Thursday, February 24, 2011

Vayakhel: The Tale of a Software Program and a Stage

What's the deal with all this construction stuff? Again?!? As if it wasn't bad enough that three weeks ago we spent an entire Torah portion talking about the details of the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the desert, this week's reading is basically a recapitulation of all the same material. It was sooo riveting the first time around, clearly we want to hear more about how the Israelites constructed the tent, the tables, the curtains, the lampstands, and all the furnishings...

Ok, so clearly I'm being a little facetious. It's true that our Torah portion is not the most riveting, but it does force us to think about how we relate to physical space. For a lot of people, prayer is spontaneous and inspired by an emotional reaction or experience. They feel it is easier to pray outside in nature, at the top of a mountain or by a beautiful river, rather than inside a "stuffy" sanctuary. An impulsive connection to God, however, may disappear as suddenly as it arrived. The advantage of a tangible space is that it is always there, it can provide stability, continuity, and comfort. Not only that, a structure can also tell a story.

Earlier this week, my wife, Rebecca, was telling me about a class she is taking towards her MA in City and Regional Planning. The class focuses on learning a mapping software program called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). GIS helps planners analyze, interpret, and question data related to neighborhoods and cities. But Rebecca also told me that planners learn that GIS "tells a story through spatial data analysis." I love that concept! You're not just studying trends, patterns, and maps on a computer screen; you're

uncovering a tale, an ongoing saga that narrates the past, present, and future of a particular place. In a way, the Torah, and this week's portion in particular, are an ancient form of GIS! We are given a spatial map of the Tabernacle which reads like a set of blueprints, yet in reality these few chapters are telling us the story of our people, how we prayed, and what it meant to connect with the Divine.

As I was thinking about constructions, and how they assist in telling tales, I couldn't help but relate it to the synagogue performance that we are putting on this week. If you're in the area, you should definitely come see the Ohev Shalom Musical, "Break

a Leg: A Tribute to Broadway." Our fabulous set designers and workers have transformed our auditorium into a lively and amazing theater. Through 20 different musical numbers, our stage will morph from the streets of an inner city, to the African savanna, to a small town in Poland, and much more! Acting and singing have a lot to do with it, of course, but our sets create a mood, conjure up an atmosphere, and function in part as narrator, helping to move the performance along. In many ways, this is exactly what the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) does for the ancient Israelites.

Our individual homes may indeed be doing the same thing for all of us, just as our communal buildings, schools, and libraries teach lessons about our neighborhoods. Never underestimate the importance of a solid structure or the history that comes with it. And certainly never underestimate the value of a good story; no matter who, or what, is telling it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC Image courtesy of Salim Virji on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Fishking_1 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Extra Ketchup on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of alancleaver_2000 on Flickr

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ki Tisa: The Opportunity of Falling

Gam Zu Le-Tovah - This too is for the best.

Last weekend, Ohev Shalom had the privilege of hosting a wonderful Scholar in Residence, Arthur Kurzweil. Mr. Kurzweil was funny and entertaining, but above all else, he taught us some amazing passages from the Talmud, gave us a taste of the Kabbalah, and showed us how to begin genealogical research. Everyone who attended even one of his sessions left with profound new insights, and with a renewed appreciation of Judaism and Jewish learning.

One of the things that I took from Mr. Kurzweil's terrific sessions was an expression that fits very well with this week's Torah reading. I already quoted it above, but let me repeat it again
(for dramatic emphasis): Gam Zu Le-Tovah. Mr. Kurzweil shared midrashim (stories) with us about Rabbi Akiva who experienced several misfortunes, yet kept repeating to himself, "Gam Zu Le-Tovah" - "This too is for the best," and ultimately things DID work out for him. We also learned that Judaism does not believe in falling down. Every time you fall,

it is another opportunity to learn about getting back up. Falling, therefore, is just the beginning of an ascension. At a recent staff meeting, our Executive Director, Josh Laster, brought in a quote by Confucius with almost the same idea: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." What an unbelievable philosophy! Imagine what our lives would be like if we could truly internalize this, and live our lives accordingly.

Pretty much the only story you ever hear about in this week's reading is the Golden Calf incident. It is one of the most embarrassing moments in Israelite history, where - just months after being freed from slavery - the Israelites reject God and build an idol in the form of a golden calf which they worship as their "new" deity. This is the Israelites at their very worst; if this isn't a fall, nothing is! Well, you know what? Maybe nothing is. If we internalize Kurzweil's philosophy, so that even the Golden Calf is seen as a chance to ascend, our eyes are opened to a very different way to read this story.

After Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and the Israelites are

sufficiently remorseful and penitent, God instructs Moses to carve a new set of tablets. But a very important difference between these new Commandments, Version 2.0, and the first set is that God made the originals. This time, Moses has to carve them himself, and we see that what has been created is a partnership between God and humanity. The words are still God's, but now the effort and the craftsmanship has become human. The tablets that came, not just from the Word of God, but from the Hand of God were too intimidating, too much to take on. As with everything else in life, we need to feel a sense of ownership, of responsibility and accountability, if we are going to take something seriously. A (read with a booming voice:) Command From On High sounds impressive, but it doesn't make us want to try harder, or want to dedicate ourselves to that command. It just leaves us feeling afraid and small.

Gam Zu Le-Tovah - Kurzweil reminds us that even though bad things happen, we can still use those experiences to grow, improve, and come out stronger on the other end. There's no doubt that the Golden Calf incident was bad, that Rabbi Akiva faced serious challenges, or that bad things happen to all of us. Everyone experiences hardship, and sometimes it can leave us reeling, even feeling that there is no way to recover. But here's

an opportunity to look at it a different way, to not focus on the fall, but on the recovery. Every time we feel like we're falling, let's instead look ahead to the ascension, and we may find that we are already on the way back up.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Congregation Ohev Shalom
2. CC image courtesy of Jos Dielis on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Gary Soup on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Enygmatic-Halycon on Flickr
5. CC Image courtesy of Andréia on Flickr

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tetzaveh: The Weight of a Footstool

Sometimes less is more. What isn't stated can be just as powerful (or perhaps even MORE powerful) than what is stated. As we learn this week about the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, a close reading of the text actually teaches us not just about the construction itself, but how the people related to God. Too often we get caught up in the physical issues, where even in synagogue we emphasize the prayer books, the wearing of special garb, the food at the Kiddush, and the temperature in the building. But what about relating to God? If we can read between the lines, listen to the silence, and take a step outside ourselves, it is amazing to see what (or Who) we can find waiting for us there.

Of all the items being constructed for the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), a particularly fascinating item is the Ark of the Covenant. It's basically a box, but it contains the Ten Commandments, as well as the broken shards of the first set of tablets broken by Moses. So what do we do with this thing? What is its significance, and how was it included in ancient Israelite worship? A wonderful Biblical scholar, Nahum Sarna, writes about understanding the Ark in its historical context. He describes how most Ancient Near Eastern cultures kept important covenants "at the feet of the deity in a temple." There are many examples of pacts between kings being placed "before" gods and goddesses, and the Ten Commandments are essentially our contract with God.

One question this raises, however, is how the Ark relates to God. Sure, we place important documents in it, but what is the Ark to God? And Sarna informs us, surprisingly, that the Ark itself is meant to serve as God's footstool! He quotes King David himself, in the First Book of Chronicles, 28:2, saying, "Hear me, my brothers, my people! I wanted to build a resting-place for

the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God." And indeed, in ancient times, the image of either mortal kings or gods sitting on thrones was ubiquitous, and apparently the accompanying footstool was a crucial element to make the picture complete. Who knew a footstool could carry so much weight? (Ha, ha!)

Well, if the Mishkan is our version of a throne room, it is missing one crucial element: the throne! The Ark is the footstool, but where is the throne, and with it, the god whose supposed to sit there?? Here's what I think is going on: Building a Divine footstool in the middle of a room meant to serve as a throne room, but with no throne, drives home the critical message of the Israelite religion - God is invisible. All the other elements are in place, even down to the indispensable Footstool; yet we must never forget that God is in heaven, God is also everywhere, and most importantly, God is not like any other king we have experienced or can imagine.

What amazes me is the fact that this is not stated. How can the Bible give us building blueprints - frankly boring us silly with the minutia of the construction project - and then "forget" to tell us what this means for how we relate to God? The answer is that it isn't forgotten, it's a challenge. When you walk into synagogue, we emphasize your

head covering, your tallit, your prayer book, and the other details of the service; that is our version of the construction project. Now it's up to you. Take a seat, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think about how you yourself might connect with the God of the Universe. It might sound strange, perhaps daunting, overwhelming, or just inaccessible, but that is how our service is constructed. Each of us is invited to speak to the Divine, and each of us has the opportunity to build on our personal relationship to God. But don't stress over it. After all, it's not like God is sitting in the room waiting for you to speak. All we've got is the footstool!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Congregation Ohev Shalom
2. CC image courtesy of fireflythegreat on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of mythabby on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr
5. Image courtesy of Congregation Ohev Shalom

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Terumah: If You Build It, God Will Come

Where is God? How can I believe in a God I can neither see nor touch? These questions greatly infuriated the Ancient Israelites, so much so that they eventually built a Golden Calf to force the issue; to create a physical image, even though it was strictly prohibited. Even today, many people find this issue aggravating, and it doesn't help that there are so many anthropomorphisms (fancy word for God-taking-on-human/physical-attributes) in the Bible. We hear about the "opening of God's hand" or "God walking in the Garden of Eden" or "God's flaring nostrils" (no, you didn't read that wrong). With so many visual images of God, is it any wonder that we expect to feel God's Presence, or that we want to see a physical depiction of God?

This week's Torah reading, Terumah, contains one of my favorite verses in the Bible, but it is also a line that contributes to the notion of God taking on human form... or maybe not. We are now entering the final section of the Book of Exodus, and the focus of the Torah shifts to the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites built in the desert, aka the Mishkan. As God is about to begin laying out the blueprints for the construction project, God says to Moses, "Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).

You can't necessarily tell in the English, but there is a grammatical error in this verse. It should

really have said, "Let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT." But it doesn't say that. Instead, it says that God will dwell "among them," i.e. among the people. At first glance, this looks like yet another anthropomorphism: God is looking for a home to "live" in. God's getting tired of wandering in the desert, and needs a place to relax, get out of the sun, kick off the sandals, and maybe snooze for a bit. A somewhat ridiculous image, I'll admit. Which is precisely why the verse does NOT say, "I will dwell in it." God doesn't need a home, because God is everywhere. So what is the purpose of the Mishkan?

God knows that human beings need physical objects (Exhibit A: The Golden Calf). We are too focused on an "I'll believe it when I see it" mentality, and it's hard for us to accept a God that is invisible and silent, yet constantly all around us. Although, sometimes we're ok with it. When it's purely academic, or when life is good and we have no complaints, we either don't care, or we're fine with an intangible God. But when tragedy strikes, or when we desperately need help and support, it sure would make us feel better to have something physical to lean on, or someone to yell and scream at.

And that is precisely what I love about this verse. When we build the Tabernacle, or when any of

us today build a space for God in our own lives, God will "dwell" among us. The great Chasidic master, Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, once asked his students where God was, and they answered that "the whole earth is filled with God's Glory!" "No," said Menachem Mendl. "God dwells wherever we let God in." God doesn't "need" a home. But if we want to feel God's Presence, it is up to us to build that space; to take the time, energy, and effort to bring God into our lives.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Debbie Scott
2. CC image courtesy of goatling on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Lauren Murphy on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of recubejim on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Martin Pettitt on Flickr