Sunday, February 7, 2016

Parashat Terumah 5776 Deep Roots

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Terumah 5776
Deep Roots

One of the basic necessities for any successful building project is quality raw materials. A building will only be as strong as the materials used to construct it, although a stable foundation, thoughtful and thorough design plans and capable artisans are other necessary components for a solid structure. The building of the Mishkan, of a house designed for and dedicated to the worship of God, presented some very unique challenges. First and foremost: How are the requisite raw materials to be procured in the wilderness? While the plans for the Mishkan were drawn up by God Himself, and the artisans who were entrusted with bringing the plans to fruition were divinely inspired, the materials seem to pose a challenge.

The Torah explains that the precious metals and textiles used to construct the Mishkan were among the possessions, the “great wealth,” that the Israelites took with them when they departed Egypt. However, some of the other materials called for in Parashat Terumah must have been quite difficult to obtain. Where, for example, would they obtain the wood to create the main beam that held the Mishkan together?

Midrashic literature provides a fascinating answer to this question: Long before the Jewish People were given the instructions for building the Mishkan, their forefather Avraham began the process. Avraham, who had been promised by God that he would father a great nation, was also told that this nation would be exiled, abused, and eventually redeemed. How did Avraham respond to this prophecy, this promise? He planted:

Avraham planted an eishel in Beersheva, and there he called out in the name of God the Eternal Master. (Bereishit 21:33)

There is a difference of opinion regarding the nature of this eishel. Some understand the word eishel as an acronym for the Hebrew words for food, drink and lodging, and opine that Avraham built an inn at the edge of the desert, where he received parched and travel-weary guests and encouraged them to thank God for the food and drink he shared with them. Other opinions have a more straightforward understanding of this singular word, and explain that Avraham planted an orchard (eishel being a type of tree). We should note that when he planted this eishel, whatever it may have been, Avraham focused on the aspect of God the Eternal, rather than other aspect that we might have imagined Avraham connecting with, such as God the Merciful, or God the Creator.

The act of planting is an expression of belief in the future. In planting the eishel, Avraham gives expression to his own faith in a God who is Eternal, his own belief in the God who created and planted the very first tree, his belief in the God who will keep His promises to Avrahams descendants. Avraham believes in a God who is Eternal, Master of the Universe.

On the other hand, the idea that Avraham built an inn, a place where he taught travellers about God, is no less intrinsically connected to our current discussion. Avrahams eishel may be seen as the first House of God. Avraham built it as a house dedicated to the service of God, as a place in which men and women might access God. Avraham used this eishel to share his understanding of God with others. In fact, Avrahams grandson Yaakov also had a very strong connection to a House of God: As he lay on the ground in a holy place, Yaakov had a vision of a ladder reaching up to the heavens, and he vowed to build a House of God on that very spot. Unfortunately, his promise remained unfulfilled in his own lifetime.

There is a fascinating rabbinic teaching that draws a more direct line between the two visions, of Avraham and Yaakov, of the House of God: When Yaakov went down to Egypt, he collected the wood from the trees Avraham had planted years before, and made massive beams out of the eishel of Avraham. His grandfather Avraham believed in the future; he had faith that God would fulfill his promises -   and Yaakov was fully aware that he was living the first step, the beginning of the exile. But Yaakov, too, had faith. He knew the day of redemption would come as well, and in anticipation of that day, Yaakov brought the long beams, formed from the eishel planted by Avraham, down to the Egyptian exile. Before his death, Yaakov revealed to his own descendants that these beams, planted long ago by Avraham, would one day be used in a Temple, a Mishkan, a House of Worship to the Eternal God, a place perhaps imagined by Avraham long ago. In this way, Yaakovs vow was fulfilled: Yaakov donated the beams that stood at the very center of the Mishkan.

The idea expressed in this poignant midrash, the process is describes, reminds us that we are the beneficiaries of the saplings planted by our ancestors. They, too, had hopes and dreams. They believed in the future; they believed that Gods Word is true, and they never ceased to call out in the name of the Eternal God, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Some of our ancestors carried their belief through almost unfathomable times of darkness, exile, enslavement and pain, like heavy wooden beams, in the belief that one day their children, or their childrens children, would use them to build a House of God they themselves could only dream of. They had faith that their descendants would one day serve God, Eternal God, in a place founded on their own beliefs, constructed from the beams of their ancestors’ hopes and dreams. As their descendants, we, too, must never lose faith in the future. We must craft and carry the beams that will allow our children, and their children, to continue to call out in the name of the Eternal.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

