This week, in parashat T'rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together's – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.
The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?
I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.
In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.
To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.
While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.
I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.
[A sermon from Friday, December 21, 2012]
Genesis 46:28 Now Judah, he had sent on ahead of him, to Joseph, to give directions ahead of him to Goshen. When they came to the region of Goshen,
29 Joseph had his chariot harnessed and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. When he caught sight of him he flung himself upon his neck and wept upon his neck continually.
30 Israel said to Joseph: Now I can die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive!
In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his father Jacob, who we also call Israel, accomplish an amazing thing – a reunion between parent and child when the parent had thought his son dead for many years.
Would that we could only guarantee this for everyone.
Jewish tradition embraces and discusses almost every difficulty, and yet the difficulty of losing a child – whether because infant mortality was so common, and therefore not requiring a story to respond to it, or some other reason – seems to be something our rabbis and scholars and writers avoid.
We cannot avoid it.
We cannot stop thinking about it, crying about it, and longing to fix it.
There is no easy fix.
Guns are not the problem by themselves – although impassioned pleas like this one may make us think so…
Here is an observation from Rabbi Shoshana Hantman:
My husband, Rich Weill, spends a lot of time on a website called Banjo Hangout, especially when there's not much happening at work. these banjo players (insert joke here) discuss all sorts of things not related to bluegrass music; and many of them seem to be right-wing fundamentalist Second-Amendment types. Not Rich's natural cadre.
He wrote this today on the website:
When people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting a fire, and are "fascinated with fire, its consequences and related activities," we call that "pyromania." (DSM IV-TR, Diagnostic criteria for 312.33 Prymonania.) But, for some reason, when people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting an explosion inside a metal cartridge containing a lethal projectile, and are fascinated by the consequences and activities related to that potentially deadly explosion, we're supposed to consider that "being an American."
Guns are about one thing and one thing only: destruction. Whether it's a paper target or a tin can or a clay disk or an animal or a human being, guns exist only to destroy whatever they're aimed at. How unlike a banjo.
I'm also getting a little tired of hearing people excuse the often-scary American obsession with the destructive power of guns as a deeply embedded part of our culture, particularly in certain regions of the country. Slavery was also once a deeply embedded part of the culture of a region of the country, which even called it its "peculiar institution." Domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace were once deeply embedded parts of our culture, tolerated by most women without question. A lot of things are deeply imbedded in the culture somewhere -- until they aren't anymore.
Guns are necessary tools for those who defend our country and our communities, or for those who must hunt for food. They shouldn't be implements of pleasure. Pick up a paintbrush or a musical instrument or some woodworking tools instead. Do something that creates for pleasure, not something that destroys.
Better mental health maintenance and attention is not the only answer, and still we have to work on it.
This is from a piece by Liel Liebovitz, on Tabletmag.org:
“I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” she wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
Amen to that. In Israel, still a somewhat socialist country, mental health services are ready available, for free, to anyone. And because so many young Israelis undergo traumatic experiences in the course of their military service, a whole host of nonprofit organizations are on hand to provide counseling and treatment. We must do the same. Rather than pretend that it was the objects in their hands rather than the afflictions in their minds that led Lanza and Holmes and Cho and the others to perpetrate their monstrosities, we should offer help to those young men and their families. We have no more compassionate route, and no greater hope for peace.
And still, there must be more to it.
There is something wrong with us, something rotting away at the heart of America. We are a frontier people with no frontier anymore except within ourselves. We are conquerors and builders with no conquest left, and no unifying project to devote ourselves to. We must confront that most frightening of places, the parts within us that need attention because we have no “west” left to go for our young men. Star Trek may have gotten it wrong – the Final Frontier is not out there in space, but in here, in our hearts and minds, in the seats of our humanity. We must evolve from within, as we can no longer rely on external resources to help us advance.
The peace we long for we must create together, as a community of people from different backgrounds and with different opinions.
We American Jews must take our role as part of the leaders in this. More than any other people in the world we have learned to live with others and collaborate. We must bring our wisdom to bear on these issues. The world needs America to improve and evolve, and our children need us to improve and evolve so that they may live.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.
Temple Beth El women stand with Torah scrolls wearing Tallitot to show solidarity with Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall who peacefully and justifiably demand equal rights to pray at Judaism's holiest site, the Kotel (the Wall), in Jerusalem.
Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:
Today we look at B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34 - two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God's commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:
These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely - the Book of Job.
So how do we learn from these texts?
When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.
Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.
[From Sukkot Worship at Temple Beth El, on Monday, October 11, 2012 - 15 Tishrei 5772]
Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:
Passover – celebrate freedom
Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah
Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.
Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.
Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.
Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.
When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.
Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.
We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.
Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.
Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.
May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.
[Given on Sunday, September 23, 2012, at the Hebrew Cemetery, Charlotte, NC]
The Place Where We are Absolutely Right - Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are absolutely right
flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are absolutely right
is trampled, hardened
like a courtyard.
doubts and loves
make the world rise like dough
like a molehill, like a plow.
And a whisper will be heard
in the place where a home was destroyed.
We still relate to those who are gone. We wish they were here to share time and space with us. We talk to them and wish they would talk back. We look back with regret over opportunities missed. Loss remains within us, a hollow space, demanding attention.
As our loss demands attention, so do we resist it – we want it to be simple and complete – to be absolute like the place in Amichai’s poem. A place where we are absolutely right sounds like a comfort. This place could be easier. It would certainly be quieter. Amichai reminds us what that place would look like – it would be truly lifeless. There are no possibilities there. In that place we allow our own small needs to crowd out everything else.
The people we have lost are not absolutely one way or another either, and to hear them we may have to admit that one person may have many sides that we remember.
My father (may his memory be for a blessing) and I used to hotly debate the issues of the day. We knew each other’s positions very well, and often started arguing where we had left off before. After hours of discussion on long car trips between North Carolina and New York we usually managed to discover some common ground – growing closer through our doubts and our love. Over the years, as he fell ill to pancreatic cancer, my father lost interest in these conversations, preferring exchanges that took less effort. I lost those times even before he died. Now that he’s gone I must go past that barren place where nothing grows into my older memories of him in order to connect with a more living time between us.
Instead of working towards that place of absolutes, let us embrace our doubts and loves. Let us live and struggle in our world of grays and colors and shades of partial knowledge. In this world where things grow, things die as well. Our loss grows and changes and we learn and cope.
Over time we all accumulate a bigger cast of characters in our places of loss. As their numbers grow, as our loss increases, so too do those conversations. The ones where we offer one side and have to imagine the other side. These conversations can only happen in the places where we are not always right. Reminiscing with family and friends and imagining the thoughts and ideas of those who are gone allows us to keep them with us, allows doubt and love to live on.
As we enter this new year of 5773, let us bravely enter the areas of loss in our lives together. May we find in our own hollows, in those spaces filled with destroyed homes, the whispers of those who have left us behind, and the responses of we who remain.
In this time of communal memorial, this space filled with repentance and confession, this time of broken hearts and open gates, let us comfort each other. Our doubts and loves shared caringly with each other, our compassion and loss felt together, may help leaven the rising dough of our world. Let us listen to each other whisper, let us find comfort in honoring what has gone before, and building anew together.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we be well inscribed together in the New Year.
This morning one of the first things I saw was this article:
I am beyond outraged.
No religious ethos should ever defend the right to harm others as an expression of "freedom of religion".
I cannot believe that this needs to be expressed.
The right to impose one's belief system on someone else, especially by brute force or harassment, is not a right - it is an abuse of someone else's rights.
Religions in our pluralist American society must abide by the laws of that society. If your religion advises bullying as an expression of your piety, please move to a place with a state-sponsored and enforced religion, and leave us alone.
11am - Register for your Bark Mitzvah Certificate
11:20am - Animal parade
11:50am - Mi Sheh-Bark - Blessing of the animals by TBE Rabbis
Noon - Lunch
12:30pm - Games & Contests
The "fee" for participation is 3 cans of cat food/$5 per attendee -
maxing out at 6 cans of food/$10 per family.
Attendees are invited/expected to bring their own picnic lunch
OUR beneficiary is the Spay/Neuter Charlotte Clinic.
We are fundamentally interconnected and the Dalai Lama offers clarity on how:
Our good fortune is dependent upon the cooperation and contributions of others. Every aspect of our present well-being is due to hard work on the part of others. As we look around us at the buildings we live and work in, the roads we travel, the clothes we wear, or the food we eat, we have to acknowledge that all are provided by others. None of them would exist for us to enjoy and make use of were it not for the kindness of so many people unknown to us.
"You are the One who fills all names but You Yourself have no specific name."
From Tikkunei Zohar and quoted by Rabbi Arthur Green in "Radical Judaism", p. 64
This is a beautiful expression of the immanence of the Divine in infinite variety.
A great teaching from Rabbi Arthur Green's Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition (page 22):
The incredibly complex interplay of forces and the thick web of mutual dependency among beings are no less amazing than the distance traversed in this long evolutionary journey. The interrelationships between soil, plants, and insects, or those between climate, foliage, and animal life, all leave us breathless as we begin to contemplate them. It is these very intricacies and complexities that have led the religious fundamentalists to hold fast to the claim that there must be a greater intelligence behind it all, that such complexity can only reflect the planning of a supernatural Mind. But they miss the point of the religious moment here. Our task as religious persons is not to offer counter-scientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find God in that moment of paying attention.
The balanced basis of the universe in itself - Yesod in Yesod - a day of looking at the fundamentals of our fundamentals.
When do our starting points lack good starting points? When must the substance of our foundation be more substantial?
Awe in the vastness of the universe, Hod, in the basic balanced foundation of all things, Yesod - sometimes merely looking at the roots of a tree, or a foundation of an idea or project, generates awe on its own.
In the same way, when starting with our foundation we aim to include humility before the wonder of being able to build at all.
Eternity, the long view on our ego, Netzach, in Yesod, the basic foundation - we cannot build a strong base without believing in our ability to have an impact on the world.
Appropriate sense of self helps us build strong foundations.
[From Wednesday, May 16]
Balanced harmony, Tiferet, in solid balanced foundation, Yesod - at the heart of every building project is the vision of the height it will reach.
When starting out with balance we must hold in our minds the plan for where we might end up, and aim for a higher balance as well. While good projects start with basic ideas, balanced ideas may lead to loftier achievements too.
The image for this: successful tall trees have deeply developed roots.
Gevurah, strong structure, in Yesod, a balanced foundation - this seems obvious since we usually imagine good support in terms of strength and structure.
The key may be in not relying only on rigor when building. An excess of rigor hurts the base of the structure as much as its absence.
Chesed, loving kindness, in Yesod, a balanced foundation - when building we can begin with kindness.
This may not seem intuitive. Still, a building, a structure, a project, all begin better when we start them with generosity in mind.