I do not go grocery shopping.
Once in a while, I’ll make an exception, but for the most part you will not see me pushing a shopping cart. Not for any misogynistic reasons, it’s entirely pragmatic.
For starters, I can’t find anything. The few times that I have taken our shopping list to Seven Mile or Market Maven, I literally end walking in circles for hours. You have to understand, I never ate vegetables as a child. My mother tried but my diet consisted of macaroni, and hot dogs. The only vegetables I ate were french fries because yes, potatoes are vegetables. So when my wife sends me to buy… squash, I don’t know what she’s talking about. (And of course, I would never ask anyone for help even if my life depended on it.)
Even when I know what things look like – I know what Nestle Quick chocolate powder is (chocolate is also a vegetable, by the way. It’s a bean.) but they hide it! It’s not on those big signs. It’s not a condiment, it’s not a spice. It’s like a treasure hunt I didn’t sign up for.
But aside from all the wasted time, the real reason is that I hate bumping into congregants. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing you, I do. It’s more about how you react to seeing me outside of shul. First of all, when people see me, they always say, Good Shabbos. It’s Monday!! That’s fine. But 9 out of 10 conversations go something like this.
“Hi Mr. Congregant, how are you?”
“Oh. Rabbi Motzen. I’m great. Uh, you know, last week, my daughter really wasn’t feeling well so we stayed home from shul.”
“The week before, we had a Bar Mitzvah at a different shul. And the week before that, uh, the weather. Yeah, the weather was really bad.”
It’s always different version of the same conversation. I asked you how you’re doing, and what you heard was me asking you where have you been? What I realized is that I am, and I guess it’s a rabbi thing, a guilt generator. You see me and you feel guilty. Am I correct?
Who here would be totally cool seeing me at Seven Mile?
Okay, let’s play a little game. We’ll call it, Hanging out with the Rabbi.
Who here would be comfortable with me coming home with you today for lunch?
What are we eating, huh? All glatt Kosher, I hope. Are you ready for an in-depth parsha quiz? Do you know how many sockets there were in the Mishkan? I hope you like singing, we’re going to sing every song in the bencher. Still okay with me coming over? Show of hands. Great.
Round two – Can I stay over for the rest of the day?
You do what on Shabbos afternoon? Those are Shabbos clothes? Hmm. What time is Shalosh Seudos? Show of hands. Okay, we still have a few masochists.
Round three, can I stick around for Saturday night?
Where are we going? Oh, we’re watching Netflix. Ooh, I don’t think we can watch that show. Oh no, definitely not that. What?! No! How is that even legal?!
We’re going to end up watching Cocomelon and we’re going to fast-forward whenever Mommy sings. Are you still having me over?! Who’s in? Fine! Who is taking me along on vacation… to Vegas?
Anyone still standing? Great! You win a free trip to Las Vegas with Rabbi… Heineman! Have fun.
So aside from the two people here who are pretending that they’d always love to hang out with me, I think we all acknowledge that it’s nice to have a little bit of space. Walking around all day with a rabbi – even me, can be a little much.
And with that I think we can understand an incredible idea suggested by Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner, otherwise known as the Izhbitzer, one of the most underappreciated and profound Jewish thinkers of the 19th century. Our Parsha begins with G-d instructing the Jewish People to build a Mishkan, a structure in which G-d will rest His divine Presence. But if you read the text carefully, it does not say that G-d will rest His presence in the Mishkan, it says, v’shochanti b’socham, and I will rest My presence in them – in the Jewish People. Some commentators see this as an allusion to the following idea: Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d was not going to rest His divine Presence in a structure. There was not going to be a Mishkan, a physical edifice. Rather, His presence would have been felt, like really tangibly felt, among each and every person. V’shochanti b’socham, and I will rest among YOU.
Now if it’s difficult to hang out with a rabbi for 24 hours, imagine – and I apologize for this incredibly pompous analogy – imagine hanging out with G-d all the time. It’s a little intense, isn’t it? Imagine the level of guilt you’d be walking around with at any given moment.
So what did the Jewish People do in response? They created a little bit of distance. They said, I don’t want to deal with the CEO of the company, that’s intimidating. I’m going to interact with the VP or the secretary instead.
That, my friends, is the sin of the Golden Calf. According to many commentators, they were not rejecting G-d, they were looking for a little bit of distance. They could not deal with the guilt of living with G-d and so they created an intermediary to create some space, something that would allow them to breathe.
The Izhbiter goes on to explain that this is an echo of the very first sin; the sin of Adam and Chava in the Garden. You know how at the end of the story they’re hiding behind some bushes. That IS the story. The reason they sinned was to hide from G-d, to create distance between them. Living with G-d is way too difficult. There’s too much guilt. It’s suffocating. So, they try to hide from G-d. Sinning is their way of creating a gap between them and their Creator.
Now I think if Adam and Chava would have checked themselves in with a therapist and shared their dilemma. “You know, doc, I am feeling overwhelmed by G-d. I feel guilty every time I do anything. It’s never enough. I feel sio judged. I can’t function this way. I’m constantly second-guessing myself. I can’t do what I want to do. He’s overbearing.” I imagine the therapist would encourage Adam and Chava to get themselves kicked out of the Garden to “create healthy boundaries.” Right?
If the Jewish People would collectively share their woes with a therapist, “G-d took us out of Egypt and now expects to hang out all the time. And, He has so many unreasonable expectations! 613 of them!” The therapist would beg the Jewish People to build a Golden Calf to counter all that guilt, to create an intermediary so they don’t have to interact with an overbearing G-d. Because guilt is bad. Isn’t it? Google ‘Guilt’ and you will find articles titled, How to Stop Feeling Guilty, Dealing with Guilt, Diagnosing the Guilt Complex…
But guilt is not bad. There is no actual word for guilt in Hebrew. The closest we have is Busha, shame. The word BOSH means to come late, or to fall short of an expectation. Vayar ha’am ki boshesh Moshe. When we feel guilt, that means our internal moral compass is reminding us that we’re falling short of what is expected of us. That’s an incredibly valuable feeling. It’s a gift.
But there is a healthy guilt and an unhealthy guilt. The Jewish People had an unhealthy guilt – and too often, so do we. We are afraid of the negative consequences of our actions. We imagine G-d standing there watching us, waiting for us to slip up, and when do BOOM, He’s going to get us.
How does G-d respond to the sin of the Golden Calf? He teaches Moshe the thirteen attributes – “Hashem, Hashem, Keil Rachum v’chanun. G-d who is compassionate and graceful etc.” In the Medrashic reading of that passage, G-d tells Moshe that when the Jewish People sin they should recite those words. Now that’s puzzling. Does G-d need an ego rub? Sing my praises and I’ll forgive you?! Of course not.
Perhaps, what we are doing when we say those words, what G-d tried to communicate to the Jewish People who were wracked with guilt, is that Hashem is kind, He is loving, He created us to give to us. Yes, we have rules, mitzvos and aveiros, but the foundation of those rules are not coming from an overbearing, punitive deity. They are coming from a loving father.
The difference between unhealthy guilt and healthy guilt is its foundation. If it’s founded on fear, if it’s founded on the mistaken notion of a punitive G-d, it’s toxic. But if it’s founded on love, on a recognition that G-d is not out to get us, He’s out to give to us, that He is not waiting for us to sin, He’s waiting for us to succeed, that the Mitzvos and Aveiros are not meant to stifle us, they are meant to help us actualize our potential, that guilt is incredibly powerful and good. That’s why we say the Thirteen Attributes of Hashem, to remind us how loving He is. And then and only then can we begin to reengage with Hashem.
A world without guilt is a world without conscience. It’s a world in which I do what I want. It’s a world in which I try to silence that nagging voice reminding me of the people I’m hurting and the price I’m going to pay. That’s a world of extreme individualism and anarchy.
Guilt is good. We should feel uncomfortable knowing that G-d is watching us. We should feel uncomfortable when we fall short in what we are meant to do. But it’s critical to know why G-d wants us to keep His rules. It’s critical to allow our guilt to flow from a place of love.
I’m not coming to your house for lunch, I’m not coming to your house to watch a movie. But when we mess up, which we all do, and we start to feel some guilt, let it in. It’s a G-dly voice that G-d imbedded into our psyche. It’s a gift from a G-d who loves us, who wants to make sure we live up to the incredibly high expectation He has for each and every one of us.
