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

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