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You are no doubt spending some of this coming week near a stove, broom, or pail. You have just found many new crevices in which chametz—or at least a significant accumulation of dust—are lurking. Your back is sore, you cannot feel your legs or feet even though cleaning is a lot less strenuous (supposedly) than building pyramids, storehouses and cities. And the Passover food isn’t even cooking yet, let alone the Seder preparations….

What, you may ask, is the point of all this work? Perhaps it is a re-enactment of some aspect of the Egyptian bondage experience? No—housework is a heck of a lot safer than what our ancestors faced in Egypt. Perhaps the child who asked “what is this work to you” was not evil but simply a keen observer!?

In truth, argues Rabbi Soloveichik, there is a deeply spiritual issue about Pesach preparations. In his masterwork Halakhic Man, the Bostoner Rav observes that “holiness means the living of everyday life”. Pesach cleaning is a mitzva—for we are told “no leaven shall be found in your houses” on Pesach. Bringing our houses to a state of “no leaven” is far more than mere physical work—it is transcendentally spiritual.

But if that thought doesn’t inspire your desire to participate in pre-Pesach cleaning, let’s look at the Chassidic point of view. The Chassidim see chametz as a metaphor for arrogance. Removing the chametz from our houses thus has a purgative spiritual/psychological effect: we return to our real “matza-like” selves, stripped of the emotional veneer that marks our normal personal relationships. This analogy gives “back to basics” a whole new meaning.

This gives Shabbat HaGadol an all new meaning. Today is a great Shabbat because we are doing something truly wonderful: we are turning the mundane into the spiritual. We are turning the simple act of cleaning into an act that is transcendant and hopefully transformative. May we ever see the spiritual in the ordinary—for this is the lens of holiness.

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“And [G-d] called to Moses, and G-d spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting and said…..” marks the first verse of Sefer Vayikra. Its opening word—VaYikra—is written with a tiny aleph, which has sparked an outpouring of commentarial ink. Rather than write a digest of commentators’ deep thoughts, let’s focus on the letter itself and the verse’s context.

Moses has just entered the newly completed Tabernacle to meet with G-d. The process has already been described in our previous parasha. But our opening verse here is different. First we are told that G-d called to Moses, and only then was Moses spoken to specifically about various commandments. But if Moses was accustomed to speaking to G-d “face to face”, then why are we told that first he was called? And why is the word “called” written with a small alef?

Evidently the Torah describes Moses’ usual pattern of meeting with G-d at the Tabernacle. First Moses was summoned, and then he entered in order to converse. The fact that G-d generally summoned Moses can be deduced from a later incident. When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses’ wife, the Torah reports that “G-d suddenly spoke” in order to summon Moses, Aaron and Miriam to the Tabernacle. In addition, it was vital for Moses, yes even Moses, to be mentally prepared before speaking to G-d. Such a conversation—however frequent it might be—could never be allowed to take place in an atmosphere of casual camaraderie. Moses’ intimate “face to face” conversations with the Divine were never coloured by complacency. He understood how miraculous it was to stand before the Creator in conversation. After all, the first time they met on Mt. Sinai G-d reminded Moses “that no man shall see me and live.” Moses was more than any other man—but he was still human—and ever conscious of it.

And that is the reason for the diminutive “aleph”. As long as Moses remembered how small he was and retained his modesty, he was privileged to speak personally with the Infinite. His modesty was his greatest attribute. If he shed that modesty, then the sound of his ego would have overridden the still small voice of G-d. A powerful lesson for us…which we often repeat in various modalities If we have grown closer to the Divine, it is only by realizing how limited we are. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Man is arrogant yet fearful.” Modesty is an effective cure. Indeed, modesty is the beginning, and aleph is the first letter. Let us strive for remaining modest as we search for the divine and increase our knowledge of Judaism.

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Our double parasha relates how the Israelites completed the Tabernacle’s construction. The narrator constantly returns to the refrain that each part was built “just as the L-rd had commanded Moses.” This phrase evokes the vital purpose of the Tabernacle: this holy edifice was constructed as a way station, as a midpoint between Heaven and Earth, between the Mortal and the Immortal, between finite humanity and the Infinite One. Nechama Leibowitz, echoing Rashi, pointed out how the language of this narrative parallels that of the Creation narrative because “it is incumbent on Man to imitate his Creator, His ways and attributes and assume the role of being His partner in Creation.” As Heschel has discerned, G-d is ever in search of Man, but we also are seekers—as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav demonstrated so powerfully with his stories and actions. When two people are searching for each other it is best to agree on a place of meeting, and that indeed is why the Tabernacle is called “The Tent of Meeting”.

The Temple was the larger, more grandiose, architectural reiteration of the Tabernacle but served the same purpose although it lacked the personal intimacy of the Tabernacle. Not only was it much larger, but the materials for its construction were raised indirectly through taxation. The workers who erected Solomon’s Temple did so because they were required to give a portion of their time to national enterprises. The Second Temple’s builders worked because of personal desire and thus were more attitudinally aligned with those who constructed the Tabernacle.

As we have seen over the last three weeks, the synagogue became the spiritual successor of the Tabernacle and Temple. That is why it is called the “Bet Mikdash me’at”—a smaller version of the Temple. Certainly this parallelism is not perfect: a quick inspection of Tractate Ta’anit will reveal that for a time synagogues were communal meeting places where townsfolk who could not go to the Temple on the Pilgrimage Festivals came to pray. In addition, the Temple—unlike the synagogue—restricted common Israelites from entering most of the building. These areas were only for Cohanim and Levi’im. But, and this is the key issue, both buildings were built with generous donations of time, expertise, materials, and money from worshippers and stakeholders, and both offer a physical meeting point where we can meet the Divine.

Of course, we can pray at home, in a field, or by a road, and sometimes do. But there is something special about a building dedicated for another purpose where we join with others to search for the Divine in a world whose events often discourage us from searching, let alone believing. And that perhaps is the deepest importance of the synagogue. The word “asah” to make occurs over 200 times in the narrative of the Tabernacle. We know that these “makings” were not done randomly, but at Divine behest. We can remain partners in Creation by taking part in synagogue activities, be they leading services, putting out Kiddush, or governance. This is the key to “making” the synagogue part of the weave of our lives. We are fortunate to have a small community that not only values every member and friend who attends but also welcomes all. Each of us, like the Israelites, has the opportunity to be directly involved in “the Stash”, to create community, and to bring Heaven and Earth together on the Sabbath, when we commemorate and renew Creation. May we keep participating, and find new levels of participation and belief with each passing year.

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We continue our exploration of the synagogue’s history as we read the third of the five parashiot dedicated to the narrative of how the Tabernacle—the architectural and spiritual ancestor of the synagogue—was constructed. It is fascinating that in the middle parasha of this lengthy narrative, right in the midst of the discussion of how the Tabernacle must be completed, comes the command: “but the people of Israel shall observe my Sabbaths…..” We already know that this is the legal basis for the halachic underpinnings of permitted and forbidden Sabbath tasks. In short, since the Tabernacle’s construction had to be paused on Shabbat, all tasks associated with its construction or derived from these tasks, are prohibited on Shabbat. Despite the importance of the Tabernacle’s completion, its construction could not take place on Shabbat, a day when we cease from creative action even when done for the sake of the Creator. How appropriate that the Tabernacle, the spiritual refuge of our people, could not be built in a building whose construction timetable violated that law. In a sense, the Tabernacle was a “shomer Shabbat” building twice over: it was not built on the Sabbath, and it served as the central point for Sabbath services.

As North American Jews streamed into the suburbs in the 1950s and ‘60’s, they moved away from neighborhoods where walking to synagogue was the norm. Suburban synagogues were large “Jewish centres” with parking lots to match. In 1950 the Conservative movement created a stir when its Law Committee ruled that it was permissible to drive to synagogue under certain circumstances—which were promptly ignored. This ruling arose because the Sabbath synagogue service was the key to Jewish worship in a world in which fewer and fewer Jews were able to find time to pray every day. Many others did not know enough Hebrew or lacked the liturgical skills to pray independently. Besides, there were vital parts to the Sabbath service experience. Most important was the Rabbi’s sermon—a key educational opportunity. In addition, the service featured Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, the honoring of graduates and those celebrating anniversaries or yahrzeits. . In short, suburban North American Jewish continuity focused around Sabbath services—and given the distances, driving seemed necessary.

Over two decades later, a number of Conservative Rabbis lamented the 1950’s decision. They argued that people walking to shul on Shabbat created a geographical community whose boundaries stood at about 30 minutes walking distance. This meant that neighborhoods would be centred on shuls, and friends would remain in the area and a “Sabbath-observant” community would begin to grow. Were they right? Perhaps, but they missed a key issue. Shabbat’s uniqueness lies in its “island in time” status. Driving is only one part of it. There are many other opportunities to differentiate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Indeed, the more we differentiate Shabbat positively from the rest of the week, the greater its impact. It is great to walk to shul, but there are other paths towards establishing Shabbat’s uniquenes: reading Jewish books on Shabbat, visiting sick relatives, discussing the Torah reading with friends, to name but a few.

If we make time, as Jeremiah suggests, “to call the Sabbath a delight”, our lives will be restfully within its bounds. Will we have time to do everything else? Yes indeed—for that is the lesson of the Tabernacle’s completion—it was completed without any Sabbath construction.

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In last week’s parasha we discussed the history of the synagogue and how we can trace its spiritual origin back to the Tabernacle. This week’s parasha begins with G-d's command to Moses to instruct the Israelites to prepare carefully beaten and purified olive oil for use in the magnificent golden menorah that stood outside the tabernacle.

Hirsch has shown that the amount of detail lavished on the menorah's construction is not accidental. He argues that the menorah, the only object in the Tabernacle made entirely of gold, symbolizes immutability and purity—the power of belief in an Unchanging G-d, whose entire nature is pure and holy. The seven wicks of the menorah’s lamps are arranged so that the wicks on each side incline inwards, and the centre wick points straight up, just as all is directed at the Divine.

This magnificent object, crafted from a single piece of gold, was lit every evening by the Cohanim, the priests, the family of Aaron This metaphor of the Cohanim, who hold their positions through heredity, using oil carefully pressed and prepared by the "common people" to light the menorah resonates powerfully: without the support of the common folk, who take the time to prepare the oil and supply it, the work of the professionals of the sanctuary, be they chosen by heredity or education, cannot proceed or succeed. Indeed, this is underscored by Maimonides’ ruling that when the Cohanim were unavailable or unable to light the menorah lamps, any Israelite could. Lighting the lamps—the symbol of eternal study of the Torah and its link to the soul of every Jew—is thus linked to communal participation in the maintenance of a house of worship.

The history of the synagogue parallels these observations. For centuries Jewish communities not only built houses of worship but furnished and maintained them with great punctiliousness. Generations of generous Jews learned from the fact that the Tabernacle’s oil required careful preparation before use. It had to be filtered, bottled, sealed, and designated for use solely for its holy purpose. They went out of their way to locate expensive woods, metals, and fabrics to beautify the interior of their synagogues. Often they chose to beautify their synagogues rather than their homes. The idea that everyday objects could become d’varim kedoshim, holy ones, if they were designated for use in a religious ceremony created a keen sense of kedusha, of the special atmosphere that fills a house of worship regardless of its size.

It is this designation of the ordinary for the purpose of serving eternity that transforms the synagogue from a building into a sanctuary. It beckons us to recast ourselves as we enter, to realign our priorities not merely through prayer, but through the visual osmosis of observing a building erected entirely through voluntarism. We are called upon to move beyond the “I” to the “we”, beyond ourselves to the community of “prayors” and prayers. The architectural evidence of communal generosity invites us to think in the plural, which is the grammatical form of our prayers. We can only pray in the plural when we believe we are part of a community. When we are surrounded by a building built by the community, when we chant the words of the siddur facing the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp, the everlasting reminder of the Tabernacle, we link past and present. How appropriate that we do this most often on Shabbat, a day inherited from past tradition, kept holy by us now, and a portal not only to future observance, but to the peacefulness of the ideal future world.




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