Jewish tradition teaches that every individual’s life is of infinite value, and that we can violate our most sacred ritual obligations to save that life. Transgressing even Shabbat in the interest of pikuach nefesh — the preservation of life — is required by Jewish law. This also applies in cases of doubt or when a potential situation could devolve into one that threatens life.
The values of our tradition are steadfast and our civic responsibility is becoming increasingly clear. We know from the scientific and public health communities that fastidious hand washing, social distancing, and self-quarantine in the event of possible exposure can “flatten the curve,” allowing our healthcare system time to meet the demands of this contagion. It is incumbent upon us to take actions now to support the most vulnerable in our midst, including those which are most difficult.
Effective immediately and lasting through the end of March, Temple Emanuel of South Hills is moving our vibrant, caring community to the virtual space. In doing so, we cast our lot with the growing number of congregations throughout the region and the world that would rather be judged harshly for overreaction in deference to preservation of human life than lack-of-reaction which might further jeopardize those most at-risk.
This decision will impact a number of upcoming programs and events:
- Friday night Shabbat services, 7:00pm, will be live-streamed only, accessible on Temple’s website or directly through this link.
- Saturday morning Shabbat services, 8:30am, will be live-streamed only, accessible on Temple’s website or through this link.
Copies of Mishkan Tefilah are available to borrow through the first set of double doors at Temple’s courtyard entrance.
Torah Study and Adult Education:
- Saturday morning Torah Study, 9:00am, will be offered exclusively via Zoom video-conference, allowing the same robust participation as our in-person discussion. Video access can be found by clicking here; audio only by calling (646) 876 9923 and using Meeting ID: 368 591 669.
- Wednesday night Adult Education, 7:00pm, will be offered exclusively via Zoom video-conference, allowing the same robust participation as our in-person discussion. Video access can be found by clicking here; audio only by calling (646) 876 9923 and using Meeting ID: 368 591 669.
Torah Center and J-Line:
Sunday morning and Wednesday evening Torah Center and J-Line classes are suspended. Please watch for emails from Rabbi Locketz, Chris Herman, and your child’s teacher for ways to learn and grow using virtual classrooms and teaching tools.
Sunday Morning Minyan:
Sunday morning minyan will be offered exclusively via Zoom video-confernece, allowing the same participation as our in-person discussion. Video access can be found by clicking here; audio only by calling (646) 876 9923 and using Meeting ID: 230 409 647.
B’nei Mitzvah Tutoring:
Weekly B’nei Mitzvah tutoring appointments will continue via Zoom or Skype at the discretion of your child’s tutor. Please watch for additional communication specific to this issue.
Mission and Vision Congregational Meetings:
The Sunday, March 15 (10:15 AM) meeting to provide feedback on Temple’s proposed Mission and Vision Statements will be offered exclusively via Zoom video-conference, allowing the same robust participation as our in-person discussion. Video access can be found by clicking here; audio only by calling (646) 876 9923 and using Meeting ID: 532 677 4310.
Temple has a number of upcoming events planned for our community, including the Women’s Seder, Congregational 2nd Night Seder, Tribute Concert in Honor of Dr. Cohen, and much more. These events are important to us too, and we will follow up with additional information in the coming days.
Temple’s ECDC program, providing an essential service to many working parents, will remain OPEN. While we reserve the right to make decisions based on the welfare of our school community, our intention is to follow the lead of the Mt. Lebanon School District regarding school closure decisions.
Life Cycle Events:
Religious experiences where the number of people attending can be regulated, including b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and funerals, will continue to be held in close consultation with families.
Temple’s rabbis continue to be available to you as personal, spiritual, and medical needs arise. Please reach out by telephone, text, or email to let us know how we might assist you.
Temple Board Member Mary Cothran, PhD, recommends having an extra 2-3 weeks of essential medications on hand. Start by asking your insurance company for an early refill, but if you are asked to pay out-of-pocket, Mary has initiated a program for Temple to help. Please contact Rabbi Aaron Meyer at email@example.com for confidential assistance or to contribute the funds to help others. JFunds is also an incredible resource for financial assistance.
Temple staff will be making every effort in the coming days to reach out to program planners and individuals directly affected by this decision. Temple’s office will be open during regular hours to answer your questions, receive your concerns, and to help you plan for your virtual participation, but we request that you curtail in-person visits. We so regret the inconvenience and disappointment we will all experience in the coming days and look forward to new ways to connect. Please plan to join Temple’s rabbis for a virtual coffee on Tuesday mornings at 10:00am using the Zoom information above as but one example!
Please be assured that this policy will be reviewed daily by Temple’s staff and lay leadership, in consultation with the best guidance of the public health and scientific communities, and will be rescinded or extended as necessary.
With much appreciation for your understanding as together we navigate this uncertain world,
President David Weisberg
Rabbi Aaron Meyer
Rabbi Jessica Locketz
Executive Director Leslie Hoffman
ECDC Director Iris Harlan
For centuries, the light hanging above the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept has been called a ner tamid, an everlasting light. It is a part of the architecture and religious symbolism of every Jewish sanctuary. Sometimes it is an electric light, other times it may be a flame fueled by oil. Often it is artfully crafted out of precious metal or glass.
Many commentators believe that the origin of the ner tamid is found in the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion. In Tetzaveh we read: You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for lamps burning continually… But there is disagreement as to what exactly the ner tamid mentioned in our text is. It might be the lamp that stood in front of the ark curtain that was kept continually burning. Or it might be the seven-branch menorah that was a main fixture within the ancient Temple.
Some commentators see the ner tamid not as an actual light, but as a powerful symbol representing the Jewish people. Just as the ner tamid burns eternally, so too the Jewish people will survive, enduring forever, despite their persecutors. Like the flame that is kindled and rekindled, the light of Israel burns steadily.
Others believe that the ner tamid is not a symbol of the people Israel, but rather a reminder of God’s presence in our midst. Writes Rabbi Chaim Stern, “Light is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for ‘enlightenment….’” The brightness reminds us that we are responsible for bringing God’s light into the world, that we are as the prophet Isaiah said, to be “a light to all the nations.”
How do we serve as ‘a light to the nations?’ By doing mitzvot, by doing what is right and good, we bring light into our world through our actions. In this way, we ‘brighten’ our lives and those of the people around us.
In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides spells out that tzedakah is, at its heart, about justice (as the Hebrew word implies); not mercy or compassion. “The fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue is called tzedakah (Part 3, Chapter 53).”
Indeed, our tradition imposes or mandates this justice from us, to the extent that the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) allows for the taking of charity by force if someone is reluctant to part with their money. Our tradition says that it isn’t optional to take care of everyone in society, to give tzedakah.
Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we are told of a contribution that *is* optional. “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity (Exodus 25:2).” Why make the building of the tabernacle, an essential part of Jewish ritual and worship, voluntary instead of mandatory?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that agreeing to be present with the people — choosing the confines of the temporal world over the freedom time, space, and all reality — was a sacrificial act by God. It was worth it, perhaps, but only when we are willing to uphold our end of the bargain. We have to do our part, voluntarily, to experience God’s presence.
This entire dichotomy feels very Jewish. Experiences of God? That depends on the amount of work you are willing to put in. Your obligations to your fellow human being? Those are not optional in the least.
Torah Center teacher Lisa Dvorin wrote about a fun class this past Sunday, when the kindergarten friends explored Israel:
First, we found it on the globe in relation to Pittsburgh. Next, we spread out a paper map of Israel on the rug, and they were full of eager questions — “What is this city? Why is it blue here? Where were you when you were in Israel?”
They were fascinated to learn that the main language in Israel is Hebrew — a language that they have been learning at Torah Center each Sunday! The kindergarten friends also made a special Star of David decoration with popsicle sticks and decorated a paper Israeli flag. Finally, pretending that they were on the beach in Israel, they had a fun time playing with kinetic sand and tiny beach toys!
Last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, had the pinnacle religious experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, jumps off that mountain and into the minutia, into the collection of laws pertaining to daily living. On such regulation caught my eye: When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep (Exodus 21:37).
Scholar Ibn Ezra points out that if the ox or sheep are found alive, the thief only pays double. Perhaps he will fear the extra punishment, repent, and return what he stole, Ibn Ezra rationalizes.
But why a four or five-fold penalty?
Philo tries to apply logic: The ox contributes more to man than the sheep. The latter provides man with four benefits: milk, cheese, wool, and lambs; the ox, five: milk, cheese, calves, ploughing, and threshing.
Ibn Ezra recognizes that the punishment should increase as the skill of the thief increases, perhaps to offset the instances of practices likely present: The penalty for ox stealing is heavier because the thief cannot hide it as easily as a sheep. Only an expert thief can execute such an operation.
Rashi’s commentary comes out of left field. Preserving a text from Mekilta in the name of Yochanan ben Zakkai, he says: “God takes pity on the honor of those created in God’s image. An ox walks on its own, and the thief need not degrade himself by carrying it; hence he pays five oxen. But the thief who degrades himself by carrying a sheep need only pay four sheep.”
In this view, our Torah takes seriously the feelings of every human being — even those inclined to steal oxen.
Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. The Israelites, fleeing from Egypt, find themselves trapped between an impassable sea and the Egyptian army, its horses and chariots. Just to make sure Moses’ anxiety level is as high as it can be, the people call out to him with one of my favorite lines in all of the Torah: “Ha’mibli ain k’varim b’mitzraim l’kachtanu lamoot b’midbar? Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”
They were panicked, and the midrash, the rabbinic creativity of our tradition, records two very different responses. Nachshon ben Aminidav, from the Tribe of Judah, chooses the high road:
Talmud Sotah 36b
Rabbi Meir stated: When the Israelites stood on the brink of the sea the tribes contended with one another. One said: I will not be the first to go down into the sea. The other said: I will not be first to go down into the sea. While they were debating with each other, Nachshon ben Aminadav (of the Tribe of Judah) plunged — with his tribe after him — into the waves of the sea. For this reason Judah was granted preeminence in Israel.
Shimon, from the Tribe of Shimon, chose to focus on, well, the low road.
Midrash on Exodus 24
There were two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who were among the Israelites. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said: “In Egypt, we had mud, and now here too in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had clay for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of clay to make bricks. They rebelled at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn’t notice the water, instead they saw the mud.
Be like Nachshon, not Shimon, this week’s parasha tells us. Seize opportunity rather than grumbling your way through the good as you would the bad.
“The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo (Exodus 12:35-36).
Had this constituted the private initiative of the Israelites, who had been enslaved and exploited for centuries, no further explanation would have been required.
But that isn’t the case: it is foretold as a divine promise in Genesis 15, and Exodus 3, and Exodus 11.
What is happening here?
Our sages get creative in finding an answer. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a, imagines that these are replacement wages for 430 years of servitude. Rabbeinu Bachya imagines that they were gifts freely given rather than borrowed. A contemporary sage, Benno Jacob, puts forward an even more interesting argument:
For an Israelite, the word Egyptian had the bitterest associations. But the Torah records that the Egyptians and the Jews parted friends, as we read “you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land (Deuteronomy 23:7).” Israel said to them: “Let us part friends and we’ll take with us a parting gift.”
It was a goodwill gesture, albeit one prompted by the Israelites. This whole narrative could have happened without overtures toward goodwill — the Israelites could have simply forced their will of separation after the plagues — but the Middle East is too small a place to part on bad terms. The world is too small a place to part on bad terms.
The transcendent words of our biblical text have lasted thousands of years, inspiring and challenging myriad generations. In this week’s Torah portion, we see that the *style* of writing also adds to its majesty.
At the end of Shemot, last week’s Torah portion, Moses vents his frustrations to God:
Adonai, why did You bring harm upon this people?
Why did You send me?
Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people;
And You still have not delivered Your people.
God first responds to Moses personal complaint, why did you send me, by saying:
You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: He shall let them go
because of a greater might;
Indeed, because of a greater might
He shall drive them from his land.
And then, in this week’s Torah portion, we see a much longer response to Moses’ more significant concern, why has God not redeemed the people from Egypt.
The beauty of this response is hidden in the structure. Moses’ initial gripes were structured as a chiasmus, a repetition in reverse order. So, too, was God’s initial response. And God’s longer response? An even more elaborate chiasmus that makes the central text stand out as if it were a neon sign. “I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be to you as God.”
This four-fold promise is so important to us that we drink one cup of wine for each of these promises on Passover. L’chayim!
Want to find your signifiant other in the Biblical text? Hang out by a well! With the well itself serving as a symbol of fertility and the act of drawing water emblematic of a forming spousal bond, this scene repeats over and over in Torah.
In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant finds Rebekkah for Isaac. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets Rachel. And in Exodus 2, this week’s Torah portion, Moses find Zipporah. Each meeting is more or less the same…but it is the subtle differences that illustrate the beauty of Torah.
In Genesis 24, Isaac is completely absent; it is a servant who acts on his behalf. Quite appropriate for his role as a patriarch, right? Whether in the story of the Akeidah or the Blessing of Esau and Jacob, his whole story is about others acting upon him while he remains passive. It’s also the only text where a woman brings forth water from the well, perhaps showing Rebekkah’s initiative we will seem time and again.
In Genesis 29, Jacob finds a well in a field rather than near the city, setting up the conflict between shepherd and agrarian ethics. It’s also interesting to note the presence of a well cover in this story and this story alone, a stone that might foreshadow Jacob’s using a stone as a pillow and also a marker when encountering God.
The writing in Exodus 2 is even more beautiful. The shortest of the well scenes, Moses saves the women involved — just as he saved the Israelites — and rhetorical emphasis is placed upon his drawing of water. Whether because he himself was drawn from the water — see what they did there? — or that he would later draw water for the Israelites, these subtle difference from the other well scenes set up Moses as the hero of our story.
For more on this way of reading the text, check out “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter.
As we get closer to our Karaoke & Kibbitz event, it’s time to vote for your favorite video! If you vote, you’ll be entered into a random drawing for a free entry to Karaoke & Kibbitz!
Click here to vote after you’ve watched the videos!
Here are the submissions: