Thursday, February 19, 2015

Parshat Terumah, Masechet Ta'anit, and an Upcoming Simcha

During the last two weeks, there has been a flurry of emails going back and forth between Yoella, Rachie (two of our daughters) and me regarding dresses for everyone for Rachie and (her fiancĂ©e) Liz’s upcoming wedding ceremony in June. Rachie stated that she thinks this detail has been one of the most exciting in the planning process. I find that interesting, as her own style is rather tailored and no-nonsense and pretty detailed dresses are generally not her thing. Of course, she and Liz have also determined colors and other visual details of the day and ceremony. So I am particularly excited that fashion has now become an item in Rachie’s life, well sort of anyway.

This week we read Parshat Terumah. It too is about pretty colors and materials and all that is glittery and valuable. Of course, this discussion is related to the myriad of details regarding the Mishkan, the sanctuary that the B’nai Yisrael are to make for G-d during their travels in the desert. There are actually 13 different materials that go into the process of creating the Mishkan just as instructed by G-d, through his agent, Moshe. Everyone is to participate in the process. In verse 8 of Chapter 25 in the beginning of our Parsha we read: They shall make a sanctuary for me, so that I can dwell amongst them. Rashi teaches us that that the value of the sanctuary is precisely that G-d is to dwell in it and only in this way is it truly a MIKDASH. As such, while all of the materials and fabrics and woods and other prescribed details are complicated and specific, they are all related to the special nature of what makes this MIKDASH a place worthy of G-d’s SHECHINAH, dwelling in it.

The Tabernacle itself, the Menorah, coverings, special tables, utensils, wood planks and all other details are every so carefully indicated, each and every one contributing to the entirety of this place and space being worthy of G-d’s presence. Rashi and Rashbam teach that the Menorah should be designed so that lit candles all point to the center, showing unity and an upward lifting towards G-d and G-d’s presence. Sforno adds that the six branches of the Menorah represent the six different domains of intellectual knowledge that we as humans pursue, and that all such endeavors should always be directed towards the central branch, indicative of the authority of Torah and Ribbonu shel Olam.

There are ten curtains of the Tabernacle, which the Or HaChayim states are reminiscent of the ten statements with which G-d created our world as we are taught in Pirke Avot 5.1. Martin Buber and others actually show the correlation between each detail of the process of creating the Mishkan and the ten utterances of G-d in the creation of the world. Everything means and stands for something. Just as G-d carefully and intentionally created space for us in our world, we create space for G-d in carefully constructing the Mishkan. It is in this spirit, according to the Gur Aryeh, that G-d does aid us in every detail along the way, through the noted directives given.

Interestingly enough, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks posits that many think of this as one of the most boring aspects of the Torah. Who gets so wrapped up in design detail? But, in fact, we do NOT know the details that went into G-d’s plan as briefly narrated in the beginning of Bereshit, as it appears to us as merely fiat – G-d said and it was – and we see this TEN TIMES. However, the fact is that it must have been extremely detailed, as we have discerned in so many attempted explanations of how our world came into being. Think of it as somewhat like when you go to a beautiful affair, say a wedding, or walk into a gorgeous house or building and are not bothered with all of the details of the work that went into creating or building it.

The multitudinous degree of details indicated for the Mishkan and later the Beit HaMikdash do not even come close to what G-d must have done in planning and bringing our world and existence into being. Perhaps, just perhaps the beginning of this lengthy text of such detail in Parshat Terumah is to remind us of this. In fact, we see the use of these elements in so much of the ritual practice of the B’nai Yisrael during, for example, the elaborate and highly detailed service of the Kohen HaGadol in the Avodah service of Yom HaKippurim in Masechet Yoma of the Talmud, and reflected in our Machzorim.

The Aron (Holy Ark), the Shulhan (table) and the Menorah are to represent the integration of our reaching for G-d, our intellectual pursuits and the prosperity of the lives we have been granted. So this Mishkan and the later Beit HaMikdash are clearly planned intentionally and carefully to remind us, that within the beauty of the ceremony, we are to be mindful of its purpose.

I completed Masechet Ta’anit one week ago today, so allow me to share a thought from that text. Ta’anit is clearly about Fast Days and difficult times in our calendar as suggested by the name, but I want to think about how it ends for a moment. Ta’anit begins with extensive discussion about rain and the many different types of rain. Water is quickly equated with life early on in the Masechet and this theme is carried through the pages of this text.

On the other end of the discussion about the declaring of emergency fast days in the presence of tragedy or threat to well-being, often associated with the lack of much needed rains, the text ends with the joyfulness and details of Tu B’Av, stated to be one of the two happiest days in the Jewish calendar, the other being Yom Kippur. This has come to be thought of the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, if you will.

There is much talk again, of adornment and beauty, as we have seen in Parshat Terumah, this time regarding the young maidens who will go out to find their future mates, the jewelry with which they will be adorned and how this gathering is to proceed, probably so it would not devolve into some type of superficial speed-dating. Within this discussion, there is a very interesting, many would say, curious detail. All of the maidens are to borrow their dresses and all of them are to be of white linen. This was so that no one would feel that they were not worthy of being included – in fact the higher-class girls would borrow their dresses from those of a group that was not as high in society. The important factors were indicated as girls were to be valued for their inner beauty and character traits, not some superficial notion of external beauty, which withers and dies with time. So here the focus is not on the beauty of things, but on personality traits.

This is likewise true in the representation of the various design elements of the Mishkan as reflected in our Parshat this week. So too it is the focus for the simcha our family is planning. The dresses will be beautiful, the place bucolic, but what is most important is the people that will be participating in the ceremony and the intentionality and meaning of the ceremony itself, as was the case with all of B’nai Yisrael participating in the specific details of creating the Mishkan.

Shabbat Shalom to all.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Let it rain; let it rain (or snow)! The simplicity and complexity of a rain dance

So first of all, I must begin with a disclaimer. I am writing from the land of the storm that never happened as opposed to our daughters, friends and all those in Tundra Land aka Boston. While I am still singing “let it snow, let it snow” – you can sing along to “Let it go” the new anthem of so much – I know that those in our northern states have had quite enough. DAYENU!

Did you know that in Masechet Taanit, the Talmudic tractate on fasting (not eating, and refraining from other activities that bring pleasure) we learn that a snow storm is worth five rain storms and that any meteorologist could learn a great deal about different types and purposes of rain from our Rabbinic teachers of the first five centuries of our Common Era? So maybe THAT was what they were doing in their spare time – creating the first ever Weather Channel!

At times in my learning, I am not sure if I am reading a graduate level course book on rain and its science (well sort of) or a part of the Talmud. It really is rather impressive on many levels, even if not scientifically sophisticated so to speak, given their lack of technology and the American weather model and the European weather model, etc.

There are instructions of what to do when there are droughts, what prayers to say, what practices to refrain from and how to ask God for rain! There are practices indicated for individuals and for the community collectives. Like an intellectual and multi-faceted rain dance, if you think about it!

I kept wondering why most of this tractate on taking on fasts in which one deprives oneself of food and drink and so much else is so focused on RAIN and types of RAIN WATER. Oh, right, that is because as we learn in the pages of the tractate, WATER = LIFE! It’s really a rather simple equation.

I always thought that there was something truly beautiful and soulful about the verbal pageantry of the Prayer for Rain that we all say at the end of Sukkot in the fall to ask God for rain in Israel during the identified season for meaningful precipitation. But now, as I am living with this text for two hours daily for a few weeks, I have an increased understanding of the true meaning of rain and water in our lives. We cannot take it for granted and we must remember that its very presence in our lives is critical for survival and health. So first of all for those of you in schools and shuls and learning spaces, go to your favorite environmental sustainability learning resources. One I highly recommend is

It is no secret that in Israel there is so much work and efforts expended in this area and water is clearly not taken for granted. That water is what provides us with our food and drink, materials for our lives and work, the means to create shelter and so much else. It is for that reason that the communities of the time of the Talmud are told to withhold these basic aspects of their lives and beseech God for water, for rain.

In so many of our texts, water and water images are used to speak of God, Torah (even the image of being a tree of life as trees need, yup you guessed it, water!) and every aspect of life itself. We see this in our pretty literature books, such as Psalms/Tehilim.

Equally powerful as the Prayer for Rain is the Prayer for Dew that we say at the end of the rainy season, on Pesach/Passover. I am acutely aware of what congregations do continue to pray “Moreed HaTal” – God, who brings down the dew – and those who do not. I consciously say this during the rain-free months, to acknowledge that God sustains us during these times as well.

Native Americans historically and continue to do elaborate rain dances in the hot days of the summer, particularly in regions in which rain does not fall (Oh, so where did this idea come from?) and these have their physical as well as spiritual pageantry as the adherents acknowledge that without water, they will not survive. This appreciation of the environment and what we get from it as well as the responsibility we must show in using its resources appropriately is so important. Perhaps we should all think for a moment and realize that water is indeed life, it is Torah, it is our healthy crops and food, it is God providing for us in this world, and we need it and need to use it properly and with gratitude.

So as Boston braces for more snow, and we are promised more in the Philadelphia region, I will sing, “Let it snow!” – maybe here and of course, in Israel, not so much in Boston. Shabbat Shalom!