Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Parashat Pekudei: O Prosper the Work of Our Hands!

What accounts for success? Certainly much of it is in our control. The Okympic athletes didn’t get to where they are without a great deal of human effort.

And yet, at the same time, there is also an element of grace, of blessing from above. Sometimes when I am writing or speaking, I feel inspired, transported, lifted into some other realm. The work, the effort, is always there, but sometimes there is an added element of blessing, and sometimes there isn’t.

This parsha concludes the work of the building of the Mishkan. The people have given their all, followed instructions precisely and put in tremendous effort. What happens now? Moshe looks at their work and blesses them. According to Rashi, he says: “May it be His will that the divine Presence dwell in the work of your hands.”

These words were recorded forever in a slightly different from in one of the psalms attributed to Moshe (which we say on Shabbat mornings): Veyehi No’am Hashem Elokeinu Aleinu, U’Ma’aseh Yadeinu Konnenah Aleinu U’Maaseh Yadeinu Konenehu -- “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17). According to the midrash, these words were originally spoken by Moshe at the conclusion of the building of the Tabernacle. You have done the work; now let us pray for the blessing of God on your work – o prosper the work of your hands!

There is an acknowledgement here that something, at least, is out of our control. We can build the building but the spirit must come from above. And there are times of extreme frustration where the spriit, the blessing, does not come, and our work seems for naught. As we say in the morning Uva Letzion prayer, lema’an lo niga larik velo neled labehalah --“ so that we do not toil for nothing and produce for futility.” My son expresses this often in playing the trumpet – he practices and practices and some days he can play beautifully and others, he can barely get a sound out, and he feels that it is not in his control.

How can a person live in such a world, where this is this risk of toiling for naught? And how could we live in a world in which success was entirely in our control? The knowledge that, in addition to human effort, blessing comes from above, is essential . Why was Moshe able to bring down blessing from above? Because of his humility. He had no doubt about his role – he was a keli, a vessel, for divine blessing. That very acknowledgment, the knowledge that blessing comes from above, is actually what draws it down. We can only receive a gift if we are not too full to receive it. A cup full of water cannot receive more water. The knowledge of our limitations opens us to being blessed.

May the work of all of our hands prosper, O Lord, our God, may the work of our hands prosper!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Parashat Vayakhel: On Work and Presence

Lately I have the feeling that the world is zooming by on an acela train, and I am running alongside huffing, trying desperately to keep up.

But there is no way . There is always more to do than can be done. And I don’t really want to spend my life running. The scenery is going by way too quickly. Every once in a while, as I am thinking about something I need to get done, I pause suddenly, and notice that my youngest son is saying something to me. I look down at him, and his big beautiful brown trusting eyes are looking up at me, just waiting for me to look at him, to look him in the eye, to hear him and be present.

How does one manage to “get thngs done” in the world and yet also achieve some level of presence? We are in the midst of the parshiyyot detailing the great human “work” of the Torah – the creation of a mishkan, a dwelling place for God on earth. It takes 2 parshiyyot to describe its instructions and 2 to describe its actualization. This project is a lot of work. Indeed, the work involved here is considered the definition of creative work, melakhah, in the Torah, the very actions that are prohibited on Shabbat.

Two things strike me about the Torah’s “work.” First, it is entirely about “Presence.” The whole point of every piece of this work is to bring down God’s presence to earth. I’m not sure how one achieves such presence in the actual weaving and carpentry of the work, but surely this goal of presence must have seeped into the way the work was approached, a sense of sacredness surrounding each act in itself so that there is no sense of rushing on to keep on schedule.

Second, the Torah emphasizes in this parsha and in the last that all this Mishkan work stops on Shabbat. Even a person involved in this most sacred work of building God’s palace is obligated to refrain from such work on Shabbat. No work is so important that it cannot be stopped, because work/production is not the point. The point is Presence, and refraining from work on one day makes it clear that Presence is the goal the rest of the week.. The sacred pause on Shabbat -- like my son's searching eyes -- stops us in our tracks for a moment in order to remind us to be present, then, and always.

I’m still not sure how this works on a practical level. How do we infuse our work with a sense of Presence? So much of what we do involves preparations. Somehow even these preparations must be done with a sense of Presence, of the sacredness of this moment, and this individual activity.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh: Carrying Others on our Hearts

What does it mean to be a leader? There is much honor accorded to Aharon and his sons, the kohanim (priests) in this week’s parsha. They receive special clothing made lekavod uletiferet, “for honor and for glory,” and Aharon wears a ribbon around his head with a marker that he is kodesh lashem, “holy to God.”

Is this what it means to be a leader – to receive kavod, honor and respect in the community, to be marked as an elite, as special to God?

There is another piece of leadership described in this week’s parsha which perhaps explains all this honor. Aharon is to wear on his shoulders as well as al libo, “on his heart,” precious stones bearing the names of all of the tribes of Israel. He carries the weight of the nation on his shoulders, their concerns in his heart. Whatever honor is accorded to him is accorded to him purely as their messenger, the mediator between God and the people. His role is to remember each one, to keep them in mind and heart, so that God, too, will remember them, lizikaron lifnei Hashem.

True kedushah, holiness, and true kavod, honor, comes from the ability to carry others around inside us, to keep their problems in mind, to remember them and think of what they might be feeling or needing. I was thinking about this in minyan one morning as we recited the names of the sick. We elevate ourselves through our concern for others; we become more than ourselves, break down the prison of our separateness, and touch something larger. Including in our prayers the names of the individual sick ones we know is a practical way of remembering theit troubles each day, of carrying them on our shoulders and in our hearts like Aharon did.

Aharon was ideally suited to this task, as he was the ultimate ferginer. A ferginer is someone who is happy at the success of others. After Moshe was appointed to be the leader and savior of the people, Aharon approached him, and God told Moshe that Aharon would see him and “be happy in his heart, “ ve’samach belibo. For a brother to rejoice at his younger brother’s greater successes is remarkable. Aharon was a person who knew how to feel for other people – in this case, he felt joy at Moshe’s success. In the Mishkan he was asked to take on both the joys and the sorrows of the entire Israelite people, to carry them in his heart as he had carried Moshe, too, in his heart, with a sense of generosity and openness that goes beyond the self.

This ability to carry others in our hearts is what it means to be holy, what it means to have honor, and also ultimately what it means to be a leader.