Parshat Tzav: Extinguishing Negativity

Parshat Tzav seems to be a repetition of everything that we just read last week in Parshat Vayikra. It covers a lot of the same material, in terms of details for each of the various forms of korbanot/offerings that people would bring to the Mishkan. However, this time the instructions are given from the point of view of the Kohen, and not from the everyday person’s point of view.

One of the duties of the Kohanim is to maintain the fire on the altar in the central courtyard, so that it burns continually every day and through the night. In the morning, they were to clear off the ashes, and begin a new fire. The fire and the column of smoke served as a visual reminder of the general charge from God: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” This fire and smoke was a concrete visual sign of God’s presence among the people. In our synagogue’s today, the Ner Tamid serves this same purpose.

At the end of the instructions for the altar fire, the Torah says, “Lo tichbeh.” Literally this means “Do not extinguish it,” however, there is another way to read this imperative, which is “Extinguish ‘No'”. Extinguish negativity itself.

Along with the ritual duties for the Kohanim, they also had a spiritual task towards the people who come to them. So many of the reasons people came to the Mishkan or the Beit Mikdash in Jerusalem were for mistakes, errors, broken relationships, and so on. When someone approaches this sacred space, they are vulnerable. They don’t need to be met with the dour face of the nearest Kohen, who just goes through the motions. Every human being, made in the Image of the Divine, who walks into that sacred space, need to be greeted, welcomed in, and made to feel that they are walking in the presence of the Divine, so that when they make their offering, lay their hands on that flour or animal, it is in the highest possible state of joy that the person can attain in that moment.

There is no longer a Mishkan or Beit Mikdash, and the Kohanim no longer serve in this role. The task of welcoming people into our sanctuary, our sacred spaces, now falls upon the entire community, the Mamlechet Kohanim/The Kingdom of Priests. It is our sacred task to make all who walk through our doors bring their offerings, what ever they may be, and to help them offer them during prayer feeling joyful and welcomed.

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Vayikra: And God called

The first word of Vayikra means, “And [he] called him…” The context of this call is God calling to Moshe from inside the just constructed Mishkan/Tabernacle, right after God’s Kavod/Glorious Presence fills the entire structure, keeping Moshe out. Here is Moshe, having just put up this sacred structure, having created our first portable sacred space, and he cannot access it at all. That is until God calls him from inside. Moses wants to enter, but he cannot. Or perhaps he is afraid to enter, but it called to approach despite his fear and trepidation.

Who has access to our tradition and who does not? Who feels called to enter into dialogue with our tradition, and who feel distanced by it? When do we feel like we cannot approach? What are the qualities of those moments, days, weeks and even years? What would it take to make it feel like we could approach, that would could connect and find something meaningful in the encounter? What would the call need to be to get us to break through that cloud to engage more fully in Jewish life, to take that next step towards something sacred? What are the barriers that keep us away? Are they physical, emotional, spiritual, historical, or personal? All of the above? How do we lower or remove those barriers? Do we need these barriers?

A while back, I was  discussing with someone people’s natural defense mechanisms, and she shared that our defense mechanisms are originally put there (by us) to help us, but sometimes they become overzealous and can shift from helping us to being a barrier between us and something else. The next time we feel that call to approach, in whatever form it may be, and we feel that barrier, that resistance, take a moment to ask yourself, “What is it that I need in this moment?” If we want to approach, and at the same time feel that we cannot, what is it that this hesitant part of ourselves need to hear from us? The call is going come, at any moment, and we can make ourselves ready to hear it, answer it, and perhaps, respond to it.

Vayikra: The Book of Life

If you were asked to re-organize the Books of the Torah, and to put the most important one in the center, I wonder which book each of us might choose out of the five.

  • Would you pick Breisheet / Genesis, a book about God, the universe, and the beginning of the Jewish people?
  • Would you pick Shemot / Exodus, a book about liberation from slavery and freedom, and the Sinai covenant?
  • Would you pick Vayikra / Leviticus, a book that is primarily about animal and vegetable sacrifices, dietary laws, bodily flows and other priestly concerns?
  • Would you pick Bamidbar / Numbers, a book about the development of a people into a nation, ready to live on its own in the land?
  • Would you pick Devarim / Deuteronomy, a book about love, loyalty and law?

