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Posted By The Stash

This week’s parasha sheet is compelled to continue the two themes of last week: the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the Shabbat. Why compelled? Because Moses puts the two together right at the parasha’s opening three verses which speak of observing Shabbat. As Nechama Leibowitz observes, Moses begins his narrative of how the Mishkan is to be constructed with the Shabbat, which is a complete inversion of the order in which G-d gave the same commands to Moses. In other words: G-d first told Moses to build the Tabernacle and then observe Shabbat, but Moses placed Sabbath observance before Mishkan construction. Why?

The Mishkan’s purpose, as Ramban explains, was carefully designed to increase G-d’s immanence (“spiritual visibility”) among the Israelites. Its plan of construction outlined in Parashiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh, is interrupted by the sin of the Golden Calf in Parashat Ki Tissa, which also outlines how the Israelites were forgiven after Moses’ second ascent to Sinai. Then parashiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei narrate how the Israelites brought the materials needed and completed the construction of the Mishkan.

If we accept Ramban’s approach, we can answer Leibowitz’s question fittingly. For G-d, it was essential to first explain to the people how carefully designed the Mishkan was in order to fulfill its lofty purpose. The Shabbat was almost an afterthought. Was it not obvious that if the Creator of the world ceased from creating after six days, human beings should as well? But Moses did not rise to the level of “speaking to G-d face to face” for nothing. A prophet is a messenger, not G-d’s ventriloquist. A prophet must know who they are speaking to and how to nuance the message so that the audience will listen.

This is what Moses did. Since, as we noted last week, it would be natural for the Israelites to assume that the building of the Mishkan overrode the normal restrictions of the Sabbath, he went out of his way to underscore the primacy of the Shabbat over the holy work of construction by mentioning it right at the beginning of his speech. Bringing G-d closer to the people begins with pausing rather than working.

In our increasingly hectic 24/7 online society, this message has suddenly acquired new meaning. Both the Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Frydman-Kohl have written about the importance of not working on Shabbat. Both cite the need to recharge spiritually and physically from being bombarded by a world in which the workplace follows you wherever you go, kids have less ability to attend than ever, and time is at an unprecedented premium. Not all of us may be able to fully accept the Biblical injunctions that restrict Shabbat activities. But I urge you to try to make Shabbat special by getting away from workplace activities. Don’t read work related email. Make time to communicate with a friend you don’t often see. Visit a shut in relative. Take time to talk to the family over an extended meal at which everyone is present.

Still can’t bring yourself to put away the Blackberry? Then grab it later on (preferably after sunset!) and visit since next Shabbat is their “National Day of Unplugging.” This is NOT a closet Chabad or Aish site, and that is precisely why it is so interesting. Read, think of choosing some of these activities, get the family involved, come here and learn. As Heschel observed: Judaism sanctifies time not space. Let’s take back time—for ourselves and our loved ones.

Posted By The Stash

It is no coincidence that almost in the middle of the 5 parashiyot devoted to the creation of the first Jewish sacred space, the narrative is suddenly broken abruptly by a a description of observing the Shabbat. Our sages not only learn all but one of the 39 major prohibited activities (avot melacha) from this textual interpolation, but also that sacred time trumps sacred space almost completely.

Let me explain. The description of building the mishkan is abruptly broken by a peculiar verse “ach et shabtotai tishmoru”—But you (the Israelites) shall keep My Sabbaths.” The word “ach” meaning either “but” or “nevertheless”, clearly demarcates this verse from the preceding narrative by more than just subject matter. Our Sages have taken it to mean that because the building of the Tabernacle could not be carried on during Shabbat, any analogous activity—known as a melacha—could not be done either--hence the basis of the Sabbath laws.

But the positioning of this text speaks about the confluence of sacred time with sacred space and the unique contribution the Sabbath has made to religious discourse. Many other nations and faiths sanctified space. In this sense, the Mishkan was no more than an Israelite iteration of a worldwide cultic trend. But the introduction of sacred time is unique. As Abraham Joshua Heschel poetically noted Shabbat was “the architecture of holiness” a sacred time set apart from the rest of the week.

And how fitting it is that on this special day, we spend a considerable amount of time praying in a sacred space. Even though the Sabbath prayers are longer, a testimony to our ability to spend more time at prayer, the key Sabbath observances still take place at home—most important of all being the Three Sabbath Meals (shalosh seudot shel Shabbat). In the easy flow of spirituality from synagogue to home, we see the powerfully Jewish notion that we can create sacred space through consecratory actions: ritual hand washing, blessings and Grace After Meals transform the table into an altar. Similarly, a Holy Ark, a Torah, and a lamp make a room a sacred precinct of prayer.

Shabbat is a taste of perfection in this world. The buzz of the hectic work week recedes, replaced by the sounds of family conversation around the Shabbat table. Generations often join together and preciously indelible familial interactions take place between grandparents and grandchildren. Kiddush is intoned, hands are washed, Hamotzi is recited. Ceremony cements continuity. The next morning in our little shul, we find time to schmooze, daaven, joke, learn, and enjoy each other’s company. Sacred space and sacred time merge and blur—the cacophony of mundane existence fades in the glow of meaningful social interactions with family and friends temporarily loosed from the bonds of the work week. There will be time to build the Mishkan later—now is the time for relationships more timeless than any building.

