March 13, 2010 / 27 Adar I, 5770
Three years ago I was going to give this drash but I was preempted by a visit from a candidate rabbi. It turned out to be a good thing because this Shabbat is the third anniversary of Rabbi Creditor and his family’s first visit to Netivot Shalom. I’m also doing this drash as this year will be the 40th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah.
This week's double portion concerns itself with the construction of the Mishkan or Tabernacle. The first parasha starts off with Vayakhel Moshe - Moses assembling the entire Israelite community and reaffirming the laws of the Sabbath. He then proceeds to call for all gifts of precious metals, yarns and linen and all other forms of adornment for the Mishkan. He also makes a request for all who are skilled to come and assist with the fashioning of the items that are necessary. Betzalel and Oholiab are then appointed as the sort of super contractors/architects for the whole project. The rest of this portion is devoted to detailed description of the furnishings and the structures in the mishkan including the ark, the table, the menorah, and the altar of incense.
The second parasha begins with Eleh Pekudei – these are the accounts or records of the Tabernacle. Moses requests a tally of all the metals used as well as offered (you can see the where the idea got started for a shul donation board) and then a list of expenditures (the beginnings of a budget). The rest of the Torah portion covers the description of the priestly vestments, the assembly and dedication of the Mishkan and the annointment of the priests. This parasha and the book of Shemot conclude with the description of the cloud covering the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, signifying Hashem’s command to stay in the camp and to move on once the cloud has dispersed. (I like to call this the genesis of a mission statement.)
Does some of this sound familiar? Well, it's not just because we read this each year. It's because we have been going over the descriptions of the mishkan since about the middle of the book of Exodus.
Why is there so much emphasis in the Torah on the Mishkan. There are various explanations and I would like to choose three things as a point of discussion in this drash, the meaning of all these details, the donations made towards the mishkan and the cloud covering the Ohel Moed.
The city where I had my Bar Mitzvah was Livorno, a city in Northern Italy where I grew up. The Jewish community, which had been established towards the end of the Italian Renaissance, had one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe, built in 1603. This community grew to gain prominence as a major Sephardic liturgical, philosophical and musical center. Sadly, the synagogue was destroyed during the Second World War and a new building was dedicated in 1962. As Carol Krinsky, outlines in her book “Synagogues of Europe: Architecture & Meaning” the architect of the Livorno synagogue felt he needed to provide more visual excitement than is normal and wanted to recall the Israelite’s Tent in the Wilderness. He created a synagogue with the angles and fins that were popular in the Italian design during the early 60’s, and the form and style affirmed that the Jews had not been completely destroyed. Though this new building had its critics, it suggested strength and independence. Inside it is an open and inviting structure with seats surrounding and facing a central bimah and though the women’s section is still in the balcony absent are the grilles normally concealing this gallery. The form of the synagogue has symbolic use, and shaped like an Ohel Moed, this image carried a poignant meaning for those members of the community who had been dispersed during the war and had been reunited after their own wanderings. I have some pictures for you to view and will leave them up here on the bimah after services.
The airy interior and pale colored walls combined with the light-filled interior space were to give the impression of a weightless enclosure similar to that of a tent. Much of what I liked about that synagogue is what I like about our building here at Netivot Shalom with the added benefit here that you can really look out to the sky.
My favorite feature of my childhood synagogue was the polygonal windows at the top of the building, which were filled with red glass and meant to recall the blood of ancestors. As an adolescent there was a morbid fascination in following the rays reflected throughout the service as they moved around and covered and almost blinded various congregants in bright red light.
So if we are an itinerant tribe and god is everywhere why do we even need a temple? In “This House We Build”, (a book that Rabbi Creditor gave to all Board Members) Rabbi Bookman & William Kahn say, “Three answers may be given to this question. First, since we ourselves are physical beings we require physical structures to live out our spiritual relationship. Second, creating and maintaining community is facilitated by establishing regular meeting times in designated spaces, and third we build places to contain and mark ourselves as Jews”.
I’ve been in many synagogues around the world. Some are filled with numerous decorations, plaques and other items on the wall that can provide inspiration as well as distraction. Others are quite simple and the empty walls allow for inspiration to flow through the mind’s imagination. (For example looking out our window it is conceivable to think, how early would I be in services if I rented the apartment next door)? But even without many adornments our synagogues today have a lot of detail, which is hidden. As an example we may not decorate our synagogue today with gold and copper inlay, and silver hooks adorned with sky-blue, dark red and crimson, however those materials exist in the wires behind the walls that many of us pulled throughout this building. The gold wires carry the data that we work with daily. The copper wires the electricity that keep the place moving and the multi-colored thread of red, blue, green, yellow and orange wires move voices throughout the building and keep us connected to the outside world. These are also some of the important details that we think of when building a synagogue today.
Rabbinic sages provide multiple explanations for all this detailed description. One is simply that the level of details stressed the importance of the love and esteem with which the Mishkan was viewed by Hashem. Another interpretation is that the mishkan was meant to serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf; or rather the details of the mishkan structure provide the Jewish people with the physical form to serve God in contrast to the idol they created. Some also suggest that the details exist to outline to the congregation exactly how much was involved in the Tabernacle so that their contribution would be commensurate with the needs.
This brings us to the donations. Moses asks everyone to collect and bring forth offerings towards the Mishkan. There are not only donations of precious metals and materials but also a request for anyone talented to make the furnishings. I particularly like the word used here which is vechol-chacham lev, all who are kind hearted. In a sense, this is the kind of call for volunteerism that is the most desirable. Often people think that they don’t have the skills for the job but that is not as important as the will. Even a simple act of participation can make one feel good and also provide a vehicle for full participation in the community.
It is interesting to note that in both instances when the people were asked to donate for either the golden calf or on behalf of the mishkan the outcome was overwhelming. Such was the desire to contribute to the Mishkan that the craftsmen had to tell Moses that the people were bringing much more than what was needed for the work, and thus gave orders to make an announcement in the camp that there was no need for any more materials. Wouldn’t it be amazing if all of our fund-raising campaigns were faced with this problem! It would certainly make our board meetings much shorter.
The Italian biblical commentator, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, interprets that Moshe did not instruct the people to stop making donations, but rather to discontinue doing additional work towards the mishkan. In other words some had already completed their work and if they had been told not to bring what had already been fashioned they would have been disappointed. The Ohr Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, adds that everybody’s gift would be used for the mishkan, not only to avoid embarrassment but also so that they could all fulfill the mitzvah of being involved in the construction of the mishkan. This is an important reminder that sometimes we are the recipients of something we may not need but we must still be humble about the effort given. An analogous anecdote is if you’ve heard a joke before, listen as if it was the first time and enjoy the laugh again to make both you and the other person feel good. Believe me, as you get older this is even easier to do!
The government had built my synagogue in Italy so their members did not have to worry about a capital campaign. I’m not sure if there was even a membership for belonging, however offerings and donations were constantly made and it was usually in the form of a pledge after an aliyah. The synagogue on the outside had no particular marking that would signify that it was a Jewish house of worship, and to most passing by it appeared to look like a modern church. It was not unusual for Nuns or Priests to walk in to the sanctuary and start making the sign of the cross. It was always interesting to observe them as they surveyed the setting looking for some Christian iconography and perhaps a place for a donations. I didn’t realize this till much later that the Piazza Elia Benamozegh, where the synagogue stood, was named after a famous rabbi who promoted between Jews and Christians.
The last part I want to cover in this drash is the meaning of the cloud over the tabernacle. The end of parasha Pekudei states that the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not come into the Ohel Moed, because the cloud had settled upon it. When the cloud from the Mishkan lifted the Israelites could then set out on their journey. Setting aside the part why Moses was not allowed in the tabernacle during the cloud’s presence we have now come full circle from when we started reading about the Mishkan back in parasha Terumah with Ve’asu li mikdash veshancanti betocham. They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. The sanctuary has now been built and we see with the cloud covering the metaphorical embodiment of that phrase.
I alluded earlier to a mission statement and now with a completed sanctuary containing the ark and the tablets of the Ten Commandments the mission of the Jewish people becomes to bring mitzvot (good deeds) into the world. Now we too at Netivot Shalom have our own building and we have already accomplished much in a short time and as we approach our fifth anniversary this summer may it be our continued mission to using it for fulfilling mitzvot.
When I first read these last lines in the parasha, the immediate metaphor that came to me was that the cloud represented god’s tallit over the mishkan. The tallit is often used when we bless couples getting married or our children or even ourselves in meditation. And so I see the cloud acting as a tallit over the Jewish people, blessing us during our continual presence in the Mishkan.
The priests have now been anointed and later in the book of Bemidbar we learn of how they will in turn bless the congregation. I want to conclude with a tallit-covering story from my synagogue in Italy. On Festival days during the Musaf service, the Cohanim in the congregation would perform the priestly blessing. The women were allowed to come down from their separate section in the balcony and join the men along with their entire family in the sanctuary and gather under the tallit of the head of the household during this blessing. As I peeked out under my father’s tallit I saw not only a truly beautiful sight of all the different family units but also at the powerful ritual taking place in front of the ark.we recite the Cohanim blessing at Netivot Shalom, we don’t have Cohens perform the ritual, because of it’s non-egalitarian status, but ironically in this Italian synagogue they temporarily suspended the mechitzah (the gender seperation) while this ritual took place. This fascinating ritual is one that has engaged our congregation in discussion in the past but that is a topic for another time.
In the year I was born my secular birthday fell on Erev Purim and also on the eve of the most famous holiday in Ireland. So I would like to end with the first stanza of an Irish blessing that echoes some of the same words that you may find in the Birkat Cohanim.
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May you be held in the palm of God's hands.