Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayakhel 5768: Art, Halacha and Shabbat

This week we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzalel has to ask for the donations to stop. At the beginning of week’s portion Moses speaks of the mitzvah of Shabbat, and includes in it a specific prohibition.

1. And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together, and said to them, These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. 2. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death. 3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day. (Ex 35:1-3)

In Torah there are only two real prohibitions, and by consequence of someone’s actions a third. In Exodus 16:22-30 we are told essentially God doesn’t cook on Shabbat and no one is to gather Manna on the seventh day. In this week’s portion we are told not to light fires. Numbers 15:32-36 had a man put to death for collecting sticks on Shabbat. Beyond this we have no Torah injunction of what we are supposed to do and not do on Shabbat.

We have in the later prophets and writings prohibitions on stamping grapes and commerce both with other Jews and with non-Jews. But the actual rules are still sparse. To understand what can happen in this circumstance, let me give a parable. Once on a lonely mountain, a princess and a prince met and fell in love. Yet after that moment the princess was taken away to a castle with walls impossible to get into. Before she was taken away she told the prince to send her messages through a very small hole in the wall. The prince gets to the castle and knows to roll up a small bit of paper and stick it in the hole to the courtyard on the other side. But he wonders what he should put on the paper, if anything at all. He remembers his moment with her and writes of her hair and her eyes, and other bits about that moment in time.

In the same way do we take a mitzvah, like Shabbat and infuse it with a greater structure, in order to turn the mitzvah, the love note to God, into more than a slip of paper, to really say “I love you.” Our writing on that note is known as the halacha, the rules that exist around the mitzvot in order to perform them. They are essentially of human origin, and in a few cases of the original oral law, believed to be transmitted to Moses orally by God. Moses then began a line of oral transmission up to the time of the rabbis. Yet no oral chain is ever exact, and there is the human hand in what we do have. The rabbis, using this and Torah, came up with a set of ways, halacha, adapted from both to fit their circumstances. Halakah undoubtedly has a human hand. They are the words on that love note, words we get from our experience as recorded in Torah.

For Shabbat for example, the rabbis took this the beginning of this week’s passage, which has nothing to do with anything else in the passage, and figured the reason it was there was to imply that it was all of the work necessary to build the Mishkan, which is referred to as malakah. Since God ended from all the malakah that he made [Gen 2:1] it must be human malakah that was prohibited on Shabbat, as defined by the Mishkan building project. On that basis the rabbis came up with thirty-nine primary prohibitions of work on Shabbat. But since they came up with primary prohibitions, it figured that there were secondary prohibitions, subcategories of those thirty nine which provide us with even more prohibitions.

I’ve been thinking lately about one of those possible subcategories of prohibitions, which in a strict sense I may be violating. Indeed I violate many. There’s no question I violate a direct mitzvot by driving an internal combustion engine to synagogue on Saturday mornings. So it’s surprising that there is a small thing that I think a lot about: Painting on Shabbat. It is part of my ritual practice of Erev Shabbat to sit in a restaurant, pull out my watercolor box, paints, and a photo reference and paint. I’m so serious about this I break other halacha just to do this. When last year I was given a choice between going to services and painting, I picked painting. I’m not sure sometimes if it’s a ritual practice or a guilty pleasure.

There are all kinds of issues with painting. Some are not just Shabbat prohibitions either. With my love of figurative painting, there is one that I find particularly interesting:

Our Rabbis taught: The writing under a painting or an image may not be read on the Sabbath. And as for the image itself, one must not look at it even on weekdays, because it is said, Turn ye not unto idols. How is that taught? — Said R. Hanin: [Its interpretation is,] Turn not unto that conceived in your own minds. [Shabbat 149a]

Not only looking at a painting is prohibited, but reading its caption on Shabbat! Yet here the issue is clearly idolatry. Many images with captions are not of a secular nature, and the caption may be prayer to other gods. So the first issue is that painting images of any kind as mentioned in many places are considered idols. More to the point on Shabbat we have this prohibition:

It was taught: He who bores, however little, he who scrapes, however little, he who tans, however little, he who draws a figure on a vessel, however little, [is violating Shabbat]. [Shabbat 103b]

For a painting prohibition, it is based on one of the thirty nine primary prohibitions found in the Mishnah:

He who writes two letters, whether with his right or with his left hand, of the same designation or of two designations or in two pigments, in any language, is culpable. [Shabbat 102b]

The Mishnah in the name of R. Yose, continues by clarifying this. While one mark does not convey meaning, two marks convey meaning. During the building of the Mishkan, that they marked the boards with the two letter abbreviations of the tribes as they worked to match up boards correctly. There is another text, a bit earlier concerning building which might also be significant in terms of its general principle:

If one builds how much must he build to be culpable? He who builds however little, and he who chisels, and he who strikes with a hammer or with an adze, and he who bores [a hole], however little, is culpable. This is the general principle: whoever does work on the Sabbath and his work endures, is culpable. [Shabbat 102b]

The general rule might apply to paintings. Paintings are permanent, and thus endure. It looks like there's not much chance for me to follow a halacha of painting.

I could make a philosophical argument of course, one many in the liberal Jewish community have made at one time or another. Basically it’s based on that definition of Malakah again, this time defining it as occupation. Shabbat is to rest from what you do for a living. If one gets enjoyment from something that does not have to do with your living, then go ahead and do it and enjoy yourself. An extension of this argument is that Shabbat is the witnessing of creation. God spent the six days creating the world, and on that seventh, sanctified day, we are to stop and appreciate it. An artist takes that creation and appreciates it by putting it on paper or canvas.

However, there’s something about creating a halakic argument that exempts painting that makes the act more sacred. Part of that is to follow a part of the tradition that the argument above does not: rabbinic thinking. The rabbis for many reasons found exemptions and ways around problems which restricted too much. For example, our prohibition on kindling a fire. The Karaites, who rejected the rabbinic authority, came up with their own halacha that no fire were to be lit on Shabbat. You spent from sunset to sunset on Shabbat without light and heat. The rabbis were far more lenient. If you lit the fire before sundown, gave it enough fuel to last a while and then didn’t touch it again, it could continue to burn throughout Shabbat. They then took that precedent and applied to several other circumstances where things began before Shabbat but were completed during Shabbat.

One takes from these and other sources and tries to come up with an argument, based on precedent of the classical sources, to create an exemption. Like the case of the fire, that one may not add more fuel, there may be stipulations and restrictions even to the exemptions.

Given the texts mentioning the prohibitions, there are two texts which might help in providing an exemption. The first is the rebuttal to the Shabbat 103 passage above:

R. Simeon said: [He is not culpable] unless he bores right through or scrapes the whole of it [the skin] or tans the whole of it or draws the whole of it! [Shabbat 103b]

The other, mentioned in two places, describes God as an artist, based on the prayer of Hanna:

There is none holy as the Lord, for there is none beside thee (I Sam 2:2). R. Judah b. Menashia said: Read not bilteka, ‘beside thee’], but read lebalotheka [‘to survive thee’]. For the nature of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that of flesh and blood. It is the nature of flesh and blood to be survived by its works, but God survives His works. Neither is there any rock [zur] like our God(ibid.). There is no artist [zayyar] like our God. A man draws a figure on a wall, but is unable to endow it with breath and spirit, inward parts and intestines. But the Holy One, blessed be He, fashions a form within a form and endows it with breath and spirit, inward parts and intestines. [Megilah 14a, Ber 10a]

Taking these texts, can we come up with a halakic exemption for painting, or art in general? This week, I’m not going to tell you here. Vayakhel is half of a double portion. On non-leap years, it is paired with Pekudei. This year, is a leap year and they are read separately, so in that spirit, I’m going to do the same thing and split this commentary into two parts, using a verse in Pekudei (Exodus 39:32) to help out. But I’ll give you a few hints. The major hint is the questions I ask myself when I get into a situation like this. Think about these this week, the sequence I thought them up, and how I could use the passages above to come up with that answer and next week, I’ll give you my answer:

1. Should I do art on Shabbat?

2. Is Art Work (vftkn)?

3. When is Art Work (vftkn)?

4. Is building the Temple really work?

5. Are there loopholes in that Mishnah?

6. What are the distinctions between my art and building the Temple?

7. Under what circumstances could art be done on Shabbat?

8. What restrictions would I have to have the exemption?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tissa 5768: When an Angel Points To the Demons

After two weeks with not much action, there's a lot of story this time. Moses receives the last of the commandments on Sinai, then proceeds down the mountain, where he meets up with Joshua, who thinks there's fighting in the camp. It turns out the people are worshipping a golden calf. Both Moses and God get upset, then Moses tries to save the people by telling God he'd look pretty bad in the eyes of the Egyptians if he kills everyone. The people repent. Moses goes back up to get another set of ten tablets since he broke the first set. Moses asks to sees God's face, but only gets to see his back, sort of. God inscribes another set of tablets, and reiterates several commandments. After this second time, Moses keeps his face covered, unless he was in the Mishkan.

This week we have the bookends to the readings of a few weeks ago. Those portions were the preparation for Sinai and the beginning of revelation there. Then Moses went up the mountain. This week portion is Moses coming down the mountain and the aftermath. On opposite ends of Moses’ time on Sinai there is an interesting repeated passage. In this week’s portion we read:

2. And I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; 3. To a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of you; for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you in the way.[Exodus 33:1-3]

Before Moses ascends Sinai we have the following:

20. Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. 21. Take heed of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him. 22. But if you shall indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. 23. For my Angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. [Exodus 23:20-23]

A few weeks ago I gave a D’var Torah at a friend’s house after Shabbat and asked a question about these two portions. Exodus 33 gives a function to this angel, to lead the people to the land. But what happens when the angel finishes this function? Does the angel leave? In Exodus 33 from this week’s portion we read next of what happens when they hear about this angel guiding them:

4. And when the people heard these bad tidings, they mourned; and no man put on him his ornaments.

Apparently, this was bad news. There is a Midrash which explains their mourning:

Raba again said to Rabbah b. Mari: Whence can be derived the popular Saying: ‘When we were young we were treated as men, whereas now that we have grown old we are looked upon as babies’? — He replied: It is first written: And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light but subsequently it is written: Behold I send an angel before thee to keep thee by the way. [Baba Kama 93a]

The people’s lament was that God, who was in the pillar of fire from Egypt to Sinai, would no longer be in the lead. They get a flunky instead. Yet in Exodus 23, shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments and prior to Moses’ ascent up the mountain we are told this was exactly what was going to happen. To further confuse things, the cloud and fire was still there, as we read in the last three verses of Exodus:

36. And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys; 37. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. 38. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. [Exodus 40:36-38]

Not only are we confused about whether the angel stayed around after the entering of the land but whether it was the angel or God doing the leading. I believe there is a way out of this tangle. First I think it is important to understand the Hebrew word for angel, malach. It can mean both angel and it can mean messenger. Adding a little Marshall McLuhan to that translation, the media and the message are often indistinguishable if not integral to each other. As we read in Ki Tissa, man cannot be face to face with God and live. There is always some message system conveying meaning from God to Israel, and to the rest of humanity. That message system, the angels, may take human form, but often, as exemplified by the book of Esther, they are a lot more subtle. There is no direct divine intervention in the story. I’ve referred to this idea before as “Everyday Torah” that there is spiritual learning and guidance from the most mundane things if we only look.

Secondly the difference between the sender of a message and the message itself is often a blurred distinction. God and the angels are often the same thing. Compare this to e-mail: If I were to send you an e-mail, I’m sending electronic data quite a distance. Your reaction to that e-mail however would be the same as if I was in the room. Someone wouldn’t say “the e-mail I got from Shlomo said” when quoting the e-mail. Instead that person might say “Shlomo said” as though I was in the room when I said it. If I said something offensive in the e-mail, you’d react as if I said something offensive to your face.

This is also true of a wondrous sight like the cloud over the Mishkan. The cloud is the message, the messenger and the sender of the message. All of the distinctions are blurred. The people’s mourning over they were only getting a secondary agent was wrong because they made a distinction between the message and the sender of the message. In idolatrous thinking we make such distinctions, in Jewish thinking we do not.

