Author Archives: Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

About Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The Song of Humanity

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We often read Parashat Vayelekh on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Fittingly, this parashah deals with sin and repentance, with becoming lost on our way and returning to our true selves.

In the parashah, God foretells Israel’s future sins and their consequences, how they will turn to other gods and then be overtaken by suffering, leading God to say, “anokhi haster astir panai–I will surely hide my face (Deut. 31:16-18).” The hidden face of God, the classic theological expression of the presence of suffering and evil in the world, here seems to be a response by God to the sins of Israel, a punishment for their misdeeds.

american jewish world serviceThe Hasidic master, Rebbe Ephraim of Sudylkow, understands this passage differently. Carefully re-reading the Hebrew, Rebbe Ephraim separates the phrase into two sections and reinterprets the implications of God’s actions. When anokhi haster–the I-ness of God–is hidden through our entering the slumber of self-deception and idolatry, then astir panai–[God’s] face will be hidden.

When we forget our values and our humanity, we obscure God’s holiness from the world; then God’s face, God’s true presence, is hidden from us. When we pervert what is just and right through the pursuit of that which is not the true center, we cause God’s presence to disappear, not as punishment, but as consequence.

Wealth & Complacency

The Torah explains that this turning away will occur when the people of Israel “eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods (Deut. 31:20).” It is through complacency and an absorption in wealth that Israel will lose sight of the locus of divinity and the genuine values that flow from it. And this prophesy has come true.

Our modern consumer society affords us wealth that often engenders precisely the indifference and false pursuits that our parashah describes. Caught up as we are in material gain and upward mobility, we often lose sight of our true values. As we spend money on clothes, cars, coffee, and all the other goods we consume, do we take the time to see how our lifestyle conforms to our deepest values?

Separation of Powers

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Parashat Shoftim is concerned with the structures of governance of biblical society and their just operation: the government and its military, the courts, and the religious authorities. Having emerged from the foreign slavery of Egypt and now attempting to maintain the freedom achieved in the Exodus, the parashah is concerned with ensuring the fair functioning of these three institutions. That is, the Torah explicitly limits exploitative possibilities by separating the centers of power and placing constraints that keep these institutions functioning appropriately.

american jewish world servcieThe Rabbis speak of Israel as crowned with three crowns–the crown of kingship, the crown of Torah, and the crown of priesthood (Mekhilta de-Rashbi 19:6). In early Jewish history these three crowns were, for the most part, kept distinct as rival centers of power in Jewish society. Most democracies today have echoed this model. Religious, judicial, and governing bodies are kept separate from each other and each saddled with limits so that their exploitative and oppressive potentials are restricted, while their productive and progressive possibilities are cultivated.

For the Jews, to not limit these institutions would have been to exchange the foreign slavery of Egypt for the internal slavery of fellow Israelite domination. This week’s parashah outlines the original separation of powers.

Judges, Kings, Priests

It first discusses the legal system, stressing that judges must decide cases justly, show no favoritism, and take no bribes (Deut. 16:18-20). The parashah clearly lays out rules for the exercise and limitation of their power. We learn that it is only when judges are bound by such rules that their decisions are legitimate and can be enforced (Deut. 17:10-11).

Next, the parashah turns to the institution of kingship. We are told that an Israelite king must regularly review the law to which he is bound and not “act haughtily toward his fellows (Deut. 17:18-20).” Moreover, the Torah particularly instructs that the king should not multiply his horses, women, or wealth (Deut. 17:15-17) and must not (Deut. 17:16) “send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go back that way again.'”

How the Israelite Nation was Raised

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The Book of D’varim is the beginning of a transition in the lives of the people of Israel. About to cross over the Jordan to the Promised Land, Moses recounts the laws and life of the Israelites in their wandering in the desert. Moses recalls that the people have been carried by God through the wilderness, fought for by God, shown where to camp and when to move, fed with manna, and provided for in every way (Deut. 1:29-33). Yet in the transition from Moses to Joshua and from wandering in the wilderness to entering the Land, there is a sudden shift in tone. No longer catered to, the people must begin to fend for themselves.

What is the nature and cause of this transition and what changes does it produce in the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Land? The wanderings of Israel in the wilderness have hardly been a resounding success. As Moses spends the majority of the first chapter recalling, it was due to the sin of the spies that Israel was forced to wander for 40 years (Deut. 1:22-45). Along the way, the people continued to disobey and complain, and indeed their years in the desert are marked by grumbling and stiff-neckedness.

Responsibility & Helplessness

Perhaps the cause of this shift in responsibility can be found in the ultimate leadership of God. The Israelites are taken care of by God at every step of the journey through the desert. Though this protection is no doubt welcomed on the one hand, and is perhaps necessary in the first crisis-like weeks, months, and even years after their exodus from Egypt, during the 40 years in the desert the children of Israel are quite literally disempowered.

Never made masters of their own destiny, never allowed to truly take responsibility for themselves and never truly listened to by God, it is perhaps no wonder that their wandering through the desert is a series of disasters.

Indeed God, it seems, has difficulty making the transition from disaster relief to development, from the immediate aid that was necessary and appropriate in the initial crisis-mode post exodus to the mutual development work necessary to produce long-term sustainable success. Rather, throughout the 40-year journey, God leads paternalistically, giving the people no control of their destiny, setting them up for the fear, anxiety, and helplessness that leads to their repeated failure.

Heroic or Sinful?

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Just before Parashat Pinhas begins, Israelite men have begun sleeping with foreign women. These relations have brought the Israelites to worship foreign gods and have caused, in response, a Divine plague to break out in the Israelite camp. God and Moshe then command the Israelites to slaughter the idol worshipers among the Israelites.

In the very next verse, we learn that Zimri ben Salu (an Israelite) and Kozbi bat Tzur (a Midianite) publicly display their relationship as Zimri takes Kozbi back to his tent to sleep with her. Our parashah opens with the conclusion of the bloody tale as Pinhas slaughters Zimri and Kozbi and ends the plague (Numbers 25).

A Different Interpretation

The surface meaning of the story seems to indicate that Pinhas has acted properly and saved the Israelites. However, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, a Polish Hasidic Rebbe, turns this understanding on its head. He argues that Pinhas is profoundly mistaken. Though it seems that Zimri is acting improperly according to the acknowledged law, he is, according to Rabbi Leiner, following a deeper divine will, which compels him to violate the accepted standards.

Rabbi Leiner teaches that Zimri and Kozbi are cosmic soul-mates and that their joining together is part of the mystical process of tikkun, healing the cosmos, often understood in Kabbalah as the erotic union of masculine and feminine. It is rather Pinhas who, in his immature zealotry and rash judgment, acts wrongly and tragically, failing to see the deeper motivation and attunement of Zimri and Kozbi, failing to see their righteous civil disobedience–their attempt to participate in the healing of the world–for what it is.

Two Kinds of Activism

And so it seems that both Pinhas, according to the pshat (simple meaning) of the text, and Zimri, according to Rabbi Leiner’s understanding, perform acts of radical activism. In the midst of values upturned, they stage their rebellions fervently by taking the law into their own hands and acting on their own beliefs. Yet it seems that both Pinhas and Zimri, though seeking to push their community to adhere to a moral standard, ultimately produce destructive consequences.

Slowly Healing the World

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In Parashat Shlah, we are told the story of the spies who investigate the Land of Israel before the people enter and settle there. They return and report that though the land is bountiful, the people who dwell within it are strong, terrible, and cannot be overcome (Number 13:27-31). Despite the lone protests of Caleb, who insists that the Israelites can indeed possess the land, the people of Israel are paralyzed with fear, begin to weep and defame God, and then insist on returning to Egypt. It is this rebellion that is punished by 40 years of desert wandering.

Crisis of Faith

What we witness in the story of the spies is a profound failure of confidence and trust. Despite their dramatic exodus from Egypt and victories over enemies on the journey, the majority of the spies lack faith in their ability to conquer the land. Though they admit that the land itself is rich–flowing with milk and honey–they conclude (Numbers 13:28) “but the people are strong.”

Indeed, the word used here for “but”–efes (nothing)–actually indicates a negation of everything that has gone before. It is as if they are saying: “the land is bountiful, but that means nothing, for the people are too strong for us.” This transforms the way they see the land, describing it in their terror as (Numbers 13:32) “a land that consumes its inhabitants.”

They see themselves as powerless to confront the challenges that lie before them, telling the people that (Numbers 13:33) “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs.” What is striking about this statement is their projection of their own fear and lack of confidence onto the enemy. Because they felt as helpless as grasshoppers, they imagined that the inhabitants could surely see them as such.

Even more devastating than their lack of faith in themselves is their lack of faith in God, implied in the Talmud. The Rabbis take the spies’ assessment of the enemy’s relative strength further by re-reading the pivotal verse, “they are stronger than us (mimenu)” as “they are stronger than Him (mimeno).” Changing the pronunciation of a single vowel suggests that the spies were actually claiming that the Canaanites were more powerful even than God (Sotah 35a). 

We Are All God’s Creatures

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This week’s parashah, Bhar, lays out perhaps the most socially radical element in the Torah, the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Paralleling our personal rest and liberation from work every seven days on Shabbat, we are commanded every seventh year to cease our productivity, our work, and not only to rest ourselves, but also to allow the land to rest, to return to its natural, primordial, un-worked state.

In the Jubilee year, the 50th year which completes seven sabbatical cycles, not only is the land allowed to rest and return to its natural un-worked state, but society rests as well, returning to its natural primordial state of equality and liberation. In the Jubilee year, all slaves go free, and every person returns to his ancestral holdings (Leviticus 25:13-17). 

Radical Redistribution

As landownership was the foundation of economic and political power in ancient Israel, the Torah mandates a radical and equitable redistribution of wealth and power every 50 years. Rest, return (to a primordial state), and liberation are then all achieved, personally, naturally, and socially, through the trinity of Shabbat, Sabbatical year, and Jubilee.

What is it that allows this return and liberation? What is it that makes possible this radical redistribution? One of the Torah’s central insights is the ultimate lack of human authority over personal (Shabbat), natural (Sabbatical Year), and social (Jubilee) entities–all are owned only by God.

We are told in our parashah that “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine, you are but strangers and residents with me (Leviticus 25:23).” Similarly, Israelite slaves must be freed in the Jubilee year for “they are My slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over to servitude (Leviticus 25:42).”

Land, property, other people, and even one’s own self can never truly be controlled by any human, for there is already a divine lien on every object and every person. God ultimately owns them all and has the power, through restricting their sale, purchase, or use (such as commanding rest on the Sabbath), to decide their fate.

Leprosy and Other Plagues

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In this week’s parashah, Tazria, we read about the disease tzaraat, commonly translated as leprosy. What is peculiar about this skin disease is that it not only afflicts humans but also clothing (Leviticus 13:47) and houses (Leviticus 14:33-57). It is not only people’s bodies that are struck with tzaraat, but also their possessions. What is the significance of this peculiar feature of tzaraat and what does it tell us about our society?

The rabbis understood tzaraat to be a punishment from God for various transgressions, including, most famously, wicked speech (lashon ha-ra), but also pride, deceit, false witness, bloodshed, wicked thoughts, pretending to have knowledge of Torah, causing discord, miserliness, announcing but not giving charitable donations, defamation of character, idol worship, blasphemy, and robbing the public (Leviticus Rabbah 16:1,5; 17:2,3).

Corrupt Societies

Together these many sins point to a society that is falling apart: one filled with selfishness, deceit, disharmony, and violence. Indeed, the theme of deceit, predominant in the above list of evils, strikes at the very core of what is essential for a society to function–namely our trust in our fellow citizens, leaders, and social institutions.

The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hassidic Rebbe, takes the theme of wicked speech even further, indicating that the plague of tza’ra’at results not only from evil things one has said, but also from things one should have said but didn’t. That is, it is not only that acts of evil are being committed, but as importantly, acts of good are being omitted. In particular, it is the failure to protest and oppose evil rampant in society that leads to the plague.

Tza’ra’at strikes beyond the body, then, because its causes and their effects are more than personal. Rather, these sins and crimes are profoundly destructive for the entire society in which they take place.

Societies filled with deceit, discord, and violence end up suffering from “plagues” that strike houses, clothes, and bodies–symbolic representations of shelter, sustenance, and healthcare. An effective and moral society, one that speaks out against injustice, will be a society in which each of these necessities is attainable by all people.

Indeed, the midrash makes clear the consequences of social and national destruction in its reading of this parashah, where it interprets the story of a house plagued with tza’ra’at as referring to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people (Leviticus Rabbah 17:7). The sins of tza’ra’at, then, lead not only to personal and societal suffering, but also to national calamity.

Salvation is Possible

Tza’ra’at, or forms of this “plague,” exist today. In both the developing world and our own communities, people lack the most basic necessities, not as a result of natural forces but as a result of our failure as local and global citizens to create the social conditions necessary for providing these resources.

In our own society, a society of great wealth and abundance, we fail to provide adequate housing and clothing to all, though the resources to do so are plentiful. More strikingly, of course, is that many Americans lack access to adequate healthcare.

In the developing world, the provision of these resources is even more difficult. Yet on a global level, with our help, providing these basic elements of life is not impossible.

Despite the destruction we see in the world, salvation is possible. The midrash cited above does not end with exile and destruction. Rather, it concludes by interpreting the explanation of the rebuilding of the infected house (“and they shall take other stones, and put them in the place of those stones” in Leviticus 14:42) as referring to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the return of the exiles.

So too, the Sefat Emet tells us that the reason tza’ra’at spreads to our houses and clothes is to indicate to us that not only can they be afflicted, but they can also be sanctified.

We can sanctify our houses, clothes, and bodies by making sure that shelter, clothing, and healthcare are available to all. We can help create societies that not only lack the destructive values of selfishness, deceit, discord, and violence, but that also know when and how to speak the words that need to be spoken, to stand up and take action. Together, then, we can help create a global society of compassion, harmony, and truth.

From "Other" to "Beloved"

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Our parashah, Vayakhel, describes not only Moses‘ call for donations to the construction of the Tabernacle, the mishkan, but also the community’s generous response. What is the role of the mishkan in the lives of the Israelites that caused them to respond so generously?

The mishkan, literally “dwelling-place,” is the place where God and Israel meet. It is here that God’s divine presence, the Shekhinah (from the same root as mishkan), dwells in the midst of Israel. It is the means by which God becomes present in the very center of the Israelite community and in the hearts of the Israelites.

american jewish world serviceGod instructs (Exodus 25:8): “let them make me a mishkan and I will dwell (shakhanti) within them (betokham).” The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hasidic master, reads this as “within them truly” (betokham mamash). That is, God will dwell within the very essence of each Israelite.

Prior to the mishkan, the Israelites’ relationship with the divine was with the transcendent, miraculous God of the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, the people trembled in fear at the awesome revelation of the divine and retreated from a direct personal encounter (Exodus 19:16, 20:15-18).

Intimacy & Eroticism

It is only through the mishkan, the earthly dwelling-place of God, that a more intimate encounter becomes possible. Indeed, the mishkan is not just any meeting place, but, as both the midrash and Kabbalistic literature make clear, a place of great intimacy, the bridal chamber of God and Israel, where the truest level of intimacy can manifest after the marriage at Mount. Sinai (See the opening of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana and Zohar II 179b, I 239a).

The intimate erotic nature of the mishkan can be seen in the beautiful fabrics and the fine metals which are the adornments of the Shekhinah, the divine bride, and the hangings of Her wedding chamber (Exodus 35:5-8). Similarly, the cherubim in the mishkan, who face each other with outspread wings, are, we are told in the Talmud, in fact intertwined in an erotic embrace (Yoma 54a), and erotic significance is given to other verses and gifts.

Negative and Positive Freedom

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In this week’s parashah, Yitro, we read of the revelation at Sinai that follows last week’s Exodus from Egypt. What is this relationship between freedom and revelation, between Exodus and Sinai? 

The Hasidic master R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger explains that Sinai follows the Exodus because “the purpose of all the commandments…is so that every person of Israel be free (Sefat Emet, Language of Truth, pp. 319-320).” Revelation follows liberation because while freedom might have been initiated at the Exodus, it is only completed at Sinai.

Yet what kind of freedom is this? What kind of freedom is maintained by the revelation of laws and commandments which, on their surface, seem to limit freedom?

Freedom From and Freedom To

We can begin to answer this question through Isaiah Berlin’s famous analysis of the two kinds of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is defined as freedom from–the freedom from restraint on one’s actions, enshrined in such concepts as human and civil rights. Positive liberty is defined as freedom to­­–the freedom to pursue a good life personally and communally, expressed in such rights as the right to vote, the right to organize, the right to education, and the right to pursue economic stability.

american jewish world serviceWhile negative liberty, the Exodus from Egypt, is essentially concerned with the absence of restraint, positive liberty, the revelation at Sinai, paradoxically often requires restraint for it to be realized.

Perhaps the clearest example of this paradox is found in our tradition’s attitude toward education. Learning Torah is understood by the tradition as a positive commandment that one is obligated to fulfill (see Maimonides, Laws of Talmud Torah). One is expected to find time to study and to utilize one’s financial resources to ensure that both oneself and one’s children are educated. This requirement of education is understood as essential to freedom, to positive liberty, even though it seems to limit one’s individual freedom of time and financial priorities. 

Two Sufferings That Are One

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Our parashah, Vayehi, is bookended by two deaths, those of Jacob and Joseph. Both men make their successors swear to lay their bones to rest in the land of Israel, and these promises are ultimately fulfilled. What is the significance of this return of Jacob and Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel? Our answer is found in the un-vocalized text of the Torah, where bones (atzamot) can also be read as essence (atzmut). That is, the taking up of Joseph and Jacob’s bones is, in fact, a liberation of their essences from the bondage of Egypt. 

american jewish world serviceComparing Egyptian and Jewish burial practices illustrates the vast cultural differences between the two societies. In Egypt, as the Torah explicitly points out, the dead are embalmed, mummified and placed in a coffin or sarcophagus to be preserved (Genesis 50:2). As illustrated by the Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim), which is connected to the root word tzar, meaning narrow, Egypt was a society of narrowness, of restriction and oppression, of slavery, death, and abuse. So too, Egypt’s burial practice was one of restriction, sealing off, preservation and narrowness.

In contrast, in a Jewish burial, the body must be free to return to the ground. This is especially true in Israel, the final burial place of both Jacob and Joseph, where the beloved’s body is returned to the ground without a coffin, wrapped only in a simple white shroud. Here, the bones and essence of a person are not confined, but liberated to return to the source from whence they came. It is in these two societies’ treatment of bones (atzamot) that their essence (atzmut) is revealed. The narrowness of Mitzrayim is contrasted with the openness, liberation, and transformation of Israel. 

Body & Spirit

The exodus of Jacob and Joseph’s bones and essence, then, represents the entire process of liberation from Egypt. It precisely demonstrates the importance of the dual liberation of both body (atzamot) and spirit (atzmut), and the movement from narrowness to expansive liberation.

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