Longer Essays

Simply a Sanctuary (2017)

A Grandmother’s Wisdom (2015)

Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge (2006)

Short Takes

A Mundane Insight (5774/2014)

An old story teaches that a group tried to build the mishkan (sanctuary) following the Torah’s instructions. The pavilion looked great…until it fell down. The story has several possible morals: (1) A mishkan is literally the “dwelling place of God.” Without the presence of God, the mishkan cannot stand. (2) A mishkan is a community center. Without the intention to build community, it cannot succeed. (3) A mishkan offers an opportunity to learn about the sacred reality of God’s design, the physical reality of actualizing it, and the personal spiritual reality of working through it. Only when the learning takes place is the mishkan really established.

A mundane learning experience helped me understand moral #3. Last week, a clever salesperson talked me into buying a tube of mascara (eyelash color) with a unique spiraling brush. After I paid, she said, “You have to spend a few minutes every day learning to use this.” For three days, I made a black mess on my face. On day four, I examined the brush before dipping it into the tube, and understood the designer’s intention: the wide part of the spiral places more mascara on the longer lashes. Still I made a mess. On day six, I examined the brush after dipping it in the tube. Reality sabotaged the design, as the narrow part of the spiral actually held more mascara. On day seven, I achieved harmonious success, bridging the designer’s abstract plan, its imperfect actualization, and my adaptation.

And on day eight, I realized I had just lived three stages of spiritual insight: ideals, realities, and personal understanding. Philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) teaches that every thought can help us know God. Be alert: this week, a mundane experience just might direct your attention to spiritual reality!


group aweCommunal Awe (5774/2014)

In Parshat Vayakhel, the Israelites share a new national experience: giving. Through giving, they seem to achieve a state that anthropologists call communitas, a shared experience of altered consciousness or sacred space. Moshe invites the Israelites to donate to the mishkan…and a collective donation fever overtakes them. They bring golden brooches, earrings, rings and pendants; blue, purple and crimson yarn; goat hair and dolphin skins; silver and copper; acacia wood; precious gems; spices and oil. Generally, they follow Moshe’s guidelines, but they choose their own favorite items, and spin the yarns with their own hands. They give so much that Moshe has to tell them to stop.

According to the Torah’s narrative, the Israelites have experienced communitas twice before – but it has not been fun. At the Red Sea, “Israel saw the great action God took against the Egyptians; and the nation feared God” (Exodus 14:31). At Mount Sinai, “all the people saw the sounds and the flames…the people were afraid; they trembled and stood far away” (Exodus 20:15). Together, the people experienced God and were awed; but they were also afraid.

Something different happens at the mishkan. Here, people do not just receive; they give. They are not acted upon; they take action. Instead of seeing God’s “power over” the world, they experience their own “power with” others. Rather than waiting for God to manifest, they build ritual structures that reach towards God. They are not just accidentally present together in God’s space, they also build their own community space. They begin to own their religious experience; they begin to create their community. Working together, they experience a pleasurable, beautiful awe.

What will you give to others this week? How will you create community? How will you bring spirituality into the world?


international women's dayWomen’s Values, Human Values (5773/2013)

In Parshat Ki Tisa, we read about the subtle politics of building the Golden Calf. Aharon instructs the “people” to use the jewelry of their wives and children as raw materials, and then the text reports that the “people” themselves donate the jewelry. Close midrashic readers understand that “people” refers to the men, and that women refuse to make an idol out of gold.

In Parshat Vayakhel, we read that lead artisan Bezalel made the mishkan’s washstands out of copper mirrors donated by a female crowd. In this story, women take the focus off looking at themselves and donate instead to community.

Often, when we read Torah, we understand the word “men” to refer sometimes to “males” and sometimes to “all people.” When we read stories about “men,” we sometimes think the moral tells us about human nature, and sometimes about masculine nature. But we are used to understanding the word “women” as a special category. Thus when we read stories about “women,” we think the moral means to tell us only about feminine nature.

This week, let’s experimentally think of “women” as a general category, and read stories about women as stories about humanity. Through the stories in Parshiyot Ki Tisa and Vayakhel, Torah celebrates values of conscience over money, and community over self. These values are recommended for all human beings.

