Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pekudei and Finishing the Work

The Torah portion describes the conclusion of the Tabernacle construction project with the following words: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33-38)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to the name for God, Shechinah. This name is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is most felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle.

The Torah also suggests additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, vay’khal, means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first construction project: “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.” (Genesis 2:1) There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison. When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation.

The rabbis took this connection even further, arguing an even more radical idea. They taught that God’s creation is in fact incomplete. They went on to teach that God purposely made creation imperfect and incomplete. God intended that part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation.

We perfect by creating. Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” He also quipped, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created these problems.”

And so the synagogue is the place through which God becomes manifest in the world. The purpose of the synagogue is that it is a means to an end. Its purpose is to bring holiness to our lives and goodness to the world. Long ago the rabbis created the idea of the synagogue. They fashioned the synagogue’s architecture in response to the destruction of the Temple. They gave us this very place in order to help us complete and perfect creation.

It is a place to gather, learn and pray. It is a place to heal, comfort and uplift our lives. Today we must recreate this very same place. For years synagogues have operated on the assumption that everyone feels obligated to the synagogue, that people still feel commanded to affirm their Jewish identities, that people still feel a kinship with all Jews and the State of Israel.

These assumptions no longer hold sway. This is why the synagogue, although hearkening back to ancient days, must be recreated for a new age. We must mold something new out of the old. We must infuse synagogue life with new meaning and new energy, with new songs and new learning. Take heart from this week’s portion. There we are reminded that in truth there are no new creations. Everything hearkens back to the first creation account. All else is recreating.

Whenever we finish a book of the Torah as we do on this Shabbat we say, chazak, chazakh v’nitchazeik—strength, and more strength, let us be strengthened. In Jewish life we are never finished, creation is forever incomplete. And so we begin again, each and every year, each and every week, each and every day, and each and every moment.

That is why spring, although seemingly distant, offers us so much hope. The flowers bloom. The trees are reborn. Creation is renewed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Vayakhel and Gathering Goodness

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in Piaseczno, a suburb of Warsaw. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto.

In the months prior to the ghetto’s final days, as the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community.

He writes there of the power of community. He opens with the goals of the synagogue community he wishes to create.
Our association is not organized for the purpose of attaining power or intervening in the affairs of community or state, whether directly or indirectly. Quite the opposite: our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world, by steady incremental steps. It is not consistent with our goals to hand out awards as to who is advanced and who lags behind. The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite unevolved, but our potential for holiness is very great. Holiness is our key and primary value; honors and comparisons serve no useful purpose. (Translation by Andrea Cohen-Kiener)
For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith in the group. It believes that we are at our best when standing with others, that with the aid of the group we can better achieve holiness and realize our full human potential. The community is the corrective to individual wants and needs. The congregation lifts us. The synagogue nurtures us. The community guides us.

And so in this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community… This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5) The people join together and build the mishkan, the tabernacle, so that they might focus their worship of God while wandering throughout the wilderness.

Still I wonder. Should this faith in the edifying power of the group remain unqualified? We also confront the opposite example. In last week’s reading we are reminded of the golden calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1) The group gathered for ill. Together they built an idol.

In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad. The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive and negative stand near each other. The two portions stand side by side. The line between whether we gather for good or for bad remains but a hairsbreadth apart.

That line continues to haunt thinkers. Following the Holocaust the field of social psychology began to emerge. It struggled with the question of how so many people could join together for evil ends. Studies were conducted. Research analyzed. In one such experiment the conforming impulse was unveiled. Members of a group were asked true or false questions that could be objectively measured. Is A taller than B, for example. Nine out ten people were told to offer the wrong answer when asked in public. These nine said true when in fact the answer was false. The tenth person was then asked for his answer. In the vast majority of situations this person also answered true. The desire to conform colored people’s vision. Truth and falsehood were obscured.

Do we conform for good or bad? Do we gather together to build the golden calf or the tabernacle? The group can either serve as medicine or toxin. Rabbi Shapira notes: “The techniques available to a group are qualitatively different than what an individual can hope to attain.” Much rests in the hands of the leader. In one instance Moses was present. In the other our leader was absent. The group’s vision became blurred.

After the uprising the Nazis sent Rabbi Shapira to the Trawniki work camp. There he was offered the opportunity to join fellow prisoners in an escape attempt. He elected instead to stay with his students. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was shot to death on November 3, 1943.

And yet the people continue to gather and read his words.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ki Tisa and Shabbat Signs

Shabbat is described in a number of ways. It is called a reminder of creation and in particular the work of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. When we pause and observe Shabbat we recall that God ordered the heavens and the earth. According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, we affirm our belief in God by celebrating Shabbat.

Shabbat is also called a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. Again when we mark the seventh day we recall that God freed us from Egypt. More importantly our observance is a testament to our freedom. Only a free people can set a day apart. Only a free person can set out on a vacation (unless of course a winter storm enslaves us!). To choose to sing our Shabbat songs and prayers together is a reminder that we are free. We can choose to go to services or not. When we do, however, our hearts are lifted together and our souls can be refreshed.

In this week’s portion Shabbat is also called a sign of the covenant. We read the words of the V’shamru prayer that we sing at Shabbat services: “The people of Israel shall keep Shabbat observing Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It is a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:16-17)

Circumcision is also called a sign of the covenant. The tefillin that are bound on the head and arm are also signs. They are, however, physical. By the way the rainbow is also deemed a sign of the promise that God made to Noah following the flood. How I long for such a sign on this day! Yet the rainbow is not a sign of the Jewish covenant. Tefillin, circumcision and Shabbat are signs of the pact made between God and the Jewish people.

Are these signs for us or for God? Does the Torah intend these signs to serve as reminders to God of God’s commitments to the Jewish people? This could be one reading of these texts. Or do these instead remind us of our obligations to God, the Jewish people and Jewish history? How can a day serve as a sign? It is self-evident how physical signs can serve as constant reminders. How can Shabbat remind us? How can a day set apart, a day of rest and refreshment prod us?

Every week we sing the words of V’shamru. Have we taken the time to ponder its words and meaning? The Zionist thinker Ahad Haam wrote: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

Shabbat is not a sign for God. It is not a sign for us. It is instead a sign for the future. Shabbat lights tomorrow.

And I offer the following to those who are observing Valentine’s Day. These words are from the greatest love poem ever written, a few verses from Song of Songs, a biblical poem filled with passion, eroticism and love.

You have captured my heart,
My own, my bride,
You have captured my heart
With one glance of your eyes,
With one coil of your necklace.
How sweet is your love,
My own, my bride!
How much more delightful your love than wine,
Your ointments more fragrant
Than any spice! (Song of Songs 4:9-10)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tetzaveh, Rolling the Dice and Making War

In ancient times the High Priest, and the priests, never dressed down. He was always dressed in finery and adorned with jewels, especially on his breastpiece. In fact, the hoshen mishpat, the breastpiece of decision contained twelve different stones, one for each of the twelve tribes: carnelian, chrysolite, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, jacinth, agate, crystal, beryl, lapis lazuli and jasper. I will leave it to the jewelers (as well as the bejeweled) members of our congregation to help further define these precious and semi-precious jewels.

Within this breastpiece was a unique fortune telling device: the Urim and Thummim. “Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:30) We know very little about the Urim and Thummim. The evidence within the Bible is inconsistent and unclear. They are introduced here in such a manner that they appear well known to the ancient ear. Yet there is not a single instance when their use is described in the Torah. We have only scant references in other biblical books.

How they were used, when they were used and why they were used remains shrouded in mystery. We can however surmise several things about their use. They were only used to help make decisions of national importance. In fact they were most particularly used to decide whether or not to wage war. Judaism codified two types of war: milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war of for example, self-defense and milchemet reshut, a permitted war to expand a nation’s territory. The Urim and Thummim were employed to justify a leader’s decision to wage a permitted war. This rolling of the dice or casting of lots would help to support what might appear to be an arbitrary decision to the nation’s citizens or more accurately, its subjects.

When waging war, whether the leader is elected as in the case of modern times, or royalty as in ancient times, the support of the masses and even more importantly, the soldiers is of critical importance. When it is a war of self-defense their support is natural and expected. This is why our wars are always framed with this language. Even the Vietnam War was portrayed as critical to stop, or as some argued slow, the advance of the Communist menace. It was natural to wrap the war in Afghanistan in this robe of self-defense. Not only were we justified in pursuing our attackers but we had an obligation to prevent future attacks. And so we marched to war in Afghanistan.

With regard to the war in Iraq it was more difficult to make this case, although this is why the WMD argument became so important. Our leaders argued that it was likewise a case of self-defense. Our country, however, never became unified around this argument. I wonder if the nation would have remained more united if we had shared a faith in oracular devices such as the Urim and Thummim. Imagine how our country might be different if the High Priest stood before the nation and reached within the breastpiece of decision and threw the Urim and Thummim to the ground. It came up Thummim and so we discerned that God too had weighed in and supported our leader’s decision to wage war.

Imagine. And the people oohed and aahed. Together they nodded in agreement. They turned to their sons, hugged them goodbye and silently watched as they readied themselves for war. Our nation stood together. It remain unified.

Still there remain other oracles we wish to discern. Who among these young men might return from the battlefield? Who among them will instead return with lifelong injuries and wounds? And who among them will return with scars in their hearts?

We do not know. We cannot know. Let us ask the Urim and Thummim.

Would that decisions were as simple, and unifying, as the casting of lots.