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How does one create Jewish sacred space? Our last parasha teaches that the holiness of the synagogue is derived from the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. But what does our tradition do to demarcate sacred space? Our parasha discusses the appointment of Aharon, Moses’ brother, as High Priest, and makes clear that the priests are the dominant figures within the sacred precincts of the Mishkan. In other words, the splendid vestments of the office, and the unique role of the priests and their special duty, all based on hereditary status, are the marks of sacred space.

But there is something else here well worth our attention. That is the role of olive oil in ceremonials. As Rabbi Hirsch notes, a careful reading of the text indicates that the oil was to be prepared only from olives that yielded their oil under pressure of their own weight, they could not be beaten or smashed. As the Talmud puts it “the oil was already on the tree.” Hirsch further observes that the Torah always writes of the actions that built the Temple in the plural, for “the Tabernacle is built for and by the community.” This is a marked and poignant contrast to Solomon’s Temple, built with forced Jewish labour. Thus, the sacredness of the synagogue is based on communal contributions—that come about—like the olive oil—naturally without pressure or coercion.

Hirsch then asks the powerful question: why is the description of lighting the eternal light the first of the tasks associated with completing the consecration of the mishkan’s interior? He answers by arguing that the lights are a metaphor for education, for education illuminates the mind. He draws this extraordinary image from the unusual language of the last words of our parasha’s first verse: “l’ha’a’lot ner tamid”—literally: “to raise the flame of the eternal lamp.” The Torah does not use the usual verb l’hadlik—to light, from which the Talmud rules that when the priest had to light the Eternal Light, he held the burning torch next to the oil soaked wick until the flame lit of its own accord. From this Hirsch concludes—the job of a Torah teacher is to be patient and wait until his illumination is independently caught by the student, who then is “filled with the flame of knowledge.”

How powerful. A physical space demarcated by a lack of pressure and free will, and an intellectual space demarcated by the willing absorption of knowledge at the student’s pace at the hands of a skilled teacher. The hallmarks of Intelligent Judaism—come, learn, fill yourselves with the greatness of Judaism and its wisdom, and then inspire others. Such an endeavour allows sacred space to spread beyond the limited confines of the mishkan, beit ha’mikdash, or the synagogue. This is what the prophet meant when he wrote “and all the world will be full of knowledge of the L-rd.” Let’s build sacred spaces wherever we go, so the Eternal light of our knowledge and tradition ever illuminate our path even on dark days.

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As we once again begin the cycle of parashiyot that describe the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, it is useful to remember that the synagogue is considered the Mishkan’s direct religious/architectural “descendant”. Indeed, the traditional name for a synagogue is “beit mikdash me’at”, a small replica of the Temple. Therefore, it is certainly appropriate to review some interesting laws that will help us realize what special spirituality synagogues possess.

The Shulchan Aruch teaches the interesting law that “It is a great mitzva to pray in a synagogue or in a house of study, for these are holy places. This applies even when, on occasion, there is no minyan there; nevertheless, because of its holiness, it is preferable to pray there alone.” The holiness of a synagogue is based on the fact that the original synagogues were communal gathering places where the Torah was read as communal offerings were brought to the Temple. The Talmud in Ta’anit explains that, even though all Israelites could not attend the Temple even on the Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot, they chose to recite prayers and read the Torah as their communal representatives stood among the throngs in the Temple courtyard.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, the synagogue remained. It flourished after the Rabbis brilliantly ruled that prayers could substitute for the offerings. Not only did this ruling save Judaism, but it transferred the locus of religious communality from the Temple to the synagogue. Yet, and this is a vital issue, the beit mikdash me’at is very much a small replica of the Temple not only in size, but in holiness. Maimonides explained that just as the Second Temple’s holiness was inferior to the First’s, the synagogue’s is less holy than the Second Temple.

But this is a confusing comparative. The synagogue is still considerably more holy than a home. It is constructed for a holy purpose, contains an Ark that houses the holy Torah, and its sanctuary is dedicated and used for prayer and learning. Look around any synagogue and you will see how many of its congregants have invested charitably in it: donors’ names adorn everything from siddurim to the entire building. This congregational generosity is another carryover from Temple days. Perhaps the Second Temple’s most famous donation were the large gates donated by Nicanor of Alexandria, whose ossuary was found on Mt. Scopus in 1902 and is now in the British Museum. Through traditional generosity, every attendee and/or synagogue member can participate directly in the mitzva of “dedicating and maintaining” a house of worship.

However, familiarity breeds a sort of relaxed modality. We must be careful not to feel too “at home” in synagogue. The Talmud in Berachot warns that a person may not use a synagogue as a passageway from one room to another. A person must pause, recite the words of “Mah Tovu” or one verse from the Tanach or Siddur, and then continue. Practically speaking, that means we cannot walk from the lobby to the office without pausing for prayer. Remember that when you pay your dues or reserve the next Kiddush, it is our job to maintain the sanctity of a building whose ancestry stretches back almost to Sinai.




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