Friday, February 28, 2014

Fiddler Sermon 2 - The Conflicted Men of Anatevka AND This Town Isn't Big Enough For the Both of Us!

Last week, we talked about some overarching themes in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and mainly focused on the song ‘Tradition.’ But I also wanted to emphasize that there are (at least) three contexts in which to look at this play:
          - The world of the Russian revolution, ca. 1900
          - America in the 1960s, when the play first debuted on Broadway
          - And our lives here today; which includes examining what it is about this play that made it successful, around the world, for fifty years (and counting).

So as we continue our discussion here today, and we focus more specifically on some of the characters – MALE characters this week, FEMALE characters next week – in this play, I would like us to keep our focus on these three different contexts. How do we understand the portrayal of these people in each context?

Let’s begin. I want to talk about a number of different men in the village of Anatevka, but I also want to discuss them in relationship to one another. I want to present to you THREE different groupings of characters:

-         Tevye and the villagers (as seen through the eyes of Perchik, the radical student who comes to town)
-         The three sons-in-law, and their increasing level of audacity
-         Jews and Russians

GROUP ONE: In her book, ‘Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof,’ Alisa Solomon offers an interesting insight into the character of Tevye. She writes about how Sholem Aleichem, the author, purposely called his protagonist, ‘Tevye, der Milchiger,’ which CAN mean ‘the Milkman/Dairyman,’ but also means ‘milky.’ From a Kosher standpoint, this is juxtaposed with ‘fleishiger,’ ‘meaty,’ and has undertones of being sort of less than manly, kind of effeminate.

And when I look at the group of villagers in Anatevka, I see a similar theme somewhat pervasively depicted throughout the town.
-         The rabbi is kind of dopey (no offense to David Pollack, who plays the rabbi in our upcoming production…). He gives no real blessing, and has no significant wisdom to offer. Villagers keep talking about our wise rabbi, but just looked at objectively, what does he really contribute? What does this say about ‘old time’ religion, about the religious community of the shtetl, seen either by Sholem Aleichem or the Broadway producers in the 1960s?
-         Reb Mordcha, Yussl, Avram, Nachum, even Lazar Wolf – they talk a lot, and do nothing. Perchik, the newcomer, delivers stinging indictments of them throughout the play, specifically in their first scene together when Tevye is selling his cheese, and again at the wedding.
-         Motel is certainly not a very masculine character, and kind of stumbles his way into winning Tevye’s oldest daughter. Most of it was her doing anyway!
-         In some ways, it’s perhaps supposed to be a loving depiction of these sweet, silly, nebishy Jewish characters – but taken in the context of the Russian pogroms, or the way American and Israeli Jews viewed the Eastern Europeans, you see that they don’t put up a fight, they don’t push back, and they leave in silence. There’s something pathetic about them as well. Why?

GROUP TWO: The sons-in-law.

We see a definite break between the generations. We see the oldest generation is particularly silly and ineffectual; the impotent rabbi (again, sorry David) and the jokes made at the expense of Yente, the matchmaker’s husband, Aaron, who gets kicked around a bunch, despite being dead!

The middle generation are all talkers, with little action. A lot of squabbling and focusing on petty issues, but no action.

The younger generation has two sides. Mendel, the rabbi’s son, is somewhat more proactive, but also a follower. He quotes the Bible, and takes on Perchik (sort of) but with little result. And on the other side is Perchik. A doer. A rebel and a radical. And again, Motel is stuck between worlds. Not quite the follower like Mendel, he DOES dance at the wedding and shirks the town’s matchmaking expectations, but he’s not willing to let go of the old world mentality. He’s deferent to the ways of the past, and only Perchik stands up to the Russians at the wedding.

I think it’s especially interesting to see the progression with each marriage; both on the women’s side (we’ll talk more about that next week), but also on the men’s side. Motel declares ‘Times are changing, Reb Tevye,’ but ultimately he needs Tevye to allow this wedding. Perchik goes the next step, INFORMING Tevye of the marriage, but very explicitly states he’s not interested in Tevye’s permission. And Fyedka doesn’t even take the time to speak to Tevye. The only real interaction between them is a short little line from Fyedka that I find surprising. After all the trouble he’s caused, that he KNOWS he’s caused, and the rift that has now been created in the family, he turns around and chastises Tevye before he exits the play, saying, “Some people are driven out by edicts… others by silence. Good bye.” That takes a lot of chutzpah…

GROUP THREE: Villagers and Russians.

This is, in some ways, the most interesting grouping really. Because this speaks to MOST of Jewish history; perhaps ALL of Jewish history in Eastern Europe. There’s a love-hate relationship between them. The Russians sing and dance with the men of Anatevka at the tavern, for the song L’Chaim. The SAME Russians also perform the bottle dance at the wedding (maybe only in our performance because we’re short on performers, but it’s not uncommon, nor do I think it would be historically inaccurate for them to do this). And then, two minutes later, they carry out a pogrom against the same people with whom they just danced. This WAS the life of Eastern Europe. Consider, for a moment, the striking conversation between Tevye and the Constable after the song ‘To Life!.’

-         The Constable says, ‘I like you. You’re a decent, hard-working fellow… even though you are a Jewish dog.’
-         And when Tevye thanks the Constable for warning him of an impending pogrom, and then says, ‘If you don’t mind my saying it, it’s a shame you weren’t a Jew.’ And the Constable laughs, and responds, ‘That’s what I like about you, Tevye. Always joking.’

It’s no accident that the Constable calls him ‘a Jewish dog,’ or that he GENUINELY thinks Tevye’s kidding when he says he could have been Jewish. One minute, they’re friends and joke with one another, the next the Constable shatters Tevye’s world and throws him out of Poland.

So now, taking a step back. How do we understand all of this?

What do we make of this? And maybe more important, how do we understand it from the perspective of America in the 1960s? Or the world today? (Think about the Ukraine RIGHT NOW!)

What does it mean that a Jewish author, writing a Jewish play, in a Jewish community, with a very Jewish message, would create characters and a play like this?

-         Depicting the rabbi the way he does
-         And Tevye, with his misquoting the Bible, and getting shot down by his wife and daughters, and leaving his home without any resistance?
-         Or the ‘hero’ Fyedka, a non-Jewish, Russian soldier, who creates an intermarriage, and yet seems stronger than most of the other men in this play?

What does it all mean?

I don’t present all of these characters, or my analysis of this play, in order to provide you with answers. I believe that in each of these generations, 1900, 1960, and today, we are conflicted about our ancestors. Do we love what they represented? Or are we embarrassed by them? The answer is most often: BOTH!

And is the new generation right, or did the older generation have all the answers? Again, the answer (if we’re being completely honest… and somewhat facetious) is: Both. And neither.

This play is about grey areas. About how life doesn’t give absolute answers in all situations, but that each scenario, each relationship, each teachable moment needs to be understood in its own context. We have to weigh all the options, and consider each challenge.

But what do YOU think the answer is? What did Sholem Aleichem have in mind with his stories, and what did the Broadway producers intend when they turned it into the story we all know and love today?

We have two more weeks to discuss it, and I hope you’ll also come see the play on March 1st, 2nd, 8th, or 9th. And then, decide for yourself.

- Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

P'kudei: Finding Your Own Way to Encounter God

This week, we're finishing up the second Book of the Torah, Exodus. The final parashah, Torah portion, is a peculiar, little reading, that mostly restates a lot of laws that we already heard earlier; about the  
furniture created for the Tabernacle, and the swanky clothing manufactured for Aaron, the Tabernacle's High Priest. But as I was scanning the text - deliberating in my head about what ELSE I could write about this week, since this isn't the most riveting part of Scripture - a question popped into my head: What about Moses? Our Torah portion outlines the most amazing threads, all worn by the High Priest, but what does Moses wear? Aaron, his brother, gets a tunic, a robe, a sash, a breastplate, shoulder-pieces, a headdress, and all of it in blue, gold, purple, and crimson (as outlined in Exodus, 39:2-31)... and Moses is left wearing his beaten-up, old robes, kind of looking a little shlubby. So what's the deal??

