FEBRUARY 14, 2019

9 Adar 1, 5779

God spoke to the Israelites through Moses; the Israelites spoke to God through Aaron.

These propositions are a prism through which to view the relationship between the previous week’s Torah reading and this week’s. The theme last Shabbat was God’s detailed instruction to Moses to build the mishkan (sanctuary) in which He would “reside” among the people. God was very specific regarding the size of the structure, material to be used and its various units: the special candelabrum, the table for the showbread, and the ark in which the tablets of the Ten Commandments were to be placed. God’s willingness to vest His presence in the mishkan and hence among the people was clearly dependent upon their fulfilling the commandments that He revealed through Moses. It was a one-way conversation; God spoke and ordained; the Israelites were to hear and to obey.

The clear implication was that there would be consequences if and when the commandments were neglected. Sin would be punished. Yet God, following the great flood, had already despaired that the inclination to sin had been embedded within us at an early age. (Genesis 8: 21)  It is the possibility of repentance and divine forgiveness that transitions us to this week’s Torah portion. It is here that we are first introduced to the kohanim (priests) who ministered to the community and were integral to the process of turning to God for forgiveness. Aaron, Mosesolder brother, the designated first kohen gadol (high priest) was vested with the capacity and responsibility to be the People’s spokesman before God.

The Torah portion describes Aaron’s unique vestments, adorned with precious stones  upon which the names of the tribes were engraved. It concludes with instructions regarding the construction of the sacrificial altar upon which the priest could bring the people’s offerings to expiate sins, to implore Divine intervention when faced with crises and to give thanks for blessings in their lives. It was through Aaron and his descendents that the people communicated with God, as the Psalmist assured us in a later era: “God is close to all who call upon Him in truth” (Psalm 145: 18).

As a society we are currently grappling with the appropriate response to prior racially insensitive acts. Are we to regard current acceptable behavior as a form of repentance? This complex question is at the heart of the controversy swirling around Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. He insists that he has scrubbed the blackface paint from his face; others insist that there are still traces of it testifying to lingering racist attitudes. It’s obvious that despite the great strides to expunge racism from our society, more than traces of it remain in our midst. The existential question with which we must all grapple is whether our own behavior has sufficiently changed and we can honestly claim that we have truly and fully repented?

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat have peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M Goodman