I may be going out on a limb here, but my gut tells me that Leviticus might be towards or at the bottom of the list. [Show of hands?…crickets]

If that is the case, why then does this book stand in the center of the Torah, in a physical location that suggests great spiritual importance?

Take a bird’s eye view of the first two books of the Torah for a moment.

Breisheet could be seen as a book about incarnation. God’s word creates the universe, which becomes the setting for the unfolding human drama, a process of selection that ends up focusing on one family, Avraham and Sarah, and their descendants, the seed of an entire nation. The book concludes with that family’s descent into the womb-like crucible of Egyptian slavery.

Shemot could be seen as a book about birth and liberation. The labor-like pains of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the birth of B’nai Yisrael as a free people, who at the beginning of their eighth week of freedom enter into a covenant with God. Much like a Brit Milah.

Vayikra then could be seen as a book about life. Both are filled with tensions: beautiful and at the same time messy, complicated and yet systematic, filled with both life and death, blessings and curse, holiness and impurity, heath and disease, joy and grief, creating unity and at the same time drawing distinctions between different domains of life.

Vayikra calls out to us.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that:

“We become feeling alienated, distracted, complacent, blind to what is essential; deaf to the music at the core of the silence; numb to the mystery that dwells at the heart of this life.”

Vayikra calls us to bring ourselves back to see the world through the lens of holiness, to bring ourselves close to the community again and stand before God:

“to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love, and not only to return, but to establish for ourselves a system of continual returning.”

The korbanot were our way to continually return to God, in times of joy, guilt or sadness. The korbanot engaged our whole bodies, all of our senses, to witness the power of Life and Death, sharing a sacred meal in God’s presence.

This system of continual returning has been gone for centuries, and the Rabbis tell us that prayer now takes its place. Can the world of prayer fully replace the world of the Mishkan? Do we taste prayer? Smell it? Feel the blood? Hear the music and the silence? See the shadow of death and the spark of life? Do we leave prayer feeling as unburdened as we would have upon leaving the Mishkan?

Our challenge is to make Jewish life today as vibrant and multi-sensory as life in the Mishkan, as vital, compelling and rich. So that when we sit down at a Shabbat meal, we feel that God too smells the savory smells from the meal. So that when we come together at a celebratory meal, we feel that connection to the Divine that we would have in the Mishkan.

May we have the strength, creativity and passion to create for this generation a Jewish life as filled with life as the generation of the Mishkan, and may we continually strive to maintain our connection to holiness and the divine.

Vayakhel-Pekudei: A Special Kind of Wisdom

Growing up, I found the Torah portions that deal with the descriptions and building of the Mishkan to be excruciatingly dull. Do I really need to hear about the yarns, animal skins, planks, curtains, loops and rods more than once? There are four weeks of Torah reading that deal with these matters. I was at a loss to find personal meaning among all of these design-filled details. Every year, I experienced these readings in some way, minimally as a reminder that they there waiting to be explored by some older, wiser version of myself. Sometime between college and the middle of my time in rabbinical school, all of the pieces of the Mishkan came together for me, and I see both the big picture and the small details at the same time. I became fascinated with these readings, in particular with the people who are involved in their manufacture.

In Shemot 35:30-34, Moses tells the people that Betzalel, and not Moses, is going to be in charge of building the Mishkan:

 “And Moses said to the Israelites: See God has singled out Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. The spirit of God has filled him with wisdom, with understanding and with knowledge and with every kind of craft, and to think thoughts to work with gold and with silver and with copper, and with cutting stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft, and to teach with his heart, him and Oholiav son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan.” (Shemot 35:30-34)

Both in this week’s Torah portion and in Parshat T’rumah, where we first hear of Betzalel, God tells Moses that Betzalel has three essential qualities that will enable him to build the Mishkan: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These same qualities God uses to create the universe:

 “With wisdom God founded the earth, set up the heavens with understanding. With God’s knowledge, the depths were split and the clouds dripped dew.” (Proverbs 3:19-20)

Just as God used Divine Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge, Betzalel uses an earthly version of these qualities to oversee the work of the Mishkan. He has a diverse array of creative knowledge that will enable him to work with gold, silver, copper, fabrics, skins, wood and stones. According to the Midrash, it was a miracle to have such a person in their midst, since B’nai Yisrael had not engaged in such work in hundreds of years. Last time we heard about the artisanship of B’nai Yisrael, they were working with mud and straw.

However, in Parshat Vayakhel, the Torah describes Betzalel as possessing two additional qualities that were unmentioned in Parshat T’rumah: the ability to think thoughts and to teach. In addition, now that the Torah has gotten down to brass tacks and is describing the actual building of the Mishkan, there is an increased focus on his partner, Oholiav, and the other skilled artisans and weavers who are all part of the Mishkan building crew.

No longer is Betzalel one person working alone, but rather the head of a large group of skilled people who need guidance and training to complete this daunting project. This is why the Torah focuses on these final two qualities: to think and to teach. It is not enough for Betzalel to have all these fine skills for himself, and it is not enough for him to be able to envision the various pieces and parts of the Mishkan with excruciating detail. In order to build the Mishkan, he needs to be able to articulate his thinking, to make plans, and, most importantly, he needs to be able to communicate those thoughts and plans effectively to his co-workers. Betzalel is more than a master artisan; he is a teacher. We can all recall a teacher who made difficult math or science concepts clear to us, or lit a fire within us for a particular subject. Every day in our school, our teachers use their abilities to plan and communicate to teach our children at the highest levels on both sides of the hallway. Lest you think that I am only talking about teachers in a formal school, parents are the most profound teachers that children have throughout their lives.

The Torah teaches us that all of these talents are gifts from God, and at the same time, teachers and parents have a huge responsibility to their students and children:

“Avtalyon said: Sages! Be careful with your words, let you be exiled, and they send you to a place of evil waters, and the students who follow you drink from them and die, and you find the Name of Heaven profaned. (Pirkei Avot 1:11)

This statement comes from a time Jews lived under Roman rule, and teaching Torah was controversial and could get you into serious trouble. Even though we do not live in such times, this teaching still hits home that truth that what we say to our students and children matters and has profound effects on them both in the short term and long term.

When we draw upon our wisdom, understanding and knowledge to build up our world, we are channeling God’s spirit into the world. When we use our expertise to create and develop new ideas, we are benefiting from one of God’s gifts. When we devise complex plans to achieve amazing things, we use our divinely bestowed talents. When we help someone else understand something that had eluded them, but was obvious to us, we are teachers like Betzalel.

AS A FAMILY:

  1. Since Shabbat is the opening focus of this week’s Torah portion, talk to your kids about the concept of purposeful resting every seventh day, emphasizing “just being” over having.
  2. Talk with your family about teachers who made a difference in your lives.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTIONS VAYAKHELPEKUDEI, ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:

Vayakhel Questions

  1. In Vayakhel, what is the first commandment that Moses announces to the children of Israel?
  2. Who was designated to be the head of all the artisans in the building of the Holy Ark (as well as the other items commanded by God), and what was his tribe?
  3. Who was designated to be Betzalel’s second-in-command and what was his tribe?
  4. When Moses told the people that they could come and make an offering to God, what happened?
  5. What was this kind of offering called?
  6. Who were the three groups who brought the free will offering?
  7. What type of wood was the Holy Ark made of and what was it covered with?
  8. How was the Ark constructed so that it would be relatively easy to carry?
  9. What were the staves made of that were used to carry the sacrificial altar?
  10. What was the menorah (candlestick) made of? How many branches were there, and how were they laid out?

Pekudei Questions

  1. Who was responsible for the accounts of the tabernacle?
  2. The silver accumulated and described in this week’s parashah came from the headcount or census of whom and how many half shekels were collected in the census?
  3. The ephod was made of blue, purple, scarlet, and gold threads. How did they make the gold threads?
  4. Was there more gold or silver used in the building of the sanctuary?
  5. By whom was the tabernacle to first be erected and when?
  6. When the cloud of Glory covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of God filled the Tabernacle, Moses was unable to enter. When the cloud was raised, it was time to do what two things?
  7. Besides the cloud of Glory, what else protected the Tabernacle and when did it come into play?