Shabbat Tetzaveh: For Want of a Tent Peg

Our parashat hashavua is Tetzaveh, from the same root as mitzvah, that is, obligation. The parashah’s name is generic: every week we are presented with mitzvot, which we are to carry out. No matter what the occasion or occurrence, there’s always a mitzvah to fulfill; this is the framework that structures Jewish life. 

The mitzvot are the details of a Jewish life, changing according to the need of the moment, and always specific to it. The building of the wilderness mishkan where we will gather to evoke the presence of HaShem is a myriad of mitzvah details: commands regarding the materials, the utensils, the objects, and the priests’ clothing. Some are hard to follow, others difficult to carry out, requiring specific expertise.

There’s a lovely little message hidden in a simple-seeming word, the Hebrew for “tent peg,” which looks like this: אדני האוהל  The word for “peg” in Hebrew looks exactly like HaShem’s name when it is spelled out. The lesson, of course, is that “G*d is in the details” – as it were, in every tent peg. This teaches that each one of us, doing the job which is ours as participants in our community, is as important, and holy, as each of the tent pegs which secured the Israelite mishkan. 

Each tent peg does its job, strengthened by the next tent peg. If one fails, all are affected; each draws strength from the next, isha el akhotah, “each woman and her sister” as the Torah puts it.

To understand this is to begin to see that which is unique about the Jewish path; even as each of us must move our own feet, yet none of us walks alone. The quality of the trust we build among each other is the true measure of the common work of the mishkan, and the beauty of the building is not in its aesthetics but its ethics.

It has only been a few weeks since we left Egypt; we’re still getting to know each other. But the most important test has already been presented, in the leap of faith presented to us at the Sea, when we began crossing over, together, despite our uncertainty about whether the sea would part and we would survive.

The faith needed for such a leap is not about where you are headed, nor about how uncertain the view ahead may be. We can never really know what will be tomorrow. All we have is what is here today. The faith we need is in each other: those with whom we leap. 

Shabbat Pekudey, Adar II Begins: Don’t Burn the Day

These days, being happy is not easy. Reasons to be sad, to be worried, or to be outraged are easy to find – and late winter’s gloomy chill doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. Even as I have heard some say that Tisha B’Av is impossible in Portland Oregon because the weather is so beautiful, Purim’s declaration that we must be happy seems similarly out of step with our real lives. This year, with an extra leap month of Adar (added 7 times in the 19 year cycle of the Jewish calendar) we are fortunate to have twice the days to find our happy place; and find it we must, our tradition insists.
Consider that the Jewish people has been practicing the mitzvah of mi sheh-nikhnas Adar marbim simkha, “when Adar enters, happiness increases” for many generations. It’s fascinating and curious that in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that, when all other holy days have faded into the past, Purim will still be celebrated. On the simple human level, each of us yearns to be happy, each of us needs opportunities for a smile, a laugh, a moment of delight.
Our parashat hashavua, (Torah reading for the week) is called Pekudey, meaning “records,” from the word for taking account of people, or things. It might be translated along the same lines as “noticing.” In it we are offered a way to learn what it might mean to fulfill the mitzvah of being happy while at the same time not turning away from the reality of one’s life.
This parashah describes in great detail an amazing and joyful event. The mishkan, built with love and freewill offerings by the Israelite community, is completed, and it glows with the Presence of the holy. Every Israelite “whose heart so moved” brought their heart’s offering. All were needed; all were welcomed. They were still escaped and homeless slaves, but they found happiness in together building their sacred space.
It’s important to notice that each offering was different, and all were necessary, just as we are all different, and to the extent that we seek to bring our heart’s gifts to our common space, we are building a space of joy and uplift. If you are not happy in the work, it’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong place.
The command to “Be Happy, It’s Adar” is really a way to remind each one of us every year to notice how we are doing. Are you capable of moments of delight? How’s your happiness quotient? You are given the gift of life; there is no rehearsal and no do-over as far as we know. The Jewish tradition of optimism and belief in the perfectibility of this world, the insistence that we are not allowed to despair, requires us to do the best we can in this life to be happy – or at least to do the best we can not to be unhappy for one moment longer than necessary.
Most days, we don’t do this by conquering the world or overthrowing the system. Most days, we do this by noticing a flower, a bird, a kindness. In 1998 the Dave Matthews band released a song in which he sang
We need the light of love in here
Don’t beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
There’s bad times
But that’s OK
Just look for love in it
And don’t burn the day away ((full lyrics here)
Don’t burn the day. It could be your happiest one. Notice it, notice every gift and every opportunity for gratitude, and for the love you are able to give and receive. This, it seems to me, is a way to understand the urgency of Purim, and its eternal significance. May it touch you despite all that challenges us when we simply try to feel the wholeness that is our original and our natural state.

Shabbat Terumah: The Gift of Your Life

What are you supposed to be doing with your one, wild, precious life? After all, it will all end, and too soon.
The parashat hashavua this week is Terumah, “gift”, a word that speaks of a free-will offering that comes from the heart, chosen by the giver out of the joy of the chance to share of oneself. Our Israelite ancestors this week are invited to participate in the process of creating the first Jewish sacred space, the mishkan, by bringing any gift that they are moved to bring, from their hearts, of themselves. The gifts range across the entire spectrum of building materials, from the structural to the decorative.
“From everyone whose heart moves them, let them bring gifts….to make a sacred space.” (Exodus 25.2,8)
The most touching part of this story is the eagerness with which the Israelites accept the invitation, bringing so much that Moshe has to call an end to the giving when they have brought more than can possibly be needed. This is the nature of giving from the heart: it overflows boundaries, flows without stint, without calculation, without fear that there somehow won’t be enough to go around.
Every day you give the gift of yourself to the world, and to the people around you. But it can be difficult to give from the heart; the walls we build around ourselves out of fear of being hurt – or fear of the world – can make it hard for the heart’s small chirp of longing to get through. Here I am, it says, here is what I give – please accept this gift from me, of me. And alas, sometimes the fear of our gift’s rejection is well-founded; we can be misunderstood, we can be mis-timed, we can be disappointed.
Yet our parashah conveys the underlying lesson for Jewish community – for all community – here most clearly demonstrated by the fact that the gifts of all Israelites were equally necessary and equally acceptable. No one was told that they were of the wrong gender, age, color, social status, or physical ability to give. All gifts from the heart, expressing the essence of the giver, were equally needed and equally precious.
It is not a holy space unless all give of themselves, from the heart. It is not a holy space until each who gives from the heart is equally celebrated for that gift.
And the promise, if we truly learn to value each other’s gifts of the heart as equally precious? “[G*d] will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8) Nothing less than this: the holiness we are capable of creating in our community when we are able to bring, each of us, the true expression of the heart to our community. No holds barred, no walls behind which we can hide, no assuming we will get hurt so that we never really open up….in other words, trust.
Trust is a big word these days, because trust is not a guarantee, and we see that so clearly on a day in which we are mourning another instance of senseless, murderous violence grown out of the dysfunction of our society. Trust is not in outcomes – this is the hard part – but in the glory of trusting in the good that still exists, each day, even on the terrible days when we are left speechless, our arms empty.
It’s almost a form of defiance, to nevertheless, in spite of everything, believe, as Anne Frank famously wrote, that “people are really good at heart,” and to continue to uphold the first rule of Jewish community ethics, which is to assume the best of others, and to give each person the benefit of the doubt. Without that trust, the heart stays closed tight out of fear. Somewhere in the wilderness in which we spend our lives, each of us searches for the holy space that will finally accept us. It is not some other community you have not yet found, where the human beings are somehow more perfect: it is this one in front of you, this one of which you are a part, this one that can love you. This one, in which you can truly live the life you are meant to live.

Shabbat Pekudey: Get Over Yourself and Go Learn

Our parashat hashavua this week, Pekudey, could be known as “the Accountants’ Parashah”. Pekudey means “records”, and our text begins with 

אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת, אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל-פִּי מֹשֶׁה:  עֲבֹדַת, הַלְוִיִּם, בְּיַד אִיתָמָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן

These are the accounts of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, as they were rendered under Moses’s supervision: the work done by the Levites, under Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Ex.38.21)

Why is this report of expenses and materials used included in the Torah? According to midrashic interpretation, it was to prove to suspicious Israelites that neither Moshe nor anyone else involved in the work had stolen anything.

Moshe heard people speaking about him: “Look at all the things he has. He eats from the Jews’ property, drinks from the Jews’ property, and all that he has is from the Jews.” Another one said: “Would you think that the one who is in charge of all the work of the Mishkan would not be rich?” 

The midrash concludes that Moshe decided that when he finished the Mishkan, he would do an exact accounting of everything that was collected and used. (TanhumaPekudei 4)

This is a sad, but highly believable, explanation, and it is certainly not limited to the Generation of the Wilderness, as they are called. Although Moshe has done nothing to merit suspicion, the jealousy of those who feel inadequate is turned upon him. The jealousy, and the anger it creates, is not expressed openly and truthfully, but rather comes cloaked in perfectly “normal” comments. But underneath it everyone can tell that the real problem is with the accuser.

Moshe is called trustworthy by G-d, no less. In our own terms, he has done nothing to provoke the attack, and actually is demonstrably innocent. We are left with the question of why he was accused.

The Israelites were on the cusp of a great new thing: the Mishkan was nearly completed, and the path to which they had committed was to become a reality. Were they having second thoughts, these suspicious fault-finders? Was this their way to express a personal sense of fear or vulnerability? Perhaps – and their inability to see themselves and their true feelings led them toward an even worse place: vulnerable turns to suspicious, and then to anger – and then to evil.

“Blessing is only possible in things hidden from sight.” (Talmud, Taanit 8b). The Sochotchover Rebbe (Poland, 1838-1910) noted that a blessing has an inner, quiet strength of holiness; that which is done in awareness of observers is more often vulnerable to evil. Yet we live in community! And so from time to time, those who do good quietly are going to be unjustly accused in public of wrong doing by those who are jealous, or frightened. 

In community we of course have the right and the responsibility to keep honest records. But we do not have the right to pretend to ask for an accounting when it is only a cloak for a truth that is more difficult.

The mystics bid us pay attention to the fact that when our I is foremost in our vision, we can’t see anything but ourselves. Move your “I think, I feel, I need” out of the center of your vision, and see what vistas are revealed.

The next time you are moved to suspicion, remember the Jewish ethic of judging l’khaf zekhut, “giving the benefit of the doubt”. It does not matter who it is or what you suspect: you must work on yourself here. Before you formulate an accusation even in your heart, do the ethical exercise of considering the many ways in which the person you suspect may actually be innocent. Then look at yourself and ask – why you are angry, really?

And then remind yourself of the Jewish way out of anger and toward peace and wholeness – go and study Torah.

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.

Shabbat Terumah: In The Details

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it.” Two millennia ago the renowned sage Rabbi Akiba asserted that Torah is not only that which is written on the parchment of the sefer Torah, the Scroll of Direction (the Hebrew verb root h.r.h means “teaching”, and also “aiming” as well as “indicating direction”). Torah is also expressed through the exegesis that gives us midrash, “investigation”, and halakhah, “path”. This larger sense of Torah is contained, more or less, in Talmud, the sixty-three tractates (volumes) that derive from the Five Books of Moshe. But it is not contained fully, for it was already acknowledged even then that there was more that would unfold, and in a very real way, “that which a veteran student will, in the future, innovate before his teacher was already said to Moshe at Sinai” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 17b).

Clearly, then, there is more to any given parashah than meets the eye.

The parashah we read this week, parashat Terumah, gives us a minutely-detailed description of the Mishkan that the Israelites were to build in order to evoke the Presence of G-d in their midst. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, is devoted to the topics of what goes inside the Mishkan, what goes outside, and of what it is to be made. The dimensions of objects as well as their composition, number, color, and purpose are all specified.

It is easy to grant that such detailed plans for the construction of the Mishkan existed, but why were they sanctified? Why are we to read them with all the honor and respect due to every word written in the Torah? For example, what are we to make of the first verse we read in the second year of the Triennial Cycle:

You are to make the Mishkan with ten curtains; skilled workers shall make them of fine twined linen, in blue, purple and red, with kheruvim. (Ex.26.1)

One might see this as exactly the challenge offered to the “veteran student” mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud passage above. What are we to make of this verse? If we accept that each word and each verse has value prima facie, then the challenge is not to the text, to prove its relevance, but to us, to prove our ability to see that relevance. It’s not so far away. Much can be understood and derived from such a verse once one enters the interpretative world of our tradition.

Here are three short interpretations:

1. In Jewish tradition, one important way to demonstrate the respect we show for that which we hold sacred is to bring our best effort to it. “Skilled workers” are to make the curtains. When we are building something important, than, we are to look through our community for those best suited and most capable. Art is best done by the artistic.

2. Blue, purple and red – תכלת, ארגמן ותולעת שני – tekhelet, argaman v’tola’at shani – are important colors in the ancient Near East, all of them bright and deep (and expensive). The blue tekhelet color is also that which we are commanded to include in the fringes on the corners of our garments. Perhaps in that way the fringe – the tzitzit – is meant to remind us of the Mishkan, and what it symbolizes.

3. Kheruvim are fantastic creatures that were imagined to be among the animal and human-like servants that surrounded our G-d; for example, G-d is described as “riding on the back of a kheruv” into battle with Pharoah at the Reed Sea during the Exodus. They are symbols of divine power and awe.

at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A kheruv (?) at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Our ancestors guarded every detail of the Mishkan for the ages because it was the most important structure they built; they built it together, they brought their best people to it, and they made it a place that evoked their sense of awe for the holy. In such a place, that means so much, there is no such thing as too many details, for every single one is a precious part of the whole. As are you and I in the building of our own Mishkan today.