These are also the values celebrated on International Women’s Day. The day was first celebrated in 1911, bringing attention to European women organizing for their right to work in humane conditions. Many workers, male and female, have benefitted from the activities of these early organizers. Let’s continue to celebrate their work as we enact our commitments to women’s rights and human rights.

Donating Shekhinah (2012/5772)

Kol nediv libo yivieha et terumat HaShem – Shemot/Exodus 35:5

In Biblical Hebrew, the word “et” is not easy to translate. Sometimes it’s a relational pronoun, and sometimes it indicates the indirect object of a verb. So it’s always a bit tricky to translate a sentence with the word “et.”

Kabbalistic commentator Nachmanides (1194-1270) says that, in the verse quoted above, the word “et” means “with.” Thus, the correct translation of the verse is “everyone whose heart moves him shall bring his contribution with gifts for the Lord.” In other words, the Israelites should bring their financial contributions to the mishkan along with higher gifts. The higher gifts are Shekhinah herself, and the wisdom that flows from recognizing her presence. At the same time, these higher gifts should come from within the people themselves.

Nachmanides’ teaching is lovely…but how can a human being offer an aspect of God? Here Nachmanides is thinking of God in terms of the sefirot, attributes of God enumerated in Kabbalistic thinking, that are also attributes of the human soul. It makes sense to suggest that a person can offer to others the inner spiritual qualities of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, love, judgment, beauty, endurance, gratitude, and grounding.

What might it mean to offer these qualities along with a financial contribution? Perhaps giving “along with” means that money must be used wisely, with gratitude, to express love and ground the community. Or perhaps “coming from within” means that although a community requires financial support, in its essence is constructed out of shared spiritual qualities. May these shared spiritual qualities fill our sanctuary.


A Delicate Balancing Act (5771/2011)

Vayakhel: Moshe assembles the people. He reiterates the call for raw materials for the Mishkan. He says, “donate whatever you want, and come help with the crafting!” The Israelite artists begin weaving, smithing, and delivering. They bring such a variety of items that Moshe cries: “Remember! Bezalel and Oholiav are the coordinators. They will let you know what we need.” But the people keep bringing gifts, the coordinators complain to Moshe, and Moshe has to say, “Thank you for the abundance…and please stop!”

Community process and human relations are such a delicate balancing act. How do we know when we are asking for the right thing? How do we match our response to what is asked? How do we know if we have done too little or too much? What is the right way to say, “Thank you” or “No, thank you”?

Our sages noted that the work vayahkel comes from the same root as Kohelet, the author of the Biblical book known in Hebrew as Kohelet and in English as Ecclesiastes. Kohelet describes his search for the foolproof philosophy of life. He tries materialism, intellectualism, and hedonism, but no single path brings all the answers or any lasting personal satisfaction. But Kohelet does not give up. He says, “Observe the world around you, be politically savvy, create relationships, connect with God and, above all, keep going.”

At times of political and personal upheaval, Kohelet’s words bring comfort. Often I worry: What’s the right opinion? What’s the right action? When to do more, less, nothing? Kohelet reminds me that we are all watching events unfold and improvising our way through a constantly changing human world.


Entering the Tent  (5770/2010)

“The cloud covered the communion tent, and the Glory of God filled the mishkan.” (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

A comment, from the Introduction to Siddur Eit Ratzon:

The perspective of Siddur Eit Ratzon is that God is always ready to receive and accept prayer – from any person, at any time, with no qualifications. When we call, God listens. Whenever we turn to God, God is there. Life, strength, courage, faith, security, caring, love, compassion, forgiveness, and many more blessings are God’s daily bounty.

If these blessings are provided to us all the time, with no strings attached, then what purpose does prayer serve? When we become aware of these blessings, we experience their benefits more fully. When we ask God for forgiveness, we are forgiven, because forgiveness is part of God’s essence. When we place ourselves in God’s holy space, then God is present in our lives.

Is this all truth, or is it all metaphor? The answer is simply “Yes.”

On some fundamental level, we cannot know, scientifically or intellectually, whether God really exists, whether anything we posit is really “true.” But on another fundamental level, we need to know, personally and spiritually, that there is meaning to the universe, to history, and to our lives – that is, we need to know that God does exist. Each of us has different ways of understanding God, each one of us comes to these understandings differently, and each of us finds or creates different metaphors for the truths that we have learned.

— Joseph G. Rosenstein, Siddur Eit Ratzon


Two Tents of God (5768/2008)

“Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo’ed), because the Glory of God filled the Tabernacle (mishkan).” – Shemot/Exodus 40:35

What a confusing passage of Torah! God’s Presence fills the Mishkan (tabernacle). But what does that have to do with the Ohel Mo’ed (tent of meeting)?  Why should God’s Presence in one tent affect what happens in the other tent? Are these two names for the same tent? And even if they are, why should Moshe be unable to enter? Hasn’t he already been in the Presence of God many times? Perhaps the passage is not meant to work on a literal level, but is meant to invite a symbolic reading.

Some interpreters say that the Ohel Mo’ed and the Mishkan are two names for one tent – not a physical tent, but a symbolic tent, the inner place where spiritual experience takes place. Mo’ed literally means “appointed time,” or “sacred festival.” The Ohel Mo’ed represents the moments when God may suddenly seem to appear intensely in our lives – a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, wedding, birth, even a funeral. Mishkan literally means “dwelling place.” The Mishkan represents a prolonged experience of divine peace and support. One is a “theology of encounter,” the other is a “theology of presence.”

Life has room for both. Each person finds their individual balance, and their personal names for these experiences. Moshe, it seems, experienced them as “tents,” as shelters that enveloped him. And he moved between the two, but did not experience them simultaneously. By describing Moshe’s experience, Parshat Pekudei invites you to reflect on your own.


Shabbat: The Manual (5768/2008)

The fourth commandment instructs us to “Remember the holiness of Shabbat, the day of rest . . . do not do any work . . . because God rested on the seventh day.” But questions arise. Our sages teach that we find answers in Parshat Vayahkel using creative reading techniques.

What kinds of activities count as the work we should not do on Shabbat? Gematriya, calculation of the numerical values of Hebrew words, offers the first clue. Mosheís statement that “these are the things” God teaches about Shabbat, implies that “work” includes 39 types of activities. 36 (the value of the letters in “these are”) + 2  (the word “things” is plural) + 1 (God, source of the teaching) = 39.

If we attend to the order of events in the story, we learn exactly what the 39 activities are. Right after Moshe gathers the people to talk about Shabbat, he organizes them to begin work building the Mishkan, a sacred tabernacle tent that will house the Presence of God. The 39 productive activities used to build the Mishkan should be avoided on Shabbat.

How do we commemorate holiness? And what does our commemoration have to do with God resting eons ago? If we follow the story to its conclusion, we learn that when the Mishkan is built, God’s Presence rests upon it. When all creatures are engaged in activities that do no harm, God can take a rest from teaching, guiding, and governing the world. When people take a day to study, pray, socialize, build relationships, and share good meals, we help God actualize the hope for a harmonious world that was present at creation.


Judaism in Time and Space (5766/2006)

Parshat Vayakhel begins with a reminder of Shabbat observance, and continues with a detailed description of the construction of the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle.  What is the connection between the two themes?

Halachic scholars, scholars of Jewish law, suggest that the kind of work we should avoid on Shabbat is the kind of work that was done to construct the mishkan.  Mystical scholars suggest that just as Shabbat is a sanctuary in time, so the mishkan was a sanctuary in space.  They are quick to point out, however, that Shabbat comes first, in order and in importance.

Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that the word kadosh, holy, first appears at the end of the story of creation. “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Bereisheet/Genesis 2:3).  Here, holiness exists only in time.  No object in space is endowed with the quality of holiness.  The building of the mishkan is a compromise offered by God to meet human spiritual needs.  It takes place only after the people succumb to the temptation of worshipping an object in space, a golden calf.

Jewish ritual, says Heschel, may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as the architecture of time. Rituals for each time of the day carry specific meanings: gratefulness in the morning, forgiveness in the evening.  Each season carries a spiritual meaning: light at the winter solstice, mourning at the summer solstice.  We remember the day of the Exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai.  And our Messianic hope is the expectation of a time of peace.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *