Here’s the text of the d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah) I gave at my adult Bat Mitzvah service at Temple Sinai on Feb. 26, 2011. My portion was Vayakhel, from the Book of Exodus, 35:1 – 38:20. There is a brief audio clip in the middle of this post that you may either choose to hear or skip.
For more about my Bat Mitzvah service (including some photos), see theprevious blog post.
This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means, “and he gathered together.” It comes near the end of the book of Exodus, right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites lapse into idolatry and build a golden calf.
In Vayakhel, Moses gathers the people together and tells them to bring all kinds of personal treasures to build a tabernacle to God. Before anything, though, he orders them not to violate the Sabbath – Shabbat is so important that it must not be infringed even for construction of a house of God. Then the people go out and bring their treasures – dyed ram skins and dolphin skins, fine linen and goats’ hair, gold earrings and nose rings. (I am sure there were a few Israelite moms and dads who were quite happy to donate their teenage daughters’ nose rings.)
The people end up bringing so much stuff that Moses has to tell them to stop – an unexpected turn of events that probably strikes envy into the heart of anyone who has ever led a fundraising campaign. (And there are a few of you in this room today!)
The portion continues with a very detailed description of all the components of the ark and tabernacle – the curtains, rings, boards, hooks, pedestals and so on — as the construction work is overseen by the master builders, Bezalel and Ohaliab.
There were several things that struck me about Vayakhel. The first is that it is almost a mirror opposite of the preceding portion, the debacle of the golden calf. In the golden calf episode, the Israelites donate their jewels and treasure to create an idol that is a travesty of holiness. In Vayakhel, they donate their jewels and treasure to create a truly holy structure. It is one of the rare moments in the Torah where the people actually do the right thing! Rabbi Elliott Kleinman points out that it is not jewels and treasure – not material possessions — that in themselves are immoral. It is what people choose to do with their possessions. The contrast between these two consecutive sections of Torah highlights this choice. As individuals and as a society, we can use our abundant resources to serve false gods of ego, prestige and power. Or we can use those resources to do good and enhance our world.
The second thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the importance of Shabbat, a point that has been emphasized by many of the commentators. Here the Israelites are about to build a house for God – can anything be more important than that? — and yet Moses tells them, before he says anything else, that they must stop that work on Shabbat.
Vayakhel tells us that we may not profane the Sabbath even for God. Yet Jewish tradition also says there is one thing for which we may break the Sabbath – to save a human life.
Thinking about this, I picture Jewish values as a pyramid of holiness – at the top, more important than anything, is preserving life. Just below that comes Shabbat, a time for rest and contemplation. Only under that come the physical trappings of what people typically think of as religion – the buildings, altars, prayerbooks, ritual items.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as itself a kind of sanctuary or tabernacle. Just as Bezalel constructed the tabernacle, we construct Shabbat – only we build it in time, not in space. We build it anew every week, and that has served us well. For the past 2,000 years, Jews have had neither a Temple nor a tabernacle – but wherever we went, we could construct space for holiness in our lives by observing Shabbat.
The third thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the very detailed physicality of it – the vivid inventory of blue, purple and crimson yarns and tanned ram skins that the people were asked to bring, the mind-numbing recitation of all the screens and hooks and boards assembled by Bezalel. The Haftarah portion for today is remarkably similar, a description of the architect Hiram building Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.
Both the Torah and Haftarah portions read a little bit like a shopping list for a trip to Home Depot. Hiram, for instance, assembles “two pillars, and two bowls of capitals that are on top of the pillars, and two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals on top of the pillars, and 400 pomegranates for the two networks, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars….”
It reminded me of when we remodeled our kitchen – that is, if, when we talked to friends about the remodel, we had chanted our process in Biblical trope:
Chanting (click to listen to audio file)
Seriously, though, what are we supposed to make of this long, long construction manifest?
As a Reform Jew, I believe that the Torah was written by human beings – humans who were wise and inspired, but were also creatures of their era. So we can speculate about some of the points that the author of this section was trying to make.
I suspect he was trying to impress listeners with the power of a God who warranted such opulence and craftsmanship, much as the builders of medieval cathedrals tried to convey the grandeur of God in their tall spires. He was also probably trying to show how Bezalel and his craftsmen followed God’s instructions down to the exact cubit – as the rest of us should follow God’s mitzvot to the letter. And, as someone who was probably a member of the priestly class during the First Temple period, the author may also have been using the details of the tabernacle’s construction to justify the décor and rituals of his own era.
But let’s step back from historical conjecture and think about what to make of this today, in our own lives.
Despite that initial bow to the primacy of Shabbat, this portion is about the importance of place and setting in spirituality. There is so much attention to detail – those hooks, those boards, those 400 pomegranates – not 300, not 500, but 400, and two rows of them for each network. All these material details – the number of pomegranates, and how many rows of them for each network – are part of creating a very particular setting that will foster a connection to the spiritual.
It’s a little paradoxical. The idea of spirituality is to get beyond the physical. And certainly people can have transcendent experiences anywhere – on an empty beach, a crowded subway, a seedy bar at closing time. So theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whether we are standing around in the wide open Sinai desert or entering a tent with dyed ram’s skins and golden cherubim and 400 pomegranates.
But it does. That’s one of the lessons of the golden calf episode – as human beings, many of us paradoxically need physical cues to help us transcend our physical selves. An altar, a priest, a whiff of incense. God and Moses learned that lesson, and gave the Israelites a tabernacle to fill those needs in place of a calf.
What do we as individuals need today? It varies. Some people find spiritual nourishment in group prayer in a synagogue or church. Others meditate or listen to music. Still others turn to nature – a walk in the redwoods or along the ocean.
I’d put myself in that last category. I enjoy the music, community and tradition of services, but I typically get much more of a sense of transcendence from being in nature. That’s where I get a sense of the miracle that is the universe, and an understanding that I am just a small part of it all.
It’s Christian transcendentalists like Thoreau who get a lot of the attention for finding spiritual nourishment in nature, but I’m not the only Jew who feels that way. Here is an excerpt from a Jewish writer whose home I visited last summer.
She wrote, “It’s not imagination on my part when I say that to look up at the sky, the clouds, the moon, and the stars makes me calm and patient. It’s a better medicine than either valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.” She didn’t get to see much nature – only a tree through a dirty window, and even that only occasionally. She was Anne Frank.
In any event, take the time to think about what that setting is for you. Then assemble it with all the care and diligence of Bezalel assembling the tabernacle. Construct it in both space and time. You can start small – a half-hour walk alone by the bay on Saturday afternoon? Fifteen minutes of meditation before work in the morning? Keeping a Debbie Freedman CD in your car to play on your commute home?
Like the Israelites whom Moses gathered together in Vayakhel, we remain charged with assembling our own tabernacles, in space and in time. We remain charged with creating our own opportunities for spiritual reflection. In today’s hectic world, spiritual moments won’t happen automatically – we need to build them as consciously and deliberately as Bezalel crafted the tabernacle.
So bring your dyed rams’ skins and your golden nose rings. Bring your favorite Mi Shabeirach melody or your favorite path in Redwood Park. Bring 15 minutes of your lunch break or two hours of your Saturday morning.
There is a phrase in this portion – where it talks about people bringing their offerings to build the tabernacle, it uses the phrase “kol chacham lev.” “All who were wise in their hearts.” Some commentators like Nechama Leibowitz have suggested that the hearts of the repentant Israelites were even more important an offering than their gold jewelry and dyed rams’ skins.
May we be wise enough in our hearts to build the kinds of tabernacles we need to nourish ourselves today.