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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
by Lana Blinderman
Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.
I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.
As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t’reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.
The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”
Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
How are we supposed to lead?
There are many different types of leaders in the world. People have different styles and different motivations for their leadership. The things I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t tell us that there is one right way. Some people like to lead from the front, and create a following. Some lead from the top and tell the people below the way to go. And then some lead from within the group.
In the book of Exodus we have these three different leadership models. Miriam who leads from the front and has the people follow her example. Moses who leads from the mountain and has the people listen, and Aaron who lives among the people and attempts to solve their disputes and appease them when they are upset.
When Aaron is appointed the high priest over all of Israel, Moses is told, “Draw near to you Aaron you brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel that he may minister to me in the priests office” (Exodus 28:1). We learn something about the third type of leader from this text, the one who leads from within the people.
Why is Moses told to bring Aaron and his sons to become the priests from among the people of Israel?
According to Benei Yisachar, an eighteenth century Chasidic commentator, “the leader of a nation must not be above the people but close to them, within them”. In other words, unlike Moses and Miriam, Aaron was a leader not by standing in front of the people, or by standing above them, but rather his leadership style was to stand among the people.
This leadership style, because it’s not flashy and in some ways requires more patience, work and individual attention, often is overlooked. According to another commentary, the Mei Otzar Ha Torah, “the priest needed to be from among the people, involved with them and know their weaknesses and faults.” When you lead like Miriam and you lead like Moses it becomes a lot tougher to know the faults and weaknesses of your followers. Because Aaron was chosen to lead among the people he was in a unique position as a leader because he was able to know who they were.
There are many ways to lead and our tradition shows us three great examples all in the book of Exodus. However, for me, I take something special from Aaron. While leading from the front or leading up front might get the job done in the short term, in order to create something sustainable, a great leader is most able to effect change and teach the people when they are among them and not above them or ahead of them.
This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, opens with the command to Moses: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” Gifts of finery, for the construction of the tabernacle, were to be brought by everyone in the community through a then-unique system. As opposed to a uniform contribution requirement, placing an outsized burden upon the disadvantaged members of society, everyone was required to invest their heart as well as their “dollars.”
The tabernacle, the most sacred site in the early Israelite religion, demanded more than financial contribution. By asking individuals to invest to their hearts in the service of God, the construction of the tabernacle thus became a community building project in addition to a physical construction project.
Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer