Saturday, February 5, 2011

Being There (Portion Tetzaveh)

Long before rabbis, the leading figures in Jewish life were the cohanim—members of the priestly class descended from Aaron. They were responsible for offering up sacrifices on behalf of all the Israelites, first in the portable sanctuary that we carried on our journey through the wilderness, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

This week’s portion, Tetzaveh, presents a job description for the cohanim. It describes their assigned tasks, their special garments, and the design of the tabernacle in which they will serve. It is, therefore, filled with intricate and sometimes (at least for us) esoteric details and lists: pure pounded gold, aromatic incense, yearling lambs, ritual libations, fringed tunics, fine linen, olive oil for lighting, and lots and lots of cubits.

Interestingly, after taking note of all these concrete measurements and materials, the Rabbis of the Talmud veer off and pose a curious theoretical question: If a priest’s body is inside the tabernacle but his head remains outside, is he considered to have entered the sanctuary, and may he perform his priestly service? (Zevachim 26a)

What conditions might create such a scenario? Why would a priest take up his sacred work with his head still poking out the tent flaps? Might he be gazing at something unrelated to his priestly service, perhaps checking out the weather, or the goings-on in the camp?

Surely this not so hard for us inveterate multi-taskers to imagine. I long for the all too rare occasions when my head and my body are, metaphorically speaking, in the same “space.” We check our calendars, text on our cell phones, and type on our keyboards at the same time—all in the course of meetings or meals or classes (or, God help us, driving).

Yet the Talmud warns against this compulsion to take on too many things at once. It rules: unless the priest is totally within the tent, he does not fulfill his duty. In other words, our Sages teach: you have to have your head in the game, to do your job with proper intention and concentration. Any serious task worth doing is worth doing well.

The contemporary Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn echoes this advice in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He suggests: “At multiple times during the day, just stop whatever you are doing and ask: “Am I awake now?” After all, the present moment is, really, all we ever possess.

God says very much the same thing to Moses. In calling him to receive the Torah, God commands, “Ascend to the mountain, and BE THERE—v’heyey sham.” Well, duh. If Moses climbs the mountain, where else would he be? As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, God is essentially asking Moses to be there not just in body, but with all of his mind and heart and soul, in full attentive awareness.. In other words, as he sits on the mountain listening for God’s Voice, Moses must, metaphorically speaking, keep his head inside the tent.

Although the priestly service ended long ago, God still dwells in our midst, everywhere and always. But if we are constantly preoccupied with our telephones and i-pods and laptops, scrambling from task to task to task, we experience nothing.

This week try, like Moses, to heed God’s word: “V’Heyey Sham—Be there.”

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