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.

Hallel, the collection of psalms we recite on holidays, begins with Psalm 113. The psalm opens with some expected praises of God (this is Hallel, after all), and ultimately makes its way to this particular formulation (vv. 7-9):

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

He seats them with princes, with the princes of his people;

He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.

The narrative suggested by the Psalm is that of the Exodus: the lowly Israelites are taken from the lowest point (slavery) and brought to the highest point (becoming God’s people at Sinai). This is a normative traditional understanding of the Psalm, and would seem to be a key factor in its placement at the start of Hallel, since Hallel is recited at the seder, and the recitation of Hallel is rooted in the experience of the liberation from Egypt. In fact, this particular Psalm is recited as part of the Maggid section of the Seder–it precedes the meal–and is therefore understood to be the culmination of the Rabbis’ instruction to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise” (Pesachim 116a).

Yet there’s something very interesting in the formulation of these verses. Verse 7 makes sense: raising the poor, lifting the needy. But what about verse 8: What does the psalmist mean in saying that the poor is seated not only with princes, but with the princes of his people? This would imply that there were already princes among them. It could therefore refer to Moses (though he was a prince among the Egyptians). It could refer to the first-born or the elders among the Israelites.

In his Haggadah, Rabbi David Silber points to a more likely possibility. The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew term nadiv. This word suggests not so much the office or status of a noble, but rather the characteristic of nobility. It is linked to the term for generosity: nedavah (a free-will offering), or nediv-lev (one whose heart moves him to contribute).  Here the idea of nobility is bound up with what noble people do: they’re generous. It is not about station, but about behavior and character.

Thus to be “seated with the princes of his people” is perhaps a broader suggestion. Rabbi Silber points us to the first use of the term in the Torah, which comes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Ex. 25:2): “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give,” kol ish asher yidvenu-libo. After Revelation, God creates the possibility for every Israelite to be generous through the joint project of building the Mishkan. Everyone can give. And in giving, everyone can be a person who gives–a nadiv, a noble.

There’s an important message here about collective belonging, one that can inform all of our group experiences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Home We Build Together, “A nation is built by building.” So are communities, companies, congregations, sports teams, and families. But there’s also an important message about the Exodus: the culmination of the Exodus is not the crossing of the sea, and not even the revelation of the Torah. The culmination of the Exodus is in the building of the Mishkan, in the empowerment of the powerless to be noble, to be generous, to contribute. That is why we sing Psalm 113 before our meal at the Seder, and it is why the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus are devoted to the story of the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.

 

At about the midpoint of Parshat Ekev, Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf and his subsequent re-ascending of Sinai: “At that time, God said to me, ‘Carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first ones that you broke. And you will put them in the ark. And I made an ark of acacia, and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I went up the mountain with the tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets like the writing on the first ones, the The Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of assembly. And God gave them to me. And I turned and went down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark I had made, and they were there just as God commanded.'” (Deut. 10:1-5).

This account immediately poses some challenges when compared with the account of the same events in Exodus. Rashi points us to one: According to one view (Rashi’s), work on the Mishkan didn’t begin until after Moses had come down from the mountain. So how is it possible that Moses built the ark before he went up, since the ark is part–the centerpiece!–of the Mishkan? Answer: There were two arks, one that went out to war and one that stayed in the camp. This was the latter.

Ramban, unsurprisingly, disagrees: “This is a sole opinion. Throughout the Talmud, the Rabbis’ consensus view was consistent: There was one ark. The second tablets and the remnants of the first tablets were both put into the ark… This ark that Moses made: when Bezalel made his ark (the one that would enter the Mishkan), Moses buried his ark, according to the law regarding holy objects.”

Fascinating: Both commentators see an issue in the text, namely the apparent existence of two arks, and they come to strikingly different conclusions. Rashi argues for the existence of two arks, a view which, among other things, emphasizes that that which is holy cannot go out to war–death being the antithesis of the Holy of Holies. Ramban likewise maintains that the ark could not go out to war, but he goes a different route, saying that there was never a second ark. The ark mentioned here by Moses is a temporary ark, but bears a continuity of relationship with the ark that would ultimately be created by Bezalel and put in the Holy of Holies. “For Moses was commanded to build the Mishkan from the beginning [of his time on Mt. Sinai], and building the ark was the first commandment [in the building process]… For this was the entire purpose of the Mishkan, to enable God to sit on the cherubs.”

A striking feature of this early ark is its simplicity: it is not gilded, as the later ark would be. It is a plain box–much like the coffin in a traditional Jewish burial. And in this it seems to highlight one of the larger themes of Parshat Ekev: the humility and simplicity at the heart of a life of the service of God. Throughout the parsha, Moses exhorts the people to listen to God, to love God, and to serve God simply and humbly. In particular, he highlights the paradox of physicality: our existence in, and attraction to, the material world on the one hand, and the potential of the material world to trap and enslave us on the other.

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

This same theme is evoked time and again in the parsha: we are to live in the material world and transcend it at the same time. While this paradox propels the episodes of the Golden Calf and the spies, which receive extensive treatment in the parsha, our most constant reminder of it is in our eating. Thus the parsha contains the commandment to bless God when we eat: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The next line reminds us of why: “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today.”

It is too easy to forget, to be lulled into the sense that all this is all there is, and that we have full control over it. Moses reminds the people, again and again, that in order to become all that they (we) can be, we must embrace the materials of the world, and live with them simply, humbly, and with a greater sense of awareness and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

One of the lasting readings of the the Creation story in recent decades comes from the philosophical work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav). In Lonely Man, the Rav distinguishes between the story as outlined in chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. Human beings in chapter 1 are created male and female, and given the charge of mastering the earth and ruling it. This version clearly puts humans at the apex of the creation narrative–the culmination of six days of labor, after which God can look on everything God has made and proclaim it “very good.”