On January 4th, 1861, at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, Rabbi Bernard Illowy made the following remarks: “Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government cannot, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential… and selfish politicians who, under the color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion, and millions into want and poverty?”
He continued, “If these magnanimous philanthropists do not pretend to be more philanthropic than Moses was, let me ask them, “Why did not Moses… command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free…? Why did he not, when he made a law that no Israelite can become a slave, also prohibit the buying and selling of slaves from and to other nations? Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?… All these are irrefutable proofs … that the authors of the many dangers, which threaten our country with ruin and devastation, are not what they pretend to be, the agents of Religion and Philanthropy.”
Rabbi Illowy was drawing on passages, such as the ones we read today in shul, passages that indicate that slavery is not a sin, to justify the institution of slavery and to claim that those against it are against the Torah.
Two weeks later, another rabbi from Baltimore, Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai, penned a letter that described slavery as something the Torah tolerates but certainly does not elevate, something that is indeed at the very least, somewhat sinful. In his letter, he turned his wrath on the rabbis justifying slavery in the name of the Torah writing, “The Jew, a descendant of the race that offers daily praises to God for deliverance out of the house of bondage in Egypt, and even today suffers under the yoke of slavery in most places of the old world… undertook to designate slavery as a perfectly sinless institution, sanctioned by God?!”
Rabi Illowy was given a promotion after his speech praising slavery, Rabbi Einhorn lost his job and was literally chased out of town.
Let me ask you a question, you, Baltimore Jews of the 21st century, which one of these Baltimore rabbis was correct? Does the Torah endorse slavery, or does it paint slavery as an evil institution that is merely tolerated?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes as follows:
“[The Torah] does not say: abolish slavery… [However,] Is that not the whole point of the story thus far? Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. … Generations later, when a pharaoh arises who “knew not Joseph,” the entire Israelite people become Egypt’s slaves. Slavery, like vengeance, is a vicious circle that has no natural end. Why not, then, give it a supernatural end? Why did God not say: There shall be no more slavery?”
“The Torah,” he continues, “has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia. There is little doubt that in terms of the Torah’s value system the exercise of power by one person over another, without their consent, is a fundamental assault against human dignity…
So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim (our Torah portion) does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord.”
To be very clear, Rabbi Sacks is NOT suggesting that Torah laws can change over time; prohibitions cannot be abolished. But in regard to slavery, something the Torah does not command us to involve ourselves in, it merely acknowledges, he suggests that the Torah sets in motion changes that will take place centuries later.
My gut reaction to Rabbi Sacks is that what he is writing is apologetics. It sounds, at first glance, to be a stretch. But when we study the laws of slavery in the Torah, I think you’ll see how compelling his point really is.
We don’t have the time for a deep-dive analysis, so let me share with you one law. We read today the following, “And if a person strikes the eye of his slave or the eye of his maidservant and blinds him, he shall send him free on account of the eye. And if he causes the tooth of his slave or of his maidservant to be knocked out, he shall send him free on account of the tooth.” If a slave-owner blinds his slave or even causes a tooth to be knocked out, the slave goes free. The Talmud interprets this to mean that if the master maims the slave in any way, he or she goes free.
Think about how novel this is. Remember the story of Shimshon/ Samson? What do the Philistines do to Shimshon when they capture him? They blind him. Remember the movie Gladiators or any movie depicting slaves in the Roman empire? Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek historian, described blinding slaves as the norm of his time.
In Hebrew, the term we use for a king’s slave is a sris. The word sris also means a eunuch, someone who was castrated. The two became synonymous because kings would regularly castrate their slaves to ensure that their wives were safe. This was the norm.
Slave masters would regularly knock out all the teeth of their slaves to prevent them from talking while they worked. Certainly, as you all know from American history, if a slave would “misbehave” a master would have every right to beat his slave in any way he saw fit.
And to all of this, the Torah says, no. Yes, the Torah does tolerate slavery. But to blind your slave?! To castrate your slave?! To even knock out a single tooth of your slave? Absolutely not.
To quote Rabbi Sacks once again: “If history tells us anything it is that God has patience, though it is often sorely tried. He wanted slavery abolished but he wanted it to be done by free human beings coming to see of their own accord the evil it is and the evil it does. The God of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.”
What Rabbi Sacks is suggesting is radical – that G-d, through the laws of our parsha, laws that sensitized the world to the humanity of slaves, laws that boldly declared this is not your property with whom you can do as you please, these laws would make an impression on those who learned them, who in time would learn its lessons and teach them to the world, and slavery would be abolished once and for all. It’s a radical idea, but I think he’s right. An analysis of the laws of slavery and a basic knowledge of the values of the Torah makes that all abundantly clear.
And if Rabbi Sacks is correct then Rabbi Einhorn was correct as well. That episode of Baltimore history, in which the Baltimore Jewish community chased Rabbi Einhorn out of this city because of his views on slavery is an embarrassment to our community’s rich Jewish history. I would imagine that if he were to get up today and give the same speech, that slavery is bad, we would all nod our heads in approval. Right? I would imagine that if he were to announce that all people, regardless of race, regardless of their social standing, are created in the image of G-d, we would stand up to applaud him. Right? I would imagine that if Rabbi Illowy would give a speech praising slavery, it would be him who we would chase out of town. Right?
But I’m not so sure.
Because you see, while slavery may not exist, the Torah is teaching us about an ever-relevant issue that still does. Slaves in the ancient and not so ancient world were those on the bottom rung of society. Not only does the Torah enhance the stature of the slave in the ancient world, it goes one big step further. Our parsha is the first parsha after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Ramban explains that the ten commandments are the summary of the entirety of the Torah, and it is in this parsha, mishpatim, the laws, in which the Torah goes into all of the details. If we were to be writing the laws of the Torah, we would probably start with Shabbos, maybe Kosher, maybe the need to believe in G-d. And yet, the Torah begins, and the very first set of laws of the Torah are about slavery, those on the bottom rung of society.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the laws of the Torah begin with slavery to teach us that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” (Mahatma Gandhi) It Is not enough to treat them well, G-d, by placing slavery as the very first set of laws, is informing us that how we interact with the underclass is how we are defined. Though slavery may no longer exist here in the US, that idea is ever-present.
How do we treat the custodian?
How do we treat the cashier?
How, after waiting on hold for 45 minutes, do we treat a customer service agent?
How do we treat children?
We had this amazing event this past Monday with a number of incredibly influential people. The event was well-attended, the presenters did a fabulous job, and people have been talking about the event and Ner Tamid all week. But you know what really stood out for me?
We had a reception before the event with shul leadership, a number of donors to the shul, and some leaders in the community. During this event, two of our panelists sat down to talk to my 13-year-old daughter and her two friends. In a room filled with all these “important” people, they had a real and extended conversation with three 13-year-olds. A person’s greatness is judged not by how many followers they have on social media, but by how he or she treats the weakest members of society.
There’s a lot of discussion in America about rectifying the evils of slavery. Contrary to the myths spread by antisemites, Jews did not play a significant role in the slave trade. But we, our community, the Jews who came before us here in Baltimore, applauded a rabbi who besmirched our Torah by elevating slavery and chased a rabbi out of town for daring to stand up against it. That is something we could rectify. Not necessarily with affirmative action or reparations. But with a nod of acknowledgment, with patience, a kind gesture, a smile, a hello. Our community will not be judged by the size of its houses, nor by the amount of Torah that we learn. We will be judged by how we treat the weakest members of our society.
This past Tuesday, Lebron James, star-forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, became the all-time greatest scorer in the NBA, after scoring his 38,388th point.
Perhaps what was even more amazing is the picture of the crowd when he took the shot that gave him the record. Lebron James is in the air, taking a little jump shot, and virtually the ENTIRE crowd is holding up their cellphones to capture the moment. It’s unbelievable. You don’t even see faces. You see hundreds of people behind him, holding their phones up like this.
I could just imagine if we would have received the Torah at Sinai in 2023. Imagine the thunder, the lightning, the heavy cloud of glory, G-d’s voice ringing out from the top of the mountain – and the entirety of the Jewish People holding their phones up to capture the moment.
