Friday, February 24, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family:  Click here:   Parshat Terumah 

Parshat Terumah - We Will Do!

During the events of the Giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel have been pretty passive.  It is true that they were asked for their assent to the Torah both before and after it was given, and both times responded, "We will do."   It is also true that, after the Ten Commandments and the long list of laws that followed in last week's parsha, they participated in a ceremony of entering into the covenant with God, binding them to all of the mitzvot.    But they had yet to have had a chance to do anything.   They could verbally express their commitment, but they had not yet been able to show it in practice.   

That all changes in this week's parsha, which opens with a focus on the doing:

                "Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take for me an offering…" (Shemot 25:2)
"And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst."  (25:8)

And this phrasing carries through the rest of the parsha, opening each new section:
"And they shall make an ark…" (25:10)
"And you shall make a table…" (25:23)
"And you shall make a menorah…" (25:31)
"And the tabernacle you shall make…" (26:1)
"And you shall make a curtain…" (26:31)
"And you shall make an altar…" (27:1)
"And you shall make the court of the tabernacle…" (27:9)

This opportunity to do is enthusiastically embraced.  Donations poured in from all people, men and women, laity and leaders.  When it came to doing the work, everyone brought his or her special talents to the enterprise.  Moshe selects Betzalel and Ahaliav, and all those who are blessed with the ability "to do all manner of work, of the engraver, of the craftsman of the embroiderer… and of the weaver…" (35:35).  And it was not only the men who got involved, but also the women: "And all the women who were wise-hearted spun [wool] with their hands… and those who were wise-hearted spun the goat's hair." (35:25-26).  The people could finally do, and they did so with passion and with zest.

Now the importance of all of this action, all of this doing, is twofold.  Firstly, it is the real world translation of the commands and the covenant that preceded it.  It is one thing to make a commitment, it is another to act on it.  Not only is such action evidence to the sincerity of our commitment, it is its reification and its embodiment.   To be in a covenant with God is to act on that covenant, and such action is also transformative.  It reinforces and internalizes our convictions, so that they become real to us on the experiential level.   We identify with it - the action and the commitment - and we own it.   

This translation of commitment to action is nicely reflected in the custom to begin building our succah as soon as Yom Kippur lets out.   At this moment, we have just spent an entire day (or ideally a period of ten days, or even forty days) in the process of repentance, of drawing close to God, of committing to be better Jews, better people, in the future.   If we do nothing, all of this work, while heartfelt and sincere, will evaporate and be as transitory as the day itself.   If we want it to be real, we must act upon it, taking that newfound passion and translating it into how we act in the world.  

Let us also not forget that the succah is itself a tabernacle, a type of a mishkan, a place where we remember God's protection and feel God's presence, and that Yom Kippur is the day that Moshe brought down the tablets for the second time.   This custom, then, is a reenacting of the building of the tabernacle that followed the second giving of the Torah.  The building of the succah, the building of the mishkan, is the taking of our connection to God and finding concrete ways of bringing that into the world.  It is about building a structure, creating a space wherein God's presence can be felt and may dwell within the people and within the world.   It is the covenant made real.

But there is another way in which this acting is important.  For the ability to act is also the ability to bring the wholeness of ourselves, of our talents and of our personality, into the world and into the service of God.   We see in this week's parsha and in those that follow an emphasis on people's artistic ability, their craftsmanship, their creativity.  And we see it put to religious use, as a way of connecting to God and of serving God.

This may be very different from the Judaism that is familiar to many.    The Judaism many of us grew up with taught that one's religious expression, outside of the observance of mitzvot, was to be found in the beit midrash, in the intellectual realm of Torah study.  That was where to direct one's passions, where to engage one's personality and creativity.   Sometimes - particularly for women - doing acts of chesed is presented as the alternative to Torah study.   But that's about it.  That's how one brings his or her passion to the service of God.   Now, that worked well - and still works well - for me and undoubtedly for many others.  But it does not work well for everyone.  Many peoples' creativity and talents lie elsewhere.  In music, in art, in poetry, in building, in engineering.   But it is so rare that such people are given the opportunity to bring their creativity, the fullness of their selves, into the service of God. 

It has not always been such.   The Middle Ages saw great rabbinic figures writing religious (and even love!) poetry.   There has been Jewish art, Jewish illuminate manuscripts, and Jewish music throughout the ages.   But it has been rare to have had a society that encouraged these other creative areas as forms of religious expression.    How many children, over the last 2000 years, grew up dreaming to be a Jewish artist or a Jewish musician?  How many communities have ever seen the flurry of creative activity as we saw when the mishkan was being built?     The answer, of course, if not none, is very very few.

Things are improving.  For in the last few generations, and even more so in the last decade, we have seen an explosion of Jewish religious creativity taking place in Israel.  In a society where religion and Jewish identity is part of the very warp and woof of daily life, where there are so many possible spheres of religious and creative activity, where creative endeavors can be part of a larger community and not just an individual pursuit, in such a society religious creative expression has begun to truly flourish.

Rav Kook, in a moving passage (Adar HaYakar, p. 30-33), critiques the Judaism of the exile, where religious expression had been so limited, so enervated:

If the religious abundance of Israel were to come to the world at a time when the nation was living in the fullness of its natural state that suffused its inner soul, then it never would have accepted upon itself the religious character of those nations that most of our people have lived among, that dark, morose character, that shrivels life and shrinks the soul…

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” – which the Rabbis have interpreted to mean “with your two inclinations (your evil inclination and your good inclination),”  (Berakhot 54a) was not able to be fulfilled in its fullest sense…

He concludes by his wish that this can be reversed in the current State of Israel:

If so, this is the obligation of Israel now, at the time when the desire of the nation has bestirred itself to renew its national energies: to inhale once again, anew, the power of the original divine abundance, that until now has only come to the world in a weak and diminished state and in opposition to life – to inhale it with a soul that is strong, courageous and life-affirming … 

This is what it means to translate thought in action, commitment into deed, and to build a place for God in this world.  But to build such a place, we need to engage all our talents, all our abilities, our entire selves.   Perhaps the reason religion does not talk to so many people is because we have so narrowed the scope of what religious action is and can be.  If we can remember how many chapters and verses the Torah devotes to the building of the mishkan, then we can hopefully begin to expand our definition of what it means to serve God, what it means to do for God.   Let us pray that the creative flourishing that has begun only continues to grow and to spread so that the entirety of each person, and the entirety of our people, can work to create place for God in this world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

On Tuesday students put together a program after mincha in honor of Presidents' Day.  Students looked at a number presidential speeches and letters - including George Washington's famous Letter to the Touro Synagogue - and grappled with the question of how we relate to our dual identity as Jews and as American and how this issue affects our roles as Orthodox rabbis in America.

Having finished their studies in Hilkhot Niddah two weeks ago, third and fourth year students continued their learning of the laws of gerut this week.  Shiurim this week addressed the different components of conversion - milah (for men), immersion, and accepting the mitzvot - and analyzed the significance of each component and its relationship to the others.  We dealt with questions of order (what if milah comes after immersion) and where a beit din is needed.  By the end of the week we were looking deeply into the requirement of acceptance of mitzvot - what does this requirement actually demand?  We will continue to look at this and the wealth of contemporary responsa on this topic next week.   

Parallel to this, students are hearing case studies from our musmachim, who have come in to present on real life gerut situations that they have dealt with.   This week they heard from Rabbi Saul Strosberg, who shared challenging cases he has had in his synagogue in Nashville, TN.  Rabbi Jason Herman, executive director of the IRF, presented as well and discussed the current political landscape relating to gerut, both in the States and in Israel. 

It was such a treat to have our musmachim presenting in the yeshiva, and on Wednesday we had one more.  Rabbi David Wolkenfeld presented - at least virtually, via Skype - to the students in our Campus Rabbi track.  Rabbi Wolkenfeld heard students present their responsa on questions that had been asked on campus, and both he and I gave students feedback, both in regards to psak and in regards to proper policy considerations.

A group of Modern Orthodox Israeli leaders was visiting the US this week on a trip sponsored by the NIF.  Their trip included YU, Drisha, Maharat, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.  I had the pleasure of meeting with the group over lunch on Wednesday.   Each participant was a head of a major Modern Orthodox (in contrast to Religious Zionist) organization, and we discussed together the major challenges that are facing the Jewish, observant community - from the agunah problem, to cases of rabbinic sexual and physical abuse, to the extremism that has fostered Jewish violence in Israel, to issues of overt and hidden racism and the need to bring our Sephardic and Oriental heritage into our schools and institutions.  

After this heady lunch, we were honored to have Chana Kehat, founder and director of Kolech in Israel, address the students.  She began with a dvar Torah on two roles of leadership in the Torah - one mostly embodied by men, the other mostly embodied by women - and she discussed the type of leadership that is needed today.  She then spoke about her work in Kolech and the challenges that are facing us in Israel and in the States in terms of women's protection and advancement within the Orthodox community.

All in all a quite exciting week for one that was one day shorter than usual!