Too Many Teddy Bears: Parsha Vayakhel

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives the Israelites instructions for the creation of the first mishkan, the first sanctuary for prayer. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Eleven chapters later, we read that the Israelites have brought too much: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded.” Moses tells the people to stop bringing these gifts, because it was enough, v’hoter. V’hoter means “and left over” – the people brought so much to the Mishkan that it could not all be used for the project.

It was so human of them, this eagerness. They tried so hard to please the Holy One that they brought too much at once. Reading this week’s portion, I was reminded of the 65,000 teddy bears that showed up in Newtown, CT, just one week after the Sandy Hook massacre. Kind, good-hearted people, grieving for the murder of so many children, channeled their grief into gifts. It was well-intentioned, but it was more about their own pain than the needs of the community. Unfortunately, it was far too much for the town to handle, and one man was left with the task of managing $27,000 worth of toys that the children of Newtown truly didn’t need. He had to purchase 80,000 feet of storage space, which filled up quickly with more unnecessary gifts – v’hoter, leftover. Ultimately, it went to good use: The community decided to ship boxes of toys to orphanages.

Every day, we face countless opportunities to help – it can seem like the world is overflowing with needs, on both a personal and a communal level. Sometimes we are so quick to fix, to respond, to act, that we don’t consider what type of response is best, or how much action is necessary. The pain is too much to take in, so we act quickly, trying to heal our own wounded hearts as well as the wounds of those in need. The second line of Psalm 41, a psalm we say when visiting the sick, says “Ashrei maskil el-dal,” Happy is the one who is maskil in relation to the person in need.” In a midrash on this psalm, Rav Yonah says, “What does maskil mean in this case? That the person helping truly looks and considers how to revive the person.” We have to consider what is truly required, and then make a decision about how to give, and how much.

What does it mean to build a sanctuary? How do we choose what to bring, how to pray, how to respond when there’s a call for action? Will our sanctuary be a storage room for 65,000 teddy bears, a tabernacle beside a pile of v’hoter, leftover, unused material? Will we bring what is needed, or bring too much, easing our own desires to feel or appear helpful? Or will our mishkan, our sanctuary, be a space where we can celebrate and grieve together, where we listen, truly consider, and then decide how to act? Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. As we face the complexities of the world around us, may we remember that our intentions matter, and that our actions must matter too.

Toward Love: Parsha Ki Tisa

February is hard. Last week we saw the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of 17 people – children and teachers – who were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on February 14, 2018. This week, I’m observing the yahrzeits of two of my former campers. One died by suicide in February 2016, and the other by suicide in February 2018. My uncle died suddenly in February 2013. My grandmother and great-grandfather’s yahrzeits are in February as well. Despite the losses piled on losses at this time of year, I am still amazed at how quickly everything changes. One day last year, 17 people went to school and never came home again. One day three years ago, someone I loved woke up for the last time. When I think about how quickly the world turns upside down, it feels like something has knocked the wind out of me. I’m suddenly suffocating, gasping for breath, grasping for answers. What are we going to do? Is anyone safe? Can anything we do to help ever be enough? I feel powerless in the face of pain and I find myself asking over and over: How are we going to heal all these broken hearts?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, provides an example of how we might respond to all of this powerlessness and pain. The Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf – a false idol – while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. When Moses found out about the golden calf, he was furious, and he shattered the tablets. But this was not his only response. Moses saw the Israelites in their sin, and he saw their fear. Moses had been on the mountain for 40 days, and the Israelites didn’t know what was going to happen. So many of us turn to something familiar in times of uncertainty and doubt. We all have destructive habits that are comforting in the moment, even if they’re unhealthy and unsafe in the long run. These are our golden calves. Moses was angry that the Israelites had given up on God, who brought them out of Egypt. But he understood, and he pled to God on the Israelites’ behalf, an act of compassion in his moment of hopelessness and rage. Thankfully, God heard Moses’s plea, and decided to punish the Israelites with a plague instead of something worse. Moses returned to the mountain and received the Torah for a second time. When he came back down, he brought a new set of tablets with him.

The Talmud teaches us that the Israelites kept the broken tablets, and placed them, along with the new ones, in the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark. Why keep this symbol of their own fear, this casualty of rage, this set of broken laws? Because brokenness and wholeness live side by side in the world and in our hearts. Because together, these tablets also represented Moses’s act of kindness in the face of his own anger. Because brokenness itself is holy: The kabbalists teach that when God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, which means the broken pieces are always with us – in the ark and in our hearts, along with the pieces we have renewed through acts of kindness.

What is shattered cannot be mended, and lives that are lost cannot be found again. The children murdered in Parkland last year are never coming back. Neither are my campers who committed suicide. But we carry their memories with us, broken pieces lovingly placed alongside the whole ones. Like the tablets, we are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us. And we too can try each day to respond to pain with compassion, like Moses did when he found the Israelites praying to the Golden Calf. We can’t control the universe, but we can respond to desperation with overwhelming kindness. It’s not enough, but it’s all we can offer, and doing nothing is not an option. Maybe it’s arrogant to believe that our actions make a difference. Or maybe it’s hope. Maybe every small act of kindness offsets a moment of suffering, and together, we can tip the cosmic scale, ever so slightly, toward love. I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to take the risk, and I invite you to join me, in all of your brokenness and wholeness, in making this world a sacred place. Shabbat Shalom, Beloveds. February is hard, but I am so grateful that we are in it together.

Breathless Freedom: Parsha Va’eira

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Israelites that God will free them from slavery. The text says that the Israelites did not hear Moses in their suffering – literally due to shortness of breath, or spirit. I’m sure many of us have been in a space where we are too exhausted, too dispirited, to believe that goodness will come to us. A friend has told me that depression feels like something sitting on her chest, a suffocating heaviness that makes it impossible to believe in freedom. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because they, too, were suffering.

When God then tells Moses to demand the Israelites’ freedom, Moses says “Behold, the Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me?” The 19th century Hasidic rabbi and scholar known as Sefat Emet points out that we know why the Israelites didn’t listen. As we just explored, they couldn’t hear Moses in their suffering. Sefat Emet asks, what does the Israelites’ anguish have to do with Pharaoh’s ability to listen?

Sefat Emet posits an answer that demonstrates Moses’s leadership skills. “Moses knew that the power of a leader derives from his people. If he had not succeeded in penetrating the Israelites’ hearts, he would not be able to achieve anything on their behalf.” Sefat Emet is saying that a leader needs “buy-in.” A leader needs to meet people where they are. A leader needs to understand not only what the people need – but also the way they need to hear it. This is the only way to make change.

However, the rest of the parsha seems to disprove this concept. Moses and his brother Aaron do approach Pharaoh, over and over again, asking Pharaoh to free the Israelites. You know the story from Passover – this parsha contains the first seven of the ten plagues. Moses moves forward with the plan to free the Israelites, even though they were not ready to hear him yet. It took a long time – and many plagues, miracles, and years of wandering in the desert – before the Israelites believed that salvation was real, and that this life of freedom was theirs to hold.

Where, then, does this leave us with regard to leadership? Should Moses have waited, organized some focus groups, and taken a vote before approaching Pharoah? In this case, it was probably more important to get the process started, and to get that buy-in along the way. Maybe not the best example of organizational change management, but it got the job done.


There are many other angles to explore in this Torah portion, but for now, I’ll return to the beginning – to the Israelites in bondage, not yet ready to believe in the promise of freedom from a God they did not know. And I want to leave you with a few questions to consider.

When you are dispirited, unable to hear the voices saying that freedom is coming, what is it that finally brings you hope? Has there ever been a moment, a miracle, a person, a reminder of some kind, that helped you believe in the future? When have you been that reminder for someone else? And when have you, like Moses, decided to act, to make a change, even if your community wasn’t ready for it?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. If your soul has been in bondage too long, may you find the path to freedom you need this week. And if you have a message of hope for others to hear, sing it. You might just be the miracle we’ve been waiting for.

Telling Our Stories: Parsha Vayigash

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, who came before him in Egypt to ask for help in the midst of famine. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Yosef’s jealous brothers cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Yosef’s brothers then lied to their father, Yaakov, saying that a wild beast killed Yosef, and they had not seen their brother since then. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is quite a dramatic story), Yosef eventually rose to a position of significant power in Egypt. When his brothers approached him in this Torah portion, Yosef was the governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh had given him a new name: Tzofnat Paneach. According to some translations, Yosef’s new name meant “revealer of mysteries.”

This Yosef, this Tzofnat Paneach, whom the brothers entreated on his throne, was quite different from the Yosef who was their father’s favorite son, the Yosef they threw into the pit, and sold into slavery. This Yosef was even different from the Yosef who lived in the Egyptian prison. It’s no surprise that, although Yosef recognized them, his brother’s did not see Yosef on the face of Tzofnat Paneach, the Egyptian governor.

Yosef tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benyamin, of stealing a silver cup that Yosef planted in Benyamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Yosef threatened to enslave Benyamin. Fortunately, the brothers passed the test: Older brother, Yehuda, offered himself in Benyamin’s place, so that their aging father, Yaakov, would not have to grieve the loss of yet another favored child.

When he learned that his father was alive, the Torah says, v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek” – Yosef could not afak – contain – the secret of his identity. He asked everyone to leave besides the brothers, and he began to cry. “Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” he told them. “Ha’od avi chai?”: “Does my father still live?” When he heard about his father, Yosef remembered where he came from  – he was not only Tzofnat Paneach, governor of Egypt. He was also Yosef, the Jewish son of Yaakov and Rachel, the boy from the pit and the prison, the interpreter of dreams. When he asked “Does my father still live,” “Ha’od avi chai,” the word “od” means still, continuing, again, iteration. If his father continued, then so did Yosef. He was still, after all, himself.

His brothers were frightened and could not answer him, worried that their brother would exact revenge. But Yosef was not angry – they passed the test and showed that they had changed. Come near me, I pray you, Ani Yosef,” he said again. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” He explained that they should not worry, saying that God sent him to Egypt to ensure their safety during these years of famine. He told his brothers everything that had happened since they sold him into slavery, and Yosef sent them back home with food and other provisions, so that the brothers could return with their father and the rest of the family.

“Ani Yosef,” “I am Yosef,” appeared twice within a few lines of this story. Why did he say his name more than once? Maybe the brothers were disbelieving, and Yosef wanted to prove his identity, explaining that he was, in fact, their brother, whom they sold into Egypt. Or maybe it was because Yosef was reclaiming his own identity. It’s significant that Yosef could not afak, he could not contain Yosef, once he learned that his father was alive, even though he rose to power under a new name, Tzofnat Paneach.

It’s also significant that Yosef told his story as one of triumph, in which God had sent him to Egypt to save his family, instead of a story of victimhood, in which his abusive brothers sold him into slavery. Both of these things were parts of Yosef’s truth. Sometimes, trauma doesn’t have a purpose – it just sucks. And part of me wants Yosef to be really angry about what happened to him. And maybe he was. But in telling his story, Yosef had a triple revelation. First, he revealed his identity to his brothers, then he revealed that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, and the resulting third revelation was the most powerful of all: Yosef revealed his own truth to himself. After everything that happened, his father was still alive, and he was still Yosef.

What do our hidden stories reveal, when we reveal ourselves to others? When we tell the truth, to whom do we tell it, and what do we learn from the telling? What does Yosef’s story teach us about our own stories, about our own hidden traumas, our own pits and prisons?

Yosef tried to keep his identity a secret, but eventually, he remembered who he was, and he could not contain it any longer. By revealing himself, the story Yosef told became something that happened through him, instead of something that happened to him; the trauma of the pit and the prison became part of a larger narrative that led to Yosef’s ultimate success. When he remembered where he came from, Yosef and Tzofnat Paneach, the boy from the pit and the governor of Egypt, became one, so that Yosef could reunite with his father once again.

There are many lessons we can pull from this Torah portion, but in the week to come, I challenge you to reveal one part of yourself that’s hidden, to reclaim just one part of your story by sharing it. Shape your narrative. Define your own meaning. You might be surprised to find what’s been inside of you all along.