Skip to main content

Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

In Friday’s New York Times David Brooks writes about the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  “All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”  Brooks suggests that the Orthodox are indeed the future.

He writes of their numerical significance.  “Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.”

Part of their secret is Shabbat about which we read in this week’s portion.  “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.  On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put death.  You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”  There is listed here one positive command: rest, and two negative: no work and no fire.  The tradition spends much time discussing the definition of work.  About fire it is easier to detail. You can’t light a fire.  That is why many Shabbat recipes are for foods that are slow cooked.  You can keep a fire burning, but you can’t light it.

Work is more complicated to define.  The rabbis reason that there are 39 labors.  There are major categories of work.  They base these on the labors detailed for the building of the tabernacle that follows the commandment to observe Shabbat.  So for example one cannot carry on Shabbat.  In particular one cannot carry outside of one’s home, one’s private domain.  This is why an eruv is required.  It in essence widens the limits of the private domain.  Of course the eruv is also a source of controversy because it defines an area as Orthodox. 

There is another category of work called muktzeh.  This would be an illustration of a fence around the law.  So for example even though you can technically lift up a hammer in your home you would not do so because it is usually used for forbidden work.  The list goes on and on and the details are unending.  I am sure many of us think such details are ridiculous.

A story.  One Shabbat, some years ago, I spent in Ashkelon at my friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.  I was the only Reform Jew among a sea of Conservative Jews and rabbis.  It was a beautiful Shabbat.  We walked everywhere.  My friend and I roomed together.  He is shomrei Shabbat and I was the kid who kept asking when can I watch TV?  “Look out at the sea; there are three stars.”  One measure for havdalah is seeing three stars in the sky.  “Steve, those are a ship’s lights…”

Still I have a certain admiration for living by the law.  For the tradition, Shabbat is likened to a building that we construct out of a myriad of laws; it is in Heschel’s words a palace in time.  “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space, on the Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”  For the Orthodox Jew one’s own ego is sublimated to the demands of the law.

Reform Judaism offers a critique.  It asks, where is the personal meaning and fulfillment?  Where are the individual’s wants and desires?  It looks at the mountain of laws and proclaims that the intention and meaning of Shabbat can no longer be seen because of the details of an eruv, carrying and a hammer.  So much time is spent debating about what is permitted and what is prohibited that the beauty and luxury of Shabbat is obscured.

I believe in the Reform critique.  How can you see Shabbat through the thicket of so many laws?  But the more important question and critique is what have lost by asserting the individual over the community?  In our liberal world, we have so elevated personal choice that we have lost much of the meaning of obligation.  Can we ever say, I am sorry you can’t do that, but your family comes first, your congregation comes first, your people, your country?  Can we ever just say anymore, you have to do that?  Perhaps we have given up too much in our quest for personal fulfillment and meaning.

Sometimes the greatest meaning can be found in what others want us to do, what the tradition asks of us rather than what we want to do.  The Talmud argues that it is best to do a mitzvah solely out of sense of being commanded rather than for an ulterior motive such as personal fulfillment.  Why?  Because a commandment is always more reliable than that fleeting goal of spiritual meaning.  When you no longer find the action fulfilling, you might no longer do the mitzvah.  And for the Talmud the goal is to get us to do what is asked of us by God. 

In the traditional world, obligation and community precede personal choice and individual fulfillment; rootedness and meaning are found in obligation and community.  I don’t want to give up my personal choice and my quest for spiritual nourishment.  But we need to consider that we may have lost something in the process.

David Brooks writes: “The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.”

Perhaps we would gain more meaning by adopting at least a measure of this approach.  Then we might make our faith an everyday reality and no longer just an infrequent desire.