Parashat Tetzaveh: The Strategically Absent Leader

7 Adar 5778/ Feb. 22, 2018

The rabbis strategically divide this week's Torah portion to begin with the last lines from Exodus Chapter 27 that describe the ner tamid, the continuous flame. This light serves as a symbol of God's presence in the mishkan, God's dwelling place among the Israelites in the desert. By placing this section at the head of our Torah portion, the rabbis frame the symbolic nature of the main subject of the Torah portion which is about the clothing the leaders who serve in the mishkan must wear - kohanim, the priests and Aaron as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. By doing so, our Torah portion is teaching that the leader's symbolic presence, like the eternal light, points us to the sacred.

This lesson of symbolic leadership is most clearly demonstrated in our Torah portion, ironically, through the absence of Moshe's presence. This is the only Torah portion in the last four books of the Torah in which Moshe's name is completely absent. Perhaps this is teaching us that sometimes the best thing a leader can do to point people in the sacred direction is to pull oneself back. In the context of this Torah portion, Moshe's absence creates space for the Torah to focus on the leadership role of Aaron and his sons. His shadow is not even cast over the critical symbolism of how the priestly garb directs us to the sacred.

In the context of the larger narrative, Moshe is receiving these instructions from God on top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days, hidden from the people in a cloud. Again, perhaps the Torah is teaching the people to learn how to function without the constant presence of the leader. We know the dangers of how the cultic style of leadership strips away the autonomy and independence of individuals and the community, and, ultimately, their direct relationship with God. The people learn this lesson through their failure in Moshe's absence in next week's Torah portion about the Golden Calf.

However, we see this strategy of the leader contracting him or herself (or in this case God) again, but this time successfully, in the Purim story. God's name is completely absent from Megillat Esther. God leaves space in the Purim story for humans to take active steps to bring about the necessary redemption. Resulting in God's presence permeating the story through the bold actions of Esther and Mordechai.

There are opposite circumstances when the leader needs to minimize his or her role to emphasize God's role. Like Joseph did when Pharoah asked him to interpret his dreams: "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare." (Genesis 41:15) Perhaps this is why Moshe's name is also absent from the Hagaddah. The lesson that persists from the Exodus from Egypt is that God cares for the vulnerable. Moshe symbolized God's care in this circumstance, but God's care for the oppressed transcends these circumstances and this particular leader. Hence, the rabbis who composed the Hagaddah teach this lesson by absenting Moshe's role from the telling of the story.

It is often challenging for us to restrain ourselves in one area of our lives to do what we most value in other areas. Hopefully, the lessons from the Torah portion and leaders in our day can help us evaluate the proper balance of our own leadership responsibilities in parenting, on behalf of our communities, or at work.

Parashat Terumah: Stepping Into Sacredness

There is an important custom that has developed at the beginning of the Amidah, literally the "Standing" prayer: We take three steps backwards and three steps forward while reciting a verse from Psalm 51:15 that has six Hebrew words, saying a word at each step. What does this specific practice and Jewish prayer (tefillah) in general teach us about fostering sacredness in our lives?

In this week's Torah portion, Terumah, God shares the mitzvah to build a dwelling place for God that will travel among the people of Israel in the desert and ultimately be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Mishkan: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם "They shall make for Me a sacred place so I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8) Just as Israelites passed from the regular space of their daily lives into this sacred encampment, so too does each individual take these steps to move into a sacred space whenever he or she approaches God to recite the Amidah. This practice teaches us that when we carve out dedicated spaces, be it our individual prayer space, the family dinner table, or communal places of prayer in synagogue, we can access God's presence. It also teaches us that we need to approach such spaces with proper intentionality, hence the verse we say as we take these steps, or saying blessings before the meal, and the special mah tovu prayer we say upon entering the synagogue.

In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that Judaism's contribution is not the building of great edifices since the majority of our history has been in exile; rather, by observing Shabbat and holidays, we have constructed palaces in time. Setting aside specific times from the rest of the week, and filling these times with joy and pleasure, reflection and prayer, family and community, we enter into and delight in an elaborate palace. We commune with the King of kings as we immerse ourselves in what is most meaningful and the purpose of our lives. There is a mitzvah, a Jewish obligation to pray three times each day - morning, afternoon, and evening. At each prayer session, we recite the Amidah. When we take these three steps backwards and forwards we are dedicating our time to this sacred experience of time.

