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Posted By The Stash

Our parasha begins the narrative of the tabernacle's construction. This holy building was constructed entirely of materials brought voluntarily. Yet strangely the building was used to offer prescribed offerings to G-d. This raises a key question: had the Israelites not contributed voluntarily how could they have offered the compulsory offerings that were given twice a day, on Roshei Chodashim, and on shabbatot and yamim tovim. G-d would have been comfortable "dwelling in a cloud"? It was the desire of the Israelites to build something greater. They did, again and again through history. They constructed the Tabernacle, its permanent successors the two Temples in Jerusalem, and synagogues wherever they dwelled in sufficient numbers to gather a minyan.

The Talmud records the names of many "study halls" built by different guilds of craftsmen. Here they gathered after work to pray and learn. Our ancestors realized the value of combining socialization with serious study. Learning while eating or just after has a long and honorable history. As Jews dispersed throughout the world following the destruction of the First Temple, synagogues/study halls sprang up. Whether they were small and austere rented rooms or magnificent buildings, they shared a key characteristic stressed in our Torah reading--they're builders were those "who inclined their hearts to give voluntarily of their money, time, and skill to make their shul as beautiful as possible. Look around our lovely shul, at the roster of donors whose names record their generosity. They, and all who donate, are inheritors of a great legacy, and join the ranks of previous generations in choosing to be generous.

Seen in this light the history of the synagogue is similar to that of the great public works of the Roman Empire: everyone can benefit from the generosity of a few. Often the members received additional benefits for their donations. Often non-members were charged differently for synagogue services, but only on the High Holy Days were non-members charged for admission. This was the only time of the year when demand for seats predictably exceeded supply and offered a rare opportunity to offload the costs of running synagogues to all users rather than just the members. Attendees who did not join synagogues but did pay for tickets were assured of attaining some degree of the merit spelled out in the Mi Shebayrach prayer we recite after the Torah reading. ...

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Posted By The Stash

Continued from Part 1

In North America many synagogues were magnificent structures reflecting Jews’ sense of security and economic success. During the postwar era of massive suburbanization, synagogues grew even larger, sprouting catering halls, professional kitchens, huge sanctuaries, and a professional staff to match. In an age where family attendance at church or synagogue was de rigeur, memberships soared and synagogue affiliation reached unprecedented heights. Over half of North American Jewry identified with one of the streams of Judaism. Yet, and this is crucial, religiousity did not proceed apace; synagogue was just another “family activity” for suburban Jews. This, and the politicization of 1960’s and 70’s youth led to alienation from organized religion, which had little to say to youth of the time, treating them more like “miniature congregants in waiting” than the complex young men and women they were. Of course some Rabbis, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Feinberg, did not fit this mold—battling for Black Civil Rights and an end to the Vietnam War, but they were too few to have an impact.

By the 1980’s both Reform and Conservative Judaism were losing traction among their youth. Most found other modes of Jewish expression and identity, but a significant minority of these youth found their way to new modality of “outreach” Orthodox synagogues. Let by the Art Scroll and Aish “revolutions”, many young people found in Orthodoxy the authentic religious practice and message they sought. Within three decades they formed a significant demographic that is still expanding, drawing strength from those who attend Israeli Yeshiva programs during their “Gap Year” or some who have rediscovered their Jewish identities through March of the Living or Birthright. They have sparked a return to a type of shul built on the old model of the “guild synagogue”—a smaller and much more focused congregation built as a social and intellectual centrepoint for its community. Led by charismatic rabbis, these communities nurture their members through socializing and learning. In an age where friendship is often measured in Facebook “wall counts”, many seek a personal community created by Shabbat meals, services, and learning. These institutions, with their dynamism and their nostalgia for recreating a lost European world of religiousity (without the poverty and misery of interwar Poland!) are flourishing in such unexpected places as Forest Hill, once the bastion of Reform and Conservative congregants.

What then is the path of the Stashover? What is our trajectory for the future? Where do we fit in this? What pointers does history offer us? There is no quick answer to this. The Torah requires five parashiot to describe the planning, construction, and dedication of the tabernacle--and with good reason. We shall see that each of thse parashiot holds a bit of the answer.

Posted By The Stash

After the drama of receiving the Torah, Parashat Mishpatim seems almost “dull”. This is where the narrative stops and the laws begin. But much of the essence of Judaism is about law. It is about carefully studying law to find the dynamics that lie behind it and the moral imperatives that are interwoven into the legal concepts. This is especially true of interpersonal law which is designed to create holiness in the workings of everyday life.

Our parasha is full of examples, but one will suffice. We read that “if you take your neighbour’s coat for a pledge [against money owed you] you may not keep it past nightfall, for it is his only garment, the one that covers his skin that he will sleep in, and if it happens [that you do not return it by nightfall] and he cries out to Me, I will listen because I am gracious.” (22:25-26). A pledge is called an eravon, a very special and unique word. Its structure indicates it comes from the same root as “erev” or evening. Rightly so, because a pledge may not be held overnight for the reasons listed in this verse.

Can you imagine a pawnbroker trying to do business on these terms? People who have to pledge personal possessions do so because they are in desperate circumstances. Of course some pledges are redeemed, but most end up being resold and those who pawned them no doubt miss them greatly. But what of the truly poor person who cannot even pawn any object of value save their outerwear? A pawnbroker would simply take the pledge and not worry about the effects of its being taken away. But Judaism cares deeply about the most impoverished of the poor. Compliance with this law demands that only that the pledge be accepted, and a loan be granted against the collateral, but that even when the collateral must be returned at night the poor person may still benefit from the loan! This is not a business arrangement at all but disguised tzedakah. The lender knows full well they will never get their money back.

So why go through this charade? So that the most desperately destitute, those who must pawn their coats, maintain their dignity. It is here, buried like gold in the depths of a mine shaft, that we find the greatness of Judaism. And that is why Moses proclaimed that the “law is not in Heaven…but in your mouths and hearts to observe.” The theophany and majesty of Sinai were one-time events, but the nitty-gritty of life is found in the subsequent marriage. And we Jews, tradition teaches, are married to G-d. The wedding was on Mount Sinai, but the everyday living together is found in Mishpatim and its myriad interpersonal laws, all designed to uphold human dignity and keep the flame of Sinai burning.

Posted By The Stash

The final few verses of this parasha speak of how to construct the altar of the Tabernacle. After describing what materials to use, the parasha ends: “and you may not go up to my altar with steps, so that your nakedness shall not be uncovered.” Rashi significantly observes that this is a command to build a ramp to the altar, because steps will cause the Cohanim (Priests) to “take large strides and thus uncover their nakedness even though they wore breeches specifically designed to cover their upper thighs. Rashi trenchantly observes that if we show such respect to stones which have no feeling, how much more so should we not reveal private parts of ourselves “to our fellow human being who is made in the image of the Creator.”

Obviously an officiant can’t wear whatever they please, and the Talmud extends this law to the congregants. Jewish law assumes that modest dress is the acceptable norm in places of holiness; it keeps peoples’ minds on their prayers. And this has influenced Jewish dress for thousands of years both in and out of synagogue. And clothes still matter. There are signs on the fringes of Mea Shearim warning of the minimum dress standards expected by the Chareidi residents—and woe to those who do not comply. My students inform me that outside the Vatican there is an international style sign clearly indicating that dresses must cover the knees and elbows and necklines cannot plunge. Once again, these rules are enforced, though more civilly than in Mea Shearim. Closer to home, a significant number of Conservative and Reform congregations inform congregants of the standards of dress appropriate for Shabbat mornings.

But, as regular worshippers dwindle in numbers, many religious organizations are asking whether dress codes deter worshippers. Many churches are relaxing their dress codes, even for Sunday services. On the other hand, we have the spectacle of chareidim rioting in Jerusalem over what they regard as obscene ads on public transit, and insisting on segregated buses beyond the norm of the law that harkened back more to Jackson, Mississippi than Jerusalem. The whole revival of tzniut—modest dress—has reached new extremes among the Orthodox community with ever more edicts about necklines, hemlines, and now legislating even the colours of clothes!

What’s the Intelligent Jew to do faced with these choices? What we have always done—think before we act. If we return to Rashi’s analysis of the verse we are discussing, we will observe that he also talks about “not taking large strides”. It is possible to slink about alluringly even when one is modestly dressed. This constitutes what Ramban famously called “a boor with the permission of the Torah.” From this we see that modesty is defined by more than just dress. Thus, not only should we consider what we wear but how we wear it. A form fitting garment is not modest no matter its length. Bearing this in mind, the Intelligent Jew would realize that dressing more formally on Shabbat parallels the day’s special nature. They would try to honour the day by wearing their best clothes, and think about their length and tightness. The idea is to dress in a manner that does not call attention to oneself, but to the uniqueness of this island of time in a busy week. Modesty is the denial of ego.

Modesty extends beyond dress to speech. The Intelligent Jew also knows that those who don’t conform to dress codes usually do so out of ignorance. The last thing one should do is insult such a person and cause them to feel unwelcome in shul. After all, as Rashi put it, if stones have feelings, so do people. We can always teach people about tradition if we help them understand its voice. The only ones not listening to the voice of tradition and moderation are those whose overreliance on legalism makes them deaf to the subtle whispers of true tradition.

Posted By The Stash
We go to museums to see artifacts of our past and to make connections with the present. Often we are profoundly surprised by how “advanced” previous societies were, marveling at the quality of their artifacts and seeing in them the movement towards modernity that we often associate with progress. Curators select the artifacts to be exhibited, always with an eye towards telling the story of a civilization, or a region, or an art form, or a type of technology. Curators are storytellers who interpret our past.

Today’s parasha offers another glimpse of the curatorial mindset. After the first miraculous fall of manna, the food that sustained the Israelites during their desert journeys, Aaron is instructed to take a jar and place some manna in it. This jar was to be placed in the Holy of Holies of the yet to be constructed Tabernacle as a permanent reminder to the Israelites of how G-d sustained them in the desert. In this fascinating command, G-d is presented as the curator who selects a vital artifact for the “National Museum of the Jewish People”—the Tabernacle, and later the Temple.

One cannot help but wonder at G-d’s curatorial purpose. The words of the command, so that future generations “will see the bread I gave you when I took you out of Egypt” speaks to the all- too-human propensity to doubt the veracity of ancient reports. Even in an age when miracles were believed in, the Torah commands that proof of the miracle be retained for the future. In addition, the artifact is described as a “mishmeret”, something that requires guarding and watching—its preservation for posterity is vital. There will always be doubters who will question the extent of Divine oversight and providence during the Israelites’ desert journeys. Doubt needs to be answered with facts, not just a command to blindly believe.

But the identification of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple as the repository of Israelite history is a novel idea. Even before the construction of these religious buildings, the Torah indicates that visual appearance assists worship. The Tabernacle and Temple were resplendent with rich materials, magnificent embroidery, and carefully crafted bronze and gold- covered ornaments and altars. Worship must feed the eyes in order to feed the soul, for our eyes are apertures leading directly to our emotions. If we wish to “pour out our hearts before the L-rd” then the inspiration of artifacts and ornaments is a vital one. Judaism drew a careful line between any piece of artwork that attempted to somehow (I shudder to write this) replicate the Divine image, and art work, religious ornaments, and artifacts that stirred our collective memories and stirred us to sing the praises of G-d and our good fortune in being alive.

Today on Shabbat Shira, I therefore invite you to cast your eyes around our shul, the architectural successor to Temple and Tabernacle, as you sing our tefillot. Plaques and pictures contain memories of days past, of women and men who found time to erect our shul amidst the bustle of a life more physically strenuous than ours. The manna jar has been lost, but the shul is still the repository of memory, song, soul, and spirit. We must keep it full of these elements and add our own if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to the One who brought us out of Egypt and gave us freedom.




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