Monday, February 28, 2011

Shabbat Vayakhel: A Lesson in Community Building, delivered 2/26/2011

It is striking that the Torah spends so much time and energy on the details of the Tabernacle. For the past three weeks, we’ve been reading about the details of this enormous building project. Any one ready to move on yet? Due to the Jewish leap year, parshiot Vahakhel and Pekude are read separately this year. So, we have another week to go. Anyone else want to speak about the building of the Tabernacle? After this Shabbat, I think I'm done.

The big events in Biblical history, the ones we recall regularly in our liturgy and celebrate in our festival cycle -- Creation (כי ששת ימים עשה יי את השמים ואת הארץ וביום השביעי שבת וינפש); Exodus, redemption, from Egyptian bondage; and Revelation of law and the forming of covenant at Sinai – don’t take up a lot of space in the Torah. They don’t have to. The drama of these events speaks for itself. We’ve experienced, as best as we can from our reading and study, the drama of, for example, revelation. Its presentation in the text is so extraordinary that it is hard for us to wrap our modern, rational minds around the episode. Redemption, too – come on, a splitting sea? No, we can’t explain it. We can try to rationalize it as unexplainable miracle or complete myth; but, regardless of how we as liberal readers come to terms with the text, the dramatic presentation helps imprint the episodes on our communal memory. That moment is ours as much as it was our ancestors who stood in the midbar at the foot of a mountain called Sinai, and the editor didn’t need an abundance of space to get that vital point across. The building of the Tabernacle, on the other hand, isn’t particularly dramatic, and it shouldn’t be. Those of us who have built anything know that drama in construction projects usually means trouble. More to the point, however, Judaism celebrates formative events in the community’s, namely the Israelite community’s, development, not buildings.

So then, why all this attention to building materials and instructions? Why the tedious, meticulous, and frankly repetitious, detail regarding how to construct the Tabernacle and all that goes into it? As I’ve reflected on other occasions, these are not simple, IKEA-style ‘one man or woman can do it,’ instructions. With regard to the planks, for example, our text instructs “...The length of each … was 10 cubits, and the width, a cubit and a 1/2. Each shall have two tenons, parallel to each other...make 20 planks on the south side, making 40 silver sockets under the 20 planks, 2 sockets under the one plank for its two tenons and 2 sockets under each...” and so on. I consider myself pretty handy. I’ve put together my share of IKEA-do-it-yourself type furniture. I know how to use a drill. However, if anything came with instructions as convoluted and demanding as these apparently dictated by God; sorry God, the project wouldn’t get done…certainly not by me alone.

The Biblical narrative doesn’t give the Israelites that choice, the choice to say, ‘no thank you, God, we don’t need a Tabernacle.’ But, perhaps we are assuming that they had no choice. Imagine if the Tabernacle didn’t get built. This week’s Torah portion is a repetition of instructions. Earlier the instructions are given to the community, Parashat Vayakhel reports how they were done. And this is precisely the point; for, if the Tabernacle didn’t get built, the entire story of the Israelites would end here. Just as important as redemption and revelation is the building of the Tabernacle - not a miracle performed dramatically by God and experienced by the people due to Divine grace; but rather, a miracle performed by the determined and cooperative labors of the people.

The Tabernacle - the mishkan - the first formal place of worship, of gathering for the community. A place that is to serve as symbol of both God’s presence and communal unity. Certainly, we are not defined by the buildings we build. The text makes it very clear that it is not the material gifts that determine the success. We read that so many gifts were brought, so many material offerings, that Moses was forced to proclaim to all: "אלֹ־יאשוּ עוד מלאכה לתרומת הקדש" - stop making further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary. Stop your individual donations. We should be so fortunate as to have to stop individual gift giving.

What is needed is community action, not more stuff. All the materials - the blue, purple & crimson yarns for example, the dolphin skins, the gold, the talents of silver described at length - none of it matters if the Israelites are unable to work together to get it done. No matter the amount of material riches bestowed on any community, our synagogues included, not a penny of it is worth a damn unless the individuals work together towards a unified goal.

The Israelite saga - their growth from a vagabond group of slaves into a people with a shared identity and mission is begun with redemption and revelation, but it is solidified by accomplishing this great and awesome task. Only now, not as passive recipients of God’s interventions, but rather as active partners with God and the community, can the Israelites continue their journey. Yes, a lot of textual space is given to the descriptions regarding and the building of this first mishkan, and the descriptions are at times dull, but we will learn that they finish. Finally next week, we will read, “וַתֵּ֕כֶל כּל־עבוד֕ת משכּ֖ן א֣הל מוע֑ד” “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. No splitting sea, no smoke and thunder, but the level of cooperation and mutual respect required in order to complete this task is just as, if not more, miraculous. It is certainly worthy of emulation!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shabbat Tetzvah: a Reflection on BJC Advocacy Day 2011, Delivered Shabbat Tetzaveh, 2/12/2011

You shall further instruct the Israelites…. This week’s Torah portion, parashat T’tzaveh, continues to outline details of the tabernacle. Specifically, this part of the narrative gives instruction regarding Aaron’s cloths, the attire for the priesthood, and the consecration ceremony for Aaron and his sons, who will serve as High Priest and priests respectively. What should we make of the attention to clothes? At first glance the focus on outerwear seems frivolous – really, is all this chazarai necessary? Beautiful yes – gold, blue, purple & crimson yarns, precious stones and metals – but aren’t there are far more important matters with which we should be concerned? The detailing of Aaron’s attire, however, highlights the weight of responsibility his role as High Priest engenders.

The breast plate – I imagine a weighty hunk of metal and precious stone (see Ex 28:15 ff), served as a tangible (if not burdensome) reminder of history that helped guide Aaron in leading the people towards their future. Also included on that plate of metal that was fastened to Aaron’s garment, were the Urim and Tummim, two items that defy any definite translation and thus remain fodder for commentary. Rashi explains that the Urim and Tummim “הוא כתב שם המפרש was an inscription of the Proper Name of God.” Accordingly, God, via the urim and tummim, literally enlightened the correct path, or in other words gave foresight to decisions, for the leaders of the community (i.e., the High Priest).

Leaders are a necessary element of any organized and functional society. At the same time, so are the people who are lead. The details provided in the narrative surrounding the ceremony of consecration/ordination of Aaron’s sons into the priesthood make it clear that the community’s presence is vital; it is not private, but public, ritual. The entire community bears witness to the responsibility that Aaron takes on when he lays his hands on that animal about to be sacrificed. It is a heavy moment weighted down, not only by the ornate clothing described moments earlier – can we imagine overseeing this messy ritual dressed as he must - but by the responsibility the community places on Aaron and his sons. The medieval commentator, Nachmanides, notes that Aaron’s sons are named at the start of this portion so that it is clear that their role as priests is not taken for granted. They may have been born into the opportunity for this role; but they, too, like their father, must accept the mantle of leadership their birthright offers them publically, in plain sight of the community.

This past Tuesday, I along with a group of members from Temple Emanuel, visited the State Capitol along with other representatives of the Jewish community in an effort to make our voices heard in the state legislature. Organized by the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), this annual Advocacy Day gives us – the Baltimore Jewish community - the opportunity to meet our legislators and speak out regarding issues that impact not only the Jewish community specifically but the welfare of all Marylanders.

Our leaders bear a burden on our behalf. The sacrifices they are required to make in order to forward their legislative agenda are often far less public than those made by the House of Aaron; yet, they make as indelible an impact, and it is up to us to remain present, supporting their efforts even if through debate, and holding them accountable for their work. We must, like our biblical ancestors, bear witness to the decisions and actions of our leaders. It is easy to avoid this responsibility. In the biblical period, the smoke and fumes must have made it almost impossible not to participate in the events performed by the priests even if one wanted to avoid them. But today, we must make a conscious effort to be present and participate – our senses won’t be so easily seduced by the rituals of governmental process.

This year, I was invited by the BJC to serve as a group leader for Advocacy Day. Basically that role entails taking the lead in opening the discussions within in our small group visits with our legislators. My first thought, “no thank you. I'll be happy to take a back seat.” Luckily, I resisted responding automatically (which for those of you who know me well know is not an easy feat for me). For all of the times I stand on this bema and commend our confirmation students for their efforts on Capitol Hill each winter, for all of the times I encourage others to actively participate in the political process at the very least by staying attuned to issues that impact our community, how could I refuse taking such a role? So, I followed my second, more reasoned,thought and accepted.

I lead two visits while in Annapolis on Tuesday evening. The first to Senator Karen Montgomery, coincidentally enough from Montgomery County (District 14), the second to Senator Ronald Young of District 3 representing both Frederick and Washington Counties. Both senators were already quite supportive of the legislation for which we were advocating on behalf of the BJC, thus our discussions broadened out to include the realities of public service and leadership. Senator Young, for instance, shared with us how he very much supported the Lorraine Sheehan Health and Community Services Act (better known as the alcohol tax bill) and hopes it passes, but at the same time can’t vote for it due to his commitment to a campaign promise he made to his constituents, a campaign promise that helped him win office against a candidate with decidedly more conservative views, a candidate who would not be supportive of the issues valued by the BJC and much of the Jewish community. By the way, this bill is supported by the Baltimore Jewish Council because of the many important and vital communal services this tax can support in the community.

We discussed the costs and benefits of a Senate Bill that would enable children born to illegal immigrants, assuming they meet certain qualifying standards, to be eligible for in state tuition to Maryland colleges and universities. We discussed the very real budgetary challenge of maintaining necessary public services that serve the elderly and victims of domestic violence, among others. Laying one’s hands on a bull and readying it for slaughter may be far more visceral in the moment, but the impact of being involved in making the kinds of fiscal decisions our legislators must can be just as lasting as taking the life of a living and breathing animal.

Both of the Senators with whom we met were co-sponsors of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Act, legislation that was on the forefront of everyone’s mind in Annapolis on Tuesday due to the legislative hearings on the topic that took place that day. As a representative of the BJC, I was not able to thank Senators Montgomery and Young for their support of what I consider to be necessary legislation. The BJC represents the entire Baltimore Jewish Community, and as I was delicately informed, there simply “isn’t consensus within the Baltimore Jewish community,” thus, the BJC cannot take a stand. That being said, I did thank the legislators on my own behalf, making it clear that I was speaking as a representative of the liberal Jewish community and not of the BJC on this issue.

The BJC must speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community and thus can only speak out on issues on which there is consensus. As individuals, however, the power of free speech allows us (perhaps should compel us) to voice our opinion on any issue of import to us. One disconcerting observation from my participation in Advocacy Day over the past few years: the Reform community is simply not well represented. We proudly send our kids to the Religious Action Center – hundreds of teens representing congregations throughout the country descend on Capitol Hill repeatedly (the RAC runs 6 or 7 L’Taken well attended seminars each year), and yet how many of us as adults have ever taken the opportunity, whether on a local or national level, to participate in the legislative process. We should. And recent events in Egypt serve to remind us to appreciate and take advantage of the opportunity we, as Americans, have in this legislative process.

Luckily our political leaders don’t have to be weighted down physically with the kind of garb that decorated our biblical High Priest, and thank goodness our senses no longer need be assaulted by the rituals and smells of the sacrificial cult. But just as the priest’s garb can serve as a tangible reminder of the importance and responsibility of the leadership role, those now seemingly barbaric rituals witnessed by the community should serve to remind us of the need for our presence at least, and perhaps our active participation, in the rituals that serve to bring guidance and cohesion, civility and democracy to our nation.