Author Archives: Sam Berrin Shonkoff

About Sam Berrin Shonkoff

Sam Berrin Shonkoff is currently the Jewish student life coordinator at Stanford Hillel. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and has also studied in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, Pardes Institute, and The Conservative Yeshiva.

After Death, Holy

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Ahare Mot, Kedoshim. After Death, Holy. The mysterious yet evocative sound of the titles of this double parashah uttered together hints at the relationship between darkness and luminescence. It reveals a tension between two dimensions of the human experience: our potential for fallibility and distance from divinity, and our potential for virtue and closeness to divinity.

AJWS logoThe opening passages of these parshiyot accentuate this provocative dissonance. Parashat Ahare Mot begins: “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew too close to the presence of God and died. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.” (Leviticus 16:1-2)

We immediately confront death, tied to a realization that we are not godly. In contrast, Parashat Kedoshim opens: “God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2) We can be holy like the Divine.

These portrayals of humanity seem utterly contradictory, but from the depths of these contradictions there emerges a clear path of personal growth. When we open ourselves to darkness–when we honestly look upon mortality, suffering, and failure, in ourselves and in our world–we can elevate ourselves to higher planes. After Death, Holy.

Yom Kippur & Always

Yom Kippur, a main focus of Parashat Ahare Mot, beckons us to face the existential truth of our mortality and estrangement from divinity. The very concept of an annual Day of Atonement exposes us to sobering mirrors.

It reminds us that we quite helplessly slip into carelessness, corruption, and insensitivity, separating us further from the Divine. We are commanded to practice “self denial” on this day, and our consequent waves of humbling hunger remind us just how human and near to death we are.

Six Days Shall You Work

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The talmudic phrase bitul Torah, literally the “cancellation of Torah,” refers to the time one spends occupied with the world at large, away from Jewish text study. Chol, literally “profane,” refers to the six days of the week before Shabbat. Such language suggests that religious life takes place only within the temporal boundaries of ritual.
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This notion is problematic and spiritually impoverished. Religious life is not a series of proscribed acts separated by spans of mundanity. To the deeply religious person, spiritual life is continuous. Moments of ritual dust off the soul and propel the individual into the following hours with renewed awareness and intention.

Parashat Vayakhel reminds us that religiosity transcends ritual. Moses addresses the whole Israelite community for the first time since his dramatic return from Mount Sinai. He briefly commands the nation to observe Shabbat (Exodus 35:2-3) and then launches into a long, detailed speech about the construction of the Mishkan.

The rest of Parashat Vayakhel, and much of Parshat Pekudei, are devoted to this grand project and document the overwhelming generosity of the Israelite community to complete it. Moses’ short instruction about the holy seventh day virtually dissolves in the details of construction–building, melting, welding, and other acts that are forbidden on Shabbat. Just as the vast majority of life occurs outside of ritual acts, the vast majority of this parsahah focuses on the activities of chol.

The Mitzvah to Work

Moses suggests that our work in the world before and after Shabbat is no less important than Shabbat itself. “Six days you shall do work,” he commands, “and on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Thus, the first mitzvah that Moses articulates after Mount Sinai is that we should engage in work for six-sevenths of every week. Insofar as Shabbat is a call for rest on Saturdays, it is also a call for action on all other days. From this perspective, the true observance of Shabbat is an ever-flowing, lifelong affair that usually consists of working.

Reimagining Spirituality

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Experiences and behaviors that we define as ”spiritual” tend to be of a specifically inward nature. We generally associate spirituality–admittedly, an opaque term–more with thought, soul, and self than with action, materialism, and society. In other words, we are more likely to identify a reclusive monk as spiritual, than an outspoken politician.
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The Torah provides us with many models of inward spirituality. Moses encounters God for the first time while he is alone in achar ha’midbar, the ”back of the desert” (Exodus 3:1). He engages in numerous conversations with the Divine that take place in solitude, once even glimpsing God’s back (33:21-23). Isaac goes off by himself to meditate in the field (Genesis 24:63). Jacob is ”left alone” by the Yabbok River when he receives his new name, Yisrael (Genesis 32:24). The Torah certainly does not reject the notion of personal, inner spirituality.

Expanding the Definition of Spirituality

Parashat Yitro, however, challenges this narrow definition. It reminds us that physical, concrete action on behalf of others is an essential component of spirituality.

God appears to the entire nation of Israel at Mount Sinai in an awesome display of fire, smoke, lightning, and shofar blasts, and with a power that makes the mountain itself tremble. Moses ascends this mountain to God. We might expect him to immerse himself in this delicious holiness atop Mount Sinai, to tuck himself away in his own mystical experience. After all, isn’t he a deeply spiritual man? How could he resist?

However, Moses runs around tirelessly in this story–up and down the great mountain and back up again, to and fro between God and the people–in order to facilitate a conversation between the Divine and the masses. To follow Moses in this text is actually quite dizzying.

The medieval commentator Rashi also imagines that Moses might have been tempted to solitarily soak himself in his own encounter with God. Rashi comments, ”Moses did not turn to his own affairs, but rather from the mountain to the people” (Rashi on Exodus 19:14). Moses pours his energy into action, maintaining his commitment to the people throughout the revelation.

