You Done Good – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

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As a student I took great pride in my work. I always wanted to make sure everything looked right, felt right, and was presented professionally to my teachers. And nothing made me prouder than to get a paper or project back from a teacher with the words “Well done” or “Great Job” or “Excellent” scrawled across the paper in the teacher’s grading pen. Now when I’m teaching, I try to pass on that sense of pride with my purple grading pen and make it a point to encourage and cheer on students for a job well done. I do the same thing as a parent when we take the time on Friday night to bless our children and let them know how proud we are of something they’ve accomplished that week (even if it’s just sleeping through the night). This is common from teacher to student and parent to child, but for some reason we’re more hesitant to offer praise adult to adult, although it can certainly make a difference when we do.

The double portion we read this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei (the final portions in Sefer Shemot), teaches about the work of building the Tabernacle. Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite people in their journey from Egypt, is given enormous responsibility. He is asked not only to lead the people and be the emissary between the people and God, but also to oversee the accounting of the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.

As the Israelites work on the building of the Tabernacle, there’s a noticeable contrast between this construction for the greater good and the self-serving construction of the Golden Calf. They’re still in the desert and living through this transient time in history, yet they learn to give of themselves freely to create something with a higher purpose. As they build, Moshe takes note according to God’s command.

Chapter 39, verse 43 reveals, “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.” In this moment when the Israelites had followed the directions, putting their hearts and souls into the creation of this magnificent project, Moshe rewards them with proper praise. The midrash teaches that perhaps Moshe shared, “May it be God’s will that the divine presence rest upon the work of your hands.” What a beautiful blessing.

The lesson in this small section of the parshah isn’t just that we should go around congratulating each other. The lesson is that people make mistakes, and they can learn from them. It’s ok to let people know when they’ve mistreated you or crossed a line as long as you recognize that they can change.

Mirror, Mirror – Parshat Ki Tissa 5777

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I have a love/hate relationship with the mirrors in my house. On the one hand, they serve a helpful purpose, making sure I leave the house looking presentable. No food in my teeth? Check! On the other hand, sometimes all they do is mock me, inviting me to nitpick at my self-perceived imperfections. As a mom of two, I have become extra aware of my obsession with my image, and I work desperately to only model positive self-reflection. However, occasionally I simply can’t help allowing that reflection to be a source of sadness and frustration when the image looking back at me isn’t what I imagined or hoped.

When I think of mirrors, I think of fashion and modern living, but mirrors actually played an essential role not only in the Torah, but in the very existence of Judaism today. This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa, a turning point in the narrative of the Israelite people. We read of the initial census taken after leaving Egypt and of Moshe on top of Mount Sinai. The text contrasts the failures of the Israelites (building the Golden Calf) and the creativity and craftsmanship of the building of the Mishkan by Betzalel and Ohilev. This section of the narrative ends with Moshe descending the mountain as rays of light radiate off of him. Central to the narrative are the materials used to build the Mishkan.

In chapter 30, verse 18 of the Book of Exodus we read, “Make a basin of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar.” The introduction of copper into the list of construction materials certainly raises the question where did this copper in the middle of the desert come from? According to tradition, these items were fashioned from the bronze mirrors used by the Israelite women in Egypt to make themselves attractive to their husbands. Maybe this comes as no surprise, but it’s interesting to realize that even in the Torah physical attractiveness was essential to intimate relationships.

At first Moshe was upset at the notion of symbols of vanity being used for this purpose; after all, holy spaces should be built on inner strength and dedication instead of a superficial understanding of beauty. But God reminds him that without this “vanity” the Israelite nation never would have flourished.

Parshat Ki Tissa suggests we can achieve a healthy balance in our self-obsession. Inner beauty is our true nature, yet outer beauty in the eyes of a soul mate or even a lifelong friend is often what first attracts us to one another. Even in the midst of Pharaoh’s oppression, the Israelites were able to find the beauty in themselves as a way to persevere. We might not see what we consider perfection every time we look in the mirror, but perhaps we can learn, as Moshe learned from God, to see beyond what is immediately in front of us and look to the future ahead.

Dog Only Knows – Parshat Tetzaveh 5777

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Is God easily startled? It sounds like an odd question until you examine this week’s Torah portion. In describing the clothes the priests are to wear, the Torah says, “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out, that he may not die.” Is Aaron supposed to tie a bell or some sort of collar around himself to announce his presence? Certainly there is great value in knowing what’s coming, who’s coming, and when they’re coming.

If in fact God wishes not to be startled, I can sympathize. I startle very easily. I tend to zone out extraneous noises, usually because I end up so focused on whatever I’m doing. However, that means that I could be so intently working on a project that I miss the sound of someone walking into the room, and suddenly I jump because there’s someone behind me. At these jumpy moments, my heart startles and races, my adrenaline is pumping, and it takes me a good few minutes to calm back down. And no matter how often this happens (or how often I remind the rest of my family I startle easily) someone or something still manages to get me at least once a week. The only one in our house that doesn’t need to announce himself is our dog Stanley. The tags on his collar jingle so loudly that I can hear him coming from the other end of the house.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are designated to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God also gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. Aside from these verses on apparel, the remainder of the parshah is mostly centered around the role of the priest.

But of course to me the most interesting thing we learn from this section is that it’s forbidden to enter a room without first announcing your presence. Sometimes we suggest, in a variety of circumstances, that “half the battle is showing up.” Well in this case, along with the notion of respect that comes from announcing yourself, the Torah teaches us that showing up is pretty darn important. Both you and the person you are meeting should be equally aware of the encounter about to happen, and each “meeting” we have is also an opportunity to encounter the divine. Affording our interactions this extra level of formality is another way the Torah lifts up the mundane and helps us find meaning in everything we do.

Dressy Casual – Parshat Terumah 5777

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I try to dress with versatility in mind. What I mean by this is I like to choose outfits that can go from casual to dressy and anywhere in between. Knowing that my workdays start on the floor with preschoolers and also include learning with senior citizens and teenagers at various times throughout the day, I need to have an outfit that can change and move with me. Luckily the fashion industry has embraced this trend with reversible sweaters, dresses that look great with boots or heals, and shiny accents to take you from daytime to a night out. Versatility means being able to roll with the punches, adapting to new situations as they come.

One of the reasons I’m passionate about and dedicated to Conservative Judaism is the versatility in a tradition that allows me to engage with my past and present together. Our Torah is filled with laws that were meant to govern a certain society, yet we can still see our current world within its words, whether they talk about how to treat each other or the environment.

This week we read Parshat Terumah, which focuses mainly on the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) including what the Ark and decorative pieces will look like. The instructions are specific in terms of what materials should be used, exactly how big each piece should be, and how the floor plan should look when the building is completed.

It’s worth noting the durability and flexibility of the materials that are called for. The Ark that is fashioned in this week’s portion is made of both gold and wood. Gold is beautiful, durable, and precious and can symbolize the unending value and beauty of the commandments that it will hold. Wood is from a living, growing source, which tells us of the importance of God’s revelation, which continues to grow with the times. The Torah is both versatile and valuable, and its clothing reflects that.

The main reason I write these d’vrei Torah is because the lessons of trust, honesty, compassion, and bravery are timeless. We are blessed with a tradition that is beautiful in its antiquity and that still manages to change and grow with us as our world evolves.

To the Best of My Ability – Parshat Mishpatim 5777

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My whole life people have thought of me as a “hard worker.” I’m generally the kind of person who shows up early, gets the work done ahead of time, and is on the next project. It sounds like a helpful trait to possess, and for the most part it is. However, it often means that I end up taking on quite a bit because I have the organizational skills to manage tasks and the drive to complete them in a timely fashion. This wasn’t an issue before I had children. Before Shiri was born, it meant I would work 15-hour days, come home, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. A 70-hour workweek? No sweat! Unfortunately, what ended up happening was that eventually this breakneck pace left me tired, overworked, and resentful. It’s not easy learning how to set clear boundaries, and even though I have different limits these days, it’s still something I struggle with.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, entails laws of labor. We learn about the laws for having a Hebrew slave and maidservant and the laws of what to do with a murderer or one who injures others. The text continues with the various damages that other people might have claims against, the ways in which we work together to protect ourselves, and some laws about marriage. The text ends with the commandments regarding sacred times and spaces and the notion that we need to set aside time and space for sacred reflection.

At a time in our history when there’s a great deal of focus on minimum wage, unionization, who is eligible to work, and workers’ rights, it’s interesting to examine what the Torah’s laws have to say regarding the rights of workers.

At the beginning of the parshah we learn about the different ways one might acquire a worker. Specifically, we learn that the status in which one comes into his job (single, married, parent) is also the manner in which he should leave. In other words, someone who comes in single should be allowed to remain single. Interestingly, the word for single that the text uses is b’gapo, which literally means unmarried, but can be loosely interpreted as vigorous. If the slave was strong and able-bodied when he came to work, he was to be worked an appropriate amount so that he was still as vigorous when he left.

I think we can relate this idea well beyond the archaic practice of slave labor, meaning we’re not to work ourselves to the bone. The Torah reminds us that we must be aware of the breaking points of others and of ourselves. If you see a coworker struggling to keep up, you have an obligation to step up and offer help. If you find yourself overtired or overworked, take a step back to reexamine your own boundaries. It’s important to realize that when our abilities change, our goals and the ways we challenge ourselves can too.