24 March 2009

The Silver Standard

I haven't been around on here in awhile, but I have spent a lot of time lately listening to NPR while eating hamantashen and thinking about matzah. I know it’s not the Torah, but it’s still a fairly classic Jewish experience and it has me wondering:

Are we more likely to strive to create ourselves in God’s image, or instead try to create a god in our image? And furthermore, do we want our leaders to be just like us when we are at our most ordinary, or do we desire something exceptional from them?

Back in Persia, King Ahashverosh and Haman didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done before. They benefited from and continued creating a society where the measure of human worth and the whole purpose of living was money and power and pleasure for its own sake.

As has been said about other leaders, it may be obvious that King Ahashverosh would have been more fun to hang out with at a bar than Moredechai and yet in the Talmud, Megilla 12a we learn: when the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him, “why did the Jews of that generation deserve to be placed under an edict of destruction?” he told them, “You know the answer.” They responded, “Because they went to the party of Ahashverosh.”

Surely I am not the only one who has weeks when Science Friday and This American Life and Speaking of Faith the news and our holidays all blend together into something of a personal spiritual distraction.

Nothing much new seems to be happening right now in the Torah anyway.

We are in the desert . . . still. We are building a tabernacle, a mishkan, in the wilderness . . . still . . . just like we’ve been doing for the past several weeks.

T’rumah, T’tzaveh, Ki Tisa all arguably tell the same story over and over.

At first in Vayakheil it seems like things might be a little different, after all, we barely get started and God commands us NOT to construct the Mishkan on the 7th day because on the 7th we have Shabbat . . . but then in verses 5-29 they do pretty much what we’ve been told to do the past 3 weeks.

Our second parsha for the week P’Kudei is where it really gets . . .well, we could say . . . it really gets riveting.

Chapter 38 Verse 27 is where it gets really good.

Verse 27 is very specific.

In fact, I’m beginning to think verse 27 may be the clue to what this long, detailed telling of the building of the mishkan was . . . building up to.

Basically: 100 talents of silver. 100 Sockets. 100 talents. 1 talent per socket.

See what I mean?

I didn’t expect it either.

I think that clue actually leads us back to the first verses of this parsha, 21 and 22.

It opens with Moses demanding an accounting of all of the materials that went into the building of the mishkan. Bezalel (of the tribe of Judah) is there, too. And it ends with “all that the Lord had commanded Moses”.


Juicier than I thought.

Politics, intrigue, how much does it cost to put in a new sink at the White House? You caught that, right?

We have just spent weeks reading about the building of the Mishkan in great detail. We’ve read about weights and measures, about materials, about this kind of wood and that kind of animal skin. We’ve read about the ½ shekel and about how each person will apply his or her skill skillfully. I mean – details. BUT NOW – now we have Moses – the leader of our people, the man we’d think was above reproach, who is humble, and wise, who is brave, who has seen the FACE of God – HIM – OUR GUY MOSHE – he asks for an accounting of each and every item that has gone into building this thing.


I mean, this is the stuff a good “This Mesopotamian Life” NPR story is made of!

But wait . . . oh yes . . . there’s more:

That last bit, “As the Lord had commanded Moses” . . . that part is repeated over, and over, and over in this parsha.

For the Torah, which never wastes a single letter, much less a single word, to have that much repetition in one parsha . . . well, even in a distracted week that can get my attention - that’s got to mean something.

So, why might Moses make sure there is an accounting, why is it okay with God that Moses is going out on his own here – ordering that things be done that God never said needed to be done, and why is it that we are told repeatedly that all was done – specifically that MOSES did everything - JUST as God had commanded Moses to do?

When I started looking into Moses’ actions more, I found some things that might help.
First, a legal story:

At the height of a political corruption trial, the prosecuting attorney verbally attacked a witness. "Isn't it true," he bellowed, "that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?" The witness stared out the window as though he hadn't heard the question. "Isn't it true that you accepted five thousand dollars to compromise this case?" the lawyer repeated loudly. The witness still did not respond. Finally, the judge leaned over and said, "Sir, please answer the question." "Oh," the startled witness said, "I thought he was talking to you."

According to our tradition (Song R. 3:7) Moses needed to show he was above reproach, so he carefully recorded all of the expenditures for building the mishkan and the furnishings and at each step we are reminded that all of the gold and the silver and the acacia wood was part of the project not by Moses’ choice but was done, “just as God had commanded him.”

Our texts explain that because some Israelites knew themselves well enough to know they would have taken advantage of all of the silver and gold for their own enrichment, they suspected Moses was no better.

They knew themselves, and Moses knew the Israelites.

Therefore, Moses made sure not only that he was above reproach, but also that he demonstrated that he was above reproach.

The Midrash goes on to detail that the people who prepared incense for the Temple service similarly would – and should - never wear perfume nor would they have their family members wear perfume.

The Midrash also describes the official who observed the shekel offering as wearing a special garment with no pockets and no long sleeves so no one could suspect him of pocketing the public funds.

Ultimately, as we remember from T’rumah, the purpose of the mishkan had nothing to do with Moses in his status as a leader. The whole reason God commanded Moses and the Israelites to build the mishkan was so that God could dwell among them. It wasn’t even so God could dwell in it, or so God could chat with Moses, but among them. Each of them – perfectly ordinary people created in the image of God. What might it mean to try to live up to God’s expectations when we are aware that our ordinariness is balanced by being created in God’s image?

God’s expectations for Moses as a leader were different from God’s expectations of Bezalel as a craftsman, and God’s expectations for Bezalel were different from God’s expectations of the guy who made the incense or observed the shekel collection or the women who wove the curtain for the Ark. We could therefore surmise that God also has unique expectations for each of us.

Thinking back on NPR calls to mind the politician who legislated the strict prosecution of prostitution and then was caught with a prostitute, or the comedian who no one cared got his taxes wrong becoming a candidate for the senate a position wherein he’d have power over the distribution of taxes. We've also been hearing a lot about President Obama. He made an inappropriate joke comparing his notoriously bad bowling skills to the Special Olympics on Leno. Ordinarily, that would be the sort of behavior I would suggest goes completely against what is required of us from this parsha. However, his actions did not end there. The joke had not even aired yet when he got on the phone from Air Force One, called Tim Shriver of the Special Olympics Board, apologized, and then made his apology public.

None of us is perfect, but we are each created in God’s image. There are times when each of us are in roles of authority and responsibility. When we are, what are God’s expectations of each of us?

Maybe Mordechai never fantasized about skipping out on making Havdallah so he could relax and hang out at one of King Ahashverosh’s parties. Maybe Moses never considered keeping his vacation destination a secret for a change and going to Vegas instead of hiking in the desert. Maybe Bezalel never wished Moses would tell the story about when he lost his temper and hit the rock so he, Bezalel, could feel better about his own weaknesses . . . but I hope they did. I hope they fantasized about it, considered it, and wished it, and then didn’t do it.

I’m often uncomfortably comforted when great leaders have a vice – smoking, for example - because like me there is something they aren’t good at, some bad habit they cannot kick or make a mistake. The idea of God or a leader being a “slob like one of us” is comfort we can even sing to.

And yet, I don’t want to be created in the image of a slob. I don’t my leaders to encourage me to excuse my vices. I want them to show me how they work to overcome their vices, and how they strive to remedy their mistakes. I want them to hold themselves, in their roles, to a high standard and to challenge me to do the same.

In my job I teach about Jewish values of relationships and sex and sexuality, and I’m single – which ostensibly means I may (occasionally) date.

My friends outside my Jewish work circle often tease me about the debate I have with myself about where I go on dates – do I go somewhere where I’m fairly likely to run into a student (and have)? Who I date - do I date men who aren’t Jewish? If I choose not to see someone anymore, for any reason, I have an obligation to make that decision and to carry it out in recognition of the other person as created in the image of God, and of myself as being “holy” because God is holy. Why? Because every opportunity I get I remind our teens that is our job in relationships. Because I really do believe I am commanded to remember that I am holy because God is holy and created me to be holy.

What about other people, I wonder.

What does it mean for you, in your life, in the places where you are a leader, to wear clothes without pockets, avoid perfume, and to keep a careful enough accounting?

Whatever it means for you, I suspect we all need reminders now and then.

For a reminder, we have Shabbat every week - when we are specifically commanded not to make use of our sockets and our silver to build the mishkan – or whatever its equivalent in our lives – and to instead step back and take an accounting and recommit ourselves to a higher standard.

On the other hand, after spending my life following all the 'rules' (by which I DO NOT mean that book) I am now in a place where I'm wondering whether they actually make sense. For now I'm continuing to choose against the king's party and against the trop to Vegas, but I am basing those choices on habit more than conviction.

Yes, there are consequences that trouble me for the people who built the golden calf. However, there are also consequences that trouble me for the people who didn't.

08 March 2009

From: http://www.aish.com/purimthemes/purimthemesdefault/Darkness_Before_the_Dawn.asp

""All prophetic books and the sacred writings will cease (to be recited) during the Messianic era, except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, just as the Five Books of the Torah and the Oral Torah that will never cease." (Rambam, Megillah 2:18)

What is the lesson of this book that will never lose its relevance, even as all other troubles of the Jewish nation will fade from memory?

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, in his book Pachad Yitzchak, explains with a beautiful metaphor: There are two ways one can recognize his friend in the dark. One way is to use a flashlight. The other way is to get to know the friend by using other senses other than sight to recognize his presence. When the sun comes up, the one who used his flashlight will find it no longer necessary and will cast it aside. But the one who had to train himself in lieu of a flashlight, to sense his friend in other ways, has acquired a deeper knowledge and understanding of his friend and the relationship, even in daylight, will inevitably be enhanced as a result.

So, too, we - the Jewish People - have spent millennia in an effort to recognize God. Leaving Egypt was a flashlight - the Ten Plagues and the miraculous events that followed taught the Jewish People invaluable lessons about their King. And yet, when the sun comes up and the Messiah arrives, the revelation and clarity will be so bright that all holidays and writings commemorating those events will dim in comparison.

Purim, on the other hand, was a story in which no light was switched on. The heroes of the hour and the nation as a whole had to grope and stumble in the interminable darkness and slowly and hesitatingly train themselves in a new approach to relating to God in such a time."

I haven't written for awhile, been working hard getting ready for Purim, in fact! Not a lot of extra time on my hands.

However, I love this teaching about Purim. I have often said that if I had to choose between showing up at shul for the High Holidays and showing up for Purim, I'd pick Purim. If my someday-children ever start refusing to come to synagogue, I'll let them out of Yom Kippur before I'll let them out of Purim. (or Sukkot or Shavuot . . . with some special Tu B'Av muffins, and a HUGE Lag B'Omer bonfire . . . .who doesn't like muffins and fire???)

This I love: Getting to know God in the dark . . . and the idea that this is the chag we'll be celebrating with the Messiah . . .

Can't come soon enough!