Friday, February 28, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Pekudei

As the book of Shemot draws to a close, the building of the Mishkan is finally completed. This is a climax that we have been building up towards for a long while. In fact, practically half of the book of Shemot is devoted to the commands of and building of the Mishkan. The emphasis that the Torah gives to the Mishkan is easily understood. The Israelites experienced God directly at Mt. Sinai, but now they would have to travel forth and enter into the land of Israel. The crucial question at this moment was - how would they continue to have God in their midst? True, they had been given many commandments, and could live a life of observing God's commands, but that would not in itself make God a felt presence in their lives. To connect to God, not just God's commandments, a Mishkan had to be built.

For them, the Mishkan enabled God's presence to be felt in a very real way. When they had been commanded to build the Mishkan they were told: "They shall make me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst." God's presence now inhabits the Mishkan, and this promise has become a concrete reality:

... So Moses finished the work. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Shemot 40:33-34)

This is not the world we live in. God's presence is not made real in a divine cloud. What, then, can we do to have God dwell in our midst?

The first answer is that we have to work to build something. The Israelites had left Egypt: a foreign country, with a foreign culture and foreign laws. They now had to form themselves as a nation. A new system of laws was not going to be enough. They needed a vision, a sense of identity and purpose. This began before the Ten Commandments with the Divine declaration: "You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This is their identity - God's people, a holy people. But it is not yet a vision: what are they to achieve in the world? What is their dream?

The answer to this is what follows the Ten Commandments - the building of the Mishkan. As God's people it is their goal to build a place for God to dwell. The second half of Shemot - the building of the Mishkan -  can be seen as a counterpart to the first half of Shemot - the Exodus. They have left one society behind. They enter into a no-man's land, the Sinai Wilderness to receive their mission. Their building of the Mishkan symbolizes and presages what their larger mission is. To create a society that is the opposite of Egypt. A society in which God is at the center. Not just in the geographic sense of a country with Jerusalem, with the Temple, as its capital. But in the religious sense -  a society that is more Godly, that works to see God's truths realized in this world, a society in which God's presence can be felt.

And not just a society. This vision, fully realized, is to create a world that is a place wherein God can dwell. It has already been noted by many that the language used in the building of the Mishkan parallels language used in the first chapter of Breishit, in the creating of the world. In the Creation story, each act of creation is created by a divine utterance. Similarly, in the building of the Mishkan, every act connects back to God's command, with almost every other verse of this week's parasha ending with "... as the Lord had commanded Moshe."  When all the acts of creation are completed the verse states: "And God saw all that He had done and behold it was very good.. and God blessed the seventh day..."  Similarly, at the end of the building of the Mishkan we are told: "And Moshe saw the work and behold they had done it as God had commanded so they had done, and Moshe blessed them." (39:43). Even the word for completion, vi'yekhulu, that is used at the end of creation, is used at the very end of our parasha: "And Moshe completed, va'yikhal, the work" (40:13).

The message is clear. Just as God created the world as a place for humans to dwell, it is now our mandate to create the world as a place where God may dwell. 

God, we are told by the Rabbis, had a blueprint for the world. "God looked in the Torah and created the world" the Zohar states. God, at Mt. Sinai, gave us that Torah, gave us a blueprint for the world. The commandments that we received at Mt. Sinai were not meant to remain just a personal guidebook for how to live our lives. They were to also be a blueprint for how to build a world. How to build a world which can be a place for God.  

So how does this happen? The first step is realizing that this is the goal. We must not just ask ourselves "what are my personal obligations?" and "what does halakha demand from me?" We must also ask ourselves, "what type of society should I be working to create?" and "what does God want for the world?"  It means cultivating a vision that points outward, not just inward, that takes in the larger society and not just one's coreligionists. It means thinking about deep systemic issues, not just surface problems. It means asking not just about halakhic details, but about the Torah's values and the Torah's vision. 

But something else is needed as well. When God created the world there was a necessary act of tzimtzum, of divine contraction, to create a space for human beings. The act of creating is the greatest expression of someone's being; it is the bringing of what is inside of one into the outside world. Ironically, though, if the creating is to build a space for the other, then such an act of personal expression must also be an act of personal contraction. It is at that moment of completion, of va'yikhulu, when God steps back from God's work, when God's divine expression becomes an act of divine contraction. It is at that moment that man can enter.

And so it is in the building of the Mishkan. Moshe finishes, va'yikhal, the building of the Mishkan. What then happens immediately afterwards?

... So Moses finished, va'yikhal, the work. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Shemot 40:33-35)

At the very moment of completion, after all the work, all the sense of accomplishment and of ownership that must have accompanied this project, they must vacate the House that they have created. They have succeeded in creating a place for God because they are able to relinquish their control.  Even Moshe, who is the human being most intimate with God, cannot enter into the Mishkan as long as God's cloud is present. It is, in the end, God's house, not the people's. And it is this realization, this act of contraction of their greatest expression of their own creativity, that creates the space for God to enter.

This does not, of course, mean that there cannot be an encounter with God. Once that space has been created, once God has entered that space, then we can draw near. The first verse in the book of Vayikra is: "And God called to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting." Once we have given God God's space and respected it as such, God will reach out and make the connection that we are so desperately seeking.

I believe that most of us fail in building such a place for God on one of these two counts. Either we do not cultivate a larger vision, we focus on the details never trying to build something larger in our communities, in our societies, in the world. Or we are driven by such a vision, and we invest enormous energies in going out, transforming the world, making the world a better place, a more Godly place. But then we never step back, we never contract, we just continue to impose our own self onto the world.  It is we who fill the Mishkan, not God. The key test is: are we prepared to move on to va'yikhal, to move from "and he did," to "and he completed"?  If we can get to a place where after we have worked to create, it stops being about us, our work, and our vision, if it can become something that transcends us, if in the end it is not us that matters, but what it is that we are seeking to create, then we will have created a place for God, and God's presence will fill the Tabernacle.

Shabbat Shalom!

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

I hope you all are well and are surviving what hopefully are the last gasps of winter. Learning at yeshiva is continuing apace as first and second year students make progress in their various mesekhtot and third and fourth year students complete the sugya of birkat eirusin, the mitzvah and institution of kiddushin, and the notion of kiddushin as kinyan, and move on to the issues of the ownership and giving of the ring.

Monday was a particularly powerful day, as we cleared our afternoon classes to devote the entire afternoon to the topic of Preventing Child Abuse. The presenters for the day were Victor Vieth and Dr. Shira Berkovits, and the sessions were moderated by Dr. Michelle Friedman. Victor Vieth is the foremost expert on child abuse, and serves as the Executive Director Emeritus of the National Child Protection Training Center, and institute which trains approximately 15,000 child protection professionals each year. Dr. Shira Berkovits is a postdoctoral psychology fellow at Einstein's Kennedy Center, where she provides therapy to parents and young children with trauma backgrounds, and has developed a guide for preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues, which will hopefully become a standard in the Orthodox community.  

As we all know, this is a matter of utmost importance for rabbis. First, to have policies in place that will ensure that such abuse never takes place on their premises by synagogue members or by employees of their institutions. One student pointed out the irony that when he applied for a lease on his apartment, he had to do a background check, but when he took a job as a youth leader in a synagogue, no one did a background check.  

But the responsibility goes further. The larger majority of abuse is perpetrated not by strangers, but by friends and family members. As future rabbis, our students will be uniquely placed to be able to see and identify signs of abuse that take place elsewhere and to be positioned to do something about it. They must be certain that they are doing all that they can to protect those innocent children in our community and this training is a critical necessity.

We were joined on Monday by the Maharat students and by a number of rabbis in the field watching via livestream. Students were profoundly impacted by the sessions, with one student mentioning to me that it was the most meaningful day he had in yeshiva the whole year.   

If you would like to watch the sessions, you can view them on our livestream channel here. Please make sure to click on "Event Details" where you will find a link for the PowerPoint slides used in the presentation.

If you have not yet made your reservation for our annual dinner, which will take place on Sunday, March 23 at the Roosevelt hotel, please do so here. This year's dinner promises to be exceptionally memorable as we will honor Rabbi Avi and Toby Weiss and family.