Monthly Archives: February 2021

A Tabernacle for Today: Terumah/Zakhor 5781

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אוֹתְךָ אֵת תַּבְנִית הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֵת תַּבְנִית כָּל כֵּלָיו וְכֵן תַּעֲשׂוּ:

“And so shall they do,” is an unremarkable coda to God’s command to Moses that Israel must build a tabernacle in Exodus 25:9. Could this little phrase be a marker for our kind of Judaism, linked powerfully to the past but proudly innovative? That sounds like a stretch, but let’s try. The verse states that the people of Israel should make the tabernacle precisely according to the specifications shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. Various Midrashim depict God demonstrating the design of the ark, table and menorah through fiery holograms in the sky, which is fanciful but reflective of the Torah’s insistence that Moses reproduce the designs “shown” to him.

That coda, “and so shall they do,” could mean simply—tell the people to do what I taught you. But because of a claimed extra “vov” (“and”), the rabbis read this phrase to refer not to the initial construction, but to future generations of Temple builders. This raises the question—should future temples of the Jews be built to the precise measurements of the original tabernacle, which was designed for portability, or might they be altered to reflect the grander setting of a permanent location in Jerusalem?

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Reclaiming the Crown of Torah: Mishpatim 5781

In the Song of Songs (5:2) we read a romantic verse, “I was asleep, but my heart was awake.” אני ישנה ולבי ער—the plain sense of the verse is that the time of sleep is also a time of longing. The rabbis interpret this verse to mean that the people of Israel before Sinai were asleep in the sense of inaction—they had no mitzvot to perform, but their hearts were awake, yearning to connect to God.

This yearning for Torah, this desire for action, explains their remarkable response in Parashat Mishpatim when they say, “all that God has commanded, we will do, and we will hear,” כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. Arguably this is the best line given by the Torah to the people of Israel. But what exactly does it mean? Let us look at the context:

Back in chapter 20, the people respond to hearing the Ten Commandments with terror. They tell Moses to go speak with God and fill them in later, “lest we die” פן נמות. And so, Moses speaks with God, and this week in Mishpatim, he shares many rules with the people.

In Chapter 24, Moses tells the people all the words of God, all the rules. As promised, they respond enthusiastically, “And the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה. Notice that they use only one verb—we will do it, נַעֲשֶׂה.

But the passage continues. Moses writes down “all the words of the Lord, and then in the morning he builds an altar, offers sacrifices and reads the Torah aloud to the people. At this point they respond, “All that God has spoken, we will do it, and we will heed it,” נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. What’s the difference between the two responses?

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Oh Freedom: Bishalah 5781

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom
Oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

These stirring words from the post-Civil War anthem have been recorded and performed at important moments in American history. Odetta recorded a great version in 1956. Joan Baez performed it in 1963 at the March on Washington. The song gives me the chills, because it holds up freedom as the greatest good, greater than life itself. Black history month begins on Monday, and this is an appropriate moment to think about the differential experience of freedom in this land.

My brother just digitized a 1975 recording of my great grandparents, Sarah and Sam Mazer, who arrived in America on February 2, 1910. Sam was fleeing the Russian army’s “khopers” who could have conscripted him for 25 years. Both were eager to live free in America, and with many ups and downs, they did. This land was and is a place of freedom and opportunity for most American Jews. But for the brutalized people who first sang, “Oh Freedom,” America was not a land of freedom and opportunity, but of enslavement, cruelty, terror, and oppression.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad depicts a desperate flight from slavery to freedom through the experience of Cora. In the following passage she and Caesar have narrowly escaped capture:

They stopped running when they realized they had no inkling of where they were headed. Cora saw nothing for the darkness and her tears. Caesar had rescued his waterskin but they had lost the rest of their provisions. They had lost Lovey. He oriented himself with the constellations and the runaways stumbled on, impelled into the night. They didn’t speak for hours. From the trunk of their scheme, choices and decisions sprouted like branches and shoots. If they had turned the girl back at the swamp. If they had taken a deeper route around the farms. If Cora had taken the rear and been the one grabbed by the two men. If they had never left at all.

No wonder that the song “Oh Freedom” asserts that freedom is the greatest good, greater than life itself. Nothing is certain in this life, but a decision to turn from slavery to freedom requires courage, strength, and fortune.

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