Taking Climate Action Through Environmental Justice in Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps

“Climate justice intersects with all the other justice issues,” says Noa Gordon-Guterman. “The Earth houses all of both the beautiful work and all of our flaws as a human people. When the Earth is hurting, human beings are hurting as well. It is important to act on that interconnectedness.”

Noa is a current Avodah Service Corps Member serving with Interfaith Power & Light (IPL), a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. IPL focuses on a “religious response to climate change,” an intersection of two important values for Noa, who is interested in climate resiliency and was raised within a Jewish community. IPL does a mixture of state-level advocacy work, greening projects for congregations and spiritual programs coordination. 

“I am interested in the way that spiritual and religious community can be organized to create climate resiliency,”  Noa said. “I do a lot of work with Jewish communities, including organizing through the Jewish Climate Action Network and other, young adult-centered programming.” 

Noa with a community garden she has been tending.

In her work and advocacy,  Noa makes a point to center young voices, especially those of POC and indigenous identities. The organization’s programs are aimed to both benefit and empower those populations, which are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate injustice. This included Noa’s recently developed environmental justice-oriented Omer calendar, in which each day includes a different learning or action opportunity to encourage individuals to combat climate change. She has also helped to give young people an opportunity to connect with local farmers in preparing for Shabbat dinners, working alongside One Table and organizing climate justice programs with Repair the World

Noa’s service this year has caused her to think critically about Judaism and her own identity. Judaism is heavily rooted in a historical context, but Noa spends her days working for a better future. It’s important to her to find a way to resolve that conflict. She says that Judaism has deepened her understanding of the world on a day-to-day basis, and it also gives her the language to understand crises. 

Her experience as a Corps Member not only offered her post-graduation stability during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it taught her valuable skills she can take with her into the workforce.  

“What I really wanted to gain from IPL, in addition to deepening my knowledge about environmental issues, is an understanding of how small nonprofits function. I now understand how to interact with folks in work spaces and how to organize people in a way that respects their needs, culture, religion and world views.” 

Noa intends to continue her work in the environmental space after her time in the Service Corps. 

“I love and feel nourished in cities and also feel nourished by nature,” two things which fuel Noa’s passion for urban agriculture and finding ways to reduce extractivism. “When human beings feel more connected to their environment, they can heal their relationship with the Earth.”

A Time for Obedience, A Time for Spontaneity: Why did Nadav and Avihu Die? D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini

The last two shabbatot were filled with so much excitement, through our annual Pesach excursion into the exodus story, that we may forget that when last we left our regular, weekly journey through the Torah, we left on one of the Torah’s most dramatic, if underappreciated, cliffhangers. This week resolves that tension with perhaps the most emotional whiplash in the Torah, the successful inauguration of God’s home, with God’s explosive, physical inhabitation thereof, followed by the same Divine fire incinerating two priests exercising ecstatic devotion. What are we supposed to learn from the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two sons killed at the altar?

The cliffhanger: the entire people having donated abundant goods for the construction of the Mishkan, God’s portable home, and the artisans having constructed it, Moshe having dressed Aharon and sons in their priestly vestments, Aharon and sons having offered the preparatory offerings on the outside, Parashat Tzav closed with Moshe instructing Aharon and his four sons to sit tight in a seven-day rehearsal quarantine vigil to prepare for inaugurating the Mishkan (Leviticus/VaYikra 8:33-36). For three weeks now, we’ve waited anxiously outside this vigil, wondering whether the inauguration will work: will God find a home among us? Our parasha picks right up on the morning of the eighth day, with Moshe giving detailed instructions with a clear purpose: “This is the thing that YHWH has commanded you do, that the Glory of YHWH may appear to you” (Leviticus/VaYikra 9:6). Aharon and his sons meticulously fulfill them: blood, sacrifices, the whole nine yards. And it works! “And Moshe and Aharon came into the Tent of Meeting and went out and blessed the people, and the Glory of YHWH appeared to all the people. And a fire went out from before YHWH and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw, and shouted with joy, and fell on their faces” (ibid., 23-24). Can you imagine the exhilaration and relief felt by a community who thought it had been abandoned by a disgusted God after the Golden Calf? Immediately in that thrilling moment, “And the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, took each man his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they brought forward before YHWH alien fire, which [God] had not commanded them. And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them, and they died before YHWH” (ibid., 1-2). 


{Blank space to breathe and reflect.}


What do we make of the death of Nadav and Avihu? It feels like it’s very important to learn from an overwhelming event like that, but the precise lesson has been surprisingly elusive. The Torah refers to this episode a couple of other times, perhaps complicating more than clarifying our attempts to derive a lesson. Six chapters later, the sanctuary purging ritual, which is associated with Yom Kippur, opens, “And YHWH spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who came forward before YHWH and died. And YHWH said to Moshe, “Speak to Aharon your brother, that he not come at all times into the Sacred Zone within the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for in the cloud I shall appear over the cover” (Leviticus 16:1-2). Later, when the Torah gives a genealogy of the priestly family and mentions Nadav and Avihu, it adds, “But Nadav and Avihu died before YHWH, when they brought forward alien fire before YHWH in the wilderness of Sinai; and they had no children” (Bemidbar/Numbers 3:4). Perhaps we should draw insight from God’s direct words to Aharon immediately after his sons are killed and Moshe instructed the cousins to remove the corpses: “And YHWH spoke to Aharon, saying: 9 Wine and liquor do not drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die; this is an eternal law for your generations, and to  distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which YHWH has spoken to them by the hand of Moshe” (Leviticus/VaYikra 10:8-11). God always speaks to Aharon either through Moshe or along with Moshe; perhaps this unusual direct commandment, at this shocking moment, is in direct reaction to what just transpired.

The Rabbinic tradition, from its earliest stages until today, has also struggled to pin down the lesson. Just among early Rabbis of the formative 3rd century, we find the following views:

  • Rabbi ‘Akiva focused on the “alien fire” and explained that they were punished for coals from an unsanctioned, unsanctified, profane source (Midrash Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:32);
  • Rabbi Yishma‘el, in one place, rejects R. ‘Akiva and focuses on “which [God] had not commanded them”: it’s not that the fire source they brought was any different than the successful ones brought before. It’s that they brought it on their own volition, without being instructed to do so (ibid.);
  • Rabbi Yisma‘el, in a different place, explains that Nadav and Avihu must have been drunk when they entered; hence God’s immediate intervention to tell Aharon that no one may do priestly service drunk (Sifra, Aharei Mot, 1:5).
  • Rabbi Yossi HaGellili reads Leviticus 16:1 to teach that “they died on account of their drawing near, not on account of their offering” (Sifra, Aharei Mot, 1:2). They crossed a boundary and drew too near to the Divine, when they weren’t supposed to.
  • Rabbi Eli‘ezer teaches that their sin was “teaching halakha in front of their teacher”: they had a reason for bringing the fire they brought; they thought it was called for by Torah law, but Moshe is right there and it was an affront to his leadership to innovate and model a new interpretation of protocol in his presence (Talmud Bavli, ‘Eruvin 63a).
  • An anonymous view, similarly, teaches that their sin was that they didn’t show respect to Aharon, nor consult with Moshe, nor even with each other! They weren’t objectively too close and their offering was not objectively wrong; they just acted impetuously, not thinking before they acted, not seeking a second opinion (Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:32);
  • Another anonymous view says that there was nothing at all untoward about this offering, but Nadav and Avihu had been condemned to die at this moment much earlier, at Mt. Sinai, when, this midrash imagines, “they saw Moshe and Aharon walking first and they behind them and the Israelites behind them, Nadav said to Avihu, ‘Soon these two old guys are going to die, and we will lead the community!’” (Sifra, Shemini, Miluim 2:21).

One might see in all these views a common center of gravity: Nadav and Avihu were punished with death for freelancing, for acting out of individual devotion of passion, rather than obedience. The great 20th Century Bible educator and scholar Nechama Leibowitz takes this view (Studies in Vayikra , 1983, Shemini #2, “The Tragedy of Nadab and Abihu”):

“Their guilt…lay in man’s desire to break through, as it were, to the Almighty and cleave to his Creator not in accordance with the prescribed ordinances, but rather in conformity with the dictates of his own heart. The acceptance of the yoke of heaven which is the aim of the whole Torah is here replaced by a religious ecstasy which is free from the trammels of normative religious discipline, unrestrained, and unsubservient to the divine will. For this reason they were punished.”

For Leibowitz and many others, the lesson of the death of Nadav and Avihu is that there is no place for ecstatic, creative, or spontaneous spiritual life, that authentic Jewish devotion is exclusively through obedience. I think that this reading is as wrongheaded as it is to interpret a parent’s warning to a child, “Don’t play with fire”, to mean “Don’t play”. If spontaneous religious innovation is always wrong, what about Miriam and Moshe’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15)? What about Pinhas’s vigilante justice when the judicial system was frozen and thousands were dying (Numbers 25)? What about Elijah the Prophet taunting wicked King Ahab and the Priests of Ba‘al on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18)? None of those Biblical heroes had been commanded to do what they did, yet their actions are praised. The notion that the problem is innovation or spontaneity itself is undermined by the continuation of our very story, when Aharon himself innovates an halakhic ruling, without relying on explicit precedent, in the immediate aftermath of Nadav and Avihu’s death, and the Torah highlights Moshe’s validation of his innovation to close this saga (Vayikra/Leviticus 10:19-20). I wrote about this exchange and its implications for halakha and rabbinic responsibility here

I’ve also seen rabbis, mostly contemporary liberal rabbis, relate to Nadav and Avihu as models of the Jewish innovative spirit. In doing so, they loosely follow Hasidic teachings that highlight the devotional passion of Nadav and Avihu as religiously intense and positive, and to be emulated, but fail to grasp the implication of even those radical, positive readings, that the kind of radical passion they are describing is deadly in its intensity. Both of these approaches dig into an orthodox posture in an either/or tug-of-war between obedience and innovation and fail to grasp how context-specific our story is. 

The inauguration of the Mishkan is scripted out with an extreme emphasis on detailed protocol: “as I commanded” (8:31), “As was done on this day, YHWH has commanded to do to atone for you” (8:34), “for so I have been commanded” (8:35); “And Aharon and his sons did all the things that YHWH had commanded through Moshe” (8:36); ““This is the thing that YHWH has commanded you do” (9:6); “ as YHWH has commanded” (9:7); “as YHWH had commanded Moshe” (9:10); “and he did it according to regulation” (9:16); “as Moshe had commanded” (9:21). The Torah is explicit about why following protocol is so important here, in this context. “And at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting you shall sit day and night for seven days, and you shall keep YHWH’s watch, that you may not die” (8:35). This situation is very dangerous. Direct contact with God can kill you, as the Torah has taught before. At Mt. Sinai, Moshe was warned, “Cordon off the people around, saying, ‘Keep watch of yourselves from going up the mountain or touching the border of it; anyone who touches the mountain will surely die’” (Sh’mot/Exodus 19:12). After the Golden Calf debacle, when Moshe coaxes God to return to relationship with the people and requests to see God’s face, God warns him, “You can’t see My face, for no person can see Me and live” (Sh’mot/Exodus 33:20). 

Community organizers understand very well how important it is to hew to authority and follow instructions in a dangerous, well-planned action. Let’s say you’re planning a mass action against ICE detention or police brutality or a major corporate office building, and you’re bringing a large group of people into a standoff with the police. You don’t throw this together and what happens, happens; you plan this out meticulously ahead of time. You assign roles, you rehearse, you lay out contingency plans for different outcomes. The LAST thing that can be tolerated is for a couple of hotheads inspired by the moment to freelance and spontaneously engage in some unplanned, dramatic action. That can get somebody killed and undermine the entire action, even the movement! In moments like these, when you’ve been given detailed protocol by people you trust enough to be following to come out in the first place, that strict  adherence to protocol is essential. Nadav and Avihu were hotheads and they knew better. They were there for the seven day rehearsal vigil. Maybe in another context, their “alien fire” would have been a welcome innovation, but here? Now? They played with fire in the most reckless way. Also, it’s impossible to separate their action from their privilege. Maybe many Israelites felt ecstatic inspiration, but they didn’t rush forward but were restrained, disciplined, by their own modest non-entitlement. These two guys — of course they were guys — Aharon’s sons, priestly royalty, don’t stop to think whether it’s appropriate for them to take up all that space. They didn’t take counsel with anyone. Their misunderstanding of their privilege led them to exercise judgment about as well as a drunk person.

But seasoned organizers also know not to interpret this lesson too broadly. People like Nadav and Avihu, who need to be held strongly in check when protocol is present and essential, may be exactly the people who will courageously and creatively initiate some bold action in another, surprise circumstance that didn’t benefit from planning. Miriam and Moshe started singing when there was no script for how to respond to the vanquishing of their oppressors. Pinhas went in specifically when he saw that Moshe was disobeying God’s instructions and the leadership class was disobeying his instructions, and the entire leadership class was hamstrung in a crisis. No protocol. Elijah the fugitive came out of hiding to confront the corrupt hegemony when God had been exiled from the land. No protocol. The 18th Century Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl teaches that “Pinhas is Elijah. He inherited the souls of Nadav and Avihu” (Me’or ‘Eynayim I, 278-279, quoted in Ariel Evan Mayse’s 2019 article, “Like a Moth to a Flame: The Death of Nadav and Avihu in Hasidic Literature”).

There’s a time and a place, but we have to be able to exercise judgment, to recognize context, to make distinctions. Recall God’s words to Aharon just after his sons’ death, explaining the commandment to avoid wine: “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane” — lehavdil bein kodesh uvein hol (Lev. 10:10). This story is our source for Havdalah, our weekly, sacred act of discernment, of “distinguishing”, of recognizing the energy needs of the moment, when is the time for obedience and when is the time for spontaneity. 

Shabbat shalom. 


Singing Each Other to Freedom from the Trapped Cleft of the Rock: D’var Torah for the Last Days of Pesach

This Shabbat is also the 7th day of Pesach, which, in addition to being the end of the Biblically-mandated, seven-day, “Festival of Matzot”, is also the date, according to Rabbinic tradition, of the Israelites’ crossing of the Sea of Reeds, drowning of the Egyptian army therein, and wondrous expression of our realization of freedom, through communal singing of Miriam’s magnificent Song of the Sea. As Rashi crisply summarizes in his comment to Sh’mot/Exodus 14:5, when Phara‘oh released the Israelites, he thought they were only going for three days and would then return, “and as soon as they had reached the three days’ journey which he had fixed for them to go and return, and [his advisors who escorted the Israelites] perceived that they were not going back to Egypt, they came and told Phara‘oh on the fourth day. On the fifth and sixth they pursued after them. On the night of the seventh day they went down into the sea and on the following morning they sang the Song and this was the seventh day of Pesach. And that is why we read the Song as the Torah reading on the seventh day of the Festival.” This year, in addition to chanting The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) and, as the haftarah, David’s song of celebration for being saved from enemies (II Samuel 22), we also chant the entire Biblical book of Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), which is usually chanted on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach, but joins the Day of Song on the 7th day on years like this one, when there is no intermediate Shabbat of Pesach. Why all this song? Why is singing so crucial to the experience of freedom?

The inclusion of the Book of Shir HaShirim in Scriptural canon is itself interesting. On the face of it, it’s a collection of eight chapters of gorgeous love and erotic poetry between two lovers in pursuit of each other. It’s not about God or the Jewish people and seems out of place in the Tanakh. Several early Sages claim that there was controversy over whether to consider it part of the canon, but Rabbi ‘Akiva aggressively disagreed, stamping out any question or doubt about the holiness of this book, “for the whole world is not as worth as on the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all Scriptures are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5). If we take this metaphor seriously, Shir HaShirim is the radiant energy center around which the rest of Scripture derives meaning, potency, and holiness. Accordingly, the Rabbinic tradition understood this book not as, or not only as, erotic poetry between two individuals, but as an interpretive key through which to unlock the Torah’s narration of the courtship between God and Israel during the exodus. (Prof. Daniel Boyarin discusses this phenomenon brilliantly in his book, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, Indiana, 1990.)  Let’s take a look at one example of how a personal love drama comes to unlock the fuller meaning of the drama of liberation.

One verse of Shir HaShirim, which seems to stand apart from the fragments around it, depicts one lover courting the other, with the courted lover shyly hesitating, perhaps coyly flirting, playing hard-to-get: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, let Me see your face; let Me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is fair” (Shir HaShirim 2:14). On the face of it, this preciously captures an all-too familiar moment of courtship compliments. The midrashic tradition sees something else, though, the key to understand another peculiar moment of hesitation in the exodus, from tomorrow’s holiday.

The Israelites stand at the banks of the sea, wondering where to go next. They spin around to find the Egyptian army charging after them. Naturally, they freak out, cry out to God, and then yell at Moshe: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Sh’mot 14:11-12). Moshe attempts to calm their panic with a dramatic, swaggering promise: “‘Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which YHWH will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again! YHWH will do battle for you; you, keep quiet!” (ibid., 13-14). Strangely, though, God doesn’t dramatically split the sea at that instance to justify Moshe’s bombast; God says, “What are you crying out to Me for? Tell the Israelites to go ahead!” (ibid, 15). Needless to say, “go ahead” is a surprising thing to tell a people standing between a sea and a charging army. But this moment was critical to our freedom, so we need a key to unlock it, to understand the mechanics of discovering previously unimaginable paths to freedom when we feel trapped, out of options, hopeless, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The Rabbis, the same generation of 3rd Century Rabbis as Rabbi ‘Akiva, found that key in the human courtship experience, as expressed in our verse in Shir HaShirim: “At that time, Israel were like a dove which, fleeing from a hawk, entered the cleft of the rock. But there, a snake hissed. If she enters within, Look! The snake! If she comes out, Look! The hawk! That’s what Israel was like at that time: the sea closed them in and the enemy pursued. Immediately, they gave their eyes to prayer. About them the Tradition unpacks: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock, let Me see your face; let Me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is fair’ (Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on Exodus 14:13).

Maybe the Rabbis are just uncomfortable with eros and so they’re stripping this erotic poetry of its human eros to submit it to religious discipline; a lot of people feel that way about this midrashic posture toward Shir HaShirim. I don’t think so. If they wanted to distance themselves from it, they would have kept it out of the canon; they would have denied its holiness. I think they’re drawing from erotic experience to learn from it about our political and religious experience, centering human eros as universally meaningful, beyond the individuals sharing in the erotic encounter. By reading this line of love poetry in the context of Israel between the sea and the army, they coax us to notice that beneath our shy hiding and coy masking can burn profound fear. People have all sorts of tactics for hiding our fear — masks, costumes, vanishing tools — but ultimately, the closet is a place of fear. That fear can be debilitating, squeezing out the room for creativity to see paths of liberation: all there is is a snake and a hawk, a sea and an army, ready to devour us. How did the Israelites break out of that closet of panic and see a surprising, trailblazing path forward through the sea? The voice in our poem is exactly what is missing in our Biblical narration. While God chastises Moshe to cut the drama and tell Israel to go, God is telling Israel, You’re a beautiful dove, trapped, closeted, and scared. Let me see you, let me hear you, because you are beautiful and your voice is gorgeous. It is the human experience of being built up by a lover, of coming to believe in our own power and worth through the lover’s embarrassing showering of praise, that allows us to remove the masks of hiding, to come out of closets, to find paths of liberation that we didn’t have the capacity to see before.

Prose struggles to break out of the bounds of the expected; poetry and song help us break those boundaries. This Shabbat and yom tov, let’s sing, sing, sing our way to freedom. Let’s sing of love, of miracles, of ridiculous, impossible things like splitting an ocean and then drowning an army in it. Through our song, let’s unlock our prose and birth our freedom.

Shabbat shalom and Chag sameah.

P.S. As a bonus, here’s a beautiful, contemporary, musical rendition of our verse from Song of Songs by Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble.

Avodah Selected by 2021 Genesis Prize Laureate Steven Spielberg as Grant Recipient

For Immediate Release: March 25, 2021

Contact: Amanda Lindner, [email protected]


Avodah Selected by 2021 Genesis Prize Laureate Steven Spielberg as Grant Recipient

Avodah is among 10 organizations recognized for their racial and economic justice work

NEW YORK, NY – Avodah has been selected by award-winning director, producer, and philanthropist Steven Spielberg to receive a significant grant in his honor from The Genesis Prize Foundation. Spielberg chose to forgo his $1 million Genesis Prize, which is awarded annually to individuals for extraordinary professional achievement, contributions to humanity, and demonstrated commitment to Jewish values. Avodah is one of 10 organizations that will split the prize money, with Spielberg and Kate Capshaw contributing an additional $1 million in matching funds.

Avodah and the nine other organizations that will be awarded the funding were selected on the basis of their strong racial and economic justice work. Since 1998, Avodah has trained and supported Jewish leaders so they can contribute their skills and passion to create a more equitable country and world. Avodah participants provide both direct service and work to address the systemic racial and economic injustices faced within areas of immigration, healthcare access, housing, food insecurity, domestic violence, criminal justice reform, and more.

“I am honored and moved that Avodah was chosen by Mr. Spielberg and The Genesis Prize Foundation to be a recipient of this gift,” said Cheryl Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Avodah. “And we are thrilled to be part of such an incredible group of organizations who exemplify justice in the work they do. These funds will have a tremendous impact on the communities we support, including our expansion to San Diego this summer and our work there to support immigrants and refugees.”

The Genesis Prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel” by TIME magazine, recognizes Spielberg’s extraordinary contributions to cinema, his extensive social justice and philanthropic work, and his firm stance against anti-Semitism, as well as his tireless efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and prevent future genocides. The 9th Genesis Prize honoree, Spielberg follows in the footsteps of his predecessors by donating the million-dollar prize to causes about which they are passionate. 

In addition to Avodah, the other organizations selected by Spielberg are: Black Voters Matter; Collaborative for Jewish Organizing; Dayenu – A Jewish Call to Climate Action; Jews of Color Initiative; Justice for Migrant Women; National Domestic Workers Alliance; Native American Rights Fund; One Fair Wage and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 

With this award, Avodah is proud to add another incredible leader to its list of supporters. Previous supporters of the organization include 2018 Genesis Lifetime Achievement Honoree Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made multiple contributions to Avodah.


Justice is a Jewish value — and at Avodah, we believe that Jewish leaders have the power and responsibility to change our country for the better. Avodah trains and supports Jewish leaders so they can contribute their skills and passion to create a more equitable country and world. Founded in 1998 as the first-ever Jewish Service Corps, Avodah’s national network of justice leaders strengthens the Jewish community’s commitment to racial and economic justice by addressing issues of immigration, healthcare access, housing, food insecurity, domestic violence, criminal justice reform, and more.

From the desk of the CEO: One year of COVID-19

I write this note sitting at my dining room table in Brooklyn, NY, with my children attending school via video in the next room. It’s unbelievable that it’s been a year since the pandemic hit.  My last time on a plane was visiting our Chicago site last February. I sat with our Corps Members at the Jane Adams Senior Caucus, hearing stories of organizing by and with seniors, I sat unmasked eating king cake (in honor of Mardi Gras) with Avodah supporters, Board and Advisory Council members.

Over the past year, we’ve all faced challenge and loss. I send love to each of you who has struggled through this year. I am finding hope in the first notes of spring – a small bud in my yard, a warm breeze, and watching the vaccination numbers rise with each passing week.  

I am also finding inspiration in the work of the Avodah Service Corps Members and our alumni.

The 23rd (!) Service Corps cohort is more than halfway through its year and continues to show up in incredible ways despite the challenges of the pandemic. You will see examples of their incredible work throughout this newsletter. Like our Chicago Corps Members, Danielle and Gabrielle, who serve at Broadway Youth Center and distribute essential supplies to homeless teens. Or our New Orleans cohort which started cooking 100 hot meals every other week for the unhoused through a collaboration with Southern Solidarity.  Or our New York Corps Members who are serving on a mobile health clinic – a retrofitted van that travels throughout neighborhoods that have less access to health clinics.

In our “In Their Own Words” video, you’ll see an inspiring conversation between Elizabeth Schmelzel, an attorney and Corps Member supervisor from CAIR Coalition (which supports asylum seekers) and Jordan, a Corps Member in D.C. In describing this work, Elizabeth said, “(Jordan is) sitting with someone who has never seen your face. Sitting with someone who has to tell you the worst thing that ever happened in their lives. And doing this in a foreign language. Jordan does all of that almost daily, with extraordinary grace, unending patience, an epic quality. Jordan is the type of person who understands the economic injustice, the racial injustice in our systems and yet is not overwhelmed by them. She has that in her head and can still do her work.” 

These are extraordinary words, and I’m not surprised to hear this. I hear comments like this from partner organizations about our Corps Members over and over. I am so proud.

This has not been a normal year for any of us. The Corps Members, like all of us, have lived under strict protocols. And as Elizabeth says above, we are seeing resilience, curiosity, and creativity emerge from these circumstances. These are traits that I believe will serve them and our communities long into the future. These are traits that will help them, as they step into leadership now and in the future. I have said all year that I want and hope that our Corps Members will look back at 2020 and 2021 and say, it was challenging to live through a pandemic and I’m so glad I did it as part of Avodah I’m so glad that I got to do work with purpose.  

And like our Corps Members, I hope you feel proud of your investment in Avodah. You are investing in a program with purpose. Thank you again for making our work possible.

With appreciation for your partnership,

Cheryl Cook, CEO

Our Hearts Are Broken – Statement of Solidarity with Asian American-Pacific Islander Communities

Our hearts are broken after the tragedies in Atlanta. Anti-Asian violence, misogyny, gender-based violence, white supremacy, xenophobia – it must end now. To our Jewish AAPI community, we are holding you close. We mourn with you and we stand with you.

There has been an alarming 150 percent increase in violence and harassment against Asians and Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with women reporting incidents at twice the rate of men. We cannot allow ourselves to be desensitized to the violence, to become accustomed to muttering our sorrows and moving on. As Avodah’s Rabbi-in-Residence Lauren Tuchman says, “we are all created b’Tzelem Elokim, in the image of the divine.” We must acknowledge the infinite value of the lives lost as a result of hatred – and see ourselves as one another’s keeper.

At Avodah, our religious ideas and values move us to tangible, meaningful action. We are  following the leadership of AAPI-led organizations and activists, such as Stop AAPI Hate, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Asian American Feminist Collective and so many others, as we strive together for a more just and equitable world.

We will continue to push our leaders to take steps to address the impact of hateful rhetoric and the violence directed at AAPI individuals. We stand in solidarity with our AAPI community in the call for accountability.

Z”l. May their memories be for a blessing. May this moment be for a revolution.

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33

Xiaojie Tan, 49

Daoyou Feng, 44

Paul Andre Michels, 54

Elcias R Hernandez-Ortiz, 30

Hyun Jung Grant, 51

Soon Chung Park, 74

Suncha Kim, 69

Yong Ae Yue, 63

You Must Testify, but if You Snitch, You’re Excommunicated — D’var Torah, Parashat VaYikra

What is a citizen’s duty in upholding a responsible, criminal justice system? Our parasha addresses that question head-on with a seemingly clear commandment: “Any person who sins, having heard a public imprecation and is a witness, having seen or known, if they do not tell, then they must bear their crime” (Leviticus/VaYikra 5:1). The language may be a little technical and legalistic, but the point is clear: you are committing a crime if you don’t step forward when you have relevant testimony. As the medieval legal code the Tur (Rav Ya‘kov ben Asher, c. 1269-c. 1343, Cologne, Toledo) catalogues it: “Anyone who knows testimony about another person and is fit to testify it and it has impact on another person is required to testify, whether they alone know the testimony or if there is another person with them” (Tur, Hoshen Mishpat 28:1). If you see something, say something. How can we ever hope that abusers and exploiters be stopped from hurting people if witnesses don’t come forward?

The requirement to come forward and testify is very difficult to enforce. Today, law enforcement officials regularly complain about their inability to interrupt cycles of crime because civilians in the affected community refuse to step forward and share information, testify, snitch. The Torah says  ominously that such a person “must bear their crime”, indicating that this crime is not punishable in human court, but only in the Divine court (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kamma 55b). The fact that the Torah needs to legislate this law and dangle it from the fear of God reflects the fact that people have many reasons not to want to cooperate with police, prosecutors, civil attorneys, or anyone else associated with the court system. First of all, people might have valid reasons to fear repercussions from those implicated by their testimony. Elsewhere, the Torah commands those involved in the justice system, “Do not fear any man” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:17), which may well imply, “Do not fear ‘The Man’”. Rashi (1040-1105, France) cites a midrash indicating that the word for “fear”, taguru/תגורו, might include a valence of hoarding, hiding what you have to yourself, silencing your voice. The 3rd Century Midrash Tannaim spells this out: “So that you do not say, ‘I am afraid of So-and-So, lest they kill my child or lest they light my haystack on fire or lest they cut down one of my saplings.’” The horrors faced by brave women like Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, and so many others, who have stepped forward to testify against powerful men, are just the tip of the iceberg of why people have good reason to be afraid. But the Torah tells you not to. That’s a hard mitzvah.

The Rabbis show understood the treacheries involved in testifying: you might ruin your own life and you also might ruin someone else’s life! The Mishna legislates that judges are required to impress upon witnesses to a capital case just how profound the implications are if the witnesses get it wrong: “Know that capital cases are not like monetary cases. In monetary cases, a person can return the money and be cleared. But in capital cases, this person’s blood and the blood of all their future offspring hang upon you until the end of time. For thus we find with regard to Cain, who killed his brother: ‘The bloods of your brother cry out!’ (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10). It does not say, ‘the blood of your brother’, but ‘the bloods of your brother’: his blood and the blood of his future offspring.’….For this reason, Adam was created alone, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world and anyone who sustains a life is considered by Scripture to have sustained an entire world…. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). The Rabbis understand the risks in coming on so strong on witnesses, concluding the mishna: “And lest you now say, ‘What do we need this, and all this trouble for?!’ But it has already been stated: ‘If someone is a witness, having seen or known, and does not express it, they shall bear their sin’ (Leviticus/VaYikra 5:1). And lest you now say, ‘What do we need this, to be liable for this person’s blood?!’ But it has already been stated: ‘When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing.’ (Proverbs 11:10).

Everything we have said so far reflects a utopian view that ordinary citizens have reason to trust the honesty, integrity, and strength of the criminal justice system. Our own lives teach how unreliable that assumption is. The Rabbis were well aware of this problem, as well. The same 3rd century tannaim who recognize the intimidation witnesses face from aggrieved parties and from the gravity of the work also place restrictions on witnesses from testifying: “A witness who knows that another witness is a robber, from where is it derived that they should not join them [to testify together]? Scripture says (Exodus/Sh’mot 23:7): ‘From falsehood you must distance yourself’ (Talmud Bavli, Shevu‘ot 30b). The legal codes specify that this prohibition against testifying together with a criminal applies even when the testimony that the criminal witness would testify is true (Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 34:1). Offering true testimony that will materially affect the lives of others is less true, in the big picture, than withholding it, if offering that testimony will rehabilitate or validate the public standing of a criminal who is shaking down the community. It is considered dishonest to do anything to whitewash the Martin Shkrelis, Wells Fargos, and Jared Kushners of the world, even if they happen to be telling the truth in this particular case.

Moreover, the Rabbis understood well that many courts are compromised. The Talmud relates that either Rava or Rav Huna declared that everyone in both Babylonia and the Land of Israel are in consensus to excommunicate a Jew who voluntarily testifies in Gentile court on behalf of a gentile against a fellow Jew (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kamma 113b-114a). On the face of it, this might imply nothing more than crude Jewish supremacy, prioritizing Jewish power over truth and justice and dismissing the humanity of Gentiles. Such an attitude is familiar: the ideology of “snitches get stitches” is generally directed internally, within an in-group. However, the Talmud explains the reasoning for the threat of excommunication: “because [the Gentile courts] expropriate money on the word of one witness”. The Sassanian courts were rejected because they were seen to exercise inadequate judicial standards. The Talmud goes on to say that if there was a second witness joining the testimony against a Jewish person, there’s no objection to testifying. Moreover, the Talmud explains, the prohibition only applies to village courts, not to official government courthouses, which were seen to follow appropriately rigorous standards. It all depends on the integrity of the judicial system. Presumably, one should also not testify before a corrupt Jewish court.

Where this leaves us is that you and I and our communities have no choice: the Torah demands that we constantly assess the reality of our justice system. If it operates righteously and justly, the Torah requires our participation, even at great personal risk. Justice can be maintained only through the participation of the community. Don’t let powerful people intimidate you; speak up. If you don’t, let it be on your head. But if the justice system does not operate righteously or justly, if it lets bullies extort the weak, all the more so if it prosecutes the innocent and exonerates oppressors, then we are forbidden from participating: we are forbidden from following the Torah’s commandment in this week’s parasha. An unjust court system may be even worse than no system at all, because it grants perverse legitimacy to exploiters and abusers. We may not participate. Snitches may not get stitches, but they do merit excommunication. We have no choice but to assess our reality honestly and to reform our justice system, so that we may fulfill the commandments as the Torah intended.

Shabbat shalom.

Mirrors in the Mishkan: Centering the Tools of the Marginalized — D’var Torah, Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudei

This week’s double-parasha is a verbose carnival of the mundane in service of the spectacular, of the grind of minutia in service of liberation. The Israelites bring abundant raw materials and the gifted artisans guide the construction of God’s traveling home, the Mishkan, and all its sacred paraphernalia, a portable Mt. Sinai, as it were, a container through which the people can access Divine wisdom and insight throughout their journeys. I’ll confess that I, like many readers, sometimes find myself experiencing moments of boredom, tuning out, or glossing over, when reading these chapters, a spiritually parallel feeling I can experience in community organizing meetings, poring over small details of a particular action or strategy, over language in a proposed piece of legislation, in coalition negotiations. These minutia are the stuff of a just life of liberation; the work is constant and the struggle to balance tactics and vision is ongoing. All these details contain worlds. 

Buried amidst the detailed inventory of sacred Mishkan equipment, the Torah teaches that chief artisan Betzal’el made the laver for washing hands and feet, as well as the stand to hold it “from the mirrors of the women legions at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8). The word translated here as “women legions” is “tzov’ot/צֹּבְאֹת”, a feminine plural word from the root צ.ב.א., which connotes large, powerful gatherings. Sometimes it refers directly to a military assembly or campaign (eg, Numbers/Bemidbar 31). Sometimes it connotes a military revue-style entourage, as in the common Biblical and liturgical phrase “YHWH of hosts” (eg, Isaiah 1:9). Sometimes it connotes mandatory, organized community service: for example, the Torah describes the duties of kohanim/priests as “everyone who comes to tzava to do labor in the Tent of Meeting” (Bemidbar/Numbers 4:3). The use is strange in our mundane verse, offering us several nagging questions: 1) What’s with the mirrors? I understand where the people got gold, silver, and fabrics, which they generously donated for many other components, from the Egyptian property they took as reparations on their way to freedom (Sh’mot/Exodus 12:35), but what’s the backstory for these mirrors? 2) Why are women specifically emphasized as donors of mirrors? We already learned that men and women alike contributed generously to the Mishkan (Sh’mot/Exodus 35:22); what’s the deal with women and mirrors? 3) Why describe the women as “legions” or “posses” or “entourages” or whatever tzov’ot means? Why not just say “the mirrors of women/מראות הנשים”? 

The experience of digging for a backstory of people one year out of generations-long slavery inevitably will lead us to uncover some truth, some understanding of the liberation experience, some piece of subterranean, grassroots freedom history which we missed when telling the surface, leader-focused, official narrative. A piquant piece of Rabbinic folklore appears in a few different collections. As is so common with midrash, in answering the local question over which the reader trips — What’s with women and mirrors and washing vessels? — it answers some profound questions, perhaps unasked questions, about liberation. In the tradition of folklore, I have taken the liberty of fusing a couple of different versions of this midrash, from Midrash Tanhuma 9 and Rashi’s comment on Exodus 38:8, for fullest narrative flow.

“When Israelite men were toiling in their pointless, backbreaking labor, Phara‘oh decreed that they shouldn’t sleep at home, so that they wouldn’t have sexual relations. The women would go and bring them food and wine, and would feed them. They all had mirrors to look at while making themselves up, and as the men were eating and drinking, the women would take their mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror and would entice him with words, saying, ‘I’m prettier than you are’, and by so doing, they would arouse their husbands’ lust and would get it on with them, and the Holy One would help them be fruitful and multiply. When Moshe invited everyone to bring voluntary offerings for the building of the Tabernacle, the women didn’t hesitate to bring their mirrors. Moshe rejected them in disgust, because they were used for the evil inclination, telling the more conventional Israelites to beat the women with rods on their legs for offering such a lewd gift. The Holy One said to him: ‘You’re dissing those?!  ‘Accept them! These are the most valuable of anything! It’s because of them that the women produced many legions in Egypt. Take them and make the brass basin and vessel for the priests, from which they can wash and be sanctified.’”

There is a lot to unpack in this midrash, the heavily thematized gender separation and different responses to oppression, the machinations to preserve sexual life and fertility, the strange use of mirrors as sex toys, the curiously competitive form of the women’s sexual play, the very unusual negative Rabbinic depiction of Moshe in a place where the Biblical text did not require it, the imagination that the leadership class would totally misunderstand the redemptive work in the grassroots, and more. To understand this midrash’s imagination about the sexual politics in the trenches of slavery, we must recall that the explicit point of Phara‘oh’s oppression of the Israelites was to control their fertility: “And the Israelites were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and became very, very vast, and the land was filled with them.” Against that backdrop, “And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vast than we. Come, let us outsmart it, lest it multiply; and then, should war occur, even join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.’” Forced labor was a strategy for controlling Israelite fertility: “So they set forced labor masters over them so as to abuse them with their burdens; and they built store cities for Phara‘oh: Pithom and Ra‘amses.” The strategy failed, of course: “But the more they abused them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so they loathed the Israelites” (Sh’mot/Exodus 1:7-12). 

The Rabbis are unpacking the stunning fact of that last verse: under a brutal assault on communal sexual freedom and fertility, the enslaved people defied their oppressors and all odds and managed to affirm life through birthing more children than ever. The Israelites’ remarkable fertility may have felt like another miracle to the Egyptians, a direct, Divine intervention like the plagues. How else could separated couples conceive? The Torah knows how to tell us when there is direct Divine magic, though, and it says no such thing here, so the Rabbis fill in a very human story of underground resistance, led by women who refused to internalize the values of their oppressor and who understood that the despair of the men in their lives signaled just that internalization. Therefore, despair had to be met with eros.

Mirrors are tools of lust and ego. The masses of women understood the root causes of their oppression and of the despair in their midst. They used the mirrors to draw those crushed into submission what they had forgotten to look for. Listen to the tenderness, cheekiness, and rebellion all together in the women’s words of lust and ego-arousal. Rebellion is enabled through eros and eros, here, is aroused through taunting, playful hostility. Oh, you see yourself as a worthless tool of Phara‘oh who doesn’t merit freedom? Fine, you’re right. You’re ugly; I’m much prettier than you. Look. Some of the men’s pride and self-worth was probably ignited as they said, “Oh my God, she’s right! What’s become of me?!” and others’ as they instinctively fought back, “Screw you; I’m much hotter than you!”, and voila, there’s real interaction, real feeling, passion, and personal identity, where Phara‘oh tried to suppress it. This is the subterranean punk eros of life on the fringes, among the degraded outcasts, not the genteel courtship of mutual compliment, but the raw, arousal of lust and vitality from those under pursuit.

To my eyes, the Rabbis’ harsh depiction of Moshe in this midrash is one of the most arresting and moving moments in Rabbinic literature. There are places where the Biblical text depicts Moshe making mistakes and the Rabbis elaborate, but nothing in the Biblical text forces the Rabbis to imagine a failing Moshe here. When Rabbinic texts tell new stories about Moshe, the Rabbis are talking about themselves. By inventing a story about Moshe leading and God rebuking him, the Rabbis confront the scary realization of what they, the intellectual and spiritual leadership, would probably get wrong in the life of liberation. We would find the punks disgraceful. We would find no place for eros in the sacred. And we would be wrong. 

The leadership class sees the tools of the oppressed as trash; where the grassroots experiences plenty, the leadership imposes a scarcity narrative onto them. The people were just one year out of slavery at the time of the erection of the Mishkan (Exodus 40:2), but the Rabbis imagine that that quickly, the leadership class would be that removed from the grassroots, would have internalized the thinking of the oppressor, in this case, revulsion at the raw, messy, fecund eros of power-building. God says no: the tools of the oppressed are the most precious of all; the organizing of the most directly impacted is the most essential stuff of liberation. 

The Talmud teaches that it was “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b). Following the official, canonical freedom story, it is tempting to focus on great, brave individuals, the Great Women who dominate the first chapter of Exodus: Yokheved and Miriam, Phara‘oh’s daughter, the midwives Shiphra and Pu‘ah, all of them practicing dangerous and courageous civil disobedience where they have access, to defy Phara‘oh’s misogynist death cult, affirming life by literally saving babies. The Rabbis know, though, as we must, that heroic individuals spring out of mass, heroism in the grassroots, the army of subalterns who prevented Phara‘oism from taking hold. A true freedom culture centers the tools, fruit, and contributions of those subalterns. Where it does, that place can be a Mishkan, a place where God’s Godness dwells among the people.

Shabbat shalom.

On Learning, Loss, and Freedom: D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa

Ours is a parashah of contrasts, of colossal misses. After the overwhelming revelation to the newly free people, Moshe spends forty days receiving the rest of Torah from God. Only at the end, does he find out that meanwhile, down below, the people, impatient at Moshe’s absence, build a Golden Calf, proclaiming, as ridiculously as when people do so today, that this calf is God, who brought them out of Egypt (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:8). The next step in the narrative is that Moshe, seeing people not only worshiping this idol, but doing so without a hint of desperation or reservation, but dancing in celebration (32:19), dramatically smashes the Divine tablets of Torah into pieces and burns down the calf into water, making the offenders drink it (32:20), challenging the people to choose sides and demonstrate their commitments. Before introducing this narrative shift, just on the cusp of Moshe seeing the travesty with his eyes and shattering the tablets, the Torah heightens the drama by telling us a deferred piece of information about these tablets: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved upon the tablets” (32:16). Moshe took a supernatural gift and shattered it, irretrievably, into pieces. What should we learn from these tablets, their shattering, and their fragments?

The Hebrew word for “engraved”, or “inscribed” is “haruth — חָרוּת”. Though commentators note that this is synonymous with the more common word, “harut — חרוט”, it is an unusual, even unique spelling of the word. This anomaly leads the Rabbis to interpret the “misspelling” as a play on words, imbuing the verse with a double entendre: “Do not read, ‘haruth – חרות – engraved’, but ‘heiruth – חירות – freedom’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 18:3). Three second-century Sages shared somewhat different understandings of the crux of the freedom which was manifested by these miraculous tablets: “Rabbi Yehuda said, freedom from the Angel of Death. Rabbi Nehemia said, freedom from the kingdoms. The Rabbis said, freedom from suffering” (ibid.). The Divine Word, the totalizing expression of truth and understanding that is the culmination of exodus and liberation, is Freedom — whether from mortality, from political subjugation, or from suffering — and it was that freedom, which was ours for the inhabiting, was shattered and lost. Punctuating the tragedy of this colossal error and missed opportunity, a 2nd-Century sage reflects on another implication of our verse: “Rabbi Eliezer said: What is the meaning of that which is written, ‘engraved upon the tablets’? Had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten from the Jewish people” (Talmud Bavli, ‘Eiruvin 54a). We blew it: we are forever doomed to forgetfulness and loss, to grasping for fragmentary glimpses of the wisdom that would have enabled freedom.

How should we relate to Moshe’s shattering of the tablets if it led to such devastating consequences? Was it terrible for Mosheh to lose his temper and to desecrate and destroy God’s holy word, or was it a necessary intervention in a crisis? The Talmud records a position that God congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets. Interpreting the verse of God’s subsequent concession to re-engrave the tablets, “…I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke (asher shibarta)” (34:1), the 3rd century Sage Resh Lakish teased out a sonic word play, an allusion in the verse: “ASHER shibarta” = “YISHAR koach she-shibarta”; “which you broke” is taken to mean, “more power to you for breaking” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b). On the face of it, this is surprising: if a Torah scroll, which is only a shadow of a shadow of the Divinely-engraved tablets, is burned by enemies, the Talmud teaches that we must tear our clothes in mourning, as if a relative died (Mo‘ed Katan 26a), and later legal authorities extend this even to shorter scrolls of Biblical texts, such as in tefillin Shulchan Arukh YD 340:37). Later popular custom, validated by recent legal authorities, even calls for fasting when a Torah scroll merely falls to the floor, with no damage accruing. 

A clue into why God would have congratulated Moshe for smashing the miraculous, Divinely-engraved tablets, may be found in God’s diagnosis of the root cause of the people’s catastrophic crime of building the Golden Calf: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people” (32:9). Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg unpacks this indictment: “Paradoxically, this expression, coined for this occasion, implies an unexpected fidelity to old ideas. In Rashi’s words, ‘They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen.’ To be stiff-necked, then, is to be intransigent, loyal to a fault….If the implications of the ‘stiff neck’ are taken seriously, then, they disturb a primary notion of idolatry as infidelity. Perhaps, after all, the people are all too pious in their attachments? Perhaps they have never, in fact, left Egypt, that place of the…callous-hearted? Perhaps there is a pathology of Egypt that can be healed only by a capacity to listen?” (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, pp. 408-409). Freedom is movement: the Angel of Death, oppressive regimes, and forces of suffering are dynamic; the freedom offered through Torah, must be ever more so. The sin of the Golden Calf was fundamentally about the people ending the exodus journey, freezing, not having to go free any longer, relaxing, becoming complacent, living happily ever after, valorizing the past, elevating memory, eschewing learning. Had they not replaced God with a Golden Calf, they would have replaced God with the tablets. They would have made them into a statue, too, and worshiped them, as static icons. They would have treated Torah as the opposite of Torah, and called it Torah. Moshe had to smash them in order to sustain them as the dynamic harbingers of freedom that they were. Resh Lakish taught a dangerous lesson for the generations from his understanding that God congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets: “Sometimes the canceling of Torah is, itself, its foundation” (Talmud Bavli, Menahot 99a-b).

Torah would never have been forgotten had Moshe not shattered the tablets, yet Moshe was given kudos for doing so. The 20th Century New York thinker, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, reads these two teachings by 3rd century contemporaries to teach the startling position that “it is possible for Torah to be proliferated via forgetting Torah, such that it is reasonable to receive a yishar koach (“more power to you”) for causing forgetting of Torah” (Pahad Yitzhak, Hanukkah 3). Rav Hutner recalls another Talmudic text about a different rupture, after Moshe’s death: “1,700 Biblical derivations, and Rabbinic fine points were forgotten in the days of mourning for Moshe.

Rabbi Abbahu said: Even so, Otniel ben Kenaz restored them through his dialectics” (Talmud Bavli, Temurah 16a). As Dr. Zornberg explains, “If the Torah is forgotten, the effect is not, after all, unmitigatedly tragic. For out of oblivion comes interpretation, reconstruction, the act of memory that re-creates the past….Multiple perspectives proliferate when memory loses its mastery” (The Particulars of Rapture, 457). After Otniel’s restoration through learning, the people recovered not just the lost derivations, but the experience of recovery; those pilpulim/dialectics (from the Hebrew word for “pepper”), seasoned, enhanced, and grew Torah.

Maybe the path to freedom through Divine, dynamic clarity was not attainable. Moshe, sharing the people’s human experience and vulnerabilities, understood that. By smashing the tablets, he exposed what they were and paved an alternative, more circuitous path toward that freedom through the always radical process of learning. For the second tablets, God commanded Moshe, “You, carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, which you shattered” (34:1). What a paradox: the second ones are to be like the first ones, and yet, the main thing we know about the first ones is that they were not chiseled out by human hands, as these must be. Fully divine Torah becomes an idol; it must be shattered. To be Divinely dynamic, to herald freedom, as Torah must, it must be created through human sweat equity. As the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th Century, Russia) explained, “the power of innovation was not given with the first tablets, but only that which Moshe received…but not to innovate a legal matter via the 13 interpretive principles or other similar aspects of Talmudic learning. There was no Oral Torah.…With the second tablets, though, the power was given to every veteran student to innovate halakha/law via the interpretive principles and Talmudic learning….It was for this reason that the Holy One commanded that the second tablets would be carved out by Moshe…in order to teach that halakha is innovated through…the participation of the hard work of human beings, with the help of Heaven” (Ha‘Amek Davar on Sh’mot 34:1). When you immerse in learning, in interpretation, in the creative and dynamic filtering of received wisdom through the prism of your own experience and insight, your innovations have the imprimatur of Divine revelation; they are Torah, as taught in a famous teaching of 3rd Century Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Levi that all Torah statements, “midrash, halakhot, aggadot, and even that which veteran students will say in the future before their rabbis, was already said to Moshe at Sinai” (Talmud Yerushalmi Pe’ah 2:6 and elsewhere).

What happens to our shattered tablets, our precious shards of the possibility of freedom? Rav Yoseph teaches (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b and elsewhere) that the tablets and the pieces of the shattered first tablets are placed together in the ark of the Tabernacle. The first tablets represented a world with clear, objective truths. That’s gone, irretrievably. Those tablets are shattered and God will never again hew them out for us miraculously. Truth is forever after subjective and contingent on our involvement and perspective. Nevertheless, the shattered tablets sit alongside the living, whole, human-divine tablets.  The broken tablets anchor our creativity, drawing it into the ongoing project of recovery of freedom. They also warn us not to make idols of our received wisdom, to reject orthodoxies, to relate to our previous knowledge as a point of departure, not as a destination. The co-existence of the broken, perfect tablets, and the whole, imperfect tablets remind us that learning is a way of life, not a means to any end short of universal freedom.

Shabbat shalom.

A Labor Economy of Freshness and Wealth: The Meaning of the Lechem Panim — D’var Torah for Parashat Teruma

Our parashah brings the first big, detailed list of regulations for precisely how to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its decorations, and the items used in this portable sanctuary. On the north side of the Mishkan, in front of the altar, stood a table, and on that table rested bread, as the Torah says, “And on the table you shall set the lechem panim before Me always” (Sh’mot/Exodus 25:30). Often translated as “bread of display” or “showbread”, the words literally mean “face bread”. Vayikra/Leviticus 24:5-9 fills in that this bread, which sat on the table in the Mishkan continuously, consisted of twelve loaves, arranged in two piles, which the kohanim (priests) would place there on Shabbat, where it would sit, with burning frankincense, for a week, until being replaced by a new batch the next Shabbat. At that time, the kohanim departing their week-long shift and those starting the next one would eat the old batch. What is the significance of bread sitting in constant presence before the altar, why is it called “face bread”, and what is the significance of changing it weekly, on Shabbat?

The Mishna (Menachot 5:1) explains that the lechem panim, like most other bread offerings, was matzah, so fear not that these kohanim had to eat stale, moldy bread. Even so, the Talmud takes special care to highlight that not only did the bread not rot, but that freshness was a chief characteristic: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that a great miracle was done with the lechem hapanim: as it was in its placement, so it was in its removal” (Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 26b).  Rashi (1040-1105, France) interprets this to mean that it remained hot the entire week, while Tosafot (Rashi’s grandsons and their disciples) argue that the miracle was that the showbread remained soft all week: either way, the face bread was always fresh.

In another Talmudic passage, Rabbi Yitzhak taught that one who wishes to become rich should turn to the north, while one who wished to become wise should turn to the south. The symbol to remember this is that the table with the face bread, was in the north, while the shining menorah/candelabrum, was in the south of the Mishkan (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 25b; the geographic layout is specified in the Torah, Sh’mot/Exodus 26:35). Rabbi Yitzhak’s purpose may have been cheeky social commentary or sober recognition of the hard choices and limited resources for 3rd-4th Century Jews in the Roman-occupied Land of Israel: opportunities for livelihood existed only in the north, the Galilee, where he lived, but Torah wisdom remained centered in the south, in Jerusalem. For our purposes, the face bread symbolizes wealth

Bread displays were universal in Ancient Near Eastern cultures, but in all of them, the bread was changed daily, suggesting that its purpose was to feed the god(s). For Israel, it was changed weekly. Moreover, while at least part of all other bread offerings was consumed on the altar, these loaves merely sat there for the whole week. Scholars understand that Israel, then, took a familiar practice and totally undercut its familiar meaning. Instead of feeding God, the bread represented Israel’s presence before God. The requirement for twelve loaves corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel, just like the twelve stones on the High Priest’s breastplate. That is, the face bread should signify that the whole of the Jewish people is there in the Temple, before God. Indeed, the Mishna (Shekalim 4:1) teaches that the money to pay for the lechem panim came from taxes paid equally by everyone. Human beings, who cannot come to the Temple because they busily toil for their daily bread, contribute bread, their basic sustenance, to face God constantly as their proxy. This replacement has the function of saying to God, “Consider the whole people as standing before You through their labor.” Labor is not a problem, an obstacle before living a true religious life of constant, devotional presence; it is through our labor — all labor, by everyone — that we achieve presence before our Creator. This symbolism infuses all labor with sacred value and also forces us to consider misconduct, abuses of the law, exploitation in the labor arena to be not just civil crimes but sacral desecration, as well. We are present before God by laboring in justice and equality.

This is true wealth: dignified labor, an economy in which everyone is represented equally, like those twelve identical loaves. One who wishes to become wealthy should not learn from all the silver and gold accumulated, but from the table holding the twelve loaves of bread representing working people. It is in this arrangement of balance that the bread remains fresh constantly, throughout its life, not just at its beginning, before growing stale or rotten. The bread stands before God tamid/constantly, always, a word echoed in our morning liturgy in the theological assertion that “the Blessed, Holy One renews, every day, constantly/tamid, the works of creation”. As works of God, we are always, constantly, new and fresh. That is theologically and philosophically true. Burnout, brokenness, and decline are results, then, of violent interruptions, deprivations of our true essences. The freshness is never beaten out of this bread, which models our presence in sacred dignity. The bread stays fresh, from shabbat to shabbat, through those workdays when it is so easy to become mechanized through habit, routine, and exploitation. Resist, say the Rabbis: look north, to the lechem ha-panim. Be rich, embrace your bounty, proliferate wealth through labor grounded in solidarity and equality.

The Talmud (Berakhot 12a) teaches that on Shabbat, when the kohen shifts would switch, the departing kohanim would say to the entering kohanim, “May the One whose name dwells in this house, cause to dwell among you love and fraternity, peace and friendship.” They said this after dramatically removing the old lechem panim and replacing it with the new, articulating the values that have enabled that face bread to stay fresh and to symbolize wealth. All that’s left is for us to implement them in our labor economy.

Shabbat shalom.