Shabbat Message: Taking Hold of Torah

Posted on April 30, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

At Temple Beth-El, Torah is taught not just by our professionals. From Shabbat minyans to Brotherhood and Sisterhood study gatherings, from the pulpit to our classrooms (where nearly half of our faculty are graduates of our program!), words of Torah are offered regularly by our lay members. All Temple Board, Oversight, and committee meetings begin with a D’var Torah prepared and presented by a lay leader.

Years ago, when then-URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie called upon Reform Jews to place Torah at the center of our lives, TBE took up the challenge, and we have become better for having done so. With our actions and our deliberations more firmly grounded in the sacred teachings and values of our tradition, our convictions have grown stronger and our vision clearer. Without a doubt, encouraging and empowering our members to “take hold of Torah,” as Rabbi Yoffie put it, has strengthened and inspired TBE to strive to be a more holy community of love and kindness, justice, and compassion, where all are welcomed and valued as we work together for tikkun olam, to repair the world.

I offer these words by way of introduction to words of Torah from a past president of TBE, devoted adult learner, and committed partner in tikkun olam, Robin Osman. Robin’s D’var Torah at our Temple Board meeting this past Monday was such a fine example of what I have just described that I have asked her to share it with our whole community, in slightly modified form. Thank you, Robin, for being an exemplary leader, role model, and teacher of Torah.

Let Us Be Toasty!
The scene is a cross country race in Spain. Abel Mutai, the Kenyan Olympic medalist was just a few short meters from the finish line. Misunderstanding the signs, and thinking he had won the race, he stopped short. Ivan Fernandez, the Spanish runner, was trailing him. He could have easily sprinted ahead to victory. Instead, he shouted, “Keep running!” But Mutai didn’t understand. When shouting failed, Fernandez pushed Mutai to victory.

Stunned, a reporter asked Fernandez, “Why did you let him win?” Fernandez responded, “My dream is that one day we can have some sort of community life where we push ourselves and also others to win.” He added, “I didn’t let him win. The race was his.”

“But you could have won!” the reporter insisted. Fernandez replied, “But what would be the merit of my victory? What would be the honor of this medal? What would my mother think of it?”

Wow! In that moment Fernandez was a shining example of honor and integrity, and a role model for exemplifying holiness.

In our Torah portion, Emor, God provides Moses with a holiness code for the kohanim, or priests. They were held up to the highest standards of honor, integrity, purity, and holiness.

We too are creating an Ethics Code for Temple Beth-El. Our Jewish values speak to the idea that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Thus, like the kohanim, as participants in a holy community, we too hold ourselves to the highest standards of honor and integrity.

The Torah portion proceeds to describe the ritual of the showbread. (Leviticus 24:5) “You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves…Place them on the pure table before God…It is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites.” And so it was. This ancient showbread is the precursor to the challah that sits on our Shabbat tables today, and hopefully on our bimah in the near future.

Every week, 12 loaves of fresh bread were arranged in the same pattern on a table and set in front of God’s altar. At the beginning of each new week, the old loaves were removed, and were immediately replaced with freshly baked breads. This ceremony was re-enacted week after week with the utmost precision and care.

There’s much we can learn from the showbread. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi and philosopher, saw the 12 breads as representative of the 12 Tribes of Israel. He analyzed each element of their preparation and display. They were kneaded one by one but baked and stacked two by two (Menachot 94a). “This one with that one, and this one for the sake of that one.”

The breads were flat loaves with upturned edges. They were placed in two rows, six to a row, one on top of the other. Their shape was such that each one held up the next.

Rabbi Hirsch interpreted the image of the breads being baked and arranged in pairs and physically holding each other up as evoking the strong sense of connection, unity, friendship, and responsibility that can exist between people. What an interesting concept to think of ourselves as bread. Like the runner Fernandez, when we honor one another, we too become the showbread of breads, kindly supporting others with our upturned edges or outstretched arms in the case of humans.

The fact that the showbread was on display all week can serve as a reminder that, like the bread, our actions are always on display. Our actions can inspire others. When we strive to exemplify holiness in all we do, we set the tone for our congregation to be a sacred community.

And now for my favorite part about the bread. The loaves were baked on Friday, but they weren’t eaten by the priests until the following Shabbat. The Talmud comments that miraculously, the showbreads stayed warm and fresh for the whole week. (Menachot 96b)

So, what if we were bread? The hot and toasty showbread would represent our best selves-that honorable, humble, kind, and compassionate self. That self we strive to be. But let’s face it. Nobody can be that hot and toasty all the time. Sometimes we’re day-old bread, and on a bad day we might even be moldy Wonder Bread. What kind of bread are you right now?

What kind of bread are we bringing to our relationships and interactions? Are we hot and toasty with our spouses, our children, or our parents? Are we bringing our warm bread selves to our work, our volunteer activities, and all we do? It’s worth considering.

Like the ancient priests and the runner Fernandez, we too can be shining examples of honor and integrity, and role models for exemplifying holiness if only we keep our bread type top of mind. Let us strive to be toasty in all we do, supporting one another with kindness, compassion, and honor. And butter!

To Robin I say thank you and yishar koach for these inspiring words of Torah. And to our entire TBE family I wish a peaceful and joyful Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck