Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

Shabbat Ki Tisa, and Shushan Purim: Sowing Hate is a Form of Murder

Well, we’ve heard the Megillat Ester, and Shabbat Ki Tisa is upon us, and we haven’t learned much yet, apparently.
I find myself much dismayed. Incidents come to my attention. Haman is still among us, and inside of us.
You, who believe you need not check your hypocrisy, because that there’s no way that the sin you accuse in another can possibly touch you.
You, who betray your words of caring for our community with careless acts that show you consider its true worth to you to be beneath concern.
You who think so little of the love another has for our community, giving endless volunteer time and heart, that you treat them without courtesy.
Causing harm to another’s reputation or name, causing embarrassment to them in any way within a community, refusing in our righteous anger to give the benefit of the doubt, is judged by our Jewish legal tradition to be a sin akin to murder.
This week in the parashah we see that when our commitment to each other is not strong, when we start to undermine the gentle, vulnerable bonds of trust that holds our community together, there is great harm, perhaps irreparable, that we do to each other. The sin of that small gold bull caused not only the actual deaths of many involved, but the death of that community’s hope for true unity on their way forward into the wilderness.
The wilderness is still there to be crossed; we can’t avoid that. But we can work a little harder to treat each other with decency, if not to “love your neighbor as yourself” if that’s too difficult for you right now, at least to consider “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Both are foundational ethical teachings demanded of you as a Jew.
Purim is still with us; that holy day that the Rabbis suggest is actually much more significant than we realize. An ancient teaching points out that on the other end of the year, as fall begins, we observe a day the name of which can literally be understood as “the day which is like Purim” – Yom ha-Kippurim. Purim, our teachers suggest, is a day of considering the value of life, how we live it, at what cost, and the masks we need to finally stop wearing if we are to face each other honestly. A covenant relationship thrives on no less than this. Those with exit strategies in place if things don’t go their way are not speaking the language of Jewish covenant.
Today is Shushan Purim, on which Jews celebrate the holiday who lived in cities which were walled at the time of the Purim story. Perhaps that’s the best day for us to observe it, those of us who are still insisting on walls between us and those with whom we share what is supposed to be a covenant community where we learn to work on the essential human values of trust and love.
Haman is not some caricature; it is the part of you that does not stop to think of the hurt you cause another when you feel justified in your act. Who are you to choose not to risk trust? What will it take for each of us to figure out how to blot out the selfishness of the yetzer hara’ within us, that focuses only upon our own well-being?
This Shabbat, the Torah calls out to us to learn from what are too many examples of selfishness and blindness in our people’s past, and consider the real damage each of us can do unless we are ready to really learn this truth we have been taught to repeat from an early age.
Forgive as we would be forgiven,
extend the courtesy that we expect to receive,
and be kind; be kind; be kind to each other.

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 VaYigash: One Person, One Step

O, once again, what a week it has been in the United States of America. I feel so very fortunate to be part of a tradition much older and wiser than the 240-odd years of this nation’s development since its birth. Jews have lived under many forms of government and seen many, many examples of the kind of leadership, conflict and oppression that we are witnessing today. Our people’s teachings offer us a welcome perspective which is larger, longer, and deeper, and thus we have more learning to draw on, and less excuse to be left feeling completely overwhelmed and confused. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts in on Twitter, #We’veSeenThisBefore.
For Jews and the people who love them and live with them, staying grounded in our Jewish identity and its guidance offers us a way to stay grounded when all around us it seems that the center cannot hold, and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Judaism comes at the world, and our place in it, from a very different perspective, for example asking not “what are my rights?” in any moment but “what are my obligations?” It’s a helpful way to shed new light on difficult questions. We cannot fight gravity, but there is always, always something that we can do. There is always a mitzvah in the moment.
This Shabbat, our parashat hashavua (parshah of the week) offers us a way to relate to the events of this week, to break them down and parse them for a handle by which we might know what we might choose to do in response. Torah relates this week the courage of one individual. A single person finds the inner strength to step forward and challenge the bullying of a high and powerful government official.
VaYigash, the first word of the parashah, means “he drew near.” The context: the Vizier of Egypt is threatening, bullying, persecuting a group of foreigners who have come to plead for food to help them survive a famine back home. They are powerless and terrified before the ruler of the land, who blusters and threatens to throw them all in jail or have them killed. That group of foreigners are our ancestors, the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, and they are all looking at each other in fear and wondering what to do.
At that very moment, one of them, Judah, takes a step forward, and “draws near” to the ruler. Our commentaries point out that this is not just a physical move; what Judah does is to find the strength, somehow, to speak to the terrifying bully in words that actually touch him. He does not denounce him, though the ruler deserves it; he speaks as a human being, and he evokes the human fears of the moment.
We experience ways in which we may not be ready to publicly denounce someone who acts to oppress another human being, but we may be able to act as an ally nevertheless by speaking quietly as one human being to another. One example would be in the case of hearing another person tell a racist joke. One may not feel able to draw upon our tradition’s prophetic righteous indignation to declare that the joke teller is going straight to hell – but we can say “ouch” or “not with me” or words to that effect, and walk away from the group.
There is one step we can take – and, thank G*d, as a community we will usually find someone willing to take it with us. Sometimes it may bring us closer to the evil we are trying to challenge; sometimes it might only bring us closer to ourselves and our own hearts – but that is just as important. As it has been said, we may not be able to change the world on any given day, but we can work to make sure that the worst of the world does not change us. We are not helpless; there is always some small step we can take.

Shabbat Miketz: Benefit of the Doubt

One of the Jewish ethics presented to us most powerfully by our parashat hashavua, and our week as a community, is this: khaf z’khut, “benefit of the doubt.” It is an important Talmudic teaching, and understood as a vital mitzvah of relationships, that we must always give someone the benefit of the doubt – even going out of our way to do so. Here is one well-known story which illuminates the principle:
It became known to the Rabbinical Sages that one Abba the Healer was considered to be an especially good and ethical person.
Two of the students were curious, and they went to Abba, pretending to be ill and in need of his help.
Abba the Healer received them and gave them comfortable reed mats to lie on while they waited their turn to see him.
When he was occupied, they took the mats and left.
A day later they returned to him, and he welcomed them.
“But do you recognize us?”
“Yes, of course I recognize my honored guests. You were here yesterday.”
“But did you know that we took your reed mats?”
“Yes, of course.”
“What did you think?”
“I said to myself, certainly an unexpected opportunity for a ransom of prisoners became available for the Rabbis, and they required immeidate funds, but they were too embarrassed to say so to me or to ask for money. Instead, they took the rugs.”
The students then offered the mats back to Abba the Healer. “Here, now please take them back.”
But Abba the Healer refused them, saying “from the moment I realized that they were missing, I put them out of my mind and consigned them for tzedakah.
As far as I am concerned, they are already designated for that purpose, and I cannot take them back. They are no longer mine.” (Taanit 22a)

In the world in which we live, many would consider Abba the Healer to be hopelessly naive. But our tradition insists that a person cannot be a good Jew unless s/he is committed to giving others the benefit of the doubt every single time there is any doubt at all. In this week’s parashah, the willingness to trust – or the lack thereof – shapes lives, relationships, futures.

In a world so full of disappointments on every level, it may be tempting to give in to the whisper of the yetzer hara’ as it urges us to give up on each other, and to become cynical and suspicious. But that way does not lie wholeness of the self, nor happiness in one’s relationships. To continue to see the good in others may be, on some days, a real act of defiance against the more dystopic aspects of our American culture – and in so doing, to affirm the wisdom of our far more ancient Jewish ethical culture. Judge each other l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, and may we all know the grace of having that benefit returned to us.

Shabbat VaYetze: Give Me Children Or I Will Die

This week’s parashah finds Jacob leaving home, going to a new community and creating family there. The resonance is obvious here for so many of us, for whom it is natural to expect to create our families and our future in a place different from the one in which we grew up. For Jacob, a short sojourn turns into a generation, during which he marries not one but two women, sisters who are his cousins – his mother Rivkah is sister to their father Laban.
The sisters are close – ancient midrash tells us that they supported each other when the men in their lives were not interested in their well-being, to the point that when Jacob and Laban arranged for Jacob to marry Rachel out of the normal order of things (she is the younger sister), Rachel actually cooperated in an intricate  and intimate deception that resulted in Leah being married to Jacob. (Rachel followed before long.) The Torah demonstrates by way of this narrative that the two sisters have a strong and trusting relationship.
Our text, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah readings, begins on a less happy note: the two sisters are locked in the “baby wars.” Leah is easily having one strapping baby son after another: Re’uven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, in quick succession. Meanwhile Rachel has yet to be pregnant, and, distraught. she confronts Jacob: Give me children or I will die. (Gen. 30.1) Jacob’s response is angry: Am I G*d, to make you fertile when you’re not?
It’s hard to withstand the ancient hard-wiring that moves many women of child-bearing age, to tears, and more, if they are unable to have the children they long for. A famous story about King Solomon describes a woman swapping her dead child for that of her friend in the night; in our narrative, Rachel gives her attendant Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate. In our own day, entire lives are subsumed by the effort to have a child.
As we see in the parashah, marriages suffer as a result, and also the relationships we have with those we perceive as happier than we in the baby context. And in the intensity of the self-absorbed focus that grows into a monster, one sees Rachel’s cry for what it is. Ironically for a book that demonstrates the power of women over and over again, Rachel is depicted as a woman of no worth if she cannot have children.
For many of us who do not give birth to children, either because we cannot or because we did not, this is a troubling message, and not only because it demeans women, turning anyone with a uterus into a single-issue soul. Jewish tradition clearly expects of all of us that we help to raise the next generation; the Shema is incumbent upon us all, not only women and not only those parents who raise children. You shall teach them to your children is meant for the entire extended community – there was no such thing as the unique torture of the nuclear family, with no relatives to share the raising and tending, then. All Jews help to raise the next generation of Jews, which is why paying taxes for a neighborhood school, or supporting universal health insurance for children, is an obligation and a privilege even when we ourselves do not have children.
For some of us, a traditional way to express our lives would be to humbly recognize that it is not G*d’s will that we bear children in our bodies. To let that single fact define our lives as a life-ending disaster would be an insult to the richness of each human life and the undiscovered country we each inhabit, in our homes and on our ways. Each life is always a gift, every day, and the people we are privileged to spend it with are a delight. On this Shabbat may we each speak to the Rachel in our hearts or in our lives with gentleness and understanding, and with encouragement as well, that a wider focus is possible on all that is being born, and all that we can help to nurture and thrive.
…and finally: on this Thanksgiving weekend, observed by so many as an welcome equalizer of all faiths and orientations, it’s important for us to hold two conflicting truths in mind: while yes, for some of us this holiday is a rare opportunity to join in the general celebration, for others it is a yearly reminder of their exclusion from American-ness. On this Thanksgiving, while we complain about all the food, consider how you can support those among the First Nations of this land who have to worry about their food: Food As Economic Development Among First Nations