Sunday, February 21, 2010

Our House is a Very Very Very Fine House

Parshat Terumah


Right from the beginning of this week’s Parsha, God announces that the people should build a sanctuary to God so that God can dwell among the people. It is a very radical request from God and the theological and practical results of this request can affect almost every aspect of our lives. It seems so easy, build a temple to God. But, as my bible students will tell you, there is nothing easy or simple in the Torah. There are many different translations, commentaries and ways of understanding a text. We can easily miss something important if we read past a simple verse too quickly.

In our Parsha, the Torah goes on to list all the physical items needed to build a portable sanctuary. There are boards and screens, wall hangings and tent covers. Indoor and outdoor furniture. It would lead us to think that from the beginning, this Parsha is about building a building for God. If we look at the first verse of Parshat Terumah, however, we see that the reason for the building is not for God at all. It is so that God can be among the people. It is less about a dwelling place for God and more about a meeting place between God and human beings.

What do you think about sharing public space with God? Just how does one spend quality time with the Creator of the Universe? Ancient people thought that to be in the presence of God, one should use that time to share with God a meal. That is the reason why animals were sacrificed in ancient days, A sacrifice was just the way we could eat a nice meal together with God. But think about that image, God and human beings sharing a meal. Eating with God raises in our minds all kinds of strange questions. What does one say when one is sharing a meal with God? Does God pay attention if we use the wrong fork? Does God forgive us if we have a stray piece of spinach caught in our teeth? Should we share the usual small talk that is customary at our family table or should we think of the meal as if it was a formal state dinner? Should we only speak when our “host” speaks to us and even then, we deal only with “lofty” ideas? After dinner does one share a good cigar with God? A sniffer of brandy?

Can you see where this is going? Perhaps what we need to do is to consider that maybe the Torah is not talking about a real house at all. Maybe Torah wants us to consider what it would take to spend some quality time contemplating God. Our surroundings are not as important as what we feel and how we respond to being in the presence of God. For example, think about the furniture in the Mishkan; a box that contains the tablets of the law, and some historical artifacts from the time our people spent in the desert. There is a candelabra, a table with bread on it; an alter for sweet smelling incense. These are not things that God needs. God does not need historical reminders, oil lamps, bread and incense. We need them to give us some sensory appreciation since God is beyond all of our senses.

According to the Torah, where can we find a visual representation of God? To see the face of God we will have to look into the faces of the people around us. We are created in the image of God and if we seek to find God, we need to look to others and look deep inside ourselves. What does it mean when the Torah tells us that God wants to dwell among us? First of all, it means that the relationships we have with other people are where a true understanding of God can be found.

When we are kind to each other, when we reach out to help each other. When we take the time to think about how someone else feels before we act, we are creating a space where God would like to dwell. When we act, even against our own self interest, if we are doing it for the right reasons, then God will want to dwell among us. Think about Yom Kippur, the holiest day on our calendar. Getting God to forgive us is actually quite easy but it is easy only after we have reached out to receive forgiveness from each other. It is easy to be at peace with God, we only need to first be a peace with our neighbors.

What applies to the Temple of Jerusalem can also apply here in our synagogue. We know what we need to do to be in God’s presence right here in Delray Beach. Our surroundings are beautiful. This synagogue has created a quiet space that helps us promotes our contemplation of God. But the surroundings of Temple Emeth are not for God. The comfortable chairs, the artwork, the siddurim and humashim, these are all here for us to use. They do not represent or call down God to our community. It is our actions, the Mitzvot that we perform, the acts of kindness we show each other that make this a place where God would love to join us.

I often look at this saying in front of the ark. Da Lifney mi atah omed. “Know before whom you stand.” It is a rather profound statement, deeply spiritual if we take the time to consider it. “Know before whom you stand.” Think about what it is asking us to do. What does it mean to know? Can we know anything about God. What does it mean “Before?” Is God in front of us, behind us, beside us or all around us? “Whom.” Just what kind of a “who” is God anyway? Clearly God has no body, but is God just a conscious idea? Is God consciousness itself? Can we locate ourselves before God if we are not sure even who or what God is? I am standing, but who am I in relationship to God? God is eternal and I am finite. God is everywhere and I am here. God is good and I struggle to do good. Who am I and why do I deserve to stand before God? What if it doesn’t really mean that I have to stand but it means I should consider that God dwells with me all the time and I have to live my life contemplating just that thought. This saying over the ark seems to be telling us that we should treat every minute as if we are being watched and judged by God.

That idea is a very frightening thought. Could we even exist if we were being judged by God all the time? How could we ever live up to the standards that God has for us? We know in our hearts that sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we don’t do what is right because we are tired, frustrated or angry. If we were always in God’s presence and if God were always judging us we would soon become paranoid or depressed. We could never live up to that standard, no matter how hard we may try. This is why it is so important never to forget that God loves us. We are standing in the presence of a loving God. A God who cares about what we do, about what we think and a God who wants us to live better lives.

God is our Creator, so God must be more like a parent than a judge. God knows our frailties and our faults, and God loves us anyway. Sometimes we do things in life because we know that our mother or father would have wanted us to act that way. It is the example of the loving relationship with our parents, a relationship that never dies, that can describe what our relationship with God must be like. God helps us live better lives and God loves us when we fall short, so we will have the strength and courage to try again.

I will get political here for just a minute, what do you think would be different if our political leadership contemplated their relationship with God in their deliberations and choose not to contemplate what the next election might bring? Such a political life would be filled with a representative trying to do what is the right thing for the people he or she represents and should that effort meet with failure, then our leaders would have to get back up and keep trying. Politicians who contemplate their relationship with God would be planning for the future and not deferring to the future what may not be politically expedient today.

When we build better relationships with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors; when we extend our hands and our hearts to others; When we feel the pain of those around us and let that pain move us to ease their pain; in all of this we are building a Mishkan, a sanctuary to God. A place where it is possible for God to dwell among us. When we are angry with each other, careless and inconsiderate, we do not create that holy space, and God is far away. With just a change in attitude, however, we can span the chasm and find ourselves once again in God’s presence.

It is fine to build beautiful buildings. It is better to build bautiful relationships. It is important to do the right thing. It is even better to have the right attitude. It is wonderful to be at peace with the world, it is even better to know that when we are at peace, we are in the presence of the Divine.

The Temple of Jerusalem is gone. We no longer have any of the furniture, wall hangings or sacred instruments. But we still know that God dwells among us. God is right here when we love our neighbor as our self. That is the sanctuary, that is the holy space, where God delights to dwell.

May we find our way to kindness and compassion and may they always lead us into the presence of God as we say…


Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Parshat Mishpatim - Torah Study

א וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם.
And these are the rules you shall set before them.

A. Knowledge of the law is to be the privilege and the obligation of the entire people, not the prerogative of specialists or of an elite class. [Etz Hayyim Torah commentary, p. 456 on our verse]

B. Rabbi taught: Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. [Talmud, Mishna Avot 2:1]

C. Our tradition has always understood that "mitzvah" embraces a range of meanings broader than "commandment" alone. This is certainly true of popular Jewish usage of the word mitzvah. In common usage the word is generally understood as "good deed." JTS renders our key term as "instructions" that were "enjoined upon" the Israelites and not only as "commandments" that they were "commanded." The range of meanings demanded by our tradition's use of the word over the centuries and to the present day is broader still. Those meanings include, but are not limited to, actions that we feel obligated to perform, that engage us, that we are responsible for, that we undertake out of love.
We must know what we as Jews are committed to do and why we do it before we tackle the more complex and difficult issues of halakhah. Conservative Jews have long debated, and still do, in what sense we are a "halakhic movement." Heschel—who liked to speak about the "polarity of halakhah and aggadah"—taught fifty years ago that we cannot begin to think about the matter of halakhah unless we have first gotten clear on mitzvah. Our intention is that this discussion of mitzvah will lead naturally to that one. [JTS Mitzvah Initiative, from the website]
D. A loving parent does not show genuine love by telling a child, “Do whatever you want.” That would not indicate love, but lack of concern and responsibility. The truly loving parent says, “I care very much about you and although I cannot live your life for you, I want you to have the benefit of my experience.”Judaism is a religion of love because it does not leave people to find the way unaided. [Harold Kushner in “Likrat Shabbat”siddur by Sydney Greenberg]
1. What does the word “Mitzvah” mean to you? Is it a command that you “must” do? If not, how do you approach the mitzvot in the Torah? Are they “good deeds”? “laws”? “suggestions”? Are mitzvot the most important part of Judaism? What might be more important?

2. If someone on the street told you that your shirt was ugly would you pay attention to him/her? If your spouse told you it was ugly, what would your reaction be? If a stranger told you not to steal, would you pay attention? If he assured you of a severe punishment would you then pay attention? If your parent told you not to steal would you pay attention? If God tells you not to steal would you pay attention? What role does the punishment play in observing mitzvot?

3. Why do we think that there are some mitzvot more important than others? How do we relate to the mitzvah of honoring parents that is different from shatnez (prohibited clothing made of mixtures of wool and flax)? Honoring parents comes with a reward (long life); does that make a difference? Why or why not?

Adon Olam

I recently came across an essay by Rabbi David Hartman, from a few years ago, from a speech he gave in Los Angeles, CA. In speaking about the covenant that God made with the People of Israel, Rabbi Hartman gave three examples of how God views the covenant as one of love and not of authoritarianism. The first example he gave is from the dialogue between God and Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a telling moment that begins with God asking the question (to whom?) if God should share the divine plan for the cities with his servant Abraham. The fact that God even bothers to share the information with a “servant” is telling, but the story goes on. Abraham insists that God not destroy the righteous with the wicked. Abraham is not quoting a Biblical verse, or a halacha from some other source. There is this innate understanding in Abraham, it is his own “moral intuition” that brings him to question God’s actions. Then the bargaining begins. Why doesn’t God tell Abraham to stop his prayers since there are not even ten righteous people in the city? God must love the confrontation with his “partner” who feels morally strong enough to critique God.

The second example is from the Talmud. Rabbi Hartman notes that when God tries to intervene in the deliberations over the oven of Akhnai, Rabbi Joshua rebukes God saying, “Lo bashamayim hi!” “It is not in Heaven”. Halacha is a human invention based on what we know of what God has given us. God decided what would be in the Torah, now we get to decide what will be Halacha. In the Academy we get to tell God to be quiet and not interrupt our deliberations. Outside the Academy, what right do we have to criticize how God runs the world? We silence God in the house of study, God silences us when we confront the incomprehensible in our world.

Rabbi Hartman’s third example is the crossing of the Red Sea. This miracle is the paradigm of all miracles of God acting in history. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have been waiting for the next miracle, the arrival of the Messiah. That is why there were so many who opposed Zionism for trying to force God to redeem our exile and bring us back to our land. They thought that Zionism was a rejection of tradition. Instead, Zionism was an act of covenantal empowerment. We chose to learn agriculture, banking, and self defense and bring about our own redemption. We take responsibility for our own history. It was our own initiative that ended Jewish homelessness.

According to Rabbi Hartman, we should not be asking God to solve our problems, we should seek instead that God should be with us. He writes, “Therefore, for me, the spiritual moment in contemporary Jewish history is a covenant of love. Here, reward and punishment cannot work anymore in the modern world, because we have other forms of gratification and other ways of creating obedience to the law. God is now sought not because of a function but because God is God.”

In the struggle to understand what a “Conservative Jew” really is, much of our movement has gone off in a wrong direction. We have struggled with the concept of Halacha and observance, when to me; the real issue is if we have something to offer modern Jews. I can worry about those who are tied to the law and will not vary an inch, and those who are so unattached to Judaism that they don’t care anymore what God or humans have to say. This is what I worry about because I am a pulpit Rabbi and these two poles describe many in my congregation. But when I think about who I am, and what I am looking for in the world, Conservative Judaism teaches that in this covenant of love between God and humanity, we have to be responsible for this world and for what goes on here. God wants and expects us to struggle, argue, and ponder all the messiness of life and then do what we can do with what God has given us, to make this world better: To continue the process of Creation by striving to bring order out of chaos.

The God that many people seek is the God who tells Adam and Eve how to live their life and then punishes them with exile when they disobey. It is the God who destroys the world with a flood, saving Noah, so that humans will be better to each other. It is the God who confounds the languages of the people of Babel, when they decide to build a tower to heaven so they can wage war with God. I think they are looking for the wrong God. The Torah itself seems to teach us that God understands that this kind of a power arrangement does not work. Punishment does not make people obey. Destruction does not induce humanity to be kind to each other. (How else can you interpret Gen. 8:21?) God can confound the languages of the earth but people still seek to “wage war” against God.

So God chooses a different path. Out of the blue, God picks Abraham to begin a covenant that will guide just one nation (There are seventy nations in the Torah, Abraham is promised to be nation seventy-one). A covenant based not on punishment or anger, but on love. God gives us the tools we need and then nudges us from time to time with big ideas that help us move our society along. God does not want us to be perfect. God only wants us to keep trying to make ourselves and our world better. From time to time we silence God for interfering with our struggle (“Mother please, I’d rather do it myself!”) and sometimes God tells us to be silent if we complain that God is not helping us enough. (“You made your bed, now go lie in it.”) We wait for God’s miraculous redemption at our own peril. WE are the redemptive force in the world and through our actions we will tame the chaos and bring order to our messy world. Sometimes the Halacha will not fit into the system we created as well as we would like. But if our innate sense of Justice is anything like our ancestor Abraham’s, Halacha or not, we will keep trying to do the right thing. Maybe we will discover that in spite of our best hopes, things are not as good as we think they should be but we will learn from our mistakes and pick ourselves up and get back to work.

And God will love us anyway,