Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wiki-Tabernacle / Parshat Pikuei

Just as the economic disaster of 2008 hit, in which sub-prime loans fueled an inflated real estate bubble that subsequently exploded, giving way to unprecedented numbers of foreclosures and thousands upon thousands losing their homes, Alistair Parvin graduated from architecture school. Not surprisingly, the demand for architects plummeted, ironically planting the seed ideas for the Wikihouse, Parvin’s open-source project for Build-Your-Own homes. With Wikihouse, people can design their own homes using a free library of 3D models and blueprints, and use a "printer" to cut out the pieces from plywood. The printer even produces mallets to facilitate the wedge and peg construction. With pieces and tools in hand, you engage the “social economy” (that means call your friends to come help) and— well, if you grew up with lego, tinker toys, erector sets or more recently have put together an Ikea bookcase, you get the picture—a 21st century barn-raising.

Parshat Pikudei—indeed much of the Book of Exodus—describes the Israelites’ barn-raising, or rather Mishkan-raising. The Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) is a home, a dwelling place for God, and the Israelites build it much as a Wikihouse comes into being: it is the democratization of production. How so? First, the entire community provides the materials and labor. Pikudei opens with a materials list. Here are a few snatches:

All the gold that was used for the work… came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight. The silver… came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels by the sanctuary weight… The copper… came to 70 talents and 2,500 shekels…

The ephod was made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen. They hammered out sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs among the blue, the purple, and the crimson yarns, and fine linen…

The breastpiece…was square… They set in it four rows of stones. The first row was a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper….

(Exodus 38:24-29, 39:2-3, 8-13)

Next, Torah tells us that the people brought all the components of the Tabernacle to Moses:

…with the Tent and all the furnishings: its clasps, its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets; the covering of tanned ram skin, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen; the Ark the Pact and its poles, and the cover; the table and all its utensils, and the bread of display; the pure lampstand, its lamps—lamps in due order—and all its fittings, and the oil for lighting; the altar of gold, the oil for anointing, the aromatic incense, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent; the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand; the hanging of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, the screen for the gate of the enclosure, its cords and its pegs—all the furnishings for the service of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting… (Exodus 39:33-40)

And finally, it’s barn-raising day: On the first day of the tenth month, the Israelites gathered together as a community to set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:2).

The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) sees a lovely connection between this account of the Mishkan barn-raising and the account of Creation. Torah tells us that after completing the work of Creation, God blessed the world and declared it holy (Genesis 2:2-3). The same language—of work, of completion, of blessing—is here in Parshat Pikudei, as well.

All the labor of the Tabernacle was completed; the Israelites did just as God had commanded Moses; such did they do…
When Moses saw that they had performed all the work—as Adonai had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them. (Exodus 39:32, 43)

The S’fat Emet notes that God had already blessed all of creation (in the second chapter of Genesis) so there was no need to bless Israel separately. This Moses does when they close the circle of creation by constructing the Tabernacle.

But it seems to me that there is also a fundamental difference between the two blessings. God blesses creation as a natural, self-sustaining order; that is, for its existence and for its potential. Moses, in contrast, blesses the people for what they do as God’s partners in the on-going enterprise of Creation. These distinctive blessings come together here: As God created a home for people—this world—so the people create a dwelling place for God, drawing God’s Presence into their lives.

The building of homes is sacred work, be it a dwelling place for the divine or a house for people to shelter from the elements, raise a family, and find refuge from the hurricanes of life, real and metaphorical. Homes are incubators for loving and nurturing relationships, and for learning values that send us out into the world to help others and make the world a better place for our having lived. Homes are the places we return to when we are weary, disillusioned, grieving, or in search of support. Just as the Tabernacle is a place where the Israelites can come home to God, we hope that our homes are all that for us, as well. We hope that our homes are places of blessing.

But what of those who lack a roof over their head? The scourge of homelessness in our country continues unabated because we, as a society, have failed to affirm the democratization of living with a roof over one’s head. The status quo is morally, religiously, and socially unacceptable, and groups like Habitat for Humanity have taught us that where there is good will, there is a way. There are other creative solutions. Here are a few:

The Carver Apartments, Los Ageles (here and here)

In addition to involving ourselves in spreading the blessing of home so more have roofs over their heads, those of us who have a permanent or even temporary address (after all, the Mishkan moved around as the people journeyed through the wilderness) face the challenge of turning our house or apartment or room into a home. Gratitude is a good start, as is being a blessing to those who live under the same roof with us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Working it out / Parshat Vayakhel

I once overheard my husband, speaking about me to a friend, jokingly say, “Yeah, I think her idea of a vacation is that we all clear out for a week or two so she can get even more work done.” Was he talking about me? I wrinkled my nose at him and he replied, “It’s hardly a secret.” I’m not a Type A, but I do like to get things done and not have them hanging over my head. But just clearing off my desk isn’t sufficient. And sometimes that’s the good side of work.

I spoke with an acquaintance at the gym this morning as we plodded through our elliptical workouts. He works in the ever-changing and challenging field of cyber security. He’s been putting in 60 to 80 hour weeks because his employer cut the workforce by 17% and expects the remaining employees to not only pick up the slack, but cover the ever-increasing workload. He said, “It’s hard to have a life.” I have spoken with others who are overworked, underpaid, and disrespected at work, as well as those who see their jobs as an assemblage of boring and meaningless tasks whose only purpose is to engender a paycheck.

Torah’s lengthy and elaborate description of the work of building the Tabernacle begins with a mention of work:

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that Adonai commanded you to do. For six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of compete rest, holy to Adonai; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.
(Exodus 35:1-3)

The emphasis on rest, and the dark threat of death for violators of the commanded rest make it difficult to see that Torah commands not only shabbat but also work. We are supposed to work. That is the normal way of the world. Well, you knew that, right? We all have to work, at least until we can retire and live a life that is kulo shabbat, our weeks like a string of Sabbath beads strung on gossamer of rest and relaxation.

And we might think that work means drudgery. After all, when God banishes the man and his wife from the Garden of Eden, God says:

…Cursed be the ground because of you;
B y toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.
(Genesis 3:17-19)

Isn’t that a cheery thought? Labor historian, Prof. Melvyn Dubofsky, published a review of James B. Gilbert’s Work without Salvation: America’s Intellectuals and Industrial Alienation, 1880-1910 under the title, “Adam’s Curse: Or the Drudgery of Work.” “Work without salvation” and “the drudgery of work” are phrases that speak for all too many people. No wonder Monday elicits groans, Wednesday is “hump day” and Friday, well TGIF says it all. Most advice for people who are miserable at work concerns when to quit. Not everyone feels this way about their job or other work they do, but most people feel this way about some of the work they do.

A few chapters earlier, when the Decalogue was recounted, we read:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God Adonai; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea—and all that is in them—and then rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
(Exodus 20:8-11)

Again, the imperative of work is barely visible behind the screen of the commandment concerning shabbat. The formulation for shabbat here is magnificent: rest is all-encompassing, universal. It’s for everyone, including servants and even animals—all of God’s creation, all in imitation of God’s rest on the seventh day. But if that is so, then our labor for the other six days of the week is also in imitation of God’s cosmic creation. As God created, so do we; as God rested, so do we. This suggests a different way to view our work: rather than drudgery, our labors contribute to the on-going creation of the world, the furtherance of civilization.

Can we see our work as having a creative, holy component? Can we see it as part of a larger effort to support society, build humanity, further values we applaud and even cherish? Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl in Me’or Eynayim quotes the opening verse of parshat Vayakhel, and then explains:

These are the things that Adonai commanded you to do: For six days work shall be done… (Exodus 35:1). Why is “shall be done” written in this passive form? This seems to indicate that the work is done on its own…

I’m sure I’m not alone in running this experiment. You can leave laundry in the hamper and dishes in the sink and they don’t clean themselves. You can leave marvelous books piled on the desk, but they don’t magically sink into your mind or appear in brilliant written pieces on your laptop. You can leave paperwork galore all over the place and, somehow, it does not process itself. Alas.

The Chernobler rebbe answer his own question:

Know Him in all your ways (Proverbs 3:6) means that everything you do or think should be in accord with the Torah that is within it, and he should believe this with complete faith. For all things happen in accordance with Torah. This is what [the Sages] meant [B. Makkot 24a] in which the prophet Habakkuk [characterized the essence of the entire Torah as:] The righteous shall live by his faith (Habakkuk 2:4). The essence is faith and [with faith] one will surely fulfill [the admonition of Proverbs:] Know Him in all your ways— thinking that it is not you that is conducting this negotiation, or whatever thing it is, but rather the Torah within it… This is what Moses is teaching the people. Even though it is necessary to engage in labor, know that it, too, is Torah.

At first glance, we might think that Rabbi Menachem Nachum is telling us that Torah pulls the invisible strings that run the world and we are mere marionettes fulfilling Torah’s mandates. But I don’t think that is what he means. It seems to me that he is saying that when we are focused on Knowing [God] in all your ways, that means conducting our lives as much as possible in accordance with what we understand to be God’s values and priorities and Torah’s ways. Through this focus, our thoughts and deeds are imbued with Torah and we can elevate our work to a divine level of meaning, seeing it integrally connected with divine meaning and purpose. Conducting our lives in this way, thinking and acting with holiness in mind, will assure that our work is not mundane at all, but rather holy work—six days a week.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum then connects the six days of work with the seventh day of rest:

These are the things… Six days shall work be done…
These are the things means that the work that gets done on the six days is also by the hand of Torah. Then, the seventh day will be holy [means that] when you act in this way all through the six days, the seventh will surely be holy, for you will have drawn holiness into the entire week. [Quoting B. Avodah Zarah 3a:] “The one who makes an effort on the eve of shabbat will eat on shabbat.”

The Chernobler rebbe reaffirms that when we go about our work in this way, we drawn down holiness not only for shabbat, but into the entire week. The one who makes an effort on the eve of shabbat (i.e., the six working days) will eat on shabbat means that those who approach their endeavors on the six working days as acts of holiness will enjoy the full holiness of shabbat all week long.

Clearly, this approach does not solve the problems of being overworked, underpaid, or disrespected. But it does address the issue of meaning: Can we see our work as meaningful? Another looming question is can we really do this? Here’s a suggestion:
Think of three things you did today at work and how they fit into a larger picture of purpose, how your efforts contribute to the success of some endeavor, and how that endeavor can benefit others. Try to do that every day after work for a week. Then next week start your day by thinking about three things you will do that day and how they contribute to the on-going creation of the world and the furtherance of society.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 9, 2014


While in college, my closest friend, Susan, took me to a midnight Easter service at St. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. She promised me exotic ritual and a full sensory experience. The service began when the priest emerged from the back of the church and processed up the center aisle swinging an incense burner from side to side. Smoke emanated, rising in the air and forming a dense cloud above the heads of the people assembled. “You’ll smell it soon,” Susan whispered to me, “and it will make you feel heady.” She was partially right; within moments the scent wafted past my nose, but the “heady” feeling eluded me because I was overcome with nausea. Clearly, the vocation of priest was not to be my career path.

Incense burner
This week’s parashah describes the origins of that church ritual: It is in imitation of the incense sacrificed on the golden altar in the Bet ha-Mikdash (Temple) in Jerusalem. Proverbs 27:9 tell us that “Ointment and perfume gladden the heart” and we know that incense figured prominently in worship rituals throughout the ancient Near East.  Torah supplies the recipe, or at least the ingredient list:

The Lord said to Moses: Take the herbs nataf, sh’cheilet, and chelb’nah—these herbs together with pure l’vonah; let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred. Beat some of it into powder, and put some before the Pact in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you. (Exodus 30:34-36)

Commentaries tell us that nataf is a resin of balsam or persimmon; sh’cheilet is onyx, and chelb’nah and l’vonah (frankincense) are both gum resins extracted from plants.

Incense altar
The Wilderness Tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem after it, had a gold altar for incense offerings, and each priest had his own machtah (censer) for burning incense, but it is not clear what purpose the incense offerings served. Rambam (Moses Maimonides) believed that the scent of the incense elevated the spirits of the ministering priests (that “heady” feeling?) on the one hand, and masked the odors of the slaughtered animals (each of which was accompanied by the burning of incense), on the other (Moreh Nevuchim, III, Ch. 45). The hovering, lingering cloud of smoke produced by burning the incense was evocative of God’s presence, the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the Wilderness for 40 years.

Incense censer
The cult of incense burning suggests two lessons that may appear contradictory at first blush: the value in reserving some things as sacred, and the value in sharing what is sacred widely.

The first lesson concerns reserving. Torah tells us that the recipe for the incense was not for daily or home use, but reserved for use by the priests in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The verses we read above are followed by this admonition:

But when you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it, to smell of it, shall be cut off from his kin. (Exodus 30:37-38)

Pretty harsh words. But there is a more subtle truth here: when we hold things sacred, and reserve them for special occasions or purposes, we allow them a good kind of magic or power in our lives. When we keep shabbat as a day reserved for the pleasures of family, friends, community, food, and rest, infused with worship and study, shabbat has transformative and healing power in a way that simply “taking a day off” does not. When we perform rituals that those before us, for generations too numerous to count, have performed (albeit in our own way), we plug ourselves into a powerful chain of tradition that provides identity, purpose, and direction because we are part of something larger than ourselves. When we hold off from availing ourselves of certain pleasures and practices—waiting until the time is holy or right—they hold far more meaning; anticipation is part of it, but making them holy (set aside for a special purpose) fuels their value in our lives.

The second lesson concerns sharing. The process for producing the incense was proprietary. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) tells us that the House of Abtinas (likely either a family or guild) maintained the proprietary right to manufacture the incense used in the Second Temple. A room in the Temple complex was reserved for its production. But Mishnah Yoma 3:11 has this to say:

These were remembered to their disgrace: The House of Garmu who were not willing to teach [others] about the preparation of the showbread [another ritual practice of the Temple]. Those of the House of Abtinas who were not wiling to teach [others] about the production of incense. Hugras b. Levi knew a chapter of the song but did not want to teach it. Ben Kamtzar did not want to teach anyone his art of writing [God’s name]… Concerning [these four] it is said, But the name of the wicked shall rot (Proverbs 10:7).

The House of Abtinas preserved and protected the secret for making incense that would produce the cloud of smoke that rose and hovered above, but they preserved it out of selfishness—perhaps a sense of superiority or economic self-interest. Like the other three mentioned in the mishnah, they had something of religious value and kept it for themselves.

Holiness is a double-edged sword: For something to be sacred, powerful, transformative, and inspiring, it must be protected from becoming mundane, common, the quotidian of life. But when we withhold that which is holy from others who might share in its value and power, we diminish the divine. The cloud created by the burning of the ketoret (the incense) combines these two seemingly contradictory values: the smoke rose up, and then spread out over the people—all the people.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, February 3, 2014

High Priest Fashionista

Not being a fashionista, I am often caught off guard by what trends. Not long ago, the choshen mishpat, the High Priest’s breastpiece of judgment, became a popular motif for jewelry. 
You can find pendants, pins, rings, and cufflinks depicting the rectangular breastpiece encrusted with twelve semi-precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel popping up everywhere. You can even get a “midrash manicure” featuring the choshen mishpat ten-fold, one on each nail.

The High Priest wore the choshen mishpat when offering sacrifices in the Wilderness Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Bet ha-Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem). It was called the “breastpiece of judgment” because it served as a reminder that the lives and welfare of the nation, represented by the twelve stones, depend upon justice, and among Torah’s overarching goals is the institution of justice in our lives.

You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, worked into design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28:15– 21)

Upholding high standards of justice is no mean feat. Throughout the ages, people have struggled to institute laws and legal systems based upon, and promoting, justice, and to guard those laws and legal systems against corruption. Justice is often elusive: attractive in theory but difficult to translate into reality.

The impetus to construct and maintain a social system based on justice lies in a firm and immutable commitment to k’vod ha-briot (human dignity). Human dignity is the lynchpin for human rights, the rule of law, and justice. Midrash reminds us “God cares about the dignity of human beings” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim 12) and the philosopher Hermann Cohen held that ideal just society as one which embraced human dignity.

Where do we learn human dignity? First and foremost in the home, beginning the moment a baby’s parents hold and caress their child and respond to their baby’s needs and desires. A child’s laboratory for learning to treat others as creatures with dignity is in the commandment to honor and respect one’s mother and father. That commandment is voiced twice in Torah (Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16).

The choshen mishpat  (High Priest’s breastpiece) teaches this connection through a story found in both the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 61b) and Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 5b-7a). We learn in Mishnah Peah 1:1 that honoring one’s parents is rewarded in this world as well as the world-to-come. The Mishnah says:

…These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] whose fruits a person eats in this world, but the principle remains for him in the world-to-come: honoring father and mother, deeds of loving kindness, bringing peace between a two people, and Torah study is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

This teaching inspires a question put to R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus concerning the extent of the obligation to honor one’s parents. R. Eliezer replies by citing the example of the gentile, Dama b. Netina, head of the town council of Ashkelon. Once one of the twelve stones in the High Priest’s choshen mishpat (breastpiece of judgment) was lost. Several rabbis went to the shop of Dama b. Netina to purchase a replacement, having been told that only Dama had a stone of the high quality they sought. The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) continues the story:

[The Rabbis] went to him and agreed with him on a price of one hundred dinarim. He left, intending to bring [the jasper stone] to them, but found his father sleeping. Some say the key to the chest [in which it was stored] was attached to his fathers finger, and others say his fathers feet were resting on the chest. [Whatever the case may be] Dama returned and said to them, “I cannot bring the stone to you.

Dama is willing to forgo the sale rather than disturb his father’s nap to get the stone. The Rabbis interpret his refusal to sell them the stone as a bid for more money:

They said, “Perhaps he wants more money.” They raised [their offer] to two hundred dinarim. [He declined.] They raised their offer to one thousand dinarim. [He declined.]

When his father awoke from his sleep, [Dama] went down and brought them the gem. They wanted to give him the final offer [i.e., one thousand dinarim]. [Dama b. Netina] would not take it from them. He said, “What, shall I sell you the honor of my forefathers for money? I will not profit from the honor of my forefathers.”

Not only did Dama b. Netina honor his father so highly he was willing to forfeit a profitable sale rather than rouse him from his slumber, but Dama refused the exorbitant sum of money the Rabbis offered because accepting it would have exploited his father’s honor. The Talmud recounts that God rewarded Dama b. Netina. A pure red heifer, a most rare phenomenon and needed for purification rituals, was born to Dama’s cow that very night, and he sold it to the Rabbis for a large sum.

Dama b. Netina’s respect for his father translated into respect toward the Rabbis and just business practices: he sold them the jasper stone at the first agreed-upon price. No wonder the Rabbis offer him as an exemplar and benchmark for honoring one’s father and mother.

But what if you cannot treat your mother and father as Dama b. Netina did his father? What if, through no fault of your own, you don’t enjoy the sort of mutually respectful and loving relationship Dama b. Netina and his father had? Not everyone can boast that blessing. The Rabbis spell out what it means to honor and respect parents in B. Kiddushin 31b. They tell us this includes psychological aspects (e.g., acknowledging their position in the family and status in the community) and practical aspects (e.g., providing for basic physical needs). But they also remind us that there is no one clear-cut formula; each situation is unique; the expression of respect and honor takes a slightly different shape depending upon context. Those of us who are blessed to be parents would also do well to remember that children learn to respect and uphold the dignity of others when they experience respect and consideration.

The first time I saw jewelry modeled on the High Priest’s choshen mishpat I rolled me eyes and thought: Is nothing sacred? But upon second consideration, wearing a reminder of our duty to respect human dignity and promote justice is sacred.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman