Finishing the book of Exodus, 5780

The Book of Exodus, Shemot, starts with the saga of enslavement and deliverance.  Next the narrative moves away from story-telling, toward lawgiving and the Covenant: the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro and the many instructions of Mishpatim.  In the third section, we have the instructions and implementation of the architectural, interior design, and priestly accoutrements needed for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  We get the instructions in Terumah and Tetzaveh, interrupted by rebellion (Golden Calf) and more law-giving in Ki Tissa, and at last the implementation of the instructions for the Mishkan in Va-Yakhel and Pekudei.  In both Ki Tissa (Ch 31) and  Vayakhel (Chap 35), the building details are interrupted to with a warning to observe Shabbat.

The four parshiyot that focus on the Mishkan are very emotionally rewarding texts.  I love the attention to all the “stuff”.

I learned a lot about them from the commentary on Exodus by Rabbi Umberto Cassuto on Exodus.  Cassuto lived from 1853 to 1951 and Cassutohad been the chief rabbi of Florence. He fled to Palestine in 1938 and took a position at Hebrew University.  He died in 1951, the year his book, Commentary on Exodus, was published. My copy is from Max Ticktin’s z”l collection, and I wonder whether Max had Cassuto as his teacher in 1947 and 1948 when he and Esther lived there.

While he discussed the construction in great depth in his book, in some ways, Cassuto was not too concerned about the details.  In his mind, just as narrative portions of Humash are not meant to teach history for its own sake, but to give, by narration, religious, ethical, and national instruction, so too is this section not meant to describe antiquities of Israelite worship, but to convey what was considered conducive to the idea of the presence of God in the camp of Israel.

In fact, he insisted that the details given in parashat Terumah were not a blueprint.  I imagine he wouldn’t have cared for Moshe Levine’s book, The Tabernacle, along with others who have tried to recreate the Mishkan in tiny detail.  For example, Cassuto notes, Adonai instructs Moshe concerning the LampstandLampstand-small by showing him its likeness, so it’s apparent that the Lampstand is not fully described here.

Cassuto advised considering what other ancient cultures were doing, because those would inform the Israelites’ sense of sacred space.  We could then learn what is important to the Israelites by contrasting their Mishkan with other Sanctuaries of the time. For example, Ugaritic poems describing temple of Baal included furniture items that do and don’t overlap with our Mishkan: throne, footstool, lamp, chest of drawers, table and its utensils, bed.  The bed and chest of drawers would be necessary in idolatry: Baal needed a bed to lie down on, and drawers for his garments.  In the Israelite Mishkan?  No bed, no chest of drawers.

Cassuto goes on to argue that the materials: metals (gold, silver, bronze); items spun or woven (wool, flax); coarser materials (goat’s hair); along with rams’ skins and dolphin(?) skins – were all entirely plausible.  The “dolphin skins”, for example, might be a sea-cow found in Red Sea whose skins were used by Bedouins for sandals.  Wood is specified in the Mishkan parts inventory, and indeed, atzei shittim, likely acacia, is found in desert.  All these materials were possible.  His comment contrasts with medieval commentators who struggled to understand this materials list.  Cassuto offers the perspective of someone who actually lived in Israel.

So let’s imagine we have an entirely plausible Tabernacle. Why was it so important?

The story has emotional resonance for anyone who has kept a momento of a person or experience that is now far off or long ago.  Because the Israelites are clearly in it for the emotion. This sequence of parshiyot starts with Terumah:  “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus25:1)  cropped-cropped-mishkan-2.jpgAn instruction for VOLUNTARY action?  That’s especially astonishing given that recent text of the Ten Commandments and Laws are covenantal and mandatory, not “asher yidvenu libo” – whose heart so moves him.

There are of course a number of commentaries on that—

Terumati – “my gift” – God’s gift to us is that we have the internal motivation to be generous and have hearts that can be moved. (Ohr HaChaim)

Tikhu et terumati – The imperative verb, tikhu, is actually“take” and not “give” – because the Israelites’ actually received a gift of being able to volunteer (Beit HaLevi).

Etc.  Not exactly the wording you’d find in a home improvement contract.

Bravo to God for figuring that out.  BUT: Despite this example, God is often not so good at figuring out people and physical things.  In the Garden, God put a beautiful tree in front of Adam and Eve and told them “you can’t touch this” – then gets sore at them when … surprise!… they do.  In our parshiyot, Moses gets a long set of instructions to build this Mishkan,  and that keeps him away from the Israelites, a real let-down after the extraordinary experience at Sinai.  Naturally, they want a memento, and before you know it, the entire Tabernacle narrative is disrupted by the pesky Golden Calf.  Not just Moses, but God has been gone a long time, and the Israelites are brooding.  To add to the insult, God is typically generous with Moses about sensory experiences – Moses gets a burning bush and a cleft of rocks behind which to witness God’s glory, whereas the Israelites are supposed to wait and be patient, and like a little kid, not touch anything.  NOT!

So I will interrupt to show you a memento that means a lot to me.  In the photo is a Czech dictionary that my father brought home from World War II. He was stationed in Czechoslovakia at the war of the war Morton Eisenbergs Czech dictionaryto interrogate German prisoners, using his Yiddish to pull together a German interview.  He loved his time in Czechoslovakia and befriended a family there along with the local priest.  I knew a bit about that. But he died 40 years ago, and as strongly as I know that I felt safe in his presence, I didn’t really know him as I would like to now.  So the dictionary takes on out-size importance.  It’s a bit of something my father touched, that my father took notes in, that he found important, and, as I can tell from his handwritten vocabulary lists stuffed inside the cover, that he devoted some effort to, that was a part of his life experience he found important. Sometimes I feel that if I look at the dictionary, maybe I’d know my father a little better, or at least, could say I’m perpetuating the family story in a way I wouldn’t feel if I was just remembering him telling me the story.

So I congratulate the Israelites on bringing their terumah and for supporting the Tabernacle artisans Betzalel and Oholiab, and even for wanting a Golden Calf.  God was gone, and they wanted something to reach out to because they wanted to know God better and they wanted the experience of feeling physically engaged with God, using all their senses.  They weren’t the most mature Children of Israel, and God wasn’t the most perceptive, reactive teacher.  Believe me, it happens all the time at school.

Finally, perhaps that tension of physicality and spirituality relates back to the mention of Shabbat that happens twice in the Mishkan narrative.  The rabbis connect the laws on the melakhot of Shabbat, forbidden work and artisan activities, to comparable steps in building the Temple.  Now on Shabbat, we get the neshama yetira, the extra soul.  With an extra soul, we can take a pass on physical objects and forgo all those arts-and-crafts melochos.  But 85.7% of the time (that’s 6 out of 7), we are stuck with our one, clumsy soul, the same soul that spurs you to comb the overpriced airport shops at the end of your vacation for that last physical souvenir (a word which is French for “to remember”), even when your memories should suffice, a very minor instance of Golden Calf-ishness.  You’d think God would understand that need, and not pull a 40-day retreat. God has very high expectations.

So that’s how I understand the Mishkan, and in the end, God does too, because God even promises to dwell there, among the Israelites. In one midrash, Shemot Rabba 34:1, God is willing to constrict God’s presence to within the tiny space of one square amah so God can fit in the Mishkan and be close to the people.  Because in the end, that’s where we, the physical Jewish people, are.

Atonement when we’ve done right


Comments at the Yom Kippur Ma’ariv service 5780, Fabrangen, Washington, DC 

The Torah reading for Rosh Hodesh is drawn from Numbers 28.  It describes the special Temple offering for that day as l’hatat l’A’, for a sin offering for the Lord.  That wording, oddly, suggests that perhaps it was God who brought a sin offering.  Why?

There’s an aggadic parable in the Talmud, Chullin 60b, that notes that in Genesis, God is described as creating two great luminaries in the sky: the sun and the moon.  The moon, however, complained to God: “Can two kings share the same crown?”, hoping that God would appoint the moon the greater light, and the sun the lesser one.  In response to the moon’s complaint, though, God did the reverse, designating the sun to “rule by day” and the moon by night.  God tried to console the moon, promising, for example, that the Jewish people would keep our calendar by it, but God could not succeed in comforting the moon. The Talmud describes God saying “Bring an atonement for me, for I diminished the moon.”  According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish who is cited in that Talmudic passage, that means it’s actually GOD who needs the sin offering.

This midrash is especially pertinent in our season of atonement. It seems to me that if God really wanted to console the moon, God could have reversed God’s decision.  It would be easy enough for God, we can imagine, to make the moon as great as the sun again.  Instead, God stood by the original decision.

Yet still, God felt compelled to request a sin offering to effect an atonement.

The texts we have in the Yom Kippur liturgy make it clear that we must atone when we’ve done wrong. This Talmudic story, though, suggests that atonement may be due, even if we’re sure we’re right. In making a decision and sticking with it, sure that we’ve pursued the right course, we can still acknowledge that we cause pain.  In an age of polarization and an inflamed sense of righteousness, it’s possible, like God did, to acknowledge that our actions may designate winners and losers, and that even when our behavior is correct, the losers, like the moon, are diminished.

(Embroidery:  Gates of Repentance, 2009, verses of the piyyut Petach Lanu Sha’ar (“open for us the gates”) of the Yom Kippur Neilah service, scanned by Philip Brookman)

Ruth and Naomi, Devoted Partners

Devar Torah on Megilat Ruth, in memory of Dorothy Braun z”l
Fabrangen, Washington, DC, June 8, 2019

My mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, died eight weeks ago.  I was close with my mother-in-law and sometimes called us a “Ruth-Naomi” pair.  So today, I had planned to comment on that aspect of the book of Ruth, in memory of Dottie.

In preparing this drash, though, I read the book of Ruth more carefully, and no longer think that it conveys the simple story of devotion that many of us imagine.  So my drash is a bit different than what I expected, though it is still a moment for me to pause in tribute to my mother-in-law, Dottie.

So what’s in the book?  Marge Piercy writes in her poem, The Book of Ruth and Naomi,

“When you pick up the Tanakh and read
the Book of Ruth, it is a shock
how little it resembles memory.
It’s concerned with inheritance,
lands, men’s names, how women
must wiggle and wobble to live.”

(from Mars and Her Children, 1992, Knopf; I found it in Poems of Ruth posted on Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog.)

Many of us are familiar with Ruth’s statements of attachment to Naomi after the deaths of Naomi’s sons, including Ruth’s husband, Machlon.  Ruth declares (1:16) “wherever you go, I will go: wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Ruth has thus become a model for conversion, contributing to the tradition of reading Megilat Ruth at Shavuot, when we re-enact our acceptance of Torah.

Looking more carefully at Ruth’s remarks, though, it seems that her attraction to “your people” and “your God” is based on her relationship with Naomi.  Unlike Abraham, a foreigner who also migrates to the Promised Land, Ruth doesn’t embark on her journey because of a direct relationship with God. Rather, she says, regarding Naomi, YOUR God will be my God, where YOU go/get buried, I will as well.  Indeed, this book is very focused on the Ruth-Naomi relationship.  They speak frequently in the narrative – unusual for women in a Biblical text – and jointly enact their plan to safely glean in the fields and to appeal to Boaz and his redeemer status.

Understandably in a long-term relationship, there are missteps.  Avivah Zornberg, speaking at Adas Israel in Washington, DC  on May 7, 2019, spoke of two “microaggressions” that Naomi directs to Ruth.  The first happens when they arrive at Bethlehem.  Naomi laments (2:21), “I went away full, and Adonai brought me back empty” though Ruth was right by her side.  I wonder whether Ruth felt invisible at that moment.  Honestly, though, Naomi was indeed very nearly empty – her husband and sons were gone, she was displaced, her former family wealth had disappeared, and she returns to Bethlehem like a burnt husk left over from a meal offering (“vatesha’er”, Ruth Rabba 2:8).

The second microaggression is at the end of the book; Ruth has a baby, but then she nearly disappears from the narrative. Referring to 4:14, “And the women said to Naomi… “he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons”, but then the text continues “Naomi took the child and became its omenet (nursemaid/foster mother)”.  Next, the women say “A son is born to Naomi!” and (the women? Ruth and Naomi?) name him Obed. Finally, when we are given a male lineage through to David, both women are lost to the story.

So where is the missing Ruth?  I refer you to a midrash shared by Avivah Zornberg at her Adas lecture.

Ruth Rabba 2 2

In this midrash, Ruth reappears at Solomon’s court, seated on Solomon’s right while his mother, Bat-Sheva, is seated to his left. The judgement (Melakhim I, 3:16-28) concerns the story of the two women who each claim to be the mother of a single baby. So Ruth lives to see the wisdom of her offspring and is honored in the court of her great-great-grandson (Ruth-Obed-Jesse-David-Solomon).  And she is present for a court case where the identity of the true mother is revealed, a kind of last laugh, considering her treatment in Chapter 4.

(I find it provocative that Batsheva attends the court for this decision.  In her lifetime, two men desire her and one dies, and David entirely controls the outcome by putting her first husband, Uriah, in harm’s way in battle. In Solomon’s court, two women vie for one baby, and Solomon’s proposed solution avoids a resulting death.)

Separately, I found two midrashim that bear on this, in a blog post by Baruch Cohen. Yalkut Shimoni 2:175 (a compilation of midrashim ~ 1100 CE ) claims that the two women were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, while another midrash (Kohelet Rabba 10:16) identifies them as yevamot, women whose husbands died and who need a live birth to avoid Yibbum, the levirate marriage, to male “redeeming” relatives who were undesirable partners. Meiri (1249-1305, Catalonia; commentary on Yevamot 17a) connects these two midrashim, giving us an astonishing motivation for one of the women appearing in Solomon’s court. The consequences of a dead child – living the balance of one’s life with a distasteful redeemer – might have brought a shrewd bereaved mother to court, claiming that the live infant was hers.

I am now more sympathetic to the newly bereaved mother’s desperate and distorted mental state, than I was as a child hearing the Biblical story for the first time and delighting in Solomon unmasking this cruel, murderous mother. Her scheming brings to mind the careful plotting Naomi and Ruth undertake to procure their best redeemer, Boaz.

Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations, a question of motherhood status, and the complications of levirate marriage are elements present in both the Ruth story and in these midrashim. It takes the wisdom of Solomon, her descendant, to untangle them.

These stories bring us back to Marge Piercy’s observation that in a hostile, controlling society, women must “wiggle and wobble to live”.  The book of Ruth then becomes a narrative of two mutually devoted women who, facing great adversity, together plan to survive and thrive.  To continue with Marge Piercy’s poem:

“Show me a woman who does not dream
a double, heart’s twin, a sister
of the mind in whose ear she can whisper,
whose hair she can braid as her life
twists its pleasure and pain and shame.
Show me a woman who does not hide
in the locket of bone that deep
eye beam of fiercely gentle love
she had once from mother, daughter,
sister; once like a warm moon
that radiance aligned the tides
of her blood into potent order.”

And with that, I recall again the memory of my mother-in-law, Dottie Braun, zikhronah livrakha.


Other sources I read preparing this drash:

Gabriel H. Cohn, Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megilot, Maggid Books, 2016, on instances of women speaking in Ruth

Avivah Zornberg’s presentation on “vatesha’er” in Ruth Rabba and Mona DeKoven Fishbane’s on Naomi and Ruth’s bond, in Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, Reading Ruth, Ballantine Books, 1994

Quotation from Ruth Rabba 2:2 from Sefaria.

A current take on Nadab and Abihu

From this morning’s Torah reading (Shemini, Leviticus 10): Nadab and Abihu are charged with executing the Law, laid out in thorough precision in previous chapters. Instead, they choose to conduct their authority according to their own imagination, and are promptly removed from leadership.  A sympathetic family member who also holds power (Aaron) must be reminded that Rules means Rules.

Not my usual reaction to the tragic deaths of Nadab and Abihu, but nowadays…it works.

Yom Kippur commentary

Here are some comments I shared during  5779 Yom Kippur Maariv services at the Fabrangen Havurah in Washington, DC.  Page numbers refer to the mahzor Hadeish Yameinu.

Before Kaddish:

On page 411, we come to the Kaddish.  We are used to extra insertions in our prayers during the High Holiday services, and there is even an extra insertion in the Kaddish.  The last paragraph begins le’eylah u’le’eylah which you could translate as higher and higher, or beyond and beyond.  Normally, Kaddish only includes one le’eylah, not two.   The second le’eylah serves to emphasize the heightened attention to God’s Majesty and expansiveness during the Ten Days of Repentence.

The extra word poses an interesting problem. Starting from the words yehei Shmei the congregational response starting on the 8th line, tradition has it the the kaddish should thenceforth contain 28 words. More on that later.  The extra l’eylah would bump up this paragraph to 29 words, and gracious, High Holiday services are already long enough!  So the rabbis compensated by taking two words found in the usual kaddish min kol, and contracting them to mikol, as you can see on the third line from the bottom:  mikol birchata vershirata.  Phew!

Why is it important to stay at 28 words?  Lots of reasons have been explored.  One reason I learned from an essay by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of the Orthodox Union, a reason that is pertinent for us in this season, stems from Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes.

There are 28 instances in person’s lifetime enumerated in Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. You also know the list from the Byrds’ song, “Turn-turn-turn”.  Namely:

(1) A time to be born, (2) a time to die; (3) a time to sow, (4) a time to reap; (5) a time to kill, (6) a time to heal; (7) a time to raze, (8) a time to build; (9) a time to cry, (10) a time to laugh; (11) a time to eulogize, (12) a time to dance; (13) a time to scatter stones, (14) a time to gather stones; (15) a time to hug, (16) a time to refrain from hugging; (17) a time to seek, (18) a time to lose; (19) a time to keep, (20) a time to send away; (21) a time to rip, (22) a time to mend; (23) a time to be silent, (24) a time to speak; (25) a time to love, (26) a time to hate; (27) a time of war, (28) a time of peace.

The list from Ecclesiastes seems especially pertinent tonight.  Tonight we evaluate the times we experienced in our lives – how we’ve spent time, and how we want to spend time.

Tonight is a night of enumeration, too.  In tonight’s liturgy, we’ll so enumerate so many things:

In the introductory prayers: our reasons for gratitude in the introductory prayers,

In the confessionals: our failings

In the piyyut Anu Amekha: the ways our people are close to God

In Avinu Malkeinu: our hopes and desires

In the Selicha section: God’s 13 Attributes we rely on for forgiveness.

Tonight is an occasion for enumeration and attention to time.

Before the Selihot section:

We are entering a section of selichot, prayers of penitence, that provide a model of how God forgives sin – and this is a model for us when we think about forgiving others.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin remarked that we tend to judge other people by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.  Contrast that to God’s quality of forgiveness.  In the fifth line on 438, it says ma’avir rishon rishon –God considers transgressions one by one.  That’s a contrast to the temptation we sometimes face that makes forgiveness difficult – the tendency, when we feel aggrieved by another person’s action, not to consider that action alone, but rather to pile on all our complaints, and judge the person more harshly.  God, in contrast, considers a person’s actions rishon rishon – one by one.

On the next page, the last passage on p 439, we have the Thirteen Attributes of God, based on Exodus 34:6-7.  The actual Biblical verses extend beyond the last word, venakeh, granting pardon.  In fact, the text in Exodus verse 7 reads venakeh lo yinakeh – a double-stressed word that is common in Biblical grammar and actually means the God will NOT grant pardon.  But the redactors of the Mahzor cut the Biblical phrase off at the first nakeh, so it reads ‘granting pardon’.  Perhaps the rabbis were playing the same rishon rishon game that God does in our previous citation—considering the words one at a time so as not to present a more harsh view of God.

A hamsa for parashat Ki Tavo

An embroidery: Hamsa (2011)

The hamsa is a palm-shaped amulet found in Jewish and Middle Eastern art, jewelry, and wall hangings, symbolizing God’s blessings andBraun.Hamsa.JudaicEmbroidery protection. In Islamic culture, it is sometimes referred to as the Hand of Fatima. Indeed, the embroidery features border and fill patterns adapted from a motif from an Islamic frieze.

The accompanying Hebrew words read “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings” (Deuteronomy 28:6), and are part of this week’s parasha (Torah reading).

The shadowing in Hamsa is executed in a progressive pattern with skipped or lightened embroidery stitches, acting like the rest notes of the song B-I-N-G-O.  The design is fully worked in at the bottom of the palm, created with two shades of blue thread and a double-threaded needle. Next, the pattern is lightened by dropping to a single thread. Thereafter, the lighter blue thread that had appeared in every third row of the design is eliminated, and the darker blue zigzag pattern remains. Then, every other thread is skipped in the zigzag, leaving the squares. Finally, the squares are dropped, with a few zigzag stitches left to grace the remaining fingertip.  I was eager to try the progressive technique, which I read about in a book about blackwork embroidery.  The technique seemed well suited for this verse, which, like the pattern, entails movement.

Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings!


Who’s in? The daughters of Zelophehad and the U.S. Census

Yesterday, we finished the 5778 Torah reading of parashat Pinhas, and I enjoyed hearing one of my favorite texts of Bamidbar (Numbers).  No, it wasn’t the brave proposals of the daughters of Zelophehad, seeking a fair allocation of their father’s tribal property that might have been lost for lack of male heirs.  But the Census!  Yes, another census – this one commanded by God in direct interaction with El’azar.  Presumably, this census would have illuminated the clan size and land needs of the Israelite tribes, in anticipation of their entry into the Promised Land.  We have an entire delightful chapter, Numbers 26, devoted to their names and numbers.

Only against this backdrop does the claim of the daughters of Zelophehad make sense.  If God wants El’azar and Moshe to enumerate the tribes by their clans, each family matters.  The concerns of Mahlah, No’ah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah are perhaps not a feminist innovation, but an understanding that in a culture that counts their father’s household, their father’s household does indeed count.

Currently, in the United States, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Trump Administration propose adding a question to the 2020 Census asking for citizenship status.  From the perspective of statistical practice, this is foolish; there isn’t time to properly field-test such a question.  The motivation is clear in Trump’s America. All immigrants — legal immigrants, green card holders, undocumented immigrants, and perhaps even naturalized citizens — would be wary of this question, and response rates would fall.  Our American community would lose the national portrait our Census is supposed to provide, and states with high immigrant populations would lose dearly, whether in highway funds or adequate school construction.

Like Zelophehad’s daughters, Ross and Trump know that the Census is about who counts, who matters, who is seen, and who is cared for.  The daughters stood before Moses, El’azar, the chieftains of the tribes, and indeed, the whole assembly, and made their claim.  We can as well.





A piyyut for the Passover seder

  • Karev Yom (sm)Karev Yom: Draw Near A Day
  • (2016, Rachel Braun)
  • from the piyyut
  • Vayehi beHatzi haLayla by Yannai
  •                embroidery finished size  14” x 6″

The words framed by the ombré shading pattern are Karev yom asher hu lo yom ve’lo layla (“Draw near a day that is neither day nor night”).  They come from a piyyut by Yannai, a payyetan, liturgical poet, writing in 7th century Israel. His poem, Vayehi beHatzi haLayla (“It happened at midnight”, from Exodus 12:29), is included in the Passover haggadah for the first seder. An alphabetical acrostic, the piyyut lists miracles said to have  occurred at midnight on Passover, giving them timing similar to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Drawing on rabbinic imagination, these events include Abraham’s mustering of troops to save his nephew Lot, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and so forth.

The phrase featured in this embroidery begins with the Hebrew letter kuf, falling late in the poem when the payyatan’s attention turns to anticipation of future redemption. It refers to the Messianic vision of Zekhariah 14:7: “There shall be a continuous day—only the Lord knows when—of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide”.

Oddly, I was attracted to this excerpt from the piyyut simply musically, remembering a cheerful tune celebrating the coming of the Messiah. Later, I learned a more contemplative melody. Which melody reveals the correct interpretation? Cheerful and toe-tapping, or contemplative and swaying? Day or night? It is hard to characterize the Messianic experience, a vast unknown.

In crafting the design, I sought elements that conveyed my interpretation of the words. I drew letters that had a demanding, imposing stance, to reflect the boldness of Yannai’s vision of the special midnight intimacy of God with the people Israel. The color palette ranged from light blue to dark navy and back again, representing the fluidity of day and night in Zekharia’s imagination of the Messianic age. I suppose that the embroidery resolves my musical dilemma in favor of the second, more serious melody, as the severity of the long rectangle evokes unsettled feelings about the challenges waiting for the Messianic age.

(Text excerpted from Embroidery and Sacred Text, 2017,





The Menorah: Embracing an Impossible Symbol

The latter sections of the book of Shemot (Exodus) provide a long narrative detailing the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  It began last week with Terumah and continues into this week, Tetzaveh.  It will be interrupted next week with parashat Ki Tisa, a cautionary tale detailing the severe damage wrought by the construction spirit gone awry, as the Israelites, who had just received instructions for a beautiful golden menorah, instead put their goldsmithing to work in fashioning an idol, the Golden Calf.  Soon enough, though, we return to the Tabernacle details in the final two parashiyot of Shemot, Vayakhel/Pekudei, where the work of construction is accomplished.

Tetzaveh opens with a command to the Israelites to bring “clear oil of beaten olives”. They were directed to bring the oil, not to prepare it, so presumably olive oil was brought from Egypt.  The 15th century Portuguese Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel wondered about the insertion of this command into a section that focuses largely on building the Tabernacle and preparing the priestly vestments. Why were the Israelites instructed to bring oil when the Tabernacle had not yet been constructed – the actual work being described in the last two parashiyot of Shemot?  This command seems premature.

Nechama Leibovitz answers Abarbanel’s question by positing that the lighting of the menorah is the central activity of the Temple service and essential to the Jewish people.  The imagery of light is strong in Jewish sacred text, represented in liturgy, for example, by the enlightenment of Torah (ve’ha’er einenu beToratekha) and our striving for Divine Light (ohr olam be’otzar hayyim).  The sixth century prophet Zekharia evoked a vision of the menorah surrounded by two olive trees, when he imagined the realm of God re-established “not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says Adonai Tzevaot.” (Zekharia 4).

The notion that the menorah was the central symbol of the Tabernacle and Temple is pervasive and continues until our time.  Over the centuries, the seven-branched menorah of the Temple has achieved the status of symbol for the Jewish people.  Israel in antiquity already had embraced the symbolism of the menorah.  Coins issued for use in Israel by Roman governors pictured the menorah, and mosaic floors and carved stone sarcophagi provided images as well. Yannai, the 6th century poet who likely lived in the Galil, also associated Israel with the menorah. In one of his poems, he refers to the Jewish people as the Lamps of Zion.[1]  The menorah appears in the Arch of Titus in Rome, carried off as a spoil of war during the second exile. Through the ages, the menorah has appeared in illustrated manuscripts, ketubot, gravestones, paper cuts, Torah ornaments, military insignia, home decorations, jewelry, Israeli stamps and currency, wine labels, candy wrappers, El Al advertising[2], and in the layout of a neighborhood of Tel Aviv streets[3]. At the Latke-Hamantashen debate last week, I noticed that it was part of the metal grill of fencing around Adas Israel Synagogue.

1931 Tel Aviva planning mapProposed El Al poster

One of the most telling indications of the continuity of the menorah in Jewish imagination is the design contest in 1948 for the official emblem of the State of Israel.  Early guidelines called for a design with a menorah and with seven Jewish stars – 7 representing Herzl’s socialist dream that in the New Land, Jews would only work 7 hours a day.  The colors were to be blue and white, the colors of the tallit.  The entries incorporated designs or other motifs that spoke to self-perception in the new Jewish state. Artists worked roaring lions, vines, olive branches, doves, and flames into their designs.  One of my favorites designs created a menorah out of a cactus, playfully suggesting that the new nation would be represented not by the Priestly Class, but by the rugged pioneers of the desert landscape.  The most poignant entry represented the new state as a new limb, sprouting out of a cut-off trunk – symbol of the revived nation.[4]Menorah design entry, 1948 symbol of state

Menorah as cactus, seal of state of israel entry









With the inclusion of the menorah in the design of the emblem, the symbol of the Roman exile was reversed to become the image of the fledging new state. In the end, the Shamir brothers,  famed Israeli stamp designers, prevailed with their now well-known design.  Their entry was instantly criticized for any number of reasons – the primitive alphabet, what some thought were overbearing olive branches, but most Emblem of Israelof all for the choice of base. Their base used the double-layered, carved base in the Arch of Titus – almost certainly not a true depiction of the menorah described in Shemot.  Its appearance in the state symbol is part triumphalism, the return of Jewry from the Roman exile.

The argument over the appropriateness of the Shamirs’ design is apt. The menorah, this profound symbol of the Jewish people is, it seems, impossible—impossible to agree on, and, from what we know from the sources, impossible to even fashion.

One difficulty is with the description itself. The menorah of Terumah was a singular design challenge, to be hammered out of a single block of gold. Indeed, its construction was perhaps so difficult that it’s unclear whether Bezalel even effected its manufacture.  Rashi, commenting on the passive voice in the phrase ‘it shall be made’ in Exodus 25:35, suggests that the menorah was made of its own accord, to be plucked fulMenorah-like sage from Forward articlely fashioned from a fiery furnace.  The Midrash Tanhuma describes Moses trying to imagine its construction, failing to grasp the details even after three episodes of Divine instruction.  Indeed, Steven Fine (cited in the first footnote, above) had his students attempt to draw the menorah based on the Biblical text. Naturally, each effort had a different result, but “most students agree that the menorah is a kind of overgrown plant, complete with branches, bulbs, and flowers[5].” Indeed, the similarity of the menorah, particularly Rashi’s sketch of it, to a common sage plant known as moriah or salvia is the subject of an chapter in the Israel Museum volume as well as an essay in the Forward[6].

Even lighting the menorah is an impossibility.  Abarbanel aptly noted that the command to light it, relayed at the beginning of our parasha, comes at an unlikely time. The command is given, but there is no menorah to light.

SO: how does a set of impossible instructions followed by a inexecutable command end up being our national symbol?

Maybe that is how a symbol becomes precious.  It provides not the accessible, but the ideal. It is inclusive by its lack of specificity, allowing Dr. Fine’s students to obey the instructions and still infuse their own individuality into the construction.  It represents trust in the future – why else would the Israelites carry oil, rather than water, on their backs into the wilderness?  We have a symbol that stumped even Moses, that was carried off as a spoil of war, yet illuminates even in its absence.  The choice of this symbol for the Jewish people identifies us as those who are sure that the impossible with still work out.

[1] The poem is cited in Steven Fine, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2016, p. 42.

[2] Proposal for poster for El Al Airlines, 1959 Design: Rafi Mintz, b. 1938.  From The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, In the Light of the Menorah: Story of a Symbol, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society (English edition), 1999.

[3] The 1931 planning map of Tel Aviv depicts a neighborhood in the southeastern corner, Neve Sha’anan, with streets laid out as a menorah. From Naomi Zeveloff, “In Tel Aviv, a Neighborhood Shaped Like a Menorah”, The Forward, December 15, 2016.

[4] The two design entries shown above are unidentified but included in The Israel Museum volume.

[5] Fine, op cit, p. 28.

[6] Jo Ann Gardner, “The Secret Sage-Scented History of the Menorah,” The Forward, Dec. 12, 2016.