Meet my Torah portion!

It bodes poorly that I can’t find my Bat Mitzvah notebook.

It’s here in my office somewhere. The problem is that a lot of other things are here too: Eight rolls of Chanukah, birthday and willfully nonsectarian winter-snowman wrapping paper. Gifts, gift boxes, and the shipping boxes that the gift boxes came in. Folders about real estate. Folders about insurance. Recipes. A three-foot-high exercise ball. Holiday card mailing labels….

I haven’t posted much Bat Mitzvah news recently since I’ve been distracted by life – the holiday season, some freelance work, and negotiations to buy a beach house together with two other families.

I’ve had two meetings so far with my rabbi. And last week, I spoke with the cantor and found out my Torah portion.

(Ah ha! The notebook – there under the snowman wrapping paper. So now I can tell you what the portion is.)

It’s Vayakhel, otherwise known as Exodus 35:1 to 38:20.

In Judaism, a different section of the Torah is read aloud each week as part of Shabbat services. Reform Judaism cycles through the entire Torah every year, so the date of my Bat Mitzvah service determines which Torah portion I will learn to chant and will address in my drash or sermon.

I’m going to get to know this one little piece of the Bible very well.

Already, before even reading it, I’m on a first-name basis with it. Or would that be a first-word basis? Torah portions are identified by the first word they contain – so vayakhel refers to the opening word in Exodus 35 and means “and he gathered together.”

So I pick up Robert Alter’s recent English translation of The Five Books of Moses to skim my portion.

I begin with excitement: Will I find some personal connection in here? Something that speaks directly to my deep inner self — a Ouija board message or Meyers-Briggs test result from 3,000 years ago?

My excitement continues with some glimmers of recognition: This portion has Moses. The “he” in he gathered together is none other than Moses. And Moses is hot stuff, a Biblical rock star, hero of the Passover story; Steven Spielberg even made a movie about him.

Moses is apparently gathering the Hebrews together, out in the desert at Mt. Sinai, in the wake of the Golden Calf fiasco. He’s telling them that their task is to build a tabernacle or container for the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.

To oversee the work he appoints another name I know – Bezalel, a talented artisan who in the 20th century was selected as namesake for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, the Israeli equivalent of the Rhode Island School of Design. That seems pretty cool too.

But then the coolness quotient starts to drop. It turns out that my portion is… one long description of how to build a tabernacle. Cubit by cubit. Socket by socket. Peg by peg. Reddened ram’s skin by goat-hair panel.

For pages and pages and pages.

Even Robert Alter seems bored. Most pages of his translation have two or three footnotes at the bottom, explaining interesting points about the text. My portion has two pages that go on and on without a single footnote. “The text now launches upon one of its most extravagant deployments of verbatim repetition,” Alter writes.

I complain to my husband Sam that my Torah portion is essentially a parts list for a Biblical construction project.

“Those are the good ones,” he says. “They’re obscure and there’s lots of good midrashic commentary on them.”

This is in fact a common Bat and Bar Mitzvah experience. Most people know the dramatic stories of the Bible, but there’s a lot of it that is not really narrative. It’s construction, or prescription, or legislation – for instance, Moses telling the Jews all the things they should or shouldn’t do. 

So no instant time-warp Ouija board epiphany for me, unless it’s something about decorating our new beach house with goat’s-hair panels and reddened ram skin tents.

This will take work. But Sam’s right – an obscure portion means I will have to be more creative and resourceful in interpreting it. I will really have to wrestle with it.

I’m looking forward to this.


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8 Responses to “Meet my Torah portion!”

  1. Daniel Rothner Says:

    Here are some sources on the parsha that may help you with a Mitzvah Project:

    Moshe tells the Jewish people to keep the Shabbat
    (35:2): “…Saturday must be kept holy as a Sabbath…”
    Shadow a child with special needs every Shabbat, or volunteer for Tomchei Shabbat.

    Betzalel builds the Aron
    (37:1): “Betzalel made the ark…”
    Decorate jewelry boxes for girls in shelters or orphanages.

    Good luck & Mazal Tov!

    Daniel Rothner
    Areyvut Founder & Director

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks! For those who are unfamiliar with the idea, a Mitzvah Project is a social action project that some Jewish kids take on as part of preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It emphasizes the fact that Judaism is not just about prayer or belief, but about concrete actions of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

      At our temple, it’s required that all kids take on a mitzvah project. In Becca’s case, she was trained as a volunteer at the local SPCA and spent a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon for a year helping clean and care for the cats there.

      In my case, I don’t think I need a Bat Mitzvah project. It feels like half my life is already a social action project with the Julia Morgan School. I could use a little less social action and a little more career action. :-)

  2. johnmangels Says:

    I’m glad you’re still looking forward to it!

  3. Leo Scout Says:

    Perhaps the construction instructions can be an interesting metaphor for life and spiritual growth, if not meditative in a way.

  4. Susan Says:

    Coulda been the “begats…”

    I’ll look forward to seeing what you do with this.

    (And thanks for the holiday card — Becca looks so beautiful!)

  5. Lori K Says:

    There’s something about seemingly mind-numbing passages that have a way of focusing the subconscious: Hope yours yields good results.

    If not, you might get some inspiration here:

  6. Susie Miller Says:

    Mark may have some tools you could use to construct your drash…;>)

    And seems like Habitat for Humanity would be a great extension of the building theme, your “life as a social justice project,” not withstanding!

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