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Parashat Terumah 5781

February 19, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah and Shabbat Zakhor
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

This week I want to share a D’var Torah from the collection of Divrei Torah known as Aish Kodesh[1], or Holy Fire. The Piacezna Rebbe, Rabbi Kolonymous Shapira, wrote these between 1939 and 1942 while confined in the Warsaw Ghetto. The particular D’var Torah I am about to summarize was written on January 27, 1940. The superscript informs us that on this Sabbath he was forced into hiding.

He begins by citing Ex 18:1. “Jethro heard all about what G-d had done….” Rashi’s commentary on this says that Jethro heard specifically about the Splitting of the Red Sea and the battle with Amalek. But, the Rebbe asks, why would Rashi need to say this? After all, the text itself says that Jethro “heard about all that G-d had done for Moses and his people Israel”.

The Rebbe digresses. He writes that there is great significance in the fact that the Torah was given in the wilderness. If the Jewish people had received it in the Land of Israel, they might have assumed that they need to fulfill the commandments only in their own land, in the security of their own homes. When they were away from their homes, while traveling or even living in exile, they might have thought they were not expected to keep the laws of the Torah. Therefore, G-d gave the Torah to them in the wilderness, as if to emphasize that we need to keep the Torah even in the most inhospitable of places.

Having understood this we return to the matter of Rashi’s contribution to the understanding of our text. The text in Deuteronomy (25:17-19) states the Amalek surprised the Jewish people on the way. The word for “surprised” in Hebrew is unusual –“karkha”. The Midrash relates that this word is related to the word in Hebrew for “cold” – kar. That is to say, after witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea the Israelites were filled with love and fervor for G-d. In attacking the Israelites the Amalekites sought to throw “cold water” on this burning passion. That is why it is so important to remember Amalek. Amalek tried to rob the Israelite’s belief that G-d would remain with them, would protect them, would continue to dwell in their midst.

Before hearing how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and then were attacked by the Amalekites, Jethro might have thought that it was sufficient to learn the Torah of Moses from the comfort of his own home. Jethro could have asked Moses to send him a teacher. That is why Rashi felt it important to specify exactly what Jethro had heard. Jethro understood that he too must receive the Torah in the wilderness. He understood that there was still a battle to be fought with Amalek, who would continue to try to extinguish the enthusiasm of the Jewish people for the Torah. Rabbi Kolonymous concludes his D’var Torah with these words, “Jethro realized that to become a Jew, one must leave home and be on the road, in the wilderness.”

When I read these final words I thought, “What could the Piacezna Rebbe mean that ‘to be a Jew one must leave home and be on the road, in the wilderness?’ In what way are those words true?” I’d like to suggest three possible ways.

First, given that he and his community were living imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, the Rebbe no doubt identified with the Jews who were attacked by Amalek, the spiritual ancestors of the Nazis. One’s faith must have been sorely tested in the Warsaw Ghetto. Many must have despaired. Many must have been convinced that G-d had abandoned them. Perhaps Jethro understood that “to be a Jew” means to have one’s faith tested in trying times. Perhaps Jethro understood that one could not be an armchair Jew, hearing about events from afar, one’s nose buried in holy books. To be a Jew means to be active, involved, immersed in the struggles and challenges of the time, our individual fates tied to the destiny of the Jewish people. As Ruth, another person who joined our people, declared, “Wherever you shall go, I shall go.”

Second, we often hear of the Israeli who is raised in a secular environment at home in Israel. The Israeli then comes to the United States where he or she is exposed to American Jewry. Living in a majority Jewish country they took their Judaism for granted. It is almost invisible to them. But living in America, exposed to the American Jewish community, and living as a minority in a largely Christian culture, they discover their Judaism for the first time. To become a Jew they had to leave home. In a place where they cannot take their Judaism for granted, they discover what it is to be more than an Israeli –what it is to be a Jew.

Finally, in our childhoods we mostly grow up with a naïve understanding about G-d and what it means to have faith. Leaving our childhood homes, we encounter a world which is indifferent, if not hostile, to the religious beliefs we formed as children. We encounter life situations which challenge the beliefs about G-d and Judaism that we grew up with. At times like this we may indeed feel unmoored, drifting in the wilderness. We are then challenged to redefine our Judaism, to refine our belief in G-d to meet the needs of the complexities of adult life. To be a Jew, then, is to leave our metaphorical childhood homes, embark on the road of life, encounter the wilderness, and emerge with a more mature understanding of what it is to be a Jew.

Shabbat Shalom
————-[1] Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury translated by J. Hershy Worch  Roman and Littlefield 2002 Summary is of Parasha Yitro, p 38.
Marc Rudolph (AJR 04) is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois.