Posts Tagged ‘Torah portion’

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.

Learning to bird

April 22, 2012

This month has been Birdathon, the annual fundraiser for Golden Gate Audubon Society, where I started working in January. (Think of a walkathon, although instead of soliciting pledges for every mile you walk, you ask friends to pledge for every bird you spot.)

It’s been a good excuse for me to get outdoors and actually do some birding, rather than writing and posting and Tweeting about other people birding. Two weeks ago, I went on a four-hour trip led by a really experienced pair of birders. Today I co-led a trip for friends of mine who had never birded before but wanted to try it: We had four very experienced birders, me, one other mid-level birder, and four “baby birders.”

The BabyBirders Birdathon team / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This has gotten me thinking about the skills that go into birdwatching. It’s more than just “Boy, you really have to learn the names of a ton of birds that all look small and brown.” There are in fact a variety of different skills:
  • Peripheral vision. Walking through a wood or a meadow, you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of things to see — clouds, trees, grasses blowing in the wind. In one small corner, a bird flits between branches. A good birder notices the movement. It’s partly peripheral vision, and partly an ability to notice slight changes in  a broad panorama. It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, where you scan for the tiny figure with the red striped cap in a page that is busy with hundreds of other tiny figures.
  • Pattern recognition. One of the first things a birder notices — in a split-second, without consciously thinking — is the shape of a bird. Is that distant figure on the water shaped like some kind of duck, or some kind of cormorant?  Toddlers learn to do this when they sort plastic triangles and squares into triangle- and square-shaped holes. We adults do this every day with images from our urban environment — the hexagonal traffic sign that means “stop,” the triangular one that means “yield.” But I learned the traffic signs decades ago, and I’m only now trying to learn the shapes of birds.
  • Noticing and remembering colors. This is where I frequently get stuck. In distinguishing among similarly-shaped birds, you have to notice all these minute differences in colors. One kind of grebe has black around its eye, while another has white. One kind of gull has pink legs, while another has yellow. Not only do you need to be able to notice these differences, but you need to remember them. And the males and females often have different coloration, as do adults and juveniles. I fear my mental database is not large enough to store all the various kinds of gulls. Can I get an upgrade, please?
  • Deciphering layers of sound. The birders who led our trip today were experts at birding by ear — identifying birds just from their calls, without ever seeing them. This requires a good memory for sounds, and remembering which pattern of tweet or trill  belongs to a particular species. But it also requires an ability to isolate the calls from each other. Walking through the Oakland hills today, there were easily six or eight different birds singing at the same moment. At first all you hear is a dense wall of sound. It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra and trying to isolate the viola from all the other instruments. Musicians can do it; people who bird by ear learn to do that too.
  • Attentiveness. This underlies everything else: You have to be mentally present and paying attention. You can’t be birding and texting on your iPhone. You can’t be birding and yakking about the great new restaurant where you had dinner last night.

There are probably more. These are just the few that come to mind right now. What struck me over the past day or two were some of the similarities to learning to chant Torah. (Maybe because I’m working on a portion for my nephew’s bar mitzvah next month!)

Learning to bird and learning to chant Torah are both mental challenges with no real practical value. They won’t get you a job like learning HTML; they won’t help you go places like learning to drive a stick shift. Basically, you learn them for their own sake. They both involve memorization of a bunch of arbitrary names and words. There is pattern recognition. There is sound recognition.

I suspect that both learning to bird and learning to chant Torah challenge our middle-aged brains in similarly healthy ways. It’s like suddenly being a toddler again, forced to learn a language from scratch.

They both feel daunting at the beginning. There is no shortcut to repetition: Practice, practice, practice.

I return to that famous Anne Lamott line that inspired  the title for her great book about writing, Bird by Bird.

(Holy cow! I’ve now worked Torah, writing and birding into a single blog post! Will someone give me a stuffed panda, please?) 

When Lamott was a kid, her brother was overwhelmed by a homework assignment on birds that he had left until the last minute. He had far too many birds to write about and one night to do it. He was despondent and freaking out. Then, Lamott wrote:

My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

My own goal is to come away from each birding trip with one new bird that I have seen clearly enough and long enough to be able to remember and identify on my own. If I can add one new bird each time, I’ll eventually know a lot of them.

Today my bird was a Fox Sparrow. There were two of them, amazingly close to our trail in the hills, kicking up dirt with their feet like dogs at the beach. That’s apparently a characteristic foraging behavior. They were kicking and rustling leaves and making as much of a ruckus as you can imagine a sparrow making, and they didn’t seem to care a bit that we were about three feet away.

One of our expert guides said, “When you hear something making a lot of noise in the woods, it’s either a Fox Sparrow or a grizzly bear.”

That line is a keeper, and worth hauling out in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with woods, trails or birds.

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Shameless plug: Want to support my Birdathon team and the conservation work of Golden Gate Audubon Society? You can make a tax-deductible online donation here.

Nitzavim and Yom Kippur

October 5, 2011

The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is a section from Leviticus that involves the details of ritual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the 19th century pioneers of Reform Judaism felt this was irrelevant to modern life and humanistic religion, and substituted a different passage — Nitzavim, or Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20.

This is the passage that I’ll be chanting on Saturday morning. (Well, the first part of it — Deuteronomy 29:9 through 29:14.)

Moses would have given his farewell address near here - view of Dead Sea from Mt. Nebo (Jordan) / Photo by David Bjorgen

Nitzavim presents Moses’ farewell address to the Jewish people, as he readies them to enter the promised land without him. He reminds everyone gathered before him that they have entered into a covenant with God. He recounts the “detestable things” and “fetishes” they left behind in Egypt, and predicts that some of them will succumb to the temptations of idolatry, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.” He warns them that they will be punished and exiled — but if they repent and return to following the mitzvot, God will welcome them back and return them to prosperity.

I suspect there’s some historical backstory here — that this section of the Torah was written at a time when the Jews were returning from exile in Babylon, and the author may have intended to explain the exile and exhort the people to better behavior. I haven’t done the research on this, so please jump in and correct or amplify if you know more.

But historical analysis aside, it’s a fitting portion for Yom Kippur in its focus on the dangers of sin and the rewards of teshuvah (which translates as turning, or repentance). And the image of  Moses speaking before the entire community of Israel — old and young, the portion tells us, men and women, officials and strangers, even the humble wood-hewers and water-drawers — is appropriate for the only day of the year when every single member of a Jewish congregation shows up for services.

There are two parts of the portion that I find particularly moving.

The first is a line that I’ll be chanting, where Moses tells the assembled multitude that the covenant is “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It feels almost like science fiction, some wormhole or rip in time that allows Moses to speak simultaneously to all Jews through the centuries. The covenant includes those not present because they have died, and those not present because they are not yet born. It gives me a shivery transcendent feeling — I’m part of this stream that extends back to Abraham and forward as long as there is a Judaism.

My grandparents who have passed away are part of it. The great-great-great-grandparents whose names I don’t even know are part of it. My daughter’s unimaginable grandchildren are part of it.  For a moment we are all here together, standing near Mt. Nebo listening to Moses.

The other line I particularly like comes later in the portion, when Moses reassures the gathered populace that they can, in fact, fulfill their end of the covenant.

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

I find this a  comforting way to think about other challenges, not just the challenge of leading a moral and righteous life.

It’s so easy to paralyze ourselves by thinking, “That’s too much! I can never do that!” These days I’m having those kinds of despairing thoughts about the ten extra pounds I’ve put on: “How will I ever be able to lose that weight?” And those thoughts are a constant presence around my novel writing: “I’ll never be able to get that character right! I’ll never do decent dialogue! I’ll never be able to write like XXX or YYY!”

But in reality, a surprising number of the things that cause us despair are not beyond us. They are not in the heavens, they are not across the ocean. Sometimes we just need to calm ourselves down — take things step by step, piece by piece, or, in Anne Lamott’s phrase, bird by bird.

It is not too baffling for us, it is not beyond reach. The answers are close to us, in our mouths and hearts.

My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…

September 12, 2011

… is the beach.

I did this when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah service, and I’ve been doing it again with the portion I’ll be chanting on Yom Kippur morning.

Stinson Beach / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Stinson Beach is long, wide and mostly empty, even on weekends. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to the end, and then another 45 to walk back. I take my iPod with our cantor’s recording of my portion, and I walk along and listen and chant. None of the other beach walkers seems to notice or care, and it’s much safer than the other place I practice chanting — in the car.

Don’t even ask about that. One of these days I will rear-end someone, and when the officer eyes me suspiciously and asks if I was texting while driving, I’ll say “Of course not. I was chanting.”

Learning to chant a Torah portion is different from anything else I do in my daily life.  It involves spoken sounds rather than written words. It’s not intellectual or analytical. There’s no tangible, material goal like there is in writing a news story or cooking a meal or planting zucchini.

It’s harder than simply learning to sing in a foreign language. When I listen to pop songs in Hebrew or French or Spanish — the foreign languages I sort of know — the choruses tend to stick in my head. They repeat, they rhyme, they use familiar daily sentence structures. All of that makes them easy to remember.

Fog and sun / Photo by Becca Schuchat

With Torah, the grammar is often archaic and convoluted. (For instance, the Torah typically uses future tense when it means past tense. Why? I’m sure there’s a historico-linguistic reason, but no one has told me.) There are weird sentence constructions, and obscure words like “ephod” that don’t exactly pop up in daily conversation.

The melody shifts back and forth at random between minor and major keys. There are no patterns of repeated melodies, no rhymes, no ABAB CDCD verses and choruses. It would be a lot easier if God had hired Woody Guthrie and the Torah read, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Jezreel Valley to the Jerusalem highlands.”

To be fair, there is the skeleton of a system.  A limited number of melodic phrases are used again and again in chanting Torah, and there are symbols to represent those phrases (cantillation). Sometimes the melodic phrases even correspond in a systematic way with certain points in the text, like the ends of verses.

But it’s still a lot less systematic and structured than modern pop songs or western classical music or the various bits of poetry we all had to memorize in grade school. And for a relative beginner like me, it remains pretty inscrutable. So I turn on my iPod, listen to the cantor, and imitate what she does. Phrase by phrase, line by line. I look for familiar words and am ecstatic when a difficult, unfamiliar word turns out to share a root with a word I already know. Those words are like rafts in the middle of a long, exhausting swim.

Andie at Stinson / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Between the Torah portion I learned for my Bat Mitzvah service, the one I learned for a service in July, and my current Yom Kippur portion, I’ve now done this enough that I can see a pattern in how I approach it.

Phase 1: Feel overwhelmed. (“How am I going to learn all that?”)

Phase 2: Take it one phrase at a time.

Phase 3: Get enough phrases down that I can chant a verse or two without getting stymied.

Phase 4: Learn enough verses to realize I am almost done. Yay!

That last phase is the one I’m in now, having learned five of six verses pretty securely. At this point it becomes fun. I find myself humming the melody without thinking about it. I can go back to some of the more troublesome lines and make sure  the phrasing and notes are exactly right. I can start to think about the meaning of the words while I chant them rather than just worrying about what the next word/note should be.

It occurs to me that this, in a very abbreviated way, is the same process as revising my novel. I’m in the overwhelmed/one-step-at-a-time phase with that right now. I still haven’t worked out my problems with the middle of the manuscript. It just occurred to me this morning that I may need to completely overhaul the ending. I hope sooner or later to reach  the point I’m at with my Torah portion — where the big, blunt work is done and I can relax and focus on making the phrasing just right.

Huh. What was that I was saying about this having nothing in common with the rest of my life?

My d’var Torah – Vayakhel

February 27, 2011

Here’s the text of the d’var Torah (interpretation of Torah) I gave at my adult Bat Mitzvah service at Temple Sinai  on Feb. 26, 2011. My portion was Vayakhel, from the Book of Exodus, 35:1 – 38:20. There is a brief audio clip in the middle of this post that you may either choose to hear or skip.

For more about my Bat Mitzvah service (including some photos), see the previous blog post.

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This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means, “and he gathered together.” It comes near the end of the book of Exodus, right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites lapse into idolatry and build a golden calf. 

In Vayakhel, Moses gathers the people together and tells them to bring all kinds of personal treasures to build a tabernacle to God. Before anything, though, he orders them not to violate the Sabbath – Shabbat is so important that it must not be infringed even for construction of a house of God. Then the people go out and bring their treasures – dyed ram skins and dolphin skins, fine linen and goats’ hair, gold earrings and nose rings. (I am sure there were a few Israelite moms and dads who were quite happy to donate their teenage daughters’ nose rings.) 

The people end up bringing so much stuff that Moses has to tell them to stop – an unexpected turn of events that probably strikes envy into the heart of anyone who has ever led a fundraising campaign. (And there are a few of you in this room today!) 

The portion continues with a very detailed description of all the components of the ark and tabernacle  – the curtains, rings, boards, hooks, pedestals and so on — as the construction work is overseen by the master builders, Bezalel and Ohaliab. 

There were several things that struck me about Vayakhel. The first is that it is almost a mirror opposite of the preceding portion, the debacle of the golden calf. In the golden calf episode, the Israelites donate their jewels and treasure to create an idol that is a travesty of holiness. In Vayakhel, they donate their jewels and treasure to create a truly holy structure. It is one of the rare moments in the Torah where the people actually do the right thing! Rabbi Elliott Kleinman points out that it is not jewels and treasure – not material possessions — that in themselves are immoral. It is what people choose to do with their possessions. The contrast between these two consecutive sections of Torah highlights this choice. As individuals and as a society, we can use our abundant resources to serve false gods of ego, prestige and power. Or we can use those resources to do good and enhance our world. 

The second thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the importance of Shabbat, a point that has been emphasized by many of the commentators. Here the Israelites are about to build a house for God – can anything be more important than that? — and yet Moses tells them, before he says anything else, that they must stop that work on Shabbat. 

Vayakhel tells us that we may not profane the Sabbath even for God. Yet Jewish tradition also says there is one thing for which we may break the Sabbath – to save a human life. 

Thinking about this, I picture Jewish values as a pyramid of holiness – at the top, more important than anything, is preserving life. Just below that comes Shabbat, a time for rest and contemplation. Only under that come the physical trappings of what people typically think of as religion – the buildings, altars, prayerbooks, ritual items. 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as itself a kind of sanctuary or tabernacle. Just as Bezalel constructed the tabernacle, we construct Shabbat – only we build it in time, not in space. We build it anew every week, and that has served us well. For the past 2,000 years, Jews have had neither a Temple nor a tabernacle – but wherever we went, we could construct space for holiness in our lives by observing Shabbat.   

The third thing that struck me with Vayakhel was the very detailed physicality of it – the vivid inventory of blue, purple and crimson yarns and tanned ram skins that the people were asked to bring, the mind-numbing recitation of all the screens and hooks and boards assembled by Bezalel. The Haftarah portion for today is remarkably similar, a description of the architect Hiram building Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 

Both the Torah and Haftarah portions read a little bit like a shopping list for a trip to Home Depot. Hiram, for instance,  assembles “two pillars, and two bowls of capitals that are on top of the pillars, and two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals on top of the pillars, and 400 pomegranates for the two networks, two rows of pomegranates for each network, to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars….” 

It reminded me of when we remodeled our kitchen – that is, if, when we talked to friends about the remodel, we had chanted our process in Biblical trope: 

Chanting (click to listen to audio file)

Seriously, though, what are we supposed to make of this long, long construction manifest? 

As a Reform Jew, I believe that the Torah was written by human beings – humans who were wise and inspired, but were also creatures of their era. So we can speculate about some of the points that the author of this section was trying to make. 

I suspect he was trying to impress listeners with the power of a God who warranted such opulence and craftsmanship, much as the builders of medieval cathedrals tried to convey the grandeur of God in their tall spires. He was also probably trying to show how Bezalel and his craftsmen followed God’s instructions down to the exact cubit – as the rest of us should follow God’s mitzvot to the letter. And, as someone who was probably a member of the priestly class during the First Temple period, the author may also have been using the details of the tabernacle’s construction to justify the décor and rituals of his own era. 

But let’s step back from historical conjecture and think about what to make of this today, in our own lives. 

Despite that initial bow to the primacy of Shabbat, this portion is about the importance of place and setting in spirituality. There is so much attention to detail – those hooks, those boards, those 400 pomegranates – not 300, not 500, but 400, and two rows of them for each network. All these material details – the number of pomegranates, and how many rows of them for each network – are part of creating a very particular setting that will foster a connection to the spiritual. 

It’s a little paradoxical. The idea of spirituality is to get beyond the physical. And certainly people can have transcendent experiences anywhere – on an empty beach, a crowded subway, a seedy bar at closing time. So theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whether we are standing around in the wide open Sinai desert or entering a tent with dyed ram’s skins and golden cherubim and 400 pomegranates. 

But it does. That’s one of the lessons of the golden calf episode – as human beings, many of us paradoxically need physical cues to help us transcend our physical selves. An altar, a priest, a whiff of incense. God and Moses learned that lesson, and gave the Israelites a tabernacle to fill those needs in place of a calf. 

What do we as individuals need today? It varies. Some people find spiritual nourishment in group prayer in a synagogue or church. Others meditate or listen to music. Still others turn to nature – a walk in the redwoods or along the ocean. 

I’d put myself in that last category. I enjoy the music, community and tradition of services, but I typically get much more of a sense of transcendence from being in nature. That’s where I get a sense of the miracle that is the universe, and an understanding that I am just a small part of it all. 

It’s Christian transcendentalists like Thoreau who get a lot of the attention for finding spiritual nourishment in nature, but I’m not the only Jew who feels that way. Here is an excerpt from a Jewish writer whose home I visited last summer. 

She wrote, “It’s not imagination on my part when I say that to look up at the sky, the clouds, the moon, and the stars makes me calm and patient. It’s a better medicine than either valerian or bromine. Mother Nature makes me humble and prepared to face every blow courageously.” She didn’t get to see much nature – only a tree through a dirty window, and even that only occasionally. She was Anne Frank. 

In any event, take the time to think about what that setting is for you. Then assemble it with all the care and diligence of Bezalel assembling the tabernacle. Construct it in both space and time. You can start small – a half-hour walk alone by the bay on Saturday afternoon? Fifteen minutes of meditation before work in the morning? Keeping a Debbie Freedman CD in your car to play on your commute home? 

Like the Israelites whom Moses gathered together in Vayakhel, we remain charged with assembling our own tabernacles, in space and in time. We remain charged with creating our own opportunities for spiritual reflection. In today’s hectic world, spiritual moments won’t happen automatically – we need to build them as consciously and deliberately as Bezalel crafted the tabernacle. 

So bring your dyed rams’ skins and your golden nose rings. Bring your favorite Mi Shabeirach melody or your favorite path in Redwood Park. Bring 15 minutes of your lunch break or two hours of your Saturday morning. 

There is a phrase in this portion – where it talks about people bringing their offerings to build the tabernacle, it uses the phrase “kol chacham lev.”  “All who were wise in their hearts.” Some commentators like Nechama Leibowitz have suggested that the hearts of the repentant Israelites were even more important an offering than their gold jewelry and dyed rams’ skins. 

May we be wise enough in our hearts to build the kinds of tabernacles we need to nourish ourselves today. 

——————————

Rabbi Chester typically asks adult b’nei and b’not mitzvah to say a few words about what led them to undertake this process – at the age of 53, it’s not something that my parents asked me to do, and I certainly don’t need any fountain pens!

 For me, this process was essentially an effort to fill in a gap in my Jewish identity. I grew up in a very assimilated family that did not belong to a synagogue, and I found my Jewish identity as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement affiliated with one of the kibbutz federations in Israel. I lived on a kibbutz for half a year after high school, and in Jerusalem for 18 months in my 20s. So I had a fairly strong understanding of modern Israel and its politics, modern Hebrew, and Jewish history and culture. 

What was missing was an understanding of the religious aspect of Judaism. As our family became more and more involved with Temple Sinai, and its wonderful community, I wanted to feel competent and conversant in the prayers and liturgy. I wanted to wear a tallit, but also to feel like I had earned the right to wear it. 

And I wanted to feel like I could pass Judaism on to the next generation – that if, God forbid, there was some Holocaust-type catastrophe and I was the only adult Jew left in the room, I could lead Shabbat services. 

It’s been a fun and stimulating process. I’ve articulated some of my own beliefs and deepened my understanding and love of Judaism. I met with Rabbi Chester individually and with our group of three other adult b’not mitzvah. I’ve also used my blog about the process to have extended conversations with our temple’s other two rabbis, and to have wonderful online conversations with many of you here today about issues like God, Torah, and my incredibly cute cat. If I haven’t managed to browbeat you into reading the blog by now, I encourage you to take a look and subscribe. I’m going to keep going with it, even after we’ve all gone home today and the caterers have cleaned up the last bit of cream cheese. You don’t stop being a Bat Mitzvah after the ceremony, and you don’t stop being “midlife” until… um, when, I don’t know, maybe someone here can enlighten me on that! 

The Academy Awards don’t start until tomorrow night, but I’m going to get a jump on the thank-you speeches.  I’d like to thank the people who helped me prepare for today. I’ll start with Rabbi Chester, who spent an unbelievable amount of time with me, both individually and as part of our group of adult b’not mitzvah. I feel privileged to have  come in “under the wire” with my bat mitzvah before his retirement. Thank you to Cantor Keyes, who is on sabbatical right now but taught me my prayers and chanting before she left, and Cantor Saxon who led the musical part of the service today and contributed the Peace Prayer from his original Gospel Shabbat. Thanks to Ophira Druch, whose Hebrew class I took last year. I’d like to thank Rabbis Mates-Muchin and Berlin for their support, and in particular for their time and willingness to discuss their personal beliefs in my blog. 

Thank you to Sydney, Jane and Karen – the other adult b’not mitzvah whose personal journeys and questions helped deepen my own process. Friends Barry and Judy, who are fellow co-founders of the Julia Morgan School and all around inspirations to me. (And Judy’s mom Evelyn, who stepped in at the last minute to represent the previous generation in handing down the Torah.) Our chavurah, who are a veritable bar and bat mitzvah baking factory – we will have baked desserts for 11 kids’ bnei mitzvah by the time this generation is grown, and I hope we bake for another couple of adult b’not mitzvah after mine. (You potential b’not mitzvah know who you are.) 

I also want to share my appreciation of the New Israel Fund – an organization that so perfectly expresses my own values and visions for a just and democratic Israel – in my Bat Mitzvah invitation, I asked people to forego gifts but instead consider donations to New Israel Fund or to Temple Sinai. There is a table with information about NIF in Stern Hall which you can visit during lunch or on your way out. 

Finally – family. My brother and his family, who provide love and support – I feel so fortunate that you live nearby. My out-of-town relatives who are here in spirit. In particular, my Solomon cousins who are saying kaddish in Orange County today for my Uncle  Bob who died earlier this week.

And finally, Becca, whose own Bat Mitzvah was an inspiration to me,  and Sam, whom I love so much and who has been 110% supportive of me during this process and in anything else I have ever undertaken. 

Shabbat shalom.

Vayakhel — part 2, on a sugar high

October 31, 2010

Several weeks ago, Rabbi Chester gave me a bulging manila folder with photocopied commentaries on Vayakhel by various Reform rabbis over the past few years. (I presume he has a similar folder for every other weekly Torah portion too…. I dare not imagine what his garage looks like.) 

This D'var Torah, powered by Whoppers

Reading through all of it gave me a sense of what other people have focused on when talking about Vayakhel. Now — powered by the sugar rush of many small bags of Halloween candy — I’ll run down some of the more interesting points:

Shabbat. Before Moses tells the Israelites to bring their personal treasures to build the mishkan (tabernacle), he tells them they must not work on Shabbat. A number of writers highlighted the significance of this – that observing the Sabbath is more important even than building God’s own abode. And: 

  • The Chatam Sofer’s observation that we may not profane the Sabbath for God, but we may do so to save a human life.
  • Abraham Heschel’s comment that “The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.” 

What is work? The Torah forbids work on Shabbat while never explicitly defining work. But the rabbis who compiled the Mishnah identified 39 acts (plowing, sowing, weaving, writing, kindling fire etc.) that were prohibited on Shabbat. Why these 39 acts in particular? One explanation goes back to Vayakhel and says the 39 acts cover all the kinds of “work” involved in building the mishkan.  

Golden calf versus building the mishkan. In Vayakhel, the people of Israel generously bring their jewelry, mirrors, beautiful fabric and other treasures to build the mishkan. In the previous week’s Torah portion, they melted their jewelry and gold to make the golden calf.

So it’s not that material goods in themselves are bad; it’s what we do with them. “All the things we have – money, cars, homes, clothes, time and emotions – are the modern equivalent of the Israelites’ gold and silver, which we can use to build either idols or sanctuaries,” wrote Rabbi Elliott Kleinman. “How are we to decide which we will build?” 

Another commentator made a similar point about art, such as the craftsmanship that went into creating both the golden calf and the mishkan: “Each human being must first make an existential choice: By what values do we live?” wrote Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “Art will express the choice we have made, but it cannot substitute for the choice itself.” 

Mishkan as creation, humans as creators. Building the mishkan is a mirror of God’s creation of the world – both God and the Israelites rested on the seventh day. We each share God’s responsibility for making a better world.

“The implication of Creation – that we have the power to be God’s partner in this world – is now made manifest in the Mishkan’s construction,” wrote Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz. “The lengthy description of each item implies that even the most insignificant part matters. The Mishkan is complete only when all those separate parts are united.” 

Transitional structure for a transitional people. The mishkan is halfway between a tent and a house – it has hanging fabric and pegs, but also heavy gold beams.

“The mishkan as a transitional structure mirrors the Israelites as a people in transition… nomads turning into a settled agrarian people,” said Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College. “For post-exilic Jews,  the transportable mishkan represents a transportable Judaism. It reminds us that wherever we go, we carry with us the power to create sacred space…. Judaisms are not static. As with the mishkan, we are continually taking them apart and putting them back together.”

Giving. The Israelites bring so many treasures for the mishkan that Moses has to tell them to stop. Several rabbis made the natural comparison to temple building campaigns, and wished they had been so lucky.  

Moses initially instructed the Israelites to donate “kol n’div libo” – “each one according to his or her heart.” Some writers suggested that it was their hearts that were the actual gift, more than any specific piece of gold or jewelry.

————–

So there you have it. That’s enough material for about a half dozen d’vrei Torah in one blog post. And those are just some recent writers who happened to be in Rabbi Chester’s manila folder! I’d like to track down what the historic commentators have said over the centuries, just to be thorough. No stone unturned. No drash unread. No child left behind. No metaphor unmolested….

Enough already! Would someone throw out the Halloween candy, please?

Vayakhel — part 1

October 28, 2010

So I’ve started work on my d’var Torah, the speech that I’ll give based on the Torah portion of the week. 

Torah portions are named after their first word, and mine is Vayakhel, which means “he called together.” It begins by saying that “Moses called together the entire community of the children of Israel….” 

Vayakhel, from the Soncino Chumash / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Vayakhel comes near the end of Exodus — right after that unfortunate incident in the desert where the Israelites become impatient with Moses’ long absence up on Sinai and decide to build and worship a Golden Calf. 

As Homer Simpson might say: Mistakes were made.  

But in Vayakhel, the people redeem themselves. 

I intended to give you a brief summary of the parshah (portion), but the summary kept getting longer and longer. Then I thought, why not write it as a Tweet? (That would limit me to 140 characters, max.)

Here goes: 

Moses tells the Jews to keep Shabbat and bring offerings for God. They bring so much he tells them to stop. Bezalel builds the tabernacle.

That’s the gist, in my best 21st-century attention-deficit style. But really, most of the portion reads like a long, long, long Home Depot list of all the luxurious items that God asked the Israelites to bring, and how Bezalel and his crew of “wise-hearted” artisans put them together. Just to give you a sample:

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold, inside and out, and he made a gold molding for it round about. He cast four gold rings for it, for its four feet: two rings on one of its side walls and two rings on the other. He made poles of acacia wood, overlaid them with gold, and inserted the poles into the rings on the side walls of the ark for carrying the ark.

(All that detail about overlaying and inserting…. It makes you think maybe Bezalel was assembling an EKBY JÄRPEN ark from Ikea.)

The Haftarah (prophets) reading that accompanies Vayakhel is remarkably similar. Sometimes the connection between the week’s Torah and Haftarah sections is a little abstract, or metaphorical, or just plain opaque. But the connection between Vayakhel and its prophetic counterpart could hardly be more obvious.

The Haftarah (I Kings VII:  40-50) describes the artisan Hiram making all sorts of items for King Solomon’s Temple: 

Hiram made the pots, and the shovels, and the basins… the two pillars, and the two bowls of the capitals that were on the top of the pillars; and the two networks to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were on top of the pillars…. Two rows of pomegranates to cover the two bowls of the capitals that were upon the top of the pillars….

Haftarah: I Kings VII

When I was memorizing my Haftarah, it seemed to cycle around and around itself – all those networks on top of bowls on top of capitals on top of pillars. I had to restrain myself from breaking into a chorus of “and the green grass grew all around all around, and the green grass grew all around.”

In any case… we have two sections of the Bible that are concerned with construction of holy places – the transient, movable tabernacle and the “permanent” Temple. Both sections give center stage to the lead artisan. Both go into very detailed physical descriptions of the lavish materials used in these holy structures.

 What to make of this?

 Aha! A cliff-hanger! More to come….

Early thoughts on Vayakhel

May 13, 2010

I have so much time until my Bat Mitzvah service — it’s not until February 2011 — that I’ve deliberately avoided starting to analyze my Torah portion. I don’t want to be sick of it by the time I need to write my drash.

But as I walk around chanting to myself under my breath, I’ve started to think about the meaning of my parshah, or portion.

So I figured I’d write down my very early thoughts now, before I read anyone else’s analysis or commentary. It will be interesting down the line to compare my first impressions of it with what scholars have chosen to see and focus on.

My portion is Vayakhel, which begins with Exodus 35:1. This takes place when the people of Israel are out in the desert, after they’ve fled Egypt and come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and built the Golden Calf and repented and received the ten commandments.

Moses calls the people together to build the Ark and the Tabernacle, which will hold the commandments and be the center of worship. Torah portions are named after their first word, and vayakhel means “and he convened” or “he gathered together” — as in, “Moses convened the Israelites and told them xxxxx….”

First Moses tells everyone that God has commanded them to work six days and rest on the seventh. He goes on to give them a kind of holy shopping list of things they should bring as offerings to God, such as:

Gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins and dolphin skins; acacia wood; oil for lighting; spices for the incense and anointing oil; precious stones; etc.

He goes on to tell all the “wise-hearted” people among them to make everything that God has commanded, and he launches into another list of all the various construction elements of the Tabernacle:

Tents, covers, clasps, planks, bars, pillars, sockets, poles, tables, lamps, oil for lamps, oil for anointing, altars, gratings, washstands, screens, pegs… (you get the idea).

He appoints Bezalel, an extraordinary craftsman, to head up the effort. The people come and bring the stuff. In fact, the people bring so much stuff that Bezalel goes to Moses and asks him to make the people stop bringing stuff.

Then the next 79 lines (79! that’s a lot) are spent describing the materials and quantities that are used to build the Tabernacle.  For instance:

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. And he overlaid it with pure gold from inside and from outside, and he made for it a golden crown all around. And he cast four golden rings for it upon its four corners, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side…

That’s pretty much it.

So here are some initial thoughts — well, not even thoughts so much as directions for thinking:

Why spend so much time describing in very material detail the physical construction of the Tabernacle?

Are the authors of this section of Torah trying to impress listeners with how imposing and magnificent the Tabernacle was? (Like medieval bishops building ornate cathedrals to inspire awe in God?)

Are they acknowledging that people need material, physical things to express or focus their spiritual beliefs? Would it have been possible for the Israelites to worship God without altars and incense and golden rings? How important is it for people today to have some physical place or object to focus their spirituality — a synagogue, rosary beads, a sacred mountain, a gravestone in a cemetery etc. ? Why is it that people need material props to focus on things that transcend the material?

Is this section a response and parallel to the episode of the Golden Calf? With the Golden Calf, the people demanded a material  idol. Have Moses and God acceded to that demand and bowed to human nature by having them create this gold-laden, stone-studded complex?

Or maybe you can read this as recognition of the value of craftsmanship. Clearly the work of Bezalel and the other artisans is esteemed — even cherished. I would bet that, through history, Jewish silversmiths and carpenters loved hearing this portion read.

The people bring more than is needed.

As someone who has been involved in non-profits and fundraising for years, I love this part. Isn’t it every fundraiser’s dream — you ask people to donate, and so many donations pour in that you have to tell them to stop?

Again, there’s a parallel to the Golden Calf. Maybe the people were so chastened by that experience that they are now bending over backwards to be generous and holy. Think how many times the prophets later berate the Israelites for greed and idolatry and wrongdoing…. This seems like one of the few times in the Bible where the Israelites do more than what God has asked.

Women are explicitly involved in building the Tabernacle. 

The portion explicitly refers to women’s involvement. It mentions women bringing gold along with the men, and mentions women’s spinning all that colored wool and goat hair. This may mean nothing; but there are not a lot of references to women in the Bible so maybe it’s worth thinking about.

The reminder to keep Shabbat. Under penalty of death!

Shabbat is so important that it’s forbidden to work on the seventh day, even to build the holiest structure in the world. This isn’t the first or even main place in the Torah that directives about Shabbat are given, but it is still a pretty strong message.

Moses furthermore says that whoever violates Shabbat will be put to death. Yow! This is just a teeny tiny part of the portion. But it’s one of many places where the Torah is primitively and brutally out of synch with what we view as civilized behavior today (i.e., directives to stone to death people who commit adultery, idolatry etc.).

There was a great piece of satirical writing that made the rounds on the ‘net a few years ago in response to conservative Christian attacks on gays and lesbians. It was a letter or essay that said, in essence, “okay, the Bible says homosexuality is evil. If you take that literally, you should also stone your daughter for disrespecting her parents, and cut off the hands of robbers, and men should be allowed to take multiple wives and etc. etc.”

Can anyone give me a reference or link to that essay?

In addition to being pointed political satire, it called attention to the places where Biblical mandates clash with modern ethics. And that all ties in to the large question of:

How do we determine which parts of the Torah to keep, and which ones to (respectfully) toss?

Merrily we chant along

April 23, 2010

Way back in January, I wrote about how I had been assigned my Torah portion (Vayakhel, or Exodus 37) and was about to start learning cantillation – how to chant the Hebrew text.

Slowly and steadily, I’ve been progressing through it. 

The cantor initially gave me four aliyot – four consecutive short sections to learn. When you look at them on the page, they don’t look very long. But when you listen to them, you realize that each word contains multiple notes – and sometimes even a single syllable is drawn out to encompass multiple beats or notes. So there’s more to learn than meets the eye. 

I received a printout of the Hebrew text of my portion, including cantillation marks that indicate how you are supposed to sing each word. Since we are living in the modern era, I also got MP3 files of each aliyah. 

If you’ve never heard Torah being chanted, you can listen to my cantor — Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai — chanting my first aliyah Vayakhel 1

(She has an amazing voice! She hits high notes that I didn’t even know existed. And a century ago, no one would ever have been able to hear such a voice chanting Torah. The Reform movement was the first branch of Judaism to start ordaining women as cantors in 1975; the Orthodox to this day do not allow women to be cantors.)

I gradually developed a routine for learning my portion. First I read through the Hebrew and figure out the pronunciation and meaning of the words. Then I take it phrase by phrase and look at the cantillation marks and try to puzzle out how it should be chanted. Then I listen to it on my iPod and see how I got it completely wrong.

Then I listen to the phrase again. And chant it. And listen to it. And chant it. And listen to it… you get the idea, Eventually I move on to the next phrase ,and then the next, until I’ve gotten the whole aliyah down pat and can start the next one.

I do a lot of my iPod practice on the treadmill at the gym — where the other exercisers no doubt think I have lost my mind and am communing with aliens.

This week I more or less finished all four of my aliyot. (And my Bat Mitzvah date isn’t until next February – I am way ahead of the game because we started so early.) I still have a little bit to solidify with the last aliyah, but I’m basically finished. I felt soooo proud of myself and decided to ask the cantor if I could do an additional two aliyot. She was happy to oblige.

This wasn’t just the pride of accomplishment. There was a little competitive zing to it also. My sister-in-law is becoming a Bat Mitzvah next month, at her Conservative synagogue. She is doing it as part of  a group of 12 women, so she has been learning just one aliyah.

Ha!!! All spring while chanting away, I was feeling quite macho for learning four aliyot – now six aliyot — while my sister-in-law was learning one. Just call me SuperJew.

SuperJew... able to chant large Torah portions with a single breath

But then I got curious. This week I asked the cantor, Do all synagogues break the Torah portion into aliyot in the same places?

 And it turns out they don’t.

The Orthodox chant the entire Torah portion every week – so they have six or seven very long aliyot. According to my cantor, Orthodox congregations typically have one person who does all the chanting, and don’t share it among the congregation like we do in Reform. So that one person is chanting the equivalent, in length, of  40 or 50 of my little aliyot. Every week.

The Conservative movement, meanwhile, reads through the Torah in three-year cycles. Over the course of a year, they read and chant one-third of it.  So they’re chanting less than the Orthodox, but still a lot.

Meanwhile, Reform Judaism — which is my branch — chants only a smidgen of each week’s Torah portion. It’s a symbolic amount – enough to give the flavor of Torah without alienating all us secular congregants who also want to fit soccer games and gym workouts and Costco trips into our Saturdays.

So my multiple aliyot – all six of them – would add up to just one Orthodox aliyah. Taken together, my six aliyot are just a teeny bit longer than my sister-in-law’s single aliyah.

So long, SuperJew. So long, competitive edge.

There is an obvious moral lesson here, but I think I will avoid stating the obvious.

I’ll just get back on my treadmill and keep talking to the aliens.

Meet my Torah portion!

December 8, 2009

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.