The Tent Peg Business, Revisited
In this week's portion we begin a long description of the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. When the tabernacle is completed, near the end of the Book of Exodus, we are told, “And it came to pass that the tabernacle was ‘one’” (Exod. 36:13). Commenting on this curious expression, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (d. 1854) observes:
In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel were joined in their hearts; no one felt superior to his fellow. At first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the “service” of the tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended on the other. Then they understood how what all they had accomplished was not by virtue of their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had only later merely joined in completing its master building plan, so that “it came to pass that the tabernacle was one” (Exod. 36:13). Moreover, the one who made the Holy Ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who had only made the courtyard tent pegs.
This midrash inspired a seminal article that has influenced synagogues greatly over the past two generations. It’s called “The Tent Peg Business,” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and it was more recently updated by his daughter, Rabbi Noa Kushner. These ideas have been integral to my thinking, as a longtime admirer of Lawrence Kushner, whose congregation in Sudbury, MA became a place of pilgrimage for me and many others back when I was in High School. He also spent a weekend here as a scholar in residence back in the ‘90s. You can find the complete essay at https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-tent-peg-business-revisited-part-1/
There are so many lessons to be found in this motherlode of out-of-the-box ideas. Here are about a third of the Kushners’ suggestions, many of which have become only more relevant over time.
1. Jews need one another, and therefore congregations, to do primary religious acts that they should not, and probably cannot, do alone. Doing primary religious acts is the only way we have of growing as Jews. Consequently, it is also the only justification for the existence of a congregation. Everything else congregations do, Jews can always do cheaper, easier, and better somewhere else.
2. There are three ancient kinds of primary Jewish acts: communal prayer, holy study, and good deeds (or in the classical language of Pirkei Avot: avodah, Torah, and g’milut chasadim). This is not a capricious categorization. Prayer (avodah) is emotional: song, candles, dance, meditation, and silence – a matter of the heart. Study (Torah) is intellectual reading, questioning, discussion, and rigorous logic and argument – a matter of the head. And good deeds (g’milut chasadim) are public acts: helping, repairing, matching, fighting, and doing – matters of the hand. Only rare individuals are able to do all three with equal fervor and skill. And so our membership in a congregation and association with a broad spectrum of Jews will compensate for our personal deficiencies.
3. We can broaden the description of primary Jewish acts to include all mitzvot. Specifically, I (Noa Kushner) want to emphasize a religious connection to Israel as well as interpersonal ethics (l’shon hara, etc.).
4. In order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things that are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include maintaining a building, raising money, and perhaps forming a board of directors. (It should be here noted, however, that in the long history of our people there have been healthy, vibrant, and solvent congregations that had none of the above.)
5. Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that maintaining the building, raising money, or the board of directors is the reason for the existence of the congregation. Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught
6. It’s so easy for everything attached to a Jewish organization (websites! dues!) to become sacrosanct. But supportive facets of Jewish communal life (what Lawrence Kushner calls the secondary acts) are ripe for experimental approaches precisely due to the fact that they are not inherently holy. In other words, because the stakes are relatively low, we can afford to swing and miss. 13. Precisely because they are inherently holy, we must also experiment with our approaches to Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasa-dim.
7. A goal of all institutions is stability and longevity. But our question is: At what points do stability and longevity compromise the business of nourishing and enlivening Jews and Jewish experiences?
8. Forty years ago, Dr. Eugene Borowitz wryly proposed the creation of biodegradable congregations – communities that had predetermined life spans. (This may now be happening in many communities even though it was not part of the original plan.) To be sure, some synagogues will continue successfully on their current trajectories. But for many, it may now be time to consider “disruptive business models.” Kodak, for example, lost sight of its primary mission of “capturing moments” and became fixated instead on its own technology. Our own “technology,” too, is only relevant so long as it builds Jews and those ready to practice Jewish life.
9. At the same time, to be sure, an innovative idea is not inherently successful by virtue of its novelty alone. There is only one test: Does the idea build Jews?
10.There is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that people who are drawn into the congregation for an innocuous nonreligious event, such as gourmet cooking, move onto activities of more primary religious worth any sooner than if they had been left alone to discover their own inevitable and personal religious agendas and timetables. Indeed, there is substantial data to suggest that congregations that run many “basement” activities in hopes of getting people from there onto upper floors, only wind up adding on to the basement.
11. Just because it works for one generation does not mean it will work for the next. In fact, we might even say that if it worked for one generation, that is a good indication that it will not work for the next.
12. It’s time to quit asking: “Who is a Jew?” and, instead, ask: “Who wants to do Jewish?” Enough with being gatekeepers; it’s time to invite in the people who might well want to connect with Judaism but don’t know that they are welcome.
13. Finally, the members of the congregation must nurture one another because they need one another; they simply cannot do it alone. Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are hopelessly communal people.
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