A Burning Within

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american jewish world serviceMany people who effect dramatic change in the world speak of having had a “calling,” a powerful pull toward a particular life’s work or path of action. In the Torah, God appears frequently as the emissary of Divine calling, inspiring people to rise to their destined paths of duty. Abraham and Sarah’s three hungry guests, Jacob’s wrestler of the night, and Elijah’s “sound of small silence” are just a few examples. Today, in a world where we can’t rely on theophany to inspire us to make a difference, how will we recognize a calling?

Even Before the Calling

In Parashat Sh’mot, the Divine appears to Moses as a burning bush that does not burn up. This “great sight” (Exodus 3:3), as Moses describes it, is not random. Midrash actually draws a linguistic connection between the “flame (lavah) of fire” and a heart (lev) of fire.

Something burns within Moses that will not go away–his visceral opposition to the slavery in Egypt. This is the message that emanates from the eternal flames, the awareness that arises in his heart of fire.

This is not the first time that Moses feels his deep-seated intolerance for the bondage of “his brothers” (Exodus 2:11), but thus far he has been afraid to face it. When he kills the Egyptian in defense of a Hebrew slave, he not only buries the body, he buries the personal implications of his actions by fleeing to the farthest reaches of the desert and beginning a new life in a remote community. Nonetheless, Moses cannot extinguish the fire within him, nor can he escape its heat.

His burning bush revelation ultimately empowers him to return to Egypt and take a stand. “The sages say: Seven whole days previously did God urge Moses to go on his mission, but he refused to go until the incident of the bush” (Sh’mot Rabbah 3:14). Mere nudging was insufficient. Moses needed to look upon his own heart, to see that he would always remain disturbed by the injustices in Egypt.

Jacob the Migrant Worker

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The bumper sticker on my brother’s car reads, “Everyone does better when everyone does better.” This statement brims with optimism: it is a vision of shared work and shared gain. Yet as I repeat this phrase, the terms begin to flicker: Is the “doing better” economic or moral? Who is considered to be part of “everyone?” Jacob finds himself part of a quotient of work and gain in this week’s parashah that helps illuminate the nuance in this slogan.

american jewish world serviceJacob is a migrant worker. He flees from a dangerous situation at home and takes refuge in Haran (Genesis 27:41-45). In this foreign area, he does arduous agricultural work for his uncle, Laban, who assumes the role of deceptive and abusive employer. Because Jacob arrives destitute, Laban easily takes advantage of him. From Laban’s perspective, this presents a wonderful opportunity for economic growth, both for himself and for his community.

According to Midrash, the Haranites are cognizant of this exploitation. Laban gathers everyone and reminds them that Jacob’s labor has improved their economic situation. “Do as you think fit,” the people respond. Laban then announces that he will dishonestly persuade Jacob to stay seven more years. “Do whatever you please,” they say (Bereshit Rabbah 70:19). The community tacitly encourages Laban. They believe that their prosperity will be multiplied collectively:Everyone does better when everyone does better.

Exploitation & Rights

Millions of migrant workers today suffer the consequences of this thinking. They are exploited in much the same way as Jacob, and this exploitation is supported by the communities around them–either explicitly or implicitly. In Thailand, Burmese immigrants work long hours for little pay in unsafe, abusive environments. In the U.S., Mexican-born farm workers toil in dangerous conditions, and many earn incomes below the poverty level. Powerful nations reap the benefits, gaining a flexible labor supply and avoiding social costs of health care, fair wages and overtime pay. Our country, and each one of us, depends on migrant work being done cheaply across the globe.

Pursuing Righteousness

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Parashat Lekh L’kha chronicles Abram’s development and maturation into the role that God designates for him: to be the seed of a new people whose values are rooted in justice and righteousness (Genesis 18:19).

God tells Abram to “be a blessing,” (12:2) a cryptic phrase for the nascent leader and for us. What does it mean to “be a blessing?” As the parashah unfolds, we can trace Abram’s development into this role. His growth shows us what it means to embody justice and righteousness; to be a blessing.

american jewish world servicePublic and Private Lives

The parashah chronicles Abram’s actions out in the world and in his own tent, giving us a sense that justice is equally important in public and at home. A series of episodes shows us that when his actions aren’t guided by justice, he fails in both arenas.

While in Egypt as a public figure, Abram pretends that his attractive wife, Sarai, is his sister in an attempt to avoid harmful relations with his Egyptian hosts (12:13). Pharaoh takes her as a mistress and Abram gains wealth as a result. However, when Pharaoh discovers the truth, he berates Abram and banishes him and Sarai from his country (12:18-19). Ramban goes so far as to claim that Abram’s immorality in Egypt ultimately causes his descendants to be enslaved there (Ramban on Genesis 12:10).

Abram fails similarly in his personal life when righteousness and justice are absent. At the beginning of the parashah, he renders his wife powerless and voiceless, both in his ruse with Pharoah and when he leaves his land with her: the text says that he literally “takes” (yikah) her with him (Bereshit Rabbah 40:4).

The power imbalance that this language implies is palpable. Sarai’s silence persists for four chapters of the parashah, as Abram acts upon her rather than with her in their childless, inequitable relationship.

Bringing the Two Spheres Together

There is a pivotal change in the parashahwhen we see Abram begin to embody righteousness and justice both internally and externally. Publicly, this is most clearly demonstrated through his courageous and righteous dealings with foreign kings in a time of war.