppression and persecution, it gave us light, comfort, sustenance and hope.

But most of all, what these Ten Utterances—‘aseret ha-dib’rot—have done was to instill into our hearts a quantum of holiness. With the light we perceived then, we can still find meaning and purpose for our existence now. Listening, hearing, discussing and obeying the Commandments, we find new strength to continue; the fire within us rekindles, and we can make new progress along our journey of 3600 years, bringing light and hope to all corners of the world and the universe around us.

Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, may have contributed rules and regulations to the nascent nation of Israel; but what Moses and God did was to give us eternal life. It’s the gift of holiness.

May the light of holiness, the light we saw at the moment of the Revelation at Sinai, continue to shine within us on this Shabbat and throughout the days and nights of our lives.

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The Moral Obligations of Freedom

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Sermon For Shabbat “Bo” 5777

The Exodus is one of the most breathtaking stories in the entire Torah. Visually spectacular, it is also intensely dramatic, so much so that it has been turned into opera, several Hollywood movies, and at least one musical.

But aside from that, this story really has many important lessons for us even today, more than 3000 years after the events it recounts took place.

Here are some of the lessons I got from it.

First, I learned how easy it is for people to forget—or at least not to learn from—their own history. “A new Pharaoh arose,” the Torah says; one that “knew not Joseph;” who forgot how Joseph had, not too long ago, saved all Egypt from a devastating famine; how, instead, he helped Egypt turn into a world power; and how, along the way, he enriched Pharaoh’s own, private coffers. Forgetting all these contributions, Pharaoh in return, turns the Jews into slaves, persecutes them and ultimately even resorts to genocide. Pharaoh commands that all male Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile River.

Secondly, I learned about heroism. Despite the harsh decrees and cruel oppression, the Jewish People refused to give up. Encouraged by teachers and visionaries like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the Jews struggled under their burden, yet heroically they held on to their faith, never losing hope that God would eventually redeem them and lead them back to their own land, the Promised Land.

We often think of heroes as men, but in the Exodus story women take their rightful place among the saviors of our people. There were the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who proudly resisted Pharaoh and refused to obey his orders, which they saw as unjust, cruel and inhumane. Then there were also the ones who acted in secret, such as Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who took pity on her child and refused to hand him over to the assassins. There was Miriam, who watched as her baby brother was put in a tiny basket and allowed to drift among the reeds that lined the shores of the Nile River. And there was, of course, the Daughter of Pharaoh, who openly flouted her father’s orders, rescued the baby from the water, and raised him as her own.

Reading between the lines, I understood that there must have been an Underground Railroad, a secret, hidden passageway meant to save Jewish babies; and that Miriam, her mother Yocheved, and even Pharaoh’s daughter were probably part of this secret, sacred alliance

The Ten Plagues—whether you read them literally or as symbolic metaphors—were the means by which God intervened in history, with the result that a new nation was created, one that still lives to this day, the Jewish People.

The Plagues were terrifying then—and are still so today. I remember from my childhood days in Israel when a huge, black cloud of locust descended on the land. They covered up the sky almost completely, causing a huge amount of agricultural damage, before the wind—and us kids going out in the fields, banging pots and other noisy implements—finally drove them out.

When the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” came out nearly two decades ago, I remember seeing it in the theater. As the tenth and final plague, The Death of the Firstborn, was about to be unleashed, in the tense and ominous moments that made you hold your breath in fear and anticipation, suddenly a young child’s voice rose from a few rows behind where I was sitting. “Can we go home now??” the child cried out.

I learned that when God does intervene in history, to rescue the afflicted and uplift the oppressed, God does so with the most terrifying power, power that blows away like so much chaff the most haughty and proud of tyrants.

But if cruelty leads to downfall and destruction, it is compassion that leads to redemption.

Pharaoh’s ultimate defeat was not only due to his tyrannical rule. It wasn’t only that his glory and the glory of his entire civilization were founded on the backs of suffering slaves. It was his lack of pity and compassion. When the Hebrew slaves complained, he increased their burden; when they continued to flourish and increase despite all his harsh decrees, he ordered them killed. Pharaoh watched as children were thrown into the Nile; he didn’t flinch as they flailed in the water; he didn’t blink an eye as their desperate cries grew silent, one by one.

The compassion of the Hebrew midwives infuriated Pharaoh. He was powerless before them. But his ultimate downfall was ensured by his own daughter, who refused to obey his orders, obeying her own heart instead, when she did show compassion, taking pity on one small child and rescuing him from the water. This child grew to be the man who gave us the Ten Commandments and led us to the Promised Land, Moses.

One of the most important lessons of the Exodus story is not to forget. Pharaoh had forgotten Joseph; what we must do now is to remember. It’s important to remember the good times, yes. But we must also remember our past and what we had to endure to remain Jews. Not only because it’s part of our history, but also because it reminds us of our moral obligations. The Torah commands us, “Thou shalt neither trouble a stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Jews have always interpreted this commandment as having compassion for the homeless, for the dispossessed, for refugees and newly arrived immigrants; for those whose rights are all too often infringed upon; who are too often taken advantage of; and who daily face ridicule and disparagement—just as we did, in ancient Egypt and throughout our history.

The memory of slavery and suffering are etched in our minds and souls. And so we become socially and politically active whenever we see taken away the rights of other people, people of different skin color or religion, of a different gender or gender identification, immigrants, refugees, the marginalized of our society.

The key to our existence is memory, and over the many centuries and millennia that have passed since the Exodus, we have not forgotten. Every year, at our Passover seders, we remind ourselves. We repeat the story, one generation retelling it to the next, obeying the commandment we find in this week’s portion, והגדת לבנך, “And you shall speak these words to your children.”

Who knows, perhaps it is for this reason and purpose that we were redeemed by the Almighty, so that we could pick up where God left off, and bring freedom, joy and light to every corner of God’s world.

May we find the faith, the courage and strength to make this broken world whole again, to make it a better place for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the downtrodden, so that we too, along with our children—or perhaps our children’s children—might one day enter the Promised Land just as the ancient Israelites did thousands of years ago.

Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.