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A Generation of Change — Parshiot Nitzavim-Vayeilech


This dvar torah first delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA, on September 20th, 2014. Minors edits were made for readability. Beth Shalom’s presentation on Millenial views of Jewish life will be held around 11 am during second-day Rosh Hashana services, featuring me, Shoshana Wineburg, Rabbi Oren Hayon, and Talya Gillman. 

* * *

It’s a season of change. Elul is all about change. But, really, what season isn’t about change? What year doesn’t change us from one to the next? How drastically have we changed over our lives? How are our lives today different than our parents’ and grandparents’ lives? How are Jewish life, and American life, and American Jewish life changing?

Today the Jewish community is going through a monumental shift. My generation and others can feel like we’re at odds. So many of us have opted for alternative institutions. Others of us have walked away entirely. So many new offerings, an explosion of Jewish identities that baffles and bucks preexisting categories. Existing models are collapsing, new ideas are untried. Next week, on this bimah, four young Jewish leaders will address in content what those ideas might include. But today I want to approach it from a more spiritual angle.

These two parshiot — Netzavim (Deut 29:9 – 30:20) and Vayeilech (Deut 31:1-30) – are all about generational change. They are penultimate concluding paragraphs of Moses’ final address to the children of Israel, standing on the east bank of the Jordan.

Nitzavim is a prophecy of reward and punishment. If the tribes obey God, they will flourish in the Land of Canaan, but if they worship other gods, then they will suffer exile among the nations. It also lays the foundation of redemption: a return to the Land and God’s favor will happen after exile. And this covenant is expressly issue upon the generations to follow.

Vayeilech concludes with Moses revealing that he will not join the people in Canaan, instead naming Joshua as his successor. And to ensure that the terms of the contract are well understood, God embeds a poem into the book to be read generation after generation. A book that Moses finished transcribing and leaves with the priesthood, a book we read today.

* * *

Midrash expands this Biblical event into one of the most dramatic confrontations between God and any biblical hero.

Moses insists, “I have done so much for Israel and for You, God, that it is wrong for me to die.” So he draws a circle in the sand and refuses to move until God annuls the decision.

“No,” God declares to Moses. And so Moses sits down to pray. God quickly orders the angels, “Hasten, bar all the gates of every level heaven to Moses’ prayers!”

But who can pray harder than the greatest scholar that ever lived? The midrash says, “Moses prayers were like a sword, ripping and tearing, and nothing could stop it.”

Moses begs that at least his body be brought into the Land. But God stands firm. Moses begs twice that his soul be put into an animal to experience Israel, but God refuses. And so Moses goes begs heaven and earth, the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, to argue on his behalf. But they each point out their own mortality in the end of days.

God reaches out to Moses then. “Moses, I have sworn two oaths – one to punish Israel for its misdeeds and the other to punish you for yours. You begged me to annul the first, so I did. But to annul the second I must reinstate the first. You seize the pulley ropes at both ends – do you not?”

Still, he weeps, “Master of the universe, shall the feel that walked in heaven, the face that saw Yours, the very hands that first touched the Torah – shall they now lick dust?”

God replies, that was my intent from the very very beginning, Moses. “Each generation is to have its own interpreters of Scripture, each generation is to have its own providers, each generation is to have its own leaders.” Until now it was you, Moses, and now it is Joshua.

* * *

This midrash spoke to me immediately for two big reasons.

That frustration we feel with Moses at the beginning, that’s my life. I was turning pages with my heart thumping, “Yes, yes, I felt, this is how I feel!” I am nine years out of college, in middle management at a Jewish organization, I’ve had my years of rebellion and now I’m looking for Moses to soon give up his cushy corner office and hefty salary so I can have it.

But more seriously. Remember your parents. Remember something about the things your parents believed dearly, that they expected for you. One that drove or drives you nuts. That thing they wanted of you, for you, by you, that you could never give them, or couldn’t be, or didn’t want. Put yourself in our shoes.

Moses won’t let go of leadership. Despite the natural order of things, he fights it. And just as Moses appeals to the sun and moon and others to entreat God on his behalf, so too do young people like me watch Jewish leaders and institutions turn to experts, sociologists, and philanthropic fads to – as far as I can tell – change me from who I am to what I should be. And despite the natural order of things, that the next generation will rebel and be different, it feels many times that dominant conclusion is disappointment in us that we don’t look like them, talk like them, support the institutions they support, believe what they believe. I can totally relate to that frustration with Moses.

I wear tzitzit but no kippah. I come from a mixed ethnic background. I’ve founded and run two Jewish prayer communities but this is the first time I’ve been a member of a synagogue. I work tirelessly in support of Israel but through a progressive lens. I’ve worked and lived my entire 20s within a community of new Jewish institutions that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago.

The other reason this midrash made my heart pound is because I wonder about Joshua. What was that like? It is said that Moses was our greatest teacher. If Moses shone like the sun, touched by God directly, rabbis tells us, then Joshua was like the moon. A fraction of the radiance.

And I can relate. Here I stand, in the shoes of those who came before me, wondering if I – we, my generation – have in us what the last generations did. To not have been the generation that survived the Holocaust, or built the State of Israel, or place Jewry atop the highest socio-economic rung despite prejudice.

Are we fundamentally lesser because our travails now feel smaller? Does our generation really see any threat like those of the past? What could we do with this surplus well-being? What could we do that will be even half as trying, as difficult, as monumental as what you did? How will we make you proud? And how will we make you proud if, as we sometimes get the feeling, that we’re not exactly what you wanted and won’t do things as you think they should be done?

* * *

If the parable about Moses had ended where Moses finally agrees to step aside, it would be less powerful for our purposes today. The beauty to me of the story is what happens after that. The point isn’t that Moses steps aside. What moves me, truly moves me, is what I see as the story’s climax.

Moses then asks to see the world once through Joshua’s eyes. Going undercover, Moses sees Joshua elucidate law and lead. Moved by what he witnesses, Moses surrenders to God’s decree. The climax of this rollercoaster of a midrash is the next event: he apologizes to the tribes and asks their forgiveness.

“Because of the Torah, I chastised you greatly. Now, please forgive me.” And they replied to him, “Our teacher, we troubled you even more, we made your life hell. Please forgive us.” And they forgave each other. Moses goes peacefully to his deathbed, attended by God and all those forces of nature he appealed to for help, and his soul is taken by God.

Moses and the Children of Israel reconcile. Remember the thing that drove you mad about your parents. Imagine if they looked you in the eyes and apologized for how it made you feel. Imagine having that moment. Now think of your children, your younger friends, mentees maybe, or students. Imagine what it would feel like to hear from their lips despite your differences, that they admire you, even love you. That they do everything which might drive you mad in your honor.

There are two lessons in this story. First we share in the frustration against Moses, then we share in the compassion towards him. In inhabiting this story, we inhabit each other on a two-way street of understanding. Next week, there is more opportunity for everyone to hear from young Jewish leaders from Seattle making important decisions about our future.

* * *

Change is hard. As a closing example of Jewish change, here in this parsha are the roots of individual tshuva/repentence, a theological ideal that did not play a dominant role in Jewish thought for a thousand years. Can you imagine a Judaism without tshuva as we know it today? Would you want to even be a part of a Judaism without forgiveness? And yet our ancestors did and, if needed, we probably could again. Change – the thing that Jews are indeed the best at: practices evolved, entire paradigms rose and fell, our community expanded and contracted time and again.

As we enter the High Holy Days, let us follow the example in these parshiot. Of embracing change, however difficult. Of seeing in each other that we do what do out of love, not hate. Of thinking nonjudgmentally about what may come after us. Of recognizing the natural order that all of us at one point play the Joshua and all of us play the Moses. L’dor vador, Shabbat shalom.


Interfaith prayer vigil for missing Israeli teens


Interfaith Vigil, tomorrow June 17 at 5 pm at the Gush Etzion junction. RSVP to tagmeir2011@gmail.com. Brought to you by the Tag Meir campaign, a coalition of Israeli NGOs fighting racism, extremism and intolerance within Jewish and Palestinian society. Learn more here.

Interfaith Vigil by Tag Meir


My tweets on the topic of BDS



Parshat Terumah: Weddings, Mishkans and Ikea


It’s an honor to celebrate Naomi’s and my aufruf here at Congregation Beth Shalom this Shabbat. It was quite appropriate, barely two weeks before our wedding, to consider Parshat Terumah with you today.

Parshat Terumah is situated between the mass revelation at Sinai and the Golden Calf, as we join Moses on Mt. Sinai for three parshiot.

This week’s portion reads like the first of three Ikea manuals on the Israelites’ new religion. Roommates, married or otherwise, know a little bit about assembling complicated instructions together. Parshat Terumah, not unlike an Ikea manual, can be very frustrating. First, neither are written in English. Second, sometimes there’s so much detail it makes your head swim and other times there’s no detail at all. It leaves you to imagine where this peg goes in what socket, whether you understand what color it’s really talking about and where on earth did they even get that component, because it certainly didn’t arrive in the kit!

And by that I mean this parsha goes into such detail and yet thousands of years later we still can only imagine what the thing it’s talking about looked like, the Mishkan:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

“Make me a temple and I will reside among them.”

For God’s mobile temple, the Mishkan, the Biblical text specifies inner and outer tents, an ark of gold, a menorah, and an altar. It specifies the artwork, joints, weaving, and colorings of each. Hundreds of verses. Rabbinic commentators further ascribed supernatural meaning to every part. It is said in various midrashim that the seven sets of instructions mirror the seven days of creation. Or that the numbers of pieces and parts mirror that of stars and planets in the cosmos.