I mean, sure, Aaron is THE High Priest, and he's got some pretty important responsibilities, but Moses is still the one talking to God face-to-face; are you telling me that's LESS important than offering sacrifices?!? And while I was pondering this odd discrepancy, I also noticed a strange formulation in the text. In talking about the furniture that they made, the text says, "Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting" (Ex. 39:32). The problem is, 
the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting were two SEPARATE holy spaces. They were described differently, and they were located in two different places. And that got me thinking. Maybe the Tabernacle is connected with Aaron, and the Tent of Meeting is connected with Moses. Like Aaron (and his fancy-shmancy attire), the Tabernacle was flashy, ornate, filled with gold, and very impressive. And like Moses, the Tent was simple, and we are not told much about its furnishings. Furthermore, Aaron's Tabernacle was located in the center of camp, where demonstrative sacrificial ceremonies were conducted, and God's Presence filled the space, such that no one could stand inside the Tabernacle along with God. Moses' Tent, on the other hand, was located outside the camp, and God and Moses would have one-on-one, private conversations within.

To me, there's an important lesson in this realization. You and me, all of us, we encounter and engage God in different and unique ways. For some people, dressing up in their finest formal wear, sitting in a large 
Sanctuary on the High Holidays, listening to a Cantor sing intricate melodies, THAT is where they feel God's Presence the strongest. And for others, that scenario leaves them feeling nothing. Instead, for them, visiting someone in a hospital, surrounded by beeping machines, doctors and nurses running everywhere, dressed in sweats, and just holding someone's hand and offering a silent prayer, THAT might be where they find God. Neither option is 'wrong,' and neither holds exclusive access to Divine communication and relationship. Each person has to search within him or herself and determine where, when, and how s/he wants to find God. And nobody gets to tell you which is the 'right' or 'only' way to talk to God.

I imagine this was true for the Ancient Israelites as well. I picture some Israelites relishing the opportunity to stand near the Tabernacle in the middle of the camp, watching Aaron's grandiose, elaborate ceremonies, surrounded by official-looking Levitical priests, offering sacrifices and prayers to God... while yet other Israelites found it much more spiritual to watch Moses wander to the edge of 
the camp, and enter the Tent of Meeting for a private audience with the Divine. And by combining the two terms, 'The Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting,' I think the text is telling us that the two were not mutually exclusive; God can be found in many, many different ways. It is especially important to remember that whichever speaks to you more, and however you want to communicate; God is always ready. When we feel alienated from a prayer space or a community, it is not God who is distant, it is ourselves. And the opportunity is ALWAYS there, at every moment, to turn back and find God. You just have to decide when you want to do it, and whether you want to walk to the Tent or the Tabernacle. But either way, God is ready to go. 

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of DcoetzeeBot on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Les Chatfield on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Vayakhel: Building Projects that Move the Heart

In a little over a week (yikes!), our synagogue will be putting on a performance of 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Our Ohev Players have worked really, really hard, and we're excited to put the first 'book show' (after
two phenomenal reviews!) on our stage in nearly twenty years. Selfishly, I'd love for you to come see us, because I'm actually IN the show myself, playing the tailor, Motel Kamtzoil. In celebration of our performing 'Fiddler,' and to whet your appetite a little ahead of time, I am also delivering four sermons on this topic, leading up to our shows. Last week, I gave the first of these talks, and if you're interested, you can read the full version of that here. But beyond just shameless self-promotion, I also wanted to write about this on the blog, because it isn't a huge leap at all to connect our show to this week's Torah portion.

In the world of the Talmud, the rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, our Sages talk of different forms of interpretation. First, they talk about p'shat, the straight-forward reading. In our case, the Torah talks this week about the building of the Tabernacle in the desert. We learn about
the painstaking construction of the Ark, the tent, the covers, the lampstand, the poles, the utensils, etc, etc, ETC! So the p'shat connection between our Torah reading and the Fiddler production is the construction work that each project entails. You might have thought a prayer tent in the desert was a simple structure, just as you might have thought an empty stage needs only imagination and a group of actors to perform a musical. And yet, each is so much more detail-oriented and involved. But also, so much more impressive! Wait til you see our set, which includes a wall that all at once depicts the inside of Tevye's and Golde's house; flipped around becomes my (Motel's) tailor shop; and ingeniously folded together also becomes a bed for the infamous dream sequence! Amazing!

But both stories also have a deeper level of understanding, what the rabbis called the d'rash. The p'shat understanding was about two physical projects; the d'rash leads us to realize that both are about time, effort, dedication, and, ultimately, the creation of community. The
Torah tells us, 'everyone whose heart so moves him (or her) shall bring gifts for Adonai' (Exodus, 35:5), and a few verses later adds, 'let all among you who are skilled come and make all that Adonai has commanded' (35:10).

The focus is the project itself, but the invaluable (and somewhat intangible) result is a bonding experience that somehow just develops over the course of working together as a team. Sure, the Israelites were meant to build this worship space, but I also believe God wanted them to do this TOGETHER, to help them bond and solidify the relationships that were already developing. And better they focus on this, rather than last week's project (from the previous Torah portion), the Golden Calf!

One of the things I've always loved about acting, ever since I was a little kid, was the cast bonding that inevitably occurred. And sure enough, the same thing is happening again right now, at Ohev Shalom. The last week before the performance is especially
hectic and stressful, as we all rush to finish building sets, locate props, finalize costumes, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse... However, it's also a fantastic way to build up a sense of family. Like the Israelites in the desert, the challenge of the project - the detail, the complexity, and the importance of doing this together - is what also makes it all SO worthwhile. And then, next week, standing backstage, mid-performance, hearing the audience hanging on every word, mouthing along with the actors (because we all know every line by now...), and just relishing the excitement and intensity; yeah, that's a heart-moving moment. Our building project is complete!

Photos in this blog post (2-5 courtesy of Allan and Jason Glanzman, our 'unofficial' official Ohev Players photographers):
1. The poster from our show. Come see us perform!!
2. (Some of) our awesome builders! (Rich Kaplan, Allan Glanzman, Dan Stinson, Don Abramowitz, Allan Baron)
3. (Many of) the men of Anatevka. (Rabbi 'Motel' Gerber, David 'Rabbi' Pollack (confusing, I know), Allan 'Yussel' Glanzman, Cantor 'Tevye' Friedrich, Rich 'Avram' Kaplan, David 'Nachum' Cashell, and Don 'Mordcha' Abramowitz)
4. 'I have FIVE daughters!!' (Emily 'Hodel' (and our esteemed director!) Fishman, Laurie 'Tzeitel' Krouse, Suzette 'Chava' Krausen, Willow 'Shprintze' Stern, and Marin 'Bielke' Lent)
5. Our little village of Anatevka.

Fiddler Sermon 1 - ‘Tradition!’, ‘Tradition?’, or ‘Tradition...’

Included below is the first of four sermons that I delivered, all discussing the play 'Fiddler on the Roof,' and various interesting aspects within the play. This first one was delivered on February 15th, 2014. Three more sermons to follow:

- Shabbat Shalom

- Today we are beginning a series of four sermons on “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s no secret that this is coinciding with our performing of the show, which begins on March 1st, and that I’m hoping this will whet your appetite to come and see it. However, I’m not ONLY talking about the show because we’re getting ready to put it on our stage. I wanted to talk to you about it, and not just in one, fifteen-minute sermon, because I’ve discovered a lot of interesting things hidden inside this play, over the course of studying the script during rehearsals. People love the music and the witty dialogue, and you’ll certainly find yourself humming all the famous songs for weeks to come, but I was surprised to discover some fascinating details ‘behind the scenes,’ as it were, that I think speak to the period in time when Sholem Aleichem first invented the character, Tevye and his world, but also speak to the reality of American culture and politics when the show debuted on Broadway 50 years ago, AND have much to say about our lives today, as well as looking ahead to the future.

- In her book, ‘Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof,’ Alisa Solomon talks about the issues that are covered in this timeless piece: “It looks backward and forward, favors both community and individual needs, honors the particular and the universal, struggles between stasis and change, bewails and celebrates. Tevye seems to be constantly caught in these opposing forces and, before our eyes, weighs the arguments of every dilemma - on the one hand, on the other hand...’

- I would add that it straddles the line - like a fiddler balancing on a roof… - between parents and children, between intramarriage and intermarriage, status quo or revolutionary change, and the historical struggle we’ve had as Jews, on one side battling anti-Semitic forces, on the other side, infighting among Jews, neighbors, and family members.

- And I want to begin by sharing with you the first revelation I had about the deeper levels underneath the play’s dialogue. In the very first scene of the play, Tevye speaks to the audience about himself, his community, and his world. He points to the fiddler, strumming along on HER roof (in our version, the Fiddler will be played by fantastic 11-year old Alyse Wicentowski!), and Tevye says, ‘seems funny, no?’ And he begins by stating that you COULD say we’re all fiddlers on the roof, trying to string together a little tune without falling off and breaking our necks. Right? Sound familiar?

And THEN, after we all sing a rousing rendition of “Tradition!”, Tevye ends by saying that WITHOUT our Traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a “Fiddler on the Roof.” Wait! Stop! Go back for a second. I thought we were ALL that fiddler, at least at the start of the song, yet now we need our traditions so we WON’T be that fiddler. I’m confused. Are the traditions helping us stay up there, stringing together a little song, or are the traditions enabling us to AVOID having to balance on a narrow ledge? It can’t be both, can it? Though Tevye would likely say both can be right indeed.

- Let’s hold onto that contradiction for a few minutes.

- Instead, let’s go back for a moment to that song, “Tradition!” I titled this first sermon in the series, ‘Tradition!’, ‘Tradition?’, or ‘Tradition...’ And here’s why. What is the song about? Is it about our ‘beloved’ traditions, and how adherence to them helps us know our place in society, understand what God expects of each of us, and avoid breaking our necks on top of that roof (or avoid having to get up on the roof to begin with, we’re still a bit confused, but let’s ignore that for now)? We imagine that the song is indeed celebrating tradition…

- AND YET, the song and the play seem to disagree on that most basic point about what Tradition really means. You see, we have four parts to the song:

- Fathers - The song tells us they are masters of the house and have the final word at home. YET, at no point in the play does Tevye have the final word! Golde interrupts him constantly, and every one of his daughters takes the upper hand in any argument between them.

- Mothers - The song tells us the mother’s job is to keep a quiet home so papa’s free to read the holy book. Come on, who are we kidding? Golde isn’t interested in keeping a quiet home at all, and she is NOT a big fan of Tevye quoting that same holy book, cuts him off every time he talks about it, and would certainly consider her husband lazy if she’d work all day to give him time to sit back and read.

- Sons - The sing about brides being picked for them, yet no sons in the play wait for anyone to choose a mate for them. Motel, Perchik, and Fyedka; all seize the moment for themselves, and shirk tradition and any efforts by matchmakers or parents to dictate their fate.

- Daughters - similar to sons, have no real interest in adhering to tradition. They sing about getting prepared to marry whoever papa picks - if you know the play at all, you almost laugh when you hear them sing that.

- So what’s going on here? That’s why I ask, ‘Tradition’ with an exclamation point or a question mark? Are we celebrating or mocking, serious devotion or tongue-in-cheek winking?

- But there IS a third option, both for our interpretation of the song AND our understanding of ourselves as fiddlers on roofs. Tradition - elypsis. There’s tradition AND something more. This is certainly where I feel myself veering into the territory of Conservative Judaism, where we talk about the importance of knowing the tradition, understanding, respecting, and truly LOVING the tradition, BUT also with the knowledge and appreciation that there’s more to life. We need to move forward. The tailor, my character, Motel, pushes back against Tevye when he tries to reject him as a suitor for his daughter, ‘Times are changing, Reb Tevye.’ Even Motel, who isn’t the most radical character in the show, sees that the world must move forward. Tradition is important, but so is evolution, enlightenment, and elements of change.

- So indeed we CAN be both the fiddler on the roof, trying to understand our traditions and keep playing versions of the old songs, relating to our tradition and knowing it’s tough! It ain’t easy to care about Shabbat and Kashrut and holiday observance and Jewish chosenness in 21st Century Wallingford. Staying on that roof does feel risky, and we DO worry about falling off and hurting ourselves in the process.

- At the same time, we know that exclusive adherence to those traditions will keep us on that rooftop permanently, and most of us want to walk on solid ground from time to time. So we DO say that we need other information and sensitivities, otherwise our lives WOULD, indeed, be as shaky as that fiddler, stuck indefinitely on that rooftop.

- It really DOES make sense when Tevye says that two opposing views can both be right, AND that a third opinion that points out the challenge of maintaining different views, is ALSO right.

- The song ‘Tradition’ isn’t mocking our Jewish heritage. But it also isn’t being fully honest when it pretends that this is really the most important thing in our lives. The song, both the outward expression of love for tradition, and the undercurrent of challenge to those SAME traditions, reflects our reality. It was the reality of 19th and 20th century Jews who really WANTED to remain in their homes, their beloved little villages, but knew they had to emigrate to America and start new lives. It was the reality of 1960s Americans who tried desperately to cling to the idyllic world of the 1950s, with housewives and suburbs and segregation, even while realizing it couldn’t work, and it hadn’t really worked a decade earlier. ‘Times are changing, Reb Tevye.’ Times change for us all, in every generation, and for every group of people.

- The subtitle of this sermon was ‘what a turbulent time in Jewish history for an upbeat Broadway play.’ Was I talking about the turbulence of shtetl Judaism, the 1960s, or today? Yes. The point of this sermon was not to offer an answer - should it be Tradition with an exclamation point, question mark, or an elypsis - but to raise your awareness of the question.

- When, in your own life, do you feel like the fiddler balancing precariously on that roof, and when do you feel like you live your life trying to stave off having to get up on that roof? Making conscious choices to remain on the ground, and NOT climb onto a dangerous perch? If you aren’t able to join us for any of the three subsequent sermons, I hope your awareness and sensitivity to the undercurrents of this play have at least been heightened. WHEN you come and see us - and I really do hope you’ll come - I hope you’ll see more going on than you did before. And you’ll give some more thought to how tradition influences your life, and the daily decisions you make. Who are you most like in this play? And who do you WISH you were like?

- I think you’ll find that more than just leaving you with great tunes to hum, and some laughs and good cries, the play can also give you a deeper understanding of Jewish history, issues we face in society, and your own life. And all that from a simple Fiddler on a Roof.

- Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ki Tisa: A Quiet Thank You to Betzalel

It's hard not to talk about the Golden Calf incident, which takes place in this week's Torah portion. But, I got away with NOT talking about the Ten Commandments a few weeks ago, when it was the most well-known 
story in that reading, parashat Yitro, so let's be bold and try it once more, shall we? You see, what often bothers me is that we have these Torah portions that contain really famous stories, and we give short shrift to all the other interesting events that take place in that same reading. It just doesn't seem right. Case in point, Betzalel in this week's parashah. You've never heard of him, have you? Figures...

He wasn't a flashy leader like Moses, Aaron, or Miriam, or a great warrior like Joshua or King David, or even a skilled orator like the Biblical prophets. Betzalel was a craftsman, but a darn good one! 
So good, in fact, that God chose him by name to build the Tabernacle, the portable Temple from which God would speak to Moses in the desert. What an incredible honor to be the architect and builder of God's earthly home!! And yet, so many of us have never heard of him. In fact, he isn't even really mentioned that much in the Torah itself, and we don't ever hear him speaking. You might think there's something paradoxical about him being so important that God would single him out personally for this task, and yet so little is known of him. Doesn't he deserve more recognition and praise?

Yet some people don't want that praise. They really, truly, and honestly aren't looking for the limelight. They thrive on remaining backstage, on doing a job really, really well, and gaining satisfaction from the accomplishment alone, not the acclaim or the fame. I imagine that 
Betzalel was just such a person. His name even indicates as much, meaning either 'under God's protection,' or - more literally - 'in God's shadow.' He preferred to hang back, to just focus on the task at hand and perform it to the best of his ability. How fitting, also, that we'd be introduced to Betzalel in a Torah portion with a MUCH more scandalous story, so that we almost never get the chance to talk about him.

However, this leaves you and me in a quandary. Betzalel wants no praise; he may even be happy that the Golden Calf allows him to remain 'in the shadows.' But don't you and I still have an obligation to see the quality work Betzalel has performed for us? That he took on the daunting task of creating the Ark of the Covenant, to house the Ten Commandments, and which would then never again be touched by human hands? 
In our community, there are many people who do incredible work. Who visit homebound congregants and never tell anyone else they've done it. Who set up for luncheons, make phone calls, volunteer, go grocery shopping, pour wine at services, empty the tzedakah box, and do countless other things. And they DON'T want to be recognized. But that does not mean that you and I are off the hook. We need to open our eyes, every moment of every day, and see their contributions as well; NOT just the contributions of those who accept the recognition. We still must feel gratitude, and find ways to either thank them quietly, or perhaps 'pay it forward,' and emulate their example. So right now, I want to thank all the incredible, invaluable, and irreplaceable Betzalel's of my community. And no, I won't name any of them. You know who you are.


Photos in this blog post:
2. CC image courtesy of Tom Allen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of ÁWá on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of BRBurton on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tetzaveh: Multi-culturalism Rocks!

Sometimes, we take two steps forward and three steps back. All we can really do is try our darnedest to make it two steps forward and only ONE step back, but it's hard. Whether we're talking about progress for religious understanding and pluralism in Israel or acceptance and multi-culturalism in this country, it's often an uphill battle. This week, I was 
particularly saddened to hear the debate raging over a commercial for Coca Cola during the Super Bowl, and I wanted to connect it to something that caught my eye in our Torah reading. Now believe me, I wasn't too impressed with ANY of the commercials during this year's Super Bowl. So many of them began with sappy, emotional scenes; yet all they were advertising was beer, cars, or soda. Nevertheless, there's something very interesting going on in this particular controversy that I would like to highlight.

You can click on this link to see the commercial, but basically it shows many 'American' scenes from all parts of the country, with people from all walks of life, and the music playing through all these scenes is 'America, the Beautiful,' but sung in seven different languages. 
The ad sparked outrage, because some people feel that everyone in America should speak English (even though it actually, technically ISN'T the official language of this country...). Some people, however, saw it as insulting to sing the song in any other language. Personally, I thought it was a lovely sentiment, and an aspect of America's past, present, and future that should be celebrated (even though it WAS all done to sell an incredibly over-commercialized and unhealthy soft-drink). To me, this controversy highlights how much intolerance remains in this country, and how easily it simmers back to the surface of our public debate. We saw the same thing happen recently, when an Indian-American, Nina Davuluri, was crowned Miss America. Diversity can be a hard thing to accept.

So how does this relate back to the Torah? In our parashah, we read about the clothing of the High Priest, as dictated to Moses by God. One of the special garments was a 'breast piece,' which basically looked like a giant rectangle with twelve, distinct, in-set rocks, each one representing  
a different tribe. And the importance of this 'Breastpiece of Decision' wasn't just the number twelve, i.e. Moses and Aaron could NOT have picked twelve identical rocks for this vestment. Rather, God specifies the twelve specific rocks to be used, including emerald, sapphire, amethyst, agate, crystal, lapis lazuli, and jasper. Like the fifty states of the USA, the twelve tribes of Israel represent twelve different, unique, separate, and distinct groups. What unites them isn't their same-ness, that they have identical values, agree on everything, and like similar foods, music, and clothing. It's about shared heritage and shared destiny, and maybe - to some extent - just sharing the same physical space on this earth, and needing to get along for basic survival and success.

Difference is tough. There's no question it would be easier to get along with people who all agree with you, but that's the challenge of being a human being, and of living in a Democracy. The priestly breastpiece 
wasn't created in order to advertise how all these various tribes were exactly the same. God specifically emphasized the importance of DIFFERENT stones, to illustrate (and celebrate) uniqueness, and STILL we work together for our shared destiny and hopes for the future. This is not an easy lesson to learn or adhere to, as clearly evidenced by the state of affairs in this country (and in Israel). And yet, it is so crucially important. The Biblical garment was called 'The Breastpiece of Decision,' to remind us that ALL demographic groups in our population need to be considered, not just the majority or the loudest voices. Let us all continue to work on taking this message to heart, especially in moments when it's hardest to do.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Renee Comet on Wikimedia Commons
2. Video courtesy of Coca Cola on YouTube
3. CC image courtesy of ברי"א on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Joenitwit on Wikimedia Commons