P’kudei

I hate moving.  The process of taking all the items in a room and fitting them nice and tidy into a box, agitates me like nothing else.  I don’t like having to fit into any kind of box literally or figuratively.  Nothing about my life feels rectangular or square; nothing I care about ever looks comfortable in a cardboard box.

There is something about the process of deconstructing a living space into its separate parts that feels difficult and depressing. Standing in an empty bunk at the end of a summer at camp always made me cry.  Striking the set after the run of a fun show makes my blood pressure rise and my heart sink to my stomach.

So, why does the book of Exodus close with a tedious inventory of all the items used to build the Tabernacle as if packing and ready to travel? Why do we need to hear the inventory?

According to the Midrash, Moses demonstrated his accountability to all the Israelite donors and made it clear that all donations had been used properly and dealt with honestly.  I appreciate the characterization of Moses and the ethical lessons he taught. But, the part inside me that screams at the idea of having to inventory my home and pack ever again wonders is there more to learn here?  Is there something that can we learn from this accounting, from this deconstruction of sacred space into the specific non-sacred items used to create it?

Perhaps the answer is in the presence of the final words of the book of Exodus.  Immediately following the inventory and closing the last chapter of Exodus is a description of God’s presence leading the Israelites as cloud resting in the Tabernacle by day and as fire by night.  This description of how God’s presence traveled with the people and was always among them follows a list of objects that have no sacred meaning in of themselves.

Perhaps itemizing the metals and yarns that were used to beautify the sacred space reminds us that objects are just objects. It is we who endow those objects with meaning.   The artistic and beautiful decorations, the objects that people donated and were crafted did not sanctify the space. It was the heartfelt intentions of the community, the collective action towards a common good that invited and created a sacred space.

Perhaps it is also to remind us that it is not the objects that give our life meaning.  That those objects serve us as we pursue work, relationships, and experiences that are meaningful to us.  That it is through those experiences that we connect with the divine.

Perhaps we close the chapters about building sacred space with a reminder of the difference between our material and spiritual worlds and when they blend harmoniously together, the divine presence can dwell among us.

Vayakhel

What unsaid things do you carry in your heart? What is stopping you from saying these things? What would help you to find the words and express those unsaid things?

This week in our Wednesday text study class with the 4th -6th graders we looked at the text,“Adonai S’fatai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha,” “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your prayers of praise.”  This verse comes from Psalms and is the introductory line that we sing before starting the Amidah, the silent prayer, the central prayer for which we always stand, that is at the core of our liturgy.

Why does this text invoke the lips and mouth, and not the heart? After all, isn’t it opening our hearts in that moment that brings meaning to the words? Isn’t it bringing our own intentions to the prayer that we need help doing? If the words are right there, and we are not creating them ourselves, why do we need to ask for help to say them?

In contrast, in this week’s Torah portion Vayahkel, about building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) the text uses the word “lev” quite a lot. Different usages of the word are used to describe the people’s generosity, their craftsmanship skills, and their motivation for donating materials with which to build the Mishkan. The literal translations include: a giving heart, lifting the heart, and wisdom of the heart.

Perhaps the Torah is describing the internal experience and motivation, and the Psalms text is asking for assistance translating experience into words.

Isn’t it in our most transcendent moments, when we are moved, touched or emotionally overwhelmed by life’s experience when words falter? Isn’t it in those moments when we are so filled with joy, anger, vulnerability, or fear that we feel dumbstruck?

Perhaps the Torah portion is reminding us that spiritual moments emanate from the heart, and the Psalms text is acknowledging the complexity of trying to express or name those moments. Perhaps it is in our prayers that we remind ourselves that despite the dexterity of our language, the truly important things to say, those that are the most meaningful, the most profound and emanate from the deepest parts of ourselves are the hardest to express.

What unsaid things do you carry in your heart? What is stopping you from saying these things? What would help you to find the words and express those unsaid things?

 

Ki Tissa

“Vayar ha’am ki voshesh moshe laredet min hahar…..” –
“The people saw that Moses was long in coming down from the mountain…”  (Exodus: 32:1)

What is the most excruciating waiting period that you have ever encountered? For me it was the summer when I could barely walk, and didn’t know why my body was so weak. Waiting for the neurological testing and for the results was nerve wrecking. I remember living day to day with a heavy uncertainty.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses has not come down the mountain after 40 days. The people feel restless. Imagine the uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety, the doubt. Each day, no sight of Moses. How long could the people continue like that before they imagined the worst? How long before they starting sharing their anxieties with each other, one building on the other? “Maybe he’s fallen? Maybe he was eaten? Maybe he ran away and is never coming back?” After 40 days, with no new information, no sign of a future, they were restless enough that Aaron felt he should do something.

Years ago, a Bar Mitzvah student with this Torah portion illustrated a scene from this portion with tears running down the cheeks of the Israelite’s eyes as they threw their jewelry into the pot. I was surprised by this depiction and asked him to tell me more about it. He explained that the people were sad that they had to do this. They missed Moses and all that he had promised; they wished that he would return.

This is a very different interpretation than what we usually hear. The Torah and the Rabbis talk about the people’s sin and lack of faith. The people are judged through God’s eyes of lacking faith and turning against him. But, if you think of your story of waiting, the anxiety that waiting provoked, the desire to reach for something, anything, any piece of information to hold onto, do you empathize differently with the Israelites? Do you feel their pain? Their confusion? Their fear of being stranded in the desert?

I find myself wondering this week about how often we feel that void of uncertainty, fear and anxiety and respond by grasping for something concrete. How individually and collectively, we create false idols from our material possessions. We misplace hope in leaders, and pursue an easier and misguided path because we want to veer away from the uncertain and let our anxiety and fear determine our actions.

If we let our “hearts move” us, as was told to us in Terumah, we are open to the many shades of human experience. Perhaps, building a golden calf is what we do when we are anxious and can’t keep that heart space open; we hold onto things, create things, reach for things that seem tangible, move-able, and controllable.

It’s hard to feel moved by life’s pains and resist clenching and protecting ourselves.  To instead stay open to allowing hope, light, faith, goodness to seep in.  But, my the scary moments in my life experience have led me to believe that maybe the trick in life is to stay expansive during the bad times, so as to keep us from pursuing false gods that can only serve as distractions.

Maybe the pain, stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability are a part of the human journey and we need to hold them in our heart if we also want to invite compassion, kindness, tenderness, joy, hope, and love.

T’tzave

V’asita vgdei kodesh l’aharon achicha l’chavod u’ltifaret” – “you will make holy clothes for your brother Aaron for respect and glorification.”  (Exodus 28:2 )

I stopped by the jewelry store today to pick up a beaded necklace that they restrung for me at the request of my mother in law, who was dismayed when the necklace broke the first time I tried to wear it. Seamlessly and professionally, the sales woman brought my attention to the jewelry in the store, tried an exquisite, but expensive necklace around my neck and examined my wedding rings. Apparently, the rings are in desperate need of re-sizing to keep them from getting lost or broken. The saleswoman spoke about the rings as these objects of interest that I would want to protect. But to me, they are meaningful because I have endowed them with meaning.

23 and half years ago, I told my then fiancée not to get me a ring, and at first refused to wear it when he did anyway. Marriage wasn’t about jewelry, wealth, or status, I insisted. I eventually succumbed to wearing the diamond when I didn’t see it anymore as a diamond, but as a gesture of love. In the absence of any other meaningful exchange, the ring started to feel special because my love had picked it for me, and had done so because he wanted to signify our relationship in some way.

Over the last 23 years, I have given the ring emotional significance, as it has been on my finger throughout all my life events and encounters.

 Why do we have objects to express or signify meaningful encounters in our life? What is the role of objects in celebrating, remembering and creating these encounters?

This week’s Torah portion, T’tzave, touches on this question while describing to us with incredible precision the garments and jewelry worn by the High Priest. While the text spends many verses and words describing in detail the garments of the priests, and the rituals for ordaining the priests, the real beauty lies not in the ornamentation and craftsmanship, but in the actions that the priests will do while wearing these items.

In Exodus 28:2 God commands, “V’asita vgdei kodesh l’aharon achicha l’chavod u’ltifaret” – “you will make holy clothes for your brother Aaron for respect and glorification.” The actions and intentions given to the creation of all the items are actions and intentions of making something holy.

The objects themselves don’t give Aaron his power, but they do signify a power granted to him. It is a power granted to him through the action of creating those same objects. Aaron is holy because the work that went into creating his garments, and following specific directions to make the priestly vestments as well as the tabernacle, has created a holy and sacred place.

In the act of “creating,” attention was given to quality, to detail, and to doing it with the intention of creating something sacred. It is actually the behaviors that give the objects their significance and that thereby communicate respect and glorification when worn by Aaron. The ring I wear isn’t special because it is a diamond or has a gold band, it is special because of the time, care and love that my husband gave to choose the diamond and have the ring made for me.

When we take care to set things apart, make them special and endow them with meaning, then the result of that intention and behavior is the creation of something special or holy.

We spend time in our modern life choosing furnishings, clothing, cars, jewelry, home ornaments and more to make our appearance and the appearance of what we own seem beautiful.  But, real beauty doesn’t come from the items and ornamentation that we purchase, but from the love, care and meaning that we give to those items as we choose them and dedicate them to someone or something in our life, just as holiness and meaning doesn’t come from the garments worn by the Priest, but from the care, attention and dedication that went into their creation.

Terumah

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2)

And let them make me  a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives a direction to the people, using new language.  This is the first time that God says that the people should be “moved” to participate.  Previously, God’s directions were commandments of what to do.  What is so different about the sanctuary that God uses the language of people giving from their hearts?

I think the answer lies in the 8th verse, quoted above, “…so that I may dwell among them”  Perhaps in order for God to dwell among the people, to inhabit a sacred space, people have to open their hearts.  Perhaps we can only experience God, the divine or transcendence when we welcome having the experience.  As much as the God of the Torah can create, destroy, show anger and compassion, a spiritual relationship with God can only be formed if we humans engage as well.

If we look at the tabernacle as a metaphor, as we go inward, the space becomes more sacred.  We move from the outer courtyards inwards towards the Holy of Holies.  Isn’t that how it is with the heart?  The deeper we feel the more special or “sacred” something becomes to us.   Maybe it is exactly that which moves us, which inspires us, that invites the sacred into our lives.

What opens your heart?  When do you experience those sacred moments?

For me there are different types of moments.

There are the in between moments:   Moments when the intangible, eternal traits that have no beginning or no end like love, caring, and hope are shared between people. Moments of compassion, empathy, truly caring for one another.

There are the awe inspired by nature moments, like looking at the starry sky from a desert location, watching the ocean.

There are the moved by the arts inspired moments, especially when experiencing or performing high quality music, theater, dance, or viewing art and architecture.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that the Jewish questions isn’t whether or not you believe in God, it is “where do you experience God?”

When does your heart move you just enough so that you let yourself have that moment of transcendence?

Perhaps that which we are moved to do, that which inspires us, is directly connected to our view of God and our ability to allow or invite God to live among us.  When we allow ourselves that moment of inspiration, we are allowing ourselves a piece of divinity.

 

Mishpatim

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” 23:9

There are over 30 times when the Torah tells us how we should treat the stranger and invokes that we have been strangers as a way of remembering and doing it differently.  Why 30 times? In this particular verse, God reminds us that we know the feelings of a stranger. “Feelings” is a translation of the words “know the soul” which sounds even stronger to me. We know in our soul how the stranger feels.

Why remind us of the soul we know when commanding us how to behave with others?

Perhaps the repetition in the Torah to remember that we too were strangers is a call for empathy. Perhaps the repetition is to remind us to use empathy in elsewhere in our lives, not only when dealing with strangers. Perhaps the Torah is reminding us to put empathy at the center of how we behave towards others.

I wonder how many things I don’t do because instead of empathy, I have an idea of a solution for someone’s problem or dismiss it from my thoughts. It humbles me to realize how many times I don’t remember how something felt, or have any way of imagining the person’s experience from their point of view. Even more humbling is realizing that there are times that I did have a similar experience, but do not use that experience to empathize and instead dismiss the other person’s needs altogether.

I became an educator to do things differently because I remember what it felt like to be a child. I hope that I am better at empathizing with the students, treating them with respect, honoring their points of view, and helping them to be successful because I remember how much of a person I felt myself to be at that age.

What do you do differently now because you remember how you once felt or you know the soul of someone in a familiar situation?

What can we do as a community because we remember how something feels?