In the priestly book of the Torah - Leviticus, Vayikra or Torat Kohanim - an important world view about how to approach the sacred is presented. Simply put, one has to be in a pure state of being, tahor, to enter into the sacred precincts of the Temple, especially a Kohen, one serving as priest. One becomes impure, tamei, by coming into contact with the dead, certain diseases and bodily fluids. To become tahor, one needs to wait a certain amount of time from having such contacts and immerse in a mikveh, a living body of water. This ancient system thus predicates contact with the sacred upon the spiritual state of being of a person. In our modern society, do we have a sense of what it means to be spiritually fit to approach the sacred? Are we sensitive to moods, physical disposition, mental awareness as we enter into place of prayer? Perhaps those who meditate have developed such a sense of themselves. When we take three steps forward to approach God, can we assess our spiritual readiness? Are we ready? Are we pure? Are we distracted? Have we come into contact with something in our lives that we have to deal with before we can enter into a sacred place? These questions may seem strange to many of us. Perhaps that is why prayer is so foreign to many Jews today. What do we need to do to prepare ourselves to pray? These three simple steps can remind us that we have to exert such effort to approach the sacred.

Stepping into sacredness during the Amidah teaches us that we need to dedicate sacred spaces is our lives, even if that space in a place that we simply walk into with intentionality. Observing Shabbat, holiday, or the daily practice of Jewish prayer reminds us of the importance to dedicate specific times in our lives to what is of ultimate importance. Finally, we need to do inner work to ready ourselves to approach the sacred. It isn't realistic that such experiences happen magically. Thus, we need to step with great awareness of ourselves into the sacred.   

On a personal note, dedicating myself to the sacred has come naturally at certain times of my life, and at other times I have had to reach towards it because it has been distant and challenging. I am grateful that it remains a goal that directs my life and values. 

Parashat Mishpatim 5778


 25 Shevat 5778/ Feb. 10, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: A Balanced Relationship with God

"...Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware lest you are burned by their embers..." Pirkei Avot 2:10

As the people of Israel experienced the revelation at Sinai, they were overwhelmed by God's presence. They beseeched Moshe to speak with God on their behalf, afraid for their very lives (Exodus 20:16). In a way, they felt the "burn of God's embers." Yet when Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai for 40 days, they couldn't deal with the absence of their physical connection to God, Moshe, so they built the Golden Calf as a substitute. They felt cold from the distance from God. This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, challenges us to find the right balance in relationship with God: not too cold, not too hot, but just right.

What does it look like today to be so distant from God that we feel cold? Or, on the flip side, what does it mean to approach too closely to God getting burned by God's embers?

For many of us, God language itself is problematic. How can we use such human terminology, anthropomorphism, to describe God? Furthermore, after the Holocaust, it becomes even more challenging to talk about relationship with God unless we do so in a traditionalist judgmental manner. Hence, it is easier not to deal with such questions. That leaves us, however, with poor resources to understand our place and purpose in the world. Perhaps we should just accept the new reality: We are distant from God and need to battle against the chills of reality the best we can.

There are others who claim to know God's truth. Their book, be it the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran, prescribe the way to relate to God. Those who are blind to the one absolute path are blind stubborn sinners who refuse to let God into their lives. Such religious zealotry burns by holding God's coals in their bare hands. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: "To equate religion and God is idolatry ('No Religion is an Island,' p. 13)."

So how do we find that balance of engaging in a humble relationship with God? Can we pursue ultimate meaning with an open heart by not only listening to the experience of others, but by studying the wisdom inherent in our respective traditions? Can we seek to live a righteous life by not only abiding by the norms of our society, but by being brave enough to experiment with counter-cultural religious practices that may critique or restrain our lifestyle, i.e., pausing on Shabbat or refraining from non-kosher foods?

Living in America provides the beautiful freedom to make independent choices to live according to our own values in our own way. I know many good Jewish people who choose to live apart from the community. I respect their choices, because I don't feel like Judaism has the monopoly on the truth or the "good" way of life. However, I choose to dedicate my life as a leader and as a member of a Jewish community because I find meaning in this communal path as we perpetuate our balanced relationship with God, like a fiddler on the roof.

Torah is Going forth from Berlin

When we take out the Torah for the public ritual reading, we chant the following quote from Isaiah 2:3, "Torah is going forth from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem."  In the biblical context, this verse describes the divine instruction emanating from Jerusalem that will guide the nations of the world to usher in an era of world peace. 

On Tuesday evening, May 30, it is the holiday of Shavuot during which we celebrate the original revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai. The description of this numinous event that we read about in Exodus 20 has inspired the idea that God has and continues to communicate with us. Isaiah takes this idea of continuous revelation and shifts the location from Mt. Sinai in the wilderness to Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, where the Temple was built in the heart of the Israelite kingdom. 

In the following article I describe how Torah is being revealed today. I am honored to participate in the upcoming momentous ordination of Nizan Devorah Stein, the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in Germany since the Shoah on June 18 and the significance of this resurgence of Torah in the life of our people:

Meaning-making in Chaos, a Personal Response to Yom HaShoah

*How should we commemorate Yom HaShoah?  On a personal level, my initial inclination is to do nothing.  The loss is so great that any ritual can not adequately capture its enormity, nor do I feel a need to do so since it’s dark cloud is so much a part of who I am.  Yet how can I go through my normal routine of the day without doing something?

Perhaps, standing silent here in America at the moment that the siren is sounded in Israel would be appropriate. By doing so, I would be standing in solidarity with my people who have persevered in the face of destruction and thrived in its wake.

Perhaps, I should volunteer to read names of the victims or go to listen to others who are reciting them at the local Jewish center  At least this conveys the commendable attempt to commemorate the loss of so many people.  How long does it actually take to read six million names, their ages, and their birthplaces?

Perhaps, we should fast on this day like we do on other days of destruction. Viscerally, depriving myself of food when remembering my relatives who were starved day-in and day-out is anathema to me.

Perhaps, attending the official community Yom HaShoah ceremony.  By standing up to make meaning in the face of chaos seems like a moral imperative — dare I say a mitzvah?  Yet, it just takes so much energy to trudge up the willingness to do so.

Perhaps we should look to God. Perhaps.

Through all of this we say, “Never Again” with some semblance of conviction as wars rage, terror reigns, and governments oppress their own people. At least we stand up to defend ourselves while still trying to commit ourselves to caring about the other.

Standing up against the meaninglessness in our world is worth every and any attempt to do so, even if it feels feeble.  Committing ourselves to meaning in the face of chaos, however we do it, is sacred.

We may come up short in our attempts to recount the horrors of the decimation of one third of our people and the destruction of European Jewry; to preserve the memory of each precious person — man, woman, and child — who was murdered; to reflect upon and understand the human capacity for evil by some and apathy in the face of evil by many; to acknowledge the bravery and sacred acts of gentiles who stood up to save Jews at the risk of their own lives; to remember the tens of millions of others who died in the war.

At least, I can attempt to overcome my own apathy as I commemorate Yom HaShoah.  This may be my small but sacred contribution to make meaning out of this day.

*Delivered at the community Yom HaShoah program in Savannah, GA., and posted in Times of Israel

Building Bridges of Understanding Out of Slavery

This is the piece  published on my blog at Times of Israel:

Building bridges of understanding out of slavery | Ruven Barkan | The Blogs | The Times of Israel

At the march in Selma last month, Dr. Susannah Heschel gave a fiery speech in the prophetic social justice spirit of her father Abraham Joshua Heschel calling upon the Jewish community not to turn inwards. With the threats against Israel, the rising anti-Semitism in the world, and the challenges of the changing Jewish community in America there is the inclination to hunker down and take care of one’s own. How can we care about the rest of the world when we are struggling ourselves?

While all of these are real issues, I agree with Dr. Heschel that we must not respond to them by turning inwards. Yes, we must stand up for ourselves, but if we are only for ourselves then what are we? This Pesach, the repeating imperative in the Torah to care for the “other” is calling out to us:

“You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah reminds the Israelites that when they are established in the land they must not forget the lessons of their enslavement and vulnerability in Egypt. Instead, they must look to their humble origins to access empathy for those who are in such a position when they reach a position of power in the land.

This ancient message remains timeless and relevant for us as a Jewish community. While we are facing our own serious challenges for simply asserting our Jewish identity, there are others in our midst who are suffering. Whether it is racial, religious, or economic discrimination, we know that there are serious issues that plague our society.  By turning away from those who are oppressed as a Jewish community, we bear a share of the responsibility by being complicit in perpetuating the ills in our society.  We can not avoid, excuse, or attempt to remain neutral in the face of others’ suffering.  Again, in the words of Heschel, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

There is a progression in the intensity of the moral imperative of this mitzvah as it is repeated through the Torah.  It begins with, “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).  Building on this it says, “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Then the Torah goes even further, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 20:34).