In chapter 2, by contrast, human beings are created alongside the rest of the world, placed in a garden, with the simple charge of tending it. Adam is created alone, not male and female simultaneously, and God first seeks a fitting helper for him from among the other animals. Only when that option is exhausted does God take a rib from Adam to create Eve.

These two stories provide the basis for the Rav’s distinguishing between Adam I and Adam II: Adam I, the scientific man, stands over against nature, Adam II, the natural man, is part of it; the world of Adam I finds equality between men and wome,  the world of Adam II explains gender politics; etc.

This observation of the Rav’s is among his most well-known teachings, probably because it resonates so well with the modern experience, of being simultaneously part of the world and apart from it.

Yet there is an important second step, often overlooked, to the Rav’s insight. The Adam I/Adam II distinction can easily become an issue of identity–trying to describe the human condition, or what human beings are. Much of philosophy has been caught up in that discussion for decades or centuries. And yet, in a seminar this quarter on secularism and religion, I find myself growing tired of the conversation–we can never adequately explain what human beings are. It’s intersting alright, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to improving anything. While the Rav certainly emphasized what human beings do as much as what they are, this part of his insight is too frequently forgotten.

In his books of the last decade or so, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has sought to move the conversation away from what human beings are to what human beings do. His 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, is a landmark in this regard. Sacks has been preoccupied for years with the questions that philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor have asked–how can we understand the place of religion and unique cultures within a globalized world? Sacks’s contribution is to think about societies as things that all of us contribute to, instead of something that all of us take from.

His model for this is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was built with the contributions of “all whose heart moved” him or her. “A nation,” Sacks writes, “is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of the Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle,” Sacks concludes, “God was in effect saying: To turn a group of people into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

We have just concluded the holiday of Sukkot, which concludes the holiday cycle begun with Passover and continuing through Shavuot. Those two holidays celebrate freedom from oppression and the establishment of law, the creation of the covenant. Sukkot is the final achievement: the creation of society through buliding, taking the contributions of the world itself to make something together. The Sukkah is our contemporary Mishkan.

At the same time, we experience this reality through the weekly cycle of work and rest, chol and Shabbat. The Rabbis of course understood that the work of building the Mishkan was the human counterpart to God’s creation of the world. The work we do not do on Shabbat is defined by the work done to create the Mishkan–and therefore this is precisely the holy work, the purposeful work, the melechet machshevet, we do during the week. The emphasis is on the doing, on the creating, on the acting–it is not simply on cogitating about being.

One of my former (and continuing) students, Jessica Fain, who is currently studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, wrote me a profound and wonderful line this morning in her pre-Shabbat reflection: “Rather than saying God is good, say good is Godly.  We should be looking for the Godliness in action.” Doing, creating, is how we walk in God’s ways.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Termah begins a sequence of four Torah portions dedicated to the design and construction of the Mishkan, the movable temple used by the Israelites in the desert. In the middle of these four Torah portions we read an additional portion, Ki Tissa, which relates the story of the Golden Calf and Moses’s successful intervention with God to save the Jewish people. In the first two portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh, God tells Moses about the design for the objects of the Mishkan and the clothing and actions of the priests, respectively. The two portions that follow the Golden Calf incident, Vayakhel and Pikudei, parallel Terumah and Tetzaveh thematically, but focus on the Israelites’ completion of God’s design.

Terumah, like its counterpart Vayakhel, focuses on the items inside the Mishkan–the Ark, Menorah, Table, the tent itself. A key element of all these accoutrements is gold, which is mentioned again and again in this parashah as an important element of all these items. (The same gold will, of course, be used to construct the Golden Calf.) My friend Will Friedman asks a good question about this: Why all this gold for items that will be seen only by a very select few–the priests who tend to them, and, in the case of the Ark, the High Priest who will go in to see it only on Yom Kippur?

Will’s question brings to mind a talk that the late writer Kurt Vonnegut gave while I was an undergraduate in college. The most memorable thing that Vonnegut said was that every writer should, once a day, write something and then throw it away. Why? Because as a writer, by definition, you are writing something that is waiting to be read. You are writing with a reader in mind. And yet the act of writing itself can and must be an intimate affair. So, Vonnegut prescribes, write something once a day that no one else will ever see. Create a private act of writing.

The design of the Mishkan–God’s home in the world–reminds us that not everything needs to be for public consumption. Not everything can or should be something we express to others. Just as we speak and behave differently with those with whom we are most emotionally intimate, reserving for them a beauty we don’t show the rest of the world, the Mishkan itself is built to be a place of intimate connection between God and the Jewish people, and not everything about that connection can or should be a loud public display.

To conclude, I would refer you to this article by an NU student who in the last few weeks has stopped using Facebook. Why?

Ultimately, my own self-prescribed hiatus from Facebook was fueled by three factors. One was to rid my life of unnecessary distraction, mostly in an attempt to finish my homework. The second was the hope of re-learning how to socialize in ways that don’t involve typing public messages to profile avatars that serve as pixeled representations of real people. Thirdly, it was the desire to regain the sense of personal privacy that I surrendered three years ago when I first created my account –- a move that I am retrospectively thankful for, given the controversy surrounding the site’s privacy policies (or lack thereof).

That sense of privacy, of intimacy and centeredness, is the sense that the Mishkan symbolizes, and one that we would do well to remember and enact in our own lives.

Shabbat shalom.