Saturday, February 26, 2022

Portion Pekudey: From Servitude to Service

Superficially, Exodus ends much as it begins, with the Israelites collectively toiling to build a magnificent structure at someone else’s behest.  At the start, we are slaves, constructing garrison cities for Pharaoh.  As the book concludes, with this week’s portion, Pekude, we work to build the mishkan, a portable sanctuary for the God who liberated us.

This shift happens in less than six months.  What difference does that time make?  What is the distinction between being a slave to Pharaoh and a servant of God?  What is the point of the Exodus journey if we end up laboring in the construction business either way?

Rabbi Shai Held notes: “As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites work without respite against their will.  When they build the mishkan in this week's parashah, in stark contrast, Moses asks for voluntary contributions.  Finally freed from slavery, the Israelites are slowly being taught that there is a form of service radically different from slavery, one that honors and nurtures one's sense of agency rather than degrading it and whittling it away.”

What differentiates divine service from slavery?  Mostly, Shabbat. It is no coincidence that when Moses lays out instructions for how to build the tabernacle, he begins with Shabbat: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest holy to the Lord..." (35:2).  In Torah, both meaningful work and restorative rest are each made holy by the presence and possibility of the other.  Without rest, even the holiest labor eventually becomes drudgery.  And without significant work, even sacred rest settles into boredom.  Just as in music, we need both notes and rests to create a beautiful score, a well-lived life is defined by both purposeful labor and the regular pauses that differentiate service from servitude.

As we conclude Exodus and begin the book of Leviticus next week, let us mark the passage with the words of our tradition for just this occasion: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Conversation Question:  

How is your balance of work and rest, of sacred labor and holy renewal?  What might you consider adjusting this week?

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Portion Vayakhel: The Restorative Power of Shabbat

The bulk of this week’s Torah portion elaborates on the theme that dominates the last third of the book of Exodus—the building of the portable sanctuary, with its vessels and vestments.  Yet before it takes a deep dive into the details of this ancient construction project, Vayakhel opens with an injunction to observe Shabbat: On six days, work may be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal One.

Why does a portion so focused on sacred labor begin with a reminder to rest?

Torah recognizes that it is all too easy to get so caught up in our work that we lose perspective on what really matters most—family, friends, relationships.  If the Holy One tells us to rest even in the midst of building a dwelling place for the Divine, all the more so should this apply in our ordinary occupations and projects.  If God’s designated architect, Bezalel can take a break, surely so can most of us.

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein writes beautifully about the importance of Shabbat in our frantically-paced world, so full of distractions: 

There’s an amazing passage in the Talmud that says when we rush around during the week, we lose part of our eyesight, which is then restored on Friday night when we gaze at the Shabbat candles.  Obviously, it’s not that our physical eyesight is impaired then restored.  It’s that when we slow things down, we can see more clearly, we have more perspective on our lives, we notice the people around us, and we are able to truly connect to them in the most profound way.  We also reconnect with ourselves. . . The beauty of Shabbat is that it allows us to savor life’s basic pleasures; the simple joys of hearty eating and sound sleeping, of nice clothes and good company, of walking and talking and connecting. We can only fully appreciate these when we slow things down.

Conversation Question:   This coming Shabbat, choose one small thing that you can do to more fully celebrate the day as one of rest and renewal.  Try it.  How does it feel?

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Portion Tetzaveh: When the Heart Delights--For Others and Ourselves

Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a remembrance of the Holy One at all times.   (Exodus 28:29)

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, offers a detailed description of the garments worn by Aaron, his sons, and their descendants, the priestly class known as cohanim.  Among those vestments, much attention is devoted to the breastplate, an elaborate ornament bearing twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  While the breastplate is no longer worn by Jewish leaders, it prominently adorns our Torah scrolls.  

Why does Torah specify that High Priest wear this garment over his heart?  

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai connects this commandment with another passage that refers significantly to Aaron’s heart.  He notes that when God first calls Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses responds by asking that his brother, Aaron, stand by his side as his spokesperson.  God grants this request and tells Moses: Now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy in his heart to see you.

Weaving these two passages together, Shimon bar Yochai teaches: The heart that was happy for his brother’s important role, will ultimately be happy in his own role as the priest bearing the breastplate.

In other words, a significant step toward finding meaning and happiness in our own lives entails learning to rejoice in the gifts and accomplishments of others, especially those dearest to us.  Because Aaron generously celebrates Moses’s leadership, he is able to thrive in his own.

Conversation Question:  This week, focus on rejoicing in the gifts of those around you—and reflect on how this practice helps you to be more generous and comfortable sharing yours.