When we follow the Torah’s prescription of turning outwards to care for the “other,” we place ourselves in a position of strength. This may be why the Torah uses the word “stranger” and not “slave” in these cases when describing our experience in Egypt.  For when we reach out to the other we transform our negative experience of being enslaved into empathetic strength that we can access to protect the others in our midst who may be vulnerable. The Torah is teaching us that by taking action on behalf of others we transform the way that we perceive ourselves and our history – from helpless slave to empowered and empathetic defender of the other.

Once we shift our treatment and perception of the other in our midst, by protecting the stranger as one of our own, we fully redeem ourselves from slavery’s lasting legacy. This can be understood in the ultimate command at the end of the Torah that further challenges our empathetic capability: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation” (Deuteronomy 23:9). The Israelites’ experience in Egypt comes full circle by incorporating the Egyptian stranger into their society, the descendents of those who once enslaved them. The Torah sets a high moral standard for us to strive towards.

Building  relationships with other races and religions in our midst is a crucial first step to build bridges of understanding in our two diverse societies of America and Israel. In my experience, grassroots dialogue with other communities gives each person permission to inhabit his or her own faith, racial, and ethnic identity. While we may interact with people who very different from us on a daily basis, we rarely engage people in the fullness of our respective identities. Engaging in such encounters is sacred. To create such a space, we must intentionally pierce through our routine transactional ways of relating to people by intentionally listening and embracing the other as a person created in the image of God. This sacred encounter provides the opportunity to learn from the other how we express our common human experience differently and ultimately celebrating the varied world that God designed with wisdom.  Building such bridges with others most effectively occurs person to person on the local level.

When we live up to this moral imperative, when we garner the strength and confidence to reach out to the other, even those who were our enemies in the past, when we change our self-perception of being weak by lifting up others in our midst, then we know that we are fulfilling the Torah’s challenge regarding the stranger.  Let us heed this timeless message of Torah restated by Dr. Heschel by reaching outwards to those who are strangers in our midst.  Building these bridges of understanding we redeem ourselves and those around us.

חג כשר ושמח May you have a joyful and kosher Passover!


Source: Building bridges of understanding out of ...

Sh'ma Yisrael: ComplexConservativeContemplation

Part of what makes praying undesirable is many think it involves turning off our mind.  Tefillah, the authentic Jewish prayer experience requires just the opposite.  We must engage, critique, and find new meaning in these affirmations about God, the world, and our role in it that were developed in ancient times.  Our ancestors wrestled with the big questions about life.  Conservative Judaism uses Tefillah as an opportunity to engage us in active conversation about such issues.  To that end, I tackle one of the starkest paragraphs that is at the heart of each service, morning and night.  You may want to read the paragraph before you list to the video: Deuteronomy 11:13-21.  Join the conversation -- let me know what you think about prayer, Conservative Judaism, and God's role in the world!

Here is the video:


Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Why can't we all just get along?

People often associate religion as being a source of irrational beliefs that lead to division and, ultimately, war.  They hold that religions promote a triumphalist mindset that say, "I am right and you are wrong.  Someday you will see the light, and if that day doesn't come soon we may just force you to see it."  What then is the point of dialogue with people who can't listen to one another?  The conversation ends here and all religions suffer.  What many religious people do in response is remove their religious identity from the public sphere.  Others simply throw out religion altogether, saying, "Let's ignore our differences and convictions or simply abandon them so we can build a world united in our common love for humanity."  These two poor choices between an isolationist absolutism and a watered-down universalism are the primary extremes people draw from when building a religious or non-religious identity in our complex diverse society.

In this sermon, I present a third option.  One in which we proudly affirm our unique religious traditions, but we do so with a spiritual humility that acknowledges, in Heschel's words, "God is greater than religion."  I articulate this vision of interfaith dialogue drawing heavily upon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's essay, "No Religion is an Island."  (You can read his essay here).  When we develop such a pluralistic mindset, religions serve as a source of common values that bind us together even as we celebrate our differences.  This has been my experience of interacting as a Jew with Muslims and Christians that I share and promote here.  This deeply religious viewpoint encourages one to build his or her particular faith identity while honoring and lifting up other peoples' faith identities at the same time.  I welcome your comments and experience in response.  The future of our world depends on it.