Shabbat Ki Tisa: You, Too, Belong to Shabbat

This parashat hashavua is famous for a terrible breach in the relationship between G-d and the People Israel. That golden calf tends to overshadow the rest of the parashah even for those of us on the Triennial Cycle, who only read that specific passage once in three years!

This year we read the first third of parashat Ki Tisa, which begins with concluding instructions for creating the Mishkan, the sacred space the Israelites are about to build. We have spent weeks already talking about the design, the volunteers who will coordinate, and the resources that must be gathered. Now, when we seem just about ready to begin, and excitement is building, suddenly we are confronted with what seems like a non sequitur. Suddenly, it’s Shabbat:

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.

12 G-d spoke to Moses saying:

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.

13 Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them: You must observe My Shabbat, because it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that it is I, HaShem, that makes you holy.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.

14 So observe the Shabbat, for it is holy for you; anyone that dismisses it will die, and whoever does work on it, will be cut off from the people.

Suddenly we are brought up short with a serious warning. Don’t get distracted by your enthusiasm for this task, we are told. The message is clear and simple:

1. Building the holy space cannot be allowed to take precedence over what makes the space holy. That is, the means must be aligned with the end. A Jewish sacred space cannot be constructed on Shabbat. Nor can it be constructed unethically.

2. What makes Shabbat holy is that it is a sign between the Jewish people and their G-d. The Mishkan is going to be a visible sign of the Jewish people’s dedication to HaShem, and even though concrete, touchable signs are comforting to us human beings, we are being told here that the visible and tangible is not “more” of a sign than Shabbat. The day of rest, of rising above one’s work and one’s week, is the most profound sign of all.

3. Anyone who dismisses its importance will end up “dead” to it. This is simple human logic. It is demonstrably true that those who diminish the Shabbat are diminished in their attachment to the Jewish people, Jewish causes, and Jewish community. Those Jews who choose to work on Shabbat, making it no more than one more day, are by way of that choice also cutting themselves off from belonging to the People of Israel in a real way. 

It is, of course, forever true that any Jew, no matter how distanced, alienated, and turned off, will be welcomed back to belonging if they wish to turn toward it. As the poet put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

All who are thirsty, there is water here for you. As the mystics observed, the only thing that gets in our way is our “I” – statements such as “I don’t have time”, or “I don’t fit in”, or even the unspoken feeling of not being comfortable in some way. Get that “I” to lie down for a while and you may find that you, too, are a simple human being who needs to belong, and who needs a rest.

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Shabbat Tetzaveh: The Gold and the Wood

This week’s parashah, called Tetzaveh, describes the blueprint for the sacred space that the Israelites are commanded to create so that the Presence of G-d might be immanent in their midst. For the ancient Israelites, there is much excitement in defining and beautifying every little detail of this special place. And hiddur mitzvah, the urge to make the mitzvah you are doing as beautiful as possible, is considered a mitzvah in itself. As we say in the American idiom, anything worth doing is worth doing well. In Jewish practice this leads to a specially set Shabbat table with the best plates, a Sukkah festooned with decorations, and generally taking care to do whatever one does in beauty.

The flip side of this mitzvah, however, is that it can appeal to our less upstanding urges. It leads to expensive trappings that take the place of sincerity. It leads to beautiful buildings built by poor people. And it leads to backlash, as you may have heard: religious practice is just an excuse for showing off one’s wealth in one more community, or words to that effect, might be expressed by any number of religiously disaffected people you’ve met.

According to one commentary, we are to accept that these two sides of ourselves are both acceptably human, and to try to learn to balance between them – in this way to use the energy of each to moderate the other. We are to give tzedakah, but not more than ten percent of what we have; we are to value learning above ignorance, but not to show off our learning; we are to do our best to beautify the mitzvah, but always to remember the Ark.

The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the holiest of holy places in the wilderness sanctuary. Its surface shone with pure gold, according to the Torah’s blueprint. But underneath that gold? Simple acacia wood. Despite the fact that acacia wood has been festooned with all kinds of symbolism, the fact is that it was available. It was not particularly special other than that it was dependably at hand. 

“I will dwell in the midst of the People of Israel and I shall be their G-d” (Ex. 29.45). A Hasidic teacher from the town of Alexander (near Lodz in Poland) once taught that false gods are beautiful from afar, just as the Ark shines in the sun from its gold cover. But as one gets closer, one learns that the gold is only a covering, and one comes to appreciate the reality of the wood within that frames and upholds all that exterior beauty.

Gold is good – it’s pretty. Poverty is not a Jewish virtue. But neither is the wasteful display of ego around one’s gold. The gilding which is an expression of one’s kavanah, one’s mindful intention toward the mitzvah, looks just like the gold of the one who flaunts the ability to give. How to discern between them? Look to the inclusive sanctuary which houses the Ark, and which welcomes the gifts of all as equally beautiful. As long as the kavanah, the intention underneath, is as solid and dependable as the acacia wood, then the hiddur, the beautification, glorifies the mitzvah and not the giver. 

Shabbat Terumah: Keep the Fire Burning

In parashat Terumah we read of the ner tamid. You have perhaps noticed this light, since its direct descendant brings illumination in every shul in the world, usually somewhere near the Ark. It is often referred to as the “Eternal Light”. 

But as we look at the verse that presents it, we see something a bit different: You shall command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to lift up the light regularly. (Ex. 27.20)

The word tamid in the Torah can mean “regular” or “uninterruptedly”, depending on which scholar you read. (For more on this and lots of other fascinating ancient Hebrew terms, see the website Balashon). What it does not mean is “miraculously eternally automatically”.

This leads to a visual of some ancient priest whose regular job is to ensure that this fire, this ner tamid, does not EVER go out – wind, rain, even the occasional snow notwithstanding. 

What was so special about this fire? Only this: its origin was a bolt of fire that came directly from the Eternal (Lev. 9.24.). The fire itself came from G-d; all the priest had to do was to tend it, not to let it go out. Eternal fire, but only if it is tended.

The fire has been compared in a Hasidic parable to our own, human “fire” – that of enthusiasm, of caring, of believing. The fire in our hearts also comes from an Eternal Source, after all. Our parashah hints that, even as the Divine fire on the altar needs help to stay bright and powerful, and similarly, so you have to tend your fire on your altar – that is, your heart – if it is to stay strong.

How do you tend your fire – how do you stay open to moments that illuminate, and let them bring you joy? Here are a few suggestions from our tradition:

* Rabbi Eliezer said: A person only has to choose whether to eat and drink or to sit and study [to experience joy]. Rabbi Joshua said: Divide it—half [of the holiday] to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of study. (Talmud Bavli, Pesakhim 68b)

* Join the communal observance of holidays even if you don’t feel like it. The festival observances allow us to help each other arouse an inner sense of joy that we cannot always find alone. (Rav Soloveitchik)

* Just as lightning breaks through heavy clouds and illuminates the earth, so tzedakah gives light to the heart.  (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady)

It is written: “You are my witnesses, says the Eternal, and I am your G-d. This is to say that if we are not witnesses, then G-d is – if we could say such a thing – not G-d.” There is no such thing as an Eternal fire unless we feed it; as we strengthen our own hearts and help each other, we are keeping alive and strong the fire of our witness of G-d’s presence, and of our religious tradition’s Eternal demand for the justice and ethics that comes from the illumination of that fire.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Kavanah is in the Details

In contrast to other religious paths, Judaism offers spiritual growth within a clear and coherent framework. The word halakhah – our “path” – is understood more commonly as our “law” because of the many mitzvot (“obligations”) which serve us as signposts along the way. Our parashat hashavua for this week contains fifty-three such mitzvot, and each mitzvah commands us equally, according to Jewish tradition – civil, moral, and commercial law all come together here in a way that isn’t easy for our category-driven minds. Yet our tradition is to regard each mitzvah, each detail of our path, with the same kavanah, the same intentionality and mindfulness. We are to bring our kavanah to care we bring to settling a fight, restoring lost items, and respecting society’s vulnerable.

It’s a journey. And it is useful to think of halakhah as road law, actually – because of the myriad of laws governing our use of back roads, main street and highways, you and I can go forth on our daily journeys expecting, under normal circumstances, to stay safe as we go about answering our desires and needs for the day. The mitzvot you practice are meant to lead you somewhere. Shabbat is the epitome of that “somewhere” – it is meant to be the high point of our week, the day on which we know that we have, spiritually, arrived, even if the arrival is only partial. Summoning the kavanah for this is not always easy.

And just like a road journey, there are days when, spiritually, we can barely see for the storms. In the darkness, we anxiously look for the next road sign, struggling to to lose our way, and to bring any passengers we have with us – loved ones, children – home safely. These are the days when we most need the little details of all those mitzvot. They give us something small and regular and dependable to focus our souls, as we try not to get lost.

All those mitzvot are there to help lead you toward your kavanah, your intentionality, for Shabbat, so that it can become a shavat, “resting” of the soul. Lighting candles at sunset sparks a mood shift; singing L’kha Dodi as we bring in Shabbat at the shul triggers relaxation; having the family and friends gather for an unrushed dinner can redeem the whole week. We all have a different way into kavanah.

May your Shabbat be for you each week a chance to delight in all that is offered you, every little detail that reminds you to take care with each moment of our short, precious lives, and to come to know yourself in a whole new way which was, nevertheless, always there. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

(T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)