Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Parashat Vayekhel: Looking Forward From Shabbat

In last week’s parsha, the commandment to keep Shabbat began with an Akh, a “but.” Yes, build the Mishkan but stop building to keep my Sabbaths.

There Shabbat was a stopping point, a pulling of the brakes. Here, though, in this week’s parsha, Shabbat appears again, and here, Shabbat is not an end, but a beginning. Here the parsha begins with Shabbat. Here it appears before the Mishkan, before Moshe passes on the Mishkan instructions to the people. Here Shabbat is not so much a resting point from work as it is an energizer before the work actually begins.

That is the way Shabbat functions. It looks backward to the week that just passed, but it also looks forward to the coming week. Indeed, the Talmud says that the days up until Wednesday belong to the previous Shabbat, whereas from Wednesday on the days belong to the next Shabbat. Shabbat is both an end-point and a starting-point.

In the story of creation, God is said to bless the seventh day because on that day He rested mikol melakhto asher bara Elokim la’asot, literally, “from all the work that God had created to do.” A famous midrashic reading understands this strange locution to refer to the future work left for mankind to do. Even the first Shabbat’s rest led inexorably into the next week’s work, this time the work of humans.

The Esh Kodesh, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, writes that the kedushah, the holiness, of Shabbat spreads outward to all the days around it, before and after. Usually, we speak of the contrast between Shabbat and the 6 work-days, but instead he suggests thinking of the connections between them, of how Shabbat’s overwhelming holiness can spill over into the week.

What is it that spills over? The experience of Shabbat teaches not just how to rest but also how to work. The Israelites, on the cusp of their first big work project in the world, needed to experience Shabbat before they could begin work. What did they learn? First, Shabbat teaches about God, that He, not we, created the world. This lesson is first learned through resting on Shabbat, but it is ultimately translated – during the week -- into work that is leshem shamayim, “for the sake of heaven.” The building of God’s house, the Mishkan, stands as a classic example of such work.

Second, the lesson of Shabbat is community. It is no accident that our parsha begins Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat Benei Yisrael, “And Moshe gathered the whole congregation of Israel together into a kehillah, a community.” He gathered them together in order to instruct them first concerning Shabbat and then concerning the Mishkan. Shabbat creates community. People stop their individual busy lives and come together to pray, to eat, to sing, to hang out at the park.

The Israelites needed this message in order to build the Mishkan together. Indeed, the verses which follow emphasize the widespread participation of the people in this project. Again and again the Torah tells us that “all the people” came, using the word kol, “all,” no less than 8 times here to refer to the people. They came ha’anashim al hanashim, literally “men on top of women,” meaning everyone, all running in a jumble to participate. The lesson of Shabbat was well-learned; the building of the Mishkan would be a truly communal project.

Where do our Shabbatot lead us? They led the Israelites to the creation of a space for God to dwell on earth, among them, as a community. Shabbat is not just an end but a beginning. Rashi says that Moshe came down from Mount Sinai and delivered this message right after Yom Kippur. The building of the Mishkan, suggests the Sefat Emet, was like our building of Sukkot right after Yom Kippur. We take the energy of Yom Kippur and channel it into a building project. Every Shabbat needs to be, for us, like a little Yom Kippur, an experience that energizes us to carry Shabbat’s messages into our weekday lives and work.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Parashat Ki Tisa: On Containment and Creativity

Akh et Shabtotai Tishmoru . But you should still keep my Sabbaths, says God in this week’s parsha. What is this Akh, this “But?” The classical interpretation explains that the Akh refers back to the work of building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Yes, this work is important – so important that we have just spent two parshiyyot defining it and will spend two more performing it – but do not do this work on Shabbat.

The various types of work – 39 types in all—involved in building the Miskhan actually define the type of work prohibited on the Sabbath, called melakhah. What is melakhah? Melakhah is creative human manipulation of the raw materials created by God. You take gold and you mold it into a menorah. You take wool and you weave it into priestly garments.

But dangers lurk in this human creativity. The extreme form of such dangers is spelled out in the story of the Israelites’ first idolatry, the Sin of the Golden Calf, also in this week’s parsha. To worship an idol means to worship the product of one’s own hands, to worship one’s own creative powers. My youngest son Asher said to me the other day: God made us people, and then we made cows and sheep and everything, right? No. That is the mistake the Israelites made. No matter how fancy the craftsmanship, that calf can never breathe. There are limits to our creative abilities. Shabbat, with its big Akh, its big “but,” is there to point out those limitations.

Shabbat’s position in these parshiyyot communicates this Akh message as well. The Shabbat commandment appears here, between the Mishkan and the Calf, and then again in next week’s parsha, after the Calf and before the resumption of the Mishkan narrative. The order is: Mishkan, Shabbat, Calf, Shabbat, Mishkan. It is as if Shabbat stands guard on either side of the Calf, marking the border beyond which human creativity turns into idolatry.

But the Torah’s attitude toward human creativity should not be summed up by the word Akh. On the other side of that Akh is the divinely sanctioned human production of the Mishkan. The need for such human participation in God’s created universe is the other important message of the Calf story. This sin was a communication of the basic human need to participate creatively in this world, an expression of our great energy and talent. We could not sit idly awaiting the reception of God’s Torah, but needed to actively create something, to express ourselves religiously. Yes, this creative energy needs harnessing, but it also needs expression. The Calf story sits at the heart of all these parshiyyot because it represents the unbridled heart of humanity, its essential need to participate actively and creatively in God’s world.

Like a wild energetic child, what the Israelites needed was both containment – the Sabbath -- as well as an appropriate forum for expression -- the construction of the Mishkan – a way of chanelling their energies and talents into the service of God.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Parashat Tetzaveh: On Light

This week’s parsha, which continues the instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle, begins with the Ner Tamid, the “eternal light" of the menorah.

The Ner Tamid has always been the focus of great attention and interpretation. Its position in the Torah is already marked, as it stands in the center of two parshiyyot, both of which deal with instructions concerning the building of the Tabernacle. Moreover, its placement in the narrative is curious. As an instruction concerning the ingredient to be used for the lighting – clear beaten olive oil – it should have been included earlier, with the description of materials. And as an instruction concerning the process of lighting, it should have come later, together with other instructions concerning the priests’ daily jobs, in Leviticus. Standing here, at the center of the Tabernacle instructions and at the start of a new parsha, it is begging to be interpreted. As the Rabbis often say: this verse says darsheni –Interpret me!

And so it has received layer upon layer of interpretation over the centuries: The Ner Tamid is a symbol of God’s Eternal Presence in the Tabernacle. It is the divine light that was originally created on the first day of creation but then hidden away for the messianic age. It is the light of Torah that guides us through the dark world, helping us, like a little lamp, to see the potholes and stones in our way so that we do not trip and fall.

On the other hand, there are those who see this light, not as God’s light, but as our own. It is the light of the mitzvoth —good deeds – that we do. It is the shining of our little divine lights, our souls. This olive oil that was used in the Tabernacle -- it came from us. We are, according to one verse, compared to olives. And, expounds the Slonimer Rebbe, we, like olives, have a power to illuminate, a power which is hidden deep inside us. Other fruits, even if you squeeze them and process them, they still remain essentially a food (or drink). But the olive is exceptional. If you pound and beat and grind it, what emerges is a magical, creative power, the power to produce light.

Which one is it? Is the light God’s or ours? Both. God created the lights above, but also gave us the tools to make light down below. The midrash notices that the verse says leha’aolot Ner Tamid, literally, “to make the Ner Tamid go up.” The priest must light the flame until it is capable of going up on its own. The process is one of empowerment, for God and us as well. God, like a good teacher, kindles our flames in a way that helps us to produce light on our own.

Surprisingly, the help does not go in only one direction. According to another midrash, God says: Neri beyadekhat venerekha beyadi. My light is in your hands and your light is in My hands. God has entrusted His light, the Torah, into our hands, and we have entrusted our light, our souls, into His. We are partners, enmeshed and intertwined, dependent and deeply connected to one another. Together we keep the light eternally aflame.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Parashat Terumah: God's Mobile Home

My youngest son Asher, upon being asked what materials he thought would be necessary for the building of the Tabernacle described in this week’s parsha, replied: “Cement.”

It’s true. One would have expected the building of a house of God to require cement, something to hold the pieces together in a permanent way. But no, it turns out that the building of this temple was to be more like building a Lego structure, something that could be easily disassembled and reassembled. This was to be a mobile house of God and its entire structure was determined by this fact, its walls built with detachable nuts and bolts and its major appurtenances constructed with attached poles for carrying. Concerning the Aron, the ark which housed the Torah tablets, the Torah says specifically, as if to emphasize how essential mobility is to its very nature: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark: they shall not be removed from it” (25:15).

Eventually, of course, many years later, in the time of King Solomon, the Israelites did build a permanent Temple, based upon the model of this Tabernacle. Why, then, does the Torah bother to describe this mobile one? Why not merely wait till the Israelites get to the land, and deal with (permanent) Temple building then? Why is the whole prototype of a house of God given here as a mobile one?

Perhaps because giving God a house on earth is a complicated and dangerous thing. On the one hand, people want to feel that one specific place is holy; we want and need a place to come to worship and feel close to God. On the other hand, God is everywhere. He cannot be contained in any one space. Cassuto suggests that part of the purpose of the Tabernacle was to help the Israelites cope with their separation from the holy place of Mount Sinai. Here was a place in which they had experienced incredible intimacy with God. If they left this place, what would happen to their connection to God? The Tabernacle was to sit in the midst of the camp, like Mount Sinai, as a symbol of God’s continuing presence among them.

The Israelites knew from cement. Not long ago, they had been slaves working with “mortar and bricks” for Pharaoh’s great building projects. What God was offering them here was an alternative type of building project, one which, like the outstretched wings of the cherubs atop the Ark, was meant to have a kind of lightness and mobility, to be untied to any specific place.

Untied to place, and also, untied to time. Concerning both the bread and the light of the Tabernacle, the Torah uses the word tamid, “always.” The connection to God established at Mount Sinai was meant to be something that can be carried on wherever and whenever one exists. Ironically, by creating a structure that was, unlike Egypt’s mortar and bricks, impermanent, something truly permanent and eternal was established.

Permanent? Eternal? But here we are, in 2011, without a Temple. Maybe the message of this mobile Temple, the message of this Tabernacle, this Mishkan, is that one is never really without a Mishkan, never really without God’s presence. The rabbis say that if one studies the Torah portions concerning the Tabernacle, God considers it as if one has actually brought sacrifices. No, we have no actual building structure, but we do still read the words describing that structure – they are eternal. It is through them and through all the words of the Torah that we do have a kind of Mishkan, a portable entryway to connecting to God.