March 2012


An unusual occurrence will happen in traditional synagogues around the world this Shabbat. During a regular Shabbat morning service, we take out one Torah scroll from the ark. When Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, we take out an additional Torah scroll, from which we read a passage from Numbers 28 that details the communal sacrifice offered in the ancient Temple on Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh falls on Shabbat one or two times a year, so this isn’t terribly unusual.

What is much rarer is what happens on this Shabbat, when we take out a third Torah scroll. That’s because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaHodesh–the Shabbat two weeks before Passover, when we read the passage from Exodus 12 in which God instructs the Israelites to prepare for Passover. When Shabbat HaHodesh falls on Rosh Hodesh itself, we take out three scrolls. And that is a pretty rare occurrence. (For you trivia buffs: The only other times this can happen are on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, which falls during Hannukah, and Rosh Hodesh Adar that which coincides with Shabbat Shekalim. These occurrences happen about once every three years.)

The coincidence of Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat HaHodesh prompts us to think about the observance of Rosh Hodesh itself. “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year'” (Ex. 12:1-2). As Nachmanides reminds us, “This is the first commandment that the Holy One Blessed Be He gives to Israel through Moses.” Indeed, Rashi’s very first comment on Genesis 1:1 points to this verse, as he asks why the Torah, which is after all a book of law, doesn’t simply begin here. So this verse is important.

While the main emphasis of Exodus 12, and the primary reason we read it just before Passover, is its instructions for preparing the Pesach sacrifice, the fact that the verse begins with the institution of Rosh Hodesh is significant. Slavery operates not only in physical dimensions, taking away the slave’s ability to freely act; it also affects the dimension of time. A slave’s time is not his own. Thus a basic aspect of freedom is the freedom of time, the freedom to set the calendar, to order the world in our own way. So the first act of liberation for the Israelites is God’s granting them the ability to name time on their own.

This continues to be on of the key aspects of Rosh Hodesh in Jewish history. The Talmud devotes an entire tractate, Rosh Hashanah, to the laws about declaring Rosh Hodesh. The New Moon does not simply happen on its own, at least not in classical Jewish law. It has to be witnessed, and the witnesses have to testify in the rabbinic court that they have seen the new moon. Then the court declares that the month has started. So powerful is this human dimension in making time that the Talmud recounts that one year the angels in heaven were all assembled for Rosh Hashanah, but since the court did not declare the New Moon that day, they packed up their things, went home, and came back the next day for the holiday.

And yet this freedom of time is not absolute. As the Torah reading for Shabbat-Rosh Hodesh reminds us, Shabbat comes every seven days whether we like it or not. While we acknowledge the start of Shabbat by lighting candles and reciting Kiddush, the power of those acts is not the same as the declarative power of the witnesses and the court regarding Rosh Hodesh. In this sense, Shabbat reminds us that our freedom is not a freedom to do whatever we like; it is rather a freedom to be servants of God. It is also a reminder that, at the same time as we stand over against nature (what Rav Soloveitchik referred to as an Adam I consciousness), we are also creatures of nature (Adam II). We can name natural phenomena, manipulate them as we construct our world (as we do on some level with the moon and creating the calendar through Rosh Hodesh); but we also exist within nature and accept our place within it with humility–not as slaves, but as free people.

Rashi quotes the Midrash Mechilta as noting significance to the fact that God instructs Moses and Aaron “in the land of Egypt,” meaning outside of the city. Why? The Mechilta states that the city was full of idolatry–whereas beyond its boundary was a place where God’s word could be heard and experienced. In this small way, the Torah seems to gesture at the idea that the liberation from Egypt was a kind of re-creation of the world, as Moses and Aaron must go back to a natural place to hear God’s voice. Every Rosh Hodesh since then is a time of renewal and restarting–not only of the lunar cycle, but of our own lives.

Shabbat shalom, and Hodesh tov.

Advertisements

Leonard Bernstein practicing the art of teaching.

My blog passed 50,000 lifetime hits this week. (The word ‘hits’ is a little problematic. Let’s call them visits.) So before I begin, thanks to everyone who has read my posts over the past several years to enable me to reach this milestone.

When I first started this blog, one of my favorite philosophers to quote from was Vladimir Jankelevitch. But our reading habits, like our writing habits, change over time, and I haven’t quoted from Jankelevitch in a while. One of my favorite quotes of his, which I’ve used before, has to do with repetition: “To recreate… is to create, just as to re-make is to make, to begin again to begin–the second time being as initial as the first, the recapitulation as initial as the exposition… Hearing again, playing again, become modes whereby to discover, interminably, new relationships or subtle correspondences, beauty kept secret or hidden intentions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that these lines are heavily underlined and commented-upon in my edition of Jankelevitch’s book Music and the Ineffable (p. 24). In the nearly ten years since I first read them, they have, fittingly, provided me with a beautiful way of expressing how it is that we learn Torah. We read the same Torah every year, and one could easily say, “Okay, I’ve read that book. What’s next?” But that’s not what we do. We read and re-read and re-read again, and we do so with a different approach than mastering the text. This is not a text to be mastered. This is a text we allow to master us. Not in the way of a slave (though we do call ourselves “ovdei Hashem,” God’s servants), but in the way that learning takes place between a master and a disciple: through a mutual, respectful, rich learning relationship. And more: in meeting the text again time after time, we come back to it altered by our own experience. Our reading is not fixed from year to year–it changes and grows. We are different every time we meet the Torah, and in the meeting between ourselves and the text, the Torah is renewed.

Repetition is perhaps the most striking feature of parashat Vayakhel-Pikudei. Word-for-word, it seems, the parasha recapitulates the earlier material in the parashot of Terumah and Tetzaveh, this time in Moses’s voice rather than God’s. Part of the message of this meticulous repetition is that this work is eternal, that this is not simply a statement about the work of building the tabernacle, but really it’s a statement about the work of life itself. The work of building the Mishkan is to be a metaphor for all of our labor: it should be voluntary, it should be willful, it should be purposeful, it should not be exploitative. Just as Shabbat functions to make the work of the Mishkan meaningful, so too for our own lives: by keeping Shabbat, we frame our labor of the six days of the workweek. The repetition here serves to cement this point.

But there’s also a message that spending time on the enduring, not simply on the new, is a valuable, even an essential activity. We come back to our families, we come back to our communities, we come back to Torah, and we rediscover one another–we’ve stayed the same, but we’ve also changed. The message here, as my rebbe in conducting Larry Livingston taught me years ago, is the value of a craft: Life should be something we work at for a long time, slowly getting better, slowly becoming a master. Mastery, the main ingredient of which is wisdom, doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. But it also doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens in community. It happens through regular renewal, which comes through conversation and reflection around a great and eternal thing–in our case the Torah and Jewish ritual, the centerpieces of the Mishkan.

There are subtle changes in this week’s parasha from its predecessors. One of them comes in chapter 35, verse 34: “And he has given both him [Bezalel, the master builder of the Mishkan] and Oholiav son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.” This verse was not present in the previous account, thus its inclusion here seems even more significant. One could read the preceding verses of chapter 35 as suggesting that the talented people among the Israelites simply put their talents to work and created all the items necessary for the Mishkan. But verse 34 suggests that Bezalel and Ohaliav not only created and supervised the building, they also taught. They helped people to learn, to develop their talents, and to find their place in the work of building the community. If only the talented were allowed to make things, many “whose heart moved them” would be left on the sidelines.

The capacity to teach, which itself must be taught and cultivated through mastery and craft and repetition, is an indispensable element for the community-building project that is the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.

Amidst all the excitement and drama of the story of the Golden Calf, chapter 31 of Exodus can often be overlooked. Where chapters 32-34 tell the story of the people’s rebellion, Aaron’s mistake, Moses breaking the tablets, God’s punishment, and Moses seeking and finding God’s forgiveness, chapter 31 seems quaint, a quiet ending to the preceding six chapters detailing the instructions for building the Mishkan.

In chapter 31, God tells Moses that he has appointed Bezalel, and his assistant Ohaliav, as the master builders for the Mishkan. “And I will fill him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and intelligence, and with every form of labor; to think and conceptualize, to work with gold and silver and copper, with stone-cutting and wood-cutting, with every type of labor.” (vv. 2-4) They will make all the items for the Mishkan, which God proceeds to review in summary. That’s the first part of the chapter.

In the second part of this short chapter, God instructs Moses about Shabbat: “Speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘You will keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for all time, to know that I the Lord make you holy” (v. 13). God goes on to reinforce this message about Shabbat. The chapter then concludes on a climactic, and portentous, note: “And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of testimony, stone tablets written with the finger of God.” (v. 18)

There are a number of important things to point out here. First, as is made even more transparent at the end of Exodus, is the parallel between building the Mishkan and the original six days of creation in Genesis. Just as humans are the last beings created during those first six days, here it is the human, Bezalel (from b’tzelem elokim, in God’s Image, cf. Gen. 1:27), endowed with special capacities to operate on both the level of thought and the level of action, who is mentioned last. Likewise, Shabbat, which is mentioned last in the opening account of Genesis, is mentioned last here: “For in six days God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was restored.” (v. 16) Shabbat becomes the means by which the work of making the Mishkan is made meaningful: “On six days shall labor [in building the Mishkan] be done, and the seventh shall be a holy day of rest” (v. 15), just as it is the day on which the work of creation is made meaningful.

These two observations are linked, fused, in the final verse, in which the tablets “written with the finger of God” are given to Moses. God does not create the world here; God creates a form of communication in which human beings, using all their divinely-given powers of thought, imagination, understanding, and action, can attempt to understand the nature of the world, the nature of their own existence, and the nature of God. That language is Torah. Like all language, it is the zone in which we mediate the physical and the metaphysical, the ideal and the material. The work of constructing the Mishkan is the work of life, taking physical material and putting it to useful and holy purposes. The observance of Shabbat is itself an ot, a symbo,l in the dimension of time, which changes our very interactions with the physical world: what was permitted a moment before Shabbat becomes prohibited the next, through our willing participation in making Shabbat real.

These questions, of how we relate to God through the material reality of the creation, receive their most dramatic exposition in the chapters that follow, as the people construct an idol. We are familiar with that story. But in this short chapter just before that moment, we hear an inspiring calling: to work with purpose, to rest with intention, and to allow Torah to be the language in which we explore what is true and meaningful in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

It has been a busy week of writing, and I haven’t had a chance to put together a new dvar Torah for this week (I will have something for Purim, though!). But here are links to recent writings of mine around the web:

“Let all who are hungry come and eat — really?” In the March issue of Sh’ma.

What do you conform to? in the Huffington Post

Also a link to one of my own favorite Divrei Torah on Tetzaveh and Purim from 2009: Costumes and Identity.

Shabbat shalom.