Yet that leaves the original question, did the angel stop at the border of Israel, never to lead the way again? One source begins to suggest an interesting pattern:

1. And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you go out of Egypt, and have brought you to the land which I swore to your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you. 2. And you shall make no pact with the inhabitants of this land; you shall pull down their altars; but you have not obeyed my voice; Why have you done this? [Judges 2:1-2]

This is not the only angel after the people settle in the land. There are several showing up in the book of Judges. Yet unlike the Cloud of the Lord over the Mishkan we see a new pattern. Instead of an angel leading a nation, it is an angel directed at an individual, a pattern which will continue throughout Tanach, to Ezekiel and Daniel. Often their directions are more than a little strange and a bit indirect, as in the ones to Samson’s parents (Judges 13) or to Gideon (Judges 6).

I’ve thought about this all for the last month or so due what I’ve been going through. I had expected my life to head in one direction after finishing grad school only to see it take a sharp right turn, one I hadn’t completely expected and one which looks like I was going in the wrong direction. Instead of Jewish scholar, I was heading into Microbiology product development. Since all this started I’ve been meditating and thinking about the phrase “I will send an angel before you.” If there was an angel still here, I’ve had a hard time seeing the angel lately. I’ve wondered why am I shooting so far off the obvious path. It seemed so strange, as though the last five years of my life in Jewish studies were wasted. Nonetheless I’ve tried to adjust to new paths. I’ve been learning a lot of new things, none of which seem to have anything to do with Jewish studies. Yet while trying to find some Talmud last weekend about the manufacturing ethics of R. Huna, I ran across the following passage,

It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand. [Brachot 6a]

I remembered an incident from the early days of Microbiology. Often on the first few glances of protozoans under the microscope early scientists would cringe in terror at the monsters under the microscope. I’ve heard the Alfred Hitchcock’s movie the Birds was inspired by the thought of microbial life being visible to the naked eye. That is not the only horror movie of course. The Blob and even an episode of Star Trek were based on a very visible Entamoeba Histolytica, though as a microbe it is far more difficult to stop its destructive power. As Abaye mentions demons are everywhere. They live in multitudes covering every surface, and as R. Huna mentions, who happens to be a food manufacturer [Brachot 5b] they are all over your hands.

The passage continued on how to see demons using magic potions. While it’s some seriously odd magic potions involving black cats and things the ASPCA would not be happy with, I realized it’s no stranger than the staining procedures I was learning in my Microbiology books. Since 2004, when I took a course in the history of Jewish magic, I been stating one thing over and over again, twice as a speaker to national conferences of public health officials. The rabbis of the Talmud, when referring to demons, in Aramaic Mazikin, may have been referring to microbial pathogens. My angel had struck, and shown me that, yes, I was on the path and the angel was still there before me. Ironically, the angel before me was pointing at the demons.

As much as Abaye and R. Huna talk about the multitude of demons, there are multitudes of angels as well. The Midrash Exodus Rabbah LXVIII, 18 uses the same proof text R. Huna used, a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand [Psalm 91:7] to talk of multitudes of angels in commenting about angels in front of us. They are always around giving us messages, and always being the message from God. The messages are everywhere, if we only look. It might be a passage of Tanach or Talmud that catches our eye. Yet it can also be a song on the radio or an advertisement on a bus. It could be an e-mail with a friend you haven’t heard from in a while, or an odd conversation with a stranger. Angels take many forms, surrounding us, so that they are always in front of us.

The lesson of the last few weeks for me has been about possibility. We can see our angels if we are open to possibility. If we put limits on our thinking, as did those in this week’s portion believing one of God’s flunkies was guiding the way, we miss the message and get less. If we only think angels are some guys with wings we may go our entire lives without seeing an angel. But if we open up to more possibilities, we see God’s messengers in many everyday things, events and circumstances around us, and can read and listen to the voice of God in all of creation.

When you run across your angels, say “hi” for me.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tetzave 5768: The Ephod Suicides

0This week we have more commandments given to Moses on Sinai. While other things, such as the oil for the menorah and the procedures for sacrifices are mentioned, the main part of the text describes the garb of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. We read for example:

1. And take to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. 2. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty.[Exodus 28:1-2]

We also read of the censer this week:

9. You shall offer no strange incense on it, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meal offering; nor shall you pour drink offering on it. [30:9]

Yet, in a few weeks we read the rather puzzling and disturbing verses in Leviticus 10:

1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. [Leviticus 10:1-2]

Many commentators have thought about this incident, the Midrash alone is full of differing explanations of what happened at that first tragedy in the Mishkan. I’ve written on several occasions about the incident and given more than one interpretation myself. Yet this week as I read the portion, I couldn’t shake a feeling. We read at the end of Exodus 28:

42. And you shall make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins to the thighs they shall reach; 43. And they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they come in to the Tent of Meeting, or when they come near to the altar to minister in the holy place; that they bear not iniquity, and die; it shall be a statute forever to him and his seed after him. [Exodus 28:42-43]

As this verse comes right after the verse about wearing underwear, it may be related to that. However it also closes the chapter about the priestly garments, so it may be about all of the priestly garments. Here and in 28:35 we read that the garments have a protective function.

35. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he should not die.[Exodus 28:35]

Nadab and Abihu had to have known all this, which makes their actions even stranger. I’ve argued in the past that either they were intoxicated, as the text in Leviticus 10 seems to imply, or that this was a selfless act of protection, they did this as self-sacrificing heroes. What I’ve never discussed before is a question that never occurred to me before: What if they didn’t want to be priests?

At the core of that question, and at the core of this week’s portion is the role of clothing in the world. In once sense, one that the text does mention twice, it is protective. One can imagine that working directly with the Divine Presence in the temple was a dangerous affair. Today, On days where the wind whips temperatures cold enough to cause frostbite or hypothermia, hats gloves, and long johns have such a purpose from danger.

On another, as Exodus 28:43 above suggests there is the issue of modesty. The priest wore linen breeches to prevent their genitals showing during work hours. Such an issue was also brought up earlier in Exodus when we are told not to make steps but ramps up to the altar. There is more possibilities for the function of clothing suggested by the phrase “beauty and glory,” occurring in Exodus 28:2, and 28:40. Clothes can make us more attractive or cause us to pay attention to someone.

The word glory also shows up as my glory, speaking of the Glory of the Lord, a phrase which shows up several times in Exodus. The word for glory, kavod, has many meanings. Kavod may also mean honor. I’ve thought about this and looking at several versus where the word shows up, I’ve come up with another possible translation for kavod: Identity. Closely related to clothing’s use for beauty, is its use in identifying people. The high priest was identified as the high priest by wearing these garments. The other priests were identified by wearing parts of this whole ensemble. We know a police officer by his blue uniform, a soldier by her fatigues. I know who works in Starbucks by their green aprons and janitorial staff by a uniform with too many pockets, chunky keychain and a mop.

When we see a police officer in their dress blues, we identify with them differently than if they were in riot gear. We might not judge a book by its cover, but we do by the shirt on someone’s back. To wear a crown or an ephod tells someone that you are a king or a priest. What’s more the act of putting on a uniform is the act of accepting that identity. Yet when I first learned the word kavod, it found it very meaningful that along with honor, it also meant heavy. To paraphrase Spiderman, with great honor comes a heavy responsibility. Part of that weight is that we are no longer identified as a human being but a job. As heavy as all that gold, cloth, and stones in the ephod and the rest of the priests’ garb, the weight of no longer being a human being must be crushing.

Thus we come back to Nadab and Abihu. We know nothing of their personal lives, not even an indication of marital status. Some Midrash takes such silence as a comment that they were single, but that too cannot really be known. We therefore cannot say anything about who these two men except they were the sons of Aaron. Thus I’ll make a supposition. They believed they knew their identities, and were living that life. Though I doubt these scenarios were their true identities, I can use stories for these two to illustrate my point. Let’s suppose Abihu was a serious musician who played harp solos for his singing cousins the sons of Korah. Let’s further suppose Nadab was deeply in love with a widow. When the clothes and responsibilities of the priest and the high priest were given, who they had become, the musician and the lover, were now lost to them. Nadab was forbidden with associating with his fiancĂ©. Abihu had to put down his harp permanently and start bossing around his friends and band mates. Their lives and dreams were banned, denigrated and devalued. Such change must have hurt – a lot. In one sense when they were told about the priesthood and their new responsibilities, about those clothes and that new identity, it was then that they lost their lives.

Again from the biblical story it is hard to determine what happened in the Mishkan when these two offered strange fire. But I believe that kavod in their eyes was translated oppressive weight. They might have intentionally offered strange fire knowing it would end their lives, removing them from the hopeless situation they were in. Yet I think more likely was the second possibility. With the loss of their identity, their heart wasn’t in their job, and they made mistakes which led to their death. Suicide wasn’t a conscious option for them but happened because they did not focus on living and performing their new job well. In either case, they died rather than be a priest.

As much as this explanation seems to make sense to me, it is also very disturbing. The one who changed Nadab and Abihu’s lives in the first place was God. God messed up their lives as they knew it. That is the disturbing contemporary question: Is God forcing us to live a life that is in accordance with God’s wishes, but in doing so giving us an identity that is not genuine? If someone works incredibly hard to fulfill a dream, something that for them is their primary purpose in life, and then it falls apart, what are they to do?

I really have no answer to that question. The best I can do is a partial answer, but of some things I am certain. Nadab and Abihu’s solution was the completely wrong one. Dying either by intentional or unintentional suicide accomplishes nothing. Nadab and Abihu had another problem, which I believe the weight of their uniforms blinded them to. To live in a uniform is to live within a limited belief structure, to the stuff we’re given. Anything outside that structure doesn’t exist, or is seemingly impossible to do. Yet maybe that is where we need to strive for. People are people, not their occupation. People extend beyond their uniform. A man is more than the sum of his clothes. Yet we forget that, and we forget that while circumstances might be bad now, that too will change. As I said last week, our Nefesh is permanent. Our identity is concrete. Yet clothes also hide that identity within the limits of what we expect out of someone wearing those clothes. It’s outright bizarre to see a uniformed police officer dancing down the street to music on his iPod. We expect them to be serious if not gruff. Those are limits placed on cops, though even when the uniform comes off, those limits remain and many do not act differently in a t-shirt and blue jeans.

Sometimes limits are important. Where Nadab and Abihu went wrong is making limits where there are none, and thinking the situation hopeless and impossible to change. In reality, maybe God is challenging us to overcome our limits, and to grow in ways we would not otherwise. We can fail to rise to that challenge, and collapse under the weight. We could also start to get creative, and change. In the process we can even end up changing the expectations of entire world.

In a story that I have repeated often in the last few weeks to those who would listen, I tell people about the DVD I bought in Disney World while I was there in early January. The DVD is of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Most have never heard of Oswald, but he was Walt Disney’s first fully animated character in 1927. Disney had put together a team of animators, some who would go on to their own fame, like Friz Freleng and Tex Avery, known for their work on Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry among many other cartoons for Warner and MGM. In a contractual loophole, Disney lost all the rights to Oswald and access to all his animators. Yet on the train home from that meeting in New York to his home in Los Angeles, he began to doodle. One of those doodles looked at lot like Oswald but with round ears. He named this mouse Mortimer, but we know him today as Mickey.

There is a quote from Disney found in many places in the park, one I have on a poster on my office wall “I hope we don’t lose sight of one thing, it was all started by a mouse”

I disagree. It all started with getting beyond a rabbit. Let us not, like Nadab and Abihu did, forget that.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Terumah 5768: The Eco-Temple

When we last left Moses, he was ascending Mount Sinai at the request of the people that he would be the exclusive representative of the people, and he would then teach the laws to them. Moses thus begins the Forty-day period of receiving the Torah. God starts with the design plan of the Mishkan, the portable temple that will be the center of Israelite practices until the time of Solomon. This week Moses receives the plans in rather interesting detail of the items found in the Mishkan, such as the ark and the altar, and ending with the Mishkan itself. The text starts:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering. 3. And this is the offering which you shall take from them; gold, and silver, and bronze, 4. And blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, 5. And rams’ skins dyed red, and goats’ skins, and shittim wood, 6. Oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for sweet incense, 7. Onyx stones, and stones to be set on the ephod, and on the breastplate. 8. And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. [Exodus 25:1-8]

Looking at that inventory of supplies, the list seems large. The questions arise immediately: How would people who were slaves mere months before find such stuff? The answer of course comes from an earlier passage:

35. And the people of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments; 36. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent them such things as they required. And they carried away the wealth of the Egyptians. [Exodus 12:35]

The borrowed items from the Egyptians became the materials for the Mishkan. They did not acquire new stuff, but re-cycled old. This was so different than Solomon’s temple which stripped the cedars of Lebanon. The Mishkan was commanded by God. The idea for the temple was King David’s, who wanted a permanent location for the ark. God merely gave him permission.

What made me think of this was one rather minor candidate in the primary this week. For the last few weeks leading up to Super Tuesday I’ve been getting mail from candidates clogging my mailbox. One person running for a commissioner for the water reclamation district was particularly interesting. This is the public service which takes sewage and makes it safe to discharge into water supplies. In a media blitz for a minor job, she puts up billboards, ran radio ads and clogged the mail box with large postcards. She claimed to be an environmental candidate, and the Sierra Club photos of her helped play up that image. But going to my mail box day after day I decided I couldn’t vote for her.

Every day, I kept find the same thing in my mailbox from her. A big coated four color postcard claiming she was the candidate for the environment. As a guy who has made his own paper from consumer waste, I know very well four color heavy - stock coated postcards are the absolutely worst type of paper to recycle, and never starts off recycled. In her zeal to get elected she proved to me she didn’t care about the environment - -she didn’t use post consumer waste for the card stock. When I found out one of her big contributors was the big oil company BP, I was not surprised in the slightest.

It made me think about recycling, and of course the issue of using the gold of the Egyptians and turning it into the Gold of the Mishkan. Recycling is transformative. My own paper recycling actually turns old office documents into paper sculptures. In the biblical case, all the idolatrous amulets of the Egyptians were transformed into the gold layering of the Ark. This is not just a miracle of God, but a miracle of man, taking one thing and turning it into another.

Such transformations are part of life of course. Watching a snowstorm out my window, I think abut the frozen water crystals that probably evaporated from the Gulf of Mexico, froze in mid air over Chicago, and fell as snow. Eventually they will melt, run down the Illinois River, then the Mississippi to return to the Gulf.

Outside of nature is human thought. The concept that the Mishkan is a metaphor for human thought is certainly not my own, I’ve heard it used often. But how often in such a metaphor do we realize how much of our own Mishkan of the soul is also recycled. There is the stuff we learned from our parents, both facts and attitudes. There is the stuff we learned from our friend’s and from the world around us, in social interactions, social pressure, advertising, the media and the rest of everyday life. And the there is the stuff we intentionally learned in school. Like the gold, acacia wood, gems, white, blue and purple cloth, we recycle ideas into our own Mishkan.

Moses was told by God to take stuff collected from the Egyptians and turn it into a mobile place for God to interface with Israel. It was David’s dream and Solomon’s task to recycle the Mishkan into the Temple. After the destruction of the first temple, it was Ezra’s and Nehemiah and their generation’s task to recycle what was left of the first temple into a second one. After the destruction of the second Temple, it was Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciples’ task to recycle the idea of the temple into prayer and home practices. Each had a task to transform what came before into something new, yet that retained a core idea of the original wood, cloth and gold in the wilderness of Sinai so long ago. The core, the covenant of God and Israel always remains.

So it is with a scholar who departs from the study of the Torah and engages in other pursuits, yet even after many years have elapsed when he wishes to return [to its study] he is not abashed, because he says: ‘I am returning to the heritage of my ancestors.’ [Exodus Rabbah XXXIII:7]

There are times in our lives where we have to be away from our core, and pursue other things; we recycle what we know to fit that occasion. Deep within us however there is some core that we can return to. It is the Holy of Holies within us. It is the place where the Shechinah dwells in each of us. I would call that my Nefesh, the life force, the soul. Often we need to bury it for social convention or economic need. In those cases, transmute its outside wall and layers into something that may not reflect what it really is. But it is there.

Paradoxically one of the most and at the same time least instructive pieces of advice anyone can give another is these two words: Be yourself. One needs to ask the question: which self? Our core Nefesh or the recycled stuff that others expect us to be? Depending on the situation we may choose one or the other. Yet even when we change to fit the situation, we remember who we are. From Mishkan to Temple to Talmud, that outside can change, but that core will always be the same.

May you find your Nefesh, may you be your Nefesh.