Terumah: Don’t need no fancy Mishkan

houston strongWow, just reading Terumah, this week’s parasha, you just can’t avoid the obvious: God told the Israelites to make one fancy place to store the tablets Moses brought down from the mountaintop. I mean, really fancy. Multi-colored clothes, fine linen, acacia wood, and of course, pure gold. People really dug in to find the finest of the fine materials with which to make this holy place. And it’s not just the tabernacle cover; it’s the lampstand, the cherubim, the cups….all of it.

Clearly, the Torah is telling us that there is a lot of store put into material items. Things matter. How we decorate and keep the Tabernacle isn’t just personal taste – it comes from God, ad it’s directed to the entire community. Material things matter.

This week, I was at the JFNA Professional Institute, a gathering of senior management of Jewish Federations from all over North America. It was held in Houston, TX. I arrived on behalf of Spertus, to expand our presence among the Federation community, and look for good matches for our various graduate degrees and certificates. It started out as a typical conference…until the first evening’s program.

We all boarded buses and drove to the Houston JCC. Remember what happened to Houston in late August, 2017? Well it happened with a vengeance to the neighborhood surrounding the Houston JCC. The Jewish community of Houston is largely centered in a 2 mile area of town. Situated along one of the bayous in the city, this area felt the full force of the hurricane. The JCC took in 10 feet of water. (Look at the room you’re in, now go up 10 feet on the walls, and imagine that room filled with dirty water. For days.) We heard from Houstonians, how they were affected by the storm, how they got the J up and running to help others who needed so much, even as their own homes were flooded out. Huge questions face the Jewish community there. How do you recreate a Jewish community when people aren’t sure they can stay in the area? Where do you rebuild what’s destroyed? Where do you place a new synagogue, if you have to? Where do you move if you’re used to being able to walk to shul? Do you stay, or pick a different end of town. The questions are endless.

The help that Houston received, and continues to receive, from  Jewish communities all over the world means so much to them, and day by day, they’re rebuilding, moving through, not past,  their deep and lasting trauma.That is one remarkable community, and every one of the people who were there have the same, yet so different, story. One woman compared it to Sinai – we were all there at the same event, yet we experienced it differently, together.

Another remarkable community was forged from slavery and created in the wilderness, and they received the instructions on how to make a Tabernacle worthy of its contents. Months before, slaves grabbed what they could and left in the middle of the night. Harvey victims faced a similar moment – what do you take? How much? What’s important, what gets left behind, destined to be destroyed? I’m struck by the contrast this week between the emphasis on the fanciest, finest materials for the Tabernacle, and the realization that material things are just that…things…when the waters rush in and the storm can’t be contained. Comfortable seats, lovely carpets, gorgeous windows are all gone. After the storm, the most humble of containers was good enough for the Torahs that were saved. Tubs of clothes grabbed in haste replaced beautiful closets. Paper cups became Kiddush cups.

We are inclined to make beautiful, holy places, and I’m sure the rebuilt synagogues of Houston will be lovely. But I’m not sure I will read the linen and gold of Terumah the same way ever again.

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Mishpatim: Do not tolerate the Sorcerer

jafar sorcererSit down, folks…I’m about to go political. This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, is just yelling right at me about the kind of society we live in, the kind we want to live in, the kind we can build if we have the right vision and leadership.

Jews are listmakers and do-ers. Torah tells us what to do, not only what to believe, and last week we got the mother of all lists: the Ten Commandments. But this week, we get the detailed list , and frankly, this one is almost more important than the other one. This is a bullet-point document of how to build a non-Egypt society. It’s not enough to say we’re not going back to being slaves in Egypt. No, Torah is saying here we’re not going to live anywhere like slaves ever again. We will treat humans with respect and dignity. We will not traffic people, or break up families, and we will assign cities of refuge, places where individuals on the run can feel safe from a vigilante mob. It’s all in there.

Mishpatim also sets out ways to protect society from other ills. “You shall not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex 22:17) Rashi (11th c France) says this applies to both men and women, though he personally feels it is a more common occurrence for women than men to take this role. Ok, Rashi. But Ramban (13th c Spain) goes further. He says the society cannot tolerate a sorceress because she is (quoting Ezekial here) “besmirched of name and laden with iniquity”, and that fools are easily lured after her.

There are plenty of ways of describing the head of the current administration, but that works for me – besmirched of name, laden with iniquity and fools are easily lured to follow him. And Torah tells us not to tolerate someone like that in our midst. Granted, the text identifies this as a capital offense, for which the sorcer/ess must be put to death. I am not advocating that at all. But I do believe the Torah is telling us to pay attention to those in our society that promise magical endings to problems we face, that with the wave of a hand, all our troubles will cease, if only we put our faith in him. It’s too easy to be swayed and fooled by promises like that, lies that are told, and Torah is telling us to stay ever vigilant against those that come forward in that vein.

We would do well to study Mishpatim as deeply as we study Yitro, when the Ten Commandments are given. Those broad-brush guidelines for how to live a just and righteous life are great, but the nitty-gritty, what-if situations of Mishpatim are of greater value…indeed, they present the Jewish values that weave through our lives: Human dignity and respect, how to treat the vulnerable of our society, how we treat the land we depend upon for our sustenance, and even the animals in our keeping.

I will not tolerate this sorcerer in our midst. Ever vigilant, always resisting.

 

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Vay’chi: A time of oaths

“Place your hand under my thigh and swear to me”  (Genesis 47:29) This language reminds us immediately of  another scene in Genesis, when Abraham made his servant Eliezer swear an oath to him in the same manner. That time is was for getting Abraham’s son a wife from the “old country”, not from among the Canaanites. Eliezer did so, and that’s the story of how Isaac married Rebecca. What ensued from that oath was a lot of deception – Rebecca favored Jacob, Isaac favored Esau, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, and the father’s blessing at his deathbed.

We are at the deathbed of our last family patriarch, Jacob. This is the end of Genesis, and from here on out, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we no longer tell the story of a family, a tribe. We tell the story of a nation. The Abraham, Isaac, Jacob saga ends here.

What is Jacob asking for in this scene? What is so important that he must have the solemnity of having a hand placed under his thigh? Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt. He wants to be buried in Canaan, and  his son Joseph makes that promise to his father.

In the early part of the story, Abraham is concerned with the family line, “preferring family ties over those with the natives of the land…” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary p 116). But by the end of Genesis, the tribal ties don’t so much give way but take on a different role. Jacob wants to be buried back where so much of the family history took place, where his father and grandfather were buried. There were no Israelites back there. The nation had moved to Egypt, Joseph was comfortably ensconced in the culture, and the people were settled in the land.

Maybe Jacob knew what was coming, that a ruler would arise in Egypt who wouldn’t know Joseph. Maybe he knew that the people were going to need to be reminded where they were from. The story of Joseph being reunited with his family was sure to have spread across the community. They would also have known about Joseph traveling back to Canaan with his father’s body, to be buried in the family tomb.

Language is precise in the Torah. Words matter a great deal, and similar words matter where they occur in different settings. Perhaps this oath scene was a precursor to Moses leading the people out, preparing them for the message Moses was bringing them: not just they were to leave Egypt, but to go to a particular place where both history lived and the future waited.

 

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Vayigash: Neck and neck

joseph weeping on benjamin neckDoes reconciling always mean total forgiveness? Can we reconcile with someone whom we don’t fully forgive? There are several instances of reconciliation in Bereshit, Genesis. One was when Jacob and Esau reconciled in Chapter 33:4  “And Esau ran toward him [Jacob] and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him.” They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, and when last together,Esau was out to kill his brother for having deceived him and stolen his birthright the eldest son’s blessing.

In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his brothers meet after twenty years, and they reconcile too. There are two verses that describe this reconciliation, and what’s different between them says a lot.

Jacob has just revealed that he is the long-lost brother that they had, at first, thrown in a pit to die and only later, were convinced by eldest brother Reuben to sell Jacob into slavery. It’s a very emotional scene. Jacob had told the brothers they could go home with all the food they needed, but had to leave Benjamin, his only full brother, with him. Judah makes a heartfelt plea that doing so would kill their father (Jacob) if they came home without Benjamin, that their father was still mourning the loss of his son Joseph. Finally, Joseph can’t bear it any more, and he tells his brothers who he is. They don’t believe him, “His brothers were unable to answer him – they recoiled in fear of him,” (Gen 45:3)

Joseph called them closer and told them again he was their long-lost brother, that it wasn’t their terrible treatment of him as a child that brought him to Egypt, but God’s will. “He [Joseph] then fell weeping upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and Benjamin wept on his neck.” (Gen 45:14) It’s the same language as when Jacob and Esau met again.

The next verse is, “He [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept with them; only after this could his brothers respond to him.” (Gen 45:15)

Do you see the difference? Every word is important in Torah, the extra ones we see, and the ones we don’t see. Joseph wept on Benjamin’s neck, but for the rest of his brothers, he only kissed and wept with them. There’s no “neck” there, like there was between Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Benjamin. Weeping on someone’s neck is about as close as one can get, reconciling fully. But Joseph and his brothers don’t – they weep with each other, but don’t get as close as Joseph and Benjamin got.

Benjamin was the youngest brother, and the only full brother Joseph had. Their mother died giving birth to Benjamin. Theirs was a bond much stronger than with the others. Maybe Benjamin knew about what had happened to his big brother, maybe he didn’t. It’s easy to imagine that Joseph was still hurt by what his brothers did to him, and was still angry. He wept at seeing them again, of course, but he didn’t bring them in as close, weeping on their necks.

Joseph wept a lot in his story, and it was for different reasons each time. In this moment, he was glad to be with his brothers again, but he had been betrayed, treated horribly. He wept for those lost years, the loneliness and pain of being left alone, to survive on his own. And he wept for knowing he could never be truly reconciled with his whole family. There was a future for them all together, and he would get to see his father again, but like a word in a Torah verse, there would always be something missing.

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Chanukah: Eighth candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

chanukah 8

Tonight, the gift of OPTIMISM

This includes both a sense of perspective and a sense of joy.  Life will be hard enough, so relish the good moments.  Our other gifts will help you stay strong in the face of adversity.  This one will help you savor its absence.  Focus on hope, equanimity, and a positive outlook, instead of on worry and pessimism.  And when you feel despair or pessimism, take that as a sign of what work needs to be done next.  There is always work to be done in this world.  Be a joyous presence.  Count your blessings. Have fun.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

 

 

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Chanukah: Seventh candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world

chanukah-7

Tonight, the gift of SECURITY

Well, at least as much security as we can give you.  Physical security is no longer guaranteed in this world; violence is random and raging.  But we send you into the world with a deep personal security of who you are.  Your true, long range security has to come from within yourselves, from being and becoming trustworthy.  Meanwhile, we will do all we can to give you the foundation of composure, of knowing without question that you are able to do good things in the world.  We are proud of your innate abilities, your goodness, and your good sense, and of your willingness to try.  You do not need to compete, or to follow the crowd to gain self-esteem, because you already have, from us, and from within yourself, the seeds of true confidence.  Just nurture them.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah: Sixth Candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world

 

chanukah 6

Tonight, the gift of FREEDOM

Freedom came within boundaries that stretched as you got older, and it seemed to have come in painfully measured doses. We always intended you to know and experience freedom within guidelines you can keep using as you’ve matured.  You have become an adult and out in the world of nearly unlimited independence,  so we hope you will know how to use this freedom, and how to be true to your own standards. Freedom didn’t mean just doing what you wanted.  We also hope you realize we gave you this gift  so you would be able to recognize lack of freedom in others, and work so that they too will be free.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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