Friday, February 15, 2013

Derashah: A Judaism of Fire (Terumah)

This Shabbos I'm speaking at a Shabbaton; you can find the flyer here. The theme of the Shabbos morning derashah is "A Judaism of Fire". The writing is not terribly complex or deep; it's not that kind of occasion. Still, I think it may resonate with some readers, so here it is:

Every time I visit this shul I take note of the beautiful drawings of the new building you're raising, and that reminds me of the old story of a visitor to Israel who attends a concert in the brand new Soloveitchik Hall.
The visitor admires the remarkable acoustics, the magnificent architectural detail, the fine furnishings. He asks one of the ushers, "Is this hall named for Joseph Soloveitchik, the great rabbi?" The usher responds, "No, it's named for Harold Soloveitchik, the writer."
The visitor thinks for a moment, but the name is unfamiliar. He asks, "What did he write?"
To which the usher responds, "A check."

This morning we read about the construction of the first magnificent synagogue, the Mishkan, the portable Temple in which the Jews connected with Gd during their 39-year journey from Mount Sinai into Israel, and then for another 440 years in the land of Israel itself. The construction was a remarkable feat, product of a collaboration of men and women who were expert in crafts ranging from weaving to leatherwork to woodwork to metalwork. The first director of the project was none other than Moshe Rabbeinu, our master Moses, who brought us the Divine command, "They shall build for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them."

This morning's parshah, and the one we read next week, include more than 200 verses of instructions for creating the mishkan and populating it with ritual furnishings. But Gd did more than tell Moshe, "Build this," "Make  that."
  • The Talmud[1] notes that Gd told Moshe, "This is the form of the menorah." The sages suggest that Moshe at first experienced difficulty understanding the Divine instructions regarding the menorah he was to build, until Gd showed him a menorah of fire. "This is what you shall make."
  • More: A verse in our Torah portion[2] says that Gd showed Moshe the Mishkan's vessels at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmud,[3] Gd displayed to Moshe fiery images of the Ark that would hold the two tablets, the Table on which special bread would be placed, and the aforementioned menorah.
  • A midrash[4] goes even further, citing an additional verse and saying הכל הראה לו דמות אש, Gd displayed to Moshe everything, in fire.
In addition to presenting verbal instructions, Gd showed Moshe images of everything he was to create, and here we learn a pedagogic lesson that extends beyond the instructions for a building: Don't just tell them, show them. Demonstrate it.

As our topic this morning is how we raise Jewish children, one lesson here is that we need to do more than tell our community's children about our ideals; we need to live these ideals, visibly. I know this is likely obvious, but I state it as a first important step for parents, and for all of us, as adults; we are role models by dint of our simple presence.

Last night we highlighted the problems of a Jewish generation some 2700 years ago, a generation that lacked a clear vision of Judaism. Looking for a vision which would not be too narrow or divisive, I proposed a broad, ground-level ideology of "Just Jewish". The idea is simple enough to transmit – but the education Gd gave to Moshe reminds us that if our children are to adopt this or any other ideology, they need more than just to hear about it; they need to see it lived in front of them, in our daily actions.

But that's just Step One; for Step Two, I refer you to the words of the playwright Franz Kafka, in a letter he dedicated to his father:[5]
"Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, patiently went through the prayers as a formality, sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was present in the synagogue (and this was the main thing) I was allowed to hang around wherever I liked. And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety … How one could do anything better with that material than get rid of it as fast as possible, I could not understand; precisely the getting rid of it seemed to me to be the devoutest action."

I want to come back to Kafka's scathing words in a few minutes, but first I'd like to read you another passage. This is a text from the more famous Soloveitchik – not Harold – describing how he learned about Judaism. In a eulogy [for his son-in-law's mother], Rabbi Soloveitchik said of his own mother,
"I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the Torah portion every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much. Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life - to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.[6]"

Let us be clear: The central difference between Franz Kafka's experience and that of Rabbi Soloveitchik is not about level of observance, it's not about "formal compliance with the law". It's not about Kafka attending synagogue four days each year, and Rabbi Soloveitchik's mother praying daily. Rather, the point is inspiration! Visiting the synagogue just four days each year can be inspiring, and living a halachic lifestyle can be dull and dry. But Kafka's father was indifferent, and Rabbi Soloveitchik's mother conveyed a Judaism that had a flavor, a scent, a warmth – a heartfelt inspiration.

This message is displayed in the way Gd showed Moshe how to construct the Mishkan. He did not simply show Moshe a diagram of an Ark, a model of a Menorah. It was של אש, it was of fire! Indeed, the Torah describes Judaism as אשדת, a religion of fire![7] Our Judaism must crackle with energy, radiating heat, shining with brilliant light, this is an entity we wish to create, to perpetuate, to convey from generation to generation!

Of course, this presupposes that the adult feels that fire. We can't fake it; kids will detect that in less than the time it took me to state this sentence. So what does a parent do if he doesn't feel the flavor, the scent, the warmth? If shul is as dull for him as it was for Kafka's father, if cooking a Shabbos meal is boring, if she feels a duty to pass along Judaism to her children but opening up a chumash makes her feel like she's back in the worst part of her Hebrew school experience, how can she achieve inspiration? Where will the fire come from?

Some suggest that we store up our strongest emotions from various experiences, and call them to mind when we need to be moved.[8] Others suggest that we meditate. Others suggest that we look at the world with wide, reverent eyes, and recognize the beauty of Gd's Creation. All of these are valuable recommendations.

Personally, though, my favorite route is the advice of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last head of the Volozhin yeshiva. In his commentary to the Torah,[9] Rabbi Berlin wrote, "Gardens have many kinds of seeds. Still, each garden has one central variety, and small quantities of other varieties are planted around it. So, too, each Jew is filled with the mitzvot of Gd, but each has one special mitzvah in which he is extra careful."

In other words: The Torah has many, many mitzvos – 613, and then some! There are mitzvos of prayer. There are mitzvos of generosity. There are mitzvos of study. There are mitzvos of ritual. There are mitzvos of gardening and mitzvos of construction and mitzvos of calligraphy and mitzvos of medicine and mitzvos of creativity and mitzvos of music. There are mitzvos of sacrifice and asceticism, and there are mitzvos of indulgence and pleasure. There is mysticism and there is rationalism, there are chasidim and there are misnagdim, there are farmers and entertainers and social workers and scholars and writers. Torah presents a landscape of religious activity as broad and varied as humanity itself, and although we are expected to work toward achieving the whole of it, different aspects of that landscape will resonate with different people.

When we find a mitzvah to which our nature responds, which moves our heart to sing, which brings us fulfillment and a sense of, "Yes, that's what I wanted to do," then we will be inspired – and that inspiration can spill over into the rest of our Judaism.

The same applies to helping our community's children find their own inspiration.

Torah is too broad to expect that a child, unsophisticated and narrow in his experience, is going to find all of it to be beautiful and motivating. There are mitzvos that require sitting still and concentrating, a challenge at any age but certainly in adolescence. Some mitzvos are tough until one gets to the age when hormones settle down. Understanding certain mitzvos requires a great deal of contemplation. Appreciating other mitzvos requires life experience. And some mitzvos, let's face it, will never be appealing within today's world.

But again, Torah is so big and broad that everyone can find the spark from which the entire Torah, in its variegated beauty and multifarious colours, will catch fire. If children see adults living an inspired Judaism, with what resonates for us; if we offer our children a range of Jewish opportunities, to help them find what resonates for them and use it as an anchor; then we will have a much greater chance of succeeding in passing along our Judaism.

The ideas I have expressed here are not complex, perhaps the midrash, the Netziv, Kafka and Rav Soloveitchik are unfamiliar, but really, passing along Judaism is not the exclusive province of scholars of esoteric text, or deep mystical thought. Exposing our ideals, demonstrating that they inspire us, displaying the fiery image of the mishkan and its vessels, are activities each of us can do.

Of course, we have no guarantees. A parent can do everything by the book, and children will still grow up and become independent and chart their own paths, and who can guess where that will lead? Many, many fine parents have lived their ideals with enthusiasm, raising children who then said, "I'm glad that works for you, but it's not for me."

Nonetheless, when we invest the time to think about and define our ideals; when we invest the effort to live those ideals; and when we invest the heart to do it with fiery enthusiasm, then we, like Moshe, will build a mishkan, and we will see fulfillment of that Divine promise, "ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם – When you build a sanctuary for Me, I will dwell in your midst."

[1] Menachot 29a, based on Bamidbar 8:4
[2] Shemot 26:30
[3] Menachot 29a
[4] Psikta Zutrita Shemot 25:9, based on Shemot 25:9
[7] Devarim 33:2
[8] Bnei Machshavah Tovah
[9] Haamek Davar to Bamidbar 24:6


  1. I am glad there are Rabbaonim like yourself out there say what needs to be said.
    You have beautifully put into words ideas that I constantly think about and try to infuse within myself.

    What was the take-away lesson from the Shabbaton for those who are ready to actualize this challenge?

  2. Thank you very much, Neil; I appreciate it. The overall message was to seek a label in order to avoid the pitfalls of Achav and his generation, but to keep it broad enough to (1) not be divisive, and (2) avoid locking ourselves into particular activities without thinking them through ourselves.

  3. Doesn't this just pass the problem up a generation?

    1. The solution to a shortage of hislahavus in the community can't rely on calling on us to be role models for the next generation. The role models (assuming we're not foolish enough to think it can be faked) are in overly short supply by the definition of the very problem!

      To go beyond expanding on my original cryptic post:

      I think there is only one way out of this "Catch 22". We can't rely on having enough adults with souls aflame. But we can rely on having enough adults who are visibly trying to get there. If we cannot encourage parents to show passion more often than it actually exists, we can encourage them to make inspiring programming a regular part of their lives.

    2. R' Micha-
      This is certainly true; hence my emphasis on the adult finding inspiration, too!

      And I agree re: demonstrating the process and push.