Author Archives: Gilah Langer

Gilah Langer

About Gilah Langer

Gilah Langner is a consultant and mother living in Washington, DC. She is co-editor of Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism.

Loving God By Acting With Compassion

The following article is reprinted with permission from

The Torah portion Va’et’hanan contains the Sh’ma, one of the great foundational statements of the Torah:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

For centuries the watchword of the Jewish people, the Sh’ma has had a resonance and power unmatched by any other statement in Judaism. Books and commentaries have been written about it; countless Jewish children have learned the Sh’ma as their first prayer; countless Jews have died with the Sh’ma on their lips.

But the subtleties of meaning conveyed by the six words of the Sh’ma have changed over time. The earliest understanding–at a time when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations–may have been along the lines of "Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, only Adonai." In other words, among all the other gods around, only Adonai is the Israelite God. Over time, as pagan gods faded away, the Sh’ma took on a subtly different meaning–that while Adonai is our God, in time Adonai will come to be acknowledged by everyone as the one and only God.

Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has written in For Those Who Can’t Believe, "divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe."

And, says the Sh’ma, both aspects are joined in the Divine. Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh’ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming–ehyeh asher ehyeh, God’s self-proclaimed name: "I will be what I become."

The Sh’ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved. In a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with the late Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, alav ha-shalom (may he rest in peace), he once remarked,

"Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim–you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29)."

The opening of the Sh’ma calls on us to develop this understanding as a community. As Harold Fisch has written in Poetry With a Purpose, "The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding."

How do we actualize that understanding of divine unity? The answer comes immediately following the Sh’ma: through love. "Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha, you shall love the Lord your God."

One wonders how the Torah can command a person to love. Rabbi Norman Lamm in his book The Shema, cites Rabbi Shneur Zalman as saying: "We are not commanded to impose upon ourselves an extraneous, extra-human sentiment; rather, this love for God already exists in potential form… within our soul. The mitzvah to love God demands that we remove all obstacles and impediments that interfere with our free and open expression of that love."

An ancient book of midrash offers another interpretation of "ve’ahavta." The Sifre interprets "you shall love the Lord your God" as meaning: you shall cause God to be beloved by human beings. Perhaps, then, the "ve’ahavta" in this week’s parasha is predicated on another ve’ahavta from the Book of Leviticus: "Ve’ahavta le’rayacha kamokha, you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To "love God" we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.

Tending Flames, Seeing Faces

Provided by, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Tzav is only the second parashah in Leviticus, but already we are immersed in the sacrificial rites. In great detail we read the instructions for sacrificing burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and the like. In the second half of the portion, we read how Moses enacted the sacrificial rite by which Aaron and his sons were anointed as priests.

Is it Repellent?

Many of us find this material hard going, if not utterly repellent. But Judaism is known for the art of textual interpretation, and this portion is a prime example. As Rabbi Arthur Green has pointed out, the opening verses of Tzav have long been interpreted as speaking of the deepest, most inward form of spirituality. In the Sephardic and hasidic prayerbooks, these opening verses are recited each morning as a prelude to daily worship.

How was Tzav transformed in this way?

The opening verses of Leviticus 6 state:

fire in the torah“This is the Torah of the burnt-offering… The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: the priest shall burn wood upon it each morning, each morning … A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (verses 1, 4, 6)

Three times in six verses there is reference to the fire burning on the altar and not going out. What is this fire that must not be extinguished?

Green’s translation of the Sefat Emet, the Torah commentary of the hasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, gives us a glimpse into the various meanings of this fire–among them, the life force within each of us, the fear of God, the Torah which gives light, the light of redemption and hope.

Commenting on these verses in Tzav, the Sefat Emet wrote: “In the soul of every Jew there lies a hidden point that is aflame with love of God, a fire that cannot be put out.” But the human longing to worship the Creator must be renewed each day, as we read: “The priest shall burn wood upon it each morning, each morning.”

The fire is always there, and yet the struggle must take place each day to overcome that which might smother it–that which distracts us, or distances us, or turns us away from love and worship, from offering service with the fullness of our hearts.

On the verse “A fire must continually be lit on the altar” (esh tamid tukad al ha-mizbei’akh), Rashi notes that the term “tamid” (“continual” or “always”) is the same term used to describe the “ner tamid,” the “eternal light” that burned in the sanctuary. Since the destruction of the Temple, the ner tamid in our own synagogues serves as a reminder of the need for continual service and the fact of God’s continual presence.

The word “tamid” calls to mind the well-known verse from Psalms that also proclaims God’s presence. This verse is inscribed on the ark in many shuls: Shiviti Adonai le-negdi tamid, “I have set the Lord before me always.” Traditionally, this is taken to mean that one should keep God in mind when one prays–and indeed, at all times–so that one’s prayers, acts, and words are intentional and righteous.

But in a plainer sense, setting someone (or some One) before us implies an image that we see in our mind’s eye. We know that we are each made in God’s image. As Art Green has written, in some basic way, “this seems to mean that the human face–every human face–is a copy or reflection of the face of God.” Is it possible to keep that Adonai in our mind’s eye all the time? An Adonai Who encompasses the faces of every living human being?

Not Just People We Know

And not just the faces of those whom we know, but especially the faces of people whom we do not normally keep in front of us–the faces of people starving in Africa; of the twenty-seven million people enslaved or held in debt bondage in the Sudan, Mauritania, India, Haiti, and elsewhere; of children drugged and pressed into service as soldiers in Sierra Leone; of families whose lives are destroyed by earthquakes and hurricanes.

The faces of those who are tortured in hidden prisons, mistreated and murdered by police and security forces in Latin America. The faces of those who languish year after year in American jails for ridiculously light drug crimes. The faces of both Palestinians and Israelis, caught up in a cycle of violence and historical injustices. The faces of the poor, the ill, the hungry, the malnourished, in virtually every country on Earth.

Can we keep their faces in front of us at all times? This is where “tamid” poses such a challenge. The challenge is not to turn away, not to give up out of hopelessness or frustration, not to pretend that our affluent lives can properly be lived in a vacuum away from the rest of the world.

This is the challenge of Tzav–to keep the fire burning continually. To open our worship and prayer practices to the anguish of the world. To keep these faces of humanity, these aspects of God’s image in front of us, always.

A few follow-up resources:

American Jewish World Service:
Amnesty International:
Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger:
The American Anti-Slavery Group:

Keeping Accounts

Provided by, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Have you ever noticed that the Ten Commandments take up only a handful of verses in the Torah, while the construction of the Tabernacle is given several chapters worth? Perhaps this is meant to mirror life itself–moments of high moral impact and lofty sentiments are short and infrequent, while shopping lists, renovations, and daily chores take up huge amounts of time. But this is all godly work, the Torah seems to be telling us. Even the most creative tasks have their tedious details; even the most mundane jobs can be infused with mindfulness and holiness.

Completion of the Tabernacle

This week’s parashah, Pekudei, concludes the Torah’s recounting of the building of the Tabernacle. This has been going on for five weeks–two weeks of instructions in designing the Tabernacle, two weeks describing the construction work, broken in the middle only by Ki Tissa, the story of how the Israelites came up with their own building project–the Golden Calf.

"These are the accounts of the mishkan" (Exodus 38:21), begins Pekudei, and then proceeds to tell us how much gold, how much silver, how much copper was used in its building. This seems curious. If the building of the mishkan (Tabernacle) was done according to God’s specifications, and Moses was supervising the work, why does the Torah bother to give us an accounting? Surely Moses, of all people, could be trusted! Are these accounts just the wrap-up, the final audit of the books, on a par with the meticulously detailed blueprint for the Tabernacle? Or are they intended to impress us with the richness and beauty of the Tabernacle, built with precious materials in such abundance?

The rabbis in the midrash connect the accounts with the responsibility of leaders to their people, and with the age-old temptation for dishonesty and mistrust with regards to precious. The Midrash says:

Moses said: I know that Israel are grumblers. So I will give them an accounting of all the work of the Tabernacle. He then proceeded to give them such an account–"these are the accounts of the Tabernacle"–giving them an accounting for each and every item, whether gold, silver, or brass, that was used in the Tabernacle, in order of their use…

Apparently, whatever the people’s feelings toward Moses in general, when it came to money, trust was a scarce commodity. Sure, Moses was trusted by God–but that wasn’t necessarily the same as being trusted by people. Those in positions of power need to be aware of the jealousy that their power and actions can evoke. They particularly need to be sensitive, not only to doing the right thing, but to how people will perceive their actions and attitudes. The Midrash continues:

Now, why did he feel he had to give an accounting? The Holy One trusted him, as is said, "He is trusted in all My house" (Numbers 12:7). Why then did he give an accounting?

Because he heard the scoffers of the generation talk behind his back, as is said, "Whenever Moses went out to the Tent [of Meeting], all the people would rise and stand… and gaze after Moses until he had entered the Tent." (Exodus 33:8).

Of course, when we read Exodus 33:8, we imagine the people rising out of honor and gazing in awe as Moses is enveloped in the pillar of cloud at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The rabbis of the midrash, however, give us a different sense–the people standing in sullen resentment, sniping behind his back:

What were they saying? Eyeing him with contempt from behind, one would say to the other: Look at his neck! Look at his thighs! He stuffs himself with what belongs to us and guzzles what is ours. And the other would reply: Stupid! A man appointed over the work of the Tabernacle, over talents of silver and talents of gold whose weight and number are too great to measure–what do you expect? That he would not enrich himself?

When Moses heard this talk, he said: As you live, when the work of the Tabernacle is finished, I will give you an accounting. When it was finished, he said, "These are the accounts of the Tabernacle" (Exodus 38:21).

How Apropos

How apropos to read about the need for proper accounting in the aftermath some of the largest bankruptcies in American history. It is not merely the collapse of companies and the loss of jobs and business that has so shocked the country. It is the damage caused by companies’ dishonest accounting practices, and the fury with executives who cashed out billions of dollars in company stocks when they were near their peaks.

By contrast, the accounts of the Tabernacle are transparent, made public, for the entire community to hear. It is not just the people’s gold, silver, and copper that have been given to the building of the mishkan–it is their trust as well. Pekudei serves as a useful reminder to our community organizations and businesses that they must operate–and be seen to operate–at the highest levels of honesty and transparency in bookkeeping.

The word pekudei from which the parashah derives its name can be translated in various ways–accounts, records, remembrances. It cautions us that keeping accounts is not only a responsibility to those involved in an enterprise, but a remembrance of how one has acted in the world.

"These are the accounts of the mishkan–the mishkan of witnessing," begins the parashah. The structures we build in our communities bear witness to what we have put into them. How we use, or misuse, the trust and assets of other people is ultimately recorded, witnessed, and remembered.