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Archive for February, 2014

If nothing else, the Torah teaches that the moment we think something is complete, our work is really just beginning.  That paradigm is present in the very beginning of Genesis, after the work of creation is described in chapter 1, chapter 2 begins with the words, vayachulu hashamayim v’ha’aretz.  We usually translate this as, “the heavens and the earth were completed.”  But, as Hebrew grammarians know, the verb form is in the future tense with a conversive letter vav in front that converts the word from future to past.  So we could translate the phrase as “and the heavens and the earth WILL be completed.”  The implication being that we will complete the work God began at some point in the future.  More than an implication, much of Jewish tradition poses that as human responsibility.

One aspect of that completion occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Pikudei.  Under Moses’ direction, the Israelites complete the work on the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will rest in the center of their camp in which God’s presence settles.  Indeed, the very end of the Torah portion, the closing in fact, to the whole Book of Exodus, is the settling of God’s presence into the completed mishkan.  This is a powerful moment, one which punctuates what I see as the theme for the entire Book of Exodus – the process by which a distant, disconnected God, becomes the center for the community.

Yes, Exodus is the story of an enslaved people gaining freedom and then responsibility.  But think of the relationship between the Israelites and God, and how it progresses throughout the book.  The first two chapters are devoted to the plight of the Children of Israel in Egypt.  It is only at the end of the 2nd chapter that God even takes notice of them.  A hero/leader (Moses) is selected by God, in a distant location.  For most of Exodus, communication between Moses and God is on a mountain top, eventually within sight of the people, but decidedly separate from the community.  The first attempt to place God in the center is misguided, even idolatrous.  The episode of the Golden Calf is highlighted by violence, failed leadership, and the narcissism of the worship (the Hebrew word letzachek which describes the worship carries connotations of immoral sexual behavior).  The creating of the Golden Calf is born out of fear.  Everything about it is wrong and goes wrong.

The completion of the mishkan in this week’s Torah portion is the community’s remedy to the false start of the Golden Calf.  The contributions are not violently taken, they are freely offered from the heart.  Further, it is not just material contributions, but contributions of artistry and skill as well.  Leaders for the project are put forth to the people for their endorsement.  Ba’al Haturim comments that leaders cannot function without the consent of the community.  It is well organized communal work, with a purpose – to construct a place that is fitting for the presence of God in the absolute center of the community.   As the work is completed, Moses blesses them.  At this point midrash detects connections to creation.

Moses’ blessing over the people is seen as a parallel to God’s blessing over the first humans per Genesis1:28.  God blesses them and tells them to fill the earth – God’s creation.  After Moses’ blessing God will fill the people’s creation – the mishkan, in a wonderful piece of circularity that teaches us something about the interconnection of the human and the divine.  This moment gives the rabbinic sages a chance to ask another question about the first chapter in Genesis, that details the week of creation.

The description of the first day ends with vayahi erev, vayahi boker, yom echad, “there was evening, there was morning, day one.”  The use of the Hebrew echad, one, is different from the words used for the other days of creation.  The rest of the days end with a number adjective, such as “second,” “third,” etc.  Why does Torah use the number “one” instead of saying “a first day?”  One answer provided by midrash is that the word rishon or “first” is reserved for the first day of the new relationship between God and the children of Israel – the day in which their work is completed so that God can be present within the community.  Now comes the complication.

Just as the beginning of Genesis tells us that the work of creation will be completed, so too does the work of maintaining God’s presence within the community need to be completed.  Yes, the stage of the physical labor, of building the sanctuary is complete.  However, the history of Israel, the history of Jews, is one in which we are constantly laboring, with moments of success and moments of failure, to keep God’s presence in our community.  We can never stop the work of keeping God present in our center.  It is hard work to prevent God from becoming distant, disconnected.  The end of one kind of work only leads to the beginning of the next round of necessary work.  And this kind of work is not about building projects, but infusing the divine qualities of morality and justice into our communities.

Which brings me to the needed work of the moment.  The state of Florida, much like North Carolina, has taken a hard right turn that is to the detriment of underserved populations.  The most outrageous is the limiting of voter rights by attempts to purge voter roles of supposedly illegitimate voters.  The targets of these purges are overwhelmingly minorities, and pretty much every case has been dismissed.  These voters are proven to be legitimate.  Florida, like North Carolina is focusing on a statistically nonexistent issue (voter fraud) that feels very much like an attempt to limit minority voting.  Florida, like North Carolina, is failing in its attempts to educate its students.  The result is the tragic school to prison pipeline that is bolstered by the prison system (both private and state run prisons).  In addition, Florida has a real problem with gun violence resulting from rage, as recent cases in Jacksonville and Tampa illustrate.  Finally, Florida, like North Carolina, refuses to use available federal funds for Medicaid which would extend coverage to thousands of underserved Florida families.

