Thursday, March 22, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5778–After You, G”d.

I’ve got problem with the haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol – Malachi 3:4-24. In previous musings on this haftarah I’ve held it up as an example of G”d’s infinite patience and forgiveness. I talked about how the charges that G”d levels at the Jewish people and could easily be made today. I’ve also talked, in more than one musing, about how the haftarah’s focus on a future redemption might only serve to increase our present apathy – that we need to focus on the here and now, do as the ha lakhma anya suggests and open our doors to those who are hungry in the here and now. They should not have to wait for Elijah and the coming messianic age.

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָֽלוּ אַבְהָתָֽנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָֽיִם. כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל, כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

Ha lakhma anya di achalu avhatana b'ara d'mitzrayim. Kol dichfin yeitei v'yeichol, kol ditzrich yeitei v'yifsach.

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and partake of our Paschal offering.

I’ve spoken of how family gatherings around Pesach can be stressful, and we ought perhaps not wait for Eliyahu to come and turn the hearts of parents and children to each other – and make it happen ourselves.

This week, as I was reviewing the haftarah, I had a sudden, strong feeling about it that I’ve not never quite felt before. I’ve tried to make a note for myself to describe what I was feeling, and wrote this:

The price of the triumph of the righteous over the wicked is a G"d who destroys evil. But G"d will turn the hearts of parents to children and children to parents so that we won't have to be wiped out. The evil won’t be around to witness that largesse, will they? Hmmmmm.

I’m not happy with the price for the triumph of righteousness. It’s too high. It’s the ten plagues and needless suffering of the Egyptians when G”d hardened Pharaoh’s heart all over again. Why does the price of the triumph of righteousness always seem to require the death and suffering of the the wicked and evil? Where is the forgiveness here? Where is the chance for repentance?

G”d will remember those who have been righteous and faithful. The rest of you – well, it’s not pretty. You’ll be burnt to ashes. You won’t be around to have your hearts and the hearts of your children reconciled.

Where is the line, G”d? How is it determined just how righteous and just how wicked someone has been? Is it truly possible that there are more than a mere handful of those who have always been truly righteous all of the time?

I’m not buying it. Wedding out and destroying the wicked is the lazy way out. Not to mention, G”d, if people are really saying things like:

אֲמַרְתֶּ֕ם שָׁ֖וְא עֲבֹ֣ד אֱלֹהִ֑ים וּמַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י שָׁמַ֙רְנוּ֙ מִשְׁמַרְתּ֔וֹ וְכִ֤י הָלַ֙כְנוּ֙ קְדֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית מִפְּנֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃

You have said, “It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping His charge and walking in abject awe of the LORD of Hosts?

maybe, just maybe, G”d you need to examine your end of things, and consider what You might have done to bring about this sorry state of circumstances.  If people are practicing sorcery, committing adultery, swearing falsely, cheating laborers of their hire, and are subverting  the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger, it seems like a major systemic breakdown. You’re going to blame that entirely on humanity? You setup the system. Do You bear no responsibility?

How many people are committing all these offenses simultaneously? Might not one who is failing to tithe properly still be fulfilling their obligation  to the poor, widow,and orphan? Might no less be true for the adulterer, the sorcerer, the cheater, the liar? Are those who are doing this evil things only doing evil? Are they evil 24/7? What if they’re evil only 24/6?

Abraham maybe didn’t go far enough with his asking G”d if the innocent would be swept away with the wicked. Maybe he needed to ask: will you sweep away even the least transgressor?

I’ll admit that maybe my viewpoint is naïve and simplistic.It might also change next year, or tomorrow. I’ll also agree that humanity is indeed responsible for trying to do the right things, and to do things right (those are not the same, by the way, but that’s a discussion for another time.) No matter your personal understanding of G”d and Judaism, it is certainly a basic understanding that instructions were given to the Jewish people on how to do the right thing. To some extent Torah touches upon how to do things right, but only through rabbinic Judaism (or, if you accept the concept, oral torah) do we have a clearer understanding of how to do many of the things Torah asks us to do.

All that being said, right here and right now I can’t get past my my dissatisfaction with the price of the triumph of righteousness. G”d says:

שׁ֤וּבוּ אֵלַי֙ וְאָשׁ֣וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶ֔ם

Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you

Hey G”d, why don’t You go first?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha/haftarah:

Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5777 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses (Updated)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5775 - Two Way Street (Revised)
Tzav/Shabbat Zachor 5774 - Does G"d Need a Shrink?
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5773 - The Doorway to Return
Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5772 - Not Passive
Tzav (Purim) 5771 - A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 - Jeremiah's solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 - Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 - Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah's Solution

Friday, March 16, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayikra 5778 - Kol Cheilev Revisited

[Originally written in 2003, I offer a revisiting of this musing.]

Blood and sacrifice. Burnt offerings. Washing innards, Arranging body parts. Wringing pigeon necks, and tearing their wings off. Burning grain cakes. Flinging blood. Guilt offerings. Sin offerings. Offerings for accidental and unknowingly committed sins.

Allow me to be the wicked child and ask - what is all this to me?

It's yucky. It's gross. It's unpleasant.

Putting aside for the moment the thought that our ancestors were probably more comfortable with these acts than our modern sensibilities might allow us to be, the idea behind all these things can certainly have relevancy in our times.

It's a simple idea, really. It's about getting our hands dirty. It's about understanding that there is no way to distance ourselves from having to roll up our sleeves and really work at having relationships with each other - and, as importantly, a relationship with G"d.

(If you think having any kind of relationship with G"d is supposed to a bed of roses, think again. Some people speak about having "found" G"d. Remember those ubiquitous bumper stickers that read "I Found It." They were a product of the Campus Crusade for Christ back in the mid-to-late 70s. They were intended to give people the opportunity to witness for Christ whenever someone asked the obvious "what did you find?" question.  I always wanted to have a bumper sticker made the said "I Never Lost It." But I digress. G"d, at least as described in the Jewish tradition - though perhaps sans the rabbinic white-washings and apologetics - is not a deity that demonstrates consistency and emotional maturity. If you're not struggling to have a relationship - or in your relationship - with G"d, you're not doing it right.)

Let's face it -- we have it easy. We communicate with G"d through the offerings of our lips, with song, prayer. For many of us, this seems to be enough. G"d demands much more of us than this. G"d demands the offerings of our hearts.
G"d has no needs of gifts, of offerings; no need of the same kind of bodily sustenance that we do. G"d has no need for the meat or blood of sacrifices, the fragrances and smells of offerings, the burnt cakes. All these things are for our sakes, and not G"d's sake. G"d needs something from this relationship. Figuring out what each of us might have to offer that G"d might desire can be, if such a relationship is important to you, a purpose of life.

(An interesting aside. The text tells us, in Lev. 3:16b, that "kol cheilev l'Ad'nai" "all fat is Gd's." This is an additional prohibition to the consuming of blood. The text goes on to say that it is en eternal law for us that we shall not eat any fat and any blood. (Lev. 3:17) We always seem to remember that blood part, but the fat part seems to have been overlooked. Remember all those lovely jars of schmaltz in mother's kitchen? Perhaps we'd do well to always remind ourselves that "kol cheilev l'Ad"nai." Of course, being on a string of low-carb diets might make this a little difficult for me! But I digress.)

A relationship with G"d is not an easy thing. It is certainly a holy thing, but not a relationship one can have without recognizing that things physical, and not just spiritual need be involved. (Now there's a great argument for observing the laws of kashrut.) G"d needs not just our hearts and our minds, but our bodies, too. And once our bodies are involved, we're in the realm of potentially "icky" things, of having to get our hands dirty.

(An aside from 2018. Now meal kits are the new trend. They once again evoke mixed feelings. The modern grocery has already distanced us from the sources of what we eat that we generally take them for granted. Now we don't even have to go to the store to get the food. Someday, we'll have the food printer - actually, it's already here, but in its infancy - and eventually the Star Trek replicator. Robots are starting to make in-roads. Computers are taking our orders at McDonalds. At least one good thing about meal kits is that people actually have to do the prep and cooking - though I can imagine the ultimate in yuppie comfort - ordering meal kits to be prepared by the housekeeper.)

All life is sacred. Animals are part of G"d's creation. G"d does not ask us lightly to offer animals as sacrifices. While PETA may think it's acceptable to compare the slaughter of millions of innocent Jews, gays, Romani and others to the routine slaughter of animals for food in their campaigns for more humane treatment of animals, they miss the point of what we learn in parashat Vayikra.

Sacrificing animals teaches us not that we are superior to them. It does not teach us that it's OK to slaughter animals, or treat them inhumanely. The Torah is clear on the concept of not causing tzar baalei chayim (the suffering of living animals) and our obligation to treat animals with respect, honor and care. (It should be noted that the tzar in this commandment indeed comes from that same Hebrew root meaning narrow, or constricted that is used in the word mitzrayim - Egypt - the place of our constriction/suffering. I submit that one of the reasons for asking animal sacrifice of the people of Israel was to help them realize that all life, including the life of animals, is sacred. The animals used for sacrifice are carefully chosen, and must be unblemished. The "gift" of their lives is not wasted-what is not offered to Gd that is edible is consumed by the priests and others.

Rather than compare inhumane treatment of animals to the Shoah, perhaps PETA ought to use the example of the sacred nature of sacrificing an animal's life as taught by our holy Torah.

There is a reason our tradition has developed prayers like the morning's "asher yatzar" in which we openly discuss the inner workings of our bodies. There's a reason that Torah speaks of how we deal with excrement. A relationship with G"d demands we accept that we have our physical bodies for a reason, and must offer them in service to G"d as much as we offer our spiritual and emotional selves. We need to be thinking about G"d just as much when we're in the bathroom as when we are in the synagogue.

I'm not personally in favor of restoring animal sacrifice, even if  the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. (For that matter, I'm not all that enthusiastic for a restoration of the Temple and the Temple cult at all. I'm even less sure that the modern state of Israel is worthy  of being the successor to biblical Israel - not that biblical Israel was any paragon of ethics and virtues.) I am, however, in favor of incorporating into our daily lives the message and the lessons to be learned from G"d's having asked us, at one time, to engage in ritual animal and plant material sacrifice.(Note to self - thanks, I needed to read that today, Adrian. Sometimes, in my desire to distance my ever-evolving theology from troublesome concepts, I lose that spark that drives me to be someone who seeks to redeem the irredeemable.)

After all, "kol cheilev l'Ad"nai" -- "all fat is G"d's." We've certainly plenty of fat on our bodies. And the word cheilev is used to refer to human body fat as well as animal fat. It also is used to refer to the "best part of" as in the "fat of the land." And it is also used in a negative way, to describe the "unreceptive heart" by comparing the heart to the unemotional mid-body fat that is near it.

Let's not let our fat (or our hearts) be of the unemotional kind. Let's give our "fat" to G"d - the best part of who we are -- emotionally, spiritually, AND physically.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018(portions © 2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Vayikra 5777 - As G"d Is My Witness (aka Osymandias II)
Vayikra 5776 - Stuff That's Still Bugging Me
Vayikra 5775 - Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) - Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 - Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 - I'd Like To Bring To Your Attention...
Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That's Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev

Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778–There IS Business Like Show Business

My musings on this parasha are among my favorites, and I commend them all to you. They’re all listed and linked, as usual, at the end of this musing.

This week, a new musing, rather than a recycling – although many of the ideas in this musing have appeared in my musings before. I’ve used a different angle, a different perspective this time.

Before making Jewish education and music the primary focus of my life and work, I had two-and-one-half decades of work as a theatrical production professional. The experiences I had and the lessons I learned during those years continue to influence me each and every day.  I also still engage into the occasional foray into the theatrical world. During my time in the DC metro area in the 00s, I lent my production skills to two mass choral events presented by synagogues from across the community. While in the Amherst/Northmapton, MA area I designed lighting for a production of Falsettos. Last year I did lighting design for an original play about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and his disputes with Rabbi Gamliel. This fall I will be directing another play by the same author, about King Solomon. Of course, all along, I’ve been supervising and writing Purim Shpiels, and lending my knowledge and expertise in the area of live and recorded audio to the synagogues I have served, and as an audio consultant to other synagogues and organizations.

My musings over the years have been peppered with references to this aspect of my life experience. Just as the piano is an intrinsic piece of who I am and how I live, so are my theatrical skills, and, of course, my Judaism. The combination makes me who I am today – and I daresay that in hindsight, I see how the latter career, as a Jewish professional, actually was part and parcel of the person I was in those years when I was doing other things in music and the theatre-I just didn’t know it yet.

Before I go on, I would be remiss if I did not bring up two life incidents. As some of you may know, last Friday, driving home after learning on my way to synagogue that services had been cancelled, a downed tree had forced me to take a different route, and while driving that route, a tree fell across the road in front of me. A second earlier and it would have hit me. I could have been injured or even killed. It shook me up for quite of while. Many of you lovingly responded to my call for a virtual minyan so that I could say birkat hagomel (and I have since had an opportunity to do so in a real minyan, but the virtual one was, frankly, the better one and the one filled with friends.) Yesterday, we had another bad winter storm here, and my neighbor alerted me to the fact that trees had fallen on our cars where we parked (to be courteous to the people who plow our complex, many of us move our cars before a storm to a separate visitor parking area so the regular tenant spots can be easily plowed out.) We managed to move a few limbs and free up her car, but my car had a huge limb hanging down on it that was severed from the tree – impossible for me to extricate my car without bringing the whole limb crashing down on it and damaging it. There is so much damage in the area (trees and power lines down) that tomorrow (Friday – it is Thursday afternoon as I write this) is the earliest the complex management said they could get a tree removal company to come and free my car, deal with some fallen trees across the road in the complex, and, worst of all, remove a tree that had fallen onto the roof of one of the buildings. Like my situation, the extent of the damage won’t be know until the tree limbs are cleared.

Schools were closed here yesterday and today, so I’ve already lost two days work to snow cancellations. Now I’ll lose the subbing I was scheduled to do tomorrow as I don’t have a way to get there (plus I want to be around when my car is extricated.) I’m also hopeful I’ll have my car so I can get to the synagogue for services tomorrow, where I am leading the choir as part of a Shabbat Across America celebration. I say none of this to seek sympathy or support – it’s just simply cathartic for me to write about it. so thanks for listening.

These things are out of my control of course, and it does no good to dwell on them or become stressed out by them. So here I am, stuck at home with no way to get anywhere. A little Torah study is a good distraction. Here we go.

So I’m reading yet again through parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei and it strikes me – something I never really noticed but should have. I have spoken about how this parsha teaches us to be cautious about separating craftsperson, artisan, and artist. Yet never in all my times reading through Vayakhel has it occurred to me that, in sequence, it describes the design and construction of a set and props (Ex 36 and 37,) the design and construction of the costumes (Ex 39,) and the load-in and set-up of the scenery, props, and costumes (Ex. 40) just as one might encounter with a typical theatrical production.  Chapter 35 could easily describe the efforts of the supporters of a community theater to obtain the materials and financing they would need to mount the production.

FWIW, the “theatrical designs” for the mishkan, and for the priestly garments are really quite spectacular, and make bold and clever use of materials. They are also extremely well-thought-out designs, describing in detail how certain elements are to be manufactured. In theatre, sometimes a designer will leave construction techniques to the technical director, and sometimes they will be more specific. Here, the designs come with details on how to build parts so they will fit together, and exactly how to do that.  As a set designer, I’ve always prided myself on providing good working drawings that not only show my vision, to how to realize it. Of course, I’m open to suggestions from the folks actually doing the work, just as I hope and suspect Betzalel was to those who worked with him, and as I hope G”d would have been in giving Betzalel and his helpers a chance to offer some input (though I somehow doubt that. Not G”d’s usual pattern, when G”d gets specific. Which raises another question, if you believe in human rather than Divine origin of the Torah, as to why the instructions for creation of the mishkan were so specific. It seems easier to me to imagine G”d being that specific, less so folks trying to creative the religious narrative and ethical framework for a people. Perhaps, if I may borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan as I often do, it is a purposeful literary device with "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." In other words, make it look real. make it look like G”d might really have said these things. Wow, I’m getting all the usual Adrian cliches into this musing, aren’t I? All that’s missing is a Broadway musical reference.)

I want to think about the specificity of these mishkan and wardrobe designs for a minute. I am someone who is greatly fascinated with ancient human civilization. They accomplished many great feats, yet we too often see them as primitive compared to ourselves. Yet look what the early kingdom Egyptians accomplished. The Babylonians. King Solomon. Some folks insist these ancient civilizations were too primitive to have accomplished such great feats, and claim the assistance of aliens. As much as “I want to believe” I believe the Egyptians, the Incans, the early Chinese and African dynasties, and others had the same human brain power we have today. We may have better tools, and maybe we can do things faster, but their works show great sophistication.

No matter your belief/opinion on the origins of the Torah (or the time period of its creation) you have to admit that it contains designs and instructions that are evidence of a very sophisticated culture.It should say and mean something to us that the Torah bothers to spend so much verbiage on the matter of the design, construction, and assembly of the mishkan and the priestly garments. That’s not a new thought – I’ve said this in other musings on this parasha and others.

All theatre requires community effort, just as all religious worship requires community effort. There are leaders to help move things along, but they work best as part of the community, not separate and apart from it. Theatre and religious services have their participants. Some might say that Theatre is different in that it involves an audience that may or may not be participative, but I might argue that some give and take between a show and its audience is an essential part of the process. This is just as true in religious services.

In the Jewish professional world, we often take great pains to remind ourselves that religious worship is not performance. That is an important thing to remember. At the same time, it is not entirely true, and we ignore that at our own peril. There is craft and artistry in creating a meaningful worship experience, and, truth be told, certain performance skills and devices can and often are a part of the arsenal of tools in making that happen. There’s no shame in that. If Torah can be that specific about the design of the mishkan and the priestly garments, that could be seen as a recognition that elements of performance and theatrics are a necessary part in worship. If you consider the structure of the Jewish worship service, in its daily, Shabbat, and Yom Tov versions, you can plainly and clearly see the evidence of performance planning elements. The whole story of the Exodus is one big spectacle from start to finish – that’s what made it easy for Cecile B.DeMille and others to create performance art from it. The same holds true for many other parts of our sacred texts (and not just Tanakh.)

It’s okay as long as we see and utilize the performance aspects as tools and methodologies to help the kehilla have a meaningful worship experience. (I originally wrote positive worship experience, but I decided it need not always be so to be meaningful.) It’s okay as long as we can be servant leaders; as long as we can control our egos, seek to have I-You and I-Thou relationships rather than I-It relationships; as long as we are “performing” as a component of the service, and not “performing the service.” It’s a difficult balance to maintain at best. All the while, those of us acting as worship facilitators need to also find our own spiritual sustenance in the process. It’s also okay to acknowledge that sometimes, our minds or bodies might just not be in the place we need it to be to do for the congregation what we need to do for it – and I, for one, believe it’s okay under those circumstances to “perform” your role. If you find you have to do this often, then there’s a problem you need to sort out. But occasionally, I think it’s okay. I know there are those who will disagree. However, realistically, I think each of us has found ourselves in a  circumstance where we had to act our way through it – and I’m referring to all people, and life in general, not just synagogue professionals and not just in worship settings.

Just last week I was substituting for a high school drama teacher, and worked on a  project in which they were tasked to discover and relate to others their
“I-Me.” That is, the central core of who they are as “I,” and the ways they are when they interact with others, as one of their many possible “me” personalities. Lots of them were able to identify their inner core I, but struggled with recognizing and describing their external me personalities. Yet we all do it. For some, there is greater consistency to the external faces, and for others, they can vary quite a bit. There’s no value judgment involved – we are who we are. Knowing who we are at the core, plus understanding how we interact with others is a good thing to understand. I think this ties in quite directly with our subject at hand. Know thyself – inner and external. Those external selves – those are the actors, presenting and performing “you” to the outside world. More tools to use, useful even in facilitating a worship experience.

No, no, it can’t be. Worship is a show. I say get over it. Maybe it’s time to think through our gut negative reaction to that a little more critically, and accept that other business can be like show business – and that’s not always a bad thing.

And now, on with the show.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777 - Bell, Pomegranate, Bell, Pomegranate
Pekudei 5776 - Metamorphosis
Vayakhel 5776 - An Imaginary Community (Redux & Revised 5768)
Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Pekudei 5774 - Pronouns Revisited
Vayakhel 5774 - Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tisa 5778–Re-souling Ourselves Revisited

When I first wrote this musing in 2005, I had been serving for a year-and-one-half  a congregation whose religious school operates on Shabbat. That the religious school met on Shabbat (and on Wednesdays) was perhaps not as much a matter of choice, as it was a matter of circumstances, as the congregation has shared sacred space in a Presbyterian Church for 40 (and by now well over 50) years, and they use all the classroom space on Sundays for their school.

Working as a Jewish professional has always presented challenges to finding space and time for Shabbat. I recall times on staff at Jewish summer camps where mine was not a Shabbat of rest, but one of even more work, as I was a specialist. Often my Shabbat was spent in last minute finishing of materials the campers had been working on so they could take them home at the end of a session, or so they could be displayed or otherwise utilized on or right after Shabbat. The situation at this congregation just further complicated things.

It's not that far a stretch to rationalize operating religious school on Shabbat. It is, after all, work that is Lashem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. And, for a liberal Jew, it shouldn't be that difficult to accept that rationalization, right?

Yet we get into all sorts of blurry lines here. I did everything I could to avoid handling money - if pizza was coming for the confirmation class, I’d prepay using a credit card including the tip. I'd collect tzedakah boxes but won't count the money. I tried to put paychecks in boxes before Shabbat. If a school event had an extra charge, I’d try to collect all payments in advance. And so on. The realities sometimes work out differently from the ideal.

So how is the example we adults are setting instilling within our students the importance of Shabbat as expressed in the words of 31:16-17, the words of the "v'shamru." And especially in light of the preceding verses that condemn Shabbat violators to death, and that order the Shabbat to be a complete rest.


ויאמר יהוה אל־משה לאמר

And the LORD said to Moses:


ואתה דבר אל־בני ישראל לאמר אך את־שבתתי תשמרו כי אות הוא ביני וביניכם לדרתיכם לדעת כי אני יהוה מקדשכם

Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you.


ושמרתם את־השבת כי קדש הוא לכם מחלליה מות יומת כי כל־העשה בה מלאכה ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מקרב עמיה

You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.


ששת ימים יעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי שבת שבתון קדש ליהוה כל־העשה מלאכה ביום השבת מות יומת

Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.


ושמרו בני־ישראל את־השבת לעשות את־השבת לדרתם ברית עולם

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time:


ביני ובין בני ישראל אות הוא לעלם כי־ששת ימים עשה יהוה את־השמים ואת־הארץ וביום השביעי שבת וינפש

it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day G”d ceased from work and was refreshed.

The rabbis went a long way to try and solve the practical issues of everyday living that were affected by the commandments (though I’d also suggest that they created some of their own problems and made matters worse in the ways they chose to define the “oral Torah” what provided the basis for what became halacha. There are many who still maintain that the “oral Torah” was given to Moshe along with the written Torah right there at Sinai, and handed down in an unbroken chain. While I find the workings of the rabbis fascinating, and find great value in studying Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, the many commentaries and midrashim, and later works like the Shulkkhan Arukh, there is not a bone in my body that is willing to accept the idea that the oral Torah was given along with the Torah by G”d – or even that it was created by Divinely inspired human hands at the same time as the sefer Torah. I’m enough of a mystic to remain open to the possibility of Torah mi Sinai, though I maintain my general position that the Torah is more likely the work of human beings – perhaps Divinely inspired or guided, perhaps not. In my worldview, what is known as the oral Torah was a product of later generations, and, while potentially as Divinely inspired as Torah, is not deserving of the directly given by G”d to Moshe status that (whether we believe it or not) that we ascribe to the Torah. And yes, we can go further down the rabbit hole here, down academic and scholarly paths that provide significant evidence that even the sefer Torah as we have it now is the result of a process of editing and redaction, so even if given at Sinai or written under Divine inspiration, what we have today has been altered from whatever the urtext was.

I admit to a certain inconsistency here, in allowing for Torah to be either direct from the Divine, or Divinely inspired, though likely of purely human origin, while insisting that the oral Torah is simply not a product of simultaneous origin with the sefer Torah.  But that’s my position,a nd I’m sticking to it!

So, back to this matter of the rabbis approaching the commandments in general, and in the case of our parasha, these Shabbat-related commandments from a practical standpoint. While G”d may have provided a double portion of manna in the wilderness, in later years, we had to fend for ourselves. Animals still had to be milked, meals eaten, crops harvested, etc. So the rabbis used other pieces of text to help clarify what it meant to keep Shabbat.

We "shabbat" (cease?) on Shabbat for many reasons, among them that G”d commanded us to do so. And because doing so we act in imitation of G”d during creation. Yet, we are not G”d. So how can our "shabbating" be exactly like G”d's - a truly complete "shabbating?" It cannot. Our "shabbating" is perforce less the "shabbating" that G”d did on the 7th day. We can, and should, strive for that complete rest, but we'll never quite get there. Only G”d could and did (and can?)

In our tradition, learning has not been considered an activity prevented on Shabbat. If it were, we wouldn't be reading from the Torah on Shabbat, because, in building a fence a round the Torah, the rabbis would want to prevent even the possibility of learning something when the Torah was read! (I know it's a convoluted argument, but it works, sort of.) Therefore, I would conclude that learning is permitted on Shabbat. While some learning comes through experience, most learning requires some teaching, and someone to do the teaching. Torah, indeed, teaches, in an of itself, yet our own history and tradition have shown us that a little help with interpretation is required. And it is learned teachers-rabbis, educators, elders, parents, etc. that help provide this interpretation. (I may not believe the halacha to be based on some Divinely-given oral Torah, and I may not hold with a lot of the halacha, but it remains a useful way to try and understand the Torah,)

So, if learning Torah on Shabbat is permitted, teaching Torah on Shabbat must also be permitted. If it wasn't, I know a lot of rabbis that are in big trouble. And I would venture that anything we teach in a Jewish religious school is teaching Torah. There's a nice rationalization we can use. That I did use back then. Sort of.

The issues go on and on. Should a class go on a field trip on Shabbat? Should it visit a soup kitchen and make and serve food? Should it make sandwiches to be taken to shelters? Should it watch a video or DVD? We have many large assemblies and programs. Often, the sound system can't be set up in advance before Shabbat. Is it OK to set it up and use it? Should we have our faculty meetings after school on Shabbat as has traditionally been done?

I am certain that for every one of these questions, a suitably acceptable modern liberal interpretative workaround can be formulated. Yet, still, for me, the rationalizations often fall short. My discomfort with "working" on Shabbat remains. (Never mind that my liberal sensibilities already permit me to use my musical talents on instruments on Shabbat in service to enhancing the worship experience of others and myself.) Never mind that I can't afford to live anywhere near where I work, so I must drive to and from the synagogue on Shabbat.

At least, that’s where my head was at when I wrote that last paragraph back in 2005. Now, my perspective has grown. To begin with, in the almost 6 years I served that congregation with religious school on Shabbat, I came to observe a curious effect. For the families of that congregation, Saturday became the day when they “did Jewish.” Which meant that when we tried to have events on Sunday, or participate in community-wide Jewish events or educational activities on Sundays when most such events were scheduled to coincide with what most congregations were doing, it was difficult to get people from our congregation to come. The “this is when we do Jewish” effect is not unique, and exists in many of the liberal congregations I have been privileged to serve. Also, having been away from that congregation for many years, I am also realizing that having religious school on Shabbat is an idea worth reconsidering for almost any liberal congregation (at least ones that are open to the use of technology, electronics, etc.) There is something incredibly vibrant taking place in a congregation where all the kids are in the building learning at the same time their parents are in the building praying. The silo-ing that one sees in so many congregations between religious school families and regular service attendees often feels like it has created a huge chasm that is difficult to cross.

So, back to 2005. I had been searching for something to help me with this inner dilemma or “working” on Shabbat in service to Jewish education. I thought I might have found something, and it had been staring me in the face for a long time.

At the end of the v'shamru, the last words of v. 31:17 it says "Shabbat vayinafash." The Hebrew construction of this verb root, which means "to be refreshed" is, in this case, reflexive, that is, it is to cause oneself to be refreshed. As the root, in noun form can also mean "soul" it is as if G”d were "re-souling" G”d's-self. (Interestingly enough, and to acknowledge you Hebrew grammar wonks out there, this  verb form, the niphal, is usually a simple passive form of a verb, and is only reflexive in some cases. It is a different binyan, hitpael, that is usually used to represent a reflexive usage. I won’t get into the weeds here and explain why the scholars dub this particular verbal form as being reflexive in this particular case, but if you want to understand it yourself, tze ulemad – go and learn!  In any case, I find this fact doubly interesting, because while we might think of Shabbat as a time when we should be passive, it really is more a time for being reflexive! )

So, in our best efforts to imitate G”d and observe Shabbat, we are called upon to "refresh ourselves" or "restore our own soul to ourselves." There is little doubt in my mind that the overall feeling I got when religious school was in session on those Saturdays, despite the exhaustion it produced, was refreshing and restorative. As tired as I may have come away from several hours of dealing with students, teachers, parents and more, I can say that I did come away refreshed, renewed, with a restored soul ready to go on into the week.

Now there's an approach that worked for me. For that time in my life. What about you? What will enable you to refresh yourself, to restore your own soul, on Shabbat? Find it, and do it, whatever it is. If it is true rest, then rest. If it is study, study. If it is going to shul, then go to shul. If it's a Shabbat walk and a nap, then walk and nap. There are other more secular things you can do that I won't list here, as each of us must make a choice, and, for my part, I'd rather not encourage you to consider them-but, then again, if that is what accomplishes your "shabbating" who am I to judge?

U'vayom hashvi'i, shavat vayinash. And on the seventh day (G”d) "shabbated" and "refreshed G”d's-self." That is how we must each "guard" and "do" ("observe," my foot! The word is la'asot, from the root meaning "to do." Nu, how does one "do ceasing?" You figure it out.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2005)  by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha

Ki Tisa 5776 - It Didn't Matter
Ki Tisa 5775 - Shabbat Is A Verb II
Ki Tissa 5774 - Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)
Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 - Fortune and Men's Eyes (Redux and Revised)
Ki Tisa 5772 - Other G"d?
Ki Tisa 5771 - Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan