Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Time's a Charm

--By Elana

So as I was reading about the purpose of this blog, one question popped out at me: "How is this 2,000-year-old document relevant to our lives today?"

I’m not going to speak directly about how this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, relates to our lives today; I’m going to let my dad do that. I’m going to be a little selfish and speak to how it is indirectly relevant to my life, and in the process, hopefully impart a little nugget of wisdom.

I have always been a planner: a regular Type-A personality. It’s not until recently that I’ve learned the valuable lesson of recognizing that happy coincidences are usually opportunities waiting to be to be seized. About 15 years ago, my father gave a d’var on this very Torah portion. In it, he states that our family had just found out that I would be giving the d’var for the same portion on my bat mitzvah. When I was asked to write on this blog for this portion, well -- third time's a charm.

Something about this portion has always made me think of my grandfathers, both of whom have passed away and I greatly admired, as my father mentioned in his d’var. The portion seems to speak to me (and follow me!), so I suspect that this isn’t my final encounter with Vayakhel. Without further ado, recounted here is my father’s take on the Torah portion:

The parshah this week, Vayakhel, appears to be a very dry, very long cataloguing of every detail of construction of the tabernacle in the desert under the guidance of Bezalel, whom God has especially endowed with the necessary wisdom and artistic skills. During a simple reading of this type of parshah, one can easily succumb to what I call the "glaze factor." But I believe a thoughtful consideration of the context can yield some interesting possibilities.

I suspect each of us finds, as the years pass and we experience repeated cycles of readings, different parshiot become prominent for us on an individual basis -- either because we come to associate them with our own specific experiences or because they strike some particular chord of revelation and recognition.

Part of Chapter 35, Verse 31 was chosen for my father's headstone just several years ago: "And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge ..." We have learned just recently this parshah will be read the week of our daughter Elana's bat mitzvah, with its rich potential for appropriate associations with keeping the Sabbath, building a proper religious environment, and participating in communal growth. And last week, Helen's father, Israel Schrager, passed away. Izzy was a skilled Old-World tinsmith whose history is one of loss and survival through the Holocaust, of building a new life and family in a new land, and rebuilding and persevering through new adversities.

I am sure you can understand why I find this parshah has such particular resonance for myself.

This parshah and the next, Pekudei, conclude the Book of Exodus. Inherent in them are two great themes of passage: a change in the character of the events described, and a change of protagonists in the progress of the Jewish people as a nation and in its relation to God.

I find fascinating the many facets of understanding to be derived from apparently simple descriptive narratives, either directly from the text or by inference when contrasted to other chapters. This and next week's parshiot are, in their basic content, a virtual mirror of two earlier parshiot (beginning at Chapter 25 as a cataloguing of construction details for the sanctuary), but there are important differences in both context and perspective.

In the earlier narrative, God commands Moses in detail how to build the Sanctuary, then describing in detail how Aaron and his sons, who are individually named, will be prepared, supported and catered to, and also how they are to minister as high priests.

But after this giving of instruction, the people rebelled. The incident with the golden calf and Aaron's failure to stop it followed, and Moses interceded to save the people from God's anger.

Then, in this week's parshah, the people show by their heartfelt generosity and participation that they truly deserve the renewed covenant.

From the beginning, the Book of Exodus has described one conflict, one supplication for help, one challenge after another to God. Moses' dialogues with God, the hostility of the Israelite leaders after Moses' return to Egypt, the continuous doubts of deliverance, and resistance to Moses's leadership at the Red Sea and in the desert are examples.

But now, the Jewish people, as a community, have themselves created a positive tribute to the God of their deliverance, the God that made them a nation dedicated to Him at Sinai.

The Torah is very candid about the human foibles and frailties of even the most important personalities: From Adam and Eve, to each of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, to the shortcomings of Moses, and to Aaron's failing -- leaders' transgressions have been chronicled along with their triumphs. This is to remind us not only of their humanity, but that none are to be idolized when there is only one God to be worshipped.

Yet here at the close of the Book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron are only occassionally mentioned, seemingly as reference points, as mere conduits for messages to the people. The figures of Bezalel and Oholiab are named, as previously, only in connection with building the Mishkan; but they are barely characterized as possessing the artistic skills and wisdom needed to build, and to teach the people to build, a worthy Tabernacle.

Bezalel and Oholiab, along with "every wise-hearted man, even every man whose heart stirred him ... to the work," and the over-generous donations of the people, built the sanctuary -- not just with artful skill, but with "wisdom of heart," with love, and with compassion, as a worthy testament to the covenant with God. Through the last 85 verses, the text names Bezalel only once -- the sanctuary is the creation and the construction of "every wise-hearted man."

Instead of decrying the tragic failings of glorified leaders, this parshah is a celebration of the special potential of every individual.

Finally, let us remember that the tabernacle was built as a portable house of worship, as the Jewish people continued their journey of learning and growth. Where it stood was not important. What it stood for was all important.

May our community continue to be one where each of us can express our love for God with a "wisdom of heart."

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