"Who's there?" is the first thing we read in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It encapsulates the topic of the entire play. "Where are you?" is the first question asked by God in the Torah (Genesis 3:9). From a metaphysical point of view, it captures the topic of the entire Bible.
Pack your loads on my back. / Force me to your destination. / I will go the mile you demand, and even a mile further.
With so many matchmaking and online dating services, it's no surprise that people are looking for love, but as a recent Pew study1 shows, their search results in marriage less and less often. That's because relationships of any kind are seldom easy.
This week's Torah portion, Parashat T'tzaveh, continues the detailed instructions for the building and decoration of the Tabernacle, our ancestors' portable sanctuary during the years of wandering in the desert. Most of the details discussed in T'tzaveh, like bejeweled vestments to be worn by the priests, are exotically unfamiliar to Jews today. But the parashah opens with a description that seems much more familiar to anyone who has spent time inside a synagogue sanctuary. "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly," God tells Moses (Exodus 27:20). But the last two words — ner tamid — can also be translated as "eternal light."
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, interrupts the description of the building of the Tabernacle with a long narrative section that includes the story of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten Commandments, the carving of the second set of tablets, and — although perhaps less famously — the most chutzpadik (impertinent) question in the whole Torah.
The question comes after Moses has negotiated twice with God on behalf of the Israelites: first, with moderate success, when he asks God to forgive the people for the sin of the idolatrous Golden Calf; and second, when he successfully convinces God to lead the Israelites along the next stage of their journey.
But Moses' next negotiation with God is not on behalf of the Israelites, but for himself. Out of the blue, it seems, just as God has acceded to his second request, Moses speaks up again. "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" he says to God (Exodus 33:18).
"I hope you are excited for the birds!" our guide said to us.
We had just arrived in Tanzania for a safari, and suddenly, I was concerned that we had been assigned to the wrong jeep. "Oh, we're not birdwatchers," I explained. "We came for the regular safari — lions, leopards, rhinos — that sort of thing." I was looking forward to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the rarest and most exotic animals on the planet. Leopards, for example, are famously difficult to spot, and the black rhino is so endangered that there are thought to be only about 5,000 left on the planet.
"But we like birds, too," my husband assured the guide. "We're excited to see them." The guide nodded in approval. "Some people tell me, 'Nicholas, we came all this way for the rhinos and leopards! Don't waste our time with all these birds!' "
The next day I got my first glimpse at why people might be excited for the winged creatures when Nicholas showed us what was, perhaps, the most beautiful bird I've ever seen up close. The feathers on its back were the colors of a peacock, iridescent blue and teal and navy. It was tiny — the size of a small songbird with a belly like a robin, a rich orangey-red, and bright white eyes against a black head. "He's beautiful," I said. "Suberb starling!" Nicholas instructed, while I admired the colors. "Superb" really was the right word. I felt lucky that we had caught a glimpse at such a stunning, unusual being.
"A very common bird!" Nicholas exclaimed. "We will see many of them!"
And so we did. In addition to a few gorgeous leopards, one spectacular rhino walking in the distance, and a week's worth of other exotic wildlife, we saw superb starlings every day: on shrubs, on dead tree stumps, flying by our jeep, walking around every picnic area, even perched outside every bathroom that we stopped at. It was one of the most delightful surprises of the safari: I never tired of them: every single time, those birds took my breath away. Everywhere we went, their presence ensured that there was beauty.
Beautiful, colorful, and rare things are the subject of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayak'heil, which continues the Book of Exodus' long description of the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites are asked to bring their most valuable belongings: precious metals, expensively dyed colorful thread, spices and oils, gemstones of every variety, even dolphin skins (Exodus 35:5-9). With all of these materials, the community's craftsmen will make the most precious of all physical spaces: a place where God will dwell in the people's midst.
In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy ... Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?
Parashat Chukat opens with the law of the parah adumah — the red heifer. It is a classic example of a commandment for which the Torah offers no explanation. How are we to understand and grapple with laws such as this that we do not understand? Perhaps we need to start not with the question, why, but with the question, why not.