Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayakhel: When to say “Enough”

To anyone with the experience of a synagogue or federation fund-raising campaign, these verses are almost beyond belief. When in living memory has there been such an outpouring of “freewill offerings”—and when have the leaders of any fund drive ordered the donors to stop giving?

But when [the Israelites] continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning, all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task on which he was engaged, and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Ex. 36:3–6)

How could such a thing have happened? The relationship of this parashah to what precedes it in Exodus suggests some conclusions.

First, there is the obvious parallel to the immediately preceding parashah, Ki Tisa. In fact, the cognomen of this parashah, Vayakhel, is ominous, because a different form of the same word was used to describe the discontented assembly that led to the making of the golden calf. There, the Israelites gladly contributed gold to make an idol; here, however, they contribute gold and many other substances that are needed to make the tabernacle. Thus, their gifts and the making of the tabernacle provide formal closure to the episode of the golden calf, not through punishment, which has already taken place, but through a return to God.

Second, Vayakhel concludes a logical unit that began with parashat Terumah, in which God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2). Israel’s true atonement is accomplished not through the punishments exacted after the fact, but through the fulfillment of the commandment that God had already given.

Third, it is part of a symbolic cycle that began much earlier in Exodus, with the liberation from Mitzrayim, and that reached its peak with the revelation at Sinai. It was because of trust and gratitude that Israel could accept the revelation of Sinai, but while that acceptance emphasized trust in (and fear of) God, the outpouring of gifts in Vayakhel emphasizes overwhelming gratitude.

How could Moses dare to check the expression of that gratitude? It would appear that, because Israel should be endlessly grateful to God, the stream of gifts should also be endless.

Moses can limit the Israelites’ gifts, however, because God has already given detailed instructions about the construction of the tabernacle, and from these the artisans can determine what is sufficient. In the modern world, when our instructions are less clear, the needs seem endless, and our “freewill offerings” may be less generous, it is harder to say, “Enough!”

The remainder of this parashah, which describes the making of the tabernacle and its artifacts by Bezalel, Oholiab, and the other artisans, casts some light on this predicament. Although the specifics of the tabernacle are unique, they have a parallel in our practice of hidur mitzvah – the enhancement of a mitzvah through the use of beautiful artifacts and superior materials. For example, we choose to use silver rather than a base metal for Shabbat candlesticks, and we select the best available kind of bread for Shabbat, even though the mitzvot could be fulfilled technically without these enhancements.

But how much enhancement is enough? Most of us, once we have acquired beautiful Shabbat candlesticks, do not yearn for a pair that might be even more beautiful. We have some sense that the enhancement is sufficient. We may even realize that, if we were to insist on having enormously expensive and beautiful religious artifacts, they might become the objects of worship rather than the appurtenances of it. And, whether we give freely or grudgingly to a synagogue or federation fund drive, few of us feel compelled to continue adding to our pledges once we have made them.

In matters of our personal service to God it is less clear. Whether our personal observance is traditional or liberal, we often feel a gnawing discontent, which may impel those whose style of observance is liberal to reclaim traditional practices, or those whose observance is traditional to adopt various chumrot (additional strictnesses).

And yet the discontent remains. Rather than be discouraged by it, we should be heartened: it reminds us that, like our ancestors in this parashah, we are still able to feel grateful to God for our liberation from Mitzrayim and for the gift of Torah.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tissa: what is work?

What is work? A physicist would use one definition, and a labor statistician would use a different one.

Most of us would define work in terms of effort, whether physical or mental, and we would certainly class paying jobs as work regardless of what the jobs entailed. For example, a baby-sitter is “working” even while sitting still.

And we are familiar with the traditional Jewish definition of “work,” the one that rules out riding in a vehicle on Shabbat even though it might entail less physical effort than walking. Where do we get that idea?

This week’s parashah is most often cited in connection with its most memorable episode, the story of the Molten Calf. It also contains several other elements that warrant study, beginning with the odd story of the census at the very start of the parashah. The peculiarity is not the discussion of a census as such; even in the ancient world a census was far from unknown. What is odd is that each person who is counted in the census of the Israelites has to pay a ransom. Imagine how much more resentment there would be of the U.S. census if, in addition to filling out a form and divulging personal information, everyone had to pay a filing fee!

The rationale for the ransom of half a shekel apiece seems to be that counting the people of Israel is a privilege essentially reserved to God, and a mundane census endangers the person being counted. Even today, in traditional circles, effort is made to avoid counting Jews. For example, if there is doubt about whether a minyan exists, the usual way of counting is to have the group recite a Bible verse, one word at a time, that consists of exactly ten words. And some of us may remember grandparents who would count “Not one! Not two! Not three!”

This parashah also contains the source text for the definition of work that is prohibited on Shabbat. After the instructions about the census, God gives Moses detailed instructions about various accoutrements of the mishkan, and designates Bezalel, Oholiav, and others to make them. Immediately following these instructions, God tells Moses to speak to the people about keeping the Sabbath.

But keeping the Sabbath has already been commanded (in the Aseret ha-Dibrot), so why say it again? On the principle that nothing in the Torah is redundant, Jewish tradition takes the association to indicate, first, that even work to carry out God’s instructions about the mishkan is subject to the commandment of Shabbat observance, and second, that all the various kinds of work needed to build the mishkan and make its accoutrements are specifically prohibited on Shabbat.

This section contains a text that is familiar from the Shabbat liturgy, V’shamru:
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed (31:16–17).

This parashah contains another passage memorable from the liturgy. After breaking the tablets of the Law, destroying the Molten Calf (and making the people drink a solution of its ashes, the likely cause of the plague that follows), and ordering the Levites to kill the chief offenders, Moses returns to the mountain to receive a second copy of the Law. Even though God communicates with Moses “face to face” (33:11), Moses wants to know more—perhaps he is affected by a little of the same doubt that led to the creation of the Molten Calf—and asks to see God’s “Presence” (k’vodekha, the “glory” that will fill the mishkan at the end of Exodus).

God answers confusingly that Moses cannot see God’s face, but that God will pass before him and he may see God’s back. As this takes place, God intones a list of God’s characteristics that is part of the liturgy for the Yamim Noraim:
The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations (34:6–7).

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tetzaveh: eternal pomegranates

Parashat Tetzaveh continues the theme of last week’s reading: the building and operation of the mishkan.

A substantial part of it deals with the design of the priests’ vestments, which seem very elaborate for the portable sanctuary of a people wandering in the desert. Many scholars believe that the bulk of the description comes from a much later period and may describe the vestments worn by priests in the First Temple.

This is partially supported by the absence of information that would seem essential even though there is a wealth of detail about other things. That there is a hereditary priesthood seems to be taken for granted, and the text names items, such as the ephod, that are never defined. Probably everyone knew what they were.

The parashah begins with the description of the ner tamid. Although we most often call this an “eternal light,” that is clearly not the meaning that the Torah intends: in verse 27:21, it states plainly that the light is to burn from evening to morning, in other words, when light would be needed.

The idea of burning the light, or lights, 24 hours a day seems to date only from the Second Temple period. Whether this is the direct predecessor of the ner tamid now found in every synagogue is a matter of dispute. Although it is generally believed that a light came to be burned in the synagogue following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the historical location for it was on the western side of the sanctuary.

The transfer to a location over the Ark, on the eastern wall, may reflect the influence of Christian church architecture during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Although one strain of Jewish thought automatically rejects any practice that imitates Christian churches, Jews in those communities in Europe that extended a measure of civil rights to them were often participants in general culture, and it was not unusual for synagogues to be designed by Christian architects, or for synagogues to commission music from Christian composers.

Furthermore, the forms of Jewish and Christian worship developed side by side; they have common sources and influenced each other. For example, our practice of having two readings from Scripture—Torah and Prophets (haftarah)—has an exact parallel in Christian worship where it is typical to have either one reading from the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) and one from the New Testament, or one from a Gospel and one from an Epistle.

This is even more striking when we read about the priests’ vestments, since components of priests’ vestments in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches follow the description quite closely.

In Judaism, where there has been no active priesthood for more than 1,900 years, elements of the priests’ dress, including a sort of robe and a breastplate, are found on the Torah scroll. In some synagogues there is a Torah breastplate designed exactly like the one described here, including the 12 gemstones; several years ago I was the reader for this passage in one such synagogue.

And our Torah ornaments are called rimmonim, “pomegranates,” after the decoration prescribed for the hem of the priest’s robe, and often have bells, also prescribed. One of our Hebrew textbooks defines rimmonim as “Torah ornaments,” but I like to tell students the original meaning and give credit for it on tests. I also tell them that in modern Hebrew rimmonim can denote hand grenades—“pineapples” in American slang.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Terumah: the second-oldest profession

The coming week’s parashah, called Terumah, announces the Jewish people’s first fund-raising campaign. The purpose of the fund drive is to build and furnish a mikdash, a sanctuary, for God. (Terumah, usually translated as “gifts,” is singular. It is understood as a collective noun, and in later use denotes that which has been set aside for God.)

Most of the parashah provides information about the design and construction of the mikdash and its furnishings, in detail that many readers find mind-numbing.
Furthermore, despite the wealth of detail, we know remarkably little about the actual design of many of the objects; much seems to be taken for granted.

As a result, it’s a parashah that teachers of weekly Torah classes hope will fall on a vacation day. While it doesn’t, like Tazria, deal with an apparently loathsome skin disease, it is difficult to draw contemporary moral lessons from these instructions.

I remember one adult class, however, in which the participants found it by far the most interesting parashah in the entire Torah. The class consisted mostly of engineers, and only the unavailability of a CAD program that measured in cubits kept them from building a mishkan in the parking lot.

Nevertheless, parashat Terumah does address a question that still concerns is: where can we find God?

References throughout the Bible suggest a preoccupation with keeping track of God’s location and remembering where there have been previous encounters with God. Consider the number of times the Torah narrative returns to Beth-El, for example. After Jacob’s dream there (Genesis 28), he erects a pillar and pours oil on it. We tend to read that as a sign of respect. An odd footnote in the Plaut commentary cites an ancient belief that gods lived in stones, but Jacob says nothing to suggest that he attributes his dream to the stone. Perhaps his real intention is to “mark the spot” in case he needs to find it again.

As teachers, we tell children that God is everywhere. This belief in God’s immanence is reassuring, but it can be hard to maintain belief in a God who is wholly and perpetually immanent. There are just too many times when God seems distant or absent.

And yet it would be even harder to maintain belief in a God who is totally transcendent. The rationale given in Terumah for building a mikdash shows us how Hebrew religion reconciled these two ideas of God: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8).

The idea is that the mikdash is God’s pied à terre, the place where a transcendent God can be found on earth. Later writings elaborate this idea considerably and apply it to the Temple in Jerusalem, the beit ha-mikdash.

Sometimes we also teach children that the synagogue is “God’s house.” While the synagogue inherits some of the attributes of the beit ha-mikdash, this is an oversimplification and a trivialization. Whatever we might believe about God’s presence in the mikdash, we don’t really believe that God is any more present in the synagogue than elsewhere.

Our tradition defines the synagogue as a house of prayer, study, and assembly. We would do better to teach that the special function of the synagogue is to help us sense God’s presence through prayer and study together.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Mishpatim: covenant, code, commandment

It is almost a commonplace to say that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, and to associate this specifically with last week’s Torah portion, Yitro. But the bulk of the laws that constitute the “Covenant Code,” as well as the very acceptance of the Covenant, are to be found in this week’s portion, Mishpatim.

The JPS translation that is used in the Plaut commentary and in Etz Hayim renders the name of this portion as “rules,” and frequently it is translated as “ordinances.” The term derives from the root meaning “to judge,” and although “judgments” does not work as a translation here, the legal sense is appropriate because many of the mishpatim given in this parashah deal with civil and criminal law rather than with ritual. In rabbinic thought, mishpatim are laws for which we can comprehend the reasons, in contrast to chukim, laws given by God for which we are unable to propose rational explanations.

Israel’s acceptance of the Covenant takes place in 24:3, when Moses repeats “all the commands of the Lord and all the rules,” and the people reply, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” Moses proceeds to write down the commands; whether this refers to the Ten Commandments, all the laws of the Covenant Code, or something else, perhaps all the laws of Torah, is unclear.

Then, as described in verse 12, God instructs Moses to go up the mountain and receive stone tablets on which the “teachings and commandments” (haTorah and haMitzvah, both singular) are written.

Many of the laws of the Covenant Code might be adopted by any civil society, and some of them resemble laws of neighboring nations in the ancient world. Jewish commentators have taken care to distinguish the laws of Israel from those of the neighboring societies, and to point out many aspects of the laws here that represent advances over ancient customs.

One that is particularly noteworthy is the prohibition on lending money at interest: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor who is in your power, do not act toward him as a creditor: exact no interest from him” (22:24). This comes in the general context of proper treatment of disadvantaged people of all kinds, immediately following “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (22:20) and “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan” (22:21).

The original function of this prohibition, in the time after settlement in the Land of Israel, may have been to prevent the dispossession of landowners who were forced to borrow. It led, in the diaspora, to a distinctive Jewish institution that still exists: the free-loan society.

Almost every Jewish community of any size has one. It’s an organization, almost always run by volunteers, that makes loans, usually small, to Jews. “Free” in its name means that no interest is charged.

The loans are often made to meet emergency needs, and free-loan boards usually decide quickly. Occasionally a loan might be made to help someone launch a business, but they’re personal, not business loans. (Jewish law places business loans in a different category.)

The free-loan societies don’t think of this as charity in the modern sense. They do it because God commands it.

Yet it is tzedakah in the traditional sense of that word: not something that we do because the thing itself feels good, but something that we do for the sake of righteousness.