Monthly Archives: February 2019

It’s About Values, Not Buildings

The Israelites are commanded to bring all sorts of materials – gifts of their hearts – to build the Tabernacle. They bring gold, silver, and linens, even animal skins. Our rabbis clarify that, just in case you were concerned where they were getting these materials from, there was plenty of wealth from what they took with them when they left Egypt. And Shemot Rabbah even explains that for the righteous, when manna fell from the heavens, it also rained down precious stones, gems, and rubies for them.

But what is most challenging to make sense of is not the precious stones or gold or silver. It’s not even the crimson yarn, or the tachash, the skin of a dolphin – or even a mystical creature that no longer exists as one Talmudic section suggests. What doesn’t make sense to me is all the acacia wood, the atzei Shittim, that was needed to build the Mishkan.

Most suggest that acacia wood is native to Australia and southeast Asia. So how did the Israelites get their hands on it? Truthfully, how did they get their hands on any wood in the midbar, in the desert? They were not wandering through the rain forest. They were in the desert, without the shade that trees create. So where did all this wood come from?

Breishit Rabbah says that when Jacob was on his way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision that the Israelites would need acacia wood to build the Tabernacle. He stopped in Beer Sheva, to pick up plants that Abraham had planted long ago and brought them with him to Egypt to replant them, so the Israelites could take the acacia wood with them when they left Egypt.

I think we are overthinking this though, because we will never be able to explain all the wood the Israelites had in the wilderness. Maybe Atzei Shittim isn’t a special type of wood at all. Midrash suggests that the Hebrew word Shitim, is actually an acronym. The Hebrew letters of this word, Shin, Tet, Yud, and Mem, represent Shalom (peace), Tova (goodness), Yeshua (redemption), and Mechila (forgiveness). It is not that we needed to build the Tabernacle with these specific materials, but instead we needed to build it with these values: peace, goodness, redemption, and forgiveness.

StaindedGlassCeilingI often think about the magnificent spaces that we pray in, that we make our houses of worship. How lucky we are to take these holy spaces and create holy community within them. But we must be reminded that holy community can exist no matter the space we are in. And just because we are in holy space, that does not mean we create holy community. Midrash is suggesting that for God to reside in any space, within the Tabernacle or our own sanctuaries, our communities need to be built on our values and ideals. Cavernous gorgeous spaces will remain empty, no matter how packed the pews are, if they are devoid of the values that we hold dear. May we also never forget that ultimately, it is our values that guide us, not our buildings.

No matter the infrastructural challenges that any building faces, challenges with heating or cooling, or even a leaky roof, the building does not make holy community. We make holy community. The book of Exodus ends with God filling up the space of the Tabernacle. God didn’t do this because the building was finally complete. Rather, God did so because the community was finally living up to the values it was supposed to. A building must be based on how we treat each other, and what we stand for. May our builds always be rooted in the values we stand for – and that is what matters most about them.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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If We Forget That, Then Nothing Else Matters

Appropriately named, Parashat Mishpatim is filled with laws. Immediately after revelation at Sinai, this Torah portion is filled with all the laws that make up this covenant that the Israelites just entered with God. In the middle of all these Mishpatim, all these laws, about slaves and servants, about damages, sorceresses, and worshipping false Gods, we are simply told:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt (Ex. 22:20).

Literally, moments ago. In case the Israelites forgot, two parshiot ago, they were just freed from slavery. Seven chapters ago, they crossed a split sea to freedom.  But how quickly we forget that we too were strangers in a strange land. And then the Torah continues:

And Every widow and orphan you shall not mistreat (Ex.22:21).

The Mekhilta stipulates that one should not even mistreat them in the smallest or slightest way. These three are linked together in the middle of all these otherwise odd laws: do not mistreat the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Do not mistreat those who biblical society deemed to be the most vulnerable among us. Shemot Rabbah concludes that what caused the destruction of Jerusalem was when judges perverted the judgement of widows and orphans, when we no longer sought to be kind and compassionate towards the most vulnerable. Jersualem was destroyed when we took advantage of the most vulnerable. The Malbim even adds that the prohibition against oppressing orphans and widows is not meant to be specific towards orphans and widows. Rather, it is an example of a general rule that it is forbidden to take advantage of any person who is vulnerable and in a state of helplessness.

This is smack in the middle of all these laws. How often do we focus on the intricacies of ritual, or making sure we stick to the letter of the law, and how often do we ignore the divine mandate to look out for those most vulnerable? How often do we make sure we are loudly pronouncing each letter of the Torah chanted correctly, but refuse to speak up for the voiceless? How often do we make sure that our animals are slaughtered precisely, but ignore those who are food insecure?

We live in a society of haves and have-nots. And if we are so lucky to be part of the haves instead of the have nots, how often do we ignore the plight of the have-nots. Even though we all once were in a state of vulnerability. We too were strangers in a strange land. Too many speak about what it means to be a person of faith, and ignore how our faith commands us to treat other people. These commands are in the middle of these laws, in the middle of this Torah portion, because they are meant to buttress all the laws are them. They are the basis for everything. If we neglect the most vulnerable among us, then nothing else matters. If we ignore the struggle of those made in God’s divine image, then we are failing in our covenant with God.

New Jersey’s junior senator, Senator Cory Booker, is often quoted as saying:

“Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people. Don’t tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all God’s children. Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.“

Among all these laws, laws that we struggle with, laws that we still follow every day, laws that no longer make sense in the society we are living in, let us not forget the law to take care of the most vulnerable around us. If we forget that, then nothing else matters.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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