February 2011


When the Book of Exodus is discussed in popular literature, theater and film, the focus of the story tends to be on the first half of the book: the liberation from slavery, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea. Despite its name, Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Ten Commandments only spends its final minutes on the revelation at Sinai. Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron focuses on the sin of the Golden Calf.

But what no one spends much time on are the “boring” parts of the second half of Exodus: the laws of Parshat Mishpatim (chs. 21-24) and the details of the Mishkan in Teruma, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel and Pekudei (chs. 25-31 and 35-40), which together form 35 percent of the book. These less narrative parts of Exodus, naturally, do not lend themselves to books and movies, which are rooted in the movements of dramatic action. Yet the failure to engage with these sections of Exodus gives many people a false impression of the Torah’s message.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written in The Home We Build Together, the story of liberation is not enough to build a nation. “A nation is built by building,” he writes. While people can be let loose from oppressive forces, it is only through the common act of creating something shared that they become a people with a covenantal sense of self. Thus the laws of Mishpatim and the long chapters of building the Mishkan can be understood as the fulfillment of the liberation of the first half of Exodus: it is not enough to be set free; the next step is to build a society together—arrangements of property, physical space, and moral order; mutual assumptions of responsibility; and a common sense of the commons.

Parshat Vayakhel is highly inspiring, not in the way of an epic motion picture, but in the mode of a great documentary. Read 35:20-29, and you can’t help but be inspired by the image of “all the Israelite men and women” voluntarily contributing whatever they have in order to make the Mishkan. The Torah repeats the word kol, all, 15 times within chapter 35, forming a drumbeat of popular energy which is nothing short of stirring. In fact, we find, they bring so much material that the builders have to tell them to stop.

Yet this is also the people who worshipped a golden calf just in last week’s Torah reading! How can the inspiring image of the people lovingly contributing out of common sense of covenant jibe with the one of debauchery we read about a week ago? Here again, the Torah offers us an honest portrait: the children of Israel are capable of great achievement and of great failing. The protestors in Tahrir Square who toppled a dictator through non-violent protests also assaulted journalists. You can’t tell the whole story without telling the whole story.

The use of the Exodus story as an archetype for revolution is one of the enduring contributions of the Jewish people to human history. Yet the second half of Exodus must be read alongside the first in order for the lessons to be fully learned. Liberation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. After the oppressor has been thrown off, a people must be brought together. The Torah’s means of nation-building is for the people to build the nation. Let us hope that the movements of liberation we are witnessing in our own time can learn from the second half of Exodus as much as the first.

Shabbat shalom.

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One of the most important and rewarding parts of my work as a Hillel rabbi is studying Torah with students. In addition to the talks and discussions I regularly lead, over the years I have maintained many individual havrutot, or study partners, with undergraduates. The topics under study have ranged from the Bible to Mishnah and Talmud to Jewish philosophy. And while it is a commonplace among Jewish educators to invoke the Talmudic saying, “I have learned from my students most of all,” there’s a reason it’s a commonplace—it’s true.

This year one of my student havrutot is a philosophy major, and we are learning the Mei Hashlioach of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the nineteenth century Hasidic master also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe. Mei Hashiloach is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion. But it is not so much a commentary as, like other Hasidic works, a creative meditation on big, eternal questions, by means of the words of the written Torah.

While he is beautiful and provocative, the Ishbitzer is also incredibly challenging—particularly if you are a linear thinker looking for a scientific sort of analysis. One of his main theological premises is that human beings are ultimately vessels for God’s will. In one of his more famous formulations, he suggests that Zimri, the Israelite who was publicly fornicating with a Midianite woman and was killed by the priest Pinchas in an act of righteous zealotry (see Num. 25), was not actually sinning, because God had willed it. This line of thinking is where the Ishbitzer crosses a line into dangerous territory.

But in other places, he offers compelling challenges to the ways we traditionally approach Torah and the world. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Ishbitzer’s commentary on the revelation at Sinai is breathtaking in the way it meditates on the limits of language and history. His approach to the Mishkan helps us see the deeper questions in its symbolism: What does it mean to have a body? How does the symbolism of clothing and furniture help us experience the gap between our desires and our ethics?

Parshat Ki Tissa, recounting the incident of the Golden Calf, provides yet another twist on these questions. How can we, who have bodies, who think and speak in language, relate to a God who doesn’t have a body, who exists beyond time, space, and language? Going further, into the real heart of Ki Tissa—Moses’s incredible encounter with God, and God’s act of grace in forgiving the people of Israel—the Ishbitzer prompts us to ask, How do we understand God’s forgiveness? How do we understand our own capacity for righteousness and grace, which exists alongside our capacity for self-interest, exploitation and sin? Particularly for the Ishbitzer, who sees God as the force behind everything, how do we understand the gap between our potential and our reality?

His answers can be beguiling. God created Moses with the attributes (middot) to be able to accept the words of Torah, he says. And at the moment of Moses’s plea for the people, God recognized those attributes in Moses and showed him grace. It’s confusing: Why does God need to recognize those attributes in Moses, if God was the one who put them there? Doesn’t that suggest that God forgets God’s own actions? And isn’t that a problem if God is all-knowing?

My havruta and I circled around this question repeatedly during our hour reading the Mei Hashiloach. I tried to suggest that this linear approach—trying to understand the sequence of events—was not going to work, because it’s not following the questions of the Ishbitzer. He isn’t trying to explain what God is, he isn’t engaging in speculative metaphysics. He’s offering a meditation. It’s more poetry than prose.

Being a parent, I have an inarticulable intuition of the Ishbitzer’s gesture: I have had hopes and dreams and visions of the future for my children, which I may forget at various moments, but which are brought back into consciousness at other moments—moments which I would identify as hen, grace. How that works is a mystery, and that’s precisely what makes the idea of hen so powerful. This is the essence of God that God cannot show Moses, the mystery par excellence: “I will be show grace unto whom I will show grace, and will show mercy unto whom I shall show mercy.” (Ex. 33:19)

At this stage of my life, the question “What is the nature of the universe?” is less important to me than the question, “How does this approach help me live a better life?” Perhaps this betrays my philosophical affinity for pragmatism, a la William James or John Dewey. Perhaps it also represents a certain surrendering of control: in seeking to explain the universe, we often seek to control it. By easing off on the quest for explanation, and accepting the fact that I cannot really ever know the workings of world with certainty, I find I can actually get to a more fruitful place in being a servant of God.

Shabbat shalom.

It’s rather inevitable that Parshat Tetzaveh leads us to think about clothes. Before moving on to outline the priestly ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons, Tetzaveh details the clothing that the priests—in particular, the High Priest—will wear: the special breastplate, the tunic, the crown on which is written kodesh Lashem, holy unto God, and the other special appurtenances.

“You will make holy garments for Aaron and his sons, for honor and for splendor, l’khavod u’litefaret” (Ex. 28:2). These two words, kavod and tiferet, establish the purpose of the garments, and they require some unpacking. Kavod is associated with words like honor and glory. It is also related to the word kaved, heavy. And, elsewhere in Exodus, we find the term k’vod Hashem, which refers to the Divine presence—a mysterious notion, given that God is simultaneously outside of the world. How does God have a presence?

How do human beings have a presence, for that matter? What does it mean to be present? We have all experienced being with someone physically while our minds and hearts wandered somewhere else. Likewise, we have been on the other end of the exchange, in which we are sharing space with someone else, but feel as though they don’t recognize the fact that we’re there. Encounter requires mutual recognition, an exchange of kavod, a bidirectional honoring of presence. To fail on either end of this interchange is fundamentally an act of i-kavod, disrespect.

So one meaning of the kavod of Aaron’s clothing could be to call attention, both to God and to Aaron and the people, that a relationship is taking place between God, who is given kavod—presence, honor, dignity—through the Tabernacle, and the human representative of Israel, the High Priest, who is given kavod through resplendent clothing. Both parties thus become recognized.

Yet another direction of kavod, however, could be to raise the awareness of the actors themselves—yes, of the other actor (for God, Aaron; for Aaron, God), but also internally (for God, God; for Aaron, Aaron). Rashi notes that Aaron becomes consecrated as the High Priest “by means of the clothing” (comment to Ex. 28:3). That is, when he dons the priestly garb, Aaron becomes recognized and authorized by God and the people, but he also recognizes himself in a new way.

Natalie and I were married the Sunday after we read Parshat Tetzaveh, and I have thus long associated this parsha with weddings. One of the things I like to remind couples getting married is that the commandment to be mesameach hatan v’kallah, to bring gladness to bride and groom, is not only incumbent on the guests at the wedding, but on the bride and groom themselves. The couple—who, like Aaron, wear special clothing to mark a moment of encounter and consecration—need to be recognized not only by everyone else, but they also need to recognize each other and themselves.

So it is with all of our encounters and relationships, not only at a wedding, but every day.

Shabbat shalom.

“Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”

My teacher Levi Lauer uttered that memorable line years ago, and I hear him saying it as I ponder the blizzard. Most of the time when I teach about Parshat Teruma, I think about the ways in which building the mishkan is a symbol: a model for community-building, a statement about the importance of voluntarism, a metaphor for work and labor. The mishkan is all of these things. And the Jewish tradition’s elaboration of them as symbols is beautiful and inspiring.

But then a blizzard hits, and I’m reminded that, at root, the mishkan is a physical object, and building it is a bodily activity.  I look outside and see two feet of snow (already reinforced by the city snowplow) and wonder how I’m going to shovel out of it, and where I’m going to put all that snow. And I wonder when I’m going to do this, as the wind continues to howl, making shoveling both impossible and pointless.

Like many, I spent last night gathering flashlights and firewood, in case the power went out (thankfully, so far, it hasn’t). And I worried about what we would do if we lost heat and electricity in the middle of the night. I projected a mental image of huddling up in blankets and pillows around the fireplace—but when we had tried to light a fire to roast marshmallows earlier in the evening, the downdraft through the chimney was so strong that the fire didn’t last. I thought of my friend Shelly, a homeless man who used to live in Evanston, and wondered where he was during the blizzard, hoping he was inside.

In his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik distinguished between Adam I and Adam II. The Adam of Genesis 1 stands over against nature, dominating and ruling it; he is a social creature. The Adam of Genesis 2 is made of dust and ashes, he has no barrier with nature, and his is a lonely existence. The blizzard is an Adam 2 experience: forcing us inside, away from one another, threatening our roofs and walls, our electricity and our communications. It forces us away from society, away from aesthetics, away from symbols, and toward a raw confrontation with basic, material questions of existence: where will we find food? Will our shelter hold up? Will we be able to go outside and visit someone else?

The shields against nature—material, medical, social—that modernity has spawned are its greatest accomplishments. They have created space, both physical and conceptual, in which human knowledge and creativity have flourished. But we are reminded—and with increasing frequency, as climate change is plain to see—that that space is fragile, a tent in the desert.