Archive for January, 2014

Terumah: Build It and Use It!

Copyright 2014  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Terumah 
Then set up the Mishkan according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain. . . (Shmot/Exodus 26:30)
“After you finish it [the Mishkan] then set it up.” {Rashi}
This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is mostly a set of instructions and descriptions for building the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary where offerings were made and the Divine Presence dwelt. The Mishkan is boards, sockets, gold implements, fabric, leather and many other fine materials, all assembled into a portable structure designed to be taken apart and carried from location to location. 
Right in the middle of the instructions for the outer structure- the planks and sockets and such- is the verse above, reminding Moshe to set up the Mishkan as he was shown on the mountain. This raises many questions about when, exactly, Moshe was shown the illustrations or images which would give him a clearer idea of the design and assembly of the Mishkan, but Rashi has the answer, above, to an even simpler question:  why tell Moshe to “set up” or “put up” the Mishkan if there have been verses and verses about how to build it? Isn’t it obvious that the whole point of building it is to put it up and use it? 

Well, as we can see from Rashi’s comment above, he thinks our verse does teach a distinction between building and setting up the Mishkan, and from a purely formal view, of course he’s right. One could assemble all the pieces of any large project and then fail to put them all together, which might still be a technical fulfillment of a command to build the various pieces. Yes this is  sort of silly- of course Moshe knew that the point was not to build a bunch of pieces but a unified structure. 
So what’s the point of Rashi’s comment? Perhaps simply to remind us, the readers, that leaving final steps untaken is a ubiquitous aspect of human life. How many of us have achieved great insights through study or reflection- and then failed to take practical steps to implement them? How many of us have made glorious plans which never reach fruition? Yet I ask these questions not for condemnation but rather to evoke compassion, for the simple reason that “putting all the pieces together” of any new thing can be a great source of anxiety.
 After all, once Moshe finished the Mishkan he and the Israelites would have to embrace a whole new way of encountering the Divine Presence, and what could require more courage and openness than experiencing the Sacred in the very midst of the people? Change is hard; it is only human to avoid it. It’s poignant to think that even Moshe needed encouragement to take these changes as to their conclusion. 
“After you finish it, then set it up”- Rashi’s comment isn’t really about the Mishkanas a set of planks and boards, but about the Mishkan as a new way of being in and experiencing the world.  We have to build, and we have to make what we’ve built into a creative reality.  That was true for Moshe, and it’s true for us. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Mishpatim: Learning the Ways of Kindness

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”  (Shemot/ Exodus 23:5)

Shalom to one and all!

I have been out on family leave due to the arrival of new baby Goldschmidt (name to be announced soon) in early December. I’m glad to be back now with a little tidbit of Torah commentary for this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which by its very name suggests that the major theme is laws for a just society. (Mishpat is a just law; a shofet is a judge, same root.)

Yet the verse above is hard to justify in terms of setting out the rules for a fair society- why should I care if somebody else’s animal is struggling? Do I really have a positive duty to help anybody with this sort of problem? There might be no end to it!

That makes sense from the perspective of American law, which is often concerned with rights and liberty (but not enough, I’d say). Jewish law, on the other hands, is often more concerned with our obligations towards others than our right to be left alone, and in this case, the law is very specifically aimed at improving the moral character of those who would obey it. Note that the law specifies seeing the animal of your “enemy,” and yet you must help him. (We might also note that you’re helping the animal be more comfortable too, and surely the donkey doesn’t have a share in your conflict with its owner!)

Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, suggests that the reason for the law is to “train our souls in the way of kindness.” This is very profound: we might not ever decide, without the nudging of a mitzvah, to help another on the street (even more so someone we don’t like) but doing the action changes us from within. It isn’t always kindness that brings about the action- it is the action that brings about kindness, for when we see even our enemy as another person, struggling with their animals and work and responsibilities and hassles just as we do, how can we fail to soften our souls and become more compassionate? Yet we would never see them in their full humanity without the intimate encounter of rendering assistance. By pushing us to interact with people right where they are, we learn to be people of mercy, for we may see even our enemy as a full human being, created in the Divine Image, and as deserving of love as ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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