Stay Safe. Stay Home. Stay Connnected. Shabbat Vayak’hel-Pekudei-haHodesh 5780 (2020)

The key figure in the building of the mishkan – the portable sanctuary – whose construction details fill the last parashiyot of the book of Exodus is a man named Bezalel. Part general contractor, part artisan, part engineer, part community organizer, Bezalel is given the instructions conveyed by God to Moses and turns them into an actual structure. The only thing is, Moses doesn’t communicate all of the details to Bezalel, just the general outline. Bezalel has to figure it out as he goes.

And figure it out he does, mobilizing a large community of weavers, carpenters, shleppers, and more, to actually build the very mishkan that God showed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Without precise instructions, how does Bezalel know what to construct, and how? Rashi’s answer is that “Bezalel’s opinion was attuned with what Moses had been told on Sinai.” ‘Attuned’ is an interesting word. Aviva Zornberg calls it ‘artist’s intuition’ and suggests that “Bezalel simply knew God’s will and consummated it.”

It’s worth taking a step back to consider the mishkan’s purpose. The mishkan serves both as the community’s gathering place and as the space that contains the Divine Presence. It’s not just a building project, it’s holy space, the landscape in which sacred community happens. In Zornberg’s lovely formulation, the mishkan “is a symbolic world that mirrors God’s own creation of the world, a formal expression of a large imagining.” The large imagining is that God can be present in the world and that human community invites that Presence down to earth.

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We, the people of Israel, have been engaged in that sacred task from the very beginning. The mishkan is version one. The mikdash – the temple in Jerusalem was another version. The many synagogues we have collectively built in the two millennia since the destruction of the second Temple are yet another version. As R Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev teaches “the instruction was not to make the same form always. Only according to the spirit of prophecy of the time should we form here below the pattern of the furnishings.”

Today, in a strange and difficult moment, we have sought to build the form and version that we need right now. It’s of a virtual nature, entirely without walls, and yet it manages to gather us in sacred community and seems to summon up God’s loving presence in our midst in real time. The ‘spirit of prophecy of this time’ says that we need to keep our physical distance from one another and at same time stay spiritually and emotionally connected and attuned. Welcome to our new virtual mishkan. Its form may differ from its predecessors; its large imagining and essential purpose remain exactly the same.

V’asu li mikdash, says the Torah – ‘Make for Me a sanctuary’ v’shakhanti b’tokham – ‘and I will dwell in their midst.’ Our sanctuary is wherever each of us is; my hope and prayer is that God’s loving Presence will be there with us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dressing the ‘Part’ – Shabbat Tetzaveh/Zakhor 5780 (2020)

Commenting on the Torah’s detailed description of the fashion habits of the ancient priests, the Babylonian Talmud (Zevahim 17b) makes a startling claim: “If one serves as a priest without the full priestly raiment, one’s service is disqualified. At the time their raiment is upon them their priesthood is upon them. If their raiment is not upon them, their priesthood is not upon them.” Maimonides, codifying Talmudic law in 12th century Egypt, goes a step further, adding that an improperly dressed priest who attempts to engage in ritual practice becomes an ‘intruder’ (zar) subject to the death penalty! To be a proper priest, one must dress the part. 

The special haftarah for this Shabbat, known as Zakhor after the opening words of the special added Torah reading (maftir) and always read on the Sabbath preceding Purim, features a wardrobe malfunction that seems to make a similar point. The prophet Samuel, after calling King Saul to account for not fulfilling a divine commandment to wipe out the Amalekites, has his cloak torn by a desperate, grasping Saul – “And Samuel turned round to go, and Saul grasped the skirt of his cloak, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn away the kingship of Israel from you this day and given it to your fellowman, who is better than you. And, what’s more, Israel’s Eternal does not deceive and does not repent, for God is no human to repent.” [1 Samuel 15:27-29] Robert Alter spells out the symbolic significance for us. “Samuel, who never misses a cue to express his implacability toward Saul, immediately converts the tearing of the cloak into a dramatic symbol of Saul’s lost kingdom.” The cloak equals the kingship. To be a proper king, one must dress the part. 

So too Queen Esther. At the key turning point in the story, Esther appears before the king in order to expose Haman’s devious plan. Keep an eye on the clothing! “On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.” [Esther 5:1] Targum Sheni one of the ancient Aramaic translations of the book of Esther adds a few delicious details. “She then adorned herself with the jewelry that queens adorn themselves – she put on a royal garment, embroidered with the fine gold of Ophir, a fine silk dress encrusted with precious stones, and pearls which were brought from the land of Africa; then she place a fine gold crown upon her head and put shoes on her feet (made of) pure refined gold.” To be a proper queen, one must dress the part.

 

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[Esther before Ahasuerus, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1630]

 

Taken together, these Biblical examples seem to suggest a concept of leadership that strikes me as troubling to say the least. Can it really be that the clothes make the wo/man? Is leadership merely a matter of dressing for the ‘part’? Is a leader simply playing a ‘role’? Is leading only a question of presenting the right external forms?

Rabbi Moses Nahmanides and Aviva Zornberg to the rescue! Of the priest’s garments, Ramban writes that a kohen ‘should be dignified and glorious in dignified, glorious garments…made for Aaron to serve in them for the glory of God who dwells among them…the clothes must be fashioned with full intentionality and require kavvana…(those who make them) should understand what they are making”. In Zornberg’s words: “If the vestments are to have this authentically expressive power, inside and outside must match…”

In this season of elections in Israel, in the United States, in the world Zionist movement, seeking out an authentic match of inside and outside sounds exactly right to me. Esther, it turns out, it exactly the correct model. In Bible scholar Jon Levenson’s wise formulation, “we see Esther the beauty queen giving way to Esther the true queen”. So may it be for all of our leaders.

Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameah!

 

Mishkan = Sinai/Eden – Shabbat Terumah 5780 (2020)

“Sacred space constitutes itself following a rupture of levels which make possible the communication with the trans-world, transcendent realities. Whence the enormous importance of sacred space in the life of all peoples: because it is in such a space that man is able to communicate with the other world, the world of divine beings or ancestors. Every consecrated space represents an opening towards the beyond, towards the transcendent.” [Mircea Eliade, ‘Sacred Architecture and Symbolism’]

Parashat Terumah introduces us to a new kind of sacred space, one that is portable and replicable. The mishkan (Tabernacle) – its description and its construction – occupies the last third of the Book of Exodus. In what way did if provide ‘an opening towards the beyond’ to our ancestors? In what way might it offer such an ‘opening’ to us?

The Torah’s lengthy, and very detailed, description of the mishkan appears just after the Revelation at Sinai. Does that juxtaposition tell us something about the mishkan’s symbolism? Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman – Spain/Israel – 1194-1270) suggests as much. ‘Behold, they are holy, fit for a sanctuary for God’s Presence to dwell among them. And so, the first thing God commanded was the Tabernacle (mishkan), that there should be among them a house dedicated to God’s name…’ For Ramban, the mishkan is Sinai in miniature. You can take it with you!

 

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[El Greco ‘Mount Sinai’ c. 1570]

 

Or does the language of the Torah’s description of the mishkan’s construction, filled with the verbal vocabulary of Creation, tell us that the mishkan symbolizes the very first sacred space in human history, the Garden of Eden? My teacher and friend, Rabbi Shai Held, suggests that it does. Seeing the mishkan ‘as an island of Eden in a decidedly non-Edenic world’, Rabbi Held reads the mishkan’s symbolism this way: ‘The Eden-like mishkan holds out the possibility that greater degrees of wholeness are possible even in the midst of a (for now) irreparably broken world.’

 

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[Hieronymus Bosch ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ c. 1500]

 

So, which is it – Sinai or Eden? Towards which ‘transcendent realities’ does the mishkan (and its successors, the Temples in Jerusalem and the synagogue) offer an opening? My answer (no surprise) is both. The mishkan stood for the possibility of direct communication with Divinity echoing Sinai AND for the possibility of wholeness in a shattered world. So too the Temples in Jerusalem. And so too, I hope and pray, the synagogues in which we gather to pray, to learn, to be together. Both/and rather than either/or! Mishkan = Sinai/Eden yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Juxtapositions – Shabbat Mishpatim/Shekalim 5780 (2020)

Just back from a week in Israel with a day in Barcelona on the way, musing over a series of juxtapositions that marked Nomi’s and my time away. The juxtapositions run the gamut from amusing to provocative, troubling to inspiring, thoughtful to just plain odd. I’ll share more of them over the next few weeks – and as more of them come to mind once the fog of jet lag clears! – but here are a few as we make our way into Shabbat Mishpatim (itself a study, perhaps our tradition’s central repository, in the making of meaningful distinctions).

Our week away started with an afternoon and evening in Barcelona. By the next night we were already in Tel Aviv. Two great cities, each with a spectacular food culture and night life, literally at opposite ends of the Mediterranean. In one fell swoop, Nomi and I went from late night tapas (extraordinarily delicious tapas I might add) in central Barcelona to late night (and also extremely delicious!) vegan food in central Tel Aviv. A deeper reflection on these two towns at the edges of the Great Sea is in order, but not in full today. Barcelona and environs was a great and fascinating Jewish community through the middle ages and Tel Aviv, still youthful a century after its founding, is in many ways contemporary Israel’s vibrant, beating heart.

 

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[Nahum Gutman ‘Jaffa Port’ 1950’s]

 

Another rich juxtaposition from that same evening. Our friend Reut Asimini’s very beautiful exhibit opened at Beit Omanim (The Artist’s House) in Tel Aviv opened last Thursday. The stirring video installation that anchors the exhibits is built around two quotes, seemingly far removed from one another. First, the opening words of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ – “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke up to find myself alone in a dark wood…”. Dante’s words, Reut’s work suggests, match up in interesting ways with the closing line of R Nahman of Bratslav’s mystical Tale of the Lost Princess – “He would have to remain there a while, since he would have to use his intelligence and wisdom [to devise a plan] to free [the princess]. [The Rebbe] did not tell how he freed her. But in the end he did free her.”

By the next night we were davenning Kabbalat Shabbat in Jerusalem and the juxtapositions continued to present themselves. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel’s two largest cities, are less than an hour, less than forty miles, and a universe apart. And Jerusalem is chock full of paradoxes and surprising collisions of its own. The mash up of Jewish cultures in the Holy City is one part of that story to be sure. But then add in Christian tour groups from all over the world, American Jews celebrating b’nei mitzvah in fancy downtown hotels, and a Shabbat afternoon walk into the Old City for good measure. Jerusalem’s juxtapositions boggle the mind.

Parashat Mishpatim brings us one of the Torah’s best known, and perhaps most jarring, juxtapositions. Last week, we heard the chanting of the Ten Commandments and the recounting of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments begin with these words –  “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”. Liberation from bondage and meeting God are, in the Torah’s own account, one and the same. And yet, Mishpatim, which our tradition understands as the continuation of the revelation at Sinai, begins with laws about slavery! Over the centuries, many have sought to explain. Nahum Sarna’s elegant solution is as good as any that I’ve encountered – “Having recently experienced liberation from bondage, the Israelite is enjoined to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave”.

And still, the juxtaposition stands. So too the many (more) juxtapositions courtesy of a very busy week in Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dark Matters – Shabbat Bo 5780 (2020)

The present moment feels very dark and anxious to me. The litany of current events and occasions is partly to blame, and the list is well known, even obvious – impeachment; peace plan; politics in Israel, American, the American Jewish community; the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation; Kobe and Gianna Bryant and seven others killed in a terrible helicopter crash; melting glaciers in Antarctica and the climate crisis in general; coronavirus; Brexit; etc… “In the darkness on the edge of town” as one contemporary songwriter and poet put it.

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What to do about it? Perhaps that’s the question to ask in this dark moment. Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s words offer some comfort: “Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway…Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb…it starts in the dark”.

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Darkness, the penultimate of the ten plagues, paves the way to new or renewed life for the people of Israel. An intriguing bit of midrash suggests as much. “Woe to the house whose windows open toward the darkness, as it is said: And where the light is as darkness (Job 10:22), for the light itself comes from darkness”. Somewhere in the current darkness is a seed, a spark, a flicker that will lead to the next outburst of light. Light itself comes from darkness; new life starts in the dark. Time to find that seed and to begin to nurture it. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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JTS Honorary Degree Convocation – January 2020

Somehow three decades feels like a long time and no time at all.

Thirty years ago, on May 17th 1990 to be precise, I marched in an academic procession – robes and all – at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the day of my ordination. Excited and anxious, our class of twenty eight rabbis and four cantors, strode across the Seminary’s courtyard to take our seats at the front of a celebratory, if formal, gathering.

This week, in a newly rebuilt JTS courtyard, I again marched in an academic procession – equally celebratory and decidedly less formal – to receive a doctor of divinity diploma, an honorary degree granted by the Seminary to rabbis who have served twenty five years or more. It was a moving and surprisingly emotional day for me and my family.

Part reunion, part celebration and recognition of a quarter century’s worth of rabbinic achievement and accomplishment, Sunday’s convocation brought together 46 rabbis, most of us JTS graduates from 1990 and 1991, all of us serving the Jewish people and the God of Israel in a myriad of capacities out in the world. I hadn’t seen some of my schoolmates in thirty years; it was wonderful to reconnect, reminisce, and rekindle old friendships.

Thirty years ago, my classmates honored me with an invitation to speak at our siyyum – the gathering that marked the conclusion of our studies. Together, we studied one volume of the Talmud, each of us taking a page or so of Masekhet Megillah which covers traditions associated with the reading of the Megillah on Purim and the public reading of the Torah. On the morning of our ordination we sat together to ‘complete’ our learning.

My remarks began with a quote from a famous letter written by Niccolo Machiavelli to his friend Ambassador Francesco Vettori in 1513. Machiavelli had been exiled from Florence and spent his days on his farm in Tuscany overseeing operations and interacting with the local villagers. His letter describes his daily routine and includes this stirring recounting of his ‘nightlife’ –

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

I saw in Machiavelli’s words an echo of the daily life of clergy; thirty years on I still do. Machiavelli’s ancient interlocutors were the Greek and Roman philosophers and poets. Ours are the Talmudic rabbis, the authors of the Psalms, the Golden Age poets and philosophers, the medieval Kabbalists, and more. Their words and wisdom continue to nurture and nourish all of us who ‘labor in the vineyards of the Lord’ as professors, educators, pulpit rabbis, organizational leaders, chaplains, scholars, camp directors, and more. In their abundant kindness they really do keep answering our queries, complaints, curiosities, and deep questions.

I went on to connect Machiavelli’s description to a teaching I had encountered in Masekhet Megillah. Commenting on the way in which Moses received Divine teaching, ‘Rava said: rakot m’umad v’kashot m’yushav – easy – standing; difficult – sitting’. Rabbis, I suggested, spend a lot of time on foot, out and about, speaking, teaching, presiding, in other words, standing. In line with Rava’s insight, that’s actually the easy part. I claimed then that the hard work of rabbi-ing requires one to sit down, to slow down, to connect with others deeply and honestly, to ponder, to grapple, to struggle. I didn’t really know how right I was.

While I still spend a good amount of time standing, I’ve learned over these three decades to sit more. Slowly I’ve come to understand that sitting work, in the form of study, meditation, prayer, quiet conversation, and more, not only nourishes and nurtures my own soul; it also deepens my relationships and connections with others. Sitting and vulnerability go together; so do sitting and openness, sitting and equanimity, sitting and kindness.

This past Sunday, I got to sit in the front row – an accident of the alphabet! – in the Seminary’s brand new atrium to hear and receive beautiful words of Torah delivered by teachers, colleagues and beloved friends. It was also my great privilege to be able to sit, listen, observe, and witness, as each of my classmates stood to receive their new diplomas. It was a profoundly moving day. I couldn’t be or feel more grateful.


 

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Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye – Shabbat Va’era 5780 (2020)

‘Hear ye. Hear ye. Hear ye.’

Daily, those words have opened the impeachment trial proceedings this week. Many words have already been spoken from the well of the Senate chamber, with many days’ worth still to come. How many have been heard? How many will be heard? And by whom? Who’s listening, and to what exactly? Who’s willing, who’s able, to hear?

Parashat Va’era raises a similar set of questions. In Aviva Zornberg’s description, “The crisis in the drama of redemption…could be sketched with a kind of structural simplicity: God’s will (and) message of redemption is blocked by all three human protagonists: by Pharaoh, by the Israelites, and by Moses himself. Pharaoh and the Israelites are described as ‘not listening’…Moses links the ‘deafness’ of both Pharaoh and the Israelites with his own ‘foreskinned’ lips: ‘because they would not listen, therefore I am of foreskinned lips’”.

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Pharaoh, the children of Israel, and Moses are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to hear, even to listen to, one another. As a consequence of that underlying reality, redemption, whatever its specific form and content, isn’t possible. That, teaches Zornberg, is Va’era’s big message. It sounds awfully familiar and relevant to me in 2020. A few more of Zornberg’s words make the point with elegance and eloquence.

“Speech, we normally affirm, creates listeners (or fails to create them). Here, the converse truth is affirmed: it is the listener who creates the act of speech. The prophet prophesies by dint of the listening of his people. As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters.”

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At the very moment of this week’s impeachment presentations, another set of speeches echoed in a similarly significant spot half the globe away. World leaders gathered at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to mark the upcoming 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Germany’s President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier shared poignant and inspiring words that we all would do well to hear. Read his speech here – https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/full-text-of-german-president-s-yad-vashem-speech-we-germans-have-not-learned-from-1.8438504. View and listen (really listen) to it here – https://youtu.be/aWarJrXDku0. For me, and perhaps for you as well, President Steinmeier’s powerful words (re)open the possibility of redemption in our time and in our world. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.

The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz takes place on Monday January 27th. Together we can view, and listen well to, the ceremony in real time beginning at 9:30 am. Please search for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s official YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/AuschwitzMemorial . Then, please look for the live stream entitled “The 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz”. 

No listening, no redemption. That’s Va’era’s ‘structural simplicity’. Time to open, really open, our ears and our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom.