Monthly Archives: February 2020

Temples of the Mind: Terumah 5780

A wood model has been on display in the JTS entrance for the past few years. It depicts the 21st Century campus with all its structures—the atrium, gardens, library, auditorium and residence hall. In its three dimensionality the model is more evocative than the posters fashioned by computer aided design of phantom students occupying imagined space. Still, both model and posters have built general awareness and excitement for the experience of entering and inhabiting the constructed spaces, which has played out in slow motion over the course of this year.

The ability to imagine a reality which does not quite exist is foundational to consciousness, as Michael Graziano teaches with his attention schema theory (see part one and part two of my Sinai and Synapses consciousness blog on this subject, and its implications for Jewish life). We are constantly bombarded by sensory inputs and must construct a simplified image in order to prioritize certain signals, and thus to understand, respond to and shape external reality. This same ability allows us to project what is on the minds of others, and to imagine alternative realities, past, present and future. As we chant this week, וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה, see and then act. Our brains construct a visual model, or schema, of reality, and this allows us to preview actions such as the movement of our hands to grasp objects before attempting the task.

We have now entered the section of Torah in which a complex physical structure, the tabernacle, is imagined in the portions Terumah and Titzaveh before being built in VaYakhel and Pekudei. Modern readers are challenged to imagine this construction project in precisely the same fashion as ancient Israelites were challenged to imagine it before they began to build. And although their imagination was soon applied to physical labor, our imagination is also constructive. We read these passages and appreciate the blending of physical and spiritual qualities in our lives, and then implement that reality with buildings and rituals of our own. We share the desire and the effort to draw divinity into our living spaces so that the world can shimmer with divine glory. Continue reading

Mountain Man Moses: Mishpatim 5780

Orson Schofield Phelps, AKA “Old Mountain” was a famous guide to the Adirondack mountains in the mid-19th century. Based in Keene Valley, NY, he cut the first trail to the top of Mt Marcy in 1861 and gave many of the high peaks their current names. His face adorned with a bushy beard, his head crowned with an old beaten hat—Old Mountain Phelps enticed city folk to seek out the wild places, to gain altitude and perspective from the vantage of an ancient peak.

The best wilderness guides lead us in more ways than one, sparking curiosity, courage, endurance and strength. Their gaze leads us to notice details in nature and in ourselves. They make us uncomfortable at times—a discomfort required to learn that we are more resilient than we realize, more capable than we dared imagine.

I miss the mountains in the winter, so I dream of summer adventures. And I read about the most famous mountaineer in Jewish history, our teacher Moses. What, you haven’t noticed how many times Moses climbs mountains? He receives his first divine call on the flank of Mt. Horeb in chapter 3 of Exodus; in chapter 17 he climbs a peak to supervise the battle against Amalek; in chapter 19 he climbs Mt Sinai, descends, climbs it again, and descends (though he protests the second descent—at 80 perhaps his knees were a bit creaky). After the golden calf incident he will climb up again, experience God with great intensity, and descend with a heavenly glow, too bright for others to bear. Continue reading

Magic or Medicine? BiShalah 5780

What verse in the Torah can cost you your share in the world to come? It comes in our parashah, and is one of those lines that summarize the Torah’s agenda for Israel: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exod. 15:26, NJPS trans.). The first half of this verse is entirely consonant with Israelite and then Jewish religion, but the second half has proved problematic.

In its biblical context, this verse is sandwiched between complaints by the people of Israel who are thirsty, hungry and nostalgic for Egypt. With his reference to the plagues of Egypt, Moses reminds them of the blessings of their lives but also implies that mortal danger awaits those who rebel. If you do not heed the Lord diligently, then don’t expect to be spared the frightful diseases that you recently witnessed in Egypt. This threat was far from effective to judge by the following episode in the wilderness of Tsin, where the people grumbled and yearned for that very curse—to have been killed by God in Egypt.

However, Moses’s threat is not what proved problematic by the rabbinic period. On the contrary, it was the promise by God to heal Israel of all frightful diseases that caused mischief. It seems likely that Jews began using the second half of the verse as a theurgic incantation. When stricken with a malady, some Jews would apparently utter this line as a spell to heal their wounds. That, at least, is the implication of a Mishnah taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading