Friday, February 21, 2014

Down-to-Earth Judaism (Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb 21)

This week’s portion of Vayakhel continues a theme that dominates the second half of the book of Exodus, describing in vivid detail the construction of the tabernacle (Mishkan) in the wilderness.  The placement of the prohibition of work on Shabbat immediately before the Mishkan passages led the rabbis to draw a connection between.  The Mishna lists 39 basic categories of work (Melacha), based on kinds of work done on the Mishkan, from which are derived many other Shabbat prohibitions.

The connections between the tabernacle and Shabbat point to a much broader link. The tabernacle was constructed with such great care because, in the biblical imagination, it was to be a place where God would dwell – in other words, a microcosm of the universe itself.  The blueprint for the Mishkan parallels the blueprint devised for the Creation – a Creation that culminated in, you guessed it, the first Shabbat.

A deeper message here is that Judaism’s goal is to take what is beyond our grasp, the magnitude of the entire universe, and bring it down to earth – to make it real and palatable, to take God out of some celestial ivory tower and bring sanctity down to the muck and mud of every day existence. The sowing and winnowing and threshing and writing and igniting in flame, the tent pegs and curtains and dyes – all these are holy.  God dwells among us, and within us.

Sanctity is what takes place in our daily lives, our real lives.  To be relevant, then, Judaism must speak to those daily realities, the tears and laughter, the small victories and crushing defeats.  The TV networks long ago understood that the key to making the Olympics a ratings hit was to make them “up close and personal.” We can’t get enough of those portraits of athletes who have overcome severe setbacks, who bring out the best in the human spirit.

For Judaism to speak to us, it’s got to speak to what’s real in our lives, to tap into age old wellsprings of wisdom and the love of a caring community.  It’s got to uplift us by reaching us where we are, hitting us in the gut.

So that’s why we have been bringing the stories of TBE congregants front and center this year.   “This American (Jewish) Life” is the series, and thus far we’ve heard from congregants who have confronted real life crises, like the murder of a father and a descent into the disease of addiction, who somehow have found the strength and hope not only to live on, but to transcend the pain.  In both cases, the love of a Jewish community and relevance of the Jewish message were instrumental to that healing process.  This Shabbat morning, we’ll hear the next in that series, as Brett Goldberg will describe his years of living in Israel, serving literally on the front lines of Jewish destiny during a turbulent era. 

Right now, congregants Suzanne and Norman Stone are touching lives in Israel and you can read Suzanne’s latest dispatch here. Suzanne describes a wonderful encounter with an Ethiopian immigrant, a 12th grader.  And also see a dispatch received just today from TBE’s Jan Gaines, also in Netanya, describing a 20 minute walk along the beach that she calls “Israel in miniature.”  Just like the Mishkan – it’s all brought down to earth.  And this coming Thursday, see the local premier of a film entitled Next Year Jerusalem” that will touch you to the core, about a group of nonagenarians who visit Israel, many for the first time.

And the heroic story of TBE’s Eli Schwartz, as detailed in a recent article by his mom Deborah, is one that impacts us all deeply, reminding us of the power that each of us has to bring a sublime healing to all whom we touch – right here, right now. We gain great strength from their courage, which in turn enables us to help them when things get tough. You can also see this week’s ADL feature on ADL feature about TBE teen Melanie Roloff, who was victimized by classroom bullying and turned that experience into a way to make our world safer.

Getting Real

For Judaism to be relevant, it must pass the smell test.  When panicking pundits speak of the Jewish condition following the Pew report, we hear suggestions that simply aren’t helpful.  A well-known demographer came to our community a few weeks ago and said it is incumbent on Jews to have more babies.  Now I’m a great fan of both Jews and babies, but when you look at the consequences of humanity’s planetary presence, our dwindling resources and all the consequences of the earth’s population’s having exploded in one century from 2 billion people to 7 billion people, it’s hard to make the case that people should be having have more babies. 

Not everyone is thinking of the impact of global population growth, but Jewish newlyweds are thinking of the economic strain of large families. So this message, that they need to have oodles more kids, is not one that passes the smell test. 

In addition, any message that flies against accepted scientific fact does not pass the smell test for the vast majority of Jews.  The fastest way to fly into the trash bin of irrelevance is to try to convince Jews that the Creation occurred in six 24-hour days.  With very few exceptions (one of them notably the Lubavitcher Rebbe), Jews across the spectrum do not see evolution as incompatible with Jewish belief.  We do not have any theological issues with evolution because, in part, Jews don’t read the Creation account as literal history and also because we don’t need to read “Original Sin” into the Garden of Eden account. 

The recent HBO special “Questioning Darwin” demonstrates how Darwin’s theories pose a threat to Christian literalists that simply does not apply to Judaism.  The sad fact is that many Jews don’t realize that.  When people blur the lines between literalist Christianity and mainstream Judaism, they turn away from their own faith tradition, assuming that “they’re all then same.”  Jews need to understand that there is a far greater compatibility between mainstream Judaism and the views of such modern spiritual luminaries as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic, along with the many faith traditions that perceive God’s presence within an infinitely complex universe as being consistent with evolutionary theory and modern science. A new Creation ethos is fast coming into being; one reflected in the film and book, “Journey of the Universe”  that we recently showed here.  This emerging Creation ethos passes the smell test.  It speaks to our real lives.

Down-to-Earth Judaism has never thrived when it’s been insular – what has been “good for the Jews” has always been when Jews have been good for the world.  The miracle of Israel’s rebirth and growth touches us most deeply when we read of how Israelis are creating the world’s first insulin pill for diabetes, or the breakthrough Israeli ‘Wrapping Paper’ that will make bones heal faster and better.

The Jewish story is the human story writ small, just as the Mishkan is God’s universe in microcosm.  We celebrate our small but significant contribution to the healing of our world, one tent peg at a time, and that begins with the sacred work (Melacha) we are doing here down in the mud, the work of Eli and Melanie and Suzanne and Jan, of Rachael and Dana and Brett – of each of us. 

We are bringing God back down to earth, as together we construct that Mishkan, one tent peg at a time.

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