It has been a slow summer for my blogging. That’s because most of my writing energy has been going into my qualifying exams and now my dissertation prospectus. So my apologies if you’ve missed getting something from me every week. But this is probably how it’s gonna be for a while.

My dissertation is taking shape, and it surrounds Yitz Greenberg (who I know is a reader of the blog; not many doctoral candidates can say that!). In 1993, the Jewish intellectual historian Steven Katz wrote that Yitz was the most influential thinker in American Jewish life over the past two decades. Katz argued that Yitz’s work through CLAL and his various other pluralistic educational endeavors changed the way Federation and communal leaders thought of themselves and related to Jewish learning and tradition. Yitz helped to create a new kind of discourse in American Jewish life, where today it is not unusual for Federation meetings to include a dvar Torah or for communal leaders to study Jewish texts. Yitz’s influence can be felt every time someone deploys the idea of “tzelem elokim,” humans created in God’s image, or talks about Covenant as an organizing concept in Jewish thought. Yitz did not invent these terms, but he made them into powerful teachings that spoke to a wide audience across denominations. I share Katz’s assessment: there aren’t many figures who have been as influential across so many communities.

Within the Orthodox community, of course, ‘Yitz Greenberg’ means something very different. For nearly fifty years, Yitz has become a marker in the Modern Orthodox zeitgeist, denoting an alternative might-have-been to what mainstream Orthodoxy became. To both his supporters and his foes, Yitz represented something powerful–to his supporters, powerfully inspiring; to his foes, powerfully threatening.

One of the distinguishing features of Yitz’s biography and thought is that he is an historian. This is significant for a number of reasons. As Alan Brill has observed, most of the major figures of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 60s worked in philosophy: Most notably, of course, Rav Soloveitchik, but also figures like Samuel Belkin, Eliezer Berkovitz, Norman Lamm, Walter Wurzburger, and Sol Roth. Emanuel Rackman was a lawyer and wrote his PhD at Columbia on law, and his approach to Modern Orthodoxy–which was, in its day, an even more powerful challenge than Yitz’s–was through law and halakha.

Unlike these other figures, Yitz’s PhD was in American history (on Teddy Roosevelt and the American labor movement), and his teaching appointment at YU in 1959 was to teach just that. Within a few years, and particularly after his sabbatical in Israel in 1960-61, he taught modern Jewish history as well, and was among the first people to teach about the history of the Holocaust. Yitz was a very popular professor, and not only because of his charisma. There was something striking in his approach to history. He didn’t teach the past as dead. He taught it as living. Similar to what I wrote a blog post last year about Daniel Sperber, this represents a different approach to history than we often think of as the norm, one which doesn’t see nearly as firm a split between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ as Yosef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor might argue. For Yitz, history represented something we learn from for the sake of our own lives. This enabled him to talk about even Biblical criticism, one of the most challenging areas not only for Orthodoxy, but even Conservative Judaism in the 1950s. The problem of academic Biblical critics, he taught, was not that they excavated the Bible, but that they ruled out the possibility that humans could have a relationship with God. Biblical criticism could show how humans in their time and place responded to God, and that could then inform us today about how we should do the same.

This approach to history thus had two compelling features: It made the past come alive, and it made the present a continuous flow from that past. Listen to what Yitz’s students at YU or Yavneh in the 1960s said about him, and this is what comes through. It led to Yitz’s calls for major halakhic adaptation and innovation, not only in internal Jewish areas like conversion or egalitarianism, but strikingly in the realm of American politics (social welfare legislation, civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, etc.). Yitz’s work as an historian made him unique within Orthodoxy, and beyond Orthodoxy as well. He is not an historian who lets the past simply live in the past.

I would argue that for many Orthodox Jews it is this challenge that is so difficult. Orthodoxy (a term which demands a great deal of excavation itself) has successfully encountered modern science, modern philosophy, and modern culture, and proved able. There are great examples of Orthodox scientists, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and performers. But the realm of modernity in which it has had the most difficult challenge is history, particularly Biblical history, but also history that challenges the saintliness of great figures of the past. That is why Yitz was, and remains, simultaneously inspiring and threatening–he was willing to embrace such histories without reducing the past to a purely man-made affair. As Yerushalmi argues, modern historiography is built on the idea that there is a radical break from the past, one that enables us to stand and gaze objectively at it. Yitz agrees with this, but then makes the dialectical move of saying, There is no break: we are the inheritors of that past, and the past demands our action in the present.For Orthodoxy, this is a significant challenge.

But why? As we approach Tisha b’Av, I think we see an answer. Tisha b’Av was a holiday that Rav Soloveitchik took very seriously. All day he would recite Kinnot and teach about them (a tradition which Rabbi J.J. Schacter now admirably continues). For the Rav, the halakha generated a requirement to feel the magnitude of the hurban (destruction), to feel God’s absence. And for Jews, as so many Jewish philosophers have told us, God’s presence or absence is felt primarily in history. Our narrative as a people is built on the idea of God intervening in history. Yet Tisha b’Av marks the first–sadly not the last–cataclysmic moment when God seemingly wasn’t there, when God hid Godself and allowed the destruction to happen. Though the challenge of God’s presence or absence is one we encounter every day through our prayers and performance of mitzvot, on many days we can go through the motions, or we can focus on the celebratory aspects in which we enjoy feeling the presence of God (a bris, a wedding, Shabbos dinner, holidays). Tisha b’Av, however, is the day of God’s absence, a day when the problem of Jewish history and its meaning for our individual and collective relationship with God is most forcefully expressed. The observances of Tisha b’Av are made meaningful not through joy, but through feeling the absence of God, longing for God’s return, and committing ourselves to bringing it about.

But then we come out of Tisha b’Av, and we don’t really have to deal with God in history any more–or so we tell ourselves. We can focus on our performance of mitzvot, we can feel God’s presence in other ways. Tisha b’Av can exist on its own, and we can be happy on any day when we don’t have to say Tachanun. We can engage ‘modernity’ through science and philosophy and culture, and we can avoid the challenge of confronting the question of God’s role in history. (I save the question of Israel and history for another time; this blog post is already long enough, and my focus is on American Judaism.)

Yitz Greenberg’s challenge to Orthodoxy, and to American Jewry, was not to put our heads in the sand. The elephant in the room is God’s place in history. Modern historiography had already made this a challenge; the Holocaust made it inescapable. And yet, 40 years after Yitz left Yeshiva University, the challenge is one with which we have yet to fully come to terms.

Shabbat shalom.

Leadership theorists Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have introduced the phrase “looking from the balcony” into a lot of conversations among people I work with. (They have been the go-to leadership thinkers for the Wexner Foundation for many years.) When we step on the balcony and look at our situation, we get a different perspective. We stop the tape and examine what’s going on with a wider view.

One of the marvelous things about Parshat Balak is the way it transports us as readers outside the story of the children of Israel and onto the balcony. “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,” begins the parasha (Num. 22:2). Immediately we are struck by the fact that it is not Moses or God speaking, it is not an event in the life of the people. The whole story is literally told from the balcony—from the high places overlooking the Israelite encampment. And what Balaam sees is ultimately a beautiful thing: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

Yet aside from the recent military victories they have been achieving in the preceding chapters, the narrative of the people has not been exemplary. Immediately after the story of Balak and Balaam, the narrative returns to yet another example of the people sinning, with the story of Zimri, Kozbi, and Pinchas. The parasha seems designed to highlight the gap between the way Balaam sees the people and the way the people see themselves. Balaam sees a people capable of greatness, a blessed people with a noble calling based on God’s taking them out of Egypt. But the people themselves are blind to this, and repeatedly see only what is right in front of them: a lack of food or water, the sexual temptations of Midian. In the case of the spies, they saw themselves as grasshoppers about to take on giants. The gap between what Balaam sees and what the people see is striking.

According to the plain text, Balaam is not the nefarious character that later Rabbinic interpretation will make him out to be. Balaam’s repeated insistence that he can only do the word of God seems intended to remind later readers, the descendents of the Israelites, that they too must seek to discern and live God’s word. The haftarah for Parshat Balak makes this point, drawing a parallel between the words of Balaam’s donkey and the words of God to the Jewish people: “My people, what wrong have I done you?” (Micah 6:3)  parallels the donkey’s plaintive cry, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam cannot see, just as the Israelites cannot see.

On Sunday we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, ushering in a period of intensifying mourning that concludes with Tisha b’Av in three weeks. This is meant to be a period of introspection, of standing on the balcony and looking at ourselves as individuals and as a people, seeing that which is right in front of us from a larger perspective. As the concluding lines of the haftarah remind us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you; To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Such words are  not meant to exempt us from performing mitzvot; rather they are meant to help us remember that the details of our lives answers to larger questions. Balaam, along with Micah, helps us remember what those larger questions are.

Shabbat shalom.

Among the mitzvot enumerated in parshat Emor is this one, familiar to us from the Torah reading from many of our holidays: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (Lev. 22:28). Maimonides and Nachmanides famously disagree on how to understand this commandment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam includes this verse along with the commandment (Deut. 22:6) to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs from the nest. “There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings,” he writes. The purpose of both commandments is to alleviate the suffering of the animals.

Ramban disagrees. “The real reason” for both mitzvot “is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy, that we may not become cruel, for cruelty envelops the entire personality of man, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who often become hardened to human suffering” (Ramban on Deut. 22:6). Where Maimonides sees the purpose of the mitzvot here as focused on the suffering of the animals, Nachmanides sees them as addressing human moral development. Ramban cites the teaching of Abba Gurya in the Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:14), who evaluates a number of unfavorable occupations and concludes by saying “even the best of slaughterers is a companion of Amalek.” Which is to say, killing for a living ultimately leads to cruelty in human relations. (Nechama Leibowitz’s second essay on this parasha develops these positions further.)

Neither Rambam nor Ramban could have imagined a world in which meat came to the mouths of people without some exposure to the process of killing. While death was a more regular feature of pre-modern, and certainly pre-industrial life, its ubiquity also had the effect of humanizing it. It was normal to kill an animal for food, and it was known by sages throughout the ages that too much killing would make a person cruel. Today, however, most of us who eat meat never interact with the animals we’re eating. Indeed, the thought that the beef or chicken on our plate was once an actual living creature grosses us out. We are not used to animal life, and we’re not used to animal death either.

Thus animal-welfare conversations today tend to focus more on the Rambam’s line of thinking: it’s about animal welfare, or animal rights. If we’re vegetarians, or if we simply advocate for greater sensitivity in ritual slaughter or the raising of livestock, we make our arguments in terms of the welfare of the animal. We don’t tend to adopt the Ramban’s line of thinking, because we’ve industrialized the process of slaughter to the point that, like the gas in our cars that we never actually see, the meat that arrives on our supermarket shelves wrapped in plastic is divorced in our imagination from any human process other than stocking it on the counter.

But what if we did? What if the question in our consumption of meat, and food in general, was more about what kind of moral and ethical development it entails and leads to? This, after all, is the Rambam’s ultimate point: the purpose of showing compassion for animals is to cultivate our sense of compassion for all of God’s creation, including human beings. It is to fulfill the Rambam’s understanding of the ultimate imperative of the mitzvot, v’halachta bidrachav, to walk in God’s ways.

That is the greater challenge of kashrut (a challenge which my colleagues at Uri l’Tzedek tirelessly address). God is not mechanized. Our relationship with God, and with one another, shouldn’t be either.

Shabbat shalom.

I have a few one-liners that have stuck with me through the years. They were single sentences uttered in a conversation, or sometimes a public talk, that entered my ears and locked in my memory. Years later, I can still recall both the words and the moment of delivery. (And if you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve come across them before.) Here are my top three:

  • During a class in Jerusalem years ago, Levi Lauer remarked, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.”
  • In my junior year of college, my friend Josh Cahan, sitting on my dorm room couch, told me, “Feigelson, you could make a really great leader, if you just stopped seeing what’s wrong with people and started seeing what’s right with them.”
  • In my first year working at Hillel, Michael Brooks, the longtime director at the University of Michigan Hillel, was giving a talk in which he observed, “Most questions that matter are about membership.”

This observation of Michael’s has resonated with me ever since, and experience confirms it. On an emotional level, to be included or excluded in a group, to feel inside or outside, is a powerful experience from childhood through the rest of our lives. None of us wants to be left out, but we also don’t want to include everyone in everything. We want to be loved, but we also want to know that the love we give and receive is special.

On a cognitive level, we are constantly grouping together–creating in and out–all the time. As infants we begin to label people and things as in or out, this or that, same or different. As we get older, we get more sophisticated, but the move is the same: we group like with like, or we creatively mix like with not-like, or find ways that things that seemed to be different actually have a lot in common. A computer, at its core, comes down to 1 versus 0.

Rashi and Ramban famously diverge in their interpretation of the words kedoshim tih’yu, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Rashi interprets kedusha as separation from other things, while Ramban emphasizes the likeness that results from this move: kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach, sanctify yourself within that which is permitted to you. Both begin with the act of separation. But where Rashi sees the thrust of the command on separating not-holy from holy, Ramban puts more weight on unifying the holy with the holy. One emphasizes the power of difference, the other emphasizes the power of similarity.

We can’t escape the divisions that make up our lives. We are physical creatures, limited in space and time. We can’t be in two places, or two times, at once. We are always outside something. And yet we have moments when we can transcend reality, and imagine ourselves as occupying more than one space and more than one time, when we can be inside everything. Throughout his drashot, the Sefas Emes draws on Shabbat as the embodiment of this kind of transcendent consciousness: a day of unification, when we step outside the time and space that define the regular material world. Shabbos enables us, for a moment, to go beyond the question of membership, to go beyond the inside-outside dichotomy. It is the full expression of kedusha according to both Rashi and Ramban: a day apart that is actually a day when we come together, when we sense that we are part of an exclusive club, of which everyone is a member.

Shabbat shalom.

Randy Pausch delivering the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon University, 2008.

I have been looking at commencement speeches over the last few days, for work purposes. (No, I’m not giving a commencement speech anywhere.) Commencement speeches are an interesting genre, and living in the post-modern times we do, many commencement speakers now make reference to that very fact—acknowledging the form of the speech, then trying to make light of it, and ultimately embracing it: Here’s what I’m supposed to tell you; Here’s what you really need to know; Here’s all of that restated in flowery language.

Besides this observation about form, what has struck me in reading through a bunch of these speeches is how many of them bring up something related to death. Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture—which he gave many times before he died, and published as a book as well—is now the classic example of the genre, but most commencement speeches tap into a similar sentiment, if not quite as dramatically: remember, the clock is ticking, so think about what really counts. Death awaits us all.

Bringing death to the forefront makes whatever we talk about more urgent. It thrusts the conversation into the realm of ultimate concern. In the Torah, as in our own experience, death—the limitation on life—is what makes human life human. “Humans have become like one of Us, knowing good and bad,” God says in the Garden of Eden. “‘And now they might extend their hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ And the Lord God sent them out from Eden to work the land from where they were taken” (Gen. 3:21-22) Human life would not be what it is were it not for death.

And yet, if commencement speeches are any indication, we seem to need to be reminded of this. The basic message of so many commencement speeches seems to be: “We live in a self-centered age. (Insert appropriate observation about iphones, Facebook, commercialism, etc.) But remember that we’re all going to die, and that you won’t care how many Facebook friends you had on your deathbed. Focus on what really matters. Live your passion. Don’t have regrets on the last day.”

Parshat Shemini likewise frames experience in terms of death. Partaking of the same dramatic arc as the opening chapters of Genesis, in this parasha we find a moment of union with the divine. Chapter 9 of Leviticus fulfills the story we began in Exodus 25, as the purpose of the Mishkan is fulfilled: “Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9:23-24).

We would love to stop right here. But then, in the very next verse, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer esh zara, strange fire, and they die. The perfect moment would not last. Death intrudes. Following a line of midrashic interpretation, it seems that Nadav and Avihu partook of a brash youthfulness not unfamiliar to us today: they failed to show respect for their teachers, they got drunk (and, if the later commandments in the parasha are an indication, perhaps they also grew their hair long). Which is to say that they typified a young adulthood that forgets, or simply isn’t aware of, mortality and all the limitations that stem from it.

From this incident springs Yom Kippur, as we will read in two weeks (Lev.16). If the commandment of Pesach is to imagine ourselves as though we left Egypt, the goal of Yom Kippur is to imagine ourselves as though we are about to die. Pesach, a child-centered holiday which takes place in the youthful season of spring, evokes in us a youthful spirit, as the world opens up. Yom Kippur, an adult-oriented holiday that takes place in the older time of autumn, brings out a mature sensibility, as the world prepares for the death of winter. And just as we are to take a part of Pesach with us all year and remember the Exodus every day, likewise we are instructed to carry part of Yom Kippur with us do teshuva every day too.

This could all sound like the message of a commencement speech. But I would add one final word to distinguish it. I mentioned earlier that many of the commencement speeches I’ve read take the reality of death and lead to a message of the importance of self-expression, authenticity, being who you want to be. The Torah, and Jewish tradition more broadly, makes a different move. The reality of death demands less that we ask who we want to be, and more For whom and what are we responsible? The language of Torah is not as much about self-expression as about responsibility and commitment. The reality of death, the reality that frames all of our lives, prompts us to ask (Lev. 10:10-11) What is holy? What is good? And What is right?, and to strive for a life answering those questions.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

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.