*  *  *

Why so much detail? According to one midrash, God had to show Moses the correct result in a model of colored flames, detailing even the weaves of color. That lead Moses to ask the Almighty, “Nu, where am I supposed to get purple fire and blue fire?” To which the Lord answered, and I paraphrase, “Quit being a smart ass, go sheer some goat wool.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks also “Why devote so much time and space to the Tabernacle?” He answers that “It is not difficult for an infinite, omnipotent creator to make a home for humanity. What is difficult for human beings, in their finitude and vulnerability, is to make a home for God.”

Jewish mystics explained that God’s infiniteness filled the universe until God tzimtzum, contracted, to make room for free will. Sacks points out that the Mishkan is where the Israelites didn’t just make a room for something greater, they made room for something greater in themselves.

Indeed, it is difficult for people to make room for another, to live together, and certainly to assemble complicated furniture together.

*  *  *

Why is the Mishkan so tediously demonstrated to be the center of the universe? It’s neither so big nor so great. Why all the exuberance for this little sukkah?

Franz Rosenzweig guides us by indicating that the story of the building of the Tabernacle is a climax. A people previously enslaved to build for the glory of others are suddenly invited to build something for themselves. And how humble it was. Where they had once built pyramids to withstand the desert until today, they erected a tent. Where they had once wrought solid gold furniture, they covered wood with it. Where before were all the exotic animals of Egypt, they baked bread and sacrificed goats. What made the Beit Hamikdash so awing within the Biblical narrative was to be freed to do it themselves.

I remember being a teenager in a tiny congregation on the southern Oregon coast, where the chief job of the president was to take home our collapsible ark in the trunk of their car and to bring it back to the borrowed room in a Methodist church every month. And nothing was so beautiful as that little ark that we carted around, the tattered Torah we scraped and saved to buy, and the yad that I carved myself out of driftwood I found on the shore. We made it ourselves.

There is freedom in defining things for ourselves and in defining ourselves, like we do as we grow up and as we do again when we partner. Every new couple must find that time to step away from who they are to their parents, their siblings, their friends, their children even, and their other lives to define each other anew.

And it isn’t that silly to appreciate such a place in the desert as a re-creation of the universe. The symbolism of the wedding ceremony is exactly that: we circle each other, we stand under a tabernacle, we recite blessings that invoke concentric circles of community around us, and we entertain that in this union is the very spark of Genesis alive again!

Like the Israelites in Parshat Terumah, I am redefining my community, seeking to order the world with newfound priorities and trying my hardest to be the person I know I can be.

*  *  *

For the difficulties will come.

This parsha represents the ideal, the blueprint. Beautiful and yet not totally clear, like a dream. In the Biblical narrative, before the implementation of these plans is the fall of Golden Calf. Reality bites.

And in this weeks’ customary Haftarah, we indeed learn how Solomon builds the First Temple. There is no outpouring of gifts and volunteerism: the people are taxed and indentured to the tune of 180,000 of them with over 3,000 task masters. We know what happens in the books of Kings and afterwards. We left Egypt only to become Egypt. A Jewish kingdom looks good on paper, we could say. Relationships can look good on paper too.

Parshat Terumah can be read as the beginning of a chapter, the Golden Calf as its middle, and the final completion of the Mikdash as the chapter’s triumphant end. In that case, it fits the story of the First Temple. Heroic King David was barred from building the Temple for his sins. It’s said that when his son King Solomon finally brought the Ark to the completed Temple, the doors refused to open to him! Not until he proved that he was not his father, but his own person.

In entering our adult lives, we must live with the world that was given to us, not the one promised to us by our parents. And we fix the world’s ills even as we make promises to our own children. In other words, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

*  *  *

And what guides us as we continue that task? Turning dreams into reality is truly magical. In order to turn Parshat Terumah’s dictates into a real holy place, God endowed the Israelites’ chief craftsman Bezalel with the same power used to create the universe. That’s how much it takes.

Think back to the midrash about God showing Moses a vision of the Mikdash made of fire. We are bid this week not just to remember the ideal. Not just to imagine the world as it should be. But to enshrine it. To sanctify it. To keep the ideal holy.

There is freedom in doing it for yourself, like the Israelites did. There is marvel in the tzimtzum of doing it in partnership with someone else. There is power in enshrining the ideal and passing it on.  There is redemption in small tikuns and large, l’dor vador.

Our homes – at least my partner’s and my home – might not be the grandest, its decorations not the finest, its furniture procured overly much from Ikea. But we should make them the most awing thing we have ever built. Nothing will compare with the fabric we weave ourselves, the bread we bake ourselves, the words we say ourselves, the community we gather at our door ourselves, and the Presence we invite within.

May it be so true for us all. Shabbat shalom.

*  *  *