The Moral Monday movement started in North Carolina.  It brings together religious leaders to advocate for solutions to the above problems.  On Monday, March 3, Moral Monday will come to Florida as we gather at the capital to express our concern on these issues.  Not everyone there will agree on all of the solutions proposed.  But we are united by our recognition that these problems are real, and must be addressed.  We are once again trying to build a mishkan, a space for God’s presence to dwell.  But instead of building a physical structure, we hope to create a communal structure of morality and justice that will foster the presence of divinity at the center of our community.

Please join me between 10 AM and 2 PM, Monday, March 3 at the Florida capital in Tallahassee, as we begin our work anew.

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            The birth of a child (or in my case last Saturday a grandchild) is a sobering moment, an event that spurs reflection and even, perhaps, a bit of revelation.  My granddaughter, Libby Mae, was born last Shabbat morning.  I got word of her arrival just before Shabbat morning services.  By mid morning Sunday we were in the hospital meeting her.  First impression – she looks a lot like our older granddaughter Amelia did as a baby.  Indeed, all three grandchildren share brown eyes, similar eyes, nose and mouth, and full heads of hair as newborns.  Same parentage seems to get similar results.  But as we spent the week with her, perhaps not really.

Already I can see significant differences in Libby, now only 6 days old, and her older siblings – even in personality.  There is no doubt about her relationship to them, but there is also no doubt that she is going to be her own, very individual person.  She will be nobody’s clone, unlike any other child.  She will be one of a kind and cannot be counted.

What do I mean by that?  Well, even though I am officially “off duty” from my congregation this week (on new grandparent duty), I know that this week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa.  It begins with the call for a census of the children of Israel.  That process in Hebrew is described as tisa et rosh, a lifting of the head.  Each person being counted is given a half shekel, which in turn is given as an offering to God at the central sanctuary.  Then the half shekels are counted.  It is my teacher from HUC, Dr. Michael Chernick, who taught us that this was a way of recognizing that individual souls are different and cannot be counted.  Counting, i.e. numbering, can only be of objects, not of people.  He went on to say that the reason the tattooing of numbers on Jews at the concentration camps was so utterly debasing, is that it reduced them to things, as opposed to recognizing each as an individual.  Jewish tradition respects the individuality of each person.  Each child, each person, is one of a kind and cannot be counted.

In this way, at least according to classical Jewish mysticism, we are b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  For God is described in texts by kabbalists such as Luria and Cordevero as “one that cannot be counted.”  Now we add to this the description of the process of the census as “the lifting of the head.”  The process of conducting the census should not just be a way to arrive at a number of people, but to do so in a way that elevates their individuality.  The Jewish lesson is simple and clear:  people are not commodities.

Which now brings me to a wider observation.  Despite a lot of professions of concern for the individual, or for individual rights, by any part of the political spectrum, the resulting rhetoric is often a reduction of individuals to statistics – a demeaning of the individual.  For example, candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” remark is a reflection of the wider oft stated conservative view (particularly on cable news and talk radio) that the country is divided into makers and takers.  This ignores the individual circumstances that lead any individual to “take” advantage of government support.  They include, those who actually are “takers,” hard working poor in jobs that do not pay enough to support their families, farmers taking government subsidies, rich corporations receiving special tax credits, single parents trying to get an education to lift themselves up while supporting a child, and many, many more individual stories.  We can agree or disagree with any of these stories, but to categorize large groups by statistics, while useful for understanding the makeup of a population, cannot be a basis for making moral judgments on ANY of the individuals involved.

The left is culpable as well, by making judgments on those who make up the “one percent” as greedy, narcissistic power grabbers.  While there are some who might be, each person has an individual story, many of them inspiring, some disturbing.  My point is that by characterizing an individual by the statistical group they fall into we are failing to honor and respect individuals.  Torah asserts, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion as well as many other times (see parashot Kiddoshim and Shoftim as examples) that one should not show deference to either the rich or the poor.  People, regardless of where they fall on the statistical economic scale, are worthy of respect for their individuality.

What makes Ki Tisa a particularly poignant Torah portion, from my perspective, is that it begins with a way to carefully respect individual souls while undergoing a statistical measurement.  Following that is an example of what happens when individuals fail to think for themselves and take on a mob mentality – idolatry results (the worship of the Golden Calf) with disastrous results for the community.

There are many steps that need to be taken in order to create individuals who feel respected, but not entitled.  Proper education, access to well compensated jobs, a reduction of the rhetoric of hatred spewed by cable TV and talk radio – to name just a few.  But it all begins with how we view that new child.  So I say, each child is one that cannot be counted.

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