 Echoes of Eden

Parashat Terumah; Audio and Essays

Parashat Terumah Audio and Essays

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Deep Roots


Building Holiness

The Mishkan; A temporary Abode


Physical Form Of A Spiritual Vision

Terumah Tetzaveh

The Golden Calf Mishkan And Merkava

Sefer Shmot and the Confusing Chronology

Intimacy With God

When Adar Starts - the Joy Begins

The Mishkan; A temporary Abode

Shiur on Tekhelet:
The Argument for Tekhelet


If You Build It, I Will Come

As Seen On the Mountain

Out of Place

Innocence Lost and Found

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Launch

OU Press and Gefen Publishing House are proud invite the public to a

Book Launch
To celebrate the publication of

Echoes of Eden: Sefer Devarim

And the completion of the
Echoes of Eden Series

The OU Israel Center is honored to host the author,
Rabbi Ari Kahn
 and his students and readership on

Monday night  February 22nd or (evening of) 14th Adar I
אור לי"ד אדר א' התשע"ו
At 8 pm
At the OU Israel Center
22 Keren Hayesod Street
(admission free)

Guest speaker:
Harav David Miller שליט"א

Rosh Kollel of the RIETS Israel Kollel

Echoes of Eden: Sefer Devarim

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim 5776 Not in Heaven

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Mishpatim 5776
Not in Heaven

As the chapters following the Revelation at Sinai unfold, the narrative seems to have been replaced by a slew of laws. Servants, cattle, damages and punitive obligations fill the pages of this week’s Torah portion, and it seems as if the lofty experience of standing at Sinai and witnessing the theophany has been eclipsed by the pedestrian realities of everyday life.

The shift is quite dramatic: The first 20 Chapters of Shmot were filled with pathos and action: An abused nation and its savior, a magical staff, mighty plagues and the splitting of the sea, the introduction of the manna and the wonder of Shabbat inspired us and connected us with heaven. All this, followed by the Revelation at Sinai literally, the most awesome experience mankind has ever experienced. And then, somehow, the narrative gives way to everyday hustle and bustle, the real-life problems that are the central feature of Parashat Mishpatim: If an ox gores and causes damage, restitution must be paid.

There is no question that these laws are both logical and necessary for the functioning of the nation; what may need explanation is their context. Why the sudden shift from the spiritual apex at Sinai to the minutiae of Mishpatim? Why the shift from religious law to common law?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once famously observed that the physical needs of our fellow man are our own spiritual obligation. Parshat Mishpatim may be understood in much the same vein: Our financial obligations are, in fact, spiritual obligations. All our workaday interpersonal relationships are part and parcel of our religious life. While we might be tempted to think that the reduction of lofty, Divine law into hard currency is demeaning, the Torah seems to be teaching quite the opposite: Had Torah law dealt exclusively with overtly otherworldly, spiritual concerns, it would not be the Living Torah, the Torah of Life, that it is. A Torah that deals exclusively with our relationship with God would be a Torah that is irrelevant for much of lifes realities, and not a way of life.

In other words, it is precisely the context which makes these laws so interesting and compelling. Last weeks parasha ended as the People took a collective step back from the overwhelming religious experience at Sinai. Hearing God speak directly to them proved too much for them; the nation asked that Moshe act as an intermediary, that he alone stand and receive the Word of God and teach them in a more manageable, recognizable fashion. When the heavens opened and they each heard the ten statements uttered by God Himself, the people begged for God to stop. They felt incapable of accepting the Torah directly from God, and asked that Moshe receive it on their behalf. Immediately following this request, Parashat Mishpatim begins: These are the laws God then shared with Moshe. This is the precise content that God intended to transmit directly to each and every member of the nation, but which they felt incapable of receiving directly. Parashat Mishpatim, with its seemingly mundane and detailed social laws, is the content of that awesome and awe-inspiring Revelation.

So much non-Jewish religious belief focuses on the spiritual world, on the aspects of holiness and spirituality that are divorced from human experience and interaction. We might have imagined that the Torah, too, would concern itself only with this aspect of human capability. Yet the unmistakable message of the laws God taught Moshe at Mount Sinai is that no such division exists in Judaism. The Torah, which comes from heaven, is not in heaven, nor is it designed for heavenly beings. Torah deals with the reality that unfolds on the lowly terra firma, and not in some rarified atmosphere occupied by beings who are wholly spiritual.

The social obligations enumerated in Parashat Mishpatim are Divine law. An elevated level of human interaction is also holy, and no less a spiritual commandment than the laws regulating our service of God. The obligation to perfect human society is a Divine imperative.

Echoes of Eden

Audio and Essays Parashat Mishpatim

Audio and Essays Parashat Mishpatim

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Not in Heaven

The Oral Torah and the Glow of Moshe

Accepting The Torah; Being United

Eye For An Eye

Even From the Altar


Soul Matters

From Logic to Metalogic

'Lex Talionis': Law and Ethics

The Ten Commandments: Part II

These Are the Laws

Monday, January 25, 2016

Parashat Yitro 5776 Dual Loyalty

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Yitro 5776
Dual Loyalty

Hearing of the wonders that had transpired, Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, arrives in the Israelite encampment in the desert. He is genuinely happy to hear of the wondrous events that had brought about the Israelites’ reversal of fortune, transforming them from lowly slaves into free people. Yitro joins Moshe, Aharon and the elders in a thanksgiving feast.

When the celebration ends, Yitro observes Moshe and is struck by his son-in-law’s enormous workload. Yitro, the leader (“kohen”) of Midian[1], knew something about leadership and public service. He knew that Moshe could very quickly be overwhelmed and “burned out” by the enormity of the responsibility. This over-extension strikes Yitro as a terrible strategy, and he suggests a system in which the burden may be divided and, whenever possible, delegated.

The wisdom of Yitro’s suggestion is immediately apparent, and his proposal is incorporated into the Israelite camp’s basic structure.

As an aside, we might pause to appreciate the irony of the situation: Moshe and Yitro would never have met had Moshe not fled Egypt - and his escape was precipitated by a very pointed question hurled at him accusingly: “Who appointed you judge over us?”  Upon seeing two Jews struggling, Moshe jumped into the fray – only to be accused of overstepping his authority. Now, Moshe had become the authority, the sole arbiter of justice, the judge for all Israel.  

And so, Yitro assesses the situation and proposes a method for curtailing Moshe’s workload, delegating responsibility and sharing authority – with one exception. There is one aspect of Moshe’s position that will not be shared: Moshe alone will continue to stand between the people and God. The difficult questions that rise through the lower courts will be brought to the Almighty by Moshe for clarification and adjudication.

You are going to wear yourself out, along with this nation that is with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it all alone. Now, listen to me; I will advise you, and God will be with you. You must be God's representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. (Shmot 18:18-19)

Moshe has a dual role: He is both God’s representative and the people’s representative, and it may be this dual role that explains why the story of Yitro’s arrival is inserted at this particular juncture.

According to tradition, Yitro arrived in the Israelite camp months later - after Yom Kippur, in the fall –whereas the following portion, the Revelation at Sinai and all the events described in the next several chapters, transpired in the spring.[2] Ostensibly, the reason Yitro’s arrival is recounted at this point is because it is, in a sense, the continuation of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea: The report of the great miracles and triumphs the Israelites had experienced had reached Yitro in Moav, spurring him to visit and pay his respects.

However, there may be a deeper, more substantive reason to insert Yitro’s visit at this point. Yitro apparently had a uniquely clear grasp of the nature of Moshe’s role. Having himself served in a position of leadership, Yitro was able to see the day-to-day operation of the Israelite camp from a more removed perspective, akin to that of a systems analyst or organizational consultant. The judicial structure Yitro suggests is predicated on his very discerning and insightful understanding of Moshe’s essential role. And what more important juncture to clarify Moshe’s dual role, as God’s representative to the people and the people’s representative to God, than on the eve of the Revelation at Sinai? Indeed, in the events that immediately follow Yitro’s arrival (Chapter 19), in Moshe’s most celebrated role, he brings the Word of God down to the People, and represents the frightened, awe-struck nation when they are afraid to hear the Word of God. Moshe is far more than an ambassador, representing one side of the dialogue; he faithfully represents both sides, with both precision and compassion. It is this role that continues until the end of Moshe’s life.

In the story of the Exodus, Moshe’s role had been secondary; God spoke through him, Aharon spoke for him - even his own “magical” staff took a more prominent role in the plagues and miracles. But at Sinai, Moshe’s role becomes perfectly clear. Moshe is far more than a judge, far more than a neutral messenger of God’s instructions. From this point on, Moshe is both the “Servant of God” (a description that eventually becomes his epitaph[3]), bringing the Torah down from heaven, and, at the same time, the defender, protector, representative and teacher of the Jewish People. At Sinai, Moshe becomes, for all time, Moshe Rabbenu – Moshe, our teacher, leader, and master. Yitro was the first to identify Moshe’s dual role, and the first to give it practical expression, in preparation for the events that would soon unfold.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

[1] See Rashi and Unkelos, Shmot 2:16.
[2] Rashi, Shmot 18:13.
[3]Dvarim 34:5. 

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat Yitro