The truth is that is exactly what they did. They didn’t have cellphones, of course, but like the fans watching the Lebron, they weren’t really watching the game. There is a famous question that’s asked on the song we say on Seder night, Dayeinu. We say, “Had you only brought us to Har Sinai and not given us the Torah, Dayeinu! It would have been enough” And everyone asks, really? If we would have just stood at the foot of the mountain and never received the ten commandments, would that really have been enough?!
The answer is yes. The most important part of the experience at Sinai was not the content of the Torah, “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery.” No, that’s not it. The most important part was the experience of G-d communicating to our ancestors, to the Jewish People, to us. Day, dayeinu. Had G-d just communicated to us, without any particular message, it would have definitely been enough.
But the Jewish People did not understand that. The Jewish People wanted something concrete. Like the fans at the Lakers game, they wanted a memento, they wanted something tangible to leave the mountain with. But that wasn’t what was happening. Our Sages teach us that G-d communicated to them all of the commandments at once, not sequentially, but all ten in one voice, something that we are not equipped to hear. The Jewish People couldn’t handle it. They immediately approached Moshe. “Moshe, speak up, we can’t hear.” We want something concrete. We want something tangible. We want to walk away from this experience with a message.
G-d acquiesced. Moshe took over and taught them the ten commandments. The Jewish People got their picture. But it was a terrible failure. A failure that Moshe later criticized the Jewish People about right before he died.
They were so focused on themselves, on capturing the moment, that they missed out on the incredible experience of the moment itself. When you’re holding hands ones with a loved one, you don’t talk, it kills the beauty and the magic of the silence.
Years ago, I spent the last days of Pesach in B’nei Brak with my grandparents. I was davening in a small minyan for those of us who kept two days of Yom Tov. One of the people at this minyan was a great Torah scholar by the name of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, he was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York. After davening, they invited all those who participated in the minyan to a private meal with Rav Berenbaum. I attended, of course. I was sitting quite close to him and he started speaking, he started giving a lecture – in Yiddish. I don’t know about you, but I speak almost no Yiddish. I could have leaned over and said, “Bichvod Harav, with respect, everyone here speaks English, can you speak in English, or Hebrew?”
Instead I sat through a 45 minute lecture in a language I did not understand. Let me tell you, I have sat through many lectures in my life, and I’m embarrassed to say I have forgotten many of them. But not this one! I just sat there, not really understanding anything he said, and just watched his eyes. They were blue and they were on fire. It felt like sparks were shooting out of his eyes. I just took that in. For 45 minutes. It’s now twenty years later and I could still see those eyes boring through me.
Did I lose out by not capturing that moment? By not understanding what he was saying? No. I gained. I gained tremendously by experiencing the moment.
Sometimes we’re in a conversation with someone and they’re not being so clear. We try to understand but we can’t. Maybe it’s some dementia setting in, or maybe they just speak in a roundabout fashion and it’s impossible to follow. Sometimes we’re speaking to someone who has a viewpoint that is radically different than ours, politically or otherwise, and they’re just not interested in hearing our view. Or maybe we’re listening to a lecture and we can’t hear the speaker, or it’s just not a great speech. We are not going to walk away from any of these situations with anything concrete. But not everything has to be concrete, not everything has to be captured by my cellphone. There is an experience of the moment that is so much greater. The experience of giving someone kavod, honor, by just listening even when we cannot hear. Because sometimes the words don’t matter. Sometimes there’s far more to gain without the words. “Had you brought us to Har Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu.”
There is a Medrash that says that when G-d spoke at Sinai, all the birds stopped chirping, all the dogs stopped barking, all the waves stopped crashing, it was absolutely silent. I always understood this to mean that the world was desperate to hear the word of G-d and so it silenced itself to hear Him. Rav Shimshon Pincus shares a very different understanding. He explains that it’s the other way around. First the birds stopped chirping and the dogs stopped barking and the waves stopped crashing and there was absolute silence. And once there was silence, we were able to hear the word of G-d.
We are physical and material beings. We are concrete and are most comfortable with the tangible. But once in a while an experience comes our way and we’re faced with a challenge; do I pull my phone out or do I sit back and experience the moment? Do I say, “What? I can’t hear you. I don’t understand. I disagree?” or do I just listen even if there’s nothing to hear?
The most G-dly, most spiritual, and most elevating moments in life are not captured, they are experienced.